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February 26, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

Lent 1

Nationwide Insurance offers their customers something they call Vanishing Deductible.  With the vanishing deductible they allow you to knock a hundred dollars off your deductible for every year of safe driving.  Perhaps you have seen their commercials.  There are several of them. The one that is likely the most familiar has their pitch man sitting on a park bench with a woman.  There is a large boulder hanging over their heads.  The pitch man describes the policy – the longer you go without having an accident the smaller your deductible becomes.  While he is talking, the boulder shrinks down to the size of a pebble and drops into his hands.  The two smile, look at the camera and then they sing the nationwide jingle together.
Vanishing Deductible – a clever idea that makes sense.  It rewards the best drivers for their good driving and encourages bad drivers to do better. A perfect little incentive program for Nationwide customers.
We like incentive programs.  People appreciate them in their insurance company – after all, I am sure that’s why Nationwide does it.  Employers use them to get their employees to perform better, to sell more, to be more productive.  Our kids respond to them, so we use them at home to get them to do their homework or to clean up their rooms.  The better you behave, the greater your reward.  Sounds a lot like how we view our religion.
Now, deep down we know that we are saved by grace through faith.  But that doesn’t stop us from believing that God owes us a reward somewhere along the way.  Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad.” And he identified that as “his religion.”  I think that whether we like to admit it or not, that is our religion too.  We want to be rewarded with good when we do good.  We will acknowledge that we deserve bad when we do bad.  So then how do you explain Abraham?
Hebrews 11 identified Abraham as a hero of faith.  He believed God and responded to His promised by leaving his family and moving to some distant and unknown land.  Genesis tells us that Abraham believed God (Genesis 15:6)  Paul the apostle quotes this verse twice, once in Galatians (Galatians 3:6) and in Romans (Romans 4:3)  And so God gave to Abraham a promise.  Abraham was an old man – 75 years of age and God promised him that he would have a son, and that he would be the father of a great nation, with descendants that number as the stars in the sky.  Most 75 year old men would probably think this was insane but God kept his promise – 25 years later.  Abraham became the father of the promise at the ripe old age of 100 years old.
So, did Abraham receive a reward as incentive for good behavior?  Did his boulder shrink and become a pebble?  No.  Not if you read our text.  In fact, Abraham’s boulder – his burden seemed to get bigger, to get heavier and harder to carry.  We are told that the Lord decided to tempt Abraham.  And it all had to do with that promise.
God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation.  The Lord had fulfilled that promise – Sarah his wife gave birth to a boy, they named him Isaac.  But then God deliberately contradicted that promise.  God threatened to take away that promise by threatening to take away his son, Isaac.
Has something like that ever happened to you?  You are God’s people.  You have received his promise.  All of the promises of the scriptures are opened up before you, every last one is your inheritance.  But does it seem as though at times God has taken them back?
Consider the promise from Psalm 91.
Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place— the Most High, who is my refuge — 10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. 11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. 12 On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. 13 You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot. 14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. 15 When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble. (Psalm 91:9-15)
These verses are a promise from God – angels who lift you up so that you don’t strike your foot against a stone – we might be more inclined to say “stub your toe”.  I don’t know about you, but there are times when my toe throbs.
But maybe it’s not your toe.  Maybe it’s your liver, or pancreas, or gallbladder.  There’s an infection, gall stones, cancer.  Or maybe it’s not an internal organ that hurts.  Maybe it’s your hip, your pocket – where you keep your wallet.  A series of events occur that makes your wallet lite and your “vanishing” deductible starts to grow.  Maybe it’s not just one boulder. Maybe its an entire avalanche of boulders.
So… how about it?  Has God taken away his promises?
I guess it all depends on who you ask.  The devil would say yes.  The devil wants you to believe the definitely he has.  The circumstance happens.  You are trying hard to figure out why and how and Satan steps is to fill in all the details.  “It’s you.” He says.  “It’s all your fault.  You thought you were doing good, but you weren’t.  You went and messed everything up and now God is mad at you.”  And so you feel guilt.  Despair.  Hopelessness sets in.  And the devil loves it.
The other thing the Devil would have you believe is that God is just plain lying.  God said he was good.  God said he was protecting you.  He wasn’t.  He never intended to.  This is blasphemy.  It says that God’s word is not true and that we cannot trust him.
Either one is dangerous.  Either one can be spiritually fatal – and the devil knows this.  When we blaspheme God and call him a liar we give up on our faith – we decide that God is not good and that there is no point.  Despair is just as dangerous.  We assume that God is angry, there is no appeasing that anger and therefore there is no hope.  Blasphemy, there’s no point. or despair, there’s no hope.  It is the devils strategy to use both to remove from us our faith.
But the devil is not the only one at work.  You see, the Devil does not control these things.  If he could the devil would attack us all the time.  But he does not.  Why?  Because he can’t.  The devil is restrained and held back by God.  The devil can only attack us when he has God’s permission.  Luther reminds us that a devil he is, but his is God’s devil.  And God uses the devil for our good.
Job was a man of God who was tested and tempted to despair.  But Job believed God. “   For I know that my Redeemer lives,” says Job, “and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25-27 ESV)
God records this event from the life of Abraham for us for our encouragement.  Here we see Abraham and his faith and his righteousness and we see that the Lord tested him.  And in spite of this testing the Lord was still faithful.  He did not withdraw his promise, far from it.  And neither has God withdrawn his promise from us.  God remains faithful and true and we can trust him fully and completely and know for certain that he will care for us.
You see it is God’s will that we know and understand that our salvation comes purely and entirely by God’s grace and by his mercy.  Our joy can only be complete when we trust God alone to care for us.  But we  are so tempted to put our confidence in our own righteousness.  We are so tempted to believe that God will work with us through an incentive program.  And so we put our trust in ourselves or in the things and people that adorn our lives.  These things take the place of the Lord.  He wants us to see how weak these things are.  Our relationships, our possessions, our own power and knowledge.  These things can’t save us.  But so often we trust them to be our hope and our consolation.  God tests us and in this testing he helps us see just how weak these things are.  In the end, we have greater joy in him.
We also see and can be encouraged by Abraham’s response of faith.  Abraham believed God.  He placed his hope and his trust in God.  Even when God tested him and even when God’s command contradicted God’s promise Abraham still believed and he still obeyed.
“God said he would give me a son.  I have Isaac.  God has said he will make me into a great nation.  He will.  God has said I should sacrifice my son.  I will obey.  Because God is faithful and he keeps his promises.  When I was old he gave me this child.  He created life out of the dead womb of my wife.  God has kept his promise to me in the past, he will do it again.  Even though I do not understand, yet I will believe.”
We can see this faith in the words Abraham spoke.  “I and the boy will go over to worship and we shall return.”  “The Lord will provide for himself the lamb of sacrifice.”  In spite of the contradiction, Abraham believed God.
Finally, through our suffering we are taught to see Jesus.  When we believe God and receive his righteousness we suffer, but this suffering is not unlike that of our Lord.
In our gospel text Satan carried Jesus away to the top of the temple and urged him to jump.  “God has promised to bear you up so that you won’t strike your foot on a stone.  How about it? Jump.  See what happens.  See if God’s angels come.  God gave a promise; let’s see if he really meant it.”
But Jesus didn’t budge.  Jesus was tempted with the same temptations we face.  The temptation to call God out, to see if he will really keep his promises, the temptation to call God a liar.  Jesus was tempted with the same blasphemy Satan uses against us.  “Jesus, Shouldn’t God’s deductible vanish?  Shouldn’t God increase your power to match your righteousness.  Jesus look at how good you are!  God could make you fly!”  Jesus put that temptation to rest. “It is written you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”  Jesus withstood the temptation for us.
Luther says that nearly all people are tempted by despair, and the godlier they are, the more frequently they are attacked with this weapon of Satan. Almost reverse the equation doesn’t it?  Imagine the size of the boulder over Jesus head!  Yet not once did he give in.  And then for our sake, when that boulder fell, when that mountain dropped on his head Jesus was crushed beneath its weight.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.  (Isaiah 53:5 ESV)
When you find yourself suffering, broken or injured, remember Jesus.  Remember his suffering.  Remember what he has done for you.  You are baptized.  You have been preserved for heaven and this promise will not lie.
Times of suffering and temptation come in the life of every Christian.  It happened to Abraham, it happened to Jesus. It happened to all of the apostles.  It will happen to you.  This does not mean that you are alone.  This does not mean that God has abandoned you or that he has abandoned his words of promise.  He has kept them before.  He will keep each and every one of them now.  You will receive the blessing that is promised.  So don’t lose hope.  Don’t despair.  Know your God.  Trust your God.
I leave you with these words from Isaiah.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.

(Isaiah 40:28-31 ESV)

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