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The Lord will provide

The Lord will provide

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Fourth Sunday after Pente­cost, 2nd. July 2017

Read­ings: Gen­es­is 22.1–14, Romans 6.12–23; Mat­thew 10.40–42.

There are some parts of the Bible that I find very dif­fi­cult and I have to res­ist the tempta­tion to get out the scis­sors and quietly remove them: chapter 22 of Gen­es­is is one of those pas­sages. Through­out the cen­tur­ies Jew­ish and Chris­ti­an schol­ars have wrestled with this text and tried to make sense of it. Chris­ti­an writers usu­ally refer to the epis­ode as the Sac­ri­fice of Isaac, where­as Rab­bin­ic schol­ars refer to it as the Bind­ing of Isaac. Is it a story of an abus­ive God, a mis­guided Abra­ham, reli­gious viol­ence at its worst or is it a story about faith and obed­i­ence. Why would God ask Abra­ham to do some­thing, child sac­ri­fice, which is sev­er­al times clearly con­demned in the Scrip­tures?

I’m going to sub­mit that this is a story about faith but it will always remain for me a troub­ling and dis­turb­ing text. But first it may be help­ful to look at some of the ways this story has been inter­preted. In the Jew­ish tra­di­tion it has often been argued that Isaac was a will­ing vic­tim of the pro­posed sac­ri­fice and that he was a young adult, not a child, able to make decisions for him­self. His offer of his body as a sac­ri­fice was a way of demon­strat­ing his superi­or­ity to Ish­mael his step broth­er. How­ever, this view fails because it has no sup­port from the actu­al text. Anoth­er strand of rab­bin­ic exeges­is has the bind­ing of Isaac tak­ing place on the site of the future temple in Jer­u­s­alem. In 2 Chron­icles 3.1, the moun­tain of the temple is called Mt. Mori­ah, the moun­tain where this event took place. Con­sequently the sac­ri­fice of Isaac becomes the mod­el for all future sac­ri­fice. Sub­sequent sac­ri­fices are effic­a­cious or val­id because they recall the bind­ing. The Chris­ti­an equi­val­ent to this inter­pret­a­tion is to see the Isaac story pre­fig­ur­ing the cru­ci­fix­ion-God being will­ing to sac­ri­fice his son in order to redeem the world. This has been pop­u­lar in some Chris­ti­an circles but I have trouble with it for reas­ons I will explain.

So let us look at the actu­al text and see what we can dis­cern from it. It begins, ‘After these things, God tested Abra­ham.’  After what things? God’s call to Abra­ham to leave his father’s house and go to a land he had nev­er seen; God’s prom­ise to Abra­ham that he would be the fath­er of a great nation and that in him all the fam­il­ies of the world would be blessed; the long years of Sarah’s infer­til­ity wait­ing for the prom­ised son; the birth of Ish­mael and finally the birth of Isaac, the boy they called, ‘laughter.’ It has been a long saga but Abra­ham des­pite moments of doubt and some ser­i­ous mis­takes has proved him­self to be a man of faith, trust­ing in God’s prom­ises. But then God calls Abra­ham again. Abra­ham responds, ‘Here I am’. God demands an awful thing: the sac­ri­fice of his son, Isaac, the child of prom­ise, the child he loves. The nar­rat­or tells us the reas­on for this dread­ful action, he tells us that ‘God tested Abra­ham.’

There are some par­al­lels here with the story of Job. In the Job story, Satan asks the ques­tion of God: ‘Does Job fear God for noth­ing?’ Satan implies that Job only obeys God because he has rewards-wealth, fam­ily, prop­erty, and good health. Take these away he sug­gests and Job will curse you. In the Abra­ham story God seems to be say­ing to him, ‘take the gift, the son you hoped for so long, the sign of your faith, the source of your hap­pi­ness and sur­render him.’ Abraham’s response is remark­able. Without hes­it­a­tion, without ques­tion­ing or argu­ment, he obeys the word of God and pre­pares for the three day jour­ney to Mount Mori­ah. Does he believe that there will be a last minute reprieve? Does he deceive him­self? Why does he not argue with God? None of our ques­tions is answered?

On the jour­ney Abra­ham is addressed by his son. He answers in the same way he answered God, “Here I am, my son.” Isaac asks the obvi­ous ques­tion, ‘we have the wood and the fire but where is the lamb for the offer­ing?’ He receives the answer, “God him­self will provide the lamb.” Again we ask, was this answer a lov­ing decep­tion of the boy? Was it a blatant lie? Or was it a word of out­rageous hope? We have no answer only the pathos of the fath­er and son walk­ing on togeth­er towards the place God had assigned for this ter­rible test.

The final act in this drama takes place on the moun­tain. The altar is built, the wood is placed on it, Isaac is bound and laid upon the altar, Abra­ham takes the knife to kill his son. Only then is the voice from heav­en heard: “Abra­ham, Abra­ham!” Again, he answers, “Here I am”. “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.”

“Now I know” Did God not know before? The story runs counter to later notions that God is omni­scient and knows everything. It was a genu­ine test and Abra­ham was free to choose. One way to read the story is to argue that God imposed this test on Abra­ham because God had risked everything on this one man and needed to know without any doubt that he was faith­ful. Abra­ham and his des­cend­ants were the means by which God had chosen to bless the whole world so God had to dis­cov­er wheth­er Abra­ham was will­ing to give up his most pre­cious pos­ses­sion for the sake of being faith­ful to the God who gave him that gift in the first place.

Inev­it­ably the nar­rat­ive raises the ques­tion for us: does God test us? I would like to answer no but the wit­ness of Scrip­ture is that God does test; not per­haps in the way described in the Abra­ham and Isaac story but events that test our faith are inev­it­able. Through­out the Old Test­a­ment Israel’s faith in God is tested when they suc­cumb to the tempta­tion to wor­ship oth­er gods. Old Test­a­ment schol­ar Wal­ter Bruegge­mann puts is well, “The test­ing times for Israel and for all of us who are heirs of Abra­ham are those times when it is seduct­ively attract­ive to find an easi­er, less demand­ing altern­at­ive to God. The test­ings which come in his­tory (and which are from God) drive us to find out wheth­er we mean what we say about our faith being groun­ded solely in the gos­pel.”

The phrase in the old ver­sion of the Lord’s Pray­er, ‘lead us not into tempta­tion’ is more accur­ately trans­lated ‘lead us not into test­ing or tri­al.’ That is why the new Pray­er Book changed the phrase to ‘save us from the time of tri­al.’ Tri­als, test­ings are allowed by God not because God is per­verse but because they are part of life in a fallen world.   Writ­ing to the Cor­inthi­ans Paul writes: “No test­ing has over­taken you that is not com­mon to every­one. God is faith­ful and he will not let you be tested bey­ond your strength, but with the test­ing he will provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10.13)

So we learn that the God who tests is also the God who provides. The Hebrew word trans­lated ‘provide’ is lit­er­ally the word for ‘see­ing.’ So the state­ment at the end of our Gen­es­is read­ing today: “on the mount of the Lord it shall be provided” can also be trans­lated, ‘On the mount of the Lord he shall be seen’. Even in our darkest moments the pres­ence of God is real. The idea of God the pro­vider is very evid­ent in the New Test­a­ment as well as in the Old. The same church which prays about the test­ing also prays for the provid­ing. The Lord’s Pray­er acknow­ledges that there is no oth­er source of pro­vi­sion.

As I men­tioned before, this story of the fath­er, Abra­ham, being will­ing to offer his son as a sac­ri­fice in order to please God has often been seen res­on­at­ing with the theme of God offer­ing up his Son in order to redeem the lost world. But the com­par­is­on may have unhelp­ful con­nota­tions. In the Gen­es­is story, Isaac is an unwill­ing vic­tim who is help­less in the situ­ation as evid­enced by his ques­tion, “Where is the lamb for sac­ri­fice?” Unlike, Isaac, Jesus was not the unwill­ing vic­tim. He chose the path he had to fol­low and he and his Fath­er were at one in their plan for our sal­va­tion. In Paul’s words, ‘God was in Christ recon­cil­ing the world to him­self.’ God did not kill Jesus.  God and his Son togeth­er became ‘the full, per­fect and suf­fi­cient sac­ri­fice for the sins of the whole world’, put­ting an end to any future sac­ri­fice. We wor­ship the cru­ci­fied and resur­rec­ted God revealed in Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

But the Abra­ham story does make a claim on us because it reminds us that all that we have, even our lives and those of the ones we love, belong ulti­mately to God. The story also assures us that this same God will provide and will be present with us to the end of our days. Amen.

Philip Brad­ford