March 9, 2008

Judica sermon: Genesis 22; John 8

Last Sunday we heard in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians about Hagar the bondwoman, and Sarah the free woman. We learned that these two were allegories for the Law and the Promises, and that Isaac was the son of the promise. Abraham and Sarah had been given a word from God that through Abraham’s offspring the whole world would be blessed.


So it is horrible – really beyond comprehension – that now God would command Abraham to destroy Isaac, his beloved son. What must Abraham have thought? Perhaps he wondered, “For God to command such a terrible thing, I must have done a terrible thing. God is withdrawing His promise now, because of my pride, because of my arrogance, because I have taken the promises for granted.”


In any event, Abraham’s heart must have been greatly troubled, to despair. Blessed Martin Luther said in his Genesis lectures:


We are frequently troubled by thoughts of despair; for what human being is there who could be without this thought: “What if God did not want you to be saved?” But we are taught that in this conflict we must hold fast to the promise given us in Baptism, which is sure and clear. But when this happens, Satan does not cease immediately but keeps crying out in your heart that you are not worthy of this promise.


In other words, just as Abraham received the word of promise, but then it seemed to be taken away, so all of us Christians received God’s promise in Baptism, but then our conscience says to us, “That promise isn’t for you. What kind of Christian are you? A bad one. God is taking away His promise, and your life is worthless, meaningless, empty.”


Luther then said that the only thing to do in that case is to pray: “In affliction we take refuge in the promise.” And that is why affliction comes. Abraham is tested because God wants to find out – or rather, God wants Abraham to find out – if Abraham fears, loves, and trusts in God above all things. Now never has there been such a test in all the world; but don’t we fail at much smaller tests? Those tests, and afflictions, and trials, all serve to reveal for you what the true idols of your heart are, what you really love, what you really cannot live without. It is all designed to teach us to say along with Job, “Even though [the LORD] slays me, yet will I hope” [13.15]. The things recorded in Holy Scripture are there for our comfort, so that we will learn to trust completely, entirely in the promises of God, the foundation promise being to say, when your conscience is troubled, or when you are afraid, or melancholy: “I am baptized; therefore God loves me and has promised me His kingdom. Satan has no power over me, the grave cannot threaten me.”


So the testings come to reveal what is hidden in your heart. It’s not that God doesn’t know; but we do not know it. The time of testing reveals your true love.


Yet still – slaying his son runs could not be more grotesque; it is contrary to the commandments of God; and it is contrary to the natural love of a parent for a child. How could Abraham do such a thing, even if it is God’s command?


Only because of this: Abraham still believes God’s original promise, and believes that God loves him, despite what he is experiencing. Did not God give them Isaac, despite Abraham being exceedingly old, and Sarah barren? So, Abraham concludes, God is “able to raise [Isaac] up, even from the dead” [Heb. 11.19]. If Isaac is slain, if Isaac is reduced to ashes in the fire of burnt offering, is God not able to bring him back? If God made the world from nothing, if he formed Adam out of the dust and breathed the breath of life into him, then surely he is able to do even this. And so, by his obedience, Abraham confesses the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. He still clung to that original promise God gave, that in Isaac he would have descendants. “What God has once declared, this He does not change” (Luther).


So now we can understand what our Lord Jesus means when He says in today’s Gospel, “Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” What day? The day of the cross, whereby Jesus took away Abraham’s sins, and Isaac’s, and yours. The day of resurrection, where death lost its sting and power.


You can see that day foreshadowed already in Isaac carrying the wood for the burnt offering up the mountain, as Jesus would bear the burden of His cross to His execution. But Isaac is not the real symbol or foreshadowing of Christ. Without knowing how it would happen, Isaac confessed,“God will provide for Himself the lamb for [the sacrifice].” The animal caught in the thicket was not a lamb but a ram; for the Lamb was yet to come, our Lord Jesus Christ, whom John the Baptist called the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.


So this is what Abraham, by faith, looked forward to; and we, by faith, look back to it, and by “faith” we mean seeing that only in the Words and Promises of God, only in the death and resurrection of Jesus, do we have any hope and trust.


So when it comes time for our own death, we can have a confidence like Abraham’s, who under the most difficult circumstances yet was certain that God would provide for him. When your conscience is afflicted, and you imagine that God might be taking away His promises to you like He seemed to be doing with Abraham, remember that God’s promises do not lie; they are as certain as the water that was poured over your head in Baptism. When it seems that your sins are too great, remember that God in Jesus has already provided the Lamb for sacrifice. When you face death—yours or those you love—remember that death has lost its power in the resurrection of Jesus.


In Jesus, everything that you need has been provided. Holding onto His Word, keeping His promises, tasting His Sacraments, you shall never taste death. Believe it, and let nothing dissuade you or dismay you. ✠INJ✠

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