Mountain to Mountain: Mount Moriah to Mount Zion
Topic: Biblical Verse: Genesis 22:1–22:18
Midweek Lenten Worship
February 28, 2018
Genesis 22:1-18; John 3:16
“Mountain to Mountain: Mount Moriah to Mount Zion”
Our Lenten journey tonight takes us from one mountain to another, but in truth, they are actually the same mountain, though called by different names: Mount Moriah and Mount Zion. The land of Moriah (Genesis 22:2) is that mountainous region in central Israel between the western coast by the Mediterranean Sea and the eastern boundary of the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea. It was here, on a particular mountain top, on what came to be called first Mount Moriah and later Mount Zion, that Abraham was called by God to do the unthinkable and sacrifice the life of his son, Isaac. It goes without saying that God’s command to Abraham seems very out of sync with what we know of God’s character; that the Lord God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13), as we sing during this Lenten season. How do we reconcile God who is the Author and Giver of life with God who now calls upon Abraham to take the life of his own son? Over the years I have heard more than one person say, “I just cannot believe that God would do this. I am not sure this is real or true.” Let’s see if we can delve deeper into this and in faith listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches in our Lenten series, “Return from Exile.” The theme for tonight’s message is “Mountain to Mountain: Mount Moriah to Mount Zion.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
A picture is worth a thousand words, so let’s see how the artist, Rembrandt (1606-1669), depicted the sacrifice of Isaac. The first work on the left is a painting by Rembrandt in 1635, when he was 29 years old and beginning his career. It is now located in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Note the color, high drama, and outward action embodied in his painting. Compare this with the etching on the right, also by Rembrandt but done twenty years later in 1655. It is now located in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It lacks the color, high drama, and outward action of the earlier painting, but it is more mature and carries with it a deeper level of understanding and feeling. In the painting, it is clear that Abraham sees and is responding to the angel of the Lord, but in the etching, it seems as though Abraham is relying not on what he can see, but on what he hears as the angel of the Lord speaks to him. We should bear in mind that nowhere in this account are we told that Abraham actually ever saw the angel of the Lord. What we are told, not once but twice, is this: “… the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven…” (Genesis 22:11, 15). In his etching, his later rendering of this account, Rembrandt captured this hearing as Abraham heard and responded to the angel of the Lord who called to him.
God called Abraham to do the unimaginable. Can we fathom what he must have endured in that long journey toward Mount Moriah? What awful, gut-wrenching emotions he must have experienced? But why? Why did God ask Abraham to do this? We are told why in the first verse of the lesson: “After these things God tested Abraham…” (Genesis 22:1). A test is administered to see what a learner knows; how much he or she has mastered. God had already made a covenant of divine commitment with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), but now faith in the God of that covenant was being tested. Testing is not the same as temptation. A test is intended to strengthen and build up, whereas temptation is intended to undermine and destroy. God’s intent was never to undermine Abraham’s faith in him or to destroy life. God’s intent was to test Abraham’s obedience in following him, even to the point of sacrificing what was most near and dear to him. The truth is that the Lord God may do the same for us today: testing our faith in him and our obedience in following his commands.
There are indicators in this story that point us ahead to another sacrifice: “On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes…” (Genesis 22:4); “And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son” (Genesis 22:6); “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:8). The third day, the wood for the sacrifice which the son carried, the lamb for the offering – all of these point us ahead to a sacrifice that was not averted. They point us ahead to another only Son who also carried the wood for the sacrifice on his own back. He became that sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), and who after offering his own body as the sacrifice, would rise from death and the grave on the third day. The whole of Scripture can be reduced to that one familiar and beloved verse: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). This is the Gospel in a nutshell, so called because the entire message of Old and New Testaments can be encapsulated in this one brief verse.
The painting here is also by Rembrandt, completed in 1631 when he was only 25 years old. It is “little known because it hangs in a parish church in a small French town and was only re-discovered in the 1950s... Not until 2009 did two art historians… note in a book on Rembrandt’s faith that Christ’s contorted face resembles the artist himself in an engraving, Self Portrait with an Open Mouth, made the year before ” (http://www.everypainterpaintshimself.com/article/rembrandts_crucifixion_1631/). Mount Moriah, where Abraham was called upon to offer the life of his own son, is identified with Mount Zion, the temple mount in Jerusalem where sacrifice upon sacrifice was offered daily according to the Law of Moses (Leviticus 1-7). But the sacrifice of Jesus, God’s own Son, took place not on Mount Moriah/Mount Zion, but on another mountain outside the city walls of Jerusalem, Mount Calvary. No angel of the Lord stopped this sacrifice as the sinless Son of God poured out his blood and offered his life as payment for our sins. This is where our return from exile begins: with what God in Christ has done for us. “For by a single offering he [Jesus] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14).
May our Lenten journey help us to keep our eyes fixed on “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, scorning the shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Amen.