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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Companionship and Faith (Genesis 22.4-8)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
March 25, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Were You There?/There is a Balm" (Susan Slade, flue) (arr. Brandt Adams)
Hymn of Praise: "My Hope is Built on Nothing Less" (SOLID ROCK)
Song of Praise: "Blessed Be Your Name" (Redman)
Offering of Music: "Behold the Lamb of God" (Handel)

Hymn of Sending: "'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus" (TRUST IN JESUS)
Postlude: "Prelude in D minor" (Bach)

Companionship and Faith
Text: Genesis 22:4-8

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

[Most weeks I recommend the audio version over the written draft, but in this case I think I'd recommend the written draft below.  But you are, of course, welcome to check out either one!]

Last week we began the Akeidah – the story of “The Binding” of Isaac. We looked at the first three verses of Genesis 22 and saw that God was testing Abraham. I noted that God does not tempt people to evil; only Satan does that. But God does sometimes test us, giving us an opportunity to trust and obey in faith. We read in verse two about the test – God told Abraham to take his son to a mountain to be sacrificed. We didn’t hear much about Abraham’s thoughts or feelings, but did read of his obedient preparation, down to the last detail. And if there was a main application from this part of the story, it was that we may not know if God is testing us, if Satan is tempting us, or if someone is out to get us; but bottom line, God loves us and obedience to God’s Word and Spirit is our best choice in any circumstance. We may understand; we may not. But obedience to God is always the faithful choice.

I also noted the difficulty of this story. I compared it to the difficulty of relating to a friend or loved one who is going through an extreme crisis. We want to get to the happy ending or the easy answer, but sometimes we just need to sit and be with them. God will provide the next steps. God holds the future. Sometimes, the best thing we can do is walk slowly or sit quietly. And we are going through this text slowly as a Lenten exercise in how to do that. Interestingly enough, today’s portion of the story illustrates just this point.

Companionship in Trial (v. 6)

Mainly today I want to look with you at the nature of companionship. By that I mean togetherness or not being alone. The Bible uses different words to describe this, including fellowship (koinonia), community, and covenant. What I want you to see and hear in the story is that neither Abraham nor Isaac were alone in this trial. Last week we heard how God identified with Abraham’s challenge as a father – the instructions weren’t just “take Isaac to the mountain for sacrifice”; but they were, “take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, the one you named “Laughter.” We will see in today’s text that Abraham likewise was present for and with Isaac in this test, even though Isaac didn’t understand everything that was happening.

There is a particular phrase that highlights that. Follow along in verses 5-6:
Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife.”
The test is on. The young men are left behind and Isaac has to carry the wood on which he will be sacrificed. It reminds me of Jesus carrying his cross towards his own crucifixion. And Abraham carries the fire and knife. It’s what comes next that caught my eye. Look right after that at the end of verse six:
So the two of them walked on together.
Companionship. Community. Covenant. There was a point at which Abraham wielded the knife to circumcise Isaac and bind him to the covenant. Now, in the very last moments of this test, the father walks with the son. And Abraham is more than physically present for his son. Isaac calls out to his father, saying, “My father!” (v. 7) And for the second time in the longer story, Abraham responds, “Here I am.” The first time was to answer God when He called his name. Now, when Isaac calls him, he responds, “Here I am, my son.” In the midst of heart-breaking trial, the father is there for and with the son.

Hard Questions and the Obedience of the Son (v. 7)

I want to point you, too, to the question Isaac asked his father. Look there in verse 7: Isaac said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” This question reveals that Isaac does not know the full details of what they are doing. He knows, either from being told or from observing, that they are going to make a sacrifice. It’s something they have done before, for he is looking for the lamb.

And to my reading, in the short moments between Isaac’s question and Abraham’s answer, the whole story hangs. Just pause there with me… what will come next? It is there that we see the depth of Abraham’s faith in God, love of his son, and determination to move forward in obedience. But it is also the moment when he could have gone in several other directions.

Abraham could have responded, “There is no lamb, boy; it’s you. God has told me to sacrifice you and that’s what’s going to happen.” That’s the truly terrifying aspect of this story and it would have been easy to lose sight of God’s goodness and end up there, perhaps bitter and angry.

Abraham could have responded, “I will find us a lamb,” thinking that there is no way it’s going to be Isaac. Love for his son would win out over all, even if Abraham had to directly disobey God.

Or Abraham could respond in faith (as he did), not yet knowing how God would provide, but trusting that God WOULD provide.

I think of the hard questions we sometimes ask God… Why is there suffering? Why is there evil? Or perhaps even harder because it’s closer in… Why did my loved one get sick and die? Why did my friend die in that accident? And we have the same temptation that Abraham did. We could go with the cold, hard answer of “that’s the way it is” – suggesting that God doesn’t care or that God doesn’t exist. We could try to find our own way out and our own solution, turning our back on God.

Or, like Abraham, we can find that tension between love and truth where faith lives, entrusting ourselves fully into God’s hands. And that’s just half of the story here. The other half is companionship. We can do it together. That’s one of the real gifts of the community of believers that is the church. We may not have answers or a solution, but we have a shared faith and can walk together in obedience. And if we can’t walk, we can stand; and if we can’t even stand, we can sit and be still together.

Companionship in Obedience (v. 8)

And that’s the thing I want to highlight, in addition to Abraham’s hopeful and faith-full response to Isaac. He led his son onward in obedience and did it together. Look at the end of verse eight. There it is again: “So the two of them walked on together.” Just as they had started out together in this test, they continue together in obedience, with Abraham walking in obedience toward God and Isaac walking in obedience toward his father.

Abraham doesn’t have his own plan (for a change!), nor does he have the answers (yet) to what God will do. But he trusts in God and walks in obedience, and he welcomes his son along with him on that journey.

That is a hard balance to find, but it is such a powerful expression of what it means to be a community of faith. We talk a lot about our mission – to our neighbors and to the world. But this is the glue that binds us and holds us – being the community of faith. It means we walk, stand, sit, and wait with each other. We don’t hurry to blame God or answer for God; but we trust together and obey together. And if I find that hard to do or am so numb with hurt that I can’t think at all, you come alongside me and trust with or for me.

Each of you is a tangible reminder to the other that you are not alone. And just as Abraham’s faithful togetherness with Isaac portrayed God’s own faithful presence, so your faithful togetherness will flesh out God’s presence in each others lives. I did not head into this story thinking to find such a strong expression of community and companionship, but it is striking and inspiring. Don’t miss it!

Some Prophetic Words

Now, as I did last week, I have a New Testament addendum to that application. I have said that the Genesis 22 story parallels and links to the New Testament Lent, Passion, and Easter story of Jesus. Like last week, I am not going to connect all those dots for you. I think the Akeidah is evocative enough that the Holy Spirit can do that as you receive it and dwell on it. But I do want to lift out two phrases in today’s text that seem strangely prophetic to me. I’ll leave it to the Holy Spirit to interpret and connect these more fully for you.

The first set of phrases comes in verse four. See if you hear it: “On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance.” Think Passion week… Good Friday and the cross… the place of sacrifice. From Good Friday, what God would do on the third day was still “at a distance.” Could any disciple have imagined what God would do? And yet, could they still look to God in faith on the eve of the sacrifice of their Lord? They struggled to do just that. I realize the order and timing doesn’t quite line up, but that’s not the point. I still hear overtones of Good Friday and Easter in these phrases.

The second phrase that jumped out to me comes in Abraham’s response to Isaac’s question. Look at the first part of verse eight: “Abraham said, ‘God will provide for Himself the lamb.’” I think it’s that extra “for Himself” in there that seems unusual. It’s not just “God will provide the lamb”; but “God will provide for Himself the lamb,” as if God is the only one who can provide what is necessary for this sacrifice. Now you can take that literally to mean that when it finally comes down to it, a human father will not be able to sacrifice his only son. I think that’s a legitimate interpretation and part of what is meant here. But I think one can also take it at a deeper level to mean, “Whatever it is that God is after here; it will require supernatural sourcing – it will have to come from God.” Whether that’s the strength to do what is asked, some other provision, or as we might see from our perspective – God’s own and only Son for an eternal once-and-for-all sacrifice – it is clear that GOD will have to provide what is necessary for Himself.

That’s some heavy stuff; or maybe a better word is “weighty.” And it’s the Gospel – Good News. Finally, in the face of that to which we have no answer, God will provide for Himself. And the Gospel tells us that God does so together with us. Emmanuel – God with us and for us; God’s provision for the world. Amen!

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