This week, we’re looking at the (in)famous story of Abraham and the command to sacrifice his son, Isaac. If you’re just joining us today, you really need to begin from the start of the story on Monday. We began by asking: why would God ask Abraham to do such a thing? Yesterday, we looked at one part of the answer: God is showing (in a very graphic way) that as Creator he has the right to ask for such a sacrifice – unlike the pagan, so-called ‘gods’ of the region who regularly demanded child sacrifice. Yet despite having the right, he doesn’t. He’s different from the gods around. But we were still left with the question: why put Abraham through all that just to make this point?
Think about it for a minute: what if God had just said ‘most gods require human sacrifices, but I don’t, so here’s a ram I prepared earlier…’ – it doesn’t have the same impact. We wouldn’t be talking about it 4000 years later if that’s all that had happened.
In a culture where the alternative to God was other pagan gods who demanded ceaseless rituals and sacrifices – even of your children – in order to be placated, God wanted to show Abraham and the rest of humanity the alternative. In a graphic way. ‘If you didn’t have me, this is how it would play out.’
When my kids were little, if they were climbing dangerously on something, I wouldn’t always save them early on. Sometimes I’d watch carefully, let them keeping going, and catch them as they fell. Not because I liked scaring them (I’d tell myself), but to teach them – to help them understand what it’d be like if I hadn’t been around to save them.
God lets Abraham peer over the edge of life-without-God in 2000BC, before snatching him back from the brink. For his own good – and ours. Because through this, Abraham learned to appreciate the depth of what God rescues us from.
God sometimes takes us to the brink – so we fully appreciate the alternative
Most people’s mistake in thinking about this story today is to wonder if they would have the faith to obey such a command. The trouble is, the specifics of the story don’t translate well from 4000 yrs ago. We don’t have pagan gods who require sacrifices. It’s not normal. There are laws against that sort of thing. More’s the point, I think God wouldn’t ask that of us now, because it’s not how our twenty-first life would pan out without God.
Although it’s a little tamer than child sacrifice, God still often lets us see the consequences of a life without him in 2000 AD. A life serving the gods of this age. He takes us to the brink to see what our life would look like without him. He allows us to reap the consequences of serving other gods. For example:
- Drugs and alcohol – there are many testimonies of people who have reached rock-bottom before they were finally open to God’s rescue offer. They had to experience the alternative before they understood how good the gospel is. ‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me’. Grace seems sweeter the more we appreciate the wretched position we were saved from.
- The god of career: God allows us to see the emptiness and futility of a life devoted to work and chasing money, prestige, significance. Maybe then we will be ready to accept God’s offer of significance in him.
- The god of sex and pleasure: Paul says in Romans that God gave humanity over to our evil desires, allowing us to reap the consequences of our rebellion – only to find that we are never satisfied, we always want more. Maybe then we will be ready to make the faith-step of finding all our satisfaction in God.
- The god of other people’s approval: we can chase that all our lives, only to find that we can never please everybody. Maybe then we will be forced into looking for the no-string-attached acceptance that only God offers.
- The god of absolution: if we have the sense that we are guilty, that we can’t right the wrongs we have done, but nonetheless have to try to atone for our past behaviour. In time, the hope is that we would see that forgiveness and removal of guilt only comes through God, not our own efforts.
This doesn’t just happen before we come to place our faith in God. Sometimes God does this with his people when they dabble with other gods; who want one foot in God’s camp, and one foot in the world’s. So God lets us experience what life is like without him, by taking his blessings away for a time, in the hope that we would realise how bad the alternatives are. And that we would come back from the brink, with a greater appreciation of what God has saved us from.
Sometimes it takes this for ‘second generation Christians’ – those who have grown up in a Christian family and have been shielded from the worst aspects of a life without God – sometimes they need to be taken to the brink by God, for them to fully appreciate what they have in God.
Maybe that’s why God took Abraham to the brink, so that not just he, but all of Abraham’s “grains of sand” would fully appreciate just how different God is to the alternatives.