2/22/2021 10:29:59 AM
Pastor Kyle Bitter - The First Sunday in Lent - Sunday, February 21, 2021
Have you ever noticed how hard it is to answer the “why” questions when it comes to the Bible? Why did God do this and not that? Why does God allow this difficult thing to happen? Why doesn’t God use his almighty power to address that? Why did God set up his plan of salvation in the way that he did? The list goes on, and in such situations we know that God wants us to trust him, but that’s not always easy to do – especially when what we see going on around us doesn’t appear to match up very well with what God has promised us! God is powerful and promises us that he’s in control…but we look around and see a lot of chaos and turmoil! God is loving and promises to do all things for our good…but there is still heartache and pain in life. God is forgiving and promises that because of what Jesus did our sins are forgiven so much that it’s just as if they didn’t happen…but we still struggle with guilt and the consequences of our own sinful decisions. Situations like these are among the devil’s favorites for trying to get children of God to doubt. Did God really promise that? Is he really going to come through? Has something changed with God’s plans? No matter what the specifics are, it’s a variation on the same temptation the devil’s been using from the very beginning when he led Adam and Eve to question God’s plans and promises. Did God really say…? Sadly, such temptation is just as effective today as it was back then!
But in our battle with such temptations, one of the places we can turn is to Scripture accounts where we get a little glimpse into why God does things the way he does. One such account is before us today in a very unusual series of events in the life of a man named Abraham, a faithful follower of God from Old Testament times. The account begins as God presents Abraham with a challenging situation – one that seemed to make no sense at all! “Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (Genesis 22:1-2 – NIV84). You can imagine the “why” questions popping up left and right. The whole idea of sacrificing his son as a burnt offering would have been shocking enough – God has always been against human sacrifice! But that’s not even the strangest thing going on here. Many of you probably remember who this Isaac was. Isaac wasn’t just Abraham’s dearly loved son. Isaac was the answer to a promise God had made. Abraham and his wife Sarah had been unable to have children even into old age, but God has promised them that in time, that would change. And it took time – 25 years to be exact – but it did change! When Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90 they miraculously conceived a child – Isaac. And that was only the beginning of what God had promised. He further promised Abraham that his descendants through Isaac would become a great nation many years in the future that would fill the whole land. And it wouldn’t just be about Abraham’s legacy either – from this nation God would bring about a very special child who would be the promised Savior from sin – a blessing to every person on earth! Powerful promises, but promises that wouldn’t work if Isaac never had children of his own. So why was Abraham now supposed to kill his son and offer him up as a burnt offering? The circumstances Abraham faced and the promises God had made certainly seemed as though they couldn’t both be true!
So, how did Abraham’s struggle turn out? We read a little farther. “Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.” Whatever questions Abraham may have been struggling with, he didn’t delay. They left the next morning. “On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Well-intentioned servants would probably have tried to put a stop to this, so they would have to stay behind too. “Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” A perfectly reasonable question, but one Abraham didn’t know the answer to. Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.” (Genesis 22:3-10 – NIV84). If it wasn’t clear already, it’s now apparent that Abraham intends to go through with this. He didn’t understand why God was asking him to do it, but he was determined to do it anyway.
Centuries later, the Holy Spirit gave the writer to the Hebrews some insight into what was on Abraham’s mind during these strange events. Here are a few phrases from what he wrote: “By faith Abraham…offered Isaac as a sacrifice…even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Why? He explains: Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:17-19 – NIV84). In other words, Abraham didn’t know how God was going to do it, but he trusted that God’s promise about his descendants and God’s promise about a Messiah for all people would still happen – even if it meant God doing something as unprecedented as God raising Isaac from the dead after he had been sacrificed! Abraham put his faith in God’s promises, and as events unfolded, we see that such faith was not misplaced. Faith in God’s promises is Faith that Works because God keeps his promises. And that’s what he planned to do here too.
A Lesson for Abraham
In that dramatic moment, just as he was about to slaughter Isaac for the sacrifice, “The angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am," he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him.” God had another plan, and “Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.” (Genesis 22:14 – NIV84). Abraham’s faith in God’s promise, even when God’s promise seemed absolutely impossible, had not been misplaced faith. Faith Works! So, why had God placed Abraham into such a weird situation?
The angel of the LORD who stepped in at the last possible moment explained what had been going on all along. “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:12b – NIV84). And it’s not as if God didn’t already know what his relationship with Abraham was like. That same phrase could also be translated this way: “Now I have observed that you fear God…” God wanted to put Abraham’s faith on display so that Abraham too could see for himself that Faith Works. When Abraham looked back at these events in years to come, for the rest of his life, he would be able to see in the clearest of terms that even when it seems impossible, God keeps his promises. Faith in God’s promises is not misplaced. Faith Works. The angel of the LORD concluded with a reminder of the many more promises to come – promises that also were going to be kept as God’s plans unfolded! “The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son your only son I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nation on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22:15-18 – NIV84).
A Lesson for Us
You and I can look back and see that faith in those promises was not misplaced either – God kept every single one of them. Faith Works! Think about what you heard in today’s gospel. God had promised from the beginning that he would send a Messiah who would crush the devil’s head – defeat him in every way. People like Abraham waited for centuries with only vague hints as to what that would look like. They put their faith in promises even though they had no idea how such promises would be fulfilled, but in the words of today’s gospel we see that such faith was not misplaced. Such Faith Works. God kept his promises. Jesus went to battle with the devil, and he won! He spent 40 days and 40 nights, hungry, thirsty, sleepless, as weakened as can be from a human perspective, giving the devil free rein to try everything he wanted to try…and Jesus won. Not a single sin. The rest of Jesus’ life would be more of the same, one continual victory over the devil in every possible way, culminating at the cross when he laid down his life and crushed the serpent’s head, just as God had promised. And on that day, the truth about all those temptations was revealed. All those questions about God’s promises, all those mischaracterizations of God’s goodness – all revealed as lies because God did exactly what he promised he would do in sending Jesus. In the words of Luther’s famous hymn that we sang just a few minutes ago, one little word does fell him, and in Jesus we see what that word is. Liar. Everything the devil says, everything he promises, everything he accuses God of, lies. All of it. God kept his promises, and that’s why Faith Works.
So why do we sometimes face situations in life where what we see appears to be incompatible with what God promises? I’m guessing you may have picked up on it by now. God teaches us the same lesson he taught Abraham – Faith Works. And he does it in much the same way – by putting us into situations where we have no recourse other than to put our trust in God’s promises, even if they might seem unlikely if not impossible. And the best part is, that’s still true even on those days when you and I find ourselves wavering and struggling, even when the devil’s temptation sound so appealing and accurate, even when we slip up and sin ourselves. None of that affects what God does. He keeps his promises no matter what, and so faith placed in God’s promises is not faith misplaced – it’s Faith that Works, because God keeps his promises. He is in control of the world. He does work things out for the good of his people. He does forgive your sins – completely. Nothing more needs to be done. God does what he promises to do, every single time. As you and I experience that again and again in life, and as we see it on the pages of Scripture again and again, God brings us closer and closer to him, inviting us to put our faith in his promises and then go and live with confidence, knowing that our Faith Works, because God does exactly what he promises to do. Amen.