“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” So begins the Christian story of reality. And after God had created, the production of each day was pronounced “good.” God liked what God had made. Scripture employs no rapturous superlative descriptors for what God created on the first five days. It is not described as awesome or spectacular or stupendously magnificent, just good. Except for the humans. They were declared “very good.” From the very beginning humans have had a special place in the heart of God. Not too surprising, really, considering that God made them (male and female) in God’s own image. Now humans, as the apple of God’s eye, were immediately given a position of responsibility in the care of all that God had made. They were told to nurture and enjoy creation. And all was well in all God’s green earth.
Or was it? Somehow humanity was distracted from discharging their prescribed duties in the prescribed way. They had an idea which seemed to promise to improve their lot, but that idea proved to be their downfall. Instead of having a better idea, their attempts to improve on God’s ideas caused the frustration of their efforts. First they were removed from their idyllic home in the Garden of Eden so that they could not make their already difficult situation worse with more mistakes, but eventually things got so bad that the whole world had to be washed and sanitized, and then the human project was restarted.
God’s interest remained the welfare of all that God had made, and the new instructions reflected that. God promised, God bound Godself never to allow the destruction of the whole world again. It did not matter how wicked the people became God would never again allow creation to be so utterly ravished. Hence, after this catastrophe there came another opportunity for humans to nurture and enjoy what God had made.
But again those humans thought they could do better than merely serving as God’s peons (which is not an accurate description of what they were, but in their vanity they thought that their potential was not being properly appreciated). They would assert themselves, they would show that they were at the top of the food chain. But then, why stop there? They would build a city, a huge hulking skyscraper of a city, one that reached right up to where the gods lived. They would become like the gods themselves. Why not?
So once again, God had to intervene, before humans dealt themselves the same fate that met the last creature with aspirations of deity (Lucifer, the erstwhile Morning Star). In grace the peoples of the earth were scattered by the confusion of their languages, and their dreams of becoming divine were stymied. God was still intent on blessing what God had created, but that blessing would not come in the form of a condescending wink at their delusional self-aggrandisement. God’s intent was to bless Creation with a blessing that recognized it as Creature, as what it truly was, but that blessing would bid the Creature to grow, fulfilling their pregnant promise as those who bear the image of the Creator.
So God chose, once again, to bless what God had made. God chose Abram, called him Abraham, and told him that the plan was to bless the whole world through him, through the son which he and Sara would have. Now Sara kept getting older, which was a good thing, but there was still no heir, which was a bad thing. Never mind, in those days there was a well-known solution for such a dilemma: Let Abraham father an heir with Sara’s servant girl. In fact, four of the twelve tribes of Jacob come into being in precisely this way. That must have been what God meant. (Sound familiar?)
Except that was not what God meant, and the aftershocks of Abraham’s misunderstanding continue to rock the world. But God was determined to bless what God had made so another covenant was fashioned, this one also a decidedly unilateral commitment. When God and Abraham ratify this new covenant, they each have their recognized roles to play, but when it comes to the really important part where they are to walk together to finalize their individual commitment to this covenant, Abraham falls asleep and God is left to ratify this covenant all alone. God’s commitment was to bless what God had made and that commitment would not be easily thwarted, not even by the Creature’s pugnacity. Sort of like salvation by grace, prior to any faith. Abraham and Sara would have a son and through that son Abraham’s family would grow to become innumerable, and those descendants would inherit the land which God promised to give to Abraham.
Which brings us to the story of God’s request for the sacrifice of Isaac. Why would God make such a request? Abraham’s whole life, it seemed, had been spent trusting God to do what God promised to do, even though a lesser man would have given up hope a long time ago. Now Abraham finally had the first part of the promise before his eyes, the long awaited son, the idea which had struck his 99-year-old wife as an outrageous joke a scant year before that son was born, and now God wanted this son sacrificed? Child sacrifice was a common demand of all the other gods but never had Abraham’s God suggested, let alone demanded, anything like this. Without this son there was no hope of ever possessing the land God had promised. Then again, with no son to inherit the land what good was the land? Isaac was Abraham’s hope for a future. Never mind, he and Sara had been as good as dead before Isaac came along, and if God could raise life from death, if God wanted to push the envelope a little further, who was Abraham to argue? What God wants, God gets, and Abraham might as well go along with the charade sooner rather than later.
So Abraham set out toward the mountain of sacrifice and when his son, whom Abraham was on a course to slaughter as a sacrifice to God, asked where the sacrifice offering was, Abraham’s response was “God will provide.” What was Abraham thinking? Did he think all along that God had a last moment reprieve in mind, in which case Abraham was not showing faith at all but merely calling God’s bluff? Was he giving voice to a confidence he did not really have, just putting on a brave face? Did he simply mean that God will provide whatever God will provide, thinking that God had already provided the sacrifice, Isaac, and what God had in mind now God only knew? Who knows?
Clearly, aside from the most pessimistic and cynical readings of this story, what Abraham was doing was giving up everything he had held dear for all his life in an attempt to be faithful to his God. Whether this was done as the last desperate, and perhaps exasperated, act of a man who saw the last hopes of his life rapidly fading into the dark shades of permanent night, or whether it was a remarkable act of faith by a man who was so confident in God’s intervention that he remained relatively untroubled by what he was about to do (which I seriously doubt), this is certainly one of the most problematic stories in the Bible. So what can we learn from it?
Let me explain why I started this meditation with a review of the covenants God made with God’s Creation, beginning with the people, but always including the whole of Creation. The theme that strikes me in every renewal of God’s covenant is God’s desire to bless Creation, to see Creation prosper, to see the Creature who had been created in God’s own image enjoy what God had made. It seems as though God’s joy was indissolubly linked with the joy of God’s Creation. And when that Creation fell, God came looking for them, calling them, picked them up, and sent them out to try again; and when the Creature messed up again, God cleaned them up again, and instructed them again on how to enjoy what God had made for their enjoyment, then told them again to go and prosper; and when those creatures were still defiant, God frustrated the ways which those creatures set for themselves, ways which could only lead to their own destruction, all because God was determined to bless what God had made. We followed this trail of covenant renewal and blessing to Abraham, but it continues in the same vein throughout Israel’s history, through the prophets, reaching a pinnacle in the historical story of Jesus the Christ, and it is repeated through modern history, and continues to be experienced in each of our lives whether we recognize it or not.
Abraham’s story is a concrete example of God’s desire and intention to bless. God’s intention was always to bless Creation, all peoples, and God’s covenant with Abraham was the way in which God intended to do so. Unfortunately, people keep misunderstanding, or worse, deliberately subverting, God’s plan. God told Abraham to go to the land God wanted to give him, and Abraham went to the land, but it was unfruitful, so Abraham kept going till he got to Egypt. There Abraham chose to lie about his relationship with his wife and let her be taken into Pharaoh’s bed because he feared for his life. He tried to “help” God with the promised son. And when God was making a big ceremony out of the new covenant, Abraham fell asleep when he was supposed to be keeping scavengers from the sacrificial offerings.
Abraham had no idea how grand were God’s plans for his children. Abraham had no idea that God intended to be born to one of his own descendants. He had no idea that two thousand years later, God’s own Son, the One born of Abraham’s descendants, would be hanging on a cross on the same hill where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac. Only this time God would not intervene to stop the sacrifice, because when God’s Creation messes up, when there is a terrible price to pay, God would rather pay the price Godself, than to exact that price from the Creature God wishes to bless. Abraham had no idea that God was not only giving him family and land, but in all of this God was inviting him home, calling Abraham to live with Godself.
Abraham was willing to throw it all away for God, if only because without God’s help he was as good as dead anyway. But Abraham had no idea of the enormity of what he was about to throw away. Even less did Abraham have any idea how God wanted to bless him, and to bless all people through him. In what must have been one of the darkest days of his life, he found himself trudging up Mount Moriah, to give back to God what he had waited all his life to get from God; to give back to God what God had promised would be his future. Because Abraham understood that if you trust God only because you think God has your best interests at heart, only because you think it will go better for you if you trust God, then you are still serving yourself, and you are only using God as an instrument for your own benefit. So Abraham went up the mountain, and there, inspite of Abraham’s self, God met him, and there God blessed him with such a powerful blessing that Abraham came away from this encounter and never fully understood how rich a blessing had been lavished upon him. A blessing of love and goodwill that refuses to be extinguished no matter how selfish, disobedient, and un-cooperative Abraham became. A blessing of relationship and partnership that was not - it could never be - Abraham’s own doing, because it was a vision far too grand for Abraham to imagine or understand, much less devise and work out on his own.
God’s best blessings come on God’s own terms. They have to be God’s terms because our terms are too easy, too short-sighted, too anaemic. God’s desire to bless us far exceeds what we in our wildest dreams could ever imagine, which is why we can never anticipate them. We want a home and a land that we must ultimately leave, God wants us to learn to know Godself, to experience an eternal life that wraps each finite moment with a depth that cannot be adequately captured outside the infinity of an eternity. God wants to call us home forever, and all of this happens in the mundane moments of life, such that the most mundane moments are the most momentous moments because of their nexus with eternity. It is in the valleys that God walks with us though we know it not, and too often it is on the mountains tops that we forget our need of God because we think we have everything we need, though we have but the faintest understanding of what it is that we need most. But God knows, and that is why the best blessings come on God’s own terms, and are often accompanied by feelings of having been abandoned by God. That, too, is something that the Incarnate God understands. In this world things are often cruelly taken from us and we should not be too hasty in saying that God took it away. These disappointments -tragedies even- may simply be the way of this fallen world, but God is not powerless to bring blessing out of sin-cursed soil. In fact, that is God’s specialty. The fact that God brings blessings out of curses should never be understood to mean that God needs the sinfulness of this world in order to advance God’s plans. Bad things never happen because they fit into God’s plan. God’s penchant for raising blessing from sin cursed soil only indicates that even as vulgar a monstrosity as sinfulness will not easily be allowed to thwart God’s plans for blessing what God has made.
So when you find yourself in the blackest night of your life, turn your eyes to the east, because that is where the sun rises. Wait for God’s visit because for those whose hope is in God alone morning follows night with more certainty than night follows day. And if you wait in faith, God will meet you, ready to shake your world with blessings that will blow your mind. You may wait a day, or a month, or years, but never an eternity. And when you meet God you will know you are home. Sometimes going home calls for patient endurance and vigilant watchfulness, but never forget while you are going and waiting that God wants you to enjoy the journey, and that God walks with you, so listen for the sound of God’s voice, and watch for the guidance of God’s footprints. But while anywhere with Jesus is home, don’t forget that every journey has a destination. You, like Abraham, are going home, so listen for the Father’s call. Learn to distinguish the Father’s voice from all the siren calls of destruction. Learn the importance of obedience and faithfulness in working out your own salvation, but never forget that your salvation rests first with God, who desires your salvation and blessing more than you do, more than you know, more than you could ever imagine, and then follow the Father’s trail of blessing all the way home.