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“The Terrifying Story of Abraham and Isaac”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Terrifying Story of Abraham and Isaac”
(Genesis 22: 1-14)
April 2, 2017 (Vespers on the Fifth Sunday in Lent)

I will never forget Roger Barnes reading the story of Abraham and Isaac at worship. Like Abraham, Roger had a son, his name was Edward. Roger began to read, tentatively: “And God 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.’” His eyes welled up with tears. He read a bit further: “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife,” and he choked up. Roger tried to read further, “And Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Here am I, my son,’” and he sobbed.

Only when Roger came to God’s words, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me,” did his weeping subside.

You will likely dab a tear or two tonight as you listen to Nathan Hodgson and Timothy Keeler sing Benjamin Britten’s stunning “Abraham and Isaac.”

The story is one of the most terrifying of all the biblical texts. If you and I had been in charge of choosing what belonged in the Bible, we surely would have strenuously opposed inclusion of this horrific story in sacred canon. The account of Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac on a scorching fire is the stuff that gives religion a bad name and causes people to steer clear of the church altogether. The story prompts the crazy behavior of zealots who end up asserting, “I was just following God’s orders.” It goads terrorists to drive trucks into innocent gatherings and it incites fanatics to bomb abortion clinics. We wonder: did they hear some bizarre, beckoning voice similar to the one that commanded Abraham to climb that mountain and sacrifice his son Isaac?

As we watch heartbroken Abraham trudge up the mountain with his adoring son Isaac at his side, we can imagine saying exactly what Martin Luther who said, “I certainly admit my dullness; my donkey remains standing below and cannot ascend the mountain.” In fact, we pray tenaciously that we will never climb that mountain of brutality even if God commands us to do so.

As we contemplate this tale, we are driven to probe what God was up to. We dare not leave our brains with the ushers as we enter worship—we must not! We come here and leave here, wrestling with this chilling text until we better understand what in the world God is trying to tell us.

Many of us have faced something as horrendous as Abraham. Our excruciating pain has caused us to search frantically through our Bibles until the pages are crumpled and drenched with tears. We have stood on that terrible mountain with the horrific fire burning, begging the good Lord to spare us and those we love.

Soon after we listen to Britten’s “Abraham and Isaac,” we will chant a prayer: “Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, which you have given us in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.”

Tales like Abraham and Isaac inevitably drive us to hear and read, mark and learn, and inwardly digest in a way we may never have done before. We will likely find ourselves engaged in extended, even heated, conversation. We will demand, “What was that story all about, anyway?”

If we chew on this story, we will be better for it. We will realize how much Abraham adored his son Isaac: this wonder child, after all, was the one for whom Abraham and Sarah had waited for years and years. I pray you will come to the stunning realization that Isaac was also God’s dearly beloved child. Never forget: if Isaac had died, God’s chosen people would have disappeared from the face of the earth. Not only did the thought of Isaac burning on the bonfire break Abraham’s heart, more importantly, God’s heart was the first to break at the thought of Isaac roasting away. And, with even a little more grappling, you may come to realize—if you haven’t already—that you, too, are a precious child in God’s sight.

Never forget: God is the first to weep whenever the monstrous fires of hatred and death rage around us. Whatever is going on in the story of Abraham and Isaac, if you listen carefully enough, you will certainly hear God weeping. As frightening and bizarre as this story may seem, God eventually provided a ram in the thicket: Isaac did not die in this story! Also, remember, please, that God provided another ram in the thicket, God’s very son, Jesus Christ our Lord. It was not, and never is, God’s intention for even one little child to die. God loved Abraham and Isaac, and God loves you and me, now and forever.

“The Delightful Sound of Rattling Bones”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Delightful Sound of Rattling Bones”
(Ezekiel 37: 1-14; John 11: 1-45)
April 2, 2017 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

Of all the scenes in the Bible, the valley of dry bones must be the creepiest. Can you imagine God leading you by the hand and forcing you to look out over a valley of bones picked dry by vultures? What a shocking sight it must have been for the prophet Ezekiel.

If the sight of dry bones was not bad enough, God had to rub it in and ask Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

Have you ever looked out over a valley where, no matter how hard you struggled, you could not muster a smidgeon of hope? You gaped and wondered whether the bones could live; the only answer you could muster was, “Not in a million years!”

Ezekiel was not feeling particularly hopeful either. God’s people had recently been annihilated by King Nebuchadnezzar’s mighty army, the brightest and best of Israel had been hauled off to Babylon, and Jerusalem smoldered in ashes. God’s promise, the one about being a chosen nation and a kingdom of priests, was only a faint memory if at all. Ezekiel was crushed. When God asked, “Can these bones live?” the best he could propose was a scrawny, “O Lord God, you know.”

It was so strange that God asked Ezekiel whether the bones could live. Ezekiel had been brutally honest about Israel’s future. He had done the unthinkable and prophesied against his good neighbors, his beloved family, his cherished nation. He uttered brutal words on God’s behalf: “I will bring a sword upon you, and I will destroy your high places…Wherever you dwell your cities shall be waste and your high places ruined.”

Ezekiel understood exactly what Israel deserved. And yet, words of judgment are never the final ones for those who work for God—never! Judgment is only part of the equation and certainly never the life-giving part. It’s easy to find what’s bad in someone else. Such is the stuff of bullies who are far better criticizing others than building them up. People love to throw grenades and bark, “I am just telling the truth,” but such ruthless judgments alone are the coward’s way and never finally the way of the people of God.

Ezekiel could have looked out over that wretched valley littered with bones and when God asked, “Can these bones live?” uttered, “Are you kidding me? They got exactly what they deserved.” But that’s not what Ezekiel did. He didn’t just stop with judgment as tempting as that might have been. Faithful imagination always looks beyond dry bones and finds a way to proclaim, “O Lord God, you know.”

That, by the way, is where the creepy part of this story begins to give way to wonder. Because Ezekiel believed in a God of life, no matter how stunned and desperate the situation appeared, he still sought a way to prophesy hope. Listen: “Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.”

And Ezekiel didn’t stop there either. There was more: “I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

You have stood at that deathly valley of misery, a valley flowing with tears, a valley of restless nights. You have been there with Mary and Martha after their brother Lazarus died asking “why”? Mary and Martha cried, you cried, Jesus cried. So sad, so hopeless, just a valley of dry bones, and yet in that valley, by God’s grace, death is never the end of the conversation; instead, it leaves the answer in God’s hand just as Ezekiel uttered, “Only you know Lord.” All now hangs on the wondrous answers of God.

Gracie Allen, the comedian and zany wife of George Burns, once said, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” I love those words: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

The church’s story is always a cautionary tale against placing a period where God has placed a comma. The church, at its best, positions itself in the midst of bones. When all the angry judgments have been cast and the “I told you sos” have been lobbed, the church discovers a way to proclaim, “These bones shall live.” Together, we stand in the valley, listening carefully for the delightful sound of rattling bones.

But you know this. Perhaps someone has been your Ezekiel. When your insides felt like a carved-out cantaloupe, someone helped you stare into the desperate valley long enough so you finally were able to hear the delightful sound of bones rattling together.

Or perhaps you have been Ezekiel. With eyes burnt from constant weeping, you have found courage enough to put your arm around another long-sufferer and helped that wounded soul sing, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

I suppose that is why the church and our ministry are always held in suspicion, even in distain. We gather with scoundrels and villains, in intensive care units and graveyards, with people and in places where only God can make bones rattle to life.

Last Sunday morning when the choir sang the gorgeous strains of Psalm 23, I thought about skipping my sermon altogether—I really did. I was so moved by the music, so deeply touched to realize what a trusted friend Psalm 23 has been throughout my life, accompanying me through some pretty scary occasions and rough stretches. As the choir sang, I thought of you as well and I realized how God has been with you in your own valley of bones.

And so, my dear friends, whenever you find yourself gazing on dry bones, remember that God promises to come into your midst and to serenade you with the delightful music of rattling bones coming back into life. Please, please, never place a period where God only places a comma.