St. Mary, Mother of Jesus – Vicar Anderson sermon
Text: St. Luke 1:46-55
In Christ Jesus, you who are blessed through the gracious merits of our Lord the Son of the Most High, dear fellow redeemed:
Some Christian churches today believe and confess that Mary was conceived immaculately, completely without the stain of sin. That she was full of grace from the time of her birth and throughout her entire life. They say it had to be this way in order for her to accept the task set before her. They say she had to be a virgin because her virginity is the sign of her faith “unadulterated by any doubt,” and of her complete devotion to God’s will. Because of this they believe Mary is worthy of our prayer and she brings our petitions to the Lord.
But we know none of this is true because scripture does not speak on any of those things. God’s Word only speaks of one person who was born completely without sin and His name is Jesus. The only Immaculate Conception we believe in is the conception of Jesus Christ. God’s Word came to Mary when Gabriel visited her, and the Holy Spirit conceived the child. She became the mother of the Savior because God chose her and decided that she would be, not because of any willful decision Mary made.
Mary would give birth to a Son, but He would not be a typical son. This son would be called holy––the Son of God (1:35). He had no earthly father, but was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He was fully God according to His divine nature and fully man according to His human nature. It was only possible for the Virgin Mary to conceive a perfect human being because God the Holy Spirit caused her to conceive.
The angel Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). We confess that Jesus is the second person of the holy trinity. Jesus is true God and true man. Therefore Mary is truly the blessed virgin, the mother of our Lord.
But the fact that she is the mother of our Lord is not the only reason Mary rejoices in today’s text, or even the main reason. She rejoices because of what Jesus’ coming means for all people. The Lord has exalted those of humble estate, and The Lord helped His servant Israel, in remembering His mercy.
Mary lived in a town in the region of Galilee called Nazareth and was betrothed to a man named Joseph (Luke 1:27). We know that Mary was a virgin; she had not had any physical relations with a man. She was a servant of the Lord, she knew what God commanded in His law and she believed in the promise of a Savior. She was not of any public significance and still God sent the angel Gabriel to come to her, to inform her that she will conceive in her womb a Son and she is to call His name Jesus (Luke 1:31).
It was a great honor for Mary to bear the God-man Jesus Christ. God chose her because she had faith. But even with a strong faith Mary could not provide any help in the plan for the salvation of mankind. Rather then being prideful and thinking highly of herself Mary recognized her need for a Savior.
Mary immediately takes the spotlight off herself and shines it on her Lord. She acknowledges her humble estate. In her song of praise she mentions “He” or “Him” close to twenty times. She refers to herself four times and in each case it is only in response to what God has already done for her. She knows where her help comes from. All her help comes from the Lord, to whom she sings her praises.
The same is true for us; our help comes from the Lord, and from the Lord only. And still our sinful nature continues to get in the way. Our self-centeredness and pride want us to believe we can do it apart from Jesus Christ. We puff up our chest in arrogance and think that we have all the answers. Our own intellect and reason become our idol and we put our trust in them, elevating them above the Lord. We think we know better than God, needing results now and the results we want. If God has something else in mind for us, well we just aren’t all that satisfied with it. We make our decisions with no regard to what His Word says and without His blessing. We think of ourselves as special, but in reality we are just ordinary sinners.
God sees right through our conceited hearts. He cuts through your self-reliance and pride so that you recognize your need for dependence on Him. He brings you down in order to raise you up again. This is what God’s Law and Gospel do for you. If you were not graciously given the Holy Spirit to recognize your sin and selfishness and need for Christ, you most certainly would be lost forever. God loves you far too much to let this happen.
God has always taken care of those He calls His own. Throughout the Old Testament God used small and insignificant people to help preserve the coming of His Son. Using the small in stature to bring down the mighty. A young faithful shepherd boy kills a tall strong pagan warrior with nothing but a stone and a sling. And this same boy David would grow up to be one of the greatest and mightiest kings Israel ever saw and from whose descendants Jesus would come (Sam. 17:33, 46–51). Without God’s almighty hand over David, he surely would have failed.
Apart from Christ we are nothing. The Lord takes what is nothing and makes it significant. He takes you, just an ordinary sinner and makes you righteous in God’s sight. He makes the unimportant blessed beyond compare through His Son. He used Mary a small and insignificant servant of the Lord to bring about the Savior of the world.
It is right for us to recognize the honor Mary has of being the mother of the Lord. Mary’s relative Elizabeth just prior to our text had greeted her saying, “blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Mary truly was blessed but not more blessed than you (Luke 1:48). She was blessed because of what her Savior did for her. His payment of death on the cross was for her, a sinner who trusted in her Savior. She is a saint in heaven because of her faith in Him.
There is a big difference between honoring Mary and praying to her. We do not pray to Mary or any of the saints, nor elevate them above Jesus Christ. God’s Word tells us in St. Paul’s letter to Timothy, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).
Martin Luther greatly opposed praying to Mary and the saints. He says, “we want to hold the dear virgin and mother in all honor, as she certainly deserves to be honored; yet we do not want to honor her in such a way that we make her equal to her Son, Christ. For she was not crucified for us, nor did she die for us or pray for us on the cross; but Christ was crucified for us and died and pleaded and prayed for us with tears on the cross. Therefore honor Mary; but do not accord her the honor which we should accord Christ” (Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says, 4009 pg. 1257).
Mary was unique in that her savior would physically dwell inside her womb and be born of her flesh and blood. He would be nursed by her and raised by her. She would love him as any mother loves her son. Throughout Jesus’ life she would witness how the world would receive Him. She would hear how people talked about Him and see how badly He was treated. She knew that at some point He would be taken from her. This would be a tremendous challenge for Mary and she would need protection and support from the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless she struggled to always trust the plan God had set in motion. Mary did not always nor perfectly understand who Jesus was and what He must do. When she finds Jesus in the temple teaching as a young boy she asks Him, “Son why have you treated us like this?” Jesus responds, “why were you looking for me, did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” (Luke 2:48–49).
At a later time in Jesus’ ministry, Mary seems to have joined her family in wanting Jesus to stop teaching like He was. Some in the family try to seize Him saying, He was “out of His mind” (Mar. 3:21). Mary did not always speak up and rebuke others when they questioned what Jesus was doing. His mother and His brothers stood outside the house where He was, a house packed with people listening to Him. Jesus was told that His mother and His brothers were outside the crowd seeking Him. Jesus responded, “who is my mother and my brother?” And then with an outstretched hand He points to all who were seated around Him and He says, here are my mother and my brother and my sister, for whoever does the will of my Father is my brother, sister and mother” (Matt. 12:46–50).
Jesus makes it exceptionally clear that Mary His mother is not the focal point of His ministry; she was only a small piece of it. Jesus shows that the focal point of His ministry is the work of His Father. He was about His Father’s business, saving souls and He is as much His mother’s savior as He is yours.
Your Lord lived perfectly and went to the cross to die for you never once questioning the will of His father. You who are in Christ Jesus have everything. The Lord has filled you with good things. He has emptied you of your worldly ego and pride and filled you with God’s grace. All that was completely worthless is now replaced with something precious. Through His Word He has filled you with His Holy Spirit and given you his body and blood for nourishment. The food he provides you with will never let you hunger and thirst again. The bread from heaven, Jesus Christ Himself, fills you! You are now full and completely satisfied.
Jesus has “clothed you with garments of salvation. You are covered in the robe of His righteousness” (Is. 61:10). The promise to Abraham and his descendants was kept. The mercy of God is remembered in His Son Jesus. He has caused “righteousness and praise to sprout up before all nations” (Isaiah 61:11). His promises are kept for you, and the benefits of them continue to come to you just as “flowers continue to sprout from the earth.” All generations who believe in Him are called blessed. You are blessed just as St. Mary is.
St. Mary is a great example to all Christians. She had humility and a strong faith in her Savior. She knew that she did not deserve the honor of being the mother of our Lord and she also knew that she didn’t deserve a Savior. Yet, God chose her from eternity to bear the Son of God and also be saved by Him.
The Lord has also chosen you from eternity to believe and to be saved. His love and mercy is abundant and abounds for all who believe in Him. The mother of Our Lord truly did have a reason to rejoice, and so do you!
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “The Visitation” by Giotto di Bondone, c. 1310)
St. Mark the Evangelist – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Ephesians 4:4-16
In Christ Jesus, who nourishes and cherishes all believers as members of His own holy body (Eph. 5:29-30), dear fellow redeemed:
I expect some of you have space on a wall or a special board you have used to measure the growth of your children. My parents made marks on the back of a closet door, which worked fine until we grew past the top of the door! It’s fun to look back and see when the growth was the greatest and to imagine what it must have been like to keep us all properly clothed and fed.
If we look back in history and measure the growth of the Church, how would that look? Would we see consistent growth, or would the curve look something like a roller coaster ride? Where would we see it at its height? We could always go by numbers, but numbers don’t tell the whole story. Numerically there are probably more Christians now than ever worldwide, but that does not mean the Church is healthier than ever. In America, the majority of people claim to be Christian, but America doesn’t exactly look like a Christian country.
The health of the Church is not determined by adding up the numbers, as though it were only the whole that mattered. The health of the Church is determined by the fitness of its individual members. We use the word “member” to describe our association to any number of organizations, including this congregation. We say that we are members here. But the word was originally used to describe the parts of the body—its members. This is a fitting way to think about the Christian Church.
St. Paul uses this language often to talk about how the Church functions here on earth. He says that each baptized Christian is a part of the whole. Individual Christians may come from different backgrounds, they may speak different languages, they may look nothing like one another, but they are all members of the same body in Christ.
In his epistle to the Christians in Ephesus, St. Paul wrote that Jesus is the Head of the body, who “fills all in all” (1:23). Whether a person comes from Jewish or Gentile background, in the body of Christ all are equally partakers and beneficiaries of the Gospel (3:6). All have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus, they have life because of His resurrection, and they have peace with God through Him (2:13-17).
In today’s text from Ephesians chapter 4, we have a description of how the body of Christ grows and matures. This chapter speaks about the body as a whole, which means it is at the same time talking about each part of the body, each member. The body doesn’t grow unless each member grows. The body doesn’t function well unless its members work together.
So for equipping the saints, for carrying out the public work of the church, for building up the body, Jesus gave “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.” He sent servants to distribute His gifts, the gifts He won by living a perfect life under the Law, by dying for sinners on the cross, and by rising from the dead in victory. And He still distributes these gifts today.
He distributes these gifts by the hands and mouths of specific individuals whom He has chosen for the task. These individuals are not better members of the body of Christ; they simply serve a unique function in the body. They are in need of the same gifts they offer to the other members of the body. This is the duty of your pastor, of me. My responsibility is not to share any special gifts or insights of my own, but to tell you what Jesus has done for you, to declare His forgiveness, His grace, His salvation.
Through this Gospel message, Jesus Gives Growth to the Body. He builds it up. He strengthens each of its members. When you hear His Word, He comes to each of you, each member of the body, assuring you of His love for you and of His promise to keep you with Him. When you open your mouth to receive His sacred Meal, He fills you with all that He is and has done for you by giving you His own body and blood. Through these means of His Word and Sacraments, He draws you closer to Him and makes you a productive member of His body. He keeps you spiritually healthy, and therefore keeps the body functioning well.
Without His continued work among us, the body would be in bad shape. In fact, there would be no body at all. He joins us together in Him. If He is absent, we cannot be united in any healthy way. Even with His presence, we members of His body do not perfectly carry out our functions. Sometimes we are a blessing to the body, to our fellow believers, by the loving things we say and do. But sometimes we hold the body back, we hinder it.
This can happen when we behave selfishly, when we are proud, when we let our insecurities and worries get the best of us. We can act like we are the most important members of Christ’s Church or at least of the congregation, and we expect to have things go our way. This is not how God has called us to be. In another of his letters, St. Paul says this: “God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1Co. 12:24-26).
Today we remember the life of St. Mark, who was one of the four evangelists. Mark is an excellent example of someone who, like us, could be both a hindrance and a blessing to the Church. The first time he is mentioned by name is in the book of Acts. After Peter was arrested, the Christians in Jerusalem were praying together at the home of Mark’s mother (Act. 12:12). So it is clear that Mark and his family were early adherents to Christianity. Then we hear that Mark set off with Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey (v. 25).
But something happened on that trip. For reasons unknown to us, Mark decided to abandon the work with Barnabas and Paul when they reached Pamphylia (Act. 15:38). Paul was so upset with Mark that when the time came for a second missionary journey, he refused to bring Mark along. The disagreement was so sharp that Barnabas took Mark and went one way while Paul went another way with Silas (vv. 39-40).
There was division in the body. This happens, and far more often than we want. We look around and see the visible Church fragmented in so many different pieces: Lutherans, other Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, and so on. The members of the visible Church are so often “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” as Paul writes. The devil is constantly trying to coax away God’s people from His saving Word.
And even in our own congregation, bitterness and anger can develop between brothers and sisters in Christ. This is why we need our Lord to bring us together and keep us together. Through the Word and Sacraments, the Holy Spirit works to break down the things that divide us and to produce humility and love in our hearts toward those around us. Paul writes that in this way, “we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
Because of Christ’s presence with us and the Holy Spirit’s work among us, we members of Jesus’ body seek to serve one another in love. A body could not function if one foot were at odds with the other, or if each eye or ear wanted to do its own thing. The Lord brings us grace upon grace, so that we realize our life is in Him and Him alone. My life is not about me. It is about Him, the Head of His body, into which He has graciously brought me through Baptism.
And Jesus is able to bring healing to the body when there are divisions. He does this more often than we realize. Whenever He mends what is broken between two Christians, He is strengthening the body. This happened also in the case of Paul and Mark. The Lord moved Paul to forgive Mark for his failings. Paul even wrote to Timothy toward the end of his life: “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2Ti. 4:11; see also Col. 4:10, Phi. 23-24).
Mark also provided excellent assistance to the apostle Peter, who thought so much of Mark that he referred to him as “my son” (1Pe. 5:13). In fact, the ancient church fathers widely regarded the Gospel of Mark as Peter’s Gospel, believing that Mark recorded the accounts shared with him by Peter.
So while Mark may not have always shined as a member of the Church, the Lord used him for important work. And the words that Mark recorded by inspiration of the Holy Spirit are still heard around the world today. You likewise have important work to do as a member of the Church. Your past weaknesses and failings have not disqualified you. All those sins are forgiven.
Jesus calls you to take up the tasks He gives you today, to love one another as He has loved you (Joh. 13:34), and to “[speak] the truth in love.” He promises to strengthen you for this work and to help you grow and mature in the faith, so that the whole body is built up, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God… to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture of St. Mark and lion from 9th century illuminated manuscript)
St. John, Apostle & Evangelist – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 21:19-24
In Christ Jesus, who became one with us that He might share in all our pain and troubles and give us a share of His grace and glory, dear fellow redeemed:
Did you have a fair Christmas? I’m not asking if it was about average, or if it was okay given the circumstances. I’m wondering if it was fair—balanced—equal. In other words, did Christmas turn out like you thought it should? Did you get what you believed you deserved? Were the gifts you got in line with the gifts others got?
We are good at making sure things stay fair. Or at least we react when things do not seem fair. Behind that is a certain entitlement, a certain expectation, that we should get at least as much as others do. And of course that leaves us open to jealousy, not just in the area of Christmas gifts, but in all areas.
So we might think it isn’t fair that we have had so many health problems, while others hardly ever visit the doctor. It isn’t fair to be stuck in a difficult marriage or to deal with impossible relatives, while others seem to have perfectly happy relationships. It isn’t fair that we have had to deal with so much loss and death, while others have endured little hardship.
But who is supposed to determine what is fair and what isn’t? What gives us the idea that we should expect a care-free life? What makes us think we deserve only good things? We learn something about fairness from today’s text which details an interaction with Jesus, Peter, and John.
But first a little context is needed. Today’s reading comes at the very end of the Gospel according to St. John. By this point, Jesus had been crucified, died, and was buried. Then He had risen again and appeared to the eleven disciples. He had visited them at least a couple of times, and now John writes about His appearance to seven of them at the Sea of Galilee. The disciples hadn’t caught any fish during the night when Jesus called from the shore that they should “cast the net on the right side of the boat” (Joh. 21:6). Then they caught such a large number of fish that they couldn’t haul it in.
When they had gotten to shore, Jesus spoke to Peter about his three-fold denial of Jesus in the temple courtyard. Having forgiven Peter, Jesus commissioned him to feed His lambs and sheep. But He also told him that he would have a cross to bear: “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (v. 18). This “stretching out of his hands” seems to indicate that he would die like Jesus did, on a cross. According to church tradition, this is what happened to Peter some decades later.
After Jesus said this, He told Peter to “follow Him,” which is the beginning of today’s text. It was then that Peter turned and saw John and asked, “Lord, what about this man?” Now we don’t know what exactly prompted Peter’s question. He could have simply been curious, wondering if all the disciples would meet the same fate as him. Or he could have been concerned, hoping that John would not have to face what he would. Or maybe he felt he was being chastised for his earlier denials, and he wondered if John, who obviously had the Lord’s favor, would fare better.
We can’t forget the rivalry the disciples had among themselves about who was the greatest. They had argued about it more than once (Luk. 9:46, 22:24). On another occasion, James and John and their mother approached Jesus to ask if the two boys could sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in glory. That did not sit well with the other disciples (Mar. 10:35-41). Then Peter boasted the night before Jesus’ death that even if the other disciples fell away from Jesus, he never would (Mat. 26:33).
The disciples were just like us—sinners. They expected to be rewarded for the sacrifices they were making for Jesus. They were jealous for the glory that could be theirs in His kingdom. They each thought they deserved no less than the other disciples, and each of them probably thought he deserved more.
It is not difficult for us to understand this. Like those disciples, we also think we have done a good job of serving the Lord, and we expect that our devotion to Him should result in good things for us. When we don’t think we have been rewarded by Him like we should be, that’s when a spiritual crisis happens. That’s when we question His love for us. We wonder if He is punishing us. We decide this is proof that He does not care about us. He hasn’t done what we expected Him to do.
Our crisis becomes all the more intense when we see others around us doing well and living happy lives. “Why should they have it so good?” we think. “They are not nearly as faithful as I am. Why do they have it easy when I am suffering?” We can even get to where we resent others and the blessings they have. We avoid them or treat them rudely because their happiness just makes us feel worse.
This comparison game is no good. Neither is our entitlement mentality. Whatever prompted Peter to ask about John, Jesus replied, “If it is My will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” Jesus could give the same response to us in our jealousy and discontent: “If it is My will that others prosper more than you or have fewer hardships, what is that to you? You follow Me!”
The reality is that no one’s so-called “successful” life is as happy or as idyllic as it seems on the outside. Wouldn’t you like to have that job? Wouldn’t you like to live in that house? Wouldn’t you like to drive that car? Wouldn’t you like to have that marriage and that family? But no one’s life is perfect, and the rich do not have fewer cares than the poor—often the opposite is true.
Our call from God is not to put ourselves in a position of judgment about what He does. It is not to cry foul when things don’t seem fair. Our calling is to be content with what He gives us. Sometimes He gives us more and sometimes less. Sometimes He gives us success and sometimes trials. But whatever He gives, He gives because it is right for us. The Lord has never wronged us, and He never will.
That’s a strong statement. Do you feel you have always gotten a fair shake from God? Well it’s true, you haven’t gotten a fair shake. What’s fair is that God should reward you for what you have done. And what have you done? You have broken His Commandments. Time and again, you have done the exact opposite of what He tells you to do. What you deserve is His punishment. You deserve eternal death. That would be fair.
But that is not what you get. Instead of getting judgment, you get grace. Instead of getting condemnation, you get forgiveness. Instead of getting death, you get life. The proof of God’s love for you is found in a little manger in Bethlehem. That is where God’s Son lay wrapped in human flesh. God did not want you to have hell; He wanted you to have heaven. So He sent down His only-begotten Son to win the victory for you over your sin, death, and the devil.
The Lord Jesus did not come to get what He deserved. He deserved perfect honor, obedience, and love from everyone on earth. Instead He received suffering, spite, and hatred from mankind. He willingly accepted what He did not deserve, so He could make atonement for everyone’s sins. In all humility, He was laid in a manger and then nailed to a cross, so that you would be saved, so that you would have the sure hope of a perfect, care-free, glorious life after this one.
John writes that the other disciples took Jesus’ words to mean that John would not die: “If it is My will that he remain until I come,” said Jesus, “what is that to you?” But Jesus did not say that John would not die. He was teaching Peter and the other disciples not to worry about comparisons or fairness or anything else. Jesus’ call to all of His disciples is to follow Him wherever He leads us in this life.
We know He will not lead us into sin or destruction. He is leading us to heaven. Whatever we must face while we are here on earth, we face it in Him. He became one with us at Christmas. He tied our future to His and His future to ours. And the future we have in Him is a glorious one, even if we must suffer here as Jesus suffered.
According to tradition, Peter and the other disciples were all martyred for confessing Jesus as the Lord and Savior—all except for John. John far outlived them. But His days were hard. He watched false teachers make inroads in the Christian Church. He saw many deny Christ and follow the desires of their flesh. Finally he was exiled to live alone on the island of Patmos. It was not all glory for John. But he lived and worked by the Lord’s will.
And so do we. We entrust our life to the Lord’s care, and we carry out the tasks He has given us to do in our homes, our workplaces, and our community. We follow Jesus through all. In good days or bad we remember God’s love for us, that He sent His only-begotten Son to be our Savior. With John we give thanks that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Joh. 1:14).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “The Miraculous Draft of Fishes” by Konrad Witz, 1444)
The Festival of All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Every year when we observe All Saints’ Day, we have the custom of singing one hymn in particular. The hymn is about 250 years old, and for many years you could count on singing it at funerals in Norwegian Lutheran churches. This hymn is “Behold a Host, Arrayed in White,” and we will sing it again today. The first stanza of the hymn is based on the first part of today’s Epistle lesson from Revelation 7. Here the apostle John describes what he saw in his vision of heaven:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”
I said to him, “Sir, you know.”
And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (ESV)
Now in these days of social distancing and small crowds, it seems strange to see old video footage of football stadiums and concert halls full of people. The same thought might have struck you when you heard about the “great multitude [in heaven] that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” What a glorious scene! Unlike the Tower of Babel when the peoples were divided and moved away from each other, now God’s people from all over the world and all across time are brought together.
There are no enemies in this great multitude, no cultural or language barriers, no socio-economic differences. These people are one, both regarding their status before God and their purpose in His presence. This oneness is emphasized by their common clothing. They are dressed in flowing white robes, perfectly clean. One of the elders in heaven explained to John how the robes got so uniformly white. He said, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Now that is the strangest bleach we’ve ever heard of! How could blood ever make clothing whiter? Because it is not just any blood, it is “the blood of the Lamb.” This refers to the fact that no sin stains the believers in heaven. They stand pure and holy before God because Jesus shed His blood to wash away their sins.
This is why they now sing joyfully “before the throne and before the Lamb.” They hold palm branches in their hands like the crowd that greeted Jesus on Palm Sunday. On that occasion the people cried, “Hosanna!”—“Save us, we pray!” And now the saints rejoice in the salvation won for them by crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
They sing together one song with one voice, the only song worth singing. They sing the song of their salvation through the God-Man Jesus. He is the Lamb enthroned in heaven. He has won the victory for them over sin, devil, and death. By faith in Him, these saints have now been translated from the troubles of the world to the glories of heaven. They have come out of “the great tribulation,” and now join the angels and the elders and the four living creatures in the praise and worship of their Lord.
We sing the first stanza of hymn #553, which tells us about this “host, arrayed in white,” who “in the flood of Jesus’ blood / Are cleansed from guilt and blame.”
Behold a host, arrayed in white,
Like thousand snow-clad mountains bright;
With palms they stand. Who is this band
Before the throne of light?
Lo, these are they, of glorious fame,
Who from the great affliction came
And in the flood of Jesus’ blood
Are cleansed from guilt and blame.
Now gathered in the holy place,
Their voices they in worship raise;
Their anthems swell where God doth dwell
Mid angels’ songs of praise.
We wish we could be there with the saints and angels in heaven, or at least get a temporary taste of their joy. The elder speaking to John explains what the saints have now that they are in God’s eternal presence:
“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Here the contrast between heaven and earth is described. In heaven there is no more hunger or thirst. No one is overcome by weariness or weakness. No harm is done by the sun and scorching heat. The sheep are not without a shepherd. No tears fill their eyes.
But the opposite is true on earth. On earth there is trouble, pain, sorrow. “[A]ll tribes and peoples and languages” are not united here. Here there is division—sometimes deep division—within the same community and even the same house. Instead of loving their neighbor as themselves, many decide to just love themselves. They view any challenge to the way they think as a great offense. Those who do not share their ideas are the enemy, who do not deserve to be treated with respect. We see these attitudes so clearly in our tense social environment.
And we are just as guilty of these divisions and troubles as others are. We have hated our enemies and cursed those who persecute us, when Jesus tells us to love them and pray for them (Mat. 5:44). Often our hardships on earth are self-inflicted. Because of our sin we bring trouble and pain on ourselves.
But other things happen simply because we live in a fallen world. Sometimes we get sick or injured. Eventually we will die. It may not be your own death that causes you the most anguish. It may be the death of a loved one, or even just the thought of having to live without someone you rely on for so many things.
We feel powerless in the face of death. We do not control who it strikes or when. It has always been this way since the fall into sin, but we are perhaps more aware of it this year than in years past. No matter what we do, no matter what measures we take, we cannot escape death.
But there is still hope! There is one who entered death and emerged from it again. A Lamb was snatched by the great jaws of death—easy prey, easy victory! But no! This was no ordinary Lamb. It was the Lamb of God. Jesus died in your place, so that death could not hold you in its terrible jaws. It is true that you will die, unless Jesus returns before it happens. But you will not stay dead. You will rise again. Your Savior will come and call you forth with a shout, and you will rise up to Him with glorified body clothed in the white robe of His righteousness.
That is your comfort today as you remember all who have gone on before you, whether parents or grandparents or siblings or children or friends. You will see the faithful departed again, and “God will wipe away every tear from [your] eyes.” We sing stanza two of the hymn:
Despised and scorned, they sojourned here;
But now, how glorious they appear!
Those martyrs stand, a priestly band,
God’s throne forever near.
So oft in troubled days gone by,
In anguish they would weep and sigh;
At home above the God of love
For aye their tears shall dry.
They now enjoy their Sabbath rest,
The paschal banquet of the blest;
The Lamb, their Lord, at festal board
Himself is host and guest.
God wanted John to write down what he saw in heaven so you and all believers would be comforted. He knows what trials and troubles you face here on earth. He knows how easy it is to become disheartened by the wickedness and sin you see all around you and that you also find inside yourself. He promises that these struggles are only temporary, while the bliss of heaven is forever.
In this text from Revelation, the Lord gives you a glimpse of the life to come. He shows you that you will not be alone in heaven but will be surrounded by a great multitude that cannot be numbered. That means you are not alone here on earth either because there are many around the world who confess Jesus as their Savior from sin.
While you are here, God calls you to stay close to Him by hearing His Word and partaking of His Sacraments. These are the means by which He strengthens you and keeps you steadfast in the faith. He also gives you the courage to let the light of His truth shine in your life, “so that [others] may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mat. 5:16).
You won’t carry out these callings of God perfectly. You are still a sinner. Sometimes you will only stumble along, and sometimes you will fall—hardly the picture of a holy child of God. But the blood of the Lamb was poured out for all of your sins. All of your wicked thoughts, all of your self-inflicted wounds, all your doubts—all of them are forgiven by the merciful God. You can meet death and the grave with confidence knowing that nothing stands between you and God’s grace. You are reconciled to God the Father because of the perfect life and the holy death of His only-begotten Son.
When you hear John’s account of the saints in heaven and when you sing today’s hymn, picture yourself among that great Host, Arrayed in White. Look forward with confidence and joy to the day when you will join that holy choir, holding palm branches, gathered around the throne of the holy God. You will be numbered with those saints because you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. Your place in heaven is reserved, where you will sing the song of salvation for all eternity. We join together in the third stanza of the hymn:
Then hail! ye mighty legions, yea,
All hail! now safe and blest for aye;
And praise the Lord, who with His Word
Sustained you on the way.
Ye did the joys of earth distain,
Ye toiled and sowed in tears and pain;
Farewell, now bring your sheaves and sing
Salvation’s glad refrain.
Swing high your palms, lift up your song,
Yea, make it myriad voices strong:
Eternally shall praise to Thee,
God, and the Lamb belong.
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(picture from “Seventh Seal and 144,000 Sealed” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
St. Luke the Evangelist – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Timothy 4:5-15
In Christ Jesus, who heals the deep wounds of our sin through the holy Gospel of His forgiveness, dear fellow redeemed:
The apostle Paul wrote the words of today’s text from a prison in Rome. He was nearing the end of his life, and he knew it. It had been a hard life. Paul described some of those hardships in a letter to the church in Corinth: “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; … in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2Co. 11:24-25,27).
In other words, Paul needed a good doctor. And he had one. As Paul languished in that prison, he wrote, “Luke alone is with me.” Luke was of Gentile background and may have first met Paul in Antioch, where Paul set off on each of his missionary journeys. Luke joined Paul during his second journey and again on his third journey. Paul referred to him as “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14).
But we have reason to question Luke’s aptitude as a doctor. He watched Paul endure great physical violence and pain for preaching the Gospel. If Paul didn’t stop, he could very well lose his life. What kind of doctor sits by and watches this happen to his patient? Doesn’t a good doctor urge the patient to avoid the things that are causing physical harm?
Luke did not do this, but it wasn’t because he was a poor doctor. Luke believed there was something more important than the care of the body, and that is the care of the soul. Paul had to carry on his mission work, even if it should lead to his death. The salvation of countless souls depended on it. So Luke did what he could to address Paul’s physical wounds, but the greatest help he provided Paul was spiritual.
You can hear Paul’s distress in his letter to Timothy. “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone,” he said. Crescens had gone. Titus had gone. He had sent Tychicus away. A coppersmith named Alexander had done him great harm and had strongly opposed Paul’s preaching and teaching. When he was put on trial, Paul wrote that “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me” (2Ti. 4:16).
Paul had been all alone, but then Luke came. A movie was released two years ago that imagines the conversations between Paul and Luke in prison. It’s called Paul, Apostle of Christ and would be worth your time to watch. Luke was well-equipped to encourage and comfort Paul because he had done extensive research into the life and teaching of Jesus. At the beginning of his Gospel, Luke stated the purpose for the writing: “it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (1:3-4).
Luke wrote so that Theophilus might have certainty, but Luke’s Gospel was for more than just Theophilus. Luke’s Gospel was for Paul’s certainty, for your certainty, and for my certainty. The four Gospels were all inspired by the Holy Spirit, but God used different authors to write for different audiences. The Gospel of the Gentile Luke was written for a Gentile audience. Just as Paul’s mission was to preach the Gospel to all the nations, so Luke’s Gospel was meant to be read by all the nations.
During Paul’s suffering and imprisonment, Luke was able to remind him of the never-changing love of God in Christ. In his younger years, Paul had been opposed to Jesus. He approved of the arrest and murder of Christians. He thought he was doing the Lord’s work but was actually doing the devil’s. Later on he stated that he “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Gal. 1:13). There was blood on Paul’s hands. Imagine how Luke might have comforted him as Paul thought of the horrible things he had done.
Luke might have reminded him about the account of the Good Samaritan (Luk. 10:25-37). Jesus, like the Good Samaritan, came to Paul on the side of the road and healed his wounded soul with His Word of grace and forgiveness. Or Luke might have shared Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, where the Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine and looks for the one that was lost (15:1-7). Or the parable of the prodigal son, where the Father welcomes home his wayward child and forgives all wrongs (15:11-32).
Paul could have related to Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, which only Luke recorded. The Pharisee went to the temple to boast about how righteous and faithful he was, like Paul who used to think that about himself. But God humbled him like the tax collector and gave him faith to believe that he was forgiven and righteous before God because of what Jesus had done for him (18:9-14).
Paul needed these reminders of God’s grace as all of us do. God sent Luke to do this for Paul as a brother in faith, as a compassionate friend. Luke was an “evangelist”—he was a “bringer of good news.” God likewise calls you to bring the good news to others. This world needs good news. Most of the news we hear is bad news. Every day, we hear about disagreements, divisions, and hatred. We hear about sicknesses, injuries, and death. We hear about hardships, deep hurts, and pain.
There’s no getting around the fact that sin has saturated this world, and that the devil is doing his best to sow wickedness and chaos wherever he can. We see that happening in the current political scene today. If you think the devil is only working on the other side and that your side is pure in all its motives and policies, you are mistaken. The devil is an equal opportunity adversary. He wants all of us to hate one another, attack one another, and think we are better than each other.
But all of us have failed to keep God’s Law. We have wounded one another with our hurtful words and actions, and where we have done well, we have not given all glory to God. It is crucial that we recognize this. The patient does himself no favors if he ignores a health condition or lies to his doctor. Just because a doctor is not informed about a health condition does not mean there is no problem.
You and I do have a problem. It’s a problem that causes death and not just the death of the body. We can try to cover up its symptoms. We can try to act like it isn’t there. But if our inner sinfulness is not addressed, it will overcome us and suffocate our soul. The first step is admitting the problem—not pointing out other people’s sins but acknowledging your own. The world would look a lot different if everyone did this.
Repentance requires humility, and humble people can work through their disagreements. But the proud have no love for others. The Pharisees and their scribes grumbled that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luk. 5:31-32). Do you see what that means? It means that if you own up to your sick spiritual condition, a Physician is here to save you.
Jesus is that Physician. We know that He was able to overcome physical illnesses. He healed people time after time during His three years of public work on earth. There was no end to the sick who came looking for Jesus. He laid His hands on these people and healed them (Luk. 4:40). Luke tells us that some were even healed by touching Him, “for power came out from him” (6:19). No problem was too great for Him, whether diseases, plagues, or evil spirits (7:21).
His purpose in this healing was to reveal who He was, the Messiah. He did not come simply to be a healer of the body; He came to save souls. His purpose was to get to the root of our problem. He came to spare us from the punishment we deserved by being punished Himself. He came to stop our bleeding by shedding His own precious blood. Sin was the deadly infection, but Jesus’ holy life and atoning death were the perfect cure. Certain death was the prognosis, but Jesus’ resurrection changed our outcome to life.
Jesus is the medicine that saves us from our spiritual sickness. He cleanses our diseased hearts through the waters of holy Baptism and puts in our starving mouths the nourishing food and drink of His holy body and blood. He speaks powerful promises into our ears, “I have good news for you!” He says. “Your sins are all forgiven! You will not die, but live! I am the Great Physician; I know what I am saying. I do not lie.”
We need this good news, and so do all who are spiritually sick. The side effects of our sinful condition are many. Many things cause pain and distress in this world. And the Lord knows the suffering of every heart and soul. He wants to apply the healing grace of His Word, so that despair turns into hope and sorrow turns into joy.
Just as Luke proclaimed The Holy Gospel, which Heals the Hurting Soul, we declare the same Gospel to one another, both to those who believe and those we pray will believe in the future. We want all to join Luke and Paul and us in fighting the good fight, finishing the race, and keeping the faith. We want all to know that there is salvation for sinners, and that on the last day, the Lord promises to give “the crown of righteousness” to all who trust in Him.
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(picture from 15th century Greek painting of St. Luke)
St. Titus, Bishop & Confessor – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Titus 2:11-15
In Christ Jesus, whose abundant grace covers all our sin, dear fellow redeemed:
Back in the 1930s, a prominent Lutheran pastor in Germany coined the term “cheap grace.” He didn’t apply the term to God, as though God were giving something second rate to sinners. He applied it to Christians, to those who use grace as a cover up for sin, who care very little about repenting of their sin and amending their lives. They are like spoiled children who expect their overindulgent parents to bail them out no matter what trouble they get into. Grace to them has become so common, so expected, that they hardly value it anymore. It has become cheap.
The Christians in Corinth were guilty of looking at grace in this way. The Corinthian congregation was marked by all sorts of divisions. Some minimized grace and taught that the Old Testament civil and ceremonial laws needed to be kept for salvation. Others used grace as a license to sin and boasted about having Christian freedom even in areas that went against the Commandments of God. The Apostle Paul rebuked them for abusing God’s grace in these ways. We have this rebuke in his First Letter to the Corinthians.
We also have a Second Letter to the Corinthians, a follow up to some of the issues Paul had raised. In this letter, he mentioned a visit of his co-worker Titus to the congregation. Titus, who we remember today, was a Gentile man who accompanied Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem before they set out on their missionary journeys (Gal. 2:1). He was a trusted associate of Paul’s, so Paul sent him to guide and teach the Corinthian congregation.
When he arrived, Titus learned how strongly Paul’s Letter had affected the people. The congregation received Titus “with fear and trembling” (2Co. 7:15). They were not so much afraid of Paul’s messenger as they were of Paul’s message. They did not want to be found outside of God’s grace.
This same concern should be in the mind and heart of every Christian. We should want nothing more than to remain in God’s grace. But how can we be sure we will? We have been taught since our youth that grace has nothing to do with us. It is God’s undeserved love for us. Since it comes from God, there is nothing I can do to make sure I stay in it, is there?
It is certainly true that grace is a gift from God to us. We can’t earn it, and we don’t deserve it. 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.” Grace means we owe nothing to God for our salvation. It is not a loan that we have to pay back by our good works or any other sacrifice. Grace is freely given. It reflects the love of the Giver and not the worthiness of the receiver (Rom. 5:8).
Grace does not cost us anything, but it did cost Jesus. The Apostle Peter describes the price of our ransom. It was “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1Pe. 1:18-19). Jesus paid for our salvation by the shedding of His holy blood. He suffered the torments of hell and death on a cross to save us. That was the cost of His grace. Grace is G-R-A-C-E: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.
Such a deep love, such faithfulness toward sinners demands some response, doesn’t it? Think about if your reckless or negligent behavior caused millions of dollars of damage, and someone stepped up to pay the price. How would you react? Or how about if someone took care of your significant credit card debt or the debt on your property? You would be totally humbled. You would feel indebted to that generous individual for the rest of your life. I imagine you would want to live a life worthy of the gift.
If you would feel that way about the cancellation of a temporary debt of money, how much more to have an eternal debt cancelled? That is what Jesus has done for you. He cancelled your debt of sin and death and opened heaven to you. People used to give great sums of money to get their loved ones transferred from purgatory to heaven (and some still do). But that is not necessary. Jesus paid the price to get us right into heaven—no purgatory required!
God’s grace does not cost us anything, but it should have an affect on us. In his Letter to Titus, Paul wrote that God’s grace trains us “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” It makes sense. Since Jesus saved us by His grace, shouldn’t we want to please Him? Shouldn’t we want to live the way God commands us to? To do otherwise is to abuse the grace we have been given. It is to treat it as something common, something cheap.
We want to show others how much we value God’s gift of grace by reflecting His love in the way we talk and how we conduct ourselves. We want them to know that God’s grace makes a difference in our lives, that it changed our hearts and minds. We are still sinners, but by God’s grace we are sinners at peace with Him because of Jesus’ suffering and death. We are mortal, but by God’s grace we have the sure hope of eternal life in heaven because of Jesus’ resurrection.
Those who do not know God’s grace live very different lives. They struggle along as though everything depends on them. They carry the burden of guilt for many wrongs done and many good deeds left undone. They pin all their hope for progress in the world on elected officials and other powerful people, and they are routinely disappointed. They tremble at the prospect of death and grieve without hope at the loss of loved ones.
God’s grace makes all the difference. His grace allows us to look forward with eagerness and not backward with regret. It changes everything about our past and about our future. If we have failed and let down the people we care about, if we have caused hurt intentionally or unintentionally, we can move ahead by God’s grace knowing He looks with favor upon us and forgives our sins. By God’s grace, we can start out fresh again today and try to do better.
In his Letter to Titus, Paul speaks about how God’s grace works in the lives of His people, and how it leads them to show love to those around them. Paul writes that:
- Older men give evidence of this grace by being “sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness” (2:1).
- Older women are “reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They “teach what is good,” especially encouraging the younger women (v. 3).
- Younger women “love their husbands and children,” and are “self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands” (vv. 4-5).
- Younger men are also “self-controlled” and faithfully carry out their responsibilities (v. 6).
These loving attitudes and actions toward each other are given by grace, not because they are deserved or earned. We do not show love for one another as a reward, but as a reflection of the undeserved love God has for us.
By His grace, Jesus redeemed us—bought us back—from our lawless and selfish behavior. He shed His blood so He might cleanse us from all our sins and purify us for His work. We’re not just spinning our wheels anymore like unbelievers who have no purpose beyond satisfying their own desires. God has called us to carry out His will toward our neighbors, to love and serve them in His name, so they might be drawn to Him and receive His grace.
These are the things Paul charged Titus to do and teach as a pastor and bishop. He left Titus on the island of Crete, so Titus could help establish congregations and appoint pastors to serve them. Though his work occasionally took him to other places (2Ti. 4:10), he is thought to have died in Crete at an old age (c. A. D. 96). He no doubt had many administrative tasks to carry out, but his primary work was to administer the means of grace.
The same is true for pastors still today. Our calling from God through the congregations we serve is to administer the means of grace. It is to deliver and apply God’s grace in Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the preaching of the Word. But before we apply the Gospel, we must apply the law. We must remind people of their need for God’s grace because of their sin.
But once they are convicted by the law and repent of their sin, we declare God’s grace. We announce the forgiveness of sin and new life through Jesus. And so I declare it to you today: God has not cast you away because of your sin. He does not hold you to your eternal debt. He forgives you all your sin because Jesus paid the price in full. He met the cost of your salvation and eternal life.
He gave Himself up for you because He loves you. He wants you to know that His steadfast love never ceases, and that His mercies are new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23). He wants you to know that your life matters and that you are needed by those around you. He wants you to have the “blessed hope” in this life, the knowledge that He will come again in His glory to take you out of this world of trouble.
All of this is by grace. It is an uncommon grace. It was costly, not cheap, and it is yours in rich supply. By God’s grace you are different than you used to be. God has changed you from a servant of sin, Satan, and death to His child and an heir of life. He has given you confidence and hope not in what you do for others or for Him, but in what He has done for you. Salvation is by His grace alone, and that changes everything.
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(picture of location in Crete)
Sexagesima Sunday | St. Matthias, Apostle – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Acts 1:15-26
In Christ Jesus, who through His Word and Sacraments equips us and strengthens us for the work He has given us to do, dear fellow redeemed:
We know very little about the life of Matthias the Apostle. We do not know what his hometown was or his trade before becoming a disciple of Jesus. We do not know anything about his age, his personality, or his social standing. Some historical sources indicate that after becoming an apostle he worked near modern-day Turkey where he was killed. Others suggest that he was stoned and beheaded in Jerusalem. Ultimately those details—as interesting as they might be—are not important.
What is important is the reason Matthias was considered for the office of apostle: he had followed Jesus from the time of His baptism all the way to His ascension. Matthias must have witnessed many of the events recorded about Jesus in the four Gospels. He was not selected as one of the original twelve disciples, whom Jesus later named “apostles” (Luk. 6:13). But it is assumed that he was among the seventy-two, whom Jesus appointed to go ahead of Him “into every town and place where he himself was about to go” (10:1). They were supposed to proclaim to all the people they met: “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (v. 9).
When the seventy-two returned from their mission, they were filled with joy. They said to Jesus, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” (v. 17). And Jesus replied, “do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (v. 18). What a statement that was! An even greater thing than the power to cast out demons, was to have one’s name recorded in heaven.
Matthias may well have remembered Jesus’ words when he was one of two put forward by his brothers to become an apostle. Of the two men, the Lord chose Matthias. So Matthias now stepped into the office vacated by the death of Judas Iscariot. This would have been humbling. Judas had followed Jesus like Matthias had. He had heard and seen what Matthias had. But Judas let himself be overcome by Satan. He was greedy (Joh. 12:6). He even agreed to betray Jesus to the Jewish authorities for thirty pieces of silver (Mat. 26:15).
Peter told the brothers that this betrayal had been prophesied long before in the Psalms by David. Psalm 69 told of those who hated the Lord without cause and desired to destroy Him (v. 4). Therefore the Lord cried out to God for retribution, “May their camp be a desolation; let no one dwell in their tents” (v. 25). And a couple verses later, “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous” (v. 28). These verses applied to Judas. He had every good blessing from God but threw them away for earthly gain. By rejecting his Savior, Judas was rejected by God.
His terrible fall was a warning not just to Matthias and the other apostles, but it is for us as well. The devil is constantly trying to destroy our faith. He would like nothing more than for our names to be blotted out of the Book of Life. We could think on the one hand that the devil won’t bother with us. We don’t have nearly the prominence or status that Judas did. But on the other hand, if one of the chosen twelve disciples of the Lord could fall, we certainly could too.
Whatever good thing the Lord has prepared for you to do, the devil and his fellow demons want to ruin it. If you are a member of a congregation, the devil wants you to become secure in your sin or to find things to criticize in others. If you have a good reputation at your job, the devil wants you to become proud or to take advantage of your status for wrong purposes. If you are a parent, the devil wants you to resent your children or to spoil them. If you are a child, the devil wants you to disobey your parents or try to manipulate them.
The devil is a liar. He wants you to think that you deserve more, and that you can take what you don’t have without losing what you do. In other words, he wants you to ignore all the blessings God has given you (blessings too many to count) and to desire things that God has not given you.
Judas was chosen to be one of the Twelve. He was selected to accompany Jesus—the God-Man, the incarnate Christ—in His earthly work. He heard the promise Jesus spoke, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mat. 19:29). But Judas thought thirty pieces of silver was more appealing than the glories of heaven.
Now Judas was replaced – “Let another take his office.” Matthias had known Jesus personally, but his most important qualification was that he had witnessed Jesus’ resurrection. That was the key. Matthias was now called to join the apostles in preaching Christ’s atoning death and His resurrection.
Without the resurrection, the apostles would have never left the security of their self-imposed prison following Jesus’ death. His resurrection changed everything. As the Catechism students can tell you, the resurrection of Christ proved that He is the Son of God, that He has made full satisfaction for sins, that all who believe in Him will also rise, and that He is now with us to help us forsake sin and live a new life (ELS Catechism, chapter 20, paragraph 165).
If the traditions are accurate, every one of the apostles faced violent opposition for preaching this message. How could they carry on? Why didn’t they lose courage? It was because a dead Man had come back to life. Jesus had risen! That meant He was the Lord of all, whom no earthly power or authority could overcome. When Peter and John were summoned before the leading Jewish Council, they boldly declared, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). The apostles would not have been willing to die for a lie, but they were willing to die for the truth.
It was a privilege for Matthias to be chosen as an apostle, but the privilege came at a cost. The Lord who gave His life for Matthias, asked for Matthias’ life in return. He asked for Matthias’ faithfulness to Him and His holy Word, even when the temptations of the world were great and he was surrounded by terrifying enemies. I expect there were many times that Matthias wondered why he had been chosen to succeed Judas instead of “Joseph called Barsabbas” or someone else.
You have probably wondered something like this too in your own callings. Why did God put you in your family, where maybe you had to face a lot of challenges? Or you could wonder why God didn’t let you pursue your dreams, and you feel like you got stuck where you are. Or maybe you have had to shoulder more responsibility for family members or friends than you think you can carry. The devil would tempt you to run away from these callings, to go where your heart is leading you, to put yourself first.
But in the middle of these doubts and struggles, Jesus says, “Come to Me.” “Come to Me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” The burden of living a life to God’s glory can feel awfully heavy at times. That is mostly because our sinful nature wants to pull us in the opposite direction of our life of faith. But with our eyes fixed on Jesus, who carried the heaviest burden before us, our burdens become much lighter.
Matthias was cheered by the same promises that cheer us. He had not volunteered himself for the position of apostle; God chose him for the work. And the One who died and rose again promised to be with him “always, to the end of the age” (Mat. 28:20). God has also chosen you for your work, and He promises to be with you always.
Like Matthias, you may often go through life unnoticed, with the attention on others. For all we know, Matthias was content with this. But then God called him out of the shadows, so to speak, and made him one of the Twelve. You don’t know what God might be preparing for you either. You may feel like most of the things you do go unnoticed. You may even wonder at times about the value of your life.
But God sees you. He has plans for you. In many ways that you don’t even think about, He is already blessing the people around you through your humble service. “For [you] are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that [you] should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). God has called you to do important things in your life, because your love for others is a reflection of His love. He does His work through you, just as He proclaimed the Gospel through Matthias and the other apostles.
You can go about this work He has prepared for you with joy, knowing that Jesus forgives all your failures and rights all your wrongs. Your glory is not in your own accomplishments or the honor given you for a job well done. Your glory is in Jesus, who died for you, and who rose again triumphant over death itself. Because of what He has done in your place, you have every reason to dedicate your life to Him. And along with Matthias and all the faithful, you can Rejoice that Your Name Is Written in Heaven.
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(painting by James Tissot of Jesus sending out the seventy-two disciples by twos)
The Festival of All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 5:1-12
In Christ Jesus, whose righteousness and blood have opened the way for us to heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
Parents spend a lot of time telling their children to “stick with it,” because “the hard work will pay off.” It may be in reference to schoolwork or practice for a particular sport. Or maybe a child has taken on a job that is harder than he realized. He feels like quitting, but his parents urge him on: “Stick with it! You can do this!”
As we get older, the problems of life get more complex and serious, and we don’t always have the cheerleader in our corner urging us and helping us to “stick with it!” We feel as though the burden on our shoulders is more than we can carry. We feel like no one understands our troubles. Close relationships break apart, and we don’t see how they could ever be repaired. Our best efforts fail, and we are at a loss for what else to try. We imagine that there is no good solution to the difficulties we face.
Such feelings of helplessness are symptoms of life in a fallen world. In this world, righteousness and justice do not always win out. Kindness, love, and respect are not always returned. Wrongs are not always righted. Hard work is not always recognized. Sacrifices are not always appreciated. And the Gospel of Christ’s redemptive work is rejected by a great many.
It is because of the trials believers face in this world that Jesus spoke today’s words of comfort. His list of “Beatitudes” begins His “Sermon on the Mount,” which spans three chapters in the book of Matthew. Though some try to turn Jesus’ words into a creed for social justice, His words address spiritual and not social challenges.
The first blessing is for “the poor in spirit.” It is for you who recognize your spiritual bankruptcy. By nature, you have nothing good to present to God, nothing to offer that could make you acceptable to Him. You confess yourself to be a “poor sinner,” who can only “flee for refuge to [God’s] infinite mercy” (ELH “Confession of Sin,” p. 41). While despairing of yourself, you have the same confidence as the psalmist: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
The second blessing is for “those who mourn.” It is for you who regret the wrongs you have done and are sorry for them. As much as you would like to take back things that you have done or said, you know that you cannot do this. And so you look to your merciful Savior. The hymnist Paul Gerhardt expressed this hope beautifully, “Rejoice, then, ye sad-hearted, / Who sit in deepest gloom, / Who mourn o’er joys departed, / And tremble at your doom; / Despair not, He is near you, / Yea, standing at the door, / Who best can help and cheer you, / And bid you weep no more” (ELH #94, v. 6).
The third blessing is for “the meek.” It is for you who have known injustice and unkindness, but who humbly commend your “body and soul and all things” into God’s loving hands (Luther’s Morning & Evening Prayers).
The fourth blessing is for “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” It is for you whose soul pants for God like a ragged deer searching for flowing streams. It is for the soul that thirsts “for the living God” (Ps. 42:2). The world is a spiritual desert, so you long for the spiritual oasis of God’s Word and Sacraments where your spirit can be refreshed and strengthened.
The fifth blessing is for “the merciful.” It is for you who take the burdens of others upon yourself by offering help and encouragement and by praying for them. You do not love your neighbor perfectly, but God is pleased by even your humble efforts. No good word or kind deed goes unnoticed by Him.
The sixth blessing is for “the pure in heart.” It is for you who want to live a God-pleasing life, who want to follow His will. You recognize that your heart is not pure like it should be, and you trust that God will graciously create “a clean heart” in you and “renew a right spirit” within you (Ps. 51:10).
The seventh blessing is for “the peacemakers.” It is for you who want to establish and keep peace not by compromising the truth, but by speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:25). You gently and patiently bear with others in love because you are “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
The eighth blessing is for “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” It is for you who are attacked for doing and saying the right thing. You willingly endure criticism and ridicule for your beliefs, because your trust is in God. You believe that nothing “will be able to separate [you] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).
The ninth blessing is for “you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account.” You know what it is like to have lies told about you, or to have unkind assumptions repeated about you. When these hateful words are spoken against you because of your confession of Jesus and His Word, you have the promise of God’s unchanging love and compassion for you.
As you have listened to the list of those to whom Jesus Gives His Holy Blessings, you might think that some of the descriptions apply to you, but some do not. Maybe you do feel “poor in spirit,” but you have not been much of a “peacemaker.” Maybe you have been “mourning” about your sin, because you have not been very “merciful.”
But here is the comforting truth: Wherever we have lacked righteousness—which is in every aspect of our lives—Jesus substitutes His perfection. All of our pride, our me-first attitude, our lack of mercy toward others, our inner uncleanness, our reluctant faith—all of it is covered over by the righteousness of Jesus. When God looks at His children by faith, He does not see our sin; He sees the holiness of Jesus. This is why we are called saints even while we bear a sinful nature in this sinful world.
Today, we remember the saints from our churches who have entered the church triumphant within the past year. We remember Edna, Godfrey, Mavis, Eunice, and Stella. It is common in our culture to speak about the dead as though they had reached perfection on this earth. The five people we remember today would not want us to do that. They knew their sin just as surely as we know our own sin. But they were saints on earth by faith in Jesus, and now their souls are in heaven, unencumbered by any pain, sorrow, or trouble.
They are part of the great host that we heard about in today’s Epistle lesson. They are among the countless number of saints “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10). We are glad for them, but we miss them. And we find it harder to face the troubles of this world without them.
This is why Jesus promises the blessings He does in the Beatitudes. To you who are “poor in spirit,” Jesus gives “the kingdom of heaven.” To you who “mourn,” Jesus gives comfort. To you who are “meek,” Jesus gives the inheritance of all things. To you who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus fills you with His holy food and drink. To you who are “merciful,” Jesus bestows His mercy. To you who are “pure in heart,” Jesus leads you into the glorious presence of God. To you who are “peacemakers,” Jesus calls you His brothers, the sons of God. To you who are “persecuted,” Jesus gives you the peace of heaven. To you who are reviled and lied about, Jesus gives you the eternal reward of Paradise.
These blessings are yours by faith in Jesus. You are among the suffering ones that He describes here. He is telling you that He understands your sorrow. He understands your pain. He understands the loneliness of life in the fallen world. If anyone knew these troubles, He did. He was despised and reviled and persecuted by all people in order to win for sinners the eternal riches of God.
This Lord who suffered on your behalf is now with you in your suffering. No matter how much it may feel like it at times, you are not alone. Jesus is here for you as you struggle through. He “opens His mouth” and speaks comforting words of forgiveness and healing to you through your pastor and other Christian friends. And He addresses your spiritual weakness by feeding you with His holy body and quenching your thirst with His precious blood. Jesus Gives His Holy Blessings Even to You.
This does more for you than a motivational “Stick with it!” or a “You can do this!” Instead Jesus says, “I can do this, and I have done it. All that you need, I have given to you. All that is Mine is yours. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” By faith in these promises, we will one day be free of all our troubles and will join those saints above, that joyful host clothed in white robes. Then together we will worship the Lamb, our Savior, forever.
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(portion of “The Sermon of the Beatitudes” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Festival of the Reformation | St. Simon & St. Jude, Apostles – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 15:17-21
In Christ Jesus, who perfectly spoke the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), so that sinners might repent and believe in Him, dear fellow redeemed:
For most of the apostles, we know something about their personal lives. We know their occupation before they were apostles. We know some of the questions they asked Jesus, and the statements they made. We can also read Gospels and Epistles recorded by apostles such as Matthew, John, Peter, and Paul. But we know very little about Simon and Jude, whose saint day has been established on October 28.
Simon is referred to in the New Testament as “the zealot” (Lk. 6:15; Ac. 1:13). This may mean that he belonged to a Jewish revolutionary force called the “Zealots” before he became an apostle. This group opposed Roman rule over Israel and was willing to use force to advance Israel’s independence. There is no other mention of this apostle Simon beyond his name and title.
Simon’s fellow apostle, Jude, is listed either before (“Thaddaeus”—Mt. 10:3; Mk. 3:18) or after him (Lk. 6:16; Ac. 1:13) when the twelve apostles are named together. Jude, or Judas, was a common name at this time, just as the names Simon and James were. There were two apostles named Simon, two named James, and two named Jude, or Judas. The only time the apostle Jude is quoted in the New Testament, he is clearly identified as “Judas (not Iscariot)” (Jn. 14:22). While it is possible that the apostle Jude wrote the second to last book of the Bible, it is generally thought that a different Jude is the author.
Historical tradition indicates that Simon and Jude worked as missionaries in Persia following Pentecost, and that they were martyred there at the same time (Lindemann, The Sermon and the Propers, Vol. IV, pp. 119-120). This may explain why their lives are commemorated on the same day. But it could also be because little more can be said about one than the other.
The apostles Simon and Jude are not important to us because of their personal lives. There are no lessons to be learned from their weak or courageous statements of faith, because none of those statements are recorded. They were two men chosen by Jesus to witness His wonderful words and actions over three years, and then to Speak the Truth about His death and resurrection “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Ac. 1:8).
We do not have personal accounts of their missionary activity. But Jesus’ words to the disciples the night before His death give us an idea what they faced. Jesus warned them that the world would hate them just as it hated Him. They would be persecuted on account of His name. And so it happened. The apostle James was killed by government officials (Ac. 12:2). The apostle Peter was arrested shortly afterward and would have been killed also, but he was freed from jail by an angel (vv. 3-11). The apostle Paul details many abuses and troubles he endured simply because of what he preached (2Co. 11:23-27).
What is it that makes the world react in this way? What is so scary about the Christian message? Paul explained that “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1Co. 1:22-23). The Gospel stands in the way of human thinking, and therefore it is opposed.
The Jews expected a Messiah who would come with great power and wow the world with His mighty works. Instead Jesus came in humility and suffered a wretched death on the cross. This is not what they were looking for in the Messiah. The Gentiles on the other hand seek wisdom. Their god is the human mind. If something does not match their natural sentiments, they reject it. In this thinking, there is no place for an incarnate God and a victorious resurrection.
This is why Jesus is rejected. The world’s unbelievers are not convinced they need a Savior, and they are offended by the Christians’ insistence that they do. They want to believe that they are basically good, and that they are in firm control of their own destiny. But the Bible teaches the opposite. It teaches that all people by nature are dead in sin and are on the road to eternal punishment in hell. Unless the Holy Spirit works faith in human hearts, they cannot be saved.
So every Christian should expect this hatred and persecution in the world, just as the apostles did. Christianity is a religion of self-denial in a world that preaches self-indulgence. It is a religion of humble faith in a world that preaches pride and self-determinism. It is a religion of love for others in a world that preaches hatred and revenge toward one’s enemies. Jesus said, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
But the primary problem we face as Christians is not the wrath of the world. It is the weakness of our own flesh and our constant failings. Jesus chose us “out of the world,” and yet we so often speak and think and act no different than those who still are “of the world.” We take the Lord’s name in vain just like unbelievers do. We exhibit anger and hatred like they do. We deny our sins like they do. We gossip like they do. We live selfishly like they do. We buy into the lie that the way to be happy and successful and to get the most out of life is to put ourselves first.
Suppose Simon and Jude and the other apostles had done this. If they did what was beneficial for themselves, they would have quietly left Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and gone back to their previous occupations. Or they might have preached while times were good and then stopped preaching at the first sign of opposition. But the Holy Spirit compelled them to Speak the Truth, no matter the consequences.
After Pentecost, Peter and John were hauled before the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders “charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” But the apostles replied, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Ac. 4:18-20). How could they deny the One who had died and risen again? How could they fail to tell people what this meant—that sin is forgiven and death defeated? No better news than this had ever been spoken or heard. God had visited His people! The world’s Savior had come!
The apostles preached this message boldly and courageously, and their preaching turned the world upside down. The message of Christ crucified brought Jews and Gentiles, rich people and poor people, outwardly good people and outwardly bad people to faith in Jesus. They realized that all their attempts at self-justification were pointless; they could not save themselves. But Jesus had saved them. He had satisfied the righteous requirement of the law on their behalf and died in payment for their sin.
This is the saving truth that has been passed along from generation to generation until it has come to you. You also are a sinner whom Jesus redeemed with His own blood, and whom He has clothed in His righteousness. You may have failed again and again and joined in the sins of the world again and again, but Jesus grants you forgiveness again and again through His Word and Sacraments.
You would not know the good news of your salvation except for the work of the apostles and all the faithful confessors who followed them. Besides remembering the apostles Simon and Jude today, we also remember the work of Martin Luther and his fellow reformers. We know far more about Luther than we know about Simon and Jude. But Luther from 500 years ago and Simon and Jude from 2,000 years ago are significant for the same reason: They proclaimed the pure Gospel message. They counted “everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Ph. 3:8).
We honor the memory of these faithful confessors by doing the same thing. We fix our eyes on Jesus. We hear and learn His Word. We Speak the Truth. We take up our cross and follow after Him. We servants are not greater than our Master. If He, the Perfect One, was persecuted, then we should expect no better treatment. If the God of perfect love was hated, then we should welcome the world’s disdain.
We have a remarkable illustration of this when the Christian church was beginning to grow in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit had given power to the apostles to preach and to heal the sick. More and more were coming to faith through the Gospel. The Jewish authorities wanted to put a stop to the apostles’ work before the movement grew any more. So the authorities “beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go” (Ac. 5:40).
But instead of complaining about their injuries or shying away from their work, the apostles rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (vv. 41-42). This courage and strength did not come from inside them. It came from God.
That is where our courage comes from as well. Through the powerful Word, the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith, so that we are prepared to Speak the Truth in every situation. Like the Apostles, We Speak the Truth about Jesus. We proclaim everything He has done to save us and the whole world of sinners.
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(“Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
Saint Day: Mary Magdalene
Text: St. John 20:1-2,11-18
In Christ Jesus, who has compassion on poor sinners and suffered and died for each one, dear fellow redeemed:
In the three years of Jesus’ public work, the twelve disciples went wherever He went. But they were not the only followers of Jesus. The New Testament informs us of other men (Ac. 1:23) and women who traveled with Him. Regarding the women, the evangelist Luke writes that they “provided for [Jesus and His disciples] out of their means” (Lk. 8:3). Their financial support allowed Jesus and the Twelve to focus on teaching, preaching, and healing, rather than on finding daily bread.
The women showed this kindness toward Jesus because of the compassion He had showed them. Luke notes that some of the women “had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities,” including “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, [King] Herod’s household manager, and Susanna” (vv. 2-3). Our focus today is on Mary Magdalene.
As far as we know, Mary came from a village on the Sea of Galilee called “Magdala,” which made her, “Mary the Magdalene.” Mary would not have been remembered beyond her lifetime except for her association with Jesus.
She first beheld Him, as though peering through a dark cloud. Seven demons had taken residence in her. This could have caused her to behave in all sorts of troubling ways. One girl was possessed by a demon which gave her fortune-telling abilities (Ac. 16:16). A demon afflicted another boy by trying to cast him into fire and water to destroy him (Mk. 9:22). A legion of demons possessed another man and drove him into the desert to live among tombs (Lk. 8:26-30).
Demons inflict harm and are constantly working to move people to sin against themselves and others. According to tradition, Mary’s demons led her to sin especially against the Sixth Commandment. [Luke 7:36-50 has been applied to Mary Magdalene in the history of the church, but there is no proof that this woman and Mary are the same.]
We do not know how long Mary had been possessed by demons, but we do have an idea how it came about. Jesus explained that demons are only too ready to enter hearts that are empty of saving faith. He said that a demon “finds the house [the heart] empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there” (Mt. 12:44-45). Mary was in a terrible state. She had no hope. She was controlled by satanic forces. She appeared to be alive, but her body was full of death. If nothing changed, her anguish on earth would have given way to an eternity of suffering in hell.
Then the menacing cloud was lifted. Jesus stood before her, and as He did for many others, He commanded the demons to come out of her. Mary was freed from the chains of death that held her. The same powerful Word that forced the demons out of her body also worked its way into her heart. Her hardened heart of unbelief became a living heart of faith. She looked upon her Savior and loved Him for the mercy He had showed her. She could never repay Him, but she could follow Him and devote her life to Him.
Mary joined the men and women who traveled with Jesus until their journey led them through the gates of Jerusalem on a Sunday of palm branches and praises. Still, the mood was tense. It was well known that many of the Jewish religious leaders despised Jesus. Would they try to have Him arrested during this festival week on charges of blasphemy and insurrection? And in fact they did, in a secluded garden with few eyes watching.
By Good Friday morning, word began to spread about Jesus’ arrest. Mary heard too and went to where the crowd was gathering to see what would happen. The religious leaders succeeded in turning the people against Jesus, and they pressured Pilate to give the order for Jesus’ crucifixion. Wearing a crown of thorns, bruised and bleeding, Jesus was sent out from the governor’s palace carrying His own cross. A great many joined the procession, including women who mourned and lamented for Him (Lk. 23:27). Mary must have been one of these, because we know she was among the few followers of Jesus who stood by His cross at Golgotha (Jn. 19:25).
Her heart broke as she watched her Savior in such agony. How could they do this? How could this happen to such a great man? He had delivered her from her demons, and from death itself. But now there was no one to save Him. Darkness descended at noontime, and about 3:00pm, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46). He was suffering the eternal fires of hell for sinners. Then He said, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30), and followed that with, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Lk. 23:46). After saying this, He breathed His last.
Mary Magdalene witnessed all these things, but she could hardly comprehend what she was hearing and seeing. Could this be it? Could her Savior be dead? Many went home, but she and some of the other women from Galilee would not leave Jesus. They watched from a distance and saw Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus take the body down from the cross and wrap it in a clean linen shroud. They followed the men and saw the tomb where the body was buried (Mt. 27:55-61). Then they hurried back to their homes before the start of the Sabbath at sundown.
God established the Sabbath for a day to rest and be refreshed and strengthened through the Word. But Jesus’ followers could hardly relax. They could not believe their kind Teacher was dead. They worried that the authorities would be coming for them next. For their part, the women resolved to serve Jesus one last time. After the Sabbath, they would bring spices and ointments to give Jesus a more proper burial (Lk. 23:56).
But their spices and ointments would not be needed. The women found the tomb open and empty. While Mary Magdalene stood there weeping, Jesus appeared and spoke to her. She did not recognize who it was. But when Jesus said her name, “Mary,” she turned and cried out, “Rabboni!”—“Teacher!” This was Jesus’ first earthly appearance after His resurrection. Mary—formerly inhabited by seven demons—was the first witness of the event that changed everything forever.
It’s a good story with a happy ending. But it’s no good if that’s all we see in it. We should recognize that Mary’s story could just as well be your story and mine. Like Mary, we also were controlled by satanic forces before we were converted by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is why in our baptismal liturgy, we ask sponsors to answer this question on behalf of the young child or infant, “Do you renounce the devil, and all his works, and all his ways?”
Through Baptism, the light of God’s powerful Word pierced our darkness and brought us to faith. This saving Baptism into Christ is our continued defense against the demons who would do us harm. We return to our Baptism through repentance of our sins and trust in God’s Word of grace. His Word leads us from spiritual death to spiritual life, just as His Word gave life to Mary.
The proof that this life is ours is based on what Mary and many others witnessed. They saw Jesus die. It was no elaborate hoax. They did not deposit an unconscious Jesus in the tomb and leave an opening for Him to escape. He was dead. Tombs are not closed and sealed unless this is certain. Listen to how Mary referred to Jesus on Easter morning: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” She assumes He had to be taken and laid somewhere because He was dead. Of course He couldn’t move Himself!
And by this assumption, Mary was just as guilty as all the rest. Jesus had told them otherwise. He said He would die and rise again. But they did not believe it. No one had ever risen from the dead. We are tempted to the same unbelief. All we see around us is death. How can we be sure the dead will rise again?
Our certainty is not in what we see with our eyes, but in what others saw with theirs. Did the disciples believe Jesus could rise? No. What changed their minds? They saw Jesus alive multiple times. It was undeniable. Even when they were arrested and killed for preaching Jesus’ death and resurrection, they would not deny His resurrection, because it was true.
Jesus’ resurrection is a historical fact. It can be rejected, but it cannot be undone. Jesus rose in victory over death, so that each sinner can be certain of forgiveness. His resurrection means that God accepted His sacrifice on behalf of all sinners. Jesus paid the debt of your sin. He conquered your death. The death of your body in this life is only temporary. Jesus will raise you again, and then there will be no pain, trouble, or weeping.
When Mary saw Jesus standing outside His tomb, she wanted to cling to Him. But Jesus told her that His Word—and not His visible presence—would now have most importance. She was to share that Word with the disciples, that Jesus would soon ascend “to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.” This is the moment captured in Jerico’s altar painting, which is also printed on today’s bulletin cover. Jesus holds up His hands showing the marks of the nails and points to the heavens.
This painting reminds us to take Jesus at His Word, even though we cannot now see Him. We believe that He died and rose again for us, and that He has ascended into heaven to prepare a place for all believers. We learn with Mary to “Set [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). We wait eagerly for Jesus to appear to us like He did to Mary, and then our journey from Death to Life will be complete.
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