A Sermon by: Canon Anthony Phillips
The Sacrifice of Isaac – St, Mary’s Iffley
2 July 2017
There is no more dramatic or poignant narrative in Jewish or Christian scripture than the account of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, the child of promise miraculously born when all hope of fathering a child had long past.
The purpose of the story is clearly spelt out in the introduction: ‘After these things God tested Abraham’. We read these momentous words in a matter-of-fact sort of way because we know the outcome of the story. Father and son live happily ever after. Indeed it becomes almost a fairy story rather than the hideous paradigm that it was intended to be – a paradigm for all, who believing that they enjoy a loving relationship with the living God, are suddenly confronted by his shadow side.
God does not mince his words. There is no attempt to soften the incomprehensible demand. He makes it quite clear that he understands the enormity of what is required. The command is not just to take Isaac, but ‘your only son’. It is the miracle child who is to be offered, the promise which Abraham thought fulfilled to be annulled. Nor does God spare Abraham’s natural emotions. For cold and unnecessary words are added to the order: ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love’. Just as God’s love is of unimaginable depth so is the deadly dark abyss of his shadow side.
Abraham does not argue with God but immediately sets out on the dread journey. God does not even have to tell Abraham which was the designated mountain. Abraham simply ‘lifted up his eyes’ and knew. But Isaac realises that something is amiss: ‘Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ Abraham does not hesitate in his reply: ‘God will provide’. There is a terrible irony in his answer.
God had already done so in the miracle of the child’s birth. The journey could not have begun had God not defied Sarah’s barren womb. But in making God responsible, Abraham makes it clear that he cannot be blamed for what is intended.
There are no final words between father and son, son and father, God to either. Isaac is laid on the altar. He has given himself to his father to do with him as he wills. But what does the father will? Can he in fact subject his own will to that of the God whom he has known as the God of grace? Can he still believe in this God, or has it all been nothing but a cruel hoax?
Abraham acts, acts in passion. His act is not one of blind despair. He does not simply resign himself to what he does not understand. Nor does he surrender to the negative forces within him. The knife is not turned in suicide on the father, but raised in passion over the son.
Abraham acts. It is a positive and conscious act. In that act he commits himself in the only way in which it was open to him to commit himself. He offers the one offering whose destruction would make nonsense of all that had gone before and make any future for his people impossible. So in the face of every natural, ethical and religious claim upon him, Abrahams lifts the knife. The shadow side of the absent God is confronted. Now and only now is the silence broken.
‘Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God’. This ‘fear’ is the Hebrew shorthand expression for what we understand by religion, man’s relationship with God. What Abraham has shown is that his relationship rests not on God’s presence but his absence too, that he is prepared to embrace God in the whole round of his personality including his shadow side. Even when he can make no sense of what is unfolding around him, he does not allow himself to be tempted away from his belief. He could so easily have turned the knife on himself and ended his unnatural agony. Instead in ignorance he endures. And by doing so, God does provide for the sacrifice: ‘a ram is caught in a thicket’.
You may be tempted like the new atheists, Dawkins and his compatriots, to exclaim, how can anyone believe in a God who treats Abraham in this way? But if you are going to do theology, you need imagination; you need to enter into the narrative itself, for it is by story that the Hebrews do their theology.
This narrative is dealing with one of the most important aspects of belief, the state of Godforsakeness. It is not alone in doing so. Jacob wrestles with the stranger of the night at the Jabbok, the Psalmist crys ‘Why?’, Job loses everything and is left an outcast of his city, the suffering servant in the book of Isaiah gives his life for many, and Jesus sweats blood in Gethsemane and dies on Golgotha with an unanswered question on his lips, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’
All experience the shadow side of God, his silent absence, Godforsakenness. And so have millions of others down the ages faced with God’s inexplicable test.
Indeed it is such a divine test that Jesus has in mind when he told his disciples to pray, ‘Bring us not to the test’ – a petition we have emasculated by the feeble rendering ‘Lead us not into temptation’. So Jesus goes on to pray, ‘Save us from the evil one’ whom those who have known the shadow side of God know not to be some outside force, but more frighteningly the enemy within, the denial of self, the suicidal knife. For it is in experiencing the shadow side of God that we are most at risk of being lost to him. It is at this point that against all the evidence, we are called to affirm not only God but our own integrity as Job had to do in his conflict with his friends, as Jesus did in Gethsemane and on Golgotha.
The story of the sacrifice of Isaac confronts the faithful with that dreaded darkness we call ‘Godforsakeness’ in which they are left to act alone. Either they affirm the God whose loving embrace they have hitherto enjoyed, when to affirm seems pointless, indeed ridiculous, or faced with his apparent treachery, they deny that God, which appears entirely logical. That is the real temptation against which we should pray. Paradoxically enduring the absence of God is ultimately more significant than enjoying his presence.
Abraham’s journey is constantly being repeated. It is an illogical journey. But that is always the journey of faith. For faith demands a constant stripping of the self with all that it relies on, and that stripping includes reliance on the presence of the smiling face of God. But faith is not something which is undertaken in an academic abstract manner: it is something to which one must commit oneself, which demands action; not any action, but passionate action. For faith is passion. So Abraham lifts the knife: a ram is caught in a thicket.