The Sacrifice of Isaac by Marc Chagall
The Narrative Lectionary presents a difficult text for this Sunday. It’s not one I would choose and I bet most preachers are only too glad to avoid it. It’s dramatic, suspenseful, blood-chilling, poignant. It raises many more questions than it answers. And yet it is one of the foundational stories of our faith and one well worth revisiting. I hope to do that this Sunday when I share a first-person sermon from the perspective of Sarah, Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother.
In the meantime, in my research I came across this thought-provoking meditation from retired United Methodist Bishop, William Willimon, from his days as a parish minister. Looking for something to share with his adult Sunday school class on a particularly hectic Sunday morning, he decides to show them the video depiction of this text from The Genesis Project series. He wondered how his congregation of sophisticated, educated, often skeptical adults would respond to such a strange story, even in video form, but he says, “I assured myself that it was only a little Bible story. What harm could it possibly do?”
The group watched silently as the story unfolded. The dialog was in Hebrew with English subtitles. What an austere sight it was to see old Abraham struggle up the windswept, dusty mountain, 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, then a voice speaks, the knife is stayed, the ram cries from the thicket, and it is over.
Says Willimon, “The group sat there in what seemed to me to be a stunned silence when the video ended. I rather nervously attempted to begin the post-video discussion. It wasn’t easy. I sounded defensive, was talking too much, giving them a bit of historical background. They listened in awkward silence. “ ‘But what does this old story mean to us?’ I finally asked. ‘That’s the question. I daresay we moderns are a bit put off by the primitive notion that anybody would think that God wanted him to sacrifice his child like this. Can this ancient story have any significance for us?’
“ ‘God still does require it,’ interrupted a woman, an older woman, hair graying, hands nervously twitching in her lap. ‘He still does.’ “ ‘How?’ I asked. “Quietly, with tears forming in her eyes, she said, ‘We sent our son to college. He got an engineering degree. But he got involved in a fundamentalist church, married a girl from that church. Then they had a baby, our only grandchild. Now he says God wants him to be a missionary and go to Lebanon. Take our 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 looking for another church.’ “ ‘What?’ I 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 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 that God.’
“After the class had ended and the group filed out of the room, my wife and I sat here for a stunned moment, and then silently began winding up the extension cord and putting away the chairs. ‘What on earth was all that about,’ I finally asked. She knew no more than I. But by then, 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, leaving us on the flattened plain of middle-of-the-road, reasonable religion.”
Concludes Willimon, “How odd that we who make our home and plant gardens under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, who regularly discard our innocent ones in sacrifices to much lesser gods than Abraham’s wild and restless God, should look condescendingly upon him. No stranger to the ways of the real God or to facts of real life, Abraham would at least know that a mad, disordered, barbaric age needs more than a faith whose only claim is that its god can be served without cost. How puny is our orderly, safe religion before the hard facts of life.”
On a Wild and Windy Mountain by Will Willamon, 1983. (as summarized by Rev. Eugene N. Nelson, Jr.)
Like the folks in Willamon’s congregation, each of us will have a different reaction to this story. I hope you will take some time this week to ponder what you think… how you feel… about this troubling text. It has been included in the canon of scripture for a reason, but what that reason is may be the subject of eternal debate. I do find myself coming back, again and again, to this question that Willamon raises: if our faith costs us nothing, is it authentic? Are we really serving God or just a “god” we have created in our own image?
See you Sunday!