Homily for July 6th, 2017: Genesis 22:1b-19.
The story in today’s first reading of the patriarch Abraham preparing to kill his son Isaac is, to us, horrifying. In the ancient world, however, human sacrifice was no more shocking than today’s wars, large and small. Important for us is what this story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac tells us of the Lord God. It shows us God doing his characteristic work: bringing life out of death. Let me explain.
We hear the first note of this theme in God’s promise to Abraham that he and his wife Sarah, whose hope of issue has long since died, will receive in their old age a son through whose descendants “Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him” (Gen. 18:18). That was so preposterous that Sarah laughed – and her husband as well (Gen. 17:17 and 18:18). From the deadness of Sarah’s womb, however, God brings forth new life. When her son is born, he receives the Hebrew name Isaac, which in that language means “laughter.” His very birth was a divine joke. The laughter of Isaac’s parents is long past, however, when his father, in response to what he is convinced is a divine command, prepares to kill the son upon whose survival the fulfillment of God’s promise depends. Ten seconds from death at his father’s hand the boy is saved by the message of an angel.
If we had time I could go through the stories of Abraham’s descendants and show you how, in every generation, God repeatedly does the impossible, by bringing life out of death. This culminates in the event of the Passover, when Moses and God’s whole people, doomed to certain death between the impassible waters of the sea ahead of them, and Pharaoh’s whole army advancing upon them from behind, are saved through divine intervention.
Why does the Bible devote so much space to recording these “mighty acts” of God? Because they show us who God is: not just who he was, but (because God never changes) who he is today, and will be for all time. He remains always “the same yesterday today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Even in a nuclear age the Lord’s arm (to use biblical language) is not shortened.
Is it consistent with biblical faith to assume that we shall always remain the kind of people we have been and are – never changing in any fundamental way, never growing? The final book of the Bible tells us that God “makes all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Believing those words is, admittedly, not always easy. When we doubt, we are in good company. Abraham and Sarah not only doubted but laughed – and were brought up short with the question: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Centuries later, one of their descendants, questioning how she could be the mother of God’s Son while remaining a virgin, received a remarkably similar response: “Nothing is impossible to God” (Lk 1:37; Jerusalem Bible). This is the God whom we encounter here in the Eucharist: in his holy word, in the sacrament of his body and blood; the God who brings life out of death, who, time after time, does not just the difficult, not just the unexpected -- but the impossible!