This is a rough draft so please bear with me.
Here I Am
What kind of God would ask for the sacrifice of an only son? What type of demented, power hungry, God would demand that the gift he gave be taken away? What type of God would call a person to serve and then demand that everything be given up? What type of God is that? What type of love is that? That cannot be our God. Our God is the one who fed five thousand, who converted Saul, and who helped Moses through the Red Sea. Our God is one of saving, of transformation, and of forgiveness. That’s our God. How can our God and the God in this story be the same?
There are three major scenes in this story and they all revolve around Abraham answering with Here I am. Scene one is between Abraham and God. Abraham and God have been through a lot together already when we get to this chapter in Genesis. A chapter ago God’s promised gift happens and Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac is born. As Isaac grew, he started to play with his half-brother Ishmael, and then Sarah decided that he had to go. God gives the okay and Hagar and Ishmael leave. Then we get this text. Verse one says that God is testing Abraham and this is the type of pop quiz that starts to make us uncomfortable.
God tells Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” There is no doubt within this part of scripture. This is not a Thomas moment. There seems to be no second guessing from Abraham. The next he got up and went. The only comment that Abraham gives is “Here I am.” There are no questions like, “God, are you sure you are talking about Isaac? Didn’t you just give him to me and now you want me to kill him as a burnt offering to you? God this doesn’t make sense. I’m not following your train of thought.” Instead Abraham gets up, saddled his donkey and takes Isaac and two servants with him on the journey.
In the next scene Abraham tells his servants to stay back while he and Isaac go up the mountain to worship. As they start to make the journey up the mountain Isaac looks around and knows something is missing. Usually when you do a burnt offering there is a lamb, some birds, something that you offer to God but there is nothing here. He calls out to his Dad, and what is Abraham’s response? “Here I am.” Isaac questions the whereabouts of this sacrifice and all Abraham can say is, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”
Can you imagine if Abraham had tried to explain the situation to Isaac? Can you imagine looking your beloved son in the face and saying, “I know ever since you were born I have told you that you were God’s gift to me and your mom. I know I told you that God promised you would come and even though I didn’t believe him, God fulfilled his promise and you came into our lives. You are my cherished son. You are my beloved and now God is asking me to sacrifice you. Isaac…you are the lamb.” Those words would be impossible to say.
Dean has been breaking in some new teeth and so the other night at around 4 in the morning he woke up screaming. I went into the room to give him some medicine and to calm him down. As we rocked in the chair I looked down at him and he started to play a slap happy and sleepy version of peek-a-boo. He would give this almost drunken laugh as he brought his arm down to expose his eyes. It is one of those moments as a parent that you know you love your child more than life itself. With this sermon on the forefront of my mind I thought there is no way I could do what Abraham did. There is no way I could hold a knife up to my only son and be ready to sacrifice him because God asked me to. I could sacrifice myself for my son but never my son for me or anyone else. That’s just never going to happen.
In the third and final scene of this story, Abraham has built the altar, stacked the wood and is ready for the sacrifice. He takes his son. He binds him. He lifts him up and places him on the wood. The scripture tells us nothing about Isaac’s reaction to these events. We don’t know if Isaac looks up at his father with tears in his eyes asking the question…why? Why daddy…why? All we get is a close up of this intense moment as Abraham takes out the knife, raises it up, and takes aim at his son.
Human sacrifices are something all modern societies frown upon. When we think of human sacrifices we usually have this image of an ancient Aztec tribe which offers a young woman up to the gods. Or we get the image of Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom, when the a poor nobody is strapped into a cage and sent down into the belly of a fiery beast. Then you have the image of Fay Wray, or more recently Naomi Watts, being tied up to pillars for King Kong to play with as the islanders all chant and bang drums.
In this picture there are no drum beats or chanting natives. There is no huge monkey coming out of the woods. There is only a father and a son, tied up on an altar and a knife in the air. Just as Abraham is mustering up the courage to force the knife through his son’s chest, he hears, “Abraham, Abraham.” And in a moment of shock and relief, Abraham answers, “Here I am.” In this final response Abraham’s wishes and hopes are fulfilled as God provides a ram, stuck in a thicket, to take his son’s place. In the last verses it simply states that Abraham called the mountain, “The Lord will Provide.” There is no talk about how Isaac felt has his father untied him or how the journey home went. We are left with only the realization that God once again kept his promise and provided even though we, the readers of this ancient story, always wonder what would happen if the angel never showed.
This story makes us feel a little uneasy about God. What kind of God would ask for the sacrifice of an only son? What type of demented, power hungry, God would demand that the gift he gave be taken away? What type of God would call a person to serve and then demand that everything be given up? What type of God is that? What type of love is that? That cannot be our God. Our God is the one who fed five thousand, who converted Saul, and who helped Moses through the Red Sea. Our God is one of saving, of transformation, and of forgiveness. That’s our God. How can our God and the God in this story be the same?
I commemorated the first anniversary of 9-11 in England during a weekly communion meeting they had every Thursday evening. As we discussed how it was for them to witness the event in my country it was interesting to get their perspective. That night we had prayed for all the people who died at the hands of a few. After the little service an old man walked up to me. His name was Duncan. Duncan was a conscientious objector in World War II and stood up for peace all his life. He walked up to me and he asked, “How do you feel about all the people who died at the hands of your country. What about all those who were killed when the bombs were dropped in Japan?”
As I pondered this question for the first time in my life, Ken, a World War II veteran came up and said, “The bombs were worth it. They saved the lives of thousands of Americans and British soldiers.” I never was able to answer Duncan’s question. But was the sacrifice of a quarter of a million Japanese citizens worth it to end the war and save the lives of soldiers? I still don’t know how to answer that question. What makes sacrifice worth it? Does a quarter of a million citizens of an enemy equal ten-thousand soldiers? Does the killing of a son make up the perfect sacrifice worthy of our God?
The answer is yes. Yes, the killing of a son makes up the perfect sacrifice worthy of our God. I have heard sermons about this ancient story from Abraham’s perspective and from Isaac’s but I have often wondered what God was thinking through out this event. What if this is what God is thinking…”the only way things will ever be right is through an ultimate sacrifice. The ultimate sacrifice is one of a father giving up his only son. There is nothing higher. Abraham is a great person and I am proud he has such strong faith in me. I’m going to ask him to sacrifice his beloved son to ease the pain of humanity. I’m going to have him make everything right. Then my covenant will be fulfilled, his ancestors will be greater than the stars because they will come through Isaac to get to me…wait…this isn’t right. It shouldn’t be Abraham who sacrifices his son it should be me…I love the world so much that I should send my only son.
As the Father tries to think up a way to make everything right again he poses the question, who will I send? Then his son, the second part of the Trinity, the one we call Jesus speaks up, “Here I am, send me.” God never asks us to do something that he wouldn’t be willing to do. God is the provider because he never again asked someone to give up their son. When I stare into Dean’s eyes I know that I will never be asked to offer him up to appease God. I know this because God decided to take this sacrifice himself. God the Father is the one that hundreds of years after testing Abraham stood by and had to listen to his son call out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
It is the God we worship that decided his son was worth the sacrifice. His son equaled the perfect lamb. God provided the sacrifice that was needed for all of us and for all of our sins. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son…”
And all God’s people said…Amen.