Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The word Genesis means beginning, and true to its name, this book gives us stories of beginnings. Just as the creation story gave us the beginning of God’s work in the created world, so too does the story of Abraham give us beginnings. In the story of Abraham and his beginnings, the story narrows in focus from one that encompasses the created universe to just this one family, God’s chosen people.
Back in chapter 12 of Genesis, God first called to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.. and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Based only on these words of promise, Abraham packs up his wife and his things and he goes. He travels to a strange land, faces crises and conflicts, and continues to trust God’s promises – even as he and his wife have no children.
Finally, at age 90, Sarah becomes pregnant. In our story this morning, the son of God’s promise is born. Isaac gets older and the family feels more secure in the promise. And then something awful happens. God issues another command to Abraham: “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.” God asks Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac.
This story freaks me out for many reasons, just as it has terrified and frustrated believers throughout the years. This story has lots of problems, but today, there are three I can’t get out of my head. First, for Abraham to faithfully follow God’s command, Abraham has to negate God’s promise. Either Abraham obeys God and destroys God’s promise for life and blessing, or Abraham preserves God’s promise and disobeys God. They’re both awful choices. Secondly, even if Abraham obeys God, he disobeys God. See, one of the things that sets God’s people apart from other religions and cults in the area is the practice of child sacrifice. It wasn’t an uncommon practice for others in that place or time, and God specifically prohibits the people from this terrible act. God told the people not to sacrifice children, but then God asks for the sacrifice of children. God contradicts God’s own words.
And finally, the crisis felt most acutely by modern readers. We regularly hear painful stories of abuse, neglect, torment, and infanticide, whether at the hands of tyrants and dictators, religious leaders and caretakers, or mothers and fathers. We cannot hear this story outside the context of those suffering children. How do we reconcile our image of God with this story where God demands a child’s death?
Here’s the thing: you can’t. This story is a hard story. You cannot explain these hard things away. And frankly, you shouldn’t. God doesn’t need your excuses. Your neighbor doesn’t need you to pretend these challenges don’t exist. Your faith demands that you face these struggles and take them seriously. This text is hard. When you’re honest about that, you can start being honest about what good can come of this text. Even in this hard, confusing, messy stuff, we can still find meaning.
First, this story tells us that our actions matter to God. What we do and say, the choices we make, they matter. I hear the words of the angel to Abraham so clearly: “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son.” Now I know. Now I know. God didn’t know how Abraham would respond. We have no reason, no explanation, no meaning for this testing other than that. God needed to know. Abraham’s response mattered. Abraham had only two choices, and both choices were terrible. Sometimes, the choices a person of faith has are all terrible choices. But we still have a choice, and what we choose matters to God. When you make choices in your life, hard choices, sometimes impossible choices, it’s not like there’s one choice where God is present and one choice where God isn’t. God will be there. Make your choices faithfully.
And since our choices matter, we must make those choices carefully, prayerfully, and thoughtfully. Listen. Make choices with your faith constantly in front of you. Three times in this story, Abraham says “Here I am.” He listens and is fully present with God, with the angel, even with his own son Isaac. All these encounters shape his actions. But he cannot be faithful if he doesn’t stop and listen. The same is true for you. You can’t hear God if you’re not listening for God. Stop. Be present. In devotion, in service, in your interactions with others: stop. Listen. Say, “here I am.”
And because we are listening, we will hear the ways God works in any situation. God’s will is always done. I don’t mean God’s will is always done like there’s only one means to an end and God forces us to do it. I mean that God will always work in this good creation for life, grace, justice, forgiveness, and love. If our choices keep God from doing it one way, God will do it another way. God didn’t know how Abraham would respond. All God knew is that God wanted to bless all the families of the earth. Even when Abraham had only bad choices in front of him, God would work even with those consequences. God will change the plan to achieve the plan.
God chose Abraham and his family to bless all people in the earth. Human sinfulness kept making that harder and harder for God to do, as we’ll continue to hear throughout the Old Testament. The Old Testament stories of God’s faithfulness stand in contrast to its stories about our human selfishness and brokenness. And it’s why God had to do yet another new thing to respond to our choices and make God’s plan come true. It’s why God did a new thing in Jesus Christ, coming to us as one of us, as God’s greatest action yet to bless all God’s people. Our choices matter, so we must listen, because God’s will is done – in Abraham, in Jesus, in you.
As the angel said to Abraham, “now I know”. Now I know that I must carefully listen to participate in God’s work in the world. Now I know that God responds and pivots constantly to make God’s good work happen in this world. Now I know that I must continually learn about God’s will and God’s world and my place in both. Even when all choices in front of me are bad, even when I have no clue what God could possibly mean, even when God feels confusing and distant, I trust. What I do matters to God, and I will be faithful. For God’s faithfulness to us all, thanks be to God.