A Terrible Sacrifice

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My junior year of college I thought I had met “the one.” He loved Jesus, was smart, funny, kind etc. But after a while things started going south and we were at an impasse. We agreed we needed to also pray about our relationship even though we both knew deep down we just needed to end this hot mess. Eventually we acknowledged to each other the need to break up, but in that moment he said: “I hope this is just like the time in Genesis when God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but at the last moment the angel swoops in and tells him not to.” Let’s take a moment to parse out that comment. What is more at stake: Two college kids ending a relationship that really needed to end or a parent sacrificing their only child? I agree. It’s the latter.  To be perfectly honest this passage never sat well with me. And I like it even less since becoming a parent. While God’s word always assures us of God’s love we are not always going to like what God has to say to us. This is a difficult passage, but it’s a part of God’s word so we can’t ignore it. How could an all-loving God ask such a terrible thing of a father? If God is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8) then does this mean God can demand the same terrible sacrifice of any parent today? Does God continue to test us to be reassured of our devotion to him?  Many see the faithfulness of Abraham as the focus of this passage. So deep was Abraham’s faith that he was willing, without question or hesitation, to kill his son in obedience to God. Even though by killing Isaac it nullifies the covenant God made with Abraham, promising to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. That through Abraham’s descendants, God will bless the world. That would’ve all been thrown out the window with the death of Isaac. It is true that Abraham was faithful. But that’s only one piece we are to take away from this passage. The focus of this passage is actually more about God’s faithfulness. It’s safe to say that all of scripture is more about God’s faithfulness than the faithfulness of anyone else. Throughout the entire story of Abraham and Sarah, we see how God remains faithful to them despite their unfaithfulness to God. It begins when Abraham and Sarah leave behind everything and everyone they’ve ever known in order to travel to the land that God promised to Abraham (which, by the way, they have no idea where it is). It’s fine for a while until they get to Egypt.  When a famine occurs, Abraham decides they need to stay in Egypt for a while. Egypt was the breadbasket of the ancient Near East as the Nile River made the soil great for farming. As a result, Egypt was less likely to be suffering from famine as the surrounding areas. Sarah, though on in years, was still beautiful. Abraham felt this would be detrimental to his well-being because he predicted that the Pharaoh would kill him so he could take Sarah as his wife. Instead of trusting God to protect them, Abraham lies to the Pharaoh by presenting Sarah as his sister instead of his wife. The Pharaoh believes Abraham and takes Sarah as his wife, and because he thinks Abraham is Sarah’s brother he makes sure that Abraham is provided for.  Abraham’s lack of faith does not please God, so God afflicts Pharaoh and everyone in his household. The Pharaoh eventually  figures out that Abraham lied to him and sends him and Sarah away from Egypt. Instead of punishing him for his lack of faith, God instead makes sure that Abraham and Sarah are not harmed when they very well could have been executed by the Pharaoh. A short while later, Sarah is growing ever more impatient as she has yet to have a son, as that was part of God’s covenant. She encourages Abraham to take Hagar, one of their slave girls, so that Hagar would bear him a child. Abraham listens to Sarah instead of trusting God. Troy preached on this difficult passage last week. As you recall Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, but Sarah, afraid that Ismael will be a threat to her future child’s inheritance, sends Hagar and her baby away. Once again Abraham and Sarah have failed to trust God and took matters into their own hands. In Genesis chapter 20, Abraham and Sarah continue their journey, but once again fail to trust in God’s protection. Again Abraham lies about Sarah being his sister, causing a King by the name of Abimelech, who just like Pharaoh, believes Abraham and takes Sarah as his wife. God, however, visits Abimelech in a dream and tells him about Abraham’s lie and affirms Abimelech’s innocence in this situation. God also tells him if he doesn’t return Sarah to Abraham his life won’t be spared.  Yet despite Abraham’s unfaithfulness as well as Sarah’s unfaithfulness, God remains faithful. God does not break the covenant he made with Abraham. God remains faithful to both Abraham and Sarah. God also spares those affected by Abraham and Sarah’s failure to trust God. God spares the Pharaoh’s life and all those in his household. God provides for Hagar and her son, Ishmael. God goes as far as to affirm Abimelech’s integrity for believing Abraham’s lie about Sarah being his sister. It is God’s faithfulness that moves Abraham and Sarah forward in their journey to where God wants them to go.  After this long soap opera series of events, Sarah gives birth to Isaac and finally Sarah and Abraham are parents. With the birth of Isaac comes the reality of Abraham’s descendants becoming as numerous as the stars in the sky just as God promised. Their joy is short lived, however, when God asks him to make a terrible sacrifice. Of all the times when Abraham could’ve disobeyed God it’s this moment, of all moments, that he chooses to be obedient. There’s a part of me that resonates with Bob Dylan’s song “Highway 61 revisited” where he references this passage. Dylan sings: “God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but The next time you see me comin’, you better run.”  That’s right, Abraham. Run. Take your one and only child and go! But he doesn’t. He gets up early and gathers everything needed for this terrible sacrifice including his one and only son that he loves: Isaac. Isaac has no idea what’s been asked of his father. He even asks his Dad: “Everything is ready for the burnt offering, the wood, the flames, but where is the lamb itself?” To which his father tenderly replies: “God himself will provide the lamb, my son.” I can only imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind as he slowly walked with his one and only son toward the altar. But when they come to the altar where God instructed Abraham to go, Abraham ties up his son and lays him on top of the wood and is about to kill him when an angel swoops down at the last minute yelling: “Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him! For now I know you fear God since you have not withheld your son, your one son, from me.” Abraham looks up and sees a ram caught in the thicket and he knows that this is the sacrifice God has provided. This passage ends with the naming of the altar as: “The Lord provides.” Notice the language used in this passage:  “Take your son, your only son whom you love.” “God will provide the lamb.” Isaac carries the wood that he himself is about to be laid upon as a sacrifice. The angel cries: “you have not withheld your son, your only son.” Where else have we heard this language in Scripture?

“For God so loved the World he gave his one and only son.”–John 3:16

“And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’”-John 1:36

“and (Jesus) carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha.”-John 19:17

“And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”–Hebrews  10:10

The sacrifice of Isaac foreshadows the sacrifice that was to end all sacrifices. The sacrifice God made in giving up “his one and only son.” His son “whom he loved and with whom he was well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Just as God provided for Abraham and Isaac, in Jesus Christ God provides for us all. What the sacrifice of Isaac, or any sacrifice for that matter, could not do, was accomplished by the sacrifice of Jesus. Another way to say it is what we couldn’t do, God did for us on the cross.  If the focus of this passage was supposed to be about Abraham then the altar should’ve been named: “The faithfulness of Abraham.” But it’s not. Instead it is named: “The Lord provides.” God always provided for Abraham. God provided when Abraham was not faithful and when Abraham was faithful. This isn’t about what Abraham did or didn’t do, but about what God will always do. Even in the midst of our unfaithfulness God remains faithful.  While the focus of this passage is about God’s faithfulness, this doesn’t mean we’re completely off the hook. If we truly believe in God’s unending faithfulness then we can’t help but respond by becoming more faithful. By being more willing to sacrifice in response to Christ’s sacrifice for us. We are more apt to sacrifice for others as a way of loving and glorifying God.  Lou Mahlnati’s is a local pizza chain based in Chicago that arguably makes the best Chicago style pizza. I realize that might be a controversial statement. They have restaurants all over the Chicago area. In 1995, they were convinced by Wayne Gordon, Pastor of the North Lawndale Community Church to open a restaurant in their community, a predominantly African American neighborhood and one of the poorest in Chicago. North Lawndale is what you’d call a “food desert.” There aren’t many grocery stores, let alone family restaurants. The vision was that through this restaurant jobs would be created, creating income that would then be put back into local businesses, and all of the proceeds would be poured back into the community for things such as after-school programs. Above the restaurant were two apartments where families in transition could live for low rent until they were able to get on their feet.   It was a sacrifice for the owners of Lou Mahlnati’s to build this location. They could’ve made a lot more money had they built another location in a wealthier neighborhood. In fact it took 16 years for the North Lawndale location to make any sort of profit. But for the owners of Lou Mahlanti’s it was worth the sacrifice. It was worth the sacrifice as they wanted to partner with the residents of that struggling community who were working tirelessly towards making their community a stronger and a safer one.  When we ponder the sacrifice Christ made on the cross we are more apt to respond by sacrificing our time, our money, our resources for the sake of others. When we consider that Christ continues to be faithful even when we are not, we are humbly moved to return to Christ when we’ve strayed away. Because it is in Christ we see that indeed the Lord has provided.