This week I had to preach on the Binding of Isaac. Had to.
Early in the year I made a tentative schedule for a year of preaching and in it I included ten weeks of Genesis. And I knew then I would have to include this sermon. And I dreaded it.
A few months ago I made a schedule of Genesis specifically. And it included, of course, this story. And I dreaded it.
All last week as I prepared I dreaded it. As I walked to the pulpit, as I gave the sermon, every second I dreaded this story.
If you’re familiar with it, you know why. But if not, here is a quick rundown.
God called a childless man named Abram to leave his homeland and travel to a land he would show him. Then he told Abram that he would inherit that land and would be the father of many people. The only problem is that Abram and his wife Sarai were old. Like too old to have sex, let alone have babies. Abram had sex with his wife’s servant, Hagar, and had a kid, but this wasn’t the promised son. And years and years later God promises Abram again that he would have a son, but he had to change his name to Abraham (and his wife’s to Sarah) and get circumcised. Then, at 100 years old, Abraham finally had this promised son named Isaac.
This was the sermon I preached two weeks ago. Patience. God is working, and that usually takes forever. He waits until all human possibility has disappeared and we have to depend on him.
How encouraging! How uplifting! Good things are coming, just have hope.
Then when Isaac has grown (some modern commentators say he is 13, but the ancient rabbis said he was 37), God commands Abraham to take his son, his promised son who will inherit his promised land, on top a mountain and offer him as a burnt sacrifice.
What in the world? How do you preach this? Søren Kierkegaard says you can’t, and after having tried to preach it, I’m inclined to agree with him.
How disconcerting. A lot of people will point out that in the end God does not make Abraham kill Isaac, that it was just a test.
But this is a sick and twisted test. It is the work of a sadistic being, not the loving creator God we’ve been preaching throughout Genesis.
So I did the only thing I could do and said, “This story bothers me, and this is the best I understand it now . . .”
My (limited) understanding of this story is heavily dependent on Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.
For Kierkegaard, Abraham is the “knight of faith.” What this means is that he has seen the absurd and recognized it as such and given up. But still believed.
For instance, God tells a 99 year old man, “You will have a son.” And he responds, “How can I have a son? I am 99! That is impossible!” But still knows it will happen.
Or an angel tells a 14 year old virgin, “You will have a son.” And she responds, “How can I have a son? I am a virgin! That is impossible!” But then, “Let it be with me as you have spoken.”
Or we are told, “God came to earth as a man, died and rose again, and one day you will rise too.” And we respond, “How can God be a man? How can the dead resurrect? That is impossible!” But we still know it is true.
Faith is looking at what is absurd and knowing it is impossible AND that it is true.
And so when God tells Abraham to sacrifice the son of promise Abraham says to himself, “How can he fulfill the promise if he is dead? That is impossible!” But knows that God is good and will fulfill it. So without delay he takes his son. And in doing so shows us what true faith is. At this moment he becomes our father in faith. It is in this that God fulfills the promise to make him the father of many people.
I’ve realized since preaching this week that this story acts for me as a test case of this faith.
I read it and said to myself, “How can this be the work of God? How can this be preached? It is impossible that this is the work of a loving God!”
A lot of people give up on God because of stories like this. There are a few others in the Old Testament that people read and say, “If there is a God and he is like that, I don’t want anything to do with him.”
And they miss out on the beauty of this story.
But if we like Abraham say to ourselves, “This is absurd and it is true.” Then we can see the story more clearly.
For the past several years the Bible has done this to me. It is a book full of ugly broken people who are constantly hurting each other and doing wrong. It has things in it that seem backwards and evil to us. God telling Israel to kill women and children, keeping the physically and mentally handicapped from the temple, stoning those who break the law.
How could the things in these stories be the work of God? It is impossible.
But I find over and over again that if I say, “It is also true,” that these stories begin to become real to me, they begin to show the grace and goodness of God despite my initial reaction to them. I believe that, despite anything that may make it seem impossible, God is good. Beginning from this I read scripture and my faith that God is good grows.
And when I come to a point where I can not see that God is good, whether in scripture or in life, I pray, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”
And the good God who brings creation out of nothingness, who brings promised infants in the wombs of the barren, who brings fatherhood out of sacrifices, brings faith out of my brokenness and doubt. And in that I see that he is good.