believing in hope against all hope (Genesis 22:1-14)

Second Sunday in Lent (Year B)
St. Luke's International Hospital Chapel March 4, 2012– 10:30 a.m. Holy Eucharist

I think the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most terrifying stories ever recorded. Maybe it's possible, if you read really fast and don't pay much attention, to come away from this story without being bothered by it. But if you stop, and really read between the lines, using your imagination, what you'll probably find is that the more you meditate on this story the more unbearable it becomes.

For example notice how God says: "Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac" (Gen 22:2). He repeats the same thing, so there's absolutely no way Abraham can pretend to misunderstand whom God is talking about.

And God says the name of Isaac, which means "laughter." Isaac was a miracle child, a gift from heaven to Abraham and Sarah late in life. He was their heart's joy. Even as God says his name, He says "sacrifice him." Kill the laughter Isaac brings you.

"Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey" (Gen 22:3). The next morning. Can you imagine the night Abraham must have spent? Knowing what he's been asked to do by God? Not able to say anything to anyone about it?

And notice also, it took three days to travel to Mount Moriah. Three days. Imagine what that trip was like for Abraham. In the evening, as he watched Isaac sleeping by the fire. When Isaac wanted to talk to his father about the new things he was seeing along the way.

And finally, imagine the unbearable sadness of Abraham as he "bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood" (Gen 22:9). He did that probably to keep Isaac from fighting back when he realized what was going on. So it would be over quickly.

So here, in verse 11, when the angel calls out, "Abraham! Abraham!" I want you to try to hear Abraham's voice, imagine what was in his heart at that moment:
  "Here I am."
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Ah, it's an awful, awful story! If this was a movie in the video store, I wouldn't rent it. If it weren't in the Bible, I wouldn't read it. Thank God it has a happy ending!

But why on earth would Abraham even think about doing such a thing in the first place? Why would he agree to sacrifice his own son? I want to think about the reason.

And the first thing to say is, Abraham knew this one thing: That YHWH is the one, true God.

To acknowledge that God is really God is to acknowledge that whatever God says is, by definition, right. Whatever God asks of us has a rightful claim on our obedience. Because He's God. Let's get this straight: With God, there just isn't such thing as an "ought not"—as in "God ought not ask me to do such and such."

God never makes bad decisions. His judgment is never off, not even by a little.

So, however unjust something may seem to us small, time- and culture-bound, bent-hearted human beings, that's simply not our call to make. Do you remember the story of Job? Job tried to call "Unfair! Unjust!" And do you remember God's response? His response was: Who do you think you are? Where were you when I created, you know, the cosmos?

This is why we have to take modern "ethics" with a huge grain of salt. The weakness in ethics is that the people who think about ethics never see far enough, never grasp enough of the situation, never have pure enough motives. They simply can't. So, what happens so often is that we end up using "ethical principles" as a fancy way to justify what we've already decided to do.

From an article I read yesterday: "An ethicist's job is like a magician's. The main job of both is to distract you from the obvious." Ethics can so easily become a way of saying "it's okay" to do what you want, while at the same time avoiding responsibility for your actions.

Look at Abraham's ethical dilemma: Should I sacrifice my son, or not? Hmm, let me weigh the advantages and disadvantages…

No. It doesn't work. God's revealed will smashes through all our ethical manoeuvering. To do God's will, that's all that is required of us. "Take your son, your only son…"

To be fair, ethical reasoning may be useful in cases where the will of God is not clear in a particular situation. Such as many end-of-life care decisions.

But the fact is, God's will is more than clear in a lot of cases when we wish it weren't:
  • Is it okay to steal money from my company? No.
  • Is it all right to sleep with my married co-worker? No.
  • Is it okay to have sex before or outside of marriage period? No.
  • Is it okay to fantasize about punching the rude commuter in the nose? No.
  • Is it okay to lie to make someone feel good? No.
  • Do I have to stay married to my husband, if there's no infidelity or abuse? Yes.
  • Do I have to protect all life in the womb? Yes.
  • Do I have to take care of my elderly mother even if she's a pain in the neck? Yes.
  • Do I have to forgive my sister-in-law? Yes.
All these things are clearly dealt with in Scripture. We know God's will concerning these things. So we don't need to deliberate or weigh the pros and cons. Our only dilemma is: do we obey God's will, or do we disobey God's will?
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But Abraham knows one more thing: "God himself will provide the lamb" (Gen 22:8) How can he say this?

When Abraham was already an old man, childless with his wife Sarah, God said to him: "I have made you a father of many nations" (Gen. 17:5). God told him that through his son, his child with Sarah, would come as many offspring as there are stars in the sky.

This is the promise God made to Abraham. At first, Abraham found it all pretty hard to swallow. A child? Born to a 100-year-old man and a 90-year-old wife? But a year later, behold! Isaac was born. The promise was fulfilled.

Abraham knows that God keeps His promises. God has promised "many nations" through his son, Isaac. And God always keeps His promises.

At times, God may seem to demand a lot from us, even things that seem at the time impossible to bear. But God will never mess around with us, and God will never ask us to do something meaningless.

Of course, Abraham doesn't know how things will turn out, exactly. We always want to know how the future will turn out, but frankly, that's far above our pay grade. (So, all this hype about the Mayan calendar is just a load of stuff!)

Abraham's trust in God must have been pushed to the very limits as he took the blade in his hand. Pushed, and yet he did not lose his hope in God. He continued to hope in the one, true God. The Lord of the living and of the dead. The God who always keeps His promises.

This is why Abraham is called "the father of our faith" (Rom 4:16). As St. Paul writes:
"Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ['I have made you a father of many nations' (Gen. 17:5)]" (Romans 4:18)

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way:
"By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, 'It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.' [Gen 21:12] Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death." (Hebrews 11:17)
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There is another, terrible story about a "son," a "beloved only son." The child in this story, too, is chosen to become a sacrifice.

This child, too, is prepared to be sacrificed on wood. He is made to bear the weight of the wood. He carries it, not to the top of a mountain called Moriah, but to the top of a hill called Golgotha.

The child in this story, however, is not led in ignorance to the place of his sacrifice, but goes there willingly, in obedience to the will of God.

In this story, no angel stops the metal before it pierces the child's flesh. There is no last-minute reprieve. The sacrifice is carried out. The child dies.

Even more than Abraham, Christ withheld nothing, not even His own life. He continued to hope in God to the very end.
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And God keeps His promises. He is Lord of the living and the dead. He never asks of us something that is finally unjust. Just as with Abraham, God kept His promise to Jesus. More on that at Easter!

So, to trust God, to keep our hope fixed on God, is always the smart choice. And not to trust God, to place our ultimate hope on anything else, is always the foolish choice.

It's a paradox, but I think this is what Jesus is getting at when He says: "whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mark 8:35)

In other words, whoever would insist on deciding when and where and how much to obey the will of God will end up severing his connection with God, and render himself unable to receive life from God.

But, whoever puts himself in God's hands, come what may, knowing that God is a good, loving God who always keeps His promises, will receive fellowship with God--which is eternal life itself.

This is what it means to have faith. Even as we struggle with doubts and hardships, it is to keep putting our whole trust and hope in a loving God who never breaks a promise.

The Lord will provide. Abraham trusted that the Lord would provide for him, and he was not disappointed. Jesus trusted that the Lord would provided for Him, and He was not disappointed.

The Lord will provide for us what we really need. Let us trust Him with our lives.

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