Dear Isaac … Love, Abraham
Posted on September 18, 2017 | Posted by Pastor Daniel
Pastor Daniel’s sermon on the near-sacrifice of Isaac, Genesis 21:1-3, 22:1-14
A letter from a father to his son.
Isaac, my son, whom I love,
For many years now there has been between us a silence, an unspoken conversation about that day. You’ve never asked or said anything about it. I don’t know if that’s because you didn’t want to bring it up in front of your mother, whom you loved as much as I did. Or maybe you were too afraid of what might be said. I have been. But now that Sarah’s died, it’s time I take courage and write to you.
I try to imagine that day from your eyes, and it makes me sick to my stomach. You wake up one morning and I tell you to get ready, we’re going on a journey. Before leaving I make sure you say goodbye to your mother. And then we’re off. It’s a three day journey to the mountain, and I imagine you wondered why I was so quiet all along. You probably figured I was just tired and old. I was! I am.
As we left behind the two men who came with us and traveled up the mountain alone, you carried the wood for the burnt offering. You were so helpful, and you probably wondered why that sight made me so sad.
And then I bound you up. And you cried and cried. You were old enough to fight against me, though not old enough to beat me, and you knew it. So instead you pleaded and wept. Your cries were full of fear and confusion and your face said ‘betrayal.’ I closed my eyes as I lifted the knife, and I pray you did, too.
And then the voice from heaven called out and I stopped and untied you and there was this ram and we killed and burned it without really saying a word. The three days’ walk home was even more quiet. Has been ever since.
I’ve never known if you’re angry with me for that day or angry with God, or both. I don’t even know if you know God’s role in this story. I’ve both wanted to tell you and feared telling you these many years. I’ve wanted to cast the blame on God, recovering our relationship, but I’ve also feared bruising your faith. But if truth is a barrier to faith, then it isn’t much of a faith, is it? So here’s the truth: God told me to do it. I was still the one to raise the knife, but God told me to. God told me to take you to the mountain, kill you, and offer you up as a burnt offering. Just as almost happened. Just as we ended up doing to that ram.
I can’t explain it. I can’t explain why God did that, did something which seemed so out of character. After the angel called out from heaven, God said something to the effect of now knowing that I trust God, and I suppose that day was proof. I suppose this was a test of my faith, of my trust, but that’s not enough of an explanation for this, is it. A test isn’t a good enough reason for what God put me through, for what God put you through. That question – why? Why would God do this? – that remains as much a mystery to me as I’m sure it does to you. (As well as to any befuddled pastor 4,000 years from now who might be tasked with writing a sermon on this.)
There is one memory of that day that I want to talk to you about. Because I hope it helps you understand me a bit. And more than that, I hope it helps you discover a little about this thing called faith. Maybe this memory even gives you faith or restores it.
As we walked up the mountain, you with the wood and me with the knife and torch, you asked me where we were going to get the lamb for the burnt offering. And I said, God himself will provide the lamb.
I wonder if you’ve thought back on my response as much as I have. God himself will provide the lamb. Did I mean it? I knew what I was called to do. So, was I lying? Was I referring to you as the lamb, a sort of technical truth, but really a lie? Was I just saying anything that would calm your nerves before that horrific moment. Or did I really believe God would provide, even while I held the knife in my hand?
So here’s the thing. I think I meant it. I still thought I was going to that mountain to kill you. But I also believed fully that you were – that you are! – God’s promise to me and to your mother. I believed that you were God’s promise of life, and that God would keep that promise. Believing that promise may sound too much at odds with what I was doing. And for three days as we traveled to that mountain, the horrible command and the promise of life sat at odds within me, but I just couldn’t let go of either.
I think it’s because of who made that command. See, God is not an abstract for me or for our family. God is not an idea. A theory. An argument or principle. Had you been born back in the land of your grandfather, back when I was a young 75 years old, and had God come to me at that moment and told me to take you up the mountain – no way!
But so much happened in the decades between then and that horrific day. God made promises to your mother and me. God sent us across the world to Egypt and back again to this place. God gave us this place. A promise fulfilled. God protected us through hardship and isolation. It felt like we had God on our team. So, God didn’t felt like an idea. God felt like one who was there, right there with us. Keeping those promises made back in the old country.
Except for one of the promises. Children. Children, like the stars of heaven, but we had none. I even challenged God on it, asked what was taking so long. But God just reiterated the promise. Even after we took matters in our own hands and your half-brother Ishmael was born, God said Ishmael would be cared for, but that he wasn’t the one promised. Another would be born. You would be born.
He said it right here at our table, the very place I write this letter. Mom, who was 99, mom was inside the tent, listening in on this conversation I was having with three strangers who we knew were God. And she giggled. Couldn’t help herself when she heard that she would have a son. She just started laughing, but then it happened. So we named you laughter. Isaac.
And God was there for all of it. And I came to know God as one who was wily and not the sort to be held down. I came to know God as somehow both patient and eager, like someone vehement, but working with a different sense of time. But, mostly, I came to know God as one wanting life above all else. I came to realize that that was behind our being called to this place. That was behind the changing of names and births and promises. I came to know God as one with life on the mind. God wants life above all else. Always.
And though it was never said, I even sensed that for God, there’d been some heartbreak over life. Heartbreak over how we treat life. Over we use it and waste it. Heartbreak even over how God had interacted with it in the past and heartbreak over what God knew might come in the future. All for the sake of life. I even think you might not be the only son to carry the wood of his execution up a hill. All because God wants life.
I say all this because that’s the God who made the horrific demand. Not some incomprehensible spiritual force, but one who spoke to us and walked with us and sat at this table and made promises and kept them and wanted nothing more and nothing less than life. That’s who woke me one morning and told me to do this terrible thing.
And I still believed, even then, that that’s who God was. And I still believe it today. I’ve begun to get a reputation as the father of faith – a title I’ve seen you bristle at. I don’t blame you. But my faith wasn’t such that I’d do anything for God, no matter how horrible. At it’s core, this wasn’t really about obedience. Nor is my faith some general optimism. I don’t believe everything will turn out ok in the end. I’ve buried my wife and sent my first son away – I have no cause for unbridled optimism.
My faith is that God will be God. That God will remain the God of life, that God will remain God for me and for you. That’s my faith.
And when the voice called out my name as I held the knife over you, God remained God. Despite God’s own words. Despite God’s incomprehensible, horrible command, God remained God. I don’t know why God did it that way, and I’ll never find an explanation that passes muster, an explanation that repairs the damage between us, but God remained God. God interrupted the act, prevented the death. God’s will for life remained, and still does. That’s where my faith lies.
Isaac, you have lived through dark times, darker times than any should. You’ve been betrayed by your father. And your children will live through dark times, too, and their children. And on and on. God’s promises do not shield us from darkness. Who will God be in these times? When nothing makes sense and no light is shining, who will we trust God to be in darkness, even if it seems God is part of the darkness? Even if it seems God is calling us into the darkness? Who will we trust God to be?
I trusted God to be God. I still sometimes regret it. I still sometimes regret not just saying “forget it, God, pick someone else, leave our little family alone.” But I just couldn’t. I couldn’t let go of the God whom I had come to know. I couldn’t let go of that God, even though God was acting contrary to everything I’d come to know. I couldn’t let go of the God of life. And even when it seemed God himself was shouting the contrary, God remained God, God was committed to life.
My son, may God give you such faith. Not blind obedience. Not unthinking optimism. But faith that in the darkest of times, when there are no good choices, when every person and force seems positioned against you. When it seems even God is against you, on the side of death. May you be given faith to know that God remains God, that, no matter what else, God remains committed to life.