Reviewing the previous week’s lesson is always an excellent place to start. At least a summation is a good spot to launch from. Here the instructor can, once again, give the students the opportunity to show their stuff, and to narrate the story back to the teacher, which will help to embed the tale in the student’s memory.
Last week’s lesson gave us a perspective on why the world is the way it is. This is not a historical question. The world isn’t messed up because of something that happened a long time ago. It’s messed up because we are ever messing it up in the present. And Genesis 1-11 gives us a template of how and why that occurs. The causes of sin in Genesis 1-11 are left relatively ambiguous (eg. Why did God look with favor on Abel’s sacrifice and not so much Cain’s? Why did he put that stupid tree in the garden? Why did he make a snake? What is going on just before the flood with the “sons of god mating with the daughters of men?). The more vital question is, what does a person or society do with sin once it is out there? Genesis 1-11 answers: people blame. They give in to resentment and violence. They give in and give themselves over to sin.
So the world is a mess.
Somebody has got to fix this and that somebody is God.
The next lesson (this week’s) leads us off in the direction of a solution; a semi-legendary series of stories (that doesn’t mean fictitious) about a fellow who will figure as a starting place for God’s redemptive work .
When you are getting started at something the best place to start is in one place. When God went to fix the world He chose one man; one ordinary man. God chose Abraham. Abraham didn’t have anything going for him that made him exceptional. If God had any long term plans involving Abraham those plans were pretty well limited by the fact that Abraham was already an old man and didn’t have any children. Abraham’s wife was a little younger than Abe, but she was no spring-chicken herself; certainly a little too old to become a mother for the first time. If God wanted to get something good started, Abraham seemed like a dead-end road from the get go. But God has a special place in his heart for lost causes and seemingly impossible situations. So God called to Abraham. He said, “Go. Get out of here, Abraham. Leave this town and this place where you live. Leave your father’s land. Head out west. Go to a place that you’ve never been to before. Pull up your roots. I’ve got big plans for you.”
Abraham answered, “I guess I can go, if you really want me to. But the thing is, God, I don’t have any kids. So even if I head out west, the family line ends with me. There is no one to pass anything on to–even a true knowledge and understanding of you, God. Everything dies with me.”
“You give up too easy,” God said. “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I am going to give you and your wife children. And then there will be grandchildren and great grandchildren. There will be more members of your family than there are stars in the sky; more than there are grains of sand on any beach around here. But it starts with–one. One son will be the beginning of a long line of descendants.”
Abraham said, “Well…if you say so.”
And so he packed up the wife (her name was Sarah) and they headed out west, trusting in God.
God didn’t immediately fulfill his promise. God sometimes takes his time.
And time was one thing that Abraham and Sarah figured that they didn’t have. They weren’t getting any younger. And still God drug his feet.
One time Abraham got a little impatient and tried to move things along a little faster, thinking that maybe some other woman would maybe be a mother to his children. And, as a matter of fact, this surrogate mother (Hagar is her name) did manage to have a baby, a son of Abraham. She named him Ishmael. But he wasn’t the son God intended. God wanted Abraham to have a child with his real wife, Sarah.
And–eventually they did.
And then…here comes the craziest part of this story: one day, when Abraham’s son, Isaac, was about 13 years old, God asked for him back. God told Abraham that Isaac really and truly was his–God’s son. And even though Abraham and Sarah were entrusted with keeping an eye on the kid, Isaac was God’s child. By asking Abraham to give the boy, Isaac, back to God, God was crushing all of Abraham’s hopes. He would be childless once again.
But God had a special lesson that he was trying to get across to Abraham. And that was–you get back what you are willing to give away. You can hold on too tightly sometimes to some things.
When Abraham demonstrated a willingness (though he must have been mightily reluctant) to part with his son, Isaac. God saw that and said, “You keep an eye on him, Abraham. I wasn’t trying to dash your hopes. I just wanted you, and the boy, your son, too for that matter, to understand that no human being belongs to another human being. You don’t own anyone. The first thing that people have to understand if they’re going to get out of the hole that they have dug themselves into it is that each and every human being is a special person that God made and that you have to look at one another and see one another in that manner.”
So God returned the boy, Isaac to his earthly father’s care. And Abraham was mighty thankful for them many years he still had left to love his son.
CONNECTIONS: The story of the ‘near’ sacrifice of Abraham is a powerful scene. One wonders how young minds accommodate the image and the idea of human sacrifice. A slightly less violent version of the same idea is acted out in Luke 2, wherein the boy, Jesus–then 13 (the same age as Isaac), was brought to the temple and Jerusalem and left there. Mary and Joseph didn’t mean to leave Jesus. But the episode provided an opportunity for them to learn too that Jesus, their son, was really, first and foremost, God’s son.
Rembrandt painted a powerful depiction of the scene of Isaac’s binding (as Jewish people refer to this incident) which might be worthwhile to check out. Other masters of the past have painted the same scene, but none so well.
The story of Isaac’s binding is so arresting that one can get hung up on it. It is an intense and suspenseful scene. But there are other aspects to the Abraham cycle of stories that are worth attending to as well. The theme of leaving home; striking out on a new adventure with no idea where the road leads to or what end is in sight is provocative. Who hasn’t had to go out on a limb; go out on a venture without any certainty as to how it will turn out? Isn’t life such?
But if one steps back and asks oneself, ‘what, in the broad scope of the biblical narrative and of God’s redemptive work, is the function of the Abraham cycle of stories?’–the answer is– ‘to show that God starts in one place; in precisely one place. He doesn’t reform mankind suddenly with a wave of his hand. If that were the right way to do it then that is how God would have done it. He does everything right. So, the way that he did do it has to have been and to be the right way. Change starts in the heart of the individual; in the heart of each and every one of us.
The catechism and Luther’s explanations have a lovely way of utilizing the first person, singular pronoun. “I believe that God has made ME and all creatures; given ME My body and soul, MY eyes and ears,…etc.” “…Jesus…who has redeemed ME, a lost and condemned creature…”.
What is more, the Christian faith, as expressed in the catechism, clings dearly to the rite of baptism which is the peculiar and particular promise of God applied to the individual. YOU are baptized. It’s for everyone. But there at the font, when it’s your turn, it’s just and specifically for YOU.
In conjunction with the church’s liturgy there are many prominent connections with the Abraham story that one can identify. The hymn ‘Abide with Me’ (LSB #878) certainly could be heard as Abraham’s anthem. There is as well the lovely “prayer before travel” included in Responsive Prayer 2 (LSB p.287), which explicitly invokes the characters of Abraham and Sarah amongst others.