Sunday, June 29th, 2014 – The Sacrifice of Despair, a sermon on Genesis 22:1-14

Genesis 22:1-14
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He said, “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.” 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

9When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

Years ago, when I was a youth director, I also spent time as a trumpet teacher. My very first trumpet student was a high schooler who was very devout in her faith. And so it was quite common for us to talk about faith and Christianity while we were having a trumpet lesson. And one particular day, she seemed distracted from the trumpet lesson. After a little light interrogation from me, she finally confessed. “I’m struggling to put God first in my life,” she said. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised. She, of all people, seemed like someone who had very much made God a priority in her life. But it didn’t feel like enough to her.

You see, she had this boyfriend. And she was quite close with her mom. And she had her friends. And she went down the line of all the things in her life that seem to compete with God. She couldn’t help but feel like she needed to give up those relationships, or make them less of a priority, so as to put God first in her life. To make God her number one priority, over everything else.

Which raises an interesting question: Is God your number one priority? Is that even what God expects of us?

As one who believes in God, what would you be willing to do for God? How far does your devotion go? If God asked you to, would you be willing to sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor? Or, if God came to you as clear as day and asked you to sacrifice your own child, would you do it?

It is a horrible question and an even more horrible thought, but it is the one we face today in the reading from Genesis, and the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac.

Do you remember this story? We are not prone to tell it in Sunday school, for obvious reasons. But once you hear it, you’ll never forget it.

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He said, “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.” And Abraham obeyed.

He obeyed! Without flinching or saying one word of protest, Abraham gets up early in the morning to prepare the donkeys, to split the wood, and to take one last walk with his boy, Isaac, before planning to set him on fire.

That divine voice that just years ago spoke to a childless Sarah and Abraham, saying, “You’re going to have a son! Name him Isaac” is the same voice that today says, “Now take your son, the one you love, and kill him. For me.” Isaac was the miracle child for Sarah and Abraham. The one for whom they waited and waited and waited. And not only that, but Isaac was the one on whom God’s promise to Abraham rested – that Abraham would be the father of many nations, and his descendants would be a blessing to the world. The father of many nations, whose descendants would bless the entire world. But now God is asking Abraham to kill off the only hope descendants. No Isaac, no promise. Why would God do such a thing?

Like I said, it is a horrible story. And the only thing more shocking than the story itself is that we listened to this story ourselves just minutes ago without flinching either. Where is our own outrage at what appears to be divinely commanded child abuse?

If Abraham were alive today and he said, “Well God told me to do it,” we would lock him up in a mental institution. Is that what it means to make God number 1 in your life?

So for three days, they walk. And no one said a word. A deafening silence. When they arrived, Abraham told the servants, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” We will come back to you? Really? We, Abraham? Was he lying for Isaac’s sake, or was he just hopeful for his own? Who knows?

But so they go. Only Isaac starts to finally sense that something isn’t right. “Father…where is the lamb for our burnt offering?” “God will provide the lamb, my son. God will provide,” Abraham whispers. And on they go.

After finally reaching the place that God had showed them, Abraham prepared the altar. And with very little details and very little struggle, Abraham binds Isaac, lays him on the altar, and raises the knife.

And suddenly, like a parent snatching a child out of the path of a speeding car, God breaks the silence, “Abraham! Abraham!” What music to his ears. The shift in the story comes so quickly, you can’t help but wonder if God wasn’t a bit surprised at how willing Abraham was to go through with it all. Who knows, maybe God never wanted it to get that far. Maybe God wanted Abraham to argue with him over this command, like Abraham had over so many other.

Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, (God said); for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide.”

The Lord provided. In the end, it all worked out. Except for the fact that after this, Abraham and Isaac never speak again. Nor do Abraham and God. Such an awful story and a horrible picture of God it paints. A God who tests. A God who demands sacrifice. A seemingly narcissistic and murderous God who wants nothing more than to be obeyed, to be number one in your life and then everything will be just fine.

This is one of the most bothersome and conflicting stories of all of scripture. But perhaps there is another way. Another way of understanding. Perhaps, maybe even embracing this story, as hard as that is to imagine.

The ancient Israelite people were a storied people, a oral culture. Everything from traditions to rituals to history was passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. By story.

Imagine for a moment that you lived 6,000 years ago and you know so little about the world. And around the camp fire one night, your child asks you, “Where did we come from?” And you go on to tell her a story that is as new to you as it is to her about the heavens and the stars and a God who creates out of love.

And we still do this. When I say to Lauren that she is the most beautiful woman in the world, I don’t say it as fact. As information. I say as part of a love story. About who she is for me. Or when parents say to their child, “Before you were born, you were the twinkle in my eye.” It isn’t fact. It’s a story. A love story.

So maybe, this awful story of Abraham and Isaac is not so much of an event in history that describes a God who tests and demands bloodshed and obedience, but what if this is rather a hopeful story told to a people in need of hope.

You see this story was around during the time when the Israelite people had been living in exile for years and years. The people of Israel were living in a land of loss. They lost their homes, and work, and families, and land. All of it taken from them and now they were living under the rule and control of a ruthless and slave-driving king. You could imagine that in their minds the future of their people, their children, and their culture was certainly dead and gone. There was surely no way out.

And no doubt that the older generation felt a sense of responsibility. “How could we have let this happen? How could we have been the one to ruin our future?”

And so being a story people, imagine then for a moment an Israelite grandfather sitting around the campfire late at night with his granddaughter, when they are living in exile. And the granddaughter, seeing the destroyed and crumbing life of the Israelite people, speaks up. “Grandpa…what is going to become of us? Will we always be living in exile? Has God forgotten us?” And with that twinge of guilt and fear, he tells her a story about their ancient ancestors – Abraham and Isaac.

A story in which Abraham, the older generation is commanded by God to put the very future and hope for the people of Israel – Isaac – on an altar for sacrifice. Perhaps this grandfather said God was to blame so as to relief some of his own guilt. Who knows?

And so Abraham gathers the wood, the fire, the knife, and (of course) the son. The whole time he’s whispering to himself and to Isaac, “God will provide a lamb. God will provide a lamb. God will provide a lamb.” But it isn’t long before Isaac – the one who was the hope for the future of the people of God – is lying on an altar, bound up, and a knife hangs in the air above his head. Surely, his future, the promised future of God’s people, is dead and gone. Any moment now.

When suddenly there is a loud shout! “Abraham! Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.” And there it is stuck by its horns in the bushes – a ram. A way out of this dark nightmare.

And in that moment, Abraham is saved from any roll he might have played in destroying Isaac’s, and the people of God’s, future. And Isaac is saved for a new life. A new hope.

And to that little grandchild, sitting by the fire, living in a exile and wondering if all is lost, the message is clear: Hang in there, little one. God will provide a way. Our future is not lost. God will always provide a way.

And that is exactly what this is. It is a story of hope for the people of Israel who are living in the hopeless and deathly land of exile.

It is a story about sacrifice, but not the sacrifice Isaac, but a story about the sacrifice of despair. It’s a story that in the end puts despair on the altar and puts it to death. For no longer must the people of God worry about their future. No matter what the future holds (and it is never guaranteed to be a safe or easy one), no matter what happens, we need not despair. For the God of Abraham and Isaac. The God of Israel and David. The God of Mary and Jesus. The God of the world has promised – look to the heavens and count the stars. So shall your descendants be. For you will be a blessing to this world. I promise, God says. I promise.

Perhaps this is not a story about making God first in your life….or else. Or even a story about obedience. Because the truth of the matter is, I don’t think God wants to be number one in our life. I don’t even think God wants us to rank the people in our life in order of importance. But what God does want is to be present when life for my trumpet student gets hard. When those relationships start to break down. When college doesn’t go as she planned. When that unexpected illness shows up. And so maybe this story of Abraham and Isaac isn’t about putting God first, but what if it is more a story about a desperate people, feeling like they and their future have been placed on an altar. And the only thing they can see is the glare of a sharp blade that has been raised above their heads. And their demise is certain. But then suddenly there is a rustling in the bushes nearby.

Because the hope that we have, the hope that we cling to is that no matter what we face in this life. No matter what comes at us and threatens our hope or our joy or our future, God will provide a way. A way through this dark moment. A way that opens a path not to death and despair. But to life. And life abundant. No matter what the future holds, no matter what happens, we need not despair. For the God of Abraham and Isaac. The God of Israel and David. The God of Mary and Jesus. The God of the world has promised – look to the heavens and count the stars. So shall your descendants be. You will be a blessing to this world. I promise, God says. I promise. Amen.

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