A [very] slightly altered sermon manuscript on Gen. 22:1-14: Originally preached on June 29, 2014 There may be no more controversial passage in the entirety of the Christian scriptures than the 22nd chapter of Genesis. Well-respected commentators have interpreted this passage to communicate everything from the will of a hideous demon, to a kind of ‘divine hug,’ if you can imagine (Cotter, Genesis.153).
As sacred scripture, it has been one of the primary focal points of an atheist movement, which accuses the Judeo/Christian God of divine child abuse … and at the same time, is often held up for Christians and Jews as the quintessential example of faith in our God.
For Jews and Christians alike, this story is, ultimately, a story of faith … but it is also a story of sacrifice—according to Jewish law, an impermissible, and even detestable category of sacrifice—and yet, it is the God of the Jews (and by extension the God of most of the people reading this post) who issues the command: “Take you son; your only son; the one whom you love—Isaac. Go to the land that I will show you, and sacrifice him as a burnt offering to me.”
The command given to Abraham here at the end(-ish) of his story parallels that command given to him in the beginning: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land land that I will show you.” This three-fold command from chapter 12 initiates Abraham’s journey. From beginning to end, Abraham’s life is one marked by the sovereign call of God to live first and foremost in faithful obedience, even if it be at great cost. In the first instance, Abraham is called upon to leave behind his past, and in this scripture he is commanded, quite literally, to sacrifice his future and his hope. In both cases, relationships are to be severed. In the latter, even moral and ethical boundaries, which we expect to accompany the command of God, appear to be disregarded entirely. In neither case is any explanation offered by God, and in neither case does Abraham speak a word in protest (as he would at Sodom & Gomorrah, for instance) … he simply goes in faithful obedience to the costly command of his God.
This is the father of faith.
And yet … this particular show of faith is one, if taken seriously, that we cannot condone and we cannot applaud … we can only look on in awe and terror. If we are thankful for the providence of God at the end of this story, it is not without outrage at God’s initial command. Even as we embrace the mercy, we cannot ignore the brutality. Regardless of our foreknowledge that this was only a test—that Isaac would not finally be killed—we must judge that even the test crosses lines and abuses power. Surely God demands too much!
But then, we must ask, can such a statement be made? Can the God who has created all— the God who holds past, present, and future in hand—can this God, to whom we owe our entire existence demand more than is due? The story of Abraham is intended to answer this question. It asserts, here more than anywhere else, the free sovereignty of God to issue the command, and the faith of our patriarch, who responds with unquestioned obedience (Brueggemann, Genesis. 189).
No one else in the Hebrew scriptures will be tested in this way, and if anyone was, no one else would pass. This is solely Abraham’s test, and that is hugely important for us to remember as we approach this text. We as the reader are insulated from the command because it was not and it is not given to us.
It is Abraham’s test alone …
But it is not Abraham’s test in private.
Rather, this story is given to the faithful community, as ones who will inherit the rich faith contained therein … that we might be prodded and even tested by it … that we might wrestle with our father-in-faith and with our father-in-heaven … even with ourselves.
- How willing are we for God’s sovereignty to exceed the limits of our comfort and understanding?
- What are we actually willing to let go of in favor of faithfulness to God’s call?
These, I think, are the questions posed to the Abrahamic community in Genesis 22, and they are our questions as the community of faith in America … in the 21st century … as the church changes and shrinks and morphs, and approaches a threshold.
The church in which I was raised has been in numeric/financial decline for a number of years. The previous pastor was not well-received, and so some folks left for better preaching. Then conflict drove the the youth minister away, and more folks left for churches with bigger, shinier youth groups. Then the denomination started making decisions with which some members disagreed, and so they left. Finally, the unpopular pastor was forced out, and even though it seemed like the decision that many people had been waiting for, even greater numbers left in search of a more stable church home.
On top of all of this, the church is in an area where the demographics have changed dramatically in the past decade or so. What used to be a wealthy, white community is now an unplanned mix of ethnicities and cultures and socio-economic statuses. Most of the white folks who still live there are probably just too old or tired to move … But there is a vibrant, young hispanic community moving into new, affordable apartments in the area. There is a growing number of young African and African-American women and men … and there is an A-frame church at the top of a hill, with a big ol’ cross on its street-facing wall.
“What,” I have often wondered, “does faithfulness to God’s sovereign call look like for this church?”
What might it ask of the men and women who practice their faith in that changing community? And how willing are they to respond in faith, as children of Abraham? So often these days, it seems that the path of faithfulness is costlier than it has been in days past. In increasing numbers, our congregations find themselves ascending mount Moriah with our children of promise in tow … capital campaigns, and buildings; sermon series, and music programs, and congregational surveys, and fill-in-the-blank … these are the children in whom we have placed all our hope. In the distance we see the summit and think, surely this is not what it seems, Lord. But without any other perceivably option, we continue climbing.
Can we offer these, our most cherished gifts, which have provided us so much hope … can we offer them to God, knowing that God may indeed take them away from us, but trusting in the promise we have received? Maybe the five things I listed aren’t your children of promise … but what are those things in which you have placed your hope for the life of your congregation, or your denomination … those things to which you have given time and money and nourishment …
Now ask yourself, “if called upon, can we offer these gifts, which have provided us so much hope and joy … can we offer them to God, knowing that God may indeed take them away from us, but trusting in the promise we have received?
This is the test of faith.
There is a temptation, of course, to find substitutes for the sacrifice to which we are called. Isaac, carrying the wood, notices that his father has only a knife and fire. Maybe he sees the writing on the wall, and so in an act of desperation asks, “where is the lamb?” And we can imagine Abraham thinking, “yes, Lord, where is the Lamb? When are you going to deliver me from this fate? When are you going to put a stop to this madness?” But Abraham is faithful to the end, and responds only, “God himself will provide the lamb, my son.”
As Søren Kierkegaard has pointed out, Abraham, in his love for both Isaac and God, would certainly have achieved greatness if he had ascended the mountain and turned the knife on himself in place of his son. The promise would have been kept in tact by preserving Isaac’s life, and the man would be heralded as a hero by all who heard the tale. But he would not have become the father of faith. “He would have been admired in the world, and his name would never be forgotten;” says Kierkegaard, “but it is one thing to be admired and another to become a guiding star that saves the anguished.” (Kierkegaard, Fear & Trembling. 20ff)
No, to give his own life was not Abraham’s test of faith—for him the truest test had to be Isaac, the bearer of the promise.
To give oneself, belongs to another.
There is another one, chosen of Abraham’s race, who will face a test that belongs only to him; another who will carry the wood on which he himself will be offered up. After generations and generations of descendants who cannot or will not approach the summit, there is another who will trust in the promise of God, remaining faithful all the way to the end.
Only this time there will be no hand of God to intervene in the last minute … no providential substitute … for it is finally God himself who will be offered up in faithfulness to God’s own promise.
Believe it or not … this is the good news. It is only when Abraham’s faith allowed him to lose the child of promise that he received Isaac back, and it is only when God’s own self is willing to descend to the grave, that the grave is finally overwhelmed.
As we consider our own religious context–the American church of the 21st century–what are we being called upon to let go of? What, in your congregations and denominations, are you being called to let go? And how much more might we gain back by faithfulness to the call of God. These would be terrifying questions if not for the freedom that has been earned on our behalf:
- Abraham’s test is not our test, but Abraham’s faith can be our faith.
- Jesus’ cross is not our cross, but Jesus’ victory IS our victory,
- Death will not oppress us any longer, but has been swallowed up by the new life of faith.
This is the good news! God’s sovereignty has been exercised on our behalf … so how willing are we for the sovereignty of God to exceed our own limits? The God of the universe let go of eternity that we might enjoy it … so what are we willing to let go of in favor of faithfulness to God’s call?
That good news will remain good regardless of how we respond to it.
But the invitation of Jesus is this: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)
In the faith of Abraham, and in the faith of Jesus, we are freed from the safety of our own limits to become followers … fellow climbers of the dreadful hill, but now without fear & trembling. For we know, in the wake of these heroes of faith, that our God is at the summit, and our God is on the cross, bringing life out of death; out of faithful sacrifice, eternal gain.
So … why not risk it all?