From the Lesson this morning:
God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son. (Genesis 22:8)
I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that the story we heard this morning in the lesson is repellent and horrible. It is the account of something that is monstrous beyond measure, and we should be either revolted or terrified when we hear it.
We are all, I’m sure, familiar with the story: God testing Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice Isaac his son. It is so familiar that in Hebrew there is a name for the story, the adekah. But familiarity is not always a good thing; sometimes it blinds us to the plain and straightforward meaning of those things with which we are familiar. And then, of course, it is a story from the Bible, and it uses special sacred words like “sacrifice,” which seems to put it in a class apart and tempts many people to make it pious and not really to pay attention. Well, let’s forget where it comes from, and for the moment let us put “sacrifice” and piety aside, and face the fact that this is the story of God commanding a man to kill his son. Let me say that again: this is the story of God commanding a man to kill his son. And in effect the man says, “Yes. I will.”
What a brute! What a monster, this God! And just as monstrous the father. He didn’t even protest.
And there’s more. It gets worse. Abraham, you remember, had never had a child by Sarah, his wife. And in their old age they had all but given up hope. But as the story goes, God intervened. Sarah became pregnant, and Isaac was born. Earlier, God had uprooted Abraham and had taken him from the land of his forefathers and sent him to the land of Canaan. There, God promised, he would make Abraham the father of many nations. His offspring would be as beyond counting as the stars of the sky or the sands of the sea. And in Isaac it seemed that the promise was coming true: a child, a son, the beginning of a new life and a future for Abraham and Sarah.
And so how cruel, how repulsive and brutish God appears. By uprooting Abraham and sending him to Canaan, God had cut him off from his past. Now he was taking away his future. To demand the death of one’s child is terrible enough, unspeakable. But this child ? . . . the son who was the promise and the future. And the teller of the story makes it even worse. Did you notice the wording of God’s command, “ Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” ? Your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love.
One can only ask again, what kind of monstrous God is this? Was the gift of Isaac just a joke? Given, only to be taken away? Were Abraham and Sarah made happy that the heartbreak might be more bitter? Of course, as it turns out it was only a test, but what kind of God would put His creature to such a test?
It’s not my intention this morning to answer these questions, and I won’t attempt to make the story seem better or tamer than it is. That can’t be done. It is a terrifying story and to suggest otherwise would violate its plain and straightforward meaning. But what do we do with it? Rabbis, and priests, and philosophers have puzzled and speculated over its meaning for centuries.
We could, of course, dismiss it in revulsion and walk away. Some people have: primitive barbarism, they say. But that doesn’t get us very far, does it? Perhaps we should attend for a moment and try to discern what is being shown us in the story of Abraham, Isaac, and God’s test.
First of all, notice with me that in this account from Genesis we are once again confronted by what I like to call the “Great Big God.” The “Great Big God.” We got a glimpse of that God last week in the story of Noah and the flood. This morning, we see rather more of him than we might want to. And we are also shown something archaic, primitive, if you will—I would prefer to say basic—something which is true about humanity when encountered by that God. For you see, the God of Holy Scripture is terrifying, frightening, frightful, and awesome. His presence causes the prophets to shudder and fall on their faces in fear. Job, who has ample and legitimate cause to complain—and he does so for thirty-seven long chapters—Job suddenly shuts up and repents himself when he discerns that God is near. Everything is as nothing beside God, for God created all that is out of nothing. He, God, is. And God’s being is the only reality of any account. It is the only fact. Everything else is, one might well say, half-truth and shadow.
And man, when he senses the presence of this God, experiences that presence not only as something awesome, dreadful, but also as something attractive, fascinating, and most of all demanding. Remember Moses and the burning bush. He can’t take his eyes off of it, so to speak. Remember Isaiah and his vision of God. “ ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us ?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me.’ ”
God’s presence is experienced as demand. God’s presence demands man’s worship. And worship in the presence of God means the active acknowledgement of God as the creator and source of all that is, the creator and source of one’s very being. It means the active acknowledgement of utter dependence upon God, and the impulse—as outrageous as it may seem—the impulse to return to God that which is his—to return to God oneself.
God is dangerous. To see God is to die, says Holy Scripture, and that is true. Because the vision, the presence of God convicts us of utter insignificance, and because the vision, the presence of God demands our worship. And the only worship worthy of God is the giving of self. But to give self perfectly—as befits God—is precisely to die. To see God is to die; no one in the Old Testament would have been surprised to hear this. And even in the New there is the warning: “our God is a consuming fire.” ( Hebrews 12:29 )
People in ancient times knew this. Strangely enough, so also did that most modern of men, Friedrich Nietzsche. “In order for man to live, God must be killed,” that is his blunt declaration and his proposal. Only when God is dead is the demand of God’s presence removed. And only when that demand is removed, can man have any autonomy. Only then—when God is dead—can man build his own brave new world according to his own designs and desires.
But ancient man did not want a brave new world. He would have reckoned autonomy ridiculous and nonsensical. Ancient man wanted to see God; he wanted to worship. It was his desire to give himself to God. But the only way by which that desire could be fulfilled—and life be preserved—was what we call sacrifice. A substitution. I cannot die. I must not die, but I can give up something precious in my place—its life for my life—a sacrifice—in worship of God. It is one of the basic—primordial, one ought to say—religious impulses of humanity. Again . . . let me restate it. In the face of the enormity and splendor of God my desire is to give myself to him. But I can’t do that, for to do that is to die. And so I give up something in my place—something which symbolizes me in the fullest sense—its life for my life, returned to its source—given back to God.
Nietzsche was wrong: God is not dead. The brave new world has turned out to be a failure and a nightmarish calamity. And you and I are not so far from Abraham and the ancients. We, too—and all humanity, though they may not know it—wish to worship. We, too, wish to see God. And we too fear that in seeing him we shall die. But remember . . .
God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.
* * * * *
If you read that too little-read treatise, the Epistle to the Hebrews, you will find the life and death of Jesus Christ interpreted precisely in these terms—in terms of sacrifice. His life of obedience was a moral sacrifice in which Jesus gave over his will to God’s will. And he did it in place of us and for God. His death on the Cross was the fulfillment of the demand God’s presence makes. He, the Son, the only one who has seen the Father, following the destiny that had been ordained for him by God, obeys even to death on the Cross. He dies. And he dies as an act of worship and sacrifice. Indeed, Jesus dies that we might see God and not die, and that through his perfect act of worship, we also might worship God. What we cannot do Jesus has done, and by his grace within us we may be joined to his singular act of worship and of love for God.
And that, good people, is the meaning of worship in Christ: you and I are joined mystically, we are joined sacramentally to Jesus’ life of self-giving and worship and through him we offer ourselves to God. And seeing God in him, we receive the gift of his death and we die, but in that dying we are raised and we are given God’s own eternal life. “Our God is a consuming fire,” my brothers and sisters. And that God has provided himself the lamb, and through the offering of that lamb, the Great Big God will consume us with His love.