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"The Dawn Wall"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on November 17, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries

Listen (5-10mb)  Download (35-70mb)  Reflections

Text: Genesis 22

Tommy lay stretched out on the stone ledge, his feet hanging over the side of the cliff, 2,000 feet straight down. Seven years of sacrifice had put him here on the side of this wall of granite set to accomplish the impossible. He was euphoric, but at the same time unsettled. His climbing partner, Kevin, was hundreds of feet below him and he was stuck, and that's when Tommy decided that he would not finish unless Kevin was with him. Kevin had confessed: "I didn't know what I was getting myself into or what we were up against, but I was going on faith that this is Tommy's world, and he's got a clear vision of what this could be, and so I'm just going to trust that." Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson were attempting a climb at the limit of climbing. Nothing more extreme, nothing greater could be imagined. Their story is told in a 2018 documentary called The Dawn Wall.

As the sun rises over the Yosemite Valley in California, the first rays of light strike a swath of unclimbed stone, the Dawn Wall, on the face of El Capitan. That iconic 3,000-foot-high mountain of granite. The Dawn Wall is the steepest, blankest, most-forlorn patch of rock in the world. No one had ever imagined climbing it, but that was Tommy's dream. For seven years, the dream of free climbing the Dawn Wall consumed him body and soul. He spent a year repelling down from the top, swinging from ropes, searching for a path. Later, Kevin, also a world-class climber, but less experienced than Tommy, joined him and in January of 2015. They set out to do it. They didn't know how long it was going to take. It could be weeks. You need to imagine this: living on the side of a cliff for weeks, sleeping on a portal ledge. It's a one-man cot that hangs from the rock, contending with 70-mph winds, fog and ice, climbing all day and into the night with the tips of your fingers and your toes, inch by inch, 3,000 feet up, always on the verge of falling off, pushing and pulling as hard as you can. They were either caught up in some magnificent quest—or they were crazy.

As I listen to the life of Abraham and the book of Genesis, I am compelled to say the same thing. The guy is either caught up in some magnificent divine quest, or he's nuts. And I'm sure that there were days that he wondered which is it. It was an impossible dream that God would use this one old man and his wife unable to have children to bring forth a seed who would bless all the families of the earth and thereby restore the goodness of God's creation. Even now, as I say it, it sounds like a pipe dream in my ears that God would use people like Abraham, people like me, people like you, to transform the world.

It's impossible—like climbing a 3,000-foot wall of granite. World-renowned psychologist Jordan Peterson is as consumed with transforming the world as was Tommy Caldwell with summiting the Dawn Wall. Jordan Peterson with his bestselling book, the 12 Rules for Life, with his global speaking tour, with his millions and millions of followers on the internet, he is consumed with the task, with the quest of transforming the world through transforming individuals.

Dr. Peterson spent much of his early life studying the horrors of the 20th century, the things that human beings did to each other in Hitler's Germany, in Stalin's Soviet Union, in Mao's China. The potential for evil in the human being horrifies him, and it should horrify you, he says, and so that is why he is caught up in this quest. Now he believes that the way to transform the world is not through governments, not through bureaucracies, not through sweeping policies, but through the transformation of the individual. This is the animating principle of his blockbuster book, 12 Rules for Life. And the path to personal transformation, he says, must be climbed on the footholds of personal sacrifice. Sacrifice is acting on the hope of a better future by offering up something valuable in the present.

Think about it, you sacrifice ice cream because in the future you want to get in better shape. You sacrifice sleep because you want to get a degree or to get a promotion at work. You sacrifice a Saturday morning to volunteer in your community because you want to make it a better place to live. You sacrifice yourself for your children because you want them to grow up to be responsible, decent human beings, who might take care of you when you're older, or at least call you: "Mom and Dad, I promise I'm calling tonight." Sacrifice is like sharing. Sharing is a form of sacrifice. Let's say you have a lot of food and instead of gorging yourself, you squirrel some away for the future. You are sharing with your future self, and why stop there? Why not share some with your needy neighbors and by sharing with them, by practicing generosity and sacrificial sharing, you make them more generous and willing to share maybe with you in the future and not just with you, but more willing to share with others, and this grows, and this multiplies. And Dr. Peterson asks the question, "What if I made all the right sacrifices? How good could things get if I made the ultimate sacrifice? Even if this called me to sacrifice what I valued most, to sacrifice what I love best?

Here's the problem that I see with Dr. Peterson's plan. I think this is the place where we all get stuck. Do you have enough faith in this impossible pipe dream to sacrifice what you love best so that others might be blessed? And to make it worse, we all have the voice of this cynical serpent whispering in our ears. Wouldn't it be better to protect what you love? Why would you sacrifice for them? They might not even pay you back. You can't save the world, but at least you can try to save yourself. And so I say to Dr. Peterson, sure, perfect sacrifice might be the answer to world transformation. Perfect sacrifice may be the answer, but which of us is willing? Which of us is able to make that climb?

And Dr. Peterson says to me that he has discovered at least one Person who was willing, Jesus of Nazareth, he says, that Jewish Rabbi who is called the Christ. Now Peterson, he does not confess the crucified and risen Jesus as Lord, but he admires His story. He writes in his book: "The story of Christ is a story at the limit, where nothing more extreme, nothing greater can be imagined. The story of Jesus is the story of a Man who gives His all for the sake of that better future. He offers up His life for all, and even more stunning in the case of Christ, as He sacrifices Himself, God, His Father, is simultaneously sacrificing what He loves best, His Son, His only Son. It is the perfect sacrifice. It is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, the greatest possible sacrifice for the greatest possible good."

And Jordan Peterson believes it is an example to imitate. I have come to believe. I have come to trust, and I invite you to trust that it is finished. It's done. God and His Son made the perfect sacrifice to secure your future. If that is true, where does it leave you? Where does it leave me?

Maybe you feel stuck. Maybe you're afraid. You're afraid of losing what you love best. You're afraid to trust that the sacrifice of Christ really does secure your present and your future—your life in this world, and in the world to come.

Halfway through their quest to climb the Dawn Wall, Kevin Jorgeson got stuck. He kept trying, and he kept falling, saved by the safety rope. He would try again, and he would fall again. The place where he got stuck was a place on the path where they had to climb 300 feet to the left. They had to shimmy their way horizontally, inch by inch, the length of a football field before they could go up again. Tommy, the greatest climber in the world, went first, and he did it. He set the perfect example, but Kevin was stuck. He tried for three days, and then he quit.

He said, "Tommy, you finished the climb without me," and they agreed that Kevin would continue to run the safety ropes for Tommy, but that he would not finish the climb. For three more days. Tommy climbed like a man possessed; nothing could stop him. Ten days into the climb, it was clear that Tommy would do it. He would become the first man in history to free climb the Dawn Wall. He was the greatest climber in history, but something wasn't sitting right with him, and so he decided that he would not finish unless Kevin was with him. He was willing to sacrifice his dream for the sake of his friend. "We're doing this together," he told him.

If you've been climbing with us through the book of Genesis, chapter 22 might be the place where you get stuck. This is the most extreme test of faith I can imagine. When the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard contemplated this chapter of Scripture, he was left with only three words, "fear and trembling." Like the view of the Dawn Wall in Yosemite Valley there is something awe-full about Genesis 22. Listen to it.

"And after these things, it happened. God tested Abraham, He said to him, 'Abraham,' and he answered, 'Here I am.' And 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 will show you.' So Abraham got up early the next morning, and he saddled his donkey, and he took two of his young men and Isaac his son, and he cut the wood for the burnt offering. And he arose and set out for the place that God had told him.

"On the third day, Abraham lifted up his eyes, and he saw the place at a distance, and he said to the young men, 'Wait here with the donkey. The boy and I are going over there, and we will worship, and we will return to you.' And Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering, and he set it on his son Isaac. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. And Isaac spoke up to his father Abraham. He said, 'My father,' and he answered, 'Here I am, my son,' and he said, 'Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?' And he answered, 'God Himself will provide the lamb for the offering my son. God will provide.'

"So, they went both of them together, and they came to the place that God had told him. And there Abraham built an altar, and he laid the wood out on it, and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand to take the knife and slaughter his son. The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven and said, 'Abraham! Abraham!' And he answered, 'Here I am.' And he said, 'Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him. Because now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld from Me, your son, your only son.' And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked and behold, there was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. And so, Abraham called the name of the place 'the Lord will provide,' and as it is said to this day on the mountain of the Lord, 'It will be provided.'

"And the angel of the Lord spoke to Abraham a second time from heaven, saying, 'By Myself, I swear, declares the Lord, because you have done this, because you have not withheld from Me your son, your only son, I will certainly bless you. And I will certainly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the grains of sand on the seashore. And your seed will possess the gate of his enemies and in your seed, through your seed, all the nations of the earth will be blessed because you have listened to My voice.' And Abraham returned to the young men, and they got up and went out to Beer-Sheba."

Why does God test Abraham like this? I don't know. I do know that in Jesus, God Himself made the sacrifice that He wouldn't let Abraham finish. And I know that this God won't leave you stuck below. See, the only way up, the only way up to the dawn of the new world is through this sacrifice. The only way out of death, the only way out of our predicament, the only way out of your fearful clinging to what you're afraid of losing is through the cross of Jesus Christ. God made the perfect sacrifice for you. You and I needed the account of Abraham and Isaac, not so that we could try to repeat it, but so that we would trust what has been done and see how it was done. On the mountain of the Lord, the Father and the Son through the love of the Holy Spirit made the perfect sacrifice to secure your future.

This God offered up His only Son for you, and He will not leave you stuck. God called Abraham to participate in the forthcoming sacrifice of Jesus, and He calls you into the completed sacrifice of Jesus. God didn't need Abraham's sacrifice. God provided the sacrifice. God will provide what you need. God doesn't need your sacrifices, but your climbing partner does. Your family member, your friend, your neighbor needs your sacrifices. You don't have to be afraid to share. You don't have to be afraid of losing what you love most because God is love. Your God is love. Jesus is risen from the dead. He is returning to restore. He is returning to transform the world and now in the interim, He has gone into full support mode—supporting you, so you offer up your best: you offer yourself as a living sacrifice, and on the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.

After 19 days of climbing, Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell reached the top together, and in the euphoria that followed, Kevin spoke of his friend, the greatest climber in the world, and he said something almost prophetic: "I didn't know what I was getting into or what we were up against, but I was going on faith that this is his world. He's got the clear vision of what it could be, and I'm just going to trust that."

May it be for us, for Jesus' sake.

I invite you to pray with me. Dear Father, You did not spare Your own Son, but offered Him up for us all. How will you fail to freely give us all things? I entrust all that I love into Your care. Make me a living sacrifice for my neighbor in Jesus' Name. Amen.

Note: The Lutheran Hour is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the audio at It includes emotion and emphasis not reflected in the transcript.

Reflections for November 17, 2019

Title: The Dawn Wall

Mike Zeigler: Once again, I have joining me on the line. Dr. Gary Schmidt. Gary Schmidt has been teaching at Calvin University, it's a Christian liberal arts university in Michigan for the last 35 years. He's been a professor of English there. He's also a prolific author, has written 50 books, and about half of those books are crafted, especially for young adult readers and children. And this includes a book he wrote about 20 years ago that I mentioned last week, The Blessing of the Lord. And in this book, Gary retells several biblical narratives from surprising perspectives such as the perspective of Abraham's two servants on the journey to Mount Moriah along with Isaac. Welcome back, Gary.

Gary Schmidt: Thank you. Thank you for having me again.

Mike Zeigler: Why did you choose the servants to see this story through their eyes?

Gary Schmidt: That was actually a very hard choice, I should say. Obviously, because the servants are left down at the bottom of the mountain, they are not privy to what happens. They know that there's something tremendous has happened up on the mountain. They can see that Isaac comes back sort of probably pretty devastated. I mean his father's been standing over him with a knife. They can see Abraham coming back who must be filled with this unspeakable joy and relief.

So here are the servants who don't know what happened. There's nothing in the Scriptures that tell, that says that Abraham informed them this is what went on up in the mountain. And so they just presumably get back on their beasts of burden, and they head back without any knowledge at all of what has actually gone on there. It seems that nothing is said to them at all. Now that's interesting to me. So here are kind of observers of a major, major event in faith history, but this is quite oblique to them. They don't know what it means. So what did they think? What were they considering? What did they imagine? And that was the basis of the story.

Mike Zeigler: I like how you use the word "strange" throughout the narrative. I think that's probably what they are thinking: "This is strange."

Mike Zeigler: But also kind of right along the lines of what Abraham's God does.

Gary Schmidt: Exactly. They have no sense of what God is going to do. They don't know what the plan is, of course. Everything is strange to them, and they're not giving the answer. And of course that's how it is, right? We don't know all the answers in our lives. We don't know why certain things have happened. We don't know why this tragedy has occurred or this great joy has occurred. And those are the things that will be revealed in the future to us. But not now, and we have to live—because we're mortal—with that lack of knowledge.

Mike Zeigler: It strikes me that there's something in there that you simply cannot reduce to a lesson or an explanation. And maybe that's kind of what you're going at with the perspective of the servants that they just don't quite know, and maybe Abraham's thinking the same thing, he doesn't know how to explain what had happened. So what is this something in that story that strikes you?

Gary Schmidt: The first thing that of course comes to mind is that as a story of extraordinary faith, but it's not for me, first off, faith in the sense that the things are all necessarily going to turn out all right. But he does seem to go up to the mountain with a complete and utter belief in the efficacy of God's promise. Because God has promised, God has absolutely promised that Isaac is going to be—that He and Isaac will be—this great nation, that Isaac is the guy. And so he goes up there even with the knife, knowing somehow that God will fulfill this promise, believing it entirely, even though he can't see how—who could?—he can't see how. That's kind of extraordinary. And I think you put yourself in that position. Could I do that? And I don't think I could. I know I couldn't.

But Abraham has this absolute unshakable certainty that this is going to work out all right. So that when he goes up and tells the servants, "We'll be back." It's the plural pronoun—not just him—"we'll be back." He's absolutely certain that's going to happen. And that story just rings with this huge sense of God's provision.

Mike Zeigler: I think of the story of Abraham and Isaac, and it gives me hope. I have faith that He can make this turn out right. He can, even if I can't see a way through it, He can make the ultimate sacrifice necessary to put things right, even if we can't and will just walk with Him along the way.

Gary Schmidt: And I think that is what exactly what Abraham is thinking. I have no idea how this is going to end, but I believe the promise. I'm not sure in the story because it's not really clear how old Isaac is.

Mike Zeigler: Yeah.

Gary Schmidt: I'm not sure this kiddo can know that. Frederick Buechner has a novel called Son of Laughter. I think it is, where this scars him. He's never ever able to really recover from the notion of "My father had a knife over me." I don't know if that was how it was or not. It's certainly must have affected him and probably doesn't understand at all. But maybe he did. Maybe he came to have that same powerful extraordinary faith that Abraham had. Because it really is a story of that—that he believed God's promise.

Mike Zeigler: Well, thank you so much for joining me, Gary, and having these conversations and thank you for the work that you did for this book. If you wanted to check this book out, it's again, it's called The Blessing of the Lord and a just a wonderful way to bring these well-known stories to life again and bring you back to the Bible to see it with new eyes. So thank you, Gary.

Gary Schmidt: Thank you, Michael. Thank you very much.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"The Day Is Surely Drawing Near" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

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