Jesus teaches us to rely on Him, to cast our every care on Him, because He cares for us. The miraculous feeding of the 4,000 was the second time the disciples saw Jesus feed a crowd. As the end of Mark 8 shows, Jesus is questioning the disciples about their lack of faith. They saw Him feed 9,000 men, plus women and children with only a few loaves of bread and a few small fish. But the disciples still did not believe, they did not think that God had all things in His control and that He would cause everything to work out for their good.
If you came to church today feeling like you were a fairly decent person, I’m sure the Readings we have heard today have changed that perception. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” doesn’t sound like much Gospel. For as bad of a rap as we give them, the Pharisees were good people in a worldly definition of good. They were the people you would trust with the most intimate secrets, knowing the combination to the safes at Fort Knox, and the like. They were good people. They strove to do everything correctly, to be honest and upright people. They did it for the wrong reasons, of course, but to the outside world they made the saintliest grandmother look like the member of a biker gang. So, unless you’re better than them, there’s no way you’re entering heaven. And since you’ve been confronted by the Ten Commandments, St. Paul’s admonition to stop living in sin, and Jesus’ revelation that keeping the Ten Commandments is far more than simply keeping the letter of the law, you have been shown that, no, there is no way your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, and, no, you cannot hope to enter heaven on your own merits.
One of the greatest struggles we face as Christians is that between faith and unbelief. On one hand, we have faith—the belief in Christ as our Savior, the confidence that God has our eternal best interest in mind, and the knowledge that the Holy Spirit is with us always to speak to our hearts and minds the very Words of Jesus. But unbelief is never far away. It lives in our rational, fallen mind. It tells us that God plays no role in our lives. This unbelief thrives on pessimism and optimism, on failure and success. When things go wrong, we question if God cares, if He is really watching, and, at worst, if He really even exists. When things go well, we pat ourselves on the back, proud of all the work we accomplished all by ourselves. “Pessimism and optimism are human emotions. Where they rule, faith is falsified. For faith has nothing to do with emotions. [Rather, faith] is the unshakable trust in the unbreakable promises of God” (Sasse, Lonely Way 1, 72, emphasis added).
Today’s readings center around the realities of our Christian life as people redeemed by Jesus Christ, but waiting for the adoption, the redemption of the body, and the glories to be revealed. Until that day, we are in need of instruction on how we live together in this life, both in the Church and in the world. Besides instructions on moral living—how we keep the Law of God, what sins we are to avoid, and the like—our biggest need of instruction in Christian living is how to live with one another in forgiveness. Jesus gives us the model of how we must live together: we must be more eager to forgive than to hold onto anger or resentment, we must be zealous for our neighbors’ spiritual and eternal wellbeing, and crowning all of that is a life of repentance and reception of Jesus’ forgiveness which makes us able to live in God-pleasing ways.
As God reveals His plan of salvation for the world, we see embodied the truth which God speaks: “‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord” (Is. 55:8). The Feast which we observe today, the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, is part of what St. Luke records as the lead-in to the birth of Christ. We see again proof that God does not function in the ways we would. He does not send His Son to be born of a powerful or wealthy family, but into poverty and derision, and by circumstances which prove that God has His hand involved. By the birth of Christ, and especially in Mary’s hymn, which we still sing today, we understand that God’s work and His eyes are in the depths, but man only in the height.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.