Cherished agents of God in the world: a sermon on Genesis 22

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

Today’s reading from Genesis looms large in three of the world’s religions.

In Christianity, we call the story the sacrifice of Isaac.

And through the years Christian interpreters have come to understand Isaac’s sacrifice as a precursor to Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.

In Judaism, this story is called the Akedah, or the Binding of Isaac,

and in rabbinical tradition it is understood to be a foreshadowing of how Yahweh will provide always for the people of Israel, especially in their time of exile in the wilderness.

In the Koran of Islam, the story is the same, but Abraham’s son is not named.

Islamic tradition asserts that it was Abraham’s some Ishmael who was to be sacrificed, not Isaac.

But Allah provides for and does not harm those who are faithful to him.

The fact that the story of the sacrifice of Isaac appears in three of the world’s religions…

Means that it is a significant story in the canon of faith.

The sacrifice of Isaac says something, it seems, about God and about our relationship to God as God’s people.

But if Genesis 22 says something about God and about us as followers of God, then oftentimes our gut reaction to this story is….

…it can’t be saying anything good about either.

There is a Yiddish folk tale about the sacrifice of Isaac that pretty well encapsulates how most of us feel about it.

Why did God not send an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?

Because God knew that no angel would take on such a task.

Instead, the angels said, “If you want to command death, do it yourself.”

Many of us would say to God, or wish that Abraham would say to God, if you want to command death, do it yourself.

I want no part in this.

What kind of God would test the faith of God’s follower Abraham by asking Abraham to sacrifice his own son?

Perhaps just as disturbing, what kind of loving father would actually obey such a command, and attempt to kill his child?

Both God’s test, and Abraham’s unquestioning response, is deeply disturbing to us.

From what we know about God as a God who loves and cares and who provides for God’s people,

We would think that to refuse to participate in death and destruction, would itself be an act of faith.

Instead Abraham goes to the very brink of murder before God stops him.

And yet Abraham’s willingness to go so far down the path of violence and harm in the name of God is lauded as faithfulness and fear of God.

No wonder we struggle so much with this story.

Because it seems to go against everything we know about God and about what it means to be faithful to God.

And I wonder if that is really, in the end, what this story is about.

It is about the difference, in the life of faith, between blindly following God and actually having trust in God.

On the surface, the two may look similar.

Either way, you try to do what God commands.

But the differences between blindly following and deeply trusting are vast indeed.

The difference is in what you do and why you do it.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that Abraham does what he does in today’s story because he blindly follows God.

God says kill, and Abraham agrees without question.

To imagine the story in this way diminishes both God and Abraham.

God becomes a harsh deity, who demands passive and unquestioning obedience to God’s whims, enacting tests of loyalty,

not unlike one of our contemporary dictators, in whose name, even today, atrocities are committed.

Abraham becomes a stooge of this dictator God; he is simply a tool for God, not a loved and cherished child of God.

How we understand God and ourselves as children of God are diminished if we believe that this story is about unquestioning obedience and passivity to God.

Now imagine this story, through the lens of Abraham trusting God.

God’s test is not a test of obedience; it is a time for trust.

Any loving relationship we have in this world, goes through times of trust.

Marriages, children and parents, congregations, office colleagues, we all negotiate and navigate how we trust one another, even as we love and care for one another.

No matter how much we love each other, sometimes we just need to trust each other, in ways born out of our love.

The loving relationship between God and Abraham is no different.

It is important to remember that before today’s reading from Genesis, God and Abraham have already gone through a time of needing to trust one another

Just a few chapters earlier in Genesis Chapter 18, God says that Abraham and Sarah, who are old and childless,

will have so many descendants that they will number the stars, they will be the founders of a great nation.

Sarah, in disbelief and shock, actually laughs at this, but in the end, even in her old age, she and Abraham conceive a child, Isaac.

Whose name means, in fact, “laughter.”

A symbol of what it means to trust God.

Abraham has already had occasion to trust in God’s promise, even when it seems impossible.

Isaac himself is a sign of that trust.

So in today’s story, imagine that Abraham responds to God in trust, not in blind passivity.

It is interesting to note that when Isaac turns to his father and asks, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”

Abraham’s response is not one of passive and blind obedience, but of trust.

Abraham says “God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.”

It’s as if Abraham knows and trusts that God will come through with God’s promise.

Isaac is the fruit of Abraham’s earlier trust in God, God’s promise to Abraham that that he will be the father of a great nation.

Abraham trusts that God will not destroy or break God’s promise, or Isaac, as the fruit of that promise.

And in the end, God provides a ram, not a child, as a sign of the trust between God and Abraham.

When this story is about trust, rather than blind obedience, then it changes our view of God.

God is a God who keeps God’s promises.

A God who loves and cares and trusts Gods people.

God trusts Abraham with Isaac’s life as much as Abraham trusts God.

God actually trusts us, God’s people, with God’s actions into the future; We are cherished agents of God in the world.

And we become not just tools for God’s whims, but people beloved by God,

who actually have a part to play in bringing about God’s kingdom in this world.

That’s the difference, my friends, between blind obedience and deep trust.

Which response do we choose, as people of faith?

Sometimes I think that many of the acts that are committed in the name of God, particularly if they are harmful and hurtful to others…

Are committed out of misguided and passive obedience to a false notion of a tyrant God, and not out of deep trust in the loving God we believe in.

God would never harm or hurt or set God’s people out to harm or hurt that which God has created.

To harm and hurt in the name of God is to blindly obey—it’s a sign that we actually trust in our own actions, more than we trust God.

But actions in the name of God that deepen our trust with and for each other, that build relationships and love between God’s people.

But actions that truly help to build up the kingdom of God, without hurting our destroying God’s beloved creation.

That’s true trust in God.

That’s truly who God is.

And it is who we truly are as people of God.