When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. (Read the whole text)
Here we are back into the long season of green, the chance to explore the various stories the bible. The Gospel readings of this season tell about Jesus’s teachings and ministry. The Epistle readings take us through the various letters of the New Testament to explore what was happening in the early church. And the Old Testament readings give us the stories of God’s people.
Today, the story of Abraham and Isaac is simply too tempting to avoid exploring.
The story of Abraham and Isaac is one we know well. It is a story that is not only familiar when we hear it, it is one whose themes are used over and over in literature, movies and TV. How often is the hero in a movie faced with an impossible choice involving the sacrifice of someone that they love?
The reason that Christians know this story of Abraham so well is that it is often used as an example of faithfulness. Abraham is an example of unwavering faith, so the idea goes. And on the surface it is an idea that makes sense.
In order that Abraham demonstrate his faith, God orders Abraham to put his faith before everything. Before the love he has for Sarah and their only son. Before the love that Abraham has for Isaac, the son who will be person who carries Abraham’s legacy into the future. Without Isaac, Abraham and Sarah are simply people who will be forgotten to the sands of time.
And Abraham delivers. He shows us what it means to be faithful. Abraham’s faith is so powerful an example that even the authors of the New Testament point to it as a model to follow.
Abraham is willing to sacrifice his own son if God asks. Unwavering faith.
Or perhaps blind faith.
Or perhaps radical faith.
Radical fanaticism even.
Because we don’t usually call people willing to kill for their faith great examples… we have other words for those people don’t we?
And what about God? In this story, God asks his chosen disciples and follower to sacrifice his son, the very son that is the fulfillment of the covenant.
Have we read this story right? Christians have been using Abraham as an example of faith for hundreds of years, and the Hebrew people for thousands before that.
But blind faith or radical fanaticism is not normally the kind of faith that we are trying to help grow in people, in ourselves.
And a God who toys with us simply to “test” our faith doesn’t seem very loving or caring.
So what is going on in this story?
Well, to understand how Abraham and Isaac arrive at this moment, we need to go back to the beginning.
The oldest part of the bible is not found in the stories of creation or the garden of Eden or in Noah’s flood. Rather Abraham’s is the oldest. And ten chapters before Abraham and Isaac, the story begins. Back when Abraham was Abram, and Sarah was Sarai, God called these two to take up everything they had to go to the land that God would show them.
Abraham’s story begins with a 3 part covenant made with God. God promises Abraham land, descendants and a relationship. And this 3 fold promise becomes the focus of the rest of the book of Genesis, and to some degree the rest of the Old Testament.
So Abraham and Sarah pack up everything and go. And when God says, “Go” Abraham is really good at going. He is always willing to go when God calls.
But it is this other part of the promise… the descendants one that Abraham has trouble with. Going is easy… when God commands it, Abraham does it either out of faithfulness or perhaps fear. But the promise of descendants is tougher. Faith in this promise cannot be rooted in obedience out of fearfulness. Believing that God will provide this barren couple with children takes hope, it takes faith in the future, and faith in the third promise, that Abraham and Sarah are indeed God’s chosen.
And so Abraham goes, but as soon as he encounters the powerful Pharaoh of Egypt he gives Sarah away to be a part of Pharaoh’s harem, claiming Sarah is his sister, not his wife. So God has to intervene to save the day.
And then Sarah, fearing that she will not provide a son, tells Abraham to have a child with the servant Hagar, who gives birth to Ishmael… but he is not the son that God promised.
Next God tells Abraham directly that Sarah will bear a son, and all Abraham can do is fall to the ground in laughter.
And two weeks ago we heard the story of God showing up again to tell Abraham and Sarah that she will bear a son and this time Sarah laughs.
And after all this, Abraham gives Sarah to King Abimelech for his harem, again requiring God to intervene.
So finally, after 9 chapters of Abraham’s struggle to believe the promise of children, Sarah gives birth to Isaac.
And the long awaited, hard to believe promise has come to fruition.
Yet still Abraham still struggles to believe in the promise, in hope for a future. Even with Isaac in his arms now.
Some Rabbis suggest that the test that God gives Abraham is not one of obedience. That it isn’t a game of chicken that God is playing. In fact, God knows that Abraham will follow the commands, he has always been willing to go when called.
But does Abraham have faith in God’s future? Does he believe that God will make him the father of God’s chosen people?
So just one chapter after Isaac’s birth, God gives the command to sacrifice Isaac.
So Abraham goes and for three days – without a word of protest – walks to the mountain with Isaac. And when they arrive, Isaac asks where the lamb to be sacrificed is… and Abraham says something about God providing it, knowing full well that there isn’t a lamb. Abraham then leaves his servants and pack animals behind, and goes to the ritual place with Isaac. There he ties up his son, binds his son like lamb to be slaughtered and places him on the altar.
And without hesitation raises the knife.
In that moment, when you take into account everything that has happened in the ten chapters before this… Abraham has not passed the test.
He has failed.
And so has God.
For ten chapters, through rescuing Abraham from himself, from proving wrong Abraham’s laughter at what he and Sarah thought was impossible, God must have thought that Abraham would finally believe that promise, the promise of descendants, the promise of hope and a future.
And yet for 3 days Abraham marched to mountain without a word of protest. Abraham looked his son in the eye and lied about what or who would be sacrificed. Abraham tied up his son and placed him on an altar of sacrifice. God must have expected that Abraham would protest or bargain, just as he had for the people of Sodom. God must have thought that Abraham would demand that God live up to the covenant, that God certainly wouldn’t just arbitrarily take away Abraham’s future. God waited for the protest. But nothing.
And so Abraham fails the test… but so does God, for a good test is one a student can pass.
And yet there on mountain, standing above Isaac with his knife in hand… just maybe it is Abraham who teaches God something, maybe it is Abraham who tests God.
Perhaps after 10 chapters of trying to get Abraham to believe in the covenant, in the promise of hope and future that God makes with Abraham, God realizes that Abraham cannot have faith… only fear. Fear that drives him to go when God commands, but fear that prevents him from having hope.
So God intervenes.
God caries the hope for the future that Abraham cannot.
God upholds God’s part of the covenant… even if Abraham cannot have faith in the promise…
God will have hope in Abraham, even when all the signs say that God shouldn’t.
God sends a ram.
God sends a ram who is a sign that God will not give up on us.
God sends a lamb who will be not a sign of death on an altar, but life on a cross.
A lamb whose coming into our world will signify God’s unwavering faith in us.
A lamb who is God’s promise of hope and future in the flesh.
For you see, we are just like Abraham.
In fact we are Abraham.
We too find the promises of God laughable, we find the threats to our future too much to confront, we too have difficulty seeing our hope and our future… even when God plunks signs right in our arms.
And so God sends us the lamb who will save us.
The Christ who is found in the thicket of the church.
The Christ who is mercy and reprieve from the knives that we threaten our hope with.
The Christ who is life, when there is surely and only death in store for us.
The Christ who is God’s promise in flesh.
Abraham’s faithfulness is nothing to be marvelled at, he isn’t a model to aspire to…
Abraham is a model of the faith we already have.
As too is Abraham’s fear the same fear that we carry. Fear that is dispelled each and every time we gather around God’s word of promise and hope for us.
Abraham reminds us that God knows we cannot be faithful on our own… and so God is faithful for us. God knows that the promise of Christ is our hope and our future.
God is one the passes the test for us.