Here's the transcript from the sermon I gave yesterday at Woodland Presbyterian Church.
Reclaiming Love, Obedience, and Worship:
God’s Goodness in the Midst of the Sacrifice of Our Most Cherished Things
Hebrews 11:8-19, 39-40
This is my third time preaching in the past year, and of course I’ve been up here a number of other times, to offer a prayer or assist with worship or make an announcement. And I hope you’ve noticed that when I’m up here, I try very hard not to use too much Christianese.
I didn’t grow up in the church, and I remember when I was first exploring the faith in my teen years, I was part of a loving and welcoming and encouraging group. But quite often people would use words or phrases that were incoherent to me. And those seemingly harmless words and phrases, meant of course in the best possible way, were a reminder that I was still on the outside, looking in, not quite part of this group because I hadn’t yet gotten all the lingo down.
Of course, becoming a Christian has very little to do with mastering Christian vocabulary. And so, to this day, I feel strongly that we in the church need to be extra careful not to unknowingly create an unnecessary barrier for those seeking to come into the faith, who may not be as up on how church works, but whose hearts are close to being fully claimed by God.
All of that said, I want to start my sermon this morning by introducing some heavy Christian terms. You ready? OK, today I want to talk about “love,” “obedience,” and “worship.”
I realize these terms aren’t as intimidating as, say, “propitiation,” “hermeneutics,” or “Christology.” In fact, “love,” “obedience,” and “worship” are common, everyday words outside of the church.
But I think that’s precisely why I want to talk about these concepts. Because while I think we Christians understand that our sense of love, obedience, and worship is different than that of the rest of the world, I don’t think we truly get just how different, just how difficult, and just how transformative these concepts are.
We Christians can tend to look down on the world for watering down these profound concepts. “Love” has become little more than lust or emotions – just listen to how the word is used in songs on the radio. “Obedience” is something for dogs or toddlers or servants. And “worship” is doubly diluted – the objects of worship and the acts of worship are so much more insignificant than what is understood in the Christian worldview.
We Christians get that love, obedience, and worship are far more profound to us than to the rest of the world. There’s really no need to say anything more about these concepts, is there?
I would like to argue this morning that we Christians have done far worse than the rest of the world in watering down love, obedience, and worship. Their gap between understanding what love, obedience, and worship are and how they practice it in their lives is dwarfed by the gaping chasm between what we claim to believe about love, obedience, and worship and how it actually gets lived out in our individual and corporate lives.
So I’d like to challenge us this morning to reclaim love, obedience, and worship, to understand what those terms really, really mean for the Christian, and to live them out accordingly. And I’d like to do that by looking at the 22nd chapter of the Book of Genesis, verses 1 to 19.
[read Genesis 22:1-19]
Some context to this chapter. Abraham has been called by God, out of his hometown, to take his family to a new place. He is promised by God that God will bless him immensely, particularly in the best possible way that a man in his time could be blessed, which is with a multitude of descendents. We don’t know how or how long Abraham weighed this choice – leave everything I know for everything I could ever want – but the Bible does record that he does set out with his family, and that God reaffirms His promise many times during his journey.
But as the years and decades pass by, that promise must have increasingly seemed a cruel joke, as he and his wife Sarah advance in age with nary a child to be borne. Barrenness, in those days, was an even bitterer pill to swallow than now, since family was everything back then. I’ve heard it said that greetings back then were never individual greetings but familial ones; you never said, “how are you doing,” for example, but rather “how goes it with you and your family.” If that’s the case, you can imagine someone starting to greet Abraham and Sarah with a customary greeting, only to stop mid-sentence, realize that what he was going to say didn’t apply to them, and so mumble something awkwardly and pass on by.
Imagine that every encounter on the street is a reminder of your childlessness, and even worse, of a promise God made to you that caused you to leave everything, a promise that does not appear to be able to be fulfilled. And yet, God does eventually keep His word. Despite many twists and turns, God continues to assure Abraham and Sarah, and sure enough, Sarah bears a son, Isaac, at the ripe old age of 90.
And then there’s one more twist. Just one chapter later, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son on the altar. Abraham is to sacrifice his own son, the one and only conduit to the fulfillment of God’s promise for a multitude of descendents. Incredibly, Abraham follows through, takes his son to the altar,
lays him on the altar and readies his knife for the kill.
Just seconds before Abraham plunges his knife into his son's heart, God provides a ram instead. “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”
The margins of my Bible at home tell me that the words "love," "obey," and "worship" appear for the first time in the Bible in this passage:
· Verse 2: “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac.”
· Verse 18: In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”
· Verse 5: “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.”
Genesis 22 is, admittedly, pretty early on in the good book. And yet, if you know your Bibles, you know a lot has happened in those first 21 chapters. So for these three common words, these three fundamental principles of the Christian faith, to appear for the first time here, all in the same story, it has to mean something, right?
I think what it means is that love, obedience, and worship are inextricably connected to the notion of being able to lay on the altar for sacrifice the most cherished things in our lives, the very things through which God intends to fulfill our wildest dreams.
Of course, this is not how the world thinks of love, obedience, and worship. Sadly, it is also not often how we act like they mean. We may look down on the world for watering down love, obedience, and worship, but look what we have done to those words.
I can say for myself that my love, my obedience, and my worship are quite removed from this kind of intimacy and commitment and sacrifice and faith. And I can tell you why. It’s because I’m selfish, I’m scared, I don’t really believe, and I don’t want to get hurt.
The tragedy of such an attitude is that, in this very act of selfishly preserving myself, I am actually missing out. Far from protecting myself from harm, all I’m doing is keeping myself away from good. Far from protecting myself from losing what is currently valuable to me, all I’m doing is keeping myself from gaining what is eternally valuable to me.
Think for a moment what is most dear to you. Would it be hard if God told you to lay it on the altar and kill it? Could you entrust something you love so much into God’s hands? Could you trust God enough to obey Him in this way? Could you see this as an act of worship?
If I had to name the things that are most dear to me, it would have to be my health, my career, my relationship with my wife, and my kids’ wellbeing. I’m fortunate to have had good health so far, but there may come a point in time that my health will fail, and I will have to put that on the altar and trust that God is still good and will take care of me even though my heart or flesh fail.
All three other things I have had to put on the altar at some point in time. Right out of business school, I shut the door on other, more lucrative job opportunities and waited for the dim possibility of low-paid employment at a small non-profit here in West Philadelphia. I wondered if my career was going to die right at its very beginning. I learned to trust that God had promised and God would provide. And He did.
I love my wife more than anyone else in the world. I love her enough to be devastated if I lost her. And she has had her health issues through the years, including getting cancer. I wondered in those times if I was going to lose my wife, my only wife, whom I love. I learned to trust that God had promised and God would provide. And He did.
For all of the things that consume my thoughts nowadays, worrying over my kids’ future is up at the top of the list. Both of our kids have struggled with development delays, and both have responded positively to good school environments. As of today, we do not yet know if Aaron will be able to go to the school down the street, which if you haven’t heard is a very good school, so good that even though we’re supposed to be able to send our kids to it because we live in the neighborhood, we can’t because we didn’t get in line soon enough, and so instead of landing a coveted spot in the kindergarten class that starts next month, we are on the wait-list, beholden to the School District of Philadelphia to tell us which school Aaron will be going to instead. I wonder if Aaron will be alright at another, not as good school. I am learning to trust that God has promised and God will provide. I do not yet know what that means but I believe He will.
In defining love, obedience, and worship in this way, I must note that at first, it may not seem that God has provided. The 11th chapter of the Book of Hebrews famously ends by saying that (verse 39) “And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised.” Abraham lived long enough to see his son of promise, but not long enough to see those promised multitudes of descendents. In fact, none of the great heroes of the faith mentioned in the 11th chapter of the Book of Hebrews actually lived long enough to see God provide.
And, of course, sometimes God does not stop the knife; sometimes, God does not provide another ram. Abraham believed enough to lift his knife above his only son before God provided a ram instead. But God sacrificed His only Son; there was no last-second alternative, no substitute ram, for the Son was the substitute ram.
Sometimes, we put our cherished thing on the altar, and the happy outcome isn’t that God sees our faith, preserves our cherished thing, provides a substitute, and rewards our faith. Sometimes, we put our cherished thing on the altar, and the outcome is that God extinguishes that cherished thing. And we are left to wonder why. And we may not live long enough to see God answer.
If you have put something cherished on the altar in obedience to God, and have seen God take that cherished thing away, I have no simple, trite answers for you. But I do know that this church is good at coming alongside those who bear that kind of pain, and while it is small comfort in exchange for your loss, it is very real comfort, and it is available, and you should avail yourself of it.
In your pain, I want you to understand just what is driving that provision of comfort. That comfort comes from a group of believersac that believes that the laying on the altar of the only Son of God, and His unjust and grisly death on a cross, was not a repudiation of God’s goodness and provision but the ultimate fulfillment of God’s goodness and provision. And know how the 11th chapter of the Book of Hebrew ends: “And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, (verse 40) because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.
In pain and loss, we come together as a church because we know the true meaning of love, obedience, and worship. While we may not receive what was promised on this side of glory, we can endure because we believe that God has provided something better for us, which is to be made perfect together, where we can experience together perfect love, perfect obedience, and perfect worship.
This summer, we have been focusing on prayer in our Sunday morning sermons, and I can think of no better thing to pray for, individually and as a church, that we will believe in and live out this kind of love, this kind of obedience, and this kind of worship. May God be glorified as we move in that direction, and may we believe in His faithful provision enough to lay our cherished things on His altar for Him to do as He will for His glory and our perfection.