Faith in Tragedy

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost based on Mark 5:21-43

Dear people with faith in Jesus: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

When terror or tragedy strikes, it is common these days to claim strength in the midst of weakness and helplessness. For example: “Humboldt Strong” and “Toronto Strong.” It says that we are strong enough to get through this tragedy. We are strong, so we will survive, and life will go on.

What is it that makes us strong? Our resolve and determination? Our self-confidence and smug attitude? Our faith in ourselves to stay strong? These will not help us in tragedy.

Faith in Jesus will help us in tragedy and crisis. Faith in Jesus will get us through.

But this faith is not self-confidence. Faith is not confidence that you are strong and can take on the world.

Faith is humble begging. It is throwing yourself at the mercy of God. It is Jairus falling at the feet of Jesus and begging Him to heal his daughter. Faith is reaching out and touching Jesus’ garment for healing and falling at his feet as did the woman with the discharge of blood. Faith is trusting in God’s mercy even though we deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment because of our sins.

So you see, faith is not strength. It is relying on the strength of another, namely Jesus. Faith comes from weakness.

Ask anyone who says that they have strength in themselves to deal with tragedy. They will say they don’t need faith in Jesus. They have faith in themselves – they have no use for faith in Jesus. If you have the self-confidence to get through anything this life throws at you, you reject Jesus because you say you don’t need Him.

Faith is the opposite of self-confidence. It is denying yourself and clinging to Jesus for salvation, comfort, help, and for everything you need.

We heard of the faith of Jairus and the woman with the discharge of blood. Jairus was a prominent man, one of the rulers of the synagogue. He would have been well known, well connected, and well respected. Then we have the woman, who would have been ritually unclean because she just wouldn’t stop bleeding. She had spent all her money on doctors who were not able to help her at all. In fact, the text says she suffered much under many physicians and her condition only grew worse. According to Jewish law, she was unclean and forbidden from even worshiping in the synagogue which Jairus ruled.

Two people on opposite ends of the spectrum. Both in need. Jairus’s daughter was sick to the point of death. In fact, she died while Jairus was with Jesus. She was twelve years old, born about the time that the woman had started bleeding. Both Jairus and the woman went to Jesus for healing, because both had faith in Jesus.

Faith is rather a simple thing. Faith is knowing God as He is revealed to us in Jesus, assenting to the truth of God’s Word, and trusting in God, especially for the forgiveness of sins because of Jesus’ death for us.

Faith is trust in Jesus, even when we don’t have all the answers. Faith does not ask, “Why did this happen to me?” but simply trusts in God’s mercy. Having faith means realizing that all the bad things that happen in the world are not only because of everyone else’s sins, but our own sins, too. Having faith means realizing that God is justly displeased because of my sins.

This brings us back to faith coming from weakness, not strength. In our weakness, we trust in Jesus for salvation, comfort, help, and for everything we need.

Faith does not come from within us. Faith comes from outside of us. Faith is the gift of God. As Ephesians tells us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one my boast.” (2:8-9) God gives us faith as a free gift.

We cannot attain faith by our own powers or strength, but we can lose our faith when we rely on our own powers or strength. This is seen most often when Christians forget how God strengthens and nurtures faith. They forget that God keeps them in the faith through His Word. They forget that God nurtures them in the faith through the Lord’s Supper. They think that they don’t need God to keep them in the faith because they are strong enough on their own. They stay away from where God preserves them in the faith, thus they fall away from the faith.

Faith does not preserve itself. Just like faith does not create itself but is given by God through the means of grace, so also faith does not preserve itself, but is preserved by the means of grace. The second you think that you don’t need to hear God’s Word regularly and receive holy communion frequently, you are relying on your own strength and are walking down the road that leads to falling away.

Faith trusts in Jesus no matter how things appear. In the midst of suffering, it appears that God does not care. It seems like He is not listening to your prayers.

You don’t think everything seemed bleak to the woman who was able to get no help from doctors, only suffered more, and now had no money either? You don’t think she had prayed to God every single day over those twelve years, crying on her knees, and begging for help? Yet she still had faith that simply touching Jesus’ garment would heal her! After God had not answered her prayers for twelve years, she still had faith and trusted in Jesus.

Such a faith cannot come from within. The only way she could have such faith was because God had given her the gift of faith.

Jairus’s daughter’s future also looked bleak as she was so ill. Undoubtedly, Jairus also had been praying for healing before he went to Jesus, but instead of getting better, his daughter approach closer to death’s door. Then she died.

But having faith means believing in the resurrection of the dead, because Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Saint Matthew tells us that after his daughter died, Jairus said to Jesus, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” His daughter died, but Jairus still had faith in Jesus.

Your prayers for healing, comfort, and the end of suffering will be answered. No matter how bleak things appear, Jesus will make an end of them as He has promised. You may have to wait twelve years for healing like the woman, or you may have to wait until you die, but Jesus will give you healing, comfort, and end your suffering.

We trust in Him who is the resurrection and the life. We trust in Him because He has given us the gift of faith. He who suffered our sins and sicknesses on the cross will give us healing in His good time. He will save us from our illnesses and sins and even death itself, because He has conquered these enemies of ours.

Jesus continues to preserve our faith through the hearing of His Word and the eating and drinking of His body and blood. He continues to forgive our sins and will keep us in the faith until we die. And then when He returns, He will raise us from the dead like we are merely sleeping and give eternal life to us and all who have died in the faith.

Don’t think you are strong enough yourself to get through tragedies and crises. Rather, in your weakness, trust in Jesus and His promises to you. He will see you through. Pray to Jesus for healing and help even if He has not answered you for twelve years. Pray to Jesus for life in the midst of death.

When you do face tragedy, do not claim to be strong. Instead, in your weakness and helplessness, cling to Jesus. He is the resurrection and the life. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Mere Words Save

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost based on Mark 4:26-34

Dear pleasant planting of the Lord: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Talk is cheap, it is said. This is of course true of man’s word. It is far easier to talk of great things than accomplish them. It is easier to say that you care than to show that you care, just as it is easier for politicians to make promises than to deliver on those promises once elected.

We are so experienced and familiar with empty talk and vain words, that we tend to hold words to be of little significance or value. Even worse, we recognize our own gossip, slander, complaining; our own name-calling, cursing, and lying and we may indeed say silence is better than words.

Yet God has chosen to save us through words. Not just any words, but His words. God has chosen to save us not through miracles that we witness; not through astonishing incidents we experience; not through overpowering sensations we feel. God has chosen to save you through the humble means of human words. He has chosen to save you from eternal death and hell by His Word.

They are very particular words that save: words that express the Gospel – that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for your sins on the cross; particular words that tell you that God loved you so much that He sacrificed His Son for you; particular words that proclaim you justified, that is, declared not guilty for Christ’s sake through faith, when you believe that you are received into favour and that your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake.

These words are sown into hearts. The sower sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The sower simply scatters the Word. He’s not worried about the outcome.

Anyway, the growth is not in his hands. The earth automatically produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.

It may seem like a small, insignificant seed. Just mere words. But these seeds grow up and become larger than all the garden plants and put out branches so that birds can make nests in their shade.

God’s Word produces. It produces faith – saving faith which brings us to heaven. It produces works – good works which serve our neighbour and supply the proof that faith is living. God’s Word produces. It does not return to Him empty, but accomplishes that which God purposes, and succeeds in the thing for which He sends it (cf. Is. 55:11)

This is true for Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as well. Without God’s Word, the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of new birth in the Holy Spirit.

Without God’s Word, the bread and wine are plain bread and wine and no Lord’s Supper. But with Christ’s words, “This is my body… this is my blood… given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” He gives us exactly what He promises: His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.

God’s Word does what it says it will do. It produces faith and it produces good works, which are the fruit of faith.

Jesus continued the parable saying, “But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” Scripture often calls the close of the age or Judgment Day, the harvest. Once the grain is ripe, it is harvested.

There is only one Judgment Day, but in way, it does not come at the same time for all of us because we all die at different times. As the book of Hebrews tell us, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes the judgment” (Heb. 9:27) After death, there is no opportunity to repent or believe or do good works – these are all to be done while we are still alive.

Do not look at death from an earthly perspective. Look at death from God’s perspective. When the grain is ripe, He puts in the sickle because the harvest has come. When God has called His elect to faith and He has produced growth in them so that that are ripe, He harvests them into His barn. He takes them home to heaven.

From an earthly perspective, we sometimes hear it said that it was too soon. My parents were taken too early. My spouse died too soon. My poor little child died too young. God says, when the grain is ripe, He puts in the sickle because the harvest has come.

The earthly perspective forgets that heaven is our aim, our goal, our home. It is God’s aim, goal, and home for us. When our loved ones die in the faith, that is God harvesting His ripe grain. It is God taking His children home.

We have the same aim and goal as all believers – to be forever with the Lord. However, since we are still here on earth, that means it is not yet time for our harvest. It means that we are not yet ripe. We are still here to grow in faith and produce the fruit of faith. Even bed-ridden believers can pray for others while on their deathbeds and provide a witness of hope in God’s promises to their families. We can grow in faith and produce the fruit of faith until we are ripe, and then the harvest comes.

The harvest will come. The time will come when your appointed time to die arrives, and then comes the judgment. Because God’s Word has been sown in your heart and faith has sprouted and grown, you will be ripe for the harvest.

You have nothing to fear in death or on Judgment Day because Jesus has already been judged for your sins. You are baptized into His death and resurrection and you eat His body and drink His blood for the forgiveness of all your sins, so you will receive your promised inheritance of eternal life.

This is not empty talk or vain words. It is almighty God’s promise to you that is sure and certain. Heaven and earth will pass away, but God’s promise to you will not pass away (Matt. 24:35). Man’s words are empty. But when God speaks, it is already done. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Jesus: Crazy, Possessed, or God?

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost based on Mark 3:20-35

Dear goods plundered from Satan: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus is out of His mind, claimed His family. He is possessed by Satan, said the scribes. Whoever does not do the will of God comes to the same conclusions.

You either take what Jesus said and taught, believe it, and do the will of God, or you reject what Jesus said and taught, do not believe, and do not do the will of God. It’s not a game of picking and choosing. You don’t pick and choose what you like out of what Jesus’ said and taught. It’s all or nothing. You must conclude either that He is God and speaks the truth, or He was insane and a lunatic. Everything He said and did He said and did as God, or He said and did for Satan. There is no middle ground.

There was no denying that Jesus had been casting out demons. Satan’s unclean spirits fell down before Jesus, and He showed His power and authority over them by casting them out. Jesus has power and authority demons. He was casting them out either by the power of God, or the power of the devil, the prince of demons.

The scribes argued that Jesus did it with the power of the devil. They said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out demons.” They rejected what Jesus said and taught, so that was the only conclusion to which they could arrive.

His family wasn’t much better. They said that He’s lost His mind. He’s off His rocker. He’s gone crazy. His family went out to seize Him; to grab Him by force and take Him away from the crowds because they were saying, “He is out of His mind.”

The followers of Christ should expect no different treatment from those who do not do the will of God, whether they are our family or not. Where we cling to what Jesus said and taught, they will think that we are out of our minds.

Jesus said things with which our rational minds have problems. The man Jesus says that He is the Son of God the Father, making Himself equal with God (Jn 5:17-18). He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (Jn 6:53)

You must either believe what Jesus says or conclude that He is out of His mind. If you do believe Jesus’ words, then the world will conclude that you are out of your mind, just as they have concluded that Jesus is out of His mind.

To conclude that Jesus is out of His mind is much the same as concluding that Jesus is in league with Satan. Since the work of the Holy Spirit is calling sinners to believe in who Jesus is and trust His work of salvation, those who reject the Holy Spirit’s call to faith and say that Jesus is crazy or demon-possessed are in danger of committing blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Jesus says that whoever blasphemes the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.

The calling of the Holy Spirit may take place over a significant period of time, but there comes a time when faith either takes root or is rejected. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is refusing to believe, denying the Gospel, rejecting who Jesus is and what He has done. This is why the sin against the Holy Spirit is mortal and unforgiveable. It is a rejection of forgiveness.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is to reject His call to repentance. It is not about any particular sin, but it is refusing to turn away from any sin and receive forgiveness. Every other sin can be forgiven. No other sin is an eternal sin. We are all sinful and commit sin every day. Some Christians even fall into great shame and vice in their weakness. But these sins are not the same as blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is refusing to turn away from sin when you are called to repentance and faith through God’s Word. Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is not any act of sin, however heinous, but a state or habit of sin which someone wilfully choses and in which he persists in opposition to the Holy Spirit.

It is important to note that Jesus did not say that the scribes or His family had already committed the unforgiveable sin. He warned them of the danger of committing it. We know certainly that Jesus’ brothers James and Jude later believed (cf. I Cor. 9:5), and especially James became an important figure in the early church. We know that Jesus’ mother Mary believed and is found at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:26-27).

The warning is that if someone hardens his heart when the Holy Spirit is calling him to faith, he is in a very dangerous place where the Holy Spirit may eventually stop calling him. Death may come. Christ may return. This then is final impenitence and unbelief – the unforgivable sin which is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

However, the Holy Spirit has revealed to us that Jesus is God and He is not out of His mind. We cannot always understand His mind. His thoughts not our thoughts, neither are His ways our ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways and His thoughts higher than our thoughts (Is. 55:8-9).

God does things that don’t make sense to us. He allows things to happen in the world and in our lives that we cannot see as being good.

Yet we trust in Jesus. We trust that He loves us and does everything only for our eternal good. Surely He only wants what is good for us since He has plundered us from the devil.

Satan did not defeat himself. Satan did not cast out Satan. Jesus bound Him and then plundered his house. Jesus rendered Satan powerless and then saved the captured prey from his house.

In our sins, we were hopeless to save ourselves and escape from Satan. Because of our sins we deserve to spend eternity with Satan in hell. But Jesus would not have it so. Jesus is the stronger one (cf. Mark 1:7) who bound Satan. Jesus “took captivity captive” (Eph. 4:8) and plundered Satan’s house, saving us from under his power. Our sin which held us captive under Satan has been forgiven. We have been released from the Law which would accuse us (Rom. 7:6).

Satan’s reign over us has been destroyed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our sins do not keep us captive to Satan. Jesus bound Satan and he is thus powerless to hold us captive. And since Jesus took captivity captive, captivity itself is captured. There is no longer any captivity to threaten God’s people. Christ has conquered sin, death, and the devil and He has made us free. There is no threat of hell for us.

All true believers come to the same conclusion. We take what Jesus said and taught, believe it, and do the will of God. We believe and follow Jesus’ Word even when we cannot completely understand it. We believe and follow Jesus’ Word even when the world rails against us for being crazy. We believe and follow Jesus’ Word, because His Word is eternal life. His Word has given us faith in His death for us, so that we know that we have been plundered from the devil and are safe in His Church where He forgives our sins and brings us to eternal life. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Treasure in Jars of Clay

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost based on II Corinthians 4:5-12

Dear recipients of the great divine treasure: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

We take division as a given when it comes to many things in this life. Even within families we are divided by politics and we root for opposing sports teams. We accept this. Aunt Molly won’t get invited to the summer family barbeque because no one wants to listen to her never-ending songs of praise to the Liberal Party. Uncle Jack won’t get invited to watch the football game with the rest because he cheers with a bit too much fervour for the Bombers. We don’t have any problem with this. This makes sense to us. Yet we struggle with the words of Jesus that He brings division; that families and even the visible church on earth will be divided, requiring us not to share in altar fellowship with those who do not believe, teach, and confess what we do.

Show all the zeal you want for your favourite political party. Show passion and enthusiasm for your favourite sports team. That’s all well and good. People have no problem with that. But you had better not show zeal for Jesus and His Word of truth. Doing so, you will immediately find yourself in real conflict. You had better not confidently confess what you know to be true because that will offend people and then you will have conflict of the kind with which people do have a problem.

Most especially, this is the life of the ministers of Christ. If a pastor is going to fulfil his ordination vows, he will deal with and face conflict. Not polite disagreement. Not respectful dialogue. It is conflict of eternal proportions, as we take our place in the conflict between heaven and hell; between God and the devil.

Saint Paul writes that death is at work in pastors. Ministry is deadly. That’s why we are tempted to take the easy way out. Avoid the conflict. Keep the peace. Do not acknowledge division. Just give people whatever they want. In other words, we are tempted to not fulfil our ministry.

Our own unworthiness doesn’t help either. We are not worthy to undertake this task of ministry. We’re poor, miserable sinners just like our parishioners. Saint Paul himself said that he is not sufficient in himself for the task of ministry (II Cor. 3:5). He called himself the foremost or chief of sinners (I Tim. 1:15) and the least of the apostles (I Cor. 15:9).

However, he also writes that our sufficiency does not come from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God who has made us competent to be ministers (II Cor. 3:5-6). We are just jars of clay; earthen vessels. Such vessels are cheap, unappealing, and rather common. They are the least valued and bound to break sooner or later.

Yet, astonishingly, God gives His divine treasure, His own presence of grace which is absolutely priceless and beyond all value in wretched vessels awaiting destruction. Through pastors as jars of clay, God gives His great treasure to His people. God being our sufficiency, we share in Christ’s sufferings (Php 3:10), and as we heard Saint Paul write to the Church in Corinth, “We who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake… So death is at work in us, and life in you.”

Indeed, Saint Paul writes to the saints in Colossae that he rejoices in his sufferings for their sake, and in his flesh, he is filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, the Church (Col. 1:24). Certainly, Paul is not suggesting that he is adding to or completing Christ’s work of atonement, but rather, that his weaknesses and sufferings as Christ’s messenger, and the death at work in him, helps the power of Christ and the glory of God truly shine. The jar of clay is seen to be what it is, and God’s divine treasure is seen for what it is.

So also, every pastor’s weaknesses and sufferings are for the sake of the Gospel. Every conflict we face is for our congregations, even when those conflicts come with members of our congregations. Death is at work in us for the sake of our congregations.

We may be afflicted in every way, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, but we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken by God, or destroyed. Yes, even if are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, it is in order that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

In what way is the life of Jesus be manifested in pastors’ bodies? By us never dying? Certainly not. Rather, the life of Jesus is manifested in what He does through our mortal bodies.

The life of Jesus is manifested in our bodies when Jesus uses our mouth and hands to baptize and save an infant from the devil’s clutches. The life of Jesus is manifested in our bodies when Jesus absolves a penitent using our mouth. The life of Jesus is manifested in our bodies when we distribute His living body and blood to His people, giving them eternal life. Death is at work in our bodies which are made of earth and will return to earth, even while life is at work in you, to whom Jesus gives eternal life through us. This manifests the life of Jesus in our bodies.

Jesus gives His treasure of eternal life in jars of clay. The life of Jesus will also be manifested in your mortal flesh when He raises your bodies from the dead. That is the life of Jesus manifested in you. Sinful men deserving eternal punishment being raised to eternal life.

The light of God has shone in your hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. This is the treasure given to you in jars of clay.

“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” If a pastor is preaching about himself, he is proclaiming himself, not Christ. That’s an immediate warning flag and a sign of false teachers. A pastor is to preach Christ crucified and to serve Christ’s bride, the Church, even when it means facing affliction and conflict. He is to proclaim not himself, but Christ, and bring to Christ’s people the great treasure of the life of Jesus.

The life of Jesus is your eternal life, because He lived and died for you. To this treasure we cling even in affliction and conflict; even when we see that it causes division. Christ in His conflict with death, defeated death, so even as death pursues us all the way, we know that the life of Jesus will be manifested in us when He raises us on the Last Day.

Christ sends this message to you in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. Christ and His life for you are the treasure. Cling to that truth with all zeal, passion, and enthusiasm, even if it causes division. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.