Texts: Hebrews 11:17-40, Matthew 25:14-30 6th Lent Midweek
The Fruit of the Spirit: Faithfulness
In the name of him who is our Rock and Fortress, dear friends in Christ: We have so far in this series of meditations on the nine fruit of the Spirit from Galatians chapter five considered the first six, namely love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and goodness. And before we go on to the seventh this evening, I want to stress that all of the spiritual fruit we have been considering are aptitudes and virtues that are worked in us by God’s Holy Spirit. We don’t produce them naturally. We can’t. Though in each case – and this is what I want to highlight – in each case we can produce an outwardly passable imitation. Take peace for example, a part of which we saw was the ability to freely forgive sins that people commit against us. We can fake that. I daresay we often do fake that, pretending to let things go, smiling and saying, “I forgive you” – even while harboring deep resentment in our hearts, and who knows? In some cases perhaps even while plotting some secret revenge. Obviously in such cases we’re as far from the godly fruit of patience as we can be. But I hasten to add that there’s another way to fake it; and this is even more dangerous. It’s when you say to yourself, “I know that I ought to be patient and forgiving to this person who did this terrible thing to me. The Lord requires it of me.” And so then you try to work the fruit of patience in yourself using your own natural abilities. Once again, to a certain extent you can succeed – at least in a superficial sort of way. The danger is that you can easily deceive yourself into thinking you’ve accomplished it. A telltale sign that you’re forgiving patience isn’t the real article would be revealed in your thinking what a good person you are for being so patient. “The Lord must really be pleased with me on account of the way I just let that awful thing he did to me go”. You see, if you really had the spiritual fruit of patience, you wouldn’t have to consciously force yourself to forgive the offense. If you really had it, you wouldn’t have got all worked up about the offense to begin with. The true fruit of patience grows when we recognize that we can’t produce it, and that our inbred impatience and unwillingness to forgive is evil. We then repent of it, confess it, and receive God’s forgiveness through which the Spirit works to grow in us the genuine article.
This is true of all of the fruit of the Spirit we’ve discussed thus far, love, joy, peace, and so on; but it’s probably with the next one, faithfulness, that we’re most likely to fool ourselves into believing that the worthless imitation we produce on our own is the real thing. The reason for this is we tend to think that faith is our sole contribution to God’s great plan of salvation. “By grace are you saved through faith”, we dutifully memorize. “The Lord does it all. Christ died for my sins. There’s nothing left for me to do. My only job is to believe it. Right?”
No, wrong! Well, I mean yes, you’re to believe it – but that’s not your job. Rather, the faith you have is a gift of God. It’s not something we generate within ourselves, instead it is something that’s grown in us by God’s Holy Spirit as the Lord Jesus reveals himself to us through his Word and Sacraments. This is why unlike so many other groups associated with the Christian Church we don’t preach faith. I don’t stand here waving a floppy Bible over my head and say, “You’ve got to believe!” No. We preach Christ crucified. And through that message, the message of the cross, the Holy Spirit creates, grows, and increasingly brings to maturity true faith in those who hear.
But what is true faith? We heard as one of our readings an excerpt from Hebrews chapter eleven. It’s what is often called the great chapter on faith. That chapter begins with these remarkable words: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” There’re a couple of very apparent contradictions there. How can what I’ve only been promised will come one day have any existence now? And what good is evidence that can’t be seen? And that, of course, is more or less the point. Faith is trusting so confidently in what you don’t yet have that as far as you’re concerned, you’ve got it already. It’s believing so firmly in what you can’t see that you don’t need to see. You know. You know with such certainty that even if everything you see and experience denies it, your certainty remains unshakable.
And we’re given a long list of biblical examples of people who had that kind of faithfulness. Like Abraham. Can you imagine being told by the Lord to sacrifice your own beloved son? And in particular the son through whom the Lord promised to fulfill all the other promises he made to you? It was in total opposition to everything he knew – not to mention the horror he must have felt at having to do such a thing to his own child. And yet Abraham was absolutely sure that the Word and Promises of God cannot be broken. He knew that even if he did sacrifice his son as the Lord had directed, still, somehow, through this son the Lord would keep his Word to make of him a great nation – even if it meant raising Isaac from the dead.
Or how would you have liked to have been Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt? You’ve got the sea on one side of you and an army of heavily armed and very angry Egyptians barreling down on you on the other. You’re the guy in charge. All the people are blaming you for the impending disaster that’s coming upon them. And mind you, the Lord hasn’t yet told you how he’s going to get you out of this fix. And yet Moses tells the people, “Stand by to see the salvation of the Lord!” He has no idea what’s coming, only that the Lord must have a plan. Then he holds up his staff and whoosh, sploosh, the sea opens up and the water is standing like a wall on both sides of a long corridor. Friends, water isn’t supposed to stand up like that. Would you want to be the first one to step on in and start crossing?
Or how’d you like to have been with Gideon and his ragtag force of a mere three hundred that went up against an army of somewhere in the neighborhood of two hundred thousand soldiers – and do it fully expecting to win the battle simply because the Lord told you that you would? I think you get the point. These people and the others mentioned throughout the reading displayed great faithfulness to the Lord’s Word despite what they saw – and in many cases, despite what they suffered. “They were tortured … faced jeers and flogging … chained and put in prison … some were stoned, sawed in two, killed by the sword … They went about … destitute, persecuted, mistreated” all by their great faithfulness to the Lord’s Word. And it was through such periods of abuse and fiery trial that their faith was tested and refined. It was precisely by not seeing any evidence and having the opposite of what they were hoping for that sent them back to the Word and Promises of God by which their faith was made strong.
And it’s easy to think, “Sure, those are some impressive cases; but then you’re talking about the Bible’s great champions, the heroes of faith; not regular people like me.” But that’s the whole point of the passage: they were exactly like you and me. They were weak, pathetic sinners who failed and fell time and time again; but by God’s grace and the gift of faith worked in them by the Holy Spirit they endured. They hung on to the end and died still hoping for what the Lord promised, and by faith they saw what they would one day inherit. The point of the passage is that the Lord is working to produce in us the same level of mature faithfulness – which he does as we apply ourselves to his Word, namely the Word of Christ, the Word of his cross and suffering, and the salvation God achieved for us through Jesus. In fact, the passage suggests that we have more than they did because the fullness of God’s salvation in Christ had not yet been revealed. Having more for the Holy Spirit to build with, we have the potential to be even more faithful than the Bible’s great heroes.
But there’s another aspect to the fruit of faithfulness that we need to explore. It’s one thing to trust completely in the Promises of God. That’s faithfulness to the Lord and his Word. The other end of it is being faithful for the Lord and his Word. The idea is this: here we are looking forward in faith to the Lord’s return, knowing that this present age is passing away and that a new age is about to dawn. The question is: how are we being faithful for the Lord with what he’s entrusted to our care until that day comes? This aspect of faithfulness is shown in the second reading we had this evening: the Parable of the Talents.
And the meaning of the parable is quite simple. To each one of us the Lord assigns a certain amount of resources: time, wealth, natural talents and abilities, brainpower and reasoning, position and place in life, education, opportunities to hear his Word, and opportunities to serve his church and other people in countless different ways. Because we are faithful to the Lord’s Word and know for certain what’s coming, the Holy Spirit works in us to be faithful for the Lord by employing these resources in ways that will maximize benefits for the kingdom of God. And note what it is that prevents the unfaithful servant from producing anything with what he was given: it’s fear, fear of his master; and likely too fear of not having enough for himself, fear of reaching out and investing with what he was given and taking a risk of losing. It’s fear that shows he really doesn’t know or trust his master. So let me suggest that faithfulness for the Lord grows directly from faithfulness to the Lord and his Word by which the Lord’s true character and his love for us in Christ Jesus is made known.
Let us therefore seek to know him all the more where he reveals himself to us: in his Holy Word and Sacraments, by which we walk with Jesus in this life, and through which the Holy Spirit increases in us the fruit of true faithfulness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!