A sermon on Genesis 22:1-14 by Nathan Nettleton
A few weeks ago I gave Abraham some pretty bad press. I think I described him as a bumbling, lecherous, brain-dead old dill. Well I was being a bit unfair really, I was perhaps dwelling rather too heavily on the man’s mistakes to make a point, and I’d hate to hear what Abraham would have to say if he got a good look at my life. If you turn a blind eye to some of his more notable bloopers, Abraham didn’t do too badly really. I mean right at the start of his story he takes a bigger step of faith than most of us are ever called to take – God tells him to pack up his household and possessions and travel to an unknown land. Some people who sense God’s call to be missionaries in far off places may experience something like that still, but they have extensive training in the customs and culture of the place they are going and are provided copious details of what to expect, as well as the ability to e-mail home as often as they like.
Abraham had no such luxury, and yet at God’s call, he had packed up and gone. He had hung in there with God through some pretty rough times, and even continued to trust God’s promise that he would have a child while he watched his wife go through menopause and grow older and older. God had promised that he would have a son, and that through the line of this son he would become the father of many nations and a blessing to all. As unlikely as it seemed, Abraham had hung on to that promise until finally he and Sarah, both quite elderly, held a newborn son in their arms and named him Isaac.
We don’t hear much more about the promised one, Isaac, until this story we have read today, and by this time he’s a fair sized lad, big enough to climb a decent sized hill with a load of fire wood on his shoulders. And now God speaks up and says sacrifice the boy. Horrific as it may seem, we sort of cope with it because we are told right up front that God is testing Abraham, but Abraham doesn’t know any such thing. All he knows is that he has to choose between killing his much loved and long awaited son or disobeying God.
What kind of God would do such a thing? What kind of God would tell an old man who has followed him faithfully, if at times falteringly, for all those years to sacrifice his only child? To sacrifice the one thing that meant more to him than anything else in the world. I mean even if you take out of the equation all the disturbing questions about God ordering a homicide, what kind of God tells a person to give up the thing they love most of all, especially if it’s a good thing? And not even for the sake of the person. The story does not say any where that God did this for Abraham’s benefit. It doesn’t say he wanted to teach Abraham anything or to strengthen him in some way, just to test him for God’s information.
I don’t know whether this story is literally historically what happened or not, and I don’t care, because I do know that there are plenty of times when people feel exactly like Abraham felt here. I’ve felt it. Probably most of you have felt it. God is asking too much. I’ve been faithful, I’ve been doing what God wants, living right and being regular in prayer and worship and service and now God wants me to give up the most precious thing in my life. I’ve given everything to God and now this. This is beyond what I can bear. What kind of God is this?
William Willimon tells a story of discussing this story with the congregation in his church and one man got up and said, “I’ll tell you what this story means for me. I’ve decided that I and my family are looking for another church. Because when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel like I’m near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, Rotary Club god we chatter on about here on Sunday mornings. Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person and then want more. I want to know that God.” You can imagine how the preacher felt about that response.
I can relate to that man. But I think I also stand judged by him. I think as a preacher I have a tendency to try to convince people of God’s love by making God sound very safe and nice and unthreatening. It is true that God is love, but God’s love is so totally consuming and so restlessly yearning for response that we will sometimes experience it as harsh, unpredictable, unreasonable and demanding.
Sometimes in our emphasis on how incredible God is, we forget how much like us God still is, and how much God longs to interact with us, to relate closely to us. We think of God as outside our lives looking in, like a spectator at the movies. But perhaps God is more like the person sitting next to you in the movie anxiously hoping that you might slide your arm round the back of the seat! We forget that when God loves us, it is actually similar to when we love someone. If you are seriously in love with someone, then you are seriously affected by the nature of their responses. You want to know more and more about how they really feel about you, whether their love for you will last or change with the seasons. Whether you are more important to them than their car or their job or their mother.
God is like that too. God wants to know the depth of your love. God tested Abraham because God didn’t know what Abraham would do, and God needed to know. You don’t have to believe all that stuff about how God knows everything you are going to do before you do it, because the writer of this story didn’t believe that. After rescuing Isaac in the nick of time, God says, “Now I know that you really trust me.” Before I didn’t know. I needed to know. Now I know. This story doesn’t say anything about God doing this for Abraham’s edification. God does this for God’s sake. God loved Abraham desperately and wanted to know whether he could trust the future of God’s purposes to him. And the only way to find out was to throw down the gauntlet.
God puts the whole relationship on the line to test Abraham’s love. What if Abraham had failed? God takes a huge risk here, because Abraham hasn’t actually been the model of reliability before this. Imagine how devastated God would have been if Abraham had said “No, stuff it. I’m not going to trust you.” Imagine the heartbreak. God and Abraham have been partners for years. God has invested the whole future of the messianic promises in this bloke. Sure Abraham trusted God before, but will he still trust now that he has the promised son in his arms? It’s easy to be faithful when you want something, what if I now ask you to give it up? Do you still trust me? Now that I’ve given you what you want, are you just going to take me for granted?
Lovers do this sort of thing to each other a lot. They push each other and test each other out. They gamble on each other’s faithfulness desperately hoping each other will hold true. Granted, most lovers are not as extreme in their testing as this, but most are not as extreme in their love as God either. The rest of us tend to be a lot more cautious, tentative and self-protective in the way we love and give ourselves to one another. But God stops at nothing. God’s love for us is so passionate, so yearning, so wild and so urgently needing of a response.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we get so scared of this God, so nervous about getting too close. It’s safer to stand back at a distance and appreciate God’s love from a safe place. Up close it’s too unpredictable, too demanding. We’re afraid of what God might ask of us, how God might push us. We feel vulnerable and exposed before this passionate God who is so totally dependent on us for a loving response. Safer by far to go to a Bible study and discuss the value of an ancient story about child sacrifice and its possible theoretical implications for today. But a God so real and so utterly committed that he’ll sacrifice his own son to show his love to us is terrifying. Such a God might seek an equally painful and total sacrifice from us as a measure of our love. But such a God is the only God, the passionate yearning God who has given you life and who can ask for your life at each and every moment. And such a God is the only God worth your love. The God whose love fills us with fear and yet takes away all fear. The God who goes with us always.