Pastor Craig Carter
Since the first of the year, we’ve been reading through the Book of Genesis as a congregation. Then each Sunday, we’re exploring characters we meet in the first book of the Bible.
Last week we learned some valuable lessons from an unlikely source – Hagar, an Egyptian servant. She showed us what to do when life doesn’t make sense, a condition with which most of us can relate. Many things that happen, whether of our own doing or because of someone else’s choices, simply don’t make much sense. But, as I pointed out in that message, oftentimes God’s approach and plan of action doesn’t make sense much sense either. That’s because, as the Bible teaches, His ways are not necessarily our ways.
That fact is clearly evident in the Lord’s interaction with our spiritual father, Abraham. Several weeks ago, we looked at him and then the past two Sundays we’ve explored the lives of the mothers of his two children – Sarah who gave birth to Isaac, and Hagar who had a son with Abraham named Ishmael. In the portrait on Abraham I mentioned a “test” God administered to Abraham. It is such a key event in his life and so significant for us as his spiritual descendants, I’d like to revisit it today and explore it in more detail.
Here’s how it begins in Genesis 22:
Sometime later, God tested Abraham’s faith. “Abraham!” God called. “Yes,” he replied. “Here I am.” 2 “Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.” 3 The next morning Abraham got up early. He saddled his donkey and took two of his servants with him, along with his son, Isaac. Then he chopped wood for a fire for a burnt offering and set out for the place God had told him about.
It probably goes without saying, but this story is quite disturbing. First of all, it seems unfathomable that God would require someone to take an innocent person’s life (and a father his son’s life at that!) But it is perhaps even more troubling on another level: Why would God ask for that which seemingly held the key to the future? Remember, the Lord had promised Abraham that he would be a father to many nations and that through his descendants all people would be blessed.
Now, after Abraham had waited 25 years for the son that would fulfill that promise, God was asking for him back. How much sense does that make? But maybe this apparent contradiction holds the key to understanding the purpose of this entire episode. Namely, God’s will does not necessarily have to make sense to us. It is not essential that you and I understand God and His ways (and we can’t).
What is critical is that we trust God and obey His call on our lives. As Oswald Chambers writes in his book, My Utmost for His Highest, “Be cautious lest you fall into the trap of trying to explain the will of God before you obey it.”
So even though Abraham could not understand or explain God’s will in this matter, he obeyed, without any delay whatsoever.
In the year 2020, we now have a fuller revelation of God from the rest of Scripture and we know this was a “test,” so we have to conclude God never intended and would not have allowed Abraham to go through with the sacrifice. He would have simply failed the “test” and God would have fulfilled His covenant through someone else. But Abraham was not privy to this additional information. So I am convinced he set out with the purpose to do whatever God required.
4 On the third day of their journey, Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 “Stay here with the donkey,” Abraham told the servants. “The boy and I will travel a little farther. We will worship there, and then we will come right back.”
Notice anything particular here? Abraham says we will travel, we will worship, then we will come right back. Was that for Isaac’s sake, to keep him from knowing the truth?
The Book of Hebrews explains why Abraham said what he did: It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac … Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. (Hebrews 11:17, 19a NLT)
Abraham exercised “resurrection faith” thousands of years before the resurrection. He was convinced of the absolute goodness and power of God and so, he was willing to entrust his most valued possession (his son) into the Lord’s care. Not only did Abraham obey God, he trusted Him fully.
As I’ve said on many occasions, that combination of faith and obedience is a powerful concoction that unleashes the supernatural power of God.
6 So Abraham placed the wood for the burnt offering on Isaac’s shoulders, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them walked on together, 7 Isaac turned to Abraham and said, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “We have the fire and the wood,” the boy said, “but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” 8 “God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son,” Abraham answered. And they both walked on together. 9 When they arrived at the place where God had told him to go, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. Then he tied his son, Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood.
Father and son, Abraham and Isaac, made that agonizing journey up the mountain together. Isaac notices something is missing – an animal for the sacrifice. It seems to me that maybe the “test” was as much for Isaac as it was for Abraham. Remember: he was to be the holder and carrier of God’s blessing (and he knew that) so he needed to learn the lessons of faith and obedience himself. He certainly trusted and obeyed when he allowed himself to be bound and laid on the altar. Keep in mind, Isaac was probably a teenager at the time. Abraham was probably about 115 years old. To some degree, Isaac had to be a willing subject since he could have resisted or run away.
Despite his reservations, Isaac trusted his earthly father and his assurance that “God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:8 NLT)
10 And Abraham picked up the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. 11 At that moment the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Yes,” Abraham replied. “Here I am!” 12 “Don’t lay a hand on the boy!” the angel said. “Do not hurt him in any way, for now I know that you truly fear God. You have not withheld from me even your son, your only son.” 13 Then Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. So he took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14 Abraham named the place Yahweh-Yireh (which means “the Lord will provide”).
Some things to consider here: 1) Can you imagine the look in Isaac’s eyes? What was he saying? Feeling? 2) Note that God called Abraham’s name twice. He didn’t want him to miss the cue! Abraham’s reply: “Here I am!” 3) Throughout this story, Isaac is referred to as Abraham’s only son. Ishmael had already departed; besides, Isaac was the promised heir.
Abraham “picked up the knife” and held it over his dearest and most prized possession. I think it’s significant God told Abraham to sacrifice the son “whom you love so much.” Later in Scripture we’ll learn that the first and greatest commandment is to “love God” wholeheartedly. So not only was this a test of Abraham’s faith, but of his love and devotion as well. Was his love and loyalty to the Lord greater than his love and loyalty to his son? Was he willing to sacrifice the gift for the Giver? The promise for the Promiser?
The real offering God wanted was not Isaac, but Abraham – heart, soul, mind and strength. Abraham passed the test because he was willing to give up anything and everything for the Lord. He feared God more than he feared losing what God had given him. It was a clear demonstration of total obedience, true faith, and undivided love.
Let me ask you this: To what are you clinging? What are you hanging on to? What if God were to say to you, “Take your _____, your only _____, that you love, and offer it to me as sacrifice?” Would you be willing to pick up the knife and cut it loose?
Is there anything in your life that you’re holding on to that is a hindrance to your relationship with the Lord and is preventing you from following Him fully? I believe God is calling some of us to “pick up the knife” in some area of our lives. Are you willing to heed His voice and respond in absolute faith and obedience?
While I don’t want to assume the role of the Holy Spirit in leading and prompting you, I do want to offer a few suggestions that may help you hear God’s voice. There are six areas of surrender and sacrifice you may want to look at and consider if God is telling you to “pick up the knife” in that area.
The first is pride. Some of us may need to “pick up the knife” and cut loose our pride, especially as it effects our relationship with God. Many persons put off a decision for the Lord because of pride with thinking such as, “If I respond to the invitation, what will other people think?” or “If I accept Christ or join the church now, people will wonder why I’ve waited so long.” That sort of thinking causes us to miss out on the best God has to offer.
We also refuse to seek the Lord’s help because of pride. Have you ever said, “I got myself into this mess, I’ll get myself out of it.” How’s that going? Or, “Other people have bigger problems who need God’s help.” Don’t you think He’s big enough to handle those situations and yours too?
Sometimes we have to say, “I can’t,” so God can! We’ve got to get out of the way and not let pride get in the way.
We may also need to “pick up the knife” and hold it over our possessions. After Hurricane Michael hit, what did we say in the days that followed? “We lost our roof, our belongings, our home, but thank God, we’re still here. It was just stuff anyway, what really matters is that we and our loved ones are okay.”
We all understand the fleeting nature of possessions and their limited value. Yet, is that how most people live? More importantly, how about us 16 months later?
It’s so easy to fall back into the familiar ways of a materialistic culture, isn’t it? We put a premium on the acquisition and maintenance of physical items, even to the detriment of ourselves and our relationships with God and others.
There is nothing inherently evil about “things” – in fact, they are blessings from God – but they can take on a life of their own. Instead of us possessing them, they begin to possess us.
Let me give you an example of how this happens: When we have little or nothing, it’s easy to share when God begins to bless us, financially speaking. But then, over time, we start to hold back a little and conserve (to play it safe). As wealth increases, you’d think our faith would increase too, but it doesn’t. Instead, it actually gets harder to give because we feel like we have more to lose. Slowly but surely, our devotion to God shifts to dealing with our money and stuff.
The only way to loosen our possessions’ grip on us is to pick up the knife and start slicing by giving it away … and tithing is one way we can do that. By following God’s command to bring 10% of what He has given us to His house to be used to advance His purposes, we demonstrate that our love of God and His purposes exceeds our love of money.
Perhaps you’ve said, “I/we can’t afford to tithe right now.” It’s time to “pick up the knife” and obey God. You can’t afford not to.
A closely-related area that we may need to offer to the Lord is pleasurable activities. We don’t give up our hobbies or other diversions just so we can “suffer for Jesus.” We do so when they become our “god” or center of our universe.
All of us are busy with all kinds of activities, most (if not all) of them are good things. But some of us are just “too busy” and something has to go. When I say “pleasurable activities,” I’m not just talking about hobbies or leisure pursuits. For some of us, work brings us great satisfaction and pleasure and is king of our lives. Or maybe it’s an “indulgence” we feel entitled to, but could easily become a habit or even addiction or may serve as a poor witness to others.
As with possessions, over time, we begin to think we can handle it. Is there anything you’re doing God is telling you to stop? Pick up the knife and see if the Lord wants you to cut it loose.
We may also need to consider our participation in ministry and mission. Some of you may have sensed God calling you to a deeper commitment of your time and talents in ministry in the church or mission in the world. The Lord may have planted a vision in your mind or given you a desire to serve Him in a new and exciting way; perhaps you’ve even sensed a call to vocational ministry. But you wonder if you possess the necessary skill and talents or you don’t see how you can fit anything else into your already jam-packed schedule.
“Pick up the knife! Yahweh-Yireh! Jehovah-Jireh!” The Lord will provide.
What does it look when we pick up the knife when we receive promptings of the Holy Spirit? Do you ever have a name suddenly pop into your mind? Do you ever hear a voice saying, “You need to call so-and-so…Why don’t you go to the morning prayer time at church? …You’d be a great children’s church servant, you should talk to Mary or Bobbie.”
If you’re like me, your first response is, “Was that God or just something I ate?” And when God says, “It was Me,” you wonder, “Was that God or…me?” Rarely are we going to hear God’s voice booming from the heavens. More times than not, the Lord speaks through our thoughts, feelings and circumstances. When you hear God speaking, don’t delay…trust and obey! Pick up the knife!
Let me end with an area for us to consider as a congregation – predictable religion. If the past year and half for us as a church has been anything, it’s been unpredictable. But, at the same time, it’s been a blessed time for us as we’ve had to trust God and operate as a church without walls or roof or furniture or anything else.
We’re a little over a month away from occupying our renovated church facility at 3203 Minnesota Avenue. As that date approaches, my greatest fear is that the church will become a “place” for us once again and we’ll sink back into our old, predictable religious ways.
God tore our buildings away from us in October 2018. In 2020, we need to cut it loose. We need to be intentional in making our pursuit of God a priority over preserving a place and planning programs. The church is more than a building! We’re going to love 3203 Minnesota Avenue, but let’s make sure we love God more!
I am convinced the stakes are no less for us today than they were for Abraham long ago. Following Jesus, both individually and collectively, is going to cost us something. And why should we be willing to pick up the knife? As I’ve already mentioned, complete faith and total obedience is the pathway to God’s supernatural power and blessings.
Here’s the promise that was given Abraham and extends to all God’s people:
15 Then the angel of the Lord called again to Abraham from heaven. 16 “This is what the Lord says: Because you have obeyed me and have not withheld even your son, your only son, I swear by my own name that 17 I will certainly bless you. I will multiply your descendants beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will conquer the cities of their enemies. 18 And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed—all because you have obeyed me.”
Don’t you want that? We must be willing to sacrifice and surrender all – for our sake and for others’ sake.
It’s worth noting that the mountain did not become a monument to Abraham’s faith or to Isaac’s obedience, but to God’s provision and blessing (Mount Moriah was renamed Mount Jehovah-Jireh). So the portrait of Abraham and Isaac is not primarily intended to inspire us to sacrifice for God. Instead, it is given as a testimony to God’s willingness to sacrifice for us.
We must never forget, when we obey God and offer up to Him that which we love most, we’re doing nothing that He hasn’t already done. The image of Abraham leading his beloved son, Isaac, up a mountainside foreshadows a similar scene that occurred two thousand years later. That’s when God accompanied His one and only Son, Jesus, to Mount Calvary. But this time, the beloved son was not spared and was instead offered as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.
Anything we ever give to God pales in comparison to what He has already given to us.
I believe some, if not all, of us need to reciprocate by giving something we hold dear back to the Lord as an offering of our love, our trust, and our obedience. So back to the question I asked earlier: How will you respond as God says to you, “Take your ____, your only ____, that you love, and offer it to me as sacrifice?”
I want to encourage you to pick up the knife, knowing Yahweh-Yireh, Jehovah-Jireh, the Lord will provide!