July 9, 2017
Our reading from Genesis begins with these simple words, “God tested Abraham.” Simple words but not a simple passage to study. In fact, this may be one of the hardest passages for us to make sense of in the scriptures. Would God really test anyone in this way? And what would a test by God look like today? Sometimes it seems we are tested when we try to watch what we eat. I've been working at eating healthier and hoping to lose about 15 pounds. Then along comes coffee hour at the First Presbyterian Church. A Test? Last Sunday, Shirley brought me a bag of leftover bars and cookies from coffee hour. I didn't pass, been eating cookies all week. Another test, Julie headed to Mesa and bakes a whole pan of brownies before she leaves. A test of my will power? I passed this one as I brought the brownies to share at work.
God tested Abraham. As we've been hearing for the last few weeks, Abraham's faith had already been seriously tested as he waited many years for this child of the promise to be born. Sarah's faith was shaken, but scripture assures us that Abraham remained faithful. And Isaac was born, the son through whom Abraham's descendents would come and would number more than the stars in the sky.... So how could he even consider voiding that promise by killing Isaac? It is hard for me to preach on this passage because I can't see myself having the faith to consider obeying such a command. Who would? Although, there was an incident in 1993, a man named Andrew Cate was sentenced to 60 years in prison after being convicted of fatally shooting his 2-year-old daughter, then walking through his neighborhood carrying her body. Cate claimed he was acting out the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, and that God would do a miracle to win his brother to Christianity. Cate believed God would miraculously stop him at the last moment before killing his daughter. A sad story of a deranged man taking God's word too far.
I think we can categorically eliminate the chance of God asking us to do such a thing. What Abraham did was something completely unique in God’s redemptive history, given for a specific purpose. Three points I want to make this week, One: we can see in this story is a type of precursor to the story of Jesus Christ. Two: God is faithful, that's just who God is. And three, what is the limit of what we are willing to give up to God?
I start with ways Isaac's life pictures the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. As we consider the practical parts of the story, we note that Isaac would have been in his late teens and Abraham over 100 years old. Abraham could not have physically overpowered Isaac to place him on the wood. Isaac had to go willingly. Jesus too chose to go to his death willingly. Scriptures tell us that when Jesus was arrested, he told Peter who was trying to protect him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26:52-53) Jesus could have overpowered his foes; Isaac could have overpowered Abraham but they both went to the sacrifice willingly.
They both carried the wood for the sacrifice. It doesn't say it explicitly in Genesis, but Abraham and Isaac had to carry all the supplies the last distance. Isaac undoubtedly helped. And we know that Jesus was forced to carry his own cross to the crucifixion. “(Abraham) bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.” The soldiers laid Jesus in the wood of the cross and nailed him to it.
I can't verify this, but many sources suggest that the hill upon which Isaac was laid is the same hill on which Jesus was crucified. We know it was in the area of Jerusalem. But it would be very much like God's providence if it were so, but let's just leave it that it is a possibility.
If we count the days from the time God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son we find it was three days. And on the third day he was delivered from death by the angel. Jesus rose from the dead on the third day and delivered us all from death. I understand these are not necessarily theological points, but they are interesting to consider and there are repeated patterns of events foreshadowing Jesus elsewhere in the Old Testament.
Point two, we learn in this story that God is faithful. The thing we should note is that there is a difference between trusting the promise and trusting the promiser. God's promise was that Isaac would continue the lineage of Abraham. Killing Isaac would make that impossible. Abraham had to consider that he was killing the promise if he went through with the sacrifice. Yet he was willing because he understood the faithfulness of the promiser. God's faithfulness provides us with the hope that despite the many problems we face in this world, God has the final word and that word is life. Our hope is in God's faithfulness. As a sign of God's faithfulness, Abraham gave that site the name “The Lord Will Provide”. And God did provide a ram for the sacrifice, but God's provision goes way beyond that ram in the thicket. We continue to trust that God provides what we truly need in this life and beyond. You may recall a sermon Judy gave some time ago. In it, she gave us some of the names that God was given in the Old Testament. This is one of them, the Lord will provide which is Jehovah Jireh in the Hebrew.
Abraham also demonstrated acting in faith even without knowing all the answers. This was an example of unconditional obedience and also unconditional compliance by Isaac. There are some questions in this life which we just will not know the answers to in this life. But not knowing doesn't mean we quit trusting or acting in obedience. There are mysteries in the life of faith that we will not understand...understanding would make us equal with God, which is not possible.
The Lord will provide...that is what I titled my sermon. What does that mean for us today? That we won't have to go through hard times; won't have to suffer; will have food and money; will live happily ever after? There are those who will preach that sermon—if your faith is right, you will have all your heart's desires. And as long as things are going well, it is a very comfortable way to live. But what if you are a Christian living in Syria who has lost a son or a daughter and you are now living in a tent in a refugee camp? Can you still say the Lord will provide? It is hard, but the faithful still say that when the world around them seems to be totally destroyed; they hold on to their trust in the Lord. And maybe at the root of this story of Abraham and Isaac is this question: Is there anything in this world that is more important than the Lord? Family, home, grandchildren... possessions, free time... If there was a passage like this about you, if it began like this one does, “God tested...Gordon, Judy, Tina...what is the thing in your life that you would not be willing to sacrifice to the Lord? And I don't mean sacrifice as in killing; but is there something in your life that you won't give up control of; even to God? As I examined this question for myself, I can't say that I'm proud of my answers. As the years have passed, the things of this world I hold most dear have changed. But in almost every stage of life, if I'm being honest, there are things of this world that I kinda keep out of God's control and keep it all to myself. I don't know if that makes sense. And I hesitate to give examples. Without being too specific, when I felt called to attend seminary 35 years ago, I did not make the sacrifices that would have shown a complete commitment to God's call. I'm not sure any of us is capable of the total surrender that Abraham showed, but that is what we are called to aspire for.
A story I received some time back from Bev speaks to this question... a simpler story dealing with what we hold on to, and what we are willing to sacrifice to the Father.
The cheerful girl with bouncy golden curls was almost six. Waiting with her mother at the checkout stand, she saw them: a circle of glistening white pearls in a pink foil box. “Oh please, Mommy. Can I have them? Please, Mommy, please?”
Quickly the mother checked the back of the little foil box and then looked back into the pleading blue eyes of her little girl’s upturned face. “A dollar ninety-five. That’s almost $2.00. If you really want them, I’ll think of some extra chores for you and in no time you can save enough money to buy them for yourself. And your birthday’s only a week away and you might get a dollar bill from Grandma.”
As soon as Jenny got home, she emptied her penny bank and counted out 17 pennies. She did more than her share of chores and she went to the neighbor and (worked). On her birthday, Grandma did give her another new dollar bill and at last she had enough money to buy the necklace.
Jenny loved her pearls. She wore them everywhere – Sunday school, kindergarten, even to bed. The only time she took them off was when she went swimming or had a bubble bath. Mother said if they got wet, they might turn her neck green.
Jenny had a very loving daddy and every night he would stop whatever he was doing and come upstairs to read her a bedtime story. One night when he finished the story, he asked Jenny, “Do you love me?” “Oh yes, Daddy. You know that I love you.” “Then give me your pearls.” “Oh, Daddy, not my pearls. But you can have Princess – the white horse from my collection. The one with the pink tail. Remember, Daddy? The one you gave me. She’s my favorite.”
“That’s okay, Honey. Daddy loves you. Good night.” And he brushed her cheek with a kiss.” About a week later, after the story time, Jenny’s daddy asked again, “Do you love me?” “Daddy, you know I love you.” “Then give me your pearls.” “Oh Daddy, not my pearls. But you can have my new baby doll I got for my birthday. She is so beautiful and you can have the yellow blanket that matches her sleeper.”
“That’s okay. Sleep well. God bless you, little one. Daddy loves you” And as always, he brushed her cheek with a gentle kiss. A few nights later when her daddy came in, Jenny was sitting on her bed with her legs crossed. As he came close, he noticed her chin was trembling and one silent tear rolled down her cheek. “What is it, Jenny? What’s the matter?” Jenny didn’t say anything but lifted her little hand up to her daddy. And when she opened it, there was her little pearl necklace. With a little quiver, she finally said, “Here, Daddy. It’s for you.” With tears gathering in his own eyes, Jenny’s daddy reached out with one hand to take the dime-store necklace, and with the other hand he reached into his pocket and pulled out a blue velvet case with a strand of genuine pearls and gave them to Jenny. He had them all the time. He was just waiting for her to give up the dime-store stuff so he could give her the genuine treasure.
So it may be with our Heavenly Father. Perhaps there is something in your life that you are holding on to so tightly that God can't give you the beautiful treasure prepared for you. Consider that, what is it you are holding onto so tightly that God can't have it? (Pause) As you let it go, you can discover, as Abraham did, that God will never take away something without giving you something better in its place. The Lord will provide, simply trust in the promiser...to make good on the promises. Amen.
Hymn: Come Sing O church in Joy 430 PH