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Sermon for Sunday 18 February 2018

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 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.”



It’s said that confession is good for the soul, so I need to make a confession this morning. For years I’ve taken the easy way out when it comes to today’s lectionary. From the Lutheran perspective of reading God’s word as law and gospel, for as long as I’ve been studying scripture and preaching on today’s passages, I’ve always focused on the gospel perspective rather than the law. Each time I’ve read and preached on today’s texts I’ve looked at how God prospered Abraham, of how God worked a miracle in the birth of Isaac and of how God fulfilled His promise through Isaac. I’ve spent time exploring the epistle passage and how James reassures us that God will never tempt anyone, and of how every good gift we enjoy is given to us by God. And in the passage from Mark, I’ve taken time to focus on how Jesus blessed baptism by being baptized as well, and of how Jesus overcame satan’s temptations in the wilderness and of how He began His ministry by proclaiming God’s love and salvation in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Now in my defense, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of these subjects. As a matter of fact, each of these make for great sermons. They reassure us of God’s love and promises and of how God protects and blesses us. The problem is, only focusing on the gospel aspect, at the expense of the law, allows us to ignore some really tough questions. Difficult subjects like trials, suffering, and just how much faith we really have in God, and how much do we trust in His blessings rather than in God Himself.
As independent minded human beings, we like to feel good about God, but we seldom want to really think about God as a parent, as one who must, from time to time, correct us and test our faith. It also means, we need to dig deeper into God’s word, so we can avoid misunderstandings. This is probably why the translators of today’s English Bibles use two different words when translating the root words for test and temptation in our Epistle and Old Testament readings.
Looking at our Epistle passage, James tells us that temptation cannot come from God (James 1:13.) If this is the case, then how come in verse 1 of our Old Testament reading (Gen.22), it says, “After these things God tested Abraham”? Doesn’t this seem like a contradiction? Once I started to wrestle with these passages from a law perspective, my first reaction, to this apparent contradiction, was to suppose that the Greek word for tempt and the Hebrew word for test were two different words with two different meanings. If this were the case, then it would make everything easy. The problem is that both have the same root, that to tempt, and to test mean the same thing. I think you can see my problem?
James tells us that God does not tempt, yet, the Genesis passage is very clear, God tested Abraham. However, when you look at these stories in context, the difference becomes clear. Testing from God has to do with strengthening our faith in God’s promises and in improving our relationship with God. Temptation, on the other hand, has to do with a desire for personal gain or our longing for control and power.
Anytime we’re tempted, there can only be one of two outcomes. Either we succumb and fall into sin by giving into our own desires putting ourselves first, or, we resist the temptation and follow God’s laws and statutes putting God first. Take Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness for example. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ desert experience (Matt. 4:1-11), satan comes to Him and tempts Him in three ways. First, satan tells Jesus to turn stones into bread.
Jesus was driven by the Spirit out into the wasteland to be tempted by satan. As He was walking and talking with His Father, He was getting prepared for what lay ahead. After more than a month of fasting, Jesus was hungry and satan takes the opportunity to tempt Him into taking control, of taking things into His own hands, instead of trusting the Father. Jesus of course resists, and He quotes scripture to battle back. Next, satan takes Jesus to the top of the temple and tells Him to jump and see if the Father would save Him.
The temptation here is for Jesus to take charge of the situation and force God the Father into acting. It was about tempting Jesus to assert His independence over the will of the Father. Again, Jesus overcomes by quoting scripture as a way of responding to satan’s proposal. Finally, satan takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows Him all the kingdoms on earth and tells Him that if He falls down and worships satan, then all that would be His. The temptation here is for personal gain and power. What’s common among all three of these temptations is for the opportunity for Jesus to get something personally from giving into the temptation. The temptation was for Jesus to put Himself first and not trust God. Temptation is the opportunity to fulfill our desires over God’s, and it distances us from God, rather than build up our relationship with Him. But testing is different.
When God tests us, the goal is to strengthen our relationship with God and to reinforce our faith not only in ourselves, but in God as well. Again, looking at our Old Testament reading, Abraham seemingly had nothing to gain and everything to lose when God told him to sacrifice Isaac. Looking back earlier in Genesis, God had, to this point, removed all the fallback plans Abraham had tried to implement in fulfilling God’s promise.
As we’ve come to learn, Abraham and Sarah were unable to have children. At the age of 75, God comes to Abram and tells him to leave his ancestral home and God would show him a new country. Furthermore, God made a covenant with Abram, if he would serve Him, God would make a great nation of him; a nation so numerous, no one could count them. So, Abram left his country and went as God directed. Time went by and Abram became restless, so he asks God if he could take a slave and make him his heir (Gen. 15.) The answer was no. The promise would be fulfilled through his offspring.
Again, years go by and Abram and Sarai next decide to help God out and at Sarai’s bidding, Abram takes one of Sarai’s handmaids to be his concubine. Hagar then bears him a son, Ishmael. But the strategy comes with problems and doesn’t fulfill God’s design, so Abram sends Hagar and Ishmael away (Gen. 21:8-21.) Another plan that would enable Abraham to see God’s promise is removed. Finally, at age 90, as promised, Sarah bears a son, Isaac who is the fulfillment of the promise. Through Isaac, it seems, God would finally fulfill His promise and make Abraham’s descendants more numerous than could be counted.
For Abraham and Sarah, the birth of Isaac seems to be the answer to everything, God’s promise has now been fulfilled. But as usual, there’s more to the story. Isaac comes of age and God comes to Abraham to test him. “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 that I will show you.” God’s request must have been unthinkable.
Here’s God, asking Abraham to go and kill the promise. Not only was God asking Abraham to give up his only son; not only was God asking Abraham to eliminate the means of support in his old age, the only one who would take care of him in his latter years, God was asking Abraham to kill the only means by which God’s promise would be fulfilled. In essence, God was asking Abraham to give up his most precious, most cherished thing. You could say that God was asking Abraham to give up his safety net. The test wasn’t about personal gain, but about Abraham’s faith in God to fulfill His promise.
First, I need you to consider that at no time did God ever say that He would not fulfill His promise. Abraham’s focus was on Isaac alone. In Abraham’s eyes, no Isaac, no promise. Abraham had already forgot that even at the age of 99, he was still able to father a child. So why couldn’t God perform the same miracle at the age of 113? The test God administered was about trusting God to fulfill His promise and about Abraham’s relationship to God. Again, this is the difference between a test God sends and a temptation from satan. Think of it another way.
Think of a test from God like a test we took in school. There are two things that can be learned from a test. First, you demonstrate your mastery of the material and second the teacher confirms what they taught was learned and understood. Until the test is administered, however, there’s no way of confirming either. Some people might say, well God knew the outcome before He even tested Abraham. The problem is, that answer removes our gift of free will from the equation.
At anytime, Abraham was free to change His mind. It was only by him going through the test that He was able to demonstrate that He trusted God, and in God’s promise. But there’s one other non-Christological thing to consider in the story: what would be the hardest thing for you to give up?
Again, considering the Biblical account of Abraham and Isaac, God was asking Abraham to give up more than simply his only son, which for most of us is unthinkable; God was asking Abraham to give up his Social Security, his Medicare and his long-term assisted living arrangements. In other words, God was asking Abraham to give up his financial and elder care safety net. As we’ve come to understand, in US pre-social welfare times, as well as in most places in the world today, the only security parents have is through their children.
In Biblical times, the responsibility for care of the parents fell to the eldest son who received a double share of the inheritance. Financial security and elder care was provided by the eldest son and the parents were cared for in the family home or were taken into the child’s home. Consider Jesus’ words to John from the cross. In John 19:26-27 we read, “When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then He said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” So, from that hour, this disciple took her into his home.” Jesus, as the eldest Son, had the responsibility for the care for His mother. He fulfilled that responsibility by passing on that obligation to the Apostle John.
Tradition indicated that Joseph had died before Jesus’ passion and death. So, if Jesus hadn’t acted from the cross in the way He did, what do you think would have happened to Mary, a widow without her eldest Son to take care of her? In much the same way this would have been Abraham’s situation. He was somewhere around 115 years old when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac. Yes, God blessed Abraham with another 60 years. According to Genesis 25:7 Abraham died at the age of 175. However, in chapter 22, (vs. 1-2) Sarah only lived to be 127. All things considered, Abraham couldn’t see starting over and trying for another boy.
What if the next time Sarah gave birth to a girl? How many times could they try before it was too late? Abraham’s entire future as well as God’s promise was, in Abraham’s eyes, wrapped up in Isaac, and now, God was asking him to give his future well-being back to God.
What I want you to take notice of, is the mistake we often make in reading this passage. At no time did God ever say, “I want to take back my promise.” At no time did God ever say, you’ve failed to keep your end of the bargain so now you have to pay the price. No where in the Bible can we find that God said, you’ve failed to keep your side of the covenant so I’m no longer going to take care of you. Nowhere do we read that God told Abraham, not only are you going to have to give back the promise in Isaac, but you’re going to die alone. God simply comes to Abraham to test him. God needed to know if Abraham’s faith in God was unquestionable.
As we read, Abraham trusted God completely and raised the knife to sacrifice his son, his future security and his future well-being. Abraham was willing to give the one thing he considered most precious back to God in faith. But what about you and I? If God were to come to us today and say, I want you to give me the one thing that you cherish the most, would we be willing to give it back to God? Would you give up your 401K? Your stock portfolio? Your insurance policy? Your home, your career, your car? What is it that we prize the most and would be resistant to give back to God? How much faith do we have in God that He will keep His promises?
God never said to Abraham, I’m taking back my promise and that same thing can be said for us today. Throughout the Bible we see evidence of God fulfilling each and every one of His promises. Could not the God who raised Jesus from the dead, not also take care of us, no matter what? The story of Abraham’s faith is a lesson for us today. Even when it seems like God is asking us to give up our most prized possession, His promise is sure; “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deut. 31:6.)

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