This morning, and over the next four Sundays, Chris and I will be preaching on the story at the beginning of the twenty-second chapter in the Book of Genesis. The Scripture lesson can be found on page seventeen in your pew Bibles and it follows on the heels of the story of Isaac’s birth and the story of Abraham and Hagar and Ishmael. Hold onto that page in your Bible and we’ll come back to read it shortly…
Today’s account of Abraham and Isaac journeying to the peak of Mount Moriah is one of the more well-known stories in the Old Testament. As you will notice over the course of the next weeks, it’s also one of the most troubling stories in the entire Bible. Still, whether you focus on today’s narrative through the lens of Abraham or Isaac or God, or even Sarah, who is both Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother but is not named in the story, the reader and the listener can’t help but encounter a few timeless and critically important human themes. Themes that are ripe for examination on an individual level as well as a corporate level.
Prominent among those themes include the following… In a story filled with emotion and high drama, how do human beings forgive one another? And how do we find a way to forgive God? In a story that hinges on the threat of violence, how do human beings speak and act in the midst of conflict? And how do we resolve conflict in a way that allows us to move forward? Finally, in a story filled with as many questions as there are answers, how do we do the hard work of critical reflection so that ultimately we can re-invest in new ways of thinking and acting in the world?
That’s a lot to digest in one story. In fact, it’s a lot to digest over the course of these next five weeks. Just so all of you know, however, we’re going to do some of that reflection together in a way that is new and slightly different for this congregation. Starting next Sunday, Chris and I are going to take five minutes or so at the end of each of these sermons to walk around with a microphone, much the way we do during our prayer time every week. And if any of you choose, you are welcome to take the microphone for a few moments and express how the sermon spoke to you. Maybe you will raise your own question about the sermon or the Bible story. Maybe the sermon will conjure for you an image or a memory that you want to share in community. Or maybe you would be willing to describe how the sermon connects to something you are experiencing in your life right now.
(At this point in today’s sermon I scan the congregation and try to determine from your facial expressions whether you are with me or not. Hmmmm. Maybe only time will tell.) The good news is that today’s task when it comes to the sermon is simple and straightforward…all you have to do is listen to the story in the Book of Genesis for the first time. We’re back to page seventeen then in your pew Bibles and a tale our New Revised Standard Version bibles refer to under the bold, italicized heading as “The Command to Sacrifice Isaac.”
Read Genesis 22:1-14…
“After these things God tested Abraham. Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah to offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you…” When I mentioned earlier the idea that this story is one of the most troubling in the entire Bible, it starts immediately with the first two verses.
One can only wonder what God’s command, God’s so-called “test,” must have sounded like and felt like when Abraham heard it. Nevertheless, Abraham did as he was told. He rose with his son, Isaac, early in the morning, setting off on a long, three day journey in the direction of Mount Moriah. He cut enough wood to create a kind of pyre he could light on fire for the sacrifice God required. And maybe he said good-bye to his wife Sarah. Or maybe he slipped out the door before she could ask him any questions.
For Isaac, I suspect it was the kind of outing many young boys would look forward to. Spending some quality, uninterrupted time with his dad. Yes, Abraham was a bit tight-lipped with the details, meaning he brushed off many of Isaac’s questions along the way. Questions like where are we going? What are we gonna do when we get there? What snacks did you bring to eat along the way? As far as Isaac was concerned, however, simply being with his father on an adventure was good enough. What could go wrong with his father right beside him.
For Abraham, on the other hand, I imagine he was filled with an overwhelming sense of dread. The heaviness of his steps was exceeded only by the heaviness in his heart. Along the way, did Abraham try not to look at his son for fear of betraying the depth of his own anxiety and sadness? Or did he look at his son constantly trying to sear the image of his son’s face in his mind knowing he might never see him again?
And how many times did Abraham contemplate turning around and heading home? Pretending he didn’t hear what God commanded him to do? Calling God’s bluff in spite of any divine consequences such disobedience would have precipitated?
When they finally reached the foot of Mount Moriah and Abraham told his servants to stay below with the donkey. Meanwhile, Abraham and Isaac began their ascent up the mountain alone. Do any of you remember the movie, Dead Man Walking, which told the story of Sister Helen Prejean and her work with prisoners condemned to die on death row? The title of the movie refers to death row prisoners who make their final walk from their holding cells to the places of their execution. I picture Abraham walking up Mount Moriah a bit like that…dead man walking…
In any case, when the two reached the summit Abraham set to work. He cleared an area on the ground and arranged the wooden sticks and logs in a careful tower, strong enough and wide enough to support a small human body. As he witnessed his father assemble the pyre, Isaac’s curiosity piqued and he asked a logical question. “Where is the lamb that we will put on the platform for a sacrifice?
Abraham’s response to Isaac’s question, while somewhat vague, placated his son while he finished working. “God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” At least until the moment Abraham took his son by the hand, bound him from head to toe, and laid him atop the pyre platform.
What happened next in the story is the stuff of legend. Abraham lifted the knife and when the knife was poised in the air above his son, just as Abraham was about to do the unthinkable, an angel from God came along and granted a reprieve. A very last minute stay of execution.
A few yards away, the angel pointed out a ram caught in a thicket by its horns and instructed Abraham to put the ram on the platform in Isaac’s place. Then the sacrifice proceeded as most burnt offerings would have in ancient Israel, according to prescribed ritual and complete with traditional prayer. In spite of the PTSD Abraham and Isaac presumably felt.
Still trembling, still shaking, there’s no way of knowing whether God’s words provided any measure of comfort to Abraham as he watched the ram burn on the altar. “For now I know that you fear God.” Or if Abraham was able to hear God’s words at all.
Nevertheless, down through the ages in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the story of Abraham and Isaac has elevated Abraham to heroic status. For Abraham was so faithful to God that he was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to obey God’s orders. He acted wholeheartedly in spite of the uncertainty. He acted as a solitary individual, without any guarantee what he was doing was good or right, and with no clarity about how it would turn out in the end.
The point is that in a time, in a world, in a story where God demanded everything Abraham had to give, Abraham proved he was up to God’s task. Abraham passed God’s test and emerged with both his trust in God and his only son intact...making him a veritable living, breathing paragon of virtue.
I’m not sure in this case, though, how much of a favor our faith tradition does for us. I’m not sure we do the story of Abraham and Isaac proper justice by simply accepting it at face value. Today’s story is a story that forces us deeper, to confront what we’d rather avoid, to hold up a mirror where it would be a whole lot easier to remain in the darkness. To me, it’s a story where we try to come to terms with the best and worst of human nature. And the best and worst of God’s nature…
We’re going to look carefully at today’s Scripture lesson from all different angles over the next four weeks. With help from the Holy Spirit, we’re going to see where this story leads us, even if it’s to places we’d rather not go. We’re going to try and make sense out of a tale that in many ways defies good explanation. Above all, we’re going to do it together…
Stay tuned. And welcome home to Wapping Community Church on this Homecoming Sunday. Amen.