The Big Story: Creation (Genesis 1)

Big Idea: Creation teaches us that God is sovereign and active; this world was made good; and we have a purpose.

We Need to Know the Storyline

You may have heard the news that Gwyneth Paltrow confessed to struggling to make sense of Iron Man 3 after reading the script. "I find it difficult to follow the plot on paper - who's getting shot off of what, who's bad, who's good - it all gets very confusing.

This is how many of us live our lives. We are part of a bigger storyline. It is crucial that we understand the overall plot, and our part in it.

The Storyline in Four Parts

Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration

What Creation Teaches Us

We learn three things that are crucial for living well as part of the storyline:

1. Something about God

“It is no surprise that God is the first sentence of the Bible.” (Derek Kidner). This story, this book, is about God, and it is impossible to understand life apart from Him.

God exists (to not believe in God is as much an act of faith); is sovereign (not a single atom outside his control); God is active.

“God is not a character in your story. You are a character in God’s story.” (Justin Buzzard)

2. Something about the World

It is good.

Think of your favorite food. Steak perhaps. Or Thai green curry. Or ice cream. Or homemade apple pie. God could have just made fuel. He could have made us to be sustained by some kind of savory biscuit. Instead he gave a vast and wonderful array of foods.

Food is a central experience of God's goodness …. The world is more delicious than it needs to be. We have a superabundance of divine goodness and generosity. God went over the top. We don't need the variety we enjoy, but he gave it to us out of sheer exuberant joy and grace. (Tim Chester)

Part of this good is our enjoyment of God.

“Human history is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” (C.S. Lewis)

3. Something about Us

We were made in the image of God. Out of all the religions and belief systems in the world, only the Bible teaches that we were made in the image of God. “You are the result of the attentive, careful, thoughtful, intimate, detailed, creative work of God.” (James Hufstetler)

We have purpose. We are ruling on his behalf.

How Creation Fits with Christmas

Today’s theme: Peace. We live in a world where God often seems distant and powerless; the world doesn’t seem good; where we are unsure of our dignity and purpose. He came to restore peace.

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Luke 2:14)

The God of Seeing (Genesis 16)

a sermon at the launch of a resource for Christian women and church leaders on abuse and family law by METRAC

It's my privilege to be here with you today. I've been excited to learn about your work, and the resource you're launching today is an important one.

I want to be sensitive to the time constraints, so today what I what to do is to simply tell two stories. The two stories come from two different worlds, but they have one thing in common. Both are about women who faced abuse in very different ways, and yet found hope in the most unexpected of places.


The first story is from the Hebrew Scriptures. If you ask me why I believe the Bible is true, one of the many reasons is that it is painfully honest about the people it describes. The first story I want to tell you is about Abram and his wife Sarai. They are two heroes, a patriarch and a matriarch. Yet the story I want to tell isn't about their greatness. The story is about how their actions led to a brutal situation for a woman called Hagar.

The true story goes like this. God promised Abram that he would have a son, and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, and that they would be a great nation. There was only one problem: Abram and Sarai were old and they had no children.

It's very hard for us today to understand what being childless was like in those times. Infertility is still a big problem today, and many know the pain of not being able to have the child that you long for. Compounding the pain in those days was the fact that children were literally your security and your future. If you didn't have children, you had nobody to look after you in your old age.

Not only this, but the stakes were even higher when it came to Abram and Sarai. God had promised they would have a son. As someone has written, "Her inability to conceive is no longer just a thorn in their marriage or a grief to her heart, but now is an obstruction to the promises of Yahweh!" It's a horrible situation.

So Sarai took the initiative and suggested that she and Abram fulfill this promise themselves by using a surrogate mother. This wasn't uncommon in that culture. Sarai offered her servant Hagar to Abram. Hagar became pregnant. But things went horribly wrong between Hagar and Sarai. Hagar displayed a bad attitude towards Sarai, and Sarai became fed up with Hagar. Abram told Sarai to do as she'd like, and we read, "Then Sarai mistreated Hagar" (Genesis 16:6). I don't know exactly what she did, but the verb there means things like "to afflict, to oppress, to treat harshly, to mistreat, to humiliate." The same term is used later to describe the suffering endured by the Israelites in Egypt.

So, we read, Hagar fled and ended up in the desert, alone, pregnant, and forgotten, presumably on her way back to her native land. It's a total disaster for everybody concerned. Hagar has lost her home, Sarai her maid, and Abram his second wife and newborn child.

But something happens that has been called a severe mercy. At her lowest point, a stranger came and addressed her as Hagar, Sarai's servant, and asked, "Where have you come from, and where are you going?" It turns out that this is an angel, and the angel told her to return and submit to Sarai, but then made a remarkable promise. The angel said, "I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count" (Genesis 16:10). Not only that, but the angel told her to name the child Ishmael, which means "God hears." And the angel also promised that this son, Ishmael, would not be servile, but would be aggressive.

Ishmael. God sees. And then Hagar says words that have been remembered for thousands of years since:

She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: "You are the God who sees me," for she said, "I have now seen the One who sees me." (Genesis 16:13)

Hagar literally called the Lord "the God of seeing." Ishmael - God sees. And, Hagar says, "I have now seen the One who sees me." This is remarkable. In fact, this is the only time in Scripture that a person confers a name on God. God is the one who sees those forgotten by everyone else.

I won't go into all the details, but a similar thing seems to have happened 17 or 18 years later. The tensions boiled over, and Hagar and Ishmael were sent away again. This time they wandered aimlessly in the desert. When they ran out of water, Hagar walked away from Ishmael because she couldn't bear to see him die. We then read:

God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation."

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt. (Genesis 21:17-21)

From this true story we learn two things. We learn something about us and something about God. First, we learn how horrible it is to be the victim of abuse. Hagar's situation breaks your heart. Humiliated, mistreated, ostracized, powerless, alone, afraid for her own life and the life of her child. What's even more horrible is that Hagar's story has been repeated countless times since then. It's why METRAC exists. It's why the resources you offer are so important.

But Hagar's story also teaches us something about God. God is the God of seeing. God sees those who are invisible victims. He hears the cries of those who are not heard by others. God sees and hears, and he takes action. God is concerned with the afflicted, whoever they may be, even if they are downtrodden foreigners living in Israel.

This becomes a major theme throughout Scripture: the Lord looks after the oppressed.

Hagar heard the words, "You will give birth to a son and name him Ishmael, for the Lord has noticed your oppression." Thousands of years later, another woman, "Behold, you will conceive ... and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus." In Jesus we learn that God not only sees and hears the afflicted, but that he willingly became afflicted. God not only sees and hears suffering; God himself suffers. God himself became a man and willingly experienced the full force of evil on our behalf.

As Tim Keller puts it in The Reason for God, "God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself...We can know that God is truly Immanuel - God with us - even in our worst sufferings."

We don't have easy answers for the suffering that people go through. But it does mean something - a lot actually - that God sees, God hears, that God himself suffered in the person of Jesus Christ for our sakes, and that he will set this world right. He is the God of seeing.

One More Story

My second story is brief. It's about a mother, a recent immigrant, with four children: two teenagers and two young children.

It's a story of emotional abuse: days, without explanation, of her husband not speaking to her. It's also a story of physical abuse: young teenagers hiding the knives when they go to bed at night out of fear of what could happen. One night he pins her down on the living room floor with the entire family watching. The oldest son crawls out a basement window to get help from the neighbors, and is never forgiven by his abusive father.

It's also the story of a church that had never had to encounter domestic abuse or divorce before. If you were to guess how the church would react, you would have guessed that they would be judgmental and cold. They tended to be on the strict side, and as I said, they had never encountered a situation like this before.

This terrified mother one day put an end to the abuse. She called the police, changed the locks, and took her family to a hotel for safety. She now faced an uncertain future: no car, no job, a husband who refused to pay the court-ordered support. She had almost no resources, but she did have a mortgage, bills, and four very hungry children.

The story is a gritty one. At one point she was hospitalized for a couple of weeks because of the stress. Her days were filled with endless work. At times it was unclear how the bills were going to be paid.

But she learned that God is the God of seeing and the God of hearing. And her church, which was supposed to not know what to do, was there for her in ways that nobody could have expected. And they did this without making her feel like a charity case. They offered emotional support, legal support. They offered food. Mysterious envelopes of money would show up. Rides were offered. The kids were almost adopted by people in that church. Men were put on call to deal with things if the abusive dad ever showed up looking for trouble.

That woman was my mother. That church became a visible demonstration of a community that is shaped by the Son of God, who gave his life as a sacrifice for our sins. We literally could not have survived without that church's help.

Two women, separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years. But both who found that God is the God of seeing.

I am so grateful for the resource that you're releasing for Christian women and church leaders. I wish we had had it years ago. My prayer is that our churches would be places that help those who are victims of abuse in every possible way, proclaiming that God is the God of seeing and hearing; that God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself at the cross. Amen.

Winning the Blessing (Genesis 32:22-32)

As you probably know, Jesus had quite a few disagreements with the religious leaders of his day. These were people who knew the Scriptures very well. One day he turned to them and said, "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (John 5:39-40). Did you hear that? The Scriptures testify about Jesus. Don't forget that Jesus was talking about the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament.

So, leading up to Easter, we are taking a tour through some of the Hebrew Scriptures to see how they testify of Jesus. Today we're coming to what may be a familiar story to many of you: Jacob wrestling with God. U2 even sings about it: "Jacob wrestled with the angel and the angel was overcome."

To really understand this story, we need to know a little bit about Jacob. Jacob's name means "Deceiver" How would you like a name like that? Jacob's entire life had been a struggle, even from before his birth. We read that he struggled with his twin brother within his mother's womb, so much so that his mother, Rebekah, asked God, "Why is this happening to me?" (Genesis 25:22). When he was born, he was the second born. Under the laws of primogeniture, the eldest son got almost everything, which means that Jacob got almost nothing as a result. He missed out on all the privileges of being the firstborn by minutes. And since then, his entire life had been a struggle.

Let me give you a few examples. He exploited his brother so that his brother sold his firstborn rights to him. He deceived his father so that his father blessed him, and not his brother, who as firstborn should have received the blessing. Jacob then had to run for his life, and by the time we get to today's passage he had been in exile for twenty years. He also left his father-in-law on less than good terms. All of his life, Jacob had been angling and wrestling and deceiving to get ahead.

As we come to today's passage, we're in a sense coming to the climax of Jacob's life. There comes a time when you can't run anymore, and you have to face up to your past. And as we begin chapter 32, we find Jacob returning to Canaan at God's command. In one sense, he's been blessed. He left as a lonely exile; he's returning as a wealthy herdsman with two wives, many children, and a vast caravan of camels, cattle, sheep, and goats. He's become a success.

But you can also feel the tension as he comes back home. For one thing, he's got to face his brother Esau. Last time he saw his brother twenty years ago, his brother was trying to kill him. Then he hears that his brother is coming with 400 men. That's obviously not a welcoming committee! His brother, it seems, is coming to make war.

Jacob is so concerned that he sends gifts to Esau to try to make peace, and he also divides his group into two camps, so that if they're attacked at least one has a chance to get away. And it's at this point, a point of great tension, that Jacob stands alone and encounters a man. For all Jacob knows, it could be one of Esau's party sent ahead to deal with Jacob. And on the most crucial day of his life, a day on which everything is on the line, Jacob spends the night wrestling with this man, trying to not only win but to get this man's blessing.

What can we learn from this passage? There's so much, but let me highlight four things. The first is this:

1. We are all looking for what Jacob was looking for

What was Jacob looking for? His entire life, he had been trying to prove himself, to get ahead, to make something of himself. His entire life had been one of trying to make something of himself. And even now, with a family and wealth and success, you still see him longing - longing for acceptance from his brother, longing for relationships to be restored, and longing for a blessing from this wrestler. And we're like Jacob. We all long for the same thing: to amount to something, to have our lives count, to receive validation that we matter. And it has to come from outside of ourselves; we can't give this to ourselves. We're all looking for what Jacob was looking for.

Let me give you some examples. Don Miller is a very popular author. His books sell very well. But when he was young, he found himself looking for an identity, as many of us did. He tried sports, but he wasn't very good. He tried guitar, but he was really more interested in becoming a rock star than playing the guitar. And then one day when he was 25 or so, he watched a debate. Something went wrong with the camera, so to kill time one of the debaters stood in front of the crowd and recited poetry from memory for about twenty minutes. All the girls were falling out of their chairs, he says, their hearts exploding in love for him. And when the debate finally started, Miller wasn't thinking about the debate. He was thinking of poetry, and whether he could learn some so that girls would fall off their chairs in love for him. He writes:

What I really began to ponder, I suppose, was whether or not coming off as a smart guy who knows poems could be my identity, could be the thing that made me stand out in life.

Now I didn't realize it at the time, but I would come back to this moment much later in life and realize something very important about myself--namely, that I felt something missing inside myself, some bit of something that made me feel special or important or valued.

Miller says that he was looking for meaning, for some kind of endorsement from a jury of his peers, something that would win him the blessing.

He's not alone. We're all looking for that validation.

Tom Brady, the record-setting quarterback, says, "Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there's something greater out there for me? I think, 'It's got to be more than this.'" The actor Jim Carrey said, "I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer." Sidney Pollock, the movie maker, died a couple of years ago. Before he died, even when he was sick, he couldn't stop working, even when his family wanted him to. An article written about him said, "Movie mogul Sidney Pollock says that although the grueling film-making process is wearing him down, he can't justify his existence if he stops." Pollock said, "Every time I finish a picture, I feel I've earned my stay for another year or so." Do you see the quest? We're looking for something that will give us meaning, that will validate our existence and prove that we matter.

You even see this in movies. In Chariots of Fire, one of the characters - an Olympic runner - is going for the gold in the 100-yard dash. When someone asks him why he is working so hard, he says, "I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence." He's saying, "I want to know that my life counts, that my life is worth something, that I'm worthy. And the way that I'm doing that is by winning as a runner." It gives him validation. When Rocky is about to fight Apollo Creed, he says:

'Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I'm still standin', I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood.

And this is true of us as well. Our lives are one long pursuit for the blessing. This passage shows us Jacob's quest, and it's the same as ours. We're all looking for what Jacob was looking for.

The second thing we notice is this:

2. This longing goes deeper than we think

Did you notice some of the examples that I just gave you? I just told you that we all long to prove ourselves by making something of our lives. But I just gave you three examples of people who have made it: a three-time SuperBowl champion, an accomplished director, an actor. And yet none of them found what they were looking for even after they accomplished something. They were still looking for more.

When you look at Jacob in this chapter, you see him preparing for battle. And his battle is not only for his life, but to preserve everything that he's built for himself: his family and his wealth. His mind is on the next morning when he's going to confront his brother and his army of 400 men. All the strands of Jacob's life are coming together in this one confrontation, and he has everything to lose.

But what we learn in this passage is that Jacob's battle wasn't really with Esau. He's standing alone, and a man comes to wrestle him. Jacob has no idea who this man is, but sometime during the night it begins to dawn on him: this is no man he's wrestling with. This is God himself. Jacob is in the fight of his life, except it's not with his brother like he thought. The one that he must encounter is not Esau, but God himself. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it, Jacob thinks the main problem is: "How can I be reconciled to Esau?" But the main problem really is, "How can I be reconciled to God?"

Edmund Clowney writes:

The Lord is showing Jacob that the one he must fear to encounter is not Esau, but God himself, present in his Angel. Jacob's struggle at last is not the wrestling match with Esau that began in the mother's womb. His struggle is with the Lord himself, the God of Abraham and Isaac. (Preaching Christ in All of Scripture)

And what a fight it is! Verse 24 says, "A man wrestled with him till daybreak." I remember doing some wrestling in high school. A typical wrestling match in school might last anywhere from 6 to 11 minutes if it goes into overtime. You certainly don't wrestle all night! It's exhausting. It's hard to imagine the intensity, the sheer length, of this fight.

One of the problems for us is that we have pictures of WWE wrestling in our minds. In Jacob's day, wrestling wasn't acting, and it certainly wasn't entertainment. Wrestling was one way in which a legal case could be settled. This was trial by combat. Jacob was on trial before God, and the blessing that he longed for could really only be given by God, the very one that he's wrestling with.

Again, Clowney says:

Jacob realized that this was more than mortal combat. At issue was the whole meaning of his life. The prize was the blessing that he sought; the One who struggled with him was the very Angel of the Lord - God Himself appearing as man.

You need to know that this is our situation too. The longing that we have shows up in our efforts to prove ourselves through accomplishments and relationships and work. But what we're longing for can only ultimately be met in God. Like Jacob, what we want most is something that God alone can give. But the problem is that many have not received the blessing we long for from God. In fact, Scripture tells us we're under a curse rather than a blessing. And so you see that we have a problem: what we long for the most is unavailable to us. And we meet God not in blessing but in wrestling. The thing that we long for the most is unavailable to us, and we are actually under a curse. And nothing else can fulfill the longing no matter how hard we try.

This is where the story gets interesting. We've seen through Jacob that we're all longing for the blessing. And we've also seen that the blessing we long for is something we ultimately need from God. It's not going to be met through our accomplishments, relationships, or resume. But now we see:

3. This blessing is won through weakness

Question: Who won the wrestling match? That's a trick question. In verse 25 it says, "When the man saw that he could not overpower him..." So it looks like a draw. This mysterious man could not overpower Jacob. But then in verse 26 he says, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." And Jacob replies, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." And Jacob ends up getting the blessing that he longed for. Now remember that a blessing is always verbal. Somehow this man, God himself in human form, spoke words of blessing to Jacob, words that he had always longed to hear. Incredible. So, in a very real sense, Jacob won.

But look at verse 25 again. "When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man." All it took was a touch, and Jacob limped for the rest of his life. Do you see? This was no ordinary wrestling match. When you wrestle, you always wrestle with someone in your own weight class. If you wrestle someone who is 15 pounds heavier than you are, you don't stand a chance. Jacob was wrestling with all-powerful God. The only reason he wasn't crushed was because of God's grace.

So how did Jacob prevail? Two ways: one because of God's grace. But Jacob also prevailed in weakness. This is the moment at which Jacob's life turns. All of his life, Jacob had been fighting. He'd been self-sufficient, proud, and self-reliant. He'd been the independent manager of his own life, doing everything that he could to get the blessing that he longed for, by fair means or foul. And all night he had done the same thing: he'd wrestled with God and tried to get the blessing from God on his own strength.

But now God had crippled him. He had crippled Jacob's self-sufficiency. For the first time in his life, all Jacob could do was to hold on in helplessness, clinging to the One who could crush him. He had certainly not won a wrestler's victory. He didn't pin down his opponent; in a sense he hadn't won at all.

What he said was, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." "He won when he was helpless; he had a power with God when his power was gone" (Clowney). Jacob was under great danger because daylight was coming, and nobody sees the face of God and lives. Jacob won with God when he stopped trying to win God, when he admits his name - Jacob, which means "Deceiver". Then he hears, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel ['He strives with God'] because you have struggled with God and with human beings and have overcome" (Genesis 32:28).

This is, by the way, how we still obtain God's blessing. We try to get God's blessing most of the time through our strength, by performing, by building our resume. But it's only when we get to the point at which we're brought to the point of utter weakness, in which we see our sinfulness and dependence on God, and we simply cling to him in repentance that we get the blessing.

And Jacob becomes a picture of what the Christian life is: blessed, but limping; weak and humble in ourselves, and yet dancing. The blessing that we long for from God is won through the weakness of repentance.

But lastly we see:

4. The blessing we long for was won through the weakness of the cross

In a sense, both Jacob and his opponent foreshadow Christ. The wrestler was God but didn't come against Jacob in all of his strength, or else he would have crushed him. Instead he came in humility and weakness. He withheld his power and his judgment, and in grace heard the cry of faith and gave him the blessing. Galatians 3 says that he redeemed us so that we may receive the blessing.

But Jacob also points to Christ. Jacob was given the name Israel; we learn later that Jesus is the true Israel. With Jacob, God feigned weakness so that he could give the blessing. In Jesus, God became weak so he could give us the blessing. Jacob wrestled all night; centuries later, Jesus wrestled all night in the agony of Gethsemane's garden. Jacob was smitten by God; Isaiah 53 tells us that Jesus was stricken by God, and afflicted. Jesus became the Victor because he went to the cross as the Victim. He would not let go until he had received the blessing. The weight of divine justice that would have crushed Jacob instead crushed Jesus. Jacob held on at the risk of his life to get the blessing for himself; Jesus held on at the cost of his life to obtain the blessing for us.

The blessing we long for, the blessing we desperately need, the blessing from God was won through weakness. So I pray that you would experience the blessing that comes from reaching the end of yourself, and simply clinging to God in your weakness. And I pray that you would experience the blessing that Jesus won for us through the weakness of the cross.

Father, as we come to the table, thank you that the blessing we long for is found in you. And thank you that it's not won through our strength, but it's won through the weakness of repentance. And thank you most of all that it was won through the weakness of the cross. Thank you in Jesus' name. Amen.

What It Cost (Genesis 22)

Today we come to one of the greatest pieces of ancient literature. It's beautifully written and intensely moving. As part of my preparations, I listened to a sermon on this passage. Before the sermon, the person who read the Scripture did so with tears. It's almost impossible to read this passage without getting caught in the emotional intensity of what's happening.

But it's also one of the most disturbing passages in all of Scripture. It's puzzling and its infuriating, and throughout the ages all kinds of people have wrestled with it. A friend of mine preached on this passage recently, and he said, "If we aren't a bit undone by the story of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, I wonder how carefully we've read it." This is a story that really does undo us.

It's almost impossible to imagine how God could ask Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering. It's unfathomable. It's also mind-boggling to understand how Abraham could respond in obedience. Thinkers like Kierkegaard think that the killing of Isaac would have been ethically wrong but religiously right. He wrote, "When I have to think about Abraham, I am as though annihilated." That's the effect that this story has on us. It tears us apart.

Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel argues that God was wrong for asking, and that Abraham was wrong for agreeing. Philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that Abraham should have cried in outrage to this "supposedly divine voice" that commanded the "butchering and burning of his son." Leonard Sweet argues that Abraham failed the relationship test. He says that Abraham should have gone to the mountain as God commanded, but he should have pleaded and argued with God every step of the way.

This passage brings us to a crisis. How can God ask for such a thing? What exactly is this passage trying to teach us? How can what God asked for in this passage be considered moral? A number of people have said that we're not meant to read Scripture as much as Scripture is supposed to read us, and I don't know many passages that do a better job of reading us and really confronting us at the deepest possible level with all kinds of important questions.

And so today I want to look at two dimensions of the story. I want to ask first what this passage teaches us about ourselves, and secondly, what it teaches us about God. So the first question I want to ask is what this passage teaches us about ourselves.

Abraham's Test

On the human level, this passage presents us with a test or an evaluation. It's hard not to see that this an important part of what's happening in this passage. The writer even signals this to us in verse 1: "Some time later God tested Abraham." This means that the real question in this story is not what is going to happen to Isaac; the real question is what is going to happen with Abraham. The real question, on a human level, is how Abraham is going to respond to this test, and by extension, how we will respond to the same test as well.

Now Abraham had already passed a test. God had already asked Abraham to leave his country, people, and father's household (Genesis 12:1), and Abraham left without questioning. But now Abraham faced an even greater test. God had promised that Abraham would have a son, and that through this son Abraham would become the father of kings and nations. And at the age of 100, this son was born. He was more than a son. He was also the embodiment of all of God's promises to Abraham. He was everything.

This makes God's command unthinkable. In Genesis 22:2 God says to Abraham, "Take your son, your only son, whom you love--Isaac--and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you."

This is beyond comprehension. Isaac is the son that had been promised by God. He's also Abraham's only son, the son, God says, that Abraham loves. And God now asks Abraham, against all reason, to destroy with his own hands the promise that had been fulfilled. They go on a three day journey. I can't picture what it would have been like. Did Abraham tell Sarah before he left? What did he think every night of that journey as he lay down to sleep? "No more fiery crucible for faith can be imagined" (Edmund Clowney). The command of God and the promise of God came into conflict, and it was impossible to make sense of God's request.

It's important to pause here and highlight a few things that are easy to miss. Sometimes people think that this is a passage that reflects the primitive nature of people at this time. What's easy to miss is that this command would have been as unthinkable and shocking to Abraham and to the people of the Old Testament as it is to us. It's shocking to us, and you have to know that it would have been even more shocking to Abraham who faced this request.

You also need to understand something else. Kierkegaard saw this as a divine command to commit murder. It certainly looks like this to us. But it's called a burnt offering, and it's the firstborn. Edmund Clowney writes, "God was not commanding Abraham to commit a crime but to execute a judgment that was justly due."

Burnt offerings involved cutting up and burning the whole animal on the altar. This type of offering had two ideas: first, offering oneself completely to God with nothing held back; and secondly, that the sacrifice in some way atones for sin. So this sacrifice means that Abraham is holding nothing back from God, but is giving God everything; and that sin demands justice. Sin demands justice. If anything, this passage reminds us of the horror of sin.

Isaac is also the firstborn. The Bible teaches that the firstborn uniquely belongs to God. God said in Exodus 13:2, "Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal." God said, later, "You must give me the firstborn of your sons" (Exodus 22:29). So Isaac belonged to God, and God alone had the right to decide what to do with him. God has every right to condemn sinners to death. God alone has this right.

So we see that God was just in making this request; that God owns the firstborn and can do as he pleases. We also know how things turned out. But none of these can save us from confronting a horrible and terrifying question. Nothing can keep us from facing the same test that Abraham faced, a test that stretches us to the point of breaking. Are you prepared to love God completely and unconditionally? Do you have any emotional attachments that are off the table? Does God have access to what you love most? Is there anyone or anything that you love, that if God asked you for, you would say "No"?

The issue is really one of idolatry. If we love anyone or anything more than God, we're idolators. Our problem is that we make good things - our marriages, our children, our jobs - into ultimate things. They become idols in our lives. This leads to all kinds of problems: we end up trying to find our ultimate hope and fulfillment outside of God. We put a weight on these things that they cannot bear. As one of my friends says:

Nothing will destroy children quite like turning them into idols...If Abraham had not been willing to destroy Isaac, he would have destroyed Isaac. In losing his son, he found him. . . Had not Abraham placed Isaac on Yahweh's altar, he would have killed him on Abraham's altar. (Chris Brauns)

It's really important to see this. Abraham would not have saved Isaac's life by sparing him. Whatever we love more than God we turn into an idol, and whatever we turn into an idol destroys us, and we often destroy the idol as well. As Tim Keller writes:

If you center your life and identity on your spouse or partner, you will be emotionally dependent, jealous, and controlling. The other person's problems will be overwhelming to you.

If you center your life and identity on your family and children, you will try to live your life through your children until they resent you or have no self of their own. At worst, you may abuse them when they displease you.

And so on. We can make idols of our work and career, money and possessions, pleasure, relationships, approval - even religion and morality. Jesus said that if we love anything - including our children, including life itself - more than we love him, we're not fit to be his disciples (Luke 14:26)

The test for us this morning is a test that will also push you to the point of breaking if you answer it honestly. Who or what do you love God most? What do you withhold from God? Whatever that is is your idol. "Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us" (Keller).

This is the test that we faced. Abraham faced the test, and he passed. Hebrews tells us that "Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead" (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham knew that everything belonged to God, and that therefore he could hold nothing back. He must give all that God asks. And he trusted that God would somehow provide what he needed.

Do you think that if you love God more than what you love most, you'll lose it? C.S. Lewis said:

When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. Insofar as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.

When we love God first, our enjoyment of secondary things actually increases. But if we love secondary things more than God, we lose both God and the secondary thing. This is the test Abraham faced with Isaac, and it's the test that you and I face this morning as well.

But if we stopped here, we'd see only one dimension of the story, the horizontal dimension. We'd miss the vertical dimension. In fact, we'd miss not only the main message of this passage, but the main message of Christianity.

Provision at Mount Moriah

When Isaac said to Abraham, "The fire and wood are here but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son" (Genesis 22:7-8). And when Abraham was about to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, God provided a ram as a substitute. Verse 14 says, "So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, 'On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.'"

It's here that we discover the real heart of the story. This isn't just a story about who Abraham loves most. This is a story that teaches us something about God. What can this possibly teach us about God?

If you look at verse 2, you discover that these events took place on the mountains of Moriah. Where are the mountains of Moriah? 2 Chronicles 3:1 tells us, "Then Solomon began to build the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah." The place where God provided a ram for a burnt offering was Jerusalem, where the temple would later be built.

So when verse 14 says, "To this day it is said, 'On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided," it is telling us about far more than Abraham. It is telling us that God provides the sacrifice necessary to atone for sin. Isaac's question, "Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" is the age-old question. Where is the sacrifice that can atone for our sins?

God did not summon Abraham to Mount Moriah only to test him. He was also showing Abraham what it cost God when he sent his own Son up that same mountain for our sakes. Jesus said in John 8 that Abraham "rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56).

Edmund Clowney says:

Abraham was shown Christ's day; he was taken to the very area where the Temple would later stand, to the very mount where the cross of Calvary would be erected...The Heavenly Father led His Beloved up the hill to Golgotha. When the Son, who was always pleasing to the Father, cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" the Father paid the price in His silence. (The Unfolding Mystery)

The Apostle Paul ties the stories of Abraham and Isaac to the Father and Son at Calvary when he wrote, "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32).

Why do we have this story? Tim Keller said, "We have this that we have some true human understanding of what the Father did with the Son."

The angel said to Abraham, "Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son" (Genesis 22:12). As we look at Calvary, we can say to the Father, "Now we know that you love us, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

How do we know God loves us? How can we be free from turning good things into ultimate things, from worshiping and being enslaved by secondary things? How can you know he loves you like that?

By seeing that Abraham and Isaac going up the mountain is a picture of the price that the Father paid at Calvary. When we see it and really get it, then we'll understand the Father's love for us, and we'll be changed through the power of the Spirit to pass the test along with Abraham.

Father, thank you for this amazing story. It's impossible not to be moved as we read it. For those of us who cling tightly to the people and things we love, use this story to show us our idols, so that we can loosen our grip and worship you alone.

But thank you that this is not just a story about our idols. Thank you that through Abraham and Isaac we see the price you paid to save us. You led your beloved Son up the same hill as Abraham, and you placed your Son on the wood. But while Isaac was spared, your son was not. There was nobody to take his place.

May this story give us a human understanding of the face that you did not spare your own Son, but gave him up for us all. And then may we say, "Now we know you love us!" And may this love change us through the power of the Spirit. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Suppose There is One (Genesis 18:16-33)

Today we're going to look at one of the big problems of this world. You may think that the biggest problem that we face is cancer or poverty or war. Those are big problems. One of my friends once told me that he thought there are three great problems in the world: war, cancer, and parking.

I'm not sure if you've ever thought of what we're going to talk about today as a problem, but believe me: it is. It's my job to show to you why it's a problem, and then to look at the passage today to see what can be done about it.

The Problem

So here's the problem. There are two character qualities of God that seem to be in conflict with each other. This is a huge problem, because both qualities are essential to God's nature.

The first characteristic is that God is a gracious God. I love this about God, don't you? This is the part of God that we are comfortable with.

The Bible tells us that God rescued Israel from bondage in Egypt, the most totalitarian and powerful world power in the world at that time. With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God delivered them. You'd think that Israel would be completely devoted to the Lord. Yet we read that while God was appearing to Moses, giving him a covenant that would bind him to this people, Israel was committing idolatry.

You would expect God to wipe them out or say that he's had enough. But amazingly, God instead asked Moses to bring him new tablets to replace the ones that Moses had broken in anger, so that we could write the covenant terms over again. It's a renewal of the covenant terms with a people who really didn't deserve it. And in one of the most moving scenes in all of Scripture, God appears to Moses:

Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Exodus 34:5-7)

Aren't you glad that God is gracious? Can you imagine if God treated us as we deserved after we had failed him? God is the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin.

So that's the first characteristic of God: he's gracious. There's another characteristic of God that seems to be in conflict with his grace, however.

The second characteristic of God is that he is a just God. I told you how God responded to Israel when they made the golden calf: he revealed his grace. But his first response was different. When Israel committed idolatry by making a golden calf, God said to Moses, "I have seen these people and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them" (Exodus 32:9-10). You read this and say, "What happened to God's grace?" God would have been just to destroy Israel. But how can God be just and gracious at the same time?

Even when God reveals himself to Moses, and says that he is gracious and compassionate, he also says: "Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation" (Exodus 34:7). God reveals himself to Moses and says essentially two things: that he is gracious and that he is just. He says that he is just and must deal with sin justly, and at the same time that he treats us with grace and compassion.

All throughout Scripture we see God's justice. We read of how God wipes out all people except for Noah and his family so he can start again. Near the end of his life, Moses says, "Remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the LORD your God in the aroused the LORD's wrath so that he was angry enough to destroy you" (Deuteronomy 9:7-8). How do you feel talking about God's anger? An anger that is so aroused that God is angry enough to destroy his people?

The prophet Malachi spoke of the day of God's judgment: "But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire..." (Malachi 3:2). God is a God who cannot just overlook sin. He must judge it. God is angry at sin, and he cannot leave the guilty unpunished.

Wrong Attempts at Solving the Problem

I know that this is a problem that many of us have never even considered, but it's a real problem. You may have actually tried to resolve this problem. People do this in two ways, generally.

Some people try to solve this problem by making a distinction between the Old Testament God and the New Testament God. They say that the Old Testament God was a God of justice, and the New Testament God is a God of love. It's almost like in the Old Testament, God was grumpy, as if he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, but he somehow is in a better mood now.

This is a popular view, but it's dead wrong for a few reasons. God doesn't change. Besides, in the Old Testament, God says that he is the "compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin." You see God's grace written on every page of the Hebrew Scriptures. And in the New Testament, you see God's justice. Jesus said, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them" (John 3:36). That was Jesus! The apostle Paul writes, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness" (Romans 1:18).

God didn't somehow change into a different God in the New Testament. God is both just and gracious in both the Old and New Testament. There's no difference. So saying that God changed somehow just doesn't cut it.

I suppose the other way that people handle this is to think that God somehow sets aside his justice for a minute. A lot of people think this. They think that God says to himself, "Well, how should I react? Should I be just or gracious in this case?" And then he weighs all the factors, and sometimes he comes down on the side of justice, and sometimes he comes down on the side of grace.

I get why people think this, because that's how it appears to us. There are times that we discipline our kids that we seem to have to choose between grace and justice. Sometimes we let them off without giving them what they deserve, and other times they have to face the consequences of what they have done.

But when you think about this, this approach also fails. The reason is because God can never set aside his justice without being unjust. Justice is essential to who God is, so God cannot temporarily suspend his justice.

You see, wrath is not God blowing his top. God is not angry despite his love but because of it. Becky Pippert writes:

We tend to be taken aback by the thought that God could be angry. How can a deity who is perfect and loving ever be angry? Just look at us - we manage to be very understanding and accepting of our flaws. We take pride in our tolerance of the excesses of others. So what is God's problem?

But then Pippert helps us understand: "God's anger issues from the intensity and depth of his love for us, as well as the height of his moral perfection and his outrage against evil." It's like loving people who are drug addicts. You love them, and yet you see what the drugs are doing to them, and you feel anger, even fury. She writes, "I wasn't angry because I hated them. I was angry because I cared...Real love stands against the deception, the lie, the sin that destroys." If we feel this as we see sin destroying people around us, how much more does God who made them?

Not only this, but it is right to be outraged by evil. A few weeks ago, Chris Brown allegedly attacked a woman. Some press reports suggest it has his girlfriend, Rihanna. A photo was released showing the woman after the attack. Her eyes are closed, and there are visible contusions on her forehead, cheeks and mouth. People who have seen the pictures have reacted with outrage and anger, and this is right. There is no adequate way to respond to this sort of attack without expressing anger against the injustice.

Almost a year ago, security cameras caught the killing of an 18-year-old man in Toronto. Police said the victim was an innocent man with no ties to gangs. A pair was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. You can actually watch the murder on video that was released by police. But this week, the charges were withdrawn, and the alleged killers walked free. The news story I read ends with this: "Outside court this morning, friends of the victim's family expressed outrage and disgust over the withdrawal of the charges." You can't help feel anger that justice will probably never be served by the courts after the murder of an innocent man.

If we feel outrage at injustice, how much more is this true for a perfect and holy God? Again, Pippert writes that God can't just play fast and loose and say, "Oh, never mind. Boys will be boys."

Try telling that to a surviver of the Cambodian "killing fields" or to someone who lost an entire family in the Holocaust!

No. To be truly good one has to be outraged by evil and utterly and implacably hostile to injustice. No one can call themselves good and have an iota of indifference to evil of any sort. (Hope Has Its Reasons)

So we have a God who cannot be anything but just. It's not like God changes in the New Testament, and it's not like God can temporarily suspend his justice. It's right for him to be angry with sin, both because of what it does to us and because it calls for outrage.

This brings us back to our problem, then. In human terms, there is no conceivable way for God to be both just and gracious at the same time. Nor would we want either one to change. If God ceased to be just, then he would also have to stop hating the things that destroy us. Not only that, but then there would be no ultimate justice in this world. Knowing that God is just enables us to deal with injustice, because we know that ultimately there is no injustice, because everyone will have to answer to God. It is inconceivable that God should cease to be just.

But if God is not gracious, then we are all in a whole lot of trouble. If God is only just, then nobody stands a chance. We all deserve God's wrath. If God is not gracious, we're all in a trouble.

How can God be both just and gracious at the same time? It appears to be an unsolvable problem - except Abraham in today's passage finds a way through.

The Solution to the Problem

In the passage that we read this morning, Abraham understands this dilemma, this seemingly unsolvable problem. Abraham knows that God is a God of justice. When Abraham went to Egypt with his wife, he told people that Sarah, his wife, was really his sister. Pharaoh took Sarah into his household, not knowing that he was taking Abraham's wife. He didn't even know that what he was doing was wrong. We read, "the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram's wife Sarai" (Genesis 12:17). That's how God responds in justice when someone does wrong out of ignorance. How is he going to react when it's willful? Abraham knew about God's justice.

Abraham also knew about God's grace. God told Abraham that it was his intention to bless the entire earth through Abraham. Not only that, but God had already reacted to Abraham's failures with grace. Abraham had already messed up severely at least twice, but God had responded with grace.

So when God tells Abraham that he is about to investigate the injustice in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham knows that justice is necessary. They're places of great wickedness, full of injustice and oppression. They're inhospitable places where you can't even visit without being concerned for your safety. What was so bad about them?The prophet Ezekiel wrote years later:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

So Abraham knows there is going to be trouble for these cities. Justice demands that God respond in judgment.

But Abraham also wants God's grace. At first glance, it just looks like Abraham is only looking out for his nephew Lot. But there's more to it than that. Abraham is about to boldly intercede on behalf of the cities before God. If Abraham wanted to get Lot and his family out, it would have been much easier. He would have just said, "Go ahead and destroy the cities, but could you at least save the life of my nephew and his family?" Instead, Abraham pleads on behalf of both cities.

What you see Abraham doing is pleading with God on the basis of theology. He bases his argument on God's justice:

Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing--to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right? (Genesis 18:23-25)

You see what he's doing here? He's pleading with God for grace on the basis of God's justice. It's brilliant. Because God is just, Abraham says, can the record of the righteous few not be enough to save the entire city?

Abraham got that guilt can be shared by everyone. You and I know this. If someone in our family goes off the tracks, we all feel responsible. We all carry the weight and ask ourselves what we could have been differently. But Abraham switches it. He asks God if the righteousness of a few is not enough to save the many, and amazingly, God says yes. The wicked can be saved by the righteousness of the few. And Abraham bargains him down from 50 to 45 to 40 to 30 to 20 and finally to 10. If there are 10 righteous people, then the many will be saved.

And in one of the most astonishing developments, it's left at 10, and Abraham goes home, and Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. Why? Why does Abraham stop where he does? We don't know for sure, but it seems that Abraham might have recognized that there weren't enough righteous people in the cities to save them.

But don't miss what Abraham did. Abraham solved the unsolvable problem. He found a way through. Abraham discovered a way that God could be both just and gracious at the same time: that based on God's justice in recognizing the righteousness of a few, he could extend grace to those who deserved only judgment.

What Abraham didn't say is this: Suppose there is one righteous man. Suppose there is one who is so righteous that his record is enough to save the many who are wicked? And in one of the most incredible acts of both justice and grace, there was one righteous person who came to earth. And God essentially said, for the sake of this one I will not destroy the wicked.

Justice demands that sin be dealt with. The wages of sin is death, and the wages must be paid. God would not be just if the penalty is not paid. But Jesus, God's own Son, willingly choose to come to earth to pay that penalty himself. For all who trust him, he takes all their sins, and he offers all of his righteousness. The righteousness of one is enough to save the wickedness of many. And on the basis of God's justice, he cannot demand payment for sin twice.

Abraham found a way to solve this unsolvable problem, but he couldn't get all the way there. But Jesus did. And at the cross, God's perfect justice and his amazing grace met, and both were fully satisfied. God's justice and grace meet in one righteous person.

So Father, we thank you for this amazing grace. We thank you that Jesus taught that all Scripture is about him. And in this passage we so clearly see our predicament: that we deserve your wrath but need your grace.

And we thank you that through Jesus this problem has been solved. Perfect justice has been done, and undeserving sinners receive your grace. May you bring us to the cross, and may we live as people who have been saved through the righteousness of one person. In Jesus' name, Amen.