I hate to admit this up front, but the fact is that I have never, ever liked that passage about Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac. Now, I know that is not what people expect to hear from the preacher, but it's true. When I was a child and heard this passage read in church, I wanted to cry out, "Run, Isaac, run! Don't let him get you!" I even found myself getting angry with the boy. I mean, how dense can he be? He's carrying the wood to the sacrifice. "Wake up, kid! You're the sacrifice!" Years later, when I became a parent myself, I found myself even more disturbed by the story. After all, what kind of father would entertain such a proposition? As Bob Dylan once sang, "God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son.' Abe said to God, 'You must be puttin' me on!'" It did not help that in my liturgical tradition this passage has always been accorded an important place in the Christian calendar, read each year during the Easter Vigil service. The long-standing theological connection with the sacrifice of God's own Son for a fallen humanity did not make the particulars of this story any more palatable to this protective parent.
But it is too easy to write off or ignore this--or any other difficult biblical passage--based solely on a literal reading. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer contains a prayer that calls on God's people to not only hear but to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" Holy Scripture. It is not meant to be cotton candy; it doesn't always go down easily. God's Word has substance! It's something to chew on. The early Church Fathers understood this. They approached Scripture in many ways and on many levels, because they knew that we don't just read Scripture--it reads and transforms us!
With this in mind, we come back to this... difficult... passage. Since it is a safe bet that God does not want us to begin child sacrifice any more than God wanted Abraham to do so, let us instead approach it as we would one of Jesus' parables, stories that were meant to provoke, to challenge, to make us chew and digest a deeper truth. What might this tale be saying to us about God...and about our own self? We can tackle that question best not by beginning at the beginning, but rather by noting what is said at the end. "Abraham called this place, 'The Lord will provide.' As it is said to this day, 'On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.'" Ah, now that sounds pretty good. "God will provide!" No problems there. In fact, that doesn't need much chewing or digesting at all. That message just slides down easily...perhaps too easily.
How many times have you heard someone drive into a store parking lot and say, "Oh, pray that I find a good spot," meaning, of course, a spot close to the entrance. Or a driver indeed gets a prime spot and exclaims, "Thank you, God," or "My angel is looking out for me." I do not doubt for a moment that our Heavenly Father is intimately concerned about us, "counting the hairs on our heads" as Jesus proclaims. But there is something...too easy...about parking lot theology. Is this what Abraham meant when he said, "The Lord will provide." Does God think that driver deserves that spot more than all the others still navigating the parking lot in their seemingly never-ending quest?
Now this may not seem to be a very impressive example, but it is a familiar one. The formula is played out in countless other situations. In its extreme, it makes God a cosmic genie, or a heavenly ATM into which you place a quick prayer and get what you want. "God will provide!" But as the teacher and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, there is no such thing as "cheap grace," and there is no such thing as an easy out. Just look at what Abraham experienced!
No, with that ending in mind, we return to the start of the story--indeed to before the start of the story. Only a few chapters earlier in Genesis, Abraham had been promised, yes, promised, by God that his descendants would be as numerous as the sands on the beach, as the stars in the heavens. A very impressive divine promise, to be accomplished through Abraham and Sarah's son, Isaac. And when Abraham tried to help God out a bit through his own cleverness--conceiving a son through a surrogate, Hagar--God reiterated the divine promise and said that it would be fulfilled through Abraham and Sarah's own son, Isaac. A promise, a firm promise, an unequivocal promise.
Now, back to the story: Abraham is told by God to sacrifice Isaac. Wait a second! What about the promise? Abraham is confronted with a real dilemma of trust. Like the long-suffering Job, here we see a righteous, faithful person who now is threatened with losing all and is still called to believe that God is the one who provides. It makes little sense. And yet three times in this story, twice in response to God and once in response to Isaac, when called, Abraham immediately responds, "Here I am!" It's not just Abraham who faces a crisis here. As several biblical commentators have noted, God is trusting Abraham as well, trusting that the relationship being built between the two is something deeper than that of genie and supplicant. Earlier, Abraham had dared to go head-to-head with God regarding the issue of divine judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, negotiating with God to spare the cities if a certain number of faithful people were found therein. It is not for nothing that Abraham became known as "the friend of God." Now, they would both learn how deep that friendship, that trust, really was.
Now, it is safe to assume that neither you nor I will be called upon to literally recreate this challenge. As the apostle Paul was known to say, "God forbid!" But we are called to examine how we view God and our relationship with God in light of the very real challenges we face. Yes, "God will provide," but often such provision does not come without a cost. As Isaac's own son, Jacob, would learn during a dark night of wrestling with God, when the dawn eventually broke through, he emerged with a blessing, but with a limp as well. And in the Gospels, a tearful, agonized Jesus wished that he could avoid drinking from the cup of suffering that lay before him on the cross. But with a sigh on his lips and trust in his heart, he said, "Not my will, but yours, be done."
Job complained, Abraham negotiated, Jacob wrestled, Jesus pleaded. But in the end each one dared to trust, dared to believe that God could indeed be counted on to provide, especially when all seemed most hopeless. The promise has never been a lack of struggle. Ours is a resurrection hope, but this doesn't mean that we won't first face Gethsemane and the cross. Easter indeed awaits, but we will first have to go through Good Friday. Yet even then, even there, we are not alone. As it says in the beloved 23rd Psalm: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me." We may not be able to avoid going through that dark valley, but we will cross it because God is with us. And somehow, some way, God will give the strength to make it to the other side. No wonder Jesus taught his friends to say to God, "Give us this day our daily bread; please give us what we need to make it through today." It is a comforting prayer because it is a realistic prayer.
"God will provide." So let us be prepared to sacrifice our cleverness, our ability to get out of things, and most of all our naïve wishful thinking that somehow we are immune to the struggles and pain that faced the countless faithful who came before us. Let us instead dare to trust that God will indeed provide...not necessarily a way out, but always a way through.
Let us pray. O God, you have brought us in safety to this new day. Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity, but in all that we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.