Fear the Lord
The Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
June 29, 2014 - Genesis 22:1-14

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Fear the Lord
Genesis 22:1-14      

Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
June 29, 2014


“You know what killed my mother, don’t you?’  Laughter said.  His mother was my grandmother Sarah.  ‘Of course you don’t know what killed her.  How could you know when I have never told you?  I will not tell you now either.  I will leave it to you to decide for yourself what killed her.  You are old enough to figure it out.  Figuring it out will make you older still.  My mother was herself very old by then.  Something else would have killed her soon enough if this thing hadn’t, but it was this thing that killed her.  You will understand it for yourself if you have any sense at all.’”
Thus Frederick Buechner introduces the story of the near-slaying of Isaac in his novel The Son of Laughter.  Buechner is hearkening to an old Jewish midrash on the story of the binding of Isaac.  Midrash is where a rabbi expands the text for the purpose of greater understanding.
After Abraham takes Isaac, his only son, the son he loves to Mount Moriah to prepare to sacrifice him as the Lord has commanded him, the next time we encounter the name of Sarah, she has died.  The midrash goes that the shock and horror of the Isaac’s near death was more than Sarah could bear.  Six short cries, goes the midrash, and she died. 
In Buechner’s inimitable prose, he tells the story of Abraham’s journey up Mount Moriah from the perspective of Isaac.   As he recounts the story it is not a pretty story.  It is marked by a body wracked with sobs, messy crying, punctuated by prayers to the fear as Buechner renames God in Isaac’s words.  Concluding his story, a broken Isaac says to his son Jacob,  “I was not always the way you see me now.”
The story of the binding of Isaac is a horror story.  It is what Phyllis Trible would term a ‘text of terror.’  The author’s intent is not clear. 
The moral is not cut and dry.  Perhaps there is no moral.  But if it is a story bankrupt of meaning, it is truly a text of terror and there is no redemption for it. 
Philosophers and ethicists have struggled to find meaning in this text.  The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard wrote his work, Fear and Trembling about our text.
He reimagines the story this way: 
“Abraham lifted the boy up and walked with him, taking him by the hand, and his words were full of comfort and exhortation. But Isaac could not understand him. Then he turned away from Isaac for a moment, and when Isaac saw his face a second time it was changed, his gaze was wild, his expression one of horror. He caught Isaac by the chest, threw him to the ground and said: "Fool, do you believe that I am your loving father? I am an idolater. Do you believe that this is God's command? No, it is my own desire." Then Isaac cried out in his anguish: "God in heaven have mercy on me, God of Abraham have mercy on me; if I have no father on earth, then be Thou my father!" But below his breath Abraham said to himself: "Lord in heaven, I thank Thee; it is better that he should think me a monster than that he should lose faith in Thee."
Kierkegaard struggles to find meaning in the story.  He assigns psychology to the characters that is not in the Biblical text.  He is compelled to seek meaning in a possibly meaningless story.  Why, why, why this story?
In Kierkegaard’s reimagination, Abraham himself lies to create an alternative reality for his son Isaac rather than allow the horrible question to linger: why does God demand this?  Abraham lies in order to allow God to continue to appear good.
The temptation for us, reading the story, is to dismiss it because it all comes out right in the end.  Abraham doesn’t sacrifice Isaac.  The ram is offered instead.  The angel intervenes.  But the genius of Buechner’s story, of Kierkegaard’s reimagination, is that for Isaac, for Isaac, it could have gone either way. 
And that forces us to look at this story again.  Why, indeed?  How do we have faith in this God – this God who seems to command child sacrifice only to snatch the child to safety in the end.  These are larger than life questions – these are faith questions, and it is with these that I hope we will wrestle today. 
So let’s do this: first, let’s consider what this text does not say.  There are some conclusions we need to fence out.  Then I would like for us to consider what the text does say.  And then finally, we must find some gospel in this story, because it is a holy text and as such, it is our story. 

The text does not assign a means to determine when God is testing the individual and generally we should make no assumptions about this. In fact, God does determine to test Abraham.   It may be hard to hear, but it is true -whether we may understand this or not. But that is as far as we can press this text.  There is no further application of this concept for us – we are not Abraham, and while we will certainly encounter hardship, it is presumptuous to determine that God is testing our faith.  Hardship may indeed test our faith, but it is the hardship testing us, not God.  This text has a certain connection to the poetry of Job, probably the book of the Bible most associated with human suffering, and while we know full well the workings of Job’s mind, and even are offered in the 38th chapter a glimpse into the mind of the Almighty, we are offered nothing of Abraham’s psychology.  Whatever Kierkegaard imputes to him, the text tells us nothing.  We cannot know the nature of the test.  We know only that God has determined to test Abraham. 
We dare not assign the meaning of testing to circumstances that we encounter or that others encounter that are not of our choosing.  I would not presume to assign the meaning of divine test to adversity that we encounter.  And further, we absolutely may not do so for others.  To do so is to commit hubris.  It is to take the Lord’s name in vain in a very real way – to ascribe to ourselves knowledge of the heavenly order.  It is not so. 
Nor should we, nor may we, assign divine meaning to all misfortune as sent by God for a greater purpose.  Evil, when we encounter it, is not simply good in masquerade.  Yes, God redeems bad situations – that is the foundation of the Gospel - but evil is evil. 
In fact, I reject the notion contained in that old chestnut, ‘God doesn’t send us more than we can handle.’  In fact, I would argue, there are moments in life when we will encounter more than we can possibly handle – and in those moments, God works actively to redeem our broken lives because God is always in the business of redemption.  But we cannot simply dismiss hardship as God’s visiting of testing upon us.  We do not know the divine mind, and we tread on dangerous ground when we claim to.  Yes, God is closer to us than our very breath, but God is also completely other. 
And so, because God is other, these attitudes, these interpretations, are not permitted within the confines of the text.  It does not contain them.   We cannot determine God’s testing upon those we encounter.  We cannot reshape evil so that it is good.  That is not true to the text.

What is contained in the text is the very real question of whether or not God can expect from Abraham absolute obedience. 
Gerhard Von Rad writes,
“In him [Isaac] every saving thing that God has promised to do is invested and guaranteed…the disappearance from Abraham’s life of the whole promise.  Therefore, unfortunately, one can only answer all plaintive scruples about this text by saying that it concerns something much more frightful than child sacrifice.  It has to do with a road out into God forsakenness.”
That makes this story all the more terrible, because the question then is this: will Abraham trust God completely even if it brings his dreams crashing down? 
Will he trust that the promises God made are good?  Through the course of the Abraham narrative in Genesis, there is a continual testing of God by Abraham almost – from the moment of the establishment of the covenant, God makes Abraham a promise that Abraham’s heirs will be numerous – the promise is for land, progeny and blessing.  And while Abraham trusts enough to go from the land of his fathers, he and Sarah do not trust enough to expect that God will provide the heir to the land that God is giving them.  So much is their meddling that Abraham conceives a child with Sarah’s maid Hagar and we remember tragic interlude of Ishmael.  After Sarah conceives and bears Isaac conflict begins between the two women as each vies for position for her child.  Abraham and Sarah’s meddling in God’s work brings nearly tragic consequences and gives evidence once more of their failure to trust in God.  And so Von Rad concludes that God really doesn’t know whether or not Abraham can be trusted to place be obedient to God.   Far from the perfection of God knowing everything, the question is disturbingly open – because the author of Genesis doesn’t really care whether or not we like this god or are comfortable with this god – indeed, the author is quite comfortable with our discomfort.
The test is whether or not Abraham can offer final allegiance to the God whom he has tested himself by trusting that God will fulfill God’s promises through means Abraham cannot see or know.
Walter Brueggemann puts it even more succinctly:  “the text leads us to the reality that God is God.  The narrative concerns Abraham’s anguished acknowledgement that God is God.  The God who ‘delivers is the one who prohibits any alternative God, any alternative trust.  He insists on being trusted only and totally.”
Generations of scholars far more wise that I have encountered this text and struggled with it.  They have offered their imperfect and incomplete analysis.  And in the end, the most profound insight I have found is that God is God and we are not.
I make no claim to have wrapped up this story.  I cannot.  It offers many questions and defies answers. 
Which brings me to the Gospel. 

There is Gospel in it.  And it lies in this: that God is God, and we are not. 
In Buechner’s retelling of the story, Isaac calls God the fear. 
I have found no translation that bears this out.  But it does capture, I believe, the reality of transcendence.  You remember from last week that God’s immanence is the reality that God is closer to us than our very breath.  But God’s transcendence means that God is totally and completely different – other from us.  God’s ways are not our ways.  The fear of the Lord, the psalmist writes, is the beginning of wisdom.  The fear of the Lord is to stand in awe before the eternal, infinite creator God.
The mainline church has struggled to remind the world that God is love.  This is for many reasons.  God is presented as hate by many.  God is painted as rejecting God’s creation for various and sundry reasons, and as a preacher once thundered at a funeral I attended, there is a special place in Hell reserved for those who teach us that God hates us, because to believe God is other than love is to domesticate God for our own purposes. 
So make no mistake about it: God is love, but or and God is holy.  God is other.  God’s ways are not out ways.  We do not understand them.  We cannot claim knowledge of the divine mind.  It is not intellectual laziness to know that we cannot know.  It is to assume our place as the creation, not the creator. 
God is both the deliverer and the demander.  God is both because God is holy.  Holiness does not allow compromise.  That is the fundamental nature of holiness – it is without compromise – And yet God is not less demanding because God is delivering.  God does not not deliver because God demands.  That is the paradox – that God is God.
This is the Gospel because Christ is both deliverance and demand.  Life in Christ both frees us from this world and demands of us our very selves if we dare to take God seriously.  Living in Christ demands our whole allegiance if it is allegiance at all.  Otherwise, our faith is in ourselves, not in God, of whom Jesus Christ is the eternally begotten Word. 
Let me as you this: could you place your trust in a God you can contain?  The answer to that question is of utmost importance because a god that we can contain is an idol.  Idolatry is the ongoing sin of God’s people – then and now.  Idols cannot deliver us matter how much strength we ascribe to them.  Idols place no demands upon us save the demands we choose for ourselves.  Christ as deliverance and demand is the opposite of mere idol worship.  Christ as deliverance and demand calls for obedience from us. 
One of the critiques that I would offer of pop-theology is that it is theology made in our own image. Rather than seeing ourselves as made in God’s image, we reverse the equation and make God in our image.  This is not a new phenomenon, Feuerbach wrote about it in the 19th century when he determined that all our images of God were the perfections that were the opposite of our faults spun out to infinity.  To conceive God in our image is to conceive of a God who is not other.  This god made in our own image is a God who can be controlled.  This quixotic, mercurial God is alternately God as our bully or God as our buddy and pal.  One of my seminary theology professors was fond of reminding us that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not a God just waiting for us to sidle up and say, ‘come here, big guy, it looks like somebody needs a hug.’  The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God before whom we stand in awe.  The Fear of the Lord is understanding that we are not God.  The fear of the Lord is understanding that God is God inscrutably.   The fear of the Lord is the knowledge that God alone can deliver us, and that the only demands we can accept are the demands of God.  Anything less is not the living God of which Jesus Christ is the revelation.  But the gospel for us is in that very reality – idols cannot save us.  Because finally, only the God who is both deliverance and demand in all its fearful, living reality is the God of the resurrection.  In this God only is our hope and trust.  The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. 
God offers us a terrible choice. 
The choice is to worship God in holiness if we dare. 
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen.

1Buechner, Frederick.  The Son of Laughter.  P11-12
2Kierkegaard, Soren.  Fear and Trembling.  Excerpted from internet website.
3Von Rad, Gerhard.  Genesis  in The Old Testament Library. P245
4Brueggemann, Walter.  Genesis in Interpretation.  P189

Last Published: November 21, 2014 11:44 PM