Acts 12:1-19 "THE IRON GATE OPENED FOR THEM ALL BY ITSELF"
Third Sunday of Easter - April 18, 2021
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.
So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.
Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.
Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating.”
When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”
“ You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”
But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.
In the morning, there was a great commotion among the soldiers. “What could have happened to Peter?” they asked. After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.
How about that?! Two readings from the Book of Acts on two consecutive Sundays – both passages about apostles of our Lord who are imprisoned. A week ago it was Paul locked up in Roman prison in Caesarea, seemingly forgotten by provincial bureaucracy because of a change in governors. And today it is Peter who’s locked up in a prison in Jerusalem, arrested by King Herod Agrippa I. Two big name believers, pillars of the early Christian church, who appear to have run afoul of the authorities and find themselves in a lot of hot water.
Setting last week’s account side-by-side with this one, we see two very different outcomes. To avoid returning to Jerusalem where there’s a plot is afoot to kill him, Paul appeals to Caesar. As a Roman citizen, it’s his right. Although the shackles don’t come off, he’s on his way to Rome – a destination he’s had in mind to reach with the message of God’s love in Christ so that more people might believe. Peter experiences a completely unexpected, miraculous release – an angel orchestrating his jail-break in dramatic fashion. Paul’s situation and Peter’s situation, though different in outcomes, have this in common … the resurrection truth that Jesus lives. Both accounts also show who is really in charge: the risen Christ. As the grave could not contain him, so his gospel cannot be in any way suppressed or sidelined. In fact, it works mightily in a person's life to change him or her!
Actually Jesus had predicted this. He’d told his disciples they would be targets of retribution, explaining, “They [these enemies of my gospel] will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, handing you over synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for my name’s sake.” And the extent to which those opposed to the gospel would go? — that, too, we hear about today in the tragic report of the martyrdom of James, the brother of John, the first of Jesus' disciples to lay down his life for our Lord.
We see that as we study this text closely and note a small, but significant, detail in Peter’s escape. We are told that the iron gate which led out of the prison into the city proper "opened all by itself." We are used to automated doors like those at big box stores such as Fleet Farm and Target just across the highway here ... doors that open and shut automatically when you trigger a sensor of some kind. This was different because it was a demonstration of the power of the Lord. “THE IRON GATE OPENED FOR THEM ALL BY ITSELF.”
As you heard these verses read, what thoughts popped into your head? Did you try to envision what the inside of the prison looked like where Peter was being held ... dark, dank, maybe with the rustling of mice in the straw that covered the floor? Did you wonder what Peter was thinking about as the hours passed, or what he talked about with the guards? Perhaps you pondered the question, “What if that was me there? How would I have handled the situation?”
1. Jesus’ resurrection made Peter a new man.
The Peter we find here in prison, under around-the-clock surveillance with sixteen pairs of eyes watching his every move and a pair of soldiers physically chained to him as he slept — is the same Peter as before, but he is different. He is still the bold, brash, say-what's-on-his-mind guy. He is still a sinner and he will prove it later as he starts to backpedal in the company of Christians from a Jewish background, acting more ‘old school’ work-righteous in his behavior and the Apostle Paul will to have to reprimand him and remind him God has put an end to the Old Testament ceremonial law. (You can read about that incident in Galatians chapter 2). But right here, to his credit, Peter shows himself to be a follower of Jesus with conviction. His boldness now is all about witnessing for Jesus. No more denying his association with Jesus, no more covering up his faith in Jesus as the Messiah who lived, died, and rose again so that all are forgiven and all who believe in him have eternal life. It's Peter's testimony to the risen Christ that has landed him here in jail.
Yet Peter actually appears at peace in his heart because he's sound asleep on the very night before he is to face the people before whom he will stand trial. He is not afraid for his life as he had been ten years earlier when he denied vehemently three times in a matter of hours any connection with Jesus and then spent several sleepless nights with the grief of a guilty conscience. What’s behind that change? The risen Christ had restored Peter to apostleship and remedied his guily conscience by confirming that he still had work for him in feeding his lambs and sheep (John 21).
You see, Peter had been transformed by Jesus’ love. Peter was a new man - and that's the gospel! The good news that we are forgiven in Jesus changes us. The gospel means that God ... who has every right to be angry with us and to insist that we be punished — he, instead, does not do these things, but he receives us. He draws us close to him and he wraps his arms around us, as children whom he loves. And he blesses us continuously in so many ways ... the greatest way being that he leads us out of the prisonhouse of sin and delivers us safely into the joys of eternal life heaven.
How is your life transforming as a Christian? Do you have an appreciation of this awesome, Spirit-fired work going on inside you? What changes do you see in your attitude that come from the certainty that God has forgiven you all those times in the past when your words or actions denied your connection to him? The conviction in your heart that you are God's child is a gift to you! What changes in how you make life-choices do you see ... as you realize the joy of obeying him by loving and forgiving others? You're willingness to let go of that wrong done to you and live at peace with the person who slighted or who hurt you - that too is a gift to you? Are you less cynical because you know that as long as you are still living on earth all is not hopeless and you most definitely have a God-ordained purpose to fulfill? That's still another gift God has given you. If the end of the world hasn't yet come yet (and it hasn't!), it is because God has people to whom he wants you to reach out with his word to save them. Peter hadn’t successfully completed a twelve-step program or methodically implemented the directives of some noted life-coach so he could be "a better person.” Jesus’ resurrection made him a new man.
For Peter, the prison door opened all by itself, and the Lord's miracle set him free.
Did you notice how it happened ... how Peter was set free? It was in answer to the prayers earnestly offered up to God by his fellow Christians. The church in Jerusalem had been praying for him. And in light of the recent death of James at the hands of Herod, you can bet a lot of “knee-time” with fervent praying had been devoted to Peter’s release (if that was the Lord’s will).
2. The Lord’s miracle set him free.
As Christians we don’t hesitate to ask God for miracles because he does them (!). When a family member or friend is suffering physically, we ask that the Lord would bless the medical means employed on that person’s behalf to make him or her well. But that doesn’t we discount God’s working a miracle. In fact our first thought is that our gracious Lord would use his almighty power to bring about some form of deliverance for that individual.
Of course, the greatest miracle we pray for in the case of anyone is that a person would become (or remain) a Christian because we want what God wants: “that all people be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” And it takes a miracle to do this because a person dead in unbelief and sin can’t change his or her heart no matter how bad they want to or how hard they try. God has to create faith in Jesus in us. And he keeps doing this miracle as we see unbelievers being converted to faith in him and his forgiveness.
When Peter was led out by his angel escort and the prison door opened by itself, God also was showing that he rules history. When we step back and examine what is happening in our world and what has happened through times past, it becomes clear to the Christian that this is not just history, a collection of past activities. We see His story — that’s two words with the “H” capitalized. From the very beginning, from the creation of the world onward history (His story) is the record of God’s love for humanity. He gave us a perfect world for our eternal happiness as perfect people. And when sin wriggled its way into the world through the devil’s temptations and brought death, God still not only wanted us to have eternal happiness, he devised the perfect plan to restore it to us by making us perfect people in his eyes through faith in Jesus. Whatever disasters Satan and evil threw at us (at our human race), God worked it out for good — Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection being the greatest blessing.
Jesus paid for all our sins. He lives again as proof that God has forgiven us. What God has done and continues to do in building his church results in upheaval among the evil. Look at the aftermath of Peter’s escape from prison. Herod was frantic! He was vulnerable to an unseen power which he couldn’t control. In his anger he never even considered the event to be a miracle, but executed his own soldiers who had not neglected their duty. And then he left town likely because he didn’t want to have to face the humbling reality of his weakness. After all, it’s easier to run and hide than to work through the facts to find the truth.
So as a Christian, do doors meant to confine you ever open automatically all by themselves? Have you faced a situation in which everything seemed to be against you, … a situation where you saw no way to escape some disastrous result, and yet – somehow – things changed to bring you blessing instead? Maybe someone forgave your mistake and gave you a second chance? Maybe you or someone close to you – in answer to your prayers – was set free from an illness, or addiction, or unbelief? Maybe you have tried everything you could think of to tell someone the gospel about Jesus and every time been shut out, only to be given an open door where or when you never expected it — maybe at a family get-together, or maybe at a recreation activity with lots of people around, or maybe in a hospital room. Keep praying for miracles and rejoice when God says “yes.” Tell others about it giving full credit to the Lord, as Peter did! Luke who records this event tells us, “Peter motioned to them with his hand to be silent and described to them how the Lord had brought him out of prison.”
The risen Christ rules history for the benefit of his people. Whatever serves the best interest of his people, that is what he permits, that is what he sends. This time it is Peter’s miraculous release from prison so that through the Word he can strengthen those who've heard the Word. That may not always be the case ... God may have something else in mind, but irrespective of what he chooses to do, the Lord rules all things. That means that we can always face unafraid whatever the future holds because the Word has gone to work and strengthened us too.
Peter didn't stay in that place, but went elsewhere and continued to proclaim the gospel of the risen Christ.
"?The iron gate opened for them all by itself." That's impressive, isn't it?! God set Peter free through that dramatic miracle. Again, don’t become discouraged if God doesn’t grant you a miracle of the same caliber. Remember that he who knows and sees all things has a love for you (and for everyone else) that will choose the best blessing! Your faith tells you that you can count on our Savior to do so because our eternal life is his goal. He will not forsake you, but remains with you through his Word. He will continue to rule, to exercise authority over all things, so that you at last will come to be where he is.
John 20:9-23 "LIFE-GIVING HANDS"
Easter Sunday - April 4, 2021
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
On her way out the door of the coffee shop, she ran into a classmate she hadn’t seen for years. Within moments they were visiting as though no time had passed — until her friend asked, “So how’s life?” Her mind raced to think of a way to deflect the question because, honestly, her life was a mess. She was separated from her husband and working a job she hated. And although her kids never said it directly, she felt like they blamed her for the marriage problems. That made her time with them less than fulfilling. She was scared and angry; she felt trapped. This wasn’t the life she imagined, and she dreamed about running away from it all, starting over, and really living life.
Sometimes it’s the idealism of youth. Sometimes it’s a midlife crisis. Sometimes it’s burnout from the 40-year grind of work and a readiness to embrace the golden years. But we all go through those cycles where we feel as though it’s time to start really living. People tell themselves they need go backpacking through Europe, buy an overpriced imported German convertible and cruise up and down the Pacific Coast Highway, or spend your golden years cruising the Mediterranean. These adventures – they try to convince themselves – will help them really live. They will “suck out all the marrow of life” as Henry David Thoreau, 19th c American philosopher, said. But when those same people return home from their feel-good trips and realize their souls still feel empty, they’re left wondering what it means to really live.
The Bible has something to say about really living, and it doesn’t involve a backpack, a BMW, or the Bosporus. Christians need no midlife crisis or end-of-life burnout to trigger a life worth living. They just need Easter. They need the empty tomb. They need the happy shouts: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.” They need Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in the Upper Room, showing them his Life-Giving Hands and then explaining to them that Easter gives them a life worth really living.
The disciples in the Upper Room on that first Easter day might as well have been walking out of a coffee shop – because they were acting like that woman whose life was a mess. John tells us “the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews.” If the Jewish religious leaders were so underhanded and corrupt as to orchestrate the crucifixion of an innocent man, what would stop them from coming after his disciples next? Seventy-two hours earlier, these men abandoned Jesus and fled from the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus was arrested. Peter disowned him – just as Jesus had predicted. And, despite the fact that Jesus had been preparing them for months for his upcoming death, they still seemed genuinely shocked and surprised as they watched him die on the cross Friday afternoon. They were acting like Jesus was dead, and their lives weren’t worth living. They were afraid. They felt guilty. And they were trapped in that Upper Room.
Knowing full well their agitated state of mind, Jesus wanted to calm their nerves and bring them peace. He didn’t lead with, “How’s life?” but said, “Peace be with you.” It was still Easter – Easter early evening. They had seen the empty tomb. They heard the reports of the women and the Emmaus disciples, but they hadn’t seen Jesus with their own eyes. They weren’t completely sure what to make of the day’s events. So Jesus came and stood in their presence. He showed himself alive, in person, and then gave his stupefied audience a moment to grasp the full import of his bodily presence. “Yes, guys, it is me! I am not a ghost, and I am not dead. I am standing right in front of you, very much alive.” “After he said this, he showed them his hands and side.”
Jesus’ bodily presence, together with the sight of his life-giving hands convinced the disciples that they were looking at their resurrected Lord. “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”
Friends, we have the witness of the women. We have the Emmaus answer, and – quoting the Peter now in his second letter, “we also have the prophets’ message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place” (1:19). This world is a dark place. It is filled with doubt and disappointment, guilt and grief, punishment and pain, death and despair. This world is so dark that it often makes us want to join the disciples in the Upper Room with the doors locked in fear! On Good Friday the whole world went dark when God laid on Christ the iniquity of us all. Jesus suffered the anguish of all the ugliness and darkness of this evil world.
But today marks three days from Friday. It’s Easter, and Christ is alive! It took them a moment, but the disciples finally grabbed hold of the meaning of Easter that evening. It is joy!“The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” Not sinful fear, but Easter joy makes life really worth living.
Have you grabbed hold of Easter joy? The gloomy hopelessness of the world died on Good Friday, and so did the darkness of sin and all the nagging guilt. Easter not only means joy, but peace. Paul said it like this in his second letter to the Corinthians: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (5:19). Jesus conquered sin. He defeated the devil. He rose from the dead. He is alive! This Easter, grab hold of Jesus’ life. His life makes your life really worth living. Along with Jesus, peace follows joy into your soul.
The easy part of Jesus’ visit is done. He showed himself alive. But Jesus had more in mind that Easter evening than to show the disciples his life-giving hands. Easter peace and joy were not just a static thing – a private state of mind and soul without words or deeds to follow. Jesus spoke next about how his life-fulfilling hands connect directly to our life-giving mission. “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’” The Father had sent Jesus from heaven on a mission to forgive sins, to redeem the world. Jesus didn’t just hear the word of God, he did what his Father said! In the same way the Father sent Jesus, he now sends us. He takes disciples, followers, and transforms them into apostles – those who are sent out to proclaim. “He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” Serving as Christ’s ambassadors – that’s a life really worth living!
The nobility of Jesus’ call to serve is outpaced only by its scope. What a big job! You sense the disciples might have been overwhelmed. After all, within moments of Jesus’ appearance, the disciples had gone from terror-filled-hiding to Easter-peace-and-joy, then they were commissioned and sent out into the world as Christ’s ambassadors. Jesus added that they wouldn’t go alone; they would be serving with the power of the Holy Spirit. “And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” What the disciples received was much more than the Spirit-given gift of faith. The Holy Spirit empowers and enables each of us to carry out God’s call: “As the Father sent me, I’m sending you.” Fifty days later, the Holy Spirit came so powerfully on these disciples that he turned uneducated Galilean fishermen into apostolic fishers of men. After hearing Peter’s sermon, 3000 souls were added to the Christian church that day.
Jesus even trained the apostles in the message they would proclaim. “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” It’s a significant day when parents give a child keys to the house, and an even bigger milestone when they hand over the keys to the car. With these words, Jesus confidently hands every believer the keys to heaven. Forgiving sins or withholding forgiveness from those who reject Christ or are plainly impenitent is tantamount to opening and closing the door to heaven. The keys are the special power and privilege Christ gives only to Christians.
Forgiving sins and announcing peace is what Jesus did on Easter when he showed the disciples his life-giving hands. What better way to live Easter daily than to use our hands for God’s life-giving purpose – to forgive our brother and sisters? What can be more meaningful than forgiving the sins of the spouse from whom I’m estranged, reconciling with a family member, resolving differences with an old friend? Remember, keys are valuable only when you use them. Let’s use them! It’s why God gave them to us! Living at peace with God and your neighbor makes life really worth living.
Those disciples thought they had nothing to live for. They acted as if Jesus was dead. Miraculously, Jesus appeared in their presence on Easter and showed them his life-giving hands. Then he sent them on his life-giving mission, empowered by the Holy Spirit with his forgiving keys. Today there are more than two billion Christians scattered around the world who owe a debt of gratitude to the church’s humble beginnings that Easter evening.
So how are you? Are you stuck? Do you think you’ve got nothing to live for? If so, stop acting as if Jesus is dead, because he’s not! Look again at his life-giving hands. Jesus is alive! Let’s act like it. Let’s pray like it. Let’s believe like it. Let’s embrace his call, “I am sending you,” and bring the gospel to the other five and half billion people in our world … one by one … one soul at a time. Let’s receive his Holy Spirit and use the keys to proclaim peace. Live life like there is no death, because Easter means there is no death. Easter makes life really worth living.
Some Roman soldiers were there. They had to be. It was their job, and they carried it out with brutal efficiency. None of them realized that when they drove home the nails and divided up Jesus’ clothes, they were fulfilling prophecies that were hundreds of years old. But one of the soldiers, a centurion, did recognize that the man hanging on the middle cross was different. He confessed that Jesus was the Son of God.
Luke 23:32-34 "NAIL-PIERCED HANDS"
Good Friday - April 2, 2021
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified hi there, along with the criminals - one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing," And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
Were you there? It’s the probing, bordering-on-accusing title question that’s repeated again and again in the old African-American spiritual. Were you there on the day Christians around the world observe today? Were you there on Good Friday? “Were you there when they crucified my Lord … when they nailed him to the tree … when they laid him in the tomb?” Before you answer, I want you to remember some of the people who were there at Calvary and who played prominent roles in our Savior’s passion.
Two other criminals were there — and they didn’t have a choice either. They were being punished for their crimes. One of them even acknowledged that they were getting what their deeds deserved. But after he confessed his sins, he also confessed his faith by asking Jesus to remember him. And Jesus assured him that they would soon be reunited in paradise.
The Jewish leaders were there, perhaps to make sure that Pilate would follow through on his pledge to execute Jesus. They had waited a long time for this. They were going to enjoy this. In their minds they had won a great victory, but instead of being gracious winners they got nasty. They taunted and jeered and challenged Jesus to come down from his cross, totally oblivious to the fact that at any moment he could descend and destroy them all.
Even if Pontius Pilate was not physically present at Golgotha, he made his presence known by having a sign posted above Jesus’ cross. It read, “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” When some wanted him to change what he wrote, amazingly the Roman governor suddenly grew a backbone and denied their request. But for Pilate it was too little, too late.
It would be nice to be able to say that all the disciples were there to give support to their Lord in his dying hours. But they weren’t. They had deserted Jesus the night before in the garden. They had abandoned him in his time of need, just as Jesus had predicted. Only one disciple, John, had come to Calvary. And another person Jesus dearly loved stood by his side.
Jesus’ mother was there on Good Friday — and what Mary witnessed must’ve made her heart break. As a young girl she had received the amazing news from the angel Gabriel that God had chosen her to give birth to the Messiah, the promised Savior. But not long after that child was born, she received some news that wasn’t so good. In Jerusalem, in the temple, while holding her perfect child in his arms, Simeon predicted that a sword would pierce Mary’s soul. And as she watched her son slowly dying before her eyes, Mary could fully understand what those words meant.
Working through a list like this helps us remember the people and places and events of Good Friday, but it doesn’t answer the original question: Were you there? The obvious answer is no. We weren’t there. You and I are separated from that day by thousands of miles and thousands of years, so unless we have access to a time machine it would be impossible for us to be there.
There is another way to look at that question, however, and there is another hymn that suggests a different answer. The title is “God Was There on Calvary,” and it can be found in our hymnal, Christian Worship. It’s hymn #140 in the Good Friday section. Listen to what the hymnwriter says in stanza 2:
All the world on Calvary,
crucified the Prince of life,
pierced the hands of God’s own Son,
There on Calvary.
If those poetic words are true, if the entire world was there on Calvary on Good Friday, then you were there. And so was I. No, we didn’t come up with the charges that were used to convict Jesus. No, we didn’t hand down the order to crucify Jesus. None of us wielded the hammer that drove the nails through his hands, but we were there because our sins were there. Jesus carried them there, and on the cross he bore the crushing burden of the sins of humanity.
That means our sin is the reason God’s Son had to suffer and die. That means you and I are no less guilty than the people who were directly responsible for Jesus’ death. If you are having a hard time accepting that, if you want to put that charge to the test, don’t look around and compare yourself with the Roman soldiers or the Jewish leaders or the AWOL disciples or anyone else who was there on Good Friday. Look up at the cross. Look deep inside and examine your heart and compare yourself with Jesus.
There is a billboard alongside a certain road in the northwoods of Michigan. You can drive for miles and miles on that road and all you see are trees – hill after hill covered by huge, green trees – until you come to a clearing and a giant billboard comes into view. There are no pictures on the billboard and no graphics, just big, block letters that read: Real Christians FORGIVE like Jesus.
Who paid for that message to be displayed is a mystery, but if the goal was to encourage passers-by, it may –strangely – have the opposite effect. Here’s what I mean. That message can remind us of the many lessons Jesus taught about forgiveness – e.g. his appeal to his followers to turn the other cheek and not keep count of the number times one has been wronged. Peter was told to forgive “not seven times, but seventy times seven.” This teaching of our Lord was brought out, too, in story-form, such as his Parable of the Prodigal Son … and that’s all a good thing. Then too, there is Jesus’ own example on the cross, when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” There he was asking God to pardon the people putting him to death. Such selfless love!
But how do we fare by comparison?? When we begin drawing comparisons to our lives — the perceived slights and petty squabbles that cause tension and even conflict in our relationships, the hurtful things we’ve said and the vengeful things we have done, there is no way we measure up to being forgiving as Jesus was!
So the logical, condemning conclusion our minds can come to is … if real Christians forgive like Jesus, what does that make me? If you claim to be a Christian, and if you are held to the same standard of forgiving in exactly the same way he did, what does that make us?
The man who performed so many miracles during his ministry didn’t look like a miracle worker on Good Friday. He looked weak and helpless. Stripped of his clothing. Stripped of his dignity. Bloodied. Beaten. Unable to carry his cross. Barely able to stand. Jesus had been defeated. The devil had won the day.
- It makes us a whole lot less than real Christians!
- It makes us guilty and completely incapable of following in Jesus’ footsteps.
- It makes us not at all deserving of God’s love and desperately in need of a miracle to be rescued from our sins.
The foe was triumphant when on Calvary
The Lord of creation was nailed to the tree.
In Satan’s domain did the hosts shout and jeer,
For Jesus was slain, whom the evil ones fear. (CW 143 v. 2)
But the celebration in hell turned out to be short-lived. The evil ones had good reason to be afraid because the Messiah was about to perform his greatest miracle of all! To declare his final victory over the devil, to demonstrate his power over death, to announce to the world that reports of his demise had been greatly exaggerated and assure you that all your sins have been forgiven, the living Lord Jesus holds out to you … his nail-pierced hands.
It was just a couple days after Good Friday. The disciples, those same ones who were nowhere to be found on Calvary, now gathered together behind locked doors. They were confused about what had just happened and were fearful about the future. They became even more afraid when what they thought was a ghost appeared among them. But this was no apparition. It was the Lord, and he brought them a message of peace. And then Jesus did something else, something special, something personal, something that instantly allayed their fears. He showed them his hands.
Scars are not usually attractive, but for the disciples those nail marks were the most beautiful thing they had ever seen. And the beauty of those scars is not lost on us either. Those wounds remind us of the high cost of our redemption. Jesus took on our flesh. Jesus felt our pain. Jesus endured the righteous wrath of God in our place. Jesus prayed for our forgiveness on the cross, and he suffered and died on the cross to earn it.
The unconditional, sacrificial love of Jesus is what makes this day good. When your sins condemn you, he intercedes for you. When Satan seeks to devour you, Jesus will defend you. When you are feeling guilty, spiritually empty, totally unworthy of God’s love, remember what Jesus has done to save you; remember that he will never leave you or forsake you; remember that he has ascended into heaven to prepare a place for you.
If all of this sounds too good to be true, … if you’re looking for proof that it is indeed true, all you need to do is look up. Look to the cross. Look to Jesus. Look at your living Savior’s nail-pierced hands.
No cross, no crown. That illustrates the difference between Peter’s theology and Jesus’ theology. Peter was holding to a theology of earthly glory. He wanted to reign with Jesus. He wanted to help Jesus do miracles. He wanted life to be fun, stress-free and worry-free.
"GOD GOES THE DISTANCE TO MAKE AND KEEP YOU HIS OWN"
Fourth Sunday in Lent - March 14, 2021
The Lord said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." (v. 8)
“I will turn this car around!!” Any parents here ever say something like that? It’s kind of the universal response to whining and complaining that might come from the backseat. Load up the family in the car and hit the holiday road on your way to a fun day at an amusement park or a family getaway, and you barely get around the block before it starts. Mom, I’m hungry! Dad, he’s on my side of the seat! She’s kicking me! He’s pulling my hair! Are we there yet? It’s so hot in here! I’m cold! I want a drink! Why couldn’t we just fly like everyone else does? And then from the driver’s seat bellows “I will turn this car around!” The threat of ending the trip before you reach your destination makes people think.
As odd as it sounds, that’s kind of what God did with the Israelites. With an outstretched arm, the Lord God had delivered his ancient people from their slavery in Egypt. When they faced a sea of water in front of them and with Pharaoh’s army bearing down on them, the Lord parted the Red Sea so the entire nation could walk through on dry ground. When they got hungry, God sent bread from heaven and brought quail to their camp for the people to eat. When they got thirsty, God did the unthinkable and impossible, bringing forth water for them from solid rock. Time after time, the Lord their God had shown his people his unfailing love and unfathomable power.
He brought them to the border of the Promised Land with a promise that it was all theirs. But the people weren’t so sure. Those Canaanites are pretty big; their fortified cities looked pretty strong … and what’ve we got? Israel doubted God’s power to do what he promised to do, and so God turned the car around and the people would wander in the wilderness for forty years.
Fast forward four decades. With the exception of two people, an entire generation of Israelites had died off and a new generation of Israelites stood poised to enter the Promised Land. All they had to do was take a shortcut through the country of Edom and they would be home free. But Edom wouldn’t let them. The Israelites would have to walk around. Apparently, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They had been meandering in the desert for forty years — would a few extra miles really make much of a difference? But like today, small things can set people off.
The people grew impatient on the way, literally Scripture says: “the breath of the people grew short.” To use a 50¢ word they were ‘exasperated.’ They had grown short of patience, short of temper, short of courage. They spoke angrily against God and against Moses “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” It’s breathtaking to hear their level of discontent. God has shown himself faithful day-in and day-out for four decades, but to a man these Israelites are convinced they’re going to keel over right there in the desert and die. The food subcommittee has completely run out of menu ideas. “We detest this miserable food.” The word translated “miserable” could also be translated “worthless” or “cursed” — never-mind that the manna and the quail, miraculously provided (food for which they did not have to work!), had sustained them all those years. The return-to-Egypt task force had met numerous times and now unanimously decided that returning to the place where their fathers had toiled as slaves was preferable to spending another day in the wilderness.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The grievances voiced by this generation echoe their parents’ complaint. And the object of their discontent? God’s deliverance. God's providence. In their eyes, God's grace was too small. The Lord had failed them. If we were desert mice scampering from tent to tent in Israel encampment, what sort of ear-tingling conversations might we have heard? “I can’t honestly say the Lord’s ever done anything for me?!” “Yeah, if only he would show us, at least a little bit, that he’s looking out for us!” “If God really cared about us, he would get rid of that has-been, geriatric, loser of a leader, Moses.” “Yeah, and give us somebody with GPS that works!” They fussed and fumed — had what we could even call a two-year old’s ‘hissy fit,’ all the while walking around as a free people, released from shackles of slavery their ancestors had worn for hundred years.
One Bible commentator described their impudence this way: "The goodness and loving care of God practically slapped them in the face every day, but they were looking for something else. They would rather be slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt than be God’s people on their way to the Promised Land."
I don’t know about you, but I find it easy to get frustrated with the Old Testament Israelites, particularly this group whom God brought out of Egypt. They had seen such great things! Yet over and over again they managed to get caught up in the challenge of the moment (no food, no water, etc.), losing sight of God’s amazing deeds in the past and his gracious promises regarding their future. Frustrating!
Yet, are we that different? It’s easy to focus on what we don’t have, rather than what we do have. It’s more expedient and we feel at least a little justified looking at all the ways God has blessed us – at least the way we think he should – rather than at all the ways God and continue to shower his goodness on people who don’t deserve it, on you and me. What is it for you? If you could add another zero to the end of your net worth, would that make you more contented? Of course, by the numbers, we here in the United States do have a higher standard of living than far away the vast majority of people on this planet. Do you find yourself wishing things could just look a little bit more impressive or glamorous in your work, your family, or your church – kind of like the people next door? Never-mind the fact that God’s given you the ability to work and you’ve got a job to go or telecommute to, a family to love, a country in which to worship him freely. But it’s never quite good enough, is it? The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
The fact of the matter is we often cannot see, or we refuse to see, the majesty that lies behind our current, little bit of misery. We can quickly grow unappreciative of God’s grace. Yet, we have been set free in Christ! Jesus Christ has unloosed the shackles of sin, death, and the devil by which we were bound! That is no little grace!
Why is it that we at times wouldn’t mind going back to the sins of our youth, even if just for a field trip; or tasting of the forbidden fruit which God in his law warns us against? What’s at the root of that? A fundamental distrust of the truth that God actually does know what is best for us and that he is more than able to provide it! Are we that different? No! Too often we find ourselves standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these Israelites who frustrated us.
There is an unstated question running through the account of the Exodus, and all of Scripture for that matter, and here is that unstated question. That question is how far will God go to bring his people back to him, reclaim them? Consider all the answers to that question – those eye-popping plagues in Egypt, his impressive providence in the wilderness, and, yes, even these slithering snakes.
“Then the Lord sent venomous snakes (“fiery serpents” - KJV) among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.” The snakes bit the people into repentance, every bit as much as any other preaching of God’s law would seek to lead them to repentance. At first we might ask, What kind of ruthless God would do this? Why would he retaliate like this? But is that what’s going on here?
Think about it. If God simply wanted to punish his people for their whining and complaining, he could’ve just left them alone. God could have just walked away from them, because it was plenty clear they were already beating a path away from him. But God doesn’t! He sent those snakes not to wallop them in retribution, but to win them in repentance. This time God did not turn the car around. Grace, that over-the-top, excessive grace of his, found another way … a way to counter the unbelief – the distrust – that had taken hold in his people’s hearts. It was a way that would successfully lead many of them back to faith in him.
The now-panicked people said to Moses, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” Moses prayed. The Lord heard and he told Moses: “Make a snake and put it up on a pole. Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole and the Lord kept his promise. Those bitten by one of those fiery serpents could looked at the bronze snake on a pole and live.
How like our Lord! God provided rescue, salvation, in what seems a backwards fashion. Isn’t striking that the cure to their problem (the bronze snake) took the form of the problem itself (those venomous snakes)? If poisonous venom were coursing through your veins, wouldn’t you hope to look up and see something like a syringe filled with anti-venom?? To our minds that would perhaps make more sense, but that’s not how God works. God hides his rescue and deliverance in what looks like the problem itself. He hides himself under his opposite. Does that ring a bell??
Back to our question. How far will God go to bring his people back to him? He will go the distance. He won’t settle for any sort of half measures. He will do the absurd and the unexpected. A holy God, justly offended by the sins of humanity, purely out of his unbounded, undeserved, love provides rescue from the problem in a Savior who looks like the problem itself. Jesus, the Son of God, took on our human flesh to become one of us – why? To succeed where we fail. Every moment of our discontent and complaining; every time we were open to trading the freedom of the gospel for the slavery of sin; every instance of thinking even for a second that I know better than God — every one of those sins was laid on Jesus who was lifted up on a pole (the cross) as a sacrifice for our sin.
Jesus told Nicodemus in our gospel lesson, ”Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” God’s perfect rescue for sinners like you and me comes in the form of the crucified God. Isn’t it breathtaking how far God is willing to go? In his Son he comes from heaven to earth to be your Substitute; from divinity to humanity to take away your sins. How far will God go? All the way to hell and back, if it means making and keeping you as his own!
The people complained. The Lord responded by sending snakes. The people repented, pleading with Moses, “Pray that the Lord will take snakes away ...”. But notice how God answers. The snakes stay. Yet God rescues by providing a savior (small ‘s’ with the word in quotation marks).
Our lives here on earth resemble the Israelites’ years of wandering in the desert. Jesus doesn’t promise us that following him is going to be a Sunday stroll in the park. He does tell us to brace ourselves for things like rejection and hardship, self-denial and a cross, and the incessant old self/new self struggle which we know well is going on inside of us all. How do we respond to these ‘snakes’ when they come slithering our way? When it’s you who sit alone with the medical report, ... when it’s you who’s crushed by private guilt, ... when it’s you grieving over a disappointment in your personal or family life? Will those things be a cause for complaint or a time for trust? In other words, will you see the snakes or will you see the Savior?
When life don’t seem to be going the way you think it should; ... when hardship comes; ... when you face rejection or pain or loss, don’t look down to the pesky things that are biting your ankles and trying to get you to despair of God’s grace. Don’t look down. Instead, look up. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” In faith, look to the Savior who endured the venomous bite of Satan in your place, and who rose from the dead to guarantee your eternity.
Look to the Savior who was lifted up high on a cross to show the world that your sin has been paid for. Look to the Savior, Jesus, and in him, see just how far your God will go for you.
"NO CROSS, NO CROWN"
Second Sunday in Lent - February 28, 2021
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (v. 34-37)
If you trace Jesus’ public ministry, you’ll see it followed a very discernible pattern. Jesus started out his ministry in relative obscurity when he was baptized by John the Baptist at the Jordan River. From there his popularity grew rapidly as he preached and taught with authority, and performed many miracles – especially in Galilee. The peak of his public ministry came right around the time of the feeding of the five thousand. At that point throngs of people sought him out to see and hear him. With the determination of paparazzi pursuing a celebrity, they followed nearly everywhere, even circling the Sea of Galilee on foot trying to catch up with him. His popularity was at an all-time high.
But then things changed, and Jesus’ popularity started to wane. It happened when he had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment of his own with the crowds to tell them what was what. After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus told the masses in John chapter 6 that they were looking for him for the wrong reasons. He told them they shouldn’t be looking for bread that fills the belly, but for the bread that endures to eternal life. He explained, “I am the Bread of Life,” and told them that they needed to “partake” of him. He was using a figure of speech, an illustration drawn from their forefathers’ – the Israelites of old – experience in receiving from God manna in the wilderness. But those listening failed to understand.
That was the turning point. John in his gospel tells us that many people grumbled, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” and, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” The dwindling crowds prompted Jesus to ask the Twelve whether they were going leave as well, to which Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” But that doesn’t mean that Peter truly had a grasp of what was going on ... his Master’s ultimate fate. Peter may still have thought that Jesus’ popularity would always be on the rise. Onward and upward! On to Jerusalem to claim what rightfully belonged to Jesus! He may have looked at those diminished crowds and imagined it was only a temporary setback. Surely, Jesus was still on the path to glory – where he would send the Roman invaders packing and then take his rightful seat on Israel’s throne. But then when Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that their next trip to Jerusalem would end very, very differently — Peter didn’t want to hear such discouragement. Those thoughts were too negative, too much of a downer. They were out of synch with ‘the Plan’ (Peter’s grandiose ideas). He drew Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, but the tables quickly turned as his Master roundly chastised him, “Out of my sight, Satan!” “You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.”
Jesus knew what Peter refused to see and accept: the simple truth that there can be no crown without a cross. He would give up his life (die) in Jerusalem before taking it up again on Easter Sunday because this was what had come to do. His mission was not to make everyone’s earthly life easier, more comfortable, more pleasant. He would suffer and die to redeem the people of this world by his blood and thus demonstrate his Father’s love. The hymn we sang just prior to our message captured the wonder of that dedication of Jesus, didn’t it?
What grace is this! / My Lord and King / has set his face to suffering.
My God eternal dies to bring / Eternal life to me.
Jesus knew the world’s sin was so great that only the infinite payment of the blood of the Son of God himself – God in the flesh – could buy back the world from the hell and the wrath of God that it deserves. Only his life-blood could pay the all-sufficient price.
What grace is this – / that very God / would stoop to lift a cross of wood
And walk a road of rock and blood / A sinner’s road for me.
So ... before there could be a crown of victory encircling the Savior’s brow, there would first be a crown of thorns pressed onto his head; and before he could be enthroned again in glory on high, he would first be enthroned on a cross and lifted up in shame for the world to see. There would be no crown without a cross. No cross, no crown — or as it was rendered in German on the picture that hung in my grandparents’ home, a vivid memory from my childhood: “Ohne Kruze, Keine Krone.”
How else could it be when you’re walking side-by-side with the Son of God? It’s heaven on earth, right?! Jesus heals everyone who is sick; he gets rid of the demons; he fixes whatever is broken; he rights the injustices of the world; he even raises the dead and pays your taxes. What could be better? Peter’s theology of glory fit very well with the prevailing Jewish ideas of the Messiah and the idea that when the Christ came he would make everything in the world right again for God’s chosen people Israel.
But Jesus didn’t come preaching and teaching a theology of glory. He taught the theology of the cross. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” According to Jesus and his theology of the cross, God our heavenly Father loves us infinitely more than we can imagine. Sometimes he shows his love for us by providing us with enjoyment and satisfaction in our earthly lives. But as often as not — he also shows his love by permitting us to carry crosses through life ... heavy burdens that we simply have to bear.
So, in love, Jesus teaches us to grow stronger through self-denial and hardship. We learn from our Lord that we can’t always have just what we want whenever we want it. In fact, we must through many hardships and tribulations finish our earthly race and enter into the Kingdom of God. Life this side of heaven won’t always be the way we like it. But Jesus also teaches us that the burdens we bear are a blessed cross, and they are the marks that we carry as disciples of Jesus. He lays those crosses on our shoulders not because he has stopped loving us, but precisely because he loves us so much more than we can imagine and he wants to use those crosses, those burdens, to strengthen us and to draw us closer to him.
Do you know what Jesus is talking about when he talks about bearing crosses of tribulation and suffering? The cross of discipleship that you bear for Jesus is every hardship you endure, every stress you feel, every burden you carry, because you are a Christian. It is the constant pressure to conform to the world around you, the pressure that makes life in this world very uncomfortable, because you see what’s going on the world with the world’s messed-up values and trashed morals, and you know that you’re not a citizen here but a stranger and an alien and this messed-up world is not your home. The cross you bear is the pressure and struggle that you endure against temptation ... when all your friends are saying, “Do it!” and your sinful flesh is urging you, “Go for it!”, and the devil is saying, “Why not?!” but your conscience is telling you, “No. It doesn’t honor Jesus.” It is the cross that comes along with raising your children, when you can’t just be their buddy or pal, but you have to be the parent and bring discipline and morals and correction into their lives, and they despise and resent you for it. The cross is the pressure to lie, or to cheat, or to cut corners to save money or to get ahead. It’s the cross of working long hours at a low-paying job, but knowing that the work is done for the Lord, not for men, and the burden of bearing the blessed cross brings glory to God. It’s the cross of suffering aches and pains in your body, but still loving God and worshiping him and thanking him, even for our bodily suffering.
We could go on about the crosses we bear, the hardships we endure, the ridicule we put up with, the jokes, the sneers, the intolerance people have for Christians, the eye-rolling contempt for Christian morals, virtues and values. How we feel the weight of these crosses! There are times when we just want to ‘check out.’ We wish we could escape and we would often cry out, “Give me the theology of glory, Lord! Spare me the cross!” We pray that Jesus would just lift these crosses from us and take these burdens away.
Sometimes he does and other times he doesn’t. Sometimes he just says to you as he did to the Apostle Paul who wrestled with a troublesome thorn in the flesh, “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.” In our weakness we see and rely on the Lord’s strength. As gold is purified in the fire and impurities are removed, so through the crosses we bear our faith is tested, purified, and strengthened. And we remember again: there is waiting for us a crown in heaven, but there is no crown without the cross.
The crosses we bear in Jesus’ name are not what win us the crown. The crown of victory was won by Jesus through his cross, not by ours. That is because Jesus didn’t come to win for us lives of ease or wealth, or worldly prestige and power. He came to gain for us the forgiveness of sins, and there’s nothing more precious. Everything else means nothing once life comes to an end. “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and yet forfeits his soul? And what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” We could have everything on earth our little hearts might crave, but when we die and our soul must be judged, we would be as poor as the poorest pauper without Jesus and his forgiveness. How much earthly wealth could we offer Jesus when he comes with his angels to judge the living and the dead?
Jesus won for us that which is worth more than anything else: the forgiveness of sins. And that’s precisely what your Savior has given you: the forgiveness of your sins bought with his blood shed on the cross ... cleansing for your soul ... God’s eternal favor, and the crown of victory in heaven.
As you take up the cross of discipleship and follow Jesus in his love, be faithful carrying the crosses you must bear, until you receive as a gift of grace the crown of life.
"EVEN WHEN THINGS ARE SO WRONG, THE LORD PROVIDES"
First Sunday in Lent - February 21, 2021
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded 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. 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.”
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?”
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. But 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. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
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.”
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 nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
Abraham’s entire life had been a journey of faith, with trials a constant companion. Sustaining him throughout this pilgrimage were God’s promises. When first called, Abraham left his life in Mesopotamia and set out for an unknown land. On that expedition of discovery he had nothing on which to anchor his life but God’s word. More than once his faith was tested in the refiner’s fire.
The patriarch’s story covers 13 chapter in the Book of Genesis, the biblical account recounting the many blessings God intended to shower on him – blessings unmatched by any other person on earth. It included, for Abraham and his descendants, ownership of a land as far as the eye could see. Abraham would become a man of great riches and great renown. Any good word from Abraham’s mouth would become a word of blessing to others. Most importantly, in him God would bless all the peoples of the earth through the one son (Isaac) whom God would give to Abraham and his wife, Sarah.
These awesome promises notwithstanding, Abraham’s own old age and Sarah’s persistent barrenness cast long shadows of doubt in the patriarch’s mind. In their weak moments, Sarah would convince Abraham that not she, but Hagar their Egyptian slave woman would bear the child God had pledged to them. But there was no ancillary scheme for what God had announced – no ‘plan B’ for saving the world from sin and death. One hundred year-old Abraham was to become the father of many nations through the son born of Sarah’s womb.
The birth of Isaac was a miracle par excellence and confirmation of all the Lord had said. Isaac prefigured God’s greatest promise that in Jesus, his Son, God would shower unique blessings on all humankind, every nation of man. God vindicated Abraham as he persevered in faith in God through times of severe testing. But then came this day and a command the patriarch could never have anticipated, “Go, sacrifice your son.”
Over the next three gut-wrenching days, I have to believe Abraham thought to himself, “Something is terribly wrong here.” And we’d agree, wouldn’t we, that something is drastically wrong? We, of course, know how this account resolves. Yet, you can’t help but read this passage and say, “Something’s drastically wrong here for God to command a father to slay his own dearly loved son!” This is a high hurdle to clear. A pastor was visiting at the door of a woman who earlier in her life had written off the church although she had been raised in a quasi-religious home. She pointed to this incident as particularly troublesome. “I can’t believe in a god that would tell a dad to kill his son. I don’t care how it ends up. For that kind of god to ask that — I can’t in good conscience worship him.”
Stepping back from this passage and looking at what’s happening, it does appear as if something’s drastically wrong. You see how wrong it is because of the love in this father-son relationship. God tells Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love.” Clearly, Abraham loves Isaac, the son born in his old age. Watching him grow up, Isaac would’ve been the apple of his father’s eye. You hear that love in the conversation between the two. “Father? … The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” “God himself will provide the lamb ... , my son.” This relationship exudes love. For God say, “Go, sacrifice ...” — the command must’ve struck like a dagger into his heart. Without rushing ahead to the whew!-breathe-a-sigh-of-relief resolution that we know is coming, we’re perplexed too. A father is told to sacrifice his son? How could you ask this, God?
Something is drastically wrong here, but not just on a human level. On another level - those promises we just reviewed — they all stood in jeopardy. Without Isaac, how could Abraham become the father of many nations? Wasn’t he told that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the beach? Wasn’t he told that from his line One would born who would be a blessing to all nations, the Messiah? In the garden, after the fall into sin, Adam and Eve believed that promise. They counted on it! Repeatedly that promise found a home in the heart of every Old Testament man and woman of faith up to that present moment. To sacrifice Isaac, the lynchpin in all of God’s promises, would equate to God backpedaling and telling Abraham, “You know, Abraham, I’ve changed my mind.” Would God have pulled the rug out from under Abraham like that? Can you see why this section of Scripture begins, “Some time later God tested Abraham”? This is a test, but this isn’t only a test. It is going to become the Lord’s way of growing Abraham’s faith, making it stronger still, much more tenacious in holding on to him.
Something is drastically wrong when God tells a father to kill his own son and throws promises such as these into question. But not just back in Abraham’s time — today, when we see what’s happening to children, we want to say that something is drastically wrong.
Case in point: a StarTribune article, dated Christmas Eve day just this past year, 2020, reported a metro-area shooting.
St. Paul police are investigating after a 2-year-old boy was struck and killed by gunfire in the city’s North End on Wednesday, the latest in a string of deadly shootings ... Officers were called to an apartment building at _____ (the location is given) about 1:15 p.m. on a report of a child who had “hurt his head.” On arrival, they learned that the toddler suffered a gunshot wound. He died in the ambulance eight minutes later, said [the] police spokesman … .
The article quoted a frustrated community leader: “We’re supposed to protect our children. People treat this as if it’s okay.” A glum assessment, indeed, reflecting widely-held feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. As if that weren’t heart-wrenching enough, the same article concluded by referring to another incident in that same pre-Christmas week.
[On] Monday, bullets tore through the walls of a [Minneapolis neighborhood] apartment, narrowly missing the crib of a 5-month-old baby and a toddler sleeping nearby. Police found 10 shell casings littering the street. Shootings have also plagued Minneapolis this year, where more than 500 people have been maimed and 81 killed by gunfire – the highest homicide count since the mid-1990s.
How callous, indifferent toward human life can our society become?! Has God abdicated his role as ruler of the universe? Maybe like Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, he’s opted out of his offical duties as protector of children and defender of families. I’m being facetious now, of course. Often, though, one can’t help but conclude that something is drastically wrong.
Do we see our situation - the challenging times in which we live and even the personal trials to which we are subjected as tests with a divine purpose in mind? ... designed to draw us closer to God so that we lean on him to an even greater degree?
A parallel to the test which God put Abraham through for his own (God’s own) good purposes, something we will explore more fully in a moment — a parallel for us is the temptation to question the validity of God’s promises to his people right now, to you and me. He has made some truly awesome promises to us! In Scripture we learn how he's always by our side and so we are never truly alone. God hears and answers our prayers. He surrounds us with his grace. The Lord is good; his love endures forever. God is never more than a prayer away. These are wonderful, incredible promises guaranteed to us though the cross of Christ. Have these promises been abrogated? … somehow repealed by God so that he no longer means what he says and says what he means? When you see what’s happening to children and how our world is so quickly devolving in who-could-have-scarcely-imagined chaos, you might well conclude something’s drastically wrong here. You and I might well ask where are we headed?!
For Abraham, though, the challenge posed by God’s command was not 'a deal-breaker.' The path Abraham and Isaac trod up that mountain led them both to greater trust in God and to the realization that God always keeps his promises.
Abraham journeyed the three days to the mountain. Those three days must have been horrendous because he knew what he was going to do at the end of them. Yet a couple of sentences in our text indicate that Abraham had hope and he believed that somehow – in a way not yet fully disclosed to him – the Lord would provide. He says to the two 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.” He doesn’t say, “I will come back to you …,” but, “we will come back … ”. After Isaac’s question, “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb … ?” Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb …”. With those words we are listening to Abraham holding on in hope. God will work out the details. That trust, that belief, takes him all the way to that critical moment when he has the knife in hand at Isaac’s throat.
Perhaps someone might say that Abraham was telling a white lie because none of them knew for sure what was going to happen. Or perhaps it was a prophetic word – that assurance that a lamb would appear (poof ... out of nowhere!) at the proper time. No, the Book of Hebrews has a better answer.
"By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, 'It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.' Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death" (Heb. 11:17-19).
The inspired writer of Hebrews groups Abraham together with all the other spiritual heroes who fill that spiritual ‘Hall of Fame’ chapter: Abel and Enoch and Noah and Joseph and Moses and Rahab and others. By faith, Abraham took Isaac up that mountain. And at that most critical moment, Abraham’s faith held firmly to the promise that the Lord would provide.
In this case, God did provide by sparing Isaac’s life. But on a bigger, broader, deeper level, God provided and we have a foreshadowing of it. Isaac carries the wood for a sacrifice. Jesus carries the cross for his sacrifice. Isaac is the son, the only son, whom Abraham loved. Jesus is the Son, the only Son, whom the Father loves. A ram is in a thicket to be sacrificed in the place of Isaac. Jesus, on the cross, takes our place, and is sacrificed for us. The promises come true. Through Isaac, Abraham’s descendants are numerous. From Abraham’s offspring comes Jesus. God provides forgiveness, life, salvation.
When everything looks so wrong, God provides ... by keeping his promises for us and being with us. Paul declares as much: “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?” Jesus is not only for us on the cross. He is risen from the grave to be with us.
Lazarus’ death and Jesus’ conversation with Martha and Mary show both the “for us” and “with us” beautifully. Jesus had a messenger come to him one day to tell him that Lazarus, a close friend, was sick and about to die. He waited two days before leaving for Bethany. When he arrives, Lazarus’ sister Martha meets him and says, “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother would not have died.” You can hear it in her voice: “Something’s wrong, Jesus. You weren’t here for us.” Then, in their conversation, Jesus makes this promise: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” He asks “Do you believe this?” and Martha makes a good confession. She holds on. Then Jesus goes to Mary who’s been crying and she says, too, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This time Jesus doesn’t have a conversation with Mary. He does something different – he weeps, cries with her.
Those tears reveal Jesus’ humanity, but they also remind us that he is our ever-compassionate, all-merciful God. The omniscient Jesus knew Lazarus was dead even before the messenger arrived to tell him. Still, Jesus cried on hearing the news. It hurt his heart to think that this pain of people dying and being separated from one another is the result of sin in our world. Jesus knew, too, he could and would raise Lazarus to life. But still he cried, because his friend had died. Jesus also knew that his death would defeat death for Lazarus and for all people, and yet he cried. It’s quite the lesson our Savior teaches here – the lesson that knowing the end of the story doesn’t mean you can’t cry during the sad parts. God is with us even when things are so wrong.
Like Abraham you and I are simply called to believe, to trust that God will provide ... by keeping his promises and by being with us.
I still expect to cry at times when things seem so drastically wrong. I expect everyone to cry, for you to cry when things seem so drastically wrong. But there will come a day of no more tears. It's the day on which Jesus will come back! On that glorious day of resurrection, he will do for us what we could never do. Children will no longer have to worry about being killed. Instead, everything will be dramatically right. Until that day, we will cry at the sad parts. And like Abraham, when that happens, all we can do is trust that God will provide because Jesus is with us and because he keeps his promises.