Genesis 22: 1-14
Is Our Heart in the Right Place?
The first lesson designated for this Lord’s Day contains one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible. It is also one of the most perplexing. Bible students have proposed a wide variety of readings. Of these, it seems, three main ones have emerged. The first is that it’s about the testing of Abraham’s faith. This is the prima facie reading. The narrator tells us explicitly that God tested Abraham. The second is that it’s an etiological legend to explain how the ancestors of the nation of Israel overcame child sacrifice, which was a common practice in the surrounding nations. The third is perhaps less obvious, but no less compelling. It’s about the reordering of the desires of Abraham’s heart.
It occurs to me that each of these readings corresponds to the stages of life of the believer. When we first come to faith, we are full of zeal. We are thrilled at the reading or hearing of this story. Abraham is a hero of faith. He becomes our model. We want to have a faith like that of Abraham.
Later, however, we leave behind what we now see as unreflective naivete. We become older and wiser. We develop our critical faculties, which we apply to the reading of this story. We find somewhat convincing the argument that this story formed around the practice of child sacrifice. Abraham then becomes for us not the hero whose faith is so great that it dares the unthinkable. Rather, he becomes for us the ancient worshiper who comes to his senses. He defies the prevailing orthodoxy about what the gods demand. He ignores the demonic voice in his head whispering to him to slay his son, and offers up a ram instead, making animal sacrifice normative.
This reading convinces us for a time. We go on with our lives. We perhaps gain enough money and power to realize some ambitions. We engage in several pursuits. We take on and complete large projects. But none of these entirely fulfills us. We still feel an emptiness. We still have a hunger that we can’t seem to satisfy. It’s at this stage in our lives that we are ready to return to this perplexing story. We are now open to the third reading, that is, that it’s about the reordering of Abraham’s desires.
Let us first sketch some background. Recall that God chose Abraham. He singles this one man out and makes him a promise. I am going to make you into a great nation. Look at the stars in the sky. Consider the grains of sand on the seashore. If you can count these, then you can count your offspring. Abraham set out on his journey of faith, not knowing where he was going. God appeared to him periodically. “Abraham, I am your shield, your very great reward.” You see, God pledged himself to Abraham. But God expected and desired no less from Abraham. God was to have first place in Abraham’s heart.
God then repeated the promise. But by that time Abraham was very old. He said to God, “How can this be? You have given me no son, and the one to inherit my estate will be my household servant.” “Not so, God said, “out of your own body will come a son.”
About the circumstances surrounding the miraculous birth of his son Isaac, we have been learning these past two Sundays. You know, when we wait for a very long time for what we desire, it becomes all the more precious to us when it finally arrives.
This is certainly true in case of the Abraham’s son Isaac. We already know that Sarah desperately wanted to have a child. And for a man in the ancient Near East, to have a son is a sign of his strength, of his manhood. A childless couple, on the other hand, was an object of pity. To have no son to carry on the family line—that was a disgrace. But the baby boy arrives. Abraham in his old age is restored to honor. Sarah is fulfilled as a mother.
And then one day comes the command to Abraham. “Go and take your son, your only son, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. I want you sacrifice him there as a burnt offering.” Imagine the horror! The language underscores how precious Isaac is to Abraham. He is Abraham’s one and only son, whom he loves. As a burnt offering, Isaac will, technically, be consumed totally. Emotionally and existentially, this leaves Abraham with absolutely nothing to show for his life.
For Abraham, the horror is compounded by the fact that he must bear it alone. He cannot tell his wife. It would destroy her. He cannot tell Isaac. It would betray his innocence. He cannot even tell his servants. It would be too disturbing to them. Recall that Abraham is characterized by his kindness. Sometimes kindness refuses to share its pain with others in order to spare them from pain. It is a very heavy burden that Abraham bears. And it’s his alone to bear.
This testing of Abraham is a critical issue for biblical spirituality, and we have to ask why. There is another story in the Bible that bears some striking parallels with this one, and it will be worth our while to recall it. It’s found in 2 Kings 4. It’s about the prophet Elisha and a woman from Shunem. She is a good and upright woman. Whenever the prophet is in town, she invites him over for dinner. Later she tells her husband to fix up a room for him, so that when he comes, he can stay a few nights. Perhaps it’s of her that Jesus is thinking when he says in our gospel lesson: “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” In any event, Elisha is impressed by her hospitality. He asks his servant to call the woman. He wants to do something good for her in return for the good she has done for him. The servant tells him that she has no son and her husband is old. The prophet then tells her “About this time next year, you will hold a son in your arms.” The woman is incredulous. But it happens just as the prophet foretold.
Then one day the child is in a field with his father. He cries out in pain, “my head, my head,” and the father sends the boy to his mother. The boy dies in his mother’s lap. The mother then goes and seeks out the prophet. “Did I not tell you not to raise my hopes up?”
Let us shift scenes for a moment. Abraham loads upon his son’s shoulders the wood that is to be used on the altar. How can he bear to watch this sight? And how it must have pierced his heart, when Isaac asked: “Father, I see the wood and the fire, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
We said earlier that Abraham refused to betray Isaac’s innocence. After all, he is a kind man, and kindness directs him here to spare Isaac the knowledge of what is about to happen. So he tells him: “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”
But soon enough the moment of truth arrives. Abraham makes the altar, sets the wood around it, binds Isaac, and lays him upon it. He raises the knife to kill his son.
This is the climax of the story. Put otherwise, it’s the point of its highest dramatic tension. We recall the narrator telling us at the beginning that the Lord tested Abraham. This is Abraham passing the test with flying colors. But what does it amount to? And is there a lesson for us from this perplexing story? Is it saying that we should not cling to our children, but be ready to sacrifice what is most precious to us on the altar?
Let me suggest it is saying that it is only on condition of releasing them to God that we can truly receive them. We can and should receive our children or whatever is most precious to us as a gift from God. But the relation between the giver and the gift should not be reversed. The giver is always first and the gift is always second. Accept them in this order and you will receive both. Refuse to accept them in this order, and you risk ending up with neither.
The angel of the Lord intervenes. He stays Abraham’s hand. The Lord gives Isaac back to Abraham. Elisha goes up to the Shunamite woman’s house. He brings the boy back to life and gives him back to the woman. This is an important moment in each of these stories. It isn’t God’s will to deprive his children of good gifts. On the contrary, it is God’s desire to give them good gifts. But it’s also God’s desire that the gifts remain gifts. If they usurp the place of the giver in our hearts, they lose their status as gifts, and become something else altogether, even idols. Perhaps it was to learn this lesson that Abraham and the Shunamite woman had to receive their gifts back again a second time.
We have a saying: “his heart is in the right place.” We use it when we come to the defense of someone who is about to make a mistake of a lifetime.” When all attempts to get him to change his mind have failed, when all hope for him is gone, we say: “Leave him alone. It may turn out in the end. After all, his heart is in the right place.” Or we use the saying of someone who has already made the mistake of her life, “well, I suppose, her one consolation is that her heart was in the right place.”
But if their heart was truly in the right place, would they have made such a mess of their lives? Of course, none of us is spared from learning by trial and error, from falling on our face a few times. No passes through this life without some bumps and bruises. But imagine how much heartache we could have spared ourselves and others if our hearts really were in the right place. God wants nothing less for us than for our hearts to be in the right place. From God’s perspective, our hearts are in the right place when we love him with all our heart and soul and strength. That is the first and greatest commandment. The second is this: that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our hearts are made whole, our hearts are healed, when the content of these commands expresses our hearts’ desire. But most of us don’t arrive at this place until God performs heart surgery. He has to make deep incisions into our hearts to reorder our desires.
Those incisions are often painful. They may even involve loss before restoration. That prompts many of us to doubt God’s goodness; that tempts many of us to deny that God is a giver of good gifts.
But the gospel tells us that giving is the very heart of God. Our God is a giving God. What God did not demand from Abraham God provided himself. That is why Abraham calls the place of his ordeal: “The Lord will provide.” In a very memorable line, the Apostle Paul asks this: “If God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” Amen.