The Binding of Isaac
July 2, 2017

The Binding of Isaac

Passage: Genesis 22:1-14

This spring a warbler built her nest near my back office door, and every day – a few times a day (I can’t help myself) – I step outside my office to monitor the nest and to check on the status of the four baby birds growing there. I talk to them and give them priestly benedictions.

Recently we stayed in a friend’s home, and every morning she delighted afresh at how much her nasturtium seedlings had grown in the past day.

This is how it is with us: at the core of our being we want to see life progress for one more generation. Life needs to produce life. Cindy Saunders greeted me last Sunday, still glowing with the memory of dancing with her great-grandson at a family wedding. “How many people have the opportunity to dance with their great-grandson?” she marveled.

So long as we can see our life sustained in another generation, there is some intrinsic soul-satisfaction that our life counted for something worthy. And if, by choice or by circumstance, someone has no biological children of their own, they still seek ways to participate in the propagation of life in its myriad forms.

Everyone is drawn into this cosmic story to see life flourish from one generation to the next. Surely this must be a primal aspect of what it means to be children and image-bearers of God. After all, if God should call us children, then what does that say? but that even God is driven by the same desire to see the divine likeness flourish from generation to generation.

And so it makes sense that the story of Abraham and Sarah and their quest for a child taps so easily into the human psyche. In fact, it’s the foundational narrative for three of the world’s great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All trace their origins to Abraham. And it is this narrative we’ve been following this summer. Two weeks ago we heard the story of God’s promise that Abraham and Sarah would have a son. Last week we heard the story of Hagar, Sarah’s slave woman, through whom the infertile Sarah sought to create a son for Abraham. (This son, Ishmael, is the line through which Islam traces its identity to Abraham.) And this week we hear the story of Isaac, the son finally born of Sarah, who was very nearly sacrificed.

At the heart of each of these stories is the existential crisis that Abraham’s lineage would be extinguished. He through whom God promised redemption for this broken world would die childless, the covenant unfulfilled.

And what’s so maddening in today’s story is that the threat to the lineage comes directly from God: “God tested Abraham,” it says. “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” (Genesis 22:1-2).

Are you kidding me? Let’s be honest: this story is disturbing on about forty different levels. Frederick Buechner wrote a novel[1] based on Isaac’s son, Jacob, and in it he depicts Sarah as basically despising her husband for attempting to kill their son. Understandably.

And I can’t help but wonder if – at the heart of the story – what it’s dealing with is this fundamental struggle we humans have with God in that we often perceive God as forcing us into hideous, unnecessary circumstances, where perseverance in faith seems ludicrous.

Why worship God when he let my marriage fail?

Why worship God when he allows me to continue to suffer with chronic, untreatable pain?

I know of two people in the church who have recently had an adult child die, and two others who are facing a terminal diagnosis of a child. Why worship God when he lets the fruit of your womb die before your eyes?

And this story is the most exaggerated example: God is asking Abraham to be complicit in the killing – to be the one who actually clenches the butcher’s cleaver and torch with which he’ll make his sacrifice – this grotesque offerings to a pernicious God.

There are, of course, numerous ways that scholars try to lessen the severity of this story. But honestly, I think it’s deliberately written to be as disturbing as possible. After all, can you imagine a scenario that’s more repugnant to our human impulse than someone choosing to sacrifice their own beloved child, because “God told me to”? Of course not.

In a way I think you can say that this story gathers up and represents all of our worst stories – all of those moments in our lives when we are most apt to give up on God and say, “Enough! I can’t trust you any longer. I would rather have no faith, than faith in a God like you.”

And in this most extreme of examples stands our Father Abraham, who models for us a kind of faith that says,

From my perspective, this makes no sense at all, God. It seems contrary to your character and to your promise, and I hate every bit of it. But between you and me, God, I know that I’m the duller one. Mine is the insight that’s narrow and yours is vast. You are the all-seeing, all-knowing one. You alone are holy, and I will follow you.

Now, obviously, if you were to come to my office and tell me God was telling you to sacrifice your son, we would go together straight to the ER where I wouldn’t leave until I knew you had been safely sedated.

But the point of this story isn’t, “Does God want us to be willing to kill our children?” The point is, “Can we still trust God even when our circumstances make us want to give up on God forever?” Because, of course as it turns out, God didn’t want Isaac killed. It was a test. And like all such tests, it wasn’t for God’s sake, but rather, for Abraham’s. Abraham learned that day about God’s reliability in the midst of confusing circumstances, as well as the strength of his own faith. And I suspect that he was never the same again.

When God seems cruel and unjust and uncaring, it takes a good deal of mature faith to say, “I am the one who doesn’t understand what’s going on. And, because I am the weak and vulnerable one, I need you now, God, more than ever.” Faith is not the boastful confidence in a long list of dogmas, but the choice to trust God when we are most unsure.

It is the kind of faith that our Associate Priest Laura is stepping into right now. She announced this week, in a letter many of you have already read in the email sent by the church, that she will be ending her season of ministry at St. John’s at the end of this month. Although she doesn’t have a job offer yet, she feels God directing her to let go of this position in order to prepare her for the next. In her letter she writes,

Taking my leave at this time echoes all I know to be true of how God works in my life. When I am willing to step out in faith, God never fails to meet me…. Over and over again, the pattern occurs – when I am finally “all in”, when I no longer have anything with which to buffer or protect myself, I am able to fully receive God’s prodigious blessing.

I know this. I regret I spend any time in anxiety and fear, but I am a stubborn child – in case you hadn’t noticed – and it still sometimes takes a while to remember to whom I belong.

Leaving at the end of July will open up space for God to work without my meddling or backseat driving. I know this is the right decision because I haven’t felt this peaceful since I first flung myself into actively searching. 

Just as God did not require the sacrifice of Isaac, but provided instead a ram caught in the thicket, so we hope with Laura, that with her willingness to sacrifice a job, God will provide the job – that somewhere out there is the parish of St. Ram of the Thicket – where she and the parish will grow and prosper together.

There’s a final point I’d like to make about this story: When you travel in the Holy Land (if you’ve got the right guide) one of the most fascinating things you’ll discover is the frequency with which Biblical stories with a similar theological theme occur at a similar geographical space. Nowhere is this more true than the temple mount in Jerusalem. For you see, when God guides Abraham to a specific mountain where he is to offer his sacrifice, it is the same mountain that – a thousand years later – will become the temple mount of Jerusalem, which becomes the same general area – a thousand years after that – where Jesus will die on the cross.

You see what’s happening here, don’t you?

  • Abraham took his son there to offer as a sacrifice – but in the end it wasn’t required.
  • For centuries Jewish worship was centered there with the sacrificial system in the temple, but – as the writer to the Hebrews describes it – “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4).
  • But in Christ’s offering of himself there at Calvary all sins are removed for all time (Hebrews 10:10).

When Isaac, in innocence, asked his father, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham replied, “God himself will provide the lamb” (Genesis 22:7-8). And so it would be, two thousand years later, that God provided his own son, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).

And to be clear, the longer I walk in faith, the more mysterious I find the cross of Christ to be. The simple theological formulas of my youth are increasingly unsatisfactory, and yet I see and believe that the death and resurrection of Christ stands at the center of God’s love and redeeming. How and why it should occur in this fashion I cannot describe with any clarity. But this I believe: that Christ chose death in obedience to his father and in love for you and me, for “greater love hath no man than this, that [he] lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 KJV).

But as we saw in Abraham, we do not need to understand all the ways of how God is at work in this world to believe that God is at work, and that God’s work is good. And in faith we seek to follow this God.

[1]Frederick Buechner, Son of Laughter.