9:30AM Sunday School
11AM & 7PM Worship

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Austin, TX 78705

Faith on Trial

San Williams

June 29, 2014
Genesis 22:1-14

This summer we are focused on storytelling.  We’re sharing personal stories–as Chelsea did this morning–as well as church stories and Bible stories.  In this process, we learn how our personal and church stories are intertwined with the biblical story.  Of course, some stories in the Bible are less to our liking than others. Case in point: the story we read this morning.  The story of God’s command to sacrifice Isaac may be the most baffling and off-putting Bible story of all.  The title of my sermon is “Faith on Trial,” but before the subject of our faith is raised, we’ve got some complaints to file with both God and Abraham.  We’d like to question God for making such a horrific demand.  At the same time, Abraham also has some explaining to do.  What father would even think of obeying such a chilling command? Our difficulty with this story begins with verse one: “God tested Abraham.”  What kind of a God would test a father or mother by commanding the murder of a child?  In our age of religious extremism, there are all too many people willing to kill another human being, and to do so in the belief that they are obeying the will of God. So the very idea of a God who commands  an act of violence is deeply troubling to us. Another question for God:  Why this capriciousness, this apparent reversal?  Recall how God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, and how, through his heir, God’s blessing would come to all the families of the earth.  That promise was difficult to believe, because when the promise was made, Abraham and Sarah were well past childbearing years.  Yet God granted a child to this couple, and suddenly the promise took on flesh and blood in their son, Isaac. Now, in today’s story, God issues a command in opposition to what God had earlier promised.  In one moment this God is answering prayers and providing a long-awaited child, and in the next, this same God orders that the child be sacrificed.  Martin Luther rightly noted that this is a “contradiction with which God contradicts himself.”  Who can hear this story without thinking:  God has a lot of explaining to do. And speaking of explaining to do, we’ve got some questions for Abraham.  For starters, why does he not even blink at this outrageous mandate? Why does he simply obey, without so much as a moment of hesitation? This lack of protest from Abraham is especially hard to understand given the vigorous defense he had earlier made on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  When God threatened to destroy their cities, Abraham appealed to God’s moral sensibilities.  He pleaded with God to spare the people.  Consequently, God listened to Abraham and changed his mind.  How, we wonder, could Abraham make a fervent plea to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and yet utter not a word in defense of his own son? I daresay there’s not a parent in this room who isn’t repulsed by Abraham’s attitude and actions.  I can recall, as can many of you, the profound joy and love that a parent feels from the very moment of a child’s birth.  This week I read back in my journal, to the entry of June 9, 1982, three weeks after our son Edward was born.  Completely overwhelmed with the joy that new parents feel, I wrote, “The last three weeks have been the fullest, happiest days of my life…Edward couldn’t be any cuter or more loved….It seems every day he’s getting more alert…He’s fortunate, too, because he is being welcomed into the world with wholehearted love.”  Given such parental feelings for our children as these, nothing dismays us so much as the thought of losing the children we adore. As the poet Thomas Lynch put it so poignantly: Oh say, grim death, why thus destroy      The parents’ hopes, their fondest joy— So if your initial response to this story is like mine, you are deeply troubled by the God’s actions as well as Abraham’s. But as is often the case with difficult stories, beneath the surface of events lies a theological truth that has implications for every person’s faith.  Verse eight is the key that unlocks this deeper truth.  In this verse, Abraham declares that God will provide the lamb for the offering. Of course, at that moment Abraham does not know that God will provide a rescue for Isaac, and yet he trusts without reservation. The so-called testing of Abraham, though as pitiless any we can imagine, does not shatter his faith in God’s providential care. Even if this notion of testing is troublesome for us, it is a central component of biblical faith.  The testing of Job comes immediately to mind.  Also, the Israelites’ time of wandering in the wilderness is repeatedly described as a time of testing.  In numerous Psalms, faith is linked to testing.  In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet understands the exile experience as a test of Israel’s faith.  Remember, too, how Jesus was tested in the wilderness for forty days, and again in the garden of Gethsemane.  So the faith that has come down to us, from Abraham to Jesus, will be tested in one way or another.  In fact, maybe there is no such thing as a genuine, mature faith apart from all the evidence that would test it. That’s certainly true for faith today.  Think, for example, of the person who one day finds a lump  where a lump is not supposed to be. Everyone prays for a good report.  But when the doctor enters the room, he says, “I’m so sorry, the test results are conclusive, there’s nothing we can do.” That’s when faith responds:  Even if there’s not a way out, I trust that God will provide a way through. Or imagine how for us today faith in God’s providential care and goodness is tested against the reality of enmity, injustice, warfare, and environmental degradation.  Yet Abrahamic-style faith responds:  When God promised to bless all the families of the earth, he both meant it and has the capacity to provide it.  We’re talking now about the kind of faith that is formed—or lost–at the foot of the cross.  Such is the anguished faith that trusts God to bring life out of death, resurrection out of crucifixion. After all, this troubling episode of Abraham and Isaac ends not in death, but with the in-breaking of God’s goodness.  The command to go and kill is overturned by the command: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to harm him.” So friends, we’ll continue to question and struggle with this difficult biblical story.  Yet out of this dark tale emerges a double-edged truth.  Our faith will be tested.  But we do not lose heart. God will provide.