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Real Sacrifice

A Homily from Genesis 22:1-14

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

June 30, 2002 (13th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Trust is not something that comes easily. In fact, it might not be an exaggeration to say that it takes a lifetime to learn to trust, and a lifetime to find someone worthy of that trust – and to have them prove that worthiness. If we’re fortunate, we have three or four people in our lives that we really trust. If we place a confidence in their care – we know without question that they will keep it. If we ask them to do something – we know that they will do it. They are our true friends, and the depth of their loyalty is the barometer of that friendship.

Today’s text from Genesis is the final chapter in the long story of two friends of that calibre: God and Abraham. We’ve touched on the highlights of that story over the past few weeks. We’ve listened as Abraham followed, trusted, questioned, doubted, challenged, and ultimately obeyed God. But today we learn that God was not yet satisfied. God had great plans for Abraham’s descendants, and God needed to be able to trust Abraham completely. More precisely, God needed to know that Abraham’s trust in God would be unwavering.

So God decides to test Abraham. Walter Brueggemann points out that this alone, which is only the first sentence of the first verse of the text, is a considerable stumbling block for modern listeners. We read, “After all these things, God tested Abraham.” Not that God observed or studied Abraham, but rather that God stepped down from Heaven and personally placed a challenge in Abraham’s life to find out how Abraham would respond.

We don’t want to hear that. Things can be bad enough without wondering if God may very well be watching, perhaps even intervening, to see how we will respond. Yet, as Brueggemann points out, even the prayer taught to us by Jesus and prayed by millions of Christians each week pleads, “lead us not into temptation.” Do not test us God, for we might be found wanting.

But God does test, just as God decided to test Abraham – the father of the faithful and perhaps the forbearer of all faithfulness – in a way more dramatic and painful than any of us hope to ever be tested – “lead us not into temptation” indeed!

God calls Abraham by name, “Abraham!” Abraham answers immediately, “Here I am.” Personally, I think Abraham is already ahead of most of us at this point in the story. Few can claim the kind of intimacy and history with God that Abraham had, yet God speaks to each of us in myriad ways. Many of us, in response, find distractions or excuses to ignore the call. It may have taken him a hundred years, and no few miracles to learn it, but Abraham has finally figured out that when God speaks, it’s best to listen and respond.

God does not mince words. “Take your son.” Just to be clear, God adds, “your only son” (as if Abraham might have doubted whom God meant). Then, to make absolutely certain God inserts “the one whom you love.” “Do you hear me Abraham? Take your only son, the one whom you love and go to Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering on the mountain I shall show you.”

It is this verse above all others that should cause us to be cautious about we use the words “sacrifice” and “offerings.” We church folk use them a lot, but perhaps we are a little too casual with them. There is only one thing that Abraham, rich in possessions and content in his old age, considers priceless. His precious son Isaac, who is the final, miraculous gift of God, the crowning piece of God’s promises to Abraham.

And Isaac, the child named for Sarah’s astonished laughter at even the possibility of his miraculous birth, is the one gift that God asks of Abraham. So Abraham is faced with offering to God the one thing that, in giving up, will also cost him everything he values in himself. We know that it is a test, God is asking what Abraham really values more – himself or the word of Holy God.

Abraham just knows that whatever God asks he must provide. The next morning he loads his donkey for a long journey, gathers two servants, and along with Isaac sets out in the direction God has chosen. It might not always have been so. Abraham has challenged God before [ch 18], but not this time. God has proven to be so trustworthy that, even faced with so horrible a command, Abraham offers no reply but to pack his bags and start walking.

I don’t think I have that kind of faith, and I doubt many of us do. In fact, I think that among humans this test was perhaps unique to Abraham whose relationship to God was also unique. Abraham stepped onto the dusty road, far more heavily burdened than his pack animal, every step pushing against the weight of the possibility that he was going to have to murder his own child. It was a horrible thing to demand, one that – as a father – I shiver to even think about.

I couldn’t do it. I could not have even taken that first step. Sadly, in the disturbing and dark history of biblical misinterpretation this verse has been has been nevertheless misused to defend all kinds of abuse against children, sometimes by deluded sycophants believing that their faith was as strong as Abraham’s and that they were being likewise tested.

There was, however, only one Abraham as there was only one Israel and ultimately one final sacrifice in Jesus. If there is a “moral” to this story, it is not that God may ask us to do atrocious things or become murderers. It is not that God condones such behavior, or that we can expect to stand in Abraham’s place. This was a specific test for the father of the nation of Israel, and a specific lesson for that nation. It is unique in human history.

At the time, however, all that Abraham knows is where he has been told to go and what he is expected to do when he gets there. Three days into what must have been a tense and silent journey, Abraham leaves the servants behind and tells them that he and the boy will return after they had worshipped God. On the climb up the mountain, the boy Isaac speaks up and has the only conversation with his father that is recorded in the Bible.

Isaac was in fact carrying the wood for the sacrificial pyre on his back, and he could see the knife and the torch in his father’s hands; but he notices that there is one thing missing. There is no animal to be slaughtered. “Father” he asks. No less loyal to his son than to his God, Abraham likewise answers immediately, “Here I am, my son.” “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham’s answer is at the center of the story, and the heart of his relationship with God. “God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Holy God, who has asked so much of Abraham already, who has demanded more than will in fact ever be asked of any mortal ever again, will provide. With that certainty alone, Abraham has journeyed into parts unknown and now climbs the side of a mountain – trusting that in a way that will hopefully exceed his expectations God will provide.

That does not mean that Abraham believes God will exempt him from the task that has been set for him. Abraham painstakingly builds the altar and methodically lays out the wood. Binding his beloved son to the pyre, Abraham raises the knife into the air. It’s not just the life of his miraculous child that he is about to end. Also on the altar is his self-respect, his pride, and everything he values is on that altar. If he lowers that knife, he will be nothing but a hollow shell.

But it is what God has asked, and so he prepares to kill his own son.

At the last moment, a voice comes from the heavens. Again God calls Abraham by name and again Abraham replies, “Here I am.” “Do not harm the boy” God says. “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from me.” God has the answer, and as Abraham believed, God provides.

Abraham looks up and sees a ram in the thicket. God is still holy and worthy of even the most precious gift of life. And so, Abraham frees his son, and then sacrifices the ram.

God has provided, and Abraham names the place literally “God sees to things” or more colloquially “God provides.” He then hears the voice of the messenger of God a second time. Because Abraham has withheld nothing from God, God will withhold nothing from him. Abraham has passed the test, and demonstrated that he and his descendants could be trusted to remain faithful to the teachings of God. Abraham’s descendants have never forgotten this trust, and today continute to tell the ancient stories of God’s faithfulness and the sacred trust they have been given.

Later generations would remember Abraham’s example at Moriah, and would see in it a reminder that God would demand much of Israel, but the same God who demanded would also provide. This is a tough lesson for those of us who would prefer for our God to make sense, but the actions of the Holy Creator of the Universe are not always going to be rational.

They are, however, also the actions of a loving parent – one who sees beyond the barriers of loss and death – and one who provides. For Christians, the story of that provision is particularly poignant. Faced with the demand for a sacrifice we could not meet – one that would eternally balance the scales of divine justice – we were helpless. God provided an only child, who like Isaac obediently took his place bound against rough, unfinished wood but who unlike Isaac was sacrificed.

Yet even in the death of Jesus, God provided – for as Christians we know there is not death without resurrection.

We too step into Isaac’s place when we step into the baptistery. We offer our old lives, our selfish desires, and our worldly priorities to be sacrificed and buried beneath the waters. We emerge to find that God has provided a new life, a new self, and new priorities.

Whenever we encounter the crucifixion, we encounter resurrection. God requests, and God provides.

It took Abraham over a hundred years to learn that lesson, and it is not one that we can learn from a single sermon or even from a hundred of them. Trust takes time, and Abraham’s example provides a vision of where we can hope to be someday; but where we can hardly expect to be now.

What we can expect today and tomorrow is that God will ask things of us, and perhaps even test us. We can expect that God will ask us to sacrifice things – and that a only that which is of value to us is a real sacrifice. Again, there was only one Abraham. We will never be asked to even contemplate murder.

But we will be asked to give up the familiar and the secure, trusting that God will provide and that God will reward our trust. Sadly, I think most of us are two cynical to expect the kind of familiar, conversational relationship with God that Abraham was privileged to have.

Like all relationships, though, it did not start that way. But each step that Abraham took on his long journey of faith brought him one step closer to God. As he trusted, and proved his trustworthiness, the voice of God became clearer and the providence of God more real.

Offered in the baptismal waters, raised into new life like Christ, we join in Abraham’s journey – with small and great acts of faith drawing us ever closer to the real presence of God.