This Fairhaven Sermon by Rev. Dylan Parson reflects on the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis. The speaker highlights the haunting and dark quality of the story, emphasizing the troubling aspects that often go unnoticed. The sermon raises questions about the moral implications of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son and Abraham’s willingness to comply. It also explores Abraham’s previous actions and the complex dynamics within his family. The speaker underscores the mysterious and contradictory nature of God’s command and the testing of Abraham’s faithfulness. Ultimately, the sermon encourages listeners to trust in God’s goodness and to be willing to sacrifice everything for their faith.
The speaker draws parallels between the story of Abraham and Isaac and Leonard Cohen’s song “Story of Isaac,” reflecting on the deep emotions and experiences portrayed in both. The sermon connects the narrative to the theme of trust and obedience, emphasizing the significance of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice everything and God’s provision at the last moment. It concludes by relating the biblical story to a passage from Matthew 10, highlighting the call to follow Jesus, carry our own crosses, and trust in God’s goodness even in uncertain times.
The door, it opened slowly. My father, he came in, I was nine years old. And he stood so tall above me. Blue eyes, they were shining.
And his voice was very cold. He said, I’ve had a vision. And you know I’m strong and holy. I must do what I’ve been told.
So we started up the mountain, I was running, he was walking, and his axe was made of gold. While the trees they got much smaller, the lake a lady’s mirror. We stopped to drink some wine. Then he threw the bottle over, broke a minute later, and he put his hand on mine.
I thought I saw an eagle, but it might have been a vulture. I never could decide. Then my father built an altar. He looked once behind his shoulder, and he knew I would not hide.
These are the opening two verses of the story of Isaac, which was written in 1969 by the Jewish-Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s best known in the U.S. for writing the popular song Hallelujah.
Many of you know that one. It was in Shrek, which brought it back to kind of popularity. And it’s been covered by countless artists, almost all of whom made a cover that was more popular than the original. But like that song, the story of Isaac has this haunting, dark quality that’s easy to miss when you’re hearing kind of the prose of scripture.
But whenever it’s written out or sung, it comes through. You hear it sung in his clear, understated, deep voice where the story is primary and the song is secondary. And you can almost envision as the song is sung from the perspective of Isaac. Not a narrator, not Abraham, Isaac.
You can almost imagine the singer looking right off into space as he recalls this terror that he experienced as a child at his father’s hands. Nine years old, Cohen imagines. And this is one of those stories in the Bible where it’s very, very hard to know what we’re supposed to do with it. And if it doesn’t trouble you, and this kind of happens when we know a story from the Old Testament or the New over and over again, I would suggest that it should.
Hear it again and feel how troubling this story is. There’s always a key risk when we read the Bible, and that’s that we know the end. every story we have a general idea of what the end of the story is, but the characters in the story don’t. And we know the end of this story, but we can’t really grasp what goes on without holding on to the reality that Abraham and Isaac don’t.
And so as we remember that Abraham has no idea what’s going on, No idea what’s going to happen. It becomes a really unsettling story. This is a story that in Abraham’s context, he lived in ancient Canaan, is almost certain to end in child sacrifice. They did that all the time in that culture.
It wasn’t all that uncommon for the Philistines, for the Canaanites, all those around to do that. And so, which is worse as we read this story? Is it that God is asking Abraham to sacrifice his son or that Abraham says pretty much okay. Consider also that Abraham at this point in Genesis is not looking great. A chapter ago, the passage we heard last Sunday, he sent his second wife Hagar and his first son Ishmael to die in the desert.
Why? Well because his first wife Sarah is jealous. Pure jealousy. That’s it. Sarah saw Ishmael playing with Isaac and saw him laugh, Genesis says.
Sarah saw Ishmael laugh playing with Isaac and that made her so angry and hateful that it justified that Hagar and Ishmael had to die, despite Sarah, you’ll remember, being the one who urged Abraham to marry Hagar to have a child with her. God arguably doesn’t look great in that story either. He’s told Abraham to comply with Sarah’s demands and Abraham sends out Hagar and his own son into the wilderness with just enough water that they could get out a good distance before they died so Abraham wouldn’t have to feel, you know, responsible. God happens to step in and he saves them.
But But is there any reason to assume that Abraham knows what happened out there with Hagar and Ishmael, that all is well that ends well? He probably doesn’t know that. Does God know, does Abraham know rather, that God met them out in the desert, that he saves them, that he blesses them, that he is going to make Ishmael the founder of another great nation? Or as far as Abraham knows, is Ishmael dead somewhere in the sand of the Arabian desert? So as far as he knows, God is asking him to kill his second kid in a row and by his own bare hands this time without any plausible deniability. You know, he could kind of brush off Hagar and Ishmael. I don’t really know what’s gonna happen out there, but it is crystal clear what he’s being asked to do here.
And so Abraham’s mind must be reeling whenever God speaks out of nowhere. Abraham, God says. And Abraham answers with this completely open-ended response, I’m here. And God lays out the command.
He says, take your son, your only son, which isn’t quite true, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him up as an entirely burnt offering there on one of the mountains that I will show you. And Abraham’s guilt must have been overwhelming. And perhaps he thinks that this is coming to him because he was too cowardly to stand up and save Ishmael and Hagar, and now he is the one that has to experience the suffering.
He sent Hagar to watch her son die, and now this is gonna be his fate too, amped up even further. And the implications must send him reeling as well because God’s command here is just completely mysterious, contradictory, and confusing. Isaac was going to be the beginning of a great progeny, a great legacy for Abraham. He was gonna have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, as the sands in the desert.
And through Isaac, God has promised that he’s gonna make Abraham a great nation. And now instead, Abraham is to tie up his son and burn him like a goat or a dove. And so what is Abraham hearing here from the God who led him hundreds of miles out of his homeland into this new and unknown place, promising the world and the future to Abraham? Nevermind. I chose you, but I’m taking it back.
And it’s worth stopping here for a moment here. It’s worth stopping here in the story at God’s unexplainable command, because this is a lot. And maybe it’s worth being reminded by this story that God is God. You know, we have as Christians, as contemporary Christians, a fairly casual relationship with God, and that’s a blessing.
We can call God Father like Jesus did, and God is our Father. We speak to God, we don’t have to go to the Great Stone Temple in Jerusalem, We don’t have to confess through burnt sacrifices, through a priest going into a secret chamber. You know, we can pray sitting at our kitchen tables, sitting in the car, and yet God is God. God creates all things, God rules over all things, God judges all people, and God can do whatever God wants to do.
God is God, and that’s great and mysterious, and he’s infinitely beyond us. We serve a God who’s impossible to get our minds around, and that is what Abraham is encountering in this moment. We serve a God who has high expectations for his people. He has very high expectations for Abraham.
Jesus has high expectations for his disciples. And it seems here that God tests us for our faithfulness, as uncomfortable as that is. You know, I’ve written over this story, I’ve been trying to figure out how to wiggle out of that ’cause the testing is, you know, that’s uncomfortable. We don’t like that idea that God might test us, but that’s what’s here.
God expects Abraham to be willing to offer everything. And he tests him to see if he will. And Isaac, to Abraham, is everything. He’s the fruit of everything he’s longed for in the past.
He’s the joy of his present, and he is his entire future promise. The only future that Abraham can envision is all that’s gonna happen through Isaac in the world. And yet when God calls Abraham, he goes. He doesn’t object.
Abraham, and I say this with empathy because I am too, We see him in Genesis as kind of a pathological coward. He’s repeatedly told others that Sarah is his sister out of fear. He just finished doing this in the previous chapter again. It’s like his third time.
He’s driven his own son and second wife out into the desert because he’s afraid of his wife. But here, he goes without hesitating into the wilderness. The narrator of Genesis tells us in chapter 19, or chapter 21 rather, that Abraham is terribly upset whenever he casts out Ishmael and Hagar. He’s really uncomfortable, he doesn’t want to do it.
And that’s why actually God talks to him to calm him down and say it’s gonna be okay. And a few chapters ago, going back to chapter 19, Abraham bargains with God over and over again. They go back and forth. God is threatening to destroy the city of Sodom from destruction and Abraham is negotiating.
Oh, well, if it was even a hundred people there, You wouldn’t destroy them, right? You know, even 30, even 10. Abraham goes back and forth, face to face with God, confronting Him, trying to save the people of Sodom that he doesn’t even know. But not here. He doesn’t do that for Isaac.
He gets up in the morning, he loads firewood on his donkey, and he sets off for the land of Moriah with two servants and his beloved son, and they begin this three day journey. And so we can hear Cohen’s words in that song start to take shape. This little caravan of a few men and the boy arrives at the mountain, and soon Abraham tells his servants to wait behind. Him and the boy are gonna go up alone to worship.
And Abraham maybe is walking stoically up the mountain, trying to take his time not to get there too fast. And Isaac’s getting increasingly disoriented. He’s fearful, the altitude’s starting to get to him a little bit, and he slips into a run. And he’s got the firewood on his back, so he’s running clumsily up the hill while trusting his father enough not to run away.
He knows something’s wrong, but he doesn’t run away. My father, he asks, Dad. And Abraham says, Here I am, my son. exactly the same way as he responded to the Lord’s voice a couple of days before.
Here I am. Where’s the lamb for the sacrifice? And Abraham says, The lamb for the sacrifice? God will see to it, my son. And they ascend above the tree line well up into the sky, where the trees are done, an open, scraggy bush is all over the place. There’s all kinds of those like twisted like bonsai bushes you see at the top of a mountain.
And a lake below them has receded so far into the distance that it looks like a hand mirror. And Abraham stops and Cohen imagines to tremble his trembling knees. He takes a swig of wine and he finishes the bottle and he flings it off the mountainside. And they’re so high that the bottle seems to take a minute to hit the rock below.
And above them, circling the rest of the way to the top, is an eagle or maybe a vulture. And then they reach the peak of the mountain. And perhaps knowing in his heart what’s been coming for a long time. Isaac’s known, right? He doesn’t say a word.
And his father ties him up and places him on top of this rough altar of logs. Genesis doesn’t say that Isaac says anything. He doesn’t fight. And Abraham takes the knife, I mean the literal Hebrew it’s a butcher’s cleaver, not you know a knife, but a cleaver, and prepares to take it to his son’s throat.
And God speaks once more and this time with more urgency, Abraham, Abraham! twice. And once more Abraham answers the exact same way, I’m here. And he is. And a new command is given loud enough that Abraham can hear it over his heart pounding in his ears.
And God says, Don’t stretch your hand out against the young man and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me. And Abraham looked up and he saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. And Abraham went over, he took the ram and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son.
He makes a sacrifice, he finishes, and God speaks again. I give my word as the Lord that because you did this and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, I will bless you richly and I will give you countless descendants, as many as the stars in the sky and as the grains of sand on the seashore. They will conquer their enemy’s cities. All the nations of the earth will be blessed because of your descendants, because you obeyed me.
This covenant that God made with Abraham quite some time ago, God says it’s still there. I meant it, it’s still true. And somehow it is in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice everything out of obedience to God, his entire future, everything that God promised him. He took it up to that mountain and prepared to lose it.
That is when God steps in to provide. It’s a mystery that we can’t possibly understand that Abraham wouldn’t have understood as testing and providing are both what God does. And our lives involve both times of testing and trial and then miraculous providence that lifts us beyond whatever we could have planned for ourselves. And I wonder, I don’t know, I don’t think it’s clear from this chapter, but I wonder if something has changed in Abraham by the time we get to this test here in chapter 22.
You know, Abraham, said this earlier, has proved himself to be kind of a coward over and over again. He’s flimsy, he’s hesitant to make the right decision, he doesn’t listen to God all that well. And I wonder if Abraham deciding to take Isaac up the mountain is the moment that he truly comes to faith in the God that he’s walked with for a long time. Is that why he doesn’t object, right? He does for Ishmael, he does for the people of Sodom, but he doesn’t object for Isaac.
Is that because he knows he doesn’t have to? Does he actually mean it when he promises Isaac on the way up the mountain, that God will provide a lamb for the sacrifice. Maybe he means that. And yet it seems clear as he ties up Isaac and puts him on top of the logs, that he is unshakably ready to sacrifice his son if that’s what’s required. He has placed his trust as fully in God as Isaac has placed in him.
That I think is something that really struck me in this story this time. Isaac trusts his father so much. He doesn’t resist, he doesn’t object as he’s tied up and placed on the logs. Abraham doesn’t contest God as he goes up the mountain because he trusts God fully and like Isaac seems to, he trusts that God is good.
Even in the face of all available evidence, it looks like what’s gonna happen is gonna be horrifying. He and Isaac walk up the mountain of the shadow of death, and he trusts that God is still good, and at the end of it, he’s proven right. I wanna return now to our gospel reading for last Sunday, which really would have fit much better this Sunday, specifically Matthew 10, 37 to 39. Those who love their father or mother more than me aren’t worthy of me.
Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow me aren’t worthy of me. Those who find their lives will lose them. And those who lose their lives because of me will find them.
Those who find their lives will lose them. And those who lose their lives because of me will find them. The Lord has promised us love, mercy, and life eternal. And yet to really get there, to really experience that now requires knowing deep in our souls that God is good.
Worth laying everything down for, worth trusting, even if we can’t know for sure what’s ahead. But you and I, like Isaac and like another son generations later are still called. Carry that firewood. Carry that cross up the mountain that lies before you.
Trust that God will provide the lamb. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.