Do you ever get that sensation of deja vu when you turn on a movie? You’ve got a sneaking suspicion that you know where the plot is going, the way the conversation develops is somehow familiar, the scenes are set up in a sequence that seems to have an echo somewhere in your memory. You’ve got a feeling that you already know this story, whether you’ve seen the film or not; the narrative has an ebb and flow that you recognize, damsel in distress, the friends who become lovers, the young person who struggles to grow up.
Considering the story of Abraham and Isaac, I wonder if Jesus felt some of that deja vu when he was driven into the wilderness to be tempted so early in his ministry.
This was the first time that I read this story since having Charles, and as won’t surprise anybody in this room, it felt totally different this time around. I’d identified with Isaac in the past, or maybe even with Sarah, who’s completely absent. What on earth was going on anyway?! None of this makes any sense. This is just some strange, horrible story; at least Abraham doesn’t go through with it, right?
Now, of course, I identify with Abraham, I have this precious son of my own who came to me under much more mundane circumstances than Isaac, but I would argue is just as beloved. Imagining Abraham’s thought process during this journey to the holy mountain made me think of Jesus’s own temptation in the wilderness and I even heard an echo of Eve and serpent here in the text, that little voice we often hear that suggests, “there is another way…”
I imagine Abraham might have been walking along those three days turning the matter over in his head, chewing on it like a dog with a bone. “Okay,” he thinks to himself, “I know this God is different from other gods, the other gods demand children for sacrifice, but I thought this God, YHWH, was not like them. What could be going on? Maybe Isaac is somehow supernatural and can’t be killed? Maybe there’s a way I can substitute myself, my own body, in Isaac’s place. After all the rigamarole to get Isaac in the first place, our old age, the waiting… surely God isn’t going to undo all that… Maybe I could use one of the servants instead?” I’m struck by the line in verse 4, “On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away.” I can almost feel the pit he must have had in his stomach, it was really coming down to the wire. Was there no way out?
Can you imagine the trust it must have taken to keep putting one foot in front of another those three days, especially that day when they walked nearer and nearer to the shadow of the mountain? There was that tension in his mind and his heart, surely there’s another way out of this, but I know I must keep following the way that the Lord has set before me. Filled with dread, he continues to put one foot in front of the other, moving ever closer to the moment he’ll really have to put his money where his mouth is; he’ll have to put his future, his hope, his child, his life, where he has given his word, where he’s said he has faith, where he has said his trust resides. He will have to put his hope in God alone, in his fearsome and dreadful way.
When Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, we readers are presented with the voice that tempts him, telling him always, “there is another way. You don’t really have to go through all this suffering and bother with all these relationships and give and give and give of yourself and your life till you bleed and there’s no life left in you. I can make it easy,” the tempter says, “I can give you another way that doesn’t require you to put all this hope and future and your whole life into this fearsome ministry… Just say yes to power — I can make all the kingdoms of the world bow at your feet. Just say yes to food security, to comfort and possessions — life will be so much easier that way. Just say yes to making God prove himself, he’ll do it, and then, who will really be in power? You will, by making God do what you ask.”
This happens in the Garden, too, Eve is asked, “Do you think God was really telling the truth, do you really trust him? Are you sure he wasn’t just trying to keep something good from you? Trying to keep the best stuff all for himself? Do you trust this strange God who doesn’t work in a way that’s exactly understandable to you? Doesn’t it make more sense that God, with all his power, would keep back his goodness, would hold on to something better, would just give you the dregs? …Try this bit that God is keeping for himself, see for yourself how he’s hoodwinked you, how he’s not trustworthy.”
The question placed before Abraham is the same question placed before Eve, the same question placed before Jesus, the same question placed before those who come to offer their children in baptism, and before each one of us. Who do you trust most with your most precious gifts, with your life, with your future?
The climax of the story is when is turns out that Abraham doesn’t have to sacrifice his son after all. This God truly is different from all those other gods of the ancient world who hungrily cried for child sacrifice, who wrenched goodness and light from humanity and gobbled it up for themselves. Yahweh is different from the gods who demand food for their craving and who delight in the suffering of the puny humans down on earth. Our Lord is not the same as those gods who take and take, of our time and of our attention and of our love and of our livelihoods and leave us spent, exhausted, worthless. The ancient gods served by Abraham’s neighbors are the same gods that prowl us today, the voices that demand our loyalty, the drive we feel to project a lifestyle of comfort and ease, the urge to seek security in accomplishments and investment portfolios and busyness that precludes any extra room, or extra silence, in our lives.
It’s the same question that Eve faces in the beginning, the doubt that the tempter tries to sow in her mind and heart, making Yahweh out to be the prince of darkness who takes rather than the Lord of light who gives; the tempter tells her that God must be saving the best for himself, he must be selfishly hoarding the good stuff, not sharing the best things of life with his creation, but enjoying them alone, like a desperate mother stuffing chocolate in her face while hiding in the pantry — not that I have any experience with something like that.
We face the same question. We wonder whether God really has our best interests at heart. We question whether God’s way is the only way for hope and life and for our future. In our journeys in the wilderness, we often say yes to the tempter, trying out the life of ease and comfort, like when Jesus is asked to turn stones into bread — wouldn’t having a little sandwich fill the craving in the pit of his stomach? Wouldn’t shopping online, or zoning out with the television, or having another beer, or accomplishing all those things on your to-do list make you feel better? You wouldn’t feel empty or hungry or restless anymore if you just do more things, make your day more rigorous, stretch the limits of time and your body. I’m a little notorious at home for always wanting to keep doing things, not sitting still; Jordan told me once, “You know, even God rested on the seventh day.” And you know what I said back to him? “Well, I’m not God, so I can’t afford to rest.”
I wonder if some of us get so worked up trying to find another way around life’s problems that we don’t really trust that God is in control, that God will provide for us. Of course it’s a struggle, it’s not a one-time, lay-it-all-down, leave-it-all-at-the-altar kind of thing, would that it was! But I do believe that practicing laying it down again and again, even practicing it every day, we might start to get shaped a little bit differently. We might be able to look a little more like Abraham, who kept choosing to put one foot in front of the other, marching toward death for his child, death for his hope, trusting in this harsh reality that somehow, some way, God would show up and God would rescue Isaac, and would rescue Abraham himself, and would restore life, restore hope, restore their future.
So, the truth, my friends, is that there is no other way. The tempter, that voice that’s sometimes in our heads and sometimes on our television screens and sometimes coming out of the mouths even of our friends and loved ones, is telling us a lie. Busyness or accomplishment does not bring hope or life or peace or a future. Addiction to alcohol or things that we see on screens or shopping or money or prestige does not provide security or help us to sleep at night. Not really. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of Eve, he really does have our best interests at heart, he really does provide us hope and future, he really does love us and give us the very best. Yahweh really is the Lord of light.
And how do we know this? How can we tell that this God is different than the other gods who clamor for our attention and our adoration? How do we know that this God and his witnesses throughout the ages are telling the truth?
We know because he loved us so much that he sent his Son to live and die among us. His Son faced each temptation, each whisper in his head, each desire for security and for comfort and for power that we face, too, and this Son, Jesus Christ, is with us as we journey through the wilderness we face, he walks right next to us through the Holy Spirit, as he has promised to do. And even more than that, I am convinced that nothing can separate us from this love that God has; he showed us the truth of his devotion and his provision, his determination to give us the very best of what he has through his sacrifice on the cross.
When darkness and evil came to tempt him, to tell him there was another way, that he didn’t really have to die, that he could step back from the stands that he had made, he could back track those assertions about who he is and what is true, that he could just quiet down and let the darkness take its place in his life, and if he did, he wouldn’t have to die, he wouldn’t have to give everything, he wouldn’t have to lose his life. But God gave his very best, God gave his Son, God gave his life for our sake; at the grave, our song is “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”
A pastor in Germany during World War II said, “When God calls a man, he bids him ‘come and die.’” The thing that’s also in common in all the stories we’ve looked at today, and in common with the story of Beatrice Wheatley, which we’ve witnessed in our midst, is that our God is not one who coerces, who twists our arms or demands our worship with fire and smoke and lightning. The God who made Eve sought her company for walking in the garden in the cool of the day, even when he knew the betrayal she’d committed; the God who walked with Abraham tested and asked of him, but did not threaten or bend him; the God in Jesus who faced all our temptations as he trod the earth with us did not use fear to gain followers or demand great riches for his miracles. This God of Abraham, Isaac, and Eve came in Jesus with a gift, the gift of life, of a future, of hope and peace.
Not out of coercion, but out of gratitude, won’t you follow Beatrice to the waters today and lay down your life, too? Won’t you leave your hope in God’s arms, trusting his provision? Won’t you let yourself be washed clean, and at the foot of the cross pick up the new life that God offers you through the sacrifice of his Son?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.