Sunday, February 26, 2012
Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (February 26, 2012)
“The Lord Will Provide” (Genesis 22:1-18)
We just came down a mountain. Last week was Transfiguration Sunday. We were with Peter, James, and John on a high mountain, looking at the divine glory of Jesus. Now here we are, the first Sunday in Lent, and we’re headed back up another mountain. But this mountaintop experience is a lot different than last week.
This mountain is called Moriah. After the events described in today’s Old Testament lesson, Abraham called it Yahweh Yireh, or as the KJV translates it Jehovah Jireh. It means “The Lord Will Provide.”
At the beginning of our Lenten journey this year, it’s important for us to know and trust that the Lord will provide for us. Like he did for Abraham, the Lord will provide the strength to undergo testing. And the Lord will provide a Lamb as a substitute.
It’s clear from Scripture that God does give us tests. He causes or allows certain things to come into our lives to test our faith. As we consider this, we need to remember that he will never tempt us to sin. The Small Catechism, in the explanation to the 6th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, says, “God tempts no one.” We heard this from the apostle James earlier today: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). Satan is the one who tempts us to sin, just like he tempted Jesus in the wilderness. But James doesn’t even go so far as to bring Satan into the mix. He says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). We have enough problems dealing with our sinful nature alone, which tempts us with sinful thoughts and attitudes. Remember, also, that it’s not a sin to be tempted, even by our own fallen mind. It’s what we do with those thoughts and attitudes. Here’s what Luther said: “You cannot prevent the birds from flying over your head. But let them only fly and do not let them build nests in the hair of your head. Let them be thoughts and remain such; but do not let them become conclusions” (AE6).
God tests us. He doesn’t tempt us. And he doesn’t test us in order to mess with our minds. He does it out of love. Hebrews chapter 12 talks about the way God disciplines us as a loving father. Discipline is all about training. When you train your children, do you do it so that you can take pleasure in seeing them fail? No, you do it out of love. You want to see them make the right decisions in life. Same with God and us. He tests us to build up and strengthen our faith, not to tear it down.
What do we know about Abraham’s faith as the Lord placed a test before him? Abraham’s faith is seen in his actions and his words. He did what the Lord told him to do. Sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Is there any evidence of hesitation? None that we can see in our text. But put yourself in Abraham’s shoes. Would you have hesitated if God told you to kill your child? That seems cruel. It seems arbitrary, especially after all the things that God had promised Abraham … that he would be the father of many nations, that through his offspring all the nations of the world would be blessed, that these blessings given to Abraham would also be given to Isaac.
It seems remarkable, but Abraham’s faith looked past what seemed cruel and arbitrary, and trusted in God. Notice what he said to his servants “I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” Was Abraham trying to cover up this ridiculous plan and make it sound like they were both returning? Or did Abraham really believe that he would return with Isaac … alive? And Isaac was not dense. He noticed that they were bringing no animal along for the sacrifice, so he asked his father, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham replied, “God himself will provide the lamb, my son.” Did Abraham say this with sorrow in his heart, knowing that he was lying to his son? Or did he really expect that somehow this would all have a happy ending?
Hebrews chapter 11 teaches us that the latter is true in both cases. Verses 17-19 say,
“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb. 11:17-19). Abraham had faith that he would return with his son. Abraham had faith that somehow all of this would have a happy ending. Abraham fully expected God to raise Isaac from the dead.
Where did all this strength come from? From somewhere deep in Abraham’s soul? No, it came from the Lord, on the basis of his strong promises to Abraham … that God would bless him, that in his offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Those promises were reiterated to Abraham after this test, and in all of this, Abraham’s faith was strengthened even further … not by what he did, but by the Word of the Lord.
God also gives us the strength to undergo tests for the purpose of strengthening our faith. What are our tests? It’s hard to know. We have the clear word from the Lord that this incident in Abraham’s life was a test. But not for us. We don’t know what is a test and what is simply the result of living in a fallen world.
We may never know if something specifically is a test. But God allows things to come into our lives that certainly test our faith. And he promises that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). Where does our strength come from? Not from anywhere deep inside ourselves. Our strength comes to us on the basis of God’s promises to us in his Holy Word … especially the most important promises in Jesus.
Abraham said, “The Lord will provide for himself the lamb.” Whether Abraham knew it or not, those were prophetic words. The Lord didn’t only provide a ram as a substitute for Isaac. The Lord provided THE LAMB as a substitute for all of us.
He was our substitute in temptation. Where we fail, Christ succeeded, not only in the wilderness, but during his entire earthly ministry. Where we are disobedient, Christ was obedient in our place. And because he withstood temptation, he gives us strength to stand up under temptation. 1 Cor. 10:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
This Lamb was also our substitute in sacrifice. The Angel of the Lord, understood by many to be the Son of God himself, stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son and provided a ram for Abraham to take the place of Isaac. But this ram was only a foreshadowing of the greater sacrifice of the Son of God himself, bearing our sins at the cross for our life and for our forgiveness.
Isaac is also a picture of Christ for us. His carrying the wood up Mt. Moriah was a foreshadowing of Christ bearing his cross on Mt. Calvary. We also don’t hear about any struggle between Isaac and his father once Abraham began to bind him and to lay him upon the altar. Isaac’s evident willingness is a picture for us of Christ’s perfect obedience and willingness.
Isaac could have doubted his father’s love and care, but it seems as though he didn’t. Abraham could have doubted God’s love and care, as he called him to do something that seemed so cruel and arbitrary, but he didn’t. Christ himself could have doubted his father’s love and care. He could have abandoned the whole plan in the Garden of Gethsemane, thinking that this was all so cruel and arbitrary. But he knew it had to be done. It had to be done so that God’s justice over sin would be satisfied, and so that all who look to the Cross would be forgiven. And so, Jesus looked past the pain and suffering he was about to face. He looked past the forsakenness and abandonment he felt on the cross. He continued to trust his Father and at the very end cry out to him, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Abraham raised the knife to slay his son, while at the same time believing that he would return with him and there would be a happy ending. Jesus watched as the soldiers raised the hammers to drive the nails into his hands, but he also knew that he would return and that there would be a happy ending. But unlike Isaac, whose resurrection was only a figurative one, the resurrection of Jesus was the real deal. The disciples received him back from the dead. We receive him by faith today … the one who helps us look past all our pain and suffering … the one who helps us look past all our trouble and tragedy … the one who helps us by faith to see God present and active to strengthen us to undergo tests and to withstand temptation by Christ’s resurrection power.