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!”
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.
+ + +
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.
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.
+ + +
(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.”
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.
+ + +
(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.
+ + +
(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.
+ + +
(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.”
+ + +
(“Witness of John the Baptist” woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1972)
The First Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 21:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who came humbly to Jerusalem to win for all sinners the certain hope of eternal life in heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
It was festival time in Jerusalem. Jewish peoples traveled from far and wide to observe the Passover in the capital city of Judah. Imagine the excitement of the tired travelers when they first caught a glimpse of the city with its shining temple high atop this holy hill. Jerusalem was a sacred place, and the Passover was one of the most important Jewish festivals. It was the annual celebration of God freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. This was when the angel of death passed over the blood-stained homes of the Israelites but killed all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians.
While this annual festival was a time of great enthusiasm and rejoicing in Jerusalem, it is certain that not all greeted the week with gladness. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate and the soldiers under his command were some of these. They were on high alert whenever the city swelled with people for a religious observance. Insurrection was a real threat to the Roman authorities, as we know from the charge against the criminal Barabbas.
But some of the Jews also must have struggled to celebrate due to the same misfortunes and sorrows that affect people of all times. There may have been a man recently unemployed who had no idea how to feed his family. Or a woman who learned that nothing could be done about her illness. Or a teenager bullied by his peers who felt that no one cared about him. Or a young woman who had something precious taken from her. Or a family which mourned the sudden death of a dear loved one.
The problems facing the Israelites that Passover week were not so different than the problems we face today. All troubles, sorrows, and death have the same source, the same root. All come from sin, and sin has afflicted the world ever since Adam and Eve’s fall. Sin keeps us from enjoying perfect bliss in this life.
Still, we certainly have many happy times and joyful celebrations. Sometimes our troubles feel light, almost as though they are not there. But other times the troubles of life feel very burdensome, and we can find it difficult to celebrate. Maybe Thanksgiving was like this for you, and you found yourself thinking about your many needs instead of your blessings. And for all the cheerful songs and decorations and parties leading up to Christmas, the joy that everyone else seems to have can make your loneliness or sorrow or pain all the more sharp.
At these times, you may think to yourself, “Why does everyone else seem so happy when I can barely get out of bed in the morning?” “Why do they seem to be so blessed when I suffer one bad thing after another?” Even if the festivities can temporarily distract from the pain, the subsequent letdown when the holidays are over can make the pain even worse.
What can be done at times like these? There are many ways people try to dull the pain. Some try to address it with alcohol, but they are worse off by the time the bottle is empty. Some try to address it with drugs, but the ensuing crash leaves them more crushed than before. Others try to address the pain with impulsive spending, with binge eating, with pleasure seeking, and even with gift giving. But these things do not get at the heart of our pain and our sorrow.
Then what hope do we have? Our hope came to Jerusalem at the beginning of that Passover week. His mode of His coming that day had been prophesied about 550 years earlier by Zechariah who said: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). The people must have wondered who this king would be. Would he be a king like David, or like Solomon who was also hailed as king while he rode upon his father’s mule (1Ki. 1:38-39)?
Zechariah described a King who would come in peace. He would come “righteous and having salvation” (9:9). He would “speak peace to the nations” (v. 10). And because of the blood of His covenant with His people, He would set them free (v. 11). The people were to look forward to the coming of this King with hope (v. 12).
The crowds did not fail to make this connection when Jesus approached Jerusalem on a donkey. They hailed Him as King using the words of Psalm 118, a messianic Psalm: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” But why should Jesus be the fulfillment of the prophecy? How could they know He wasn’t just some con-man seeking glory? They knew, because He had only recently raised Lazarus from the dead. People who had witnessed this miracle told the festival-goers in Jerusalem what had happened (Joh. 12:17-18). Who else but the promised Messiah could raise up the dead?
The news about His arrival quickly spread through the city. It reached the ears of the poor, the sick, the lonely, the depressed, and the grieving. Before, they felt hopeless. But now hope entered in. Could this be the long-promised Messiah? Had the One arrived who would save them? He certainly had, but perhaps not in the way they expected. He had not come to take away all their troubles on earth. He came to give them hope of something more than the world can offer.
The world presents physical health and earthly pleasures and possessions as the best hope for happiness. But these things are only temporary. God’s Son humbled Himself and gave Himself up to death, so that sinners might be glorified and have eternal life. He did not come to treat the symptoms of our problems, which is all the world can possibly do. He came to get at the source of our problems, which is sin.
Jesus came to make peace between the holy God and sinful mankind by offering up Himself on the cross. He took the eternal penalty for sin on Himself. The punishment and death that every sinner deserved from God was poured out on Jesus. He took our place in hell, so we could have a place in heaven.
This salvation was not for the Jews only, but also for the Gentiles. Paul wrote to the Gentile Christians in Ephesus, “[R]emember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12-13). Before, they were without hope because they were separated from God, but in Christ Jesus, by His blood, they had been brought near to Him. They had been added to the Church of all believers.
Now they had hope. And it wasn’t the sort of hope people talk about when they are listing their dreams or making their Christmas list—“I hope this happens someday,” or “I hope I get this.” The hope we have in Jesus is a sure hope. It is a hope based on firm promises. It is the “hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began” (Ti. 1:2). It is a hope rooted in Jesus, who died and rose again for sinners, and who is now “manifested in his word” (v. 3).
This holy Word is how Jesus comes to us today and how He brings us hope. He comes to us humbly just as He came to Jerusalem, and He comes to bring peace. We even echo the words of the crowd when we sing in our Communion liturgy, “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” We welcome Jesus to the altar of our church where He gladly dispenses the gifts of His grace.
Through His Word and Sacraments, Jesus comes to you in your hurt, your sorrow, your pain, your doubt, your loneliness, and your guilt. He comes to forgive your sins. He comes to relieve your burdens. He comes to encourage you. He comes to strengthen your faith. He comes to give you hope. There is no shame in this hope (Rom. 5:5). It is no empty dream. Jesus is with us, even now, and Where Jesus Is, There Is Hope.
In the days, months, and years to come, you will experience happiness and heartache, joys and sorrow. But you will not face these times alone. Jesus will come to you and abide with you. You do not have to persuade Him to come, and you do not have to convince Him of your worth. His great love for you moves Him to come, as the hymnwriter says: “No care nor effort either / Is needed day or night, / How ye may draw Him hither / In your own strength and might. / He comes, He comes with gladness, / Moved by His love alone, / To calm your fear and sadness, / To Him they well are known” (ELH 94, v. 7).
+ + +
(“Entry of Christ into Jerusalem” painting by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1320)
The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 1:18-25
In Christ Jesus, our Hope, our heart’s Delight (ELH #94, v. 1), dear fellow redeemed:
Before there were Christmas elves and bell ringers outside grocery stores, before there were letters addressed to the North Pole and a reindeer named Rudolph, before there was a man dressed in red and white whose belly shook like a bowl full of jelly, before lights were hung on houses and in trees, before there were Christmas trees and Christmas stockings, before a faithful pastor named St. Nicholas lived and worked in the third and fourth centuries—before all these things, there was Christmas, the birth of the Christ-Child, God come in the flesh.
But what was there before that? There was hope. There was hope that the woman’s Seed would crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15). There was hope that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s Offspring (Gen. 22:18). There was hope that a living Redeemer would raise His people from the dead (Job. 19:25-27). There was hope that a Prophet like Moses would arise (Deu. 18:15). There was hope that a Prince of Peace would come (Is. 9:6). There was hope that a righteous Branch would grow from the line of Jesse (Is. 11:1) and David (Jer. 23:5-6) to rule in justice forever. There was hope.
But along with hope there was doubt. Doubt always accompanies hope; the devil and the flesh make sure of it. Doubt is quiet but persistent: Are you sure? What if this is all made up? What if there is no God? What if all the things you thought were fact are nothing but a fairy tale? Imagine living before the birth of Christ. You would have no idea when God’s promises would become reality. There was no countdown clock. The periods “B. C.” and “A. D.” were instituted long after Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, and ascension. At the time of Adam or Noah or Abraham or David, you would not know if the coming of the Messiah was one year away, 1000 years away… or perhaps not at all.
All you had to go on was the Word. That doesn’t always seem like much. It does not satisfy the thirst for proof. Isn’t that the rallying cry in our day against everything recorded in the Bible? “Prove it!” But whether it passes any sort of objective or scientific test is not as important today as whether it passes the test of the heart. The main thing is how a person feels about what the Bible says. So then what is true for one, may not be true for another.
What does this lead to? It results in an unsure Word, a changing Word, one that is adjusted to fit the person instead of the other way around. A wavering Word means a wavering hope. Hope must stand on something solid, or it cannot stand at all. Without the promises given in the Bible, there would be no cause for anyone to be hopeful about anything in this life. If there is no forgiveness, we remain in our sins. If there is no life, we are on our way to a bitter death. The Apostle Paul wrote that as long as any are separated from Christ, they are without “hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Joseph was not without hope. He was an Israelite and a descendant of King David. He was taught the Old Testament Scriptures as all Jewish children were, and he worshipped in his local synagogue. It is evident that he believed what he had been taught, since in today’s text he is referred to as “a just man.”
This “just man” became acquainted with a young woman named Mary. He asked if she would be his wife, and she agreed. It was a love story unlike many we see in sitcoms and movies today. Joseph and Mary did not hop in bed together after getting to know each other a bit. Even after they were engaged, they did not engage in sexual activity, because they were not married. They knew the meaning of the Sixth Commandment. They knew that to act otherwise was to go against God’s will.
Joseph thanked God for blessing him with a pious woman. He looked forward with joy to his wedding day as any godly man would. But then the horrible discovery: Mary was pregnant! How could she! How could he have not seen her for what she was? Was he so gullible, so ignorant? His heart broken, Joseph made plans to end their engagement. He could have made a public example of her, but instead resolved to end things quietly. He would leave the justice to God.
But before he had done this, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” The angel told him to take Mary as his wife, for her child was not from man but from God. Her child in fact was God, who would “save His people from their sins.” Joseph woke up with a much different mindset than before. Before, he could hardly hope to be happy again. Now, there were two reasons for happiness: 1) Mary had not betrayed him after all, and 2) the Savior had come!
Joseph had hope, but that doesn’t mean he was without doubt. If you were in his shoes, wouldn’t you wonder if you might be the greatest fool in history? What if the angel in his dream was just a figment of his imagination? Then he would be about to marry someone who was both immoral and untruthful. Had his mind cooked up this hopeful dream as a way to cope with the betrayal of the woman he loved?
But there was something more to Joseph’s hope than the message of the angel. The evangelist Matthew helps us see this by quoting the words of the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name ‘Immanuel.’” Joseph knew this prophecy. It was written down by Isaiah over 700 years before this. It states clearly that an “Immanuel” would come, a “God with us,” who would be born of a virgin. God had chosen lowly Mary, Joseph’s betrothed, to bear the Savior of the world.
This prophecy in Isaiah is a major sticking point for those who deny the virgin birth today. They try to argue that the word for “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 can also be translated as “young woman.” They say that Isaiah must have been talking about some young woman who had a baby at that time. According to these skeptics, not only is a virgin birth impossible, but it would have been impossible for Isaiah to predict something so clearly hundreds of years before it happened. They say that if there was a Mary living in Nazareth some 2000 years ago, she conceived a child in the natural way, either with Joseph or some other man.
But if they don’t believe what the Bible says, why do they waste their time telling us so? If, as they say, the Bible is a collection of man-made fables, why do they argue about the details? It is because they don’t want you to believe it either. If they can get you to deny the virgin birth, it is just a small step beyond to deny everything the Bible says about Jesus. The Bible claims that Jesus is God from eternity, but He cannot be that if He was conceived naturally.
And what do these pagans gain by their assault on God’s Word and God’s people? With the Bible out of the way, they might be able to quiet their conscience to some extent. They might feel more comfortable in their sin. But they haven’t gained any hope. If there is no God, if God did not become man and suffer and die for sinners and rise again, then life has no real purpose, it has no goal. Then a person is left with empty accomplishments, meaningless possessions, and the guilt of a life poorly lived. But if the Lord has come, and if He came to rescue sinners from their miserable condition, then there is purpose for this life, then there is an end goal. Then there is hope.
We have hope. Our hope is not based on anything in us, on our own thinking and doing. Like Joseph, our hope is based on what God says, what He promises. God knows how we struggle to hang on to this hope. He knows how the devil and our own flesh tempt us to doubt. This is why He gives us Means to strengthen us. He gives pastors to preach His Word and administer His Sacraments. And He gives fellow Christians to encourage us along the way.
In these things that are seen, God gives us hope it what is unseen (Rom. 8:24-25). He gives us the sure and confident hope of life in heaven whenever our lives in this world come to an end. Eternal life is ours because Jesus saved us from the death and hell we deserved. Sin separated us from God, but Jesus reconciled us again by His innocent suffering and death. It is as the angel told Joseph, “He will save His people from their sins.” This is why He was to be called Jesus, a name which means, “The LORD saves.”
Jesus came to save you, to be your Immanuel. He came to give you hope of a future much brighter and a life far greater than this one. It is a hope that comes only by God’s grace and only through the power of His Word. It is through this Word that you, and Joseph and Mary, and all the faithful have been “born again to a living hope” (1Pe. 1:3). The incarnate Son of God, born of the virgin Mary, who died and rose again for you and all sinners—He is the reason for the season, and the “reason for the hope that is in you” (3:15).
+ + +
(painting of the angel’s visit to Joseph is by Toros Roslin, 1262)
The Second Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:2-10
In Christ Jesus, who has done all things well (Mk. 7:37), dear fellow redeemed:
When there is something that you want, something that is good and, as far as you can tell, God-pleasing, it is a great test and trial not to receive it. The longer you go without it, the more it occupies your thinking. You imagine how free your mind would be to pursue other good things if only that one concern were resolved. This may be the situation of someone who is unemployed or injured, who can think of nothing better than getting back to work. It could be the experience of a single person, who longs to have a spouse and a family. Or it could be the married couple which greatly desires the blessing of a child.
This last cross, the cross of barrenness, is what a man named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had to endure. Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth a homemaker. The evangelist Luke says about them that “they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Lk. 1:6). They obviously were not perfect, but they were humble and pious people. In this, they were blessed. But there was one blessing that God had not given them.
It is certain that they prayed fervently for a child. Even as she aged, Elizabeth might have comforted herself with the example of Hannah, who prayed for a son and was given Samuel. Or they might have thought of Abraham and Sarah, who did not have a child together until Abraham was about 100 and Sarah was 90. But each passing month made the possibility more remote. It would be no surprise if Zechariah and Elizabeth felt some bitterness about this. After all, they had faithfully served the LORD throughout their lives. They had entrusted their being and doing to His hands. Not out loud but perhaps in their heads, each of them might have thought, “Look what I’ve done for You. Won’t You grant this one blessing?”
God always answers prayer, but not always in the way we want. His answer to Zechariah and Elizabeth for a long time was, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2Cor. 12:9). They accepted that in faith. But then one day, God sent His angel Gabriel to visit Zechariah in the holy place of the temple. Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord” (Lk. 1:13-15). Not only would God give them a son, but this son would be unique. He was the God-ordained messenger for the coming Messiah.
As John grew, the LORD prepared him for his work. Through conversations with his parents and study of the Scriptures, John learned what God was calling him to do. At the LORD’s command, “he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3:3). He lived an austere life. He wore clothes made from camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. Despite these eccentricities, many came to the wilderness to hear him preach and to be baptized by him in the Jordan River.
But as boldly as John preached and as popular as he was, John said that “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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3:11-12). John did not come up with these ideas on his own. He read the prophecy in the Book of Malachi, that a messenger (John himself) would prepare the way for the Coming One, who “is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (Mal. 3:2). This Coming One would refine and purify sinners and punish those who did not repent.
Once Jesus was revealed to John as the Coming One, John must have become even bolder in his teaching and preaching. Soon Jesus would take up the charge, and all would follow Him. But things did not play out as John might have planned. King Herod did not like what John was saying and had him arrested and thrown in prison. Meanwhile Jesus increased His public activity, but He did not turn into the fire and brimstone preacher that John may have been expecting. So from prison John sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
We cannot say for sure whether John was asking for his own benefit, or for the benefit of his disciples, so they would leave John and follow Jesus. But for how committed John was to his wilderness work, it would not be surprising if his stay in prison was causing him to be anxious and unsettled. What good could he do for God there? Wouldn’t the Lord set him free? “Look what I’ve done for You, Lord. I will gladly do more.” But no doubt John would have added, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” The Lord’s answer to his prayers was a quick release from his suffering. King Herod had John beheaded, and John’s soul joined the saints in heaven.
Our reward for good deeds in this life does not always come about like we want. Sometimes our good efforts are rewarded with indifference, as though we had done nothing. Sometimes they are rewarded with evil, as our kindnesses are abused or thrown back in our faces. Children might whine about how their parents never give them what they want, or they might complain about eating the food in front of them. And parents may think or even say, “Look what I’ve done for you, how hard I’ve worked to provide for you. But you’re never happy!” Or an employee might go out of her way to please her boss, but all she hears is criticism. “Look what I’ve done for you,” she thinks. “Why should I even try?”
It’s just as easy to feel resentment toward God. When you stand up for what is right or warn someone about their sin, you might be mercilessly attacked by them in return. And you cry out to God, “Look what I’ve done for you! Why don’t you defend me and stop these attacks?” Or you might get injured or sick and pray for healing that is slow in coming if it comes at all. “Are you punishing me, Lord? Where have I failed you?” Or you may see your ungodly neighbor prosper, while you struggle. “Look what I’ve done for you, Lord. Why do those who ignore You and Your Word fare better than I do?”
The answers in these times of difficulty don’t come easily. Waiting for God’s answer to our prayers, waiting for God’s justice, can seem endless. Is help coming or not? If we are paying attention to today’s text, we shouldn’t wonder if the Lord cares about our troubles. Jesus said to John’s disciples, “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 cares both about people’s physical and spiritual needs. He answered the prayers of the blind, lame, leprous, and deaf and healed them. He even brought the dead back to life.
And for the spiritually poor, the suffering, the anxious, the troubled, the weary, the grieving—Jesus imparted good news. What might that good news have been? There is only one Gospel proclaimed by God, and that is the good news of forgiveness and life by His grace alone. Nothing else but this can comfort the poor sinner.
The Gospel is Jesus’ own “Look What I’ve Done for You.” If you feel burdened by just your own sins, Jesus took upon Himself the burden of all sins—including yours. If you feel that you have suffered unjustly, Jesus suffered the venomous bite of Satan and the holy wrath of God in your place, though He never did anything wrong. Whatever you have had to endure, Jesus endured immeasurably more out of love for you. All of your and my “Look what I’ve done for Yous” fade and disappear in the bright light of His perfect life and innocent death.
And that is what needs to happen. There is no comfort or justice to be found by appealing to the righteousness of your own actions. No matter how honest and humble you are, you still are not perfect. You are still a sinner, who must be justified by God if you would be justified at all. And you are justified. When you are convicted by the Law, Jesus calls your attention to His perfect life and says, “Look what I’ve done for you.” When you worry about your sins, old and new, and wonder if there could be forgiveness for your wicked thoughts and deeds, Jesus draws your eyes to His blood-soaked cross and to the marks of the nails in His hands and feet and says, “Look what I’ve done for you.” When you tremble at your approaching death and worry that you will not have enough faith to get to heaven, Jesus points you toward His empty tomb and says, “Look what I’ve done for you.”
Whatever God commanded you to do, Jesus has done for you. This is why Jesus says, “blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” Whoever is offended by Jesus and denies Him remains under a curse. But whoever believes in Him and confesses His saving name is blessed. You are blessed even when you do not get exactly what you want and expect from Him. God gives you what you need through His Word and Sacraments, so that you can face with confidence the trials ahead and look with hope to the end of your troubles and the eternal glory to come.
+ + +
(painting is “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1565)
The First Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 21:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who still comes humbly in the name of the Lord, dear fellow redeemed:
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Have you heard that song on the radio yet? It is so lively and cheerful. It’s the kind of song that gets stuck in your head—whether you like it or not. And what is it that makes this the most wonderful time? According to the song, it’s kids jingle belling, parties for hosting, caroling out in the snow, and having loved ones near. Those are all good things, but those things alone cannot guarantee happiness.
For many, this season is not the most wonderful but is the most difficult time of the year. They feel the crunch of preparing for Christmas parties at work and at home. They feel the financial strain of trying to get the perfect gift for everyone. Some feel a deep sadness due to the recent death of someone close to them. Others feel the emptiness of dreams and plans unfulfilled through the passing years. They wonder how everyone else can manage to be so happy when they are so discouraged and down.
It was for you who are struggling that Paul Gerhardt wrote this hymn stanza: “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). You can rejoice even in the difficult times of life, because He Is Near You Who Can Cheer You.
Who is it that is “near you”? It is Jesus. Jesus is God, and God is everywhere. So in that sense, He is near everyone. But that is not what we are talking about here. The Son of God “was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary” (Nicene Creed) to be our Immanuel—God with us. He came to meet us in the depths of our sin, our despair, our grief, and our trouble. He did not shy away from sickness and disease, from physical, mental, and spiritual distress. He came.
He came humbly, and many despised Him for it. They did not like how He associated with the social outcasts and sinners. If He was the Christ of God, shouldn’t He be in the company of those who tried the hardest to keep God’s holy law? Wouldn’t He praise their efforts and usher them into closer communion with God? But instead, they were criticized and even cursed by Him. Jesus openly told the people to “practice and observe whatever [the scribes and Pharisees] tell you—but not what they do” (Mt. 23:3). He called them hypocrites! That was not the sort of Messiah they were expecting.
But aside from the religious elite, the common people were enthralled by Jesus. His powers were so far above them, yet none were below His concern. And He did not employ those powers for selfish gain or fame. He used them to help people and serve them. He could heal with a touch or just with a Word. Shortly before riding through the gates of Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus had even called the dead man Lazarus out of his tomb. This is what brought the crowd out to meet Him and to cover the road ahead of Him with palm branches and cloaks (Jn. 12:18). Who could this be but the Messiah, the promised Savior from the family of David? “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they shouted, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
They believed that He had come to be their king, but they did not understand this in the right way. They hoped for a king who would liberate them from the Romans. They wanted a king who would restore earthly glory to the people of Israel and cause them to be respected around the world. But this is not why the Son of God came. God became Man to save. He came to shoulder the burden of the law that was impossible for us all to carry and to let His body be pierced and His blood shed to atone for all sin.
The true King hides His power in humility and His strength in weakness. This is not the sort of king that many people are looking for. If you ask them what their greatest needs are, they will probably talk about needing more time, more money, and help with relationships. The first thing on their minds is not the forgiveness of sins, righteousness from God, and the certainty of eternal life. What they especially want God to give them is good health, success at work, a comfortable lifestyle, and a feeling of happiness. If they do not receive these things, they complain and question God. They want a heavenly king who shows His strength and power in the world, so that everyone can see the visible and tangible benefits of following him.
But our Savior’s glory is hidden in the cross. He won by losing. He conquered by dying. Natural human thinking cannot comprehend this. The world despises it. But we treasure it. By faith, we see it for what it is. We understand that God became Man for me. He took my place because He loved me. He suffered and died on my behalf. He wants me to be with Him in heaven.
This is what He tells you in His Word. But He doesn’t just tell in His Word; He gives and grants through His Word. This is how the God who “came near” to the human race by taking on flesh, comes near to you personally. Jesus comes to you through His Word and Sacraments. “Behold, I am with you always,” He says, “to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). He is with you “where two or three are gathered in [His] name” (Mt. 18:20). He is with you when water and Word are applied in Baptism (Rom. 6:4). He is with you when bread and wine are blessed and distributed in His Holy Supper. God can get no closer to you than His means of grace.
Many Christians think that their closeness to God depends on what they do. They measure how close they are to God by how close they feel to God. This affects how they approach prayer and worship and Christian living. Their chief consideration is not what God promises them, which is the Gospel. Their focus is on their promises to Him, which rest on the Law. It’s no wonder they find comfort in Christ so hard to come by.
If closeness to God depended on you, you know how far off you would be. God’s reach is not limited, but yours is. The prophet Isaiah says, “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Is. 59:2). Your sins have caused the great divide between you and Him. You could never, ever bridge that gap.
But Jesus can, and He did. “[N]ow in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). St. Paul writes that Jesus reconciled you with His Father by His death on the cross. Then he states that the resurrected Christ “came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (v. 17).
Jesus comes to you with a message of peace. It is not a sentimental peace like you might have all cozied up, watching a fire in the fireplace. It is a real peace, a peace that binds us together with the living God, a peace that comes from having forgiveness and salvation through Christ. This peace that we have with God is the source of our spiritual rejoicing even when we don’t feel very cheerful.
Peace with God does not replenish my bank account, but it does bestow spiritual treasures that will never be exhausted. Peace with God does not make all my earthly troubles go away, but it does increase my longing to be where trouble is no more. Peace with God does not bring my loved ones back from the dead, but it does give me hope that their bodies will be raised up, and that we will be united again in heaven.
God does not promise you a carefree life in this world. But He does promise to be present in your grief, your pain, and your struggle. That is the kind of King you have—a King who serves. He wants you to turn your weaknesses and your guilt, your worries, fears, and doubts over to Him. How do you do that? By bowing your head in repentance and giving up on your ability to make and do everything right. And then by satisfying your spiritual hunger and thirst by coming to the Lord’s Table and receiving His holy body and blood.
Jesus comes to save you there just as He came to save on Palm Sunday. Why does He come? The hymnwriter tells us: “He comes, He comes with gladness, / Moved by His love alone, / To calm your fear and sadness, / To Him they well are known…. He comes, He comes procuring / The peace of sins forgiv’n, / For all God’s sons securing / Their heritage in heav’n” (ELH 94, vv. 7, 8).
Therefore we pray, “O glorious Sun, now come, / Send forth Thy beams so cheering, / And guide us safely home!” (ELH 94, v. 10).
+ + +
(picture of the Jerico sanctuary where Jesus is present through Word and Sacrament)