Genesis 22:1-14, Psalm 13, Matthew 10:40-42
I love the story of the Binding of Isaac, and I was happy that it showed up in the lectionary for my last Sunday with you. It’s one of the great stories in all religious literature. In its artful simplicity it captures the greatest issues of the human experience of God.
But on Tuesday Melody told me she hates the story. She said not because the human experience is not true, for we often sacrifice our children, like when we go to war, and we claim God’s blessing. But it’s rather how capricious God is, like God plays with us. And there’s no getting around that part of it.
“God tested Abraham.” Why? Why should God do that? Why the set-up—why did God play this trick on him, deceiving him? Does God test us this way? We know we are being tested all the time, by life, and we pray “lead us not into temptation,” but should we believe that God tests us like this?
God said, “Abraham,” and he said, “Here I am.” In Hebrew, Avraham, and Hinneini. A first time. And then, “I want you to sacrifice and roast your son on a mountain I will show you.” Well, not “roast,” but that would be the result. The gods of Abraham’s neighbors, the Canaanites, required them to roast their children in sacrifice. And all the gods and goddesses of the empires were capricious, and tricked and played with human beings like toys, but wasn’t this God supposed to be different?
Early in the morning, like Hagar had had to, Abraham sets out with Isaac and the servants. Again he does the servants’ work, and saddles the donkey and cuts the firewood. He heads north, 43 miles. What was he thinking those three days? The story keeps silence, but here’s a hint: “On the third day he looked up and saw the place far off.” Yes, “he looked up and saw,” a first time. What did he see? Just the place?
What God had been seeing all along. I think, because when he tells the servants to stay there and wait, he says, “we will return to you”—not “I” but “we.” Maybe he is tricking them in turn, but I think he has seen something, with maybe prophetic vision. After all, in a previous story he was called a prophet (with Abimelech).
He loads the firewood on Isaac’s back and carries the knife and fire himself. “So the two of them walked on together.” A picture of quiet affection. Isaac says, “Poppa,” and he says, “Here I am, my son.” In Hebrew, “Avi,” and, “Hinneini b’ni,” an echo of God with Abraham, but affectionate. And then the tragic question: Where is the lamb?
Then he dutifully carries out his part in the drama, and he’s not just acting, so a part of him must be raging inside that God will not provide, and he’ll have to kill his son, and this God really is no different than the other gods. Do you see what I see going on? This testing of Abraham is now Abraham testing God. Yes, Abraham is testing God, and how wonderful of the Torah to bring us here. This is the climax of the whole life of Abraham, everything else has led up to this.
And God says, “Avraham, Avraham,” and a third time he answers, “Hinneini,” “Here I am.” God says, “Don’t lay your hand on the boy, for now I see that you fear God.” That verb “to see” again, but this time in the sense of “to recognize” or “to know,” like, I see! But didn’t God already know? Doesn’t God know everything, doesn’t God see the future before it happens? The story doesn’t answer that, and we who fear God have to work it out. You can’t work it out unless you also say, “Hinneini, here I am,” and put yourself into the presence of this God, this sometimes troubling God.
Then Abraham “looked up and saw.” A second time he sees what God saw, the ram in the bushes, and that is what he sacrifices. But it's a bit anticlimactic. The tension’s already been resolved, and now it’s reconciliation. Which of course is the whole purpose of the substitutionary sacrifice, an atonement, a reconciliation, and right here is the root of the difficult doctrine of the Substitutionary Atonement, which is another thing that takes a lot to work out, and also requires, “Here I am.”
So Abraham names that place, “the Lord will see to it.” Again the verb “to see,” and again with the meaning of “provide”. Do you hear in the words “provide” and “provision” the roots of “video” and “vision”? This story is all about vision, and Abraham has seen what God sees, at least enough of what God sees. He passed the test of seeing that God will see to it, of seeing the vision that God provides. And so to this day, says the story, it is said of that place, “On the mount of the Lord is vision.”
Both God and Abraham have passed the test. Abraham is proven by the test as fearing God, and the idea that fearing God is something positive is one more thing you can work out only if you start from “Here I am.” And Abraham’s been proven faithful, just as God has been proven faithful, and not capricious, even if the times of trial of our lives might tempt us to think otherwise.
I invite you to believe this even with our troubling questions: Is God always faithful? Why doesn’t God always provide? Why does God expect our sacrifice? Is God ever cruel? Does God ever trick us? Does God have the right to ask whatever God wants of us? Does God still test us? You can wrestle with such questions whenever you say, Here I am.
But in your testing God will provide, and that’s my second message for Old First, that God will see to it. And in order for you to see what God sees you have to look up. Look up and see how God has provided for you already. In the circumstances that come at you there will be much that you can’t see, but you can look up and see some of what God sees. You can be prophetic as a people, a congregation. The vision has been given to you by the Gospel of Christ, and your power of sight by the Holy Spirit. But you have to look up! And whenever you remember and believe that God will see to it, you will pass the test.
That interpretation is why this story shows up on Christmas Eve, in our liturgy, as the second lesson. For fifteen years we’ve been having that second lesson chanted in Hebrew by someone from Congregation Beth Elohim, some of whom are here with us today. One year Rabbi Andy Bachman said to me, “What is it with you guys and sacrifice?” Even on Christmas Eve!
If you attend that service, maybe you noticed that what’s chanted there was not in the First Lesson that we read today. The lectionary has left out the last three verses of the story, the verses that are the last words of God to Abraham in Genesis. I’m not going to read them now, or quote them, but I will paraphrase them now, as my very last message to you.
In the name of the Lord Jesus, because of how you, Old First, have so welcomed me and my family, and have welcomed me as a prophet, and you have not withheld your souls from me-- your souls that you love--that in God’s blessing you I bless you, that God multiply your seeds that you sow as the stars of the heaven, and God prosper the works you do as the sand upon the sea shore, that the works you do bear fruit beyond your gates, and in your works and your witness, Old First, shall the all the people be blessed by you, because you have obeyed God’s voice. You precious people of Old First, I bless you from my soul, and from my heart I love you as you have loved me.
Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.