“If you have Faith, nothing shall be impossible for you.” This was the sign hanging on the wall of the shop where I went to begin writing this sermon. “If you have Faith, nothing shall be impossible for you.” I kind of laughed to myself, because my first thought was “great, excellent. I just need to have more faith and then this sermon will be a lot easier to write. Thanks, God!”.
But then I started thinking about faith, and then realized that it is the Feast of Mary Magdalene, a disciple of Jesus often extolled for her faithfulness. Huh. Interesting.
Not just that. The old testament reading is from the book of Judith, which is the story of a woman whose faith in God’s goodness and power was so great that she walked into the army camp of 150k Assyrians, and cut off the commander’s head in order to save Israel from destruction. “If you have Faith, nothing shall be impossible for you.” If Judith isn’t an example of this, I don’t know who or what is.
I still don’t know if that’s really helpful though.
We often hear that we are supposed to have faith in God. And after a while, for me at least, it becomes a cliché. What are we supposed to do with ‘faith’, especially when the world seems to be crumbling around us. And we’re commanded to have faith? What can that do other than make us sit around and do… nothing? Sometimes faith can feel like such an empty word.
What do we mean by “faithfulness”?
This is where I think Judith is really helpful. The background to today’s reading is that the Assyrians have laid siege to the city of Bethulia, and the people in the city are running out of food and water. The Israelites are terrified—but a widow named Judith walks up to their leaders and says no, we don’t have to be afraid as long as we are faithful to God.
She says “I’m going to do something that will be remembered for generations to come.” And then she goes and prays this prayer. “Your strength does not depend on numbers, nor your might on the powerful. But you are the God of the lowly… the savior of those without hope.”
She uses much of this prayer, only a part of which is in our reading today, to list who God has been and continues to be to the people of Israel. He is “helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, and protector of the forsaken”. She says “here’s who You are, and because of this, I know that you will ‘let your who nation and every tribe know and understand that you are God’”.
Judith doesn’t have faith in an ambiguous God, who exists somewhere out there, who maybe does something… NO. She can identify the ways in which God has worked in the past, and because she knows these things about God, she has faith that God can continue to work miracles for his people.
It is because of this knowledge about God’s character and relationship with Israel that Judith is able to promise the elders of the city that “I’m going to do something that will be remembered for generations to come”. She expects that God will act because of who God is, and knows that all she has to do is TRUST and then DO.
So with this knowledge, she walks into the camp of the most powerful army in the world, beheads their commander, and enables the Israelite army to chase the terrified Assyrians out of the country.
Trusting in God’s goodness and power, and using that faith to take action. Which brings us back to Mary Magdalene, whose actions, like Judith’s, we have remembered for generations.
I think there’s a reason why Judith and Mary Magdalene appear in the same set of lectionary readings. You see, like Judith, Mary Magdalene also demonstrates what it means to be a faithful disciple.
When Jesus appears to Mary, she doesn’t see who he is at first, but as soon as she recognizes our risen Lord, she doesn’t do the logical thing. You see, logically, I think our first reaction to encountering Jesus might be more like Thomas, another disciple, who doubts whether the man he hears about from the others is really Jesus at all.
But Mary doesn’t. She says Teacher!, and when Jesus tells her to say to them that “I am ascending to my Father”, she doesn’t ask what that means, or if it can be possible. She just goes to the other disciples and says “I have seen the Lord!”, as she was asked to do.
Mary simply trusts that Jesus has in fact risen from the dead, because she knows that God will do the things that he has said he will do.
Like Mary and Judith, we do not have faith in an ambiguous God. The incarnation of Jesus Christ, our Savior, who died, and rose from the dead in order that we might have new life, shows us who God is, and how he works miracles for his people.
On this feast day, we remember Mary Magdalene, who had faith in God’s goodness and power through Jesus Christ, and used that knowledge to go and do as Jesus asked of her.
“If you have faith, nothing shall be impossible for you.” May we, like Judith and Mary Magdalene, be secure in our knowledge of God’s goodness, power, and grace, so that we can go forth and proclaim this faith throughout the world and do something that will be remembered for generations to come.
(Preached on 7/20/16)