Video of Vespers is here. The sermon begins around the 19:55 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What kind of test is this? God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, seems to confirm the worst suspicions of all the skeptics about what kind of God this is—what kind of God we have. Isn’t this the God who commanded the people: “You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God” (Leviticus 18:21)? The God who condemned Manassah because he offered his son as a sacrifice (2 Kings 21:6)? The God who gave Jerusalem into the hands of the Babylonians because they built high places to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, He says, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind that they should do this abomination (Jeremiah 32:35)? Who is He to forbid in one place what He commands in another? What kind of test is this?
There is more than one kind of testing. We can talk about the sort of test you have to pass, like a math test. Or we can talk about the testing of metal in the fire, which amounts to purification and getting rid of the stuff that no one wants, in order to have only the purest gold or silver. We might think that the testing of Abraham here is of the first kind: to see if he passes, if he really loves Yahweh, like seeing if you really know your multiplication tables. But if God sees hearts, then this is all an unnecessary cruelty. Of course, we might say that whether God sees Abraham’s heart now, or sees what he will do in the future, it is all the same: unnecessary.
But this test is not for God to evaluate or find out something that He doesn’t know about Abraham. This is putting Abraham to the test for his own sake. This is testing the metal of Abraham’s heart in the fire kindled by striking the flint of the command against the steel of the promise. There is no way out for Abraham. He’s caught between what God has promised about the multiplying of his offspring through his son Isaac and what God has commanded about the killing of Isaac, ending his genealogy then and there on the mountain. God is commanding Abraham to kill the promise.
We are not commanded to kill our own children so that we will be forced to rely on the promise. That command is given uniquely to Abraham. But we are caught in this same contradiction every single day of our lives. This is the practical illustration of walking by faith instead of by sight. There is no way that Abraham can see how God could keep His promise, if the promised son is dead. No son means no grandchildren. No son means no descendants at all. Which of you has seen resurrection? Which of you has seen heaven? Or God? Or Jesus? Or any miracle that could not be explained away by those without faith? We move through Lent and then we end it with a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, but who among us has seen the resurrected Jesus? No, we live in an entirely Lenten world; that is what we can see.
But more than what we see, it is what God sees that is important. When Isaac says to his father that he sees the fire and the wood, but not the sacrifice, Abraham says, in our translation: “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8). That is accurate. Literally, “God will provide for himself” is “God will see to it, the lamb [for] the whole burnt offering.” And we use the words that way: if someone is going to do something, we might say that he or she will “see to it.” So what happens at the end, after Isaac (apparently willingly) is bound on top of the wood? Look! A ram, caught in a thicket by his horns! Abraham offered the ram in place of his son and he called that place “Yahweh will see [to it],” as it is said today, “On the mountain of Yahweh it will be seen” (22:14). If you want to see what God sees, it will not be seen in the command. It will only be seen on the mountain of Yahweh, where God will see to the sacrifice.
The only place the contradiction between the command and the promise is resolved is at the mountain of Yahweh, where it is not Abraham’s only beloved son, Isaac, who is offered and sacrificed. It is God’s only beloved Son, Jesus, who is willingly offered and sacrificed. He is the ram who is offered in your place, in your children’s place, and in the place of every single person in this entire world. The tabernacle gave Israel a foreshadowing of this, as it was partially covered with rams’ skins dyed red (e.g., Exodus 25:5; 26:14).
Hebrews says that Abraham reckoned that God was able to raise the dead Isaac, if that was what it took to keep the promise. And, symbolically or figuratively—literally, “as a parable”—Abraham did receive Isaac back from the dead. Paul says that Abraham “believed, in hope against hope.” Here is a parable, not just about Isaac rising figuratively from the dead, but about Jesus who actually has risen from the dead. Here in the resurrection is hope when every human hope of avoiding death is crushed and removed. When you cannot see the keeping of God’s promise; when all you have is the word and the promise; when every hope ends in death—as, eventually, it will; in that moment especially, you have a divine hope set against your human hope: God is able to raise the dead. On the cross, it appeared as if the promise had come to an end in Jesus’ body. No Christ, no Christians. No eternal Son, no blessing of all nations. If the promised Son is dead, how can God keep His promise? We had hoped He was the one to redeem Israel, but there He is, dead in the tomb. The command that ends in sacrifice seems to contradict the promise of eternal life. But no: the command is fulfilled, this Son truly dies, but this Son truly is raised.
Luther said that when things are contradictory, God does contradictory things (LW 4:131). This command certainly seems to qualify as contradictory. But it is because things in this world contradict God that He does this contradictory thing. There should be no death at all: not of Isaac, not of us, not of Jesus. Death is the fundamental and absolute contradiction to what God created and established. It is the contradiction to the God who is the life of all the living. It is the contradiction that puts to the test every promise. So God does a contradictory thing, and the eternal Son takes on flesh to be subject to death. It is the single, solitary thing that we could never have imagined or foreseen. But God sees to it, and so we say today, “On the Mountain of God, on Golgotha, the sacrifice of God was seen, once and for all.” And we will say this every single day until we do see Him face to face, in the resurrection life that swallows up the contradiction of death forever. As often as you eat this bread of His body and drink this cup of His blood, you proclaim the death of Jesus until He comes.
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, 3/8/23