The Sacrifice of Isaac

THE SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY

In exploring the book of Genesis, we are learning a great deal about the God of the Bible. Through the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel and Noah, we have encountered the covenant faithfulness of God, who is the God of promise and fulfillment. He is the great Restorer and the hope of the world. By delving further and further into the fertile soil of scripture- moving beyond the letter to the spirit of the text- we are discovering Christ’s presence in the Old Testament: the great treasure hidden in the field. He who was present at creation is the seed promised to Eve. He is the acceptable sacrifice offered by the shepherd Abel. The Ark of salvation for Noah and his family. The child of promise brought forth from Sarah’s barren womb from whom will come a nation to vast to number. And, in Him, all the nations of the earth are blessed. In the heat of the day, he is the mysterious guest who visits Abraham by an oak tree at Mamre. We are standing amid a great mystery of which St. Paul writes: “Christ is all and in all” (Col 3:11). Now, if we dig deep into this story of the sacrifice of Isaac, and the Lord God grants his assistance, perhaps we’ll find the pearl of great price.

Over these past few weeks, we have tracked the story of Abraham. The entire arc of the Abrahamic narrative- how God called and covenanted with the great patriarch- has been straining toward the point when Isaac, the child of promise, will be born. Abraham and his aged wife longed for a son, but more than that, a legacy, a family who would, generation by generation, make the name of Abraham great. In Isaac, every longing, hope, and dream is fulfilled. He is the dearly beloved son of Father Abraham. The grand denouement of God’s covenantal action. I want to share something if you permit me. Preparing for this sermon has been a struggle. There are fewer passages in Holy Scripture I find more challenging and difficult to grasp. The sacrifice of Isaac, if I’m honest, challenges my understanding of God at a profound level. It applies maximum pressure to my conception of who God is and why he does what he chooses. Scripture plainly shows that sacrifice is a means by which man relates to God. We see this with Cain, Abel, Noah, Seth, and Abraham; they all sacrificed to the Lord of Heaven and Earth. God is the God of sacrifice.

But how is it that He commands Abraham to sacrifice his son? Who is this God and why such an incomprehensible demand? Is this the sacrifice he desires? Having turned these questions over and over in my heart, I have come face to face with the limitation of understanding; the inability to comprehend the deep things of God. The prophet speaks: “His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways. So does the Apostle: “the wisdom of God is foolishness to man.” And therefore, we must at all times approach the revelation of God with humility; as feeble unlearned children in need of divine wisdom for any understanding. Perhaps, by his great mercy and goodness, we will arrive at a better understanding of what it means to offer sacrifice to God.

“And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.”

Once again, God calls his friend Abraham who was one hundred years old when the Lord determined to test the integrity and courage of his faith. See how gracious the Lord is in allowing his friend to grow in grace and faith, trial by trial, through various difficulties and struggles. Now Abraham, after so many years of walking with God, who time and time again demonstrated his faithfulness and trustworthiness, is to be tested on a mountain. “Get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” The testing of his faith will be as an upward climb; he will journey to the mountain, ascending to God in worship. His will be an ascent of transformation; his faith increasing has he climbs higher and higher towards God. But he is to carry a heavy burden on the journey to Mt. Moriah. Notice how God chose to command the sacrifice of his son right upfront, fully disclosing his demand. He doesn’t say “head to Mt. Moriah, and when you and the boy arrive, I’ll give further instruction.” God has asked for the life of Abraham’s son, his only beloved son Isaac. He is immediately laden with the enormous burden of what lies ahead; he cannot escape it. And we mustn’t lose sight of how precious the son is to the Father. In just a handful of verses, God refers three times to Isaac as Abraham’s only son (vv. 2, 12, 16). He is the all-surpassing possession of his heart, which he cherishes more than anything. Surely every mother and Father knows the depth and nature of the love of which I speak.

“Get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” God has commanded Abraham to offer Isaac on the top of Mt. Moriah as a burnt sacrifice. In Hebrew, a Korban (sacrifice) Olah (meaning that which ascends; it ascends to the Father. Furthermore, a burnt offering is a complete and perfect sacrifice; the flames consume it; every bit of the sacrifice given to God. And herein lies the gravity of the Divine test: the Lord is demanding from Abraham his ‘everything’... his ‘all.’ Give unto me that which is most beloved and dear to you, not some, not part, but every bit of what you hold dear. Isaac is Abraham’s everything.

God demands from us the very best of what he has given. Was he not pleased with the fine calf Abel offered and displeased with the common produce Cain put set upon the altar? Abel gave God of his very best, the first-fruits, the most valuable, and, most importantly, costly of gifts. Was not the widow’s mite more pleasing than the rich man’s tithe? God is pleased when we offer that which we hold dearest to our hearts, that which we love and cherish, and require a high price. The sacrificial gift communicates a lot about the giver. That which we offer upon the altar signifies the disposition of the soul and its orientation to the Lord. Let us make a vow as David did at the threshing floor, “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (2 Sam 24:24).

“And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.”

As far as the matter of obedience is concerned, the conflict is over; Abraham’s purpose is fixed. He does not consult with flesh and blood but instantly obeys God. Overcoming, for three long days, the great conflict within; never waivers nor turns away, but ascends the mount of sacrifice by faith. A pleasing sacrifice to God is offered by willful obedience to the divine command. What obedience Father Abraham models for us! He hears God’s command, knows his voice, and responds in obedience, “Here I am.” Without delay. Without reluctance. Samuel asks, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22). And why is the obedient sacrifice pleasing to God? Because a willingness to obey God- especially a desire to obey commands which make no sense, or seem impossible to attain, or even harmful- demonstrates the depth of love we have for Him, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” We express our love of God through sacrificial obedience: love your neighbor; love your enemies; turn the other cheek; do not return evil for evil; forgive as you have been forgiven; sell everything to the poor and follow me.

The pleasing sacrifice is the obedient and willful offering of all that we hold dear. It is gladly given no matter the cost. And here we arrive at the very nature and purpose of sacrifice: our transformation. For the call to sacrifice is an invitation to be transformed through union with God, reordered to him through divine love. Sacrificing possessions, desires, whatever the Lord demands placed upon the altar. The sacrificial life is a life open to God, receptive to him in every way. The call to sacrifice is a call to death, death to self, and all selfishness. We sacrifice our bodies on the altar of purity when we chasten its disordered desires by temperance. We sacrifice unholy thoughts when we open ourselves to the mind of Christ. In other words, we offer ourselves, make ourselves open to God, to be united to Him through Christ Jesus. A sacrificial life strives to honor God through the perfective transformation of one’s life, a life so reordered by grace, like a sweet-smelling aroma that arises from the flames. Let us hold fast to the Apostles words,

“Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice—alive, holy, and pleasing to God—which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect is” (Rom 12:1).

Sacrifice is the divine invitation to be transformed.

“And Abraham stretched forth his hand and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.”

At the very moment when Abraham would act in faith, the angel of the Lord stays his hand. What grace displayed in the divine interruption! Does God demand child sacrifice? Is this who God is? I mean, is this not the crux of the matter? Well, let’s turn to the text for the answer. And, God said, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything to him.” The Lord did not allow Abraham to kill his son. Period. He loves everything he creates and bears tremendous concern for his children. And his great love for us is demonstrated through the most costly and precious sacrifice ever offered in the history of the cosmos. God sent a ram to bear the sins of the whole world, a son who carried the wood of a cross up a hill and willingly laid upon it. “He who knew no sin became sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21). Oh, the great exchange brought about by the willful, obedient, and costly sacrifice of the only beloved son of the Father; the true Isaac; the true Ram; Jesus Christ the righteous. His sacrifice is transforming you even now. “Therefore, [let us] be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” Amen+