“What Would You Give?”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, July 23, 2023
Reading: Genesis 22:1-14
The Genesis passage we heard this morning has been a topic of heated debate in the church from the earliest days (and likely within Judaism before that). It’s a passage that has been studied and analyzed by scholars, torn apart, and argued over for centuries. That’s because it is a deeply disturbing Scripture passage, and all of us should feel disturbed and shaken if we’re reading it carefully.
In the past, many in the church have read this story and said – maybe with a nostalgic smile – “Ah, the faith of Abraham. Would that I had such faith.” Some still do read this text uncritically, saying that Abraham’s favour with God was confirmed because he was ready to slay his son in sacrifice; and that Abraham is the grandfather of perfect faith because he is ready to give up even his only son if and when God so asks.
Could any of us do what Abraham was prepared to do? I sure hope not.
At this time in history, it was common for people of various cultures outside of Judaism to practice human sacrifice. They did so at what they thought was divine command. They thought it pleased their gods, and the one who was being sacrificed considered it a great honour. Nowadays, most cultures throughout the world would consider Abraham’s actions despicable on every level. It is unethical, it is criminal, it is psychopathic, and it is beyond any sense of reason.
Abraham is a biblical character who demonstrated great faith. He was a man who always listened to God, who talked with God, and was in constant communion with God in an intimate and personal way, and his example is one that we should strive to follow in many ways. But the question underlying this passage is: was Abraham as faithful to his God, the one true God, as the Canaanites around him who worshipped other, pagan, gods?
This is Abraham’s dilemma: If people worshiping “false” deities could carry their religion to that terrific cost, how could Abraham show that his God meant as much to him?
By imagining the desperate conflict that went on in the mind of Abraham, what we actually have in this story is a deep and dramatic truth. Here was a great soul living with a difficult dilemma. His problem was about how to be the faithful servant of the one true God in a complex world. This story is about Abraham’s crisis of faith. We know in hindsight that God would never have allowed that sacrifice to happen. God doesn’t ask us to harm another person to prove to Him our faith, even if they offer themselves (which Isaac was not doing). But sometimes when we have a strong dilemma like this, it can feel like God is asking us to do something that we absolutely dread.
Abraham knew that the people around him were offering up their children to show their faith and obedience to their gods. Despite the torment to his soul, he could not help hearing an inward voice asking him why he, as a man faithful to the One he knew was the only true God of the universe, should not be willing to do as much. That thought pressed upon him in a way that challenged him on the level of emotion and of personal worth, it challenged his very identity as a man of faith, and so Abraham was convinced that this must be the voice of God.
One of the questions this raises for us is why God didn’t step in sooner to stay Abraham’s hand? Well, the very first line of the passage tells us why. It says, “After these things God tested Abraham.” Now, this is not a story that we can take literally in our context; rather it should be read as a testimony to the work and hand of God in Abraham’s life. It is too disturbing for us to think that God might test Abraham’s – or anyone’s – faith by asking him to murder his son, even if it was something that people believed in that time and place.
But God allowed this dilemma to sit in Abraham’s mind for a time, thereby prompting Abraham to ask the question that we also need to ask ourselves. This question is “what does Isaac represent to Abraham?” Well, Isaac represented many things to Abraham; he represented a myriad of attitudes, beliefs, and attachments that distracted Abraham from complete faith in and dependence on God.
From the very beginning, Abraham’s relationship with Isaac was rooted in the belief that Isaac would give his life meaning. This was a cultural standard that said that a man’s true identity and value on this earth was determined by the legacy he left through his progeny and by what he was capable of doing to prove his strength and superiority. It was a very human-centred belief, rather than the belief that God alone gives us worth and value as human beings. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that Abraham should kill Isaac, just that he needed to redefine Isaac’s role in his life. Isaac couldn’t do for Abraham what God alone could do.
In fact, it would be a huge mistake to think that God would require Abraham to kill his son to prove his devotion. That boy was no threat to Almighty God! Some have argued that God just wanted to “see how far Abraham would go,” and that Abraham knew this, and trusted in God enough to know that he wouldn’t really have to kill Isaac. Well, personally, I don’t believe that God plays tricks on people, or play games with our heads and our emotions.
It is fair to say, however, that God challenges us and asks us to make sacrifices of another sort. If we think of what Isaac represented to Abraham, it is fair to say that God may ask us too to give things up that distract us from our relationship with God, that separate us from God, things that the world may accept and encourage wholeheartedly because everyone else accepts them as normal.
God asks us to give up attitudes that we cling to, such as arrogance, pride, resentment, and self-centredness. Sometimes we think that we have obtained or have achieved something under our own steam that gives us our sense of worth, such as a particular job, special knowledge, or a unique skill or talent. Well, God may ask us to give these up in order to teach us humility, dependence, and complete faith, to recognize that all that we do and all that we have and all that we are is purely a gift, not something that we are owed or something to which we are entitled.
God also asks us to give up behaviours that are harmful to ourselves or to others; and just through common sense each one of us can think of all kinds of examples of behaviours that are harmful and contrary to the will of God.
Also, although the Christian faith places great value in relationship, not all relationships edify our lives, and if it becomes necessary to walk away from a relationship that detracts from our faithfulness to God, that act requires that we have tremendous faith in God. If we have a weakness for any kind of destructive behaviour – anything from consumption of harmful substances, to cheating on a spouse, to gossiping and nitpicking – and we have become attached to a particular friend or family member who encourages that behaviour in us, then common sense says that it is better to just not be around that person at all rather than clinging to the feelings of security and acceptance that even harmful relationships provide for us. God asks us to find another way of living, a better way of living, and that is the way of putting our relationship with Him above all others.
God asks us to give up certain attitudes, behaviours, and attachments because we tend to depend on them for things like security and validation and meaning that we should be seeking from God alone. That doesn’t mean we have to walk away from ALL relationships to other people, especially those people who actually draw us closer to God. We just have to be clear on our priorities. One friend and mentor told me he prioritizes his relationships in this way: God first, family second, everything else third. (We were talking about ministry because it’s very easy for ministers to fall into the trap of seeing their ministry role as the source of their worth and the core of their identity.)
What are our “Isaacs” that we cling to? The things outside of God that we have come to believe give meaning to our lives? The things we think define our true identity? As Paul says in the passage from Romans 6, “just as you once presented yourselves as slaves to [these other things] so now present yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”
So, what are the things that we become slaves to in our lives? And are we ready to offer them up to God, and present ourselves fully as servants of God, trusting that He offers us a better way of being in the world? This is the true test of our faith, this is the thing that God wants us to forfeit to show us that He is trustworthy and dependable, that He alone provides our life with meaning and worth. When we are willing to give up our attachment to the worldly things that we cling to for security and identity, then we demonstrate our willingness to trust and believe in the God who has told us that our lives will have peace and joy when we relinquish those attitudes, behaviours and attachments that erode our humanity and our relationship with God.
God does test our faith sometimes, yes; not so that we can prove to God how faithful we are, but so that we give God the opportunity to demonstrate to us that He is always faithful and dependable! That’s the only way our faith in Him can grow.
Abraham passed the test of faith when he remembered his prior experiences of God’s faithfulness; and when he believed with all his heart that God always fulfills His promises; and when he trusted in God alone to provide his life with meaning and value, and to define his true identity. The most important part of this text is what Abraham learns from the experience, which is found in verse 14: “So Abraham called that place, ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’
Abraham’s faith was tested to the furthest limit so that God could show him that God alone is the source of all that is good and loving and true and peaceful and joyful in life. This man of great faith had his faith tested and came out stronger because of it. God asked Abraham to trust without reservation in the goodness and faithfulness of God, who has given our lives meaning by graciously and lovingly calling us into fellowship with Him.
We don’t like tests, because they are difficult, and they threaten our sense of security. We don’t always pass our tests. We could fail. But we know, too, that growth is only possible if we are willing to be tested; and so it is with our faith. God does not ever ask us or want us to take the life of a human being, our own or anyone else’s. God is the God of life, not of death. Everything that God does for us, everything that God gives to us, and everything that God requires of us is for the promotion of life in its fullest, abundant life for all on earth.
God tests our faith, not so that we can show God how strong our faith is. God tests our faith to show us how dependable God is. And God is the one – the only one – we can always depend on, and who gives our life worth and meaning. Amen.