4th Sunday after Pentecost/Year A
Today we continue the story of Abraham that we have been hearing the last several weeks. The story today is commonly called “the binding of Isaac,” or “the testing of Abraham,” where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son. To our modern sensibilities this is a horrible story, but in the ancient near east, child sacrifice was a normal part of appeasing the deities commonly worshipped there. This is a story of a God demanding the sacrifice of a son, but the son of Abraham's old age, Sarah's only son, their one hope for the future. And not just their future: God had promised Abraham and Sarah that through this son all the world would be blessed.
What on earth does this kind of wild, untamed God have to do with us moderate, middle class folks who put on our Sunday best for an hour of worship and coffee hour, maybe followed by lunch with friends or family? What does this kind of sacrifice have to do with our struggles to find a few minutes for prayer, to be decent to our friends and family, to help out a little in a charity? There's little here that suggests a God who is nice, or polite, or kind; this God is no gentle uncle, or remote, loving grandfather.
"Give it up," this God says to Abraham. "Take what you love most, what you care most about, what you have tied up your hopes in, and turn lose of it." Absurd? Maybe. But maybe not.
"Give up," our lives seem to say to us in one way or another. Sometimes it's the whisper of this wild God asking us to turn loose, to sacrifice. Sometimes it's life screaming what no God would ever will for us. A God who demands sacrifice; who permits tragedy.
Much of the wisdom of this story is simple and profound: Sacrifice is built into anything that finally matters. There is no deep friendship without self-giving; there is no thriving child without the labor of child-birth; there is no community without the countless acts of generosity. For the Ultimate One to demand sacrifice is to say that sacrifice is the cost of life itself.
When we are thrown up against this hard mystery of risking and sacrifice and suffering, it can feel like a test - like Abraham being tested. Can we trust? Is there a Love behind what life is saying to us? Is there a Purpose inscrutably at work?
Abraham was willing to sacrifice everything, and he seems to have trusted some meaning in it all: "God will provide," he muttered to Isaac. Everything somehow depended on seeing that the One who had given him everything, who had promised him blessing, could be trusted, with everything. "Give it up..." Yes, if it has to be, this terrifying God can be trusted.
But of course, sometimes we don't give it up, it's taken from us, stripped away. Why do bad things happen to good people?" It's one thing for God to permit us to lose what we love, to be stripped of what matters most, our health, our loves, our jobs, our futures. What kind of God is this?
Just after the Second World War a German pastor named Gunther Rutenborn wrote a play called The Sign of Jonas that attempted to answer that question.
A trial is set to find out who was responsible for the terrible years caused by Nazi Germany. Charges are brought against Hitler himself. Some blame the munitions, manufacturers who profit from the war. Others blame the cowardly German, people who refused to stand up to Hitler. None of it, though, seems quite enough -- until a man stands up in the audience to say, "Do you know who's to blame? God is. Isn't He the one who created this awful world? Didn't He give them the power to do that kind of evil, didn't He allow it to happen, can't the misery be laid at His feet?" (So they decided to put God on trial for the crime of creation -- for creating a world where such terrible things happen.) And He is quickly found guilty of the crime and is sentenced. The judge says that because of the enormity of God's crime, His punishment will be the worst conceivable: "I hereby sentence the Creator God to have to come and live in this world under the same anguish and loss that everyone else has to." And he charges the three Archangels, Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael, to perform the sentence.
Gabriel walks to one end of the stage and stands brooding, and then says, "When God has to serve I want Him to see what it's like to be an obscure, enchained human being. He'll be born in the middle of nowhere and grow up in a country occupied by foreign forces, a Jew in a Jew-hating world."
Raphael walks to the other end of the stage and says, "When God has to serve His sentence, I'm going to see to it that He knows what it's like to be frustrated and insecure. He'll know what it's like to be a refugee with no place to lay His head. His plans won't be fulfilled. No one will understand him. And He will go to his grave a failure, not sure He's accomplished anything."
Finally, Michael steps to the middle of the stage. "I'm going to see that He knows what it's like to suffer in every conceivable way. He'll be rejected and know what that's like. He'll suffer and know pain. He will be spat on, tormented, ridiculed, die the slow torture of a common criminal."
And with that the lights go out, and the audience sits, utterly quiet in the dark, as the awareness dawns: God has served the sentence.
Four hundred years ago the wife of the great reformer Martin Luther listened as her husband read this story of Abraham and Isaac and demanded, "How could a loving God ask Abraham to sacrifice his only son?" "Why Katy," Luther said to her, "He did it himself."
This is a wild God we are dealing with. A God who asks of us everything. A God who allows in this world everything, and then comes to live with us in it. And our pain becomes His pain, until finally He heals it all.
Give it up to let it go. How else will we ever know the Love who is holding us if we are so busy clinging to life for ourselves? But who of us can make that sacrifice willingly, who has enough courage, or faith, or trust? And so, the far end of God's demand that Abraham give up everything was this: God provided the ram. The offering we cannot make has been made for us.
A man turns his face to Jerusalem, to suffering and rejection. "Give it up," he must be hearing.
He walks up a mountain, not far from where Abraham and Isaac had been, dragging a cross behind. This wild God who gives us everything, who asks of us everything, who is with us in everything, in the moment of our most profound test, we can say with Abraham, “the Lord will provide.”