Tuesday, February 25, 2014

TRUST, Part 2

To answer that, lets start by addressing the elephant in the room. All of us has baggage that keeps us from trusting God. We equate the way we are treated by the ones we love with how God treats us. To those of us with a stern, abusive father; we see God as a dictator. Anyone with an inattentive mother might view God as someone who is distant and unloving.  If we have an unfaithful spouse, God becomes a heartless cosmic being. The list goes on and on in which our interactions with one another are projected onto God.

Now for a a disclaimer. God is not a Genie! We don’t just come to him whenever we want, rub a lamp, and have our wishes granted. That’s not how faith works. That's not how God works. Scripture is very clear that God will provide for us. It is even pretty clear on what He will provide for us. He will provide us with everything we need, not everything we want. Again, some of our baggage has to do with the fact that a majority of us find it difficult differentiating between our wants and our needs.

Now that we've cleared that up, let's take a look into the story of father Abraham--who had many sons (I can't read this story without that song popping into my head; so, you're welcome).

But before we do, let me give you “The Story of Abraham for Dummies.” God made a covenant--just a fancy word for a pact--with Abraham that He would bless his descendants. However, at the time God made this promise, Abraham and his wife Sarah didn't have any descendants. Actually, they couldn't even have kids. Abraham was past his prime and Sarah was barren, so it makes this promise kind of unbelievable. Being human and becoming overwhelmed by circumstances, Abraham and Sarah did what most people in their situation would do. They took matters into their own hands. Sarah gave Abraham her servant Hagar to have a child with, and Abraham wanting to keep the misses happy--my assumption--agrees. Hagar became pregnant, Sarah got ticked off (which always happens when a marriage involves more than 2 people), and 9 ½ months later Ishmael was born. It is here God reiterates the covenant with Abraham, and informs him their son--the one he was going to bless the world through, which isn't Ishmael--would be joining the world in about a year. Abraham and Sarah, at the young ages of 100 and 91 (respectively) welcome Isaac into the world. From here, we will jump ahead to pick up the story in Genesis 22:1-14:

Sometime later, God tested Abraham’s faith. “Abraham!” God called.

“Yes,” he replied. “Here I am.”

“Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.”

The next morning Abraham got up early. He saddled his donkey and took two of his servants with him, along with his son, Isaac. Then he chopped wood for a fire for a burnt offering and set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day of their journey, Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. “Stay here with the donkey,” Abraham told the servants. “The boy and I will travel a little farther. We will worship there, and then we will come right back.”

So Abraham placed the wood for the burnt offering on Isaac’s shoulders, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them walked on together, Isaac turned to Abraham and said, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“We have the fire and the wood,” the boy said, “but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”

“God will provide a lamb  for the burnt offering, my son,” Abraham answered. And they both walked on together.

When they arrived at the place where God had told him to go, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. Then he tied his son, Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice.

At that moment the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Yes,” Abraham replied. “Here I am!”

“Don’t lay a hand on the boy!” the angel said. “Do not hurt him in any way, for now I know that you truly fear God. You have not withheld from me even your son, your only son.”

Then Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. So he took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering in place of his son.  Abraham named the place Yahweh-Yireh (which means “the Lord will provide”). To this day, people still use that name as a proverb: “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

Why did I recount this story from thousands of years ago? For several reasons. One of which, being this story, no matter how archaic, has a lot of lessons for you and me. Namely, it illustrates the apprehension we have with trusting this God.

Before we get to that, I feel it's necessary to address the common misconception that the point of this story is Abraham's great faith. A faith, so extraordinary, that it would allow him to even consider sacrificing his son. In all reality, Abraham did nothing extraordinary. Abraham was a product of the culture in which he lived. A culture where sacrificing children was a pretty common practice to appease the god's. Abraham was only doing what he knew. Through that lens, we see that his faith wasn't that extraordinary afterall. I won't disagree with you that it would take a certain amount of faith to follow through with this act. Neither will I negate that this would be an incredibly painful reality for Abraham to come to grips with. I'm just making the case that's not the point of this story. Making that the point unwittingly gives the starring role of this drama to Abraham; when clearly, it doesn't belong to him. The spotlight is meant to be on God. Not because he is an egotistical being. Not because Abraham is unimportant. Rather, because this God is different from all the other gods.

While God may have asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, it's safe to assume he never intended Abraham to actually go through with it. We see this in the details. Don't believe me? Have another look at the story. God gives Abraham the exact coordinates where he should go to perform this sacrifice--a mountain in the land of Moriah. And when Abraham and Isaac finally arrive, God tells them this is the place. And it just so happens there is a ram caught in the brush at this exact spot. Coincidence? Or, divine intervention from a God that has already provided the sacrifice--which is a little foreshadow of what will eventually come? All to make the point abundantly clear that he is not like the other gods. He doesn't require you to sacrifice your only son.

Now, how this story relates to us. If we look hard enough, we can see a lot of ourselves in Abraham.

For starters, Abraham shows us that trust does not come naturally when you have been wounded. Abraham's default setting, especially with this God, was not trust. Up to this point, I think it's safe to say Abraham was a bit skeptical. For years this God has been making promises to him. Promises that, up to this point, have remained unfulfilled. Promises that, given their old age and the fact that Sarah was still barren, seemed even less plausible now. I can't help but think that every time Abraham looked at his wife, he was met with the stark reminder that God hadn't come through. That God hadn't upheld his end of the promise. Not only would Abraham never bless the world or lead a great nation, but he would never even experience the joy of fatherhood. Talk about painful! No wonder Abraham doesn't trust this God. No wonder Abraham responds the way he does. No one who has been wounded that deeply responds with trust. It was that wound, which lead to their lack of trust, that directly resulted in the birth of Ishmael--Abraham and Hagar's son. Although I can't blame them for trying to force God's hand, no matter how you spin it, Ishmael isn't Sarah's son--the blessing won't come through him; that wasn't the promise God made. While it's easy to point the finger, don't you and I do the same thing? When we are wounded and God doesn't come through in a timely manner, our tendency is to put God on the spot and manipulate the situation. I've done it. You've done it. We've all done it. Probably more times than we can even count. If only we could heed the lesson Abraham had to learn the hard way.

The next truth Abraham reveals to us is that our ability to trust is often clouded by our current circumstances. Abraham seems to have become accustomed to the fact that he was going to have to take his own son's life. Look back at the passage and we see that Abraham tells his servant's "we will worship and we will return." This is an indicator that Abraham at least has some level of trust that God is up to something. But then, just beneath the surface, there is something stirring and doubt creeps in. The two of them arrive at the mountain. And here, Abraham gets caught up in all that's about to transpire. He unloads the bundle of wood, begins building the altar, arranges the wood, ties up Isaac, places him on the altar, pulls out the knife, and, with his hand trembling, lowers the blade to Isaac's throat. Blinded by his circumstances, Abraham doesn't even notice the rustling in the bushes off in the distance! He doesn't even stop to discover what that strange noise is! Clouded by doubt, Abraham misses the ques from this God. Which is why this God intervenes with an Angel. When Abraham finally looks up, it is then he is able to see what was there all along--a ram caught in the brush. At this point, it becomes clear to Abraham that this God can be trusted. It's unfortunate that so often we, no different than Abraham, become so self-absorbed that we are blind to what God is actually trying to do around us. If you don't think it's possible to be that oblivious to your surroundings, just try talking to me when I'm watching a good movie. My wife will attest to this fact.

Finally, this story reveals that we don't always have to understand in order to trust. It's safe to say that Abraham was a bit confused by the request to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Let me reiterate the fact that this was to be the son of Abraham's that God would use to fulfill all the promises he had made. And now, Abraham is supposed to off him? In case you were wondering, this is a big problem! At least from the perspective of Abraham. Logically, this makes about as much sense as going to McDonald's for a salad. Not to mention how difficult that would be to explain to his wife. "Hey Sarah, you know how God blessed us with Isaac? Even after we were too old to have children? Even after you were barren? Even after we took matters into our own hands? Great! I'm going to go kill him now, 'cause that's what God said to do." Somehow I don't think that conversation would have ended well for Abraham. But if they had that conversation, Sarah must have trusted her husband enough to take Isaac alone on this journey. And while it appears that Abraham trusted this God enough to make the journey to sacrifice Isaac, I'm certain he had his share of doubts. But seeing as how this God had blessed him with the promised son; there was something stirring in Abraham that made him think this God would still come through on his promises. While he didn't understand why, and he couldn't fathom how, it's clear that in this instance, Abraham had some sort of trust that this God would still fulfill all the promises he had made--he came through once, even when things seemed impossible. Why not again? Maybe God would bring him back to life. So many maybes, yet Abraham was willing to follow through. Perhaps someday, we too, will come to the realization that God, however unbelievable it seems, knows what he is doing.

In the end, Abraham comes to the realization that this God can be trusted and names this place "Yahweh-Yireh" or "the Lord will provide." He even took it one step further and set up a memorial to remind him of that truth. Every time he traveled by Yahweh-Yireh he would see that pile of rocks and be reminded of all that transpired. It would bring back the memory of how in that seemingly lose-lose situation, God came through. God provided exactly what he needed. At exactly the right time. If doubt ever crept in, Abraham could look to that memorial and realize that God could, in fact, be trusted. Which is something we all need to be reminded of today.

To each of us, God says this: "I can fit everything into a pattern of good, but only to the extent that you trust me. Every problem can teach you something, transforming you little by little into the masterpiece I created you to be. The very same problem can become a stumbling block over which you fall, if you react with distrust and defiance. The choice is up to you, and you will have to choose many times each day whether to trust me."