'Happy Families Are All Alike'

Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ 
—Gen. 22:7
I. An Only Child
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.* So let me just say that my family was unique and leave it at that for now. The irony is that I probably have the happiest name in the history of the universe. You see, my name’s Isaac, a name that means Laughter in my native tongue. My parents were a couple of wandering Arameans, and I was their only child.

That’s sort of misleading, because I wasn’t an only child—but I didn’t find that out till I was practically grown. I had a half-brother, because my father had a son with one of the servants. But when I came along he was sent away.

It sounds kind of strange to say that, because that sort of thing wasn’t at all uncommon in these parts back then. In fact, men of means—and my father was a man of some means—usually had more than one wife. And so between wives and servants, most kids learned to add simply by counting their half-brothers and -sisters. But we were different. And I only ever learned subtraction when I was told I had a brother.

He was a boy named Ishmael (his name also means something: God-Has-Heard), and though I knew him, I didn’t know I was related to him. His mother was an Egyptian woman, and I didn’t know who his father was. He was a wanderer, too, just like us. And we would cross paths in the desert every few years. And to cross paths in the desert was to share resources: Not to give a fellow pilgrim food and water and shade was basically the same as murder in our culture. And my father was no murderer… though that’s only by the grace of God.

Notice I didn’t say “the grace of the gods.” That’s because we were different from most of the other desert wanderers, who worshiped a whole herd of gods. There was a god of the sun and a god of the earth, a god of war and a god of fertility. Whatever you needed, there was a god for that. And if you didn’t get what you wanted from one god, you could turn to another who might be in a better mood. It always seemed to me that other people treated their gods like a spoiled kid would treat its parents, playing one off against the other until they finally got their way. They didn’t serve their gods as much as they expected their gods to serve them.

We, on the other hand, only believed in one God. This God was the maker of all things and was in charge of all things. And though other people had the comfort of a statue to remind them what their gods looked like, ours was invisible. This God didn’t serve us. It was our lot to serve God.
II. Responsibility
This isn’t to say it was all coldness and servitude. God was good to us and blessed us. And my old man—his name was Abraham—said that someday the whole world would come around to our way of thinking. It might not happen in his day, he used to tell me, but it would certainly happen in mine.

This is a heavy burden to lay on a little boy’s shoulders. But what I’ll tell you next was an even heavier burden. Remember, I told you I had a half-brother that I didn’t even know I was related to. He was born back when my mother didn’t think she’d ever have any children. My old man needed a son because God had made promises to him about the future. And without sons, what kind of future would he have? But when Ishmael started to grow up, I came along unexpectedly. And since the promise of the future was meant for only one son, it was decided that I should become an only child. That’s when Ishmael and his mother were sent away.

I don’t remember any of that, but they say that Ishmael and I knew each other when I was little. In fact, they say that when Ishmael was around, my name really fit me. I was all laughter and smiles as a baby, I’ve been told. But maybe people are just remembering it that way because they want to make sense of something that makes no sense otherwise. A serious boy like me—how could I be named Laughter?

A lot of my seriousness comes from the responsibility of having the world’s future happiness depend on me. If you think being told that doesn’t make a difference to a little kid, think again. I don’t remember there ever being a time when I felt free to act like I wanted to—who’s to say that I might do the wrong thing, and what should’ve been a blessing to the world might instead of ended up being a curse? It’s paralyzing to a kid to be told that kind of thing. It’s like being bound and gagged when you should be playing and laughing.

You’re probably thinking of how fitting that last image is, in light of something that happened to me as a child. And I admit, I put it that way on purpose because I need to ease into what I want to talk about next. It’s what you expect, after all. It’s the story that everybody knows if they know anything about me at all.
III. It's Not About Me
Like most stories about me, however, it’s not really about me. Some stories are about my wife, and some stories are about my twins, but this story is about my father.

As you can probably imagine, my old man had a way about him that set him apart. My mother (her name was Sarah, by the way) tended to encourage this. And when he’d get in a certain mood or act a certain way, she sort of shoo everybody away and let him stew.

Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about. You know how, when there’s change on the horizon or if something new is about to get started, somebody might say, “Here we go!”? My old man said something similar, but it was a lot more personal. I always started to suspect something was up when my father started to get a far-off look in his eye. And I always knew I was right when instead of saying, all excited like most people, “Here we go!” he’d say, half to himself, “Here I am.” Mother called it his “prayer” and I suppose that’s just what it was. If his God had singled him out from everybody else in the world, then why shouldn’t that be his prayer?

Once when I was a teenager—I’d say it was when I was around fifteen or so—my old man started his praying. “Here I am,” I heard him saying. And that’s what clued me in to something important about to happen. What I didn’t know was that the something important had everything to do with me.

At first, I just assumed that I was included because the old man needed help with what he thought of as his religious duties. He called on a few of his servants to go with him to a mountain near here—its name isn’t important… of maybe it is important, but I’d rather not say it out loud. We traveled for three days on donkeys to get there, and when we got to the foot of the mountain, the servants were told to wait there, that my old man and I would climb the mountain together to make a sacrifice to God. We took one of the donkeys with us, loaded down with firewood.
IV. Bound
None of this seemed all that odd to me at first. God lived in the heavens, and mountains were closer to heaven than valleys—why shouldn’t we climb one to get closer to God? But what did seem strange to me was that we had no lamb or calf or anything else to sacrifice. We had the sticks to burn it with, but we had no meat.

My upbringing had taught me that it was best not to ask questions. More often than not, I didn’t like the answer, because it usually included me. But this time the question was just too obvious to avoid. “Where’s the lamb?” I asked my father as he led the way up the mountain path. But he didn’t answer. I let him alone for a while after that. But as we got higher and higher and I realized we’d soon be at the top, I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Is it a calf?” I asked him. “Where is it?” But even then, he didn’t say anything for quite a while. But he did slow down, and finally he stopped, and without looking at me, he answered as though it were a prayer, “God will provide… Here I am,” he added. And I was worried that he might do something horrible like ask me to sacrifice him to his God.

My fear of questions and my paralysis might help you understand what happened next. Without speaking, the old man started piling the firewood on a large stone outcropping. And I started to help, because we’d done this before. Once the sticks were laid, my father got out his knife—sharpened like it had never been sharpened before—along with his flint to make a spark. But still there was no lamb.

And so I spoke, because I felt I had to: “Father!” I said to him—and this time I said it a little more forcefully than usual because I was afraid, and I wanted to remind him that I was here. And for the first time in a long time, I think I got his attention. “Here I am,” he said to me as though he were speaking to God. He held me then, but I don’t think I held him back. Perhaps if I had, things would have turned out differently… though for better or for worse, I cannot say. The arms that held me in a hug soon moved to hold my hands behind my back. And I didn’t move. And my father bound me then, though I don’t think he really needed to. I couldn’t move. Something was about to happen and I feared doing anything—what if it was the wrong thing? And as he sobbed, he led me to the stone and guided me down until I was lying on the wood.

I lay as still as I could, and even if I had wanted to cry out, I am sure I couldn’t have. “Here I am,” my father prayed. And if God could see him, I hoped God could see me, too… Why was my name “Laughter” and not “God-Has-Seen”!? It seems strange to say it now, but I was thinking at the time that I was glad that my father wasn’t going to have me sacrifice him to his God. The flint was there to make the spark but I don’t believe there was yet any flame. So I must’ve just imagined the heat of the fire. The knife was out to make the cut, but I don’t believe it touched me. So how can I still feel its sharpness against the tender skin of my throat? You might think of me as looking like a deer caught suddenly in a bright light. My people would’ve said that I lay there like a sheep that is silent before its shearers.
V. Crown of Thorns
“Here I am,” I heard my father pray again… this time as though he were a mile way. Otherwise all was silence. It was as though the birds had stopped singing and the wind had stopped blowing. And that’s when we heard it: a rustling in the bushes. My father looked first and then I looked, too. It was a ram and its horns were caught in a thicket of thorns. How long it had been there, I do not know. It seemed to me that it had just magically appeared, but it must’ve been there for some time. It was clearly in pain, and with each movement the thorns found some new way to pierce the animal’s head. And so it had quickly learned not to move, that paralysis was the best way to avoid danger. I remember almost nothing about it now except the blood from the thorns piercing its head… and I remember its noble eyes. A ram’s eyes usually look very different from a human’s eyes. But fear had made this ram’s pupils contract so much that all I could see was the brown of the iris. It was like looking into the eyes of a king wearing a thorny crown.

The spell was suddenly broken and my father loosed my bonds and said, “Here is the sacrifice!” It was too old to be a considered a lamb, but apparently God had provided us with a ram. And the knife that was used on neither me nor my father was used to kill the ram that was captured by a thorn-infested thicket.

We lit the fire and cut the meat and the smoke and the aroma floated up to heaven to satisfy the hunger of the God that could not be seen. “Here I am,” my father prayed. And I don’t believe my life was ever the same. My fear was multiplied, but so was my faith. How could I love a God that my father thought would lead him to such heights? But how could I hate a God who so clearly saved me from my father’s knife?

We never talked about what happened on that mountain, my old man and I. But people knew something had happened there. And there were whispers. And it was in those whispers that I learned that the young man Ishmael was not a stranger but a kinsman, that he was my brother. And so when my father died, I sent for him, and asked him if he would help me lay the old man to rest in the cave where we’d buried my mother. As we traveled together to the tomb, Ishmael and I and the body of Abraham, Ishmael told me of the time that our father had nearly killed him by sending him and his mother into the desert alone. And so I told him of the time our father had nearly killed me.

Both of us, it seemed, had been saved by the God our father served. No one would say that either of us had a happy childhood. If we had, perhaps we’d be more alike. But our unhappiness had made us as different as night and day. I don’t know how his boys turned out—I heard he had quite a few sons—but mine seemed to be a fleshing out of the turmoil I often felt inside: Speech or silence, freedom or binding, blessing or curse, duty or irresponsibility, patience or hot-headedness—what would I offer the world?

All I know is that I was not what my father had promised me I would be. But I wouldn’t say the promise is dead. I will pass it along to my son Esau (only one son, remember?) before I die. And I will wish Jacob all the best as well. Pray God that my two sons will not be separated as Ishmael and I were.
—©2014, 2017 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
*Last week’s sermon on Ishmael began with the first line of a novel (Herman Melville’s Moby Dick), so this morning’s sermon on Isaac begins with the first line of another novel (Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina)