God says so many things, yet look around. He says He’s with us always. Where? When did He last prove it? He says He works out all things for the good of those who love Him? Where? When? From infancy on we sing, “He’s got the whole world in His hands,” yet a world ready to spiral into another Middle Eastern conflict, with the hint of Iranian nukes and Russian enmity doesn’t seem God’s control.
I look at God’s Words and I doubt. So many of them seem to be so desperately, defiantly untrue. John the Baptist wrestled with this. Sitting in prison, arrested by Herod, John got confused. He sees Jesus gently preaching repentance instead of chopping down oaks of unrighteousness. He sees Jesus opening blind eyes not sending down fire from the heavens. He sees Jesus wandering around homeless, not marching like an emperor. And he asks, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” In response, Jesus points to the prophet Isaiah, who said that the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the mute speaking, the lepers cured, the dead raised, those very things would accompany the arrival of God with us, God the Savior!
John alone didn’t wrestle with this. The great crowds that followed Jesus did too. They ate the miraculous food He provided from the loaves and the fish and then decided to crown Him king. He escaped. They followed. He chastised them for seeking only earthly things, and then said, “Eat my flesh. Drink my blood. Believe in me and you will live.” And they left. Jesus turned to His disciples and asked, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” To which Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!”
John wrestles with doubt because his eyes don’t see what he expects to see. Jesus says, “Appearances can be deceiving. Let me show you what you should be looking for.” He takes John back to the Word of God. Jesus preaches the Word. The crowds leave, because they don’t hear what they hope to hear or see from Jesus what they want to see. They want more bread. More power. More everything. Jesus says, “I’ll give you the eternal bread, the eternal wine, eternal life, just not where you expect to find it. Appearances can be deceiving.” This time the disciples of Jesus stand firm and appeal to the Word: “You have the Words of eternal life.” Putting together everything you know about Peter and the disciples, you could almost imagine Peter saying, “I don’t get it, Jesus. It’s beyond my understanding. It doesn’t look like much, but I guess it’s everything.”
We can do nothing better. The apostle Paul today, coming near to the end of his magisterial letter to the Romans says, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” This despite appearances. It’s not uncommon to hear critics of the Bible reduce our book to nothing but a bunch of stories and fables. Genesis is myth. Exodus, Numbers, Joshua and Judges teach us about God the genocidal maniac. Most of the Gospels didn’t happen that way. Paul invented Christianity as we know it.
While we reject those radical rejections of God’s Word, we still wrestle to find teachable points in everything written in the past. Everything? Really? All of it? Those obscure laws in Leviticus? The never ending words of the prophets? The dark and mysterious words of Revelation? All of it was written to teach us? To give us endurance? To encourage us? To give us hope?
Yes. It was. Every word. Because every word testifies about Christ and every word that speaks of Christ grants us hope. No matter how it appears. Hence our seemingly rabid obsession with preserving and defending the written Word of God.
For God didn’t write it for no purpose. He wrote it to give us His gifts. If we deny that it’s God’s Words, if we remove the divine nature from the Scriptures and says it’s just man’s words filled with mistakes, if we start picking and choosing which of the words we like and which we don’t, then we’ll lose hold of all of God’s gifts. Either we have God’s Word, or we don’t. Either we have the truth, or we don’t. And it’s God’s Word that is truth, as Jesus says, not our words, not our thoughts, not our reason or strength.
Our reason and strength get us nowhere except lost. We find ourselves attracted to this rabbit hole and that pet theory. Our reason and strength turn us into blasphemers, lowering God to our own level, to our own expectations, that is, inventing a God out of our own minds instead of letting God be who He says He is. Our reason and strength turn the true God into some Golden Calf. Not satisfied with God as He is, as He shows Himself, as He gives Himself in Christ, we build a pathetic version of God to bow down to.
We saw each of these in our readings for today. Jesus spoke of lost sheep. Sheep wander off. So do we. We begin munching in other fields. We stop while the rest of the herd moves on. We decide not to listen to the shepherd any more. Paul rehearsed his well-known biography. In his rabid hatred he sanctioned the murder of Christians. Moses records the incident of the Golden Calf. Israel, having heard nothing from the Lord and seen nothing of Moses for 40 days, invents and worships a false god – at the foot of God’s very own mountain!
In each case, sinners used the deceiving appearance of the Word of God as an excuse to justify their own sins. As do we. God’s Words seem less than powerful on their own. We need to jazz them up with something. God’s Words make no sense, we need to attack them. Our God isn’t so powerful as that god, we need a new one.
The truth is it’s not just the appearance of God’s Word that deceives. The grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence. You thought it would be fun and liberating to wander away from the Shepherd for a while. Turns out it wasn’t. The real prison lay in sex and drugs and sin. You thought speaking out strongly against God would be liberating, would really free your mind. Turns out it didn’t. It just embittered you more and more and caused you to reject more and more of God. You end up an atheist. You thought maybe you needed to jazz up God’s appearance, make Him sexier, softer, more pleasing to everybody else. It wasn’t enough. It’s never enough. The devil and the world aren’t satisfied, and neither are you, until you totally emasculate God. In each case, you’re left with nothing. No God. No Word. No hope. Just empty. To be replaced, when the time comes, with fiery hell.
So God wrote. To teach you. To encourage you. To give you endurance. To give you hope. He wrote about seeking out and saving lost sheep. He wrote about His patience with sinners like Paul, chiefs of sinners, and how Christ came into the world to save them. He wrote about how Moses interceded for such sinful people as the Golden Calf worshippers, and how God hears such an appeal, and in His mercy and grace says, “I will spare them.”
This is the real God, the God hidden behind the appearances we find so weak, so meager, so answerless. Notice today how in all three instances God talks about forgiveness. He talks about finding sinners, grabbing sinners, gracing and mercying sinners, withholding disaster from sinners. We find the God of the promise, which means we’ve found Christ, a powerful God hidden behind the powerlessness of death on a cross!
It all culminates in Christ, just as He said it does. He’s the hope we might have, we do have, the hope that comes to us from God’s Word. The hope that encourages us and helps us to endure, because it says, “This Word’s for you.”
“To teach us,” Paul said. And in that pronoun rests our hope, our salvation, our God. God speaks to you and to me. Luther makes much of this in the Small Catechism, remember? In discussing the Sacrament Luther asks, “How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?” He answers: “It’s not the eating and drinking that does them, but the words, which are given here, ‘Given…and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.’…The person who believes these words has what they say…the forgiveness of sins.” For you!
Likewise, a few years later, Luther writes that the “for me” and “for us” “creates that true faith and distinguishes it from all other faith, which merely hears the things done.”
What God writes isn’t just interesting historical stuff. It’s not just the equivalent of the Muslim’s Koran, the Mormon’s Book of Mormon, Shakespeare’s historical plays or your Western Civ textbook. In these words God grants saving faith. With these words God finds what’s lost, God mercies the worst of sinners, God relents and punishes not us, but someone else: He punishes His own Son Christ in our place, because “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”
This isn’t idle speculation. It’s not about that guy or them. It’s us. For you. For me. Given for you. Shed for you. For your forgiveness. It’s Jesus, put to death for your sins, Paul says, raised to life for your justification. That being the case, we savor every Word. We savor every Word because God gives us hope when hope is gone. We savor each Word, because in each Word we find Christ, and where we find Christ, we find our life, our forgiveness, our heaven! In each Word, we find that we’ve been found by God!
Appearances aren’t always what they seem. As Luther said, if God declares a piece of straw to be more valuable than gold, it is, because God says so. There isn’t much that we see to give us hope, except God says to look in just one place: “Look at my Word and see my Word made flesh for you, for your salvation. Look at Him and live! Savor Him! Savor every Word of the Word!” Amen!