Grace and mercy—that God gives us what we don’t deserve, what we haven’t earned, and refuses to punish us for the wrongs we’ve done. That’s our faith, in summary.
We trust in God’s grace and mercy, we try to embody God’s grace and mercy. We gather for worship, we come together as a church, so that we can receive God’s grace and live it our in our world—that we can be people of God’s mercy. We become part of God’s flow of grace in this world—to love without getting anything in return, to serve without asking for a reward, to give without being recognized.
This way of thinking, this way of living, goes against everything we’ve been taught. Our beliefs are infected with a disease—I don’t know what to call it, exactly. Some kind of economics of morality, where we believe in order to receive, where we do the right thing in order to earn God’s favor, where we worship in order to be rewarded with blessings, where we love our neighbor so that we make ourselves worthy of salvation.
It’s as if capitalism has been trying to write the rules of our faith—how much we have to work in order to get paid with God’s acceptance of us, that we are worthy of God’s love, worthy of God. As Nietzsche observed, “Christian love wants to be well paid.”
Do we love God because we want to be paid with salvation? Do we love our neighbor as an investment in our retirement account in heaven?
By the time we read about Abraham in Genesis 22, he has spent a lifetime doing everything right—all because he believed in a promise: that God will make of him a great nation. “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you.”
That’s what God says to Abraham in Genesis 12. If Abraham does this, God says, he will be blessed. So Abraham makes a cost-benefit analysis. He’s got a decent life there in Haran, with his people. But if he invests his life in God’s plan, then Abraham will have an unbelievable life, blessing upon blessing upon blessing. He’ll be the father of a great nation.
It’s a good deal. He decides that the investment is worth it, so he goes, he believes, he walks in faith, trusting God to make good on the promise.
And after years of trusting and doubting and trusting again, after years of God reminding Abraham of the promise, it looks like he will finally get what he’s been waiting for, finally it looks like all the sacrifices will pay off. Isaac is the first pay out on Abraham’s investment. And this first dividend is an important one, because it makes all the future payments possible. The great nation will come through Isaac.
This is how we can begin to feel what happens on Mount Moriah. Abraham faces the possibility that it’s all for nothing; that in this act he will sacrifice the promise, that he will give up on his investment, that he will kill his hope, the loss of his reason for being.
We know the story well enough. Abraham and Isaac walk together. Isaac carries the wood; Abraham carries the knife and fire. He puts Isaac on the altar, atop the wood. Abraham raises his knife. And as he is about to come down on Isaac’s neck, he hears a voice: “Abraham, Abraham,” says the angel of the Lord. Abraham lays down his knife and says, “Here I am.”
Here I am.
That’s what this story is about. That’s what Abraham’s life is about—this moment of testing, of Abraham deciding if he’s in it for the payment of faith, or if he is in it to be with God. That’s what God wants to know, what God needs to know. “Now I know,” the angel of the Lord says in verse 12.
What does God now know? God knows that Abraham follows God, walks with God, for no other reason than love. That’s why this whole event is called a test in the first verse. God needs to know if Abraham is in it for the blessing or if he’s in it out of sheer love, companionship, a desire to walk with God.
Here I am.
This story is about Abraham’s confession, his heart’s desire. “Here I am”—he reveals that he is wholeheartedly available to God, that he is present to the one who beckons. God wants to know if Abraham is in it for the promises of glory, or if he is in it because he is devoted and available for God. God wants to know if Abraham will be God’s companion, an intimate ally, a friend.
In Genesis 17, when God gives the covenant of circumcision, God starts by telling Abraham to walk with him, to be God’s companion. “Walk before me,” God says, “and be wholehearted.”
Walk before me. The Hebrew phrase literally means walk to my face—walk so that I can look at you, so my face can shine upon you, so that you will be in my presence, always by my side, always with me.
Be wholehearted, God says to Abraham. The phrase means be undivided, simple, complete. Be with me completely, God says. Be there for me without hidden motives, without deceptions. Be undivided, faithful, singular in your desire for me. “Be wholly there for me.”
It’s hard to believe that anyone would want our presence all the time, that someone would want us to be with them forever, constantly, always in front of their face, always at the center of their vision.
But that’s what God wants—and God wants it so much that God says “please.” The modern translators of our Bible overlook the fact that God says “please.” The word is there in verse 2: in Hebrew it’s na, please. “Please take your son.” God says.
What kind of God says please?
It’s a heartfelt request. The Rabbis pick up on this word and offer this translation: God said, “Abraham, take—please take; take, I beg of you—take your son” (BT Sanhedrin 39b).
This is a God who says “please”—not some distant sovereign, a God far away from our lives. Instead, the God of Genesis 22 is a beggar God, desperate to know if Abraham will be a companion, someone to walk with.
There, on the mountain, with Isaac bound on the altar, God finally knows that Abraham will walk with God no matter what happens with the promise, that he will be with God even if he won’t father a great nation. God finally knows that Abraham will be a companion without the expectation of blessings.
Is God enough? That’s what this story asks us. That’s what God wonders about our lives. Why are we in this? What do we have faith? Why do we believe in God? What makes us stay with God, what makes our faith worthwhile?
This story searches our hearts, our secret motives, drawing us into ourselves to consider why we’re here, why we do what we do. Would we walk with God even if heaven wasn’t a possibility? Do we live for the promises, or do we live for the friendship?—God’s sustaining grace, the mercy of our fellowship with each other and with God, a communion that gives us now here a taste of our lives forever. Is this enough for you?
The good news is that God is wholeheartedly devoted to us, to you, regardless of your response, regardless of your secret motives, regardless of the conditions of your heart. God loves you without expectations.
Yet God still wonders, a divine curiosity, hoping that you want nothing else but companionship.
 Ellen Davis, “Vulnerability, the Condition of Covenant,” p. 283 in Davis and Hays (eds.), The Art of Reading Scriptures (Eerdmans, 2003): pp. 277-293.