All God Wants From You is the Impossible: To Love the Giver More Than the Gifts
A sermon preached on Genesis 22:1-18 by Pastor Jonathan Werre at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, SD, on February 21, 2020.
All God asked of Abraham was the impossible. To love him, God, the Giver, more than his son Isaac, the gifts. And that’s all that God asks of you and myself as well, just the impossible, that’s all. That we would love God, the Giver, whom we cannot see, or feel, or taste, or touch more than his gifts, which we can see, and feel, and taste, and touch.
So God calls out to him. “Abraham!” And Abraham does the opposite of what Adam did. Abraham steps up and says, “Here I am!”. He likes being close to his Lord, for they are friends. Just like you who like being here. For you know that if Jesus is the Friend of sinners, then this is the best place for someone like you to, same as me. For surely the Friend of sinners is in this place; after all, he’s promised to be present wherever his Word and Sacraments are. For that is where his forgiveness is. And a sinner needs forgiveness like lungs need air.
“Here I am!”, he says to his God. The God who has been so generous with him, just like he has been with you, just like he has been with me. God has given Abraham success, a beautiful wife, good health, victories over his enemies, financial success. And now, in his old age, a son. Isaac. His name means laughter, and I have no doubt little Isaac brought much joy and laughter to Abraham and Sarah. But what put this blessing into the “Extreme Blessing” category was this–the promise that the Savior will be born from this son’s descendants. And everything depends on that. The health, the wealth, the marriage mean nothing if there is no Savior. For if there is no Savior, then there is no forgiveness. And if there is no forgiveness, there is no meaning, no real hope, and no salvation at the last.
Then God says, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac…Sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.’” What kind of God is this? Our God is commanding a father to kill his own child! Who is this God? Many of us have heard this story dozens of times over the years. But how many of us have been kept awake at night because of it?
“Then God said, ‘Take your son, sacrifice him as a burnt offering.’” As horrible as this is to contemplate, what is it but an application of Job’s words, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21) But it’s true, isn’t it. Trace back what you have, like an explorer following a river, looking for its source, trace back what you have and you eventually get back to God. We mean it, don’t we, when we sing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
Understand, then, that this same God who gives, and gives generously, is the same God who takes away. He takes away our sin and guilt, to be sure. But he also takes away takes away our hearing, our knees, our pets, our mental stability, political freedoms, jobs, money we had in the stock market, friends, marriages. And sometimes he even takes away our children, sometimes even before we had a chance to hold them in our arms even once. Our Lord gives, and our Lord takes away. Blessed be his name.
Abraham’s mind is in a turmoil, I think. Two thoughts, like Rocky mountain sheep, keep slamming heads in his mind: 1) God says I must kill my son and reduce him to ashes, but 2) God also says my son must have children, and grandchildren, because the Savior is coming from his descendants. How can both things be? It is an impossible contradiction. He’s sweating it out. And it’s a cold kind of sweat.
I’m pleasantly surprised to report to you that the very next day, Abraham is up. Early. So willing and committed to obeying his Lord. In your list of heroes, we would do well to include Abraham, if for nothing else, than this. (Hebrews 11) He even splits the wood and brings it along to make sure he can do what is commanded! Sarah, his wife, I suppose asks him, “How come you have to go to Moriah to sacrifice to God? Can’t you do it closer to home?” Abraham would answer, “Because that’s where God told me to go, and…” But he pauses there, I think. He’s about to say something about Isaac being the sacrifice. But then he stops. Abraham does not, apparently, say anything to his wife about Isaac being the sacrifice. His heart is so heavy he can barely breath; but he knows what every good husband knows–that sometimes the way of love is to bear a burden alone.
The first day they are on the road, there is joking and excitement, I would think, like there is when guys start out on a trip. But Abraham does not joke; in fact, I imagine he doesn’t say much at all. Second day the trip is quieter. That night around the campfire, I imagine that Abraham eats no supper. He is sick with grief, thinking about what it will be like to plunge a knife into his son’s body and then reduce him to ashes. The son he had waited so long to finally have, so long. And now, he is being taken away. It is a hard thing to love God, the giver, more than his gifts. Not because it is hard to love God, no, but because his gifts are so….some of the people and pleasures he gives us are so wonderful and touch us in places we never even knew we had and awaken in us such powerful feelings it’s no wonder God has to check to see which we love more—him or his gifts. Which is a powerful testimony of how unselfish his love for us is, that he is willing to take such a risk, just to make our short lives happier. Instead of playing it safe and giving us only mediocre gifts, bland gifts, instead he gives us some gifts so incredible that it becomes risky for him. Which makes our sin of loving his gifts more than him that much more horrible—what a horrible way to say “thank you” to such unselfish love. Those who do not repent and cry for his mercy surely deserve to be damned for loving God’s gifts more than the so amazingly unselfish Giver. (Mark 16:16)
The third day, Abraham looks up and sees the mountain. It’s time.
The servants start getting ready. But Abraham says no. The servants will not come along. He is afraid, I think, that when they see him prepare to sacrifice his son, he’s afraid that they will try to stop him…and that he would let them. So he says, “Stay here. The boy and I will go up and worship and then return to you.” And we discover in that one sentence how Abraham worked this out in his brain. Abraham figures that if God is God, he can raise Isaac back from the dead. He believes in the resurrection, just like we do. That’s how he solved this conundrum, as it says in Hebrews. (Heb. 11:8ff)
Walking up a mountain is never easy. It’s even harder when you are carrying a load of wood, like Isaac was. Like Jesus would, many years later. Jesus would end up stumbling under the load of the wooden cross, but Isaac, who is likely in his late teens, does not. He even finds enough breath to ask, “Dad, we have everything for a sacrifice to the LORD, except the sacrifice. Where’s the sacrifice?”
Abraham is surely as tough as nails. Otherwise, this question from his son would have knocked him to his knees, reduced him to a heap of sobs. Abraham was tough. Which is just another way of saying Abraham had a strong trust that God’s Words are clear and they are certain and they come from love. Those who imagine the Bible can have different interpretations forfeit the courage that could be theirs, for courage comes from certainty. And there’s nothing more clear and certain than the Word of God.
Abraham answers better than he knows. He says, “God himself will provide a lamb.” And he did, didn’t he. Not just then. More importantly, 2000 years later, on a hill called Golgotha. “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) And just like we just sang, “The Lamb, the Lamb, One perfect final offering, The Lamb, the Lamb, Let earth join heav’ his praise to sing, Worthy is the Lamb whose death makes me his own! The Lamb is reigning on his throne.” (CWS #714) By his death, he claims us as his own, for he has bought us at a great price. The price of his own blood shed on the cross. And at the moment of your baptism, his death, his resurrection, and your body and your soul were brought together. And he said, “You are mine. I will always forgive you, always love you, always look out for you. And I will be the first one to welcome you into my heaven. After all, I bought and paid your entire way in.” The person who hears this and can nevertheless think, “Then it doesn’t matter how I live, since Jesus promised me all of this anyway,” has no heart, and a decaying soul.
Now a strange thing happens. Moses, who included even the detail of how Abraham cut the wood and saddled the donkey, suddenly leaves out a whole chunk of story. Next thing we know, Abraham has the knife in hand is about to kill his son. How did they get from Isaac’s, “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” to “Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son”?
I think I know why Moses left that part of the story out. I think he left it out because it would rip our hearts out to read it. But this was a test also for Isaac, was it not? To him had been given youth, a whole life ahead of him, wealth, and the promise of the Savior coming from his descendants. And he is willing to let it all be taken away so that he might obey God’s command.
You know how it turns out. The angel of the Lord intervenes just in time. He says, “Do not lay a hand on the boy; now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
That’s the lesson. All God wanted from Abraham was the impossible, that’s all. To love the Giver more than his gifts. All God wants from you and me is the impossible as well—that we love the Giver, God, whom we cannot see or feel or taste or touch more than his gifts which we can see and feel and taste and touch, and some of those gifts are incredibly awesome. So how, then, do we make a beginning in doing this impossible thing? Let’s answer that after we sing v. 4 of the Hymn of the Day, “A Mighty Fortress.”
THE CONCLUSION OF THE MATTER
How do we make a beginning of doing the impossible thing of loving the Giver more than the gifts?
We do it, or rather, the Holy Spirit does it in us as we hear his Word, by changing our eyes, bit by bit. That’s how it happened with Abraham. That’s how it will happen with you, with me, too.
Bit by bit, let your eyes get better at seeing every peanut butter sandwich as a gift of God’s love just for you. Let your eyes see every hamburger, every cup of coffee, every great song, every hour laughing with friends, every compliment you get, every use of the marriage bed, every fun hour that flies by playing video games, every time you turn up the thermostat and bam! the furnace kicks in, every beautiful sunrise—let your eyes see that each is a gift from your God to you. A gift he wants you to enjoy, even though he knows he’s taking a great risk. Risking that you might love those gifts more than him.
Bit by bit, bring to your mind how unselfish is his love for me, just for me, that he is willing to take that risk, just to make my short life a little happier. And in your mind say, “thank you.”
And then, when he takes one of those gifts away—and he will—rather than getting angry or depressive, grieve, yes, but also accept your loss as God in love looking out for you, for those who love his gifts more than him the Giver end up miserable. As the great Lutheran pastor and theologian, John Gerhard wrote in his Sacred Meditations”, “Why is the devil (the) most wretched? Because he refuses to love the greatest Good.” (“Sacred Meditations”, Magdeburg Press, Saginaw, MI, p.47) In your loss, God is saying, “Spend some extra time in your daily devotions. For the next week do a little more listening to me in my Word, words of comfort; and I will listen as you pour out your heart to me in prayer.”
And it is especially at those times of loss that his greatest gifts will, more than ever, once again be the greatest gifts to you. The gift of his forgiveness, the gift of his love, the gift of his salvation. Won for you by Christ. Gifted to you at your baptism. A gift you hold on to by the spiritual hands called “faith.” And remember, faith needs worship and the Word like fire needs oxygen.
And in this way, bit by bit, each day will be a new beginning in getting new eyes and so in doing the impossible through the Gospel—to love the Giver more than his gifts! Amen.