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Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Fear of the Lord (Genesis 22.9-12)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
Palm Sunday - April 1, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna" (German Paniagua, trumpet) (John Carter)
Palm Procession: "Sanna, Sannanina" (South African Tune)
Hymn of Praise: "Ride On, Ride On in Majesty" (TRURO)
Song of Praise: "You Are Holy (Prince of Peace)" (Imboden, Rhoton)
The Word through Drama/Music: "God Will Provide a Lamb" (Michael Card)

 Offering of Music: "After All (Holy)" (David Crowder
Hymn of Sending: "As You Go" (Mark Altrogge)
Postlude: "Postlude on 'Ellacombe'" (J. Wayne Kerr)

The Fear of the Lord
Text: Genesis 22:9-12

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today is Palm Sunday, in which the Christian Church remembers the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem, though that seemingly celebratory moment soon turns somber with his arrest and crucifixion later in the week. If you have not been with us the past few weeks, we are approaching Good Friday and Easter in a different way this year. We are reading the story of the Akeidah, or “the binding” of Isaac by his father, Abraham. Why? We are doing so because much in this story parallels the story of Jesus’ last days and the purpose behind them. My hope is that hearing Abraham and Isaac’s story will open up the story of Jesus to you in fresh ways.

Today we will focus on verses 9-12, though you heard the whole story read up to this point. It began with God’s testing of Abraham, from which we noted (two weeks ago) that obedience to God is the best choice we can make in any situation. We also noted that God does not tempt anyone to do evil, but does sometimes put our faith and obedience to the test.

Last Sunday we looked at the next few verses and talked about the importance of faith-filled companionship and community. We saw that between father and son, in Abraham and Isaac, and we saw God’s gift of that through the Church. We also saw that pivotal moment in which Abraham chose to trust God alongside his son, turning neither to the left or the right in bitterness or in disobedience of God.

Today we are also at a key moment, in which we see the importance of not running ahead or lagging behind God’s Word. We will see that same tension in the events of Palm Sunday and Good Friday that would soon follow. 

Always Listening (v. 11b)

So following up from last week, Abraham chooses obedience in companionship with his son, Isaac, and we pick up today with them coming to the place God had told him. Continuing in obedience, Abraham built the altar, arranged the wood, and bound Isaac there on the altar. And he continues. Verse ten tells us that Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife. After the brief dip into Abraham’s inner emotion in previous verses, we return to the matter-of-fact narration. We don’t know how quickly or slowly Abraham was moving at this point. We don’t know the degree of his struggle or his faith. We’re given just enough for the story to move ahead; it’s playing out just as we might fear.

Having said that, I am again struck by Abraham’s faithfulness. He had the internal, mental, and emotional choice back between verses seven and eight, when Isaac asked the hard question and Abraham chose to answer not in bitterness or disobedience, but in obedience and openness to the Lord. Now, his actions back-up his words: he could curse God and go ahead or he could turn away from God and save his son, but he proceeds. And here’s what signals this faithful balance to me: he is still listening for God’s Word. When the Angel of the Lord calls his name, for the third time in this story, Abraham hears and answers, “Here I am.”

The man who, on several previous occasions, had come up with his own back-up plan, was and is paying close attention to God’s will and Word. Sometimes the Word of the Lord comes far in advance and we must choose to follow in obedience or turn away in disobedience. Abraham had been walking the difficult path of obedience with his beloved son. Sometimes the Word of the Lord comes in the moment when we need it most, and it is critical that we are listening and remaining open to how God is leading. 

Not Ahead; Not Behind (v. 11a)

I cannot comprehend that level of obedience, and God forbid any of us have to face something that incomprehensibly excruciating. But I can see the importance of not turning to the left or the right, in bitterness or in disobedience. And I can see the importance of not getting ahead of God with my plans or lagging behind and missing what God is saying moment by moment. And those lessons transfer widely across our lives and situations. I am reminded of Palm Sunday.

On Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem for the Passover, he was greeted and hailed as a hero, He had, on several occasions, indicated that he was not about the popular version of Messiah (after the feeding of the 5000 – John 6:15; giving his life as a ransom for many – Matthew 20:28). But the people and even his disciples were too ready to run ahead of what God was doing and see him as the popular version of the Messiah rather than the one he presented himself to be.

When the people cried out, “Hosanna!” they were shouting “Save us now!” This was the language of Messianic hope. Jesus had not come to be a victorious earthly hero in the pattern of King David, but to be the suffering servant prophesied by Isaiah (ch. 53). He hadn’t come to be the great descendant of David and Abraham, and prove the covenant promises in that way, but to be the sacrifice of the Heavenly Father for the sake of the world. He was God providing for Himself the Lamb for the offering. Indeed, as we have heard each week from John 3:16-17:

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”

The disciples and all those who followed Jesus in those last days before Easter Sunday had to find the balance between not running ahead of God (thinking Jesus was King David returned for revolution) or lagging behind God (abandoning faith and hope when Jesus was arrested and crucified). Rather, like Abraham, they had to learn to listen and stay close in to God’s will and Word.

God did indeed “save us now”; but it was on His own terms and by His own hand. How many were still focused on the Messiah they wanted rather than the one they had among them? How many of us miss what God is saying now because we haven’t stayed close and attentive to what God is doing?

Sometimes the Word of the Lord comes in advance; sometimes it comes in the moment we need it most. Abraham was following a most difficult path of obedience, but heard God call his name. Because he heard and responded, he heard God say, “Do not stretch out your hand; do not harm him.” And because Abraham was listening so carefully, he was in a place to fully appreciate the mercy and grace God provided.

Likewise we must learn to listen carefully to God’s voice, particularly as it speaks through the words of scripture. The text gives us one additional clue for cultivating this skill and attitude: the fear of God. 

The Fear of the Lord (v. 12)

The Angel of the Lord explains that Abraham has passed the test because he has demonstrated the fear of God through his actions. Later, New Testament writers would describe this as Abraham’s faith-in-action through his works (cf. Hebrews 11:17-19; James 2:21-23).

In case it is not clear, let me clarify that “fear of God” or “fear of the Lord” is not being scared of God. A better description would be reverent awe or a healthy respect. A concrete example might be what you would (or should) have towards a bonfire. You should fear it enough not to treat it casually and be careless around it, but with a healthy respect, it can be a thing of beauty, warmth, and blessing. Abraham was not scared of God such that he hid from him, but had a reverence and respect for God that caused him to listen and pay close attention when God spoke.

Other ways we talk about the “fear of the Lord” are as worship, reverence, obedience, and awe. That is the attitude and mindset that helps us cultivate the listening ear, attentive heart, and obedient will. It is the attitude and mindset that helps us not veer to the left or right in bitterness or disobedience or to run ahead with our own plans or lag behind in faithlessness.

The fear of the Lord is cultivated as we worship and serve the Lord. It is deepened as we live in the community of faith and study God’s Word. And it is shared as we seek what God is doing and stick close by in obedience and love.

Our first week, the point of application was that obedience of God is always the best choice in any circumstance or situation. Last week we saw the great value and gift of living life in the community of faith and in faithful companionship with God and others. And today, we see the vital importance of loving, listening, and following God closely.

Next Sunday – Easter Sunday – we will conclude this story and see how God did provide for Himself the sacrifice and how over and above that merciful act God graced Abraham (and us) with overflowing blessing and love.

As you move through this week, particularly coming to Good Friday, I hope this story will play through your mind. Not only is it about the importance of loving, listening, and following God closely (something the Palm Sunday crowd missed), but it is the Good Friday story played out – of God providing the sacrifice that we could not, of God providing the Lamb to save our lives, just as he did with Isaac.

May God speak and move in and around you this day and this week as we remember his great love and sacrifice in giving His only Son, the One whom He loves, Jesus, for the sake of the world. Amen.

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