Abraham tests God: A sermon

Preached at Memorial Church (Port Ryerse) and St.Andrew’s-by-the-lake (Turkey Point) on June 29, 2014.

Abraham is definitely not in the running for ‘Father of the Year’.

After all, he willingly goes along with God’s command to sacrifice his son.

Abraham, the same man who boldly confronted God, imploring him not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, offers no protest or complaint when God tells him to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering.

Abraham, the same man who was distressed (cf. 21:11) at Sarah’s demand to cast Hagar and Ishmael out of the family, remains silent in the face of God’s request, a request that would leave Abraham without an heir and would effectively undo God’s promise to make Abraham into a great nation that would bless all other nations.

This is a difficult story; it is a story that makes a cringe, especially those of us who are parents.

Our discomfort is complicated by our response “the word of the Lord”.

Really?

This story about a God who demands child sacrifice and who is willing to undo a promise for the sake of ‘testing’ someone is the ‘word of the Lord’?

This story about a father willingly to follow through on this demand without objection is somehow good news?

The short answer is ‘Yes’.

Of course this does little to assuage our discomfort and difficulties with the story.

However, as real as our difficulties with this story and with other difficult texts in the Bible may be, the difficulties lie not in the stories themselves, but in our ability to receive the entirety of Holy Scripture as a gift, a gift given by God in order to communicate his lavish grace.

It is easy to attempt to explain away the difficult stories of the Bible as culturally backward. In doing so, we can make these difficult stories fit our culture’s notions of acceptability and in so doing, we ignore the way these stories confront our comfortable expectations of who God is and what God is like.

It is much more difficult to engage these texts head-on, to faithfully wrestle with them, like Jacob did with the angel of the Lord, until they give us a blessing.

We, the Church, faithfully wrestle with the difficult stories of Scripture not because we want to take away the sting of their offense, but because we expect that God will speak to us through them, if we have ears to hear his word of grace.

So, the primary question we ask of this text is: who is this God?

Who is this God who tests those who put their faith in him?

Who is this God who is willing to undo a promise he made, to take back a gift he gave?

Is the God that demands the sacrifice of a child the same God we meet in Jesus Christ?

In Hebrews 11, Abraham is listed as one of the heroes of the faith: “By faith, Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’

Is this what heroic faith looks like? The willingness to sacrifice one’s child?

The key to Abraham’s faith lays in verses 5 and 8.

Listen:

Verse 5: “Them Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”

Verse 8: “Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for burnt offering my son.”

Do you hear?

Abraham fully expects to return with Isaac after he is done worshipping.

Abraham fully expects God to provide a lamb for the sacrifice.

No wonder Abraham is credited as having great faith.

Abraham is not a religious fundamentalist who quietly submits to the demand of voices in his head that tell him to kill his child.

No, Abraham is able to go forward in faith because he trusts that this God will remain faithful to his promises, including the promise to make Abraham a great nation through his son Isaac, a promise God repeats several times.

Moreover, in listening to God’s request, Abraham is expressing the same boldness he did when confronting God at Sodom and Gomorrah.
Abraham’s obedience is not simple compliance with an outrageous demand.

Rather, he goes forward in order to see whether or not God is truly faithful.

And so, Abraham binds his son, places him on the altar, and raises his knife.

This is the moment of truth as the blade points downward, posed to strike a fatal blow, ending not only Isaac’s life, but also God’s promise.

This is the moment where not only Abraham’s faith will be tested, but also God’s faithfulness.

This is a moment that surely lasts an eternity for Abraham. It is one of the most dramatic moments in the entire Bible.

In this moment, not only is God testing Abraham, Abraham is testing God. Is God truly faithful to his promises?

Wondering about whether or not Abraham would have actually killed his son had God not intervened is pointless speculation that distracts from what this story tells us about God.

Who is this God?

This is a God who does not demand child sacrifices. In Abraham’s time, the practice of child sacrifice was quite prevalent, particularly to the god Molech. In this story, God decisively identifies himself as a God who will not permit child sacrifice, as is evidenced in numerous other verses throughout the Old Testament.

This is the God who faithfully protects and provides; since calling Abraham to leave his homeland, God promised to be his “shield” (15:1) and to bless him.

This is the God who graciously gives.

This is the God who remains faithful to his promises.

Abraham experienced God’s faithfulness firsthand; this experience was precisely why he was able to faithfully respond to God: “Here I am”.

God’s faithfulness is the sole basis of our faith; it is because God is faithful that we can respond to him in faith: “Here I am”.

This response is the essence of faith; it is an unconditional response of total allegiance made possible because of the one in whom we have faith. We give ourselves to God, fully and completely.

We respond “Here I am” and pick up the cross and follow Christ because we know that Christ went on the cross for us, defeating death in his resurrection.

We respond “Here I am” because we know this God does not demand sacrifices in order appease him or to placate his wrath because this is the

God who ended all sacrifices with his self-sacrifice on the cross.
In saying “Here I am” we are, in the words of St. Paul, “present[ing] [ourselves] to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (Rom. 6:13).

We do this because we live under God’s grace.

We do this because we are united with Christ whose faithfulness is the sole basis for our faith.

“Here I am” is not a half-hearted response; it is the language of total commitment.

This is precisely why Paul refers to us as being “slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18).

Paul’s strong imagery is meant to convey the good news of our liberation from sin and death. Because of Christ’s faithfulness, we are no longer separated from God and estranged from each other, rather we are free.

We are free to enjoy communion with God.

We are free to enjoy fellowship with our neighbors.

Paul’s strong language is also meant to convey what should be our obedient response to God’s liberation.

Therefore, we respond to God’s faithfulness by joyfully and thankfully offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God for the sake of the world, we allow God to use us as his “instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13).
As God’s instruments of righteousness, our purpose is to point Christ our righteousness (cf. 1 Cor. 1:30).

The primary way the Church points to Christ is through the practice of hospitality.

Christian hospitality is not merely inviting people into our homes to share a meal.

Rather, Christian hospitality is rooted in the God’s hospitality for sinners; it is nothing less than God’s open-armed welcome to the broken and burdened.

This means that Christian hospitality is lavish; it knows no bounds; it is extended to everyone.

Despite the fact that there will be those who reject God’s hospitality, nevertheless we are called to extend this hospitality without remainder or stipulation, doing so in the name of Christ, our righteousness.

We often fear putting ourselves out there because we fear rejection:
– What if I share my faith with someone and they say something mean or hostile?
– What if I offer to pray for someone and they react negatively?
– What if I invite someone to church and they say ‘no’?

And yet, when we go forward in faith, we are entrusting ourselves to the faithfulness of God knowing that any rejection we may face is not a rejection of us, but of the one who sent us.

Of course, this does not make our task any easier.

But the good news is that none of this is up to us and our strategic plans; in going forward in faith, we are trusting in God’s promises to protect and provide, to remain with us.

The good news is that even when we are faithless, God remains faithful, waiting for us to return to him with open arms. The fulfillment of God’s promises does not rest on human ability or performance because God’s faithfulness is unilateral.

The Church worships the God of Abraham, the God who tested Abraham.

This God is also testing the Church to see if we will be faithful to his call on us to be a royal priesthood, to be Christ’s earthly body.

Will we put Christ first in our lives so that we may love others the way he loves us?

Will we take up our crosses and follow him?

There are some in the Church today who extol the virtue of doubt as a necessary element of faith.

There is wisdom in this claim; faith is a journey that involves struggling with our beliefs, putting them to the test to see if they hold up.

However, in the end, faith is the resolve to say to God “Here I am”, laying our fears and doubts at the feet of Christ.

Our response of “here I am” rests on Christ’s promise to always be here with us.

The Church does not need more doubt.

Rather, the Church needs to have the audacity put God’s faithfulness to the test.

We need to practice audacious faith that is rooted in the faithfulness of God.
In fearlessly going forth in faith to proclaim the gospel – the good news that because Christ has liberated us from sin and death, God is waiting with open arms – we are putting God’s faithfulness to the test.

And we know God will not disappoint.

May you go from this place to show the world an audacious faith rooted in God’s faithfulness.

Amen.

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