July 2, 2017 – The 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
This morning, in our reading from Genesis, we encounter one of the most difficult passages in all of scripture, but I suspect that, like a frog slowly boiling in a pot, this story is so familiar to us that we find ourselves neck-deep in theological hot water without recognizing it. “Abraham!” God said, and Abraham replied, “Here I am.” And God said to Abraham, “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.” No matter how many times we hear the story, no matter how familiar we are with this passage, the thing that God asks Abraham to do is utterly incomprehensible: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and sacrifice him as a burnt offering to me because I told you to.” That’s God we’re talking about—not some foreign deity but our God, the God we worship, the God we love.
Can you believe that? Can you believe that God would ask Abraham to kill his own son? Suspend for a moment your knowledge of how the story ends. Is it possible for you to believe that God would ever ask someone to murder his own child? Maybe you take a less literal approach to the Bible and think to yourself that God wouldn’t have done that. Instead, perhaps it’s just the way that God’s people have retold the story in order to convey the magnitude of Abraham’s faithfulness. But what does that tell us about their understanding of who God is and how God works that they would invent a story that hinges upon Abraham’s willingness to believe that God would ask him to sacrifice his own son? We might prefer to hide behind the outcome of the story or cover up its ugly truth by blaming the people who wrote it down, but the bottom line is that, no matter how you slice it, the story of Abraham and Isaac is a disturbing tale that threatens everything we believe about God and what it means to be faithful to him.
It may surprise you, therefore, when I ask you if you could do the same. If God spoke to you the way that he spoke to Abraham, could you find it within yourself to say yes? Could you take your own child and bind him in ropes and lay him on an altar and pick up a knife with the intention of killing him just because God told you to? Could you have faith in God like that? Could you believe in God that completely? I admit that that’s an absurd question. To even consider it is repugnant. I am certain that there is not one person in this congregation who would even give it a second thought. But I am also certain that what God asks of us is just as difficult as that. Having faith like Abraham doesn’t mean a willingness to sacrifice our own child. It means believing in God and trusting in God even when it seems like God himself has abandoned us.
Remember how we got to this point. Abraham was seventy-five years old when God spoke to him and told him to leave his country and his kinfolk and set out for the land that God would show him. Abraham and his wife Sarah had no children, but God promised to make of him a great nation, and, despite the odds, Abraham believed God, and God credited it to him as righteousness. Later on, when Abraham was eighty-five and still childless, he and Sarah began to wonder whether they needed to take matters into their own hands. Sarah suggested that Abraham seek a child through her handmaid Hagar, and, sure enough, she gave birth to Ishmael. Fifteen years later, when Abraham was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and renewed his promise that Sarah would have a son. But Abraham said, “God, why not look with favor upon Ishmael instead? Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred or a woman who is ninety-nine?” But God wasn’t through with them yet. Sarah conceived and bore Isaac and then, still filled with jealousy at her handmaid and her son, insisted that Abraham send them away. Once they had been sent out into the desert, only Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, the son of the covenant, were left in the picture. The promise had been fulfilled. Everything was complete. But God wasn’t finished yet.
The gruesome drama of a near child sacrifice obscures the deeper story of faith reflected in this passage. Abraham and Sarah had waited their entire lives for a child. The Lord himself had promised that he would give them the child for which they had prayed, but, even then, they had to wait twenty-five more years before those prayers were answered. And then God showed up and said that he wanted Abraham to sacrifice the child? That would effectively undo the promise that God had made and fulfilled. Abraham and Sarah were over a hundred years old. They couldn’t afford to start all over. But, in ways that defy our understanding, Abraham took God at his word and did the thing that God had asked him to do because Abraham knew that, even though he didn’t understand it, and even if he couldn’t see how, God would always keep his promise.
God has promised that he will always love us. God has promised that he will never forsake us. God has promised that he will protect us from our enemies, heal us from our infirmities, and provide us with all our necessities. So why does it so often feel like God has forgotten the ones he has promised to love? Where is God when our struggles pile up? Where is God when one tragedy follows another? Where is God when everything we hold dear is taken away from us? Where is God in the degenerative disease? In the eviction notice? In the traffic accident? Where is God? Even though we cannot see him, he is with us in our toughest moments. Even though it feels like he has abandoned us, he is by our side. What it means to be a child of God is to have faith in our heavenly Father. And having faith like Abraham means believing that our greatest hope and our best future still belong to God even when our prayers go unanswered, even when we feel no hope, and even when that future is crumbling before our eyes.
What does God ask us to do? God asks us to believe in him. God asks us to trust him just as Abraham trusted him. Believing in God does not mean blindly obeying a psychotic command. It means knowing that, even when we cannot see how, God is the one who will save us. It is him to whom all of our hopes belong. But having faith like Abraham is not easy. It is a lot easier to be a pretty nice person (most of the time) and go to church (some of the time) and say your prayers (when you think about it). But doing those things will not save you because you are not the author of your own salvation. Salvation belongs to God, and there is nothing you can do to make God decide to save you. God’s salvation is a gift. It is a promise. All you can do is believe that the one who makes that promise is faithful.
God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son not so that the people who did what he told them to do could go to heaven but so that those who believe in him, who believe that he is the way and the truth and the life, could know God’s everlasting love. We are people of the resurrection. In the miracle of the empty tomb, we see that God has overcome the power of death and has turned darkness into light. God is our strength. God is the rock of our salvation. Sometimes the future appears dark, but in Christ we know that the future we cannot see is still certain. Our calling is to cling to that hope because our hope belongs to God. Our prayer, even when it feels like God is not listening, is to ask God to give us the gift of faith like Abraham—a faith that believes that God is always with us and that knows that God will never forsake us. Wherever life leads us, through that faith, we are saved by the grace of God.