TRINITY XXI – In voluntate tua
Introit: (Esther 13) Everything is subject unto thy will, O Lord, King Almighty, and there is none that can gainsay thee: for thou hast made heaven and earth, and all the wonders which beneath the vault of heaven are contained: thou art Lord of all. Ps. (119) Blessed are those that are undefiled in the way: and walk in the law of the Lord. Glory be … Everything is subject …
Collect: Grant, we beseech thee, merciful Lord, to thy faithful people pardon and peace: that they may be cleansed from all their sins, and serve thee with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: O my people: Learn where is wisdom, where is strength, where is understanding; that thou mayest know also where is length of days, and life, where is the light of the eyes, and peace. Who hath found out her place? or who hath come into her treasures? No man knoweth her way, nor thinketh of her path. But he that knoweth all things knoweth her, and hath found her out with his understanding: he that prepared the earth for evermore hath filled it with fourfooted beasts: He that sendeth forth light, and it goeth, calleth it again, and it obeyeth him with fear. The stars shined in their watches, and rejoiced: when he calleth them, they say, Here we be; and so with cheerfulness they shewed light unto him that made them. This is our God, and there shall none other be accounted of in comparison of him. He hath found out all the way of knowledge, and hath given it unto Jacob his servant, and to Israel his beloved. Afterward did he shew himself upon earth, and conversed with men. (Baruch 3.14-15, 31-37)
Gradual: (Ps. 90) Lord, thou hast been our refuge, from one generation to another. V. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made: thou art God from everlasting, and world without end.
Epistle: Brethren: Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6.10-17)
Alleluia. Praise the Lord, O my soul; while I live will I praise the Lord: yea, as long as I have any being, I will sing praises unto my God. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: There was a certain nobleman, whose son was sick at Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus was come out of Judæa into Galilee, he went unto him, and besought him that he would come down, and heal his son: for he was at the point of death. Then said Jesus unto him, Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe. The nobleman saith unto him, Sir, come down ere my child die. Jesus saith unto him, Go thy way; thy son liveth. And the man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him, and he went his way. And as he was now going down, his servants met him, and told him, saying, Thy son liveth. Then enquired he of them the hour when he began to amend. And they said unto him, Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him. So the father knew that it was at the same hour, in the which Jesus said unto him, Thy son liveth: and himself believed, and his whole house. This is again the second miracle that Jesus did, when he was come out of Judæa into Galilee. (St John 4.46-54)
“Above all, taking the shield of faith … and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
“‘Let there be light.’ And there was light” (Gen 1.1). The Father speaks, and it is so. His Word accomplishes what it says. He created all things out of nothing through His Son by the power of His Holy Spirit. The Father’s creative Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, that He might restore a fallen creation and save fallen humanity (“afterward did he shew himself upon earth, and conversed with men”). To the nobleman whose son was deathly ill, Jesus says, “Go thy way; thy son liveth.” And at the very instant Jesus spoke the word, his son was made well. The Word of Christ still accomplishes what it says. He declares His life-giving pardon and peace to us, and it is so. This saving Word of God is the sword of the Spirit wherewith we are able to fight off all the onslaughts of the devil. “Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God,” says St Paul, “that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”
Belts and breastplates, heavy boots, shields, helmets, and a mighty sword. Many in our day find the militaristic language in today’s Epistle reading off-putting and offensive. But we need to be careful not to miss or dismiss St Paul’s point—that we are in a real spiritual battle against the forces of evil. This notion of ‘spiritual warfare’ is perhaps even more offensive and nonsensical to many in our modern world. But it is nonetheless a fact. The Christian life is a battle, and to pretend that it is not, is disingenuous at best. We wrestle not (or not only) against flesh and blood, but against all the spiritual forces that have arrayed themselves against God, and that seek our destruction. At Baptism we are signed with the sign of the cross, with the prayer that we may continue as Christ’s faithful soldiers and servants unto our lives’ end. We are soldiers, then, and our duty is to maintain and extend the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that entails a battle against greed, anger, hatred, and such like sins and evils.
“Above all, taking the shield of faith,” says St Paul, and today’s Gospel lesson tells us something about the power of that shield. The story begins with a man’s panic-stricken trip to find Jesus, whom he hopes might come and heal his dying son. Now the Herodians weren’t exactly known for their piety, but as a father, this royal official (βασιλικὸς, lit. “king’s man”) has been standing helplessly at the bedside of his young son, agonizing as the boy’s sickness goes from bad to worse. By now, the fever had taken over and death is imminent. Never mind that Capernaum to Cana means an eight-hour journey, uphill, to find some redneck carpenter-cum-preacher. This man’s son is dying, and he will endure anything in order that his boy might be made well. Jesus is his last resort. He is desperate. So he gets up before dawn and finds Jesus around noon, and approaches Him begging for a healing miracle. But Jesus puts him off. Or rather, he presses the man’s faith: “Oh, you people! Unless you see signs and wonders, you just won’t believe, will you?” Our Lord wants more than just the salvation of the nobleman’s son. He wants the salvation of the nobleman himself, and of his whole family. But in order for that to happen, the man has to stake his faith upon more than just signs and wonders, but upon Jesus Himself. We can hear the father’s impatience and desperation when Jesus starts preaching about how genuine faith does not require miracles. He digs in: “Sir, come with me before my son dies! This means life or death for my boy.” But then Jesus helps the man move his faith from his eyes to his ears, and thus to his heart. He does not come with the man, but only gives him a word, as the sundial shows one o’clock: “Go home. Your son lives.” Many translations say, “Your son will live,” but that is not what the Greek says. This is not a future event, not a gradual amelioration, but an established and present statement of fact: “Your son lives—right now. He is already healed.”
Is it possible that this man need not even be physically present, but merely speaks a word and twenty miles away a dying boy revives? What kind of power is this? What kind of word is this? Despite his noble status, the father did not get what he had planned. What he got was Jesus’ word. And then something happens, and there is a radical change in this man. And the man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him, and he went his way. His faith is in his acting upon what he has heard, and he places his desire under the power of that Word. Along that homeward road, each step forward becomes a prayer—the prayer of every disciple: “Lord, increase my faith!” (Lk 17.5). “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mk 9.24). He steps out in faith. He came to Jesus in desperation, but he returns home in hope. And on his way, that faith and hope are confirmed. As night was closing in, and the man was still travelling along the agonizing path of obedience, his servants meet him with the good news. His son turned from death to life at precisely one o’clock. So the father realised that Jesus had done the impossible, by the sheer power of His Word. And perhaps his heart sang these words, long before William Cowper ever penned them:
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face. (Hymn #516)
No, Jesus doesn’t give him exactly what he asked for. He gives him something far better—He gives him what he truly needs.
St John refers to the miraculous healing of the nobleman’s son as Jesus’ second sign (the first sign being the changing of water into wine at the wedding in Cana). Our Lord’s miracles were more than simply magic tricks or manipulations of natural law. They were signs; they pointed to far greater things beyond themselves. Our Lord said to Thomas at the end of the Gospel, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” St John then goes on to say that Jesus performed many other signs which are not recorded in this book: “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life through his name (Jn 20.29-30).” John calls the miracles signs. What they point to is the Kingdom of God and what God is doing in Jesus Christ. They are signs of the power, love, and compassion of God over every evil, including sickness and death. They are signs of the will of God for healing and life for his people, which we pray and believe will be fulfilled. But they are also signs of what can be achieved in us when we believe—when we have faith. John is clearly calling his readers to examine their faith. “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.” Is our belief based on the spectacular, the eye-catching, the crowd-pleasing? If so, what happens when Christ’s work reveals the opposite–when it is about mundane obedience, or suffering, or the repulsiveness of the cross? What happens to our faith when it must be grounded in the ear and not the eye?
The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (11.6). The pattern recurs throughout Scripture. God has us step out in faith, without any visible or tangible certainty, simply trusting in His Word. Think of the healing of the lepers–they had to act, without a healing, to show themselves to the priest. It was only on the way that they were healed. Think of the disciples, seating the crowd of more than five thousand on the green grass. They didn’t know what Jesus was up to, yet they obeyed the word to sit the people down to eat, and to distribute the bread and fish to them. Or think of the previous sign in Cana. The servants had to draw the water and hand it to the master of the wedding banquet before they knew a miracle had occurred. In each case, there is a risky act of faith and obedience–where we must die to ourselves, our will, and our reason. We walk by faith, not by sight. We move on the “assurance of things unseen”(Heb 11.1). Or to paraphrase another passage: “Man does not live by bread [material signs or physical proofs] alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deut 8.3; Mt 4.4). Even when every reality seems discouraging, even when Jesus himself seems discouraging—to this Herodian father, to the Syrophoenician mother, even to His own blessed Mother—faith doggedly hangs on and sees the Saviour beyond the severity: “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.”
We all, like that Herodian nobleman, come to Jesus with our anxieties and guilt, our fears and hopes. And if we, too, will believe the word of Jesus, we will find healing and faith, pardon and peace. Both the Collect and the Epistle speak of this peace, and it may be helpful to think of our Christian service as a peacekeeping mission. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Mt 5.9). Peace is the fruit of faith. We have peace by trusting God, and by entrusting everything to Him in prayer and thanksgiving. Yet, although we have peace with God, at the same time the Epistle warns us not to become complacent, nor to mistake or underestimate our enemy; “for we wrestle not against flesh and blood.” Our enemy is not human: our battle is a spiritual one—within ourselves against despondency and all kinds of sin, and in the world against hatred, lying, slander, injustice and oppression. There is a spiritual and moral battle in which we are all called to engage. If we mistake our enemy, we will take the wrong arms. In the struggles that you and I face every day in our Christian life, we need the firm undergirding of truth to hold all things together. We need the righteousness of Christ and a right relationship with God to protect our hearts. We need the desire to proclaim the good news to motivate us, and to move our feet. We need the protecting helmet of God’s healing and salvation, that we may be cleansed from all our sins and serve Him with a quiet mind. But above all, we need impermeable faith to shield us from the devil’s constant attacks and temptations, and the Word and promise of God to push back the wickedness and deceptions of the evil one. All this, with constant prayer, is our spiritual panoply whereby we shall emerge victorious in the Last Day.
St John himself reminds us, “Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (I Jn 4.4). As God encouraged Joshua, so He would strengthen us today for the battles and struggles that lie ahead in our lives: Be strong and of a good courage. We believe in Jesus Christ, and place all our trust in His Word. We believe in grace and mercy far greater than all our sin, in healing that tramples down sickness and death, in forgiveness and reconciliation that overcome division and brokenness, and in love which is stronger than all. This is our faith; this is our invincible shield.
“Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.”
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given to them that believe exceeding great and precious promises: Grant us so perfectly and without all doubt to believe in thy Son Jesus Christ that our faith in thy sight may never be reproved; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.