This past week, while the world was busy celebrating Mardi Gras and Valentine’s Day, the Christian church commemorated the beginning of Lent by gathering for worship on Ash Wednesday. Each year around this time the question is often asked: where did this annual tradition of Lent come from? Two places. First and foremost, Lent is an annual commemoration of our Savior’s 40 days of starvation and temptation in the wilderness – a brief illustration of the immense suffering he endured to save us from our sins. Second, in the early Christian Church (according to the Council of Nicea - 325 AD) it was tradition for new converts to make their confession of faith and be baptized on Easter Sunday – and so the 40 days before Easter served as a time of concentrated instruction; a time for repentance and faith.
The tradition of giving something up for Lent likely stems from these traditions. Although, odd as it may seem, giving something up is intentionally not an emphasis in the Lutheran church. We are very careful not to urge or demand that anyone do anything that might suggest that we are trying to earn forgiveness or merit a reward from God by our words or actions. We steadfastly maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Romans 3:28) At the same time, we recognize with Luther that fasting and other outward preparations may serve a good purpose (Small Catechism, Sacrament of Holy Communion, Part 4) as long as they focus our attention on Jesus and his work of redemption.
In many ways, “giving something up” for Lent has become a meaningless tradition. Not only because so many people treat the day before Lent as a day to indulge all of their ugliest, most carnal desires; not only because fewer and fewer people (even Christians) attend midweek Lenten services; but also because many of the things people “give up” for Lent fail to focus attention where it should be. Every year the website openbible.info surveys Twitter users to see what they are giving up for Lent. 2018’s top ten list: 10) fast food; 9) coffee; 8) soda; 7) sweets; 6) meat; 5) swearing; 4) chocolate; 3) alcohol; 2) twitter; 1) social networking.  We’re really willing to sacrifice for our Lord, aren’t we? 40 days without twitter and swearing; how could anyone survive? “Aren’t those good things to give up?” That’s not the question. The question is: “does doing this help me focus my attention on Jesus?” I think you’ll see that Genesis 22 does a much better job of focusing our attention on Jesus than Twitter does. We will consider what Abraham and God gave up.
We meet Abraham after God had kept his promise to give him a son – even though both he and Sarah were well beyond child-bearing years. Isaac was the child of promise. Through him God would give Abraham descendants as countless as the stars in the sky; one of whom would be the Savior of the world. (Genesis 12:2-3) Abraham and Sarah undoubtedly loved their son as much as any parents can love a child. God decided to use that love to help them better understand his love for them. God told Abraham take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about. Human reason argues that a good and gracious God would never issue a command like this. Many say “I could never believe in a God who would demand that.” And they seem to have a point: for Abraham, this command appeared to not only violate his duty to love his son but also destroy his hope for salvation – because without Isaac, there could be no Savior.
And yet, as we follow Abraham through this test, we will see that while Abraham was asked to give something up – he was actually the one who ended up gaining something. Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddles his donkey and set out for the place God had told him about. Could he not sleep because his conscience was tortured by the thought of sacrificing his son? Did he wake up early in order to avoid having to explain to Sarah what he was about to do to their son? We don’t know. What we do know is that Abraham listened to God and obeyed. But the test was just getting started. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. Imagine that. For three days Abraham walked with his son. For three days he had to dwell on God’s command. For three days he planned to do something that no parent would ever dream of doing. For three days Abraham had to weigh his seemingly contradictory responsibilities to his son and to his God. And yet, Abraham pressed on. In Abraham, we see not only the readiness of faith to do whatever God commands but the determination of faith to carry out the command – no matter the cost.
And then, before Abraham and Isaac ascend that dread mountain, we get to hear his faith: he said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you. We will come back? How could possibly come to that conclusion? Human logic couldn’t. This was the logic of faith. The writer to the Hebrews reveals: Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead. (Hebrews 11:19a) More than his own reason, more than his own aching heart, more than anything else in all creation – Abraham trusted God’s promises.
And so Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Can you imagine stacking the wood for a burnt offering on your child’s back? What parent wouldn’t choke up at the innocent and reasonable question: “where is the lamb?” Who of us would have the faith to say: God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son. This is what Abraham was willing to give up: he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
None of us has ever been asked to make such a sacrifice. But that doesn’t stop us from thinking about all of the things we believe we’ve sacrificed for God, does it? We think about all the Sundays (and now Wednesdays) we left our warm homes and traveled treacherous roads to sit at Jesus’ feet. We calculate all the money we’ve placed in the offering plate. We can vividly recall the temptations we’ve avoided. (Those we gave into? Not so much.) Those are real sacrifices we’ve made for God, right? How is it that we’ve been able to convince ourselves that these things are real sacrifices for God? Worship is not about us doing something for God, it’s about God opening the storehouse of heaven and pouring out his grace on us. God has placed us in the wealthiest nation in the world, he has given us a stable economy, a home, cars, clothes, food, and countless other luxuries. And then he invites us to give some of it back to him. How is this a sacrifice on our part? It’s simply giving back to God what is already his. This world is full of dangerous things; things that can hurt and harm us and others, things that can destroy our families and our lives. And God is considerate enough to point out these dangers in his 10 commandments so that we don’t hurt ourselves and the people we love. And – on the rare occasions we actually listen to him – we have the gall to turn around and say “Look Lord! See how much I have given up for you?”
We may imagine that we have made sacrifices for God; for Abraham there was no imagining. He was holding a knife over the throat of his son, his only son, the son he loved. But at just the right moment, God stopped him in his tracks. The angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Hands shaking, tears streaming, heart breaking…God stops Abraham cold. Abraham’s faith was justified…God kept his Word! And he went one step further. Abraham look up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. Not only did God spare Isaac from Abraham’s hand, he also provided a substitute to take Isaac’s place. Instead of losing that which was most precious to him, Abraham gained something far more precious – a firmer faith in God’s promises.
But Abraham isn’t the only one who has gained faith from this account, is he? Can you possibly read this account without seeing Jesus in every sentence? Just as Abraham loved his one and only son so God loved his only Son and testified to this love at both his Baptism and Transfiguration: this is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:17; 17:5) Abraham led Isaac up a mountain in the region of Moriah like a lamb to be slaughtered and so did God. He led Jesus. Like a lamb. Up that same mountain. To be slaughtered. For the sins of the world. Just as Isaac carried the wood for his own execution up that mountain, so Jesus carried his own cross to Calvary. In Isaac’s innocent question about the lamb, we hear an echo of Jesus’ agonized plea: Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done. (Luke 22:42) But that’s where the similarities between Isaac and Jesus end. The angel of the Lord (Genesis 22:15) – stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son. But no one stopped God from sacrificing his son, his only son, the son he loved on that cross on Calvary. No ram caught in the bushes would take Jesus’ place – because, Jesus was that ram. Jesus was the substitute. For what? For whom? For you and for me. God actually gave his Son up to death because he refused to give up on us, refused to give us over to the death and hell we deserved. Certainly Abraham is not the only one who was given a greater faith in God’s promises through this account.
So, in light of these things, what did you give up for Lent? If you’re hoping for a Lutheran top-ten list, you’re going to leave here disappointed. But there are two sacrifices that are not optional for Lent; in fact, are not optional for a Christian any time of year. First, God invites you to “give up” your sins. No, not to stop sinning (if we could do that, we wouldn’t need Lent) – but to bring your sins, ever last one of them and lay them on Jesus like Abraham stacked that wood on Isaac. Leave them here, let Jesus’ blood wash them from your heart and bury them in his grave forever. A broken and contrite heart – that is a sacrifice pleasing to God. (Psalm 51:7) Next, “give up” any idea of saving yourself – give all your faith, all your trust, all your hope for heave to Jesus: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:29) Repentance and faith – those are the truly necessary sacrifices of Lent.
Anything else you or I might choose to give up for Lent pales in comparison to what Abraham was asked to give up and what God has already given up. But if giving something else up, causing yourself some minor inconvenience, sacrificing some favorite food or activity – if doing those things helps you better focus your heart and life on Jesus – then by all means set aside the candy bar and deactivate your social media account for a few weeks. But might I suggest that if you do, you fill that empty time and those empty hands with the Bible and spend even more time learning about the God who did not spare his one and only Son but gave him up for us all. Because that, finally, is what Lent is all about. Amen.