To say Abraham was a “great guy” is a huge understatement. His enormous faith in God and in God’s promises is the beginning foundations of our faith. Because of his trust he changed the world. But, this scripture really seems to counter both God and Abraham. It is really easy to read this through once and see just how unloving God and Abraham seem to be. Tons of questions arise immediately from the text. Why would God test Abraham’s faith in such a heinous way? God was asking Abraham to sacrifice his only future, the only son he had left: Isaac. Then there is Abraham. This is a man who is willing to slaughter his son for the sake of faith! He can’t even ask God why he is being required to do it? Everything in the initial part of the story suggests God wants Abraham to destroy his own future as well as the covenant between the two of them. Then, if you know the Israelites were anti-child sacrifice it just adds another creepy level to this scripture. Nothing in it seems to be right.
Maybe there is more than meets the eye in this story. Maybe we need to dig a little to see how this scripture is actually an extremely loving and emotional journey of faith and relationship. When God commands us it is not to make our lives worse but richer. I was having a discussion during the adult bible study at VBS when one of the participants remarked, “I was told never to pray for patience.” Of course you know the reason the participant said you should never pray for patience, because God would put obstacles in your way to gain it. The truth is, any sort of emotional gift God can give, like patience, strength, peace, endurance, all require a tempering process to obtain. If you pray for strength prepare to have your strength tested. If you pray for acceptance prepare to have your ability to accept tested. If you pray for patience prepare to have your patience tested. God will not just give us those gifts but God will give us the ability to earn them.
So what did Abraham need to earn? Going to the New Testament for a second I recall scripture where the Pharisees and Sadducees were trying to trip Jesus up and make him say something that would incriminate him. One of the questions they asked was, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus answers with not just one commandment but two. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the Prophets can be hung on these two commandments. Now Abraham had one of these two down pat. He loved God. He trusted God so much he told his camp that both Isaac and he would be returning. Let me read it to you: “Then 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.’” Either Abraham was being deceptive to his camp or he trusted God would uphold their covenant. I believe his incredible faith in God made him believe everything was going to be ok with Isaac.
Now we have that second commandment to deal with: love of neighbor. I believe Abraham was so incredibly God focused his family, and in particular Isaac, was suffering for it. The two commandments Jesus highlight show us that we are to seek more than God focused relationships. This is probably the reason I dog monks the way I do. I respect their discipline and devotion but do not believe their lifestyle is preferable to what God wants. I believe, in some ways, a monk’s lifestyle is living with the training wheels on so to speak. They are walking life’s tightrope with a safety harness. A monk escapes from the world, not lives in it. They do not have to worry about their faith in relationship to their family or friends for they put aside those things to focus on God. They love God but I believe loving neighbor means actually living in the world to be able to have neighbors to begin with. God created us to relate. To get to know one another. To have a family. When understood correctly those things enhance our God relationship, not degrade it.
The reason I feel Abraham has love of neighbor issues deals with how he relates to his son throughout the scripture. From verse one he has an open relationship to God saying, “Here I am.” This is a man who talks one on one with the divine. On the other hand he only talks about his son to others and not directly to him. Also, he relates to Isaac as ‘boy’ instead of ‘son,’ so there appears to be a disconnect. I also believe God wants to mend and fix this relationship. I say that because God did not ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac anywhere he wanted. Being a culture who would have often sacrificed to God, there must have been an alter nearby. Instead, God picks the place; a place that would take some time to get to. Time would leave Abraham room to think instead of acting blindly. It is on this walk Isaac says the first words we have ever heard him speak in scripture, “Father!” We have no idea what Abraham is thinking. We can only guess. What we do have are his words and his words show openness to his child that did not exist back at the camp, “Here I am, my son.” He gives the same openness to Isaac as he had given to God by saying those words, here I am. It appears through this trial Abraham finally sees his son, not a mere boy, but flesh and blood.
The purpose of God was not to get his most ardent follower to sacrifice what he loved the most, but just to get him to realize what he loved the most. Abraham was the beginning of a new covenant and Isaac was its future. How Abraham treated his son would set the precedence of how God’s people would treat each other. The real sacrifice on that day was not a son or even the ram really. What was really sacrificed was Abraham’s blindness to relationship. God wants us to relate.
A congregation is one of the best ways to begin working on relating. In many ways quite a few of us are similar. Yet, no congregation is made up of a group of people who are identical. We are all different ages and have different interests. We all connect to God in different and unique ways. And while we are all striving in our own way to find our God focus, sometimes we need to realize the focus of those around us and how we can love them as God loves them. We as Bedford Christian Church have made a covenant to God to be disciples and those who come after us are our future for that covenant. If we focus only on our personal love of God we will be sacrificing that future. We are not Adam and Eve hiding in the bushes. We need to open ourselves up to make the statement that can transform our lives. Three words, if spoken honestly and openly, can define our future and make us stronger. Three words, if brought into real dialogue, could unify us instead of breaking us apart. Three words that do not presuppose or assume anything. Search your heart and when you have completed that search open it up to God and others and say, “Here I am.”