"Trust God But Stay Vigilant"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – June 26, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 22:1-11; Genesis 22:1-14

    This morning we are going to be discussing this remarkable story of Abraham and how it was that he almost sacrificed his only son, Isaac, to honor a request from God. Our lesson indicates that God was testing Abraham to see if he would remain obedient.

    When I was a young boy in Sunday school, this story was among the most horrifying ones that I was exposed to because of what God asked Abraham to do.  I thought to myself, “Why did God need to test Abraham, particularly when God knew each time a sparrow falls and has the hairs on our head numbered?”

    It was not until I arrived at Seminary that I gained a far different perspective on how to study the Old Testament.  I had the privilege to study under a seasoned, well-informed professor of Old Testament, Dr. Lowell Hazzard.  When we encountered stories such as these, he used them to illustrate why it is so important to understand the context in which such accounts were written. 

    He reminded us that while the Scriptures were inspired by God, the authors were confined by cultural and religious boundaries that had been established by centuries of storytelling.  Today, because of the way we understand the nature of God, these authors appear quite primitive in their definitions of God.

    Equally important to our understanding of the Old Testament, we must also learn that religious leaders often assumed the authority to speak for God.  This divine posturing by leaders gave them the authority to be the spokesperson on God’s activity.  However, this power often resulted in storytelling filled with images of God that are very different from our points of view. 

    For example, according to the author of Genesis, when God was irritated with people, he simply killed them.  (Genesis 38:7 and 10)   In Exodus there is a verse telling readers that God tried to kill Moses. (Exodus 4:24)  The Book of Numbers depicts God as a murderous tyrant. The writer records how God purposely spread a plague among the Israelites that killed 14,700 people. (Number 16:43f)  In another account, God is described as unleashing poisonous snakes to kill the Israelites.  (Numbers 21:6)  This same author wrote that God gave Moses the order to kill the leaders of Israel because God could not deal with his own anger over what they had done.  (Numbers 25:4)    

    It is reported in I Samuel that soon after the prophet anointed Saul to be the first King of Israel, he gave these instructions, “Now listen to what the Lord God Almighty says.  He is going to punish the people of Amalek because their ancestors opposed the Israelites when they were coming out of Egypt.  Go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything and everyone.  Kill all the men, women, children and babies, the cattle, sheep, camels and donkeys. (I Samuel 15:1-3)

    By understanding the cultural context of the Jews during these tribal times and how leaders frequently told their listeners, “Thus saith the Lord,” we might better grasp what was happening during the Abraham story, an account that described a challenging personal struggle.

    To illustrate the primitive nature of religious customs, child sacrifice was a common practice in the environment where Abraham lived.  Abraham was subject to this social pressure. This pressure would have sounded something like this, “As the leader of my people, who am I to withhold from God my only son when others are deeply committed to sacrificing their children.”

    Abraham was not at all certain that this is what God had in mind.  We find this hint when Isaac asked, “I see that you have the coals and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham responded, “God himself will provide one.”  There can be little doubt that Abraham was remaining vigilant for an alternative the two might encounter as he and Isaac made their way to the land of Moriah.

    It is interesting that the writer of Genesis could not bring himself to write that God showed up at the critical moment of testing.  It was an angel that called out, “Abraham, do not hurt the boy.  I now know that you honor and obey God because you have not kept back your only son.” (Gen. 22:12)  Just then, Abraham saw a ram whose horns were entangled in a thicket. He used this animal as his sacrifice.     

    Biblical scholars have often speculated about the damage this experience caused to the relationship of Abraham and Isaac.  Isaac had to be profoundly traumatized by witnessing his father binding him, placing him on top of the wood and then raising a knife to kill him.  Go back to this scene.  Put yourself on the pile of wood as you realize that your father was going to sacrifice you to appease God.  After this event, the Scriptures feature very little interaction between the two for the rest of Abraham’s life.

    As we have noticed in our lifetime, people have evolved in their understanding of God’s nature.  God is no longer looked upon as a being that desires to direct traffic between nations and people. In Abraham’s time, the Jews’ religious heritage taught that everything was ordained by God.  Today, people no longer believe that God punishes communities for their sins by creating earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and fires. 

    Not all believers, however, are of this persuasion.  Many Christians still cling to the angry images of God because they are Scripture.  They are not interested in the context of these stories.  We see examples of this everywhere.

    Just over a month ago we recall the people that came to Bermuda on a cruise ship to distribute their leaflets concerning the end of the world.  These people were disciples of Harold Camping, an evangelist who has a support base of thousands of people for his radio ministry.  He declared that God directed him to notify the world that the rapture would take place on May 21 and that the world would end on October 21 of this year.  Many of his followers made significant life-changes because of his prophecy.  They quit their jobs, sold their homes and gave away their financial assets.

    Why is our understanding of God so different today?  If God is the same yesterday, today and forever, what has changed?  The answer is the message of Jesus Christ.        

    Jesus’ ministry was committed to helping his listeners discover how to live in the Kingdom of God.  He wanted his followers to assume responsibility for their attitudes, their thoughts and their activities.  The Gospel in three words is, “Love one another.”

    Jesus never preached on political issues. He never addressed the issues of taxes except to say, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God, the things that are God’s.” He was never critical of the Roman military’s presence. He never condemned Herod’s life-style as John the Baptist had done.  There is no evidence that Jesus ever engaged in animal sacrifice. He never made any reference that the Jews were “God’s chosen people.” His focus was on the spirit by which his disciples lived. 

    Jesus completely changed the picture of God.  Jesus’ preaching was about what would happen to his listeners when they changed the quality of their inner world.  He stressed that God’s love for each of us cannot be earned.  It is unconditional!  The responsibility is ours to open ourselves to that love and once we experience it to share it with the world.  These thoughts were revolutionary and went against everything that had been taught and practiced by the Jews for centuries.

    Abraham was living in a very different time.  The writer of Genesis, however, captured Abraham’s struggle by creating imagery that would make absolute sense to his readers.

    In the Book of Job, the story of Job’s inner struggle features a wager God made with Satan.  Satan said, “Would Job worship you if he got nothing out of it?  Suppose you let me take everything he has away from him.  He will curse you to your face.”   God gives Satan permission to test Job’s faithfulness to God by destroying his possessions, his family and his health.   In the end, Job held on to his faith and won his struggle.

    Clearly this is another test of character that was every bit as powerful as the struggle Abraham experienced.  What is different is the language and symbols used by the authors to describe who was causing the struggle.  For Abraham it was God.  For Job it was Satan. 

    All of us still struggle from time to time and become challenged in our decision making. Today, we use different imagery to describe these troublesome moments.   In seeking solutions, a number of us seek God’s guidance.  What would we think if God spoke to us very clearly and said?

What I want for you is to be happy and enthusiastic about your life.  Look within yourselves and use everything you find there to make a healing different in the lives of those around you.  What matters to me is not the nobility of what you do, but the spirit in which you do it. Follow your passion to be of service and let me be your cheerleader.

    So often we find this too simple an answer, but we did not incarnate into this world to have God micro-manage every decision we make.  The challenging, difficult times are the ones that help us to develop our character qualities and our skills of spirit.  Some times we pray and pray and pray and we are greeted by silence from God.  What is the meaning of unanswered prayer?  Is it that God does not care when we suffer?  Or is it that God interprets our suffering very differently and knows that what we are experiencing are growing pains.

    Once, a young boy brought to his grandfather a butterfly cocoon.  Soon the time came for the creature to hatch from its shell.  The little boy watched as the young Monarch exhausted itself, trying to escape from its tightly woven shell.  Suddenly all activity in the cocoon stopped.  The boy grew impatient and wanted to help the butterfly’s effort by cutting several fibers of the cocoon with his pocket knife.  The grandfather said, “If you cut any of those fibers, Michael, you will rob that Monarch of its ability to fly.  Its wings develop their strength from its struggle to free itself.  Patience, Michael, patience.”

    Perhaps we can better understand the Abraham and Isaac story when we understand what was happening within Abraham’s own inner struggle with how best to honor God.   Just as the authors of Genesis and Job used different images to describe the struggles within Abraham and Job, so each of us could use different ideas and symbols to describe our own personal struggles, particularly if we feel abandoned by God as did the author of Psalm 22, the Psalm Jesus was quoting from the Cross.

    In closing we are going to look at one more illustration about human struggles.  As you listen to this story, note the different symbol used in describing the struggles common to all of us.  

    One day a wise Indian chief was teaching his grandson how to please the Great Spirit with the choices the young man would be making during the course of his life.  As the two walked along the shoreline of St. David’s Island, where a branch of their nation had settled many years ago, the wise chief spoke: 

Within each of us every day there is a mighty struggle taking place between two wolves. 


The one wolf is filled with selfish desires, with a need to get even when it feels hurt, an appetite to use others for personal gratification, a hunger and thirst to have what other people have, to engage in deception and manipulation to become the alpha wolf of the entire pack. 


The other wolf is filled with contentment and peace.  It longs to help others in the pack to find food, water and lodging.  It seeks to bring stability when others are troubled.  It strives to teach others by example, not with words that can be misunderstood.  This wolf teaches others how to keep the land healthy so it will continue to produce abundantly.

    The grandson thought about this struggle for quite some time. Then he broke his silence and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf will win this mighty struggle?”   The chief answered, “The one you choose to feed.”

    While our journey may take us to a number of unexpected places, like Abraham, we must always keep vigilant for new opportunities that resonate with what is going on inside of us.  Our faith invites us to trust God implicitly, to be unafraid in our struggles, to be at peace as our circumstances take us where they will, to remain vigilant for opportunities to change how we think and to allow the outcome of our lives to be up to our Creator.