“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.”
We hear these words and we recoil for we remember the story. We remember the three day journey Abraham and Isaac took together. We remember Isaac’s haunting question, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering.” Etched in our mind’s eye is the picture of Abraham raising his hand to slay his only son, the one whom he loves. We recoil in horror.
We hear this story and we wonder, “What must it have been like to be Isaac in that moment when the knife is raised?”
We wonder, too, “How did Abraham ever make that three-day journey with the son he loved? How did he bind his only son, his one remaining child, the one whom he loved, and place him on that altar?”
We hear this story and we wonder, “What kind of God is this who would command such a thing?” “What kind of God would engage in such a test?” “What kind of parent would consent to such an act?”
The act is so horrendous. The image so powerful. It summons up in some of us memories of moments when we’ve been trapped in a nightmare of anguish or abuse. We close our eyes. We cover our ears. We slam shut the book. And there we stop.
We can go no further. We dare not. We will not.
And yet, if we stop with Isaac’s haunting question ringing in our ears, if we stop with Abraham’s lifting of the knife, we miss so very much.
At it’s core this story speaks to our human condition. To the time of trial we pray God save us from. To the time of trial that is a part of every human life. To our long journeys through despair.
This story of Abraham and Isaac comes from Israel’s distant past. It is a story people told as they tried to make sense of horrendous times—times when they wondered whether God was faithful to God’s promises; times when they struggled with being faithful themselves.
This story of Abraham and Isaac is a story people told in the aftermath of the fall of Judah, a story told during the years of exile, a story told when people wondered how they could sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. This is a story of a people struggling to be faithful during a time when their faith was sorely tried. This is a story of a people wondering what on earth God was asking of them.
And yet this story we hear today is not the whole story. Remember—the story of Abram/Abraham and God is one of many parts. A story of unfolding promises. One that begins when God tells Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you….in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
A bit later God promises Abram, “To your offspring I will give this land.”
Each time Abraham and God meet, God’s extends a promise. One time saying, “Look towards heaven and count the stars. So shall your descendents be.” At another time God says to Abraham, “…your wife Sarah shall bear you a son and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.”
We hear this story of Abraham and Isaac as a test of Abraham’s faithfulness to God’s commands. And that it is. But this story is also the story of a test of God’s faithfulness to God’s promises. Blinded as we are by Isaac’s haunting question—where is the lamb? and the horrendous image of Abraham raising the knife—we forget Abraham’s statements of faith along the way. Remember his answer to Isaac’s question—“God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering.” Remember what Abraham says as he leaves their two companions and the donkey at the base of the mountain, “the boy and I will go over there, we will worship and then we will return to you.”
Wishful thinking? False assurances? Grasping at straws? Perhaps. But I wonder if something else is going on. I wonder if Abraham is reminding God and himself as well of God’s promises.
Remember how the story ends. It ends with a promise. God says to Abraham, “I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
Every time I hear this story of Abraham and Isaac and the three-day journey to the mountain, I find myself returning to the Garden of Gethsemene, to the journey to the Cross, and the journey to the tomb. I hear echoes of Jesus’ words in the Garden of Gethsemene—“Remove this cup from me,” echoes of his words from the cross. His plaintive call, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His loud cry, his final sigh.
When I walk with Abraham and Isaac on that three-day journey, I find myself living in a Holy Saturday kind of time—that eternity between the cross and the empty tomb. With Abraham my heart longs to believe the promises of God. And yet the road is hard, the journey long. Sometimes I begin to wonder. But on I go. It’s the only way I know.
You and I we walk together that road from the cross to the empty tomb. Like Abraham’s and Isaac’s story, our story also ends with a promise—the promise of the empty tomb, the promise that God is up to something new. Sometimes the promise is all we have. Sometimes it’s hard to see the new at work in our lives.
And then we catch a glimpse of the living God. Perhaps we hear God’s voice calling to us in our moments of deep despair. Perhaps we look up and see the lamb entangled in the thicket. There it is. A way out of no way. The way of the Cross and of the empty tomb. The way of the promise—Emanuel. God with us. Thanks be to God.