The continuing story of Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael and now, Isaac, is commonly a strugglesome one for me. The astonishment and hope of God’s covenant with Abraham is offset by the punitive behaviour of Abraham and Sarah towards Hagar and her child, and then the story of Abraham and his child.
I know this story is thousands of years old and told in a context well beyond my own. This only drives me deeper into the story and its tribulations. I was relatively okay with it until College, when the Old Testament lecturer asked us “Do you like the kind of God who would ask a father to execute his child?” and suddenly my applecart was empty.
Now, before you start defending God (as if God requires our defence), or attacking the lecturer, take a breath. I know God resolves the dilemma, and that the resolution is not only Isaac’s life, but blessings multiplied (unless you’re the jumbuck). I note, additionally, that the dilemma only existed because God created it in the first place.
Sarah is disconcertingly absent from the story; I wonder why? Would she have cried out this time, rather than laugh?
Isaac is old enough to carry the means of his execution, so there’s an established relationship between parents and child – a child marked as God’s covenant and the hope of God’s people.
And then this. Sacrifice is inherent to so many stories, within our faith tradition and without. Jesus’ sacrifice lies at the heart of how we understand ourselves.
But what of this?
Is this what discipleship means when God takes us to extremes, when God invites us to move and act beyond any boundary we have set for ourselves?
Last week’s Gospel reading saw Jesus reveal to us that his presence causes division, so much so that even those closest to us can become our enemies. We water it down, and ameliorate the implications of Jesus’ language: “It’s hyperbole and rhetoric – the art of every compelling public speaker”, or, “It’s the language of comparison, so that we know where our priorities really lie.” Every preacher (with an eye to long-term job prospects) has done it, to soothe the congregation.
We can be horrified at the prospect of God’s call to Abraham (and Isaac) and breathe sighs of relief when a replacement is found.
Then we tell ourselves that God wouldn’t do something extreme like that nowadays, and the water drips on the stone, beginning to shape it to our particular need.
From Abraham to … us.
“I think God has called me here; the family is happy/the location is right/I feel at peace / we have good friends here / there are good schools …”
We consider the cost of following and, like the stallholders in middle eastern markets, we haggle over the price.
This is not Abraham and Sarah, despite their flaws. They left their original home and followed God’s call to a foreign country; they attended to an improbable, impossible promise and discovered its truth, with their occasional detour. So when Abraham is told to sacrifice his son, he trusts God despite the appalling implications of extinguishing the only tangible sign of hope in God’s promise.
Dare we trust God enough to risk it all?
What if God’s call to us requires more than attention, but requires obedience? The hallmark of call in Scripture – and our Church – is not peace, but discipleship; not convenience, but obedience.
As we find our way with the living God, let us not be too hasty to dismiss our call because of improbability or inconvenience, but look to the one who shapes and completes our faith, Jesus Christ.