Sunday, September 19, 2021

Phil Kniss: Trusting God for our future

Called to go all in: The binding of Isaac
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary

Genesis 21:1-3, 22:1-4

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In case you have trouble appreciating
today’s reading from Genesis 22, rest assured.
You’re not the first one . . . to read this story about
God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac,
and say . . . “What . . . ???”

This is a story well-known by Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
And since ancient times, even before the days of Jesus,
there has been a whole raft of a
different proposals for how to approach this story,
different tools to interpret it,
different far-out ways to get around the obvious difficulties.
Someone could teach a semester-long graduate course on this story,
(and they probably have)
and they would only scratch the surface
of the literature that’s already out there,
that tries to make sense of it,
and just as much literature giving reasons why
those other explanations really don’t work.
So . . . don’t expect me to solve your discomfort in 15 minutes.

If you want to engage this story this morning,
just expect to leave here with questions you will live with,
rather than answer.

We modern readers of Genesis 22
naturally are left to wonder about some things.
We wonder why Abraham didn’t issue more objections.
At least, no objections are recorded in the story.
Didn’t Abraham go to great lengths
to object and argue with God repeatedly, earlier,
after God announced plans to destroy a city
where Abraham’s nephew Lot lived?
We also wonder why a loving God
would have demanded such a violent act to begin with.
What this the only way God could give Abraham a test?
Why did God even have to gather this information?
Wouldn’t an all-knowing God, by definition,
already know how Abraham would respond?
Why put Abraham through such suffering?
And we wonder where Sarah was in this story?
Did she even know the sacrifice God asked of Abraham?
We wonder how she felt later,
knowing how far Abraham had gone toward that sacrifice.
The next chapter in Genesis tells about the death of Sarah.
Did she die still carrying deep heartache or anger?
Each question leads to another question.

So let’s dig in a little bit.
Obviously, a lot has happened in Genesis,
between last Sunday’s Creation story,
and today’s story about Abraham and Isaac.

After the creation story, there are six or seven chapters
of what we would call pre-history,
stories about the origin of human sin,
stories of how human society developed and spread over the earth,
the story of Noah and the Great Flood, etc.

Then there’s a couple dozen chapters about a specific family—
Abraham and Sarah and their clan.
In chapter 12, God calls Abraham for the first time,
promises to give him and Sarah
more descendants than they could count.
Then we learn of Sarah’s long barrenness, into her old age,
which made God’s promise seem like utter non-sense.
Then Abraham tries a work-around, with Sarah’s servant,
and had a son that wasn’t Sarah’s.
and finally, the miraculous birth of their own son Isaac,
born to them both in their old age.

So God’s original great promise to Abraham,
hinges entirely on God’s gift to them,
on their beloved Isaac.
Isaac is the one and only pathway through which
God’s promise of numberless descendants can be fulfilled.
There’s a lot to put on a boy, isn’t it?
Not only a lot of theological weight riding on Isaac.
But emotional weight—their only child, their only hope.
I wonder what it was like to be Isaac?

That’s the back story to God’s
surprising and absurd and deeply disturbing demand
that Abraham give up his son Isaac,
and sacrifice him on an altar.

What kind of cruel God does this? we wonder.
In fact, some ancient Jewish writings on this story,
written at least 100 years before Christ,
change the character that makes this demand of Abraham.
Instead of the one God Yahweh asking Abraham,
it’s Prince Mastema, a Satan-type figure.
But in the story itself, there is no doubt among scholars.
Yahweh is in focus.

But here is something intriguing.
Scholars also observe that in this Genesis 22 account,
the dialogue throughout is minimal,
and sometimes a bit vague and indefinite.
Some suggest that the very way the story is written
is a rhetorical device, intending not to explain in detail
what the characters were thinking.
Rather, it presses the reader into the shoes of those characters,
makes them feel the sharp horns of the dilemma,
gives them a taste of Abraham’s agony,
so they wonder to themselves,
how would I have reacted?
what would I have done?

I like that notion. Because, at the end of the day,
I can’t find satisfying answers to all my questions about this story.
But I can allow this story to be a catalyst
for going deeper,
and asking questions of myself.

Like . . . do I really trust God with my entire future?

That was the Big Ask of Abraham.
Isaac was his entire future.
Everything Abraham did his whole life was in response
to a promise of a future,
a future that could only exist if Isaac lived a long life.
Would Abraham be so loyal to the God who gave the promise,
that he would be ready to say yes, no matter the apparent cost?
Abraham passed this test.

So how are we doing on that score?
Has God ever asked something of us
that at least appears to be putting our future at risk?

I don’t know,
maybe you haven’t ever considered that as a question.
Maybe we are so accustomed to mapping out our own future,
and preparing thoroughly for that future,
and getting all our ducks in a row, and keeping them there,
that we have never seriously considered that
God might be nudging us toward something
that puts our future on the line.

And maybe it doesn’t come in the form of a voluntary sacrifice.
Maybe it comes as an unwelcome surprise from an un-Godly force—
a crisis we were powerless to prevent.
Not something we would ever to attribute to God,
just the harsh realities of life that occasionally happen
in an imperfect world, spinning through space.
Loss of property, loss of financial resources,
loss of a relationship,
loss of life,
loss of health,
loss of anything we were counting on as part of our future.

It’s not a direct parallel, of course, to this Bible story
about a voluntary sacrifice,
but maybe the same question is being asked of us by God,
“Do you trust me, with your whole future?”
Or, are you gripping so hard on the wheel,
that you are losing your joy, your hope, your faith in me?

It would be a good exercise for each of us sometime,
in some moments of reflection,
to make a short list of those things that we value,
those things we are banking on to carry us into
the future we think we are called to,
the future we may even think God has prepared for us.

In a way, it’s like taking inventory of our life insurance policies,
figuratively speaking.
What are those things we think ensure us a solid future?
And what is our attitude toward those things?
When God asks us to follow,
with all that we are, and all that we have . . .
which parts of “all” are we holding back in reserve?

It’s not only heroic stories of faith
from biblical giants like Abraham and Sarah,
that lead us to this question.

No, this was the same question
Jesus asked his very ordinary followers to consider,
in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 16.
“If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world
but forfeit their life?”
And if this question applies to us individual disciples,
we can be sure it also applies to the church.
Can we as a church trust God with our whole future?
What if the church is asked to give up some form of our life
that appears to be essential for our future?
What if the church and its mission
starts getting pushed to the margins of our culture,
and politely ignored? (as it generally is)
What if some institutional pillar of the church starts to crumble?
Are we willing to trust God with our life and mission?

Those words of Jesus haunt me,
as much as the story of Abraham and Isaac.
“Those who want to save their life will lose it.
And those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

I don’t know exactly what that means for me, or for the church.
But I do believe this.
It is a question that is real, and that is now.
It is a question we would be wise to reflect on,
and live with for a while,
instead of ignoring and moving on to the next glittering thing.

Will you join me in making our confession before God?
one For when we have held back, out of fear for the future,
  all forgive us, Lord.
one For when anxieties lead us to hold on to what we must lose,
or lose what we must hold on to,
  all forgive us, Lord.
one For when our willingness to trust you falters,
because that which we hold dear is being threatened,
  all forgive us, Lord.
one For whenever we give you less than
our full selves and our whole future,
  all forgive us, Lord.
one The God who holds the future, also holds you, and holds us all,
in trustworthy, steadfast, and endless love.
Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, September 19, 2021

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