Sunday, June 28, 2020
If you knew your house was going to be destroyed – by a flood, or a hurricane, or by a fire, what are some of your most valuable possessions you would want to try to take with you? What would you be willing to leave behind? The thought probably never even occurred to any of us that one of those things would be our own children, spouses, other loved ones who live with us or even our pets. We take that for granted – of course our family would all get out of the house safely. And so it is troubling to look at this famous story of the binding of Isaac or the testing of Abraham or the sacrifice of Isaac – it is known by many names – to realize that is exactly what God is asking Abraham to give up. God asks Abraham to sacrifice the only son he has left since he kicked Ishmael out of the house – his son, his only son, whom he loves. God does not ask for Abraham’s most prized possession – when faced with that choice we’d easily give up any of our stuff to spare our children’s lives, wouldn’t we? God asks for Abraham to give up the one promise that was finally fulfilled for him in his old age – his son, whom he loves, and who will be the next generation of his hoped-for many descendants after him. God is asking Abraham to do a very difficult thing. Or is God?
Many of us know this story but perhaps not too well because it troubles us to think too much about how a God we know to be all loving, gracious, and merciful could ask anyone, even faithful Abraham, to put a knife so close to his own son’s neck. Biblical scholars have noted that Isaac never really speaks to Abraham again after this incident, and Sarah dies directly following this story, perhaps out of heartbreak when she learned what Abraham had went with Isaac to do. Some scholars have suggested that perhaps God never asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac at all – it was all in Abraham’s head, maybe he was going senile in his old age-- and God mercifully provides a ram to protect Isaac. Others have noted that this story was a way for the people of Israel to condemn child sacrifice, which was widely practiced in that region around the time we think Abraham lived, replacing human sacrifice with animal sacrifice because God doesn’t wish for the sacrifice of any human life in order to worship him. It’s OK to be unsettled and wrestle with this story-- I certainly am. The two points to note come at the end of the story, which reveal characteristics of God that are important for us to remember as Christians still today: God is trustworthy, and God provides.
First, Abraham demonstrates that God is trustworthy. The author of the letter to the Hebrews and elsewhere in scripture praises Abraham for his faithfulness to God. Certainly, many of us would flat out tell God, “No,” if we were asked to sacrifice our only child, but Abraham, whatever the reason, trusts that God would not ask him to do anything that wasn’t worthy of his faith and trust in God. God, after all this time, has kept his promise to Abraham in providing a son in the first place. And sure enough, God provides a ram so that Isaac’s life is spared. But in other ways, we “give up” our children to God and trust that they will be cared for. We send our kids away to kindergarten, and to camp, eventually to college and beyond. We teach our children to drive, even knowing all the risks. Some parents know the sacrifice of having children serve in the military, who give their lives for our country. There are also a lot of young people out there right now who have offered themselves as test subjects for “challenge trials” for a COVID-19 vaccine, who would intentionally be willing to be infected if that might help produce a safe vaccine more quickly for the world’s population, despite the risks. As parents, as anyone who ever takes a risk in life, we learn that God can be trusted, and that even if the worst should happen – our child dies in combat, or in a car accident, or struggles with addiction, you name it, that God will continue to be faithful and provide what we need to cope with the suffering and pain in life.
Abraham’s trust in God leads us to the second character of God, which is that God is one who provides what we need. God provides what Abraham needs throughout his life – land to live in, a son for his inheritance, a ram to spare his son’s life, and let’s not forget, God also provides for Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham’s other family branch. God will continue to provide for Isaac and Abraham’s descendants as we’ll see in the following weeks. While we may not be able to understand or do ourselves what Abraham does with his son Isaac on that mountain, I think we can marvel at Abraham’s faith, and the trustworthiness of God. We can depend on God with our lives. We DO depend on God for our lives, after all. Our food, our air, our water, our very breath all come from God who provides. And we know through Christ that God provides grace, love, forgiveness, and salvation to us as well – we depend on God for our daily living and for our eternal living.
After Abraham and Isaac come down the mountain, we’ll see in our Genesis reading next week that God continues to provide for Isaac – while certainly the experience is traumatic, he falls in love and gets married, has children (Jacob and Esau), and dies an old, wise, and respected man. As people of faith, we can wrestle with God about the “why” of suffering and pain in life, but we also profess that we believe in a God who is trustworthy, and who provides everything we need, who we see mostly clearly in Jesus the Christ, God’s only Son whom he loves, who dies for us and yet lives, for us. Amen.