Sacrifice

(# 4 of 6 Lenten reflections)

Our pastor recently preached on one of the most difficult stories in the Old Testament: God’s unthinkable command to Abraham in Genesis 22 to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, the heir of the promise, the one whose birth he and Sarah had awaited for a full 25 years.  I myself have wrestled with that text here on the blog, and while it’s possible to reconcile much of the tension in the story, the gut-wrenching nature of the command can never be eliminated entirely.

As I listened again to the story, I was reminded of the recent experience of conducting a memorial service for a tiny and beautiful baby boy, who died in neonatal intensive care.  And I have to admit: this time, the story of Abraham’s obedience took on new depth.  Moral and philosophical questions were upstaged by a father’s anguish, by the emotions Abraham must surely have felt, but about which the text remains silent.

Abraham took the wood for the entirely burned offering and laid it on his son Isaac.  He took the fire and the knife in his hand, and the two of them walked on together.  Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?”

Abraham said, “I’m here, my son.”

Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?”

Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it,my son.”  The two of them walked on together.  (Gen 22:6-8, CEB)

Isaac was not a small child; he was big enough and strong enough to carry the wood that was destined to become his funeral pyre.  And he was old enough to know that something was missing: where was the sacrificial lamb?

Biblical storytellers often describe only what’s happening on the outside; they are more reticent than we are to include the internal, emotional details.  But I imagine loving tenderness in Abraham’s voice as he replied to Isaac’s innocent questions: “God will see to it, my son.”  Tenderness, mixed with both grief and hope.  Isaac, perhaps, heard something familiar in his father’s tone, and knew not to ask anything further as they trudged along in silence.

The gospel of John gives us an in-depth portrait of the intimacy between God the Father and Jesus the Son.  Sometimes I wonder if we’ve obscured that dimension in doctrinal metaphors that nearly make the cross into a legal transaction: our debt is paid, our freedom purchased.  We quote John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” — but do we take that love as some abstract motivation on God’s part?  Do we forget that later in that same chapter, Jesus declares, “The Father loves the Son and gives everything into his hands” (vs. 35, CEB)?  Or that John picks up a refrain that runs through the entire Bible, especially the Psalms, and declares openly that God is love (1 John 4:8)?

The pain of sacrifice is the flip side of love, and at Lent, we remember God’s loving sacrifice on our behalf — love for us, love for his Son.  So here’s the question: are our small sacrifices acts of religious duty, or expressions of devotion that draw us nearer to the heart of a loving and generous Father?