“Crede, ut intelligas (believe so that you may understand).”
— St. Augustine
Genesis 22:1-18, Psalm 105, Revelation 21:1-2 & 22:1-5, Matt 28:10, 16-20
There’s an old joke about faith. It goes that there was a man hiking in the mountains who slipped off the trail and found himself hanging over a high cliff, holding nothing but a slender branch. And in desperation, he calls out, “Is there anybody up there?” And much to his surprise, a deep voice booms through the mountains, “I will help you, my son. But you must have faith in me." The man responded, “OK, I have faith! I have faith!” And the voice boomed back, “Let go of the branch, and I will catch you.” And the man says, “… … Is there anybody else up there?”
And that joke works because faith is hard. I actually think the hanging from the cliff scenario might be easier than the situations we often find ourselves in on a daily basis. How do we find the faith to trust God in the midst of a disbelieving society? How do we trust God with our life choices? With our kids’ lives? With our money? With our time? With our bodies? We read what God prescribes for our lives in the Bible, and we’re tempted to ask for a second opinion. “Is there anybody else up there?”
And when we read this story of Abraham from Genesis 22, we could imagine that Abraham would have been tempted to ask for a second opinion. God says, ‘I want you to take your son… your only one (the only one on whom your hopes for the future are set, the only one who can carry on your name and fulfill all God’s promises for your life)… the son who you love… Isaac, I want you to take him to a certain mountain and kill him.’ It wouldn’t have been surprising if Abraham had called out at that point, “Is there anybody else up there?”
But what he does next is quite striking, Abraham gets up and goes. Why does he do that? And what’s the story all about? Well, the story is often thought of as a story about faith, and it is. But the word faith does not appear here. Instead, the key word in the passage is sight.
The Hebrew word for sight shows up several times here. The name of the land where God sends Abraham, Moriah, sounds like the Hebrew word for, “seeing.” (‘Go to the land of seeing.’) Then, when Abraham gets there, he sees the mountain from far away. Then he sees the ram caught in the thicket. And then Abraham names the place “Yahweh-Sees.”
The implication is that Abraham obeys because he sees. He sees things that most people miss because he sees with the eyes of faith. Can you see like that this morning? Can we? Can we see in such a way that it empowers us to obey? To trust – even if what God is asking us to do sounds impossible… unreasonable… or uncomfortable.
That is the question this story is putting to us, and it’s a question that reverberates down through the Bible, even to the great commission Jesus gives his disciples in Matt 28, where Jesus intentionally echoes Gensis 22 by telling his disciples, “go to the mountain I will show you.” Which is to say: God’s call to Abraham prefigures God’s call to the church. Therefore, Abraham’s faith should be a model for our own. That’s challenging.
And that leaves us with two questions that we need to ask here. If Abraham saw with the eyes of faith, what did he see? And how did he see it?
WHAT DOES ABRAHAM SEE?
Well, very simply, what Abraham sees with the eyes of faith is that obedience to God is always the best option – in life. He hears an extremely difficult word from God, perhaps the hardest thing God asks anyone in the Bible to do outside of the cross of Christ, but Abraham doesn’t ask for a second opinion. He knows that God’s way is the best way. As the text puts it, he is in awe of God. Have you ever been in awe of someone?
When I was learning harmonica I took a class at a neighborhood music store and the teacher was the most amazing harmonica player I’ve ever heard. He could make that little piece of metal sound like a saxophone if he wanted to. And I was in awe of him. So, when he told me to bend a note a certain way or suggested that I learn a certain lick, I would just do it. No questions asked. That’s how Abraham feels about God, only far more so and for anything in life. God is the Creator of the universe and Abraham is rightly in awe of Him.
But also, Abraham trusts that what God asks of him is going to be for the best.
When Isaac asks Abraham where the sheep for the sacrifice is, Abraham says, “God will provide the lamb.” And the word there for provide is again the Hebrew word, to see. Everett Fox translates it: “God will see-for-himself to the lamb for the offering.” In other words, Abraham says, God sees my problems, and He sees solutions that I cannot, and He loves me. So, I can trust Him, even if what He’s asking of me sounds unreasonable.
(That’s pretty amazing, especially when you consider that God asks the rest of us to do things that are – actually – quite reasonable, and we don’t do them!)
HOW DOES ABRAHAM SEE?
Abraham’s is an amazing faith. But how can we get eyes to see like that? How is Abraham able to see in that way? Well, three things.
First, Abraham listens to God and looks where God points. Abraham is working from a place of real ignorance in this story. God doesn’t even tell him where he’s going exactly, but says I’ll show you when you get there. So, Abraham listens, looks, and waits for where God will point him next. He lets God be his guide.
And we can do the same, because God has given us His word of Scripture, which is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. Through Scripture, God shows us the way to go, the way to live. And if we read it with a love of truth and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we will hear God’s voice speaking through it to us.
The Second thing Abraham does, he remembers. Where do we see that? Well, the emotion-stirring words that begin the passage – “take your son, your only-one, whom you love, Isaac” – are a not-so-subtle reminder of the story of Abraham up to this point. Abraham and Sarah had started off as childless nobodies from nowhere special, but God called them and miraculously blessed them with a son and the promise of future descendants.
Even the name, Isaac serves as a reminder. It means “he laughs”, because when God told Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child in their old age they laughed in disbelief. It’s a joyful name that reminds them of the impossibility of his existence.
Abraham remembers that history of blessings and promises, and it gives him the strength to tell Isaac, God will see to a lamb for the sacrifice. He doesn’t know how God will provide, but Isaac is living proof that God can do the impossible.
How much more then, can we as Christians, look to the cross and know that God will never abandon or forsake us? And look to Jesus’ resurrection and know that He can do anything.
And finally, Abraham sees because he walks. He doesn’t sit around contemplating until he understands everything that he’s told, he gets up and he goes. To see with the eyes of faith takes trust, and there is no trust if we don’t walk.
Imagine a rope bridge over a deep gorge. You might stand at one end and say, I believe that would hold me, but in order to see what’s on the other side, you have to walk across.
Until you step, you do not trust, until you trust, you cannot see – and you cannot know that the bridge will hold you. Abraham trusts God to the point that he steps, he walks, and then, he builds an altar, binds his son, and raises the knife to slay him. And because of that extreme trust, Abraham comes to know and see God more fully – and God’s promises for him and the world are vouchsafed for the future because of his obedience.
This story is encouraging, isn’t it? … Or is it? Because if we’re honest, it can be very discouraging as well. Abraham heard the word of God and he listened, remembered, and walked. But we know that we do not always do that. If God’s promises depend on our ability to be like Abraham, we’re in trouble.
But we can have confidence, because there was another son of Abraham, who had wood loaded onto his back and was made to climb a mountain, and no angel would stop the hands of his executioners, and no ram would be offered in his place, but he trusted his Father to the end, knowing that the promise would be secured through his sacrifice.
As Peter puts it: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”
We don’t know how to walk; we don’t know how to listen; and to be honest, we’re not very good at remembering (all that God has done for us). We don’t have the strength of faith, but in Christ we find it through the power of the Holy Spirit.
I think this story of Abraham is very important for St. John’s as we think about where God is calling us right now. God is calling us to love a city and a region that isn’t very interested in being loved, much less by a church. And He’s calling us to make disciples of a nation where most of our neighbors would be offended at the thought.
But, like Abraham, God doesn’t tell us exactly where we’re going. He doesn’t tell us exactly what we’ll do when we get there. He simply tells us to walk. But we don’t walk alone; we follow in the footsteps of Jesus. And if you follow Jesus long enough, it will eventually lead you to a cross. But keep following, because after the cross, comes the resurrection… and the renewal of the world.
Adam and Eve sinned in the garden and were cut off from the tree of life, and in all the nations that descend from them, sin and death reign. But after Abraham’s show of faith, God says, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” And later, after Jesus has conquered the grave, he sends his disciples out to make disciples of all nations. And, finally, Revelation tells us that in the new heaves and new earth, the tree of life will return, and its leaves will be for the healing of the nations.
What does all that mean? It means that we, like Abraham, are just a small part of God’s larger plan, which spans the whole Bible and the whole history of the world. He will bring to completion in His own time.
So, even if the way ahead looks impassible, we must listen to His voice, remember his promises and His blessings, and walk in the footsteps of our Lord. Jesus has gone before us; he has cleared our way; and in our weakness, he is strong. Let us pray.