Lenten Devotions: "From Death to Life"
This Lenten season, Bread Blog will be running a series of devotions written by Pastor Ron Glusenkamp, senior pastor at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village, Colo. The reflections are based, in part, on the music of Peter Mayer, accomplished vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter. The theme for this year's series is "Mighty This Love," named for one of Mayer's compositions (Listen to a special welcome message from Mayer).
Le sacrifice d'Isaac, by Marc Chagall, 1966. Photo: Wikipaintings.
March 13, 2014
Pastor Ron's congregation is watching the mini-series The Bible this year for Lent.
Yesterday's clip was the "Binding of Isaac." Following is his sermon on that story from Genesis 22. It connects to Peter Mayer's song, "Still in One Peace."
"Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life" (John 5:24)
There is probably no other story in the Bible that is so gut-wrenching, angst-producing, faith-confusing, and troublesome than this one from Genesis 22, often called "the Sacrifice of Isaac," but probably more appropriately referred to as "the Binding of Isaac."
We are all the son and daughter of someone. It is quite hard to imagine a parent, your parent, being tested in such a manner. And if you are a parent or have a parent-child relationship with someone, can you imagine being summoned by God to basically sacrifice the future, to "kill the dream," to draw down the curtain on one's present and hopes to come? But that is exactly how this story begins. Remember now, Isaac means "laughter," but this episode is going to bring about tears.
"After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 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 that I shall show you."
I don't know if the "modern" mind, heart, or soul can totally comprehend this test.
It seems that at least once a week or so, we read about some parent, usually involved in a custody suit or experiencing some kind of deep emotional and spiritual trauma, who attempts or actually does take the life of their child or children before taking their own life.
I want to like Abraham. I want to hold him up as a hero of the faith (which I think he was). But, as many commentators have suggested, the man who was willing to bargain and argue with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah doesn't seem to blink an eye when given this command. Nor does he consult with Sarah, his long-suffering and forgiving wife. Neither does he let the intended sacrifice, Isaac, in on the plan which God has commanded. And let's not just stop with Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac here. What about God, who decides to "test" Abraham in this manner? Surely Abraham has already done what he was supposed to do by leaving his home country and heading out for paths unknown.
To me the most heart rendering part of the story is when Isaac states,"The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"
Indeed, "where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"
My mind immediately goes to the liturgy, the Agnus Dei:
"Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us
Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us
Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace, grant us peace."
We come back to the story. Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together." The Hebrew is Jehovah Jireh -- "the Lord will provide."
Those four words are really the saving grace of this story: the Lord will provide. Inquiring minds like us want to ask, "What did Isaac know?" and "when did he know it?"
The story continues:
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."
Abraham, who already has banished his eldest son, Ishmael, along with his mother, Hagar, is now following what he has been told to do. In just the "nick of time," an angel commands him to stop!
We are relieved by this interruption in the drama. Yet, at the same time, the words of the angel are somewhat troubling: "for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."
One wants to shout, "Could you not have devised a test that didn't involve such a devastating act? If you are all-knowing, couldn't you have read Abraham's heart, his heart drive, to see that he was indeed a good and righteous man?"
The story continues:
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, "By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice." So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.
It should be noted that earlier, Abraham and Isaac walked together. The text does not give us an indication that they walked down the mountain together. We do not have any indication in Genesis that they ever walked or talked together again.
In Chapter 23, Sarah dies. She is 127 years old at that time. The Rabbis have followed the text and understood that she was 90 when Isaac was born. And while we often think Isaac was of confirmation age, by that accounting it appears he was 37 years old when this took place. Does that change your understanding of the story? Don't you think a 37-year-old male could out-wrestle a senior citizen? Or did Isaac willing comply with his father's vision, regardless of the cost to himself? So, is it Abraham who is sacrificing his son? Is it Isaac who is making the sacrifice? And where is Sarah?
We fast forward to the New Testament where we hear in Hebrews 11 these words:
By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, "It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you." He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead - and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, "bowing in worship over the top of his staff." By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions about his burial.
If we only had this isolated incident regarding Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah to go on, I'm not sure I could go on in my faith journey. But the key seems to be, "Jehovah Jireh," "the Lord will provide."
As a Christian, as a follower of Jesus (who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world), I can't, as Luther said, "by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ," but the Holy Spirit has called, gathered, and enlightened.
I am taken by these words that appear simple but touch down into the complexity of God's holy plan and mystery,
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)
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