Monday, March 02, 2009

Sermon on Genesis 22:1-18, for the First Sunday in Lent "The Lord Will Provide"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Old Testament reading, God’s testing of Abraham, Genesis 22:1-18. Today we will think and consider how God tests us as well, and how the Lord will Provide. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I don’t know in what particular ways God is going to test you throughout life. The individual tests of faith that we face as Christians, may be as different from one another as the differences between our personalities, our personal strengths and weaknesses, our work circumstances and environment, our personal and family relationships, our age, etc. Young or old, married or single, wealthy or poor—our lives will be tested. But regardless of the wide differences that may face us in the types of trials and tests that we face, this is near certain to be in common—that they will challenge your trust in God’s Word and Promises. The circumstances of life will cause us to doubt or struggle with those Promises, and wonder how they can really be so, considering all that is happening to us.

In one of my favorite lines from the Lord of the Rings movies, Sam is encouraging his best friend Frodo, who wants to give up on what seems to be an impossible mission, full of darkness and danger. Sam reminds him of all the great stories that really mattered. That the reason they were worth remembering was because there were countless times that they could have turned back and given up—only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something. And if I can just make a small change about Sam’s quote to apply it to us. He said they were holding onto the hope that there’s some good in the world and it’s worth fighting for. I would change that to say that we’re holding onto faith in God’s Word and Promises. That’s what keeps us from turning back when the uncertainties and darkness of life loom large and our faith in God’s promises wavers.

Abraham was tested by God in a way far greater than we can imagine—yet unique to his circumstances and life. What makes the story of Abraham great and worth remembering is that he too had countless opportunities to turn back and give up, only he didn’t. He clung to God’s promises, no matter how contradictory they seemed to the challenge that faced him. It wasn’t that Abraham was an exceptionally courageous or powerful man, or born of noble blood—but God chose him because Abraham simply trusted in God. God’s promises to Abraham were threefold: 1) that God would make his descendants a great nation through his son Isaac (the son of promise), 2) that Abraham’s descendants would possess the land of Canaan, and 3) that all nations of the earth would be blessed through one of Abraham’s offspring. These were God’s promises to
Abraham, and they all depended on the survival and future offspring of Isaac.

Then God put Abraham to the single greatest test of his life—to see how strongly he believed in God’s promises, and how greatly He valued and trusted God, even above his son whom he loved, Isaac. God gave Abraham a direct command: “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.” God’s alarming command to Abraham seemed to be contrary to all that He had promised! How could God keep His promise to make Abraham a great nation, and bless the world through one of his descendants, if he was to sacrifice Isaac?

It would have been tempting for Abraham to try to explain away the command. “God can’t mean to literally sacrifice my son, can he?” “Perhaps I can think of a way out.” “Maybe I misunderstood Him.” Or “I just can’t go through with this—it’s unreasonable.” Did endless doubts cloud his mind, racing with questions and wondering why? “Who is the God whom I worship? Is He really like all the other Canaanite gods who want child sacrifice? Is there any other way out?” But God’s command was unerringly clear—it couldn’t be anyone but his only-begotten son whom he loved, Isaac. And he was to be offered as a whole burnt offering on Mount Moriah. Moriah, the future site of the Temple in Jerusalem, where lambs would daily be offered in sacrifice. After making the preparations, Abraham set out on the journey, and arrived near the mountain. Leaving the two servants behind, he said, “I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” Though he didn’t know what lay ahead, he had faith that both he and his son would return to them.

Then began that painstaking walk of faith for Abraham and his son. The repeated words, “So they went, both of them together,” can only lead us to guess what thoughts and emotions tumbled through the mind of Abraham. He laid the wood of the offering on the back of Isaac, who willingly carried it. Abraham carried the fire and knife, with which he knew he was to sacrifice his only beloved son Isaac. “Why is God doing this to me? Haven’t I done what God desires? My son means everything to me. If only I could die in his place, I’d certainly do it! How will God keep His promise if I go through with this? But there it is again. God’s sure and certain promise. I cannot doubt it, no matter how grim things seem now. He has not failed me in the past. Yes, I will go on and obey—for He is greater than my doubts and fear—and He can keep His promise though I do not see the end of it.” Together father and son walked to what seemed to be Isaac’s grave. Gradually Isaac realized as he drew near: “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for burnt offering?” In this moment of great conflict, Abraham does not answer that Isaac will be the sacrifice, but “God will provide for Himself the lamb.”

Isaac too had a walk of faith. He had to trust and obey what his father was doing. And it doesn’t say that he protested or resisted, even to being bound on the altar as his father raised the knife. What fear and confusion must have swept over him? Yet he was committed to his father’s will. The challenges that we face are similar in this way. Bad things happen, we struggle or fail, and we start to wonder if God is really watching over us. We see how much evil there is in the world, in us, in our failed choices, in our lives, and wonder—how can God love me? Isn’t there some way out of this? This is just unreasonable! Why is God doing this to me? Is God angry at me? Is He punishing me for some sin?

But we cannot resolve the seeming contradiction. We can’t know the reasons and purposes behind God’s will. But whenever the devil uses these trials and difficulties to make us doubt whether God loves us or whether God really intends for us to be saved, we must have faith in the sure and certain promises of God, and never let these be taken from us. We must grab hold of what is solid and sure, what is objective and true. Remind yourself, “I am baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ! Therefore He is my shield and great reward. I shall not fear, because I am His and He is mine.” “I know that I am baptized and that God, for the sake of His Son, has promised me grace. This promise will not lie, even if I should be cast into utter darkness” .

But right at the height of the tension, as the hand of Abraham is raised in agony to slay his son, the angel of the Lord calls him and stays his hand. God saw that Abraham had completely surrendered Isaac to God and brought his reason into captivity to the obedience of faith. He didn’t question the Word of God to him, but stood firm in his faith, as the book of Hebrews records: he considered that “God was able to raise him up, even from the dead” Heb. 11:19. This is why he could say, “I and the boy will return to you” to the servants, and why he could say, “The Lord will provide for Himself a lamb.” And in fact, there in the thorns of a bush, was a ram, caught by his horns. And this ram became the innocent, substitute sacrifice, and Isaac was spared. So Abraham named that place on Mount Moriah, “The Lord will provide.”

Here we see an amazing picture of what God accomplished for us. We see in Isaac and the ram a type or foreshadowing of Jesus. God the Father, like Abraham, had to take His only begotten Son, the Son whom He loved, Jesus, and sacrifice Him. But Isaac was not yet quite like Jesus, for he in the end wasn’t sacrificed, but the ram instead. But Christ Jesus died on the cross as the innocent, substitute sacrifice for us. Like the happy reunion of father and son when Abraham saw that Isaac would live, so is the happy reunion between God and us, when we have faith in His Son Jesus, and through His death on the cross we are spared from eternal death and destruction. And God did in fact raise Jesus from the dead, so the reunion is complete, and whatever loss God the Father and Son suffered, it was for our gain.

Abraham’s faith in God to raise his son from the dead was a foreshadowing of the real thing, when God would literally offer up His own Son Jesus into death—the only sinless death that could satisfy God. Jesus was the sinless, spotless, Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus showed perfect obedience and willingness, carrying the wood of His own cross as Isaac carried the wood of sacrifice. Like Isaac wondered at where the sacrifice was, Jesus was troubled in the Garden of Gethsemane when He asked if this was really God’s will, and was there no other way? By His full consent to the Father’s will and not His own, He gave His life for us. Though He faced His own death and grave, He committed Himself wholly to God’s Word.

But there’s a final part of the story. That after God saw that Abraham had done this, and didn’t withhold his only son—God swore by Himself again to keep his three promises to Abraham—to make him a great nation, to give him the land, and to bless all nations through his singular offspring—Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16). God swore by Himself, because there is none greater to swear by, none greater than God whose promises are the solid rock and ground of our faith (Heb. 6:13). Because His Word is more certain than heaven and earth, we can have certain faith, knowing that even when we are shaken and put through great challenges in life, God will not fail to keep His Word. And by God swearing by Himself, He testifies to us that salvation is completely His work. He is bound to keep His promises, and no evil, no power of the devil, no doubt or fear can keep Him from fulfilling His promise to us.

Life may indeed seem to be a place of contradictions. The trials of life may cry out to us, “Why is God letting this happen? Does God really love me?” But to look to the sure and certain promises of God’s love, and to believe Jesus’ death on the cross for our sin, is to look with eyes of faith beyond our suffering and momentary darkness, and know that there is light ahead. It is to commit ourselves fully to God’s Word, no matter how contradictory it may seem to our experiences. It is to know that the Lord will provide for us, and we need fear nothing, for He is faithful to His promises, and He swears by Himself to keep them. Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. What seemingly insurmountable circumstances face you in life? Or what test(s) of faith, large or small do you face, from which it would be easy to turn back?
2. What three promises had God made to Abraham (see v. 15-18), and how did He guarantee that He would keep them? What role did Isaac have in those promises?
3. What in your life seems contradictory to God’s promises to you? Which is more certain, God’s Word, or our trials? How do these present obstacles to our faith? Write down the questions they raise in your mind.
4. How did Isaac and the ram foreshadow Jesus’ death on the cross? What was Jesus’ own challenge of faith? In what way are we like Isaac?
5. What is the significance of God swearing by Himself? What does it show about the work of salvation?
6. For your own study: What is the significance of Mount Moriah & repeated place names in the Bible? Here in Genesis 22, it was the place of Abraham’s testing and the sacrifice. In 2 Chronicles 3:1 Solomon built the temple there, centuries later. Solomon’s father David had interceded for the people of Israel there in 1 Chronicles 21:15ff. Jesus’ death, though not inside the Temple, was very near Mount Moriah, but outside the city (Heb. 13:12).


Pastor John Blackman said...

Thanks for this Pastor ...I was cruising for sermon fodder for my own message on this passage and stumbled upon your sermon. Oh if only all my stumbles were this edifying ( but that is another sermon) a question that struck me as I read your message will help me craft my own direction for my listeners even know what the promises are that they are supposed to cling to through their trials? By clearing up what the life-foundation promises of Christ actually are may even make some trials take a hike because they are really only a diversion away from what matters not necessarily a test to see if you will continue to believe in what matters? Does this make sense? I hope it does by Sunday!

Josh Schneider said...

sorry I didn't notice your comment until today! I'm glad you found the message edifying. I do agree that people often don't know what those promises are, and that we need to preach the Gospel promises and flesh them out. I probably was too brief in my description of God's promises, since I wrote this shorter homily for an evening service.
I do think that sometimes we are misguided in our expectations from God, and so trials can become diversions. That's a good point. I do think on a basic level all trials and afflictions, even if they aren't directly persecution for the faith or something similar, still do challenge our faith. If for no other reason than simply "Why is this happening to me?" I hope this helps, even if after the fact :) God bless your preaching!