Sunday, July 2, 2023
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Abraham’s Challenge

The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy, TX 77450

Click here to watch the video

I am going to stay with Abraham saga for at least one more week. The passage known as either the binding of Isaac or the sacrifice of Isaac presents a variety of problems and questions. This is a story that bothers quite a few people. For many years I was one of these people.

In Godly Play we examine the story by asking I wonder questions. There are many things I wonder about in today’s story.

The first is I wonder why this story bothers so many people. On a simple level God demands a great sacrifice, Abraham does what he is told and the angel intervenes and all is well. Abraham is judged worthy and obedient. Hurrah for Abraham now lets get on with the story. Yet this is an image of God that I find hard to reconcile as a God of love. Many people raise questions about God demanding child sacrifice. The pain of this image is seen in the art work inspired by this story.

I wonder why we do not read about Abraham challenging or bargaining with God. He put up resistance to sending Ishmael and Hagar into the desert last week. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah that we skipped over in the lectionary he has a long bargaining session with God. Well if I can find 50 righteous men will you spare the city. Then 10 etc. Most of you know the story. Yet here he is silent!

I wonder what Abraham was thinking as he traveled to the mountain for the sacrifice. If it were me I think I might be looking, hoping to find an animal to sacrifice rather than my son from the moment I left the donkey and the others. Yet this story is filled with silence from Abraham and Isaac.

I wonder what Sarah thought of all this. It doesn’t say that he told her what he was doing. And in the next chapter after this story we hear that Sarah dies and Abraham sets about buying a place to bury her. We also do not see any further conversation between Abraham and Isaac.

I wonder why God chose this particular test for Abraham? Some scholars maintain that this sets up the Jewish polemic against child sacrifice. Child sacrifice was not unusual at this time in history.

The big I wonder question though is what is true nature of the test that God is laying before Abraham? Is it simple obedience or is God testing to see if he is ready to take the next step.  What if there is one more than one level to this test? The answer to that may help move us forward in this story.

So how and why does God test us? Let me start by changing the word. The bible uses the word test, but what about if we consider this a challenge rather than a test. I believe that God often challenges us more than tests us and there is a difference. There are numerous examples in Bible of people being put to the test or a challenge. A challenge is often preparation for the next step, to see if the person is ready to move forward as they participate in God’s plan. Now hold that thought and I will come back to it.

Now one of the issues in this is the image of God. What is your image of God is the first question before you can proceed in reading this story. Let me take a moment and try to stretch your image of God a little. Now you may like this image or you can say it’s nuts and you want no part of it, but think about it.

One of the more interesting interpretations comes from the author Madelyn L’Engle. Madelyn is probably best known as a children’s author with books that include A Wrinkle in Time. She however is a fascinating writer of meditations and reflections on scripture. Her best work is for adults and that was always her intended audience.

The background to this story is that Madeleine was teaching a writing workshop and each person was asked to write about the Binding of Isaac from either Abraham’s, Sarah’s or Isaac’s point of view. What follows is a reflection that contains many of the characteristics of a Jewish midrash. It is from her book “A Rock That is Higher.”

“Madeleine, I got Sarah and Abraham and Isaac, and you know I’ve written and written about them, and you’ve told me never to write from the point of view of God,” said one student.

I laughed. Indeed, it is not a good idea for a finite human being to try to write from the point of view of the infinite God. But I knew that this young woman was well grounded in Scripture, that she was a fine writer, and I trusted her ability to meet a challenge. “Go for it, Judith. Write from the point of view of God.”[1]

The next day she came in with a dialogue between God and the archangel Raphael

“Raphael is very pleased with Abraham’s response to God’s demand [to sacrifice his son, Isaac,] and begins extolling Abraham’s virtues to God. And God is not enthusiastic. The more Raphael praises Abraham, the less enthusiastic God gets. Finally Raphael says, “But God, you put Abraham to the test and he passed.” God replies, “He did not pass. He failed. He chose law over love.” And all kinds of lights flashed on for me.”

Maybe God had some of the I wonder questions about Abraham. Maybe this test was to tell God something about Abrahams character and how Abraham viewed and related to God. The story does shift after this and focus quickly moves on to Isaac. In the next chapter Sarah dies and in the rest of the saga there are no further conversations between  Abraham and Isaac, so maybe the result is this shift in the main character.

So a final I wonder question. I wonder if this is the point in time that God realized that Abraham had done all he could and it was time to move on with Isaac as the one who carried the promise?

Now let’s fast forward to another test. One of my favorite new testament characters, Simon-Peter. Peter flunks than a few challenges during his time as a disciple. The two that really stand out are his denial of Jesus which of course Jesus predicts. The other one that many people don’t know about is in the last chapter of John where Jesus asks him three times if he loves him.

Now the boys have given up and gone back to fishing. Jesus appears on the beach asks them if they have any fish. They answer no and he tells them to cast the net on the other side and they pull in so many fish the net is breaking. Peter recognized Jesus, puts on his clothes and jumps into the water and swims ashore while the others haul in the catch. Jesus cooks them breakfast and then we have the crucial conversation.

John 21:15   When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Now we have one of those translation issues here.  Jesus asks Peter if he loves him using the Greek agape which is the love of God. Peter answers but uses philio, the love of a friend. This same exchange happens the second time in the exact same way. The third time Jesus switches to philio and Peter is hurt because he has been caught in his hesitation. Yet Jesus does not hand off the leadership of the church to someone else, but still gives it to Peter. BTW this is why this story is included in John. It was a later addition that was meant to show the supremacy of Peter in fact the church that is on the beach where this happened is named that.

I have often said that Peter give me hope. If God can used someone with all the flaws of Peter than God can use any of us. But I think Jesus was testing Peter to see where was Peter. Did he have what it takes to lead and the answer was yet. He loved Peter regardless of how he responded and was in fact willing to work with what Peter was willing to offer.

I truly believe this is how God works and has worked through the ages. People talk about God’s plan. Martin Smith an Episcopal theologian and at one time abbot of SSJE did a lecture entitled Co-Creators with God. The premise is that we all are called to create our lives in partnership with God. There is no holy filling cabinet with the plan of our life written in it. Fr. Smith says that if we were to look in it, we would find that the file stops at the moment we are looking at it. The rest is still to be written but hopefully in the partnership with God which is essential if we are to take our place in the larger plan of God and what God desires from and for us.

[1]  Madeleine L’Engle, The Rock that is Higher, (Wheaton, Ill.: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1993), 130.