The story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 is one of the most difficult Scriptures in the Bible – at least for me. For Christians, this story is filled with symbolism: the father who spares nothing, not even his own son; the journey up the mountain and the need for an offering to God; God’s provision of the sacrifice to make things right. When I look at the symbolism and the meaning, this story inspires me and gives me hope. But, as a parent, the story takes my breath away. Why would God ask such a thing? Why would Abraham get up without hesitation to do what God asked? How could father and son journey for days, all the while Abraham knew what would happen at the end of the road? This story poses big, difficult questions about God, and it poses tough questions about humanity. Even though the story ends in a way that inspires, we are left wondering how Abraham felt about it all, how Isaac reacted when he realized his father intended to offer him as the sacrifice to God, what the journey back down the mountain was like.
Today, as we dig into Genesis 22, I’m not going to answer all of those questions. Instead, I want us to focus on Abraham’s repeated response, “Here I am.” As the Hebrew scriptures were written down, one way the writers emphasized important things in the text was by repeating them. This is why the seraphs in the book of Isaiah say the word “holy” three times in Isaiah’s vision in the temple. God isn’t just holy, God is holy, holy, holy. Repetition and rhythm draws our eyes and our ears to what’s important in the story so that we don’t miss it. Here in Genesis 22, we encounter the word “hineni” three times – “Here I am.” This simple little word happens three times in the story – at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end – as if to urge the reader, “Pay attention to what’s happening here.”
The first time we encounter this little word is after God says Abraham’s name. The text tells us God tested Abraham, and when God spoke to Abraham, Abraham was listening. Abraham’s response – “Here I am” – is a response of faithfulness. When God called Samuel, Samuel answered, “Here I am.” When an angel of the Lord spoke to Jacob in a dream, Jacob responded, “Here I am.” When God called to Moses from the burning bush, Moses responded, “Here I am.” All throughout the pages of the Bible, we see time and again God calling out to people. “Here I am” is a response of faithfulness. When has God called out to you? What kinds of things did God call you to do? How did you respond?
This passage has a lot to teach us about community and the way God is connecting us to each other. As we explore this story of Abraham, Isaac, and God’s terrifying command, I would like to suggest that one of the ways God binds us together as a community is by calling us to be present to each other. Our passage begins with Abraham’s response of faithful listening to God, “Here I am.”
The next time we encounter this phrase is a painful one. As Abraham and Isaac have journeyed together, I imagine Abraham was filled with all kinds of doubts and wondering. Was he feeling pained every step of the way by what he was about to do? In the Hebrew, this pain is even more obvious. All through the story, the Hebrew reminds us that Isaac is Abraham’s son, his only son, the one that he loved so that we could put ourselves in Abraham’s shoes and feel his pain and struggle along with him.
Isaac calls out to Abraham, “My father?”
Abraham responds, “My son, here I am.”
Abraham, filled with pain and questioning and fear looks at his child and says, “My son, I’m here with you. I’m listening. I’m present with you.” Can you imagine how difficult that must have been? Isaac’s next question must have broken his father’s heart, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?” And Abraham responded, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it, my son.” Can’t you almost feel the pain in Abraham’s response? And yet, what faith! Some scholars have wondered if Abraham might have been hoping all along that God would provide a way out. After all, God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations, and he had promised to make the descendants of Isaac more numerous than the stars in the sky. Abraham’s faith inspires me, but as I read through this story again, I couldn’t help but marvel at the way Abraham remained present to Isaac even as Abraham was going through such pain himself.
When we are going through pain in our lives, it can be so easy to focus only on ourselves and what we are going through. We may feel tempted to shut down emotionally, or shut people out of our lives. We may even do it unintentionally. It may not be until after our painful season is over that we can look back and see the ways we were not present to our friends or our family. We can even do this when we are going through a particularly joyful time. I loved to play softball when I was growing up, and I even played some as an adult. When I was in middle school, I had hit a zinger of a ball. I was so happy and proud that I tossed my bat behind me and started running the bases. I’m not sure why, but the catcher wasn’t wearing a chest protector. It wasn’t until I was circling from third base to home that I realized I had hit the catcher right in the stomach with my metal bat. She was on the ground crying, and my coach yelled at me until I was crying, too. I had been so focused on my own experience that I didn’t even notice I had caused someone else to suffer.
One of the ways God calls us to be bound together in community is by calling us to be present to each other. We may not be able to be physically present with each other right now, but there is nothing preventing us from being present to each other, except maybe ourselves. It can be so easy for us to get in our own way. Our own worries and fears, joys and sorrows can blind us to the struggles of the people around us. As Abraham journeyed up the mountain with his son, Abraham was still able to be present to his son, even as Abraham suffered inside. We may not be able to be physically with one another right now, but we can still be present to each other by reaching out and by listening to each other. If we pick up the phone and call someone, we may learn how lonely they have been. By sending a card or a note in the mail or by email, we may learn of the struggles – or the joys – we have each been experiencing, and we may be given the opportunity to be present to a friend, a neighbor, a family member, or a member of our church.
As Abraham journeyed up the mountain with Isaac, we are reminded of the importance of being present to each other, and paying attention to each other’s needs. I love the way Paul puts this in Philippians 2: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” As we are present to each other’s needs, we will be bound together in community. We will be held together through Christ by the power of the Spirit.
From Abraham’s journey, we learn the importance of faithful listening to God. We see his example of being present to his son, even in the midst of his own personal distress. And we learn that it is never too late to turn back. The third time we encounter the phrase “Here I am” is as Abraham had the knife at the ready to sacrifice his son. The angel of the Lord called out to Abraham twice, and Abraham responded, “Here I am.” Abraham had responded to God and to his son, and he had reached a point where it seemed inevitable he would have to go through with it. Yet, at the voice of the angel of the Lord, Abraham stopped. He turned away from what he was about to do, and he allowed the story to end a different way. I imagine he was overcome with relief as he saw the way God provided there on the mountain, And yet, how often do we follow through with things simply because we’ve convinced ourselves we’ve gone too far down the path to turn back around?
When we make a misstep, or a wrong choice, it can so easily lead to another choice, and another step, and before long we’ve gone so far down the path that we are afraid to turn back around. Or, maybe we think it wouldn’t matter if we turned around and went the other way. We’ve already ruined our lives, or our reputations, or our relationships. Why turn back now? But, as Elton John sang in the new Lion King movie, “It’s never too late to turn things around/Recover, unravel the path to confound/The doubters and losers that line up in despair/Will tell you it’s over, you’re going nowhere/It’s never too late, I hope/It’s never too late.”
Friends in Christ, today let’s listen to the voice and leading of God. Let’s tune our ears so that when God calls our names, we are ready to respond, “Here I am.” As we journey along this road together, let’s work to remain present to each other in our needs and in our joys. It’s a struggle. We will get it wrong sometimes, and we will need to ask for forgiveness from each other, but let’s keep on trying. As we are present to each other’s pains and joys, we will be bound together in community like a beautiful quilt, the binding holding together all our unfinished edges. And let’s remember that it is never too late to turn around and make a new choice and a new path. If you are on the wrong road this morning, turn around. Repent. Ask for forgiveness. And turn around. It’s never too late.
Abraham was right. God did provide right there on the mountain of the Lord. He looked up when the angel of the Lord called his name, and there was a ram caught in a thicket. God provided for Abraham, and God will continue to provide for us. When we are facing difficulties, the Lord will see to it for us. When we are struggling, the Lord will see to it for us. We are not going on this journey alone. God will go ahead of us, and we have each other to walk with along the way. In the meantime, let’s listen to each other. Let’s be present to one another. As we pull away from our own interests and begin to look to the interests of others, we may be surprised by what we find. There is so much suffering and so much joy all around us. We are being invited to listen, to love, and to care.
May God open our ears to his call, open our hearts to the needs of others, and open our eyes to the new thing God is doing right now in our midst. To God be the glory – Amen.