The Sunday after the Ascension – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 15:26-16:4
In Christ Jesus, our risen and ascended Lord who continues to prepare us and strengthen us for coming trials and troubles through His holy means of grace, dear fellow redeemed:
The night before His death, Jesus told His disciples that He was going away. He told them He was returning to the Father. At the time, they didn’t understand what this meant. They didn’t see why He should have to die and rise again and ascend into heaven. And now all these things had taken place. Jesus had gone away. He had ascended to the right hand of His Father. Now what?
Jesus had prepared them for this too. He said that a Helper would come from God the Father and God the Son. This Helper is the Spirit of Truth, God the Holy Spirit. He would come to teach the disciples all things and bring to their remembrance all that Jesus told them (Joh. 14:26). He would come to guide them into all the truth of God (16:13) and glorify the Son through this Gospel teaching.
Along with the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jesus told His disciples He was sending them to proclaim salvation to all nations (Mat. 28:19-20, Mar. 16:15-16, Luk. 24:47). They were witnesses of His mighty words and actions during the three years of His public work, and they saw Him alive again after His death on the cross (Luk. 24:46-48). They would tell the whole world what Jesus had done to save sinners, so that more and more would repent and believe.
Jesus promised these things before His ascension and now He had gone, but nothing had happened yet. The disciples knew it wouldn’t be long. Jesus ordered them to “stay in [Jerusalem] until [they were] clothed with power from on high” (Luk. 24:49). So the disciples waited. But they were not idle.
The evangelist Luke writes that they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (v. 52). “[W]ith one accord,” they “were devoting themselves to prayer,” and they “were continually in the temple blessing God” (Act. 1:14, Luk. 24:53). That’s a far cry from the terror they felt when Jesus was crucified. Then they hid together in an out of the way place, worrying that Jesus’ enemies would come for them next. But now they were “continually in the temple”—out in the open, no longer afraid.
How could the disciples not be afraid? Jesus had warned them that because He chose them out of the world, therefore the world hated them (Joh. 15:19). And, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (v. 20). In today’s text, He told them, “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.”
If you were in their shoes, would you be afraid? There are a lot of things that scare us, and death is near the top of the list. But can you think of anything you might fear more than death? In other words, is there anything you would be willing to die for? Jesus’ disciples believed there was. They were willing to die for the truth. They were willing to die for Jesus. They were willing to do this because they now understood what He came to do for them. They realized that He died and rose again to save them and all sinners.
Nothing would be worse than to lose Jesus, to lose their Lord and Savior. They feared that more than anything. Even when Peter and John were brought before the very men who conspired to kill Jesus, they declared, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Act. 4:20). We must tell the truth, they said, even if it results in our death.
That sounds simple, but it isn’t so simple in practice. We like to think we would respond heroically if someone ordered us to deny Jesus or die. We can picture ourselves defiantly speaking the truth. But what if the stakes were higher than your own life? What if the lives of the people you love the most were threatened? Would you deny Jesus to save their lives?
Hard questions like these are the reason Jesus warned His disciples in advance about trials. He wanted them to be ready for the difficult times to come. He said that these troubles would continue until His return on the last day: “[T]hey will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death,” He said at another point, “and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mat. 24:9-13).
“[T]he one who endures to the end will be saved,” He says. But how can we endure under such troubling circumstances? As much as we like to imagine ourselves as brave and bold, it is not hard to think of times when we let our fears get the best of us. When the truth was needed, we went along with the lie. When God called us to stand out, we tried our best to fit in. When a fellow Christian needed support, we hid ourselves away.
In this, we have something in common with Jesus’ disciples. They fled when Jesus was arrested. Later that same night when Peter thought his life was in danger, he denied even knowing Jesus. And all the disciples huddled together in fear. How did those timid men become so courageous? It was not by the strength of their faith or the strength of their own will. It was by the strength that God supplied them. He supplies the same strength to you.
A soldier on the battlefront gains physical strength from good food and drink. And when the battle is raging, he is strengthened by encouraging words from his superior, “Hold your ground! Take courage! Fight!” The same goes for the spiritual battle in which we are engaged. Jesus strengthens us with the nourishing food and drink of His own body and blood. And He strengthens us by filling our ears with inspired words. That’s how He prepared those first disciples for the conflict, and it is how He prepares us.
Just because Jesus ascended into heaven visibly, does not mean He is no longer with us. He still works among us and in us. He is with us always through His powerful means of grace. Wherever His Gospel message of salvation is proclaimed, He is present, right here and now, delivering His gifts.
And “the Helper” is with Him, the Holy Spirit, who bears witness about Him. The Holy Spirit confirms the truth of Jesus’ saving work in our heart and mind. He brings us faith to believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was for our sins, and that His resurrection from the dead was the victory over our death.
The continued presence of Jesus through His Word and Sacraments, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit through those same powerful means, explains the disciples’ new-found courage. This is why they were ready for the difficulties they faced. This is why they did not fear death. This is why when they were beaten for preaching the Gospel, they rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name [of Jesus]” (Act. 5:41).
You may be unsure if you are ready for this kind of suffering. And if you try to draw from some kind of strength and courage inside you or rely on preparations you have made, you will continue to doubt. God is the one who prepares you. He gets you battle-ready. Through Holy Baptism, He imparts the certain hope that His armor is covering you and that He will not leave your side in the battle. Through Holy Communion, He gives you the confidence that your strength will not fail, because He is in you to fight for you. And through the preaching of His Word, He gives you the courage of knowing that nothing can separate you from His love and mercy.
When the Lord gives you such hope and confidence and courage, then you are ready to suffer all things for the sake of His name and truth. You do not know what you will have to face in the future. You don’t know how the devil, the world, and your own flesh will conspire to destroy your faith. But you do know that the Lord is with you.
The disciples knew that too. Jesus was no longer visibly present, but He was still with them. They were not alone. They were not forgotten. You are not alone. You are not forgotten. Your Savior is preparing you even now for the trials and difficulties that lie ahead. He will not leave you to fend for yourself. He will strengthen you, and He will keep you in His constant care.
And at some point when the days He has numbered for you have all been counted, He will give you eternal relief from your current struggle here on earth. He will call your soul to His realm of glory and will let your body be laid to rest. Then finally the day will come that He has prepared, the day of ultimate victory, when He will return visibly with great power and will put an end to all conflict. Then in the flesh, made whole again and glorified, you will enter into the never-ending peace and gladness of the Father’s kingdom.
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 Stoning of Stephen” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Sixth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 16:23-30
In Christ Jesus, who came into the world from the Father to win our salvation, and who continues to advocate for us at the Father’s right hand, dear fellow redeemed:
When a little child wants something, he charges right ahead with his request: “Mom, can I have a cookie?” And if Mom says “No,” he takes one of two approaches. He either whines and begs, desperately hoping he will get what he wants. Or he goes and makes the same request of Dad: “Dad, can I have a cookie?” And what does Dad say? “Go ask your Mom.”
But when a child gets older, the strategy improves. An older child has a better sense of when to ask for something, how to ask for something, and who to ask for something. You know how this works. You wait until your parents are in a good mood. You make your request politely, possibly making the case for why you should get what you want. Maybe you convince your sibling to make the request, thinking their odds are better than yours. You choose the parent who is more likely to say “Yes” than the other.
And if you get a hard “No” from one, you try to get the other to see the good reasons for your request. If you are fortunate, perhaps Mom will speak to Dad on your behalf and get him to reconsider. In that situation, you needed a mediator. Whether it was one of your parents or a sibling, you needed someone to go between you and the person with the authority.
For the salvation of our souls, we needed mediation between us and God. But there was no favorite sibling we could turn to on earth to patch things up with Him. We are all sinners. We are all equally guilty of disobeying His commands. The mediator had to be designated from God’s side, not from ours. Jesus is that Mediator. He is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity. And He is also true Man, born of the virgin Mary.
What is interesting about Christ’s role as Mediator is that God wants reconciliation with us. It isn’t like the embittered couple looking out for his and her own interests in divorce court with a mediator trying to keep things peaceful. God wants to be one with us. He wants to be our merciful Father, and He wants us to be His children.
We could not make this peace with God. The idea that we can mend what is broken with God, that we can set our wrongs right, is at the heart of all false religion. Even thinking it is possible for us to fix things with God shows that we don’t realize how far we have fallen. We don’t realize how far apart we are from the holy God. God demands our perfection at all times, perfection in what we do, perfection in what we say, perfection in what we think. Jesus states it plainly, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mat. 5:48).
But we can’t imagine this command is so hard and fast. Why would God demand what is impossible for us humans to accomplish? So we try to bring God down to our level. We say that because He loves us, He must be willing to overlook our imperfections. He must be happy to meet us where we are and to accommodate Himself to us. This is totally wrong. God is God! He doesn’t take orders from us. He doesn’t play by our rules. He is the all-powerful, all-holy God, the Maker of heaven and earth.
We cannot raise ourselves up to God or make Him come down to us. But He can do this. He can lower Himself to us and raise us up to Him. He accomplished both of these things by sending His only Son to become a man. The Son of God came in the flesh to be our Perfection—to keep the holy Law in every detail. He came to be our Redemption—to suffer and die for all of our wrongs. And He came to be our Reconciliation—to bring us eternally back together with God.
Jesus did all the work of our salvation. We do none of it. Our righteous standing before God is because of Him. The full forgiveness of our sins is because of Him. Our victory over death is because of Him. “All this is from God,” writes St. Paul, “who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2Co. 5:18-19).
Jesus was not forced into this or tricked into this. He did it all willingly. He wanted to obey His Father’s will even if it meant such suffering and torment. Jesus wanted all sinners to be saved. His sacrifice in our place is the reason God the Father looks upon us with favor. With Jesus as our Reconciler, our Mediator, nothing separates us from the grace and glory of God.
Our dear Father in heaven loves to attend to our needs. He loves to hear our prayers. We don’t have to worry about catching God on a good day or select only the best pray-ers to make our requests. Because of what Jesus has done for our salvation, each and every child of God can boldly and confidently bring their needs and concerns to Him. Jesus says, “Truly, truly—Amen, Amen—, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you.”
But maybe you find it hard to ask. Maybe you don’t think you are very good at it. Others seem to pray so naturally, while you fumble around looking for the right words. God does not mind if your prayers lack polish. He doesn’t mind if you speak in fragments, or if your thoughts jump all over the place. He listens just as carefully whether you pray for ten minutes or ten seconds. He does not grow tired of your praying. He loves you.
Jesus says that “the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came from God.” You can be sure of the love of God the Father because you trust in the One He sent to save you. When you pray “in Jesus’ name,” you acknowledge that Jesus accomplished everything His Father sent Him to do for your salvation.
By the words, “in Jesus’ name,” you also confess that Jesus is still your Advocate at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. He Is Your Tireless Mediator. Jesus prayed often during the time of His public work on earth. He prayed that God’s will be done even if it required His suffering. He prayed for His disciples that their faith would not fail. And He still prays for you.
Every time you pray “Our Father,” remember who taught you that prayer. The Lord Jesus taught it, and He prays it with you—“Our Father,” He said. In this way, Jesus sanctifies your prayers to the Father. Your prayers, though they come from your imperfect heart and mind and pass through an imperfect mouth, are perfectly presented to the Father in Jesus’ name. Like all of your imperfect works, your prayers are cleansed by the blood of Jesus and are therefore acceptable to your Father in heaven.
We don’t fully grasp the privilege of prayer. The God who rules over all things invites us poor sinners to speak to Him about anything. What’s more, He promises to hear those prayers and answer them. We don’t pray for sinful things that only have to do with our own selfish gain. We pray “in Jesus’ name,” in view of all that He did to save us. This means praying with humility, knowing that we deserve nothing good from God. And we pray with thankfulness, since our eternal life and joy have been secured for us by our Savior.
There is no good reason not to pray. We might use the excuse that we are too busy to pray, or that God is too busy to hear us. But neither of those things is true. Our opportunities for prayer are endless. We don’t have to wait until we are alone in the quiet, kneeling at our bedside. We can pray at any time and in any place. Jonah prayed from inside the slimy belly of a fish!
Christians who don’t pray are like beggars standing across the street from the soup kitchen waiting for food to be brought to them. Christians who don’t pray are like choir members who don’t sing. “Ask, and you will receive,” said Jesus, “that your joy may be full.” Even if we don’t receive exactly what we ask for on our timetable, we rejoice that God listens to us. He is for us, not against us. Jesus tirelessly presents our needs to the Father, and through the gifts of Jesus, our Father in heaven is constantly working all things for our good.
Some people pray to the saints and the angels. Some invoke dead relatives to come to their aid. We pray to the “God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6). We pray “in Jesus’ name,” because He is our “advocate with the Father” (1Jo. 2:1). “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1Ti. 2:5-6).
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 “Jesus and the Little Child” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Third Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s “Here I Stand” at the Diet of Worms
Text: St. John 10:11-16
In Christ Jesus, who is with us even while we walk through the valley of the shadow of death (Psa. 23:4), dear fellow redeemed:
Why do we have to be sheep? Jesus refers to us in this way not just in today’s text but many times in the New Testament. Why couldn’t we be horses, powerful and stately? Or lions, strong and self-sufficient? Or eagles, graceful and independent? Sheep are not like this at all. They are not impressive creatures. They are weak and vulnerable. They cannot easily survive alone or for very long. They need to be protected and cared for. Why does Jesus call us sheep?
Because Jesus tells the truth. He doesn’t try to make us feel better about ourselves or get us to rely on ourselves more. He tells the truth about our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, about the many enemies surrounding us, about our need for His continuous protection and care. He calls us sheep because the picture we have of these lowly creatures is the picture we should have of ourselves.
But for all their deficiencies, sheep have positive qualities too. Sheep are loyal to their shepherd. They are not fooled by the voice of another no matter how much he tries to coax them away. Sheep know the voice of their shepherd, and they follow him willingly and faithfully. They know their shepherd will not lead them to harm. They know he will lead them to good food and drink. They trust that he will protect them. If they lose sight of him, they cry out and keep crying out until he comes to their aid.
This is what Jesus promises to do for us believers, His sheep. These promises are expressed so clearly in Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul” (vv. 1-3, KJV). Jesus says that He is the Shepherd who does this for His sheep. “I am the Good Shepherd. I know My own and My own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.”
Jesus is no hired hand, one who is not invested in the sheep. He loves His sheep so completely that He values their lives more highly than His own. When David volunteered to fight Goliath, he said to King Saul that sometimes a lion or a bear would come and snatch a lamb from his father’s flock. A hired hand wouldn’t mess with a lion or a bear! But David said, “I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him” (1Sa. 17:35). This is how much the sheep mattered to David.
And you matter even more to Jesus. He knows the fierce enemies arrayed against you: the “ravenous wolves” of the world who would pull you away from Him (Mat. 7:15), that roaring lion, the devil, who “prowls around… seeking someone to devour” (1Pe. 5:8), and the jaws of death like a grizzly bear which relentlessly hunts its prey. This world is not a safe place for sheep!
But you have a strong, fearless Shepherd. Day and night, He watches over His flock. In pleasant pastures or dark valleys, He gives you His full attention. And even when it seemed that the sheep would be utterly destroyed, when enemies closed in on every side, He did not back down. He let sin, death, and devil take hold of Him. He let them sink their teeth into Him. It was the only way to save the flock, the only way to save you. “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”
Jesus laid down His life for you on the cross. He became a Lamb like you, so He could give Himself in your place. By His death and His resurrection, He overcame the wolfish world (Joh. 16:33). He crushed the devil’s scaly head (Gen. 3:15, 1Jo. 3:8). He swallowed up death itself and destroyed its power forever (Isa. 25:8).
This is the Shepherd who constantly watches over you. His enemies still want to sink their teeth into you, but they aren’t about to go near your Good Shepherd. As long as you are in His care, listening to His voice and following His lead, you are safe from their attacks. Jesus will never leave you alone to fend for yourself. He will not forget to guard and protect you. He speaks comforting and assuring words to you and refreshes you through His holy Word and Sacraments. He promises that through these means, He will be “with you always, to the end of the age” (Mat. 28:20).
This was Martin Luther’s comfort 500 years ago today (April 18, 1521) when he stood before the most powerful government official in Europe, Emperor Charles V. He had been summoned to an assembly of princes and other representatives meeting in the German city of Worms. Luther’s teachings were not the main reason for this four-month-long meeting, but because of the effect of the Reformation movement across the land, the teachings of Luther had to be considered in some way.
Luther traveled to Worms with the understanding that he would be able to discuss the things he had written. But when his “time in court” came, he was asked just two questions: “Are these your books?” And, “do you reject the heresies they contain?” The emperor and his advisers weren’t interested in a discussion and certainly not a debate with Luther. They wanted to silence him and stamp out the Reformation before it spread any further.
Luther was like a lamb surrounded by a pack of hungry wolves. He knew what he was facing. He could cave to the emperor’s demands, reject his own writings, and save his skin. Or he could take a stand, confess the truth, and be condemned as a heretic—maybe even be burned at the stake.
Jesus had predicted moments like this. He said to His disciples then just as He says to us now: “For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mar. 13:9-11).
And so the Lord guided Luther as he stood before the emperor. Luther would not compromise the clear Word of God for the sake of peace. He would not bow to the powers of the world, though all were arrayed against him. He said: “Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of the Holy Scriptures or evident reason (for I believe neither in the Pope nor councils alone, since it has been established that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures adduced by me, and my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God, and I am neither able nor willing to recant, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. God help me! Amen.”
“God help me!” he said. Luther did not stand up for the truth by his own strength. He knew he was just a little lamb. In fact, the last words he wrote before his death were, “We are all beggars; this is true.” But his death did not come in 1521 when Luther stood before the emperor. He died of natural causes about twenty-five years later. The Lord spared the life of this lamb, so that he could continue to point people to salvation by grace through faith in Jesus.
We are some of those who have benefited from Luther’s stand. The pure Gospel message has been passed down to us, and we pray that it is passed on to many more after us. We need to continuously hear the reassuring voice of Jesus through His Word. We need to hear that despite our weaknesses and sins, He still loves us and forgives us. He has not run out of patience toward us but still watches over and fights for His precious sheep.
It is easy to doubt that our Good Shepherd will care for us like He says He will. It seems that the enemies against us are too many and too strong. We are afraid of what they may do to us. Their threats cause us to become silent and hide ourselves. But even when we have stopped calling out to Jesus, He does not stop calling out to us.
“My sheep hear my voice,” He says, “and I know them, and they follow me” (Joh. 10:27). He calls us back to Him through His gracious Word. He calls us to find refuge and strength and courage in Him. He knows our troubles and fears. He knows our struggles. He knows our sins. He knows us better than we could ever know ourselves. “I know My own,” He says, “just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father.” He knows you as deeply as the Father and the Son know each other in the Godhead.
When you cry out to Him in anguish, even if you don’t know how to ask for what you need, He knows. He hears your cry. And like the Good Shepherd who rescues his sheep, Jesus saves you. He prepares a table before you in the presence of your enemies; He anoints your head with oil; your cup overflows (Psa. 23:5). “I give them eternal life,” said Jesus, “and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (Joh. 10:27-28).
“God Help Me!” prayed Luther. And God did. God wants the truth of His Gospel to be proclaimed to the whole world. He sends the help that we sinners need most of all, which is deliverance from all evil and a safe transport to His eternal kingdom.
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 “Martin Luther at Worms” by Anton von Werner, 1877)
The Second Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 20:19-31
In Christ Jesus, who took our sins to His grave and rose from the dead with forgiveness, life, and peace for us, dear fellow redeemed:
When the ancient Pharaohs were buried, they were buried with all sorts of treasures and provisions. The tomb of King Tut contained over 5,000 items including a solid gold coffin, weapons of war, furniture, food, and clothing. The Egyptians believed they would need all these things in the afterlife. But ultimately those treasures lay unused until robbers or archaeologists found them. The Pharaohs were buried with great plenty but never lived again to use it.
Jesus was put in a tomb with nothing but burial cloths and the spices that accompanied them. The Jews did not believe like the Egyptians that earthly things could be taken into the eternal realm. The Jews believed that death was death, so they assumed that the amazing work of Jesus was over and done. They would not see Him again on earth.
Suppose they had believed Jesus’ promise that He would rise again. What do you think they would have buried with Him in the tomb? Maybe some food and clothes? Some ointment for His wounds? If they had believed His promise, I think they would have wanted to be there in the tomb with Him, waiting and watching for Him to start breathing again.
But His disciples did not believe, not yet. Today’s text describes what happened on the evening of Easter. Jesus had risen from the dead early that morning and appeared to several women who came to the tomb expecting to find His dead body. He had spoken to two of His followers on the road to Emmaus. And at some point that day, He had also appeared to Simon Peter.
But none of these appearances coaxed His disciples out of their fear and hiding. They remained huddled together in an out-of-the-way place in Jerusalem. They felt completely lost without their confident Leader. They probably tried to remember the things He had told them, but none of it seemed to do much good now that He was gone. They almost certainly felt ashamed for boasting that they would fight with Him to the death before deserting Him when He was arrested. As much as they would like to be with Him again, how could they bear to look Him in the eye?
Then suddenly Jesus was standing right there in the room, right in their midst! We expect the first words from Jesus’ mouth to be something like, “Now do you believe?” or, “Why didn’t you listen to what I said?” or, “Why are you here hiding?” But the first words from His mouth were, “Peace to you!” Jesus was not concerned about punishing His weak disciples or hatching a payback plan against those who beat Him and crucified Him. He did not come to “take names” or to “take revenge.” He came to give, to give gifts.
His sacrificial death brought peace with God. If Jesus had not suffered and died for our sins, we would still be opposed to God. We would be His enemies, and His wrath would be turned toward us (Rom. 5:9-10). Because we have proven ourselves to be no more faithful than the disciples. We wonder why they didn’t believe when Jesus told them He would rise again. But others could wonder why we haven’t lived the way God has told us to in His Ten Commandments. God always speaks clearly and truthfully, but we do not always listen to and follow Him faithfully.
We don’t deserve to have peace with God. But “Peace!” is what Jesus declared when He rose from the dead. He made peace by going to the cross and shedding His blood in payment for our sins (Col. 1:20). This is why He said, “It is finished!” just before He died (Joh. 19:30). But those words would have been empty if Jesus had not risen from the dead. He could have said whatever He wanted and made whatever promises, but none of them would have mattered if He stayed in the grave.
His resurrection proved that He truly was the Son of God and that His work to save sinners was complete. His empty tomb shows that peace was made between God and sinners. God is not at war with us. He wants to empty tombs, not fill them. He promises that all who trust in Jesus as their only Savior will rise just as Jesus rose. St. Paul writes that He “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 4:25-5:1).
So Jesus rose with a message of peace for His disciples. It wasn’t the first time He had promised them peace. Shortly before His death, He told them, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Joh. 14:27). And how did He find them just a few days later? With troubled and fearful hearts (Luk. 24:38). But “the things that [made] for peace” had been accomplished (Luk. 19:42). He had died and risen again. The peace of His forgiveness and life was not dependent on their actions or attitude. The “Peace!” He declared was a gift coming from His saving work.
It was a gift He wanted others to have too. “Peace to you,” He said again. “As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you. What a strange thing! The disciples might have expected Jesus to disown them for their weakness and faithlessness. Instead He commissioned them to bring His message of peace to the world.
Then we come across a detail in our text that causes us to scratch our heads a bit. St. John writes that after declaring “Peace!” for the second time, Jesus “breathed on them.” We don’t usually think of getting “breathed on” as a positive thing. Think back to when you were a kid. Did you ever tell your brother or sister to go away and stop breathing on you? And in our year of facemasks and social distancing, getting “breathed on” was avoided by people around the world.
But Jesus breathed on His disciples. His breathing on them was tied directly to the words that followed, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon them, so they would be equipped to bring His peace to others.
One Lutheran commentator argues that Jesus did not breathe on each disciple individually but on the group as a whole. If it had been individually, He would have done the same for Thomas when He appeared again a week later. But this breathing out of the Spirit was not just for these special individuals; it was for the Church of all time (The Wenzel Commentary, p. 792).
Jesus has given the Church the authority to forgive sins or to retain sins. This is called the “Office of the Keys.” To those who are sorry for their sins and believe in Jesus as their Savior, the Church declares “Peace!” We tell them that the door to heaven is open to them because of what Jesus has done. But for those who are not sorry for their sins, the Church cannot declare “Peace!” Peace was won for them by Jesus, but the unrepentant reject it by denying their sins. Until they admit their sins, heaven is closed to them.
No one can make another repent of their sins and trust Jesus’ Word of peace. It is not in our power to change hearts. But God can. He does this transformative work through His Word. Wherever the Word is, God the Holy Spirit is active. Jesus clearly tied together the message about what He had accomplished with the ongoing work of the Spirit. And we see the effect His Spirit-filled Word had on His disciples. They went from anxiety and doubt to comfort and confidence.
The Holy Spirit does the same for you when you hear the powerful Word of God. Through the Word and Sacraments, Jesus comes right here in our midst. He comes to you in the midst of your troubles and sorrows and doubts, and He says, “Peace to you!” He breathes His rich blessings of forgiveness and life upon you by sending the Holy Spirit to you. The Holy Spirit assures you that everything Jesus did was for you.
Anyone can know the facts about Jesus’ death and resurrection. But knowing the facts alone does not save you. You are saved by believing that Jesus’ death and resurrection were for you, that He reconciled you eternally with God, that He won your freedom from sin, death, and devil. This gives great comfort as you struggle along in this life and are afflicted by anxieties and fears. Jesus triumphed over all your enemies and continues to bring you the comfort, hope, and strength of His victory.
Those Pharaohs stored up treasures in their tombs out of greed and selfishness, but all of it was taken from them. Jesus took no riches into His tomb, but He emerged with wonderful gifts to give. Jesus gives these gifts every time you partake of the Word and Sacraments in church and as you encourage one another in personal conversation.
Wherever Jesus’ Word of peace is declared, the Holy Spirit is working to turn doubts into confidence and sorrows to gladness. The gifts of Jesus bring peace to our troubled hearts and prepare us to depart this world in peace to join Him in heavenly glory.
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(picture from “Doubting Thomas” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872
The Festival of the Resurrection of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad exordium and sermon
Is your faith worthless? Many say that it is. They say faith is for the weak-minded. Faith is what people hide behind to remain in their ignorance. Faith is based on feelings while reason is based on facts. When faith is mischaracterized like this, it is a fairly easy target.
But what is faith exactly? Faith is trust. It is taking someone at their word. It is believing that something will happen or be done even if it is outside our control. Everyone operates by faith to some extent. A child believes there will be food on the table tomorrow because there was food on the table today. An employee believes he will be compensated for his work again just like he has been compensated in the past. So faith is not based on feelings at all. It is based on promises and often on the evidence of what has taken place in the past.
The same is true of the Christian’s faith. Our faith is based on the promises Jesus made and on what He accomplished. But why Him out of all the significant people in history? What sets Him apart from all the rest is that after He died—a death that was verified by professional soldiers—, He came alive and left His tomb. This is what makes Jesus unique. He died and then He came back to life.
What makes it even more amazing is that Jesus predicted His resurrection in advance. This was not like picking the winning team in the NCAA tournament or calling a home run with the point of a bat. Those things are humanly possible. Jesus did something impossible. He conquered death itself. Death was able to hang on to Jesus for parts of three days, but only because He let it. He made a mockery of death. He took all its power away.
Jesus didn’t do this for His own benefit. He did it for you. He died and rose again for you. He died to make payment for your sins, and He rose to claim victory over your death. “All of this is yours by faith,” He says. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Joh. 11:25-26, ESV).
So your faith is not worthless. It is not evidence of weak-mindedness, and it is not based on your feelings. It is based on the facts of what Jesus said and what He did. Because He is risen from the dead just as He promised, your sins are all forgiven and eternal life is yours (1Co. 15:17). We now rise to sing our exordium hymn, “He Is Arisen! Glorious Word!” (#348):
He is arisen! Glorious Word!
Now reconciled is God, my Lord;
The gates of heaven are open.
My Jesus died triumphantly,
And Satan’s arrows broken lie,
Destroyed hell’s direst weapon.
Life He giveth—
He was dead, but see, He liveth!
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Sermon text: St. Mark 16:1-8
In Christ Jesus, whose resurrection proves that He is who He claimed to be, dear fellow redeemed:
When the women set out early Sunday morning, they expected to find a dead body. There were no doubts about it. They saw Jesus die on the cross, and they saw Joseph take Him down and put Him in a tomb. They felt totally helpless and hopeless. The most remarkable person they had ever known was gone. They had followed Him all the way from Galilee listening to His comforting words and witnessing His wonderful works. And now He was dead.
They weren’t ready to let go. The only thing they could think to do was bring spices after the Sabbath to give Him a more proper burial. After that, there were no answers, no guarantees, only more questions. We know how this feels. We know what it’s like to lose someone who was such a big part of our life that nothing could be the same for us again. We don’t know what to do next, so we focus on the present—funeral preparations, paperwork, sharing memories with family and friends.
But as the women approached the tomb filled with grief and focused on the task at hand, they looked up and saw something unexpected. The stone that they didn’t know how to remove had already been rolled away! Did someone know they were coming? Did others have the same intentions they did? Or was something more sinister going on? The women didn’t know.
They stepped carefully through the doorway and looked around the dim interior. On the right side of the tomb, they saw a man, but it wasn’t Jesus. Today’s text describes him as “a young man clothed in a long white robe.” The evangelists Matthew and Luke include more details about him. They say that his appearance was “like lightning,” and that his clothes shone like snow in the bright sun (Mat. 28:3, Luk. 24:4). It’s no wonder that the women were alarmed!
This “young man” was really an angel of God, a messenger sent to deliver news that the women did not expect to hear. “[Jesus] is risen!” said the angel. “He is not here…. [T]ell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.” The women were full of sorrow when they made their way to the tomb. Now they rushed away from the tomb and back to the city with trembling and amazement.
Just two days earlier, Jesus had been crucified while the prominent religious leaders and Roman officials looked on with approval. Jesus’ disciples went into hiding. They figured they were next. Those were dark days. But with the report of the women came a glimmer of hope. Could it be? Could the Lord who raised Lazarus from the dead actually raise Himself?
It is surprising that the news from the women caught them off guard, and that they doubted it. Jesus told them this would happen! At least three times prior to Holy Week, Jesus told the disciples He would die and then rise on the third day (Mar. 8:31, 9:31, 10:34). As recently as Thursday evening, He said that He would rise from the dead and meet His disciples in Galilee (Mar. 14:28). He was not lying. He was not speaking figuratively. He was telling them the truth.
Jesus always tells the truth. He does not lie. Everything that He predicted would happen did happen. His death and burial was the greatest test of His truthfulness. If He did not rise from the dead on the third day, all of His promises would have been proven false. They would have died right along with Him. But by rising from the dead, everything He claimed about Himself and everything He promised was verified. Who can argue with someone who defeated death itself?
Jesus’ resurrection is the great dividing line in all of human history. If you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then you are obviously going to pay attention to what He said. His resurrection gives authority to His Word. On the other hand, if you believe that Jesus did not rise from the dead, then you will not care about His Word at all.
We see the difference very clearly in the way believers and unbelievers deal with death. When an unbeliever loses someone, a gaping hole opens up in their heart that nothing can fill—not food or alcohol or revisiting old memories or looking for some evidence that the spirit of their loved one is still with them. Their loved one is gone, and there is no reason to think they will ever be reunited again.
Christians likewise feel the pain of death and the void that is left. But they have somewhere to take their pain, and they know where to find peace. They take their pain to Jesus. He knows the pain of death. He endured it Himself, and He also wept at the death of a close friend. He invites us to bring our pain and grief to Him, and He promises to give us comfort and rest. He knows our pain, and He knows how to relieve it.
He calls us to hold tightly to His promise of life even when a casket is lowered into the ground. It appears that death is the end for someone we love. But Jesus says, “No. This is just a sleep. This is only temporary. The soul of your loved one is safe with Me. This child of God will rise just as I rose. Because I live, you also will live” (Joh. 14:19).
The resurrection of the faithful, including your own resurrection from the dead, is promised and sealed to you on Baptism day. At your Baptism, Jesus rescued you from the kingdom of darkness and brought you into His kingdom of light. He applied His saving work to you by bringing you the forgiveness He won on the cross, and by covering you in His righteousness through His perfect fulfillment of the Law. You went to Baptism bearing the blame of sin inherited from our first parents and deserving eternal death. But you emerged from Baptism a new creation, walking in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-4).
Baptism united you with Jesus, who will never die again. That means His resurrection victory and His unending life are yours. It sounds unbelievable, too good to be true. But then again, so did Jesus’ promise that He would rise from the dead on the third day. Jesus kept that promise, and He will keep the promise He made to you at your Baptism.
The baptized who die in faith truly do “rest in peace.” They remain in the grave only for a short time, and then they will come to life again. On the last day, our gravestone flowers will be no more necessary than the women’s burial spices. With a shout from the mouth of our Lord, all the tombs will be emptied, and all believers in Him will come forth in glory. Then our sorrow over death will eternally cease, and we will live on forever and ever and ever.
This is your comfort as you grieve the death of those who have gone on before you. And it is your comfort when you one day face your own death. Jesus did not stay in the tomb. He rose just as He said He would. Because He kept that promise, you can believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that He will raise you and all the dead on the day of His glorious return. Jesus has promised to do this, and He always keeps His promises.
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(picture from Jerico altar painting)
The Sunday after The Ascension – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Peter 4:7-11
In Christ Jesus, who when He ascended on high led a host of captives and gave gifts to men (Eph. 4:8), dear fellow redeemed:
On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember some of the major battles in America history and the heroic people who fought in them. To prepare them for the violent conflict to come, the commanding officer would remind them why they were there. He might invoke the principles of freedom, justice, and the cause of good to inspire them. He would urge them to take courage and not be afraid of the enemy. If each man did his part, victory would certainly be theirs.
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, He mustered His “troops” and gave them their “marching orders,” so to speak. His objective, however, was not physical conquest. The battle they were to engage in was a spiritual one. Their success and victory would not come by way of the sword, but by way of the Word. They were to make disciples for Jesus by baptizing and teaching all nations (Mat. 28:19-20). To equip them for this Jesus said, “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now,” and “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Act. 1:5,8).
Then Jesus was taken up from them into heaven. What was their next move now that their mighty Lord was no longer visibly present to lead them? They returned to Jerusalem and devoted themselves to prayer (Luk. 24:53, Act. 1:14). At this time, they certainly didn’t look like a force to be reckoned with. Their number was small, and no one expected much from them with Jesus out of the picture.
But then the Holy Spirit came upon them, which we will hear more about next weekend. On that Pentecost day, 3000 repented of their sin and were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The number of Christian disciples increased day after day, which alarmed the Jewish religious leaders and the governmental authorities. The Jewish leaders wanted the apostles to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. When threats did not work, they turned to violence (Act. 5:40). With their blessing, Saul led a persecution against the Christians beginning with the stoning of Stephen.
From the secular side, King Herod was also concerned with the growth of the Christian church. He wanted no unrest in his kingdom and wanted all honor and glory for himself. He did not want some Christian uprising to threaten his earthly authority. Herod got wrong what so many godless rulers have since. They see Christianity as a physical threat that must be suppressed by physical force. So Herod “laid violent hands” on some Christians and “killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Act. 12:1-2). He was glad to see that this pleased the Jews. But he was afraid of a violent reprisal from Christians. When he arrested the apostle Peter, he put him in prison and ordered four squads of soldiers to guard him.
And what were the Christians doing when this happened? Were they drawing up plans to sneak into the prison and overcome the guards? Were they sharpening their swords and knives for an attack? St. Luke writes that while Peter was in prison, “earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (Act. 12:5). That was the Christians’ response to this violence and trouble: they prayed. God answered their prayers for deliverance and sent an angel to release Peter from his chains and from prison.
Some years after this, Peter would record his First and Second Epistles. In today’s text from his First Epistle, he outlines what we might call “Marching Orders for the End Times.” The end times began when Jesus ascended into heaven. On that day, two angels told the disciples not to “stand looking into heaven,” and that Jesus “will come in the same way as you saw him go” (Act. 1:11). They told them He would return, but not right away.
Nearly 2000 years have passed since then, and Peter’s words are just as present and pressing now as ever: “The end of all things is at hand.” We are to live in expectation of Jesus’ return. We should constantly prepare for the last day. The clock is ticking. Our time and the world’s time are running out. But how exactly should we stay prepared?
We must “be self-controlled and sober-minded.” This means not letting the devil, the world, and our own flesh cloud our thinking. This happens when our plans are more important to us than God’s plan, when earthly riches mean more to us than heavenly riches, when personal pleasure and self-satisfaction keep our focus more than hearing God’s Word and doing His will.
We do not work to clear our minds of this clutter simply to feel more at peace or to “center ourselves” like the Eastern religions teach. We want clear and sober minds “for the sake of [our] prayers.” A mind distracted by worldly pursuits is not focused on the Lord and His promises. But when the Holy Spirit clears our minds by the power of the Word, we are ready to pray for our needs, for our fellow believers, and for all others. Time spent in humble prayer to the merciful God is never time wasted.
Besides prayer, God also calls us to “love one another earnestly” and to “show hospitality to one another.” Unbelievers generally expect believers to think and behave like they do, and in our sin we often do. But our light shines in the dark world when we do the unexpected. The world expects people to look out for themselves, to hold grudges, and to seek revenge. But God’s children love their neighbors as themselves, they forgive wrongs done against them, they respond with kindness when someone lashes out at them in anger or spite.
Peter writes that “love covers a multitude of sins.” If there were no love in us, think how many sins we could hold against others, big sins and little sins. The list would keep getting longer and longer. But then think how many sins God could bring up against us. We can’t imagine how long that list would be. No one has committed more sins against us than we have committed against God. And it’s not even close. But His love, in Christ, “covers a multitude of sins”—in fact, His love covers all of them.
This is what makes us willing and eager to take “marching orders” from the Lord. We know what He has done for us. We know the battle He had to fight to save us. We know what it cost. The God-Man Jesus had to suffer the eternal fires of hell in our place. He had to accept the full payment of God’s wrath for sin. He had to die.
If He was willing to do that to redeem you, to redeem me, that means we are not expendable in His eyes. He’s not going to send us to the front lines in a futile attempt to slow the enemy’s advance. He leads the way into battle. He fights for us and with us. He destroys the devil’s plans through His powerful Word, which motivates and guides our prayers and our lives of love. Wherever our love falls short, as it often has, His does not. His love covers over and hides our sins. Because our sins were put on Jesus, our heavenly Father does not find them on us anymore.
Forgiven of our sins, we are now able to approach the Father’s throne in confident prayer and to share His love with those around us. By His grace He bestows gifts upon us to use in service to others. But what gifts do we have? They are different for every person. No two people are alike in every way, having the same interests and abilities.
The Lord has equipped each of us in our vocations, our callings, to serve the people in our lives. What drives some people to serve is the recognition and thanks they receive. And if they are not recognized, they regret their service. But the good things we are able to do are not our own. We did not make these good things possible. We are not in control of their success.
God gives us our particular gifts like a master gives his goods to a servant. The servant does not take credit for the goods. He did not earn them or build them up. They belong to his master. He is simply a steward of the goods. He is given the job of management. So however the Lord has equipped you and whatever good you do, the glory belongs to Him and not to you. You are a steward of the gifts God graciously gives. You do not need to seek recognition for the things you do. You already have God’s approval in Christ, who lived a life of perfect love and service in your place. That perfect life is credited to you by faith in Him.
So these are the Christian’s Marching Orders for the End Times: pray, love, and serve in the name of Jesus. This kind of life will put you at odds with the world, which means you should expect to suffer. But you will not suffer alone. Your great and mighty King is with you in the conflict. He strengthens you when you are feeling faint and weak and are not sure you can carry on. He graciously forgives you and reinstates you by His Word of absolution when you fall into sin and desert your post. And He promises to relieve you from this struggle at the appointed time. He will come again in the same way the disciples saw Him go to take you to be with Him forever.
Not much has changed since the time that Peter wrote his epistle. The enemies are the same, and the sufferings and sorrows of this battle are the same. But our Lord’s commitment to us is the same too. His power to overcome whatever rises against us and His love and care for us as we struggle is unchanged. His promise to be with us and strengthen us is unchanged. His triumph over the forces of evil arrayed against us is unchanged.
We are safe and secure in Him. We are on the winning side. He has given us the victory by faith in Him, and we will soon have our rest in His heavenly kingdom. “To Him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
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(picture from “Jesus Discourses with His Disciples” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Sixth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: James 1:22-27
In Christ Jesus, whose Word is truth and whose Way is salvation, dear fellow redeemed:
For many in our society, “religion” has become a dirty word. When they hear this word, they think about things like restriction, corruption, abuse of power, rules, and judgment. They do not like “religion,” but they do like the sound of “spirituality.” This has led many today to speak of themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” What this typically means is that they reject church-going, since that is “organized religion.” They prefer to meet God on their own terms. They think it is important to think about God, but how you think about God is up to you. The so-called “spiritual” person imagines that he is closer to God in nature or even on his living room sofa than he could ever be in a church building.
To a certain extent we can understand the misgivings about “religion.” We cannot deny that much harm has been done to people within organized religion. Some church leaders have abused their power and their trust. They have failed to warn the unrepentant and to comfort the hurting. Some church members have engaged in grudges, personal attacks, and mud-slinging and have hardly looked like the people that God has called them to be.
The self-proclaimed “spiritual” are glad to avoid that scene. They aren’t about to have anyone tell them what to believe or what to do. They don’t need a “middle man”—they can just go directly to God. But who is this god? Many in the “spiritual but not religious” category describe him as a god of love, a god who supports them, who is always there when they need him. He does not judge them but gives them room to make their own choices. He is a god who cares more about their feelings than their faith—how they feel about themselves, how they feel about others, and how they feel about him. In other words, this god is a god of their own making, which is ironic since they reject “religion” as being man-made.
It is true that there are many man-made religions in the world. “Religion” is a rather broad term. One definition describes it as: “The outward act or form by which men indicate their recognition of the existence of a god or of gods having power over their destiny, to whom obedience, service, and honor are due” (Webster’s 1913 Dictionary). One could argue that every person has a religion—a set of beliefs about the universe and their place in it. But not all religious beliefs are the same and not all are good and true.
We follow the Christian religion, which is based on the Bible. Christianity is like other religions of the world in that it teaches about God and sets down laws to follow. But in its central teaching, Christianity could not be any more different. The religions of the world outline what we must do to hopefully get right with God. Christianity is about how God made things right with us by sending His only Son to suffer and die in our place.
This is why you are a Christian. You know you are a sinner, and that no matter how hard you try, you cannot make things right with God. You know that you deserve eternal punishment in hell for your sins. But you also know that all your sins are forgiven because Jesus paid for them in full on the cross. You know that all the blemishes and stains of your past are completely covered by the righteousness of Jesus. You know that eternal life in heaven is yours by faith in Him. No other religion offers such comfort and peace with God.
The good news of Christianity is also the power source for living a godly life. As we hear the Word of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is at work in us strengthening our faith and sanctifying us, so that the love of God shines through us into the world. The devil does not want the world to know God’s love, so he works to make our love grow cold. He tempts us to become complacent about hearing and learning the Word, to let down our guard, to focus on how others should serve us instead of how we can serve them.
This can happen even to those who regularly partake of the means of grace like you are here today. Even though you hear God’s Word and receive His Sacraments, you can become comfortable doing what God tells you not to do. You can ignore the needs of the people around you. You can become resentful when your needs are not met. You can give free rein to thoughts of hatred, jealousy, lust, and pride. And all of this while still considering yourself a “good Christian.”
This is why the inspired writer of today’s text urges believers in Christ to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” God has called us out of the darkness of unbelief to the light of His truth and salvation. Through Holy Baptism, He joined us with our Savior Jesus, so that we now “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). We are not what we used to be. We are not of the world. We are born of God.
There are plenty of people who give organized religion a bad name. We want to give it a good name. But how? “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Christians have set themselves apart throughout history by the way they have treated the lonely, the weak, and the hurting. They have often led the way in medical care, education, and social services. They have sacrificed their own ambitions and put their own lives at risk in service to others.
This is what God calls us to do as His children. He calls us to dedicate ourselves fully to love for others, to live humble and honorable lives that lead others to know the hope we have in Christ. What better time could there be to share this hope than now? The world is consumed by fear about what the future will hold. “Will I or my loved ones get sick? Will I have enough money to buy what I need? Will the economy rebound?” And then there is the constant bickering and name-calling among those who are convinced their political party is guided by angels while the other is steered by demons.
What do we have to fear since Jesus has defeated sin, death, and devil for us? And why would we put our hopes in men when our Lord and Savior rules over all things at the Father’s right hand? This courage and confidence we have in Christ is what we want all people to have. We want them to know God is filled with abundant grace and mercy toward them. He does not count their sins against them anymore because Jesus died in their place and rose again from the dead. He will come again on the last day to take all who trust in Him to heaven.
This is no man-made religion. These are no empty words. These are the words of salvation and life that God has given us by His grace. But the people of the world will not listen to these words unless we take them seriously. They don’t just want to hear us “talk the talk,” they want to see us “walk the walk.” You can tell them that you go to church every week. But if the way you live your life is no different than the way unbelievers live their lives, why should they take your words seriously?
But “walking the walk” is not easy. People do not appreciate their bad behavior being magnified by your good behavior. It’s easier on their conscience if you join them in evil. And then there is the constant struggle inside ourselves between the desires of our flesh and the desires of the Spirit (Gal. 5:17). It is hard to keep the sinful nature restrained.
Thanks be to God we are not on our own in trying to do what is right! Unlike the misguided people who think they can find God by their own efforts or thoughts, we know that we cannot go to Him. Our sin keeps us from even getting close. But He gladly comes to us. He comes to us through the Word and Sacraments which we partake of in this place. He comes to forgive us for our failure to confess Him by our words and our actions. And He comes to strengthen us for continued service in His kingdom.
This is how your “doing” as a Christian is always connected to your “hearing” of God’s Word. As you hear the powerful Word with a humble and faithful heart, the Holy Spirit is working to put your faith in action. He is the one who produces good works, good words, and good thoughts toward others. It is by His power that you look to serve others instead of just yourself, that you speak what is kind instead of what is hurtful, that you are guarded from the temptations and forces that would ruin your faith.
It is only by His power that you are able to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mat. 5:44), as Jesus calls you to do. One of the most important ways for you to be a doer of the word and not a hearer only, is through prayer. Much “doing” is done by prayer, because prayer brings a difficult situation or a need to the all-powerful God, the One for whom nothing is impossible.
You are not on your own as you “walk the walk” of a godly life. You have the encouragement of your brothers and sisters in Christ as they walk alongside of you. And you have the assurance that Jesus is leading the way. He walked before you to the cross and the grave before rising to life again. And he still walks before you to guide you on the paths of righteousness until you join Him in His heavenly kingdom.
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(picture from “Jesus and the Little Child” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: James 1:16-21
In Christ Jesus, the Father’s greatest and most perfect Gift, who by His death and His resurrection to life again has brought salvation to our souls, dear fellow redeemed:
It’s planting season! Besides the farmers at work in their fields, I’m sure many of you have been at work in your gardens. You prepare the ground and dig in seeds, and before long those seeds sprout up and grow into large, food-bearing plants. You have a part to play in bringing those plants to maturity. You water as needed, and you clear out weeds that would choke them. But ultimately the plants grow on their own, while you watch God’s magnificent creation in action.
n Mark 4, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” (vv. 26-28). Just as God is the one who makes plants grow and brings a crop to maturity, so it is with our faith. When the seed of the Word is planted in someone, God is the one who makes it grow and produce.
This is what we hear about in today’s text. James writes about who is working, how He works, and what effect His work has. In the verses before our text, he mentions “the rich” who think that their success is due to their own ability or effort or strength. But their riches cannot save their souls. They will fade and die like wildflowers do. “For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes” (Jam. 1:11). The self-made and the self-reliant fall down as quickly as they rise up.
They do not realize that “[e]very good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” We forget that too. Often it takes the loss of our good things before we realize what we had. We don’t appreciate our health and strength as much as when we are sick or injured. We don’t appreciate work until we are out of a job. We don’t appreciate the blessings of home or possessions until they break down. We don’t appreciate family and friends as much as when they are gone.
All of these good gifts are from above, “coming down from the Father of lights.” This is a title for “God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” (Apostles’ Creed). He “separated the light from the darkness” (Gen. 1:4) in the beginning and created “the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars” (v. 16). Just as the sun, moon, and stars keep shining day after day, so the bright beams of God’s love continue to shine upon us as He cares for us.
But as committed as He is to providing our “daily bread,” our heavenly Father especially wants us to have the “bread of heaven.” He wants us to have faith in His Son Jesus, because only faith in Jesus saves. To bring us this faith, the Father sends out the Holy Spirit. Jesus spoke about the Spirit’s work in the Holy Gospel for today: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (Joh. 16:13-15).
“[T]he Spirit of truth” guides us into “all the truth” through “the word of truth.” This is what Jesus asked His Father to do for the disciples: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (Joh. 17:17). Our spiritual life depends entirely on God’s Word of truth. His Word not only informs us what He has done for us, but it also imparts His blessings to us. Today’s text says, “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth.” It was God’s choice to bring us forth by His Word. This was not by our will; we did not choose God. Our will could choose nothing but evil; “we were dead in our trespasses” (Eph. 2:5).
The Holy Spirit planted faith in our hearts and continues to nourish it and make it grow by the powerful working of His Word. This Word of truth gave us new life as the apostle Peter writes, “[Y]ou have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1Pe. 1:23). A plant cannot grow without a seed. It may seem small and insignificant, but a seed contains all the genetic information necessary to grow the plant and produce its fruit. The Word of God may also seem small and insignificant—nothing special. But the seed of the Word is at work in us causing us to grow as fruitful children of God.
Of all God’s creatures, we believers in Jesus are the “firstfruits.” We are the beautiful produce of the Lord’s great harvest. The Father “brought us forth by the word of truth” because He wanted us to share the victory and glory of His only Son. Jesus was planted in the tomb after His death, and no one expected Him to spring forth alive. But He did on the third day. He rose again from the dead showing that death was defeated for all people. This is why we bury the departed saints with hope and why we plant flowers on their graves. It is because we wholeheartedly believe that the seed of the body planted in the ground will come forth with great power and glory, never to perish again (1Co. 15:35-44).
The Word that we hear today is preparing us for that day. So we ought to “be quick to hear” and “slow to speak.” A person’s knowledge does not expand by listening to himself speak, but by listening to others. The same goes for faith. We cannot make faith stronger by our thoughts, words, or wishes. “[F]aith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). A plant must receive to grow—water, sunshine, heat—, and it cannot grow without them. So also we grow by drinking from the living waters of God’s Word and soaking up the light of His grace.
But there are things that stunt our spiritual growth, that cause damage to our faith. A plant suffers when weeds choke it, when bugs attack it, and when its roots do not sink deeply into the ground. One of the things that chokes faith is our anger and bitterness toward one another. We refuse to forgive wrongs done to us, and we feel justified in returning evil for evil, whether toward family members or neighbors. The devil and the world also attack us with temptations toward “filthiness and rampant wickedness,” to put our sinful desires before anything else. Our sinful habits and our neglect of the life-giving Word keep the roots of faith from sinking more and more deeply.
We cannot work ourselves out of our sinful state any more than a rich person can buy his way out of death. That is why God must give His good and perfect gifts from above. The best gift He gave was the gift of His only Son. We sang about this in the hymn before the sermon, a hymn written by Martin Luther:
He spoke to His beloved Son:
“’Tis time to have compassion.
Then go, bright Jewel of My crown,
And bring to man salvation.
From sin and sorrow set him free;
Slay bitter death for him, that he
May live with Thee forever.”
(Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, #378, v. 5)
Jesus let the weeds of our sin choke Him, the devils attack Him, and death strike Him. But none of these things could destroy Him. He destroyed them, so that we could grow up in Him and bear fruit in His name. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” He said. “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Joh. 15:5).
We abide in Him by faith in His promises, and we remain in faith by abiding in His Word (Joh. 8:31). So James urges the readers of his epistle to “receive with meekness the implanted word.” Many words are planted in us that we remember long after they are spoken. We think especially today about the words of instruction, advice, encouragement, and love from our mothers which still guide us. But even more powerful than that is the implanted Word of God.
It was no mistake that you were brought to faith through the powerful Word. God plants with purpose, and He constantly cultivates and tends what He caused to sprout inside you. He planted His Word of grace and forgiveness and life deep in your heart. He wants you to know His love for you, and He wants to keep your faith growing.
Like a mature plant, the stronger and healthier faith is, the more fruit it produces. But if faith is not fed by the Word, it will weaken and eventually wither up and die. This is why James urges us to “receive with meekness the implanted word”—receive God’s Word of grace gladly and with humble and repentant hearts—because “the implanted word… is able to save your souls.”
So we will not be deceived by other “products” that promise to do more for our spiritual life than the words of the Bible. We desire no better or more perfect gift than the life-giving Word of the mighty God, who has surely promised: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:10-11).
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(picture from Jerico Lutheran Church)
The Fourth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Peter 2:11-20
In Christ Jesus, who walks with us in our suffering and comforts us with grace and peace for the present and the promise of a perfect life after this one, dear fellow redeemed:
A month and a half ago, our state officials prohibited gatherings of more than ten people, so we stopped holding regular services. Since that time, you and I have been worshipping in our homes, and we have done what we could to stay connected through the internet, phone calls, and mail. Now our state officials have lifted restrictions in our county while still urging us to take certain precautions. So here we are back in church.
That begs the question: who is in charge of the church and of our local congregation in particular? Are we required to close our doors every time the government tells us to? This question would be easy to answer if the governing officials ordered us to stop preaching God’s Word. Then we would have to “obey God rather than men” (Act. 5:29) and ignore the order. But the current case is not like that. The government imposed restrictions across society to try to protect the population and keep it safe. Protecting the population is a proper function of government which Christians support.
So where exactly should the line be drawn between church and state? They can’t be totally isolated and kept apart, or else you and I would have to choose one side or the other. But we are members of both. Martin Luther and others have talked about them as the “two kingdoms.” The church is the kingdom of God’s right hand where the emphasis is on grace and forgiveness. The state is the kingdom of God’s left hand where the emphasis is on law and justice. Without the kingdom of the left, we would live unhappy lives in anarchy and chaos. Without the kingdom of the right, we would live without hope and the promise of a better life after this one.
But living simultaneously in these two kingdoms can be tricky, as we have seen in the last few weeks. The Christians who first read St. Peter’s First Epistle did not have it any easier. In fact, they lived at a time of severe persecution by the Roman authorities. Many Christians were killed for their faith, and if the history is accurate, Peter was martyred in Rome also. I am sure it happened that non-Christians turned in their Christian neighbors to the authorities simply because they did not like them or because they hoped to gain from their deaths.
And what advice did Peter send to these Christians “under fire”? He told them to suffer patiently, to be kind, and to honor the authorities. This sounds like a different Peter than the one who was so ready to use his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane. At that time Jesus told him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mat. 26:52). Christians have the right to use their voice as citizens in our country, but we are not called to use physical violence to get our way.
Peter learned this lesson, and now he reminded the recipients of his letter that they are “sojourners and exiles.” They and we are not to imagine that the sinful world is our permanent place of residence. It is tempting for all of us to get more caught up in our rights as citizens than in our righteousness as saints, to pin our hopes on political activism rather than on the promises of God. We are only “sojourners” here; we’re just passing through. Ultimately, St. Paul writes, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phi. 3:20).
And that is why we can live without fear even while a new virus rages through our country and the rest of the world. We are not desperate to hang on to this life for the sake of this life. Whether it is tomorrow or next week or next year or many years from now, our death will come if Jesus does not return first. We can embrace that death when it comes because Jesus has conquered death and forced it to serve His purposes. Now death is the dark doorway that leads us into the bright and glorious realm of heaven. There we will be not “sojourners and exiles”; we will be permanent citizens.
But we are not in heaven yet. While we are here, we have responsibilities to our neighbors, including our neighbors in the government. Peter writes that we should submit or “be subject… to every human institution… that by doing good [we] should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” We are not motivated like so many others are by power or money or fame. Those are earthly things that cannot last. The whole world is caught up in the pursuit of these empty things.
What we have is far better. We have righteousness, redemption, and salvation. We have forgiveness, hopefulness, and life. We have freedom in Christ—freedom from our sin, freedom from the curse of the law, freedom from death. What are the fleeting things of the world compared to these eternal things? Christ has broken us free from these chains. So Peter urges us to “[l]ive as people who are free.”
But how can he say at the same time “live in freedom” and “submit to the authorities”? It is because both things—heavenly freedom and earthly authority—come from the same source. Peter writes, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,” “[live] as servants of God,” be subject to masters while being “mindful of God.” We submit to our authorities not because we fear, love, and trust in them above all things, but because we fear, love, and trust in God. We recognize that He has established the earthly authorities. As Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (Joh. 19:11).
But what happens when the authorities behave badly, and instead of punishing the evil and praising the good, they do the opposite? Then they have clearly abused the power God has granted them, like when they persecuted and killed those early Christians. And while it is proper to point out corruption and sin even when committed by ruling officials, yet they are still to be respected and honored—not for their own sake but “for the Lord’s sake.” Our eyes are always on Him. Good rulers and bad rulers come and go, but “The LORD of hosts is with us” (Psa. 46:11), and He isn’t going anywhere.
It is so easy to forget this. We forget that the Lord reigns, that He is in control. We are often looking and hoping for a perfect leader on earth, a new “messiah,” who will set everything right. Or we let a bad ruler shake our faith in the providence of God. We are so quickly caught up in these “passions of the flesh, which wage war against [our souls].” We don’t want to take the humble path. We don’t want to face trouble. We don’t want to suffer. We want things to go our way and on our timeline.
Our pride and selfishness are exactly the reasons God needs to humble us. This is why He lets trials and hardships come our way. He wants us to remember that He is the Lord, and there is none like Him. The unbelieving world in the midst of a crisis may put its total confidence in human ingenuity, medicine, or financial security. But these are temporary solutions that cannot save us. At best, they can only push off the inevitable.
Only the Lord can save, and He does save. Like you, I don’t know what the future will look like. I don’t know what illnesses, injuries, or hardships may come to us or to the people we love. I don’t know how many days the Lord has numbered for us, whether many or few. But I do know this: Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, has redeemed us with His holy, precious blood, and with His innocent suffering and death. He took the humble path. He willingly faced trouble and anguish. He obeyed His Father’s will all the way to the point of His death.
He did this so that we would have forgiveness of all our sins, no matter what stains are on our past. He did this so we would have strength to face our trials knowing that He understands our suffering. He did this so we would have life whenever our present troubles come to an end. Jesus’ death accomplished all these things, and His resurrection assures us that these blessings are ours. We do not follow a leader who had the ability to inspire but couldn’t deliver on his promises. We follow the Lord Jesus who is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.
This is why we freely submit to those in authority over us “with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.” We do this out of love for the Lord, who has commanded us to behave in this way. We don’t know how He will use our humble example and honorable conduct. Perhaps it is to draw others, including government officials, to His saving grace so that that they will join us in glorifying God on the day of Christ’s return.
So in all things and at all times, We Serve the Lord. We take up our crosses daily and follow Him (Luk. 9:23). We go about our work “heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). And we take comfort that it is He who keeps us safe. It is He who blesses our work. It is He who holds our present and our future. It is He who saves us and will take us to be with Him in His heavenly kingdom.
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(picture from “Christ before Pilate” by Mihály Munkácsy, 1881)
The Third Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Peter 2:21-25
In Christ Jesus, who protects His sheep and guides them through the difficulties of this life, so they are safely brought to the peace and joy of heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
It feels good to do good things for a neighbor. We are glad to lend a helping hand, to make a burden lighter, to be a blessing in someone’s day. But I’m sure you can think of times when you tried to do good for others, and they did not appreciate your efforts. They may have even blamed you for the very problems you were trying to help them with! That hurts. It can make you feel like a failure. If you dwell on it enough, it can also make you bitter and angry at the person who rejected your good intentions and good deeds.
The apostle Peter writes about situations like this in the verses just before today’s text. He said that when you suffer for doing good and you endure the suffering by faith in Jesus, “this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (2:20). He does not tell us to seek revenge, to inflict the same pain on others that they have inflicted on us. He tells us to patiently endure suffering with our eyes fixed on Jesus.
We look to Jesus who through His suffering “[left] us an example, so that [we] might follow in His steps.” Sometimes we suffer because of wrong choices we make or bad things we do. So if we are caught stealing something and are sent to jail, or if we purposely harm someone and they retaliate, that is suffering we bring on ourselves. Jesus did not suffer for things like this, because He never did anything wrong.
That is why He is such a powerful example for us. He only did good things for people. He only did what was helpful and noble and right. It seems like that should have caused everyone to love Him and have great respect for Him. But not all appreciated His goodness, such as a number of the scribes and Pharisees. Their standard of righteousness was different than God’s, and they did not think Jesus measured up. They charged Him with violating the holy law. They even accused Him of being an agent of Satan and having a demon.
These attacks gained a fresh intensity and violence during Holy Week. After He was arrested, Jesus endured physical and verbal abuse from the religious leaders and the Roman soldiers. They could not charge Him with a wrong, but they were glad to see Him suffer. He could have responded by unleashing the mighty angels against His attackers. He could have taken them all on by Himself, and not one would have been left standing.
But He did not do this. Peter writes that Jesus did not revile those who reviled Him. He would not stoop to their level. Nor did He threaten while He suffered. He took the suffering quietly, not lifting His voice or even opening His mouth much at all. Instead He “continued entrusting Himself” to His heavenly Father—“to Him who judges justly.”
This is the pattern to follow while we suffer. Our impulse is to hurt those who hurt us, whether they are family members, co-workers, or others in the community. Isn’t that how we dealt with our siblings in our younger years? “If you hit me, I’ll hit you.” “If you take something from me, I’ll take something from you.” It’s not that we should forego justice and let everyone walk all over us. But we should not take revenge into our own hands. Instead we entrust ourselves to “Him who judges justly,” like Jesus did.
But why should we behave in this way? Why should we let people off the hook and deny our own sense of justice? Why should we try to be like Jesus, as if that were even possible? Those are fair questions. It is true that we can hardly be compared with Jesus. We are nowhere near as good. We cannot come close to His level of righteousness. Even the best things we do are tainted by sin.
The reason we try, the reason we want to do better, is because of what Jesus did for us. Today’s text says that “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree.” This is why Jesus willingly and patiently suffered. It was to save you. It was to make atonement for all your sins. God had every right to hold your sins against you. His law is perfect, and you broke each one of the Commandments. But God the Father held these transgressions against His Son. Jesus endured God’s righteous anger for your sins, so you would be spared.
He suffered for every harsh or unkind word you have spoken and for every act of revenge you carried out in your anger. He suffered for all the times you took justice into your own hands and did not trust the Lord to do it. Jesus did this so that sin would neither define you nor overcome you. The blood He shed wipes your slate clean. His blood also cleanses you from the sins others have committed against you. He was reviled, attacked, and abused, so you could find relief in Him when you are wronged. “By His wounds you have been healed.”
Jesus suffered and died to give you a new life. He took your sins on Himself, so you could live in His righteousness. Because His righteousness is yours, you are free to do good for your neighbor without the need to be recognized, appreciated, or thanked. Those friendly responses are encouraging things that make us feel better about our service. But the Lord calls us to do good for the sake of good, to be kind for the sake of kindness, to show love for the sake of love. We do for others as Jesus did for us, freely and joyfully, no matter how our efforts are received.
But isn’t there a point when “enough is enough”? Peter wondered this. He asked Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” That sounds reasonable. Many people won’t even forgive once—seven times is pretty generous! Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Mat. 18:21,22). He told Peter that our love for others should have no limit.
That is hard for us, and the Lord understands our struggle. That is why He not only comforts us when our love is rejected, He also strengthens us to carry on. He works these things in us through His means of grace, through His powerful Word and Sacraments. These are the “green pastures” and “still waters” where we find rest and restoration. This is where our Good Shepherd leads us and feeds us.
You and I have felt the hunger of having to go without this spiritual nourishment in regular divine services. We have had to be content with hearing the Word in our living rooms. We long to come together again to receive the Lord’s Supper and to encourage and be encouraged by our fellow congregation members. If we took these things for granted before, we don’t take them for granted as much now.
But even though our spiritual routine has been interrupted, our Good Shepherd continues to care for His sheep. He meets you in your home whenever you read and meditate on His Word. Through the Word, He leads you to daily repent of your sin and to return to His “paths of righteousness.” Even if you are quarantined in your home right now, the Lord is with you. He will not abandon you, His sheep.
Today’s text says, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” You and I have often strayed into sin and given in to our worst impulses. But again and again God turns us back to His grace. Jesus is the Shepherd and Overseer of [our] souls.” Like a shepherd who won’t leave even one little lamb behind, Jesus does not want to lose one soul for heaven.
He is totally committed to saving you from the eternal destruction that so many bring upon themselves. They are destroyed because they reject His salvation. Maybe they chose the pleasures of the world over the promises of His Word. Or they did not believe they needed saving. Or they thought it was up to them to get themselves to heaven by their own efforts.
Jesus is “the Shepherd of souls.” He and only He can save. It is only by His work that a soul can enter heaven. If a shepherd told a lamb to go from here to another place 100 miles away where it had never been, the lamb could not do it. How could it know the way? Jesus does not tell us to find our way to heaven on our own. He leads us there. By Baptism, He brings us through His death and resurrection and continues to apply His grace to us through Word and Sacrament.
By continuing to listen to His Voice, We Follow in the Steps of the Shepherd. His Word strengthens our faith in Him and strengthens our love for each other. His Word guides us through the good times and the bad. His Word keeps our soul safely in His care and comforts us on our journey. Our Good Shepherd is with us “all the way,” as the hymnwriter says it so well:
I walk with Jesus all the way;
His guidance never fails me.
Within His wounds I find a stay
When Satan’s pow’r assails me,
And, by His footsteps led,
My path I safely tread.
In spite of ills that threaten may,
I walk with Jesus all the way.
(Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary #252, v. 5)
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(picture from stained glass window in St. John the Baptist’s Anglican Church in New South Wales)