Pentecost 4A: Abraham Failed

Readings

  • Genesis 22:1-14
  • Psalm 13
  • Romans 6:12-23
  • Matthew 10:40-42
You can find the readings, in the CEB and NRSV translation, by clicking this link.

Sermon

Right before Pentecost, I made a decision about our Sunday Scripture readings.  You see, in the Revised Common Lectionary, we have an option in the season after Pentecost to read from what is called a semi-continuous selection.  This selection changes our first reading and our psalm to create a narrative that teaches us about the history of God’s relationship with humanity in the Hebrew Scriptures.  This narrative takes us from Pentecost to Advent.

I thought it would be an interesting thing for us to do.

And I decided that if we were going to read the semi-continuous lessons, then I would preach them.

And today we land on one of the most hotly debated and seriously traumatic stories.  The Christian church calls it ‘the sacrifice of Isaac;’ Muslim tradition calls it ‘the Child of sacrifice;’ and Jewish tradition names it the akedah, or ‘the binding of Isaac.’

Whatever it is called, the story is absurd, disturbing, and unbelievable.  “Abraham is known as the father of faith within the three ‘Abrahamic’ world religions. His willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s command is one of the foundations of this reputation. In an age threatened by religious extremism and violence in the name of God, however, Abraham’s unquestioning obedience to God provides a dangerous model.”[1]

This story raises all sorts of questions and has been studied over and over again, debated, and written about throughout the history of Biblical studies.  Many have argued that it is meant to teach a valuable lesson about the shift from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice.  Some have argued that it is about teaching the importance of Temple worship.  Some have argued that this story parallels God’s own sacrificing of Jesus, God’s son.[2]  All have attempted, in some way, to rationalize a truly dangerous and dumbfounding text.

The reality is that the idea that God would test a man by asking him to sacrifice his son is utterly distasteful. It is a horrific tale so far beyond our comprehension that at face value it would cause most people to ask, ‘Is this really the kind of God I want to be associated with? A God who asks for infanticide?!’

The truth is that God does not demand the sacrifice of children.  In fact, according to the words of the prophets, God abhors it.[3]

But, there is something for us in this story.  Something important for us to know.

The story begins, “After these events, God tested Abraham…”

These events include: Abram’s call to pack up everything he owned and to leave family and travel to a promised land he had never seen; God’s renaming of Abram and Sarai – promising to make them the parents of a new nation of people, descendants beyond their counting; the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah; the patience it takes to wait on a God of promise for the hoped for children; the birth of Ishmael from Hagar, and their banishment from Abraham’s tent to the wilderness; the birth of Isaac and new laughter, and so much more.

After all that.

God tested him.

I’m going to stop right there for a minute.  We often hear about “God testing us.” And I don’t like that turn of phrase, because it is usually spoken when we are suffering, enduring great hardship, or stuck in the crap of life.  It puts a negative connotation onto a God of love as though God delights in testing us to see if we will be faithful through our suffering… or almost sadistically to see how much we love God.[4]

I want to be clear: That’s not what we’re seeing here.

God said, “Take your son.”
Abraham asked, “Which one?”
So, God tried, “Your only son.”
But Abraham said, “One is Sarah’s, one is Hagar’s.”
“Whom you love,” God said.
And Abraham said, “So help me, I love them both.”
God answered, “Isaac.”[5]

Abraham does it. The description is so matter-of-fact that I wonder if Abraham wasn’t in shock as he set about preparations and travel, and I am sad.

Sad because it brings to mind all the tragic situations people in this world face in their own lives, all the horrible choices that people feel they have no choice but to make.[6]

So, at the top of the mountain, with knife ready to kill the promised child of the covenant that God promised so many, many, many years ago, God speaks and Abraham fails the test.

Because the test wasn’t about obedience.

The test was about Abraham’s faith and complete belief in God’s promise.  It was a test about the covenant in Genesis 12:

1 The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
those who curse you I will curse;
all the families of the earth
will be blessed because of you.”

And Abraham failed.  Again.

Abraham consistently failed to recognize his lack of trust in God’s promises.

Shortly after this covenant is spoken, Abraham gives his wife, Sarah, to the Pharaoh of Egypt, saying that she is his sister, in order to save his life.  He does this exact thing later on with Abimelech.  In order to save his own life.  And since Sarah had no children, he conceived Ishmael with Hagar.  And then had them banished when Isaac was born.

Abraham was not a bad guy.  He was hospitable to those who came near his tent.  He let his nephew choose the way he would go, promising to travel in the opposite direction.  In one amazing and defining moment, he argued and bargained with God that Sodom should not be destroyed if only ten righteous men could be found in the city.

But, he is silent about the covenant he had with God when Isaac is bound and placed on an altar.  Silent, perhaps, because Abraham is trying to save his own life once more.

And God, present through the good times and the bad ones, remains faithful to the last of us.  God watches Abraham push to the very end of his life, hopes, and dreams – “willing to sacrifice his own son, rather than trust that God would keep the promise made in the covenant”[7] – and God stops everything.

And I am sad again for the ways in which humanity falls short again and again.

I had said that there was something important for us to know about this story.  And there is.

Despite all the tragic situations people in this world face in their own lives; despite all the horrible choices that people feel they have no choice but to make; despite all the times people wrongly think God is somehow testing them in the midst of their struggles and sorrows; despite all the ways people fail to recognize their own lack of trust in God…

Despite it all, God works God’s promises.

“All that we have, even our own lives and those of the ones most dear to us, belong ultimately to God, who gave them to us in the first place.”[8]  The truly amazing thing about humanity’s relationship with God is the way God sees us for who we really are and then works amazing things through all of humanity and each one of us – no matter how we fail.

God provides.

So, Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide.’

Let us pray:
God of promise,
You stayed the hand of Abraham and fulfilled the promise you made to him, that he would be the father a great nation. We ask that you would keep your promises to us, that we become inheritors of eternal life.  And that we would trust in your promise to provide again and again no matter how we fail.  Be a presence of love and peace to those who are facing difficult decisions, who are weighed down by darkness, or who are desperate for a little bit of love.  Amen.


Sermon Inspirations

  1. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. “The Akedah Cycle: a sermon in poetry for the second day of Rosh HashanahVelveteen Rabbit.
  2. Juliana Claassens. “June 26, 2011: Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14” Preach This Week: Alternative 1st  Working Preacher.
  3. Daniel B. Clendenin. “A Terrifying Text: Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah” For June 29, 2014.  Journey with Jesus.
  4. John C. Holbert. “A Nasty Little Bit of a Tale: Reflections on Genesis 22:1-14” Opening the Old Testament: June 29, 2014.
  5. Esther M. Menn. “June 29, 2008: Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14” Preach This Week: Alternative 1st  Working Preacher.
  6. Linda Pepe. “Abraham: This is a Test.”  Theological Stew…where the Spirit simmers.
  7. Kathryn M. Schifferdecker. “July 02, 2017: Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14” Preach This Week: Alternative 1st  Working Preacher.

This week’s image is a fresco entitled, “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” created by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, in 1726-1729.  The image is public domain.  You can find out more about the painting here, and the artist here.  The image has been modified for the purposes of this blog.


[1] Esther M. Menn.  “June 29, 2008: Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14” Preach This Week: Alternative 1st Reading.  Working Preacher.
[2] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker.   “July 02, 2017: Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14” Preach This Week: Alternative 1st Reading.  Working Preacher.
[3] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker.   “July 02, 2017: Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14”.
[4] Linda Pepe.  “Abraham: This is a Test.”  Theological Stew…where the Spirit simmers.
[5] Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.  “The Akedah Cycle: a sermon in poetry for the second day of Rosh HashanahVelveteen Rabbit.
[6] Juliana Claassens.  “June 26, 2011: Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14” Preach This Week: Alternative 1st Reading.  Working Preacher.
[7] Rev. Erik Reedman Parker, Facebook comment.
[8] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker.   “July 02, 2017: Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14

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