Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 29, 2014

2014.06.29 – Stories From the Family of Faith: Abraham and Isaac – Genesis 22: 1 – 14

Central United Methodist Church

Stories From the Family of Faith:

Abraham and Isaac

Pastor David L. Haley

Genesis 22: 1 – 14

June 29th, 2014

 sacrificeofisaac.chagall

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 killhis 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, New Revised Standard Version

My family arrived back in town from our trip to D.C. late last Tuesday, and are happy to be home. While our travel always has a specific purpose, Michele is convinced my ulterior motive is to eat at every known Cracker Barrel. The funny thing is, no matter where you eat at Cracker Barrel, whether an hour from New York City or in Tennessee, where they began, they are the same, the only thing different being the wait staff and their accents.

While waiting for food in Cracker Barrel, I like to check out the artifacts on the walls, some of which I recognize from my childhood. Mostly, I puzzle over the family pictures. Who are those people?

A few years ago, in preparation for a sermon, I learned that Cracker Barrel buys that stuff – including the pictures on the walls – at estate sales. So they really are people’s ancestors; we just don’t know whose. I hope not mine or yours, because some of them look pretty severe.

If they were our ancestors, they would come with stories, because all families have stories. Some of those stories are good, like how they came from Italy or Ireland or Africa, and kept the family together through hard work and difficult times. Some of the other stories are bad (if we can even find them out, since such stories tend to be family secrets), for example, how a Dad abandoned his family, how a mother died in childbirth, or perhaps almost worse – was raped and had a child – who turned out to be our great, great, grandfather. To put it mildly, our feelings about such stories and such people – even if they are “our people” – may be complicated: a mixture of curiosity, sorrow, pity, rage, and affection.

Over this summer, as we sit not in Cracker Barrel, but in church, we are hearing some of the stories of our family in faith, which we learn not through pictures on walls, but through the stories of the Bible. Specifically, this summer, the stories in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, the book of beginnings. What we find in these ancient stories about our family in faith, are life lessons we can still draw upon for our families and our faith.

Let me say parenthetically that when the summer lectionary gives us these stories, common to all three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), I consider it an opportunity to be seized, because they are stories we can also discuss with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, who share them with us.

You began last week in my absence, under Pastor Sylvia’s leading, as you considered the story of Abraham and Sarah and Abraham’s concubine Hagar, and their resulting son, Ishmael. This story – like all family stories – got complicated fast, didn’t it; already you need a genealogical chart to keep up. And people talk about wanting a Biblical marriage! Like one of these? Really?

Today we continue with a family-of-faith story like those stories I described earlier: it is confusing and horrifying, suspenseful and inspiring, all at the same time.  It is the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his long-awaited child, Isaac.  Even hearing the story we ask: “What kind of father would do this to their child?” And worse, “What kind of God would ask him to do so?”

No wonder this story, called by Christians the “sacrifice of Isaac” and by Jews “the binding of Isaac,” has engendered heated debate through the centuries.  Is it a story of an abusive God and a misguided Abraham, an example of religious extremism at its worst?  Or is it a foundational story of faith and obedience, that calls us to examine our own faith and obedience to the God we worship, the same God of Abraham and Isaac.

“After these things,” this story begins. What things? God’s call to Abraham to go to a land he has never seen; God’s promise to Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation; the long years of Sarah’s barrenness; the birth of Ishmael; and finally, the impossible birth of the boy they call “Laughter”: Isaac, the Child of Blessing.

Then come these ominous words: “After these things, God tested Abraham.” “Abraham!” says God. “Here am I,” Abraham says. And then God says, as Abraham must have heard in disbelief: “Take your dear son Isaac whom you love and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I’ll point out to you.”  It must have been the worst day of Abraham’s life.

There is a Yiddish folk tale that asks: Why did God not send an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Because God knew no angel would take on such a task. Instead, the angels said, “If you want to command death, do it yourself.”

Bob Dylan put it into a song, Highway 61:

“Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son” Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on” God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?” God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but The next time you see me comin’ you better run” Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?” God says, “Out on Highway 61” (Bob Dylan, Highway 61)

Questions arise. Up to now, Abraham has been a bargainer; why now, when his son’s life is at stake, does he remain silent?

Where was Sarah? Did she know; or have anything to say about this? As we learned last week, Sarah was understandably attached to Isaac, so it’s hard to imagine if she knew, she wouldn’t have had a lot to say. But we’ll never know because the authors of the story (men) have hidden her voice. How might this story be different if Sarah had had a voice? How might the sacrifice of all our sons and daughters be different, if women had a greater voice?

And exactly who is being tested here, God or Abraham? According to the story, God has put all his money on Abraham, for the execution of God’s grand plan, the blessing of all the people of the earth. Given that, it makes sense God might want to test Abraham’s loyalty. On the other hand, Isaac is the Child of Promise, through whom the earth is to be blessed: Will God really stand by – correct that – will God command Abraham to snuff Isaac out, ending the promise? Is this an ultimate game of chicken, to see who blinks first, God or Abraham?  Does Abraham know this?  Shouldn’t God have known it too? Obviously, an omniscient God has not yet arrived on the scene.

Abraham – it seems – is prepared to carry it through, but God blinks first. Just when we can stand it no longer – an angel calls out, “Abraham, Abraham!” And for the third time in the story, Abraham says, “Hineni!”  “Here am I.”

“Do not lay a hand on that boy! Do not touch him! Now I know how fearlessly you fear God; you didn’t hesitate to place your son, your dear son, on the altar for me.”

Now Abraham knows – if he did not know before – that God is not like those other gods. Other religions might insist that parents sacrifice children, but not this God. God does not, never did, never will.  Though through questionable means, God has found a person he can trust, who will indeed become the “Father of Nations.”

Out of this pivotal story would come three different interpretations, according to the three Abrahamic traditions.

In Judaism, it is the story of God who provides. When Abraham looks up, he sees a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. Abraham takes the ram and sacrifices it as a burnt offering instead of his son. And he names that place Yahweh-Yireh, “God-Sees,” or “God Provides.”

Even so, persecuted Jews of later generations, including the Holocaust generation, would wonder why God intervened for Isaac, but not their children. Jewish communities suffering persecution often saw themselves re-enacting the drama of Abraham and Isaac, but without the redemptive ending. “Why?” they asked? “Why was God silent?” Perhaps they recited Psalm 13, as we did earlier: “How long, O Lord, will you forget me; how long will you hide your face?”

Working within the context of Judaism, early Jewish Christians saw Jesus as a faithful son like Isaac who carried the wood for his death on his back to his own execution; indeed, the parallels are striking. Just as Abraham did not withhold his son, his beloved son, Isaac, who was spared, so God did not withhold his son, Jesus, who was not spared. So they said, “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son.” Using stories they knew, it was a way of understanding what they could not comprehend.

Islam celebrates Abraham, who submits unreservedly to God. That’s what the word Islam means: “to give up, to submit.” A Muslim – therefore – is one who submits to God, like Abraham did. For Muslims, Abraham was the first great prophet, before Jesus and Mohammed.

For us, sitting here today, what does it mean? All of this, and more.  For one thing, it speaks to us about the challenge of faith in the context of family. Sure, Abraham has a radical faith; but was he really willing to sacrifice his son (and surely his wife Sarah with him) for it? I find it chilling that according to the Bible; after this incident, it is never recorded that Isaac speaks to Abraham again.  And who would blame him?

We have heard these stories too often, of religious people so religious, that they lose their families. Indeed, it is sometimes our families – our wives and sons and daughters – who make the biggest sacrifice for our faith. And I have definitely heard too many sad stories about the children of religious people, who no longer believe or practice faith.

Personally, I think the best course to take is the middle road: not to be apathetic about it completely, such as not to share or practice our faith before them.  After all, we teach them a specific language, we teach them hygiene, we teach our children the values important to us; why should we not teach faith? On the other hand – to try and cram it down their throats will almost certainly have the opposite effect, potentially turning them off to faith forever. If we are honest, if we are authentic, we have to believe that someday they will like what they have heard and seen enough to choose faith for their own; and if not, well, perhaps they shouldn’t choose it anyway. Like so much about our children, this is – after all – finally up to God, and not up to us.

On the other hand, having said this, if we think we can breathe a sigh of relief that we are not sacrificing our children to God; we should also go on and ask what else we might be sacrificing them to? Our careers? More money? The life we always wanted, but never got, which we’re now trying to live through them? We’ve all seen parents who do this, who wind up sacrificing their children’s lives for their own.

But, finally, this story is about more than just family; it is about our own fidelity to God. If this story means anything, it is that God – even in the more progressive way we understand God today – still desires challenging faith and radical obedience, not to sacrifice our sons and daughters, but to serve God’s purposes in the world. Isn’t this is what Jesus meant when he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)  Isn’t this what he meant when he taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Isn’t this what he demonstrated when he sacrificed everything he had on earth – his very self – to demonstrate the love of God for us? Surely, ultimately, our lives are about more than our people or our families or just ourselves; they are about being used by God, to be an instrument of blessing for all the people of the earth.  And sometimes that is a struggle and a challenge.

Much more could be said; this is a difficult story; there’s no getting around it. And yet still today, it gets our attention and delivers God’s claim upon us: All that we have, even our own lives and those most dear to us, belong to God, who gave them to us in the first place.

May our prayer be: Not just through Abraham and Isaac, but through me, may all the people of the earth be blessed. Amen.

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