Abraham and Isaac

Genesis 22:1-19. Fourth Sunday after Pentecost


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.

Who is this God?

This is not the God we think we know—the God of “gentle Jesus meek and mild/bless and keep this little child.”

This is a God ancient and untamed, who is not conformed to our expectations. This is a God who is other. This is a story to remind us (in the first place) that God is God.

And this is useful, because we are constantly tempted to make God in our own image. We want God to be nice, and we think we know what nice is.

Indeed, we’re in the process of re-writing the Bible so that God will be nice. I am often amused to note, as I read Morning Prayer, that parts of the Bible readings for the day have been bracketed out—often in the psalms. All the imprecations are gone: “May their table be a snare!” “May his children wander about and beg!” “May his memory be cut off from the earth/ For he did not remember to show kindness/ but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted to their death.” All that is gone, bracketed out—along with many passages from other OT narratives and several from Paul—because surely this is not who God is. Surely God is not this God of vengeance; surely God is nice, and knowable, and looks like us when we’re dressed up and on our best behaviour.

Genesis 22 throws a spanner in that idea.

After this God tested Abe, and he said, “Take your son whom you love and offer him as a burnt offering to God.”

This is not a God of our designing, and the discomfort we feel at this story reminds us of that. This God is sovereign and infinitely free; it is he who has made us, and not we him.

I have just come down from two days at the family cottage on Georgian Bay. In the city we are constantly surrounded by the works of our own hands. But there on the island in the midst of the crashing waters of the Bay I am suddenly face to face with the works of God’s hands. And standing under that vast sky on a point of bare rock looking out upon an endless horizon it is awe that I chiefly feel.

I hear the voice of Job’s God.

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place?…Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades/or loose the cords of Orion?”

The glory of God, Paul says in Romans—God’s eternal power and divine nature—can be clearly seen through the things he has made. It is glory that we have to do with in God, and it will not be contained.

This is the God of revelation, not of our own designing.

And that means two things. It means God cannot be circumscribed. God is other, and we don’t get to bracket out what we don’t understand. The glory of the God who reveals himself to us is (as Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it) the glory of a sovereign and infinite freedom.

But this God is precisely the God of revelation. He speaks to us. Out of the whirlwind God SPEAKS to Job. “Gird up your loins like a man,” God says to Job. “I will question you and you shall declare to me.” The God of Orion and the Pleiades speaks to Job. It is remarkable. And today God speaks to Abraham. In his sovereignty and infinite freedom he chooses this man. And he says, “Abraham! Take your son.”

And so Abraham does.

What is the other side of God’s glory, the majesty and freedom out of which he speaks to us? It is perhaps our willing listening. Obedience, it might be called.

“Here I am,” Abe says.

And he takes his son and the donkey and the wood for the fire and he walks to Mt. Moriah. Can you imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind? The biblical narrative does not tell us—at least explicitly. The story keeps a great silence just on this point, the very thing we want to know: what Abraham is thinking at this Word of God, surely (it must seem to Abraham) an impossible word. What anguish must he feel! Job’s anguish, the great “Why.” Why, Lord? What about your promises? What about the good life I have lived? What about my love for this son you have given me? The biblical narrative gives us none of this. It gives us only what Abraham does.

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey ad 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.

Abraham does what God asks of him. This is not to say there is no anguish. Abraham’s love for his son is heard every step of the way. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.”

My son. Child of the promise, child of my heart. My son. So the two of them walked on together. The father and his only son.

It is just in the narrative’s silence that we hear the great trial of faith that is going on. How is it possible to keep walking toward that mountain, to look up – on the third day – and see it there?

It is a journey of faith. And what matters on this journey, in the life lived before God’s word, is not Abraham’s inner dialogue. It is just two things.

It is God’s sovereign Word: “Abraham!”—this word that out of an infinite glory, out of an infinite freedom, speaks our name.

And it is Abraham’s “Here I am.”

Abraham follows. He goes where God sends him, and the question that hangs over the narrative, the question that hangs over his heart, the great silent “Why, Lord?” he never once utters. He says only, “God will provide.”

Abraham’s faith is this: to hear the Word of God—“Abraham”—that utterly surprising word, our name, from the mouth of the immortal, invisible, God only wise; to hear this Word of God, his own name, and to say “Here I am.”

Abraham follows in the way God asks him to go, though surely he cannot see God’s purpose. He follows though this way seems to contradict the purpose he believes he knows, the promises God has made to him (I will make of you a great nation. Your offspring shall be as many as the sands of the sea).

Abraham follows in the way God asks him to go.

And in the course of Abraham’s following—this “here I am” that is faith, that is listening, that is the encounter with the sovereign and infinitely free God that faith makes possible—in the course of Abraham’s following, God reveals himself, his purpose, to Abraham again. Once again God calls Abraham’s name. Abraham! Abraham!

And Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in a thicket by its horns, and offered it up instead of a burnt offering in place of his son Isaac. So Abraham called that place “the Lord will Provide.”

Abraham follows God’s word, and in his obedience and in his faith he leads us to the place where God’s will is known. For Christians this ram points straight to Jesus Christ. It is the will of God precisely to provide a lamb for the sacrifice, to allow his Son, his only Son, whom he loves, to take the place of Abraham’s son, of all the dear sons who in the justice of God otherwise deserve to die.

This is the Word of God: the Lord himself will provide.

We all stand in the place of Isaac, and it is God’s glory to call us to the place of sacrifice, every Sunday at every Eucharist to the place of worship, where we find his son offered up in our place, where we find Christ and a cross.

Abraham walks to Mt Moriah in obedience and in anguish. He walks with the wood on his son’s back. And on the third day he finds in the very place of death the grace of God. He finds the everlasting arms.

This is who God is. But this God can only be known by listening to him. All our own words will not do it. All our own words—however hard we try to be nice—will only obscure God’s word. They will only lead us away.

True Grit: the movie is just out on Netflicks. In it Mattie, “Little Sis” thinks she knows about justice, even the justice of God. Little Sis herself is going to provide it. So she sets out into the wild west with a couple gunslingers, and her will is done. Only–justice in her hands turns out not to be quite what she thought it would be. Justice in her hands breeds corpses and the snake-pit. “Nothing is free,” she says in a voice-over at the beginning of the movie, as she sets out toward vengeance; “nothing is free…except the grace of God.”

Towards the movie’s end, in the wake of her justice, she and her cowboy are racing for their lives across the scrub and the night sky is as vast as the desert and the stars touch the earth. There is a glory that is bigger than her will, a glory known in the things God has made, and her life and all the lives of this earth and the justice of them—this is not in her hands.

When the horse can go no further the cowboy carries her through the desert under the vast and silent sky in his arms. And at the end of the road there is a song. It’s an old gospel song: The Everlasting Arms.

The eternal God is your dwelling-place, and underneath are the Everlasting Arms (Deut 33:27).

Little Sis’s justice leads to the place of death. And there she discovers the vastness of the desert sky and underneath, the Everlasting Arms. The Eternal God is our dwelling place. We say it at every funeral. Abraham said it with every step towards Mount Moriah. This is the glory of the Lord. The eternal God is our dwelling place—even in the desert, even at the place of death—the eternal God is our dwelling place and underneath are the everlasting arms.

There is nothing free in this world but the grace of God.

Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

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