September 15, 2017 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for September 17, 2017. From our ongoing series: “Word and presence: God among us in the Old Testament.”
Text is Genesis 21.1-3; 22.1-14.
Resources behind this sermon include:
Walter Brueggemann, Genesis. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1982), 185-94.
*Ellen F. Davis. “‘Take Your Son’: The binding of Isaac,” in Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 50-64. (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2001).
*Fleming Rutledge, “The Future of God (Genesis 22:1-14),” in And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament, 61-68. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).
Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 303-11.
*These two sermons took a rather divergent paths into this difficult text. Most of this sermon came from letting these sermons argue with one another in my mind while I consulted Brueggemann and Waltke / Fredricks on the finer points. This time Rutledge won the argument by a sliver. Next time I preach this text, maybe Davis will get the upper hand. Whatever the case, I respect those two ladies and their perspectives immensely.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.
God speaks, Abraham responds
In today’s lesson, Abraham stood before the awful word of God. And what can we do as we hear it, but stand with Abraham and tremble at this terrible word of God?
This is what we heard:
After these events, God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!”
Abraham answered, “I’m here.”
God said, “Take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him up as an entirely burned offering there on one of the mountains that I will show you.”
What kind of test is this? And what kind of God tests a servant as loyal as Abraham by asking  him to do such a thing?
And while God’s word to Abraham might leave us wondering what kind of God he is; Abraham’s response to God’s command might also leave us asking what kind of father Abraham is. Abraham got up early in the morning; prepared the wood for the offering; and immediately got his donkey, his two servants, and his son Isaac; and began the three day journey toward the place God would show him.
Three days. And not a peep out of Abraham. Not a word of protest. Not once does he ask: God, are you sure about this?
It gets me thinking about what happened the chapter before, Genesis 21.8ff. Isaac was the child God had promised Abraham, but he wasn’t technically Abraham’s only son. God had promised Abraham and his wife Sarah a son for twenty five years, while they just got older and older and the age of child-bearing was way past. By the time Isaac was born, Abraham was 100, and Sarah was 90. In the meantime, they’d gotten antsy and decided God needed help giving them a son. So Sarah arranged a hook-up between Abraham and her Egyptian slave, Hagar. And Abraham and Hagar had a boy named Ishmael. But once God gave Abraham and Sarah Isaac—the child he’d promised them—Sarah demanded Abraham evict Hagar and Ishmael from the home. This servant’s son won’t share the inheritance with my son Isaac, she said. And then it says: This upset Abraham terribly because the boy was his son.
So it says Abraham was upset to send Ishmael away. Was Abraham also terribly upset by God’s command to sacrifice Isaac? In this story, we aren’t told that he was. So maybe we wonder: What kind of father is he?
And just like we heard in our story today, upset or not, when Sarah told Abraham to give Ishmael and Hagar the boot, Abraham got up early in the morning and shooed them toward the desert with some bread and water.
What kind of father is Abraham? A few chapters earlier, Gen. 18.16ff, God told Abraham he was about to burn up the city of Sodom. Abraham’s nephew Lot had settled there, and he didn’t want Lot to burn up with them. So he began to protest God’s plan. He argued: It’s not like you to do this, killing the innocent with the guilty as if there were no difference. It’s not like you! Will the judge of all the earth not act justly?
Now, in movie terms, Sodom had gotten so twisted it was like if you crossed The Hunger Games with Deliverance. Later on, in Ezek. 16.49-50, it says Sodom was stuck-up, inhospitable, greedy, stingy, refused to feed the poor, and did detestable things. Like when some of the men of the city tried to gang-rape the angels God sent to rescue Lot’s family before he nuked the place.
Now, see—here’s what’s disturbing to me. God says he’s going to totally burn up Sodom, which was a blight on humanity, and Abraham argued with him over it. But then, in our story, God tells Abraham to burn up his beloved son Isaac—and Abraham goes out to do it without saying a word.
And here’s what you need to understand. So far we’ve only been looking at this in terms of a father being told to sacrifice his son. But so much more is at stake. In the ancient world, your sons were your future. Abraham has already sent one son away. Now God is commanding him to take the other one, the one God promised him so long ago, the one he waited twenty-five years for, and totally annihilate him. God is commanding him to put his future, his hope, all the promises God made him on the altar and burn it all away.
When God first called to Abraham, he said: Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. God asked Abraham to give up everything. Abraham has surrendered his past to God. Now God calls Abraham to go to the mountain that I will show you, and sacrifice his future there, too.
And there’s even more at stake. Isaac wasn’t just Abraham’s future and hope. He’s also the future and hope of the world. God had also told Abraham when he first called to him: I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing … [A]ll the families of the earth will be blessed because of you. (Gen. 12.1-3)
And later, God promised Abraham: Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them. This is how many children you will have (Gen. 15.5). God had made it clear that he intended to fulfill these promises through Isaac. God had specifically told Abraham: your descendants will be traced through Isaac (Gen. 21.12). But if there’s no Isaac, how can God give Abraham as many descendants as there are stars in the sky? Without Isaac, how will Abraham have a family that will bless all the families of the earth?
So the word of God in today’s story wasn’t just God asking Abraham to destroy his son. It was God asking Abraham to void every promise God had ever made to him. To burn up his hope, his future. And with it, God’s promises for the future of the world.
Isaac speaks, Abraham responds
After three days of traveling, God showed Abraham the mountain where he wanted him to offer his son. The mountain where God sent Abraham to erase the future.
Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will walk up there, worship, and then come back to you.”
The boy and I will … come back to you. What a bold and ridiculous thing for Abraham to say! Knowing full well that he was going up the mountain to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering.
Then it says:
Abraham took the wood for the entirely burned offering and laid it on his son Isaac. He took the fire and the knife in his hand, and the two of them walked on together.
On his own back, Isaac carried the wood he’d be sacrificed upon. And Abraham held the knife and the fire—the instruments of sacrifice. And the two of them walked on together, we’re told. I can see it in my head like a movie. From the perspective of the servants, watching father and son get farther and farther away, going toward the mountain. And then in close-up, the two of them walking side-by-side up the mountain.
Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?”
Abraham said, “I’m here, my son.”
If you were listening closely at the beginning of the story, this is just like the beginning of the story. God addressed Abraham, and Abraham said: I’m here! Even in the midst of this awful thing, Abraham is fully present with his son. He responds as attentively to Isaac’s word as he does to God’s. Abraham hears the confusion in Isaac’s voice. Isaac senses something is very strange. And very, very wrong.
Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?”
Did Isaac think dementia had set in on his elderly father? Or did he sense an even darker cloud had fallen over Abraham’s mind?
I imagine there was an awkward silence as Abraham searched for the right words. And then Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it, my son.” Then, for the second time, we are told: The two of them walked on together. I imagine in an eerie silence.
Now, in hindsight—in light of the cross—we begin to see what God was up to in all this. We see a father and a son, walking alone together. There’s a three-day journey. They’re going toward the mountain where the son will be sacrificed. And with the son’s sacrifice, it will look like all hope for a future has been cut off. And the son carries the wood he will be offered upon, on his own back.
Yes, there’s a rumor of the cross of Christ even way back in Genesis.
God shows up
The text doesn’t tell us what went through Isaac’s mind as he watched his father prepare the altar for the sacrifice. Or how old Abraham managed to tie his able-bodied teenaged son on the wood. All we know is, just when Abraham was about to plunge the knife into his son to kill him, the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?” For the third time in the story, Abraham has been spoken to. Once by Isaac, twice by God.
And for the third time, Abraham said, “I’m here.” Abraham was totally present, yielded to the word of God.
Now Abraham is told:
“Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son.
Abraham had told Isaac God would see to the lamb for the burnt offering. And so it was.
It turns out well. And yet—this story just disturbs me and makes me angry at gut-level. Obviously, God was present in all this. That ram didn’t just show up in the thicket on its own. It didn’t get its horns stuck in the brush by accident. God saw to it. God knew God was going to do that all along. Because God knew he’d placed his hopes for the future upon Abraham through Isaac. But in our story, God says: I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me. I want to shout at God: And you didn’t already know that Abraham was loyal? If God can see to it that a ram would just happen to get stuck in a thicket where Abraham is about to sacrifice his son; why couldn’t God just see into Abraham’s heart and know what was there?
There are those who say that it’s one thing for God to know what’s in Abraham’s heart; and another to experience Abraham’s faithfulness in action. Others will say it was Abraham who needed to know, which to me tramples all over the plain meaning of the text. Look, I’m a minister. I’ve wrestled with the scriptures, and with the God they reveal, for much of my life. Especially the hard sayings, the twisted scriptures, the texts of terror. I know how to wiggle free. I know the counters to the full-nelsons some biblical texts can get you locked in. But this story—I can’t get free from. It won’t let me go.
So why God needed to test Abraham to know—I don’t know. Sometimes the Bible is weird; sometimes God is weird, and we just have to let God be God and the Bible be the Bible.
But here’s what I do know. Our world is God’s creation, God loves us deeply, and God has a plan to give us a future with hope. God will see to that, because God has skin in the game. And so Jesus, like Isaac had before him, walked up the hill with the wood for his sacrifice on his back. He offered his life to God. There was a substitute for Isaac. There was no substitute for Jesus, because Jesus was the substitute: The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1.29). Like Isaac, Jesus went on a three-day journey through death and back into life. So we can know that God loves us, because God didn’t hold back his only Son from us. And we can know that God sees to the future. Just as he did for Abraham and Isaac and Jesus.
Our story today tells us: Abraham named that place “the Lord sees.” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.” People who study biblical geography tell us that the mountain where Isaac was almost sacrificed was around the same place Jesus was crucified. So when we need to know that God loves us; that whatever hurts, confuses, or frustrates us now isn’t all there is; when we need reassurance that God sees to the future, we should look to that mountain. Where God proves his faithfulness to us by not holding back his only Son.
So church, here’s the only place I think this text will let us go. We have to be willing to have the faith to lay our future on the altar and see God’s provision unfold. I don’t just mean our individual futures either, though that’s included. After all, Abraham knew full well it wasn’t just his future, or Isaac’s future he was being asked to surrender to God. God promised to bless the world through Isaac—the future of the world was at stake. We need to lay the future on God’s altar. The future of the world, and what we think our place is in it.
This story calls the church to trust God to be God, the God who sees and sees to the future. We are called, like Abraham, to yield to God. Not only to surrender our past—the way we’ve always done things—to God. Oh, we have a hard enough time doing that sometimes, don’t we? But that’s the first thing Abraham did. Not only to surrender our preferences—how we like things—to God. Oh, we have a hard time with that too, don’t we? No, through this story God calls us to surrender the future to God. So that God can lead us into the future God sees. And trust God to see to that future.
Looking back on the life of Abraham in Rom. 4.17, Paul said Abraham trusted the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence. This side of Jesus’ resurrection, we have much more reason to believe than even Abraham did. We know that God is the one who brings life to the dead, and calls into existence things that are not. Because we know what happened when it was God’s Son who went up the mountain for a three-day journey with the wood for the sacrifice on his back. We trust a resurrecting God who loves us and didn’t withhold his only beloved Son from us. We can lay our futures, the future of the world, even the future of this church, on God’s altar. And trust God to see to the future—to provide for us whatever we need.
After all, God has skin in this game. God has spoken. And God is present.
 The English translations obscure this, but in Hebrew this can be read as an ask rather than a command. Does God have something at stake–skin in the game–in this request? If Abraham says no, has he failed the test? But Waltke and Fredricks, 304-05, read it as a consequential. Almost as if God foresees Abraham’s, Here I am!; and says, Well, since you’re so ready to obey me, take your son … That’s plausible, but I kind of prefer the awkward tenderness of the ask.