Sunday, July 2, 2017
Sermon: Provision and Testing
Provision and Testing
James Sledge July 2, 2017
I had a relative who was missing a good bit of one finger, and there was a family story about why. I don’t know that the story was true. I suspect not, but it goes like this. When this person was a child, her sibling or cousin – I don’t remember which – told her to put her hand down on a bench and he would cut off a finger with a hatchet. She complied, and he swung the hatchet. She assumed he wouldn’t actually go through with it; he assumed she would move her hand. Like I said, I doubt it’s true, but it’s a good story.
That story came to mind as I was thinking about the story we’re going to hear from Genesis where God commands Abraham to make a burnt offering of his son, Isaac. As with my family story, it seems like a story that could go horribly awry with one false move.
It is a frightening, even terrifying story. Christians have sometimes played that down by saying it prefigures Jesus and resurrection, trying to distract our attention from the horror of a story where God demands that Abraham put his son’s life in danger.
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.
Why on earth would God do such a thing? Surely this is simply some primitive story from a time when human sacrifice actually happened. Surely it has nothing to say to us. And yet this story was probably just a startling and frightening to the people of Israel. Israel abhorred the human sacrifice practiced by some of the cultures around them.
And while the origins of this story may well be primitive, the story as it appears in Genesis is quite sophisticated. It has a remarkable symmetry to it, a pattern that seems intended to guide our understanding. Three times Abraham is addressed and three times he responds with “Here I am.” Abraham is addressed by God, then by Isaac, and once more by God in the form of an angel. But in only one of those times does Abraham actually converse.
4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
God will provide. Here is the interpretive center of the story in this single time Abraham speaks to the one addressing him other than to say, “Here I am.” God will provide. The outcome of this frightening story hinges on whether or not this is true.
There’s also something else happening at this interpretive center that is partly obscured in English. There’s a whole lot of seeing going on. Not only does Abraham look up and see the place they are going, but he also speaks of God’s seeing. God himself will provide the lamb… may be the best possible English translation, but a literal reading says, “God himself will see the lamb.” The hinge point of this frightening story focuses on seeing.
Perhaps we should not be surprised by this. In the previous chapter of Genesis, the death of Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, was averted by seeing. When Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, laid him down to die in the wilderness, an angel appeared and spoke to her. And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. God provided. But back to Isaac and Abraham.
9When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12He said, “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.” 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide (see)”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided (seen).”
Now I know… Christian understanding of God’s nature is heavily influenced by Greek, philosophical ideas of Divinity’s static perfection, but the biblical God is much more dynamic. The biblical God takes great risk in partnering with humanity to bring blessing to the world. This plan is dependent on people like Abraham, on people like you and me, being able to trust God in extremely difficult situations.
In the stories of Abraham up to this point, he has sometimes been the consummate man of faith, but other times he has put God’s plan at risk to save his own skin. Now, in the last major story of the Abraham cycle, God tests Abraham. God will finally know whether this strange plan to bless the world is viable.
God is taking a big chance here. What if Abraham balks? What if he refuses to participate in God’s test? What then? Such questions echo down through the biblical story. What if, when the angel Gabriel visited the young virgin Mary to say she would bear a son, a king, a Messiah, she said, “No thanks. Find someone else”? What if Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane said, “No, I cannot do this”? What then? Such questions perhaps raise one more. Is untested faith really faith at all?
Questions about faith were especially poignant for the people of Israel during the Babylonian exile and just after, the time when the book of Genesis took final shape. God had allowed them to be defeated, Jerusalem destroyed, its survivors marched to exile in a foreign land. Perhaps Israel could identify with both Abraham and Isaac in this frightening story.
And what of us? Can we embrace this story as our own in some way? Many of us likely want God to provide. I know that I do. I’m less interested in a God who tests, although I wonder if true relationship with God is possible otherwise. Jesus seems to say as much when he gives us his model prayer. We are to pray for provision, for our daily bread, but Jesus also assumes testing. The old King James version of the prayer many of us learned says “lead us not into temptation.” But a newer version more accurately reflects Jesus’ words. “Save us from the time of trial,” of testing.
When Abraham is tested, he seems to know for sure that God will provide, will let him see a way through. It is a certainty born of being chosen and beloved by God. Knowing that he is beloved and precious, like an only son to God, he is sure that God will provide. God will show him a way that he cannot yet see as he journeys with Isaac to the land of Moriah.
You are God’s beloved, chosen and precious in God’s sight, each of you treasured like an only child. And in Christ, each of you has been called both to be blessed and to be an instrument of blessing. It is a calling that will at times put you to the test, will ask more of you than you think you are capable of, than we as a congregation think we are capable of.
The New Testament book of Hebrews defines faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. In a moment of horrific testing, Father Abraham somehow hopes, somehow trusts, that God will provide. God will see a way and will finally open Abraham’s eyes so he can see it too,
O Lord, help us to trust your provision, your seeing, and give us eyes to see as well