Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
1Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. (Genesis 12:1-5, NRSV)
In Greek mythology Hera was the goddess of marriage and birth. She was both the wife and the sister of Zeus – I’m not sure how that worked out – and apparently she was a very angry goddess because her brother who was her husband was constantly unfaithful to her. In fact, she spent much of her time punishing and persecuting Zeus’ lovers and their children. She was a very jaded and jealous goddess, one who was easily angered and offended.
Maybe this was not the goddess you wanted to put in charge of childbirth. But she was. All marriages among mortals needed to be blessed by Hera to be officially recognized. No child could be born into a family unless either she or one of her nymph handmaidens was present at the birth. In ancient Greece, women would pray to Hera for the birth of a healthy child. Once a child arrived, families would beg Hera to protect the child. Because she was already such a bitter and vengeful goddess, parents lived in fear that they would do something to bring down her wrath upon themselves or, worse, upon their children.
Is there anything in life which is more valuable to us than our children and our grandchildren? Many of us as parents would point to the day our child was born and say that was the greatest day of our lives. Also, is there anything we worry about more in life than the well-being of our children? Is there any pain deeper in life then the loss of child? I’ve helped parents bury their children, in a few instances when they were still quite young, and I don’t know that there is any greater pain in life than that. You see why the Greeks must have lived in great fear and reverence of Hera. They believed she was in control over that which was to them most precious in life.
In fact, children in the ancient world were considered such a blessing that most ancient cultures believed infertility was a curse. The ancient Israelites, for example, considered children, especially male children, one of the greatest blessings of God could ever bestow. Psalm 127 reads, “Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. He shall not be put to shame.” It’s easy to see why infertility was seen as a curse in those days. In fact, a marriage that failed to produce children was considered a failed marriage. In a patriarchal society this meant a husband was actually expected to divorce his wife if after ten years they failed to have children.
I’d like to think we’ve made some progress since then. In many ways we have. And yet, while we may not openly call it a curse these days, there is still too often an unspoken assumption among us that couples who are unable to have children are somehow experiencing blessing in life to a lesser degree than couples who do conceive.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is a Lutheran pastor who, along with her husband, has never been able to conceive a child. Not long ago she wrote this in an article for Christianity Today,
My husband and I are barren. Some people, on hearing the news, want to know which of us is to blame…Before I knew about my husband and me, I did not think about barrenness much at all. I had no reason to. Children were on the life-time agenda. On the rare occasions I heard of people who were involuntarily without a child, I turned aside, averted my eyes. Such a horror. Now I get averted eyes myself.
Had Sarah and her husband lived in ancient Greece they would have been convinced they’d done something to get on the bad side of Hera. Had they lived in ancient Israel they might have wondered what sin had led God to close her womb with a curse. Even today they, and millions of couples like them, struggle to understand why they are not allowed to experience what many consider to be one of the greatest blessings of life. Their struggle is not made easier by the fact that so many of us have elevated children to nearly a place of worship, in many ways seeking from them the identity, the security and the meaning in life we really ought to seek from God alone.
Few people in history have thought about the blessing of children more so than a couple named Abraham and Sarah. We meet this couple near the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 12. When we meet them they are old. Abraham is 75 years old and his wife is not much younger. Abraham and Sarah are rich in every respect but one. They have no children, a fact which in those days would have reflected shamefully upon them both. For years they would have lived with the humiliation and scorn of their families and neighbors. Everybody around them would have assumed it was Sarah’s fault. It’s to Abraham’s credit I suppose that even after all those years he didn’t abandon his wife. In those days everyone would have assumed that we would have.
Then one day out of the blue God shows up. As we just read, God comes to Abraham and makes him a promise. If Abraham will leave his country and his people and go with God to a new land, God will make him into a great nation, bless him, make his name great, and make his family a blessing to all the families on the earth. It’s a stunning promise that only God could make, the promise to take a childless and barren old couple and turn them into a great nation of descendants that would eventually bless the whole world. Abraham doesn’t even hesitate. At once, he and Sarah pack up their belongings and leave everything they had always known in hopes of finally finding everything they had always dreamed of knowing.
If you know the story you know that Sarah does not become pregnant on the way to Canaan. In fact, twenty-five years go by and Sarah is still not pregnant, which meant that the scorn and humiliation they had always felt must have now taken on a bitter flavor. It’s one thing to resign yourself to never seeing your dream realized. It’s quite another thing, a much worse thing, to have your dream promised to you and then to never see it realized. Abraham, in fact, gets so desperate in the waiting he agrees to sleep with his one of his slaves, a woman named Hagar, to force the matter. It was an act that showed how easily this man could place his trust in a child more than in his God.
Finally, twenty-five years later God showed up again out of the blue. By this time Abraham is 100 and Sarah is over 90, ideal ages to begin a family. But this time God is more specific, telling them that in this next season Sarah will finally conceive and bear a son. Sarah overhears what God says and can only laugh. In her mind it’s a cruel joke. The Lord, however, wasn’t laughing. Just as he said, that next season Sarah did become pregnant in her old age and gave birth to a son they named Isaac, a name that literally means laughter. It was a very fitting name considering the joy this old couple must have felt at his arrival. As one writer put it, “With one possible exception, there has perhaps never been a birth more longed for and rejoiced in than Isaac’s.”
I remember clearly how I felt when our firstborn, Isabel, was born 17 years ago. This child you’ve waited for and dreamed about is now in your hands. She’s so small, so fragile, so beautiful. And I was so afraid. First time parents usually are. I had no idea how to be a dad, how to protect this little life. Almost at once I began to imagine all the things that could go wrong. Again, it’s typical for first-time parents.
One of my friends has seven children. He talks about how he was so nervous with his firstborn that he wouldn’t let anybody else outside the family hold her for months. By the time his seventh came along, however, he was passing her around to strangers on the street. He didn’t bring his firstborn to church until she was four months old. He and his wife were in church with their seventh child the Sunday after she was born. When his firstborn fell in the dirt as a little one he’d rush her inside to get her cleaned up. When his seventh child put dirt in her mouth one day he didn’t sweat it, figuring it probably had some decent nutritional value. You can always spot first time parents. I know you could have spotted me.
Can you imagine Abraham and Sarah as first-time parents? How paranoid must these two have been over Isaac? They’d waited nearly a century for him to come and when he finally did come so much was hanging on the this little boy’s life. Didn’t the very promise of any future blessing rest with this child? In Isaac their lives now had meaning and purpose. Because of Isaac they were no longer objects of ridicule and shame. How protective they must have been. How their lives must had revolved around this little boy. It’s easy to see how Abraham could have begun to trust in what Isaac could bring him even more than what he trusted God could bring him even though, ironically, it was God who brought him Isaac in the first place. Abraham had sacrificed everything for this child and waited forever for him to come. The question now was whether he’d been waiting and sacrificing for God or waiting and sacrificing for his son. To whom was Abraham ultimately looking as the source of his identity, his security and his meaning in life?
Remember that an idol is a good thing we make into an ultimate thing, a gift that we begin to worship instead of worshipping the Giver of that gift, something in life we hope will provide for us the things that only God can provide. Anything and everything can be made into an idol. This includes children. In fact, it happens today just like it happened back in Abraham’s day.
So how can you know if and when you have begun to idolize your children or your grandchildren, whatever their age? Well, sometimes the idol shows up in our longing for affirmation. All of us, of course, love to hear other people praise our children, even when our children grow to be adults. Naturally pride bubbles up in our hearts. At what point, however, does this become unhealthy? Well, when we tie our own self-identity into the way other people see our kids perhaps then it’s crossed the line. You affirm my kid and I feel better about myself. You are critical of my kid and I feel devastated. That’s not good for me or my child and it can even lead us to push our children in unhealthy ways to succeed because we have concluded that their success is a direct reflection on us. We justify our own lives by the success of our children.
Other times the idol shows up as control. Even when they are grown we may seek to orchestrate every detail of our children’s lives but because, as every parent soon learns, we are not in control of everything we quickly become anxious and agitated when things are out of our control. We may over-discipline our children because we need them to be perfect. We may under-discipline our children because we need them to be our friends. Either way, our identity, security, and meaning in life becomes dependent upon our kids and their success and their well-being. Even those of us who have wanted to have children but have never been able to do so can allow the children we never even had to become an idol. We allow children we never had to have a devastating impact on our identity, our security and our purpose in life.
Though we are not told exactly how it played out, we do know that in some way Isaac had become an idol like this for Abraham and maybe for Sarah as well. It’s hard to blame him. His very name, Abraham, means ‘Father of Many.’ With a name like that, how could he not have his identity all tied up in his son? Also, in those days a man’s legacy depended on him producing a son to carry on his name. Nobody in those days dreamed about personal success like we do in our time. Family was everything and the security of the family in the future depended upon the oldest son. It’s why the estate and wealth always went to the oldest boy. All the hopes and dreams, the very meaning of life, rested for a man on his oldest boy.
For Abraham, Isaac eventually became this for him, the source of his identity, security, and meaning in life. We know this was the case because at one point, when Isaac was still a young boy, God came again to Abraham to test him and help him remember that God, and not the boy, was to be the source of these things.
Some of you know the story. In Genesis 22 we read how one day God told Abraham to take his son, Isaac, off to a faraway mountain to offer him there as a sacrifice. Specifically, God tells him, “Abraham! Take your son, your only son Isaac, who you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.”
Now, before we go further I need you to understand that Abraham would not have heard this command in nearly the same way we hear it. The very thought of somebody offering their own child as a sacrifice is a horror to us, as it should be. In the ancient Middle East, however, as in other parts of the ancient world, child sacrifice was not uncommon. It would have been a very familiar practice to Abraham. Furthermore, in Abraham’s own culture the oldest son was the family. When a family sinned, therefore, it was the firstborn son who would be sacrificed on behalf of the family. Think about the Egyptians during the Exodus. When they sin and unjustly keep the Israelites as slaves in direct disobedience to God’s command, who is it that pays the price? The night the Israelites are freed it is the oldest sons in each Egyptian family who are sacrificed in the Passover.
So while it’s hard to understand, we must accept the fact that while God’s command to Abraham would have no doubt been heartbreaking to him, it would not have been unfathomable. In fact, when the command is given Abraham immediately obeys. He sets out at once on the three day journey to Moriah. When he arrives he takes Isaac up the mountain, arranges the wood on the altar of stones, ties Isaac to the wood, and raises his knife to sacrifice his life. All along, of course, the tension inside him must have been agonizing. On one hand, Abraham knew God was a holy and righteous God and was therefore justified in requiring his firstborn as a sacrifice for the sin of himself and his family. On the other hand, Abraham also knew God was faithful and loving and had made a solemn promise to him that it was through Isaac that he would one day become the father of a great nation. How could his God at the same time be both holy and just on the one hand and faithful and gracious on the other hand? Abraham didn’t know how it was possible but did believe that somehow it must be and so he simply obeyed.
As most of you know, however, at the very moment Abraham was about to plunge his knife in his son God intervened. “Abraham!” God called. “Here I am,” Abraham answered. “Do not lay your hand on the boy. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” As Abraham looked up, likely through tears, he saw an animal nearby caught in a thicket, a ram the Lord had provided as a sacrifice in Isaac’s place.
As hard as it may be for us to accept, this is actually a story of great mercy and compassion. Abraham had begun to place his ultimate trust in the well-being of his son instead of in the faithfulness of his Lord. Isaac had become the source of identity, security and meaning in life and in the end Isaac, like all idols, was never going to be able to deliver the good. In the end this idol, like all idols, would have failed Abraham completely. And so God, out of love for his servant, put him through this horrible test.
Understand, I do not believe God had any intention of sacrificing Isaac on that day. I believe, rather, that it was Abraham’s idolatry of Isaac that needed to be sacrificed. You see, what seems to us like extraordinarily cruel treatment was, in the long view, an act of great mercy because it brought Abraham to his senses to realize that his heart must ultimately belong to God and to God alone. Abraham needed to be reminded that even if Isaac had never been born, and even if Isaac was to be taken away some day, Abraham still would have in God everything he ultimately needed. His identity was in his Lord, not in the son his Lord had given to him. His security was in the hands of God because the security of his son was also in the hands of God. His very purpose in life did not come from the blessings which would come through Isaac but instead came from the One who was the source of those blessings in the first place.
When it comes to our own children and grandchildren, the ones we have had and the ones we have never been able to have, we must do the same thing Abraham did. Of course, we don’t have to sacrifice them physically. God has never asked anybody, other than himself of course, to go through with literally sacrificing their own child. We do, however, have to be willing to offer up our children to God, to say to the Lord, “My kids, my grandkids, they belong to you and not to me. You may have plans for them that are better than my plans for them, dreams for them that far exceed the dreams I have for them. Yes, I want my children to succeed and thrive in life. When they do, I will celebrate with them. When they don’t I will cry with them. But either way, I will trust you Lord. Even if they fail, and they will. Even if I fail, and I will. Even if, God forbid, I should lose them some day, even then I must trust you because my life and their lives are ultimately in your hands.”
For some of us, of course, the prayer sounds more like this, “Lord, you may never give me the children or grandchildren I long for. If that happens, then when others celebrate I will weep. But when I weep I pray you will weep with me. Help me to place the children I may never have in your hands trusting that your plans and dreams for me are better than my plans and dreams for myself, that your blessing for me and love for me are secure whether or not I ever have children. At the end of life I may not have a son or daughter as an heir but as your son, as your daughter, I will find that I am your heir and will in the end, therefore, lack nothing at all.”
Whichever of those prayers is your prayer it will not be easy to pray. I know. I’ve tried. Like the other idols we have been talking about, this is also an idol I can easily worship and have worshipped many times along the way in my life. My greatest fear in life is losing my children. Too often I allow too much of my identity to be wrapped up in the success or failure of my kids. While I know in my head that my four children ultimately don’t belong to me I still find it difficult in my heart to think about releasing them the way I know God wants me to release them. I will confess to you this morning that this is not an easy prayer for me to pray. I suspect it will not be for you either.
In fact, the only way any of us can ever pray this prayer is if we come to realize that the God who asks us to sacrifice our own children for his sake is the very God who was first willing to sacrifice his child for our sake. Yes, God asks us to trust him enough to give up everything in our lives for him, to put him first before even our very own children, but he is not asking us to do that which he has not already done for us.
Romans 8:32 declares, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not with him also give us everything else?” Remember, when there is sin in the family it is the oldest son who must be sacrificed on behalf of the family. In the case of the sacrifice that happened on the cross it was our sin, but God’s oldest Son. Here is the answer to Abraham’s question of how God can be, at the very same time, full of both righteous judgment and loving mercy. God’s justice demands that the price is paid for our sin; God’s mercy demands that it be paid for by his own Son.
If this is truly who God is, truly what God has done for us, then we are able to find ourselves willing to trust all things into his hands, even that which is most precious, even our very children, even our dream of having children we may never have, knowing that he, and he alone, can ultimately be trusted to bring to us what it is we most need in this life and the next. Amen.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read Genesis 12:1-5 again. What do you notice first?
In the days of Abraham there was great shame associated with infertility. Do you think we have also made having children in our culture so important that those who cannot have children have been also made to feel ‘less whole’ in some way? If so, why do we do this?
God makes a promise to Abraham to bring from him a great nation, beginning with his son Isaac. Later God commands Abraham to go and offer Isaac as a sacrifice. How in the world can we ever make sense of this?
Do you think children or grandchildren can become an idol, a good thing we make into an ultimate thing? How so? Have they ever been for you?
Is it a good thing or a bad thing when parents want their children to be a ‘success’ because it is a reflection on them as parents? When we do this what does this do to parents? What does this do to kids?
One person said, “I have in my mind an image of what our ‘perfect family’ should look like and until we have it I feel like a failure.” Can you relate?
If you have children or grandchildren, have you found you are able to completely trust them into God’s hands? If so, how have you done that? What does that look like?
Romans 8:32 declares, “He [i.e. God] who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not with him also give us everything else?” Do you believe this? What does it mean to you?
 Psalm 127:3-5, NRSV
 Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, “Blessed are the Barren”, Christianity Today, December, 2007.
 Read this account in Genesis 18:1-15.
 Fredrick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 52.
 I’m stealing this great question from Timothy Keller in Counterfeit Gods (New York: Riverhead, 2009), 6.
 Genesis 22:11-12.
 Jesus himself once told his followers, “Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Matthew 10:37