Sunday’s sermon on Genesis 22 was not recorded because of an equipment malfunction. Here is the text of my sermon (or the script I was preaching from, to be more accurate).
God Tests Abraham (v1-2)
We have walked with Abraham for the past few weeks. We saw that he is a man with faith: Gd told him to get up and go to a new country, and he did; God promised Abraham a blessing, and he gave it; and God promised Abraham and Sarah a son – Isaac – and he was born (eventually). Abraham had faith.
Abraham also had flaws, so that his faith stumbled. He did the whole ‘sister act’ thing of pretending that his wife Sarah was in fact his sister, because he was afraid – for which read that he did not trust God to keep him alive.
Through all this, Abraham’s faith has been maturing, and this is the test that proves the maturity of his faith. We’re told straight away it’s a test:
Some time later God tested Abraham. (Genesis 22:1)
This is really important: it tells us that, whatever happens, God does not intend for Isaac to die. Abraham doesn’t know that – but the writer reassures us at the outset.
God tests Abraham to prove his maturity. Others test for destruction. It’s like the difference between the burglar and the householder testing the door. The burglar tests your doors and windows to see if they will fail, so that he can come in and destroy. The householder tests the windows and doors to confirm that they are indeed secure.
God’s test is for Abraham’s good: it is to prove the maturity of Abraham’s faith.
But the test is difficult – as I said, one of the most difficult verses to read in the whole Bible:
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (Genesis 22:2)
God knows this is a painful thing he’s asking: that Abraham sacrifice the son he loves. We’re told repeatedly he is the son Abraham loves. Abraham is not made of wood: he loves his son dearly, and this is a huge ask. It asks questions of God’s character (we’ll come back to that in a moment).
Genesis does not hide the anguish: did you notice as we read the passage how the pace slows deliberately to ramp up the dramatic tension: there are preparations, there is a journey, there are questions. It takes an agonising eight verses to get to the point where he is about the slay his son. There’s no hiding the pain.
God’s request is painful for Abraham; and puzzling for us too, because we’ve endured nine long chapters even to get to the birth of Isaac. And Isaac is central to the fulfilment of God’s promises Why give a son and then take him away? It’s a painful and a puzzling command. What do we make of it?
This command puts into question God’s goodness.
I don’t know about you, but it seems frighteningly close to the scenes you see in films. In the Bourne films, Jason Bourne is being inducted as a secret agent, but he must pass his final test. In front of him is a man, bound and sat on a chair. Bourne must take a pistol and shoot the man in cold blood. That is his test. From this point he either moves on with the programme, or he is exited.
There are many variations on this: how is that different from what God asks of Abraham? Here are the ways it is different
God tests for success, not to trap.
When Jason Bourne kills the man, he is trapped. If he wants to exit the programme, he will face a murder charge. This is not a test but a trap, from which there is no way back. God’s test is different: he tests Abraham to prove his maturity. Remember the burglar wants to destroy, the householder wants to prove security. God tests only to confirm that Abraham is trusting him.
God never commands or commends human sacrifice.
God never commands human sacrifice in the Bible. In fact he explicitly forbids it. The only place where a father sacrificing his son is dealt with at all positively is here, and in the case of God the Father with Jesus Christ. God never commands human sacrifice. Whereas the CIA in Jason Bourne or the Mafia in the mobster stories are in the business of killing people. Unlike them, God is good.
God keeps some mystery for himself.
We will see that God tests Abraham, that Abraham trusts God, and that God provides. But this side of eternity, there will be some unanswered questions. But they aren’t about God’s goodness. They are are about God’s methods. We don’t really know, for example, why God chose to test Abraham in this way.
- It may be that Isaac had become an idol: that Abraham loves God only because he gave him a son? We too may grow idols – God’s good blessings that we prize above God himself. And God may refine our faith by shaking or even taking from us what we hold dear because we’re holding it more dear than God himself. But there are no clues that this is what is happening here. It does not appear to be discipline. It is testing.
- Isaac is Abraham’s only son as far as the Covenant is concerned. He has another son, Ishmael, who will be blessed: but the covenant promises will go forward through Isaac:
But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy [Ishmael] and your maidservant [Hagar]. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. (Genesis 21:12)
To give up Isaac also means giving up on the whole means of God fulfilling his purpose.
So it seems to me that the test is not a discipline for holding Isaac more precious than God: it is a test to show up the kind of faith that trusts God to do what he has promised, in his way. That is what God wants to reveal in Abraham. (Remember God tests to confirm what is there not to destroy).
=> That kind of test – even if it is not always as extreme – is part of the disciple’s life. Here are some possible scenarios
A case in point is the Parish Centre. It is central to our work as a church, reaching and serving this area. If it came to it, would you trust God to go forward without a Parish Centre, or would you walk away from God if he asked it of you? As it happens, God is answering our prayers very generously, but the question remains: would you still trust God if he let the Parish Centre fail?
Or on a broader canvas, we face significant challenges to staying both faithful to the Bible and remaining within the Church of England. Our position in the church and in the village are central to the work of reaching and serving the area. But if it came to a choice between the Bible and the Church of England, would we trust God to be good in what his Word teaches, or would we walk away from the Bible to keep the church at all costs?
On a smaller and more personal note: you have a gospel opportunity, maybe a friendship, or a colleague at work with whom you get on well. But if you are to take the next step in sharing your faith, there is a risk. If they reject you, then the friendship on which you depend for evangelism, is spoiled. Will you trust God enough to do what he says in his word even if it puts that relationship in jeopardy, or will you draw back from anything that might put it in question?
The fact is that we grow when our faith is tested. God tests us for our good. The present crunch point we’re facing in the parish centre has been a test of our faith more than a test of our pockets. It’s been good to reach the end of our resources, because that is when we really begin to lean on God’s resources. I hope that this opens a new chapter of greater and more prayerful dependence on the Lord in everything we attempt as a church.
So is God good? Yes. And why does he test? To reveal and confirm faith.
Crises that test faith and obedience to the uttermost are still part of the disciple’s lot (Duguid, 118)
Abraham Trusts God (v3-12)
Abraham’s faith is hinted at in a number of ways.
First (v3) he gets up early the next morning to start preparations. He does not dilly-dally! But neither is it a rash thing (such as you need in order to jump into a cold sea): the journey takes an agonising three days (v4). Then notice how even as he climbs the mountain he trusts God.
Second, he says to the servants:
“Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” (Genesis 22:5)
He is confident that – somehow – God would bring Isaac back.
Then when Isaac asks that question, “where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7) Abraham replies:
“God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:8)
There is lots that Abraham doesn’t know: but he still trusts God. It’s like Job who suffered much and puzzled and questioned, yet could say of God:
Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; (Job 13:15)
Somehow Abraham trusted God that death would not be the end. Hebrews makes this comment on Abraham and Isaac:
Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death. (Hebrews 11:19)
Faith is trusting God when you can’t see the way forward – but you believe that God can. That is saving faith – a faith that trusts God through even death. James point to Abraham as an example of saving faith:
Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. (James 2:21–22)
His faith was ‘made complete’ in the sense that it was confirmed as mature.
The Loneliness of Faith
Faith is that it is something that in the end you and I need to do alone before God. Did you notice how Abraham becomes more and more alone: first he leaves his home, then he leaves his two servants behind, and then Isaac is silent, and only Abraham remains, with his son on the wood and the knife poised.
Abraham’s lonely journey up the mountain symbolises the lonely psychological journey of faith to the place of obedience and sacrifice (Waltke)
He is alone before God.
Faith and obedience are – in the end – decisions that you and I make alone before God. Think of your personal faith in Christ: your parents, or your spouse, or even your children, may have a Christian faith: but the decision to trust Christ with your life and your destiny is yours alone.
Think then of any other crisis you face, be it a test of one kind or another: your church, your family, your Christian friends can stand with you: but the decision to trust or not trust; the decision to give up or retain, is yours and yours alone – before God, of course.
God brings you to the point of crisis and decision because he wants you to trust him. Again if I may use the Parish Centre as an example, I do believe he has brought us to this point where we exhaust our own resources so we must trust him.
One of my favourite jokes and I have told a few times. Two ministers are discussing how best to pray. One thinks this, the other thinks that produces the best faith. The BT repair guy working in the background interrupts. ‘You’re both wrong. The best prayers I ever prayed were when I was hanging upside down from a telegraph pole’.
God tested Abraham so that he would trust God. God tests you and me for the same end: that you and I may trust him. And no-one else can do it for us.
The Lord Provides (v13-24)
Wonderfully, the Lord provides. It’s so dramatic – as Abraham is poised with a knife, the angel of Lord calls from heaven to stop:
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:12)
Abraham’s fear is not the abject fear of Jason Bourne or the prospective mobster, trapped into going forwards. This is a faith that recognises God’s goodness and his mystery: ‘Even though he slay me, yet will I hope in him’.
The story is told of Martin Luther reading this chapter with his family at family devotions, and his wife said, “I do not believe it. God would not have treated his son like that’. The Luther turned to her and said, “But Katie … he did.” (Davis, 141)
This is what I think Jesus had in mind in John when he said:
Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56)
Abraham caught a glimpse of how Jesus saves when he saw the ram that God provided as a substitute. Which helps us return to that opening question of whether God is good.
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31–32)
In Abraham’s case, the ‘good things’ were a clear restatement of God’s promise:
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22:15–18)
The expression, ‘I will surely bless you’ is an intensive: the previous promise of blessing pales in comparison. When God tests Abraham it is not to trap him, but to lead him into greater blessing.
At the Lord’s Table we recall that Jesus died for sins, in our place. That is God’s way. The Christian faith is not about what you and I DO (that’s what I call religion). The Gospel is about what Jesus has DONE, primarily on the cross, as our substitute. That is how God works, and what we remember in Communion.
Those blessings and that salvation are appropriated by personal trust – that lonely walk or personal decision – to lean on his death alone and entirely. That, incidentally, is why Communion is rightly linked to the public profession of a personal saving faith in Jesus — whether in Confirmation, or Adult Baptism, or something similar. It’s an important stage – a test even – to confirm that yes indeed, you are trusting in Christ alone.
God Tested Abraham (and he will test us for our good too).
Abraham trusted God (and shows us how we trust Christ)
God provides a substitute. And the so the promise goes on.
The Promise goes on
We get a clue in the final verses about how the story will go forward. The question in our minds is, ‘OK so God will give Abraham countless descendants: so far Abraham has one descendant, Isaac. Where are the rest going to come from?
Well here’s the family tree for the extended family: it mentions mothers, and men, and just one daughter – a girl called Rebekah. Maybe we should be looking out for her?