Abraham’s Four Windows – 1st Sunday in Lent

Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”  [Genesis 22:8]

This chapter is one of the most amazing in the Old Testament, on one side because it clearly described what God would do with His own Son, and on the other hand, because this happened so far back in time.  This did not take place for instance during the time of the prophets, but rather, all the way back in the opening chapters of the Bible, even as the people of Israel were barely a gleam in Abraham’s eye, did this event occur.

When God called Abraham to be His special person in all the earth, He promised Abraham four things: the first, that his descendants would receive a specially promised Land; the second, that a great nation would come from him; the third, that Abraham would be a blessing to others; and finally, that through Abraham would come that special blessing that would be for all nations.

As you look at Abraham’s subsequent life, there were four major events where God himself stepped into history to further develop these promises.  But what was happening at these times was more than God merely giving a little more detail on the prophecies, they were also four windows to look into God’s “heart and soul.”

The first window was when God told Abraham that he had arrived in the specially promised Land.  Abraham would never possess this land, yet God declared that he and his descendants owned it.  It was theirs.  It was something concrete rather than a vague promise.  When Israel was in slavery in Egypt, they would know that they had a home, a “landing place” where, when they kept themselves under God’s protection, there would be safety, security, goodness, worthwhileness, blessing and so much more.  It was real and physical.  And it was theirs, just like when Jesus tells us that He returns to the Father to prepare a place for us and will come again to take us home with Him – there is a ‘landing place” for us that is real and eternal.

The second window was the solemn Covenant ceremony in Genesis 15.  There were actually two things that occurred in this occasion: on the one hand Jehovah of Israel committed Himself to death should He ever break Covenant – which He will do –; and on the other hand, He described what will happen to the future People of Israel, that the route to the Promised Land would not be easy.  These two themes, suffering and God’s death, would also mark the path to the heavenly Promised Land as well.

The third window was when Jehovah came to visit Abraham, which also had two elements to it.  On the one hand, judgment hung in the air – the overwhelming sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was compelling the Lord to act.  What a view of Covenant this window presents, as God deliberately sought out Abraham to be the advocate on the behalf of those condemned.  In fascination we watch not merely Abraham arguing and pleading, and having unbelievable success, but also that in His Covenant-partner Abraham was Jehovah’s love – a love even for His enemies –, pushing God’s judgment back, back, until it was pinned against the wall.  All that was needed were ten righteous persons to save all the people – ten minus Lot and his family left 6 more needed – 6 righteous people in a group of 5 cities, basically one in each city would have saved all the city, no matter what they deserved, no matter how bad that city had become.  Yet the reality was to be that not even one among the thousands in each city would be found.

However, it was earlier in this same visit that God had also declared that the child of promise, in this case, Isaac, would come in a year’s time.  Did Abraham realize that God was also pointing to the birth another Child of Promise, a Child Who Himself would answer that need for the One – not just to save a city but for all cities –, indeed He would answer that need for the whole world; He would be the righteous One  Who also was to be the Advocate for the condemned, Who would pay the judgment that was so deserved by the world, and thus could provide life and salvation to all who would come to Him?  What a window into God’s heart there was in this visit between God and Abraham!

And now we come to the Old Testament Lesson for this Sunday, Genesis 22, the fourth window into God’s heart and soul: the offering of Isaac.  Abraham was described as submitting to this demand without question.  The very next morning he was up, packed, and away with Isaac.  After all, that was the nature of Covenant: you withheld nothing from your Covenant-partner when He requested.  Yet was it really that simple and easy?

If you had the chance to see the movie, “The Bible,” this incident was particularly portrayed.  Since the mountain for the sacrifice was three days’ journey away, the movie attempted to describe Abraham’s agony for those days.  Of course, such agony is only a conjecture, but we do recognize that Abraham had two big problems to face:

When Jehovah gave the command to sacrifice Isaac, He emphasized, “your only son” – or as Hebrews 11[:17] put it “the only-begotten” – , “whom you love.”  Ishmael had been sent away because it was Isaac who was the son of promise, so this “only-begotten, whom you love” was all that Abraham had; and he was to put this son to death by his own hand.

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Yet there was a second aspect to this commanded sacrifice:  was it not upon this only-begotten, beloved son that all of Abraham’s spiritual hope was set?  This was the son of the Covenant, the son of special promise, from which the inheriting of the Land would come, from which the great nation would come, from which Jesus would come.  Abraham was commanded to destroy that upon which the promises of God were founded, he was to destroy the hope that Jehovah had declared to him.

Would the Lord still hold to His promises, despite all appearances, despite all common sense, despite human nature’s distrust?  When they got to the mountain, Abraham confidently told his servants, “wait here while I and the boy go and worship, and we will return to you” – how significant is that word “we”!  Again in Hebrews 11[:17-19], St Paul indicated that Abraham was so confident that Jehovah would make His promises come true, that if the son did die, he fully expected that there would have to be a real, concrete, and physical resurrection – after all, how else could a nation be born from this child?  As much as he wrestled with the distaste of putting to death his own son, he did not falter in his faith but was able to also look beyond to the mighty power of God to save.

But imagine the anguish of Abraham’s heart for those three days.  What about the ache in his soul every time he took a step closer and closer to what he must do to his own son?  Can you possibly imagine the agony that wrenched at this father’s love?  And yet he went on.  I have asked many parents if they would willingly put their own child to death, by their own hand, for someone else’s sake – even if they knew that child would rise from the dead.  And with one voice the answer has been “NO!”  No, we wouldn’t.

Can you imagine the anguish of God the Father’s heart – the ache at the very center of His being – the agony that wrenched at this Father’s love – when by His own hand He would do what Abraham did not have to do: put to death His own, beloved, only-begotten Son?  As perhaps only few in the history of mankind have ever understood, already back there in the first chapters of the Bible, Abraham stood as it were at the foot of the Cross, and understood a little of the enormous cost it would take from God the Father.

There are people who say that it doesn’t matter what you believe in, just that you believe in something.  This story out of Genesis flies in the face of such a comment.  Does one really believe that the death of His only, only-begotten, beloved Son would not matter a great deal, that the agony of the Son, much less of the Father is of such inconsequence that just anything else could take its place?

If that is what we say, then it has teeth by which it comes back to bite us.  If His own Son had such little meaning for God the Father, then where are we to be found in this?  Reducing the meaning of the Cross reduces the meaningfulness that we have to God – if God’s own Son wasn’t singularly significant to Him, then just how important are we to God?  Yes, at first it seems so sophisticated, so very generous and so very comfortable to generalizes faith as belief in anything, but the reality is that we are left with merely an empty shell of any kind of a hope, a null in regard to our value to the Jehovah of Covenant.

This episode in Abraham’s life forces us to stop and realize how the sacrifice of Jehovah’s own Son is as vivid as He could get in regard to how much we do matter.  Extraordinary value has been placed on us, where not just a man but God the Son Himself used His Life to give us life.  This was by no means trivial to God the Father, nor to God the Son – it was the most important event this universe has ever seen.

This is the concrete backing for all of Jehovah’s promises, which we need, for there are times – just like with Abraham – when God’s commands seem impossible – after all, God looks for a conduct from us that is opposite to what the world emphasizes, we are to give from resources that seem too small, we are to live as God’s specially promised People even when we know we fail too often – all sorts of things which the Lord desires which fly in the face of common sense.  Almost involuntarily we ask, does He really know what He is doing?  Does He really know what He is asking?  Has He no consideration of our feelings and abilities and capabilities?

We look at the Cross and realize that, yes, God does know – He’s knows far more intimately than we could ever realize. To follow God is not easy – we look at Abraham and realize that already in the opening chapters of the Bible, the Lord described His own greater cost that He would face.  Looking at Abraham, we hear his response to Isaac, “God will provide for Himself the Lamb,” and again the backdrop of the Cross shows that not only does God indeed know just what He is doing and must do, but through it all also we are to know the extraordinary value that has been placed on us in His love.

This is what we will be watching during this Lenten season as we come closer to the Cross, the most powerful window on the heart and soul of God that could ever have occurred in this universe.

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