Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Testing is a normal and regular part of every child’s education. From an early age children grow to expect that their teachers will test them, and that there may be positive and negative consequences. Of course, not everyone tests well. I felt sorry for young man who answered all the questions of his school exam incorrectly. In which battle did the English King Richard III die? His last one. What is the main reason for divorce? Marriage. Where was the Declaration of Independence signed? At the bottom. What can you never eat for breakfast? Lunch and dinner. If you throw a red stone into the blue sea, what will it become. Very wet. How can a man go eight days without sleeping. By sleeping at night. If it took eight men ten hours to build a wall, how long would it take four men to build it? No time at all. The wall is already built. How can you drop a raw egg onto a concrete floor without cracking it? Any way you want. Concrete floors are hard to crack. The poor boy failed his exam, but you must commend him on his creativity.
Testing seems to be a normal and regular part of the education of God’s holy people as well, and no person was more tried more tested than Abraham. In the Book of Genesis, we discover over ten incidents of testing. Consider the challenges Abraham faced. He was given the command to leave his homeland and family and journey to a new land. There was a great famine in the land he was promised and his family was forced to become refugees in Egypt. While in Egypt his wife was mistreated by the Pharaoh’s Court. When he returned to the land of Canaan, he was caught up in the war of four kings. And then there were the personal battles with family, infertility and a surrogate mother. Finally, he was disheartened by expelling his wife Hagar from his home, as well as his son Ishmael. How much more could God expect of Abraham? This was certainly not the best of all possible worlds. And then came the final test, the sacrifice of Isaac.
My friends, it is not easy to live by faith. This is what Abraham experienced year after year in his waiting and in his testing. Yes, even God’s most faithful people can expect doubts and uncertainty as they are following God’s way. So why do they do it? That is what I would like to explore today.
For Christians, the passage we have read from the Book of Genesis is referred to as the Testing of Abraham, for Jews it is known as the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. Now I doubt that many of you will be using this as a bedtime story with your children or grandchildren anytime soon. This is after all one of the stories that gives God a bad name in the Old Testament. But surprisingly, the story is read every year in the synagogue for the festival of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The appearance of the ram in the thicket is directly tied to the blowing of the shofar or ram’s horn as the New Year’s call to repentance. It is the most debated and discussed story in the Hebrew scriptures, and over the centuries, the story of Abraham and Isaac has been interpreted in a variety of ways- as a story of discipline, of complete trust and of supreme testing.
Let me begin by saying that there are times when it is hard being in relationship with God, not just for us and our loved ones, but for God too – this is especially true for those who consider themselves to be religious. I am reminded of the man whose wife came to wake him up on a Sunday morning: “It’s time to get up honey, you need to get ready for church! You’re going to be late!” The man replied, “I don’t want to go to church today! Nobody listens to me. Nobody talk to me. And nobody likes me there.” The wife responded, “But honey, you have to go to church! You’re the pastor!” As a people of faith, we are all trying to love and trust one another. And just like in any relationship, that love and trust is hard work.
Sometimes we feel a need to defend God. We are shocked to read that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son as a burnt offering on Mt Moriah. How cruel!. And at other times, we want to defend Abraham, especially when we are perplexed by the zeal and single-mindedness that he brought to this assignment. Rather than postponing the command and prolonging the story with a Minnesota long goodbye, Abraham does not delay, and attends to many of the details himself. He rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son, Isaac, then he cut the wood for the burn offering, and set out for Mt. Moriah. We can only imagine the shocked look on Sarah’s face, when Abraham told her of his intent, and the look in Isaac’s eyes when he asked his father, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
Of course, Abraham’s willingness to obey this command was not driven by misguided blind faith or evil intent. Rabbis have always argued that Abraham was convinced that God had some plan to make all things right. That is what we too must ultimately see in this story. For Abraham, God’s graciousness and the possibility of a miracle fit perfectly with his experience of the past. No doubt, that is what Abraham shared with his son Isaac as the two of them walked on together to Mt. Moriah. God would be faithful. He would provide and make all things right.
And then there’s poor Isaac. I am sure if this happened today, he would spend the foreseeable future in therapy. Touchingly, however, Isaac’s simple trust in his father Abraham’s faith remained constant and unflinching. A young man who could carry wood up a mountain could not be overpowered by an elderly man. When Isaac was bound on the altar, he allowed it to happen. He placed his hands behind his back for Abraham to bind. Abraham and Isaac obediently cared for each other as they accepted God’s call. Trusting that all would be well, Abraham showed his willingness to off God this son he loved, trusting the Lord would do what was right.
Finally, counting on God’s frequent pattern of testing, we glimpse Abraham’s confidence and faith in his spoken command to the two 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.” One way or another, they would return. All would be well.
It has always been easiest for scholars to focus on theme of testing. After all, life’s challenges can often seem more like a test than hurdles to be championed. God too was being tested. By the time of Abraham. 20 generations had passed and God had already witnessed failure after failure. From Adam and Eve, to Cain and Abel; from the flood upon of the earth with Noah to the return to sin at the tower of Babel. God’s people were always longing to make a name for themselves. Abraham was God’s last hope. And so God took all that experience with broken covenants and earlier attempts to enter into a new relationship with his creation, God was taking a chance with Abraham and the next generation through Isaac.
Testing often speaks to the universal human experience as well. The difficult decisions in life we face may seem utterly impossible—or downright wrong or cruel. You feel as if God is testing you again and again, and maybe he is. You wonder whether you are hearing God correctly. And you ask, “What can I expect of you God?” But my friends, to wrestle with this story, like Abraham and Isaac is also to raise the question, “And God, what are you expecting of me?” Wrestling with God and faith is truly to see and recognize that God may have a greater role for you to play in the life of others and the world if like Abraham you are willing to sacrifice what is nearest and dearest to to you.
So what if the story of the Binding of Isaac is actually more than a test? What if it really is about sacrifice. It may be a question for you, challenging you to ask what you are willing to sacrifice for something greater than yourself. Parents often sacrifice when their children are young. But it happens later in life as well. Parents are called sacrifice their children in all kinds of ways. They may sacrifice their children to enter schools and professions where they may seldom see them. We encourage our children to use their talents that draw them in different, new directions. Sacrificing children comes at pivotal moments in time as well. My father was a part of the greatest generation. I know that my grandparents shed tears when my father went off to fight in World War II. They didn’t expect to see him again. Yes, my grandparents placed their son on the altar of war with great anxiety, but also with the pride and the conviction that they were doing the right, moral, and correct thing.
For many of us in our present generation, the idea of values that demand and justify an ultimate sacrifice are hard to accept. Abraham and Isaac’s journey and obedience seems too hard to fathom, but it forces each one of us to ask the question, What things do you hold dear enough that you would be willing to sacrifice everything? Who would be willing to do such a thing?
The good news, for you this day, is that in God’s sight, you are worth living and dying for. You are worth the sacrifice. When the day was done, God said to Abraham, “Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you.” It was a journey that God the Father would watch unfold as well, not at Mt. Moriah, but on the mount called Calvary. He would weep bitter tears. But God also knew the power and the promise of the resurrection.
My friends, that is your hope and word of blessing. Even in the face of death. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” That is how precious you are in God’s sight that he would sacrifice his only son. So what things do you hold dear enough that you would be willing to sacrifice everything? Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.