Since I know we’ve got some new readers here, a word of explanation. When I preach different places (in this case, the last sermon of my seminary homiletics class career) I’ll typically post them here. I wrote this one over the last few weeks and delivered it today.
Please turn to the book of Genesis, chapter 22. Today we’re going to be considering a biblical story which is something of an oddity. On the one hand, it is incredibly familiar. Sunday school children learn it with little felt board characters. Broader culture has also made much of it, from Bob Dylan’s references in “Highway 61 Revisited” and Madonna’s “Isaac” to Soren Kierkegaard’s famous philosophical tome Fear and Trembling. Yet for all its familiarity, this story is one which often puzzles us. It is confusing, and in some ways downright disturbing. If you haven’t looked at the little headings in your bible or guessed it already, we are going to be discussing Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac.
Before we begin, I have a personal confession to make. Some of you know that recently my wife went into pre-term labor and gave birth to our first child, Rebekah Joy Tonjes. She was 2 lbs. 6 oz. at birth and 12 weeks premature. As we consider this story together, she is still in intensive care at the hospital. I had selected this text and begun work preparing the sermon before she was born, so it has been caught up in the existential realities of the last few weeks. I remember the first night asking God if he had been trying to tell me something by choosing this text, if he was going to take my child away. There were moments I hated the story. But as Elizabeth and I wrestled with trusting God in this difficulty, and I wrestled with this text, I also found great hope and comfort. I hope we can see some of this today.
Text: Genesis 22:1-19
We don’t know what Abraham was doing when God spoke and his world fell apart. Maybe he was working in the pastures, looking up from tending his flocks to survey the land God had led him to all those years ago. Abraham had left his family for that land with nothing but a promise and hope in God’s provision. Maybe he was sitting with Sara his wife of many years, who God had blessed in her old age and given a child. They had hardly dared to believe it, but again God had given them a promise and had proved faithful to it. Maybe Abraham was playing with his son Isaac, that child of the promise and gift of God. Perhaps he was teaching him to work in the fields, or laughing at his boyish antics. We don’t know what Abraham was doing. But we know that God spoke, and his world fell apart.
Abraham was familiar with the voice of God. That is important to keep in mind, because otherwise the story makes no sense. God didn’t talk to Abraham the way some Christians today think of it. It wasn’t through some elusive feeling or rumbling in his gut. God spoke to him audibly, clearly. This boggles our minds, but we must assume that if the Creator of the universe wants to make himself known, he can certainly do so. What’s more, Abraham was familiar with God’s voice. It had spoken to him many times in the past, calling him to an unknown land and making a series of covenants – promises – with him.
So when Abraham hears God say his name, “Abraham!”, he replies simply “I’m here, Lord.” Perhaps he falls to his knees, or bows his head, or looks up to heaven. “I’m here, Lord,” he says, with no idea what God is about to ask.
God’s words must have hit like a lightning bolt. “Take your son,” He says. “Your only son” – he clarifies it, lest there be room for doubt. “Isaac” – driving it home even more, making it more personal. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, who you love” – making it not just specific, but involving Abraham’s emotions and heart in what he is about to ask him – “and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.” With those few words God is done speaking, and with those few words Abraham’s world must have fallen apart.
The text doesn’t tell us how Abraham responded; it simply jumps to his obedience. Yet we are not misguided if we stop and realize just how devastating God’s call must have been. We need to understand what it was that God was asking of Abraham. Any child is a precious gift; to be asked to kill one’s own son would be terrible in any situation. This is especially true of Isaac – Abraham and Sara’s only child, born miraculously in their old age. But Isaac wasn’t just a child, he was also the embodiment of God’s promises to Abraham – to give him descendants, to make of him a nation through which the nations of the earth could be blessed. Isaac was so tied up in God’s promises, and in Abraham’s dreams for the future that God had given him, that it must have been as if God seemed to be yanking his blessings themselves out from under Abraham.
While this call to sacrifice Isaac may seem disturbing to many, to some of us it has the ring of familiarity. Oh, the details are different; we haven’t had audible voices calling us to human sacrifice. Yet there are moments in most of our lives when God seems to exercise His providence and cause our worlds to fall apart. Maybe its an unexpected disease or health situation; maybe it’s a loss of employment or a financial challenge; maybe it is a tragedy that catches us unawares. Whatever it is, there are moments when God seems to be stripping away all that we love, and even moments when God seems to turn away and remove his blessing presence. As we move forward with this story and see how Abraham responds, I want us to ask two questions that I think have particular pertinence when we face those times when our worlds seem to fall apart: what does it mean to have faith in the face of suffering, and was Abraham’s faith misplaced? That is, what should be the character of our faith, and what is the character of our God?
I. What was th character of Abraham’s faith?
After God speaks, the narrative immediately shifts to the next day. Abraham gets up early and goes to work to obey what God has commanded. He saddles the donkeys to carry the supplies for the journey. He summons a couple of servants and Isaac and tells them to prepare to depart. He cuts the wood, the wood he knows he is being called to burn Isaac upon, and he sets out on an agonizing three-day journey to get to the mountain God had called him to.
While the story doesn’t comment on how Abraham is feeling, I think we’re supposed to glean something from the painstaking level of detail used in describing Abraham’s preparations. These facts aren’t necessary to the overall story. Rather, they serve to make us feel the tension Abraham must have been wrestling with. They’re like the daily routine before going to the hospital or on another day of fruitless job-hunting. You brush your teeth, you put on your clothes, you eat breakfast, and every one of those familiar rituals seem laden with tragedy.
After three days of trudging beside the donkeys, perhaps watching his son skip and explore new surroundings, Abraham looks up and sees it, the brooding height in the distance, the mountain where the unthinkable must happen. He instructs the servants to stay behind, perhaps horrified at the thought of what they might see, and then he and Isaac proceed alone, slowly making their way up the rocky slopes to the heights. On Isaac’s back he carried the wood he would soon lie upon. Abraham walks beside him, carrying the knife and a torch to provide fire. One can only imagine how his hands must have shaken as he looked over at his son.
It is at this point that Isaac notices something is amiss. Familiar with sacrifices, probably having been with his father when Abraham had offered animals to God, he realizes there is a key element missing. He turns to his father and says “Dad, we’ve got the wood and the fire, but where’s the lamb we’re going to be offering?” The questions must have been gut-wrenching. Abraham looks at his son, perhaps with fear in his eyes, and says “My son, God will provide for himself the lamb for the burnt offering.”
It is at this point where the question of the character of Abraham’s faith meets us. What does Abraham mean? He knows what God has said. The sacrifice He has called him to make is his own son. What could drive Abraham to say this?
There are some who simply want to see Abraham as deceiving Isaac, telling him an easy lie to avoid the hard truth. Yet this is hardly convincing in light of the story. In the first place, this is a narrative meant to highlight Abraham’s faith. It would make no sense in light of the rest of the story to have Abraham here forsake his faith and prefer a lie. What’s more, it is a most implausible lie. Surely if he had wanted to deceive Isaac, Abraham could have come up with something more convincing than “Umm… God will take care of it.”
Perhaps we might see Abraham instead as fantasizing. He knows what God has asked of him, but unable to confront it, he takes solace in make believe hopes. This certainly fits with the world’s way of explaining faith. It is a wish-dream clung to in the face of the hard realities of life. Yet this also doesn’t fit with the story. On the one hand, Abraham had experienced God’s providence in his life. He wasn’t trusting some distant phantasm, but the God who had led him through the wilderness, the God who had miraculously opened the womb of old, barren Sara, the God who had met him and given Abraham His promises. On the other hand, if faith were simply a wish-dream, wouldn’t this be the moment at which Abraham abandoned it? Faith was not a shelter in this moment; it was Abraham’s faith itself that was demanding the sacrifice from him. How much easier, how much more comforting, to simply decide that the voice of God was some figment of his imagination and return home with his son.
We must understand Abraham here as expressing his faith in God as trust in His character. Abraham cannot know what the coming hours will hold. However, he does know the character of the God in whom he trusts. This is the God who walked with Abraham for so many years. This is the God who passed between the halves of the sacrificial bull, taking the curses of the covenant upon Himself. Abraham knows God’s faithfulness and grace; he has experienced them on a hundred occasions. The only way to understand Abraham’s comments is to take them as the highest expression of faith. Abraham is saying, in the face of his collapsed world, “I don’t know what God is doing. But I know what sort of God I serve, and so I’m trusting in Him to work it out.”
This is what the author of Hebrews means in commending Abraham for his faith, when he notes that “[Abraham] considered that God was able even to raise Isaac from the dead.” Abraham’s faith in the face of his world falling apart was not a mask of lies he put on for others. Nor was it a wish-dream he chose to believe instead of the truth. Abraham’s faith in the midst of the pain of the last few days, in the face of the coming pain on top of the mountain, is fueled not by his desires but by his God. Abraham trusted in the goodness of God, the knowledge that God was in control and that His purposes were good.
So what does this mean for us? What does it mean for the way we should have faith when our world seems to be falling apart? The answer, simply put, is that we must have great faith like Abraham’s, faith not great because of our character or our effort, but great because of our God.
This does not mean that we should have false assurance. It’s easy to read this story and tell ourselves that Abraham’s faith made sense because we know that God does not ultimately require Isaac of him. But this is not an assurance we can have, nor one that Abraham had as he faced Mount Moriah. God is the Creator and Lord of every atom of this cosmos. He has ultimate rights to everything in it, and he had the right to take away Abraham’s son. He has the right to take our jobs, our loved ones, and our very lives. Faith is not hope that God will ask nothing of us. It is not some “get out of jail free” card that promises life will be the way we want it to be.
But it does mean that we have true assurance in the midst of our hardship. We have hope even if God asks of us what we tremble to give. The faith of Abraham, the faith we are called to have, is a faith that hopes and trusts in the character of God. It remembers His faithfulness in the past, it believes the truth He tells us in the present, and it trusts that He will continue to be faithful in the future.
I have no desire to make this sound easier than it is. We should not pretend as if the submission of faith is easy. We are not called to be Buddhists, denying our earthly desires. I think about my own struggles over these days. God does not ask me to be dispassionate at my daughter’s hospital bedside. As a father, it would be sick for me to pretend I am unbiased in her case. I have wrestled with God, argued with Him, begged and bargained with Him. I would give anything to ensure her safety. Yet I know that God could take her from me, and there is nothing I can do to change that.
We are not called to have faith because we have a guarantee about how our situation would end. Faith does not mean that we know a better job is around the corner, or that the cancer will go into remission. It might, and as creatures in relationship with God we ought to ask him for these ends. But our promise is not that we know what will happen. Instead, our promise is that no matter what happens, God is in control, and He is working more good than we could hope or imagine.
So the faith we are called to have when our worlds fall apart is a faith that trusts God, as He has revealed Himself, as its object. It is a faith empowered by the truth we know about His character. This is Abraham’s example of faith, but it leaves us with a second question, a question even more pressing than the first: is this faith put in the right place? What is the character of God in whom we are called to trust?
II. What is the character of Abraham’s God?
After the long journey, step after painful step, Abraham arrives at the top of the mountain. It is the moment of truth. What will God do? Again the details highlight every painful step. Abraham builds an altar, stone by heavy stone. He lays out the wood atop it. We might imagine he is praying the whole time, begging God to intervene, but God remains silent. Then he turns to his son and binds him. We don’t know Isaac’s response, whether he struggled or submitted. Yet either one would have been heart-rending, whether Abraham had to wrestle down his little boy or bind him as he stood obediently ready, trusting his father. Abraham picks up his son and lays him across the carefully-arranged wood. And God remains silent.
Abraham stands over his son. He reaches out his hand, wraps his fingers around the dagger’s hilt. He turns back to the altar, to his child of promise laying there. He lifts the knife, his hands trembling, tears in his eyes. He stands ready to slice it down, to slit Isaac’s neck, to do the unthinkable.
And God speaks. “ABRAHAM!”
His heart must have soared, yet there must also have been a moment of doubt. The last time God had spoken, it had torn out his heart.
“Here I am, Lord,” Abraham says again.
“Do not lay a hand on Isaac,” God says. We can only imagine Abraham’s relief, the knife falling from his limp fingers. “Now I know that you fear me, because you have not withheld your only son from me.” God knows Abraham has demonstrated his faith in God. Now God responds by demonstrating His own faithfulness. Abraham looks up from his son, who must have swollen to fill his whole loving gaze, and there before him is a ram, a sheep caught in the bushes nearby. A sacrifice which the Lord has provided.
We now begin to see the answer to our second question. As much as this story is meant to teach us about Abraham’s faith, we must recognize it, like all of Scripture, has two protagonists. In this story God is revealing something of His character for His people.
It’s important to remember that Genesis was written to Israel shortly after its captivity in Egypt. As such, all of its stories are intended to help Israel to understand their history, and even more, to understand what sort of God Yahweh was. The call at the beginning of this story for Abraham to sacrifice his son to God would not have been as shocking to Israel as it is to us; they had been slaves for 400 years in a land where child sacrifice was common. What would have been shocking is the climactic moment when God reveals His true character. He does not demand sacrifices of them in order to keep him happy; rather, he provides the sacrifice so that his people can be with Him.
It is critical for us to hear this in the midst of our struggle and suffering. When our worlds fall apart, we can adopt an unhealthy view that God is either punishing us because we haven’t been good enough or demanding we pay some cosmic price by stripping us of what we love. It is impossible to have faith in the midst of suffering if this is the sort of God we serve. We’ll either keep trying to pay him off so that He’ll leave us alone, or we’ll give up and get angry at Him.
Instead, we must look at the Scriptures and see the personality of our God. It’s a strange concept, I know, but God isn’t just the author of Scripture, He is also a character in it. This is because, through the history we have of His interaction with His people, we can come to know Him. We can have faith in him, not faith that is wishing on a star, but faith like I have in my spouse or a close friend, faith because I know their character. I’ve seen it demonstrated a thousand times, and so I am confident it will remain true in the days to come.
How do we have such a faith? There are many answers to this question, but one of them is to lift our eyes from our present distress and recognize God’s past faithfulness. Abraham could trust God because God had demonstrated Himself faithful. He had led Abraham through the wilderness. He had protected Abraham from the predations of tyrannical kings. He had miraculously given Abraham and Sara a child.
We all, if we only have eyes to see, have experienced God’s providence at work in our own lives. He has protected us, He has blessed us. He has pursued us. Seeking to remember this faithfulness is critical when our world falls apart.
Yet in the mess of life, it can be hard to remember. So God gives us assurances beyond our own lives. We have the history of His people, recorded in stories like this one, to reassure us of God’s character. Most of all, we have Jesus Christ. It is impossible to miss the parallels between our story and His. God provides a ram in place of Abraham’s son. Yet God Himself willingly offers the sacrifice from which He spares Abraham. He offers His own son as a sacrifice, a spotless lamb nailed to a cross, to work our salvation. In Jesus Christ, we have the final assurance of God’s character. As Paul asks in Romans, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
Friends, in the midst of your grief, remember with the memory of faith the cross of Christ. God is no stranger to suffering. He is no distant deity who asks what He is unwilling to give. He has borne the loss of His son for our sakes. He is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. This is the God who is sovereign over the universe, and over the afflictions of our loves – not some uncaring hand of fate, but the Father who gave Jesus for us.
This does not remove the sting of our trials. It doesn’t make that midnight phonecall, that dreaded diagnosis, that earth-shattering event cease to hurt. But in the midst of the hurt, it gives us hope. We do not know why we are suffering. We cannot peer into God’s decrees. But we do know what the answer cannot be.
It cannot be that God doesn’t care. It cannot be that he is unable to help us. It cannot be that He intends to work for anything but our good. God has proven himself faithful, to the point where it cost Him His life on the cross. In view of this demonstration of God’s character, we can face the uncertainty of tomorrow. We may not know what the future holds. But we do know the One who holds the future, and He is good.
“The Lord will provide.” This is what Abraham renames the mountain on which He offered Isaac and God instead supplied the ram. The Lord will provide. We don’t know what form His providence will take when our world falls apart. Perhaps it will be to intervene and deliver us. Perhaps it will be to meet us in our suffering and support us through it to the blessings on the other side. Yet whatever the answer is, it is the God of Abraham who holds the future, and He is a God in whom we can trust.
As we draw things to a close, I hope you’ll grant me leave to speak very personally for a moment. Right now, as we have been considering God’s word, my little girl is still in the hospital. She is stable and growing, but she’s also can’t breathe on her own and has bleeding in her brain. These last weeks have been the hardest of my life. I have felt at times like some parts of this story are my own, wondered if I was unknowingly staggering towards a Mount Moriah on which I would have to offer up my child.
I cannot pretend that I am a great exemplar of faith like Abraham. I have said things, felt things and prayed things in these last weeks that I’m glad none of you will ever hear. I am not as steadfast as Abraham, but any solace, any hope I have found is because Abraham and I follow the same God.
One of the hardest things for me to deal with has been the uncertainty. Will my daughter live? If so, will there be serious issues for the rest of her life, like cerebral palsy or brain damage? Will I wake up today and get an encouraging report, or further bad news that pushes me deeper into despair?
These questions meet us in life’s hard times, but in a way, they are always there. God is not some riddle that we can unravel, peering into His secret things. We cannot know His plans. But we know Him. God is not some riddle, but He is our loving Father – mine, and yours, and my daughter’s. He is our loving Father. Though our world may fall apart, we can trust Him to provide.