In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). Chances are you first heard those words from blessed Apostle Paul. But he was not the first to speak them. He was in fact quoting the prophet Habakkuk, who was very confused and wanted to know why God permitted his people to become apostate. And God answered that he would punish the people of Judah by the Babylonians. “But why, God, will you punish your people by a people even more wicked?” Habakkuk protested. And God’s answer: “The just shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4), which is to say, you cannot understand my ways, so believe in me and trust that I will always do what is best.
That is hard, isn’t it? It’s hard to believe when your eyes see just the opposite of what God has promised to do. It’s hard to be sick and in the hospital and to believe that God loves you and is taking good care of you. It’s even harder to believe that when it’s a loved one who is sick and dying, as was the case with this nobleman, whose son was at the point of death.
Let’s face it. If the Lord wants us to believe for instance that his disciples are made through preaching and baptism, then it would certainly help to see our church grow, even a little, through preaching and baptism. And if he wants us to believe that when we call upon him in the day of trouble he will deliver us, then we need to see some evidence of deliverance. If he wants us to believe that our heavenly Father knows what we need and will provide it for us, it would nice to see the pile of bills shrink and not the balance in the check book each week. And if God really is a heavenly Father, who provides for his children richly and daily and preserves them by defending against all dangers and by guarding and protecting them from all evil, then life in general should get more manageable and less stressful.
But that doesn’t seem to happen. For Habakkuk it even got worse, as God was going to use the heathen Babylonians to overrun his people and to carry them off into a seventy-year exile. For the Church especially in these last times it’s the same. Things are only getting worse. What is more, our Lord admitted it when he said, “For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24) No wonder he felt the need to offer this bit of encouragement, “But he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).
And what of our own lives? I’m afraid we can never rid ourselves of this reality that was first spoken to Adam in the garden, “Dust you are, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). Finally, we are all dying. And as we’re dying, evils come and evils go, so that the best comfort we can offer each other perhaps comes from these words of St. Paul, “For I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
And now we really see what it means to live by faith. Our whole life is to be lived with our sights fixed on heaven. We are to be that marathon runner, who endures fatigue and pain as he presses on towards the finish line. We are as that wise investor, who takes what he has in the present and does not use it for the present but invests it in a better future life. In effect, we are ones who do not believe that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” We crave, even demand to have the two in the bush. So we let the one in the hand fly away and will not be content until we have the very best.
But that takes faith, doesn’t it? For a while we have indisputable proof that this life exists - we are, after all, living it - we have only promises on which to rely when it comes to heaven, God’s promises to be sure, but only promises nonetheless. So we live by faith in those promises. We believe that though this present reality is full of evil and suffering, things will eventually get so much better that we can’t even compare the present sufferings with our future glory.
Well, I’ve got news for you. Satan perceives this to be our greatest weakness, the place where we are the most vulnerable. And so the master general and strategist he is this is where he attacks us with all his might. “Put on the full armor of God,” St. Paul exhorts, “that you may be able to take your stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of this age, against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:11-12).
We see that in this father, don’t we? I don’t think it’s too farfetched at all when I say that this was the hardest moment of his life. His son is sick and dying. No doctor can heal him. No medicine can cure whatever it is that has made him so sick. His father is fully aware of this and desperate. So Satan attacks. That’s the nature of this foe. He shows no mercy whatsoever. If we are down, he hits us, and the deeper our despair, the more vicious his attack.
Now you know why life can be so hard, and why you can feel stressed out, even despondent at times. It’s because of Satan and not because you have abandoned the faith and forsaken Christ. Oh, Satan wants you to think that of course, so that he can pile guilt onto what is already a heavenly load for you to bear.
But in answer to him, I hold before you this father. “When he heard that Jesus had come out of Judea into Galilee, he went to him and implored him to come down and heal his son.” I ask you. Would he have done that if he had abandoned Christ? Hardly. And would you in your long and fierce struggles turn to the Lord in prayer and come before him in his house to be comforted by preaching and the Sacrament, if you had abandoned him? Look, I know your faith can be frustratingly weak. Mine can too. That is why we struggle as we do. That is why this father begged Jesus to come to his house and heal his son. But let’s never forget weak as it is, it’s still faith. And so even in the midst of great struggle and severe emotions, it still brings us to Christ for help, just as it did this father.
And what did Jesus do for him? He healed his son of course, even as he will, on the Last Day, deliver you from every evil attack and bring you safely into his heavenly kingdom. But that’s not really the focus of this Gospel. It implies deliverance from sin and all the evils it brings, but it focuses on the faith of this father, a faith which once again brought him to Jesus for help but which was weak and so allowed Satan to lay much anxiety upon his soul. So Jesus, after pointing out his need for a stronger faith – “unless you people see signs and wonders you will not believe” – strengthened it.
Just look at the change that takes place in him. When “Jesus said to him, ‘Go your way; your son lives,’” the man who was once despondent and begged Jesus to come to his house and heal his son, ”believed the word that Jesus spoke to him, and he went his way.”
My Christian friends, as with this man, so also with you. Jesus will not abandon you because your faith is weak. On the contrary, he knows how hard a life of faith is for you. He also knows how mercilessly and relentlessly the devil will attack your faith because of this. So rather than abandon you, he will strengthen your faith, that you “may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”
And your presence here today to receive his Absolution and to feast on his Body and Blood is clear evidence of this. The devil, though intent upon making your life miserable, has not defeated you. If anything, the sufferings he has inflicted upon you have only brought you closer to your Savior. For tell me. When are you most likely to turn to your Lord, to grasp his promises and to hold onto them with all your might? Is it not also in adversity? Indeed, one of the most remarkable things I have had the privilege to witness as a minister of Christ is that in the most desperate of times, the faith of God’s people so often shines the most brightly.
For the Lord always keeps his promises. He who brought you to faith by his Holy Spirit through preaching and baptism strengthens and so keeps you in faith by this same Spirit through the Gospel that is preached to you from this pulpit and also in the Holy Supper. Therefore when he says, “The just shall live by his faith,” he really means it. You who live by faith today will by faith live in the glory of heaven forever.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. §
The Reverend James A. Frey is pastor of St. Paul Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Belleville, Michigan.