Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Trinity
Ephesians 6:10-17 + John 4:46-54
As St. Paul warned us in the Epistle, we have so many enemies in this world, so many people who would see us fall and cause us to perish eternally. Not people, actually. Not flesh and blood. But principalities, powers, the rulers of the darkness of this age, spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places—they are our chief enemies, the devil and his powerful spirit army, who work night and day to drag us into hell.
But God has provided us with armor, so that we can go into daily battle with those enemies and conquer them again and again. The “full armor of God,” Paul calls it, the whole set of armor, made up of all the individual pieces a soldier needs to succeed.
One of those powerful pieces of armor is the shield. The shield was a vital piece of armor for the Roman soldier, because it only took one good archer on the enemy’s side to take down any number of soldiers with their arrows, shot from a long distance away. Likewise, the devil shoots his arrows of temptation, doubt, and false doctrine. And the shield that defends a Christian from the devil’s fiery darts is faith.
But not just any faith will do. Having faith in the wrong thing is like having a shield made of paper. No, the faith that the apostle Paul calls a shield and a vital piece of the full armor that God provides, the faith that protects you from the devil’s flaming arrows is a very specific thing that requires a very specific formation.
We see Jesus forming that kind of faith in the Gospel. And through the Gospel, He’ll form the same kind of faith in you.
There was a royal official, a nobleman, who had a sick son. Very sick, with a high fever caused by an illness that was about to kill him. What a terrifying thing it is to have a sick child, and to see him getting worse and worse, without any signs of recovery! It made his father desperate. It made him recognize how helpless he was, how hopeless, how needy. And that turned out to be a good thing, a great blessing from God, because it caused him to look up, away from himself and his own works and his own noble position, to seek help from somewhere else, to listen for any word of the existence of a Healer, of a Helper.
And then he heard just such a word. Jesus of Nazareth was back in Galilee. The word was, He had turned water into wine here in Cana not too long ago, and then He had been preaching and healing all these sick people down in Judea. The word was that Jesus could heal the sick, and this nobleman heard the word and believed it. He had a kind of faith already.
So he left Capernaum and went over to Cana, where Jesus was, and implored Him to come down and heal his son.
But Jesus chose not to go. Not because He didn’t want to help the nobleman, but because the man and his whole house needed a lot more than a healing miracle. They needed faith—the kind of faith that would last, that would shield them from enemies that were so much deadlier than sickness.
He said to the man, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe.” It’s a rebuke toward all the people who weren’t listening to what Jesus was saying or to what the Old Testament Scriptures were saying about Him. They were all holding back judgment about Him, not ready to believe in Him as the Christ until they saw enough miracles, until they saw enough divine glory in Him to put their trust in Him.
But faith that relies on sight is not faith—certainly not the kind of faith that can shield a person from the devil and save a person from death. Besides, what was it that the man and his family and the rest of Israel needed to believe? Not just that Jesus could perform a healing miracle, under certain conditions, like Jesus being in the same room with the sick person. They needed to believe in Jesus as the Creator of the universe, as the God of free grace and favor, as the holy Son of God who had taken on human flesh so that He might deliver sinners from sin, death, and the power of the devil. None of that was visible. None of that could be seen then, nor can it be seen now. But it all had to be believed, if their faith was to do them any lasting good.
Well, the nobleman, the desperate father, is not exactly encouraged by Jesus’ words. It seems like he wasn’t even listening. He wants to see the sign. He wants to see the wonder. He’s not interested in anything at the moment except the healing of his son. Sir, come down before my child dies!
Jesus won’t go with him. That would be too much sight, too much seeing, like giving an alcoholic a drink in order to cure him of his addiction. No, Jesus gives the father something far better than sight. He gives him a word, a promise. Go your way; your son lives. Before, all the man had was a general confidence in Jesus as a good man who could do miraculous things. That’s a good start, but it doesn’t give you anything specific to believe. But when God gives you a word, when God makes a promise, now faith has something to hold onto, something to cling to.
So the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him. He saw nothing. He experienced nothing. But see how the Holy Spirit worked through that word of Jesus to cause the man to believe what Jesus said, without having to see anything at all. Now, suddenly, he doesn’t need Jesus to come down to his house with him. Now, suddenly, he is content to go his way, believing that his son would be healed.
When he found out on his way home that his son had, in fact, gotten better at the very moment when Jesus said, “Your son lives,” it says that he himself believed, and his whole household. Now what did he believe? And what did his household believe? That his son was alive? No, that wasn’t something that had to be believed. It could be seen. What did they believe? They now believed in Jesus as the Savior sent from God. They now believed the word of Jesus, who not only said, “Your son lives,” but also, He who believes in the Son has everlasting life.
It’s good to have faith in Jesus as the One who can heal the sick, as the One who can keep you safe from thieves and robbers, as the One who can keep you and your loved ones safe from reckless drivers and natural disasters. But that kind of faith isn’t enough yet, because, while God has told you in His Word that He is always merciful, kind and good and cares for you as a loving Father, He has not told you that He will take away all sickness, danger and death from you while you live on this earth. Faith without a promise from God won’t shield you when the devil hurls accusations against you, when God’s commandments condemn you for your sins. A word-less faith won’t help you when God, in His wisdom, allows sickness to remain, or permits some tragedy to strike.
But when God makes a promise, now faith has something to rely on. Because faith that relies on the Word of God, the Word of Christ, is faith that cannot be shaken.
So listen carefully to the Word of God when it is preached. Scour the Holy Scriptures for those precious promises of God whenever you’re doing battle against the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh. He attaches the promise of the forgiveness of sins to a pastor’s absolution, to Holy Baptism, and to the bread and wine that are His body and blood. He promises to uphold His Holy Church and to make it victorious over the very gates of hell. He promises grace and every blessing to His saints, strength to bear up under the cross, providence for your body and your soul, fatherly guidance for your life and even resurrection from the dead. Armed with faith in these promises—faith that is formed by the Holy Spirit Himself—you have the kind of faith that will serve as a mighty shield against all the devil’s flaming arrows. Amen.