August 18, 2019
Pentecost 10: Binding of Isaac
Christ Church Gardiner
Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in the theater with Catherine and Sarah and our friend, Thew, watching the new version of “The Lion King.” It was a guilty pleasure as I knew that my sermon wasn’t finished yet. So, of course, that’s where my mind kept wandering—to this difficult story of Abraham and Isaac, often referred to as the Sacrifice of Isaac or more aptly the Binding of Isaac, because he never actually gets sacrificed. And I realized as I was following the story of Simba and Mufasa on the screen that their story was the opposite of Isaac and Abraham. Because instead of a willingness to sacrifice his son, Mufasa puts himself at risk twice to save the life of Simba, and the second time, he died in his attempt to save his son. He lost his life in order that Simba could keep his.
And we get that. THAT makes sense. What parents wouldn’t put themselves in harm’s way and even die in order for their child to live? But this story is just the opposite. How do we make sense of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son?
My first inclination was to preach about how crazy this was—how morally corrupt Abraham must have been to willingly sacrifice his son so that he could prove his loyalty to God—because what kind of person hears a voice from God asking him to sacrifice his child as a burnt offering and actually prepares to do it? And this wasn’t the first morally questionable thing that Abraham did in this Genesis narrative. Just last week, we heard the story of Abraham and Sarah turning out Hagar, his other wife, and her son, Ishmael, into the wilderness to die because Isaac’s inheritance might be threatened. And just a few chapters before that, Abraham passed Sarah off as his sister while passing through Egypt so that the Pharaoh would take her into his harem and spare the life of Abraham.
When we remember these stories, we realize that Genesis is not a chapter in a family values manual that some Christians want us to believe is our Bible. But this story of Abraham and Isaac is powerful, and I have to believe that it has more to offer us than yet another way that Abraham behaves badly. If we wrestle with this text, can we find more? Something to learn. Something to remind us of our own relationship with God and the ways are tested or the places we fall short? The ways in which we hold back instead of offering even that which is most precious to us?
Let’s go back and remind ourselves what this story is all about. There are four pivotal verses that tell this story. Right from the beginning, the stage is set. Our reading opens with, “After these things God tested Abraham.” So we hear in these words, God’s purpose in this extraordinary request. God is testing Abraham. And if there was any doubt in our minds how precious this child was, the second verse reminds us, when God says to Abraham, “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.” We learn here that God’s test is for Abraham to sacrifice the child that he loves.
Then in verse eight, we get the epitome of Abraham’s trust of the Lord. When the wood on the altar is stacked and the fire is built, Isaac knowing how these sacrifices work, asks where the lamb is for the burnt offering. And Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Abraham doesn’t yet know if God will follow through with this demand for Isaac’s life or give him a substitute. The point is that God will provide. And Abraham trusts that completely.
Then in verse 12, the conflict, the drama, is finally resolved. God calls to Abraham just as Isaac is bound on the pile of wood and the knife is about to be plunged into him. And God says, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
God tested. Abraham showed that he was a god-fearing man even willing to kill his beloved son in order to show his obedience and his trust in this God. God can now rest. Abraham is loyal.
So this story is about testing and proving loyalty. And about offering up the most beloved thing in order to prove that obedience. If we think about the context in which this story was told 3000 years ago or so, we can speculate about why this story would have made sense in that time and in that place. This story comes out of a time when syncretism, the blending of cultures and religions, was a real concern in Israel. They were surrounded by other people who worshiped other gods. Would the Israelites fall prey to the seduction of other gods and other cultic expectations? Would they worship those other gods and put their trust in them? Israel’s god was a jealous god who demanded obedience and even fear. Abraham represented all of Israel, and Israel’s trust of and faithfulness to God must be tested in the context of the many temptations surrounding them. And Abraham shows Israel to be faithful, completely vulnerable before their God, not holding anything back, offering even that which is most precious.
This type of testing may seem primitive and cruel to our modern ears, but are we not being tested ourselves? In different ways, to be sure, but tested nonetheless.
Walter Brueggemann, whom I have relied heavily upon this summer for making sense of these Genesis texts, claims that as heirs of Abraham, God is still testing us. He reminds us that we claim this reality of being tested by God every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer and pray that God will lead us not into temptation. We ask not to be led there because we fear our failure to resist that temptation. We fear God’s testing of us.
I have to admit that this claim from Brueggemann that God tests us makes me nervous. Our Presiding Bishop claims that “if it’s not about love then it’s not about God.” And I struggle to equatea God of Love with a God that puts us to the test. But Brueggemann goes on to write that the testing which we encounter in our lives, “drive[s] us to find out whether we mean what we say about our faith being grounded solely in the Gospel.”
And I can see that there’s something of love in that. Because we don’t just claim to believe in a God that loves us, but a God that insists that we love the world—that we see Jesus in every one that we meet—and that God’s reign of love will only come about when we feed, clothe, heal and visit the “least of these.”
This is the test that is always before us. Are we living as if our faith is grounded solely in the Gospel and the promise of God? Or are we living as if we have faith in the promises of our modern world, promises that tell us the more we consume, the more we buy, the more we acquire, the happier we will be? And that it is through our success and our achievements that we measure the value of our lives.
This struggle to define our deepest Gospel values and to live with them as our guide, brings me back to the story of “The Lion King.” Mufasa in his great wisdom knew that as king, Simba would be tested. Any time there is power and privilege, there is temptation to abuse that power and privilege. This is true not just for kings, but for all of us. So when the young cub Simba is surveying the pridelands, all that will be under his rule, he says to Mufasa, “I can take whatever I want.” And his father responds, “While others look for what they can take, a true king looks for what he can give back.” That sounds like Gospel values to me—not seeking what you can take, but what you can give back.
While I will never claim to fully grasp the mystery that is God, I am comfortable claiming that the God of Love is not in the business of asking us to sacrifice our children. We won’t be tested in that way. But if our lives are grounded in the Gospels, we will face tests every day that tempt us to place our faith in the ways of the world instead of the ways of God. What are we willing to sacrifice for God? Are we preoccupied with what we can take or are we motivated by what we can give back?
But even as we struggle with these questions, we must remind ourselves that God is with us. Through these tests, in the midst of these temptations. Even when we fall short. God is with us. God gives us space to start anew, to try again. God is with us always. Amen.