“The God of Abraham Praise” (June 29, 2014: The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8A)–Canterbury Episcopal Chapel, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama)

“…God himself will provide the lamb…”—Genesis 22.8[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen!

This past Monday evening, while celebrating the 30th birthday of our friend and brother Zach Price with both he and our other friend and brother Ashton Sims, I made mention about the stress I was having regarding today’s appointed lessons and how my sermon was going to be drafted. As we were talking, Zach reminded me of something—that when the lectionary[2] presents us with a lesson that is either troubling or makes us uncomfortable, it should not be shied away from, but rather confronted and dealt with. Zach’s words were what I needed to hear, for they gave me the encouragement I needed to battle my stress and discern the focus toward which I felt the Holy Spirit’s pulling for today’s sermon. It is my prayer that in the words I speak to you today, the Good News will be made manifest.

The first lesson we heard from Genesis 22 was of the near sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s youngest son, born to him by his wife Sarah. Many biblical commentaries classify this story as being the most admired, yet also the most troubling of all the stories in the Book of Genesis. It is admired from the sense of Abraham’s deep level of trust in God and the willingness he displays to be completely obedient of God’s commands. Yet, it is troubling in the fact that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice, to kill his son Isaac, offering him as a burnt offering on a mountain of which would be shown by God. The episode with which we are confronted is a moral paradox—in this case, a situation that hampers our intuition, our ability to understand something’s intentions immediately. To have such a paradox presented so early on in the Biblical narrative is a huge risk, especially for one reading it for the first time in which they could see this story, think that God is some sort of heartless tyrant, and close the Bible, refusing to have anything to do with the God it presents. For today’s Old Testament lesson to appear just 22 chapters after the Bible’s very beginning and with the Bible having a lot more territory to cover beyond that, the logical conclusion is that this lesson’s early appearance in Scripture is meant to help establish a claim that is made throughout its every page—the Lord is good.[3] But how can a story about God commanding a father to sacrifice his son corroborate the claim of God’s goodness? It is this moral paradox with which we find ourselves faced.

Under what circumstance have we been brought to such a paradox? As you may recall, this past Sunday’s Old Testament lesson was the story of the sending away of Hagar and Ishmael, found in Genesis 21. In Genesis 16, believing “that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children…Sarai[4], Abram’s[5] wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband…as a wife.”[6]From this arrangement was born Ishmael, Abram’s oldest son, and with him, jealousy and contempt between his enslaved mother and her mistress. Then, in Genesis 18, the Lord promised Abraham that He “will return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son,” at which, upon hearing this, Sarah laughed.[7] But, indeed, “Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age…Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.”[8] All of these events set up the context for last Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, instigated by Sarah’s jealousy over seeing Isaac, Abraham’s younger son, who she bore, play with Ishmael, the older son, born to Abraham by Hagar. In order that Ishmael would be prevented from inheriting from Abraham alongside Isaac, Sarah demands that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away—a demand that greatly distressed Abraham. God comforts Abraham in his distress, promising him that because Ishmael is his son, God will make a nation out of him.[9] So bending to Sarah’s request, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away, after which God also promises Hagar that a great nation will be made out of Ishmael and commands her to “…lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand…”[10] According to tradition, the lineage of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, can be traced back to Ishmael.[11]

All of that brings us to today’s Old Testament lesson. One particular commentary I studied while preparing today’s sermon had this to say: “Unless there’s something missing from our text, Abraham doesn’t seem to skip a beat between God suggesting that he sacrifice his son and hitting the road.”[12] I, myself, believe that something is missing from the text—a description of Abraham’s emotional state. When demanded by Sarah that he send his first-born son away, Scripture says that “the matter was very distressing to Abraham…”[13] By Scripture attesting to Abraham’s distress at sending his oldest son away, I can’t help but to think that God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice his youngest and only remaining son was just as distressing, perhaps a great deal more so. “Really God? You actually can’t be serious! I’ve already lost one son, and now you’re asking me to SACRIFICE another? Why God? WHY?” Yes, Abraham obeyed and hit the road toward Moriah, but I believe he did so with his heart heavy and aching with grief.

When they came to the place and the time for the sacrifice was nigh, I can only imagine the emotional frenzy that Abraham must have been in. Binding up Isaac and placing him on the altar must have been pure emotional torture, torture that you wouldn’t wish on anybody, not even your own worst enemy. Agonized and highly distressed, Abraham takes the knife and raises it up, preparing himself to do what God has commanded. Then, as the act is about to be done, God shouts out, “Abraham…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.” How sweet, how precious the relief must have felt. Because of Abraham’s willingness to be obedient to God, God makes this promise: “I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore…and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”[14]

19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard struggled immensely with the Abraham and Isaac story. The crucial question he sought to answer was whether or not humanity should bend to the demands of faith when it appears to contradict ideals that are intrinsically good. One of Kierkegaard’s conclusions to this question was that faith requires passion, which can only be experienced, not learned.[15] For Abraham, this meant being willing to trust that God’s command to sacrifice his son was being made in relation to a divine purpose pointing to God’s goodness. The author of the Book of Hebrews speaks of Abraham’s faith in this way: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”[16] God conveyed His goodness in that when He saw just how far Abraham was wiling to go to obey Him, He spared Abraham from killing his son, provided a ram as a substitutionary offering, and blessed him. A much welcomed end to a highly emotional story.

For us, though, is that enough? How can we bring ourselves to trust in a God that would ask us to sacrifice someone? I believe that we come to our answer during the course of the story, itself. In verses 7-8, when Isaac inquires about the whereabouts for the lamb for the offering, Abraham responds, “God will provide the lamb.”[17] Abraham’s answer, in relation to the moment, may come across as evasive, but underneath it lays a convergence of time. The immediate truth is that God did provide a lamb to be sacrificed in place of Isaac. But there was also a long-term prophetic truth to Abraham’s answer, further expounded on by the author of Hebrews—the idea that God is able to raise someone from the dead. Did God provide such a Lamb, raising this Person from the dead? Yes—Jesus! How can we bring ourselves to trust the God of Abraham? The answer is Jesus!

In the Gospel of John, Jesus said that “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”[18] The angel, in announcing the birth of our Lord to Saint Joseph, said, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit…He will save his people from their sins.”[19] Saint Peter proclaims, “Christ suffered for our sins once for all time…He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit.”[20] Abraham was right; God did provide a Lamb—Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son. Here are some further parallels that help make the case:

Abraham and Isaac Jesus
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and…offer him…as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.” (Genesis 22.2) “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3.16)
“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.”

(Genesis 22.6)

“…Jesus…carrying the cross by himself…went out to what is called Golgotha.” (John 19.17)
“[Isaac] said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’” (Genesis 22.7) “…[John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1.29)

Permit me, if you will, to close by speaking about how I, as a fervent believer, have come to a place of peace regarding today’s Old Testament reading. Because of Jesus—God in human form, who was, Himself, the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice that paid the price for our sins that we could not pay, forever freeing us from the law of sin and death—I am able to stomach this story and trust the God of Abraham. Because of Jesus’ dying on a cross and rising to life again from the grave, I have confidence to believe that all is truly and forever well, that because Jesus lives, I live, and that, because of God’s grace, there is nothing I have to fear. Because of Jesus, who He is and what He has done, my takeaway from today’s first lesson is that I should strive to be as faithful and obedient to God like Abraham was, that God can really be trusted, and that the will of God will always be for good, for God Himself is good. Because of Jesus, I can, with strong conviction, praise the God of Abraham. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] The Episcopal Church (USA) utilizes the Revised Common Lectionary, publicly released in 1994, the result of the collaborative efforts of both the North American Consultation on Common Texts and the International English Language Liturgical Consultation.

[3] Psalm 136.1

[4] God changed Sarai’s name in Genesis 17.15-16: “…Sarah shall be her name…I will bless her, and she shall give rise to many nations; kings of people shall come from her.”

[5] God changed Abram’s name in Genesis 17.5: “No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.”

[6] Genesis 16.2-3

[7] Genesis 18.9-15

[8] Genesis 21.1-3

[9] Genesis 21.13

[10] Genesis 21.18

[11] Esposito, John L. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 144.

[12] Lonsbury, Leah. “How Far Would You Go?” (http://www.sermonsuite.com/#previews. Accessed on June 26, 2014)

[13] Genesis 21.11

[14] Genesis 22.17-18

[15] In his 1843 philosophical work Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard seeks to understand the anxiety that must have afflicted Abraham when God commanded him to sacrifice his youngest and only remaining son.

[16] Hebrews 11.17-19

[17] Genesis 22.8 (Contemporary English Version)

[18] John 8.56

[19] Matthew 1.20-21

[20] I Peter 3.18 (New Living Translation)

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