Your Deepest Dream on the Altar

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“Once upon a time, something happened to someone and he decided that he would pursue a goal.  So he devised a plan of action.  And even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward, because there was a lot at stake.  And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson.  And when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously, he had to decide whether or not to take it.”

According to writing instructors Gary Provost and Peter Ruby, those words sum up the plot of 90% of the stories you’ve ever heard or read. 

It rings true to human experience:  We want something so very desperately.  It’s our deepest dream.  

But the day comes when we realize our deepest dream may not be the most important thing after all.  At that moment we have to bravely decide whether or not we will continue to hold on to it. 

That’s not just the most common plot of made-up stories.  It’s at the heart of many Bible stories, too – perhaps most dramatically in the account of Abraham.

In Genesis 12, Abraham hears the incredible news that he has been chosen by God.  He is going to be blessed.  Because of that blessing, he will end up blessing the whole world. 

In ancient times people measured their wealth according to two scales – family and property.  Children and land.  God offered both of these blessings to Abraham.  “Journey to Canaan,” he said, “and I will give you that land, and one day it will be filled with your descendants.”  Abraham is the beneficiary of this amazing Promise, guaranteed by an unconditional covenant of God’s love. 

There’s only one problem.  He’s got no kids.  And the biological clock is definitely beginning to wind down. 

But God provides.  When Abraham is 100 and Sarah his wife is 90, they become first-time parents. 

Sarah gives birth to a boy.  Abraham names him Isaac, which is Hebrew for “He laughs.”  Sarah declares, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”  Everybody laughs because Medicare pays the bill for the OB/GYN.  Everybody laughs because when Sarah goes to the grocery, she buys strained vegetables and diapers for every member of the family.

But then the laughter ends.   

A few years later, God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.’” 

Abraham has waited 25 years for the Promise of a son to be fulfilled.  Is God now going to sweep it all away?  Abraham has to wonder:  Is it worth obeying God when doing so seems to cost too much?

His response in Genesis 22:3 is remarkable: “Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey.  He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac.  When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.” 

Without hesitation, Abraham obeys.  This is radical faith.

Here we use the word “radical” not to imply behavior that puts us at the spiritual fringe, but a trust in God that comes from the “radix,” or the core of our being. 

This is not “faith” as a noun – that is, a conviction that God exists.  The majority of the world’s population embraces faith in that sense.  But comparatively few people regularly experience “faith” as a verb – entrusting our present and our future to God.  Can we obey God even when he asks us to surrender our deepest dream? 

It takes Abraham three days to reach his destination.  In verse five he says to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there.  We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Notice his expression of faith:  Then we will come back to you.

“Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife.”  It’s not safe for a young boy to carry the fire and the knife.  “As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, ‘Father?’  ‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied.  ‘The fire and the wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’” 

The child asks a childlike question.  Abraham responds with another expression of trust: “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”  

What follows is one of the most poignant silences in all of ancient literature:  “And the two of them went on together.” At this point Abraham is literally walking in faith. 

The story is told in a way that builds the suspense, right up to verse nine:  “When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.  He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.” 

This is it.  Unless something happens, the Promise is going to end with one slash.  The boy called “He laughs” is about to cause the greatest pain that Abraham has ever known.

Trusting God means there will be days in which you will have to take your most important dream and lay it on the altar.   

God may be asking you to give up your need to be in control.  Or how about your wallet?  Are you willing to put it on the altar?  How about your dream job?  Or your dream relationship?  Will you surrender your need to see your political perspectives triumph and your political opponents crushed?  Is there something that has become so important to you that it threatens to rule your life? 

Notice again God’s command in verse two.  Let’s imagine what Abraham might have been thinking: “Take your son [my what?], your only son [but wait, I’ve got that other son, Ishmael], Isaac [oh, you mean that son], whom you love [ouch]…”  This is the very first time the word “love” appears in the Bible.  God is saying, “Entrust your deepest love to my safe-keeping.”

The drama reaches its climax in verse twelve.  An angel sweeps into the picture and speaks to Abraham.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy.  Do not do anything to him.  Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” There is indeed a sacrifice that day.  God reveals a ram caught in a nearby thicket.  “So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide.” 

This text – dark, strange, disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful – is the Bible’s first mention of the rocky ridge called Moriah. 

The high ground where Abraham passes the ultimate test of faith goes by other names in God’s Word.  One day it will be called Mount Zion.  A city will be built here.  It will be called Jerusalem.

And two thousand years later, somewhere near this very place, there will be another remarkable drama played out between a Father and a Son.  This time, however, the Son will die – an act of surrender that will bless the whole world. 

When Abraham comes to the end of his life, the only part of the Promised Land he will own is a family burial plot.  And his only descendant (shared with Sarah) will be a boy named “He laughs.”   

But he will have passed on something priceless to the rest of humanity: the absolute assurance that God can be trusted.

Even when it would seem to cost our deepest dreams.