It’s not uncommon for many of us who had been privileged to exercise the demanding role of parenthood to view with admiration and delight those little new additions to our own families. As we cuddle and sing them lullabies, our minds often wonder how they will turn out when they grow up. Some even wondered which offspring might follow a similar career path.
As we watch our children grow up, we would usually envision them as teeming with success; as lavishing and enjoying the tokens of blessings which we, as parents, may not have had the chance to enjoy during our younger years. And quite often we would raise our heads, close our eyes and gently acknowledge the very source of our precious gifts. It would be in one of those poignant moments when our mind would be drawn to God and thank this great Giver of Life who has gifted us, again and again, with such wondrous company in life.
All of these scenarios have one common thread and that is that we value these precious gifts of life and we would never, ever wish them any harm, physical or otherwise. The parent in us would go to all extreme in order to protect them from any pain, peril or danger. We just could not imagine our children going through the difficulties in life, let alone intentionally putting them in harm’s way ourselves.
Having said that, I would not be surprised if some of you could hardly believe what you heard from our Old Testament Reading for today.
Our First Reading, taken from the Book of Genesis 22:1-14, talks about the test of Abraham’s faith involving the offering of his son Isaac as a burnt offering to God. It is mind boggling for us, especially when viewed from our modern regard of the value of life and in our sense of obedience to God as shown in our discipleship.
Earlier, I drew your attention to one scenario when we establish that connection with the God of Creation as we stare at our children and envision the future in store for them. Those visions were the best we could ever imagine and we’re not going to settle for anything less. We’d hoped for their best and would be totally discomforted if they don’t get we believe they deserve.
In a similar parental mode, we could relate to the “caving in” of Abraham’s “roof” when he was ordered to sacrifice his son by the very God who gave this very son as living proof of the fulfillment of His promise that Abraham’s descendants will be as unnumbered as the stars in the heavens.
We ourselves would wonder how our God can do this. How can the God we believe to be the Fountain of Life and the Very Source of our Well-being even think of this? How can we reconcile such a direct contradiction between the giving of the precious gift of life, on the one hand, with its willful taking away, on the other; more so if this spiteful demand is executed at your expense?
If these are the questions that crop up your mind, then you’re not alone in your repugnant stance on it. You see, when viewed from the perspective of a time and age when human rights are high on the list of priorities for civilized countries, this story is an example of horrific child abuse; perhaps along the line of the much publicized case of Casey and Caylee Anthony.
In its original context, however, Abraham’s would-be sacrificial act does not come under the purview of rights and abuse. In that cultural ethos, child sacrifice was normative and this story of faith was not any different from other biblical stories involving the taking away of lives with divine permission.
Our present Christian understanding of sacrifice to God has gone a long way from the early beginnings of our Judeo-Christian heritage. It no longer entails the offering of lives in the literal sense. In fact, our idea of sacrifice is now tied up to Christ’s death on the cross, as the greatest and final sacrifice, offered by no less than the only begotten Son of God for the redemption of all mankind. Hence, we should look at Abraham’s Story from a different perspective, one which might help us establish its relevance to our current faith and practice.
With that in mind, it would be fair to claim that our text from Genesis today is not so much a graphic example of child abuse as an experience that points us to a spiritual process which can be applied to our own discipleship.
In this regard, we now look at Abraham and Isaac’s Story as an illustration of what our relationship with God might entail, namely, the need to listen, to trust and obey and, on God’s part, His continued providence for our all our needs.
First, on our need to listen. When God calls, Abraham listens. “God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am.” (NRSV Gen. 22:1)
Quite a number of times, we have trouble listening. We might be able to hear words and phrases that others say to us but if you have some hearing problem, you might, just like me, keep on saying “Huh?” “What did you say?”
We need the ability to listen, not just to hear, especially when we talk about our relationship with God. God might have initiated a holy conversation with us and yet we don’t act or respond, simply because we fail to realize this divine intrusion in the ordinariness of our lives. We need to be listening so we can carry on with I call “genuine attraction” with Him. We need to hone our skill of picking out “voices” the response to which would bring us much closer to God; voices that suggest, for example, relieving others of their distresses or soothing their afflictions or restoring peace to their troubled minds.
Just as Abraham lived his life in light of his relationship with God so we should be doing the same in light of our relationship with God which is what discipleship is all about.
In the faith journey that we and all of the baptized continue to pursue, we are confronted every so often with all sorts of “voices” which may even appear to be coming from God. Some appear appealing especially to our affections and passions. Faced with such predicament, what needs to happen is for us to learn to have temperance that will restrain us from an indulgence on those “voices” that seek to feed our appetites. What needs to happen is to listen very carefully so that we do not wallow on our overindulgence and for them not to turn into fatal attractions that will ultimately lead us further away from God.
The next thing we can learn from Abraham’s story is our need to trust and obey.
There is this hymn that is entitled, "Trust and Obey." It may sound too Protestant but I’m glad that it’s listed in the Lift Every Voice and Sing (LEVAS 205). I like particularly the second stanza which says: “Not a shadow can rise, Not a cloud in the skies, But His smile quickly drives it away; Not a doubt nor a fear, Not a sigh nor a tear, Can abide while we trust and obey”. And the refrain goes: “Trust and obey; for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
These are simple words that encourage us to trust and obey even when things appear to be making no sense like when Abraham heard the voice of God asking him to do something unthinkable: to give up his son. It made no sense, absolutely; and yet Abraham obeyed.
Similarly, somewhere in our respective journeys of discipleship, there will come before us “choices” which we have to make. At times, what is presented before us may not make any sense; it may even appear impossible. But these are conclusions prompted by our human standards.
God works in strange and mysterious ways. He provides what we need as we continue living our lives. God is the Great Provider. When the ram caught in the bushes had been offered to God, Abraham called the place "Jehovah-Jireh" which literally means, "The Lord will provide."
In the course of our interactions with those in our various circles of love, we find ourselves engaged in some questioning moments of needing to find concrete answers to what we are asking God for. These were the times when you are almost about to give up; when there seems to be no answer to your ever compounding problems. These are times when you’re on the verge of throwing the proverbial “white towel”, claiming defeat. But then that which you hope and pray for are answered, when, for some unexplainable reasons, something or someone appears before your troubled life and things begin to change for the better.
Often, we rightly acknowledge this shift to be coming from God. As illustrated in the story of Abraham and Isaac, God provided the ram that was caught in the thicket and He sends out more of them in our different stations in life and we somehow miss them.
But while we may fail to recognize them, sometimes what we seriously need to do is to listen carefully and find out where these “rams” are bleating. We need seriously to trust and obey the God who provides us with our respective “rams caught in the thicket”.
Take it from me, amidst our perceived abandonment, “Jehovah-Jireh”. God will provide.