Every time my family gets together we seem to be involved in some competitive contest or another. This means anything from Euchre card games to acts of strength. At one particular family gathering over thanksgiving, we decided to have some races between certain family members. It was decided that I would race my brother Jimmy. I was so confident that I said “If you are able to beat me in this race I will let you have my room.” This was a big deal because I had the best bedroom in the house by a lot. So my brother was super motivated. I knew that my brother was not going to beat me in a sprint. I knew that the longer distance we ran the better chance he had, but I had a distinct advantage in anything that was short. It was determined that the course was one time around my uncle’s oval shaped road in his neighborhood. It was probably the equivalent to once around a track. I was so confident that I told him I would give him a head start to make things a bit more interesting. Finally, when he looked far enough off, I started out in a sprint. I was confident that I would quickly track him down and that seemed to be the case. I was closing the distance between him and me. By the time we were about 2/3 of the way in the race I had caught him and thought I was headed for victory. However, as we turned for the finish line my brother decided to take a bit of a shortcut. (something he still denies to this day) This allowed him to go around the final turn much quicker and beat me by about the length of my arm. I was enraged. You cheated I yelled at him. There is no way you get to have my room. But you promised he yelled back. You cheated so it doesn’t count and on and on it went on like that for a while. Needless to say, I did not fulfill the promise I had made with brother.
The same thing seems to be true in the Abraham and Isaac story in Genesis. You see just a couple of chapters before this, God has promised that Abraham and Sarah’s offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. God has made a covenant with Abraham that he will be the father of large nation. And now at the beginning of chapter 22 (our text this morning) this promise seems to go out the window or at least be on the brink of ruin. Out of nowhere God decides to test Abraham and Abraham goes along with it. He doesn’t seem to be bothered by this request at all. There is no indication that Abraham was taken back or that he had any misgivings about the task that God had set before him. The way the story is told seems to indicate that God rubs it in. God says that you should take Isaac, YOUR ONLY SON, you know the one that you love and offer him as a burnt offering. I don’t have kids at this point in my life, but I have siblings and even on my worst days with them I never thought about making them sacrifices (well…At least not that seriously.) Even at the lowest moments of VBS I don’t think the leaders wanted to make their kids sacrifices. At least I hope not.
So let me get this straight one moment God is answering prayers and providing a long awaited child for Abraham and Sarah, and the next moment, this same God is ordering that the child be sacrificed. It appears that God is going back on the promise that he made to make Abraham the leader of a large nation and have as many offspring as there were starts in the sky. This is one of the many alarms that go off in my head when I read this text.
The loudest alarm in my head is how unfair all of this is for Isaac. He sets off on a long journey with his dad. Isaac cuts the wood for the burnt offering, so he knows they will be making an offering to God. He doesn’t know the whole picture, but he seems to grasp enough to start asking some questions. Hey dad where is the sacrificial lamb and Abraham replies cryptically “God will provide.” He did nothing to deserve any of this. He doesn’t deserve to be sacrificed. He doesn’t deserve for his father to go along with God’s call to sacrifice him. This is Abraham’s only son with Sarah and it is the son that he loves, it is not fair for Isaac to be in this circumstance. It is completely unfair!
We have all faced unfair situations at one point or another in life. Maybe your brother has cheated you in a race, or maybe you were pass over for a job by someone who was less qualified, or maybe you experienced the loss of a loved one unexpectedly. I can’t help but think about the people of Joplin, MO as they have experienced unbelievable loss and devastation throughout their city. Many people lost all they had from the tornado that touched down almost a month ago. The people of Joplin did nothing to deserve one of the worst tornadoes in US history. None of those things in life are fair. Loved ones should not pass away unexpectedly, the people of Joplin should not suffer the loss of almost 200 people from a random tornado, Innocent children, like Isaac, should not be killed.
And yet in the midst of all this grief and sadness from tragedy that all too often is a part of our lives our hope is that the goodness of God will provide. That is may provide a God who is present with us not to make life fair, but to be with us even (and especially) when life is unfair. The Abraham-Isaac story is about faith in the midst of extreme trauma. It is true that it sometimes is difficult to see God’s goodness in desperate situations when tragedy strikes.
When I was in Biloxi, Mississippi trying to put my non-existent carpenter skills to work, I heard many stories about how the people of the Gulf Coast had survived Hurricane Katrina. However, the one that sticks with me the most is an older woman who spoke to us one night at the Lutheran church where we were staying. She lived by herself since most of her family had decided to move only a few months before this. She didn’t have the means to leave the Biloxi area during the storm, so she rode the storm in her house. She only has one floor on her house and it wasn’t long until there was quite a bit of water in her house. She figured if the winds from the storm didn’t get her, the water soon would. As the storm raged around her, suddenly someone she didn’t know appeared at her door and told her that he was here to bring her to a safer place. At this point in the story she had to stop for a moment. In the midst of the tears that ran down her face, she said she could not believe that this man, this stranger, was willing to risk his life to come and rescue this old lady as she described herself. So in the midst of the hurricane force winds and floodwaters he brought her to higher ground and sturdier walls. Her house was completely ruined by the hurricane and she had lost pretty much everything she owned. It was just not fair. But in the midst of all of that, she could not help but continuing to talk about the man that had come into her house in 125 mph winds to bring her to safety. She was so thankful for this man. She saw the face of God in that stranger who provided God’s goodness in the midst of a horrible tragedy.
That, I think, is the message of this text. Not the blind faith that we see in Abraham, but rather God’s goodness breaking into situations of despair. The true act of faith is Abraham’s ability to recognize God’s provision in the ordinary, especially in those circumstances when everything appears to be futile and hopeless.
We will all face circumstances that are unfair. We will experience times when we have lost all hope. Times, when promises are broke, times when nothing seems to go right, times when all of life appears futile. It is in those moments that I pray we may see God breaking in to provide a goodness and peace only he can provide. In these moments may God provide a lamb in the bushes to save our child like he did for Abraham, a man at the doorway to take us away from the floods that threaten to overcome us, a community of faith like this place to be body of Christ for us. Amen.