Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Binding of Isaac

The Binding of Isaac from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Romans 3:21-26
21But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteous of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Genesis 22:1-13
1After these things God tested Abraham. He said “Abraham!” And he said “Here I am.” 2 He 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.” So Abraham rose early in the morning and 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. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then Abraham said to his young Kent, “Stay here with the donkey; the. Oh 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 tow of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

9When they came to the place at 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 for 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 the thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

I’ve known this sermon was coming since November 14, 2015. That’s when I found out that my son, my only son William, whom I love, was coming. This is my first Father’s Day as a parent, and it’s a formidable day for one who is called to publicly wrestle with the word of God.

We read this story as children, in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, or I those illustrated Children’s Bibles. But like so many of those Bible stories from our childhoods, we don’t revisit them as adults. The setting-in-life in which we read the Bible greatly impacts our perspective on it. For a child, this is a story of a faithful father and a God who protects and provides. But for a father…

“After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He 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…”

For me, as a father, reading this story is an exercise in horror. In this story our Heavenly Father puts Abraham through unspeakable anguish by commanding him to sacrifice his son, his only son Isaac, whom he loved.

This is not a passage that could go unpreached for me. So I’ve known this day was coming for as long as I’ve known I was going to be a father.

But Abraham did not know that this day was coming. He know that God had promised him more descendants than could be counted, even though he and his wife Sarah were barren. He knew that God carried out that promise, and that their son Isaac was the laughter in Sarah’s heart. Abraham knew the greatness of God’s faithfulness. He knew that the chapter before this one, God promised that Abraham’s descendants would indeed be counted through Isaac. He knew that Isaac was a gift from God, and the child of promise.

Perhaps more importantly, Isaac was not, to Abraham, some abstract theological concept. He wasn’t a symbol who could be replaced with another stand-in. Isaac is his son, and Abraham loves him. God knows this too, and his command is structured with that relationship in mind. God could have said, “I have given you gifts so that you could give them back, therefore take the child I have given you to the land of Moriah...” Theologically still troubling, but reminds Abraham to whom Isaac ultimately belongs. God could have said that, but instead, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…”

Every line intensifies Abraham’s anguish. God knows the struggle intimately, and commands it anyway to test Abraham. Your son, your only son Isaac, the one you love.

Abraham knew that God’s promises were reliable, that God was faithfulness is great. “His mind, however, must of necessity have been severely crushed, and violently agitated, when the command and the promise of God were conflicting within him.” Abraham, the paradigm of a faithful servant of God, comes down on the side of the command of God.

The story keeps moving, not letting up. “So 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.” Some folks see this immediate obedience as a sign of faith in Abraham. I see it as a secret shame. Scripture does not tell us what is going on in Abraham’s mind, only what he does. It also doesn’t mention Sarah at all. When I read this passage, I think and anguished servant of God has decided to obey God’s command to do this unspeakable horror to his family. He cannot have discussed it with anyone. This guilt will lay only on himself. So the man with many servants saddles the donkey himself, he cuts the wood himself, and he leaves with a small group that doesn’t know what’s coming.

Not even Abraham knows what’s coming. He knows when he tells the young men to wait that it’s very possible that only one of them will return.  He knows what could coming when he “[takes] the wood of the burnt offering and [lays] it on his son Isaac.” He is rehearsing for when he lays the wood around the altar. He knows what could be coming when “he himself [carries] the fire and the knife.” He is preparing himself to complete the command he has commenced. He does not know if God will intervene to stop the sacrifice. He does not know how God will keep his promise if Abraham does choose to sacrifice Isaac.

He does not even know how to answer is son, his only son Isaac, whom he loves, when Isaac asks “where is the lamb?” Abraham’s answer Issac is at the same time a statement of faith and a confession of anguished unknowing. “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering my son.” He talks of provision, and repeatedly calls him “my son,” but he does not tell Isaac what lies ahead. “Abraham does not tell Isaac all he wants to know because Abraham himself does not know. He does not know at this moment if Isaac is God’s act of provision.” When we sing “All I have needed thy hand hath provided;” in Abraham’s place, it is suddenly much less hopeful.

But we do know what’s coming, because we’ve read this story before. It was told to us in the colorful classrooms of our childhood, a testament to the faith of Abraham and the protection of our God who provides. We know that God our father is faithful. As children we see that God stops Abraham before the terrible command can be carried out. We see God learns something of the depth of Abraham’s faith, since he did not withhold even his son, his only son, from God. We know that there is a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns.

But as a father, and as an adult son, reading this passage, I see so many other things as well. I see how close Abraham got to carrying out the sacrifice. He “reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.” This story comes so close to tragedy, and God intervenes only at the last possible moment. God’s command is rescinded and Abraham’s fear of the LORD is commended.

The remainder of the chapter does not give an explanation as to why God would test Abraham this way. It gives a restatement of the covenant God had made long ago with Abraham, an unsatisfying reward for the agonizing three days Abraham has spent traveling to offer his son as a burnt offering. The fallout I’m sure continued within Abraham’s family after this chapter ends. Had I been in Isaac’s place, I would have had trust issues with both Abraham and his God for quite some time. Had I been in Abraham’s place, I’m not sure I would have gone in the first place. “We find, indeed, all men ready to boast that they will do as Abraham did; but when it comes to the trial, they shrink from the [command] of God.” But I’m sure Abraham’s faith needed more bolstering than is recorded in this chapter after this traumatic test.

In the nest chapter, Sarah dies. While there is not a cause-of-death given, I speculate that she heard what happened when they got back, and it was too much for her. I think Abraham knew it would be, and that’s why he didn’t tell her when he rose early in the morning.

This story is still the kind of thing where I want to call God out and demand an explanation.

Until we see what God does with his son, his only son Jesus, whom he loves.

Abraham’s heavenly father could not bear to Abraham’s despair, and ended the test. But when it came time for a sacrifice that would free all people from the power of sin and death, God our Father did not withhold his own son, but offered him up as a sacrifice once-for-all-time, ensuring that a test like Abraham’s would never need to be carried to completion.

In Jesus we find the freedom to follow the command of God, because we have seen the promise of the resurrection. We know what’s coming, we have heard and believed the promises of God, and that gives us strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. We live in faith, and our faith is in the God who raises the dead. “Resurrection concerns the keeping of a promise when there is no ground for it. Faith is nothing other than trust in the power of resurrection against every deadly circumstance.” No matter how agonizing the challenge that is set before us, we can know that God goes with us, and that even if we fail, there is great faithfulness and amazing grace to set us right again.

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