Abraham and Isaac: A sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Genesis 22:1-14, Psalm 13, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

In daring to preach on one of the oddest, most disturbing and yet compelling stories found in the Bible I acknowledge my huge indebtedness to the scholarship of Emeritus Professor James D Newsome of Columbia University. I am also very aware that Rev’d Peter tackled brilliantly an equally difficult text last week – about priorities in our relationship with Jesus. I trust I am up to the task.

The story is odd because it doesn’t make sense. The great saga of Abraham and Sarah begins in Genesis 12 with God’s call to leave home and trust God into the future. After long years of being childless the longed-for Isaac is born and the line of Abraham is assured. And then – today’s story.

God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his only child is, to say the least, profoundly disturbing! What sort of God is this who, no sooner has the gift been given than it is snatched away?

And yet, the story is compelling. We can’t stop reading it. We too must go on the journey with the old father and his young son. Like the young men who accompanied Abraham we wonder where the sacrifice will come from. It’s impossible to imagine the truth.

Professor Newsome suggests the story is similar to the question posed about Job – does Job fear/love God for God’s sake or only for the reward? Does Abraham truly trust God or does he really only covet the gift?

The story of Abraham and Isaac unfolds in three scenes, each featuring a voice that utters words critical to the story. Scene 1 opens with a single word as the voice of God calls, ‘Abraham.’ His willing and open response – ‘Here I am’ – gives no clue to the savage command that is to follow. “Take your son, your only son, whom you love and go…” We are left aghast! This is God’s long-promised gift, the fulfilment of obedience over all those years, the cause of Sarah’s joyful laughter. Can God really ask this? Is this the God Abraham has trusted for so long – who has such authority to dare to ask such a thing? Abraham’s response is remarkable as he does what he is told and sets off on the journey. The questions pile up in our minds.

Scene 2 opens with another voice – the voice of the boy Isaac –  ‘Father’. Again Abraham responds ‘Here I am’ and then adds ‘my son’. We can barely bring ourselves to hear Isaac’s question: ‘The fire and the wood are here but where is the lamb?’ There is such innocence in Isaac’s question. The father’s answer comes quickly, reassuring the boy that ‘God will provide.’ Is this for real – this measured answer? Is it an act of loving deception, an outright lie, a brute reference to unthinkable blind obedience, an act of outrageous hope?

And so to Scene 3. As audience we are on the edge of our seats. Surely this cannot play out as it appears? Abraham slowly and methodically goes about building the altar, laying the wood, binding his son, laying him on the altar, reaching out his hand, taking the sharp knife to kill …. The story-teller builds the tension as we hold our breath.

Then – at the very last minute – a voice again. Loud, strident, urgent. ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ Incredibly his response is the same as it has always been, ‘Here I am.’ We let out the breath we did not even know we were holding as we listen to the voice of God again, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy…’ The rest of the words are barely heard, such is our relief.

So Abraham called the place, ‘The Lord will provide.’

This story is critical in the greater narrative of the Abraham saga. It began with an act of faith and trust and it can now continue – in faith and trust.

How do we make sense of it all? Perhaps in a very Pauline way using two words so beloved by St Paul – faith and grace. Remember the question posed earlier: Is faith really in God or is it in the gift? Faith is such a fragile thing, so easily broken – especially when God seems distant, when we are tested beyond what we think we can possibly bear.

St Paul would say we cannot earn our way into God’s favour. We can never love enough. Be good enough. Believe enough. Trust enough. The story of Abraham and Isaac has obvious parallels with the story at the heart of the Gospels – the death of Jesus on the cross. On that occasion there is no angel arresting the killing hand, no lamb conveniently caught in a nearby thicket. Jesus is the Lamb who dies.

But that is not the end. Rather – it is the beginning. For God, gloriously and wondrously, raised Christ from the dead. That is the Easter message. That is our faith. It is a faith and a message that we do well to cling to as we continue along our journey – for faith is fragile and we are often frightened and confused.

Remember, says St Paul, God’s grace is sufficient, while we were still sinners Christ died for us all (Romans 8:5). The Lord does indeed provide – lavishly and in a way completely unwarranted.