“Strange But True” – Genesis 22
Pentecost 8 – July 30, 2017
Today we are drawing the Bible’s story of Abraham to a close. We heard a couple of Sundays ago, in Genesis 12, that God called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldeans to a new land – the land of Canaan – where God promised to make him into a great nation, to bless him, to make his name great, and to bless people through him… especially through one of his descendants. Abraham’s response was captured in three words – “So Abraham left.”
Last Sunday, in Genesis 15, we heard about the impossible pain that Abraham and Sarah felt – childless into their senior years of life – and about the “ites” that stood in the way of inhabiting that promised land: the Kenites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Jebusites, and more. But God restated His promise of descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abraham’s response was captured in four words – “Abraham believed the Lord.”
In Genesis 18, we discover that God again promised Abraham a son even though this couple was well advanced in years, and childless past the age of childbearing, and then, in Genesis 21, He kept that promise in the birth of Isaac.
Some time passed, and Isaac was a young lad, maybe a teenager by the time today’s story takes place in Genesis 22. We’ve read the story, so let’s capture some of the main points and applications for our lives.
- Times of Testing
- God Tested Abraham
Genesis 22 begins by saying “God tested Abraham.” Elsewhere in the Old Testament that verb is translated as “tempt” but that is not the sense here. We learn from the New Testament book of James that God does not tempt anyone. When Martin Luther explains the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer – “Lead us not into temptation” – he writes that “God tempts no one. We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.” Certainly, Satan is the one who tempts us in order to make us fail and fall away from God.
But here we want to understand that God “tested” Abraham. God tested Abraham’s faith, his resolve, his loyalty, his commitment.
Genesis 21:2 reads: “Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age.”
Genesis 22:2 reads: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and… sacrifice him… as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
The depth of the testing is highlighted by God’s description… your son… your ONLY son, Isaac… whom you love. He could have added “your promised son.” If you think being childless was a pain and a stigma for Abraham and Sarah, that was nothing compared to giving back your promised son in a burnt offering. Really, God! A child? A Youth? A burnt offering?? There are several references later in the Old Testament to other evil, non-believing nations passing children through fire as a sacrifice to Molech, their pagan god. But God’s people? God’s people of faith? Doing something so detestable? This request from God was both testable and detestable! Sacrifice your son – it was detestable, killing your own son, but it was also testable… will you do it or not? Any parent will immediately recognize the horror of such a request. Any parent will tell you “you’re not supposed to bury your own child.” Some of you have experienced that. As sad as it is when your child dies tragically and young, sometimes even before birth, no one would willingly take the life of their own child.
Sacrifice… What’s the greatest sacrifice you’ve ever made?
As I think back over my life, I don’t think I’ve sacrificed very much. I remember when I was a kid, we had these self-denial coin folders during Lent (graphic). Every day, I was supposed to put a dime or maybe a quarter into the little slot for that day. I’m not sure it was much of a sacrifice because it was my parents’ money. It was actually kind of fun to fill up the slots.
I remember sacrificing my appetite at times. I would eat only lettuce and celery and boiled eggs for a couple of days to lose a few pounds to make weight for a wrestling tournament.
But other than that, I haven’t really sacrificed anything of great value or that would be a hardship.
Have you? Maybe giving up a career opportunity or a relocation for the one you love.
Maybe giving some money to someone in need, knowing that it would probably never be repaid.
Maybe becoming a parent knowing that you will sacrifice sleep time, food, a clean house, personal pleasure and leisure all for the sake of your child.
Still, any of those sacrifices are peanuts compared to what God was asking Abraham to sacrifice. “Your son, your only son, your beloved son, your promised son… take him and sacrifice him… to me.”
Remember the concise responses of Abraham earlier in the story? Three words: “So Abraham left.” Four words: “Abraham believed the Lord.” This time, Abraham’s response was captured in nine words: “Early the next morning… he took… his son Isaac.” Early the next morning… he didn’t procrastinate, he didn’t argue or question God, he didn’t outright disobey, he didn’t cover his ears, sing “la, la, la, la, la,” and pretend that he didn’t hear God, he didn’t even barter with God like he did over the destiny of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He could have said, “I’m old… I’m willing to die, but please not Isaac.” He could have offered, “God, remember I’ve got this other son, Ishmael, the son of the servant girl. I’m willing to sacrifice him, but please not Isaac. He’s your promise to me.” He could have tried to bargain with God, “God, how about if I send Isaac off to seminary to become a pastor. He could serve you for his whole life! Your plan is, uh, excuse the pun… a dead end!”
Did you notice that Abraham didn’t tell Sarah where he and Isaac were going? That’s because… well you can imagine her response.
Abraham’s entire story is really captured in the phrase “Abraham trusted God.” God called him to leave his family and his country and to go to a new place. Abraham trusted God and went. God promised to give Abraham and Sarah a son in their old age, and then descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abraham trusted God. God asked Abraham to go off and sacrifice his promised son. Abraham trusted God, and off the two of them went early the next morning to that yet unknown mountain.
Trusting God – that’s what the testing was all about. I said before that God tested Abraham’s faith, his resolve, his loyalty, his commitment. Abraham had already committed himself to God, and he had committed and consecrated his son to the Lord. Now, God was asking, “Who is more important to you – the promised son or the one who made the promise?” This was a First Commandment issue. “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” When Abraham left early the next morning, when Abraham built an altar and bound his son and laid him on top of the wood, when Abraham reached out with a knife to slay his son, He passed the trusting test with flying colours. We may marvel and wonder about the trust of this amazing man. As he documents the faith of many Old Testament heroes, the writer to the Hebrews explains this Abraham story: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice… Abraham reasoned that God would raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” Yes, maybe at the same time as God was testing Abraham, Abraham was also testing God, and His faithfulness and His promise.
- When God Tests Us
So, then, why does God test us? Has God ever tested you? In what way? Has He tested your faith, your resolve, your loyalty, your commitment to Him? Let’s just let that sit with you for a moment…
Just like Abraham, God requires of His people today full and total consecration and commitment to Him. We are not to put a spouse, a child, or a parent ahead of God in our lives. We are not to put our work or our leisure ahead of God in our lives. We are not to put money or possessions ahead of God in our lives. Those are not easy things.
Let’s use God’s words to Abraham but put them in the context of things that we might consider more important than God:
Take your husband, whom you love, and don’t build your whole life around him.
Take your job, that you love, and don’t work quite so hard at it.
Take your investments for the future, that you trust in, and be willing to use them for the good of others.
At the point where we have our hand raised, poised and ready to replace consecration and commitment to people or things with consecration and commitment to God then He may say to us what He said to Abraham: “Now I know that you fear Me, now I know that you trust Me, because you were willing to sacrifice those other things in order to honour Me.”
- Obedience to the Word
This is First Commandment stuff. God is God. That’s not meant to be just a casual and impersonal statement of truth. It’s meant to be a personal confession of loyalty and commitment. God is MY God. God is the Lord of MY life! I will have no other gods in my life. I will fear, love and trust no one and nothing more than God. When God’s Word makes something crystal clear to me, I will trust and obey.
What do you sacrifice to demonstrate that God is God of your life? How do you hear and obey?
Maybe you sacrifice sleeping in to spend time in the early morning in God’s Word and prayer. Or maybe you sacrifice watching TV in the evening to read some Christian books.
Maybe you make Sunday mornings at worship a priority – leaving sports and leisure until the afternoon.
Maybe you offer your time and talents in service to the Lord 2 or 3 times a month.
Maybe you forgo participating in sketchy activities with your co-workers in order to maintain your Godly morals and values.
All of those things are part of a life that trusts in God and is committed to God.
One more thing we need to deal with… God’s salvation promise to Abraham. God had initially promised to Adam and Eve that a seed of woman would come to crush Satan’s head. God had promised to Abraham that all the peoples on earth would be blessed through him, and more specifically through one of his descendants. It took a long while for Isaac to be born – Abraham’s son by God’s promise. And now, only one chapter, and maybe 13 years after Isaac’s birth, God seemed to be asking Abraham to snuff out that promise, that hope, that salvation.
Isaac’s own question in this story is pertinent: “Dad, we’ve got the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Isaac knew the purpose of the burnt offering – to honour and praise God for His provision and grace.
Abraham’s reply was, “God, Himself, will provide the lamb.” Since Isaac was to be the burnt offering, was Abraham just trying to change the subject so that Isaac would not be afraid, or did he know or suspect something mysterious?
God, Himself, will provide the lamb… and He did. When Abraham’s trust in God’s Word took him to the brink of killing his own promised son, and when an angel of God finally intervened and prevented him from bringing the knife down on his son, then finally Abraham saw a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. God did provide, and Abraham sacrificed the ram as a burnt offering instead of his son. The words “instead of” indicate a substitutionary sacrifice of one life for another. The ram was sacrificed instead of Isaac. But this whole episode was simply a type of, a prefiguration of, a foreshadowing of the salvation that would come by Jesus.
Salvation was foreshadowed in Isaac. Salvation was provided in Jesus. Floundering under the burden of sin, all of humanity tested God’s loyalty and commitment to us, saying, in essence: “God, take Your son, Your only son, Your promised son Jesus, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah, and sacrifice Him there… for us!” Whereas in Genesis 22 Abraham’s son was spared from an inexplicable death, Romans 8 makes it clear that God did not spare His own son but gave Him up for us all. Jesus was sacrificed on that very same mountain where Abraham had bound his promised son. 2 Chronicles 3:1 reports that “King Solomon began to build the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah.” It was in that very same vicinity that Jesus hung on the cross – the holy Lamb of God caught in the thicket of Jewish jealousy and Roman rules, the holy Lamb of God sacrificed “instead of” us sinful men, women and children, the sinful sheep of God’s flock who had gone astray and turned to their own ways. The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
What grace! What love! What salvation! What shall separate us from the love of Christ? Nothing… Nothing in all creation!! Strange… but true! Amen.