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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 - 1669)
Sacrifice of Isaac
Last held on the 31st of October 2004 at Hattem
The sacrifice of Isaac
He knows where Abraham gets the mustard.
That’s a Dutch proverb. We do say it of someone who’s well known somewhere, well versed, and who finds ways to reach his goals. But not many people did ever wonder where this wonderful expression comes from. What has Abraham to do with mustard, the mustard plant or the spicy spread made from mustard seeds making the fries or cheese tastier? In Dutch: “mosterd”. Nothing! We should say: he knows where Abraham gets the bundle of branches. And the very old word for that bundle is in Duth: "mustard". So it's a linguistic corruption. For isn’t it in the history of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac that Abraham himself splits the wood for the burnt offering, and, as they go on together, lays it on his son’s back, and also arranges it on the altar?
It’s a familiar story, but it’s still a strange one, a story that raises many questions for us, with all kinds of sides and hidden layers. But it’s also a beautiful and moving story. At least if we don’t immediately give our aversion all the space. What kind of cruel primitive god is that, who demands human sacrifice? I don’t think we should read it with that attitude. Because already in the introductory sentence, it’s indirectly indicated that God will not let it come that far.
And it’s also immediately indicated, what God is most concerned about. ‘After this, it came to pass that God put Abraham to the test.' The Lord lets Abraham take an exam in faith.
How do you prove that you've sufficient knowledge of a school course? If you successfully pass an exam. And the more difficult the exam you pass, the more you show that you’ve mastered the material.
How do we show that we really and firmly believe? If our faith passed through the trial. It must remain standing. It must be cleansed of all kinds of side issues. Abraham is considered the father of all believers, and in this story, he gets the toughest exam of his life. So if we look at him this morning, we can learn what faith is.
And it’s first and foremost that you're available. God says: “Abraham.” And Abraham says: “Here I am. Later, Isaac says: “My father.” And Abraham says: “Here I am, my son.” Later again, the angel of the Lord cries: “Abraham, Abraham.” And Abraham says again: “Here I am.”
Believing is not just accepting certain truths, holding certain beliefs, or being a member of a particular church. Believing is that you are addressed by God, very personally. That you hear, how God calls you by name, his voice sounds in your heart, he calls upon you. Believing is knowing of a conversation God is always keeping with you. And of a way, He is going with you. And thus open yourself to the Lord, make yourself available: Here I am. You no longer can avoid it, going your own way. You surrender to the Lord, put yourself in his service unconditionally. Your life becomes living for Him. First of all, for God, but also the neighbourhood. Here I am, my son. Just say what’s on your mind. To believe is to love and serve God and your neighbour. Dedicate yourself with all your existence to the glory of God and the salvation of the world. Come out of your corner and participate wholeheartedly in God’s experiment with you. 'Here I am.' We're not perfect. We don’t always have this availability of the true believer. We are sometimes very far from it. Yet. Do you recognize this? Do you feel this is the proper way of faith? Here I am, Lord. Please do what you will with me.
And then God said to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will name you.” What a great sacrifice Abraham must make. The Lord makes it clear that He understands that, He does know what Isaac means to Abraham. He says that very explicitly. But that’s precisely why it’s a hard slap in the face for Abraham. “Your son, your only, whom you love. Why can God ask that? Why can God, who is love, bring people into such impossible tribulations, impose something superhuman like that and then expect us to keep faith in Him and obedience to Him? What God wants from us and asks of us sometimes is so terribly heavy, incomprehensible, and oppressively dark! No, believing is not having the answer to all questions, having a crystal-clear worldview. We know in part. We still see through a mirror in riddles. Also, the riddles of a high, holy God, who walks in secret, whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and whose ways are higher than our ways. Who sometimes seems like an enemy instead of a friend. “God is great, and we do not understand Him”, says Job. How did Abraham ever understand this command?
And if we don’t believe in blind chance or unshakable fate but in a living God, are we not often faced with a similar riddle to which Abraham stood? And doesn’t that happen, especially when sacrifices are asked of us? Sometimes we have to put many things on the altar in our lives that God asks in return. A father or mother, a man or woman, a son or daughter. Our health and our workforce. Our profession and our good position. Our company. Our homeland, how many refugees are there on earth. The love and help of good friends, who suddenly abandon us for reasons we don’t understand. Or the love of our spouse who has grown cold. The older we get, the more often we have to let go, until finally our lives. Those are very tough exams. Does it make us grumbling, rebellious? Understandable. Are we desperate, despairing? Also, so understandable. Or does that incomprehensible faith float to the surface, with all the storms in our hearts? So that we continue to fear God, like Abraham? So that we become one of will with God? So that we learn to love and trust God above all that is dear to us? So that we recognize that, as Creator, as Lord and King over all, He has more rights than we do in what He takes from us? So that we do not withhold from Him what is dear to us? Because his grace is enough for us? Did that faith come back through the temptations? That’s a mark of true religion.
Abraham, of his own accord, had to give up his son. Believing is also making sacrifices in complete freedom, letting go of things God asks us to do. Abraham had to start with that right away: “Get out of your country, and out of your kindred, and out of your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” On the way God puts us, sometimes much has to be left behind. Think also of the rich young man, or Levi, the tax collector, who had to get rid of the earthly possessions on which they hung. And think of Paul, who had to exchange his spiritual wealth, righteousness, and devotion. He who loves earthly things more than God is not worthy of Him. We are not perfect people. We often don’t succeed in sacrificing a little bit of our money, leisure time, and a few of our vices and weaknesses, contrary to the gospel. We think with reverence of the great ones in the faith, who devoted their whole lives to God, who would do everything for Him, warriors for the truth, like Luther. Fighters for justice, like Martin Luther King. Tireless workers in the service of mercy, such as Albert Schweizer, Mother Theresa. But do you notice that the voluntary sacrifice belongs to believing? That it’s a touchstone of our faith? Do we give something for God, a lot for God? Giving time, giving money, breaking with our favourite sins?
However, do you know what must have been the most difficult thing for Abraham? Isaac was the son of God’s promise, was the visible sign that God richly would bless Abraham and his descendants and make them a blessing to the whole world. Isaac was the collateral of God’s goodness and faithfulness. That only last narrow bridge to the fulfilling God’s promises, that bridge that Abraham had to wait so long for. It’s the bridge that only was built when it humanly was no longer possible. And that bridge now must be broken down. It seems God is making a definitive mark through his own work. It’s incomprehensible. It’s the hardest tribulation of faith.
Isn’t that also the hardest thing for us when what we consider to be signs of God’s love and faithfulness is disappearing? When what we see as heralds of the spring of God’s Kingdom are taken from us? For example, when a church withers? When soldiers’ boots trample the world peace? When our children say goodbye to faith? And when the healing of an illness, which we experienced as an answer to prayer, is not permanent? “Where is God in whom you built and in whom you trusted your cause?” (Dutch hymn, Psalm 42) It’s a tough test for our faith when the Lord takes away from us all kinds of things that gave our faith something visible to hold on to. But it can happen.
So it’s quite a bit what God asks of Abraham and sometimes of us too. And what does Abraham do? “And Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took with him two of his servants, and his son Isaac; he split wood for the burnt offering, and set out, and went to the place which God had named him.” The writer does not dwell on the battle Abraham must have fought in his heart. That’s a secret between God and Abraham, he does not enter. Sober and modest, he sticks to the facts and actions. Without excuses and delay, Abraham obeys God’s strange, harsh command. And this concrete act of obedience pleases God and shows Abraham’s faith. “Abraham, our father, was he not justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? So wrote James. Hearing and obeying, hearing and doing, are one in faith. Believing is going and listening to God’s voice, not knowing what comes of it and where you come to, yes, while sometimes it’s entirely in line with the expectation that nothing good will come of it, only suffering, making sacrifices, carrying crosses. Believing is doing deeds that you realize God gives you to do, without the meaning and purpose of those deeds always being transparent. What is the benefit of volunteering in a developing country? It’s a drop in the ocean when you achieve something, and often your work is undone. And yet you go to the place that God shows you. What do you deal with people who have something against you? You’re not breaking through their wall of rejection, are you? And yet you go to the place that God shows you. What are you doing as a pastor at a dying person who no longer responds? Yet you go to the place God shows you. How do you manage to talk about faith with that indifferent acquaintance, who constantly criticizes the church? And yet you go to the place that God directs you.
And so Abraham sets out. It’s further described in a beautiful piece of prose. “When Abraham lifted up his eyes on the third day, he saw that place in the distance.” What was on his mind? The tension is rising. He leaves the servants with the donkey. You have to go alone through this heavy hour. “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go yonder. When we have worshipped, we will return to you.” Words you can’t stop thinking about. Is Abraham merely hiding his purpose from his servants? Or does he believe that God has not shown his true face in this hard commission and continues to cling to a miracle? I think so. For that’s true believing. Always again saying: yet. “You seem harsh and cruel, o Lord, and yet I believe in your love and mercy, and your miracles.”
Abraham puts the wood on Isaac’s shoulder but carries the dangerous objects, the fire and the knife himself. A beautiful description of Abraham’s love and care. Isaac is becoming more and more involved in the story, and it appears that they bear the burden of the sacrifice together. “So they both went together”, it says twice. How wonderful when our children obediently follow the path of faith and don’t give up even on the path of severe trials of faith.
Isaac also asks: ”Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” And Abraham answered: “God will provide himself with a lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” It’s not a direct answer. That’s too much for him to give. It’s an answer, referring to God as the one who will take care of the solution. He leaves the initiative to God. And he confesses that with God, everything is still open, and all things are still possible. He believes in the unbelievable, just as his words to the servants showed. “We will return to you.” And here: “God will provide.” “By faith Abraham, when he was tempted, offered up Isaac, and he that had received the promises was willing to sacrifice his only son. He considered that God was able to raise him even from the dead, and from there, he got him back, so to speak," says the letter to Hebrews. (11:17-1) To believe, against the appearance of the contrary, is to hold on to the fact that God can still give new openings, that He can still provide surprises, that He can provide for all needs, that with Him the wonders are not yet over. To believe is to say: Even if I don’t see it, even if I don’t see through it, God provides and will provide for everything. And you passed the test of faith if you can say so. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe. (John 20:29) The ways are always open with God, even if they seem close to our eyes. God will provide it. You can leave it to God. He will not disappoint you in the end. Despite appearances to the contrary, he will not drop his promises; even if there’s nothing left to see with human eyes, God still will see it before Him. So it says literally: "God will see a lamb for a burnt offering before him." He who thus believes in God’s saving and outcome-giving power can make sacrifices. He can let go of what he loves. He can bear that something dear is taken from him. He can do deeds that seem meaningless from a human point of view. He can continue to believe even when all kinds of visible signs of God’s goodness fail him.
And that faith, with which people refuse to settle for the worst, even though it seems God Himself gives the worst, that faith with which it’s said, even in the greatest need: ”The Lord will provide”, that faith also will prevail in the end. Rich blessings rest upon that faith, which has stood firm in the most severe trials and tests. “Do not stretch out your hand to the boy and harm him, for now, I know that you fear, and your son, your only one, had not withheld me." Abraham gets his son back as if from the dead. With its horns tangled in the bushes, a ram takes Isaac’s place. Indeed, God Himself provided the sacrifice. Abraham may receive that ram as a gift from God and a substitute for Isaac. Abraham gives it out of God’s hand. In this sacrifice, man accomplishes nothing. God himself provides what should be on his altar. And He confirms His promises to Abraham. All the nations of the earth will be blessed with his seed. In his trial of our faith, it may seem otherwise, but the Lord will fulfil what he has promised. He swears to himself to assure Abraham. p>
This history of Abraham’s exam of faith is touching. Also very educational because we discover what faith is. Abraham, the father of the faithful, shows us.
But also a daunting story. Because we usually don’t have such a faith as Abraham. We feel we are far from it.
But then we can look to Jesus. Our great brother in believing. The founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebr. 12:2). From the lineage of Abraham and Isaac, and through whom that family tree became a blessing to the whole world. All kinds of lines of our history lead to him. After all, He has also made Himself entirely available for God and man. “Behold, I come to do thy will, O God, in the scroll it is written of me.” (Ps. 40:8) He has given himself entirely to God and man, sacrificing himself completely for both. He, too, has borne the dark riddles of God’s ways, endured all temptations and trials. He, too, has wrestled with God’s impossible demands in the garden of Gethsemane. He also cried, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ He, too, learned obedience from what He suffered. (Hebr. 5:8) He made the greatest sacrifice possible: that of his own life. He also believed that this was not the last of God’s intentions and that God would save him, even through death. “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” And this faithful surrender, this sacrifice, has atoning and forgiving power for us. It takes away from us the guilt of everything we fall short in faith. The Jews in our story pay more attention to Isaac than to Abraham. It’s called by them: the binding of Isaac. And they believe that there was an atoning power of Isaac’s willingness to sacrifice his life. What a clear line we see towards Jesus, the Messiah.
And on the third day, as He also foretold in faith, Jesus was raised from the dead. It was all well, ended well. And in Him, all God’s blessings are richly fulfilled.
In Him, God also appears to give what He asks of us. He provided the sacrifice by surrendering His Son to death. The Lord gave his Son, his only One, whom he loved. What He saved Abraham, He took upon Himself. For our salvation, to enable forgiveness and atonement for our sins. How wonderful.
Do you know where Solomon later has built the temple? On Mount Moriah. And do you know where later the cross stood? Close to Mount Moria. Many sacrifices have been made in the temple, but they all pointed to that one sufficient sacrifice made on the cross nearby. That particular sacrifice pictured Abraham when he offered his son Isaac and Isaac when he allowed himself to let sacrifice.
Thus, the two go together: Father and Son. The Father lays his Son, and the Son lays Himself on the altar. They care more for people than people could ever do for them. They devote themselves to people more than people can ever devote themselves to them. They show more love to people than people can ever show love to them. They go through a greater depth and suffer more for the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of men than men can ever be challenged and can suffer for the sake of their obedience to them.
Therefore I hope you say it: "Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief." "Lord, I want to obey and love You, even when it’s hard and it takes sacrifices, but it will only work if You continue to give me that faith through Word and Spirit." "And thank you, Lord, that in the greatest need, I may still hope for you because you have provided everything." Therefore, I hope, when it comes to saving faith, you all know where Abraham ‘gets the mustard’. Amen.