If you’re like me, you struggle with priorities. What comes first, what’s most important? Where do I invest my time and energy? On what do I spend my money? And when things conflict for my time and energy and money what wins? How do I decide? What are my criteria? How do I filter all the demands on me?
We think this is a symptom of the high paced, too busy modern lifestyle that we all live. All of the activities with which we fill our lives, all of the hours in the day that are packed full. And it’s all good stuff. None of us are busy with unimportant stuff.
But managing priorities isn’t just a modern day problem – it may be more complicated – but priorities is as old as Abraham himself.
Let’s back up for a moment and feel the joy and celebrate the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah – he is 100 and she is 90. They have waited for this for 25 years, ever since God first promised them they would have a son and that he would be the beginning of their descendants that would be more numerous than the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Isaac is the son of the promise – Genesis calls him their “only begotten son” (if that phrase suggests anything to you).
A few years pass and Isaac grows strong and healthy – he is a teenager and he is the apple of Abraham’s eye. And I don’t have to tell you dads or moms how much they both loved him and watched with pride as he grew into a god-loving young man.
But one day, God shows up on Abraham’s front door (again). And God has a job for Abraham. And you’re not going to like this – anymore than Abraham did. Then God said, “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.” (Gen. 22:2)
I’ve probably read this story a hundred times, and every time I read it I still think, “Really? Was that necessary?” I still struggle with God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son. And if I struggle with it, I can only imagine how Abraham must have felt.
But Abraham doesn’t hesitate. Genesis 22:3 says, 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.
The Hebrews writer lets us in on Abraham’s thought process: By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead… (spoiler alert) and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”
Abraham and Isaac head up the mountain alone. They have wood and fire and a knife. Isaac says, “Dad, what about the offering?” And Abraham must have choked back tears as he said, “God himself will provide.” So up they go to the top of the mountain where they prepare the altar and the wood and then Abraham bound the hands of Isaac and laid him on the altar. (And if you’re thinking 117 year old Abraham overpowered 17 year old Isaac, you’ve missed something there. Only with Isaac’s permission and cooperation was Abraham going to get Isaac on that altar – which tells me that Isaac’s faith was just as amazing as Abraham’s).
And now Abraham raises the knife to plunge it into Isaac’s chest and destroy his dream and devastate Sarah and live the rest of his life in grief and guilt. And… well, you know the story: God stops Abraham’s hand and says “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.”
And then a second time, the Lord says, “I swear by myself, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” (Gen. 22:16-17)
Okay, so I didn’t tell you anything you didn’t know. You’ve read the story and heard the story countless times. What do you do with it?
Well, let’s be honest. Some read that story and think it’s the most ridiculous thing they’ve ever heard – God waits 25 years to give them a son, he gives them a son and then tells Abraham to kill him. And the very idea of asking Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice! What kind of a god does that anyway? And the story becomes another reason to dismiss God. Human sacrifice – well I never!
But underneath the story lies the very heart of Abraham’s relationship with God. It will be several hundred years later that God will give his commandments to the people on Sinai and the first will be: “You shall have no other gods before me.” But it was already deeply implanted in the heart of Abraham.
Now, we’re not talking about pagan idolatry. Abraham had left that behind long ago. Yahweh was the only God Abraham worshiped and served. But gods come in many forms.
Remember Paul’s words in Romans 1 about those who “worship and serve the creature instead of the Creator”? Imagine how you would feel when you had waited 25 years for a son that God had promised. Finally you had this son – you named him Isaac, because he made you laugh with joy that you could be a parent. On top of that, God had promised that this son was going to be the beginning of a legacy of generations of God’s people. How important would this son be to you? Beyond anything else you could even imagine. More important than God? That’s not a fair question. Isn’t it? Isn’t that question at the very heart of that commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Isn’t that the very definition of a god? Something, someone that you hold more important than anything or anyone else – even God.
That’s what Jesus would challenge his followers with two thousand years later: “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Mt. 10:37) In Luke14 , he puts it even more harshly: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
And no, Jesus is not demanding that we hate our family. What he is demanding is that our love and our loyalty place him at the highest place in our lives. Anything that challenges that place of priority is by very definition our god. It reminded me of a letter written by C.S. Lewis - "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 toward 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."
God had to know that about Abraham – was Isaac so important to him that he had taken over first place in his heart? And so he tests him: “Take your son , your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and sacrifice him…”
God would know from Abraham’s reaction and his obedience what Abraham held as most important. And when God saw Abraham’s obedience and his faith, he rejoiced because he knew that he had Abraham’s heart. He didn’t take his son from him – he gave him his son – twice – once at birth and again on Mt. Moriah.
I’m glad we live this side of the cross and don’t struggle with priorities and putting God first in our lives. Well, maybe you don’t, but I do. Understand it’s not that I struggle with loving God, but – do I love him most? – now that’s the hard question.
On the chance that you might struggle with the same thing I struggle with, I thought we could wrestle with this one together.
We can talk dispassionately and academically about priorities – that’s scheduling and time management. We can go to seminars, buy a day-timer, get more organized, get an alarm clock if need be. But this isn’t a discussion about priorities, but the heart. Who does your heart belong to, and what is most important in your life? And that’s not a question anybody can answer but you.
I know you say you love God, but when push comes to shove, who wins? When conflicts come with where you’re going to be and what you’re going to do, which way do you choose?
Let’s be real obvious here and ask ourselves about where we’re going to be on Sunday morning. That’s not to say, in a legalistic way, if you aren’t in church on Sunday you don’t love God, but what wins when something else competes? What comes first in your priorities? And I’m not going to try and name all the things that might compete for your Sunday mornings, but what in your list comes second to being at church to worship the Lord? Maybe a more accurate question might be, what doesn’t come first in front of being at church? How many of those things, when they come up, have you said to yourself – I can’t do that, I can’t be there – I’m going to be at church worshiping the Lord.
And understand, this isn’t a sermon on church attendance, this is a sermon on who has your heart. That was what God wanted to know about Abraham, and that’s the same thing God wants to know about you. Who has first place in your life? How do you live that out in the way you spend your time, your energy, your money, your life?
You see, not being at church isn’t a matter of being too busy any more than not giving to the Lord is a matter of how much money you have. They are both a matter of the heart. And I know – you’re thinking – “now you’re judging me on how often I come to church and how much money I give.” And I want you to know absolutely, I am not. I don’t know how much any of you give (I don’t want to know) and we don’t keep attendance records. This isn’t about numbers and percentages – this is about what place God holds in your heart – what are you withholding from him? And all that is between you and God.
The truth is, it would be a lot easier if it were just a matter of showing up and writing a check. I used to love the classes in school where the teacher gave you a syllabus that told you how much work for a C, a B, an A. And you decided what grade you wanted and did the work. So much work for so much pay. Legalism, pure and simple. You want into heaven? Here’s how often you have to come to church, how much money you have to give – legalism, pure and simple. But that’s not how God works.
We see an amazing example of that in some folks that Paul bragged about to the Corinthian church. Judea was having a famine, and during Paul’s third missionary journey, he took up a collection from churches in Asia Minor, Greece and Macedonia to help out their brothers and sisters back in Jerusalem. In fact, Paul was quite the fundraiser and didn’t mind telling people – you have an obligation to give. But the churches in Macedonia – they were worse off than Jerusalem – Paul described it as “extreme poverty” and he told them – you don’t need to give, you have needs of your own. But they wouldn’t hear of it – they begged him for the opportunity to help out others in need. And so Paul writes: And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will. (2 Cor. 8:1-5)
Paul says, that’s what makes all the difference. They had already given themselves to the Lord – he had their hearts. And so, what they gave monetarily was simply a reflection of that. God wants your heart – and when you look honestly into your heart – does God really have first place? You can’t answer that question with numbers and statistics.
But it’s a question that needs to be asked and answered – that’s why God showed up at Abraham’s front door and told him to sacrifice his only son. He had to know – “What place do I hold in your heart, Abraham?” And Abraham’s faith in God showed him that there was nothing, absolutely nothing that was more important than God. He withheld nothing from him – not even that which was most precious.
How can God ask that of a person? How could he put a person in that kind of situation – asking him to choose between his son and God? It seems so unfair. And it would be, if God hadn’t put himself in that same situation – of having to choose between his son and us. When God sent his son, it was a choice between us and his son. And in familiar words, Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…”
God did not withhold even his most precious son, if it meant losing us forever. He sent his son, knowing what he would go through: the suffering, the humiliation, the crucifixion, the death, but also knowing that if he didn’t we would forever be lost in hell. And so God sacrificed his son, his only son, for us because of his deep love for us.
And if God was willing to do that for you, if he withheld nothing for your salvation, what are you withholding from him? If God were to show up at your front door this morning and ask you to sacrifice whatever it is that is taking over his place in your heart, would you be willing, would you be able to do it?
Because he has.
Illustration – Paul Asiedu – Time for God (Ron Carlson, Comatose Christianity, pp.45-47)