6/26/2011 sermon: Tested!

Location: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Burke, VA
Text: Genesis 22:1-14
Proper 8, Year A


I am going to say a word, and the moment I say the word I want you to recall a time in your life that this word brings to your mind.[1] Are you ready? The word is “tested.” Tested! Do you remember a time when you were tested, when you were thinking about doing something wrong and were offered the opportunity to do what you were trying to resist?

I see a student struggling with an important examination, a student who always sits very near the class’ ace student. Tested!

Do you remember a time when you were tested? I see a whole lot of people using Turbo Tax’ “What If” feature to fiddle with their income tax forms. Tested!

I see a Virginian with political aspirations who called the institution of slavery an “abominable crime,” a young man who then inherited enough slaves to make his Monticello plantation profitable. Tested!

Will you look back with me in time even further  to another time of testing? The person who is being tested is Abraham. God had promised Abraham that he would be the Father of Many Nations. God had made this promise to Abraham and his wife Sarah—his half-sister—when they were already far too old to have children. But now Abraham has not just one child—not just one son—but two.

The oldest child, Ishmael, Abraham had fathered with Hagar, his wife’s maid, because it hadn’t seemed like God’s promise would ever come to pass. Abraham rushed ahead, instead of waiting for God’s plan to come to pass. Having a child with Hagar had been his wife’s idea, so it wasn’t as if Abraham and Hagar had snuck around behind Sarah’s back. In fact, there was a law then, a custom of which Sarah had reminded him, a law that said an oldest son of a man and his wife’s maid would be heir, just as if he were the couple’s own child. But then, of course, Sarah got pregnant too and his second son Isaac had been born.

Talk about tested! Abraham loved Ishmael, but all Abraham had heard about from his wife after Isaac was born had been jealousy—so much jealousy that finally Abraham had sent Hagar and Ishmael away. He had thought that this would have been the end of the mess, but NO. Now God was testing Abraham. God had said to him, “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…”[2]

I want you to notice the fine print here. God did not say “sacrifice Isaac,” he said to “offer him” as a sacrifice. You and I know this aspect of the story because we know how the story ends, but Abraham isn’t aware of this nuance. However, something that Abraham definitely would have been aware of was that God was being ironic.

Imagine that you are Abraham. You know that Isaac isn’t your only son—he’s not even your oldest. You know that Isaac isn’t even your *best* son—Isaac’s sickly and slow and strangely passive; a mama’s boy, really.[3] And you’re already feeling guilty about sending Ishmael away. Then God not only reminds you of this situation, God seemingly instructs you to sacrifice your only remaining son, to kill your only remaining offspring, the one whom you wish were more like Ishmael. Tested!

Perhaps if Abraham hadn’t been feeling so guilty he might have argued with God about these instructions. After all, Abraham had had some practice in arguing with God when God’s plans hadn’t sounded so, well, ethical. Remember the time when God had decided to destroy two entire cities and everyone in them?[4] Abraham had dared to ask God then, “Would you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” Yes, Abraham had had some practice arguing with God. But he didn’t argue with God this time. Tested!

What could be more unethical or unfathomable than being asked to murder another person? Yes, the locals in the land at that time sacrificed their eldest sons to appease their gods. But Abraham was a righteous man who knew the one true God, the God who would not condone murder. Make no mistake about today’s Old Testament passage: what God seemed to instruct Abraham to do is murder in our time and it would have been murder in Abraham’s.

One of the things that have made this story so highly debated for thousands of years is that it so accurately defines being tested, being between the proverbial rock and a hard place, being in a place where we are seemingly instructed to do what we know is wrong as a way of having us examine what we are thinking about doing. Abraham has been asked to murder his son, the son of God’s promise, an act which is so clearly wrong by God’s and by human standards. Yet God himself seems to be instructing Abraham to do this great wrong. Talk about a dilemma!

Here’s what Abraham did. He set out for Mount Moriah the next day with Isaac and fire wood and two servants. Then, when the group arrived at the foot of the mountain three days later, Abraham told the servants to wait, that he and Isaac would be right back. We don’t hear Abraham’s thought process during his time of testing. We don’t know whether Abraham has worked out that God doesn’t desire for him to actually kill his son. We don’t know whether Abraham finally owned up to the fact that Isaac was not the person that he had expected, and accepted Isaac for the gift that he truly was. What we do know is that after Abraham laid Isaac upon the wood on the altar and was ready to sacrifice Isaac, THAT’S when the angel of the Lord restrained Abraham’s hand.

We remember Abraham to this day for his faithfulness to God for being willing to sacrifice Isaac. What we don’t so readily remember is that there is one child too many in this story, one child too many because Abraham and Sarah did not wait upon the Lord to fulfill his promise. We assume that the subject of Abraham’s testing is whether to kill Isaac, but in the end the outcome of the test is that Abraham had to choose one or the other: the child of God’s promise—as unlikely as Isaac seemed for the role—or the child of Abraham’s own plan.

In the end God made Abraham the Father of Many Nations as he had promised, and he did so through BOTH of Abraham’s sons. Ishmael became the father of Islam, and Isaac became the father of the Jews. I wonder if Abraham realized just how—with this test—he was redeeming his own past unfaithfulness in preempting God’s timetable with his own.

Our understanding of this scripture is crucial in today’s post-9/11 world. There are many interpretations to ponder. The interpretation given to us today challenges us, when we are being tested, to look BACK on our desires—to look back before moving forward in blind faith when we think God is instructing us to do something troubling, something that seems wrong. And when we look back at our desires, it is entirely appropriate to ask God about those desires to see whether they are in accordance with God’s will.

Abraham moved forward with having a son ahead of God’s plan, and there were unintended long-term consequences. Our own attempts to speed up God’s plans, our own attempts to provide for ourselves instead of relying on God, often don’t turn out the way that we anticipate, either. But even when we have chosen our own plan and our own timetable, God can mend that broken situation, to the extent that we pass God’s test.

[1] I take as my inspiration for the format of this sermon the sermon on Gal. 1:11-24 by the great preacher Fred. B. Craddock entitled “Praying Through Clenched Teeth,” as published in How to Preach a Parable by Eugene L. Lowry, pp. 142-173.

[2] 2 Chronicles 3:1 identifies the location of Isaac’s would-be sacrifice as the place where Solomon later built the temple to the Lord. Mount Moriah is just to the west of the Mount of Olives, and there is some archaeological evidence to suggest that the place where Jesus was crucified was atop Mount Moriah.

[3] Herbert W. Hain, “Prologue,” in Mishael Caspi, Take Now Thy Son: The Motif of the Aqedah (Binding) in Literature, Vol. 5 (North Richland Hills, Tex.: BIBAL Press, 2001), argues persuasively that Isaac likely had serious congenital disabilities. For example, Isaac may not have been a young child at this time. Hain says that Flavius Josephus thought that he was 25 and Talmudic sources say he was 37.

[4] See the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18.

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