"Living, Mighty, Active Faith"#89-01
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on September 5, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Isaiah 35:4-7
An elephant is a living, mighty, active creature. Elephants are the largest land animals on the planet, and they can run faster than an Olympic sprinter. And even when they're not sprinting, elephants are almost always active. For nearly 20 hours a day, they're walking, foraging, grazing, consuming, in some cases, more than 1,000 pounds of plant material every day. Elephants are active, and elephants are mighty. They are built like a tank with the power of a forklift. And over the course of human history, for more than 4,000 years, human beings have employed them as both: tanks and forklifts. And sometimes, for entertainment, too.
In some Asian countries, they stage tug-of-war contests between an elephant and people. One end of the rope is tied up to an elephant in a harness. And at the other end of the rope, there are 20, 50, as many as 100 men, all pulling, pulling, pulling against one elephant. And one elephant is all it takes to drag 100 grown men through the dirt like rag dolls attached to a string. Elephants are living, busy, mighty, active creatures of a living, mighty, active God. "Living, mighty, active," that's how one Christian described the faith of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Martin Luther was his name.
He said, "Oh, it is a living busy, mighty, active thing, this faith. Faith is like an elephant." But sometimes, we try to keep faith locked up. A traveler was walking through the streets of India one day, and he saw an elephant out back in the alley. He walked around to get a better view. And he noticed that the elephant was tied up to a rope to a little metal stake hammered into the ground. And observing this magnificent, mighty creature tethered by that tiny rope, he wondered, why doesn't the elephant break free?
The story goes, 20 years ago, maybe 30 years ago, when she was just a baby elephant, someone captured her and chained her up to a big Banyan tree with an iron shackle around her hind foot. And she pulled and pulled and pulled against those chains for days, but it didn't do any good. She was stuck. And so, years later, even as full-grown elephant, whenever she feels that iron around her foot, she knows that she's stuck. Even though she has the power to break free, she doesn't use it. She's a prisoner of her own small expectations.
There are different versions of that story, of the elephant and chains, circulated. You'll hear them from motivational speakers. The value of such a story is metaphorical. The elephant in the room is that you and I are the ones captive to our own small expectations. And the moral of the story is that we're all much bigger than we think. But hold on. If you read up a bit on real elephants, you'll see that the image isn't accurate. And maybe there's a better lesson in the comparison.
Yes, elephants have been captured, trained, and employed by human beings for 4,000 years, maybe longer, but unlike horses, and cows, and cats, and dogs, elephants have never been domesticated. That's according to Richard Lair, who worked with the United Nations, who lived with and studied elephants in captivity for more than 20 years, who is the world's foremost expert on the Asian elephant. Mr. Lair says that every elephant in captivity is genetically and behaviorally wild. Elephants have never been selectively bred to sift out their wildness. An elephant, born and raised in captivity, when released back into the wild quickly adapts to its natural habitat. Unlike the family dog, whose wolf-like traits have been sifted out through centuries of selective breeding, elephants don't need to be taught to be wild. They are wild.
Mr. Lair explained that a domesticated elephant is simply a wild animal in chains. In a blink of an eye, an elephant can kill a grown man with its tusks, with its forehead, with its trunk, with its mouth, with its legs, or with any combination thereof. The first thing to remember, Mr. Lair warns, when keeping elephants in captivity, human deaths are unavoidable. So, this picture of a metaphorical elephant mentally tethered by a single rope, it might be useful for life coaches and motivational speakers, but it's not accurate.
Even in captivity, elephants are mighty, dangerous, and mysterious. And yet, under the right conditions, elephants can form strong bonds, even affectionate bonds, with human beings. Now, we don't want to romance this relationship, and there's more than enough to mourn about the way human beings have exploited these wondrous creatures of God. But at the same time, a simplistic hands-off approach to elephants doesn't seem to work either, especially as human and elephant populations overlap in a place like India.
Elephant advocates in Asia denounce animal cruelty, but also note how humans and elephants have lived peacefully and productively together for millennia. Sadly, in a modern mechanized world, humanely caring for elephants is a dying art. However, even in modern times, elephants have worked in ways and in places where machines would fail. In logging operations, for example, elephants can selectively remove fallen trees in steep mountainous terrain without the widespread damage done to the environment when heavy equipment is used. After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, elephants were employed to carefully clear the wreckage and to deftly pick through the rubble to search for survivors in ways that would have been impossible for bulldozers and backhoes.
Make no mistake. Elephants aren't domesticated, but Richard Lair says, "Elephants are frequently gentle and intelligent enough to be totally trustworthy even as a babysitter to watch over human infants." Elephants aren't the docile captives we imagine. Even in captivity, they remain undomesticated, and so, also the faith of Jesus Christ like Martin Luther said. Luther was echoing what the New Testament letter of James says about faith. Like Luther, James, one of the early followers of Jesus, was correcting a domesticated view of the faith. James encouraged and corrected the followers of Jesus to whom he was writing. He shows them that there is no such thing as a domesticated faith. It's imaginary.
In the second chapter of his letter, he asked a rhetorical question: "What benefit is it, my brothers, my sisters, if someone among you says he has faith but has no works? Is that faith able to save him? What benefit is it if a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed, be filled,' but does not give the things needed for the body? What good is that? In the same way, faith without works is dead. But someone will say, 'You have faith, and I have works.' You show me your faith without works, and I'll show you my faith from my works.
"You believe that God is One? Good. Even the demons believe and shudder. You want to be shown, O empty person, that faith without works is false is useless? Was not Abraham our father shown to be in the right with God from works, when he offered up his son, Isaac, on the altar? You see that faith was working together through works, and by works, the faith was made complete. And the Scripture was fulfilled that said, 'Abraham put his faith in God. Abraham trusted in God. And God counted him in the right. And Abraham was called a friend of God.' You see that a person is shown to be in the right with God from works and not from faith by itself" (James 2:14-24).
Some people imagine that there is a tamed version of the faith: a faith that's merely a religious preference marked off on a survey. Faith is a practice of occasionally attending a religious service, a faith we could keep out back, in the alley, tied to a string. But the Bible gives us an accurate picture of faith. Martin Luther explained faith is a work of God in us. And Luther reminds us that where the faith of Jesus is concerned, human death is unavoidable. Like real elephants, real faith is undomesticated and deadly.
"The first work of faith in Jesus Christ is to kill our old nature and make us altogether different people in heart, mind, senses, and all our powers," Luther says. What a living creative, active, powerful thing is faith. It is impossible for faith to stop doing good works. Faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace. It is so certain that someone would die a thousand times for it. This kind of trust in and knowledge of God's grace makes a person joyful, confident, and happy with regard to God and all creatures. "This is what the Holy Spirit does by faith," says Luther.
So, let's erase this false picture from our minds, that imaginary faith that we can keep to ourselves tied up in the alley with our other preferences, paraded out for religious services and surveys, and let's replace it with this one. Faith is a power outside of us, living, mighty, and active, created by God to carry us in service to our neighbor. The faith of Jesus Christ carries us like a mighty elephant where we couldn't or where we wouldn't go on our own. That's what this faith did for a young man named Theodor Naether.
Theodor was born in 1866 in a small town in Germany, raised in the Lutheran tradition of the Christian faith. At a young age, Theodore had trouble speaking. He couldn't get the words out. But the Word of God got in to his heart and created faith. And Theodor knew that God was calling him to be a missionary in India. At the age of 17, Theodore entered a seminary school and began to study God's Word and the Tamil language of India. At the age of 21, he made his first a trip to India. In one especially active year, that mighty power of faith carried Theodore to 124 different villages to share Jesus with everyone who would listen.
Sometimes, faith would drag him out of bed at four in the morning and lead him out to talk with people in the streets on their way to work. Sometimes, faith carried him to address large groups of people. Other times, he talked with individuals using some detail of their daily life to connect with them. Some people avoided him. Others heard him out. Some really listened. Others threw rocks at him and splattered him with mud. It took five years of hard labor before Theodore and the other German Lutheran missionaries witnessed an Indian person baptized into this faith that had carried them. And they learned that nothing could stop this living, mighty, active faith, not even death.
And one day death came, carried in by the plague that hit the village, where lived a small group of Indian people who had become baptized followers of Jesus. And when others were running out of town, that faith carried Theodor in. He buried the dead, visited the sick, and shared the Lord's Supper with them. Theodor was infected with the plague, and a week later they buried him. But he had already been crucified, dead, and buried by faith through Baptism into Jesus. And because Jesus lives, Theodor died knowing that faith would one day carry him out of that grave, marked with a cross just outside of the town of Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu, southern India.
I first heard this story about Theodor Naether from my friend, Stanish. Stanish is from India. He's part of that Indian Lutheran church that the Holy Spirit brought into being over 100 years ago through the sacrifice of those missionaries carried along as they were by faith. Stanish grew up hearing stories about Theodor Naether, and the good news of Jesus that had carried him to it. Stanish says that his people were low caste. They were considered untouchable in Hindu culture. They were less than human. But this good news of Jesus, that God had done, what he had stopped Abraham from doing, that God Himself had offered up His Son on the altar to save them, to save you, because He loves us. This Word from God gave Stanish's people dignity and value that they had never known.
That's what the faith of Jesus will do to you. When it gets ahold of you, wraps its trunk around you, pulls you up out of the pit, sets you up on its shoulders in the place reserved for royalty. Stanish told me that the first Indian person baptized by those Lutheran missionaries was an 18-year-old man named Chinnian. One day, Chinnian came forward and said, "We shall become God's children." Chinnian, incidentally, is a low caste name. It means "small guy" or "insignificant person."
In some ways, the name fits us all. You and I are not as big a deal as we think we are. But this faith that carries us is much mightier than we imagine. It's not like that imaginary elephant controlled by a guy with a rope. The truth is keeping a real elephant requires two or three men working full time. These creatures are too much for one person to handle on their own. And so also the faith of Jesus. This faith will always carry us into community with others who follow Jesus. And this faith isn't something that we can capture or domesticate. Rather, you and I, we're the captives trapped in the rubble of our sins. We are rescued by this faith set up on faith's shoulders, carried forward by faith to serve our neighbors.
And to take this ride, you don't need to be a big deal—some mighty maharaja or a globetrotting tourist. You know whose faith inspired Theodor Naether to be a missionary, to give his life, to bring the Gospel to the little guy in India? It was the local butcher from his small town back in Germany, just another small guy like you and like me carried along by the mighty, active, living faith of Jesus Christ.
Would you pray with me? Father, God, I am small. I am not as big deal as I think I am. And so, carry me by faith with a living, daring confidence in You and Your grace that I may be joyful, helpful, and confident with You and all Your creatures, great and small, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Reflections for September 5, 2021
Title: Living, Mighty, Active Faith
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Once again, here's Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. Today, I get to visit with Dr. Dale Meyer, Lutheran Hour Speaker Emeritus. Welcome, Dr. Meyer.
Dale Meyer: Welcome, Dr. Zeigler, and thank you for having me.
Mike Zeigler: So as we heard, the message was inspired by the letter of James, the 2nd chapter, which might be a difficult passage for us when we preach like the apostle Paul did in Romans chapter 3 that we're saved and put right with God because of Jesus, by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from works. And then James comes along and he says, not faith by itself, but faith and works together. So how should we understand this?
Dale Meyer: In the 16th century, there was a great debate among theologians in Germany about the necessity of good works for salvation. Are good works necessary to be saved? And the resolution to the debate was, no, you don't have to do good works to be saved. It is simply a matter of faith in Jesus Christ, our works aside. But the theologians also said, are good works necessary? Yes, absolutely. And we like to talk about Ephesians 2:8-9, "By grace are you saved through faith and that not of yourselves, and this gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast." But then immediately follows Ephesians 2:10, "We are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them."
Mike Zeigler: Right. So James, as I hear him in chapter 2, is dealing with a false picture of faith. Faith without works. It's not real faith. It's not living, it's dead faith. And so he uses this phrase at the beginning of chapter 1, he says, "Show no favoritism as you hold to the faith of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory." So that's an interesting formulation. It's not faith in Jesus. There it's the faith of Jesus.
Dale Meyer: Well, Jesus gives us that faith through His Spirit. And it's what grammarians would call an objective genitive. Jesus is the One who gives us faith. It's not that Jesus had to have faith like the rest of us do. Jesus, in total communion with His Heavenly Father, bestows through His Spirit in the Word that faith upon us.
Mike Zeigler: Why would you say that Christians today still need to hear and hold James' perspective on how faith works?
Dale Meyer: The general population today knows less about the essence of Christian faith than it has at any time in my life. People just don't want to hear the truth that we're sinners and Jesus died for our sins. Unlike the 20th century, we have to gain a hearing. A friend of mine, Dr. Gene Habecker, was president of the American Bible Society, and he introduced me to this phrase: "Don't tell me what a friend I have in Jesus until I see what a friend I have in you." Good works are necessary to get somebody's attention, and then we can share the faith. As Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15, "Always be ready to give an account for the hope that is in you, but do it with gentleness and meekness." We have to create those occasions where somebody asks us, "Hey, what is it about you?"
Mike Zeigler: I appreciate how you say that. It's the deeds, especially in our post-Christian situation, the deeds may be a better way to gain a hearing in a culture that is, frankly, maybe a little tired of simply hearing lip service from Christians.
Dale Meyer: That's right. And the faithful listeners to The Lutheran Hour are people who go into their neighborhoods and their communities motivated by faith, carried by faith, to do whatever good work needs to be done. It was significant to me to read a book by former President Jimmy Carter, who said, "God puts in front of you, the person He wants you to deal with."
Mike Zeigler: Well, thank you for joining us, Dr. Meyer.
Dale Meyer: My pleasure.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Praise the Almighty, My Soul, Adore Him" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)