Because it’s Us
September 29, 2019
Reverend Sarah Brouwer
After these things God tested Abraham. God said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” God 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.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” The angel said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
Isaac was the son they had waited for. The child they never thought would be born. There was infertility, which cast a shadow over Sarah’s life. She was resentful when Ishmael was born to Abraham through their slave Hagar, so she sent Hagar and Ishamael away to die in the wilderness. It was a violent choice we can only hope she regretted in years to come. Sarah’s pain was deep, her identity shattered, and her reactions troubling in the confines of an ancient marriage where she could not do her part. Until the day when God chose Abraham and Sarah to be the ones. It was complicated. You see, Sarah and Abraham were old, and Abraham’s mistakes were many. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, but it did. The impossible became possible. Isaac was born. And with Isaac came a promise that from this family would be a whole nation of people, the people of Israel.
Isaac grew up adored. He was their laughter in the midst of tears. But then there was that fateful day. The one that would change everything, all over again. God came to Abraham and told him to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham’s face must have turned to anguish, disbelief and fear. Without so much as a flinch, though he did what he was told. Abraham packed for a three-day journey to Mt. Moriah, and set out on three days of hard travel. Three days to consider this test and if he would follow through. Three days to soak up final moments with his son and to try and understand what God was doing. All this while Isaac himself carried the wood that he would lie down on for his own death.
Abraham was obedient up until the last second- willing to commit a horrifying act in the name of – what – sacrifice? faith that God had a plan? It seems like he was trying to ace a test in which the only grade could be failure. A lose-lose situation where Abraham and Isaac survive, but are traumatized forever.
It’s an absurd story, isn’t it? But it’s woven into the fabric of our history- this bizarre moment in which the God of love tells a parent to kill their child as a test. It’s a near murder in the name of faith, which is a disturbing perversion of everything we believe. And it raises all sorts of questions in our minds- particularly, does a God of love test us?
For nearly forever I’ve heard the phrase “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Something similar to it is said in the Bible. But that hasn’t stopped me. Because every time I hear it I try to systematically refute it. God doesn’t give us bad things, I’ve said. God doesn’t want us to be in pain and certainly doesn’t cause it, I’ve said. But, this story challenges that argument, and makes me think harder than I ever have about what it might mean to be tested- what it might look like, and if it’s even worth talking about.
The thing is, if I’m being honest, I have felt tested before. Not in ways that end in tragedy, but sometimes it has seemed like there’s an outward force pre-emptively walking my path and laying obstacles in front of me, waiting for me to make the wrong move, and stumble. And I have been witness to wonderful humans go through devastating things, and they have told me that knowing there is some greater purpose to their pain is how they get through it. Some have said God is trying to make them stronger or is using them for a reason, and it encourages them to show others how to be faithful in difficult times. But, I simply don’t want to believe this. I don’t want to think this could ever be true about a God who created us, who is our loving parent in so many ways. That God would make us to go through pain for some larger plan is something I cannot reconcile… but maybe that’s my privilege talking. Maybe I get to argue with God and wrestle with this because I have thus far dealt quite easily with what life has thrown at me.
One theory out there is that this story is actually not about the real God and the real Abraham, but a tale the Jewish people would have told as a warning about the dark side of what we can end up doing in the name of faith. God sets up this charade of sorts not to test Abraham’s faith and reward him for it, but to see how far he will actually go, only to stop him and say, “what in the heck are you doing? Don’t do this!” But I have a hard time here, too, because it’s a pretty evil trick for a loving God to play.
If it’s alright with you, I’m going to argue for another theory. A theory that says God and Abraham are so deeply rooted in one another they both know how this is going to play out from the beginning. It doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t make sense of any kind. But it is what makes this troubling scenario deeply real. Alanna described to me this week a picture she uses in her mind of what is actually happening here- that God is hovering above the mountain as Abraham climbs up and is ready to provide for him. And Abraham is taking step after step in faith, trusting with every bone in his body that God will and must provide. There is no other option here for both to trust. The awful moment where the binding happens and the knife is raised- that is the reality- the reality that the most terrible things we can imagine really do happen, often to the weakest of people, like a child. But as the story suggests, what choice are we left with? To give up on God? To turn our backs on the one who has given us everything, and to whom everything belongs? Or, to trust, with everything in us that God will do something about it.
This summer I read a book about what it means to be a pastor nowadays, in the 21st century. It hit home in a lot of ways, not just because I am a pastor, but also because many of the people I’m friends with don’t go to church. Every so often, though, we do get into conversations about faith- sometimes it’s in moments of pain and sometimes it’s just out of curiosity. And maybe my intuition is off, but I hear in their words a yearning- a desire at some level for the impossible to be possible, for mysterious reassurance that even in our darkest moments, or maybe especially in our darkest moments, there is a God we can trust. The author of the book called it a longing for enchantment, because enchantment isn’t just about inspiration or pleasure, but a belief in something that has the ability to take us out of our present circumstances- a belief in something beyond belief, a hope for the future that creates order and purpose out of the tests and tragedies life can so often bring.
I think the story of Abraham and Isaac is enchanting in some way. Ellen Davis says that this story “is the place you go when you are out beyond anything you thought could or would happen, beyond anything you imagined God would ever ask of you, when the most sensible thing to do might be to deny that God exists at all, or to deny that God cares at all, or to deny that God has any power at all. That would be sensible, except you can’t do it, because you are so deep into relationship with God that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind. To deny God any meaningful place in your life would be to deny your own existence. And so you are stuck with your pain and your incomprehension, and the only way to move at all is to move toward God, to move more deeply into this relationship that we call faith… That is what Abraham does. Without comprehension, nearly blinded by the horror of what he was told to do, Abraham follows God’s lead, for the simple and sufficient reason that it is God who is leading.”
The bottomless trust Abraham has in God does not make him a hero of faith. At all. But, it does make him human. It makes him like us. In need of God and connected to God beyond our comprehension.
At the end of the story it says that God provides for Abraham. God provides the ram but look closely. The word can also be translated God sees. God saw Abraham for all that he was. And God sees us, too- all that we are, the good, the bad, and the yearning for enchantment.
Why do we keep our faith and our trust in God when it feels like we’re being tested? Jewish theologian Eliezer Berkovits imagines Abraham speaking to God during those three days, verbalizing every thought as he goes up Mt. Moriah, saying to God: “In this situation I do not understand you. Your behavior violates our covenant; still, I trust you because it is you, because it is you and me, God, because it is us. Because it’s us.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.