No Explanation

4th Sunday after Pentecost
July 2, 2017

1God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He 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.” 3So 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. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then 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.” 6Abraham 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. 7Isaac 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?” 8Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
9When 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. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”12[The angel] 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.”13And 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. 14So 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 22:1-14

Listen to today’s sermon here:

There is no satisfactory explanation for the story of Abraham and Isaac. We must start there. A God who sits around coming up with way to test people’s faith is problematic. A God who tests people’s faith by encouraging them to sacrifice other human beings is unacceptable. But let us pause to consider some options for looking at this troubling story.

Jewish interpreters have often focused on the provision of God, the ram in the bushes at just the right moment. When all seems hopeless, when violence is about to be committed, when there is no other way out, what is needed is provided.

Christians have long considered this some sort of prefiguring of Christ, the child of God offered up or perhaps Christ – the ram – offered in place of us. That rests on a particular interpretation of Christ’s work, but there are some interesting connections.

Author Mary Rakow reimagines that this was not the first time Abraham sacrificed a child out of some combination of fear, shame, duty, and madness.[1] Over and over again, he had done this until finally God steps in and says, “Enough! Stop the cycle of violence.” That perspective matches how some have interpreted this story as one to counter the religious rites of nearby peoples of the time who did, from time to time offer child sacrifices. This then becomes another of God’s absurd prophetic object lessons speaking out against what is happening in the culture around God’s people.

For Paul this story is about the faith of Abraham – his willingness to unquestioningly follow God’s commands. But I tend to be very concerned when people act, especially with violence, and claim it in the name of God, claiming God has spoken personally with them to give a mission no one else knows about.

Finally, Kierkegaard famously proposed 4 possible scenarios,[2] all ultimately unsatisfying:

  • Abraham acts in response to God’s command, but does not tell Isaac that it is God’s command. Better, Abraham thinks, that Isaac should forever lose faith in his father for the sake of maintaining faith in God.
  • Abraham silently follows the commands up through the command to take the ram in place of Isaac, but Abraham can never forget that moment of his willingness to kill his own son and lives out the rest of his days with darkened eyes, and never again knows joy.
  • Abraham realizes it was sinful to have considered sacrificing his son and spend the rest of his days ruminating on his past and falling on his face before God begging forgiveness.
  • Abraham fails to follow through. They go up, but he trembles, then hesitates. They both return not quite sure what this means for them and for their faith in God.

Kierkegaard imagines that Abraham struggles with all of these scenarios and it is in this dark and complicated struggling that his faith emerges.

These intrigue me. They open up the story for me in interesting ways. But none of them gets around this as a horrendous story in which, according to the text as we have it, God not only condones but commands interpersonal violence.

While I will unequivocally say that I do not profess belief in a God who does this, even as some kind of extreme test of faith with a plan all along to save Isaac, I recognize in wrestling with this story the challenge of a world and a God that I cannot understand.

There is no question that things as terrible as this go on every day. They go on not only in far off distant places but in our own homes and our own communities. Children are sacrificed every day to hunger and poverty, abuse and neglect. Children are sacrificed every day by military actions of our own and other governments in the supposed aim of achieving peace. Children are sacrificed when parents send them across international borders in the hopes of a better life perhaps never to see them again. And at the risk of making light those previous examples, we sacrifice the child within us all the time, losing touch with our sense of play and wonder, joy and freedom. And we must grapple with what faith means in the face of it. We must grapple with what our own actions ought to be as people of faith when these terrible things go on, perhaps especially when they go on in the name of the God we claim to worship. We must grapple with what faith means when we are the ones laid out for sacrifice or when we are the ones wielding the knife.

A classic example of this wrestling is Dietrich Bonheoffer, whose poem we will sing in a few moments as our hymn of the day. He found himself in the church in Germany under Adolf Hitler. He helped form a church that existed outside of the national church which more or less went along with the prevailing powers. And he eventually found himself working on a plot to assassinate Hitler himself. To the day he was executed in prison he wrestled with what it meant to be called as a person of faith in such a time. Was violence necessary to stop one of the worst atrocities in history? Did that make it ok to commit violence as a person of faith? How much was enough for the church to do in the face of evil? Did anyone come out of that without a lifetime of deeply complicated questions about God and faith?

And if we listen to the voices that are crying out, the voices of the Abrahams and Isaacs of our day, we can find those same complicated questions in any age. There are always atrocities, there is always violence, there is always hatred, and no one escapes life without in some way or another being both a recipient and a creator of violence. It lives within us as it did in Abraham and Isaac. It intersects our ideas about God and church and life. It affects our concepts of good and evil. It leaves us with a lifetime of complicated questions about God and faith and life.

And every step of the way, every plodding step up our own Mt. Moriah, every trembling hand, every fearful child, every draw of the knife, every last minute pardon, God walks with us. We who are confronted with a world beyond our control and stories that trouble us deep in our being. God enters that with us. God who willingly takes the role of Isaac in our world of violence and death, all the way to the cross, where no alternative victim is offered, where God’s very self is offered to enter fully our human experience of violence and death.

So if there’s a lesson about deep faith here, it’s a lesson that there are no easy answers to what it means to be faithful. There are no easy answers to what it means to try to understand God and God’s hopes for us and God’s deep love for us in the midst of a world that does not always reflect that love. And so we plod forward, carrying our sometimes misguided understandings of God, carrying our history of boundaries crossed and actions regretted, carrying our well-founded fear of what others in our lives are capable of doing, and we wrestle out a path of faith in the face of it all, with God standing beside us all the way to the worst of it all promising us life even at the point of death. Amen.

-Pastor Steven Wilco

[1] Mary Rakow, This is Why I Came (Counterpoint: Berkeley, 2015), p. 24-33.

[2] See Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard.