St. John's, Centreville
July 2, 2017
Proper 8 A
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
"God tested Abraham". Those words begin the lesson from Genesis that we read a few moments ago. "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.".
Our response might be something like, "Excuse me.....what did you say.....you want me to kill my only son who YOU gave me in my old age and who YOU said would provide countless descendants......that doesn't make any sense!" Maybe Abraham should just pack up Sarah and Isaac and head for the hills.
The story of the near sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most intense and hard to understand passages in the Old Testament. Abraham has obeyed God when God directed Abraham and Sarah to go to a foreign land. In their old age, Abraham and Sarah are told they will have a son and they are blessed with this son Isaac, whom they love dearly. God makes a covenant with Abraham and tells Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation with descendants as many as the stars in the sky. Things are looking good for this couple in their old age.
And then God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. How could God ask that, after all they have been through? How can a loving God ask a father to kill his son? It's not right, we would argue.
But there is another way to look at this story. We can look at this story, not as an historical document, but a story about faith and Abraham's response to God. It is a story about the radical obedience of Abraham. It is a story about how deep his faith in God is. It says in the very beginning that God tested Abraham. We don't like to think about a God who tests us.
In the contemporary version of the Lord's Prayer we say, "save us from the time of trial". In other words, please do not test us. We don't like to be tested. We don't like to be confronted with our shortcomings. We don't like to fail any tests, particularly when it comes to our faith in God. We just want to focus on the God who loves us and forgives us. But we can't pick and choose the characteristics of God.
Abraham did what God asked him to do. He took his son and traveled three days to the mountain that God showed him. We are not given any insight into Abraham's state of mind as he traveled with Isaac. We don't know what Isaac was thinking. As Abraham and Isaac are walking to the site where they will build the altar for the sacrifice, Isaac asks where the lamb is for the burnt offering. Abraham replies that God will provide.
God not only tests us, but God provides for us. It is not until Abraham has bound Isaac and put him on the altar and has raised his knife to kill him that God provides the ram in the thicket. As we know, it is often at the last minute, in our human concept of time, that God gives us what we need. Out of God's goodness, God gives us what we need, when we need it, and sometimes not a minute before.
This story of Abraham's sacrifice is a difficult story for us to hear and understand. It's not a story about what God can do for us. It's a story about what God demands of us, and what God asks us to sacrifice on God's behalf.
What are we willing to sacrifice for God? What is it that we hold so dear that we don't think we could ever let it go, even for God? Some might say our children, and maybe that is why we have the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his only child. But God asks us to put God first, even before our children and loved ones. God must be first in our lives always. No person, no possession, no dream, no career should stand between us and God. Are we willing to sacrifice our time for prayer and worship? Are we willing to give of ourselves to serve others? Are we willing to sacrifice our money to help others?
What God wants from Abraham is not Isaac's death but Abraham's heart. When Abraham is willing to surrender his most precious child to obey God, God provides a ram instead as an appropriate sacrifice. But God knows that the faith of Abraham is so deep, that he would follow God's request, no matter what the cost to Abraham.
What we are talking about here is the cost of discipleship. What does it cost us to be followers of Jesus Christ? Are we willing to pay that cost? Somewhere along life's journey, God may test us to see what stands in the way of our relationship. Hopefully, we will learn from this testing about where our priorities lie, and then do what we need to, to put God first.
Sometimes it is not easy to follow the Christian way of life. Sometimes we may feel that God is asking too much of us. But when God asks us to do something, God will give us the strength to do it. God wants our hearts first, not just our sacrifices.
In response to God's commands, Abraham withholds nothing, not even his only son. God did that, too, giving us God's only Son as a sacrifice for our sins.
We don't know why God needed to test Abraham, or to test him in such an unthinkable way. We don't know what was going through Abraham's mind as this story about faith was being played out. There's a lot we don't know about this story. Did Sarah know what was going on? How did she respond? What was the relationship between Abraham and Isaac after this near sacrifice?
But what we do know is that Abraham's faith and God's providence prevailed. God provided a ram as a suitable burnt offering and Abraham's faith was strengthened. The story could continue. Through Isaac, Abraham would populate a great nation, with descendants as many as the stars in the sky.
To make sense of our lives, we, too, must trust in God and have faith in God. We may not always understand the things that happen to us or why they had to happen. But our faith in God helps us to get through the hard times, knowing that God is with us to sustain us and support us.
This story shows us the strength and depth of faith. God will never ask us to sacrifice our child. Never. But God does ask us to do things that are hard, that test us, that tests the very depths of our faith. How well will we do? Will our faith be as strong as Abraham's? Will we learn from our shortcomings and continue to strengthen and deepen our faith? Will our trust in God continue to grow? It is up to us to pray for strength, to pray for guidance, to pray for trust, knowing that God will provide. Amen.