The Present


Marilu Thomas


Genesis 22:1 - 14

If you haven’t been here lately, we understand. We have been on vacation, too. I just want to catch you up on what’s been happening sermon-wise. The last two Sundays, we have had sermons about Abraham in Genesis, including Sarah laughing when she was told she would have a baby and also Ismael sent out into the desert with Hagar.

Today, we are at the story of The Sacrifice of Issac. If there were a contest for the most uncomfortable story in the bible to preach on, I would vote this story #1. Get ready to be uncomfortable, which is not a very American feeling, but I think we’re up for the challenge.

There are three main characters in this story – the Eternal Creator God, his chosen patriarch, Abraham, who is very old and the miracle child promised for over 25 years, Issac, who we assume to be a teenager for some reason, although nothing in the text tells us how old he is.  We have been following the relationship between Abraham and God for 12 chapters, and from the beginning God asks Abraham to do things that are a little risky and irrational. For instance, God tells Abraham to leave his ancestral home to go to an unknown place that God will show him. Now, we have the Almighty telling Abraham to take Issac to a place that God will show him and then offer him as a sacrifice. Father and Son travel for three days together, with Abraham knowing what he must do and clueless Issac carrying the wood for his own sacrifice. It’s excruciating to hear Issac ask, “We have the wood and the flame, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” “The Lord will provide,” is the answer.

In researching this text, I have been studying Jewish literature about The Binding of Issac, as it is called in Judaism. In some Jewish circles, this story is seen as the failure of Abraham. In the intimate context of Abraham’s relationship with God, he is seen as crying out for justice when God wants to annihilate Sodom and then arguing to save his nephew, Lot. So why don’t we see Abraham asking to save his son? The Jewish scholars argue that obedience for a just cause is a virtue, but obedience for an unjust cause is criminal and leads to things like the Holocaust.

So are we looking at blind obedience to an unjust cause here? Is this what Abraham has come to in his relationship with God? Who is this God who would ask such a thing of the man he loves and has chosen? Who is this God who would sacrifice the child of the promise?

Theologian Ellen Davis believes that this text is not about blind obedience but about radical trust. She says that this is not a story to help people believe in God, but to help people who already believe in God to make sense out of their most difficult experiences, times when God seems to have taken back all that he has given you. This is a story for when your world turns upside down, with no reasonable explanation. This is a story for when you are stuck in pain and incomprehension. This is a story when it would be sensible and rational to deny the God of Abraham.

I think it is challenging to understand the level of trust that Rev. Dr. Davis says this text is describing, mainly because we all have trust issues. I know I do.

I have been betrayed, by people I trust. I have also betrayed those same people. Erik Erikson’s stages of human development say that Trust vs. Distrust is the first stage of our human lives. Because our parents are fallible and human, we learn to distrust the world, other people, God and ourselves. This would also be a good description of Sin with a capital S, the human condition of not trusting God. Trusting involves leaving ourselves open to hurt and pain, as well as knowing that we also are flawed and untrustworthy. Think right now about how many people you implicitly trust. Who you would call in the middle of the night to get you out of jail, pick you up from an accident or take you to treatment? If you’re like most people you can think of one, maybe two people. What qualifies those people as trustworthy? The building blocks of trust are reliability, accountability, and non-judgmental acceptance. God has built this foundation of trust with Abraham over these years and Abraham has changed from a man who distrusts God, to one who trusts God with his only son.

Romans 4:18 tells us, that against all hope, Abraham in hope believed. Against all hope that he would be the father of many nations, Abraham in hope believed. Against all hope that God was going to provide, Abraham believed that God would provide. God provided a sacrifice of a ram instead of Issac so Abraham named the place on Mt. Moriah, Jehovah Jireh, or The Lord Will Provide.

So how does this apply to us?

I know it applies to me. Not that I have absolute trust, because I don’t think that is humanly possible even for Abraham because of the effects of self-centered Sin. But I have tasted trust. People in my life have helped me believe that God would provide, despite the evidence to the contrary. When my marriage crumbled, when I was estranged from my parents, when my Dad died, when my sister had cancer, when my husband had his heart attacks, when my daughters or granddaughters have suffered, when I was lost and alone—God provided people to walk along side me who gave me fresh hope of redemption and resurrection. Most times I could only see this in retrospect, hardly ever in the moment. These are the places that Ellen Davis discussed; the places when you can’t imagine what God is asking of you, when you feel like you have lost all that God had given and there is no rational explanation for what’s happening. I am afraid of what God may want and I don’t want to trust. I forget that all I have is God’s—not mine. All that I have is gift from God. All that I have belongs to God and He can do with it as he wishes for his plan, not mine. Like Abraham, we carry our lives, and the lives of those we love, to the altar of God and offer them up. We actually say it each week during communion- “Here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” In this way, we answer like Peter in John 6:68, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

I want to end with something that surprised me. I hope you have seen the Jesus Storybook that we give to children here. It is as true a translation of the bible as you will find and good for adults too.  I was reading from it to my grandchildren and decided to look for this story. I thought the subject matter would be too hard to explain to children and it would be skipped, but there it was, titled, “The Present.”

It starts out by saying, “God knew that his Secret Rescue Plan could only work if Abraham trusted him completely.” It goes on to say, “Abraham didn’t understand. But he knew that God was his father who loved him. And so Abraham trusted him.” I want to read to you how Sally Lloyd-Jones ends this story.

(Pg. 69) “As they sat there on the mountaintop watching the embers of the fire die in the cool night air; the stars above them sparkling in the velvet sky, God helped Abraham and Issac understand something. God wanted his people to live, not die. God wanted to rescue his people, not punish them. But they must trust him. “One day Someone will be born into your family,” God promised them. “And he will bring happiness to the whole world.” God was getting ready to give the whole world a wonderful present. It would be God’s way to tell his people, “I love you.” Many years later, another Son would climb another hill, carrying wood on his back. Like Issac, he would trust his Father and do what his Father asked. He wouldn’t struggle or run away. Who was he? God’s Son, his only Son- the Son he loved. The Lamb of God.”

God provided the ram in the bush for Abraham to save his son Issac, and God provided Jesus to save Abraham, Issac and all of us. The Lord will provide for you.