God’s Word, Faith, and Prayer
The Twenty First Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| October 12, 2008| St. John 4:46-54
So Jesus came again to Cana of Galilee where He had made the water wine. And there was a certain nobleman whose son was sick at Capernaum. 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, for he was at the point of death. Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe.” The nobleman said to Him, “Sir, come down before my child dies!” Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your son lives.” So the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him, and he went his way. And as he was now going down, his servants met him and told him, saying, “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. This again is the second sign Jesus did when He had come out of Judea into Galilee.
The account of the healing of the nobleman’s son illustrates for us how three essential things relate in the life of every Christian: God’s word, faith, and prayer. The word of God creates faith. Faith is expressed in prayer. Prayer asks God for what faith needs. God answers prayer with his word. God talks to us. He makes promises to us. We take God at his word. Then we talk to him. He answers us.
A god who won’t talk to you is a god who has nothing to say. Such a god cannot bring you to faith. God calls us to faith and keeps us in the true faith by making promises to us that he keeps. We don’t see Jesus walking around like he did years ago as described in the four Gospels. But we do have his word recorded for us in the Bible. His word is publicly proclaimed. His promises are also attached to signs. We don’t claim a direct hotline to heaven when we say that God talks to us. Maybe you’ve heard people make such claims. They claim that when they were talking to God in prayer God said such and such to them or laid this or that burden on them. They want you to believe that God speaks directly to them.
We don’t make any such claims. God does not speak directly to us. He speaks to us through means. God has always spoken through means. God speaks to us through the Bible. He speaks to us through the biblical gospel that we hear. God speaks to us through the sacraments. We don’t claim that God speaks to us directly. That’s a dangerous claim to make. This is what we confess in the Smalcald Articles, one of the written confessions of our church:
And in those things which concern the spoken, outward Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward Word, in order that we may be protected against the enthusiasts, i.e., spirits who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word, and accordingly judge Scripture or the spoken Word, and explain and stretch it at their pleasure . . . All this is the old devil and old serpent, who also converted Adam and Eve into enthusiasts, and led them from the outward Word of God to spiritualizing and self-conceit . . . Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments. For God wished to appear even to Moses through the burning bush and spoken Word; and no prophet neither Elijah nor Elisha, received the Spirit without the Ten Commandments or spoken Word. Neither was John the Baptist conceived without the preceding word of Gabriel, nor did he leap in his mother’s womb without the voice of Mary. And Peter says, 2 Pet. 1, 21: The prophecy came not by the will of man; but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
Yes, God speaks to us. But he doesn’t speak to us in a secret way that only we can know. He speaks to us in his word that has been published throughout the entire world, preached to the four corners of the earth, and confessed in the creeds and confessions of his church. The word of God, whether written down on paper, preached by the preacher, or joined to the sign to make it a sacrament is the means by which God brings us to faith, nourishes us in his truth, and strengthens us in the faith throughout our lives.
We pray to God in our need. But we dare not ascribe to our prayer the power that belongs to God’s word. Consider the nobleman. His prayer was that Jesus come to his home to heal his son. Twice he begged Jesus to come down. He thought that Jesus would have to be physically present where the sick boy lay. He envisioned in his own mind that Jesus would employ some kind of visible sign, perhaps lay his hands on the boy or do something else that would require Jesus to go down to the man’s home. The man had faith, this is true. But his faith needed to be formed by God’s Word. This is why Jesus said, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will be no means believe.” He wanted to lead the man to trust in the word alone. The man’s need compelled him to pray again, “Sir, come down before my child dies!” Jesus did not come down. He stayed where He was. He spoke. He said, “Go your way; your son lives.” And what does our text say? It says, “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him, and he went his way.” He believed the word Jesus spoke to him. And then what did he do? He confirmed his own faith by asking his servants when it was that his son was healed. He learned that it was the exact time that Jesus had said, “Your son lives.” And he believed. He believed because of the word. Jesus deliberately pushed the man’s faith deeper into the word. That is the source of our faith.
The source of all error, false doctrine, doubt, and heresy is to look inside our hearts or feelings for the truth of God. The source of truth, life, assurance, and the solid conviction of faith is always and only the word of God. “Let God be true and every man a liar,” says the Scriptures. The faith that is cut loose from its moorings in God’s word is no faith at all, but delusion and confusion combined to trap its victim in diabolical lies.
We aren’t fighting a battle against flesh and blood when we contend for the faith. We are doing battle, as St. Paul says in today’s Epistle Lesson (Ephesians 6), “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” True faith rests confident in God’s word alone and requires nothing more than God’s promise.
We might think that if we only knew what God had in store for us it would be easier for us to put our confidence in him. The very opposite is true. It is in not knowing the specifics of what God intends for us that we are required to rely even more implicitly on what God does promise to us. The Epistle to the Hebrews says:
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run withy endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Jesus endured the cross, scorning its shame, and claimed his place of equality with God the Father. He saw the joy set before Him. That’s what he sets before us because he is author of our faith. He sets before our eyes what he now sees.
What is it that threatens you and your confidence in God? Whatever it is, Jesus has already faced it. The nobleman’s son was going to die. The fever was rising and the boy didn’t have long to live. Only Jesus could help. We flit from this to that bright idea as we seek to come up with a divine solution to what grieves us. If only God would do this or that. Yes, that would resolve it. That’s what I need from God. If only God will hear me and listen to me and then he’ll be able to do what I need.
But wait. Consider that it is you that needs to change, not God. It is you that needs to understand, not God. He knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t have to clue you in. You don’t need to know. You need only listen to Him. Listen to what He says. Forget everything else. Then your faith will be grounded deep inside the soil where it will grow and flourish. In the process, God must break the various false props upon which you would rest yourself. We want to be in charge and we want God to serve us. God wants to serve us, but he must be in charge as he is doing so. He serves us as we are humbled into casting ourselves upon his mercy and taking our stand upon it.
This is why our faith must always be brought back to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Christ’s crucifixion is where our native enthusiasm is drowned and where true faith is born. We would find assurance in our imaginings. God’s word directs us to something concrete made out of wood, and upon that wood, nailed into it with metal spikes, the body of Jesus Christ who bore our sins and suffered for us. Our religious feelings would have us running here and there and everywhere else in search of some kind of word from God. God’s word directs us to the cross. There is your God! There is the answer to all your prayers. Where are the sins that kept you away from God and kept your prayer from reaching his ears? They are taken away and removed from you as far as the East is from the West. The word and the sacraments bring us into fellowship with the Christ who died for us. In dying for us he takes away every sickness, every sin, every failure, every conceit, every error, and sets us free.
God’s word directs us as well to Christ’s resurrection. There is nothing that is not now under his feet. He is exalted above all the troubles of this world and he joins himself to us here below. So when we face troubles we do so in union with him who has all authority in heaven and on earth. How can God deny us anything we ask in Jesus’ name? He cannot. He will most surely answer all our prayers. He will ground our faith in his holy word and center it in Christ, who suffered to take away our sins and rose from the dead to give us eternal life. Amen