Sermon delivered Sunday, June 29, 2008 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH.
If you would like to listen to the whole sermon, click here.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What’s the Human Condition?
In today’s OT lesson we are confronted with the uncomfortable fact that sometimes our faith and character get tested and we generally don’t like that, do we, especially when it is God who is testing (not tempting) us. In the Genesis account, God ostensibly demands the life of Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac, but because we know how the story ends and the writer lets us in on the purpose of God’s request at the beginning of the story, it is easy for us to miss its important lessons because we read it with 20-20 hindsight. Yet stop for a moment and try to put yourself into Abraham’s shoes (or sandals) as the story unfolds. You are happily living out your life and enjoying fellowship with this God who has called you out to be the father of many nations, who has delivered to you and your wife a miracle baby, and has promised to make your descendants more numerous than the stars (Gen. 15:5). Then one day disaster strikes. This God who has made all these promises to you suddenly demands the life of your only beloved son, the very son whom God had promised and delivered to you when you were over 100 and your wife was in her 90s and well past her childbearing years.
The writer does not tell us how Abraham felt or what he thought when God told him to sacrifice Isaac, but it is not hard for us to imagine because we have all been confronted with moments like this. Being human, Abraham must have felt initially shock and disbelief. Perhaps later he felt fear and anger or maybe Abraham wondered what he had done to deserve this punishment. Despite being known later as the Father of all who have faith (Romans 4:16), Abraham might have remembered that both he and his wife, Sarah, had initially laughed at God’s promise to give them a son in their advanced age (Genesis 17:17; 18:12). He might have remembered further that they had both become impatient with God to deliver on his promise and had taken matters into their own hands when he fathered Ishmael through Sarah’s slave girl, Hagar. So now maybe the chickens were coming home to roost and God was going to punish him for doubting (but not disbelieving) his promises. No, it is not hard for us to imagine Abraham might have had some of these thoughts and fears because they are the very same thoughts and fears we have when disaster strikes in our lives. We also hear these sentiments echoed in the first half of today’s psalm.
Even if we do not know for sure what Abraham thought, we do know what he did, and what he did ultimately required him to have faith and trust in God. The Genesis writer tells us that Abraham immediately obeyed God’s command because he got up early in the morning and set out with two of his servants and Isaac to go to the place God told him to go. He didn’t delay or stall or protest to God; he acted. Note carefully what he told his servants once they arrived: “Stay here and we will come back to you.” Now it is entirely possible that Abraham was just trying to trick his servants so as not to tip his hand regarding what he was going to do. But we get a further insight into Abraham’s faith which seems to indicate Abraham was not trying to deceive to his servants when Isaac asked him where was the lamb to be used for the burnt offering. Abraham replied that God would provide the lamb for the offering. He did not say, “You are going to be the sacrificial lamb, son. Sorry about your bad luck, kid; I’m just obeying orders.” No, he told Isaac that God would provide. Abraham then bound Isaac and prepared to kill him. He must have been very close to doing so because the angel of the Lord urgently called his name twice to stop him. Despite whatever feelings and misgivings Abraham had, in the end he did what God had asked him to do, even if it meant losing the most precious thing in his life. Abraham had passed the test. However, what is more important from our perspective, so had God.
Where’s God’s Grace?
But why did God test Abraham in the first place? After all, if God is all knowing, surely he knew if Abraham had faith and trusted in him. The answer, in part, lies in what Abraham did. Despite his fears and misgivings—and because he was human he surely had them—Abraham trusted God and obeyed him, and in doing so allowed God to prove himself to be trustworthy. The issue is not whether God knew if Abraham had faith in him and trusted him but rather did Abraham really know if God was trustworthy? In other words, the test was really for Abraham’s benefit, not God’s. Abraham had to experience for himself that God was trustworthy and it is only in dire situations that trustworthiness can be truly verified.
I was talking to a friend the other day about his Vietnam war experience. He talked about being battle tested, which enabled him to learn what he was made of. He certainly did not like being shot at or having to endure the extremes of combat, but in so enduring, he learned what he was made of. Likewise, in our own suffering, it is only when we trust in the Lord to help us will we discover that he can be trusted. It is not fun but God can use our dark times to help us grow in our relationship with him.
How? Because trust is one of the essential components of any relationship and is based on intimacy. Therefore it is important for us to know God is trustworthy if we are ever going to have a real relationship with him. It is easy for us to trust in God when things are going well for us, isn’t it, and trust really isn’t earned during good times. In fact, when we enjoy God’s abundant blessings, we tend to get fat and sassy and forget that he is the source of all good things because we are fallen and rebellious creatures. It is exactly in those times that our relationship with God can suffer the most because we start to delude ourselves that we really do not need him to lead a happy and healthy life. No, unfortunately it is not until disaster strikes that we can really see if God is worthy of our trust because only then does God have a real opportunity to prove his trustworthiness which in turn can lead us to a more intimate relationship with him.
I have been reading the book of Numbers in the Daily Office recently and this lack of trust was the essential problem behind Israel’s sin. God had led them out of Egypt and provided them a mighty victory over Pharaoh (the good times). But now as they faced hardship in the desert, the people grew impatient with God and began to grumble against him and his servant Moses. In other words, when things got really tough, they failed to remember God’s mighty acts in their lives and as a result they did not trust God to fulfill his promises to them. Instead, they wanted to take matters into their own hands. As a result, God condemned that generation to wander in the desert for forty years until they had all died. God did fulfill his promise to his people, but not to the generation that failed to believe God’s promise and disobeyed him.
By contrast, when God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the very personification of God’s promise to him, Abraham trusted God and obeyed. As we’ve seen this does not mean that this was easy for Abraham to do. But the point is that by not losing faith in God and obeying him, Abraham was able to see that God was trustworthy. In Abraham’s darkest hour, God proved himself trustworthy.
We see the same dynamic in the Apostle Paul’s life. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul tells a remarkable story about being afflicted with a “thorn in the flesh” and pleading with Jesus three times to end his suffering (2 Corinthians 12:8ff). The Greek word for pleading is “parakaleo,” which means to beg, and so we can conclude that Paul’s suffering was great indeed. Yet in the face of Paul’s terrible suffering, what was Jesus’ response? “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in your weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul then went on to make this remarkable statement: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in hardships, in persecution, and in difficulties; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Like Abraham, Paul had to struggle with his suffering and trust in the Lord to help him endure. And like Abraham, Paul learned that in his suffering he could count on the Lord to be trustworthy and good to his word. Be careful to note that Jesus did not grant Paul’s request to remove his suffering; instead, he promised Paul the power to deal with his suffering and in so doing, develop a more intimate relationship with the Source and Author of all life. Neither Abraham or Paul found it easy to deal with their dark times but because they trusted God to help them through their struggles, both found that God can be trusted because in their obedience to him, he earned their trust and in the process of earning his trust, their relationship with God deepened and became much more intimate. And if we think about it, this dynamic makes sense because after all, aren’t the things we value most in life the things for which we have to work the hardest to earn?
Where’s the Application?
Likewise, in our own experience as a congregation, we have seen that God can be trusted to help us through our suffering and dark times. Think back to last December. Those were dark days for our congregation. Fr. Ron had been inhibited and we were looking at having to find a new place to worship. Who among us could have imagined this glorious outcome? But it was precisely during those dark times that we had an opportunity to trust God to deliver us and he did—in spades! This knowledge of God’s trustworthiness will also help us in our mission work. God has planted us here in a fertile mission field and woe be to us if we do not go fishing. How much greater our ability to speak of what God has done for us because we had the faith to trust him during the darkest hours of our congregation’s history?
On a more personal level, I can remember the dark days of last spring and summer when it looked like my call to the priesthood would never be realized and I confess that I was sorely tempted to quit. But ultimately I did not; instead I chose to trust in God to fulfill his call to me to become a priest. And when I was ordained, those dark days made my ordination that much sweeter!
So what can we learn from all this? First, trust has to be earned and requires intimacy. As Christians, we need to be reading our Bibles each day and praying. When we do so we can gain a more intimate knowledge of God’s character, his promises, and his mighty deeds and acts. It helps us to remember Whose we are, who God is, and what he wants us to do to walk with him faithfully. Faith always seeks understanding and the daily disciplines of prayer and Bible reading are a good place to start. If we do not know how and why God is trustworthy, we will not likely be able to trust him as we must if we desire to have a real relationship with him.
Second, Scripture constantly exhorts us to remember God and his mighty acts. Abraham likely did that when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac. Paul reminds us in Romans 4 that Abraham put his trust in the God who gives life to the dead and calls thing into existence that are not (Romans 4:17). On his way to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham surely remembered God’s mighty act in blessing an old, barren couple with a son, just as he promised he would do. Remembering God’s mighty acts and past trustworthiness helps us trust him in present times when we don’t have the benefit of 20-20 hindsight.
Last, we need to get into small groups so that we can forge intimate relationships with our fellow Christians. Doing so allows God to use human agency to minister to us during our dark hours and this helps prevent Satan from picking us off one by one when he exploits our broken and fallen natures in the midst of our suffering and darkest hours.
I would like to close by sharing with you how I am trying to practice what I’ve just preached. I share this story because I do not know how it is going to turn out—and it could turn out to be very, very bad—which I hope will make it that much more relevant for you [testimony about my struggles with mom’s illness].
What about you? When disaster strikes or suffering occurs in your life, which it inevitably will, in part because we live in a broken and fallen world, will you seek to learn and obey God’s will for you? Will you trust him enough to allow his grace to work in you to allow you to do what you consider to be impossible? Trusting God in our darkest hours will not guarantee us a “happy outcome.” What it will do is allow us to see that if we trust God during our darkest times, he will enable us to persevere and grow in our relationship with him. It will enable us to see that we are not alone in our struggles nor do we have to come up with our own solutions. The Christian faith is no self-help solution and that is why God reminds us to fear not because he is with us in any and every situation, especially those that are darkest. That’s good news now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.