St. Paul’s – Proper 8 – 7/2/2023
A thought experiment: If they had asked me to edit the Bible (whoever they is or are – perhaps the Holy Spirit, or the heavenly Council on Divinely Inspired Works)… if they had made me the original editor of the Bible, I would have made some substantial changes, and the very first change would have been to get rid of the 22nd chapter of Genesis, the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac. It’s way too off-putting, I would have argued. Just listen to this: And God said, Take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac, and take him to some as yet unspecified place, and offer him there as a burnt offering. This is exactly the kind of story that gives the Old Testament a bad name, I would have said. It gives God a bad name. If you put this story just 22 chapters into the Bible, who is going to read the rest? Even if the story is true, who would want to believe in a God like this?
This story appears front and center in Genesis, where no reader of the Bible can miss it, because the hard truth is that the world turns upside down for the faithful, more often than we like to admit.
The 22nd chapter of Genesis is the place you go when you do not understand at all what God allows us to suffer and it seems asks us to bear – and the last thing you want is a reasonable explanation, because any reasonable explanation would be a mockery of your anguish. This story of Abraham and God and Isaac is the place you go when you are out beyond anything you thought could or would happen, beyond anything you imagined God would ever ask of you, when the most sensible thing to do might be to deny that God exists at all, or deny that God cares at all, or deny that God has any power at all. That would be sensible, except you can’t do it, because you are so deep into relationship with God that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind. To deny God any meaningful place in your life would be to deny your own existence. And so you are stuck with your pain and your incomprehension, and the only way to move at all is to move toward God, to move more deeply into this relationship that we call faith. That is what Abraham does: without comprehension, nearly blinded by the horror of what he was told to do, Abraham follows God’s lead, for the simple and sufficient reason that it is God who is leading – to what end, Abraham has no idea.
It is quite common for theologians to hold up Abraham as a model of unquestioning obedience to God, but I think this is misleading and possibly even damaging to Abraham’s character. After all, obedience is a virtue only if it serves a just cause; obedience in service of an unjust cause is servile, cowardly, even criminal; that we learned definitively from Nuremberg and in our own country, from the My Lai massacre. If it is purely out of obedience that Abraham submits to God’s command, then his willingness to submit is monstrous. But there is another option. What if Abraham follows God’s command, not out of obedience, but out of faith – which is to say, what if Abraham trusts God, even now, when what God asks of him seems to run counter to everything God has promised? (For the child Abraham is called to sacrifice is the child through whom God’s promise of blessing is meant to unfold.)
It is trust, not obedience, that binds Abraham to God; this is something I learned from the great 20th-century Jewish theologian, Eliezer Berkovits, who is one of the leading thinkers in Jewish theology after the Holocaust. In his probing and wrenching book, With God in Hell, Berkovits asks this question: Why did so many Jews keep their faith in the ghettos and the Nazi deathcamps? Why did they gather to say prayers and keep Sabbath, or circumcise their children as a sign of the covenant, even as the SS literally beat down the door? Why did they keep blessing God as the Holy One of Israel, instead of cursing the God who seemed to have abandoned the Jews?
As he puzzles over this question, Berkovits turns to this story of Abraham, and what he discovers is the bottomless trust that holds Abraham together with God. Here is what Berkovits imagines Abraham saying to God during those three days of hell, as he follows God to Moriah, the place of unspeakable sacrifice: In this situation I do not understand You. Your behavior violates our covenant; still, I trust You because it is You, because it is You and me, because it is us…. Almighty God! What you are asking of me is terrible…. But I have known You, my God. You have loved me and I love You. My God, you are breaking Your word to me…. Yet, I trust You; I trust You.
What Berkovits shows, better than anyone I know, is how intimate is the relationship between God and Abraham. Abraham is with God in hell, the way two long- and well-married people are together in the worst moments of the life they share. The marriage metaphor is apt, because Isaac is the child of this union between God and Abraham, the miraculous child of the promise of blessing and offspring. And in the strangest of all paradoxes, that is why Abraham is ready to do what God asks, even to the point of taking a knife to his child. Abraham trusts God totally with the life of the child they share, the life that God has given. In the midst of this life-shattering thing that he does not understand at all, Abraham knows only this: life and life with God are the same thing. Like the Jews who risked their lives to observe Sabbath in the death camps or to circumcise children in the ghetto, Abraham is incapable of choosing survival – even his child’s survival – over life with God. For better, for worse, it is simply too late for him to live apart from God.
Total, radical trust – this is the only thing that makes any sense of Abraham’s submission to God. But still you have to ask, Is God trustworthy? What kind of God would submit Abraham to this appalling test, as our story calls it? There are just two possible answers, and both are difficult. One answer is: a sadistic deity who takes pleasure in human pain, but that answer is biblically impossible. If God is a sadist, then the rest of the Bible is a lie, and so is everything we say and sing here in this Church.
And so I am forced to choose the only alternative: God calls for this test because God needs to know, desperately needs to know whether Abraham is completely devoted to God. It is theologically unconventional to say that God Almighty needs to know something God does not already know, but that is the clear logic of this test. Remember, Abraham is the person on whom God has chosen to rely completely. After the flood, when God almost gave up on humanity, after we had filled the whole world with violence, God decides to move forward in relationship with the world, but on this condition: from now on, Abraham and his seed will be the one channel for the dissemination of God’s blessing. Abraham is like a prism; he focuses God’s blessing and then spreads it through the world like a rainbow stream of light.
As we have talked about over these past few weeks about the story of Abraham: God has staked everything on Abraham, even the whole world. Yet there is serious reason to doubt that Abraham has staked everything on God. Abraham and God have been in relationship for decades now – it is already a long marriage – and there are signs that Abraham still does not totally trust God, that he is still looking out for his own interest. You might remember those stories in the book of Genesis leading up to our story for today.
Abraham’s lack of trust puts God in a terrible situation, too. Look, God is counting entirely on Abraham as the channel for overcoming evil in our world with divine blessing. But if Abraham does not entirely trust God, then all hope is lost. If Abraham tries to secure his own wellbeing apart from God, if he holds back anything, even his beloved child, and tries to protect him from God, then it would be better if the world had never been made. That is what this test is about: trust, the delicate yet potentially durable link between God and ourselves, on which everything, even the whole world, depends.
This story makes it clear that the thing we call faith is not in the first instance a matter of what we think about God….. No, in every case the relationship endures only because two hearts are bound together through mutual trust. And trust is of course the very opposite of compulsion. Trust is how you relate to others when you don’t try to control them by force or manipulation. The astonishing truth this story reveals is that God chooses to relate to the world not by compulsion but by trust. Yet trust is inherently a condition of vulnerability. You can be disappointed by the one you trust, and deeply deeply hurt. God’s own trust makes God vulnerable; God is grieved to the heart by human evil, as the flood story in Genesis tells us (Gen. 6:6). We do not often think of God as needing to be courageous, yet it must take courage for God to stay in relationship with the world, as it takes courage for each of us to stay in relationship with God.
Now one has to ask, What kind of way is this for God to run the world – a way that is inevitably fraught with so much disappointment and pain on both sides?
Maybe the question of this story is not whether Abraham passed the test, but whether God passes the test. How could God have asked a man to sacrifice his own son? What kind of God indeed?
What would happen if we were to put God on trial for this deed? Just after the Second World War a German pastor named Gunther Rutenborn wrote a play called The Sign of Jonas that attempted to answer that question.
A trial is set to find out who was responsible for the terrible years caused by Nazi Germany. Charges are brought against Hitler himself. Some blame the munitions manufacturers who profit from the war. Others blame the cowardly German people who refused to stand up to Hitler. None of it, though, seems quite enough — until a man stands up in the audience to say, Do you know who’s to blame? God is. Isn’t He the one who created this awful world? Didn’t He give them the power to do that kind of evil, didn’t He allow it to happen, can’t the misery be laid at His feet?
So they decided to put God on trial for the crime of creation — for creating a world where such terrible things happen. And He is quickly found guilty of the crime and is sentenced. And he charges the three Archangels, Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael, to perform the sentence.
Gabriel walks to one end of the stage and stands brooding, and then says, When God has to serve I want Him to see what it’s like to be an obscure, enchained human being. He’ll be born in the middle of nowhere and grow up in a country occupied by foreign forces, a Jew in a Jew-hating world.
Raphael walks to the other end of the stage and says, When God has to serve His sentence, I’m going to see to it that He knows what it’s like to be frustrated and insecure. He’ll know what it’s like to be a refugee with no place to lay His head. His plans won’t be fulfilled. No one will understand him. And He will go to his grave a failure, not sure He’s accomplished anything.
Finally, Michael steps to the middle of the stage. I’m going to see that He knows what it’s like to suffer in every conceivable way. He’ll be rejected and know what that’s like. He’ll suffer and know pain. He will be spat on, tormented, ridiculed, die the slow torture of a common criminal.
And with that the lights go out, and the audience sits, utterly quiet in the dark, as the awareness dawns: God has served the sentence.
I believe one of the things we see in this story is the way of love….for mutual trust is the only environment in which love is wholly free to act. We know this from the earliest intimacy, the relationship between parent and child: Trust is the only environment in which love is wholly free to act for our good. We know this also from the core biblical model of the relationship between parent and child. The absolute trust between God and Jesus is the environment in which divine Love is wholly free to act for our good. The God who is wholly Love chooses to trust us, so that the fullness of divine power may be unleashed to work through the lives of those who trust God wholly. This is what we see in Jesus’ cross, death and resurrection: trusting love that suffers on both sides, and working through that love, God’s boundless power to save. As Christians have always seen, there is a story line that runs straight from Abraham, Isaac and God at Moriah, to the cross and resurrection; it is the story of trusting Love on which the whole world depends.
What we have here is a story which looks like this: a child’s radical trust, a parent’s aching yet indomitable love, and the divine Love that will not let us go – ever, not ever. You can put your trust in that.