The following is the manuscript for a sermon I preached on Sunday, July 2nd, at a community worship service in Springfield, SD, celebrating the United States’ Independence Day weekend.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation….
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.
“By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered Him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared for them a city.”
~ Hebrews 11:1, 8-16 (ESV)
The writer of Hebrews holds up faith as our great comfort in this world, as we wait for the return of our Savior, the fulfillment of our hope, and the restoration of all things. According to Hebrews 11:1, our faith is more than a set of ideas we think about God; Faith is “assurance,” “conviction.” Faith is an utter and complete trust in what has been promised us, and – more specifically – in WHO has promised. We have been promised salvation: our full and final redemption, restoration, and reconciliation to God. God Himself has promised this, and His promises are sure. So our faith is sure. For this reason, the writer of Hebrews views our faith as our citizenship in that new reality that is to come, where we and all things are redeemed, restored, and reconciled to God.
We gather here this morning, celebrating our nation’s independence, grateful to God for making us citizens of this free nation. But, even more, we rejoice in our faith that grants us citizenship in the world to come. Faith is simultaneously our belonging in a world that is not yet here, and our daily reminder that we are “strangers and exiles on the earth…seeking a homeland…a better country…a heavenly one.”
The writer of Hebrews sees this faith on display in one more story from Abraham’s life:
“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, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”
~ Hebrews 11:17-19 (ESV)
To fully consider this episode of Abraham’s life, hear it read from Genesis 22:1-14:
After all this, GOD tested Abraham. GOD said, “Abraham!”
“Yes?” answered Abraham. “I’m listening.”
He said, “Take your dear son Isaac whom you love and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I’ll point out to you.”
Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey. He took two of his young servants and his son Isaac. He had split wood for the burnt offering. He set out for the place GOD had directed him.
On the third day he looked up and saw the place in the distance. Abraham told his two young servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I are going over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you.”
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and gave it to Isaac his son to carry. He carried the flint and the knife. The two of them went off together.
Isaac said to Abraham his father, “Father?”
“Yes, my son.”
“We have flint and wood, but where’s the sheep for the burnt offering?”
Abraham said, “Son, GOD will see to it that there’s a sheep for the burnt offering.” And they kept on walking together.
They arrived at the place to which GOD had directed him. Abraham built an altar. He laid out the wood. Then he tied up Isaac and laid him on the wood. Abraham reached out and took the knife to kill his son.
Just then an angel of GOD called to him out of Heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Yes, I’m listening.”
“Don’t lay a hand on that boy! Don’t touch him! Now I know how fearlessly you fear GOD; you didn’t hesitate to place your son, your dear son, on the altar for me.”
Abraham looked up. He saw a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. Abraham took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
Abraham named that place GOD-Yireh (God-Sees-to-It). That’s where we get the saying, “On the mountain of GOD, He sees to it.”
After reading this story summarized so simply by the writer of Hebrews, as a story of Abraham’s exemplary faith in the midst of testing, it would be easy for us to read this as a simple story. It is anything but.
God has chosen Abraham to be His covenant partner, that through Abraham’s descendants God would bring a Savior for not only Abraham’s descendants, but for all humanity. God has reiterated that promise, and His covenant relationship with Abraham on a number of occasions. And that promise seemed to be fulfilled in the unlikely birth of his son Isaac, through whom God’s promise would ultimately be fulfilled. And in spite of that promise, on which all of Abraham’s faith was founded, God now asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the son of the promise.
At the heart of this story is the apparent conflict between God’s promise and God’s command. That is Abraham’s test: to trust that the God who chose him and called him and blessed him could not be his enemy, but would work all things for good. The writer of Hebrews understands that Abraham’s trust in God was so complete that he looked to God even to raise Isaac from the dead to fulfill His promise to Abraham.
Abraham’s faith in God’s goodness, God’s trustworthiness, God’s faithfulness, is profound. From the moment God speaks to Abraham, summoning him to Mt. Moriah to sacrifice his only, beloved son, through the three long days of travel he has with his son, until the moment he holds the knife over his bound son, Abraham is sure of what he hopes for, and convinced of what he cannot see: that God will make good on His word. At the same time, Abraham bears within his heart all the emotional turmoil, and the confused, fearful thoughts, of a father about to lose his child. For those of us familiar with this story, we read with the end in mind, that Isaac lives, and God provides a ram for the sacrifice – as Abraham had faith He would. But we cannot too quickly pass over the terrible burden of grief, of guilt, of anger, of fear, that Abraham bore in his heart and mind and soul and body for the three days that this test lasted.
We must ask, I think, why God would ask this of Abraham? The verses following the story give us a clue into the mind of God. After Abraham passes the test, God’s angel once again repeats God’s covenant promise to Abraham, that because Abraham was completely faithful to God – even in giving up his only son – that God would be completely faithful to Abraham, to bless Abraham with a countless multitude of descendants, and that through them, all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we can see what Abraham only glimpsed! We can see, as we consider the whole Story, just how faithful God was to that promise! Yes, Abraham’s descendants grew to be one of the great ancient nations of the world, but even more important for the fulfillment of this promise, we see how — through the line of Abraham – God chose to bring into this world His only, beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
And this, I think, is the more important reason that God asked this horrific thing of Abraham. God invited Abraham to better understand the depths of His faithfulness. To be faithful to this promise, God would have to go through with the very horror from which he spared Abraham. Thousands of years after Abraham, on this same mountaintop, God would endure his own, beloved Son Jesus to be bound – not to an stone altar, but to a wooden cross – and God would sacrifice His only, beloved Son as the perfect Lamb, to take away the sins of the whole world.
Abraham was invited to Mt. Moriah to get a glimpse of the costly salvation that would come through his children. When Isaac began to see that something was missing, Abraham’s answer of faith spoke volumes: “God will see to it that there’s a sheep for the burnt offering.” God saw to it that day, sparing Isaac; and God saw to it on the cross, sacrificing His beloved Son, Jesus Christ, for you.
What is asked of us, in response, is faith. The same faith that assured and convinced Abraham that God would be faithful, and work all things for good, is the same faith that we ourselves have received. We have much to be thankful for this morning, as we gather freely to worship our faithful, compassionate, gracious God, in public, in this great country. And we are thankful for the men and women who have offered up their lives in protection and service of this country, and our freedom. But even as we celebrate our “land of the free, and the home of the brave,” let us not lose sight of our true homeland, that heavenly country for which we wait, of which we are sure, which our living Savior Jesus Christ – whom “God was able even to raise…from the dead” – has even now gone to prepare for us, of which God has laid the foundations in eternity. Our faith in Christ Jesus is our access, our belonging, our citizenship, in that eternal, heavenly country, which our faithful God has provided for us: thanks be to God!