"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.