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Sermon: The Promise ... Tested

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, June 29, 2014.

Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

        Please be seated.

           Before I begin, I hope you saw the bulletin announce that today has been designated as Social Media Sunday in the Episcopal Church to “spread the Good News.” So I invite those of you who dabble in either Twitter or Facebook to feel free to tweet or post any quotes or thoughts that are significant to you from this sermon. This is risky for me, but hopefully fun for you. Please silence your phones and use the hastag #Episcopal when posting. While I’m at it, please permit me a selfie with you. Thanks.


           All of us had, has, or will have, the promise we have heard from our Creator either tested or challenged. And we will ALL be brought up short by it. Whether as normal a life process as retirement or graduation that might leave us feeling purposeless, or perhaps as devastating as losing a loved one unexpectedly or receiving a diagnosis of a terminal illness, each of us hears that promise from God individually and uniquely. So our circumstances of the challenge or test will be different. What do we do with that challenge? How will we respond when tested?

           Today’s Old Testament lesson from Genesis 22 is known as “The Testing of Abraham” or “The Binding of Isaac.” Isaac is bound upon an altar by his father Abraham at the direction of the Lord God to be offered as a burnt sacrifice.

           This is one of the hardest, most difficult, off-putting, and certainly frightening accounts we read in the Bible. Ellen F. Davis, in her book, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, opens her chapter on “Take Your Son” with these words: “Abraham and his God are appalling. If this is a test, then it would seem that both have failed miserably, both the One who devised the test and the one who submitted to it.” God tested Abraham to the limit, to see if he would believe that God would keep his promise that Isaac would be his heir, the son of promise. Like cardiovascular workouts that strengthen the heart, lungs and stamina of the human body, and muscles that are gained by pumping iron, faith can mature through trial and tribulation and the divine provision of God.

           Ten chapters earlier in Genesis 12, Abram was seventy-five years old, his wife Sarai was sixty-five and unable to have children, and they were childless. Nevertheless, God made a great promise. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make

your name great, so that you will be a blessing. ... in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12: 1-3)

           There is God’s promise to Abram. But how would it be realized? This man and woman were old, childless, and she was barren. To fulfill that promise, God would have to grant Abram a child, for you need offspring to become a great nation. Could the promise be fulfilled?       

Time passes. Abram and Sarai remain childless. He beseeched the Lord, saying, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless.” But the Lord reaffirmed the promise. “No one but your very own issue shall be your heir” (Gen 15: 4b). God said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” Abram believed the Lord God and the promise.

           More time passes. Still no child. This is definitely one of those ‘in God’s time and not in our own’ moments. Abram is now ninety-nine years old. But God again tells him in Genesis 17,

“No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.” God adds, “Your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah will be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. Your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac.”

           The Promise has a name. Isaac. And one year later, after both Abraham and Sarah had laughed at the notion of having a child at such a late age, she gave birth to a boy whom Abraham named Isaac. The promise was fulfilled...a full 25 years AFTER it was made. The Bible doesn’t tell us much about what Abraham and Sarah were feeling during these times, except that TWICE, they had tried to preempt the Promise by introducing a different heir.

           We all may know of promises made and broken. We are aware of fidelities that were tested; some survive while others fracture. We know of lives cut short, and bodies broken and torn by injury, illness and death. After what Abraham has gone through, would this promise remain? Isaac was born, but would he live to continue that long line of the great nation promised, through which the whole world would be blessed? Then we come to today’s text.

           I’m sometimes curious about the Lectionary’s choices to begin and end readings. Today’s Old Testament leaves off three important words that begin Genesis 22:1, “After these things …” After these things, God tested Abraham. As if the events of the last 25 years of his life were not enough, and I’ve touched on only a few … I invite you to visit your Bible to read carefully and completely between chapters 12 and 23 …NOW God would test Abraham. “Take you 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 will show you.”

           We hear nothing from Abraham in response. But you might imagine questions and emotions flooded his mind and rocked his being. What? Did I hear that right? Offer him as a burnt offering! How could you ask such a thing? My son, my only son? Isaac, my beloved? Lord, this is the one you promised! I waited so long, and now you are going to take him from me? What about the ‘great nation’ you promised through Isaac? It ends before it starts! Just last week we heard how he had to obey Sarah to send away his only other son, Ishmael, born of Hagar, because God told him to do so.

           But again, Abraham did what he heard God ask. He took Isaac and went to the place God had told him. “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.”

           What a hard journey! Taking your own son out, alone, to sacrifice him, in obedience to the Lord. You cannot tell the boy what God has directed you to do. You watch your son carry the wood, with him thinking it is for a sacrificial lamb, not knowing he himself will be the offering. What an agonizing three days! Maybe he weighed the love for his son against being obedient to God. But he remembered the Lord’s repeated promise of blessing and a great nation. All this was explicitly tied to the life of his son Isaac. How could this possibly turn out right?  

           “Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.”

“God will provide.” Abraham knows not how, but he believes God will provide. Faith, that faith that the Lord God has worked in Abraham over all those years – faith is speaking here, a faith that trusts in God’s promise, no matter what, even when it appears impossible by human standards.

           “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.”

           This was happening. Abraham was in the act, readying to slay his son Isaac, to kill the promise as he knew it, when the last moment reprieve came. “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 you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

           Chapter 11 in Hebrews speaks to the trust that Abraham displayed: “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 -- for figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” (Heb 11:17-19)         

           Then another remarkable thing happens. Abraham had told Isaac God would provide for himself the sacrifice to be offered. And God did so. “And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.”

           God promised Abraham. God tested Abraham. And God Provided. It came in the form of a substitute. Something else was offered and died in the place of Isaac. “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.’ ”

           God’s promise of blessing Abraham, and blessing the world, through the line of Isaac WOULD come to fulfillment. “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.”

           Abraham never gave up on God. He never ignored God. He heard the angel of the Lord. And He looked up to see the ram caught in the thicket. The Lord will provide.

           I believe in this God of promise and provision. But I also wonder, as some have suggested, whether God did not know the unknowable. Belief in God’s omniscience raises that question. Why the test? What would Abraham do? God was putting God’s own self at risk. What do God and Abraham learn about each another?

           The testing of Abraham’s faith showed that his was no reckless abandonment to irrational behavior. Nor was it an uncaring, callous procession along the pathway of careless irresponsibility. Abraham’s faith was relentlessly locked in to the premise that God was faithful and had promised to do certain things. Anything that would get in the way of God’s ultimate purpose had to be removed, and in all probability, when issues were truly faced, only God could

address the obstacles. Abraham pressed on not always knowing how or why or where or when, but always knowing Who! Abraham reminds believers in all generations that faith in a God of promise and provision may stretch us to the limits of our physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual beings. Yet the stretching will serve only to expand our capacity to know God, and in knowing, to discover the vast potential of life lived by faith.

           In closing, I’m borrowing something that the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, Bishop of Washington, used in her sermon at a recent ordination of six new priests at the Washington Cathedral. It was a call and response, and while she and we sang it, I will invite you to recite it with me:

You don’t have to move that mountain (repeat)

Just help me Lord to climb it (repeat)

(Put it together) You don’t have to move that mountain

Just help me Lord to climb it

You don’t have to move that stumbling block (repeat)

Just show me the way around it. (repeat)

(Put it together) You don’t have to move that stumbling block

Just show me the way around it.

(Now let’s put all of it together)

You don’t have to move that mountain,

Just help me Lord to climb it.

You don’t have to move that stumbling block.

Just show me the way around it.

           Trust the Promise. Abraham did.

           The Lord will provide. God always does.

           In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.