Sunday, July 2, 2017

Passing the Test

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “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.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

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. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “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.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:1-14 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

We continue this week with the legends of Abraham. These stories from Genesis that teach us about the beginnings of Israel, God’s chosen people. A people, founded by Abraham--that patriarch of the faith--whom God called and through whom God promised that all the nations of the world would be blessed.

Last week, we heard the triangular story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar. 

Today, our story opens with these words: “After these things God tested Abraham.” Really? Do you ever think, “Wow, God, do you really doubt his faith? Abraham’s faith?” Because the “these things” that have happened before, the nature of God’s call to Abraham have consisted of all of “these things”: 

  • God’s call to Abraham to pick up and move away from his entire family and go to a land he has never seen.
  • God’s promise to Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation and, then, the long years of Sarah’s barrenness and the real question of how this “great nation” was actually going to happen..
  • The birth of Ishmael and, at long last, the seemingly impossible birth of Isaac, that boy they called “laughter.” 
  • Then, as we heard last week, Abraham’s casting out--his divorcing of Hagar and his first son, Ishmael, with great distress.

And, now, this? Don’t you just want to say, “Really, God? Do you really need to do this?” 

Abraham’s response? Well, when once again God called his name, all he simply said was, “Here I am.” Here I am. (I’m not so sure I would have answered in the same way.)

After he answered, then God laid out for him the nature of the test.

I have to admit to you up front that I have a love-hate relationship with this story. I love the faithful obedience of Abraham. How he doesn’t question God. How he simply packs up the things he will need on this journey, including his one remaining son, and just moves forward, doing what God asks him to do. I love this aspect of the story.

But the part I dislike, the part I honestly hate, is the very same faithful obedience of Abraham. Why didn’t he challenge God’s need to test him after everything that had happened? And, especially, why didn’t he challenge God’s command to sacrifice his only child, or any child, for that matter? What kind of god is it that says you will be made into a great nation through this one son and then tells you to take that very son and sacrifice him?

Can you tell, that I really struggle with this text. Do you, too?

I struggle with two things. First, I struggle with the very idea that God tests Abraham, particularly, after everything he has been through. Why? Does God need to be sure? Does God need to impose this one-time test of Abraham because God has risked everything on this one man? Does God just need to know that Abraham will be faithful? Does God, perhaps, test us, too? Trying to find out if we are faithful. If we have put God first in our lives, above everything--our possessions, our family, our country? If we really do believe and follow that first commandment--You shall have no other gods.

And, then, secondly, I struggle with the nature of the test God is commanding of Abraham, of child sacrifice. A prevalent practice at the time which we know God did reject. I struggle with this because it seems so contrary to the New Testament God I know.  A God who actually did sacrifice a son. Who must have been just as torn up inside about it as I imagine Abraham was. Who must have suffered as deeply as Abraham did at the thought of giving up an only son. And for what? For us? For us and for the whole world, all of us mired in sin? Who frequently sacrifice our own children. Who are complicit in the deaths of children for poverty or for lack of decent healthcare, or because they die attempting to cross borders to get away from violence and civil war and are turned back, or because they die as a result of us sending them off to war. 

I struggle with this. And I don’t have any answers. No good response.

Perhaps the only response is to simply weep. To weep at the tragedy and misery in our communities, our nation, our world. To weep at the tragedy in our own lives and those we love. To weep at the horrible choices we have no other choice but to make. 

To weep. And to trust. Like Abraham, to simply trust that God is present and that God will provide.

There’s an interesting word play in our story today. It’s perhaps helpful for us in understanding the steady trust of Abraham. 

At the beginning of our story, God tells Abraham to take Isaac to the land of Moriah. There is no land known by this name. The Hebrew word used for this land, Moriah, occurs only one other place in the Hebrew scriptures. In 2nd Chronicles. Here, it is used to identify the mountain in Jerusalem where the temple would be built. Mount Moriah.The place where, for the Jews, God was present. Where God came down to be present among God’s people. 

The meaning of this word in Hebrew--the word Moriah--is “God will provide” or “God will see.” It’s the same thing Abraham spoke to Isaac when Isaac asked Abraham where the lamb would come for the burnt offering. “God will provide,” Abraham said to Isaac.

“God is present and God will provide.” This is the full meaning of Abraham’s words to his son. It is what he believes. It is the basis for his trust. That, after these things. After all these things God has called Abraham to do and has brought him through, Abraham has been witness to God’s faithful presence and God’s faithful providence.

It’s the same message for us, these thousands of years later. When we don’t have the answers. When we struggle with all that is going on in our world. When we are afraid and don’t know what or where God is calling us to, or when it feels as though we are being put to the test. We can can rely upon the same faithful God as Abraham. And that God will be present and that God will provide. It is what we believe. It is the basis for our faith.

May God grant it. Amen.

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