Let’s make one thing clear; today’s Old Testament story is a bear. God tests Abraham and tells him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, and Abraham all but does it. This ain’t no bedtime story, and it’s not for the faint of heart either. Hold on it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Wrestling with this text ultimately forces us to ask one question, “What would it take for me to stop worshipping God?” What would it take? I’m not talking about becoming an atheist. The question is: What would it take for you to stop worshipping God, for you to throw in the towel and say, “No, God, I don’t think I will.”? Is there, in fact, a point at which ethics overrides obedience to God?
But in today’s reading Abraham doesn’t seem to ask this question. All we get from Abraham is his ascent to God’s command, he does what he is told. In our horror we want to know what kind of person even considers such a thing? What kind of a person, takes a three day journey, knowing that at the end of that journey, lies death for his long promised son? What kind of person is Abraham anyway? We know what tradition says, Abraham is the father of faith; a paragon of obedience. We have to remember that this scene is the culmination of years and years of relationship. This is very much like reading the climax in a story with little sense of what led to the conflict. And it is likely not at all an incidental and insignificant detail that after this scene, God never speaks directly to Abraham again. There is something about this scene in the relationship between God and Abraham that seems to leave both parties sour.
So what leads up to this dramatic scene?
We need to keep in mind that God and Abraham have been working together for a long while at this point. Perhaps you remember a few chapters back, when God was getting ready to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham bargains and bargains with God, argues really. In that scene, Abraham reminds God of how merciful God is (Gen. 18: 25), and God relents; indeed, God changes his mind on account of Abraham’s arguments. Maybe Abraham is certain that God would never take away Isaac, after-all this is the long-promised heir, the one who would produce the heirs that would number more than the stars (Gen. 15:5). Is Abraham calling God’s bluff? Maybe Abraham is just humoring God, “Sure, sure, God, oh my son, my beloved? Oh, ok, yeah the one you already promised would give me all those descendents, uh huh, o.k., I’ll go along with this.”
But I’m not so sure. Our text itself offers no help for us in terms of understanding Abraham’s inner being, we don’t know what he is thinking. We don’t know if Abraham is cavalier in his attitude about the sacrifice or if Abraham is resigned to the commands of God. We don’t know if Abraham is torn by anxiety. We don’t know what’s going on with Abraham, we can only guess.
Well, then, what can we know about Abraham in this story? We can look at what he says, what words he uses. Abraham says only two things in the story, but he says one of those two things, three times. Abraham says, “Here I am.” Whenever anyone calls to him, whether it is God, his son Isaac, or an angel, Abraham answers, “Here I am!” Abraham is not trying to hide from God, unlike Adam in the garden who tried to hide from God’s presence when he sinned (Gen. 3:10). Abraham is not hiding, he’s out in the open; he is being honest: “Here I am!” Abraham says only one other thing in this whole episode, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” This is in response to Isaac’s common sense question, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” But again, the text gives us no clues as to Abraham’s tone or state of mind. Was Abraham trying to keep Isaac from panicking by lying to him, was Abraham speaking metaphorically, is Isaac the lamb? Was Abraham just totally convinced that God would supply the lamb? We don’t know what he was thinking really, I am apt to take him at his word, even though Abraham has more than his fair share of guile. We simply don’t know, but what we can say is that 1.) Abraham is honest about who he is, “Here I am!” and 2.) he knows that God provides. He is honest, he is clear about who he is and about who God is and what God does.
So many readings of this story try to sanitize it of its horror. This command from God is too much to bear. I would wager that if we are being honest, most of us hear this command and say, “No! Unfair.!” This is not satisfactory. And just as unsatisfactory is the blind acceptance of the command. This is my biggest problem with Abraham in this story. Earlier Abraham argues with God not to destroy two wicked cities, but when it comes to his son, he clams up. The history clearly shows that God is more than willing to hash things out, if not change his mind, why so reticent Abraham? Why not speak up for what’s right? This kind of conundrum, this making a person choose between obedience to God and family comes up in the teachings of Jesus too. Remember when Jesus says, “Whoever does not hate mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes even life itself, they cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) What is the deal with the extreme God of ours? It’s almost as if he were asking us to have faith, to trust, in him and him alone. What a strange god, a god that demands not only total trust, but singular trust, trust to the exclusion of all other trust and security.
It really doesn’t matter whether we look at this story with the believing eyes of unquestioned faith, or with a critical eye, the most important thing to remember about this story is the way it did not turn out. Make no mistake, had God asked for and then collected on his demand for the sacrifice of Isaac, we all would not be here. This is the answer to the question that I posed earlier, “What would it take for you to stop worshipping God?” The answer is when God stops being God. God would not be God had he reneged on his promise that Isaac would be Abraham’s heir. Abraham, knows this, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” But let us not be lulled into thinking that Abraham is certain about all this. Abraham is a human being after all. He cannot know for certain that God will provide, but he does have faith that God will provide.
And what is faith? Faith is one of those churchy words that gets used quite a bit, so often, that perhaps the meaning gets lost. Faith is not certainty, nor is faith facts. Faith is trust. And trust is tricky. When we trust someone, we do not have the certainty that we get from, say, mathematics, when we trust someone we are not as confident as 1 + 1 = 2. When we trust, we don’t know the outcome. When we trust we go out on a limb a little, when we trust we don’t have certainty; but we have hope, we have assurance. Hope and assurance are brought about by relationships over time, not facts and figures. And it is the relationship that Abraham has with God over time that has allowed him to trust God, to have faith in God. Indeed to become our exemplar for faith. And not simply the father of our faith. Christians do not have an exclusive claim on Abraham; no, Abraham is THE father of faith. The knight of faith, as Soren Kierkegaard dubbed him, Abraham is the person of faith par excellence, not for his certainty but for his trust, in God.
What characterizes the person of faith is what Abraham says in this story, “Here I am,” and “God himself will provide.” The person of faith is honest about who they are, and they know the source and owner of everything they have.
Which is easier said than done. Faith is about being honest about who you are and who is the source of all that you have, and that same source, has total claim, total claim on you. And this claim is what today’s reading highlights: God has total claim, and will not be denied. This is scary stuff really. We have a God who insists upon trust in him totally and solely. There are to be no other gods before him. And make no mistake there are plenty of other gods. The age of polytheism is not over, there are lots of gods, those things that we put in the place of God, those things that we use to try to make us satisfied and whole and happy. But our God won’t have it. God is the provider, the sole provider of all our satisfaction, wholeness, and happiness; without remainder.
And putting our trust in Him, but knowing he will be there with us. That is the promise God makes to Abraham and to his son Isaac and his son Jacob and to all their descendants. We are part of that line of descendants, we are heirs of his eternal kingdom, and this is the same God that reveals himself to us, provides for us, and has created the means of grace and the hope of glory for us in Jesus Christ. And there simply is no better way to draw near in faith to our Lord than to proclaim our common trust in him, pray to him, confess our sins to him, and finally, celebrate his undying faith in us at the Eucharistic table. Amen.