Abraham’s Final Exam
Sunday, October 22, 2017
Most of us, I suspect, could quickly answer the question “what’s the hardest test you have ever taken?” For many of us, the answer lies in a past academic course from High School, College or Graduate School. Perhaps it was the final exam in our college calculus course or that midterm from years gone by on Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
For others of us, the answer has nothing to do with our academic career. Rather for us it was the physical exam in basic training in the military or the part of the driver’s test where we had to demonstrate our ability to parallel park.
When I think about this question of the “hardest test of our lives”, I am reminded of an older couple who are dear friends of ours in another state. In midlife, she decided to change careers and become a Real Estate Agent. She took the classes to get her license and enjoyed them throughly. But then, in order to be official, she had to pass the state exam. Honestly I don’t remember how many times she took that test, but, I do remember that she never passed it. I also remember that her husband tried to be so helpful and supportive in that process. He went so far as to go through the whole class with her and since he had done all the course work, he decided to take the exam too. Well, as you might guess, while she took the test countless times and never passed it, he made a great score on the first try. Today, he sells real estate in retirement all because of her – go figure!?!
Abraham understood what it means to be tested too. In fact, one could make a strong argument that Abraham’s life was a profound, ongoing test of his faith in God. Could he trust God when called to go to a foreign land? Would he continue to trust when a famine came to that same land and when he found the land he had been promised to be already occupied? And, could he continue to believe in God and God’s promise of a child for he and his wife Sarah when well into their 80s, and years after God’s original promise, they had still never been able to have had a child of their own.
Then, almost out of nowhere, Isaac finally comes along. Finally, in their 90s, Abraham and Sarah are parents for the very first time as God delivers on God’s promise through the birth of a son.
Though far from perfect, Abraham and Sarah pass test after test in the school of faith and through it all learn some amazing lessons. Their life and these tests of faith teach them patience, that God’s timing and our timing are two different things and that God can be trusted to keep God’s word and promises.
When Isaac does finally come along, we are tempted to assume that Abraham and Sarah’s tests of faith were over. But Genesis 22 shatters that notion for here at this very point, Abraham faces the biggest test of all. In Genesis 22, God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Rather than sacrificing an animal, Abraham is told to sacrifice his son on the mountain of Moriah which interestingly would one day be the location of Jerusalem where God would offer up God’s own son too.
It is the strangest of stories – after all of these year’s Abraham and Sarah finally have a son of their own to celebrate and what does God want to do? God wants to take that very same son away.
The amazing part of the story is that Abraham again passes the test. With no apparent questioning of God’s command, Abraham, Isaac and Abraham’s servants go to Moriah with young Isaac actually helping to carry the wood upon which his father will presumably offer his son.
It is a puzzling, difficult story to understand that thankfully has a redemptive ending. Just as Abraham gets ready to offer the sacrifice having literally bound little Isaac in preparation to offer him to the Lord, God tells Abraham to stop. God provides a ram to take Isaac’s place on the altar. Thankfully, the story ends with father and son going home together and with Abraham having passed with flying colors God’s most challenging test of all.
Like all of the other tests, where Abraham learned about patience, God’s faithfulness and God’s timetable, there are lessons that come his way from this test too. In fact, I think we could say that there are lots of potential lessons that Abraham learned. But, there is one lesson in particular that I want to focus on briefly this morning. And, I want to be honest and say it is not a lesson from this story that I would have ever seen on my own and perhaps not one that you have mined from the story either.
It is a lesson that comes from the reflections of a German theologian by the name of Gerhard Von Rad and his writings on Genesis that found their way into the life and preaching of a Baptist minister in the 1970s in Kentucky named John Claypool. Claypool says, that one of the lessons for Abraham from this his final and most difficult exam was that life is a gift. A gift to be treasured, wisely used and to recognize as fleeting.
Here is what Claypool meant by this statement. What Abraham had learned in Isaac coming to him so late in life and then through God asking for Isaac’s sacrifice is the truth of how mysterious life is in both its coming and in its going.
Think about it. None of us can predict exactly how or when life will come our way or how and when it will go away. Sure, we understand the science of it but let’s be honest, the mysteries remain. We don’t fully understand why some are able to have children and others are not. We don’t understand why some are able to live well past the century mark and some live only into their thirties. We don’t know why some exercise faithfully every day, eat the right things and drop dead of a heart attack at 45 while others eat all of the wrong foods, have terrible health habits and live to be 95. In spite of all that we know about health science and the human body, let’s be honest, there is a great deal that we do not know and that we will never know.
Likewise, in spite of what we might think or say, life is not something we are owed, deserve or that we have a right to demand. Abraham and Sarah had no right to demand of God a child and thus when Isaac came they had no guarantee that Isaac would be theirs for the remainder of their lives. There was no contract with any set guarantees that God was beholden to and unfortunately none exist for us.
Life is a gift. Life comes as a gracious, unexpected, mysterious gift from God. We do not know when it comes or when it goes. In turn, while it is ours, it must be recognized as such, used fully and understood as something that will only be ours as we know it for a short period. It will go quickly.
In his sharing of this revelation, Claypool often told a story to illustrate from his own childhood. The story was from the war days when a family neighbor was drafted. Claypool’s parents offered to keep some of the young man’s possessions while he was away serving and the young fellow took them up on their offer. One of the things he left in their possession was a green Bendix washing machine which he encouraged the Claypool’s to use and to enjoy. Since they had no washing machine at the time they appreciated immensely the opportunity to call the Bendix washer their own. It literally became a counted on aspect of weekly life. Thus, when the war was over and the young man returned and regathered his possessions they had a tough time giving up that green washing machine. Somewhere along the way, unknowingly, they had allowed it to transition in their mind from something that was theirs to enjoy for a short while to something they deserved and that would be there and theirs forever. But it was not, it was a gift, freely given and freely taken. (Tracks of A Fellow Struggler, John Claypool, 1995, Insight Press, Chapter Three: “Life is Gift”)
This was Abraham’s lesson about life in this moment with Isaac and it must be ours. This life that we know, enjoy and relish is not ours by right or contract. It is a gift of God – a mysterious, fragile gift. It came our way unexpectedly and it will be taken unexpectedly. We must never, ever forget this. And, in light of it, we must do two things I think.
First, we must recognize that it will not last forever. No matter who we are or how old we are, the health and blessings that we enjoy today are not guaranteed tomorrow.
Second, we should live each day like it might be our last. If there are things that are imperative for us to do before we die – we had better get to doing them. And, if there are things in terms of the kingdom of God that are equally, if not even more important, we had better get to working on these things as well. We best not wait as if we have all the time or days in the world at our disposal. Maybe we will be doubly blessed and maybe a long life is out ahead of us. But maybe this is not to be for us. Who is to say?
The country music singer Tim McGraw summed this up nicely a few years back with a song called “Live Like You Were Dying”. In the song, a young man influenced by a recent doctors visit and the possibility that he does’t have long to live begins to live life differently in light of life’s brevity. He goes fishing three times in a week, he experiences sky diving, he rides a mechanical bull, he spends more time reading scripture. He lives as if life will not last forever and thus this changes what is important to him both in life in general and in terms of his faith.
Likewise, you may remember the movie from a few years back called The Bucket List. It stared Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. Like Tim McGraw’s song, the two men were told they had only a short time left to live. In turn, in the hospital as roommates, their created their bucket list which was a list of things they wanted to do and places they wanted to go before life ended. The movie is the story of their quest to check all of those items off of their to do list as well as what they learned about themselves and life through the process.
Let me ask you something – how would your life change if you really began to live your life as the gift not guarantee from God that it truly is? How would your life change if you made a list of the most important things for you to do before you die and started a quest to get those things accomplished? And, how would your faith life change if the things in the life of faith that you plan to get done someday became the things that you finally realized you need to do now? Maybe, just maybe we would start to live like we were dying. Maybe, just maybe we too would begin to live as though life is a gift, not a guarantee. Amen.