The Fourth Sunday of Advent/Christmas Vigil – Vicar Lehne sermon
Text: St. Matthew 1:18-25
In Christ Jesus, who is still with us today, dear fellow redeemed:
The people of this world pride themselves on being able to use their human reason to solve all their problems. They don’t need a God. They’re enlightened. However, no matter how “enlightened” the people of this world are, there are still times when they are faced with problems that they can’t solve on their own. So, what do they do in these moments? They lift their eyes to the heavens and say, “Give me a sign!” Yes, even the so called “enlightened” people of this world, who supposedly don’t need God, are at times faced with problems that cause them to hope that a higher power really does exist that can offer them guidance. However, the “higher power” that the people of this world turn to is usually the universe. The “signs” that the people of this world supposedly receive from the universe can be found in just about anything: a book that has been opened to a specific page; a song that is being played on the radio; how the stars in the sky are ordered and what they mean. However, if they were truly looking for signs that would help them solve their problems, they would not look to the “signs” that the universe supposedly gives them, but to the signs that God definitely gives them in his Word, for God’s signs point to salvation.
In our reading for today, we are told that Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary was a sign that God would save his people from their sins. However, the context in which this sign was promised to be given appears to be a bit strange. The prophecy that the sign would happen was given long ago, and by that time, the nation of Israel had split into two kingdoms: the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The current king of Judah, King Ahaz, had just found out that Israel had joined forces with Syria to wage war against Judah. And so, he was understandably afraid.
Therefore, God instructed the prophet Isaiah to comfort King Ahaz by reassuring him that the house of David would not fall but would be delivered. In addition to these words of comfort, King Ahaz was also told to ask God for a sign so that he would be able to attach his faith in God’s promise to something tangible. However, King Ahaz did not have faith in God, so he refused to ask for a sign, making it appear as though he piously did not want to put God to the test. But God was not fooled, so he responded to King Ahaz by saying through Isaiah, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). This was not a sign that King Ahaz would see in his lifetime, nor would anyone who lived in Judah at that time. But, to those who believed in God, the promise of this sign comforted them and gave them hope for the future, hope that they would not just be delivered from their earthly enemies but also from their sins.
But this sign was not just meant to give hope to the believers who lived in Judah at the time. It was meant to give hope to all believers of all time, including you. The prophecy shows that it was not just the deliverance of his people in the nation of Judah that God had in mind, but also the deliverance of all his people from every nation. By preserving the house of David, God was preserving the line of the Savior, who would come from the house and line of David. That Savior would be no mere man, for a regular man would not even be able to deliver himself, let alone all people. No, that Savior would be God in the flesh, which is what Immanuel means: “God with us.” And this God-man would deliver everyone from their sins, which is what Jesus means: “The LORD saves.”
Even though we were not around to see the sign that God foretold would happen through Isaiah, God has revealed in his Word that it did happen, just as he said that it would. God inspired Matthew to write in our reading for today that “the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (verse 18). The Holy Spirit caused Mary to conceive, despite the fact that she was a virgin, and the baby that was conceived inside her was God in the flesh. Then, as if we needed it to be any clearer that this is how God fulfilled his prophecy to King Ahaz, Matthew goes on to say that “this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet [Isaiah]” (verse 22).
When the God-man, Jesus, came in the flesh, he experienced everything that you do. He didn’t just experience the joys of life, but also the sorrows of life. He faced your temptations and overcame them. He even experienced everything that you rightfully deserved by taking all your sins on himself, suffering your punishment of hell, and dying on the cross in your place. Through all this, Jesus saved you from your sins, and now, life and salvation are yours.
Therefore, whenever you become afraid when faced with your sins and guilt, whenever you are struggling with temptation, or whenever you are going through a difficult time, Jesus assures you through his comforting Word that he has already delivered you from your sins and that he will be there with you to help you overcome your temptations and get through your difficult times. These words of comfort should be all we need to believe in him, but he has also given us tangible signs to attach his promises to, just like he did for King Ahaz. Those tangible signs are the means by which God brings his grace to us: his holy Sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
In holy baptism, the simple means of water is applied to us as his Word is spoken. Since God attaches his Word to the tangible element of water, we know that he is truly with us to give us faith and wash away our sins through those waters. In the Lord’s Supper, the simple means of bread and wine, over which his Word was spoken during the Words of Institution, are fed to us. Since God attaches his Word to the tangible elements of bread and wine, we know that Jesus is truly with us to give us the forgiveness of sins through the bread and wine, which are his true body and blood. It is not the tangible elements themselves that we put our faith in, but they help us to remember what Jesus has truly accomplished through them and that he is still with us.
These are the tangible signs that God has given to us, and how God wants us to receive these signs is shown in Joseph. Our reading for today begins with Joseph finding out that Mary, the woman that he was betrothed to, was pregnant. Using his human reason, he assumed that Mary must have been unfaithful to him and committed adultery. We have the benefit of knowing that it was the Holy Spirit who caused Mary to conceive, but Joseph did not know this at the time. So, assuming that Mary was unfaithful to him was an understandable assumption.
Adultery was very serious in the Jewish community. According to the Old Testament law, if a woman was found guilty of committing adultery, she would be stoned to death. However, Joseph was a just and kind man. He didn’t want Mary to be exposed to public shame and be stoned, so, he decided to divorce Mary as quietly as possible instead, which was the only way to break off a marriage in those days, after which her father would look after her for the remainder of her life.
However, before Joseph could carry out his plan, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and told him that the one who was conceived in Mary was from the Holy Spirit: the promised Savior who would save his people from their sins whom Isaiah spoke of in his prophecy. Joseph now had two choices: believe what the angel of the Lord said to him and receive the sign of the virgin birth in faith or put his trust in his own human reason and divorce Mary, rejecting the sign. And Joseph, having faith, accepted the sign in faith and went through with taking Mary as his wife, as the angel of the Lord commanded him.
When we try to rely on our human reason more than God and his Word, it only causes us to doubt the words that God says and reject them. A child being born of a virgin? That’s impossible! The evangelists must have actually added this later to make Jesus and Mary seem better than they were. Baptism being a work of God through which God gives us faith and washes away our sins? That’s impossible! Baptism must actually be a human work that symbolizes the washing away of our sins and demonstrates our commitment to God. The bread and the wine in the Lord’s Supper being the true body and blood of Jesus through which we receive the forgiveness of sins? That’s impossible! The bread and the wine must actually symbolize Jesus’ body and blood to remind us of what he did to forgive our sins. And these are only some of the ways in which we can reject what God has revealed to us in his Word.
If we reject God’s signs, like King Ahaz did, then we no longer stand on God’s promises, and our faith cannot endure. Without faith, we lose all the blessings that Jesus, the God-man, won for us on the cross: the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. But when we receive God’s signs in the faith that God has given us, like Joseph did, we know that God has worked through his signs to bring us his blessings.
Because God works through these signs of Word and Sacrament to bring his blessings to us, we know that he is with us today. Jesus didn’t come in the past only to leave us when he ascended into heaven. He is with all of us today, including you. And because Jesus saved you from your sins by his innocent death on the cross and experienced your struggles and hardships, you know that he will continue to bring you the forgiveness of sins and help you through your struggles and hardships today, as well as throughout the rest of your lives, until the day when you enter eternal life in heaven, where you will never struggle or face hardships ever again. In all of these ways that God is with us, we know that God’s signs truly do point to salvation.
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 “Joseph’s Dream” by T’oros Roslin, 1210-1270)
The Third Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
In Christ Jesus, who continues to carry out His mission of redemption through the efforts of His faithful people, dear fellow redeemed:
His work had started so well. The thirty-something preacher came in with tremendous energy. He maybe wasn’t the greatest looking guy, and he had some strange habits, but there was a magnetism about him. People came from all over to hear him preach—young and old, churched and unchurched; even important people in their expensive clothes came to see “what this is all about.”
He didn’t let anyone off the hook. With biting words, he exposed their sin as though he could see into their hearts. He was not afraid of anyone, from peasant to prince. He preached like there was no tomorrow. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees,” he cried. “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mat. 3:10). But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. He also told them about God’s grace toward sinners. “Repent and be baptized,” he said; “receive the forgiveness of sins.” Some even wondered if he might be the promised Messiah.
But John was not the Messiah. The real Messiah came to John while he was baptizing at the Jordan River. He urged John to baptize Him, and when he did, the heavens were opened, the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and the Father spoke from above to His “beloved Son,” with whom He was well pleased (Mat. 3:16-17). What an experience! Preacher John now pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Joh. 1:29).
Just imagine what these two great men could accomplish. Imagine how many people they could reach by working together. But that isn’t exactly how it went. They did work simultaneously for a little while, and then John’s disciples started to see the crowds shrinking. They realized the crowds were leaving John and going to Jesus! But John was not upset. “I am the friend of the bridegroom,” he said. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Joh. 3:29,30).
John did decrease, very quickly. He called out the adultery of King Herod, who had taken his brother Philip’s wife for himself. So Herod arrested John and put him in prison (Mat. 14:3-4). That is where we find him in the Holy Gospel for today—in prison (Mat. 11:2-10). What good could John do there? He longed to be back out in the Judean wilderness, preaching by the Jordan. A few faithful disciples continued to visit him through his bars. Perhaps that’s why John sent them to question Jesus; he knew his time was short. It was the Bridegroom who mattered.
Would you say that John had a successful ministry? Since He pointed out Jesus as the Messiah, the answer must be yes. But if that had happened in this church, if a fiery preacher had attracted such crowds that all the pews were filled, and it was standing room only. If that preacher helped put your church on the map where it belonged, but then the crowds started thinning and the cars stopped pulling up for Sunday service until it was back to just you. And then to top it all off, that once-popular preacher ended up in prison. Would you be glad for the high point, or would it just depress you to think about what you used to have?
It is tempting to think about success in the church by numbers. You might think back to when each row of pews had people in them, when every member’s social life and spiritual life were largely intertwined and centered in the church. For example, the Young People’s Society had enough kids to raise money for Jerico’s large stained-glass windows. There wasn’t enough room in our church basements for congregational dinners. What has changed? People have more commitments away from home, more on the schedule. Families are smaller than they used to be. Fewer people live near the churches. Church attendance is falling in all mainline denominations. These things are true.
But perhaps you also wonder if the church would do better if it changed a little more with the times. Maybe if we weren’t so strict about moral issues, or if we gave a little ground on our Communion practice or our style of worship. Or maybe it seems like the pastor could do different things to connect with the members and the community—get a stronger youth program going, offer more classes, do more to reach out.
Every pastor wants to be a good pastor, but he often has doubts. “What could I be doing better? Has my presence here really made a positive difference? Would the parish be better off if I left, and someone else stepped in?” How is a congregation supposed to measure its pastor? How is a pastor supposed to assess his own work?
The apostle Paul outlines the standard. He does not mention a trajectory of growth in membership. He does not identify the level of happiness and satisfaction that should be felt by parishioners and pastor. Paul says this about how people should think of pastors: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”
So the important question for parishioners is not first and foremost, “Do I like my pastor?” or “Is my pastor a really good preacher or teacher?” or “Has he brought in new members?” The important question is, “Do I recognize that my pastor, even with all his weaknesses and quirks, is a ‘servant of Christ’? Do I acknowledge that God has put him here to distribute His gifts through His Holy Word and Sacraments?” That is the true measure of a pastor, that he faithfully carries out these duties the congregation has called him to do.
And a pastor should not focus on the appearance of success through things like an increase in church activity and involvement. Paul continues: “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” To be found “trustworthy” means that pastors are faithful to the Word of God. They must be faithful to the Word before they are faithful to any member of the congregation, no matter how influential those members might be. Sometimes that faithfulness to the Word requires them to confront members with their sins and call them to repentance like John the Baptizer did. A pastor’s faithfulness to the Word might even make him some enemies both inside and outside the church.
So there can be tension at times between pastors and parishioners. Paul expresses this tension by telling the congregation in Corinth, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court…. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment.” The times when it is certainly proper for a congregation to judge its pastor and call him to account is if he is preaching false doctrine, if he is leading an openly sinful life, or if he refuses to carry out the duties he is called to do. But it is not proper to judge him for personality shortcomings, for unrealistic or unmet expectations, or for declines in offerings or church attendance.
Most pastors do a good enough job judging themselves without needing parishioners to do it too. Many would have a hard time saying with Paul, “For I am not aware of anything against myself.” Pastors are well aware of their mistakes and failures. So here we are: a sinful pastor preaching to sinful parishioners. What hope do we have for the future? What reasons do we have for optimism?
Today’s reading reminds us that we have “the mysteries of God.” God’s own mysteries have been revealed to us! These mysteries all have their source in the one central mystery of God. That central mystery is Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). It is the mystery of the all-powerful Son of God nestled as an infant in Mary’s arms. It is the mystery of this person maintaining perfect purity according to the holy Law throughout His life. It is the mystery of this perfect man willingly taking the place of all sinners under God’s wrath. It is the mystery of a dead man coming back to life after three days to declare His victory over sin, devil, and death.
These mysteries have been revealed to you and to me through the Word of God, along with still more mysteries: Jesus’ righteousness, grace, and life bestowed by simple water and His Word. Jesus’ forgiveness imparted through the Absolution. Jesus’ body and blood tied to the elements of bread and wine by the power of His Word. These gifts of Jesus all come to us through faith, which the Holy Spirit has worked inside us.
What a mystery that the Son of God was willing to suffer and die to save us sinners! What a mystery that He calls us His own, even though we are so often weak and cold-hearted! What a mystery that He remains patient with us, visits us with His mercy through the means of grace, and sends us out as His own stewards and representatives to do His work! What mysteries! What blessings!
Because Jesus is at work among us according to His promise, we are assured of success. It may or may not be success in attendance numbers, offering amounts, or admiration from the people in our community. To many people, it may appear that what we are doing does not matter, just as it may have appeared to the people around John that his work was all for nothing once he was put in prison. But that is not how God sees it at all.
Paul writes that when our Lord Jesus comes, He “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation—his praise—from God.” God sees things as they really are. He sees the humble support and encouragement that parishioners give their pastors. He sees the often unheralded but crucial work that pastors do for the people they serve. As unimpressive as all of it seems, it all flows from the love of Christ, and it all points back to Him. That makes the work we do together in Jesus’ name the picture of success.
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 Second Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 15:4-13
In Christ Jesus, who has brought sinners all over the world into His holy body by cleansing them with His blood (Eph. 2:13), dear fellow redeemed:
In the Holy Gospel for today, Jesus describes what will happen in the world and in the universe before His return on the last day (Luke 21:25-36). Signs will be seen “in sun and moon and stars.” Nations will be distressed because of “the roaring of the sea and the waves,” referring to things like hurricanes, tidal waves, and floods. People will faint with fear and foreboding when they see what is happening.
And then Jesus will return in His glory. Most people will not be ready. Their focus was on other things. Their hope was anchored in the world. That day will come upon them “suddenly like a trap.” They will not escape His judgment. They will be condemned to eternal punishment in hell. You might wonder if you will avoid this fate. You might question if you are faithful enough to be gathered with God’s people in heaven.
Today’s reading from the Epistle to the Romans addresses these concerns. The apostle Paul writes by inspiration that we have something more sure to go by than our thoughts, our experiences, or even a feeling in our gut about where we stand with God. We have the Holy Scriptures. Specifically Paul is talking about the Old Testament, the record of events from the creation of the world to some four hundred years before the birth of Christ.
The Old Testament is far more than a collection of historical accounts, laws, and psalms, which are only useful for historians, lawyers, or musicians who like those sorts of things. Paul writes that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.” As we study the Scriptures, we learn endurance and find encouragement, because we see the trials that God brought His people through and the many examples of His goodness and blessings.
So through the Scriptures we also learn to have hope. We are not the first to have troubles. We are not the first to have worries and doubts. We are not the first to fall short of the glory of God in our sin. We are part of a long line of sinner-saints stretching back through time, back through the Reformation, back through the early Church, back through the apostles, back through the prophets, back through the patriarchs. This is a continuous, unbroken line, because our merciful God has preserved His Church through all of history.
The way He has preserved His Church is through His Scriptures. Both God and His Word are described as giving the same thing. The “God of endurance and encouragement” gives this endurance and encouragement through His Scriptures. The “God of hope” gives hope through His Scriptures. Everything good that God wants to give us, every blessing He has planned for us, comes to us through His Holy Word.
Paul emphasized this point in his epistle to the Christians in Rome by pointing them to God’s promise that salvation was not for the Israelites only but for all people. Those who were not part of God’s chosen people Israel were called the Gentiles. They belonged to the pagan nations around Israel who did not glorify God or listen to His Word. The Gentiles had no reason to hope for God’s mercy based on who they were or what they did or what they could offer to Him. They deserved His wrath for their many sins.
And yet God planned salvation for them. Paul referenced the Old Testament prophecies recorded by Moses in the 1400s B. C., by David around the year 1000 B. C., and by Isaiah in the 700s B. C. All those prophecies show that Gentiles would join the Israelites in praising the Lord. The Israelites who had the Scriptures must have had a hard time imagining this. “The wicked Gentiles whom we are supposed to stay away from will join us in glorifying the true God? How can this be?”
That question is answered by Isaiah’s prophecy: “The Root of Jesse will come, even He who arises to rule the Gentiles; in Him will the Gentiles hope” (Isa. 11:10). The Gentiles would hope in the “Root of Jesse.” Jesse was the father of King David. Long after the glory had departed from that family, after the last descendant of David sat on the crumbling throne of Jerusalem, a greater King would rise up. Isaiah prophesied that “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (11:1).
That King was Jesus, a blood descendant of David through His mother Mary (Luk. 3:23ff.), and a legal descendant of David through His guardian Joseph (Mat. 1:1ff.). Jesus’ family tree contained all manner of sinners—liars, murderers, adulterers, and even some Gentiles. This human line shows what kind of people He came to save—sinful people, guilty of all sorts of wrongdoing against God.
God in His love does not make a distinction between Jew and Gentile anymore. He does not see any one group of people as better than another, and neither should we. Men are not better than women, or women than men. Republicans are not better than Democrats, or Democrats than Republicans. Americans are not better than foreigners, or foreigners than Americans. Even Christians are not better than non-Christians in the sense of being less guilty of sin.
Romans 3 says, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (vv. 22-23). That should give us a great sympathy toward the people around us. They struggle with sin just like we do. They probably regret a lot of things just like we do. And Jesus died for their sins just as certainly as He died for ours. Who can be below me, unworthy of my love, if Jesus, who was perfect in every way, who never did any wrong toward anyone—if He humbled Himself to be nailed to a cross and die for all my sins?
That is our hope, a hope that is clearly spelled out for us in the Old and New Testament Scriptures. Jesus died for me. Jesus died for you. Jesus died for every sinner in human history. It is His sacrifice that brings together people of various nationalities, languages, and customs into one holy body, into His body the Church.
As members of one body, God wants us to glorify Him with one voice. Some Christians take this to mean that we need to set aside our doctrinal differences, and we need to compromise the Bible’s teaching for the sake of outward unity among Christians. This is the reason why many churches in our area will hold joint worship services. They believe and teach many different things in their own buildings, but they still think something can be gained by an outward show of unity. This is a false unity that we want nothing to do with.
Unity in the church is never to be looked for outside of the Scriptures, but in and through the Scriptures. God’s Word creates the only unity worth having, as the Holy Spirit brings us to Christ and Christ to us. Unity in the church is God’s work, not ours. Paul writes, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We see here that God grants harmony, and that this harmony will be built on Christ Jesus and grow through Him if it is true harmony.
So we don’t create this unity, but we certainly can destroy it. We destroy unity in the church when we put anything else before God’s Holy Word. Maybe it is our pride—we want things a certain way, and we insist that everything happen just the way we want it, or else there is going to be a big fight. Or maybe it is our passions—instead of resisting our sinful desires, we give in to them and give no thought to how our actions affect and hurt the whole body of Christ. Or maybe it is our prejudice—we think that we could never work with people who have this background, who look like this, or talk like that.
When we give in to our pride, our passions, our prejudice, or any other sins, we simultaneously give up all hope. Trusting in our own way always leads to hopelessness. But God in His mercy calls us out of our hopelessness and away from our sin. He leads us to repentance, to the humble acknowledgement that we have done wrong, and to the conviction that we don’t want to keep doing wrong.
Then the Holy Spirit through the Holy Word points us to Jesus. “That Root of Jesse came forth for you,” He says. “He came to be your King and bring you into His kingdom. He came to pay for all your sins and cover you in His holiness. You are not destined for the Father’s wrath and punishment. You have salvation by faith in His Son.”
That is the hope given to you and declared to you in both the Old and the New Testaments. It is the hope that gives “endurance and encouragement” as the world around us devolves into selfishness, hatred, and deceit. We Glorify God for His Gift of Hope. The hope we have in Jesus gives us joy in trying and troubling times, and it gives us peace in our distresses.
Jesus comes through His Holy Word to bring us this joy and peace and to strengthen our confidence that He will return on the last day. He will save us from the judgment that awaits those who reject Him. He will bring us safely to His heavenly kingdom. For this, we Gentiles praise and thank Him and extol His holy name, just as the Scriptures said we would.
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 of stained glass from Jerico Lutheran Church)
(audio unavailable for this sermon)
The First Sunday in Advent – Vicar Lehne sermon
Text: St. Matthew 21:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who surpasses our expectations, dear fellow redeemed:
For children, one of the most torturous things in the world, if not the most torturous thing in the world, is waiting to open their presents on Christmas morning. They want to open them as soon as possible, but their parents always seem to find another reason to make them wait longer: the family has to go to church first; the entire family has to be gathered around the tree; dad has to find the camera so that he can take pictures. So, as the kids wait to open their presents, they pass the time by trying to figure out what’s inside them: they look at the size of their presents; pick them up to see how heavy they are; shake them to see if they can hear anything inside that could give them a clue. And sometimes, by the end of their investigation, they think they’ve found out what at least one of their presents is, and it’s something that they’ve wanted for a long time. So, when the time finally comes for them to open that present, they excitedly rip the paper off, open the box, and . . . it’s not what they thought it was after all.
Like children waiting to open their Christmas presents, the people of Israel built up their expectations for what the promised Messiah would be like when he eventually came. And, if kids think that it’s torturous to have to wait to open their presents for an hour or two at the most, the people of Israel had to wait thousands of years for the Messiah to arrive. As they waited, they looked at the prophecies in Scripture that spoke of his coming and interpreted them in an incorrect way. Since many of the prophecies described the coming Messiah as a mighty king who would save his people, the people of Israel looked at their current situation, being forced to live under Roman rule, and interpreted those prophecies to mean that the coming Messiah would be a mighty earthly king who would overthrow the Romans and give their nation back to them.
Because of the expectations that the people of Israel had, they probably expected the Messiah to come in majesty. But how did he come instead? He wasn’t born in a magnificent palace, but in a stable, with a manger, a feeding trough for animals, for his bed. Who were the first ones to behold him? Not kings, but lowly shepherds. Where did he grow up? Not in an important city like Jerusalem, but in the lowly town of Nazareth, a place that was looked down upon for being inferior in education and culture. Whom did he associate himself with? Not with mighty soldiers and the important religious leaders, but with lowly fishermen and those whom the religious leaders considered to be sinners.
But now, the Messiah, Jesus, had the perfect opportunity to finally present himself as the majestic king that he truly is. Jesus knew that this was the last Sunday before he would die an innocent death on the cross, and so, as he prepared to ride into Jerusalem for the last time, he could have done so on the back of a horse, wearing flowing purple robes and a glistening crown. But what did he ride in on instead? On a lowly donkey. And it wasn’t that there were no other animals available that he could have ridden on. Jesus specifically asked his disciples to bring a donkey and her colt to him, which he did to fulfill the prophecy that was spoken by the prophet Zechariah: “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
Because of the humble way in which Jesus came on Palm Sunday, as well as the humility that he lived in throughout the rest of his earthly life, it was clear that he was not showing off his majesty in the way that the people of Israel expected the Messiah to. But they had not given up their hope just yet. Even though Jesus had not yet shown his power and might by confronting the Roman rulers, he showed his power and might through the countless miracles that he performed throughout his ministry. Surely, he intended to use this power to save them from the Romans. So, as he humbly rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, the people of Israel praised him and shouted, “Hosanna,” which means, “Save us now!”
But then came Jesus’ ultimate humiliation. On Maundy Thursday, he was betrayed by Judas, one of his own disciples, and handed over to the Romans, who tortured and mocked him before ultimately putting him to death. Jesus did not shed the blood of the Romans; instead, his own blood was shed by them. He did not wear a glistening crown on his head; instead, he wore a crown of thorns. Where were those who were praising him on Palm Sunday now? At least some of them had turned on him and were the ones who were telling the Romans to put him to death. It had become plain to them that Jesus was not the Messiah that they were hoping for.
But little did the people of Israel know that, by his ultimate humiliation, his innocent suffering and death, Jesus gave them a far greater gift than salvation from the Romans. He gave them salvation from their sins. He may not have established a kingdom on earth for the people of Israel, which would have been only temporary, but, by the shedding of his innocent blood, he did open the gates of the kingdom of heaven to them, a kingdom that has no end. So long as the people of Israel believed in Jesus as their Savior, their promised Messiah, that eternal kingdom would be theirs. And many of them eventually did come to faith in him through the preaching of his Word.
But this gift is not just for the people of Israel. It’s also for the entire rest of world, including you. The torture and mocking that Jesus endured was for you. The sins that Jesus took on himself were your sins. The blood that Jesus shed on the cross was for you, so that the price of all of your sins was paid. He suffered the ultimate humiliation on the cross so that the gates of heaven would be opened to you. But how does Jesus bring this gift to you? He does so through humble means: the means of grace, his Word and Sacraments.
Instead of mighty angels descending from the heavens and declaring to the entire world that Jesus is the promised Messiah and that we are to put our faith in him and do as he has commanded us to do, God sends humble pastors out into all the world to preach his Word to them and teach them what God wants them to believe and do. Instead of putting us through a baptism by fire, in which we are put through a challenging trial that results in us proving our faith to him in the end, God gives us a baptism through water, in which he brings us to faith by the application of water and the speaking of his Word. Instead of preparing a magnificent feast for the entire world to eat that will satisfy all of their earthly hunger, God prepares a humble feast of bread and wine, in which, through the speaking of his Word, we feast on the true body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins.
The world looks at the humble ways in which Jesus comes to us and thinks that they’re foolishness. If God really wanted us to believe in him, he would show greater displays of his power and might: he would end world hunger and poverty, making sure that everyone had enough money and food to satisfy their earthly needs; he would bring an end to all of the wars and violence in the world and usher in an era of world peace; he would guarantee that everyone gets to go to heaven by either wiping out all sin from the world or forgiving everyone of their sins, regardless of whether they are repentant of their sins and believe in him or not. The world expects God to behave in the way that they think he should behave, and, because he doesn’t, they don’t want to have anything to do with him and want him out of their lives.
Even we can have our own false expectations for how God should behave. We may not go as far as some of the people of this world do, but there are times when we may think that, if God is really as powerful as he says that he is, why doesn’t he give us the rain that we need in order to make our crops grow? Why doesn’t he put someone in control of the government who will actually fix our country’s problems? Why doesn’t he heal our loved ones who are suffering from pain and sickness? The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 8 that “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (verse 28). However, we are tempted to think that, if God was really working all things out for the good of those who love him, wouldn’t he only give us good things? What did any of us do to deserve the hard times that God puts us through?
We may think that we know what is best for us, but God says to us in Isaiah 55, “[M]y thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. . . . For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (verses 8–9). God alone knows what is best for us, and he gives that to us. He gives us what we need for our earthly lives, as well as for our spiritual lives. And while we are all too often focused solely on our earthly needs and desires, God knows that our spiritual needs are the most important things for us, so he makes them easily accessible to everyone by giving them to us through the means of his Word and Sacraments. As Jesus comes to us through these humble means to give us his grace, we join in singing the same words that the people of Israel sang as Jesus rode into Jerusalem to give them his grace, “Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”
Everything that Jesus did for us is far better than anything we could expect. Through his innocent death on the cross, he paid the price for all our sins. By his resurrection from the dead, he destroyed the power that death had over us. Jesus won the victory for us, and now, that victory is brought to us through the preaching of his Word and through the Sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The prize that awaits us is greater than anything we can comprehend, and that prize will be ours for all eternity. Jesus, our Messiah, may not have met our false expectations, but by coming to us in humility and giving us the eternal salvation that he won for us on the cross, Jesus surpasses our expectations.
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(picture from “Entry of Christ into Jerusalem” by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1320)
The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 1:19-28
In Christ Jesus, who “comes to judge the nations, a terror to His foes,” but “a Light of consolations and blessed hope to those who love the Lord’s appearing” (ELH 94, v. 10), dear fellow redeemed:
I imagine you have a busy week ahead. There will be gifts to wrap and food to make. Maybe there is more decorating to do and cards or letters to send. This is a time of preparation, a time to get everything ready for the big day: Christmas. Perhaps you hope to recapture the feeling of the season from when you were a child, or you want your children or grandchildren to have that feeling now. This is a special time. You want everything to be just right.
Advent is a time of preparation, but the focus is not especially on external things, what is happening around us. The focus is internal, what is happening inside us. The problem with internal things is that they are more difficult to control. I can spend hours wrapping gifts and make them just the way I want them. I can clean my house from top to bottom. I can put everything in its place around me and make it look like I have every detail covered. I can do all these things while being torn up inside by sadness, by pain, by guilt.
That might be where you are right now. That is why Jesus comes to you today. He comes to meet you in your struggle and lift your burdens from you. He comes to bring you forgiveness and hope, comfort and strength. He comes to assure you that you have a merciful Father who loves you and cares for you, and that in His Father’s house are many mansions where He has prepared a place for you (Joh. 14:2).
These are the things that Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, came down to earth to do. John was sent to prepare the people for His coming. He was the “voice” prophesied more than 700 years earlier by Isaiah, the voice who would cry out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (Isa. 40:3-4). How exactly was that highway making—that raising of valleys and lowering of mountains—supposed to come about?
The evangelist Luke writes that John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3). And John didn’t hold back in his Law preaching. “You brood of vipers!” he said to the crowd. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (3:7-8). Repentance was the way the people were to prepare for Christ’s coming. It was the way for their hearts and minds to become open to His gracious teaching.
And that is still the way we prepare for Christ’s coming: we repent of our sins. We repent of our valleys of doubt and despair, and we repent of our mountains of pride. But we wouldn’t know this was even necessary if God did not give us His Law. His Law is both written on our hearts and recorded for us in the Bible. There is no question what God’s will is for our lives. There is also no question that we have failed to live up to His Law—failed completely.
But the error we often fall into is measuring our holiness not against God’s Commandments, but against the lives of other sinners. And we can always find others who appear to be more sinful than we are. This is a trick of the devil to get us to think that we are not that bad, that our lives are pretty well in order. But if that were true, then why did Jesus come? Did He come to hang out with the righteous people, or to save sinners? Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luk. 5:31-32).
The holy Law of God shows us how sick we are. It shows us how bumpy our road was in the past when we disobeyed God’s commands and how bumpy it will be in the future if we give in to our sinful desires. And through the Law, the Holy Spirit works repentance in our hearts today. He moves us to contrition, to remorsefulness and sorrow, for the wrongs we have done—for the sins we have tried to hide and the sins we have committed right out in the open.
But repentance is not just about admitting sin. It is about avoiding the same temptations going forward. It is about not giving the devil an inch, because he will take a mile and usually a lot more. What good is repentance if you have no desire to stop sinning and do better? John said to the crowd, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” Show in your life how sorry you are for your sin and how you want to live for the God who made you and provides for you.
The people must have trembled when they heard John preach. He was great and powerful in their eyes. They trembled even more when he told them One was coming after him, “the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” “I baptize you with water,” said John. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luk. 3:16,17). In other words, “Don’t ignore my warning. Don’t let this fall on deaf ears. A far more powerful One than me is coming.”
John was a serious preacher, but it was not all gloom and doom. The baptism he administered was given for spiritual comfort. God’s Law was doing its work. The people were sorry for their sins. Now they stepped forward to the Jordan River desiring to receive God’s forgiveness. They believed what John said. They did not want to be caught unprepared when the Christ came. They sincerely wanted to “make straight the way of the Lord.”
But would the way be straight enough for Him? Would He be pleased with what He saw in them? Would they be worthy enough, welcoming enough? Those would have been natural questions to ask, but they were the wrong ones. We get sidetracked in the same way. We want to live our lives for the Lord, but then we focus more on our living than on the Lord. We focus more on our work than on His work.
But it is His work that saves. No matter how well or how much you prepare for Jesus’ coming to you now, it is not enough. You have fallen short of the glory of God. That is why God sent His only-begotten Son. Jesus came to perfectly do for you what you could not do. He had no need to repent, because He was sinless. He could measure His holiness against the Law of God, and it did not condemn Him. Those valleys of doubt and despair, those mountains of pride, could not be found in Jesus. He kept God’s holy Law for you down to the smallest detail.
And He put all your Law-breaking, all your sin, on His shoulders and invited God’s wrath on Himself to spare you from eternal punishment in hell. That is where the Lord’s greatness is most clearly seen—in His suffering on the cross. That is where His glory is found, hidden beneath a crown of thorns and behind all that anguish and shame.
You have a Savior who knows sadness. Isaiah described Him as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:5). You have a Savior who knows pain, who knows guilt, because He took all of yours on Himself. Isaiah says again, “[H]e was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace” (v. 5). This is the peace the incarnate Son of God came to bring, the “peace on earth” that the multitude of angels sang about the night of His birth.
It is the peace He wants you to have in this busy season no matter what troubles you, grieves you, or weighs you down right now. Jesus came for your sake. He came to save you. He came to redeem your soul by shedding His holy blood and remove your transgressions from you as far as the east is from the west (Psa. 103:12).
His forgiveness of our sins is why we don’t view repentance as a chore. Repentance is a gift worked in us by the Holy Spirit which prepares us to receive God’s greater gifts—the gifts of His righteousness, peace, and life. He gives these blessings to us now and assures us that we will have them forever in heaven.
So by the power of the Holy Spirit, we “Make Straight the Way of the Lord” today. We push away all doubt. We set aside all pride. We hand over to God everything that has caused anguish and pain to ourselves and to others. And our merciful Lord says, “I forgive you all your sins. I made payment for them long ago by My precious blood. All that I won for you, all that I have, I poured over you at your Baptism. There, I made you My own.”
Your Baptism into Christ means that even though you may feel empty at times, you are not empty. And even though you may feel alone, you are not alone. The Christ, your Savior, has come, and He still comes with gracious tidings of comfort and joy for you.
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(picture from “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1565)
The Second Sunday in Advent – Vicar Cody Anderson sermon
Text: St. Luke 21:25-36
In Christ Jesus, who says this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away, dear fellow redeemed:
We are at that point in time where my wife says, this is the most wonderful time of the year! Just me saying that and you can already hear the music in your head. We do always look forward to the holiday seasons. We are planning what we are going to make for food, what we are going to buy for gifts. It is great to look ahead for the holidays. Since we gauge things in time, there are other things on the calendar we look ahead towards. We look ahead to birthdays, anniversaries, vacation and the list goes on. With ourselves trained to look ahead for certain dates that are ahead, Scripture reminds us that there is a more important date that is coming up. It is a date that we are supposed to look forward to, we are supposed to expect it, yet we tend to forget about it. As we get excited to remember and celebrate Christ’s first coming, we should not forget about what Christ says about his second coming.
Jesus speaks very clearly about what is going to happen. Jesus says, “And there will be 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.” If that sounds very serious, then look around, these signs are happening. What Jesus says is happening. His kingdom is coming. The earth is only our temporary home. It will pass away. Now we could look at what is happening in the world and we could freak out. It seems like a lot of people are doing that already. Or we can listen to what Jesus says when it comes to the end of the world and prepare for His coming.
As the end draws near, God calls us to repent. Paul writes, that [God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:4) This happens with a contrite heart. We repent of our sins. Our sins are very serious and they have eternal consequences. The world doesn’t like that at all. Who likes to be told that they have done something wrong? For the world this is very despairing, so they try to stop and ignore the signs. They will try to save the dying world’s health. They will look for a worldly peace among the nations by treaties. They will try to control the climate. They will also see these signs and instead of prepare, they will be like in the days of Noah and act like nothing is happening. That Jesus second coming should just be ignored. Why should the world care about the signs that Jesus tells us when they can find something as great as their own self-worth. Now we see the outcome of the world rejecting the teachings of Christ. Jesus is telling us the truth, repent for the kingdom of God is coming, the world will end.
Unfortunately, Satan is crafty and he has a way of getting us to fall into the traps and worries of the world. Jesus tries to warn us. He says, “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth.” Due to our own stubbornness, we also fall into the traps ourselves. We see the problems of this life and we see how they affect us and we begin to worry. What will happen when the famine, pestilence, and wars hit close to home? So, we put our confidence in the powerful people of the world. Or we try to find help and comfort in worldly things that cannot save us. The temptations of the world will not go away quietly, the world shows us how noisy it is. It wants us to tune out the signs and the promises that Jesus has given us. It wants to distract us from what really matters and get us to focus on what is passing away.
It is so interesting that we look forward to so many dates and special occasions yet we lose focus on what Christ tells us. Talking about the end is coming directly from our Savior yet it is the hardest even for us to hear at times. We don’t like to hear when we are wrong. We don’t want to be corrected of our sins. If we stay in our sins, then we will be condemned with the rest of the world. Our hearts can harden, and if we die in unbelief or if we are without faith when Jesus returns, then we will join the devil and his demons in hell. The world is not prepared for Christ’s return, but we need to be. When we forget about repentance, then we have succumbed to the world and we end up not being vigilant. When we are weighed down by our own cares and anxieties, then we forget about the comfort in Jesus second coming.
As we get ready to celebrate and rejoice in the first coming of Christ, we also look forward to what is to come because Christ will come again in glory to take us to our heavenly home for all eternity! This terrible evil world will come to an end and we won’t have to stay in it. Because of Christ life and death on the cross, we don’t have to suffer the pains of hell. He will call us to our eternal home.
Advent is the season for looking ahead. We see how Christ came humbly into the world, yet we “will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” We needed him to come the first time because we needed a Savior from our sins. Jesus redeemed us from our sins of worrying. He takes away our sins that have distracted us from His coming. He gives us comfort that his Word will never pass away. This is the message of the Gospel, what Christ has done for us. When we fail and get worried about our future, Jesus gives us comfort that He has not left us and that He is coming soon.
Christians also look ahead to when Christ comes to us in the Means of Grace. This is Christ giving you the assurance that He is trustworthy. He is truth. Every week we hear the Word preached, the blessing of the Gospel of Christ in his Word. There is so much comfort in the Word of God. It tells you how Jesus redeemed you. You are a sinner who could not save yourself, and the Son of God took on flesh to sacrifice Himself for you. He died in your place, so that your sin and death would be overcome forever. He gives you these blessings of His redemption in the mysteries of Holy Communion. You look forward to this sacrament because here is the true body and blood of our Savior given to you for the forgiveness of your sins. This is the assurance that you have forgiveness of sins, life and salvation because of what Christ has done for you.
Verse 27 again says, “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” This is a glory that you will not have to fear. You can rest assured that when Christ comes on the last day you will rejoice in his return. There will be no pain or suffering. All of the trials and temptations of this world will be gone. Your tears will be gone. Your bodies will be glorified where Christ is the light of the world. This is the comfort that you have in His message. Jesus is telling you that believers will not have to worry. This is your eternal reward. Jesus’ kingdom will have no end.
Looking forward to Christ’s second coming, Jesus tells you how to prepare. “But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Here Jesus gives you the tools to be ready. You pray to him for the strength you need because you can’t stand on our own. Your strength to endure through this life comes from Christ, in what He did in his first coming. Living a perfect life, dying, rising from the dead, redeeming you.
Now our calendars can tend to be full at times and I know that everyone has been starting to fill in next year’s already. Christ keeps the real focus on him. That is where our focus needs to be. He wants us prepared for His second coming because we don’t know when it will come. When we get lost in time, we forget the date entirely. Christ keeps us sure of what is to come. Though life will get difficult, Christ is our comfort because of what he has done. Because of Jesus first coming, we can rejoice when the second coming is here. The world will try to distract us from Christ. It will try to convince us that His Words have no meaning. Jesus however says in verse 32, Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Amen.
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(picture from Jerico Lutheran Church stained glass)
The First Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 21:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who “comes [to you] with gladness, / Moved by His love alone, / To calm your fear and sadness, / To Him they well are known” (ELH 94, v. 7), dear fellow redeemed:
My wife and I have been working our way through a book about Abraham Lincoln’s thirteen day train ride to Washington D. C., where he would take the oath of office. While Lincoln made his way there, the united states were coming apart at the seams. Some states in the south had already seceded and had elected a new president for themselves. The federal government was floundering. Credible intel suggested multiple assassination plots to keep Lincoln from ever getting to Washington. It was an anxious trip.
At every stop along the way on a carefully designed route through the northern states, Lincoln was met by large crowds of people wanting to catch a glimpse of this iconic man. Whenever he stepped off the train, they surged forward trying to get as close as they could and maybe even shake his hand. They hung on every word he spoke. As humble as his upbringing was and as down-to-earth as he conducted himself, they treated him like a celebrity—maybe even like a king.
If you had been there in that tumultuous time, and you met Lincoln at one of his train stops, what would you have done? What might you have said to him? To this point, Lincoln hadn’t done much more than talk. Was he really up for the task of leading a country that was on its way to civil war? Was he truly the man for this moment? There were many hopes, but also many questions.
The coming of Jesus to Jerusalem was met with just as much excitement and just as many questions. The people knew Jesus was special. They had seen Him perform many miracles, including the raising of Lazarus from the dead not far from Jerusalem. They also knew that the Jewish religious leaders despised Jesus and wanted Him silenced. No doubt the Roman authorities were aware of these things, and they were anxious to maintain the peace and avoid an uprising, especially now that the city was jammed full of people attending the annual Passover celebration.
If you had been in Jerusalem at the beginning of that festival week, and Jesus came riding down toward you from the Mount of Olives, what would you have done? What might you have said? We know what the Israelites did. They removed their outer garments and cut branches from nearby trees, and they laid them on the ground in front of Him. They wanted to create a soft carpet for Jesus’ arrival. They wanted Him to know He was most welcome.
But while the donkey’s hooves may have fallen quietly on the path, the crowd was anything but quiet. The people who went before Him and those who followed Him were shouting and singing the words of an old song, perhaps as much as 1,000 years old. “Hosanna!” they cried, which means, “Save us, we pray!” “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
They were shouting the words of Psalm 118, a messianic song of victory. They believed the coming of Jesus was the fulfillment of these words. They welcomed Him as a king, “the Son of David.” Just what sort of king He would be was not clear to them, but they almost certainly had nationalist notions in mind. Jesus could lead them into a new era of earthly glory and prosperity, free from the rule of outsiders, like the rule of the great king David!
But Jesus was not that sort of king. By the end of the week, He stood before Pilate and said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Joh. 18:36). His kingdom was heavenly. He was looking to gain eternal souls, not earthly subjects. He would win them in a most surprising way. It would not be done by political deal-making, alliance building, or a superior show of strength. Jesus secured freedom for the captives by suffering. He brought them life by dying. He won everything for them by appearing to lose it all.
Jesus came to do what the people were crying out for, “Hosanna! Save us, we pray!” But it wasn’t salvation from corrupt religious leaders or pagan overlords. He saved them from their sin and death. It is rare and perhaps even impossible for an earthly leader to do something that benefits everyone. But what Jesus accomplished was for everyone. He suffered and died for everybody’s sins. He made no distinctions, played no favorites. Jesus was there on the cross for all sinners.
That means He was there for you. When Jesus received His crown of thorns and was pinned to that gruesome instrument of death, you didn’t exist. You wouldn’t exist for nearly 2,000 years! But God the Father saw the wrongs you would do and the good you would leave undone as clear as day. All sin was before Him, and He placed all of it on His holy Son. All your pride when things went your way, and all your impatience when things didn’t. All your bad decisions, your unfaithfulness, your brokenness. All of it was piled on Jesus, who suffered as though all of it was His doing, as though all of it was His sin.
Suppose you were employed somewhere, and you decided that you would do whatever you felt like doing. You broke the rules. You broke merchandise. You took whatever you wanted. When the losses couldn’t be ignored, the boss called everyone together. Now things were getting serious. How would you lie your way out of this one? But you didn’t have to. Even though the evidence strongly pointed to you, your innocent co-worker was accused instead. He was the one to be fired—not you. And he didn’t even open his mouth. He knew the truth, and he willingly took the punishment—took the punishment for you.
Knowing what your sin did to Jesus, knowing what He suffered in your place, what would you do if He met you here? What might you say? Part of you would want to try to justify yourself and pass the blame for your sins on to others. You were just a victim of unfortunate circumstances. Or maybe you would even have some criticisms of Him, that if He were a king more attuned to your daily needs and more aware of your troubles, you would not have struggled along like you had.
That would be no way to greet your King. But He would stand there patiently, looking right at you, a mixture of love and compassion and truth in His eyes. Then slowly He would lift His hands and turn them open to show two marks—marks from the nails. Those marks speak a message of perfect love, perfect sacrifice, perfect forgiveness, a message that can be boiled down to two words, “For you.”
Nothing more needs to be said. Nothing more needs to be done. Jesus died for you. He rose from the dead in victory for you. And He still lives for you. “I am with you always,” He says (Mat. 28:20). He does meet you here. He comes humbly, hidden in simple words, simple water, simple bread and wine. He comes through these lowly means to transfer all the wealth of His kingdom to you. He gives you His forgiveness, His righteousness, His life.
And when He comes in each Divine Service, you greet Him like the Israelites did outside Jerusalem. As the Israelites laid their garments at His feet, so you put off your old Adam in repentance and lay your sins before Him. That is how the Divine Service begins, with repentance. You tell the truth about yourself and put yourself at His mercy. And immediately you hear His words of absolution, the free forgiveness of all your sins.
As the Israelites also decorated the road with palm branches, so you sprinkle the path of your coming King with praises. You join the angels in their Christmas song, “Glory be to God in the highest. And on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” And as the Israelites repeated what they had learned about Jesus in the Holy Scriptures, so you listen to the Scripture readings and sermon and confess the truth about your King in the Creeds, acknowledging Him as the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.
Then in the service of Holy Communion, you even take up the Israelites’ hosanna song. Just before Jesus joins His body and blood to the bread and wine, you sing, “Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.” Then you hear Jesus’ invitation, “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you…. Drink of it all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins.”
The entire Divine Service is a review of what Jesus did to save you and what He still does to keep you in His kingdom. Your King is not ashamed to count you among His followers. He is happy to meet you and dispense His riches to you. He does not ask anything from you except that you trust what He tells you. And even this faith comes to you as a gift from Him.
He is not a king who forces His subjects to be devoted to Him and praise Him. He doesn’t have to force us. When we see all that He has done for us, we cannot help but give Him thanks and praise and desire to live our life in His service. None of it is good enough for Him, and He accepts all of it with gladness.
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(picture from “Entry of Christ into Jerusalem” by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1320)
The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 1:19-28
In Christ Jesus, who still speaks through wilderness men today calling sinners to repentance and comforting them with the unchanging truth of His forgiveness and salvation, dear fellow redeemed:
The priests and Levites who came to question John were sent by the Pharisees. The Pharisees didn’t know what to make of John. He was a strict observer of God’s Law, but he hadn’t learned it from them. He wasn’t one of them. So who exactly was he? Was he the Christ? Was he Elijah come back from heaven (Mal. 4:5)? Was he the Prophet of whom Moses spoke (Deu. 18:15)? John said, “I am a voice—the voice of one crying out.”
The Pharisees knew the Scriptures. They knew John was referring to the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah wrote about a voice crying out this: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (40:3-4). John was the “voice” in this prophecy, and he knew it.
He called out in the Judean wilderness, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mat. 3:2). Many did repent. They came from all over the region to listen to John and to be baptized by him in the Jordan River (Mar. 1:5). Not many people can attract a crowd like this. Professional athletes, famous singers, and prominent politicians can attract a crowd. But how far would you go to listen to a preacher who gave you the Law in full force? It seems like that would be a great way to lose a crowd. Why did John’s preaching have the opposite effect?
The people recognized that John had no ulterior motives. He was not like the religious leaders who loved “the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others” (Mat. 23:6-7). John didn’t seem to care one bit what people thought about him. He did not need their approval or their support. He was content in his camel hair clothes and with his locust-and-wild-honey diet. And most of all, he was convinced of his purpose. His calling was to “prepare the way of the LORD.”
So his voice rang out, “Fear God! Love your neighbor! Get ready, for he who is mightier than I is coming” (Luk. 3:16). His Law preaching was not some kind of scare tactic. It was for readying a highway in the wilderness, preparing a path for the coming King. The Law does the same work among us today. It prepares us for the coming of our King in His Word and Sacraments and for His coming on the last day.
God’s Law identifies all the things in our lives that stand in the way of our Savior’s coming. We might think we’ve got everything pretty well in order. But the Law puts the spotlight on the valleys that need lifting, the mountains that need to be brought low, and the uneven ground and the rough places that need to be smoothed out.
The valleys are those times when we shifted our focus from the sure promises of God and lost our spiritual bearings. We listened to the devil’s lie that we are in charge of our own destiny; we can do whatever we want. But when we did what we wanted, we didn’t find purpose and joy and clear direction for our life. We found heartache, sadness, guilt. The things we recklessly indulged in did not satisfy—they left us feeling gutted, empty. When we enter the valley of self-indulgence, we try to fill the voids and the longings that only Jesus can fill.
The mountains and hills that need to be made low are our prideful behavior and our judgmental attitude toward those we see as less or as lower than ourselves. This mountainous pride is exhibited when we hold long-running grudges toward others, and when we refuse to forgive someone who hurt us. We store up all the little wrongs that are done to us, while at the same time ignoring our own sinful words and actions. When we climb up on the high hills of self-centeredness, we lose sight of the humble sacrifice of Jesus and His continued coming to bring us forgiveness.
The uneven ground and the rough places are all the obstacles that slow down our growth as Christians and threaten to derail our faith. This happens when we fail to prioritize God’s Word and Sacraments and place higher importance on work or entertainment or even family time. We let the devil deceive us into thinking that we’re doing just fine, that all our pursuits are pure, that we have little need for regular repentance. When we take a detour onto the bumpy road of self-reliance and self-righteousness, we put our confidence in our own will and strength and not in Jesus.
We need to hear the voice of God’s Law ringing out in the wilderness of this world. We need it to jar us, to wake us up from our sinful ways, to show us that our focus isn’t always—or even usually—in the right place. We need it to expose the valleys, mountains, and rough places that make us unprepared for Jesus’ coming. But the Law can’t fix what is broken. It only diagnoses the problem. The Law of God declares you a sinner. It shows you how far you have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). It offers no hope.
But there is another Word from God echoing in the wilderness, a message of hope which John also preached. He did not preach the Law for its own sake, as though he were only concerned about the people’s outward behavior. He preached the Law, so they would recognize their sinfulness, and so they would eagerly look for a Savior. “That Savior is already here,” said John—“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.”
John quickly made that unknown One known when he pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Joh. 1:29). “There is the Lamb!” he said, “There is the sacrifice! There is the One who will carry your sins to the cross and pay the penalty in full! There is ‘the Prophet’! There is the fulfillment of Isaiah, the eternal God incarnate! There is the Christ!” “I am not the Christ,” said John, “I cannot save you. Only Jesus, the Son of God, can save you.”
And Jesus has saved you. He willingly took on Himself all your transgressions against the Law. He accepted the heartache, sadness, and guilt for your sinful self-indulgence. He put your prideful, self-centered behavior on His own shoulders. He humbly suffered the consequences for your self-reliance and self-righteousness.
He came to do everything according to the holy Law that you could not—lift up the valleys, bring low the mountains, smooth out the uneven ground and rough places. To do this, He passed through a valley into Jerusalem, carried His cross on a rough path out of the city, and climbed up a mountain where He died for your sins. All that you have done in your sin, He atoned for by His blood.
This sounds too good to be true, just as John’s exciting message must have seemed like a dream to those who heard him. Could it really be that the Christ was coming after so many years of waiting? Could it really be that the Christ comes now, even into this heart of sin? It is true, the Christ came in all lowliness and humility. And He still comes among us today. He comes through His Word and Sacraments, personally, to each one of us. He knows our sins. He knows what hinders our receiving of His grace. And He comes to make a way in this spiritual wilderness. He comes to make a highway in this spiritual desert.
He comes to comfort you and me, to speak tenderly to us of forgiveness and life. He comes to assure us that our sin is not counted against us anymore. God’s anger does not burn against us. After His death and resurrection, Jesus did not go to prepare a place for us in hell, but to prepare a place for us in heaven. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Joh. 3:17).
Jesus saved you. That doesn’t mean there are no more valleys, mountains, or rough places that need to be smoothed out in your life. Your life should consist of daily repentance, so you don’t grow comfortable in your sin. But even when you lose your struggle against sin, Jesus cheerfully comes with forgiveness. He has not given up on you and me. His Word of Truth Still Echoes in the Wilderness, and it still reaches our ears.
He continues to send out this message of hope to all who look to Him in repentance and faith: Comfort, comfort is yours in Christ Jesus. He has brought peace between you and God. Your warfare is ended. Your iniquity is pardoned. You have received from the LORD’s hand double for all your sins. The full inheritance of heaven is yours! (paraphrase of Isa. 40:1-2)
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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 – Vicar Anderson sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:2-10
In Christ Jesus, who through His Word, reveals himself as the Savior, that by believing in Him you would have eternal salvation, dear fellow redeemed:
The John we hear about in our text is John the Baptizer. John was prophesied as the Lord’s messenger, sent before Jesus, to prepare the way for Him (Mal.3:1). This was promised hundreds of years before Christ and now the time had arrived for this promise to unfold. There had been many prophets throughout history, but John’s coming was prophesied in the Old Testament. The coming of the Messiah is important and God required a forerunner, one who would make way for His coming.
John had the honor of physically baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River. He saw and heard God the Father pronounce Jesus to be His Son (Matt. 3:15–17). John testified that he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus as a dove and remain on Him (John 1:32). And when he saw Jesus approach him he proclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
John knew who Jesus was and faithfully preached about the coming of the Savior. So why, then, does he ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?”
Did John need confirmation that his job of preparing for the coming of Christ was successful and now finished? Or did he ask for the benefit of his disciples? So they would be encouraged and assured that Jesus was the one they had prepared for and the one they should now follow. Although we can’t know the exact motivation behind John’s question, we can understand why he would ask it.
When referring to Christ at an earlier time, John declared to his followers “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). He was to come before Christ but then he was to step back and Jesus was to step forward. This courageous forerunner of Christ knew what his duty was. His job was to make sure people were ready for Jesus’ coming. His preaching showed people their sin and their need for Jesus. He wanted to turn sinful people away from their sin, toward the one who would take their sin away.
In doing this John ruffled some feathers. Some people didn’t want to acknowledge their sin, but John didn’t back down. He called the religious leaders and teachers a “brood of vipers,” or in other words, newly hatched snakes. Not a very pleasant thing to be compared to and it’s hard to believe they would have taken this insult well. John boldly preached the Word of God and was not afraid to call sin anything other than what it was…sin.
As a result of his preaching, John was thrown into prison and while there he sent his disciples to Jesus with a question. His time there must have been weighing on him and we can sympathize with what John was experiencing. It’s possible he had some trepidation about what would happen to him next, or maybe he felt he might never make it out of prison. John was never released from prison and ultimately beheaded at the order of King Herod.
Picture being in the crowd that day standing around Jesus when John’s disciples came. Imagine the thoughts you would be having; “Could this really be the Messiah, the one promised long ago? Was He your Savior or should you continue looking for another?” John’s disciples had been concerned that Jesus was rapidly gaining followers and they wanted to know the reason (John 3:26). They wanted to know who this man was.
Even today, we doubt if Jesus really is how the Bible describes Him because to us it doesn’t make sense. Could He be born without sin and never sin in His life? We find ourselves in situations that can cause us to question our Lord. Is Jesus with us now, even though we feel terribly lonely? Does He see that we are struggling? Where is He when we have difficult decisions to make? If He was our Savior wouldn’t we be able to feel Him near us, or inside us?
So, we too ask; is Jesus here or shall we look for another? Our fears and doubts cause us to look frantically for the answer! Maybe we turn to our family for help, or our closest friends, or we latch on to someone else who seems to have the right answers. We look for evidence of Jesus inside of ourselves, thinking that is where He shows Himself. Sin affects each one of these options, not a single one of them is a perfect answer. Instead we should turn to what Jesus said and revealed about Himself, because all other options will fail.
In His answer to John’s question, Jesus quoted the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Written 700 years before the Savior would come and words John certainly would have been familiar with. Jesus answers John’s disciples saying, “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” (Matt 11:5–6).
Our Lord has the power and strength to do miraculous things. One time Jesus reached out His hand and touched a man with leprosy and He was immediately cleansed (Mark 1:40–45). At another time in His ministry Jesus healed ten lepers just by saying, “go and show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:11–19). Jesus restored the lifeless limbs of paralytics (Matt. 5:1–8) (John 5:1–9), and still another time, Jesus restored the lifeless body of His beloved friend Lazarus who had already been in the grave for four days (John 11:41–44).
Because of what Jesus was doing by His own power and authority, the blind were no longer stuck in darkness and the deaf no longer in silence. The good news of the forgiveness of sins was being preached to those in spiritual poverty, and those who believed in Jesus were blessed!
Jesus makes it clear that He is the one fulfilling what was promised in God’s Word. All those who are in need have no reason to look anywhere else because Jesus is meeting all of their needs. He rescues all who find themselves lost and in need of Him. Jesus does not offend a repentant sinner because, “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost”(Luke 19:10).
The response Jesus gave to John’s disciples would have brought tremendous amounts of joy to all who heard His Words. To all who were waiting for His anticipated arrival it would have brought relief and comfort. The one John had said was coming has truly come and He is here to save us from our sins.
Then Jesus, in His all-knowing wisdom, goes on to affirm for everyone that John is who he claimed to be as well. He says, “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,“ ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you’” (Matthew 11:9–10).
With these Words, Jesus builds up John’s reputation and He builds up John’s disciples. In proving John’s credibility, Jesus also encourages everyone who believed the message John had been preaching.
John was not a reed tossed this way and that by the wind (Matt. 11:7). He was not weak or watered down in his preaching, in fact he was willing to say the truth even if it meant he would make enemies or even lose his life. He held fast to the truth of God’s Word and it was convicting people.
People were going out to see John in the wilderness and many were being baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. It wasn’t because John was telling the people what they wanted to hear or impressing them with his expensive clothes and charming personality; he was simply preaching the truth.
The proclamation of God’s Word brings sinners to their knees in repentance and lifts them up again with the assurance that their sins are forgiven. It does the same thing in our lives as well. We hear God’s Word preached in church and it draws us close to our Savior. Nothing other than the truth of the message should bring us to hear His Word. John, the messenger of Christ knew that the Gospel changes the sinner’s heart, and this can only happen by hearing the message (Romans 10:17).
This truth must be preached even if it means we are hated for it. The truth that all people are helplessly stuck in their sin and the only answer is Jesus Christ. His Word humbles us, turning us toward our Savior, making our poor and needy heart into one that is rich and satisfied.
In His Word we learn that regardless of the wicked things we have done, there is one far greater than us who took those things upon Himself, to destroy them once and for all. So that by believing in Him, the Son of God, we may have life in His name (John 20:31). We don’t need to look anywhere but to our Savior Jesus Christ who brings lasting comfort and relief to each one of us.
The afflictions we face in our lives are meant to drive us to His Word. Directly to the feet of Jesus, where all our worry and despair subside, to the foot of the cross where all our anxiousness, doubt, and fear were destroyed. Jesus is by your side through all the hardships you endure. He has come to assure you of His love for you His beloved child, to comfort you with the forgiveness of your sin and to put to rest all your worries and fears.
We can be certain that Jesus is exactly who He says He is. “The One who is to come” has arrived and He is with you always, even to the end of the age (Matt 28:20).
“All praise, eternal Son, to Thee,
Whose advent set Thy people free:
Whom with the Father we adore
And Holy Ghost, for evermore” (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, 106: 5).
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(picture of Jesus healing a man with dropsy)