Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Journey of Faith - A Living Sacrifice

Preached on Sunday, November 6, 2016

Genesis 22:1-19

God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, his beloved son Isaac, as a burnt offering. This is one of the most horrific and mysterious events in the Bible.
There is only one other event in the Bible like it. That other event happened almost two thousand years after Abraham and Isaac. It’s also the story of a loving Father, and the sacrifice of his Son. We’ll talk about that later.
Walking under the Wires
Lower Crab Creek near the Columbia River
North of Desert Aire/Mattawa WA
God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, his beloved son Isaac, as a burnt offering. The strangest problem about this is that God did not want Isaac to die, or to be hurt in any way.
Abraham was of the same mind and believed, with as much faith as he could muster, that God (as he had always trusted God to be) would not want Isaac to die, or to be hurt. It was with this mind, with this agreement, that God and Abraham went to the mountain of sacrifice with Isaac the living sacrifice.
We don’t know how much Isaac knew about the test beforehand, let alone what he might have been feeling, not knowing what his father was up to, beside confusion and puzzlement. Whatever he was thinking, once they got to the mountaintop, Isaac was engulfed by a sickening terror in the face of what was being done to him by his father. Then, suddenly, that terror was followed by a confused and trembling relief. He was alive!
Why did God tell Abraham that he wanted Isaac sacrificed as a burnt offering, when he wanted no such thing? My head knows why, but my heart doesn’t.
Well, my head remembers what the Bible says. The Bible says that it was a test: not a temptation, but a test. The Bible is very clear that God may test, but doesn’t tempt. Even though the same word, in the Hebrew and in the Greek, is used for both testing and temptation, the difference is that God doesn’t lead or draw anyone to do what is wrong or evil. (James 1:13-14)
In this story, we know what would have been wrong. It would have been wrong for Abraham to disobey the Lord. And we know what would have been evil. It would have been evil for Abraham to kill Isaac. It would have been evil for God to want Abraham to kill Isaac.
If God had wanted Abraham to kill Isaac, he would not have been himself. If God is not himself, then what is he? Nothing good could come of that.
Here, the strange thing is that Abraham passed the test of faith by refusing to believe what he was told.
Abraham went through the motions of obeying what he was told. But he trusted God so much that he refused to believe what God said, or seemed to say.
More than once, the Bible tells us that Abraham was, and is, God’s friend. (Genesis 18:17-19; 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23) Teachers and examiners give tests to prove how much the examinees, or students, know, or don’t know.
God, as Abraham’s friend, already knew how much Abraham knew. God wanted to see Abraham putting his faith to work.
Sometimes you don’t completely learn something until you have had to do it yourself. You never really know how to fix a thing, or put something together, or cook a recipe, until you can do it yourself, by yourself, with the instructions put away. You simply don’t know what you really know until you do it by yourself.
Abraham wasn’t really by himself at all, but the test made him feel as though he was all on his own (and maybe it made him feel as though he was even without God, as he had learned to know God).
Abraham was trusting the God he knew and loved, even when God seemed to have changed. What God said made Abraham feel not only alone, but in the dark. This is part of what makes Abraham an example and model of faith for us.
God was his friend, and God was also the friend of his young son. Abraham believed this. Years of experience had taught him this; and so, now, even in the dark, he hoped against hope that both he and Isaac would make the trip back home again together, alive and well. He told the servants that they would both be back.
Abraham kept faith in what he knew about the Lord. He knew that the Lord would hate such a sacrifice.
This is hard stuff. Even so, it has a lot to teach us, since God can sometimes call for us to make difficult sacrifices.
Abraham lived surrounded by people who followed bad religions that called for horrible sacrifices: sacrifices exactly like the sacrifice of Isaac, except that those truly horrible sacrifices always ended in death. The gods of the Canaanites who lived in the land at that time, and the Phoenicians to the north, had numerous gods and goddesses who (it was claimed) could be pleased with human sacrifices.
Their gods claimed to offer great rewards for such terrible sacrifices. Parents believed that they could guarantee success in a project, or avert a disaster, by giving a child of theirs to a priest of Moloch or Baal for sacrifice by fire or by the knife.
Part of the test was whether Abraham and his descendants would believe that the Lord was such a god: a god who expected such unholy sacrifices. Would they believe that they could win God over, and get God to bless them, for making horrible sacrifices?
Black magic and voodoo can call for human sacrifice, and for the sacrifice of babies and children. Even now, it seems that there are fanatics of some religions who encourage children, or young people, to become martyrs by fighting soldiers, or by wearing bombs and blowing themselves up along with innocent bystanders. I don’t, for a moment, believe that Islam teaches this, but some fanatics who claim to be Muslim practice this.
I believe that when unborn infants are robbed of life for nothing more than the convenience and freedom of their mothers, it is a kind of evil sacrifice, because freedom and convenience are some of the false gods of our culture and our time. They are part of the false religion of our present day.
I also believe that many living children, and spouses, and families are wounded or sacrificed on the invisible altars of freedom and convenience; or for pride, or anger, or whatever feels good. Even Christians make these horrible sacrifices; to get their way, or to please themselves, or to address some dark need in themselves.
A while back someone asked me to list my priorities for them, in order. I told them that unless my first priority was my own relationship with God, I wouldn’t be any good to anyone else. Then I said that my next priority would be my relationship with wife and children and so on (if I had any). And then would come my relationship with my friends. Only then would come my relationship with the church.
How could I ever serve God’s people if I didn’t take care of my relationship with God, my family, and my friends? And my relationship with God demands that I protect family and friends and serve them. My relationship with God demands that I seek to be a blessing to others, in the proper order of things. How can anyone do otherwise?
Ministers sometimes sacrifice their family and friends to the church. Some people sacrifice family and friends to the god of work, or to money, or to their emotions and moods, or to the hurts of the past. These are all unholy sacrifices.
There is another thing for us to learn from the test that Abraham faced, in which he had to decide whether the Lord wanted Isaac dead or alive. It is possible for the people who believe in God to be afraid of God, and of what God will ask of them. They don’t really know that God is their friend in the best sense of the word.
For them God is a taker and not a giver. For them God is a grim reaper and not a life giver.
The Lord called upon Abraham and Sarah to leave a prosperous and secure life in one of the great civilizations of the ancient Middle East. God made them wanderers and nomads.
This could have seemed like robbery to them, that they were expected to leave what was familiar, and easy, and safe. But God didn’t rob them of life. God gave them an adventure instead. God gave them more life. God gave them abundant life.
They didn’t stop living. They began to live. They would be able to look back and see the difference. They had become alive as they never had been before. God called them to a life of faith.
Some sacrifices mean taking risks: they can seem dangerous, but they are on the cutting edge of life. To not be able to make good sacrifices is to not be able to live.
Marriage and parenthood are sacrifices that lead to more life. They also lead to more sacrifices than anyone can imagine who has not gone that way. But those sacrifices also lead to more life.
What it means to follow Jesus turns out to be exactly what he said about it. Jesus said, “If anyone would come with me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
Feeling called and moved to follow in the footsteps of the Christ, who died for you on the cross, can feel like a calling to be robbed. Of course it looks scary and hard.
It looks sacrificial. You have to give up things. You have to give up your very self. But you also get yourself back, better than before.
The Bible talks about being a living sacrifice to God, not a deadly sacrifice. (Romans 12:1) God wants us to make our own lives into a living sacrifice, not a killing sacrifice. It’s possible to do a lot of hard, challenging things, and to find yourself not wallowing in misery, but swimming in life.
I think that a lot of this comes because faith means seeing your life as a gift from God. In the giving that comes from God nothing is lost or wasted. Faith means believing how much you are loved, and staking your life (and all your risk-taking) upon that.
I believe that Abraham took Isaac to offer him as a living sacrifice. He told his men that the two of them would come back together to meet them. Abraham told his son that God would supply a lamb for the sacrifice. Faith means believing that other people, including the people you love most, the people you depend on most, are gifts from God.
When you love and trust God, you never make the people you love into wounded or deadly sacrifices. Making the people you love into living sacrifices means teaching them to go forth and live.
Entrust them to God, who made them. God loves them more than you do.
This faith is the difference between clinging and enjoying. It’s the kind of faith that any good mother and father must have in order to send forth resourceful, able, and wise children. It’s the kind of faith that grown children need to have to make their parents proud.
It’s the kind of faith that Christians need to have for the mission of Christ, and for the Body of Christ. We have to know that the mission of Christ, and Body of Christ, come from God, and that God loves them more than we do.
We are called to make the sacrifice of taking risks in order to give life to the mission of Christ and body of Christ. We will live more fully in the process of taking those risks. God wants to give us this kind of freedom, which is part of his abundant life, which comes to us through Christ.
Isaac returned home with his father, as a living sacrifice, because God provided another lamb as the real offering for that day.
But there was another offering to be made; an offering of infinite value. This would be the real sacrifice that gave life to all people, in all times and places. This sacrifice was the real lamb who died for Isaac and Abraham, for you and for me. That lamb was Christ.
There is this one other story of a horrendous and mysterious sacrifice. It involved the love of a Father, and the sacrifice of a Son. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) God the Father entrusted God his Son to the world as a gift of life.
The Good News of Jesus tells us about the love of God that is rich, and not poor; that is not life-robbing, but life giving. Jesus was a dying sacrifice that became a living sacrifice for us.
He died for us and rose for us. He gave till he could give no more, and then, suddenly, there was no end to his giving. This is the cross-love and the resurrection-love.
Jesus died to take away our sins so that we could be living, life-giving sacrifices, ourselves. This is who God is. We meet this God in Jesus.

Ages before the coming of God in Jesus, Abraham trusted that this God, as he knew him, must be something like that. This is why Abraham went to the mountain of sacrifice in faith. This is what it means to walk by faith in Christ.

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