Sermon audio here.
God’s best gifts are also the most unpleasant ones. He had just “blessed” Simon and his fishing partners with the worst night of fishing. Ever. So Simon complained to Jesus, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” Now if you’re a fisherman, this is nothing short of catastrophic. No fish means no money and nothing to eat, either.
God gave them a miserable night without fish, but it turned out to be an incredible blessing. Had they caught fish before Jesus came along, they wouldn’t have needed His help. They certainly wouldn’t have left their livelihoods behind to follow Jesus. God’s best gifts are also the most unpleasant ones.
Like faith. It’s one of the greatest gifts God could ever give you, but at the same time, it’s also one of the most unpleasant. We talk about faith in positive terms—and we should—but it’s a gift in which the sinful flesh has absolutely no interest. Remember, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
In a sense, then, faith is being blind; it’s the conviction of things not seen. Faith is not having what you want—at least for now. But the flesh doesn’t want to hope, it wants to have! Faith is the opposite of instant gratification; it’s patient waiting. Yes, you have the assurance and conviction that you will receive what God promises, but you don’t have it yet. And even that conviction wavers.
Simon’s faith wasn’t perfect either. It was only after toiling all night and catching nothing that Jesus told him to put back down the nets. This was no small task and they had just had a long, frustrating night. Now had anyone else told him to do this, Simon probably would have said that was the dumbest thing anyone had ever told him to do in his whole life! He’s probably thinking, “What does a carpenter know about fishing?” He even told Jesus, “Don’t you know we’ve been at this all night and caught nothing?” But out of respect for his Master, he said, “But at Your Word I will let down the nets,” (St. Luke 5:5).
Peter acted in faith, but only reluctantly. Jesus is constantly lamenting the “little faith” of His followers (e.g., St. Matthew 6:20).
Your sinful flesh is skeptical of God and His promises. Like Esau, who sold his inheritance for a bowl of stew, there are things for which you’d pawn off your salvation in a heartbeat (Genesis 25:25–24). Jesus says if you had faith as small as a grain of mustard seed you could move mountains (St. Matthew 17:20)! You don’t.
Even after everything happened just as God said it would—after the resurrection on the road to Emmaus—still the disciples were, as Jesus said, “foolish” and “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets [had] spoken,” (St. Luke 24:25).
The best gifts you could ever receive are the least pleasant ones. Think about the “gift” God gave to St. Paul’s flesh. Three times the apostle pleaded with God to remove this thorn from his flesh, this “messenger of Satan”—but each time God said no (2 Cor. 12:7).
It’s as if God told St. Paul he had this really wonderful gift for him. So He has the apostle sit down in this chair, but then he gets out that rubber hose and starts tying it really tightly around his arm, cutting off the circulation. Then God gets out the biggest needle the apostle had ever seen in his life and starts coming at him, Nurse Ratched style, with what looks like sadistic glee. Nor does it seem like the Almighty makes any effort at all to be gentle. After thrusting the needle into the his arm—violently—he snaps the needle off from the rest of the syringe, leaving it there under his skin. Some gift!
The thorns and trials God sends can make Him seem cruel, almost as if He enjoys watching you suffer. St. Paul pleaded with God to remove that thorn, but each time He said no. And it’s a good thing He didn’t. God gave him this thorn to keep [him] from becoming conceited (2 Cor. 12:7). He told the apostle it would teach him to rely more fully on His grace (v. 9).
Suffering is no fun. We plead with God—rightly so—to hear our cry and deliver us. But rarely do you cry out to God, rarely is your faith so alive and fervent, as it is when you hurt. Next to the Word and Sacraments, bearing the cross is best thing for your faith. Suffering is just as important to a healthy faith as prayer and Scripture.
The satisfied have no need for faith. Going without is never pleasant, but Jesus blesses the poor, the sorrowful, and the hungry (St. Matthew 5:3–4, 6). He brings down the mighty from their thrones and rich He sends empty away (St. Luke 1:52–53).
The flesh wants to think that God will only give you what you want. It’s true God will only give you good things, but His definition of good doesn’t always match yours. Scripture promises that God will work all things for the good of His children (Romans 8:28). This means that even though God may afflict you with cancer or your loved ones with death, He will ultimately use even those things for your good. Faith is believing that God is good even when He looks like evil incarnate.
Sometimes people believe the devil’s lie that God will never give you more than you can handle. If anything, God will always give you more than you can handle. If He didn’t, you would have no idea how badly you need Him.
Think about Noah. The ordeal he’d just been through was terrifying. God had just unleashed His wrath with so much rain that it covered even the tallest mountains. Except for the 8 people on the ark, everyone else was dead. There were plenty of animals on the ark that would have loved nothing more than eating Noah and his family for lunch. The physical danger and mental anguish Noah faced in those days was immense, to say the least.[i]
Nor is it like the water suddenly vanished after the 40 days and nights of raining. Noah was out to sea for so long it seemed as if God had forgotten him! God finally did remember Noah (Genesis 8:1), but it took Him 150 days. That’s a long time, and all Noah had to sustain him during that time was God’s promise. The suffering we experience in this life can be profound, but God would use those times to draw you closer to Him and strengthen your faith.
Grace is another gift of God that the sinful flesh hates. Nobody likes getting help—we want to do everything for ourselves. Our daughter Elizabeth has a limited vocabulary at this point, but one of her favorite things to say is “I do it, I do it!”, even when she clearly can’t do something. But she’d rather try and fail—and end up with nothing—than have it done for her.
Adults are no different. One of the biggest fears of adults as they grow older is losing their independence. No adult wants to have to be fed by someone or to need help going to the bathroom. Many people would rather die than need that kind of help.
We hate being dependent so much that we even have a national holiday in celebration of our independence! But to call Christ Lord is to acknowledge your dependence on Him and submit to Him in all things.
Faith and grace are gifts we don’t like because we don’t want to go without and we want to be able to do everything for ourselves. You might think indulging your sinful desires will make you happy, but they won’t. Christ calls you to deny yourself, take up your cross, and live in daily contrition in repentance. The world says “don’t struggle. Life is short, so you should do whatever makes you happy.”
There is no question about the intensity of sexual desire—things like our economy, marketing, the sports and entertainment industry, not to mention a good deal of what we say, think, and do—are all driven, to a large degree, by sex. But rather than struggle against impure desires and repent, we opt for instant gratification. Chastity just isn’t as fun as indulging, and it’s never fun to have to tell someone “no”, so we lie to ourselves and act like there’s nothing wrong with pornography, divorce, premarital sex, or homosexual marriage.
Everyone is born with impure sexual desires. Not every impulse is godly; most of them aren’t. Every 1st grader knows that just because you want to do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Yet, when it comes to certain sins we seem to revert back to preschool logic: “Whatever makes you happy.” According to Jesus, true blessedness is found in self-denial, not self-gratification.
We usually try to avoid the really bad sins—well, murder, mostly, but that’s only because we’re afraid of the legal consequences, not because you’ve never wanted to kill someone or because you’re afraid of offending God. You should be afraid of offending God. He threatens to punish all who break His Commandments. Repent.
Remember, God’s will is always good. When God says not to commit adultery it’s like He’s saying not to pour salt in your wound.[ii] You are always better off doing what God wants, even though that’s never what the sinful flesh wants.
It’s exactly the opposite of the way we think, but God uses the most painful experiences to bless. Consider the fact that God’s method of bringing life and salvation to the world involved what sounds more like a tragic front page headline about human brutality and injustice than anything that sounds even remotely like “good news.”
God accomplished the greatest blessing of all—earning your salvation—by allowing an innocent man to be tortured and killed for crimes He didn’t commit. And not just any man, but the Eternal Son of God Incarnate in human flesh. He came unto His own, but His own received Him not (St. John 1:11). Jesus’ death on the cross seemed at the time like worst thing that ever could have happened, so much worse than that fishless night on the lake of Gennesaret. The agony of Holy Week probably made the disciples wish they’d never left their nets behind in the first place.
Even though your faith wavers under difficulty and is practically non-existent the rest of the time, Jesus continues to uphold and sustain you. Compared with Jesus’ love for you, your doubt is the size of a mustard seed.
Jesus had no doubts about the Father’s goodness even though He suffered more profoundly than any other person in the history of the world—and that at His hands of His Father. The Father had never looked more like Satan—indeed, God and Satan cooperated together in the crucifixion. Though the crucifixion was the greatest act of injustice the world has ever known, still Jesus trusted in the goodness of His Father, knowing that somehow He would work even this for His glory and the good of those who love Him.
When you’re tempted to think that God is evil incarnate, remember that Christ took on human flesh out of pure love for you, and then suffered and died on the cross for your sin. By His faith, your doubt is forgiven. He works all things together for your good. His greatest blessings often come through the most painful experiences—the cross is proof of that. Despite whatever pain you’ve suffered in this life, still you are here today to commune with Jesus in spite of the fact that you can’t see Him. Your faith may be imperfect and smaller than a mustard seed, but that’s enough for Jesus. Go in peace; the Lord is with you.
Soli Deo Gloria
+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Luke 5:1–11
The Fifth Sunday after Trinity, 2015: When God Looks Like Evil Incarnate
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[i] Adapted from Luther, Through Faith Alone, devotion for March 13.
[ii] Rev. David Petersen made a comment to this effect during his “Looking forward to Sunday Morning” Issues, Etc. interview for the week of Trinity 5, 2015.