Faith at the test

Published: Monday, 23 October 2017

This is the eleventh and final sermon in the ‘Journey of Faith’ series on the life of Abraham and Sarah. It was presented by Geoff Pound at ABC on Sunday 22 October. The sermon manuscript is followed by some questions for personal reflection and Group Study.

Reading: Genesis 22:1 - 19

When we buy a new car, we trust that the manufacturer has tested the vehicle so that every part works and our car is deemed to be safe.

When we go to a department store we hope that toys we buy for children are safe and they won’t break when they are first dropped.

Someone bought a trendy looking teapot, took it home and when they poured their first cup of tea, the spout dribbled all over the table.

When was the last time you thought of buying a teapot and saying to the shopkeeper: “Fill it up with water, I want to see how it pours?” When did you last test drive a teapot?[1]

Today’s reading begins suddenly and without preamble:

22 After these things God tested Abraham. (v1a)

 

We’re thinking about God the tester? This divine manufacturer who puts Abraham to the test, may want to test us when we roll off the assembly line. That might be a shocking prospect! Which of us likes examinations?

If we’re buying a second-hand car we want it to be thoroughly tested, from the wheels right through to the wipers, from the steering to the suspension, from the carburettor to the chassis, but, we’re not sure such a thorough going over is wanted when it comes to us.

But God may want to know if we will trust in the difficult times? If we fall, will we break? Would God give us a roadworthy certificate?

Abraham had already been tested. We’ve seen how:

His obedience was tested by the call to leave Ur.

His faith was tested by the famine.

His big-heartedness was tested in the conflict with Lot.

His hospitality was tested by the three visitors who dropped in for a meal.

His trust was tested through the birth of Ishmael.

But this is the most fearsome test. It’s an unbelievable test. It’s an unbearable test. We readers are told it's a test, but it seems that Abraham hasn’t been told. We know how the story ends but he didn’t know what the outcome would be.

God said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” (v1b)

Three times in this episode Abraham is addressed and three times he answers, ‘Here I am’.[2]

He is at the ready. No delay. No dispute.

No wonder Judaism, Islam and Christianity all hail this episode as the ultimate expression of Abraham’s relationship with God. Here in this story is the radical obedience of 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 shall show you.”[3] 

Who is this God who commands murder? Any father today that killed his son because God said so would be put away.[4] The promised child’s birth was announced and celebrated only in the last chapter but now the story turns to dread. See the detail? Hear the rising tension?

Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.

 

Abraham’s love is put to the test. ‘Your only son’? Just as well Ishmael isn’t around to hear this. Four times in this passage God has to identify which son Abraham should take.

Also, Abraham’s obedience is put to the test because this sounds like that first call in Ur:

“Go to the land of Moriah… on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

Here’s another journey whose purpose is not clear and whose destination is not known.

Abraham’s faith is put to the test.

God promised that through Isaac his descendants will be named (Gen 21: 12, c.f. Rom 9:7). Now God commands that Isaac must be killed.

The promise and command are in conflict. Is this God a contradiction?

If long-awaited Isaac is killed, there’ll be no descendants and no future. This is a horror story. We are back to barrenness. The whole journey from chapter 11:30 has been for naught.

Abraham’s concept of God is put to the test and so is ours.

Don’t we want a God who promises life, not a God who commands death?

Don’t we want a gracious God, not this sovereign God who does as God wills?

Don’t we want a God who gives, not a God who takes away?

But we’re not permitted to choose the characteristics of God.

We’re not dining at a faith food court.

We’re not snacking at some spiritual smorgasbord.

The challenge of this story is to hold together both the dark commands and the high promises of God.

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 

Who wants to get out of bed on the day when you’re supposed to be doing the hardest thing in your life?

He goes through his check list: one donkey, two servants, Isaac, the chopped wood, the flint, a knife.  

See all the verbs? He’s rising, he’s saddling, he’s cutting, he’s packing, he’s setting out and he’s going. Isn’t this what we do in the pain of our grief and loss? Like Abraham we keep busy.

For three agonising days they travel. For three days, there’s an excruciating silence.

This is so out of character.

We’ve seen Abraham negotiating with his relatives (chapter 13),

Abraham arranging alliances with his allies (chapter 14),

Abraham arguing with God about promising and not delivering (chapter 15),

Abraham bargaining with God to save the unknown righteous ones in Sodom (chapter 18)

and Abraham interceding for the king (chapter 20).

But here Abraham is called to offer his only son and he’s completely silent.[5]

Can you imagine what’s going on in Abraham's mind?

These are three days to get confused.

Three days to change his mind.

Three days to say ‘this isn't what God wants me to do’.

Three days to say ‘I can't do this. Let this cup pass from me’.

On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 

Abraham must have this double agenda going on. He realises that the worst could very well happen yet he hopes that something, someone, might intervene.

And isn't this interesting when Abraham says ‘We will go over there and we will worship!

He’s not thinking of himself.

He’s not focused on his loss.

Abraham is thinking about worship. He’s preoccupied with God.

Oh, so this is what worship is. Worship is so hard. Worship is so costly. Worship is offering to God the most precious thing in our lives

Then we will come back.

Does Abraham believe that Isaac will survive?

The writer to the Hebrews says that “by faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac … He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead.” (Hebrews 11: 17, 19)[6]

Maybe that's what Abraham meant when he said to the servants “we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac [which reveals that he’s a young man, not a child][7], and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 

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?”

‘Dad, this is a funny sacrifice’. He’s an intelligent boy. This was the hardest question of Abraham's life.[8]

Abraham chokes and splutters out his answer:

 Abraham said, “God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

Is Abraham being evasive?

Is he trusting God, not knowing whether the offering will be Isaac or a lamb?

Surely by this time the boy was beginning to understand. Maybe sometime we should ponder Isaac’s sacrifice and his acceptance of God's will.

So, the two of them walked on together.

They walked on in silence. There’s nothing more to be said, only something to be done.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.[9] 

They reach the fearful point in the story.

The tempo slows down to describe every intolerable detail.

10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 

Can you see the father with tears in his eyes?

Can you see him shaking like a leaf?

This is Abraham’s boy.

The child of promise.

Abraham raises his hand and takes the knife to kill him.

Will he slay his son?

Will the great human hope be slaughtered?

Will Isaac just lie there quietly as his father slices his neck?

11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your 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 has acted. God has reacted. Heaven intervenes.

The focus here is not on the joy of the dad or the relief of the boy. In fact, no mention is made of Isaac. How did he emerge? Did he suffer post-traumatic stress disorder? We don’t know. The only thing at issue is the extraordinary obedience of Abraham. (v16-18).

God wanted to know: Abraham do you love me more than my gifts?

Do you trust me because I am your God, or because you wanted a child?

In this story God is testing our willingness to offer our best and our dearest.

This story asks us to consider the person or the thing that is most precious to us.

That which we would find the hardest to put on the altar of sacrifice.

For some it may be a relationship, our job, our ambition concerning the future, our wealth, our time. And like Abraham we’re being called to stop withholding and to start worshipping, that is to offer these confidently on the altar.

In v1 the divine tester wants to know something.

In v12 the exam is over and marked, ‘Now I know’.

See the development in the divine tester: God did not know. Now God knows.

See the movement in Abraham from ‘Take your son’ (v2), to ‘you have not withheld’ (v12).

13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 

The ram, the substitute, is not brought by Abraham but given by God’s inscrutable grace.[10]

14 So Abraham called that place [Jehovah Jireh] “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

Jehovah Jireh means ‘The Lord will provide’ or ‘The Lord who sees’ and even in the English word—provide or pro video—there is the notion of seeing.[11] This is the God who sees the end from the beginning. The God who sees all that is needed.

At the beginning God is the tester (v1). At the end, God is the provider (v14). These two statements frame the story and they frame our lives.

Our lives are to be lived amid the testing of God and the provision of God,

between God’s freedom and God’s faithfulness,

between God’s command and God’s promise,

between the word which gives life and the word of death which takes away.

When we have offered our best, God may give it back to us, and we like Abraham can hear the words of blessing, and we can run down the mountain with our loved one and our hearts bursting with joy.

Sometimes we’re asked to offer our dearest and no substitute is found. We’re compelled to lose what was dear to us. It may even be a son or a daughter or a wife or a husband that is taken from us. It’s at this point that Abraham’s experience and our experience are breaking off in different directions. And we are alone on the mountain without our loved one and no ram on the altar and the question is then: ‘How on earth do we get down and move back to normal?[12]’vc

What God was trying to teach Abraham here and throughout his whole life was the basic understanding that life and all that we have is a gift. It is never deserved. Never earned. Life is a pure simple gift.

And this is the only way up the mountain of testing.

This is the only way down the mountain of loss.

It's not that such a perspective makes things easy but at least it makes things bearable when we remember that our loved ones and the things we hold dear and precious are pure simple gifts.

When tourists visit Israel, they are usually keen to buy a souvenir.

The most popular souvenirs they bring home to remind them of the unique Jewish culture are some Passover cups, a menorah (candle holder) a blue and white prayer shawl or maybe a polished ram’s horn.

You may have seen photos of Jewish people blowing the horn (called the shofar).

They blow this at Jewish New Year - it reminds Jews of the horn that was blown at Mount Sinai. It reminds them that God has spoken and people are called to listen. The ram’s horn reminds Jews of the destruction of the Temple and it sounds to awaken people to penitence and confession.

But the greatest reminder is that when people see and hear the ram’s horn, they are to think of the sacrifice of Isaac and God’s provision of the ram.

We, too, are called to remember Abraham’s obedience in being willing to sacrifice that which was dearer to him than life itself.

We’re called to remember the God who tests, the God who sees and the God who faithfully provides.

Prayer

Through this story, living God, you are testing us.

You are leading us to think of our lives and all the people and things with which you have blessed us.

You are asking us whether we love these people and these gifts, more than you the Giver.

You want to know whether we are withholding or whether we are truly worshipping by offering these loved ones and these loved things on the altar of sacrifice.

Enable us in our experience to be able to believe your Scripture which tells us that:

“God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide the way of escape that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13)

Lead us to the point where we can truly thank you for testing us.

Lead us to the place where we can praise you as Jehovah Jireh, the Lord provides.

We pray through the One who gave his life as an offering for the world.

Amen

Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Discussion

God the Tester

22 After these things God tested Abraham. (v1a)

How much do you like exams and what’s been your experience of tests and exams?

Abraham’s test told in this passage “is the most fearsome test. It’s an unbelievable test. It’s an unbearable test.”

What’s been the greatest test that you’ve ever had to face?

How did you cope?

Tell how you found the resources to endure.

What comes into your mind when you think of ‘God the tester’?

How can the negative connotations of the testing God be seen in a more positive light?

God said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” (v1b)

Three times in this episode Abraham is addressed and three times he answers, ‘Here I am’.

What impresses you about Abraham’s responsiveness?

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 shall show you.” 

What comes to your mind when you read this command and how are you processing your thoughts?

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 

We noted all the verbs - He’s rising, he’s saddling, he’s cutting, he’s packing, he’s setting out and he’s going. Isn’t this what we do in the pain of our grief and loss? Like Abraham we keep busy.

Is this true for you? How do you respond when you are anticipating or undergoing intense pain because of grief and loss?

We’ve seen Abraham negotiating with his relatives (chapter 13),

Abraham arranging alliances with his allies (chapter 14),

Abraham arguing with God about promising and not delivering (chapter 15),

Abraham bargaining with God to save the unknown righteous ones in Sodom (chapter 18)

and Abraham interceding for the king (chapter 20).

But here Abraham is called to offer his only son and he’s completely silent.

How do you account for his silence? How do you identify with his silence?

On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 

What does this say to you about the essence of worship?

“and then we will come back to you.”

How do you understand this statement?

Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 

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?”

 Abraham said, “God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

What strikes you about this account?

Is Abraham being evasive?

Is Abraham trusting not knowing whether the offering would be Isaac or a lamb?

What are your thoughts about Isaac?

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 

10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 

What are you thinking at this point?

Who are you feeling for most and what are your feelings?

11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your 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.” 

13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 

14 So Abraham called that place [Jehovah Jireh] “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

In v1 the divine tester wants to know something.

In v12 the exam is over and marked, ‘Now I know’.

See the development in the divine tester: God did not know. Now God knows.

See the movement in Abraham from ‘Take your son’ (v2), to ‘you have not withheld’ (v12).

In what way might God be testing you at the moment?

‘Take your son’ is very specific. How conscious are you of what God is calling you to make as an offering?

How do you resonate with this new name for God, ‘Jehovah Jireh’, and how does this name speak into your life at present?

In this final study, review the ‘Journey of Faith’ series. What have been the new insights? The surprises? The questions? The movement it has stimulated in your life?

 

 

 

Prayer Ideas

Ask that God will enable you to face the tests with courage and faith.

Pray for any who are going through tough and painful testing.

Thank God for the truth inherent in the name, ‘Jehovah Jireh’.

 

[1] This thought of test driving a teapot comes from Miles Kingston. Unfortunately, I did not note the reference!

[2] v1, v7, v11.

[3] “In chapter 21 and 22, Abraham is called on to sacrifice a son. In chapter 21, the sacrifice comes at Sarah’s initiative, not God’s; it is she who wants to cut off Ishmael’s inheritance by sending him away. In Chapter 22 it is God’s initiative.” Mark Brett in The Making of Nations, page 74.

[4] It does help a little when we realise that Abraham lived in a day when the supreme test of a person’s devotion to God was to offer a human sacrifice and so for Abraham it wasn't an uncommon thing. It was a custom of the Canaanite religion and to Abraham it did not appear to be wrong morally.

[5] The talkative times of Abraham are mentioned by Everett Fox in his translation of Genesis entitled, ‘In the Beginning’.

[6] Bruce Feiler in his book, ‘Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths’ notes that this episode is not mentioned again in the Hebrew Bible and it is only mentioned in the Christian Bible again in the book of Hebrews.

[7] Josephus the historian said in The Antiquities of the Jews, that Isaac was twenty-five, while the Talmud proposes thirty-three, the same age as Jesus when he was crucified.

[8] Bruce Feiler says in ‘Abraham’, “There’s such an ambivalence towards Isaac. He seems a colourless character. Overshadowed by his father, teased by his brother, coddled by his mother, deceived by his wife, outwitted by his second scheming son and duped by his scheming sons. Everybody takes advantage of him. What do we remember about him? More about what he wasn’t than what he was. He wasn’t unborn, he wasn’t displaced. He wasn’t sacrificed.

[9] As Christians, isn't it hard for us not to think of the greatest sacrifice of all? After the procession along the Via Dolorosa when the son of God carries the wood, they climb the hill of Calvary until they reach the place of the skull. He too lets himself be tied up and laid out on top of the wood like an unblemished lamb.

[10] A Sunday School teacher took a lesson on the parable of the Prodigal Son. The teacher asked the class, “Who was sorry when the prodigal son returned?” One little boy said, “The fatted calf.” Now, who was sorry on Mt Moriah when Abraham and Isaac went to worship? The ram caught in the thicket.

[11] The God who sees has been a constant theme in this story (e.g. Genesis 16: 13-14).

[12] This thought of facing loss and seeing life as a gift is inspired by John Claypool’s book, ‘Tracks of a Fellow Struggler’, which is about the author’s journey through the darkness of losing his daughter to leukemia.