University Congregational Church
June 15, 2014
“Men of Faith and Service”
Scripture: After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He 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.’ 3So 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. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then 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.’ 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. The two of them walked on together. 7Isaac 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?’ 8Abraham 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. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill* his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 12He 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.’ 13And 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. 14So 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.’
I realize it is a strange scripture to preach on for Father’s Day! Abraham, the father of the Israelite nation is preparing to sacrifice his son. What possible good could come from this story? Anyone here really like this story? Is it something you read to your children and grandchildren for a bedtime story?
No doubt about it. In the modern world we see this as a story of psychological, emotional abuse; not to mention a theological nightmare. But what we forget is that this story supposedly took place in a time and place far removed from our own, thousands of years ago in a primitive culture. Life and death were commonplace. Abraham did not live by the more modern illusion that death is somehow avoidable. The experience of Abraham’s life and the geography of his land taught him that no permanent barrier exists between life and death. Not even a semi-permanent barrier. Abraham knew that the distinction between life and death is so fragile that only a moment separates one from the other. A moment sustained only by God’s grace.
So when Abraham heard what he perceived to be God’s call, he didn’t answer the same as we might: by calling SRS, talking about abuse, child protective policies, or notifying the authorities. Abraham knew that the land which supported life also took life. It might have seemed to him that the God who created a life could also demand that the life be turned over to God.
To us, this seems like cruel and unusual testing. To Abraham, it was a hard test, to be sure. But it was not, within the scope of his experience, an essentially unfair test.
So when Abraham heard God calling, he gathered what he needed, summoned his son and obeyed. Perhaps he obeyed because he believed that both life and death are subject to God. And with his beloved son, Abraham set out for the land of Moriah.
Just because Abraham was from a primitive and harsh existence does not mean that he was an unfeeling moron, however. When our daughter, Erin, was born, the doctor suggested that we video tape her delivery with his new camera. This was obviously before litigation was so common. Incidentally, for family fun some evening, you can come over and watch the video! It was a C-section delivery – even then a rather typical birth – probably the tenth that morning. Erin was born and the excitement in the room began.
- Nurses took her over to wrap her in a blanket.
- The doctor talked to me and to the OR staff.
- People were talking, laughing, and enjoying the happy event.
But in the video I noticed in stark contrast, standing beside my bed was an unusually quiet and intent Eric. He watched as the nurses checked over the baby. He smiled at me. And then, the most remarkable thing happened: The nurse brought the baby to him and offered her wrapped little body to him. The look on his face was precious. It was a most wonderful, proud, awestruck expression. Instead of taking the baby from the nurse as she offered, he stretched out his hand, extended his finger and with awe, touched his new baby in slow motion. The world was being handed to him and his life would never again be the same.
Abraham was no different than Eric. Having a child was an experience that changed him and the face of the world forever. He loved his son. We cannot presume that we love our children anymore than Abraham did – that would be sheer historical arrogance. The love and joy that swelled in Eric when he held his children for the first time is the same love and joy that swelled up in Abraham. The tenderness and protectiveness we feel for our children, Abraham felt for his. The pride we have when our children do something spectacular crosses time and space and extends to Abraham.
Abraham loved Isaac. To obey this unfathomable command to sacrifice his son would cost him incalculable pain and agony. Abraham was a man of flesh and blood, like you and me. He was caught between two great passions seemingly at odds with one another: his love for his son and his devotion to his God. At the top of that mountain was the intersection of pain, love and devotion.
Hearing the story, we would expect Abraham to break. But he did not. Because Abraham had faith. Having faith is not about having the right doctrines or going to church. In Hebrew, having faith literally meant to make yourself secure in the Lord God.
Abraham had faith. When his two passions collided so that he could no longer hold them together, Abraham had faith. He committed himself to act in a way that depended on God to be trustworthy. Abraham trusted that, whatever the circumstances, God would keep both him and Isaac secure. Abraham had faith that God would not fail him or forsake him.
Here’s the rub. Is the story asking us if we would sacrifice our children for God? No. That question is not at the center of the story. The story is not about sacrificing a child. The story is about trust, faith, and priority. This story is about Abraham entrusting himself and what he loved most deeply in the world to God.
When I do marriage counseling, one of the questions I ask the couple to discuss is the order of importance they rank:
- Their relationship to one another
- Their relationship to God
- Their relationship to themselves.
It’s a vitally important indicator for their marriage. If one has a different priority than the other, the marriage will hit a crisis very quickly. And that is what Abraham’s story is about.
Today, I celebrate men – fathers, grandfathers, step-fathers, adoptive fathers, foster fathers, mentors and teachers – who have faith and vision.
- These are men who are willing to risk, to trust, and to make themselves vulnerable.
- These are men who love deeply and struggle passionately for what is right.
- These are men who have seen the cruelty of life and death and who still believe.
- These are men who see life beyond their tents and the tents of their sons – and realize that lie is not an exclusive gift.
We need these men. We need to hear their voices, joined with Abraham’s through the ages. Voices of faith and hope. Men like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. Men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Bill Cosby. These are men, some fathers, and some not, who offer an example of what it means to live with faith and hope.
Some of you know that I have had several father figures. The most positive influence in my life, however, was not from a man married to my mother. This was a man who taught me about life and love. He taught me about hard work, patience, hope and faith. He taught me to prioritize my relationship with the Holy in my life.
When I was a baby, he built a wooden box with a mattress inside and placed it on the dining room table. He put me in it to play. The sides of the box were tall enough to keep me from rolling off of the table; but they were short enough to have eye contact with adults and be part of the action.
When I was a young girl, he took me in the cab of his big truck and I knew that I was the most important girl in the world. He even let me pretend I knew something about construction when we visited his job sites.
When I was in grade school, he helped me stay ahead of my class by teaching me math and reading. And there were also lessons I learned when I had to cut a switch from the tree in the backyard.
When I was in junior high, he asked me to teach him algebra after school. I was surprised that a man more than seventy years old would care about modern math.
When I was thirteen years old, he asked me to check his figures on a job he bid and he did not double check them after me. He trusted me with his income.
When I graduated, he helped finance my college. He believed in education, in personal growth – in me.
At every moment along the way, he taught me about life, about love, about faith and about God. Strokes debilitated his body, but not his mind, for three years. With each stroke, he lost ability – to walk, to take care of himself, to talk, even to be a dignified man. He lost everything except his faith and his sparkling blue eyes. And like Abraham, he remained faithful. He trusted God with his life and I watched him trust God as he slowly died. He trusted that God would not fail him or forsake him.
When I am down and my life seems strained, I can still feel him tucking me into bed, telling me a story, sharing a joke. The roots run strong. I know I am a precious child of God because he loved me. His witness sustains me even now when he has been dead for 25 years.
Why? This was a man like Abraham. A man willing to trust and obey the voice of his God and live in service to others.
The world needs men like this. Men who are willing to step up and be fathers to children – whether biological or otherwise. The church needs men like this. Gentle-strong men who love God and will speak the truth in love. The children of our city need men like this. Gentle-strong men who will use their gifts to build up, nurture and love.
You do not have to be an Abraham to be a father. You can be a man of vision and service simply because you love your God. I give thanks for the men who have been blessings in our lives!
“And Abraham Believed” by Dana Martin. The Christian Century, September-October, 1996.