Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
There is a hideous aspect to our Scripture reading today that is simply unavoidable. A story that hinges on a father’s willingness to murder his own child cannot help but to send chills up our spines and raise awful questions. We wonder what kind of father could be brought to such an excessive possibility. We wonder what kind of God would demand such a thing, even if it is described as a ‘test.’ I daresay that most of us would just as soon fail a test of that sort and even consider it our Christian duty to do so. And so, - along with the likes of Luther, Calvin, and most notably Søren Kierkegaard – this story stands as something of an enigma to us. We might admit that Abraham exhibits an enormous amount of obedience when he simply takes up the fire and loads up the wood on Isaac’s back and begins that awful journey. We might admit that Abraham displays enormous faith when he assures his questioning son that “God will provide the lamb” for the sacrifice. And we must admit that, in the end, God does indeed provide the sacrifice and it is not Isaac himself. But, even for all of that, the story invites us to shudder at both the demand and the obedience of such a hideous demand.
I invite you this morning to encounter this Scripture with me, not quite ‘ignoring’ the hideous aspects of this story, but by aiming to look ‘beyond’ the difficulties in order to hear the story a bit differently. Quite honestly, I believe that the writers of the story invite us to hear it just this way. So, we will look at this text in three respects. First, while the story of Abraham and Isaac is a stand alone story in its own right, it is also a story that is enmeshed within a larger set of stories about Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, and that literary context gives the story a specific kind of meaning. Second, this story was shaped and finally written within history, therefore the story has an historical context that impacts its meaning as well. I never feel quite as confident in naming the historical context of a Scriptural text, because it means that we have to look ‘behind’ the text instead of at the text itself, and I’m not so sure that we have very good vision in the first place. And finally, we are living in our own moment and listening for the Word of God to us, so we will consider the meaning of this story as it pertains to our theme of “The Joy of Sacrifice,” particularly in the movement from the altar to the table. So, our own context will be the occasion for our last way of looking at this story.
While the immediate, hideous crisis of our story is the possibility that a father is commanded to kill his son, the longer saga of Abraham puts the main crisis of this story on other grounds. In Genesis 12, God chooses Abraham out of all humanity to be the bearer of a covenant, specifically, a covenant that he and his wife Sarah will become the parents of a great nation, that those who bless them will be blessed and those who curse them will be cursed, and that all nations will be blessed through them. It is a word of grace for the whole world, but specifically through the agency of this unlikely set of parents. They are unlikely recipients of this covenant, because Abraham – prior to this covenant – worships other gods as his ancestors in the land did; and because Abraham and Sarah are old, barren, and well past their child-bearing years. The fact that God chooses them – unlikely as they are – attests to ‘utter freedom’ as a defining characteristic of this covenanting God.
But the initial covenant between God and Abraham is just the beginning. What follows are a series of crises around this covenant, with the twin questions, “Will God be faithful to the covenant?” and “Will Abraham be faithful to the covenant?” These questions will continue to plot the crises of stories throughout the Hebrew Bible and the answers are consistently “Yes” and “Not so much.” Sarah’s barrenness is the first location where this issue gets addressed. Abraham and Sarah – as a way of not believing in God’s faithfulness, try to help God along by having Abraham father a child through Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid. But, God is faithful and Sarah becomes a mother at an old age. On the question of whether God is faithful to the covenant, the answer is consistently ‘yes.’ So, in addition to ‘utter freedom,’ these stories show that ‘faithfulness, even when we are not’ is a defining characteristic of this covenanting God.
Within this history, the drama of our story is primarily the fate of the covenant, the promised and chosen nation, and not so much just the life of Isaac himself. If God – who chose Abraham in utter freedom – demands the life of Isaac now, does that mark the end of the covenant? Will God be faithful? In this respect, we must say that, however dubious Abraham might have been about God’s faithfulness until this story, Abraham displays absolute faith in God in this story. For Abraham, the ‘test’ is not so much a test of his own obedience, but a test of God’s faithfulness. That is why the key of this story is Abraham’s calm response to Isaac, “God will provide a lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:8). When we put this story within its larger literary context, it is another story about the covenant, asking whether God will be faithful and whether we will be faithful. This story is remarkable because Abraham passes the ‘test’ with flying colors.
If we look at this story within its larger historical context, we also see something more at stake than just the hideous story of a father sacrificing his son. This story seems to be part of an ongoing conversation about the nature of sacrifice. It is quite possible that the gods whom Abraham’s people worshipped prior to the covenant were the kinds of gods that demanded appeasement through child sacrifices. While there is no evidence that child sacrifice was ever a part of
When we read our story within the historical context of
And finally, we can place this story within our own context of this Lenten season, as we consider “the joy of sacrifice,” particularly in the movement from the altar to the table. In our context, this story of Abraham and Isaac is a story of grace. It is true that God enabled the elderly Abraham and Sarah to have this child of promise in their dotage – that is an act of God’s utter freedom. It is true that the same God who generated Abraham’s child demands the life of Abraham’s child – that is a demand that horrifies us. But it is also true that God did exactly as Abraham told Isaac God would do – God provided the lamb for the sacrifice. In doing so, God enabled Abraham to return home with his son and enjoy him. The anxiety is over. God is faithful, but Abraham only discovers that faithfulness when we lets go of Isaac. By ‘offering’ Isaac, Abraham now can let Isaac’s fate, Isaac’s survival, Isaac’s future, and all of the promise that lies within Isaac rest within God’s hands. In a profound way, Abraham discovers that in losing his life, he finds it – an insight that Jesus will repeat many years later in calling us as followers. It is only when we let go, give up, sacrifice and offer the things most precious to us, that we are able to enjoy them in freedom. As long as we are in charge, as long as we posses, we are driven by the anxiety of having to keep and protect. When we offer to God, that anxiety is replaced by trust in God’s faithfulness. Then we are ready to sit in freedom, to enjoy with confidence, and to share in abundance. Thanks be to God. Amen.