I don’t think it is possible to hear the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac — and not feel disturbed, at least a bit uneasy. Even if we do not ask it out loud this time, this day, there probably has been a day when we have wondered, “What kind of God is this that would ask the slaughter of an innocent young boy?” As soon as we think it we catch ourselves and think, “That’s not right. God was only testing Abraham. God never intended to have Abraham go through with it.” But then again, there is the lingering question. And we wonder.
In a certain way, we are people who have wandered into the middle of a years old dialogue. We are catching just one scene in a many part play. We need a context. So, let’s begin at the beginning.
There was a man named Abram, who with his tribe, lived in modern-day Iraq, in a land called Ur of the Chaldese. One day, The LORD said to Abram: “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless-you….” (Gen 12:1-2) And so began a great journey of trust, trust in the promise of God. From Iraq, through Syria, over the fertile crescent into Lebanon, and eventually to the land of Cana modern Israel. And this was to be the land, but not just yet. The land was in drought and famine and so the Lord told Abram to go to Egypt. There were adventures there in the encounter with the Pharaoh. Later Abraham wandered into the middle of the war of the five kings; there was the misadventure of Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah. The journey of trust and promise in lo these many years was also becoming a journey of perseverance — and Abraham and Sarah were still childless, without an heir —hardly the beginning of being a great nation. In Genesis 15 the great promise is remade to Abraham and he is assured he and Sarah will have child whose descendants will number more than all the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the shore.
Abraham and Sarah’s trust falters a bit when several years later there is still not child. And so Sarah tells her husband to have a child with Sarah’s servant woman, Hagar. An acceptable practice of the day. And so is born Ishmael. Not the child of the promise, but the child of human weakness, of a waning trust in God. Later when Abraham and Sarah have their own son Isaac. The human weakness, jealousy contributes to Sarah’s demand that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away — which Abraham does only after receiving assurances that Hagar and Ishmael will be taken care of. Abraham sends them away with only a load of bread and a skin of water. Hardly the epitome of charity and compassion.
And then we have today’s story — but one scene in the more than 30 years relationship of God and Abraham. Thirty years of dialogue, of experience, of growing trust, of a proven fidelity of God to his own word, covenant and promise. For many of those years Abraham and Sarah have lived among people who practiced child sacrifice to appease their tribal gods. It is in the shadow of these 30 years that God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. And we are disturbed.
Scripture is clear. God is putting Abraham to the test. In 30 years God has maintained his promise, has cared for and sheltered Abraham and his family, has bailed them out of more than a number of problems of their own making, remained constant when God’s own trust was not returned. Perhaps there is a bit of truth and irony when God says “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love..”
You sent away your other son, some demonstration of love — you only provided a loaf of bread and one skin of water. Yes, “your only son” and now will you trust without measure? I have promised you Isaac, this lad will be your heir, the first of generations upon generations of descendants. Will you trust without limit? Will you trust, let go of the one you love the most, and believe?
With a foundation of 30 years of experience, relationship, and demonstrations of God’s compassion and care, Abraham takes Isaac to the altar of sacrifice, with knife at the ready… and in trust and hope, continues to listen. Abraham could have been lost in his own growing sorrow, he could have been consumed with anger, he could have been or done so many things in the midst of his affliction. But what he did was continue to listen for the Word of the Lord. And the Word came, “Stop.” Because Abraham continued to listen, his world was transformed.
It is part of the story of today’s Gospel. The scene of the Transfiguration follows the first half of Mark’s gospel, when everything is going well. Jesus’ preaching and miracles is causing a growing movement of believers. The disciples are witnessing the power of God in this person Jesus of Nazareth. In the scene just before the Transfiguration, Peter has confessed Jesus as Messiah, Son of the living God. And Jesus was made his first prediction of his passion and death. Just as the first hint of the coming affliction and suffering is spoken, comes the Word of God. “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
Listen to him for he is the Word of God. And in the coming days, on the way to Jerusalem, during the terrible scourging and crucifixion of my Son, continue to listen.
There is a message for this generation. In all our years of experience with God — our own and those 2000 years of the Church’s experience — we are people called to continue to listen. To listen among the test, the trails, the tribulations, the suffering, the good times, times of joy — in all seasons and times. We are called to listen to him. We come here each week to listen to the Word of God. We pause each Lent, when like the apostles of old we are preparing for Passion Week — and we especially listen to the Words to be reminded that like Abraham and Sarah we are people on a journey, culling and gathering in our experiences of God’s care and promise. Always listening. Reminded that like the Apostles, even after our confessions of faith, after our experiences of the glory of Christ in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist, we are still called to listen. Called to listen to the Word of God that our world may be transformed.