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Via Dolorosa

March 29, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation for this fifth weekend in Lent comes from our Old Testament text, where we hear Isaac ask his father, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” and Abraham’s response, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

Hadn’t his faith been tested enough? A perusal of Abraham’s life to this point shows incredible periods of testing. When he leaves his homeland and family for Canaan … when they have to go to Egypt in the midst of a famine … going to battle in order to rescue his nephew Lot … witnessing the destruction and literal overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah … all the while, enduring the barrenness of his wife, Sarai, and yet having the promise of becoming a great nation, of having offspring as numerous as the stars. He and his wife tried to do everything that they could think of to ensure this promise came true – even going so far as to have Abram lay with Sarai’s servant girl Hagar and father a son that way; we all know how that ended. To say that it had been an emotional and spiritual roller coaster for Abram – now called Abraham – is an understatement.

But then came the promise of a son … from his own body, even though he and his wife were nearly a century old at that point. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely scenario playing out, but YHWH made this promise to Abraham and Sarah ... and it was fulfilled in the birth of their son, Isaac, the child of promise. Now, several years later, YHWH tells Abraham to do something that seems unthinkable, seems to fly in the face of all the promises made thus far: sacrifice his only son, the child of promise, and seemingly throw all those promises to the wind.

Again, hadn’t he been tested enough? For all his foibles and failings, Abraham had proven himself time and again to be faithful to YHWH, his new God. He’d listened to the call, heeded the visions, built the altars, even literally cutting a covenant with YHWH in his own flesh. So as Abraham and Isaac are walking away from the attendants, up Mount Moriah’s slope, with Isaac carrying the wood and the fire and asking his father where the lamb for sacrifice was, the question is, why? Why did YHWH test Abraham this way? Why make him endure this impossible test? Why would He ask Abraham to do something that, if completed faithfully according to God’s word, would have conceivably resulted in the destruction of all the promises that YHWH had made to this point, including the coming of the Messiah from Abraham’s seed?

It’s hard for us to wrestle with this. We who know the whole story can’t really imagine what it would have been like to be in Abraham’s shoes during the long trek up the via dolorosa of Moriah’s hill. We know how the story ends, how the Angel of YHWH intervenes just as Abraham is about to strike the killing blow, how Abraham lifts up his eyes to see a ram caught in a thicket, and how he offers it as a sacrifice to YHWH instead of Isaac. We know how Abraham passes the test. We know how he believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. So, seeing as how God is omnipotent, all-knowing, surely He knew Abraham was more than willing to follow God’s command, so why did God even bother testing him in the first place?

I’m sure that’s a question you’ve asked of God yourself in your own trials and tribulations, sufferings and uncertainties. I know that it’s a thought that has crossed the minds of many in recent weeks as this new plague has swept over our nation and our world. Hasn’t our faith been tested enough, O LORD? As the body count climbs and the new cases grow exponentially, haven’t we endured enough? Why make us go through this? … We’re asking the wrong question here.

Setting aside the fact that what we are enduring is the product of living in a broken, sinful world, and the fact that, as we confessed a few minutes ago, we justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment for our sin, it misses the point entirely. Difficult as it may be to wrap our minds around, the reality is that Abraham … is a spectator in this pericope. To a greater or lesser extent, so is Isaac. God Himself is the center and focus here, and not so much His putting Abraham’s faith to the test, but rather His faithfulness.

We’re going to be singing a well-known hymn momentarily: “The Lamb, the Lamb – O father, where’s the sacrifice? Faith sees, believes God will provide the Lamb of price!” Our faith is a response to God’s faithfulness. He had shown Himself to be faithful through all the years of Abraham’s life. He had kept His word of promise thus far, even if it took Him some time to do so! Here again, YHWH proves Himself to be faithful, by not allowing the child of promise to be slaughtered! Even through the subsequent generations of Abraham’s descendants, as they proved themselves time and again to be faithless, YHWH proved Himself to be faithful. He always allowed a remnant to remain, never snuffing out a smoldering wick. Until the time came when YHWH Himself would show His faithfulness as He Himself trudged up another hill – Golgotha, by name. He carried, not a bundle of wood, nor fire, nor a blade, but rather a cross.

There’s a reason why our upcoming hymn makes the connection between this episode of YHWH’s faithfulness to Abraham and what YHWH incarnate, Jesus Christ, did on the cross of Calvary. Our faithlessness notwithstanding, our God is always faithful to His Word. It’s worth mentioning that His Word does not say that we won’t face times of testing. It doesn’t say that life will be hunky-dory and that we won’t face trials and tribulations; quite to the contrary, it says that we will face these things! But we are able to face them – not because of the faith that we have, but because Who our faith is placed in is faithful to His promises. Promises like, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Promises like, “Your sins are forgiven.” Promises like, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” We will not be spared suffering and testing, but we have God’s promise that, since Jesus walked the Via Dolorosa on our behalf, our sins are forgiven, and eternal life is ours. Yes, we should all aspire to endure times of trial and testing like Abraham did on Mount Moriah, but more than this, we trust how YHWH kept His promises to Abraham, even on that dark day of testing, and He keeps His promises to you.

+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.