Abraham and Isaac: What is Your Isaac?
Lent 2B Pentecost 6A Genesis 22:1-19
Today, we approach one of the most perplexing and puzzling of all stories in the Bible. It is the Old Testament story about Abraham and his son Isaac, and God asking Father Abraham to sacrifice his only son on an altar. To ask a father to sacrifice a son on an altar sounds barbaric, primitive, and cultic. This story is not only puzzling and perplexing but it is also one of the most profound stories in the whole Bible. So let us proceed.
We cannot begin with the story for today in Genesis 22 about God testing Father Abraham. We need to begin the story at the beginning, in Genesis 12. I would like to retell some of the basic themes found in the Abraham/Isaac story.
We begin in Chapter 12 when Abraham was living down south in the land of Haran, today in the area that we know as Iraq. God told Abraham to leave his family, to leave his homeland, to leave his flocks and fields, to leave his life long security in Haran and travel a thousand miles to the land of Palestine. Abraham was to leave Haran, based on the promises of God.
God promised Father Abraham three things: Family. God promised Abraham that he would have a great family. Father Abraham would become the father of populous nation, as numerous as the stars in the sky, as numerous as the sands in the sea. Land. Father Abraham was to be given the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land rich with cattle and cows and camels, with fertile fields and fine fruit trees. Divine Presence. Father Abraham was promised that God would be with him, would be his friend, would be a Divine Presence that guided and protected him day by day.
So Father Abraham left Haran, the security of Haran, the security of his family at Haran, the security his fields at Haran and traveled to a land and life that God had promised him. He obeyed God simply because he believed God. Father Abraham simply believed the promises of God, and that is what faith is: to simply believe the promises that God has made to us.
Immediately, God started fulfilling his promises. The promised land was as promised, flowing with milk and honey, cattle and cows and camels, with fertile fields and fine fruit trees. And Father Abraham met his bride to be, Sarah. Sarah was a beauty, a number ten, a “Miss Promised Land” in the beauty pageant. The name, Sarah, means princess and Sarah was a perfect princess. How Abraham and Sarah loved each other. How they enjoyed each other. For year after year, decade after decade. And soon the calendar years whirled by: days and months and years and decades rolled by quickly. And Abraham and Sarah discovered that they were growing older and older, too old to have children. Yet God had promised that Abraham would be a father of a great nation, but there were not any children born to this marriage.
One day, when God was out for a walk and Abraham and Sarah appeared to be too old to have children, God came up to Abraham and said, “It is time, Abraham. It is time that you can Sarah got pregnant.” Abraham laughed to himself. God asked, “Did you laugh, Abraham?” “O no, God, I did not laugh.” God continued his walk and found Sarah and said to Sarah, “It is time. It is time that you and Abraham got pregnant.” Sarah laughed to herself. God asked, “Did you laugh at me and my promises, Sarah?” “O no, Lord, I did not laugh at you and your promises.”
Well, that night, the Spirit of the Lord was in the tent with Abraham and Sarah in a special way, and miraculously, Sarah became pregnant. Sarah’s belly grew big and soon she gave birth to their son. Abraham laughed; Sarah laughed; they were both so happy. And so they named their son, “laughing boy” which means Isaac. Isaac was their “laughing boy,” their source of pure happiness.
How Father Abraham and Mother Sarah enjoyed their new little bundle of pleasure. They were like any older parents who have a child for the first time. They were doting, indulging, and spoiling the child as much as they could. They just couldn’t help themselves. Abraham and Sarah spoiled their child rotten. That is, in my mind, they gave him three camels to ride, the fastest camels in the land. Three donkeys to play with. Saddles and bridals. Isaac had his own tent. His own outhouse. His own slingshot. Isaac was spoiled rotten, being the only son of elderly parents. Isaac never had to do a lick of work around the tent because his parents did it for him.
Well, God sensed a problem was developing. God became nervous. God sensed that Father Abraham and Mother Sarah were more preoccupied with Isaac than God himself. God sensed that this little bundle of pleasure had become the center of their lives instead of the Lord himself. The aging parents total fascination was the child rather than the Lord and the ways of the Lord.
So…God decided to put Abraham to the test. Yes, test. It is the same word that happened to Jesus in the wilderness when Satan tested Jesus to see what kind of person he was. The Lord ordered Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. So Abraham obtained what he needed for this venture: a mule, two servants, wood, fire, and his son, Isaac. Off they set to the land called Moriah. Two days out into the wilderness, Abraham left the servants and the mules and proceeded alone with his son, the fire and the wood. Son Isaac asked his father, “Where is the offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide.”
Then came the third day. The wood was laid for a burnt offering and Abraham wrapped his son in a cord, as if son Isaac, that precious bundle of pleasure, would be the offering. Isaac wasn’t laughing any more and Abraham wasn’t laughing as he tied his son up to be the offering. Father Abraham tied his son up, laid him on the wood to be the offering, pulled out his knife to kill him. As Abraham raised his knife to kill the little boy, God’s angel from heaven shouted from heaven: “Don’t you touch that boy! Don’t you lay a hand on that child!’ For I now see that you love me more than anything else in the world.” Abraham cut his son loose. His son began laughing again and the father began laughing again also.
Father Abraham heard the bleat of a ram and saw the ram caught by its horns in the thicket. He grabbed the ram and knew that the ram would be the offering. Abraham named that place where this incident occurred, The Lord Has Provided, because God had been faithful to his promises. The Lord had provided.
God will provide for you and me in all circumstances, no matter how bad, no matter how seemingly impossible, the Lord God will provide for us what we need. For that is the promise of the Lord.
A transition: God hates child sacrifice. God knew that Isaac would not be sacrificed as a burnt offering. God hated child sacrifice in the Canaanite religion. Child sacrifice was detestable to God, abominable to God, a heinous sin to God. God was testing Father Abraham to see whom he loved more: God or the child.
There are three points to this sermon:
First, we are to learn to fear God as Abraham feared God. At the heart of the text is this line: “Don’t you touch the boy, Abraham. For I now see that you fear God above all things.” The first commandment is this: you are to have no other gods before me. And that includes your children and family. Martin Luther, in his explanation of this commandment, said that we are to fear, love and trust God above all things.
Nowadays, in our Christian faith, we know what it means to love God. We know what it means to trust God. But I am not sure that we know what it means to fear God. That is what I would like to talk with you about today: what does it mean to fear God?
To fear God does not mean to be afraid of God. As human beings, we all have fears or phobias, and we know what those fears feel like. For example, I am afraid of snakes. As a little boy, I did not pick up garter snakes by tail and chase girls with those snakes. Why? I was and still am afraid of snakes. I am also afraid of spiders. Again, as a little boy, I did not capture spiders, chase after girls and throw the spiders playfully at their hair. Why? I was afraid of spiders. I am also afraid of heights. That is, when visiting the Space Needle in Seattle, I back myself into the wall as far back from the edge of the Needle as possible. I do not like edges of tall buildings or edges of tall cliffs. I have those deep fears of heights. As a little boy, I was also afraid of the dark, and I hate to admit it, but even as a young adult into my thirties, I was afraid of the dark and wanted a night light near me to scare away the darkness. We all have fears and phobias, and we know what our fears and phobias are.
That is not what it means to fear God. It does not mean to have a phobia of God.
Rather, I need to be part of an illustration. Would you all place yourself in your mind in a ten-foot rowboat? You can be in a twelve-footer if you so desire? Are you now in a rowboat? Good. Now you and your row board are out in the ocean, the Pacific Ocean, some fifteen miles and you cannot see land and your engine is not working and you have only two oars and the waves of the ocean are swelling and getting larger and larger. The wind starts blowing and the waves are roaring and rolling around you, and you feel incredibly vulnerable. You know that you could die in a fraction of a second. You feel this awesome power of the ocean all around you.
That is what it means to fear God. It means to have this deep awareness of the awesomeness of God around you, the awesome power of the ocean, the awesome power of the universe. This feeling lives inside of you, this feeling of the awesomeness of God all around you on every side. That power could consume you in a millisecond.
By contrast, I now would like you to be on a one hundred foot yacht. Yes, a hundred foot yacht, the biggest and finest yacht you have ever imagined. And the yacht is down in Union Lake in downtown Seattle. You are so safe, so safe and secure. There are winds and heavy squalls, but those squalls on the lake don’t affect you much on that big, one hundred foot yacht. Even in the storms, you are enjoying the yacht, eating foods on the yacht, chatting with friends on the yacht, having a drink on the yacht. You are not even conscious of the water around you at all. You don’t feel the awesome power of the water because you are merely in Lake Union, an overgrown puddle in the grand scope of things.
So it is with life today. Too often today, it is as if we are safely in a yacht on Lake Union and not in a row boat fifteen miles out into the ocean. We don’t have this awesome fear of the water, of the majestic and mighty power of God around us.
In the text for today, the key line is this: “Don’t you touch that boy Abraham. For now I see that you fear me above all things.” In this text, God is inviting us to have a fear of God like Abraham did, a deep inner awareness of the awesome power of God, like we feel when we are way out in the ocean in a rowboat and the waves are starting to swell.
Secondly, in this passage for today, we are invited to surrender our most precious possessions to God.
What was it that Abraham loved more than anything else in the world? I think it was Isaac. I believe that Abraham loved Isaac more than his wife, more than all his material possessions, more than life itself. My suspicion is that Isaac was the number one love of Abraham’s life. In the text for today, there came that time in Abraham’s life when he finally surrender his son, his Isaac, to God. He surrendered his most valuable possession to God.
Now, the opposite of the story of Abraham and Isaac is the story of the rich young ruler in the New Testament. The rich young ruler asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said, “Obey the commandments.” The young man said, “I have obeyed all the commandments from my youth.” Jesus said, “Sell your possessions and give them to the poor.” The young man became very sad because he was very rich. You see, the rich young man loved his money, his home, his job, his wealth, his retirement account more than God. He was not able to surrender his most valuable possessions to God.
What does it mean to surrender your “all” to Jesus Christ?
I remember being at Bible Camp in my youth. Even year at that camp, I was invited to surrender my life to Christ. In fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade. And one night, something happened to me, and I surrendered my life to Christ. I had been going through the motions of religion, through the motions of prayer, through the motions of showing up at church. But in that night, I was aware that going through the motions of religion, prayer and showing up at church was not enough. I realized in a deeper way that God wanted me to surrender my “all” to him.
Some of you young people here today are somewhat the same. That is, today, you kids in grades five through nine are taking notes on this Lenten sermon. For some of you kids, for many of you kids, you know that you are going through the motions of Christianity. You are going through the motion of taking notes, the motion of coming to confirmation, the motion of memorizing Bible verses. You are going through all the right motions. But it is our prayer that you will know what Abraham learned: that is, that you would surrender your life to Jesus Christ.
To surrender your life to Jesus Christ does not mean to have a big emotional experience at Bible Camp. To surrender you life does not mean to have that happen in a definable moment in time e.g. such and such a date and such and such a time. But somewhere along the line, it is my prayer that you will not only fear God the way Abraham feared God, but that you will surrender your life in the way that Abraham surrender his son Isaac to God.
To surrender you life may happen in a crisis. I have a picture of Kenn Duley on my desk. Kenn Duley, our minister of music for ten years during the 1990s, died recently at the young age of fifty-one. My mind flashed to sixteen years ago, when their infant daughter was born on Christmas Day. Kenn and his wife, Janet, had a Christmas Day baby and this child was very sick and people were concerned that this baby would not live. I remember that conversation with Kenn that day, an emotional conversation, when he surrendered his new born baby into the hands of a loving God. … Some of you surrender your dying mother, your surrender your dying father into the hands of God. There is that time when you finally give the life of your mother, father, grandfather, grandmother, friend to God. You open you hands and let them go, to die and be with Christ. You surrender them into the hands of a loving God.
Dean Kriappaehne, in our contemporary worship service, likes to sing the song, “I Surrender All.” That is our prayer for you and me.
Third point. It is my experience when we live with the awareness of the awesomeness of God and when we have surrendered everything in life to God, THEN God seems to use us more fully for his purposes for our life. Abraham was blessed to be a blessing to this world, and when he finally surrendered Isaac, I believe that God was able to use Abraham’s life more fully. That is true for my life as well. It is only after I have surrendered all to Christ, that my life seems to be more fully used by God, so that I might be a blessing to others.
In conclusion, I ask you one question: What is your Isaac? What is your most valuable possession or possessions in this world? Your family? Your spouse? Your children? Your job? Your house? Your pleasures? What is your most valuable possession? Could it be that you have become preoccupied with those possessions, that those possessions have become the center of your life so that you no longer fear God? It just may be that
God will say to you, “I believe that it is time that we take a walk and I will put you to the test to see what you love most in life.” Amen.
CHILDREN’S SERMON. Give the children several choices: Do your parents love you or your house most? All answer. You or your car most? All answer. You or your vacations most? All answer. It is clear: you know that your parents love you most. I have another question: do your parents love you or God most? The kids shouted unanimously and loudly with no prompting: GOD. I asked the kids the question: why is it is wise for your parents to love God more than you children? One child answered: Because God gave us as a gift to our parents. God was the source of the gift.