(Genesis 22: 1-18)
As many of you know, two weeks ago Steve and I began a new sermon series called, “Awkward Moments In the Bible.” We’re taking a look at stories from the Bible that are “awkward” for some reason. The sermon series sprung up out of conversations we were having in our Bible in One Year meetings, where month after month we gathered together to talk about what we had read in the past month, and month after month the same questions were coming up “Why is that story in the Bible?” “Why did Jesus do this?” “How does this make sense to my faith?” The truth is, the Bible is full of these ‘awkward’ stories, stories that don’t seem to fit into the narrative we’ve come to know our faith through. They’re awkward stories, but nonetheless stories that are a part of our faith narrative. To call today’s passage awkward however is almost offensive, awkward implies simply uncomfortable or unexpected, but this story is much more than that. Today’s reading is tragic, filled with sadness, pain, and the unimaginable – it tells the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham.
This passage is tragic, horrendously sad, and painful. It brings us to the brink of every sadness we have ever know, to an unimaginably tragic event. The pain of Abraham and Isaac is not really described in this story however; Abraham in an almost trance like state follows when he understands the voice of God saying to him, “Go to the place I will show you and sacrifice your son” he goes – no questions, no tears, no hesitation. But sitting in the pews hearing this story reading it years and years later, we can feel the pain, the pain of the unimaginable scenario that Abraham is placed in, the confusion of Isaac, the sadness of loss dripping through these words. The text may not tell us about them explicitly, but we can certainly feel them – feel the pain of this impossible situation.
And, atop the sadness and tragedy of this passage is the challenging theological question: God tested Abraham?……..Why?
One answer to this question comes from a school of thought from rabbinical scholars that makes the claim that Abraham was tested but that Abraham failed the test. The idea that perhaps Abraham failed the test makes a lot of sense to me. A few chapters earlier in the book of Genesis we see Abraham pleading with God for the fate of Sodom, the story where Abraham pleads with God, begging that God save the people of Sodom, saying ‘If I find 50 righteous people, will you save the city? What about 40? Or 30? 10?” And each time, God agrees, God changes God’s mind according to Abraham’s pleading. And Abraham pleads because he wants to save the people of Sodom, because he does not want to see them destroyed. So, why then does Abraham not plead with God for the salvation of Isaac the way he pleaded with God for the salvation of Sodom? If he knows God is a God who is loving, who was willing to be pleaded with for the fate of Sodom, this town, why then does he not make the same case for his own son?
Well, perhaps that is where Abraham failed, in his failure to plead with God for his son whom he loved.
So perhaps Abraham failed the test…
Abraham Passed the Test
….And perhaps he passed the test. Another answer to the challenging question of God’s testing is that if Abraham passed the test, God took the one and only thing that meant everything to Abraham, his son, not just any Son, the son of Abraham, the one who was born to his thought-to-be-barren wife in her old age, the one who is to pass on the blessing of God to generations, the one meant to carry out the promise God made to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. That son, the most precious God given gift that Abraham could receive, take that and sacrifice it, in the name of God and in the name of obedience. And Abraham passes because he chooses God over his son, he chooses obedience over his only child, he chooses faith in God over the love of his son, overall, he chooses God over the very thing he loves and desired most.
Yet another answer to the question – God tested Abraham? Perhaps Abraham passed the test because he walked the straight path with God, knowing or trusting that God would provide, holding on to the glimmer of hope he expressed in verse 8 when he tells Isaac “God will provide the lamb for the offering, my son.” Perhaps Abraham passes the test because he holds to a glimmer of hope until the very bitter end, the unbelievable climax of the story, he clings to hope as he packs up wood for a journey to Moriah, he holds on to hope as he wraps twine around his only beloved son, he holds on to hope as he raises a knife high above his head. He holds on to hope in the most impossible of ways and in the most impossible of circumstances. Perhaps that’s why Abraham passes the test, because he holds on to the hope in the times when it seems flat out stupid to do so, but he holds out hope that God will provide an animal for a sacrifice.
So perhaps Abraham passed the test…
Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve wrestled, fought, cried, prayed hard over this text, over the tragic near death of Isaac and over the tremendously challenging problem it poses: does God test and how did God test Abraham?, I’m not sure, I don’t think I have an answer and I’m coming to think its not for me to come up with the answer to this story. I’m not sure which of these answers to the problem is right and I’m not sure any of them are wrong, I think along our faith journeys at some point any one of these answers could be the one that makes sense, the one that answers this question for us, and I think that’s ok. This is a story about a man who feels that God tells him to go to a land far away and lay his son, his only son, on an altar bound with twine and sacrifice him in the name of faith and obedience. There simply will not be an easy or tidy answer to the massive problems which this text poses. So I invite you to the struggle, I invite you to wrestle with what it means if Abraham failed this test and what it means if Abraham passed this test. Struggle with this text, wrestle with it, pray over it, and cry over its sadness.
Struggle with this test – the test God gave Abraham, struggle with the tests God gives you, however they may come.
Walter Brueggeman writes that testing times are those times when it “is seductively more attractive to find an easier answer than God.”
The hard right and the easy wrong – the testing times are those times when it is seductively, seductively being the key word here, seductively easier to find an easier answer.
Perhaps the easier answer, the easy wrong, is blaming someone else for our own errors, or turning our heads silently to those in need, lying to keep ourselves from being found out, choosing the convenience of ourselves over the unknown of others, opting for silence in place of pleading with God or with the world.
Those testing times that maybe call on us to truly question what God is asking from us, what God needs us for, what we ought to do, how we handle this trying and testing time.
There is a scene at the end of Shusaku Endo’s historical novel, Silence, in which the young Jesuit priest Rodrigues is given a choice between ending his Japanese Christian brothers and sisters’ tortuous suffering by recanting and trampling on an image of Christ, or standing resolute in his faith and not denying his Savior. In his agonized moment of indecision, Rodrigues hears the voice of Christ say “Trample! Trample! I, more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”
The answer isn’t so black and white, its not cut and dry, there isn’t a hard and fast rule that I can give you of how to “pass” the test of God, to succeed in these trying times. Just as complicated as the story of Abraham so too is our faith and life. The answer isn’t written or spelled out but look to what God needs of you, what God has come to this world to do, what God has shown love for, look there in the midst of the testing.
This story isn’t all testing though, there is the beautiful turn of the story that takes place in verse 11, the moment it turns from a story about testing to a story about providing.
Walter Brueggeman wrote in his commentary on Genesis, “The claim that ‘God provides’ is as scandalous as the claim that ‘God tests.’” I couldn’t, I still can’t, get that phrase out of my head, “God provides” and “God tests.” Both are scandalous claims? In my book, the “God provides” claim is not all that scandalous, it’s pretty believable, it’s pretty understandable, it’s pretty commonplace in most Christian circles – God provides what we need, what we love, what we experience, God provides, just as God provided in our story, placing a ram in the thicket to save Abraham from going through with this tragic event. So, Walter Brueggeman, what exactly is so scandalous about the statement “God provides.” How can that be in any way as scandalous as “God tests?”
Is it that God provides even in the midst of our faithlessness? Or that God provides when we are holding a knife above our heads about to do the unthinkable? Is it scandalous because God provides when we have done nothing to deserve it? Is that what is so scandalous about the statement ‘God provides.’ That one I can say with confidence, yes, that is indeed quite scandalous.
My sermon title poses this question “An Unreasonable God?” Is God unreasonable? I fully prepared months ago when I chose that sermon title to prepare a polite sermon on the ways that God is indeed reasonable, that God provides and that is reasonable and fear not, friends – God is a reasonable God. Hours and days of wrestling with this text nag at me to tell you that I would be wrong. That the answer to that question “an unreasonable God?” is yes. Yes, indeed, God is completely unreasonable, thanks be to God.
God is completely unreasonable.
In a talk she gave about the church entitled “Keep Church weird” Rachel Held Evans cries out about the unreasonable nature of God. Evans says “grace is completely out of hand, its been out of hand since the moment Jesus hung on the cross and cried out ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’” Grace is out of hand, God is unreasonable.
Any rational God would have given up on us long ago, any rational God would not forgive us for the things we do, any reasonable God would have let Abraham sacrifice his son, any reasonable God would forget us after our failed tests, any reasonable God would have given up on us. But we don’t come to worship a God who is reasonable, we come to worship a God who is completely unreasonable, totally out of hand, irrational, and illogical – because that is the good news.
Theresa Cho, the pastor at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco taught us that her church has a habit of telling one another “God loves you, and there is nothing you can do about it.” God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it.
It’s scandalous to say, that God both tests you and calls you and asks much of you but no matter what, God will provide, God will love, God will.
God is an unreasonable God.
God is completely out of hand.
God tests and God provides.
God loves you, and there is nothing you can do about it.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.