Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.Jeremiah 17:7
In Jeremiah 17:5-10, the prophet Jeremiah tells us that when we trust in the Lord, we are blessed. When we turn away from the Lord, we are cursed. Pretty simple, right? I mean, I could just stop now, couldn’t I? That’s the sermon, today’s message, in a nutshell. But what exactly does it mean to trust in the Lord? To put it a little differently, what is the difference between believing in something and trusting in it?
To give you an extreme example, the devil believes in God. The devil might believe in God more than we do. Because he knows that God exists. And it infuriates him and terrifies him. So the devil obviously believes in God. But does the devil trust God? Absolutely not.
So there is a very big difference between believing in God and trusting in God. And the difference between them can change our life. We can believe in God, but act as though we don’t. We can go about life believing in God without actually spending any time with God, in worship or prayer, and without doing what God wants, loving and serving others in the way that Jesus taught. It’s actually pretty easy to believe in God without it making any difference in our life. And the reason, I think, is simple: because we can believe in God without actually trusting God.
Charles Blondin and What It Means to Trust
One of my favorite stories about trust involves the man known as the greatest tightrope walker who ever lived, Charles Blondin. In 1859, Mr. Blondin decided to cross the Niagara Falls on a 1,100-foot tightrope. About 25,000 people gathered to watch this amazing stunt. And as the story goes, Blondin stood in front of the crowd and asked, “How many believe that I can walk across Niagara Falls?” The crowd shouted out, “We believe!” And he walked across Niagara Falls on the tightrope. Five days later, he was going to try something even more amazing. He asked the crowd who had gathered to watch, “How many believe I can walk across Niagara Falls blindfolded and pushing a wheelbarrow?” Again, the crowd shouted, “We believe!” And he did it. Two weeks later, Blondin decided to make another attempt, and to make it the most dramatic yet. He asked the crowd who had gathered, “How many believe I can walk across Niagara Falls with a person on my back?” The crowd shouted out, “We believe!” Blondin then looked straight at a person in the front of the crowd. “You, sir. Climb on!” The crowd fell silent … I love this story, because it reminds us, in a very tangible way, that there is a big difference between believing and trusting.
And that is certainly true in our lives of faith. It is not that hard to believe in God. But to trust in God – now that can be more of a challenge. Especially when we face challenges in our lives. And that is what this first reading from Jeremiah is trying to teach us. So let’s take a closer look at this reading, and see what the prophet Jeremiah has to teach us.
Cursed Are Those Who Trust in Mere Mortals
Jeremiah begins by telling us that those who trust in mere mortals are cursed. When we make mere flesh our strength, Jeremiah says, we are like a shrub in the desert. I suspect that most of us would say that we trust in the Lord, rather than in mere mortals. But how true is it? Are we like the crowd cheering on Charles Blondin? Gladly shouting “We believe!” until we actually have to stake our life on it? Do we trust in the Lord above all things? Or is there something else that is getting in the way of our completely trusting in God?
When Martin Luther sat down some 500 years ago to write his Small Catechism, he began with the Ten Commandments, the very first of which is, “You shall have no other gods.” And Luther explained this by saying that this means that we are to fear, love, and trust God above all things. In his Large Catechism, Luther tells us that “anything on which your heart relies and depends … is really your god.” And then he pointed out “everyday examples of the opposite.” Some trust in money and property, which Luther called the most common idol on earth. Some trusted in great learning, or power, prestige, family, or honor.
“Search and examine your heart,” Luther wrote, “and you will discover whether or not it clings to God alone.” We all have things that we are tempted to place our trust in. Even when we believe in God. So it is a good idea to search and examine our hearts, every now and again, to be sure that our hearts are trusting in the Lord above all else.
Blessed Are Those Who Trust in the Lord
Jeremiah goes on in this passage to explain why it is so important to trust in the Lord above all else, and why it is a blessing to do so. Because when we do, he says, nothing can shake us. When we trust in the Lord, we are like trees planted by water, sending out their roots by the stream. We do not fear when the heat comes. And when it does, our leaves stay green. Even in the year of the drought, Jeremiah says, we are not anxious, and we do not cease to bear fruit.
Have you experienced any droughts in your life, metaphorically speaking? I know that I have. They are unavoidable, because life is often difficult. But if we trust in the Lord, then even when the droughts come, our leaves stay green. Because we are like a tree planted by water.
This is a great image, isn’t it? It’s also used in the first Psalm. And it’s probably one of my favorite images of the spiritual life: A tree planted by streams of water.
Because we all have dry spells in life. We all face difficult times. We don’t know in advance what they will be, or when they will take place. But one thing is for sure: if we are going through life trusting in something other than God, we will be in trouble when the tough times hit. On the other hand, if we are going through life trusting in God above all else, then there is no drought, no challenge in life, that will completely wipe us out.
Deepening Our Trust in God – The Means of Grace
But, with that in mind, I think it is important to ask, how? How do we deepen our trust in the Lord? How do we get to the point where we are ready to jump on God’s back, and walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope? How do we make sure that we are like the tree planted by the stream?
Are there things that we can do to transplant ourselves, or to deepen our roots? And the answer is yes. God has given us things that we can do to deepen our trust in God. And a chief one of those things is what we are doing right now – worshiping God, spending time in prayer and in reading God’s Word. This is one of the tried-and-true ways that our faith and trust in God is deepened and strengthened.This is why remembering the Sabbath day, and keeping it holy, is so important. Because when we do this, it has the effect of deepening our trust, and strengthening our faith. And along with weekly worship, our daily prayers and devotions are also very important.
If you think of your spiritual life as a tree, then you might think of weekly worship as the weekly watering and fertilizing that is needed for new plants. And you might think of daily prayer and devotional time with God’s Word as something like the sun and the air. It provides the daily source of replenishment for the healthy tree. These are practices of the faith that, done over time, help us to deepen our trust in the Lord.
Deepening Our Trust in God – Christian Community
But there is one more practice I want to mention today. Along with weekly worship and daily prayer, Luther lifted up another spiritual practice which can deepen our faith and our trust in the Lord: He called it “the mutual conversation and consolation of brothers and sisters.” In other words, fellowship with other Christians.
Getting together with our fellow Christians is an important way to care for our faith. Some trees grow better together. The famous redwoods, for example, are known to grow better in groves with other redwoods. They need each other. And that’s true for us, too. We need each other. Our faith and trust in the Lord deepens and strengthens when we spend time with our fellow Christians.
This is why Jesus spent a good part of his time on earth gathering people together, forming community, and laying the foundation for the church. Jesus knew the simple truth: we are not strong enough on our own. We need each other.
I will never forget a time in seminary when a former presiding bishop of the ELCA shared with us the story of his wife’s death. He was very honest with us, and shared how much he struggled after her death with his faith, with trusting in his Lord. Think of it – a bishop of the church, struggling with his faith.
So what did he do? As he put it, he did what he always did: He attended worship. He didn’t sing the hymns with joy, at first, he said. He even struggled to confess his faith using the creed. But he still went to church. He showed up. Even as he struggled to believe, he trusted enough to keep going to church. And so, he heard the Word of God each week; and he received Holy Communion every Sunday. And even when he couldn’t sing the hymns, or even confess his faith, those around him sang the hymns for him, and confessed the faith for him.
And slowly, by God’s grace, he came to believe again. His drought of grief began to ebb. He came to believe and to trust again in the Lord, in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, and in the promise of the Lord to be with us always. And slowly, he said, he even came to sing again, with the joy of a believing Christian.
Blessed, indeed, are those who trust in the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when the heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green. In the year of the drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. May we all be so blessed, now and forevermore. Amen.