Faith in the Good and Gracious Will of God
Third Sunday after Epiphany| Rev. Rolf Preus| January 26, 2003| Matthew 8:1-13
It all depends on God’s will, on God being willing, on God wanting to do it. If He doesn’t want to do it, it won’t be done. If He wants to do it, it will be done. If He is willing. But is He? The leper believed that He was.
It all depends on God speaking, on Him saying the word, as the psalmist says, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made.” God said, “Let there be,” and there was. God says it and so it is. Jesus didn’t have to go anywhere to heal the servant of the Roman centurion, He only had to say a word and it would be done. This is what the centurion believed.
It depends on God’s will and it depends on God’s word. And as far as we are concerned, they are the same. Can you know His will without his word? Can you know what God wants if He does not tell you what he wants? Do you know what is in God’s mind? You cannot know unless he tells you. “For who has known the mind of the LORD?” the Bible asks. The answer? No one. You can only know as much as God chooses to tell you. And the only word we have from God is the word that he gave to the prophets and apostles, the word that they recorded for us in the Bible.
Faith trusts in God’s gracious will. Faith trusts in the power of God’s word. The leper illustrates the first and the centurion illustrates the second. The leper was a man who was the lowest of the low. He was unclean. He was helpless. He was segregated from society. The words most familiar to him were: “Keep away from me. Stay away.” He was required by law to shout out, “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever he came near healthy people. There was no cure for him, there was only more pain, more misery, loneliness, and rejection. But the man was not afraid to go to Jesus. Why not? Because he knew that Jesus would not reject him. He had heard the true word about Jesus. There is no other possible explanation for his bold approach. He had heard the word about Jesus. For that, somebody had to have told him. This is how it works: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
The centurion was also an outsider. He was a Gentile, not a Jew. He came to Jesus to intercede for his servant who was paralyzed and in terrible pain. Jesus praised his faith as being greater than any He had seen in Israel . Why? Because the man knew that what Jesus said was all that mattered. The leper appealed to the Lord’s goodwill. The centurion appealed to the power of his word.
And this brings us to the very foundation of our Christian faith. Faith is trust that God is willing to help us or save us. Faith is trust that when God’s word promises help, it is as good as given. And, as we’ve seen, the two are inseparable, because you can only know God’s goodwill in his word, and when you have his word, you have his goodwill.
Apart from God’s clear promises we are in darkness, left to rely on ourselves. We can pray for help. We can wish for help. We can imagine help will come. But without Him speaking to us and promising His help, our prayers are no more than wishes with no more solid foundation than our own imaginations. Simply put, doesn’t matter what we want from God if God hasn’t promised to give it to us.
There was a famous atheist by the name of Ludwig Feuerbach. He was thought to be a very intelligent man. He had a theory. He believed that God did not exist, but that there had to be a perfectly natural explanation for the fact that people believed in this God who didn’t exist. He concluded that people create God out of their own failed hopes and dreams. God becomes whatever we want to be but can’t be. God’s promises become whatever we want to have but can’t have. To Feuerbach and his disciples, God and his promises are no more than our own wishful thinking.
According to the Psalmist, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1) This particular fool did have a point, though. People do create their own gods and then they invent promises from their gods. We Christians have known that all along. The Bible calls this idolatry. Idolatry lives in every human heart. It is the essence of sin. The idolater refuses to recognize the authority of God’s will and he will not be bound by God’s word.
Look at the faith of the man suffering from leprosy. When he said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean,” he was confessing that Jesus was God. He called him Lord. And when he said: “If you are willing,” he was not questioning that Jesus was willing to show him mercy. Just the opposite: he was appealing to God’s gracious and merciful will. He was confessing that Jesus was the God who could help him. He was acknowledging his own abject helplessness, his own inability to help himself in any way. Lord if you are willing. The leper did not depend on his own will or desire to cure himself or to be cured.
Listen, faith healers! Listen to the leper and learn from him what faith really is. Pay close attention to this text. The problem with today’s faith healers is that they won’t be bound by the text of the Bible. If they, rather than St. Matthew, were to have written this account it would go something like this. The leper would say to Jesus, “If I am willing, you can make me clean.” Then Jesus would reply, “That’s right, you poor and wretched man. I can’t do anything unless you will it, so, do you really want to be clean, do you really believe, have you really decided, are you sufficiently yielded or devoted to me so that I will be able to help you?”
No! The source of our faith does not reside in our own will, but in God’s will. Let those who celebrate and bow down at the altar of man’s free will give up their idol or at least be silenced. Let their theology be exposed for the lie that it is. It is God’s will, not ours. It is his willingness, not ours, because our will, our wants, our desires can accomplish nothing at all. It is God’s will, what he wants, what he desires for us that is everything.
And his will – what He desires for us – is revealed in His word. It is given in His word. It is His word alone that makes it happen. If we could only remember that God’s will and word cannot be separated, we would spare ourselves from terrible delusions, confusion and trouble. Everyone once in a while I run across someone who thinks that he can discover God’s will for him apart from God’s word to him. He imagines that God tells us His will on matters where His written word says nothing at all. He prays a prayer and waits until he has a certain kind of feeling or sign or message that he thinks is from God. He then acts on that feeling, sign or message with confidence that God has directed him, that God has revealed His will to him.
Now if you ask such a person, “How do you know this is what God wants you to do?” he will say, “I prayed for guidance and God gave it.” If you persist and ask, “Where does the Bible, where does the word of God tell you that this is God’s will?” he will reply that God tells us many things that are not in the Bible. If you question that, he will then question your faith. Don’t you believe that God guides and directs our lives? Don’t you believe in the power of prayer?
Yes, we do believe that God directs our lives and we certainly believe in the power of prayer. But God directs our lives by his will, not our own. This is why our Lord has taught us to pray, “Thy will be done.” And the power of prayer is not that it gains information about God’s will apart from God’s word, but in precisely the opposite. Prayer always flows from faith in his word. As Jesus promises in John 15:7, “If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.”
Faith does not expect from God what He has not promised. Faith expects and trusts in what God has promised. There is a world of difference. It is the difference between playing God and trusting in God. It is the difference between trying to get God’s will to conform to ours, and submitting to His will, knowing that it must be gracious even as God is gracious. True faith believes that God knows better than we do what we need. You can be sure of this: If God hasn’t promised something to you in the words of Holy Scripture, you don’t need it. If He has promised it to you, He will surely give it to you. Both the leper and the centurion prayed to Jesus. Both prayed in faith. That faith was expressed by appealing to his will and his word.
Jesus revealed his glory, not the glory of God which is that unapproachable light that would destroy all who seek him, but the glory of God that seeks out to save those who suffer from sin and its fruit. While His miracles reveal the power of his divine word, his suffering on Calvary reveals His goodwill to sinners. He can give you forgiveness of sins and eternal life. He is God. He wants to give you forgiveness of sins and eternal life. He bore your sins on the cross. Jesus reveals the same glory today. No, he does not promise that he will remove every sickness from our bodies, that is why we must pray, “If it is Your will,” when we pray for health and healing. But He does promise forgiveness for every sin. That is why we don’t pray, “If it is your will, forgive me for my wrong.” We know it is His will. He has said so in the Bible. And He has said that we need this forgiveness, that He has died to win this forgiveness, and that He gives this forgiveness through the very words He speaks to us as He baptizes us, as He absolves us, as He gives us His body and blood to eat and to drink. There is His will and word bound together.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob trusted in the gospel that we believe, teach and confess. They did not trust in their own virtue. They trusted in God’s grace. They are our fathers in the faith. Their God is our God. Their doctrine is our doctrine. Their faith is our faith. Their prayer is our prayer. God showed them His gracious will. God spoke to them and so it was. Abraham trusted in the Lord who would provide on the Mountain called Moriah. He walked up the steep slope to sacrifice his son. He found there at the altar God’s provision in a ram caught by his horns in a bush. He offered that animal in the place of his son. Neither Abraham nor Isaac trusted in the blood shed by that animal. They trusted in the blood shed by Jesus, the divine descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They did not trust in what they did by their own will. They trusted in God’s goodwill in Christ as revealed in His holy word. Through this faith, and this faith alone, we too will inherit the kingdom. There is no other way.