Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity, October 20th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Pray, and Do Not Lose Heart – John 4:46-54
I preached on this morning’s Gospel from John chapter 4 at the recent Pastors’ Conference in Missoula. I was responsible for organizing the worship, and I self-assigned this text, to allow myself to prepare one sermon for two different occasions. Pretty sneaky, huh?
The day before I preached on this text, I heard Pastor Nelson of Columbia Falls preach on a different text, on the parable of the Persistent Widow, from Luke 18. You know that parable, the one where Jesus wanted to show His disciples that at all times they ought to pray and not lose heart. There was this widow with a grievance, and she just kept bringing it to the local judge. He was a nasty fellow, fearing neither God nor respecting man. He did not care to answer this woman’s complaint. But, because she just kept pestering him, he decided that he would answer her prayer, he would give her the justice she demanded, just so her requests wouldn’t wear him out. Jesus goes on to explain that, if this unrighteous judge gave justice to the widow who prayed without ceasing, how much more will God our righteous Father answer the prayers of His people. So keep praying, Jesus teaches, and don’t lose heart, no matter how much it seems God is not listening. God will answer. He will deliver you, and all His children.
Well, as I heard Pastor Nelson preach on the Persistent Widow, it occurred to me there were strong connections between that account from Luke 18 and my Gospel text, from John 4. You know, all these connections between different books of the Bible are weird, almost as if the whole Bible has the same Author... but that’s another sermon. So anyway, the theme of Luke 18 is amplified and exemplified in the reading before us this morning: Pray, and do not lose heart.
As I did at the Pastors’ conference, this morning, I’m going to build on this theme a bit: Keep praying, and don’t lose heart. First, let’s dig a bit into the things that make us lose heart, or at least, things that make me lose heart.
The topic of our Pastors’ Conference was proclaiming the truth of God’s love for human life, from womb to tomb. So I’ll start there. It makes me lose heart that I am complicit in the murder of the unborn. It gnaws at me that my tax dollars go to support the cause of those who actively seek to kill babies. My tax dollars go to support the breaking of hearts, the hearts of women, mothers, who are lied to, told that the life inside them is just a clump of cells, and that ending a pregnancy is no big deal. My tax dollars support death, through subsidies to Planned Parenthood and to embryonic stem cell research, and soon, under ‘health care’ reform, direct payments to doctors to cover the costs of abortions. Like Herod the Great, who tried to kill Jesus by having all the baby boys two years old and younger in Bethlehem slain, our official government policy is to kill unwanted babies who may threaten our lifestyle. And so my heart is brought low, because I live a very comfortable lifestyle, but have not done much to stop the state sponsorship of abortion.
I lose heart, because people in my congregations, my members, souls God has put under my spiritual care, sometimes worship false gods, that threaten their eternities. I know this is true, and yet I am afraid to name and condemn these idols. Perhaps you’ll recognize some of these idols, common idols of our day, like the idol of casual sex and living together before marriage, a very popular idol, despite what God’s Word so clearly says. Or there’s the idol of discrimination, which teaches us to despise and discriminate against other human beings because of their race, or their poverty.
Then there’s is the idol who teaches that Christians don’t really need to go to Church, that you can be a Christian just fine without gathering around God’s Word and Sacrament, even though the Scripture teaches us that it is in only from the Word and Sacrament that we can find the mercy we need. And of course there is the idol of comfort and wealth and standing in the community, an idol which teaches us it’s fine to go to Church on Sunday, but don’t actually try to live as Christians Monday through Saturday, because our friends might think that’s weird. There are so many idols that tempt us all, so many idols that I grow tired of confronting, or only want to confront indirectly, or better yet, pretend I’m too busy to notice. It makes me lose heart.
I lose heart, because there are people I have opportunity to tell the Truth, about sin, about how God hates sin, and even more, the truth about God’s great work to overcome sin for us, so that we don’t have to be separated from Him, now, or in eternity. God gives me many opportunities to speak of Christ and His Gospel, but too often I do not seize them. I lose heart, and say nothing.
What threatens to make you lose heart? Perhaps you lose heart because you pray, but don’t see results. Perhaps you lose heart because your Church, the members of your Church, still reveal the same petty, sinful habits, hypocrisy, gossip, apathy and everything else, the same old sins that you’ve seen in them for thirty years or more. Even more, perhaps you lose heart because just as soon as you notice those recurring sins in others, Satan reminds you of the sins that still plague you, including many of the ‘same old sins’ that you notice in others.
Jesus knew about all these failures, all these problems and sins that make me, that make us, lose heart. Jesus knew about all these signs of unbelief that weigh on our hearts. But for today Jesus sends us an even sharper problem to consider, an even stronger reason to lose heart – for their was an official, a royal official, actually, probably a court official of King Herod. And this royal official had a son, a son who was sick, very ill, at the very point of death.
All of the things that make us lose heart are signs of the sin that permeates our world, and us. And, because our sinful nature still loves sin, we are capable of pretending we don’t notice them, or simply pretending there is nothing we can do about them. But, almost always, the threat of death in one of our children changes all that. Having children is called procreation, that is, creating along with God. There is nothing quite like being a mother or father. Having children is the most visible, concrete God-like thing any of us are normally involved in. As God loves humanity, so also we are hard-wired to love our children. So, while other sins and problems may not cause us to do much, the threat of death to our child normally makes us desperate. Death threatening a child will even make an atheist desperate enough to pray, the beginnings of faith, perhaps. I myself am capable of doing nothing when I see the impact of sin in the lives of friends and members. But if my son were suddenly at the point of death, you would see me act.
And so this royal official travels to find a wandering Jewish rabbi and begs Him for help. For his trouble, Jesus insults the official: Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe. But desperation can cause us to ignore insults and offenses. The official, not losing heart, cries out again: “Sir,” (well, actually ‘Lord’ is what he calls Jesus), “Lord, come down, before my child dies.” “Don’t you get it, Lord! My son is dying!” A desperate prayer from the heart.
His son was dying. Whenever I hear of the death of a son, it always makes me think of one thing. From Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, to the death of the first born in Egypt, from David praying against the death his sin inflicted on his first son with Bathsheba, to the Widow at Zarepheth, cursing Elijah for the death of her son, dying sons always make me think of one thing. The son of the royal official was dying, just as the Son of the King of the Universe would soon be dying, on a cross, for the sake of faith and the salvation of households.
I’m pretty sure that trying to psycho-analyze God is a mistake, but the anguish, the persistent, desperate, don’t-take-no-for-an-answer prayer of the royal official does make me wonder. The official’s fatherly anguish makes me wonder a bit about the anguish of God the Father, as His only begotten Son died on the tree, under His own wrath against human sin. God the Father punishing God the Son, the desperation of it is beyond comprehension. It is something Jesus never tries to explain to us.
But what Jesus does want us to understand is that the son of the Royal Official was at the point of death, a death that Jesus could and did prevent. However, in a few years, the Son, the Son of David, the Son of Man, the very Son of God, would die, by the predetermined will of His Father.
The Son did die. And yet, miracle of miracles, the Father did not lose heart. God did not lose heart, even when Jesus, God’s Son made man, died for the sins of the world. God did not lose heart: in fact, the death of the Son reveals the Father’s heart. For God is love, and love is this: the Father sending the Son to die, in order to take away the sins of the world. This love of God, revealed and delivered in the dying and rising of Jesus, washes away all sin. The sin of abortion is forgiven by the blood of Jesus. Whether you have had an abortion, or pressured your wife or girlfriend, even if you have made your living off the abortion industry, or simply sat idly by, ignoring the issue as millions die, all of our sins regarding abortion have been taken by Jesus to His Cross, and buried there. So also our sins of idolatry, of gossip, of apathy, every sin that plagues you and plagues me, all forgiven, paid for, taken away, by Jesus.
There was a certain hour which came for the royal official, the seventh hour when the he heard Jesus make a promise, the same hour when death was turned away from his son. So also, there was a certain hour for God the Father. The hour came, the early morning hour when the Son of God rose, at just the right time, on the third day, the long foreshadowed third day, the day whose proclamation creates new hearts, hearts washed clean from all the heartbreaking failures that seek to drive us down into unbelief. The Holy Spirit by the proclamation of the Cross and Empty Tomb creates new hearts in us, by the forgiveness of all our sins. In the proclamation of the raising of the Son who died, we are given bold new hearts, which are by their new nature lifted to where Jesus is, hearts that rejoice and overflow with the new life we have by faith in Christ.
And so, for another day, we do not lose heart, but rather we pray, including prayers of thanksgiving and praise, prayers of supplication and intercession. We pray, with new hearts, for the Son has died, and risen, for you, and for me. Amen.