Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
“I put my trust in your mercy; my heart is joyful because of your saving help.” -Psalm 13
It seems to me that of all the stories in the Bible, the narratives from the Book of Genesis are remembered most by people today. To be sure, many only recall the bits and pieces they learned in Sunday school, such as the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, and the story of Abraham. Still the basic story lines have left an indelible impression upon our childhood memories and every so often resonate with our life experience today.
However remarkable it may be that the Genesis stories remain deeply settled in our contemporary conscience, I fear many of us have never really gone beyond our childhood imagination of the stories and explored the texts more deeply. As I shared before, the highly acclaimed religion writer Karen Armstrong even makes note of this in her writings, suggesting that few of us have gone beyond our Sunday school lessons. This presents a challenge for us today as we explore once again one of the stories from Genesis, namely, the story of Abraham and his son Isaac. How well do we really know the story and do we understand it’s meaning in the larger narrative of Genesis? I suspect we likely don’t fully get the meaning and purpose of this text. So it’s helpful to once again consider the story and discern its meaning for us today.
Before we do, I like to take a brief moment to reflect on the central theme of Genesis. Although the stories may appear disconnected from one another and leave us wondering what does Adam and Eve have to do with Noah, Abraham, or Jacob, there is a central driving theme throughout the text. Pastor and theologian Arie Leder, in an article on the story of Abraham and Isaac, articulates well the theme of Genesis. He writes:
Simply stated, the narrative problem of Genesis is that death consumes earthly humanity, the seed of the woman; only a return to God’s presence and compliance with his instructions will overcome it. But the way into God’s presence is blocked by the cherubim (Gen. 3:24), and humanity’s way (Gen. 6:12) is violent.
It’s important we keep the theme in our mind as we reflect upon today’s first lesson, the story of God’s test of Abraham’s faith. While it is tempting to first ask why God would ever demand someone to sacrifice their child, I don’t believe that is the point of this story. That’s not to say that isn’t a good question, but I think the question leads away from the essence of the story. It also would lead us along a trajectory which we don’t have time to address today. Perhaps we will save that for another day.
Instead, I want to look at this story from the perspective of the overarching theme of Genesis, in particular, the theme of compliance with God’s instructions. In essence, the trial of Abraham is to see how much Abraham is willing to let go of his own wants and desires so as to fully trust and follow God. I think this is a point we might be able to relate to as well: how much trust do we have in God that we will go wherever he will lead us? Sure, you and I will never be challenged to see if we are willing to sacrifice a child, but the test of our faith may come in other forms, some simple, and others less so. Our faith will be tested in many ways: how willing are we to align our lives with God’s purpose, even when that may be unpopular, such as living a simpler life so as to help others live well? Will we stand-up for what is just and right when that is not a popular thing to do? Or even more difficult of a question, will we be willing to trust God’s providence when everything in our life seems to fall apart?
All of these “tests” or “trials” fundamentally return us to the very event that got Abraham and us into this point: the sin of Adam and Eve. Unlike us, Genesis says our ancestors enjoyed God’s company and presence. And God, who is the source of life and love, offers them a choice: either follow him or follow the path of your wants and passions. Unfortunately for us and the rest of humanity, it seems our ancestors decided to follow their wants and desires. We, for our part, seem to be caught in the never-ending cycle of sin and death. Unless, of course, we decide to respond to God’s offer of love in Jesus Christ and follow him. This is why we hear St. Paul say to us in our second lesson today from his Epistle to the Romans, “do not let sin exercise dominion over your body” and that we are no longer slaves to sin but to the one who saves us. (Romans 6:12)
Strikingly, the story of Abraham’s trial has much relevance for us and our own journey of faith. Before I reflect on that further, I like to highlight a few parallels between Abraham’s story and ours.
First, and foremost, Abraham is called by God and invited into relationship with God. From what we can gather from the text, Abraham was an ordinary man who likely was simply caring for his family and community. God reaches out to Abraham in love and forms a relationship with Abraham. Just a few weeks ago we heard the story of the three angels sharing meal with Abraham and his wife. In biblical texts, angels are theophanies of God’s presence. Abraham didn’t simply have a meal with three men, he shared in the divine life of God.
We too are called by God and drawn into relationship with God. Like Abraham, we are ordinary women and men who try very hard to care for our families and loved ones, and make a living despite all the challenges of life. I suspect, as well, that many of us can recall meals with friends and family where we felt a profound intimacy with them. Although those occasions of table fellowship may not have been marked by an angel’s visit, I think we can safely say we’ve experienced glimmers of God’s love while sharing meals with those we love. As St. John says in his letter, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16)
Secondly, God’s call to Abraham leads Abraham from one place to another. In Abraham’s case he is led from his home in Mesopotamia (what is modern day Syria and Iraq) to the promised land of Cannan (modern day Israel). For those of us who travel, that may not seem like a very long journey. However, it would’ve been an extraordinary journey for people to make at the time of Abraham.
While we may not necessarily be called to leave our home and native country to go to another land, we are called to live in the Kingdom of God and to present ourselves “to God as those who have been brought from death to life.” (Romans 6:13) Our journey is also towards the Promised Land, the Kingdom of Life. We are led by God from death into life. That journey demands that we reject all that is not of God and to live a life of holiness.
Now this is where things get interesting: neither Abraham or we will ever see the Promised Land in our lifetime. In fact the third parallel between Abraham’s and our story is that for most of us we will die before the final days and we may never see God’s Kingdom of justice and peace realised in our lifetime. Abraham, too, never got to the Promised Land. In fact, most of the characters in the Book of Genesis never get to the Promised Land. Instead, they remain as exiles on the journey. In a way, one could say the same for us: we are exiles on our journey. By virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, we no longer belong to the world of sin and death. Yet as I’ve often shared with you before, we live in a liminal time awaiting for Christ’s coming again and the final resurrection of all. It’s as if we’re there, but not quite yet.
This then lead us to the final parallel between Abraham’s story and our story. Like Abraham, God’s invitation to the journey demands great faith on our part. And this is the heart of the message of Abraham’s test: although Abraham is called to sacrifice his son, I think he understands this is a test from God. Remember, Abraham was promised that he would be the father of a great nation and that God, while sharing meal with he and his wife Sarah, promised him a son who will bear great fruit. While this doesn’t deny the likely fact Abraham was puzzled and confused as to why God would let him endure the painful journey to the mountain top, I suspect Abraham felt deep in his heart that God would provide. He had hope.
In fact, all the while Abraham was preparing the sacrificial altar, the answer to his prayer was before him in a nearby thicket. While reflecting on this passage with a friend of mine, he noted that all Abraham had to do “was to look up and away from his immediate problem to see the answer to his problem.” Sure enough, as we read in the story, Abraham finally sees the answer to his problem: the ram in the thicket. Fortunately for Isaac, God intervened as it seemed Abraham was too slow to see the alternative before him.
I can’t help but think how fitting this story is for us today. How many times have we felt a call from God only to find ourselves climbing a seemingly insurmountable mountain? Perhaps that mountain may be health crises, relationship problems, financial difficulties, or the uncertainty of what God is calling us to do in life. In these, and so many other painful challenges in life, we face and climb the mountain set before us with faith and hope. And we do as exiles, knowing we neither ought to stay in the past — no matter how comfortable that may’ve been — nor can we see the end of our journey.
There have been many times in my life where I’ve felt like Abraham and I’m sure many of you have as well. I think back to a year ago when I learned I had cancer. As I prepared for surgery, uncertain of what the future would hold, I questioned where God was in all of it and why, if he had called me to this place, would he lead me to suffering? The day before I shared the news with all of you, I was at my desk writing my sermon for that Sunday. I looked up from my desk and out unto the rectory garden and questioned God: Why? Why is this happening to me now? What was the point of leading me to this place only to lose everything? Those questions echoed through my soul over the long days and weeks, particularly when I was strangely getting sicker after the surgery and doctors were unable to explain why.
I often wondered why Genesis doesn’t relate to us Abraham’s feelings as he went to sacrifice his son. Did he not wrestle with the pain and anger of it all? Was not his heart troubled by God’s challenge? I suspect we’re not told of his emotions because his story speaks to our stories. We are the ones who are to name the fear, pain, agony, and sadness of the challenge. Abraham’s story is our story, the story of God mysteriously calling us into relationship with him only to find God’s plan seems hidden more often than it is revealed to us.
The danger is we can become single-minded in our focus. Like Abraham, our hearts get so caught into the problem before us that we’re unable to see the alternatives. Or even worse, we isolate ourselves from God and others, paralysed by our fears and anxieties. The thing is, we still need to ascend the mountain and our faith in God, our ultimate trust in his promise, is the only way forward.
Yet I must also be clear that there is a real possibility we may not see the full resolution to our problems and crises in this life. Remember, although Abraham faithfully followed God, he never entered the Promised Land. Yet he continued to press forward, confident in God’s providence.
Isaac, too, sees no resolution to his experience on the mountaintop. As I read this story again this past week, I noticed a detail in the story I failed to see earlier: Isaac doesn’t return with his father. Now this could be simply a detail omitted from the story, but I wonder if the omission is intentional. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words.
Perhaps Isaac was forever changed by his experience on the mountaintop. He is, after all, rather naive and it takes considerable time for him to figure out that he is his father’s intended sacrifice. While I’m sure the experience was traumatic for him, I suspect it changed him and left an indelible mark upon his soul. One commentator noted the text never indicates that Isaac was released from the straps that bound him to the altar. Sure, it is implied, given Abraham sacrifices the ram on the altar instead of Isaac. Yet it is significant Isaac’s release is never articulated in the story.
Although Isaac is acclaimed as one of the great patriarchs of the Old Testament, he strangely is rather insignificant in the larger story. In fact, he is later deceived by his wife Rebecca and his younger son Jacob. Despite all that, he remains faithful to God and dies as one of the longest living patriarchs. Isaac forever remains bound to the Lord. The mountain top changed him forever.
So, too, will the mountains we encounter change us forever. Although we may not see the other side of the mountain tops we encounter and we may never understand in this life why we had to face the mountains in the first place, we still walk forward in faith confident God’s promises will be fulfilled. That is faith.
Given that, how do we press forward on our journey? How do we climb the mountain even when we least desire to ascend? The words of St. Paul from our second lesson last week comes to mind: “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7) Ultimately if we are to get through the mountain top experiences, we’re going to have to learn to not just let go of our fears, anxieties, and pains, but to commend them to God and to invite God into the midst of our suffering. Amen.