How much wood does it take to burn a human body?
Our Advent sermon today was from Genesis 22, where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a means of testing his faith. Of course we all know the story; it never changes no matter how many times it is told, but each new hearing reveals unique shades of meaning. Today, as we anticipate the promise of Christmas, Abraham’s words to Isaac are especially poignant. When asked where is the animal for the sacrifice, Abraham answers, “The Lord will provide.”
Without devolving into a mantra, I hope, these words have been much on my mind and tongue in recent days. The departure of our pastor and missionary colleague, James Folkerts and his family draws ever nearer. In rearview, Dr. Jim Knox and his family have recently left to return to the US together with Angela Voskuil who has gone to plan her wedding and begin a new married life. In June of this year, we learned that Mark VanEssendelft and his family would not be returning to the field from furlough, and so we find our team soon to be reduced to the Verdick family and three single women. What will become of Nakaale Presbyterian Church? Who will take the lead in discipling the young men whom the mission hopes will be the church’s future leaders? How will we few manage the mission’s numerous activities? Humanly speaking, there is no answer, only the words of Abraham—the Lord will provide.
How much did Abraham—the great father of our faith—speak those words in a sublime confidence, and how much in a hope-against-hope weakness? How much to reassure himself and how much to put on a bold face for his son? How much does the tone of the phrase matter when said in the light of our own trials, or is the very utterance, if it doesn’t dissemble, as gigantic as a grain of mustard?
We can be sure that during those three days of walking through the wilderness that Abraham experienced the Advent longing for God to intervene with the divinely appointed answer. We can be sure he felt God’s silence as did Israel in the 400-year period between the prophets’ last utterance and Zechariah’s vision in the temple. But, as Hebrews tells us, Abraham trusted in God to raise the dead. He had hope in the resurrection. In the same way, Israel was as good as dead, and longed for their own national salvation out of that death. In this light, the angels who announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the hills of Judea had the same proclamation as that which stayed Abraham’s hand—God has heard your cry and is intervening to bring life out of the very teeth of the grave!
I have heard this passage in Genesis preached many times, and have many times heard much made of Abraham’s faith (indeed the writer to Hebrews does the same). Today, we were reminded also of Abraham’s faithfulness. He carried the fire and the knife for three days. Three days of hard obedience, seeing the sacrificial end in his mind’s eye without flinching. The parallel to God the Father’s faithfulness in giving his own son as a sacrifice are unmistakeable. But I was struck today that I have never heard a sermon on the faith and faithfulness of Isaac, in many ways the silent partner of this drama.
It seems to me that as the story is normally recounted, Isaac is assumed to be a passive participant—perhaps a bit naïve—to Abraham’s controlling function in the narrative. We are not told how old Isaac was at the the time of the sacrifice, but one clue in the text gives an idea, and it is that clue which brings me back to the question posed at the beginning of this reflection. Abraham took the knife and the fire, but he loaded the wood for the offering on Isaac’s back. The allusion to Christ carrying his own cross is unmistakeable, but the fact remains that Isaac actually had to carry on his back, for three days, enough wood to burn a human body. Fast forward to the end of the story—time slows to a crawl; every action of Abraham is noted. He built the altar, he arranged the wood, he bound his son, he laid him on the altar. Here, Moses’ narrative economy borders on the absurd. The scene proceeds so cleanly, it’s practically clinical. Not a single mention is made of the fact that a young man strong enough to carry a bonfire’s worth of wood up the side of a mountain should have easily fought off a 100-plus year-old man who was trying to tie him up and cut his throat.
I see no other conclusion to be drawn than that Isaac’s faith must certainly have been as great as his father’s. The Scriptures do not mention any of this, so it is necessarily speculative, but it seems impossible to me that Isaac was thrown down upon the altar by any force Abraham could muster. The only way was that he held his hands together to receive the bonds, that he allowed himself to be laid atop the wood, and that he stretched out his neck willing to receive the knife. I especially like what Jewish tradition has to say about what followed—that Isaac, looking toward heaven was the first to see the angel descend.
Jesus also went willingly to his death. Like Isaac, he gave himself. But before any of this, he—God from God, Light from Light as the creed has it—suffered the indignity of passing through the birth canal, of being laid in a feeding trough, of being homeless and hunted. Christ’s humiliation, Paul reminds us, began not on the cross or in Gethsemane, but in a stable in Bethlehem. His whole life was a climbing of the hill to Calvary, on the way meeting the blind, the lame, the discouraged and dead, and saying to them with a terrifying assurance, “The Lord will provide.”
My own and my colleagues’ troubles are paltry when measured against these stories (and I don’t pray for it to be otherwise). The faith required, whatever its proportion, flows from the same source as that which steeled Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus. In these last days of the year with the next so uncertain, we plead with the Lord to provide, even as we will soon celebrate the greatness of his giving.