June 29, 2014

The Lord Will Provide

Passage: Genesis 22:1-19, Psalm 13, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42
Service Type:

And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’

The Hunger Games trilogy, a series of books by Susan Collins, is the story of a dystopian future North America where residents of different geographic regions are forced to participate in an annual televised death match called The Hunger Games. Young people are chosen to hunt and kill each other. One of these young people chosen for the game leads a rebellion against the corrupt power structures that run these games. The popularity of The Hunger Games is evident when you consider that it had been turned into a multimedia franchise that will include four movies.

It is worth taking notice of how accustomed we have become—culturally speaking—to killing as entertainment. Stories with young people killing each other like the Hunger Games would have shocked sensibilities a few years ago; today we seem rather ho-hum about it all. In this sort of culture I wonder how the Biblical story of God calling Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering would be heard. Is it just the ho-hum of entertainment? Is God like the tyrannical overlords in the Hunger Games demanding people kill each other?

The Genesis account of Abraham and Isaac says this is a story of the testing of Abraham’s faith. It isn’t presented as entertainment as of a novel or a play; it is anything but ho-hum. It is a difficult story and shocks our sensibilities about God. Why would God ask such a thing of Abraham? Why didn’t Abraham rebel? The story is so troubling that Christians find it hard to fathom. If we were inviting a friend to consider Jesus it isn’t the first Bible story we would ask them to read; we might wish they didn’t read it at all because we don’t know how to explain the story.

I invite you to walk with me through this story and listen for what God would say to us of the gospel. In a world that has turned killing into entertainment we find out that God doesn’t think it such a trivial matter.

1. “After these things God tested Abraham.” This is how the story begins. The "test", of course, is not "temptation" in the sense of seduction into sin. It is trial, that occasion of torment which discloses the nature, depth and scope of one's faith; in a word, what is undeniably the state of one's heart. In many respects the command is stupefying. Isaac, after all, has been granted to Abraham and Sarah when realistically no child could be expected. More to the point, Isaac's survival is essential to the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham. Having cut himself off from his entire past—“Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you" (12:1)—Abraham must now renounce his future, and with it the future of his people, including not only the future of his descendants but also that of innumerable nations who are to be blessed through his descendants.

The crux of the story is this. Abraham, the prototype of the person of faith, has been promised spiritual descendants as numerous as the sands on the seashore. If the promise is to be fulfilled, two conditions must be met: Abraham must persevere in faith (or else he cannot be the foreparent of descendants-in-faith), and Isaac must survive (or else there will not be descendants-in-faith.) Abraham, then, is racked with this dilemma: if he obeys God and offers up his Son, then God's promise is null and void, since Isaac has not survived. If, on the other hand, he second-guesses God and preserves Isaac, then God's promise is null and void, since his disobedience exemplifies unfaith. Abraham's obedience nullifies the promise as surely as his disobedience nullifies it. Abraham decides to stake everything on trusting God to fulfil God's promises in ways that Abraham cannot imagine at this point. He will obey God even though such obedience, from a human perspective, ensures the non-fulfillment of the promise.

2. Soren Kierkegaard, a great philosopher and Christian thinker, wrote a little book on this Bible story aptly titled Fear and Trembling. What I find engaging about his book is his insistence that we look squarely at the humanness of the story. He will not let us avoid the horror Abraham faces because we know the end of the story—that the knife was stayed and a ram provided. So let us journey through the story.

God tests Abraham. By means of the definite article (lit. "the God") the text forbids the reader from finding relief in such vagaries as "Perhaps Abraham merely thought he heard God speak, merely projected an intra-psychic oddity." While "God" (without the article) is used in the story wherever the narrator refers to the deity, the article is added whenever God himself addresses Abraham. It is the one and only, true and living God who speaks to Abraham, the God whose address is as undeniable as it is unmistakable. The story has point and force only if the God has spoken unambiguously and Abraham has heard unambivalently.

Testing as such is nothing new for Abraham. He has been tested before; e.g., with respect to the famine (12:10ff) (at which he behaved ingloriously), and again with respect to the three visitors (18:1ff.) New here, however, is the agenda of testing in the very first verse of the story, as well as the severity of a test that appears wantonly destructive.

Yet the severity of the testing does not preclude sensitivity on God's part. In the Hebrew "Take (your son)" has the force of "Please take", in this text, and lends the force of entreaty to the command. God manifests his awareness of the outrageous nature of his request.

As jarring as the outrageous request is, the terrible tension it engenders is heightened yet again as Abraham is told to take "your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love." By now the narrative has slowed to a crawl as the reader is forced to linger over the perseverated detail, Isaac who is loved unspeakably, and therein forced to reflect on a command whose ever-narrowing specificity fosters ever-increasing anguish. "Whom you love", exquisitely drawn out, precludes any "escape-suggestion" that Abraham's love for his son was deficient in any case.

Was Abraham in torment? Note that he cut the wood after saddling the donkeys. Surely it would make more sense to cut the wood first. (It would be like starting the car and then packing your clothes.) Is he trying to conceal the nature of the test from those looking on? Is he postponing the most painful part to the last? Plainly he is distraught. One would expect servants to prepare animals and split wood. Yet Abraham wants to elicit no questions since he has no answers. His sole involvement in the ordeal means that it cannot be shared in any way; no relief can attenuate his pain.

No word is spoken throughout the journey to Moriah. It can’t be explained. Father and son arrive on the third day, "on the third day" being a Hebrew idiom indicating the elevated significance of an unusually dramatic moment. Abraham lifts up his eyes and sees the place "afar off." To lift up one's eyes before seeing similarly suggests throughout Genesis that what is to be seen is of momentous import.

The drama takes a remarkable turn when Abraham, intending nothing but that resolute obedience which undeniably includes the death of Isaac, departs for the site with Isaac alone and, upon leaving the servants behind, adds, "[we]…will come again to you." (22:5) On the one hand Abraham releases the servants in that he cannot endure seeing anyone else see the ghastly event. On the other hand he indicates that he expects to return with Isaac, however illogical or imperfectly formulated his expectation here. Even now Abraham is trusting God to fulfil the promise in a manner wholly unforeseeable yet not to be doubted. Paradoxically, the narrator speaks in such a way as to leave the reader understanding that Abraham intends nothing but the slaughter of Isaac and is therefore beside himself, even as he is relying on the promise fulfilled, an event that presupposes Isaac's being spared.

Isaac, meanwhile, is aware that he and his father are on their way to worship, and aware, of course, that worship entails sacrifice. Isaac, not suspicious but certainly bewildered, notes that all is on hand for the sacrifice except the victim. "Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Isaac's trust in his father is one with his father's trust in God.

While much religious art depicts Isaac as a child, if not still an infant, the story makes plain that Isaac is strong enough to carry wood sufficient for the sacrifice. He is also sophisticated enough to apprehend the accoutrements of sacrifice. Not surprisingly, then, Jewish tradition deems Isaac to be 37 years old. Then Isaac can only be willing to be sacrificed. A vigorous young adult could readily overpower a very aged father. The test for Abraham is therefore a test for Isaac as well. Isaac, after all, could not be bound unless he complied.

We don’t have time in this sermon to examine all the details of the story but I want to point out one more. After the knife is stayed and the ram provided for the sacrifice Abraham names the place “the Lord Will Provide.” Earlier (22:8) Abraham had attempted to remedy Isaac's bewilderment with "God will provide a lamb", and then had moved ahead in obedience to God on the assumption that there were no this-worldly grounds for such intervention.

2. Still we wonder why would God ask such a thing of Abraham and Isaac? Willful slaying of one's offspring is not the sort of thing that the God known in the church asks of his people, not the sort of thing that can be regarded as bringing honour to him in any way. This being the case, the question must be asked concerning Abraham: why would anyone concur that Abraham was divinely summoned to slay Isaac? If God's character forbids such today, why would it not have forbidden it then?

A clue to coming to terms with this question is suggested in view of Isaac's consensual complicity, the son is as much sacrificer as the father. Father and son are one in offering up and in being offered up; father and son are one in their obedience, their suffering and their trust.

Consider the simultaneity of Father and Son with respect to the cross of Jesus Christ. Precisely because Father and Son are of the same nature, same substance, same identity and being, the Son's free, self-willed identification with sinners is the Father's; the Son's sinbearing love is the Father's; the Son's cry of dereliction is the Father's heart-cry of self-alienation for the sake of sinners that demonstrates Father and Son to be one in their judgement of humankind, one in their determination to redeem it, one in their self-identification with it, and one in their pain suffered for its restoration.

The Son's God-forsakenness (not merely his feeling he was) for the sake of humankind, together with the Father's self-same "God-forsakenness" means that no human being is—or can be—God-forsaken. Looked at from a different angle, the cross means that that to which God appointed himself at Calvary no human being will be appointed to now: namely, the sacrifice of one's offspring.

“God will provide” looks forward to the time when God did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all.

3. The force of Genesis 22:1-19 is that hope in God alone reconciles promise and command of God. Such hope, however, must always be distinguished from wishful thinking. From a biblical perspective, hope is always a future certainty grounded in a present reality. The resurrection is that act of God whereby promise and command are reconciled; hope is the human counterpart that finds promise and command reconciled in the believer. Accordingly, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is ultimately the truth and reality that gave Isaac back; hope, that which gave him back to Abraham, the resurrection beings the guarantee of all the promises of God to all believers. Because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead; because his resurrection and all it implies is the truth of the world (albeit hidden and therefore unacknowledged), as well as the truth of the church, hope can never finally disappoint God' s people. The future certainty of what is hoped for pertains to all the promises of God, whether now only partially fulfilled or not yet fulfilled at all. They will be fulfilled, and will be seen to be such.

Instances without end can be recited with respect to promises that appear to remain unfulfilled, as well as of commands that seem to perpetuate the non-fulfillment. One such promise/command appears to be the promise that the powers of death will not prevail against the church (Matt. 10:18), even as the church, defined by the gospel and charged to live by the gospel, must announce Jesus Christ with no little urgency in season and out of season. (2 Tim. 4:2) Related to the command to announce the gospel is the promise that God's word does not return to him fruitlessly (Isaiah 55:11), as well as (among others) the promise that whoever hears the herald of the Lord hears that selfsame Lord himself. (Luke 10:16)

Yet the command appears to undo the promise, as the church dwindles numerically. . The gospel has been promised to be fruitful beyond our imagining, while the command to declare it appears to ensure the church's fruitlessness. After all, the gospel appears too narrow in an age of inclusiveness, too sharply-defined amidst the blurred vaguenesses of pluralism, too confident of its effectiveness in a time of polite opinions, too real for an era that prefers romanticism, too specific for those who like generalities. It appears that insofar as the church attempts to live by the gospel it will die by the gospel. Then what is the church to do?

Like Abraham of old it can trust God to fulfil promises in ways that the church cannot see at present. It can obey the command of God even though its obedience must render all such fulfillment hope. Or it can second-guess God and attempt to ensure the fulfillment of the promise by "improving" on the command as it resorts to gimmicks, entertainment, sure-fire techniques, agendas that "work" with other institutions and whose "success" the sociologist can explain.
For those who have agonized with Abraham there is only thing to be done: live in hope, confident that hope will see, in God's own way and in God's own time, the Lord will provide.