Tested, Genesis 22:1-14
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, June 28, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
The picture of Abraham holding the knife high above Isaac’s body bound on the sacrificial altar is probably one of the most vivid memories of my childhood Christian education. I don’t know that it was a framed painting in my Sunday school room, and surely it wasn’t in my kid’s version of my Bible—but once you see it, it can’t be unseen—particularly when you’re 4 or 5 or 10 years old. Even now, I read the story and I wonder, oh, my gosh—how could Abraham do something like that? How could God ask such a thing?
I lamented that last week was an awful story. This week’s story doesn’t seem to be any better…at least not at first.
We’re first introduced to Abraham in Genesis chapter 12. He’s one of the fathers of our faith, a patriarch, an ancestor of Jesus, a man of God—and yet he is so human and frail that we can’t help but wonder sometimes what in the world he’s thinking.
At our first encounter with Abraham, he’s 75 years old. God tells him it’s time for a road trip. He’s to leave the place of his ancestors, the place where he’s lived forever. He’s to leave his friends that he meets at the coffee shop every morning where they solve the problems of the world. He’s to leave the best fishing hole in the area, where he’d sit with his father and had hoped to sit someday with his son. He’s to leave the home he and his wife Sarai had built, he’s to leave that place where they walk out every evening together, sit on the rocks and watch the sun go down. He’s to leave this land that he’s known and loved behind him, and “go to the place I will show you,” God had said. He doesn’t even know the destination.
Abraham loves God and he listens to God. But he isn’t always a patient man. He’s a good and faithful man, but he isn’t perfect. He has a hard time waiting for God and sometimes takes matters into his own hands.
In Genesis Chapter 15, God makes the covenant with Abraham. “Count the stars in the sky, if you can. So shall your descendants be.” We’ve already talked about that promise from God and about Hagar and Ishmael…
There are 2 other episodes that are concerning; when we wonder what in the world was Abraham thinking.
Twice (In chapter 12 and then in Chapter 20), Abraham convinces Sarai to pretend to be his sister rather than his wife. She is actually both his sister and his wife. She is the daughter of his father, but not the daughter of his mother. But he excludes the little “we’re married” fact in order that first, Pharaoh in Egypt, and second, King Abimelech of Gerar, will treat them well. Both rulers do treat them very well, each taking Sarai into their households as wives, and lavishing riches on she and her “brother” Abram, until they find out they’re actually married, and send them on their way.
Finally, when Abraham is 100 years old, Sarah gives birth to Isaac and what a joy and delight he is to them. They waited so long for this beloved child and he is absolutely perfect. Strong and handsome, sweet and energetic. Soccer games and cub scouts, fishing at a new hole Abraham found out there in the middle of the desert. It is all so good. God is so good and the wait has been worth it!
And then the Lord comes to Abraham and commands him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. “Here I am, Lord,” he responds when God calls out to him. God tells him exactly what he’s to do…where he’s to go… Sarah packs them a week’s worth of food, not knowing what’s happening, probably thinking Abraham simply wants to spend some time alone with their son. Abraham and Isaac head off with two young men—the land is desolate and lonely—it’s always good to bring others with you when you travel for safety’s sake.
They arrive at the place where God has directed Abraham, and he instructs the young men to remain behind, then takes Isaac with him further. The boy asks him, “Father, we have everything we need—everything except for the lamb for sacrifice. What are we going to do?”
“God will provide,” Abraham says.
We talk about the faith of Abraham, but I’m in wonder as well, about the faith and trust of this young boy. He could have wrestled away and run from his 110-year-old father, but instead allows himself to be bound and laid upon the altar. There’s even the rabbinic story that Isaac asks his father to bind him tighter so he doesn’t accidentally move and then be scarred rather than killed. If he were scarred he would not be fit for a sacrifice.
When Abraham raises his knife to kill Isaac, an angel of the Lord appears, showing him the ram caught in the thicket. Abraham releases his son, sacrifices the ram, and the angel calls down blessings upon Abraham and his offspring, because of his faith and obedience.
There are so many layers to this story that we could no doubt spend weeks sifting through details that that could help us have a better sense of what all is happening.
I’m curious about some details that are shared and wonder about what Abraham was thinking and feeling. Since we’ve met him, he hasn’t held back from asking God questions, and yet he’s curiously quiet when God instructs him to do this awful thing. He doesn’t ask why God would wait all those years to bless him with a future and then tell him to end it. Abraham had already walked away from his home, from his history. God is going to remove his future as well?
When Sarah was fussing about Hagar, we’re told Abraham was “deeply troubled.” There’s no mention of that now…
I wonder: was the three day journey an opportunity for Abraham to change his mind? To give him plenty of time to think through what God has told him to do, and to say no, that’s enough? I’m not going to do it? But Abraham doesn’t do that…he keeps moving. He remains on course.
Do you wonder—at the beginning—when God said to Abraham, “Take your only son Isaac,” if God had somehow forgotten Ishmael? Or was God simply being matter of fact—Ishmael is now gone. Face it: you once had two sons and now you have only one. And yet, this is what I’m requiring of you…
And do you think it’s a possibility that when Abraham told Isaac, when the boy asked where the lamb was for sacrifice that when Abraham responded “God will provide” that he was truly convinced that God would provide a way out and another option? That when Abraham told the two men who had traveled with them that he and Isaac were going to continue ahead, worship and come back, that he absolutely believed that this is what was going to happen, that he wasn’t deceiving them, expecting that he alone would return?
There are so many questions that come out of this story that I don’t have an answer for this morning, but there is something very important that I want us to think about:
It comes in the very first sentence of the text: “After these things God tested Abraham.” God knows, and you and I are told up front that this is a test (Did you see that? Did you remember that? Or did you get so involved in the story that you forgot it was a test?) After all the things that Abraham has done, good and bad, after all the conversations that God and Abraham have had together, it seems that God is seeking assurance that Abraham truly is the one with whom God can move into the future…the one with whom his covenant will be fulfilled. The bottom line is that Abraham passes the test. Abraham has learned that God’s word can be trusted. He believes that God has his best interests at heart. He believes that God, who has found a way to fulfill the promise of a son to he and Sarah when that was so obviously impossible, will carry him through this, as well. Abraham trusts God with his own life, and with the life of his beloved son. He knows God will find a way through this dark moment.
How do you think you would do if God were testing you? Would you have absolute faith? Or would you crumble? (Or somewhere in between?) Maybe you—like me—can think of times when you’ve done well, and other times when you could have done better.
Perhaps these words from the 1st Corinthians 10 will be helpful to hear: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (v. 13). Like Abraham, we can count on the faithfulness of God, who in the midst of the worst possible testing will provide a way through.
Today, in remembering Abraham’s story, I am thankful. He and his descendants have these moments of amazing faith, all mixed in together with these dysfunctional moments when we wonder what in the world were they thinking?! And yet God used Abraham and his descendants to redeem us. The story we’ll read next week moves us into the next generation…and then we’ll follow on to the next…and if we were to continue through the lineage we would finally reach the genealogy written in the first chapter of the gospel of Matthew. Verse 16 completes the list of descendants naming Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
As followers of Jesus, we continue that lineage. May the stories written about our lives find us faithful. Amen.