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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Companionship and Faith (Genesis 22.4-8)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
March 25, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Were You There?/There is a Balm" (Susan Slade, flue) (arr. Brandt Adams)
Hymn of Praise: "My Hope is Built on Nothing Less" (SOLID ROCK)
Song of Praise: "Blessed Be Your Name" (Redman)
Offering of Music: "Behold the Lamb of God" (Handel)

Hymn of Sending: "'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus" (TRUST IN JESUS)
Postlude: "Prelude in D minor" (Bach)

Companionship and Faith
Text: Genesis 22:4-8

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

[Most weeks I recommend the audio version over the written draft, but in this case I think I'd recommend the written draft below.  But you are, of course, welcome to check out either one!]

Last week we began the Akeidah – the story of “The Binding” of Isaac. We looked at the first three verses of Genesis 22 and saw that God was testing Abraham. I noted that God does not tempt people to evil; only Satan does that. But God does sometimes test us, giving us an opportunity to trust and obey in faith. We read in verse two about the test – God told Abraham to take his son to a mountain to be sacrificed. We didn’t hear much about Abraham’s thoughts or feelings, but did read of his obedient preparation, down to the last detail. And if there was a main application from this part of the story, it was that we may not know if God is testing us, if Satan is tempting us, or if someone is out to get us; but bottom line, God loves us and obedience to God’s Word and Spirit is our best choice in any circumstance. We may understand; we may not. But obedience to God is always the faithful choice.

I also noted the difficulty of this story. I compared it to the difficulty of relating to a friend or loved one who is going through an extreme crisis. We want to get to the happy ending or the easy answer, but sometimes we just need to sit and be with them. God will provide the next steps. God holds the future. Sometimes, the best thing we can do is walk slowly or sit quietly. And we are going through this text slowly as a Lenten exercise in how to do that. Interestingly enough, today’s portion of the story illustrates just this point.

Companionship in Trial (v. 6)

Mainly today I want to look with you at the nature of companionship. By that I mean togetherness or not being alone. The Bible uses different words to describe this, including fellowship (koinonia), community, and covenant. What I want you to see and hear in the story is that neither Abraham nor Isaac were alone in this trial. Last week we heard how God identified with Abraham’s challenge as a father – the instructions weren’t just “take Isaac to the mountain for sacrifice”; but they were, “take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, the one you named “Laughter.” We will see in today’s text that Abraham likewise was present for and with Isaac in this test, even though Isaac didn’t understand everything that was happening.

There is a particular phrase that highlights that. Follow along in verses 5-6:
Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” 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.”
The test is on. The young men are left behind and Isaac has to carry the wood on which he will be sacrificed. It reminds me of Jesus carrying his cross towards his own crucifixion. And Abraham carries the fire and knife. It’s what comes next that caught my eye. Look right after that at the end of verse six:
So the two of them walked on together.
Companionship. Community. Covenant. There was a point at which Abraham wielded the knife to circumcise Isaac and bind him to the covenant. Now, in the very last moments of this test, the father walks with the son. And Abraham is more than physically present for his son. Isaac calls out to his father, saying, “My father!” (v. 7) And for the second time in the longer story, Abraham responds, “Here I am.” The first time was to answer God when He called his name. Now, when Isaac calls him, he responds, “Here I am, my son.” In the midst of heart-breaking trial, the father is there for and with the son.

Hard Questions and the Obedience of the Son (v. 7)

I want to point you, too, to the question Isaac asked his father. Look there in verse 7: Isaac said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” This question reveals that Isaac does not know the full details of what they are doing. He knows, either from being told or from observing, that they are going to make a sacrifice. It’s something they have done before, for he is looking for the lamb.

And to my reading, in the short moments between Isaac’s question and Abraham’s answer, the whole story hangs. Just pause there with me… what will come next? It is there that we see the depth of Abraham’s faith in God, love of his son, and determination to move forward in obedience. But it is also the moment when he could have gone in several other directions.

Abraham could have responded, “There is no lamb, boy; it’s you. God has told me to sacrifice you and that’s what’s going to happen.” That’s the truly terrifying aspect of this story and it would have been easy to lose sight of God’s goodness and end up there, perhaps bitter and angry.

Abraham could have responded, “I will find us a lamb,” thinking that there is no way it’s going to be Isaac. Love for his son would win out over all, even if Abraham had to directly disobey God.

Or Abraham could respond in faith (as he did), not yet knowing how God would provide, but trusting that God WOULD provide.

I think of the hard questions we sometimes ask God… Why is there suffering? Why is there evil? Or perhaps even harder because it’s closer in… Why did my loved one get sick and die? Why did my friend die in that accident? And we have the same temptation that Abraham did. We could go with the cold, hard answer of “that’s the way it is” – suggesting that God doesn’t care or that God doesn’t exist. We could try to find our own way out and our own solution, turning our back on God.

Or, like Abraham, we can find that tension between love and truth where faith lives, entrusting ourselves fully into God’s hands. And that’s just half of the story here. The other half is companionship. We can do it together. That’s one of the real gifts of the community of believers that is the church. We may not have answers or a solution, but we have a shared faith and can walk together in obedience. And if we can’t walk, we can stand; and if we can’t even stand, we can sit and be still together.

Companionship in Obedience (v. 8)

And that’s the thing I want to highlight, in addition to Abraham’s hopeful and faith-full response to Isaac. He led his son onward in obedience and did it together. Look at the end of verse eight. There it is again: “So the two of them walked on together.” Just as they had started out together in this test, they continue together in obedience, with Abraham walking in obedience toward God and Isaac walking in obedience toward his father.

Abraham doesn’t have his own plan (for a change!), nor does he have the answers (yet) to what God will do. But he trusts in God and walks in obedience, and he welcomes his son along with him on that journey.

That is a hard balance to find, but it is such a powerful expression of what it means to be a community of faith. We talk a lot about our mission – to our neighbors and to the world. But this is the glue that binds us and holds us – being the community of faith. It means we walk, stand, sit, and wait with each other. We don’t hurry to blame God or answer for God; but we trust together and obey together. And if I find that hard to do or am so numb with hurt that I can’t think at all, you come alongside me and trust with or for me.

Each of you is a tangible reminder to the other that you are not alone. And just as Abraham’s faithful togetherness with Isaac portrayed God’s own faithful presence, so your faithful togetherness will flesh out God’s presence in each others lives. I did not head into this story thinking to find such a strong expression of community and companionship, but it is striking and inspiring. Don’t miss it!

Some Prophetic Words

Now, as I did last week, I have a New Testament addendum to that application. I have said that the Genesis 22 story parallels and links to the New Testament Lent, Passion, and Easter story of Jesus. Like last week, I am not going to connect all those dots for you. I think the Akeidah is evocative enough that the Holy Spirit can do that as you receive it and dwell on it. But I do want to lift out two phrases in today’s text that seem strangely prophetic to me. I’ll leave it to the Holy Spirit to interpret and connect these more fully for you.

The first set of phrases comes in verse four. See if you hear it: “On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance.” Think Passion week… Good Friday and the cross… the place of sacrifice. From Good Friday, what God would do on the third day was still “at a distance.” Could any disciple have imagined what God would do? And yet, could they still look to God in faith on the eve of the sacrifice of their Lord? They struggled to do just that. I realize the order and timing doesn’t quite line up, but that’s not the point. I still hear overtones of Good Friday and Easter in these phrases.

The second phrase that jumped out to me comes in Abraham’s response to Isaac’s question. Look at the first part of verse eight: “Abraham said, ‘God will provide for Himself the lamb.’” I think it’s that extra “for Himself” in there that seems unusual. It’s not just “God will provide the lamb”; but “God will provide for Himself the lamb,” as if God is the only one who can provide what is necessary for this sacrifice. Now you can take that literally to mean that when it finally comes down to it, a human father will not be able to sacrifice his only son. I think that’s a legitimate interpretation and part of what is meant here. But I think one can also take it at a deeper level to mean, “Whatever it is that God is after here; it will require supernatural sourcing – it will have to come from God.” Whether that’s the strength to do what is asked, some other provision, or as we might see from our perspective – God’s own and only Son for an eternal once-and-for-all sacrifice – it is clear that GOD will have to provide what is necessary for Himself.

That’s some heavy stuff; or maybe a better word is “weighty.” And it’s the Gospel – Good News. Finally, in the face of that to which we have no answer, God will provide for Himself. And the Gospel tells us that God does so together with us. Emmanuel – God with us and for us; God’s provision for the world. Amen!

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Test of Faith (Genesis 22.1-3)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
March 18, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "My Faith Looks Up to Thee" (Karl)
Hymn of Praise: "My Faith Looks Up to Thee" (OLIVET)
Song of Praise: "Wonderful, Merciful Savior" (Wyse)
Hymn of Response: "Here Am I" (Austell

Offering of Music: "He Never Failed Me Yet" (Gwen Ingram, solo) (Robert Ray)
Hymn of Sending: "Lord, Dismiss Us" (SICILIAN)
Postlude: "Fantasia" (Johann)

A Test of Faith
Text: Genesis 22:1-3

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

Today we are starting four weeks on the story referred to in Hebrew as the Akeidah (ah-kay-DAH), or “the binding.” It is one of the most emotional and challenging stories in the Bible because of what a father is asked to do in obedience to God. It is all the more emotional and challenging because of the backdrop of the covenant, the long wait for Isaac’s birth, and the surrounding culture of the time, which (in some cases) practiced child sacrifice.

One way to handle the story is to race through it emotionally and get to the relief at the end, when God provides an alternative sacrifice. That’s what we often do with Jesus’ passion week as well, rushing past the suffering and the cross to the empty tomb and “happy ending.” We also do this in life, not wanting to simply sit and wait with friends or loved ones who are suffering, but saying or praying, “God will work it out in the end.”

I invite you, in the next four weeks, to move slowly and deliberately through this story with me. That is a true Lenten practice – to dwell on Jesus’ and our own humanity, suffering, and temptation, longing for God’s deliverance and provision, but waiting on the Lord’s own timing in faith and in obedience.

Today we will just look at the first three verses of the story as we also notice some points of connection with Jesus and his suffering, testing, and obedience.

After These Things, God Tested Abraham (v. 1)

I just want to say a brief word about this phrase. This is a reference back to what we looked at last week. Abraham had just had the encounter with Abimelech and a third opportunity to interact with the people of the world around him with godly integrity (or not). Remember, Abraham failed the first two times, in Egypt and with a first encounter with Abimelech. And even in the third opportunity in Genesis 21, it seems like Abimelech was initiating the relationship and human covenant that ensued. What we saw in the first two instances was that even though Abraham failed to act uprightly, God acted faithfully to uphold the divine covenant. In the third encounter in Genesis 21, Abraham was invited to act faithfully and did, with God again acting faithfully in and around the human relationships to uphold the divine covenant. We might even say that God used Abimelech to call Abraham to faithfulness.

I said last week that these early opportunities for Abraham to live out the “blessed to be a blessing,” outward-focused part of the covenant showed his increasing maturity and obedience, with God faithful all along. Now, in Genesis 22, we are told that God is testing Abraham, perhaps now giving him an opportunity in the very inward parts of the covenant promises to demonstrate faithfulness and obedience.

Finally, I would note that “testing” is different than “tempting,” at least when God is doing it. God does not ‘tempt’ – because you can only be tempted to evil. God can ‘test,’ which provides an opportunity for faithfulness. On the other hand, and not specifically related to this story, Satan can ‘tempt’ to evil, and that can prove to be a ‘test’ or ‘trial’ in that resisting temptation is an act of faithfulness or obedience. I know that may only complicate what’s going on here, but we will see, as we move through the chapter, that God not only required something He (as God) could require, but prefigured His own saving sacrifice of His Son on behalf of humanity who could not redeem ourselves. But, I’m getting ahead of myself…

The Test (v. 2)

After calling Abraham’s name, God lays out the test in verse two. Abraham is to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him there. That’s the task. But listen to how God says it. I’m not sure what to make of this, other than that it is very striking and intentional language. Either God is empathizing with Abraham over what He is asking or God is demonstrating the depth of the sacrifice He will one day (for us) make as a Heavenly Father. Just listen, it’s more than a task list…

“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.”

Did you hear it? God understands both what He is asking and how deep a personal sacrifice this will be for Abraham – “your son… your only son… the son whom you love… ‘laughter’…” His birth to Abraham and Sarah in their old age was a miracle after not being able to bear children. And Isaac was a gift from God. Don’t forget, too, that Abraham has already sent one son (Ishmael) away with Hagar (also ch. 21); and it was clear earlier that Abraham loved Ishmael.

What an impossible test!

Obedient Preparations (v. 3)

Before we look at verse three, let me note Abraham’s response to God calling his name in verse one. I passed over this earlier because I wanted to group this response to the obedient preparations Abraham carries out in verse three. When God calls Abraham’s name, Abraham responds, ‘Here I am.” Not that’s not how you or I normally respond when someone calls our name. In my youth, I would say, “What?” and after a while my mother trained me to say, “Yes, ma’am?” Nonetheless, I wouldn’t make too much of this response at this point except that it appears again two more times in this story. It becomes more than a respectful, “Yes?” and signals Abraham’s availability and obedience in response to what God is asking. I’ll mention that each week – it becomes a more and more striking indication of Abraham’s faith and faithfulness. And, in fact, we’ll sing a song after the sermon based on these “Here I am” responses in this passage.

But let’s look on to verse three. After God speaks with the instructions, Abraham rises early in the morning and makes complete preparations. He saddles his donkey, he takes two young men for assistance (I did pause to wonder if these were like the Star Trek “red shirts” – potential substitutes for Isaac? – but Abraham never seems to waver from the instructions. Indeed, these young men were to help transport everything.) He takes his son, Isaac. He splits wood for the burnt offering. And they all pack up and leave to go to the place where God told him to go. In other words, he didn’t leave himself an excuse by not taking wood or a knife or adequate preparation. At least at this stage, Abraham seems diligently obedient in following the Lord’s command.

And I say “at this stage” because, as we move ahead in the story each week, I want to examine with you the nature of Abraham’s obedience. At this point, we are not told about his emotional state – his feelings about this. We are simply told of his preparations. One possibility that comes to mind is how many of us might react in the face of a tragedy, like a death in the family. Sometimes, we don’t and can’t take time to emotionally process what is going on, and even find some solace in having a list of things to do – making the arrangements, as it were. I don’t know that Abraham was grieving or even understanding completely what God was asking of him – or more importantly, WHY – but we do see that he is moving forward in obedience.

This is a notable change from the previous three encounters I mentioned last week. Faced with risk in Egypt, Abraham lied to Pharaoh and said Sarah was his sister. Faced with similar threat from Abimelech, Abraham later told the same lie. In both cases, God came through and provided. Then, in Genesis 21, which we looked at last week, Abraham kind of begrudgingly did the right thing after Abimelech asked him to swear to deal truthfully with him. So now, Abraham has the opportunity to take matters into his own hands or to trust God to provide.

I don’t think Abraham knew what that would look like. I definitely don’t think he anticipated what would happen. But I do think that he trusted in God to provide what was needed at the right time – not necessarily an alternative, but what he needed, whether that be faith, obedience, strength, or something.

And I believe that is the first point of application as we move through this passage. We may not know whether God is testing us or Satan is tempting us. We may not know whether another human being is out to get us or whether circumstances are just difficult. But we do have God’s Word and Spirit; and, in most cases, I think we have some sense about what obeying God might look like. Bottom-line, God is merciful and gracious and obedience is our best choice in terms of how to be faithful.

New Testament Prelude

We will continue our story next week, but before I conclude I want to just briefly note the two New Testament scriptures we heard today. Both of these relate to the story in Genesis 22 because they speak of a Father’s love for a Son, of obedience and sacrifice, and of doing what we cannot do for ourselves. Listen one more time to them as a way to let the details of the Genesis 22 story settle into your heart and spirit.

First, from Philippians 2…
5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross… 12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
And then from John 3:16-17…
16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son [sound familiar? His only Son… the Son whom He loved… Jesus…], that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
God knew exactly what He was asking of Abraham, for it was that and more God, the Father, willingly gave for you when the time was right for Jesus to be born, live, and die. Praise the Lord!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Abraham in the Wild (Genesis 21.22-34)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
March 11, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me" (Billingham)
Song of Praise: "All I Have is Christ" (Jordan Kauflin)
Hymn of Response: "O God of Bethel, by Whose Hand" (Public Domain)

Offering of Music: "Behold the Lamb" (Getty,Townend)
Hymn of Sending: "O Great God" (Bob Kauflin)
Postlude: "Fugue in F Major" (G.F. Handel)

Abraham in the Wild
Text: Genesis 21:22-34

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

Today we return to our series in Genesis 21-22, which will take us all the way to Easter. We took a break last week while I was away, and I thank Quay Youngblood for preaching in my absence. I continue to be amazed and blessed by the people God has raised up and equipped in this church to preach and teach so faithfully!

So we are picking up the story in Genesis 21. We began there two weeks ago, with the story of Hagar and the God who heard and ministered to her, even away from the chosen family of Abraham. We were reminded that God’s mercy, grace, and mission are not limited to what we carry on within the walls of the church, but indeed, God is constantly at work “out there” to redeem the world He loves. And as followers of God, through Jesus Christ, we are to share God’s character and be a people who see, a people who hear, and a people who speak and live out the hope of Christ in the world.

Today the story shifts back to Abraham and Sarah, the “in-crowd” if you will. They are the chosen people at the heart of God’s covenant. And yet we find them not yet at home in the land God will show them. We find them struggling, not for the first time, to interact with, make peace, and do right by the people out in that wild world “out there.” So I want to look at their story with you and then consider what we may learn as we seek to be God’s people in the wild world out there. 

The Covenant Promises (all of them)

Let me briefly remind you of the covenant promises God made to Abraham. They were for land, descendants, and blessing. At this point in the story, though Isaac is the only child by Sarah and still a boy, Abraham and Sarah understand through his miraculous birth that God is indeed being faithful to the covenant promise of children and descendants. Abraham and Sarah have more than once experienced the blessing of God to deliver, guide, and prosper them. And they are more or less getting to the place God will show them, though they keep getting bumped about by this and that circumstance.

So far, so good, right? All they need to do is get to the Promised Land, make a home, and draw in to fully experience God’s blessings. But wait, is there more to the covenant? Yes – there was that last bit, connected with God’s blessing. Abraham and his soon-to-be many descendants are indeed to have a land and God’s blessing… but they are the recipients of all that in order to BE a blessing to the world. How often that gets left out! Abraham and his family were not blessed to withdraw from the world, but to be a witness and blessing to the world.

Remember that as we remember two failed efforts to interact with the wild world out there and then as we look at this third more faithful response in Genesis 21. 

Out in the Wild World: Last Time(s), Genesis 12, 20

Abraham had at least two run-ins with the wild world out there prior to this chapter. Back in Genesis 12, he and Sarah had just reached the land God showed them when a famine drove them out and down to Egypt. Realizing that passing through Egypt as a foreigner was risky, he told Sarah (then Sarai) to pose as his sister, hoping that it would go well for him and he might live. (Genesis 12:13) Indeed, Pharaoh saw her and treated Abraham (Abram) well for her sake. Then God struck Pharaoh and his house with a plague because he took Sarah in, and the lie was uncovered. Pharaoh sent them on their way. Did Abraham do right? Not at all; he lied (or at least told a half-truth; Sarah was related to him) to save his skin. Curiously, God protected him anyway, not because of the lie, but in spite of it.

Apparently, Abraham did not take this as a lesson to be learned because he tried the exact same ruse some time later, when he had a run-in with Abimelech, King of Gerar, in Genesis 20. Again, he claimed Sarah was his sister (Genesis 20:2) and Abimelech took her in to his house. This time God came in a dream and told Abimelech the truth – that she was a married woman and his life was at risk. Abraham’s lie was wrong and potentially devastating all around. God intervened to protect Abraham and Sarah, as well as Abimelech and his household.

Now, in Genesis 21, Abraham has another run-in with Abimelech. It’s not a pretend-your-wife-is-your-sister kind of situation, but it remains to be seen how Abraham will interact when he has to play by the world’s rules and the culture of the day. 

Out in the Wild World: a Second Chance

Now Abimelech knows Abraham from the lying about Sarah incident in chapter 20. When God came to Abimelech in the dream, not only did God reveal the truth and spare his life and Sarah’s honor, but God told Abimelech that Abraham was a prophet. So Abimelech gave Abraham respect and a wide berth, knowing that he had God’s favor.

What happens in chapter 21 is that Abimelech comes to strengthen the relationship with Abraham, no doubt for his own good and favor, recognizing (as he says in v. 22) that “God is with you [Abraham] in all that you do.” So look at verse 23, at what Abimelech asks of Abraham:
“Now therefore, swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me and to the land in which you have sojourned.”
Do you see the irony of that? Abraham has lied to Abimelech and put his honor and family at risk by doing so, and yet God has nonetheless accomplished the covenant blessing of the world through Abraham’s failings, lies, and sin! Abimelech recognizes God’s blessing on Abraham and calls HIM to relationship, truthfulness, and integrity.

And Abraham swears to it – to truth, relationship, and integrity. So I sure am relieved, in the very next verse, to see Abraham live up to that promise! In truth (if not grace), he “complains” to Abimelech about not being able to access a water well. Honestly, Abimelech comes off looking like the much better of the two in this exchange, but look what that grudging, complaining honesty leads to… Abraham gives sheep and oxen to make a binding covenant between them. Abraham establishes the relationship and the honesty according to the custom of the land.

And then he gives seven ewe lambs as a gift for clearing the air about the well. It seems as though Abraham, through the prodding of Abimelech and the Lord, finally does what is right and then some.

And finally, Abraham plants a tamarisk tree – one that needs water, provides shelter and sometimes food, and requires years to mature – as a visible and living testament to the covenant relationship between them.

What a strange, seemingly backward, and grace-filled story! 

Lessons Learned?

What can we take away from that? Quite a bit, I think.

First, God’s heart is for the world. Don’t ever let that get side-tracked or shuffled away. Yes, God’s regular pattern has been to call together some as His people, but always for the sake of the world. Abraham was blessed to be a blessing; Israel was God’s chosen people as a witness to the world; the Church is called together, as Jesus prayed in John 17, not OUT of the world, but TO the world. Our holiness is not an “out of” or “away from” separateness, but an “in but not of” distinctness, as demonstrations of and pointers to the goodness and glory of God.

Second, oh but there is godly mercy and grace all over this story. And it hits so painfully close to home. How often have we, as Christians, gone out into the world demonstrating everything but our holy distinctiveness. Like Abraham, we have lied, cheated, and manipulated, when the very honor, safety, and reputation of our worldly neighbors is at stake. And without letting Abraham or us off the hook at all for such behavior, did you hear God’s mercy in this story? God protected Abimelech, the pagan king, from Abraham’s lie. God revealed to Abimelech, the foreign adversary, the calling of Abraham as prophet of the Lord. God even prompted Abimelech, the enemy, TO REACH OUT TO ABRAHAM for relationship. Merciful God, if that isn’t convicting and reassuring all at once, I don’t know what is.

Where does that leave us, as God’s called and chosen witnesses? It leaves us without excuse for hiding away in Christian enclaves and subculture. It also calls us to the carpet for our public behavior and integrity as we move through our day to day lives. What so much of American Christianity has turned into is a once or twice a week club of false perfection, belied by our behavior and “witness” the rest of the time. What God demonstrates through Abraham and Abimelech is our mission to the world in truth and with consistency, dependent on the grace and mercy of God.

Abraham finally rose to the challenge, when called out before God. We must do no less. God is our witness – we are called to the world for God’s sake and God’s glory.

It is no wonder to me, then, that the next chapter, which we’ll look at in the coming weeks, explores, tests, and refines Abraham’s obedience to the Lord. We’ll pick up with that next week. For now, we are sent out in God’s name, in God’s love, and with God’s grace and truth. Amen.

Facing Temptation (Matthew 4, Ephesians 6)

Sermon by: Quay Youngblood
March 4, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "How Firm a Foundation" (Rick Bean)
Hymn of Praise: "A Mighty Fortress" (EIN FESTE BURG)
The Word in Music: "Forty Days and Forty Nights" (Women's Ens.) (Mayo, Adams)
Offering of Music: Jazz Improvisation (Rick Bean)

Hymn of Sending: "Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days" (ST. FLAVIAN)
Postlude: "Fairest Lord Jesus" (Rick Bean)

Facing Tempation
Text: Matthew 4; Ephesians 6

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

This is the second Sunday in Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter. Last week Robert led us through the story of Hagar, mother of one of Abraham’s children, Ishmael. Because of the jealously of Sarah, Abraham’s wife and the mother of Isaac, Hagar was tossed in to the wilderness. But she was not cast out of the sight or hearing of God. God is the one who hears and sees.
Today’s scripture concerns another one who was in the wilderness, none other than Jesus himself. I invite you to turn to Matthew 4 and follow along.

Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. This first statement is just full of curiosities. Why would the spirit lead Jesus to be tempted by the devil? We can only guess because the scripture doesn’t even give us a clue. Maybe by the time we get to the end of this, we may have an idea. We do know that Jesus was alone. And we are told he fasted 40 days and 40 nights. This is a time frame that can be taken literally, exactly 40 calendar days and nights but it is highly significant for the ways its used in other places in the Bible: In the story of Noah, it rained 40 days and 40 nights and then Noah had to wait 40 days and 40 nights before he could leave the ark. Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days. The spies sent in to scout out the promised land stayed 40 days. Noah preached in Ninevah for 40 days. Elijah was in the wilderness for forty days. Jesus appeared for 40 days after his resurrection. The significance of 40 days is that it represents that God was doing something significant.

Jesus was led to be tempted by the devil. This is no ordinary foe. He is not a concept. He is real. And scripture tells us he is prowling the earth like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. He is still out there and he is still looking. Sometimes we don’t know how crafty he can be but Jesus foud out quickly because he started with food. After forty days, the devil knew he would be hungry.

Here is something that is very important to note right away: Jesus was human. He was God but in human form. He was hungry just like you and I get hungry. The temptations he faced were attractive to him, just as they might be to us. Don’t overlook the fact that Jesus was being severely tested.
The temptations of Jesus covered the entire realm of temptation. The first one is bread, representing the temptation to satisfy our physical needs. When we are hungry, its not wrong to want something to eat. The temptation is to fill our stomachs and not our souls. The bread that the devil offered gave temporary satisfaction and fulfillment. Jesus later said ”I am the bread of life. He who eats of this bread will never be hungry.” The bread Jesus offers is bread that lead to eternal fulfillment with him.

The second temptation, for Jesus to hurl himself from the top of the temple so that God would send angels to catch him is the temptation for us to make God some sort of puppet who jumps at our every command. Or to put it another way, make God prove himself to be God. Lets call this temptation the temptation of spiritual superiority.

The third temptation is that if Jesus would bow down and worship the devil, he would give him all of the kingdoms of the world. The first thing that crossed my mind is that “the earth if the Lords and the fullness thereof”. So this is a counterfeit promise. It wasn’t the devil’s to give. But we also know that the devil has been allowed to run this world. Jesus taught his disciples that they were not of this world and that we should not live as ones who belong to this world. So while it is our Father’s world, it has been stolen and like the counterfeiter he is, the devil is now trying to pass off stolen goods.

Lets look back at how Jesus met and overcame the temptations. To put it in a word, it was the Word. Jesus quoted scripture because it is the best defense he has. The scriptures he quotes come form various places in the Bible.
The first quote, “Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Its found in Deuteronomy 8:3. In that time the Israelites had just been fed in the wilderness and were about to enter the promised land, one flowing with mild and honey. God was telling them because their bellies would be full, their physical needs satisfied they would be tempted to forget God.

How true has that been through all of history! The churches in the world were never so full as they were in the Great Depression and World War II. After 9/11, church attendance spiked, but as the threat subsided or seemed to subside, to did attendance at worship. Call it fox hole religion. As long as we have what we need, who needs God?

Our gods become our things, our comforts and we fail to understand that all good gifts come from God. Worse yet, when we feel our needs aren’t being met, we put something or someone in God’s place. The most glaring example was Germany in the 30’s. When bread cost 2 months wages, the people turned to a false god: the government and a false god Adolph Hitler.

Jesus is the bread that came down from heaven and gives us bread that does not mold, does not go stale and satisfies the deepest hunger in our souls: the hunger for acceptance and to be loved.

The second scripture quote comes from Psalm 91 and surprise! Its not Jesus quoting scripture. It’s the devil himself. Listen to what the devil says “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

Now listen to the scripture again, not as the devil quoted it but as it is written. “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Did you hear the difference? As long as our way lines up with God’s way, we will be protected. If its not clear what the way is just back up to the first verse of Psalm 91. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High and rest in the shadow of the Almighty…..” . And in verse 9, “If you make the Most High your dwelling, even the Lord, who I my refuge…..” Our way is God’s way when we dwell in Him. But when we go our own way the promise does not hold true. Satan knew this but Jesus knew better!

Let me caution us. Scripture in the right hands, used in the proper context and quoted accurately is the powerful weapon against evil we have. But it can also be used against us if we do not handle it properly. The devil knows scripture and to this very day can use it against us. For example, when some people are offended when a sin is pointed out in there lives, instead of asking for forgiveness and seeking to repent, what do they do? They misuse the following verses: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank that’s in your own eye? How can you say to your brother ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” I believe what Jesus was addressing here was don’t admonish someone for a sin when you are guilty of the same sin! He didn’t mean that we weren’t supposed to correct one another.

Peter summed it up in 2 Peter 3:16 when writing about Paul’s letter says “His letters contain some things which are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort as they do the other Scriptures to their own destruction.”

Returning to Matthew 4, the third quote of scripture comes from Jesus and is found in Deuteronomy 6:16 “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” In the Deuteronomy scripture, God is reminding them that at Messah, they were thirsty demanded that God prove himself by providing water to drink. He did, but He warned them not to put Him to the test again.

Have you ever prayed a prayer that started something like this: “Oh God, if you will just (fill in the blank), I promise I will (fill in the blank).” I know I have and it was wrong! Or have you ever had the thought that because I may have done something good whatever it may be or done something in the church over and above coming to Sunday School and worship that God should reward you? “Do not put the Lord your God to the test!”

The forth quote of scripture is again from Jesus and it comes from Deuteronomy 6:13: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”

Satan gives up. He is no match for Jesus. We read that the angels came and attended to Jesus. We should be ecstatic over the outcome! Had Jesus given in to one of these temptations, he would not have had to go to the cross. He would have established his kingdom but we would not have been reconciled to him. We would have been lost…forever… to Satan.

What hope does this offer us? Where does this matter to us? Hebrews 4:15 says it best. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are, yet was without sin”. We have an excuse taken off the table. We cannot say “God just doesn’t understand!” He does! He has been in your shoes. And he cares!

If you think because you try to follow Jesus, that you have confessed your faith in him as Lord, that your troubles are over, that the devil won’t mess with you, you are wrong! Before you became a Christian, you were like Switzerland, you were neutral. But by professing belief in Christ, you have now become enemies, mortal enemies of Satan. You will find yourself under even greater attack!

What’s our defense? We have already talked about it. Its clearly defined in our second scripture lesson this morning and I invite you to turn to Ephesians 6. We are encouraged to put on God’s armor. We may be tough people but the problem is we can’t see out enemy. First of all, Satan is not some idea or something that existed only in Bible times. He’s alive and will be until the end of time. And because he’s in the heavenly realm we can’t see him coming. So we are told to take on the armor of God.

Of all the armor listed in this passage, the belt buckle of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoed with the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, there is only one that is an offensive weapon. All of the others are protection. The word of God is a sword. It can be used to attack or counter attack the devil in all his craftiness. When its use properly, the devil has no answer because it is truth.

That’s why we have Sunday school even for adults. That is why we have Wednesday night Bible studies. Its why we the ladies have a women’s Bible study. We can’t fight the battle unarmed. “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

Let me go back for a moment. What does forty days mean to us? Lent is forty days. it’s the period the church sets as a time for personal reflection and repentance leading up to Easter Sunday. In the Bible, forty days signified that God was doing something transformational in the lives of his people. What about us? Are you in a wilderness? In the forty days of lent, is God doing something transformational in your life, in my life? Maybe you’ve been fighting a temptation for a long time and you aren’t sure how much longer you can resist. In 1 Corinthians 10:13 we read “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so you can stand up to it.

Let me offer a word for us all. We have all given in to temptation at one time or another. But where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. Do not give into one of the devil’s lies that we are beyond forgiveness. During Lent, we make ourselves aware of just how desperately we need a Savior. May this Lenten season be special one for you!