Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Binding of Isaac

In the name of God, source of all being, eternal Word and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some Muslim friends once invited me to join them in celebrations of the feast of Eid al-Adha, the commemoration of God’s providing the Ram to Abraham as a substitute for his son. I remember watching the sheikh take hold of the lamb, who was indeed as innocent and passive as a lamb led to the slaughter, explaining that he was not slaughtering but sacrificing the animal, then quickly, deftly and quietly cutting its throat. The lamb just as quietly and quickly passed away. He repeated this act with a few more lambs, which various members of the group had dedicated, and then let the rest go.

I remember how happy I was to watch the survivors gambol back up into their pasture. And I remember as I watched their brothers being slain, thinking two thoughts: How glad I was that we do not have to do this, and, Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Listening to the reading from Genesis, we may wonder: what was Abraham thinking? Where did he get the idea that he should sacrifice his son? That God would want that? What kind of a god would ask this? What kind of a father would think to do it?

The surrounding cultures, as I understand it, worshipped gods who did indeed require human sacrifice – just as much as the god of the Aztecs did. The cult of Moloch demanded the burnt offering of the firstborn son. Somehow Abraham got into his head the idea that this may be required even of him – that the God who has led him to the promised land, has given him his son, has promised him uncounted progeny – that somehow this is the same god.

All the way up the mountain, Abraham kept faith with God. Believing in the promise he somehow continued to expect the impossible. He laid the firewood on Isaac’s back – like requiring a man to carry his own cross – saying, “God himself will provide the lamb.”

Not knowing what would happen, in the fear of God he bound his son, and took up the knife. The angel stayed Abraham’s hand, and showed him the ram in the thicket. I think there is more going on here than the substitution of a sheep for a man.

God did not require the death of Isaac. He required his life – that is, that Isaac and all the future and the hope that he represents, belongs to God, not Abraham. This life is not a life to be grasped onto but to be freely accepted as a gift from the willing hand of God.

Abraham responds to God’s call in faith, in obedience, yielding all claim to ownership to what is most precious to him – the promise, the future and the hope embodied in Isaac – and he dedicates that beloved Child to God, to God’s purpose, not his own – and it is through the efficacy of this obedience, this act of faith, that Abraham becomes the father of nations – not through heredity but through faith in the love of God. And it is this faith that gives him descendants innumerable. “I will shower blessings on you, I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore.” (Genesis 22.17)

Abraham chose obedience. Through his radical obedience, Abraham became the father of our faith, the exemplar of total trust in God.

What he was required to yield up, that which was most precious to him, what had to be relinquished to God when God required it, was Isaac’s life – not his death, but his life. The future and the hope that Isaac represented were not for Abraham to own and to master, but for him to trust in God to provide, just as he provided the ram in the thicket on the mount that came to be called, “God provides”.

When he set his face toward Jerusalem, Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again. Jesus chose obedience – he lay his own life down, that very life that was to become the first fruits of the resurrection. Life is not to be grasped to oneself, but to be freely offered in obedience to God. Jesus did not give just his death to God; he gave his life – a life of integrity, of witness, of proclamation. He took up his cross rather than live a life of self-protection.

Jesus kept faith with God, proclaiming in word and deed the reign of God’s love, of justice, peace, and forgiveness. He embodied the fullness and image of God’s compassion and love for humankind. Just as Abraham traveled to a distant land ready to sacrifice his beloved son, so Jesus, knowing full well that it might cost his life, traveled up to Jerusalem to give witness to the reign of God.

[He took up his cross rather than living a life of self-protection. We participate in the life of Christ, in the proclamation of the kingdom. We receive the life he continues to give to us. By his life we live. His life makes it possible for us to live faithfully, in radical obedience to God, with a future and a hope. To live in faith is costly; God asks a lot of us. Life is full of frightening and painful and hard things. We have this consolation, that Jesus went through this already and goes through this with us –we are not alone, and death is not the end of the story. No place we are ever asked to go – no height nor depth, no hardship or distress, no persecution or famine, no epidemic, no war - can take us away from the love of God. He has been there already. He is there with us. And he will bring us through to the other side. No other thing is required. God’s mercy is full and complete. He takes us from the broken places to wholeness, from the darkness into light; we were lost and are found.]

Grace is costly, but the price has been paid in full by God himself.

On the cross he made, by his one offering of himself, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, once for all.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

A sermon for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Sacramento
March 12, 2006
Second Sunday in Lent (Year B) BCP Lectionary Readings:
Genesis 22:1-14, Psalm 16:5-11, Romans 8:31-39, Mark 8:31-38

[Section in brackets was presented at 8am but not 10am service.]

Sources and inspirations:

William Blake, “Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau”

John Bowker, ed., “The Sacrifice of Isaac”, The Complete Bible Handbook (Dorling Kindersley, 1998), p. 39.

Barbara Crafton, “The Lesson We Have to Preach On”, The Almost Daily eMo from, March 9, 2006 (

The Jerusalem Bible, Reader’s Edition (Doubleday, 1968)

The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press, 2004)

Søren Kierkegaard, “Eulogy on Abraham”, Fear and Trembling (1843), Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, 1983) p. 15-23. (See selection from another translation at

Sarah C. Leech

Jude Siciliano, O.P., “First Impressions” (

Hugh Talat Halman, “Id al-Adha”, World Book Encyclopedia (2004)