"Abraham! Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and....offer him as a burnt offering."
Surely if you wanted to make a case for the sheer primitiveness of religion, you could start right here. This is a story of a God demanding the sacrifice of a son, but the son of Abraham's old age, Sarah's only son, their one hope for the future. And not just their future: God had promised Abraham and Sarah that through this son all the world would be blessed. "Go." God says to Abraham, " Make of him a burnt offering." And somehow Abraham obeys and trust this God, and in the end, God provides a lamb for the offering.
What on earth does this kind of wild, untamed God have to do with us moderate, middle class folks who put on our Sunday best for an hour of worship and coffee hour, maybe followed by lunch with friends or family? The story points to an ancient time when they practiced child sacrifice-as a way of appeasing a remote, demanding God. What does that kind of sacrifice have to do with our struggles to find a few minutes for prayer, to be decent to our friends and family, to help out a little in a charity? There's little here that suggests a God who is nice, or polite, or kind; this God is no gentle uncle, or remote, loving grandfather.
"Give it up," this God says to Abraham. "Take what you love most, what you care most about, what you have tied up your hopes in, and turn lose of it." Absurd? Maybe. But maybe not.
"Everything was riding on these last good years," he said, "to round out my career, to travel, to end on a real high. Then she got sick, and everything changed. (Every extra second since has had to go into taking care of her-wheel chairs, bedpans. Give it up... Yeah, I know what that's about."
"It finally came to be too much," she said, trying to juggle the pressure at work, and being home with the children. Not a second for myself or my husband, and of course none for God. I've been building this career for years, and I think my husband should be willing to sacrifice as I, but that's not the world I'm living in now. Now my work is going to have to go on hold for awhile. (Give it up? Yes, I know.)
"It finally came down to it," she said. "I took a stand with my boss. He just couldn't keep doing things that way. I knew it was dangerous, that there was a risk. But I didn't have any choice; I had to."
"Give it up," we hear. And somehow we agree to say yes.
And then, of course, sometimes the giving up isn't our choice.
"After twenty years he just left and there I was, three teenage children to care for, all alone. Some life. Some God."
Like an ax falling, that pink slip landing on my desk. One minute the world held together; in another nothing did."
"Why can't I find someone to share my life with? Do I have to give up hoping for that? "
"Give up," our lives seem to say to us in one way or another. Sometimes it's the whisper of this wild God asking us to turn loose, to sacrifice. Sometimes it's life screaming what no God would ever will for us. A God who demands sacrifice; who permits tragedy..... Maybe churches like ours, are an unlikely place to meet a God like this. How much more right it seems to find this God on a wind-blasted desert mountain, with the firewood laid, the blazing knife raised, and young Isaac's searching question, "Where is the lamb for the brunt offering?"
Much of the wisdom of this story is simple and profound: Sacrifice is built into anything that finally matters. There is no deep friendship without self-giving; there is no thriving child without the labor of enduring dirty diapers and sleepness nights; there is no parish without the sacrifice and giving of wardens and leaders and all its members; there is no community without the countless acts of generosity -- time given to literacy projects, shelters and Boy Scouts. Our own survival as a nation is built on the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of people who have fought to preserve us. For the Ultimate One to demand sacrifice in the story is to say that sacrifice is the cost of life itself.
When we are thrown up against this hard mystery of risking and sacrifice and suffering, it can feel like a test-like Abraham being tested. Can we trust? Is there a Love behind what life is saying to us? Is there a Purpose inscrutably at work?
Abraham was willing to sacrifice everything, and he seems to have trusted some meaning in it all: "God will provide," he muttered to Isaac. Everything somehow depended on seeing that the One who had given him everything, who had promised him blessing, could be trusted, with everything. "Give it up..." Yes, if it has to be, this terrifying God can be trusted.
But of course, sometimes we don't give it up, it's taken for us, stripped away. (Novelist Muriel Spark calls it the "only question.") Why do bad things happen to good people?" It's one thing for God to permit us to lose what we love, to be stripped of what matters most, our health, our loves, our jobs, our futures. What kind of God is this?
Just after the Second World War a German pastor named Gunther Rutenborn wrote a play called The Sign of Jonas that attempted to answer that question.
A trial is set to find out who was responsible for the terrible years caused by Nazi Germany. Charges are brought against Hitler himself. Some blame the munitions, manufacturers who profit from the war. Others blame the cowardly German, people who refused to stand up to Hitler. None of it, though, seems quite enough -- until a man stands up in the audience to say, "Do you know who's to blame? God is. Isn't He the one who created this awful world? Didn't He give them the power to do that kind of evil, didn't He allow it to happen, can't the misery be laid at His feet?" (So they decided to put God on trial for the crime of creation -- for creating a world where such terrible things happen.) And He is quickly found guilty of the crime and is sentenced. The judge says that because of the enormity of God's crime, His punishment will be the worst conceivable: "I hereby sentence the Creator God to have to come and live in this world under the same anguish and loss that everyone else has to." And he charges the three Archangels, Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael, to perform the sentence.
Gabriel walks to one end of the stage and stands brooding, and then says, "When God has to serve I want Him to see what it's like to be an obscure, enchained human being. He'll be born in the middle of nowhere and grow up in a country occupied by foreign forces, a Jew in a Jew-hating world."
Raphael walks to the other end of the stage and says, "When God has to serve His sentence, I'm going to see to it that He knows what it's like to be frustrated and insecure. He'll know what it's like to be a refugee with no place to lay His head. His plans won't be fulfilled. No one will understand him. And He will go to his grave a failure, not sure He's accomplished anything."
Finally, Michael steps to the middle of the stage. "I'm going to see that He knows what it's like to suffer in every conceivable way. He'll be rejected and know what that's like. He'll suffer and know pain. He will be spat on, tormented, ridiculed, die the slow torture of a common criminal."
And with that the lights go out, and the audience sits, utterly quiet in the dark, as the awareness dawns: God has served the sentence.
Four hundred years ago the wife of the great reformer Martin Luther listened as her husband read this story of Abraham and Isaac and demanded, "How could a loving God ask Abraham to sacrifice his only son?" "Why Katy," Luther said to her, "He did it himself."
This is a wild God we are dealing with. A God who asks of us everything and then gives His son in our place. A God who allows in this world everything, and then comes to live with us in it. And our pain becomes His pain, until finally He heals it all.
Give it up to let it go. How else will we ever know the Love who is holding us if we are so busy clinging to life for ourselves? But who of us can make that sacrifice willingly, who has enough courage, or faith, or trust? And so, the far end of God's demand that Abraham give up everything was this: God provided the lamb. The offering we cannot make has been made for us.
A young man turns his face to Jerusalem, to suffering and rejection. "Give it up," he must be hearing.
He walks up another Mountain, dragging a cross behind; he opens out his hands to receive the nails. God's Son. . .The Lamb of God. . . This wild God who gives us everything, who asks of us everything, who is with us in everything, who will heal everything.