"What Sort of God Is This?" (Gen. 22:1-22)
The First Sunday in Lent (February 21, 2021)
As you are all keenly aware, many of our fellow Americans as still suffering greatly from various evils or tragedies. Severe wintery weather this past week has wreaked havoc and even death upon many of our southern fellow citizens, especially in Texas. On top of this there are still many families across the nation, not to mention the world, who are suffering the ill effects of the Covid pandemic as well as the often devastating consequences of many ill-conceived mandates and executive orders by many government officials; such as, not adequately protecting the most vulnerable, shutting down of many small business causing millions of job losses and thousands of businesses to close for good, the ongoing prevention of in-class learning for hundreds of thousands of students and still in many places preventing people from gathering together to worship by imposing huge fines and even jail time.
Of course, as per usual, no one is willing to take any blame for all this suffering. Instead, politicians and citizens alike are casting blame on anyone and everyone, but, of course, unwilling to shoulder any responsibility themselves. Frequently, however, you will hear people, including some preachers, cast blame on God. The latest example I heard was from a woman who was advocating that all the misery and destruction Texas was experiencing was because God was punishing them for electing so many Republican leaders. Of course, there is no suffering going on in Democrat controlled cities and states, right! God must be approving of their policies and government strategies!
C’mon! This is one of the oldest ploys in the book of “passing the buck” of culpability; blame those with whom you disagree as being on the wrong side of God and, thereby, incurring God’s righteous wrath or angry indignation toward all of us. Even Jesus’ own Twelve disciples tried to paint God with this same brush of angry vengeance when they were confronted with a man who was born blind. They were bold to ask of Jesus, “Who sinned? This man or his parents that He was born blind?”(John 9:2). Did it not occur to them that they were accusing God of being unjust and the punisher of the innocent?
Now, it is pretty apparent that some today are purposely doing just that, making God some kind of uncaring, sadistic, monster who loves to see the weak, vulnerable, and innocent suffer all the while turning a blind eye toward the sins of evildoers, whom it seems He even blesses.
You and I can even be tempted to think this way also. We see all the suffering around us and, perhaps, even in our own lives, and we question God’s integrity and the sincerity of His love to the point that we come this close to accusing Him of being uncaring, unloving, even a God who likes to see us in misery and pain.
What kind of God is our God anyway? Why does He allow those He says He loves to suffer… to undergo extreme trial… temptation…seemingly impossible challenges?
The whole issue serves to raise the question as to how well any of us Christians understand our God? Do we truly know Him or do we simply know a god we have created in our own image… a god we can quote to support our personal biases and agendas?
The Holy Bible does, after all, present us with a true paradox when it comes to God’s true nature. On the one hand He is portrayed as the God who raises His sword of wrath against the wicked and, yet, on the other, He is also pictured as the God Who is willing Himself to suffer the humiliation and torment of the cross.
Is this not the real question confronting us every Lenten season? “What sort of God is this?” Can the same God who creates all things simply by the power of His Word, who destroys wicked mankind in the great flood, Who has thundered down His holy will for us in the form of Ten Commandments, be the same God Who is rejected by His own people, humiliated before the gentiles and ultimately impaled to a Roman cross? What sort of God is our God?
A person cannot read this text from the 22nd chapter of Genesis and not also be left to ponder: What sort of God is This? Here we see the LORD God command his faithful servant Abraham to literally reduce his beloved son, Isaac, to cinders and ashes. At the same time, as Mark tells us in our Gospel reading, this same God casts His own Son, Jesus, out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan for 40 days! Does this sound like the God of love? What sort of God is He?
As a parent myself, it is hard to even fathom such a request! I know the pure agony of losing a child to death through sickness or an accident. But to be asked by God to kill your child? Why, that is unthinkable! What sort of God is this?
To appreciate the dilemma Abraham faced, we must keep in mind that Isaac was more than a son. He was the son of God’s promise. Abraham and Sarah could not have children. God had closed up Sarah’s womb. Yet, God had always given them the promise that even in their old age He would give them a son. God further promised that in this son’s descendant, literally a singular “seed,” the whole world would be blessed. As it is acknowledged in many places in the Bible, this was the promise that the Messiah, the Savior of the world, would come from Isaac’s line.
Doesn’t God seem to be speaking contradictorily by asking Abraham to sacrifice this son of promise? Martin Luther once commented, “…either that the promise is lying or that the command is not God’s but the devil’s. For there is a plain contradiction. If Isaac must be killed, the promise is void; but if the promise is sure, it is impossible that this is a command of God”(L, p.95).
But Abraham could not escape it. He wasn’t imagining things! It was God’s voice that commanded him to do such an awful thing. The devil might have delighted in the prospect, but it was God Who was being Abraham’s adversary! What sort of God was this to give a son of promise only to take him away again?
Indeed, what sort of God is it, Christian, who allows you to suffer from covid? … Who permits your child or other family member to die? … Who allows an infant to be born with congenital defects so that he will be severely handicapped the rest of his life? … Who seems to be constantly putting up one road block after another preventing you from getting ahead in your life? … What sort of God would allow selfish, arrogant, power-hungry and/ or immoral politicians to get into places of power in our nation?
I believe a two-fold answer to the question of what sort of God is our God is given to us in this text. We are shown, first all, through God’s dealings with Abraham that our God is a God who earnestly desires His people to hold to His promises no matter what.
Moses, as God’s writer of Genesis, begins his whole account by calling this bizarre request God made of Abraham exactly what it is: “a test.” Depending on its usage and the context, the word translated test here could mean either a testing or a temptation. One has a positive connotation and the other quite negative one. A test is a challenge to do right... to see what you are made of. A temptation, on the other hand, is an attempt to get one to slip up, do wrong. When God tests, or tempts, it is always with the former purpose not the latter. In other words, it is always God’s attempt to put one’s faith in action and do the right thing; that is, “to trust” Him. In the Epistle of James we read: “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone” (James 1:12).
We rightly stand in total awe and admiration of how Abraham, and yes, even his son Isaac, handled their test. It was the ultimate sacrifice. Yet, neither of them balked or even questioned it? For his part, Abraham was totally resolute to carry out this mission and sacrifice his son of promise.
And if the scholars are correct in the surmising that Isaac was probably about 13 years old at the time, then Isaac’s willing submission to this whole scenario is also truly amazing. As God Himself acknowledged when He spared Isaac’s life at the last moment, Abraham and Isaac passed the test of faith with flying colors.
Clearly, no amount of human staying power, intestinal fortitude, conviction, love, or even rationalization would have enabled Abraham and Isaac to pass this test. Their strength, their faith, could not have come from within themselves. It had to come from somewhere else.
And, indeed, it had come from somewhere else. Their trust in God, even when it looked as though God Himself was their enemy, came from the very promise God had previously given them that Seed of Isaac would bring blessing to all the nations. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of that bold conviction of faith. We read: “He (Abraham) considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received (Isaac) back as a type.”
You see, this is the sort of God our God is: He tests His children that He might remove all false and weak supports in their lives and replace them with an immovable, solid, stalwart, confidence in God’s Word of promise alone.
In times of trial some people console themselves with the thought that God will never give them more than they can handle. Indeed, God has said through His apostle Paul, “God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
The key, however, to understanding this promise is not that God won’t give us some unfathomable tests or that He won’t ever give us a test that we in and of ourselves can’t handle. After all, given all our frailties, we can handle little to nothing. Rather the key is that God always gives us the way out. That way out is faith in His promise. The test under God’s grace is always designed to enable us to see that we have no strength... we can’t make it on our own... that all our earthly supports are useless. The test then in turn moves us to look beyond ourselves and our own resources and to see that God in Christ is our solution. For, as God said to St. Paul, “My strength is made complete in your weakness. When you are weak then I am strong.”
This is the sort of God you have. He is the God who tests you to look to His Word of Promise alone because then you will be safe, comforted, and victorious in His grace and strength. Martin Luther wrote: “One must act similarly (as Abraham) in all other trials. Wherever we experience the opposite of promise, we should maintain with assurance that when God shows Himself differently from the way the promise speaks, this is merely a temptation. Therefore we should not allow this staff of the promise to be wrested from our hands.” (p. 94).
With this understanding, now we are ready to see the second valuable truth about what sort of God our God is. For through God’s dealing with Abraham and Isaac, we are made to see that God is the God, who in unfathomable grace and love for us, is willing to provide the sacrifice Himself!
Abraham did just as He was told. He gathered all he would need and headed off with Isaac and two of servants for the mountain God had directed him. It took three days to reach their destination. Imagine the increasing agony and trepidation that must have consumed this father’s heart with every passing mile. The life of his poor ,naïve, son was about to be brutally ended and by his own hand!
When they reached the mountain, Abraham commanded his servants to stay behind. He then loaded the wood for the burnt offering on Isaac, took up the makings for the fire and the instrument of his death, the knife, and walked up the face of the mountain to the place of the sacrifice.
As they walked the most agonizing dialogue ever between a father and a son took place. Isaac asked his father, “Father, the fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham’s heart must have died within him!
The words, “You are the sacrifice, son,” however, did not come from this father’s lips. Instead, came Abraham’s reply, “God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” This was no white lie; no attempt to protect Isaac from learning the horrible truth. Abraham’s response was humble confidence in God’s loving nature and faithfulness to His promise. As we heard from the holy writer to the Hebrews, Abraham was so confident that God would not go back on His promise that even if he allowed Isaac to die at Abraham’s hand, He would raise him from the dead (Hebrews 11:19)
Abraham’s hope did not go unfulfilled. After Abraham had bound Isaac, in the fashion of sacrifices, and set him on the altar, he raised his knife to cut Isaac’s throat. At just the right moment, when God could see that Abraham was going to carry it out, He immediately stayed Abraham’s hand. By the mouth of His angel, the LORD called out to Abraham, “Do not lay a hand on the boy. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Then Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught by his horns in the bushes next to the altar. Abraham understood. He took hold of the ram and sacrificed it on the altar in place of his son. The LORD “saw to it Himself.” He provided the sacrifice. Isaac was set free from physical death and Abraham from emotional death! What a remarkable end to a remarkable test! Abraham called the place: “The Lord will provide.”
One is hard-pressed to listen to the account of Abraham’s testing and not see the parallel to God the Father supplying for you and me an even greater sacrifice. In fact, as we heard earlier, the writer to the Hebrews also noted that Abraham received Isaac back as “as a type” (Heb. 11:19, NASB). In other words, Isaac pictured Jesus Himself.
The real story behind the story is that God did not ask Abraham to do anything that He was not willing to do Himself. God the Father, willingly, without hesitation, offered up His only begotten, beloved, Son. God the Father placed the wood of His sacrifice on the back of His Son also. Jesus was made to carry His own cross. The site of Isaac's sacrifice was Mount Moriah, which centuries later became the very site on which the temple of Solomon was built. Likewise, a little farther west on the same hill at a sight called "The Place of the Skull" (Golgotha) Jesus was crucified. Who cannot also see the Son's willing submission to His Father's will. Jesus prayed, "Not my will but thine be done."
We can truly see Isaac as a type (or figure) of Christ. But it is also apparent how Isaac can represent us... those who by faith in Jesus Christ benefit from His sacrifice. For we, by reason of our sin, deserve to be put to death under the wrath of God. But at the right time, God stepped in to supply the ram to be sacrificed in our place. As John the Baptist would testify of Jesus, He is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world." In His love for us, God the Father gave His Son as the substitutionary sacrifice for us all!
This, dear friends, is the kind of God you have! The God who bears the cross for you! He supplies Himself as the sacrifice for your sin! The cry of Lent and Easter is Abraham’s cry: “The LORD Provides the Sacrifice!” This is the joy and living hope of every Christian. This is what enables you also to continue in faith even when God's face looks angry toward you or when He requires of you what seems to contradict His voice of promise. The LORD Who supplies Himself as Your sacrifice also in His grace blesses you through your testing to endure in faith and hope! What a God you have!