Trinity 21 Sermon, 2018
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
Bottom of the Ninth. Two outs. Tie game. There’s a man on Second. Here’s the wind up—the runner goes—and the pitch—and it’s a base hit up the middle. A valiant effort by the shortstop keeps the ball in play near the infield, but the only play is at home, and the runner is safe at home.
What does this mean?
On her way home from a run, a twenty-six year old female is being followed. She quickens her pace, left hand, pepper spray, right hand, keys held as brass knuckles. Then, she sees him watching her. A mix of panic and fear sends her sprinting, very short of breath, up the stairs to her apartment door, porch light out, of course. And he’s still coming. But her keys were ready, and, once inside, the bolt locks, the chain slides closed, the cats meow, and she breathes a sigh of relief. The runner is safe at home.
What does this mean?
“Safe” doesn’t always mean “safe,” and we know that. We make distinctions like this all the time, but we’re afraid, in the Church, to distinguish between, for example, temporal safety and eternal safety.
We don’t like to offend the sensibilities of the heathen, and so we won’t share with them the words of eternal life. It shouldn’t be this way.
In the Church, we have to be prepared to make distinctions, otherwise, someone will ask us, “What does this mean?” or “What do you mean?” or “What do you believe?” and we’ll be too afraid to answer.
What does the word “until” mean?
In Mark chapter ten, Jesus says, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there [ἕως] until you depart from there” (Mark 10:6). So, clearly, you stay there “until” you leave. Then you don’t stay there anymore. That’s what “until” means.
However—Jesus says in the last chapter of Matthew, “Behold, I am with you always, [ἕως, until] the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Here, the word “until” can’t mean the same as it did before, or else Jesus won’t be with us after the end of the age. We know that’s not right. He’s with us now, until the end. And He’s with us after the end, too.
“Until” means both “until” and “until.”
So when the evangelist, St. Matthew, writes of Joseph, that “[he] knew [Mary] not until she had given birth to a son…” (Matthew 1:25), what does this mean?
It could mean that he knew her, biblically, some time after she’d given birth, but it could also mean that he continued not to know her, biblically, even after Jesus’ birth.
And here’s another example of what I mean, why the Church needs to make distinctions.
The Bible is God’s word, right?
What is says is true, right?
There are no errors or contradictions, right?
So if we were to discover errors, contradictions, falsehoods, or that it is not what it says it is, then, we’d have to give it all up, right?
From James chapter one, “[God] tempts no one” (James 1:13). That’s simple and clear. But it means that if ever it’s written in the Bible that God did tempt anyone, we would lose the comfort of the Word of God.
But when God tests Abraham, this is how Moses writes it: “It came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham” (Genesis 22:1). That’s the word.
But God tempts no one.
But the word used in Genesis is the word “tempt.”
So, what does this mean?
Just as with the word “until”, the word “tempt” has more depth to it than maybe we’d like.
He gives us a cross to bear, but He does not desire sin.
God leads us into temptation, but He does not tempt.
This is the beauty and endless frustration of language.
“Until,” “Tempt,” even “Believe” all have a depth to them that we understand easily—in English—when considering the runner who’s “Safe” at first and the woman, “Safe” behind a locked door.
We’re not making this up as we go along, and we’re not changing it as we go to make it say what we want it to say.
In the Church, we have to distinguish what is from what seems. That’s what this is about.
The testimony of Scripture is clear, and neither one little word nor one big word shall not fell us.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we need to make a distinction regarding the word “believed.” We need to ask what the man believed and what the man (and all of his household) believed.
Because the man believes twice—when Jesus says, “Go; your son will live” (John 4:50), he believed the word Jesus spoke to him. And then, after he meets his servants on the way home (cf. John 4:53), he and all his household believed.
The word for “believed” in those two verses is identical. The man believed.
But what he believed, and what that meant, are different in each verse.
When Jesus tells the man, “Go; your son will live” (John 4:50), “the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way” (John 4:50).
But the man believed only that his son would live.
I say “only,” but, of course, for this man to believe that his son would live was, moments ago, a hope—but a complete improbability. “[The boy] was at the point of death” (John 4:47). The man believes the word Jesus spoke to him, and he leaves with a victory…
But this is only a small victory. A fleeting one.
The man believes the word spoken to him, that his son will live. But it could be that he believes this, assuming Jesus, like a knowledgeable, tv doctor, knows that this isn’t the type of illness that leads to death, contrary to how it may look.
Or maybe Jesus stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night. Regardless, the man believes only that his boy will die later not sooner, and that’s a victory.
But, “as he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering. So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, ‘Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.’ [And] the father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live.’ [Then,] he himself believed, and all his household” (John 4:51-53).
This is different.
If St. John were only to have written, “And he himself believed,” we could think that the father simply believes the report. He believed Jesus, and he believed his servants.
But the addition of his household—“He himself believed, and all his household” (John 4:53)—this is a wonderfully telling addition.
The servants that meet him on the road are part of his household. They bring the good news of the boy’s recovery, but they already believe, in the first sense.
The father, though, remembers the hour when Jesus promised life to his son. The father, hearing that the hour his boy got better was the same hour that Jesus spoke, realizes that something greater than coincidence is at work.
He himself believes not just that his boy will live today and die tomorrow—now the father has faith. He believes that Jesus has power over life and death. He believes that Jesus speaks into existence life and all things. He believes, basically, that Jesus is Lord.
And then he does what every Christian father must, he teaches his household the faith.
Of course he does.
The servants who come from home, who meet the father on the road, for their part, they have nothing to believe if the man does not teach them.
For the household to believe only that the son is healed would be meaningless. They bring the message of his health to the father. No, here, the household believes in Jesus Christ as Lord, and they believe because the father believes and teaches.
They believe the boy will live. But they believe, now, because of Jesus, that though he will die yet shall he live. Moreover, that everyone who lives and believes in Jesus Christ the Lord will never die.
The man went to Jesus hoping his boy would live, and he left believing that he’d see him again.
But the gospel lesson concludes with the man hoping past life and death, trusting beyond what his eyes can see, leaning not on his own understanding, but trusting in Jesus, who speaks life into existence, to now speak everlasting life—for him, for his son, for his entire household—this man trusts Jesus to speak so that he and all his household would be safe.
And what does that mean?
Unbelief requires signs—that you see them and believe because of them. Jesus rebukes not just the man but all unbelief when He says, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4:48).
But this man sees no signs. He sees no wonders.
Neither do we.
He hears the gospel. He believes the word spoken to him. He meets his servants, his friends, his household, and he believes the word that they bring to him.
He believes not what he’s seen—but what he’s heard.
And he’s safe, that is, saved.
As are we.
Hear the gospel. Believe the word spoken to you. Hold to it, trust it, more and more. And share that word that you and your household believe.
And we know what that means.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!