Right. This has got to be one of the most messed up stories in the Old Testament.
Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, I mean.
And it’s not like we have a scarcity of truly disturbing stories in the OT.
There’s David deliberately sending Uriah to be killed so he can hook up with Bathsheba.
There’s Cain killing his own brother Abel over an agricultural misunderstanding.
And that favorite for family fun, Jael inviting Sisera into her tent, tucking him in for a nap, and then driving a tent peg through his skull. Charming!
I mean, it’s just terrifying and there’s no other way around it.
Put Abraham and Isaac into a modern context.
Picture a man holding a gun to his ten-year-old son’s head, ready to pull the trigger.
There would be SWAT teams aiming laser-guided assault rifles at him from behind parked police cars, police and news helicopters buzzing overhead broadcasting the standoff live around the world, and a hostage negotiator over a bullhorn, begging the father to stand down and asking him why he would want to kill his son.
“Because God told me to do it.”
And if it weren’t part of a familiar Bible story, coming down to us in the pages of Genesis from time immemorial, we would see how shocking it is.
What kind of God would ask Abraham to do this?
And what kind of father would obey God’s commandment to sacrifice his child?
But how easy it is to look at someone else and gasp in horror, “How could they do such a thing?”
It’s much harder to turn the spotlight on ourselves.
There is no one in this room who has not been in a situation where he or she has been asked to make a dreadful sacrifice.
There is no one here today who has never been faced with two painful choices, each of which will make a bad situation worse.
Every single one of us has been in a trap that seems inescapable.
Maybe you or a loved one were in a pregnancy that was impossible or dangerous and agonized over what to do.
Maybe you accidentally found out a dear friend’s spouse was cheating on them and didn’t know whether to confront the cheater, reveal the cheating to the unknowing partner, or keep silent.
Maybe a parent was on life-support and you faced the horrendous decision of whether or when to end their suffering.
Part of the reason we must confront the stark, hideous situation Abraham finds himself in is because we are no strangers to circumstances equally terrifying.
I don’t think any of us would have blamed Abraham if he had decided enough was enough, Yahweh was not a god but a figment of his own diseased mind, and taken himself over to the local psychiatrist’s tent.
Or even if he did acknowledge the commandment was from God, saying, “Forget this God, you and I are over and done with. You may be almighty but you are mightily insane and I won’t be a part of any more of your schemes.”
We would have said, “Good job, Abraham, that was nuts and we’re glad you turned your back on God.”
I guess that would have been the end of the Bible and we wouldn’t be here today.
But Abraham didn’t do that.
He believed in himself enough to believe he wasn’t crazy, and he trusted God enough to trust God wasn’t crazy, even when it looked like it was going to cost his child’s life.
I can’t even comprehend that kind of courage and faith.
I’m not saying it was a good idea for Abraham to go ahead and make plans to kill his child.
I’m just saying, there could not be any more dramatic way of proving that his faith was more solid than the rock on which he built the altar to sacrifice his son.
So this story is disturbing because of the, “Oh my God, how could he do that?” situation it provides.
But there is a deeper vulnerability it probes that I think gets to the heart of our most primal fears as human beings.
Notice how all our attention is on Abraham in this story.
How could he have done it? What was he thinking? Why did God ask him to do it?
Well, what about poor Isaac?
What did that child go through that day?
What in the world did Abraham say to him when he put down the knife and untied him?
If we want to talk about courage and faith, I think Isaac is as great a model as his father.
Why? Because Isaac went home with Abraham that day.
Isaac went home and went to sleep in the same tent with the man who had just tried to stab him to death and set his body on fire.
Isaac loved and served his father for the rest of his life.
Once again, it sounds crazy, but Isaac, even as a boy, understood faith as instinctively as Abraham did.
Isaac didn’t fight and run away when his father tied him up and laid him on the altar.
Just as Abraham believed in the ultimate goodness of God, Isaac believed in the ultimate goodness of his father.
The thing about this story that is so problematic is that it can so easily have dangerous implications.
The obedient son who goes home with the father who tried to kill him could easily translate into a lesson of, “Oh, it’s okay if your spouse or parent abuse you, remain obedient and go home with them and trust in God.”
No doubt this story has been twisted in this way before.
But once again we are asked as Abraham and Isaac were to let ourselves become frighteningly vulnerable.
We are asked to walk into this dangerous story and have faith that it will be redeemed, just as Abraham and Isaac did.
This story itself almost feels like we are tied down with a knife to our throat.
Why is God putting us through this?
How can we trust God enough to follow God all the way to the altar?
Once I felt something of the visceral vulnerability Isaac might have felt on a much smaller scale.
Being a reasonably healthy thirty-one year old woman, I don’t often think of myself as physically vulnerable. I don’t fear becoming physically helpless.
I’m sure Isaac as a healthy young boy never worried about being in danger and not being able to move.
Well, one late Friday afternoon in June three years ago I was working in my little garden patch in front of my house and suddenly my ankle bent ninety degrees in a way it was most definitely not created to bend.
I crashed down into the gravel of my driveway and I’m telling you, I’ve never felt pain so bad that I couldn’t stop myself from crying out until then.
I suddenly was sweating all over and couldn’t even sit up.
I just lay there and tried to bite down on my cries, when the pain crested and it actually made me throw up.
I was so scared.
I was by myself, lying in my driveway in excruciating pain, unable to move, next to a pool of my own vomit.
I’ve never been in a situation where I was so physically helpless.
I lay there and tried to breathe through the pain, wondering whether I should call for help or try to make it through myself.
I mean, really, who totally incapacitates herself in a gardening accident?
It’s pretty humiliating.
Having thrown up and then had the dry heaves, my stomach settled a little bit and I just lay there and sweated and breathed.
I simultaneously wanted someone to come by to help me but didn’t want anyone to see me in such a humiliating position.
I see a little of Abraham in myself here.
Abraham could not have been in a worse situation, but would he ask for help? No.
Did he talk to his wife, Sarah? No.
Did he ask God to stop and help him understand why God wanted him to do this? No.
He just plunged ahead and believed God would help him get through it.
It wasn’t any more admirable in me than it was in Abraham.
I eventually crawled inside, leaving my garden stuff strewn all over the driveway, and shut the garage door.
I knew I could have called my senior warden, who lived just down the block from me, or anybody else in the church for that matter, but no, I didn’t want to look like an idiot.
I think I had some of the idiot’s faith that God would made it okay, just like Abraham.
I had torn some ligaments in my ankle a few years before that and the doctor told me it would be more vulnerable to injury forever after. I figured that was what had happened.
Well, congratulations to me, I survived.
But I was hurt.
Congratulations to Abraham and Isaac, they survived.
But they too were hurt.
Congratulations to all of you, you have survived long enough to make it here today.
But no doubt you bear scars of the physical and emotional injuries you have experienced over the years.
How can any of this fit into a plan of what we know to be a good God?
Let me say something here in twelve foot high letters: I do not believe that God wants us to suffer.
God does not test us with pain to make us stronger or braver or tougher or more faithful.
How do I know that?
Because some two thousand years after Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son, God turned it all around and suddenly the knife was to his own son’s throat.
Jesus was the child given up to death, and this time, there was no angel to hold back the hand that took the son’s life.
It may be difficult to navigate the tangles of complicated theology of whether Jesus’ crucifixion was a sacrifice or a gift or an atonement or none of the above, but I do know that it was God’s truest and most final way of saying, “I will not turn my back on you, I will not give up on you, and I will sacrifice everything that matters most to me to bring you home safely to me.”
If we look to Abraham and Isaac as examples of courage and faith, even their bravery pales next to the power of belief Jesus had in God the Father’s love.
Jesus believed in God so much that he let himself be nailed to the Cross and took on all of humanity’s pain and sin and fear, took it into himself so deeply that it killed him.
And he did it with his eyes wide open and his arms open to embrace the ones who made him suffer.
No one knew what it was to give up control and make himself utterly vulnerable in his body, his mind and his soul, more than Jesus.
So when he asks us to come with him to the altar, no matter how dangerous it feels, no matter what confidence or surety or comfort we may be asked to give up to go there, can we say yes to him?
We were never promised that it wouldn’t be scary.
All we were promised was that he would be with us and never leave us alone.
On the other side of the fire and the knife is a going home together, and Abraham and Isaac’s foolhardy courage and dangerous faith is our birthright.
Let us place ourselves on the altar and trust.