When we think of Israel’s sacrifices, the first animal that comes to mind is the lamb. As Christians, that image of Jesus as the Lamb of God dominates our thoughts. But there were other animals, like goats and doves and pigeons and rams. The ram is one we forget about, but we shouldn’t. There’s a good reason why a ram was the animal provided when God spared Isaac. The ram’s greatest glory was found in his sacrificial use, his standing in the place of others and giving of himself for greater purposes.
When we think of rams, we think of a proud, majestic, strong animal. There’s reason trucks and football teams are named after rams. They’re leaders. They’re strong. They use their horns and their sheer size to tackle their enemies. Rams are not weak, wimpy animals.
But in the history of God’s people, the ram’s glory is not its strength, but its death. His greatest moments are not when he’s standing strong, but when he’s restrained and being slaughtered for the benefit of others. It was ram’s blood that was put on the ear, thumb, and toe of a newly ordained priest, a reminder that he was to hear God’s Word, touch holy things, and walk in God’s ways. It was ram’s skin that made the walls of the Tabernacle, the place where God dwelt among His people during their 40 year wandering in the wilderness. And when God allowed His people to come into the Promised Land, it was the blast of a ram’s horn that brought down the walls of Jericho.
But the most famous ram in Scripture is the one we heard about today, the ram God provided in the thorns that spared Isaac’s life. The ram was so weak that he couldn’t pull himself out of the thicket. And when he was freed, he couldn’t overpower a 120-year-old man. Instead, Abraham took hold of him, plunged the knife into him, and gave him as a whole burnt offering. There, on Mount Moriah, a mountain that would later be called Calvary, the Lord provided a substitute. That’s why there’s one very important detail. When Abraham called the place, he called it The Lord Will Provide. That’s future tense. He didn’t rejoice in the ram provided that day, but in the one who will be provided. “Abraham rejoiced that he would see My day. He saw it and was glad,” Jesus said. Abraham knew who was to come.
We need that reminder of a substitute, of the One whom the Lord provided. All we have provided is sin. We’re ram-like in the wrong ways. We are full of human pride that is offensive to God. We have hated others and locked horns with them. We’re headstrong like rams, so we’re never convinced that God knows best. We’re stubborn like rams, and are constantly opposed to God’s ways. Our sinful nature rears its head in angry outbursts, arrogance, pride, and self-reliance. We’re too often caught in the thicket of our sins and need the extraction that only Jesus Christ, our Substitute, can provide. Without Him, without His absolution for our lack of fear, love, and trust in God, we are worthy of eternal punishment.
But the same God who provided a ram for the sake of Abraham’s faith, who provided a ram to spare Isaac’s life, is the God who has provided a Ram for you. And just like that ram on Mount Moriah, Jesus’ glory is not in His pride, or power, or strength, but in His death, in His slaughter, in His sacrificial offering for your sins. Abraham promised, “The Lord Will Provide,” and He has. He has provided Jesus Christ to die in your place.
We have provided what damns, but He has provided what saves. We have provided pride and opposition; He has provided humility and love. We see that more clearly today as we enter Passiontide. Passion is from the Latin word that means “suffering.” Jesus’ suffering increases. Remember today’s Gospel and its picture. Jesus is surrounded by opposition in the Temple. People call Him names and insult Him. He is derided in every way, He is not believed, and they attempt to murder Him. All their hate and pride was on full display, refusing to believe a Word of what Jesus said about Himself. Instead of believing what there was ample proof to believe, the Jews shut their ears to God’s Word. But Jesus uses a portion of His divine attributes and hides Himself. Not because He doesn’t want to suffer or because He’s afraid, but because this isn’t God’s will. He didn’t come to provide salvation by being stoned. He came to provide salvation by being cursed and hanged on a tree. He came to wear the thorns, to receive the beating and mockery, to drink the sour wine, to cry out “It is finished” of His own will, not the will of an angry mob.
Just like the ram was caught in the thorns, Jesus allowed Himself to be surrounded by a crown of thorns. He wore every one of your sins, allowed them to cut into His flesh, to draw His Blood, so He could die to rise again to crown you, not with thorns and death, but with glory. He is the High Priest, not just dabbed with a little blood on His ear, thumb, and toe, but was covered in His own Blood from His own body, a blood that has purified you from all defilement, that purifies your conscience and fills the chalice from which you drink, a pledge and seal of the eternal purity He has provided you. Just like Abraham’s ram’s glory was in his weakness and death, so is Jesus’. He set aside His power for you, and was humiliated, hung on a cross, and tasted death for you. But that same head that drooped in death was lifted up in the resurrection, that you might be lifted up and washed in His Blood in Holy Baptism, made ready to be lifted up from the grave on the Last Day, each day of your life spent awaiting your resurrection like His.
Abraham’s sermon, as brief as it was, still echoes today. “The Lord Will Provide.” And He still does, right here in this place. For the sin that haunts and consumes and troubles you, He provides absolution and His Holy Spirit to enable you to do better. For anxiety that never seems to leave, He brings you comfort, consolation, and the promise that one day this, too, shall pass. When the final trumpet sounds on the Last Day, you will have entrance into that greater and more perfect tabernacle above. Abraham saw all of this, believed it, and has preached that it will come for you. All because God has provided Jesus in your place. He has provided, and He will always provide.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.