Remember in the gospels when Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness? The Bible says that the Holy Spirit led Jesus there “in order” to be tempted. Does this idea bother you? The truth is that tempting and testing happen all the time to believers, and God actively uses them to strengthen us.
That being said, the test that God gave to Abraham was so demanding we can only sit back and wonder: Who could sacrifice their only son? As I explain, however, what God asked of Abraham he asks of himself when he sent his Son. And what God asks of Isaac, he also asks of himself, when God the Son willingly suffered the cross for us.
Sermon Text: Genesis 22:1-19
Did any of you watch The Office last week? It was a masterpiece of an episode, in my opinion. A group of employees from the Scranton branch is down in Tallahassee, where Sabre, Dunder-Mifflin’s parent company, is headquartered. They’re in Tallahassee for a special project, which will last a few weeks. Most of the episode takes place in the hotel one evening. Kathy Simms, the attractive brunette who replaced Pam during her maternity leave, shows up at Jim’s hotel room door. She explains that the thermostat in her room is broken and could she hang out in Jim’s room until maintenance fixes it?
Jim reluctantly agrees, but he recognizes that this situation is fraught with danger. His wife, Pam, is back in Scranton with their two young children. And we see Jim, perhaps for the first time in seven years, not acting like the “cool guy.” In fact, he’s terrified—and for good reason. This situation has trouble written all over it. He sits on the floor watching TV, while Kathy lies on the bed. And he’s probably wondering, “Am I imagining things? Am I overreacting? Am I reading something into this situation that isn’t there?” How tempting it would have been for him to set aside his fears as unfounded, and just be cool. Kathy is a friend, after all. She knows he’s married. Nothing is going to happen, right? This is, of course, exactly what the devil might be whispering in his ear.
If so, Jim refuses to listen. He chooses the path of wisdom—by calling on Dwight to help him. Dwight of all people! His part-time friend and full-time nemesis is downstairs in the hotel lounge. He tells Dwight that he thinks he was bitten by a bedbug and could Dwight come and check out his room. So Dwight, a well-known expert when it comes to all manner of vermin, comes to his room with various chemicals and sprays and overturns the mattress and pulls off the sheets and well, basically… hilarity ensues. Everything that’s usually annoying about Dwight becomes helpful to Jim in this situation. Eventually he gets rid of Kathy. Crisis averted.
Jim was tested like he had never been tested before. At the risk of understatement, the same is true of Abraham in today’s scripture. When we’re in school, our teachers test us because they refuse to take on faith that we know the material; they want to make sure. What does it mean that God is the one doing the testing—such that, at the end of the test, God’s assistant, the angel, tells Abraham, “Now I know that you revere God and you won’t withhold your son, your only son, from me.”
Of course this has puzzled believers for thousands of years: what would God need to learn about Abraham that he didn’t know before? God knows everything, including the future. But maybe it’s like this: My son Townshend’s basketball season finished last week. Suppose you had told me that Townshend’s team would go 9-1, that T-man would score this many points, make this many rebounds, have this many assists and this many steals. In fact, you gave me all the statistics such that I knew in my head everything that would happen. Do you think that I wouldn’t also then want to go to the gave and watch my son actually perform? Of course not! There’s knowing something intellectually, theoretically, and then there’s the kind of knowing that comes from seeing something in action.
I didn’t need a personal crisis or tragedy like my mom’s death to teach me, for example, that John Richards is a friend of mine. The fact that he would get in his car and drive from Columbia, South Carolina, to be with his friend in his time of need is no surprise. Yet watching him live out his love and friendship for me by actually doing it—that means everything to me. Is it so hard to imagine that God is a little like this, too?
Besides, even if God knows the outcome of a test, we often don’t know. In last week’s Office episode, Jim faced a test of his marriage. A test of his love for Pam. A test of his wedding vows. And we could say, “Of course we know Jim’s not going to cheat on Pam.” But it was clear that Jim himself didn’t know. Not for sure. He was clearly afraid that he wouldn’t pass the test. That’s why he called Dwight.
You see, there’s knowing… and then there’s the kind of knowing that comes from experience. Jim passed his test, but don’t you think that by doing so, Jim would be stronger, wiser, more mature the next time he faced temptation? Don’t you think that he learned something about himself and his own weaknesses that he didn’t know before? Don’t you think that he learned something about his marriage that would help him be a better husband? The answer to all these questions is “yes.”
But even failing a test can be helpful sometimes. Remember Peter on the night in which Jesus was betrayed and arrested? Jesus predicted that his disciples would abandon him, and what does Peter say? “Not me! If everyone else stumbles because of you, I’ll never stumble… Even if I must die alongside you, I won’t deny you.” We know the rest. Peter failed his test. But that wasn’t the end of Peter’s story. Later, after the resurrection, Jesus tells Peter that the day is coming when, instead of being so afraid for his life that he denied knowing Jesus, he would instead willingly sacrifice his life out of love for Jesus. This earlier failure on Peter’s part, as bad as it was at the time, helped to make Peter into the better man and more faithful disciple that he would become.
So maybe you’ve faced a big test of your faith, and you’ve failed. Guess what? Your story’s not finished, either. God hasn’t given up on you. Instead, God is using this failure as your own opportunity for growth and change, if only you’ll take advantage of it.
My point is, if all this good stuff can happen to us through testing, is it any wonder that God tests us? As far as I can tell, God’s testing is always about seeing beyond the pretty and comforting and reassuring words we say about God and Jesus and faith, and it’s about getting at what’s in our hearts. God is always making sure that our words match our thoughts and actions. God tests us to make sure that we are people of integrity.
You may have heard about a Christian pastor in Iran named Youcef Nadarkhani—also a husband and father of young children—who is in prison facing the death penalty because he refuses to renounce his Christian faith. Last week, the government of Iran reaffirmed his death sentence. The United States, to its great credit, is demanding his release. And unless something changes soon, he will die. Oh, they’ve given him plenty of opportunities to save his life. They’ve hauled him before a religious tribunal three different times, and he has refused each time to say he isn’t a Christian. In fact, they even told him that they would let him continue to practice his Christian faith so long as he also would say publicly that Muhammed was a prophet sent from God. He refuses to do that.
Why would he? This Christian isn’t lying when he says that Jesus is Lord of his life. If one consequence of Christ’s Lordship is that he will be put to death, then we can be sure that Pastor Nadarkhani will have passed a dreadful kind of test that we are fortunate never to have to face! It’s scary and intimidating and, I hope, even inspiring to imagine that there are people like him who can pass that test!
My mom’s death has been a good and necessary kind of test for me. Two weeks ago yesterday, I was in Mom’s hospital room, knowing that this would likely be the last day I would see her alive, in this world, at least—and as it turned out, it was. On that day, I couldn’t open my mouth and speak words without crying. I had to excuse myself a few times to go to the bathroom across the hall and lose it. I didn’t want to do that in front of Mom. I deal with death and dying and grieving a lot in my job, and I think I handle it pretty well, but this was different. And I was thinking to myself: “O.K., Brent: What do you really think is going on here? You’ve been preaching for years now about this Christian hope. Well, how about it? Do you really believe you’ll see your mom again on the other side of resurrection? Do you really believe that God is here, in this place? Do you really believe that Jesus conquered death and that we can share in that victory?” These were questions going through my head in that hospital room as I was holding Mom’s hand, unable to speak.
I’ve never felt sadder or more heartbroken than I did on that day two weeks ago. I couldn’t even form words to pray. I felt helpless. But you know what else? I felt loved. I felt loved, and I’m sure it’s because so many of you were loving me and supporting me through your prayers. Love surrounded me. It filled me. It lifted me. It strengthened me. And it was God. It was God! I promise, it was God! He was in this place. And in that moment that was all I needed. That was enough to put these questions to rest. I couldn’t pray for several days after that—and I’m very glad that so many of you were praying for me, on my behalf. But last week, I found the urge to pray again. And maybe even a little more deeply than I did before.
I saw a World War II movie many years ago called U-571. There’s a scene in which our heroes have to find out if their rusty old submarine is seaworthy. As they go deeper underwater and the pressure builds, rivets start popping off and the sub springs leaks everywhere. It looks bad to me. Submarines aren’t supposed to do that, right? Finally, the captain declares, “She’s leaky, but she’ll hold.” And they proceed with their mission.
My Christian faith is like that. “She’s leaky, but she’ll hold.”
But like any good test, God has also used it to expose a weakness in my faith. You see, I was reminded last week of an experience many years ago at the church I pastored while I was in seminary. I received a phone message one night from a parishioner whose wife’s grandmother died. The husband asked if I could “remember” his wife in prayer during this difficult time.
Well, you know how it is… Sometimes we forget to “remember” someone in prayer.
I was preoccupied at the time with papers and books and exams to worry about, and ugh… I dropped the ball. When I got the message, I was unwilling to allow my life be interrupted for a moment in order to call this woman who was hurting. Instead, a couple of days passed before I finally called her. But by then, the damage was done. She was angry and hurt that her pastor didn’t care enough to reach out to her in her time of need. She told me she was leaving the church. I felt defensive. I offered excuses. I apologized. But you know what I didn’t do… at least until last week?
I didn’t understand why she was so upset. Was she feeling what I was feeling a couple of weeks ago? If so, did she need people like me to love her and care for her through this difficult time. And not treat her grief like just another activity to check off my busy to-do list? As a pastor, I’m in this unusual position of getting paid to “love” other people. Whatever else I’m doing as a pastor, it ought to come from a place of love. I even told a pastor friend recently that we were in the “caring” business. That’s the problem for me: the emphasis is on “business” and not on “caring.” I repent of that.
Brothers and sisters, I’ve got some bad news for you: Unlike me, you’re not getting paid to love other people in your job, and yet, like me, it’s still your vocation. Regardless of what we do, it’s our full-time job. And that requires sacrifice for all of us.
One of the hymns played at Mom’s funeral yesterday was How Great Thou Art. And I noticed as if for the first time these words:
And when I think that God, his Son not sparing,
Sent him to die, I scarce can take it in.
When we read today’s scripture and think about what Abraham was asked to sacrifice, we “scarce can take it in.” But what God asks Abraham to do, he also asks of himself, when he sent his Son, his only Son, to die on a cross. And when we think about Isaac, who loved and trusted his father so much that he let himself be tied up and offered for a sacrifice, we “scarce can take that in” as well. But what God asked of Isaac, he also asked of himself, when God willingly submitted to the cross out of love for people like you and me—that we could be reconciled to God; that we could have our sins forgiven; that we could become children of God; that we could be saved; that we could have new power in our lives through the Holy Spirit, the power to change and grow.
What love! I scarce can take it in. Amen.