Sunday, April 29, 2012

They Walked on Together (Luke 24.13-49)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
April 29, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Prelude in C/Morning Has Broken" (Rick Bean)
Song of Praise: "Hail, Gladdening Light" (Gower, Tomlin, Crowder, Giglio)
Song of Praise: "Ancient Words" (DeShazo)

 Offering of Music (Choir): "Beautiful One" (Tim Hughes)
Hymn of Sending: "O Master Let Me Walk with Thee" (MARYTON)
Postlude: "Brethren, We Have Met for Worship" (Sanborn)

They Walked on Together
Text: Luke 24:13-49

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

Nick and Tom are two men with real interest in the things of God. Nick grew up in and around the people of God, learning the scriptures, hearing the stories of old and how God desires for his people to live. He’s the kind of person that brings his family to church and makes sure his children participate in the youth program. Tom got involved later in life, but eagerly participates in everything that’s going on. He’s the kind of person that participates eagerly in Sunday school and sings loudly in church. Each man has a complaint, though. Nick is worn out from being thoroughly religious and just doesn’t find any meaning or fulfillment in all his religious commitments. Tom is excited about all the activities in which he participates, but he isn’t sure that he believes the message. Are these two people unusual? I don’t think so… I think most of us can relate to one or both of them? 

Knowing Without Seeing

Two people walked away from Jerusalem. Their names were not Nick and Tom, but they were kindred spirits. The two walkers had been involved in the recent events during the week of Passover. They saw Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, and were deeply saddened by his death. They had even heard that his body was now missing. And they were deep in conversation about all that had happened.

Now a stranger walks up alongside them and involves himself in their conversation. He wants to know what they are discussing. They can’t believe that the stranger hasn’t heard about the recent events in Jerusalem. The stranger asks them to tell him about these things. So, with downcast faces, the two travelers describe Jesus of Nazareth.

"He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed…" they say. "We had hoped he was the one who was going to redeem Israel."

They knew about Jesus. They knew something of the prophecies about a savior – a Messiah. They knew about the empty tomb. But these two travelers did not see Jesus for who he was. They didn’t see God’s "vision" for humanity. And so, even with Jesus himself standing there before them, they didn’t see.

In many ways, their problem was that shared by Nick. They knew the teaching of scripture and knew that Jesus was a great teacher and religious figure, but they didn’t see God’s "vision" for us. Like Nick, they would probably bring their families to church, knowing that the children would learn good values. They would be faithful people, believing that God rewards good behavior and clean living. They would know that God wants something of us and they would strive to gain God’s blessing and approval. They would even realize that others who followed Jesus would think well of them for being devoted followers. But, perhaps like Nick, they would eventually wear out. Perhaps that is why they found themselves leaving Jerusalem rather than staying with the disciples. Perhaps their hopes had not been fulfilled and they just needed a break.

In a phrase, the travelers, along with Nick, knew without seeing. They have some knowledge, but they lack the vision of God’s purpose and will – the ability to see what God is doing in the world. And without that, religion becomes a wearisome exercise in futility. 

Seeing Without Knowing

Our two travelers were also not unlike our friend Tom. And we might describe Tom’s problem as the opposite of Nick’s. Tom was struggling with seeing without knowing. And the two travelers demonstrated this limitation as well.

In literal terms, they "saw" Jesus there, but they just didn’t know who he was. They even welcomed him into their conversation and asked him to stay when he began to leave them. They saw that he was a teacher when he opened the scripture to them, and they saw him break the bread as they ate together. But until the very end, their minds were closed to his true identity. And this is just the difficulty Tom experiences. He is an active participant in all that the church does, and while his intentions are sincere, he is really just along for the ride. The meaning of all those songs, hymns, prayers, and sermons eludes him. He sees everything going on and jumps in eagerly – perhaps hoping to understand, but in his heart he doesn’t know God in a personal and concrete way.

And after a while, Tom starts to ask questions like "Why do we sing such long hymns?" And "Why are we asked about personal faith and acts of service in Christ’s name?" And "Why does the Church demand such high priority in my life?" If only there were some tangible way to experience God… if only I could know God in a real way… 

Would I Know Jesus if I Saw Him?

Does this sound like a confusing and frustrating way to live? It sounds so familiar to me. I have been each of those people at different times in my life. What is the way out? Is it a matter of accumulating more knowledge, or somehow just looking harder for God?

The key must be there in the story, for by the end the two travelers "saw" and "knew". Something happened… something triggered a connection and they recognized Jesus for who he was… the risen Savior and Lord.

Partly, increasing their knowledge helped them to see. Jesus "opened" the scriptures to them, leading them through the Old Testament teaching in the Law and in the Prophets. He showed them how God’s righteousness and the requirements of the Law necessitated the suffering of the Christ. He recounted the prophecies that spoke of God’s Messiah, who would be both King and Servant, and who would redeem God’s people. So Jesus addressed their lack of knowledge with clear teaching from God’s Word.

And Jesus also helped with their sight. He repeated the act of communion that he had recently shared with the disciples. He came to them in a familiar way so that their blurry and dim vision might see a familiar sight. He did something ordinary and recognizable – he broke bread with them, giving thanks and sharing with them in the manner of the Last Supper.

These two acts certainly helped two travelers who were struggling with "knowing" and "seeing". But there is one more detail that is the key to understanding what happened in their recognition of Jesus. After he disappeared, they asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the scriptures to us?" Their "burning hearts" revealed faith stirring within them.

In the book of Hebrews, faith is defined for us. Faith is "being sure of what we do not know…" and "being certain of what we do not see." Faith does not come through knowledge or through concrete "proof" of something. Rather, faith is confident belief in what we hope for – that is, in God’s love and promises for us.

Faith is stirred by God’s Spirit working in our lives. Often the hearing and application of God’s Word in scripture and the experience of shared worship and sacraments can kindle faith or accompany it. God stirred faith in the two travelers on the road to Emmaus, and God stirred faith in the lives of Nick and Tom.

Nick, who had trouble seeing God’s vision for his people, is Nicodemus, a Pharisee who was the religious of the religious. He crept to Jesus one night to try to see just who Jesus was. Jesus talked about being "born again," and we weren’t sure if Nicodemus understood or not. But we read about him coming in the daylight to bury Jesus’ body in the tomb. Apparently his eyes were opened along the way and he discovered what Jesus meant by being "born again."

Tom, who couldn’t "know" the reality of God without concrete proof is Thomas the disciple, who missed Jesus’ appearance to the other disciples and demanded to touch Jesus’ wounds before he would believe. But Thomas’ heart was opened when he saw Jesus. He didn’t have to touch the wounds to know Jesus, but believed in faith, crying out, "My Lord and my God!" 

Is God Creating Faith in Me Now?

This is the question of the burning heart. It is the question of faith: is God stirring your heart so as to create a certain hope that extends beyond proof, knowledge, verification, sight, and experience? Are you experiencing a "burning heart?" If you are, I urge you to open yourself to God in faith. Your hope will not be misplaced or disappointed. For God’s love and promises are real and trustworthy. You will find faith confirmed and encouraged in scripture and worship, but faith itself is a gift from God. Search yourself this day, for God desires to be in fellowship and relationship with you. If God is creating faith in you now… if your heart is burning within you, act in faith. Talk to someone; talk to me or an elder or someone you know has a relationship with God. Confirm what God is doing in your life. That kind of hope does not disappoint.

And if the answer to that question of faith is "No" or "I don’t know," be reassured that if you keep opening yourself to Word and Sacrament, God is at work in you. For God’s Word and Sacrament are effective means through which God stirs and creates faith. God’s Word is a "two-edged sword" – it either turns one away or draws one to God. So take heart, if you hear God’s Word to you, God is already at work in your life. Come back and keep asking the question of faith.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mission Together (Matthew 28.5-10,16-20)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
April 22, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Solemn Processional" (Colin Mawby)
Song of Praise: "Come Now Almighty King" (Bob Kauflin)
Hymn of Praise: "The King of Love" (Henry Baker)

The Word in Music: "Festive Praise" (Allen Pote)
 Offering of Music: "Sending" (Hall, Townend, Nockles)
Hymn of Sending: "Lift High the Cross" (CRUCIFER)
Postlude: "Lift High the Cross" (Charles W. Ore)

Mission Together
Text: Matthew 28:5-10,16-20

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

Today is the anniversary celebration of the founding of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church 32 years ago. I can’t think of a more appropriate day to look at the Great Commission. This church was planted here to be a witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ in this neighborhood and community and Jesus’ words in Matthew 28 are central to what we are to be about as God’s people – past, present, and future.

I want to set this text between two significant biblical events: the covenant with Abraham and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We’ve spent quite a bit of time with Abraham in the last six months, in the time leading up to Christmas and in the time leading up to Easter. The covenant with Abraham was God’s coming to Abraham to establish a relationship in which God would be glorified on earth for the blessing of all the nations of the world. God would do this through giving Abraham children, land, and God’s direct blessing of Abraham and his descendants for the sake of the world. The New Testament Church and this Great Commission from Jesus are an extension of those same promises, with God’s intent still to be glorified on earth for the blessing of the nations.

The other book-end is the promise of God’s Holy Spirit, which would come only weeks from the events in this text. We’ll hear some of that promise in the text – a kind of “I’ll meet you where you are going and give you what you need for the mission.” We’ll also keep reflecting on the promise of the Holy Spirit for several weeks until we celebrate the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost on May 27.

So recognizing the importance of today’s text in the Biblical context and for our own context, let’s turn now to Matthew 28. 

Going Ahead of You (v. 7)

I included some of the early verses in the chapter from Easter morning because I wanted to highlight a particular phrase in verse seven: “Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him…”

This particular message from an angel was specific and literal – Jesus would meet the disciples in Galilee. But I also want you to hear an aspect of that message that gets expanded and amplified later on. Jesus goes ahead of us. Our mission has never been our own, whether that is huddled in fear in the Upper Room or gathered quietly in church classrooms. Our mission has always been located wherever God is leading and a significant part of Jesus’ mission message for us is that he is out ahead of us and wants us to meet him there!

That’s not just a New Testament idea. I think of the past weeks of looking at Abraham’s story. To Abraham God said, “Go to the land I will show you” and even “go and sacrifice your only son on the mountain I will show you.” God is not a bring-along with us god; God goes before us and invites us along with Him. 

Gathering to Worship (v. 17)

Jump down to verse 16. The eleven disciples (remember, Judas is gone) proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain Jesus had designated. Listen to what comes next: “When they saw Him, they worshiped Him…” I want to note two things there. First as much as you may hear me talk about mission and neighbors and the world; it can’t happen without gathering for worship. In order to share Christ, we must know Christ; and in order to know him, we must recognize him for who he is and worship God the Father through Jesus the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. So just before the most famous mission passage in the Bible, we see the disciples gathered around Jesus to worship him.

But also note this: they went to where Jesus had directed them and worshiped him there! That is not to say that we cannot worship God right here in this room; it is also not to say that we must go find Jesus out in the woods somewhere. It is to say that we must always have before us the question, “What is God doing and where is He doing it?” In our case, I believe God is doing much right here in our neighborhood and there is every reason in the world to expect and hope to meet God as we gather here as well as to expect and hope God to lead us out of here as we go. Let me also note that this is the more positive gathering-where-Jesus-is story in the Bible. Apparently the disciples were, at first, hiding out in a room because they feared those who had killed Jesus. And so in the Gospel of John you also can read of Jesus coming to them where they were. That is a huge part of the Good News story of Jesus. He does come to us where we are. But he also goes before us and invites us to meet him there. The danger is in not looking and listening for what God is doing and demanding that Jesus always meet us on our own terms.

And those of you who are observant and read ahead will have noticed one other fascinating thing in this verse. Yes, when they saw Him, they worshiped Him. But keep reading in verse 17: “…but some were doubtful.” There, on a mountain with the no-longer-dead Jesus right with them, some were doubtful! And Matthew doesn’t linger there or go into any other detail. Maybe that’s his nod to the story of Thomas, which is described more in the Gospel of John. Or maybe he is just being honest that it took a while for some to be convinced. But I appreciate Matthew including that detail. It is okay to be gathered for worship among followers of Jesus and still have doubts. It doesn’t say that they didn’t worship or that they didn’t hear or follow the Great Commission; it’s just an acknowledgement that some struggled in the midst of it all. I find that comforting and hope you do as well. 

Sent to Make Disciples (v. 19)

There are whole sermons waiting to be preached just on the Great Commission itself, which technically is contained in verses 19-20. I’ve even preached a few of those before. But I’ll just focus on one particular thing today and that is making disciples. All of what is there is super-important. We must go; we must make disciples; baptizing stands in for a number of things including training, repentance, incorporation into the faith community; and teaching obedience is also key and relates to teaching God’s Word. But here’s something you may not know: the only command in the Great Commission is to make disciples. I don’t want to get lost in Greek with you, but the only imperative verb is the word for “make disciples” – everything else, in Greek, relates to that. Literally, it’s something like this: “As you are going, MAKE DISCIPLES, by baptizing and teaching. Going is assumed and the methods are outlined. But the mission is to make disciples, and to make disciples of the nations.

What’s a disciple? Simply put, it is a student. But we have such a modern definition for that. A better description might be a life-long learner who follows a teacher. There are elements of learning, obedience, and commitment which all focus on the master-teacher, Jesus. In other words, you aren’t ever done being a disciple and following Jesus isn’t a one-time thing; it’s a life-long commitment. And those kinds of disciples are what we are to replicate, with God’s help.

I add that last part, especially, because it seems like such a daunting challenge. How can I make a disciple when I don’t have my own act together? Part one of that answer is that we don’t have to become the master-teacher, just invite folks to join us as fellow disciples! Part two of that answer is where Jesus ends the Commission… 

“I am with you always” (v. 20)

Jesus’ last statement after giving this mission to his followers is, “…and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” We don’t have to do it alone. In fact, taken in context, the whole point is that we are following Jesus in what He is doing. And when the promised Holy Spirit comes, we will be following God’s leading through the Spirit. We will have success making disciples because Jesus is with us. That’s why this isn’t called the “Great Mission,” but the “Great Commission.” Because co- means ‘with.’ Jesus is charging us with following, meeting up with, and joining with him in his mission. We are co-workers; it’s a co-mission.

His promise, “I am with you always” is kept at Pentecost through the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus ascends to be with God the Father, but he leaves the Spirit, also called Comforter, Counselor, Advocate, and Helper. In the coming weeks we will see that Jesus left us everything we need to join him in the work that God has been doing since the beginning of creation. Just as God blessed Abraham for the sake of the world He loved, through Jesus God has acted on behalf of the world He loves. God gathers and sends us in the power of the Holy Spirit for this work.

We rightly gather each week to worship God in Spirit and Truth. But the Word we hear and the Spirit of God that we encounter calls us outward to where God is at work – making disciples among the nations. Just as we were begun here in mission 32 years ago, let us continue as those whose eyes and hearts are fixed on God in worship and mission. Amen.

Transfiguration (Mark 9.1-13)

Sermon by: Greg Joines
April 15, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Look, O Look! The Sight is Glorious" (Paul Manz)
Hymn of Praise: "Thine is the Glory" (MACCABEUS)
Song of Praise: "Open the Eyes of My Heart" (Baloche)

The Word in Music: "In the Beauty of Holiness" (Robin Mark)
 Offering of Music: "More Precious than Silver" (DeShazo/Tornquist)
Hymn of Sending: "You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd" (REGENT SQUARE)
Postlude: "Postlude on 'Regent Square'" (Red Bock)

Transfiguration
Text: Mark 9:1-13

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


Monday, April 9, 2012

The Lord Will Provide (Genesis 22.13-18)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
Easter Sunday - April 8, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Fanfare and Gigue on 'Easter Hymn'" (German Paniagua, trumpet) (Albrecht)
Hymn of Praise: "Worship Christ the Risen King" (REGENT SQUARE)
The Word in Music: "Worthy is the Lamb" (Handel) 

Song of Response: "Amazing Love" (Kendrick)
 Offering of Music: "Hail the Day that Christ Arose" (Steve and Vikki Cook)
Song of Sending: "You Have Been Raised" (Sovereign Grace)
Postlude: "Trumpet Prelude" (German Paniagua, trumpet) (Roman)

The Lord Will Provide
Text: Genesis 22:13-18

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

Last Christmas we spent the season in Genesis looking at the story of Abraham and Sarah and God’s promise to send a baby that would change the world. This Easter season we have returned to Abraham and that baby, now born and grown to a young man, as we see a father and son choosing obedience to the point of sacrifice. In that story we have seen and heard the importance of obedience to God’s Word; we’ve seen and heard the gift and value of spiritual fellowship or companionship along the way; and we’ve seen and heard the importance of worship and reverence toward God in helping us stick close to God, not wavering to the left or right, running ahead, or lagging behind.

In Abraham and Isaac’s story we have also seen and heard elements of Jesus’ story in the days leading up to his crucifixion and last Sunday we left off right at the point where God intervened and told Abraham not to harm his son. Fast forward to Jesus’ time and we left off, in effect, in the middle of Passover week, with God indicating that He would have to provide for Himself the sacrifice that was needed. If you’ll remember, these were Abraham’s words to his son, Isaac. (v. 8) God not only did that in Abraham and Isaac’s story, but also on Good Friday, when God provided for Himself the Lamb necessary for the sacrifice. Today we’ll look at the conclusion of Abraham and Isaac’s story, see the connection and ultimate fulfillment of the story in Jesus Christ, and consider what all that means for us. 

“A Ram in the Thicket” (v. 13)

In the story, God literally provided the sacrifice. Having heard a Word from the Lord, Abraham stayed his hand, “raised his eyes and looked” and saw a ram caught in the thicket. I am reminded of Abraham’s faith on the journey up to the spot. When Isaac asked him about the sacrifice, Abraham responded in faith, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Abraham did not know for sure what would happen, but he knew God would provide.

And notice Abraham’s continued attentiveness. That has been a consistent theme in this story. It wasn’t just the words of an angel messenger… we don’t always get that, though we do underestimate the degree to which scripture speaks to us today. But Abraham “raised his eyes and looked.” He looked around to see what God was doing or what God had provided. Head down, eyes closed, he might never have seen it. It reminds me of our conversations about getting out beyond the church walls. There is great value in gathering to study, pray, and have fellowship; but we can’t forget to ask the question and look for the answer to “What is God doing in and around us and how can we be a part?” In looking for God’s action, Abraham saw God’s provision. 

“The Lord Will Provide” (v. 14)

I am reminded of Jesus’ sacrifice. That’s central to the Good News story, and indeed why we call Good Friday “good.” We were not capable of offering God what was necessary for our own rightness. Our sin and separation from God was and is so complete that only God can make it right. And so, destined to die IN our own sin (not FOR it but IN it), God intervened and provided an effective death on our behalf. That “good death” was the death of His own Son, Jesus Christ.

And the Bible doesn’t hide this connection from us. Jesus is called the “Lamb of God” and the significance of his death explained. You heard one such explanation in the Call to Worship this morning from 1 Peter 1:18-21. Listen again:
…you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you 21 who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
In Abraham’s story, I think there was a real potential for him (and us) to focus on JUST the obedience part and not the faith part. It would have been – not easier – but simpler for Abraham to create a list of actions to be followed, and expect God’s reward at the end. Load the donkey, get the young men, bring Isaac, bring rope, bring the knife, travel to the mountain, unload, make the sacrifice. But what God was looking for in all that – and maybe this was the “test” – was for Abraham to trust Him. Yes, obedience requires trust. But so does ongoing attention. Trust can turn to duty or obligation and still look like obedience. But the constant listening and attentiveness and readiness – that was trusting God in faith. And that’s what God invites from us in Jesus. There is much to obey and imitate and follow in Jesus’ life and teaching, but over and above that God invites us to TRUST Him that in Christ God was providing what we needed in the way we needed it. That is the faith and trust in which an obedient life grows. 

“Abundant Blessing” (vv. 17-18)

Now all of that is Good Friday news. But this is Easter morning. The cross and the sacrifice were not the end of the story, but just a momentary pause when God displayed in an amazing way the depth of His mercy and provision. And then, three days later, Jesus was raised! The Easter story is God’s gift of grace over and above the gift of mercy on the cross. And that, too, was paralleled in Abraham’s story.

In Genesis 22, the story didn’t end with Abraham finding the ram in the thicket and offering it as the sacrifice God had provided. After that, God spoke again to Abraham and blessed him all over again with the covenant blessings and then some. Once again, God promised blessing, and descendants as numerous as the stars and the sand; now God also promised Abraham victory over his enemies. And finally, God again said that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through Abraham.

On the cross, God showed us mercy and forgave our sins with the only sacrifice that would do so sufficiently. But on Easter Sunday, God poured it on – grace upon grace. We are not only free from sin and death, but we are raised to new life! That’s resurrection: raised to new life! And God’s blessing for us is life with Christ, both here and now, and forever. That’s the Easter gift – the gift of life with God now and forever. 

Takeaways

I hope Abraham’s story has helped you hear Jesus’ story with fresh ears.

We’ve been reminded of the importance of obeying God’s will and Word, not just out of blind duty, but out of living faith. We’ve been reminded of the gift and blessing of companionship along the way, as Abraham was together with Isaac, so God is with us and we with each other in the church. We’ve been reminded of the danger of wavering to the right or the left, lest we become bitter against God or place other loves before God. We’ve been reminded of the danger of running ahead of God or lagging too far behind and missing what God is doing. We’ve been reminded that sometimes God speaks far in advance and sometimes right when we need it most.

And we’ve been reminded that, through Jesus, God has provided the sacrifice for Himself that sin required. Through Jesus, God has blessed us and raised us to a new life – life with Him. The Lord will provide; the Lord HAS provided… and the Lamb’s name is Jesus! Amen.



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.