The reading Genesis
21:1 The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.
22:1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He 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 himself 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." He 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."
We are now 7 weeks away from the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This event, which divided the church and changed the religious, political and social world started on October 31st 1517 when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses or points. This document was mostly a call to debate about the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. It also sharply questioned church authority and the way things were done for centuries. As we approach this historic event, I plan to include parts of Martin Luther’s writing in each week’s sermon. As Luther found evidence of God’s promises fulfilled through Christ’s death and resurrection throughout scripture, we should be able to as well.
This week, we start with the sacrifice of Isaac, one of the most difficult, uncomfortable and complicated moments in the Bible. This story is an event in the history of Israel that challenges our idea of God in serious ways. God tests Abraham by instructing him to kill his son Isaac as an offering then waiting around to see if he does it.
I wanted to talk about the characters involved in this story. Isaac is the child of a promise. The first time, God calls Abraham, God tells him he will be the father of a great nation. As proof, Abraham is told his wife, Sarah, who is long past child bearing age, will give birth to a son, a true heir to Abraham’s name. Isaac is that child and grows knowing he is a miracle. Isaac is a good son, obedient and faithful. He trusts his father and goes on this trip to Moriah. He thinks it’s strange that there is no ram or other animal to sacrifice but does not think much more of it. After all, God has spoken to Abraham many times before, he has gone to do things that seemed unusual but it’s always worked out.
Abraham’s wife Sarah, has no idea what the true purpose of this trip is. We are left to believe Abraham simply said “I heard from the Lord, Isaac and I have to travel a large distance to offer a sacrifice” to which Sarah replies “okay honey have a safe trip and gives him a hug”. Again God has spoken to Abraham many times before, he has gone to do things that seemed unusual but it’s always worked out.
Like Sarah and Isaac, the two young men who are helping with the trip, also have no idea that Abraham is going on this trip to kill his son as a requested sacrifice to the lord. They are simply doing their jobs. At some point, we assume the land changes and the donkey can no longer make the trip. The 2 young men are given the task of watching the donkey and waiting for their boss to come back.
No one realizes how close they really are to something awful, to a horrific event and to being under the care of a God who demands the sacrifice of children or whatever we hold most dear. Abraham is the only one who knows the purpose of this trip. He has heard the Lord call him several times before. Each time, answering here I am and receiving great news, promises or instructions to do a task. This time is different. Now the word from God is not you will be the father of a great nation, or you will have descendants as numerous as the stars, this time, its “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."
In the Old Testament, there are many examples of people arguing with God or protesting God’s instruction. There is Jonah who refuses to go to Nineveh and ends up in a whale’s belly, there is pleading for saving Sodom and Gormorrah. In a few weeks, we will hear Moses tell God “I don’t talk well, I don’t want to go to confront Egypt and set your people free”. Here, Abraham makes no complaint, he even gets up early to get a head start on this awful demand. Abraham does love Isaac more than anything else, this child was not unexpected, he was impossible. Not having an heir was the biggest disappointment of Abraham’s life, one that made everything seem like a failure. God gave him this son and now God was basically asking for him back. As they travel, Abraham carries this burden alone. I imagine this burden took its toll emotionally and physically on Abraham. I guess Isaac or the others stopped occasionally and asked Abraham “are you okay, you looked troubled or you look tired”. Once they arrive close to the site, Abraham and Isaac go alone. Now when Abraham tells the young men, “Isaac and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you” I cannot figure out if Abraham is lying, unable to even say what he is going to do, or he has just come to trust that God will not let this happen.
Abraham and Isaac get to the site chosen by the Lord for the sacrifice. Abraham goes through with it, he will obey God’s command, he will kill his own beloved son. At the last moment, God intervenes, an angel stops Abraham from doing what we cannot believe God asked him to do. Isaac was never in true danger . We never get any glimpse of the emotional trial this was. Abraham appears as a good solider, following orders. He offers a ram as a sacrifice and calls the place “the Lord will provide”. In later verses more news comes for Abraham, its good again, he is told Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you,
Instead of delving into why God has done this test, I prefer to celebrate that God never gives anyone this test again. There are lessons in this story we can see in the Reformation as well. The demands of faith are not easy. A life of faith is not easy. Martin Luther endured personal and spiritual struggles throughout his life, losing a child and facing what he considered attacks by demonic forces trying to pull him from God. In his famous hymn a Mighty Fortress is our God tells us that even if we lose everything we value, our children, family, house, fame, possessions, we are still loved and protected by God. Luther writes: If they take our house, goods, fame, child or spouse, wretch our life away, they cannot win the day, the kingdom’s ours forever. I had sung this hymn a good 15 or 20 times before I noticed this line, a frightening vision that directs our trust always and only at God alone, to the place where Abraham was throughout this story.
As Luther develops his theology, he never forgets, centuries after the sacrifice (well non sacrifice) of Isaac, God will be in Abraham’s position, with God’s beloved Son Jesus on the cross and this time, there is no last second reprieve. At the crucifixion, the crowds, the disciples, even Jesus himself wonders will God stop it. Once again, only God knows what is happening, that Jesus will rise again and destroy the power of sin and death once and for all. Luther had little patience for people who thought or acted like God did rescue Jesus from death. Instead, there was the Theology of the Cross, the realization that God is present in our suffering, helping us endure. Faith is not a get out of suffering free card, it’s a little note where God promises you are loved, saved and cared for. Prayer is not a magic way to get what you want, it’s a reminder that you are loved, saved and cared for by God.
Finally, One of the main causes that led Luther to speak up about what was going on in the religious life of his time was the burdens people were carrying, their anxiety about being forgiven, their fear of eternal hell and concern about following all the rules that had accumulated in church over the years. Luther speaks up because he realized that God does not want us to carry these burdens. There will be the burdens of remaining faithful in the face of evil, tragedy and temptation. There will not be the burdens of wondering if you are forgiven or loved by God.