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The Worst and Best Story in the Bible 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones
06/26/11

FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, NASHVILLE
DR. TODD B. JONES
JUNE 26, 2011

The Worst and Best Story in the Bible
Genesis 22:1-14
Matthew 10:37-42


Perhaps you noted in yesterday's Tennessean that we lost Peter Falk, a wonderful actor who died at 83. Falk played some remarkable parts in some fine films and learned his craft on the stage. But he will always be remembered first and foremost for the rumpled, bumbling, blue collar detective he played in the hit television show of the 1980's, Columbo. Columbo was a show with an interesting format. We always learned at the beginning what the crime was and who was guilty of it. The delight of the show was watching how this seemingly over-matched, sneaky-smart detective would solve the crime. After Columbo had run up against another dead end, as he was leaving, he would turn around and harmlessly say, "One more thing." Then he would ask the question that would open up the case and provide some ingeniously conceived solution to the crime.

In a sense, this ancient, troublingly extraordinary story functions for me at least a bit like an episode of Columbo. We know the story, most of us do. We know the end of it from the very beginning. And still, it is a story that has always haunted me, and a story where I always find myself wanting to say to God, "One more thing," as if to unlock the question that will help me to live more peacefully and easily with this disturbing story.

I call it the worst story in the Bible with tongue-in-cheek, and to acknowledge that it is surely meant to be a troubling, even haunting ancient account from Israel's history. In light of all the horror stories we read today about child abuse, some of it even in the Church, there is a part of this story that rubs us in a tender place. The story is told with a spare elegance and raw power that raises for us questions that never are answered. There is so much to this ancient account that is not said. Modern questions remain unanswered. Our church owns a painting of this account of the bending of Isaac in the Cheek House. In it, the blade of Abraham's knife is huge, speaking of the fearsome terror of this strange Biblical text. Much of what we might want to know remains hidden in the heart and mind of the Holy God.

But there are some things this wild and powerful story does tell us, and the lessons it does hold for us are so rich and full that it is surely one of the best and most unforgettable stories in the Bible.

The first lesson it holds for us is this: God is a God who tests us. The Bible could not be any clearer on this: "After these things, God tested Abraham." We are wise to teach our children that "God is love." And we do well to speak of God, as Jesus did most often, as a loving Father. But we do them no favors to raise them with the impression that God's love is soft and sentimental, indulgent, a love that demands nothing of them. No, God loves us with a fierce love that wants from us the very best we have to offer to this world. And I see more and more that the Biblical God is out to grow and stretch us. Hence, God, who is love, tests us.

This should not come as a surprise to us. Think of the best teachers or coaches you have ever had. Wasn't there a demanding side to those relationships, and wasn't there always some kind of test, some moment of accountability, through which you grew?

Now Abraham does not know when God says, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, who you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him as a burnt offering…," that God is only testing him. The television does not go blank with a pattern, with a piercing sound, and the voice does not say, "This is only a test." Anymore than we might ever have a clue in the midst of our own trials and challenges that God is at work to test us. But I have learned that as Paul puts it in Romans, that "in everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are the called according to His purpose." Just as we never develop any athletic or artistic skill without practice and painful discipline, and muscles never grow stronger without resistance, so souls can never grow deeper without testing. God is a God who tests us, which may offer you a whole new perspective today in whatever testing or trying circumstances you find in your life. Not all suffering is testing. But it may be that God is at work in the most difficult and frightening circumstances to stretch you and grow you. I have always held onto that word in Hebrews 2:18, especially in my darkest and most desperate days. It says, "Because Jesus Himself was tested by what He suffered, He is able to help those who are being tested." In the midst of unbearable sadness and suffering, I have known the help that only Jesus can offer, and I would commend Jesus to all of you who are being tried and tested this day.

The second thing this account makes clear is this: God will provide. Did you hear the poignant plea of the boy Isaac to his father? "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Abraham responds with what Søren Kierkegaard called "fear and trembling." Rembrandt painted this story twice. In each of his paintings Abraham faces the heavens instead of Isaac, as if he is pleading to God. I have always imagined his voice was quivering when he answered his son. "God Himself will provide…." Abraham does not know how or why or when, but Abraham trusts that "God Himself will provide…." He is likely filled with dread and despair, frightened to death over the thought of this unthinkable act he is asked to commit. But he utters the words, anyway, maybe as much trying to convince himself, "God Himself will provide…."

Do you? Do you believe that "God Himself will provide?" Do you believe that the God who sorely tests us is also a God of providence? I wonder sometimes. On this week before another celebration of our nation's birthday, I wonder if amid all of our blessings, all of our abundance, whether we trust in the providence of God.

Saint Augustine thought the doctrine of providence was the key to all our questions and theological problems. "Trust the past to the mercy of God, the present to His love, and the future to God's providence." Our greatest leaders in this land all believed in the providence of God. George Washington said, "Providence has at all times been my only dependence, for all other resources seem to have failed us." I often think of Washington in his winter at Valley Forge, doing all he could to feed and clothe his soldiers, while they were freezing and starving to death. Or I think of Woodrow Wilson, leading this nation through the trials of war. "I firmly believe in Divine Providence. Without it, I think I should go crazy. Without God the world would be a maze without a clue."

A few years ago, Connie and I went to Springfield, Illinois, to visit the home as well as the tomb of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln left Springfield in 1861 never to return. It was the closest place to home he would ever find in this life. The Union was falling apart, and Lincoln knew the nation's future hung in the balance. America was one big question mark. "I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Blessing, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well." Lincoln struggled with melancholy his whole life, yet he could say that "all will yet be well." Lincoln trusted finally in the providence of God, and we are fools if we trust in anything else, or anything less. "God Himself will provide…."

And one last word on this powerful story, and that is how it resonates with and foreshadows the rest of the Biblical story. Remember God's promise to Abraham when God called in Genesis 12? "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great … and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." The Bible is the world's great story because it promises blessing to all the families of the earth. It is no narrow, provincial tale, but the sweep of it is as wide as all the families of the earth.

Of course, the great provision that God gives is the gift we are granted in Jesus, "God's only begotten Son." Three times in this story of the binding of Isaac we are reminded that Isaac is Abraham's son, "his only son, whom he loves." And yet, for all the troubling questions we might ask of this Biblical text, in the end, God did not require of Abraham his only son of him.

But the story reminds us that one day, on another hilltop, God did that which God never asked Abraham to do. God provided the sacrifice, only this time, on this mountain, it was not a ram, but "His Son, His only Son." Which is why we have called Jesus ever since "the Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world." And on that mountain God showed how far He would go to bless and redeem and reconcile this broken world. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him."

AMEN.
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