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Luther on Epiphany 4 – Matthew 8:23-27

by pastorjuhl ~ January 27th, 2011

These quotes are from his House Postils. I commend the entire sermon for your edification.

Today’s Gospel presents an episode from which we learn not what things we are to do – for there is no mention of deeds – but rather, what one ought to believe in time of need and tribulation, and how we may be comforted. It is, therefore, a lesson on faith, the cardinal article of Christianity.

As soon as you commit yourself to this Lord and come with Him into the ship, wind, storm, and buffeting will surely ensue. This is how Jesus Sirach warns all believers in Sirach 2:1-2, “My Son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation. Set your heart right and be steadfast, and do not be hasty in time of calamity.” In other words, if you don’t want to be God’s servant, just coast along, the devil will leave you alone. On the other hand, if you desire to serve God and be a Christian, resign yourself willingly and say goodbye to good days, for you will not escape persecution. But don’t despair! Even though the waves beat over the ship, and the sea becomes wild and turbulent, do not be afraid because of that, but think rather: I didn’t get into this to gain the world’s favor; and I’m not going to give it up because of its rancor and raging. That’s what the Evangelist wishes to teach us, namely that the storm first started after Christ stepped into the ship and launched into the sea, as though the conclusion was: If you want to be a Christian, then you must expect that the wind, the sea, and storms will make mischief. Do you wish to preach Christ and acknowledge the faith? Then expect the world to turn ugly.

Thus the devil confuses the hearts of people, so that they do not recognize the precious treasure and the great benefits which the gospel offers, namely, that they are redeemed from sin, death, the devil, and the pope’s tyranny and power. They slander horribly and blame the gospel for every misfortune, just as the Jews did in the wilderness. How will such slander be punished? Indeed, eventually fear will fall upon them. Now they say, Since this gospel came to light, nothing good has happened in the land. Hold on, sir, you’re going to eat your words. For it’s in the nature of the gospel that, if it is despised when it is preached, all manner of evil will follow. Now this is not the fault of the gospel, but of the ungrateful people who despise the gospel and who, because of their thanklessness and disdain, merit such punishment. Even where the gospel is not preached there is all kinds of trouble in the world…. Nevertheless, God rescues His believers from distress, no matter how great it may be…. The first lesson of this Gospel, then, is that if you want to be a Christian and want to have the gospel, you must anticipate rough weather, for it is inevitable.

The disciples had an excellent object lesson here of how free will does not stand up very well. Even though their faith was weak and small, nevertheless, if there had not been this weak, small faith, but only free will, they would have sunk into the depths of the sea. But because there was a flicker of faith present, as Christ Himself witnessed when He said, O ye of little faith,” they had recourse, so that they did not despair; they ran to Christ, awoke Him, and begged for help.

I grant that you have a free will to milk the cow and to build a house, but that’s it. When you live in security, exercise your freedom, are free of danger, and have no needs, then you may think that with free will you can do anything. But in time of need, when there is nothing to eat or drink and you are without provisions or money, where is your free will then? It’s lost, and fails you when it comes to the test. But faith stands and seeks Christ. Accordingly, faith is a different matter from free will; yes, free will is nothing, faith is everything. Free will is a powerless thing, faith a mighty thing.

Even though faith be weak and small, it nevertheless exerts and does not permit itself to be frightened to death. It has great potential as we see here in the case of the disciples. The waves, the wind, and the sea all work together to bring about death; the little ship is covered with waves. Who wouldn’t despair in such desperate straits on such a deadly voyage? But faith, no matter how weak, stands firm like a wall, and fortifies itself like scrawny David against Goliath, against sin, death, and all peril. A strong, fulsome faith rides like a conqueror. But even weak faith fights well though not as valiantly. The disciples in the ship had a weak faith; nevertheless, they sought help where it was to be found, namely, with the Lord Jesus; they awoke Him and cried, “Lord, save us, we perish.”

The Lord described them as men of little faith; but He acknowledged that they had faith, though small and weak. If they had had no faith, they would not have awakened Christ in their need. But the fact that they did awaken Him is evidence of faith. For no one can call upon God, especially in a crisis, unless He has faith. Even though there was but a spark of faith in the disciples, it shone forth and clung to the person who could overpower death. Their call, “Lord, help!” was the expression of faith. If their faith had been strong, they would not have been frightened by the wind and the sea just like Jonah who survived in the whale’s belly. For we have the Lord of the sea with us, and even if we did not have Him with us, we would find a vault in the depth of the sea where we could rest, remain dry, and not drown. Our Lord can help us and rescue us not only on top of the sea, but also under it.

Therefore, it is God’s great mercy if even with a weak faith we do not despair of God’s help as do the vast majority. Free will sees only the present moment, faith looks beyond the transient. Faith is a replay of all comfort, salvation, and joy. It may see death’s fangs and hell’s jaws; nevertheless it calls to mind and clings confidently to the hope of being helped, just as the disciples clung to the Lord for help and comfort. In the same breath it cries both, “We perish!” and also “Lord, help!” But the “Lord, help!” finally wins and brings the victory.

Even though we think that Christ does not hear or see the thunderstorm, the wind, and the sea, he hears and sees it nonetheless. Therefore, we should make this a maxim: Even though He sleeps, Christ is in the boat.

There is no dire crisis, for the Lord is with us in the ship. Even though He sleeps and acts as though He does not see us, nevertheless, we should proceed as though we see Him, and believe with all our hearts that He is Lord over the emperor, Turk, pope, devil, pestilence, and all misfortune, come what may.

So it is also in our own life’s journey when trials affect each one individually in some personal way. For every Christian finds out for himself that the devil buffets him, just as the waves beat against the ship. When such temptations come and the devil reproaches you with your sin, frightens you with God’s anger, and threatens you with eternal damnation, do not despair, but firmly believe that Christ is with you in the ship and, even though He sleeps, will certainly hear and rescue you when you petition and implore Him. When distress strikes and He does not help immediately, no matter, just hold fast, do not waver, but firmly believe that Christ is with you in the boat. For in His own good time He helps. In the meantime you must persevere, let the devil drown, and recognize the power of faith, how it fights and fends for itself. Then, too, consider what free will accomplishes, if Christ withdraws His Hand and does not help. Faith is exercised and strengthened when one stands firm and endures temptation, happily and confidently venturing all because of Christ, no matter how great the extremity may be.

We must suffer trials, but there will also be happiness and salvation for us. For Christ, true God and true man, helps all those who believe in Him and call upon Him in every time of need and danger. This comfort, protection, and shield, all believers have, and even though because of this they must suffer and endure much, it is of no account. The godless also have their enemies and adversaries, even though they may seem to fare better in the world than believers. But why shouldn’t we be patient in our tribulation and suffering? Even though our tribulations are greater than the troubles of the godless, yet in comparison we have greater gifts and blessings than they. The devil does not pursue them as vigorously as he does us Christians. But of what do they have more? They have a bad conscience and must finally expect eternal damnation.

The greater the trial, the greater the antidote. That is why affliction is very necessary and useful for the Christian.

If you wish to be a Christian, you will certainly experience trials. However, if you call upon Christ in time of need, He will hear you, rescue you, and cause your trial to bear blessed fruit and great glory. For the present every necessity is met; and later, eternal life will follow. It bothers the old Adam greatly; he does not willingly submit to wind and waves on the sea, and would rather remain on shore. Indeed it’s always the same: time of need must always come first, then follows rescue and glory.

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