Sermon 05-29-16: “Isaac and the Sacrifice of Christ”

Opening the Scriptures graphic

Abraham had been tested by God many times over his 40 years of following God’s call. Yet in Genesis 22, he faces his biggest test of all: Will he still be faithful to God if God takes away everything he’d spent the past 40 years working for? The test, in other words, is this: If Abraham lost everything except God, would God be enough for him? Of course, Abraham’s words and actions answer this question with a resounding “yes.” But don’t we Christians face this same test—on a much smaller scale—nearly all the time? Is God enough for you and me?

Sermon Text: Genesis 22:1-19

Sadly, no video this week. But listen to the audio by clicking on the playhead above or right-click on this link to download an MP3.

The following is my original sermon manuscript. It may vary slightly from the sermon that I delivered.

bob_dylan_bassMy favorite musician of all time turned 75 last week. Bob Dylan. And Dylan wrote a famous song—Jimi Hendrix also does a version of it—that begins with a re-telling of today’s scripture: “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’/ Abe said, “Man, you must be putting me on’/ God said, ‘No’/ Abe said, ‘What?’/ God said, ‘You can do what you want to but/ The next time you see me coming you’d better run.’ ” That last line always makes me chuckle… but it’s not accurate. God doesn’t coerce Abraham into offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice. That would defeat the purpose. The test is to see whether Abraham will perform this sacrifice, not because Abraham’s being blackmailed by God, or because he feels like his life is at stake. Besides, I’m sure Abraham would gladly give his own life to save his son’s. No, God wants Abraham to obey him simply because God says so.

And certainly not because God’s word to Abraham made any sense to him!

And this is the part of today’s scripture that the Dylan song gets exactly right: “You must be putting me on?” What God was asking Abraham to do didn’t make any sense!

Remember: about 40 years earlier, God called Abraham and his wife Sarah to embark on a special mission: to leave their home and family and native country and go to a land that God would show them. God said that he would make of them a great nation and that through their descendants the whole world would be blessed—a blessing of salvation that was ultimately fulfilled through Jesus Christ.

But if God were going to make a great nation of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, they would first have to have a child. And they were childless and infertile when God first made this promise—and already long past the point of having children anyway. Finally, after 25 years of trying to get pregnant—with a lot of trouble and heartache in between—Sarah gets pregnant, at age 90, and they have the promised son, Isaac. Then a few years after that, after some more trouble and heartache, they have a permanent place to call home—on a small piece of the Promised Land that would later belong to Israel.

Abraham answered the call and did everything God asked of him—not perfectly, not without sin or doubt—but he did it. If there was anyone who had nothing left to prove, to God or anyone else, surely it was Abraham, right?

Wrong! Abraham still had one thing left to prove.

While it’s true that Abraham had sacrificed and suffered in response to God’s call, it’s possible that he did so in order to get something in return… in order to receive God’s promised son… in order to receive God’s many blessings.

This reminds me of Satan’s accusation against Job: “Does he serve God for nothing?” In other words, “You treat Job so well, God, and have blessed him with so many children, so much land, and so many possessions, no wonder he serves you! If you remove all of these blessings from him, he’ll curse you to your face!”

The test in today’s scripture is very similar: Is Abraham willing to serve God if means losing what he holds most dear—his beloved son Isaac and the promises that go with him?

Is he willing to serve God, in other words, if all he gets in return is… God?

Is God enough for Abraham? Is God enough for me? Is God enough for you?

Honestly, I think God constantly tests all of us with that question!

When I was 14, Jesus got hold of me and didn’t let go! When I was in high school, I was very active in church. I was a leader in our church’s youth group—I led Bible studies and prayer groups. Someone at church—a college-aged student who was a mentor to me—he said that he believed I should consider ministry as a career, that maybe God was calling me to do that. And I thought, “Yeah, maybe so.”

So I told my parents—and they hit the roof! They got angry! Their attitude at the time was this: “Church and religion were all well and good. It’s important to ‘get right’ with God and be saved so you’ll go to heaven when you die. But let’s not get crazy. Let’s not be fanatical about it. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, it’s fiercely competitive, and when it comes to making it in the real world, you’ve got to get a good job that pays the bills. Ministers don’t make a lot of money,” they said.

The message my parents communicated to me, in so many words, was, “You cannot be a successful, productive, respectable member of society and be a minister. Do something else instead.”

And so I did… for a long time.

Don’t misunderstand me. My parents blessed me in so many ways, and later in life they both experienced a deepening, a strengthening, of their own Christian faith. But early on they tried to instill within me a definition of success that was mostly measured in terms of the Almighty Dollar rather than Almighty God!

Even today, there’s at least a small part of me that always feels as if I have something to prove: to myself, to my parents, to other people—to prove that I am successful. And I wonder, “Will there come a day when I won’t have anything left to prove, when I’ll know for sure that I’ve finally arrived, when it will be obvious to me and everyone else that I am a success?”

Without a miraculous spiritual change from within, I’m sure the answer to that question is no.

And it’s not just me: In the wake of Robin Williams’s suicide a couple of years ago, I read an interview with this amazing actor and comedian who won an Academy, multiple Golden Globes, Grammys, Emmys; had a number one prime-time TV show; starred in some of the most financially successful and critically acclaimed movies ever made; lived in mansions; dated supermodels; was beloved by millions. And what did he say about all this success? No matter what dizzying heights of fame and fortune you achieve, he said, “You bottom out… People say, ‘You have an Academy Award.’ The Academy Award lasted about a week, then one week later people are going, ‘Hey, Mork.’”

In other words, none of these things were enough for him to make him happy or contented in life—and I don’t think it’s just because he was depressed. If any of us are counting on people, or popularity, or money, or fame, or awards, or recognition, or any kind of material success to bring us happiness, we are going to be sorely disappointed. As Robin Williams indicated, we can’t live off those things for very long and be happy.

So we face the test: Is God enough for me? Is God enough for you?

And the quickest way to put this question to the test is for God to take everything away from us—which seems to be what God is going to do to Abraham. Is he willing to lose everything for God’s sake?

And of course, Abraham’s actions answer that question with a resounding yes!

That’s all well and good for him, but what about for the rest of us—who fail even the dumbed-down versions of this same test constantly? Is there hope for us?

The good news is, yes there is! And here’s where Jesus comes in. Because remember the theme of our sermon series? We’re finding Jesus in the Old Testament. We’re finding the gospel of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament.

In order to find the gospel in today’s scripture, we first have to understand the special meaning that God attaches to firstborn sons in ancient Israel.

Remember the tenth and final plague in the Exodus story, when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt? God sends an angel of death to kill all the firstborn sons in Egypt. But that’s not quite right: He actually sends the angel to kill all firstborn sons—including Israelite sons. Why would God kill the Israelites? They’re the “good guys.” No. They’re sinners who also deserve God’s judgment, wrath, and hell on account of their sins. And since God uses firstborn sons, symbolically, to represent the entire family, it’s as if the judgment for sin that falls on the firstborn falls on the entire family.

But God does something special for the Israelites: he offers them a way, by his grace, to save their firstborn sons. If the Israelites will sprinkle the blood of a lamb on their doorposts, the angel will “pass over” their homes and their firstborn sons will be spared. Otherwise, the firstborn sons of Israel also would have died along with the Egyptian firstborn.

And this pattern continues in the law that Moses gave the people: The firstborn son represents the family—and the family’s sins. This is why, later on in Exodus, we see that God requires all firstborn sons to be “redeemed”—literally, saved from the judgment for sin that falls on the family—and how are they spared from judgment? By offering a sacrifice.

At the end of the Christmas story, for example, Mary and Joseph go to the temple to offer this sacrifice on behalf of their firstborn son, Jesus—to redeem him.

It’s not that sacrificing a bull or a goat or a pigeon can begin to pay for people’s sins; the sacrificial system of ancient Israel wasn’t God’s plan A, and then, when that didn’t work, God tried Plan B, which was sending Jesus. No: God uses these sacrifices as a symbol to point the people to a sacrifice that really would atone for sin: the sacrifice of God’s Son Jesus.

So this is what’s going on in the background of today’s scripture: Abraham knows, first of all, that no matter how costly the sacrifice, what God is asking of Abraham is the just punishment for his sin.

But he knows something else, too: He knows about God’s grace. He knows, as he tells Isaac, that God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering. And God does—literally. The lamb is a substitute for Isaac. The lamb dies for the sins of Abraham and his family. The lamb dies, literally, in order that Isaac will live. The lamb is sacrificed in order to save Isaac’s life.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

Remember what John the Baptist tells his disciples when he first sees Jesus pass by: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

God is giving Abraham a glimpse of Jesus Christ and the cross. This is what Jesus means when he tells some Pharisees, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” He was seeing it in today’s scripture. First and foremost, Jesus is like the lamb, whom God provides, who dies in place of someone else. Jesus is also like the son, Isaac, who, like Isaac, literally carries the wood for his own sacrifice—the wood of the cross—and willingly offers himself as a sacrifice. And Jesus is also like Abraham, who passed every test on our behalf. So we don’t have to worry about the fact that we fail the test constantly—Jesus passed it for us.

Finally, God the Father is also like the father in today’s scripture, Father Abraham, who did not withhold his son, his only son, as the angel says in Genesis 22:16. In fact, the apostle Paul refers back to this verse in Romans 8, where he says, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?”

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, right here in Genesis 22.

There’s a verse that’s used in our Communion liturgy each month, Romans 5:8, that says: “But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!”

What does it mean to say, “God proves his love for us.” We might expect it to say, “Christ proves his love for us.” Jesus Christ is also God, that’s true. But I don’t think that’s Paul’s point; I think Paul is referring, as he usually does, to God the Father.

How does Christ’s death prove the Father’s love for us? For the same reason that you and I would fail the test that Abraham passed. We don’t love God enough to give up the thing that we treasure above all else! We couldn’t bear the pain of that sacrifice; we couldn’t go through with it, even if we were convinced that we ought to. It would hurt us too much!

But God the Father isn’t like us: he loves us sinful human beings so much that he suffers the pain of watching his only Son Jesus, whom he loves, die as a sacrifice for our sins. That’s what proves God’s love for us.

Do you know that God loves you like that? Do you know that God is for you and not against you? Do you know that because Christ passed every test there is now no condemnation for the rest of us, who constantly fail the test? Do you know that because Christ experienced separation from his Father on the cross, there is now nothing that separates us from God’s love? Do you know that God always lives up to his promises—even the ones that seem impossible, like his promise to forgive and save a sinner like you and me?

Do you know it? Do you really know it? If you know it, will you say “Amen”?

2 thoughts on “Sermon 05-29-16: “Isaac and the Sacrifice of Christ””

  1. Great Sermon, Brent!

    And, if we think about it, God asks each of us to give up that which/whom we really love most: Ourselves. We must die to this world. “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who gives up his life for me will gain eternal life”. Jn 12:25

    One other minor point. When God said he would strike down the first born of Egypt, he even included the animals. I always thought that was odd.

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