In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A shocking and horrific evil was visited upon the people of Parkland, Florida, this past week, leaving seventeen people dead at a high school. People in that town and across the country have reacted with tears, outcries, calls for action—“We have to do something!”—condolences, prayers, and questions. Lots of questions. Questions from interviewers to witnesses and survivors. Questions asked by and of the authorities, both law enforcement and politicians. Questions asked of God and about God.
Then we come into this sacred time and place and hear the Old Testament Lesson for this First Sunday in Lent, God’s test of Abraham. The Lord commanded the aged patriarch, “Take your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt [ascension] offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen 22:2). It is perhaps a difficult account to hear. God knows it is a test, and we the readers and hearers know it’s a test; but, Abraham does not.
We hear what St. James says about enduring trials, and it is a comfort: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him” (Jas 1:12). James is also careful to make the distinction between testing and temptation. God sends us tests and trials, but He never gives us temptations. (There are those who try to take advantage of the tests as opportunities for temptation.) Who does tempt? Oh, we know the answer! It’s the devil! Really? Always? Is that what James says? Well, no; but, St. Mark says it in today’s Gospel reading: “And He [Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan” (Mk 1:13a). Indeed, Matthew and Luke report the same thing. And we know that Satan, whose name means “accuser,” was behind the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and he was the one who inflicted the many troubles and pains on the patriarch Job. Yet James reminds us of the truth about us humans: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (Jas 1:14–15). The Apostle Paul agrees, as he quotes Psalms 14 and 53: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:10–12). In the case of Jesus, He is without sin and His desire is perfectly aligned with His heavenly Father’s desire and will. So the temptation, the enticement to sin, must come from outside of Jesus. Not so for us who are unrighteous in ourselves and who must daily pray, “Forgive us our trespasses.” As long as we are in this fallen flesh in this fallen world, our own desires remain. We don’t want to succumb to them, but then we give in. We enjoy the sin, but then we regret it. We ask God to forgive, but I might do it again, we whisper. We can be our own worst enemy, can’t we? Yet it’s love of self that makes us want to give ourselves what we want, even if God has said it’s not good.
In this particular test of Abraham, God is testing him regarding something good, something which God Himself had promised and given to Abraham and his wife Sarah: their own son, Isaac. And God’s promise was more than simply that they should have a biological son, sired by Abraham and borne by Sarah. The promise was this: “Through Isaac shall your descendants [lit., seed] be named” (Gen 21:12). (Which should remind us of His first promise of the Savior in Genesis 3, “the Woman’s Seed.”) Now God is saying, “Take your son, and sacrifice him”? Is God contradicting Himself? How do those two statements of God agree, the promise and the command? As Luther says, “This trial cannot be overcome and is far too great to be understood by us. For there is a contradiction with which God contradicts Himself. … Abraham was unable to believe that he was merely being tested. … But when God commands that Abraham’s son be taken away, He leaves no hope but simply confronts Abraham with a contradiction. And God, who formerly seemed to be his best friend, now appears to have become an enemy and a tyrant” (LW 4.93–94).
What kind of a God is this? He called Abraham His friend, and He “insists upon bestowing Himself freely, unconditionally, with nothing held back” (J. Nestingen, Word & World 5/1 (1985), p. 89ff). Then why put His friend through this anguish and misery? God took more than an ordinary lifetime to fulfill His promise of a son for Abraham and Sarah. By the way, this was not a case of “child abuse,” as some have suggested. Isaac was no little boy, but a young man, like the young male servants who accompanied them to Moriah; Luther figures Isaac was perhaps 20 years old. So the loving parents would by this time have been anticipating their son’s marriage, and then grandchildren, and the family line (and the promise) would continue. Now it all seems to be coming to an end—and by command of the very same God who had made the promise in the first place! What kind of a God is this?
He is a God who does not conform to our desires, what we humans would like or want in our “ideal god.” All our ideas and ideals are idols, made in the image of us, after the likeness of that unholy trinity: me, myself, and I. The gods which men desire and design make sense to their blind reason and satisfy the desires of their fallen flesh. Not so the true God. He is not capricious, constantly changing His mind or His will. Yet He will not be confined in our conceptual boxes of how we think “a god” ought to be and act. The Lord, the true God, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who made us, mankind, in His image and after His likeness, is a God of promises, as He says to Abraham, “By Myself I have sworn … I will surely bless you … and in your offspring [seed] shall all the nations of the earth be blessed because you have heard My Voice” (Gen 22:16–18). And so He is a God of His Word, as St. John declares, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:1, 14). And so He is a present God, as He says, “And behold, I am with you always” (Mt 28:20), thus fulfilling the promise of His name, Immanuel, “God with us” (Isa 7:14; Mt 1:23).
A few weeks ago the people of Hawaii were scared out of their wits when an alarm went out saying that a North Korean missile was headed for the islands. “This is NOT a test,” the alerts said. As we later learned, it was supposed to be a test, and so it was a false alarm. When the Angel of the Lord halts the test and tells Abraham not to lay his hand on his son, it is then that Abraham is given a glimpse into what God is really doing, what God intends to do to fulfill this command Himself, when it will no longer be a test, but the real thing. This test of Abraham was a one-time event, from which we cannot, nor should we try to, derive any “principles.”
As the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, Abraham believed in God’s power of resurrection: “He considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb 11:18). This God brings life from death. He puts the sinner to death, in order to raise a new creature to life. More than that, He submits to death in order to overcome death, defeat it, rob it of its power, rob it of its prey, and finally to destroy it. On the mountain, the Lord provided no little lamb, but a “lead ram,” the alpha male of his flock, somehow caught in a thicket by his horns! Do you realize what a miracle that was? That ram would know every square inch of his mountain, every bush and thicket. He would never get stuck like that, and even if he did, his mighty horns would have saved him, breaking right through those twigs! Yet this ram did none of what he could have done. It’s as though he willingly stayed caught, to be the substitute and sacrifice. Sound like Someone else you know?
Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, is a full-grown man with a working man’s muscular strength; more than that, of course, He is almighty God. Yet He willingly stayed “caught” on the wood of the cross. Abraham’s only and beloved son carried the wood [lit., tree] for the sacrifice up the mountain, and then the wood [lit., tree] bore him on the altar. God the Father’s only-begotten and beloved Son carried the wood [lit., tree] of His cross up the mountain, and then that wood [lit., tree] bore Him as He was nailed to it, the rough altar of the final Sacrifice for sin (given into death by His Father). This time there was no substitute to spare the son, because this Son is the Substitute, for Isaac, and for you and me and for every sinner who ever has lived or will ever live. As Luther said: “[The Son of God] says to me: ‘You are no longer a sinner, but I am. I am your substitute. … All your sins are to rest on Me and not on you’” [emphasis added]. Upon His baptism, Mark says, “The Spirit immediately cast Him out into the wilderness” (Mk 1:12). As I’ve mentioned before, it’s the same verb used of Jesus’ casting out demons. Jesus was baptized not for Himself, for the forgiveness of His sins, but for us, to take our sins upon Himself, who knew no sin, “so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). The Holy Spirit treats Jesus as unclean, unholy, full of sin, because all your sin, all my sin, the sin of the world, has been put on Him, “credited” to Him. God the Holy Spirit treated Jesus as an enemy! He was cast out into the wilderness to face Satan, with no man to help Him resist the temptations, in your stead, for you. He resisted Satan’s temptations in your stead, for you. He is the Substitute, declared the worst sinner who ever lived, in your stead, for you. He would be forsaken by His God and Father in the darkest hours of the agonies of His body and soul, in your stead, for you. God the Father treated Jesus as an enemy, worse than all the devils of hell combined, in your stead, for you. This is the Promise and the Presence of God for you in His Word, and in your Baptism, in the Absolution, and in the Supper of His body and blood. His love for you is cruciform, Cross-shaped; He bore the cross you deserved. So if He bore and endured such trials and temptations for us, in our stead, then why do we still face them? Luther said: “When we are baptized and translated into the kingdom of Christ, God will not have us to be at ease. He will have His Word and His gifts to be exercised by us. Therefore He permits us, weak creatures, to be put into the sieve of Satan.” He is conforming us, shaping us, re-creating us, into the likeness of His Son.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.