by David Baer, September 17, 2017
Text: Genesis 21:1-3,22:1-14
“Some things are up to us. Other things are not up to us.” Those words come from the first-century philosopher Epictetus, from his Handbook, a guide to thinking about how to live life in the right way. I confess that I often find myself turning to these words. For Epictetus, living a good life meant learning to care about and focus all your effort only on the things you can control, which turns out to be surprisingly little. Your health—for the most part, beyond some reasonable precautions, is out of your control. Whether the people close to you will continue to be part of your life—ultimately out of your control. Whether you hold onto your possessions, which can be lost or broken or stolen—out of your control. Whether you’ll be favored with a position in public service—out of your control. On the other hand, how you feel about and respond to things that happen, how you relate to the people around you, whether you’re caring and generous or tightfisted and unkind—those you can control. It’s how you do the things that are up to you, Epictetus says, that makes the measure of whether your life was well lived or not. There’s wisdom in this.
Some things are not up to us. Abraham and Sarah were not blessed with children. That wasn’t up to them. Even today people we know want to welcome children into their families, and it doesn’t happen in the way that they want, because it isn’t up to us. But the story of Abraham and Sarah is one where God makes a wild, impossible promise about something they could never hope to do for themselves. “I will make of you a great nation,” God says. “Your descendants will as many as the stars in the night sky.” When God makes a promise that creates a future for us beyond anything we could imagine making for ourselves, we call it “covenant.” And when we trust that God not only can but will make good on that promise, we call it “faith.” Making good on the covenant promise is up to God. Grasping that promise, holding it fast and living here and now as though that promise is as good as done, that’s faith, and that is up to us.
When you lay hold of something that isn’t up to you, you take a risk. You’ve taken a risk like this if you’ve ever poured your heart out to someone special, desperately hoping that they felt the same way, because you hoped there might be a future with this person. You’ve taken a risk if you’ve gone after a job you know you’d enjoy and be good at. You’ve taken a risk if you’ve sat down to have a difficult conversation with someone close to you about choices that aren’t healthy or good, wanting them to see how their life could be so much better and richer. I hope you’ve taken risks that have paid off—but we all know that sometimes they don’t. When you step out in faith—faith in a new relationship or an opportunity or a different future—it’s not up to you, and so you have to be prepared to hear “yes” or “no.”
Isaac was God’s “yes” to Abraham and Sarah, who had stepped out in faith, trusting God’s promise. His very name shows their delight in the way God had surprised them. When God told them that Sarah would conceive and bear a child in her old age, she laughed, and then denied it, embarrassed and afraid. But when the promised child arrived, they named him Isaac, “Yitzchak,” which means “he laughs.” In other words, God had the last laugh! The birth of their son wasn’t up to them, but God sent him all the same. They trusted God. They stepped out in faith, wondering, “Can this really be?” And God said, “Yes.”
But in today’s story, Abraham hears God, the same God who said, “Yes,” turn around and say, “No.” This is a horrible story. There’s no getting around it. Neither of the principal actors comes out looking good. Abraham may not have shed his son’s blood in the end, but in his outstretched hand we see reflected the violence that vulnerable children continue to suffer from the adults they depend on to care for and teach them. And if, as the story says, God concocted this drama as a kind of test for Abraham, it was a test that was incredibly and needlessly cruel. Does the God who searches our hearts and sees our thoughts from afar need to test our faith? (The Bible never tells us exactly what the test was, though. I should mention that some people say God was hoping Abraham would resist, that he would put up a fight, and that therefore Abraham failed the test. But if that’s the case, God allowed it to go on far too long!)
So I don’t think there’s any getting around the problem that this is a horrible story. The Danish Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s book about this story is called “Fear and Trembling,” and that’s not a bad way to describe how we ought to come to it. There are lessons to learn here, for sure, but those lessons don’t redeem the teaching material. We’ll have to take it up with God in the hereafter.
What might there be for us to learn in this story? The God who said, “Yes,” turns around and says, “No.” “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love,” God says, “and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.” This is not only a horrible act of violence. It is also the end, the destruction of God’s promise to Abraham. The future that was promised is to be taken away.
But God doesn’t explain this change of heart. God doesn’t say, “I am breaking my promise.” God doesn’t say, “I am turning my Yes into a No.” That might have been easier. Maybe it could have been explained as a punishment for something Isaac or Abraham did. Maybe, if what was happening was that God was canceling the promise, there could be some reason for it. But there is never a reason given, because the promise is never canceled. God is not turning “Yes” into “No.” God is placing “No” right alongside “Yes.” Abraham heard two contrary messages from God. One was a blessing, a “Yes”: God promised an everlasting covenant with Isaac and his descendants (Genesis 17:19). The other was a terrible, heavy curse, a “No”: God demanded Isaac as a sacrifice. When one word from God is pitted against the other, how do you decide? What is it going to be, “Yes” or “No”?
There are a couple of subtle details in the story that point the way toward something I can hold onto. Remember when Abraham and Isaac and the servants arrive at the mountain, Abraham tells the servants, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” He doesn’t say I will come back. He says we will come back. Now, it’s possible he’s lying. Abraham can’t very well say something that’s going to provoke anxious questions about what he’s up to. But these are servants. He doesn’t owe them any explanation of what he’s doing, and so he doesn’t have to say anything at all. But he tells them, “We will come back to you.” Is Abraham lying, or does he really believe that?
And again, when Isaac asks Abraham where the lamb is, since usually when they offer a burnt sacrifice they kill a lamb, Abraham says, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Again, Abraham might just be lying. God hasn’t told Abraham anything about a lamb. God has told him that his son is the sacrificial animal. But what if Abraham really believes what he’s saying?
Abraham heard two contradictory messages from God, a “Yes” and a “No.” What if, in his heart of hearts, Abraham dared to believe that God’s blessing was more powerful than God’s curse? What if he trusted God’s promise so deeply, what if he clung to it so tightly, that not even God could convince him to let go? When he heard God’s terrible demand, what if the deeper part of Abraham’s spirit said, “It’s going to be OK”? What if Abraham believed in the God of promise and blessing even as he trudged up the mountain, even as he dressed the wood and trussed up his son, even as he reached for the knife? What if he kept believing, “God said it’s going to be OK”? Wasn’t he right, after all? Didn’t he and his son Isaac return safely to the bottom of the mountain, where the servants were waiting, just as Abraham had said? Didn’t God provide a lamb for them to sacrifice, just as Abraham had said? What kind of faith does it take to hold on tight to a promise from God in the face of a curse from God?
What if we’re meant to learn not from Abraham’s obedience, but from his faith? What if the lesson here is that when God extends a blessing to us, when God makes a promise to us, we ought to be able to trust that nothing will extinguish that promise, not even God?
Last week we talked about a world that was created very good, and we heard that God said we human beings were good as well. That’s a hard truth to hold onto, because so many things we experience are not at all good. Jesus said he came so that we might have abundant life. But so many of us experience disappointment and estrangement in our relationships, or we struggle with harmful patterns of behavior—maybe substance addictions, but maybe behaviors that aren’t quite as obvious—or else we just get hit with all the stuff that lands on us because life is what it is—our bodies age and decline, we get sick, we lose the people we care about. We hear these stories every week when we share joys and concerns. There is a lot of good in our world and in our lives, but sometimes everything that is not good overwhelms our trust in God’s promise, doesn’t it? When our pathway takes us up the slopes of Mount Moriah, we have this story about Abraham and his faith to remind us that God’s promise, God’s grace, God’s blessing wins out, though we may not be able to see or even imagine how.
What’s more, there are Abraham’s prophetic words: “God himself will provide the lamb.” Those words came true when Abraham and Isaac looked and found the ram caught by its horns in the thicket. But the place they were standing, Mount Moriah, has a history of its own. The only other place in the Bible where this name appears is when we read in the book of 2 Chronicles that it became the site of Solomon’s Temple (3:1). Mount Moriah becomes a place where countless animals were offered up as an atonement for the sins of God’s people, in a system provided by God for renewing and restoring God’s relationship with them. And Abraham’s words found their ultimate fulfillment when God sent Jesus, the lamb of God. God did the very thing that God did not in the end require of Abraham. God sent God’s only Son, the Son God loved, as a sacrifice. If there is a conflict between blessing and curse, God takes the curse on God’s own self, takes the violence away from us. God himself will provide the lamb, God will become the lamb, for the sacrifice, so that we will live and be blessed, so that our children will live and be blessed.
Some things are not up to us. But when we are struggling with those things that are not up to us, living in the space between God’s “Yes” and God’s “No,” we might remember these words that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: “In [Christ] every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
So in all your struggles, whenever your journey takes you up Mount Moriah, may you trust in the God of Abraham, in the God of Jesus Christ, and may you discover the God who sees, the God who answers, the God who provides. Amen.