A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 8
July 2, 2023
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
Readings: Genesis 22:1-14
I have a vivid memory from my childhood. I was probably around 8 years old. It’s dark, and we are on our way to the hospital for me to have yet another surgery. That was the year I had one surgery every two to three months. The recovery was painful, and just as I felt I was about healed I had to go back. In the darkness, in the backseat, I remember feeling as if no one around me really understood what I felt. I did not feel like anyone could really see me–that is, I didn’t feel like anyone could understand what I was dealing with. I felt alone, and my questions to God went unanswered. As I’ve grown, I have wondered what my mother, alone in the front seat, was thinking about on that dark drive. Knowing what her son would go through in a couple of short hours must have been painful for her, too. How helpless she must have felt.
Have you been in that kind of dark place before? Alone, afraid, unsure of what comes next but knowing you would rather go another way? Perhaps we can understand a little bit of what Abraham and Isaac are going through today.
Our reading from Genesis takes us to the binding of Isaac. Abraham and Sarah have waited for God’s promise to be fulfilled their whole lifetimes. Sarah is soon to die. And God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Child sacrifice was not unheard of at that time and in that part of the world. For all of human history, people have sacrificed children to their gods, usually in the face of unprecedented hardship, when they feel backed into a corner. They think they can satisfy their gods if they can give them what is most precious: their children. And today, Yahweh tells Abraham that such a sacrifice will be required of him.
It feels barbaric. It feels cruel and terrible and unnecessary. It feels wrong. It’s supposed to, in a sense. I think we, along with Abraham, are meant to be horrified by this request. If we’re not horrified, we are ignoring our humanity and our God-given sense of justice.
I wonder what the experience is like for Isaac. Perhaps he was a little like me in that backseat, along for the ride, wondering why, trying to figure things out in the dark. “We have the wood and the fire, father. But where is the sacrifice?” Maybe he was asking hoping his father would put him at ease. He may have known whom the butcher’s cleaver was for.
I wonder what that experience was like for Abraham? Perhaps a little like my mother’s on that drive to the hospital. This is something he must do, but the pain he feels is overwhelming. He wishes he could step into Isaac’s place, but he cannot.
I have often imagined Abraham bargaining with God when God tells him to sacrifice Isaac. I have imagined Abraham refusing God at first, negotiating, counter offering, then reluctantly going along with it. But the text doesn’t say that. There’s no indication that Abraham does that. Instead he goes along with what God requires, trusting, as he says over and over today, God will provide. Why?
I think it’s because Abraham knows God. Abraham knows that God is not some capricious, unaccountable, thunderbolt-hurling deity. Abraham knows that God is faithful. Abraham knows that God has promised Isaac, and Abraham knows that Isaac can be trusted in God’s hands of love and mercy. So Abraham goes forward in trust and faith: God will provide, God will provide, God will provide.
In Hebrew, that phrase, “God will provide,” is actually “The Lord sees.” The Lord sees a way even when we cannot see a way. The Lord sees even when we find ourselves going up a mountain with all we hold dear under threat of losing it all. The Lord sees even when we find ourselves in the darkness wondering why, grappling with suffering, helplessly hoping for the light. The Lord sees, even when our sight is limited. The Lord sees our future, and we are held in his hand from here to there. Abraham knows that, and Isaac will know it, too. My mother knew that, and I learned it in time. The Lord sees; the Lord is faithful and trustworthy; we can withstand whatever test is in front of us, for we are held in God’s hands.
But beyond that, there is a greater promise embedded in this story of the binding of Isaac–a greater vision that Abraham cannot see yet, that will not be seen until the coming of the Messiah centuries after Abraham and Isaac. In the binding of Isaac, we see a promise of the atoning and sacrificial death of Christ, the Son of God, for our sins and the sins of the world.
The Lord sees. The Lord sees how we are held hostage by sin and death. The Lord sees the dominion wrought over us by forces that seeks to corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. The Lord sees how we are wracked with grief, sorrow, tears, pain, suffering, hardship, despair, and hopelessness. The Lord sees those painstaking journeys up mountains, those car rides through incomprehensible darkness.
The Lord sees and the Lord provides. The Lord does not forever send some stop-gap measure, a ram in the thicket. The Lord does not require the most precious blood of our children from us like those capricious and unaccountable false gods. The Lord sees that we cannot help ourselves, so the Lord provides himself. The Lord sees our need for redemption, for hope, for peace with God, for the love of God, so the Lord sends his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that the world through him might be saved.
The Lord sees and gives his only begotten Son–God’s very Self for our sin, to cover us, to heal us, to make us whole and to draw us up into the life and love of God. And by this and this alone, the domineering cycle of death is stopped. The vicious circle that leads parents, even today, to sacrifice their children to the gods of this world is stopped and put on notice. For God has seen, and God has provided us his very self–on offer, on the cross, on the altar of God as Body and Blood.
Like Abraham and Isaac, Mother and I still had that dark road to travel. We all have those roads, those paths of pain, that helplessness. But we are not alone, and it’s not all up to us. For God has gone ahead of us to the cross, and walks with us now to help us carry our crosses from death to resurrection. Like Abraham, may we have the grace and the faith to confess, even in despair: the Lord sees, and the Lord will provide.
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