September 6, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHEN LIFE FEELS LIKE A TEST I DIDN’T STUDY FOR
It’s been a long time since I was in school. It was May 29, 1981 when I graduated with a Master of Divinity degree from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. Many of my classmates went on to earn doctorates. I never had that desire. Not even close. Not that I didn’t enjoy school, it’s just that when I was done, I was done. So it was over 39 years ago that I was last an official student. And still, after all those years, every so often I have a dream that goes something like this: There is a test. A very important test. I have not studied for it. And it’s too late. I’m going to have to take that test totally unprepared.
I don’t think I’m the only one. I know I’m not, because others have told me they have that same recurring nightmare. A test you haven’t studied for. The honest truth is I’m not sure there ever was a test I didn’t study for. I was a pretty serious student. Too serious. Which may be why when I was done I was done. I was done taking tests. And I thought I was done writing papers, but I really wasn’t. It’s still a sermon a week.
The truth is we are never done taking tests. Because life is a test. It has been said that life is like a spelling test. The first few words are easy, but the further you go the harder the words get. The harder it is to spell them, and also the harder it is to understand what they mean. Our scripture today is about a test and it is a test with a meaning that is hard to understand. This is a scripture a lot of preachers stay away from. For good reason. It’s a horrible scripture. God tells Abraham to kill his son. But not really, it’s just a test. Just kidding. No, there is nothing funny here. But is there anything here at all with any redeeming value?
Let’s review the story of Abraham. Abraham and Sarah his wife had a good life in a place called Haran. They were perfectly happy there. They were comfortable. But then God got involved in their lives. And God has a way of disturbing the comfortable. God told them to pack up and move to a strange new land. A Promised Land. God promised them the land and God also promised them a son. Through this son they would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abraham and Sarah trusted God’s promise. They packed up and moved. They left behind all they knew and loved. They traveled as nomads, not even sure where they were going, but they trusted God to get them there. They trusted God to keep his promise.
I think the story of Abraham and Sarah is our story. Our lives are based on a promise. We trust that promise. We know that God can be trusted. We know that God has something good waiting for us in the future. Children know that. Each new day is full of surprises. There is so much to learn. There is so much to explore. There are so many exciting adventures waiting for them. There is a wonderful world out there, and they can’t wait for it to unfold. Then they get older. The words get harder to spell. We may narrow our expectations, but still we believe in the promise. We believe life is supposed to be good. We believe that God, the promise maker is a promise keeper and can be trusted. So we can relate to this old story of Abraham and Sarah.
God keeps his promise to them in a most amazing way. Sarah is 90. A little old to have a baby. But she has a baby. God keeps his promise. Isaac is born. Isaac is a gift from God. Which would make a nice happy ending to their story. An old couple gets the baby they’ve always wanted. Everyone is so happy. They were starting to doubt the promise but the promise was kept. Now they would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. And they had this wonderful land where they would live and they would prosper. The Promised Land. Abraham, Sarah, and baby Isaac live happily ever after. The end.
Except it’s not the end. We come now to the disturbing verse that we read this morning:
God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2).
Child sacrifice was common back then. We know it was practiced in a number of ancient religions. It was practiced by the Aztecs and the Incas in this hemisphere. It is still practiced by certain primitive tribes today. But this is not a passage about child sacrifice. The Jews never practiced child sacrifice. This is a passage about trusting God.
This strange and troubling command from God is a test. It’s a test to see if Abraham really trusts that our life is in God’s hands. This is the most basic lesson in the Bible. This is the first step in living a good life. Knowing that God is God. Knowing that I am not. Therefore, all that I have and all that I am comes from God.
It says, “After these things, God tested Abraham.” It’s quite a test. It’s a test to see if Abraham understands that everything comes from God and belongs to God, even his child of God’s promise, Isaac. It’s a test to see if Abraham trusts that God is trustworthy. That’s the test. And it’s not just Abraham’s test. It’s our test. It’s the ultimate test. We’re never ready for it, we can’t study for it, but it comes to us all the same. Here it is: Are you able to let go of everything you think belongs to you, give it all back to God, and still trust that God’s promise can be trusted?
Martin Luther wrote that great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Here’s one line: “Let goods and kindred go. This mortal life also.”
Abraham is called to do that. At the beginning of the story he lets his goods go. His possessions. He left them behind and traveled as a nomad to the Promised Land. Then at the end of the story he is called to let his kindred go.
Abraham, take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I will tell you.
This story, awful as it is, ends well. Isaac is laid on the altar. It would seem that Abraham is going to do the unthinkable. Then, not a moment too soon, God speaks:
Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me . . . And behold, there was a ram standing by. Abraham took the ram, and offered it as a burnt offering instead of his son (Genesis 22:12-13).
Then we get to the end and we come to this. I think this is the most important part of the story. “So Abraham called that place, ‘The Lord will provide’” (Genesis 22:14). Hebrew for “the Lord will provide” is “Jehovah Jireh,” which is one of the many names God is given in the Bible. God will provide. God provided the ram. God provided the answer to a horrible, hopeless, desperate situation. God saved Isaac. God made a way, when there seemed to be no way (see Isaiah 43:19). God can be counted on to keep his promise. Can we believe that? Even if we lose everything we have, everything we hold dear, everything that brings comfort and joy and security and meaning and beauty to our lives, can we let them go without letting our faith go?
Burgess Owens played professional football for ten years. He was on the Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders in 1981. He retired from football and started a business. He was full of confidence. There was nothing he couldn’t do. But his business failed. He lost everything. He had a large family to support. All six of them moved into a one-bedroom basement apartment. This was a test he hadn’t studied for. But he had a strong faith in God. And he had never been afraid of hard work. So he did the only thing he knew to do. He trusted God and he went to work. He was a chimney sweep by day and a security guard by night. He got things turned around. The Lord did provide. And now he lives in Utah and is running for the US Congress.
The closest I’ve come to losing everything is when I lost a sermon on my computer.
William Thackeray wrote an entire novel. This was before computers. Before he could get it published, the only copy was accidentally destroyed by a servant. What did he do? He sat down and started writing again. Zhu Guangquan translated Hegel’s works into Chinese. During Mao’s reign of terror, his house was broken into and the manuscript was taken. What did he do? He sat down and started translating again. What gave these two men the fortitude to not let a crushing disappointment crush them? They knew their life work had a higher purpose. What happened to their life work was not up to them to decide. They had no choice but to keep doing what God had given them to do. That was their test. They passed.
How could God have asked Abraham to kill his son? I don’t have an answer to that question. But here is the real question that comes from this strange and horrible story: Will we trust God even when all we have lived for is taken away? Will we still hold on to God’s promise? Will we still know that God will provide?
It was Easter Sunday 1970. James Angell had his alarm clock set early. He was pastor at Claremont Presbyterian Church in Claremont, California. His alarm was about to sound, but first his phone rang. That is how he learned that his daughter, Susan, was dead. She was 21 years old and a college senior. She was driving back from a camping trip in the Grand Canyon. She wanted to be home to be with her family on Easter. She had fallen asleep at the wheel. James Angell drove to church in a fog. He preached the Easter sermon he had prepared. He proclaimed the good news at the heart of our faith, that Christ has given us victory over death in his resurrection.
Later he wrote a book. He called it, O, Susan! It’s a book that has helped many who have lost a child. He said in this book that for him there was a long period of time when his loss seemed more than he could bear. Then something happened. He said this happens in different ways and at different times to different people.
For him it happened like this. A dear and trusted friend came into his study one day and said exactly what he needed to hear. He said, “Jim, you’ve got to face this. For the rest of your life this is a fact that you just have to live with. You can do two things about it. You can use it – you can use your fresh depth of feeling to make life finer – or you can let it crush you, and go through the rest of your life whimpering.”
Jim Angell said these words from his friend reminded him of the words of a hymn. “Shun not the struggle, face it. ‘Tis God’s gift.” Not the accident. That’s not God’s gift. Not the tragedy. Not the sorrow. But the grace. The power to use something so horrible to make life deeper and richer. That’s the gift. When Jim Angell realized that, he was able to let his daughter go, and he was able to find his life again.
The end of sorrow comes when we can trust God’s promise that no matter what happens to us, “The Lord will provide.”
God, we know that you will. You have been there for us in the past. You will be there for us in the future, no matter what the future might hold. We are children of your promise. Like little children, may we live each day with eager expectation. Because though we may know more than children know about the difficult parts of life, our children still have it right. It is a wonderful world. In Christ we pray, Amen.