June 3, 2010 David Balzer

Genesis 21-22: Testing 1,2,3

Horror stories – I hate them. Can’t imagine why people pay good money to be scared witless. But here’s a movie you probably don’t think of as a horror movie – Sophie’s Choice. At least, it’s a horror movie for anyone who’s a PARENT.

Sophie, played by Meryl Streep, is a Polish mother of two caught up in a Jewish extermination camp at the start of WW2. The horror comes as Sophie pleads for her life, and the lives of her children. A sadistic Nazi officer gives Sophie the horrific choice – “One of your children will live, and the other will die. You must CHOOSE which.”

As Sophie screams, “Don’t make me choose! I can’t choose”, they threaten to take BOTH children away. And so Sophie must choose to hand one of her children over to die in the gas oven.

Can you imagine the horror? Of having to choose the death of one of your children? It’s a choice that haunts Sophie for the rest of her life.

I’ve never seen the movie, or read the book. Can’t imagine I ever will. But I want to suggest that the story we’ve got here in Gen 22 ranks right up there in the Horror Story stakes.


But before we get to Ch 22, let’s do a quick catch-up. Way back in Ch 12, God promises Abram that he’ll BLESS him – make him into a great nation, give him a land. Abram’s 75 then.

There’s a few ups and downs along the way. Sometimes Abram has a hard time BELIEVING it, and other times he does pretty WELL.

By the time we get to Ch 17 v1. Abram’s 99. And Sarah’s pushing 80. And God says, in Ch 18, that before the year’s out, Abraham and Sarah will have a son. And Abram’s asked to KEEP TRUSTING GOD.

Good news – a Son!

Which brings us all the way to Ch 21, where we read that God FINALLY COMES GOOD ON HIS PROMISE. 9 chapters of build-up. 25 years of waiting. And here it is. V1

21:1 Now the LORD was GRACIOUS to Sarah AS HE HAD SAID, and the LORD did for Sarah WHAT HE HAD PROMISED. 2 Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, AT THE VERY TIME GOD HAD PROMISED HIM. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him.

Very matter-of-fact. No extra detail. But do you see what the emphasis is? God KEPT HIS WORD. Just like he’d promised. It might have SEEMED like he’d forgotten. But he CAME GOOD.

And it’s enough for everyone to throw a party! V6. Sarah’s CYNICISM is turned to JOY.

6 Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” 7 And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

Who would have thought it? Here at last, they’re holding the PRECIOUS CHILD the whole future depends on. The one God said he’d build into a great nation. Baby Isaac.

(pause) Which makes what happens in chapter 22 all the more gut wrenching. Because jump forward a few years, and God speaks to Abraham. You’ll see it there in v2. It’s enough to freeze your blood.

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 one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

Isaac’s Abraham’s pride and joy. The apple of his eye. The child he’s been waiting for/ for the last quarter century. And now God says take him. And kill him. As an offering TO ME.

Now there are OTHER gods who demand that sort of thing. Gods like Molech. Or Baal. But this is different. I mean, hasn’t God promised that Isaac’s the one who’s going to be the source of the descendants?

Who knows WHAT questions went through Abraham’s mind that night. I doubt he got any sleep at all. But look at what he does in the morning. V3.

Exactly what he’s told. He gets up, saddles the donkey. Takes two servants, enough firewood for the sacrifice. And little Isaac – the son he loves. The child of God’s promise. And he sets out.

And you can almost feel the tension in the air. Three days on the road. Probably barely a word spoken. Until they get to the foot of the mountain. And Abraham can see where he has to go. And he turns to the two servants and says. “Wait here. Look after the donkey. The boy and I will go on alone.”

And then he loads the wood on Isaac’s back – and Isaac carries it up the hill. Carrying the wood for his own sacrifice, side by side with his dad. And – chilling words there in verse 6 – “Abraham himself carried the fire… and the knife.” Ready to do the deed. In what may well be the most horrifying story in the bible.

And as they walk, young Isaac, in a frightened little voice, asks his dad a question – because he’s seen sacrifices before. And something’s missing. “The fire and the wood are here dad. But where’s the lamb for the offering?” It sends a shiver down the spine of every parent.

And, from somewhere, Abraham summons the response “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” Did he BELIEVE it, or was he trying to DECEIVE Isaac?

(pause) Either way, they arrive at the place God’s told him; and Abraham builds a pile of rocks. And then he takes the firewood off Isaac’s back, and he spreads it out on the rocks.

And then “he bound his son Isaac”, it says in verse 9, To stop him running away.” And he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.”

And then he reaches out his hand, and he takes his knife. You can imagine him pausing, taking a deep breath. The knife he’s going to use to sacrifice the son who he loves.

You want to yell out, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it! There’s got to be some other way!”

Are you one of those people who watch TV shows, and who TALK TO THE TV? We found ourselves doing it just this week watching HOUSE – the medical show. They were just about to amputate this little girl’s arm because they thought she had ONE disease. But then one of the doctors found out it was something ELSE. And the arm could STAY. But it looked like it was too late. They’d already begun to operate.

Time goes into slow motion as the surgeon’s scalpel gets closer and closer. They start the electric bone saw spinning…..

“Wait, wait. Don’t do it” we all yell at the TV screen.

Then the theatre nurse answers the phone, and holds up her hand to the surgeon. “Stop” she says. And we all breathe again.

And it’s the same here with Abraham. The knife is poised. Isaac is bound and helpless. But just then there’s a voice. ABRAHAM, ABRAHAM. V12. It’s an angel.

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.”

And we all breathe a sigh of relief. Especially Isaac. And perhaps even more especially, Abraham.

Testing, 1, 2, 3

Well, that’s the story on the surface. But let’s stop for a minute and have a look behind the scenes. And see things from a different perspective.

Because the fact is, we know already, don’t we? If you’ve been a careful reader, you’ll know we’ve been told right from verse 1. That God doesn’t really WANT Abraham to sacrifice Isaac at all. And that this is just a TEST.

If you go down to the Qantas base at Sydney Airport, they’ve got these life-size FLIGHT SIMULATORS. And as part of their training, Qantas pilots strap themselves into these machines, that look exactly like the cockpit of a plane, and they’re put through TESTS.

And the guy testing them in the control room can simulate all sorts of terrible situations – the EXTREMES. The once-in-a-lifetime situations. Like all the engines failing at once. Or a fire in the cargo hold. Or even like the left wing breaking off. And they watch these trainee pilots, to check out how they’re going to act under pressure. That’s how pilots are TESTED.

And it says exactly that if you have a look at verse 1.

“Some time later God TESTED Abraham.”

This is A TEST. To find out whether Abraham has finally learned what it means to TRUST THE PROMISES OF GOD… or not. Because that’s the big question we’ve been looking at all the way through this series, isn’t it? God’s promised Abraham over and over again that he’s going to make his descendants into a great nation. And Isaac’s at the heart of it.

Last week we saw Abraham’s faith looking kind of shaky. But now at last he’s got his promised son. SO DOES THAT MEAN HE’S LEARNT TO TRUST GOD? OR NOT?

God puts him to the test. He puts him in the simulator, runs him through the worst-case scenario. He cuts all the engines, and he sits back to watch.

Is Abraham going to trust him? Or not?

Well, have a close look. Because you can see all the way through the passage, he DOES. He PASSES with FLYING COLOURS.

Right up to the moment he reaches for the knife. All because he absolutely trusts the fact that God said he’d have a multitude of offspring through Isaac. And because that hasn’t happened yet, he knows Isaac’s got a future. Even if he plunges the knife into Isaac’s heart, he’s got a definite promise from God that Isaac has great prospects. Somehow! And he believes him.

There’s a passage in Hebrews 11 that says EXACTLY THAT. You might like to find it. Hebrews 11 verse 17 to 19 (p852). Listen to what it says – it’s a FASCINATING insight into what Abraham might have been thinking.

By faith, Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. ABRAHAM REASONED THAT GOD COULD RAISE THE DEAD. And figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.

Abraham trusts God’s promise. And believes God can even raise the dead. Even if Abraham has to do the unthinkable, he knows that God can bring Isaac back to life. So he’ll do what he’s TOLD. Which is exactly what faith is all about.

What an incredible picture of TRUST.

That’s Abraham. But what about US?

The difficult questions

I think, if we’re honest, it’s a passage that raises all sorts of difficult questions. Unsettling questions. Questions like,

1. Is God CRUEL?

Is God CRUEL? Vindictive? And MEAN? Where’s his LOVE?

Is this the sort of God who likes to perform little experiments on people – just for his own satisfaction. Is he like a little boy with a magnifying glass, burning up ants – just for the fun of it?

That’s ONE way of looking at Abraham’s test.

It’s a fairly important question, because if you’re in the midst of a difficult situation – something that really stretches your faith that God’s in control, and that he knows what he’s doing. Then you want to know that it’s all happening FOR A REASON. And not just because God wants to be MEAN, to have a little FUN at your expense.

It’s the sort of accusation SOME people make about God when they read this story.

But Hebrews 12 tells us/ that God’s not like that at all. (We were just IN Hebrews. The next chapter on. Why don’t you flick back there? (p852)

Hebrews 12 v7. Here’s the right attitude to have when things are tough.

7 Endure hardship as DISCIPLINE; God is treating you as SONS.

And a bit further on in v10.

10 Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us FOR OUR GOOD, that we may SHARE IN HIS HOLINESS. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

You see what it’s saying? The tests and trials that God might put US through are because he LOVES us. They’re designed FOR OUR BENEFIT. To STRETCH us. To EXERCISE us. To GROW us.

Yes, it’s TOUGH love, but it’s love that produces FRUIT – in this case – a godly character.

That’s how it worked with Abraham. God wanted to test his FAITH. To strengthen it. And it’s the same with US. Even if we can’t see the big picture. If we can’t see the HOW or the WHY. God wants us to keep trusting him. To keep growing in patience, and godliness and peace.

Is that the way life’s working IN YOU? Are you ENDURING the trials? With hope and trust and love in your HEAVENLY Father who’s DISCIPLINING you?

Or are you FAILING the test?

2. Will God test ME by asking me to sacrifice my kids?

That’s the first question. But there’s a SECOND question. A disturbing, unsettling question. And I guess it flows on from the first.

Might God test ME by asking ME to sacrifice my kids, or my perhaps my family?

At ONE level, I want to say NO. God will never ask you to kill or even harm your children. Remember, he didn’t want ABRAHAM to do it EITHER – it was only a TEST.

But there’s another level at which I want to say HE MIGHT. A DIFFERENT sort of sacrifice. Jesus said the greatest commandment – what God wants us to do MORE THAN ANYTHING, is to love him with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. With EVERYTHING. God wants us 100%.

Jesus put it even MORE starkly. Luke 14:26-33.

26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-yes, even his own life-he cannot be my disciple. 27 And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. … any of you who does not give up EVERYTHING HE HAS cannot be my disciple.

In other words, Jesus wants us to put HIM FIRST. To put him before EVERYTHING – family INCLUDED.

In some countries, for a person to choose Christ, means choosing to lose his family. Such is the shame of converting to Christianity, that in places like Egypt or China, a Christian convert will be DISOWNED by his family.

(pause) Jeff Read is the minister at Chatswood Presbyterian church. He was converted at Uni. His family is a mixture of Jews on his mum’s side, and Aussie pagans on his dad’s.

He invited them to the baptism of his fourth child the other week. And he preached an evangelistic sermon, and didn’t pull any punches. His sister got up and walked out during the sermon. Others left straight after church. A Jewish uncle stayed to the end, but was so furious with Jeff he refused to come to the hall for morning tea.

Jeff is choosing Jesus over his family. He’d love it if his family accepted him – but he’s not willing to give up on Jesus for the sake of that.

For many of us, the choice is not quite as stark. But maybe there are OTHER costs. Are you willing to put Jesus FIRST? Even if it means there are costs in your family.

Maybe there’s a sacrifice when it comes to your job, and your home. Perhaps God wants you to keep ONE job – even though it doesn’t PAY as well because it gives you time for ministry and church and family. And so your family squashes into a smaller house for HIS sake. Or maybe they miss out on OTHER things – going away on holidays, or a new bike – because you make giving to missionaries, or to church, a priority.

Both Lachlan and Daniel have had the opportunity to play representative sport. But it’s all on Sundays. And putting Jesus FIRST means we find them sport they can play on Saturdays.

I’ve just reading a biography of Ruth Bell Graham – the wife of Billy Graham. Most of her life was spent in the background. And she would agonise about leaving her four young children with her parents while she travelled overseas with Billy.

Mostly, she didn’t go, but Billy needed her support and guidance. One time, she was in England, and had organised to return home after one month of a three month mission. She missed her children terribly, but Billy said he couldn’t do without her.

She didn’t know what to do. She felt she was sacrificing her family whichever decision she took. Either Billy, or the kids were missing out. As she was weighing up the options, she received this letter from a retired missionary;

Dear Mrs Graham,

Have just heard of your problem to stay with your husband or go to the four children and am praying. In case God says  STAY, I feel constrained to send you a quotation from a friend’s letter to me many years ago when we had to let the last of our five children leave us and we had to stay in China. She wrote, You have the right to ask the Mighty One to do more for them than he could if you were with them. OPEN THY MOUTH WIDE!

HE HAS BEEN FAITHFUL TO THE PROMISES and kept and used all five. I am writing this at the request of our youngest, who says she can testify to the fact that the Lord didn’t let them down!

If the Lord says, Go, HE WILL CARE FOR YOUR HUSBAND BETTER THAN YOU CAN, and as your choice is HIS, he will surely make that will clear.

In other words, you can trust God’s promises. He is GOOD, and GENEROUS and trustworthy. Lean on him and he’ll support you. Shelter under his wings and he’ll protect you.

Place yourself and your family into his care. And he will never let you down.

It was a letter from someone who took seriously Jesus’ promise in Luke 18:29-30

9 “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God   30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”

God is TESTING you. Will you pass the test? Will YOU trust God’s promises?

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