After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I." He said, "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." So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you." And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, "My father!" And he said, "Here am I, my son." He said, "Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Abraham said, "God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So they went both of them together.
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." 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. 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." (ESV)
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Ashes and the Promise
5 March 2014
While lecturing on Genesis in 1539, Martin Luther was bereaved of his friend Dr. Sebald Münsterer, who was a law professor at the University of Wittenberg. The day following the funeral Luther had death very much on his mind as he addressed students on God's command to Abraham to offer his only son, Isaac, as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah (Gn 22). Abraham was confronted with death in the command of God. Luther believed that Abraham was sensible of the clash between life and death that this command represented.
Would God ever command a father to offer his only son unto death? Luther spoke eloquently about the power of God to raise the dead. He believed that Abraham could give himself up to obedience to the Word of God because he was confident that God could raise his son from death and ashes. Not even death itself can make of no effect the promise of God that through the body of this one boy the Messiah would arise, even if it required God to raise him to fulfill the promise. Abraham had no basis for presuming that God would raise Isaac, but the promise. There is nothing more powerful or certain than the divine promise (Rm 4) to which faith clings. This is why Abraham can face the death of his son with equanimity and amazing alacrity. The next morning after hearing God speaks he sets out for the place of sacrifice. No dawdling for Abraham, who has heard the Word from God. Death can be no impediment to the promise.
We too live by that same faith. We walk into Lent with the sign of death upon our foreheads. The ash of Ash Wednesday is the sign of the death through which all of us must pass. While this implies grief, and we all lament at the funeral of a loved one, it is not the end of the story. We Christians seek death every day in our life of repentance. We desire to be transfixed upon Moriah and die to sin with the confidence that God our Father will not abandon us to the grave but that we shall live through the power of the God who brings death. He has promised us in the death-dealing waters of baptism that we possess the life which is Christ's. His promise will not return to us empty. Death cannot stop the promise of God.
"Yesterday we buried our very dear friend Dr. Sebald. Therefore he is now lamented as though he were dead. But we know that he is living; for inasmuch as he died in the true confession of the Son of God, and God is not the God of the dead but of the living (Mt 22:32), he too lives.
"Thus Abraham relies on the promise and attributes to the divine Majesty this power, that He will restore his dead son to life; for just as he saw that Isaac was born of a worn-out womb and of a sterile mother, so he also believed that he was to be raised after being buried and reduced to ashes, in order that he might have descendants, as the Epistle to the Hebrews states: 'God is able to give life even to the dead' (Heb 11:19).
"Accordingly, Abraham understood the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, and through it alone he resolved this contradiction, which otherwise cannot be resolved; and his faith deserves the praise it receives from the prophets and apostles. These were his thoughts: 'Today I have a son; tomorrow I shall have nothing but ashes. I do not know how long they will lie scattered; but they will be brought to life again, whether this happens while I am still alive or a thousand years after my death. For the Word declares that I shall have descendants through this Isaac, even though he has been reduced to ashes.'
"I have said, however, that we cannot comprehend this trial; but we can observe and imagine it from afar, so to speak. Moreover, you see that the passage does not deal with a work, as James says in his letter (Js 2:21), since as yet no work has occurred. It is the faith that we admire and praise.
"Therefore one should hold fast to this comfort, that what God has once declared, this He does not change. You were baptized, and in baptism the kingdom of God was promised you. You should know that this is His unchangeable Word, and you should not permit yourself to be drawn away from it. For although it can happen-as with those who were on the way to Emmaus (Lk 24:28)-that He pretends to want to go farther and seems to be dealing with us as though He had forgotten His promises, faith in the Word must nevertheless be retained, and the promise must be stressed, that it is true and dependable, even if the manner, time, occasion, place, and other particulars are unknown. For the fact that God cannot lie is sure and dependable.
"When I am being killed, I see the ways and particulars by which my life is destroyed; but I do not see the particulars through which life will return, neither the time nor the place. Why, then, do I believe what I do not see anywhere? Because I have the promise and the Word of God; this does not permit me to discard the hope of life or to have any doubt about the inheritance which is Christ's, through whom we have been adopted as children.
Up to this time Abraham had thought that his son Isaac would marry and beget children at the place where he was at that time. All this falls through, for here is God's command that he should kill his son. Therefore even though those particulars of place and time are lost, Abraham does not for this reason have any doubt about the matter itself; for he knows that his son will have descendants, even after a thousand years."
Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis,
Collect for Ash Wednesday
Almighty and everlasting God, You despise nothing You have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and contrite hearts that lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness we may receive from You full pardon and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
For B. J. Hall, as she awaits the results of a biopsy, that the Lord would comfort her with His care
For all those sorrowing over their own sin, that they might find rescue in God their Savior
For John Kuhlmann as he recovers from surgery, that the Lord His God would grant them health and complete healing
Art: GRÜNEWALD, Matthias Isenheim Altarpiece (1515)
© Scott R. Murray, 2014