A Time of Testing - First Sunday in Lent
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Genesis 22:1-18
February 21, 2021

I invite you to spend some time with me this morning wrestling with the Old Testament reading today, Genesis 22:1-18. It is the story of when God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering on Mt. Moriah. This is one of the richest and most challenging readings in all of Scripture.

One day, God called to Abraham by name. “Abraham.” Abraham said, “Here I am.” God said, “Take Isaac, your only son, the son that you love very much, and go to the land of Moriah and offer Him to Me there as a burnt offering” (22:1-2).

Without questioning God, without flinching, Abraham did as God told him to do. He saddled his donkey. He chopped up some firewood. He took two men who were servants in his household. He took Isaac. He took fire with him. He set off for the land of Moriah. He also took the knife by which he would slay Isaac for the offering. Abraham was prepared to see God’s command through to the end, until the Angel of the Lord stopped him (Genesis 22:11-12).

Scripture tells us that it was a time of testing for Abraham (Genesis 22:1). We may have lots of questions. Let’s ask some. Let’s ask why the test and what its purpose was. Then let’s ask how Abraham passed the test, so to speak. Then let’s also ask what else God was doing.

Why the test and what was its purpose?

In answering this, we notice a difference between testing and temptation in our readings today. In the story of Abraham, God was testing Abraham. In the Gospel reading, Jesus was being tempted by the devil (Mark 1:12-13). James also talks about being tempted by our own wayward desires (James 1:14). When God tested Abraham, it was for the purpose of strengthening and deepening Abraham’s faith, the faith Abraham already had. When the devil tempts us, or when we are tempted by desire that is contrary to God’s will, the purpose is to get us to fall away from God.

When it comes to growing in faith in God, testing has to do with growing in fearing, loving, and trusting God above all things. Testing is an opportunity in faith to yield to God, or to hold nothing as more valuable than God and God’s word, or to bring one’s own judgment into captivity to God’s word and faith, depending upon the specific circumstances of the test. Was Abraham’s loyalty and love of Isaac greater than his loyalty and love for God? Was Abraham’s fear of losing Isaac more powerful than his fear of losing God? This was the question involved in God’s testing of Abraham that day.

By the way, I haven’t said anything in here about a time of testing being easy. This is because there is nothing easy about it, as you know. You can imagine how, from another perspective, Abraham’s heart was breaking as, in faith, he obeyed God, as faith compelled him to do. He stuck with God as faith compelled him to do, even when God was commanding an immensely difficult thing. The time of testing for us is will we stick with God even when we want a different answer than the answer we seem to be getting.

So how did Abraham pass the test, so to speak? How did Jesus withstand temptation?  

Abraham passed the test by faith. Jesus withstood temptation by faith. But this is not a blind faith, a leap in the dark. It is, rather, a faith shaped by, informed by, and filled with God’s word. It is a faith that has grown over time through God’s word and experience with God in life. God did not approach Abraham on that day with that immensely difficult test just out of the blue. Abraham was already a man of faith and experience with God and His Word. You will see this if you read through the story of Abraham starting at Genesis 12. Pay attention to how many times God spoke to Abraham and appeared to him.

This fact is vitally important if we ask how Abraham could be sure that it was God and not the devil telling him to go and sacrifice Isaac. How could he know it was testing from God and not temptation from the devil? In fact, at the very beginning of all this, we may want to cry out: How could God? But then we may also want to cry out next: how could Abraham?

Part of the answer is that this is not the first time God had approached and spoken to Abraham. By this time, Abraham has had at least 37 years of experience with God appearing to him and speaking to him. God called Abraham out of the Ur of the Chaldees when Abraham was 75 years old (Genesis 12:1-4). He was 100 years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5). Let’s say Isaac was about 12 years old at the time of our story today. That would make 37 years. By the time of our story, Abraham has had the experience of receiving God’s promise when God appeared to him. He has had the experience of God fulfilling His promise when Isaac was born. God created Abraham’s faith by speaking to him, appearing to him, promising to him, and fulfilling His promise. This is just to say that Abraham knew God. When God spoke to Abraham on this occasion, it was the same God who had spoken to him on many prior occasions. Abraham knew who it was.

There was still something new and profound in God’s test, to be sure. But the test was taking Abraham deeper and further. To be taken deeper and further, Abraham had to have prior experience with God and prior faith, that could be taken deeper and further. It was not a leap in the dark. It was stepping forward in the light of faith at the point of God’s word and much experience walking with God.

So it is for you in your time of testing.

As a little aside, it has been a concern of modern and contemporary people and theology that God is so transcendent in some traditional theology that we wonder if God “feels” anything, when we see the suffering and evil involved in the human story. Without implying weakness in God, however, can we speak of God’s heart breaking, so to speak, as He contemplates what He will do, when He tests Abraham? Well, it is not 100% correct to speak that way of God; yet, God is not removed from us, insulated from us. God has a way of sorting this out while still remaining God. But God is not removed from our experience. He is right in the middle of it in His Son. He does the really hard thing in order to redeem us.

Now we say that Abraham passed the test by faith. But just exactly what was this faith? We see this faith when Isaac asks him where the lamb is for the burnt offering. Abraham replied, “God will provide for Himself the lamb, my son” (Genesis 22:8). God will provide. This is the essence of Abraham’s faith here. God will provide.

God is testing me beyond what I think I can bear. It is breaking my heart. It was breaking Abraham’s heart to hear God’s command and to do what his faith in God compelled him to do. But even in the midst of this, Abraham’s faith believed and hoped with a mighty power that came not from human strength: “God will provide.”

What will God provide? He will provide what we need under the circumstances of the test. Abraham is sure that God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering. God will provide the substitute for Isaac. That is what he needed that day. For us what we need could be some physical resolution. It could also, however, be a power for a deepening faith that comes from God’s working in us through His word.

How could Abraham have such confidence that God would provide? It stems from Isaac being the son of promise. God had promised on numerous occasions and very solemnly and wonderfully to Abraham that God was going to make a great nation out of Abraham through Abraham’s only son. Would God now be contradicting Himself so completely and showing Himself to be faithless in keeping His promises and really allow Isaac to die? And even if God allowed me to go through with it, says Abraham, I will receive Isaac back from the dead, because God’s promise cannot fail (Hebrews 11:19). God will provide because God has promised that Abraham’s offspring shall come about through Isaac.

Faith born from experience with God; faith born of the promise; such faith that believed most confidently, God will provide; such faith was how Abraham passed the test.

This faith enabled Abraham to pass the test when we consider something more. It seems that the test presents itself to us as an either/or. But then the either/or presents itself as a loss on either side. Either God or Isaac, but not both. If I follow God, I lose Isaac. If I cling to Isaac, disregarding God’s command, I lose God.

But Abraham’s faith that God will provide enabled him to cut through the either/or. It taught him to respond rather in a sort of win-win.

The win-win works like this. Maintain faith in God as absolute. But this faith in God is faith in the God who will provide. Maintain faith in God as absolute, while also having the hope of God’s resolution: God will provide. This faith generates the power of hope. This enabled Abraham to obey God’s command in faith, while also having the powerful hope that he was not going to really lose Isaac, not ultimately. God will provide. It isn’t over, not finally, not ultimately, when our faith is in God will provide. It is not even really over even if there is physical death. Jesus says, the one who loses one’s life for my sake, shall surely find it (Matthew 16:25).

The last question we are going to ask today is this: what else was God doing in this testing of Abraham? The answer to this is actually the ground under Abraham’s feet. It is the ground under our feet. When God told Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering, God was not asking Abraham to do something that God was not already Himself prepared to do. But ultimately, it is only God that can do this.

“God will provide the lamb” (Genesis 22:8) is full of meaning; like a double-meaning. On that day, there was a ram caught in some scrub brush by its horns. That ram was the substitute for Isaac on that day. It was not really a lamb, though, was it.

So there was another substitute that God had in mind by which God stopped Abraham from slaying Isaac on that day. This “lamb” is the true substitute for Isaac. It was God’s own beloved Son. God had to provide a way to fulfill His command to Abraham that day. So He provide the ram. But that ram was not the ultimate fulfillment; it was not the lamb that God ultimately had in mind.

And so Abraham named Mt. Moriah the Lord will provide: as it is said: On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided. And so it was on Mt. Moriah, outside the city gates of Jerusalem, at the place of the skull called Golgotha, one day many centuries later. There on the mount of the Lord, it was provided: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). And there the promise to Abraham through Isaac the son of promise was fulfilled: blessing from God came to all the nations of earth (Genesis 22:18). For there, God gave His only Son, out of immense and profound love and sacrifice for all.

So God gives us the faith to see us through the time of testing; for God has given us His Son. Amen.  


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