A postcard from the edge (Gen 22) – part four

This week, we’re looking at the (in)famous story of Abraham and the command to sacrifice his son, Isaac. If you’re just joining us today, you really need to begin from the start of the story on Monday. We began by asking: why would God ask Abraham to do such a thing? On Tuesday, we looked at one part of the answer: God is showing that as Creator he has the right to ask for such a sacrifice – unlike the pagan, so-called ‘gods’ of the region who regularly demanded child sacrifice. Yet despite having the right, he doesn’t. He’s different from the gods around. And yesterday, we saw that maybe he did it in such a graphic, traumatic way in order to take Abraham (and us) to the brink – to fully appreciate an existence without a God who is loving, and merciful.

It makes us savour all the more how different our God is.

Abraham firmly believed that God would provide. Somehow. When Isaac asked where was the lamb for the sacrifice, Abraham replied ‘God himself will provide.’ Even as they climbed the mountain, what little he knew of God told him this: that he would prove himself to be different from all other gods.

God still requires a penalty to be paid for our rebellion, but he is different in that he provides the payment himself. In Genesis he provided an animal sacrifice in place of firstborn. And in the New Testament he provides payment in the person of himself, Jesus. In this way, he shows that we can’t earn our way to be right with him – it’s a gift from him.

So, having peered over the brink of a life without God, our gratitude should be all the more intense, having seen what we were saved from.

Abraham was saved from a life of having to earn approval from pagan gods, since God himself took the initiative to pay the price.

We were saved from a life of having to earn approval from our gods (that we talked about yesterday), since the price has been paid in Jesus:

  • Career – we can now say no to chasing money, prestige & power; we have all the significance we need in Jesus. God himself has provided!
  • Other people’s approval – who needs to chase it – we are accepted & secure in Jesus. God himself has provided!
  • Pleasure – we have heaven to look forward to, and even now can find true delight in the most worthy, pure, excellent being in the universe. God himself has provided!
  • Drugs and alcohol – we can say no to running away from reality, because we now have a changed reality through what Jesus did for us on the cross. God himself has provided!
  • Absolution – we can find true forgiveness through Jesus. He made the atonement for our past behaviour, there is no longer a price to be paid. God himself has provided!

So what at first glance looked like a cruel demand from a heartless God has ended up being a revelation of the depth of God’s mercy: how different he is from the gods we’ve invented for ourselves. It’s still a harsh, disturbing, attention-demanding story. And like Kirkegaard, we ought never to ‘get over it’ completely – never think we’ve explained it all and can therefore put it back in its box. But hopefully through our encounter with it, we’ve learned a bit more about our untameable God.

How do we respond?

Now, having learned that about our ‘different’ God, we can begin to contemplate Abraham’s and our response. Abraham’s role was faith. Specifically, faith in two ways:

Firstly, Abraham was to trust God so much, that whatever happened, he relied on God to provide, not himself. He’d tried it the other way with Hagar and Ishmael, trying to fulfil God’s promises in his own strength, and ended up in a mess. So here God was giving him another chance to prove his trust.

From a human perspective, killing the child of the promise – the one through whom Abraham would become the father of many nations – seemed like a dumb idea. What was God thinking? But that was the faith-challenge: to trust God that he knew what he was doing, and simply do as he was told. 

Secondly, Abraham was to be willing to give up that which is most dear to him for God – in his case it was a concrete reality, his son.

But for us it is something perhaps even more dear to us, though we would be loathe to admit it – our autonomy, the rule of our lives. To be willing to give up our very lives to gain eternal life. (Mt 10:39b ‘whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.’)

In short: Abraham had enough faith to be willing to give up his son for God. The son other gods might have demanded to earn their favour. But instead, God himself provided the sacrifice, a ram, and Abraham got back his son.

For us, we’re called to have enough faith to be willing to give up our lives for God. The life other gods demand to earn their favour, sacrificing at the altar of career, money, pleasure, approval, self, etc..  But instead, God himself provided the sacrifice, Jesus, and we get back our lives for eternity.

Let us be thankful. How thankful may indeed depend on how far God let us peer over the brink of a life without him, before he snatched us back. For Jesus said (Lk 7:47b) ‘He who has been forgiven little loves little.’

Yet we have all been saved from the same fate: a life without God both now, and into eternity. We have been forgiven so much. Let’s be very thankful.

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