I think the letter to the Hebrews gives an excellent summary of what we have discovered so far in the life of Abraham: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country….And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children And so from this one man, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” Hebrews 11v 8-12.
It’s worth reminding ourselves at the outset of 3 things about this faith.
- Firstly, it was costly. Abraham was told by God to leave his country, people and relatives to go to an unspecified land.
- It was based on action – as we know from the letter of James- faith without works is dead
Thirdly, it resulted in amazing blessing.
At this point I had better explain why our slide has a tightrope walker on it. It is a well-used illustrations of faith but for me who isn’t keen on heights it’s powerful and worth repeating. It shows a photograph of a famous stunt man called Blondin who on 30th June1859 walked along a tightrope suspended above the rapids of Niagara Falls. It became something of a ‘party-piece’ and by the end of his career he had developed it in many ways including pushing a wheelbarrow with a passenger, cooking an omelette midway across, carrying his manager on his back, and doing a somersault on stilts. Remarkably, he died as an old man of 72 of natural causes and is buried in London.
One of the stories goes like this. As a showman, Blondin knew how to work a crowd. First he crossed with his usual balance pole, and then he took the wheelbarrow across to great acclaim. “Do you think, I can cross safely again but this time with someone in the wheelbarrow,” he asked. There was a roar of agreement to show they believed he could. Then there was much foot shuffling and a deathly silence when his follow up question was, “Which of you is going to be the volunteer to get in it then?” Eventually a volunteer did and was successfully transported. Now that was faith – literally stepping out in trust.
Abraham shows what real faith is. When God said, “Go!” He went both to a strange land and also as we heard in our reading this morning, when he was asked to sacrifice his son he went the very next morning.
Genesis 21 v 1-5. God’s Promises Bear Fruit.
At last we have the delight of the miraculous baby. Anticipated for so many years, but hard to imagine in reality until God’ messengers arrived. Even then it still wasn’t easy to comprehend but here at last was the fulfilment of God’s promise of a son for Sarah and Abraham.
I am just going to pick out a few phrases from the passage to encourage us.
- In verse 1 God is gracious…….
- God keeps his promises
- In verse 2 God knows the right time for us
- V4 God is all powerful and no human obstacle is going to thwart his will – not even Sarah’s barrenness and Abraham and Sarah’s old age was no barrier to the promised blessing.
We aren’t looking at it in any detail but in chapter 21 v 8-21 it all seems to go pear- shaped. It’s worth reading – almost like an episode of EastEnders! We have got sibling rivalry as Hagar’s son Ishmael spoils the big day of Isaac’s weaning party, and fractured relationships as Sarah responds with anger and has Hagar and Ishmael cast out. However we also get what really matters, God’s miraculous caring for Ishmael and God’s faithfulness as he too is promised to be the father of a nation. In fact Arab’s today still trace their ancestry back to Ishmael.
Sadly, this is no soap but the outworking of wrong choices and impatience on Abraham’s part. Even in this though, we see the gracious hand of God at work. It also adds a huge poignancy to the story of Abraham and Isaac we will now consider. With Ishmael sent away Isaac is now the only son of Abraham through whom the promises could be fulfilled and then God says. “Take your son …go [and] sacrifice him…”
God Tests Abraham
Let us look again at Genesis 22 v1-14. Many of us know the story well but there are many things to consider reflect on.
In verse 1 we have the context explained God tested Abraham. It wasn’t that God sometimes wanted human sacrifice and then changed his mind but rather once again God gave Abraham the opportunity to show his faith in action and challenged him to prove that God, not the blessings he had got from God, was his priority. It was a real test too because the sacrifice of children was practiced in the land of Canaan where Abraham was living. It would not appear an obvious impossibility for a god to demand it. The enormity of the test was made clear in verse 2, “Take your Son… your only Son….Isaac….whom you love”. There was absolutely no room for manoeuvre. This was a clear instruction. Some see echoes here of Abraham’s original call. God would show him where to take Isaac once he had set off as earlier God had told Abraham to leave Haran for an unspecified destination. Abraham was sacrificing his family ties in Haran and now he was to sacrifice his son. From the beginning of his walk with God to the end, Abraham was called to have faith and act on it. Perhaps there is a challenge here for those of us who have become comfortable in our Christian faith. God has the right for wholehearted obedience and commitment when we are older and tired, when we are busy with the family, and when our career is making huge demands. Are we still listening out for the voice of God and will we like Abraham obey promptly?
How do you respond to the first twinges of toothache? Do you take a painkiller or book an appointment at the dentist, or ignore it and hope it will go away. I have sometimes been in the latter category. If there is something unpleasant to do, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously I am tempted to postpone the inevitable. Not Abraham, verse 2 tells us just how immediate Abraham’s response was. It wasn’t just on the next day, and not just the next morning – but early the next morning.
Sometimes when faced with a challenge, I do the reverse of what I said about toothache, I rush into something to get it over and done with. Abraham couldn’t use this approach as he set out to obey God. He had to take the time to make preparations, to cut the wood and endure three days journeying. God wasn’t asking for a quick thoughtless, “Yes, I will, do it” but an ongoing step by step walk in obedience. Again lessons for us here.
Now look at verse 5. Does anything strike you here? Unless you know the end of the story, it seems a bit odd. Abraham is going to sacrifice his son and yet he says that he and Isaac will go and worship and then WE will come back to you. Hebrews 11 v 17-19 gives the explanation
“By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.”
This is a staggering act of faith. Abraham had none of the episodes recorded later in the Old Testament of Elijah and Elisha raising the dead, nor the wonderful reality of the resurrection of Jesus to go base this faith on. There was just the one thing. He knew that God was faithful .Since God had promised the blessings would come through Isaac and God had never failed him, he could think of no other explanation for the command to sacrifice Isaac being compatible with blessings through him. He hadn’t got God’s plan completely right as it turned out to be a test, but what faith and what a marvellous understanding of God’s power and faithfulness.
I think it’s important to understand that this realisation would not have removed the anguish Abraham would have felt on this 3 day journey. He as after all, about to physically sacrifice his son. Just because we know how the story ended we must never underestimate the enormity of what Abraham was called to do.
Verses 6-14 continue the story. It is a dramatic telling and we see in verse 12 that Abraham had passed the test with flying colours which resulted in God again pronouncing blessing on Abraham and his descendants. However, I just want to pick up one additional theme. God will provide!
Abraham named that place, “The Lord will provide” and how true it was as the ram was there as a substitute for Isaac but it was also true throughout Abraham’s journey of faith. The Lord did provide.
I wonder if this reference to the substitutionary lamb has brought to mind other Bible passages. For me v8, “God himself will provide a lamb” for the sacrifice reminds me of the Passover lamb and in particular the words of John the Baptist when he saw Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. As we are inspired by the faith of Abraham who was prepared to sacrifice his beloved Son, how can we not also be inspired afresh by thinking of the love and compassion of God who did not spare his own Beloved Son?
Can We Expect to be Tested?
There is scope in that question for at least one whole sermon by itself but for now I will to give the simple answer,” Yes” but I do want to clarify what I mean. When we talk about tests we might be drawn back to the nightmare scenario of having failed exams or not got the grades we wanted to get for the next stage of our education or career. Our whole life may appear to have been ruined beyond repair.
It is not like that with God. Yes we face tests but our God is loving and faithful and in Christ we are secure. If God loves us so much that he gave his Beloved Son how can we doubt his love in all situations – even failure. With God a test is for blessing not shame.
I think one of the key ideas for us to consider from the story of Abraham and Isaac is to examine our own level of commitment and wholeheartedness in following Christ. We may well face many such tests. After all Jesus said If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
I cannot pretend I have had dramatic tests of my faith but I can think of times when I have been challenged about my priorities. This, for many of us, will be how the example of Abraham will impact upon our lives. Since what is important to me might not be important to you they may seem trivial and in hindsight I may well agree with you, but the point is they felt far from trivial at the time. For me, some of those challenges have been around football.
I am a mad keen, some of you might just say mad, West Ham fan. In 1980 West Ham reached the Cup Final against Arsenal. I was a season ticket holder and had the required number of vouchers and I thought it would be all systems go for the ticket for the final. The problem was that they were going on sale on a Sunday morning during church. God intervened. I was totally convicted that if I claimed God was my highest priority and I said I believed that learning from the Bible and having fellowship in church was important, how could I possibly justify missing it Since I couldn’t see any way round this I decided God would come first and I would forgo the final. There was however a twist to the story. A couple of days before that ticket distribution Sunday arrived, I was teaching a group of teenagers when I was asked if I was going to the Cup Final. I said, “No” and explained why. Out of the blue one said, “I will get the ticket for you if you want.” I didn’t know him particularly well and I was far from his favourite teacher but that is what happened. God had honoured my commitment to him. I suppose in some small way Abraham-like I had passed the test and was assured afresh just how much my Heavenly Father knew me and loved me.
Briefly, I also need to tell you about an earlier football related test. Ten years earlier as a teenager who had given his life to Christ through a camp a couple of years earlier, I knew I should be going to church The problem was that the church which promoted the camp I had been on, had no youth work, no easily accessible service on a Sunday and an unwillingness to change. I had plenty of reasons for not wanting to go, and I couldn’t see how I was going to gain anything by going. One Sunday when England ,as World Cup holders, were scheduled to play Brazil televised live – a rarity for football in those days, I became convinced that God wanted me to go to church that Sunday evening. I went and missed one of the greatest moments of World Cup history a save by Gordon Banks from Pele. The next week I also missed England playing West Germany in the quarter finals because if church was important on the first Sunday how could I say it wasn’t the next!
I am mentioning this not because it has any significance for anyone but me, but to make clear that although God will bless you if give him his rightful place as Lord, there can be no expectation that God will, “let you off” if you set out on the path he calls you to. I think what I learnt from that “disappointment” was even more important than seeing God’s gracious provision of a Cup Final ticket. I knew that God loved me enough to discipline me and prepare me to serve him in different ways. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but deep down I knew its truth and joy.
The challenge of giving up football might be something you would willingly accept but Abraham was called to offer up what he loved most. I wonder what that might mean for us.
- That relationship with non- Christian friends which leads you into temptation
- The chance of promotion if you cut a few corners
- That special holiday or the car you have been dreaming of
- A life free-er of hassle if you don’t stand up for Christian values.
- That well-earned rest in retirement
Now a note to self and maybe you.Abraham wasn’t called to show faith just once in his life but throughout it. So where are my/our recent examples of heeding God’s challenge? I am pretty sure it’s not because we are perfect.
So what should our motivation be?
I have mentioned challenge, commitment and taking up the cross. These aren’t exactly popular ideas in the current age so how can I present them as being positive things?
Let’s just cast our mind back to those allusions in Genesis 22 of a loving father giving his son as a sacrifice .For Jesus there was no substitute as Isaac had. Instead of a ram caught in the bush there was the cross. God spared Isaac with a miraculous intervention and the voice from Heaven. Jesus called out to Heaven, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me” All of this so we can benefit from the truth of “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. Or for us, “Behold, Jesus who died for me”. I think the words of a hymn say it far better than I could so I quote,
“When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Let us return to the example of Abraham as we conclude and find a wonderful encouragement.
As I was preparing for this talk I kept wondering how Abraham was able to have such faith and how I could ever be like him. Then I realised an exciting truth. Abraham could show faith simply because he knew that God is faithful.
If I were at Niagara Falls and challenged to step into Blondin’s wheelbarrow I would be terrified but quite honestly let’s think about the real question. My focus would never be on whether I had the ability to sit still. The one question would be whether or not Blondin was able to transport me safely across. Time and time again Blondin had demonstrated his ability to keep safe all those who trusted in him. Why should I doubt him?
We have seen in Genesis how God is always faithful so why should we doubt Him. Faith means looking to our Faithful God and Loving Saviour and not at ourselves. The example of Abraham shows whatever physical or spiritual journey we will find ourselves on and whatever challenges and trials we may face we can be assured that God is faithful. I am not Abraham but God is God. Hallelujah.