Worship: Radical Ritual

by C. Raymond Holmes

Listen again to this compelling story from Scripture:

Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." And He said, "Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he split the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.

Then on the third day Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you." So Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife, and the two of them went together.

But Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, "My father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." And he said, "Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" And Abraham said, "My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering." And the two of them went together.

Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." And He said, "Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me."

Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. And Abraham called the name of the place, The-Lord-Will-Provide; as it is said to this day, "In the Mount of The Lord it shall be provided." Genesis 22:1-14, NKJV.

This is a story full of what one author calls "ruthless grace." It is one of the most dramatic and disturbing stories in the Bible. While descriptive of authentic theocentric worship, it is also descriptive of the true and radical nature of the redeemed response to God.

This story boggles the modern mind. It creates all sorts of problems--with our thinking about God and religion, with our emotions and feelings. Whoever heard of a God--called "Father" in the Hebrew/Christian tradition--making such an impossible, cruel, soul-crushing demand!

Human beings wantonly killing other human beings is certainly not new to us. Not after the trench massacres of WW1, the holocaust of WW2, bomb explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, street violence in modern cities, innocent-looking plastique blowing infants out of airliners. Violence is not new to us. We know all about it. It is one of the prime sources of entertainment. The bloodier the better. Rambo is the idol! Violence is daily diet in the news. So that's not the problem. People are used to it and crave it. They turn the dial till they find it, then sit mesmerized as landscape and bodies explode before their eager eyes. That an old man, Abraham, should make ready to kill a young man, Isaac, is minor and mild in comparison.

Why are we bothered, then? Perhaps it is because Abraham was not a violent man. His behavior appears out of character. He was not a terrorist whose business was blowing away innocent people. What made a potential premeditating murderer out of a kind and loving father? Why was so much going so wrong? And in the name of religion! Were some of the ancient pagans right when they called Christianity a blood-thirsty religion? Perhaps the story of Abraham and Isaac troubles some folks because they see in it just another proof that God is a liar, someone not to be trusted the next minute. Fickle and unreliable.

Seventeen long years had passed since God spoke directly to Abraham. Seventeen years of silence--not too good for a relationship. Isaac was not a boy any more, he was a man now. We all know what happens to kids somewhere between 16 and 20, at least today. In light of so much of our contemporary parental experience, Isaac was a strange lad. Maybe that bothers us, too. Would that our children exhibited such radical obedience! It's one of those dreams that haunt modern parents and won't go away, disturbing our nights and mocking our days.

Human life bears witness to a mixed reality, a turmoil of trust. It's not easy sometimes to be true to the Lord! The Garden of Gethsemane puts the lie to the idea that faith in God is without struggle.

But Isaac was the child of hope and of promise. Remember, God had told Abraham and Sarah that their offspring would be as many as the sands of the sea. Their progeny would be many nations. Isaac was a miracle child. When he was born, his mother was long past child-bearing age. The promise of God had sounded so ridiculous, both parents could not restrain laughter even in God's face.

Now God had given Abraham an incomprehensible command. Was the father's hope in Isaac to be dashed to bits? The promise--what of that? Had God changed His mind? His character? Had He only been teasing Abraham and Sarah when He lifted their eyes beyond the horizons of impotent childlessness? Nevertheless, on this terrible morning, Abraham organized the caravan. He loaded the pack animal with what would be needed, wood for the burnt offering, and the sharpest knife, for the deed must be done quickly. Was Abraham's faith so serene that his father-heart felt no pain, no anguish? I can't believe it. Was his trust in God so perfect that he knew no struggle to obey? I can't believe that, either. Human life bears witness to a mixed reality, a turmoil of trust. It's not easy sometimes to be true to the Lord! The Garden of Gethsemane puts the lie to the idea that faith in God is without struggle. It puts the lie to the idea that victory can be won without battle.

The terrible word God spoke to Abraham destroys forever such religious mythology. Abraham had invested everything in Isaac, and God said "Kill it!" Destroy it. Do away with it.

We are surrounded by all the symbols of American achievement, success, and economic power. We have it all. How would we respond if the Lord said to us, "Kill it"? Sacrifice it?

For so many of us religion is an easy-going "liberal persuasion." We are good at talking religion, proud of our moderation, especially when it comes to religion. Often preferring to criticize than affirm. Happier with questions than with answers, because answers require commitment. Willing to go along with almost anything in the name of humanity, whether God has spoken or not. Scorn a conservative biblicism, yet profess shock to find the faithless in our midst.

We dismiss people who take the Bible as it reads as "too simplistic." We choose our charities. We confess only the minimal "Adventist sins." We condemn those who "come on too strong," and we never do anything religious in excess, especially when it comes to worship. People with strong convictions are branded fanatic, radical. No wonder we don't understand this story. No wonder Abraham and Isaac's behavior is beyond our comprehension. Our biggest complaint is that they took God too seriously! In our secret hearts we classify them as fools.

Perhaps we understand the story too well. Most of us would sacrifice almost anything for the sake of personal advantage. How many have mortgaged a home for a spin of the roulette wheel? We will do almost anything for ourselves. The thing that is so incomprehensible is that there was no personal advantage for Abraham, and certainly none for Isaac.  Abraham would get nothing out of it except a corpse. Isaac would give up all. This is the mystery to the modern materialistic and secular mind. We may give lip service to our traditional Adventist values, but when it comes down to it we often act on the basis of what we think is good "for me."

C. S. Lewis was right in his opinion that mere knowledge of right and wrong is powerless against our appetites. He sounds like Paul in Romans 7. It's not that Abraham would do it, but that he would do it for nothing. No promise, no reward, was attached to this deed.

The two patriarchs submitted to what they believed was the will of God. That is the essence of worship.

The amazing thing was that he climbed the mountain. Muttering, yes, but climb he did. The old man actually did it. He built the altar. He laid the fire. He bound his son and with his own arms placed him on the altar. Isaac probably helped, as Abraham was too old to have put him there if he had resisted. Every detail of the story bears witness that father and son would have finished it--the radical ritual. Abraham would do the will of God if it meant destroying his only hope. So would Isaac. All that mattered was that God had spoken. They didn't wonder if God said what He meant or meant what He said. Though the Word of God cut across every natural human consideration, it was to be obeyed.

Here is the true sacrifice. Here is what is to be destroyed if revealed religion is to have any validity and meaning at all. Our will to do our own thing is what is to be slain. The witness of the Garden again! Moriah and Gethsemane are not so far apart. Abraham's obedience and Isaac's willingness based on a motive other than selfishness is a mystery for the modern mind. Christian life is not what we thought it was. It is not the comfort of a psychiatrist's couch, of motor homes and IRAs. We are stuck with Moriah, with Gethsemane, with Calvary.

The two patriarchs submitted to what they believed was the will of God. That is the essence of worship. Without that kind of faith all the ritual, all the music, all the talk in the world cannot make worship happen. No matter what we do, no conference or convention, no program or process, can make an empty sack stand.

The radical ritual of Abraham and Isaac is the epitome of authentic Adventist worship. Look beneath the act to the spirit from which it arose and find a lofty expression of worship that is remarkable and rare, almost foreign to contemporary worship that is so man-centered. Here God is the unseen yet central figure, not man. Here is a vivid example of the true nature of worship. God is praised not by word but by act. The radical ritual symbolized faith's reality expressed in worship as obedience.

God responds, too, to our faith and obedience. It is no surprise then that, as Abraham said, "God himself will provide." Abraham looked up and he saw a ram caught in a thicket. It is only the person who is in submission that will recognize the gift when it is given, who will recognize grace when it is offered.