Abraham 12: The ultimate test

Twickenham URC 1 July 2001

Put to the ultimate test  (Genesis 22, 1-19 + James 2, 14-24)

One of the inspirations behind this series, and its predecessor following the life of Elijah, were the broadcasts on Premier Christian Radio by Chuck Smith, Pastor of Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa, California, a church which has spawned numerous offspring including a church in Westminster. Their approach, inspired by 2 Tim 3:16: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, is by no means unique, is to believe that if one works through the Bible systematically, rather than picking and choosing, unexpected gems may be found from passages that first appear to be somewhat barren.

But when faced with a reading like today’s, how tempting it is to pick something else. Nearly thirty years ago, when Harold Bennett first came as our minister, he ran a Sunday evening Bible study and discussion for the young people in the church – in those days I was one. Each week someone was given a passage and asked to lead the discussion the following week. When it got round to me I was given a passage that did not appeal to me at all – I can’t remember why, or what the passage was – and I asked whether I might not pick something else. No, I was told, in a firm but gentle manner. Harold went on to say that it was the wrestling with something difficult that stretched one’s mind and taught one new things. It’s some of the best advice I’ve ever been given.

But thirty years on I look at today’s passage from Abraham and perhaps wish I wasn’t committed to exploring it with you. At least one commentator is of similar mind: in prefacing their commentary they say that like Abraham’s servants in the story, they can only go so far with you. After that you must go further by yourself, open to what this passage says to you. And, lastly, just in case you have noticed that I’ve skipped the last part of Genesis 21, I’m not breaking my own rules: we’ll return to it as Part 13 on Sunday evening August 12th

Hagar and Ishmael have been cast out, and as far as Abraham is concerned he has just one son, Isaac. After the protracted struggles, waiting, and difficulties which we looked at in the first ten parts of this series, the promised son is born. Any question of competition with Ishmael has been resolved. The way is set clear for God’s promises to be fulfilled.

And then, once again, Abraham hears the voice of God. Long years have taught him what it sounds like, but can he believe what he is hearing? : “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

On the one hand this must have come as an extraordinary command, given all that had gone before. But we also know that child sacrifice was common amongst Canaanite people of those times, so perhaps it did not sound that extraordinary. The story also is echoed in classical literature: In Euripedes’ play, Iphigenia At Aulis, written 410 BC, Agamemnon goes to sacrifice his daughter to ensure victory in war against the Trojans; at the crucial moment she is snatched away by the goddess Diana who leaves a hind in her place.

What this story leaves us in no doubt about, is that Abraham did not argue, he did not delay, he did not disobey. When Duncan Macpherson spoke to us last time about Abraham’s place in Islam he pointed out that to us Abraham is primarily honoured as a person of faith, whilst in Islam it is his obedience to God that is seen as most important.

The wood is chopped and bundled, the donkey saddled and off they set. They reach a point where they can only go further on foot. How does Abraham begin to make sense of what is to happen? He says to his servants: “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We (plural) will worship and then we (plural) will come back to you.” He cannot understand but where his understanding falls short, his faith take over. Note though that when we get to verse 19, we read “Then Abraham returned to his servants” – Jewish tradition has a number of accounts of what Isaac may or may not have done after the events we are looking at.

Onward they go, Isaac carrying the wood, Abraham the knife and source of fire. We infer from the text that this is not the first time that Isaac has been on such a trip. This time he recognises that something is missing. Where is the lamb? ‘God himself will provide’ comes the reply, we may guess given by a voice choking with emotion.

And then the moment comes. There is an almost unreal – unreal to us anyway – acceptance of what is about to happen. You remember the story of Jepthah’s vow to sacrifice the first living thing he sees – which tragically turns out to be his daughter, and her acceptance of the fact that as the vow has been made, it must be kept. Likewise Isaac, who almost certain was a lot fitter and stronger than his aged father, rather than the little boy depicted in the pictures on the cover of your order of service, accepts that his father must do what God has told him to do. The knife is raised. And then comes the word … STOP! Strangely enough, if you were listening to the news, just such a thing happened in Saudi Arabia earlier this week – a murder victim’s next of kin suddenly called for mercy as the murderer was about to be beheaded.

Abraham has been tested – given, perhaps, the ultimate test – and has passed. For that matter so has Isaac. He has not flinched or run away when confronted by the demands of God. Once again God speaks to him “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

The story is remembered in Hebrews 11:17-19: By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.

Some translations of the Lord’s Prayer end ‘but do not bring us to the test’. Amen to that we say. Buy what if we were tested? Suppose our life fell apart as did Job’s. Would we will still trust in God. Are we really ready to do whatever he asks of us? Remember the story of the rich young ruler being asked to sell all he had. It may be that had he been willing to so, the auctioneer’s hammer might have been stayed and he would have returned from his place of testing with that which he valued. Abraham went up Mount Moriah thinking of Isaac as his, Abraham’s, son, his property. When they came down the relationship was different. Both understood that the one who had the claim on Isaac was not Abraham but God. As Bishop How reminds us:

all that we have is thine alone;
a trust, O Lord, from thee.

What I have said so far would probably be perfectly acceptable to Jewish or Islamic listeners. But of course for us there is something more in this story, as the first of the three pictures you have illustrates. The father looks on as the son carries the wood for the sacrifice. There is a loneliness about this situation; those who had helped carry the burden have been left behind. This time round though it is a bit different. God will provide a sacrifice and does, like Abraham being willing to yield up his only son. And it is that sacrifice on the cross that finally pays the price, making all sacrifices of lambs, doves and pigeons redundant.

We may not, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear.
But we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there

God will provide a sacrifice. God did. And because he did we who might have faced up to death are set free to come back into the world to serve God in it.

The call comes to us: “Take up your cross and follow me”. We do not know where he will take us, or what he will ask of us, but we are called to listen and obey, our faith being shown not only by our words but in our lives.

– – –

Hymns: R&S 536: New every morning is the love; 598: Will your anchor hold?; One early morning, Abraham (Alan Gaunt); O loving Lord, you are for ever seeking; 532: Lord of creation, to you be all praise

– – –

A meditation from Rabbi Jonathan Romain:

When God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, “whom you love”, not only did Abraham face the loss of his beloved son, but also the promise that he would become the father of a great nation. That great dream seemed about to disappear. Yet Abraham was willing to give up both his present and his future because he trusted God.

Crises arise in our lives, and sometimes they sorely test our faith. It can appear that doing God’s will may cause us great loss, even of what God has promised. For instance, we may find that moral action puts our job at risk, yet God promises to provide what we need. Remembering God’s timely provision for faithful Abraham can give us added energy and faith to do what is right, and to trust the outcome to God.

from Abraham and his Sons, James Harpur, Marshall 1997