“He...set out for the place where God had told him to go.” (Genesis 22:3)
The boy and the old man walk single file up the mountain trail. The old man is ancient. His leathery, lined face and white beard speak of a lifetime of wandering without a home. No one would think that he’s the boy’s father. He looks more like a grandfather, or a great-grandfather, even. But father he is. The boy is the child of his old age, named “He Laughs” -- Isaac -- because of the joyful, delighted, disbelieving laughter with which he and his ninety-year-old wife greeted the news that they’d have a baby. So much laughter, as if they’d never have another care in the world.
No one’s laughing now.
The boy carries a bundle of firewood. The old man watches his back as he climbs the trail. He’s grown so fast. The years have flown by so quickly. The boy walks with the enthusiasm of youth, head high, looking at the world. Drifting back to him, the old man’s ears catch the faint sound of a children’s song. The old man thinks habitually of his son’s future, of all the aspirations he has for him. But then the train of thought stops. This boy, he has to remind himself, has no future. For the thousandth time, the old man thinks of taking the boy and going home, leaving the errand he’s been sent to do undone. The boy shifts the firewood. The singing stops. So does Isaac. When he turns, his face is quizzical.
“Father?” Isaac’s expression is serious. It looks almost humorous on such a young, unlined face. His words are anything but funny. “We have the wood and the fire, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”
The breath freezes in the old man’s lungs. A sob, barely swallowed, wells up in his throat. Tears fall onto his leathery cheeks. His teeth grind together, his fists clench. He feels like he may throw up. He wants to scream his anger to the heavens. ‘What do you want from me, God?” he wants to shout.
Instead he says, shakily, “God will provide a lamb, my son.”
It’s more a prayer than a promise. Really, it’s more wishful thinking than even a prayer. But what else is he supposed to say? Should he tell the boy that he is the sacrifice? How does a man explain that to his son? How does he explain that he is about to take a knife and cut that young throat, immolate the body that came from his body? And why? Because God told him to? He doesn’t know how to explain it to his wife, or even to himself. He certainly can’t tell the boy.
Too soon, father and son arrive at the place of sacrifice. Silently, they build the altar together, stone by stone. Abraham arranges the wood carefully, while Isaac looks on. He can wait no longer. Kneeling down, he pulls Isaac to him. He holds him close. Sobs rip through the ancient body. He looks into the wide, trusting , bewildered eyes. “I love you, son,” he says, words he hopes his son will believe in the grave.
Got to move quickly now. He wraps a length of rope around his son’s wrists, then his ankles. Isaac whimpers a little as his father pulls the rope tight, picks him up, and places him on top of the wood on the altar. The old man puts his hand gently over the boy’s eyes, then shuts his own eyes tightly as his other hand pulls the knife from his belt. With an anguished scream, he puts it against his son‘s throat...
We know the ending, of course. We know about the shout from heaven that stayed the old man’s hand and the ram caught in the bushes that answered his prayers. We know that God commended him for his faith, and so we walk away from the story knowing that all is right and that God is good and that if we just trust him everything will work out fine.
Of course, Abraham didn’t know the ending. For all he knew, he was going to have to go through with the terrible task of killing his own son. For all he knew, God really wanted Isaac. And what’s really miraculous and amazing and also incredibly disturbing about this whole story is that Abraham was ready to do it. And also that God commends him for it.
Here’s the lesson. It’s not what you think it is. It’s not that God can be trusted to come through at the last minute. It’s not that genuine faith is immediately rewarded. The lesson is that faith is only possible when you’re off all the maps you know. Faith is only really possible when you’ve walked away from sense and reason and maybe even decency and are teetering at the edge of lunacy. It’s really only possible standing on top of a vast mountain of doubt and fear and anguish, looking down in disbelief at what God has asked you to give him. Do you trust him enough to do the unthinkable? It’s only with the unthinkable confronting you that you know. At that moment, if you can raise your hand to put to death what you love most, that is faith.
What’s God asking of you? What familiar camp is he asking you to leave? What dark, dangerous, doubtful mountain is he asking you to climb? And what is he asking you to lay on the altar at the top? Those questions are ones that only you can answer, on your knees with God. Just remember that in calling you away from comfort and toward horrible, painful sacrifice, God is making it possible for you to discover faith. It can never be found in the safety of your tent. It’s always out on life’s frontier.
Maybe he’ll rescue you at the last moment from the need to give up what you love. Maybe all he’ll want is to prove your willingness to offer it. Maybe he’ll give it back to you. But maybe he won’t. When he doesn’t, remember that he called his Son to leave the familiarity of Nazareth for a cross outside Jerusalem. The mountain he asked his own Son to climb was a hard one. And there was no last-minute rescue, no angel armies, no outraged voice from heaven, no fire from the sky. And when Jesus asked why, there was no explanation. Out of love for us, God put the knife to his Son’s throat.
There was no one to stop him.
So he knows. He knows what it means to give up what you love. He knows what it is to make a painful sacrifice. But Jesus’ tomb is empty. Sacrifice brings life. And whatever God is asking of you, the joys he has in store for you will be worth it. Don’t give up your claim on them because the sacrifice is too hard.
Go to the place of sacrifice. There you’ll find your faith, your God, and your life.