In case you’d like to listen again to the songs we sang, here are YouTube links to them. WaymakerShout to the North
© Stacey Steck
Except for cannibalism, there may be no other greater sign of a culture’s barbarity than child sacrifice, the practice of offering up to the gods of one’s culture an innocent life in exchange for some rain for your crops, or protection form your enemies, a practice which horrified those who came into contact with the Incas, Aztecs, and other indigenous groups of the Americas. In 2018, archeologists in Peru discovered a burial site of up to 140 children and baby llamas, with the children buried facing west and the llamas buried facing east, the largest find of its kind, and their best guess is that this sacrifice was made in order to put an end to the incessant rains caused by the meteorological phenomenon we now call El Niño. As they sent their children off to die, they probably thought to themselves, “God will provide.”
Today’s story from Genesis is not one you’ll find in children’s Bibles. It’s a scary story, an awful story, a story which pushes the boundaries of our humanity, a story in which only God seems to rescue Abraham, and us, from the annals of barbarity. He was ready to do it, Abraham was, until he heard that voice calling his name. The altar was prepared, the boy was tied up, the knife was unsheathed. All that remained was to spill the child’s blood and light his body afire, and Abraham would have proven himself worthy of God. But of all the disturbing elements of the story, maybe the most awful isn’t that Abraham was willing to do this to his son, but that God was the one who asked him to do it. “Take your son, your only son, Isaac” God says, “Take your son whom you love, and ho the Land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.” Maybe the Incas and the Aztecs were mistaken in believing their gods desired sacrifice; we’ll never know. But Abraham is commanded by his God to perform this barbarity, and not just to any child but to his own son.
And it wasn’t like Abraham was getting much out of the deal. The Aztecs and the Incas thought they were getting something tangible out of the deal. All Abraham was going to get was a pat on the back from God, because all killing Isaac was going to accomplish was nullifying the promise God had given him that he would be the father of a great nation. Abraham was eighty-six years old when he had Ishmael, and ninety-nine when he had Isaac. Ishmael was long gone, Isaac was about to be dead. There weren’t going to be any more children from Sarah’s womb. What great nation could come of this barbarous act? And yet he seems completely ready to do it, knife in hand.
So does Abraham suffer from delusions and hallucinations? Or is God really so petty that a test like this is necessary? If God is looking for a way to come off as a hero who can be trusted to provide for faithful people, surely there must have been some more civilized way to do it, like Gideon’s fleece or something like that. And this episode comes not at the beginning of Abraham’s walk with God, but much closer to the end. Abraham is an old man. What more does he have to prove? What is God testing, exactly. Well, it might be that God wants to make sure Abraham remembers that Isaac is God’s provision and not his own, that Abraham really gets the idea that God giveth and God taketh away. After all those years without heirs, without someone to carry on the family name, perhaps Abraham was getting a little too self-satisfied and forgot that Isaac was God’s doing and was taking all the credit for himself.
Or maybe this story is about how delicate is the promise and how much faith is required to keep the flame burning. Or how easy it is to misunderstand what God is asking us. So many possibilities, right? Because this just doesn’t make sense. The God who makes Abraham a promise out of nowhere, and then fulfills that promise, only to ask Abraham to nullify it? There are no easy answers and very little to distinguish our ancestors in the faith from those we vilify as the barbarians of our continent.
So what redeeming value is there in this passage? At the most basic level is perhaps the reminder of how all of our hopes and dreams hang by a thread easily cut by a knife like Abraham’s. We human beings spend so much time toiling for what we have or want to have. We invest so much energy in building for a future in this life that is never guaranteed. Abraham must have thought he’d finally found the security he was looking for, a son to whom he could pass on all of his possessions so he could die in peace. And God showed him how fragile is human life. It can all come crashing down so much faster than we think, and it’s so easy to take it for granted. Cherish your loved ones, people. Cherish those with whom God has provided you. Tell your child you love them. Tell your parents you love them. How many would trade their parents’ estate for just five more minutes with them? When we invest ourselves in what lasts, in the inheritance that really matters, in love and mercy and grace, God will provide.
Perhaps another virtue of this barbaric story is to remind us that we are not the center of the universe, and that our purposes are not necessarily the most important ones. Yes, Isaac served a practical purpose for Abraham, but Isaac served an enduring purpose for God. Isaac wasn’t born to let Abraham know all his hard work wouldn’t go in vain, or as some kind of reward for exemplary behavior. No, God’s purpose in Isaac was to provide peace and security for a whole nation so that that nation could testify to the nations around them that the Creator of the universe was worth putting their faith in. Isaac is really the beginning of Abraham’s story, not the end. Isaac is the next chapter of the future. The promise isn’t fulfilled in Abraham, but in Isaac, and this episode shows that God, not Abraham, is now responsible for Isaac. Like the story of Samuel later on, when his mother Hannah dedicates him to the service of the Temple, Isaac belongs to everyone, not just Abraham. You’ve done your part in furthering the promise Abraham, but I’ve got it now, God seems to be saying. You can’t protect him for every peril, but I can. That’s a hard lesson for us to learn, isn’t it? To trust that God will provide.
And last but not least to take from this scary story is that God doesn’t ask us to do what God isn’t willing to do. A few thousand years later, the Apostle Paul recognized this when he wrote to the Romans, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
As far as anyone knows, Paul didn’t write these words as a commentary on the story we heard this morning, but it sure sounds like one doesn’t it? Abraham did not have to sacrifice his son because in the end, that God’s job to do. Isaac doesn’t say much in the story but he asks the right question, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” And although Abraham can’t possibly understand it fully, he gives the right answer: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering.” And isn’t it interesting that the substitute for Isaac was not a lamb but a ram. The sacrifice of the lamb was still to come. God will provide.
We don’t know everything about the practices of child sacrifice among the Aztecs, the Incas, or any other culture that practiced it to placate their gods, but I find it hard to imagine that those who ordered those sacrifices offered up their own children, or that their gods were willing to offer up their own children. That’s not what kings do. Kings take other people’s children and offer them up because their own children are too important. But our God saw things differently. Our God saw that the future depends on love, grace, mercy, and sacrifice, and specifically on God’s love, grace, mercy, and sacrifice. “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” God will provide. Amen.