When Fear Turns to Promise

Pastor Kim Gilliland
Pentecost 4/Proper 8
SCRIPTURE: Psalm 13 and Genesis 22: 1-14
Sometime later God tested Abraham.
Genesis 22: 1 (NIV)

INTRODUCTION

Over the past three weeks we were talking about how God is the God of the turnarounds. God takes things that go against us and he switches them around so that they work in our favour so that we can fulfill the purposes for which God put us on this earth. So far we learned the God turns chaos into order, that he turns complacency into surprise and despair into hope. Today we’re going to look at the fourth turnaround, how God turns fear into promise.

To do that, we’re doing to continue with the story of Abraham. You’ll recall that two weeks ago God sent three angels to Abraham and Sarah with a message; that Sarah would become pregnant and give birth to a son. This came at the most unusual time because at the time of the angel’s announcement, Sarah was 89 years old and Abraham 99. Both were well past the usual age for couple so to consider having children. Sarah was so stunned by this news that she started to laugh in disbelief. Last week we learned that, one year later, Sarah laughed again, this time for joy because her lifelong dream of being a mother had come true. Appropriately, Abraham and Sarah named their son Isaac which in Hebrew means, “He laughs!” So there was lots of laughter going on.

That brings us to Genesis 22:1-14. In this story, Abraham is being asked to face his greatest fear. What is that fear? It’s the same fear that every parent has. It’s the fear of losing his child, his beloved son. I have never experience that and I hope that I never do. But I also know that some of you have and I’ve been told that it is just about the worst thing that can happen to a parent. I’m inclined to believe that because I can’t imagine what that would be like. Abraham is being asked to face that fear while at the same time being aware of God’s promise that it is through his son Isaac that his descendants will become a great nation. Those two thoughts don’t mix but somehow they are going to have to come together.

We don’t know exactly how old Isaac is at this point. But we know from tradition that he is probably under that age of twelve because twelve is the traditional age at which a Jewish boy is considered to be a man. We also know that he’s not a little boy because, as we shall see, in verse 6 Abraham has Isaac carry a bunch of wood so he had to be strong enough to do that. So, we will assume that he’s seven or eight years old.

ABRAHAM’S FEAR

Let’s begin at Genesis 22:1-2 (NIV):

Sometime later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

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.”

This has to be a huge surprise for Abraham – and not a very nice one. It’s such a big surprise because for many years God has promises Abraham that that his descendants would make a great nation. The only problem was that he and Sarah could have no children. Finally, when he was 100 Isaac was born to them. Now the train was on the tracks and heading for its destination. But then God demands the unthinkable from Abraham, his greatest fear. God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son as a burnt offering. And the thought of that just makes our heads spin.

There are a couple of things here that need an explanation. First, while the idea of a child sacrifice seems detestable to us, it was not uncommon in those days and in the cultures that surrounded Abraham and his clan. In fact, it happened all the time to appease false gods. It was so common that at various points in the Bible, including in Deuteronomy 12:31, Psalm 106:38 and Jeremiah 19:4-5 God had to specifically condemn the practice. So while it seems most strange to us, to Abraham it would not have seemed so.

Second, God tells Abraham to take his only son Isaac to be sacrificed. The words “your only son” are important. At this point, if you remember the story for the last two weeks, Abraham didn’t just have one son. He had two so is the Bible mistaken here? No it’s not because in the Hebrew the words actually refer to Isaac not as the only son but as the begotten son, that is, the special son through whom God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled. This must have confused Abraham even more because God is at once telling Abraham to sacrifice his son while at the same time telling him that it is through this same son that God will make Abraham into a great nation. It just didn’t make sense.

But that’s okay because it leads us to the third point which is this. Why is God doing this? Why is God striking fear into the heart of Abraham? That’s a key question. The answer is found in the very first sentence of Genesis 22 which says that, “Sometime later God tested Abraham.” This is a test. God is testing Abraham to see how faithful he is and how much he is willing to trust God. That also is an odd thought for most of us because we have a natural inclination to say that God would never do that. God loves us. Why would God test us? And yet there are various times in the Bible when God tests his people. And almost always it’s for the same reason – to see how willing they are to trust God. God doesn’t need people who will follow him in the easy times and fall away when things get rough. He needs people who will follow him and trust him no matter what and no matter where it leads. Follow God is not for the wimpy and faint hearted.

We will never learn to trust God if our faith is not tested. That’s what it says in James 1:2-3 (NIV) where we read, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” It is through the testing of our faith that we grow in faith and in perseverance. That’s what’s going on here. God is testing Abraham to see how enduring his faith is.

Let’s move on. Genesis 22:3 (NIV):

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.

The very next morning, Abraham got up, and did what he was supposed to do. No dilly dallying, no hesitation. He had heard God’s word and he was going to do it right away trusting God to work everything out just as he had promised. So far Abraham is passing the test. But now comes the harder part.

Genesis 22:4 (NIV) says this: “On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.” It’s now day three. Abraham was faithful on day one. He had got up on that first morning determined to do what God commanded. But now we read that in order to get to the place where he was to make the sacrifice, he had to travel for two whole days because it was not until the third day that he could even see the place.

That would be tough. Can you imagine traveling with your son for two day knowing what lay ahead, knowing what you had to do, and still going in the right direction? Along the way, they must have talked about the things that they saw and reminisced about the past. At night, they probably slept close to each other for warmth and all the while Abraham must have been thinking that this was the last journey he was going to make with his son. His heart must have been breaking. It’s easy to be strong on the first day but by the third day you’d think that his resolve would be waning.

How true is that of us? You know that you need to do something that you will find difficult. Day one is always the easiest day because the challenge is new and your resolve is strong but as the days go by it gets more difficult to keep heading in the right direction. Has anyone here ever tried to quit smoking? I quit over forty years ago and it was one of the hardest things I ever did. Like I said, day one was the easiest. Day two was more difficult. Day three was torture. For that first week, each day seemed more difficult than the last. The same holds true for those who have tried to lose weight. The first day is the easiest but then the craving start and your body wants the sugar and carbs and the fat. And it becomes increasingly difficult to resist. But if you can get through that first week of testing, the second week is easier because you know you’ve already been through one week and you can see the progress.

But Abraham’s not there yet. He’s just on the third day and with every step toward the place of sacrifice, he must have been tempted to turn around and go home. That’s testing and the fact that he stayed true shows us the depth and the endurance of his perseverance.

READY FOR SACRIFICE

Let’s move on to Genesis 22:5-7 (NIV):

Abraham 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 the wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Isaac is no dummy. He realizes that something is missing. They have the wood – Isaac is carrying it. Abraham is carrying the fire and the knife. But if they are going to be making a sacrifice, then they have to have something to sacrifice. And you don’t normally find a lamb wandering around in the countryside.

Genesis 22:8 (NIV) says, “Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.'” In fact, what Abraham is saying is that God has already provided the sacrifice and, as far as Abraham is concerned, it was going to be his son Isaac.

Let’s move on in the story to Genesis 22:9-10 (NIV):

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. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

This is it. They are at the right place. The altar has been constructed. The wood has been laid on it. Abraham has bound his son and placed him on the wood. The knife is out and it is sharp. All it will take is one swift slice with the blade and the agony will be over. As difficult as it is for us to conceive of this, it seem that Abraham is ready to do exactly what God demanded of him. There is still the covenant which God made with him that Abraham’s descendants will become a great nation. There is still God’s assurance that Isaac, as the only begotten son, is the one through whom God will fulfill that promise. It makes no sense that Isaac should have to die but Abraham still trusts in God.

The gut wrenching thing about this story is that Abraham is being forced to make a choice. Is he going to follow God or is he going to save his son. It’s as easy as that. It’s one of the other, there is no in between and he can’t do both. God is testing Abraham to see how faithful he is but he’s also testing him to see what’s most important to him, God or his son Isaac. Ultimately, Abraham has to make that choice.

That would be a hard call for any of is. Most of us who are parents would do just about anything to protect our children. We would even sacrifice ourselves if need be. That’s how important they are to us. But are they more important than God? That is the question that Abraham faces. Where is his greater loyalty, to God or to Isaac? Abraham ultimately makes his choice and the choice is for God. As much as we are tempted to shrink back in horror, Abraham has made the right choice. Our relationship with God has to be the single most important relationship in our lives. Nothing can come before it. Nothing. Not our parents, not our spouses, not our children, nothing can come before our relationship with God.

That has always been a key building block to being successful in our faith. When Jesus called the first disciples in Luke 5, they were fishermen: James, John, Andrew and Peter. After calling them it says in Luke 5:11 (NIV) that, “… they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.” They left everything and everyone to follow him. That does not mean that they no longer cared about anything else. It simply means that they put Jesus first.

While I know that that still seems odd, we need to understand that the reason they were able to put Jesus first was because they trusted God to look after things in their absence. The same holds true for Abraham. The reason why he is willing to sacrifice Isaac is because he believes that God knows more than he does and that God sees things more clearly than he does and that even though he can not see a way out of this dilemma, God can.

Putting God first and trusting God go hand in hand. We can’t have one without the other. To be faithful, we have to be willing to give everything to God with the assurance that he will work things out. Remember Romans 8:28 (NIV) which says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” That is where God is testing Abraham, to see if he really believes it. It seems that he does. He is putting everything, even his precious son in God’s hands.

GOD INTERVENES

And now the story takes a turn. Abraham has the blade over his son ready to strike but then Genesis 22:11-12 (NIV) says:

But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

“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.”

Wait! Hold the phone! Put down the knife! It seems that Abraham has passed the test. It must have been with great relief that Abraham heard God’s voice. I’m sure that Abraham must also have wondered why God waited so long. Did God have to take him right to the edge? Apparently, God did. We don’t know why but it seems to be the case. But that is also true of our lives. We have to allow God to do what he needs to do and we also have to learn to trust his timing which is often very different from our own. But his timing is the best timing even if at the time we can’t see how. It’s all part of learning to trust God the same way that Abraham did.

Genesis 22:13-14 (NIV) says:

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. 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.”

Abraham needed to make a sacrifice. He thought it was going to be his son Isaac. But thankfully he was wrong. God tested him, God told him what he had to do and then at just the right time, when Abraham needed to trust God the most, God came through and provided what was needed. At just the right time, God intervened and provided the sacrifice.

That reminds us of another story of another sacrifice where God intervened at just the right time. That story is referred to in Romans 5:6 (NIV) which says, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” This, of course, refers to Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross. At just the right time, according to God’s timing, when we were unable to save ourselves God swept into history and did it for us by sacrificing his son to pay the price of our sins.

The story of Jesus’ sacrifice is a mirror image of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice. At just the right time, God provided a sacrifice for Abraham in a ram. At just the right time, God provided a sacrifice for us in Jesus.

In both stories, the promises of God are fulfilled. Abraham’s son Isaac had twelve sons who fathered the twelve tribes of Israel in fulfillment of Go’s promise to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation. In Jesus, God reconciled us back to him and paved the way for us to be with him eternally in the kingdom of heaven where sin will be no more, where peace shall reign and justice will flow like a mighty river.

Those are God’s promises and, once again, God is faithful to fulfill his promises to his people. What starts out as fear God turns to blessing.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

Holy God, the earth rumbles and shakes. The winds bluster over the raging waves of the sea. The might of your creation surrounds us and reminds us of your incredible power and might. And then we experience the delicacy of a butterfly as it flits in the breeze, the scent of a flower garden in the summer air, the grace of a loon as it swims across the glassy surface of the water. Your creation, O God, is a superb mixture of strength and serenity, power and compassion, victory and love. We, your children, are in awe of you.

We offer our thanks for the opportunities that you present to us for ministry. You place people along our way who need our help and our support. Keep our eyes open to these possibilities that we not pass them by. You also bring others to us in our times of need. Give us the courage to accept the healing gifts that they bring to our lives. My our pride not hinder your mission and purpose.

We also give thanks for our nation Canada as we celebrate 150 years of confederation. We are so blessed in so many ways. Give us the wisdom to appreciate all that we have and the generousity to share it with others.

There are still many who are sick in mind, body, spirit and relationships, remembering especially Sharon, Millicent, Don, Helen Jacqui and Herb. Send your Healing and Holy Spirit upon us that we may all find the wholeness that you desire and make available to those who turn to you.

We remember that we live in a great country where we are blessed beyond measure. We have so much that we often just take it for granted. Remind us of the price of our freedom and peace. Bless our Canadian military personnel who serve this country in many parts of the world. Bring them home safely and help them to complete their tasks with courage and faith.

Father God, hear our prayers and the prayers of all who call upon the name of Jesus your son. Feed our faith and renew us by and fresh outpouring your Spirit on this church and on the community. We look forward to receiving the missions that you would have us do for the good or your Kingdom and all humanity.

We lift to you our prayers in Jesus’ name.

WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE

July 2, 2017 / Pentecost 4 / Proper 8

SCRIPTURE

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Matthew 10: 40-42; Romans 6:1-23

CALL TO WORSHIP

ONE:               We come to God in worship;

ALL:               God hears our songs and prayers.

ONE:               We trust in God’s great mercy;

ALL:               and rejoice in God’s faithfulness.

ONE:               Blessed be the One who gives us life;

ALL:               May God’s name be praised forever.

PRAYER OF APPROACH

In awe and wonder, we meet you, O God. You are with us in the lonely places. You are with us on the crowded ways of life. We have cried out to you and you have shown us your constant love. Come to us in our worship. Come to us in our need. Come to us as we sing and praise your name, drawing together as one in the body of Christ.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

God of the prophets, hear our cries. Listen to the pleas of our hearts. We know what we should do but we often fail to follow your calling. We say that we want to avoid division and violence. We want to live in peace with all people and with Creation. We want to be faithful in all that we do. Despite our good intentions, we are a long way from realizing the fullness of life that you intend for us. Forgive us and enable us to walk in your way.

ASSURANCE OF PARDON

God’s forgiveness is as constant and dependable as God’s love. There is no sin so big, no error so great, no hurt so harmful that God cannot bring healing and wholeness. In Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven. Thanks be to God.

DEDICATION OF OFFERING

You have given us, O God, all that we have. You have entrusted it into our care. Give us the courage and the vision to use our many resources for your kingdom and glory. We thank you for your many blessings, the ones of which we are always aware and even the ones that we sometimes forget. All is yours and all is from you, O Great God of Creation.

COMMISSIONING Into God’s keeping we commit one another as we leave this place. We journey through a world which needs the love, the peace and the challenge of God. Let us carry that hope Gospel wherever we go.

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