04.22.2018 I LOVE the Bible 2
Scripture: Genesis 22: 1-19
Next Steps: Memorize Genesis 22:8; Give food gift cards to homeless; Serve Wednesday nights at Streetlight;
I LOVE the Bible. It seems like an obvious thing for a pastor to say, but its really true. I love the Bible. I love this rich, deep, complex, perplexing, beautiful, challenging, surprising, and merciful book. I love the ways in which I can see myself in the stories it tells. I love the ways in which I can see God moving and working and loving fallen people like me in the stories it tells. I love the Bible.
But I do have to say there are times in which my love for the Bible is as much presupposition as it is conclusion. Allow me to explain.
If you’ve ever had a toddler, you know what it means to have your love be both presupposition and conclusion. I love my boys. When Evan walks up to me and wraps his arms around me, when he shouts “DA-DA” whenever I come home in the evening I love him. When Patrick comes to snuggle with me while we watch a cartoon, when something surprising and ridiculous comes out of his mouth like the other day when he called something purely coincidental, his words as a 4 year old, I love him. There are also times when I have to remind myself that I love him. When Evan takes a tambourine and whacks Patrick with it, or me or Emily, I have to remember I love him. When Patrick is having a temper tantrum trying to tell me how the world works, NO DADDY IT IS NOT TIME FOR BED, I have to remind myself I love him.
Or how it is with a spouse. Or how it is with siblings. Or how it is with parents. There are people in our lives that we love. And there are moments when are love for them is symbolized and crystallized. And there are moments when we have to remind ourselves, yes I do love them, they just did that, they just said that, but remember, I love them.
If you struggle with the Bible, I get it. If there are parts of it that are hard for you to get behind, I get it. If there are moments where you say “How can the Bible say that?!” I get it. I really do. We are going to look at one of those moments this morning. And when I say I love the Bible I don’t mean in a naïve way that ignores those parts or those moments or those stories.
Here’s what I’ve come to see, though. When I really look at and dig deep and struggle with those moments, those stories I can find something. I can find some moment of grace. I can find some moment of beauty. I can find a new way to see myself. I can find a new way to see God. And in struggling I can come to love the Bible even more.
Before we get to the story I want to be clear that I am not just paying lip service to all this. Today’s story is a challenging one and it’s a personal one for me. I have two sons. Two precious little boys whom I love more than I thought possible. Today we are going to look at a story where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son. To kill his son. In God’s name. God wants this. This is not an easy story for me as I try to live into what it would be like to be Abraham. And as not only a pastor but a follower of Jesus and a lover of God, I don’t know how I could or would respond if such a request was made to me. And I don’t know how I could love a God who would make such a request.
We are going to look at this story and I hope find grace and love and positive meaning within it. But I need to stress on the outset that as we read it, whatever unease you have I share. It’s normal. I don’t plan to gloss over it as if this isn’t a thing. Instead I want us to sit with and wrestle with this story and hopefully come out on the other side with a deeper faith and a deeper love for the Bible. Now let’s take a look at this story:
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you. ” Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you. ” Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son. ” Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided. ” The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.
Before we dig into the details first the backstory. In Genesis 12 God calls Abraham to leave his father’s homeland to a land that God would show him and God would make of him a great nation. So Abraham leaves his father’s land with his wife Sarah. They follow where God leads them and have a number of awesome tales. They grow older but they don’t have children. Both Abraham and Sarah begin to worry. At some point Sarah tells Abraham to have a child with Sarah’s servant Hagar. Hagar conceives and bears a child.
But God hasn’t forgotten about his promise to Abraham. Eventually Sarah does conceive and gives birth to a son. Which is when things really get interesting. Because now we have a Hagar problem. She has Abraham’s first son, Sarah has Abraham’s first legitimate son. In order to ensure there’s no friction later on, and I mean this as ironically as possible, Sarah convinces Abraham to send Hagar and her son away. Then its just Abraham, Sarah, and their one son Isaac.
So when we talk about Isaac we aren’t just talking about any son. Which is not to trivialize what it means for God to ask a father to kill his son, no matter the circumstances around how the son came to be born. But Isaac was promised. And that promise was delayed. For many years. That promise delayed created problems. It created pain. It created anxiety. It created fear. It created doubt. It created feelings of being less than. And in coming into the world the child washed away all those feelings and left only relief and joy. Can you imagine?
So this child comes into the world and then we get this challenging story that is one of the stories that can turn people off of the Bible forever. Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” I mean, really?! My gut reaction is to say one of two things: what kind of God would ask a father to sacrifice his son or what kind of God puts Abraham and Sarah through that much pain to give them what they want, to give them what they were promised, and then demand it back?! I know this probably isn’t the type of thing you expect to hear in the sermon, but look, if that’s your reaction to the story too, I think its ok. And if it isn’t, there might be someone in your life who isn’t in the church at the moment whose reaction to this story would be this.
In reading a couple books on the Bible, there’s a strategy for dealing with a text like this that makes you stop and say, “really, is that really what God’s like? Because I don’t know if I’m ok with that.” That strategy is this: ask the question why have people for thousands of years thought this was a story worth telling? Why have people for thousands of years thought this was a story we needed?
This story is revolutionary in how it describes God. This story presents God as loving and gracious. This story makes me absolutely want to love and follow and worship this God. Trust me we will get there. We just haven’t gotten there yet.
In the ancient world people feared the gods. The gods controlled the uncontrollable forces that determined whether you had rain for your crops or whether you had the right amount of sun or whether you could have children. The gods determined whether or not the sea capsized your boat or whether or not you came upon game or could catch a fish. The gods determined all of the natural forces that basically determined your life. So it was in your best interest to keep the gods happy. How did you keep the gods happy? By bringing offerings.
But here’s the thing, you had no way of knowing whether or not you had brought a sufficient offering to the gods. We see this anxiety baked into Genesis. There’s a story of two brothers who each bring an offering to God. And we are told that God accepts one offering but not the other. There’s no reason given. Lot’s of biblical scholars will try to impose all sorts of reasons onto the text, but the text itself gives no reason. God liked one. He didn’t like the other. I’m not sure what that says about God, but it reveals a lot about how the ancients thought of the gods. They liked some offerings. They didn’t like others. And you were never sure when you brought yours if they were going to like it. The only thing you could do to alleviate your anxiety was to bring more.
Crops turn into more crops. Then a bird. Then a small animal. Then a large animal. But where do you go from there? What is the most precious thing you could offer to the gods to ensure they favored you? A child. Your child. Your first child.
So when God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, well this is what gods want. Which is why Abraham doesn’t put up a fight, he doesn’t argue. He doesn’t respond the way we would respond. Because it makes sense given how he has been conditioned to understand the way gods work. So Abraham packs everything he needs, grabs his son and two servants and they set off to the place of sacrifice.
Abraham does this not because he is cruel or because he doesn’t love his son. He does this because this is how he has been taught to understand what God wants.
The group walks for three days. Of course it would be three days. Of course this journey, this dark journey, would take three days. The three days that Abraham spends in hell walking with the son whom he loves on an errand to kill him and offer him to God mirrors the three days that Jesus spends in hell. There’s another story in the Bible about a man named Job who is a righteous man and loses everything he has in a test to see if he would remain faithful. Most of the book is Job arguing with his friends while Job persists in his innocence and his friends basically troll him. It is a fascinating and challenging book about who God is and the way God works and how we reconcile what happens here on earth with the will of a loving God. One of the ancient Rabbis of the Talmud once posited that the book of Job is best understood as taking place within the mind of Abraham on this three day walk with his son.
They reach the place of sacrifice and Abraham tells his servants to remain there as he and his son will go up the mountain to worship and then they will return. His continued use of the plural is curious. This whole trip has been about going to this mountain so that Abraham could offer his son to God as a sacrifice because this is God wants, this is what all the gods want, this is what God has asked Abraham to do. If that’s the case why is Abraham telling his servants they’ll both come down the mountain after worshipping God? His servants wouldn’t have been shocked or appalled that Abraham was offering his son. They lived in the same culture and they’d know, yeah this is what you do. They also would have noticed they weren’t bringing an animal or some crops to burn. So there’s no need for Abraham to be coy. Abraham, the servants, they all know what’s going on. So why the plural?
This story has long been said to reveal the faith of Abraham. Many sermons and devotions on this passage often talk about how deep Abraham’s faith was. And I agree that right here we see the faith of Abraham on display. I just don’t mean it the same way others mean it. I believe this story reveals the faith of Abraham but not because Abraham is willing to be fanatic and a lunatic in the name of devotion. Instead, right here, in this moment, Abraham reveals his faith in God. He believes something about God, something different than the rest of the people in his culture. He has faith that the God he serves will be a different sort of God than the rest of the gods that demand the death of children. He has faith that God is going to do something here. He has faith in his God that he and his son will walk down the mountain together after worshipping. Abraham has faith, faith in the character of God.
So Abraham walks up the mountain with his son. At this moment Isaac looks around, and I’m sure with voice cracking, says “Dad, we seem to have forgotten something. We brought nothing to sacrifice.” Abraham again reveals his faith in the character of God. God will provide us something son.
They get to the top of the mountain to the place of sacrifice and the time has come. Abraham sets up the wood for the altar. And when that’s done he binds his son to it. Here it is. The critical moment. And if you heard this story thousands of years ago you’d know what was going to happen: Abraham will kill his son and the story would continue that God blesses Abraham with more children, more crops, more wealth. And you wouldn’t bat an eye at it.
But that’s not what we read here. God stops Abraham. We read this and let out an uneasy breath, we release the pent up worry we had. Ancients read this and inhale in a gasp. God stops Abraham and a ram is provided for the sacrifice. Abraham and his son will walk down the mountain together after worshipping.
Then God promises to bless Abraham and through Abraham to bless all the nations of the world. God provides what is needed for the sacrifice and afterwards says God will continue blessing Abraham, continue giving things to Abraham, continue providing for Abraham. And God will give and provide and bless Abraham so much that the blessings and gifts and provision will flow to all the rest of the earth.
Why did ancient people think this was a story worth telling and retelling? Why for centuries have people thought this is a story worth telling and retelling? Because it reveals that our God is a different type of God. Our God isn’t like the other gods who hate humanity and only bless those who give enough to curry their favor. Our God isn’t a cosmic vending machine where if we put enough stuff in we will get what we want. Our God is a God of constant blessing. Our God is a God that provides that which is necessary to bring about right and good relationship and then continues giving and providing and blessing.
This story is hard for a lot of people because they believe God couldn’t possible be like this. God couldn’t possibly demand that Abraham sacrifice his son. The ironic thing about that is its only because of stories like this that we have understand that God isn’t like this. No other god stopped a father from sacrificing his son. No other God but ours.
Maybe you still don’t love this story. Maybe this story is still hard for you to get behind. Let me add one more thing. This is a story about God providing a sacrifice and blessing humanity in place of and because humanity can’t bring their own. This isn’t the only time God did this. God offered us his son, gave us his son, blessed us through his son. And because of Jesus we can have life, we can have eternal life, we can have the fullness of blessings of living in God’s Kingdom. Because our God is a God who provides. Our God is a God who blesses.
On your Connection Card you have some next steps there listed. One of them is to memorize a verse about how God will provide. Because God did provide. The ram. His son. God provides. Another one is about ways to let the blessings of God flow through you to bless others.
This is a story about the faith of Abraham. A faith that said “I know what God is like.” This is a story about the character of God. A God who blesses humanity rather than withholds and punishes. This is a story about who we are before God. A beloved people. I love this story. I love this God. I love the Bible. Let us pray.