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Past the Point of No Return, Genesis 22:1-18 (August 23, 2009)

Burning the bridge

The title of this morning’s sermon is borrowed from an admittedly sensual scene and song in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera.”  Toward the end of the Phantom’s opera he makes a surprise appearance on the stage, grabs the heroine, Christine, in his embrace, and sings,

Past the point of no return, no going back now

Our passion-play has now at last begun

 

Startled and frightened at first, she finally joins him in singing,

 

Past the point of no return, the final threshold

The bridge is crossed so stand and watch it burn

We’ve passed the point of no return

 

Whether in an embrace or some other area of life, we are all familiar with coming to and going past the point of no return.  Our congregation will vote today, for example, on whether to alter the building plans we voted on a year and a half ago.  Fortunately, we had not passed the point of no return in our planning and construction on the original vision.  We can reconvene and reconsider.  But when we start digging footings and putting up walls, we will be past the point of no return.

The “point of no return” came to me as I pondered Genesis 22 this week.  Discussion of this remarkable story often centers on if, how, and why God could ask Abraham to kill his son.  Since the question seeks to take us into the mind of the Eternal One, I’m not sure it is the right question.  We cannot answer it.

The more I thought about the story, the more I realized that if Abraham really believed God had given the command, why would he not obey?  In his life of faith, he is past the point of no return.  He has burned the bridge of faith.

God sees to it

The “some time later” of verse 1 prompts a brief review of all that has happened.  God called Abram from Ur (near the Persian Gulf) through Haran (northern Syria) to Canaan.  When Abram was about 75 years old, God promised a son to him through whom he would have innumerable descendants.  Abram thought at one time his nephew Lot might be his heir, or perhaps his servant, Eliezer.  He and his wife Sarah even decided to take matters into their own hands by allowing Abraham to father a son with Sarah’s servant girl.

But Ishmael was not God’s promise, and when Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was 89, she gave birth to their own biological son, and named him “Joke.”  Well, not exactly.  It was “Laughter,” but it’s the same idea.  God got the last laugh.

In spite of this miraculous provision, Sarah felt threatened by the presence of her servant’s son, so she forced Abram to run Ishmael and Hagar off in Genesis 21.  “Some time later” we come to chapter 22.  How long?  We can only make an educated guess.  It could have been a few years, but some writers speculate Isaac may have been a teenager or even a young adult.  Abraham could have been 120.

“God tested Abraham,” we are told in verse 1, and that is an understatement.  “Abraham!  Take your son, your only Son, Isaac, whom you love, and sacrifice him as a burnt offering.”

Admittedly this is offensive to us, and it should be.  Once again, we have to go back 4,000 years to Abraham’s time.  In his culture, child-sacrifice to the gods was common.  Undoubtedly Abraham thought (rightly) that religion had advanced past those pagan ideas, but we cannot fault him in his own time for wondering if God might not legitimately ask the same of him that other gods had asked.

Still, the human side of this story grips us.  This is, indeed, the son Abraham had waited for all his married life – probably 50, 60, 70, or more years.  It is the son he had waited 25 years for since God had promised a nation would come from his line.  It was the only son of the woman he had loved and to whom he had been fully devoted. 

I am quite sure he did not tell Sarah why his sleep was so fitful that night or why he arose early the next morning to do what he knew he had to do.  The boy and the two servants must have wondered why Abraham seemed so silent.  He wouldn’t have been the type to show his emotions, but his face clearly reflected inner pain.  He was playing out the scene in his mind, and nothing about it was pretty. 

There would be no “laughter” on this trip.  He asked himself how he would explain to Isaac what would happen or how he would answer his questions.  How do you look into the face of your son and tell him you’re going to drive a knife into his heart? He had believed God, but now his faith, though firm, was strained.  How would God’s command and God’s promise meet? Finally he came to the only conclusion his mind would fathom.  He would kill Isaac, but God would raise him from the dead (Hebrews 11:19).

It was time to leave the servants and walk on alone with Isaac.  They would never stand by and allow him to do what he had to do.  Nor should they. Whether it was bold faith or just saying what he needed to say so he raised no suspicions, Abraham told them, “We will worship, and then we will come back to you” (v. 5)

So the boy and his father walked on.  Isaac carried kindling.  Abraham brought the knife and the fire pot.  Isaac broke the silence.  “Father, if we’re going to sacrifice, it looks like we have everything we need except the lamb” (v. 7).

“God will provide.”  It was the Abraham’s life motto.  What’s yours?  It was a bronze plaque engraved on his heart through years of waiting, wondering, doubting, and finally seeing.  “I’ve been here before son.  Empty arms only leave space for God to fill.  God will provide.”  Silence accompanied more steps up the mountain as the old man probably hoped the climb would kill him on the way.  That would be a way out.  Or maybe God would provide a lamb.

No such luck.  They reached the place.  No lamb in sight.  They stacked the rocks for the altar.  No lamb in sight.  Abraham’s heart pounded.  They added the kindling.  No lamb in sight.  They heaped on more dead wood from the forest.  No lamb in sight.  Abraham thought his heart would vibrate out of his chest.

And then, in a moment for which the Bible spares us detail, an old man well past 100 turned to look into the face of his son, his only son, a boy named Laughter, one whom he loved more than he loved his own life, and told him what he was about to do.  We have no indication that Isaac resisted with words or actions.  Abraham tied his hands, laid the boy on the wood, and raised the knife in the air.  God’s unmistakable voice had made this request of Abraham and, in his mind, he was past the point of no return.

There has never been a sweeter sound than the voice that penetrated the cool mountain air in that moment.  “Abraham!  Don’t do it.  You passed the ultimate test.  You did not withhold from me what was most precious to you” (12).

And there was a lamb.  A ram was caught in the thicket nearby.  Probably it had been there all along.  Perhaps unconscious, perhaps afraid by these human intruders, perhaps silenced by God.  The sacrifice went on as father and son wept, embraced, and worshiped.

Abraham named the place, “Yahweh-Yireh.”  It means, “God sees to it.”  Yahweh makes it happen.  God provides.  The place would become so significant as the Story of God’s redemption unfolded.  There on that mountain Solomon’s temple was built.  There on that mountain untold animals were sacrificed vicariously to substitute for human life.  There on that mountain David’s intercession stopped a plague that had killed 70,000 as a punishment for his own arrogance.  There on that mountain Jesus the Son of God became the only human sacrifice God ever approved.

It was there on that mountain that God reaffirmed to Abraham all the promises he had heard throughout his lifetime.  I will bless you.  Your descendants will outnumber the grains of sand on the beach and the stars in the sky.  They will overcome their enemies, and through them I will bless the whole world.

The hardest test we have to face

If this story doesn’t move you, either I didn’t give it justice or you must be dead – spiritually if not physically.  The story ought to make you angry and confused and heartbroken and inspired and hopeful – maybe all at once but at least in sequence.  It is terrible and it is wonderful.  It is unthinkable horror and it is awe-inspiring loyalty and faith.

There are so many directions we could take this in application to our lives, but here’s the one the Spirit gave me this week.  For all of the violence of our sense of justice this request of Abraham evokes in us, he really had no choice.  If you told me God wanted me to kill your son, I would immediately call the authorities and have you locked up in a straightjacket until somebody could understand and treat your mental disease and be sure you were no danger to your child, yourself, or anyone else.  This story of Abraham is unique.

But in his setting, in his time, at this point in God’s self-revelation, the story makes sense.  It is, first of all, a foreshadowing of the concept of substitutionary sacrifice.  That is central to both the Old Covenant and the New.  It is also precisely an advance over these surrounding pagan cultures that did require human sacrifice – because God dramatically and memorably put a stop to it.

In the story of Abraham, he had directly interacted with God on several occasions.  He knew what God’s voice sounded like.  This was no crazy nut case’s psychotic fantasy.  There was no doubt in his mind he had heard the voice of God, and the instruction was clear.

So at that point, given all that God had already told him, all that God had already done for him, and especially given the fact that Isaac himself was living proof of God’s blessing, of God’s faithfulness, of God’s provision, Abraham was past the point of no return.  What was the alternative to obedience?  “No, God, I don’t think so.  I don’t trust you.  You’re up to no good.”

Preposterous, isn’t it?  Given all that God had done for Abraham over a half-century or more, there was no turning back.

What step of obedience has God called you to make that is stretching the boundaries of your willingness to go all the way?

Where is it that God is asking you to trust him right now with something indescribably, agonizingly, unspeakably hard?  Maybe even something so difficult you can’t even tell your spouse?

Life brings tests to us all along, but sometimes we find ourselves in the middle of the big one – Test with a capital T.  Maybe what you’re facing right now is without rival the hardest thing you’ve ever had to face.  Maybe the sacrifice you’re being called on to make seems unjust.  Maybe the service you’re being invited to accept is far beyond what you believe to be your gifts and abilities.  Maybe the risks of the next step in your faith journey seem out of proportion.

Are you past the point of no return or not?  Are you still struggling with whether you can trust him?  Has he given you any reason not to?

Look back over your life and think about the ways he has blessed you, directed you, provided for you, and especially, forgiven you?  The story of Abraham in Genesis 22 is there to teach us this lesson.  When your heart is pounding and your head is spinning and your feet are shaking at the fork in the road that may well define your spiritual life and legacy, ask yourself whether or not God has proven himself to be worthy of being called God. 

This is our final sermon on the life of Abraham, and our final sermon in the series of sermons on the legacy of John Calvin, the sixteenth century Protestant Reformer whose 500th birthday was July 10.  I’d like to close the series of sermons with another nod to his faith and teaching.

As we have said throughout this series, Calvin has been the recipient of much criticism – some of it unfair and some well-deserved.  But what I have come to appreciate in a deeper sense about Calvin is his heart.  A collection of essays about his life and thought published last year is titled John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, & Doxology (edited by Burk Parsons). 

Calvin had a heart for God.  The essence of his teaching was that God is God and I am not.  I don’t choose God; he chooses me.  I cannot respond to God; whatever faith I exhibit, whatever good I do is because of his work in me.  All of life must be lived for God’s glory.

Calvin’s humility was about the ultimate question of salvation, first and foremost.  But Calvin also lived through many trials.  He was forced from his home country under threat of persecution.  He landed in Geneva for his ministry, but was asked to leave only two years later.  (He later was invited to return.)   He married a widower with two children of her own, but she was often very ill and died after they had been married only nine years.  He said he had lost his best friend.  Two years into the marriage, Idelette Calvin gave birth to a premature son, and he died 22 days later.  Two more children would be conceived and lost.  Calvin himself suffered through many health problems and died at age 55.

Who knows which of these individual trials was his greatest burden?  He did not talk much about his personal life.  But one thing is sure.  In every trial he chose to trust God’s character and believe God’s Word.  God himself was enough.  He was past the point of no return.

I want to live and die with that same passion, that same trust, that same obedience.  I may not always know why God asks of me what he does, but if it is he who asks, that’s all I need to know.  Amen.

 

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