We’ve gotten into a habit during this pandemic of taking two daily walks, getting some good sunshine and a little bit of exercise. Now, lately Hazel has gotten a bit ornery about getting into the stroller, insisting that now that she can walk on her own, she wants to do it as much as possible. So on our afternoon walks, we usually walk up the sidewalk toward town to see the geese at the river or people watch on Main Street. But as we’re walking, we’re teaching Hazel that she needs to hold one of our hands when we cross any street. Not to brag, but she’s gotten pretty good at it. Sometimes she even holds my hand when we’re not even crossing a street!
But this past week, we were walking, and she was holding my hand like she usually does, and this morning’s Genesis reading suddenly flashed into my mind. I got a sudden, unexpectedly vivid picture of Abraham walking with his son, up Mount Moriah. The story doesn’t say it, but for some reason I couldn’t shake the thought that he had to be holding Isaac’s hand. His free hand. The hand he wasn’t using to carry the wood for his own unknowing sacrifice. Holding his hand to keep him from stumbling over a rock or root as they walked together to a sacrifice.
This text has been so much harder to read this time around. See, the last time that we read it was three years ago, before Hazel was even on the way. And some of y’all told me how this was a hard scripture to hear, how much you didn’t like it, how confusing it is that it’s there, in the Bible. I confess that, while then I also didn’t care for it, I didn’t understand. I didn’t get just how horrible it is to read this story as a parent. And I had such a hard time, arguing with God over what in creation I was supposed to say about this?
But even as I kept coming back to that tragically ironic image of Abraham’s centenarian hand clasping Isaac’s, I couldn’t help but also keep seeing the ram caught in the thicket. The ram that just happened to be there, that just happened to be easily retrieved, that just happened to be the right thing in the right place at the right time. And it occurred to me: rams, generally speaking, don’t materialize in thickets. They tend to get there by traveling.
We read this story, this really hard piece of scripture, and we hear how Abraham passed the test that God gave him. It says it right there at the top that this was a test. We can be safe in assuming that God never had any intention of letting Abraham actually sacrifice his son Isaac. And we have to understand the reason for this test: Abraham was the basket where God was putting all of the eggs of creation’s salvation. And if we look at Abraham’s history—well, he’s not exactly the most reliable basket.
Sure, Abraham was amazingly trusting of God. He left his homeland with no idea of where God was taking him. But also, he pretended Sarah was his sister, not his wife—not once, but twice because he thought his life would be in danger. Rather than trust God to protect him, he put his safety and future into his own hands. And then, again, when God was taking too long to follow through on the promise for an heir, he and Sarah hatched a plot to do it their own way, and along came Ishmael, son of Hagar. Time and again, Abraham was showing God that he would trust God, to a point. He would lean on God, unless he thought he knew better.
So this test was about whether Abraham actually trusted God to follow through on his promises. And, just as much, it was a test to see if God had made a mistake putting all the salvation eggs in one geriatric basket. There’s a lot riding on how this story plays out.
But that ram, y’all. That ram was there. And the more I read the more I started wondering—what if Abraham had lost his nerve? What if, when he saw his son, his only son, his beloved Isaac bound on an altar, his knife in hand, he turned to God and said, “No, I’m not doing it. Find yourself someone else.” If he had completely failed the test, and drew a line in the sand? What then?
Rams don’t materialize in thickets, y’all. If, after all this, after all the hardship and worry, the anxiety over not having a son, the joy of Isaac’s birth and the pain of Ishmael’s banishment, the wandering adventures from Egypt to Sodom—if, after all that, Abraham had refused to sacrifice Isaac, what we have to remember more than anything is that that ram would still have been there. God had no intention whatsoever of letting Abraham sacrifice his son. God was providing the ram for the sacrifice, whether Abraham passed the test or not.
I think it can be easy to fall into a habit of judging ourselves for not living up to the standards of Biblical heroes, or cherished saints, or even what we imagine God is expecting us to be. When we read a story like this one, and we hear the author of Genesis praising Abraham for his incredible piety, that he would go so far as to sacrifice his own son; when we hear Jesus’ own words last week about how families will be divided and how those who love their life will lose it; when we hear how each letter in the New Testament seems to praise those who give up everything for the gospel—we may get into a habit of judging ourselves as “bad Christians.” Or, to protect ourselves from that label, we may turn it around and point out all the ways others are not living up to those standards.
But that ram was there the whole time. God doesn’t wait for us to be perfect before providing the very things we need to do what God asks. God doesn’t call on us to do hard things and then leave us hanging when we, inevitably, mess up. And what’s more, I don’t think this test for Abraham would have been the make-or-break moment for God, any more than I think God will give up on any of us.
So what are the hard things God is calling on us to do? What are the places God is calling us to trust God’s provision in? It may be that the hard thing you have to do is to hold onto hope in the midst of despair, loss, and anxiety. It may be that the hard thing you have to do is examine how you may be hurting others by not speaking up for the oppressed. It may be that the hard thing you have to do is loosen your grip on what you have in order to share with others. It may be that the hard thing you have to do is trust that God will raise up someone capable to do what you need to step away from.
God’s provision isn’t based on what we do. I don’t hold Hazel’s hand when we cross the street because she passed the test of remembering to hold my hand. I hold it because I love her and I want to keep her safe, whether she listens to me or not. God didn’t wait for Abraham to pass the test before sending the ram to run into a thicket. God doesn’t wait for us to unlock the right code of obedience before granting the blessings and the guidance and the hope that we need.
Thanks be to God. Amen.