The Transfiguration of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 17:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who has not turned away from us but looks upon us with love, dear fellow redeemed:
When you think of Jesus, how do you picture Him? Does He have light or dark hair, blue or brown eyes, beard or no beard? How tall do you imagine Him to be? Of all the people you know, who would you say looks most like the picture in your mind? Maybe your picture is similar to the depiction of Jesus on our altar painting, or maybe it is quite a bit different.
However you picture Him, I’m guessing none of you think of Him the way He is described today. None of you think of Him in His transfigured state. You think of Him like He was most of the time on earth, looking just like the people around Him. But that was in His state of humiliation. Now He is exalted at the right hand of the Father, dwelling in “unapproachable light” (1Ti. 6:16). Now His face shines like the sun all the time, and the saints in heaven look upon Him in all His radiant glory.
But that is not how we see Him. We can’t see Him at all; His glory is hidden from us. He hides His glory for our own good. When Moses talked with the Lord on Mount Sinai, Moses asked to see the Lord’s glory. The Lord said He would make His goodness pass before Moses, but that Moses could not see His face, since “man shall not see me and live” (Exo. 33:20).
This illustrates for us how far sinful man is from the holy God. Moses was one of the greatest prophets that God sent. He used to meet the Lord on the mountain, and the LORD would speak with him “as a man speaks to his friend” (Exo. 33:11). When Moses came back down the mountain from the presence of the Lord, his face shone brightly (Exo. 34:29-35). His skin had absorbed the light from God, and it was now radiating out from him. But even though he was this close to God, God did not permit him to look upon His full glory. If Moses had done that, he would have died.
Moses was still a sinner just as we are, and sinners cannot look at God in all His holiness. Think how hard it is to look toward the sun, and how much damage it does if we look too long. The almighty God who made the sun shines brighter. The Lord is holy and full of light. By nature, we are unholy and full of darkness. Even after we are converted, there is still sin in us. We do not totally leave behind the works of darkness.
Take the eye. Our eyes look upon much that is beautiful and good. This time of year, we see a blanket of snow covering all things and frost coating the trees. Our eyes allow us to see the people we love and do the work God has set out for us to do. But we do not always use our eyes for good. We judge people and treat them with contempt because we don’t like how they look. We roll our eyes at our parents or other authorities. We look at things we should not look at, and we watch things we should not watch.
Our eyes are something like our mouths in this respect. When we eat and drink healthy things, our body stays in good shape. But if all we consume is junk food, our health suffers. So if we are careful to watch and read and look at only what is beneficial to us, we are much healthier. We don’t want our eyes to adjust to the darkness; we want them to adjust to the light. When our eyes adjust to the light of God’s holy Word, we have little desire to peer into the darkness.
But we have not always filled our eyes with good things. We all have things we wish we could unsee. For many of us, it might be things we have watched on TV or online. We told ourselves that we could handle the violence or the explicit content. But now we can’t forget it. Those images are stuck in our mind. We thought it wouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. We allowed it to enter our eyes and sink into our brain, and now it’s stuck. We want to get rid of it, but we can’t. We can’t take back what we have seen any more than we can take back what we have said or change the things we have done.
This is why we cannot stand in God’s unveiled presence as we are. We cannot face His perfect glory. We are sinners, and each of us has a long trail of sins stretching out behind us. Many believe they can overcome their sin on their own. They think they can come into God’s presence by their own efforts. They think they can lift themselves out of their unholiness and become holy. But that is not in our power. With Paul, each of us must confess that “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18-19).
The three disciples realized this about themselves. They were given a glimpse of Jesus’ glory as He talked with Moses and Elijah. But as soon as God the Father’s voice boomed out of the cloud, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him”—“they fell on their faces and were terrified.” The glory was too much. This reminds us of when Jesus filled the fishermen’s nets with fish after they had not been able to catch anything. When Peter saw this, he fell down at Jesus’ knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luk. 5:8).
This is how we feel when our sins are exposed by God’s holy Law. We may look like we have it pretty well together. But inside we are filled with sinful passions, anger, doubts, and struggles. “Why should the Lord look kindly upon me?” we think. “He sees what I am. He knows my sin.” And so we hide our faces. We can’t bear to look toward the holy God when we are so full of sin.
This is what a child does when he has done something wrong. Maybe he broke something or took what he wasn’t supposed to. So he goes and hides—under the bed or in the closet. Then he hears his name being called and the footsteps coming. They stop right where he is. He expects wrath. He expects to see a face twisted in anger. He tries to crawl deeper into the shadows. But the face he finally sees through tears is not the face he anticipated. He sees a face of compassion and an open hand reaching for his. “Don’t be afraid. Come here. I’m not angry with you. I forgive you.”
God’s face of compassion and His hand reaching out to us is Jesus. Out of love for all sinners, God sent His only-begotten Son. We could not ascend into God’s holy presence, but He could lower Himself to us. He “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phi. 2:7). He covered up His glory, so that sinners could see Him, walk with Him, touch Him, look at His smiling face.
He came to give Himself up for our wrongs, to suffer and die in our place. He went to the cross for all those things we wish we could unsee and unsay and unthink. He paid for all our sins by shedding His holy, precious blood. By His sacrifice, God’s wrath toward our sin was turned away. We do not have to try to cover our sins or hide in the shadows anymore. The Lord is not angry with us; He forgives us. He looks upon us with grace and favor.
His shining face is turned toward us whenever we gather together around the means of grace. Jesus has left us clear signs and powerful proofs of His forgiveness. He instituted Holy Baptism as the way to bring you into His holy Church, to cleanse you of your sins and cover you in His holiness. He gave us a Holy Meal in which He invites you to eat His own flesh and drink His own blood, so that His glorious light shines inside you. And He installs preachers to declare to you the good news of salvation and His love for you which does not change.
It is hard to recognize His brightness and glory in these humble-looking means. But by faith you perceive it. You see your glorious Savior in His Word and Sacraments. You see Him reaching out to touch you in your sin and fear, just as He reached out and touched His cowering disciples. You hear Him say to your trembling soul, “Rise, and have no fear.”
His words are the encouragement you need to turn to Him and stop hiding. You lift your eyes to Him and see His face of love and compassion. The Lord told Moses’ brother Aaron to comfort His people with this picture and to speak this benediction upon them: “The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26, NKJV). The Lord’s face does shine upon you because He has redeemed you through His death and resurrection, and He has made you His own through Holy Baptism.
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 painting by Carl Bloch, c. 1865)
The Second Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 2:1-11
In Christ Jesus, who is aware of the troubles in our life and comes to help us through His Holy Word, dear fellow redeemed:
Some of you may have enjoyed the British historical drama, Downton Abbey, when it aired over the past decade. It was about an aristocratic family living in England around 100 years ago. But the story was just as much about this family’s servants and attendants as it was about them. In going about their work, these servants were to act as though they saw nothing and heard nothing about the aristocratic family affairs. Of course, they were in the know about everything. In many respects, they were aware of more than the lord who oversaw the whole operation.
This scenario is true of many organizations. The employees that don’t draw attention to themselves, the quiet ones, often know far more than they let on and far more than their superiors realize. We see this in the account of Jesus’ first major sign. Jesus, His mother, and His disciples were invited to a wedding. Naturally the main focus at the wedding would have been the bride and groom. The parents of the wedding couple also would have played a prominent role. And to some extent, so would the master of the feast who made sure everything ran smoothly.
The servants working at the wedding would have gone mostly unnoticed. Think of the weddings you have attended. The only time you are really aware of the banquet staff is if they make a major mistake like dropping something or getting way behind schedule. Usually the staff stays silent and anonymous, which is how they are trained to work. But while the guests are eating, drinking, and having a good time, it is the staff which is aware of potential problems.
Surely the servants at the wedding in Cana were aware that the supply of wine was rapidly diminishing. This must have made them anxious. For one thing, they didn’t want to take the blame for something out of their control. And maybe they were anxious about how the bride and groom would take the news that their party was about to end. With the bridegroom in charge of the wine supply, how would he handle the shame? How would his bride handle it?
We can see a parallel between the trouble at this wedding and the troubles that married couples face today. The devil wants nothing more than to drain all love and joy from a marriage, especially a Christian marriage. He is willing to try every angle of attack. He tries to divide husband and wife through financial difficulties, health problems, or personality conflicts. He tries to ruin their trust for each other through pornography use or by tempting them to withhold marital relations for reasons of punishment or manipulation. He reminds them of the wrongs committed against them while urging them to forget the wrongs they have done.
There is trouble in every marriage. The couple that says they never had a serious fight in fifty or sixty years of marriage is either lying or is blissfully forgetful. Trouble in marriage started right when sin started. When God confronted Adam with his disobedience, Adam was quick to pass the blame to Eve, and then Eve passed the blame too (Gen. 3:11-13). That’s what sin does to marriage. It makes us want to pass the blame and to be served instead of to serve.
And yet marriage remains one of the greatest gifts God has given mankind. Even if you are not married now or ever intend to be, you agree that marriage is a blessing. All of us are products of marriage, or we have been influenced in significant ways by married people. Marriage is as old as time. It promotes safety, security, and stability. It is the foundational institution on which everything in our society is built—family, workplace, government, and so on.
It is through marriage that God gives lifelong companionship. He calls a man and a woman to share one another’s joys and sorrows, to carry each other’s burdens, to encourage one another. He gives them the gift of physical union, and through sex, He often gives the blessing of children. Children can be a headache—they are sinners too just like their parents. But no legacy on earth lasts longer or is more treasured than the legacy of children and grandchildren.
Many hear this description today and say, “I can have all these things without marriage. Marriage is overrated. My parents had a terrible marriage, and I don’t want to walk down that path.” So they share a home with a significant other and share a bed and maybe even have children together. The difference between that and marriage is that marriage is about sacrifice while co-habitation is driven by selfishness. Marriage is about giving my whole self and all that I have to another. Co-habitation is about holding some back, staying guarded, and walking away when the going gets tough.
So those of you who are married have a tall order. Not only are you supposed to make your marriage work, but your marriage also stands as an example for others. Like those servants anxiously waiting to see how the bride and groom would handle the lack of wine, there are many eyes watching to see how trouble is addressed in your marriage. Those might be the eyes of your children, your friends, your neighbors, or your co-workers.
What do they see when trouble comes? Do they see you treating one another with care and respect? Do they hear you speak well of one another and forgive each other’s wrongs? Or do they see husband and wife pointing fingers, losing their temper, and speaking negatively about each other? We who are married would have to say it depends on the day or on the situation.
No marriage is perfect. Any of you who have been married can think of times you were not the spouse you should have been. You lost your temper. You spoke harshly. You gave the silent treatment. You accused instead of apologized. It all seemed so easy when you were making your vows to each other so many years ago. You were so much in love. But that love was soon tested, and you didn’t always pass those tests with flying colors.
We don’t know how the couple at Cana would have dealt with the wine shortage at their wedding banquet. In fact, as far as we know, they were never even aware of the trouble. Why? Because Jesus was there. Jesus told the servants to fill six large jars with water. Then He told them to take some to the master of the feast. Jesus had changed the water into wine, some of the best wine the master of the feast had ever tasted.
Jesus spared the bride and groom of embarrassment and trouble at this special occasion. He wanted them and their guests to have joy. If people want to know what Jesus thinks of marriage, here you go. He could have performed His first sign anywhere, and He chose to do it at a wedding celebration. He loves it when people get married. Marriage has His blessing.
We see how highly He thinks of marriage by the way His connection to His Church is described. St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Ephesians that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (5:25-27).
Of course this cleansing of sin applies not just to the married, but to all. Married, unmarried, widowed, or divorced—all of us have stains of sin on our past. We have not loved like we should. We have taken those closest to us for granted. We have put ourselves first. We have been jealous of the blessings and joys that others have.
God’s Son took on flesh for you. He came to give Himself for an imperfect bride, to suffer and die not for His own wrongs but for the wrongs of the sinners He loved. He did not wait for you to earn His love. Even when you were opposed to Him, even when you were His enemy, He sacrificed Himself for you (Rom. 5).
Whatever your sins may be against your spouse or any others God has brought into your life, all those sins are washed away by the blood of Jesus. You may find it hard to forgive, but it is not hard for Him. Even before you ask for His forgiveness, already you are forgiven. God looks upon you with favor as though you have never sinned. Because you have been united with Jesus in Holy Baptism, you now stand before God “holy and without blemish.”
And Jesus is still here to help and save when you experience trouble in marriage or in life. He comes through His Word and Sacraments to help you serve better those whom He has placed in your life and to love more. You may face many struggles and difficulties in your marriage or your relationships with others close to you. You may feel like you are the only one trying and that the burden of making things work is too much.
Jesus promises to strengthen you even for this, to love even when love is not returned and to give of yourself even when it feels like you have nothing left to give. The troubles you face may seem overwhelming, and the people around you may agree. But Jesus knows how to turn tasteless water into delicious wine.
The servants at the wedding banquet watched Jesus Quietly Bring Joy out of Trouble, and He does the same for you. He comes through His Word with wonderful gifts for you. He comes to bring you His cleansing, His love, His holiness, and His life. Where Jesus does His saving work, then there is joy.
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 a work by a 10th century monk)
The First Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 2:41-52
In Christ Jesus, the Son of Mary, who was manifested as the Son of God by His holy words and deeds, dear fellow redeemed:
If you have ever been left behind somewhere accidentally, you probably remember the feeling. If you have ever lost track of a child, you definitely remember the feeling. First looking where you expect to find him, then widening the search, then becoming more frantic until your child is finally located. We can imagine how Mary and Joseph were feeling when Jesus was not where they expected Him to be. How would small-town Jesus do by Himself in big-city Jerusalem?
While they were searching frantically for Jesus, He was not troubled in the least. He was twelve years old, the age of a seventh grader. This is a time of transition when a child begins to think and act more independently. It is clear that Joseph and Mary allowed Jesus some independence, since they were not concerned to set off for home without knowing exactly where He was. But Jesus was not with the travel group; He was in the temple.
He was hardly noticed as He made His way up the temple steps. Nobody in the temple knew the significance of this Boy. They did not perceive that He was God in the flesh. In Old Testament times, God entered His temple in a cloud of fire. Now He came in humility, His eternal glory hidden, “the whole fullness of deity” dwelling in His twelve-year-old body (Col. 2:9).
If you have ever seen the show, “Undercover Boss,” that is something like the irony of this moment. Jesus quietly took His seat before the temple teachers. They were some of the best and brightest teachers of the Law. But these experts had no idea that the LORD Himself was in their midst. They soon learned that there was something different about this Boy. He showed a depth of understanding they were not used to hearing from students of this age or perhaps any age.
Jesus respectfully asked them questions, and they responded with some questions of their own. “[A]ll who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers.” They wondered where this Boy got His remarkable knowledge. They probably wanted to know His background: “What did you say Your name was? Where are You from? You say the family trade is carpentry?” It was astonishing that Jesus could come from such humble circumstances and display such understanding.
Jesus sat among the teachers for three days. During that time, Mary and Joseph were retracing their steps to Jerusalem before they eventually found Jesus in the temple. Now His mother had a question for Him: “Son, why have You treated us so?” We can certainly understand the question. If your child decided to spend a couple days at a friend’s house without telling you, you would probably use more pointed words than Mary when you finally found him or her.
But Jesus did not hang His head in shame. He replied calmly with two questions of His own: “Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” These are the first words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. They show that even at age twelve, He was focused on the work He had come to do. He had to be in His Father’s house. He was there to do His Father’s bidding.
The season of Epiphany is about the revealing of Jesus as God’s Son. That’s what “epiphany” means: a revealing or a manifesting. We heard last weekend how Jesus was revealed as the Messiah to the wise men. Next weekend, we will hear how He manifested His divine power by changing water into wine. We know these accounts well, but we cannot fully understand the mystery of God becoming Man. Nor do we fully appreciate what it means for life in this world.
When we are faced with the questions and concerns of the present, like questions about our health, our government, and our society, it is easy to forget that God has become one with us. Unbelievers do not know this. They do not know the Christ and what He has done. It’s no wonder they become so invested in scientific endeavors, political movements, and power plays. These worldly initiatives are their religion, and government officials and other prominent people are their gods.
We need to resist those currents. We do not stand on the eroding sand of human opinions. We stand on the solid rock of Jesus and His Word. The world of men thought it knew what power was. The world thought it was wise. But all of that was exposed as flimsiness and foolishness when the Creator God entered His world as a Man. We cannot make ourselves God, but God made Himself Man.
Who can stand against this God? He said about Himself, “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deu. 32:39). The so-called powerful people of the world would be “shaking in their boots” if they realized what they were up against. “[T]he nations rage and the peoples plot in vain,” says the psalmist; they try to take the glory that belongs to God alone. But “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision” (Psa. 2:1-6). God’s Son rules as King over heaven and earth.
But where is the evidence of His rule? Some can’t understand why He allowed the current president to be elected. Others can’t understand why He is letting the new president take office. In all the chaos of today, it can seem like Jesus is missing or that He really isn’t powerful. Can’t He see our troubles? Can’t He see that we are suffering? We start to sound like Mary: “Lord, why have You treated us so? Behold, we have been searching for You in great distress.”
All these anxious cares show that we have our minds set on earthly things and not on “things that are above” (Col. 3:2). Have we forgotten what God’s Son has done? Have we forgotten that He performed countless miracles—even raising people from the dead—while living a perfectly pure life on earth? Have we forgotten that He accepted the punishment for all sin and died on the cross in our place? Have we forgotten that He rose again from the dead just as He predicted? Have we forgotten that our future is inseparably tied to His because we have been buried and raised with Him in Baptism?
When we cry out: “We have been searching for You in great distress!” He says, “Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” In other words He says, “You are guilty of looking for Me in the wrong places and not where I have told you to look.” If we think we will find Him in a perfect government on earth or in perfect success or in a life of constant pleasure and happiness, we will not find Him. He will remain hidden from us.
But if we look for Him in His Holy Word and His Holy Sacraments, we will find Him. We will find Him ready to forgive our sins, help us in our afflictions, comfort us in our sorrows, and strengthen us in our trials. Through the means of grace, Jesus is constantly doing the work His Father sent Him to do, the work of bringing us His blessings.
God sent His Son into the world to save the world. That doesn’t mean His Son came to reform the world or improve it or make everything fair and peaceful for everyone who lives on it. God sent His Son to save sinners from the eternal punishment they deserve. By His innocent suffering and death, Jesus did the work to redeem all people. And now He fights to keep believers in the faith and bring others to faith.
Our King is not hiding or missing. He is seated at the right hand of the Father ruling over all things. Nothing is hidden from His view and nothing is beyond His power. He is able to put all our questions to rest, either by answering them or by teaching us to live without the answers. Nothing is hidden from Him, but some things are hidden from us. We do not know what our future holds. We might want to know, but we don’t need to know.
What we do need to know is that no matter what changes around us, His mercy and love toward us will not change. That gives us the confidence to go about our daily tasks with joy and diligence. We are not searching in anguish for some earthly power to save us and make our lives better. Jesus is our Lord who won the victory over sin, death, and devil. And we are His people.
As His people, we abide by His Word and serve according to His direction. We love the family and friends He has given us. We go about our work honestly and faithfully. We care about the needs of our neighbor. Our good efforts may go unnoticed. They may be hidden from most everyone and lost to history. But we are not in it for our glory.
Our eternal glory is already secure in Christ. He fulfilled God’s Holy Law for us, including perfect obedience to His parents and all other authorities. He submitted Himself to the temple teachers and to His imperfect parents, so that we could stand righteous before God.
We have sinned in many ways against our parents, teachers, and other authorities, such as the government officials the Lord in His wisdom has established. But whatever our Fourth Commandment sins may be, Jesus atoned for every single one by His death. And He applies the perfect keeping of the Law to all who trust in Him.
We have many questions about what may happen to us here on earth. But we have no questions about what God has given us in Christ. All the questions that really matter—the questions about our eternal future—are answered by the gracious work of Jesus to save us.
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 Among the Doctors” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Infancy of Jesus – Pr. Faugstad homily
St. Luke 2:21 – Circumcision/Naming of Jesus (8 days from birth)
Prayer: O Lord God, for our sakes You made Your blessed Son, our Savior, subject to the law and caused Him to endure the circumcision of the flesh: Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit, that our hearts may be pure from all sinful desires and lusts; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen.
Hymn #158 – “The Ancient Law Departs”
St. Luke 2:22-38 – Presentation in Temple (40 days from birth)
Prayer: O God our heavenly Father, You have shown Your love toward us by sending Your only-begotten Son into the world, that all might have life through Him: We pray that You would speed forth these good tidings of great joy to every nation, that the people who sit in darkness may see the great Light and may come to worship Him who is called Wonderful, even our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Hymn #151.1-4 – “Thou Light of Gentile Nations”
St. Matthew 2:1-12 – Wise Men Visit (about a year from birth)
Prayer: O God, by the leading of a star You manifested Your only-begotten Son to the Gentiles: Mercifully grant that we, who know You now by faith, may after this life enjoy the fullness of Your glorious Godhead; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen.
Hymn #120.1-4 – “Bright and Glorious Is the Sky”
St. Matthew 2:13-23 – Move to Egypt and Nazareth (first years of Jesus’ life)
Prayer: O Lord God, heavenly Father, You allowed Your dear Son, Jesus Christ, to become a stranger and a sojourner in Egypt for our sakes, and led Him safely home to His fatherland: Mercifully grant that we poor sinners, who are strangers and sojourners in this perilous world, may soon be called home to our true fatherland, the kingdom of heaven, where we shall live in eternal joy and glory; through the same, Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen.
Hymn #173.1-2, 5 – “The Star Proclaims the King Is Here”
In Christ Jesus, who “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phi. 2:7) in order to be our Savior, dear fellow redeemed:
When we hear about the infancy and early childhood of Jesus, there is nothing impressive about the way He is described. His skin did not glow with an inner light, and His face did not shine like the sun. Any of the local people who saw Him in Mary’s arms would have concluded that He was just another little boy.
This is such a great mystery. Because the Boy in Mary’s arms was the eternal Son of God! “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Joh. 1:3). He was Mary’s God who gave her life, and yet now she had given birth to Him, the Christ-Child. He was willing to be fed by her and be rocked to sleep. She changed His diapers and kept Him from wandering off when He started using His toddler legs.
During His early years, Jesus doesn’t look like much of a Savior. In today’s readings, the emphasis is on what was done for Him. Jesus appears totally helpless, totally passive. Eight days from His birth, His skin was cut at His circumcision and He bled. Forty days from His birth, Joseph and Mary brought Him to the temple where Simeon took the Baby into his arms. Within the next year or so, the wise men knelt before Jesus and gave Him gifts. And then Joseph had to rush his family away from Bethlehem to escape the jealous rage of Herod.
But while Jesus appeared to be passive in all these events, He was fully engaged in them. All these things were happening according to the will of God the Father, and His Son was in perfect obedience to His will. Jesus was circumcised so that He would be bound to keep the Law of God to the smallest detail. He was presented in the temple to show that He was set apart for the Lord’s work. He drew the wise men by a star to Bethlehem to prove that He had come not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. He traveled to Egypt and then back to Nazareth in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Hos. 11:1, Isa. 11:1).
Everything in His early years had a purpose. All of it was focused on the salvation of sinners, even though His ultimate sacrifice on the cross would not come for some thirty years. He came in total humility, not making full use of His divine powers. This is why the knife cut into His flesh at His circumcision. This is why He remained silent while Simeon and Anna identified Him as the Messiah. This is why He did not show His glory to the wise men. This is why He relied on Joseph to lead the family to safety.
God’s Son humbled Himself, so we would be exalted. As the apostle Paul wrote: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). Jesus put Himself under the Law to redeem us, to buy us back from eternal death. We have all sinned against the Law of God, breaking it in every way, and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
But because Jesus kept the Law perfectly for us, we are now counted as righteous before God. If Jesus had only been a perfect Man, His keeping of the Law could only count for Him. But He is also true God. That means when He kept the Law perfectly as a Man, it counted for all men. And we have received adoption as sons of God, because our Brother Jesus gave His life for ours on the cross. He paid the penalty for our sin. He endured His Father’s righteous wrath in our place.
That little Baby may not have looked like our Savior, but He was. Because of His perfect life and death for us, we know we enter this New Year with God’s favor. Jesus’ holy blood cleanses us from every sin, and His perfect righteousness covers us, so that no spot or blemish can be seen on us anymore. So with the hymnwriter we give thanks to Him and pray:
I am pure, in Thee believing,
From Thy store
Righteous robes receiving.
In my heart I will enfold Thee,
Let me there,
Loving, ever hold Thee. Amen.
(Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary #115, v. 14)
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(stained glass picture from St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto)
The Second Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 12:6-16
In Christ Jesus, whose grace and compassion and patience toward sinners never changes and never runs out, dear fellow redeemed:
What is the point of marriage? This is one of the major questions of our time. Many have answered that there is no point to marriage. Some see it as nothing more than a traditional practice that one can take or leave. Others see it as a needless restriction that keeps people from living their lives however they want. Whatever people think it is, they have to acknowledge that marriage has been around for a long time. They would be hard-pressed to name a civilization or time where an official joining together of man and woman did not take place.
Jesus certainly approved of marriage. He defended it against those who would make it a non-binding contract (Mat. 19:3-9). And He Himself attended weddings, like the one we heard about in today’s Gospel (Joh. 2:1-11). But there is an even stronger testimony and support for the Lord’s positive view of marriage. He called Himself the Bridegroom of the Church His bride (Mat. 9:15, 25:1-13). By referring to His relationship with penitent sinners in this way, Jesus showed that marriage is a sacred institution. It is an institution established by God and given by Him as a gift.
Through marriage, God gives many blessings. He gives companionship, stability, and protection. He gives intimacy and the joy of sexual union. He gives children, family, and community. But marriage fails when it is seen solely for what one spouse or the other can get out of it. It thrives when each spouse considers what they can give to each other. A marriage characterized by mutual self-sacrifice will be a healthy and happy marriage.
The same goes for our other relationships in life. Our calling as God’s children is not to put ourselves first and expect everyone to serve us, but to put others first and see how we can serve them. This is what St. Paul describes in his Letter to the Romans. At the beginning of chapter 12 which we heard last week, Paul urged the recipients of the letter “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (v. 1). Along with this, he said we should humbly follow God’s Word and recognize that we are part of something big—the body of Christ.
The next portion of chapter 12, today’s reading, outlines our responsibilities toward one another in the body of Christ. Paul writes: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” He says that the gifts Jesus gives to the members of His body differ. The members of Christ’s body do not all have the same function.
What this means is that those believers who form the body of Christ with you, may not be all that much like you. Their personality may be entirely different than yours. They may not think the way you think. They may not be motivated by the same things you are, or have the same priorities that you do. The things that are meaningful to you might have little meaning to them. The way you see things and the plans you have for the future may look very different than theirs. And yet, you are part of the same body!
But this is how the human body works, doesn’t it? There is not much about the eye that is similar to the ear, and not much about the head that is like the foot. But what would a body be without the great assortment of its parts? Or to ask it another way: what parts of your body would you rather not have? What parts could you do without? Every part works together for the whole. If one part suffers—like a sore back or a broken bone—the whole body suffers. A person can live without eyesight or hearing or a leg, but life is more difficult when this happens.
So “having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,” we use them. Paul lists seven of these gifts that believers employ for each other’s good. Some have the gift of prophecy; they are able to clearly understand and explain what the Bible says. Some have the gift of service; they gladly carry out the tasks they have been assigned. Some have the gift of teaching; they love to share what they have learned. Some have the gift of exhortation; they encourage those around them to continue in their Christian faith and life. Some have the gift of generosity; they give out of love and not for show. Some have the gift of leadership or oversight; they work to keep the body united in Christ. And some have the gift of mercy; they are eager and happy to help those around them.
As much as we would like to excel at all of these things, we probably don’t. Some of them come more naturally to us than others. That is why they are called “gifts.” They are given to us by our gracious God. But just because we have been given one gift over another, does not mean we can ignore the rest of them. We may not believe we have the gifts of prophecy or teaching or exhortation, but that does not mean we can ignore the study of God’s Word and leave it to someone else. We may not think we have the gifts of service or generosity, but that does not mean we should withhold our time, talents, or treasures when and where they are needed.
Our perception of the gifts God has given us may also be skewed by our own sinful desires. It is a little too convenient to say I lack the gifts exactly in those areas where I have no interest in serving my neighbor. That sounds like something much more human than divine. It is not for us to decide what gifts we have. It is for God to give them as He wills. So if you find yourself in a situation where service is required of you, you can trust God to equip you to serve. Or if you find that what is most needed is teaching or leadership or mercy, you can pray for God’s guidance to complete the task until He turns it over to someone else.
God does not give His gifts for your own self-fulfillment or self-enjoyment, though there is certainly fulfillment and enjoyment in doing what God calls us to do. God gives so that the members of Christ’s body can be a blessing and strength to one another and a blessing to their community as well. God Gives so We May Give. That is why we are here, to share the grace and glory of God that we have received through the kindness and compassion of our Savior Jesus.
This selfless giving is something we have to be reminded to do, because our sinful nature likes to put itself first. That’s why we call it the “old Adam.” Just like Adam and Eve put themselves over God and one another, this is what our sinful nature wants to have us do. But the new self, the new man of faith wants the opposite. The new man of faith wants to serve God and neighbor. It wants to show the love God has shown us.
These acts and attitudes of love are spelled out by Paul in his letter, that we be loving, kind, joyful, hopeful, patient, prayerful, generous, hospitable, humble. But what if my neighbor is unkind? What if he or she throws my good efforts back in my face? What if he or she treats me like dirt? Jesus doesn’t teach us to treat people the way they treat us. He teaches us to treat them the way He treats us.
And how does He treat us? With patience, bearing with us even when we sin and grow bitter toward others. With grace, loving us even when there is little love in our hearts. With forgiveness, removing all our transgressions from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psa. 103:12). With humility, coming to us through His Word and Sacraments, so He might strengthen and keep us in the faith.
God’s gifts delivered according to His grace never run out. He does not run out of love and compassion and mercy toward us. He is not like us. He does not give up when we offend Him. He does not keep a record of our wrongs. He does not turn His back on us or close the door when we wander away from Him. He comes after us like a shepherd searching for His sheep until we are found.
This is the attitude we should have in our relationships, whether in our marriages, families, communities, or congregation. We want to show patience with no expiration date. We want to show love with no limit. We want to forgive with no strings attached. You and I cannot produce these godly virtues on our own. But God can work them in us, and He promises to do exactly that.
Apart from God, we have nothing good to give. But connected to Him by faith and continuously receiving His gifts through His powerful Word, we are filled up and supplied with all that we need to do good for others. “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Then we will be a joy and a strength to one another, and God will be glorified.
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(picture is stained glass at the Redeemer church)
The First Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 12:1-5
In Christ Jesus, who by His suffering, death, and resurrection redeemed the world of sinners, so that they might have purpose, contentment, and hope, dear fellow redeemed:
Nobody expected the twelve-year-old Jesus to do what He did. He and His parents had gone to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When the massive crowd began to fan out and start their journey home, Joseph and Mary assumed Jesus was with relatives or friends. When He did not turn up, they went looking for Him and found Him three days letter in the temple. He was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luk. 2:46). All on His own, Jesus went to the temple, His “Father’s house” (v. 49), so He could hear and learn the Scriptures. That was not typical twelve-year-old behavior. But then Jesus was not the typical twelve-year-old.
What are the kinds of things we expect from twelve-year-olds today? This is a time when major changes are happening in their lives. There are huge physical, cognitive, and emotional changes going on. There are signs of maturity and maybe more mood swings. The twelve-year-old is in the process of transforming from a child to an adult. But he or she is not an adult yet. Twelve-year-olds need love, guidance, discipline, and clear expectations, just as all young people do. They need to be molded into God-fearing members of the church and responsible members of society.
It always makes me cringe when parents say that they will wait to let their children choose their own religious path when they are older. This is another way of saying that there is no clear teaching about God, that there is no such thing as objective truth, that one religion is no better than another. What foolishness! We have our kids listen to our favorite music, watch our favorite movies, cheer for the right sports teams, and follow our lead in so many other areas. But we’re not going to teach them anything about God?!
Whatever we do not actively teach our children, they will learn from someone else. Everything we know was learned. Think about yourself: how much of your personality and preferences have formed with no outside influence from others? I’m not sure it is even possible. We are products of the place where we are and the people we are around. On a spiritual level, we are influenced by the living God through His Word, or by the tugging and tempting of our own sinful nature, the devil, and the world.
In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the Apostle Paul urged them not to “be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” To “be conformed to this world” is to be shaped and molded by the unbelieving world rather than by the divine Word. We feel this pressure to conform in so many ways, and we can think of many times that we have given in to this pressure.
Maybe we have softened our stance on sexual morality and say with the world that as long as a sexual relationship is consensual, there is no problem with it. Or we have changed our views on marriage and divorce, and we support the breaking apart of what God has joined together if husband and wife don’t love each other like they used to. Or we adopt the world’s thinking that nothing is more important than self-fulfillment, recognition for one’s work, and financial security.
Every single one of us is influenced by the unbelieving culture we live in. The devil is eager to see that this happens, and our sinful nature is happy to cooperate. We have “conformed to this world” in ways we are not even aware of. We begin to recognize this conformity when we ask ourselves how much our thoughts are directed toward doing God’s will in a given day or week and how much we are focused on doing our own will.
“Do not be conformed to this world,” says Paul. But going against the world is not easy. It is much easier to swim with the cultural current. Every young person who has faced peer pressure knows this is the case. It is hard to say no. It is hard to be singled out when we want so much to fit in. It is hard to be laughed at and attacked. It is hard to be alone.
Going against the world and living by the Word is not comfortable. It requires sacrifice. Jesus knows this. He lived that life. His own people wanted Him to be their earthly king. They wanted Him to lead them, feed them, and heal them. The religious leaders wanted His endorsement, His stamp of approval. Nobody got what they wanted.
What Jesus got for denying their expectations was hatred, rejection, ridicule, and pain—immeasurable pain. Crowds of people had flocked to Him, even up to the Sunday before His death. But then He was sentenced and nailed to a cross, all alone, forsaken even by His own Father in heaven. Jesus had not “conformed to this world,” and it ended with a lonely death.
He knows it is no easy charge when He says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luk. 9:23). He knows what will happen to those who refuse the world and their own desires and follow His Word. They will carry a cross like He did, and they will suffer. But they will not have to suffer like He suffered. He suffered alone, bearing the sins of the whole world. He suffered the eternal punishment of hell in the place of all sinners.
When you suffer, you do not suffer alone. You join Jesus in His suffering; or rather He joins you. And He also connects you with other godly sufferers, with others who reject the false promises of the world. The believers around you have been “transformed” like you have “by the renewal of your mind.” You see things differently now. You have changed. The Greek word for “transformed” is where we get our word “metamorphosis.” It is the same word used for Jesus’ transformation on the mountain when “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Mat. 17:2).
You and I were transformed from darkness to light, from death to life, from unbelief to belief when the Holy Spirit brought us to faith in Jesus through His Gospel. We were changed “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” in holy Baptism (Ti. 3:5). Like a caterpillar emerging from its cocoon a butterfly, we were “born again” (Joh. 3:3). In the waters of baptism, we were wrapped in the cocoon of Christ’s death, and we emerged with Him in His resurrection (Rom. 6:4).
We have “newness of life” now that we have been joined to Christ. By faith in Him we have gained all the benefits of His perfect life and atoning death. His perfect keeping of the law covers over our less-than-holy record. His cleansing blood washes away all our sins of choosing the world over the Word, from the sins of our youth to the present day. Jesus has freed us from the hopeless expectations and empty promises of the world. He has freed us to live—truly live—to live with purpose in this life and to die with the joy-filled expectation of the life to come.
It may feel lonely to go against what the world wants you to do, but you are not alone. You Are Part of Something Big—much bigger than the world. You are part of the body of Christ. You are joined to Him “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Out of love for you and on your behalf, He conquered the devil, destroyed death, and overcame the world. In Jesus, you are no loser, even if the world calls you one for following Him.
As a Christian, you may feel alone in your classroom, at your job, in your community. This is why God called you to be part of a congregation, to be connected with fellow Christians who are dealing with the same things you are. They are here to encourage, help, and support you on your journey through life. They are here to walk with you through good and bad times. They are here to comfort you in your pain and grief and to warn you if you start to separate from the body. You are not alone. As Paul writes, “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
That is something big—bigger than this world and bigger than this life. We are just one link in a long chain of believers that stretches back to Adam and Eve. The temptations and challenges we face today are nothing new. We are not the first to struggle. We are not the first to fail. But we have a Savior who loves us, and who sacrificed Himself to save us. He is the Head of His body the Church. He is the One who works for us and in us, so that “by the mercies of God,” we might “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”
By faith in Jesus, we are acceptable in God’s sight. Our sacrifices for Him are acceptable because of Jesus’ sacrifice. There is nothing more that we could be or do or accomplish that Jesus has not already completed. So whether you are twelve or twenty or sixty or whatever age, in Christ you have everything that you need. There is nothing you lack before God. You Are Part of Something Big!
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The Epiphany of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Isaiah 60:1-6
In Christ Jesus, who was manifested to the wise men in Bethlehem, and who is manifested to us here through the means of grace, dear fellow redeemed:
On the Festival of Epiphany, we celebrate the coming of the wise men to worship Jesus. As far as we know, these Gentiles were the first non-Jews to see Him. This is why Epiphany is sometimes called the “Gentile Christmas.” Epiphany shows that the Christ came not only for the Jews but for the Gentiles too, because it was the LORD who showed the wise men the star of the Christ-Child. It was He who motivated them to set out on the long journey to Judea.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a sign like that, something to guide our way through life? As we considered a tough decision, God could make one option appear brighter than the others. He could give us a glimpse of our future, so we would know what to focus on and prepare for. He could keep us from heading off in the wrong direction.
Though some look for guidance like this in the stars, through mediums and fortune-tellers, or through their own superstitions and inner feelings, the LORD does not promise to enlighten us in these ways. Where He does promise enlightenment is through His holy Word. The star may have gotten the wise men going, but they did not find “the King of the Jews” until they heard the words of the Old Testament prophet Micah pointing them to Bethlehem (Mat. 2:6).
All the major events of Jesus’ life were predicted in the Old Testament Scriptures long before they took place. The visit of the wise men was no exception. We hear this prophecy about them in today’s text from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah prophesied that nations would come to the light of the LORD. When they came, they would bring abundance and wealth. Their camels would cover the hills. They would bring gold and frankincense and proclaim the praises of the LORD. The wise men were the first in a wave of Gentiles whom the LORD continues to draw to His light today.
He must draw people to His light because they are lost in the darkness of unbelief, sin, and death by nature. If you have been reading the first chapters of Genesis this past week, you reviewed how this darkness came into the world. Adam and Eve ignored the command of God and rebelled against Him. Then their oldest son Cain killed his brother Abel, and the human race descended into greater and greater wickedness. Things became so bleak that God decided to destroy the world in a flood. Everything on earth perished except for Noah, his sons, their wives, and all the animals God had sent into the Ark.
But even after the flood, the world was not without sin. Sin increased again, and we are no better today than any who have gone before us. What Isaiah wrote is true: “darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.” The darkness of sin and death is a “thick darkness.” It covers us and surrounds us like a thick cloud, an impenetrable fog that we cannot see through.
This is not how the world sees its situation. Especially at this time of year, people express great optimism about the future. “It’s a new year, a year to right every wrong, a year to achieve unparalleled success!” But many thought that way about 2019 and all the years before that. What happened to the promise of those years? Why are we always so eager to leave the last year behind by the time the new one rolls around?
It is because of the darkness that Isaiah describes. The people of the world think they can see just fine. They think they have all the solutions to the problems that afflict us. But there is no way forward without the light. Without the light, 2020 will be just as dark as 2019 and all the years before that.
The light that we need, the light that Isaiah prophesies about, is the light of Jesus. Isaiah spoke as if this light was already shining forth in his day, “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” he says. The Christ had not yet been born, but the promise of His coming filled the people’s hearts with hope. If God’s arrival in the flesh was like the sun shining brightly, the Gospel promises found in the Old and New Testaments are like the rays stretching out from the sun (U. V. Koren’s Works, Vol. 1, p. 81).
These rays of light still shine forth in the darkness and have reached our own hearts. These rays come through God’s holy Word. God’s Word shows us the light of Jesus. It draws us out of darkness “into his marvelous light” (1Pe. 2:9). His Word calls us to “Arise!”—“Get up!”—“Look to the light!” We do this by acknowledging our sin and guilt. We repent of the wrong we have done and trust in the forgiveness Jesus won for us. We don’t want to stay in the darkness. We don’t want to lose the light. This, more than anything else, should top our list of New Year’s resolutions.
We want to stay connected to the light of Jesus, because only in this light is there a clear way forward. Only in this light is there hope. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Joh. 8:12). His light brings life. Without His light there is no life. Think of a life here with no light at all. These overcast wintry days are bad enough, but the sun still gives light, and when darkness comes we can flip on a switch and fill our homes with light. But a life with no light at all—no natural or artificial light—would be absolutely terrifying. We would not know where we are or where we might go.
By faith in Jesus, we know exactly where we are headed. We are on our way to heaven, to His kingdom of everlasting light. We are going there because He came to rescue us from the darkness. His coming was like the sun rising above a world that had never seen light. Imagine how bright that would be to eyes used to the darkness. Some might shy away from the light and run further into the shadows. But others would want to find the source of that light. This is what Isaiah describes: “the LORD will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
The coming of the Christ brought people from near and far, including those wise men from the east. His light continues to draw people to Him. And how do they see that light? Through the Word. And how do they hear that Word? Through God’s people. If Jesus is like the sun, His followers are like the moon reflecting the sun’s light.
We want others to see this light in what we do and say. We “shine” as believers when we share the Gospel message of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus. We “shine” when we carry out our tasks and responsibilities diligently and honestly with love for our neighbor. A life lived for worldly glory, for selfish purposes, is a wasted life. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world…. [L]et your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mat. 5:14,16).
We don’t need to pursue worldly glory, because God gives us a glory that will never pass away. He gives us the glory of being spotless in His sight by faith in Jesus. He gives us the glory of being heirs of His eternal kingdom. He gives us the glory of being seated with Jesus our King in heaven (Eph. 2:6).
What God does for us is far greater than what we can do for Him or for the world. I’m sure the wise men agreed. They laid before Jesus their treasures of “gold and frankincense and myrrh,” but these were trifles compared with the gift of laying eyes on their Savior. This is why the wise men “fell down and worshiped him” (Mat. 2:11). We also present our gifts to God of a life of devotion, prayer, and thanksgiving. But what we receive from Him is far greater than what we give to Him.
Jesus blesses us every time we hear His Word of grace and partake of the Sacraments with faith in His promises. This is where His light comes to us today and how His glory rises upon us here. The wise men saw more than a baby; they saw the Lord of heaven and earth. We also see more than water, bread, wine, and words in the Divine Service. We see Jesus’ bright presence here among us.
We see Him by faith in these humble, visible elements of Word and Sacrament because He has promised to be here. He is here to shine His bright light of forgiveness into hearts and minds troubled by guilt and shame. He is here to uncover the anger and hatred we feel toward another and to relieve us of these burdens. He is here to lighten our spirits with His shining grace and to give us healing and hope in all our difficulties and trials.
“Arise, shine,” says Isaiah, “for your light has come!” You can “arise” and “shine” with confidence each day, knowing that your Savior is here. He came out of love for you. His presence with you means you will have His blessings in the new year just as He has given them to you in the past.
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The Transfiguration of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 17:1-9
In Christ Jesus, “the bright morning star” (Rev. 22:16), who by His glory reveals the glory that we shall have, dear fellow redeemed:
A number of years back, I bumped into a guy that I probably hadn’t seen for two or three years. Only a short time had passed, but I almost didn’t know who he was. He had lost a lot of weight, and his face had changed so much it was hardly recognizable.
A similar effect happens with those who have a complete makeover. They get their hair done, their teeth fixed, maybe their tummy tucked, and they are outfitted in new clothes. Family and friends are brought in to witness the transformation, and they are amazed at what they see. “She’s like a new person!” they say.
They are right. The individual seems “like” a new person, but she hasn’t changed substantially. She has only changed on the outside; she is still the same on the inside. She may have a bit more confidence than she did before, but she has the same personality, the same abilities, the same opinions and beliefs.
Making changes on the inside is harder than making changes on the outside. Those who make New Year’s resolutions know this well. Perhaps you resolved to exercise more this year or be more patient or look for opportunities to help others or study the Bible more. And maybe you are doing these things. But it is so easy to revert to old habits. How many times have you told yourself that you will never do one thing or another again? You won’t let temptation get the best of you. You will be stronger than before.
You might even tell the people around you that you have changed. They can doubt you, but you will show them! And sometimes that happens. Maybe that really is the last drink, the last binge, the last lie. But such drastic changes are not easily accomplished and hardly ever by the force of one’s own will. As long as we live, we will struggle to do what is good and to maintain good behavior. This is because sin clings to us. We got it from Adam & Eve. Their corruption of God’s holy creation has been passed down generation to generation all the way to us.
We call this corruption in our flesh the “old Adam” or “original sin.” Our Catechism defines this as “the total corruption of our whole human nature, inherited from our first parents, which makes us inclined only to evil and unable and unwilling to do that which is good” (2014 ELS Catechism, p. 77). This explains why it is so hard for us to stop sinning and live holier lives, particularly if we try to accomplish this on our own.
There are many who suggest that if you only keep a positive outlook and focus on your goals and pray harder that you can become a better person. In other words, they say that the power to improve and succeed is found inside you. With this message, self-help gurus with their best-selling books have wormed their way into the church. But they do not belong. God does not tell you to look inside yourself to find the strength for improvement. He says to look to Him. It is only through Him that real and lasting change can happen on the inside.
We see how small the disciples plans’ looked when they were face to face with the glory of the Lord. When they saw Jesus shining with brilliant light, and Moses and Elijah conversing with Him, Peter stammered that he would be glad to build tents for each one to make this moment last. The evangelist Mark tells us that Peter “did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (Mar. 9:6). Then a bright cloud came over them, and the voice of God the Father boomed from the cloud. This caused the frightened disciples to fall to the ground and hide their faces.
Why did they act this way? The disciples were afraid because they were in the presence of the holy God. This made them aware of their unholiness. Think how foolish they would have sounded if they started to tell God all the ways they had tried to improve themselves and all the good things they had done for Him. They knew they were nothing but weak, sinful men, and He was the mighty God, perfectly righteous.
Their only hope in this moment was the Man before them, who was much more than a man. “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” said God the Father; “listen to Him.” Jesus was God in the flesh. But His human nature stood out more than His divine nature. This is because He did not make full use of His divine powers. He produced miracles and signs that no other human could do, and yet He did not show forth His glory in all its brilliance. He did not shine with the kind of light that caused those around Him to cover their faces or hide.
The exception to this was Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. There, He revealed His glory to Peter, James, and John. They saw Him as they had never seen Him before. They now saw with their eyes what they had confessed Him to be by faith: “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mat. 16:16). What He had come to do was to offer Himself as the sacrifice for sin, “the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1Pe. 3:18). The disciples had not grasped this yet. They could not see why He should have to die and rise again (Mar. 9:10).
The reason was so that the unholy might stand in the presence of the holy God. It was so that the disciples and you and I would no longer have to feel the guilt of sins past or the pressure of trying to prove our worth. “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24). We cannot escape the sin we have inherited, the “old Adam,” which still causes us to commit more sin. We cannot get ourselves right with God.
This is why Jesus took our place. He took the fall for our self-assured attitudes. He suffered for our failed attempts at doing better. He died for us so that we could be transformed from the sinners we are and changed from the inside out. This inner spiritual transformation began in a very unassuming way. It started at our baptism. Through baptism, our heart of sin was cleansed and filled with faith. In those waters, we were claimed as our Lord’s own, we were buried and raised with Him (Rom. 6:4), and we were covered in His righteousness (Gal. 3:27).
But His glory which fills us and covers us is not visible as long as we are in the world. No one can tell by looking at us that we are children of the heavenly Father. There is no special mark on us. There is no glow showing that God abides in us. We get sick and suffer just like unbelievers do. We sin like they do. To unbelievers, it seems that our devotion to God and His Word is a hindrance to life in the world and gives us no advantage over them.
But we do have an advantage. We have hope, a certain hope. We have hope of a better life after this one, when we shall join our Lord in His glorious presence. We have hope that our bodies which are full of sin and imperfection will soon be glorified like Jesus is. We believe this because Jesus did not stay in the grave after His death. He is not simply a Man. He is the true God who rose again and is seated in glory at the right hand of the Father.
From that position of all power and glory, Jesus powerfully works in our hearts through His Word and Sacraments. These are the means by which He strengthens us to forsake sin and to live a godly life. This power to do better does not come from inside us, but from Him. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6).
We grow in sanctification not by relying on ourselves to do better but by keeping our eyes on Him. We grow by leaving our sins every day at the foot of His cross and being absolved of them through His cleansing blood. This is how we walk in the “newness of life” begun at our baptism (Rom. 6:4). We humbly and sincerely confess our sins and rely on Jesus’ righteousness. And then His fruit will be seen in us, the fruits of faith which show our love and thankfulness to God.
We disciples of the Lord do not look so glorious now, but we will on the last day. On the last day, the transformation that happened at our baptism will be evident in our changed appearance. When Jesus comes in all His glory, our transformation will be like His was on that high mountain. As His face shone like the sun, so will ours. As His body beamed with bright light, so will ours.
The apostle John, who was with Jesus on the mountain, confidently writes, “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1Jo. 3:2). And Paul says, “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1Co. 15:51-52).
On the last day, sin will no longer weigh us down, the devil will no longer torment us, and we will feel no more terror or fear. We Shall Be Changed Like Him, and we shall join Him in the bright light of His glorious presence forever.
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(painting by Carl Bloch, c. 1865)
The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 8:23-27
In Christ Jesus, who is near us and with us and even resides inside us by His never-ending grace, dear fellow redeemed:
With the extreme cold we experienced last week, we have many modern blessings to be thankful for. We are thankful for furnaces which keep our homes at a nice, constant temperature and for the fuel and electricity that run them. We are thankful for phone and internet service which keep us connected to others. We are thankful for cars that get us from point A to point B in dangerous conditions. We are thankful for indoor plumbing.
The situation was quite different for the immigrants who settled the countryside, building grass huts and log cabins. Their indoor heat came from the fireplace which sent more heat up the chimney than into the room. If there was an emergency, there was no easy way to contact anyone. To get anywhere, they had to take off on foot or by horse. There was NO indoor plumbing.
The disciples likewise had few options when a great storm troubled the sea. They could not call for help or send a distress signal. They had no motor to get them quickly to land. They were captive to the violent rise and fall of the waves which threatened to sink the boat.
If you have gone boating in the past, I hope you have been spared an experience like this. Of course we don’t have to find trouble on the sea—there is enough of it on land! Some of you have lost property or goods due to flooding, drought, or other severe weather. You were helpless to stop it and could only hope that it would pass quickly.
Others have faced trouble besides disasters in nature. For some, it may be health problems. You have long dealt with a chronic condition or a weakness in your body. Or you were surprised to be diagnosed with a serious infection or disease. Others have financial difficulties. You made some poor purchasing or investment decisions. You borrowed more than you could pay back. You did not receive what was promised you. Others have dealt with personal attacks, betrayal, loss of loved ones, severe temptations, and gnawing guilt.
In any of these situations, you may feel like those disciples did in the boat. You are thrown this way and that, and you wonder how you will survive the storm. You hang on for dear life, and you pray. And while all the trouble is going on, you wonder why God is taking so long to help. Doesn’t He see you suffering? Doesn’t He know your worries and fears? Where is He?!?
When life is sailing along smoothly, it is easy to think that God is present. You believe that He smiles upon you and guards you from all evil and misfortune. If you like the “footprints in the sand” picture, these are the times that you cheerfully walk side-by-side with the Lord.
The danger of these times is that we can become so comfortable with our prosperity, health, and happiness that we think our success is due at least in part to our own abilities and efforts. Imagining that we walk side-by-side with God in those good times gives us entirely too much credit. The reality is that every good thing we have and experience is from God. He does not walk beside us as an equal. He carries us and provides for us like a mother cares for her infant child.
But like young children, we are prone to throwing fits when life does not go our way. We want God’s attention now! We want Him to end the pain or fix the problem. We blame Him when relief does not come when we want it. His seeming absence or inaction makes our troubles seem even greater than they are. We think to ourselves that if the Lord has the power to help, why doesn’t He?
The devil really has a heyday at times like these. He is eager to help you see God as an enemy. He wants you to think that the waves of your trials will flood the boat and cast you into deeper affliction. The devil is a master at turning molehills into mountains. He does this with disputes between Christians or disagreements within a family. He wants you to imagine that the sins of your past are like chains you can never escape from. He wants you to see God as an angry judge instead of a merciful Savior.
But if the Lord is with you in the good times, why shouldn’t He be with you in the bad? Is He so ready to leave you? In today’s text, there is no indication that the weather was threatening when Jesus and His disciples got into the boat. It may have even been a sunny day with a gentle breeze helping the boat along. Perhaps the disciples talked about what ideal conditions these were. Jesus did not express any concern about the weather. He was tired from the demands of the crowds and laid down on a cushion in the stern (Mar. 4:38).
But then clouds began to drift in, dark clouds. The wind picked up. The boat bobbed and tilted. Waves began to wash over the sides and soon drenched the seasoned sailors. Where was Jesus when all this was happening? He was still in the boat. He hadn’t gone anywhere. But He was asleep. The disciples cried out to Him: “Wake up, Lord! Save us! We are perishing! Don’t you care? Help us!”
Jesus’ response was twofold, and the disciples did not expect either one: First, He said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” and then He rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm.
Why did Jesus ask if the disciples were afraid? Who wouldn’t be afraid in those circumstances? This was a test. It was about the same as asking the disciples: “Who am I? What do you know about Me? Do you think I would let harm come to you?” They, like we, needed to be reminded of these things.
We need to be reminded that since God created us, He is not going to ignore us; since He redeemed us, He is not going to condemn us; and since He called us to be His own by faith, He is not going to forget about us. Do we follow some teacher who died and was buried long ago, and who still lies buried? No! We are disciples of the living Lord, the Lord of heaven and earth!
So then “why are you afraid?” Why are you afraid of failure and hardship and loss? Why are you afraid of God’s abandonment and anger and condemnation? Why are you afraid that the waves of all that is painful and bad will swamp your boat? It is because you have “little faith.” This is true of all of us. We think we are alone in the boat and it is about to go under.
But the Lord is with you. The boat is not yours, it is His. That you are in the boat at all is a testament to His grace. By nature you were drowning in your sins, but by baptism Jesus pulled you out of the swirling waters and into the boat with Him. More than that, Jesus joined you to Himself at your baptism. He made you a member of His own holy body. At your baptism, He made a commitment to you that He would never abandon you, never let you drown in the difficulties of life.
But baptism does not mean all troubles have ended. Prior to conversion, the sinner is in bad shape, but he is not really aware of it. He is floundering in sin, but he doesn’t understand his dire situation. When a sinner is converted, he joins Jesus in the boat and only then realizes how bad things are around him. He sees the storms of godlessness raging all around him and the rocks of unbelief where Satan would destroy his soul.
But as long as he stays in the boat with Jesus by faith, He is safe. Faith connects him to Jesus, and Jesus is not afraid of any danger. No eternal harm can come to the one who trusts in Jesus. This picture of the Lord’s boat is the reason why the seating area in churches is called the “nave.” This is related to the word “naval” and comes from the Latin word for ship (navis).
When Christians enter the nave, they come where Jesus is. He is present through Word and Sacraments to drive away fear and strengthen faith. As His people cry, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” in the divine service, He replies, “Peace! Be still!” (Mar. 4:39). He delivers peace through the absolution and the preaching of the Gospel. Then He fills them with His own body and blood which cleanses them and renews their courage.
The nave of this church is where we pull our eyes away from the storms around us and inside us and look to Jesus. Who will condemn us since He gave Himself in our place to redeem us? What is there to fear since He is our Lord? What can harm us since He is here with us? He can stop all the raging of the winds and sea with just a Word.
“What sort of man is this?” asked the disciples. This is a man like no other. Jesus is the eternal God begotten of the Father, and He is the human son of Mary. God became Man to throw Himself into the raging waters to lift us to safety. He sacrificed His life, so we would be rescued. If He would do that for you, He will not forsake you in times of trouble. Though He may seem to be sleeping at times, He hears your cry and will not fail to help you.
Your fears may often overwhelm you, and you may display very “little faith.” But Jesus credits you with His perfect faith. He fills you with His perfect courage. No matter the conditions around you, no matter the storms that threaten you, you can rest peacefully and securely—because The Lord Is with You in the Boat.
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(“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” painting by Ludolf Backhuysen, 1695)
The Third Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 8:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who invites all sinners to partake of the eternal glories of heaven by His grace, dear fellow redeemed:
Whose fault was the government shutdown, which just ended on Friday? I can tell you. But you already know the answer. The interesting thing is, your answer may not match the answer of the people around you. Your answer probably has something to do with the direction you lean on the political spectrum. You, like most Americans, are partial to one political party more than the others. You are more likely to give the adherents of one party a pass, while criticizing the other side.
There is nothing wrong with having such opinions. This is part of what it means to be a citizen of this country. The fact is, we show partiality about a lot of things. We are partial toward the sort of vehicle we drive or the kind of farm equipment we operate. We are partial toward certain types of food or certain brands of clothing. We are partial toward particular sports teams or certain hobbies and activities.
But as much leeway as we have to be unique and express our opinions, not all partiality is harmless. Parents know how important it is to try to be consistent with their kids and not play favorites. If they don’t, their children will become either resentful or spoiled. Partiality can lead us to sin in other areas too. We can be partial to the wrong group of people who exert a bad influence on us. We can be partial to the wrong kinds of ideas which lead us to hate people who are different than us, or to regard others as less than us simply because of how they look, how they talk, or where they come from.
In today’s text, we find Jesus interacting with people who were viewed unfavorably, or who were at least regarded as inferior to the general populace. The first was a leprous man. Since the time his skin disease was discovered, he was forced to leave his home and family and live by himself or with other lepers. As Old Testament law dictated, he had to announce his approach by shouting, “Unclean, unclean!” (Lev. 13:45). It was a wretched, lonely life.
But word about Jesus’ ability to heal the sick and afflicted was spreading. “[G]reat crowds followed Him.” The leprous man took the chance of coming near Jesus. “Lord, if You will,” he said, “You can make me clean.” Now Jesus did not owe him anything. And this man had nothing to offer Jesus to make a healing worth His while. But he did have faith. He believed that Jesus was not simply a man and not just a gifted teacher. He believed that Jesus wielded the power of God, and that He could bring healing if He wanted to.
And Jesus reached out and touched the man and said, “I will; be clean.” It is an important detail that Jesus touched him. Most would not have considered doing this. What if the leprosy latched on to them? We have great admiration for the doctors, nurses, and clergymen throughout history who have been willing to minister to those with infectious diseases. While many run away from threats, God has given some the courage to run toward danger out of love for neighbor.
The other significant factor of Jesus touching the man is that for this action Jesus should have been considered unclean according to Old Testament law (Lev. 5:3). But by His divine power, the whole situation went in reverse. Jesus, who was clean, did not become unclean; rather the man, who was unclean, became clean! Then Jesus told him to show himself to the priest and to offer the gift commanded by Moses, which included a few lambs and a portion of grain (Lev. 14). We assume by this instruction that the man cleansed of his leprosy was a Jew, one who was acquainted with the Scriptures.
So Jesus brought healing to this leprous man and made it possible for him to return to his home and family. No longer would he be an outcast and considered unclean. He was once again welcomed into the community because of the Lord’s grace toward him.
Shortly after this, Jesus was approached by a Gentile, a non-Jew. The Jews interacted with the Gentiles as little as possible. They were taught to regard them as “unclean.” This particular Gentile was also a centurion, a military commander of the Roman army, which watched over all the activities of the Jews. But contrary to expectation, this Roman centurion was kind to the Jews. He came to Jesus requesting help for his young servant who had been paralyzed. The elders of the Jews even spoke to Jesus on behalf of the centurion. They said, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (Luk. 7:4-5).
But the centurion humbly declared, “Lord, I am not worthy”—“I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Jesus marveled at his words and said, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” And He healed the man’s servant at that moment.
So we see Jesus bestowing His grace upon both a Jew and a Gentile. Their culture and their backgrounds were quite different, but He helped them just the same. How Jesus acted toward these humble men is consistent with what the Bible says again and again: “God shows no partiality” (Rom. 2:11, Luk. 20:21, Act. 10:34, Gal. 2:6, Eph. 6:9).
This passage is at the same time a warning and a comfort for us. Another way to say “God shows no partiality,” is to say that God is no respecter of persons, that He shows no favoritism. The son or daughter of a business owner can sometimes get away with questionable practices or a bad work ethic. But that is not how it is with God’s children. He is partial toward us in the sense that He loves us and wants us to receive His blessings. But He is impartial when it comes to His justice.
His children, claimed as His own through Holy Baptism, do not operate by a softer set of standards. He does not look the other way when they do wrong. If anything, God’s children by faith should be even more attuned to and concerned about His righteous Commandments. We know what our sins required. We know that Jesus was punished on the cross in our place. We know He suffered the eternal torments of hell for us. Should we then go out and live our lives as though Jesus has done nothing for us? James writes that “you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (Jam. 4:15-17).
One thing we know we ought to do is treat everyone around us the same. We should “love our neighbors as ourselves.” These neighbors are the people we pass in the hallways at school, the people we interact with at work, and the people in our communities. Some of these neighbors are harder to love than others, and it is easy for us to favor one over another. Of course we do have the right to choose who our close friends will be. But we do not have God’s blessing to hate specific neighbors or deal spitefully with them.
We can think of many times we have failed at this. We have gossiped about and ganged up on a classmate or co-worker. We have looked down at people whose background and behavior are not like ours. We have thought ourselves to be something and others around us to be nothing. If we persist in these sins and feed our self-righteousness and our self-worship, we will be condemned for these sins. “God shows no partiality.”
But when we like the leprous man and centurion come before Jesus with humble hearts of faith, confessing our wrongs and trusting in His grace, He will show favor toward us as He does toward all penitent sinners. This is how God’s impartiality is such a comfort to us. He does not keep track of how often we have sinned against Him. He does not compare our life with the lives of others. He does not count any of our sins as too great to be forgiven. He does not lose patience or turn His back on us.
When we kneel before Him covered in our sins, burdened by the memory of our wrongs, and pray, “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean”—we don’t have to wonder at His response. He says, “I will; be clean.” He already died for these sins. His blood cleanses our impure hearts. He will not ignore a humble cry for forgiveness, no matter who prays it or what that person has done. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,” said the psalmist; “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psa. 51:17).
Whether you are a Jew or a Gentile, a male or a female, a child or a grown-up; whether you are wealthy or poor, respected or despised; whether you are on the left wing, the right wing, or somewhere in the middle—“God shows no partiality.” He loves each one of you just the same. He sent His Son to die for your sins and rise again for your justification. He sends the Holy Spirit to strengthen your faith. And He wants each and every one of you to “recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” The Lord Bestows Grace Impartially, and He bestows it upon you.
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(picture is a portion of a Byzantine mosaic in Sicily)