Sermon Text: Genesis 22: 1-14 and Matthew 10: 40-42
A test is a procedure intended to establish the quality, performance, or reliability of something or someone. For most people the word “test” probably evokes memories of school. Memories of spelling, multiplication tables, anatomy, Scan Tron sheets will all of their many multiple choice bubbles, or the dreaded blue books. I can’t tell you how many blue books I filled out writing essays for tests in college and seminary. I think most people would agree that tests are no fun…and that extends past school, to driving tests, medical tests, and that stupid test you need to do with home printers to make sure your ink cartridges are properly aligned.
I imagine that Abraham felt the same way about tests, except he didn’t know that he was being tested by God when he received his instructions. He was given a test that I know I would fail. The instructions were thus:
Grab your son. Get a knife. Slaughter him and set him on fire.
How many of us, even if those commands were thundering forth from heaven, would rather be struck dead than pass this test?
I would have failed this test. I assume you would too. And while there is strong evidence to suggest this story is included to speak out against the ritual of child sacrifice that was practiced by many Ancient Near East religions, the Binding of Isaac should unsettle every parent—every person with a conscience.
Sure, in the end God provides a ram, but only after Abraham gathered the wood, packed up his donkey, travelled the journey, built an altar, bound his son, and was wielding his blade in the air. Be honest. Would you have even gathered the kindling?
What sort of test is this? And, perhaps the bigger question, did Abraham pass or fail?
The whole story of Abraham and Sarah revolves around God’s initial promise to the couple: Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
From that moment most everything has been about this barren couple having a child, and it has been a bumpy ride. Abraham and Sarah have wavered in their faith. There were times when they followed in great faith, leaving everything to set out on God’s path, and there were times when they doubted and made their own way. Remember when Abraham tries to pass Sarah off as his sister because he was afraid and she ends up in the bedroom of local rulers? Twice! Remember when Sarah asked Abraham to have a child with her slave Hagar because they had yet to conceive a child? Remember how both of them, at different times, laughed at God’s promise of a son?
But God came through. Isaac, whose name means “he laughs,” is born. Now, years later, Abraham is put to this awful test, and we, as readers, have this natural tension to acknowledge. There’s tension in the fact that the God who intervenes to prevent Isaac’s sacrifice is the same God who earlier commanded this sacrifice. There is also tension in the fact that Abraham was willing to sacrifice the son who had been the focus of chapters of divine promise in Genesis.
At this point, I must confess that I leave this text with far more questions than when I entered it. I struggle to understand everything at play in this story—God’s demands, Abraham’s actions. It is impossible to wrap this up neatly and dress it up with a bow with three points and poem. There are just some pieces of scripture that we must sit with uncomfortably.
For what it’s worth, the relationship between Abraham and God changes from this moment forward. God continues to provide, bring fear and trust from Abraham. Abraham proves his devotion.
Abraham calls the place “The Lord Will Provide,” or, a literal translation of the Hebrew means “The Lord Sees.” Perhaps that is the Gospel promise of this passage: no matter the circumstances God sees and provides.
Perhaps that was the lesson Abraham needed to learn as he almost slaughters his son. Abraham sees most clearly in that moment, as his hand is stayed, as he sees the ram, as he desperately cries out “Here I am,” that God provides.
The story makes me wonder, when do we become like Abraham? When are we willing to sacrifice for a future we desire? Who are we willing to sacrifice for a future we desire?
It’s interesting to note that earlier, with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham is feisty with God. He challenges God on God’s decision to destroy the two cities. He argues with the divine. But in this instance, with Abraham’s son on the line, he is silent. And after the instructions God is silent, right up until the dramatic moment when the raised knife glints in the sun.
Did Abraham fail this test, or did he pass? Was he supposed to blindly follow without asking questions? Or was he supposed to fight, struggle, question, and discern what God truly meant and wanted?
Here’s where I think we can enter this story. Throughout life God is always speaking to us. Promises have been made and we live either trusting or denying that God will follow through. In the process we are called to discernment. We are called to accountability. Will we follow our faith with wise or foolish decisions?
The Binding of Isaac also reminds us of the vulnerable people sacrificed in the wake of our decisions. Isaac is a true representation of the children who continue to be sacrificed by the foolish decisions and practices of the world. Problems abound on this voiceless population: neglect, violence, sexual abuse, poor education, homelessness—all of these things are very real threats to the young members of our world.
In the end Abraham is reminded that God sees. God responds. God provides. In our Gospel Jesus follows that pattern with the Least Commission, highlight a child in the midst of his message: whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.
God desires children to live as a blessing and a hope for the future. We see that with Isaac. We see that in our community and in our congregation. Whenever the needs of a child receives attention, God is in that place. Perhaps this is our test of faith.
May we discern and open our eyes to see God’s provision, and may we work to guarantee that God’s blessings, love, promise, and hope are constantly poured out on our youngest ones.
Let’s not fail this test. AMEN