[Genesis 22:1-14 / Hebrews 9:11-15 / John 8:42-59]
But what kind of a God would ask such a thing of anyone? “Take your son, your only son, named laughter, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt sacrifice on one of the mountains I will show you.” It sounds positively demonic, doesn't it? But as is their way, the Holy Scriptures lead us deeper if we let them.
What scandalizes us in this story? The idea that God would command a father to slay his own son by his own hand? Yes, and perhaps even more, that Abraham would do it. Would go along with it. I always think that he rose early in the morning and high tailed it out of there before Sarah got wind of what was up, because she would have put a stop to it right quick. And who of us would blame her one little bit?
But to think like that is to suppose that the most terrible thing that can befall a human being is death. Now, Scripture does speak of death as the enemy, make no mistake about it. But there are worse things than death, and in the mind of Abraham the very worst thing of all is separation from his God, no longer holding to Him in faith. To him, that would be something worse than death.
Abraham had learned a long and painful lesson through his many years of walking with his God. He had learned that this God makes promises. And this God keeps them. And he doesn't keep them in ways that accord with our reason. So he promises Abraham children when both he and his wife are old and Sarah beyond the years of fertility. And then God ups the ante. Not just some children, nations. Abraham thought: God needs help keeping the promise. He must mean for me to have relations with Sarah's Egyptian servant, Hagar. But no, God reveals, He needs no help at all. Not from Abraham's doing, but from His own gracious giving, Abraham and Sarah would be blessed with a child of their own flesh. And Sarah laughed at the thought. God hearing her 90 year old cackle said: “Good name. Call him that. Yitzihak. Isaac. Laughter.” And when Abraham had given up trying to help God keep His promises, it all happened.
This is all crucial, because God promised Abraham something else. He told him: “through Isaac shall your descendants be.” The promise that Abraham would become a great nation, kings coming from his body, would all be fulfilled in the offspring of his boy, Isaac. So, when God says, “sacrifice him to me as a burnt offering” there is only one conclusion that Abraham can draw. This is how Hebrews put it: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, 'through Isaac shall your offspring be named.' He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” (Heb. 11:17-18) Abraham knew that death was not a barrier to God keeping His promises. God is mightier than death and if the God who says: “through this one your children will come” says also “sacrifice him,” you go ahead and do it, knowing that the promise of God is the strongest force in the world – and it is often clean contrary to our fallen reasoning. Abraham feared unbelief more than he feared death. Wise man.
But still, how could God ask it of him, of anyone? His promises aside, it just seems cruel and vicious. But Abraham knew his God was neither. His God was good and though he may not have understood anything of the “how” of God's promises he had long since come to rest in the certainty of the “that” of the promises. What God says will be, will be. And so Abraham prophesied: “God will provide a Lamb for the offering, my only Son.”
In today's Gospel, Jesus says that Abraham rejoiced to see His day; that he saw it and was glad. Abraham saw and knew that from his many descendants, God would raise up One who would be different, who would bring blessing to all the nations of the earth. That One would be the long promised Lamb. They'd been sacrificing lambs since the days of Abel, and they knew the sentence of God: “in the day you eat of it, you shall die.” They knew that they lived on borrowed time and that their entire pilgrimage through this world – no matter how many days it lasted – ended for one and all in the dust of the grave. Blessing for all the peoples of the earth could only mean one thing: release from the chains of sin, release from the bonds of death. And there would come One who would effect such a release. Not by abrogating the stern word “you shall die” but by fulfilling it.
“Before Abraham was, I am.” And they took up stones to throw at Him. But the time wasn't yet. It WAS drawing near. Ever closer and closer to the wondrous moment when God's truth and His mercy met and kissed: when the sentence of death fell squarely on God's substitutionary Lamb so that it might be fulfilled for all humanity and mercy thus poured out on all.
Today's epistle describes the drama of the cross from the heavenward side. What was going on there was far more than the eye could see. Not just the blood staining the wood, the body writhing in pain, the prayers and the cries, the closing of his eyes in death. All that anyone on earth could see. But what was happening beyond sight was Christ entering once for all into the holy places by means of His own blood securing an eternal redemption. Beyond the visible of Calvary the Scriptures open our eyes to see how the blood of Christ, who through the Eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God – the perfect offering, for He lived an unbroken “yes” to the will of His Father, even to death – that blood is now at work purifying our consciences from all dead works to serve the living and true God.
How could God ask such a thing of Abraham? He asks nothing of us that He does not fulfill in Himself. He is the Father who sacrificed His well loved and only Son upon Calvary in order to supply you with the blood of the covenant that carries to you forgiveness for all your sins and the gift of eternal life. Here is the Seed promised to Abraham who brings blessing to all peoples. Here is the Lamb promised to Isaac whom God Himself has provided to stand in his place and ours, enduring what we could never endure without it destroying us, and so imparting to us His life that has no end. Here at this altar today, into you is placed the body and blood of that promised Lamb who said: “Before Abraham was, I am.” And receiving such a gift, how can we not cry out with St. Paul: “He who did not spare His only Son, but delivered up for us all, how will He not with Him freely give us all things?”
That does not mean you are exempt from God asking terrible things of you. You know that. He may have already, and He certainly may yet. But it makes all the difference when you remember that He who asks of you such hard things is the One who has given His Son, His ALL, for you. When the crosses come, they come from the heart of Him who gave His Son. They come to you, yes, even as gifts – sometimes received only with tears – that through them you might experience how mighty is the power of the promise of God that you shall have a life that never ends and how puny is the power of death. We adore You, O Lord, and we praise and glorify Your holy resurrection, for behold by the wood of Your cross joy has come into all the world. Amen!