Out on Highway 61

Copyright Jamey Prickett

Genesis 22: 1 – 14

“Oh,” God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son” Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on” God said, “No” Abe say, “What?” God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but The next time you see me comin’, you better run” Well, Abe said, “Where d’you want this killin’ done?” God said, “Out on Highway 61.” 

Bob Dylan wrote those lyrics in 1965 in a song entitled “Highway 61 Revisited.” 

There is a Hebrew folk tale that goes something like this: Why did God not send an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Because God knew that no angel would take on such a task. Instead, the angels said, “If you want to command death, do it yourself.” 

Hebrew Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann asks rhetorically, “Can the same God who promises life also command death?” 

When we last saw Abraham, he was standing at the door of his residence watching Hagar and her son, Ishmael, wander off to the desert and potentially to their death. 

  And now, the scripture begins, “After these things” (Genesis 22: 1). After Abraham is called to go to a land he has never seen; after a promise to be the father of a great nation; after the long years of Sarah’s barrenness; after the birth of Ishmael; and after the birth of the son of laughter, Isaac; after all these God tests Abraham. 

What are the limits of the demands of God? 

Abraham carried the knife. Isaac carried the wood. They travelled for three hellish days. What did they talk about? What did Abraham say to Sarah before he left? What was he planning to say to her when he returned alone? 

Isaac is bound. The knife is raised. At what point did Isaac realize what was about to happen? Did he put up a fight? Or did he trust his father? 

Trust. Trust brings us to the heart of the story. Some will say it is obedience. But if we learn anything in our current environment it is that blind obedience is stupid. It is cowardly. It can be criminal. If you want to tell me that Abraham is to be commended for his blind obedience, then I am not interested. 

What if it isn’t about obedience. What if it is really about trust. Ellen Davis, professor at Duke University asks the question, “What if Abraham follows God’s command not out of obedience but out of faith? What if Abraham trusts God, even now, when what God asks of him seems to run counter to everything God has promised?” 

What do you do when the command seems to outweigh the promise? Do you trust the promise? 

In 1970 Jewish Theologian Eliezer Berkovits wrote a book entitled “With God in Hell.” In it he asks the questions, “Why did so many Jews keep their faith in the ghettos and the Nazi death camps? Why did they gather to say prayers and keep sabbath, or circumcise their children as a sign of the covenant, even as the SS literally beat down the door? Why did they keep blessing God as the Holy One of Israel instead of cursing God who seemed to have abandoned the Jews?” 

In an attempt to answer the questions, he turns to the story of Abraham binding Isaac. This is what he imagines Abraham saying to God: “I do not understand you. Your behavior violates our covenant; still, I trust you because it is you, because it is you and me, because it is us.” 

This story only makes sense when seen through the lens of trust and trust only is possible in relationship. We know it is a test. Abraham doesn’t know it is a test. Abraham demonstrates trust.

If you read close, you can catch the clues that point to trust. “Hey, dad!” Isaac says, “We got the fire and the wood. Where is the lamb?” Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8). Is Abraham trying to distract Isaac? Or does he trust that God will truly provide? 

Abraham standing at the foot of the mountain says to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you” (Genesis 22: 5).  Did he misspeak? Did he really mean “we?” “We will come back.” 

Abraham is showing God that he trust God. Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard calls Abraham the “knight of faith.” He sees Abraham as a hero because Abraham expects the unexpected. The unexpected being belief in the resurrection. The author of Hebrews says, “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death” (Hebrews 11:19).  

Trust. Abraham believes so strongly in the God who made him a promise that even if his son is killed, he will be raised from the dead. And now, it is God’s turn. Abraham trust God. But does God trust Abraham? If God is willing to test Abraham’s loyalty and Abraham proves to be loyal, now it is up to God to demonstrate the same loyalty to Abraham. 

God is vulnerable. We talk about God as all powerful. God could if God chooses, squish us like a bug on a windshield. And yet, the moment God chooses to enter into relationship with God’s creation, vulnerability becomes a character trait that must describe God. 

Isaac is God’s way of acting out God’s promise through Abraham. Isaac is God’s future as much as Abraham’s future. Abraham’s response will determine future moves by God. Abraham demonstrates trust. God provides. 

What about you? Do you trust God and God’s promises even when the situation you find yourself in seems impossible? Do you have confidence in God’s trustworthiness when the sacrifice seems too much? 

It is an answer that can only be found in relationship with God. God has made the first move for this relationship to be made possible. 

We move from Mount Moriah to Mount Calvary and discover a God who is faithful. This time a young man walks up a hillside carrying not sticks but a cross. The wood and the nails and sacrificed offered and this time no one was there to say, “Stop.” He cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” He breaths his last breath. He dies. This time God pasts the test and we discover a God who so desires to have a relationship with us at no matter the cost. 

I leave you with this good news: God does not ask any sacrifice of us that God has not first made for us. 

Whatever demands are being asked of you today know that God has gone before you. Whatever challenges seem impossible know that God is able to provide. God provides. In the promise we can trust. Amen. 

(Sermon preached Sunday, June 28, 2020 at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, Gainesville GA)