Faith is not a four-letter word

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Sermon for Trinity 14

Proverbs 4:10-23  +  Galatians 5:16-24  +  Luke 17:11-19

It was recently suggested to me that I should try preaching 20 sermons in a row without talking at all about faith, as if faith got in the way of the Gospel, as if faith made salvation uncertain, as if faith were opposed to Christ, as if faith were a four-letter word. Dear friends, if I ever preach a single sermon to you without mentioning faith in Christ or believing in Christ, then you should come up to me afterwards and reprimand me.  And if I ever preach 20 sermons in a row like that, then you should pick me up and throw me out on the street.  I would be an unfaithful servant of Christ, because “the very voice of the Gospel,” as our Confessions say, is “that we should believe the Absolution and regard it as certain that the forgiveness of sins is freely granted to us for Christ’s sake. We should believe that through this faith we are truly reconciled to God.”  Faith is a good thing, not a bad thing.

“Yes, but you’re teaching them to put their faith in faith!”  Good God, what ignorance fills the visible Church!  No, dear Christians, don’t put your faith in faith.  Put your faith in Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, and understand that faith is not doubt, but certainty.  Faith is not a question mark, but an exclamation point!  It is the very gift of God by which all the merits and mercies of Christ are poured into your lap.

The Holy Spirit preaches to us about faith in the Gospel of the healing of the Ten Lepers—what faith is, how it behaves, and the fruit it produces.  More than that, He urges us to faith and confidence in the goodness and mercy of Jesus Christ, the Healer of lepers, the Healer of all who are sick because of sin and who cry out to Him for mercy, as the lepers did, as you have done and continue to do every Sunday and in between.  Lord, have mercy!  That is the prayer of faith.

Jesus was traveling down to Jerusalem for the last time.  But He was taking the back roads, the indirect route, so that He could preach and teach in as many places as possible along the way.  He took the path between Galilee and Samaria, again, giving even those Samaritan foreigners—non-Jews or half-Jews, an opportunity to find Him and to hear Him.  And just as we heard recently of that Good Samaritan who showed mercy to the wounded man where the Jews walked right on by, this week we hear of that faith-full Samaritan who returned to thank Jesus where the other nine healed lepers forgot about the One who had healed them.

Ten men with the debilitating skin disease called leprosy approached Jesus, but from a distance.  They stood and called out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And there, right away, you have it:  Faith.  See what it does; see what it’s like.

First, faith fully expects to find God’s grace with Jesus.  As in so many cases, a good report about Jesus had reached these lepers, living in isolation, living apart from society.  Somehow, the word about Christ had been told to them, that Jesus is good and merciful and a helper of those in need.  That simple word about Jesus was the instrument of the Holy Spirit to create faith in their hearts so that they were bold to come to Him, and when they got there, they knew what to expect, and so they knew what to pray.  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  That’s a perfect prayer.  It’s the prayer of lepers, the prayer of sinners who see how wretched they are, but who know that Jesus is merciful to the wretched.  To pray to Jesus for mercy, to expect mercy and grace and help from Jesus—that is faith.

So you’ve heard, haven’t you?, that Jesus is good and merciful.  You’ve heard that the Son of God came to seek and to save what was lost.  When all is helpless and hopeless, when your sin weighs heavily upon you, when the sins of others threaten to overwhelm you and when ten thousand enemies surround you, you will still find God’s grace with Jesus.  Go to Him with a “Lord, have mercy!”  And know for certain that you will find mercy with Him.

The second thing about faith is that it doesn’t need proof ahead of time that Jesus will help. The lepers went to Jesus sick with leprosy, not already on the mend.  They had no guarantee in writing that Jesus would cleanse them of their leprosy.  They didn’t see their healing as an already-existing reality out there somewhere.  Even Jesus’ words to them to “Go, show yourselves to the priest” were no proof, not for the eyes at least.  When Jesus said those words, their eyes still saw leprosy all over their bodies.  Their eyes still saw a miserable life and a hopeless future of pain and loneliness.  But faith takes the word of Jesus and runs with it, so that without any proof, the lepers hurry away at Jesus’ word, confident that, by the time they reach the priest, who diagnosed lepers as clean or unclean, they would have nothing but healthy bodies to show him.

So no matter how bleak things look, how uncertain your future appears, how distressed our church may be, the words, “It will be OK,” are not an empty wish for the Christian.  The Lord has taught us over and over again in the Holy Scriptures that He is present most when we see Him least.  He has taught us to trust in Him and His salvation especially when our eyes and when our human reason tell us not to.  Who would have thought that hanging the Son of God on a cross until He was dead could have turned out well for the Son of God or for the Church?  And yet, it did turn out well.  It does turn out well.  It will turn out well for all who trust in Him.

The third thing about faith is that it doesn’t bring any merit or worthiness to the table.  There’s no attempt on the lepers’ part to strike a bargain with Jesus.  “Jesus, have mercy on us, and then we’ll pay you back!”  “Jesus, have mercy on us, because we’re really good people.”  “Jesus, have mercy on us, because if you don’t, we’ll tell everyone how nasty you are!”  No, faith comes to Jesus empty-handed, sick, poor, wretched, miserable and blind, confident that the mercy of God in Jesus Christ is divvied out only because of how good He is, not at all because of how worthy you are.

All ten lepers demonstrated that kind of faith in Jesus.  Whether strong faith or weak faith, it doesn’t matter.  Whether one calls out in a loud voice or whether one is only able to squeak out a barely audible “Lord, have mercy,” that’s all it takes. That’s true faith, genuine faith, Spirit-worked faith, saving faith.

Ten lepers had faith. Ten lepers were healed.  And then something happened.  Nine lepers, when they were healed, kept going, away from Jesus.  Only one leper turned back to where Jesus was. Faith in Jesus quickly turned into forgetting about Jesus for nine out of ten.  But for the one leper, faith in Jesus immediately turned into a life of thanksgiving, a life of praise as the faith created by the Holy Spirit went on to produce the fruit of the Spirit, including joy in the Lord’s great salvation, love for Jesus and His Word, and love for his neighbor as the praises he shouted encouraged everyone around him to trust in Jesus for mercy, too.

All that teaches us something else about faith.  It isn’t necessarily permanent.  You can get everything you wanted and expected and hoped for from God, and then when you get it, you can be tempted away from Jesus.  You can take all the gifts He has given to you, pack them all up and leave Jesus behind in the dust.  You may well keep some of the physical blessings He has given.  But if you leave Jesus behind, then you forfeit your soul.

It doesn’t have to be that way, not for a single one of you.  Jesus has provided the means for sustaining the faith He has granted.  You know what those means are—the Word of God, the Sacraments of Christ. As you use those means, you have God’s promise that He will not let His Word return to Him empty.  You have His promise that Baptism now saves you also and gives you a good conscience before God.  You have His promise that the Absolution spoken by your pastor is valid in heaven itself.  You have His promise that the forgiveness of sins won at the cross for all people is given to you to receive by eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ.  Today’s Gospel itself is given to you as a gift to heal those who are hurting, to warn those who are straying, to call back those who have gone their own way and forgotten that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Faith enables you, too, to come back and worship Jesus your Savior, to fall down at His feet in thanksgiving and to ask again and again for His mercy, because in this sin-sick world, you need His mercy every day, every moment.  And it’s here for you every day, every moment, free of charge.

Faith is not a four-letter word.  On the contrary, faith is a good and salutary gift of God.  It’s the Holy Spirit’s work of opening the valves of your heart so that God can pour in His gifts of grace, mercy, love, forgiveness, strength and healing.  Rise and go, Jesus said to the leper; your faith has made you well.  Not because faith is a good work, but because faith lays hold of Christ, the Healer.  Faith will never disappoint you, because Christ will never disappoint you.  Never hesitate to seek mercy from Him, for He is a good and merciful Savior. Amen.

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