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Monday, March 19, 2012

A Test of Faith (Genesis 22.1-3)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
March 18, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "My Faith Looks Up to Thee" (Karl)
Hymn of Praise: "My Faith Looks Up to Thee" (OLIVET)
Song of Praise: "Wonderful, Merciful Savior" (Wyse)
Hymn of Response: "Here Am I" (Austell

Offering of Music: "He Never Failed Me Yet" (Gwen Ingram, solo) (Robert Ray)
Hymn of Sending: "Lord, Dismiss Us" (SICILIAN)
Postlude: "Fantasia" (Johann)

A Test of Faith
Text: Genesis 22:1-3

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

Today we are starting four weeks on the story referred to in Hebrew as the Akeidah (ah-kay-DAH), or “the binding.” It is one of the most emotional and challenging stories in the Bible because of what a father is asked to do in obedience to God. It is all the more emotional and challenging because of the backdrop of the covenant, the long wait for Isaac’s birth, and the surrounding culture of the time, which (in some cases) practiced child sacrifice.

One way to handle the story is to race through it emotionally and get to the relief at the end, when God provides an alternative sacrifice. That’s what we often do with Jesus’ passion week as well, rushing past the suffering and the cross to the empty tomb and “happy ending.” We also do this in life, not wanting to simply sit and wait with friends or loved ones who are suffering, but saying or praying, “God will work it out in the end.”

I invite you, in the next four weeks, to move slowly and deliberately through this story with me. That is a true Lenten practice – to dwell on Jesus’ and our own humanity, suffering, and temptation, longing for God’s deliverance and provision, but waiting on the Lord’s own timing in faith and in obedience.

Today we will just look at the first three verses of the story as we also notice some points of connection with Jesus and his suffering, testing, and obedience.

After These Things, God Tested Abraham (v. 1)

I just want to say a brief word about this phrase. This is a reference back to what we looked at last week. Abraham had just had the encounter with Abimelech and a third opportunity to interact with the people of the world around him with godly integrity (or not). Remember, Abraham failed the first two times, in Egypt and with a first encounter with Abimelech. And even in the third opportunity in Genesis 21, it seems like Abimelech was initiating the relationship and human covenant that ensued. What we saw in the first two instances was that even though Abraham failed to act uprightly, God acted faithfully to uphold the divine covenant. In the third encounter in Genesis 21, Abraham was invited to act faithfully and did, with God again acting faithfully in and around the human relationships to uphold the divine covenant. We might even say that God used Abimelech to call Abraham to faithfulness.

I said last week that these early opportunities for Abraham to live out the “blessed to be a blessing,” outward-focused part of the covenant showed his increasing maturity and obedience, with God faithful all along. Now, in Genesis 22, we are told that God is testing Abraham, perhaps now giving him an opportunity in the very inward parts of the covenant promises to demonstrate faithfulness and obedience.

Finally, I would note that “testing” is different than “tempting,” at least when God is doing it. God does not ‘tempt’ – because you can only be tempted to evil. God can ‘test,’ which provides an opportunity for faithfulness. On the other hand, and not specifically related to this story, Satan can ‘tempt’ to evil, and that can prove to be a ‘test’ or ‘trial’ in that resisting temptation is an act of faithfulness or obedience. I know that may only complicate what’s going on here, but we will see, as we move through the chapter, that God not only required something He (as God) could require, but prefigured His own saving sacrifice of His Son on behalf of humanity who could not redeem ourselves. But, I’m getting ahead of myself…

The Test (v. 2)

After calling Abraham’s name, God lays out the test in verse two. Abraham is to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him there. That’s the task. But listen to how God says it. I’m not sure what to make of this, other than that it is very striking and intentional language. Either God is empathizing with Abraham over what He is asking or God is demonstrating the depth of the sacrifice He will one day (for us) make as a Heavenly Father. Just listen, it’s more than a task list…

“Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”

Did you hear it? God understands both what He is asking and how deep a personal sacrifice this will be for Abraham – “your son… your only son… the son whom you love… ‘laughter’…” His birth to Abraham and Sarah in their old age was a miracle after not being able to bear children. And Isaac was a gift from God. Don’t forget, too, that Abraham has already sent one son (Ishmael) away with Hagar (also ch. 21); and it was clear earlier that Abraham loved Ishmael.

What an impossible test!

Obedient Preparations (v. 3)

Before we look at verse three, let me note Abraham’s response to God calling his name in verse one. I passed over this earlier because I wanted to group this response to the obedient preparations Abraham carries out in verse three. When God calls Abraham’s name, Abraham responds, ‘Here I am.” Not that’s not how you or I normally respond when someone calls our name. In my youth, I would say, “What?” and after a while my mother trained me to say, “Yes, ma’am?” Nonetheless, I wouldn’t make too much of this response at this point except that it appears again two more times in this story. It becomes more than a respectful, “Yes?” and signals Abraham’s availability and obedience in response to what God is asking. I’ll mention that each week – it becomes a more and more striking indication of Abraham’s faith and faithfulness. And, in fact, we’ll sing a song after the sermon based on these “Here I am” responses in this passage.

But let’s look on to verse three. After God speaks with the instructions, Abraham rises early in the morning and makes complete preparations. He saddles his donkey, he takes two young men for assistance (I did pause to wonder if these were like the Star Trek “red shirts” – potential substitutes for Isaac? – but Abraham never seems to waver from the instructions. Indeed, these young men were to help transport everything.) He takes his son, Isaac. He splits wood for the burnt offering. And they all pack up and leave to go to the place where God told him to go. In other words, he didn’t leave himself an excuse by not taking wood or a knife or adequate preparation. At least at this stage, Abraham seems diligently obedient in following the Lord’s command.

And I say “at this stage” because, as we move ahead in the story each week, I want to examine with you the nature of Abraham’s obedience. At this point, we are not told about his emotional state – his feelings about this. We are simply told of his preparations. One possibility that comes to mind is how many of us might react in the face of a tragedy, like a death in the family. Sometimes, we don’t and can’t take time to emotionally process what is going on, and even find some solace in having a list of things to do – making the arrangements, as it were. I don’t know that Abraham was grieving or even understanding completely what God was asking of him – or more importantly, WHY – but we do see that he is moving forward in obedience.

This is a notable change from the previous three encounters I mentioned last week. Faced with risk in Egypt, Abraham lied to Pharaoh and said Sarah was his sister. Faced with similar threat from Abimelech, Abraham later told the same lie. In both cases, God came through and provided. Then, in Genesis 21, which we looked at last week, Abraham kind of begrudgingly did the right thing after Abimelech asked him to swear to deal truthfully with him. So now, Abraham has the opportunity to take matters into his own hands or to trust God to provide.

I don’t think Abraham knew what that would look like. I definitely don’t think he anticipated what would happen. But I do think that he trusted in God to provide what was needed at the right time – not necessarily an alternative, but what he needed, whether that be faith, obedience, strength, or something.

And I believe that is the first point of application as we move through this passage. We may not know whether God is testing us or Satan is tempting us. We may not know whether another human being is out to get us or whether circumstances are just difficult. But we do have God’s Word and Spirit; and, in most cases, I think we have some sense about what obeying God might look like. Bottom-line, God is merciful and gracious and obedience is our best choice in terms of how to be faithful.

New Testament Prelude

We will continue our story next week, but before I conclude I want to just briefly note the two New Testament scriptures we heard today. Both of these relate to the story in Genesis 22 because they speak of a Father’s love for a Son, of obedience and sacrifice, and of doing what we cannot do for ourselves. Listen one more time to them as a way to let the details of the Genesis 22 story settle into your heart and spirit.

First, from Philippians 2…
5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross… 12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
And then from John 3:16-17…
16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son [sound familiar? His only Son… the Son whom He loved… Jesus…], that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
God knew exactly what He was asking of Abraham, for it was that and more God, the Father, willingly gave for you when the time was right for Jesus to be born, live, and die. Praise the Lord!

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