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A Test for What?

June 28, 2020

Staying in Genesis again this week, what we’re seeing is that Abraham has an interesting relationship with God. The story we read today comes from later on in that relationship… after God has made a covenant with Abraham… after the promise of that covenant has been fulfilled in Abraham’s son Isaac. After it looks like Abraham’s life will finally be filled with peace. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you this morning with the familiar story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac.

READ Genesis 22:1-14

Saints, this is one of those stories from the Old Testament… if we allow ourselves to really enter into it… this is one of those stories that is disturbing on many different levels. I mean, just the thought of Abraham standing with the knife over his son… ready to plunge it into him… the fear and the abuse of the scene is overwhelming to our modern day sensibilities. We cannot deny that. We should not deny that. When I come to this particular story of Abraham and Isaac, I have been told time and again that the lesson we are supposed to take away from this story is the lesson of obedience… which… as a lesson… is fine. There is nothing wrong with obedience as a whole. But, I’m not sure that I particularly like that lesson attached to this story… because there is obedience… and then there is blind, absolute obedience. And as a test… if this is a test of Abraham’s obedience… is blind, absolute obedience really what God is all about… is that the virtue we’re supposed to be lifting up as we tell this story? Is that the lesson we want to be teaching to our children who would naturally identify with Isaac when we tell them this story.

Now maybe it’s a generational thing, because I’ve always been taught that blind, absolute obedience was not a virtue, but rather a weakness of the conscience… a weakness in one’s character. I’ve always been taught that “I was just obeying orders” was never an acceptable defense for a morally reprehensible action. Clearly, butchering your son as a burnt offering is a morally reprehensible action… whether God tells you to do it or not. And here’s the thing… if we enter into the story itself… I think that within this story, Abraham also thinks sacrificing his son is a morally reprehensible action. I think this story is more about trust than it is about obedience. It is a story about trusting fully in the character of God… that God really is who God says he is.

To show you what I mean, we’re first going to have to go back a few chapters in Genesis… to a story found back in chapter 18… one of my favorite Old Testament stories. This story takes place after the story we read two Sunday’s ago when Sarah laughed at the idea that she would conceive and give birth to a son in her old age. Remember how in that story from chapter 18, God in the form of three men comes to visit Abraham. After the portion we read, the story then tells us how these men were heading off to Sodom to assess what had been happening there. Before they leave Abraham, God decides to let Abraham in on what is about to occur… that Sodom is about to be destroyed. This is where the story really gets interesting. Immediately… faithfully… Abraham questions the destruction. Abraham questions God about the justice of God’s intention. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” This is bold and daring talk… to question God in this way… but this boldness… to me… is an example Abraham’s real obedience… an obedience to the true nature and character of God. For me… this is what faith ought to look like. In the story Abraham finally talks God down to ten righteous people. If there are ten righteous people in Sodom, then the city will not be destroyed. Unfortunately for Sodom, not even ten could be found… but that’s another story for another day.

What we see through Abraham’s bold conversation with God… is Abraham’s understanding of God as just… and his obedience to that justice. Again… that’s faith. In fact, Abraham is so obedient to his sense of God’s justice that he is willing to put God to the test… to remind God of who God is supposed to be. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” It’s not out of impertinence… or a sense of being morally superior to God that Abraham dares to question… it’s not that he is being disobedient or defiant… Abraham is being true to who God has made him to be… Abraham is being true to his calling by questioning whether or not this is just considering all that he knows about God… considering all that God has revealed to him thus far.

I think sometimes obedience… or at least the way many perceive obedience is a full acquiescence to authority. Do not question authority… especially when you benefit from that authority in some way. Through such a viewpoint, some may argue that because God commands it… in the case of our reading this morning commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son… that because this command comes from God… that command is all that is necessary to make it just. From that point of view, it is more of an injustice to question God’s command… to question God… than it is to obey and to do what is morally wrong… a moral based on one’s understanding of God’s own sense of justice that has been revealed by God.

Considering how Abraham understands God’s just nature, are we really supposed to believe that Abraham could so blindly obey such a command to go and sacrifice his son as a burnt offering without a questioning word? You see, I can’t help but wonder who is testing who in this story? And just what is being tested? There is a level of trust now between Abraham and God at this point in the Genesis narrative. Abraham finally trusts God’s promise… trusts God’s covenant… Abraham has stopped trying to fulfill God’s promise himself through either fathering children through a woman other than Sarah… or trying to make one of his slaves his heir. Isaac is the point of trust between Abraham and God. Isaac is the fulfillment of God’s promise. If Isaac is killed that promise comes to an end.

So let’s go through the story again… this time thinking about trust as the test instead of blind, absolute obedience.

Abraham wakes up and gets everything ready and with Isaac and two of his young men sets out for Moriah. They reach the spot Abraham was commanded to go, and taking the fire and the wood and the knife, Abraham and Isaac go off alone. Along the way the curious Isaac speaks up. And I’m so glad that he does, because if Isaac were to stay silent throughout the story… if we never heard his voice… it would be so much easier for us to objectify him… to make him into this non-person. And really, how hard is it to sacrifice a non-person? But thankfully… thankfully… Isaac has a voice in this story. “Father? The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Now Abraham’s answer… or our understanding of Abraham’s answer is very important for our understanding of this story. Abraham answers his son by saying, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So what do you think about what Abraham says? Is he lying to Isaac or is he telling the truth of what he believes? The common interpretation of Abraham’s answer is that he lies to his son. He doesn’t tell him the truth as to what is about to occur… that he, Isaac, is the lamb for the burnt offering. It’s one of those answers we give to our children to keep them quiet. We might even reason that Abraham is too old to bind Isaac now and have to carry him up to the top of the mountain. He needs to keep Isaac cooperative until the last moment when he can overpower and can bind him for the sacrifice. That’s a cold thought. Or we could imagine that Abraham has no desire to cause his son more distress than he needs to, so it is better that Isaac just doesn’t know what is going to occur until it is too late. Spare him any unnecessary suffering. Both are reasonable possibilities. Either way, if Abraham fully expects to soon be offering his son as a sacrifice, then this answer he gives to Isaac’s question is a lie.

So… if Abraham is lying to his son, then he must know what he is about to do is wrong. He must hide his great act of faithful blind obedience by lying to his son rather than telling him the truth of what God has commanded. If this is such a great act of faith… one that Abraham has no reservations about performing, why not tell everyone what he is up to… that his intentions are to slaughter Isaac as a sacrifice to God in obedience to what God has told him? Why not bring the other two men to help him bind Isaac when the time comes? Abraham must lie from the start to cover up God’s unjust command. Surely that’s not a lesson we’re supposed to take away from this story, is it?

But… what if… instead of assuming that he is lying to Isaac who is wondering where the lamb is for the offering… what if Abraham instead tells his son exactly what he believes will happen. “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” If that is a true statement of belief then this test has been turned around. God will provide. This is Abraham’s statement of trust. After all those attempts Abraham made in the past to ensure that God would provide… attempts that ensured nothing… here he is now walking into a situation where either God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice or God’s promise to him will come to an end. Abraham has nothing on that mountain but his trust in the justness of God.

As many times that I have read and studied this story, I still can’t decide if Abraham really would have killed Isaac or not. And thankfully I don’t ever have to know because God provided. In the end, Abraham’s trust was born out. The last verse in our reading drives the point home, “So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”

Saints… if in the name of God we are told to do something that would violate the character of God has been revealed in Christ Jesus… then we should be obedient as Abraham was obedient… questioning… resisting… putting ourselves on the side of justice. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” The gods that demand blind obedience will generally reinforce that demand for obedience usually with threat… with the threat of lightning bolts and obliteration… to subjugate and oppress. The gods that demand blind obedience have no qualm in sacrificing others for their own gain. The God of justice… we know the God of justice dies a death on a cross… providing for us the lamb… making the sacrifice himself… opening the way of trust through such a radical act that sets us free from the sin that divides us. As we keep moving through such troubling times today… look at the different things being asked of us as we try to make it to a tomorrow that knows better God’s justice… look at the obedience being demanded… to what and to whom… and then look for the cross of Christ and know that with confidence you can place your trust there… because through the cross we know God’s true character. Amen.

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