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)

First Sunday in Lent (Matthew 4:1-11)

Jesus’ ministry begins not in a lush garden in the presence of God as it was in the beginning, but in the wilderness of a world that is under the curse of sin and death. His ministry after being baptized in the Jordan and declared to be the Son of God, goes immediately into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for forty days. Forty for the days for the flood of Noah by which God judged the wickedness of men (Genesis 6-8), forty for the years during which God bore with the stiff-necked generation before bringing their children into the Promised Land and the whole time fed them with bread from heaven (Psalm 95:8-11, Exodus 16). Forty days for the time in which Moses was on the mountain receiving the Word of God (Exodus 34:27-28). Forty for the days Goliath came and taunted Israel and defied the Living God (1 Samuel 17). Forty days for God showing forbearance to a twisted generation, that they might be saved.

This was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the capstone of all of God’s dealings with the sons of men since Adam and Eve brought sin into the world. It was the beginning of a new creation, “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:18-19) The Son of God, Jesus, stands in the wilderness as the New Adam to work righteousness and bring salvation where the First Adam and his children were cursed. It’s quite appropriate that Genesis 3 and Matthew 4 are read together.

Jesus stands in for all humanity when He is tempted by the devil, and listen to the temptations He faced, because each time He is tempted to forsake the Word of God for temporal, selfish gain: “If you are the Son of God…” does not mean that the devil wasn’t listening at His Baptism, when the Father declared from heaven, “This is my beloved Son.” It means that Satan is up to His old tricks of lying and murdering (John 8:44), attempting to pry God and man apart. In fact this is what the Greek name for the devil, diabolos, means—he who divides, casts apart.

2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

The first temptation casts doubt on God as Creator of heaven and earth. Will He indeed do good for His creatures? Can a man truly turn His life over to the care of God and not have to be ready to grab the proverbial wheel at any moment? Command these stones to become loaves of bread—take your life in your own hands, because how could it be God’s will for you to hunger? Not only “if you are the son of God,” but If this God really loved, He wouldn’t let you suffer with sweat and hunger, thorns and thistles, and after all your labor to return to the dust.

It had worked on the Israelites before (we’ll hear this two Sundays from now): [They said to Moses] “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (Ex. 17:3) It works on us, too, because as soon as the money runs short, we’re convinced it must be the end. We lock down and go into survival mode, believing only in what we can measure and touch, relying only on our reason and strength to see us through.

What does God say to that? 4 But he answered, “It is written, “ ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” Yes, you are dust and flesh, fragile and at the breath of the Lord you whither (Isaiah 40:6-8). When He hides His face, you die and return to the ground (Ps. 104:27-30). But what of it? Did He not create you from the dust by a Word? Are you afraid that He cannot sustain you? Or are you more in love with this present life than the God who gives and who takes away? Do you not remember that apart from Him there is no God, no life, no resurrection?

The second temptation follows this:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ ”

If God truly claims you as Son, He won’t let anything bad happen to you. If He is truly Almighty, then no matter what choice you make, His will is done. This questions God’s care for His children, with the implication that if something harm does come, He must not be as almighty as all that. If you further dissect Psalm 91 by this man-centered approach, you will read “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence… A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” Then, where is the justice in the cancer which separates loving spouses from each other, the SIDS which takes a sweet child from his parents, or viruses indiscriminately sickening droves of people? Why won’t you help, God? Don’t you see us languishing?

God, what do you have to say to that? 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” That is, you have seen the life you have as something that belongs to you, as if you were king or queen over your own domain. We demand that God justify His actions to us. How dare God not serve me, but we have it backwards. He is the Lord, we are the servants. He the Benefactor, we the beneficiaries. He the Protector, we are guarded and kept by Him from eternity.

The devil’s final temptation:

“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Here the devil promises Jesus His supposed heart’s desire. Don’t you want all nations to honor you, all to hail the name of Jesus? I can it to you that thing you desire most, the Liar claims. All you have to do is worship me, trust in my power, celebrate my works and walk in my ways. Better than that, I can give it to you with all that nasty, painful suffering and death.

We understand this temptation not necessarily as worshipping the devil, but bargaining with God. Our heart’s desire, the thing we would do anything to have, we can achieve by other means. This is the draw of witchcraft, palm reading, psychics, and Ouija boards. You can have the help you want, the ultimate good you see for your life. But it comes at a price. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36) The devil’s lie is that “where there’s a will there’s a way” and where God doesn’t satisfy, there are other options. If the Words of Jesus are not to your liking, devote yourself to the teachings of demons—whether in bald-faced paganism, or in a guise of Christianity by picking a church that won’t judge what you don’t want to repent of.

What does God say to this? 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “ ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ ”

Jesus remained steadfast, when we are flighty. He remained strong where we are weak. He remained true, when we’ve been duped. “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god…Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.” (Isa. 44:6, 8)

If you have been tempted, if you think sometimes God is too far removed to help, behold Him “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He was tempted in the flesh so that He can help us in our weakness. Where we fall, He has the power and willingness to save—to forgive, renew, and rescue.

And if you are so afflicted, He gives you a pledge of His help by giving you His own Body and Blood to eat and drink. This very Body and Blood is the one which felt hunger, felt Satan’s temptations and lies, felt the sting of allegiance sworn but then broken, the humiliation of being jeered at, who felt bodily agony and breathed His last.

This is what He gives to you, who falter under the weight of your sins, who groan at the onset of death, and whose hearts are rent asunder by loss. He gives it to you to comfort and strengthen you, because His Body did not remain in the grave. He rose again to life free of sin, death, and devil. He rose, never to die again (Rom. 6:9), and so will you.

So, come to the altar now, with all your weakness, that you may put on Christ’s strength, in the forgiveness of your sins and the promise of eternal rest. Amen.