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You Want Me to Do What??

February 15, 2021

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”   (James 1:12)

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent.  Lent is a time for reflection and sacrifice. Many start the season of Lent by fasting from food on Ash Wednesday.  Some continue a type of fast during the six weeks of Lent by asking for God’s help in continuing a partial fast throughout Lent to use that time to grow closer to God. 

The idea of a fast is to give up something that you normally enjoy, in order to help you focus your time and energies on spiritual growth.  Some people give up some types of food or drink during the period of Lent, or activities that they normally enjoy, such as watching television, playing video games, going out, spending time on social media, etcetera.  The idea is to use the time you would normally spend on the forsaken activity on another activity that will help you grow closer to God—such as praying or reading and meditating on the Word or other inspirational writings.

A fast tests us.  A fast propels us to God—to rely on him.  We are tested during Lent and tests can be difficult. Whether it’s a blood test, a MRI, a biopsy, a Medieval Literature test, a physical education test, or an achievement test, we would almost always prefer to be doing something else than taking a test.  Anyone who has taken the bar exam, especially in states with low passage rates like California, has a story to tell of difficulties experienced during the course of studying for or taking the exam.  And many of us have a recurrent nightmare after we get the news that we passed that it was all a mistake.  But these experiences pale in comparison to the tests recounted in our Biblical texts this week.[1]

We recently rejoiced in our love for those closest to us on Valentine’s Day.  It is almost impossible to understand the test that God put Abraham through when he asked him to sacrifice his beloved son: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (Genesis 22: 2). 

 I would have said, “You want me to do what??”

 Then I would have pulled a “Jonah”—put my son in my SUV and taken off in the opposite direction.  I get that the passage is about God’s testing of Abraham’s faith, and his insistence that we trust and obey him, but the test he put Abraham through seems beyond the pale.  I plan to sign up for Moses’ class on Genesis when I get to heaven, and I am hoping that Abraham and Isaac will be our special guests when we study Genesis 22, so that I can finally wrap my head around what was going through their minds.  

After all, God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of all nations a dozen or more years earlier when Abraham was 99 years old (Genesis 17: 1-7).  How could that happen if Abraham sacrificed his beloved son?  Did he think that God made a mistake?  Apparently not, because he followed the instructions he received. 

Some commentators suggest that Abraham didn’t think he was taking much of a risk because he reasoned that God would restore Isaac to life.[2]  That is a possibility, but the text suggests that Abraham’s motivation to proceed with God’s request was from his fear of God—his awe of and respect for God’s power.  And his absolute trust of God. 

God actually spoke aloud to Abraham. Think about that for a minute.  If the God of the universe actually spoke to you, what would you do?  

Abraham didn’t know why God was asking him to do this terrible thing, but he knew who God was.  Abraham knew God and had reason to respect his power.  The text seems to support this interpretation. When Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, God speaks to him: “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” (Genesis 22:12).

God knows exactly how Abraham felt, because he sacrificed his only Son for us on the cross, and actually went through with it.  But even before Jesus died on the cross, he was tested a number of times, including during his time in the wilderness just before he began his public ministry: “At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being temped by Satan” (Mark 1: 12).   

Did you catch the fact that the Spirit, the third part of the Trinity, sent Jesus, the second part of the Trinity into the wilderness to be tested? 

God shows us in these Scriptures that Jesus and Biblical heroes of faith were tested as we will be.  We are tested during the course of our lives in many ways.  We are challenged by the everyday stresses of our jobs and family life.  We are tested by illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters.  We are tested, tempted, and led astray by our own thoughts and by the people we encounter.  

James tells us not to blame God for our temptations: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (James 1: 13-14).   We are constantly tested by difficult people and circumstances.  Our faith is tried during periods of unemployment, marital discord, financial difficulties, and by long periods of physical or mental illness—our own, or that of a family member.  

But James assures us that we, like Abraham, David, and Jesus, will come out on the winning end if we persevere: “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

Wealth, fame, and success, like failure and other difficulties can also test the strength of your faith.   You need to hold onto the Father’s hand during the good times and the bad times of your life, and trust God to keep you on the path that he has planned for you.  

Even King David asked God to search him and point out his shortcomings, to test him, so that he could repent and follow God’s guidance: “Investigate my life, O God, find out everything about me; Cross-examine and test me, get a clear picture of what I’m about; See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong— then guide me on the road to eternal life” (Psalm 139:23-24, The Message).  

Your power, acquisition of art, estates, cars, jewels, and other expressions of material wealth will not influence the God who freely gives us blessed assurance of his love that will never die. 

David also writes “In you, Lord my God, I put my trust . . . Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths.  Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in your all day long” (Psalm 25: 1, 4-5).   David knew better than most that whatever your circumstance in life—whether you are a lowly shepherd boy or a mighty king with untold riches, God is your only hope and salvation.

When you are in the midst of trials, turn to the one who can bring you through safely—the one you can depend on now and forever: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like the shifting shadows” (James 1: 17).

Prayer:  Gracious and powerful God, look upon us in our weakness and help us grow in our desire for you during this period of Lent.  Help us fast from the things of the world so that we can grow closer to you. As we journey in the wilderness of our lives show us how to be content with less instead of wanting more.  Help us as we seek to immerse ourselves in those spiritual disciplines that will draw us closer to you.  We ask this through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen. 

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the First Sunday in Lent are Genesis 22:1-8; Psalm 25: 1-10; James 1: 12-18; Mark 1: 9-15.

[2] Gangel and Bramer, Holman Old Testament Commentary: Genesis (2002), Holman Reference, p. 198.

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