The Test of Abraham

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You probably know the story of the man who fell off a terrifying cliff and managed to catch hold of a single branch just as he was going over the edge. And as he's hanging there dangling over eternity he calls out: 'Is there anyone up there?'And he gets an answer 'I'm here' 'Thank goodness - Who are you?' 'It's God… do you trust me? ''Oh yes Lord, I trust you completely!''Good', says the Lord. 'Let go of the branch'There's a long pause…And the man says 'is there anyone else there?

Well that's just a silly story, but some times we feel like that don't we – is there another God we can follow? – the real God seems to ask too much of us; and tonight we're going to look at how God led Abraham to a challenge that was every bit as terrible as the man in that story, perhaps even worse. In Genesis 22 God tests Abraham with an horrific choice – and the test reveals what is in Abraham's heart, and it reveals God's loving power.

The message tonight is that God delights in you, and in me; and for that reason he provides tests that stretch our faith to breaking point – so that faith grows and we gain assurance of his love for us and his power to save us. That's what's going on in Genesis 22, but it's a strange and frightening thing for us to witness, and just as it comforts us, it also slays us.

The big idea tonight is this: God tests and God provides, so fear God and know his blessing.

God Tests (v.1-2)

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied. 2 Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

Abraham doesn't know what will happen, just hears those terrible words.

A hard test – hard inherently, but how much more so in the context of all the other tests he has had to endure. He's already left behind his family and all his friends and the life he built up to age of 75; he's already had to leave the promises land twice just to find food; already twice had his wife taken from him in the lands he wandered through; already lived for years among hostile and dangerous locals who won't even allow him to keep the water from the wells he digs; already had 25 years of waiting for a child, and just last chapter he was commanded to send his eldest son away into the wilderness as if dead; He's had a hard run.

But the one shining hope in his life is that God in his old age, has given him a son – but now God says I'll take him too, there's nothing you have that I won't take from you. For a Man to lose only child to sickness, hard; to violent death, horrible; to be commanded to execute the son himself – hellish; and to be left without son, without heir and without hope for future son or heir even worse!

And see it in the passage v.3-5 what was going on in Abraham's heart and mind??

Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."

And as if that not hard enough look at verse 6-8

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?" "Yes, my son?" Abraham replied. "The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

father – where is the lamb?

Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.

Harder yet because contradicts God's word and his promises: Child sacrifice practiced by surrounding nations, but abhorrent to God; more than that this child is the locus of all of God's other promises, take him away and there is no blessing for Abraham (Genesis 15.1-2)

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward." But Abram said, "O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?"

This is appalling, mind shattering, excruciating … how could God ever ask this of Abraham?! Nonetheless: This is nothing less than God's right to ask. God commands and we do, even after doing all this, Abraham has nothing to boast about before God (Romans 4.2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about--but not before God.) This is a test, this is not something that God calls all of us too; and yet God's right over us is absolute, he doesn't ask this of you and me, but he could, and whatever he asks of us is no more than his right as our maker, our creator.

The point is this – God tested Abraham to show what was in his heart. And God tests everyone he loves. God sends tests which challenge our very faith, challenges that loom over us and their reality crushes us – or nearly; and in that moment we can choose to fear God and obey him even though it costs us everything, or we can give in to our fear of other things and abandon God. Sometimes it's complex to work out what is right, and we don't often (ever?) have a direct word from God; but most of the time we know what we ought to do, our difficulty is trusting God enough to do it! … and in these moments of testing our faith is proven one way or another.

Coming of age rites of passage that demonstrate the boy is ready to be treated as a man – the Native American Indian boy going out on his own into the wilderness for days on end, the Australian Aboriginal boy going 'walkabout'… The ardous training that the elite troops do that demonstrates to them they can do it and gives them the tools to survive the rigours of war. If they pass the test they are ready for the real thing, and the real thing is so terrible that it needs to be difficult trial.

As God's people know that testing will come, expect it and endure it. Jesus wasn't kidding when he said that to follow him we need to take up our cross daily; that we need to lay down our life to save it; and he doesn't offer a retirement plan, it doesn't get easier, it could well get harder, just one thing after another like it was for Abraham. But know this: Testing comes not because God doesn't love us, but precisely because he does love us and is training us in his service, disciplining us, and testing us to reveal what is in us, for our sake so that he can bless us.

In testing we need to learn to trust God as Abraham did – to fear God. We are full of fears of all kinds of things – so was Abraham – but he feared God more than anything else; the things we are afraid of are small compared to God, but they loom large in our minds; we need to understand that God is bigger than those fears, and if we make him our enemy then we have something to fear indeed.

When we fail to trust God run back to him for forgiveness. So the first thing we see here is the test – the horrible, terrible testing that comes from God. If that were all the passage taught us it would be too much for us to bear, but praise God its now. Because the test leads to a lesson – God tests, and God provides, even in the test, especially in the test.

God Provides (v.7-8, 12-14)

Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son."

What did Abraham know of God's provision at this point? God had never let him down before, he had emerged through the great trials of his life with this confidence in God. God will provide.

And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied. "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

The description is sparse… what else did Abraham say to Isaac, how did he convince him to allow himself to be bound and placed on that altar? What was going through Abraham's mind as he knelt to build that altar, as he laid out the wood… and as he reached out for that fateful knife? Genesis doesn't tell us… there is just this awful silence, this tension… and Abraham acting in faith – God will provide my son, God will provide

… and God does indeed provide. At the very last moment God holds back Abraham's hand. And Isaac comes down off the altar and the substitute God has provided takes his place there, fulfilling Abrahams prediction.

And this is what the test was supposed to reveal, this is the lesson we are to learn, because we're slow to learn it's underlined for us – predicted in verse 9, fulfilled physically in verse 13, solemly enshrined in perpetuity in the form of a name in verse 14; and passed down proverbially as a saying.

So hear the lesson and learn it well – God will provide. When you are under trial and you can't see how you can be faithful – God will provide; when your resources are spent and you've no more hope – God will provide; when we trust him and in faith obey – God will provide.

In our testing we think that God's far away, that things can't be fixed, that we're on our own to muddle our way through; but in reality God is at work for us to provide for all our needs.

This is true in a general sense, but the passage much more focused than that – God will provide a substitute for us – Abraham predicted a lamb, but found a ram… the true lamb was not to come for many years later –John 1.29

Look the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world 

Look at the parallels – the son given up by the father, the son carrying the wood up the lonely hill, suffering the silence of his father, the willing sacrifice, the agonised father giving up his son, his only son, the son he loves. Mattew 3.17

this is my son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased

or as in Mark

you are my son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased

and then again later, on the mountain of transfiguration in Mark 9.7

this is my son, whom I love, listen to him

And the mountain? Quite likely very near the spot where Jesus was hung on the cross – Mt Moriah was where Solomon built the temple (2 Chronicles 3.1 Solomon began to build the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mt Moriah… where God had withdrawn the sword in his own hand to destroy his people in the time of King David 1 Chronicles 21).

God does for us what he will not ask us to do for ourselves – he gives up his only son for us, though he could not bear to see Abraham do it for him.

Our kids are learning to swim and we do that thing where we pull them through the water and we say 'kick, kick, kick' and then we tell them what a great job they're doing swimming… but the reality is we're doing all the work. They did kick, we are proud of them, they are learning to swim, but we're holding them up, we're moving them along, without us they would never manage it. In a way that's what God is doing with us in these trials and tests that come. He's growing our faith and teaching us to walk with him – and under all our efforts he holds us up.

So we through tests we come to learn that we can trust God, no matter how hopeless our situation, no matter how much it appears to us like we can't be faithful in this time and place, he can always bring us through every trial. God will provide. God will provide, he has already done the biggest, the hardest, the most costly thing, he will provide in any and all situations.

Romans 8.32

He [God] who did not spare His own Son, but delivered him over for us all, how will he not also along with him freely give us all things?

Fear God and Know His Blessing (v.15-19)

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me." Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

God repeats the blessing again, this time with an oath to demonstrate the absolute certainty that it will happen.

The blessing of God is greater than just a child, greater than a dynasty and a land and greater even than becoming a blessing to others: the essence is richer and deeper and greater still: 'I will be your God and you will be my people'. (Genesis15.1-3 I am your shield, your great reward) there will be a child, and through him many nations. The Great Blessing is intimacy with God.

And along with growing intimacy comes greater confidence in God – in his presence with us, in his power to save and in his intense affection for us. So Abraham receives the promise again from God – the promise already given in chapter 12, and repeated as a solemn covenant in chapter 15 and repeated again in chapter 17 is repeated a third time, and this time with an oath.

Abraham hasn't now earned the blessing, this is not salvation by works – the blessing was his already by faith; but Abraham has this oath to give him greater assurance. Because he acted in faith and honoured God even to the point of giving up his son and all that the son represented God gives him the promise again, shored up with an oath – so that Abraham can be doubly sure that God is going to keep his promise.

This is the lesson of the lesson – fear God and you experience God's blessing: intimacy with God and great assurance of his presence, his power to help and his intense affection for you – the ironies of the cross – in losing your life, you gain it, in giving your life to God and for his service, you find true freedom, in giving in to fear of the Lord you are released from all other fears and learn to live without fear. And see how this operated for Abraham, he should have been full of fears, but he went ahead with it anyway. Preacher fills in the gaps, we would be terrified, we would struggle to lift the knife and we would struggle to answer to our sons… and I'm pretty sure Abraham did too, but the text doesn't tell us, he may have been far more sanguine than we imagine – and verse 5 when he says to the servant we will go and worship and then we will come back, that might have been said with real conviction – that certainly seems to be how Hebrews 11 reads it – Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and indeed he can; and figuratively he did receive Isaac back from the dead…

And this is a lesson Hebrews 11 keeps hammering home to us: – if we fear God then we're released from all other fears – but if we give in to other fears then we make God our enemy! This is the context of Hebrews 11 – remember Hebrews 10.38 and 39

But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him."But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.

we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who stand by faith and so are saved! That is the point of this hero's gallery – to remind us that if we stand by faith we will stand, but that if we do not stand by faith then we have no hope of standing at all.

Time and again we see the same principle at work in the scriptures – in the history of God's dealings with us – in the moments of great trial we see God's great strength exercised for us, and so we are to learn that he is the God who will neer let us down, he is the God who provides, and so we walk more closely with him. Think of Noah in his boat, think of Moses parting the red sea, think of David staring down Goliath – again and again and again God's people are tested by difficulties too great for them but when they trust in God, God comes through for them – and in that moment God's strength is revealed, God's character is shown and God's people gain powerful assurance that he is the God who is for them, who is with them and who will carry them home.

So what are you going through? What struggles do you face? Where are you tempted to think that God can't help you? What is it that's testing your confidence in God? What ever it is Fear God and trust him to provide. And however terrible it may be to endure, trust that he will not just bring you through it, but that he intends to bless you, even in this. And if you lack assurance of your salvation, try exercising your faith more; not salvation by works, but if we act on faith we discover that God is good for everything he asks of us and more, and so we grow in faith and assurance, and we learn to love him more.

And if you're tired of giving to God, tired of serving him, if you want some time on the bench to recover? There is no promise here of an easy ride… but something far better, that in your struggle, God will provide and you will be blessed – so press on, don't turn back, but go harder, run in such a way as to get the prize!

And if you haven't yet put your trust in God? God calls you to put your life on the line, to give it all up for him – all of it. He claims you for his own. No small thing – but everything. And his promise is that he will give far more than he takes. It will be worth it, and magnificently so. What's stopping you from taking this first step of faith?

What do we conclude?
Tests will come from God. And with them comes temptation to doubt God's goodness and his power to save us and his intention to do good for us… tests will come. And there is no promise that they will get easier as we go along in the Christian life – in fact the more closely we follow our Lord, the more we will share in his sufferings.

But we can trust God to provide. He has not deserted us and he has not stopped protecting and providing for those who love him; he is still holding you in his hands, still knows the number of hairs on your heads, still providing every heart beat and every breath and every meal; And he is able to give you a way out, and more wonderfully than that – he is able to redeem every broken situation, to recover every broken man or woman or child and to enable you to stand and to feel his favour, experience his blessing.

So we need to resolve to trust God no matter what and look to him to provide, and even to bless us.

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