I think today’s readings have a real relevance for any follower of Jesus in this stage of the development of the church, and that they speak to us today of the faith to which we are called and of the grounds for that faith.
I’m going to concentrate on the first reading. If we are not shocked by it, we weren’t really listening to it. What is it that God is asking for from Abraham? What sort of a God asks that sort of offering? And how do we reconcile the God of the Binding of Isaac with the God revealed in Jesus Christ?
Faced with the Mountain of Moriah, let’s take what seems the easier path first. Looking back to this story in Genesis from our Christian viewpoint, we can easily see the almost-sacrifice of Isaac as an image of the sacrifice of Jesus, the self-sacrificing love of Abraham as foreshadowing the love of God our Father. That is what St Paul points us to in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans: “Look,” he is saying, “this is how much God is on our side, how much God is for us; this is how much Jesus is not against us as one who condemns us, but with us as one who died because he loves us.”
We need to hear this – we need to be reminded again and again that God is with us, that God looks at each of us with the love with which the Father looks on Jesus, that God says to each of us “You are my child, my beloved!”
If I refer to that as seeming to be the easier path, it is still a hard path, because it asks us to trust in that love, to trust in the God who is with us, rather than trust in anything else – but anything else. If it seems an easier path, maybe it’s only by comparison with how this second path up the mountain appears, the path trodden by Abraham and Isaac, and by countless believers.
Abraham is our Father in Faith, as the first Eucharistic Prayer reminds us, and the book of Genesis gives us a series of accounts of how Abraham and Sarah prove that faith, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews points out:
It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the call to set out for a country that was the inheritance given to him and his descendants, and that he set out without knowing where he was going.
It was equally by faith that Sarah, in spite of being past the age, was made able to conceive,, because she believed that he who had made the promise would be faithful to it.
But if Abraham and Sarah proved their faith in these acts of entrusting themselves and their future to God, the commentators throughout the centuries, Jewish and Christian, have been very clear that in the Binding of Isaac – the Akeidah Yitzhak – Abraham and Sarah faced the greatest test. The narrative speaks to us mostly about Abraham, and a little about Isaac: we need to remember Sarah, three days walk away and in such distress, according to the rabbinic commentators, that receiving her son back alive is so overwhelming an experience that it triggers her own death. Perhaps Sarah prefigures not only the mother of Jesus – “and a sword shall pierce your own soul too” – but all those mothers waiting across the centuries while their men go about their violent business, waiting for their sons to be given back to them either alive or dead.
But we are in danger of getting ahead of ourselves as we follow Abraham and Isaac up Mount Moriah. Is God really demanding a human sacrifice? Can we take the easy way out (the apparently easy way out, at least intellectually) and say that “if God says it’s right, then it’s right”? To do so would seem at least to make the contrast between how our estimates of what is right and God’s absolute dominion.
The 19th Century Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote a whole book on this, calling it “Fear and Trembling”. In it he introduces two characters, two knights, one of whom,” the knight of infinite resignation”, is prepared to give up everything for a great cause and to live with the suffering that ensues. I suspect that many of us see Abraham in this light – and see in Abraham a model of what faith is for us – or rather, we see in Abraham’s expected sacrifice a model of what a life of faith can be. The heroic sacrifice has a very powerful appeal, and true self-sacrifice is out of love for another is both the pinnacle of the Gospel, in the death of Jesus on the cross, and the manner and matter of its mundane reality, in our everyday living as followers of Jesus. But we can all too easily see Abraham as modelling a willingness to give up all that is most precious, and to go against all that we think, and feel deep in our bones, to be the right course of action, simply because we have been told that this is God’s will for us.
That path, it seems to me, leads not to the Mountain of Moriah, the mountain of God, but to a different place, a place that risks fanaticism and fundamentalism, where the grossly cruel can be dressed in the language of God’s commandments, and pain and even death can as easily be inflicted in the name of the Gospel (as we have seen in history), as in the name of the Holy Q’uran.
But Abraham, the father of Judaism and Christianity and Islam, takes another path – the path of true faith. Abraham is an example of the “knight of faith”. As one Kierkegaard scholar puts it:
Abraham is not only a man of resignation … but is the father of faith, the supreme example of faith against the absurd. God had promised him a son. He had to wait decades for that son to be born ... Then God commands Abraham to sacrifice this long-awaited son. Somehow, Abraham had the faith to obey God, knowing that God would deliver his son … "By faith Abraham did not renounce Isaac, but by faith Abraham received Isaac".[i]
“By faith Abraham received Isaac?” I think that this is the heart of today’s readings – at least for me. Because what Abraham is asked to hand over to God is any certainty, any sense that he fully understands where God is calling him. Isaac is the child of the promise: everything on which Abraham has staked his life is literally embodied in Isaac, and God says “Hand him over! Let go of him! Entrust him to me!” And Abraham does. He puts away all his century-long dreams, he sets aside all the ways in which he saw God’s promise to him coming true, that promise that he would be the father of many nations that came with God giving him a new name and a new self. All of this he sets aside, puts away, hands over – not in resignation, but in faith.
Abraham does not say “It was a good dream while it lasted…” but “I have faith that God will keep his promise, and I will put aside all MY understandings of how that will come about, and step out into the void, launch out into the deep, give back to God the one and only way in which I can see God being able to keep God’s promise, because God is faithful – God keeps God’s promises - and I will be faithful – full of faith – in return.”
And Abraham receives Isaac back, now not as Abraham’s investment for the future as Abraham wants it played out, but as God’s free gift in love, building up Abraham’s faith that whatever the future, “God will provide.”
Abraham invites us, his children in faith, to make that same step: to pick up all that is most valuable to us, all that we most fear to lose, all that in which we have invested our lives, all that to which we have given our past and to which we give our present, all that embodies our future, and to place it, all of it, in the space between us and God and say: “This is yours. I trust you with all that is most precious to me.”
And to the measure that we do this – this Lent, this year, sometime in our lives, perhaps in one great gesture but more likely bit by bit, step by step – we will receive back all that we have entrusted to God, and know it for what it has always been – not our possession, our investment, our guarantee of the future we see for ourselves, (however good and virtuous that future may be), but God’s gift, God’s pledge of love, God’s guarantee of the future God sees for us, a future of transfiguration and grace.
As we meet God on the mountain of faith, we learn the truth: that with Jesus, we are God’s beloved children, and that it is God who provides.
[i] http://www.sorenkierkegaard.org/kw6a.htm D.Anthony Storm’s Commentary on Kierkegaard.