Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14

(sermon note: 09-19 sermon note)

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then 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.’ Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a policeman who was questioning three guys who were training to become detectives. To test their skills in recognizing a suspect, he showed the first guy a picture for 5 seconds and then hid it. “This is your suspect, how would you recognize him?” The first guy answered, “That’s easy, we’ll catch him fast because he only has one eye!” The policeman said, “Well…uh…that’s because the picture I showed is his side profile.” Slightly flustered by this ridiculous response, he flashed the picture for 5 seconds at the second guy and asked him, “This is your suspect, how would you recognize him?” The second guy smiled, flipped his hair and said, “Ha! He’d be too easy to catch because he only has one ear!” The policeman angrily responded, “What’s the matter with you two?!!? Of course only one eye and one ear are showing because it’s a picture of his side profile! Is that the best answer you can come up with?” Extremely frustrated at this point, he showed the picture to the third guy and in a very testy voice asked, “This is your suspect, how would you recognize him?” He quickly added, “Think hard before giving me a stupid answer.” The third guy looked at the picture intently for a moment and said, “The suspect wears contact lenses.” The policeman was surprised and speechless because he really didn’t know himself if the suspect wore contacts or not. “Well, that’s an interesting answer. Wait here for a few minutes while I check his file and I’ll get back to you on that.” He left the room and went to his office, checked the suspect’s file on his computer and came back with a beaming smile on his face. “Wow! I can’t believe it. It’s TRUE! The suspect does, in fact, wear contact lenses. Good work! How were you able to make such an astute observation?” “That’s easy…” the third guy replied. “He can’t wear regular glasses because he only has one eye and one ear.”
You’d think that policeman would’ve learned after the first guy and changed his picture to a full profile! And you can’t really blame the three for giving the responses they did give. They were asked to respond to what they saw, not to what they didn’t see. According to the picture, the suspect only had one ear and one eye so the three men weren’t necessarily wrong. The test, though revealing of general ineptitude, was ultimately a poor test. It should have included a full profile for better results. Which goes to show that not all tests are created well. Some tests reveal all the wrong things, and not just unpreparedness. Some tests give results that are either completely inapplicable or unexpected or even unwanted and the test-maker is primarily the one to blame. Tests should produce applicable, expected, and wanted results.
This week’s reading is a difficult reading for a couple of reasons. The idea that God would expect a father to kill his only son is hard to imagine. The idea that a father would go through with God’s expectation is even harder to imagine. I mean, who’s crazier–God or the father?! Surely God didn’t really intend for Abraham to kill Isaac. Surely Abraham wasn’t actually going to kill Isaac. This isn’t the God we want to believe in, a God that would expect such outlandish things from us. And we’re to somehow admire a possible child-killer?! Neither God nor Abraham come across as particularly good characters in this story. Yet there’s an important verse at the start of the story that can redeem both characters: “After these things God tested Abraham.” Right from the outset we were told that God sought to test Abraham. Now this is more of the familiar God we know and want to believe in. God tests all sorts of people in scripture. God tests Adam and Eve. God tests Moses. God tests Joseph. God tests Hannah. God tests Samuel. God tests Daniel. God tests Saul. God tests Isaiah. God tests Mary. God even tests Jesus. It’s true, our God is a testing God. And unlike the policeman’s test in that opener, God’s tests reveal very applicable, expected, and wanted results. God’s tests reveal faith and trust in him. And, as Abraham found it, a fear or awe of him. God’s tests reveal our love for him and for each other. Recall the wisdom from John’s first letter, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (4:8) Yes, God’s tests are important tests to hold us in right relationship with God and each other. Friends, it is a good thing that our God is a testing God. Without his tests, we wouldn’t know where we stand in relation to God or each other. We wouldn’t know if we were trusting enough or loving enough. We’d quickly become consumed with ourselves as history has shown over and over again when we’ve stepped away from loving and trusting God and each other. Indeed, we need a testing God if we’re ever going to be in right relationship.
So we are relieved to hear from the outset that this whole story is yet another one of God’s tests. It helps us want to believe in God but does it help us want to admire Abraham for his actions? Though what he was asked to do was reprehensible, how he responded was admirable. Abraham didn’t ignore God when He called out to him: “Here I am” over and over. And when tasked with such a difficult task, Abraham rose early to set about performing it. Abraham was eager to obey God in easy and difficult tasks alike. And when Isaac asked his father where the sacrifice was en route to the mountain, Abraham protected him from the terrible reality that awaited him: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.” Nice foreshadowing to when God provides his own Son as a sacrificial lamb. Nevertheless, Abraham protects Isaac from the fear and panic he could have experienced on that walk up the mountainside. Though tasked with perhaps the most difficult task for a father, Abraham responded admirably and without hesitation. Some suggest his belief in resurrection and that God would simply resurrect Isaac is what gave Abraham the courage to respond so admirably. Regardless, Abraham was tested and passed as his fear of God was revealed.
And we reflect on Abraham’s response to help us in our own times of testing. Whenever we’re tested, we, too, must cling to our faith and trust in God. We are first and foremost a faithful people. We heed Paul’s words from his second letter to the Corinthians, “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” (5:7) God’s testing reveals what needs to be revealed: our trust and awe and love of him. Let us welcome his testing in our lives. Let us rejoice that He is a testing God. Let us eagerly heed and obey his testing. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.