The Rector’s sermon for February 14, 2018 - Ash Wednesday    


A Lenten Preaching Series:  THY WILL BE DONE

1 of 9:  God’s Will, God’s Promise


Today begins this year’s Lenten preaching series entitled Thy Will Be Done.  The theme for today is God’s Will, God’s Promise, and the key verse is:  “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.”  (Hebrews 11:17)


The story of Abraham and Isaac is an amazing story of love, of trust, and it’s the perfect story to begin the season of Lent. Have you ever thought about the relationship between Abraham and Isaac, what it must have been like?  Parenting, at any age, is challenging, but can you even imagine being one hundred and becoming a parent?   Abraham called Isaac “the son of promise.”  Most likely he told Isaac that all of God’s promises were going to come true, and that they—Abraham and Isaac—would be part of making those promises come true.  Sarah had named her child Isaac, because his name meant “laughter.”  We can certainly understand why!   Abraham and Sarah were probably considered cursed by God because they had no children, and when Sarah learns she would have a child the following year—at such an old age—laughter would surely have been her first response!  Really, God?  You’ve got to be kidding!  But God was perfectly serious, and the young boy Isaac has a remarkable story to tell us.


 “I remember being pretty excited about going on an adventure with Dad.  I knew the trip was something special because we had to cut wood for the sacrifice before we left.  Dad didn’t think we would find enough kindling at higher elevations.  So we packed firewood and our tinderbox and headed up into the mountains.  On the third day, Dad called for a halt.  I distinctly remember what he said to the servants: ‘Wait here with the donkey while I and the boy go a bit further, to that peak in the distance.  There we will worship, and then WE will come back to you.’”


 “Dad took the tinderbox and I offered to carry the wood, so he put it on my shoulders.  It was heavier than I expected, and I got a few splinters on my way up the hill.  It wasn’t until we were almost there that I did the math:  ‘Hey, dad?’ I asked when we stopped for a breather, ‘I see fire, and I see wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?  You forgot the most important part!’  Dad just stuck out his chin and said as if he were trying to convince himself more than me, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice, my son.’  At the time, it almost sounded like a promise, but a promise he was working hard to believe.”


 “I’m not sure how Dad knew exactly where to stop, but it was a beautiful spot.  You could hear a spring nearby, and the hill we were on looked down on a young grove of olives on one side, and up to a limestone peak on the other.  Chunks of limestone littered our hill, too, and it only took a dozen or so to put a suitable altar together.  We laid out the wood carefully, in a kind of bowl, so it would cradle the offering while it burned.  Dad placed the firebox right next to the limestone, then turned to face me.  He didn’t threaten.  He didn’t beg.  He didn’t try to explain.  But I think he was praying under his breath as he tenderly but firmly tied my hands and feet.  If he had panicked, I think I would have panicked, too.  But Dad just methodically prepared my body for sacrifice.  It was all he could manage to get me up on the wood, and I caught a whiff of his old man sweat as he laid me down on the altar.  He anointed me with the oil of sacrifice; it felt warm and sticky as it ran down my forehead.”


 “The sharp smell of myrrh in the olive oil was almost stifling.  I found it suddenly hard to breathe, like I was drowning, and deep terror began to rise in me.  I didn’t want to die.  I couldn’t imagine my own father ending me like this.  His hopes and dreams for the future were tied up with me and my future.  I knew what the Promise meant to him.  Everything I thought I knew suddenly didn’t make any sense.  Silently, the ceremonial knife appeared in his hand.  I felt paralyzed; all I could do was watch.  I was lying there on the wood, oil running down my head, feeling like I was going to drown, and I was no longer sure there was a God of promise.  I was no longer sure there was a God at all!”


 “Finally, Dad spoke:  ‘Isaac, my son!’ he cried.  Then he said, ‘Your God can do the impossible!’  And he raised the knife.  What I saw in his eyes at that moment took away my doubts.  What I saw wasn’t fear on his face, or at least, it wasn’t only fear.  I saw love.  I saw pride.  But above all, I saw trust.”


 “Dad always put trust in the promise of God at the center of our family life.  Remember why he moved from back home to this strange place?  Because God told him to.  My father didn’t have a plan or a destination in mind.  God promised.  That’s all my dad needed to know.  Now God said, ‘Take your son up the mountain,’ and he did.  That dependence on God’s promise is what I saw in his eyes, even as the blade of the knife caught the sunlight and flashed.  He told me later that the way he figured it, God could raise the dead if he wanted to.  But there I  was, the Son of Promise, living proof that the Almighty could bring life out of dead bodies.  If I died—and stayed dead—then all of God’s promise couldn’t come true.”


 “But Dad wasn’t willing to accept that.  I was born a miracle and a promise, he said and a God who could bring life from death was a God to be trusted, even when it didn’t make sense… Maybe his trust was contagious.  Or maybe it’s just the way I was raised.  But once I saw the trust in his eyes, I didn’t even try to escape.  With my hands and feet, tied what could I do anyway?  Dad trusted God’s promise; I trusted my dad.  And the sacrificial knife flashed in the sunlight.  Dad put his hands over my eyes and I couldn’t see what was going to happen next.  Only at that moment—at the last possible moment—did God show up.  ‘Abraham!  Abraham!’  It was the voice of the Angel of the Lord, a voice that echoes in my dreams to this day.  ‘Here I am,’ Dad said, just like always.  God speaks, Abraham listens.  But this time, I cold hear the voice, too:  ‘Don’t lay a hand on the boy!  I have seen, and now I know, that you trust me above all else, since you were willing to give me your son, your Son of Promise.’”


 “With a great sob, Dad threw down the knife and grabbed me off the firewood, like a younger father would have picked up his baby from a crib.  And he held me tight,  telling me he loves me as tears run down his face.  He told me later that that embrace was like he had actually gotten me back from the grave.  He fully intended to kill me that day, thinking—hoping—trusting that God could raise the dead in order to keep his promises.  But for the entire trip—three long days—I seemed dead to him…and now he had me, back to life!”


 “Dad was a mess—and so was I.  But as we stood there in an awkward hug—have you ever tried hugging someone with both arms tied behind your back?—Dad looked up and saw a ram caught by its horns in a thorn bush.  ‘I told you!’ he laughed, ‘The Lord will provide the sacrifice!’  And that’s the name of the mountain to this day:  The Lord will provide.”


So Dad cut me loose, we put the sacrifice on the altar, and as I watched the smoke rise to heaven, I couldn’t help thinking that I have a God of promise.  That my God provided a substitute in my place…that my God can do the impossible.”


That…is the story of the boy Isaac who learned at an early age what it means to trust God in all things.  How about you?


Let us pray:
      Heavenly Father, I admit there are times when your will seems confusing to me, times when my experience says there is no God of grace, no God of power, no God at all.  When it feels like you are absent, shape my trust in your promises, that I might rely on your Word even when my world is impossible to understand.  In times of testing, let your will be done in my life.  Amen. 


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