There once was a man named Abraham, he lived far to the East in the land of Ur among his people the Chaldeans. He had lived a full life, an old man surrounded by family—siblings and nephews and clan. He had spent his long life married to a strikingly beautiful woman named Sarah. That could have been the coda to a good life, an ordinary life. But one night, Abraham heard a voice calling to him. It was a voice that would be at home among the deep places between stars, it was the voice of a God who had no name. “Abraham, Go out into the night and look at the skies, can you count the stars? Your descendents will be as numerous as the stars, but you must do as I command, you must leave all that you know, leave your family and your people and your land, and go to a land that I will show you, then the children of Abraham and Sarah will be a great nation.” But Abraham and Sarah didn’t have any children, he was 75 years old and his wife was 65 years old. How could this nameless God make good on such a wild promise?
Yet Abraham believed and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. And in that darkness Abraham had a vision, a vision of a three year old heifer cut in two with the two halves of the carcass propped against one another like a bloody lean-to. And there appeared a torch and a vessel filled with smoke and fire, and the flames were the only light in the deep and terrifying darkness as the vessel and the torch floated in between the two halves of the butchered animal. A contract. A contract had been formed between Abraham and a God who had no name, or at least chose not to reveal any name. Abraham left everything he knew behind, never to see his family or his homeland again and traveled west to the land beyond the Jordan River.
But then twenty-five years passed. Twenty-five years of waiting in disappointed hope with no child born to Abraham and Sarah much less a nation of children. But really, what could Abraham expect? Perhaps this business of children was just an old man’s delusion. But just as hope had departed the voice returned in the night, “Abraham can you count the stars? So will your children be”. But by then Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90 years old. Children? Now? Abraham fell on his face and laughed, he laughed at the promises of the nameless God now. Was there a note of anger in what was said next? “Within one year you shall have a child—a son—and you will name him Isaac, that is, ‘he laughs’ you will name your son ‘he laughs’ because you have laughed at the promises of God. And there is a new condition to our contract. The contract must now be confirmed in your flesh. You shall circumcise yourself, you and all your offspring. For all time you must carve your loyalty to me into your bodies. And if anyone will not be cut then they shall be cut off from my favor, they have broken the contract.” Abraham did as he was commanded and that very day he reaffirmed the contract he had made with this nameless God, he carved the contract into his 100 year old flesh.
And the promise came to pass! After decades of waiting, just like that Sarah was found to be with child. And before a year was gone she gave birth to a healthy boy, Isaac, he laughs. And Sarah said “God has brought laughter for me, everyone who hears will laugh with me”, a 90 year old woman nursing her first son? This was an impossible child! He was the laughter in Sarah’s eyes, the joy in Abraham’s heart and Abraham was like a younger man again. At 100 he was just getting started, 175 now there’s a time to die, strength was in his arms again. With the power of his nameless God, Abraham was capable of anything. Isaac grew and thrived and was weaned and became a young man and Abraham loved him with all his heart.
After these things God tested Abraham. The voice of the nameless God said “Abraham” and Abraham said “Here I am” and the voice said “take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you”. The nameless God … it had promised Abraham that he would have descendants through Isaac, and now he must kill Isaac with his own hands? The wonderful promise and the abominable command could not both hold true! To raise a son and to slaughter a son are not the same thing, death and life are not the same thing. What kind of being was this that Abraham had formed a contract with so many years ago, a contract carved into Abraham’s flesh, a contract carved into Isaac’s flesh?
Abraham would know this God, he would confront this God at the very apex of misery and learn once and for all who this being was. So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.' Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am. ’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.
What in the name of God happened on that mountain? What does this story mean? To look for moral guidance in the gleam of a sacrificial knife is to look into the mouth of madness. There is no easy moral to this story, no simple Go Thou and Do Likewise for us to take away. The story grips us and haunts us; Christians have told and retold the story every generation for millennia.
For there on the top of Mount Moriah, with Isaac bound and trussed as a sacrifice, God and humanity become locked together like two drowning swimmers each clinging to the other as water closes in over their heads. God commanded the sacrifice of Isaac and Abraham was deadly determined to follow through with the hideous command. If Isaac is to live, if God’s promises of grace are to prove true, then God’s will alone can make it come to pass. On Mount Moriah, Abraham and Isaac enter the dominion of gods and demons. On Mount Moriah, God must either be revealed as immeasurably evil or inexplicably good. God’s power must be revealed as either the power to deal death for no reason, or the power to grant life against all hope. And at the moment of truth Isaac is delivered! Isaac is twice born a miracle, once upon the birthing bed, twice upon the unlit funeral pyre—at the moment of truth God rejects forever the idea that human suffering brings Her glory, God rejects forever the idea that She is pleased by the taking of human life. The beloved son of Abraham walks away unharmed because God is good!
But as Christians, we cannot breathe a sigh of relief at the story’s happy ending, because the story of the binding of Isaac is told a second time. The story of the binding of Isaac is revisited, retold, replayed, in the life of Jesus Christ—the beloved, long awaited Son of God. In the life of Jesus Christ God and humanity are again locked together like drowning swimmers, clamoring for the life of the beloved Son, but the roles are reversed. In the life of Jesus, it is God and not Abraham who looks upon Her beloved Son bound and trussed for sacrifice. On the hill of Golgotha, it is not Abraham’s son but God’s only Son whose life is in danger. But for Jesus, unlike Abraham, there is no last second deliverance. There is no 11th hour reprieve. There is no call from the governor as seconds tick away to midnight and Jesus goes down to death. The prophet has been killed, the promise broken, the line cut off. How could the Prince of Peace reign from the tomb? Has not death triumphed over life at last? Has not God’s will been thwarted?
With Jesus lying in the tomb, God once again must be revealed. God must either be revealed as merely powerful, or God must be revealed as that power by which power is understood, that being by which being can exist, that life by which living is. God makes a way out of no way. At the moment of truth God shatters the tomb and swats away death as a mother bear does a snake coiled to strike her cub. For what is the great mystery of our faith?
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
Christ will come again—the binding of Isaac and the resurrection of Jesus both reveal the same truth, the same humbling, frightening, mind bending truth—God’s will is the greatest power in the universe and humanity is not ultimately in charge of our own destiny. The destiny of humanity, the destiny of the world, these are in God’s hands and not our own.
That is what we celebrate today on the reign of Christ Sunday, that the love of God and the power of God are sovereign. Humanity, with our glories and our tragic flaws, our love for beauty and our lust for bloodshed, we are not the greatest power in the world. God’s love in Christ is that power by which history will move.
And with faith in the sovereignty of Christ’s will, you Old South Church can work to do great things, impossible things! Because what seems possible is insufficient grounding for the magnificence of our hopes in Christ Jesus reigning with the power of God.
Can we feed our brothers and sisters crying out all across this world for healthful food and clean water? We can with faith in the God who rained manna from heaven. Can we set free from economic oppression the unseen billions crying out for dignified work, for safe conditions, for just compensation? We can with faith in the God who freed the people of Israel from slavery with a mighty arm. Can we put an end to bloodshed and violence? Violence in our hearts, violence in our homes, violence in our streets, violence all across the world? We can with faith in the one of whom the prophet Isaiah said:
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us. Authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. Hallelujah!