A Test of Faith
Introduction: Testing 1, 2, 3
Tell the story of the student who took an hour extra to complete an exam and the professor who waited for him only to tell him that he was going to fail because he took the extra time.
Does anyone here like taking tests? Is there anyone here this morning that enjoys sitting down and being given an exam? I remember being at Acadia and having to prepare for a NT Greek test. The night before I was so nervous, and it didn’t help that a friend and classmate was assuring me that we’d do fine, even though we weren’t getting anywhere near as much studying in as I thought I needed. I felt panicky. Now, thankfully, in the end I did well on the test. But that doesn’t mean it was something I wanted to do.
“After these things ...”
Our passage this morning begins this way: “After these things God tested Abraham.” The first question is, after what things? I think the text is talking about all that had happened to Abraham up until this point. So perhaps we should briefly summarize Abraham’s story. A couple of weeks ago we looked at the call of Abraham, how God told him to leave all that he knew and all that was comfortable for a foreign land. This is in Genesis 12. At the time Abraham is 75 years old. Seems a little late in the game for a major move, doesn’t it? But God, of course, doesn’t just tell him to pack up and go for no reason. The Lord has a plan and a promise for Abraham. He promises Abraham offspring and he plans to make Abraham a great nation, one that will be a blessing to all other nations. Now, we already know from Genesis 11: 30 that Sarah, his wife, is barren; both she and Abraham are old and have never had children and it is humanly impossible for them to have children. Yet what does the Lord promise? Offspring. The Lord promises that a great nation will come from Abraham. And of course we know that this nation is going to be the nation of Israel, the people of God.
Move on to Genesis 17. Some years have passed since the Lord called Abraham and made him this promise. In fact 24 years have passed. Abraham is now 99 years old. Can you imagine having to wait that long for someone to fulfill their promise? Would you wait that long or would you tend to think, gee, I guess they must have forgotten? In our instant have-it-now culture I can’t imagine anyone having patience enough to wait anywhere close to this long. But did Abraham have patience to wait? Well in Genesis 17 Abraham and Sarah take it upon themselves to fulfill God’s promise, don’t they? Sarah gives Abraham Hagar her maid servant – and through her has Ishmael, his first-born son. Ishmael is the result of not trusting that God will fulfill his promises.
In this same chapter the Lord renews his promise of children to Abraham, and, more specifically, tells Abraham that he will have a son and he is to name him Isaac. But Abraham doesn’t believe. He laughs in disbelief, for he is nearly 100 years old and Sarah is 90. How could they possibly have children now? Abraham then begs the Lord to bless Ishmael and asks the Lord to make him the child of the promise. The Lord agrees to bless Ishmael, but tells Abraham that he will establish his covenant with Isaac. Ishmael may receive a blessing, but Isaac will be the child of the promise.
In the very next chapter, three visitors tell Abraham that this very time next year Sarah will give birth to their son, Isaac. This time it is not Abraham but Sarah who laughs in disbelief (18: 12). Obviously it is not coincidence that the name Isaac means “he laughs.” Christian author Frederick Buechner refers to Isaac as “the son of laughter.” And laughter occurs in our story as the result of disbelief, but also joy.
The joy arrives in Genesis 21 when the child of promise is born. Sarah gives birth to Isaac. She says in verse 6 “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” The promise the Lord made to Abraham is fulfilled. And the promise is fulfilled in the face of impossible odds. A barren wife. An aged man. After years of endless waiting. Amid doubts and disbelieving laughter. And occasional bursts of mountain moving faith. God does here what only God can do: the impossible. Why? So no one else can possibly take credit. So that it is clear that this is God’s doing. Not Abraham’s. Not Sarah’s. Not yours. And not mine. God’s. And so the promise is fulfilled. The plan is afoot as they say. God will make Abraham’s name great and through this joyful, promised offspring, through this son, Isaac, a great nation will come, one that will bless the whole earth. The confidence Abraham is learning to place in God is now clearly justified. Clearly the Lord keeps his promises. He can be trusted. I wonder if Abraham wiped his brow and breathed a sigh of relief when Sarah finally gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
“Take your son ... and offer him ...”
But then what happens? The next thing our passage says is that “After these things God tested Abraham.” God decides to test Abraham’s faith, and how does he test Abraham? The Lord calls Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Now let’s think about this for a moment. Who is Isaac and what does it mean for God to ask Abraham to offer him as a sacrifice?
We already know that Isaac is the child of the promise of God and that it is through Isaac that the Lord has promised to make of Abraham a great nation that will bless all other nations. We already know that Abraham has waited more than 25 years for this promise to be fulfilled. We already know that this promise could only be kept by God since there was no way Abraham and Sarah would have children otherwise. We already know that Isaac is the hinge on which the promise of God turns.
And yet God asks Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering. This means the Lord is asking Abraham to give up the very source of hope, the very means of the promise of a great nation being fulfilled. The Lord is asking Abraham if he will trust and obey, even if it means giving up the very thing for which he has been waiting for all these years. The Lord is asking Abraham to do the seemingly unthinkable.
When we read this passage, no doubt each of us wonders what Abraham and Isaac must have been feeling. What thoughts were going through their heads? What emotions were they experiencing? What Abraham was being asked to do must have seemed unimaginably difficult. As a parent I can’t imagine the Lord asking me to do this. But of course in a way the Lord does ask each one of us to do this, doesn’t he? Alisha spoke last week about Hannah and how she gave Samuel to the Lord. Even when it comes to our own children, we are still called to place God first. Last June Alisha and I had a dedication service for Ella. In that service we recognized that God gave Ella to us as a gift and that she really belongs to him. In a sense we gave Ella back to God that day. The pastor who dedicated her for us preached on the same passage we’re looking at today.
But, as I said, we do wonder what Abraham must have been feeling while making the journey to Moriah. And we wonder what Isaac must have felt, too, especially when Abraham began tying him down on the altar. But we are given no clues to their emotional or psychological states here. The story is sparse on detail when it comes to their thoughts and feelings.
The story does, however, tell us some things. First of all, we know that Abraham trusted the Lord – obedience is a sign of trust, it is trust in action. Despite the fact that Isaac was the son of promise, Abraham continued to trust that the Lord would still fulfill the promise somehow even if he doesn’t know exactly how. When Isaac asks where the lamb for the burnt offering is, Abraham simply tells him that the Lord will provide a lamb. One scholar comments that “By this point Abraham stays on course because he trusts that God will act to save Isaac. He conveys to Isaac what he believes to be the truth about his future: God will provide.” The Lord does provide of course. And Abraham calls the place “the Lord will provide.” Abraham, even with what the Lord is asking him to do, trusts the Lord.
We also have a clue in the text that suggests Abraham trusted the Lord would provide another lamb besides Isaac for the burnt offering, and that he would not have to sacrifice Isaac after all. The first clue is in verse 5. Abraham tells the servants who have travelled with he and Isaac: “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham tells them that “we will come back to you.” Abraham was saying that once he and Isaac were done they both would come back. So either Abraham was lying to his servants or he was confident – and trusted – that the Lord would provide something other than Isaac for the burnt offering.
There is another clue. This one is outside our passage in Hebrews. In Hebrews 11: 17, 18 it says: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise some from the dead – and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” To present Isaac, then, as a burnt offering would be “an act of faith, a giving to God of what Abraham loves . . . [and] the hope against hope for Abraham would be that God would somehow find a way of giving Isaac – or another life – back.” So Abraham, according to Scripture, believed that if necessary God would even raise Isaac from the dead to fulfill his promise, and this gives us further evidence of Abraham’s trust in the basic character of God who made this promise.
We, of course, know that God is testing Abraham here. We’re told this at the beginning. Abraham does not know this. It wouldn’t be much of a test if he did. This is a piece of information we have. Being told that this is a test may be the author’s way of telling us that God does not intend to let Abraham go through with this sacrifice. This reminds me of those alerts they would have on TV years ago: “This is a test of the emergency broadcast system.” When it says it is a test, there is no real emergency. So here, God is testing Abraham and perhaps that means he never did intend for Isaac to be a burnt offering. And the story, as we see, bears this point out.
But there is a purpose to the test. The Lord wanted Abraham to be willing to sacrifice Isaac. As far as Abraham is concerned here, the Lord might very well make him go through with this. He might, this very day, lose his only son, the son of promise, the son he and Sarah never thought they could have. This story is a variation of Abraham’s call in Genesis 12. The Lord is asking him, “Do you trust me? Do you trust that whatever happens I will fulfill my promise? Will you obey me even when it doesn’t seem to make sense? Will you go where I ask you to go?” In a way, as Rick Warren says in The Purpose Driven Life, “all of life is a test.” Life indeed is full of tests, from the cradle to the grave, but life itself is the most important test: how do you choose to live your life? As one of faith and trust and obedience? These are the questions that in some form were facing Abraham here and throughout his life.
The Test of Faith
Whatever we might say about Abraham’s degree of trust in the Lord, and how he thought the Lord would provide, he was still human. He didn’t know for sure how God would provide. He didn’t know for sure whether or not he would have to sacrifice Isaac or if he did whether God might raise him from the dead. When the Lord asks us to do something – and we know that he is doing so deep in our gut and in our heart – then he simply wants us to do it. Like our passage here, the clear meaning of what the Lord asks us to do or to sacrifice may escape our reason and our logic. Therefore, we are not always called to understand but we are always called to obey.
The fact is that the Lord tests each one of us. After the author of Hebrews recounts the lives of many faithful, yet flawed saints, in chapter 12: 5ff he goes one to talk about how “the Lord disciplines those whom he loves.” And he does it for our good. In other words, the Lord is not like that awful professor in our story at the beginning, relishing the opportunity to tell the student that he has failed. He is not looking to punish us. He disciplines out of love, like a parent with their children. In what ways has God tested you? In what ways is he testing you now?
Sometimes when we are being tested, it may feel like life gives no evidence of the Lord’s faithfulness and presence. Abraham could have let the Lord’s command in this story lead him to question God’s promises. As someone else as aptly put it: “We should learn from this story that receiving promises does not entail being protected from moments where those promises seem to be called into question.”
The testing of Abraham here is also about worship. The whole story is about worship. The Lord asks Abraham to worship him by presenting Isaac as a burnt offering. That’s what burnt offerings were for. Abraham tells his servants we “will go over there; we will worship.” And after the Lord intervened just before Abraham brought down the knife, the Lord provided a ram and Abraham sacrificed it and worshipped. It’s almost as though the Lord is asking Abraham: “Will you worship me no matter what circumstances you face?”
Because Abraham trusted and obeyed, he also worshipped. Trust lived out in obedience is a form of worship. This tells us that a lack of trust and obedience impedes our worship of the Lord. How can we truly worship God unless we trust him and obey him? If we do not trust, does that not stand as a barrier to worship? If I do not obey the Lord, does that not make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to worship him? But when we trust and obey, like Abraham, we make possible a life of worship.
So the simple point is this: trust God. We shouldn’t focus on what God asks us to sacrifice or to do. Our focus is God himself. Our focus is the Lord and how he has revealed himself. The way in which we respond to God in faith and obedience to the tests that come our way says much about what we think of God. The foundation for our trust is the very character of God as revealed in Scripture; the foundation for our obedience is the trust we have in God, for who can obey who they do not trust? And the result of our trust is obedience and worship.
We all have to ask ourselves from time to time: Is there an ‘Isaac’ in my life, something that I can’t imagine living or managing without, something that the Lord is asking me to sacrifice for his sake? Are there specific areas in your life where you have yet to obey that you are aware of? How does that affect your relationship with God right now? Why do you not obey? Is it a lack of trust? What does that say about your view of God’s character? Do you believe, really believe with all your heart, that he has your ultimate good in mind, as Jeremiah 29: 11 says, “plans for your welfare and not for harm”? Do you mind waiting for that good to be fulfilled? Are you willing to wait as long as Abraham? Are you willing to trust and obey simply because the Lord is who he is? Are you being tested right now? Is the Lord asking you to give something up that once given up will free you to worship him more fully? As always, it comes down to who God is in our lives. Who do we believe God to be? Do we believe he is who he says he is? If so, our lives ought to be lives of trust and obedience, even when testing circumstances come our way.
Abraham’s story is one that reminds us that even the most faithful and obedient followers of God experience doubt and disbelief. Abraham doubted at times, and even laughed at the Lord’s promises. He was impatient, and allowed Sarah to convince him to have a child through their slave girl to speed up the promise. None of us is ever 100% perfect in our faith or in our obedience. We all waver. We all wonder at times. But our assurance is that our trust and obedience, our faith, even our doubts and faithlessness, take place in the context of a relationship with a personal God who reveals himself as one who loves us, and who tests us precisely because he loves us.