1st Sunday of Lent, February 26, Year of Our + Lord 2012
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
God Will Provide the Lamb
God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, and Abraham prepares to do it. Abraham saddles up the donkey, splits the wood, and heads to Mount Moriah, going to sacrifice he and Sarah’s one and only son, to kill him and burn his body, because God tells him to do so. It’s shocking, the very idea that you would be able and willing to kill your son at God's command is frightening, beyond our comprehension.
At times we do have to subject our children to danger and pain, for their own good. This is hard enough. We may send them into surgery, to be given drugs and knocked out so that a surgeon can cut them, sending them without a guarantee of success, because we know some illness or problem they have will only get worse without treatment. But it’s not easy. Good parents hate nothing more than subjecting their children to pain, even when it's the right thing to do.
And so Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac is hard, almost impossible to imagine. We know, on this side of the story, that God did not allow Abraham to kill Isaac. But Abraham didn't know this when he set out on the three day journey. Abraham didn't know this as he split the wood for the fire, as he tied the wood on Isaac's back, as he took the knife in hand. God had been speaking directly to Abraham for many years by this time, giving him specific instructions for his life, which had always worked out. So Abraham believed God really wanted him to sacrifice Isaac.
Isaac could see that something was strange. "Father," Isaac said, "we have the wood and fire, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?" "Dad, are you sure about this?"
“God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." Isaac trusted Abraham, and Abraham trusted God. God had made great promises to Abraham, including the promise of a son with Sarah, a son through whom God would make a great nation. A son through whose descendents God would bring a blessing for all nations, the Savior of the world. Against all human reason, Abraham and Sarah had that son, when they were very old, as good as dead. That son was Isaac. God was faithful. Abraham trusted in God's Word, for it had always come true. Abraham believed sacrificing Isaac would turn out for good, because God, the source of every good, had told him to do it.
So now, despite the fact there was no way to make sense of killing Isaac, Abraham believes and obeys. He prepares to kill his one and only son, the son through whom God had said a great nation would come. The author of Hebrews teaches us that Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead, because he knew that the promises God had made about Isaac had to come true. Whatever was going through Abraham's mind at that moment, he takes the knife in hand and prepares to sacrifice Isaac.
But God never intended that Abraham should sacrifice Isaac, that would have been pointless. The Angel of the Lord calls from heaven and stops Abraham's hand. The Lord did intend to test Abraham, and through testing to strengthen and deepen his faith, and Isaac's, and yours. But there is no value in the death of a sinner, there is no redeeming purpose for sacrificing Isaac. Abraham may not have really understood how, but he was right, "God would provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering.”
In this our Old Testament story reveals the outline of God's ultimate plan of salvation. A father delivers his one and only son to be sacrificed on Mount Moriah, the same place where Jerusalem would one day be built. (2 Chronicles 3:1) The wood upon which the sacrifice is to be made is tied on the back of the son who would be sacrificed. He carries his own wooden place of death up the hill. Despite the pain and heartbreak, the father prepares to sacrifice his beloved son.
This, however, is where the comparison ends, for Isaac cannot be the sacrifice. God takes no pleasure in the death of a sinner (Ezekiel 18:23), because the death of a sinner is simply justice. And Abraham understood our plight before the justice of God. Abraham's faithfulness did not spring from his own goodness, for Abraham too, and Sarah, doubted and sinned and turned away. Earlier in his life, Abraham gave Sarah to Pharaoh as a wife, lying, saying that she was his sister, in order to save his own skin. Only the intervention of God prevented Abraham's betrayal from being fulfilled. Sarah laughed at the promises of God, and then lied to the LORD’s face, claiming she hadn't laughed. Isaac's name means "He Laughs," a reminder of God's faithfulness in the face of Sarah's unfaithfulness.
God himself must provide the Lamb. God takes no pleasure in the death of a sinner, for sinners like you and me cannot atone for our own sins, let alone the sins of others. Like Abraham and Sarah, you and I doubt, and betray and lie to God.
When God places a clear choice before you, when in your life you are called to follow God's instructions, but doing so appears to mean trouble and sacrifice for you, what do you do? Say you've made a big mistake, and you must choose between admitting to your error or covering it up. Do you admit your sin and face the consequences, or do you hide your sin and work on your alibi?
Or maybe you have the chance to make a quick buck, but someone else will be hurt by it. Do you turn from evil, or do you serve yourself? When you are in the middle of the struggle between good and evil, between right and wrong, do you take the steps necessary to complete God's will, trusting in His promises, even though choosing to God's way may cost you? Or do you put things off, hoping that circumstances will provide you an out, that you can avoid the tough decision, or at least hide your failure under a cover of self-justification? What do you do? We are so often unwilling to make even the small sacrifices that God asks of us. When things look tough, we are unable to generate the faith that trusts God will provide.
God himself must provide the faith, and so He provides the Lamb. The faith of Abraham in our story today is great. God gave him an incredible measure of His Spirit. But Abraham's faith is not great enough to save the world. And Isaac is not a fitting sacrifice, he cannot be God's Lamb, we can find no good news for our problem in either Abraham or Isaac. To find Good News in this story, look to the ram caught in the bush, the lamb that God provided in Isaac's place. Like all the sheep and goats one day to be sacrificed in the Tabernacle and Temple by Abraham's descendents, this ram is a figure of Christ, the foreshadowing of the Innocent One. This innocent animal represents the sacrifice of the Jesus, the once for all sacrifice of Christ for you and me.
"The Lord Will Provide" became the name of that mountain. What Abraham prophesied, the promise he looked forward to, has now come true. The Lord has provided, on that same mountain, Mount Moriah, the place where Jerusalem was built. The sacrifice that is beyond human comprehension is complete, God has made the sacrifice himself. God the Father sent His Only Begotten Son. Jesus came, willingly, ignoring the shame, enduring the pain. As the ram’s head was caught in the bush, Jesus’ head is crowned in thorns. As Isaac obediently carried the wood for his sacrifice on his own back Jesus, for the joy of having you for His very own, carries the wood of His sacrifice up the same hill. The Lamb of God lifts the cross and climbs up Golgotha, to take away the sins of the world. The Lord has provided.
The Source of the faith of Abraham is revealed. The Promise that brings the Holy Spirit is fulfilled. To give you the faith of Abraham, God calls you to look where he looked. Look to Jesus, the Descendent of Isaac, and also the Son of God, the Promised One, willingly sacrificing Himself for us. This promise is what created Abraham's faith. This promise fulfilled in Jesus is the source and object of Christian faith. Look with the eyes of Abraham, look to Jesus, believe in His sacrifice.
Believe, and you will live differently. Faith alone saves; our works do nothing to earn us God's favor. Jesus has done it all. Faith alone saves, but faith is never alone. The Holy Spirit creates faith in your heart, in order that He can make your heart His dwelling place. God lives in you, the Baptized are clothed with Christ. (Galatians 3:27) And so now faith, never alone, leads to good works, because God is at work in you. Faith leads to sacrifices of thanksgiving. God will never ask you to sacrifice your child or anyone or anything else to atone for sin, because Jesus' sacrifice for sin is perfect and complete. But God does call you to turn from your sin, and do good works. Day by day, you and I, baptized into Christ, are called to flee from sin, to battle against ourselves, the world and Satan, to struggle with God, to struggle with God for good, and live differently, to love God and serve our neighbor.
But never imagine that God is waiting on your to conquer your sin before He will accept you. No, you are free to strive to conquer sin only because God has already accepted you, in Jesus, who conquered sin for you. When you succeed in turning from sin, know that this is by the power of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in you. When you fail, that same Spirit convicts you of your sin, in order to bring you back, to give you repentance, so you again beg for mercy in the Name of Jesus.
And God will meet your repentance with mercy, with forgiveness, every time. For in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God the Father's only begotten Son, your acceptance is complete, you need not fear failure. For, as Paul says, if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-- how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns?
Christ Jesus, who died-- more than that, who was raised to life-- is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?... neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Lord has provided the Lamb. Look to Him always. Amen.