By Paul Koch –
Sometimes being a pastor is one of the most joyful and rewarding things I have ever done. In fact, quite often it is hard to imagine doing anything else. My dad always encouraged my brothers and me to find work that we love. I must say I truly love my job. I get to spend my days studying the Word of God and then I get to stand before you and tell you all about it. If you think about it, I am a professional proclaimer of forgiveness. I get to baptize little babies and hand over the gifts of God in, with, and under the bread and wine. I have spoken the words of life to the dying and given hope to the brokenhearted. At times, in fact most of the time, I can’t imagine a better job than being a parish pastor.
But it isn’t always joyful and rewarding. In fact there are times when I want to just curl up in a safe little ball and stay in bed. Sometimes the brokenness and pain of our world seem to be too much. There are too many times when I stand by, helpless, as sickness and disease attacks those we know, love, and need in our lives. There are too many times when suicide has robbed us of joy and left us confused. There are too many times when financial catastrophe strikes and our assurance is stripped away. There are too many times when wave after wave of pain and hardship come crashing upon the children of God, and I know what they are going to ask. I know what they want from me. So, I bury deep in bed not wanting to face them because they are going to ask, “Why?”
“Why is this happening to me? Why does God allow this? Why won’t He stop my pain? Why won’t He relent, at least to let me catch my breath?” I see the pain in their eyes and I see their exhaustion, but I don’t know how to answer. For what would you say? What would you offer them when from every external marker the answer seems to be that God is not on their side?
There is an incredibly powerful movie based on a play called “God On Trial” that was released back in 2008. It takes place in Auschwitz during World War II. The Jewish prisoners hold a trial where they seek to answer this question: has God broken his covenant with them by allowing the Nazis to commit genocide? They actually carry out the trial; they call witnesses and hear from expert testimonies. Slowly they come to a terrifying notion that perhaps God is not on their side. When the guards come for the next group of prisoners to be taken to the showers, panic descends on one of the younger men. He has no God and no way out; so he asks, “What do we do now?” What do we do if God is against us? Where do we run? To whom can we turn?
God had promised Abraham that he would have a son. In fact, He promised Abraham that his offspring we be more numerous than the stars in the sky. But it wasn’t a simple blessing. He was old and so was his wife. For a while, he thought he would have to leave everything to his servant because he had no heir. But God said no; you will have a son. Then his wife offered her servant to Abraham, so that he might have a son. In this way Ishmael was born. But still God said no; your wife will give birth to a son. Finally, at 100 years old Abraham had a son. His wife, Sarah, gave birth to Isaac and Abraham’s joy was complete. Oh, how he must have sang the praises of his Creator! He had fulfilled His promise. He had continued the lineage of Abraham. But his song of praise would not go on, uninterrupted.
God calls to his servant, “Abraham!” And he says, “Here am I.” “Take your son” God says, “your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.” God who had given this son, this blessing to Abraham, now says that He wants him back. You get a good sense of how tragic this request is. He doesn’t just say, “Take your son.” No, He says, “Take your only son, the one you love, Isaac, and offer him to me as a sacrifice.” God seems to have turned from His blessing of Abraham. God seems to stand now in opposition to Him and all that He loves. The crazy part is that Abraham actually goes. Talk about wanting to just curl up and hide in bed, how do you think he explained to his wife why he was taking Isaac on a trip to Moriah?
But he goes, and he seems to go with confidence. How does he do that? What does he trust in when God seems to stand against him? For that matter, where is the hope for the one who is beat down and dealing with great loss? Where is the hope for the mother who loses a child? Where is the hope for the child who loses a father? Where is the hope for Abraham as he loads the back of his son with wood for a burnt offering, takes the knife and fire with him, and heads up the mountain?
The truth is, there is a side of our God that we cannot fully know. It is the part of Him that is hidden from our view, hidden from our understanding, hidden from our comprehension. It is the God that allows the tragedy in our lives. It is the God that is silent when we plead for His voice. It is the God who calls Abraham to sacrifice his own son. This is the God that we find masked in the commands of the Law. This is the God that demands justice and perfection, or else face condemnation. From this God there is only one response. We run. We flee from Him, for there is only majesty and power and fear in the unknown God. But where do we run?
We follow the lead of Abraham. He turns from the God that demands the sacrifice of his son and holds on to the God who promised him that his offspring would be more numerous than the stars of the sky. As strange as it may sound, he runs from God to God. He runs from the hidden majesty of an unknown God to the God who has made himself known in love and grace. We might say that he runs from the Law to the Gospel. On the way up the mountain Isaac asks him, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham faithfully responds, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So he goes all the way. He ties up his son, lays him on the altar, and takes a hold of the knife. You can imagine his heart screaming out to God, to be true to His word and faithful to His promise, and spare Isaac.
And then at the last moment, the Angel of the Lord stays his hand. God’s merciful voice breaks into that awful situation and commands him to stop! There behind Abraham, caught in a thicket, is a ram. The ram is offered as a substitute for Isaac. Abraham calls the name of that place, “The Lord will provide,” just as Abraham believed He would do. St. Paul says, in his letter to the Romans, that Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. Abraham was justified by faith in the words of God’s promise. Despite what everything else seemed like, despite the improbability of it all, he believed what God had promised.
It is this promise, this God of hope and mercy, that gets me out of my safe hiding place in the face of suffering and tragedy. I don’t know why God allows these things. I don’t know why today it seems as if God stands against you. I don’t have a great answer to your hurt and pain, but I know where we can run to. We can run from the condemnation, from the hurt and the pain, to the God who has come in love and mercy. We can run to the one who himself paid the price on our behalf. We can fall at the feet of the one who bore our sin and died upon that cross. We can cling to the words that have been spoken to you in the face of all that is wrong in this world.
We run to the God that washed you in the waters of Holy Baptism, the God that calls you His own dear children. This is the God that says, without hesitation, you are forgiven and never forgotten. Whatever unknown terrors wait for us, whatever suffering may come, whatever mountain you may find yourself climbing, those promises still hold. So continue to run with me. Run to the God of mercy and salvation, to Christ our Lord.