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Abraham, Isaac, and Us

A sermon preached at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Easthampton, on July 2, 2023

by Robert B. Shaw.


Genesis 22:1-14; Matthew 10:40-42

As some of you will remember, back in February some members of the

congregation were licensed by the Diocese as lay ministers, including myself and a

few others as lay preachers. So: the few times I’ve done this before, I’ve been

preaching without a license. It’s a wonder I haven’t been pulled over! But now that

the paperwork has been done, we can all feel relieved. Now, if I say something

silly, at least it will be legal.


The story of Abraham and Isaac in this day’s first lesson—an episode

sometimes referred to as “The Sacrifice of Isaac” or “The Binding of Isaac” when

it turns up in paintings—has never been deprived of attention. Countless biblical

commentators, lay and ordained theologians, and even secular literary theorists

have weighed in on it. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a famous

book about it which I read in college. It is a short book but a heavy read, a highly

intellectualized approach to this extremely unsettling story. It presents Abraham as

a “knight of faith,” but one has to elbow past a lot of phrases like “the teleological

suspension of the ethical” to follow the intense, demanding argument. And yet

Kierkegaard was as aware as anyone of the wrenching emotions at the heart of the

story: he called his book Fear and Trembling.


The story is disturbing in many ways, of which I will list only three. First,

“God tested Abraham.” This idea of God testing people is one that most of us find

unappealing. For me, it is a reminder of the undemonstrative police officer who sat

next to me in the car when I took the road test for my driver’s license. (By the way,

I did pass—the second time around.) Testing, whether inside or outside of

classrooms, is not something people cheerfully line up for. So that is one problem.

Second, there is the shocking degree of cruelty to which God subjects Abraham in

this test. God, who in covenant had promised Abraham that his offspring would be

as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands of the seashore, now was

demanding that he sacrifice Isaac, the miracle child, the son of his and Sarah’s old

age: “your only son Isaac, whom you love,” God says, and this can only sound like

rubbing it in. So there is a second stumbling block. And third, if we are not baffled

and appalled enough already, there is Abraham’s astonishing lack of protest, lack

of questioning, lack of hesitation. What explanations might even begin to

disentangle our perplexity over these three troubling things?


First, as to testing, it helps to recognize this kind of divine-human interaction

as a feature of the kind of storytelling we find at times in the Old Testament. It

frankly has more in common with folklore than with later theological conceptions

in its depictions of God. Even the author of the story is a bit nervous about the

presentation of God’s character: toward the end he describes an angel of the Lord

calling to Abraham, but then slips up as it becomes clear that it is God himself

speaking. As for us, we don’t need to worry about being tested by God in this one-

on-one fashion; it’s been a long time since God was making house calls of this

kind. Simply by going about the lives we live with one another, though, we will

find ourselves tested, sometimes in highly distressing ways. So the story may have

relevance for us, even if we are not biblical Patriarchs (or, let’s not forget,

Matriarchs).


Second, about the horrific nature of the test, it helps, somewhat at least, to

remember that the first audience of this story came to it knowing that it would have

a happy ending. That is to say, they knew they were descendants of Abraham

through his son Isaac. Clearly, then, Isaac didn’t die as a boy on a mountain in

Moriah, and they could listen with satisfaction as the knots of the situation were

briskly untied at the end, leaving their ancestor unharmed.


It is the third puzzle, the mystery of Abraham’s silence, which for me and

many others is the hardest. The ways stories are told are determined by many

factors—the cultural and historical placement of author and audience, the

audience’s expectations, and here, unmistakably, the author’s evident intent.

Commentaries of Scripture will tell us that the aim of the story is to present

Abraham as an exemplar of faith, a hero or knight of faith as Kierkegaard called

him—or, as we in our less ceremonious way would put it, a role model. If that is

so, what is important is Abraham’s actions, his absolute obedience, and not any

unexpressed thoughts or feelings he might have had. Moreover, literary theorists

will tell us that neither the author nor the original audience shared our conception

of human psychology. They would say, “If you want detailed examination of a

character’s innermost thoughts and feelings, try a novel by Henry James. Don’t try

the Book of Genesis.”


Knowing this as we do, even agreeing with it as we may, we cannot avoid

pondering Abraham’s silence. Even if Abraham’s acting in faith is the point of the

story, what is going on in his head is the hook, for me and many other unsettled

readers. “What was he thinking?” we ask (and some people, more provocatively,

ask, “What was God thinking?”). This is a blank spot at the center of the story, and

what happens is that we fill it with our own anxieties, our own fear and trembling.

We cannot know what was going on in Abraham’s mind, what summits of rage or

depths of despair were being explored on the way up the mountain. But we can

imagine what our own thoughts and feelings would have been in that extremity,

and they would not have been pretty. “Abraham took the wood of the burnt

offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife.” I

think of how heavy that knife would have felt, and the fire—probably a heap of

live coals in a pot or bucket—how heavy that too would have seemed.


All this might lead us to reflect that while the story certainly is about

Abraham as a man of faith, it is showing us something about the nature of faith

itself. We tend to think of faith as a comfort, but there are times when it can be

distinctly uncomfortable. Faith is not like a security blanket. It is not like a suit of

emotional armor. Now I have backed myself into a corner: if you say what a thing

is not like, people reasonably expect you to say what it is like. And that is a harder

assignment. The best I can do right now is to say that faith is like a sturdy, serious-

looking length of rope, the far end of which is out of sight. We have been given to

believe that the end we cannot see is securely anchored when we take hold of the

end that is near us. And it may be, at times, that the rope seems to be starting to

give way, and we find ourselves clinging to it even more tightly. And even if it

does not give way and our own grasp does not fail, the palms of our hands may be

stinging with rope burn. My own reach for comparisons is running out of rope. To

put it plainly, faith is a bond between us and the one in whom we place our trust.

As in any deep and earnest and heartfelt relationship, it carries risk. How could it

be otherwise? Anyone who has done it knows that falling in love opens us not only

to immediate joy but also to the potential for bewilderment and sorrow. The stakes

are high on both sides. We think of this as a story of Abraham keeping faith with

God, but especially when tragedy is averted at the end, it is also about God keeping

faith with Abraham. The covenant stands firm, and there are two parties to a

covenant.


For me, the best way to see the final turn of the story—and I really mean to

see it—has been to consider the wonderful painting of the story’s climax by

Rembrandt, done in 1635. Rembrandt shows us the very instant of divine

intervention. An angel seizes Abraham’s wrist just as he is about to slaughter his

son, his hand opens, he drops the knife. And here, remarkably, a seventeenth-

century painting behaves like stop-action photography. Abraham’s knife, that

heavy knife, hangs motionless in the air as if it has no weight at all, a few inches

below the hand that has just let go of it. It is as though God’s mercy has had the

power to cancel the force of gravity and bring time to a halt. And somewhere in the

shadowy background, the ram in the thicket waits. When Abraham said to Isaac,

“God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son,” he may have

thought he was shielding his son mercifully from the truth. Instead, it turns out, he

was speaking truthfully of the mercy that was to come. No wonder he “called that

place ‘The Lord will provide.’” Right after this morning’s lesson breaks off, God

reiterates his promise to Abraham, that his offspring will be a numerous as the

stars.


That may seem to be the end of the story, but for Christians the story has a

sequel. When I was pulling my thoughts together for this sermon, I glanced ahead

in the Bible to the Gospel of Matthew, where today’s beautiful Gospel reading

comes from. Wouldn’t it be pleasanter, I wondered, to preach about welcoming

than about testing? But as I was leafing through pages, my eyes fell on the opening

words of Matthew’s Gospel: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of

David, the son of Abraham.” It may help us finally to come to grips with the story

of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac if we bear in mind what it prefigured.

Generations after Abraham and Isaac came down the mountain (forty-two

generations, by Matthew’s count) another son of Abraham was put to death on a

different mountaintop. In that case there was no substitute sacrificial victim, no

ram in the thicket to die in his place. He was, and is, himself the Lamb of God who

by his sacrifice on the Cross takes away the sin of the world. On that later day, on

that different mountain, the Lord provided. The covenant with Abraham was

extended to all under heaven.


Does this make faith easier for us—even for those of us who still feel the

sting of rope burn on our hands? Honestly, I don’t know: some things, for some

people, are never easy. But I do know that for many of us there is reassurance in

turning our thoughts to this later son of Abraham, whose own hands—open,

wounded, and welcoming—bear witness to his never failing to keep faith with his

Father and with us. And for that, thanks be to God. Amen.

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