The Journey: An Impossible Destination
September 17, 2017
Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14
A few weeks ago I took our kids to the MN state fair…
After a little while we made our way into the Miracle of Life Barn…only to find out that a calf was just about give birth. There were hundreds of people standing around watching this…with TV screens above with a closer view. A cow midwife was on hand to make sure everything went okay, and then…there was someone on a microphone giving color commentary.
You really have to see it to believe it. Once the calf was born…pretty cool…the color commentator said it was time to give the calf a name. They would solicit three names from the crowd…and then we would vote on the best one. So any suggestions? Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a hand go up next to me…only to realize that the hand belonged to my son Micah.
Yes, sir…your name suggestion please?! And with every ounce of his shyness squashed, Micah yelled “Bruce!!!”
And he won. (My parents visited the fair about 5 days later…they wanted to meet their grand calf…)
I don’t know what is in store for Bruce…I’m hoping for fields of clover…but that day Micah got a glimpse of the power of naming.
Names in the OT did not usually originate from a crowd suggestion and a vote… there was no commentator auctioning oﬀ names to the loudest cheer…
There was intentionality and care given to naming. Names were important. They pointed to who God is and who we are…
And they were important really from the very beginning, which is where we started last week…the creation story in Genesis 1.
So fast forward now in chapter 22…we’ve jumped over many names…Like Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel…there’s also been a flood…the tower of Babel…and in the the chapters leading up to the this text…
A patriarch has emerged. A man named Abraham…called at the age of 75…to move to a new land to help birth a new people.
And at the ripe old age of 100…Abraham and his wife Sarah did what they and everyone else thought was laughable…they had a son.
And they named him Isaac, which means “he laughs.”
Scholars debate the meaning of his name…does it point to the utter laughability of having a child at such a late age. Or does it point to the joy it must have brought them?
Or it is both?
Isaac, named for laughter, was Abraham and Sarah’s answer to decades of prayer and longing.
They laughed because he was finally here.
How I wish we could end here: Abraham and Sarah waited and waited. Isaac was born. And they laughed. The End.
But instead, we are led to chapter 22…one of the most diﬃcult passages in the Bible.
A passage that raises more inquiry than answers. More question marks than periods.
It makes no sense. And no matter how I try to reconcile this text, there are elements that remain a mystery. There is no way to resolve it over the next three hours of this sermon…
Why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son?
Now by way of background, child sacrifice was at times practiced by neighboring nations. People believed that if they wanted the gods to give them something big…land, victory in war, etc…they had to sacrifice something. It was a way to earn the gods favor…and in order to do this, make the greatest sacrifice.
Many Old Testament passages expressly forbid this practice because at times it occurred even among the Israelites.
So perhaps God was asking the impossible of Abraham as a way of undoing the practice around him…of saying…this is going to end diﬀerently.
But we don’t get any sense that Abraham knew this as he set out on his journey…taking two servants and his son Isaac.
The text says the journey took three days. Three days. Can you imagine what they must have been like? The anguish in Abraham’s heart…every step leading him closer and closer to a destination he never wanted to reach.
Abraham was faced with an impossible choice: disobey God or lose the most important gift he had ever been given.
One foot in front of another…no more laughter…no more joy.
Of course the text leaves out this emotion, this anguish…and yet…you can almost hear it underneath the facts: a father is being asked to sacrifice his son.
This passage lies within a remarkably close orbit to another passage…that is strikingly similar (even though the one we’re looking at gets more air play).
Abraham had actually fathered a son before Isaac, a boy named Ishmael, which means “God hears.” His mother was a servant of Sarah’s named Hagar.
In Genesis 21, Ishmael and Hagar are sent away by Sarah…she wants them gone so that the blessing would fall solely on Isaac.
Abraham fretted over sending his son away, but God assured him all would be well.
And so he gave Hagar some food and water and sent them on their way. Again, the text is so matter of fact about it…and yet…you can hear the whispers of desperation underneath the facts.
Especially after Hagar runs out of food and water for Ishmael…and so she put him the bushes. And she went oﬀ and sat away from him…unable to watch him die…
Alone in the wilderness…with her son…whom she thought would surely die in this place.
In these two neighboring chapters…parents agonized, seemingly alone…but with impossible situations before them.
How is it that two sons are seemingly left for dead?
Yesterday I attended my 20th college reunion at North Park University…I know… its crazy to think that I graduated when I was 11…
During the breakfast, my former pastor from North Park Covenant Church, received the Distinguished Alumni Award. And after crediting all that he learned from this brown haired parishioner 20 years ago…he said this,
“Over the years I have learned that we are to look for Jesus in every situation… even the most impossible ones.”
And so when we think of Isaac on Mt. Moriah… And Ishmael in the desert of Beersheba…
We are reminded to look for Christ in these places too.
In Genesis 21, verse 17, “God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her: What is the matter? Do no be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”
In Genesis 22, verse 11, “But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven: Abraham! Abraham! Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you hear God, because you have withheld me your son, you only son.
In these two unlikely places…God makes himself known.
In the middle of the dessert…GOD HEARS…Ishmael.
And at the top of a mountain……GOD STOPS ABRAHAM…and brings his laughter back.
Look for Jesus in all situations…even the most impossible ones.
The burden that followed you here…the relationship that is not healed…the dependency that you cannot seem to break…
Look for Christ…
The Christian life is not a life free of pain…it is one where we are promised to not go through the pain alone.
There will be tests…there will be trials…there will be loneliness… But God is right here with us…
There is a combination of impossibility and joy in God’s call. Of testing and providence. Of obedience and grace.
But when I think of the lonely hill Abraham climbed with Isaac…I do see Christ.
Because, the Bible tells us that God had no good options.
That sin had grown too large to be reconciled by humans…
That the world had largely turned its back on God… and yet he was still committed to us. He still loved us. What should God do?
The answer comes in the form of another son: this time it was God’s son. A son who wandered alone in the dessert…
A son who walked up another hill…only to sacrifice himself out of love for the world.
God’s sentence of command to Abraham ends here in Genesis with a comma… and it is only completed with a period on the cross.
God will not ask anything of us that he himself is not willing to do. God will not ask us to go where he himself is not willing to go.
God makes the ultimate sacrifice of death of his son so that we could have life. Because ultimately, God is for life…for breath…for flourishing…
He promises both Ishmael and Isaac that they will father a great nation.
He promises to lead them away from desert places and into life abundant… And God promises us the same.
The passage ends with one more name: in verse 14: “So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide,” or Jehovah-Jirah.”
A name that reminds us of who God is: a God who provides in the midst of the most impossible circumstances.
The name is made more significant because of the road it took to get there… three days of a hellish existence for Abraham…but God provided.
There again, I see Christ…for on the third day he rose again from the dead. Questions still linger for me…in this text and in our world…
But in the midst of these questions…can we look for Jesus?
Knowing that in the end…no matter our name…Jehovah-Jirah is right beside us.