Today the Holy Church commemorates a woman of whom little is known. Today we give thanks to God for the witness of Saint Mary Magdalene, the one whom Church history has labeled as “Penitent.” Although the sinful woman in today’s Gospel is unidentified, tradition has identified her as Mary Magdalene, the same Mary out of whom seven demons were cast, who was believed to be the sister of Mary and Lazarus, the one who would later be honored as “the apostle to the Apostles” for bringing them word of Christ’s Resurrection. But today we hear of her conversion, of her faith in the One “who even forgives sins.”
Unless Jesus does something miraculous, the four thousand will die. Jesus doesn’t say that exactly, but you can connect the dots without much work. What Jesus says is that they will pass out from exhaustion. But before that He said that they have been following Him into the wilderness, listening to His teaching for three days. If you have a three-day journey just to get home, you have to go without any food or water and no rest stops or McDonalds’ or grocery stores, and you pass out along the way, what do you think will happen to you? These people are going to die unless Jesus does something. The same is true of you. Without the miraculous intervention of Jesus Christ, feeding you both in body and soul, you would die in this journey to your eternal home.
If you read the first page of today’s Bulletin, you saw an explanation about the Readings for the next few weeks. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s worth your time to read later today. The next several weeks in this long Trinity season will take a look at the topic of sanctification, that is, our Christian life and how we live the faith, especially how we’re doing with that phrase from the Post-Communion Collect, living in faith toward God and fervent love toward one another.
If there’s one emotion we as Christians know well, it’s despair. We can relate to Simon Peter in today’s Gospel. “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” I worked my tail off and everything still failed. I gave my kids the finest Lutheran education, devotions every night, youth group events every time they were offered, and they still rejected the Faith when they got to college, and not just rejected it, but now they’re hostile about it! I saved and pinched pennies my entire working life and the recession in 2008 did in my retirement, and now a decade later when I’m ready to retire, I don’t know if the market has rebounded enough for me to be able to retire. I took vitamins, exercised, shunned red meat and fast food and I still have cancer. I read every assigned reading, thoroughly researched for every paper, and studied till all hours for every exam and still managed to end the school year with straight B’s. I gave my marriage all I had and we still got divorced. I increased my personal devotional life—prayer and the reading of Scripture and coming to church—and I still lust after one who is not my spouse, am given to fits of rage, am filled with hate. We all know well what it’s like to recite this litany of despair. We look around us, we look inside of us, and we see that there is nothing good, nothing but reasons to despair. We want to take Jesus at His Word—try again and see if the results are different. But everything comes up wrong, against us, and often, worse than it was before. But in these times when despair threatens to gain the upper hand, we have no choice but to cling to the Lord and His gracious promises. We have the example of Simon Peter. He doesn’t want to listen to the Lord, but he does, and finds out that the Lord always keeps His promises. And that is the same thing we find here in the Divine Service. Our environments, our emotions, our feelings, our reason all deceive us, so we must hear, over and over again, the Word of the Lord repeating the promises He has made from the beginning.
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.