One cannot follow Jesus without sacrifice. That seems clear since the one we follow embraced sacrifice and to follow him necessarily means following this embrace. Sacrifice stands at the heart of discipleship. Jesus’ call was: if any would follow, they must deny self (sacrifice), take up cross (sacrifice) and follow—which in this case meant going to Jerusalem where sacrifice awaited him.
Sacrifice also stands at the heart of mission. In fact, there is only one mission—Jesus’ mission to and in the world to reclaim, redeem, restore and recreate the world. Jesus’ sacrifice makes the mission accomplishable. Our sacrifice provides entree into Jesus’ ongoing mission. Our following Jesus in his way of sacrifice allows missional participation, participation in the mission and in its accomplishment.
Jesus’ sacrifice was foreshadowed by an early but powerful episode in the larger story of God’s way with God’s world. I refer to God’s test of Abraham’s faith (see Genesis 22). God directed Abraham to take, “Your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love … and sacrifice him as a burnt offering … “ (Gen. 22:2). God not only commanded the sacrifice but issued the command in a way that highlighted its supreme character and its scandalous cost to Abraham—his only, dearly loved son, for whom Abraham had waited excruciatingly long years and upon whom God’s plan, not Abraham’s so much as God’s, entirely depended.
If you’re reading this it’s a safe bet you know the story. Incredibly Abraham obeys. He doesn’t tell his wife—smart man. He simply does what his God told him to do. And the story reads as though Abraham would have finished his obedience, which would also have finished his son! Then, at the last second, God restrains the downward plunge of the knife, saving the only, much loved son and providing an animal substitute.
Twenty-first century readers are shocked by this episode, even those entirely at home in church. How could God command this? And how could Abraham obey? And, how could this story have any claim on us today? Here are some reflections on the powerful claims I think this primitive story makes on us.
First, we need to get over our arrogant, modern pretensions that so easily imagine a great difference between now and then. The world God loves and seeks to recreate through Jesus is, in fact, a horribly brutal world where human sacrifice regularly occurs, today as much as yesterday, though perhaps in less gory ways. In Abraham’s world the extreme sacrifice of one’s child was not uncommon. In our world there are countless ways in which people sacrifice their own or other’s children for the sake of some value regarded as supreme. Think of abortion or of social and political structures that just barely sustain little ones in grinding poverty. Think about children neglected and abused sacrificed on various altars of self. Think of the professional who spends his whole life pursuing a career to the utter neglect of his children.
Second, God addresses the world in terms it can understand and in ways that offer the best chance of understanding. If Abraham’s God does not require and in fact abhors the practice of human sacrifice, how would such an unusual, foreign—holy—God reveal this? Against the backdrop of such a question, God’s command to Abraham morphs into something different than we first thought.
Third, God’s test of Abraham’s faithful obedience in this extreme way climaxes a long interaction between them. As in any journey of faith there had been ups and downs—remarkable obedience and failures. Step by step God grows a person of faith—of steadfast reliance upon God’s own word and provision. At each point along the way, the interaction—God’s word and Abraham’s response—is appropriate for that point.
Fourth, God determines to work blessing for the whole world through Abraham and Abraham’s family (see Gen. 12:1-3), itself an incredible and perhaps unlikely possibility. Who is Abraham and how could he become a source of universal blessing? And, even if Abraham proves remarkable in his own right, still universal blessing sounds a bit ambitious doesn’t it? Who could resource this blessing? Indeed, who but God? God’s plan requires God. Apart from God, from what only God can do, how could we trust and act on world-renewing blessing? So, God works his plan in a way that leaves no one in doubt. Abraham will have children, though most of his life no children came. Even so, there will be children, but not by emergency measures of human making, getting another woman. Abraham will have children, even though all reasonable human hopes for children have faded. Even in old age! What is old to God? Isaac comes—nothing is too hard, nothing really impossible, Abraham and Sarah can now say with a laugh.
Fifth, the blessing God brings overcomes all realities that on human-reckoning suggest that hope is folly. Even the reality of death would not, could not, thwart this hope. If obedience really leads to the death of hope, God could conquer that death and resurrect that hope!
Sixth, that the plan of God is God’s, that Abraham knows this and trusts precisely this One—requires trust in God, his goodness, his power, his promise that God will keep. The plan rests upon God, not on any of God’s gifts, not even his most precious gift of this boy that had caused his folks to laugh.
Therefore, seventh, the testing and sacrifice of Abraham vindicates not only Abraham but also the God whose plan works powerfully through Abraham’s obedience. Abraham understands and trusts that this is God’s plan and it will work only God’s way. And what of God’s way? The testing reveals that this God is unlike all the other gods of this world. He does not accept such human sacrifices. He stands utterly opposed to this practice. At no time was Isaac in any real danger of losing his physical life. Either Abraham would seek to save his son and preserve his destiny or God would give Abraham his son again and work his plan. Abraham would try to do it himself and fail, or Abraham would trust God who doesn’t fail.
What of this God’s way? We now know that God did what he would not allow another to do. God gave his son which, in the mystery of Trinity, was actually God giving Self in sacrifice. Again, this is something that would seem impossible. Yet, in the course of this ongoing story, nothing shall be called impossible; nothing will prove too hard for this God.
To follow Jesus requires sacrifice, but whose sacrifice is it really? He sacrificed self and calls us to join him, and in the end, really the new beginning, death dies, hope rises, and then … LIFE!