What is faith? We talk a lot about it. We know that it is necessary for salvation, because faith is that conduit that delivers to us all that Christ did for us on the cross. We know that it is created by the Holy Spirit working through the Word. We know that it is strengthened through the Sacraments. We know that it is what motivates our good works towards God and neighbor. But what is faith?
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews summed it up nicely when he said that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the confidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Our Lutheran confessors asserted that “Faith is that worship which receives the benefits that God offers” (Ap IV 49) and that “faith wrestling with despair” is also true worship (Tr 44). To summarize all of these points, faith is a gift from God, placed in things which we cannot see, that goes against everything our flesh would have us believe.
All of these points are brought to bear in today’s Gospel. As we have heard each time a miracle happened in our appointed Gospel reading, the real miracle is what is done for the person spiritually, not physically. Jesus’ interaction with the nobleman from Capernaum is no different. The second sign Christ works in Cana of Galilee is the creation of saving faith in an entire household, not the resurrection of the little boy.
When the nobleman first comes to Jesus he does not have true faith. He simply knew, like all of the other Galileans, that Jesus did flashy things and healed people. His son is dying, and Jesus is his last hope, since nothing else has worked. Even though his request sounds pious enough, Jesus knows that his faith has a false foundation because it is not founded in the unseen, but the seen. The underlying intention here is, “You heal my son and I’ll believe in you.” Faith doesn’t work like this, receiving the benefits God offers on our terms. Rather, faith receives God’s benefits on His terms, while we wrestle with the despair that insists on proof in order to believe.
So Jesus speaks a Word of love to the nobleman, to the Galileans, and to us: “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe.” This is not an insult; this is the loving correction of Almighty God. Jesus is speaking like a parent disappointed by an “F” on a report card. He’s not angry; He’s sad. He wants the nobleman to have true faith, so He rebukes him to attempt to teach him what true faith looks like.
What does true faith look like? It looks exactly like the nobleman after Jesus instructs him. Jesus tells him, “Go your way; your son lives.” He does exactly what Jesus says. He leaves believing in something he cannot see. But he has a long journey home, about seventeen miles. Imagine what those miles were like. He was a day away from home. He had an entire day in which his faith wrestled with despair. While on one hand he believed what Jesus proclaimed, his flesh had doubts. He could not see his son breathing or playing or hear his laughter. As far as his flesh was concerned, his son had died while he was gone. But faith had to wrestle against that despair, clinging only to the Word of Jesus, only to His promise, “Your son lives.” Faith was confident in what it could not see because of Who created the faith and the confidence.
His faith was confirmed when his servants met him on the road and repeated to him the very Word of Jesus: “Your son lives.” Though his flesh asked them at what hour it happened, his faith already knew the answer. His faith received the benefit God gave in the son’s restoration to health and life. And that faith could not help but overflow. He told his whole household that when Jesus speaks, things happen. Faith was created in them, faith which believed in Jesus Christ even though He never did His work in their midst. They believed in Him whom they had not seen.
Our faith is the same as this nobleman’s faith. We have peaks and valleys, good days and bad. There are times when our faith is commended by God, when it is an example to others. But there are also times when, like the nobleman, our faith needs to be tested and our flesh rebuked. When we have these times, God sends us crosses, trials that teach us to rely on Him, trials that teach us how to wrestle against despair, trials that teach us that God is in control.
You heard that right! God sends you the trials you have in your life. How could that possibly be loving? The truth is that it’s one of the most loving things He can do. Just like muscles that aren’t used become weaker and weaker until they are almost useless, so does faith need to be exercised to stay healthy and strong. When God sees that your faith is waning He sends the cross of hardship so that your faith will end up stronger than it started. He causes your faith to wrestle with despair so that He can teach you how His strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9), to teach you to rely on Him when it seems like despair will gain the upper hand.
For these times when you must wrestle, He has given you the armor which St. Paul described in today’s Epistle. When despair seems stronger than faith, when Satan is whispering all of his lies in your ear, you have God-given armor to defend you against his fiery arrows and the best weapon you’ll ever need: the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. This is the only weapon God has given you for a reason. He is preparing you for your last and final battle. When God is calling you from this world, when you face your moment of death and everything has been taken from you, the only thing you will have left is the promise He has given you in His Word. Satan will try to tell you that everything God has promised you is a lie. But because God has tested your faith in this life and by that testing made it grow stronger and stronger, you will be able to wield that sword of the Spirit. You will be able to use it to silence Satan because through each test, all God left you was His Word, His promise that does not fail.
So when the devil attacks, when he causes your faith to wrestle with despair, to question the existence of what is unseen, turn your eyes from him to the One who defeated him on the cross. Jesus Christ has promised you that He is the perfect Sacrifice and that His Blood covers all your sin. When Satan would bring you to despair, remember that Jesus Christ died and rose again for you and that He has promised to raise you with Him. Take up the sword of the Spirit by clinging to all these Words and promises of God which, though they cannot be seen yet, will be revealed to you when Christ brings you to His eternal glory. There you will see exactly what the nobleman saw: that God is faithful, that what He promises He accomplishes. Then your faith which God began in you He will bring to completion, because you will no longer have to trust in that which you cannot see, for you will behold God face-to-face.
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.