By Ken Read
Many of us have spent our lives looking for the ultimate worship experience. We seek the presence of God, longing to see, touch, feel, or in some way sense his nearness. We need God’s love and acceptance, and cry out for intimacy. We want to be friends with the Almighty.
Can there be intimacy without sacrifice? Apparently not. Adam walked in unhindered fellowship with God, but since the fall, a restored relationship with a holy God has required sacrifice. Abel offered an animal, Moses threw down his staff, Aaron washed before entering the tabernacle, David paid for the threshing floor, and Jesus surrendered his will to the Father’s.
John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus the Christ, just as surely as the Old Testament Law precedes the New Testament Gospel, winter gives way to spring, and Lent leads into Easter. First, we repent, and then seasons of refreshing come (Acts 3:19).
Abraham and Laughter Boy
Abraham, the father of our faith, provides an example of the path to intimacy with the Lord. His is a strange story, but it makes perfect sense to God. After an impossibly long wait, God gives a promise that makes Abraham laugh. He is to have a son, and God tells him to name him Laughter Boy. A year later, Isaac is born!
God watched as the old man’s heart skipped a beat at his birth, and he heard Abraham’s laughter when he first held his newborn son. Father and son laughed through infancy, cherishing every new smile and every new word. “Did you hear that? He said, ‘Abba!’” Abraham laughed at Isaac’s first step, and all the way through toddlerhood.
I’m sure he was overprotective, doting over the boy at every childhood injury or cold. I imagine that well-meaning friends said, “Isaac, now that you are turning 5 years old, don’t you look forward to riding the bus to school this fall?” Well, Abraham walked Isaac to kindergarten that first day, and then just couldn’t let go of his little boy’s hand. He said, “Thanks a lot. Sorry. I think we will homeschool.” And he turned around and laughed all the way back home.
This was his only begotten son, and there certainly would be no more. Not at his age. The oldest man in the county, and he’s out there, laughing while he plays basketball in the backyard with his son. He shows his boy how to care for a sick lamb and how to run the family business that he will inherit.
God watched while Sarah called them to dinner, Abraham and Laughter Boy. Isaac is getting so tall, she notices, and now he’s the one reaching out to steady his father as they walk over the rough spots.
The Lord has watched all of this with pleasure, but the Lord knows what has happened in the heart of Abraham. This is Abraham, who without question was willing to leave his father’s household to follow God. He showed that he loved God more than his own family back then. What choice would he make now? Has he left his father’s idols and been granted a promise, only to have that very promise become an idol itself?
The Ultimate Worship Experience: Sacrifice
The Lord calls Abraham to the ultimate worship experience. He has sacrificed animals before, but this time God calls for Abraham to give his son—and notice how God words it: his only son, named Isaac, whom he loves. The Lord is very specific in pinpointing the difficulty of this sacrifice. Isaac is the one thing in the world that he would not, could not, give up. It seems to destroy the promise, more surely than Ishmael would have fulfilled it.
Abraham is the father of our faith because, without question or argument, he follows the Lord’s call. He was willing to lose the son of his laughter and the nation that he represented, all because God said it.
He leaves early in the morning (before he can change his mind), and he doesn’t bring an animal (there’s no backup plan on Abraham’s part). He only brings his son, whom he loves.
Laughter Boy, his old father, and a servant walk in silence. But inside Abraham’s head, plenty of conversation is taking place. Are you sure you want this, Lord? This is just a test, right? Maybe you meant something else, and I wasn’t hearing you right. You spoke to me clearly yesterday, but I don’t hear you today. Is there anything you’d like to say now, Lord? Because if there is, this would be a very good time for you to speak.
He goes on up alone with Isaac and the torch and the wood. Isaac asks his only question: “Where is the sacrifice?” And Abraham, against all hope, speaks by faith: “God will provide the sacrifice, my son.”
The two build an altar and arrange the wood in silence, but the inner argument continues between Abraham and his God.
God, I’m not sure this is fair. After all, you are God. You don’t know what it’s like to . . . to lose your only begotten son, to knowingly bind him up and place him on an altar and to have to kill your own self. This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. You don’t know what you are asking! Is the plan to bring him back from the dead? Is that what you will do, Lord? . . . Why don’t you speak? You are so silent, and I am so frightened! My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
He takes out the knife, and holds it aloft, to kill the boy as swiftly and painlessly as possible. He covers his son’s confused and trusting eyes. Tears are streaming down his contorted face. OK, let’s finish this.
Then (and not a moment sooner or later) an angel cries out from Heaven. “Abraham! Abraham!” In the greatest understatement of the Bible, Abraham says, “I’m listening!” And God does, in fact, spare Isaac, does bring him back from the dead, and provides a ram in Isaac’s place.
And now God—and Abraham—know that Abraham truly fears the Lord and would give him everything.
Giving Up Idols
The story of Abraham and of others is recounted in Hebrews. In chapter 12, the writer concludes the stories: “Therefore, . . . let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Imagine trying to run in a tunic, or trying to get traction with leather straps wrapped around your feet. All of that encumbered an athlete. So the writer says, “Throw it off! Set it aside! Give it up! Get rid of it!” It slows you down.
We can’t run a heavenly race while carrying an earthly idol. An idol is anything that we love more than we love God. The ultimate act of worship is to sacrifice what we love the most on this earth to the One we love even more. After all, we can’t be born again until we die.
Paul commended the Thessalonians because they turned to God from idols, to serve the living God. Jesus said we cannot serve two masters. The first commandment is to have no other gods before the Lord. Sacrifice is the only path to true worship, and surrender is the ultimate worship experience.
Jesus said the Father is seeking those who will worship him in spirit and in truth. He said we are to take up our cross daily and follow him. The hymnwriter has worded it for us: “All to Jesus I surrender! All to him I freely give.”
After all, God knows the cost of restored fellowship. He has already paid it in full.
Ken Read is professor of music and worship at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.