An Awful, Wonderful Paradox
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The text for today is our Old Testament lesson, Genesis 22:1-18.
The text for today is our Old Testament lesson, Genesis 22:1-18.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Would you deny God in order to save your child’s life? To say that is a difficult question is a huge understatement. It’s an awful question to even consider. But it’s really not a far-fetched question. In fact, given the persecution of Christians throughout the world, it is a question far too many parents actually face. When groups like ISIS line up 21 Christian men for beheading and the only words they can force out of them is a prayer and confession of faith: “Jesus, help me,” they turn to threatening and molesting the children in order to get the parents “to convert.” That’s when the rubber hits the road, when the chickens come home to roost, when theory becomes reality. Loving parents are willing to do almost anything, to make almost any sacrifice, for their child. How far would you go? Would you deny God in order to save your child’s life?
That is also, in essence, the question that is put before Abraham in our text. And the most shocking thing is that it is God who poses the question by commanding Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love… and offer him as a burnt offering.” It is a test of faith, of fear, love, and trust in God above all things. “So Abraham, whom do you love more—Me or your son Isaac? Do you trust Me enough to obey no matter what I say?”
We have here in our text a paradox, “a situation or proposition that seems self-contradictory but in reality expresses truth.” And Abraham faces a paradox of epic proportions. The Lord God has promised that He will establish His everlasting covenant with Abraham and his descendants through his son Isaac; that is, one of Isaac’s descendants will be the Messiah. Then the Lord commands Abraham to take Isaac to a mountain and offer him as a sacrifice.
What do you do when God’s Word seems to contradict itself? This is the test that Abraham faces. But remember, while we, hearing the whole story, know this is a test, Abraham doesn’t. Like Job, Abraham does not learn of this until later. God does not say: “Abraham, don’t you worry; this is only a test.” This is not a role-play or fire drill. This is a real situation, literally involving life and death.
It’s also important to remember that this testing is not for God’s benefit, but for Abraham’s spiritual benefit. God already knows Abraham fears and loves Him. But Abraham’s love for Isaac, right and good though it is, might in time crowd out his love for God. Many a loving parent has turned his or her own child into an idol, by holding on when the Lord says it is time to go. Jesus later says, “Anyone who loves his son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37). Abraham needs an opportunity to consciously put God first.
The particular sacrifice God calls Abraham to bring is a burnt offering or “holocaust,” a blood sacrifice that in the Old Testament symbolizes a person’s complete dedication to God. You and I may have decided to give up something for Lent of our own accord. Abraham is commanded by God to give up his son, his only son, the son of the promise. And it is to be done in a way that seems to go against everything that Abraham knows of God’s justice and mercy. The ashes of this Lenten journey will be the cremated remains of his son!
It is an awful paradox. Martin Luther accurately describes it: “To human reason it must have seemed either that God’s promise would fail, or else this command must be of the devil and not of God.” To Abraham it must seem that God’s command is destroying God’s promise. And what further complicates the situation for Abraham is that God’s command seems not only to violate a father’s love for his son but also to cut off his hope of ever being saved. If Isaac is the link between Abraham and the only Savior he will ever have, how can Abraham cut off that link and hope to be right with God?
After what must have been a sleepless night, Abraham gets up early, perhaps so he won’t have to discuss with Sarah the gruesome assignment that lays ahead of him. He saddles his donkey, cuts wood for the sacrifice, and then sets out for the land of Moriah with two servants and his son Isaac.
We marvel at his prompt and absolute obedience. God gets no backtalk from Abraham, no bargaining, not even a question—just obedience. If “the region of Moriah” is the same area as the hill on which Solomon later builds the temple, as many scholars suggest, Abraham has a 50-mile trip ahead of him. God doesn’t want Abraham’s obedience to flow from spur-of-the-moment enthusiasm. Three days of traveling gives Abraham plenty of time to think about what he is doing. And we can be sure that during that time Satan supplies a dozen logical reasons why Abraham should not take the life of his son. “Did God actually say that? Why would He take away your son? Can’t this be done some other way?”
As they draw near to the site, Abraham orders his servants to stay while he and Isaac go on ahead. The servants are not to witness the sacrifice, since they certainly won’t be able to understand. Who can? In what seems the cruelest irony, Isaac carried the sizeable load of wood that is to be used for his own sacrifice. Abraham’s instructions to his servants are significant for two reasons. “I and the boy will worship,” he says. Abraham rightly describes the act that is to follow as worship. His act is a declaration of fear, love, and trust: “Lord, You have my heart. Even though I do not understand, You have spoken and I will listen.”
But the patriarch also adds: “And then we will come back to you.” This hints at the conclusion Abraham has reached to this awful paradox: What do you do when God’s command seems at odds with His promises? Abraham’s faith answers, “If God commands me to kill Isaac and I obey Him, then God is simply going to have to bring Isaac’s ashes back to life, and the two of us—I and the boy—are going to come back down this mountain.”
Abraham is silent as he and his son walk to the place of sacrifice. It is Isaac who breaks the silence: “My father! Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” The question has to cut Abraham’s heart like the flint knife he carries for the impending sacrifice. His answer is a combination of considerate love, which spares Isaac the brutal details, and of confident faith, which leaves the outcome in God’s hands: “God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
To obey God’s command, Abraham has to disregard everything his heart and his reason tells him and concentrate totally on God’s promise: “My covenant I will establish with Isaac” (Genesis 17:21). The epistle to the Hebrews give us insight into Abraham’s attitude: “By faith, Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17-19).
Abraham knows that if there is a conflict between God’s command and His promise, resolving that conflict is God’s business. Abraham’s business is to put God first, and he draws his knife. And with that. God knows that in Abraham’s heart the necessary sacrifice has been made. He has surrendered his will and his wisdom—yes, and his son—in obedience to the word of his Lord. Even though he cannot reconcile the awful paradox in his own mind, Abraham is obedient to God’s command, trusting that God’s promise is even stronger.
God deliberately allows the situation to develop to this point to demonstrate that Abraham has made the inner spiritual sacrifice. And then with a doubly urgent “Abraham! Abraham!” God directs Abraham not to harm his son. God has now brought Abraham’s spiritual training to a successful climax, and a messenger from heaven announces: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.”
It is the “angel of the Lord” who calls out to Abraham. The fact that He says, “You have not withheld your son from Me” indicates that the speaker is not just a regular angel, but the Angel of the Lord, the Son of God Himself, making another appearance prior to assuming our flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
“Now I know that you fear God,” the Angel tells Abraham. Throughout Scripture the fear of God is a deep feeling of awe in the presence of the great God. It includes an absolute fear of doing anything that would displease him, as well as childlike respect and trust in Him. In unbelievers, only the former is present. Abraham’s behavior at Moriah demonstrates that both are present in his heart.
What do you do when God’s command seems in conflict with His promises? As some would say: “You let go, and you let God.” God resolves this awful, wonderful paradox Himself. He provides the sacrifice! He provides the lamb, thus fulfilling both the command and promise. By providing a lamb for the sacrifice in place of Isaac, God illustrates a principle that becomes more prominent as the Old Testament unfolds—substitutionary atonement. When sinful mortal man cannot fulfill His holy command, God provides a sacrifice that does. Thankful, Abraham gives the mountain a new name, Yahweh Yireh, “The Lord Will Provide.”
The Angel of the Lord speaks to Abraham once again. He rewards Abraham’s God-given faith by repeating and expanding His messianic promise with an oath. When Abraham leaves Moriah, his trust in God’s promise is deepened, and his love for his son is purified and properly prioritized.
But this story is about much more than Abraham as a good example. Like all of Scripture it points to Christ and His work of salvation for you. Abraham’s crucial journey will be repeated many centuries later when Jesus walks the sorrowful way to Golgotha. God’s beloved Son, too, will carry the wood for His own sacrifice to the same mount where Abraham offers up Isaac, the place where the Jerusalem temple will be built with its abundant and pungent animal sacrifices.
Jesus’ journey will continue to the west side of the mountain, to the place of ultimate sacrifice known as Calvary. On that Good Friday, God does not stay His own hand, as He does Abraham’s. God’s only Son, His Beloved will indeed die. And it will be a complete, whole offering. The once-for-all sacrifice of the innocent Son of God will make atonement for the sins of the world. Christ’s body and soul will be consumed in the fire of God’s wrath against sin.
And this makes all the difference in the world for you. You see… you come here in the midst of your own paradoxes. God’s Law requires perfect obedience. A close examination of your own life in the mirror of God’s Law will quickly show you that you—like I—have failed to keep God’s Law perfectly. You have failed to fear, love, and trust God above all things. You have failed to love your neighbor as yourself. You have sinned daily and much against God in thought, word, and deed and justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. And God’s Word makes it clear that the wages of sin is death. Sin can only be atoned with the shedding of blood. But God’s Gospel tells us that He does not desire the death of a sinner. God loves you. He has chosen you to be His very own from before creation. He wants you to be His own and live forever under Him in His kingdom.
This is the awful, wonderful paradox. On one hand, because of sin you justly deserve death and God’s wrath and hell. On the other hand, God, in His mercy and grace, loves you and wants you to live with Him forever in paradise. And there is only one solution: Yahweh Yireh. The Lord Provides. The Lord provides the Sacrifice. The Lord provides the Substitute—His only-begotten Son. The Lord provide the Lamb—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus fulfills God’s holy Law in your place with His perfect obedience and righteousness. He willing suffers injustice at the hands of sinful man as they mock, scorn, whip, beat, and crucify Him. And He suffers God’s just judgment for a world of sinners—you and me included.
On the altar of the cross, the Lord God provides the Lamb. We could never furnish a sacrifice sufficient to atone for our sin. Christ suffers for us as our Substitute. As man, Jesus makes the self-sacrifice that we humans owe to God. And as God, Jesus is the unblemished offering of infinite merit that cancels our sin. In Christ, the Lamb of God, the paradox is resolved; the full counsel of God’s Word—His command and promise, His Law and Gospel—is fulfilled.
What do you do when God’s command seems at odds with His promise? You hold on to the promise! You trust the Lord to provide. And He has done so in His Son Jesus Christ. Now you know that God loves you, for He does not withhold His Son, His only Son, but gives Him up for you so that you might be His own dear child and live with Him for eternity.
Toward that end, the Lord keeps providing for you through His Word and Sacraments. He makes you His own in water and Word of Holy Baptism. From His altar, in, with, and under the form of bread and wine, He gives you His very body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Through the preaching of His Word of Law and Gospel, He calls you to repentance and faith. All this so that you might hear and believe this Good News: You are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.