O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, His mercy endures forever (1 Chr 16:34). Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church - Winnipeg, MB
Based on Gen. 22, Mark 1
Preached on Feb. 18, 2018
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Fellow baptized saints, one can only imagine what was going through Father Abraham’s mind and heart that day as he trudged up the mountain with a knife, wood, a fire, and his son Isaac, the son of the promise. One can only imagine the heartache, the grief, the anguish when he heard his son Isaac ask his father innocently, “Where is the lamb? Here is fire and wood but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham knew what God had said, he knew what he was prepared to do. But Abraham is faithful, full of faith, and says, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” One can only imagine how those words must have rung in his ears with each step up the mountain. “God will provide. God will provide. God will provide.”
Abraham’s faith was being tested. Isaac, his son, was the son of the promise, conceived and born when Abraham and his wife Sarah were well beyond child-bearing years. A miracle baby, and you know how it is with miracle babies. They are uniquely precious to their mothers and fathers. What did Abraham tell Sarah, if anything? Did he lie to her and tell her that they were just going out for a little father-son outing, a hike in the mountains? This was the son that God had promised on oath. This was the son that served as tangible, living proof that God was true to His word. And now God was acting like Molech, the god of the pagans, to whom the Canaanites sacrificed their children. What on earth was God doing? What was He thinking? What could possibly be gained by this?
If I’m walking in Abraham’s sandals, I’m thinking that I must have had the wrong divine number, that this wasn’t God talking to me but the devil himself. And yet somehow Abraham knew that this was the same God who had promised a son in the first place, the same God who had given him the name “Father of nations,” the same God who had said that through Abraham’s seed, all nations of the earth would be blessed. Abraham believed God, he was faithful, full of faith in the promise of that singular Seed that would bless all nations, of whom Isaac was the physical proof. And it’s out of that faith that Abraham could say, “God will provide the lamb. He has to. He promised.” And so up the mountain they go, father and son. With the wood, the fire, the knife and nothing more but faith. God will provide.
In the Gospel according to St. Mark, everything is rather abbreviated and happens “immediately,” so much so that you are liable to miss the details. Jesus is baptized by John. The heavens are torn open violently, the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, and the voice of the Father bears witness, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
And what happens next? “Immediately,” upon Jesus’ baptism? What does the Spirit that descended upon Jesus in the water do immediately thereafter? He drives Jesus into the wilderness. Drives him. Literally forces Him violently to go into the wilderness for forty days. Forty days of fasting, no food and drink. Forty days with no visible means of support, where all there are are the wild things, the scorpions, snakes, coyotes, jackals. Forty days of temptation by Satan, the accuser, the liar, the enemy. That’s where Jesus’ baptism takes Him, to direct confrontation with the devil on his own turf, in the wilderness (that lifeless place), with no visible means of support, where even the Father and the Spirit appear to be absent, where Jesus has nothing but the Word with which to defend Himself.
Why do we expect the life of faith to be easy? Why do we expect the life of the baptized to be privileged, as a kind of soft and easy romp through spiritual suburbia? Why are we surprised when even the slightest interest in God stirs up trouble? I’ve come to warn people to expect trouble when Jesus is involved. I’ve told adults who come to Baptism to watch out for the trouble that will soon follow and not be surprised by it. In fact, you should welcome it with open arms as proof that God is indeed at work in Baptism and that the devil, the world, and your own sinful self utterly hate this whole business. Even if you attempt some sort of renewal and revival of your faith, you can expect trouble. Your spouse, if he or she is unbelieving, will get suspicious of this renewed interest in “religion.” Your children may start to act up. Your friends will give you that squirrel eye look. Oh, yes, you know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen it. Felt it. Been tempted to play it safe because of it.
Start praying more, reading your Scriptures more, going to church more regularly and faithfully, putting into practice what you confess and believe, and there will be trouble. I know this isn’t a good way to advertise the faith, but I’m not going to stand up here and lie to you like the TV preachers who promise a life of favors. Tell that to Abraham walking up the mountain fully prepared to put the knife to the throat of his son. Tell that to Jesus, still dripping wet from His baptism left to wander the wilderness - and endure the full blast temptation of the Evil One without any help from His Father. Real things have real loads. And your faith holds something divinely heavy.
The truth is that the road of faith leads into the wilderness, the place of testing and temptation. It leads up that mountain way where everything you are and have hangs in the balance and you have no good answer to give except “God will provide.” Luther says, when these things happen to you, when you find yourself in the wilderness being tempted by the devil and tested by God, rejoice. God is exercising your faith. He is working you. He is doing something real, something meaningful, eternal even. Rejoice.
The apostle Paul, no stranger to suffering and hardship, said the same thing in Romans. “We rejoice in our sufferings because suffering produces patient endurance and character and hope that does not fade away.” The wilderness is a place of formation, a place where patient endurance is honed, where character is formed, where hope is hardened in the fire of testing. Christianity is no armchair religion, no idle philosophy, no contemplative escape from the realities of life.
That’s what this wilderness is all about. God led Israel through the baptism of the Red Sea into the wilderness. It turned out to be forty years, an entire generation, in the wilderness. God formed His people as a nation. He brought them to maturity. He prepared them to take possession of the Promised Land. And today we hear about Jesus, doing the “Israel thing,” going from baptism in the Jordan to the wilderness for forty days, being driven there by the Spirit, to undergo the same time of testing and temptation. Are we to be different? Aren’t we God’s people too, who coming up out of the waters of baptism, realize the wilderness all around us – and that God is preparing us, leading us, and feeding us for His Eternal Promised Land?
Mark doesn’t go into the details of Jesus’ temptation, but Matthew and Luke fill it in for us. Jesus was tempted to use His divine power to serve Himself a helping of bread, to turn stones into bread, to do precisely what the Son of God does not do: destroy something to make something else and to serve Himself. Jesus was tempted to throw Himself off the pinnacle of the temple and put to test the Scriptures that said the angels would break His fall. Jesus was tempted by all the temporal power and glory of this world, to make His kingdom the kingdoms of this age, all in exchange for a bended knee before the devil. He was tempted as we are tempted, and yet He didn’t sin, not even in thought much less word and deed. Three times Jesus was tempted with a full blast assault of the devil, and three times He responded with the Word that put the devil in his place. “One little word can fell him.”
You will be tempted too. Tempted to forsake Christ for something else. Tempted to satisfy your own hunger and appetites. Tempted to test the Word of God. Remember how Eve was tempted. First there was doubt. “Did God really say?” Then she was tempted by her appetites. She saw that the forbidden food was beautiful and delicious and oh so satisfying. Then she was tempted by her reason. It could make you wise, and who wouldn’t want that. And then she bit into the notion of good and evil and being like God sounded like a good thing to her and to Adam and to us.
Alone in our wilderness is death. We’re no match for the devil. In fact, our old adam, our natural inclination, is to be on the devil’s side. We are on death’s side. That’s why God must “make enmity.” Intervene. Act. That’s why the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness after His Baptism. Not for Jesus’ faith but for ours. Not for Jesus’ sake but for ours. This was the leadup to the cross where the battle was waged in earnest. This was the opening round of a war that would end in Jesus’ hunger and thirst on the cross in the wilderness of Sin and Death where with one last word “it is finished,” He put an end once and for all to the works of the devil – and all for you.
You too must walk the wilderness way, the way of testing and trial, the way when the devil seems so real and God seems so hidden you would think He was absent. You and I must walk this way to the promised land of eternal life. It’s called the way of faith. And you do not walk it alone. Your Savior Jesus has gone the way ahead of you and will lead you through it – step by step – in His holy Word. God will provide. God will provide. God will provide. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.
Rev. Cameron Schnarr