First Sunday in Lent

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Readings: Genesis 22:1-18 | James 1:12-18 | Mark 1:9-15

Text: Genesis 22:1-18

One of the sad realities of life is that people only get woken up to a problem when it affects them personally.  In war, they’re willing to send other sons into war, but hate to send their own.  Slave labor is an atrocity, but when China does it, people turn a blind eye because it saves them money at the store.[1]  We remain armchair theologians until evil and death come knocking on our door and we have to come face-to-face with them and beg God to help us.

In the Old Testament lesson today, God desired to test Abraham.  And it’s not that waiting until his nineties to have a promised son wasn’t a test, but that didn’t really plumb the depths of his heart.  Regrettably, with Sarah giving him Hagar, he had another solution.  If even in name only, Abraham did have an offspring to inherit his household [cf. Gen. 15:1-3].  Rather, when God wanted to test Abraham, He knew where to look to see what was in Abraham’s heart: “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.”  Your son…no, not the son of the slave woman…your beloved son.  The one I promised and delivered to you.  The son of your old age, the one whom Sarah bore you.  Give him back to Me.

If faith toward God were just a matter of information, He knows the hearts of all and doesn’t need our words.  But believing God, as Abraham did, cannot be separated from how we take His Word to heart in the priorities we set, the choices we make, and the way we treat others.  God wanted to know Abraham’s true devotion, so He asked for that most treasured part of His life.

Each of us has those nerves which are tied to what we consider precious to us above all things.  They are the things for which we fight, the things we move heaven and earth to keep: our reputation, our spouse, our children, our way of life.  Sometimes the things we fight for are not so honorable: our alcohol, our affair, our unhealthy diet, our toys big and small, our laziness.  All the while, we might say we believe in God, and convince others.

But God tests what’s in our heart in a similar way: He asks for or takes that precious thing away.  And in doing that, He strikes a nerve.  Then, feelings of betrayal and anger are aroused in us.  We try reason our way out of it, and figure there must be some way to have our God and eat our cake too.  But like Abraham with Hagar, our half-baked human solution won’t do.  God really is asking for that, because whichever you give up is not really your god.

Too often, however, we choose our precious thing over God.  The work schedule says Sunday, and we roll over without so much as requesting a different schedule for religious reasons.  Our days are filled with so much to do and worry about, who has time to stop, read a little of the Bible and pray?  It’s enough to make ends meet, how could I possibly spare anything to give to the Church or to my neighbor in need? 

The point is that what is precious to us shows us where our heart is.  As Jesus Himself says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:21)

But the same is true for God!  Where His treasure is, there His heart must be also.

The test of Abraham was but a foreshadow of another sacrifice.  “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

What is precious in God’s eyes?  What would He give anything to obtain?  What fills Him with a longing that never ceases and postpones the close of the age century after century?  Some might say that it’s an obedient humanity.  Whenever at last we get our act together and achieve the end of injustice, oppression, and violence, then we will make our Creator proud.  But that’s not it.

Perhaps we can learn what this is by what price He’s willing to pay to obtain it:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased. (Mark 1:9-11)

It is no messenger, but God’s own beloved Son.  No cheap substitute would do.  No more rams, or goats, or bulls.  The wood was laid upon His Son’s back as He carried it up the mountain.  The knife would not be held back this time, but “nails, spear shall pierce him through; the cross be borne for me, for you.”[2] 

This is what is in God’s heart, and how you know what the treasure of His Kingdom is: 44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matt. 13:44-46)

The precious treasure God seeks is you.  You, saved from sin, death, and hell.  And not just you, but every person in the world—”He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2 NIV)  He yearns for His Word to take root in your heart and bear fruit in your life here and there in eternity.  He covets your soul and is aflame with jealousy over whatever else captivates you and draws your devotion away from Him.  He will not settle for part of you or share you with the world, and this we know because He held nothing back from your ransom payment: “the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6)

By this treasure, we know what’s in God’s heart.  By this treasure, given for you, He forgives you for all of your sin, including the ways you have worshipped and treasured the things of this life over Him.  Praise to Him because He is so faithful, so dedicated, and so persistent!  Abraham, together with us, have times when we are doing well, but even that’s not enough.

15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

It was not Abraham himself, but the offspring or seed God promised, who has brought that blessing to all nations.  And with such a received by us, we are the children of Abraham, who confidently live in and share the precious treasure God sees in saving all the families of the earth.  And in Abraham’s children of faith, He creates in us a new heart, a clean heart, which treasures God our Redeemer above everything else this world has.  The Holy Spirit teaches us the true value of God over the things of this life, and He teaches us to know God as our loving, almighty Father.  With that renewed heart, we’re able to see that whatever our life has now is just for a time, to enjoy and thank God for it while we have it, and to be able to let it go when God says it’s time.  We are, with Job, able to say, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)

Will we be able to live with such abandon into God’s care in this life?  Perhaps, but even when you still see the treasures of the flesh deceiving you, know that the Lord has treasured you, and He has made you His own possession.  Despite the weakness of your heart, His gracious purpose will be done, through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.


[1] https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/latest-news/china-83-major-brands-implicated-in-report-on-forced-labour-of-ethnic-minorities-from-xinjiang-assigned-to-factories-across-provinces-includes-company-responses/

[2] What Child is This (LSB 370, st. 2)

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