The Binding of Isaac

sermon on Genesis 21:1-3,5-6; 22:1-14
Word of God, word of life? This is a hard reading so near the start of the Bible and of this Narrative Lectionary year. We’ve just gotten past the sort of mythical ancient events and characters, starting to arrive at people who will provide the context of our specific story. Yet here may be one of the hardest stories in the Bible. That says something amid this book that doesn’t shy away from the human horrors of war and slavery and starvation and rape and pride and greed and politics and family feuding and all the rest. Still, this story is among the hardest, not least because it’s not evils that are against God’s will, but appears to be requested by God.rembrandt angel abraham

Knowing the context makes it even more tragic, even harder. Abraham is really the first main character in the Bible’s story. He’s a progenitor, an ancestor, the forefather for almost the entirety of what comes afterward. But identifying him in that role of forefather was absurd because he had no children. God had promised he would be the father of many nations, but he had to protest and argue and wonder and keep trying fruitlessly. Even up to age 86, the father of…nobody.

His wife Sarah sent her slave Hagar as an alternative effort toward the promise. These women drive the story at that point, while this central biblical character Abraham is like breeding stock from ABS bulls. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, whose name means “God hears” and through whom Muslims trace the story. But this firstborn son of Abraham wasn’t chosen, either by God or by Sarah, who resented Hagar.

13 more years passed until three guests, three angels came to visit. Abraham fed them a meal and they said he and Sarah would have a son. Sarah was eavesdropping and laughed, perhaps delighted, perhaps incredulous (since she herself was 90 years old at this point).

Though they’re old—“as good as dead,” they’re called later in the Bible (Rom4:19)—we heard today that Sarah gave birth to laughter, literally—the meaning of the name Isaac. Finally, the promise is coming true! Of God’s word that they would be matriarch and patriarch of the faith, of a great nation, this blessing that would extend more than the stars of the sky.

And yet instantly piled onto that story and stifling the laughter comes the binding of Isaac, the near-sacrifice. God tells Abraham to kill his son, his only son, this son whom he loves. It’s a remarkable story, for its sparse details, for the little bit that is said and for all that isn’t. We have no idea how old Isaac is, for example.

It says they walk for three days. At the end, Isaac himself carried the wood that would burn. Did he expect what would happen with that knife? What were Abraham’s thoughts on the three-day journey? Much less the question: what did he or didn’t he say to his wife, the mother of his child, before leaving?

At the crux of the story Isaac and his father talk to each other for the only time. It’s often pointed out there are no words of them speaking to each other after this horrific event, but there were also none before. Their only dialogue is the question, “Where is the lamb to be sacrificed?” And the answer, “God will provide.”

As they walked on together, one commentator says it is the longest and heaviest silence in the Bible. What does Isaac suspect? What does Abraham fear or hope? What is going on within and between them? Is Isaac resigned or overpowered when Abraham ties the ropes around him? We can’t understand it. Presumably Abraham didn’t really understand it. Certainly Isaac couldn’t have understood.

It’s cruel and unusual. After that century of waiting for the promise to be fulfilled, as Abraham continued trusting God, kept hoping this dream, this expectation of parenting would come true, for that to be revoked so suddenly in the story, not only as those who have lost a child to tragedy but demanded at his own hand. Awful.

And Sarah’s absence in this part of the story feels glaringly painful. She had trusted and hoped in the promise with Abraham. Just as the dialogue between parent and child ceases after this story, so also between spouses. We have to wonder if Sarah’s laughter departed forever, even if her son Isaac came back from this experience without a scratch, if it annihilated her joy and may even have extinguished her life itself; the next mention of Sarah in the story is at her death.

So what to do with this?

There have been many explanations. That it’s an old violent patriarchal culture is a bad excuse. Some have said it’s a story for the Israelites turning away from neighboring nations’ practice of human sacrifice for animal sacrifice instead. This spot is later labeled as the location of the Jewish temple, that center of sacrificial worship (2Chr3:1). Others observe it’s inappropriate to view sacrifice as the animal substituting for a human death. But even if this is a story about animal sacrifice, why—for the love of all things good—was it told like this? Couldn’t the story have been less brutal, less fearful, somehow not hinting at horrendous child abuse?

Accentuating that horror, the model has been perversely flipped by Christians, moving it back to human sacrifice. Jesus gets labeled both as the ram who is substituted for you, dying in place of you. But he also gets labeled as the son, that where Abraham didn’t kill his Isaac, God the Father didn’t spare his Son. Awful, awful stuff. Correctly labeled divine child abuse. Terrible.

Let me be clear that I don’t believe or agree with that view of Jesus. But it’s reinforced by our appointed paired Gospel verse—even though the Narrative Lectionary is a recent innovation, and shouldn’t have some old lack of awareness—that verse pointing to Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, words we’ll sing again at communion, a meal about sharing life, not taking it. Yet that verse is applied as a thread to connect this story from Genesis into the Gospel of John’s theological lens for the year. I disagree. And I’d prefer a different paired verse. Maybe Jesus saying, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice” or “Let the little children come to me” or “save us from the time of trial.” Instead we’re pointed again to slaughter and sacrifice and innocent suffering.

The most terrifying aspect of this story isn’t confronting death. For a long time we’ve dealt with situations of war or capital punishment or extreme self-protection or the routines of our daily meals. Any of those, we might trace as logical causes for death. But that it’s God’s request here just seems senseless and capricious, impossible to understand. In a similar moment, Job declares, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). But we might well be more like Job’s wife who suggests he “curse God, and die” (2:9).

This perhaps honest yet troubling portrayal of an unpredictable God wanting a random test leaves us wondering about God’s will, with two competing edges in this story—God tests, and God provides, the opposites of a God who would give and a God who would take away, promising versus demanding, desiring life or death.

In that way, this is the ultimate intense story of that struggle and that constant question of our faith: How does God relate to things not going how we want? What we even term as the “miracle” of childbirth is especially fitting for this emotional question, for the enormous hopes and fears, for all that goes right and the catastrophically tragic that can go wrong. Some of you, some of us have held this question of God’s nature around longing for children and through pregnancies and as children grow and things go well in life, or they face problems. If getting our hopes fulfilled is a blessing from God, when the opposite happens, is that a punishment? A test? Simply an outcome of a capricious God? Would we say through every situation that it happened because God chose for it to happen, that God is in control?

What about when our faith conflicts with what we like or desire or would choose? Some ancient rabbis tried to explain away the story by saying that Abraham didn’t actually hear the voice of God telling him to kill Isaac. But God does ask us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise. We wake up Sunday morning, setting aside this time in our schedule. We put money in an offering plate. We offer peace to each other. We eat with strangers and call them siblings. Today we have events about imprisonment and immigration. We address those issues not through legal wisdom or economic insight, but because we believe God is calling us to stand against society’s norms, though this request from God may be inconvenient for us and unpopular with others.

But that isn’t exactly conceding how horrendous this story is, of God asking for the death of a child. I want us to trust and declare that faith should never lead us to violence, to say that God asked us to kill even an enemy, much less a family member.

That raises the confounding question of why Abraham didn’t argue. Three chapters earlier, he had a long debate with God, arguing that God should spare and not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. But for some reason Abraham doesn’t bother to argue for the life of his son. I think that could lead to seeing that, rather than God testing Abraham, there’s an element in this story of Abraham testing God, proving whether God would stand by God’s promise, whether God would remain faithful to Abraham. I like that notion certainly better than of God testing us, though I’m not exactly sure how testing God has application in our lives, other than perhaps finding confidence in Abraham’s results.

In the end, I don’t have and don’t want to offer a resolution to this story. It needs to remain perplexing and even fearful, to stay challenging. Though I always wrestle to find and share good news in the Bible passage, with this one I can only say thank you for holding onto the hardness with me. With this one, I’m just left wondering how honestly we need to face our struggles, wondering whether the promise was worth it, if Sarah’s laughter ever returned.

 

PRAYERS

Faithful God, we yearn to trust in your goodness, that you provide in our needs. Reassure us of the promise and save us from the time of testing. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

Your relationship with us is connected to the land and specific places and through animals. Give us wisdom to treat them honorably, as we honor you. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

You extend your blessing to the nations. We pray that where threats of violence and patriarchy and intimidation still reign, that we can be your people of love and peace. We pray today for conversations about criminal justice and how we welcome our immigrant neighbors. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

God of sacrificial love, we pray for those who have lost their laughter. We pray for those who struggle with pregnancy. We pray for those who deal with any kind of abuse. We pray for the hard relationships in our families and with loved ones. We pray for those overcome by natural and other disasters. We pray for all who are ill and grieving, especially for … Amid all these situations, hold us in your loving presence. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

God of our ancestors, we thank you for the faithful stories of our forefathers and foremothers. We pray that your stories of promise continue through the generations, especially today as we begin a new year of Sunday School. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

Holy, holy, holy God, fill us with discernment and compassion, that we may understand your will and strive for justice and love on earth as it is in heaven, now and forever. Amen.

 

 

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a sermon for River Sunday

Season of Creation

on Genesis8:21b–22, 9:8–17; Psalm29; Revelation22:1–5; John7:33-34,37-39a

A lot of thisriver Season of Creation seems to have been confronting where our perceptions don’t square with the world around us as God created it. I hope those have been worthwhile considerations, but they have meant less living with creation this season.

So today I want to begin by taking you to Otter Creek. Otter Creek was down the slope from my house outside of Eau Claire where I grew up. It gave a chance to explore the woods, from ice cracking under my booted feet to the musky musty skunk cabbage as the first green thing in those woods, and frog song to crunching fall leaves. Among memories along those waters were jumping down sandy ledges and too many stinging nettles, slowly finding cool liquid relief. The best memory is the first trout I caught, still my biggest brown. I can recall how my spinner moved through the eddying water of that bend’s pool and still feel the surprise of that smooth skin and soft belly in my hands, after having only held fish with rougher scales. But as a reminder encounters with nature are not all splendor, it was beside our Otter Creek swimming hole that I tried chewing tobacco for the first time.

Friends and I regularly talked about following the creek up to its source, a project we never really attempted, partly because it was slow progress with so many meanders, but also because, why would we need to find an origin when already every place we found ourselves had so much to engage and delight us?

Still, for tracing to origins, I also go back to my family’s first house a block from the Yellow River up in Spooner, and continue tracing those flowing waters here along the Yahara River chain of lakes. In between, some of my identity and existence emerged from the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. Like when I lived in Washington, also where the Wenatchee River began to flow together with the great Columbia, confluences are said to temper the weather and have lore of serving as native American gathering places. From that pre-history, and long after rafts of white pine lumber floated past, below dams that generate power for our lives, these still are places of new beginnings as that merging of rivers in Eau Claire, for example, has given rise to Phoenix Park, from industrial wasteland to become again a gathering place to exchange goods like vegetables and artwork, and a new music center to serve for education, enlightenment, and enjoyment, all flowing up and emerging from the rivers.

I can’t take you for a tour of Otter Creek or soak you into my history with these rivers, but I’m hoping these stories call to mind your places, the waters you have known and how amid your life “a river runs through it.” As Al Heggen said at the Capital Brewery Bible conversation Tuesday, describing his own affinity for the Upper Iowa River in Decorah, we each hold dear such places where our lives have flown together with the streams. Carrie McGinley spoke of the Mississippi starting so small and visiting the Great River museum in Dubuque and maybe to travel the length of it. See, our very selves are part of the confluence.

Amid these currents that flow with our past, to now, and time yet to come, we know it’s not always peace like a river. There can be turbulence. It seems like a long time ago that earlier this summer I was complaining of the trickles of water soaking into my basement and my CSA farmer worrying if plants would survive in fields inundated and saturated by rainfall. Much more clearly, we’re holding horrors from Houston as rivers poured down streets and people you know were trapped by rising floodwaters.

Those news reports and images create for us another understanding of confluence. Rivers not only flow along with the story of our lives. Not only human culture has been at the confluence of waters, from the development of agriculture by ancient Mesopotamians (whose identity is summarized in the name that means “between rivers”), or those native Americans wintering in intertribal peace, or how our cities have arisen from the life of waters. Besides those forms of confluence, we also notice confluence in meaning of the waters themselves. They are not unequivocally peaceful or universally beneficial. In waters and with rivers, the value or worth mixes and intermingles, swirling to engulf with surprising depths beside the wading stone-skipping calms. The good and the bad flow together.

In simple natural terms, for example, we have to observe that flooding can’t be equated only with the bad, damage or destruction. The Mississippi was used to spring thaws that swept waste from the backwaters and renewed habitats for a whole ecosystem of plants and animals. As we’ve installed dams, we think we’re minimizing negative outcomes of ebbs and flows in river level, but our manufactured environment has meant loss of diversity and wellbeing in the river’s wetlands.

Again, the Nile was a dwelling place for civilization precisely because it was prone to flood. When the rushing waters rose, they carried along and deposited fresh soil on the floodplain. Sure, water was up in the fields. But that was what brought life, brought the nutrients that allowed another season’s fertile farming.

Such paradoxes or confluences of good and bad come in the Bible, as witness to the flow of our lives. Psalm 137 laments that it’s impossible to sing faithful songs of joy by the rivers of Babylon while in enemy captivity. But the prophet Isaiah (ch2) expects nations will stream together, and down by the riverside we ain’t gonna study war no more. These opposites co-exist.

With today’s readings, as we require fearful storms to gain the beauty of the rainbow, the terrifying story of Noah and the flood annihilating almost the entire earth in some way exists so we can get the promise. As people who didn’t have to live through that flood and as that calamity recedes into the background, we’re met mostly by the message of abiding love, the assurance of providence, that the good God intends for our lives will continue. That, and not devastation, is the focus.

At least that’s the intention. It’s rawer and a harder word this week when we’ve witnessed more stormwaters and are left wondering where God’s presence or intention has been in Texas, if God has forgotten, if the promise was true.

Or maybe the terrifying conclusion is that we can combat God’s goodness and drown out the blessing God voiced in Genesis and intended to continue. Maybe Hurricane Harvey is less an Act of God than an Act of Humans: climate change warming the oceans multiplied its power, coastal development tore out shoreline buffers, and harm is even in the way we construct cities.

Similarly of our ruin, the waters that give us life and gave rise to our civilization we not only pollute, but slurp to parched, causing goodness to wither. My vacation travels followed part of the course of the Colorado River, in many ways the lifeblood of the southwest. But we suck those waters dry, straining out all the goodness of life. The river is diverted to the desert to grow iceberg lettuce in California, and to gaudy fountains of the Las Vegas strip, and to evaporate from Lake Mead piled up behind the Hoover Dam. This river carved us the Grand Canyon, yet now infamously goes for years without even reaching its mouth, every last drop taken by humans along the way.

This may be a repercussion of our lives, simply of our existence, or it may be due to a result of our sins. But saying that means we must fearfully confront whether we’ve overruled God’s goodness with our badness, the promise with our curse, the intention for life with our deadly mistakes.

Of course, that is not the message of our faith, though. We proclaim that evil will never have the last word, that even death is not final, that God will not give up on life. Holding this tension, we have that peculiar observation that waters are neither unambiguously good nor explicitly evil. That is the message of your baptismal waters, as well. Those are life-giving waters, by also bringing death. As Luther says in the Small Catechism, in baptism “the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned daily, and on the other hand daily a new person is to rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Drowning and new life, dying and rising, death and resurrection: two sides of the same coin. This is not merely the ending of what has been wrong in our lives and interactions with the world, but also the promise of a new creation. Neither can you have the new beginning without the end of the old. You can’t be cleansed and made fresh without being rid of old stains and rottenness. If you imagine you’d prefer not to die, then you won’t be met by new life. If you pretend you’re doing fine, then you can hardly imagine or begin to grasp—much less live into—the gracious goodness God is striving to bring about for you and for God’s earth by this way of living wet.

Our Revelation reading may be the Bible’s culminating picture in its final chapter, the river that flows out from God, nourishing the tree of life, without interruption bearing fruit to feed and heal. Again for paradox, even in this final image, we still need healing among nations, to reconcile relationships. But that opportunity is ceaseless. The flow of grace will not be stopped. The crystal clear and bright waters of the river contain no corruption, nothing wrong. Picture the Colorado, flowing and free.  Picture the Jordan River bringing life even into the Dead Sea. Picture a brook babbling and laughing with glee. Picture the green, stinky Yahara purged and joyful. Picture Otter Creek or your own streams, not only a memory but the locations of your future. Picture yourself, splashed clean and fresh, emerging from the water for new life and endless potential. Picture the confluence where your life mingles and flows with all of creation.

This is where God’s current is carrying us. All creation recognizes it. Already we know and expect it, we anticipate and believe it. We brim with God and all creation in this promise for life. Shall we gather at the river?

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