Preached at St, Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, the Diocese of Toronto, 2 July, 2017
Texts for this Sunday: Jeremiah 28:5-9 or Genesis 22: 1-14, Psalm 89: 1-4,15-18, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10: 40-42
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am.” (Genesis 28:1)
I think I would fail in my duty as a preacher today if I didn’t say something about today’s first lesson from Genesis 22, the story of God demanding that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. I say that because I think this story, perhaps more than almost any other that is heard in the Sunday by Sunday lectionary readings of the church, can shock and offend us. The cruel and impossible demand that God lays on the shoulders of Abraham are so hard to reconcile with our idea of God as the good, loving creator. It explains why many Christian churches follow the age-old temptation to downplay the Hebrew Scriptures and to see Jesus the Son as being far more attractive than his angry and judgemental father.
If these things trouble you, rest assured that you are not only. Over the centuries, Christian and Jewish scholars have struggled with this story and have tried to understand it. There is an ancient Jewish story which imagines God asking one of his angels to tell Abraham to sacrifice his son, but the angels refuse to do it. If you want to command this death, they say to God, do it yourself. This ancient story reminds us that the Jewish faithful, like the Christian and Muslim faithful who came after them, recognized full well the difficulty of this story.
Our unease with the story begins in its first verse, when God decides to test Abraham. It’s not like Abraham wasn’t already faithful. He had left his homeland to follow God into the wilderness, he had trusted God when told that his aged wife Sarah would have a child, and now he he had allowed his son Ishmael to be taken away from him. What else did Abraham need to prove to God? It’s hard to understand. Last week I heard a rabbi speaking about the book of Job, and he basically said that while God has the right to test his people, most Jews wish that he would just stop already. That’s what I love about rabbis, they embody the dark humour of being faithful to God despite centuries of hardship and challenge.
God calls and Abraham says “Here I am”. We know these words well. We find them elsewhere in scripture. “Here I am” says the young Samuel when God calls him the night. Here I am says Ananias of Damascus when God calls him in Acts. “Here I Am”, we sing in one of our most popular hymns today. “Here I am, Lord, it is I Lord, I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, where you lead me”. Abraham answers God, and goes where God leads him, to a mountaintop where he is asked to sacrifice his son.
At this point Abraham was not part of an organized religion. He knew God and loved him, and followed him, but it was a personal relationship and he did not yet know all the rules. Was this some new, terrible thing that God was now asking of him? Who knows what Abraham was thinking on the three days it took them to reach that mountain? We know that other cultures in the middle east practised human sacrifice, often of children. One such culture, the Ammonites, who worshipped a God called Molech, was a near neighbour of Israel. We know that there are passages in the Torah prohibiting the sacrifice of sons and daughters (Leviticus 18:21; Jeremiah 32:35; 2 Chronicles 28:3), so perhaps the story of Abraham is meant to explain to Israel how their God was different from the gods of the neighbouring peoples.
Explaining the story in these cultural terms helps us understand it intellectually, but as the story unfolds all of that is still in the future and we can’t help but to read our emotions - sadness, horror, outrage - into it. We see the old man slowly and painfully moving up the mountain while Isaac, presumably a strong young teen since he is carrying the wood, follows. We wonder why Abraham could do this thing, and why how Isaac could go along, for when they arrive at the place, and there is no lamb, he surely understands. And how could this strong lad let his aged father bind him and lay him on the wood, were it not out of his loyalty and obedience? Abraham calls Isaac, and he too answers “Here I am”. Either he is too innocent to know what is coming, or, more likely I think, he knows full well and he is obedient to his father up to the point where God reveals the ram and the story becomes clear. The God of Israel will never demand human sacrifice of his people. Instead, the sacrifices of animals in the Temple will become a sign of how God provides for his people, who offer part of their blessings back to God. It becomes the same basic idea that we celebrate each Thanksgiving, or at each family meal, that God provides for us.
For these reasons, the three so-called Abrahamic traditions, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, have each found good in this story. For the Jews, the story was about God’s faithfulness, and the ram was a sign that God would always provide for his people. For Muslims, who recount the story in their Koran, the story was about obedience to God. Abraham and Isaac, in their “here I ams”, are examples of how the faithful should follow God. And what of us Christians?
For us, the idea of the son, faithful and obedient to his father, carrying the wood of his sacrifice to the place of his death, becomes an image or foretelling of Jesus bearing the cross to Golgotha. Whereas God stops Abraham and does not demand this sacrifice in the end, God does not spare himself or his son. If Abraham sorrowed in his heart for what he thought he had to do, our theology of the Trinity, of the three persons in one, tells us that God is fully present in the pain and sorrow of his son’s death. Some see the idea of the atonement as a callous sacrifice, of God ordering Jesus to his death, but I think our idea of the Trinity reminds us that this what happens on the cross, like on Abraham’s mountain, is a sorrow, pain, and sadness shared by the father and the son.
My hope then is that if we stick with the story to its end, and if we think about its place within our long family story of faith as Jews and Christians, we can find resources in it to help and sustain us in our daily lives. Abraham’s response to God, “Here I am”, is our response. We talk a lot about church shopping and choosing a church because we live in a culture that is dominated by consumer values, but in fact we are here because we are called to be. We respond to God by saying “Here I am”, and that means more than just “Here I am, Lord, present in my usual pew on Sunday morning.”
Saying “Here I am” means being responsive to God in those moments that feel uncomfortable, even those times that feel like a test. God may call us to respond to moments of injustice, racism, or other evil things that may test us. Saying “Here I am” means that we are ready to stand with others who are suffering, even if that comes at a cost to us. God may call us to answer for things we have done that we would rather not think of. Saying “Here I am” means that we are ready to reconcile, to ask forgiveness, to find new ways forward. God may call us to live through difficult times of sorrow or grief or sickness. Saying “Here I am” means that we are open to God and what he may ask us to do and be, even when our thoughts may be clouded by self pity, fear and anger. God’s call comes in the good and bad times, and sometimes it takes courage to say “Here I am”, but we answer knowing that the one who calls us is good and faitihful.
My prayer for all of us that we can have the strength to wrestle with this difficult story, and that it can teach us something about being faithful and obedient like Abraham and Isaac, knowing that God will be with us and will provide for us in whatever he may call us to. Amen.
Acknowledgement: This commentary by Kathryn Schiferdecker was very helpful in thinking through this sermon.