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Close Call

Genesis 22:1-14 (CEB)

After these events, God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!”

Abraham answered, “I’m here.”

God said, “Take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him up as an entirely burned offering there on one of the mountains that I will show you.”

Abraham got up early in the morning, harnessed his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, together with his son Isaac. He split the wood for the entirely burned offering, set out, and went to the place God had described to him.

On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place at a distance. Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will walk up there, worship, and then come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the entirely burned offering and laid it on his son Isaac. He took the fire and the knife in his hand, and the two of them walked on together.

Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?”

Abraham said, “I’m here, my son.”

Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?”

Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it, my son.”

The two of them walked on together.

They arrived at the place God had described to him. Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. But the LORD’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?”

Abraham said, “I’m here.”

The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.”

Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush.

Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. Abraham named that place “the LORD sees.” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the LORD is seen.”

July 1-2, 2017
Genesis 22:1-14
“Close Call”

During the month of July, we will be hearing some of the OT stories from the book of Genesis that share scenes from the life of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, some of our ancestors in the faith.

Our story today is perhaps one of the most intense and also one of the most excruciating passages in the OT…the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac.

This is not a simple story. It is a story layered with history about God’s plans for Abraham and his descendants and layered with theology about who God is. It is a story intertwined with a great deal of mystery that raises a lot of questions and doubts. The story has also had multiple interpretations through the centuries.

Before we hear the Scripture, let me give a little background on the characters.

Abraham was the first great patriarch of ancient Israel, who lived somewhere between 2300 and 1500 years before Christ. Abraham was Abram before God changed his name and promised to give him a son through which all the nations of the world would be blessed.

The problem was, Abraham and his wife Sarah have been unable to have children and now they are getting on in years. So Sarah arranges for her household servant named Hagar to be with Abraham and she bears a son named Ishmael. Then in their old age, Abraham and Sarah end up having a child…a son named Isaac. Now that Isaac has been born, Sarah convinces Abraham to send Hagar and her son Ishmael away into the wilderness.

In the story we heard last week, Abraham does as Sarah asks but only after God promises that Hagar and Ishmael will be protected.

Isaac is growing up into a young boy and that is where we enter the story today.

(Read Genesis 22:1-14)

This is one of the stories of our faith that is difficult to hear and to read. It’s challenging and terrifying at the same time. This is not one of those nice Bible stories that you build a children’s time around or that is the theme for Vacation Bible School. This story is about as scary as Bible stories get.

This difficult story begins with a statement of what is going to happen: God is going to test Abraham, the first verse tells us. As is so often the case in biblical stories, the readers and hearers know more than the characters in the story do. So, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief and know that “this is a test…this is only a test.”

Most tests are designed to reveal how much we understand or what we do not yet understand. God testing Abraham or God testing any of us is not for God’s amusement to see if we get the “right answer” and pass the test. God’s testing is not to punish us, or mess with us, but rather to help us understand and grow in knowing God’s love and presence and move us toward a deeper faith.

The thing about tests of our faith is that we usually don’t see them coming and they come at different seasons of our lives. This test for Abraham came later in his life after many faithful years of close relationship with God in which God has promised over and over that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the grains of sand on the beach and the stars in the sky.

But now Abraham hears only the horrifying command to take his beloved son Isaac to the land of Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering. The narrator of the story doesn’t give us much dialogue between the characters, but mostly silent action and description of the preparations, the journey, and the near sacrifice.

There is no single point or meaning to this rich story, but rather many points and meanings, perhaps dependent on where we are emotionally or where we are in our own life circumstances when we read or hear the story.

There is no questioning or arguing with God on Abraham’s part. Whatever pain Abraham must have been feeling, he holds it in and finds his strength in obedience to the God he trusts. Isaac’s trust in his father seems equally as obedient as Abraham’s trust in God. Isaac, who is not a little boy, but old enough and strong enough to carry a load of wood, is ready to follow his father anywhere and his only inquiry is an innocent question about the whereabouts of the lamb to be sacrificed. Then he seems content with the answer that “God will see to it.”

I remember when I first heard this story many years ago, I wanted to yell, “Run, Isaac, run!” Then I thought, how dense can Isaac be? He’s carrying the wood to the sacrifice and being tied with a rope…doesn’t he get it; he is the sacrifice!

Another character not talked about in this particular story is Sarah. Did she know anything that was going on? Had Abraham shared with her what God had told him to do? What must she have been thinking as Abraham and Isaac left the house that day? I suspect if she did know what was going on, she spent the day in anguished prayer, perhaps pleading and bargaining with God to make something happen to stop the impending tragedy. If Sarah did not know what God had asked of her husband, I wonder what Abraham said to Isaac as they walked back home together. I can imagine Abraham saying something like, “Let’s not tell your mother what happened today.”

Perhaps you have seen the television commercial in which several scenes have a father and his children doing things that most likely mom would not approve of, and after each adventurous act the father says to the children, “Don’t tell mom.”
The commercial ends with the phrase, “The best stories you will ever tell start with don’t tell.” (31 sec. commercial clip).

I imagine there was some of this ‘Don’t tell mom’ conversation as Abraham and Isaac made their way home to Sarah. I also think if Isaac was anything like other kids, it took about 30 seconds after they got home for Isaac to tell his mother everything that happened! To which Sarah probably said to Abraham, “We’ll talk later!” and then went for a long walk by herself to calm down.

This story tests Abraham’s faithfulness and really tests all of us to think and ask questions like, Would Abraham go through with it? How would we have responded? And how would God provide?

This ancient story also says something about the Hebrew people and their developing and maturing understanding of God. The story moves from seeing God as the harsh tester to seeing God’s unconditional and steadfast love providing saving grace.

In the beginning of the story, Abraham understands God as one who tests his faith. By the end, he understands God as the one who provides what is needed. Does God both test and provide? Have you ever felt like you are living somewhere between the test and the provision?

When difficulty, suffering or tragedy strike or seem to be our lot in life, we can feel like we are being tested to our limit and it is often hard to see the provision until some time later. Have you ever gone through a time of difficulty or suffering and thought, where is my ram? Where is God’s provision? Or where is God?

Sometimes in the midst of difficulties or tragedies, we hear a lot of platitudes. We may have even said some of these platitudes ourselves. Things like, “Its God’s will.” Or, “We know that all things happen for a reason.” Or, “This is all part of God’s plan.”

Honestly, those kinds of phrases bring me little comfort in times of suffering, and when they are used to try to explain the ‘why’ to some unexplainable tragedy, I don’t believe them. I don’t believe God causes everything to happen or that God is like a puppeteer operating human beings like the strings of marionettes.

What I believe is that God created a world in which we, God-created human beings, have freedoms. And with freedoms come mistakes and sometimes sad and horrible things like car accidents and cancer and random acts of violence and terrorism.

We all know that our lives and the world include times of difficulty, suffering and tragedy and we’ve all wrestled with how God could allow such things to happen. At the same time, our faith tells us that God’s mercy and presence is with us in the midst of tragic loss and suffering.

It doesn’t mean difficulty and suffering won’t happen, but it does mean we are held by a love and a strength that is wrapped in mystery and so often is beyond our understanding.

To find the grace of God in our sacred faith stories, as well as our lives, we must slow down so we have the space to listen to God. But as busy people with too little time and too much to do, we tend to have a hard time slowing down.

This story from Genesis, like most stories in the Bible, points us to God and teaches us that God can be trusted and God will provide. But in order to know that trust and see that provision, we must develop a relationship with God.

Abraham had a close relationship with God and because of that relationship, he was able to hear the messenger of God say, “Don’t stretch out you hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him,” and he was able to look up and see that a ram had been provided. So often when we are caught in the struggles and agonies of life, it is difficult to see God’s provision and goodness. Yet, we too are called upon to look up and see God’s goodness breaking into our struggle and despair.

The point is, at the end of our story Abraham did not sacrifice his son because he kept trusting God and listening and he heard and saw the other possibilities revealed to him. He saw another way…he saw the ram in the brush…he saw the grace of God in the midst of what could be described as a ‘close call.’

The strength of Abraham’s character was that he dared to trust and dared to believe that God could indeed be counted on to provide, especially when life seemed most hopeless.

We too live by a God-given promise that we can trust…it is the resurrection promise that says we are God’s beloved daughters and sons and that nothing…nothing will separate us from the love of God given to us in Jesus the Christ.

May our lives be lived reflecting that promise.

Thanks be to God.
Amen.