Sermon: Defining Moments by the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 24, 2004
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Genesis 22:1-19 Abraham Tested

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"

"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.

"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place "The Lord Will Provide." And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided."

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."

Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

Matthew 7:13-14 The Narrow and Wide Gates

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Arcana Coelestia #2764 The Lord's most severe temptations

In the inner meaning, Genesis 22 speaks of the Lord's severest and inmost temptations, through which he united his human side with his divine side. It then speaks of the salvation, by means of that union, of those who form the Lord's spiritual church.

God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied. Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about." (Genesis 22:1-2)

If we look back over our lives and consider the things we have been through, we will see along the way, like pearls on a string, or for our Catholic friends, like beads on the rosary, defining moments of our lives. Moments at which we changed. Moments at which we had experiences or made choices that changed the course of our lives.

For me, there have been a number of defining moments--as I'm sure there have been for you. I recall the time I decided not to go into the ministry. That happened during my second year of college. I had intended to go into the ministry for as long as I had had any particular aspirations. When I decided not to go into the ministry, it changed not only the next decade of my life, which I spent doing things other than ministry, but also the rest of my life. I also remember when I decided once again that I would go into the ministry. That was about the time my daughter was born--and it, too, was a defining moment.

Some of our defining moments are positive: the birth of a child; a new start in life. Others are more difficult. And some of them change us in ways we wish had not happened.

If we look at the life of a nation, we also see defining moments. For this nation, the Revolutionary War was a defining moment. The Civil War was a defining moment. There have been many defining moments. September 11, 2001 was a defining moment. And we still don't know just how that event, and our reaction to it, will define this nation. But we know that we will never be the same.

In the life of the Lord there were also defining moments. When the Lord was baptized, and the Holy Spirit came down upon him like a dove, that was a defining moment, showing him what his life was to be. And when he went into the desert afterwards and was tempted by the devil--when he went through three temptations . . . three temptations winnowing his soul--that was a defining moment that determined the course of his life.

We all have our defining moments. Our story for today, the so-called "sacrifice of Isaac," was certainly a defining moment in Abraham's life. It was a definition, in his life, of what was going to be the most important to him.

Abraham's son Isaac had been born in a miraculous way. And incidentally, the Bible hedges a bit when calls Isaac his only son. Abraham did, in fact, have another son, Ishmael, who was born before Isaac. But as far as the biblical writers were concerned, Ishmael was not a true son of Abraham. His true son was the one born to him by his true wife, Sarah. So Isaac is treated as his only son. And in the context of the story, this especially means his only heir. Isaac was the one through whom his line would continue. It was through Isaac that God would carry out the promise to Abraham that he would become a great nation.

Now God was telling him he must give that up. Or at least, that's what Abraham thought God was telling him. He heard God say, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love . . . and sacrifice him as a burnt offering." And Abraham saddled his donkey and went. That was a defining moment: when Abraham decided to obey God even though it would mean such a huge and painful change in his life.

And so he traveled toward Mount Moriah with his son Isaac. It is poignant to see him walking along with Isaac. We don't know exactly how old Isaac is at this point--perhaps pre-teen or a young teenager. And he is talking to his father. Isaac knows how sacrifices work. He knows that you bring the fire, the knife, the wood, and the animal for the sacrifice. And he is confused. We have everything but the most important thing: the animal! So he asks his father Abraham a question: "The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Abraham's answer is fascinating: "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And they continue on.

Abraham believed that God had provided the animal for the sacrifice. He believed that the animal for the sacrifice was his son Isaac, whom God had given to him as a miraculous gift. He believed that if God had given Isaac to him, then God could require Isaac back from his hand. That is what Abraham believed when he spoke those words. And with untold pain in his soul, he traveled onward to give that precious gift back to God.

But that was not his last defining moment. When Abraham took his son, bound him, and was prepared to kill him--prepared to carry out what he believed was God's order to slay and sacrifice his son--there was another defining moment.

"Abraham! Abraham!" The angel of the Lord called out from heaven, and held back his hand, not allowing him to slay his son. He said, "Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your only son." And the angel called out to Abraham again and gave him this message: Because you have not withheld your only son, I will bless you incredibly--and not only you, but all the nations of the earth will be blessed through you.

We have seen the literal fulfillment of that promise. There are three great religions on this earth that were blessed through Abraham and his obedience to the Lord. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all take inspiration from Abraham, and from his willingness to put the Lord first, even at great personal sacrifice. And that influence has reached out into the other parts of the world through the good that the people of those religions have done.

Let's pause a moment to look at the issue of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son.

You may be familiar with the childhood game that my neighborhood used to call "Operator." All the kids get in a circle. One of them thinks up a phrase and whispers it into the next one's ear. That one whispers whatever he or she heard into the next one's ear, and so on. When it gets to the other end, the last one says out loud whatever came through. Then the one who started says the original phrase out loud. Sometimes it is very funny to hear what comes out the other end, compared to what it started as!

In this Bible story there is a game of Operator going on between God and Abraham. God said something to Abraham, who heard it according to what was in his own mind.

We know that we interpret what other people say to us. In fact, we sometimes we get trouble with people because they say something to us, and we hear something very different--and proceed to act on the assumption that what we heard is what they meant. There is a complicated saying that goes like this: "I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant." Things get very convoluted even trying to communicate with other people.

We hear God in the same way: according to how we ourselves think. And it is important to understand that in Abraham's time, human sacrifice was considered perfectly valid, and was viewed as the supreme act of devotion toward one's deity. Clearly, this was part of Abraham's thinking as well. What did he do when he heard God telling him to sacrifice his son? What would one of us do? We would say, "That's not God speaking. God would never tell me to do something like that!" But that's not how Abraham responded. He saddled his donkey and went, fully intending to carry out what he believed God was commanding him.

From a spiritual perspective, God was saying to Abraham, "You must make the supreme sacrifice. You must totally dedicate your life to me. You must not withhold anything from me." What Abraham heard was, "You must perform the supreme sacrifice. You must sacrifice your beloved son." Abraham believed this was the ultimate way of showing his devotion to the Lord. That's why the angel of the Lord accepted the willingness on Abraham's part--not because it would have been a good thing for Abraham to do, but because it showed that he was willing to put God above everything else in his life.

This was also a defining moment for the Hebrew nation. It established that human sacrifice would not be a part of the Jewish religion. Yes, there is the later story of Jephtha and his daughter. But in general, human sacrifice was not practiced by the Jewish people, as it was by many of the surrounding peoples. The "sacrifice of Isaac" was a defining moment in which God turned around the belief of Abraham and his people that human sacrifice was pleasing to God. In effect God said: I appreciate the fact that you were willing to do this. But this is not what I am asking you to do.

On a deeper level, the sacrifice of Isaac does speak of making the supreme sacrifice. For each one of us, that supreme sacrifice will be different. But for all of us, this is a story about the times when we face our toughest and deepest choices. This story is about our deepest times of temptation and trial, when we feel God calling us to do something that we are just not sure we can do--something that we think would mean leaving behind everything we believe is most important, and laying them down for God.

In more doctrinal terms, we are tested as to what our "ruling love" will be. What will be the dominant force, the dominant love, in our life?

And yes, sometimes we are tested as to whether we will put our family and loved ones first, or whether we will put God first. Sometimes we do have to make a choice between what our friends and family, even what our own children want us to do, and what we know God is telling us to do. Sometimes we have to struggle between what we ourselves believe we should do toward our family and friends, and what we know God is telling us. This can be very difficult. It can be just as harrowing as what Abraham went through when he heard God asking him to sacrifice his son. Sometimes we do have to sacrifice family members in our minds when we realize that God is calling us to do something very difficult.

This testing is not theoretical. It is very real. It is very concrete. And it sifts our souls. As Abraham was walking along, it was not a theoretical task he was about to do. He was being asked to give up what was most important to him. And I know it tore his heart apart to make that decision. It does tear our hearts apart to make the ultimate decisions that God puts in front of us. Yet these are the defining moments of our lives. These are the moments that determine who we will be. These are the moments that determine the rest of our lives.

The choices we make, the directions we go at these times will set our course. And it will be very difficult to change that course farther down the line. Even if we do change course later, we can never change the choice we made before, and its consequences will continue. These defining moments do determine the course of our lives; and most importantly, they determine the course of our hearts. They define the person we will be.

The Lord faced these choices as well. In correspondential terms, Isaac represents the "divine rational" in the Lord. Isaac represents the Lord's higher vision of life, of spirit, of his mission, which he was beginning to see as a young boy. Isaac represents his divine calling. And the Lord had to make a choice between that calling and what the world said he should do--and even what his own lower heart said he should do.

Consider Jesus in the desert being tempted by the devil. One of the temptations the devil put before the Lord was to show him the vast human landscape from a mountaintop, and say to him: Do you see all of these kingdoms, all these people, this entire world? I will give it to you if you will fall down and worship me.

In a way, this was exactly what the Lord wanted. He wanted all the people of the world. His greatest love, and the reason he came to earth, was to save the human race. And that doesn't just mean the human race in general. He came to save each one of the people that he saw around him. He came to save each one of us in this church, and every other person both in and out of all of the churches today, and throughout all time. This was his love. This why he came: to save a humanity that was destroying himself.

And now the devil was telling him: I'll give it to you. All you have to do is compromise; all you have to do is just this once, bow down and worship me.

Jesus, as in all three of these temptations, turned to Scripture. He turned to the divine rational, to his inner Isaac, to his deeper understanding of what the Scripture was telling him, in order to defend against every one of the temptations. He followed Isaac's line. He kept to divine teaching instead of doing what humanity or the devil wanted.

In so doing, Jesus put himself on a collision course with the religious leaders of his day. After that defining moment, when he was baptized and tempted in the wilderness, and when he followed God's way instead of the devil's, it was only a matter of time before he would find himself on the cross. It was only a matter of time before the conflict with the world would become so great that people would act with murderous hatred against him, trying to destroy him. And he knew this when he made that defining choice in his life.

Our defining decisions may put us on a collision course with the people around us as well--our family, our friends, the people we work with. After those defining moments, our lives will never be the same again. We may never again be able to have that particular relationship with our family, those particular friendships, that particular job.

These moments, these choices, define our lives. They send us in a different direction than we were going before. This is what Abraham faced. This is what the Lord faced. And this is what each one of us faces at our defining moments.

Sometimes we face choices every bit as tough as the one Abraham faced on Mount Moriah. Perhaps we don't hear God literally telling us to sacrifice our children. But at times we do hear God telling us to sacrifice what we believe is most important to us.

What will we do at that moment? How will we define our lives?

Painting: Abraham Sacrificing Isaac
by Musée Saint-Denis, 1650

Webpage background design by Judy

Music: Hear My Prayer
© Bruce DeBoer

Used with Permission

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