This is a version of the sermon I preached for worship at BBUMC for Sunday, July 5, 2020, the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. This is part of a summer-long series of sermons from the Book of Genesis, often using texts from the Revised Common Lectionary (but likely a week behind the actual lectionary).
This sermon is based on Genesis 22:1-14.
Today, we’re continuing in our summer series, “Origin Stories,” exploring some of the peak stories in Genesis. If you’d like a different take on some of these stories, as well as couple different passages, tune your radios to KCNI just before seven each day this week. Those devotions, as well as manuscripts of my sermons are on my blog.
Today’s passage is a central story of Jewish and Christian identity and thought, but it certainly isn’t an easy one. Early Christian writers like Hebrews, and Paul in the letters to the Romans and Galatians, lift up this passage particularly to emphasize Abraham’s faith, mostly ignoring the gruesome details. Jewish rabbis have also continually struggled with this passage, and one of the ways they work with the text is to tell stories in hopes of reading between the words and lines of the story – this is called midrash. In that spirit, let’s pray as we imagine our way through this passage.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable and pleasing to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. May we hear you, see you, and grow like you for the sake of us and your world. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.
It seemed like ages since Sarah first laughed at the news the messengers bore to her and her husband Abraham. To have a child at their age, regardless of how many times the Lord, God Almighty, promised it, had seemed too good to be true – and also impossible. She’d laughed then, so had Abraham. She’d laughed again when Isaac was born. But when Hagar, her slave, and her son Ishmael laughed, she’d had enough. She convinced Abraham to effectively sacrifice his first-born son, Ishmael, Hagar’s son, by sending them out into the wilderness alone.
Isaac grew and their family prospered, and Sarah laughed often. She laughed when Abraham strutted after hearing Isaac call out for him first – “Da-da.” She laughed when Isaac began toddling after her. She laughed with joy at the miracle of her child and the blessedness they experienced together. And one day, her laughter stopped.
She rose with joy early one morning only to find that Abraham and Isaac were gone. She asked around with her neighbors and found out that they’d gone to offer a sacrifice to God. The Lord, God Almighty, hadn’t asked for sacrifices before, but following God had always been a little mysterious. She laughed at the thought: how many times had God shown up to reassure them that they’d have a child, and that through him, through Isaac, God would make them the parents of multitudes?
But as she rounded the animal pens, her laughter ceased. Her brow furrowed. Something wasn’t right. All the sheep and goats were accounted for. The servants were out with them in their morning chores. “What animal did Abraham and Isaac take with them?” she nervously asked the servants. When she learned that they’d left without any animals, her cries and wales tore holes in the morning’s silence.
The Lord heard her cries and came to her in the midst of the animals. Before the Lord could get a word in, Sarah loosed a barrage of questions and accusations. “I thought you were different! Terah, our father, went out for sacrifices with our brother, but only Terah came back. It was like that with all the families. But you were different! What’s wrong with any of these animals? Why not tell Abraham to take one of them? Or why sacrifices now, at all? But not our son, our only son, our beloved boy! You promised! You promised him. You promised to bless us and the world through him! You promised! You’ve broken my heart! You might as well have killed me!”
The Lord stood silent as Sarah railed, and when she finished, God said only, “I am God who sees; I see you and your pain; do not fear; I am God who provides.”
As the Lord Almighty, the God who Sees, departed from Sarah, she simply muttered, “We’ll see.” And soon they would: Abraham and Isaac would see a ram caught in a bush; she would see her husband and her beloved son of laughter come home. She saw but was never the same until the day she died.
I felt God inspiring me to tell the story this way today, perhaps because this passage brings up far more questions than it does answers, and even the answers are not all that palatable. Jewish and Christian interpreter’s regularly emphasize that this scene reveals Abraham’s faith to us, and foremost to God, who issued the command to sacrifice Isaac as a test. And yet, emphasizing this as a test and proof of Abraham’s faith leaves us with two nearly unanswerable questions: 1) What kind of parent would do such a thing as Abraham? and 2) Just who is God if God would ask for such a thing?
To the question of Abraham, we could reasonably say that Abraham never truly believed that he’d have to go through with the sacrifice. He’d already proved his faith repeatedly – even if he’d also stumbled a few times. And telling Isaac, “God will see to [the sacrifice],” demonstrates that Abraham believed God had another plan (v. 8). Except, what if giving birth to Isaac was the way God would see to it?
And to the question of who God is, Jewish tradition tends to believe that God also never intended Abraham to go through with the murder. After all, such an act would contradict God’s direct prohibition against killing (Gen 9:6). It would also have made God a liar, because God explicitly promised that Abraham’s multitudinous offspring would come through Isaac (Gen 21:12). And, later, God would say through the prophet Jeremiah that asking people to sacrifice their children had never “[crossed] my mind” (Jer 7:31).
Perhaps these two interpretive tracks solve our biggest problems with the text: neither Abraham, nor God, ever intended Isaac to be killed. But, tell that to Sarah. Or Isaac.
Nevertheless, since this is part of the origin story of God’s relationship with God’s people, of which we are a part, we have to ask, “What is God saying through this passage to us, the church, today?” Perhaps much, but at least these three things.
First, God calls us to be a people who see people’s anguish, like God sees Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac’s. We don’t have to work too hard to imagine the trauma, pain, and grief of Sarah and Isaac, even if they’re silent or absent from the text. But their silence and absence is important. Who are those in our families, our communities, and our larger world who are silenced or absent from us? Who are those who’ve experienced trauma at the hands of faithful people seeking to (blindly?) do what they believe God has told them to do? Whose voices do we relegate to the margins, or who’ve been placed there by others, but to whom we don’t seek out to listen? If God is the God who sees, then how might we grow into God’s image, to be a people who see the pain, anguish, and grief of others with eyes of compassion and grace? How can we bear God’s presence with them?
Second, God calls us to faithfulness, putting God first in our lives. We cannot read this passage without recognizing, at the very least, that God calls Abraham and Isaac to an extreme act of loyalty and faithful obedience. Regardless of the text’s ambiguity, we believe God, above all, knows our hearts, our intentions, and our deepest desires. And in Abraham’s test, God sees Abraham’s faith on display. God sees our faithfulness, and the ways we put other things, even good things, before our walk with God. In what ways do we put our own personal desires above God’s calling in our lives? To what do we give our hearts, our time, our talents, and our energies, and do we give our relationships with God anything near that devotion? Have we misplaced our priorities and created idols for ourselves in place of God?
And third, and most importantly, God assures us of God’s presence, so we can bear God’s presence and give our hearts fully to God. This passage reaffirms what we’ve seen before and will see again and again throughout scripture: God is God who sees God’s people. God sees our pain and our struggle, and grieves with us. God sees our joys and our laughter, and laughs with us. God sees us, because God is present with us, and God provides for us: life, and love, and relationship, and nurture, encouragement, and care. God assures us of God’s presence, so we can bear God’s presence and give our hearts fully to God. May it be so.
Questions for Reflection
- This sermon leaves a whole mess of questions out there hanging. What questions does this text bring up for you? What answers do you have for them?
- Pastor and author Barkley S. Thompson offers two divergent and simultaneously true (for him) interpretations to this passage. The first is that the text is about faithfulness first to God (traditional). The second is that God always provides the ram (perhaps even that Abraham fails the test). What do you think of Thompson’s (or the sermon above) belief that this passage can mean more than one thing? What other conclusions might you draw from this passage?
- Non-theists and those critical of Christian faith often bring up this passage to show that, bluntly, God is clearly not good and not worthy of worship or obedience. What do you say to them? How do you worship God, when scripture clearly shows God commanding such a heinous thing?
- I am struck by the divides in our country around the issue of race and the existence (or denied existence) of both individual racism and systemic racism. If scripture, and this passage, reveals God’s character, or God’s image, what do we see of God that could or should shape how we act, believe, speak, and listen? Could living into God’s image challenge us to listen to those who are crying out, like our brothers and sisters of color? (Keep in mind, listening doesn’t mean you have to believe everything others say – even if I think there’s much we can learn from others.)
- If racism is too sticky or big of an issue for you to deal with, what other cries of anguish fill you, or do you hear from others? Does God hear them? Do we? Should we? And what should we do when we hear as people called by God in our baptism to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” in the name and power of Christ?
- How have you experienced God seeing or providing for you?
Here’s a great piece about racism: