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The Place of the God who Provides
a sermon based on Genesis 22:1-14
(This sermon is indebted to On a Wild and Windy Mountain, by William Willimon, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984).
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall
  

The sky darkens, the wind howls as two people walk up a wild and windy mountain.  The conversation had started early that morning.  No wasted words.  “Get up, old man.  Take your son, your only son Isaac, and sacrifice him to me on the Mountain Moriah.

So the old man and the boy walk on in the thinning mountain air.  With each step the old man grows older.  With each step he chills, but the boy doesn’t feel it.  The boy hops three steps to each stride of the old man.  Now stoop-shouldered from years of field work, the old man clutches fire and a razor-sharp flint knife.  Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.  “Must be another way,” the old man thinks.  “Old woman,” he mutters to himself, “what will I tell her?  Barren before.  Barren again.  Old woman, forgive me.”

          Terror crouches in his throat; swallows his steps.  Swallows his muttering.  Now atop the mount, the old man stares at the ground.  “Father, how can we worship without a lamb?  Where’s the sacrifice?”  The old man chooses his words cautiously.  “So we have come without our lamb.  Well, I guess God will have to provide the lamb for us.”

          On top of Moriah, Abraham sees his son and then sees beyond his son to his own life that rewinds back through the years.  He sees himself again as a kid—a foolish young man blinded by love and drunk with a passion for adventure.  There he goes—young Abraham meandering across the desert with his bride in tow.  Off to no place in particular, just following what he takes to be the voice of his God.  The years pass and he sees himself once again—this time as a middle-aged man, living in goatskin tents, breathing sand and rearranging the dust.  Childless and barren.  But the conversation with God continues.  More years pass, leaving him with cracked, leathery skin. He entertains strange guests who tell him a cock-and-bull story about his old woman becoming pregnant and he becoming a father.  But the years pass and he remains childless.  When the conversation breaks down and still no promised child, he and Sarah becomes so desperate that he has an affair with one of his own employees—a household slave—so that his wife can at least have the child as soon as it descends the birth canal.  But he is sustained by the conversation with God over the years and the impossible happens.  He hears an old woman cackling and whinnying at a newborn that she has just birthed.  The old man sees his life in the eyes of the boy.  Abraham has lived a full life, a life of promise and miracle.

          “But Father, where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”  The question is not mouthed; it’s the boy’s eyes talking.  The altar waits, the child waits.  Abraham waits for a moment as he searches the boy’s eyes, his hands clenching tight the razor-sharp flint knife.  He knows!  How?  He knows!  There’s no scene, no struggle, no wrestling to apprehend Isaac, to tie him to the pile of wood.  He offers his arms to be tied.  The old man fumbles with the ropes.  “I must steady my hands, “ he thinks.  The end will come suddenly.  The boy watches the old man tremble in silence.  The old man says aloud to the barren mountain: “So be it.  But you hear me, demanding God.  This death will not end my journey.  You have promised me a son.  And nothing can take that promise from me.  I’m sorry, old woman.”  The old man will hobble home, childless to his old wife, twice barren.  “So be it,” Abraham cries as he lifts his razor-sharp flint knife high for an immediate kill.

          This story leaves us with a question mark hanging over God’s head.  What kind of a God are we worshiping this morning?  What kind of a God are we building our community of faith around?  What vision of God is this that Jews and Christians and Muslims honor in this story?

          A pastor recently showed a video of this episode of Abraham and Isaac to his Sunday School class.[1]  The group watched silently as the story unfolded.  The modern actors did a superb job recreating the scene—perhaps too superb.  They watched as old Abraham struggled up the windswept, raw, dusty mountain, Moriah knife under his coat, with his son trudging silently behind him.  Finally, the bronze blade is raised, the boy’s black eyes flash with horror . . . So after the dramatic portrayal they talked about it.  “What significance does this story have for us?  Can this ancient story still speak to us about God?”

          “God still does,” interrupted a woman, an older woman, hair graying, wearing a flowered dress, hands nervously twitching in her lap.  “God still does.”  “How?” the pastor asked.  Quietly, with tears forming in her eyes, she said, “We sent our son to college.  He got an engineering degrees.  But he got involved in this church—a fundamentalist church.  He married a girl in the church.  Then they had a baby—our only grandchild.  Now he says God wants him to be a missionary and go to Lebanon.  Taking that little baby, too.”  She began to heave to and fro sobbing.

          The silence was broken again, this time by a middle aged man  “I’ll tell you the meaning this story has for me.  I’ve decided that I and my family are going to look for another church.”  What?” the pastor asked in astonishment?  “Why?”  “Because when I look at that god, the god of Abraham, I feel I’m near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, Rotary Club God that we chatter about here on Sunday mornings.  Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person and then want more.  I want to know more about that God.”

          Interesting adult Sunday School class!  By the time the wind had died down, the bleatings of the ram could be heard no more, and Father Abraham had gone back down the wild mountain, a group of 20th century, well-educated people trailing along behind him and headed for the God who cannot be served without cost and sacrifice.

          This story gives us a radically fresh vision of God.  We’re used to the tame God that we worship on Sunday—a God who never intrudes into our real life and affairs during the week.  A God who sits like a Buddha in the sanctuary quiet, serene, with a lazy smile across his face, a God who is aloof and uninterested or unwilling to get involved in our lives.  But along comes the God who demands everything of Abraham—and us—and we’re not sure what to do with that kind of God.

Yes, God demands our very lives—take up the cross and follow him!  On their way to the gas ovens, many faithful Jews expressed that quality of faith when they prayed, “I believe in the Messiah, I hope for the Messiah and believe that he has the power to deliver me from this death, but even if he should not deliver me, I will still believe and hope in him.”

          But the demanding God who calls is the God who provides for us.  That’s also what Abraham learned in the story.  He learned to trust and obey—for truly, there is no other way.  For just as his knife is about to flay the skin of his most loved possession, Abraham notices that a ram has been caught in the thicket.  Abraham offers the ram in place of his son as the worship sacrifice—but he comes away with the new awareness that not only does God demand our best sacrifice, our best worship, that thing which we hold dearest and closest to us, but God will give in exchange his life to us.  God will provide for us.  So moved is Abraham that by the end of the story he gets into naming again—this time he names the place where this drama took place not First Church or Philly, but “The Place of the God who Provides.”

          The sky darkens, the wind howls as a young man walks up another Moriah, driven by a God who demands everything and who stops at nothing.  Like Abraham, Jesus seeks to be obedient to his Father, even to the death of the cross.  Willing to take up the cross for us.  But unlike Abraham, Jesus carries something else instead of the sticks and razor-sharp knife.  He carries a cross.  God is, after all, determined to have his way with us, no matter the cost.  Amen.

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[1] From On a Wild and Windy Mountain, by William Willimon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984).