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Looking out from the fire

by davesandel on March 4th, 2012

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 22:1-2

God put Abraham to the test.  God called to him, “Abraham!”

 “Here I am!” he replied. Then God said: “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah.  There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.”

When Abram’s father died, God called him to leave his home and travel into the wilderness (Gen 12:1), and Abram did it.  In the ensuing decades Abram, now re-named Abraham, had debates and disagreements with God.  He acted out of fear rather than faith more than once.  He also entertained strangers who turned out to be angels.  And now, well over 100 years old and thinking about retirement, he hears God give him this paradoxical, paralyzing command.

And God rubs it in. Take Isaac. Your only son. The one you love. Here is Abraham’s dilemma.  God has promised him descendants as numerous as grains of sand in the sea. But two things are required.  Abraham must remain faithful to God, and Isaac must survive.  Therefore, either Abraham’s obedience or disobedience will nullify God’s promise. *

This is the moment which will forever define Abraham’s life, and the life of his descendants. Jews and Christians will be more inspired by his actions in this story than in any other.  His actions become a paradigm which shapes their idea of faith, their sense of how to be a true hero, how to live a true, good and beautiful life.

In Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “In a certain demented sense I admire Abraham more than all the others.” He called Abraham his “knight of faith … (but) faith begins precisely where thought stops.”

Should Abraham act ethically, Kierkegaard asks, or should he listen to God?  If he obeys God, he cannot expect anyone to understand or excuse him.  But if he does not, then he stays forever in a rational, but pre-faith position.

This position Kierkegaard calls “infinite resignation.”  I experience peace and rest as I become conscious of my eternal value to God.  But consciousness is not all of existence.  God wants my whole body and soul, not just my intellectual commitment.  This often seems quite unreasonable, and it’s exactly when Kierkegaard’s famous “leap of faith” is required of me.

To understand Abraham (and myself), Kierkegaard insists that I move from “worldly understanding” to “radical commitment.”  Only then can I endure the contradiction between God’s promise and God’s command.  Only then can I make the “leap” into death out of which comes new life.

Jesus, your death culminates in resurrection.  So, you say, does mine.  Let me understand your words, “Do not be afraid,” when otherwise my insides would melt like wax.

* I spent much of Saturday afternoon with the gentle but thorough writings of Dr. Victor Shepherd, who helped me understand this story and Kierkegaard’s thinking better than I ever had before.  Dr. Shepherd has generously made much of his writing available online:

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