Sunday, March 9, 2014

Jehovah Jireh

Jehovah Jireh
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 9, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 22: 1-19
John 3: 16-32

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

22 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “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 on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “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.” 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” 
15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba. [1]

If I was going to plan a sermon series where I preached through the Old Testament, trying my best to use the natural rhythms of the Christian calendar to enhance the stories, I would have picked this Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent to tell the story of Abraham and Isaac, and the sacrificing, the very story that we come to today, on this the first Sunday of Lent. I would have done it this way if I had planned it, but I'm not  good planner, so I didn't plan it, it just worked out this way. The reason that this story fits Lent so well is that Lent is a season where we look inward, we look at ourselves and honestly take an appraisal of ourselves, our faith, our life, our connection to God, our relationships, where we are from a Spiritual Wholeness Standpoint. Lent is about preparing us for Easter, preparing ourselves for the amazing reality of the Risen Christ in our lives and everything it means. For that reason it is pretty awesome to look at this story and the high water mark of faith, for that is what this story is about, as gruesome as it seems, it is about faith, faith that God keeps His promises. For God has promised Abraham a ton. The land, the blessing, the nation, all of that, it all hangs on the balance of the life of this child Isaac. There is no way that Isaac's death is part of the bargain, right? right? How would that work, no Abraham heads out going through with the unthinkable, the unbelievable, the impossible, Abraham heads out to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. . . complete offering. . . the slaughtering of Abraham and Sarah's only son, the child of promise, the child they have been waiting for, the child we have been reading about. . . just born last chapter, and now is being put on the altar as a sacrifice.  So as troubling as this story is, and as troubling as that soul search of Lent sometimes is, they are a good match. . . for there are certain parallels that come to the surface here.

If the promise is made there in chapter one of this Biblical redemption story, chapter 2 is all the walking from place to place, chapter three this baby is born, and here in chapter four has quite a twist. If the walk of faith with all of its twists and turns wasn't enough to test your faith, or to spoil the story as a  reader, this one would surely make you close the book, but it is important that it is only chapter 4, because though here the plot thickens, this story is about more than Abraham's faith, it also is all about foreshadowing. Here you have so many precursors to later pieces of the redemption story. The details all come up to the surface all showing the future in all its glory. I want to take a look at some of those details right now.
First, in this story you have an important word repeated, in English it is actually three words, it's "here I am", but it Hebrew it is the one "hineni" this becomes later in the story the response call of prophets, of those seeking to do God's will, to begin their missions, it is the mark of real intimacy between God and prophets later on, but it finds its first utterance in the story here, and the intimacy that it will display between God and the later prophets is built here. Look at the passage, "here I am" is repeated three times, each time by Abraham. First when he is called, "Abraham", Abraham responds "hineni." Here I am God, where shall I go, what shall I do, I am your vessel, shape me, mold me, direct me, I am yours. All of that is wrapped up in that little word "hineni' and it will be echoed by Moses, and Samuel, and Isaiah, and others. God calls us by name, we say, here we are, and the mission begins. . . thy will be done, type stuff. And here the will of God is for Abraham to slaughter his son, that child of promise. The next, "here I am" comes from Abraham, this time in response to his son. . . showing that devotion that way as well, a man with love in two directions at once, duty to God duty to son, this is what is being put to test. . . Isaac says, "Father" and to this as well, Abraham responds, "Heneni, here I am." A strange response, awkward in English, showing that the "here I am" is much more meaningful than merely a statement of place, but also of attentiveness, focus, devotion, care. Here I am, physically, spiritually whole, and completely present, ready to hear what you have to say, willing to do whatever you ask, that is the presence embodied in that Hebrew word. And then the third time it is said, when the Angel of Salvation comes, when the knife in Abraham's hand is stopped, saying, "Abraham, Abraham", and then we hear Abraham again, "Hineni," "Here I am" remaining faithful, ready to do whatever it takes, ready, able, and somehow willing. . . "do not lay a hand on that boy or do anything. . . " It's quite a full circle, with that one important word laying the framework.
What we have in this story is some of the most interesting details. The Hebrews did not have a ton of words to use. . . like most other ancient languages and peoples, they told their stories with simple language, and the poetry of it had to fill in the deeper meaning. In writing like that, details are important, and they aren't wasted. They aren't just willy nilly thrown together, and they were noticed by the audience. When they heard certain phrases it mattered to them, and the story teller wouldn't use them on accident. An example of what I mean is like the basket that Moses is placed in to save him as he floats in the water, yes it was "ark" the very same word used to describe Noah's vessel of salvation meant to do the same thing. In this story we have so many great details. Look at the beginning of this, where God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he doesn't just say, sacrifice Isaac, he says, "Take your son, your only son, whom you love" . . . certainly sounds familiar doesn't it. Hmm interesting. . . Now look at verse 4, "on the third day" he sees the place, and Isaac and Abraham venture forth alone. . . another familiar parallel. . . and they keep coming. . .
They take up the wood, and he lays it on Isaac, yes, Isaac carries the wood that he will be sacrificed upon, and the knife. . . again the parallels, and Isaac says, "Father, we have the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering. . . and here you have it, the promise, the truth, the one reason that Abraham can go through with his life, his faith built upon promises and a journey, leading up to this point, his entire life is built on faith that there is more to this story than the end of a promise here, and his entire life is on the line when he says, "God, himself will provide. . ." God Himself will provide the lamb. . .again how very familiar and how very true. The prophetic understanding of what Jesus will do is so wrapped up in this story, that the prophecy is strong here, rivaling even the prophecies in Isaiah.
And then you get to the real moment of truth, the third of the hineni's, prefaced by this statement, a statement that is one of the most paradoxical and harsh in all of the world's literature, so much more than Priam doing the unthinkable in the Iliad, when he kisses the hand of the man who murdered his son. . . kissing Achilles hand in an act of humility. . . no so much worse than that, and it is slow, drawn out, in great story teller fashion, here we have, "Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son." Could you imagine? I was writing this last night with Coralee beside me on the couch, she had thrown up twice already, and was lying there peaceful, and I would do anything in the world, anything in my power to take pain from her, and here Abraham has to do the opposite. . . and then there is the but. . .  But the Angel of the Lord called to him from Heaven." Right at the perfect moment. . . again the promise shows up and is real. "I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son" . . . again, "Your only son from me." An at that moment God looks up and sees a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. . . and that becomes the offering. . . The Lord Provides.
And so Abraham names that place, the Lord Provides, in Hebrew that statement holds one of the Old Testament names for God, most often transliterated as. . . Jehovah Jireh. . . Jehovah, of course being. . . the name for God. . . the I am, we will get from Moses and the burning bush much later. . . that strange unpronounceable name for God. . . and then Jireh. . . will provide, or other times who provides. Jehovah Jireh, God will provide the lamb. . . and God does. . . and the paragraph ends with another important statement. . . "as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the Lord, it shall be provided." Does that mean Ararat, where Noah's Ark reached land beneath the rainbow of promise, or Sinai where the name of God was given to Moses, and then later the law, or Horeb? or Zion, the hill on which Jerusalem stands, the Mount where Jesus preaches, or is it the story that has been paralleled throughout this text, Calvary. God provides. Jehovah Jireh.
15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

And to close out this story, the promise is again restored, and now is again expanded.  Abraham is not just to be the father of a nation, a nation blessed through him, but the entire world, all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice. From the darkness of this story, the violence, self slaughtering of hopes and dreams, through faith on the other side is promise, light, peace, promise, blessing. Here we have God again, as God has done since the beginning, bringing darkness to light, and fulfilling His promises beyond doubt, and beyond our wildest imaginings. The Lord provided Isaac, and the Lord would not force Abraham to sacrifice his only son, the son he loved. . . no God would not make Abraham do that, even though Abraham was willing, instead God would save that sacrifice for himself. Let's close with the Gospel lesson for today again, John 3:16-21
6 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.[2]

The parallels are impressive, and show us the nature of faith, the nature of God's promises, the nature of being "tested", the depths from which darkness can be turned into light in God's control, and that God in fact will provide, Jehovah Jireh. . . I'm still uncomfortable with this story. It is one of the most troubling stories in the Bible, but when seen in context, within the story of salvation, and that God does in fact do what he doesn't require of Abraham, and there is real power in the story, real meaning, and I thank God for it having happened, and for it being in God's Word, to show us another glimpse at the amazing nature of God, of which I am in awe and wonder. Allelujahovah Jireh, Hallelujah and Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 22:1-19). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 3:16-21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.