A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on June 26, 2011.

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13

Every now and then pastors run into parishioners who put them in their places, and rightfully so.  Pastor David Mosser is honest enough to write about one of those humbling moments in his ministry that occurred during his first visit with a 91-year old church member named Mrs. Gregory. 

“When entering (Mrs. Gregory’s house),”David Mosser writes, “she sat me down in the front room.   She made no attempt at conversation, and so I chatted away and listened to the rhythmic tick-tock of her hall clock.

 “Then, after thirty minutes of my talk and her silence, I stood to leave.  With authority she commanded me to sit—and so I did.  After a long time she then said, ‘All three of my adult children have died before me, and although my friends tell me long life is a blessing, I assure you preacher, it is a curse.  I don’t need to hear you jabber away.  I need you to sit here while in my mind I argue and fuss with God.’

“I replied, ‘Yes ma’am, I’ll sit.’  I sat as silently as old Calvin Coolidge.  No noise passed through my ears except that infernal clock.  Finally, she said, ‘It’s all right now.  You can say your little prayer and get along.’  She and I spent many long afternoons like that one.  She helped me understand her special burden.  She was a person who lived the fury of Psalm 13.”

            How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?

                        How long will you hide your face from me?

            How long must I bear pain in my soul,

                        And have sorrow in my heart all day long?…

            Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!

                        Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death.

These verses from Psalm 13 compose the prayer of the godforsaken.  Perhaps God was a close and intimate friend at one time.  No more.  God now seems light years away, utterly unconcerned about the pain and sorrow of life.

Many of us have a walked what one commentator called the “road of godforsakenness.”  We walk that road when we flunk out of school.  Or fail in our careers.  Or lose our jobs.  Or experience financial failure.  Or relapse in our addiction.  Or endure a disastrous divorce.  Or lose our health.  Or our spouse.  Or, God forbid, our child. 

Maybe we think only those who are weak in faith walk the godforsaken road. 

But no less than C.S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest apologist or defender of the Christian faith in the 20th century, wrote this after the death of his wife—“Where is God?…Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find?  A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.  After that, silence.”

The deafening silence of God is the hard gravel pavement of the road of godforsakenness.  And Mother Teresa, the paragon of humble servanthood in the 20th century, knew that pavement well.  In fact, millions of Mother Teresa admirers were shocked when her personal journals were made public after her death. 

These private writings speak of mystical visions and dramatic revelations in the early part of Teresa’s life.  But after the 1940s, a stark period of inner darkness began that stretched over the rest of her life, causing her at times to even doubt the existence of God.  As one Catholic observer says, “We now know that Mother Teresa’s life was not one long unbroken experience of bliss, with roses of consolation strewn along the way.”  Instead, she lived with a sense of “bewildering rejection and even complete abandonment,” as “her prayers were not heard and God remained silent.”   

Of course, if we really knew our bibles, we wouldn’t be so shocked about these high profile Christians walking the road of godforsakenness.  After all, no less than Abraham, the paragon of biblical faith, walked this same rocky road many hundreds of years ago.   

Remember, Abraham and his wife Sarah had waited a very long time to have a son.  Despite God’s promise that he would ultimately father many nations, Abraham and Sarah were childless for decades. 

Eventually Abraham and Sarah ran out of patience.  So Sarah actually encouraged Abraham to have a child with a servant woman named Hagar, and Hagar bore Abraham a son named Ishmael.  But then in a fit of jealousy Sarah banished Hagar and Ishmael to the wilderness, where they would have surely died without God’s invention. 

Meanwhile, miracle of miracles, when Abraham and Sarah had reached the combined age of 190, Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son named Isaac.  This was the son they had prayed for and longed for, and they loved Isaac more than life itself.

Then, the road turned rocky.

After these things God tested Abraham.  He said to him, “Abraham!”  And he said, “Here I am.”  He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

Say what?  Abraham and Sarah have waited patiently all these years to have a son who will in turn give birth to the nation of Israel and many other nations as well, and God wants to use him as a burnt offering on the top of Mt.  Moriah?!  What kind of lunacy is this?  And just how cruel can God get? 

Only four chapters earlier, when God announced he was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and all their sinful, sorry inhabitants, Abraham pitched a fit and did his best to talk God out of such an outlandish proposal, winning a temporary reprieve for people he didn’t even know.  That’s what make Abraham’s reaction to God’s command that he sacrifice his own son so unexpected.

Abraham didn’t register any recorded verbal response.  Instead, Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, gathered some fire wood, two assistants, and his son, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.  Indeed, one commentator says rather bluntly that Abraham attended to the details of his grim duty “with the speechless concentration of a sleepwalker.”    

Now frankly, if I heard God command me to sacrifice my son Kevin (a fifth year college student), I would have said, “Could you at least let the boy graduate?”  Actually, if God wanted any of my children on the chopping block, I would delay action as long as possible.  I would hem and haw, and beg and plead with God for their lives.  Not Abraham.  He moved quickly without a single word and started down that godforsaken road. 

Could Abraham’s quick response be explained by the fact that he knew what God was up to?  We know Abraham was undergoing a test, but Abraham doesn’t.  Honestly, the scripture doesn’t tell us what Abraham is thinking, so all we can do is speculate.  Many commentators brag on Abraham and say he didn’t break a sweat about any of this because he was a man of unshakeable faith.  Some say Abraham was relatively relaxed as he prepared to murder his only begotten son, because in the words of Hebrews 11:19, Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead. 

But I beg to differ because if Abraham had known how this dramatic episode would end, his trip to Mt. Moriah wouldn’t have been much of a test.  Even if Abraham knew God could raise the dead, he didn’t know that he would!  I’m guessing that Abraham was dying a thousand deaths over that three day journey with his son to Mt. Moriah.

Notice that as Abraham made his trip down this road of godforsakeness God didn’t utter a word.  Abraham and Isaac spent three days traveling in absolute silence.  But Abraham kept walking down that dark road, even though he didn’t understand.  

Some might define people of great faith as those who never have doubts, not a hint of uncertainty.  That’s not my definition.  I define people of great faith as those who have doubts galore, but have just enough faith to keep on keeping on even when they don’t understand what God is up to.  

Abraham was one of those people.  I don’t think his faith was like the Rock of Gibraltar when he asked Isaac to carry the very wood that would fuel the fire that would  consume his son.  I don’t think Abraham’s heart was full of cheerful thoughts and glib platitudes as he was tying his son to a rock slab so he could stab him through the heart with a knife. 

            I think Abraham might have been praying a prayer that sounded like Psalm 13.

              How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?

                        How long will you hide your face from me?

            How long must I bear pain in my soul,

                        And have sorrow in my heart all day long?…

            Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!

                        Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death.

Martin Luther was no slouch when it came to faith.  He had a muscular faith that moved mountains and gave birth to the Protestant reformation.  But when Luther, who struggled with occasional bouts of depression, wrote a commentary about Psalm 13, he said something that I suspect was at once true theologically and personally.  He said Psalm 13 reflects a “state in which hope despairs, and yet despair hopes at the same time.”

Most Christ-followers have days when life is good, faith is easy, and God is clearly present in their lives.  But that’s not the only reality for God’s children.  There are other days when life is hard, faith is in short supply, and God seems absent. And yet, something inside our despair keeps our hope alive.

And that’s how you explain an Abraham.  Abraham’s heart wasn’t singing with praise as he made that three day journey to Mount Moriah.  His heart was brewing with a muddy mixture of faith and doubt, love and heartache, hope and despair.  What kept Abraham walking down that wretched road with a child he loved so much was his childlike trust in God.  Beneath the quivering layers of doubt and fear in Abraham’s soul was a deep and abiding trust in God that was willing to keep walking not only in the absence of any good answers to his questions, in the absence of God himself.

Fortunately, God saves the day when at the last second he prevents Abraham from taking the life of his own son.  God provides a ram instead, satisfied now that his designated Father of many nations has passed the faith test with flying colors. 

Of course, centuries later God will put another father to the same test, namely himself.  God so loved the world that he sent his only son, the son he loved more than life itself, into the world and therefore into harm’s way.  That son named Jesus would walk a road that would lead up to the highest mountaintops and down into the deepest valleys any human being has walked.

And it would culminate with a pathway of sorrow that today we call the “Via Dolorosa,” or the “Way of Suffering.”  Like Isaac before him Jesus would be asked to carry the very wood that would be used to kill him.  Like Abraham, Jesus would feel utterly abandoned by God.  No doubt Jesus prayed Psalm 13 as he hung on that cross.  And he added these famous words from Psalm 22 when he cried, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (v.1) 

But here’s where the parallels end.  There was no last minute reprieve for Jesus, no ram to take his place.  The hand holding the hammer and nails came down hard on Jesus, and he died that day on the cross.

But Jesus didn’t die alone, not really.  God was with him.  In fact, God was in him in a way we can never fully understand. 

The same Jesus who had walked on water could have avoided or even escaped this cross.  But what kept him there was his love for us and abiding his trust in God that knew no bounds. 

If you are on easy street today as a Christ-follower, then more power to you!  But if you are walking the road of godforsakenness, then be not dismayed.  For many have walked on that road before you, including your Lord.  And no matter how grim life looks, you can trust that Lord who has walked that road and who will never, no never forsake you. 


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