Here I am
Passage: Genesis 22:1-18
Date: June 29, 2008
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
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Have you ever walked in on a conversation between two other people? Maybe you entered the room - when they were about half way through talking about something - and you were surprised by something that was said? What you heard may have not made sense. Or you may have misunderstood... Well - with only part of the story, we can miss the point of the story.
In the classic Christmas movie White Christmas, something like this happens. The movie was made in 1954 and set in the years just following WW2. It takes place at a ski lodge in Vermont, during a particularly bad season. There is no snow yet that year and they are approaching the Christmas ski season. The proprietor of the lodge happens to be a retired general, who is very proud, but also down on his luck. Two of his former soldiers have become famous in show business since the war and decide to try to help him out, by bringing their show to this lodge. By doing this they would bring some business, and also honor his career by inviting all his former soldiers to come to the show. But they don't want him to find out and squash it all, so they try to keep their plans a secret. But THEN a busy body phone operator who works at the lodge and cares for the general, listens in on a conversation and gets only half the story. This is in the days of phone switch boards where long cords are plugged and unplugged by a local operator who can listen in on calls as this is done. This ‘busy body' operator listens in and only gets half the story. And she comes to the conclusion that they aren't intending to help him, but rather, they want to embarrass him on national TV. She is of course upset by this and can't believe that these two would do what she now mistakenly thinks they intend to do. And that little misunderstanding then becomes the catalyst for the whole movie plot.
It's a little like the joke about the woman who calls for advice on raising chickens. It's the middle of a busy morning when she calls. The busy county agricultural agent gets this call from this woman who wants to know how long to leave the rooster with the hens. She just wants to know how long to leave the hens and the rooster together. But she doesn't know that it's a busy morning. And when the agent responds, "just a minute", because he's busy.......and in the middle of a conversation with someone else at the minute she calls,
"Just a minute", he says. "Thank you very much", she says - and hangs up!
The point is that if we don't have the wider context for a conversation, we might
misinterpret at least some of it.
On a more serious note, consider, for example the media response to Jeremiah Wright, Barak Obama's former pastor. The thing that the media locked in on was the attitude and the anger of Wright, and how upsetting his remarks about race were. No doubt they were. Which if you are listening in any kind of reasonable way might get you to ask: what's going on here? Either this guy is a crazy, angry man...or there is more to this story. Could the history of racism in the United States have anything to do with it? Given that there were lynching's for decades in the South, and before that hundreds of hears of slavery, not to mention more recent issues, could it be that the anger is part of a larger issue? Whatever you think of all that, and whether Wright should have had more decorum or not, the point is that his comments were - at least in his mind as I understand it - a part of a larger issue. And that was left out of a lot of the media coverage of the event.
So sometimes a conversation on a particular day, or comments made in a particular moment, are part of a larger conversation. And sometimes understanding that larger conversation changes how we hear what we hear. Will you grant me that much?
So turn now to the scripture reading for this morning from Genesis. God and Abraham have been having this conversation about covenant and blessing since chapter 12. It's now chapter 22. And when God says, "Abraham, take your son, whom you love, and offer him on a mountain, as a burnt offering", and in response Abraham simply gets up and goes, we might wonder what's going on!
Abraham gives no verbal response to God, he just goes. Meanwhile he assures his son that God will provide. So he stays in conversation with his son. And with his other young men. But so far he has not spoken back to God. He has only responded with action. The first thing he says to God is "Here I am". And he only says that when he is about to carry out the command to kill his son. And God stops him. And then he names the place, ‘God provided".
And then another ongoing conversation picks up again, and angelic conversation about blessing. Abraham has been talking to God and angels since chapter 12 about "blessing". This is a long story about the covenant promises of God that relate to blessing. And it is a story about how God provides. And MOSTLY it is about HOW we respond.
Does God bless US, and then we respond?
Or does God's blessing depend upon our response?
That's the issue at the heart of the text.
Not child sacrifice, or parenting, or ethics. You can get all upset about those things if you want. They are upsetting. But that's not what this is about.
To get what it's about, we have to get into the grand story of the whole book of Genesis, and listen to this long conversation between God and Abraham about a covenant of blessing.
In chapter 12 God told Abraham that we would be blessed, in order to bring blessing to the whole world. God's desire was to bring blessings to all people. And what God wanted Abraham to do in order to accomplish this, was to leave home. So God said, Abraham get up and go. And Abraham got up and went.
In chapter 18 Abraham and Sarah struggled to see how this promise of blessing was going to work out because they had not had any children. And then after some angels happened by, they had a child, and the conversation about blessing continued.
So far all of this was just happening to them. God was doing it.
But now, in chapter 22, things shift a bit. Now God seems to be looking for a response. One of the things the angel says to Abraham just after this event with Isaac is, "NOW I know that you fear God".
So did God provide the ram BECAUSE Abraham was faithful?
Or has God been providing all along?
I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. And it's not a simple either or.
It's not like God's desire to bless the world DEPENDS on Abraham. God's going to do it. BUT Abraham ENABLES God's desire to move forward. And God - for whatever reason - INCLUDES us. We are included in what God is doing. God's desires for the world - are ENABLED by our actions.
And sometimes they will seem to require ASTOUNDING things of us.
And God WILL provide.
That's the Old Testament story, and that's the conversation Abraham and God are in the middle of, when we walk in on this horrific scene.
Taken at face value, it's very difficult to take in.
Maybe knowing the context helps.
I have been thinking about Abraham's response to God for a while. "Here I am" is what he says. I admire the response. It troubles me. It challenges me. When my mother called out my first and middle name, I can remember shaking a bit as I responded. "David Henry" meant trouble was coming. Would I respond with, "Here I am!" Not if I wanted to avoid trouble.
When Abraham says, "Here I am" it involves him in a conflict which it seems will either claim his beloved son, or his faith. The God Abraham loves, and for whom he has left homeland and family - asks him to offer his son - born to Sarah against the odds - late in life - as a sacrifice.
It's a difficult picture for me. Even knowing that this is part of a larger story about blessing. I think of the words of Bob Dylan,
"God said to Abraham, kill me a son"
Abe said "Man you must be puttin' me on!"
God said, "no"; Abe said, "What?"
God said, " you can do what you want Abe but, the next time you see me coming you better run" Well Abe said, "where do you want this killing done"; and God said "Out on highway 61".
Now that's more like it. At least in Dylan's version, Abraham talks back.
My first reaction to this is I want Abraham to talk back.
Abraham pleaded with God before the destruction of Soddom and Gomorrah in chapter 18 and 19. He said to God, "Far be it from thee to slay the righteous with the wicked, shall not the judge of all the earth do right?"
OK now that's more like it. So what's going on here?
Where is this old Abraham now?
One thing to understand is that sacrifice IS an act of worship. In ancient Israel, during Abraham's time, human sacrifice was practiced and more or less accepted, by many people. It was a very different world from the one in which we live.
But it this story, God says NO to the killing. For Abraham's God, and for our God, the act of worship in NOT the offering. It is the faith that came before the offering.
Paul interpreted it in Romans, "It depends on faith, and the grace of God, and Abraham did not weaken in his faith, but grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God"
So, as I keep asking myself if I could do this, I realize that I keep leaving out part of the story. This is not only the story of God's tremendous test, it is also the story of God's providence.
Isaac asks where the lamb is. Abraham responds, ‘God will provide"
I don't think that Abraham knew about the ram, and which bush it would appear in ahead of time, like some kind of premonition. But there it is in the story: God will provide. Abraham's faith.
Providence is not about shocking experiences which appear to be phenomenal good luck or coincidence. As much as I would like it, God doesn't provide a cushion on to which I can fall back when I get behind in my work, or need a boost.
In the story of Abraham, God's providence is strength and trust.
Providence is somehow getting through a seemingly impossible situation.
God's test was not escaped through providence.
Providence - enabled Abraham to meet the test.
There is a cartoon in which there are four frames. In the first two, a person stands at the edge of a deep pit and contemplates jumping over it. In these first two frames, the contents of the pit are covered by a fuzzy grey-ish cloud. In the third frame, the dreaded jump is made. In the fourth frame the figure has come safely down on the other side. But NOW the fuzzy grey-ish cloud has moved - to the ground on the other side of the pit, around the person's feet.
I don't believe that God's providence will clear away all the fuzzy grey clouds from life. But I do believe, that faith in God's providence might provide the courage to jump over the pit - to whatever lies beyond.
So what pit do we need to jump over?
I have a good friend named Jim who is struggling with cancer. And as he nears the end of his life, his spirit has taught me about courage, and providence, and faith. When I last visited him he reminded me of the stars in the night sky. And he started to sing O Holy Night - the stars are brightly shining. It was an act of faith and courage.
As I remember it now, I think of God's initial promise to Abraham. In chapter 15, before the birth of Isaac, as Abraham started to question God about this promise of blessing that didn't seem to be working out, God took Abraham outside, at night. And God said to Abraham, "Look toward the heaven, and number the stars if you are able. So shall your descendants be".
These stars were a sign of God's promise.
A sign of blessing - even when there doesn't seem to be a way for blessing to break through. Even then. And maybe especially then.