Monday, April 04, 2016

April 3, 2016 Abraham: Getting It Right About God

Tanya often recommends books to me.  It’s part of her effort to improve me, I think.  Several years ago she convinced me to read Walking the Bible:  A Journey By Land Through the Five Books of Moses.  The author, Bruce Feiler, began his journey through the geography of the Bible’s first five books as perhaps a bit of a skeptic, or at least someone for whom faith had become irrelevant.  I want you to hear something he writes in his introduction –

The idea of writing about the Bible had sneaked up on me.  Like many of my contemporaries, after leaving home at the end of high school, I lost touch with the religious community I had known as a child.  I slowly disengaged from the sticky attachment that comes from a regular cycle of readings, prayers, and services.  I separated myself from the texts as well.  And ultimately I woke up one morning and realized I had no connection to the Bible.  It was a book to me now, one that sat on the shelf above my TV, gathering dust on its gilded pages.  The Bible was part of the past – an old way of learning, a crutch.  I wanted to be part of the future.  Over more than a decade of living and working abroad I found that ideas and places became more real to me when I experienced them firsthand…
But even as I traveled, I found that certain feelings from my past kept resurfacing.  I sensed there was a conversation going on in the world around me that I wasn’t participating in.  References would pop up in books or movies that I vaguely understood yet couldn’t fully comprehend.  I would read entire newspaper articles about wars I couldn’t explain.  At weddings and funerals the words I heard and recited were just that – words.  They had no meaning to me.  No context.  They were not part of me in any way.  And yet I wanted them to be.  Suddenly, almost overnight as I recall, I wanted these words to have meaning again.  I wanted to understand them.
(Walking the Bible:  A Journey By Land Through the Five Books of Moses, Bruce Feiler, page 10).

That passage really struck a chord with me, because I think it describes the relationship so many people have with the Bible.  For this author, the Bible had become irrelevant, just a dusty reminder of his childhood, an artifact of a bygone era. 

There are a lot of people just like him.  To so many the Bible is becoming irrelevant, a book that is mysterious and hard to understand, something that keeps the family genealogy and occupies a place on a piece of furniture but is not something that familiar to us.

We are people with a three-dimensional faith.  We must exist in a personal relationship with God, but we must also exist in a personal relationship with a church and with the Scriptures.  Increasingly, we are losing the second and third relationships.  Many people have a personal relationship with God but an estranged relationship with the church and the Scriptures.  Even some churches have an estranged relationship with the Scriptures, as they concentrate on every conceivable way of attracting people with activities and programs that appeal to people, but the Scriptures can be totally peripheral to most of those activities and programs.

So, from time to time, I am especially fond of returning to the oldest portions of the Bible – the Old Testament, especially those passages that strike us as very difficult to understand.  One of those stories comes from the life of Abraham.  One of the most important characters in the Bible, the stories of Abraham occupy up a good size chunk of the book of Genesis.  Abraham is what we could call an archetype, that is, a template or example of how people should respond to God in faith.  Abraham bursts on to the pages of Scripture after receiving God’s call seemingly out of the blue.  There is nothing at the beginning of his story telling us why Abraham was chosen, but he becomes the great symbol of faith in the Old Testament and literally walks by faith as he follows God while not really knowing where God is leading him.

Our Scripture text for the morning is Genesis 22:1-19
1 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.
On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.
He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife.  As the two of them went on together,
Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.
10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”  “Here I am,” he replied.
12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time
16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son,
17 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,
18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba.  And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

Much of the early portion of the Abraham story centers on the promise that he will be the father of a great nation and yet he and his wife Sarah are childless.  Abraham and Sarah eventually take matters into their own hands and Abraham has a child by Hagar, the servant of Sarah, which turns out rather disastrously (and provides the foundation for the conflict over land that exists even today in Israel, as Abraham is claimed by the Jews, Christians, and Muslims).

Finally, Abraham and Sarah are blessed with a son, Isaac, and at one point God does the unthinkable and asked Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering (verse 2).  As we have just completed a series on skepticism it is worth noting that this story is one of those that cause skeptics to scoff at what we believe.  And we find it very strange as well, don’t we?  We view it as an example of Abraham’s great faith as demonstrated in his willingness to sacrifice his son, but don’t you wonder why it couldn’t be in some other way?

One of the things I want us to do in this series, and it’s especially important with a story such as this, is to get into the hearts and minds of the people in these stories so we can really understand them.  We read these stories from our point of view and it may be different from the experience of those who actually lived these stories.

If we try to get into the heart and mind of Abraham we would ask first why was he willing to do such a thing as sacrifice his son?  Our first question is usually how could God ask such a thing?  What kind of God would ask someone to sacrifice their own child?  We need to know that the sacrifice of a child would not be unknown in Abraham’s day.  In fact, Abraham was probably surrounded by cultures that practiced child sacrifice.  So for Abraham, the idea of being asked to sacrifice a child to God would not be an unexpected request.

But let’s think about the journey taken by father and son.  Imagine them as they walked along, Abraham thinking about his son Isaac, the son he and Sarah had so long desired.  In the words of God your son, your only son, whom you love (verse 2), which makes the scene so much more dramatic.  This was not only his son whom he so loved, but also the beginning of all the descendants God had promised to him.  Not only was he losing his son, but now it appeared that God would renege on his promise.

It took three days for Abraham, Isaac, and the two others traveling with them to come within site of the place God had designated.  Abraham tells the two young men to wait and he and Isaac go forward, with Isaac carrying the wood that would fuel the fire on which he would be offered.  In his hands, Abraham carried the fire that would be set to the wood and the knife that would be taken to Isaac.

Abraham had a lot to think about as they walked along.  Perhaps Abraham was thinking about sending Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness to die (Genesis 21:1-20).  Now, as he walked along with Isaac to the place of sacrifice, Abraham had to wonder if his actions were now coming back to him in judgment.

As for Isaac, as they walk along he can’t help but notice there’s one thing missing.  He says to his father behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?  (verse 7).  Isaac isn’t really catching on here.  Do you think that question pierced to the very core of Abraham’s being?  Absolutely!

Can you believe that some people think the Bible is boring?

And after arriving at the site and preparing Isaac one thing becomes obvious – Abraham never argues with God on behalf of his son.  Did you ever wonder why Abraham wouldn’t plead with God on behalf of his son?  There is one place you don’t want to find yourselves these days – between and a parent and the well-being of their child.

Not Abraham.  He argued with God on behalf of others, but not on behalf of his own son.  If you go back to chapter 18 you’ll read about this fascinating scene where Abraham argues on behalf of Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33).  Abraham asks if God would spare Sodom if fifty righteous people are found there.  God says he would spare the city if fifty could be found.  Abraham continues to press his case and argues all the way down to just ten righteous people.  In this passage Abraham works almost like a skillful attorney arguing a case before a judge, but when it comes to Isaac, there is no argument made on behalf of him.  What kind of father wouldn’t argue for the life of his child? 

And, as far as we can tell from the text, Isaac must have been compliant.  My brothers and I used to wrestle with our father on occasion, but even as I grew to be taller I was never stronger.  I used to joke that I could take him down, although I never managed that feat.  I can tell you, though, if I were in Isaac’s place, and my father was going to bind me and place me on an altar to be sacrificed, I think I could take him down!

The first verse of chapter 22 says that God tested Abraham in this episode, but it doesn’t say that Abraham was aware this was a test.  I think Abraham was doing what he thought a god would command someone to do.  But what was God doing?  It was a test, but could it be that it was also more than a test?  I believe it was also a demonstration – a demonstration of God’s character.

We might argue that it could have been done in a far simpler manner, but I believe God brought Abraham and Isaac to this place not just as a test of faith but also to prove something about himself to Abraham.  This was God saying, Abraham, I brought you and Isaac here that you might know I am not like other gods that men have worshipped.  I am not a god that would require you to sacrifice your own child.  In fact, although Abraham would not know it at this point, God would eventually sacrifice himself.

Abraham, you may or may not know, was a monotheist at a time in history when all others were polytheists.  Abraham brought a new concept of God – there is one God, and he is a God who reveals himself to mankind and loves mankind, and requires a sacrifice of heart rather than of child.

This story is about getting it right about God, about understanding him correctly.  This story really sets the stage for the rest of Scripture as God reveals his true nature to mankind.  This is where we start – we need to get it right about God. 

Abraham had gotten a lot of things wrong.  Abraham allowed his wife Sarah to be taken into harems on two different occasions and he made himself wealthy in the process.  He had a son with Sarah’s servant because of disbelief that God would honor his promise of a child for Abraham and Sarah, and then he sent the child – Ishmael – and his mother – Hagar – out into the wilderness to die.  This episode with Isaac was God’s way, I believe, of saying to Abraham – Abraham, you’ve gotten some things really wrong, and you’re going to get this right.

We need to get it right too.  I’m not saying we can figure out everything about God, but we can get the basics.  God is not just somewhere up in the sky to give us what we want if we will just say the right words in the right formula.  He’s not a celestial vending machine – put in a few prayers and take out what you want.  Those who seek to define God such a way – as one who will give you more money, a bigger house, and all the material success you could ever want are distorting God.  But there are other misconceptions of God lurking out there as well.  God is not a God who wants us for an hour on Sunday morning and will stay out of our way the rest of the week, but a God who wants every part of us – heart, soul, and mind.  God is not just a God who wants us to follow a set of rules but a God who wants us to joyfully embrace the purpose for which we were created, which is to love him and love others.  God is not a celestial bully who is so angry with us that he is waiting, with judgment in hand, saying just give me a reason.

Will we walk with Abraham?  When we struggle to put one foot in front of the other in faith, will we walk with Him?  Will we put aside the things that need to be put aside?

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