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After these things…

That’s one of the important phrases that loudly and clearly resonated from our Sunday study of Genesis 22, which contains the famous account of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice.

Indeed, it’s one of the Bible’s most well-known messages — but what many people so often miss are the rich details and poetic parallels that can help us increase our understanding of the passage and the broader truths it carries.

First off, I was right there with Pastor Scott when he said he couldn’t have done what Abraham did. Many of us are parents, and our first reaction is, “No way would I be able to obey the Lord and be willing to sacrifice my child.” And that’s where the phrase that starts off chapter 22 — “After these things” — becomes so important. Those three words point to the fact that God has brought Abraham through many circumstances and problems already — he’s experienced fear, loss, deceit, weakness, triumph … and along the way his faith in God has increased with each experience.

We tend to look at Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac and say, “No way.” But if we view this account in a vacuum — without considering the context surrounding it — we’ll miss the bigger picture. Abraham had his mountains to climb prior to that moment, and God brought him a point in chapter 22 where his faith was strong enough that he was able to obey the Lord’s heart-wrenching command. And what about you? What mountains has God placed before you to climb? What has he brought you through to this point in your life? Wherever you are in your journey with Christ, God will use the faith you’ve already acquired through trials and triumphs to help you take your next step of faith. God only asks us to place one foot in front of the other — not to ascend to the top of Mount Everest in a single bound! Just to take the next step. And amid that next step, we can look back and see how far the Lord has brought us.

Another phrase that stood out Sunday: There is no Plan B.

One of the difficult things God brought Abraham through was his son Ishmael departing with Hagar earlier in Genesis. But why does the chapter 22 describe Isaac as Abraham’s “only son”?

As Pastor Scott explained, perhaps it’s because Isaac is directly connected to God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah — and Ishmael, while indeed Abraham’s biological son, is connected to Abraham and Sarah’s human attempt to make God’s promise happen by having a child through Hagar. And at this point, with Ishmael gone and Isaac left as Abraham’s only son, there is no “Plan B” if Abraham sacrifices Isaac. Had Ishmael still been around, it may not have required as much faith on Abraham’s part to obey the Lord — and things seem to have been orchestrated by God in just the right way in order to bring about the most faith within Abraham.

Another crucial phrase: God will provide for himself the lamb

It’s so helpful to meditate on the poetic parallels between Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and God’s willingness to sacrifice Jesus. Both sons carried wood on their backs and ascended hills to places where their sacrifices would be carried out. Both were bound. But the difference is that the Lord halted Abraham prior to the sacrifice — and God allowed Jesus’ life to be taken. No doubt our human hearts cannot fathom the depth of sorrow the Lord endured over his only son’s death on the cross — nor can we do anything to “repay” the Lord for the gift of eternal life that Jesus’ death and resurrection has given us.

In both cases God provided for himself the lamb. After Isaac was spared, Abraham found a ram caught in a thicket; and Jesus — the Lamb of God — was offered up for our sakes.

As we each ascend our new mountain today, let us remember that God will provide for us — even when it appears all hope is lost, and there’s nothing but sorrow waiting for us. Let us remember that Jesus is our everything: There is no “Plan B” for us. He is our only answer. Our salvation. The way, the truth, and the life. And finally, let us remember that we each have our own “after these things” stories of God bringing us through tough times. Let’s harness those things we’ve gone through so that we can take the next steps of faith upward to the summit of the next mountain with confidence.

We are God’s church — and nothing will stand against it. No matter who is in the White House, no matter what world leaders do, no matter how strong and scary viruses are, we are still advancing the kingdom of God. The score is settled; we are on the winning side. So, let us complete the race before us with strength and joy.

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In Genesis 21, we have a front-row seat for watching God at work — and not just in one person’s life, but several.

From Sarah’s perspective, we see that God has finally fulfilled the promise he made to her — that she would have a son. Thing is, Sarah had to wait 25 years for this promise to come to pass. For most of us, that’s a really long time — and over the course of a quarter century, it might be hard for us to continue to have faith that the Lord will do something in our lives. But the length of time really isn’t the point here; it’s the idea of waiting on the Lord for however long he calls us to wait. The cool thing is when God’s promise was fulfilled in Sarah, she was 90 years old — far past the age when women give birth. A miracle. And when it finally happened, Sarah was so tickled that the boy was named Isaac — which literally means “laughter.”

Waiting on the Lord can be really difficult. It can bring about disappointment with God when things don’t go our way or happen fast enough — or occur as we hope they might. But as Philippians 1:6 promises, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Even if a promise of the Lord takes years and years to come to pass, we must not miss what God will do in our lives during that period of waiting as we continually exercise faith in his goodness and care for us.

From Abraham’s perspective, he’s dealing with a painful reality — a reminder that the presence of Ishmael, the son he had with his slave woman Hagar, is the result of his human (i.e., faulty and short sighted) solution to a divine promise. And years later, as Isaac was weaned and the older Ishmael laughed at him, Sarah wanted him gone. This pained his father Abraham, but the Lord told him to do what Sarah asked. In a deeper way, this shows God pruning something from Abraham’s life so that he can enjoy God’s promise — that Abraham’s offspring shall be named through Isaac, and even that the Lord will make a nation through Ishmael.

Indeed, in our own lives there have been — and perhaps still are — things the Lord wants us to let go of so that we can clearly see and enjoy the promises he has for us. The task of letting go is never easy, but it’s also a step of faith God wants us to take. What is the Lord telling you to let go of in your life today? Just as he was up to something really special in Abraham’s life, God is also up to something special in your life — but you have to let go of things that are inhibiting your growth.

From perspective of Hagar, who was sent away with Ishmael, what else could she do but weep in the wilderness and assume she and her son would die there? And weep she did. But as difficult as that circumstance was, we discover that God (again) demonstrates his love for Hagar and Ishmael, as Hagar lifts up her eyes and suddenly sees a well. Water in the desert. Life.

Of course, we know full well that God directed Hagar and Ishmael being sent into the wilderness, but a longer view reminds us (again) that a lot of misguided human decisions led to this moment — particularly Ishmael being conceived in the first place. As a slave woman, Hagar didn’t likely view any of it as very God-directed, either. But again, God is always at work, usually unbeknownst to us, and the same was true in the case of Hagar and Ishmael, as the angel of the Lord told her, “Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

Finally, as Pastor Scott shared in his second shorter sermon Sunday, the two other people in this divine play — Isaac and Ishmael — have perspectives of sorts to share with us as well, and they’re found in Paul’s retelling of their circumstances in Galatians 4. Paul is talking to his readers about the promise of freedom we have in Jesus Christ — a far cry from the life of spiritual slavery they had been living. But the questions Paul poses to the Galatians he asks us today: Are you going to continue to live as though you are slaves, in bondage to sin (Ishmael)? Or are you going to live as free people — people of the promise — rooted in Christ (Isaac)?

Much of life is based on how we perform — what we do well and what we don’t do well. Our schools are based on performance. Our jobs are based on performance. But God is not performance based. However, it’s easy and typical to turn to the notion of God loving us based on how we perform. And when we’re in that spiritual state of mind — chained to slavery of a performance-based view of God — we will spend our lives in fear and in pain and hopelessness amid our problems. But if we approach the Lord based in the truth of his unconditional love for us — holding fast to his very promises of forgiveness and adoption into his eternal family through Christ— we will live as free people. So, today — and for the rest of our days — let us hold fast to that promise.

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Abraham did it — again.

You’d think that after all he went through after insisting to Pharaoh that Sarah — his wife — was his sister in Genesis 12, Abraham lies about the very same thing to King Abimelech in Genesis 20. It was over fear that the pagan people of Gerar would kill him otherwise.

Lying often follows fear, doesn’t it? And even Abraham — a man of great faith in God, the father of Israel, and the Lord’s favored son — seems to be very slow to learn in this area.

But as God is so adept at doing, he provides a way through this sticky situation. Not only does he prevent Abimelech from sinning with Sarah, God also speaks to this pagan king in a dream and tells him to give Sarah back to Abraham — and Abimelech does so.

Still, there’s much more happening under the surface in this chapter. As Pastor Scott noted Sunday, this biblical account very much mirrors the idea of believers going to work in a non-believing environment — a challenge most Christians face daily. Abraham’s work — tending his animals in a nomadic situation — leads him into a pagan land, and then fear sets in. Then Abraham lies about Sarah, and his lack of integrity got Abimelech’s people in a lot of trouble. Abraham finally explains to the king in verse 11 that he said Sarah was his sister “because I thought, ‘There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’”

And this brings up an interesting notion: Just because people you work with aren’t Christians doesn’t mean that they aren’t upstanding people with integrity. King Abimelech had a great deal of integrity and wanted to do what was right. God recognized this, too. And just because your coworkers aren’t believers doesn’t mean the Lord isn’t working in their hearts — indeed, he is! And therefore, it’s important to learn from Abraham’s sin that non-Christians are watching you — and in fact you have the opportunity to be a signpost for Jesus so that others who God may be drawing to himself will be able to see their savior a little more clearly.

Also, did you catch the intellectual contortions Abraham goes through with the king, even after the truth is revealed, explaining to him that Sarah is technically his sister since she’s “the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife”? Wow. So, out of fear and self-protection, Abraham can call Sarah his sister when it suits him? The jury may be out as to whether Abraham has a handle on this integrity thing by this point in Genesis.

It also shows that sin often is no accident; it’s not usually something we simply wander into. That’s true in life, and that’s true in our work, too. And it appears Abraham was basically saying, “There are not godly people at my job, so I don’t have to play by the same rules I play by when I go to church.” But as we all know, God responds with a big NO to that. Even when we’re afraid, even when we’re stressed and under pressure, and most importantly, even when no other human is watching, we must do right as Christians at all times.

But even if you’ve sinned and messed up and blew it on the integrity question, the Lord can still heal you and forgive you — all you have to do is confess, repent, and move forward. And keep planting your flag for Jesus in your pagan land.