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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

July 2, 2017

 Abraham, Isaac and God

Genesis 22:1-14;Matthew 10:40-42

            In 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, a man who believed he should have been President, wrote to the director of the Philadelphia mint an executive order that they add the phrase “In God We Trust” on the two-cent coin.  It was the first time the phrase ever appeared on coinage in the United States.  By 1873, most United States coins included the phrase, though it was not until 1938 that all coins actually did.  In 1907, Teddy Roosevelt asked that it be eliminated from a double eagle coin, believing that the mixture of God and mammon was vulgar.  He was soon overruled by public outcry, and “In God We Trust” was quickly restored.  During the Cold War, in 1957, the phrase was ordered by Congress to be added to all paper currency as well.  It took until 1966, though, for all American coinage and paper currency to carry the phrase, “In God We Trust.”  (By the way, if you want to know what Salmon P. Chase looks like, just pull that $10,000 bill out of your wallet!  His face still adorns this largest of all United States currency.)

            I have always liked the phrase on our money, figuring it may help some to ponder the question.  Money, after all, is often the greatest threat to our trust in God.  The actual phrase came from Francis Scott Key, “In God do we trust.”  Secretary Chase shortened it to “In God We Trust,” and we all owe to him a debt for this most American of all mottos: In God We Trust.

            That is, of course, the question that drives our text this morning.  The binding of Isaac is one of the most challenging, troubling, powerful and profound stories in the Bible.  It is troubling because it causes anyone to ask, “What kind of God would ask a father to sacrifice a child?”  Ellen Davis teaches Biblical Studies at Duke Divinity School.  She says that if she were allowed to edit the Bible, this is the first passage, Genesis 22, that she would delete from the text.  “It’s way too off-putting,” she says.  “It gives God a bad name….  Even if the story is true, who would want to believe in a God like that?”  Ellen Davis, by the way, admits that she is glad no one ever gave her such a job!  While she is troubled by this troubling story, she also loves it.  She loves it because she reads it rightly as a story about trust – radical trust in God.  She writes, “Trust is the very opposite of compulsion … this story reveals that God chooses to relate to the world not by compulsion, but by trust.”  (Trust is, of course, the only basis for love to flourish.)  “Yet trust is inherently a condition of vulnerability.  You can be disappointed by the one you trust,” she observes.

            But I am getting ahead of myself!  Abraham is over one hundred when God says three times “take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love … and offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.”  Did you hear, though, what the text says before this awful summons?  “After these things, God tested Abraham.”  The whole encounter begins with a statement that “God tested Abraham.”  God is a God who tests us.  Walter Brueggemann says, “God isn’t playing a game – there is something God wants to know.  God genuinely does not know,” even after all these years, if Abraham truly, really trusts God.

            So God gives Abraham a test: “Take the most precious, costly gift you have ever been given, Isaac, and offer him as a burnt offering – give him up.”  This is the test – and it is an awful test by any measure.  They have known each other now, intimately, God and Abraham, for decades.  Abraham left everything to follow God, “not knowing where he was to go.”  And God promised Abraham much: a great name, a nation, and best of all, “through your family I will bless all the families of the earth.”  Abraham walked by faith.  Yet not always.  Remember when he told some threatening foreign travelers that Sarah was his sister, hoping they would not kill him?  And remember when he and Sarah conspire to have a child with the Egyptian slave girl, Hagar?  They try to take things into their own hands, and only create more pain.  Abraham may be the “father of faith,” but he has not always shown by his actions that he trusts God.  So God really wants to know: “Do you trust me, Abraham?”

            This, by the way, is what makes God’s request palatable to me.  God does not want to kill the child; God wants to test Abraham.  God wants Abraham to pass the test.  Testing, if it is done well, is always hard – sometimes excruciating.  But you always grow from it – you learn what you know, who you can be, and you can grow in strength.  And God is a God who wants us to grow strong.  I often return to the words of Phillips Brooks: “O Lord, I do not pray for tasks equal to my strength; I ask for strength equal to my tasks.”  Or, as my old friend Bryant Kirkland said once, a long time ago, “Life without testing is like playing tennis with the net down.”  Without testing, you hardly know what you have it in you to be.

            So Abraham trusts God, even though he does so with dread, with what Søren Kierkegaard called “fear and trembling.”  He rose early in the morning, he cut the wood, and with the boy Isaac, he went out to find Moriah.  On the third day Abraham saw the mountain.  With just his boy, and the fire and the knife, he loads the wood on Isaac’s back, and they start the climb.

            We do not know what is going through Abraham’s mind.  But we learn what the boy is thinking, when Isaac asks, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  Who knows what that question did to Abraham’s stomach?  But with his answer, Abraham comes to the theological heart of this passage – maybe the theological heart of the whole Bible – “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”  Abraham does not know how – he dreads what the provision might be – but he trusts that “God will provide.”  This is what faith is.  It is trust in the providence of God.  John Calvin said, “Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely-given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

            Karl Barth, who could write whole paragraphs in Latin or Greek without translation, assuming you knew Latin and Greek, said “providence” or “provide” came from two Latin words: “Pro-video” – “to see.”  To say “God will provide” is to say that “God will see to it.”

            Abraham is tested by God, asked to offer something back he has wanted more than life itself.  He trusts God even when he does not understand – probably because he knows that if he cannot trust God, he cannot trust anyone or anything.  God has been faithful, trustworthy, and Abraham loves this God so much that he is incapable of imagining life without Him.

            So here he places his faith, his trust, his all: “God will provide.”  We all live between God’s testing and God’s providence.  God here, and surely in my life, is God.  I do not for a minute pretend to understand the ways of God in this world, or in my life.  God is sovereign and utterly free, mysterious, and often inscrutable.  But God is also graciously faithful.  God provides.  God has provided all my days, so I write to the God I know in Jesus Christ a blank check: “I will trust in You, O God, all my days.”  God will provide.  This is the heart of my faith, as it was the heart of Abraham’s faith – a faith that is sure to be tested, over and over again by life – by God, who alone gives it to us to live.

            Paul believed this.  He too lived between God’s testing, and God’s provision.  “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful, and He will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing will also provide the way out, so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).  God will provide.  In God we trust!

                                                                                    Amen.

 

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