After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 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.”
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
(You can listen to this sermon here.)
When we were putting today’s bulletin together earlier this week, Mack was teasing me that I must have been going for the Worthington Presbyterian record for the Longest Old Testament Reading in the History of the Church. Well, at least the New Testament passage is pretty short, and I’ll try to clip the sermon to make up for it.
But the truth is, there’s no really good way or place to break up this particular story into smaller bits and still have it make sense. This story, the story of God’s testing of Abraham and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son in the name of obeying God, really should be heard in its entirety. It’s fascinating, and deep, and it raises all kinds of emotions and questions. Why would Abraham just give in and agree to something like that, when it ran contrary to all the other moral teachings from God found in the scriptures? Would God really order Abraham to sacrifice his child? What kind of God would do that; what kind of God would that be? Is this a story of something that God literally commanded, or is it a non-literal moral teaching of some bigger, deeper truth?
This can be a very troubling passage to read and wrestle with, to say the least. Usually, people see it as an illustration of Abraham’s faithfulness to God, and it’s definitely that. And it starts out saying that God did this as a test for Abraham, and it’s definitely that, too. But I wonder about the nature of that test. In other words, did God think Abraham would pass the test if he agreed to sacrifice Isaac, or if he refused to? Was God pleased with Abraham’s apparent blind obedience and willingness to kill Isaac? Did God ultimately provide a ram to sacrifice as a reward for Abraham having passed the test; or did he do it out of a sense of shock, appalled that Abraham would even consider doing something so awful to someone else in the name of God?
I wonder if Abraham didn’t end up teaching, changing, something in God’s own heart. That before Abraham could go through with the sacrifice, God looked at the situation and realized something was wrong here, that it was wrong to ask something like that from Abraham. That might sound odd to our ears, and our theology that God is all-knowing and never-changing. But remember that that kind of thing happens, a change of mind and heart on God’s part, in any number of places in the Bible. In a different situation, Abraham himself gets God to change his mind by getting into a drawn-out negotiation with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, eventually getting God to change from the original plan and to promise to take the righteous people out of the city before destroying it, by appealing to God’s sense of compassion and justice. So maybe – just maybe; I’m just thinking out loud here; don’t drag me out onto the Village Green and burn me as a heretic just yet – maybe God really was serious about testing Abraham, and expecting him to kill Isaac. But when God saw the ugly reality of that test, and the ability of the human heart to accept great evil by justifying it as God’s will, maybe even God’s own heart softened. Maybe God decided to step in and show Abraham – and by extension as we hear this story today, us – that there really is a better way than that. The idea that causing harm to another person, especially in the name of God, is never God’s will – maybe that’s an important take-away that God intends us to get out of this story. I think it is, in any case.
But even if that’s true, there’s still some unresolved tension for us in this story, and it’s a tension that Jesus only adds to in his words from today’s gospel text, when he says that anyone who loves their family members more than they love Jesus isn’t worthy of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ words certainly give Abraham cover for his actions.
Jesus’ words here were as hard for people in his time to hear as they are for us to hear them in our own. This teaching of his just seems to rub us the wrong way. I mean, aren’t we supposed to love our family? Aren’t we supposed to do anything for them, everything for them, even to die for them if need be, to hold them more highly than anything else? Here, Jesus says that our love of God should be even greater than that.
Jesus’ point, and at least one of the points we can draw out of the Abraham story, is that we’re called to place our highest loyalty, trust, obedience, and love, in God, and God alone. And that sometimes, what God will expect of us, and will call us and lead us toward, will create a kind of divine friction within us – between following where God is leading, and following all the other things that we currently find happiness and comfort in in our lives. We all like comfort, and want comfort. But we all really know the truth of “No pain, no gain” too. We know it’s true when we accept the “Thirty Days to Tighter Abs” challenge, and we know it’s true about our spiritual growth, too.
God can, and does, call each of us in some way or another, to stretch ourselves, to push ourselves, to do things in the name of love and service to God, beyond whatever our current comfort is. Very often, it’s that nagging feeling deep inside us; that feeling that sometimes we don’t even want to admit is there; but that keeps telling us to step out in some way into something good, something new, something spiritually better, even if it’s a bit more unknown or uncertain – that irritating, nagging sense that you’re supposed to do something different when honestly, you’d really be quite comfortable just maintaining the status quo – very often, I think, what you’re hearing is the very voice of God, trying to break through into your life.
So in light of that, I’d just ask you today: what’s the nagging, irritating thought that you’re feeling in your life that’s calling you to a deeper way of trusting God? What’s the divine friction that God has set into motion within your own heart that you just can’t seem to shake, as discomforting or as uncertain as it might be to consider?
It’s an important question. It can be a hard question, and it can have an equally hard answer. But as hard as it might be, as scary and unsettling as the answer might seem, hearing and following God’s voice comes with great promise, and great blessing. We heard that in both of today’s scripture readings. We can be thankful in knowing that if God calls us to something, God will also provide all that we need to make it happen. The God who ultimately provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice, the God who gave himself in the person of Christ to show us God’s will in the flesh, is the same God who will provide us with all we need in order to trust that voice, and to say yes to that divine friction, whatever that might be, wherever it might lead.
Thanks be to God.