Sunday, February 12, 2017

Another Look at a Test

Like last week, today we’re going to take a look at a familiar part of Scripture. We can do this, with benefit, because there’s always more to see. And it’s also good to be reminded, from time to time, of the things that we’ve already seen. So, this morning we’re going to take a look at Genesis 22 where God calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Listen.
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba. Gen 22:1-19
Let’s start with this question. God is putting Abraham to the test. What exactly is He testing? There are several ways that you can answer this, all good. Here’s how I’m going to answer it this morning. God is testing Abraham’s devotion to Himself.

It’s always good to have an idea of what’s going on around the people we are reading about in some part of the Bible - the cultural background. People were religious in Abraham’s day just as they are today. Everyone is religious in one way or another. And just like people today, the people back then were religious in ways that didn’t fit with what God wanted. So, for one example, some people of Abraham’s day worshiped their gods by killing their children. One of these gods was represented by a statue with uplifted, outstretched arms. There was an opening in the chest of the idol in which there was a fire. A worshiper would take his infant child and place him in the tilted arms of the god as his offering. The child would roll down the arms and fall into the fire. This was an expression of the devotion of the worshiper to his god.

So, God’s test of Abraham boiled down to this. ‘Abraham, are you as devoted to me as those pagans are to their god? Let’s see. Take your son, your only son…’

Now, this says something about God that we really need to notice. Sometimes, He’s just not nice. This isn’t to say that God is nasty. He’s not nasty. But we need to recognize that He can be hard.  The psalmist understood that.
The Lord has disciplined me severely. Psalm 118.18
Or as a paraphrase put it,
God tested me, he pushed me hard.
If we are going to understand who God is and what He’s up to, we’ll need to understand the less popular aspects of His character. He can be hard, sometimes very hard. Ask Abraham.

That, of course, leads us to this question. Why? Why does God do this sort of thing, testing His people in this way? Has He forgotten to love?

No, actually God’s love is very active in those tests. It’s just that talk is cheap. What is real is seen not in a person’s words but in a person’s actions, especially actions that cost. So, in effect, God is saying to Abraham, ‘Let’s see what you really think’.

This is a good time to remember Peter and his bold words to Jesus. ‘These others may deny You, but not me!’ It only took a simple question to reveal reality. ‘Aren’t you with that Jesus guy?’

But how is this not God being nasty? You need to keep in mind the big picture. Consider the results of one of these tests. What if you pass it? That happens, you know. When you pass a test, like Abraham did, it is a great encouragement. It’s not just God who knows what you really think. You know it, too. You are able to see that all that endeavoring to live as becomes a follower of Christ is actually worth it. Your words of devotion are real. And that spurs on more effort to be faithful.

But there can be good even if you fail the test. Peter’s pride got quite the jolt that night. But, as a result, he was able to understand himself better, understand how weak he really was. And that resulted in his humility. He wasn’t just passing on some generic religious notions when he wrote,
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you … 1 Peter 5.6
Peter learned from his failure.

Now, it needs to be said that there is benefit in failing a test only if that person responds with repentance and faith. But when that happens, there is greater insight, insight into God and into yourself. And that’s always good.

So, do you see that when God calls you into some test, He’s not being cruel. It’s an expression of His love. He wants you to thrive. And you can thrive through those tests, especially when you pass, but even if you fail. So, when the tests come, don’t complain. Give thanks for what God is doing, even though that test may be really hard.

Now, let’s consider Abraham’s response to the test. We need to recognize that he could have just stayed home. No trip to Mt. Moriah for him. And he could have justified it. ‘That can’t be what God wants. I’m sure it can’t be.’ But each time a Christian does that sort of thing his conscience is weakened. And if you do it enough, the conscience becomes ‘seared’. It won’t work anymore. At that point, a person doesn’t know right from wrong. Not good.

But Abraham didn’t stay home. He got up early and traveled to where he was going to kill his kid. He obeyed.

And now the key question. How was he able to do that?

There are two things here. The first has to do with God’s promise. Listen to what God had said earlier to Abraham.
No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. Genesis 17.19
God promised some really big things for Isaac’s future, things that had not yet occurred. And Abraham was banking on those things happening. The writer to the Hebrews comments on this. Look at chapter 11 when you get a chance. Bottom line. Abraham knew that, because of what God had promised, Isaac had to live.

But here’s the second thing. Abraham could count on God’s promise because he knew God’s character. He knew that God always keeps His word. That sounds obvious, but let’s face it. There are too many who know the promises of God, but when push comes to shove, they don’t entrust themselves to those promises like Abraham did. They aren’t convinced that God will keep His word. That’s because they don’t know God’s character. He always keeps His promises.

Getting to know God’s character is something that is learned by experience. But these who don’t trust Him don’t have much of that experience. And one reason for that is that they don’t work at trusting God to be faithful to His promises in the little things so that they will know that He will be faithful to His promises in the big things. Trust is a skill to be learned by experience.

To be able to pass the tests like Abraham did, you need to know God’s promises and His character.

Now, what were the results of this testing? Well, for Abraham, there was quite a reward.
And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.
We’re back again to God’s blessings. God promises to do good to Abraham. Through his one child, Isaac, there will be so many children that he won’t be able to count them. And for a Middle Eastern man of the time, that would have been quite the blessing.

But the blessings were not limited just to Abraham. The Angel of Yahweh goes on to say,
And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.
Victory! That’s what possessing the gate of your enemies is all about. Conquest and victory. And when you understand that we here, and all who are Christians, are included in the offspring promised to Abraham, the idea of conquest and victory looks really good. We’re going to win. It’s through that conquest and victory that all the nations of the earth will be blessed. The Gospel will conquer and win.

Now, again, let me ask that familiar closing question. Why is this important? It’s important because it is by responding well to God’s tests that you will flourish. So, you need to understand how to respond well. Abraham is a good example to imitate, as long as you bear in mind that the imitating starts long before the test shows up. Get to know God’s promises and His character. This is something you will need to pray about.

But even this flourishing isn’t merely for you. Just as Abraham’s good response resulted in blessings for others, your good response will result in blessings for others. It is as you pass the tests that blessings will overflow to the people around you, encouraging those who are Christians and converting those who aren’t. This is important so that you can be a part of the conquest and victory of the Gospel.

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