May I make a confession? In 40 plus years of preaching I have only preached from Genesis 22:1-18 one other time. I have avoided this story of Abraham offering Isaac as a sacrifice because the story is more than I can handle. I have wrestled with what I would do if confronted with a similar demand and, to be perfectly blunt, I don’t think I could not do it. The whole story of Abraham’s great faith is just too hard to preach on and still be honest about my own faith. This text is very difficult to even read without getting choked up or at least feeling uncomfortable.
But Genesis 22:1-18 is in the Bible and I cannot ignore it. It is more, however, than just a story of faith. Obviously, although faith and trusting God is the overarching theme to this story the real point is the foreshadowing of Jesus, God’s only son, dying for our sins. Verse 1 tells us that God tested Abraham but the test was about more than faith – it was a test to see if Abraham knew what salvation was really all about.
Now it is unclear what God would have done if Abraham had refused to sacrifice Isaac. I don’t think God would have banished or destroyed Abraham. Instead I think God would have tried another test because he wasn’t testing Abraham to see if he was good enough but to see if he understood what God was going to do. In other words, this was not a pass or fail exam but an attempt by God to teach Abraham something very important. And if Abraham failed, God would have allowed Abraham to take another test because God really wants him, and us, to understand the lesson. Understanding the lesson God is trying to get across is essential to understanding Genesis 22:1-18. And the lesson is salvation does not come cheap nor can we save ourselves. Our salvation is totally dependent upon the grace and mercy of God.
When JD was in Bible college he took a class on Old Testament history. They had to prepare a video presentation of the story of Abraham and Isaac as a class project. JD played Isaac and he played him like Buddy from the movie Elf – all bright eyes and excited about everything. And throughout the video, he kept saying to the guy who played Abraham, “What are we going, dad?” “That’s really neat, dad,” and when Abraham put him on the altar to sacrifice him, “What are you doing, dad?”
What struck me about the question, “What are you doing, dad?” was he did not ask it in an upset or angry way nor was he scared when he asked the question. He had total trust in his father and he only asked to learn what was going on. Many times we go through life and things do not make sense nor do they seem to be right. When that happens, how do we question God? Do we get upset and blame God? Do we get mad no give up on God?
We are allowed to ask God why when things don’t make sense and if we listen carefully we can hear God’s answer.
What are you doing God? Our text answers this question first the way God answers whenever he intervenes in our lives. What God is doing, what he always does, is God is…
I. GIVING SALVATION
Follow along as I read Genesis 22:1-5. 1Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.
2 Then God said, "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."
3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled 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. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 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."
It is generally believed that Isaac is either a teenager or young adult in this story. Remember, this story foreshadows Jesus so the first piece of foreshadowing is seen in not only calling Isaac Abraham’s only son (like Jesus is the only son of God) but in the place he is told to go. The place Abraham was instructed to go was Moriah, which is in the vicinity of Calvary where Jesus died.
Now human sacrifice was not unheard of in Abraham’s day but God had never asked for that in worship to him. So why does he ask for it here? I believe God was pointing out how serious this whole sin thing was to him. We are all sinners and we all deserve to die for our sin. There is no sacrifice that we can make that can atone (or make up) for our sins.
But here is an important key in understanding this story: Abraham did not decide how God saved him or what sacrifice would be acceptable. God took the initiative and told Abraham what to do. In the same way, we do not decide how we are saved or by what means – God has already decided that for us.
Romans 5:8 says: 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
When we have an argument or disagreement with someone, usually the one who hurts or offends the other person is the one who must go and seek forgiveness. That’s only fair and that’s only right.
And if we have been hurt by someone else it will take time for the wound to heal. We often say, “I’ll forgive but I’ll never forget” and it does takes a long time, if ever, for us to trust that person again. That’s only natural. You’ve heard the saying: “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.”
But here is God, who has been hurt by our sin and our rejection of him, who not only takes the initiative to forgive us but also completely forgets the bad things we have done. The whole thing is so amazing that I think sometimes we have a hard time believing that it is so. You see, we are saved not because we are good but because God is good. We have done nothing to earn our salvation rather God has already taken the initiative. We sacrifice nothing but God sacrificed all he had – his only son. What are you doing, God? He is offering salvation.
What are you doing, God? He is…
II. GIVING A PROMISE
Look at verses 6-10 of Genesis 22: 6 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, 7 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?"
8 Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.
9 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.
The detail in this section of Scripture is heart-breaking. You can see the father and son walking up the mountain and you can feel the emotion of the moment although not a word is written about their feelings. God had promised Abraham that through his son Isaac his family would become a great nation but how could that happen if Isaac died at the altar? Some think that Abraham figured God could raise his son from the dead and others believe that Abraham had faith that God would stop him before it was too late. I don’t know what he was thinking but he knew that when God said to do something, he had better act no matter how strange or how odd the demand is.
As humans, we struggle to balance faith and works. Our sense of justice and fair play dictate that our hard work will pay off. Like John Smith supposedly said to the Colonists at Jamestown – “If you don’t work, you don’t eat” – and we believe that in our culture. There are no free lunches and if we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps we will succeed and receive the good things in life.
As John 1:12 tells us: 12Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—
The problem with that, as I already mentioned, is that God has taken the initiative already and sent his son to die for us. You see, we cannot work hard enough nor can we do enough good things to save ourselves. We are totally dependent upon the grace of God. So does that mean we do nothing? Abraham did not say, “Oh, I understand what you are doing, I get it, this is just an illustration of how you save us. That’s good. I don’t need to leave and I don’t need to actually do anything.”
However, as the book of James teaches, “faith without works is dead.” You see, we cannot work enough to save ourselves but there are things we need to do to show our faith. Acts we need to perform, if you will.
It’s kind of like if I told you that a restaurant in D.C. will give you a free meal. Just believing that will not get you the free meal. You will have to act on that belief - you will have to get in your car or hop on the metro, go to the restaurant and request your free meal. It will not do you any good to sit here hoping they deliver all the way to Sterling. And if I told you to go to DC, would you go to New York instead? Or would you go to a different restaurant? Maybe they will give you a free meal too but I don’t know for sure, that would be up to the manager.
God has told us to repent and be baptized for our salvation. Is there another way? I don’t know – all I know is that salvation is by grace through faith in baptism. Abraham acted upon his faith in spite of how strange and unusual the request was. How about you?
What are you doing, God? God is giving us a promise.
What are you doing God? He is
III. GIVING GRACE
Verses 11-18: 11But 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."
How are all the nations of the earth blessed through the offspring of Abraham? We are all blessed because through Abraham’s descendants Jesus was born. He was not born just to save the Jews and he was not born just to save the righteous. Jesus was born to save everyone of us.
Notice here that Abraham did nothing to obtain God’s blessing except to follow him. God does not call us to be successful - he calls us to be faithful. We have it all wrong today. We think that if we behave ourselves we will get a better reward. We’ve been taught that all our lives: work hard in school and you get a scholarship. Study well in college and you will get a good job. Be diligent in your work and you will be promoted with a raise. Sometimes that works in our culture but it misses the point totally in our faith.
We read in Ephesians 2:8 & 9: 8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
The grace of God is not fair. We do not have more stars in our crown because we never missed church or gave more than 10%. That would be salvation by works. We do good things not because we have to but because we want to.
Think about it this way: if we were saved by works, would you deserve salvation? Oh, and remember that if it is by works than every little thing we did wrong, ever, will be held against us. The reality is we are drowning in our debt of sin and shame and there is not a chance for anyone of us to escape. But God sent his son and wiped away all our debt.
We really don’t want to be saved by works, do we? We don’t want justice or fairness. We want grace. That’s what God is up to and because of that we can read the story of Abraham and Isaac in a whole new light.