"As I mused, the fire burned"

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Abraham Binds Isaac

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Sermon for June 26, 2011, St John the Evangelist Church
Genesis 22: 1-14: “The Binding of Isaac”

One of the things that led me into this reflection on the account known as the “Binding of Isaac” are two recent events. First, two weeks back I heard a moving prayer from Michelle (0915 service) about all those in our community who are waiting on God in prayer. Second, in the last week or so, was the news that a young priest in our diocese, Joe Walker, is gravely ill. My thoughts and discussions circled around those two situations.

This passage, the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham at God’s command, is one of the most troubling in the Old Testament. It causes, in the hearts of we gentle, modern Christians, a variety of violent responses: horror, outrage, disgust, anger. It is so stark as to be almost unbearable. Because of that violent response, much of the modern treatment of this passage seeks only to blunt that horror, and to restore our comfort. Most of the modern treatment of that passage is wrong. So, the first thing I want to undertake is to talk about some things that this passage is not.

One of the main faults with modern preaching is that it is conditioned by an over-riding desire to avoid making people uncomfortable. Modern preaching is often more about providing an easy-to-consume gentle affirmation of whatever it is that we need affirmed. It is about cheap grace, a God defined by love and by nothing else, and particularly not about a God who tests, and a God who sometimes asks. He who has given us our lives, has the ability to ask for that life in return.

This is very contrary to the modern treatment of God. Today’s primary focus is on God as giver, what God can (and should) be doing for us, how he should be answering prayers in our good time. And so, hidden behind the idea that “God is love (true), and nothing else (a lie)” the modern treatment of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son is usually focused on explaining how the passage really doesn’t mean what it plainly says. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard concludes that our usual recourse is to solve the dilemma through abstraction and moralization and, I’ll add, by rewriting the text so its message is blunted.

Just to emphasize that misapprehension, the first question that usually arises out of this passage is one spoken in outrage: “What kind of God would ask a man to sacrifice his son?” Indeed, people have turned from the faith over that question. The only answer to that question is one we don’t like: “What kind of God would ask that sacrifice of a parent? The kind of God that would give his only son for the salvation of the world.” The second question asked in outrage is, “What kind of father would be willing to sacrifice his only son?” The answer to that question is similarly difficult, “The kind of father that God would select to entrust with his covenant, to be the father of all God’s people.”

So, here are the things this story is not:
-Abraham is not acting out cultural ideas of child sacrifice based on what he imagined God might have said to him.
-Isaac is not disabled, or mentally impaired and unaware of what is happening to him. This is clearly contrary to the text.
-This is not a simple moral metaphor about the importance of being obedient to God, or about how God’s people are tested by God…more about that later.
-The passage is not about the horror of all those innocents killed in warfare and violence, as both Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen have sung.
-With due respect to Kierkegaard, I’m not even convinced the story is about the question: Does God’s command make the immoral act a moral one? (a teleological suspension of the ethical)
-At the start, Abraham does not know that everything is going to work out in the end.
-This is not a highly spiritual metaphysical event with no emotion – Abraham is likely having his guts ripped out as the narrative progresses.
-Finally, this is not a story about ancient barbaric practices that we can treat as a quaint reminder of a time when humanity was not as wise or developed as we are today…particularly since barbarism is alive and well worldwide to this day.

While the text is all about the testing of Abraham, avoid the urge to adopt a simple transactional view of God…that is God tests his people, and when we respond with obedience, he will bless us as he blessed Abraham. This is not an assignment, with grades based on our performance and proportional to the blessing we receive. It is a dangerous thought, and contrary to God’s nature. Why is it dangerous? It allows us to fall into a simple transactional relationship with God: I give God obedience, God gives me blessings. That runs along fine until – your child comes down with cancer, or your beloved parish priest comes down with severe illness, or your spouse dies in torment. If you are living in a transactional relationship with God, you can only draw one conclusion at that point: if I had been properly obedience/faithful (fill in the blank), this would not have happened. This transactional model is what leads people in hospital to ask the question, “Why am I here? What did I do that has made God so angry with me?” This burden is exactly that that Jesus came to free us from, for it is the idolatry of the law all over again. Jesus came to bring us abundant life, which does not include bearing the burden for our own faithlessness as he, Jesus, has already done that on our behalf. Do you believe that your degree of faith will win you God’s blessing; or that the infinite love of God will provide you his blessing regardless of the level of your faith?

God’s blessing comes to us at all times of our life, including the times when we’re convinced that God has departed (and perhaps particularly at that point). Perhaps more bluntly, God’s blessings do not serve to keep us out of the hospital, and God’s anger is not what puts us there. It is a bit trite to refer to a movie as an illustration, but in the movie Constantine, Keanu Reeves’ character, dying of lung cancer, asks an angel the question, “Why is God letting me die young in spite of all my hard work?” to which the angel Gabriel replies, “You are going to die young because you’ve smoked 30 cigarettes a day since you were 13.” Sometimes we bear the consequences of our actions; and sometimes it is just the unwinding of our beings or the action of natural law. So, do not fall into the trap of a transactional relationship with God. That accounts book was destroyed on Golgotha with the death of the son of God; and there is nothing that we can now do that will separate us from the love of God. Do not interpret what you see as a delay in answering prayer, or the onset of illness, as punishment, or worse, disinterest on God’s behalf. That is not true. God blesses us always, and especially in the midst of unspeakable horror.

So, that was a goodly amount of talking about what the text is not, to set the stage for what is an incredible story of God’s providence in action in the midst of his people. Let’s start by setting the stage in reverse, so that as I talk about this narrative you relate it to an important parallel narrative (important because it helps us see the grace in the horror)…lets see if you can guess based on the story elements: A blood sacrifice is demanded. That sacrifice is an only and beloved son. The sacrifice involves a journey of three days. The sacrificial lamb carries the wood on his back. At the end of the three days God provides a miraculous conclusion. The sacrifice is made through substitution. Sound familiar? Galatians 3:7 sets this stage for us, confirming that the Gospel was declared in advance to Abraham. Abraham’s answer to Isaac, “God himself will provide the lamb.” Foreshadows the coming of Jesus. This narrative of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is a direct parallel of Christ’s sacrifice. This parallel makes the near-sacrifice of Isaac a story of grace, while engaging the horror of the narrative, just as the crucifixion narrative offers us grace over horror.

Why is that focus important? It reflects an important aspect of our lives as people of Christ. Sometimes our deepest blessings come in the midst of horrible situations and terrible trials. The world is saved through the death of God on a cross; Isaac becomes the path to a multitude of believers through his father’s faith writ large, a faith only demonstrated by the binding of his only son, the son he loved, and placing him on an altar as a sacrifice. In the midst of horror, grace.

Ok, testing. God tests his people. 1 Peter 1:6-8 tells us this: “6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Lord knows I don’t like that idea, who likes to be tested? Especially when the stakes are high, as they always are with God. Abraham responds to his test without comment, except, “Here I am”. May we be faithful enough to do the same in the day of our testing! Let’s talk about that testing a bit.

The real test in this Abraham/Isaac narrative has more to do with the willingness of a loving parent to commit his beloved and only son into God’s hands so that God can continue to bring into reality the promises made to Abraham. You can imagine the doting old parents of Isaac, decades without children, now blessed with a child, a son, and an only child at that. This is not a setup for an easy parting to permit the son to grow into his calling as the next link in God’s chain of promise to the nation of Israel. One of the important things that Abraham is learning through this rather horrific test is that he can trust Isaac into God’s hands. In the overall narrative cycle, this chapter comes at the end of Abraham’s role and at the start of Isaac’s. Part of God’s testing is to teach Abraham that he can let go of his only child, and can pass that child into God’s hands. Not an easy thing for a parent to do at the best of times; and near impossible when you consider Sarah and Abraham’s situation. Those tests of God are not abstract metaphysical experiences to prove abstract points, but real moments of grace and teaching as we learn to grow beyond ourselves. Without the testing, will Isaac rise above his great father, the patriarch Abraham?

Abraham preserves his free will through this entire encounter. The translations don’t do the Hebrew justice, as in verse 2 God actually says this, “Please, take your only son whom you love, Isaac.” There are only five places in the Old Testament when God says ‘please’ to a human…three involve Abraham, and the others Moses and Isaiah (Gen 13:14; 15:5; 22:2; Ex 11:2; Isa 7:3). The emphasis here is that Abraham is not being ordered, but is being asked. Now, we prefer to think of God as the great giver of things, and stuff, and blessings, but this is God in the role of asker which is much more challenging…even if he does begin by saying ‘please’. The point is that Abraham has the ability to say no, just as we do, and just as Jesus was able to do.

The fact that Abraham says yes tells us something about the nature of radical trust he held in God. He knew that the promise would be fulfilled, even if Isaac died. Why? Because God has said it would be so. It leads to a challenging question – how far do you trust God? Do you trust God enough to give him whatever he asks? What if it is your only child that is requested? What if it is what you see as the premature end to your life? Do you trust God enough to believe that he will bring greatness out of your life, even in your suffering and death? Do you believe God will raise you again? Do you believe God will care for your family after you are gone?

These are not easy thoughts to rest with, partly because we prefer what Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’, the grace of God that requires no costly commitment. Grace without discipleship, grace without repentance, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ crucified, resurrected and ascended. Bonhoeffer contrasts this with ‘costly grace’ which is the true call of Christ. Costly grace by contrast demands of us our lives, and will be satisfied with nothing less. Costly grace is unyielding, and will not accept a part-way rejection of sin or a part-way acceptance of the cross. Bonhoeffer wrote, “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.” It is costly because it was purchased with the death of God’s only son; and something so costly cannot be had by us for a mere passing thought of commitment. The entry point to our faith, our baptism, is a death both ritually and spiritually: death to sin through the water, and a rebirth in the resurrected Christ. There is no cheap grace in a faith that asks only one thing of you to join: that you die.

The near-sacrifice of Isaac is such a story of costly grace, for just imagine what is happening to Abraham while this narrative unfolds. The setup is very brief. In the evening, God issues a series of commands to Abraham. This is all in the first two verses. The setup is terse. This is the short introduction to the narrative that boldly sets the scene.

The middle part of the story is the longest, and this is where I wonder about my questions: what is happening in Abraham and Isaac’s minds, and how does this experience change them. First, Abraham spends a last night at home. Now, imagine what burden rests on Abraham this long night, and on the three days of journey that follow. Rest in this for a moment, and imagine Abraham’s thoughts during this three day journey, knowing that at the end of the travels his only son, the son he loved, Isaac, would be killed at his own hand. Abraham leaves all behind again, and is alone with his thoughts of death. Three days is a biblical journey, a long time to wait on knowing the end of the story. With each step he takes on those three days, Abraham is wondering…when will the next God-word come and I will have to kill him? It makes his burden even heavier when you consider that Isaac is not only his only son whom he loves, but is also the physical manifestation of God’s promise to make him the father of a great nation. Without Isaac, all falls apart. Abraham is being asked to sacrifice his only son, but also to sacrifice all hope of a future.

I see in the account of the near-sacrifice of Isaac a model for each of us who struggle under the burden of a medical condition, or who wait on an earth-shattering diagnosis, or who rage and rail at God with the question, “why me?” or “why him?” Sometimes the life-changing moment is exactly that, a moment. After the weeks of medical tests it comes down to a short meeting with your physician, who tells you, “I’m sorry, but you have (fill in the blank).” This is like the introduction to the Abraham narrative – short, sweet, and completely destructive.

What follows that moment is the long journey, the biblical three-day road, bearing the burden of the news and an unknown future. What happens in those weeks and months after that tragic remaking of your reality? How are you changed by what you know now that was unknown before? The long middle of that narrative is the account of our lives, awaiting an unknown conclusion that might involve the miraculous provision of an unexpected ram to stand in place of the expected sacrifice, or it might involve the death of a beloved son. In either instance, there is no less of God’s blessing involved while we journey and while we struggle. What kind of a God would ask a parent to sacrifice their only child? The kind of God who would allow his only son to be sacrificed to save us from ourselves.

Bonhoeffer writes about this difficult way, “The cross in the call of Jesus makes it a contradiction of the best human wisdom and a threat to the basic human instinct. Who can want to choose crucifixion of the self, when the will of man is set on saving his own life from whatever threatens or on finding some saviour in whose power to take refuge? [here] is the core wisdom of faith in God: A person can never possess his own life.” And we cannot possess our own lives, because we are God’s.

That is not meant to be an easy teaching, and the thousands of years since Abraham took that long and arduous journey to God’s mountain have not diminished the horror and the anguish and anger that surround the account. In Abraham we do see a model of obedience and faith, this is true. We also see ourselves, and a model of our lives as the chosen people of God. Most of our existence is contained in the long middle part of the story, and we often do not know the form of God’s blessing that will arrive at the conclusion. What we do know, is that a God who would not withhold his own son, will not leave us alone nor expect us to bear the burden that only he could bear. God will come to the rescue of his chosen people; while at the same time we recognize that being the chosen one of God is not always the easiest role. We also know, by faith, that while we are on the three-day part of that long journey of despair, that God is imparting his blessing to us even as we suffer. We also know that in the end, God will bring that 3-day road to a fitting end, His will is done, and God is glorified, even in death. Amen.

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Written by sameo416

June 26, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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