March 18, 2018
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
What kind of faith does it take to slaughter your own son? Not only that, but your one and only son, the son for whom you waited and hoped, the one who finally came in your old age. What kind of faith does it take to lay a knife at his throat? The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in his mediation on the story of Abraham and Isaac, Fear and Trembling, contemplated what it must have been like for Abraham to make that journey to the mountain at God’s behest, knowing all the while it meant his son’s death at his own hands. What kind of faith is that? I don’t know if anyone here has that kind of faith. In fact, if someone today would commit such a horrendous crime in service to God, we’d rightly prosecute him to the furthest extent of the law.
The Genesis narrative doesn’t tell us about what was going through Abraham’s head between, “Then he started out for the place God told him about,” and, “On the third day Abraham looked and saw the place in the distance.” But those three days must have been excruciating. How many times did Abraham think about turning back, about finding a new god who didn’t demand such horrible things? How often was he given the choice to take Isaac and flee to another country, one far, far away from this God who demands blood?
At its must subjective, faith is a crisis that demands a decision. Do I stay, do I go; do I obey, do I rebel; do I believe, do I doubt? Abraham was faced with decisions of faith when he saddled his donkey, when he cut the wood for the offering, when he took the knife in his hands, but he was also faced with a crisis of faith every step of his journey.
We are likewise faced with crises nearly every day of our lives. We don’t often call them crises; we tend to reserve that word for really big decisions. But there are little decisions we have to make day in and day out, like Abraham’s thousands of footsteps on his way to Mt. Moriah. A crisis of faith isn’t just whether to try out a new cancer drug that might end up killing you—a crisis of faith is when you make a decision to spread gossip, or to tell a half-truth to make somebody look bad, or to entertain a married coworker’s flirtations, or to “borrow” some money from your work’s petty cash.
But the decisions of faith are not always so clear-cut. Not everything has an identifiably God-pleasing decision. Abraham’s experience was even more muddy. If he would have chosen to do what was God’s will—that is, choosing not to kill his son—he would have been disobeying God and would have failed the test of faith. This is why Kierkegaard calls Abraham a knight of faith: after resigning himself to losing everything, including his son, he’s willing to do the unthinkable in faith.
If, then, faith is a crisis—an either-or decision—what happens if you’re wrong?
Our problem so far has been defining faith as a matter of making decisions. Faith isn’t about making decisions; making decisions is a matter of the Law. The Law commands this or that, and you had better do this or that. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, that’s Law if I’ve ever heard it. The Law also commands you not to spread gossip and to speak kindly about your neighbors, the Law commands you not to hide part of the truth, the Law commands you to honor your and your coworker’s marriages and to live a chaste life.
The Law is what makes the crisis. The Law is what puts a choice in front of you. But the Law is not always as clean-cut as we would like. There are often times when we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, when either decision would be to disobey God. Like Abraham. To sacrifice his son is murder. But to refuse is to disobey God’s direct command.
This is in fact, the reason why God gives His Law. The Law was given to increase the trespass. This is part of God’s test of Abraham. Either decision that he makes, he’s forced into a reckoning with God. Every step he takes toward that mountain is a step toward that reckoning. I wonder what would have happened had the voice of the angel not stopped Abraham—would he have gone through with it? We’ll never know. And that’s the point. Abraham’s faith wasn’t based on his choice. The Law demands a choice, but the choice is never satisfactory. We need a better definition of faith. We need to sift something else from this story that tells us what faith is.
We will, of course, never know what was going on inside of Abraham’s head, or what stirred in his heart. The only thing we can know is his confession. God leads Abraham along that journey in order to get him to confess his faith. Then Isaac said to his father, “My father.” “Yes, my son,” he answered. “We have the fire and the wood,” said Isaac, “but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” “God will provide Himself with a sheep for the burnt offering, my son,” Abraham answered. Now Abraham has come to the point where every other choice is removed. That’s faith in God. God has the choice; He will provide Himself with a sacrifice. Actually, let’s make that a little more pointed:
God Provides Himself as a Sacrifice
Now we have come to faith: faith is belief in the promise that God Himself makes and keeps.
As Abraham reached for the knife and took it in his hand to sacrifice his son, the Angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Yes,” he answered. “Don’t lay your hands on the boy,” He said, “and don’t do anything to him. Now I know you fear God: you didn’t refuse to give Me your only son.” When Abraham looked around, he saw behind him a ram caught by his horns in a bush. So Abraham went and got the ram and sacrificed him as a burnt offering instead of his son. Abraham called that place The-LORD-Will-Provide. Today we still say, “On the mount of the LORD it will be provided.”
So where is this lamb? It’s not Isaac. It’s not on the altar. It’s not caught in a thicket (that’s a ram, not a lamb). In fact, the story closes without the lamb being sacrificed. But He is present. The Lamb is the One who speaks from heaven. The Angel of the Lord, Genesis names Him. God told Abraham to sacrifice His son Isaac, but it was really one of the sons that Isaac would produce.
The story goes on: Again the Angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven: “I swear by Myself, says the LORD, because you did this and didn’t refuse to give up your only son, I will bless you richly and give you many descendants, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, and your descendants will capture the city of their enemies. In your Descendant all the nations on earth will be blessed, because you did what I told you.” Actually, Moses didn’t write that Abraham did what God told Him—that’s a bad translation. Moses wrote that Abraham heard what God said. Abraham’s faith—and thus his blessing—wasn’t because of what he did. It was because of what God said. It was God’s gracious Word. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ, writes St. Paul.
Tradition is that that same mountain would be where the sacrifices were offered in the temple. That’s why it was still said in that day, “On the mount of the Lord it will be provided.” Year after year, lambs were brought in to be sacrificed, but none of them were the Lamb that God provided. Until the Angel of the Lord—the Son of God—stands in the temple. He is set apart as the Sacrifice once and for all. God makes good on His promise and He does what Abraham confesses—He provides Himself as the Sacrifice.
So that means that faith for you is not a crisis of decision. It doesn’t mean absolute resignation and being willing lose that which is most near and dear. For you, faith is rest in the promise that the Lamb of God became the Sacrifice also for you. The Law demands your choice, but God has made the choice you could never make. He gives you the promise—the same promise given to Abraham—that in his Descendent, you are blessed.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard