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Genesis 22:1-14; John 8:56
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
There are two amazing things about today's reading from the book of Genesis. The first is Abraham's faith. Put yourself in his shoes. Many years earlier, God had called him to leave his home and his relatives and travel to a land unknown to him. God had said that He would give Abraham and his wife a son, even though they were old and Sarah was barren and now beyond the age of childbearing. God promised that through Abraham and his son a great nation would come, and in fact that all nations would be blessed through him. Isaac was finally born some 25 years after Abraham first left home. And now, the Lord tells Abraham to kill Isaac!? Sacrifice him like an animal as a burnt offering!? And yet despite this, we don't hear anything in this reading about Abraham's emotional turmoil, though there must have been some of that going on. We don't hear him asking God for a reason why. We certainly don't see him saying "No" to God. All we hear is that Abraham got up the next morning and started traveling to the place where God told him to go to do this. All we see is trust in the Lord.
There are hints here that Abraham's faith in God's promise was not shaken by this demand for sacrifice. After all, when they arrived at the mountain, Abraham told the servants, "You stay here. The boy and I will go over there and worship, and we will come back to you"–both of them. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Abraham simply believed that God's promise would come true, no matter what. So if Isaac had to be killed, well, God would then raise Isaac from the dead in order to keep His promises. For God, who does not lie, had clearly identified Isaac as the child of promise. That was the faith of Abraham.
However, if Abraham's actions are amazing, isn't it also a little bit shocking and troubling that God would ask such a thing in the first place? It seems almost cruel. We tend to think that since God is gracious and merciful, He would never ask us to sacrifice anything we truly cared about. What good is a God who asks you to give up stuff you love? We prefer a God who will give us all our heart's desires–a vending machine God. But that's not the God that Abraham had, nor is that the true God, the living God. The living God can and does make demands upon His people, and sometimes He asks you or causes you to give up what is most dear to you–not because He wants to make your life difficult, but because He wants to make your life eternal. He wants your heart to be set on things above, to have a treasure that will never pass away, to love Him above all else–even above your own family.
When God asks such sacrifices of His people, that's when what the heart loves and trusts in is revealed. It's hard enough for us to give up something little for Lent. What about when it comes to the big stuff? You can then go one of two ways. You can either say to God: You aren't good; you are an ogre and I hate you and I don't want to have anything to do with you or church again. Or, you can say: I don't understand, I don't understand at all, Father. But this much is true and certain; I know that your will for me and mine is only good, and I believe that in the end I will be able to see this as good, even though I can't right now. Dear Father, I believe; help me and save me from my unbelief.
It's rather interesting that nowhere in Scripture are we let in on what Abraham was thinking or feeling about God's command. That's not the main thing here; his faith is. However, I think there is still good reason for us to consider what was going on in Abraham's heart and mind. For in Scripture, God calls Abraham "My friend" (Isaiah 41:8). And a friend is someone who can empathize with you, who knows and understands what you're going through, who cares. Isn't it possible that Abraham is called the friend of God because at the sacrifice of his beloved son he tasted something of what God Himself would go through?
Listen to the words of the Genesis reading again and hear them from God's perspective. "Take your son, your only son, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will show you." "Abraham saddled his donkey." "Abraham took the wood for the offering and laid it on his son." "Abraham bound his son and laid him on the wood." "Abraham lifted his knife to slay his son."
You see, God asks Abraham to do this not only for the testing and strengthening of his faith, but also because this is a picture and a prophecy of what God Himself would be doing on the very same mountain some 2000 years later. Like Isaac, Jesus is the only Son, the beloved Son of the Father, the One long promised and long awaited, born of a woman who conceived in a way beyond human power. A donkey would be saddled, too, for Jesus, and He would ride on it into the city of Jerusalem, which was built on Mt. Moriah. Jesus, too, would have wood laid on His back, the wood for the sacrifice on the altar of the cross. As Isaac was willingly bound and did not fight his father, so also Jesus willingly let himself be bound and nailed to the wood in obedience to His heavenly Father. As Abraham raised the knife to slay his son, so the cross was raised up from the ground to slay the Son of God.
How could God ask such a thing of Abraham? How dare He ask sacrifices of you? Well, He only asked what He Himself was preparing to do. And the truth is that what is asked of Abraham or you pales in comparison to the sacrifice God makes. For Abraham didn't have to go through with it. Instead of Isaac, God told him to offer up a ram, caught by its horns in a thorny thicket. In one sense then, you are the one like Isaac. You don't have to make the ultimate sacrifice, because God has provided a substitute sacrifice, the Lamb of God with thorns on His head, willingly caught in the thicket of your sin. Jesus is sacrificed, and you go free. You are saved from death, forgiven by the blood of Him who was offered up for you at Golgotha.
In today's Gospel Jesus says, "Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad." I can't help but think that it was in this very moment on Mt. Moriah that Abraham saw Jesus' day, that he was given to understand the meaning of the sacrificing of the Son, the meaning of the substitute being offered, the meaning of this being the third day. As Abraham received his son back from the dead, figuratively speaking, on this the third day, so did the heavenly Father, literally speaking, on the third day. I once saw a movie version of this event in Genesis, and when Isaac is spared, Abraham begins to laugh with joy. I think that's right. Abraham is overjoyed not only to have his son, but also to see the Lord's salvation. Though we all like sheep have gone astray, the Father has laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all. Abraham saw that the Father was willing to sacrifice His Son out of immeasurable love for this fallen race of men, for him and Isaac, for you and me. "Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad."
Jesus said, "Before Abraham was, I am." They were ready to kill Jesus for saying that. He was unmistakably laying claim to being the Lord Himself in the flesh. It was as though He said: Yes, I am the one who called Abraham from his homeland. I am the one who made him the promises. I am the one who spoke to Moses in the burning bush. I am the one who led the children out of their bondage in Egypt. I am the one who drove out the nations and gave them an inheritance. Yes, I am that one. But now I've come among you to do something far greater than anything I've ever done before. For I've come to be your Great High Priest and to sacrifice My own self in your place, that you may have an eternal inheritance. Do you see how much I love you? You claim Abraham as your father. Then rejoice with him, since you, too, have been given to see My day."
The God who asked of Abraham the unthinkable is the God who came to do the unthinkable Himself. He goes right on being your Lamb, just as you sing to Him when you come to His table. His Body and Blood there are unquestionably "for you." And so He Himself is "for you." He is with you; He is on your side. That is a priceless comfort for you to hold onto, especially in those times when the sacrifices he asks of you are great.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
(A portion of the above was adapted from a sermon by the Rev. William Weedon.)
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