Covenant Through Testing
Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 1:9–15
The First Sunday in Lent
February 21, 2021
“Covenant Through Testing”
Our theme for preaching on Sundays in this Lenten season is entitled “People of the Covenant,” drawing upon both Old Testament and Gospel lessons appointed for each week. This is a time for us to look deeper into the role of covenant in the Old Testament between God and his people, and that new covenant of forgiveness, life, and salvation that has been sealed with the blood of Jesus. Today we focus on the testing of Abraham as God calls him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac that we hear about in the Old Testament lesson (Genesis 22:1-18) and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness that we hear about in the Gospel lesson (Mark 1:9-15). The theme for preaching today is “Covenant Through Testing.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
By way of review from Ash Wednesday, a covenant defines how two parties will be in relationship with one another. Covenant is an incredibly rich word in Scripture, and figures heavily into the story of salvation in both Old Testament (בְּרִית) as well as New Testament (διαθήκη). Covenant is about how God calls us to be in relationship with him and with one another, and it has been sealed with the blood of Jesus. First of all, there is a difference between being tested and being tempted. The two are not the same. To be tested is to determine what you know; your skill level; how you will respond. The goal of testing is to strengthen and build up. The goal of being tempted is the opposite. The purpose of temptation is to weaken, undermine and destroy. We see examples of both testing and tempting in today’s Scripture readings. When God called Abraham to offer his only son, Isaac, as a burnt offering, we find that abhorrent. This seems totally the opposite of everything we know about God. How could God, the Author and Giver of life, ask Abraham to sacrifice his own son? We read this: “After these things God tested [ נִסָּ֖ה ] Abraham…” (Genesis 22:1a). God was testing Abraham’s covenant faith by asking him to do the unthinkable, not to undermine or destroy Abraham’s covenant faith, but to strengthen and build it up. In full obedience, Abraham responded without question and was prepared to do what God had said. As hard as this is for us to understand, Abraham’s obedience of faith “did extend even to the sacrifice of his own beloved son. The sacrifice was already accomplished in his heart, and he had fully satisfied the requirements of God” (Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes – Volume 1, The Pentateuch, by Keil and Delitzsch. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprinted 1986; p. 250). And so after testing, God’s covenant with Abraham is reaffirmed as the Lord God speaks: “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:16-18). The life of Isaac was spared, but there would be another only Son whose life would not be spared. That only Son, like Isaac, would carry the wood of his own sacrifice. That other only Son is Jesus, whose blood was shed on the cross for us all.
The Gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Lent is the same each year: the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. This year, we hear from Mark’s Gospel, which is a stripped down, bare bones version of what we hear in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 4:1-11) as well as Luke’s Gospel (Luke 4:1-13). Mark doesn’t record the temptations themselves like Matthew and Luke do as Satan tells Jesus to command stones to become bread because he is hungry; throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple because God will rescue him; and fall down and worship Satan. None of that in Mark. It’s all reduced to just two verses: the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness where he was for forty days being tempted by Satan; that Jesus was with the wild animals, and that angels ministered to him. Unique to Mark is that Jesus was with the wild animals. So what does that mean? It means that “Jesus confronts the horror, the loneliness and the danger with which the wilderness is fraught when he meets the wild beasts. Their affinity in this context is not with paradise, but with the realm of Satan” (The Gospel According to Mark, by William L. Lane. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974; p. 61). Jesus’ time in the wilderness reflects Moses’ time on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:18) and Elijah’s wandering through the wilderness to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8, 15). It is this 40-day period that is the origin of our own 40-day Lenten season. Both Matthew and Luke record that after this 40-day time of being tempted, Satan left Jesus. Mark says nothing about that, and from this we are to understand that Satan never left Jesus, but was constantly tempting him. Mark would have us understand that Jesus’ entire ministry – from his baptism to his death – was one continuous and unending temptation. We are told that immediately (ευθύς – used some forty times in Mark’s Gospel) after his baptism, Jesus began to be tempted. If that was Jesus’ experience, why would we think that it would be any different for us today? Jesus was baptized by John as God’s chosen and beloved Son, which put him into the crosshairs of the enemy who has come only to steal and kill and destroy (John 10:10). When we are baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection as God’s chosen and beloved children, this puts us into the crosshairs of the enemy. As Satan tempted Jesus, so he tempts us today with every means at his disposal to undermine and destroy our faith and us. This is the harsh reality that we are called to confront in our Lenten journey. Our puny resources are nothing in this battle. Our help comes from the Lord Jesus who by his life of full obedience to the Father’s will and by his innocent suffering and death has overthrown and defeated the power of the tempter.
God does indeed test the faith of his covenant children in order to build us up and strengthen us. We may not go through as severe a test as what Abraham experienced, but without testing, how will we grow? Without testing, how will we become stronger in faith? God does test us, but God does not tempt us in order to weaken and destroy us. The Word of God is very clear on this as we hear in today’s Epistle lesson (James 1:12-18). When we are tempted, and we all are in different ways, this promise from God’s Word is blessed assurance: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16). May God’s covenant of grace with us through Christ be strengthened through this Lenten season. Amen.