David A. Davis
July 2, 2017
Have you ever had one of those mornings? One of those mornings like Abraham, as in “Abraham rose early in the morning.” One of those early morning encounters with life that has little do with the time on the clock. One of those moments when the knot in your stomach is larger than the courage in your heart. An early morning when you’re not so sure whether your lips are about to offer God praise or curse, when the intersection of life and faith, question and understanding, assurance and doubt, hindsight and vision, when that intersection gets so crowded that you just have to shout. One of those undesirable spots when the call and cost of discipleship clash with the raw limitations of what it means to be human. You certainly can’t sleep, so you get up. Because it is “early in the morning.” And you find yourself looking deep into the mystery of God.
“Abraham rose early in the morning.” The psalmist assures us that “weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30). It is the writer of Lamentations who proclaims, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning” (Lam. 3). But this “early morning,” the early morning in this story of the sacrifice of Isaac, this “early morning” for Abraham, feels a lot different than that. “Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and his son Isaac.” You will remember in the chapter before here in Genesis, when Abraham and Sarah sent Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness, that day, that morning, started the same way. “Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba.” That was early in the morning.
“Abraham rose early in the morning.” Only two times in the Book of Genesis. The sacrifice of Isaac and the exile of Hagar and Ishmael. Both times “Abraham rose early in the morning.” When it comes to the reading for today, some interpret the action at sunrise as a kind of bold-print, literary, symbolic exclamation point that emphasizes Abraham’s faith and obedience. At the fresh start of a new day, Abraham sets out with a determination and clarity of thought and faith that is as sure and certain as the rising of the sun. Of course the reader of Genesis never learns enough about Abraham’s thought. There is never enough commentary to really know things like doubt, certainty, questioning, faith, despair, confidence. And this whole scene starts with “After these things, God tested Abraham.” The space between the lines in these stories is just too much. Way too much space when you’re trying to read between the lines. The careful reader, the faith-filled reader, has to yearn for more.
“Early in the morning” may not come for Abraham with the promise and the assurance and the gift of a new day. Perhaps there is a fuzziness to “early in the morning,” like the grey time when it is not quite light but it is no longer dark. Those moments when it’s not quite daytime and the dark of night is not yet finished. Abraham casting Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. Abraham being commanded to place his beloved son Isaac there upon the altar. It was early in the morning. There is a distinctive ambiguity about that kind of early morning, an ambiguity of life and faith, life and death. When the piercing light of day and the blinding darkness of night are right there together, just for a moment. “Abraham rose early in the morning” to encounter the ever-present, constantly-puzzling, sometime-heartbreaking, once-in-a-while-even-punishing mystery of God. It was one of those mornings.
Abraham! Abraham! The careful reader wants to pull Abraham aside and ask a few question. The horrified reader wants to know that Isaac is okay on the inside when all that trauma is done. The note-taking, connect-all-the-dots reader remains frustrated by the absence of Sarah and her now suddenly-lost voice. And every reader ought to want to have a word or two with God about all this. As literary scholar Erich Auerbach has written, so much of the human drama in these biblical narratives is understated. “Thoughts and feelings remain unexpressed,” he writes. Interpretation only comes in the midst of “the silence and the fragmentary speeches.” So much is behind the scenes. And this particular biblical witness, Auerbach concludes, is “fraught with background.”
“Frought with background.” Which makes the ancient story all the more human. You and I, our lives are “frought with background,” too. Every one of us. “Frought with background.” A complexity, a thick description, a hot mess of faith and doubt and joy and sorrow and celebration and suffering. And along with Abraham and Sarah, there are those early morning encounters with the mystery of it all, the mystery of God. One of those kind of mornings. Standing between the promise of God and the raw reality of this life of ours. Rising early to greet a complex canvas of life, sometimes obediently, other times in sheer desperation, hoping that some Word from the Lord will make it all easier, knowing full well that sometimes the morning just gets longer as we once again encounter the ever-present, constantly-puzzling, sometime-heartbreaking, once-in-a-while-even-punishing mystery of God.
Artists and poets tend to do better with this passage they call “the Binding of Isaac.” You can find the scene in window at the National Cathedral. You can go over and look at the sculpture on Princeton’s campus. You can see Rembrandt’s sketch on display right now at the Frick Museum in New York City. Artists and poets do better than preachers because they don’t have to offer any answers. They don’t allow words to eat away, explain away, the dramatic, anthropological, theological tension. Unlike preachers who feel obligated to put a kind of rhetorical, interpretive bow on the story (which drains the life right out of the sacred text), unlike preachers, artists’ renditions of “the Binding of Isaac” invite you to a certain silence as you sit before God, Abraham, Isaac, and the Sarah-less trip to the land of Moriah. The invitation is to sit before the story of humanity’s encounter with the divine, squinting all the while to see into the background, into the mystery of God.
Squinting, looking, seeing. Abraham, in the story here in Genesis 22, he didn’t just rise, he saw. “On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away” (v. 4). “And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns.”(v. 13). Abraham looked. He saw. After Abraham saw the ram, after God intervened, Abraham called that place “the Lord will provide.” In Hebrew, that could also be translated “the Lord sees.” God provides. God sees. God will provide. On the Mount of the Lord it shall be seen. On that Mount, the Lord sees.
To rise up early in the morning, it rarely comes with a whole lot of answers. But it comes with an invitation to try to see. The story of “the Binding of Isaac” tells of one who was thrust into the mystery of it all. One who, by God’s grace, was given just a glimpse. Abraham saw just a glimpse of what God saw. To dwell somewhere between the promise of God and the raw reality of life and of death means that an encounter with the mystery of God is inevitable. Because God sees, God provides, and you and I are mere mortals. You don’t have to turn to artists and poets to ponder the world of death and sacrifice that confronted Abraham that early morning. Death and sacrifice, suffering and eternally unanswered questions abound this side of the kingdom. Some mornings you just look at the world and fall silent. Even then, the invitation comes to stare into the mystery of God, to enter into the life of God. To yearn to see what God sees. To learn again, that on this mountain, God provides.
In the current issue of The Christian Century magazine, President Craig Barnes of Princeton Theological Seminary very movingly and powerfully tells the story of a couple he had married about 20 years ago. In the pastoral conversations leading up to the wedding the groom had shared how frightened he was, scared of losing someone he loved so much. “What if something happens to you?” he said as he turned to his fiancé. Summoning all of the wisdom he could muster, Pastor Barnes said, “In my experience, 100% of marriages come to an end. You’ll never beat those odds.”
The point, of course, was that death was inevitable. In the essay, President Barnes went on to share how he learned not long ago that death did come to that marriage. The husband had died at 50 years old of a sudden heart attack, leaving his wife and two kids. The pastor was able to track down the widow and exchange some correspondence. This time the wisdom came from her.
“His death is inexplicable in any logical sense but I very much feel this is part of the mystery of life. In the six months that have passed, I can say I revere this mystery. I don’t want or need to understand everything about our lives on earth.” She attached a picture of her husband with her two young sons. “I would think one the pleasures of marrying young couples who are deeply in love,” she wrote, “is to see the product of that love decades later.”
President Barnes concludes, “When I read such words about revering mystery, I was pleased to know that she understands what can never be understood. It’s the only way she can carry on without him.” A widow, two young kids. I bet she wrote that email early in the morning, boldly pointing to something of what God sees.
If you stare into the mystery of God long enough, when you rise to meet the earliest of mornings, even then, you are rising into the life of God, which means God is present. God is with us. God provides. God sees. Beyond explanation. Beyond words. Standing before the mystery of God, you and I might fall silent again and again. But by nothing other than the grace and mercy of God, you may start to see, in the fuzziness of this life, in the dawn of the breaking day, you catch, if only a glimpse. You can see God’s provision. You can see another hill. Other wood being carried upon the shoulder. Another place of sacrifice. You can see. Another one bound. Another lamb. You can see. God provides. You can start to see what God sees. Another Son. You can see another Beloved Son. And you can see the broken heart of God.
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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