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The Challenge of Faith (Gen. 22:1-5)

I remember looking up a long, tall water slide. I thought it would be a great thrill to ride down. As I stood there looking up at the top, however, I decided it was too high a climb, too long and too fast a slide. I chickened out. I didn't try that slide. I've always regretted that I didn't.
I want to tell you something you've suspected all along: Faith is a challenge. It's a long climb. A long wait. A sudden surrender to gravity and speed and spray with the outcome often clouded by fear and doubt. It takes faith to take what we value most, place it at the top of a long, long chute and ... give it a push.
Just ask Abraham: "Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!' ‘Here I am,' he replied. Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about'" (Genesis 22:1-2).
"Your only son," i.e., his only promised son. Decades before, Abraham had been promised a son. Isaac was conceived and born as a result of God's promise. Isaac appeared when Abraham and Sarah were very old, way past the age when people have kids. But God had promised Abraham that He would keep His promises to him through Isaac and his children. So God gave Abraham Isaac and now ... God asks for him back?
How does that strike you?
This is madness. That's what I thought—but not about Abraham sacrificing his son. God had never made such a request of me. No, I thought "madness" as it slowly dawned on me that God wanted me to give Him ... a portion of my income.
It wasn't just the idea of giving 10 percent. Even at the time, I didn't think 10 percent was so much. What seemed crazy to me was to give anything when we were so deeply in debt! We couldn't pay our bills. We couldn't keep our cars in good repair. We owed everybody and his brother—and everybody and his brother harassed us over the phone. Now, Barb and I were suddenly staring in the face the challenge of giving somebody else's money to God (or so it seemed at the time).
This is crazy! Surely God wants us to get out of debt first! Then we can worry about giving properly. Heck, when we get out of debt, we can give more than 10 percent! Why would God require this at this time? It would thwart His purpose, wouldn't it?
Unlike Abraham, I've never been asked to give up my own flesh and blood. It's a good thing! For a while, I had a real hard time with the idea of giving period. It just seemed too great a contradiction.
As for what God told Abraham to do, doesn't it seem the supreme contradiction? To make a couple wait 25 years for a child, then require the child's life?
This is the challenge of faith. God never asks for that which means little to us. Invariably, it's something we've worked hard for or waited a long time for; something—or someone—we're thoroughly invested in. Not only that, it's something God Himself has given us.
"Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change"  (James 1:17). All good things come from Him. Sometimes we wait for them for many years—these children, this income, this job; this car, this house, this vacation; the romance we've found, the building we've built, the reputation we've established. God gives us all these good things. They make us feel comfortable and safe. They give us a sense of security or achievement.
What happens when God wants them back? Maybe we don't hear Him asking. Maybe it just happens. I remember my aunt grieving for her mother, my grandmother. She kept saying, "He took her. He took her." I was a Bible college freshman at the time and knew all things. I tried to set my aunt straight: God hadn't taken Mam Maw. She'd just died, that's all. As I've gotten older, I've learned that such "comfort" only makes God seem less real. When we're grieving over a loss, it isn't so hard to believe in God. What's hard is seeing His purpose, believing that God is still good. That's why giving up some-one we love can be the hardest test of our faith.
It's a hard test, yes, but one people can and do pass—if they see the reasonableness of faith.
"By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.' Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death" (Hebrews 11:17-19).
I once heard the writer Garrison Keillor chastise a group of reporters for paying too much attention to certain goings-on in Washington. He said something like, "You make cliffhangers where there are no cliffs."
Is that what we do with Abraham, turn a straightforward story into an emotional cliffhanger? Because God tells him to take a knife and kill his son, the most unheard of thing I've ever heard of, I think Abraham must've had a really hard time with it.
Yet record doesn't report that Abraham wrestled with God over this. It doesn't show him questioning God.
"So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.  On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.  Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you'" (Genesis 22:3-5). 
Notice Abraham doesn't hesitate. The morning after he hears from God—early that morning—he gets up, saddles up and doesn't let up until he ends up at the place of sacrifice.
Does that seem cold and unfeeling, even mindless? If you've read Abraham's story (Gen. 12-24), you know he was no mindless cog in a God-machine. He had a will of his own, and he used it. If you're familiar with the record, you also know that Abraham had been walking with God through all kinds of circumstances for 25 years. By the time he takes this boy on this trip, another 18-20 years have passed.
So how long has Abraham walked with God? Forty to 45 years. Through all those years, do you think it's just possible that he would've come to the conclusion that God could be trusted? God had seen Abraham through years of wandering, family conflict and anxiety. He'd protected Abraham in battle. He so liked the man, He even let him bargain with Him: "Will you destroy Sodom if there are 50 righteous people…45, 40, 30, 20, 10?" (Financial guru Dave Ramsey's motto is "Never pay retail!" Now I know where he got that!)
God had promised a son to Abraham more than once. When Abraham and Sarah took the matter into their own hands, when he slept with her servant Hagar, God didn't accuse, God didn't renege. He simply said, "This child won't be your heir. You will have a son by Sarah." Abraham laughed at that. So did Sarah. So God said, "Fine! We'll call the baby Laughter. Through Isaac (meaning "he laughs") you will become a great nation."
As the record shows, it all happened just as God said it would. So, the question before the house is, can God be trusted? What is the evidence? A promise kept after decades of mercy and love. In addition, God had told Abraham that this great nation he would father is starting with none other than Isaac. So, you're Abraham. Looking at the evidence, what do you conclude?
Speaking of evidence, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went camping in the country. Sometime in the night, Holmes awakened his friend. "Watson, look up. Tell me what you see." 
 "I see the night alight with a million stars."
"What does that suggest to you?"
"It suggests to me that the universe is vast and that we are quite small. What does it suggest to you, Holmes?"
"Elementary, Watson. Someone has stolen our tent!"
The great thing about the Great Detective is he never lets emotion cloud his reason. He looks at the evidence and makes his deductions.
So did Abraham: "What are the facts in the case? God has shown me His mercy again and again. He has never failed me in the past. He has gone to great lengths to insure that Sarah and I would have this child. He tells me that my posterity is assured through Isaac. Conclusion: If I go so far as to kill my own son, God will surely raise him from the dead."
Like Sherlock Holmes without his tent, Abraham looks up at the night sky, alight with a million stars. He remembers what God has told him: "Can you count the stars, Abraham? So will your descendants be." And the choice is made.
How'd that work out for him and Isaac? You know the story. He bound his son. He laid him on a pile of wood. He took out his knife… And God stopped him. But He didn't stop blessing him. Thus does faith triumph
Abraham's faith was reasonable, resolute and rewarded. When tested, he trusted; and so he triumphed.
What would've happened if Abraham hadn't obeyed? What would've happened if he'd hung onto Isaac? I imagine him scurrying away from the altar with his son, leaving the hateful knife on the ground. What happens as the years roll on? I imagine that every time he looks at Isaac, Abraham sees his failure. In a misguided attempt to prove his love for the boy, his gratitude for him, he gives Isaac whatever he wants, never spanks him. He spoils him rotten—until he wishes he'd never laid eyes on him.
I can also imagine Abraham going the other way, mistreating Isaac. Because he loathes himself, he lashes at his son, driving the boy away from him.
Think about those possibilities. Now ask, can we really keep what we won't let go of? Is this why some people wind up lonely and bitter and resentful? They've learned only to take, never to give; they hold on too tightly? The more they squeeze the faster it runs out their fingers.
We think of our children as extensions of ourselves. That's why some people can't let go of their kids, can't let them grow up, can't let them mess up. So their children become an even greater source of sorrow.
Look down, beloved. What's at the end of our wrists, open hands or closed fists? What are we holding so tightly? Spouse, children, career, money, routine? The traditions of our church? Can we really keep what we won't let go of? Perhaps we can, but not without regret.
The great movie Casablanca shows Ilsa having to choose between Rick, the man she loves, and Victor, the man she married. She must choose between her flesh and her ideals. It's a true faith-choice. Rick knows that the greater good can only be served if Ilsa gets on the plane with her husband:
  Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You're part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
Can you imagine aged Abraham in agony, wondering why he'd gone so far in faith only to fail at the end? Let's imagine ourselves in later years. Will the end find us people of integrity ... or despair?
I've always regretted not going down that water slide—climbing those flights of steps, higher and higher, standing at the top of a long, aqua-blue chute, surrendering to speed and spray, making a big splash at the bottom. I've always regretted failing that challenge—a challenge of faith.
Remember the words of the old song?
But we never can prove
the delights of His love
until all on the altar we lay
for the favor He shows
and the joy He bestows
are for them who will trust and obey.

God isn't a robber. He's a giver! God gives and gives and gives. He gives us stuff to use. He gives us people to love. He gave us His Son, Jesus Christ. Indeed, what God stopped Abraham from doing, He Himself did. He didn't spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all.
You tell me, then, beloved, is it or is it not reasonable to trust God with everything we have? If it is reasonable, why should we hold anything back from Him?
"I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you offer your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your
reasonable service" (Romans 12:1).

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