The First Sunday in Lent March 9, 2003
245, 427, 156, 521
Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Take now 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.” So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he split the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you.” So Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife, and the two of them went together. But Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” Then he said, “Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” So the two of them went together. Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the Angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” So he said, “Here I am.” And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. And Abraham called the name of the place, The-LORD-Will-Provide; as it is said to this day, “In the Mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” Then the Angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said: “By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son—blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”
In Christ Jesus, who provides everything needed for eternal happiness, dear fellow Christians:
“I love you this much!” the boy says as he wraps his arms around his dad’s neck and gives him a big hug. But five minutes later the same boy complains bitterly when asked to clean his room. “I love you, Mom!” the teenager shouts as she runs out the door to spend the evening with friends. But then she completely ignores her mother’s instructions to be back home by 10:00 p.m. A bride and groom gaze into each other’s eyes and say, “I love you!” But two months later in the middle of a heated argument they’re shouting, “I never want to see you again!” All of these people spoke of love, but did they live their love? Not really. When put to the test their love failed to measure up to the stress and strain.
How much do you love God? In our prayers and hymns this morning we are expressing our love for the Lord with words, but how strong is that love? Will it be able to stand up to the pressures and strains of living? Will it respond as Abraham’s did, or will it fail? This account of Abraham leads us to probe our own hearts, examine our love for the Lord, and then look to Him for the strength and faith to truly love Him, not just with words, but from the heart.
Earthly life is filled with trials. Abraham’s life was no different. First, God told him to pack up his household and move from his family and familiar surroundings to a faraway place which He would show him. After the arrival in Canaan, there had been a dispute over grazing rights between Abraham’s herdsmen and those of his nephew, Lot. Then family peace had been disrupted because of Abraham and Sarah’s plan to use a slave named Hagar as a surrogate mother so that they could have a child. Now finally, things had seemed to be going well. The Lord had blessed Abraham and Sarah with a son of their own named, Isaac. Now, the family was prosperous and happy.
But suddenly, Abraham’s life was turned upside down. God told him, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” [v.2]
Can you imagine hearing those words? Those of us who are parents can certainly sympathize with Abraham. There could have been no greater test of his love for God. Anything else would have been easier for him to do. He dearly loved Isaac. He had waited and hoped 25 years for him. He had watched him play and grow up into young manhood. Besides this, God had promised that through Isaac and his descendants the Savior of the world would one day come. Abraham’s whole life and future were wrapped up in this son!
None of us is tested by God in exactly the same way Abraham was, and yet God does test all of His children. He promises: “If you make the Most High your dwelling—even the LORD, who is my refuge—then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent” (Psalm 91:9-10 NIV). But then there is an accident, a severe financial loss, or some other seeming disaster, and our love for God is strained and put to the test. The Lord says, “Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:31 NIV). But then a serious illness strikes, or you and your family spend the whole winter battling one cold and flu bug after another, or some other trial leaves you wondering how you can possibly soar like an eagle when it feels like you can’t even crawl!
At other times the testing may involve a difficult choice between following God’s will in a matter and making someone angry, or ignoring the Word and going along with what others want. Sometimes it may even be a choice between what our common sense tells us, and what the Lord says. All of these can be tests from God in the believer’s life.
Can our love measure up to these tests? How can it? Look again at Abraham. It could not have been easy for him. There must have been an agonizing struggle within his heart. Common sense and his feelings screamed, “No! This can’t be right!” Reason told him that either God had reneged on His promise, or this command was from Satan.
Abraham did not pass the test by objectively looking at all the facts, and then deciding what to do. He did not trust his own feelings or instincts. Instead, he put God and His Word above all else. God had said that Abraham’s family would be counted through Isaac, and yet had also commanded that Isaac be sacrificed. Abraham could not understand how these two things could agree, but he trusted that God is always true to His Word no matter what, and that the Lord could accomplish the impossible. The writer to the Hebrews lets us see what Abraham was thinking: “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” (Hebrews 11:17-19 NIV). With that faith he could tell the servants that the two of them would go and worship the Lord, and that they would both return.
Our love, too, will survive under the most severe testing if it is based on God’s unfailing promises. Our love is put to the test when we’re told by unbelieving teachers, scientists, and experts that the universe exploded into existence through some chance process millions of years ago. We believe otherwise, not because we are more intelligent, or can disprove evolution scientifically, but because God tells us that He created the world by the power of His Word in a week’s time. We put the Word above reason, and believe that the impossible happened, that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the virgin Mary. Even though the world seems as though it could go on forever, by faith we know that the Lord is coming back to judge all people, and that then this present earth will be destroyed. Faith even overrules our sight and emotions when they tell us that death is the tragic end of all life and hope; for Jesus assures us: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live; and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).
Let your love for God draw strength from His Word and promises. It was that Word which created faith in your heart in the first place. We can’t take the credit for it. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit. He is the One who enables us to put love for God first in our lives.
But then why does God test the Christian if He already knows what’s in our hearts? He does it for the believer’s blessing. Just as our heart and muscles are strengthened through the stress of regular exercise, so the testing of our faith makes it grow stronger too. As you read this account you can almost feel Abraham’s resolve growing stronger as each step brought him closer to Mount Moriah. His faith was built up as he held onto the confidence that the Lord would provide.
His faith was not disappointed. The Lord did provide. As Abraham reached out for the knife to kill Isaac, the Lord called, “Do not lay a hand on the boy…Now I know that you fear God.” [v.12] The Lord even provided a substitute sacrifice for Isaac. Abraham spotted a ram caught in a thicket and offered it in Isaac’s place.
All of this has lasting meaning for us because it points to another mountain and another, far greater sacrifice. When we ask ourselves, “How much do I love God?” we have to admit that it is not as much as we should. We ought to love God with our entire being: heart, soul, and mind all the time. We fall miserably short of that. At times our love proves to be more a matter of words than of the heart. Because of that, we deserve eternal death. But just as God rescued Isaac from death through a substitute sacrifice, so He has done the same for all mankind.
What God asked of Abraham, God Himself did in sacrificing His Son. As a perfect man, Jesus offered the Father the kind of love and obedience which we owe Him, but are unable to give. As the true Son of God, Jesus gave His life on the cross as the only sacrifice worth enough to cover the guilt of us all. The ram’s death meant life for Isaac. Christ’s death and resurrection mean eternal life for us. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13 NIV).
The Lord still provides. Every day through Jesus He gives us forgiveness, peace, and life. In Him we have the confidence that no matter what the world situation may be tomorrow, or what unexpected turns our individual lives may take, the Lord will provide. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-how will he not also, with Him, freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Out of divine love, the Lord tested Abraham’s faith, gave him the strength to see the test through, and then reassured him that through his descendant, Jesus, all nations on earth would be blessed.
God tests each believer according to His wisdom and love—some more severely, others in a lesser way. But in every case, the purpose is always the same: the strengthening of our grasp on eternal life. That is why St. Paul writes: “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:3-8 NIV).
To those who love Him, the Lord shows Himself to be a merciful, caring Father. Even in times of severe testing, you can count on Him to provide all you need: forgiveness, strength, and joy. How much do you love God? May His love in Christ move us to love Him more and more, not only in words, but in every way! Amen.
I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus,
Trusting only Thee.
Trusting Thee for full salvation,
Great and free!
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.