Then and Now: Testing and Providing (The Story of Isaac)

Proclaimer: Zack Jackson | Scripture: Genesis 22:1-14 | Sunday, July 30, 2023

Church, good morning! 

Today, in our Then and Now sermon series exploring the Book of  Genesis, we turn to Genesis chapter 22. Here, we encounter a familiar  story, which is rich with imagery and meaning, but which is also notoriously challenging and complex. There is much in the text to  explore, but its intent is simply not very clear. In fact, one of the  commentaries I read in preparaDon for this morning described the text  from our scripture lesson as being “among the best known and  theologically most demanding in the Abraham tradition.” With that in  mind, my sermon will work to make a bit of sense of this difficult  passage of scripture and ask some questions about what we might learn  from Abraham and Isaac’s ancient story for our own Time. 

In Genesis 22, we, of course, meet Abraham and Isaac in a tale  which reaches directly to the heart of maLers concerning the function of discernment, the shape of robust faith, and the promise of God’s provision. Even so, this story can be hard to read. If you recall, it begins  by revealing that Abraham hears a voice the text calls God’s voice telling  him to take his son Isaac on a hike up a mountain, to build an altar there, to wield a knife, and to sacrifice the son he loves. That’s it. That’s  the command. Could this really be? In my reading of this story, it would  seem that Abraham, the great father of our faith, has come to the  conclusion that he must kill his son because he’s sure that God has told  him to do it. I don’t know about you, but that’s tough for me to sit with. 

Growing up, I often heard sermons about this passage, which  suggested this story was meant to illustrate that we should be prepared to give up anything, even the thing we most value, to demonstrate our  great faith and prove ourselves to God. I also occasionally heard this  passage get bandied about when the church budget was not quite  adding up. These sermons would suggest that members give sacrificially  of their finances because their monetary contribuDons could only pale  in comparison to all that Abraham was willing to give up in being  obedient to God. Even if unintentionally, these sermons communicated that if we just prayed a little harder, trusted a little more, and gave more  sacrificially, our demonstrated faith might just keep God happy with us.  For sure, we ought to give our money and live with grateful  hearts, always aware of our blessings. However, I’m not convinced we can take this terrifying, traumatic story of one man’s baffling discernment of the voice of God and make Abraham out to be one  worth universally emulating here. We tend to turn Abraham into the  hero of this story and suggest that he is an exemplar of good, faithful  living. But that would seem to me to be a dangerous posiDon to take.  Looking across Abraham’s life as it’s detailed in the biblical narrative, we can’t deny that he seemed to be a rather entitled guy. For much of his life, Abraham has things handed to him on a silver platter, until he hears the voice of God call him from the safety of his family’s community to adventures in unfamiliar lands. But along the way, we can begin to sense a pattern in Abraham’s behavior. For example, there’s the story of Abraham’s encounter with the Pharaoh wherein, thinking he was about to get in trouble, Abraham pretends his wife, Sarah, is his sister and attempts to bribe the Pharaoh using Sarah as the bribe. Then, there’s the Dme Abraham, to perpetuate his family lineage, impregnates Hagar, a slave, and produces an heir in Ishmael. In both of these stories, Abraham comes across less as the victorious hero we often want him to be, and more so as one who in fact behaves quite irresponsibly and who often makes selfish decisions. His own desires and comfort would seem to be what most consistently drive him. 

Now, it may seem like I’m giving Abraham a really hard time, but  here’s the thing: he’s a lot like us. He’s a human being who walks about  with a lot of entitlement and privilege. And navigating his life this way  means that he, like too many people of faith, finds himself in a paLern  of readily minimizing the suffering of others and elevating his own  opinions and understandings of God’s voice over and above others. This  is what entitlement and privilege do to us—they make us feel self righteous while we encroach upon others and their God-given  autonomy and rights. We can easily begin to believe our own voice is  the voice of God and begin speaking on God’s behalf. When this happens, suddenly we, like Abraham, find ourselves making decisions  that promote our own interests to the detriment of others, and which  do not spur us on toward goodness and justice and life—the very stuff of God. 

In reading this story, I find myself wondering which altars of  Abraham’s own making he was willing to sacrifice Isaac on, and which  knife he might have concluded was appropriate for the violent task at  hand. Perhaps Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac on an altar of holiness or heroism, strategy or self-regard. And maybe it was a knife fashioned out of Abraham’s own inner confusion or self-loathing or  distress which was wielded against Isaac. What was it that drove  Abraham to be convinced God was demanding that he do something so  terrible as kill his own son? I’m not sure, but I struggle to believe it was  God. It couldn’t have been God’s voice that spoke to Abraham because  God’s voice can only ever lead us toward jusDce and hope, restoration and life. 

And this is more or less how the story from this week’s scripture  lesson ends, with God’s voice breaking in to correct what would have  been a tragic conclusion to the story. You see, Abraham narrowly avoids  disaster by listening attentively for God’s direction and acknowledging  finally that God will provide. So, this story is not about Abraham being  willing to sacrifice what was dearest to him. Instead, it’s about God’s  provision and relentless interest in calling us ever toward life, saving us  from ourselves. As with the ram in today’s story, which is sacrificed  instead of Isaac in a last-minute switch, God is fully able and endlessly  willing to provide all that we need to choose life again and again.  

Ancient rabbinic literature offers the idea that the ram that God  provided had been present there at the pinnacle of Mount Moriah to be  sacrificed in Isaac’s place since the very first days of creaDon. In this  interpretaDon of the story, God’s provision for Abraham had always  been part of the created order, the world’s very design. Such is the case  for you and me—all we need has always been here. We must simply practice discerning the voice of God and hearing it above the cacophony of other voices which shout at us, perhaps none of which is louder than our own.  

So, no, this is not a story about the kind of religious commitment  we should mirror. In fact, if anything, it challenges us not to adopt a  kind of religious fanaticism that would convince us we ought to commit  acts of violence in God’s name. The late Rachel Held Evans spoke to this point when, reflecting on this story and its meaning, she wrote, “Maybe the real test isn’t in whether you drive the knife through the heart.  Maybe the real test is in whether you refuse.”  

And this story is not an appropriate stewardship passage either.  What is then? What do we do with this story? Well, I like to imagine  that this is a story intended to remind us that we can too often be a  self-serving people. In this, we often confuse the voice of God with  other voices, most often our own, which tell us to behave in ways that  fly in the face of who we understand ourselves to be and what we claim  to value. We often contort ourselves until we can justIfy almost any  decision as being one which honors God. Too many people of faith are lettng their raised knife fall, and not enough are finding themselves  attentive to God’s provision and refusing to enact violence. We don’t  have to look hard at our culture to see where this rings true—in violent  insurrecDons and regressive Supreme Court rulings and ill-informed  educaDon policy. Who are we sacrificing on the altar? Are we sacrificing children on the altar of gun worship? Are we sacrificing people of color on the altar of white supremacy? I’m afraid so. 

If we’re honest, this shows up in your life and mine too. Quite  often, I think we bend ourselves to narratives and visions which we’ve  convinced ourselves honor God, but which inflict great harm. And if  you’re thinking, “Now Zack, I’m not sure that’s true.” I’d ask you to  consider the ways in which too many people of faith have simply gotten good at masking and covering up the harm we cause with confusing  religious language and Sunday smiles. In the end, being “church nice” is not nice at all, and harm is harm—especially when we use our religious  identity as an excuse to prioritize our own gratification and success at the expense of others we claim to love.

When we allow ourselves to become shaped by our own self interested understandings of God’s will, we sacrifice our integrity and  self-respect on the altar, and we place our relaTIonships and  communiTIes in jeopardy. What terrible tragedies, these decisions we make. 

But now, the good news—perhaps that’s what you’ve been  waiTIng for! In today’s scripture lesson, God bails Abraham out again. He  saves him from himself and from calamity of his own making. Abraham  came quite close to making a decision that he could have never made  right, but God redirected him toward what he knew to be good and true  deep inside. Friends, the good news is that God provides for you and  me in this way too, ever challenging us to listen beLer to all that speaks  life to us—poinTIng us toward what we value at our core. By focusing on  these things and the very voice of God, we might just find ourselves less  often justifying our own bad behavior and attributing our own opinions to the Divine.

I’ve spent several weeks pondering this story of Abraham and  Isaac, with some level of angst I might add, and it’s left me wondering  about our firmest convictions and all the things that we are just so sure  of. You see, each of us has discerned something that we’ve attributed to  God’s voice or leading. This that we’ve heard or intuited is guiding us up the mountains of our own lives. Perhaps, like Abraham, we’ve gathered  the tools we think we’ll need for the journey, and we’ve become quite  sure of what we think must transpire by our story’s conclusion. We can  begin to feel pretty sure of our situations. But, like Abraham, will we be  able to discern when God is speaking louder than our own voice? Will we be willing to acknowledge that the path we have been following  never actually had life as its trajectory? Will we able to reevaluate when  we finally hear the voice of God and it’s calling us to something else?  Will we be able to perceive and receive the provision that has always  been ours before we make decisions we’ll regret? 

These are questions I’m left with, and I think they’re questions worth asking. In the end, perhaps this story begs us to be a bit more discerning about which voices we hear and what we ultimately attribute to God. And maybe it’s also about helping us understand how to adopt  postures of repentance, which allow us to experience the grace needed to change our minds and live our lives attuned to what we know to be  true—that the voice of God will always lead us on paths away from  death and toward life instead. For this, Church, is the Jesus Way. Amen.