March 7, 2021. Sermon Title: Now I Know You Fear God

First Mennonite Church

March 7, 2021

Now I Know You Fear God

Text: Genesis 22:1-19

This is one of the most troubling stories in the Bible. The idea that God would ask his “friend” to offer his only and beloved son as burnt sacrifice is beyond logic for the modern reader. The terrifying nature of God’s request to Abraham has provoked different reactions in people’s minds, thus art, commentaries and even controversies have abound along the long history of reading and interpreting this passage. There are some who wonder if this story is not the result of some mental illness Abraham suffered in his old age, where, he like those who commit atrocities even against their loved ones, claims it is God who sent to do it or who like the religious zealots or fanatics claim their wrongdoing is a service to god. There are many who have tried to analyze this story, reading between the lines from a psychological and emotional perspective, overdramatizing the account.   

As we saw last week, Abraham sent away his other son, Ismael, for good. As Isaac was reaching his early teens, God appeared once more to Abraham, only this time not to make promises, but to make the ultimate request. God called Abraham, and he responded “hineni!”  “Here I am.” And God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

There is so much we can deduce or speculate that happened between the time God made this request and his next appearance when Abraham was about to bring down the knife on his son. We can speculate on what may have gone through the mind of Abraham when he was given this command? If Sarah was informed about the purpose of the week-long journey? Or, if Sarah expressed any opposition to the plan? We might also be tempted to speculate on the journey itself. How oblivious was Isaac as he participated with the logistics of his own sacrifice? There is so much this passage can arouse in us in terms of emotions, reactions, and inferences that no single sermon can address satisfactorily. After so many times of reading or hearing the story and its interpretation, we can close our mind and stay with our long-held understanding of it. Or, we can try to look at the story from a different perspective with the intent of allowing the text to give us some glimmer of new light.

The story opens by declaring straightforwardly the purpose behind it. “After these things God tested Abraham.” Then God made the unfathomable request to Abraham, to offer his son on an altar at a location yet to be disclosed. Therefore, what God was asking Abraham was not to kill or to murder his son, but to give it to God as an offering. God was asking Abraham to offer what or whom he loved the most. The act Abraham was asked to carry out was specifically religious in nature. And it was only after Abraham had done all the necessary preparations up to binding Isaac on the altar that the Lord declared through his angel, “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (NRSV)

Let me say something in parenthesis, here, about the angelic declaration of God’s “now” knowing that Abraham feared God. This declaration seems to say that God is not all-knowing or omniscient as we say God is. God was not only playing tricks nor satisfying his divine curiosity with the test. God genuinely needed to know whether Abraham feared God or not. Thus, it was until Abraham raised his hand over his son that God came to know Abraham’ fear of God. The test is neither for the purpose of teaching Abraham a lesson—that he is too attached to his son or to remind him that Isaac is “purely a gift” from God. Still yet, the text never tells us that Abraham trusted more in God after he spared the life Isaac. We should remember that there was something at stake both for God and Abraham, if Abraham were to obey God’s request.   

Back to the passage.

This story is set within the ongoing relationship between God and Abraham. God initiated the relationship by calling Abraham and making promises to him. In response Abraham obeyed the call by leaving his homeland and relatives to journey to an unknown place. We should take note that God, as always, remained faithful to everything he told Abraham. Up to this point in Abraham’s life, God had made good of his promise to give him a son through Sarah. But as for Abraham, his relationship with God had been of ups and downs. He laughed at the idea that God will give him a son in his old age. He feared for his life and compromised the safety of his wife and by extension of the entire promise of a great nation. Abraham compromised Sarah’s safety not once but twice. He also doubted God’s protection against Abimelech and outsiders that God would be his “shield and reward” as God said chapter 15. On the positive aspect of that relationship, Abraham proved to be a blessing when he interceded for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.

From the beginning of the story we are made privy to know that God’s request is a test to Abraham. Therefore, his total silence and blind obedience to God’s command testified of Abraham complete trust in the Lord. By sending Ismael, Abraham did away with his past failure. By offering Isaac, he was putting his future in jeopardy. The request did not make any sense in light of everything that depended on Isaac with regards of God’s great promises.

Obeying God sometimes does not make much sense. Obedience to God is not a feeling nor simply subscribing to a set of beliefs. Obeying God is to walk by faith, trusting that even when what we are being asked makes no sense. We walk by faith not by sight, says the apostle Paul (2Corinthians 5:7).    

What might it that God is asking us to give as offering to him? What is most dear to our heart?

Fred Craddock tells the story of what he witnessed in an airport one day. As he was coming down the escalator, he stood behind a couple, who by their looks he knew they were very wealthy. When the couple got to the end of the escalator to step out on the floor, the gentleman collapsed on the floor, hitting hard the floor with his left hand. The lady rushed over her husband’s extended left hand on the floor to remove his watch. “I want to make sure the watch is still working because it is a Rolex,” she said to Craddock. Craddock says, “A group of spectators gathered around the motionless man lying on the floor trying to help or calling for help. However, the wife was more concerned about the expensive watch.”[1]  

We all have things or people who are very dear to us. The most common answer people give when they are asked about what they value the most is “family.” And of course, family is front and center in our lives. But even when this is true, Jesus reminds us:

 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:37-39).

As we go through the stages in life, the things our heart gets attached to changes. When a person is young, it could be sports, entertainment, relationships, education, and so on, that hold sway over the heart. After marriage, it could be children, jobs, and acquiring material things that capture the heart. At this time in your life, what do you feel your heart is inclined to?

As we close in prayer, let us ask the Lord to show us what might it be that we are holding back from him. God tested Abraham, not only his faith, but him as a whole person. The Lord is also calling us to give our entire selves to him, without reservation. Let us surrender our lives, including the people who are dear to us and the things we give priority to. And, may we also hear from God, “Now I know that you fear God.” Let us pray!

Pastor Romero

[1] Fred Craddock. Craddock Stories. Chalice Press St. Louis, 2001