Let’s just come out and say it: at first glance, this is a MESSED UP text! God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice/kill his only son Isaac as a burnt offering?!!
It’s a little tempting to just skip this text, pretend like it’s not here in the Bible...and many times we do...but this actually has got some very important lessons and challenges for us -- we just need to say a few things first:
It needs to be said that we 21st c. Christians are always looking at Scripture through the lens of our own experience and culture -- we can’t help it. And most of the time, frankly, that works just fine. Lots of the stories in the Bible, we can relate to, as if they were happening in our day in age. Many stories, we could create an almost-identical modern-day version, like a modern-day Prodigal Son story, for example.
In this case, however, we have to try to get out of our own contextual trappings and contextual shortsightedness and imagine for a moment how very different the time, place, and customs really were. This is always what we should consider with Bible, but it’s mandatory today. In the binding of Isaac, we’re really forced to leave our contextual trappings.
“contextual trappings/contextual shortsightedness” --
What do you mean, Pastor?
Well, how about this, for example: “What kind of a God would demand that a father who’s longed for a son, sacrifice that son?” How many of you, like me, have that question hanging out there, as we read this story?
Remember how different the times were: this was a time where many religions practiced child sacrifice. It was common...people did it in order to appease the gods. If you do this, then the gods will reward you. We’d never do this today...but -- then again -- people bargain with God today too: “God, I’ll do this...if you do…” (Then leave the church and maybe faith altogether if it doesn’t pan out.)
This story starts to look like its headed that way as well, but then a surprising twist to an old story that always has the same ending: No! Here, God/Yahweh/Elohim stops the child sacrifice tit-for-tat system. God keeps promises, remember? God promised to bring a great nation forth from Abraham and Sarah.
So God -- in this ancient story -- stops the terror and violence. For our time and place, it’s hard to see that, and this all sounds very troublesome, I know. But for its time and place: radical. “Stop!” the angel cries, “Do not hurt the boy.” This is earth-shattering grace, something new, breaking out of something old!
Probably not the best way, we’d image that today -- in fact, I’d never in a million years image it like this! But what would it look like for you? What would “earth-shattering grace, something new breaking out of something old” look like for you? Ever experienced God’s faithfulness, when you had no idea how you were going to get out of a bad predicament?
A phone call from a friend that comes just when you’re on the brink? A little note from a family member that stops you from doing something awful. Nature, so often, is God’s angel for me. “Stop!” nature has cried out to me -- a cool breeze, a butterfly, a ray of sun piercing through the clouds: these are among God’s angels for me, too. “Do no harm,” creation has cried out to me. “Look, God will provide.” God will provide. All is not lost. This is not over. Just when we’re on the brink of doing something awful, something new breaks out of something old. And God will provide.
But can we really trust that? Can YOU really trust that?
Feel free to be honest to the struggle. Here’s the other part of our story that’s so gripping: It’s a story about God, breaking old ways with new life and hope, through providence. And it’s a story that calls us to reflect again on how much we really trust in God. How much do you trust in God? (put your contemporary lenses back on) Enough to lift up and let go of that which is most important to you? How much do we really trust in God? Do our lives reflect that trust?
I think we should stop calling that line in our budget “Benevolence” and start calling it “How much we trust in God”. Benevolence is about what we’re donating out of the goodness of our hearts. But what that $17,160 really is...is how much we trust in God. What we write on our pledge cards later in October, that’s how much we trust in God...
During stewardship season, I’ve been known to say, “All that have and all that we are comes from God and belongs to God.” And yet, we can hoard and hang onto things as if there’s no God at all, at the end of the day. We can spout religious platitudes, practice religious rituals, but when it really comes down to it, there’s no way we’d trust God that much -- “all that we have, all that we are”? What would Abraham say about that?
Could money be our first-born and only son? Is money our Isaac? Would you ever just take all your money as a demonstration of your trust in God...bind it and sacrifice it? Build an altar, lift it up and let it go? Give it away and figure, “God’s got me, so I trust that I’ll ultimately be just fine. [pause] I don’t understand it. I don’t want to do it. But I trust and give thanks that God’s truly got me. I don’t know how, but I trust God.”
Most of us really struggle with that. I do. This text -- despite it’s obvious modern-day problems -- calls us to think again and anew about how much we trust in God?
Abraham and Sarah left it all, their crops, their comfort, their good life because God called them into something new. I imagine they never dreamed they’d make it to Canaan, but they did. God provided. Never have a child, but they did. GP. Now this: Isaac.
It was a different time and a different place. But are we capable of such great sacrifice and trust?
Bishop Andy -- I’ve share this before -- encourages us when it’s time to pledge each year (and he practices this himself, I should say): he tells you to go home, pray about what’s the absolute most you can give, what percentage of your income will you give back to God in this new year. “Come up with that number, and then,” he says, “Bump it up one more percent, so that it hurts a little.” Now we’re tapping into the binding of Isaac. Talk about hurting. Abraham gave ‘til it hurt, he trusted ‘til it hurt...
Where are you being called to make great sacrifices? Pray on that this week.
And remember, the good news here is on the bulletin cover: God. Will. Provide. Wouldn’t it be amazing to go around and hear each other’s stories about how God has provided in times we’ve made sacrifices or have been scared...especially financially. (I know there are other ways to sacrifice, but really think money is the Isaac.)
Here’s what I’d finally point out here in the text, just to conclude. Abraham says “Here I am” 3x in this text. He says it to God twice, and he says it to his son Isaac when he has a question. In other words, Abraham shows up. He doesn’t always understand how it’s all going to go, or what (the heck) God is up to...He simply says here I am. And God he finds that in the end God provides what is needed. And there’s enough there to remain in relationship -- with the world, with sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, parents and grandparents in our family and beyond. There’s enough there to remain in relationship with God. The covenant continues...for God provides. AMEN.