Our Faith in God’s Faithfulness, Genesis 22:1-19, 2/23/14

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Feb 232014

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church

Abraham was 75 years old when God came to him one day and told him that after all these years of infertility he and his wife, Sarah, were finally going to have a child.  More than that, this old childless couple were going to be the patriarch and matriarch of a great nation of people who would, in time, be richly blessed and would, in turn, be a blessing to the whole world.

This is what God promised but, as some of you know, God does not always make good on his promises as quickly as we might like him to.  In this case, 25 years have come and gone and Sarah still has not become pregnant.  She is now in her mid-90s.  Abraham is 100 years old!  Could it be that God didn’t fully grasp the principles of human reproductive health?

No, in God’s perfect timing, 25 years after the promise was given, Sarah became pregnant.  And 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.”[1]  That was, after all, what Abraham and Sarah named their son, Isaac.  It’s Hebrew for “laughter”, a very fitting name considering the joy they must have felt when he arrived at last.

Flash forward several years.  Isaac is now a teenager.  Well over 100 now, Abraham is probably not coaching his son’s Little League team, but they are nonetheless close.  This is a father who loves and cherishes the son he never thought he would have.  But then one day God comes to Abraham out of the blue to put him through a test.  That’s how this story begins, “After these things God tested Abraham.”

Now, whenever we are told in scripture that God is testing somebody what we are being told is that this person is going to face some great trial out of which they will receive some great benefit.  In other words, God does not test people to destroy them but to strengthen them.   The narrator here lets us know this right up front in this agonizing story to ensure that we do not get the wrong idea about God.  God is not cruel; God is loving.  God always acts in the best interests of his people, even if we do not always understand his methods.  I need you to keep this in mind as we go through this story so that you don’t get the idea that our God is the sort of God who asks us to kill our children.  He is not, and the very first words of this story are there to make this clear.  This is only a test.

Now understand, this is not a test for God’s benefit.  God sees the future as clearly as the present and therefore isn’t wondering how Abraham will fare in this test.  God knows.  No, this test is for Abraham’s benefit.

Think about it this way.  As a parent sometimes there are things I know my children can do which they, themselves, do not believe they can do.  I have a clear memory of looking up from the deep end of the pool at Isabel when she was just a little girl standing, shivering, on the diving board and urging her to jump and swim to me.  She was afraid but I urged her because I had no doubt that she could do it.  In the end she did jump and in doing so discovered something inside herself that I knew was there all along.  And I believe this is what our Heavenly Father does with us all the time.  I believe it’s what God is doing here with Abraham.


“Abraham!” God calls.  “Here I am,” Abraham responds.  And in this response we learn everything we need to know about this man.  God calls; he responds.  “Here I am.  I’m listening.  What’s next?  Go ahead, Lord, I’m all ears.”  This is the response of a willing servant.  And I’m trying to imagine as a father calling out to my children at home and, without having to call a second time, they all come rushing downstairs and, standing before me, in unison and with great expectation and eagerness they say to me, “Here we are, Father.  What do you have for us?  We are ready for whatever it is.”  Hey, a guy can dream.


Let me ask, how many of you came here this morning with this attitude?  You know what were’ doing right now, don’t you?  We’re opening God’s Word and together we are praying God will speak to us.  I believe that God is speaking to us.  So as you sit and listen to God’s Word, is this your attitude?  As God’s Word comes to you this morning are you eager to respond as Abraham responds, saying, “Here I am, Lord.  I’m ready.  Tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it.  Show me the errors of my thinking or my behavior and, if you’ll help me, I’ll change.”


Is that how you come before God this morning?  Or, do you come with a set of conditions?  “Lord, let me hear your offer first.  I’m willing, of course, to make some changes but first I’m going to need to see if those changes are reasonable.”  Let’s be honest, some of us come to God’s Word with conditions.  If that’s you, at least be honest about it.  At least be honest and don’t call yourself a follower of Christ.  You might be considering following Christ, and that’s a good thing.  It’s a good thing that you’re here.  But until you come to God saying, “Here I am!” you’re not following.  You see, Jesus was very clear that to be his disciple you must be willing to repent, to allow God to completely change your mind about anything and everything, and then, having repented, believe with the sort of conviction that leads you to do whatever God asks.


Abraham was ready.  Before he even heard what God was going to ask, Abraham was ready.  As we’re about to see, he was even ready to do the one thing he must have never imagined God would ask him to do.


“Abraham,” God said, “take your son, your only son Isaac, whom 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.  Abraham, I want you to kill Isaac as a sacrifice to me.”


Before we go any further it is important that you understand that Abraham would not have heard this command in quite the same way we hear it.  In the ancient Middle East, as in other parts of the ancient world, child sacrifice was not uncommon.  In fact, the Canaanites and others cultures surrounding Abraham in those days practiced this horrid ritual.  This means that while this command must have been heartbreaking to Abraham, it would not have been as unfathomable to him as it is to us.


Furthermore, remember that God was just beginning to reveal himself to his people.  Abraham, unlike us, did not have this long recorded history of God’s character and of God’s interactions with his people.  In many ways, Abraham was just getting to know God which means it is quite conceivable that upon hearing this command he may have assumed that his new God was not all that different from the gods of other people he’d come across.  Lots of other people had been required to offer their firstborn sons as a sacrifice, as a way to atone for their sin and appease their gods, so why should he not also be asked to also make this heartbreaking sacrifice?[2]


Still, can you imagine?  25 years Abraham waited for this son, this only son, this son who he dearly loves, this son through whom God has already swore to bring a blessed nation that will bless the whole earth.  And now God is asking Abraham to give him up.  What sort of test is this?  Who exactly is being tested?  Again, it’s not God who is being tested.  God will not go back on his promise.  One way or another, it will stand.  But does Abraham believe this?  Ultimately, what is Abraham’s security?  Is it Isaac?  Is Isaac the key now to all these promises being realized?  Or is it God and God’s faithfulness which is to be Abraham’s security?  In spite of the circumstances, in spite of whether Isaac lives or dies, will Abraham still trust God to be faithful?


I’m here to tell you that this test gets worked out over and over and over again in the lives of those of us who set out to follow God.  God will place wonderful gifts in your hands with the intention of seeing those gifts bless your life and the lives of others.  The problem is, we receive those gifts and pretty quickly on begin to place our faith in the gifts themselves.  Remember, every good thing you possess in your life is a gift from God.   Your family.  Your friends.  Your work.  Your material possessions.  Your health.  Your talents and education.  Your desire and ability to do what is right.  All gifts, every one of them!  The question is, are you able to hold on to these gifts loosely because you know that at the end of the day not one of them is the source of your ultimate security?  Do you trust the gift or do you trust the giver of that gift.


Can you see that when we begin to trust the gifts, as every single one of us does to some extent, we should not be surprised then when our Heavenly Father, who loves us dearly, allows these gifts to be threatened or, in extreme cases, taken away, so that we can learn to trust him again rather than his gifts?  Can you also see the freedom and peace that comes in life when you get to the place where you hold loosely even to gifts as precious as your own children knowing that even if those gifts are taken away, that which is our true security and hope will never be taken away?  Can we get to the place where we can say, as Job once said after nearly every gift was taken away from him, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”[3]  What is being tested here, you see, is not God’s faithfulness but Abraham’s faith in God’s faithfulness.


So how does Abraham respond?  Well, he responds in faith.  Even when God gives him the most heart wrenching of commands, Abraham does not run away.  Nor does he argue with God.  Amazingly, he does not even question God.  We at least expect him to question God.  “Okay, Lord, I’ll do what you ask.  But can you at least tell me how this all fits into your plan and how you intend to keep your promises after Isaac is dead?  Can you at least tell me that!?”  No, Abraham doesn’t ask for an explanation, and God doesn’t offer one.


Abraham doesn’t even delay.  I mean, if ever there was an opportunity for procrastination this was it.  But no, the text says that early the very next morning Abraham is up and on his way.  “Here I am, Lord.”  Lest we think, however, that Abraham is calloused, the narrator gives us details which make clear that in his obedience he is beside himself.  He saddles the donkey, grabs two of his servants and his son, Isaac, and then goes to cut the wood for the offering.  This is like getting everybody loaded up in the car and ready to take off for vacation and then remembering that you need to go back inside and pack your suitcases.  Abraham’s mind is so preoccupied by the task at hand that he is simply unable to think straight.


Three days they traveled to the appointed spot.  Can you imagine?  All that time walking beside the son he is about to sacrifice.  It’s one thing to be asked to do something terribly hard on the spot and, without thinking, you just do it.  It’s quite another thing to be given lots of time to think it over beforehand.  I didn’t give my daughter three days to think about jumping off the diving board.  I gave her three seconds.  God gives Abraham three whole days.  God is really putting Abraham to the test.  Apparently this decision to place his ultimate faith in God above all other things was not a decision God wanted Abraham to take lightly.[4]


When they finally arrive Abraham turns to his servants and says, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy[5] and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”  Notice anything strange about Abraham’s instructions?  We will come back to you?  We know from the story that Abraham fully intends to kill his son.  Why then does he tell his servants to expect to see them both back?  Is this a white lie to mask the horrendous deed that he is about to do?  It could be.  The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament sees it differently, however.  Hebrews 11:19 suggests that Abraham must have believed that somehow God would raise Isaac from the dead in order keep his promise to bless the world through him.  Again, Abraham was a man who placed his ultimate faith not in the gift but in the giver of that gift.  No matter what the circumstance, the faithfulness of God could be trusted.


So in faith Abraham takes the wood off the donkey and places it on the back of his son, Isaac.  Abraham then takes the fire and the knife in his own hand.  Then they walk on together up that mountain, the son like a condemned man carrying his own cross walking beside his father, the executioner, who holds the hammer and the nails in his hands.


The narrator offers few details of that long and horrible journey up that mountain.  All we get is little glimpse into what Isaac is thinking.  Clearly this is not the boy’s first sacrifice and so he knows what ingredients are needed.  And so as he follows his father up the mountainside he begins to wonder.  “We’ve got the fire wood.  We’ve got the flint to make a fire.  We’ve got the knife to make the kill.  Sure seems to me like we’re forgetting something.”


“Father!” he blurts out all at once, “Where is the lamb?  We forgot the lamb!  How can we make an offering to God unless we have an animal to sacrifice?”  And there is not a parent in this room, not a human being in this room for that matter, who can even begin to imagine what Abraham must have been feeling in that moment.  How could Abraham even bear to look at Isaac as he answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”  And once again we are stunned by the faith of this man.  We’re about to be equally stunned by the faith of his son.


When they arrive at the summit, Abraham builds an altar and arranges the wood for the fire.  Then, without saying a word he lays his boy on the wood and binds him there with rope.  Isaac also does not say a word.  He says nothing, like a lamb being led away to the slaughter.[6]  When all has been arranged, Abraham reaches out and takes the knife in his hand to kill his son, his only son, his beloved son.  Plenty of other gods ask their people to appease them by offering their sons to atone for sin.  Abraham is about to learn that his God is no different from the rest.  The knife is raised, the blood must be spilled.


It is in that very moment, as the audience can barely keep their eyes on the screen, that the angel of the Lord finally speaks and ends the test.  “Abraham, Abraham!” the angel calls.


“Here I am,” Abraham answers.  “Go ahead, Lord.  I’m listening.  Just say the word, Lord.  I’m ready.”


“Abraham, do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”  Abraham looks up.  And what does he see?  How had he not noticed it before?  Off a short distance there is a ram, a sheep, caught by its horns in a thicket.  Immediately he unties Isaac and helps him down off the wood.  Together they go and free the ram from the thicket and bind it and lay it in the place where Isaac had just been.  And as Abraham raises the knife a second time and brings it down on the body of that innocent lamb instead of the body of his son, no words can describe the gratitude and joy that must have filled his heart.  If he trusted God before, imagine how much he trusted God now.  We’re told that Abraham named the place “The Lord will provide”[7] and that it was known as such for many years.


After the sacrifice was made the angel of the Lord took that opportunity to remind Abraham once again of God’s promise.  The Lord would indeed bless him.  Because he had shown such faith, God would make his offspring through Isaac as numerous as the stars in the heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore.  And in time, all the nations of the earth would gain blessing for themselves through his descendants.  There on the mountain called “The Lord will provide” God reaffirmed his promise to bless the whole world through Abraham’s people.


Biblical scholars can’t be certain exactly which mountain this was, but there is wide agreement that the mountain was located in what later would become the city of Jerusalem.  As you know, many, many years later in that same region there would be born a child who was a descendant of Abraham and Isaac, one of the countless stars and grains of sand which eventually did make up the Jewish people.  If there ever was a birth longed for or rejoiced in more than Isaac’s birth, this was the birth.  Abraham and Sarah had to wait 25 years.  The world had to wait thousands of years, but at just the right time the promised child was born.


That child grew to become a man unlike any other man the world had ever seen before or has ever seen since.  He taught with unprecedented authority.  He healed people in miraculous ways.  His life was full of truth, and compassion, and grace, and power, and faith.  If the Jewish people were a flock of sheep, this was by far the most spotless lamb among them.  He was, we now know, the Son, the only Son, the beloved Son of God himself.


We also now know that when the time was right, the Father in Heaven did himself what he had once asked Abraham to do.  In that very same part of the world, perhaps even within eyesight of the very spot where Isaac almost lost his life, the Father asked the Son of God to demonstrate unparalleled faith and climbed up a hill called Calvary carrying heavy wood on his back as he went.  At the top of the mountain the Son of God was then bound to the wood and prepared for the sacrifice.  The nails were set in place and the hammer was raised.  And the audience can barely keep their eyes on the screen, struggling to believe that God is actually going to allow such a thing to happen.  Surely God would come at the last second to put a stop to this travesty as he once did when Isaac was about to lose his life.


No.  This time the heavens remain silent.  The Son of God cries out but there is no answer.  The hammer comes down.  The nails are driven in.  His body is broken.  His blood is shed.  The sacrifice is made.  The Son gives his life, an innocent lamb led to the slaughter.  He dies.  The Lamb of God himself dies in the place where we were meant to be.


And all at once the whole world sees that this God is not like other gods.  Yes, like those other gods our God requires a sacrifice, an enormous sacrifice.  Justice must be appeased.  Righteousness must be achieved.  But not by us.  Because the mountain where the sacrifice must be offered has a name.  The mountain is called “The Lord will provide.”  To this day, as we read here, it is said, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”[8]  On MountCalvary God provided.  Once and for all, God provided.  Through his Son, the long promised descendant of Abraham, God kept his promise and extended his blessing to every person of every nation on earth, to all who would have faith.


Listen to the words of Romans 8:31-32.  Paul writes there, “What then are we to say about these things?  If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, [his only Son, his beloved Son], but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?”[9]


If you come to understand what it is that God has done for us in Jesus Christ, how can you not respond, as Abraham responded so long ago, “Lord, here I am”?






The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application

Read Genesis 22:1-19.  What do you notice?


Do you like this story?  Why or why not?


God gives Abraham a command that we find incomprehensible, even reprehensible.  How in the world is Abraham able to obey this command?


Isaac never puts up a struggle.  How is this possible?  What could this mean?


Once you see how this story points us forward and is not ultimately about a man willing to sacrifice his son to prove his faith but about a God willing to sacrifice his Son to prove his faithfulness, how do you begin to see this story?


What does the story of Isaac’s near sacrifice teach you about Jesus Christ and what he did on our behalf?


Where do you sense that God is testing you in your life these days?  Do you welcome such a test?


As you stand before God today, not knowing what it is he may ask of you, is the attitude of your heart, “Here I am”?  Are you ready to trust God no matter what the future has in store?


How do you see this story differently now than you did before?



[1] Fredrick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 52.

[2] By the way, without on the one hand giving even a hint of approval to such a horrendous practice, let’s not on the other hand be too quick to judge.  While literal child sacrifice to appease the gods does not happen any longer in our world, have we really all risen above sacrificing our children in other ways to appease the gods we worship in our culture?  Are there not parents today who hope to establish their own sense of value and worth by relentlessly driving their children hard to achieve in the classroom or on the athletic field so that those same parents can themselves feel justified and better about themselves?  When this happens, are we not sacrificing our kids on a whole different set of altars?   I’m just asking the question.


[3] Job 1:21 (NRSV).

[4] John Calvin writes, “God does not require [Abraham] to put his son immediately to death, but compels him to revolve this execution in his mind during three whole days, that in preparing to sacrifice his son, he may still more severely torture all his own senses.”  Cited by Gordon Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 16-50, (Dallas: Word, 1994), 107.

[5] Commentators suggest that by simply referring to his son as “the boy” that Abraham is already detaching himself from his son.

[6] Isaiah 53:7.

[7] Literally, in Hebrew, “the Lord sees [to it]”.

[8] Genesis 22:14.

[9] NRSV.