Then God said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah…” Genesis 22:2
The Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy The Road, describes the journey south taken by a young boy and his father after an unnamed catastrophe has struck the world. The man and the boy, who also remain unnamed throughout the entire novel, travel through the rough terrain of the southeastern United States.
The conditions they face are unforgiving: rotted corpses, landscapes devastated by fire, abandoned towns and houses. These two travelers are among the few living creatures remaining on earth who have not been driven to murder, rape, and cannibalism.
The father and his son struggle to survive in the harsh weather with little food, supplies, or shelter. Along the way, they must escape from those who might seek to steal from them or, even worse, to kill them for food. Despite their hardships, the man and the child remain determined to survive, reaffirming to themselves that they are the “good guys” who do not seek to harm others.
The father over and over again reminds the boy that they are the ones that are “carrying the fire.” The boy in particular retains his unquenchable humanity against all odds, consistently seeking to help the tattered remnants of living humans they encounter.
The relationship can be summed up in a sentence at the beginning of the novel:
“Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”
Anyone who is a parent knows how true a sentence that is. In this story, God appears to Father Abraham and asks him to give up his world entire. To extinguish the fire of his life.
It is a dark road, this road to Moriah. It’s dark because it means Abraham is losing his son, whom he loves. But it’s not just that. It’s dark because it means losing his dream, for Isaac was the promise of God. Isaac was the promise that Abraham’s life would lead to a new community, and he was losing his dream. But it wasn’t just that.
It was dark because he wasn’t just going to lose Isaac. Abraham was to destroy his son at the command of God. So what do you do when you have to walk in the darkness, and God seems distant or remote or silent?
Abraham in this moment is stepping out into what could be called “the road of godforsakenness,” when it seems like God is contradicting himself, when it seems like God wants to stop the salvation that he’s begun.
This is a story about darkness, most of us at some point or another in our lives; understand what it is to walk in darkness. Faith is about hanging on in dark places.
Faith is not about doubt-free certainty. Faith is about tenacious obedience at all costs.
We all have dark times. When it looks like the God whom we serve is not cooperating with the script we have written for our lives.
Elisabeth Elliot, who passed away in the last year, and was one of the godliest women of our generation told about a time years ago, visited sheep ranch in Northern Wales. One day she saw a shepherd pick up a sheep and take it to a sheep dip which is a large vat of liquid insecticide and fungicide, and put the sheep into the vat, and the sheep frantically fought for air. Then the shepherd pushed the head down, but the sheep kept coming up, and the shepherd kept pushing it down, because all the surface of the sheep had to be coated with the solution to keep it from getting ill.
She said, “I wondered what it’s like to feel like your shepherd is trying to kill you. Then she remembered the death of her missionary husband at the hands of the very people he served and said, “Oh, I know.”
If this story of Abraham tells us anything it tells us that sometimes your shepherd, who is trying to save you, will feel to you like he is trying to kill you. And that is a dark time, indeed.
I don’t know what it looks like for you, but I know this: Every human being that ever lived has walked in darkness sometime.
This story teaches us that we can trust God when we don’t understand God. You can trust God’s heart when you can’t trace His hand. When your life is hard. When following, Jesus means suffering something like a death in your life. When your future is uncertain you can look to the cross in the meantime.
And even though you may not have every one of your questions answered you can be sure that God was willing to go this far to be faithful to you, to love you, and to rescue you.
One of my favorite artist is the Dutch master, Rembrandt. I have a print of his version of The Return of the Prodigal Son hanging in my study. I love that image. But a close second is the backstory of Rembrandt’s rendition of this story in Genesis. A piece entitled Abraham’s Sacrifice.
Early in his life, he depicted this story in an epic painting. He was a celebrated and prodigiously gifted artist who, in his own personal life, was living far from God, but he painted this story for a patron. He used a huge canvas and painted this action moment that is really nothing more than a murder in progress.
There is young and innocent Isaac bare-chested and sprawled out on a rock with old Abraham’s left hand pressing the boy’s face back, as if to expose his throat, his right hand extended to reach for a knife. All the while an angel has flown up behind him, with panic on his face, and grabs the right hand, knocking the knife from Abraham’s hand.
That’s his painting of this story as a young man.
But then decades later in life Rembrandt knew what it was like to lose a child in death, he lost several children, in fact. And he also came to be convinced of the love of God for him in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And he began living as a follower of Jesus. And as an old man having lost children of his own leaving him with only one son left, so late in life—he paints this scene again.
He does it differently. He does it on an etching plate. And in that version of this scene, Abraham shelters his son, Isaac with his arms around his son, cradling him to his chest, covering the boy’s eyes. The expression on Abraham’s face is one of sorrow and love. And behind Abraham there is a strong, sheltering angel who cradles this father as the father cradles his son.
This version of the story was done by someone who knew how far God was willing to go to embrace us. Our heavenly Father was willing to lose a Son, so that He might gain people like Rembrandt and me back into his forever family.
This is our good news. That God shelters and cradles us even when it seems that we are walking into the unknown darkness where the fire has gone out. And because of Jesus, you and I can say to the Living God, even at our darkest times, “Here I am.”
So, may you learn to trust God even in the moments that you don’t understand God. Then and only then will you be each the other’s world entire.