In times of suffering it may seem as though God is cruel and mean or his plan and purpose unclear. To some, the Bible may indeed seem to portray a God who is capricious and cruel… who tells Abraham, for example, to take his son and sacrifice him on Mount Moriah. Let’s read the opening verses of Gen. 22, some of the most unsettling verses in Scripture: "After these things God tested Abraham. He said, “Abraham….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” (Genesis 22: 1-2). There is nothing ambiguous about these verses. “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love…and offer him…as a burnt offering.”
This is a story that has troubled many. Why would God ask Abraham and Sarah to sacrifice their one and only miracle son born to them in their old age, this child whom God had solemnly promised them twenty-five years before?! The Bible tells us that it was a test…a three day test of Abraham’s obedience and faith in God; Abraham the man through whom God had promised to make a great nation, and indeed bless all the nations of the earth. And on this three day journey, Abraham and Isaac learned how God provides for and blesses those who honor him. Now the first way that God often provides for us in a time of trial, when his will or his ways may seem unclear…is through what we have already learned about him. Let me explain....
(i) Because Abraham had trusted God from day one, he carried with him the knowledge of God’s character (Genesis 12: 1-3; 17: 20-23; 18: 32). The moment of a crisis is not the best time to start learning who God is. The moment of a crisis is not the best time to start exercising your trust in God. It would be wise for us to develop our relationship with God before the crisis comes, and that is what Abraham did. Now Abraham (and Isaac for that matter) knew God’s heart by experience as they trusted and obeyed him. Abraham knew, for example, that God had promised to bless him and make of him a great nation and that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed (Gen. 12); he knew that his plans for Abraham and Sarah were good. Surely that had to be a comfort to him during this anguishing three day journey...
Not only this, but Abraham knew that God listened to his prayers because God heard his prayer for Ishmael (Gen. 17: 20-23). Remember that Ishmael was conceived when Abraham and Sarah decided that they would take things into their own hands. God had promised that Sarah in her old age would conceive and bear a child. In the face of this seemingly impossible promise, Sarah gave Abraham her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar to conceive a child with (Gen. 16). But no sooner had Ishmael been born than God informed Abraham that he was NOT the child of promise, though Abraham cried: “O that Ishmael might live in your sight” (Gen. 17: 18). Abraham loved Ishmael and was ready to bless him as his chosen heir, yet though God was clear that Ishmael was not the child of promise, he reassured Abraham that he would establish an everlasting covenant with Ishmael and make him the father of a great nation (Gen. 17: 20).
One more thing Abraham carried with him as he walked this impossible journey with his only son, was the knowledge that God himself would never purposely destroy the innocent. When Abraham questioned God about his plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18) he asked pointedly, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city, will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, …Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake…if I find forty five there…if I find thirty there…for the sake of twenty…for the sake of ten I will not destroy it!” Yes, Abraham was assured that “the Judge of all the earth” would always do what is just.
These testimonies to the character of God were not only a blessing to Abraham but they continue to be a blessing and an assurance to us when we are walking through the fog of doubt or discouragement and wonder about God’s love for us. God keeps his promises. God is compassionate. God does what is just. These lessons, Abraham slowly learned as he walked with God over a span of more than 30 years and….
(ii) What Abraham had learned about God’s character in the past helped him to obey God in the uncertainty of the present moment (Genesis 22: 1-10). When Abraham made the three day journey from Beersheba to Mount Moriah with Isaac, a distance of 45 miles, he sustained himself with the promises of God, the compassion of God and the justice of God. That’s why Abraham could say to his servant on day three, in sight of the mountain, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you" (Genesis 22: 5). He trusted that God would fulfill his promise and be true to his character – however impossible it seemed at the moment. Hebrews 11: 17-19 says it best:“He who had received the promises [namely, Abraham] was ready to offer up his only son of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you. He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead….” In other words, he had the sure hope that if need be, God would raise Isaac from death to keep his promise to him! What faith…and we can be sure that Isaac -- who could surely have run from his 100 year old father -- shared that faith.
Jill Briscoe tells about a time years ago when her husband told their eldest son David, “David don’t go to school on Monday. You’re going to go in for an x-ray.” "All right," said David. Now this was Friday. Monday came. David gets in the car. His face is as white as a sheet. His eyes are out like stalks. Stuart said, "David, you're not frightened, are you?" "Of course I'm frightened, Dad." "Why?" "I know what an execution is." “Son, I said an x-ray, not an execution.” He'd been thinking about that from Friday till Monday. The amazing thing is he turned up. But only because he trusted his dad -- his father. What we’ve learned about God’s character in the past can help us to obey him in the uncertainty of the present moment. And finally…
(iii) As Abraham trusted and obeyed God on the third day, a new dimension of God’s character and plan was revealed to him (Genesis 22: 11-18). The moment of truth arrives, the climax of the story. Isaac is willingly bound on the altar. He could have escaped from his father, but he does not. Abraham raises the knife in an incomprehensible moment of anguish. And then...“Abraham! Abraham!” cries the angel of the LORD. “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” (Gen. 22: 11-12). At that very moment Abraham looks up and sees a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. He knows exactly what to do. He goes and takes the ram and offers it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.
As Abraham and Isaac surrendered to God in an impossible situation, a new dimension of God’s character and plan was revealed to them: “So Abraham called that place, ‘Yeh-ho-vaw' Yir-eh' / The LORD will provide’ as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.’” Literally, the name means “The LORD will see (to it).” What exactly did God see to, and provide?
God provided for a culture of life. Remember that Abraham was called out of Ur and sent to the land of Canaan which would later become the land of Israel. We know from ancient religious texts that child sacrifice was common among the Canaanites; that it was a culture that had descended to the very depths of moral depravity, believing that the gods required the life of their children to be appeased. So when God restrains Abraham he was teaching him, on a basic level, that God cherishes human life and wants us to cherish it too (cf. Jer. 7: 30-31). Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, was speaking to Christian students about the intersection of faith and politics one day when “A young woman stood and said “4,000 lives were lost today because of abortion. How can I vote on any other issue than that?” Another student responded, “Fair enough, but 9,000 lives were lost because of HIV/AIDS. What about them? And a third said 30,000 children died today because of needless disease and poverty.” Do any of these statistics not grieve the heart of God? As God called Abraham to be a distinctive people among the Canaanites, so he calls us to uphold a culture of life in the midst of a culture of death.
Second, God provided an atonement for sin. When Abraham said to Isaac, “God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice, my son!” he was speaking prophetically. He was prophesying that the problem of evil would never be fixed by human beings alone but by God himself; the God who was willing to do whatever was necessary to bring redemption to this world. Last weekend, 76 year old Dorwan Stoddard covered his wife on the ground to protect her from a barrage of bullets in the mass shooting in Arizona. He was shot three times and killed; his wife was shot three times in the leg and survived. Don’t we all hope that we would do the same for someone we love? Friends Jesus our Savior, the Lamb of God did it for the whole world; he did what was necessary…he bore our sins on the cross as our sacrificial lamb so that we might know both the terrible cost of sin, and the incredible grace of God: "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1: 29)!
And because of all this, God provided a reason for hope. It was on the third-day, when the world seemed darkest, that God revealed himself most clearly and most tangibly. If we have ever felt unsure of God’s voice, surrounded by clouds of despair and discouragement, Abraham’s three day journey gives us hope. As we surrender ourselves to God in the midst of an impossible situation as he and Isaac did, we can know that he will not abandon us or forsake us. Instead, God’s beloved Son has already gone to the darkest and most hopeless place imaginable so that we might know that nothing – not even death -- can separate us from his love.
San Diego pastor Bruce Humphrey shared about a time when his teenage boy was in the hospital. He says, “I’m thinking of the words a pastor said to me in the hospital lobby while our oldest teenaged son lay in a coma. “You know Bruce, God has a purpose for this.” You want to know the truth? I wanted to hit him. Of course, I believed this at the level of head knowledge. I knew that God could redeem any tragic situation into something good. But his words seemed trite and unhelpful at the time. Contrast his words with another pastor friend who just wrapped his arms around me and held as I let down and began to weep. No words, we just wept together. One gave me theology. The other gave me connection.”
What strikes me most about the story of Abraham and Isaac is that what they learned about God was more than theology, it was God’s heart. That God not only revealed that his name was “The LORD will provide,” he actually provided… first through the lamb, but ultimately through his Son. Now that’s an example for us to follow. One more word of counsel: When someone around you is hurting and in the pain of grief; that may not be the time to say the words, “God will provide” or “God has a plan” – but that’s definitely the time do the words. That’s the time to provide a listening ear. That’s the time to provide a gentle presence. That’s the time to provide your love and concern. That’s the time to provide a meal, to give a hug, or to quietly pray. That’s the time to experience the provision of God’s grace as we provide for others in his name. That’s the time to do what God did through his beloved Son… when the Word became flesh and blood, and dwelt among us; as tangible as a tear, a healing touch, or a word of forgiveness. That’s the time to start living like Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and whose sacrifice of love is our reason for unshakeable third-day hope.