Last week I suggested that we could not fully understand the nature of our triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, unless we looked at how God has revealed himself in his plan to rescue his broken and fallen world. We saw that humans play a critical role in God’s rescue plan demonstrated by the fact that God initiated his plan by calling Israel through Abraham to help him in this task and reaching its climax in Jesus of Nazareth. We will see its ultimate fulfillment in the promise of New Creation that was foreshadowed in Jesus’ Resurrection. Today I want to look briefly at an important early story from God’s plan of redemption, the story of the testing of Abraham, and what that could possibly mean for us today.
In today’s OT lesson we are confronted with the uncomfortable fact that sometimes our faith and character get tested. 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 an important lesson 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, 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. 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 (cf. Genesis 17:17; 18:12). He might have remembered further that after 11 years 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 demonstrated that Abraham had faith and trust in God because faith always manifests itself in action. The writer of Genesis 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 further insight into Abraham’s faith when we look at his conversation with Isaac. What Abraham told his son seems to indicate that 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.
So why did God test Abraham in the first place? After all, if God is all-knowing, surely he knew Abraham had faith and trusted in him. The answer, in part, lies in how Abraham responded to God’s request. 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.
For example, in my conversations with my friend John about his Vietnam war experience, he has 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. This isn’t 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 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.
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. And there was a bonus in this for Abraham. In obeying God, Abraham was able to demonstrate to himself that he really did have faith and trust in God. Contrast Abraham’s actions to Peter’s on the night of Jesus’ arrest. When circumstances required Peter to back up his claim that he would never desert Jesus, Peter utterly failed, deserting his Master along with the rest of the disciples.
So what can we learn from all this? First, if we want a real relationship with God, we must become intimate with God so that we can learn to trust him. A vital way to do this is through prayer and regular study and reading of Scripture. When we pray and read our Bible 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, it is unlikely that we will risk trusting him as we must if we desire to have a real relationship with him.
Second, and related to the first point, 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.
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, do you know God well enough to turn to him for help? Do you trust him enough to allow his grace to work in you to allow you to do what you consider to be impossible the way Abraham did? Trusting God in our darkest hours doesn’t happen overnight; it takes a lifetime to develop as does any worthwhile relationship. Nor will it guarantee us a “happy outcome.”
What it will do is allow us to see that God is trustworthy by using even our worst times to enable us to persevere and grow in our relationship with him, which ultimately is what real life is all about. As Paul reminds us, suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, character produces hope, hope does not disappoint us because we have the love of God poured out in our hearts via the Holy Spirit (Romans 5.3-5).
It will also 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 not to be afraid because he is with us in any and every situation, especially those that are darkest. When you understand that, folks, you have good news, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.