Sermon for Sunday, June 29, 2014 || Proper 8A || Genesis 22:1-14
(I forgot to hit the button on my recording device this week, so it’s just text this time around.)
As I contemplate my impending fatherhood, the story of the binding of Isaac, which we read a few minutes ago, has taken on new meaning for me. I’ve always struggled with this story, and, if you’ve ever read or heard it, I’m sure you have, too. This reading from the Hebrew Scripture brings up so many questions: why would God ever test someone in such a barbaric way? How could God be so apparently abusive? How could Abraham even think about going through with it? If the angel hadn’t stopped him, would Abraham actually have killed his son? What would that prove?
We could spend this and many more sermons attempting to explain (and only succeeding in explaining away) such difficult questions. We could say that people experienced God differently back then, but that wouldn’t satisfy us. We could say that this story simply narrates the move from human to animal sacrifice, which, in future generations, distinguished the Israelites from many of their neighbors. This is a little better, but such academic aloofness doesn’t account for the tenderness of the relationship displayed between Abraham and Isaac. We could say so many things in order to feel okay about this story, but, despite the happy ending, something will still not sit right. Indeed, the Jewish rabbis have been struggling with the binding of Isaac for millennia; one sermon from me isn’t going to put a dent in that effort.
But I have to say something, so here goes. Often, when a story in the Bible makes us feel uncomfortable, we have a tendency to dismiss it: to flip the page, wipe the offending verses from our memory banks, and move on as if they never existed. However, if we take the time, like the Jewish rabbis, to struggle with the difficult passages instead of ignoring them, we can hear the Holy Spirit whispering good news to us, even in the midst of the struggle. I heard such a whisper of good news this week when I read the binding of Isaac over and over again in preparation for this sermon.
The whisper of good news started when, as I said, I began reading the story through the lens of my impending fatherhood. I expected to be horrified by Abraham’s action as I have been in the past; by the “I was only following orders” defense Abraham would have had to give Sarah when he got home, had he gone through with it. Strangely, this time around, the first time I’ve ever read this story after having spent hours staring at the ultrasound picture of my son’s face, I was not horrified.
I wasn’t. Instead of seeing the brutality of the test, I saw the tenderness of the relationship between father and son in a pair of verses that I’ve never noticed before. On the third day, Abraham and his son Isaac leave their servants and pack animals and continue on alone. Here the narrator tells us, “So the two of them walked on together.” As they make their way up the mountain, Isaac stops and questions his father. Abraham answers, and then again the narrator tells us, “So the two of the walked on together.” Father and son, together: Keeping each other from stumbling as they hike up the mountain; feeling each other’s warmth; walking hand in hand, perhaps.
Of course, the sad irony of this walking up the mountain together is that Abraham is preparing to walk down alone. Or is he? And this is where a new question arises, a question that links Abraham’s deep relationship with Isaac to Abraham’s deep relationship with God. The question is this: Is Abraham lying?
In between those two tender bits of narration (“So the two of them walked on together”) Isaac asks the whereabouts of the lamb for the burnt offering. And Abraham responds: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
So, is Abraham lying to Isaac here? Is Abraham just telling Isaac what the boy needs to hear to keep him going, to keep him pliant? Or does Abraham actually believe what he is saying to his son? Does Abraham believe that God will, indeed, provide a way out of this mess?
I think the answer falls somewhere in between. A cynical person would call his response a lie. But I think Abraham is speaking out of his hope, out of the deepest conviction of his heart that he will not need to go through with it, that the promise God made to him years earlier will continue to hold, the promise that countless generations will spring from his son Isaac. No, Abraham isn’t lying: he’s speaking the only truth he’s ever known. From the day Abraham stepped out into the desert all those years ago, God has provided, even when Abraham’s impatience or fear kept him from seeing God’s provision.
But for us the phrase, “God will provide,” has, sadly, reached sound byte status. We hear the words and say, “Yeah, sure,” and then go about our business. And we fail to attribute to God’s provision both the miniscule and the monumental blessings in our lives. For all the struggle our story today causes, the binding of Isaac also invites us to hear again the good news that God does, indeed, provide, and God gives us the eyes to notice God’s provision.
It all starts with the word “provide”: in Hebrew this is literally the word “see” or “perceive.” So when Abraham says to Isaac, “God will provide,” we can loosely translate it as, “We shall see what God is up to.” This understanding of God’s provision presupposes that God is already active wherever we are going, that God has already shown up when we arrive. We enter a story already in progress, so to speak.
Notice what Abraham says three times in our passage today: “Here I am.” With these words, Abraham makes himself available, opens himself up, orients himself towards the stimulus of his response. “Here I am,” is the verbal equivalent of a posture of openness and reception. By saying, “Here I am,” Abraham signals his desire to see what God is up to, to see how God is providing in the current situation.
We believe that a piece of God’s very nature is that of provider. And we have the opportunity to participate in God’s provision by training ourselves to see the many and varied ways God is moving in our lives. When Abraham tells Isaac that God will provide, Abraham is reminding himself what he believes, what he has relied on his whole life. God’s provision has not always fit Abraham’s timetable, and Abraham has not always done the best job trusting, but, one way or another, God has provided.
When we look back at the trajectories of our lives, we often see coincidences that cannot be explained; or relationships that have stood the test of time; or burdens we didn’t think we could bear, but did. This is evidence of God providing. But so are the deep, calming breath when the baby is screaming her head off; and your mother’s embrace after a hard day at school; and the desire to help someone in need; and all of the little things that never make headlines, that we won’t remember when we look back at the trajectories of our lives.
Since we won’t remember the small blessings once they’ve sunk down into the depths of memory, God invites us to appreciate today’s provision today. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” for the same reason Abraham told Isaac that God will provide: so that our eyes will be open to the blessings of this life, so that a day never goes by when we don’t notice God’s presence in something, no matter how small.
I know the story of the binding of Isaac is hard to hear and uncomfortable to process. Even so, through it the Holy Spirit has good news to whisper into our hearts. Today, the good news is that God provides and we participate in that provision when we say, “Here I am.” As we move through our daily journeys, sustained by our daily bread, each of us has the opportunity to walk hand in hand with God, to go forth and see what God is up to. So take joy in trusting that when our stories are written in the book of life, the narrator will say, “So the two of them walked on together.”
*Art: Detail from “Abraham and Isaac” by Rembrandt (1645)
*Thanks to Kathryn Schifferdecker’s article on Workingpreacher.org for the Hebrew relationship between seeing and providing.