Proper 8a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
Was ever such a commandment so harsh and cruel been given? Was ever a commandment so harsh and cruel ever heard? Was ever a commandment so harsh and cruel ever obeyed?
These are the questions that form in my mind as I hear the truly frightening commandment of God to Abraham in this morning’s continuation of our reading from the book of Genesis. You will recall that just last week Abraham had received another cruel command — the one from his wife Sarah. She had told Abraham to send the woman Hagar and the son she had borne to him out into the wilderness, there to die but for the intervention of God who revealed the well of water in the desert to revive the woman and her child. God had comforted Abraham before he sent Hagar and Ishmael out to the wilderness, promising him that they would survive, and that while the boy would become a great nation, it was to be through Isaac that Abraham would be reckoned as the father of many.
And now, out of the blue, God orders Abraham to that very son Isaac, the very son through whom, just last week, he promised that Abraham’s descendants would be numbered — to take his son Isaac out into the wilderness and to offer him as a sacrifice on the mountain that God would show. So my questions: Was ever such a cruel and harsh commandment ever given, ever heard, or ever obeyed?
For Abraham is ready to obey. He doesn’t argue with God the way he argued with him about the people of the city of Sodom, for whom he showed concern and care when God told him that the whole population of that wicked city would be destroyed. Abraham complained that God should not kill the innocent along with the guilty; and God finally agreed that if Abraham could find just ten innocent people in that wicked city God would spare it.
Yet when God gives this horrifying and cruel command, that Abraham is to kill his own innocent son, Abraham doesn’t blink an eye. He gets up early the next morning, saddles his donkey and takes his son along with two servants — and the firewood, the knife, and the fire! And then throughout the scene that follows, through the questions of his young son, even through to the raising of the knife, Abraham does not hesitate or falter. It is only the angel of the Lord calling to him out of heaven that stops him, and then he finds the ram caught in the thicket to offer in sacrifice instead of his son.
So let us look again at those questions. Was ever such a harsh command ever given? Well, I think we’ve already answered that one if we look at last week’s reading from Genesis. Sarah told Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael. This was a harsh command in and of itself, especially considering that it was Sarah who had given Hagar to Abraham to start with, for the very purpose of bearing him this son. So, to look to the second question, how did Abraham receive this hard command about Hagar and Ishmael? He wasn’t happy. The Scripture records that “the matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.” Sending that woman and small child out into the desert, even with a water bag, is a horrible thing to do. Before God reassured him, Abraham would know there was every chance that they would not survive, they would die of thirst — as indeed they would have had it not been for God’s promise that the boy would survive, and the provision of water in the desert.
And that final detail offers us the beginnings of an answer to the last question, Was ever such a harsh commandment obeyed? Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert because he trusts God to keep the promise that God has made to him — for God had told him that the boy would survive and I will make of him a great nation, too. And so it is as well with the commandment God gives Abraham in this morning’s passage. Because God had promised Abraham — just last week — that his posterity would be numbered through Isaac — God had promised that this son would live and grow to manhood and marry and have children — and that those children would have children, until the descendants of Abraham — through Isaac — would be more numerous than the sand on the seashore or the stars of the heavens. Abraham obeys the commandment of God because he trusts the promise of God. Trust comes first, then obedience; or perhaps it would be better to say that obedience is built on the foundation of trust. Abraham knows that God is faithful, that God keeps the promises that God has made — and in this case, although he doesn’t have the foggiest idea how God is going to do it, he knows that God will do something to allow his son Isaac to survive and grow up and marry and have children whose children shall be numbered as his — Abraham’s — offspring.
Abraham is so sure of this, that notice two things: First, he tells the servants who accompany him to the mountain where God has told him to sacrifice Isaac, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” “And then we will come back to you” — not “I will come back to you” but “we will come back to you.” Second, when the boy Isaac asks where the sacrificial offering is, Abraham responds, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering.” “God himself will provide.” Abraham’s trust is so great that even when they come to the place of sacrifice, even when he reaches out his hand for the knife, he trusts that God will provide — and God does provide.
Abraham trusts God, and that is the basis of his righteousness and his obedience — not his own strength or his own virtue, but his belief, his trust, in the nature of God — who is supremely trustworthy and keeps every promise God has made. After all, Abraham has seen God’s righteousness at work — God offered to spare the wicked city of Sodom if Abraham could find two handfuls of righteous people. God kept the promise that Abraham and Sarah would have a child in their old age — remember, they were in their 90s — but they did. God kept the promise, and she bore him that son, Isaac. Abraham knows that God will not make promises and then take them back. He trusts, and then he obeys.
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And so ought we to do, and for the same reason. We have experienced the blessings of God in our lives; we have heard the voice of God speaking in our hearts and guiding us on the right way; and though we have known times when the command of God was hard, we have also known that the mercy of God is great. More than that, there are many of us here I’m sure, like those Romans to whom Paul the apostle wrote, can look back on parts of our lives when we were not obedient to God but were obedient to the demands of our own lower nature. There were times when instead of raising our eyes to the hills we allowed ourselves to wander through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet even then, and even there, God was with us like a good Shepherd leading us up out of that valley into the light upon the heights.
Somehow even in the depths and darkness a small spark of hope and faith and trust was kindled, and the grace of God helped grow that little spark into a flame, and by its light God led us out. That spark of trust allowed us to realign our obedience from slavery to sin towards service to God — whose service is perfect freedom.
So let us join our voices with that of Abraham, in the sure and certain hope and trust in our Lord, the God of the promise made and the promise kept, the God whom we obey because we know that the Lord has provided, that the Lord provides, and that on the mount of the Lord, the Lord shall provide.+