This is one of those scripture passages we’d all like to avoid. How do you preach on something like this…God testing Abraham’s faith by making the outrageous demand that Abraham sacrifice his longed for son, Isaac. It’s beyond our comprehension, beyond our ability to put our trust in a loving God, beyond human kindness let alone, God’s divine action. It all seems so willful and useless, so counterproductive to the plan God set up in the first place, the plan, which would make Abraham father of many nations. How could this happen if the chosen son through which, the nations would be birthed was to die at the end of a knife sacrificed by the very father who claimed he loved him. This is one mystery we would prefer to leave to wiser scholars.
But the story is here and, in some way, we need to deal with it or, at least we need to try and deal with it. Clearly, there’s the very good possibility the story of Abraham and Isaac should stand on its own. It is an ancient tale with a profound message for an ancient people. It is a part of the belief system set in place by God for those God has chosen and reason enough to treat it respectively.
It’s equally possible the story was adopted and expanded on to be the foreshadowing of yet another father’s sacrifice of a son, the one we base our faith in. The images are as real to us as the story of Abraham and Isaac must have been to the ancient Jewish tribes. It further connects the Old Testament with the New. But should the weight be placed on sacrifice or on faith, on the drama of near loss or on the hope in God’s grace and trust in God’s faithfulness and love?
Perhaps the real message here is one of following God in obedience. Yeech…I don’t like that word much either. I’ve always been a quiet rebel…a good girl, yes, but with a mind, which has led my thinking beyond the customs or the behaviors of our day. Even at an early age I recognized injustice between races and argued for a more equable system. Later in life, when introduced to the concept of inclusive language dismissing the church’s use of male language when describing humanity, I reacted negatively to the maleness of the Bibles we read and the hymns we sang. I still do. And I never accepted the set roles women were expected to fill simply because they were women or the set roles men must fill simply because they had been born male. As a child and young adult, my father would push my buttons by engaging me in discussions where I played the rebel and dad would act as the devil’s advocate. I foolishly thought he just wanted me to listen to his beliefs and buy into them, but years have passed, dad is gone and now I know that wasn’t his intent at all. He wanted me to think, explore and articulate what I did believe so he gave me opportunities to debate with a seasoned reasoner. That was a gift I didn’t appreciate much when I was young but now I see it as the gift it was and is.
Much of the stories in the Old Testament and the New help us to explore and test our faith. They are opportunities to learn about God and our relationship to God. They give us time and places to struggle, much like Jacob struggling with God receiving not only a lifetime limp but a blessing. That’s us. We struggle with our faith or lack of faith; with our God and or our fears about God. We struggle to understand the mysteries of God’s love for us and with the dictate to obey when what we want to do is break the rules and live outside the places of holiness. In the end, we will come to a fuller understanding of why we are placed here, what we were called to be and do, and how, throughout our lives, God stayed the hand that bore the knife and kept us alive. In the end, we will have greater understanding of God’s enduring love for us in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. As one writer wrote:
“Learning to trust in God is a long journey. …we’d rather remember the joy of trusting in God instead of the sacrifices and difficulties of a relationship with the Holy One. I can pray that I won’t face what Abraham did, but I know that the only path to trusting and knowing God is through enduring the hardships of this life with God alongside me.”[i]
What we can never lose sight of in this difficult passage is our faith and trust in God overcomes all hardships, all fears, all pain, and all loss. On the cross, Christ has made us whole and free. Amen.
[i] The Christian Century, Living by the Word” Heidi Haverkamp, Vicar of the Episcopal Church of St. Benedict in
Bolingbrook, Illinois, 20.