On Saturday I collected Jonathan from Exeter where he’s completed a terrific first year. It’s so good having him home but on Wednesday he’s off to Europe for a month with his girlfriend. It was a long day beginning at 5.15 a.m. and continuing in the evening at the Milton Keynes Theatre for the Gala Concert of the MK Music Service. Andrew, our other son, was performing as part of the Prague Orchestra, aptly named because of the tour to the Czech Republic which will take place in the next few weeks. Andrew’s just finished his GCSE’s, and he can’t wait to go into the sixth form. Both of them are enjoying life to the full. And I take pleasure in their pleasure and look at them with pride. I say ‘look at them’ but this is only just true for Andrew and no longer true for Jonathan to whom I look up as he’s even taller than me!
In the light of this, Sunday’s lectionary readings - which I read prior to visiting Aston Clinton Baptist Church where I was preaching – unnerved me. Or rather one of them did, the passage from Genesis 22, where Abraham is asked to do the unthinkable and offer his only son on the altar of sacrifice.
As a father of boys I’ve always found this a particularly heart-wrenching passage, and the last time I preached on it, I recall that I felt I hadn’t done justice to it. As I read it, I found it even more so. I look at my boys, who are in fact men, and try for just a moment to put myself in Abraham’s place, and the reality is that I can’t. What could this have meant for Abraham?
I had a quick look at ‘Texts for Preaching’, a useful commentary on the lectionary with contributions from Brueggemann and Cousar, and it was helpful. ‘In the first scene Abraham is addressed by the abrupt voice of God, described as a voice of savage sovereignty … In the second ‘Isaac his long awaited son, speaks a voice of innocent pathos. … In the third scene, [as Abraham’s obedient offering is about to be made] Abraham is addressed one more time. This is a voice of stunning generosity.’ (While I recognise the provision of God, I guess I find the adjective a bit over the top, unless you continue with vv. 15-19.)
I connected with some of the questions that the commentator raises. As Abraham tells his servant that he and the boy will return, does he believe in a miracle? Is he lying? Does he deceive himself? Does he recognise that he will return alone if he fully obeys the voice. None of these questions is answered. Add to these those that are raised from Abraham’s answer to Isaac’s question, ‘where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Is his answer that God will provide a loving deception? Is it a direct lie. Is it an act of outrageous hope? Again, no answers.
This is a story of testing and faith, set against a backdrop of the long-awaited but now realized promise. And the story is more manageable because we know the outcome. Shockingly, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, includes Wilfred Owen’s telling of the story which is changed so that Abraham goes through with the sacrifice:
Lay not they hand upon the lad
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
I remain unnerved which is right and proper. I must preach on it again, and maybe do a bit more justice to it.