Written by Matt Benton, Pastor of Bethel United Methodist Church in Woodbridge, Virginia.
Once upon a time there was a man named Abram. One day Abram was out working in his father’s fields and God spoke to him. God promised a great nation would come from Abram, which in the ancient world meant he’d have lots of children. But in the midst of their travels and trials, Abram and his wife Sarai are unable to conceive. Along the way God renames the couple Abraham and Sarah but even as they both mature into old age, they have no children.
Then, in miraculous fashion, Sarah conceives and gives birth to a son in her old age. Isaac is the fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah. And that promise was a long time in being fulfilled. But God kept God’s promise!
And then Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his son. The same God who promised to make of Abraham a great nation is now asking Abraham to sacrifice the only means to see that great nation come to fruition. And beyond that, a father who has waited so long to have a child, waited so long to see his wife become a mother, is now being asked to give all that up. I’m glad God never asked that of me.
But Abraham gets Isaac one morning and starts on a journey towards a particular mountain. He makes all the preparations for the sacrifice and they set off. It’s a three-day journey. Of course it is. And when they’ve gotten to the base of the mountain Abraham tells the servant he’s brought that he and his son will go the rest of the way alone. Abraham has Isaac carry the wood for the sacrifice. Of course he does. Abraham carries the fire and the knife.
As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
I can just picture Isaac, and every time I picture it Isaac is the same age as my oldest son, looking at the items they are bringing, seeing his little brain spinning, working it out, and gathering as much courage as the little man can and saying, dad, aren’t we missing something?
How can that not break you? How could that not break Abraham?
They go up the mountain. They find a spot suitable for sacrifice. They build the altar. I wonder at what moment Isaac knew. But Abraham puts his son on the altar. And raises the knife.
And then the Angel shouts, “STOP! This has gone far enough!” Abraham is told to take Isaac off the altar, a ram is found, and indeed God has provided the means for the sacrifice. Abraham walks down the mountain with his son.
What do we do with this story? What do we make of it? If we’re honest, this story doesn’t sit well with us, does it? If we’re honest, this is a story that elicits complicated feelings about this God. This God that would give a man a child by means of miracle and then ask that man to give the child back. And all just to see if he’d really do it. On some level we get to the end of this story and we ask, what was the point? To prove a level of faith that many of us would consider fanatical?
This story elicits many complex feelings. And at this point I want you feeling all of them in full. Because all of the questions we have, all the feelings we have, all the nuances we want to add to this story, it’s time to feel them all fully.
Because the ram wasn’t the sacrifice God provided.
At least the ram wasn’t the sacrifice that took Isaac’s place.
Another would come, who would be destined to be a sacrifice, who would place the wood of the sacrifice upon his back and would make a three-day journey.
Jesus is the new Isaac.
And I wonder if this story doesn’t give us a tiny insight into what God went through for our salvation?
Jesus is the new Isaac. Jesus is the sacrifice God would and did provide. Our world is out of whack, our relationships are out of whack and it’s our fault. But God did what was necessary to right and renew and redeem our relationship with God. And through a renewed and redeemed relationship with God, God intends to redeem all things. God did it, God has done it. God provided what was needed.
But the thing that was needed, and which God provided, was God’s son. God’s only son.
Oftentimes with this story we ask the question what kind of God would ask a father to sacrifice his son? In some respects that’s the lens through which we read all of the Bible. What kind of God is this that we are called to love, follow, and worship? We are troubled by the type of God who would ask a father to sacrifice his son, yet we don’t realize that that isn’t the end of the story. In the ancient world lots of gods asked fathers to sacrifice sons. Our God is the God who tells Abraham to stop and instead offers God’s own son as the sacrifice. I think it’s telling that at the crucial moment, God shouted “stop” to Abraham, but we shouted “Crucify Him” to Jesus.
But that is what our God has done for us. Instead of making us pay the price for our own redemption, God accomplishes it Godself. God does it for us. God does what we cannot do for ourselves. God gives and gives and gives. Thanks be to God! Amen.