06.29.2014 Preaching Text: “So 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.’” (Genesis 22:14)
I wasn’t going to do it. Speak about the Abraham-Isaac story, that is. For one thing, it’s probably the most difficult story in the entire Bible. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle it yet again this year.
It’s difficult because, for one, it seems to imply that God might require human sacrifice as a test of Abraham’s loyalty.
In specific terms, we are asked to believe that God would require the cold and calculated execution of a young, innocent, loving, trusting child. Such offends to the core.
On the other hand, the story has to be seen in context. As I say this I’m immediately reminded of a politician trying to extricate him or herself from a prior, particularly egregious gaffe. Yet it is true that this story in Genesis is easily misunderstood unless its proper context is explored.
Largely lost to us contemporary hearers, the Old Testament, in general, and the Book of Genesis, in particular, focus on God’s Promise. It is the promise made to Abraham that through his progeny would come the salvation of the world.
Time and again, this promise is imperiled, when it looks as if the ancestral line of Abraham will end. It is difficult for us today to appreciate the one-time importance of this.
In part this is because we are conditioned to believe that we make history rather than that history is in God’s hands. It is our actions and our decisions that ultimately matter, in other words.
But for ancient Israel, and the theologians who wrote these stories, Jahweh was not only the Creator of all this is, but the One in control of history. As such, the individual’s finite actions, though important, are superseded by God’s holy actions.
So the question the theologians were addressing, and the question the original hearers would have been focused on, was whether God’s Word to Israel, to Abraham, was trustworthy.
Interpreted in this light, the story is not so much about a cruel, sadistic God toying with the emotions of a distraught father, but with God’s reliability and trustworthiness.
Could Abraham (or you and I) really believe that doing God’s will is worth risking everything, even life’s most precious things? This is not an academic question, I would add, because each and every day God asks us to answer that very question, and to act accordingly.
By doing exactly as God asks, despite the searingly impossible logic of Jahweh’s request, Abraham learns that it is in fact not God’s will that he kill his son. Moreover, he gains the comforting assurance that trusting God will indeed result in furthering the promise of God’s plan for history, of which he plays an important part, i.e., the reconciliation of our fallen world back to its Creator.
Could the biblical writers have found a less outrageous way to communicate this truth? Probably. But it certainly does get our attention, doesn’t it?
Of course, we live in a world today where all questions relate to ‘me.’ As I say, it’s generally outside our experience to consider the implications of God’s broader plan for our world. Yet, as I say, God continually asks of us radical trust, and even, on occasion, with matters of life and death.
Do we trust God, in other words, when it may really cost us something? Are we willing to risk, especially when much is on the line, believing that God will take us where we need to go?
In our reading from Romans today, Paul challenges us to put this same trust in God. In language that confuses perhaps as much as it discomfits, Paul gets to the essence of faith.
Will we trust God or will we be slaves to something else? Whereas Adam was tested, and failed, the new Adam boldly charts a new path. The old Adam seeks to place himself at the center of life. The new Adam puts God first.
By trusting God, by living each moment in fidelity to God by means of the new relationship granted us in Christ, we choose the things of life differently.
I’m constantly harassing the Bible Study group about this, in fact. Often the question arises within the human heart as to what is God’s will precisely. After all, most of us have no experience of God speaking directly to us, though I’m not saying such things cannot ever happen.
Mostly we come to know God’s will the same way we come to know anybody else’s. Which is to say that if we live intimately, day-in-and-day-out, with somebody, we will have a far better idea of what makes him or her tick, including what he truly desires. We may even find ourselves finishing her sentences!
However, if we don’t know someone, we’re left to guess what their wishes are. We won’t know their depths, and we won’t have a very clear sense of what words or actions would strengthen our relationship with them, nor those that will produce the precise opposite effect.
As with humans, and even more so God, the “other” may surprise us; they may at times seem altogether inscrutable to us. We can never with absolute certainty predict what they’ll do next.
The God we worship is not always predictable, which is why we don’t worship a static set of philosophical principles or a set of ethics. In order to know what God wishes for us, there is no way around being in close proximity to him. For we follow a living Being, not a rational or moral abstraction.
Just so, in responding to God’s will on that mountain, Abraham did not follow a prescribed set of abstractions, but followed the living God. And to this day, that mountain is called “The Lord will provide”. Amen.