In the book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, the title character is having a bad day. Everything goes wrong. He gets carsick on the way to school. His teacher likes another kid’s picture better than his. She says he sings too loud. The elevator door at the dentist’s office closes on his foot.
The book offers an important lesson that bad things happen, that we all have bad days (and some terrible very bad days), and that we cannot always make everything better or easier, especially for those we love. Sometimes, the best we can do is say to someone “you’re having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” Or say, like Alexander’s mother, who is very wise, “some days are like that.”
Last week’s sermon was titled: Abraham and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Part One. Unlike last week’s reading from Genesis, which I chose to preach on, ignoring almost entirely a challenging gospel text, these week’s Old Testament reading is one we cannot choose to preach on or not. The story of Abraham and Isaac demands our attention.
Years before I became a priest I remember saying to my spiritual director: “I hate that story and if I ever get a chance to preach on it, all I’m going to do is stand there and say: ‘This is horrible! I hate this!'”
But what if there is something we should learn from this passage? We won’t learn anything if we just decide it’s awful and we hate it. The questions that abound when we hear about “The Binding of Isaac” are the hardest ones to answer: What kind of God would do such a thing? Why would God put Abraham to the test? How could Abraham obey? Do I really want a God like this?
Perhaps this is a story that simply teaches us that God makes no sense. But it does make sense if we remember that faith—especially the faith of Abraham, early in the life of God’s relationship to God’s people—is a risky business.
There are several things to reflect on in this story of Abraham and Isaac, which is really a story of Abraham and God.
One thing is the historical context. This story begins with the words “After these things, God tested Abraham….” After these things is a tiny phrase that encompasses the original disobedience in the garden of Eden, which God may have interpreted as betrayal, the first murder by Cain of Abel, the escalation of world-wide violence that occasioned the flood, and the Tower of Babel. Ellen Davis, a wonderful Old Testament scholar to whom I owe much of what I’m about to say, says that “the first eleven chapters of Genesis…is predominantly a story of steady alienation from God and human rejection of God.”
One could say that God is trying a new strategy, focusing on one relationship with one man and his descendants, creating a great nation, a covenant community to receive the blessing that God is all about. So this is a story about the solidifying of that blessing-giving relationship. Like I said, faith is a risky business. And it is a give-and-take business. Yes, God is always there. But our experience of God is determined by how we receive that presence.
So the first thing I want to is that this story must be read in the context of God’s whole relationship with humanity that has contributed to his relationship to Abraham. The second thing I want to say is that it is a story not about obedience, but about trust. If it is a story about obedience alone, then it is a scary story about abuse of power. If it is about trust, then it is a story about a relationship that will last to eternity.
Abraham and God’s relationship got off to a rocky start. Abraham didn’t always trust God the way he does in today’s story. But by the time we get to today, Abraham never wavers. He does everything God tells him to do. If you remember my sermon from last week, you remember the code phrase which is a clue to Abraham’s unswerving faith. Anyone remember? Abraham rose early in the morning…. Abraham trusts God. His response is not blind obedience, but active faith. And faith is a risky business.
Think about other kinds of covenanted relationships. Baptism is one. We make a covenant with God and with a community, and we promise to act as Jesus in the world. When asked if we will do these things, we say I will, with God’s help. We will. Not we will try, not we will think about whether it makes sense, but we will act. Marriage is another kind of covenanted relationship. Marriage is not about proving yourself to the other person, but about being together through thick and thin, even when one’s beloved does hurtful, incomprehensible things. Loving relationships—between spouses, parents and children, good friends—are not based upon what we think about the other person, but about the trust we have for one another. Abraham and God have this kind of trust. It is as if—and again, I credit Ellen Davis for this thought—God and Abraham have a long and complicated marriage. Isaac, the miracle child, is their offspring, the bearer of Abraham’s genes and God’s promise. Therefore, Abraham can forgive God, Isaac can forgive Abraham, and the descendants of Abraham and Isaac will be as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.
There is no tidy way to end a sermon on this reading. Or if there is, I don’t know what it is. I want to leave you instead with an image. Or several images. If you search google for images of this passage, through the ages, almost all of them share several common features. Abraham has the knife in his hand, and Isaac is looking up at him with curiosity, almost as a detached observer. Perhaps because Isaac has deep faith in Abraham. In some of the paintings, we see the ram in the thicket. But Abraham is always looking up, as if he, like the plsamist in Psalm 121, knows from whence his help is to come. He may not know for sure what is going to happen, but he is relying upon God to show him.
I hope that God will never set before us the task given to Abraham. But I pray that we might all have Abraham’s faith.