Tuesday, July 4, 2017

You Want Me To Do What?!?

This sermon was preached at United Presbyterian Church, Sterling KS on Sunday, July 2.
Read Genesis 22:1-14 here.
Read Hebrews 11:8-12,17-19 here.
Listen to the sermon here.

You Want Me to Do What?!?

How many times have you uttered that sentence or something like it? 
Or maybe you’ve had somebody say that to you? 

We can imagine that might have been the response back in the Middle Ages when Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was recruiting a crew for his voyage to become the first to sail around the world.  Pythagoras and Aristotle and other philosophers had been offering convincing arguments that the earth was round and not flat, but nobody had yet tested the theory.  You want me to do what?

As we celebrate Independence Day on Tuesday, July 4, we can imagine the response in the early days of America’s history when the idea of declaring independence from England was first being suggested.  You want us to do what?

It’s the response we might expect from Abraham in our story in Genesis today.  God says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, … and offer him … as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I shall show you.” 
You want me to do what?!?
And God’s reply might be, “Did I stutter?”
Abraham didn’t question God, though.  He got up the next morning and got going.

Life is full of opportunities to choose between trusting God….and not.
There are so many examples of this in the Bible.  Let’s look at a few.

Moses tells the starving Israelites to collect this white stuff that’s going to be on the ground in the morning, this stuff that you’ve never seen before, and eat it.
You want us to do what?

God tells Gideon as he’s leading an army of 22,000 men to fight the Midianites who already outnumber them, “Send all but 300 men home.”
You want me to do what?

God says to some fishermen in Galilee, “Leave your homes and your families and your fishing gear and your livelihood behind and follow me.”
You want me to do what?

God calls ordinary people to do God-sized things and to make tough choices for God. It’s not an unusual scenario.  God knows that we grow by stepping out of our comfort zones. 

It’s happened before to Abraham.

In Genesis 12, God tells Abraham to take his family and flocks and leave the land of his ancestors and head …oh, thataway… but I’ll show you later where you’re actually going.

Abraham could have said, “You want me to do what?!?”  But instead he went.

God kept telling Abraham that he was going to have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and Abraham believed God and their relationship grew because Abraham trusted God.  But there were times when Abraham had to ask, and point out that there still were no children.  And God kept reminding Abraham of the promise.

Abraham wasn’t perfect with this trusting God thing, though.  As we’ve been talking about the past two weeks, God promised Abraham and his wife Sarah a son….but the days were passing and Abraham and Sarah weren’t getting any younger.  Abraham was in his nineties.  Maybe God needed some help.  So Sarah gave Abraham her servant Hagar and they had a son.
And God said, “No, that’s not what I meant.  Sarah will have a son.  Trust me.”

And to help reinforce that God really meant that promise, God said, “I’m making a covenant with you.  I’ll make good on my promise, and you need to circumcise yourself and all the men in your household.”
…You want me to do what?!?

Abraham didn’t say that, although he did laugh, and then that very next day he circumcised the entire household.

And God blessed him with a son, just as promised. 

Now, here in today’s text, Abraham has been told to sacrifice that son.
We can imagine Abraham saying, “You want me to do what?”
It’s a very challenging story for us.  The more we try to think about and understand this text, we might be saying, “You want me to believe what?”

Does God really test people?  Maybe some of you feel like you’re being tested right now.  The Bible says that God does.
For example….In Exodus 16:4 it says that manna was a test:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven(A) for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test(B) them and see whether they will follow my instructions.

In Deuteronomy 8:2 Moses says that Israel’s time of wandering in the wilderness was a test:
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.
Through that testing Israel was challenged and strengthened, and God helped them to see how they needed to grow to trust him, and God continued to show them that he is faithful.
Psalm 66:10 (NIV) says, 10 For you, God, tested(A) us; you refined us like silver.(B)

Testing is temptation to be unfaithful.  Jesus teaches us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation.”

Paul gives encouragement for making it through a time of temptation in his letter to the Corinthians:
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. (1 Cor. 10:13)

In our story from Genesis, we see that God did indeed provide a way out for Abraham by providing a ram to sacrifice instead of Isaac, but there is dramatic tension between the beginning of the challenge in verse 2:  “Take your son, your only son Isaac…and offer him as a burnt offering” and the resolution in verse 11 when the call of the angel stops Abraham at the very last minute before he plunges the knife into Isaac.  In the midst of the tension, there is Abraham’s amazing statement of faith in verse 8 that he makes in response to Isaac’s question, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb.”
God will provide. 

We don’t get to hear how Abraham is processing this in his head, but we can imagine what he might be thinking because we know what we are thinking.  We have all kinds of doubts about this scenario.

Is God really testing Abraham?  Yes, the Bible clearly says that is the case.

Did God really say that Isaac was the one through whom Abraham would become the ancestor of an entire nation?  Yes, God did say this, and repeated it, and clarified it.

Didn’t God also say that child sacrifice is absolutely forbidden?  Yes, in Leviticus, but for Abraham that hasn’t happened yet.  That came through Moses and Moses hasn’t been born yet.

But Abraham’s experience of God so far has reinforced his understanding that God is faithful and God does provide. God has already done the miracle of providing this son, and so Abraham is trusting that God will keep his promise, the promise that has been reinforced with the covenant of circumcision. . .
. . . Abraham bears on his body the physical sign of the covenant, and so does Isaac.  Their circumcision is a visible reminder of God’s promise and God’s faithfulness.

Abraham trusts that although he does not yet see the way out of this test, God sees what we cannot yet see, and God will provide.  And verse 13 says that Abraham then “looked up and saw a ram.”
We too are tested.  Life is full of situations that give us the opportunity to take what we know in theory and put it into practice.  We grow through this process of being challenged to take what we say we believe about God and put it into practice in our lives.
For example – We read the story of Jesus teaching people to love their neighbors.  Someone asks, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus answers by telling the story of the Good Samaritan, who helps a man who was lying on the side of the road that no one else would help because he was their enemy, a culturally untouchable person.  We can see clearly that helping the man was the right thing to do. 
. . .And then someone shows up in the course of our day asking for help.  We hesitate.  We rationalize.  We question. We are afraid.
… And we walk on by.  We fail the test.  We believed in theory but we couldn’t quite trust God enough to put it into practice.

My husband Rob and I have a friend that struggled for many years with stories in the Bible like Abraham and Sarah because she had no children and she too was growing older.  She began to come to church and gradually began to accept God’s promise of love and forgiveness, but with reservations because the one thing she wanted more than anything else in the world was to have a child

The Bible says that God will provide, and in the Psalms even says that God will give us the desires of our hearts, and she wondered what that meant for her.  Were these promises for her, too?  Could she trust God for this? 
Occasionally someone would suggest to her that she might adopt a child, and for many years she rejected that idea, but eventually decided to move in that direction.  With lots of fear and doubt, she and her husband took the first steps, looking into the options, contacting agencies, and as they kept moving forward, their hope grewAnd so did their trust that this was God’s answer for them, as each hurdle in the process was cleared.  They were getting close to the end of the process when they ran into an obstacle that seemed insurmountable.  The agency was going to need them to pay $10,000.  It might as well have been a million dollars. 

As she was telling us about their situation, our friend said with tears in her eyes, “I just can’t believe that God would bring us this far if he wasn’t going to let us have a child.”  It was such an amazing statement of trust in God to provide.  We expected them to give up, but they didn’t.  They kept on praying and hoping and seeking.  They asked our pastor to help them pray and seek help, not sure what to expect.  Then one day they got a call from a church leader.  The church was going to give the $10,000.  Never in their wildest dreams did they think the church would or could do that.  God provided.  God blessed their trust.

The call to practice trusting God can come in so many different ways.  When we are asked to do something we’ve never done before, we might respond, “You want me to do what?”  We can’t see far enough ahead to be certain whether or not we can do it.  But we won’t know until we try.

Maybe one of the toughest challenges is also one of the simplest.  Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5 to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for us who are in Christ Jesus.”  We probably agree that these are good things to do.  We probably do them at least some of the time.  But what about those times when things aren’t going so well?  Can we still rejoice and give thanks then?  We won’t know until we try, and God blesses our trying.  That’s the point of testing.

One of my favorite examples of this is Habakkuk.  Habakkuk was a prophet who wrestled with God over the issues of his day.  People were treating one another abominably.  The Babylonians had defeated the nations surrounding Israel, and were also attacking Jerusalem.  Things were falling apart.  In the midst of the this, Habakkuk makes a beautiful statement of faith.  He says:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
    and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
    and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
    and there is no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will exult in the God of my salvation.
When we praise God and give thanks even in the midst of a difficult situation, even when we don’t feel like it, this is what the book of Hebrews calls “a sacrifice of praise.”

Learning to trust God has been major theme for me over the past 10-15 years. Frogs became an important part of that.  I had started collecting frogs as a teenager.  After awhile I had a lot of frogs.  I got older.  I started to think maybe it was time to get rid of the frogs.  Then somebody told me about using the word frog as an acronym for the phrase Fully Rely On God.  I knew I needed to work on doing that.  I knew I needed help to remember to work on that.  And ever since then frogs have been physical reminders to trust God.  If you go in my house, you’ll see them everywhere. (Put on frog stole my mom made.)

We learn to trust God by allowing God to be a part of our lives, and allowing the Holy Spirit to speak to us in the midst of our various situations.  We learn to trust God by addressing those things that challenge our trust, and by dealing with our doubts and fears.

We learn to give God the benefit of the doubt.  We learn BY giving God the benefit of the doubt. God is faithful.  God loves us so much he sent his only son to die for us.  God always shows up.  The more we trust him the more we learn that we can trust him.
Here’s the thing.  God knows us better than we know ourselves because he created us. 
·      He knows our tendency to screw up,
·      and he knows we are easily distracted by things we see and touch, and he knows how easily we make gods out of things and people who are not God. 
Despite knowing our flaws, God doesn’t give up on us, God doesn’t leave us, instead he sends us his son, his only son, and asks his son to be the once and for all sacrifice for all our sins, the ultimate test
And that son, Jesus, doesn’t say, “You want me to do what?!?”  Instead he says, “Thy will be done.” 

And then to show us that love is more powerful than death, God raises Jesus from the dead, and sends us the Holy Spirit to live in us and help us to learn how to trust God, and enjoy and share his love, now and forever.
This is how the Holy Spirit works.  When we trust in Jesus, the Holy Spirit makes his home in our hearts.  He accepts us just the way we are, with all our faults, but doesn’t leave us to stay in them.  As writer Max Lucado says about the Holy Spirit, once he gets in there, he starts remodeling.  Sometimes the renovations can be quite dramatic.

Resurrection is dramatic.  Believing in the resurrection tests our faith.  God has the power to raise the dead, and God has the power to work in our lives in ways we can only begin to imagine.  Each new day is a new opportunity to choose whether to trust that power to work in our lives.
Will you fully rely on God to deal with whatever is happening in your life today?

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