22 After these events, God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!”
Abraham answered, “I’m here.”
2 God said, “Take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him up as an entirely burned offering there on one of the mountains that I will show you.” 3 Abraham got up early in the morning, harnessed his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, together with his son Isaac. He split the wood for the entirely burned offering, set out, and went to the place God had described to him.
4 On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place at a distance. 5 Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will walk up there, worship, and then come back to you.”
6 Abraham took the wood for the entirely burned offering and laid it on his son Isaac. He took the fire and the knife in his hand, and the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?”
Abraham said, “I’m here, my son.”
Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?”
8 Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it,[a] my son.” The two of them walked on together.
9 They arrived at the place God had described to him. Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. 11 But the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?”
Abraham said, “I’m here.”
12 The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.”13 Abraham looked up and saw a single ram[b] caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. 14 Abraham named that place “the Lord sees.”[c] That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.”[d]
15 The Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I give my word as the Lord that because you did this and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, 17 I will bless you richly and I will give you countless descendants, as many as the stars in the sky and as the grains of sand on the seashore. They will conquer their enemies’ cities. 18 All the nations of the earth will be blessed because of your descendants, because you obeyed me.” 19 After Abraham returned to the young men, they got up and went to Beer-sheba where Abraham lived.
What are you afraid of?
These five words, while not in the text, are what came to me after I read this text over and over again in preparation for this sermon. Each time, the idea of fear comes howling, bouncing off of my head and swirling around my soul when I read this often debated piece of scripture. Countless people have written about it this passage, talked about it, preached about it, and battled with it. Unlike last week’s sermon about Hagar, the Binding of Isaac is a story that has puzzled the faithful for years. It always, though, seems to go back to the idea of faith vs. fear.
Some people, much like the Apostle Paul, would look at Abraham and see him as a testament to faith. It is his faith in God that pushed him to follow the command to sacrifice his son, potentially losing the boy he loved and the future he was promised through him. It is faith that God would provide that got him through, hoping against hope that he wouldn’t have to follow through, but willing to do it, and be blessed anyways. Abraham is a model of faith in this viewing, all good, blameless, and honorable.
I can’t say that I agree, given all the circumstances of Abraham’s past. He’s laughed at God’s face, lied to kings time and time again, kicked his own son and the boy’s mother out on the street. Abraham is far from innocent. He may be a model of faith, but he’s far from blameless.
On the other side, we have people who would rather we throw this bit of scripture into the rubbish bin of history, because of the deplorableness of the actions depicted, and the questions it raises about the nature of God, the nature of faith, and the demands that God has upon the faithful. How could God demand this of Abraham? How could Abraham unquestioningly follow God’s command, when in every other story we see Abraham questioning God? What would have happened if God didn’t change God’s mind in the last second? Why would God ask this if he promised Abraham a dynasty through Isaac? For the people who want to throw it away, it’s an example of God as domestic child abuser, and ought not color our vision of God.
The problem with this is… you can’t just cut this part out of the story. You can’t ignore it. Nor can we blindly gloss over it as a quaint little story about faithfulness. Faith itself demands we look at it. If we want to have the faithfulness of God, faith beyond all things, we need to deal with this story. Which brings me back to my original question: What are you afraid of?
Fear is a really touchy subject for me, personally. There are many things in this world that I’m afraid of. For instance: I am terrified of spiders. This may be in part because of my early exposure to the Hobbit: horrible giant spiders in a dark forest often haunt my nightmares, often with the screechy high voices of cartoon villainy that echo down the pathways of my brain like an air raid siren.
However, beyond the icky nightmare horror of spiders, there often lays greater fears.
I’m also afraid of being lonely. I am an introvert, as any of the staff can testify. This does not mean that I don’t like people; it just means that it takes energy for me to be around people. I love people. I love people so much that I responded to the call to be a pastor to people, to shepherd, administer sacraments, order our worship, and all that jazz. I love people so much that I’m terrified of being lonely. Not alone, but lonely. Being without someone I can rely on, or trust, or even just share a friendly word with. This, I think is a bit more universal. Nobody enjoys being lonely. I actually fear it. It’s gotten me into far more troublesome and abusive situations than I would like to share at this time. But even beyond that, I have an even greater fear, a fear that ties into being lonely: I fear death.
I do. I fear it. Death is the great unknown. Death makes me tremble; it’s the great final curtain that is oh so impenetrable by human eyes and oh so easy to go beyond with the human soul. Nowhere was I more afraid of death than in the hospital when I was a chaplain. If you want to face your fear, work in a hospital for a couple months. I promise you, whatever it is you fear, you will be forced to face it. Death was inescapable in that hospital. All around, sickness and death assailed me, and I had to deal with it. In fight or flight situations, my default setting is flight. In a hospital, I had no choice but to fight, and it was hard. It took many tearful prayers, many honest journal entries, many difficult heart to heart conversations with my colleagues. Finally, I was able to confront death, at least partly. It was my supervisor that got to the root of the problem; I was afraid that in dying, we are alone. We are lonely. She reminded me that, as Christians, we are not alone. We are never alone. Even in death, we are surrounded by grace, by God, by the saints, by so many people. In one conversation, 2 of my greatest fears were given an antidote. I’m still working on my fears, but sometimes it takes a confrontation for us to get past it.
Which brings me back to this much discussed story of Abraham being told to sacrifice his only son Isaac, only for at the last moment a replacement to be found and Isaac is allowed to live. We do not hear Abraham cry out to God for this. Why? For every other instance in his life, there has been nothing but outrage and questioning of God. Even when God told him that Sodom was to be destroyed, Abraham bargained with God for the lives of the city, that if one honorable person could be found the city could be saved. Now, with his own son, why is there no bargaining?
Honestly? It think it’s because of his fear. In all of the instances before, the stakes weren’t that high. Sure, he was asked by God to leave his family behind and follow, but if he said no, what were the stakes? Live a happy life at home? He didn’t have anything really to lose. With Sodom, he begged for the life of one person—well, that was covered with his relative Lot. As long as he got Lot out, he was happy. In this instance, Abraham was caught in a catch-22. God tells him to sacrifice his son, whom he loves. The only reason Isaac exists is because God made it happen. If Abraham refused God, what’s to stop God from taking Isaac away in some other way, nullifying the covenant with Abraham? If Abraham obeyed God, the covenant is nullified anyways because Isaac who was promised to him is dead. Either way, Abraham is going to lose his covenant. It is apparent that God has turned his favor away from Abraham. And so, in shock and fear, he relents, and obeys.
Abraham is, in this situation, being tested, or so the logic goes. Because he had faith in God enough to sacrifice his son, the covenant is made stronger. But is that really what happened? I think it has to do more with him facing his fear. Abraham was afraid, and was forced to face it. He couldn’t run, like he did in the past. It was time to face it. In facing the unthinkable, he was given Isaac as a double blessing. He had essentially lost Isaac the moment that God commanded him to make a sacrifice, and Isaac became a second gift the moment the replacement ram showed up. Does it excuse Abraham of attempting this horrible thing? No. Does it excuse God of demanding it? No. In fact, God better have some good answers when I get to heaven, because that’s gonna be one of the first things I ask God. For now, what it does is illuminate something that we have to face when it comes to faith: our fears.
What was being sacrificed that day was not Isaac, but fear. Fear of loss. Fear of death. What fears hold you back? What fears are you running from in your life that you have so far been able to outrun? Is it death? Fear of loneliness? Fear of failure? Fear of scarcity? What is it that holds you back from faith? When you leave this place today, I want you to really think about this. Pray about this. Talk with your spouse or a loved one about what you really fear, and at least admit it. Then, do what you can to face your fear. Talk it out. Pray about it. Write about it. Make preparations for it; because I can guarantee you sooner or later you will have to face it. What are you afraid of? Because you’re going to have to place that on the altar before you can have a faith that can overcome it.