A while back, I visited the Thornwell Home for Children. This is one of the missions our church supports through our special offerings.
It was started shortly after the Civil War as an orphanage for homeless children. It is no longer an orphanage, but it continues to provide loving care for children who, for whatever reasons, can no longer live with their parents.
Thornwell is a very attractive place. Homes and cottages made of stone are scattered across the campus. Trees line the walkways. Groundskeepers work continually to insure that the grass is always cut. And at the time of the year that I made my visit, the flower beds were in full bloom.
The most prominent building on the campus is the Hartness-Thornwell Memorial Presbyterian Church. A large church building with a tall steeple, it easily becomes the most visible building at Thornwell.
I went inside the church to take a look. They have beautiful stained glass windows there. On one side of the church, the windows portray stories and events from the Old Testament. On the other, stories from the New Testament that are illustrated in the glass.
I could easily imagine the children of Thornwell attending church and daydreaming during the sermon. Looking at the windows and letting their minds wander, they must easily dream about the stories painted into the glass.
There is Moses coming down from the mountain with the Law of God.
There is Jesus with the children.
God is reaching down and creating Adam and Eve.
The Baby Jesus is in the manger.
And yet, there is one window there that had I been the architect, I would not have included. In fact, I wonder what kind of thoughtless and insensitive person would have included that particular window. Of all of the Old Testament stories, why that one and why at a home for children.
It is the story of Isaac.
The window shows Isaac on a far away mountain. Isaac, a child, is on the wood pile. Abraham, his father, is with the child. The child is bound. The knife is in the father's hand, ready to take his son's life. Murder is about to take place, and it is murder of the worst kind -- a parent killing a child. An angel is behind the father, ready to stop the murder, but Abraham does not know this. He simply knows that God has told him to kill his son, and this is what he is about to do.
Of all stories from the Old Testament, why portray this one, especially here in a home for children?
To tell the truth, of all of the stories of the Old Testament, this is one I wish hadn't been included in the Word of God.
In an age of ax murderers who stand before judges pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, claiming that they killed because God told them to do it, why should we retell this story of Abraham? In an age of child abuse, when sick parents beat, injure and kill their children, why should we retell this story of Abraham? In a home for children, whose residents sometimes cannot live at home because of the violence in the home, why should we even remember, let alone glorify in expensive stained glass, this particular story?
I would rather forget it. I'd rather the story of this event had been left on that far away mountain. Not only is this story of Abraham and Isaac difficult to understand. It is embarrassing. It is offensive.
Part of the offence of this biblical story is in its difficulty. Would YOU do this? If God were to ask you to sacrifice your son, would you? Could you?
And even if you did, we can hear the TV newsbreak now as it says, "Father accused in death of son claims 'God told me to do it.' Film at elevan."
But on the other side of the church at the Thornwell Home for Children is another window. On the New Testament side, with all the windows about Jesus, there is a picture of Jesus ascending a mountain. It occurs to me that there are some striking similarities between these two windows.
On one side, there is Father Abraham with his son Isaac. On the other, Father God is with His Son Jesus.
On one side there is the son carrying wood that would build a fire, an instrument of death. On the other there is the son carrying wood that would build a cross, an instrument of death.
Both sons are bound and tied. Both sons are offered as a sacrifice.
But Isaac lives, while Jesus experiences the full impact of death.
It is not Abraham who makes the sacrifice of his son. Although he is willing, it is not Abraham who kills his son. He is stopped just in time by an angel who has been sent by God.
It is God who makes the sacrifice. It is God who offers his one and only Son, whom He loves dearly, taking Him to a different mountain.
This passage from Genesis is a strange text. It is difficult to understand. Part of us would secretly wish that someone had ripped it out of the manuscript – if only it had been forgotten.
But – this text gives us a rich understanding of the reality of God’s love.
Because it is not really a text about Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac.
This is not about a test, as if God was unable to look into the heart of Abraham and discern whether or not Abraham had faith.
This is a text to help us understand the agony of God.
The Bible often talks about God sacrificing His Son for our redemption. The most familiar passage of all Scripture, John 3:16, says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have everlasting life.”
In 1 John 4:10, we read, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
We often read about the sacrifice of Christ, and how God gave his son for us so that we might live. But we hear it so often that we forget about the agony of God.
When we read this passage from Genesis, that agony becomes real.
We put ourselves in Abraham’s sandals and we’d say, “Forget it, I’m not sacrificing my son.”
But when we realize that God does what Abraham was willing, but then prevented from doing, then we get a glimpse of the agony that God went through when he gave up his son.
All sacrifices are painful.
No sacrifice is easy.
But God’s love for us was so great, that he endured agony for us.
Normally, when w see someone in agony, it is human nature for us to do what we can to remove the agony, to fix things, to stop the pain.
But we can’t do that with God’s agony.
For one thing, we are powerless to remove God’s agony.
For another thing, God entered this agony willingly and freely and out of love.
Loving someone is often a painful and agonizing experience.
Mothers give birth and in nature that is a painful experience.
Parents discipline children and it is hard – it hurts.
Children grow up and get into trouble – sometimes serious trouble – and it hurts the parents.
Even when things turn out the way the parents want them to, it is agony. Talk to a parent of a child who has moved and gone away to college, and you will hear about the tears of the lonely parent.
God loves us, and it hurts. It pains Him.
If we can’t relieve God of agony, how then should we respond?
God, in his love for us, with pain and agony, gave His son as a sacrifice for us.
And while most of us are grateful, most of us are just mildly grateful.
We just – take it for granted.
We have grown up with the story of God giving us his son, and we have grown accustomed to it. We forget the depth of God’s agony, and how he suffered.
We forget how radical this step that God took, until we read this story of Abraham coming close to sacrificing his son. Then we realize how great God loves us.
one of the monuments is for those who died in the Vietnam War. I’ve been there many times. I remember the first time I went there it was
right after the memorial had been built.
I walked up to the memorial and it was quiet. It was like walking into one of those formal churches where a funeral or other solemn service is about to be held. People whispered. No one laughed. Many had tears in their eyes. People took photographs of the wall, photographing the name of a son or father.
Then one day I was there for another visit. There no tears. People spoke quietly, but not in whispers. People took photographs of the wall, and often stood quietly beside someone’s name.
A few years later, I went again. This time people were not so quiet. Many were laughing. I saw someone take photos of the people in their group. They posed in front of the wall. This time they smiled.
Time goes on.
It is not that gratitude for sacrifice of these men and women have vanished. It has simply rusted and mellowed and softened, because the memory grows dim. The reality of the sacrifice is not as visible.
That’s why we need this passage of Abraham in the Bible. It is offensive. It’s dirty. It’s awful. But it is a graphic reminder of how real God’s sacrifice was.
What Abraham was not allowed by God to, God himself has done for us. Sacrificed his son.
We dare not let our gratitude to God mellow and soften and fade away.
Right now, the children at the Thornwell Home are gathered in the Hartness-Thornwell Memorial Presbyterian Church. Some of them might try to stretch their feet to see if they can touch the pew in front of them. Others might try fitting their toes into the holes in the communion/hymnbook rack. One or two might even listen to the preacher.
And maybe -- just maybe some are staring at the windows along the wall of the church. They see Moses coming down from the mountain. They see Jesus with the children. And they see Abraham offering Isaac.
It is an offensive story, but one appropriate to tell to children. Its meaning touches the heart of homeless children.
It tells a message that envelopes with love the neglected and abused. It comforts the grieving one. It offers hope to one buried in a graveyard.
This message from a far away mountain reminds us of the love God has for us. He has made a sacrifice for us that is so great that He sacrificed his only Son for us so that we might have eternal life.
Let us never forget to be grateful for the agony of God’s love.
Copyright 2014, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.