June 29, 2014, Pentecost 3 – Trust Falls
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As a shy person, I have always had a terribly hard time with group activities like team building exercises, but I do realize that they can be very valuable and important things. Despite what it feels like when you are an insecure newcomer, they really aren’t designed for exposing who is brave and who is cowardly: glorifying the former some and shaming the latter. The real purpose is to create and strengthen relationships between people. In casual groups like drama club in high school or a youth group or a small group of men or women in a club or at a retreat, the benefits might be fairly small – not nothing at all, but maybe nothing life-changing, either – because the stakes are not really very high. But in more critical situations like the military, or people preparing for a long-term mission in a dangerous territory, the same kind of exercises can build something that may very literally mean the difference between life and death.
In the 22nd chapter of Genesis God challenges Abraham to one of the most harrowing team building exercises that you could imagine. The Scripture tells us “God tested Abraham”, and that seems to be putting it mildly. At this point, Abraham already had a pretty good working relationship with God. God had called Abraham to move away from his homeland and everything he knew and to follow him out into the unknown, and Abraham did it. God had promised he would establish a whole new nation of Abraham’s descendants, and even though Abraham’s wife was barren and they were both getting on in years, Abraham believed that God would keep that promise. Abraham trusted God’s promises, and the Bible tells us that “God counted it to him as righteousness.” In other words, Abraham, who was a normal human being and no more or less righteous than the average guy, was counted by God to be truly righteous, simply because he had believed God’s promises to him. But simply believing is not always as easy as it sounds.
This terrible test was not a pass-or-fail test to see whether God was going to go ahead and carry out his covenant promises to make a nation of him and to bless him and to bless the whole world through him or whether he was going to call it off because Abraham just wasn’t good enough. Those promises had already been established by God himself and ratified by God’s grace through Abraham’s trust. This test was something else, something quite different – it was really more of a super-size “trust walk” exercise that would bring Abraham into an even closer and stronger and deeper relationship to his God. Have you ever done a trust walk? It’s one of those team-building exercises, where you let yourself be blindfolded and led by another person, and you are supposed to trust them not to let you fall or bash into anything or get hurt in any way. That’s the kind of test this was, only writ very, very large. God tested Abraham by asking him to take his only son Isaac, the child of his old age, and to offer him up as a burnt offering.
This is a really hard story, almost too strange and too painful for us to read, especially if we think of it in modern terms. If we read it in its own historical and cultural setting – which is the only way to read it faithfully and intelligently – it still isn’t any less painful or difficult, but it is just a little less shocking, because all the gods of the nations around Abraham were a bloodthirsty lot. Child sacrifice in that place and at that time was an acceptable form of worship, if you worshiped one of the Canaanite gods like Molech. And it seems to me the first part of the test was that Abraham would have been faced with the horrifying possibility that the God he worshiped, the One God he had followed out of his homeland, the One God in whose hands he had placed his own life and the life of his family, was no different than the countless idols of the surrounding nations whose lifeless bodies fed on the blood of their sons and daughters.
But Abraham’s relationship with God stood the test right from the start. There were several ways he might have reacted to God’s test. He might have rejected God for acting in a way that seemed so completely unlike what Abraham had known him to be. Here was a God who was so merciful that he would have spared a whole city of desperately wicked people just to save ten righteous ones, suddenly sounding like a pagan idol. Or, he might have just refused to obey because the command didn’t make any sense to him. It seems to me that would be the way many of us would be tempted to react, because we modern people are pretty sure of our rationality. Instead, Abraham did neither – instead, he accepted the challenge of this “trust walk” in faith – stepping forward into this most terrible of situations blindly, trusting solely on the strength of his relationship with God.
That strong relationship was like a cord composed of three strands that made a lifeline for Abraham as he set off with his twelve-year-old son, a bundle of firewood, and a killing knife. And the first strand of that cord was remembrance. He had the memories of years of friendship with God, years of promises fulfilled, even of face-to-face conversation, when God and his angels came to discuss the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah with him and to announce the coming birth of a son to them in their impossible old age. Like the years of a long marriage, Abraham’s long shared history with God kept him from running away or losing faith. He remembered that Isaac’s very existence was a miraculous work of God, and so he was able to believe that whatever might happen, that miraculous life would surely be preserved. Sometimes the way forward can only be faced if we hold tight to the assurance of the past.
The second strand was Abraham’s faith. Abraham wasn’t a sinless man or a moral giant, but he had long ago staked his life on the goodness of God, and God had counted that as righteousness for him. He trusted God absolutely, and so as he set out with Isaac he told his servants “we are going up onto the mountain to worship, and then WE will come back to you.” Somehow, Abraham believed, somehow he would return with his son after this encounter with God. It isn’t generally a good idea to speculate about what people were thinking when the Bible doesn’t specifically tell us, but the writer to the Hebrews helps us out a little with this. He wrote, “Abraham reasoned that God was able to raise Isaac from the dead.” Somehow, Abraham trusted, God was able to make things right, and to bring about all that he had promised to do through this very child. And when Isaac asked his heart-wrenching question, “Father, where is the lamb for the offering?” he was able to reply in the simplicity of his faith, “God himself will provide.” And I can only say that while it is true that faith is simple, simple is not the least bit easy, because when his son turned to ask him that question, it must have cost Abraham everything to hold onto his faith in God’s goodness.
But he did, because the third strand that bound the others together was God himself. When we do a trust walk, it requires a lot from us to keep moving one foot in front of the other, neither to pull away or to tear off the blindfold and quit. But no matter how trusting we are, we are in big trouble if the person leading us is not careful enough or wise enough or strong enough to guide us truly and keep us from harm. The one essential thing that assured the success of Abraham’s test was not Abraham at all, but the goodness and faithfulness of God, who would not allow any harm to come to either of them, and who would never fail to carry to completion every promise he had made.
Every time I read this story I breathe a huge sigh of relief when God’s angel shouts to stop Abraham just as he has raised his knife over his son, and as he turns to find the ram caught by the horns in the bushes. God never intended Abraham to do harm to his son. The purpose of the trust walk to the mountain and back was to forge a deeper bond of love and trust between God and his people, Abraham’s descendants – a bond they would need as he set them in the midst of nations full of violence and injustice – to stand as a beacon in the darkness of the world, as the only nation in the world whose covenant was ratified neither by the fearful obedience nor the outstanding righteousness of the people but first and foremost by the loving commitment of their God.
The long and inglorious history of God’s faithfulness and man’s unfaithfulness goes on from there to fill many, many pages of the Bible and many chapters of our human history. But in the end, the commitment of the God of Abraham was manifest in its purest form when God himself was put to the test of Abraham. When the Father was called to give the life of his only Son for the healing and redemption of his wayward people, he did not refuse, and he did not hold back the knife. Instead, what God did not require of a mere human he did himself, and in love he gave to the whole world what he would not ask Abraham to give, the blood of his own flesh and the sacrifice of his Father-heart. That’s what Paul was writing about when he wrote, in his letter to the Romans, one of the most comforting and sustaining passages in the whole Bible:
“ If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Abraham said to his son Isaac, “God himself will proved a lamb for the sacrifice, my son.” But God did more than Abraham could possibly have comprehended. We are called in faith to go through a lot of difficult and painful times in this world, but in Jesus Christ God himself became the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, giving of himself in love, much more than he would ever ask of us, and much, much more than we could ever give.