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  • Writer's pictureBishop Peter F. Hansen

The Promise

Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Trinity – August 26, 2018

“For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise… till the seed should come to whom the promise was made.”

IT’S THE WORST STORY in the Bible. And it’s the best hope for all the world. It has often been misinterpreted, and its meaning and importance have been purposely misread and ignored for centuries. But this chapter, Genesis chapter 22, stands in the middle of our favorite Bible stories as a primitive world becomes God’s kingdom and the man of faith is tested and proves true.

Abraham was God’s friend, called the father of faith. He is considered the source of the three great world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Upon his actions, that are performed in faith after hearing the voice of God, swings the greatest turning point for humankind’s destiny and the path from earth to heaven, from man back to God, takes shape. But Abraham was promised a son, born of Abraham’s one beloved wife, Sarah. And that promise took so long . . .

This is how we make history R-rated. We hear God’s intentions, His destiny for us, and we begin to feel that He needs help. We’re like Mickey Mouse as THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, the great man gone out, and his robe and hat and magic wand just sitting there idle. Why not try them on? What harm can that do?

Abraham’s wife suggested that they get themselves that promised son by letting her servant girl join the marriage. Menage a trois. Ishmael is born, and 4,000 years of war between the Jews and Arabs is the result.

The promise was a son to Abraham by Sarah, and God would still bring it. A promise is a personal thing. And God is a Person. God said it and He would do it, but time was wasting and Abraham was 100 years old before that son of promise would arrive. He waited 25 years for this baby, born to a 90-year-old barren woman. And when it came, it was a miracle.

He now had to choose between his sons. The older boy and his mother, Hagar, were rude to Sarah, and threatened the safety of Isaac, Sarah’s precious boy. They had to be sent away, and Abraham grieved the loss of his firstborn. Now there was only Isaac, and the boy grew into teenage status and was the joy of the old man’s life.

Then one day, God tested Abraham. This is the horrible part. He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” Gen 22:2 We don’t want to keep reading. What will the old man do? How can he obey such a request?

But Abraham had disobeyed God before and found the consequences bad. His heart had to be bursting inside him, to give up this son also, and this one being the son of promise? Yet, hadn’t God told him this was the son through whom would come descendants beyond number? What was God doing? He wouldn’t be told, so he had better obey, and pray, and trust God. God only knows what any of us would have done. I reckon we’d quit that cruel religion and leave that God.

Abraham went through with it. He took Isaac, telling Sarah they were going to meet with God. The company found the foot of Moriah and there the boy was loaded with dry wood for the fire. Abraham left his servants below and took Isaac up the hill alone.

We know what happened. Isaac was bound and it must have been that he was willing, and he was laid on the altar of stone and dry wood. Abraham’s hand held the knife high, and then the angel shouted out, “Abraham, Stop!” The old man found a yearling male sheep nearby and a switch was made, the young ram instead of Isaac. The sacrifice was given, the Lamb of God for the son of promise. Then, “the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By Myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.’” Gen 22:15-18

What just happened? This is more than a commendation for Abraham’s willingness. God says “by myself I have sworn.” It’s a heavy matter, a promise made personally by God to Abraham. Through this young lad a people shall rise innumerable. Ok, and is that all? Hardly. “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,” He promises. That’s a promise to comfort Abraham’s poor aching heart, but more: it’s a promise to you and to me. From that day, 3,900 years ago, to this: God has paved the way of salvation through Abraham’s family, his descendants in faith: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David and the prophets. All pointing to the promise, to the promised One. It’s that seed God spoke of, one man in the line of Abraham, who would have the power to change our destiny, to give us His death so we might live in Him.

The seed is Christ. Who else could it be? All the prophets spoke of Him, and in Him are all the promises fulfilled.

Knowing that, we can look back on that mountaintop and in that knowledge the horror of God’s strange request melts away. The mount is Moriah, in future days the Temple mount, and very nearby Golgotha, the place of a skull, where Jesus Christ would be sacrificed. He was the greater son of promise, the only real Son of God, who was born miraculously and was detested by His brethren. He bore the wood of the sacrifice on His back up that same road, and He lay on it, a willing sacrifice for His Father who asked it of Him. The piercing weapons did in fact drive through His body and the Lamb of God was slain. God did indeed provide the lamb for the altar of the cross and it was Abraham’s seed that He’d promised who fulfilled it. Because Abraham was willing, God kept the promise and we are saved by Him. And the entire world is given this same gift, the offer, the promise that when you take this Savior, your soul is in His keeping forever.

St. Paul, in Galatians, which we read this morning, makes a great deal about the promise in the seed, and he contrasts the promise made to Abraham with the covenant of the law given to Moses. He asks us which is still in effect? The law, he says, that came 430 years after this promise of the seed, cannot cancel the promise. The promise is stronger. The promise was an inheritance and would stand for all time. The law was only given to expose sin and bring us to repentance. But the law could not save us, rather it condemns us. If law alone were given, mercy and grace would be empty words. Faith would be useless. Abraham believed, and his faith God counted as righteousness. Because Abraham believed God, all his sins were covered. Faith was enough. The promise overwhelms the law.

We speak a great deal about old and new covenants, and these are most important, naturally. A covenant is a legal means to hold two parties in an agreement with conditions on both sides. A divine covenant holds us to a promise to God to obey and believe Him, and He promises to do certain things for us that only He can do. Then a sacrifice is made and blood seals the deal.

A promise is somewhat different, however, in that it only requires one party’s fulfillment toward another. I promise you that on the 16th of next month I will do such and such. You don’t have to do anything. And my promise is binding on me. The promise, therefore, to Abraham was binding on God forever.

It is a terrible story: that is—if it were only an Old Testament story, once upon a time, long ago. How could God ask such a thing of an old man? Of a 14-year-old boy? It’s psychological warfare. That story was told and retold for centuries without anyone knowing what it meant or how it would finally be recast for us when the Savior of the world carried His cross up that same mountain. Even then, the horror of that day eclipsed the connection, I’m sure, between His fulfillment of the promise and that story with Isaac and the lamb. The substitution was another sign. God would provide Himself a lamb, Jehovah jireh: God provides. That lamb would not be Isaac, and not that sheep this time, but Jesus, sacrificed in much the same way and at the same location, 1,900 years later. And, miraculously again, just as Isaac rose from the altar alive, Jesus would three days later rise up from the tomb and He lives today. He is the promised One. His life is our eternity.

God turned a bad story into His story. I pity any scholar that has to make sense of Genesis 22 and is professionally or religiously prohibited from making any connection to Jesus Christ. A passage that speaks volumes to connect God’s true purpose in giving a horrible command would be muted, and we’d be left to wonder if our God is crazy or just mean? But He is neither. He is wonderful.

God promises us wonderful things. And what He promises, He comes through on. He promised the Jewish race a place for their people, a land of milk and honey, and freedom from slavery. They would multiply and have peace and plenty. But He stopped there, awaiting what would come next, out of their lineage, in the line of David. He hinted, He promised, He inspired the prophets. Each seer spoke of one more feature, the Anointed One, the suffering servant, a child born of a virgin in Bethlehem, the branch, and so on. With each stroke, a picture of Jesus emerges and if you stand in just the right place you can see Him.

Or you can read the New Testament and meet Him yourself.

We are children of promise. We are a promised people, and we have work to do. So many people have no hope, no meaning in their lives. Our world needs His law again to cast a sharp distinction between good and evil, between truth and deception. But even more it needs the Savior’s love and to that end we’ve been given, offered, a promised people to bring the love of God to a hurting world. As Isaac was promised to old Abraham, you’ve been promised to a dying world.

While some Christians want Christ to come today and end this world’s wickedness, I don’t think they realize how wicked things will become. It’s not nearly so dark as we read that it’s going to get. We can’t just hunker down and wait. God is more patient than we know and waits while we take the field, still to perform some kind of good thing in obedience to Him while the light yet holds. What will that be?

What will it be? You are children of promise. What is the promise of God you’ve been sent to fulfill?


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