Sermon July 2: The Fear of Isaac

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Faith United Methodist Church

July 2, 2017

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Kristabeth Atwood

Scripture:  Genesis 22:1-14, Psalm 13

Prayer for Illumination:

We thirst for your presence, O God.  When we feel that you have forgotten us, draw close to us and remind us of your steadfast love.  When things feel difficult, show us that you are with us and provide for our needs.  When we are tempted, assure us of the freedom of life in Christ.  When we feel estranged from you, welcome us with your grace, that your love may transform us in the arms of your mercy.  Amen.

Sermon:  The Fear of Isaac

 Last week we thought we had a tough scripture, with the story of Abraham sending his first-born Ishmael away from the family and out into the wilderness.  Sarah wanted Abraham to prune some limbs off the family tree so her son, Isaac, would be the one to inherit the family fortune, the flocks and the herds….. and the blessing.   But today it looks like all that is in jeopardy.   The longed-for son, the bearer of the blessing, may not make it out alive.  The Scripture tells us that Abraham received message from God telling him to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering on a mountain in the land of Moriah, so that was what Abraham set out to do.

This summer we are following along with Abraham and Sarah, watching the story of their family unfold, for our summer worship series “Family Stories.”  In the weeks to come we will see how the blessing is carried from generation to generation.  And we’ve already seen that those who bear the promise are not perfect people.  Thank God one doesn’t have to be blameless in order to be part of God’s work in the world.  But today’s story pushes the boundaries a little…. far.

The story starts with God calling out to Abraham, to which Abraham responded, “Here I am.”  Now, the Hebrew word translated “here I am” is hineni.   (As an aside, this word, hineni, has recently stepped into the cultural vocabulary with Leonard Cohen’s last album You Want It Darker, which received a lot of press both before and after he died.)  Hineni.  The word conveys much more than it’s English translation can capture.  Hineni means, “Here I am to do whatever you ask of me.  I give myself over to you.”  So here we see Abraham trusting God so much that he basically agrees to do whatever God asks before he even knows what the request is.  And why wouldn’t he?  God had promised ~ and delivered ~ lands, riches, a son.  So why wouldn’t Abraham trust God?

But then the unimaginable happened.  Abraham heard God tell him to take his beloved Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering, a sacrifice.  So, as the Scripture continues, we see Abraham get up early, gather supplies, and lead his son up the mountain.  First century rabbis, writing on this passage, point out that Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice as one carries his own cross.

There are many questions about this story.  As Kathryn Schifferdecker asks, “Is it a story of an abusive God?  A misguided Abraham?  Religious violence at its worst?  Or is it a story of faith and obedience?”  Is this all a nasty joke God played to see how far he could push Abraham?  It makes very little sense to me.  Why would God finally give Abraham and Sarah their long awaited boy ~ the fulfillment of all their dreams ~ only to threaten to take him away?  Would God be so cruel?  And why would Abraham have to be tested?  As an elderly man he had already left his homeland and all he knew to follow God into the wilderness.  Wasn’t that test enough?

Test or not, though, Abraham followed through and just as he was prepared to sacrifice his son God, again, called out to Abraham.  And Abraham, again, responded, “Hineni – Here I am.”  God then called the whole thing off, telling Abraham to unbind his son.  Instead Abraham found a ram in the bushes nearby and put that on the altar for sacrifice.  The scripture doesn’t tell us how Isaac responded – shock, anger, fear?  As Allen Pruit points out, “An old Jewish midrash claims that Abraham came back down the mountain, and that Isaac went down the other side, never again to speak to his father, the one who shattered his trust.” 

We know ~ whether from our own families or stories we have heard from others ~ that horrible things can happen in families; horrible things can happen to children.  Abuse.  Neglect.  Abandonment.  Sometimes one moment in time can separate our lives into a before and after, like lightening splitting the sky in two.  I suspect that was the case for Isaac.  From this time on, whenever God is mentioned in relation to Isaac, God is referred to as The Fear of Isaac.  Later, when Jacob, the son of Isaac, swore an oath by the God of his fathers he prayed to The God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac.  What happened to Isaac on that mountain affected Isaac for the rest of his life.

Now we assume, and we’ve been taught, that since Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, he passed the test.  But what if ~ and this is a big ‘what if’~ what if Abraham didn’t pass the test?  What if there was really no test at all?  What if Abraham took it upon himself ~ out of pride or arrogance ~ to prove his faith, to sacrifice his own son?  What if Abraham misunderstood God’s instructions?  What if Abraham failed his test – and God redeemed Abraham and saved Isaac in spite of it?  As Allen Pruit asks, “What if, instead, this story is a description of the fall, a story of sin and a world out of touch with the love of God?”

I suspect that Isaac’s heart was broken by the actions of his father up on the mountain in Moriah.  Yet, I am reminded of the old African American spiritual, “God never comes when I call him, but he always comes in time.”  And, I suspect that Abraham’s heart was broken as well.  No, he didn’t sacrifice his son, but he sacrificed the relationship he had with the boy he loved so dearly.  They both lost a lot on that mountain.  Sometimes relationships are damaged beyond repair.  And, in this whole story, we hear nothing of Sarah, who was so present up until now.  Did she beg Abraham not to do it?  Did Isaac blame her, too? 

Family stories aren’t simple, that’s for sure.  But neither are they always as challenging or convoluted as the stories we’ve explored these last two weeks.  Yet these stories do show how our hearts, sometimes, get broken.  And stories also show how are hearts, sometimes, get mended.  Next week we will hear the story of Isaac meeting and marrying Rebecka.  A love story, perhaps, as arranged marriages go.  Out of the marriage of Isaac and Rebecka, the story (and the promise) begun by God in Abraham continues.  “God never comes when I call him, but he always comes in time.”  Thanks be to God.