The text for the sermon this coming Sunday is Genesis 22:1-14 - the binding of Isaac. It is at once a strange and yet foundational text for a people of the Bible. As I wrestle with the text (or, more to the point, as it wrestles with me) I am reminded of the last time I preached on this passage. It was June 29, 2008. Here is the sermon from that occasion ...
“After these things God tested Abraham.” After all of these things. After leaving home and hearth for a life as a wandering pilgrim because God called and promised. After waiting until the covenant promise of a child, of a next generation, of a blessed future for God’s people seemed surely lost. After the impossible miracle of infant Isaac born to octogenarian Sarah and Abraham. After these things God tests Abraham. Is another test necessary? Hasn’t God witnessed enough? Will the testing never end? Apparently not. Every time we gather we Christians pray: “Save us from the time of trial.” We assume that it means we can be spared trials and tribulations and given a life without the temptation to give up on God. But Jesus knows it is inevitable. Trials and temptations come with the territory. Tests of faith cannot for ever be avoided. Jesus also knows that we need God most when we are tempted to turn and run, to choose the easy way out, to believe the sly, false promises of the evil one. He teaches us to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Does it mean that God will always save us from a journey into the wilderness, from our own day of temptation, from the church’s time of tribulation? No it does not. The ‘yes’ of faith invariably travels hand-in-hand with the temptation to say ‘no’ ... to say no to God.
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” This is a terrible test. It is an awful command. What kind of a God is this who asks such a thing? Apparently God is free to do as God chooses. This is the definition of God. God is God. God is not limited by what Abraham thinks God should do. God is more like a wild animal than a domesticated kitty cat. The one whose name - YHWH - means “I am up to what I am up to” is free to be up to things that do not accord with our careful plans and reasonable programs. Jesus announces to his disciples: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mk 8:35). The Good Shepherd calls his flock to sacrifice its future as an offering to God. He says that the way ahead leads onto a mount of suffering and death and sacrifice. It is an awful command. Yet, it is somehow also the gospel truth. The way to the life that God provides is somehow always through the death that God demands.
Three times in a mere fourteen verses Abraham is addressed - by God, by Isaac, by an angel - and three times he answers: “Behold, here I am.” Abraham is prepared to be addressed. He does not flinch from answering each time. His life is a life of response, a life of obedience, a life of faith. We are led to believe that we can be self-starters, initiators, creators of our own existence. We imagine that the church is free to set its own agenda and chart its own course. But the life of God’s people is a life lived entirely in reply. The question facing us is not “What should we do?” but “Will we answer yes or no?” We have not paid much attention to the question of obedience in our generation or denomination. We have mostly been focused on using our human freedom to do what we please and think is best. Yet the texts make it clear that the freedom of God’s own people is rooted in our willingness to obey. Walter Brueggemann will be at Regent College in October to give the Laing lectures. Walter’s presentation is entitled: “The Church in Joyous Obedience.” Joyous obedience. We are more inclined to think of obedience as a grim duty rather than an exuberant delight. We are tempted to live in the delusion that we can avoid obedience and still claim to be the church of Jesus Christ. Yet Jesus addresses his disciples - he addresses the church - in no uncertain terms: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). Abraham denies himself and follows the command of God. The text says it in such a matter-of-fact way: “So Abraham rose early in the morning ... and set out and went to the place that God had shown him.”
Abraham obeys. He is prepared to offer up his best and only hope for a future. More than that, he is prepared to offer up God’s best and, apparently, only hope for a future. In Abraham’s obedience we glimpse the deep roots of the obedience of Jesus in Gethsemane: “My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt. 25:39). Or is Jesus’ obedience more like that of Isaac? Both of them carry the wood on which they will be bound up the mount of their impending suffering. Like Isaac’s journey, Jesus’ sacrificial journey also takes three days. The manner in which Isaac and Jesus go to their sacrifice reminds careful readers of the song of the suffering servant in Isaiah: “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Is. 53:7). Isaac does as his father says. He prepares his own sacrifice. So does Jesus. We may find this ancient story horrific. We may wish we could simply erase it from our memory and never again teach it to our children. But to do so would be to ignore the stark truth that the story of the binding of Isaac - otherwise known as the Akedah (in Hebrew:“The Binding”) - is foundational not only for Judaism but for Christianity as well.
Let’s stop here for a moment, before we reach the crucial turn in the text, to locate ourselves in this drama. After all, locating ourselves in the drama is the point of all of this. To use Karl Barth’s famous words, we gather on Sundays to enter “the strange new world of the Bible.” He means that we do not gather here to dig around in the Bible like we might sift through an old trunk in the attic, looking for some pearl of great value, some bits of meaning to help us live in a time and space that we call the “real world.” Instead we gather here to slip through a crack in time and space so that we can, for a little while, live in the strange and new, but no less real, world of the Bible. And in this strange new world of the Bible who are we today? At first we put on Abraham’s shoes, sharing in his anguishing test of faith. With him, after an endless time of waiting we finally see a way forward, a path of hope. With him we place all our marbles in this miracle. Then God irrationally, inexplicably commands that we give it up, that we let it go, that we sacrifice our last glimmer of hope as an act of obedience. “Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel”, says Jesus, “will save it” (Mk. 8:35).
But the one whose life is at stake in this drama is not Abraham, it is Isaac. Perhaps we are not playing the part of Abraham. Maybe we more closely resemble Isaac. Israel has long seen Isaac’s role as its own. Isaac is the beloved son whose future is at risk, whose death appears to be God’s way into the future. When Israel loses everything, when Holy Zion and the Temple is overwhelmed by an army of occupation, when the remaining remnant straggles into exile then it understands that God’s future must require the sacrifice of God’s cherished offspring, God’s own people. When Paul says that our baptism into Christ Jesus is a baptism “into his death” (Rom. 6:4) he is saying that when we drown in the water of the font we die to our parent’s hopes and our society’s dreams for us. He is saying that we are more like Isaac than we may realize. He is saying that the church is called to bind its desires and plans and projects to the sacrificial pyre so that God’s purposes may be fulfilled. No one would ever invent such a paradoxical faith. This is an angle of vision that can only be found by entering the strange new world of the Bible. In the strange new world of the Bible the way to real life is through death. In the strange new world of the Bible the way to faith is discovered only when we are prepared to sacrifice our best and brightest hope for the future. In the strange new world of the Bible the place of sacrifice incredibly becomes the source of great gratitude. Remember the words of the last line of the first verse of the hymn “Come, O Fount of Every Blessing” (#559 Voices United): “Praise the mount; I’m fixed upon it, mount of God’s unfailing love.”
Which brings us to the crucial turn in the plot. Isaac asks his father “where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” What is Abraham to say? How can he tell his son what is about to take place? The audience sits in hushed silence, awaiting Abraham’s reply. Then he says it: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” He does not say that the lamb who is to be provided is Isaac himself. He does not know that God will yet intervene. He tells the truth: “God will provide.” Here is the origin of this now clichéd phrase. It does not begin as the promise of a tele-evangelist who pledges great returns from God in exchange for a regular donation. It does not begin as a greeting card faith, as if God’s provision of a safe future is obvious. Rather, Abraham’s faith that God will provide is spoken in the full knowledge that God intends to provide Isaac himself - God’s own best hope - as the way forward.
“God will provide.” The Hebrew word that Abraham uses here means “to see”: “God will see to it.” It is what the word “provide” literally means. It comes from the Latin words “pro” - forward - and “video” - see. To provide is to “see forward”. It is to make provision for the future, to foresee what is needed, to be a prudent purveyor (yes, those words are both from the root word ‘provide’) in the face of what lies ahead. Here Abraham’s faith turns the tables on God. Notice how Abraham now puts God to the test. Will God be so capricious as to demand God’s own best hope for the future as a sacrifice? Or will Abraham’s reply to Isaac remind the Holy One of Israel of God’s steadfast love and mercy? Abraham trusts God even in this moment of awful pathos and great tragedy. Will God prove worthy of such trust? Will the providence of God (there’s that root word ‘provide’ again) spare Isaac, spare Israel’s future, spare God’s own best hope? Yes, it will. Yes, God will provide a ram. Yes, Isaac will live. Yes, the terror of Good Friday obedience and the long pilgrimage through Holy Saturday’s anxious waiting will be transformed by the wondrous provision of radical newness named Easter Sunday. God will provide. But not in the way we expect. God will provide but not without huge risk and real sacrifice and much trouble.
Tradition says that Abraham saved one of the horns of the ram that was provided by God for the sacrifice. With the ram’s horn Abraham made a shofar - a trumpet. Abraham made the shofar to call the people to worship, to obedience, to trust in the One who will surely provide a future. Its sound was intended, like the bell in this Chapel, to remind Abraham’s offspring (be they Jewish blood relations or Christian adoptees) to live in obedience to the One who provides our future. But I have come to believe that Abraham made the shofar for an additional reason. I have come to believe that the shofar’s blast and the peal of our church bell are not solely intended for our ears. I believe that Jews blow the shofar so that God will hear ... and I believe that Christians ring out a warning in their bell towers so that God will remember ... so that God will say: “I have promises to keep. I will provide”.