SERMONS - JUNE 2016
5 June 2016 - 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 did not 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 were 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 of which death always reminds us. 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 baptized and believing Christians 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.
12 June 2016 - Pentecost 4 - 2 Samuel 11:26–12:10, 13-14
Unlike other kingdoms and empires in the ancient world, the Kingdom of Israel was not an absolute monarchy. As a nation, Israel had a “constitution” - that is, an unalterable code of laws - which had been handed down by God himself, through Moses.
An individual king could not amend that constitution, or change those laws, to suit his own personal preferences. And each king - in his person, and according to his royal office - was accountable to God and to God’s Word.
The special office of prophet was raised up by God, pretty much at the same time as he instituted the monarchy in Israel. One of the primary responsibilities of these prophets was to instruct and advise the king - not according to their own political opinions, but according to God’s revealed will.
The prophets had the responsibility of keeping the king in check, reminding him of his accountability to God, and keeping him humble before God. And when it was necessary, these prophets, as servants and mouthpieces of the Lord, had the duty of admonishing, rebuking, and condemning the king, when the king sinned against God’s law, and thereby brought down God’s judgment upon himself.
There was nothing like this in any other kingdom in the ancient world. No Pharaoh or Emperor of any other nation would ever tolerate a rebuke or a criticism from a long-haired, fiery-eyed prophet.
Those other monarchs told the religious functionaries of their national cults what to believe and do. The religious functionaries in their kingdoms never, ever told the monarch how to rule, or how to behave in his personal life.
Today’s Old Testament lesson from the Second Book of Samuel recounts the time when the Prophet Nathan, according to his office, came in to see King David, and to rebuke the king for his flagrant adultery, for his shameful deceptions, and for his successful plotting to have his paramour’s husband killed. David did this so that he could take his neighbor’s wife for himself.
In an example of the power of understatement, we are told that “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” David had broken, at the very least, the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Commandments. And of course, he had broken the First. And so, “the Lord sent Nathan to David.”
Nathan took a wise approach. Instead of coming in with both guns blazing, he told David a story about a rich man with many flocks and herds, who stole a poor man’s ewe lamb - which is all the poor man had.
This was a parable of David’s own actions. And when David condemned the man in the parable, he was thereby condemning himself.
David’s conscience, as a matter of objective knowledge, knew that what the man in the story did was wrong and worthy of punishment. David’s conscience, as a matter of objective knowledge, certainly knew that the kind of sins he had committed were wrong and worthy of punishment.
But what was needed was a “connecting of the dots,” so to speak, so that David’s conscience would not just condemn adultery, lying, and murder in the abstract, but would condemn his adultery, his lying, and his murder. What was needed was a connecting of the dots, so that David’s conscience, as an instrument of God’s law, would condemn David.
We are told that “David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man” - that is, the man in the story - “and [David] said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’ Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’”
After Nathan pressed the point, and connected all the dots for David, we are told that David repented, in shame and remorse, and said to Nathan: “I have sinned against the Lord.”
David was the supreme ruler over the whole realm. There was no human authority higher than his in all of Israel. But he was not allowed to make up his own rules. He was not above the law.
And when the Lord’s minister spoke to him, on the basis of the Lord’s unchanging law, he was obligated to listen. For the sake of his soul, and his eternal destiny, he was obligated to listen.
Of course, there were Hebrew kings at later times in history who did not listen to the prophets who had been sent to them. They did not respect, or heed, their “pastors,” so to speak. Ahab did not listen to Elijah, for example.
But these wicked and impenitent kings were damned. Ahab was damned. David, however, was not damned. David’s soul was reclaimed.
To be sure, he had done a lot of damage. His family, and his kingdom, would continue to feel the harmful effects of his sins.
But as far as his standing before God was now concerned, for the sake of the promised Savior who was typified in the sacrifices of the tabernacle, and who would come from David’s own line, David’s sins were lifted from him and removed from him - as far as the east is from the west.
Nathan absolved the king with these words: “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” And these words of Nathan were words from God, declared with God’s authority, and with the power to accomplish that of which they speak.
When God, through his minister, pronounces you forgiven, you are forgiven.
David was humbled for the rest of his life by these events, and by this unique encounter with God through Nathan the prophet. He was humbled by an awareness of what he in his sinfulness was capable of, and of how much harm he was capable of doing, because of the temptations that lurked not only on his neighbor’s rooftop, but in his own heart.
David did not become a perfect person. He continued to be a man who needed God’s grace and forgiveness every day. But he really did learn a deep and painful lesson in this incident. He never again committed a series of self-degrading and dishonorable sins like this.
He still had problems, as we all do. But he did not have this problem ever again. People really can change. God really can change people.
Now, if David was not allowed by God to be a law unto himself, then we certainly are not allowed to be either. If the King of Israel didn’t get to make up his own rules, then neither do we.
It is, though, a popular idea today, that people should in fact make up their own morality, their own spirituality, and their own theology. And the growth of this notion has corresponded with the growth of Biblical illiteracy in our society.
People don’t know what they don’t know. They are hopelessly adrift and lost, and are not even aware of it.
It used to be the case that people would make themselves familiar with the stories and teachings of the Bible, at the very least so that they could make sense of western art, western music, and western literature. But now people don’t care. They don’t know even basic things, and they don’t care that they don’t know.
It is very difficult for the ministers of our time to call people to account on the basis of God’s Word because of their sins, and to teach people the ways of the Lord, because hardly anyone will listen. When Nathan rebuked David, David admitted, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Today, the typical response would be something more like this:
“How dare you criticize me? That’s just your interpretation of God’s will. I’m not sure there really is a God, but if there is, I know he would not condemn me. He would be a God of tolerance - or at least he would be a God who tolerates everything I want, and think, and do.”
Please, all of you, don’t be like this. Even if you have fallen into the kind of moral and spiritual troubles that David fell into, don’t be like this.
if you, like David, have allowed yourself to get completely enveloped in sins of lust and envy, lying and deceit, disrespect for the life and well-being of others, or any other customized form of idolatry, God does not tolerate this. And God does will not tolerate you in that condition.
He will send someone to you - likely a conscientious pastor, but perhaps also a loving parent or a concerned friend - and through their voice you will hear his voice. Through their words of warning and condemnation, you will hear his Word.
Your soul is at stake, as was David’s. Your future with God in this world, and your eternal destiny, are in the balance.
It is possible to know right from wrong. David, even when he was enmeshed in his own blinding sin, knew that the man described in Nathan’s story had done wrong.
You can know right from wrong, too. And when you have placed yourself personally on the wrong side of right and wrong, you can know that you are wrong.
Listen to the one sent to you - according to office or circumstance - as that person, in God’s name, helps you to connect the dots. Listen to the servant of God who comes to you, when it is necessary, to give you personally the warning that we all are given in the Smalcald Articles - which is one of the Confessions of our church:
“When holy people – still having and feeling original sin and daily repenting and striving against it – happen to fall into manifest sins (as David did into adultery, murder, and blasphemy), then faith and the Holy Spirit have left them. The Holy Spirit does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so it can be carried out, but represses and restrains it from doing what it wants.”
“If sin does what it wants, the Holy Spirit and faith are not present. For St. John says, ‘No one born of God makes a practice of sinning...and he cannot keep on sinning.’ And yet it is also true when St. John says, ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’”
Indeed, even Christians are not without sin. We do still sin, every day. Our thoughts, words, and actions are never completely pure. And so we are all always in need of God’s merciful forgiveness, as we daily repent and strive against sin, and as we daily trust in Christ.
But there is a difference between committing sins of weakness, which are immediately recognized to be sin, and which are immediately turned away from; and eagerly embracing what you know is wrong, in an ongoing lifestyle of deliberate and willful sin - when the specific sin that you have decided to surrender to, becomes - as it were - the love of your life, overwhelming your desire to know and serve God.
There is a difference between weakness in faith, and the ordinary spiritual struggles that we all go through; and the pushing out of faith and its source altogether. If you push the Holy Spirit out, he is gone.
But, he can come back. He can always come back. And you can always come back to him, and to Jesus your Savior, and to God your Father.
There is always a way home. It is the way home to fellowship with God - the honest and clean way - that David found; or rather, that found David.
God sought out David, when David, in his heart, was no longer seeking after God. God will search you out. God has come to you today.
And God will lift your sin off of you, and send it away from you, when his minister speaks these or similar words to you: “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” The Lord is saying to you now - whether you are weak in faith; or whether you have secretly lost your faith, but by the conviction of the Holy Spirit want it back again - “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”
Deadly, faith-killing sins, when they are embraced, do leave scars in the memory of those who had embraced them, even after their faith and life with God are restored. The earthly harm that is done - to yourself, or to others - cannot always be erased.
But as far as your standing with God, and your heavenly hope, are concerned, the forgiveness that restores your faith, also restores the peace with God that God’s Son came into this world to establish for all of us. This is why the Smalcald Articles also say this:
“John the Baptist...is called a preacher of repentance, but this is for the forgiveness of sins. That is, John was to accuse all and convict them of being sinners. This is so they can know what they are before God and acknowledge that they are lost.”
“So they can be prepared for the Lord, to receive grace, and to expect and accept from Him the forgiveness of sins. This is what Christ Himself says, ‘Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in [My] name to all nations.’ ...”
“The Gospel brings consolation and forgiveness. It does so not just in one way, but through the Word and the Sacraments and the like ... As Psalm 130 says against the dreadful captivity of sin, ‘with the Lord is...plentiful redemption.’”
The Lord’s redemption truly is plentiful. All sins - David’s and yours - were carried to the cross. All sins - yours and mine - were atoned for by the shedding of the blood of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
All sins - the sins of our youth, and the sins that have been a threat to us today - were left in the tomb of divine forgetfulness, when Jesus rose triumphant from his grave, to bring us victory over sin and death; to bring us God’s victory, for us and in us, over our sin, and over our death.
If Thy beloved Son, O God, Had not to earth descended
And in our mortal flesh and blood Had not sin’s power ended,
Then this poor, wretched soul of mine In hell eternally would pine
Because of its transgression.
But now I find sweet peace and rest, Despair no more reigns over me;
No more am I by sin opprest, For Christ has borne sin for me.
Upon the cross for me He died That, reconciled, I might abide
With Thee, my God, forever. Amen.
19 June 2016 - Pentecost 5 - Luke 8:26-39
The well-known 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 happened.
We want to believe in these things with all our hearts. We want to be certain in our faith that they did really happen - that Jesus really is the Son of God; that he really does have authority over the power of sin, death, and the devil; that he really does forgive our sins. In the face of temptations and doubts, we want to be sure that these things are true.
Sometimes, with all of the skepticism and cynicism that surround us, it is not easy to continue in our faith. Our belief in the miracles of the Bible is not reenforced very often by the kind of things that we see and hear today.
Rationalists and unbelievers tell us that those miracles never happened. And maybe, sometimes, when our faith is weak, or when we are distracted from worship and participation in church by the concerns of this life, we might wonder if they are right.
And so, we might wish, at such times, that we were there when they crucified our Lord; when they nailed him to the tree; when they laid him in the tomb. We might wish that we were there when Jesus healed the sick and the lame, when he fed thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes, or when he raised the dead.
We imagine that if such a thing would have been so, it would no doubt help us to remain strong in our faith now, when our faith is attacked. We imagine that if such a thing had been possible, it would no doubt help us to stay true to Christ today, and not to be overcome by the doubts and uncertainties that otherwise press in upon us.
But, unfortunately, we are far, far removed from these events. We are, it would seem, at a great disadvantage compared to the people who knew Jesus, and who saw and heard the things that he did during his earthly ministry. We envy them, and we envy the certainty of faith that we assume they had - based on their personal experiencing of events that we have not experienced, and cannot experience.
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 their having been there to see and hear these things first-hand? Should we be so sure that if we had been there, to experience his miracles for ourselves, that 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 area. There were not very many believers in the true God in this region. But they certainly did believe in the power of the devil. They saw the kind of misery that those demons were putting that man through on a daily basis.
And there was nothing they could do about it. If there were some shamans or pagan priests who had tried to get the demons to leave, they had failed. But they probably did not even try. These were supernatural forces - 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. They did not want to be sent to the abyss, as they called it. And so Jesus gave them permission to enter into a herd of pigs.
The fact that there were pigs there demonstrates, by the way, that Jesus was definitely in pagan territory, and not among his own countrymen. In an instant the demons had left the man whom they had possessed, and he was free of their torments.
Imagine what it would have been like, to be one of the people of that region who had witnessed these events. You would have seen with your own eyes a man of Israel - Jesus - who was filled with a supernatural and heavenly power that was stronger that the hellish power of the demons. You would have heard with your own ears the conversation between this man, with his powerful yet kindly voice, and the evil spirits, with their gravelly and sinister voices.
Do you think that seeing and hearing these things would have caused you to believe in Jesus? Do you think that your faith in him and in his divine mission would have been strengthened considerably through this experience? Think again!
For the people who did see and hear these things, they were not drawn to Jesus in faith, but they were repelled in fear. They asked him to leave their region. They did not want to put their trust in him or to learn God’s Word from him. They wanted him to go as far away from them as possible! Why is this?
Well, for the simple reason that being an eyewitness to a miracle, in itself, does not create or strengthen a true, saving faith. God does not use miracles to cause people to believe in Jesus. Such faith comes only through the Word of Christ.
The miracles of Jesus did get people’s attention. But what we actually see in the New Testament, is that those people who witnessed a miracle of Jesus, were more likely than not to misconstrue its meaning, or to project their own preconceived interpretations onto it, or 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. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
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 or durability 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. You might think it will, and the conventional religious wisdom might lead you to expect that it will. But it will not.
The inborn alienation and hostility with which we all come into the world can, however, be changed by the Word and Sacraments of Christ! The message of God’s grace in Christ has within it the power to convert and 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, or of renewing the faith of those who already believe.
When your faith is challenged by the distractions and deceptions of the twenty-first century world in which you live, you are not lacking in access to the means that God has always used to help and comfort his people in their struggles, and to renew and bolster their faith.
The people 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 was first uttered by his lips.
He himself still speaks through his ministers, when they proclaim his gospel and administer his sacraments. 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 by the Lord’s command.
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 - your Redeemer from sin and death, who came into this world to seek and to save the lost, the fearful, ad the hopeless.
Through the message of the gospel, God’s Spirit impresses upon you the certain truth that Jesus did die for your sins, and was raised again for your justification. In preaching, and in the Lord’s Holy Supper - where Jesus’ words exercise a unique and special sacramental power for your benefit - you are given an opportunity to cling here and now to the living Christ, so that you can and will be able to face even the deepest challenges of life and death with an unswerving confidence.
Sometimes it’s not easy to believe. Sometimes we stumble in our faith. Sometimes we might wonder if all these things are really true.
When such times come upon us, listen attentively to the Lord’s message. In humility remember your Baptism. 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 - that you belong to Christ, in life and in death. God’s Spirit will bear witness with your spirit that you are his child. You will be sure that Jesus rose from the dead for you, and that you will live forever with him.
You may not be able to touch Jesus bodily with your hands, or hear Jesus audibly with your ears. But that doesn’t matter.
Jesus comes to you in the means of grace in ways that are more potent and beneficial than the physical interactions he had with the Gerasenes, or with anyone else who knew him only in a physical way during his earthly ministry. Jesus comes to you in the means of grace to give to you, and to preserve within you, a real and enduring faith. Amen.