“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He received the promise and yet he was offering his one and only son, the one to whom it had been said, ‘Your offspring will be traced through Isaac.’ He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead; therefore, he received him back, figuratively speaking.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I love being in the mountains. This summer we got to spend a week in the Rockies while visiting my sister and her family. It was a delight. One of the things, though, that is so cool about driving up into the mountains to me is how deceptively wide they are. When you start driving from the airport in Denver, you can see the whole front range stretched out before you. It is a magnificent view. As you start driving into the mountains, however, you pass the first peaks you can see…and there are more behind them. You drive over the first big pass…and there are more mountains. You get into the Vail Valley, past dozens of peaks, and in the distance, there are still more hills to climb. Always more. Sometimes the life of faith feels like going into the mountains. Let’s talk about how this morning.
Having taken us through some fairly light examples of faith so far in the chapter, after the summary break we talked about yesterday, the author of Hebrews here takes us right into one of the most challenging stories in all of the Old Testament narrative. After Abraham and Sarah had brought their son Isaac into the world, at last experiencing the joyful fulfillment of God’s promise to them, God told Abraham to go and offer Isaac up to Him as a burnt offering. That is, He commanded Abraham to kill his son as an act of faithful devotion. You can find the full story in Genesis 22.
Scholars have debated for centuries exactly what we are to make of this story. And to date, there really aren’t any hard and fast conclusions that everyone agrees neatly resolves the entirely reasonable questions this story makes us ask. People argue that God was in the wrong, that Abraham was in the wrong, that Abraham misunderstood God, that God really did mean this, that God never really intended for Abraham to go through with it, that Abraham never really intended to go through with it, and so on and so forth. I really don’t want to get too much into the weeds of the story itself here. I did that at some length in a sermon a few years ago which you can read here. My conclusion then was that God was indeed testing Abraham’s faith, and that His challenge was to let Abraham prove he was more dedicated to his God than the Canaanites were to their own gods. He was making sure Abraham didn’t have any remaining crutches he might try to lean on instead of his faith in God.
What I want to explore with you for just a bit longer this morning is the fact that God was giving Abraham another test of his faith in spite of all he had been through to this point in his life. All of Abraham’s life – or at least the last 25 years of it – had been one long exercise in growing his faith. With the birth of Isaac, it was like he had finally arrived at the top of that particular mountain and was able to at last settle down in the valley of enjoying God’s blessings to him. Yet as soon as he came down through the clouds to once again see what was on the horizon, there was yet another hill to climb. And this one seemed even bigger than the last.
Do you know what the most elite athletes do when they finally achieve the absolute highest levels of success their sport has to offer? The best of them commit themselves to training even harder to get even better. They have to do this because once you claim that spot, you have a giant target on your back. Everyone in the world is working to take your place. You have to constantly hone and sharpen your skills so you can stay there. When Tiger Woods was indisputably the best golfer in the world, he spent a ton of money and time to completely rework his swing with a trainer so that he could be even better.
The life of faith is a little like that. When we start journeying after Jesus, we do so because we come to trust Him. But our trust only runs so deep. A hard moment comes along, and we manage to face it with our faith intact, and we feel great. We feel on top of the world, like our faith can really move mountains. Meanwhile, in the bigger picture, we are like a toddler who just kicked over a sandpile he made in his sandbox. The victory is huge for us, but tiny in comparison to the challenges we will yet face in life. God understands this too. If a kid just starting t-ball tried to get a hit off of someone like Justin Verlander, not only would he not do it, he would likely come away so discouraged he would never play baseball again. A beginner is not ready for expert-level challenges yet. You have to build your way to that place. Abraham had conquered some enormous hills of faith so far in his life, but he wasn’t all the way there yet. There was still more growing to do. His trust in God could still be deeper and richer than it already was. So, when he was ready, God gave him another challenge.
You may feel like you have great faith in Jesus, and that’s a good thing. If you have overcome some obstacles to faith and are still trusting, you should be proud of that. But I suspect there are yet places in your life where you are not yet completely yielded to Christ. I suspect there are places you don’t even know about. And you won’t know about them until you get challenged at those particular points. But those challenges can’t and won’t come until you’ve been through some lower-level hurdles between here and there. God understands all that, and so He will keep patiently working to bring you there, step by step.
There is always another hill to climb. And there will be until we are finally perfected in the image of Christ on the day of His return. So, when the challenges come – and they will come – don’t be discouraged. Just the opposite in fact. Be encouraged that God is investing in you. He recognizes that you are ready for more. He is helping you grow to become even more fully who He created you to be. Live into the challenges. Let them deepen your trust in Him. Become more fully reflective of the image of Jesus. It won’t always be easy (in fact, it usually won’t be), but it will always be good. And in the end, you’ll be glad you did.