Old Testament: Genesis (22:1-14)
God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
The Response: Psalm 13
1 How long, O Lord?
will you forget me for ever? *
how long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long shall I have perplexity in my mind,
and grief in my heart, day after day? *
how long shall my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look upon me and answer me, O Lord my God; *
give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death;
4 Lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” *
and my foes rejoice that I have fallen.
5 But I put my trust in your mercy; *
my heart is joyful because of your saving help.
6 I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly; *
I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High.
The Epistle: Romans (6:12-23)
Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Gospel: Matthew (10:40-42)
Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
The story told in today’s first reading is known in the Jewish tradition as the “Akedah”: the “Binding” of Isaac. It is one of the most disturbing narratives in all of scripture. For those of us who are parents, it probably ranks as number one.
For thousands of years, people have struggled with this ancient tale and have provided their own variations and comments on it. Early Jewish tradition came to view Isaac, not simply as a victim, but as a willing martyr. In the first centuries of the church, Christian tradition envisioned Isaac as a symbol for the crucified Christ. The Quran (37:100-111), in its depiction of the event, describes the unnamed son encouraging his father to carry out the sacrifice in submission to God’s will. In later church tradition, Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s command was viewed as evidence of his perfect faith. In the Enlightenment, the story was interpreted as expressing a rejection of human sacrifice. And, in more recent times, some who reject religious faith altogether have claimed that it promotes child abuse and murder. Walter Brueggemann, probably the greatest scholar of Genesis in our time, admits simply (Genesis, page 185), “The intent [of the story] is not clear.”
What is clear is that those who created this narrative, somewhere in the deep recesses of ancient history, were wrestling with the incomprehensibility of the one whom we call “God.” That is a struggle that people of all ages, including our own, share with them as we strain to comprehend the Ultimate Reality.
The God who “tests” at the beginning of the story is the same God who “provides” at the end. Not only scripture but also the great expanse of human experience of the transcendent reinforces this two-fold nature of the divine. The God who gives is also the God who takes away. The God who promises is also the God who commands, who challenges, who calls us to what are often difficult and sometimes even seemingly insurmountable tasks. For Christians, the God of Easter is also the God of Good Friday.
At some times in Church history, God was clearly viewed from only one these two perspectives. In the western church during the middle ages, for example, God was often portrayed as someone to be feared, not in the biblical sense of “respected” but in the more common usage of the term: someone whose judgment was to be dreaded, someone of whom all should be afraid.
Today, at least in our society, many people cling exclusively to the opposite end of the spectrum. God for them seems to be a fairly innocuous notion: a beneficent being to whom they pray when they are in trouble, but one whom they otherwise ignore and who leaves them alone to do pretty much whatever they want. For these folks, God gives us the beautiful story of Christmas and the uplifting story of Easter, and that is all that many people want. The multifaceted story of God’s relationship with and dealings with humanity is ignored, as they create and try to live in a simplistic fairytale of their own making.
But the gracious and life-giving God whom we encounter in the pages of the scripture is far more complex, far more mysterious, and far more challenging than that. God does bless abundantly. God does provide. But God also challenges and calls people to do things that are difficult: things that they really do not want to do. Especially in the teachings of the prophets, we encounter the God who absolutely refuses to let the world remain the way that it is and who absolutely refuses to let us remain the way that we are. God will not settle for us simply to be along for the ride.
That God is the God who demands justice for all people, who cares passionately for the outcast, who works actively to transform the world and its inhabitants to become all that God has always intended them to be. And that God insists that we, who have been created in God’s own image and likeness, do the same: that we join with God in God’s ongoing work of bringing to perfection all that God has made, that we “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (The Book of Common Prayer, page 305).
Life in such a God is not just about what God gives to us, but also about what God demands from us. In the early twentieth century, Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno insisted, “Those who believe in God but without passion in their hearts, without anguish in mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair even in their consolation, believe only in the God idea, not God himself.” While Abraham, in the story of the Akedah, is associated in later tradition with absolute and unshakable faith, certainly any real Abraham must have approached Mt. Moriah with that same anguish in mind, uncertainty, doubt, and an element of despair.
If Abraham was faced with that struggle, if Jesus, as described in the gospels was faced that struggle, how can we possibly imagine that we would be exempt? Life with and in the God of the Jewish and Christian tradition is bound to be difficult and even deeply disturbing at times.
Yet, as Abraham came to recognize at the conclusion of today’s story, God in the end provides. In the words of Jesus, God is present with us to give us our daily bread: to give us the strength and the faith and the courage to face the obstacles that we encounter on our way and to accomplish the life-giving work with which God has entrusted us.