Grace and peace …
And now, Holy Spirit, pour out upon us wisdom and understanding, that being taught by you in Holy Scripture, our hearts and minds may be opened to receive all that leads to life and holiness. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Tests … they’re everywhere in life. We have tests in school to measure how much we’ve learned. We have to pass tests before we can drive, some jobs require tests.
Manufacturers test drugs and cars and all kinds of other things before they sell them.
And God tests us. In fact, the first thing God did after He created Adam was to give him a test. In Genesis 2 we read that He “put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:15-17).
A test … “Are you going to listen to me? Or not?”
And although we’re not given the specific timing, it appears that it was almost as soon as God created Eve and gave her to Adam to be his wife that they ate that forbidden fruit. We don’t really know why Adam ignored what God had told him about that fruit, but it seems pretty clear that he was now more concerned about keeping Eve happy than he was about God.
Adam failed the test—he and Eve were banished from the perfect garden and sin began to multiply on the earth. As time goes on, many people forgot all about God.
It was years after Adam, but still 2000 years before Jesus was born, that God called a man named Abram, who was living in Haran with his family. In the 24th chapter of the book of Joshua, we’re told that “Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor … served other gods,” (Joshua 24:2) so we know that Abram was a pagan. But the Lord God called him to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-).
God was putting Abram to the test. When God called him, Abram was 75 years old and his father Terah was 145 years old.
Nevertheless, when God called, Genesis 12:4 says, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” He didn’t say, “My father’s old; I can’t leave him. Ask me again after he dies.” He didn’t even say, “I’m too old to go somewhere else.” He just said, “OK, Lord.” His nephew Lot went with him, so apparently God didn’t tell him that he couldn’t take his family. We don’t know why Terah didn’t go—but he didn’t.
God was testing Abram—testing him to see whether he’d put God before his family.
Abram passed the test.
Whenever I read this passage, I wonder: Was Abraham the first person God called to go, to become the father of a great nation? Or had He already asked others, who’d said, “No, Lord. That’s too much to ask.”
The first commandment had not yet been written in stone, but it was already in effect: “I am the Lord you God, you shall have no other gods before me.”
Many years later, Matthew 8:19-22: “A scribe came up [to Jesus] and said to him, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’”
Abraham and his wife Sarah go—and then they wait. Wait 25 years before God finally gives them a son, Isaac, their only child, born when Sarah was 90 years old and Abraham was 100.
25 years of testing.
The child grew and then one day, as we come to this morning’s scripture reading from chapter 22, “God tested Abraham” again. This time God told Abraham “to take 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 mountain of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2).
For many of us, this may be the most horrifying verse in all of Scripture. I have two sons whom I love very much. What would I do if God called me to sacrifice even one of them? Would I do it?
What kind of God would tell Abraham to sacrifice his only beloved son, to do such an impossible thing?
Maybe the kind of God who would one day sacrifice “his only beloved Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The kind of God for whom “all things are possible.”
“God tested Abraham.” “Way back before you knew me, Abraham, I called and you answered. You put me ahead of your earthly father and followed me. Now, after all these years, now after you know so much more about me, do you still love me more than anything? Do you love me even more than your only beloved son?”
And once again, when God said, “’Abraham!’ Abraham answered, ‘Here I am.’” God told him to take Isaac and go to the land of Moriah, and God would show him where to go to sacrifice Isaac. So Abraham got up early in the morning and went.
Now of course in the whole story of Abraham we see a foreshadowing of what is to come. Abraham leaves his father and goes to a new country just as Jesus will leave His Father and come to live among us. And here in chapter 22, we see Abraham laying the wood on Isaac just as soldiers laid the cross on Jesus for His journey up the mountain of Golgotha. When they reached the top of the mountain, Abraham bound Isaac to the wood just as Jesus was bound to the cross.
The difference is that at the moment when Abraham was about to slaughter his son with the knife, God stopped him. He provided a ram instead.
Just as our Lord God provided His only beloved Son, the lamb of God, to be slaughtered in our place.
Abraham once again passed the test.
2000 years later, the lamb of God, Jesus, would walk along the Sea of Galilee and call two brothers, “Simon (who is called Peter), and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. He said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Matthew 4:18-20).
Like Abraham all those years earlier, they didn’t know this man Jesus. But when he called them to follow, they went. Immediately.
They passed the test.
Jesus called others—ten more men. And they, too, followed.
They followed Him for the next three years—they walked with Him and talked with Him. They watched Him reach out to the poor, to sinners, they watched Him heal the sick and cast our demons and even control the weather. They saw Him raise the dead. Until finally one day, Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
Peter passed another test.
“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake the and gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?’” (Mark 8:34-36).
He called the crowd to hear this because He wanted us to understand that He wasn’t just talking about some special mission that He had for the twelve. Jesus was talking to all of us—to you and me.
Jesus was putting us to the test.
This wasn’t the first time the disciples heard this. At the very beginning of His ministry, Mark 3:31-35 tells us: “And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.’ And he answered them, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.’”
Matthew repeats this story in 12:46-50. Except that in his version, he writes that Jesus “stretches out his hand toward his disciples, and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”
Matthew’s gospel is written after Mark. Perhaps by this time he had come to recognize that there is a very real difference between somebody who says they believe in Jesus and someone who is actually a disciple.
Which brings us to our gospel reading.
I Peter 4:12 – Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.
How about you? Can you pass the test? Are you willing to put Jesus ahead of everything? Ahead of your spouse and your children and your grandchildren?
Is our family important? Of course our family is important! Every single member of our family has been created by God and is loved by God. God loves your spouse and your children and your grandchildren and your parents and your brothers and sisters even more than you do. Even more than anyone else!
So why don’t we believe this? Why are we so unwilling to trust them to Him? Why do we have such a hard time believing that God can take care of our families even better than we can? And that if God calls us to do something, He will take care of them.
Do you really think that when God calls us to follow Him in some way that seems impossible to us, that He’ll allow our families to suffer as a result? Do you think that He didn’t care about the families of Peter and Andrew and the rest of the disciples?
Can you pass the test? Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your mind and all your strength?
Why are we so willing to spread the gospel of our football teams or favorite Netflix shows, but struggle to name the only name given to mankind by which sinners can be saved (Acts 4:12)? We’re terrified of receiving the disapproval of the walking dead. We have forgotten that “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (I Peter 4:14). What was true in Jesus’ day continues to be true in ours: “For fear of the Jews, no one spoke openly of Jesus” (John 7:13).
They were afraid that they’d be thrown out of the synagogue—the focal point of Jewish life. We fear sarcasm from our parents, ridicule on Twitter, being “that guy” at ever social gathering. So we slide from shadow to shadow, church service to home to work, only visiting our Lord under cover of night, like Nicodemus.
A new Muslim convert from a country where it is illegal to be Christian, recently said, “When I return home next month, there’s a good chance they’ll kill me before I can come back to America.”
He’d only been a believer for a year.
“To know Jesus is so amazing that I couldn’t help but tell my family and friends about the new life I found in Him. several people disowned me outright. One said that if he sees me when I get back, he’ll kill me immediately. There’s a good chance someone will tell the government. When they do, I won’t see you again in this life.”
This new Muslim convert passed the test. He knew that Jesus is worth living for, even if it means dying for Him.
Jesus said in Matthew 10:32-39, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law again her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Jesus spoke these words not just to the twelve apostles, not just to the people living in first century Palestine, not even just to people living today in other places. These words apply to every single one of us.
These words are the test: Jesus says, “How much do you love me?”
“Do you love me more than you love sports and money and electronics? Do you love me more than you love your father and mother and sister and brother and son and daughter and grandson and granddaughter?”
“If you don’t,” he says, “You’ve failed the test.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the first century disciples turned the world upside down because they did love Jesus more than anything. Christianity is spreading like wildfire in persecuted nations because people love Jesus more than anything else.
We say, “Well, I just don’t know Him well enough.”
We say, “I’m really busy with my job and my family and my life right now. But someday, I’ll have more time for Jesus—maybe.”
We say, ”When I’m older, after I’ve had a lot of fun in life, then I’ll get serious about Jesus.”
Have you counted the cost? And if so, have you chosen the world?
Have you failed the test?
There is nothing you can do for your children or grandchildren that is more important than teaching them that Jesus is the most important thing in your life.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, are you willing to do whatever it takes to follow Jesus wherever He calls us to go? To do whatever He calls us to do? To give up whatever He calls us to give up for His sake? No matter who or what that is?
Is the call of Jesus to go and make disciples the most important mission in your life? Because until we make that our most important mission, we are not the church that God is calling us to be. God wants all of us—not just the extras, the leftovers after we’ve done all the things that we think are important.
And our job as a congregation is to make sure that everything we do is important to Jesus. To make sure that we’re not wasting people’s valuable time on things that have nothing to do with growing the kingdom of God.
Let us pray.