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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 06/26/2011

Abraham is one of the key figures of the Bible, the father of the Jewish people with many stories and references concerning him in both testaments.  The book of Genesis doesn’t start with him, it starts with creation and deals with more universal themes for eleven chapters until God’s story begins to be told through a certain family of people and that’s when Abraham appears.  For Jewish people though, Abraham was and still is the character they go back to as their patriarchal ancestor and as such he also plays a similar role in Christianity when we look back at the whole tradition.

Mostly Abraham is portrayed as a man of faith, although as is the case with most biblical characters he wasn’t perfect, he had his moments of doubt, he had his moments of deceit, but he was obedient to God’s command to leave his homeland and travel to a land that God would show him, he was receptive to the promise that he would have land and children despite how unlikely it sounded what with him and Sarah being past the normal age for child bearing and the fact that they had been unable to have children up to that point.

Abraham embraced the call and the promise of God and although it took awhile the promise was fulfilled many years later with the birth of Isaac.  With his birth the possibility of offspring more numerous than the stars as the Lord had put it, became a possibility.  If the story of Abraham had ended there, we would have a nice tale of origins with a happy, if somewhat belated ending.  Abraham would still be the patriarchal ancestor, a man of great faith, and the story could go on.  But the Abraham story doesn’t end there.  Instead of a tale of origins we’ve got something else, something of a horror story with what we heard today of God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

Without question it is one of the most troubling stories in the Bible.  It’s so troubling in fact that when the lectionary was revised back in the mid 90’s this story was removed unless someone like me chose to use the semi-continuous readings.  Other than that though, one could pretend that it’s not there; like I said, the story could still go on.  The trouble is, the story is there, a text of terror that raises questions about God and Abraham, questions about what sense we are to make of this because it just doesn’t make much sense. 

After years of waiting for a son, no sooner is the son born than the Lord commands Abraham to offer him as a sacrifice, a burnt offering, and we are repulsed by such a command and such a God.  Even if you believe that God knew all along what he was going to do, that he wouldn’t let Abraham go through with it, there is still emotional abuse here on the part of God; we’re disappointed in God.  But we’re also disappointed in Abraham. We expect him to push back at this command.  When told to sacrifice his son shouldn’t there be some objection on his part?   He had taken God on in the past most notably relative to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and he also dared to challenge God and question God when after so many years there was still no sign of God’s promise being fulfilled.  But this time there is no challenge, no resistance, just resigned obedience, virtually no emotion at all on the part of Abraham as he prepares to do what the Lord has told him to do.

This story is fraught with contradictions that really can’t be resolved, especially the contradictions concerning God, and maybe that’s one point of the story.  In our humanity we want to figure God out, but God resists such figuring, and this may be the most dramatic example of this that we ever get.  We’d like assurance that God always acts in predictable ways that we can count on, always, but as soon as we start to think that way, God’s freedom reasserts itself and we’re given something else to think about. 

So in this story, the high promise of God concerning land and offspring is countered by this dark command to sacrifice the long awaited child and as Luther himself said, no human reason or philosophy comprehends these two marks of God.  Despite our wish to have it otherwise, God won’t be cornered, he remains elusive.  Remember how in the road to Emmaus story as soon as the two travelers recognized Jesus, he was gone?  It’s the same kind of thing.  We can get close, but not too close.  We can know some things about God, but not everything.

One of the big God questions that comes out of this story is does God really test us this way?  When the idea of God testing us comes up in Bible studies or confirmation classes, the general consensus is yes, God can and does test us; from experience it certainly feels that way.  In this conversation I always try to bring up what I see as the difference between testing and tempting.  I don’t think God tempts us because the tempter wants the tempted to fail, to give in.  When someone gives a test though, the idea is that you want those tested to succeed, to pass, in a sense to show how much progress has been made and I think the idea of God testing us can be thought of like that.

So we’re OK with the idea of God testing us, the question though remains, does God test us in this way, with a test that we can’t reasonably be expected to pass or even want to pass?  I want to say no, that God doesn’t do this, even though the premise of the story is yes he does.  I want to say no though, that the command to sacrifice Isaac is more of an example that is expected to get our attention and make us think and it does.  I want to say that, but I don’t know if I can.  The question will have to remain unresolved, something for you to think about on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

There is perhaps more that we can say with some certainty about Abraham.  As I said, he is a troubling character in this story too what with his apparent willingness to go ahead and sacrifice the son he waited so long to have.  He’d bargained with God before, why doesn’t he do it this time?

The best construct I can put on this is that Abraham trusts in God’s future even though, based on everything he knows, what God has asked him to do makes no sense.  But in faith, Abraham trusts that God can and will work something new out of this.  He trusts that God will provide.

Now I don’t pretend that this resolves all the questions that surround this story, questions about God or questions about Abraham.  It still seems like God shouldn’t have put Abraham in this position and that Abraham should have offered more resistance.  But I have talked at other times about how faith has to do with trusting in God’s ability to act in ways that are not always contingent on what has happened before, faith that something new really is possible.  For Abraham, based on the reality he knew, to sacrifice his son was quite literally a dead end, it didn’t make sense, it led nowhere.  His faith in the God he had journeyed with for so many years though, told him that something new had to be possible even if he couldn’t see what it was.  So contrary to our sensibilities, he was obedient to the command.

But think about Jesus.  Emptied of his divine nature, in his humanity he was obedient in his journey to the cross.  Based on all that was known to be true, that journey was another literal dead end, yet Jesus offered little resistance, he offered little defense as the noose around him tightened.  Those in power assumed that it was the end of the Jesus story, just another failed prophet.  But in the face of the cross Jesus trusted that the God he called Father would do something new and he did and we call that something new resurrection.  It didn’t fit the model of anything that had happened before, but against all expectation, God acted to change reality for Jesus and for all of us.  He created a new possibility. 

In both cases, in different ways, God provided.  His providing doesn’t always happen the way we want or the way we expect though and that’s where faith comes in, that’s where we have to be open to the possibilities.  As we survey the landscape of our world it’s easy to get discouraged about the state of things, easy to conclude that things are spinning out of control in a downward spiral and there’s nothing we can do about it.  As people of faith though, we believe that it’s not all about us and what we can do, but that there is another character involved, another character at the center of our world, a character who can bring life out of any deathly scenario, a character, a God who does provide.

Still, this story of the Lord’s command to sacrifice Isaac is a troubling one and no one has ever been able to adequately answer all the questions it raises.  Some issues inevitably remain unresolved and maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  But faced with a situation and a choice that justifiably horrifies us, Abraham was able to trust in God’s future, able to trust that God would provide and isn’t that what resurrection faith is all about?  I think it is, but the questions remain.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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