The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley
I confess. The first thought that sprang to mind upon encountering the Old Testament lesson appointed for today was rather less than commendable. It was simply an overwhelming sense of relief that this reading didn’t land a few weeks earlier on Father’s Day.”
I first encountered the story of the “Sacrifice of Isaac” as a child. Perhaps this tells you something about my character—but the truth is, I was relatively unscathed. Really, to my mind, it was just a great story. Think about it. There was suspense, the threat of ultimate disaster, and finally—just when all seemed lost, the ram in the thicket to save the day. In the end, everyone was perfectly fine.
Well, maybe not. You see, I didn’t trouble myself unduly with the fate of the ram, nor did I give a great deal of thought as to the conversation (if there was one) between Abraham and Isaac as they made their way back home. However, if I do recall correctly, I think I wondered how they would explain all this to Sarah.
In truth, the trauma of this reading (like the trauma of the story of Cain and Able and The Great Flood) seems to be reserved for those of us of more seasoned years. By the time we reach adulthood, for many of us (myself included) this story has taken on nightmarish qualities. It combines every parent’s greatest terror—the threat of losing our child with the fear of disappointing God. We tell ourselves that this is not story for the youngest ears among us—and banish it from Children’s versions of the Bible. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the real people we’re protecting isn’t so much our children, as it is ourselves. Because, really…what parent could read this story to their child before bedtime and not suffer from nightmares?
In fact, so troubling do we find this narrative that some clergy avoid it altogether—and I discovered at least one who declared this to be a test—one which Abraham spectacularly failed. The argument being that Abraham should have stood up to God; calling the Almighty’s bluff, as it were, and refused to go through with the act. I rather disagree with both approaches. True enough that avoidance of the narrative is a temptation; and equally true that even the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote (in the mid-1800’s) that if this story were to be encountered in the present, it would land Abraham in one of two places: an insane asylum or prison. Yet, there is also this. In order to understand Abraham, perhaps we should be a bit more charitable to our ancient patriarch and a bit more critical of ourselves.
William Willamon, writes: “How odd that we (experts at war, that we are, and creators of the nuclear bomb) who make our homes and plant our gardens under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, who regularly discard our innocents in sacrifices to far lesser gods than Yahweh, should look condescendingly upon Abraham. No stranger to the ways of the real God, Abraham would know that a mad, disordered, barbaric age needs more than a faith with no claim but that its god can be served without cost. How puny is this orderly, liberal religion before the hard facts of life.”
Relic of an ancient age that he most certainly was, Abraham was also a person willing to risk everything for his belief and trust in God. Take a moment to ponder the implications of what God was asking Abraham to do: remember that Abraham had been given a promise that God would make him the father of many nations and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the grains of sand upon the seashore. And—what’s more, God had promised that this would happen through his son.
Walter Brueggeman puts the question facing Abraham bluntly: what this sacrifice comes down to is the answer to the question as to whether or not Abraham would trust and obey the Giver, or only adore the Gift?
Since I am in the mood for confession this morning, I must tell you that all of this rings hollow to me if not viewed from the shadow of the cross. You see, I cannot move beyond the fact that Abraham, man of great faith that he was, was still a man. And God….Well, what God was asking was unreasonable, if not downright impossible. For me, it is the cross that makes the difference and lends some understanding to a most difficult story. For while it is true enough that Abraham was willing to trust God enough to sacrifice his son; it is equally true that God was willing to do the same—and Him, without a ram tucked safely into a thicket nearby. To phrase it simply, what God asked of Abraham, God also demanded of God’s self. And God did this so that that we might receive grace. Yet, while God does not ask us to sacrifice our children, (thank heavens) God does ask us to sacrifice. If you doubt me on this, simply turn to the sixteenth chapter of Matthew where Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Consider what some of the people of the Bible who loved God most were willing to endure: Jeremiah, Jacob, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, Daniel, Isaiah, Hannah, Mary, and Jesus. Each of these individuals dared to trust, to believe that God could—and would, deliver on God’s promises; and that God could be counted on even when things appeared most hopeless. But here’s what God does not promise us. God does not promise us a lack of struggle. God does not promise us that the way will be easy and free from loss. What God promises us is a resurrection hope, but this doesn’t mean that we won’t first encounter the cross. It’s good news, for certain, but it’s Good News only if you’re willing to take the risk of placing your trust in a demanding, yet loving God. The question for us all is whether or not we will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.