The Gospel text for January 4 is Luke 2:41-52.
After God gives Jesus to Mary, He seems to take him away from her. When she loses him on the return journey from the Passover in Jerusalem, she and Joseph search for him for three days.
Are they able to sleep during the intervening nights? When they find him, Mary asks Jesus why He treated them so, saying they searched in great distress. (ESV) The King James uses the word sorrowing. The word speaks of sinking grief. What thoughts must Mary have been plunged into during these days, nights, and hours?
Luther says in a sermon on this text:
We may well imagine that thoughts like these may have passed through her mind: “… God has entrusted him to me and commanded me to take care of him; why is it then that he is taken from me? It is my fault, for I have not sufficiently taken care of him and guarded him. Perhaps God does not deem me worthy to watch over this child and will take him from me again.” … She had reason to fear that God was angry with her and would no longer have her to be the mother of his Son.[Sermons of Martin Luther, vol II, p. 17 et seq. (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI: 1983) (this volume is a reproduction of The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther, volume 11, Minneapolis: Lutherans in All Lands, 1906).]
The loss of Christ and the loss of faith occur together. Luther says in the same sermon, “Thus God deals with his great saints, whom he sometimes deprives of Christ, that is, of their faith and confidence.”
God gives us the examples of Mary and many others, some of whom Luther discusses in the sermon, so that when He deals with us in similar ways, we may understand his purpose and method with them, and know his purpose and method with us are the same.
God uses both fear and trust with his saints. In his explanation of the commandments, Luther says of each one that we should fear and love God so that we keep each commandment. Of the First Commandment, he says we should fear, love, and trust God above all things.
God uses love and trust, but He also uses fear. This is neither a popular nor understood teaching today. Most say fear does not mean fear; it means respect. Many deny fear in any sense, even the washed out sense of respect, outright and altogether. In the sermon, Luther elaborates on fear and trust, and how God uses both. Therefore this is a highly valuable sermon.
9. But God does all this out of his superabundant grace and goodness in order that we might perceive on every hand how kindly and lovingly the Father deals with us and tries us, so that our faith may be developed and become continually stronger and stronger. And he does this especially so as to guard his children against a twofold danger which might otherwise threaten them. In the first place, being strong in their own mind and arrogant, they might ultimately depend upon themselves and believe they are able to accomplish everything in their own strength. For this reason God sometimes permits their faith to grow weak and to be prostrated, so that they might see who they are and be forced to confess: Even if I would believe, I cannot. Thus the omnipotent God humbles his saints and keeps them in their true knowledge. For nature and reason will always boast of the gifts of God and depend upon them. Therefore God must lead us to a recognition of the fact that it is he who puts faith in our heart and that we cannot produce it ourselves. Thus the fear of God and trust in him must not be separated from one another, for we need them both, in order that we may not become presumptuous and overconfident, depending upon ourselves. This is one of the reasons why God leads his saints through such great trials.
10. Another reason is, that he wants to give us an example. For if in the Scriptures we had no examples of saints who passed through the same experiences, we should be unable to bear our trials and would imagine that we alone are thus afflicted, that God never dealt with any one in this manner; therefore my suffering must be a sign of God’s displeasure with me. But when we see that the Virgin Mary and other saints have also suffered, we are thereby comforted and need not despair, for their example shows that we should calmly and patiently wait until God comes and strengthens us.
When we understand that our faith is precious to God, and that trial is not just generic suffering, but the trial of faith, then trial becomes the precious possession of the Christian.
“The most severe trial comes upon a person when he believes he has been forsaken and rejected by God.” (Walther von Lowenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, p. 136 (Augsburg Publishing House: Minneapolis 1976) “It is God himself who attacks man through trials.” Id., p. 137. This view of Luther explodes the soft piety that God allows the Devil and the world to persecute us. In trial, the Devil and the world have no part, except as a wrench has a part in the work of a mechanic. The mechanic is God.
We are deep within the theology of the Cross. von Lowenich says:
What kind of advice can Luther give in such cases? None other than that one must cling to the Word. And the Word, for Luther, is nothing else than Christ. We are in trials when that Word has been torn out of our heart. The trial is overcome when Christ again speaks to us, when we again hear the Word. Alongside the appeal to the Word is the insistence on the sacrament, especially baptism.
But what if God should want to withdraw his word of grace, if he would want to cancel his promise to me? Even then, says Luther, we must hold fast to the word of promise. Luther dares to make the audacious statement: We must fight against God himself. That is the faith that presses through from the alien work to the proper work, from the hidden to the revealed God in his highest form. For at the basis of the contrast of God’s Word and God himself there is no other contrast than the one between the revealed God and the hidden God. Thus the turning point in the trial has clearly arrived when faith recognizes the trial as an alien work.
Trial is the alien work of God that He uses to bring about his proper work, a heart that clings to Word and Sacrament, a heart where faith resides.
The audacious fight against God sounds impious, but consider the alternatives. All the alternatives laud anyone or anything but God as the one with whom we have to do. (Hebrews 4:13) Those pieties demote God and exalt others. They also exalt ourselves, since we imagine that we have the power to defeat our enemies, so long as the enemy is not God. And that is just the point. We cannot defeat God. He must defeat us, which He does, when we are in the fight with him. He defeats self-confidence and restores Christ-confidence.
God attacks us to give us the victory. Or, to change the analogy, the Surgeon wounds to heal.