What I love about being the church is that each of you can see something of God that I hadn’t seen before, and maybe, I can see something of God that you hadn’t noticed. Now what we’re doing here is murmuring to each other: Oh come and stand right here, you don’t want to miss it!
It’s the same thing you do when you see a rainbow, or when the hummingbird has come back to the feeder, and it’s tipping back its little hummingbird head. You call everybody in the house to come to the window. There’s the shimmer of the Holy Spirit, and all we can do is is tell each other: Quick! It’s right there. Come and see.
You might hear the prayer rise out of your own heart: “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation! I will sing to the LORD…” What we’re doing as the church is we’re hearing somebody else sing the prayer that begins to rise in your own heart, until their prayer becomes your prayer. We’re seeing something of God we’d never be able to see by ourselves. Your heart could be moved by the tender kindness of God. Our voices could rise in thrilling praise!
And it’s important to remember this because that’s not at all what we just heard in the scripture.
A few minutes ago, Karen read us a story that is trouble.
It’s the kind of story that makes the Bible scholars rush in and say: Hang on… We’ll try to help. In the ancient world, child sacrifice was not unheard of, so actually, this is a story of God rejecting that practice. Imagine if God does not want violent sacrifice after all!
This is the kind of story that makes the preachers rush in and say: Hang on… We’ll try to help. Every story in the Bible was first cooked up by human people, and you know people. Even when we’re inspired by the Holy Spirit and we’re acting in good faith, we can still get things wrong, and maybe the people who made up this story were wrong about God. And seriously, I hope they were!
Everybody’s trying to fix this story because it’s trouble.
One day God decided to put Abraham to the test. The LORD called his name, and Abraham said, Here I am. And God told Abraham to take Isaac. Remember Isaac is the son who fulfills God’s promise that Abraham will have as many descendants as stars fill the sky. Remember Isaac is the one who made Sarah laugh, the one whom Abraham loves. Right, so take that child, says the Holy Spirit. Go up the mountain and offer him as a sacrifice to me. And we all heard what happened. Abraham obeyed the LORD.
While it was still dark, he got up, and saddled his donkey, and summoned his servants, and cut the wood, and got Isaac out of bed, and off they went. When they got close to the place God had chosen, Abraham left the donkey with his staff, and he and Isaac began walking. Isaac carried the wood; Abraham carried the knife and the fire.
Together they walked on in silence until the moment came when Isaac spoke up and said what all of us are thinking: Wait a minute! Something is wrong. Something is missing… Where is the lamb for the sacrifice? Abraham told him, God will provide, and as it turns out, Abraham was right.
He built an altar. Abraham looked at this boy whom he loved, and he tied him up, and he picked up the knife, and that’s when an angel of the LORD swooped onto the scene and called off the hit: Don’t kill him! You passed the test! Now God knows you are faithful.
Just then, a ram appeared in the thicket, so Abraham and Isaac slaughtered it as a sacrifice to the LORD. God renewed her promise saying to Abraham: Your descendants will be like stars that fill the sky, like sand that covers the seashore. God looked at what happened, and she was pleased by Abraham’s obedience. God saw that this was good. And I’m so sorry.
This is a problem. Since when is God a gang leader demanding a loyalty test? Never mind, Baby, just wanted to make sure you’d go through with it. What?!
It’s a problem that God speaks to Abraham tenderly, that Abraham speaks to Isaac tenderly. Cruelty and intimacy get tangled up until you can’t tell which is which, until we start to wonder if violence is not so bad as long as it’s wrapped up in tenderness, as long as it’s for their own good. And you and I know. This is not the love of God. This is abuse.
In this story, God does not repent. She does not realize her cruelty or apologize to Abraham.
In this story, Sarah is glaringly absent. Does she know what Abraham was doing? Does she get a vote on what’s about to happen to her son?
Something is wrong. Something is missing.
Why isn’t Abraham arguing? His silence is devastating.
Abraham knows how to argue with God. From the earliest days of the covenant, Abraham pleaded with the LORD for descendants, and God heard his prayer and said Yes. Then there was the time Abraham petitioned God to spare Sodom if only there were fifty righteous people, or how about forty righteous people, or could you do thirty, or twenty, or ten… Each time, God relented, but he still destroyed Sodom because Abraham couldn’t find ten. Time and again, Abraham keeps teaching us that prayers of protest are a critical expression of our faith.
When poets and artists get their hands on this Bible story, they do what has to be done; they describe the anguish in Abraham’s soul and the tears running down his face. The problem is that’s not in the Bible. Can you imagine if Abraham was doing all this and he wasn’t even crying?
Something is wrong; something is missing.
But here’s the thing… Once you realize that, once you say it out loud, there’s a beat of silence, there’s the breath of the Holy Spirit, then the next thing is the whole story’s about to take a turn.
You and I know, in the story we’re living through right now, we are ready for the plot to take a turn. I know this day will come. It means everything that the promise is not: One day, the weeping from the night will subside and you’ll be all out of tears. No. Weeping lingers for the night, but in the morning, there is joy! There is going to be joy again I know….
And I know that right now is really hard.
And maybe you’re not okay. And maybe you don’t have to be.
Whenever a person says out loud: Something is wrong; I need help. What they’re doing is making it more possible for other people to get help too.
I have found, one of the gifts of this season of crisis is getting to share conversations with people who say something like: You know why this is really hard right now… then they go on to name a particular reason. You know why it’s hard right now: We’re worried about our eight-year-old falling behind in math… We’re worried about how political division is playing out in our neighborhood…
When you hear these specific concerns named out loud, pretty soon you start to think, yeah… No wonder I’ve been feeling like this!
Whenever a person notices what’s wrong and names it out loud, it gives the rest of us permission. It proves we’re not alone in this. We don’t have to decide this is normal. We don’t have to pretend everything’s fine when it’s not. We don’t have to pretend that our Bible story is one of tenderness when it’s really a story of abuse. Maybe we never have to do that again.
These days, the odds are good that you might be listening to a person you love and you might hear them say out loud: Something is wrong and something is missing. And thank God they told us because maybe we can help!
And I hope we can. But even when we cannot fix their distress, there’s absolutely something we can do. We can believe them. We can pick up their complaint in our own hands and deliver it directly to the LORD. We could be the ones who lay this down before God.
In the scripture we heard, Abraham’s prayer of protest is missing, but don’t worry, we won’t let it go missing from our church service. In just a minute, we will share Psalm Thirteen as our prayer. We’ll have a chance to say to the LORD our God: Look at this! Something is wrong! Something is missing… Then there’s a beat of silence, then there’s the breath of God, and then— then everything’s about to change.
What I love about being the church is that each of you can see something of God I never would have noticed by myself. You might hear a prayer of praise rise up out of your own heart…
Or look, you might not. Could be your only prayer is “Help!” Could be your only prayer goes missing. And that’s okay. You’ve got us. You can count on your church to bring the prayers that you need the LORD to hear, then hold on, don’t leave just yet.
After the words is a beat, after the beat is a breath, after the breath, well, you’ve got to come the window and look. Everything’s about to turn, and O Holy Hallelujah, I’m telling you, you’ve got to see this…
Hint: Be sure to hold the silence and pray the fullness of the space between Psalm 13:4 and Psalm 13:5.