A sermon based on Romans 11:33-12:2 and Genesis 21:1-3, 22:1-14 preached on September 17th, 2017
What was Abraham thinking? Was he thinking?
One read of the Bible and you’ll know how strange scripture is, but this? This story from the middle of Genesis isn’t only strange; it’s terrifying. Last Sunday, we took a close look at the first words of God’s story and ours about how God creates order out of chaos.
In the beginning, God took what was formless and meaningless and He injected shape and meaning—Divine meaning—into it all. God still does this. But, here we are twenty chapters later. Where’s this God who creates life and calls it good here? We believe in a God who begins things, not in One who ends them—at least not like this. If there’s any story in all of scripture to be offended by, this is it. But, yet, it’s here. Someone thought it important to put it here, someone wanted God’s people to know this story. We must find out why.
There have been many theologians and preachers who do some very impressive theological gymnastics trying to make sense of what is going on here. These preachers and theologians contort themselves—completely bent themselves out of shape—to bring some semblance of their own ideas of goodness out of this story. Perhaps I will join their ranks today. But one thing we cannot do is skip over what is happening here—just simply pretend that none of this happened or that there’s nothing in this passage for us to learn about ourselves or our God. We are tasked to take it as it is and squeeze some truth and meaning out of it.
A bit of backstory. Abraham is first called by God out of the blue. He was a wandering shepherd in the wilderness, and he hears his name spoken. How or from who knows where, we’re left to wonder.
This God tells Abraham and his wife Sarah to start walking in a specific direction. God doesn’t give Abraham a reason or an explanation. He simply says that nations will come from them, and God will make their offspring His people. This is who God will use to get God’s story started. So, Abraham and Sarah go. No map. No plan. No known goal in sight. Abraham was as unquestioning then as he is in Genesis 22.
You could say that all his life, Abraham stood at a crossroads. He and Sarah are promised a child at such a ridiculously old age that Sarah laughs out loud when God gives her the news. And Isaac is born. This is the child. The one whom all of God’s people will come from. Isaac is just as important—just as critical—to God as he is to Abraham and Sarah. He’s nothing less than the promised heir of a God-promised Nation.
This story is told beautifully, sparsely. The one who wrote these words knew how chilling all of it is. The author builds up this moment. We all know what’s coming. Everyone but Isaac and Sarah knows what’s going on here. And in the build-up of it all—with each step this father and son take together, getting closer and closer to the altar upon which this father will lay his son—a lump grows larger in our throats. It’s okay to want to look away. There is nothing good to see here.
In their journey, Abraham doesn’t say much. Maybe nothing at all. Is he shattered, forlorn, heartbroken? Or is he just a crazy old wilderness wanderer who’s hearing voices? They had 40 miles to walk together. We’re left to imagine what their conversation was like. Isaac says to Abraham,
and Abraham replies,
Here I am, my son.
Child sacrifice was a regular practice in ancient times. Most of the surrounding peoples thought that putting to death what was most precious to them is what the gods demanded. Much blood was spilled in a meaningless, senseless effort to appease the anger of the gods of sky and land and sea. The people believed that good things would happen for them when the blood-thirsty gods were satisfied. Abraham was born among these people. He had seen their ways. Child sacrifice was a familiar thing to Abraham. But this God who spoke to him mentioned nothing about the need for child sacrifice. This story, in an unconscionable way, makes this point. The God we worship, the God whose story we immerse ourselves in, is different than the gods. The God we know is loving and full of mercy. But Abraham does not yet know this. He’s not yet been told of, or experienced, the life-affirming love of God. But questions still remain: Why this test? Why this terrifying father-son journey? What is God doing here? What does God want? Surely, it’s too much to ask from a father like Abraham and a son like Isaac! Nothing about this story is okay!
Notice that mother Sarah isn’t a part of this story. She’s never clued into any of this. She only finds out that her husband was ready and willing to sacrifice her son after the fact, and the next thing we know, she dies. We should wonder if she passes away from heartache, blood-boiling anger.
In order to find our way into some meaning inside this story, I dare to relate it to a personal story of mine. We’ll see how this goes. I want to share with you one of my call stories. I have two, actually. Chronologically-speaking, this is the first of them, but I only became aware of it recently, because it wasn’t me who heard God speaking. It was my father who received my first call from God.
I was born under a few critical circumstances—with two collapsed lungs for starters. The doctor inflated one of my lungs via CPR before I was scooted to an operating room where he and other doctors managed to inflate the other. I was born from borrowed breath.
I spent the first few months of my life in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit, hooked up to oxygen and a feeding tube. I still have the scar from that feeding tube on the inside of my right leg, just above my ankle. A call it a birthmark.
It was touch-and-go for a good portion of those first few months in the NICU. My parents have related to me how desperate they were. How out of control they felt. My Dad spent many moments in the hospital Chapel during those days, sitting in silence, praying for a way forward for me, praying for my Mom, for Himself. And one day, he prayed my first call story. He remembers it like it was yesterday. He prayed that if God would let him be a father to his son—if God would let him raise me—then God could have him after that.
Both my Dad and I believe with everything inside of us that this is my first call story. My second call story pales in comparison. I would like to think that maybe my second call to vocation was simply Chapter 2 of the same story.
I wonder if something similar is happening here in the story of Abraham and his son, Isaac. Isaac was born a miracle. Conception at the age of 90 is unheard of. Isaac is a miraculous and precious gift from God. Isaac was the gift. God was the Giver. But I wonder, though…Did Abraham love the gift more than he loved the Giver? Here Abraham is, standing at another crossroads.
These are terrifying questions, but this passage from Genesis 22 demands that we ponder them. Could it be that God needs to know whether Abraham is willing to give up his son, the thing most precious thing to him in all the world, for the sake of being faithful to the God who gave him that gift in the first place? In other words, Did Abraham love the gift more than he loved the Giver? This story is called the Testing of Abraham: Will Abraham trust and obey the Giver, or will he merely adore the gift? This is the tough lesson a parent must learn: In order for our children to be God’s, we must let them go.
God, he’s Yours, if you would only let me raise him!
Another brutal question, but this passage has us ask it: Do we love this church, Kuhn Memorial Presbyterian, more than we love the God who gave this church to us?
Is it time once again to loosen our grip on what’s happening here and let God have this church? To let God call it His own and take it? Yes, this church is yours. But, first and last, it is God’s. In what ways must we willingly offer this Isaac—this church, its life, its purpose, its entire future—back to God? To let God have it? To let this church was shaped and grown not by us but by its Creator, by the Holy One who gave it to us? What sacrifices—‘living sacrifices,’ as Paul speaks of in our passage from Romans—must we make, must we BE, in order to be faithful to God, His calling for us? In order to be in a ministry together than no longer belongs to us, but to God?
Are we willing to hand this church over to God?
That’s a tremendous sacrifice, maybe even terrifying. But, that’s what God continually asks of us. This is the way God will breathe His life into what happens here. We must see to it that the life of this church is not our life, but His life. What must we do here at Kuhn Memorial to love the Giver more than the gift?
All praise to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!