Closer to my home in Louisville, another mother was arrested when her two children, ages 2 and 5, were found wandering alone in a grocery store a half-mile from their home. They had infected bug bites, hadn’t eaten in a long time and the two year old hadn’t had a diaper change in eight hours. Police found the mother at home, sleeping, and was charged for being in possession of a controlled substance as well as two counts of wanton endangerment, criminal abuse, and endangering the welfare of a minor (The Louisville Courier-Journal, 2 July 2011, p. B-4).
It’s a sign of our times. The culture in which we live toggles between child over-indulgence one moment and child neglect the next. We are at least conflicted about the way we accept children into our lives and prepare them for lives of their own.
It is a fairly recent phenomenon for parents to worship their children to such and unhealthy extent, and it is also a recent phenomenon in the precise way we abuse children these days. People in the past — especially in the Ancient Near East — did not have the luxury to create
either child-centered families or child-ignoring families. However, in the time of Abraham and Sarah, the antecedents of our present ambivalence about children can be found. And as I hope we will see, this passage is not just about the care and feeding of children, but also about the broader, deeper relationship between God and ourselves.
I imagine Sarah wondering what these four men and one donkey are up to as she watches them walk away toward distant mountains. I see the old woman is standing in an anachronistic kitchen (from the 1950’s, before dishwashers and microwaves and Vulcan stoves and stainless Zero-King built- in refrigerator/freezers). She’s at the sink, washing the breakfast dishes, looking out her anachronistic kitchen window as these 5 figures recede ever so slowly from her sight, getting smaller and smaller and smaller, becoming dancing dots against the desert floor, until they disappear over the horizon.
“Men!” she grunted. “If they let anything happen to my boy, they will have to answer to me.” We appreciate her concern. Isaac was the golden boy, the son of her old age, her sole sources of comfort, the child of blessing, child of promise. She knew that life was fragile enough when a child is kept close to home, with its thousand ways to die, from snake-bite to whooping cough. So why would that old coot husband of hers tempt fate by carrying off the child that was the literal answer to their literal prayers to a desolate, god-forsaken mountain. When she had reminded Abraham about the need for a lamb to take with them for the sacrifice, he mumbled something about God providing the sacrificial lamb. And that comment spun her mind into a crazy place she could not countenance for more than a second or two before seeking distraction with her work.
When the first of his three daughters were born, Frederick Buechner remembers filling pure elation, fulfillment of the proud poppa kind. She was the hope of the world, she was a living, breathing article of faith, squalling in that hospital delivery room, she was another child, another chance that one human being at least, could get it right, and be good and do all things well.
Reflecting over that birth years later, as a parent who had raised real children in a real world rather than dreamy children in a dreamy world, Buechner noticed that joy that children bring is often matched — and sometimes overmatched — by the pain they sear into our hearts. If we don’t want the pain, we must push back the love, or more effectively not have the children. To love any one is to suffer — for them, by them, with them. He or she who would avoid pain and suffering should also attachment of any kind.
But, Buechner asks, if we knew that the love for our children would take us to the depths of despair, would we still have them? Yes. It is the one worthwhile feature of our species, evidence for the grace of God running though our lives. Because children represent life to us, and life is all about love and love is all about God who is the Lord of both life and love.
And it may be trite but is is nonetheless true: the giver of life is to be worshipped over the gifts of life. And that is what Abraham is sifting through as he trudges along toward the far mountain, where he will meet his destiny, and the destiny of his son and the destiny of his people, indeed, we believe, the world and the whole created order. For out there, in the bleak beyond, Abraham is not just tempting faith, he is tempting faith: the faith his has in God and the faith he believes God has in him and this whole project for the redemption of humanity which begins with Abraham being asked to go to a land God will show him and Abraham’s simple act of commitment: “And Abram went…” The one chosen to reveal God’s will for redemption, the progeny of whom will bless not just Abraham and his family, but the whole wide world.
The question Abraham mulls over and over again, trudging along the dusty, rocky of existence is this: do I love the God for God’s own self, or do I love God because of all the blessings God gives me? Do I love God purely and utterly, or is my love and commitment to God a desire to manipulate God into answering my prayers the way I want them answered? If I do love God purely, then I wall obey God’s command to go and offer my son, the Son of Promise, as a sacrifice to God. I will obey God even as I trust that God will, in truth and in fact, provide a sacrifice that is not my beloved Isaac.
That is Abraham’s test of faith, and it is much like Job’s test. In turn, it is much like our test of faith, too. It is easy, is it not, to love God when you credit God with a wonderful marriage, 2 kids with straight teeth, good dispositions and academic scholarships to Whatever U and a townhouse in the city and a vacation home by the sea and great big fat 401K’s on tope of pensions and guaranteed health care and besides social security.
But replace all that with a rotten marriage to a sad and angry person with whom you have two challenged and problematic and therefore very expensive children with little or no prospects of independence and only your credit card balances are great, big, and fat, and periodic unemployment and perennial underemployment have consigned us to a medicaid-based future dependent upon the largess of government or family or charity or none of the above. If you take that as God’s will for your life, can you still love God and trust God?
Sarah, back in the kitchen at home, is being tested as well. Even if only three return form this strange journey they are on, three men minus one boy, will she still be grateful for having Isaac, the child that brought her laughter,
even for a short time? I don’t know, but I think she will. Oh, she will be angry with God for a long, long time, and even angrier with Abraham fort having listened to God, but I’m betting she will still be grateful, for her one period of love for love’s sake, and in that gratitude will reside God’s everlasting grace, God’s saving act.
Even God is tested in this passage. Are the promises of God true or false? As human as our story teller here casts God, is God a victim of the divine ego? Like we are trapped by ours? Apparently not, though God bumps up against a limit in Genesis 22. God needs to know something, seeks to learn something. At story’s beginning, God didn’t know if Abraham would be willing to give up his son for the sake of God’s love. At story’s end, God finds out (Brueggeman, 187).
At others times in the sequence of events between Genesis 12 and Genesis 22, Abraham fails miserably in his trust of God. Not once but twice does he offer his loving wife Sarah into the hands of a competing tribal leader just to save his own skin. He is the cowardly lion without prospect of gaining a strong heart. But, here, on Mt. Moriah, he trusts God completely. He offers up the one thing on earth he loves more than anything else, and God provides and alternative sacrifice, a ram who was caught in the thicket, not by chance, but because God put him there, a God who trusted Abraham perhaps more than Abraham trusted himself.
Across-current within the biblical stream was always suspicious of the sacrificial system. The prophets — like Isaiah and Micah — are particularly hard on the hypocrisy that comes from using religion, using God, as a means to self-seeking ends.
So God makes good on the divine Word — a sacrifice is provided, and the bound Isaac is unbound. Not only that, the blessing is unbound too. Earth can breathe again; the world is offered a fresh start; humanity has a reason to hope. The story line of redemption continues though Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers, down to kings David and Solomon and forward through time to Jesus of Nazareth and Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene and the rest of his disciples. Now the story of peace and reconciliation is ours to tell and to live.
God provides, God gives, because is savior. God is gracious and loving and an ever present help, who refuses, time after time not to give up on the people God has made. Even when those people give God every reason to abandon them to their own devices.
God tests because God is Lord, sovereign over all. God wants to know who the people of God really are, whether they are able to love God for the right reasons, not just because of the goodies God drops their way.
Oddly enough, the testing of Abraham and of us pays him and us a huge compliment. God wants to work with people who are more or less mature and responsible and reliable to carry through on their commitments. God seeks out Jesus followers, the Christ-like among us, to be God’s agents out there in the world, doing God’s work, being God’s people, not for our sake, and not to make the church a more successful, more powerful institution, but for the the peace, the love, the justice, and the joy that only God can give.
God just wants to put us through a little some continuing education, to teach us that we only possess what we are willing to give away, and we only love those whom we are willing to grant freedom from our control.
Week after week we pray, “lead us not into temptation; do not put us to the test,” since we are not sure that we would be up to the challenge. And knowing our limitations, week after week we pray for God’s provision: “give us each day the bread we will need for our journey.” Because we know we will be tested, sooner or later, we need sustaining food for our bodies and our souls.
As she grew up, one of Frederick Buechner’s three daughters developed a nasty case of anorexia nervosa, and she was quite literally starving herself to death. She just about starved her her whole family to death, too. Her illness dragged on for years. Nothing Buechner and his wife tried worked. Doctors were baffled. Finally, she was committed to a hospital because a judge determined that she was a danger to herself.
Buechner rush to her bedside, breathless with the desire to help, but he was turned away by wise doctors and therapists. They finally convinced him that the more he tried to help his beloved child the more her case worsened. He could not make her well; she would have to choose health herself. The only way Buechner could really help her was to stand back and let go of her, even if that meant that she might die. So he backed off, and over time, she began to eat again, reaching for life and love over darkness and death (Buechner, “The Dwarves in the Stable”).
It the hardest, therefore the most important lesson of all, the lesson of letting go and putting all faith in God. It is the first and last lesson of lesson of discipleship. Jesus said, For whoever will save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s sake will save it (Mark 8:35).
Meanwhile, back home, with Sarah in the kitchen, looking out the window six days after her menfolk began their strange journey, she notices a few specks on the far horizon. They grow and grow until they look like people — four people and one donkey. Sarah is witnessing resurrection. They are all — not just the boy — back from the dead. The joy is returning to her life, the laughter will yet ring within her household.
And across the world as well, for God does not just heal family troubles and answer personal pleas for provision. God also provides for the healing of the nations, the renewal of the entire created order of things. To borrow a current expression, that’s how the God of heaven and earth God rolls, a promise spoken from Genesis to Revelation and at many points in between.
Centuries later another man would climb a mountain, and like Isaac carrying the wood for the altar, he would carry his cross But there would be no ram in the thicket for him. When humanity, the world, the creation really needs a sacrifice to be made, God says, “let me do that for you. For if am am going to command you to love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself, maybe I need to show you what that looks like, that I am willing to go to hell and back for your love.”
The man carrying his cross was a true child of Abraham. He was Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, our gracegiving Savior and our righteousness-commanding Lord.
O the depth of the riches and wisdom
and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are God’s judgments
and how inscrutable God’s ways!
For from God and through God
and to God are all things.
To God be glory forever.