As we read the Gospels, we become more and more acquainted with the false piety of the Jews. So often they say and do things that look like they believe. They make us think that maybe we give them too much of a hard time. Today’s Gospel is a perfect example. They come to Jesus and seem to be eagerly in search of the promised Messiah, wrestling with questions if Jesus really is the promised Christ. They seem like they’re looking for a place to put their faith, one in whom they can believe. The problem is that Jesus has given them more than enough proof. He is by no means vague. He does things only God can do: He heals men and women of various diseases and maladies, He preaches with the authority and power of God, and He forgives sins. He performs other miracles. He uses God’s personal Name, I AM, for Himself. Though the Jews beg Jesus, “tell us plainly,” He has confessed quite plainly, by word and deed, who He is and from Whom He comes.
The Jews are seen for who they really are at times like this. Jesus gives them Words of life, Words of promise and love, that no one can snatch God’s dearly beloved sheep out of His hand, and that the sheep of God have eternal life and perfect bliss, and the Jews try to kill Jesus. He gives them the information they seem to want, that He is their promised Messiah, and they take up stones against Him yet again.
The problem is that the Jews don’t doubt. Doubt is different. Doubt is questioning and being unsure. The children of God all suffer doubt. We all have two minds—one faithful to God and one that pesters and attacks us with doubts and uncertainties. The Jews don’t have doubt. Jesus knows this and confronts them: “I told you, and you do not believe.” They refused to believe in the One who was sent to save them.
Nevertheless, Jesus still speaks Words of grace and love. He speaks and acts because He knows that He is sent to gather His scattered sheep. He is persistent. He knows the fear and doubt that plague shepherdless sheep. He knows how often we let our doubts get the better of us, how often we let all the competing messages of this world crowd out His Word, and how disbelief tries to hold onto our hearts.
So He comes with Words and deeds of grace and love. What He said to the Jews He says to you this day: “believe the works.” Believe the works He has done for you. In just a few days He will ride into Jerusalem, riding on in lowly pomp to die. Soon after, He will institute a Feast of Body and Blood with bread and wine to give forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. And then He will give the greatest work of His love for His sheep by laying down His life, bearing all your sin in His own body, and giving His life so that you will not lose yours. But it will not end there. His greatest work for you is His resurrection. By this work you shall never perish, nor can anyone snatch you away from Him. So, “believe the works,” because by them Jesus has given you the fullest proof of His unfailing love.
So in this life we pray the words we just sang: “In the true faith uphold us, Lord, by Thy Blood and dying.” In other words, “Lord, help me believe the works!” To answer that prayer He gives you His Holy Spirit here in this place and by the Means given here. This belief is not your own work, but His. Everything is God’s gracious work for you, so that you never have to worry about believing hard enough, believing good enough, or keeping yourself in His grace. He will always give you His voice through His Word and Sacraments so that faith has a voice to follow, a God in whose arms it will always be cradled with fatherly love. And safe in His arms, He will keep you from those who rise against you because your heavenly Father is greater than them all.
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.