Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, October 16, 2016
Taken from Genesis 22:1-14
Country singer Sammy Kershaw has a song called ‘Fit to be Tied Down’, as in getting married.
“Tie me down, wrap me up in forever.
I’ve found something sweet in surrendering now.
Take me off the merry go round.
Going round in circles has got me nowhere
But a love like yours is really so rare
And I’m amazed at the treasure I’ve finally found
I’m on bended knee, ‘cause I’m fit to be tied down.” 1
“Tie me down, wrap me up in forever”: this idea of finding that perfect other in whom we find such promise, such delight, that we want to be bound to that person for all time, come what may.
The Bible often turns to the covenant of marriage as an example of God’s relationship with us. We have bound ourselves to God, and God has bound God’s own Self to us. We delight in God.
We fully expect, though, to reap rewards of some kind out of this bond between God and us. The ancient Jews understood it this way, that what rewards God had for them would be realized in this lifetime. We enter into this way of life, of faith, of religious practice and devotion with some of that same expectation.
I heard it put this way once, that God looks after His regular customers first. That makes sense. We are God’s regular customers, aren’t we? That’s why we patronize this establishment we call church and we throw our business God’s way. We might reasonably expect something from God that God would not give to nonbelievers. So, too, with Abraham.
As Sammy Kershaw sings, Abraham has tied himself to God in a covenant of promise. Abraham has wrapped himself up in forever with God. Because, God has promise Abraham, in exchange for his faith, God will provide Abraham a vast inheritance of family and land and renown.
Many, many years pass. God keeps on promising and promising; Abraham and Sarah keep on believing in God; they kept on investing themselves in God’s promise. Even when all reasonable hope is long gone from Abraham and Sarah, they hope beyond reason. A ninety-year old woman and a 100-year old man do not bear children.
At that point, then, God blesses Sarah and Abraham in the birth of their son, Isaac. Truly, a child of God’s own doing, a child who is pure gift. After so, so many decades, Abraham and Sarah finally reap the fruit of their faithfulness. Through this, their son, their only son, their son so loved by them, through Isaac will God fulfill the promise, of land and descendants and renown.
So, it is with great poignancy that one day God says to Abraham, as verse 2 records: Abraham, take your son…your only son…your son whom you love…go to a land I will show you, and there slit his throat and burn his body whole: I want him back.
With the smoke that would rise up off that sacrificial pyre, literally, up in smoke would go the promise God had made to Abraham decades before. As the sacrificial fire immolated the body of Isaac, lifting and scattering his ashes across the plains of Palestine, the story of Abraham simply would turn to dust taken back by the desert. That would be that.
Abraham would die a very old, broken, godforsaken man. A man who had placed all his hope in the God, who in the end, decided to take it all back.2 After all they’d been through, no land, no son, no descendants, no renown.
We modern readers read this Scripture, in horror at the thought that God—the very same God whom we worship–would demand a child-sacrifice. That is a horrible thought. But, we miss the other horror in this account, the horror that in the end, God would cast Abraham’s life aside. God’s illusive and ultimately broken promise to Abraham would prove this man to be the fool who bound himself to this arbitrary, desert God who in the end could not be trusted.
That is the temptation God lays before Abraham: for this awful realization to seize Abraham, the glaring madness of throwing his life away on an illusion such as this. Should not Abraham go now, this very moment, grab hold of his dear son, Isaac’s hand, and run while he’s still got some breath in him and some wealth at his disposal. Should not Abraham salvage what he can, so that at least Isaac might yet live and marry and bear children. That’s what’s on the line here.
That’s what’s on the line for us all, each one of us, for we have bound ourselves to the promises of this very same desert God. It is Abraham’s God whom we meet through the later witness of this Palestinian Jew of Nazareth named Jesus.
We even hear the same call as God made to Abraham about Isaac here in Genesis 22, in what Jesus later says to his first followers and to us. As Matthew’s Gospel account records for us, there came a moment when Jesus says, what you love most in this life, you must sacrifice to find God’s promise fulfilled for you:
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me;” says Jesus, “and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10:37-39)
Perhaps we all, like Abraham, should grab the hand of our nearest loved one and run from this place and get as far away as we can from this God and this Jesus to whom we have bound ourselves. For, it turns out that God’s covenant of life seems to have a very strong element of sacrifice and death to it.
Well, before any of us take fire and knife in hand to slay our loved ones, let’s talk a moment about Scripture itself. Does Abraham literally take fire and knife and wood and child off to the mountains, fully intending to return the child back to God by way of burnt offering? Yes, he does.
Do we have reason to, say, second-guess Abraham in that scenario? Yes, we do. But, such second-guessing of Scripture brings its own dangers with it. We will return to that topic, the dangers of second-guessing the Scriptures that offend us.
But, first, let’s observe that there are two ways to read the Bible as revelation from God. The first way is what I would call a “flat reading” of the Scriptures. That is, it’s all the same: every word and every verse is equal.
You may have heard it stated this way: if you don’t believe that Adam and Eve were real, well then how can you believe that Jesus really died for your sins and rose from the grave? Oh, that drives me nuts!
To me, that has the same false logic that says, “My flower garden has all roses in it. My neighbor has a flower garden. Therefore, all the flowers in my neighbor’s garden must be roses.”
As I suggested Sunday before last when we looked at the account of Deborah and Jael, another view of Scripture is to understand it as revelation that progresses over time, generation by generation.
Long before the internet and personal computers were in the home, there were printed encyclopedias in the home. I loved our World Book Encyclopedia collection: twenty volumes in white faux leather binding, plus an annual supplement. My Number One favorite volume included the S’s, because that had the article on “Space” with its illustrations of the planets.
My second favorite volume contained the H’s, because it included this amazing display of the human body. The publisher put in this series of clear acetate overlays. For you younger folks, acetate overlays were these clear, plastic pages that had graphics printed on them.
So, the human body had these several acetate overlays. The page itself showed a human skeleton standing there on the page. Then, you laid the first piece of clear acetate on top of the page showing the skeleton, and now, you had all the major organs, blood vessels and nervous system there superimposed your human skeleton.
Then, came the next page of clear acetate, and that page overlaid all the muscles and tendons and other gross stuff. So, what you were doing was building yourself a human body from the inside-out. The last overlay was the skin and hair. You laid that one down, and there before you was a stark naked human being of indeterminate gender, sort of like a Ken-doll.
Now, the flat view of the Bible is like looking at the final, outside view of the human body and saying that that’s all there is to be seen and known of Scripture: skin is skin and that’s all there is. A truer view of the Bible, though, is like what the actual human body is like. You’ve got your basic skeleton, your basic structure.
That might be like, say the Books of Genesis and Exodus and Joshua and Judges and Kings. God’s laying out some basic structure on which God will progressively build up revelation.
Then, on top of that, you’ve got your major blood vessels and nervous system. That would be your prophets and your psalms and proverbs and so forth that include perhaps the highlight that comes in the prophet Micah, where this topic of sacrificing children to God comes up again. Micah gives voice to an angry, devout worshipper who facetiously demands of God,
With what shall I come before the Lord…shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
(I know!) Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
And, what is God’s response through the prophet?
God has shown you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God? (6:6-8)
That’s quite a step forward from child-sacrifice.
Finally, what comes in this progressive compilation of revelation? The flesh, the skin, the face. For us Christians, that would be the Gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth, God among us, incarnate, along with the rest of the New Testament.
So, when we read such as this, in Genesis 22, when Abraham hears God and understands God: “go slit your son’s throat and burn him whole as an offering to me, because that’s the God I am,” we’re looking at some of the bare bones revelation.
We’re looking at God setting forth one choice for how Abraham might understand God because that’s the way Abraham’s contemporaries understood what gods did to people. God is testing Abraham by really, really asking whether Abraham can accept God as current religions theologized about gods. It’s not who God really is, but it is how people of Abraham’s day understood their gods.
But! Note this: given our proclivity to avoid the hard things in life, there is a strong likelihood in second-guessing Abraham, we might go too far the other way and gut this story of its truth. Just as we are very likely to do that, too, to avoid the cross to which Jesus would point his first followers and us.
When it comes to sacrifice for God, we rarely seek a balance. We seek total avoidance of sacrifice. In doing so, we avoid the promise of life which only God can give us, just as only God could give to Abraham and Sarah, this child Isaac; just as only God through Jesus can give us the life of which Jesus speaks.
And, this is Abraham’s dilemma: is the God of promise and life also the God of devastation and death? Does God truly throw the faithful back and forth, the way a predator plays with its prey?
Abraham sharpens his knife and gathers ups a bundle of good, dry wood. He takes hot coals from the home fire, enough to last to start that night’s camp fire. He calls Isaac and some servants, and they head out into the wilderness to a destination not yet revealed to Abraham. He knows only his purpose.
For two nights and two mornings, he examines the knife, he gathers the embers of the night’s fire, he calls his son Isaac and the servants to journey further into the wilderness, knowing only the journey must soon be over.
On the third morning, they again set out. The moment comes during the day when Abraham realizes they have arrived to the place of sacrifice. He tells the servants to remain where they are. He and Isaac will go on from here to worship God through offering a burnt offering, and, Abraham says in verse 5, we will come again to you.
Abraham knows of no way that he and Isaac will come back from that place together. He knows nothing of resurrection. What can be resurrected from ash and a few charred bones?
Abraham walks up that mountain with Isaac by his side, with these two irreconcilable convictions warring within his soul that morning: the conviction that God has promised land and descendents to him and the conviction that God has called him to sacrifice all hope of that promise coming true.
Abraham holds these two, mutually excluding convictions. Yet, he proclaims, we will return. It is, absolutely, trust in God based on nothing other than his long-practiced habit of trusting in God that keeps this man walking. So, he can answer Isaac’s question, “Father, where is the lamb to be sacrificed?” With nothing other than faith based on faith, Abraham answers, “God will provide. ”
Now, the fact that God finally stops Abraham in one way softens our protest against this story. There is no child-sacrifice, after all, thank God. There is, though, the unanswerable question of whether God truly would test Abraham in this way. We wish not, but then what if? What if God really was in this from the start as verse one tells us?
I cannot answer that question for you. The only thing I can tell you is that Abraham’s supreme witness of faith was this: Abraham was ready to walk off that mountain with only God by his side. He had bound himself to the only eternity he knew for certain was his: God, alone.
We have a vastly fuller and more nuanced understanding of God than Abraham could have known. But what Abraham had of true worth is what Jesus calls on us to have as well: this conviction, that we will bind ourselves to Jesus the Living Christ, alone, even though we lose all else precious to us in this world. This is the hard part of faith that calls for long Abraham-like practice. A life-long practice of faith that finally accepts, life with God is enough for me, in this life. In this realization, says Jesus, we begin to find life.
1 Sammy Kershaw, “Fit to be Tied Down”, Politics, Religion and Me (Mercury Nashville, 1996)
2 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, The Old Testament Library, rev ed, Westminster Press, 1972, p. 244