Altar Boy

Later this summer, our pastor and her family will be away for several weeks on a missions trip to Scotland.  In her absence, I will be one of several elders guest-preaching.  I'm still mulling over my topic, but am leaning towards expositing out of the 22nd chapter of the book of Genesis, in which Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar.  Consider this post some unpolished, very clunky, stream-of-consciousness notes that will hopefully take shape and form over the next few weeks.

You may or may not know the context of this chapter.  Abraham has been called by God out of his hometown to go to a new place.  He is promised a multitude of descendents, which represents just about the best possible thing a man in his time could be offered.  But the promise must have seemed a cruel joke as the years and decades passed, and he and his wife Sarah aged well past the age at which you can have kids.  God continues to assure this wanderer, though, and sure enough Sarah bears him Isaac at the ripe old age of 90. 

And yet just one chapter later, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, the one and only conduit to the fulfillment of that promise for a multitude of descendents.  Abraham, incredibly, obeys, and proceeds to lay his son on the altar and ready his knife for the kill.  Abraham passes this most rigorous of faith tests - the book of Hebrews notes that God "tested him" - and God provides a ram just seconds before Abraham is to plunge his knife into his son's heart. 

The margins of my Bible tells me that the words "love," "obey," and "worship" appear for the first time in the Bible in this passage.  Genesis 22 is, admittedly, pretty early on in the good book.  And yet, a lot has happened in those first 21 chapters.  So for these three words, pretty fundamental principles of the Christian faith, to appear for the first time here, all in the same story, has to mean something, right?

I think what it means is that they are inextricably related to this notion of being able to lay on the altar for sacrifice the most cherished thing in your life.  "Love" can be winnowed down to emotions or even physical lust, "obey" can have a cold and detached feel to it, and even a notion as exalted as "worship" can simply mean getting caught up in a good praise song.  Alas, we too often settle for these shadows of the real meanings behind these concepts.  These three words mean so much because God has infused life with so much more meaning that we are often willing to dig for. 

Too often, we are willing to be Christians in the most superficial ways: it means we lean a certain way on certain social and political issues, or that we wear a cross, or that we go to Sunday morning worship.  But it does not fundamentally change our lives, and it certainly doesn't intersect with the things we hold most dear.  Which is a shame, because it is our relationship with the things we hold most dear, and our ability or inability to lay them on the altar out of love, obedience, and worship to God, that is the true litmus test of our faith.

Because I did not grow up in the church, I think it is easier for me to see my major life decisions with this lens.  Believing, for me, meant going all out, rather than just settling for what I had known or what my parents taught me.  Not that I always made the right choices.  But at least I knew that I had to make a choice.  When I was graduating from college, I had to decide whether I was willing to put my career on the altar.  Now, as a husband and father, I have make very real decisions about whether I am willing to lay my family on the altar. 

Following Jesus doesn't always mean killing the good things in our lives, of course.  But I do think that in a very real way, we are kept from true love, obedience, and worship, when we withhold the truly cherished things in our lives from God's control.  When we worry ourselves over our financial security, our vocational trajectories, and our children's education, we can do so in ways that tell God and others that those things are too important to leave to God to deal with. 

For some, that is entirely sane.  I don't begrudge that opinion, because for those people, religion is just a part of your life, not unlike a hobby or an allegiance to a hometown.  In that frame of reference, it makes perfect sense for your religion to affect some life choices but not the really important ones; I mean, you might alter your life to catch a really important ballgame or to not miss the first day of hunting season, but you wouldn't change your career or imperil your children for these things.

But we who say we are Christians have no such excuse.  For if the Bible is real, if Jesus is real, if faith is real, then it really is an all-or-nothing proposition.  God demands our all, and deservedly so.  And it is in our best interest to give Him our all, for He will do better than we can.  But time and again, we surrender to God only on the margins, and continue to cling tight to the really important things.  We are far poorer for it, for the Bible suggests that we are missing out on real "love," "obedience," and "worship."

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