Sermon for Trinity 21
Hosea 13:14 + Ephesians 6:10-17 + John 4:46-54
We have in our Gospel a very clear, very straightforward description of faith, and of the need for faith to grow and increase. Now, faith can be weak or strong, little or great, and that doesn’t change what faith gives us. A weak faith in Christ still has Christ, with all His mercy and forgiveness, just as much as a strong faith does. A little faith has the same treasure as a great faith. So it’s not about having more of Jesus’ love and forgiveness or less. It’s not about being more saved or less saved, or about being closer to God or farther away from God. Faith in Christ, even as tiny as a mustard seed, possesses all the benefits of Christ and makes a person a child and heir of heaven.
So faith needs to grow, not to receive greater blessings from Christ, but in order to hold onto Christ as the devil, the world and our sinful flesh try with all their might to make us let go. It’s about holding on ever more firmly, or letting Christ slip away entirely, and you will let Him slip away entirely unless your faith is constantly being built up by God’s Holy Spirit. Faith either increases or it decreases, but it never remains the same.
As long as things are going along steadily and relatively easily in your life, you don’t perceive whether your faith is strong or weak. It’s when trial and temptation come, hardship and affliction—that’s when faith reveals either its strength or its weakness. In our Gospel today, Jesus uses just such an affliction to increase the nobleman’s faith, to grow it from being a sight-oriented faith to a Word-oriented faith.
The affliction of the nobleman was the terrible illness of his son, who was sick with a fever of some kind that had him at the point of death. No doctor could help him. No medicine could save him. Only divine providence could help.
There was a report going around about a teacher named Jesus, who claimed to be sent from God. He not only preached and taught with authority. He also healed, and He did it on His own authority. Never once did this Jesus say, “In the name of God, be healed,” as the Apostles later did. No, Jesus spoke His own word of healing, and the sick were healed.
But that was down in Judea and Jerusalem. So far the only miracle Jesus had performed up here in Galilee where the nobleman lived was the changing of water into wine at a wedding. Still, the people of Galilee had recently gone down to Jerusalem for the Passover where they did see Jesus perform many miracles, and the miracles attracted them and made them begin to believe in Jesus.
That was faith, but it was a very weak faith that wouldn’t last for long, wouldn’t hold up under pressure and under the cross. If faith only lasts as long as you see God’s providence in your life, then it will soon wither and fade away.
That was the kind of faith that first brought the nobleman to Jesus. It was real faith, faith that looked to Jesus for help and mercy, but so far, it was a faith that relied on Jesus being physically present in the same room as the sick person in order to heal him. So the father begged Jesus to come, come down to heal his son who was at the point of death.
Jesus, knowing that the nobleman and the rest of the people of Galilee had only this weak, fragile faith that relied on miracles, that needed this constant supply of miracles that their eyes could see in order to believe in Jesus—Jesus doesn’t agree to go down to this father’s house to heal his son. He even rebukes this sight-oriented faith, not only of this nobleman, but of all the people. He says, Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe.
So Jesus points out the deficiency in their faith. You can’t continue to rely on your eyes in order to believe in Me. You can’t continue to trust in Me for help only if you can see what I’m doing and understand with your reason how and why I do it. You must learn to believe in Me even if your eyes see nothing and your reason tells you it’s foolish and worthless.
Does that seem like a mean reply by Jesus to this scared father in our Gospel? Reason says so. Our sinful flesh says so. That’s because our flesh thinks we actually deserve help from God, and that every suffering person deserves help from God, and that God isn’t good if He punishes or if He rebukes. What wickedness lives in us that we should ever pretend to be kinder and more evangelical than Jesus! That we should ever become His judges and try to tell Him how He should treat people!
But again, Jesus crushes our reason and condemns the idolatry that sets our will up against His. And for those who know the love and mercy of Jesus, His response to this father was just what the father needed, and just what we need, too.
Not that the nobleman’s faith was immediately strengthened. On the contrary, it was broken down even further by Jesus’ reply. Broken down, but not destroyed. Sir, come down before my child dies! He’s pleading. He’s desperate. He’s holding onto Jesus for dear life, but he’s only holding on by the slenderest thread of faith at this point. That’s OK. If you have even that slender thread that still looks to Him for mercy, you still have Jesus—all of Him, with all His mercy and love, forgiveness and salvation. Jesus will never cut that slender thread, and He will never turn a weak faith away. A bruised reed He will not break, And smoking flax He will not quench.
Just when the man’s faith is pushed to the breaking point, Jesus gives Him, not a sign, but a Word. Go your way; your son lives. That was it. Nothing at all for the man to see. Nothing visible for the man to cling to, not even the visible presence of Jesus going down to his house with him. Just a Word. And what did that divine word do in the heart of that man? The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him, and he went his way. Faith had been stretched to its limit, but it was built up again by the sure word of Jesus, now stronger than it was before, because it had grown from a sight-oriented faith to a word-oriented faith.
See how the nobleman’s word-oriented faith allowed him to start on his long journey home with a happy heart, comforted by the word of Jesus and now expecting to find his son no longer near death, but very much alive. He had no proof yet, but the faith that was built up by Jesus’ Word gave him a peace he hadn’t known before, so that, when his servants came out to meet him the next day while he was still on the road, his heart didn’t sink as they came out to meet him, afraid that it was going to be bad news. Instead, faith in Jesus’ word told him what to expect, and he wasn’t disappointed. They met him with the very words Jesus had spoken the day before, “Your son lives!” Then he inquired of them the hour when he got better. And they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” So the father knew that it was at the same hour in which Jesus said to him, “Your son lives.” And he himself believed, and his whole household. Now he believed with a word-oriented faith that had been proven right. His faith over these couple of days had grown from weak to strong, from untested to tested and approved. And now it was the kind of faith that engendered even more faith in the members of his household as he spoke the word of Jesus to them, and the Holy Spirit built them up, too.
That’s the kind of faith that is needed in order to withstand the devil’s constant and vicious attacks. As we heard in the Epistle today, our fight is not against flesh and blood, but against the wiles of the devil, against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. The more your faith relies on sight—on things going well around you, on signs and evidence of God’s love, the easier it will be for the devil to pull you away from faith entirely.
Of course, the devil is also able to attack a strong faith. Like the Apostle Peter, when he went out walking on the water to Jesus. His faith had grown into a word-oriented faith. “Lord, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus gave the word. And Peter believed the word rather than his reason or senses. His faith latched onto the word of Jesus and the water held up him just fine—until the wind and the waves attacked his faith and weakened it from the word-oriented faith it was to a sight-oriented faith. And when his sight told him the storm was too strong, and when his reason told him that people can’t walk on water, that’s ridiculous!, then his faith almost gave out, and he started to sink. But a little faith remained to still call out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus did, and then rebuked his sight-oriented faith, so that it might grow again into a word-oriented faith.
It’s not up to you to make your faith grow; Jesus does that by His Holy Spirit in His Word. It is up to you, as Christians, to keep paying attention to His Word. Jesus wants for all of you that you should know Him as your Savior and Helper, not because you have seen His salvation with your eyes, but because His Word tells you what He has done for you and what He will do for you: Because His Word tells you that He bore the cross for you, that He suffered the curse your sins deserved, shed His holy, precious blood, and that now God forgives you your sins for His sake and will yet show you His salvation when He comes again in glory, if not before. You may not see right now all the evidence you want to see of God’s favor or of God’s help. But in the Word of Jesus, you have all the armor you need to survive the attacks of the devil, the world, and your sinful nature. And as you hear and learn that Word more and more, in preaching and in the Sacrament, the Holy Spirit has all He needs to continue to call you to repent and turn from your sins and to sustain your faith and to build it up stronger and stronger, day by day, for the rest of your life. He who has promised is faithful. Amen.