Cluster of Small White Flowers Between Pages of an Open Book

Faithful Obedience

I preached this sermon on August 11, 2013 at Trinity United Methodist Church, Hackettstown, New Jersey.

Professor Michael Green tells us of the young man who, while navigating a narrow mountain path, falls off the edge and tumbles down a cliff. As he bounces down the face of the cliff, he is able to reach out and grab hold of a shrub. He has stopped his fall, but is now just hanging in the air. But he is a man with strong faith, so he turns to God. “Father,” he prays, “I have lived my life dedicated to you. My life is now in your hands. Rescue me.” And God responds immediately, “Let go.” Contemplating God’s command, the young man cries out, “Is there anyone else up there?”


A similar thought must have gone through Abraham’s mind when he heard God’s command for the sacrifice of Isaac. No matter how strong our faith, obedience can be difficult, and may at times seem just impossible.


Today’s scripture regarding Abraham and Isaac is a very important lesson for us. I have always hated it. I just cannot conceive of how the God of love and mercy that I know could possibly have put Abraham in this situation. I don’t care that God did not intend to allow him to go through with the sacrifice. I just cannot imagine God even causing Abraham the heartache and grief that he had to have suffered. So I usually just hurry through the passage and move on. But having it as the lesson for today forced me to study it more carefully. And I’m thankful for the opportunity, as I think there is more at work here than I have previously considered.


The story of the sacrifice of Isaac holds several lessons. It is the concluding step in God’s covenant with Abraham. God and Abraham have a very intimate relationship. Because Abraham has been faithful to God, God has promised him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars and that they will be chosen to continue in relationship with God. Abraham has responded with faithful obedience. He has left his home in Ur without having an idea of where he was going, leaving behind his father. And sometimes he has been less than faithful, as when he fathered Ishmael rather than wait for God to deliver his promised son. But he has now reached what he undoubtedly thought was the end of a faithful life. He has lands that God has promised. He has wealth and power. And he has the son that God has promised. The covenant is being fulfilled.


But Abraham knows something else that is not readily apparent from our scripture. In the Middle Eastern culture of the time, covenant-making carried elaborate rituals, culminating in a ritual exchange to seal the covenant. Depending on the nature of the covenant, the parties would exchange gifts of varying degrees of importance to match the importance of the covenant. We see that in the treaty between Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis Chapter 21 when animals were exchanged and Abraham set aside seven sheep to seal his oath regarding a well. Sometimes animals would be sacrificed to God to add to the affirmation. And for the most serious of covenants the parties would exchange children, preferably first-born sons, to seal the covenant and bind the parties together.


So for God to ask Abraham to give him his son would not be unexpected by Abraham. But to make him a human sacrifice was. That was what pagans did. Such a request was unprecedented. God just did not do that. We are horrified by this story because that is where we focus. I have always looked at Abraham’s obedience as undoubtedly an act of duty to be fulfilled but not an act of faith. And I have looked at the progression of the story as steps by Abraham to hide from everyone what was really going to happen…a series of lies about the purpose of the trip, about returning with Isaac, about God providing the sacrifice, and so on.


But what if Abraham was not lying? Abraham knew God intimately. He knew God’s nature and knew that God did not require human sacrifice and kept his promises. He knew that Isaac was promised by God to provide descendants that would be countless. He had seen that his obedience was always followed by God’s fulfillment. Perhaps then this story is not one of dutiful obedience, but rather faithful obedience. Perhaps Abraham’s faith in God was so strong that despite what God had said, he knew that God would keep his promise and that he and Isaac would return. That is precisely the point made about Abraham in the verses from Hebrews we read earlier. Abraham believed that even if the resurrection of Isaac was required that God would keep his promise no matter what.


The story also demonstrates not only the faith of Abraham, but also of Isaac. The paintings of the scene always depict Isaac as a child, but most authorities agree that he was at least seventeen years old and probably a young man. He would have had to have been strong to bear the wood for the sacrifice up the mountain. He also was not stupid. He knew they were not bringing an animal for the sacrifice. And Abraham was an old man. He was weak and Isaac was strong. There is no way that Isaac could have been bound and placed on the altar for sacrifice unless he did so willingly. From the time of his earliest ability to understand, however, Abraham would have told him of God’s promises and faithfulness. Isaac would have been immersed in the faith of Abraham and he, too, would have been an obedient servant of God. I believe Isaac also was an active, obedient, and faithful participant in the event.


What God was asking of Abraham and Isaac was not death but surrender. The seal for the covenant from Abraham was not the sacrifice of his son, but complete surrender in faith. That is one of the important messages for us here. This was before there were Hebrews; before there were Christians. It was obedience through faith and faith alone that brought Abraham into the intimate relationship with God that God seeks and intends for us. Abraham and Isaac at the altar on Mount Moriah, God’s holy place, confirmed that faithful obedience is the essence of what mankind brings to the covenant with God.


But the story does not end with the substitute sacrifice of the ram provided by God. Remember that this was written long before Christ. Yet Christ is the end of the story. Abraham sealed the covenant by offering his first-born son. And so did God. God placed the final seal on the covenant through Jesus. The entire story fore-shadows the sacrifice of Christ. Both Isaac and Jesus carried the wood of sacrifice up the mountain. Both went willingly to the sacrifice. Isaac, however, was saved from death. Jesus was not. But through death, he saved.


That brings us to another core message of this story that we would just prefer to avoid — atonement. Atonement by sacrifice of the pure and flawless is an ancient tradition. I am not sure that was a tradition intended by God. Indeed, God frequently made clear in scripture that he did not. For example, in Hosea 6:6 he said, “For I desire mercy not sacrifice.” The Psalmist in Psalm 51:16-17 declares, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, These, O God, you will not despise.” Although Abraham brought Isaac for sacrifice, it was his heart that God required. Nevertheless, God sealed the covenant with mankind with the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, his only son. It was not what he required, but it was the only way to make us understand that he was absolving us of sin so that we could enter into the relationship with him that he intends.


We really don’t like to talk about sin. When I was first training to be a lay speaker I was told to not speak about sin and surrender. If I do I supposedly will make you uncomfortable and your worship experience is supposed to be pleasant. I’m supposed to emphasize God’s grace and love. The Gospel is indeed about God’s grace and love, but it is about his grace and love in giving Jesus as the atoning sacrifice to reconcile us to him and bring us into his Kingdom. I just cannot proclaim the Gospel without making that clear. Jesus died for our sins. Jesus was God’s sacrifice for our sins; God’s atoning sacrifice for us. Jesus was God’s message to us that the gates of the Kingdom our open to us despite our sin.


Jesus was God’s seal on his covenant with Abraham and Isaac, and with us. But the sacrifice of Jesus does not bring us into the Kingdom. Jesus brings us to the open gates, but we pass through and live in the Kingdom only through faithful obedience. We seal the covenant just as Abraham did, through faithful obedience, through the surrender of our hearts, through the surrender of our lives, through surrender of it all. When we do we enter into the Kingdom — now. Our entire lives become Kingdom life – everything. We wake into the Kingdom. We dress and eat in the Kingdom. We work in the Kingdom. Every person we meet, we meet in the Kingdom. Even the weeds we pull from our flowers, we pull in the Kingdom. God is in everything we do when we surrender our lives to him, no matter how great or small the action. And we have that relationship with God open to us because of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. We claim it in grace, through faith, and live it through obedience.


In 2004, Karen Watson, a new convert to Christ, sold all of her possessions and was trained as a Southern Baptist missionary. She was sent to Iraq to help Christians there. Consistent with a long-standing tradition among missionaries, she wrote a “last letter” to be read if she became a martyr. On the way to Mosul, she and her companions were ambushed and murdered by Muslim terrorists. At her funeral, her pastor read this last letter from Karen:


            Dear Pastor,

You should only be opening this letter in the event of my death. When God calls there are no regrets. I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations. I wasn’t called to a place; I was called to Him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, His glory my reward, His glory my reward…

The missionary heart:
Cares more than some think is wise
Risks more than some think is safe
Dreams more than some think is practical
Expects more than some think is possible.


I was called not to comfort or to success, but to obedience…
There is no joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving Him.
I love you and my church family.

In His care,
Salaam, Karen


Abraham would understand Karen.


C.S. Lewis once said, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” Friends, the sacrifice of Christ for us is of infinite importance. We cannot respond in moderation. Abraham did not respond in moderation. He gave God his entire heart and his life followed. Karen did not respond in moderation. She gave God her entire heart and her life followed in faithful obedience, even into martyrdom. God does not want our deaths. He wants our lives. He wants us to live in a relationship with him in his Kingdom and gives us the power of his Spirit to help us. He asks us to express our faith and love through obedience. Obey him in faith and love and find the joy of life in his Kingdom.







© 2013 Thomas M. Trezise

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Welcome, I'm Tom

I'm Tom Trezise a retired lawyer and corporate executive with over twenty years of experience as a Methodist lay preacher. Raised in Appalachia, I proudly call myself a hillbilly at heart. I'm the executive director of The Everyday Kingdom, a non-profit devoted to fostering a community that helps people find and experience the peace, purpose, and joy available from living every day in Christ’s kingdom.

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