Abraham said, “Son, God will see to it that there’s a sheep for the burnt offering.” And they kept on walking together.
(Preached on Sunday, July 2, 2017)
The year was 1787, a full 11 years after Independence was declared and 4 years after the Treaty of Paris ended the War between the colonies and Britain. The Articles of Confederation were not working at all and the Confederation Congress was as unable to conduct business as the current government in Washington seems unable to do. A Constitutional Convention had been called by the Congress to discuss revisions to the Articles of Confederation. The mood at the Convention was ugly. It was painfully apparent to all present that the convention – and the union – was about to break apart, shattering into different regional entities. The delegates were deadlocked over the issue of states’ rights versus a centralized, federal government. At this crucial moment, when there was not a man present who had any real hope of finding an effective solution, it was Ben Franklin who rose to speak. This elder statesman, one of the most prominent physicists of his age, quietly said:
In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for Divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. … and have we now forgotten this powerful Friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: “that God governs in the affairs of man.” … We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this. I also believe that, without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel; we shall be divided by our little, partial local interests; our projects will be confounded; and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a byword down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing government by human wisdom and leave it to chance, war, or conquest. I therefore beg leave to move that, henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessing on our deliberation be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business.
That speech – and the sober reflection in the silence which followed – marked the turning-point. Their priorities rearranged by Franklin’s startling admonition, the delegates, nearly all of whom were believers of one kind or another, got on with the business of crafting a new Constitution.
Those delegates were dealing with a crisis of trust. Much as we are dealing with today. We have a crisis of trust in our nation: NOBODY TRUSTS ANYBODY! The citizens of our nation for the most part do not trust the government; the two parties do not trust one another; even within parties there appear to be deep divisions and a lack of trust; the President does not trust Congress, or the Courts, or the media; Congress does not trust the President; average citizens do not trust the police and the police do not appear to trust most citizens. We are living with deep divisions and differences and people no longer seem to trust that their neighbors or colleagues care about them, or about their community, or about the nation.
Yet this nation could not have been formed without great trust. The original signers of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, fifty-six men, trusted each other with their lives, their families, and their property. These men were not wild-eyed radicals; they were dedicated men of means and education. Twenty-four of them were lawyers. Eleven of them were merchants. Nine of them were plantation owners. Of the fifty-six, nine of them died in the Revolutionary War. Five were captured and executed by the British. The homes of twelve of them were ransacked and burned. In the face of all that, which was still to come when they signed the Declaration, but which they knew was fully possible, they stood tall, straight, and unwavering. They pledged their support of this Declaration, their support for one another, and a firm reliance on the protection of the divine providence of almighty God. They signed together because they trusted God and each other. Can you imagine any of our politicians or government leaders trusting each other enough to sign such a Declaration today?
Trust is HARD! It is a difficult reality to establish and it is very had to maintain. This is the core truth and teaching of our Scripture passage this morning. The near sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most difficult stories of our faith to read. Yet it is one of the daily readings, every day, for an Orthodox Jew to read in their practice of reading through the Torah. Undoubtedly that is because this story is all about trust. And it is a harshly truthful story in laying out the difficult nature of trust and the truth that trust is always a two-way street.
We fully understand the story is demonstrating the trust of Abraham in God. It is the only explanation that makes any sense of Abraham’s actions. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits in his book With God in Hell has imagined Abraham’s inner dialogue with God while walking to Moriah during those three days. This is a piece of that dialogue:
In this situation I do not understand You. Your behavior violates our covenant; still, I trust You because it is You, because it is You and me, because it is us. … Almighty God! What you are asking of me is terrible. … But I have known you, my God. You have loved me and I love You. My God, you are breaking Your word to me. … Yet I trust You; I trust You.
Total, radical trust – it is the only thing that makes any sense of Abraham’s submission to God. Of course, we than wonder is God trustworthy? What kind of God would submit Abraham to this appalling “test,” as our story calls it? But in asking that question, we demonstrate how we overlook the great trust God is placing in Abraham. God has staked everything on Abraham, even the whole world. And Abraham has certainly given God reason to doubt whether Abraham has truly staked everything on God. Abraham and God have been in relationship by this time for decades. Along the way Abraham has demonstrated his struggle to trust God completely by repeatedly appearing to rely on his own wits, ingenuity, and will.
God has risked a lot. God is counting on Abraham as the channel for overcoming the world’s evil with divine blessing. This is also a story about God’s willingness to be vulnerable and trust Abraham. One scholar describes this startling revelation about how God trusts a human being in this way:
God places the shape of God’s own future in Abraham’s hands. Given is somewhat mixed responses to God up to this point, God took something of a risk to put so much on the line with this man. … One cannot project what God would have done had Abraham failed, or if Abraham had actually killed Isaac, but God would have had to find another way into the future, perhaps another way with Abraham.
Like any good marriage or our deepest friendships, the relationship between God and Abraham endures only because two hearts are bound together through mutual trust. And trust is the very opposite of compulsion. Trust is how you relate to others when you don’t try to control them by force of manipulation. The astonishing truth Genesis 22 reveals is that God chooses to relate to the world not by compulsion but by trust.
And trust is inherently a condition of vulnerability. You can be disappointed by the one you trust and deeply, deeply hurt. God’s own trust makes God vulnerable just our trust in God makes us vulnerable. Trust is not a possession we can secure for ourselves and then ration out to God, or to anyone else. Rather, trust is the living tissue of our relationship with God, or with anyone else for that matter. As people offer themselves to me, they also offer me an experience of the trustworthy God. Like my friends and loved ones, God stands by me, listening and loving without reservation. Trust does not exist in a vacuum. It is relational. It binds and entwines us with the human and the holy, to creation and all the created, and to all our experiences with them.
Relationships of trust – with the real God, the God of Abraham and Jesus, and with other human beings – are not for the risk-averse. The book of Genesis puts it to us straight: sometimes being in relationship with the real God hurts like hell. Sometimes it’s bewildering: we’ll be inching along in the dark, with no vision of where this relationship is taking us. God the gospel also puts it to us straight: it’s taking us to the cross and on to resurrection. It’s taking us straight into the arms of God. It’s taking us into a parent’s aching yet indomitable love – the Divine Love that will not let us go – not ever. We can put our trust in that.