The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 1:19-28
In Christ Jesus, who freely gives us everything we need for this life and for the life to come, dear fellow redeemed:
The internet gives anyone the ability to connect with a worldwide audience. There are many stories about people who went from total unknowns to walking the red carpet, because they found something to do that others wanted to follow. Imagine if that happened to you. Let’s say you shared something online, maybe a joke or a creative idea or good advice. You thought your friends would appreciate it, but you didn’t expect it to go any further than that. Then others you had never met started reacting to it and sharing it. Before long it had been shared 100 times, then 1,000 times, then 10,000.
How would that make you feel? After getting past the shock, you might start to think about how you could produce more of the same. Receiving such praise would be quite an emotional high, quite an encouragement. It’s nice to be liked. It’s nice to have others validate that there is something special about you, and that you have got a lot to offer. But there are pitfalls here, pitfalls like pride and arrogance. You know what it’s like when an acquaintance or friend gets a little taste of success and then acts like you don’t exist anymore. But when they come back down to earth, then they want to talk to you again.
It’s hard to know how we would react to sudden fame. We hope that we would come away looking like John the Baptizer does in today’s text. John’s star had risen quickly. Once he started preaching his bold message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mat. 3:2), the people started gathering. The crowd got bigger and bigger until the evangelist Matthew could report that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mat. 3:5-6).
How many baptisms did John do? Do you suppose he kept count? His ministry in the wilderness was so popular that even the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, came to the Jordan River to be baptized (v. 7). That would be enough to go to anyone’s head. John could look around the crowd and see people hanging on his every word. There were the religious leaders deep in thought. There were the armor-clad soldiers with their heads bowed, listening intently. There were the rich and famous nodding approvingly. There were the young ladies batting their eyelashes and flashing warm smiles.
“Oh, what a great preacher I am! Everyone wants to be connected to me!” Is that what John thought? We cannot say what John was thinking. He was a sinner, so it’s hard to imagine that no pride entered his heart. But what he said was all humility. Today’s text shows us the exchange between John and a group of priests and Levites from Jerusalem. These religious leaders came with a simple enough question for John: “Who are you?” But behind the question was the suggestion that he might be the Christ. Probably many in the crowd were wondering the same thing.
Just think what an opportunity this could have been for John. If he let the people imagine he was the Christ, he could have asked anything from them: money, privileges, power. He could have had them eating out of his hand. Instead he confessed: “I am not the Christ.” Well then, was he Elijah come from heaven, that great Old Testament prophet? “I am not,” he said. Was he the Prophet whose coming was foretold by Moses? “No,” he answered.
Claiming any of those titles would have increased his popularity among the people. But John resisted this temptation. “I am nothing,” he said. “I am nothing but a voice.” “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” When Jesus was revealed as the Messiah and some of John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus, John was not jealous. He knew his purpose was to prepare the way for the Savior. It was not to be in the spotlight. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Joh. 3:30), said John.
To leave no room for misunderstanding, the Gospel writer emphatically underscores John’s faithful testimony about Jesus. He wrote that John “confessed, and did not deny, but confessed.” Now often we think of confession in terms of “going to confession,” or admitting our sins. But the word in the Greek language is more general. It means “to speak the same word” or “to speak in agreement.” When we confess our sins, we speak in agreement with what God’s law says about our sinful condition and our wrongs. When we confess the truth, we speak in agreement with what God has promised and fulfilled.
John confessed the truth about himself and about the Savior. “I am not the Christ,” he said. “[B]ut among you stands One you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” “If you think I’m special,” said John, “wait till you see the coming One! I’m not even worthy to touch His feet and loosen the strap on His sandal!”
John could not properly confess Christ without also confessing something about himself. He could not point out Christ’s holiness without admitting his own unworthiness. He could not shine the light on Jesus without stepping back in the shadows. To make himself out to be more would have been to steal glory from the incarnate Son of God.
But what John did does not come naturally to us. It does not come naturally to deflect praise away from ourselves. We like the spotlight on us, especially when we have accomplished something impressive. We like to be recognized for our good deeds and honored for our success. We like to hear people say, “We could never get along without you!” “You make everything better!” “Nobody could do as well as you have!” “We need more people like you!”
Now it certainly isn’t wrong to be recognized for doing good things. It is important for parents and teachers and employers to build up and congratulate those under their authority. And if you are on the receiving end of praise, it is appropriate to receive it graciously and be grateful for it. But the devil is waiting in the wings. When you are praised, he wants you to think that you are just getting what you deserve. You earned it. You are so very talented. You really are better than others. “Soak it up!” he says. “Command the stage! This is your moment! Pat yourself on your back and give yourself a round of applause!”
That’s the temptation: to take the glory for yourself that belongs to God alone. After all, who is it that gave you your body and soul, eyes, ears and all your members, your reason and all your senses, and still preserves them (Third Article)? Every good thing you possess and every good thing you are able to do can be traced back to God’s work for you, in you, and through you. That’s why John said he was only a “voice.” Even the words that he spoke were God’s words and not his own.
This is why we must “confess, and not deny, but confess,” that we are nothing on our own. Apart from God, we can produce nothing that matters, nothing that will last. Even those who think they have “made it” in this life eventually realize that their fame or power or riches are only temporary. Soon they are going to die, and then they will be forgotten.
Jesus came to save you from all that emptiness and hopelessness. He came to free you from the pressure of having to prove that you are valuable, that your life has a purpose. He came to free you from the burden of a million missed opportunities, a life of regret for not making it big. He came to free you from the temptation of trampling others to try to get to the top.
Everything that you have failed to be, Jesus is for you. He is your goodness. He is your success. He is your life of perfect decisions and no regrets. You are not worthy to loosen His sandal strap, and yet He came down to earth to serve you. He came to atone for your sins of arrogance and pride, for your failure to give Him the glory and the praise for all the good you have and do.
His love for you brought Him down to earth. Sometimes like John, He drew big crowds, but that isn’t why He came. He did not care about earthly popularity. He cared about your soul and the soul of every sinner. He came to offer Himself in your place. He came to endure God’s wrath for your sin and suffer the torments of hell, so you wouldn’t have to. He came to win your forgiveness and eternal life.
Jesus’ greatness was in His sacrifice. His glory was in His humility. We honor Him by living our life in the same way. We sacrifice our own goals and ambitions for the good of those around us, and we humbly serve with no expectation of reward. We need no reward beyond what we already have by faith in Him.
Like John, we at all times keep our focus on Jesus. We live for Him. We hope in Him. If we are praised, we give Him the glory. As John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Joh. 3:30). It isn’t about what we might make of ourselves, but what Jesus has done for us. We Confess Him, Only and Always. And He promises this: “[E]veryone who acknowledges [or confesses] me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God” (Luk. 12:8).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1565)
The Third Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:2-10
In Christ Jesus, who is everything the Holy Scriptures promised He would be, dear fellow redeemed:
There are four main characters in today’s text: John the Baptizer, two of John’s disciples, and Jesus. But there were others involved besides these four. In fact, we can assume there were many others. Not long before the events of today’s text, Jesus healed a centurion’s servant without even entering his house (Luk. 7:1-10). Then He met a funeral procession leaving the city of Nain, and with a brief command, He raised a widow’s only son back to life. The evangelist Luke tells us that “this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country” (7:17). We can imagine that the size of the crowds that now followed Jesus were significant.
There was a lot of excitement in Judea and Galilee in those days. The major cities in these two Jewish territories were only about as far apart as Saude from Mason City or Cresco from Rochester—close enough for word to travel. First the strange prophet John attracted all kinds of people in the wilderness by the Jordan River. Then Jesus started preaching and performing miracles in Galilee, and great crowds followed Him.
It couldn’t be denied that John and Jesus were somehow connected, but they were not the same in appearance or in temperament. John grew up aware of the unique circumstances of his birth and of the special mission he would carry out. The son of Zechariah the priest, John studied the Scriptures and spent much of his time in the wilderness (Luk. 1:80). When he was about thirty, he began preaching a bold message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mat. 3:1).
At first, people might have gone to see him out of curiosity. “Who is this crazy preacher?” “Who is this wilderness man dressed in camel’s hair?” But as they listened to him, his words started to sink in. He pointed out how they had broken God’s law in their actions, words, and thoughts. Even tax collectors and soldiers came admitting their wrongs. And finally, the Pharisees and Sadducees also came. John had special words for them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mat. 3:7-8).
John preached so boldly and with such authority that the people wondered if he might be the Christ. John put those ideas to rest. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” he said, “but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (7:11). Someone mightier than John? The people shook with a mixture of fear and excitement. Who could this be? When would He reveal Himself?
Then Jesus came to be baptized, and John saw the Holy Spirit descend from heaven like a dove and remain on Him. From this time forward, John identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Joh. 1:29). The mighty One had come! But Jesus did not fit the people’s expectations. They couldn’t deny the power He had to do miracles. But His preaching and teaching didn’t boom like thunder and flash like lightning in the way they had anticipated.
Perhaps this is why not all of John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus. Even after John was imprisoned for calling out the sins of King Herod, some of his disciples continued to stick with him. When they heard about the miracles Jesus was doing, they reported them to their teacher. John sent two of them to ask Jesus, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” You can’t tell by today’s text, but by the same account in the Gospel of Luke, it seems that Jesus did not answer the question right away.
Jesus was surrounded by a great mass of people, including many with physical problems like blindness, deafness, and the inability to walk. Some were infected with disease and others were afflicted by demons. It wasn’t the rich, the royal, the famous, and the attractive that surrounded Jesus. It was the wretched, the suffering, the depressed, and the needy. Jesus healed these people, and He gave them hope.
Without directly answering their question, the disciples of John had their answer. Was Jesus the coming One? “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” said Jesus: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” When we hear this list of Jesus’ miracles, it is obvious that He must be the Son of God in the flesh. Who else could do things like this?
But there was more to what Jesus said. It was more than a list of present miracles. It was a list of past prophecies that were now being fulfilled. Isaiah prophesied that at the coming of the Messiah, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isa. 35:5-6). Isaiah also recorded these words: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (61:1).
If John’s disciples did not catch the connection between these prophecies and Jesus, we can be certain that John made it for them. It was time to set aside their personal expectations of the coming One and to trust the testimony of God’s holy Word. That’s a lesson that all of us need to learn and re-learn. When we face hardship and pain and difficulty, when we are injured or sick or distressed, we are often quick to become impatient and angry: Why do I have to deal with this? Why did it have to happen to me? Why did it have to happen right now?
It doesn’t take long for our impatience and anger to be directed at God: If You love me, God, why do You let me suffer? If You see my trouble, why don’t You help? We question why He is putting us through it, instead of trusting that He will get us through it. At the root of these struggles is a failure to trust God’s Word, a failure to put our confidence in His promises. The Lord calls us to trust what He says even when it seems like He is ignoring us or is opposed to us or is punishing us.
He said to John’s disciples, “blessed is the one who is not offended by Me,” and He says the same to you and me today. “Blessed are you if you are not offended by My lowly appearance on earth, by My humble behavior, by My suffering, crucifixion, and death. I did all these things for you, so that you would have redemption and eternal life. Blessed are you if you are not offended when I send you trials and tests, so that I might purify your faith like fine gold and draw you closer to Me. Blessed are you if you are not offended by My coming to you still through lowly means, through the ministry of weak pastors, through the water of Baptism and the bread and wine of My Supper.”
We wish Jesus would operate among us with impressive displays of power. We want a thunder and lightning Lord who puts the world in its place and makes it clear to everyone that He stands with us. In some ways, we want a John for our Lord instead of Jesus. Everybody respected bold John, even King Herod who put him in prison. But John was only a messenger, just as the Lord’s servants are today.
The Lord calls His under-shepherds to preach His Word, to point out sin through His Law and to point penitent sinners to their salvation through His Gospel. In today’s Epistle lesson (1Co. 4:1-5), Paul reminds us pastors that we are not the main event. We are only servants and stewards. It is really Jesus who is at work among us through His Word and Sacraments.
We gather to Him here like the suffering people in today’s text. We bring our sorrow, pain, and distress before Him and ask for His help and comfort. Sometimes He removes our troubles from us like He did in healing the blind, the lame, and the deaf. And sometimes He allows our suffering to continue like He did with John the Baptizer’s imprisonment.
Whatever cross Jesus calls you to bear, He promises to carry you through the trial. He comes through His Word and Sacraments to feed and fill you. Maybe you get picked on or made fun of because you stand up for what is right. He comes to strengthen you and give you courage. Maybe you are anxious about your children or grandchildren and the choices they are making. He comes to comfort you and guide you in patience and love toward them. Maybe you are grieving the loss of your good health or the health of a loved one, or you miss someone who has died. Jesus comes to assure you of His victory over sin and death, and He brings you hope for the glorious life to come.
You can be sure that He will do these things for you, because He says He will. Jesus never let a promise go unfulfilled. Paul writes that “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (1Co. 1:20). Whether you ask Him for forgiveness or a stronger faith or help in your troubles, His answer is “Yes,” always “Yes!” His suffering, death, and resurrection to save you is the proof that Jesus Keeps His Promises—every single one.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “Witness of John the Baptist” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1972)
The Second Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 21:25-36
In Christ Jesus, our Light in the darkness, our Joy in sorrow, our Hope in times of distress, dear fellow redeemed:
Well it’s that time of year. Major changes are just around the corner. It’s time for us to get ready! It’s time to put away our winter coats and snow shovels, take out the patio table and chairs, and tune up the lawnmower. If it were April or May, what I just said would make sense. But it’s not, it’s December. Our minds are not set on summer; we are focused on getting through the cold, dark days of winter.
But Jesus calls us to have a springtime mindset. He doesn’t want us to get sleepy in the long autumn and winter months. He wants us to be watchful, prepared. He wants us to recognize that His coming on the last day is drawing near. The signs of His return are all around us, just as budding trees and plants in springtime give evidence that “summer is already near.”
Jesus tells us what to watch for. A few verses before today’s text, He says that as His second advent approaches, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences” (Luk. 21:10-11). These things are all happening, and they have been for a long time. We have not experienced all of them ourselves, but they are certainly taking place around the world. And like we have learned this year with “pestilences,” these troubles can strike at any time and place.
Jesus identifies still more signs that will come before His return—“signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
Some signs are welcome. When lights are hung outside, a tree is set up in the house, and beautifully wrapped gifts start to appear, children know that Christmas is coming. They look forward to it with great excitement. But the signs before Jesus’ second coming sound terrifying: roaring sea and waves, people fainting with fear, the powers of the heavens shaken. And then Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, will come “in a cloud with great power and glory.”
Why does the Lord have to choose such distressing signs to come before His return? Well they certainly get people’s attention. Jesus describes life-altering events that force people to reckon with their own mortality, to realize that they are not in control. But experiencing or observing a sign and correctly interpreting it are two different things.
When God knocks us sinners off our pedestals of power and pride, we usually just resolve to build bigger pedestals. Earthquakes, floods, or other disasters in nature happen, and we say we have to try to stop them somehow. The same goes for sickness and aging and maybe even death. Instead of understanding these things as reminders from God to get ready and stay focused on Christ’s return, we sinners stay focused on ourselves.
We look to other gods to help us, false gods. So when illness spreads in a community or on a larger scale like we have witnessed this year, people look first to medical practitioners for help and not to the almighty God. Their fervent commitment to this false god is even expressed in a creed-like way: “We believe in science,” as though science has never or could never fail.
Or we trust in some elected official as our god—he or she will make everything right. For many, nature is their god. They say that if we take better care of it, it will take better care of us. Some live as though the troubling signs that Jesus describes aren’t even happening. All they care about is their stuff, their prosperity, their pleasure-seeking. That is their god.
All of the gods we set up for ourselves are a corruption of what God intended for our good. He is the one who gives us medicine and skilled doctors and nurses, and we are most grateful for their care. He gives governing authorities to maintain order in society and to promote what is right. He gives us the beauty and abundance of nature which also sustains our life. He gives us the gifts of home and property. But instead of glorifying Him, our Creator, for these wonderful blessings, we want to give glory to the created thing.
Do you see why God needs to shake the world a bit? Why He needs to shake us? None of the false gods we look to can keep us from dying. None of them can save our soul. Only He can. He gives the terrifying signs He does because He loves us. He doesn’t want to let the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh “pull the wool over our eyes.” When troubles come our way, He wants us to look to Him, eyes wide open, focused on His promise to be merciful and gracious toward us.
Notice that when Jesus describes the signs of the end times, He doesn’t tell us to go find a bunker somewhere and hide. He doesn’t tell us to cower in fear. He says, “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Now to “redeem” is to “buy back.” We have already been redeemed through Jesus’ death for us. Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7).
So what “redemption” do we still have to look forward to? The redemption that draws near is our final deliverance from sin and every evil. When Jesus comes on the last day, we will no longer be troubled by the weakness of our flesh, the sorrow of death, or the devil’s temptations. All those things will be ended. Jesus will call His people, both the ones who are sleeping in the tomb and the ones who are yet alive, to come forth in glory. We “groan inwardly” waiting for this day, “[waiting] eagerly for… the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23).
We should look eagerly for our Savior’s return and our final redemption. But it’s hard to stay focused on spring and summer when there is so much winter to live through. Winter drags us down. The cold, wind, and snow force us inside. We feel less hopeful. The dark, dreary days seem like they will never end. Worry gets the better of us, and we might try to address it by overindulging in food or drink or some other drug.
Jesus warns us to beware of such things in our physical life and our spiritual life. He warns us about being dragged down by the devil’s discouragements, closing ourselves off from others, feeling hopeless in the face of death. He tells us to “watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation [with the distractions of worldly living] and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.”
Some get so stuck in spiritual winter that they stop looking for springtime. They stop trusting their Lord’s promise of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. They stop trusting God’s unchanging love and mercy toward them. They give themselves over to the darkness of the world.
But this winter will pass. Already the days before Christ’s return are getting longer and warmer. The birds are starting to sing. The green blades of grass are poking their heads through the soil. Bright leaves and blossoms are pushing out from the tips of hard, brown branches. It’s difficult to imagine this right now, but it’s true. The springtime of our salvation is here, which means summertime is right around the corner.
We know Christ’s return is coming because of the signs all around us. He told us these things would take place, and He told us how to interpret them. He does not send them to make us fearful, but hopeful. A much better future is in store for us. The Lord has made sure of it.
God the Father saw how we run after other gods, and how they leave us in despair. So He sent His only Son into our world as a Man. Jesus came to expose the impotence of those false gods, to destroy the power of the devil, to shine the light of life into darkened minds and hearts.
God’s Son came for you, to save your soul. He loved you so completely that He gladly accepted the punishment for all your wrongs. He died for you, and then He rose again to show you that death cannot win. Death will not keep you forever. As flowers emerge even after a long, frozen winter and come out in great beauty and splendor, so you will rise from your grave in glory when Christ returns.
The Summertime of Christ’s Return Is Coming. There are sorrows now, but joy is on the horizon. Now is the time for watchfulness and prayer. Winter does not last forever and neither will our trials. The world can mock us for our springtime mindset in these dark and dreary days. But we will stay dressed for action and keep our lamps burning (Luk. 12:35), because we know our Lord is coming, and that He is coming soon. We join the hymnwriter in singing with hope and joy:
O blessed Jesus, what You have given,
Through dying on the cross in bitter pain,
Has filled my heart with the peace of heaven;
My winter’s gone, and spring is mine again.
O Christian friends, let our song ascending
Give honor, praise to Him who set us free!
Our tribulations may seem unending;
But soon with Him we shall forever be. Amen. (ELH #61, vv. 2-3)
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from stained glass at Jerico Lutheran Church)
The First Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 21:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who came down to win salvation for sinners and who still comes to bless them until He takes them to heaven to live with Him in glory, dear fellow redeemed:
Have you ever been someplace where a famous person showed up unexpectedly? Maybe it was a popular actor or singer or professional athlete or maybe someone like the President of the United States. When they show up, the news of their appearance spreads like fire. A crowd starts to form, people getting excited, squeezing in to try to get a better view.
This is something like the scene in Jerusalem when Jesus arrived at the beginning of Holy Week. The streets and buildings were swollen with people who had come for the annual Passover celebration. Then word started to travel: “Jesus is coming!” Not everyone knew about Him: “Who is this?” they asked (Mat. 21:10). “He is the prophet from Nazareth! He does great signs and wonders! He even raised a man from the dead over in Bethany! That man Lazarus is alive and well!”
So a great crowd pushed toward the gate where Jesus would arrive drawing others along with them like a magnet attracting metal shavings. The people spilled out of the city and spread out along the road. By now, the idea was firmly planted in their minds that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. He was the mighty King who would free them from their enemies.
The people of the crowd were not rich dignitaries who could roll out a red carpet and welcome Jesus with impressive displays of pomp and circumstance. But they could offer their dusty cloaks and lay palm branches on the road as a carpet for his donkey. There were no professional musicians and singers organized for His approach. But the people had their own voices to employ, so they sang joyfully the words of the messianic Psalm (118:25-26), “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Now is this the way Jesus would be received if He suddenly appeared somewhere close by today? I have no doubt that Jesus would draw a big crowd. And I think He would be welcomed with great rejoicing and hopefulness. But it wouldn’t take long before people labeled Him a disappointment. By the end of the first week, the crowd would be considerably smaller, and Jesus would be looking at more enemies than allies.
That’s what happened in Jerusalem. The people welcomed Him as the King who would restore the glory to Israel. He would assert His authority and lead them to freedom from the Romans. Besides that, He would bring them healing from their illnesses and pain. He would feed them with a never-ending supply of food. It would be a heaven on earth.
Isn’t that what people would expect from Jesus now? They would want Him to solve their earthly problems: “Lord, this person has cancer, this person is very ill, this person is severely depressed, this person has chronic back pain. Please heal them!” Others would come asking Him to fill their cupboards with food or help with their financial issues. And everyone would want to know His position on the hot topics of the day: “What political party do You endorse? What do You think about a mask mandate? Can we really trust the coronavirus vaccine?”
I don’t think His answers would satisfy anyone. Whenever the Pharisees and teachers of the law tried to trap Jesus with their questions, they walked away frustrated. Instead of helping you score points against someone, Jesus would turn the focus back on you. “Why are you so eager to judge your neighbor? Why are you trying to remove a speck from your brother’s eye when there is a log in your own eye? Your duty is to love your neighbors—even your enemies—and to pray for those who persecute you” (Mat. 7:1-5, 5:44).
Many would come to Jesus looking for His help with other people’s sins. Few would come seeking His forgiveness for their own sins. And that is to misunderstand Jesus, to misunderstand God’s purpose in sending His Son to take on our flesh. Jesus did not come to make us secure in our self-made righteousness. That sounds something like this: “If you think and act like I do, then you are good. If you don’t think and act like I do, then you are bad.” That approach lacks both charity and humility.
The truth is that all of us are bad. By nature, all of us are self-centered and self-serving. We are stubborn and prideful and easily angered. And God sent His Son right into all our bitterness and in-fighting. Why? It’s because God loved the world, even this broken, evil world. He sent His Son to be the Light in our darkness, to be our Hope and our Righteousness and our Salvation.
This is why Jesus came. He came to redeem us sinners. He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday not to defeat the Romans or the Pharisees, but to overcome the works of darkness and conquer death itself. By Friday of that week, He was hanging on the cross suffering for your sins and mine and for the sins of the whole world. And then the following Sunday He was appearing again alive to His disciples who had deserted Him. He was not angry with them; He forgave them, just as He forgives you.
And this Jesus, your King, who humbly offered Himself as the sacrifice for your sins and who triumphed over your death, still comes to bless you today. He does not come visibly attracting a great crowd in some major city. He comes hidden in His Word and Sacraments. He comes to meet you in whatever trial or pain or struggle you are currently experiencing. He comes to apply His powerful healing through His Word and to strengthen your faith.
He even attaches His own body and blood to earthly elements, so you can be sure that He has come, sure that He has imparted the blessings He promises. We welcome Him here to our altar just as the people welcomed Him to Jerusalem so long ago: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” We do not lay down our cloaks or palm branches at the altar. We lay down the burden of our sin and guilt, our judgmental attitude toward our neighbor, our lack of love. We lay these things before the righteous Judge, and He says to us, “This is My body; this is My blood—given and shed for you for the remission of your sins.”
But His present coming in the means of grace is ignored by the world and even by some Christians. This year has exposed the way many people view the gathering of Christians. Unbelievers view it as unessential at best and as dangerous at worst. They really see it as no different than the gathering of any other worldly organization. If they believe there is a God, they don’t believe He actually comes down to meet us in physical things like words and water, bread and wine.
And then there are even some Christians who say, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian!” And, “Church is not a building; we are the church!” There is truth in both statements. If all we cared about was the church building, and how pretty it is, and how just sitting there makes us feel better, then we are putting too much stock in wood and plaster and paint. We Christians can do without a building. But we cannot do without Christ.
Christ’s holy Word and Sacraments are essential to us Christians. They are the lifeline between us and our gracious Lord. They are the way He gives us the healing, help, and strength that we cannot get anywhere else. We don’t need to receive these blessings in a church building, but we do need to receive them. And Jesus is glad to come to us. He is glad to deliver His gifts. He wants to ease our troubled conscience. He wants to alleviate our doubts and fears. He wants to bring us the assurance that when this life comes to an end, a much better life awaits.
We who gather around Jesus today are just a small part of the great multitude that has followed Him since time began. We face troubles that are unique to us, but that many have experienced before us. We are not the first of Jesus’ followers to suffer, and He has brought countless believers through suffering into glory. He has led His people through every imaginable distress and conflict, and He will do the same for us.
So we repent of our mistrust and our worry. Jesus is still here with us. He still brings us His rich blessings. Just as He entered Jerusalem to save, so He still comes among us to save. Here He is present in His Word and Sacraments to bless us. And soon He will come again visibly to unite the great multitude of believers in His kingdom which has no end.
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(picture from “Entry of Christ into Jerusalem” by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1320)
The First Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Philippians 4:4-7
In Christ Jesus, our joy, our crown, our Lord (ELH 127, v. 4), dear fellow redeemed:
Do you have a favorite Christmas? Was there one year in particular that ranks on top because of something special that happened or because of some gift you received? Maybe a family member made it home when they weren’t expected. Or your parents told you that the gift you wanted was too much, but there it was under the tree.
For some of you, your favorite Christmas may have happened a while ago. You expect that no Christmas in the future could compare to the good ones of your youth. When you think back, there is a certain warmth in those memories that present Christmases do not have. Now you might feel the pressure to deliver that feeling to your kids or grandkids. You have to remember all the little traditions. You have to get the right gifts. You have to prepare the favorite foods. Some people thrive on these preparations, but others feel overwhelmed and stressed.
Still others would rather not have Christmas at all. It reminds them of loss, of a parent that is no longer here, or a spouse, or a friend, or a child. Christmas is supposed to be a warm and happy time, a time for family. But Christmas only makes them feel more alone. Others feel resentment at Christmas, resentment toward those who hurt them, who did not appreciate the sacrifices they made.
In today’s Epistle lesson, the Holy Spirit has given us words of encouragement and comfort at times like these. The Spirit inspired Paul to write this letter to the church in Philippi while he was kept in a Roman prison. It wasn’t the first time he was imprisoned for preaching the Gospel. In fact, his first visit to Philippi included a night in jail after he was targeted by a mob. On that occasion, Paul and his fellow worker Silas—their feet fastened in stocks—prayed and sang hymns to God late into the night (Act. 16:25).
Their joyful confidence in that setting seemed just as out of place as the words we have today. From his cell in a Roman prison Paul wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always!” In case his readers should quickly pass over or miss what he said, he repeated the message: “again I will say, Rejoice!” It doesn’t seem like Paul could be joyful at a time like this. But he was, and in his Letter to the Philippians, he recounted the things that brought him this joy.
He said that he always prayed for the Philippian Christians with joy because of their support and encouragement of his work (1:4-5). He rejoiced that his imprisonment served to advance the Gospel among the imperial guard and to embolden others to proclaim God’s grace (1:12-18). He rejoiced that God’s will would be done whether in Paul’s life or his death (1:18-20). And He rejoiced at the Philippian congregation’s faithfulness to the Word (2:2,17-18, 4:1).
Paul’s joyful attitude was not simply a “glass-half-full” rather than a “glass-half-empty” approach. His focus was not on the power of positive thinking. His joy was “in the Lord.” He explained this more toward the end of his letter. He wrote: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (4:11-13).
When people cite the last part of that passage, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” their focus is typically more on the “I can do all things” than on the “through him who strengthens.” Athletes cite this passage as they try to up their game. Entrepreneurs cite it while trying to reach their business goals. Students cite it while studying for a big test.
But Paul’s focus was always on the teaching and preaching of the Gospel. He did not care about any personal achievements. He did not apply these words to his tent-making. He said, “I can be brought low, I can be hungry and in need, and yet I will rejoice because I have Jesus.” As he said in another letter: “when I am weak [weak in himself], then I am strong” [strong in the Lord] (2Co. 12:10).
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” It’s important to understand that joy is not the same as happiness. You and I can rejoice even when we are not feeling happy.
- As we deal with mistreatment and unkindness from others, we can rejoice that God loves us and gives us fellow believers to encourage us.
- As we struggle with physical and mental pain, we can rejoice that Jesus personally endured such pain and promises to carry us through it.
- As we experience financial trouble, we can rejoice that the things of this world are only temporary, and that Jesus has obtained true riches for us in heaven.
- As we carry the burden of guilt for sins we have committed, we can rejoice that Jesus paid for all these sins on the cross and forgives them all.
- As we mourn the death of someone we love, we can rejoice that Jesus rose in victory over death and will come again to raise the dead on the last day.
Our joy in the Lord is not a feeling we can get better at if we practice it enough. Our joy is produced in us by the Holy Spirit through hearing the Word of Christ. The Holy Spirit leads us to believe that His Word is meant for each one of us. The angel said to the shepherds, “behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luk. 2:10), which means these “good tidings of great joy” are meant for you. John the Baptizer said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Joh. 1:29), so the Lamb came to take away your sin.
The Lord wants you to know and believe these things because He loves you. He cares about every aspect of your life. He knows you better than a mother knows her child. He knows you better than you know yourself. He sees you in your pain, your stress, your sadness, and your loneliness, and He comes to help and strengthen you. In his great Advent hymn, Paul Gerhardt spoke about the Lord’s gracious presence with us:
Rejoice, then, ye sad-hearted, / Who sit in deepest gloom,
Who mourn o’er joys departed, / And tremble at your doom;
Despair not, He is near you, / Yea, standing at the door,
Who best can help and cheer you, / And bid you weep no more. (ELH 94, v. 6)
In today’s text, the Apostle Paul wrote that “The Lord is at hand.” He is not far away; He is near you. He hears when you cry out to Him. He hears your prayer of repentance. He hears your call for help. This is why there is no need to “be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Your Lord hears every petition you make, and He answers each one in the best way and at the right time.
Through His Word and Sacraments, the Lord is present to give you peace. The peace He brings “surpasses all understanding.” It is not the peace of having a day all to yourself, or finally finishing a project that has taken you a long time, or getting your whole family under one roof. The Lord gives a peace which the world cannot give. He brings the peace of sins forgiven, of God’s anger appeased, of salvation won, of eternal life secured.
This peace with God had nothing to do with our goodness, our efforts, or our abilities. This is why it is so beyond our understanding. Why would God send His Son to make peace with sinners? Why would He give so much when we had nothing to give Him? This was a work of pure mercy and grace, and it is why our confidence in our salvation can be so rock-solid. Our salvation does not depend on us; it was secured entirely by Him. So we do have peace with God, and no earthly thing can take that away from us.
This promise of peace with God is what now guards our hearts and our minds. This Gospel message keeps the devil away with all his temptations and lies. It keeps the world from filling our eyes and ears with false hope. And it keeps our sinful nature from destroying our faith. The peace of forgiveness and salvation that we have through Jesus – this is our reason for rejoicing.
So my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow heirs of God, partakers of peace by faith in Jesus: if this Christmas week finds you hurting or afraid or lonely or sad or overwhelmed—you can still rejoice! You can rejoice that Jesus came to save you. You can rejoice that He still comes to strengthen you. And you can rejoice that soon He will come again in His glory. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”
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The Third Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
In Christ Jesus, who still comes to bless us through His holy Word and Sacraments, dear fellow redeemed:
God’s Mysteries Revealed Here! If an ad with those words popped up on your computer, would you click it? God’s Mysteries Revealed Here! If those words were on a sign outside a building, would you go in?
We would all like to know more about God and how He works. We want to know why He decided to create the universe and why He made it possible for angels and men to rebel against Him. We want to know why He lets certain things happen in the world and what His plans are for the future. We want to know how much longer we will live and when Jesus will come again in glory.
All of these things are known to God but are mysteries to us. But there are other mysteries of God that He has revealed to us, things that remain hidden to others. This is not a unique concept among the world’s religions. Many of them have elements of mystery that are revealed only to their dedicated disciples. For example, the eastern religions teach that meditation and other acts of devotion are needed to unlock the secrets of the divine. The Masonic Lodge reveals its secrets only to those who make a vow and commitment to the organization. Other religions like Scientology will reveal as many secrets as you have money to pay for them.
But the mysteries of Christianity are not like any of these. We freely share God’s mysteries with others, and we invite anyone and everyone to explore them and learn more about them. The mysteries God has revealed to us and that St. Paul refers to in today’s text are the mysteries of the Gospel. They are the mysteries of the Son of God becoming a man in order to save the human race. They are the mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection and His continued presence with us in the means of grace.
This Gospel message is proclaimed around the world. But as clearly as it is spoken about, for many it remains hidden and shrouded in mystery. Earlier in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wrote that for unbelievers, “the word of the cross is folly” (1:18). It is a “stumbling block” to the Jews who “demand signs,” looking for miracles as confirmation of God’s presence. And it is foolishness to the Gentiles who “seek wisdom,” requiring that every teaching agrees with human reason (vv. 22-23).
Paul was not interested in meeting the demands for proof that the unbelievers required. “[W]e preach Christ crucified,” he said; “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (v. 23,24). He explained that this is “not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a [mystery] and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (2:6-7).
This is the mystery that John the Baptizer set out to reveal in his preaching and teaching. Now John was an odd one. He did not dress like other people did (Mar. 1:6). He did not indulge in strong food or drink like they did (Luk. 1:15). He lived in the wilderness and spent no time on self-promotion. How did a guy like this attract a crowd?
He attracted a crowd because of what he said. He was not afraid to call out the people who came to listen to him, from Jewish religious leaders to tax collectors to soldiers. He was not in the business of building up their self-esteem or making them feel good about themselves. He preached the law, so that they might recognize their great sinfulness. And he preached the Gospel of salvation through Christ, so that they might eagerly watch for His coming.
It might seem like John was a strange choice for this important role. Why couldn’t it have been an intelligent and well-liked scribe from Jerusalem? He could have utilized his position in the temple to prepare the people for the Savior. Or why couldn’t it have been a member of the king’s court or the king himself? He could have issued a decree for everyone to get ready.
Paul wrote that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1Co. 1:27-29). John was nobody special, at least as far as the world could tell. He was just some quirky Jewish preacher. But God chose this so-called “foolish” and “weak” man to do powerful things. He was the messenger sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus (Mat. 11:10).
God still sends “foolish” and “weak” men to carry out His work. This is a comfort for me and for you as well. As far as our sinful nature goes, you and I are exactly the same. Each of us deserves eternal damnation for our sins. But by God’s grace we are given forgiveness and life instead. The difference between us is that God called me to be a steward of His mysteries. He called me to be your pastor.
Of course, I’m not the only pastor out there. Many pastors have served here through the years. It is typically the case that the pastor who baptized you is not the one who confirmed you or the one who will conduct your funeral. You might feel like you connect better with one pastor over another. But every pastor has his quirks, and each one has said or done things that at least some members thought were questionable.
Despite our quirks and the personal shortcomings we have as pastors, God still distributes His good gifts through us. Through our unimpressive and faltering speech, He speaks His saving Gospel. Through our weak and trembling hands, He distributes His holy Sacraments. The work of a pastor is not about him. The pastor’s work is about Jesus.
This is why Paul said that he and his co-workers should be regarded as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” A servant does the bidding of his master. A steward manages what belongs to another. The main thing required of a servant or a steward is that he is trustworthy, faithful to his responsibility. This is what a pastor must do: he must faithfully reveal the mysteries of God through the administration of His Word and Sacraments. Whether or not he does that is the true measure of your pastor.
But it is tempting to judge a pastor by other standards. In the larger Christian church, pastors are often judged by their personality, by how much they contribute to the stability and growth of a congregation, and by how their work is perceived in the community. Pastors are expected to be fundraisers, therapists, community activists, and expert problem solvers.
While a particular pastor may have gifts in some of these areas, his call from God is to preach the Word. He is to preach God’s law to expose sin and not cover it up by accommodating the culture. He is to preach the Gospel to forgive sin and not give the impression that one’s salvation is in his own hands. He is to encourage the regular hearing of the Word and partaking of the Sacraments and not treat the souls in his care with indifference. These are the things a pastor will answer for when he stands before the throne of God on the last day.
But no pastor carries out his work perfectly. Each is guilty of trusting himself too much and the Word too little. And no parishioners perfectly love, honor, and support their pastor. They judge him by human standards and not according to his calling. This is why the mystery of the Gospel is so important. We need the forgiveness Jesus won. We need His righteousness to cover our sinful attitudes and actions.
God gladly gives us these blessings. He knows our weaknesses and failures. He knows how much we need His mercy and grace. This is exactly why He sent out the apostles like Paul and Peter and why He still sends pastors. He sends them to administer His good gifts.
Jesus could appear in every congregation and speak to us directly, but He has not chosen to do this. He works through His servants, His stewards. He tells them, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luk. 10:16). Likewise He says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Joh. 20:23).
This means that a pastor’s teaching and preaching in Jesus’ name is His teaching and preaching. The forgiveness a pastor declares is His forgiveness. Whenever and wherever Jesus’ Word is proclaimed, He Himself is present. The means of grace are the vehicle for His present advent, His present coming. The way to find Jesus and commune with Him is to look for the marks of the church: the Gospel purely preached and the Sacraments rightly administered. When you locate these marks, you will also find a servant of Christ at work revealing His mysteries.
These mysteries of God are revealed free of charge. They cannot be unlocked by any amount of money or by any human effort. The Holy Spirit unlocks them for you through the Word and Sacraments. He wants you to know the grace of Jesus Christ, who gave Himself to save you. He wants you to know that in Him your sins are forgiven and heaven is yours.
The mysteries of other religions, the mysteries of the world, are nothing like God’s mysteries. The world’s mysteries focus on your work, not on God’s. God’s Mysteries are Revealed Here, the mysteries of His love for you, of the Savior born of a virgin, of a once-for-all sacrifice and a triumphant resurrection from the dead. These mysteries are foolishness to the world, but they are hope and life and salvation to you and to all those who believe.
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(picture of Saude Lutheran Church)
The Second Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 15:4-13
In Christ Jesus, on whose blood and righteousness our hope of eternal life is built, dear fellow redeemed:
If God let you see who in your community would be going to heaven, how do you think you would react? Maybe He would reveal crowns on their heads visible only to your eyes. I think what you saw would surprise you. “You mean that person is going to be saved? This can’t be right!” “But what about them? Where are their crowns? There must be some mistake!” It may well be that some of the good and kind people you know will not be counted among the believers on the last day. And some of those who seem especially wicked now may be standing next to you praising the Lord.
The Israelites in the Old Testament could hardly imagine that the unbelieving peoples around them might ever join them in worshiping the true God. These pagans worshiped false gods and ignored God’s moral law. The Scriptures refer to them as belonging to the “nations,” a word that is also translated “Gentiles” like it is in today’s Epistle. A “Gentile” was a non-Israelite, one who did not know the Scriptures.
The Israelites had strict instructions to stay away from the Gentiles, so they would not be tempted to sin like they did. The Israelites did not always listen to this warning. As we know from Old Testament history, they often joined the Gentiles in their wickedness and worshiped other gods. At the same time, we also have examples of Gentiles who repented of their former ways and joined the Israelites. Rahab was one of these. She left her life of prostitution, married an Israelite man, and was part of the ancestral line of Jesus (Mat. 1:5).
In other words, nationality or family background were not the determining factors for whether or not a person believed. If these were the only factors, faith would not matter. As long as you had the right bloodline, the right family tree, you wouldn’t have to think much about your behavior or your actions. This could only lead to entitlement thinking and racism to the highest degree. There’s enough of that in the world; we don’t need it in the church too.
In the world, one group rejects another because of the color of their skin, the language they use, or where they came from. None of those factors should make a bit of difference to the members of Christ’s church. If you and I were to exclude others because of their family origins or background, don’t we see that we should exclude ourselves as well? I think most if not all of us descended from those pagan nations, from the Gentiles. These were the peoples the LORD carefully guarded the Israelites from.
Why did He do that? The LORD wanted the Israelites to be separate in order to preserve the promise, His promise. He said to Abraham, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). “All the nations” would be blessed through Abraham, because the Savior would come through Abraham. So God had to preserve a remnant who would know this promise and hand it down through the generations. This was done through the teaching of the Scriptures. The Scriptures were sometimes tucked away in a closet and forgotten about, but they were never lost.
We still have the Old Testament Scriptures today. That was by God’s design. In today’s Epistle, St. Paul states, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Then Paul goes on to quote the Scriptures. He quotes from the inspired words of David in Psalm 18(:49), then from Moses (Deu. 32:43), then from another Psalm (117:1), then from Isaiah (11:10). What do all these say? They tell us that God planned salvation not only for His chosen people, but for the Gentiles too.
This is good news for us! It means it is possible for anyone to be saved. We tell our kids that it is possible they could be the president of the United States one day. But that possibility does not apply to everyone. It only applies to those who were born as citizens of this country, who have lived here at least fourteen years, and are at least thirty-five years old.
The Gospel promise is for all people in all places. Jesus came to atone for everyone’s sins. Each person’s sin was counted against the Lord, not just the sins of those who would enter heaven someday. Jesus died in the place of both Jews and Gentiles, both males and females, both the outwardly good and the outwardly bad.
This shows us how great the mercy of the Lord is. It’s one thing to have mercy on someone you like, who displays humility and respect, and who showers thanks upon you for your kindness. But what about someone who curses your name, spits in your face, and casts your gifts aside? This is how we and the rest of the world were toward Jesus. Collectively we sinners sent Him to the cross. We sent Him there as though He were the wrongdoer, as though He were the law-breaker, as though He were the worst sinner—much worse than we are.
Jesus endured all this for us. That’s how merciful He is! That’s how much He loves us. Earlier in his Epistle to the Romans, Paul writes, “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:7-8). Christ died for sinners. That means He died for you.
When you pray for His mercy, you don’t have to wonder if He will give it. He has, He does, and He will. He is merciful even when we are not. Maybe we look at some members of our community as “second class.” Or we pick on people because of how they look. Or we love to remind others of the mistakes they have made. Or we treat those who disagree with us as less than human. Or we refuse to forgive someone because we want them to suffer like we have.
Mercy is not a natural component of human nature. Our sinful nature directs us toward selfishness, revenge, and a judgmental attitude. God had to teach us what mercy is, and He taught it through His Son. He did not give us what we deserved, which is eternal torment in hell for our sins. He gave us grace and forgiveness. He did this because His Son willingly took our place. His perfect Son was willing to bear the holy wrath of God, so we would have His mercy. God will not punish you for your sins, either now or in eternity. He punished His Son in your place instead.
Jesus died for you, but not just for you. He died for everyone around you too. Instead of imagining the people of our community as likely or not likely to join us in heaven based on their background, their circumstances, or their outward appearance, we should look at them as God does. God looks upon them with mercy. They are still living and breathing. Their fate—as far as we know—is not sealed. They need grace and forgiveness and hope just as much as we do. “Therefore welcome one another,” writes Paul, “as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
The Roman congregation to which Paul first addressed his letter was not perfectly united. It consisted of both Jewish and Gentile converts. Their backgrounds and customs were very different. One was a background of strict obedience to God’s law. The other was a background of license and freedom. How could the two ever come together? Their common ground was Christ, who fulfilled the Commandments for both, and who shed His holy blood for them all.
This is what has brought us together here as well. We do not all think the same. We do not see everything the same way. Sometimes our personalities clash, and we find it difficult to get along. But we are drawn together and kept together by the blood of Jesus. None of us is above another. None of us has more to boast about than another. None of us is more treasured in God’s sight than another. Each of us is equally forgiven of our sins, and each is clothed in the spotless garment of Jesus’ righteousness.
This, dear friends in Christ, is our hope. It is not an uncertain hope, a desperate hanging-on-by-our-fingertips kind of hope. Our hope is securely rooted in Jesus. It is a sure hope. This is the hope Paul writes about, which is planted and grows in us by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word. Where this hope is, there is faith toward God and love toward our neighbor, and there is a joyful anticipation of Christ’s return.
Do not let the devil, the world, and your own sinful weakness lead you to despair. The Lord looks upon you with mercy, and He will soon come again to free you from this world of trouble. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
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(picture is window from Jerico Lutheran Church)
The First Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
In Christ Jesus, who through holy Baptism, “called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1Pe. 2:9), dear fellow redeemed:
We all appreciate a good “rags to riches” story. Jesus’ story is kind of like that, at least culminating in today’s Gospel reading. He went from the son of a poor woman with a manger for a bed to being welcomed into Jerusalem as a King! Of course there’s much more to the story. Jesus did not come to Jerusalem for the riches; He did not come for the throne. He came to give up His life for us. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2Co. 8:9).
Because of what Jesus did, our story is a true “rags to riches” one. Being joined to Him, the rags of our sinfulness are replaced by the robes of His righteousness. Our spiritual bankruptcy has become a spiritual windfall. We are no longer lost in the darkness but walk in His wondrous light. When exactly did all this happen for us? It happened at our Baptism.
In Baptism, everything that Jesus accomplished through His death and resurrection is applied to the sinner. His payment for sin is our payment for sin. His death is our death. His resurrection is our resurrection. His victory is our victory. St. Paul writes: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).
Baptism gives us a “new lease on life”—not just the certainty of eternal life in heaven, but a new life here on earth. We are not today what we started out to be. The waters of Baptism changed us and changed us for the better. But we do not always act like we are. We do not always show by our thoughts, words, and deeds that we are in Christ.
This is why Paul was compelled to write the warning of today’s text. He was writing to the church in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire. Rome is the place where Paul and Peter are said to have died on the same day when persecution broke out against the Christians. Rome was a lot like the metropolitan areas we visit today. It could boast of impressive buildings, appealing locales, and vibrant commerce. It also offered opportunities for every vice and indulgence a person could imagine.
A pagan culture is a difficult place for a Christian to be, especially for a Christian who once joined the pagans in their sinful activities. When someone becomes a Christian, he is the one who changes. Now he is at odds with the world. Now he walks closer to his Lord but further from his unbelieving neighbors. They notice, and they don’t always like what they see. Many Christians have endured the painful loss of friends and family who do not appreciate their changed values and outlook on life. Many are told that they just aren’t any fun to be around anymore.
This separation is hard for Christians. They struggle not only with the loss of friends, but with the constant coaxing and tugging of old desires. They remember the enjoyment of drug and alcohol abuse, the excitement and pleasure of a sexually promiscuous lifestyle, the egocentric satisfaction of putting self before God and neighbor. Those memories and desires don’t go away just because someone has been baptized. Along with the sinful flesh, the devil and the world don’t stop trying to pull the Christian back into the darkness of unbelief.
So Paul writes that “the hour has come for you to wake from sleep.” The time is here for us to open our eyes and recognize the temptations around us. Baptism removes the blindfold. It focuses our eyes on Jesus. With our eyes on Him, everything gets brighter and clearer—both the path to heaven and all the deviant paths that wind toward hell.
Imagine if you were lost in the countryside on a dark night. Looking around, you spot a yard light far in the distance. The closer you get to the light, the more it illuminates the ground. The closer you get, the less you trip and fall, and the more sure you are of your steps. But if you were to walk away from the light, you would have no idea where you were going and what dangers could lie ahead. Looking to Jesus and ever pushing forward to Him, our path ahead brightens and the dark shadows of the world recede. But whenever we look away from Jesus and go in the other direction, the light fades, and we stumble.
Now is not the time to go wandering. “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed,” says Paul. “The night is far gone; the day is at hand.” He is reminding us that Jesus’ return is imminent. He could come at any time. This is one of the things we learn in the season of Advent, not only that Jesus has come, but that He will also come again. And when He comes again, all people will be judged by Him. Those who are lost in the darkness will be cast into “the outer darkness” of torment in hell (Mat. 8:12). And those who are in the light by faith will enter the eternal light of heaven (Rev. 22:5).
His return in glory is nothing to take lightly. We might be able to fake a Christian confession here, but we can’t fake it before God. So each of us must be diligent to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” How do we do that? Paul explains that this means walking properly “as in the daytime.” This is to live according to God’s Commandments. It is to live as if everyone is always watching what we do and listening to what we say.
This is a good way to sharpen your conscience: ask yourself if you would do or say a certain thing if your parents were there, or your spouse, or your kids, or your pastor, or a respected member of the congregation. If you would not want to be found sinning in their presence, remember that the Lord Himself knows and sees all things. Nothing is “hidden from his sight” (Heb. 4:13).
We don’t want to be found behaving like unbelievers, because we are not unbelievers. This is why we watch what we eat and drink, unlike the unbelievers who see little wrong with carousing and drunkenness. This is why we live a “chaste and decent life” (Small Catechism, 6th Commandment), unlike the unbelievers who engage in sexual immorality and sensuality. This is why we speak kindly to each other, unlike the unbelievers who love to quarrel. This is why we practice contentment and thankfulness, unlike the unbelievers who are full of jealousy.
We are a people set apart by God. He claimed us as His own children in Baptism. He wants us to “set [our] minds on things that are above” (Col. 3:2) and not to get too comfortable in the world. But this is not always how we have lived. Sometimes we have done what God commands. Sometimes we have “cast off the words of darkness.” But other times, we have gladly engaged in the things God condemns.
We know very well how we have sinned. We feel the burden of past wrongs. We have given in to peer pressure and joined the crowd in doing evil. We have even planned out our wickedness step by step before carrying it out. Some of our sins are known to others, and some are known only to ourselves. What does that make us? How will we be judged when Jesus returns?
In his First Letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul wrote that some of them were guilty of sins like sexual immorality, greed, and drunkenness. “But,” he said, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (6:11). The first thing he reminded them is that they were “washed.” They were baptized.
You are baptized too. In Baptism, you were washed clean of all your sins—not just the ones you had committed before then, but also the ones you would commit later on. In Baptism, you were clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, who lived a perfect life on your behalf. Your Baptism joined you to Jesus, your Savior. Your Baptism into Him is your present status before God and will remain so as long as you believe His Word. Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mar. 16:16).
Now believing in Jesus means that you acknowledge your sins. It means you recognize that your thoughts, words, and deeds of darkness are the reason Jesus had to die on the cross. If you were not a sinner, Jesus would not have come. But He did come to save you and all people, because all have sinned.
By repenting of sin and trusting in forgiveness through Jesus, you return regularly to your Baptism. This is where you “put on the armor of light,” where you “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Baptism is how God set you apart from the world. It was your blessed beginning as a member of the body of Christ and an heir of His kingdom. It was where your rags of sin and death were replaced with the riches of Jesus’ righteousness and eternal life.
And so every day you can gladly and confidently return to your Baptism—Always Going Back to Your Beginning. Jesus was there at your Baptism to free you from the kingdom of darkness. He has been with you ever since to heal and strengthen you through His Word and Sacraments. And He is the bright Light that will guide you home to heaven.
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(picture is Baptism window at Redeemer Lutheran Church)
The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 1:18-25
In Christ Jesus, who has not left us as orphans in this sin-filled world, but who comes to us to strengthen and keep us in the faith until His final coming in glory, dear fellow redeemed:
Faith is a major theme in this part of the year, not just in the church but also in society. Our society encourages faith with regard to Santa Claus. Many holiday movies are based on the idea that Santa can carry out his gift-giving work only if enough people believe in him. Their faith is what gives him power. Naturally this belief in Santa is most challenging for adults, whose reason gets in the way. But the adults always come around, and everyone has a happy Christmas.
The church also preaches the need for faith, but the object of faith is not Santa and his promise of earthly gifts. The church’s object of faith is Jesus Christ and His promise of heavenly gifts. A childlike faith is needed here too, since it is easy to have doubts about what Jesus has accomplished. But while there is no evidence for Santa beyond recent and fictional fantasy, there is extensive evidence for Jesus in the ancient and historical texts of the Bible.
From Genesis to Revelation, the central character in the Bible is the Savior promised to Adam and Eve and their descendants after the fall into sin. At that time, the Lord told the devil: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
What did that mean? The Lord was telling Satan that he would not have his way with mankind. He would not be able to lead them unopposed into darkness. Satan’s offspring and the woman’s offspring would be at enmity with each other. They would be adversaries. They would struggle and battle against one another. And then at a certain point, one particular Descendant of the woman would stomp on Satan’s head. He would crush any authority the devil had.
When would these things take place? The struggle between righteousness and unrighteousness was evident right away. Sin strained the marriage of Adam and Eve, and the devil’s work was also manifest in their children. Their firstborn son Cain became angry at his younger brother Abel when the Lord accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. The Lord warned Cain that “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7). But Cain allowed Satan to slither in, and Cain attacked and killed his brother.
How sad this must have been for Adam and Eve! They had hoped Cain might be the promised Offspring who would crush the deceiver’s head. Instead they watched the devil tempt Cain to sin just as he had tempted them. When would their Redeemer come? Adam waited hundreds of years for this Savior, but by the time of his death at age 930 the Savior had not arrived (5:3-5). Then more time passed, a lot more time. Centuries turned into millennia, and still there was no Savior.
The need for a Savior was obvious. Before God sent the worldwide flood, the Bible says that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5). This wickedness continued after the flood too. When not only ten righteous people could be found in Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lord rained down fire and destroyed those cities. By the time the prophet Elijah came along, he thought he was the only believer left in the entire world. He wasn’t far off. The Lord said that just 7000 Israelites continued to follow Him (1Ki. 19:18). That is the equivalent of the towns of Cresco and New Hampton pitted against the rest of the world.
The devil appeared to be working unchecked among men and winning the battle. When would his terrible reign end? When would the woman’s Offspring come, the One who would conquer him? No one knew. But there were prophesies, prophesies that more and more clearly prepared the people for the Savior’s coming. One of these was delivered to King Ahaz by the prophet Isaiah in the 700s B. C., and it is repeated in today’s Gospel lesson: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).
“[T]he virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” That must be the woman’s Offspring! But here was a new detail. The woman would be a virgin, and yet she would give birth to a son. This is why the child could be called “Immanuel,” a title meaning “God with us.” If a child were conceived in the natural way, he could not be called “Immanuel.” But this child would be conceived in a supernatural way. This is how the perfect God would become a member of the human race while retaining His righteousness and innocence.
So the stage was set. The Savior would come from a virgin woman who trusted the promises of God. Now what was the Lord waiting for? Hadn’t the devil done enough damage? But the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise waited another 700 years. It was not until “the fullness of time had come,” which God in His wisdom had determined. At that point in history, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4-5). The eternal Son of God was the child who grew inside Mary’s womb. The angel told Joseph that this child “which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit,” and that “He will save His people from their sins.”
There is no question in the Bible about whether or not the promised Savior came. This is what we celebrate at Christmas, the coming of Immanuel—God with us—to save sinners. This God incarnate did what He was sent to do. He perfectly kept God’s law on behalf of all people, and He was crucified and died for their sins. On the third day, He rose again in victory over death, and forty days later He ascended into heaven.
But we do not see Him now like the disciples did. We did not witness His many miracles. We did not see Him die and rise again. We long for His presence now as we go through our troubles and trials. How can we make Him a part of our lives? How can we be sure that He is near? Some speak about Jesus in nearly the same way that they speak about Santa. They say that Jesus’ coming really depends on us. If we believe in Him enough, then He will come.
But the comfort of the Gospel is that He comes to us even when our faith is barely there, when we are hanging on by our fingertips. This happens when we feel guilt for wrongs we have done. We let Satan in. We did what we knew we shouldn’t. And now we live with a violated conscience. At these times, the devil is only too glad to whisper in our ear, “Look what you’ve done! How could God love you? What a failure you are!”
Other times, we struggle with intense doubt and grief because of a loss we have experienced. “Why did God let me endure such financial hardship?” “Why didn’t He stop those who ruined my reputation?” “Why did He take away the one I love?” It is hard for us to see His grace and goodness in these difficult times. We even wonder whether God might be punishing us. We wonder if He is worth following at all.
But as far away as Jesus seems to be at these times, He is actually quite close. He does not wait for us to have enough faith. He comes to us to give us faith and strengthen it. Like His humble coming into the world, so He still hides His glorious presence in humble means. He comes to us through the simple preaching of His Word and through the water, bread, and wine of His Sacraments. And He does this work through unimpressive men whose weaknesses are well known.
His saving power is not affected by our lack of faith. He comes on His own to bestow His rich blessings upon us. He comes with forgiveness for stubborn sinners who have trouble admitting their wrongs. He brings healing to those whose wounds are self-inflicted. He covers with His righteousness the ones whom the world calls unredeemable. “Immanuel” still comes to us. He is still “God with us”—God with us through His holy Word.
And Jesus, our Immanuel, will come again in glory. Just as the people of the Old Testament waited for God to fulfill His promise to send a Savior, so we now wait for our Savior to return on the last day. He could come back tomorrow, or His glorious coming might be thousands of years away. What seems like a long time to us is not a long time to our God. “[W]ith the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2Pe. 3:8).
But as surely as the Lord kept His promise to send a Savior, and as surely as Jesus still comes to us through His holy Word, so He surely will come again in glory. On that day, Jesus will do exactly what He has promised. He will raise all the dead and will glorify the bodies of all believers. Then these saints will be gathered to His glorious presence in heaven.
In heaven there will be no more struggle against the devil. There will be no more feelings of doubt and loneliness and sorrow. Because then we will finally be taken up to Him who came down to save us.
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(painting of the angel’s visit to Joseph by Toros Roslin, 1262)
The Second Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:2-10 (Gospel for Advent 3)
In Christ Jesus, “whose way John the Baptizer prepared, proclaiming Him the Messiah, the very Lamb of God” (Preface for Advent, ELH p. 74), dear fellow redeemed:
In a couple weeks, most of us will be receiving new things wrapped up in multi-colored paper. Some things will be expected and some things will be surprises. Do you remember what you received for Christmas last year? If you do remember, what is the current condition of the gifts you received? Any food you were given is almost certainly gone. Your new socks probably don’t have holes in them yet, but they might be getting threadbare. Electronic devices are most likely still in good working order. Last year’s toys are probably in good shape.
But I don’t expect that you still look at these items with the same joy and appreciation as when you first opened the package. Those brand new things do not look so special anymore. They have become common. When they become outdated or when they break, it will not be hard for you to toss them and go looking for something new.
And this is not wrong. It is fine to go shopping for a newer car when yours is getting expensive to repair. It is okay to buy a new computer or a new phone when the one you had doesn’t work well anymore. It is fine to update your wardrobe (including that shirt from the 1980s that your wife has been trying to hide or replace for the last thirty years). Our money and our earthly possessions are gifts from God which He intends that we use in this life. We can’t take any material things with us to heaven. They are for here and now.
But we should not consider everything in life as being so disposable. For one thing, there is no price tag for a solid reputation as the Proverb says, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (22:1). For another, you and I only have one body. This is why we are concerned to eat good foods, to refrain from excessive drinking and other unhealthy habits, and to stay away from any dangerous or immoral activities that could harm our bodies. Paul writes that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you…. You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1Co. 6:19-20).
And the most important thing we have in this life is the Holy Bible, the Word of God. It is by this Word that we have faith and hope, and that we learn to love as God has loved us. This Word promises the forgiveness of our sins and a never-ending life of bliss after this one. Without this book, we would know very little about God. We would not know how He graciously looks upon us, and how He sent a Savior to redeem us and the Holy Spirit to comfort us.
But there are many who find the Word wanting. They desire a religion that better fits their natural inclinations, or a religion that makes them responsible for getting right with God. To satisfy these desires, they step outside of the Bible and look for new revelations of the Spirit, new instructions for how to live their lives.
Think about the many cult leaders who have established their own systems of belief. They claimed to receive special messages from God, truths that are not found in the Bible. Muhammed did this in the 600s when he developed Islam. Joseph Smith did something similar when he started the Mormon church in the 1800s. And then in recent decades, we have watched men set themselves up as modern-day messiahs, men like Jim Jones who formed the Peoples’ Temple cult, David Koresh who led the Branch Davidians, and Marshall Applewhite who started the Heaven’s Gate group.
In each case, these leaders built religions that gave them absolute authority. Their opinions were to be unquestioned and their every desire satisfied. Their followers were to be loyal to them in everything, and they were to be willing to give up their lives for the cause. Many of them did give up their lives. They died tragic deaths, either by suicide or by engaging in armed conflict with those who opposed them.
We regard these cult founders as being mentally unstable, manipulative, or both. We think of them as being very different than we are. But we have more in common with them than we imagine. We also like to have things go our way and have others go along with our thinking. We also want to take whatever our hearts and bodies desire. We do not want to bow to any authority, abide by someone else’s rules, or accept the responsibilities placed in our hands. In short, we often want to be our own god.
John the Baptizer was no cult leader or pleasure seeker. He was a humble servant of God. But he was unsure about Jesus’ timetable for His work. He wanted Him to provide clarity about His person and purpose. John sent messengers to ask Jesus, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” It was a pointed question. If Jesus was not the Messiah, He should say so. Then John would know his task was not complete, and that he must still prepare the way for the Messiah. But if Jesus was the Messiah, then John could send his disciples to Jesus and let his imprisonment run its course.
We do not know if John asked this question for his own benefit or for the benefit of his followers. Maybe he was trying to get them to leave him, so they would follow the Christ instead. Or maybe he was impatient for the Messiah to conduct Himself like Malachi described in today’s OT lesson. Malachi prophesied that He would be “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap,” and that He would “draw near… for judgment” (3:1-6). Or maybe John felt depressed and discouraged that he should have to sit in prison while there was so much work to do for God.
Whatever his personal thoughts, John’s question was most important, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” It is still important, and we still find ourselves asking it. We struggle within ourselves whether we should give all our attention and devotion to Jesus, or whether we should “look for another.” This describes the entirety of human life, and especially the life of the Christian. Will we look to Christ or somewhere else?
We have often looked somewhere else. We have looked to the god of money, thinking that more money could buy us happiness. We have looked to the god of power and prestige, hoping to make a name for ourselves and leave a lasting legacy. We have looked to the god of pleasure, thinking that only this could satisfy. We have looked to other gods besides—the god of reason, the god of entertainment, the god of adventure, the god of self-righteousness, the god of achievement. These are the gods of the world. They are very appealing, and it is not hard to find them.
But their promises are empty. The gods of this world are like the idols described in Psalm 115: “They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat” (vv. 5-7). The gods of this world are lifeless. They are dead. Therefore, says the psalmist, “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (v. 8). Eternal death is the certain fate of all who follow the gods of the world.
But in Jesus there is hope, and there is life. Jesus told the messengers of John, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Jesus does not leave the blind in the dark like the world does; He gives sight. He does not cripple, but strengthens. He does not pollute, but cleanses. He does not plug ears with lies, but opens them to the truth. He does not come to destroy, but to save. He does not steal; He gives. This is nothing like the cult leaders and false teachers we find throughout history.
Jesus proclaims good news, the good news of sins forgiven and salvation secured. He came to take all our sins upon Himself, our sins of selfishness and stubbornness, our sins of indulgence and irresponsibility, our sins of treasure-hunting and glory-seeking. All these sins He gathered to Himself, and He suffered and bled for every one. He gave you the best gift a sinner can receive—the gift of a clear conscience through the washing away of sin. This gift does not become outdated or fade over time. It never needs to be replaced. In Christ, your sins are forgiven yesterday and today and forever.
Because you and I need to be reminded and assured about this forgiveness, Jesus repeats it again and again in the divine service. We hear the absolution, we listen to the Scripture lessons and the sermon, and we partake of Holy Communion. Through these holy means, Jesus brings us the gracious forgiveness of all our sins, and He gives us the strength and the resolve to press on to our heavenly goal.
So Shall We Look for Another? Can a better Savior be found? No, Jesus is the only Savior. He came to redeem us from our sin and the death we deserved. He comes to visit us now through His life-giving Word and Sacraments. And “He shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed). We look to Him and Him alone. We wait for Him and Him alone. And we know that our humble trust in Him will not be disappointed. Jesus said, “[B]lessed is the one who is not offended by Me.”
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(“Witness of John the Baptist” woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1972)