Is Your All on the Alter?
The Promises of God - Sermon 07 - Is Your All on the Altar?
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Feb 19, 2017 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Senior Pastor
We are wrapping up “The Promises of God” sermon series today. We have been working through the idea that our lives are similar to the life-cycle of a seed before the harvest. Just like a seed, we all have to shed our protective coat and be planted in nutrient rich soil, in order to come to life.
When I originally launched this series, I wanted to walk through what I observed in scripture, the pattern of people having to surrender to God on their discipleship journey. This idea that, even in spite of God’s clear promise, folks who have decided to follow God have a period of having to surrender or die to their ego as they move towards God in their connection and relationship with God.
This gives way to what Jesus says in John 12:24–26:
24Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25Those who love their life will lose it, while those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. (John 12:24–26)
The process of losing our lives is very painful. We like our lives, even if they are difficult. We don’t want to think about dying, whether literal or metaphorical. We do everything we can to avoid death. This is especially striking because we live in a death culture, but we have a hard time dealing with, grieving, and discussing inevitability of our dying.
Our invitation to die from Jesus is an invitation to die to both our sins and to ourself–what we might call, our ego. This is our way of joining with God, to break our solidarity with the powers that were unleashed when the first humans took what didn’t belong to them in the Garden.
The ego is tied up in our desire to protect our selves, it’s our withdrawal from the whole, and it’s rooted in selfishness–it’s our way saying, “I can go it alone!” But precisely defining ego can be difficult because we tend to only recognize our ego via the emotions that it leaves behind; like our “anger at a loved one, our need to be right, the feelings of insecurity we experience in certain situations, the jealousy that we have that is unexplained, the need to impress someone,” and the list goes on. It’s all of our emotional responses of fear, anger, lust, lying, cheating, and scheming that we participate in. This is what I mean when I say, “We have to die, we have break our solidarity with the powers.”
When we first encountered Abraham, he had a different name and his willingness to receive the promise from God was tied up in his ambition to be great. Along the way, we discovered that Abraham had to believe the promise and the promise giver in order to take hold of the promise. In the midst of this unfolding story, God credits Abraham as righteous because of his faithfulness. A close reading of Genesis 12-25, would leave the modern reader wondering exactly in what ways was Abraham faithful. Because it seems that along with his faithfulness there is an ever-present reluctance to fully trust God and surrender. This is exactly like us. Ready to trust God when it benefits us, but reluctant when we are asked to die to our sins and our ego. Embedded within this narrative is a conversation about what it means to be faithful because we see Abraham, not always as his best self, yet we continue to see God deepen his relationship with Abraham. It’s almost as if Abraham’s reluctance to fully trust God doesn’t automatically discredit Abraham from having a relationship with God. This is good news. Because if Abraham, in the face of receiving such a clear and powerful promise from God, was “iffy” at best in his relationship then that gives me hope. I pray that it gives you hope to continue to push into your connection and relationship with God, however, strong or weak, you imagine it to be.
All of this brings us to one of the most difficult passages in all of scripture, Genesis 22.
"No story in Genesis is as terrible, as powerful, as mysterious, as elusive as this one. It defies easy and confident interpretations, and despite all that I shall have to say about it, it continues to baffle me." Leon Kass
I will lean heavily on Kass’ interpretation of this passage as I make my way forward.
We are now 25 years after the promise was made by God.
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
2Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Genesis 22:1-2)
Finally, a son has been born from the union of Sarah and Abraham. Then, in what many have interpreted as a cruel and sick test, God ask Abraham to sacrifice, his son, Isaac. A lot has been said in sermons, books, and in lectures about this text. As we make our way together this morning, I want to consider this test from God in a newish light. (Not so much a test of Abraham as much as it is a test also of God.)
First of all, this is a request, not a command. In the Hebrew there’s a “please” after the “Take.” It should read, “Take, please, your son...” Almost every transition of this passage omits the “please,” without which turns this request from God into a command. If we see this as a command from God, and maybe even more so as a need of God, then we start to construct a narrative that has God needing sacrifices from us.
God doesn’t need or , and dare I say, want our sacrifices. What he wants from us is trust and obedience. A sacrifice is a poor substitute for obedience.
13 No, I don’t need your sacrifices of flesh and blood. Do I eat the meat of bulls? Do I drink the blood of goats? 14What I want from you is your true thanks; and [for you to] keep the vows you made to the Most High. 15 I want you to trust me in your times of trouble, so I can rescue you and you can give me glory.” (Psalm 50:13-15)
Remember what God called Abraham to do was to walk faithfully and wholeheartedly before God.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” (Genesis 17:1–2)
Would you be willing after waiting 25 years for your promised heir to be born, freely give up all you have hoped for? Your dreams, your desires, your wishes?
How would you see God? As cruel, capricious, or callous? How could walking faithfully and wholeheartedly before God require such an offering? Why would God want such an offering in the first place? What would God do with such an offering? Why follow a God who requires such a sacrifice? Here many theologians, pastors, and others have noted that Abraham wouldn’t have been put off by this request from God because all of the gods of the Ancient Near East required the sacrifice of children for the god’s blessing. So one reading of the passage says that given God’s destructive and wrathful behavior towards Sodom and Gomorrah, there’s no wonder that God requires such a sacrifice from Abraham. Often theologians, pastors, and authoritative interpreters will ask you, “If your all is on the altar of God?” Wanting to show ourselves approved, we quickly answer, “Yes,” before really considering what it means to have our all on the an altar. Remember an altar is the place where things that are offered go to die.
As we consider what it means to die, surrender, and follow Jesus through the narrow gate into life, what are we holding on to?
13“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
What other than God are we drawing life from? There is a way that we find ourselves like Abraham before God being asked to give up all that we hold dear (our job, our ego, our stuff, our dreams, our future) and we find ourselves reluctant, defiant, and unwilling to trust God with what we are drawing life from?
One question for Abraham that this test from God will reveal is what is motivating Abraham. Is the ambition that we witnessed in Genesis 12 or is it his willingness to walk faithfully and wholeheartedly before God?
Consider this. When God originally called Abraham I noted that it was Abraham’s ambition that motivated him, not an awe-inspiring reaction to God’s invitation. Then when God expanded and extended the covenant making it everlasting, God tested Abraham to see if he was willing to remain humble or would Abraham allow the everlasting promise to, let’s say, “harden his heart.” It’s this idea that since God is on my side, I can do what I want, no matter the consequences. Abraham passed that test as he was both humble and hospitable, but now God has constructed a new test that seems more about God’s faith in Abraham than it is about Abraham’s faith in God.
Remember, God has called Abraham to walk wholeheartedly and faithfully before him. So here’s the test, “What’s first in Abraham’s heart, ambition or reverence for God?” Put another way, is it what God has promised or is it God himself? “Abraham, are you willing to do away with the promise in order to fully surrender to the Promise Giver? Will you walk faithfully and wholeheartedly before me even if that means that you have to sacrifice all of the benefits of my promises?”
What do we want more, God, or what we hope that God will give us or provide for us? Do we want the promises of God more than we want the Promise Giver? It’s like gaining everything that life has to offer and forfeiting the life giver.
“Abraham, are you willing to do away with the promise in order to fully surrender to the Promise Giver? Will you walk faithfully and wholeheartedly before me even if that means that you have to sacrifice all of the benefits of my promises?”
3Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. (Genesis 22:3-4)
“God’s trust in Abraham is vindicated. ”
Again, we see Abraham act before we ever discuss what he thought. There’s no inner dialog here. No back-and-forth, no bargaining, no questions, no begging, just decisive action. You could easily wonder and ask, “Why didn’t Abraham beg for his son’s life?”
A lot is going on in this text, but let’s speculate for a moment. I don’t think Abraham begs for his son, “Why my son, God?” because at any point, Abraham could have refused since this was a request from God.
This is just like us when Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” we just decline the invitation from Jesus to live that way. Love won’t change our enemies, it would be easier to just forget, rather than forgive them. When God says, humble ourself and turn from your wickedness, we will just decline and say, No thanks.
When Jesus agrees with the expert in the law who says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself. Noting that this is the greatest command, we go, “No way, Jesus. Do you even know my neighbor?” We want to justify ourselves and want to limit what Jesus is asking us to do?
When the Proverbs encourage us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil.” We have a divided heart, one that is unwilling or reluctant at best to fully trust in the Lord.
We just decline the invitation for life that Jesus promises and say we already know what “life really is” and we will create it for ourselves. Friends, when we refuse to walk wholeheartedly and faithfully before God, when we chose the path of sin and rebellion, we are saying to God, “No thanks, I’ve got this.”
Again we don’t want to die! We often don’t like the things that God asks us to do. They can be difficult, painful, they can result in the death of our ego.
It would be easy to just to dislike this passage, to wish it wasn’t in the scripture. To assume that the meaning of this test is truly unknowable. But what we see in Abraham is a willingness to sacrifice all that he holds dear, his beloved son, his promise, and his future, in exchange for the Promise Giver.
We certainly don’t like the idea of God requiring Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I don’t have enough time to unpack the rest of this passage other than to say that God stays Abraham’s hand. Isaac is spared. He’s probably scarred for life, not willing to go on any future trips with his father. While we don’t see a reconciliation between father and son in the text, we do know that the promise is fulfilled through Isaac.
Taking hold of the Promises of God requires that we also receive the Promise Giver. God invites us to walk wholeheartedly and faithfully, which requires a dying to the self and the ego. This is hard. This requires that we accept God’s kindness, forgiveness, and patience, which is like one of those dreaded trust-fall exercises, the one where you have to trust someone to catch you. This is a very active letting go of what you’ve been holding onto for life, Jesus says “trust me,” so you have to let go.
You have to let go
of your false self,
and fall into powerlessness and vulnerability suspending your disbelief and trust that you are falling up into God’s love, kindness, forgiveness, and acceptance.
Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin? (Romans 2:4)
As you surrender, consider that you are surrendering to the God that Jesus trusted with his life and said was always good and at work for you and your benefit.
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:31-32; 37)
All of this brings me to a question, “Is your all on the altar of God?”