The God who tests - Genesis 22:1-19
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They said he was the greatest theologian America has ever produced. By all accounts he was a creative genius, not only an expert in the Bible, but philosophy and the natural sciences too. His writings run into volumes and as a preacher he was simply unsurpassed. His church in Hertford, Connecticut saw four of the mightiest revivals ever to sweep through that great continent with hundreds from all ages and walks of life coming to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. Who am I talking about? Well, I am speaking of the great 18th century preacher- Jonathan Edwards. The church of which he was minister previously had his grandfather as Rector. Now you would perhaps have thought that with that kind of pedigree and with such an outstanding track record of God's goodness through his ministry, then towards the end of his life everything would have finished on a note of unmistakable triumph. Well, you would be wrong. After 22 years of faithful Gospel ministry, his congregation finally decided to kick him out. And why? For nothing more than the simple reason that he insisted that those who took Holy Communion should at least be professing Christians. That was just too much for some of the more prominent members of the town. And so with his wife, and seven children they were forced out with no where to go. This was 'Last of the Mohicans.' country. Eventually he did manage to get a position teaching a handful of Red Indians the Christian faith in a remote mission station something of a bit of a come down in some people's eyes. And just when the corner of misfortune seemed to have been turned and he was offered the post of Principal of Princeton, he died at the age of 54 from a smallpox vaccination that went horribly wrong, on March 22nd, 1758. His grieving widow, Sarah, then wrote down these words: 'What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness that we had my husband for so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart.' And what is the lesson of that? It is this: That the life of faith is the life of obedience and that obedience is learnt through testing. From one standpoint our relationship with God costs us nothing- it is a free gift. But from another standpoint it costs us everything. And that truth is illustrated for us by the passage we are looking at tonight in Genesis 22, one of the most moving and sublime stories in the whole of Scripture. Delicate in its portrayal, heart rending in its emotional intensity and awe inspiring in its spiritual implications, what we see here is the ultimate test of a man who loves his God. So do turn with me to that passage as we look at it under three headings: the God who perplexes; the man who obeys and the Lord who provides.
First, the God who perplexes-vv 1-2, 'Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" "Here I am" he replied. "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love and go to the region of Moriah"'
Admittedly it had been a tumultuous ride for Abraham, but now everything seemed, well, complete. Over quarter of a century had passed since God had promised this elderly couple a son. And at long last he had arrived to the rapturous joy of his parents and no doubt the utter astonishment of the neighbours. So it was true after all, God is as good as his word. Or so it seemed. What else was there to do but to retire, sit back and enjoy what was left of their life? Abraham was a rich man by now, a man of influence and standing. Surely, it was up to his son, Isaac, to take up the baton of faith? It's the next generation's turn. Abraham had done his bit for the cause. And that is often the way it seems doesn't it? We have had our battles, we know of life's up's and down's, what more can there be? And that is when we hit, 'The some time later' of verse 1. Quite unexpectedly, and totally out of the blue, God puts us in a situation which is our worst nightmare and almost invariably it has to do with someone we love. And here it is: 'God tested Abraham.' That statement is put there for our sakes to show that what was to take place, whilst shocking, is not capricious. God does not act on whim, but for a purpose- to test. We are given that privileged information but no such explanation is offered to Abraham. He is left totally in the dark. God does not owe him such and presumably God does not think it is needed. But this doesn't mean that God is being callous with him. There is almost a hesitancy here, as if God is reluctant to ask what he is about to ask of the man he has chosen, knowing full well how great a thing it is- 'Abraham'- pause- ' Here I am' comes the reply. Then God says something which is missed out in our translations, he says, 'Please take'. And so making it less like a command and more of a plea. God is actually entreating him. And slowly, very gently, in step by step fashion, God gradually unfolds what is being asked of his servant, his friend, Abraham, 'Please take your sononly sonyou loveto the region of Mount Moriah (which means the mount of vision)And then comes the blood curdling words which must have caused Abraham's heart to leap into his throat, 'Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will show you.' Now do understand that this is a scene of unmitigating horror that God is describing? Abraham knew exactly what that 'burnt sacrifice' would involve in all its gory detail: binding his son with a rope, slitting his throat with a knife and burning his body on some wood- his son! And this is the God Abraham had declared to be the God of the earth who will do what is right! The questions which would have come tumbling through Abraham's mind would have been relentless: 'What of the promises? What of the immorality? What of the boy? What of his poor mother? What of the heartbreak?' You could well imagine him thinking, 'Anything Lord but this, why not take my life instead? I am nearly finished anyway. Take me not him.' And as we shall see in a moment the fact that Abraham's mind was in torment is evidenced by what he does next. Now you have to admit there does seem to be a divine inconsistency about it all. God promises life one minute only to take it away the next. Just how can you be expected to trust a God like that? But isn't that precisely what we are expected to do-to trust the God who perplexes? After all, this is our world the writer is describing, where God's ways don't always seem to make sense; where ecstasy is followed by tragedy, where God's face is smiling one day only to be hidden the next. Perhaps more to the point we might ask: what sort of man would be willing to do this? Abraham is not a callous man. He is not a stupid man who exercises what some would call 'blind faith', a leap into the dark. For you see, all of this comes, 'some time later.' For over 30 years now Abraham has walked with this God and at every moment along that journey even when Abraham has failed, God has kept faithful. Why should God suddenly change now? You see, this testing comes as the climax to a life of testing and trusting, a life informed by God's revelation of himself and shaped by the rough and tumble of day- to -day experience. Abraham was a man whose heart matched his head. Although Abraham does not know why he is to do this, at least he knows why he trusts the God who knows why, as did Sarah Edwards on the death of her husband. It is because of them walking in the light with God during the good times that they can trust him when he asks them to go with him into the dark times. But maybe you look at this and think: 'No, I certainly couldn't cope with this.' And maybe you are right; you and I couldn't cope because to be frank we have not allowed ourselves to be put in positions where we have to cope with anything. Our Christianity is so safely hedged in by a large comfort zone that it raises the question, why should God bother testing us? The outcome is pretty obvious any way. But those who have given all to him, are precisely the ones he will lead on deeper into his heart through a time of trial so they will discover an aspect of God they would never have found mollycoddled in their worldly Christianity- the experience of a God who can be trusted.
And so we turn to the man who obeys- vv 3-10.
The first thing we notice about this obedience is that it is immediate, v3, 'Early next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey.' No prevarication, no excuses, he simply gets on with it. That is what God expects and he is not disappointed.
But that doesn't mean it was easy, for the second thing we see is that this obedience is tormented. This comes out in the rather odd sequence of events recorded in v 3; Abraham saddled the donkey, took his servants and then cut the wood. It would have made more sense to cut the wood first wouldn't it? The illogicality of the order seems to hint at the confused state of Abraham's mind- he can't think straight and so act straight and who can blame him? The crippling enormity of what lies before him is enough to throw into disarray the most focused mind. And as Abraham wrestled in agony for three long days of what he must do to his son, the delay only making the torment worse, we are then told in v4 that 'He looked up and saw the place in the distance.' So there it was at last, the killing ground, the place of slaughter. I tell you, the pang of pain that shot through that father's heart at the moment of realisation must have shattered it into a thousand pieces.
But, however painful, however taxing, Abraham's obedience is nonetheless total, there is no drawing back-v5. The servants are kept away from the mountain and Abraham tells them that he and Isaac are going on to worship and then return. Now why say that? Was it a lie to keep them from interfering as some commentators suggest? Well, I don't quite buy that explanation do you? For a start, they are servants and they do as they are jolly well told, they don't need to hear a ruse. In the second place, Abraham could simply have said 'Wait here while we go and worship' full stop, without mentioning anything about coming back and that would have been quite sufficient. I think that it is more likely that while it may not be clear evidence of an absolute conviction that God could raise the dead, then at least there is the hope that God would provide a way out- as we see in v8. It seems to me that Abraham's lying days are over, he is now going to do nothing but trust totally in the character and the promises of God despite the present circumstances. He will believe in the teeth of the available evidence. And isn't that often the way for us? We can't understand why our child is ill, why the church is in decline, why the burn out is coming our way, but we will keep on trusting him nonetheless. After all, what options do we have?
And so in our minds eye, we follow these two lonely and pathetic figures as they slowly make their way up and up that steep, cold mountain, stumbling over the hard slabs of rock; the physical difficulty of the ascent only being matched by the emotional difficulty raging in the heart of Abraham. The wood, the means of the son's destruction, is placed on his slender shoulders, he carries the instrument of his own death; and the knife, the immediate means of the son's demise, is held in the frail hand of the father and together they walk on in silence. But then the son speaks into the silence an innocent question, 'Father?' ('Oh Isaac if only you knew what I am about to do, you wouldn't call me that')- 'Yes my son?' 'The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?' And Abraham answered, 'God himself will provide the lamb'. What was that? A hope? A prayer? A prophecy? Maybe a combination of all three? And then we have this description in all its heart rending simplicity; 'And the two of them went on together.' Tell me, how do you see Isaac? As a little schoolboy, trustingly holding the hand of his elderly father? Well, by now he was in his late teens- so this is a member of Mark 2. Jewish tradition has him in his mid twenties, student age then. The point is- Isaac is of an age that he knows exactly what he is doing. Do you think that Abraham would not have told Isaac all the stories of God's wonderful promises, of his coming to the rescue time and time again? Do you not think that over the years, Isaac wouldn't have said, 'Tell me more Dad, tell me more' sitting wide eyed by the camp fire as Abraham regaled him with more accounts of the God who made all things, who knows all things and can do all things-the God of the impossible? Here is a son who has consciously adopted the faith of his father for himself. And there comes a point when all those who are brought up in Christian families have to do just that. As the Welsh preacher, Martyn Lloyd -Jones, used to say, 'God has no grandchildren.' And it may well be that you are here tonight and, to be frank, your faith is second hand, you are living off your parent's faith or your spouse's faith or boyfriend's faith or girlfriend's faith, but you have never come to the point where you have said: 'I believe this for myself. I will commit myself to this God come what may.' Well, tonight would be a very good night to change all of that and make that commitment. What is stopping you?
But then the pace of the story lessens in v9, as in slow motion, frame by frame, we come to the agonising climax: Abraham finds a clearing and with an exertion which taxes his ebbing strength to the limit, he begins to pile one huge stone upon another and with each stone there is a flash of a memory: the cry of the baby at his birth, the toddler who for the first time uttered the word 'Daddy', those initial faltering steps towards his Father with arms outstretched, the long walks together beneath the stars- each memory piercing his heart like a shard of glass. Then the wood is carefully stacked on the altar to ensure maximum incineration when ignited, and Isaac without argument but not without fear, lies down on the freezing rock holding out his arms and legs to be bound so there is no escape. Through tear filled eyes his father slowly approaches his son, his trembling hand reaches out for the knife, he lifts it from the ground, its razor sharp blade glinting in the sunlight, his arm makes a sweeping motion in an arc ready to slash the throat, and then without a moment to spare the piercing cry of the angel freezes Abraham in an instant. It is all over. The test is complete. Faith is pure- v 12 'Do not lay a hand on the boy, 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.'
Now, if the story was to end there, we might feel there is a sense of relief but not a satisfactory resolution. Then it would seem that God is nothing but a heartless tyrant playing with our emotions to satisfy some morbid curiosity on his part about the state of our faith. No, the true climax of this story is that it leads us to the Lord who provides- vv 13-19. The fact is, contact with the true God requires sacrifice, sin is serious and blood has to be spilt- worship costs and it is God who provides the ram-13. Nonetheless true worship, which means humble, heartfelt obedience, pays. The promises originally made back in chapter 12, reiterated again in chapter 15, then 17 and again in 21 are doubly underscored here in v15. God now underpins his promises with an oath, he swears by himself as there is no one higher by which to swear- as if God is saying 'I really, really promise these things'. And the promises are elaborated even further. Not only will his descendants be like the stars in the heavens, but more numerous than the grains of sand in the seashore. 'If you can count all of those Abraham, then you will know how many are going to come from this child you were willing to give up.' And how have these promises been fulfilled? How have these billions of spiritual descendents of Abraham come about? Well, because of what took place on this same mountain some 2,000 years later involving yet another son and a father.
You see this is Mount Moriah, the place where the Temple was to be built, where God provided the means of atonement for his people with the sacrifice of animals. But this was the region but a stones throw away from where a father took his son, his only son, whom he loved- and placed upon him the wood he was to carry to his death. Up he went, wearied and bloodied to the appointed place of execution, where he willingly bound and hoisted up on the altar of a cross. But this time there was no cry from heaven, only silence, no stay of execution, only death as the knife went in, the blood flowed and the father's heart was broken. Why? So that the sin so offensive to God and so destructive to us could be dealt with as he, Jesus, the judge was judged in our place.
You see, right here at the beginning of the Bible we are given a prophetic glimpse of what God would do and must do if he is we are to have any hope whatsoever. Forgiveness is not cheap, it costs. A life is given for a life- his for yours and mine. This is what the cross is all about. Now there are some, like the broadcaster Steve Chalk who deride all of this talk of God sacrificing his son as 'cosmic child abuse', picturing him as some craven monster whose uncontrollable anger must be somehow placated, so he takes it out on Jesus the hapless victim rather than us. That is a blasphemous travesty of what we have just been reading. It is the Father and the Son together who have agreed on this course of action as being the only course of action to reconcile a sinful world. It cost the Father as much as it did the Son, as it was costing Abraham as well as Isaac. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself says, Paul, the whole Trinity is caught up in our salvation- planned by the Father from all eternity, executed by the Son in history, and applied to our lives by the Holy Spirit. If there is to be any talk of cosmic child abuse then it is a charge to be levelled at us, because we are the ones as represented by the finest the world could muster- the Romans and the Jews- who take the Son of God and murder him. What for us is regicide-the killing of our King, is, in the hands of God- our rescue. If you think it was hard for Abraham to do this to his son, do you think for a moment it was any less hard for God? Your salvation and mine cost him dearly. Our response is to be that of Abraham and to serve him totally.
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