Lord of the Resurrection
The Twentieth Sunday After Trinity
Lord of the Resurrection
When Marjorie’s mother moved in with us a few weeks ago I changed bathrooms. Even though there’s plenty of room for both of us in the master bathroom, I’d been using the bathroom just down the hall from the master bedroom. I vacated to turn that one over when Miz Norma joined us.
I left behind the soap I had kept by the wash basin. It’s just a bar of soap that says “Dial” or “Coast” or something on it. So the first time I wanted to wash my hands I looked around for soap and I didn’t see any.
I finally picked up a squirt bottle that said in big letters, “Oatmeal and Almond.” Huh? I’m not too keen on oatmeal but if I were I’d want it in the kitchen, not the bathroom. I figured this probably wasn’t for eating, but what was it? Was it soap?
At the time, I didn’t have my glasses on. Some time later, when I had them with me, I checked again and down at the bottom, in small letters, it said, “Luxurious Hand Soap.”
When I got in the shower I realized I had left my shampoo behind as well. I didn’t want to dry off and pull on a robe and go down the hall so I looked around and found a plastic bottle that said, “Olay/Age-defying with Vitamin E moisture outlast.” What?
I looked some more and found another bottle, a red one, that said, “color extend magnetics conditioner.” But was it shampoo? I was befuddled. I am vaguely aware that ladies put on their hair, in addition to shampoo, I think, something called rinse and another thing called conditioner.
This seemed to be the latter so it must not be shampoo. But where was the shampoo?
I can’t remember now if I used it or not. It was all very confusing. Sometimes that’s how life is. We want it to be straightforward and understandable but often it’s not. And it doesn’t get much clearer when we turn to Genesis 22:
“Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then He said, ‘Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
We know from other Bible passages that Moriah is the site on which King Solomon would build his great temple, where the Israelites would spill rivers of blood offering sacrifices to God. It’s also known as a hill called Calvary, on which God would receive His final sacrifice.
Abraham obeyed, saddling his donkey and splitting the wood for the fire and summoning two young men from among his servants to accompany him and his son on their journey. After three days, which must have seemed an eternity, he “lifted his eyes and saw the place afar off.” This place that would come to be called Calvary.
Abraham and his wife Sarah had waited a lifetime to receive a son according to God’s promise, a son through whom an endless line of descendants would pass. Now, the boy only a teenager, Abraham receives a command to make of him a burnt offering.
This was the commonest form of sacrifice and it entailed cutting up an animal and burning all of its parts on the altar. It encompassed two ideas: one, the offerer gives all of himself to God, for the animal victim represents him; and, two, the offering is made in atonement for the worshiper’s sin.
Later, the sacrifice of a child will be expressly forbidden in Israel, but God has not yet formed Israel, of course, and such an offering was certainly not unknown in the ancient world. It occurred especially in times of deep crisis.
So an Israelite reading this story centuries later would gasp at the idea of Yahweh demanding a human sacrifice . . . but at the same time he would not fail to see the underlying rationale. God’s law prescribes that every firstborn son must be dedicated to God: “The firstborn of your sons you shall give to Me” (Exodus 22:29).
But it also stipulates the substitution of an animal: “All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem” (34:20).
Later, when he set the tribe of Levi apart to be His special ministers, Yahweh would designate the Levites as consecrated to Him in place of the firstborn son of each family – but by their service, not their lives.
Abraham is caught in the warp between what God may rightfully demand of him in compensation for his sin and what reason and experience tell him about God’s character. This tension renders this test a suitable one.
For the three days of his journey Abraham contemplates what he must do. When he arrives he does a thing I find puzzling in the utmost, for we are left in no doubt that his obedience is complete and he intends to a certainty to go through with the sacrifice:
“And Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you.’”
Notice the vaguer term “worship” – which could mean simply “bow down” – rather than “make an offering” or “sacrifice.” Notice the first-person plural: “we” will come back. How shall we understand the disconnect between his will and his words?
One possibility, of course, is that at the moment of truth his will did in fact fail. He could not kill his only son – for by this time Ishmael has been banished with his mother Hagar and, for the purposes of the covenant story, has ceased to exist – and Abraham will indeed disobey God.
Alternatively, perhaps he is lying. He has informed both Isaac and the servants of the purpose of their trip but he has not identified the sacrificial victim. Might he be concealing that identity until the last possible moment to avoid raising the alarm?
There’s a third possible explanation as well: Abraham’s obedience never wavered and he walked away from the servants prepared without reservation or qualm to offer his son . . . and at the same time he was utterly certain that the God who had promised him innumerable descendants through Isaac would remain true to His word.
Father and son trudge off together, and alone, toward the fateful moment, and we observe the wood for the fire on Isaac’s back. He carries it like a cross, up that hill called Calvary. His father bears the fire and the knife. “But where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Isaac asks. Abraham replies:
“My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.”
Again, the ambiguity. Is it shampoo or not shampoo? Isaac accepts this explanation without a murmur, and they continue in silence – the most pregnant silence in all of literature.
Is Isaac’s trust in his father so utterly full that he suspects nothing amiss? Or is it so utterly full that he accepts his destiny unreservedly as his father’s will?
Either way, his pristine obedience to his father mirrors his father’s obedience to his Father above. Either way, that unstinting acceptance marks Isaac as the sacrifice acceptable to God, blameless and unspotted.
As we know, Abraham is fully prepared, by this time, to plunge the knife into his son’s chest.
“But the Angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham! So he said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.’”
And God provided a ram for the sacrifice, and Abraham named that place “The LORD Will Provide.” And God reiterated His blessing on Abraham, the promise now grounded both in the divine will and the obedience of the human servant.
Now, let us return to the matter of Abraham’s intent when he led Isaac away and up onto the mountain. Was he prepared to go through with the sacrifice?
I have no doubt whatsoever of Abraham’s willingness to slay his son. One reason is that this is the way the author of Hebrews understands the story:
“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called,’ concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense” (11:17-29).
Isaac was dead to him, yet Abraham knew he would live.
For another reason, this explanation is entirely consonant with the New Testament teaching on the need for death to occur to generate new life among sinners. The wages of sin is death, and death must occur before new life can germinate in its place. St. Paul writes to the Romans:
“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
“For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin” (6:1-7).
Those are two good reasons. I have one more reason still, one drawn from my own experience. God took my son from me.
As a teenager, Brett blossomed into a marvelous specimen of a man – in physical stature. By age 15, he stood 6-2 and he weighed in at a rock-solid 240. In his brief career as a high school defensive lineman he was a force to behold – not only big and strong but as quick and agile as a little ol’ gymnast.
He didn’t so much stop plays as vaporize them. He would stuff the ball carrier, strip the ball and recover the fumble. He could snap a normal mortal in two like a matchstick. So he did.
When he was 21, my only son killed a man in the process of robbing him. Murder done in the commission of another felony is a capital crime. Brett killed the man who had picked him up while hitch-hiking, took his car and wallet and sped away to have a party.
By this time, he had already topped off a long and ugly juvenile record with a prison stint in California.
He remained at liberty for 24 hours or so before he was arrested in a bar in North Texas. On the way back to Bell County in the central part of the state, where he had committed the crime, he confessed his guilt to the Texas Ranger who was transporting him.
If any criminal was ever fitted out for a date with a lethal injection, it was my son. I had nothing to offer in his defense, no evidence to enter in mitigation, no expectation that if he were somehow released he would not kill again. He was dead.
Yet God spared his life. For reasons that remain murky, the district attorney chose to offer a life sentence in exchange for a guilty plea.
Through an incomprehensible act of grace, Brett lived . . . and then he died to me again. In prison he joined a gang. He rose quickly through the ranks, but he was no cleverer in avoiding detection than he had been on the outside.
He spent most of his first decade behind bars in what the state calls “administrative segregation.” The rest of us call it “solitary.”
We visited him. He didn’t mention his gang membership, of course, and he certainly did not regale us with tales of his exploits. Still, we could see that he was unrepentant. He talked of various ploys and schemes to finagle his release, and tried to enlist our support.
I wanted him to remain where he was . . . and for my fellow citizens to remain out of his way. Brett was alive, but he was dead to me – beyond hope of redemption.
When he was younger, I had tried every manner of thing I could conceive to fix him – from discipline to camps and expensive trips to psychiatrists. Finally, all these years later, despairing, I released him to God. I laid him down on God’s altar. I could do nothing else. And God fixed him and returned him to me.
Brett remains in prison, now in his 24th year of a life sentence. Several years ago, he placed his faith for salvation in the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. I tell you with deep humility of my gratitude to God for giving me a role, by my witness, in Brett’s redemption.
In the years since, he has bound himself over without reservation to the service of his Lord. When he worked the morning shift in the prison kitchen, he organized a daily 4 a.m. prayer service for any of his fellow workers who would join him.
Serving time on a unit that houses inmates in transit, locked away for 23 hours a day and uncertain of their destination and disposition, he obtained the warden’s permission to lead a team onto their wing on two Sundays a month to bring them fellowship, encouragement, and prayer.
He has written a book – and a very good book indeed – on how to glorify God while serving time – a book full of wisdom on turning the other cheek and seeking the best even for those who hate you. A book about how to love with the love of the Lord in a place crammed full of hate.
God gave me back my son. He remains in prison, but he has transformed the joint into a place of joy and hope and love. What’s more, Brett and I will spend eternity together. Eternity seems a very long time to me, so long as to make this present life no more than a flicker. Again, from Romans:
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (8:18).
But I had to sacrifice my son to God and he had to die for us to reach this place of life together. Some of you, my fellow earthly fathers, have sons who are not inmates but tinkers, tailors, soldiers or spies . . . doctors, lawyers or Indian chiefs . . . or maybe even priests.
You’re at a disadvantage. You must try, as best you can, despite your limitations, to grasp the truth that life only proceeds from death. That you, a sinner, owe your precious son to God as the price of your redemption. That you, a sinner, have begotten a sinner after your kind and that his life cannot satisfy your debt.
That you have life only because God did not spare His own Son from death, even death on a cross. That our God is Lord of the Resurrection. You must never doubt our Lord’s power of resurrection. Amen.
Posted on: October 9, 2016Ed Fowler