What was Abraham thinking? Was he thinking? One read-through of the Bible, and you’ll know how strange scripture is. But this? This story from the middle of Genesis isn’t only strange; it’s terrifying.
Last Sunday, we took a close look at the first words of God’s story and ours about how God creates order out of chaos. In the beginning, God took what was formless and meaningless and He injected shape and meaning—divine meaning—into it all. God still does this. But here we are twenty chapters later. Where’s this God who creates life and calls it good? We believe in a God who begins things, not in One who ends them—at least not like this. If there’s any story in all of scripture to be offended by, this is it. But, yet it’s here. Someone thought it important to put it here, someone wanted God’s people to know this story. We must find out why.
There have been many theologians and preachers who do some very impressive theological gymnastics trying to make sense of what is going on here. These preachers and theologians contort themselves, bend themselves out of shape, to bring some semblance of decency based upon their own ideas of goodness out of this story. Perhaps I will join their ranks today.
Some wonder if—or hope—this happens only in Abraham’s nightmare. Throughout Genesis, God communicates through its character’s dreams. Maybe this is Abraham’s nightmare. But I don’t think we can dismiss this so easily. Neither can we skip over what is happening here, pretend that it isn’t a part of God’s story and ours. There is something to discover about ourselves within this passage. We need to discover what that is. This is a primal confrontation of doubt and belief, of betrayal and fidelity, of sacrifice and surrender. There is truth and meaning in it for us.
A bit of backstory. Abraham is first called by God out of the blue. He was a wandering shepherd in the wilderness, and he hears his name spoken. How or from who knows where, we’re left to wonder. This God tells Abraham and his wife Sarah to start walking in a specific direction. God doesn’t give Abraham a reason or an explanation. He simply says that nations will come from them, and God will make their offspring His people. This is who God will use to get God’s story started.
So, Abraham and Sarah go. No map. No plan. No known goal in sight. Abraham was as unquestioning then as he is in Genesis 22. You could say that all his life, Abraham stood at a crossroads. He and Sarah are promised a child at such a ridiculously old age that Sarah laughs out loud when God gives her the news. And Isaac is born. This is the child, the one whom all of God’s people will come from. Isaac is just as important—just as critical—to God as he is to Abraham and Sarah. He’s nothing less than the promised heir of a God-promised people.
This story is told beautifully, sparsely. The one who wrote these words knew how chilling all of it is. The author builds up this moment. We all know what’s coming. Everyone but Isaac and Sarah know what’s going on here. And in the build-up of it all—with each step this father and son take together, getting closer and closer to the altar upon which this father will lay his son—a lump grows larger in our throats. It’s okay to want to look away. There is nothing good to see here.
In their journey, Abraham doesn’t say much. Maybe nothing at all. Is he shattered, forlorn, heartbroken? Or is he just a crazy old wilderness wanderer who’s hearing voices? They had 40 miles to walk together. We’re left to imagine what their conversation was like. Isaac says to Abraham, “My father!” and Abraham replies, “Here I am, my son.”
Questions remain: Why this test? Why this terrifying father-son journey? What is God doing here? What does God want? Surely, it’s too much to ask from a father like Abraham and a son like Isaac! Nothing about this story is okay! Notice that Mother Sarah isn’t a part of this story. She’s never clued into any of this. She only finds out that her husband was ready and willing to sacrifice her son after the fact, and the next thing we know, she dies. We should wonder if she passes away from heartache or blood-boiling anger.
Isaac was born a miracle. Abraham and Sarah were in their nineties. Isaac was the long-awaited gift. God was the long-trusted Giver. God has promised to bring about a nation from Abraham and Sarah. Isaac’s birth was the fulfillment of that God-promise. But it’s quite possible that Abraham loved the promise more than he loved the One who made the promise.
How easy is it for us to make that mistake, to love the gift so much that we lose our relationship with the One who gave it to us? Did Abraham love the gift more than he loved the Giver? I think that could be the whole point of this story. Abraham confused gift and the Giver, and God needed Abraham to wake up to the difference between the two? This story is called the Testing of Abraham: Will Abraham trust and obey the Giver, or will he merely adore the gift?
God still comes out looking like a monster for needing Abraham to prove that he was indeed willing to give up the gift of his son, Isaac, to prove his faithfulness to the God who gave Isaac to him, but what a sorely necessary story this is for the church. Like Abraham, we who are church think we’re being faithful, but God looks upon what we’re doing and recognizes what we cannot recognize about ourselves, that it’s much easier and safer for us to worship the church rather than the Christ who made a church out of us. Do we love the gift of the church more than we love Jesus, the One who gave it to us and gave Himself up so that we might become His own?
It turns out that it wasn’t Isaac who needed to be put to death. It was Father Abraham’s misplaced and disordered love for Isaac that needed to be put to death. We should ask ourselves whether we love the church more than we love the God who gave it to us. And we should ask it often. Jesus loves His church, but Jesus doesn’t want us to be church people. Jesus wants us to be Jesus people.
There is a whole lot about and within our lives that we need to surrender to God’s care, to let God have, take. There is much we need to loosen our grip upon. This is one of the main themes within scripture, that by letting go of what we count as ours, we gain what God wants us to have. Is it time once again to loosen our grip on what’s happening here and let God have this church? To let God have what is His to let Him take it?
What binds you? What keeps you from being free? Are we willing to hand this church over to God so that we can be a people who can live and move in response to God?
That’s a tremendous sacrifice, maybe even terrifying, but Jesus asks that of us. God wants to breathe His life into what happens here. In what ways must we willingly offer our own Isaac—this church, its life, its purpose, its entire future—back to God? This church is the gift. What must we do here at Tinkling Spring to love the Giver more than we do the gift?
All praise to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful! Alleluia! Amen.