Our text today is a tough one. Here we are, only our second week into the narrative lectionary, and we careen right into a puzzling, seemingly outrageous narrative, in which God tells his main guy, the man on whom he has staked everything, to sacrifice his son. Yes, in direct contradistinction to everything we have learned about the God of creation, the God of abundant love and artistry in Genesis, it seems that we now have a God who insists upon death.
And not just any death. The death, the sacrificial death of Isaac, the son upon whom Abraham thought God was counting for a new future.
Let’s go back a minute: Abraham and Sarah, a couple repeatedly called by God into new lives. They start out in Ur, in modern-day Iraq. They make their way to Egypt. They return north to Hebron, in today’s West Bank of Israel and Palestine. In Hebron, Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, is born, to Hagar, his wife Sarah’s maidservant. That birth is the product of an ill-advised plan of Sarah’s; she cannot have children and so she urges Abraham to father a child with Hagar – but then, when the child is born, she is resentful and angry and insists that Abraham send mother and child away. That child, Ishmael, is generally understood to be the progenitor of the Muslim people, which is why Abraham is the called the father of the People of the Book: Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
But I digress. God makes three promises to Abraham and Sarah: that they shall be the parents of a great nation, that they shall have a multitude of children, and that God shall establish a land for them. When the promise of a son comes to them in their old age, Sarah, in particular, at the age of ninety, finds that promise laughable, which is why when the miracle child is born, he is named Isaac, which means laughter. Isaac is born in Beersheba, which is also in present-day Israel.
Our first reading is from Genesis 21:1-3, and covers this portion of the story: 1 The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.
Imagine the joy! Imagine the delight! This elderly, childless couple, promised to become parents, to become the ancestors of a great nation, to be established in a land of their own, have spent their lives as childless nomads. The fulfillment of any of God’s promises seems highly unlikely and then – a son! A wonderful gurgling and giggling addition to their lives. A little boy who follows his mother around the tents , and who wanders the land with his father. What could be better?
But now begins the story over which much ink has been spilt. And I want you to listen for the repetition of the phrase “Here I am.” Our reading continues in Genesis 22: 1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 2 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." 3 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. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5 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." 6 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.
How do you think Abraham felt when he uttered that first “Here I am”? Confident? Hopeful? Perhaps -- life had been going well. His family was settled; his son was growing.
Or was he apprehensive? Jewish tradition tells us that Abraham suffered ten trials, ten tests, and withstood every one of them. There is some debate as to exactly what the ten were -- some appear in Scripture and some in legend – but all accounts agree that this story depicts one of them. A man who had undergone trial after trial at the hands of God might indeed have been apprehensive to hear God’s voice again.
We don’t know. We don’t know how Abraham felt. What we do know is that he was immediately responsive. Immediately present to God. God called, and Abraham said, “Here I am.”
And then? Then, as he heard God’s instructions – take your son and make of him a burnt offering – I think we can guess what feelings must have been swirling within Abraham’s heart and mind. Horror? Bewilderment? This could not be the God of Genesis, could it? The God who had created the heavens and the earth in all their beauty and fragility? The God who had promised him descendants? What was he to do? What was he to say? Why don’t we hear him saying anything at all? Abraham has been known to question God and to argue with God. Rabbinical stories have him questioning God in this instance. But Scripture itself is silent.
All we read and see is that Abraham was immediately present and responsive, courageous – or perhaps reckless? -- and willing.
There was a 20th century theologian named Paul Tillich who described, defined, faith, as our “ultimate concern.” He made the point that there are many, many things in which people have faith, which people view as their “ultimate concern.” A sports team. The nation, or a particular political party. Money. Success. All you have to do is look at the magazines on display in the supermarket or listen to the radio for half an hour to know that people are ultimately concerned with many things. Things to which they submit themselves and things which they expect to provide them with fulfillment – that’s how Tillich describes faith; that’s how he defines ultimate concern.
Abraham’s ultimate concern was God. Abraham had heard a promise from God, and he expected its fulfillment. If he could not rely upon the God in whom he had placed his confidence and his trust, all else was for naught.
And so he trudged on his way, with his son, and he heard another voice. Isaac’s voice. Our reading continues:
7 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?" 8 Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together. 9 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. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
Have you ever been required to be present to someone else in the midst of your own anguish? Have you ever had to be present to someone else in terrible circumstances as a way of being present to God?
That’s what I think was going on with Abraham here, here where he says “Here I am” to Isaac. He did not stop being a father solely because God’s call took precedence. In fact, it was precisely because of his call to fatherhood that he remained concerned, compassionate, and loving to his curious son. Attentive and gentle. I know that many of you, perhaps all of you, understand something the tension that Abraham felt. I know that you have been in situations in which you have wanted to fall prostrate on the ground and scream your protests, but someone else has been in need. A spouse, a child, a parent. And so even as you cry out within, you attend to them without. It’s a way of being present to God, of recognizing that sometimes love makes conflicting demands upon us.
And then, finally: 11 [T]he angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 12 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." 13 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. 14 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."
A third “Here I am” – and how does Abraham feel now? Tired? Exasperated? What more can you possibly have to say to me, God? And then – Surprised? Relieved? Joyous?
What is going on in this story?
One prevalent tradition tells us that it is a story designed to instruct God’s people that their God will not tolerate child sacrifice. God’s new people were surrounded by other, polytheistic, nations, some of whom did practice child sacrifice as a means of appeasing their gods. Was God saying, “Not for my people?” Did Abraham misunderstand God’s voice at first? Did he hear in the voice of God the voices of the cultures in which he had been immersed, those in which a child’s sacrifice might have been expected, and need God’s correction? Was God seeking to ensure that Abraham understood that the one God was indeed the Genesis God of creation and love, and not one of the many local gods who demanded sacrifice and death?
Such an interpretation makes sense in the context of the Hebrew Bible as a whole. Not only does the God of life and light not want child sacrifice; God will later tell the people of Israel, through the prophets, that God is not interested in their sacrifice of burst offerings at all, in their paltry attempts to appease him with altars on which plant and animal are laid and from which smoke rises to the sky.
No – what God wants is compassion and justice. God wants their praise – our praise – not through burnt offerings, but through our care for others, our presence to others, our compassion for others through our perseverance for justice.
And how does one learn compassion and justice? One learns compassion and justice through suffering. Perhaps Abraham was called to learn compassion through a silent and lonely walk up a mountain, through three days of anticipation that his dearest, most precious earthly companion, the source of all his hopes for fulfillment of God’s promises, was to be destroyed by his own hand. Perhaps Abraham was called to learn God’s justice through the anguish of repeating the response, “Here I am” until he was certain, down to his own bones, that God alone is the source of all good; that God’s thoughts and ways, as the psalmist says, are not ours; and that, although God’s love and God’s ways are too great for us to comprehend, we are called to enact them in compassion for others.
How could Abraham have become the father to not one but two – no, three – nations without this understanding? How could he – how could we – understand compassion and justice if we did not know the suffering that cries out for both? How could we say “Here I am” with integrity if we did not understand the depth of suffering to which we are called to respond in love?
“Here I am” – words of hope, words of apprehension, words of courage, words of compassion, words of anguish, words of surprise, words of joy. “Here I am.” Amen.
 Kathryn Schifferdecker, Working Preacher Podcast. http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=422
 Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, “Abraham's Simplicity.” http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter5-4.html.
 Brent Cunningam. http://www.brentcunningham.org/?p=647.