December 6th, 2013

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Isaac – Abraham’s Sacrifice

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Scripture: Gen 22:1-19

May I begin with a confession?  I don’t like this story of the Sacrifice of Isaac.  As a parent of two children I simply can’t comprehend how Abraham got to this place of willingness.  I know why God didn’t ask Sarah to do it; I don’t think she could have done it.  She named her son Isaac – which means, Son of Laughter – what joy must have been hers when he was born.  But I extend this generosity to Abraham too knowing the turmoil he suffered over the situation with Ishmael. It is only in the relenting grace of God that stretches beyond this event that helps me. Sarah lived to be 127 years old.  She lived to see her son fully grown.  I have a son who is not yet a man; I want to see him become a man too — Is this the longing that Abraham and Sarah laid on the altar that day?

We know God asked Abraham to take this cherished son of promise out into the wilderness of Moriah and offer him up as a sacrifice, a burnt offering.  The details are sparse and the obedience of Abraham is without hesitation.  Even the style of the telling makes me uneasy – like the narrator is reluctant to fill in too many details.  It climaxes to this statement: ‘Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife…” (It seems like all the great master painters capture this pivotal moment: see Rembrandt’s Sacrifice of Isaac below)

Part of the problem for me is that so many horrible, awful acts of selfishness and cruelty have been perpetrated on individuals in the name of religion, even in the name of God.  How do I reconcile this story with those?  When I read Hebrews it seems like the author is also wrestling with interpretation when he writes:  Abraham considered that God was even able to raise Isaac from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Heb 11:19).

The Biblical narrative also tells us that this was a test. Tests are about evaluating how much we’ve learned up to a certain point. Before a test, a course is taken, a set of material is learned, applications are made, and understanding is achieved. So, perhaps God was evaluating whether or not Abraham had gleaned the salient points from the course of his journey thus far. When the test came, because he’d walked the whole journey with God he was able to pass the test. The words ‘faithfulness’ and ‘steadfastness’ seem poignant here, words that are most often attached to God.  Psalm 40: 11 says: ‘As for you O LORD, you will not restrain your mercy from me; your steadfast love and faithfulness will ever preserve me!’

The other point I want to remember is God fits the test to the individual and He is the one who provides all that is needed to get the ‘pass’.  He is ‘The God who Provides’.  This test was specifically Abraham’s test, not mine.  What I can learn from Abraham’s test though is this: God the provider appeared in the darkest of moments.  When I stop and reflect on the darkest moments in my journey of faith, do I find God there?  Do you?

Lord Jesus, as we turn toward Christmas, turn our hearts toward you. Amen

Psalm 91 is one of the loveliest expressions of God’s faithful presence.  This Sons of Korah piece adds musical beauty to the already beautiful words.