What Abraham Saw
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Passion Sunday, March 26, 2023
“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”
IT WAS ALWAYS in Jerusalem where Jesus caught the bitterest words from detractors. They’d just brought the woman caught in adultery, and His mercy saved her. A debate started. Some believed in Him. So “He said to them, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’” Was the crowd interested in truth? They never heard the word. They heard “make you free” and began a fight. “We’re Abraham's seed, never slaves to anyone. How can you say, ‘We will be made free’?” John 8:31-34
Thus begins the argument which culminates in our Gospel today. They accuse Him of being a demon-possessed Samaritan. He tells them their father is not Abraham but Satan, for they are like Satan. It gets worse. Jesus says He will beat death. They are offended in this, saying Abraham died: so, does Jesus think He is better than Abraham? Jesus replies: Abraham saw my day, and was glad. “You’re not yet fifty, and You’ve seen Abraham?” “This is absolutely true,” Jesus said, “that before Abraham was, I AM.” For that, they found stones to kill Him.
Abraham saw Jesus’ day, two millennia before Christ walked on earth. I wonder, in fact, what Abraham saw. We have the record of Genesis that details the life of the man we call The Father of Faith. What did he really see?
We know that a man named Abram walked out of the river delta of the Tigress and Euphrates, around the fertile crescent to Syria, where his father settled their family. Their religion was idol worship. His son Abram had married a half-sister, Sarai. Yet he didn’t care for the fetishes and sacrifices of the local, handmade gods.
Then one day he heard a Voice. “Get out of this country, away from your father's house, To a land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” It had to be a clear and realistic encounter, for Abram would follow that Voice all the days remaining to him. He packed his wife and servants, flocks and possessions, with a cousin named Lot, and went south. He was 75 years old. Gen 12:1-4
In Canaan the Voice spoke again, saying, “To your descendants I will give this land.” 12:7 Abram was childless; Sarai was barren, and the Voice kept telling him about descendants. He objected, but his Voice told him that “one who will come from your own body shall be your heir… Look now toward heaven, and count the stars… So shall your descendants be.” Notice this: “He believed in the Lord, and God accounted it to him for righteousness.” 15:1-6
It’s one thing to hear a voice, to see a vision, to do some religious act. It’s quite another to believe in the Lord. He could easily settle for his wealth, his servants, his much-loved wife, to grow happily old and die. But God pressed him to desire another outcome, to work for it, to rest his weight on these promises. His descendants would be numerous and would own this land where he was now a guest and stranger. He believed, and God called him perfect. His faith took all guilt in him away.
Faith opens our eyes. Faith precedes vision. Scriptures tell us we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor 5:7) and truly our spiritual life is faith-guided. Our physical eyes can’t see deep truths, they’re easily distracted. But when we see by faith, our eyes will discern more. God may grant us vision we never possessed. Abram was given a new name and God fulfilled His promises.
He was 99 years of age and his eyes saw God, who declared: “I am Almighty God; be blameless. I will make My covenant between Me and you.” Gen 17:1 God gave him the name Abraham; his wife now Sarah. A covenant held promises and signs, and a son was promised to Sarah, with the name Isaac. It meant laughter, for who wouldn’t laugh at such an ancient couple with a newborn baby?
God appeared again, like a man with two traveling companions. But Abraham knew his Lord, and set out a meal. The promises were repeated. Sarah laughed, and the Lord teased her. Abraham saw God, ate and talked with Him and even bartered with Him for the lives of his cousin’s family. Gen 18
Abraham saw God once more. His son Isaac had been born, and was now 14. God knew the old man loved him, and had to prove who was more important to Abraham: Isaac or God? “Sacrifice Isaac to me on Moriah.” Gen 22 No one ever wants this level of testing, but the man knew that God would fulfill the promises, even yet. They went to Moriah. The account is familiar, and Isaac lay on the altar, bound. God’s angel stopped it, “Now I know that you fear God, since you’ve not withheld your only son from Me.” A ram was sacrificed in Isaac’s place and God strengthened the promise. “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” 22:18 That Voice.
Abraham saw my day and was glad. Where did that happen? St. Paul wrote, “to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, And to seeds, as of many, but as of one, And to your Seed, who is Christ.” Gal 3:16 God’s voice, through an angel, told of a single descendant of Abraham who would bless every family on earth. Abraham was looking at a young ram, crackling and smoking on the fire. The Lamb of God, who takes the place of my son. A son to be a sacrifice for all mankind, every race, every nation, everyone. Not an animal. My descendant. Because God spared Isaac, who I was barely willing to give up, He will make that exchange and let His own Son die, here… in order to save our world.
Hebrews calls Christ a high priest, whose sacrifice is Himself, His own blood, but offered in a better temple than man may build. His blood more sacred, far more powerful than that of bulls and goats, sanctifies our entire race. Abraham caught sight of that on Mount Moriah, in a place visible from the very hill upon which his descendant Jesus would be crucified. Future flash. 2,000 years bridged by faith, not sight.
Abraham saw my day and was glad. From Abraham’s faith come the world’s three greatest religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Half the planet’s population of 7.9 billion are of these three traditions of faith in One God. The Jews comprise a quarter of a percent, descendants of Abraham by blood and faith. We differ with Jews and Moslems over the fact of Jesus, the promised Seed of Abraham. By Him, Abraham has spiritual children that span the globe today, thus he’s not a person we may disregard. His faith was amazing. It opened his eyes to the spirit in ways we would call miraculous. It was fitting for the Jews to celebrate their descent from such a man, but in claiming genetic descent they failed to recognize the central issue of the old man’s faith. He believed in God and he believed in God’s promise for the whole world. He believed that one was coming in his line to offer Himself and save the lives of every human being. He believed in the Lamb of God.
The detractors of Jesus had their focus on the wrong place. They were children of Abraham, Jews, Hebrews, specially chosen people, a blessed race. Surely, they were and still are. John the Baptist came with strong words for those who relied on this status, however, crying, “Do not think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones!” Matt 3:9 Children of Abraham are any who share the faith of Abraham, be they Hebrews or Persians or Africans or Norwegians.
Jesus made that kind of argument in Jerusalem when He called his opposers ‘children of the devil,’ for they did the devil’s work. They claimed Abraham. But He said, “If you were Abraham's children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you want to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth. Abraham didn’t do this... You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning.” John 8:38-45
I’m sorry to say, these people did in fact murder Jesus. He came for that, knew it beforehand, but it’s still the saddest story ever, that the actual children of Abraham would falsely accuse and then murder the very seed of Abraham come from heaven to save them and all the world.
Yet Abraham saw this day, not in all its detail, not in the horror of knowing out of pride, envy and even in his own name they would do this atrocity, but he saw the outcome, the fruit of this day, this contest between good and evil. He saw the salvation of all mankind. And the old man was glad.
Have you seen God? We may seek a celestial vision, a blinding light to knock us off our horse, the skies opening with armies of angels. It doesn’t need to be so. Abraham never saw such things. He heard a Voice, saw a man, felt an angel, knew the Lord, had a son, and he believed. His greatest sight was within his spirit. He could have discounted the vision, rethought it and convinced himself it was really just three travelers, just a dream, just normal life. But he believed.
God has shown Himself to you and to me innumerable times. And we felt it, didn’t we? We knew He was just there, in the prayer time, in our worship, at our sharing in the Eucharist, in the eyes of another Christian, in the warmth of a touch, in wise counsel, in the love shared between us: yes just creatures, just people we know, and yet… from within, our inner eyes beheld our God.
He was right there, reaching out to us, offering us a promise, loving us, and from not very far away.
And we believed the Lord.
And when He saw that, He counted us righteous.