SERMONS - JUNE 2013
2 June 2013 - Pentecost 2 - Luke 7:1-10
There are several important lessons for us to learn from the story of Jesus and the centurion in today’s Gospel from St. Luke. The centurion who figures prominently in this story was a remarkable person.
He was a Gentile - not a member of the nation of Israel. In the eyes of many Jews in the first century, this would have made him an inferior person, unworthy of their attention or consideration.
The centurion himself knew that he was not a part of the covenant people. He was aware of the boundaries that had been drawn between Jews and Gentiles by the Mosaic law, and he respected those boundaries.
For example, when Jesus was on his way to his house to heal his servant, he sent word to him: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you.”
The centurion was indeed a humble man in regard to the things of God. St. Luke’s account of this incident provides the detail that the centurion did not actually approach Jesus directly with his request for a healing for his servant, but he approached him only through intermediaries.
Those intermediaries told Jesus: “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” But the centurion had a deeper and more accurate sense of his personal worthiness - or, more precisely, his lack of personal worthiness - before God.
He knew that he, in his person, was not worthy of whatever blessing Jesus might be willing to bestow upon him. In asking for the healing of his servant, he was appealing to the Lord’s mercy.
He was not appealing to his own worthiness, or to the notion that he deserved this consideration because of his previous good works.
And yet this centurion did somehow know that the God of Israel was also his God. He had personally paid for the building of a synagogue for the community of Capernaum, in which he was posted as a Roman officer.
This act of benevolence had made a big impression on the community leaders. But he knew that he was just fulfilling his duty, to the God who had created him, and in whom he trusted - according to the means with which the Lord had blessed him.
The centurion may have been familiar with the account of King Solomon’s dedication of the temple - from today’s lesson from the First Book of Kings - when Solomon has spoken a prayer that included these words:
“When a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.”
And so the centurion would have known - on the basis of this passage of Scripture - that from God’s perspective, he was welcome in the larger family of faith, even though he was likely not made to feel very welcome by many of the Jews he encountered in first-century Palestine.
They no doubt would have had a hard time looking past his Roman officer’s uniform, to see him as one whom God loves - and as one whom they, too, should therefore love.
This man’s standing as a Roman officer is another important aspect of who he was, and of how he viewed himself and his purpose in God’s world. He was roughly the equivalent of a company captain - a commander of 100 men.
He was a professional soldier in the most highly-disciplined and effective army in the world. By every worldly standard of manliness, he was a man’s man.
Many today perceive religious and godly men as feminized, weak, and wimpy. This is not true, of course - especially not in our church!
But there was certainly nothing wimpy about this professional Roman soldier! And for any of us males today, there is likewise nothing unmanly about being a devoted disciple of Christ - the true Man for all men.
The centurion’s masculinity was not in any way diminished by his reliance on Christ. But he was also not in any way arrogant in his masculinity.
He was a real man. He was not a Hollywood-style cardboard cut-out of a man - aloof from responsibility; living only for the gratification of lust and greed.
The centurion knew that his life, in all respects, was being lived under the watchful eye of the Almighty; and under the protection of the Almighty. As a centurion, he knew that he had a place and a calling in this world, in which he could serve God and his neighbor with honor, bravery, and integrity.
He acknowledged the authority of those who were above him in his chain of command. And as far as his relationship with God was concerned, he recognized Jesus - the divine-human Savior - as one who had a unique kind of authority over him.
He respected the authority of his superiors. But he also respected the human dignity and personal value of those who were below him, according to the gradations of the military and social orders within which he fulfilled the responsibilities of his station in life.
This Roman centurion loved his servant, and cared about his servant’s well-being - so much so that he used whatever political “capital” he might have had with the Jewish elders in Capernaum, not for his own personal advantage, but to ask them to ask Jesus for a healing for his servant.
This Roman centurion teaches us a lot about being a Christian - even though he no doubt had a very minimal understanding of what being a Christian is supposed to mean.
Nevertheless, he made the most of what he did know. He followed the light that he had.
In his self-discipline and sense of obligation to others; in his respect for others; and in his generosity toward others, he puts us all to shame. We so often falter, and fail to serve our neighbor as we should, precisely in those areas of obedience to the Second Table of the Law where this man - this Roman - excelled.
When he did seek the help of the Lord, he did not ask for a promotion, or for riches and prosperity for himself. He interceded for another person - for a distressed and needy person.
Do we pray and intercede for each other as we should? Are we involved enough in each other’s lives, as caring friends, so that we would even be aware of each other’s needs, in order to intercede before the Lord concerning them?
But what was most important in the centurion’s life - and what should serve as the most important lesson for us - is the unique way in which he understood, and fulfilled, the demands of the First Table of the Law - regarding the faith and reverence we are to bear toward God.
Jesus was probably not aware of any Jewish person who excelled this centurion in leading a life of sincere love and selfless service to his neighbors. But that is not what Jesus commented on, or specifically praised in the centurion.
Instead, he commended him for his faith: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And the specific evidence of a genuine, God-pleasing faith that Jesus saw in this centurion, was the centurion’s recognition of the divine authority and power of the word of Christ - which was and is the Word of God.
The centurion knew what few people today seem to know - even religious people. He knew what the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews knew - that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword”; and also that “the universe was created by the word of God.”
The centurion himself may also have been familiar with God’s own declaration, concerning his own word, spoken through the Prophet Isaiah:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth - making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater - so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
God’s Word makes things happen. This is so, because the authority of God is in his word.
God speaks things into existence that were not there before. He declares the impossible to be so, and thereby does what is humanly impossible - in and through his word.
The centurion’s comparison between the authority of Jesus’ divine words, and the authority of the orders he might issue as a Roman army officer, was, to be sure, a limited comparison. But the centurion’s vocation as a military leader did give him a helpful perspective on understanding the nature of God’s power - and on understanding the subdued yet effective manner in which God exercises his power.
“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed.”
“For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard these things from the centurion, St. Luke tells us that he “marveled” at him. The soldier was not being presumptuous in his belief that Jesus did not need to be physically in his house, in order to cause a healing to take place there.
He was, rather, exercising a correct and confident faith in God, as God really is - and as God was really standing before him in the person of Jesus.
Where the word of Christ is, there is the power of Christ: his power to heal; his power to forgive and to save; his power to bring life where there is otherwise only death; his power to instill hope where there is otherwise only despair.
It is this same divine power, exercised through the divine words of Jesus, that is at work in your life. Jesus does not have to be visibly present in order to cause his Spirit to regenerate a baptized sinner.
The Holy Spirit works through the words that Jesus once spoke when he instituted Baptism, and that he speaks again and again through his called servants today. Jesus speaks a new birth into the baptized person.
When Jesus speaks the name of the Triune God upon that little one - or upon an older one, depending on the life circumstances of the one being baptized - God himself comes, through his name; and God draws the baptized person up into his name, and into everything that his name gives and stands for:
Forgiveness, life, and salvation. Deliverance from sin, death, and the devil. Faith, hope, and love.
Remember that it is not the material element of water in baptism that does such great things. It is the Word of God - connected with the water by the Lord’s command, and filled with the power of the Lord’s promise - that accomplishes what God wills.
The unchanging Word of God - in and with the water - becomes an enduring focal point for our faith. This baptismal Word remains as a personal point of contact, between the infinite God, and our own finite existence.
The Word of God - in baptism, and in all the other ways in which it is spoken and proclaimed to us in this life - delivers the benefits of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to us. It delivers Christ himself to us, and keeps Christ with us - as it stays and abides with us.
God’s own renewing presence is always there for us, through the divine Word in which we abide by faith: whenever we need to be assured that God truly is our dear Father; and whenever we need to be renewed in the knowledge that we are his dear children, whom he forgives and restores - by the gospel of his Son, in the grace of his Holy Spirit.
And if we slip and fall away from God - even if we wander very far from him - the Word of God - in our baptism - has the power to pursue us; to call out to us; and to beckon us home.
The divine, Trinitarian Words of Christ will haunt us, when they need to. And then they will save us - when we are restored to repentance; and when we are given once again to acknowledge in faith who we are in Christ, and who Christ is to us.
The words of Christ carry the body and blood of Christ into the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, too. This is why the bread and wine are always, always blessed with the Words of Institution before they are distributed to communicants.
“When the Word is joined to the external element, it becomes a sacrament,” as St. Augustine famously confessed and taught. He didn’t just make this up.
He learned this faith, from Jesus: from what Jesus said and did; and from what Jesus still says and does, as the almighty creator and redeemer of the world. Augustine learned this faith, with the Roman centurion.
And we, too, are invited to learn this faith, together with both of them: as we listen to the words of Jesus; and as our hearts and souls are healed by those words.
Jesus does not come among us - under our roof - in a tangible and visible way. He doesn’t need to do that.
But his Word is with us - active and powerful. And therefore he is with us, by means of his Word.
He is doing what he wants to do, by means of his Word. He is keeping his promises, by means of his Word.
Jesus, we are not worthy to have you come under our roof. But say the word, Jesus, and we shall be healed. Say the word, Jesus, and we shall be forgiven.
Say the word, Jesus, and we shall be at peace with God. Say the word, Jesus, and we shall live forever. Amen.
9 June 2013 - Pentecost 3 - Luke 7:11-17
The Lutheran theologian Charles Porterfield Krauth once said:
“Contact imparts disease, but does not impart health. We catch smallpox by contact with one who has it, but we do not catch recovery from one who is free from it. The process which tends to the pollution of the unpolluted will not tend to the purification of the evil.”
This general principle was reflected in various aspects of the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. Many of the behavioral regulations handed down through Moses had some obvious hygienic benefits.
Among these was the teaching that a person who touched a dead body was to be considered as “unclean” for a prescribed period of time. Someone who was in the same room or tent where a dead body was discovered would also be considered as “unclean,” even if direct physical contact had not occurred.
Those who were judged to be “unclean” would be isolated for a time from the larger community.
Even apart from any symbolic significance that might be attached to this law, this was a sensible practice. The person who died might have been suffering from a dangerous and contagious disease.
And regardless of the cause of death, a decomposing body quickly becomes a harbinger of all kinds of unhealthy microbes. It is good, from a public health standpoint, to minimize physical contact between the living and the dead; and to minimize physical contact between those who have touched a corpse, and those who have not.
But this regulation did also have a deeper symbolic significance. Physical death was a constant reminder to the people of Israel - and to us - of the inescapable reality of human sin.
We die because we are sinful. “The wages of sin is death.”
The human situation into which we are all born, is a situation of spiritual death, and separation from God. The body that we inherit from our first parents is likewise a dying body.
Death remains for us all, as a fearful enemy, and as an unavoidable enemy. It comes as the result of our race’s inborn alienation from God, and therefore it serves as a constant sign of our race’s inborn alienation from God.
We are never to accept death as normal, just because it is frequent - because it is not normal. The human race, as God created it in his image and likeness, was supposed to remain in moral and spiritual harmony with God, and thereby to be immortal.
Because “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God,” bodily death is now the universal experience of all men. But this does not mean that death has become natural.
It is still unnatural. It is abnormal. It is not supposed to dominate our earthly existence in the way it does.
God therefore didn’t want the people of Israel to get used to it, or to embrace death as an ordinary part of their life. The Old Testament regulations were set up in such a way that death would always be a jarring and disruptive experience in the community.
Anyone who was closely exposed to death was, at least temporarily, treated as a social outcast. The stench and sting of death was understood to cling to such a person.
And an individual who was made to be temporarily unclean by his exposure to a corpse, learned a very vivid lesson about death from that experience. The community restrictions and purification obligations that were placed upon him, taught him that bodily death is not a good thing.
It is something that we should want to avoid. But the cruel side of this, is that bodily death cannot be avoided.
God does not want us to get used to death, because God does not want us to get used to the sin that caused death, and to which death points. But we can’t get away from death. We can run, as it were, but we can’t hide.
The “grim reaper” will catch up with each one of us, sooner or later. In this sense, our human existence in this fallen world is like watching a horror movie - or rather, like being in a horror movie - in which we know, from the very beginning of the film, that everyone will die by the end. Everyone.
In this world there is a constant, unending parade - a mournful parade of the dying, marching toward death and the grave. This parade has been underway since the Garden Eden. And each of us is a part of it.
A very specific example of this inevitable march toward death is described in today’s Gospel from St. Luke. At a town called Nain, a “procession” of sorts - involving Jesus and his disciples, and many other followers - came upon another large procession of people, heading in the opposite direction.
This other procession was not following a living rabbi, but it was following a dead body - the body of a widow’s deceased son. It was a Jewish funeral procession.
All such funerals were sad occasions, but this one was sadder than most. The widowed mother was burying her only son.
She would now be all alone in this world. Jesus saw her and her situation, and he had compassion on her.
He then did something very strange for an observant Jewish man to do. He walked up to the bier on which the dead body was lying, and touched it.
He was not one of the pall-bearers. There was no apparent reason why he would need to contaminate himself with the uncleanness of death on this occasion. But he did so anyway.
He touched death, and allowed death to touch him. According to the Mosaic Law, the corruption of death would now mark him, and stain him, and make him unclean.
As everyone stood there, no doubt wondering why Jesus would deliberately do this, Jesus then did something even more strange. He spoke to the dead man.
Let’s listen again to how St. Luke describes it: “And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ And the dead man sat up and began to speak...”
Jesus was and is the Author of life, “by whom all things were made.” And he renews and restores his creation by his divine Word, according to his good and gracious will.
Up until now, the pattern had been that death continually touches the living, and imparts death. But now this process is reversed. Life touches the dead, and imparts life!
At this touch, and at this word, Jesus was not physically polluted by the death of the widow’s son. The widow’s son was physically purified by the life of Jesus!
Jesus, who arrived at this encounter supremely clean, was not made to be unclean. Instead, the widow’s son, who arrived at this encounter supremely unclean, was made to be clean!
In Christ, God reversed the direction of death. He gave the son back to his mother, alive and well. The curse of physical death was lifted, at least temporarily, for this small family.
The widow’s son did eventually die again - as an old man, no doubt, and full of years. But he did later die.
The Lord had extended his bodily life for a time, but this man is not still alive in this world. He passed away a long, long time ago.
But the imagery of what Jesus did for him, and the deeper meaning of the Lord’s compassionate act of restoring his life, are still with us. They are with us as a testimony to a more profound kind of touch that all the baptized and believing children of God have experienced, from the hand of their Savior.
As sons and daughters of Adam, we came into the world afflicted not only with a physically dying body, but also in a state of spiritual death. We were each brought into this world in this unnatural state, separated from God, and innately antagonistic to his holiness.
As members of the fallen human race, we were conceived and born under the curse of God’s law because of our unbelief and unrighteousness. But God did not accept this new reality as the “new normal”: this reality that the human race - which he had created for fellowship with him - had instead placed itself under his curse.
He wanted to deliver us from that curse. Therefore he himself became a man - a living human being.
And in the person of Christ, he placed himself under his own curse, as the substitute for all others. In Christ, he became a curse, for us.
In Christ, God took onto himself the sting and stench of human death. On his cross, he completely covered himself with that sting and stench - for our sakes, and on our behalf - so that we could receive forgiveness and life, cleansing and purification, in his name.
And now, in his resurrection victory over death and sin, he is alive forevermore. And he is with us now, cloaked under the means of grace that he has appointed for our salvation: coming toward us; interrupting the spiritual funeral processions of our existence; touching us; and speaking to us.
In your baptism, Jesus touched you. In his infinite compassion he transformed your death into life, and changed your alienation from God into reconciliation and peace.
He put a living faith into your previously unbelieving heart, and a new hope into your previously antagonistic mind.
At this touch, and at this word, Jesus was not polluted by your spiritual death. You were spiritually purified by his divine life!
Jesus, who arrived at this encounter with you supremely clean, was not made to be unclean. Instead, you, who arrived at this encounter with him supremely unclean, were made to be clean!
And as you live in your baptism by daily repentance and faith - and by daily growth into the life and love of Christ - you are at the same time strengthened in your resurrection hope.
You shall die in the flesh - as the widow’s son died, and later died again. But as you die, you shall continue to live.
And on the last day, you will live again, in your body, glorified by the power of your Savior’s victory over the grave, for you.
While you wait for this day, the Lord continually comes to you, to touch you and to speak to you again and again. In his Holy Supper he touches you, in your weak and frail humanity, at the point of his own humanity - that is, in and through his own body and blood, given into death and shed for your redemption.
As you die to your old self in repentance, the sinful corruptions that have bubbled up, and oozed, out of your old, decomposing sinful nature, are forgiven, and washed away. And the life of Christ - the new life of faith, in the new nature that he has birthed within you - is reinvigorated and rejuvenated.
Outside of the fellowship of God’s church, where his Word and Sacraments are not at work, the pattern still is, that death continually touches the living, and imparts death. But here, in the spiritual fellowship of Christ’s mystical body, this whole process is mystically reversed.
Where Jesus dwells with his people, in his Gospel - keeping his promise to be with them always, to the very end of the age - life touches the dead, and imparts life!
Here, where your baptism is recalled in Holy Absolution, the Lord of life touches you in his forgiving mercy. Here, where the living body and blood of your Savior come to you, and where he speaks his invitation to you, your death is undone. And God’s life is bestowed on you in its place.
The community of faith in which the Gospel is preached to you, is your Nain, where Jesus raises you up from your bier, and fills you with the power of his resurrection!
“As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow... And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her...”
“Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ And the dead man sat up and began to speak...” Amen.
23 June 2013 - Pentecost 5 - Luke 8:26-39
The famous African-American spiritual asks these questions: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Of course, the literal answer to all these questions would be No. We were not there, in Jerusalem, 2000 years ago, to experience these events with our physical senses.
And yet, the questions posed in this song do reflect a feeling that Christians throughout the centuries have often had - in their devotion to Christ; and in their yearning to be as close to him as possible.
We do often wonder what it would have been like, to have been there when these things happened. We also wonder what it would have been like to have been present when the other important events of Jesus’ earthly ministry took place.
We want to believe in these things with all our hearts. We want to be certain that they really did happen, and that the eternal truths to which they testify really are true: that Jesus really is the Son of God; that he really does have authority over the power of sin, death, and the devil; and that he really does forgive our sins.
Our spiritual well-being is, however, often threatened and attacked, by doubts and temptations. In those times of human weakness, we know that we need an extra boost of divine strength - so that we can resist and overcome these attacks; and be certain of the faith we profess.
We know, too, that at the deepest level, it is the devil and his fallen angels who are behind these attacks. There are supernatural forces at work, to wrench us away from God, and destroy our faith.
We therefore need a supernatural reenforcement of our faith, from our Savior himself. And for that purpose, we may very well wish that we had the kind of access to our Savior - and to his supernatural power - that was available to the people who knew him personally during his time on earth.
In our weakness, we might wish that we were there when they crucified our Lord; when they nailed him to the tree; and when they laid him in the tomb. We might wish that we were there when Jesus miraculously healed the sick and the lame; when he fed thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes; and when he raised the dead.
If we could have seen these things with our own eyes, we imagine, then the doubts with which we struggle now would be vanquished. Our tottering faith would be emboldened, we think, to be able to resist any and all temptations.
But, unfortunately, we are far, far removed from these events. We might wish that we could be there, but we were not there. We cannot be there.
We feel ourselves to be at a great disadvantage, compared to the people who knew Jesus in that way, and who saw and heard the things that he did back then. We envy them, and we envy the certainty of faith that we presume they had.
But should we be so sure that the people who were with Jesus during those days really did have a stronger faith than we do - due to the fact that they were there to see, first-hand, the physical evidence of his power over Satan? Should we be so sure that if we had been there, to experience his miracles for ourselves, our faith would necessarily be stronger than it is now?
Let’s take a few moments to consider the events described in today’s Gospel. St. Luke tells us the story of a man in the region of the Gerasenes who was possessed by several demons.
This was not a Jewish region. The presence of a large herd of pigs makes that clear.
There were not very many believers in the true God there - maybe none at all. But the Gerasenes certainly did believe in the devil, and in his destructive power.
They saw for themselves the kind of misery that those demons were inflicting on that possessed man - and on his family - on a daily basis. And there was nothing they could do about it.
If some shaman or pagan priest had previously tried to get the demons to leave, they had failed. There were supernatural forces at work - evil and dark supernatural forces - that no mortal man could withstand.
But when Jesus came to this place, the evil spirits in the possessed man knew immediately who he was. And they knew that they were in trouble.
One of the demons said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.”
The demons didn’t want to be sent to the “abyss,” as they called it. And so Jesus gave them permission to enter into a herd of pigs.
In an instant, the demons left the man whom they had possessed, and he was free of their torments. Luke tells us that “People went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”
Imagine what it would be like to have been one of the people of that region, who had witnessed these events. Even if you did not know very much about Jesus, you would have concluded very quickly that he was an extraordinary man, filled with heavenly power that was clearly stronger that the hellish power of the demons.
You would have heard with your own ears the conversation between Jesus and the evil spirits. You would have listened and watched in amazement as the demons submitted to his authority.
Do you think that seeing and hearing these things would have caused you to believe in Jesus - or at least to seek to learn more about him, and about the spiritual blessings that he may offer?
And if you were already a believer, do you think that your faith in him and in his divine mission would have been strengthened considerably through this experience? Think again!
The fact of the matter is that the Gerasenes who did see and hear these things, were not drawn to Jesus in faith. They were repelled from him, in fear.
Luke tells us that “all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear.” They wanted Jesus to leave their region.
They did not want to put their trust in him, or to learn about the true God from him. Why is this?
Well, for the simple reason that being an eyewitness to a physical miracle does not create or strengthen a true, saving faith. That has never been the purpose of outward miracles, according to God’s will and plan. A saving faith in Christ comes only through the Word of Christ.
The miracles of Jesus did get people’s attention. But when you look at the various accounts of these miracles in the four Gospels, you will see that those who witnessed such a miracle were more likely than not to misconstrue its meaning; to project their own preconceived interpretations onto it; to accuse Jesus of sorcery because of it; or, as with the Gerasenes, to become afraid of Jesus, so that they just didn’t want to deal with him at all.
St. Paul tells us in his Epistle to the Romans that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” In today’s lesson from his Epistle to the Galatians, he points out that the promise of the Gospel, with its power to save and forgive, has also been placed by God in the sacrament of Holy Baptism.
He writes: “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
Quite simply, we should not think that the people who were around Jesus in the first century, and who saw and heard - in person - the things he did and said, had any advantage over us in regard to the strength of their faith. The sinful human nature never wants to believe in God, regardless of how many physical miracles may take place.
These miracles can always be explained away, or ignored, by the unbelieving heart. St. Paul says in his epistle to the Colossians that, in regard to the true God, unbelievers are by nature “alienated and hostile in mind.” An outward miracle, even a spectacular one, will not change that.
But the inborn alienation and hostility with which we all come into the world can be changed by the Word and Sacraments of Christ! The proclamation of God’s grace in Christ has within it the power to save those who hear it.
Christian Baptism, which is the washing of water with the word, is likewise a supernatural work of God, for the purpose of converting unbelievers, and bestowing on them the gift of faith.
When your faith is challenged by the distractions and deceptions of the twenty-first century world in which you live, you do not lack access to the means that God has always used to help and comfort his people in their struggles.
Those who lived during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry had access to his Word. And so do you. The preaching of Jesus rings forth from the pages of Holy Scripture, with just as much power as it had when it first emerged from his physical lips.
Jesus still speaks also through his ministers, when they proclaim his Gospel and administer his sacraments; and when they absolve penitent sinners in the stead and by the command of Christ. We have everything we need for our salvation, and for the strengthening of our faith, in the ministry of Word and Sacrament that is carried out in our midst.
Were you there when they crucified your Lord? No, you were not.
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? No, you were not.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? No, you were not.
Were you there when Jesus cast a legion of demons out of the Gerasene man? No, you were not.
But as far as the certainty of your faith is concerned, it doesn’t matter that you were not there. Those who were there have no advantage over you.
The people of the first century who did believe in Jesus, and who faced life and death with the confidence of an unswerving faith, did not get that confidence from the extraordinary events that they saw. They got it from the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.
And that’s where Jesus wants to give you the same confidence. That’s where he wants to work a hidden miracle for you, whenever you are afflicted by doubt or temptation; whenever your faith becomes weak and uncertain.
In the message of his forgiving grace, and in the promise of Baptism - which remains as an enduring power in your life - God takes care of you and preserves you. He assures you that Jesus is who he says he is; that he did die for your sins; and that he has vanquished the devil on your behalf, and rescued you from his clutches.
God’s Spirit imprints upon you the certain knowledge that when you cling to Jesus’ promises, and abide in his Word, you can and will face the challenges of life and death with a confidence that only he can give.
Sometimes it’s not easy to believe. In our human weakness, we do sometimes stumble in our faith. In our human frailty, we might wonder, for a time, if all these things are really true.
When such times come upon you, do not yearn for something that you cannot have. Do not dwell on the mistaken notion that if you could only have been there - in Jerusalem, or in the region of the Gerasenes - all would be well.
Instead, receive the grace that God does give you, when and how he gives it. Listen attentively to the Lord’s message, right here, and right now. In humility remember your Baptism, here and now.
In repentance and hope receive his Holy Supper. Read and meditate on the Scriptures.
And as you do, you will know - by the grace of God, you will know - that you are Christ’s, and that he is yours; and that he will never let you go. God’s Spirit will bear witness with your spirit - in your faith - that you are God’s child; and that you are indeed right with God and justified before him, through the righteousness of his Son.
Since Trinity Sunday, in the Gradual, we have been singing these words - these true and certain words - from the Epistle to the Romans:
“The word is near you: in your mouth, and in your heart; the word of faith that we proclaim. For with the heart one believes, and is justified. And with the mouth one confesses, and is saved.” Amen.
30 June 2013 - Pentecost 6 - 1 Kings 19:9b-21
During the years of his ministry as a preacher and prophet in Israel, Elijah had many ups and downs - actually more downs than ups.
Some of the prophets in the Old Testament era served during the reigns of godly kings - such as David or Hezekiah - who respected the prophets’ authority; who accepted their teaching; and who followed their guidance.
Elijah, however, was called by God to carry out his ministry during the reign of Ahab and his pagan wife Jezebel, who were worshipers of Baal. They gave Elijah no end of grief, on account of his rebukes to them for their idolatry and their other egregious sins.
They did not listen to him. Rather, they sought to get revenge upon him, because of his criticisms.
Today’s text from the First Book of Kings tells us about a very notable “down” time in Elijah’s life. Jezebel was so angry with him at this point, that she had basically taken out a contract on him. She wanted him dead, and had ordered it to be so.
He knew that his mortal life was in danger. And he felt that he was all alone.
Humanly speaking, we can see that Elijah did have reasons to be discouraged. In his despair, he said to the Lord: “The people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. And I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”
But Elijah’s feelings seem to have been tainted with a little bit of pride, as well. He also said: “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts.”
Maybe he was. In fact, we know that he was. But humility usually waits for commendation from God or others, and does not commend itself.
Sometimes things go this way for us, too. It’s easy for traditional, Biblical, Confessional Christians today to feel like they are under attack. And in many ways we are.
The society at large seems more and more hostile to the values by which we seek to govern our lives - in our families and in our congregations. The society likewise seems more and more hostile to the distinctive Christian faith that we profess, and in which our whole life finds its meaning.
If that’s not bad enough, many of the religious denominations that used to share most if not all of the moral values and theological tenets to which we hold, now seem to have “switched sides,” as it were - so that they are now embracing and celebrating the beliefs and morality of the world, and not the beliefs and morality of the Sacred Scriptures. The new humanistic gospel of “inclusion” has replaced the apostolic gospel of “redemption.”
And those who still believe in the painful reality of sin, who identify sin as sin, and who seek to preach a message of forgiveness of sin, are dismissed as irrational bigots, whose hateful and ignorant views need not be respected or even listened to.
It’s easy to develop an “Elijah complex” in the midst of all this. It’s easy to succumb to the temptation to live in fear of the future, and of what the future might bring.
But the feelings of discouragement that might afflict us in these circumstances, are perhaps also accompanied by a little pride on our part. Sometimes there is a certain kind of boasting that takes place, by those who think of themselves as the “faithful remnant.”
And a judgmental attitude does often manifest itself, as we look with disdain upon those who are inconsistent and compromising in their faith - even as the atheists and secularists of this world look disdainfully upon us! And we feel superior to those atheists and secularists too!
But Jesus teaches us, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel, “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
And St. Paul asks rhetorically in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”
Your faith, and the benefits that come to you through faith, are divine gifts, which you have received from the hand of your Savior. You did not manufacture your own faith, on the basis of a spirituality superior to that of scoffers.
When the gift of faith is received properly, it engenders humility and gratitude. It does not engender pride over against unbelievers, or over against those who mock and persecute us.
But God does not just chide us when we are improperly proud or boastful. When we are afraid and discouraged - because of the opposition we face, and because of the hardship and suffering we endure, for the sake of his name and truth - God does not condone our feeling sorry for ourselves. But he does comfort us.
He comforted Elijah. We read in today’s text that, after Elijah had given expression to his depression and discouragement, the Lord said to him, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.”
“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.”
If a true assurance of God’s protection, in times of stress and discouragement, could be found only in dynamic and dramatic manifestations of natural power - such as hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes, or massive fires - then we would not have access to that assurance or that protection very often.
But if the assurance of God’s protection in such times can actually be found in the sound of a low whisper - in a still small voice of God - then that assurance and that protection are available to God’s people whenever God’s Word is available to them. And that’s always.
The Word of God speaks peace into a troubled heart, and courage into a fearful heart. God’s Word has the intrinsic power to do this, because it is God’ Word.
God’s Word doesn’t have to be shouted in a booming voice, or flashed in bright letters, to have this power. God’s grace sets our hearts at ease, and fills us with confidence in God’s faithfulness toward us in all trials, when God simply whispers to us - that is, when he conveys his message to us, in, with, and under a humble human voice; or when he conveys his message to us, by means of the printed page.
The still, small voice of God comes to us in calm and unassuming ways, through preaching and sacramental administration. And when it does come to us in these ways, that voice of God delivers God’s healing and forgiveness to us.
God’s voice - his still, small voice, in the midst of worldly turmoil - does not make us afraid. For those who seek his help, it takes away all fear.
That’s what God’s Word did for Elijah. And God also didn’t let Elijah sit idle, feeling sorry for himself, for very long after that. He put him back to work - fulfilling his duties as a prophet in Israel.
“And the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.”
Vocation is a practical remedy to discouragement. When God keeps us busy performing the work that he has appointed for us in our calling, we then don’t have time to think about how disappointed or afraid we are.
We, in a depressed state, might think that all our work, done in God’s name, has been for nothing, and that everything we have accomplished will soon all collapse.
God’s response is not necessarily to lecture us that the contrary is true. Rather, his response may very well be - as it was in Elijah’s case - to send us out, and call us forth, to do more work in his name. He certainly doesn’t think it is for nothing.
There is a lot more for us to do in God’s name, to bring the gospel of divine love in Christ even to a society that hates us - and him. And, by means of the vocations that God has entrusted to us, there is a lot more for us to do, to continue to help and serve the needy people we encounter in this world - even when they despise us.
One of the things that the Lord told Elijah to get busy doing, was to anoint Elisha as his successor. The public preaching of God’s message of judgment and mercy in Israel would continue, beyond Elijah’s time on earth. He was not going to be the last true believer in God.
The Lord had not given up on Israel, even if Elijah had. The Lord corrected Elijah’s presumption that it would all end with him, when he told him: “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
And it will not end with our generation either - even if the secularists and atheists around us wish it would; and even if we sometimes feel that it will. For as long as this world endures, God’s Word, and God’s church, will endure.
Persecutions may come. Persecutions even to death are here now, for many of our brothers and sisters in Christ in communist and Islamic lands. But the church will endure.
The gospel of Christ crucified for sinners will never be silenced. The enemies of that gospel have been trying to silence it from the beginning, but they have never succeeded. They never will succeed.
In each generation, that gospel will touch troubled consciences, and will bring a new beginning with God to those who acknowledge their need for Christ, and who do embrace him.
For as long as sinful humanity lives on this earth, the need for Jesus will never be eradicated. And God’s gracious remedy for that need - that need for forgiveness, life, and salvation - will always be embraced by his elect, in faith.
Many will blind themselves to these truths. But there will never be a time when everyone will.
And so, in the midst of attacks and accusations; in the midst of persecutions and hardships; and in the midst of your own discouragement, listen for the sound of a low whisper from God, in God’s Word and Sacraments. Listen for his still small voice, and believe that voice.
Believe that voice when God, through his law, calls you to account for your pride and doubt. Believe that voice when God absolves you in Christ, and fills you with the hope and confidence that his Spirit brings.
And then, get busy. So the children of this world hate you. Bless them in return anyway.
So the secularists in our country they think you’re bigoted and ignorant. In response, show them the love of Christ anyway, in works of service for their benefit.
So the atheists around you think they don’t need God, or Christ. Share with them the message of God’s salvation in Christ anyway. With at least a few, it will get through. And those few will thank you forever.
The Church shall never perish! Her dear Lord - to defend,
To guide, sustain, and cherish - Is with her to the end.
Though there be those that hate her, False sons within her pale,
Against both foe and traitor She ever shall prevail. Amen.