Saturday, March 11, 2006

First Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2006

First Sunday in Lent, March 5th, 2006.
St. John’s, Howard, SD
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 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 of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:1-18, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Whenever I read this text I have just one question…  What kind of a test is this?  I mean, I thought our God, Abraham’s God, was different than all the others.  This just doesn’t seem consistent with the God we know.  What kind of a God actually asks his followers to put their sons to the knife?  This doesn’t seem like a test that I want to even know about.  Yet, here it is in black and white, written down for all humanity to see.  People looking for excuses to dislike God don’t even have to read the whole first book in the bible till they find this really juicy “problem.”
And just think about Abraham…  this hundred year old seems to have a pretty hard row to hoe.  God seems to ask a lot of him.  The writer of the book of Hebrews uses him as a great example of faith, but look what he had to go through.
Here is Abraham, the traveling man.  He has no real place to call his own.  He lives in Beersheba; it sounds to my Lutheran ears, more like a drink than a place.  And even there he is only considered a guest; he has no real place that he calls home.  He has no connection to his past, his ancestors.  God has already effectively taken that away.  Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1, ESV) that’s what God said to him and Abraham obeyed.  God promised him he would be the father of a great nation, but he had to wait until he was over 100 years old to even have his first son.  But, Abraham waited patiently.  And just when it all seemed hopeless, Isaac was born.  100 year olds didn’t routinely have babies then just like now.  Can you imagine a 100 year old changing diapers?  No wonder they picked a name for their son that means “laughter.”  But, Abraham and his wife rejoice at the gift that had been given to them.  They just didn’t know what else God is going to ask yet.
So now God says to Abraham, take this son… this only son, this one you’ve waited for so long, and go far away, a three-day walk, about forty miles.  That’s like from here to Arlington.  Offer him as a burnt offering.  This is a real dilemma for Abraham.  All of God’s promises are wrapped up in Isaac.  God promised that his family would be as many as the stars in the sky.  He promised that Isaac was the beginning of that promise.  It can only happen if Isaac actually lives to have children of his own.  It would seem that God intends to bring Abraham to nothing at all.  He will be a hopeless man with no past and no future.  Still, in spite of what it seems, Abraham takes no time to decide; in fact, his actions seem very deliberate.  The account written for us here in the bible is very detailed.   The scene is set in at daybreak.  The donkey is saddled, the servants are gathered, wood for the sacrifice is cut, the ‘sacrifice’ is retrieved from bed, and off they go together on their three-day trek.  It must have been a very quiet journey; with Abraham going over in his mind what God was asking, and Isaac not suspecting.  Maybe the servants whisper to themselves wondering why they must go so far, couldn’t the sacrifice be made at home?
Finally, the destination is in view, the mountain of the sacrifice, the place where God has directed them.  Now Abraham says something amazing, something that should catch our attention.  “You servants stay here,” he begins, “we will go to worship, and we will return to you.”  In this statement the mind of Abraham is opened to us.  He sees God’s test, he understands what God is saying, he believes in God’s promises.  God promised that his descendents would come through Isaac, and Abraham believes that that is how it will happen.  No matter what happened on that mountain, Isaac would be returning with him.  Here is the point that we really see what this test is all about, here already see the test and we see that Abraham has passed it.  What is at stake for Abraham here is… well it’s everything.  Isaac’s life is the key to the promises God has made to Abraham.  What God is asking through this test is this  “do you believe in the promises or not.”  Abraham believes… he has pushed aside hopelessness.  The test is really already over.  Now God could have sent them home, but God has something else in mind.  There is something more that needs to be done.  In this very strange way, God is about to show just how faithful he can be.  
So, Abraham goes through the motions.  Isaac carries the wood; he carries the fire and the knife.  He builds the altar; one eye on heaven, waiting for the sign to stop.  He carefully arranges the wood, waiting for God to call it off.  He turns to Isaac, binds him…  places him on the alter…  he takes the knife… raises it in the air…  his muscles tense…  pausing one more moment… then… at that frozen moment…  
“Abraham!  Abraham!”  
“Here I stand.”  He says.  “I am right here, exactly where You’ve asked me to be, standing in faith knowing that it is not hopeless, knowing that you have not forgotten me, knowing that even if this knife takes my his son’s life Your promises are still true.“
“Do not harm the boy.”  The angel replies.  “The test is over.”  
Here at the point of death, at the very knife-edge of the sacrifice, Abraham’s faith stands firmly in God’s faithfulness.  Here Abraham stands firmly on the promises of God.  That is what it means to have faith, to trust in God’s promises no matter how hopeless it seems.  Abraham knew God would save Isaac.  When he was told to stop he looked around and found the replacement that God had provided.  But Isaac’s replacement was more than just the ram caught in the brush.  It was the seal in blood of the promises of God.
Abraham and Isaac walked down the mountain together.  God had shown himself to be faithful once again.  For both of them it was a defining moment.  Both had been drawn closer to God, closer to his promises, and closer to each other.  
I know what you are thinking… I know what you are saying to yourself… I just don’t have the kind of faith that can stand up in those situations.  I just don’t have the faith moves mountains; the faith that survives the testing of God; especially a test like that!  Others have it, but not me…  I don’t have what it takes to act in faith like Abraham did.  I have character flaws. I have issues; a past that I can’t forget. I have sins that just won’t leave me.  
Dear Christians, I’m here today to tell you that you do have that kind of faith.  You have the same faith as Abraham had.  Who was Abraham before God called him?  He was no one special, he was a man born into a family of pagans, in a land far from God.  When God called him he simply did what God asked.  He was a flawed human being, just like you, just like me.  He wasn’t selected because he was special or different.  He became special and different because God selected him.  His faith grew because God tested him.  He grew in faith because God gave him the faith and caused it to grow.  He is an example to us not because of who he was or what he did, but because of what God did in him and who God is.  Abraham had faith because God was faithful.
Every Sunday we gather here under these wooden beams.  Every Sunday we proclaim the wonderful things that God did for us.  I believe in God the Father Almighty… I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son…  I believe in the Holy Spirit…  We confess the faith of our fathers; we confess the faith of Abraham.  Just like Isaac’s replacement ram was God seal of his promises to Abraham.  We have the blood of Jesus, which is the seal of God’s promise in his own blood.  It is the seal of sins forgiven.  Our Lord carried our sins to the top of a mountain, the knife of death was raised over him, but no angel came to stop it.  He died and took the punishment for our sins as our replacement.  He is faithful to do just as he promised.  Here we are standing firmly in that promise.
Just like Abraham our faith is tested.  Our lives are filled with knife-edge events.  Death creeps in unexpectedly and we are left lonely, afraid and hurting.  A new job brings a loss of independence, and doubt.  The old way of doing things just doesn’t seem to work anymore and we can’t seem to get a hold on the new way.  At work, at home, in the shop, the hospital and the funeral home, right where we are brought face to face with hopelessness, God asks “Do you believe in My promises, or not?”  
It is at the knife-edge where faith grows the most.  Where human effort and reason fails…  where there is no holding on to the past and nothing to look for in the future… where there is nowhere else to stand, we stand in faith, depending on God’s faithfulness.  Just like Abraham we say, “Here I stand, right where you want me to be.  Trusting in your promises.”  Faith like that doesn’t come to us because of who we are or what we have done; just like Abraham, it comes to us because of what God has done and who he is.  Faith like that isn’t something we dredge up from our sinful hearts, it’s given freely to us by the Holy Spirit.  Faith like that doesn’t grow because we work hard to make it grow, but because God promises that through Word and Sacrament, He will make it grow.  It grows because we hear about the forgiveness of ours sins through the death and resurrection of Christ.  It grows because The Holy Spirit nourishes it with the Body and Blood of Jesus, in, with and under the bread and wine.  All these things show us that when trouble comes we can depend on Jesus, in fact we are pushed toward him and his promises.
When we come down from the mountain, when the testing is over, on the drive home from the funeral, walking away from the hospital bed, remembering the words of comfort and healing, when there is no threatening knife, we realize that our faith has grown.  We see that we have come even closer to God than we thought possible.  He has shown himself to be faithful once again, and more than ever before we believe in his promises.
Amen. The Peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A non-post related comment:

Your stationary background makes reading your text most difficult. It may look neato, but if you can't read the text without hurting your eyes, perhaps you should reconsider using it :)