Septuagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5
In Christ Jesus, who gives us holy food and drink to strengthen us for the race of this life that we must run, dear fellow redeemed:
Our country is serious about its sports. A survey from 2017 indicated that the American people spent about $100 billion in a year’s time on sporting events, athletic equipment, and gym memberships. For the Super Bowl last weekend, advertisers didn’t mind paying millions of dollars for a 30-second TV commercial. They knew people would be watching, and more than 100 million viewers were.
But our obsession with sports is not simply an American thing or even a twenty-first century thing. Athletic competition goes back in ancient history, probably all the way to Adam and Eve, or at least their kids. Humans have always been concerned about who is the fastest, who is the strongest, who is the most skilled. The Olympic Games were created in 776 B. C. as a way to measure these things on a grander scale. About 200 years after that, a similar event called the Isthmian Games was started. This was held in Corinth and featured recognizable events like racing, wrestling, boxing, and discus throwing.
The Isthmian Games made Corinth a hub of athletic activity. The athletes likely trained and participated in competitions throughout the year. The Apostle Paul spent an extended time in Corinth during his missionary journeys—more than a year and a half (Act. 18:11, 18). He saw firsthand the dedication of the athletes and may have even been present at one of the national Games.
He knew when he referred to athletic competition in today’s text that he was “speaking the language” of the Corinthians. It’s our language too. We understand what he is talking about when he mentions racing and boxing and the training needed to succeed. He writes: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.”
If you are serious about sports, you don’t put in all the time and hard work, push through injuries and pain, to come in second. You train to win. A kid who is content with a participation ribbon is not serious about winning. And there is nothing wrong with competing just for the fun of it and not caring about winning or losing. But if the goal is winning, that requires sacrifices.
Paul writes that we should go all out to obtain the prize. But he is not really talking about athletic competition. He is talking about our life of faith. He urges us to dedicate ourselves to spiritual training and exercise, so we do not lose the prize the Lord has prepared for us. And what is that prize? It is the imperishable crown, very different than the perishable wreaths won by the athletes in those days, whose leaves soon withered. The imperishable crown is everlasting life which Jesus secured for sinners through His death and resurrection. This crown is reserved for all who believe in Jesus. He assures us, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).
But how exactly can we “train” or “exercise” our faith? It is not simply a matter of going through the motions. Even athletic training requires more than muscle. It requires heart and strength of will. All the physical, mental, and emotional resources of a person must be focused on the goal if he wants to succeed.
We need to approach our spiritual goal in a similar way. We can’t take for granted that the prize will be ours if we make no effort to obtain it. It would be absurd for a fifty-year-old to think he could compete in a marathon simply because he “ran a couple times” as a kid. This is like the adults who feel they are in good shape with God simply because they got baptized and confirmed at a church many years before. They figure as long as they are on the congregation’s books, they are on their way to heaven.
Saving faith, though, is hardly a matter of “checking certain boxes” or of doing certain “churchy” things because “we are supposed to.” It is certainly good to attend church, but simply being present does not mean faith is being exercised. You could be sitting here physically, but your thoughts could be a million miles away. Or in your mind, you could be rejecting the things you hear: “Oh, I’m not really as sinful as that!” Or, “I don’t go along what the Bible says on this point.” Or, “I’m a good person; I deserve to go to heaven!”
Or you could come to Communion and bow your head with the rest of us, but you come more out of obligation than anything. You are not especially troubled by your sins. You don’t have a strong desire to be nourished and strengthened by the body and blood of Jesus. You just feel it is important to keep up appearances.
Does this sound far-fetched, like something that wouldn’t happen to you or the people around you? Then listen to what Paul wrote about the Israelites, the chosen people of God. He said that all were delivered from slavery in Egypt. All were led by Moses through the midst of the Red Sea. They all looked up to him as their leader. They “all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.” But not all of them remained believers. Not all of them were saved. Paul said that “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”
Do you see why our spiritual training and exercise is so important? We cannot take for granted that we will inherit heaven simply because we are connected to a congregation or because we have generally tried to live the way Christians live. Salvation comes through faith in Jesus. It comes from knowing, trusting in, and being comforted by what He did. It comes from recognizing that there is no other way for us to be saved (Act. 4:12).
Salvation does not come from our work. Jesus made this abundantly clear in the parable in today’s Gospel reading. All the vineyard workers received the same wages no matter how long they had worked. The ones who worked the longest weren’t cheated, because they were paid exactly what they had been promised (Mat. 20:1-16). It is a parable that expresses the grace of God, that He saves us out of the abundance of His love.
It was His love that caused God the Father to send His only Son to us. Jesus came with no ambitions for personal success or glory. He came to redeem us from our sin and death by giving Himself in our place. This was no easy thing to do. He had to resist countless temptations to sin, fully keep God’s law, endure great anguish and pain, and die on a Roman cross. He maintained His gracious resolve, and He accomplished His goal: our salvation. The author of Hebrews tells us that “for the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2).
Jesus finished that bitter race for you. He carried your sins to His death and suffered the torments of hell on your behalf, so you would have forgiveness and eternal life. On the third day He rose again to show that the victory over sin and death is yours and all who believe in Him. But if He already won the race, if He already obtained the victory, what more is there for us to do?
There is nothing we can do to win the victory. The victory is ours by faith in Jesus. But as we learn from the example of the Israelites, that faith can be lost. It can be lost by spiritual laziness, by not taking time to hear and study God’s Word at church and at home. It can be lost by letting our guard down, which makes us vulnerable to the attacks of the devil and our sinful flesh. It can be lost by rejecting our training and running off into sin.
This is why Paul, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, urges us to “exercise self-control in all things.” The very term “self-control” tells us that we need to maintain spiritual discipline, so our “self” does not lead us in the wrong direction. Paul clearly recognized the harmful desires of our sinful nature. This is why he diligently disciplined his body and kept it under control.
He did not run without purpose. He did not box for show. In a letter to Timothy, he said his spiritual training and exercise bore fruit. The Lord strengthened and kept him in the saving faith until his earthly end, so that Paul could gratefully say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2Ti. 4:7).
Our spiritual growth as Christians is always by the grace of God. We cannot get ourselves to heaven. But Jesus promises to visit and strengthen us through His powerful Word and Sacraments. These are the means He uses to carry us to the finish line in this life and on into His eternal kingdom. We stay focused and connected to Him by repenting of our sins, filling our hearts and minds with His Word, and applying our will to His work. We are not running to lose. We don’t want to lose what Jesus won for us.
We Strive for the Imperishable Prize. It may seem a long way off in the distance, but we will be there before we know it. We confidently run forward saying with Paul, “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2Ti. 4:8). God grant us all the grace and strength to finish this race in faith and to receive the blessed crown of life.
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 ancient street in Corinth)
The Baptism of Jesus – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 3:13-17
In Christ Jesus, who did not come “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (Joh. 3:17), dear fellow redeemed:
When John the Baptizer started preaching in the wilderness of Judea, the prominent theme of his preaching and teaching was repentance. God sent him to be a voice waking people up from their spiritual slumber. John didn’t hold back. He didn’t care what sort of standing a person had, or what might happen if he pointed out their sin. When he saw a number of the Jewish religious leaders coming to be baptized, he called them a “brood of vipers” (Mat. 3:7). He told them to “[b]ear fruit in keeping with repentance” (v. 8). If they would not, they would be “cut down and thrown into the fire (v. 10).
And if you think I’m tough, he said, just wait till you meet the One who comes after me, “whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (vv. 11-12). What sort of man did the people expect would follow John? Whatever they imagined, John’s message made them all the more ready to humble themselves and acknowledge their sins.
When the people thought about the coming Messiah, perhaps they thought about the times God made His presence known to the people of Israel. They may have imagined the descent of the LORD upon Mount Sinai when He delivered His law to Moses. The whole mountain was wrapped in smoke as though coming from a great furnace. The mountain shuddered, and when Moses spoke, God answered in thunder (Exo. 19:18-19). Is this how it would be with the One who followed John? Or would He come in a thick cloud like the one that filled the holy place of the tabernacle and temple (Exo. 40:34-38, Lev. 16:2,30)?
While the people waited with nervous anticipation and fear, Jesus was quietly going about His business in Nazareth. We know nothing about His life from His youth until the start of His public work except for the words of St. Luke: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and men” (2:52). So He was intelligent and well thought of in His community. But no one would have matched Him with John’s description of the Coming One. Would that change with His official anointing?
His anointing as the Christ is recorded for us in today’s text. He came where John was by the Jordan River to be baptized by him. John did not realize yet that Jesus was the Christ, but he knew that Jesus was a righteous man. He said, “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” Jesus’ response shows that He had not come to condemn everyone. He came “to fulfill all righteousness.” This required Him to be baptized, to join the company of sinners who also entered the waters.
But He was not baptized to wash away His sin. He had no sin of His own to wash away! He was baptized for all humanity, in every sinner’s place. He offered Himself as their Substitute, taking their sins upon Himself, sins that He would pay for with His life at Calvary. The significance of this moment was clear by what happened next. Jesus came out of the water, and “the heavens were opened to Him.” Then the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove and rested upon Him, and a voice came from above, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Now John knew. This was the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior promised for thousands of years. “I myself did not know him,” John said, “but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (Joh. 1:33). So the Coming One had come. But He did not come exactly as expected.
God the Son did not descend from heaven with fire and smoke and other terrifying displays of power. He came humbly, looking just like other men. The other Persons of the Trinity revealed themselves in humble ways too. God the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a small dove. And God the Father spoke from heaven clearly but gently and with a message of love. In other words, the Triune God revealed Himself at the Jordan River not with terrifying displays of glory and might, but with grace.
This looks so different than the scene at Mount Sinai, but then the purpose of God’s appearance was different at each place. At Mount Sinai, God was giving the people His law. The law should provoke fear in the hearts of sinners. If they do not do God’s will, they must answer for their transgressions. This was emphasized by all the burning, smoking, and thundering on the mountaintop. This was a God who should not be taken lightly, and who expected the people to obey Him.
What happened at the Jordan River was not a display of God’s wrath, as those who heard John might have expected. Jesus’ baptism was a display of the Gospel, of God’s love for humankind by sending them a Savior. Jesus had come to give Himself in the place of sinners and to fulfill all righteousness for them, so they would not have to face the holy wrath of God.
What we see at Jesus’ baptism is how it is for our baptisms too. There are some who would turn baptism into a law event. They say that baptism is about what we do for God. They think this is where we must fully dedicate ourselves to Him and promise to live a holy life. It’s no wonder that these do not find comfort in their baptism. They know they have not lived up to their promise. They know they lack the righteousness that God requires.
But baptism is not a law event, it is a Gospel event. It is where God commits Himself to us. It is where He makes promises that are as sure and unchanging as He is. It is where He bestows His forgiveness on us and covers us with His righteousness. There are many beautiful passages in Scripture that underscore this.
Listen to Titus 3:5-7 and ask yourself who is doing the action: is it us, or is it God? “[A]ccording to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” This says that God saved us by His mercy, washed us in baptism, and applied Christ’s perfect work to us. We are now justified—declared innocent—by His grace and are counted as heirs of God.
Romans 6:4 explains how baptism marks the drowning of our sinful nature and the awakening of faith. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Galatians 3:27 tells us that we look much different in God’s sight after our baptism than we did before. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
These and many other passages teach us that In Baptism, God Comes Down with Grace. We don’t go to Him to give Him something He needs. He comes down to us to give us the blessings that we couldn’t live without. It doesn’t seem possible that baptism would have such significance. It looks so simple. What good can a couple handfuls of water and one short sentence do? But Jesus’ baptism probably didn’t look very impressive either. We learn about its significance by the subsequent opening of heaven, the Holy Spirit’s descent, and the voice of the Father.
The Triune God does not show His presence at our baptisms, but He promises that He is here. It is His Word and ultimately His water that are used in baptism. He is the One who gives parents and guardians the will to bring their children to baptism, and He is the One who calls pastors to administer baptism. The Lord wants people to be baptized, and He does not fail to be present with His gifts.
Because His power and promise are what drive baptism, it only needs to happen once for each individual. If baptism were simply an expression of our commitment to God, we would need to be baptized many times, because our commitment toward Him is constantly in flux. But because baptism is a sacrament from God through which He makes a commitment to us, it is only needed one time.
We are baptized once only, but we return to those cleansing waters of baptism every time we repent of sin and trust in the gracious forgiveness of Jesus. In confession, the penitent sinner is really asking God, “Do You still love me? Do the promises You made at my baptism still stand?” And the absolution is God’s reply, “Yes, the work of My Son to save you is finished. Through His blood your sins are forgiven, and His righteousness is yours by faith. I have not and will not change My mind about you; you are My baptized child.”
The absolution is God’s assurance that heaven remains open to all who trust in Him. Heaven was opened to you at your baptism just as it was opened to Jesus at His baptism. From heaven, the Father continues to speak His gracious Word, the Son continues to apply His forgiveness and righteousness to you, and the Holy Spirit continues to fill you with His comfort and peace.
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 portion of 1895 painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)
Septuagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 20:1-16
In Christ Jesus, who chose us by grace to be first in His kingdom though we are considered last in the world, dear fellow redeemed:
The presence of our circuit visitor at our churches last weekend was a new experience for all of us. He was here to observe how divine services are conducted, to learn about member participation in the work of the church, and to discuss the blessings and challenges we face in the church and in our community. His goal in each of these areas was to encourage us to remain faithful to the Word of God, and to grow in love toward God and one another.
In a sense, his “parish visitation” functioned as a sort of “performance review” for our congregations. This was healthy for us to take part in. We know we do not operate perfectly as a congregation, and that there is always room for improvement. We are also glad to receive encouragement to keep the good things going. A performance review done well can help to sharpen the focus and strengthen the purpose of an individual or organization.
In today’s text, Jesus administers a sort of performance review for the entire Christian Church. He uses a parable to talk about the motivation for our work, our attitude toward the work, and our reward for the work. He said that “the kingdom of heaven is like” the owner of a vineyard who went looking for laborers. The first ones he found agreed to work for a denarius a day, which was a fair wage. He found more standing idle at the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours and hired them with the promise of compensation, but with no specific amount set.
All the laborers were glad to be employed. More than likely, they were waiting in the marketplace because they hoped someone would come looking for workers. If they did a good job, they knew they would receive payment and would likely be well-positioned to be employed in the future.
These laborers signify Christians, those who have been called by the Gospel to work in the Lord’s vineyard. This includes the work done in and for a congregation. But it also includes the work you do in your vocations in the world. The Lord has called you to confess His truth no matter what you are doing, and to reflect His love no matter what you are involved in. This includes your interactions with your spouse, your children, and your extended family. It includes your work and behavior at your job, among your friends, and in your community. You carry out each of these vocations as a Christian, as one who has been called out of the darkness of unbelief into the light of God’s grace.
But the work is not always easy. The laborers hired at the first hour described themselves as those “who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Those are challenging working conditions. It’s hard to work on a blistering hot day. The harder the conditions are, the more energy is expended by the worker.
You may not feel much discomfort as a Christian as long as you are respected and valued by others. But when you are criticized or attacked for your beliefs, the heat is much more intense and the working conditions more unpleasant. Working in the Lord’s vineyard—living out your calling as a child of God—is difficult, and there are many controlled by the devil who want your work to fail.
Still, there is plenty of motivation for being a Christian, such as the comfort of knowing your sins are forgiven and life has been won for you by Jesus, and the confidence that your life of faith is pleasing to the mighty God who made everything good.
The motivation is there, but our attitude does not always reflect our confession. Of those working in the vineyard, some do not endure the scorching heat as well as others do. They constantly complain about their pain and troubles. They imagine that no one has it as bad as they do. Every burden, both the heavy and the relatively light, elicits groans and tears. These Christians need more training in the Word to bear up under troubles with patience and to keep their eyes fixed on Jesus while they carry their cross after Him.
Other workers are tempted to take it easy and let others do the heavy lifting. This includes a laid-back attitude about hearing and learning God’s Word and supporting the work of the church. They figure they can slide by on a little faith. They tell themselves that they could always pick up the pace down the road if the situation calls for it. These Christians are lazy. They need to be reminded what trials and torments the Savior endured to redeem them from their sins.
Others are hard workers. Despite set-backs and obstacles, they keep plugging along. Sometimes the heat is intense, but they know relief will come. They meet challenges one day—or even one hour—at a time, knowing the Lord has not forsaken them and will come to their aid. But these Christians are not perfect either. They grow tired of the Christians around them who don’t seem to put forth the effort they should. Or they become resentful of those who don’t know how good they have it, those who did not have to go through the hard times they did.
It is this last category of workers that Jesus especially talks about in the parable. The workers hired at the first hour assumed they would receive more than those who were hired later. After all, they worked longer and harder. Their raw fingers, sore muscles, and burnt skin proved it. If those who worked just one hour were paid a denarius, then those who worked all day should receive a great deal more.
Instead, they received exactly what they were promised: one denarius. “This isn’t fair!” they said; “this isn’t right!” You can imagine the looks on their faces – quite different from the looks on the faces of those who received the exact same pay for much less work. These would have looked at one another with astonishment and joy and said, “What good fortune! Look what we were paid for so little work!” The vineyard owner turned toward one of the grumblers and said, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”
We wouldn’t like this so much if it happened where we work. But we give thanks and praise to God that this is the way salvation is distributed to sinners. We sang about this in the chief hymn for today, “Salvation unto us is come / By God’s free grace and favor” (ELH 227, v. 1). Salvation is given not to those who have the best attitudes or work the hardest. Salvation is given to all who trust in Jesus for their salvation.
It does not matter how long you have been working in the Lord’s vineyard or the amount of work you have accomplished. What matters is not your work. What matters is Jesus’ work. If you want to talk about bearing burdens and feeling heat, think about Jesus. He bore the burden of every sin—every wicked thought, every wrong word, every sinful action. He took the full weight of your sin, my sin, and everyone’s sin on Himself and carried it to the cross. On the cross, God the Father poured out every ounce of His wrath against sin upon His only Son. There, Jesus felt the heat of the eternal fires of hell in the place of all sinners.
Looking to Jesus and everything He suffered for our salvation lightens our burdens and troubles. When we see what He endured, we are assured of His love for us. One who would go through all that for us is not going to forget about us. His sacrifice in our place also inspires us to work harder and to think more about the needs of our neighbors. Since He has already completed the work of our salvation for us, we are free to serve Him and others. We don’t have to worry about impressing the boss. We don’t have to put on a show. “It is finished!” (Joh. 19:30), said Jesus. The work is done. The reward is yours.
And what is that reward? The reward is the same for everyone who believes in Jesus alone. The reward is “the crown of righteousness” (2Ti. 4:8), “the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10), which is bestowed on all believers. It is eternal salvation in the presence of the holy God. It is never-ending joy with all the saints who humbly counted themselves last. The saints in heaven do not begrudge the Lord’s generosity. They know that no one would be in heaven except by His grace, His undeserved love toward them. They deserved eternal punishment but received eternal life instead.
So, dear friends in Christ, It’s Time for a Performance Review. Each of us can see where we have not been the best workers for God. We have complained about our burdens instead of relying on the Lord’s mercy and grace. We have taken His goodness for granted instead of honoring His gifts with our best effort. And we have judged others as being lower than us, while expecting greater reward because of our better efforts. There is plenty of room for us to improve.
But in Christ, we are forgiven for our impatience when the burden seems too heavy. In Christ, we are credited with perfect righteousness even when our faith is weak. And in Christ, we are redeemed from our self-righteous attitudes and our pride. We deserve no reward for our own flawed efforts. But Jesus’ performance in our place is perfect, and He gladly shares with us His eternal reward. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from 11th century Byzantine manuscript of laborers working in the vineyard [lower portion] and receiving their denarius [upper portion])
The Baptism of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 3:13-17
In Christ Jesus, who fulfilled all righteousness for you, dear fellow redeemed:
In the home where you grew up, how often did you hear the words, “I love you”? Did you and your siblings ever say it to each other? Did your parents say it to you? Did your parents say it to each other? These words can be said so much that they are hardly noticed. Or they can be said so little that love is questioned. This is like when Lena asked Ole after thirty years of marriage if he loved her any more. Surprised at the question, Ole said, “Of course I do! I told you so on our wedding day!” As you know, it is not safe in a relationship to assume that the other person knows what you are thinking. Thoughts must be shared and communicated, even if it isn’t always comfortable to do so.
But it seems that we are at a disadvantage when it comes to communication with God. He knows all about us. He knows when we sit down and rise up. He discerns our thoughts from afar. Even before a word is on our tongue, He knows what we will say (Ps. 139:2,4). He knows what we are thinking, but how can we know what He is thinking? He says He had a plan laid out for our life even before we took our first step (Eph. 2:10). But what is that plan? Is there any way to find out?
There are some who try to discover the hidden will of God. They are always on the lookout for special messages and special dreams from God to guide them in making life decisions. Some say they can hear the voice of Jesus in their heads, or that they can feel the Spirit leading them in one direction or another. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a relationship with God like that? But more often than not, what people perceive as the voice of God is actually the voice of their old Adam or even the devil.
God does not think the way we do. This is exactly what He says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9). There are hidden mysteries of God that cannot be understood in this life. There are answers that must wait until heaven. So is there no way to know what God thinks about us?
We wish the Father spoke to us like He did to His Son. After Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” God the Father could not have been clearer about His thoughts toward His Son. Jesus could go ahead with His saving work knowing that He had His Father’s approval. And why wouldn’t the Father approve of Him? Jesus was perfect.
But perfect, you and I are not. We are far from perfect. God gave us good to perform, and we did evil. He gave us work to do, and we shunned it. He gave us laws to follow, and we broke them. John the Baptizer did not mince words about people like us. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” he cried out. “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt. 3:8,10). Have you produced good fruit? Have you produced enough of it?
You and I are plagued with the daily evidence of our inadequacy. Yes, we put on a cheerful attitude at work, but our hearts are full of judgment toward our co-workers. Yes, we feed and clothe our children, but we don’t always view them as blessings. Yes, we voice our commitment to our spouse, but we let ourselves indulge in fantasies about others. Yes, we say we are thankful for what we have, but we secretly wish we had what others do. As much as we try to watch what we do and what we say, we struggle to control our thoughts. And the harder we try to control them, the more we are aware of our failures.
We shouldn’t imagine for a moment that our sins are somehow hidden from God. He knows about every last one. This is why we wouldn’t mind some reassurances from Him. We would like to know that He still loves us and is not angry with us. We want to be sure that we are not outside His grace, and that He will take us to heaven when we die. Is there some message He could send to make this clear? Yes! In fact, He has many comforting messages to send our way.
One of them is recorded by the evangelist Matthew, a message detailing the baptism of Jesus. What is confusing about this account is why Jesus thought He needed to be baptized. You and I know that one of the blessings of baptism is the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus had no sins to be forgiven. So why did He want to be baptized? John wondered the same thing. Jesus told him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.” It was not to gain righteousness for Himself; He was already perfect.
Jesus stepped down into the waters of the Jordan River for you, to take up your sins. When your hands are dirty, you go to the sink and let the clean water wash all the dirt away. The opposite happened to Jesus. Though He was perfectly clean, He let the sins of the world be poured out on Him at His baptism. This includes your sins, even the sins of your mind. Each sin was poured upon Jesus, and they stuck there. Now they were His to carry, and He would not be relieved of them until three years afterward when He breathed His last on the cross.
But Jesus did more for you at His baptism than taking up your sins. He also left His righteousness in the waters of baptism. He left His righteousness, so that when sinners are baptized, His righteousness sticks to them and stays with them as long as they remain in Him. The Apostle Paul writes, “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor. 5:21), and “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).
So at your baptism, you “put on Christ.” You were covered in Him. What was His, became yours. His holiness, His atoning blood, His victory over death—all of these were given to you. By baptism, you were buried and raised with Him (Rom. 6:4). You were born again to new spiritual life (Ti. 3:5). You are not as you were before; you are a new creation (2Cor. 5:17).
God looks at you differently now. He does not see you covered in your sins, cowering in the kingdom of darkness. When He looks at you, God the Father sees His Son. He sees His obedience and His perfect righteousness. In you, He sees a beloved son, with whom He is well pleased.
Baptized into Christ, one with Christ by faith, you truly are a son of God. And why is it important that you are called a “son”? Why not a “daughter” of God, or simply a “child”? Those terms are fine, but “son” expresses something more. It was the firstborn son in a family who stood to inherit what belonged to his father. It is as the father told his oldest son, who pouted about the warm reception given to his prodigal brother—the father said, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Lk. 15:31).
All that God the Father has is yours through faith in His only-begotten Son. Jesus your Brother is not jealous about the kindness shown to you by His Father. He gave Himself in your place, so you would have this glory and joy. He was willing to do this because He loved His Father, and He loved you. He gladly took your place in the depths of sin, so you could have His place in the heights of heaven.
Jesus is the proof of God’s love for you. You will never be certain of His love if you wait for Him to send you special, personal assurances of it. If you wait for an “I love you!” to boom down from the clouds, you will be waiting a long, long time. The place to hear God speak to you is not in your head or in your heart. It is in His Word. This is where God’s love in Christ for all sinners is made crystal clear.
This love was personally bestowed on you in your baptism. In baptism, you did not choose God; He chose you. He made an undying commitment to you, which He will never forget and never break. Through those waters, you were incorporated into the body of Christ, as so many other blessed sinners have been throughout history. You were brought into the family of God, and placed alongside Christ as an heir of His eternal blessings.
This is where you stand with God, and where you will continue to stand by faith in His Son. Your humble repentance for your sins will not be met with a cold shoulder or with burning anger. Those sins were put on Jesus, and His righteousness was put on you. You are baptized into Christ. Your sins are forgiven. “[F]or in Christ Jesus You Are All Sons of God, through faith…. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:26,29).
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(picture is portion of 1895 painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)
Sexagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 8:4-15
In Christ Jesus, “the Sun of Righteousness” which rose “with healing in its wings” (Mal. 4:2), dear fellow redeemed:
In the classic movie, White Christmas, Bing Crosby shares a bit of advice with a friend. “When I’m worried, and I can’t sleep,” he croons, “I count my blessings instead of sheep. And I fall asleep counting my blessings.” It probably isn’t bad advice, but it is no easy thing to count blessings when things are going poorly. What would Job have thought if his friends had tried to comfort him after the loss of everything he had with a, “Cheer up, old boy! Look on the bright side! Count your blessings!” He would have called them miserable comforters, which they were, but for other reasons.
We should count our blessings. Every day we should give thanks for the good things God freely gives us, for the ability to think and work, for our food and clothing, our home and possessions, a God-fearing spouse and children, good friends and neighbors, peace in our land, seasonable weather, and much more. Then there are the spiritual gifts God provides, such as the forgiveness of our sins, the comfort and strength of the Holy Spirit, the protection of the angels, and so on. We have more blessings than we could begin to count.
But we have many troubles too, and the troubles can seem a lot bigger than the blessings. The troubles can seem so overwhelming that we stop seeing the blessings at all. We might even forget the blessings we had in the first place. Or we might just as easily lose sight of the blessings when everything seems to be going well. Then we think that our success is due to our own abilities and effort and has nothing to do with God.
The sermon text for today deals with exactly these attitudes. Jesus calls on us to open our eyes and ears to the great blessings of God. To illustrate this, He described a sower casting seed in his field. Not wanting to miss any good ground, he liberally broadcast the seed. Some fell on the hard path where it would not grow, some upon rocks where it could not take root, some among thorns which choked it, and some in good soil where it grew and produced fruit. And He called out to those around Him, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
What did He mean? Wasn’t everyone gathered there to listen to Him? Weren’t their ears doing what they were supposed to? But Jesus was not simply concerned that people were close enough to hear what He was saying. He wanted them both to hear His words and believe in Him. He wanted them to consider how the things He taught applied to each one of them. He wanted everyone to do what His disciples did, which was to inquire of Him and to look into “what this parable meant.”
But many did not do this. Some of them might have been drawn away by other commitments; they had no more time to spend with Jesus. Others might have thought, “We are just simple folk; the theologians and philosophers can figure out these teachings!” Some might have imagined they had nothing more to learn, since they had a godly life pretty well sorted out. But they sure hoped this person and that one were listening!
The excuses haven’t changed. People still identify a million reasons why they don’t have time to listen to Jesus’ Word. Or they cloak laziness in humility and expect others to preserve the truth for them. These have no strong desire to advance in knowledge beyond what they learned as children so many years ago. Or they compare themselves to their ignorant and worldly friends and figure they are in as good a shape as anyone.
Then what happens when tests and temptations come? They might get sick, or lose their job, or lose someone they love. They are faced with questions they don’t remember how the Bible answers. They fall into sin and realize they are not all that different from the sinners around them. How are they supposed to deal with those things?
Some decide that God must not love them, or that He does not exist. Or they shape him into a more accommodating god, one that suits them better. These are the ones that let the devil take the Word from their hearts, “so that they may not believe and be saved.” Others wonder why the Word does not excite them like it used to, why it has become so difficult to motivate themselves to hear it. “It must have been a phase,” they think, “but it was empty. The Word did not supply what I thought it did.” And these fall away. Still others grow in the Word for a while, but they take it for granted. They get comfortable going through the motions but not actually engaging head and heart. They care very little about maintaining pure doctrine or living according to the Word. The faith in these is slowly choked and dies.
And how does it stand with you? Do you have ears to hear what Jesus says? Do you desire to grow in His Word and gladly hear and learn it? Do you “hold it fast in an honest and good heart”? Do you desire to “bear fruit with patience”? Sometimes you do. Sometimes you are that rich soil, in which the Word grows and produces fruit. But sometimes your heart is hard and unwilling to hear the Word, sometimes you haven’t let the Word sink deep roots and have the kind of stability and presence in you that it should, and sometimes you have considered your cares, riches, and pleasures to be more important than anything else.
Could it be, then, that you have only thought you were a Christian, but are not one in reality? Are you one that is condemned to “see but not see,” and to “hear but not understand”? The enemies that would coax us away from the saving Word of God are many, and they are formidable. We do not have the luxury of sometimes letting down our guard or just coasting along. Human history is full of people who trusted God for a time, but then rejected Him and died in unbelief. Some of them grew up the same way you did, had the same spiritual training as you, had every advantage that you have, and they threw it away.
But here you are. And the God who created you, who redeemed you, and who sanctifies you—He is here too. He is here with blessings to give you. He has secrets to reveal. You sit here today before Jesus, just as the people did in today’s text. And Jesus tells you this parable about a sower sowing his seed. What do you make of it? You don’t have to wonder at its meaning. But you do need to pay attention to it and humbly apply it to your life.
Jesus calls out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” And then He picks you out of the crowd and draws you into the inner circle of His disciples. You hear the same words today that they heard so long ago. “To you,” He says, “it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God.” Don’t you want to know those secrets? So many throughout history have wished they could be sitting where you are, and to hear what you hear. And this privilege has been given to you!
These secrets are not revealed to the unrepentant, or to the self-righteous, or to the proud. “God… gives grace to the humble” (1Pe. 5:5; Prov. 3:34). The penitent, the lowly, and the humble are those whose hard hearts have been crushed by the law. The Holy Spirit cracks opens their heart like a clam shell to reveal all the wickedness and sin hiding there. It must be cleansed. So Jesus pours in His holy blood to purify it (1Jn. 1:7). Cleansed of sin, the heart is ready to be filled with good things, to have faith grow, and to produce fruits.
It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that the bad ground of the heart becomes good soil receptive to the Word. By your own reason and strength, you cannot make God’s Word take root and grow in you. On your own, you can only get in the way. But God is both faithful and powerful. He wants you to hear His Word and believe it. He wants you to hear how Jesus lived perfectly in your place, how He gladly grew in the Word and did not let it get snatched away, scorched, or choked. He wants you to believe that Jesus took your sins—your sins of indifference and unfaithfulness and stubbornness—and paid in full for each one with His holy blood.
These are the secrets that the world neither knows nor cares about. But to you, they are secrets revealed. Peter writes that “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1Pe. 1:10-12).
See What Has Been Given to You! The salvation and grace that prophets longed to see, that angels long to look into, these are yours. You don’t have to look for a Savior that will come; the Son of God already became incarnate for you. You don’t have to hope that you will be forgiven; Jesus died in your place for your sins. You don’t have to worry what your enemies might do to you or what will happen to you when you die; Jesus rose from dead for you and declared His victory yours.
Through the living waters of His Word, the Lord continues to nourish and strengthen your faith in Him. He brings that tender plant to maturity and finally to harvest. When you are gathered in with the heavenly harvest, nothing will block your view of the countless blessings of God. No earthly riches and pleasures will be missed, no sin will be remembered. Then you, God’s cherished plant, will bask eternally in the bright, warm light of God’s Son.
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(picture from Hortus Diliciarum, a book compiled by Herrad of Landsberg, a nun living in the 12th century)
Septuagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 20:1-16
In Christ Jesus, who bore the burden of sin and the scorching heat of hell to save you, dear fellow redeemed:
It is at a very young age that children begin to develop an eye, a keen sense, for fairness. If a child sees his mother holding a different child in her arms, that isn’t fair. If you have a toy and I don’t, that isn’t fair. If the piece of dessert you get is bigger than the one I get, that isn’t fair. If Mom or Dad tell me to clean up a mess I did not make, that isn’t fair. But that keen sense for fairness is troublingly inconsistent. If things are going the way someone wants—like receiving a bigger piece of dessert or watching someone else clean up your mess—then there is no protest.
If only this is something we outgrew. But that eye for fairness stays as sharp as ever—at least in certain situations. If a co-worker gets a raise, then I should too. If I work hard, I should be rewarded. If I go out of my way for my neighbors, they should go out of their way for me. But who is to say what is fair and what isn’t? Some say it isn’t fair for one person to have more money and another to have less. They say everyone should have the same amount, regardless of ability, experience, or work ethic. That might seem fair to those who have less, but not to those who have more. Who gets to decide?
Similar questions can be asked in spiritual matters: How does God decide whom to give blessings to and when? How is it determined who will be saved? Do we always receive what we deserve from God?
These questions are addressed in Jesus’ parable about the laborers in the vineyard. A parable is an earthly illustration that teaches spiritual truth. When Jesus spoke His parables, they always had a context. The context of today’s parable is found in the previous chapter of Matthew, chapter 19. There, we learn about a rich young man who asked Jesus, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (19:16). Jesus told him that he would enter life by keeping the commandments. The young man felt that he had kept them. Jesus replied, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (v. 21). The man went away sorrowful, because he could not bear to give up his possessions.
Thinking about Jesus’ response, the Apostle Peter said, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” If heavenly treasures could be gained by giving up earthly goods, then the disciples should be in good shape. Jesus did not deny that the twelve disciples would be rewarded for their faithful work. He said that anyone who left the comforts of this life—including home, family, and possessions—for His name’s sake, would “receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (v. 29). “But,” He cautioned, “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (v. 30).
Then Jesus spoke His parable, “For the kingdom of heaven is like.” The parable was a further explanation of His prior teaching. It was meant to expand on the warning that “many who are first will be last, and the last first.” These were good words for the disciples to hear. They were often concerned about being first, about being the greatest. They would even argue about this among themselves. But they didn’t feel so great when they ran away from Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and hid away in fear following His death. Then this parable, which might have been difficult for them to swallow when they heard it at first, would have become a comfort to them.
It should also be a comfort to us, but we have the same sinful inclinations that the disciples had. We are overly concerned about being the first in line and getting our fair share. Many of us here can recognize ourselves in the laborers who agreed to work for the vineyard owner for a denarius a day. There was no unclarity about the compensation. The payment offered for a day’s work was fair. They willingly went to the vineyard.
This is like us who were baptized as infants and have been church-going Christians as long as we can remember. We were sent into the vineyard at the first hour. We have endured “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” that comes from confessing Christ. We have experienced the disconnect from the world and the discomfort of following Jesus. We have been willing to do this, because we know we will have a heavenly reward, the gift of eternal life.
But we are not the only laborers in the Lord’s vineyard. Others are brought in at the third hour and the sixth hour, and the ninth hour, and even the eleventh hour. Some might live wildly through their teenage and young adult years before they repent of their sins. Are they of the same quality of worker as those who did not do these things? Some reject and blaspheme Jesus for better than half their life before they are brought to repentance. Shouldn’t they be held accountable for their years of unbelief in some way? Some leave a trail of lies and abuse and manipulation before they are converted. Should they really be allowed in the vineyard? These are fair questions.
But it is also fair to ask about the quality of work done by each laborer. Is the longest-tenured employee of a company always the best worker? Sometimes this is the case, but not always. A long-time employee can develop bad habits and get by on the bare minimum, while a newer worker may be grateful for the job and motivated to work hard. The same can be true of life-long Christians compared with new converts. It is also fair to ask what each worker is actually entitled to. Did the owner of the vineyard have to hire the people in the marketplace? Couldn’t he have looked for workers in some other place, or not at all?
It is a lot easier to think of reasons why others should not be called to work in the vineyard, than it is to acknowledge the things that disqualify me. But Jesus spoke this parable because He clearly perceived the plank in His disciples’ eyes, just as clearly as He perceives the plank in mine. He knows I am inclined to judge myself softly and others harshly, and that my sense of fairness is skewed in my favor.
This is how it works: If I fail to show love for my neighbor, I will tell myself that the fault lies with him or her. If someone harms me, I will justify the revenge I take since “they had it coming.” If I sin, I shrug it off as unintentional or an honest mistake, but if someone else commits the same sin, they won’t be let off so easily.
You and I are not reliable judges in spiritual matters, but God is. He knows exactly how our life matches up with His labor standard. The job of every single person is to fear, love, and trust in Him above all things, and to love one’s neighbor as himself. Sometimes we have worked hard at this, other times we leaned on our shovel and expected someone else to take care of the job, and sometimes we just ignored our responsibility altogether. What would you do with an employee who had work habits like this?
It would be fair for God to dismiss us from His vineyard. He gave us a job to do, and we have not done it. He brought others to work side-by-side with us, and we looked down on them, treating them like they were second-class. The only wages we have earned are the wages of sin, which is death (Rom. 6:23). Eternal death is the fair compensation for the sinful life we have lived.
But the Lord is merciful. Without changing His standard, which is holy, just, and good, He planned a way to fulfill it for us. God the Father sent His only Son to do the job we had failed to do. When He went about His work, He was not treated fairly. He was innocent in every way, and yet He was charged with all sorts of wrongdoing. Peter writes that “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1Pe. 2:23). He went to the cross to suffer and die for sins He had not committed—for your sins and mine. That was not fair, but it is your salvation.
You are not saved by making sure you get your fair share in this life, or by making sure that others do. Social justice is no one’s ticket to heaven. You are not saved by working long enough and hard enough in the Lord’s vineyard. No amount of your imperfect work can get the job done. You are not saved because you are somehow better-natured, less obstinate, more receptive, or any other way that human reason tries to explain why some are saved and others are not. As Paul writes, your salvation “depends not on human will or exertion” (Rom. 9:16).
You are saved solely and entirely by the grace of God. You are saved because “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8). You are saved because “He does not deal with [you] according to [your] sins, nor repay [you] according to [your] iniquities” (v. 10). You are saved because Jesus did a perfect job of fulfilling God’s standard on your behalf, and because He applied His bloody sweat and selfless work as the full atonement for your sins.
Are you in any position, then, to grumble about how and to whom the Lord dispenses His treasures of grace? Is it not an honor to work for Him in His vineyard, and an even greater honor to work there for the full span of one’s earthly life? We do not deserve this honor. We deserve to be left idle and penniless in the marketplace. That would be fair. But the Lord chooses to give to the last worker what He gives to the first. He gives the opposite of what we have earned by our sin, which “Isn’t Fair!” But it is grace!
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(picture from 11th century Byzantine manuscript of laborers working in the vineyard [lower portion] and receiving their denarius [upper portion])
Baptism of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 3:13-17
In Christ Jesus, into whose death we are buried and in whose resurrection we rise to new life through holy baptism, dear fellow redeemed:
Nothing about Jesus’ appearance as a child made people think He was the promised Messiah. He was visited by the shepherds the night of His birth, but only because the angels told them where to look. He was praised by Simeon and Anna in the temple, but only because the Holy Spirit brought them to Him. He was worshipped by the wise men, but only because God compelled them to follow the star westward to His home. After spending His earliest years in Bethlehem and in Egypt, He and His family moved to Nazareth in the territory of Galilee, where like all of us, He passed through the stages of adolescence. No one guessed by looking at Him that He was the Messiah, true God and true Man.
While Jesus was living a very ordinary life in Nazareth, a man named John “came preaching in the wilderness of Judea” (Mt. 3:1). He was the only son of a Jewish priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. John was, in a word, strange. He dressed in a strange way, ate strange things, and preached a strange, or rather, unique message. He cried out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (v. 2). And people actually listened. The evangelist Matthew writes that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (vv. 5-6). John told the crowds, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 11).
It was at this time that Jesus prepared Himself for a journey some distance to the southwest of Nazareth. I wonder what He told His mother about this trip. Did He say He was going to visit some relatives, of which John the Baptizer was one? Or did He say something like He did as a twelve-year-old, “I must be about My Father’s business” (Lk. 2:49)? Both of these things would have accurately stated the purpose of the trip. He traveled to the Jordan River where John was preaching and baptizing and asked John to baptize Him. But why? John baptized with water for repentance, and He knew enough about Jesus to wonder why Jesus should require this. “I need to be baptized by You,” he said, “and do You come to me?”
John knew there was something significant about Jesus, but as he declared later, he did not know until he began his wilderness work that Jesus was the Messiah. He explained that God sent him to baptize with water, so that the Messiah “might be revealed to Israel” (Jn. 1:31). God told him that “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (v. 33). John did consent to baptize Jesus. When this was done, the heavens opened, the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and the voice of God the Father said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
The time had finally come. Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of His public work. He was now revealed as the Son of God. John wasted no time in pointing Him out as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). The long-repeated promise of the LORD had come to pass. The Savior was here! Jesus now entered into His three-fold office as Prophet, Priest, and King. As Prophet, He would declare God’s truth to any who would listen. As Priest, He would offer up Himself as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. As King, He would assume the rule over all creation, over the Church, and over all the hosts of heaven—not only as God, but also as Man.
His official anointing into this three-fold office was seen in the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Him in the form of a dove. Isaiah had already prophesied long before that this would take place. He recorded the words of God the Son, who said: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor” (Is. 61:1-2).
On His first trip back to Nazareth after His baptism, Jesus read these exact words in the synagogue. He told the people in His hometown, people who saw Him grow from a young boy into a man, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:21). In other words, Jesus told the townspeople that He was the promised Messiah. This offended them. They did not believe that Jesus could be anything other than what they thought Him to be – the son of Joseph and Mary (v. 22). They did not know that something new had begun at His baptism.
But something new had begun, and not just for Jesus. What was it that He told John? What reason did He give for being baptized? He said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” We all know that Jesus had no sins to wash away in baptism. John perceived this also, which is why he hesitated to baptize Him. So then why did Jesus ask to be baptized? He was not baptized because of His sins, of which there were none; He was baptized because of your sins. He had to fulfill all righteousness for your sake and for all who are unrighteous by nature. You might think of it this way: when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, your sins were poured over Him. Taking that awful load on Himself, He now began the three-year walk to His death to make atonement for that sin.
He did this so that at your baptism, His righteousness would be poured over you. Paul described this great exchange between Jesus and sinners, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor. 5:21). Jesus took on your sin, so that He could endure the wrath of God in your place. He did this willingly. None of us knows what burden Jesus carried as He set out to be baptized by John and begin His public work. None of us knows how much heavier the burden got the closer He came to His crucifixion. But He carried it gladly. He carried the burden of sin for you. He wanted to save you from death. He wanted you to have perfect life with God forever. So He carried on.
We wonder how it is that Jesus could love us in this way. What did He see in us that was worthy of His sacrifice? What had we done, or what would we do, that would convince Him that this was worthwhile? The answer is nothing at all. He considered us worthy not because of anything in us, but simply because He had compassion on us. Nothing we have done or might do, could ever measure up to what He did for us. Jesus saved us by grace alone. His motivation to save us came from His own heart.
This loving disposition toward us is the reason He is gracious and merciful to us today. It is the reason He calls us to the waters of baptism where our new life begins. Jesus says that all who are born, must be born again “of water and the Spirit” (Jn. 3:5). Prior to baptism, you are a child of God, but only in the sense of having physical life through Him. By baptism, you become a spiritual child of God and an heir of His heavenly kingdom. Paul told the Christians in Galatia, “[F]or in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27). Here God clearly links baptism and faith together. When you were baptized as a baby, you were also brought to faith in Jesus. If you came to faith before baptism, baptism still confirmed your faith, and it increases your confidence in God’s promises.
Baptism is a great gift no matter when it is administered in a person’s life. Because of what it gives, we want people to be baptized as soon as possible, preferably a short time after birth. We want them to be joined to Christ and covered in His righteousness. We want them to be freed from the devil’s kingdom of darkness and transferred to God’s kingdom of light. We want them to receive what Jesus began at His baptism and what He brought to completion through His death and resurrection. Baptism is where it began for Jesus, and Baptism Is Where It Begins for you and me. As Paul said in another place, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2Cor. 5:17).
Jesus did not look that special to His Nazareth neighbors, even though He was the holy Son of God. His baptism seemed ordinary too, until God the Father opened the heavens to send down the Holy Spirit and declare His love for His Son. You likewise do not look so special to the people of this world. They do not recognize that the almighty God has claimed you as His own child, and that He did this at your baptism. Your baptism certainly looked ordinary. But when the water was applied while the words were spoken, God the Holy Spirit descended upon you, God the Son joined your body to His, and God the Father declared you to be His beloved, with whom He is well-pleased.
In baptism, heaven was opened to you, and it does not close as long as you continue to hear and believe the gracious promises of God. Now may He who began a good work in you bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6).
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Sexagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 8:4-15
In Christ Jesus, who declares the Word of God’s love to the world of sinners, dear fellow redeemed:
One of the fun milestones in the growth of children is when they start to recognize specific parts of the face. You ask where the mouth is, and they point both to yours and theirs. Then the ear, and the nose, and the eye, and the chin. The game can go on for a very long time. They can identify these parts, but they do not understand what they do. They cannot make the connection that the eye sees, the mouth speaks, the nose smells, and the ear hears. This comes later.
The part of the body that concerns us most today is the ear. Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” So the first requirement for benefiting from Jesus’ words is to have ears. If you haven’t got these, then you have no idea what I am saying right now. You could see my mouth moving, and maybe you could read my lips, but much of the message would be misunderstood. Thankfully, all of you here today have ears, through which you can hear.
You can hear the words I speak, but will you? That is the next part of what Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” It is possible to have ears but have absolutely no interest in hearing. This is often how it is when two people on opposite ends of the political spectrum argue with each other. They are not really hearing what the other person is saying. This can happen with any sort of argument, whether between spouses, siblings, co-workers, or acquaintances.
The Word of God likewise is not always welcomed. It is pleasant enough to hear how much God loves us. But it is not so pleasant to hear that we are sinners, and to be challenged when what we say we believe does not match how we live. At certain moments in our lives, every one of us has plugged our ears to God’s law. We push back against its convicting words and the accompanying guilty conscience by pointing out how much worse other people are than we. Why doesn’t God just focus on them for awhile? Or we tell ourselves that we have earned the right to some bad behavior after all the years of good we have accumulated. We show that we have unhearing ears whenever we deflect the blame for our sins onto others, or when we willfully do what God says we should not.
Hearing God’s Word means taking to heart everything that God speaks. There is no hearing without humility. Only a proud person refuses to listen. We have nothing to be proud about as we stand before God. We have no leverage to get ourselves out of sin. When the Lord speaks His law, that is the time for our mouths to close and our ears to open. The Apostle Paul writes, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19). The law holds us accountable for our wrongdoing. It is not easy to listen to. It is humbling. We feel shame. But our ears must be open to God’s law. If they are not, they will remain closed to the Gospel too.
This is sadly the status of many in our day. They do not want to hear God’s Word. Paul said that these “people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (1Tim. 4:3-4). What are some of these myths that our society has wandered after? For one, the myth that God loves you just the way you are, so you can keep living in your sin and still be right with Him. Another myth is that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you feel God’s presence in your life. Still another myth is that you don’t need to regularly hear God’s Word and receive the Sacraments to remain a Christian. Those are faith-destroying myths. They do not come from the Bible, but from sinful desires and sinful thinking.
How can these myths be exposed? Paul wrote in his letter to Timothy, a pastor in Ephesus, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (v. 2). It is the Word and the Word alone, that can break through the crust of the unhearing ear and cause faith to grow. And Jesus spreads out His Word generously. He wants everyone to hear it and be saved.
But in many places, the Word falls on deaf ears. According to Jesus’ parable, of all the places the seed of the Word was sown, only the seed in the good soil produced fruit. Just one quarter of the ground where the seed fell was fit for sustained growth. The seed that fell on the path was eaten by the birds. The seed that fell on the rocks grew up but wilted. The seed that fell among the thorns was choked. This shows us that the Word is opposed almost everywhere it is sown. Jesus said that the devil is the one that devours the seed from the hard path. He said that the plants growing on the rocks are the people who believe for a time but wilt under the heat of persecution and trouble. The plants among the thorns are the people whose faith is slowly choked by “the cares and riches and pleasures of life” until it is destroyed.
As much as we would like to say that the final category—the good soil—is where we fit in, that has not always been the case. Whenever you have willfully done what you know is wrong, you were following not God and His Word, but the devil. In those times, you let the devil take the precious Word away from you. Other times, you felt like your faith was strong, but at the first sign of trouble—health problems, challenges to your beliefs, hardships—you immediately doubted God. Whenever your heart has been filled with desire for the bright and shiny things of the world rather than the eternal riches of God, you were caught among the choking thorns. We have not always been rooted in the good soil producing all kinds of good fruit.
But no matter where you have been and what you have done contrary to God’s will, He has led you once again to this place, to hear His holy Word, to have this good seed broadcast to you. We do not truly grasp what a gift this is, that the Lord should speak His Word of grace to us. When the disciples asked Jesus about the meaning of His parable, He said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’” It was not just the twelve disciples who were blessed “to know the secrets of the kingdom of God.” You are blessed in exactly the same way. You are hearing today the same explanation Jesus shared with His disciples. He reveals His sacred secrets to you. The Lord has not hid His mercy from you so that you might see but not see, hear but not understand. His message is for you, for your ears. You need to hear it.
You need to hear it because “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). If you do not hear the word of Christ and hear it often, you will not have faith. These two things are inseparably connected with each other: God’s Word and your faith. Both of them are gifts from God. When He scatters the seed of the Gospel, it produces faith in the hearts of sinners and strengthens faith. It is not up to you to make sure you are good soil for the Word. No amount of your own plowing and digging and preparation can accomplish this. The Word does the work. The Word of God’s law first breaks through the hard, stony soil of your heart, so that it is ready for the Gospel to take root.
When you have heard the law, when you have come to an understanding of your sinfulness, that you haven’t always gladly heard God’s Word and lived according to it, then the Lord sows His forgiveness there. He forgives you for your willful sinning, for your weak trust in Him, for your preoccupation with the things of the world that do not last. He forgives all of this because of what Jesus did on your behalf. Jesus let Himself be picked at by the devil on the hard path of His suffering and death. He felt the wilting heat of God’s anger against sin. He was crowned with thorns and sent by the cross to the grave. He endured all of this out of love for you. He wants you to hear about this, but not just hear it. He wants you to hear and believe that He lived a perfect life, and suffered and died, and rose again for you.
As comforting as this message is, our ears are not always open to it. Our sinful flesh tries to convince us that it is a false hope, it is too good to be true, and that we are better off not hearing it. But it is not false hope; it is true. God the Holy Spirit has been sent for the express purpose of bringing this hope to us, of opening our ears so that we hear and believe. The Holy Spirit Is Our Hearing Aid. Without His work through the Word, we would never listen to and believe the Gospel. But because He is working, we can be sure that God’s Word will never return to Him empty, but it will accomplish His purpose (Is. 55:11).
His Word is even now accomplishing His purpose for your life by entering your ears and hearts and reassuring you that you have a Savior who loves you, who forgives you, and who will never stop fighting for your soul. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
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Septuagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 20:1-16
In Christ Jesus, who repays our sins with a double measure of His grace, dear fellow redeemed:
My first job off the farm was in the frozen and dairy department of a grocery store. This was my first taste of what it was like to work with people who had very different backgrounds than my own. If you have ever been employed somewhere away from home, you know what this is like. You have to figure out how to navigate the personalities and moods of your co-workers while still getting things done together. This is not always so easy. Not all have the same work ethic, the same ability, or the same focus.
It may not be fair to lump workers into broad categories, but certain types do emerge. There are:
- The worriers, who are always fretting about their deadlines and their job security;
- The talkers, who will gladly occupy you, your co-workers, or customers for as long as possible;
- The whiners, who complain about their fellow workers, their pay, and their duties;
- The go-it-alones, who get their work done well enough, but would just as soon avoid any human interaction;
- The lazy, who would be quite productive if only they worked as often as they checked the clock.
- And then there are the rest of us—hard workers, noble-minded, loyal—worth every penny (and probably a bit more).
In truth, there is no such thing as a perfect employee. None of us is perfectly focused and perfectly efficient. We all have our foibles and weaknesses. This is important to keep in mind as we consider Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard.
Imagine if the scenario Jesus described actually played out today. How long do you think it would take the laborers who worked all day to go online and trash the landowner’s business practices? A legal challenge would not be out of the question to address such “wage discrimination.” But the workers receiving significant pay for just an hour of work would be singing a different song. They would be shocked at their good fortune. Some of them would talk about their intentions to pay this kindness forward. Others would see the landowner as an easy target for future windfalls. If a person actually conducted business this way, he probably would not be in business very long.
But this parable, along with Jesus’ other parables, is not meant to be applied in a literal way to earthly matters. Jesus began by saying, “For the kingdom of heaven is like….” So what follows after that statement is not about the earthly realm, but the spiritual one. Jesus is describing how God functions, not how businesses and employers must function. First of all, we see that God communicates clearly. When the master of the house went looking for laborers, he told them what would be required of them and what their reward would be. These laborers agreed to a denarius a day. We also see that God is generous. He was not obligated to give the later workers a denarius each, but He chose to treat everyone the same.
The central thought of this parable is that whether you have been a Christian your entire life, or you become one shortly before your death, you receive the same reward. All believers in Jesus are saved by grace, and not by any works of their own. The Apostle Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). No person can be good enough for God, because God requires perfection. “[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” (vv. 23-24). We do not deserve to be among those working in the Master’s vineyard. We should rather have been forgotten in the marketplace of the world, sitting there idle and hopeless.
Still, we cannot help but wonder if this is all entirely fair. As the all-day workers said, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat!” Our natural sensibilities tell us that the longer we endure the heat of the devil’s temptations and the scorn of the world for following Jesus, the greater should be our reward. And Jesus seems to confirm this in His words just prior to today’s text, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mt. 19:29-30). Jesus says He will reward faithfulness, but He also warns us about self-centeredness and pride. If our motivation for living according to God’s Word is simply to get a greater reward someday, what does this have to do with love for God or neighbor?
We should recognize that we deserve no good thing from our Lord. Why among all the unbelievers of the world should the Holy Spirit have worked faith in my heart through the Gospel? Why should I be saved when I have sinned and still sin just as much as anyone? And even if I have worked in the Lord’s vineyard for a long time, who says my work has been done well?
I mentioned before the different types of workers that many of us have known: the worriers, the talkers, the whiners, the go-it-alones, the lazy. As much as they are present in the workplace, they are also present in the Church. You won’t have to look too far into your past to see yourself in each of these types:
- You have been a worrier, fretting about the pressures you feel as a Christian, wondering if God still loves you, having doubts about the future of the church.
- You have been a talker, one who can sound like a world-class Christian, but who does not always back it up with the kind of righteous life that God requires.
- You have been a whiner, who complains about your fellow Christians, about your lot in life, and about your God-given responsibilities.
- You have been a go-it-alone, one who looks out for yourself and has little interest in the needs of others.
- You have been lazy, letting the good tools of the Christian trade sit unused—God’s Word and Sacraments—, which equip you to carry out the tasks you have been assigned.
But despite your distinction as an unworthy worker, you still get a denarius. You still get a reward. Jesus opens His chest of holy treasurers and shares His riches with you—His forgiveness, His righteousness, His life. Jesus was not a worrier; He obeyed His Father’s will and did what He was sent to do. He was not a mere talker; He backed up His promises with a perfect life and a sacrificial death. He was not a whiner; He said, “[Father,] not my will, but yours, be done” (Lk. 22:42). He went to the cross alone but not for selfish purposes; He suffered alone for the sins of all people. And He certainly was not lazy; besides winning your salvation, He also actively rules over the world and the Church for your well-being.
Jesus willingly bore “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” for you. His reward for His perfect keeping of the law and His innocent suffering was God’s wrath. If anyone has been compensated unfairly, it is Jesus. But His compensation was not for His failures on the job, it was for yours. Your weak efforts and idle behavior, whether in the home, the workplace, the church, or the community, all these failures were laid upon Jesus. He received the wages of your sin. He was given the payment of your death. Everything you earned was assessed to Him, and everything He earned was assessed to you.
All that was lacking in your spiritual resume was filled in by the work of Jesus. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” But that does not mean there is no work for you to do. The next verse in Ephesians says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The Master has work for you whether you are enlisted at the first hour, the third, the sixth, the ninth, or even the eleventh hour. There are people to pray for. There are neighbors to love.
This is work that you can do cheerfully, knowing that in Christ, your reward is already secure. As Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (3:23-24). You serve your Master Jesus, the One who gave Himself up for you. He is not harsh but is patient and kind, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2Pe. 3:9). And when evening falls on the vineyard, the reward—the denarius—is the inheritance of eternal life that He obtained and gives to each one of us.
The Master Is Merciful to Unworthy Workers. Seeing what Jesus accomplished for us, we have no reason to envy one another in our work or to consider ourselves better than others. Everything is by grace. This is why we humbly count ourselves as the last, as the ones who merit nothing good. It is Jesus who calls us to the front of the line and presses into our hands the great riches of His grace.
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