When he was 29, Rembrandt painted a scene from the first book of the Bible. It was the same year his first son was born. And the same year that same son died. Perhaps it is no surprise therefore that the scene Rembrandt chose was from Gen. 22-the binding of Isaac. On the surface it’s a story of a father who must face the apparent death of his son. It is the ultimate story of loss.
Or so it seems. As is so often the case in the Story of God and the Kingdom of God, things are not what they appear to be. What seems to be loss is actually gain. What seems to be a taking away of something is actually a giving of something.
Abraham’s life has been like this-a lot. His story really begins in Gen. 12. The LORD speaks to Abraham: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Go. From you country. And from your kindred. And from your father’s house. To a location that will remain a mystery for a bit longer. It seems to be a story of loss. Losing a place. Losing a residence. Losing a family. Losing a sense of identity. But it turns out to be a story of gain: “And I will make of you a great nation, I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Abraham loses it all, and gains everything.
Gen. 22 begins similarly: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
Go. It’s the same word from Gen. 12. Go. Go to the “land of Moriah” “on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” Go to a place whose exact location will remain a mystery a bit longer.
Abraham’s life is about going where God sends, and not knowing the final destination-only knowing the next step.
This too, is what we are called to. God is frequently sending us. But rarely does he reveal the final destination. We are usually called to obey with only enough light to see the next step ahead of us. How it’s all going to work out, where we’re finally going to end up, is a mystery. By faith we trust in where God sends, though we cannot see it with out own eyes. I’ve seen a lot of church leaderships unwilling to step out in faith on a financial decision, new mission work or ministry decision because they couldn’t have complete certainty about how it would all work out. I’ve seen many Christians unwilling to jump where God points because they couldn’t predict exactly what might happen-how much money they’d lose, what might happen to their kids, or what their lives would look like in the end. But not Abraham. God says go. Abraham says OK. Though he only has enough light to see his next step.
Notice the similarity to Gen. 12. In Gen. 12 Abraham is called to leave his “country” and his “kindred” and “his father’s house.” It’s a big sacrifice. In Gen. 12 Abraham is called to give up his “son,” his “only son,” “Isaac,” whom he “loves.” It’s an enormous sacrifice. Abraham is about to lose it all.
The entire story is written so that we feel the weight of this sacrifice. Abraham calls Isaac “my son” twice (7, 8). An angel describes Isaac as “your son, your only son” twice. (12, 16). We get the point. A father’s never treasured a son like Abraham treasures Isaac.
Little details prick our heart. Like the fact that Abraham cuts “the wood for the burnt offering” prior to leaving (3), then “took the wood of the burn offering and laid it on Isaac his son” (6), and finally “bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood” (9).
We wince when the son asks his father, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (7).
Abraham is about to lose everything. It is the ultimate sacrifice.
And it seems unreasonable. It seems too much. It’s one thing to have to lose your home. It’s another to have to lose your son.
It’s like that time when someone said to Jesus “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus reminded him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Lk 9:57-58). Go with Jesus and it’s going to cost you something dear.
It’s like that day a rich ruler came to Jesus, eager to follow, and Jesus said, “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.” And the man “became very sad, for he was extremely rich.” (Lk 18:22-23).
Sometimes, to go where God sends, it’s going to cost everything. And at some point, we and our churches must come to grips with that. We’ve got to realize that at some level we’re all called to bind our Isaacs. We seem to be in a complaining mode right now in our churches. We’re losing our influence. We’re losing our place at the public table. We’re losing our place in the schools and the seats of power. We’re losing our traditions. We’re losing our history and heritage. It seems like it’s costing a lot right now to follow Jesus (of course, we might gain some perspective by talking with the Christians in 60 countries who are persecuted by governments or neighbors for following Jesus).
Sometimes it may seem like this faith is all about loss and sacrifice. It’s all about binding our Isaacs.
Yet Gen. 22 is ultimately a story about provision. God sends Abraham to “the land of Moriah” (2) which means, among other things, “the land of provision.” Abraham tells his son, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (8). Abraham called the place where the sacrifice nearly took place, “The LORD will provide” (14). And for years to come people would use the place as a parable saying, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided” (14). It’s a story of loss. Of sacrifice. But it’s also a story of provision. The son is spared. The lamb is slaughtered in his place.
We may be tempted to therefore read into the story the promise of a certain kind of provision for ourselves. Make some sacrifice now for God and soon will come health and wealth. Lay aside some small treasure for Jesus today and receive an even greater treasure tomorrow.
That, however, is not the point. The story is pointing to a different kind of provision. One that doesn’t necessarily replace what we’ve given up for God the way an insurance company might replace all the items lost in a burglary of our house. The story’s pointing toward a different kind of provision. The “land of Moriah” is equated in the story with “the mount of the Lord.” This language is used elsewhere (Is. 2:3; Zech. 8:3) to refer to Jerusalem. Thus, we’re told to go to Jerusalem and find there all the provision we’ll ever need. Further, as we watch young Isaac unknowingly carrying on his back the wood upon which he’s intended to die, we are reminded of the Christ who would eventually carry upon his back the wood upon which he will die. In addition, as we watch the substitution of the lamb for the boy, we hear a hint of John the Baptist’s voice saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29). In fact this first book of the Bible with its story of a lamb sacrificed as a substitution points to the last book of the Bible with its image of “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” and the new song saying, “Worthy are you…for you were slain, and by your blood your ransomed people for God” (Rev. 5:6-9).
The story calls us to go to Jerusalem, to one bound to a wooden death bed, to the Lamb of God slain for all, and to find there our greatest provision. The foot of the cross becomes our land of Moriah. Golgotha becomes our mount on which the LORD provides. Here is where all our sacrifices come into sharp contrast with the greatest sacrifice of all. Here we encounter the greatest Father whose son’s death was not interrupted by an angel at the last minute. And this gift, it turns out, is all we need. With this provision, we need nothing else. With this provision, we are free to release everything else.
Ignatius taught his followers a prayer known by its first word in Latin “Suscipe.” In it we pray, “Take, Lord, and accept, all my liberty, my memory,my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess…give me your love and your grace, this is sufficient for me.” The prayer was a way for us to bind our Isaacs, to release to God all we have and possess. And it was a way for us to go to the land of Moriah, stand at the foot of the one bound to the wood, and say, “This is sufficient for me. Your love and grace are all I’ll ever need.” If I have a gift like this, if I have a God like this, no demand is too severe. No loss is too great. No sacrifice is too unreasonable.