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.