Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 26:45 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What do you do when everything you see seems to contradict everything you believe? What do you do when what you experience seems to contradict what God has said and promised? Well, it’s actually worse than that for Abraham. Because it’s not just that God’s word is contradicted by what Abraham sees and experiences. It’s that God’s own promise is contradicted by God’s own command. As far as human reason and understanding can stretch, the two things that God has said to Abraham cannot both be true. First, God promised that through Isaac, Abraham’s offspring will be multiplied more than the sand on the seashore or the stars in the sky. In fact, God denied that the promise would come through Ishmael, Abraham’s other son, in order to make it come through Isaac. And now God has commanded that Abraham take his son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loves, and offer him as a whole burnt offering at Mount Moriah.
Both of those things cannot be true at the same time. It cannot be true that Isaac will have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and so on, if he is killed and turned to ashes before any of them are born. Either he lives and has descendants, or he dies and does not. So what will Abraham do? He gets up early in the morning, gets his donkey ready, gathers the wood, fire, and knife, takes his two servants and his son, and they leave. And on the third day, Abraham lifts up his eyes and he sees the place in the distance. And he says to his servants, you stay here with the donkey and the boy and I will go over there and worship, and then we will come back to you.
While they’re on the way, Isaac says the only words he says here: “My father, look, here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham says, “God will see to the lamb for the sacrifice.” When they get to the place, Isaac realizes that the sacrifice God has seen to is himself, as Abraham binds his feet and puts him on the wood.
At this point, we have so many questions that are unanswered about what’s going through Abraham’s and Isaac’s minds. Isaac is probably around 20 years old, but he doesn’t seem to protest any of this. And who can imagine putting your own child to death, even, or especially, at the command of God? And what kind of God is this, anyway, who would command such a horrible thing? None of those questions are answered for us, not here or anywhere else. All we have are the promise, the command, and the actions of Abraham.
Up to here, for Christians hearing this account, we are thinking that Isaac is the picture of Jesus for us here. He’s the son, the only son—the only-begotten, we might say, at least of Abraham and Sarah. He’s the beloved son, of which we hear echoes in Mark 1 today, and also in Mark 9, which we heard last week. He carries the wood on his own back. He is laid upon the wood to be sacrificed. And the father is going to put him to death. All these things make Isaac an obvious picture of Jesus—except for one thing: it’s not Isaac who dies. When Abraham stretches out his hand to take hold of the knife to slaughter his son—that is, to treat him like the sacrificial animal—the Angel of Yahweh says, “Abraham, stop! Do not do anything to the boy. For now I see that you have not withheld for yourself your beloved son.”
And, for the second time in these verses, Abraham lifts up his eyes. And he sees behind him a ram, caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham takes that ram and slaughters it and offers it as a whole burnt offering in the place of his son, Isaac.
Luther wrote that it is God’s nature to do contradictory things when things are contradictory. And things are contradictory. You feel it right now in your own self and life, and in the world. God makes everything good, He puts people into His good creation and without explanation for how it could be—and in contradiction to God’s holy word—the people listen to the serpent instead. God gives life, and Cain takes it. God makes people and animals and earth fertile and people make of that fruitful garden a thorny and death-filled wilderness. Whatever God does is contradicted by His own creation, to the point that His creatures want to kill the One through whom all things were made. None of it makes any more sense than God commanding Abraham to do something that God hates: the sacrifice of a son. The only other times God speaks of human sacrifice, it is to condemn the idolatrous nations for it (Ezekiel 16:21; 23:39; Isaiah 57:5). To put it in the starkest terms possible: God commands Abraham to do something that God Himself calls evil and an abomination.
When things are contradictory, God does contradictory things. He sends His Son, His only Son, His beloved, and the Son enters this world in the flesh of Mary. He comes into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. And then the world condemns Him. He is the life of the world, and He is crucified. He is the beloved of the Father, and the Father forsakes Him to death and hell. When things are contradictory, God does contradictory things. So God’s promise, contradicting the consequence of the command, happens regardless. The Son believes the promise in your place, sacrificed in the place of every son and every daughter. The Son believes the promise: that the life of God cannot be killed. And God refuses to let His Son turn to dust and ashes. The promise is kept, even though the Son’s death seems to end any hope of it. The Son who dies lives again. On the third day, lift up your eyes and see it. God has seen to the Lamb for the sacrifice. On the mountain of Golgotha, He has seen to it.
And John saw it. He saw a Lamb standing as one that had been slaughtered. And the praise of those around the throne is to the Lamb who was slaughtered, by whose blood He ransomed a people for God from every tribe, people, language, and nation (Revelation 5:6, 9). It is not Isaac who is the son of the promise, but through Isaac comes the true Son of Promise, in whom all the nations of the earth are blessed. And that is why the beloved Son appears and says, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near to you. Repent and believe this Gospel.” The promise has come, the promise is kept.
When things are contradictory, God does contradictory things. In the midst of everything we call life, God brings death. And then, there is life in the midst of death. Where we see only water, He brings us right into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Where we hear only human words, He forgives your sins. Where we taste only bread and wine, He gives us the living Body and Blood of Jesus. And the cross of Jesus stands as an eternal contradiction to every human aspiration, every form of human wisdom, every human thought and every human belief and every human word by which God’s promise is denied and contradicted. And that contradiction will not be resolved until the promise is fulfilled, when we will see the Lamb who has been slain standing alive in the eternally new creation, ourselves raised from the contradiction of death.
The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near to you. Repent and believe this Gospel! It is and remains true, in spite of everything you see, experience, or feel. When things are contradictory, God does contradictory things. Lift up your eyes and see your Lord, who has taken your place! Right here, where we are gathered in the midst of all the death this world can conjure up, He brings us eternal and divine life. No matter what else happens, on that, God will not be contradicted.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/19/21