When God’s Ways Are Troubling

Here’s the elephant in the room: There’s no way to avoid our text from Genesis this morning.  If I focused on the two sentences from Matthew offered up to us by the lectionary committee, you would rightly guess that I’m avoiding Genesis—I might have added “like the plague” a few months ago, but that’s a bit too close to home.  And so this story on the Binding of Isaac hangs in the air, and frankly I don’t like it.

If pushed, I’d say it’s because I don’t like this image of God.  I don’t want to try to explain a God who would ask such a thing as God does of Abraham.  I feel that a life of faith—encouraging the life of discipleship—in the 21st century is tough enough without another text helping some of you solidify the belief that the God of the Old Testament was harsh and vengeful and that the God of the New Testament is all about love. (This is an incorrect belief, by the way, God’s love shows up again and again in the stories of the Hebrew Bible, and there is harsh and judgmental words from Jesus and the Early Church. God is God.)

But what it really comes down to is that opening line that sets up the whole story: “After these things, God tested Abraham.”  After Abraham has already left the homelands of his family in his 70s, endured many hardships over the next 30 years, and has the fulfilled promise of a son, shouldn’t it be fine for him to enjoy his retirement?  Can’t he just coast a bit?

God’s response isn’t the one I’m looking for.  God wants to test Abraham and his mettle, his devotion to God, the Creator of the Universe.  God says, “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.”

There are two somewhat easy outs for a preacher. First, I can tell you that child sacrifice wasn’t uncommon in those days in the plethora of religious practices in the area, so God wants to let Abraham learn that such an abominable act is verboten. We can write it off as those brutal, bloodthirsty nomads of the Ancient Near East not being nearly as sophisticated as us. And yet I’ve seen relationships with children sacrificed on the altar of a career far too often in our own day, as the promise of wealth or prestige become the gods that we serve. 

The other easy way to circumnavigate this text is to use it purely as a theological set up for Jesus’ death on the cross. We jump immediately from the Mt. Moriah to Golgotha and avoid any discomfort.  We could easily get to the idea of redemption and Easter in a matter of a few sentences, leaving Abraham and Isaac far behind and hopefully forgotten as we allow the brightness of Jesus to become our focus.

But I’m picking option three.  Wrestling with this text and with a God whom I don’t fully understand.  And it begins with a test.

A couple of times a day, I give voice to the words that Jesus taught his disciples to pray including this request: “Lead us not into temptation.” The more contemporary language of the Lord’s Prayer implores God to “save us from the time of trial” and surely not to be tested by God.  Yet God tested the people of Israel throughout the Exodus and beyond, and Jesus himself was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested.  And here we see that God tested Abraham.

But what does God want to know?  Throughout scripture we hear metaphors of our relationship with God as being like a marriage covenant.  Of our being the bride to God’s bridegroom.  God wants to know if we are faithful.  If we put God first in our lives. If we are in all in just with God, or if we have gone off chasing other gods or idols or infatuations.  Is God and God’s kingdom the primary focus in our lives, or have we, when things have become comfortable for us, become enamored with something else? Have we grown tired of God?

Here’s Abraham having finally received the totality of the promise God made to him through the birth of Isaac, his beloved son, and life is good.  It would be so easy for him to become complacent, to lose his focus, and allow something or someone else to slide into that top spot of his life.  

“Abraham, I want you to take your son, whom you love, and offer him to me.”  Surely Abraham clung tightly to Isaac and the future promise he embodied, so God was beginning to wonder just what or who Abraham adored.  Was it God, or the boy?

My good friend, priest, and mentor, Rich Simpson gives this enlightened reflection on this text: “Maybe it is his attachment to Isaac that Abraham has to let go of. Maybe Isaac has his own dreams, his own hopes, his own gifts. If we can learn to see parenting as a ministry, as a kind of stewardship, then we begin to grasp that while there are no guarantees there is at least a chance that we will not stifle our kids with our own agendas, our own neuroses, our own fears. (All of us need to be reminded of this when our kids are looking at colleges, or preparing for their wedding day.)”  Rich continues, “And in a sense, when we baptize our children we are in a very real way climbing Mt. Moriah. We baptize them into the death of Christ, so they can be made alive to God. We give them back to God. We let them go. And then God turns around and entrusts us (with God’s help and with the faith community’s help) to ‘raise them into the full stature of Christ.’”

But to do so means letting go of the control we tend to cling to especially in the midst of trying times, and to trust God. To fully believe the promises God has made to us that God would be with us always, even to the end of the age.  And that when we are tested, God provides a way out.  Abraham sets out on the way up to Mt. Moriah telling Isaac that God would provide the offering for them.  And God does.  But not before first having Abraham encounter the test.

When we go through times of testing in the wilderness, we draw closer to God.  We come to depend more deeply on God.  The less important stuff in our lives gets stripped away and we see more clearly.  

Why did God test Abraham in this way?  I don’t know any more than what I’ve said to you today.  I’m still wrestling with God and longing to see God and the way of God more clearly, but, as St. Paul puts it in the words of the Message Bible, in this age it’s as if we’re squinting in a fog, trying to peer at God through a mist.  We only get shadows and partial images, and only when we come to be in God’s presence will we fully see God face to face.  Until that time, I keep trying, I keep reaching out to the Unknowable God and wanting to fully put my trust in God’s care.  It’s not always easy, and the path forward through trials is not the way I’d like to go at the time, but it’s the most reliable way for me to grow as I await the full realization of Christ’s kingdom.  As St. Paul puts it: “But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.”

So may we, Like Father Abraham, come to trust and hope and love more fully even in the midst of life’s trials and uncertainties. May we put God first in our lives, above all else.  And may we trust that God always provides us a way out in the midst of the trials of our lives. Amen.

Photo Credit: kunst.ftf Flickr via Compfight cc

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