St. Mark United Methodist Church
June 29, 2008
“Here I Am”
Genesis 22:1-18, NRSV: The Command to Sacrifice Isaac
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ 8Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.
9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill* his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 12He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’;* as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’*
15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.’ 19So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.
Today, as I stand in this room on my first anniversary of coming to minister at Saint Mark. I am overwhelmed and blessed to think of what this year has brought. Many of you who were just strangers a year ago have become dear and cherished friends, and I know that I’m just scratching the surface in getting to know you all as we develop a relationship together. Last year, I came to this church with hope and wonder, a little fear and doubt. Today, I stand with you as a woman grounded in my call and place here, open to the Spirit’s leading and so glad to have your support and encouragement. One of the biggest challenges for me in ministry is still with me, five years after I’ve begun. Every time I stand up in this pulpit, my stomach knots up, my mouth goes dry, and I think to myself, “What on earth do I have to say to these wonderful, faithful people?” And each time, the Holy Spirit intervenes, directs me to the right place and gives me words that somehow manage to communicate the Gospel.
But this week, I’ve been praying a little bit harder to feel the Spirit’s presence as I prepared. This has been a hard week at St. Mark. We have gotten call after call about mothers, fathers, stepmothers who have passed away. Many of you also know that we lost a faithful congregant on Monday. Fred Fife died after a long battle with cancer, and his fight to the end was dignified, inspiring and gut-wrenching. Deana and I got the call on Monday, and were hurrying to get there to see him in time. Instead, we arrived about 20 minutes after he passed away, and as much as I prayed on my way to see Fred at the hospice center, I prayed even more as we walked down the hallway to his room. You see, I felt on Monday the way I feel now: Candler Professor Tom Long named that in any funeral, there are two preachers in this room, and that other preacher is Death with a capital “D.” As my footsteps echoed down the hallway, the hollow looming voice matched my pace saying, “You’re too late. He’s already gone. I made it here first. Death always wins.”
On Wednesday, I had the honor of preaching Fred’s funeral sermon. I saw people stream into this room who have never worshipped here (or anywhere else) before. They sat in these pews, faced this pulpit and prepared to hear something more than what the minister of Death was saying. So, I preached truth. Life. Resurrection. Restoration. Love. I wept, and I prayed that God’s voice would be stronger than mine. That this would be a day when God chose not to show up in a still, small way, but in a way that said with strength and vigor: I AM.
And today, as I prepare to preach my second sermon of the week, I know that there is still another preacher in the room. That as we listen to this text from Genesis that is perplexing and horrible when we think about what it tells us about God, I know that the other preacher’s voice is gaining strength. That preacher has been just as busy as I have this week, whispering in your ears that Death is just around the corner, inevitable, and that each day we live, we’re one day closer to dying. On this summer day in June, the Southeast prays for rain while the Midwest is flooded. We can’t put gas in our cars to go to our jobs or churches. We live too far from our parents to care for them properly. We feel trapped. Breathless. Scared. Alone. And the only voice that comes to offer comfort is Death’s.
And this is how we encounter Abraham and Isaac today, with Death’s whisper as a constant in the background. God enters into the scene by calling out to Abraham with the intent of testing or proving him. God calls and Abraham responds with the words of faithfulness, “Here I am.” But Abraham’s faithful words aren’t enough. What follows reads like a one-sided conversation: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land or Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” In this sparse story, God’s voice offers great detail about the specifics of the request. There is no doubt what God intends for Abraham, and no doubt that God knows how much is being asked of his servant. The boy who was the source of his parents’ laughter is now going to be the source of their tears. Abraham and Sarah’s disbelief about Isaac’s coming into the world will be trumped by their disbelief about his sudden exit. God, the giver of all good things, is calling for Abraham to return this gift to all the Israelites back to its source.
Abraham follows the instructions he has been given, and the following morning, he, Isaac and two young men saddled their donkey and made their way to the land of Moriah, where they would wait for the place to be named where Isaac shall be bound. In preparation, Abraham cut the wood for the burnt offering, using the task as an excuse to avoid Sarah and wait for this time to pass. On the third day in Moriah, God indicates the place and Abraham says plainly to his companions: “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”
The walk up the mountain is somber. The wood is heavy. The boy is inquisitive. Abraham is stayed. What he tells his companions is what he prays will be true: “We will go, we will worship together – me and my boy – about the goodness of God who would not allow such sadness to overwhelm us. We will share laughter and tears in God’s presence, and we will know that we are on Holy ground. We will do this in communion with one another and with God who has joined us, two hearts as one in this miraculous family which cannot- will not – be shattered. God has made me a promise, God has made the Israelites a promise through this boy, and God will keep that promise. Yes, we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”
But intervention does not stop them on their walk. Isaac questions his father. Abraham responds with the same words of faithfulness that he used in his response to God: “Here I am, my son.” In this response, he says, “I am faithful to you. Faithful to our God. Faithful to this promise. And afraid.” Isaac pushes on: “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham can only respond, “God will provide the lamb,” as they continue walking on together.
Without commentary or discussion, the text tells us next that Abraham and Isaac reached the place God had shown to them and there Abraham built an altar and laid the wood in order. Then he bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood – this is where this story derives its name – The Akedah. The binding. The Lord has provided. Isaac may have known the story of his birth, but he did not know that his death would be thrust upon him in such a way. That his father who laughed with disbelief at his coming would be the one to cause his own tears to fall because of his belief. The minister of Death mocks us all with her cloak and dagger way of finding us. This one came as a surprise. Who could have known that the promise of all generations would be sacrificed on a mountain by his own devastated father?
What happens in the text next is the only thing that keeps all of us from throwing our Bibles away after 22 chapters of Genesis and saying, “This is not for me.” We have read and heard that the faithful man, Abraham, obeyed God and followed through with God’s command. In return, God’s messenger from heaven addresses Abraham, who responds a third time, “Here I Am,” and instructs him not to lay a hand on the boy. God provides a ram in the thicket, who was sacrificed as Abraham and Isaac worshiped, and tried to reinterpret the meaning of their relationship. Abraham was faithful. The Lord provided. Isaac lived to be an old man. The promises were kept. The Israelites’ lineage continued through Isaac, and Abraham was counted as the father of a nation.
But I would like to argue with this conclusion. I don’t think it does us any good to read it, with Death whispering in our ears, and bark out a pithy platitude about God’s provision in trial or the mind-blowing faith of Abraham. It doesn’t do us any good to go on with our text, our worship, our lives, having heard this story and thinking that it doesn’t have something to do with us today. Because it does. Death is all around us. Death is a primary character in our story, and we are just waiting until she shows up. And show up she does, as Abraham binds Isaac to the altar.
For me, it doesn’t matter whether or not the voice of an angel calls out from heaven. Once Abraham has bound his son and raised his knife, he has sacrificed his son – his only son, whom he loves – to the God who has called him to this place. Whether Isaac lives or dies in this moment is morally inconsequential, because Abraham has made a choice. Abraham decided to do the unthinkable. Just like my friend Fred chose to keep battling his cancer, even though the chemotherapy killed him faster than the cancer would have. Just like my friend who has kept a job longer than she should have because she has to be faithful and support her family, despite all of the hurt and woundedness that it’s caused her. Just like your brother who has dropped everything, including quality and consistent time with his partner and young children, to care for an aging parent. Just like your sister who was on the fast track to be the first woman ever to hold her position at work until baby #3 came along and she gave it all up to stay home. Just like the relationship that you maintain because you know it would break his heart if you ever left.
We all make sacrifices, and we might even name that these sacrifices cause us to die a little death each day as we recommit ourselves to these promises that we’ve made. Today, as we read this text, Isaac is the symbol for these sacrifices that we hold in our hearts. Isaac, bound on the altar, is the career path we would have taken if things had gone differently. Isaac, helpless and afraid, is the family we always dreamed of having that hasn’t been realized. Isaac, weeping under the knife, is the choice we’ve made that we live with each day. However we’ve come to make these choices, know that they will shape us for the rest of our lives, and not always in devastating ways. For God has worked out in us, already, the fullness of our creation, which can only come when we have died with Christ and experienced the resurrection that we have been promised.
As Isaac is bound by Abraham’s sacrificial act, so are we bound by our choices. But, as this text shows us, the binding of Isaac is not just about the sacrifice, but the relief of the burden. The ultimate focus of this text is not on Abraham’s actions, but on God’s continued provision. God provided, first, Isaac for the restoration of Abraham and Sarah and all of God’s people through Isaac. Then, God provided the ram in the thicket. Finally, thousands of years later, God provided the fulfillment of all time and promises in the person of Jesus Christ, who became God in the flesh, living and dwelling among us. In this person of Christ, God came into our midst, lived and laughed among us, teaching and admonishing, and inviting all of us into the mansion that has many rooms. In Christ Jesus, God was born, baptized, died a brutal death, and was resurrected in glory that we might know that God incarnate is not separate from us, but part of us and our experience. When Jesus cried out, “Lord, if it be Thy will, let this cup pass from me!” the recognition of Death’s power is palpable.
But the promise we receive is that Death’s power, though mighty, is not the final answer. The promise that was made in Isaac, despite his binding on Mt. Moriah, was fulfilled to the letter. Death did not have the final answer. Abraham became the father of many nations, as promised, and the nation that was once oppressed is now lifted up to be favored in God’s eyes. And we have been brought into this promise. For God’s promise, in all of its mystery, is for us, in Christ. God’s promise was for Abraham – the one who sacrificed - and Isaac, the one who was bound. God’s promise was made full in the Incarnation and Jesus’s death and resurrection, which is also what has been promised to us. Death does not have the final answer.
So this morning, we use the words that are spoken at every funeral to begin the service. Let us use these words to recognize the suffering that we have endured, the sacrifices we have made. Let Isaac’s name stand as a marker for the words or names you would like to lift back up to God. Let us celebrate that it is not death that has the final answer, but a radical powerful life that defeats death in its own venue – the grave. God’s promise is for all. Life is for all. O death, where is thy victory? Where is thy sting?
Amen and Amen.
Gathering - Rev. Phillip Thomason
Dying, Christ destroyed our death. Rising, Christ restored our life. Christ will come again in glory. As in baptism Isaac put on Christ, so in Christ may Isaac be clothed with glory. Here and now, dear friends, we are God’s children. What we shall be has not yet been revealed; but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Those who have this hope purify themselves as Christ is pure.
The Word of Grace - Rev. Mandy Flemming
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I hold the keys of hell and death. Because I live, you shall live also.”
Greeting - Rev. Josh Noblitt
Friends, we have gathered here to praise God and to witness to our faith as we celebrate the life of Isaac. We come together in grief, acknowledging our human loss. May God grant us grace, that in pain we may find comfort, in sorrow hope, in death resurrection.