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The Cross in the Old Testament: Abraham

January 10, 2010
 Sermon:  The Cross in the Old Testament:  Abraham
Text:  Genesis 22

 

When I was in seminary, I received a book entitled The Cross in the Old Testament, written by H. Wheeler Robinson.  I have looked for that book but have not been able to find it.  My supposition is that somebody else has it, that maybe someone borrowed it.  Possibly a seminarian with the last name Neely has it somewhere in the extended Neely library, which stretches all the way from Nashville, Tennessee, to parts unknown.

I remember the book well, and I remember its premise:  When we come to the pages of the Old Testament, those of us who are Christians have a retrospective point of view.  We can look back at the events in the Old Testament and see that God had a plan.  In fact, the entire story of the Bible is the unfolding of God’s purpose, His grand design.  It is certainly true that this plan was not always clear to the participants.  Sometimes they had no clue how the events in their lives were fitting into this magnificent scheme.  Though they are all a part of a drama that unfolds very slowly, they may not have even known of a grand design.  The people who told this story – because it was first told – the people who wrote it – and there were many – and the people about whom they told and wrote, really did not know the part they played. 

I remember watching a late-night television show during which the host interviewed an actor.  The host commented, “This movie you star in is tremendous.  It must have thrilled you to know that you were a part of something that was going to be so profound.”

The actor replied, “I really did not know how powerful it was going to be.  I knew my part of the script, but filming was going on in New Zealand, New York, and Europe.  To be honest with you, I realized for the first time what a wonderful production this is only when I sat down and watched the screening of the film.”

People of the Old Testament were probably very much like this actor.  I doubt they knew all that God was doing in this drama of redemption.  God was up to something.  He had a singular passion, a passion that began back in Eden when things went so terribly wrong.  Paradise was lost, and the actors went out into the land of Nod, into a land of wandering.  Ever since then, God has been making attempt after attempt after attempt to make this relationship right.  He has been trying to fix what was broken there – His relationship with His people.  God wanted to repair that breach and make that relationship whole.   

God tried to heal this relationship by covenant.  He sealed His covenant with Noah with the rainbow.  He also made a covenant with the Patriarchs:  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, as well as with Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, and all the descendents.  God made covenant after covenant with Moses and Joshua, with prophets and kings.  I have learned that in every case, God never broke His covenant.  The covenant was broken time and time again though.  People were the ones always responsible for breaking the covenant.  After a while, God developed a bad reputation.  I love the way John Claypool words this:  Jesus is really the answer to God’s own bad reputation. 

Today is the first in a series of sermons that will lead us to the time of Lent.  We have celebrated Christmas and this sweet baby in a manger, and we are journeying straight toward Holy Week.  We are headed first to an execution, Roman style, and then on, finally, to the resurrection.  As we go, we will dip into the pages of the Bible and see from our instant replay perspective how God was working in all of this drama and how even in the Old Testament, this great plan of redemption was unfolding.  As we follow this course, you will understand and say, “Oh!  That’s how the Old Testament fits in with the cross of the New Testament.  Now I see.”  I hope for more than that.  I hope that as we take this journey, we will also see that these events impact the way we live now, that they make a difference in 2010.  We are all a part of this drama that continues.

Today we turn to Genesis 22, beginning at Verse 1, for our first touch-point in this series.  Hear now the Word of God:

 Some time later God tested Abraham.  He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.  On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.  He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” 

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together,

Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.  But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”

 

You have heard this particular story of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac many times.  I come back to this passage repeatedly because it is so important.  You know that Abraham and Sarah were old when they were called to leave Ur of the Chaldees.  They packed up every possession and followed the Arc of the Fertile Crescent all the way to the land of Canaan, staying in tents as they wandered in the land looking for a place to live.  Finally, Abraham pitched his tent in a more permanent location near a grove of oaks at a place named Mamre, which is near present-day Hebron. 

Along the way, we see moments of great faith, as well as times of wavering faith, times when they really stumbled.  Consider the consequences when Abraham tried to pass Sarah off as his sister in Egypt.  Pharaoh took a liking to Sarah and would have taken her as his wife.  He realized that he had been deceived when a plague caused a famine in the land.  Pharaoh could have killed Abraham but did not.  Instead, Pharaoh asked Abraham to clear out of the land, offering many gifts as enticement.  One of those gifts included the slave girl named Hagar. 

The saga of Abraham and Sarah continues with the ugly mess of their greedy nephew.  We know of the scandal involving Lot, who wanted the best land.  He chose Sodom and Gomorrah and got his comeuppance.  We know of their poor decision-making when they became impatient with God’s promise to have many descendents.  God had told Abraham that he would have as many descendents as the number of stars in the sky or the grains of sand in the desert.  The couple became so discouraged and impatient with waiting on a child that they decided to take matters in their own hands.  They created surrogate motherhood.  The arranged relationship between Abraham and the slave girl Hagar caused great conflict.  When Hagar became pregnant with Abraham’s child Ishmael, we see great strife in the tent of Abraham.  That kind of circumstance always creates strife.  That conflict continues today between Judaism and Islam.

Consider the strange covenant between God and Abraham, the one that required circumcision.  Some would say, “Kirk, please don’t say that word or talk about that topic in a sermon.”  Circumcision is right at the heart of this story.  It is the covenant God required. 

I have tried to imagine the conversation God had with Abraham, telling him what he was to do.  I can hear Abraham asking, “You want me to do what?  This is what I get?  How come Noah got a rainbow?  Wouldn’t a rainbow be good for me, too?”  I have tried to imagine what made God require this peculiar covenant.  I have also tried to imagine Sarah learning of this covenant.  Perhaps she replied, “Abraham, what have you done to yourself?  This is worse than gravy on your necktie!  What have you done?”

It is not until Abraham was circumcised that he and Sarah have the child Isaac in their old age.  Isaac, given the Hebrew name for “laughter,” was the joy of their lives.  He was the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams.  We might wish that the story would end there, with Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac living happily ever after with perfect joy.  The story does not end there, however.  All is not well. 

More drama continued when Abraham heard an even stranger commandment from God: “Abraham, I want you to take this son that you waited so long to have, the one who has been the apple of Sarah’s eye, the one you love so much, to the top of the mountain.  There, I want you to kill him.”  What God has asked Abraham to do – to offer his child of promise as a sacrifice – is horrible.  Even though this story is in the Bible, it is still unbelievable. 

Abraham obeyed God, almost without blinking.  Early the next morning, this father and son saddled the donkey, gathered some servants, and set out for the mountains.  When they reached a specific place, Abraham instructed the servants to wait there while he continued on with Isaac.  He carried the fire and knife, and Isaac carried the firewood.  About halfway up the mountain, Isaac turned to his father and asked, “We have the wood, and we have the fire but where is the sacrifice?”  Swallowing the lump in his throat, Abraham answered, “God will provide.”  When the two reached the top of the mountain, he was prepared to offer his son as a sacrifice.

Let me ask you something.  What kind of parent would kill his child?  What kind of boy, even one who loves his father, would agree to lie down and be killed?  What about this?  For heaven’s sake, what kind of God would ask such a thing?  All three people in this scene – Abraham and Isaac and God – come off looking pretty bad.   

“God told me to kill my children,” she said.  This mother is now serving a life sentence in Columbia. 

The last story that our son Erik covered before his death was about a mother who had killed several of her children.  She had heard a sermon on this very passage on the previous Sunday morning and decided that God was telling her to kill her children.  She did manage to kill two of the three.  The third child escaped and found refuge with a grandmother. 

On Monday, Erik interviewed counselors and teachers at the school these children attended.  On Tuesday, he spent three hours with the grandmother who had protected this grandchild from her own daughter. 

That night while writing the story, Erik called me at 11:45 on the telephone.  We talked until 12:30 A.M.  It was the last conversation I had with Erik.  He said, “Dad, this is not just a cop story.  This is a story about sick religion.”  The story of a parent killing a child is hard to take. 

On top of Mount Moriah, Abraham laid the wood and then Isaac on the altar.  Great painters have depicted this scene with Abraham placing his left hand over his son’s eyes so he cannot see.  Abraham raised the dagger, and just in the nick of time, God commanded, “Wait!  Wait, Abraham!”  A nearby ram caught in a thicket replaced Isaac as the sacrifice, a practice that fits right into the Old Testament sacrificial system.  Child sacrifice was the norm among the Canaanites.  It was expected that parents would sacrifice the firstborn. 

God, however, condemns child sacrifice.  We see His condemnation in the books of Leviticus, Kings, Chronicles, and Micah.  It is hard to understand the mind of God.  It is hard to understand why He would ask such an action from Abraham.  Clare says, “I know for sure that God is a man.  No woman would ever come up with this requirement.”  She may be right.

You can see God working on both sides of this situation, coming right to that point.  Once again, God’s timing is impeccable.  Abraham came down the mountain with his son a fortunate man.  It does not always happen that way; many parents do not get to keep their children.  Through this experience, Abraham learned that his child did not belong to him.  Isaac was God’s child. 

Every time we have a baby dedication here, it is a happy time.  Young parents bring their children and dedicate them to the Lord.  These parents cannot possibly know, however, what is ahead of them.  My grandmother used to say, “When children are little, they step on your toes.  When they get older, they step on your heart.” 

Parents must dedicate their children to God over and over and over again.  Parents must learn that their children are not theirs.  They belong to God. 

Can you imagine Abraham and Isaac coming home and telling Sarah this story?  I have tried to imagine her reaction.  She possibly fussed, “Abraham, this is worse than circumcision.  What in the world was going through your mind for you to think of such a thing!  Let me tell you one thing.  I will never let you take Isaac to the mountains again.  It is the last time for that!” 

I do not know what she was thinking, but the next comment the Bible provides about Sarah is that she died.  No additional word is included.  Sarah is every parent who has ever watched a child drive out of the driveway in an automobile on a Saturday night.  Sarah is every parent who has ever sent a child away to camp for a week, every parent who has ever sent a child away to college.  Sarah is every parent who had watched a child board an airplane, especially if headed for the mission field.  Sarah is every parent who has ever seen a child, in uniform, being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. 

Clare and I wanted children so badly earlier in our marriage.  When Clare had a miscarriage, we thought, “That can happen to anyone.”  When we had a second miscarriage and lost that child who was a little further along, Clare wept.  She was hurt, and she felt unworthy.  I was so mad that I went out in the woods and had a conversation with God.  I said, “I don’t understand why this had happened to us.  I don’t understand why people around the world can have children like rats, and we cannot have a baby.” 

God did not strike me down.  He sent neither bolt out of the blue nor an audible voice.  I sure got His message:  “Kirk, how do you think you are ever going to be a father until you learn to hurt?”  I should have learned that message from my granddad and my dad.  I knew that parenting includes hurt, but it was the very first time I had ever considered the pain of God.  It was the first time I had ever understood that God, who is a Father, also suffers.  I guess I just thought that in the great scheme of things, God was somehow beyond that.  I thought that God, in His sovereignty, did not experience heartache. 

How do you think the great God feels when He sees His children killing each other?  How do you think He feels when His children are so rebellious that they turn away from Him and go in their own destructive direction?  Do you think that breaks His heart? 

When I come to this story of Moriah, I see less than six degrees of separation from Moriah to Golgotha.  From our perspective, we can see that the two are very close together.  In both cases, a father is willing to offer his only begotten son as a sacrifice.  I can see the shadow of Golgotha, that cross.  I doubt Abraham could see that at all.

Do not tell me that when Jesus cried out “Why have you forsaken me?” God turned a deaf ear.  Do not tell me that when Jesus died on the cross God turned His back.  I do not believe that for a moment.  God is a loving Father who cares very deeply for all of us and for His only begotten Son.  James Russell Lowell was right when he wrote:  “Standeth God within the shadows, keeping watch o’er all His own.”  God was at Moriah.  He was at Golgotha.  He is right here in the center of your life, keeping watch.  He loves you, and He wants you to be a part of His great plan of redemption.

Do you know Christ Jesus as your Savior?  Have you accepted him, acknowledged him, as Lord of your life?  If you have never made that decision, this would be the day to respond to the invitations of our God.

 Kirk H. Neely
© January 2010
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