So, we’re looking at Genesis today, and I wonder what Abraham thought about on his three-day trek with Isaac to the mountains in Moriah. Three days is not a long time to mull over the most momentous act of one’s life, but I’m guessing that what kept returning to mind was God’s promise to Abraham so many years ago. On that day, God proclaimed, “This is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. ... I will establish between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 17:4, 7) This must have jumped immediately to Abraham’s mind when God told Abraham to go and sacrifice his beloved son Isaac.
And I’m guessing that the next thing he thought was, “Again?” If you remember, just before this happened, Abraham had been told by God to obey his wife Sarah, and send Hagar and Ishmael, his first-born, away into the wilderness of Beer-sheba. Even though God promised Abraham that God would take care of Ishmael, Abraham didn’t actually know that that had happened. All Abraham saw was the back of his first-born son, disappearing over the horizon and away from shelter and water and protection.
God had promised Abraham that God would make him the father of nations, and continue in covenant with his offspring for generations to come, and then God encouraged Abraham to send his first-born son away, and was demanding the life of his only remaining son. God had promised a future for Abraham and his children, but how could that possibly happen now? What was Abraham thinking in the midst of this? We know how the story ends, how God would work it out, but Abraham didn’t. We don’t know whether Abraham took every step towards that mountain of sacrifice with reluctance, or with eagerness to witness a miracle, or with confusion, or all of the above. Scripture tells us that Abraham said to his men that both he and Isaac would return from the mountain, and that he told Isaac that God would provide a lamb for the offering. Whether Abraham truly believed this to be the case, or was engaged in deception, either of himself or others, we don’t know.
All we know is that Isaac embodied the living, breathing future that God had promised, and now God was telling Abraham to give Isaac up. To continue to trust God’s promise, but to let go of any plans for how that promise would come to pass.
That’s what this story is telling us today. This isn’t a story about child sacrifice, which was actually pretty common in that part of the world at that time, thank goodness we’re past that. This is a story about future sacrifice. More specifically, this is a story about sacrificing our plans of how we think God’s future for us will come about. What the stories of Abraham and Isaac, and of Abraham and Ishmael, tell us is that we shouldn’t hold too tightly to our ideas of how exactly God is going to deliver on God’s promise; we shouldn’t get too caught up in our own plans. Because, as we see with Abraham, at some point, God may ask us to walk a very different path than the one we planned to take to get to where God is calling us.
I think this is God’s message for us today. As we try to make plans for the future, we know that God promises a future for us, and we know that that future is good, but just how we are going to arrive at that future is a bit of a mystery. And, as so often happens when we’re in uncharted territory, we’re tempted to make a lot of plans. Which is not a bad thing. Plans are not bad. I am a planner. But we go astray when we put our faith more in our plans than in God’s promise. And so God sometimes has to encourage us to let those plans go.
Which is very unsettling, especially when we face uncertainty on all sides, and are trying to discern and plan a lot of different things in our lives. From trying to plan how to gather together as a congregation in-person, to trying to plan how the call process should proceed, to personal things like trying to plan how kids will go back to school in the fall, or how work will unfold in the months to come, or travel plans, or plans for retirement, or for family gatherings. For the last three-and-a-half months, we have been living day-to-day, at most week-to-week, and it is exhausting. We want to be able to start planning. Of course, we all trust that God will provide us with a future, and we trust that that future will be good. It’s just that we’re less inclined to trust the process of how that future will come to be. We want to know how exactly that future will arrive, we want to feel some control over our lives. And along comes this story of Abraham and Isaac, and here I am telling you that this story means that we need to sacrifice our plans, that we need to lay our plans on the altar of our Lord, and say goodbye to them. I don’t like this story.
But we’re only halfway through this story, and we can’t stop here, because this is also a story about how God does keep God’s promises. Abraham had to sacrifice his plans and expectations for how the future would come to be, but Abraham did not actually have to sacrifice Isaac. God did indeed bring about the future that God promised––we are here, after all. And this is also the message of this story for us today. God does have a good future in mind for God’s children––for all of you and each of you––and God will bring it to pass. Not always the way we expect, but in God’s own way. When we sacrifice our plans, when we lay our plans before God and give them up as an offering, as Abraham did with his plans named Isaac, God quickly steps in to provide a plan of God’s own. God offers a new path––God’s own path––for getting to the future God has promised us. And, just as God fulfilled God’s promise by blessing Isaac, and then Jacob, and then Joseph, and the generations that followed, God fulfills God’s promise by blessing you and your children and your children’s children.
So how do we actually live this out? How do we sacrifice our plans to God? After all, we really can’t just live with no plans whatsoever. That’s foolish and, as we’ve seen in this COVID time, dangerous. But there is a middle-of-the-road way of living that involves planning only a few steps at a time. God does gives us wisdom and discernment for at least a few steps forward, just as God gave Abraham direction to go to the mountains of Moriah. And so we are called to identify those first few steps, and to embark on them with prayer and trust, even if they seem like they’re going in the wrong direction. And as time progresses, God grants us the wisdom to see the next few steps, and then the next after that, just a few at a time, but enough times that we are finally where we are supposed to be, receiving the fulfillment of God’s promise.
And I think we are also called to hold these few-steps-at-a-time plans loosely, as we might hold a kitten or a puppy, ready to calmly release them when they start to wiggle free. Because sometimes we do end up on the wrong path, through honest misunderstandings or through deliberate choice, and God is gracious enough to offer us a course correction. We don’t know why, but it was clear that God needed Abraham to let go of Isaac––maybe he was in danger of worshipping him, as so many parents end up worshipping their children. Maybe Abraham was clinging to Isaac too tightly, clinging to Isaac as the manifestation of God’s promise, and so God asked Abraham to loosen his grip. To hold Isaac, to hold Abraham’s plan for the future, loosely. To let go of him, if need be, so that God could make the necessary course correction and set them on the right path again, and so that Abraham, in addition to trusting God’s promise, could also trust God’s plan. We are called to do the same with our own plans and expectations, whether that be expectations for the call process, or for the resolution of COVID, or for anything in this coming year. To hold the plans loosely, and to offer them to God.
Now this is hard, but it is clear that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, you are all capable of doing this. I have seen it over the last two and a half years. It may have seemed that when I first got here, I knew exactly how our time together was going to unfold. But I had no idea. I only knew that God had called me here, and that God promised to work healing of some kind, but I did not know that it would involve going back to the beginnings of this church, or sharing stories of spiritual abuse, or Lenten reflections and Easter healing services. I did not know that God would take the pieces of Advent’s broken history and disrupted plans and make an Easter cross out of them. None of us knew that it would involve what it did. And yet, as we took a few steps at a time together, and then a few steps more, as you sacrificed the expectations of outcomes, as you held our time together loosely, God’s promise of healing was fulfilled, and is being fulfilled, and God continues to bless you. I have seen that you have the trust of Abraham to let go of your plans and to trust in God’s promise. I have seen the Holy Spirit accomplish this in you, and so I know you will allow the Spirit to do it again.
For the last three months, we’ve been praying the same prayer every time we gather for morning prayer, starting in those first days immediately following the COVID closures. It’s a prayer for God’s guidance, but also a prayer of thanksgiving that God is with us always, leading us along the way step by step, towards the fulfillment of God’s promised blessing. And, with gratefulness to God for all that God has accomplished among us together, it is my prayer for all of you, through the weeks and months and years to come, and I offer it now:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go [forward] with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen. [ELW, pg 304]