Rethinking Religion: Trials, Tests, and Temptations

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Watch the livestream beginning at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. After the livestream is finished, the video will be available to watch at any time.

First Lesson: Genesis 22:1-18 (NIV)
Second Lesson: Romans 8:31-39 (NIV)

Gospel: Mark 1:12-15 (NIV)


  • Hymn: CW 404 “Jesus, Grant That Balm and Healing”
  • Hymn: CW 864 “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”
  • Hymn: CW 833 “I Run to Christ”

First Sunday in Lent                  February 18th, 2024
Genesis 22:1-18                         Pastor Ryan Wolfe

Put your Trust in the Lord who Provides

Finish this sentence: “The worst part about school is…” How many of you thought to yourself, “taking tests”? I used to think teachers gave tests just to watch their students squirm. To enjoy the suffering of others. That of course isn’t true. Teachers give tests for the benefit of their students. Tests are helpful because it gives students the opportunity to repeat what they have learned. In fact, tests are shown to help people remember longer the things they have been taught.

Our Old Testament reading illustrates the truth that tests benefit those who take them. When God tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac, God did it for Abraham’s benefit, not his own. God already knew that Abraham loved him more than anything or anyone else. He didn’t need to test Abraham to find that out. Instead he tested Abraham to give him the opportunity to consciously put God first in his life and to learn that blessings follow obedience.

In the same way, when God tests us it’s for our benefit too. God wants us to find out from experience that those who put him first are blessed. So let’s do that. Let’s put our trust in the Lord who provides with complete obedience to his Word, with full trust in his promises, and with absolute assurance of his mercy.

The test that God placed before Abraham was a difficult one. It would be hard enough to have to give up a child. Even harder to give up a miracle child born in Abraham and Sarah’s old age, one they had waited 25 years for after God’s promise. But remember God had also promised that the Savior from sin would come through Isaac’s family. God was in essence telling Abraham to cut off the hope of a savior.

Although God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was in conflict with God’s promise that the Savior would come through him, Abraham knew that resolving that conflict was God’s business, not his. His business was to obey. And so early the next morning Abraham prepared the wood, sharpened the knife, saddled the donkey, and set out with his son to make the sacrifice. And he did it all without debating or doubting God’s instructions. His quick response is a tremendous show of faith.

In this Abraham is a model to follow. God hasn’t commanded us to sacrifice our firstborn children, but he has commanded that we make him first in our lives. Is that a command we quickly follow with complete obedience, or do we debate and doubt? Do we question that if we give God our first and our best, will there be enough left over for us? Don’t we say to God in essence sometimes, “Lord, you can have my heart but don’t expect my wallet!” Or “God, you can change my path but don’t you dare change my schedule.” Jesus was correct when he said in Matthew 6, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” To reject God’s will for the things of this world or the desires of our sinful heart is to show that our faith hasn’t changed us as much as we say.

Abraham was in danger of making his child more important than the God who gave him that child. God recognized the danger and created a test to help Abraham see that God’s giving didn’t end there. But as we see this account we should pause and consider if anything in this life has become our earthly idol. In a year and a half I haven’t really preached about money. In one sense, that’s great. Salem is blessed and we haven’t really needed to talk about money. And it’s not about need today either. But Satan loves to take that gift of money and turn it against us. To let it capture our hearts and focus and let it pull us away from God.

God wants us to consciously put him first in our life. But it’s not just our money. In fact it’s not even mostly about our money. It’s the choices we make and the priorities we set. Think about your relationship with public worship. If worship conflicts with a social outing or a sporting event, do we obey God’s command to gather in worship or do we make our own want more important than his will? Or, to ask it differently, do you need a reason to go, or do you need a reason to miss? One answer sets God as first while the other sets God somewhere else.

Lent is a time to ask hard questions we don’t want to answer. If doing what God wants keeps us from having something we want, do we obey him or not? You know the answer to that. I know the answer to that. It’s obvious in our attendance at Bible classes and midweek worship services. And yes, it’s clear in the amount of offerings that people give for the Lord’s work. Complete obedience? No, sadly we’re not there. And to a God who tells us to love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, a life of partial faith and devotion isn’t good enough.

So how do we get from where we are in weakness to where we want to be? Look again at Abraham. Complete obedience comes from complete trust in God’s promises. It was trust in God that got Abraham up early the next morning to do what God said. Trust in God that caused Abraham to put one foot in front of another for the 40 mile journey to Mt. Moriah where the sacrifice was to take place. You can be sure that during that three-day journey Satan filled Abraham’s mind with countless reasons why it was ludicrous to obey God. But Abraham went. And how could he proceed with God’s command to kill his son? The New Testament book of Hebrews gives us insight into why Abraham would do it. “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

Abraham believed that if he sacrificed Isaac God would raise him again. God would have to because he promised that through Isaac’s family the Savior would come. This trust was mirrored in the words that Abraham spoke to his servants when they came to the mountain. Abraham said, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and we will come back to you.” Abraham trusted God would figure it out. And in the moment of testing, God did.

With Isaac bound on the altar, knife in hand, the Angel of the LORD called out to stop him. Abraham wouldn’t have to carry out the terrible task. Abraham looked up and found a ram caught by its horns in the brush. Abraham sacrificed it knowing full well where it came from. Not coincidence but providence. Abraham gave that place my favorite name for God, mostly because it’s fun to say in Hebrew. Jehovah Jireh, “The LORD will provide.” Abraham passed the test because he trusted God. In mercy the LORD provided a substitute for Isaac.

Abraham couldn’t have known how prophetic his name for that place was. 2,000 years later, not far from this Mount Moriah where Abraham was to offer Isaac, God would offer his own Son Jesus instead on Mt. Calvary. A substitute for all sinners. And that sacrifice, brothers and sisters, is the one that changes everything for us. You see, no matter how hard we try, we’ll never be completely obedient. We’ll never fully succeed in setting God first. Our sinful natures will always pull us back, keep us down. Instead of joyful giving, we’ll be reluctant. Instead of God-first scheduling, we’ll make him the optional one. And for that idolatry of money and self and schedule God should destroy us as his enemies. But instead he saves us. As the ram took Isaac’s place on the altar of Moriah, Jesus took our place on the cross of Calvary. In his death we see our punishment paid. In his resurrection we see Jesus’ victory promised to us.

In Lent our focus turns from Jesus’ ministry to Jesus’ sacrifice. And what does it mean? Well, how much did the ram mean to Isaac? Imagine the emotions Isaac felt as he watched the ram’s throat slit instead of his. The fire burning away at the ram’s flesh instead of his own. Just as the knife and fire should have been his, the cross should have been ours. But the one who provided a ram for Isaac provided a perfect Lamb for us. Isaac’s relief is our relief too. Even more, in fact, because God provided for us a Savior not just for our life but for our eternity. “On the Mountain, the LORD provides” indeed.

So as we think of our Christian faith today, rethinking religion, if you want to call it that, recognize how different our tests and our responses are from what some may think. God is not testing us to show our loyalty to him, but to show his loyalty to us. Again and again, in trials and tests we find that God provides. Again and again we find that he is faithful to every promise. In faith then, brothers and sisters, let’s answer like Abraham. Let’s hear God’s will and make it our own. Let’s turn from temptation and trust in the Lord. Let’s recognize our weakness, so we can praise him for his strength. May God bless us with renewed hearts eager to serve, to give, and to live for the one gives us everything. To God be the glory. Amen.

Recent Worship Services