By the Rev.
Dave Sonmor

Genesis 22:1-14

And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham; and he said, Here I am. And he said, Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go thee to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you. And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt-offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.

On the third day Abraham raised his eyes, and saw the place in the distance. And Abraham said unto his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship, and return to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. And Isaac spoke to Abraham his father, and said, “My father!” and he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Behold, the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “God will provide Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”

So the two of them walked on together. Then they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there, and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” and he said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not stretch your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Then Abraham raised his eyes, and looked, and, behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son.

And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-jireh (God Will Provide), as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

Luke 14: 25-33

Now great multitudes were going along with Him: and He turned, and said unto them, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross, and come after Me, cannot be My disciple.

For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost, to see if he have has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.

Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and take counsel whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter he that is coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation, and asks terms of peace. So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.

Life can be hard sometimes. It throws us many challenges: sickness, financial misfortune, broken marriages, lost friendships, and the death of loved ones. These things can be very painful, testing us to the very depths of our soul. They may even cause us to question our faith in God. We may ask, "Why would a God of love allow such terrible things to happen?" We may question deeply what God is really like, and whether it is really true that God is “pure love”--or whether God doesn't really care about us, and has left us to our own devices.

The story in Genesis 22, about Abraham’s order to sacrifice his son Isaac, is thought by many theologians and ministers to be the most troublesome story in the Old Testament. It is difficult to think that God would command any human sacrifice, let alone the sacrifice of ones own child. What a sense of relief we feel when He tells Abraham at the last second, to hold back his hand, and then, conveniently supplies a ram for the sacrifice. The story involves a situation in which Abraham was tested to the depths of his soul.

It helps to understand the story if we realize that in the cultural and religious atmosphere in which Abraham grew up, people believed that it was pleasing to God to kill and sacrifice animals and even human beings. Abraham was born at a place called Ur, which is located on the western bank of the Euphrates River, in the country that is now called Iraq. The area was the seat of worship of a moon-god. Human sacrifice was a common practice in the ancient religions of the Near East. As Abraham grew up, he naturally adopted this belief along with many others that he later found to be mistaken and contrary to God's will. But before the incident of the proposed sacrifice, Abraham had already made many changes. He had left Ur and had gone to Haran and then had gone to Egypt and then settled in the Land of Canaan. He had traveled through many areas with diverse customs and religions, as part of his preparation for establishing a new religious paradigm in the world. A religion which acknowledged only one God who was the Creator and a God of Love.

 The story is told with great understatement. It does not dwell on the deep anguish Abraham must have felt as he traveled for three days, believing he was about to give up what he cherished most in life: his beloved son and heir. It does not dwell on the terrible pain the young child Isaac must have felt when he realized what his father was about to do. It does not dramatize the flood of relief they both must have felt when they realized that their worst fears would not be realized.

The story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac is the story of how God allowed the faulty beliefs held by Abraham, and the people of his time, to test him to his utmost, to assure that he was ready to move to a new level of spiritual understanding, awareness, and commitment. Abraham had reached a point in his spiritual growth where he trusted God implicitly and was willing to quietly obey whatever God asked of him. This is how life happens for most of us when we go through difficult times or experiences. We continue to move along on our life journey, even though we may be filled with fear, anguish, and deep pain that we outwardly express in only a few words or a gesture that we think could only be understood by someone very close, or perhaps only by God.

This should not lull us into thinking that no one else feels the deep pain, or experiences the difficult struggles that we have. Nor should it cause us to think that these inner feelings are not important, and that only outward appearances matter. In fact, the struggles of our soul are an essential part of our life. It is when we are facing our deepest fears and our greatest challenges that we expand the spiritual parameters of our lives. That is when we travel beyond where we have ever been spiritually, to a new stage of life in which we can gain a deeper understanding of our own soul, of one another, and of God.

If Abraham was going to be the one to lead the people out of the old pagan traditions and become the father of all future generations of God loving people, he had to make a tremendous leap in faith and in spiritual growth and understanding. What is often referred to now as a “paradigm shift.” Abraham gained a new understanding of God that day on Mount Moriah. Just as he was about to carry through the ultimate sacrifice that he thought God was asking of him, God called to him: "Abraham, Abraham! Do not lay a hand on the boy." From a literal standpoint, we can see this story as a turning point, in which it was established for Abraham and all his descendents, and all generations to follow, that, God does not require human sacrifice. And also the vivid realization that “God will provide,” as Abraham named the place where the incident occurred.

However, there was a deeper lesson for Abraham as well. The lesson was that if he offered everything he had to God--even what was most dear to him, even in the pain and anguish of his soul--then from that complete faith and devotion, God could bring about something better than he, in his old and faulty ways of thinking, could ever have imagined. It was after God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac that God made to Abraham the beautiful promise that he would be blessed and would have many descendants, and that through his offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed.

For Abraham and for us, the new level of spiritual life, to which God is seeking to bring us, has very little to do with our outward circumstances. It may seem, in our reading about Abraham and Isaac, as well as the reading from Luke, that God is asking us to give up all the things we love most: our family, our friends, and all our possessions, as a sacrifice, in order to live according to our faith. However that is really not the case, it is simply that when our minds are focused on outward, worldly things, we interpret the "sacrifices" of the Lord in that way.

The reading from Luke phrases it in an extremely sharp way, Jesus says: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple." We simply cannot take this literally. If we did, then Jesus would be contradicting his own clear teachings that we are to love one another. There must be a deeper meaning that the Lord is leading us to in these "sacrifices" that are commanded in the Bible. I believe that the deeper meaning is stated in the Bible itself. First, in this beautiful passage from Micah 6 verses 6-8: “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

And also in Psalm 51 verses16 and 17, the Bible tells us very clearly that it is not outer sacrifice, but inner change that God requires of us. Speaking to the Lord, the Psalmist declares: “O Lord open my lips, and let my mouth declare my praise. You do not want me to bring sacrifices; you do not desire burnt offerings. True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit. O God, You will not despise a contrite and a crushed heart.” These words have the power to change our perspective on those painful struggles and losses that we face in this life. Our natural tendency is to think, like Abraham, that God is testing us, asking us to give up the people and abilities and things we hold most dear. But as hard as it sometimes is to understand, God never asks us to give up any aspect of good in our life. Rather, God is continually asking us to give up things that stands in the way of our becoming the best, the deepest, the most spiritually wise and loving person that we can possibly be.

When we approach our times of deep testing; what God is really asking us is that we leave behind all of our old and faulty feelings, and habits, and attitudes. These are the spiritual "father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself" that we must give up in order to follow the Lord. We must give up our false self-reliance: the idea that we can make it through life without any help from others or from God. In place of that faulty self-reliance, we must recognize deeply and fully our complete dependence on God for everything we have and everything we are. We must give up our focus on material possessions and pleasures. In place of that material focus, we must learn that the most important thing is not what we possess, but how much we can grow in true love, compassion, understanding, and kindness for one another.

Sometimes, like Abraham, we may feel that we are being asked by God to sacrifice what we love most. But when we follow through on that inner dictate and give up what we know is a false idea or attitude or action, then God does bless us for being willing to live out our faith. Even though, we sometimes do lose people we love very much this is not a sacrifice we are making. The true sacrifices of God are giving up our pride and self-reliance in favor of the "broken spirit" of complete reliance on God to provide for us, both outwardly and inwardly, every moment of our life.

In order for us to live a life based on love of others more than love of self the Lord knew that we would need some guidelines or rules or laws to help us in the endeavor. Did you ever look at the ten commandments and notice that not one of them is bad for you? No one ever really lives without law. Occasionally some people try to live in what they describe as “absolute freedom” which generally means a disregard and objection to all the laws and conventions of society, but they still make their choices according to some principle which serves them as a law. For instance, “I must obey my impulses,” or “I must be true to myself.”

In religion there is a new freedom of thought among many people and the expectation to blindly believe something without understanding the rationale behind it is becoming increasingly unpopular. Much of the Word of God that is in the books of the Law is presented in such a manner that they are expected, to be obeyed, without question. On the adult level and even with many children today the word “obedience” is very much out of fashion.

Jesus, in His ministry on earth did not reject The Law but rather revered it as He said that He did not come to destroy The Law but to fulfill it.

The omnipotent God created the world and everything within it from the order that is within Himself, that is, into the order in which He exists, and in accordance with which He rules over all that He created so that it can survive. He impressed upon the universe and all things in it His orderliness. He did not create it in a haphazard way. All things, even the most minute fit into the over all scheme and serve a use essential to the existence of the whole. Dirt knows what its use is so it nourishes plants with essential nutrients so they can grow to fulfill their use. God impressed upon each blade of grass, on every kind of plant on every kind of animal from insects to human beings the order it needs to fulfill its role and use. The essential Law then is a description of the way things are. As we are taught in the Word that God is love, it is a simple step to see that The Law is the law of love. The law of love is not some arbitrary statute ordained to make life difficult for us. It is, rather, an expression of the fact that love fulfils itself, while its opposite, hatred, devours and defeats itself.

In ultimate contrast, love fulfils. When the desire to give finds occasion to express itself in act, the promise of that desire is fully realized. More than that, since there was no conscious desire for reward, the reward is more than the promise. Also love sees clearly. It involves feeling the joy of others as joy in oneself. It not only recognizes the existence of others, it welcomes it. It requires that other people be what they are, as real and valid as we are. They are not threats but opportunities. Love is wholly consistent. In a world that is rapidly growing in population and where interdependence is the law of survival, love is the only thing that really works. It can and does will that others live and love and if they do then nothing is diminished, but all are enlarged. The law of love, then, is simply a description of what love is in the world.

And so this brings us to the effect of obedience to the law and the reaction of Abraham to the order to sacrifice his only child, Isaac. The result of Abraham’s unquestioning obedience to the Lord’s Law of love was immediate reward in the reprieve of the command but also a long term reward in the promise that Abraham’s seed would be multiplied throughout the earth and that all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Abraham was a representative person in the Word. He represents all people who love God’s Law of Love unquestionably. And so Abraham’s seed represents all in the universe who have love as the focal point of their life. His seed shall inherit the gate of his enemies suggests that the love these people have will protect them from love’s enemies which are evils and falsities and hatreds which always seek to destroy loves. But they must accept and obey love’s Laws freely and live by them completely in order to be blessed. No second guessing or procrastinating works as evil is always right there to take advantage of any weakness we might show.

“Now I know that you fear God and have not withheld your only son from Me. By Myself I have sworn, says Jehovah, that because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will certainly bless you, and I will certainly multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens.” Amen and may God Bless you.

 I would like to acknowledge that some of the ideas and words in this sermon, as well as the inspiration for it, come from material written by Reverend Lee Woofenden and Reverend Michael Gladish.

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Music: Heart to Heart
© 1999 Bruce DeBoer

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