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The God Who Provides

Original Date: 
Sunday, August 3, 2014

Good Morning Hope Church! My name is Milan Johnson, and I have been interning under Pastor Russell this summer; however, I will now be taking over the Facilities Manager position for the next year. So as one of my friends described, I guess my job for today is to clean both your toilets and your souls.

A few months ago I was in college, and I think my favorite day in college, besides being done, was the first day of class, or as we called it: Syllabus day. It was great because it was usually a wasted day of class where the professor talked about what we could expect for homework assignments and tests. The one thing we always paid attention to; however, was if the professor made the tests open books, open notes: meaning we could bring our textbooks and notes with us to the test.

The first time this happened I was pretty excited. I mean, I would get to have all the answers right in front of me, these tests would be a piece of cake. The professor told us that we should be studying for at least three hours out of class for every hour spent in class. I’m going to have the answers in front of me, eh, I don’t need to study. So the first test rolls around and I’m sitting there with my books and notes all laid out, and I’m ready to get this done. And then the teacher hands out the test and I look at it. Oh no….. as I came to realize, when a professor allows you to have open books and notes on the tests, it means that the tests will be so hard that none of your material can help you.

In our story today, God gives Abraham his final test. He instructs Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. Whether you have heard this story 100 times or this will be the first time, God’s instructions here are unsettling at the least. We know that child sacrifice was a common practice at that time, but that was to idols and pagan gods. This is the Lord God Almighty we are talking about. The one who detests human sacrifices; who could not stand the depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah; who promised this child to Abraham and Sarah in the first place. How could a loving God ever give a command such as this?

When compared to the instruction that God gave to Abraham, my professors seem quite reasonable. What is some time spent studying compared to giving up your only son?

At the time, spending all those hours studying seemed ridiculous. I mean, why study if I will have all the answers in front of me?
Why did I have this son if I have to sacrifice him?
Why do I have this engineering degree if I’m not going to use it?
Why should I tithe when I have all these bills to pay?
Why should I volunteer if I won’t benefit?
Why should I come to church if I can stream it online?

Doing what the Lord wants is not always easy or convenient. Even in those cases where God’s instruction for us is clear, we often do not want to obey Him. We don’t see how we’re going to benefit from His plan, or we decide to follow God’s instruction, but we want to do it our way.

Looking back through Abraham’s journey, we see many examples of him trying to circumvent God’s plan.

Abraham starts at a high point by leaving his homeland at the bidding of the Lord, and after wandering around for a while, he has accumulated a great amount of wealth.

But during that time, he misrepresents Sarah as his sister. Not once, but twice. Through this, he almost causes the death of many people and incurs the anger of the rulers in the land.

He also hasn’t seen any progress on the Lord’s promise to make his descendants into a great nation. In chapter 16, after God directly tells Abraham he will have a child, Abraham tries to do it his own way. He ends up having a child, Ishmael, who fathers a nation that has been in conflict with Israel to this very day, and he consented to the mistreatment of Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, one of his own servants, to the point where she would have died if God had not intervened.

When God confirms his covenant to give Abraham and Sarah a great nation of descendants, Abraham laughs. However, this time, he does as the Lord asks and circumcises his entire household.

Finally, the Lord fulfills his promise and Abraham has a son, but the Lord is not done with Abraham yet.

Genesis 22 tells us:

1 Some 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 a mountain I will show you."

Abraham still has to pass his final exam. The enormity of this task is illustrated in God’s own words: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.”

Take the son you waited 25 years for. The son that brought laughter to your house again. The son through whom the promise for which you left your homeland will be fulfilled. Take him on one last journey to Moriah, which, though you don’t know it, will be the future location of Jerusalem. And sacrifice him.

As we will see later, over several years have passed since Isaac was born, so the abruptness of this request was as shocking to Abraham as it is to us. We as readers have the benefit of a narrator telling us what God is doing here. He’s testing Abraham. This is not a command in the same manner as when God told Abraham to leave his home country or when God told Abraham to circumcise his entire household, but Abraham doesn’t know this.

The writer doesn’t tell us how God spoke to Abraham: whether through a vision, an angel, or some other means, but we are given no reason to believe that Abraham had any doubts as to who was giving the command or that he was given any further explanation as to why it was given. Taking into account Abraham’s history of following God’s plan, the odds of him passing this test seem slim.

What does Abraham do? Verses 3 and 4:

3 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. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.

In a book that rarely gives specific details, this passage is exceptional. The deliberate manner in which Abraham strives to follow God’s command is evident. Early the next morning he got up. He saddled his donkey. He took two servants and his son. He cut enough wood, set out, and reached the prescribed destination within three days.

None of these details manner. They are superfluous. The writer is forcing us to go beyond simply reading the story and place ourselves in his shoes. What is going through his mind during this time? What did he say to Sarah? Why didn’t he plead with God to spare Isaac like he did with Sodom?

In Verse 5 we read:

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."

We will worship. We will come back. Notice the choice of the pronoun: We. Abraham knows what he plans to do: he should be saying, “I will come back.” Here we see why Abraham is called the father of faith. For all the times that Abraham didn’t believe God, using Hagar to have a son and laughing when the Lord said Sarah would give birth, Abraham has learned to trust the Lord with anything. In Hebrews 11:19, we learn that

“Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

He knew that God was capable of anything. In some way, shape or form, he believed that Isaac would be alive when he came down off the mountain.

Continuing on in Verse 6:

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.

Again, we see the deliberateness of Abraham’s actions. He took the wood. Placed it on his son. Carried the fire and the knife. They went on together.

Surely the gravity of the situation is weighing on Abraham. How hard every step up the mountain would have to be. And then Isaac asks, “Father, where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Isaac seems to be catching on that something is unusual. This isn’t how the other sacrifices with his father have gone. Abraham has taken great care to prepare for this sacrifice by cutting the wood first and bringing a fire along, but he’s left out the most important part.

How do you respond if you’re Abraham? At some point, Isaac is going to have to know. Instead, Abraham states that God will provide the lamb. We could make the case that Abraham just lied to his son. After all, in Hebrews we learned that he reasoned that God could raise Isaac from the dead, so Abraham doesn’t have any intention of using a lamb, necessarily.

Now, Abraham doesn’t know why God commanded him to do this. He just knows God was the reason that Isaac was born, and so just as God has provided Isaac, so He has also provided the lamb for the sacrifice.

In Verse 9:

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.

Stone by stone, stick by stick, Abraham prepares for the sacrifice. Now he has to bind his own son. He has to tie his own son’s hands together so that he can’t resist. Secure his legs and feet so that he can’t run away. Isaac was strong enough to carry the wood up the mountain, and Abraham is well over 100 years old; Isaac could have put up a quite a struggle, but we are not told that he did. Since it’s logical to reason that Isaac had to willingly be tied up, his faith in God at this point had to be just as great as his father, Abraham’s.

Verse 10:

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

His only son, Isaac. Whom he loves.

In Verse 11:

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."

Abraham! Stop! Do not harm your son! You have passed the test. I, the Lord, have always known that your faith was great, but now you have shown it to the world. You were willing to give up your son, your only son, whom you loved, for my sake.

We see that Isaac was never in danger. Either Abraham would have simply not followed God’s command or God would stop him. From the beginning of this story, (look back at verse 1: quote, “God tested Abraham”) what God wanted was Abraham’s obedience. Obedience in a test that required Abraham to have trust in God with his entire being.

What can we take with us from this story of Abraham?

In walking through sermon preparation this summer with Pastor Russell, he explained how the application should cover how we respond to the passage with our head, our heart, and our hands. All three of these aren’t always covered in his sermons, but apparently that’s something learned through experience.

First, how do we obey God with our heads?

Throughout the narrative we are left guessing Abraham’s thoughts, and when we hear his perspective through his own words and the commentary in Hebrews, it is contrary to what would be expected. Instead of thinking how he, personally, could get out of this task, Abraham instead has turned his thoughts to how God will provide in this situation. How he and Isaac would come down off the mountain. Abraham acknowledges God’s total and complete power to do what He desires, and that the desires of God are good. Therefore, even though Abraham dreads the upcoming event, he will carry through with it.

I was at Rocky Mountain High this past week, and we talked with our kids how they could take their faith and apply it to life once they got back home. We explored what Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”

Abraham was a great example for all of us. Instead of dwelling on his son’s upcoming death, of what Sarah would say when he came back, of the despair that awaited him, of the ridicule of his neighbors for serving a God who took away his entire livelihood, he focused on how the God that he served is so great that he can bring the dead back to life. He thought out everything he might need to complete his task: from cutting and bringing wood along to ensuring that he would have a fire for the sacrifice. He used his mind to ensure that he was doing everything he could to obey God.

By diving into these hard passages where God doesn’t seem to comply with our modern morality and studying them, we increase our understanding of Him. It’s easy to see the inconvenience of God’s plans for our lives and dwell on the hardships they might bring, but by turning our thoughts to fully discerning God’s desires for our lives and how we can serve His purposes, we put our faith into action. For the more we get to know God, the more our love for Him grows.

However, we should not rely only on our minds to worship the Lord, which brings us to our second point of application.

How do we obey God with our hearts?

Just as Abraham placed his relationship with God over his relationship with his son, Isaac, and trusted in the Lord in the face of perhaps the hardest trial imaginable, so must we do the same. We must turn our desires away from things of the world: money, recognition, influence, and pleasure, and instead focus them solely on the things of God: seeking to build up our relationship with Him and those of His people around us.

We often associate our heart with our feelings and emotions, and these can help us praise God and obey Him, but it is the desires of our hearts which drives our emotions. We must guard our hearts so that we are not derailed from our intention to obey God by worldly desires.

As Paul writes in Philippians 1:9-10 [NLT]:

“I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return.”

When we have devoted the entirety of our hearts and our minds to the purpose of God, so that our love is overflowing and we keep on growing in knowledge and understanding, then we will be credited by God as righteous through faith just as Abraham was.

And like Abraham, whose faith was made evident by the methodical way in which he obeyed the Lord, so our faith will be shown through our actions.

Lastly, how do we obey God with our hands?

In James 2:17 we read that:

“Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

For as is written in James 2:22, “You see that [Abraham’s] faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.”

When we have submitted ourselves in complete obedience to the purpose and will of God, good works and action will be a natural part of who we are. Not that we are saved through our good deeds! Throughout the New Testament, we are told that is not the case.

Rather let your works be a result of your desire to grow in relationship with and understanding of God the Father.

So am I telling you that good deeds should be a part of your nature because I’m the janitor for the next year, and I want all the volunteer help that I can get? Maybe, but then again good works are only evidence of something deep down inside which is far more important than keeping a church clean.

So the real questions here, the root of the entire story of Abraham, are: what is the purpose and will of God and why should we strive to obey Him?

For this we continue with Abraham’s story in Verse 13:

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."

This is the real story here. This is God’s purpose and His will: the reason why we should devote all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength to the Lord. For we have just read the story of our salvation through the Father’s eyes. Through Abraham, we got a glimpse of just how excruciating it was for the Father to provide his son, his only son, whom he loved, as a sacrifice for us on Golgotha, which was close to if not the same Mountain of the Lord in Abraham’s story.

To watch as Jesus carried the wood he was to be sacrificed upon, on his back. For God did provide the lamb for the burnt offering as Abraham told Isaac He would 2,000 years prior. And just as Abraham reached out and took the knife to slay his son, so God placed the sins of the world upon Jesus’ shoulders and withdrew from him, forsaking his only son, whom he loved, to die for us.

So why should we give the Lord all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength even when what He asks is not easy; even when we won’t be comfortable; even when we’ll be inconvenienced? Is it because He is the Lord God Almighty, Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, Ruler over everything, the One who can bring the dead back to life? Absolutely! But even more so because he knows that we will fall short in our attempts to obey Him, so He provided His own son to atone for our failures before we even try.