The Church places before us today the story of the binding of Isaac. Read by itself, it is a brutal tale. Both God and Abraham can appear to be appalling. It is tempting for us to condemn Abraham for his actions. The story however, is only a piece of the puzzle that is Abraham’s life, and one that comes near the end of his journey of faith. If we dismiss him, we risk missing the lessons that the author is trying to teach us; lessons that can uphold us at the end of our own life’s journey, which, by the way, none of us asked to be on.
Our lives began through no decision of our own, but the ultimate meaning and purpose of our lives, while influenced by others, must, in the end, be discerned individually. Patience and maturity are needed to unveil the wisdom faith can offer.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. wrote:
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God...your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow...shape themselves without undue haste. Do not try to force them on as though you could be today what time...grace and circumstances...will make you tomorrow...give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. Above all, trust in the slow work of God.”
Teilhard appreciated the unfolding nature of one’s life, the way each moment contributes to new revelations and new birth, how each new revelation contributes to a deeper understanding, and appreciation of the truth that is one’s existence. As we look at the story of Abraham, let us consider how the moments of Abraham’s life contributed to: a new revelation, a deeper understanding, and an appreciation of his existence.
A New Revelation Abraham was a son of Sumeria, and as such believed in the gods of his father; the gods of the mountains, fields, and sky. Early on in his youth he questions his father about the existence of such deities.
Under the open sky he looks at the stars and concludes that they are gods...until they disappear. The same follows for the moon and sun. Gradually he realizes that one God must be behind them all. “I disown your idols,” he tells his father. “I will turn my face to the One who created the heavens and the earth. I am no idolater.” (Koran, Ch. 6). With the moon and the stars extinguished as sources of meaning, Abraham stands in the darkness and stillness that surround him with a new hunger for meaning burning within him.
A Deeper Understanding Abraham’s journey of faith begins in earnest, with a voice out of the stillness. It speaks to a hunger so compelling that only God can satisfy it. In his search for meaning, Abraham has nothing to fall back on. His only way is to go forward into uncharted territory. God reveals himself as the only God who can help Abraham.
“Go forth,” God commands. And Abraham goes. He is old, childless, his wife is barren, and he doesn’t even know where he is going. But he does not look back! For Abraham, at this point in his sojourn, to be human in relationship to God means to be uncertain, not safe or comfortable, but to be on the way to the One who promises fulfillment. And this one God keeps a promise like no other!
Abraham and Sarah have a son; the promise fulfilled brings the freedom of joyful laughter, which is the name they give their son - Isaac. Before long comes another call... Or is it? God, we are told, puts Abraham to the test. God calls Abraham to go forth from all that he has grown comfortable with and secure in. “Take your only son, the one that you love, (the child of the promise) to the land of Moriah, and there offer him up...to me.”
I wonder if on that Mount, in his old age, Abraham’s tired eyes recalled what he saw in his youth under another sky, the insight that compelled him to let go of all that he had put his faith in, all of the created order, all that in the end could not give him life and could not sustain him. I wonder if he remembered the hunger of his youth when he stood in the darkness. Moriah, the place to which God sends Abraham, means the place of seeing. And it is here that Abraham sees in his old age what he once glimpsed in his youth and now, perhaps for the first time, understands fully.
He sees that, in this relationship, he is, in the words of Thomas Cahill, “the contingent one who is utterly dependent, who must cling consciously to his God, who gives and takes beyond all understanding, whose purposes are hidden from human intelligence, who cannot be manipulated, the only God who is worth his life and the life of his son.” 1
Abraham passes the test, and as the story tells us, both he and God are faithful to one another. But Abraham has learned that he is not in control, now or ever. His true sacrifice is that of his heart. He gives himself fully to God. He believes not in the promises made through Isaac, but in the one who made the promises, God himself. God risks Abraham’s obedience; Abraham risks God will provide. Both are faithful.
An Appreciation of His Existence From this point on, God and Abraham have no more direct conversation. Like faithful friends and old lovers who have been tested throughout life’s journey, silence and stillness seem to suit them well.
The psalmist writes, “Be still, and know that I am God.” A more accurate translation of the Hebrew reads, be weak, let go, release, and surrender in order to know that God is in control. Abraham learned to do this throughout his lifetime. It made all the difference, for him and all who would be his children. At the end of our journeys, may ours be a mature faith. May we trust in the Maker of the Promise. And if you feel, as I do, that you have a long way to go to reach that mature faith, trust. Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
1 The Gift of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels
Rev. Patrick J. Butler, Pastor, St. Edward the Confessor Church, Clifton Park