A couple of weeks ago our pastor covered the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. When he first started teaching the passage, I felt an uneasiness in the pit of my stomach just like I had every other time I read the story. As a mom of five children, I could not imagine being asked by God to sacrifice them on an alter. I began to pray as I listened to the sermon and God impressed upon my heart the words, "Look for the grace."
To see the grace that lies in this story, I thought back on Abraham's life and put it in its context. Abraham and Sarah had lived in a culture that worshiped fertility gods. While there, they struggled with infertility and any sacrifices they might have made to the stone fertility idols didn't result in any children. When Sarah was 65 and Abraham was 75 God called them to leave this culture and promised them a son and many offspring through him. They left for a new county, hoping in the child God promised.
On their journey Abraham lied about Sarah being his wife on two different occasions. He did this because he was afraid He would be killed rulers who might want to take Sarah as their wife. He justified the lies and his lack of protection over Sarah by pointing out that she was a half sister. Both times God extended them grace by stepping in to protect Sarah from the men who took her into their homes.
On their journey they grew tired of waiting on God to provide them with the promised child. First, Abraham wanted to adopt his nephew so his children could become his decedents. But, the Lord stepped in and graciously affirmed His promise again. The waiting grew long and Sarah, fearing she would never bear a child, took things into her own hands and offered her handmaiden to Abraham to conceive a child for them. Then when Hagar got pregnant, she treated Sarah with contempt. Sarah dealt harshly with her and had Abraham send her away. God graciously intervened for Hagar and sent her back to Abraham and Sarah and then once again affirmed His promise.
After eleven more years of waiting, God sent messengers to again affirm His promise to them. At this point Sarah was in her tent when she heard the promise spoken aloud. The post menopausal Sarah laughed in unbelief as she thought, "Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?" The messengers confronted both her laughter and her thoughts, telling them within a year they would have a baby. She denied laughing because she was afraid and yet God showed them grace in the face of their lies, their missteps, their manipulation, their unbelief, and their denial>> He brought Sarah's body back to life and she conceived Abraham's child and birthed Isaac when she was 90 years old.
The waiting, as hard as it was had been God's grace at work. It had exposed their ungodly ways and had allowed them to become apart of God's story as He revealed that He alone is the author of life. He did what no stone idol could do, He created life in an impossible situation.
That brings us to the uncomfortable part of their story. God told Abraham to take his beloved Isaac to Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering. The request may not have seemed all that odd to a man who had deep roots in a culture that offered children as sacrifices. Yet, we know they deeply longed for and waited a lifetime of years for Isaac. To be honest, the first time I read this story I was a young mom and a part of me wanted Abraham to stand up and argue with God or to at least come up with an alternate plan as he had done many times before. But Abraham was now a changed man and he quietly and firmly resolved to obey God. Abraham and Isaac leave the next morning and travel for three days.
During that three days Abraham had lots of time to process and change his mind, but with every step he took he remained resolved to obey his God. Hebrews 11:17-19 gives us insight into his mindset, "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead." It still had to have been a difficult journey.
When they came to the place to which God had instructed them, Abraham built the alter and took the wood from Isaac and laid it out. He then bound Isaac and laid him on the altar. He took his knife to slaughter his son, but the Lord intervened and said to Abraham, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son from me." As Abraham lifted his eyes he saw there was a ram caught in a thicket by his horns and he took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. The Lord then tells Abraham, "...because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surly bless you, and I will multiply your offspring as the starts of heaven and the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice."
I think the first time I read this, it seemed harsh, but as I look for the grace in the story, I find it a sweet and tender story. I realize that God was testing Abraham and that the test not was set to prove something to God. It was set to prove something to Abraham, to Isaac and to us. By having Abraham go though this test, God graciously showed Abraham that his once floundering faith that tended to disappear in the face of fear had now matured and stayed strong in the face of this hard task. Abraham's faith was now based firmly on the words of His God. He had grown a deep resolve to honor and obey God who had given him a son. This faith trip was also an opportunity to grow Isaac's faith. Isaac who was big enough to carry the wood could have pushed back when it came time to lie down on the altar, but he, too, had a firm resolve to obey. When God had Abraham's story written, all of the missteps, the unbelief , and the lies were written for all future generations to see. But, in the telling of this part of the story, God shows us Abraham's strong faith and the resolved will of a man who now deeply loved his God.
There is a grace that runs deeper still. And that grace is a glimpse of the Father's heart towards us. This story foreshadows Jesus's story as He lived a perfect life we could not live so that all of our lies, our missteps, our manipulating ways, our denial, our self-protective ways, and our sin could be covered by the blood of Jesus. It was the Father who showed Abraham what it felt like to sacrifice a Son and it was Jesus who stood in the place of Isaac as He lay down His life for us. That day so long ago at the altar God showed us His grace is relentless, flowing from a heart that continually pursues us until we are brave enough to lean into the hard that we face and look for the grace,