The Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 29, 2020
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
Few portions of God’s word have so scandalized us Christians than this account of Abraham walking to Mt. Moriah to sacrifice his son. It is a scandal. What must this world think when hearing this story? They see Abraham’s God requiring Abraham to murder his own son. Why? God doesn’t say why. He just tells him to do it. Then, they see Abraham doing what God told him to do. Had the Angel of the Lord not stopped him, Abraham would have slaughtered his own son. The world is shocked. How could a good God give such a cruel command?
The good God who cannot sin requires Abraham to commit murder, which is a terrible sin. It’s even worse than that. The faithful God had promised to Abraham a Savior from sin that would be born from the seed of Isaac. He requires Abraham to kill this child of promise. God promised. Abraham must not only commit murder, which his conscience knows is a terrible sin against God; he must also destroy God’s promise, on which his faith rests. What is going on here? A good God cannot command a father to kill his son, his only son, whom he loves. A faithful God cannot command that the son born by his promise be destroyed. And this must happen by Abraham’s own hand! He cannot turn away from the task, assigning it to a servant. He must slaughter his son, his only son, whom he loves.
Abraham set out to do it. He knew that God had promised he would establish an everlasting covenant with Isaac and with his seed. God’s command to kill Isaac contradicted God’s promise. God’s word contradicted God’s word. What did Abraham do? He obeyed God. He took his son, two servants, and a donkey. He traveled for three days. Three days contemplating the terrible thing he had to do. Three days in the tomb of despair.
Faith is a popular word to toss around, but it is seldom understood. What does it mean to have faith? To believe in something? Everybody believes in something. If that is all that faith is, it’s not worth a whole lot. People believe in the most foolish things.
What do you believe is going to happen with this coronavirus pandemic that has killed so many people, shut down so many businesses, cost so many jobs, and kept people from congregating in their congregations? What do you believe? What do you believe God is doing? What do you believe he will do? To believe is to have faith. So what does your faith tell you about this present crisis that has so disrupted our lives?
Faith is knowledge. But God hasn’t told us anything about this pandemic and how it will ultimately affect us. When God is silent, there is no faith. Only by the word of God is there faith. Without God’s command we don’t know what to do. Without God’s promise we don’t know what to believe. Look up coronavirus in the Bible. It’s not there. Faith is knowledge. It knows nothing about this pandemic. This pandemic cannot hurt our faith.
Faith is trust. But without knowledge, what does faith trust in? Unless God has spoken, how can we know what to trust? Faith doesn’t engender faith. God’s word does. Faith doesn’t live on faith. It lives on God’s word. Faith requires God’s promise or it dies. Faith requires the promise. It requires it constantly and continually. Silence the promise and you destroy faith. Ignore the promise and you commit spiritual suicide. God promised Abraham as recorded in Genesis 17:19,
God promised that Sarah – long past childbearing years – would have a son. He promised that he would establish his covenant with that son. It would be an everlasting covenant, not only with Isaac, but with his descendants. God promised this to Abraham. Abraham trusted in that promise. God’s command that he kill Isaac could not contradict that promise even though it did. It was a contradiction, which is plain to see. Isaac has no descendants. If he is killed, he will never have any descendants. But God promised an everlasting covenant with Isaac and with his descendants. There is a clear contradiction. But God cannot contradict himself.
This is faith. Faith does not leap out into the void and trust in whatever it finds. Faith latches onto God’s promise and doesn’t let go. God tests faith because faith is so very precious. He tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
You and I cannot see anybody’s faith but our own. I know what’s in my heart but I don’t know what’s in your heart. Faith is invisible to everyone but God. Abraham’s faith as faith is beyond our discernment. But we see the fruit of his faith. When God told him to sacrifice his son he set out to do what God told him to do. Why did Abraham obey God? He trusted him. God tested Abraham’s faith. Abraham passed the test. It was Jesus Christ some two thousand years before he was born who stayed the hand of Abraham and kept him from slaughtering his son. Then he said to Abraham: “Now I know you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” We know from the Catechism that to fear God means also to love him and trust in him above all things.
To fear God is to revere him as our greatest good, the One to whom we owe our very existence, before whom we bow, the only one we dare to worship. To fear God is incompatible with the fear of our sin. Only those forgiven by God of all their sin can fear God and not their sin. To fear God is incompatible with fearing death. Those who trust in him who destroyed death on the cross are not afraid to die. They know that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and we who believe in him will never die. We don’t fear death because we belong to him who conquered death.
To love God is to desire him above all other things. You want to be with the one you love. To love God means to want to have him near. Love and faith are bound together. If we do not believe that God loves us, if we have no faith that he is gracious to us, if we don’t believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting – if we have no faith – can we love him? Can we love the God in whom we do not believe?
To love God without faith is not to love God. It is to love yourself. You flatter yourself with claims to love God when you really don’t love him at all, for you cannot love God unless you trust in him. To love God in faith is to love God for who he is. This is what Abraham teaches us.
Who is God? To Moses at the burning bush he called himself I AM. I AM appeared to Abraham many years earlier on Mount Moriah. I AM appeared as the Angel of the LORD to stop Abraham from killing Isaac. Our Lord Jesus said to the Jews who were questioning him, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” When they saw a young man say these words they objected to his claim saying, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus replied, “Amen, Amen, I say to You, before Abraham was, I AM.”
Abraham saw God on Mount Moriah. He was looking at his son, his only son, whom he loved. Running through his mind for three long days and part of a fourth was the horrible command,
Then God set him free from his trial. He had passed the test. The Angel of the LORD called him by name, “Abraham, Abraham!” The Angel of the LORD was God. He said to Abraham, “Now I know you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” This was the voice of him who would be conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and made man. He is the one who said, “You have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
On Mt. Moriah, God provided a ram as a sacrifice instead of Isaac. On Mt. Calvary God replaced the ram with the Lamb. He provided his Son, his only Son, whom he loved. Abraham did not withhold from God his son, his only son, whom he loved. He did not withhold him, but God did not require the death of Isaac. Instead, God sent his Son, his only begotten Son, whom he loved in the purest and holiest love from all eternity, to be slaughtered on the cross to take away the sin of all sinners.
There is love! There is Jesus! There is God! There is God’s promise fulfilled. There is where true fear, love, and trust in God find their source in Abraham and in his seed, that is, in the hearts of all Christians everywhere.
We are the children of promise. We are the true children of Abraham. God promises he will care for us and it looks like he’s forgotten. God promises to bless us and we feel as if he’s cursed us instead. What we treasure is threatened. Our health, our wealth, and our confidence in knowing what our future holds are thrown into jeopardy. Our faith begins to flicker, as when the wind blows over the candle’s little flame.
God tests us to drive us back to the promise of a son, an only son, beloved by his father, a son, an only son, who was not killed but spared. God tests us to return us to our baptism where we were joined to Christ’s death and resurrection. There is the promise of God’s beloved Son, his only Son, who was killed for us to take away our sins. God tests his children to destroy the idols they cling to so that they may learn to fear, love, and trust in him above all things. God tested Abraham to show him Jesus. This is always the purpose of God’s test: to show his children Jesus.
Rolf D. Preus