One of the most disturbing and challenging stories in the Bible is the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac. What does this story have to teach us about faith, about God and about ourselves?
We are startled by a world quite different from our own. In Abraham’s world, human sacrifice was common. As one commentator writes, “It is as though in some green and fruitful field where harvests ripen we come upon the fossil bones of strange creatures which once walked the earth.” In Abraham’s day, it was common in many religions to practice human sacrifice. For us, when we read this, we are jarred out of the story to wonder. “How could he do that? Why would God demand it?”
Some have said that Abraham sees others making great sacrifices for their gods and feels tested to do the same. Abraham feels led to make the greatest personal sacrifice to prove his loyalty to God.
There is no greater test of faith than suffering the loss of one’s child. For Abraham, this loss would have meant even more than the loss of Isaac, his only son, but also the loss of hope in God’s promise. Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah as a fulfillment of God’s promise that they would have descendants. Through Isaac, their line would continue. Now Abraham is tormented by this painful dilemma of letting go of this son, of this hope, for the sake of his loyalty to God. Does he hold on and protect Isaac or let go and act in faith?
We don’t know what went through Abraham’s head. We only know that though he was tested, he trusted God. He does as he hears God command.
But what if Abraham was wrong? What if he only thought God was telling him to sacrifice Isaac? Isn’t it true that sometimes we think God is telling us to do something when really it’s some other voice, like Satan, or some destructive force within us? How could Abraham take the risk of destroying what God had given him and Sarah?” These questions remain unanswered in the story. What we do know is that Abraham was faithful, trusting God even to the point of death, even at the risk of losing his only son. We see that this trust in God is rewarded.
Trust in God. This is the central theme of this story. Even when you are tested, trust in God. Even when you are threatened with death, or the loss of a loved one, trust in God. This is no blind faith. Abraham saw the risk he was taking. His faith did not blind him to what was going on. His faith allowed him to see clearly and to trust that God could bring life even when threatened by death. Abraham’s faith is tested and he passed.
The Bible is filled with stories of God testing God’s people Israel. The tests God imposes on Israel are all related to God’s promise of abundant life in the land of Canaan. God tested Israel in various ways to see that the people obeyed, that they remained loyal. What is at issue in these tests is trust – trust in God’s constant care, trust in God’s own faithfulness to promises, trust in the love of God.
Those who successfully pass these tests discover in the process that God is faithful. God can be trusted. In the story not only is Abraham’s faith highlighted, but so is the faithfulness of God. God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. At the last minute, God provides a scapegoat to be sacrificed. God is faithful to the covenant with Abraham and saves Isaac’s life.
The challenge of our faith is to take risks even when we feel threatened, even when we feel tested unfairly. The promise given to Abraham is for us in Jesus Christ. God is faithful and true. We are able to take risks, like Abraham, because God is faithful. Taking risks strengthens our faith. Taking risks, we discover God’s faithfulness. Abraham is tested and still continues to act in faith. His reward is to see God not as an angry, distant ruler, but as a loving parent.
Sometimes our love is put to the test. In any relationship, there are times when “the better” part fades away and “the worst” comes knocking at your door. There are moments when all you can feel in a relationship is pain, anger, bitterness, or disappointment.
Sometimes our love is put to the test. Like Abraham, we must risk losing what we most cherish in order to save what we have. Jesus said “You must be willing to lose your life to save it.” Only by giving up the promise he held dearly could Abraham be assured that all “life” was safe in God’s hands.
Our faith, like Abraham’s, requires that we let go of what is most precious. Let go of whatever we want to control or protect, especially the gifts and promises of God. As we take the risk of letting go we discover not only that our faith can handle it, but that God’s faithfulness is greater even than we could have imagined. We can let go, because God holds on. Great is thy faithfulness. Lord, now and forever. Amen