The Stricken Rock (Exodus 17:1-7)

For the six weeks leading up to Easter, we're looking at the unfolding mystery of the gospel from the ancient Scriptures. Although we see the good news of what God has done to save us most clearly after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, you see glimpses of this good news throughout all of Scripture. This is why Jesus could turn to two of his followers, open the Hebrew Scriptures, and explain "to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). The Bible is not a collection of unrelated stories and moral lessons. It is, we discover, the revelation of God that ultimately takes us to Jesus.

Today we are looking at a crisis that took place not long after God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. What we're going to read is going to highlight three things for us: the trial; the sentence reached as a result of this trail; and the ultimate trial and sentence that we're all a part of.

So let's first look at the trail.

As we start to look at this passage, we need to remember what's just happened. God has just delivered his people from the most totalitarian regime of that day and set them free from centuries of slavery. He's guiding them visibly by going before them as a pillar of cloud during the day, and a pillar of fire at night. When they've had nothing to drink except for bitter water, he's provided sweet water for them. He's fed them miraculously in the desert so that they never have to worry about having enough food. What they have seen is nothing short of amazing. But as we look at the passage that was just read for us, we see that there is a problem. We have to look a little below the surface to understand how serious this problem became, not just for them, but for us as well.

In verse 1 we read that Israel has moved to Rephidim. We have no idea where Rephidim is anymore, but we can guess that it's within traveling distance of the last place they camped, which presumably had water, an oasis in the desert. We read the problem at the end of verse 1: "there was no water for the people to drink." This is a significant problem.

The whole nation of Israel was on the move, up to two million people. They were not in a car driving; they were in the desert walking. And they were not looking for the convenience of a refreshing drink. Their very lives were at stake. Stopping in the middle of the dessert with no water was big trouble. In the middle of Sinai, dehydration would take hours, not days. As soon as their water-skins from the last night were empty, death was certain. So you can understand why the people of Israel were concerned.

So we read in verse 2: "So they quarreled with Moses and said, 'Give us water to drink.'" Notice that this word keeps coming up in these seven verses. Moses says at the end of verse 2, "Why do you quarrel with me?" In verse 7 we read that Moses renamed the place Massah and Meribah, which means testing and quarreling.

Here's where we need to understand what's taking place below the surface. What does this word quarrel mean? It means much more than what your kids do when they're overtired. It's more than a spat. The word quarrel here is a legal term describing the launch of a lawsuit. The prophet Micah used the term to describe the lawsuit God brought against Israel for breaking his covenant.

The people of Israel were effectively taking legal action against Moses. The charge was negligence. They say in verse 3, "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?" And the penalty, presumably, is that after he is found guilty, Moses will be sentenced to death. That's what Moses says in verse 4. "Then Moses cried out to the LORD, 'What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.'" They are all going to die in the desert; Moses may as well be the first to go as the one who has brought them there. This is no case of grumbling; this is a trail on a capital offense.

But the defendant in this case wasn't just Moses. Ultimately, they're suing God. Verse 7 says, "And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, 'Is the LORD among us or not?'"

Here's the real issue: they are not putting Moses on trial; they are putting God on trial. God had provided for them over and over. He had cared for them in miraculous ways. And yet they've put God on trail, charging him with negligence on a mass scale. And the penalty, at least for Moses, is death.

We need to understand what this his incident is and isn't about. It's not about the doubts that come our way. Most of us, at one time or another, encounter times that we struggle to believe. I know some people who have lost their jobs in the economic crisis. Somewhere along the line they may struggle. They may say, "God, I'm having a hard time trusting you to provide in these circumstances." We may need to confess to God that we believe, but that we need help with our unbelief. But that's not what's happening here.

What is this passage about then? It's not about doubt; it's about accusation. Doubt is when we admit that we don't understand and that we're struggling. Accusation is when we set ourselves up as judges over God, and make him the defendant, as if God has to answer to us. Do you see the difference? When we struggle with doubt, we still see God as God. When we accuse God, as in this passage, we have set ourselves up over God. We've put him on trial.

And what this passage reveals is that we have a problem. And the problem goes deeper than actions; the problem is that our hearts have an inclination.There's something within us that makes us prone to question God, even accuse him. This began in Genesis 3, and it continues to this day when we set ourselves up over him, and we're inclined to press charges against him and doubt his presence at every turn.

I've experienced times that God has come through in surprising and extraordinary ways. I've heard of the same. Just this week I talked to someone who faced a choice between doing the right thing and the wrong thing. The problem with doing the right thing is that it came with a heavy price tag. It was going to cost him and his family. But he did the right thing, and as soon as he got home there was a check for $5,000 from a stranger. He believed that this was God's provision for him, a reminder that God would care for him no matter how bad things look.

I hear stories like this, and I've experienced them too. But when I get into a jam, my heart's inclination is not to trust God. My heart's inclination is to doubt, to fret, to worry and to begin to accuse the One who has provided for me, who has given me far more than I deserve. I don't wait for my need to be met. I don't always even pray for my needs to be met. Instead, my inclination is to doubt God, even to put him on trial, to expect him to answer to me.

God said later in Deuteronomy 6:16, "Do not put the LORD your God to the test as you did at Massah." But we do this all the time. So we see there is a trial going on in this passage, and it's a trial we're involved in too.

So what's going to happen with this trial?

Let's look together at the sentence that was arrived as a result of this trial.

So just to review: Israel has put Moses, and by extension God, on trial. God is in the dock. What's going to happen? Read verses 5 and 6 with me:

The LORD answered Moses, "Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink." So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.

What's happening here? On the simplest level, God is providing water for his thirsty people, showing again that he provides for his people. That's true. But there's much more going on here. What you have going on here is a trial.

God tells Moses to go in front of the people. Why? Because this is the court of judges and witnesses. Court is in session as these elders come together. A trial is underway.

God tells Moses to take the staff with him. What staff? The one he'd used to turn the Nile River into blood, judging the gods of Egypt. In other words, this is the rod of judgment.

Moses passes before the people, and you can imagine them thinking, "Oh my goodness, what have we done?" They've accused God, and God has now said, "Okay, let's take this to court and see how this goes." And now you have the court assembled and the rod of judgment prepared.

What would happen? What if the rod of judgment fell on Israel for their rebellion? You can only imagine. Later on the prophet Isaiah talked about the rod of God's judgment coming down on Assyria:

The voice of the LORD will shatter Assyria;
with his rod he will strike them down.
Every stroke the LORD lays on them
with his punishing club
will be to the music of timbrels and harps,
as he fights them in battle with the blows of his arm.
(Isaiah 30:31-32)

But who's on trial? Is it Moses, who's been accused by the people? Is it Israel? In one of the most incredible twists, God says in verse 6, "I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb." You need to understand that in the Old Testament, God does not stand in front of people. People stand before God. God is on trial here. God sits in the prisoner's dock. Moses has his rod of judgment, and it is God himself who stands to be judged.

And in one of the most incredible passages of Scripture, God tells Moses to raise his rod of judgment and strike the rock. Later on in the psalms that commemorate the event, God is described as a Rock (Psalms 78 and 95). God is standing by the rock as it's stricken. Do you see what is happening?

God was not guilty. God had done nothing wrong. He had provided for them over and over again. And yet Israel put God on trial. God stands in the place of the accused. And now, at God's command, the rod of judgment strikes God himself, not because he is guilty, but because the people are guilty. He gets the punishment that they deserve.

And as a result of that judgment, as the rock is smitten, water comes out. The needs of a rebellious people are met as God himself bears the punishment that they deserved. They drink the water they need and their lives are saved precisely because God took the judgment they should have received! The guilty verdict is read, but instead of the guilty being punished, God is. God receives the judgment he didn't deserve, and the guilty receive the grace that they didn't deserve.

Do you understand? The God we serve, the Rock of Israel, is a God of mercy who bears his own judgment for the sins of his people. It's amazing! Some people think the God of the Old Testament was a harsh God. Here we see that God is a gracious and compassionate God, one who - even in the Old Testament - stands in the place of the guilty, bearing the punishment on behalf of his people. The stricken rock shows us the gospel of grace, even in the time of Moses.

But the story doesn't end there. We've seen the trail and the sentence reached at the end of this trail.

What I'd like to look at before we close is the ultimate trail we're all a part of, and the ultimate sentence that was paid.

God himself took the punishment that Israel deserved. It's great news. But there is a greater problem, that should concern us all.

In the coming years, Israel fails God time and time again. The events that we just read about took place at the beginning of the wanderings in the wilderness. Sadly, a similar event took place almost forty years later in Numbers 20. The old generation had died out; a new generation is in place, and they're about to enter the Promised Land. We read in Numbers 20 that this new generation also quarreled with Moses. The wanderings of Israel in the desert are bookended with these failures. This time, tragically, Moses failed by striking the rock twice. He knew that God's presence was in the rock, and that speaking to it would be speaking with God. He hit the rock twice, and unthinkable outburst of anger against God. God still provided water for Israel, but he announced the verdict. Moses would not be allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land, because he had disobeyed God in such a severe manner.

God was so gracious in Exodus 17 when he stood in the place of sinners. But the problem is that the story doesn't end in Exodus 17. It continues in Exodus 32 and in all the failures of Israel, and even the failure of Moses himself. Even the good guys fail! What hope is there for us? God took the punishment for them in Exodus 17, but what's going to happen with all of their other failures? What's going to happen when even the good guys commit the most horrible sins?

The New Testament answers this question, and it's amazing. In 1 Corinthians 10:4-5 we read: "They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ."

What does this mean? It means that Jesus Christ was with Israel in the desert wanderings. The rock that was smitten by Moses was Jesus Christ himself. The smitten rock points us to the ultimate Rock who was smitten for our sins: Jesus Christ. We have received the guilty verdict for our sin. God, the righteous judge, must take the rod of divine justice and administer the sentence. But it is Jesus who is smitten. Isaiah wrote:

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
(Isaiah 53:4-5)

When Moses struck the rock in the desert, life-giving water poured out. And when Jesus was smitten at the cross, blood and water poured out from his side. In the ultimate trial that we're all a part of, we have been found guilty. But when the rod of divine justice came down, it came down on Jesus. And as a result of that Rock, Jesus Christ, being smitten, we get the water that we need.

As we close, we need to see two things clearly. One is that we're part of a trail, and that we deserve the guilty verdict. We deserve the rod of justice. Even the best of us don't stand a chance.

But then we need to see that the rod of divine justice will fall on us, and it should. But there's another way. Jesus said, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them" (John 7:37-38). Jesus said, "Those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:14).

Let's pray.

One day we will stand before God in judgment. The rod of divine justice will be there. On that day, there are many who will plead innocence. They'll talk about all the good things they've done. But not even Moses was good enough. On that great and dreadful day, we will have to acknowledge that we deserve that rod of judgement to come down on us, and it's a rod that can crush us.

But on that day we can have hope. We can look at the rod of justice, admit that it's what we deserve, but then plead that Jesus our Rock stood in our place and received the judgment that we deserved. I plead with you to put your trust in Christ this morning.

Father, thank you for your amazing grace. Thank you that Jesus endured and exhausted the divine judgement that we should have received. This is our only comfort in life and death. We look to that Rock today. Amen.

Winning the Blessing (Genesis 32:22-32)

As you probably know, Jesus had quite a few disagreements with the religious leaders of his day. These were people who knew the Scriptures very well. One day he turned to them and said, "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (John 5:39-40). Did you hear that? The Scriptures testify about Jesus. Don't forget that Jesus was talking about the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament.

So, leading up to Easter, we are taking a tour through some of the Hebrew Scriptures to see how they testify of Jesus. Today we're coming to what may be a familiar story to many of you: Jacob wrestling with God. U2 even sings about it: "Jacob wrestled with the angel and the angel was overcome."

To really understand this story, we need to know a little bit about Jacob. Jacob's name means "Deceiver" How would you like a name like that? Jacob's entire life had been a struggle, even from before his birth. We read that he struggled with his twin brother within his mother's womb, so much so that his mother, Rebekah, asked God, "Why is this happening to me?" (Genesis 25:22). When he was born, he was the second born. Under the laws of primogeniture, the eldest son got almost everything, which means that Jacob got almost nothing as a result. He missed out on all the privileges of being the firstborn by minutes. And since then, his entire life had been a struggle.

Let me give you a few examples. He exploited his brother so that his brother sold his firstborn rights to him. He deceived his father so that his father blessed him, and not his brother, who as firstborn should have received the blessing. Jacob then had to run for his life, and by the time we get to today's passage he had been in exile for twenty years. He also left his father-in-law on less than good terms. All of his life, Jacob had been angling and wrestling and deceiving to get ahead.

As we come to today's passage, we're in a sense coming to the climax of Jacob's life. There comes a time when you can't run anymore, and you have to face up to your past. And as we begin chapter 32, we find Jacob returning to Canaan at God's command. In one sense, he's been blessed. He left as a lonely exile; he's returning as a wealthy herdsman with two wives, many children, and a vast caravan of camels, cattle, sheep, and goats. He's become a success.

But you can also feel the tension as he comes back home. For one thing, he's got to face his brother Esau. Last time he saw his brother twenty years ago, his brother was trying to kill him. Then he hears that his brother is coming with 400 men. That's obviously not a welcoming committee! His brother, it seems, is coming to make war.

Jacob is so concerned that he sends gifts to Esau to try to make peace, and he also divides his group into two camps, so that if they're attacked at least one has a chance to get away. And it's at this point, a point of great tension, that Jacob stands alone and encounters a man. For all Jacob knows, it could be one of Esau's party sent ahead to deal with Jacob. And on the most crucial day of his life, a day on which everything is on the line, Jacob spends the night wrestling with this man, trying to not only win but to get this man's blessing.

What can we learn from this passage? There's so much, but let me highlight four things. The first is this:

1. We are all looking for what Jacob was looking for

What was Jacob looking for? His entire life, he had been trying to prove himself, to get ahead, to make something of himself. His entire life had been one of trying to make something of himself. And even now, with a family and wealth and success, you still see him longing - longing for acceptance from his brother, longing for relationships to be restored, and longing for a blessing from this wrestler. And we're like Jacob. We all long for the same thing: to amount to something, to have our lives count, to receive validation that we matter. And it has to come from outside of ourselves; we can't give this to ourselves. We're all looking for what Jacob was looking for.

Let me give you some examples. Don Miller is a very popular author. His books sell very well. But when he was young, he found himself looking for an identity, as many of us did. He tried sports, but he wasn't very good. He tried guitar, but he was really more interested in becoming a rock star than playing the guitar. And then one day when he was 25 or so, he watched a debate. Something went wrong with the camera, so to kill time one of the debaters stood in front of the crowd and recited poetry from memory for about twenty minutes. All the girls were falling out of their chairs, he says, their hearts exploding in love for him. And when the debate finally started, Miller wasn't thinking about the debate. He was thinking of poetry, and whether he could learn some so that girls would fall off their chairs in love for him. He writes:

What I really began to ponder, I suppose, was whether or not coming off as a smart guy who knows poems could be my identity, could be the thing that made me stand out in life.

Now I didn't realize it at the time, but I would come back to this moment much later in life and realize something very important about myself--namely, that I felt something missing inside myself, some bit of something that made me feel special or important or valued.

Miller says that he was looking for meaning, for some kind of endorsement from a jury of his peers, something that would win him the blessing.

He's not alone. We're all looking for that validation.

Tom Brady, the record-setting quarterback, says, "Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there's something greater out there for me? I think, 'It's got to be more than this.'" The actor Jim Carrey said, "I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer." Sidney Pollock, the movie maker, died a couple of years ago. Before he died, even when he was sick, he couldn't stop working, even when his family wanted him to. An article written about him said, "Movie mogul Sidney Pollock says that although the grueling film-making process is wearing him down, he can't justify his existence if he stops." Pollock said, "Every time I finish a picture, I feel I've earned my stay for another year or so." Do you see the quest? We're looking for something that will give us meaning, that will validate our existence and prove that we matter.

You even see this in movies. In Chariots of Fire, one of the characters - an Olympic runner - is going for the gold in the 100-yard dash. When someone asks him why he is working so hard, he says, "I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence." He's saying, "I want to know that my life counts, that my life is worth something, that I'm worthy. And the way that I'm doing that is by winning as a runner." It gives him validation. When Rocky is about to fight Apollo Creed, he says:

'Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I'm still standin', I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood.

And this is true of us as well. Our lives are one long pursuit for the blessing. This passage shows us Jacob's quest, and it's the same as ours. We're all looking for what Jacob was looking for.

The second thing we notice is this:

2. This longing goes deeper than we think

Did you notice some of the examples that I just gave you? I just told you that we all long to prove ourselves by making something of our lives. But I just gave you three examples of people who have made it: a three-time SuperBowl champion, an accomplished director, an actor. And yet none of them found what they were looking for even after they accomplished something. They were still looking for more.

When you look at Jacob in this chapter, you see him preparing for battle. And his battle is not only for his life, but to preserve everything that he's built for himself: his family and his wealth. His mind is on the next morning when he's going to confront his brother and his army of 400 men. All the strands of Jacob's life are coming together in this one confrontation, and he has everything to lose.

But what we learn in this passage is that Jacob's battle wasn't really with Esau. He's standing alone, and a man comes to wrestle him. Jacob has no idea who this man is, but sometime during the night it begins to dawn on him: this is no man he's wrestling with. This is God himself. Jacob is in the fight of his life, except it's not with his brother like he thought. The one that he must encounter is not Esau, but God himself. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it, Jacob thinks the main problem is: "How can I be reconciled to Esau?" But the main problem really is, "How can I be reconciled to God?"

Edmund Clowney writes:

The Lord is showing Jacob that the one he must fear to encounter is not Esau, but God himself, present in his Angel. Jacob's struggle at last is not the wrestling match with Esau that began in the mother's womb. His struggle is with the Lord himself, the God of Abraham and Isaac. (Preaching Christ in All of Scripture)

And what a fight it is! Verse 24 says, "A man wrestled with him till daybreak." I remember doing some wrestling in high school. A typical wrestling match in school might last anywhere from 6 to 11 minutes if it goes into overtime. You certainly don't wrestle all night! It's exhausting. It's hard to imagine the intensity, the sheer length, of this fight.

One of the problems for us is that we have pictures of WWE wrestling in our minds. In Jacob's day, wrestling wasn't acting, and it certainly wasn't entertainment. Wrestling was one way in which a legal case could be settled. This was trial by combat. Jacob was on trial before God, and the blessing that he longed for could really only be given by God, the very one that he's wrestling with.

Again, Clowney says:

Jacob realized that this was more than mortal combat. At issue was the whole meaning of his life. The prize was the blessing that he sought; the One who struggled with him was the very Angel of the Lord - God Himself appearing as man.

You need to know that this is our situation too. The longing that we have shows up in our efforts to prove ourselves through accomplishments and relationships and work. But what we're longing for can only ultimately be met in God. Like Jacob, what we want most is something that God alone can give. But the problem is that many have not received the blessing we long for from God. In fact, Scripture tells us we're under a curse rather than a blessing. And so you see that we have a problem: what we long for the most is unavailable to us. And we meet God not in blessing but in wrestling. The thing that we long for the most is unavailable to us, and we are actually under a curse. And nothing else can fulfill the longing no matter how hard we try.

This is where the story gets interesting. We've seen through Jacob that we're all longing for the blessing. And we've also seen that the blessing we long for is something we ultimately need from God. It's not going to be met through our accomplishments, relationships, or resume. But now we see:

3. This blessing is won through weakness

Question: Who won the wrestling match? That's a trick question. In verse 25 it says, "When the man saw that he could not overpower him..." So it looks like a draw. This mysterious man could not overpower Jacob. But then in verse 26 he says, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." And Jacob replies, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." And Jacob ends up getting the blessing that he longed for. Now remember that a blessing is always verbal. Somehow this man, God himself in human form, spoke words of blessing to Jacob, words that he had always longed to hear. Incredible. So, in a very real sense, Jacob won.

But look at verse 25 again. "When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man." All it took was a touch, and Jacob limped for the rest of his life. Do you see? This was no ordinary wrestling match. When you wrestle, you always wrestle with someone in your own weight class. If you wrestle someone who is 15 pounds heavier than you are, you don't stand a chance. Jacob was wrestling with all-powerful God. The only reason he wasn't crushed was because of God's grace.

So how did Jacob prevail? Two ways: one because of God's grace. But Jacob also prevailed in weakness. This is the moment at which Jacob's life turns. All of his life, Jacob had been fighting. He'd been self-sufficient, proud, and self-reliant. He'd been the independent manager of his own life, doing everything that he could to get the blessing that he longed for, by fair means or foul. And all night he had done the same thing: he'd wrestled with God and tried to get the blessing from God on his own strength.

But now God had crippled him. He had crippled Jacob's self-sufficiency. For the first time in his life, all Jacob could do was to hold on in helplessness, clinging to the One who could crush him. He had certainly not won a wrestler's victory. He didn't pin down his opponent; in a sense he hadn't won at all.

What he said was, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." "He won when he was helpless; he had a power with God when his power was gone" (Clowney). Jacob was under great danger because daylight was coming, and nobody sees the face of God and lives. Jacob won with God when he stopped trying to win God, when he admits his name - Jacob, which means "Deceiver". Then he hears, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel ['He strives with God'] because you have struggled with God and with human beings and have overcome" (Genesis 32:28).

This is, by the way, how we still obtain God's blessing. We try to get God's blessing most of the time through our strength, by performing, by building our resume. But it's only when we get to the point at which we're brought to the point of utter weakness, in which we see our sinfulness and dependence on God, and we simply cling to him in repentance that we get the blessing.

And Jacob becomes a picture of what the Christian life is: blessed, but limping; weak and humble in ourselves, and yet dancing. The blessing that we long for from God is won through the weakness of repentance.

But lastly we see:

4. The blessing we long for was won through the weakness of the cross

In a sense, both Jacob and his opponent foreshadow Christ. The wrestler was God but didn't come against Jacob in all of his strength, or else he would have crushed him. Instead he came in humility and weakness. He withheld his power and his judgment, and in grace heard the cry of faith and gave him the blessing. Galatians 3 says that he redeemed us so that we may receive the blessing.

But Jacob also points to Christ. Jacob was given the name Israel; we learn later that Jesus is the true Israel. With Jacob, God feigned weakness so that he could give the blessing. In Jesus, God became weak so he could give us the blessing. Jacob wrestled all night; centuries later, Jesus wrestled all night in the agony of Gethsemane's garden. Jacob was smitten by God; Isaiah 53 tells us that Jesus was stricken by God, and afflicted. Jesus became the Victor because he went to the cross as the Victim. He would not let go until he had received the blessing. The weight of divine justice that would have crushed Jacob instead crushed Jesus. Jacob held on at the risk of his life to get the blessing for himself; Jesus held on at the cost of his life to obtain the blessing for us.

The blessing we long for, the blessing we desperately need, the blessing from God was won through weakness. So I pray that you would experience the blessing that comes from reaching the end of yourself, and simply clinging to God in your weakness. And I pray that you would experience the blessing that Jesus won for us through the weakness of the cross.

Father, as we come to the table, thank you that the blessing we long for is found in you. And thank you that it's not won through our strength, but it's won through the weakness of repentance. And thank you most of all that it was won through the weakness of the cross. Thank you in Jesus' name. Amen.

What It Cost (Genesis 22)

Today we come to one of the greatest pieces of ancient literature. It's beautifully written and intensely moving. As part of my preparations, I listened to a sermon on this passage. Before the sermon, the person who read the Scripture did so with tears. It's almost impossible to read this passage without getting caught in the emotional intensity of what's happening.

But it's also one of the most disturbing passages in all of Scripture. It's puzzling and its infuriating, and throughout the ages all kinds of people have wrestled with it. A friend of mine preached on this passage recently, and he said, "If we aren't a bit undone by the story of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, I wonder how carefully we've read it." This is a story that really does undo us.

It's almost impossible to imagine how God could ask Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering. It's unfathomable. It's also mind-boggling to understand how Abraham could respond in obedience. Thinkers like Kierkegaard think that the killing of Isaac would have been ethically wrong but religiously right. He wrote, "When I have to think about Abraham, I am as though annihilated." That's the effect that this story has on us. It tears us apart.

Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel argues that God was wrong for asking, and that Abraham was wrong for agreeing. Philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that Abraham should have cried in outrage to this "supposedly divine voice" that commanded the "butchering and burning of his son." Leonard Sweet argues that Abraham failed the relationship test. He says that Abraham should have gone to the mountain as God commanded, but he should have pleaded and argued with God every step of the way.

This passage brings us to a crisis. How can God ask for such a thing? What exactly is this passage trying to teach us? How can what God asked for in this passage be considered moral? A number of people have said that we're not meant to read Scripture as much as Scripture is supposed to read us, and I don't know many passages that do a better job of reading us and really confronting us at the deepest possible level with all kinds of important questions.

And so today I want to look at two dimensions of the story. I want to ask first what this passage teaches us about ourselves, and secondly, what it teaches us about God. So the first question I want to ask is what this passage teaches us about ourselves.

Abraham's Test

On the human level, this passage presents us with a test or an evaluation. It's hard not to see that this an important part of what's happening in this passage. The writer even signals this to us in verse 1: "Some time later God tested Abraham." This means that the real question in this story is not what is going to happen to Isaac; the real question is what is going to happen with Abraham. The real question, on a human level, is how Abraham is going to respond to this test, and by extension, how we will respond to the same test as well.

Now Abraham had already passed a test. God had already asked Abraham to leave his country, people, and father's household (Genesis 12:1), and Abraham left without questioning. But now Abraham faced an even greater test. God had promised that Abraham would have a son, and that through this son Abraham would become the father of kings and nations. And at the age of 100, this son was born. He was more than a son. He was also the embodiment of all of God's promises to Abraham. He was everything.

This makes God's command unthinkable. In Genesis 22:2 God says to Abraham, "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."

This is beyond comprehension. Isaac is the son that had been promised by God. He's also Abraham's only son, the son, God says, that Abraham loves. And God now asks Abraham, against all reason, to destroy with his own hands the promise that had been fulfilled. They go on a three day journey. I can't picture what it would have been like. Did Abraham tell Sarah before he left? What did he think every night of that journey as he lay down to sleep? "No more fiery crucible for faith can be imagined" (Edmund Clowney). The command of God and the promise of God came into conflict, and it was impossible to make sense of God's request.

It's important to pause here and highlight a few things that are easy to miss. Sometimes people think that this is a passage that reflects the primitive nature of people at this time. What's easy to miss is that this command would have been as unthinkable and shocking to Abraham and to the people of the Old Testament as it is to us. It's shocking to us, and you have to know that it would have been even more shocking to Abraham who faced this request.

You also need to understand something else. Kierkegaard saw this as a divine command to commit murder. It certainly looks like this to us. But it's called a burnt offering, and it's the firstborn. Edmund Clowney writes, "God was not commanding Abraham to commit a crime but to execute a judgment that was justly due."

Burnt offerings involved cutting up and burning the whole animal on the altar. This type of offering had two ideas: first, offering oneself completely to God with nothing held back; and secondly, that the sacrifice in some way atones for sin. So this sacrifice means that Abraham is holding nothing back from God, but is giving God everything; and that sin demands justice. Sin demands justice. If anything, this passage reminds us of the horror of sin.

Isaac is also the firstborn. The Bible teaches that the firstborn uniquely belongs to God. God said in Exodus 13:2, "Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal." God said, later, "You must give me the firstborn of your sons" (Exodus 22:29). So Isaac belonged to God, and God alone had the right to decide what to do with him. God has every right to condemn sinners to death. God alone has this right.

So we see that God was just in making this request; that God owns the firstborn and can do as he pleases. We also know how things turned out. But none of these can save us from confronting a horrible and terrifying question. Nothing can keep us from facing the same test that Abraham faced, a test that stretches us to the point of breaking. Are you prepared to love God completely and unconditionally? Do you have any emotional attachments that are off the table? Does God have access to what you love most? Is there anyone or anything that you love, that if God asked you for, you would say "No"?

The issue is really one of idolatry. If we love anyone or anything more than God, we're idolators. Our problem is that we make good things - our marriages, our children, our jobs - into ultimate things. They become idols in our lives. This leads to all kinds of problems: we end up trying to find our ultimate hope and fulfillment outside of God. We put a weight on these things that they cannot bear. As one of my friends says:

Nothing will destroy children quite like turning them into idols...If Abraham had not been willing to destroy Isaac, he would have destroyed Isaac. In losing his son, he found him. . . Had not Abraham placed Isaac on Yahweh's altar, he would have killed him on Abraham's altar. (Chris Brauns)

It's really important to see this. Abraham would not have saved Isaac's life by sparing him. Whatever we love more than God we turn into an idol, and whatever we turn into an idol destroys us, and we often destroy the idol as well. As Tim Keller writes:

If you center your life and identity on your spouse or partner, you will be emotionally dependent, jealous, and controlling. The other person's problems will be overwhelming to you.

If you center your life and identity on your family and children, you will try to live your life through your children until they resent you or have no self of their own. At worst, you may abuse them when they displease you.

And so on. We can make idols of our work and career, money and possessions, pleasure, relationships, approval - even religion and morality. Jesus said that if we love anything - including our children, including life itself - more than we love him, we're not fit to be his disciples (Luke 14:26)

The test for us this morning is a test that will also push you to the point of breaking if you answer it honestly. Who or what do you love God most? What do you withhold from God? Whatever that is is your idol. "Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us" (Keller).

This is the test that we faced. Abraham faced the test, and he passed. Hebrews tells us that "Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead" (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham knew that everything belonged to God, and that therefore he could hold nothing back. He must give all that God asks. And he trusted that God would somehow provide what he needed.

Do you think that if you love God more than what you love most, you'll lose it? C.S. Lewis said:

When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. Insofar as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.

When we love God first, our enjoyment of secondary things actually increases. But if we love secondary things more than God, we lose both God and the secondary thing. This is the test Abraham faced with Isaac, and it's the test that you and I face this morning as well.

But if we stopped here, we'd see only one dimension of the story, the horizontal dimension. We'd miss the vertical dimension. In fact, we'd miss not only the main message of this passage, but the main message of Christianity.

Provision at Mount Moriah

When Isaac said to Abraham, "The fire and wood are here but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son" (Genesis 22:7-8). And when Abraham was about to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, God provided a ram as a substitute. Verse 14 says, "So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, 'On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.'"

It's here that we discover the real heart of the story. This isn't just a story about who Abraham loves most. This is a story that teaches us something about God. What can this possibly teach us about God?

If you look at verse 2, you discover that these events took place on the mountains of Moriah. Where are the mountains of Moriah? 2 Chronicles 3:1 tells us, "Then Solomon began to build the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah." The place where God provided a ram for a burnt offering was Jerusalem, where the temple would later be built.

So when verse 14 says, "To this day it is said, 'On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided," it is telling us about far more than Abraham. It is telling us that God provides the sacrifice necessary to atone for sin. Isaac's question, "Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" is the age-old question. Where is the sacrifice that can atone for our sins?

God did not summon Abraham to Mount Moriah only to test him. He was also showing Abraham what it cost God when he sent his own Son up that same mountain for our sakes. Jesus said in John 8 that Abraham "rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56).

Edmund Clowney says:

Abraham was shown Christ's day; he was taken to the very area where the Temple would later stand, to the very mount where the cross of Calvary would be erected...The Heavenly Father led His Beloved up the hill to Golgotha. When the Son, who was always pleasing to the Father, cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" the Father paid the price in His silence. (The Unfolding Mystery)

The Apostle Paul ties the stories of Abraham and Isaac to the Father and Son at Calvary when he wrote, "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32).

Why do we have this story? Tim Keller said, "We have this story...so that we have some true human understanding of what the Father did with the Son."

The angel said to Abraham, "Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son" (Genesis 22:12). As we look at Calvary, we can say to the Father, "Now we know that you love us, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

How do we know God loves us? How can we be free from turning good things into ultimate things, from worshiping and being enslaved by secondary things? How can you know he loves you like that?

By seeing that Abraham and Isaac going up the mountain is a picture of the price that the Father paid at Calvary. When we see it and really get it, then we'll understand the Father's love for us, and we'll be changed through the power of the Spirit to pass the test along with Abraham.

Father, thank you for this amazing story. It's impossible not to be moved as we read it. For those of us who cling tightly to the people and things we love, use this story to show us our idols, so that we can loosen our grip and worship you alone.

But thank you that this is not just a story about our idols. Thank you that through Abraham and Isaac we see the price you paid to save us. You led your beloved Son up the same hill as Abraham, and you placed your Son on the wood. But while Isaac was spared, your son was not. There was nobody to take his place.

May this story give us a human understanding of the face that you did not spare your own Son, but gave him up for us all. And then may we say, "Now we know you love us!" And may this love change us through the power of the Spirit. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Suppose There is One (Genesis 18:16-33)

Today we're going to look at one of the big problems of this world. You may think that the biggest problem that we face is cancer or poverty or war. Those are big problems. One of my friends once told me that he thought there are three great problems in the world: war, cancer, and parking.

I'm not sure if you've ever thought of what we're going to talk about today as a problem, but believe me: it is. It's my job to show to you why it's a problem, and then to look at the passage today to see what can be done about it.

The Problem

So here's the problem. There are two character qualities of God that seem to be in conflict with each other. This is a huge problem, because both qualities are essential to God's nature.

The first characteristic is that God is a gracious God. I love this about God, don't you? This is the part of God that we are comfortable with.

The Bible tells us that God rescued Israel from bondage in Egypt, the most totalitarian and powerful world power in the world at that time. With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God delivered them. You'd think that Israel would be completely devoted to the Lord. Yet we read that while God was appearing to Moses, giving him a covenant that would bind him to this people, Israel was committing idolatry.

You would expect God to wipe them out or say that he's had enough. But amazingly, God instead asked Moses to bring him new tablets to replace the ones that Moses had broken in anger, so that we could write the covenant terms over again. It's a renewal of the covenant terms with a people who really didn't deserve it. And in one of the most moving scenes in all of Scripture, God appears to Moses:

Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Exodus 34:5-7)

Aren't you glad that God is gracious? Can you imagine if God treated us as we deserved after we had failed him? God is the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin.

So that's the first characteristic of God: he's gracious. There's another characteristic of God that seems to be in conflict with his grace, however.

The second characteristic of God is that he is a just God. I told you how God responded to Israel when they made the golden calf: he revealed his grace. But his first response was different. When Israel committed idolatry by making a golden calf, God said to Moses, "I have seen these people and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them" (Exodus 32:9-10). You read this and say, "What happened to God's grace?" God would have been just to destroy Israel. But how can God be just and gracious at the same time?

Even when God reveals himself to Moses, and says that he is gracious and compassionate, he also says: "Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation" (Exodus 34:7). God reveals himself to Moses and says essentially two things: that he is gracious and that he is just. He says that he is just and must deal with sin justly, and at the same time that he treats us with grace and compassion.

All throughout Scripture we see God's justice. We read of how God wipes out all people except for Noah and his family so he can start again. Near the end of his life, Moses says, "Remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the LORD your God in the wilderness...you aroused the LORD's wrath so that he was angry enough to destroy you" (Deuteronomy 9:7-8). How do you feel talking about God's anger? An anger that is so aroused that God is angry enough to destroy his people?

The prophet Malachi spoke of the day of God's judgment: "But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire..." (Malachi 3:2). God is a God who cannot just overlook sin. He must judge it. God is angry at sin, and he cannot leave the guilty unpunished.

Wrong Attempts at Solving the Problem

I know that this is a problem that many of us have never even considered, but it's a real problem. You may have actually tried to resolve this problem. People do this in two ways, generally.

Some people try to solve this problem by making a distinction between the Old Testament God and the New Testament God. They say that the Old Testament God was a God of justice, and the New Testament God is a God of love. It's almost like in the Old Testament, God was grumpy, as if he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, but he somehow is in a better mood now.

This is a popular view, but it's dead wrong for a few reasons. God doesn't change. Besides, in the Old Testament, God says that he is the "compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin." You see God's grace written on every page of the Hebrew Scriptures. And in the New Testament, you see God's justice. Jesus said, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them" (John 3:36). That was Jesus! The apostle Paul writes, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness" (Romans 1:18).

God didn't somehow change into a different God in the New Testament. God is both just and gracious in both the Old and New Testament. There's no difference. So saying that God changed somehow just doesn't cut it.

I suppose the other way that people handle this is to think that God somehow sets aside his justice for a minute. A lot of people think this. They think that God says to himself, "Well, how should I react? Should I be just or gracious in this case?" And then he weighs all the factors, and sometimes he comes down on the side of justice, and sometimes he comes down on the side of grace.

I get why people think this, because that's how it appears to us. There are times that we discipline our kids that we seem to have to choose between grace and justice. Sometimes we let them off without giving them what they deserve, and other times they have to face the consequences of what they have done.

But when you think about this, this approach also fails. The reason is because God can never set aside his justice without being unjust. Justice is essential to who God is, so God cannot temporarily suspend his justice.

You see, wrath is not God blowing his top. God is not angry despite his love but because of it. Becky Pippert writes:

We tend to be taken aback by the thought that God could be angry. How can a deity who is perfect and loving ever be angry? Just look at us - we manage to be very understanding and accepting of our flaws. We take pride in our tolerance of the excesses of others. So what is God's problem?

But then Pippert helps us understand: "God's anger issues from the intensity and depth of his love for us, as well as the height of his moral perfection and his outrage against evil." It's like loving people who are drug addicts. You love them, and yet you see what the drugs are doing to them, and you feel anger, even fury. She writes, "I wasn't angry because I hated them. I was angry because I cared...Real love stands against the deception, the lie, the sin that destroys." If we feel this as we see sin destroying people around us, how much more does God who made them?

Not only this, but it is right to be outraged by evil. A few weeks ago, Chris Brown allegedly attacked a woman. Some press reports suggest it has his girlfriend, Rihanna. A photo was released showing the woman after the attack. Her eyes are closed, and there are visible contusions on her forehead, cheeks and mouth. People who have seen the pictures have reacted with outrage and anger, and this is right. There is no adequate way to respond to this sort of attack without expressing anger against the injustice.

Almost a year ago, security cameras caught the killing of an 18-year-old man in Toronto. Police said the victim was an innocent man with no ties to gangs. A pair was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. You can actually watch the murder on video that was released by police. But this week, the charges were withdrawn, and the alleged killers walked free. The news story I read ends with this: "Outside court this morning, friends of the victim's family expressed outrage and disgust over the withdrawal of the charges." You can't help feel anger that justice will probably never be served by the courts after the murder of an innocent man.

If we feel outrage at injustice, how much more is this true for a perfect and holy God? Again, Pippert writes that God can't just play fast and loose and say, "Oh, never mind. Boys will be boys."

Try telling that to a surviver of the Cambodian "killing fields" or to someone who lost an entire family in the Holocaust!

No. To be truly good one has to be outraged by evil and utterly and implacably hostile to injustice. No one can call themselves good and have an iota of indifference to evil of any sort. (Hope Has Its Reasons)

So we have a God who cannot be anything but just. It's not like God changes in the New Testament, and it's not like God can temporarily suspend his justice. It's right for him to be angry with sin, both because of what it does to us and because it calls for outrage.

This brings us back to our problem, then. In human terms, there is no conceivable way for God to be both just and gracious at the same time. Nor would we want either one to change. If God ceased to be just, then he would also have to stop hating the things that destroy us. Not only that, but then there would be no ultimate justice in this world. Knowing that God is just enables us to deal with injustice, because we know that ultimately there is no injustice, because everyone will have to answer to God. It is inconceivable that God should cease to be just.

But if God is not gracious, then we are all in a whole lot of trouble. If God is only just, then nobody stands a chance. We all deserve God's wrath. If God is not gracious, we're all in a trouble.

How can God be both just and gracious at the same time? It appears to be an unsolvable problem - except Abraham in today's passage finds a way through.

The Solution to the Problem

In the passage that we read this morning, Abraham understands this dilemma, this seemingly unsolvable problem. Abraham knows that God is a God of justice. When Abraham went to Egypt with his wife, he told people that Sarah, his wife, was really his sister. Pharaoh took Sarah into his household, not knowing that he was taking Abraham's wife. He didn't even know that what he was doing was wrong. We read, "the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram's wife Sarai" (Genesis 12:17). That's how God responds in justice when someone does wrong out of ignorance. How is he going to react when it's willful? Abraham knew about God's justice.

Abraham also knew about God's grace. God told Abraham that it was his intention to bless the entire earth through Abraham. Not only that, but God had already reacted to Abraham's failures with grace. Abraham had already messed up severely at least twice, but God had responded with grace.

So when God tells Abraham that he is about to investigate the injustice in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham knows that justice is necessary. They're places of great wickedness, full of injustice and oppression. They're inhospitable places where you can't even visit without being concerned for your safety. What was so bad about them?The prophet Ezekiel wrote years later:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

So Abraham knows there is going to be trouble for these cities. Justice demands that God respond in judgment.

But Abraham also wants God's grace. At first glance, it just looks like Abraham is only looking out for his nephew Lot. But there's more to it than that. Abraham is about to boldly intercede on behalf of the cities before God. If Abraham wanted to get Lot and his family out, it would have been much easier. He would have just said, "Go ahead and destroy the cities, but could you at least save the life of my nephew and his family?" Instead, Abraham pleads on behalf of both cities.

What you see Abraham doing is pleading with God on the basis of theology. He bases his argument on God's justice:

Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing--to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right? (Genesis 18:23-25)

You see what he's doing here? He's pleading with God for grace on the basis of God's justice. It's brilliant. Because God is just, Abraham says, can the record of the righteous few not be enough to save the entire city?

Abraham got that guilt can be shared by everyone. You and I know this. If someone in our family goes off the tracks, we all feel responsible. We all carry the weight and ask ourselves what we could have been differently. But Abraham switches it. He asks God if the righteousness of a few is not enough to save the many, and amazingly, God says yes. The wicked can be saved by the righteousness of the few. And Abraham bargains him down from 50 to 45 to 40 to 30 to 20 and finally to 10. If there are 10 righteous people, then the many will be saved.

And in one of the most astonishing developments, it's left at 10, and Abraham goes home, and Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. Why? Why does Abraham stop where he does? We don't know for sure, but it seems that Abraham might have recognized that there weren't enough righteous people in the cities to save them.

But don't miss what Abraham did. Abraham solved the unsolvable problem. He found a way through. Abraham discovered a way that God could be both just and gracious at the same time: that based on God's justice in recognizing the righteousness of a few, he could extend grace to those who deserved only judgment.

What Abraham didn't say is this: Suppose there is one righteous man. Suppose there is one who is so righteous that his record is enough to save the many who are wicked? And in one of the most incredible acts of both justice and grace, there was one righteous person who came to earth. And God essentially said, for the sake of this one I will not destroy the wicked.

Justice demands that sin be dealt with. The wages of sin is death, and the wages must be paid. God would not be just if the penalty is not paid. But Jesus, God's own Son, willingly choose to come to earth to pay that penalty himself. For all who trust him, he takes all their sins, and he offers all of his righteousness. The righteousness of one is enough to save the wickedness of many. And on the basis of God's justice, he cannot demand payment for sin twice.

Abraham found a way to solve this unsolvable problem, but he couldn't get all the way there. But Jesus did. And at the cross, God's perfect justice and his amazing grace met, and both were fully satisfied. God's justice and grace meet in one righteous person.

So Father, we thank you for this amazing grace. We thank you that Jesus taught that all Scripture is about him. And in this passage we so clearly see our predicament: that we deserve your wrath but need your grace.

And we thank you that through Jesus this problem has been solved. Perfect justice has been done, and undeserving sinners receive your grace. May you bring us to the cross, and may we live as people who have been saved through the righteousness of one person. In Jesus' name, Amen.