Scripture Readings: Genesis 22:1-14 | Psalm 13 | Romans 6:12-23 | Matthew 10:40-42
Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
Now I know I said last week’s Gospel reading, seemed like a difficult text to talk about on father’s day… but our Old Testament reading today takes that theme of familial tension to a whole new level.
This is one of those parts of God’s story, that we may have heard hundreds of times before, but which can still leave us feeling disturbed and more than a little bit unsettled. Just like last week’s reading we are left asking: What is going on here? Why would God ask for such a thing? What kind of a good and loving God would ask someone to slay their own innocent son?
Once again, the temptation for us can be to assume that we ultimately know what’s best, and then to take up the task of judging whether or not God lives up to our ethical standards. But instead, let us try to resist this urge, and, Lord willing, let us take on the work of a faithful listener… as one who is trying first to hear and understand, God’s word to us, even if it goes against our own first impressions. We are being asked first of all to trust, even when we don’t understand… Something that is challenging for all of us to do.
This part of the story begins with an obvious, but important observation: This story is about how “God tested Abraham” (Genesis 22:1). It’s not primarily about somehow proving that God is trustworthy. Although time and again in the story we find that the Lord is faithful beyond measure, graciously giving to Abraham everything that he needs. Rather, the question that is driving the story is whether or not Abraham is trustworthy: if he will be willing to truly trust the Living God with everything. It is Abraham’s life in the spotlight, it is his character and commitment that are on trial… and along with him we are drawn into the story as well.
If we look a bit closer at Abraham’s story so far, we find a complicated story. He has his moments of deep obedience, but mixed in with some very serious setbacks. It all begins in Genesis chapter 12: As part of God’s world-wide rescue mission to restore His fallen creation, God calls Abraham out from the land, and way of life, of his ancestors… promising to give him a land and life all of his own. Further on we find God making some other amazing promises, including the promise that Abraham and his wife, Sarah, who were both well beyond child-rearing age, would miraculously have a son together, and that through this child all the nations of the world would be blessed. God invites Abraham into a unique and blessed relationship.
But while Abraham says yes to, and wants all that God has promised him, we find him stumbling along the road of obedience and trust, often driven by fear and doubts, taking what he thinks are easy short-cuts, and leaving those closest to him to suffer for it. Like his first son Ishmael, born to Sarah’s servant, Hagar, who were both forced out of Abraham’s family, and left desperately alone. That is, until the Lord mercifully steps in, and bringing hope out of their despair. In short, Abraham’s life so far has been one of unsteady devotion… of shaky faithfulness.
Despite all this, God still clearly wants Abraham to be a part of His own divine story. Throughout his stumbling journey towards wholehearted faith, we find God right there with him, patiently walking along with him, in utter faithfulness. Leading us all the way to today’s reading: to the climax of Abraham’s story, when God commands him to offer up Isaac his promised son as a sacrifice.
What a thing to ask for… the life of his beloved son.
We rightly cringe at the thought of human sacrifice, largely because our culture way back has been formed by the story of God. And the idea of slaying one’s own child strikes us
as barbaric and heartless. But for Abraham, this was an even more intense and terrible request. Isaac embodied absolutely everything for Abraham. He was the one glimpse of hope that all of his own struggles and strife, that his entire life was not meaningless… that it wouldn’t all be in vain. For Abraham, Isaac was God’s gracious love and promises personified. Isaac had been God’s priceless gift to Abraham and Sarah. God was not simply asking for his son, He was asking Abraham for everything… to put his whole life on the altar, and give it back to the Lord.
What has the Lord given to us that we hold onto as precious? What are the blessings that we treasure most in life? During this time of the pandemic many of us have had to step back and rethink our priorities. People are finding that many of the things they have been striving for in life… success, money, security, pleasure, and so on, are a lot more fragile and fleeting than we had imagined. At the same time, it seems there is also a newfound appreciation for a different kind of treasures: time with family and friends, relationships, and community, justice, and kindness, goodness, and truth. These things are re-awakening in the hearts of many today; treasures we have all too often taken for granted.
But this story bids us to take a step beyond this revelation: beyond simply recognizing those things that are truly worth striving for, and beyond simply reorganizing our own priorities. Through this story we are being summoned to envision setting everything aside: to surrender our dearest treasures, to hand back to God everything that we have been given. We are being called to trust the Living God with everything. And not in a vague, abstract sense, but in an uncomfortably close to home choice: to let everything go into the hands of the Lord.
It is natural at this point to think about all that saying yes to this choice will cost us. To count up all the things that we can’t imagine living without, and then to think that God must be cruel to ask us to let them go. But the flip side of that question, which we do not as easily think about, is the cost of saying no to trusting God with everything. What is the cost of clinging to the treasures of our hearts, to our hopes, and dreams, instead of trusting God with our lives?
The author Dallas Willard seeks to clarify this for us in writing about the high cost of nondiscipleship; that is, of choosing not to take up our cross and wholeheartedly follow Jesus. He writes:
“one cannot be a disciple of Christ without forfeiting things normally sought in human life… But the cost of nondiscipleship is far greater - even when this life alone is considered - than the price paid to walk with Jesus.
Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10).”
Yes, following Christ, trusting God, means letting go, but it also means sharing our life completely with our gracious Lord… our, Creator, our Redeemer, and the Giver of all good things.
All along, God had remained faithful to Abraham beyond all expectations, giving freely to Abraham more than he could have ever imagined. Then in this challenging command God gives him another precious gift: a life-changing call into a life of radical faith. To entrust everything Isaac embodied, all his own hopes, paternal love, and life, into the gracious hands of the Living God… reorienting his whole life forever in the process. In his book entitled Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it like this: “Abraham had to learn that the promise did not depend upon Isaac, but only on God… Abraham received Isaac back, but he has him in a different way than before.” The Living God Himself, not Isaac, was now the foundation of Abraham’s whole life, and this is the same relationship, the same way of life that you and I /are being called to share in too.
But God’s giving goes on: This part of the story ends when God Himself provides the lamb, the means by which Isaac, and with him Abraham’s entire life, is spared, and the sacrifice that unites them together in love, pointing us to the greatest gift God gives to us all: For Jesus Christ is the true Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In Christ, God offers us Himself, His entire life, embodied once and for all in Jesus, God’s incarnate Son, faithfully laying down His life to reconcile and redeem our world… who suffered, died, and was raised again to bring eternal, abundant life.
Despite our own stories of unsteady devotion and shaky faith… our own imitations of Abraham’s stumbling and struggling, in Christ God has provided us /with everything that we need. Baptized into Jesus, and set free to live in Him, we are called to offer our entire lives, everything we are and have to the Living God, to set aside and resist the pull of sin, which only leads to death, to entrust all we treasure into His gracious hands, and to learn anew that everything, the preservation of our past, the enduring of our present, and the hope of all our tomorrows depends ultimately on Jesus our Saviour… the ultimate gift of God, who alone brings eternal, abundant life.
In our struggles and our doubts, let us not turn aside, but turn again and again to our gracious Lord, who invites us to come to Him, to trust in Him, and receive our life in Him.
May the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised to give to all those who trust in Him, keep our minds, our hearts, and our whole lives faithful to our Lord, that we too might take our part in God’s world-wide rescue mission, and find ourselves transformed by His gracious faithfulness. Amen.
 Willard, Dallas. In Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups (edited by Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith) (p.16). HarperSanFransisco. Italics mine.
 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2003). Discipleship (p.97) Minneapolis: Fortress Press.