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.
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 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!
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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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.
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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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)
The Second Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 2:1-11
In Christ Jesus, our Bridegroom, who visits us through His Word and Sacraments, “that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psa. 90:14), dear fellow redeemed:
John the Baptizer lived a life of extreme self-discipline. He wore rough camel’s hair clothing. He ate insects and wild honey. He drank no alcohol. His calling was not to enjoy the good things of the world, but to “be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Joh. 1:15), and to “prepare the way for the Lord” (Luk. 3:4). His disciples joined him in this disciplined life. When’s John’s disciples were later contrasted with Jesus’ disciples, John’s disciples were said to “fast often” while Jesus’ disciples ate and drank freely (Luk. 5:33).
This must have been surprising to the disciples of John who began to follow Jesus. One of these was Andrew, and two others were likely John and Peter. They joined Jesus when He left the area where John the Baptizer was working and traveled back to Galilee. There, Jesus called two more men to follow Him, Philip and Nathanael. The next event recorded in the Gospels is the wedding in the town of Cana. Jesus and His mother Mary were relatives or close friends of the bride or groom, because Jesus was invited to attend along with His new friends.
His disciples must have noticed right away how different Jesus was than John the Baptizer. We assume that Jesus enjoyed the food and drink offered at the wedding, though obviously not to excess. The other guests took the celebrating a bit further and exhausted the supply of wine. This was a problem. The celebration was not supposed to end, but it could not continue as before without more wine. Mary wondered if Jesus would do something and directed the matter to Him.
To this point, Jesus had not used His divine power in a public way. But now He asked the servants at the wedding celebration to fill six stone jars with water. And in a moment that makes every good Baptist feel uncomfortable, Jesus miraculously turned the water into wine. When the master of the feast tasted it, He told the bridegroom that most people serve poorer wine after people have “drunk freely.” “But,” he said, “you have kept the good wine until now.”
It may be surprising that the production of alcohol would be Jesus’ first public sign. But the Lord has nothing against alcohol. What He warns about is the abuse of alcohol. The Israelites were certainly accustomed to drinking wine, and it was an integral part of their Passover celebration. Using unleavened bread and wine from the Passover meal, Jesus later instituted His Holy Supper. And when the LORD described the eternal wedding feast in heaven, He specifically mentioned that “aged wine well refined” (Isa. 25:6) would be present.
Alcohol is a blessing when used in the proper way. The apostle Paul even recommended “a little wine” to his friend Timothy, “for the sake of [his] stomach and [his] frequent ailments” (1Ti. 5:23). But alcohol is often used improperly, and the devil knows how to tempt people to sin through it. The book of Proverbs warns about this: “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things” (Pro. 23:31-33). The New Testament contains the same warning (Eph. 5:18), and it says that drunkards “will not inherit the kingdom of God” unless they repent (1Co. 6:10).
Alcohol often makes bad situations worse, as the country singer acknowledges: “I drink because I’m lonesome, and I’m lonesome ’cause I drink” (Chris Stapleton). But alcohol can also make happy situations more joyful. A famous English author proposed this guide for alcohol use: “Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy” (G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, ch. 7).
In the case of the wedding in Cana, wine was present at the celebration not to dull pain, but to increase joy. Jesus approved of this celebration and was glad to play a part in extending it. We might have expected Jesus to make a bigger splash with His first public miracle. He could have produced food supplies for the poor, healed a prominent member of the community, or demonstrated His control over nature. Instead, He manifested His glory by changing water into wine at a wedding.
But that was fitting too. The Lord had not come to rub elbows with the elites. He came to be a blessing to all people. He was glad to be attending the wedding of a poor couple in a small, out-of-the-way town. This shows us that no situation we are in is below the Lord’s concern. He cares about our marriages, our families, our health, our work, and the challenges we face. We may not see any way to get past our problems, but He knows how to bring blessings out of trials.
So Jesus turned water into wine, “and manifested His glory.” In part, this was intended as a sign for His disciples, and they “believed in Him.” But what He had told His mother was still true, “My hour has not yet come.” The time to reveal Himself as the promised Messiah had come, but there was more for Him to do before His suffering, death, and resurrection. For three years, Jesus traveled between Galilee and Judea preaching the Gospel, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. He was equally willing to spend time with the spiritual leaders of the Jews as with the spiritual outcasts.
The scribes and Pharisees did not appreciate this, particularly when Jesus criticized them and absolved the open sinners. For how concerned they were with God’s Law, they did not like having it leveled against them. John the Baptizer had done this, and now Jesus was doing it too. Jesus pointed out to them that the problem was not with Him and John, but with their own corrupt hearts. He exposed their self-righteous thinking, “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luk. 7:33-34).
Their spiteful attacks did not change His loving purpose and work. He continued to show mercy to the people around Him in humble service. Just before His entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus told His disciples, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mat. 20:28). This is why He came and was manifested to the world. He came in humility “to give his life as a ransom for many.”
After riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus declared, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Joh. 12:22). His glory would come through His death. He was “betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Mar. 14:41) and handed over to be crucified. Paul writes that Christ “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phi. 2:7-8).
Through His humble sacrifice, Jesus paid for our many sins. These sins include our worry that His love for us may run out, our overindulgence in earthly things where moderation is called for, and our failure to see the great blessings God has provided us, especially the blessings of marriage and family. Jesus took these sins upon Himself and suffered for them, so God now declares us absolved of every sin.
This forgiveness of sin is imparted to us through the means of grace. These humble means are the ways that Jesus continues His humble service to us today. He comes to us through the preaching of the Gospel, through the water of Baptism, and through the bread and wine of Holy Communion. By partaking of these things with faith, we join the wedding feast of salvation.
And who are the bride and bridegroom at this feast? Jesus is the Bridegroom, and all believers in Him are the bride. Jesus wedded Himself to the human race by taking on our flesh and dying for the world’s sins. We sinners are joined to Him through Baptism, by which we are presented to Him “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph. 5:27). We are holy in God’s sight because of what Jesus did for us. Our sins are covered over by His righteousness.
By Baptism we were buried with Him in His death and raised with Him to new life. Through this union with Christ, we are called by His name, and we gain His own reputation and status. We common sinners are now joined to the holy King! We share in His glory, though it is a glory hidden in this world.
Soon this glory of our Bridegroom will be manifested for everyone to see. Then His humble work of salvation will be acknowledged by all, and His followers will join Him at the heavenly feast. There, such rejoicing will take place that cannot be imagined now. But we can be sure that our troubles will be forgotten, our joy will be full, and the supply of God’s abundant blessings will never run dry.
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(picture is 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, whose life of perfect righteousness is bestowed upon us through His holy Word, dear fellow redeemed:
Parents want their children to be respectful, hardworking, and clean. These things don’t happen on their own. Parents teach their children to say “please” and “thank you.” They insist that their children finish their homework. They tell them to brush their teeth and pick up after themselves. One reminder does not do the job. These lessons must be repeated many times until they (hopefully) become habit.
But not all lessons are learned by verbal reminders. Children learn many things simply by watching their parents and following their example. My father demonstrated what it looked like to work hard and not complain. He taught his sons to show respect for women by opening doors for them, and he taught his daughters in the same way what to expect from a man. My parents taught us that Sunday is church day, and we went every week. They didn’t have to tell us these things; they showed us these things.
Today’s text indicates that Joseph and Mary also kept up good spiritual habits in their family. They would have attended their local synagogue each Sabbath day to hear the Scriptures, recite Psalms, and pray. And once a year, they made the several day journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. The Passover celebration was significant to the Jews like Good Friday and Easter are to us. The Passover was when the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt and started their journey to the Promised Land. Without the Passover, there was no freedom—and no nation with its spiritual center in Jerusalem.
Imagine how children must have looked forward to this trip, to leave their small towns and communities and join the great crowds in the holy city. Families navigated the narrow streets while fathers and mothers told their wide-eyed kids to “Stay close!” The kids couldn’t help being distracted. There were so many people and so much going on! But what they most wanted to catch a glimpse of was the shining temple, standing high on the hill.
When the temple came in view, Joseph and Mary must have told Jesus more than once about the day they brought Him there when he was a baby, just forty days old. As the law required, they were to present Him to the Lord in the temple. When they entered the temple courts, a man named Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and predicted great things about Him. A woman named Anna also came over and told everyone around them that the Redeemer had come.
What do you suppose Jesus thought about these things as He got older? What did He think about the visit of the shepherds the night of His birth, the words of Simeon and Anna at the temple, the visit of the wise men, and the flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s rage? When we were younger, people made predictions about what we might be and do, which probably had something to do with the vocations of our parents. And then we all reached the point where we wanted to be nothing like our parents—before we became something like our parents….
As children, we may have been told that we could be the President of the United States someday, or a professional athlete, or a famous actor. But no one actually expected us to be this. Jesus was called the Messiah, the Savior, and the Light of the world, and those who said so fully expected Him to do it. What would a twelve-year-old boy make of all these things?
Of course, Jesus was not simply a boy. He was God. And God knows all things and has power over all. But Jesus was still a human being. As a human being, He did not make full use of His divine powers. He humbled Himself. This means it was possible for Him to learn and to wonder about things. He wondered about those predictions for His life. Where could He go for guidance, for deeper insights about what was coming? What better place than the Holy Scriptures, and what better teachers than the ones in the temple?
Now that Jesus was twelve, His parents trusted Him to do some things on His own. Expecting that He was part of the group going back to Nazareth, they left Jerusalem. But Jesus was not part of the group. He had gone to the temple. He found the temple teachers and sat among them, “listening to them and asking them questions.” For at least parts of three days, the boy Jesus gladly heard and studied God’s Word.
But He wasn’t the only one learning. All who listened to Jesus’ questions and responses “were amazed at His understanding and His answers.” It was not as though Jesus was presuming to lecture the group. He did not take the teacher’s chair. He humbly studied under those in authority over Him. But teaching is not a one-way street. Those who teach probably learn as much themselves as their students do. I suspect you would agree with this if you have taught Sunday or Wednesday School or helped your child with a Catechism lesson.
The same is true with home devotions. When parents lead devotions with their children, they learn just as much as their children do, if not more. Sometimes the learning comes from insights their children have or from questions they ask. Have you ever had a child ask you a profound question about God or about the meaning of life? It takes you by surprise. These don’t seem like the kinds of things children think about, but they do.
Besides the questions they ask, children model for adults a strong faith in Jesus. The minds of adults are full of doubts about God and His love and the future. But children are not troubled by these things. They sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” and they believe it wholeheartedly.
Jesus Himself pointed to children as the model for faith. On one occasion, parents were bringing their children to Jesus for His blessing. Jesus’ disciples were trying to keep them away. They thought children were a distraction to His work. Jesus was not pleased. He told His disciples, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mar. 14-15). His words still stand. You and I do not outgrow the need for a childlike faith.
But having a childlike faith does not mean being content with the basic teachings of the Bible and digging no further. When a child has a hobby, does he just declare what his hobby is but never do anything with it? No! He explores it. He wants to know more about it. He wants to know how it works. Materials to advance his hobby are all he requests for Christmas or his birthday. We should be the same way with God’s Word. We should study the truth with no less dedication now than we did in Christian Day School, in Sunday or Wednesday School, or in Catechism Class.
We should want to listen to the Word and ask questions about it, just as Jesus did. We can learn a lot from a Twelve-year-old. Mary and Joseph learned from Him too. They were understandably distressed when they could not locate Jesus over three days. But Jesus had not gone to the temple to frustrate them. He said to His mother, “Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” They needed this reminder. It was probably too easy for them to view Jesus as a regular boy and to forget that He was God in the flesh.
We forget that too. We can think of the accounts about Jesus in the Bible as nice stories that don’t have much impact on us today. But Jesus was not simply a wise teacher or a miracle worker. Jesus is true God and Man, who shed His holy blood for our sins. He came to redeem us from the sins of our youth, our teenage years, our 20s and 30s, and beyond. He came to atone for our sins of being bad examples to children, of failing to study His Word, and of taking His holy gifts for granted. Jesus died for all of these sins, and He remembers them no more.
Through the message of forgiveness, Jesus also works in you good and holy desires. He leads you to pay closer attention to His Word, and He helps you to make it a part of your home life. You may not feel equipped to study the Word on your own or to teach it to your children, but you would certainly acknowledge that you have more to learn. Learning and growing in God’s Word is as simple as setting aside five minutes at breakfast or after supper or before bed to read a devotion or a chapter from the Bible. Then you and your children will develop good spiritual habits. And you will be passing along to them a greater inheritance than any amount of money or precious things.
Even Jesus, who according to His divine nature knew all things, made the study of the Scriptures His priority. His example was a powerful lesson for the adults around Him, just as it is for us today. But He is not just our example. He is our Savior. His perfect desire for God’s Word counts as our righteousness for all the times we have broken the Third Commandment. And His perfect submission to His parents and to all earthly authority counts for each time we have broken the Fourth Commandment.
His righteousness is continuously applied to us and brings relief to our conscience every time we hear His Word. You and I will never outgrow the need for this instruction and comfort. Whether you are ten or twenty or forty or eighty, God has more to teach you about the rich blessings of His grace, which Jesus obtained for you.
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(painting excerpt from “Jesus Among the Doctors” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Epiphany of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 2:1-12
In Christ Jesus, our Priceless Treasure, who by His suffering and death has unlocked for sinners all the riches of heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
Most Christian children can name the gifts the wise men brought to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Their gifts are memorable because they are unique. We know what gold is, but what are frankincense and myrrh? They are gummy substances that ooze from trees native to the Arabian Peninsula. They give off a sweet aroma when burnt, much like the incense we might burn in our homes. Myrrh was also used to sweeten wine (Mar. 15:23) and was utilized for burials, like it was when Joseph and Nicodemus laid Jesus to rest (Joh. 19:39-40).
We understand the gift of gold for the “King of the Jews,” but we are not sure why frankincense and myrrh were offered. Perhaps these were rare in the area where the wise men lived. They did in a way foreshadow the work Jesus came to do. Like a priest offering up prayers at the altar of incense, so Jesus would intercede for sinners and offer Himself as a sacrifice to God. And the customary use of myrrh for burial foreshadowed Jesus’ death to save mankind.
These were generous gifts, and they probably caught Mary by surprise as much as these strange visitors did. What a sight to see those foreigners bow down to her little Child and present their treasures! There in a humble home in Bethlehem, they worshiped Him and called Him their King. Their actions revealed the foremost concern of their hearts. Nothing was more important to them than finding this Jewish King.
Their visit also revealed the priorities of King Herod and the people of Jerusalem. Herod is known to history as “Herod the Great.” He was appointed king in Judea by the Roman senate and remained on the throne until his death about 35 years later. He was adept at pacifying his superiors in Rome while also suppressing any threat to his rule in Judea. He is known as “great” because of his ambitious building projects, most notably rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem.
But there were many other things that made him not so great. He married multiple times, discarding one wife for another if he thought he could gain politically. He also had various family members killed—including three of his own sons—when he suspected them of plotting against him. This explains Herod’s reaction when the wise men came looking for the “King of the Jews.” Matthew writes that Herod “was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod would tolerate no potential challenge to his throne. He was the king of the Jews, not some little baby!
Jerusalem was troubled because the full force of Herod’s fury was directed toward solving this problem. He quickly brought together all the chief priests and scribes and wanted to know “where the Christ was to be born.” Notice that Herod referred to the Child by His title of “Christ” or “Messiah.” He was aware of the Old Testament prophesies about this Baby.
So were the religious leaders. They correctly stated that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem. But their interest in the matter went no further. After delivering the information to Herod, they went back to their business. None of them could be bothered to investigate further, despite the sudden appearance of these strange men from the east.
And Herod could think of nothing more than protecting his earthy power. He put on a show of humility, telling the wise men that he wanted to worship the Christ-Child too. In reality he wanted to learn where the Baby was, so he could kill Him. We see here how the leaders of the church and state were occupied with the wrong things, just as so many are today. The church leaders knew what the Scriptures said, but they did not believe it. Or they feared what might happen to them if they followed it. And King Herod heard the truth, but all he cared about was himself.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about how temporary all these worldly pursuits are: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mat. 6:19-21).
In this passage, Jesus does not give the advice the world does. He does not tell you to follow your heart or trust your feelings to lead you to good things. He says the opposite. He says that if you want to know where your heart is, look at what you treasure the most. We know what we should treasure the most. We know we should treasure Jesus and His Word the most. But if that were the case, God’s Law and Gospel would occupy a large part of our thoughts. We would constantly desire to study it and live according to it.
Instead we let other things take the rightful place of God’s Word. Our primary concern may be money and securing a comfortable future. It may be respect and prestige in our work and doing whatever it takes to advance. It may be our appearance and getting others to notice us. It may be our children’s future success by giving them the best opportunities now. There is nothing wrong with money and respect and caring for our bodies and giving opportunities to our children. But these things must not be what we treasure the most.
The devil and our own flesh want us to ignore and despise our greatest treasure. They want our Bibles and devotion books to collect dust on the table or shelf. They want us to believe that there is no room in our busy schedules for regular church attendance. And when we are in church, they want us to be distracted by thinking about our plans for the rest of the day. In other words, the devil and our sinful flesh want us to starve while a feast is on the table in front of us. They want us to throw away the treasure box and the key that opens it.
But we could not hope for greater treasure than what we have in the divine service. We have God’s Word and Sacraments, through which we receive His heavenly riches. The world and our sinful flesh cannot understand this, just as they have no appreciation for the events of Epiphany. If any unbeliever looked at a picture of the wise men visiting the Child Jesus, they would say that the greatest treasure in the room was the gold. And they would think it strange to see grown men bow down before a Baby. What is so special about a Baby?
In the same way, if an unbeliever visited our church, they might think that the greatest treasure is the building with its ornate altar and other decorative features. Or they might see potential in the offerings given by the members. But they would likely be unimpressed by our liturgy, hymns, and sermon, and the strange practice of going to the Communion rail and eating bread from the pastor’s hand.
But our greatest treasure is located in those humble means. The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1Co. 1:18). The Word of the Gospel is a powerful Word. It is a Word that gives what it declares. To the weak it gives strength. To the grieving it gives comfort. To the dying it gives life. The Word gives all these things because Jesus comes through the Word, and Jesus is our strength, comfort, and life.
Paul expressed in another place his prayer for the Christians in Colossae and Laodicea, “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:2-3). Paul says that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”—all of these are found in Christ. In Him, we have forgiveness for all our sins and eternal life.
The way you lay up these treasures for yourself is to gladly hear and learn the Gospel and to hunger and thirst for the saving body and blood of Jesus in His Supper. It may be difficult for you to grasp why God is so good to you and so willing to give you His gifts. How could He be that eager to come to one who is often distracted by the things of the world? How could He make you such a priority, when He and His Word are not always at the top of your list?
God’s love for you and me is impossible to comprehend. His love is the reason that God became Man and was born in Bethlehem. His love is the reason the Christ Child was revealed to the wise men through a special star in the sky. His love is the reason Jesus offered His life for yours to save you from your sin and death. In one of his hymns, Paul Gerhardt wrote about the great riches we have through the shedding of Jesus’ blood:
Enlarge, O thou, my heart, thy shrine,
To hold this treasure given;
Far greater treasure here is thine
Than earth and sea and heaven.
Away, gold of Arabia,
Away, myrrh, aloes, cassia!
I’ve found a better portion,
My greater treasure, Jesus Christ,
Is this which from Thy wounds most blest
Flowed forth for my salvation. (ELH #331, v. 7)
Jesus—with His perfect righteousness and cleansing blood—Is Our Greatest Treasure. The wise men believed this too. They knew their gifts were not equal to their King. No amount of treasure in the world could be a sufficient offering for the One who made all things. But Jesus does not yearn for these things. What He desires most from us is a humble heart of repentance and trust in His everlasting promises. As Gerhardt wrote in another hymn:
The world may hold
Her wealth and gold;
But thou, my heart, keep Christ as thy true Treasure.
To Him hold fast
Until at last
A crown be thine and honor in full measure. (ELH #161, v. 6)
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(late 1800s mural, “Adoration of the Magi,” is displayed in the basilica in Conception, Missouri)
The Third Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 8:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who is worthy of eternal praise, dear fellow redeemed:
Much had changed since Jacob left his father’s house to travel to the land of his uncle. He had gone there for two reasons: first, his brother Esau wanted to kill him after he deceitfully took Esau’s blessing, and second, he was hoping to find a wife there like his father had before him. When he left, Jacob was poor and alone, but as he made his way back, he brought with him a large family and great riches. He recognized that these tremendous blessings had come from the LORD. In prayer he said to God, “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant” (Gen. 32:10).
But even though he recognized his unworthiness, he still was not shy about holding God to His promises. The night before he would encounter his brother Esau, a mysterious man engaged him in a wrestling match. Their struggle continued until daybreak, when the man wanted to leave. Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (v. 26). The man consented and blessed him. Jacob had wrestled with God and prevailed. Jacob was not worthy of this blessing, but through faith he received it.
The same was true of the leper in today’s text. Leprosy was a terrible disease of the skin. It was very contagious and deadly. When a person was found to have leprosy, he was required to leave his family and home and join a community of other lepers. It was a depressing and painful existence, and there was little hope for healing. What leverage could a man like this apply to Jesus? How could he convince Jesus that he was worth healing? He could do nothing but fall before Him and say, “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean.”
He did not list off all the things he would do for Jesus if he were healed. He did not promise Him a reward. Nor did he express doubt that Jesus was even able to do what he asked. He said, “Lord, if You want, you can”—not “If you are able, please do.” This man acknowledged that he was entirely unworthy of Jesus’ help. At the same time, He expressed an unyielding faith and hope that Jesus could.
Then Jesus did something totally unexpected. If this were depicted in a movie, I am almost sure it would be shown in slow motion. Jesus reached out His hand and touched the leprous man. Anyone watching would have recoiled in horror. “Don’t touch him, Jesus! He is unclean! You might catch what he has!” But the opposite happened. The pure did not become impure; rather, the impure became pure. “Be clean,” said Jesus, and the leprosy immediately went away. In total humility, the man dared to ask for mercy, and he received it. He was cleansed.
This is exactly what happened at your baptism. Your parents or guardians brought you to the cleansing waters of the font because you were unclean. You were afflicted by something even worse than leprosy; you were full of sin. And while leprosy destroys physical health, sin destroys spiritual health. If sin is not addressed by the divine Physician, it results in eternal death. The motto of all who are brought to the font could well be the hymn verse, “Nothing in my hand I bring, / Simply to the cross I cling; / Naked, come to Thee for dress, / Helpless, look to Thee for grace. / Foul, I to the fountain fly—/ Wash me, Savior, or I die!” (ELH 286, v. 3).
We come to baptism unclean, helpless, foul, but Jesus is not repulsed by us. He looks upon us with mercy, and through His Word, He touches us with divine grace. At the prayer of parents and sponsors, “Lord, if You will, You can cleanse this child,” Jesus replies, “I will; be clean.” And the child is clean. He is washed in Jesus’ blood and covered in Jesus’ righteousness.
That is what the Lord did for each and every one of you. Through baptism, you have been freed from the leper community and incorporated into the family of God. You are no longer far off, separated from God. You have been “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). In Him, you and all baptized believers are “holy and without blemish” (5:27).
But that does not mean all your cares and trials are now over. The devil and the old Adam in you do not want you to remain in Christ. They want you to doubt God’s Word and to imagine that you are entitled to worldly success and happiness. They want you to question God’s love when bad things happen. These temptations will not stop as long as you live in this fallen world. In heaven is pure bliss, but in the world, you have trouble (Jn. 16:33).
Trouble came to the centurion in today’s text too. One of his highly valued servants had been paralyzed and was “suffering terribly.” Why did God let this happen? The centurion may have wondered this particularly because he had tried to live a life pleasing to God. He had rejected the false religion of the Romans and humbly listened to the Scriptures. The Jewish elders in that place begged Jesus to help, saying of the centurion that “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” (Lk. 7:4-5).
Did this make the centurion worthy? Did Jesus owe it to him to grant his request? Nowhere in the Bible are we told that God will give us what we ask if we somehow prove ourselves worthy. But perhaps the elders said this so that Jesus, a fellow Jew, would even consider assisting this Gentile. The Jews and Gentiles were not natural allies and friends. Even Jesus declared at a later point, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 15:24). But on this occasion Jesus said, “I will come and heal him.”
Before he reached the centurion’s home, the centurion sent friends to deliver this message on his behalf (Lk. 7:6), “Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” What faith he had! He freely acknowledged his unworthiness. He knew that according to the law of the Israelites, Jesus should not enter the home of a Gentile. He deserved nothing from Jesus, but like the leprous man before him, he boldly called on Jesus to do what only the promised Messiah could do – “only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
Now, Jesus was impressed. “Truly, I tell you,” He said, “with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” What does that tell us? It says that just because we have the right bloodline, just because we have God’s Word at hand, does not mean we will be most faithful. It is easy to hide behind these things and become prideful about externals. But faith is not built into DNA; it is not inherited like our personal traits. And salvation is not assured us simply because we belong to the right church and put offerings in the plate.
Faith and salvation are brought to us and applied to us by the Holy Spirit through God’s means of grace. We do not earn them, but we can lose them. So we humbly confess our weaknesses and sins; we acknowledge our unworthiness. And Jesus grants our request for mercy just as He granted mercy to the centurion and his servant.
The centurion said that in his position of authority, he would “say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” In His position of authority—all authority in heaven and on earth—Jesus also says to those under Him, “Go,” “Come,” and “Do this.”
He says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). Our Lord’s saving Word and Sacraments are for “all nations,” for Jews and Gentiles. He invites all to believe and receive His grace. He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28), and “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (Jn. 7:37). And for their spiritual nourishment, Jesus says, “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1Cor. 11:25). He gives His body and blood to baptized believers “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28).
Through the preaching of His Word, through Baptism and His Holy Supper, Jesus reaches out to touch you with His grace and life. He does not avoid you because of your unclean, sinful state. He does not overlook you because you have the wrong background. Unworthy Though You Are, He comes to you to forgive and strengthen and bless.
You cannot make yourself worthy of His presence and gifts. He makes you worthy to be His own by the power of the Holy Spirit. In His grace we have comfort and a confident faith, as the hymnwriter says, “Unworthy though I am, O Savior, / Because I have a sinful heart, / Yet Thou Thy lamb wilt banish never, / For Thou my faithful Shepherd art” (ELH 313, v. 3).
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(picture is a portion of a Byzantine mosaic in Sicily)