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Sermon for 1st Sunday in Lent

First Reading: Genesis 22:1-18

 1After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He 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.” 3So 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. 4On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5Then 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.” 6And 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. 7And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. 9When 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. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12He 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.” 13And 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. 14So 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.” 15And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17I 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, 18and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”


Psalm 25:1-10

 1To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me. 2Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes. 3Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. 4Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. 5Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. 6Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord. 7Gracious and upright is the Lord; therefore he teaches sinners in his way. 8He guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly. 9All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies. 10For your name’s sake, O Lord, forgive my sin, for it is great.


 Second Reading: James 1:12-18

 12Blessed 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. 13Let 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. 14But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. 16Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.


Gospel: Mark 1:9-15

 9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” 12The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. 14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”


This is a Test

I need to be honest with you this morning.  I struggled a long time with our readings for this week.  The common thread in all our readings is testing and trust, and these two subjects together are ones we really don’t like to wrestle with.  I struggled because I asked myself, do I really trust God to provide?  And, do I trust God enough that I would be willing to set everything aside because I know that He will provide?  These questions really hit home as I reread our Old Testament text from Genesis, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac.

For me, this is one of the most powerful, profound, and disturbing stories in all the Bible, and all of literature, for that matter.  And as we begin the season of Lent, it’s a story that, like it or not, should have us all wrestling with the subjects of testing and trust.  Today we come to the conclusion of the story of Abraham, and to fully appreciate what’s going on, we must see this passage within the whole story of Abraham.  When seen as a whole, the story of Abraham is the story of a promise, of God’s provision and promise.

The promise was given to Abraham and Sarah, in their very advanced age, that they would be given a child, and that the descendants from this child would be as numerous as the stars.  Furthermore, the promise was also that they would be given a land, the Promised Land, and the land would be inhabited by their descendants.  What’s more, Abraham and Sarah are asked to trust that God will give what He promises.  So, they leave behind the life they have been living, a prosperous life in Ur of Chaldees, and start a new life as nomads, trusting only that God can and will keep His promises.

What’s more, we’re to read the story of Abraham and Sarah as our story as well.  For all of us, deep down, we know what that promise means.  We all know that we’ve been given a promise that life is supposed to be good for us.  Look at little children.  It’s wonderful how they greet each day with expectation.  As they journey into this world with great anticipation, they, in time, begin to dream about who they’ll be, and what their life will be like, in the wonderful world that’s waiting for them.  For them, life holds such great promise.  As we grow older, our expectations may narrow, but we still believe in the promise that life holds.  We still believe that life is supposed to be good.  So, when we read that Abraham received a promise that life would be good, we can relate to the story.  The story of Abraham and Sarah is the story of our life.

Starting 10 chapters earlier, we read how Abraham and Sarah, age 75 and 65 respectively, were visited by an angel who told them to trust God and they would have numerous offspring.  They’d have to wait another 25 years for the Lord to return and tell them, now is the time, and Isaac was finally born to them.  Abraham is now 100 years old, and Sarah is 90.  From the story we understand that Isaac was a gift from God, a miracle.  We know that Abraham and Sarah couldn’t possibly, biologically speaking, produce this child.  It was indeed a fulfillment of God’s promise.  Abraham and Sarah were called to trust that all the promises and gifts given to us come from God.

We wish that the story of Abraham could end here, an old couple having a baby.  The promise has been fulfilled.  There will be more descendants, and those descendants will be as numerous as the stars, as the promise stated.  But the story doesn’t end here.  We must wrestle with chapter 22 where God says, “Abraham, 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 a mountain of which I will tell you.”  For any parent, this would be an unbelievable demand.  It goes against everything in us.  So we must, for this story, not think in terms of child sacrifice.

The Jews never practiced child sacrifice.  After the Exodus, God would give very clear laws against such practice.  Anyone involved in a child sacrifice would be stoned.  Thus, we need to see the theological point.  We need to consider this passage in the context of that famous passage from Job, “The Lord has given.  The Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord” (vs. 1:21).

The command to sacrifice Isaac is a test, as is clearly stated in verse 1, to see if Abraham really knows and trusts that our life, all life, is in God’s hands.  God is the Creator of life, not us.  That’s what it means to say, “The Lord gives.  The Lord takes away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  We see this same message throughout the Bible, but most beautifully in the 90th psalm.  “Lord, thou has been our dwelling place in all generations.  Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting thou art God (vs. 1-2).

And in verse 5, “Thou dost sweep men away; they are like a dream, like grass which is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.”  That’s what our life is like.  And down in verse 12, “So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  And that wisdom is: “The Lord gives.  The Lord takes away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Or consider Jesus’ words in the New Testament.

Particularly the parable of the Rich Fool, (Luke 12:16-21) who built bigger barns and filled them to insure his future.  When he built his larger barn, and he knew his future was secure, that’s when God said, “You fool tonight your soul is required of you.”  “The Lord gives.  The Lord takes away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  That’s the first lesson of biblical wisdom.  And it’s the first step in living a Godly and meaningful life, to know that God is God, and not us.  Therefore, all that I have, and all that I am, comes from God.  Back to verse 1: “After all these things, God tested Abraham.”  The fulfillment of the promise of life comes from God alone.

Like Abraham, each one of us, will be tested at some point in our life as to whether we believe that all things come from, and ultimately belong to, God.  Can we live in the faith that the God upon whom we depend, is in fact trustworthy?  That’s the test.  That’s the ultimate test for any of us.  Can we let go of everything and trust that the Lord will deliver on His promises?  That’s the meaning of the sacrifice of Isaac.  Do you trust God so completely, that we can give it all back?

Martin Luther rediscovered this radical, biblical understanding of faith, and coined the phrase, “We are saved by our trusting in God’s grace alone.”  But he also wrote a hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, in which he illustrated what this kind of radical faith means: “Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also.”  Which is exactly what Abraham was called to do at the beginning of the story, to “let goods and kindred go.”  He was called to leave Ur, to leave the security of family and tribe, and travel to a new land, trusting in God alone, that God would lead him to the fulfillment of the promise.  Then at the age of 114, at the end of the story, he’s called, once again, to “let kindred go.”  “Abraham, 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.”

The story does have a happy ending.  Isaac is bound and laid on the altar, Abraham fully prepared to carry out the command.  Then the voice of God intervenes, saying, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me…And behold, there was a ram near by.  Abraham took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering instead of his son.”  Then comes the last line, an important line in this story, Abraham named that place, “The Lord will provide.”  Which is who he was asked to trust in from the very beginning.

Abraham was tested over and over again to determine if he could believe, “The Lord will provide.”  The same God who gives us life in the first place, is able to give it to us again.  As a parent, this is a difficult story.  But then I reread it again in light of the various ways you and I are tested.  Can we really believe that the God who has given us life in the first place, can give it to us again?  If we lose all that we have, all the things we surround ourselves with, the things that bring us comfort, the things that bring us security in this life, the things that bring us pleasure, the things upon which we become dependent for meaning, purpose, and beauty in our life, can we let all that go?

There are numerous stories in the news of homes and small businesses being looted or that have been swept away in a storm.  When the people return to the area, after things calm down, they come back to nothing.  We’ve all seen the news reports of whole neighborhoods and communities that have lost everything.  Or think of the refugees who have been forced to leave their home or country, displaced by war, or fleeing from oppressive regimes, many are forced to leave with little more than the clothes on their backs.  They’re forced to leave everything behind.  Working with Disaster Response, I’ve had the privilege to meet some of these folks, and what I often hear the victims say is, yes it’s bad, but, “The Lord will provide.”

I read an article the other day, written by a man named Paul O’Brien, who reflected on those who have experienced tremendous losses in their life.  He primarily focused on literary personalities, and how they coped with it.  He talked about William Thackery, whose manuscript for a novel had been inadvertently destroyed by a servant.  And who, upon hearing the news, simply sat down, and started writing again.  Or a Chinese scholar, Zhu Guangquan, who painstakingly translated Hegel’s philosophical works into Chinese.  Then during the “reign of terror” his house was taken over and the manuscript confiscated.  He announced that he would simply start translating again.  O’Brien marveled at this, and concluded that what Thackery and Professor Zhu have in common is the realization that their lives belong to a larger purpose.

Yes, we are responsible for what we do, however, we’re not always in control of the outcomes.  We can do everything right and still, forces beyond our control, can upend our plans.  We cannot always control what happens to us.  This is what Jesus was describing when He told the disciples, “Whoever comes after me must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).  Jesus is asking us to sacrifice the self, like Isaac, and trust that God will give us our lives back again.

  1. S. Eliot wrote that half the harm in the world is done by people who want to feel important. It’s part of our sinful nature, we want to feel important, we want to be somebody, to always be in control. We were born that way.  We want our lives to have significance, but we cannot trust that the meaning and significance of life is given to us by God’s grace.  Instead, we try to seize it.  We try to control things to make sure that we’ll receive it.  Just as it’s hard to let material things go in a culture that equates possessions with value and worth, it’s also hard to let the ego go in a society that equates losing with failure.  The models that are held up to us in our culture are the models of people with oversized egos who talk about me, me, me all the time, without apology and without embarrassment.

I read the other day about Muhammad Ali, who was on airplane.  The flight attendant said to him before took off, “Please fasten your seat belt.”  He said to the flight attendant, “Superman don’t need no seat belt.”  The flight attendant said, “Superman don’t need no airplane either.”  I don’t care who you think you are, we’re not always in control of what happens to us.  We all must learn to trust in someone other than ourselves with many aspects of our lives.  If we can do that with these things, why can’t we learn to let our life go and trust God?

Can we decrease so that somebody else can increase?  That’s what the Bible means by being faithful.  Are we mature enough as Christians to trust that if we let our ego go, that we will still shine?  If you let somebody else star, will you still find life?  If you sacrifice the self, do you believe that the Lord will still provide?  Then there’s the most difficult application, letting go of somebody you love.  It’s no accident that one of the tasks of grief work is called “letting go,” because that’s what must happen if you’re going to have life again.  It’s like Isaac.  Abraham had to be willing to let him if he was going to see God’s promise.  Sometimes there are no easy answers, just as there is no easy answer as to why God asked Abraham sacrifice Isaac.  That’s why it’s best that we not pursue that, or even speculate upon it.

I believe our Genesis text isn’t written to answer that question.  It was written to make one affirmation only: we’re to trust the Giver of life, and not the gift itself.  Even if the gift is taken away, the Giver remains.  If God gave life to us once, He can do it again.  Abraham named the place, “The Lord Will Provide.”  The Lord always provides.  Maybe not the way we want.  Maybe not the way we desire.  But still the Lord will provide.

The Lord will give life again.  Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you.”  But He also said, “Not as the world gives do I give to you.”  That means, the Lord will provide, but maybe not in the way that we anticipate.  But God will provide at some time, and in some place, and in some manner, and at times in a way we least expect.

Pastor James Angell was awakened late one Saturday night, with a phone call.  It was the Saturday before Easter.  The phone call was from the Highway Patrol telling him that his twenty-one-year-old daughter, Susan, had been killed in an automobile accident. Susan was on her way home to visit.  Later he wrote a book about those days, called, O Susan!  It’s a book that helps other people as they try to make their way through that same dark valley.  He said that there was a long period when the loss was almost unbearable.  He said it’s like you’re at the end of the rope, and you have to tie a knot on the end so that you have something to hold on to.  Then, he said, something happens.

He warns that it will happen in different ways and at different times to different people.  But for him it happened this way.  A dear and trusted friend came into his study one day and had a blunt talk with him.  He said, “Jim, you’ve got to face this.  For the rest of your life this is a fact that you must live with.  You can do two things about it.  You can use it, use your fresh depth of feeling to make life finer, or you can let it crush you, and go through the rest of your life whimpering.

Angell wrote that those words from his friend reminded him of the words of the hymn, “Shun not the struggle, face it.  Tis God’s gift.”  The accident?  That’s not God’s gift.  The tragedy, the sorrow?  These are not God’s gift.  God’s gift is the grace and the power to use those events to make life deeper and richer.  When Jim Angell finally realized that, he entrusted his daughter into God’s care and found his life again.

Everything we have, including our life, is a gift from God.  If we can trust God for the little things in life, why can’t we trust God with the big things?  Our lesson from Genesis is a reminder that we are not our own, everything we have, including our life, belongs to God and that no matter what happens in this life, “The Lord will provide.”


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