Abraham lived in ancient Mesopotamia, in a time and a place that didn’t understand the idea of God. Rather, his culture embraced the idea of local gods that were in charge of things like fertility, weather, and war. The book of Genesis includes the story of Abraham being called by the one, true, living God to leave his father’s house and his homeland, to journey to a new place that he would be shown.
This is huge.
This is Abraham being asked to leave the known for the unknown. The comfortable for the challenging. To be willing to hand in his whole worldview, in exchange for something new. And he isn’t even told where the destination is.
It’s for good reason that Abraham is held up as a model of faith.
But it’s important to remember that the story of Genesis is fundamentally about Abraham learning who this new God is. Because he doesn’t know. And because so much about how this God wants to do things is strange and foreign and completely at odds with what Abraham and people from his culture would have expected.
Like how God enters into covenant with Abraham. Makes promises. And fulfills them. For people in the ancient world, and perhaps still for us today, the idea that the God who made all things would interact with us in this kind of way is mind-blowing.
God promises to make Abraham the father of many nations, and to bless him and his bloodline – so that, through them, the whole world could be blessed too. Even though Abraham and Sarah grow old without a child, God’s promise persists.
Until one glorious day, Sarah conceives. And Sarah and Abraham have Isaac. Their pride and joy, and the fulfillment of God’s promise to them.
And then we come across this strange story, which begins with a note to the reader that God was going to test Abraham.
This idea of testing was common at the time – it fit in with the expected system of sacrifice to appease distant and angry and demanding gods. So the idea of Abraham being tested in this way would not have raised any eyebrows. This was a normal part of a story about a god.
The way that Abraham is to be tested is that God demands he sacrifice his only son. Which to our ears is completely absurd, and raises all kinds of questions about God. What kind of god would do this?
Actually, more than a couple of ancient gods were known to demand this kind of thing. Again, to an ancient audience, this is not a particularly surprising turn of events. They’ve heard this one before.
So, Abraham does what is expected of him. He packs his bags, gathers his servants, and sets off to perform the sacrifice. Something he has seen before.
He and Isaac make the long journey up the mountain, and prepare the altar. Abraham binds Isaac. And then something truly mind-blowing happens.
Abraham is told to stop.
God intervenes, and insists that this kind of sacrifice is not what he really wants. Instead, God will be the one to provide the sacrifice.
In the context of the ancient world, this is utterly unexpected. And it’s critical to remember that this story is about Abraham learning what God is like – because this is all new to him, and he doesn’t have the benefit of thousands of years of scripture and reflection.
Abraham, and those reading this story, learn that God is not like other Gods. In a time and place where people expect gods to be demanding, fickle, and in need of things that humans can provide, this God is different. This God doesn’t demand sacrifice, doesn’t require human intervention for his own well-being, doesn’t leave his people unsure of where they stand. This God provides.
And so, the test is turned on its head. God reveals himself to be entirely different from what Abraham’s worldview would expect, and a deep and profound truth is made clear. God provides. Which, of course, is what Abraham names the place where this all happens.
By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the news. At the end of August, my time at St. Stephen’s will come to an end. This decision has been incredibly difficult for me and my family. St. Stephen’s is more important to us than I could ever express, and it is challenging and gut-wrenching to imagine stepping away. But, for a whole wide range of reasons, I believe that it is what I am called to do.
And I don’t believe that it is the end of the story for any of us.
We’re all a bit like Abraham – called to journey onward, trusting in God even without knowing quite what destination he has in store for us. And just like Abraham, a fundamental part of the story is about us learning more and more what God is like.
In the midst of all of the uncertainty, in the midst of all of the awful, challenging, painful things that we’re going through, my prayer is that we might know that this isn’t a test. Or, at least, it’s not that kind of test. The challenge here is not for us to be good enough, pure enough, or faithful enough. It’s never been about us at all. The challenge here is to remember that this is about God.
And, God provides.