Virtually all of our names come with a story. There’s a reason you were given the name you carry. Isaac’s name meant Laughter. He was a gift long looked for, hoped for, prayed for, despaired for, begged for, an improbable gift so long in coming that his mama called him Laughter. Yet some laughs are belly laughs of joy, and some are sardonic, tinged with bitterness. Much about Isaac’s life was tinged with darkness. Isaac’s life could be regarded as a comedy, but it was a dark comedy. Yet there was an irrepressibility to Isaac, a unquenchable sunniness to Isaac, an amazing capacity for trust, that elevates Isaac to greatness.
Think of that terrible occasion where Abraham believes that God is telling him to sacrifice his beloved son. Abraham knows that such a command runs contrary to the will and way of God. Nevertheless, Abraham apparently sees the situation as God’s ultimate test of his fidelity to the divine. In our mind’s eye we see Abraham trudging toward the mountain with naïve little Isaac tagging along behind, carrying the wood. But rabbinic tradition says that our image of this scene is wrong. Rabbinic tradition asserts that Isaac must have been old enough to consent to his death, or Abraham’s sacrifice of him would have been murder. The historian Josephus says that Isaac could not have been younger than twenty-five; the rabbinic tradition suggests that he was at least thirty-five. So while Isaac may initially have been in the dark, he figured out quickly that he was the sacrificial lamb. Even so, knowing what the plan was, Isaac complied with it. He still carries the wood. Isaac trusted that God always intends to do good. Isaac knew that his father Abraham generally sought to do right. And if, for some impenetrable reason, the God of love demands Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac to advance the story of faith, Isaac was willing to surrender his life.
Rabbinic tradition says that Isaac instructed his father to bind him tightly so that at the last moment he would not flinch and ruin the sacrifice. Rabbinic tradition portrays Isaac as boldly sticking out his neck so his aged father cannot fail to see the jugular. The faithfulness of Abraham is only possible because of the faithfulness of Isaac. We call this terrible ordeal “the test of Abraham,” but it is truly a test of Isaac, who ascends to greatness as he offers himself not as a passive victim, but as a living sacrifice unto God.
Some years ago a friend of mine was digging a basement when a wall collapsed on him, trapping him under the debris. He wasn’t crushed, but as the debris settled, it slowly began to suffocate him. A friend happened by, noticed something amiss and organized a rescue team that saved my friend’s life. I visited him the next day, and I noticed that he couldn’t keep a smile from his face. He couldn’t keep from hugging his kids, couldn’t help touching his wife every time she came near. He had stared into the abyss of nonbeing, had felt the horror of losing everything that he loved. Then it was as if God said to him, “My son, you shall be spared.” From then on he would know that every day he lived was grace. He was never far from tears. He was never far from laughter. He knew that deliverance had been provided for him at the last possible moment. The glow of his face must surely be akin to the joy of Isaac as he heard God’s angel cry out, “Abraham! Abraham! Do not harm your son. There is a ram caught in the thicket provided for you.” Lying upon the altar, having surrendered his life completely in obedience to God, Isaac may indeed have heard the distant laughter of God as he realized that his life was to be spared. From that moment on he could laugh at life, knowing that every day thereafter was a gift of grace.
There are times in each of our lives when circumstances collapse around us and seems to be suffocating the life out of us. Relationships that we value fail us. Sometimes vocational advancement and satisfaction elude us. Sometimes our health deteriorates. Sometimes we lose people dear to us, friends and family. All of these circumstances can press upon us as if they are pressing the life out of us. The question is, can we manage the quiet confidence that God always seeks what is best for us? Can we summon the unquenchable trust in God to believe that God can fashion a way out of no way? Isaac goes to the mountain to be sacrificed in the absolute trust that God will provide for him; even Isaac cannot imagine what form that deliverance will take. His faith binds him to God’s trustworthiness. He surrenders himself to the plan of Abraham absolutely, and in so doing he demonstrates the great depth of his faith.
Do we have that kind of faith?
The truth is, over the course of our lives we will be called upon to surrender those things that we treasure. We are going to surrender loves ones, we are going to surrender treasured friendships, we are going to surrender aspects of our health and independence. Everything that we value will eventually be taken from us. Life is beautiful and wonderful, but there is an ineluctable element of the tragic that infuses all things. Do we have the quiet calm, the unquenchable trust, to maintain the steadiness of spirit and the sunniness of attitude that allows us to bind our lives to the life of God, even amidst circumstances that seem to be crushing us?
Isaac is like a boxer who takes punch after punch, but he never goes down. Isaac negotiates a land deal with a Philistine king and settles in a land deemed by everyone to be unprofitable, infertile. Isaac makes it bloom. The jealous Philistines demand that Isaac leave. Isaac doesn’t call his lawyer; he simply strikes his tents and moves. He relocates in an area whose wells are considered dry. Isaac makes them gush. The jealous Philistines demand that he vacate again. Isaac does not argue, does not protest. He simply moves on. Shortly thereafter, the Philistine king begs Isaac to return. “Why?,” asks Isaac, “I thought you hated me.” The Philistine king’s reply is something we should yearn to hear said of ourselves. The king replies to Isaac: “The mark of God is upon you.” May those around us be inclined to say of us, “The mark of God is upon you!” We don’t always have to be the lead actor in the drama. We don’t have to be the committee chair or the prominent deacon to communicate spiritual depth. Quiet, calm, introverted people can live in such a way that other people know that the mark of God is upon you.
Isaac can be fooled – indeed, he is tricked by his own wife and son into conferring the wrong blessing on the wrong son. Yet debate has raged for years as to who tricked whom. Numerous commentators, ancient and modern, suspect old, blind Isaac knew exactly what he was doing, that maybe he tricked the tricksters. Maybe Isaac knew all along that Jacob was executive material and Esau was not. Maybe Isaac knew all along that placing the blessing on Jacob would serve as the catalyst for turning a shallow, superficial young man into a spiritual servant. Frankly, I don’t buy that interpretation. I think Isaac was genuinely fooled. I think he was genuinely enraged. And in the patriarchal culture of that time, Isaac could have wreaked vengeance upon his son and upon his wife for their betrayal of his trust. But he didn’t. Isaac trusted that God would not have let this happen to him unless God deemed that it was for the best. So Isaac summoned the ability to do one of the more remarkable behaviors in the human spectrum of responses – he laughed at himself. He knew the joke was on him, and he managed to summon the strength to laugh at himself.
When I think of Isaac’s behavior I always remember a friend of mine, a noted biologist who worked for the National Wild Turkey Federation and traveled widely. He loved to swim, and he relished enjoying swimming in pools all over the country. In one particular city (St. Louis), he saw a wonderful pool and decided to take advantage of it. Having forgotten his swim suit, he settled for a pair of shorts that were a bit loose. You know what happened: upon executing his first dive off the board, his shorts came off. Quickly he retrieved them; there was no one else in the pool; the mishap was no big deal. But one of the hotel’s workers stuck his head in the door and said, “Don’t do that again.” My friend ignored his counsel and took another dive. Again the shorts came off. This time a restaurant waiter appeared, smiling, and said, “If I were you, I wouldn’t do that again.” My friend, however, was hard-headed and dove in yet a third time, with the same result. This time the waiter appeared and said, “Would you please come with me for a moment?” My friend complied, and the waiter led him downstairs so that he could see the hotel restaurant was equipped with an entire glass wall that offered a stunningly full view of the swimming pool. Everyone in the restaurant was laughing at him. He, of course, was terribly embarrassed, but, like Isaac, he managed to laugh at his own stubbornness and ignorance. The man named Laughter could laugh at himself. Yes, he could be fooled. Yes, he could bless the wrong son. Yes, he could make something out of nothing, only to be told that he had to move on –and he did without protest. He was the man who carries the wood to his own sacrifice! Yes, he could be the fall guy, the sacrificial lamb. Everyone thinks of Isaac as a sap. He is a sap, but he is a sap who is glue. His life is the glue that binds the story of God together, who binnds the narratives of his family together. He is a ligament person.
Ligament people form the heart of our faith. Indeed, the words “religion” and ligament come from the same Latin word “ligare,” which means “to bind.” Think about your body. Our bodies are blessed with ligaments, tough connective tissues that allow us to be flexible, pliable, sophisticated in movement. We don’t appreciate this tough connective tissue that binds our bodies together until those ligaments are damaged. The same is true of people. We don’t think about the ligament people among us until they are not there. The people whose nurturing personalities, whose quiet, calm, whose unassuming character, whose nurturing love and encouraging personality holds families together, holds communities of faith together, and the story of God together. I cannot help but look this morning at the blank pew that was occupied Sunday after Sunday by Jim McNorrill. Jim McNorrill was a ligament person whose nurturing love bound people in this family of God together. The question becomes, who will rise to fill the role that Jim McNorrill filled so well? Who will be the next ligament person to hold our family of faith together? Ligament people are not always the committee chairs or the prominent deacons, but their calm, quiet, nurturing love and encouraging demeanor have a way of binding people together, heart to heart, soul to soul.
The truth is, Abraham couldn’t have been Abraham without Isaac; Jacob couldn’t have been Jacob without Isaac. Jacob would have never become Israel without Isaac. So, too, we cannot truly be church together unless there are those who are willing to serve as ligament people. Ligament people are essential to the health of this body of Christ. Ligament people hold things together, even if no one seems to notice. An old tradition says that after Abraham sacrificed the ram in the thicket, Isaac saved the ram’s two horns. One horn he kept as a family heirloom to be passed from generation to generation until it was blown by Moses in triumph atop Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments. The other horn Isaac gave to that angel who had announced his deliverance. Isaac told the angel to keep the horn in heaven so that Isaac could blow it on that day when God’s kingdom becomes all in all. One day Isaac shall blow his horn. And he will laugh. The question is, will we have the unquenchable faith, the irrepressible sunniness and the inexorable fidelity to God’s promises so that we will be there to laugh with him?