Sermon 72





Trust God Wholeheartedly

Matthew 14:31


September 4, 2011


Grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Jesus tells us today, in that dramatic and miraculous story of walking on the water, not to doubt in him (Matthew 14:31). Even though we now live in an age where certainty is out of fashion, these words still thunder over us, from long ago – Don’t doubt!


Celebrating Doubt

Nevertheless they still grate on us. And that’s because we also know that people who are certain and cock-sure are arrogant and unpleasant. They are insensitive to the subtleties of life – missing out on the finer nuances that make life interesting. And so we’re very cautious, hesitant and skeptical when we hear Jesus – even Jesus the Lord – tell us to quit doubting. We would rather live in the philosophical niceties of Simone de Beauvoir’s classic, The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) – even though we may not have read it. For her ideas have become for us, something of a comfort zone.

     For living with uncertainty and admitting that what appears to be black and white is actually gray, is the educated, mature way to go. The scientific method is based on doubt – as is historical inquiry into prevailing cultural and societal truths. For instance, historical studies have shown that some African-Americans apparently liked being slaves (I Belong to South Carolina: South Carolina Slave Narratives, ed. Susanna Ashton, 2010). And scientific research has shown how infertile couples can actually have their own babies (Liza Mundy, Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Our World, 2003). So Jennifer Hecht shows in her study on doubting, that far from being immature, it’s actually what inspires the innovations that enrich life – from the scientific findings of Albert Einstein (1879-1955) to the creative poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) (Doubt: A History, 2003)!


Like Crazy Beggers

Now while it may be true that some uncertainty benefits us in scientific and historical matters, when it spills over into our faith, it’s an entirely different case. Then doubt robs us of our divine blessings. Martin Luther explains this best in a sermon of his from 1533 [Luther’s House Postils, ed. E. Klug (1996) 2:423]:


A wavering heart that… isn’t convinced,… will certainly receive nothing…. God yearns to give us what we need, but we stand there like crazy beggars. We hold out our hat, hoping God will put something into it, but we keep on moving it around, refusing to hold it still. God, you see, doesn’t want to pour out his gifts in vain and let them be wasted.


This image is both funny and fearful! Just look at that goofy beggar working against himself. Can’t you hold still, silly? But it also scares us, showing how God only blesses “fit” hearers of his word – as Luther says (Luther’s Works 4:49, 7:255, 10:372)! Jane Blair makes this same point in her war memoir, Hesitation Kills (2011)! So not doubting is a big deal – therefore Jesus repeats it (John 20:27) and St. Paul urges us to be steadfast (1 Corinthians 15:58; Colossians 1:23; Ephesians 4:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:13).

     But others in the church keep holding us back. They say that when St. Paul famously says we are but “earthen vessels,” and do not have God’s “transcendent power” in us (2 Corinthians 4:7), we can’t possibly be certain about anything regarding our faith. But that’s not the way Luther reads that Bible verse. He instead says:


We are very weak,… [only] “earthen vessels”…. [And so] the devil does not rest, but goes about as a roaring lion… to devour us (1 Peter 5:8)…. Moreover, the dear Christian Church is… befouled with so many horrible offenses…. Therefore… it is necessary that we… preach the pure doctrine without ceasing,…. so that we may endure to the end and be saved (LW 12:150).


According to Luther this weakness doesn’t keep us from having the pure doctrine, preaching it unceasing, and enduring to the end. All three of these points are matters of certainty. They enable us to love God in Christ Jesus wholeheartedly and undyingly (Matthew 20:37; Ephesians 6:24). So weakness and certainty are not mutually exclusives as our critics from within would have us believe.


Christ Over All

But even with all of this explanation about the importance of being certain, we still cower before Jesus when he tells us to stop doubting. Therefore we need him to step in and tower over us. And that’s what Romans 9:5 says he does – and in no uncertain terms. “Christ Jesus, the Messiah,… is over all”! Thanks be to God! And he is over all by doing what no one else can do for us – he sleds his blood to save us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9)! By so doing he frees us from having to try to get God to love us when we don’t deserve it! That hopeless task has been taken away from us by Christ’s sacrifice for us – and all we have to do is entrust our lives to him and believe in him (Romans 3:28). Nothing else! Jesus takes care of everything else! So Luther puts it this way:


If we consider God without Christ, we find no comfort but only righteous wrath…. But whoever preaches Christ… brings true comfort, so that it will be impossible for hearts not to be… of good cheer (LHP 2:148).


Therefore rejoice and be glad! Christ’s sacrifice for you brings you good cheer. It draws you to himself (John 12:32), and gives you a saving, certain faith (Romans 3:24). This is the foundation of our certainty (LW 8:212, 13:140, 17:92, 41:217). It doesn’t come from our own “speculations” about God, but from the Biblical revelation itself. So hold on to it and “in this way you can shake off all terrors and errors, as the sun dispels the clouds” (LW 26:30)!


Amidst Finite Verbs

And then you, who have this gift of faith in Christ Jesus our Lord, and are baptized in his name, come and receive him today in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – amidst a barrage of finite verbs! And that’s because there isn’t any uncertainty here. So what you’ll hear is, “This is my body,” “Take and eat,” and this is for you (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22). No ambiguity here –none at all.

     But back in the 1970s, I visited the famous Union Theological Seminary across from Columbia University in New York City, and received Holy Communion. And when given the bread, the minister said, “Take and eat. This could be the body of Christ given for you.” I was shocked! I’d never before heard such an outrageous statement. Later I learned that the presiding minister felt he had to say that, in order to respect the prevailing scholarly opinion concerning the unreliability of the New Testament lessons to deliver the true words of Jesus – the ipsissima verba – because the pre-literary layers behind the Biblical words don’t support them (Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharist Words of Jesus, 1966). Against this chicanery, Luther raged long ago in his beloved treatise, This is My Body, from 1527 – which still deserves our praise today:

Here stands the text, stating clearly and lucidly that Christ gives his body to eat when he distributes the bread. On this we take our stand, and we also believe and teach that in the Supper we eat and take to ourselves Christ’s body truly and physically. But how this takes place or how he is in the bread, we do not know and are not meant to know (LW 37:28-29).


There you have the truth of the matter – stated clearly, distinctly and faithfully! Because the text stands, we take our stand on it. The truth of the matter, then, is not based on our convictions, but on the certainty of the Biblical revelation itself. So receive Christ in the sacrament today, that you may have life through the forgiveness of sins – and have it abundantly (John 6:53-56; 10:10)!


Truth Kissing Compassion

And then let our good work this day be to rejoice in, and then follow, Psalm 85:10 which tells us that mercy and truth belong together because they have kissed each other! Therefore we shouldn’t be cruel when we tell the truth. Instead we should do it with compassion and mercy. This won’t be easy because telling the truth means correcting falsehoods and other distortions.

     But when we do that, we should call on God to help us – not only that we may have the courage to tell the truth, but also to do it in a constructive way. Parents know this. We know that when correcting our children, we should say: “Don’t do that! It’ll hurt you and I love you and I don’t want to see you get hurt.” Furthermore we know that we shouldn’t say: “You idiot! Cut that out! How stupid can you be? I think that’s disgusting!” Now both are true statements, but only in the first do mercy and truth kiss each other.

     So pray to God for help, that you might tell the truth – but in a way that is merciful, compassionate and constructive. And he will answer you so that your courage and clarity will be combined with mercy and compassion, for by so doing, you will also be strengthened in your faith – and then trust in God wholeheartedly! Amen.


 (printed as preached but with some changes)