Scripture alone, Faith alone, Grace alone.

1st Sunday Lent

Lent 1.18 “Subjected” Mark 1:9-15

In Hebrew and in Greek, the word for testing and tempting is the same word. The only way you can tell the difference (if the Hebrews and Greeks even thought there was a difference) is context. Generally English translators think that if context suggests it is a trial where God is hoping you’ll pass then it’s a test. If it’s a trial Satan is really hoping you’ll fail, then it’s temptation. And again, I’m not sure the Hebrews and Greeks think that’s a distinction with a real difference, at least not enough to require a different word.

That’s not a notion that sits well with modern people. It’s why you’re glad you never learned ancient Greek or Hebrew and why you prefer the King James Bible over the Greek or Hebrew—if the King James Bible was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me! We are just sort of OK with the idea that God tests us like He tested Abraham in our Old Testament lesson. Not exactly thrilled with it. But it’s semi-tolerable. God tempting us though (as Pope Francis’ recent struggles with the word in the Lord’s Prayer demonstrate) is simply not acceptable to the vast majority of Christendom. But discovering it’s a distinction without any real difference in the original languages probably pleases no one. It’s still God messing with our heads and our lives. And to what end?

Well let’s consider that in the case of Abraham in our Old Testament reading (shall we?) since it’s one of the best parts of the whole Bible and deserves a close reading. Why does God tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? What was going on in His head (and Abraham’s for that matter?). Well, this is something the Story never tells you, the reader, now does it? No; it doesn’t. Being God means you never have to explain Yourself. The closest you get, by way of a hint is when God tells Abraham “Stop! Do not lay a hand on the lad…” saying only “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” But didn’t God already know that, since He knows everything? Presumably! So that’s no explanation, no real answer at all, is it?

Kierkegaard insists it’s a test of faith; but re-reading Fear and Trembling, I realize the two main reasons I just don’t like Kierkegaard would include such diverse elements as: 1) he’s so full of himself, 2) he can’t just say what he means, 3) he makes the Bible say things it doesn’t actually say, and, ( 4th book in Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy!): he talks too much. Some say that it’s God’s way of showing Abraham that indeed he really believes, but since Abraham obviously had faith, wouldn’t Abraham have known that already? It seems to me Abraham’s faith (the genuine article!) is the sort of thing that one who has IT never tests out, certainly never analyzes, anymore than fish think about the water in which they swim. Faith is like quarks (or like I’m told quarks and quantum birds are and which I surely don’t understand): if you look at it, you change its natural course by your anxious observations. With quarks and quantum birds that’s probably not a big deal, but with Faith, I don’t think you want to change its (super)natural course…

Others say Abraham was told by God to do this so that by giving up Isaac to God, he would get him back on a new basis, on the basis of faith in God’s gracious promise, instead of by human rights of fatherhood. That one seems like nonsense to me also. As a man of faith, as the father of it, Abraham would have had Isaac before the test by faith in God’s gracious promise as well as by natural fatherhood. The test doesn’t seem to give Abraham (or God) anything he didn’t have before…

No, I think Kierkegaard and his ilk talk a lot of stuff and nonsense. They’re not my peeps. There is one commentator on Abraham and Isaac who seems to really get what the Story is saying. No, actually, it’s not Martin Luther. The class notes his grad students took on his Genesis lectures on the subject are fine. But I doubt it’s precisely what Luther himself said or thought. No, the commentary that nails it for me is in a book by a non-practicing Jewish scholar who wrote his book in Istanbul during WWII and taught briefly at Yale, Erich Auerbach’s “Mimesis”. He’s comparing the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac to Odysseus’ homecoming in Homer.

He notes that, in Homer, characters speak to show exactly what they’re thinking. But in the Bible “on the contrary, [speech] serves to indicate thoughts which remain unexpressed.” No one knows what goes on in God’s head or Abraham’s! It’s all hidden in the background—all the things that ever happened to them build up in a way never explained, only mysteriously hinted at. Which makes it all intriguing, gives it the ring of truth. Auerbach notes we can doubt the truth of the Trojan War, Odysseus’ existence, and still get the effects Homer was aiming at. But if you doubt that Abraham really existed and really did this to Isaac at God’s behest, you get nothing from the story—all claims of rationalist “scholars” to the contrary!

Auerbach goes on to say “The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s, it is tyrannical—it excludes all other claims. The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a true historically reality—it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy… The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.” And on this insight was launched a different way of doing theology, a “road less traveled by” that has made all the difference for some of us.

And yeah, that’s IT. God tells us the Story to subject us; to bring us to our knees like Abraham—in humble worship, in the Divine Service as His Gift, by His will, to receive from God only as He wills. I would say, James notwithstanding, that He tempts us too, entices us to be subjects of His Kingdom because only in that slavery is royal freedom, joy and eternal life. The test here is whether you’ll be subject, whether or not you will be absorbed into the world the Scriptures narrate or whether you will insist on living in some dreary, dull, alternate reality of your own choosing, desiring, and making. As for me and my house…

Jesus goes into the wilderness equal in every way to His Father, yet (freely!) subjects Himself to the Father’s will and the devil’s stern testing. Because neither we nor Isaac are up to the challenge, He provides Himself the sacrifice, catches His horns in the bush so Abraham can find Him, so He can die in Isaac’s place. Only when you’re captivated by this Story, only when it absorbs you into that world will you know real freedom—and only His Story has a happy ending.

And the ram is the real point of the story. If this were just a test of Abraham’s faith (as another astute commentator, Will McDavid points out), after he passes, why wouldn’t God just say “Good going! Go home!”? Right? The need for Isaac’s sacrifice is not some ruse—it is an actual requirement. And only the ram that God Himself provides (that later, on that same mountain will be God Himself!) meets that requirement. Jesus is that ram, the scapegoat. His sacrifice is the whole point…

Faith is being subject to God in Christ Jesus by Way of the Cross. It is His doing and our delight. It is Peace surpassing understanding, guarding heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.


Advent Vespers – Wednesdays, 7:00 p.m.

16 December 2018  3rd Sunday Advent

8:30 Matins

11:00 Divine Service with Communion

9:45 Sunday School – children ages 3 through high school

Adult Bible Class with Pastor Martin


Our Savior Lutheran Church is a confessional Lutheran church in Raleigh, North Carolina, belonging to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

We are located at: 1500 Glenwood Avenue, Raleigh, NC 27608.

For directions, use 742 Nash Street, Raleigh.