Scripture Readings: Genesis 22:1–14 | Psalm 13 | Romans 6:12–23 | Matthew 10:40–42
God said to 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 22:2).
You know, there are times when we might find ourselves envying the characters in the Bible a bit… wishing that we would get to hear God’s voice in such a clear and direct way… unless God happens to say something like that, of course. It’s probably for the best that this reading from Genesis didn’t come up last week for Father’s Day.
Obviously, this isn’t an easy story for many of us to hear, and for some it might seem to suggest a pretty cruel and callous vision of the character of the Living God… presenting Him as a distant, uncaring tyrant with no sense of compassion for His human creations.
I mean, why else would God command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?
Thankfully, today’s reading from Genesis is just one small part of the much bigger story of God, and the picture this passage paints for us becomes much clearer when taking the whole scope of Scripture into account. All throughout the Bible God is revealed to be incredibly invested in the wellbeing of His creatures; and infinitely compassionate and gracious to us, even when we least deserve it.
So as we remember the big picture of who the Living God has revealed Himself to be, the big picture that finds its full unveiling in Jesus Christ… we can look at this story from Genesis and see more than divine callousness and cruelty… we can see God graciously at work in Abraham story to lead him, and you and I into life.
This story, as hard as it may be to hear, is an important part of God’s Good News for our world. But in order to see it that way, we are all invited to trust God too.
As for why God would command Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, the author of Genesis tells us. Genesis 22:1, “After these things God tested Abraham.”
It was all a test.
But before we explore why God saw it as necessary to test Abraham in this way, we need to be clear about the key difference between testing and tempting.
Tempting is when someone wants you to make a wrong choice… to trip you up, and get you off track… taking the road that leads to destruction and death, even though it might seem perfectly reasonable and right in the moment.
In short, tempting is a trap. But testing involves a very different goal.
To test something is to demonstrate it’s true capacity, and character. To bring to light the knowledge or skills or in this case the commitments that have shaped one’s life so that they can make use of these things in the world… putting them into practice.
For instance, medical students are tested through their studies and residence internships so that their ability to practice medicine is based on more than their mere desire to be a good doctor, but on their clear competency and skill.
Pilots are tested, not to potentially crush the dreams of those who long to fly, but don’t quite measure up… but to clearly establish that those who do pass the test are trustworthy enough to handle the great responsibility of transporting precious lives and cargo.
Drivers must all go through tests, not to try to rob them of the freedom to travel, but to make the roads safer for all.
We could go on and on, but I bet you get my point: testing can be very challenging, but it’s actually meant to be a good thing. A gift… bringing the truth about us to light, so that we can move forward, or get the help that we need.
And in our reading from Genesis, God was testing Abraham in order to nurture within him a living faith… so that he would learn to trust the LORD completely, with everything. Leaning on God’s proven character and promises, and trusting Him to lead the way.
God was testing Abraham’s faith in Him in order to build up a steady foundation for the whole relationship between God and His people… Abraham’s promised descendants, who would be born of Isaac.
And for good reason too! For Abraham, who’s often called the father of faith, had not been proving himself to be all that trustworthy… frequently failing to trust that the LORD would be true to His word, and instead, taking matters into his own hands… often with tragic results.
And the command to offer up his son Isaac didn’t just come out of nowhere. It was a test of faith that strikes at the very heart of all that Abraham held dear.
God had promised that Abraham would become the father of many nations, and that all of the families of the earth would be blessed through him. The LORD had already offered Abraham a key role in His great rescue mission.
On top of that, Abraham also had a more personal hope. To have no children in ancient cultures meant to have no lasting legacy… no future. But miraculously, God had graciously given Abraham and Sarah his wife a child, Isaac born to them in their old age. Isaac was the answer to all their prayers, the tangible sign of God’s great compassion and mercy.
So, God’s gracious promises were tied up with Abraham’s own natural human desires. Not bad desires, by any means. But intertwined with his hopes for a family and for God’s promises to come true were the fears that they wouldn’t happen after all. That God could not really be trusted to get the job done, and that to be sure, Abraham would have to take matters into his own hands.
Throughout the story of Abraham in Genesis, we find someone who longs to be true to the Living God, but who’s doubts and fears kept causing him to do what is right in his own eyes, instead of following God’s ways… which we saw in last week’s reading with Hagar and Ishmael.
So when push comes to shove, what would Abraham do? Would he trust God, or in his own wisdom? Would he put his faith into practice, letting God lead him into life? Or would he cling to his own understanding, and end up on the road of death?
In heartbreaking detail, the author of Genesis shows Abraham ascending the mountain in obedience… embracing the hard road of faith that leads to life. Even though it cost him everything, Abraham chose to believe… to trust in the LORD and obey His command.
When asked by Isaac about the whereabouts of the sacrifice that would be required, Abraham only answers his beloved child: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” And at that final moment when Abraham’s commitment to God was made clear beyond a doubt, just like God had graciously provided Isaac in the first place, so God graciously provides a substitute for him on top of the mountain… God provides a ram to be offered up in Isaac’s place.
The test was passed.
In this crucial moment, Abraham trusted the LORD with everything, and he put that faith into practice: obediently surrendering everything into God’s hands… and then unexpectedly receiving it all back again as a gracious gift.
And from this point on in the story of Scripture, the foundation for the relationship between God and His people had become clear: it required a Living Faith… trust that stands the test, and is put into practice by obedience.
But as we know, the rest of the story in Scripture is pretty shaky: Yes, there are moments and glimpses of human faithfulness from God’s people, but they’re stories are always mixed with fears and sinful desires that tempt and erode this relationship, leading again and again towards destruction.
Time and time again, we people prove ourselves faithless despite God’s enduring trustworthiness. The human side of this partnership is always coming up short.
It’s like they keep reliving the story of Abraham’s earlier life: they’re still somehow clinging to the LORD and His promises, but also seeking their own way in the world… pursuing their own hopes, and running from their own fears instead of trusting God to lead them, and walking obediently in His good ways.
And we know this isn’t just the story of the Bible. It’s our own story too. How often is it our faith in God that’s found wavering? How often are we just obeying our own instincts and desires… which may not always be bad in themselves, but which still end up pulling us farther and farther away from the LORD who alone can give us life?
How can we hope to pass the test? How can we be the faithful, obedient human partners in the world today that God longs for His people to be?
Like always, it is the Living God who provides the way… who faithfully offers us the gracious gift we all need to lead us into life: He gives us Himself in Jesus Christ His Son.
Jesus Christ our Lord is the fulfillment of the whole story of Abraham’s test. As the incarnate Son of God, Jesus is the One human who truly passes the test… proving to be utterly faithful, once and for all.
Jesus steps into the place of Isaac… as God’s own precious, eternal Son become a human like us… innocent of evil, yet offered up at the cross as a gift of God’s rescuing love.
And Jesus steps into the place of the ram. Where Isaac is spared death in Genesis, Jesus is not. His blood is shed and His body is broken as an atoning sacrifice… dying to bring restoration and new life to a world of sinners like us. Jesus’ life is offered up to restore the shattered relationship between us and God… reconciling us through the gift of His self-giving love.
And Jesus also steps into the place of Abraham. It is Jesus Himself who ultimately endures and passes the test of faith. It is Jesus who chooses to go all the way. Who could have backed down from offering up His life, but who instead freely laid down His life in an act of complete trust in His Heavenly Father… obediently surrendering everything into the hands of the Living God… and even more unexpectedly receiving everything and more back again as a gracious gift… a gift He does not keep for Himself, but shares with all the world!
In His resurrection from the grave, Jesus demonstrates the world-changing faithfulness of God, proving that not even death itself can prevent His promises from coming true. In rising from the dead, Jesus shows us that faithful obedience to God truly is the path of life… even if it costs us everything.
Jesus is the one human who passed the ultimate test, which Abraham’s test foreshadows and points us to… and the rewards… the benefits of Christ’s faithfulness… of His passing the test at the cross, is God’s great gift to us all.
We are saved… given God’s new and eternal life… because of Christ’s faithfulness. It’s a gracious gift. One which we’re all invited to embrace, and place our trust in.
But this gift is not a license to sin. To simply say that we trust in Jesus, but keep living our own way… chasing our own hopes, and running from our own fears. It’s a gift meant to set us free to live God’s way in the world… free to obey the way of His self-giving love.
As St. Paul reminds us in our reading from Romans Chapter 6, to place our faith in Jesus’ faithfulness and receive the gift of God’s new life means leaving behind our old way of life, and learning to live God’s way: “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. [That means, being made holy]. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:20-23)
As Christ’s disciples, His students and apprentices today, we are, like Abraham, being invited to share in God’s great rescue mission… sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with our world through our words and through our actions.
And like Abraham, our relationship with God comes down to faith: trusting in the great faithfulness of Jesus Christ our Saviour, and putting that faith into practice by following His commands, empowered by His Holy Spirit.
And this high calling invites us into a whole new way of life… one that requires us to learn to live out our faith in every aspect of our lives.
If that is the case, then we shouldn’t be that surprised if our faith in Jesus is also tested at times. Not tested so that we fail… but so that our faith in Him might be brought into the light… that it might grow even stronger, and so that we might also turn to our faithful Saviour for help when we struggle and stumble and fall.
So how are each of us being called to trust Jesus, and put that trust into practice today? It probably won’t look like the test that Abraham faced, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.
Maybe we’re being called to let go of a particular dream, or a desire that keeps pulling us away from God, or interfering with the growth of the gifts of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives: the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, self-control, gentleness, and faithfulness that the LORD longs to take root in us, and share with the world?
Maybe we’re being called to confront a persistent fear… a fear of loss, a fear of suffering, a fear of the unknown… that keeps us from wholeheartedly embracing the path of life that Jesus has set before us?
Jesus Himself is God’s gift of life, and His faithfulness is the sure foundation for God’s great saving work in our own lives, and in our world today. No matter how hard our faith might be tested, we know that in Him, our future is truly secure… that everything we entrust to His compassion and care is in the very best hands… and that nothing we have to give up for Him can compare with what He’s already shared with us. Amen.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School