In Advent we listen to the Old Testament to hear about our Lord’s coming. We’re especially interested in prophesies about His Birth. We love the prophesy that a Virgin would conceive a Son and call His Name Immanuel. We love to hear Micah proclaim Bethlehem to be His birthplace. We look forward to hearing about the Seed of the woman crushing the serpent’s head.
But today the Common Service presents to us a story that goes well with the Fifth Sunday in Lent. On that Sunday, in John 8, Jesus tells the Jews that Abraham is His father, and the father of all the faithful, but he is not their father, even if they are descended from him, because they do not believe in “Abram’s promised great reward.” It ends with the Jews wanting to stone Jesus, and today’s reading involves a sacrifice. So why do we hear this reading today?
It’s a reminder to us that Christmas is not the end. It is the means to the end. It’s not about Mary’s Baby being born. It’s about Mary’s Baby being born to take our place. He’s born to take our sins away from us. He does that by being punished for them in our place. He’s born to give us life while He gives up His own.
God had called Abraham. He called him out of the worship of idols and then put him through test after test. He told him to leave his hometown. He took his family with him and they set out through Mesopotamia. Once his father was dead God had him set out again for the promised land. What a test! Would you leave home for somewhere you’d never been if God told you to? Only pastors do that! How hard it must have been for him to give up all the comforts of home and family! We see that start to get the better of him when he twice claimed Sarah was his sister and neglected to mention she was also his wife.
The greatest test was waiting to have a child. They failed the test once when Sarah decided to have him take Hagar as a concubine so they could have a child that way. But God was not going to fulfil His promise in a way that involved the sinful machinations of men. No, He was going to keep His promise when He desired, and it would be miraculous. They would have to wait, wait until Abraham was 100 and Sarah 90.
Finally, Isaac was born. But many years later the unthinkable happened, and that’s our reading. God put Abraham to the ultimate test. Did he trust God to keep His promises? Did he trust God that Isaac was indeed the son of the promise through whom the Messiah would come? The way to find out was if he would be willing to sacrifice him. If Abraham was willing to do that, he truly did believe the promise, and Abraham would have no doubts that he did believe it. God’s response was to declare to him that there was no doubt that He would keep His promise.
Off they went from Beersheba to Moriah. It took them 3 days to get there. When they got there, Abraham put the wood he had split on his son. Abraham took the knife and the fire, the tools he needed for the sacrifice. They climbed Moriah, and he built an Altar where later the Temple would stand. Then he bound his son to the Altar and was about to slaughter him. But then he heard a Voice. It was the voice of no mere angel. It was the voice of the Word of God, the Angel of the LORD, the Son of God Himself. We know this because He says the sacrifice was being made to Him and He swore by Himself. And Abraham sacrificed a ram in place of his son, Isaac.
Some think Isaac is a picture of Christ in this story, but I think there’s a better option: the ram. The ram took Isaac’s place. Christ Jesus took your place. Now Isaac did carry the wood up a hill to be sacrificed. But this is a perfect picture of you. You have a load you ought to carry which would cause you to be sacrificed eternally to God’s wrath in hell. Your load is your sins. God weighs you in the scales of justice and finds that your evil deeds and thoughts sink you down into the depths of hell. They are so heavy you cannot hope to ascend to heaven on your own by deeds you have done. They include the times you have not trusted in God above all else, when He’s not been the most important thing in your life, when you let the desires of your flesh, your sinful nature, get the best of you.
So you are carrying this load of sin, and the death sentence is ready to be pronounced. In fact it has been pronounced. It is pronounced the second you first sinned, and even before then because you were sinful when you were conceived; you were infected with evil desires right from the start. But right when it could be enforced, God calls out. He pulls you off the Altar and puts on it the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. He is sacrificed for your sins. Abraham believed God could raise Isaac from the dead, and Christ did rise from the dead after He was sacrificed. So Abraham called the place Yahveh Yihreh and said, “Today on the mountain of Yahveh it will be seen.” So God sees hanging upon His holy Mount Calvary His Only-begotten Son, and you are saved.
Then the Christ blessed His ancestor. He proclaimed to Him things to come, things about Himself. He says his Seed would be great and as many as the stars and the sand on the seashore and would inherit the gate of His enemies and all the nations of the earth would be blessed through Him. We often think He’s talking about Abraham’s physical descendents, but is he not speaking about you, dear Christian? For Jesus says Abraham’s children are those who believe in Him. So Jesus says you are many, and tells Abraham about you. You are not alone in this life. You are joined together with faithful Christians of all times and places in God’s family. You and all nations of the earth are blessed because He has inherited the gate of His enemies.
What does that mean? We don’t talk like that. We don’t have city gates. But we do have border patrols and fences and ports of entry. You can’t get into a country just by walking in. They have to let you in. If America were at war, the country it’s fighting would not want you coming across its borders. You might be a spy. The picture Christ uses here is of one nation conquering another. He enters the city that is opposed to him and conquers it. He conquered sin and death, and you are forgiven so that you will rise from the dead and live forever.
This also reminds us of another thing Jesus says: “The gates of hell will not prevail against [His Church].” The devil cannot defeat you. Because you belong to Jesus, hell cannot threaten you. Sin cannot condemn you. Life can throw its worst at you, but it can’t take salvation from you. Your Jesus is far greater than the worst this life has to offer. This is a sure promise you can take to the bank: Christ Jesus died in your place to give you eternal life.
That’s what Advent’s all about. It prepares us not just for Jesus to be born, but to live again this year the entire life of Jesus. That’s why we hear Genesis 22 tonight. The story of the ram replacing Isaac pictures for us Christ replacing us, getting what we deserved. We are preparing to hear how He inherited the gates of His enemies, how He defeated sin, death, and Satan. We are preparing to hear how we became God’s children and Abraham’s children by faith. We are preparing to hear how all people can be blessed. We are preparing to hear the story of God sending His Son to earth not just to be born of Mary, but to be crucified by Pontius Pilate only to rise from the dead on the third day.
To close today, let’s use the words of a little hymn Pastor Cronenwett translated up in Butler; I wish we had it in our hymnal to sing every year. I have a feeling if it was written for children. This is what it says (ELHB 140):
Again is come the new church-year; Rejoice, all Christians, far and near! Thy King, O Zion, comes to Thee, Therefore rejoice eternally, Hallelujah!
Amongst us now anew are heard The lessons of God’s gracious Word, Which shows the way to life in heaven. For this all praise to God be given! Hallelujah!
May what is taught in Thy true Word, Increase our faith in Thee, O Lord, And so abide in us that we May render endless praise to Thee! Hallelujah!