I have colleagues whom I respect who tell me they’ll never preach this Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. When I asked a very wise friend for advice on how to preach this text, he told me to “Skip it.”
After all, while our text’s Abraham asks no questions, we have plenty of questions about it. Abraham seems to walk straight towards our text’s climax. You and I, as Scott Hoezee notes, by contrast, follow him cautiously, trying not to trip over our text’s apparent scandals.
Yet Genesis 22 is in some ways pivotal to the story of God’s promise, the child of the promise and Abraham. God will, after all, keep God’s promises. Even had Abraham refused to sacrifice his son, God would have given him countless offspring. But will he be a willing partner in those promises? Or will God have to work around rather than through Abraham to keep God’s promises?
While our text seems deaf to the kinds of questions we raise about it, Hoezee suggests that its narrator does appear to recognize what a hard test it poses for Abraham. Yet he doesn’t try to minimize it.
In fact, Genesis’ narrator seems to highlight its pain. He, after all, refers to the son whom God calls Abraham to sacrifice as “your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love” (2). Twice the narrator speaks of how Abraham and Isaac “went on together,” as if they were a dad and his son who were just hiking the Appalachian Trail instead of toward the violent death of one of them.
Those who wish to preach and teach Genesis 21 take the biblical scholar Dale Bruner’s advice to read the text slowly and carefully, especially when it’s difficult. We also remember that the Bible often underlines things not with red ink, but by repeating them.
So we pay close attention when, for example, three times in our text someone says something like, “The Lord will provide.” It’s a profession that’s especially striking because twice it’s Abraham who makes it. After all, much of what happens before our text begins points to an Abraham who seems to operate on the principle of “I must provide.”
Yet sometimes-faithless Abraham’s story also follows Genesis 1-12’s story of humanity’s stubborn faithlessness. The “some time later” to which verse 1 refers also includes east of Eden humanity’s assumption that it rather than the Lord must provide.
So is that why God decides to “test” Abraham? Does God wonder if all too human Abraham is up to the big job of being a blessing to a world that persistently and deliberately tries to provide for itself?
Walter Brueggemann suggests that much depends on how we understand the Hebrew word for “test.” It doesn’t mean that God tempted Abraham to sin. In fact, Hoezee suggests we might think about Abraham’s “test” this way: when we say something like, “That tested her soccer skills,” we’re saying it “challenged” those skills. It tested her ability to trap, dribble, pass and shoot the ball.
Perhaps there’s an element of God challenging Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Even Abraham himself may wonder if he’s up to both fathering and blessing the nations of the world. God’s demands on him are, after all, very high. By testing Abraham this way, God may be giving him a chance to learn that with God’s help, his faith is up to not only this test, but also all the tests that lie before him.
However, none of God’s tests of Abraham are any harder than the command to sacrifice his son. Abraham’s Canaanite contemporaries sacrificed their children at their gods’ request. But Abraham himself may have questioned whether he could sacrifice the child of the promise at the living God’s request.
It’s hard to imagine God testing Genesis 22’s preachers, teachers and those who hear us in any way that’s more demanding than God’s test of Abraham. Yet God in some ways challenges our faith nearly every day.
God’s children may be tested when they walk out of the doctor’s office tomorrow. Or when their daughter tells them she no longer follows Jesus. Or when mental illness lowers its dark curtain over one of Jesus’ followers.
God isn’t the source of those tests’ evil. But God uses them to learn if God’s adopted sons and daughters place our trust in God alone to deal with that darkness. God wants to know if you and I mean what we say when we claim our faith the only reason for the hope we have.
Will we put our trust in God in all circumstances? Or will we cave in to the despair that so quickly grows at the intersection of uncertainty and daily life? Will we trust God to be God? Or will we act as if we’re gods?
Abraham perhaps surprises God, us and maybe even himself by passing his greatest test with straight A’s. While he argued with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, he doesn’t argue about the fate of his son. Abraham gets up early to scale Mount Moriah in order to sacrifice his only son at God’s request.
Yet even the length of that trip must test Abraham’s determination. After all, it gives him three very long, hot days to contemplate God’s hard command. You might even argue it would have been fractionally easier for Abraham to just sacrifice Isaac on the spot.
On top of that, along their way to Moriah Isaac also tests Abraham. “Daddy,” he pipes up. “We’ve got everything we need for a sacrifice but one thing. Where’s the animal?” “Is it me?” the child of the promise whose culture regularly sacrifices children perhaps wonders.
Now if anything could have diverted Abraham from his faithful path, this question would have been it. Since Isaac is starting to ask hard questions, it’s time to turn around. Yet though even Isaac’s poignant question can’t detour Abraham from obedience, he apparently doesn’t have the heart to yet tell him the truth. The one who persistently lied about his wife now also seems to lie to his son. Or maybe, as Hoezee posits, obedient Abram just voices his desperate hope. “God will provide a lamb,” he answers, perhaps choking on the words.
Even when he and the child of the promise leave their servants, Abraham either lies or clings to some desperate hope. “We,” he tells them, meaning Isaac and he, “will worship and then we will come back to you.”
Yet when Abraham and Isaac get to Mount Moriah’s wind-swept summit, they find wood, fire and a lethal knife. There’s also an altar that Abraham has built. But apparently there is nothing to sacrifice.
However, perhaps just as Abraham raises his knife to sacrifice his son, God steps in. God tells him not to even lay a hand on the son of the promise. After all, God now knows that Abraham both trusts and obeys God. So God, in fact, provides a ram for Abraham to sacrifice, just as Abraham had promised Isaac. So Abraham calls that place of his anguished trust and obedience, “The Lord will provide.”
Now we usually translate the Hebrew word for “provide” as “see.” Yet God’s “seeing” and “providing” are closely linked. Because God sees what Abraham needs, God graciously provides what he needs. So in verse 14 Abraham calls Mount Moriah “The Lord will provide.”
But, Genesis’ narrator also adds there, “to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided’.” That may seem trivial until we remember Genesis was recorded as much as 600 years after Abraham offered to sacrifice Isaac.
So Genesis’ narrator suggests that even centuries later God’s people are still professing, “the Lord will provide.” Even after Israel’s slavery in Egypt, her passage through the Red Sea and wilderness wanderings, God’s people continue to profess, “The Lord will provide.”
It’s a radically counter-cultural profession for citizens of the 21st century. When we profess that, after all, we profess that God is the source of every good gift. That the God who sometimes tests is also the God who always graciously provides.
But try telling your co-workers, “God gave me a new day today.” Or your neighbors, “God gave me good lunch.” Or skeptical friends, “God is helping me deal with my cancer.” Many of them will look at you as though you’re ignorant, stupid, stubborn or just plain mentally impaired.
So how dare we profess the Lord who sometimes tests is also the One who always provides? My colleague Jack Roeda notes the world once tested God. “Take your Son, your only Son, whom you love,” we told God, “and offer him to us.” And God did precisely that. God sent God’s Son, Jesus. God even let us torture that Son to death so that, among other things, you and I might know that God will stop at nothing to provide us with everything we really need.
That word “provide” is the heart of the word “providence” that the Heidelberg Catechism describes as “the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds and rules heaven, earth and all creatures.” Providence means, the Catechism continues, “All things … come to us not by chance, but from God’s fatherly hand.”
It’s a profession that, quite simply, “the Lord will provide.” That is God is trustworthy, even when God is puzzling. That God’s adopted sons and daughters can rely on God, even when God makes what seems like bewildering demands on us. That “The Lord will provide” even when we can see no way through what lies around and ahead of us.
No genuine preacher or teacher promises hearers that their trip to the doctor will produce a good report this week. The Scriptures don’t promise children will always wholeheartedly love the Lord. They don’t promise their resources will outlast them. They don’t promise climate change will never endanger God’s good creation.
But the Scriptures do promise God will never abandon God’s beloved sons and daughters to those tests. They also promise that God will somehow bend our misery toward God’s glory and the good of those who love the Lord.
As a result, the Heidelberg Catechism professes, “we can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from his love.”
On the dustcover of Mary Elise Sarotte’s book, The Collapse, the publisher notes, “On the night of November 9, 1989, massive crowds surged toward the Berlin Wall, drawn by an announcement that caught the world by surprise: East Germans could now move freely to the West. The Wall — the infamous symbol of a divided Cold War Europe — seemed to be falling.
But the opening of the gate that night was not planned by the East German ruling regime — nor was it the result of a bargain between either Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It was an accident.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 2, 2017
Genesis 22:1-14 Commentary