Texts for June 28: Genesis 22:1-14 (Ps. 13)
God tells Abraham to offer his son “as a burnt offering.” If you sit with that command for any length of time, if you allow your mind to move past the trite images that come with familiarity, it begins to feel like the plot of a horror movie.
Isaac journeys with his father. Perhaps he is grateful for the chance to spend some time with Abraham. They bring the fire and the wood their ritual requires. Isaac is unaware that Abraham believes he will have to kill him.
Now let’s notice something important about this story. The scandal here is not the offering of a child to appease a deity. In our own day that would violate laws and social norms so gratuitously that it would make international headlines. In Abraham’s day it would have been as normal as signing up for a mortgage. It wouldn’t have been something you did every day, but neither would it have been something that was terribly scandalous. In a chaotic world one took great pains to appease the unseen powers. The plan to kill is not the scandal of the story.
The scandal of the story is the way God’s command challenges what Abraham thought he knew about God. Remember Abraham and Sarah had been called by God to leave their homeland in faith and to dedicate themselves to God’s service. They had been promised that Sarah would bear a son, even when that looked preposterous. They had been promised that this child would be the beginning of a vast heritage. But then God asks Abraham to cut all that down with the slash of a flint knife and the whisper of embers blown into dry wood.
One of the most profound privileges I have as a pastor is to talk with people about what they believe and what makes their lives meaningful. No one has ever told me that God was calling them to take the sort of actions Abraham was told to take. If I were to hear that I would say unequivocally, that such a voice is not of God. That is not the God we know through Jesus. But Abraham did not have such privilege. The culture he lived in said it was quite possible that a god would ask such a thing.
What I have heard from many people over the years is that something happened in their life—maybe something dramatic, maybe they came across a subtle new idea. Whatever happened, that event made it impossible for them to believe in God any longer. The event and what they knew of God could not fit together. They decided to leave their faith aside.
Maybe there has been an event like this in your life.
There is another way to respond to such events. We can ignore the challenge they bring to our faith. Like the scientist committed to the traditional paradigm, we can ignore the bits of data that don’t fit. Better to simply ignore the experience, we might think. Better to stick with what we know in the shape that it is. The atheist and the agnostic has this option too. Better to ignore the nudges of faith than to reconsider one’s belief. One always has this option.
What I appreciate about Abraham is that he is willing to walk right into the teeth of the question, right into the gap the event creates. Let’s be realistic: Abraham isn’t always so willing. Remember how his lack of courage once led him to introduce his wife to the imperial elites as his sister? He offered her up to save his own skin. But here, in the dry hills of Moriah, Abraham walks on.
My hope for us is that we walk with Abraham. When we find ourselves in the midst of the event that calls into question what we know, I hope we walk forward with Abraham.
Abraham and Isaac leave their traveling companions behind and they walk on alone. Isaac asks his father about the obvious: “We have the wood. We have the embers for our fire. But what about the sacrifice?”
Here we see the results of Abraham having lived his faith through events like this before. Abraham says that God will provide the sacrifice.
The event that calls our faith into question can be the same event that calls a new form of faith into being. The death of the God we know can be the birth of a God more true. “No faith” need not be the result of the challenge to the old faith. “No God” need not be the result of the challenge to the old God.
I’m reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, locked in a prison cell, imagining that the time had come for a “religionless Christianity.” The old language of faith had lost its meaning. The old God was as good as dead.
Abraham walks forward into the impossibility that his life and his faith have presented to him. He does not choose to step out of the tension. And then, when the gap before him seems impossible to cross, when he is almost sucked into the black hole of violence, God’s messenger arrives. And that messenger points Abraham to something he did not possess. That messenger points a way forward that Abraham could not possibly have anticipated.
The path of faith did not come from Abraham’s brain. He did not think his way through the event. He could not have. He didn’t possess the equipment to do so. “He looked up and he saw a ram.” The way forward came from beyond himself.
As you know, the image of that ram, the impossible newness of God, echoes throughout the Bible. Abraham gives the site of this event a name. He names it, “the LORD will provide.” He did not want to ever forget that new faith was birthed at a point of maximum uncertainty. Like a mapmaker, he wanted that event to orient the geography of his life. The LORD will provide.
May it be so with us–Amen.