A Sermon from Sherborne
God’s Risk: the Offering of Isaac
A sermon preached at Mattins in Castleton Church on Sunday 2nd July 2017 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes.
The account in Genesis [22: 1-14] of the near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham is one of the most dramatic of all biblical narratives. Its slow pace, as the journey towards seeming death unfolds, is full of tension, particularly in the boy’s gradual awareness of what is going to happen to him. It would make gripping fiction: deluded father takes young son on a three day journey intent on sacrificing him at their destination. Can anything save them from utter ruin? Then the last minute intervention from the Deus ex machina – or rather, de caelo.
Yet this is not fantasy fiction, nor even a tale from the Greek myths, where such unsavoury events are regrettably common. It is in the Bible, and we have had it read as part of this service of Mattins. Admittedly it comes from the rather more violent area of the Jewish scriptures; but it is still very un-Anglican. So what does it mean? What are we to make of it? In particular, why does God make such a terrible demand on Abraham?
The traditional view, in both Jewish and Christian interpretation, is that this is an example, albeit an extreme one, of God’s testing of Abraham. Isaac, the long hoped-for son on whom the whole future of God’s holy people, Abraham’s descendants, depends, represents one’s nearest and dearest. God must be put first in one’s life, even before them. But note this: in this story we are not dealing with the egotistical demands of a capricious deity. Both God and Abraham have everything to lose if the instruction is completed and Isaac dies. So this is a joint or shared enterprise. Why? Well, in the previous chapters we see that God has become aware that, in Abraham, He has found a man in whom His own character has begun to be formed. And so the restoration of the channel between humans and God – broken at the Fall in the Garden of Eden – can start. Now God tests Abraham’s faith and obedience, which are His own characteristics. When He had renewed His covenant with Abraham (chapter 15), promising that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens, God sealed it with a binding ritual, the penalty for breaking which was death. God, you see, put Himself in the firing line.
So now perhaps we can understand that this story is about restoring man’s relationship with God, through sacrifice and redemption. And if that rings any bells for Christians, it is not fortuitous. We shall return to this remarkable parallel in a little while.
Before that, though, it is useful to consider what this story might be asking us as individuals. The big question is, how can we know God’s will for us? Abraham accepts His command, despite its being apparently contradictory to God’s nature; should not he have questioned it and used his own judgement? Well, of course, in his case it was a direct, spoken instruction. For us things are not so clear. It seems to me that we need to rely on three things especially:
- An awareness of where our particular skills, personality and circumstances may be leading us
- What our conscience tells us; remember that, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, our conscience is a small window onto God’s nature, telling us how to behave in a God-like way.
- A discerning of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, through prayer.
Yes, we must trust and love God, so that we may become more like Him; but our own moral perception through reading (especially the Bible), using our critical faculties, and applying our conscience, must play their part. In recent years we have seen far too much of men relying on so-called revelation of God’s will to kill others in His name.
So let us return to where this ancient narrative ultimately points for Christians: our redemption by the death of Jesus on the cross and then his resurrection. I can do no better than to relay in part a story by Canon Trevor Dennis reflecting on this tale of Abraham and Isaac. He first started to preach sermons as stories when he was a school chaplain, and has produced a number of books of them over the years. This is from his collection of stories entitled Speaking of God (Triangle, 1992: ISBN 0-281-04612-3), and is called The Risk. It asks Abraham some difficult questions.
“‘That journey, that three-day slow plod of the ass to the land of Moriah, how could you have taken that, unless numb with shock? Did you not notice on the way how very still the land was? Did you not notice how the birds ceased their singing…? No insects danced for you on the way, and the flowers furled their petals as you passed. All creation held its breath for you, Abraham. Were you blind and deaf to that? Did you just go on doggedly…..refusing to feel the silence, not daring to feel the pain, not bringing yourself to feel anything at all?
‘Surely, Abraham, if you had stopped to think, you would have stopped, and turned back, and taken your son and the wood and the fire and the knife and the promises and purposes of God back home, to safety?……. One thing is for sure. You did not know how it would end. The mountain you were shown, the place where stone by stone you built the altar for your son, and carefully prepared his funeral pyre, was not called ‘The Lord Provides’ then, not at the beginning. The sound of a ram’s horn only reached your ears when it was nearly all over.
‘And what of Sarah? What, indeed, of Sarah?! On the way, did you think of what you would say to her when you got back with the servants and the ass and the knife? Did you imagine to yourself how you would take her hand and try to look her in the eye and tell her you had killed her son? Did you work out a speech?
‘Above all, Abraham, did you stop to think of the risk God was taking? Did you realize that if the knife had fallen, if Isaac’s throat had been cut, if the smoke and the smell of his burning had filled God’s nostrils, then all would have been lost? It would have been the end of everything. You would have cut the throat of Hope, and burned Love’s desires to ashes. Though God had promised never again to flood the earth, it would, if your knife had fallen, have been washed away by his tears. There would have been no gospel left to proclaim, no space for the kingdom of God. All would have been drowned.
‘These are my questions, Abraham. I do not expect you to answer.’
Abraham was silent for a time. Then he replied, ‘I cannot answer your questions. You must do that. But I will tell you of another journey. They did not need to go nearly so far, only outside the city walls. It was not my son, and the altar was made of wood. But again all creation held its breath, and I could hear its heart beating in fear. That time the knife fell, and the blood was spilled. There was no thicket there, no ram. It was like the Flood, perhaps. It marked the End of everything, and God had most certainly risked it all. And do you know what I call that place? The Lord Provides.’”