June 28, 2020


Genesis 22:1-14
Matthew 10:40-42

“Wavering Faith”

In the email I sent out to the congregation in preparation for this Sunday, I noted that I would be attempting to preach on Genesis 22 this morning, the story sometimes called “The Binding of Isaac” or “The Command to Sacrifice Isaac.” I mentioned that one commentary describes the passage as “one of the most famous, infamous, vexing, compelling, repugnant, fascinating, horrifying, suspenseful stories in the Bible.” The same author suggests that “It’s a dangerous story, so we have to tread carefully. And it’s a story full of treasure, which is why it’s been prized in both Jewish and Christian traditions for thousands of years.”

This familiar passage comes up in the lectionary once every three years, and many Christians hear it every year at Easter, as it’s one of the key texts in the Easter Vigil liturgy. And yet, it has engendered heated debate over the centuries. 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? I remember one summer when it came up in the readings, another preacher was filling in for me while I was away on holidays. She preached a non-traditional interpretation of the story, and people were still talking about it three weeks later when I returned!

There is a Yiddish folk tale that goes something like this: Why did God not send an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Because God knew that no angel would take on such a task. Instead, the angels said, “If you want to command death, do it yourself.”

Another author begins with a question in approaching this story: “What do we do with this text? It’s horrifying – that Abraham would plan to kill his son as an act of faith and that God would command it.” But a little later on she writes, “However, let me make some observations that might help us to hold our horror in tension with what is really beautiful in this text.”

A good starting point is to make sure that we’re not reading the story in isolation, as if it makes sense as a story outside of its context. We’re assisted by the fact that we have been following the lectionary, so we’ve heard some of the other stories about Abraham and Sarah over the last few weeks, and we must take them into consideration.

Today’s text begins with the words, “After these things…” connecting what happens now with what just happened. Indeed, this story is the culmination of a series of episodes in Abraham and Sarah’s life, beginning when God calls Abram to “go from your country… to the land that I will show you,” promising that his descendants will be “a great nation,” and that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Throughout the story, the major question concerns how this promise of God will be fulfilled. Since they don’t seem to be able to produce children, and they are getting older and older, there seems a need for some kind of intervention to get started on that long line of descendants that will become a great nation.

As life continues and Sarah doesn’t get pregnant, or we might imagine her going through a long series of miscarriages, Abraham’s faith wavers. Back at the beginning, he responded to God without hesitation, packing up and going to the land that God would show him. A few chapters later, we read that Abraham believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness.

At other times, however, Abraham acts in ways that suggest doubt. Twice, out of fear, he tries to pass off his wife as his sister and Sarah ends up in the bedroom of the local ruler. So worried about producing an heir, he sleeps with a woman other than his wife (albeit at Sarah’s bidding). He laughs when God tells him again that Sarah will bear a child in her old age. Throughout, there are indications that Abraham still doesn’t quite trust God to accomplish what he promised, or believe that God is a god of his word.

Eventually, of course, Abraham does have a son. Indeed, he has two sons. First there is Ishmael, born of Hagar the slave-woman; and then there is Isaac, born of Sarah when she is 90 years old. But when Isaac miraculously arrives, Sarah and Abraham contemptuously dismiss Hagar and Ishmael, exiling them into the forbidding wilderness, so that Isaac alone will inherit God’s blessing.

One commentator suggests that now “A blinding spotlight falls on Isaac: he’s now the sole means for Abraham and Sarah’s legacy, for the validity of God’s promise, for the ‘great nation’ to come, and ultimately for God’s plan to bless ‘all the families of the earth.’ And then comes this week’s harrowing story.”

Everyone seems to agree about one important point – that God has no intention of Isaac actually being killed. And as readers, we are prompted to notice that right from the beginning when the text tells us, “After these things God tested Abraham.”

Indeed, God desires neither Isaac nor Ishmael to die. On the contrary, God protects them both, cares for them both, and fulfills promises to make them each ancestors of multitudes. The “command” God gives Abraham to sacrifice his son is only a supposed one, a ploy, a device; God has no intention of Abraham actually going through with it, and expressly prevents him from doing so.

Some interpreters actually see the primary purpose of the passage as a rejection of child sacrifice, which was apparently practiced at some points in Israelite history. It shows clearly that God does not require or enjoy the death of a child, as God prevents the violence and provides another way.

Although historically, that’s probably a helpful message to get across, I don’t think it’s the main point of the story. Certainly, it’s not the main thing for us to take away from the story today. We already know, without a doubt, that God would not, could not require child sacrifice. But like Abraham, our faith may need some testing too.

There are times in his story, when it looks like Abraham has faith. He trusts that God is going to bless him and his family, and he goes where God tells him to go with faith that God’s good promises to him will be fulfilled. But it’s when things don’t seem to be going well for him that he takes things into his own hands. When God doesn’t seem to be coming through, he makes up his own schemes, and with Sarah’s help hatches different plans to make sure that things will work out for them.

If Abraham and Sarah have faith, it is often manifest as a rather self-serving kind of faith – a faith that flows from experiencing God’s blessings, but wavers when things aren’t going so well for them. A “faith-for-the-sake-of-gain” rather than a “faith-for-the-sake-of-love.”

Just think, Abraham and Sarah welcomed the birth of Ishmael when it seemed like their only chance of having some descendants. But when Isaac is born, they are willing to send Ishmael and his mother into the wilderness to die.

So, God tests Abraham’s faith by commanding him to give up Isaac too. One commentator explains it this way: “The death of Isaac would mean the death of Abraham’s beloved son, and at the same time, it would mean the death of God’s promise, the death of the dream – which Abraham’s now been nurturing for years – that his descendants will become a great nation, and that Isaac will inherit God’s blessing. It would cancel that inheritance, the very thing Abraham and Sarah tried to hoard for themselves alone, when they exiled Hagar and Ishmael.”

The story points out that their so-called faith has been self-serving, and challenges them to consider whether they are willing to give it all up, whether they are willing to stop fighting and scheming and hoarding God’s blessings for themselves, and just trust God.

The SALT Commentary notices that “This basic ambiguity, the temptation to use faith and blessing for self-serving purposes, is present from the outset of Abraham’s saga. As soon as God calls on Abram to “Go to the land that I will show you,” promising descendants and blessings, the ambiguity appears. Will Abram follow God’s command out of obedience, or opportunism? Out of loving respect, or hunger for advantage? Out of humility or arrogance? After ten chapters of mixed evidence, God arranges a test.”

And Abraham passes the test. He shows that he’s willing to give up his dream, his hope for the future, his special promise of blessed descendants and a great nation. There are hints in the text that he somehow believes God will provide another way than the killing of his child. He tells the men accompanying them that “we” – that is, both he and Isaac – will return after worshipping on the mountain. And when Isaac asks him, “Where is the lamb?” Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb” – a remark that suggests the enduring hope that somehow God will yet deliver them from the unthinkable.

Still, Abraham is ready to go through with it. He takes the knife to kill his only son, as God commands, showing that he is willing to trust God, even if it means giving everything up.

So, what about us? What kind of faith do we have? Is it a faith that is rooted in the experience of God’s blessings and that wavers when things do not go well for us?

There is a warning in this story for us – to beware of temptations to practice faith as a strategy for gain, rather than a humble form of love and generosity. Do we serve others for the gratitude and accolades we will receive? Do we worship God for the good feelings we will experience in praise and prayer? Do we present our offerings and gifts with the expectation of being well-regarded by each other or by God? Do we follow where God is leading us only when the path appears to lead towards good things for us?

Jesus came into the world with good news of God’s love for us, but he called disciples to follow his Way. And following his Way involved giving up their livelihoods, their families, their plans and dreams. They weren’t respected or welcomed everywhere they went, and they suffered rejection and violence from people, just as Jesus did. But for all of this risk and suffering, Jesus promised them – and Jesus promises us – that “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Likewise, there is good news in the story of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac too. The good news is that God will keep faith with us, mercifully transforming our faith into an ever more humble, more generous, more beautiful, more pervasive presence in our lives – and in so doing, bring us more deeply into God’s mission of love, such that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”