This morning I’m going to read the Scripture lesson from the Torah, translated directly from the Hebrew language by a group of well-known Jewish scholars and rabbis. I invite you to listen, then, to the Abraham and Isaac story for a final time. By the same token, I invite you to listen with an open heart as if you are hearing the story for the first time.
Read Genesis 22:1-14…
As we come to the end of this five week sermon series study on the story of Abraham and Isaac, the overall response has been fascinating. A number of you have appreciated the opportunity to look at one Scripture lesson in depth, from different angles and multiple perspectives. This sermon series, along with our weekly sermon feedback time, have proven that the Bible is so multi-layered that we could come to new interpretations and reach new conclusions every time we open its pages…even when we are examining the same story for five weeks in a row.
On the other hand, for a few among us our sermon series ends mercifully today. Maybe it’s the graphic nature of this particular Bible story. Or maybe it’s the idea of spending five weeks in a row talking about any story from the Bible. In any case, if you put yourself in this category, rest assured you won’t hear the story of Abraham and Isaac in worship again for quite some time...
I said four weeks ago that the story of Abraham and Isaac ultimately raises more questions than provide answers. At the end of five weeks I’m even more convinced of that fact. Moreover, the more I study this story the more I find myself at odds with historical, theological, traditional analysis.
Abraham passed God’s test on top of Mount Moriah. Abraham was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to prove how much he honored God’s will. And scholars down through the ages have lauded him for his courage and his faithfulness in the face of a command from God that is both brutal and unthinkable. But when all is said and done, I don’t buy it. A God who puts people to the test by asking them to kill someone they love isn’t the kind of God I want to serve.
In the meantime, a father who willingly puts his own devotion and his own loyalty and his own allegiance to God above the well-being…indeed the very life…of his own beloved son. That’s not the kind of father I’d want to have either.
What Abraham did up on the top of Mount Moriah earned him God’s blessing. But that blessing came at a steep and frightening price. For in my mind that blessing cost Abraham his family. And in an equally disturbing manner it cost Abraham his own peace of mind…
Most of the time the Bible gives us hope and life. It offers to us glimpses of God’s love and God’s salvation offered to God’s people time and again down through history. Every once in a while, however, the Bible breaks our hearts. And I would contend that the story of Abraham and Isaac is one such example. A story filled with failure on so many levels.
What kind of failure? First, today’s narrative is a story about Abraham’s failure to love. I’m not saying Abraham didn’t care about his son. But part of the responsibility, the gift of love is to nurture the ones we care about. To support them and surround them and do the very best we can to keep them safe and protected. In an effort to showcase his obedience to God and defer to God’s will, I believe Abraham lost sight of what love requires.
We live in a 2015 world where we too lose sight of what love requires, particularly when it comes to our children. Every day we read about children who are bullied literally to death. We hear about children who take their own lives because no one cares enough to honor their sexual orientation or their gender identity. We know too well about children abused by the parents who are supposed to love them the most.
Children who are kidnapped and sold into slavery. Children who face prejudice and discrimination on account of their skin color or their ethnicity or the faith they profess. Children gunned down in elementary and college classrooms. When it comes to our children, especially, love requires more from fathers and mothers than blind obedience and putting our children through unimaginable trauma in order to prove our own worthiness…
Still, failure in this story cannot be solely attributed to Abraham. Most Hebrew scholars would say that Isaac was at least an adolescent when he went up Mount Moriah with his father. In fact, he may well have been a teenager or a young adult. It suffices to say Isaac was not a small child. Nevertheless, the story gives the impression that Isaac willingly went along with his father’s wishes. Given his advanced age and the fact that he was alone with his son, it’s hard to believe Abraham could have subdued and bound Isaac with rope. Unless Isaac cooperated or even helped in some way. Is it conceivable that Isaac participated in his own victimization?
It’s easy to judge from the outside and wonder why people, regardless of their age, don’t rise up against the ones who want to destroy them. Yet we’ve heard similar testimony firsthand from those who’ve lived through abuse. We know victims tend to keep silent. Experience tells us that people are often complicit in their own victimization…swallowing their own pain out of fear or denial or loyalty or insecurity. Seen from Isaac’s perspective, I wonder whether the lesson of Abraham and Isaac has to do with how important it is to resist. To speak out instead of losing our voices. To stand up in the face of evil and violence. To fight back against the powers that threaten us as a way of claiming justice and reclaiming our own humanity.
Finally, I would argue that the story of Abraham and Isaac is a story about the failure to forgive. What we have at the end of today’s tale is a family shattered and unable to put pieces back together. Abraham can’t forgive himself for the trauma he inflicted on his precious son. And it’s possible Abraham can’t forgive God for putting him through the turmoil and the chaos up on the mountain in the first place.
Meanwhile it takes Isaac an entire lifetime to forgive his father. Which at face value isn’t surprising. How do you rebuild a father son relationship in the wake of such deep betrayal? How could Isaac ever shake the image of the knife poised over his head?
And Sarah who wasn’t even there on top of Mount Moriah. She knew enough about what happened on the mountain that she didn’t want to know any more. But it didn’t take long for Sarah to realize that when Abraham and Isaac returned from their journey she had lost the husband she once knew. And her son had lost the innocence he once knew. Which left the family irreparably frayed and Sarah unable to figure out exactly why it happened or how to make it better. So she was forced to live with a nagging sense of bitterness and loneliness and regret.
Arguably there are a few things in life so horrific and tragic they cannot be forgiven. But there are also times when forgiveness means giving our pain and our anger and our resentment and our guilt and disappointment to God and asking God to grant forgiveness where we cannot. Thereby freeing people to let go and move on and live the kind the kind of unburdened lives God desires.
Abraham and Isaac is a story about failure to love. It’s a story about failure to resist. It’s a story about failure to forgive. And with those things said I think we could move on from this story.
But I don’t want to leave the story there. Instead, I want to leave this sermon series on a hopeful, positive, redemptive note. And the way I want to do that is by reminding us who we are.
Just like Abraham and Isaac and Sarah long ago, we are God’s people. We try hard as individuals and as a church community to listen to God and serve God and honor God, but we don’t always get it right. In truth, there are times when we fail miserably. And sometimes those failures come with a steep price.
Still, the amazing thing is that God loves us anyway. Even when we fall short, God gives us more chances and urges us to reach new heights. Even when we hurt those around us, God encourages us to reconcile with those we’ve wronged. Even when the past is fraught with pain and disenchantment, God reminds us that tomorrow is filled with new opportunities to turn the page and do better going forward.
In that spirit then…in a spirit of hope where we set aside that which divides us and weighs heavy upon us… and in a spirit of renewal where we strive to be the best people we can be and the best church we can be and the best Christians we can be. In that spirit I invite you to come forward and renew your baptismal vows this morning.
Once upon a time, maybe when you were a baby or maybe when you were older, I imagine someone, somewhere baptized you with water by the power of God’s Holy Spirit. That baptism was a sign for you of the eternal, unconditional love of God. And it was a sign for you of the love of the people who surrounded you in that sacred, sacramental moment.
I invite you, therefore, to come forward in a few moments this morning and dip your finger in the water. Put the water on your forehead. And remember your baptism.
May the water you use to anoint yourself remind you of what love requires. May the water remind you to resist what threatens to destroy you while you stand up for who you are. And may the water remind you of God’s gift of forgiveness which guides you along the path to new life even when you can’t always see the path with your own eyes. Amen.