The Binding of Isaac: Genesis 22
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
2 Timothy 3:16–17 (ESV): 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
All Scripture — even the genealogies with their tongue-twister names, even the Proverbs that sound like unsolicited advice from a know-it-all uncle, even the self-righteous and error-filled speeches of Job’s friends, even the mind-bending and imagination-straining symbols of Revelation — all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for man. But, let’s face it, not all Scripture is created equal. If you honestly stick with the Daily Office Lectionary all throughout Leviticus, I am thoroughly impressed. And the long slog through Job or the repeated litany of failed monarchs in I and II Kings and I and II Chronicles? None of this is unimportant. But little of it is particularly inspiring either: inspired yes, inspiring not so much.
But other texts are holy ground; we sense, we know, that we are in the very presence of God. We approach them with fear and trembling, with joy and wonder, with reverence and awe. We put off our shoes, cover our mouths, and bow our heads. Some such texts may rightly be described as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans: a mystery that is at once so dreadful, fearful, and overwhelming that it repels the reader, and yet so beautiful, glorious, and redeeming that it irresistibly attracts the reader. The binding of Isaac (Gen 22), our reading for the day, is one of these. It horrifies me. It thrills me. It confuses me. It blesses me. It confronts me with the awe-ful demands of a righteous God and it reveals to me the awe-ful grace of a merciful God. It asks questions that I don’t want to answer, and it won’t let me go until I do: mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
The text starts with this: the God who tests man.
Genesis 22:1–2 (ESV): After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
If that notion of God’s character — the God who tests man — doesn’t shake you, you haven’t been paying attention to the story. It’s not just Abraham, but Adam, Noah, Job, Joseph, Moses, David, Elijah, Jonah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Esther, Mary, Peter, Paul — all tested by God. Those whom God chooses, God also tests. And the tests aren’t pro forma; they are profound, soul-shaking, demanding, costly challenges to the identity, to the essence of the one who would follow God. We tell ourselves that God wants us to be happy, when God tells us that he wants us to be holy. And the consistent witness of the story — Old and New Testaments — is that holiness demands testing. So James writes:
James 1:2–4 (ESV): 2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Do you want to be happy, or do you want to be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing? Don’t answer too quickly. Be careful how you answer. But know this, if you choose happiness over holiness you may or may not achieve happiness, but you will never achieve holiness. If you choose holiness over happiness, you will — in the long run, though not necessarily in the short term — also get happiness, joy, and contentment thrown in, as it were, for free.
There is a real counting of the cost that must take place in the life of a Christian; Jesus said as much. When you sign up for this story in baptism, you take your place not in some sweet Winnie the Pooh like tale, but rather in a Lord of the Rings like saga of redemption, where not even the heroes emerge unscathed: better, yes, but tried and tested and often broken first. The collect that we will pray in just a bit reminds of this if we listen to the words we pray:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the Cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.
First the cross, then glory. For us, first testing, then holiness. There is no other way, no better way; if there were, God would do it instead.
Understand this: everyone, Christian or not, will be tested by life. Christians share in those common struggles of all men. But, beyond those, there are unique tests that come to us from the hand of God or that are allowed in the providence of God, tests meant not to break us, but to re-make us in the image of Christ. And even the ordinary tests common to all men we receive as from the hand of God, knowing that he can and will use these, too, for our sanctification, if we but submit them and ourselves to him.
So, the text starts with this: the God who tests man. But it doesn’t stop there. It assures us that the God who tests man is also the God who provides:
Genesis 22:10–14 (ESV): 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
This is the heart of the story of the binding of Isaac: that God provides the offering for the sacrifice; that God does not ask Abraham to plunge fully into the depths of this test, but that God himself goes all the way down into the abyss of human sin and misery not just to provide the sacrifice, but to become the sacrifice. God tests Abraham, in so far as Abraham can stand it, on Mount Moriah. God submits himself fully to the test, in so far as only he can stand it, in Gethsemane and on Mount Calvary. What Father Abraham and his son Isaac could not do — what God would not finally ask them to do — God the Father and God the Son did fully. Our God is the God who tests man, but he is also the God who provides.
The God who tests man, the God who provides, is also the God who blesses:
Genesis 22:15–18 (ESV): 15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
God’s tests are never capricious, never arbitrary, never cruel. They are always the necessary means to the end, and the end is blessing. God is not just Emmanuel, God with us; he is always God for us, too. And while God’s blessings are always personal — to us — they are always instrumental, also — through us for the world.
Testing abounds in the morning’s Gospel lesson, too: Jesus, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, the disciples, the Jews — all tested in different ways. Among the riches of this text, there is this insight into the character of God: the God who tests man, the God who provides, the God who blesses, is also the God who raises from the dead, the God who cries out to those of us in the tomb, “Come out!” — the God who is himself the resurrection and the life, our resurrection and our life. And that is the purpose and end of all our testing: resurrection and life.
We cannot, we dare not, diminish the life-shattering difficulty of the test of Abraham’s faith and obedience. To do so is to diminish God’s sacrifice of his Son, his only Son Jesus, whom he loves. We cannot, we dare not, diminish the difficulty of the tests that we and others may endure for the sake of Christ. But we must remember that all such tests are for us and for our salvation, that we may become steadfast, complete, perfect, lacking in nothing. We must remember that what we lack to enable us to endure the test, God will provide. We must remember that the test results in blessing. We must remember that the purpose and end of all testing is resurrection and life. Does any of this make the testing easier? Honestly, I don’t know. But it does make the testing meaningful. And for that I say, thanks be to God. Amen.