Good Friday – Pr. Faugstad homily
In Christ Jesus, who looks upon us with eyes full of mercy and grace, dear fellow redeemed:
How often did Mary kiss the face of the Christ-Child? How often did she gently touch His rosy cheeks as He drifted in and out of sleep? As she gazed at Him, did she think to herself that no woman ever had such a precious Child as she did? It was true—there was never a Child so precious. This Child was God’s gift to the world. It was God the Father’s only Son, begotten of Him from eternity, now clothed in human flesh.
But not all looked upon the face of this Man with the love that Mary did. Many hated Him. They despised the words that came from His mouth. They turned away from His eyes so piercing, so true. The very sight of Him made them scowl. They wished to look upon Him no more. They wanted Him to die.
Their plotting caught the ear of Judas. Yes, he would be glad to betray Jesus to them at an opportune time—for a price. On Thursday evening, he saw his chance when Jesus went with the other disciples to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas came to the garden with the leaders of the Jews and a band of soldiers. He stepped up to Jesus and kissed His face with a kiss of betrayal.
Then Jesus was arrested and bound and brought before the high priest. There, He began to suffer both verbal and physical abuse. After being declared guilty and deserving of death, the officers and others present proceeded to “spit in his face and [strike] him. And some slapped him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?’” (Mt. 26:67-68). Then He was sent before Pontius Pilate, who ordered Him to be flogged. The Roman soldiers likewise struck Him in the face and drove a crown of thorns into His head.
Now that face, so precious to Mary and beloved by His followers, was hardly recognizable. Now it was swollen, bruised, and bleeding. The writer of our chief hymn tried to paint this picture in words: “O sacred Head, now wounded,” “scornfully surrounded With thorns,” “despised and gory,” “pale with anguish,” “from Thy cheeks has vanished Their color,” “From Thy red lips is banished The splendor” (ELH 334/335, vv. 1-3). Jesus was wretched to look upon.
Then He was led to Golgotha to be crucified. Swollen though they were, His eyes still looked compassionately at the thief who suffered nearby and at His mother Mary and John. But His eyes also beheld with pain the jeering crowd below. What He saw was recorded long before this day in the 22nd Psalm. “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’… Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion” (vv. 7-8, 12-13).
He should not have had to see and suffer these things. He had done no wrong. But the world had. All had sinned. All had turned their faces away from God and His Word. Even when God became Man, “the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (Jn. 1:10-11). It was as Isaiah had prophesied long before, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not” (53:2-3).
Men did not “hide their faces” from Him because He was so ugly or disfigured. “Men hide their faces” because they are ashamed of their sins. Our sin is the reason Jesus was abused. Our sin is the reason He was nailed to a cross. None of this would have happened if we had listened all along to God instead of the devil.
But God the Son was willing to endure this pain. He “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:51) and suffer “sore abuse and scorn,” because He wanted to save you. He went to the cross to blot out your sins. He went there to atone for the sinful things you have looked at, the ungodly things you have listened to, and the unkind words you have spoken. He offered His sacred head—so full of compassion and grace—for yours, so full of selfishness and sin.
He is not angry that your sins caused Him such anguish. He does not look upon you disdainfully. He looks upon you with favor. He wants to bless you by the sight of His Sacraments before your eyes and the sound of His Gospel in your ears. He wants to bring you His forgiveness and life, so that your eyes are not filled with tears or your mouth with weeping, but that you find eternal joy and gladness in Him.
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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(portion of painting by Matthias Grunewald, c. 1510)
Maundy Thursday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
St. John 13:1-15
In Christ Jesus, who is “patient and kind,” “does not envy or boast,” and “is not arrogant or rude” (1Cor. 13:4-5), dear fellow redeemed:
Someone who is consistently selfish and mean lacks the credibility to tell others how to be better friends and neighbors to the people around them. It would be easy to dismiss such a person with a quick, “Why don’t you take your own advice?”
But when Jesus says, “Live how I live,” and “Do as I do,” His credibility cannot be questioned. He could speak with authority about moral behavior, because He never committed a sin. Not only did Jesus avoid wrongdoing, He also gladly served His neighbors. His disciple John remarked that if His good deeds were all recorded, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn. 21:25).
Today, we are blessed to hear the account of how Jesus served His disciples the night before His death. He set aside His outer garments, and like a lowly servant would do, He proceeded to wash the feet of His disciples, one by one. The disciples were perplexed about this. What was Jesus doing? This was no job for Him! The others may have verbally questioned this, but only Peter’s protest is given: “Lord, do You wash my feet?” Despite Jesus’ gentle reply that Peter would understand this in time, Peter blurted out, “You shall never wash my feet.”
And why not? Why shouldn’t Jesus wash his feet? Was this below Him? Should His position as esteemed teacher exempt Him from doing the work of a servant? If these things were the case, then Jesus would not really be as humble as He appeared. But high standing does not mean a person no longer has to serve his neighbor. “The greater one is, the meeker he must be” (Laache, Book of Family Prayer, p. 268). Jesus considered no one as lower than Himself, even though He was the holy Son of God. He took “the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7).
There He was washing the feet of Judas, who in a matter of hours would betray Him to the Jewish authorities for money. There He was washing the feet of the other disciples who shortly would abandon Him. And there He was washing Peter’s feet, Peter who would vehemently deny that he even knew Jesus before the night was done. Jesus did not wash the feet of these men because they deserved it. He washed their feet because He loved them.
Love compelled Him to clean their dirty feet. And love propelled Him forward to His crucifixion and death. He would go to the cross to atone for the sins of His betrayer and His fearful disciples. He would go to the cross for the Jewish and Gentile leaders who had His “blood on their hands,” blood which no amount of water could wash off (Mt. 27:24). He would go to the cross for every sinner—for every rebel, murderer, adulterer, thief, and liar. What wondrous love is this!
His love did not end at the cross. His love did not stop with, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30). His love for sinners continued. He rose from the dead to give them victory over death. Then He commissioned His disciples to share the message of His love with “all nations” (Mt. 28:19). Two thousand years later, His love is still present. It is given you through His Word and Sacraments. You may feel unworthy of His presence, but He is not ashamed to come to you. Are you too dirty to receive Him? Are you embarrassed for Him to see what sins you have done? But that is why He comes.
He comes to wash you. He comes to deal with even your most unpleasant, odorous wrongs, just as He lovingly washed the disciples’ dirty, sweaty feet. This is what He instituted His Sacrament to do, to wash you of your sins. As you bow at the Communion rail, Jesus draws your eye away from your sin, and to His body and His blood. These gifts are “given and shed for you”—why?—“for the remission of sins.” Here, your sins are blotted out. Here, your transgressions are removed “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12), as though they had never been committed.
Do you believe this? Do you believe that Jesus is telling the truth when He says your sins are completely forgiven in the Sacrament? It is hard to believe, since we are such great sinners. But He is a greater Savior, and He does not lie.
If we take His word of forgiveness seriously, as we should, then we should also pay attention to what He told His disciples in today’s text. He said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
You would not wish to be regarded like the spoiled child, who is glad to receive gifts and treats from his parents but despises their instruction. This is how people are who are glad to partake of the grace and comfort of Holy Communion, but who do not carry the love of Christ with them away from the rail. They are happy to hear that Jesus forgives them, but they are not about to forgive their neighbor who has wronged them. They are not about to take the humble servant’s role and see how they might better the lives of others, instead of giving the cold shoulder or trying to get revenge.
How often has this played out in your relationships? I am not talking about the times others have treated you poorly, but the times you have treated others poorly. Have you carried out your callings at home, at work, and at church “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”? (Eph. 4:2-3). Have you endeavored to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith”? (Gal. 6:10). Have you done what you promise to do in the Lord’s Prayer—forgiven those who have trespassed against you?
This is what it means to love your neighbor. Love means stooping down in service like Jesus did. It means “washing the feet,” so to speak, of those who have betrayed you, lied to you, or hurt you. It means “washing the feet” of those who have been unkind or uncaring. It means “washing the feet” even of those who act like your friends but then abandon you in your hour of greatest need.
That is exactly what was done to Jesus. He knew it was coming, and yet He still loved. He loved the unloving. This kind of sacrificial love is what sets a follower of Jesus apart from an unbeliever. In that same upper room, our Lord said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34-35).
But that is so hard to do! How can Jesus expect us to love like He did? We cannot find such a storehouse, such strength to love, inside of us. But we can find it in Him. If He could love those who crucified Him, if He could love you and me, He can help us love those who have wronged us in ways great or small. He brings us the strength to do this through His powerful Word and Sacraments. Through these means, He invites us to feast on His grace and to drink deeply of His love. Then His love enters us and enlivens our hearts and moves us to do for others as He does for us. “We Love, Because He First Loved Us” (1Jn. 4:19).
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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(portion of painting by Giotto di Bondone, c. 1267-1337)
Palm Sunday / The Annunciation – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Philippians 2:5-11
In Christ Jesus, “The King of heavenly grace,” who “Came down from His exalted throne / To save our fallen race” (ELH 127, v. 2), dear fellow redeemed:
I have never heard of a CEO of a multi-billion dollar company giving up the job to become a minimum-wage worker of the same company. It is possible that this could happen, but not very likely. An “undercover boss” might spend some time with workers at the bottom of the corporate ladder, but he will not stay there. Human beings are not inclined to give up what they have gained and move down instead of up. We want to have more success, better our standing, rise higher. This is why no one could have imagined what God would do for mankind, and how He would go about it.
Suppose you were the CEO of a company: What would you do if an employee of yours broke all the rules for the job, attacked the people around him, stole from the company, and threatened you? Not only would you fire him, you would also expect him to be arrested and punished for his crimes. In the same way we who have broken God’s holy Commandments again and again should expect to be removed from His gracious employ and punished for all our sins.
But that is not what happened. Instead, God sent one of His angels to inform a young, poor woman named Mary: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:31-33). It is not impossible, though not very likely, for a king to rise up from such poor circumstances. But this was not just any king; this was the Messiah. This was God come in the flesh.
Human reason cannot comprehend these things. How could a virgin be pregnant? How could the tiny Child in her womb be the eternal God? How could the Lord’s death win life for us? This is so difficult to grasp because Jesus’ power and glory are not displayed like we would expect them to be.
If we were to plan the arrival of God on earth, we would envision it much differently than how it happened. First of all, we would choose a woman of different status—certainly someone known for her good deeds, but someone more prominent than Mary of Nazareth. When told that Jesus was from that town, one of His future disciples remarked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46). Then we would also expect the God-Man to step onto the world’s stage with stunning demonstrations of heavenly power and with swift judgment against the wicked. In short, we would imagine that the Lord of All would act like the Lord of All.
But the Lord of heaven, begotten of the Father from eternity, “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” This is an even greater step down than CEO to minimum-wage earner. In that case, it is still exchanging one human position for another. But God the Son stepped down from His position of power and authority over heaven and earth to become the Servant of men.
What caused Him to do this? Was it because He considered the human race worthy of the effort? Did He see enough goodness, enough promise in man, that He was willing to help them out? No, the “redeeming quality” was in God, not in people. It was God the Father’s love for the pinnacle of His creation that caused Him to send His Son to become Man (Jn. 3:16). He did not have to talk His Son into it; His Son obeyed Him without hesitation. His will perfectly conformed to His Father’s, even though He must endure intense agony and punishment for sin. The text says, “And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
It was in humility that Jesus revealed His greatness and glory. Many people rejected Him as Lord because He did not fit their picture of the Messiah. He did not act like they would if they were God incarnate. Which was exactly the point. Jesus was the opposite of what mankind had become since the fall into sin. He came without a hint of pride and without any pressure to prove Himself to the satisfaction of sinners.
All of this was quite unexpected—The Lord of All Becomes Servant of All?! The disciples did not understand why their great Teacher must go to Jerusalem to die an ugly death. The people on Palm Sunday did not understand His purpose in coming to Jerusalem “humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). Pontius Pilate did not understand why, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,… he opened not his mouth” (Is. 53:7) when false accusations were leveled against Him. No one can rightly understand Jesus’ sacrifice in our place. It required a humility unknown and unobtainable by any of us.
And yet our text says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” We should have the attitude that Jesus had and conduct ourselves as He did. In the verses just before today’s text, we are urged to “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (vv. 3-4). This is the how Jesus was. He told His disciples that although He was their Lord, yet He was among them as one who serves (Lk. 22:27). He stooped down and washed their feet just as they “also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn. 13:14).
This is not how our self-centered, entitlement culture operates. We are taught to demand respect. We should fight for the benefits we deserve. We should never let anyone question the decisions we make or how we live our lives. We should never have to back down from anyone. So in other words, everyone else should serve our interests and make sacrifices for us, but they better not expect the same treatment in return.
Isn’t it obvious why there is so much hatred and bitterness in our society? It is not the fault of our political leaders or the media or anything else outside of us. The problem is in our hearts. Our hearts are full of selfishness and pride. If we loved our neighbor as God demands, we would view no one as below us. Serving others would never feel like a chore. We would give with no thought of recognition or reward. We would show respect even when the same courtesy was not returned to us.
If anyone had cause to be offended by others, it was Jesus. He did wrong to no one. He was the perfect neighbor. Yet He was betrayed, tortured, and crucified. How did He respond to such indignities, such injustice? “Father, forgive them,” He said, “for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Who can comprehend the sacrifice? Who can understand the humility?
In a sermon on this text, Martin Luther said that “Were we similarly to humble ourselves, and even to go beyond Christ in humility—a thing, however, impossible—we should do nothing extraordinary. Our humility would still reek of sin in comparison with his. Suppose Christ [were] to humble himself in the least degree—but a hair’s breadth, so to speak—below the most exalted angels; and suppose we were to humble ourselves to a position a thousand times more abased than the devils in hell; yet our humility would not compare in the least with that of Christ.” (Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 7, p. 170)
Nothing like this had ever happened before or ever would again. God became Man. Would you become a mosquito to save the mosquitos? Probably not—better to have them die. But God became Man to save sinful mankind. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary when the angel visited her on that history-altering day. The Church remembers this annunciation—this announcement to Mary—on March 25th, which is exactly nine months before Christmas.
This year, March 25th also marks the start of Holy Week. This week, we see why God became Man, why He humbled Himself so completely. One of our Christmas hymns makes the connection:
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!” (ELH 145, v. 2).
The Lord “made Himself nothing,” so you could have everything. The first pastor of this parish, the Rev. U. V. Koren, explained that “God’s Son came down to bring us up to God. He became poor to make us rich. He took our condition on Himself to give us His. He reconciled God to us so that we might be reconciled to God” (U. V. Koren’s Works, Vol. 1, p. 166). He did not come to serve us because we are worthy of His service. By nature, we are just as self-focused, prideful, impatient, unkind, and unloving as everybody else.
But Jesus did not let the nastiness of His neighbors turn His love away. He continued on His mission with a clear conscience, a definite purpose, and an obedient heart. He lived a perfect life for you, me, and all sinners who are not as we should be, and He willingly gave Himself over to death to obtain our forgiveness.
God the Father accepted His humble sacrifice on our behalf and raised Jesus from the dead. Now “God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name.” But our Brother in flesh did not return to the Father’s right hand alone. He came down to our level, in order to bring us up to His. He lifts us up from our low and despised position in this world to reign with Him in heaven. As another of our Christmas hymns says,
He serves that I a lord may be;
A great exchange indeed!
Could Jesus’ love do more for me
To help me in my need,
To help me in my need? (ELH 148, v. 7)
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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(painting is “The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
New Year’s Eve – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 13:6-9
In Christ Jesus, who patiently and diligently calls us to repentance and faith, dear fellow redeemed:
When making New Year’s resolutions, not many will seriously resolve to do things that are bad. Almost no one says, “I am going to eat and drink too much, so I can be unhealthy.” “I am going to be a lazy worker and take advantage of my employer.” “I am going to hurt the people around me with my short temper and selfish behavior.” “I am going to assume the worst and be easily offended.” Typically, our resolutions have to do with adopting a healthier lifestyle, working harder, treating the people around us better, and having a positive outlook on life.
But for all the promise that a new year brings, our plans do not always play out like we hope. Before too long, our good intentions fail, and we often revert to the same old habits. That doesn’t mean we should give up on our resolutions. Having the desire to be and do better is important even if we fail to really improve. Even if we do improve and succeed at our resolutions, this will not guarantee a happy new year for each of us. Our joy in the new year is not about carrying out our own plans, but on following God’s plan for us, a plan which has two major parts.
The first part of His plan does not start with what you will do, but what you already have done. His plan for you starts with your repentance, the acknowledgement of your sins. Everyone making new year’s resolutions does this, but only in part. People don’t make resolutions unless they recognize they have failed in some way. They resolve to lose weight because they have maintained a poor diet and insufficient exercise habits. They resolve to treat others better because they have often treated them poorly.
But backed into a corner, most will try to pin their failures on others. “I am overweight and out of shape because of my work and family responsibilities.” “I would have treated my family members and co-workers better if they showed me some respect and didn’t expect me to do everything for them.” So even though there is recognition of failure, there is not necessarily repentance.
Repentance comes from the heart. It is a breaking down of all my excuses, all my pride, all my bravado, and stating the matter exactly as it is. I am a sinner. I am not what I should be. I have not done what I should do. I deserve to feel the holy wrath of God for eternity. Repentance is to speak as David did after his adultery, murder, and lies had been uncovered. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,” he said to God. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:3-4).
Until the LORD brought David to repentance, he had fallen from grace. He was an unbeliever—even David, whom the LORD had called “a man after his own heart” (1Sam. 13:14, Ac. 13:20). If the great King David could fall, who penned our most beautiful Psalms, then any of us could as well. The devil is only too happy to take our hand and help us along the path toward unbelief. Like David who was overcome with lust when he saw a woman bathing, so the devil uses pornographic images to draw men away from healthy sexual behavior and from marriage. He tempts people to abuse drink and drugs, so that they think of little else. He fills hearts and heads with stubbornness and selfishness, causing an epidemic of people who are eagle-eyed about what they can get from others and blind to what they should give.
Maybe you haven’t succumbed to these addictions and bad behaviors. Maybe you are the one people think of when they hear the adjectives “kind,” “faithful,” and “generous.” Then you need to watch out for the temptations to pride and self-reliance. You certainly should resolve to do good things and live better, but you should not imagine that you have accomplished everything God has given you to do.
If you were to measure yourself against the people around you, you might think you are doing pretty well. But God tells you to measure yourself against His holy law. His law is a mirror that shows you a true reflection of your sinful nature. Notice in Jesus’ parable how the owner of the vineyard clearly saw the problem with his fig tree: three years with no fruit. The fig tree did not judge itself. If it could think, it might have regarded itself as a lovely tree, with beautiful branches and leaves. It provided a place for birds to nest and a nice spot in the shade for anyone looking for relief from the sun. What did it matter whether it had fruit or not?
This is how it goes for the person who does not measure himself against God’s law. He thinks he is living a virtuous life. She thinks that God must be happy with her. But that cannot be true when there is no repentance.
The second part of God’s plan after your repentance is for you is that you look to Him in faith. If all you had were His law, you could do nothing but hang your head in shame and wait for His judgment. But God has given you hope. He has given you His Son. God’s Son arrived on earth with resolutions of His own. He resolved to perfectly keep the law of God on behalf of sinners. And He resolved to atone for all sin and crush Satan by His death on the cross. These were not empty promises. God set His mind to save sinners, and He would not let anything derail His plans.
Your God did for you exactly what He said He would. He did live a holy life in your place, and He did redeem you from your sin and death. Your status before God does not depend on your improving and getting holier day after day. His love for you will not change even when you fall into sin. While you should repent of all your sins committed in the past year, you should also believe that those sins are erased from God’s ledger. They are already forgiven. The tension between your sinfulness and God’s law is resolved in Jesus, who gave Himself for you.
Now you could hear what I just said and let the devil twist it like this: “Well, if Jesus forgives my sins, then I might as well just go on sinning.” And why not? Whether I do well or poorly, won’t Jesus love me just the same? Here’s the problem with this thinking: You can’t have Jesus while hating His Word. Whenever you willfully do something that the Bible says you should not do, you show what little respect you have for God. Then you are in danger of being the fruitless fig tree that the master of the vineyard orders to be cut down and destroyed.
Believers in Jesus want to live according to His Word. They want to do what pleases Him. They willingly repent of their sins knowing that God is already aware of the wrongs committed and already forgives it. They humbly commit their life, their work, and their future to God’s hands trusting that He will bless them and bless others through them.
And He does. Even through us weak sinners, the Lord brings blessings to those around us. He brings love and stability to our families through our feeble efforts, He gives daily bread to others through our imperfect work, and He provides help to our neighbors even though our service is not always so willing. You may not be living the life you dreamed you would when you were younger. But God has put you where you are now to love and serve your neighbors.
Your acts of love and kindness are the fruits of faith produced in you by the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul listed such fruits in his letter to the Galatians. They are the fruits of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (5:22-23). God produces these fruits by applying and reapplying the potent fertilizer of His Word. His Word keeps your faith fed and your spiritual life growing. His law shows you where you have fallen short and what needs to change in your life. His Gospel gives you the eternal blessings won by Jesus. The Gospel is like a tree full of fruit providing exactly what your hungry soul needs—the righteousness, forgiveness, and life of your Savior. The Gospel also motivates you to share the love of Jesus with others.
This is how God’s Plan for You in the New Year is carried out. He leads you to repentance and faith through His Word. Peter in today’s Epistle lesson describes the Word of God as “living and abiding,” a Word that “remains forever” (1Pe. 1:23,25). You were planted in God’s kingdom through the imperishable seed of this Word, and it is through this living Word that God keeps your faith alive and growing. You may or may not keep your resolutions in the coming year, but God will keep His. He will comfort and strengthen you through His Word as He has promised, and He will bring you the same heavenly blessings in the coming year as He has given you in years past.
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(picture is from a painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
Children’s Christmas Program at Saude
December 17, 2017
The Norwegian Synod was established in America in 1853. The Rev. U. V. Koren was one of its early leaders. He organized numerous congregations in the area, including the Saude congregation in 1857 and the Jerico congregation in 1867.
A controversy over the doctrine of election fractured the Synod in the 1880s. The controversy later reignited when leaders in the major Scandinavian Lutheran church bodies proposed a merger, even though they were not in full agreement on the Bible’s teaching.
When the merger was finalized in 1917, a small group of pastors and congregations refused to go along. They resolved to continue in the old paths of the Norwegian Synod and reorganized that church body in 1918. This synod, now called the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS), will mark the 100th anniversary of its reorganization in the coming year.
This program looks back on that Norwegian Lutheran heritage, which was brought to America from the remote lands of northern Europe. In the midst of the long, dark winters in homelands old and new, the Norwegians gathered around the light of God’s Word. They also sang warm Christmas songs about the bright Light that God sent into the world of darkness to save sinners.
CONGREGATION: #144.1-7 – “Thy Little Ones, Dear Lord, Are We”
INTRODUCTION: Pr. Faugstad
The bright greens started their transition toward a dull brown, the days ended progressively sooner and sooner, and a cold wind crept down from the arctic north through the majestic fjords. Winter was once again coming to Norway. Families methodically but urgently prepared food and kindling and braced themselves for the longest season. The cold and dark could dampen even the most cheerful spirit.
But as brightly as the fire burned in their little homes, so the flame of faith glowed in their hearts. The One who had saved them would not forget about them. Spring would return in glory just as surely as He would. So while the cold wind howled outside, the Norwegian people sang. They sang of the Christ-Child and rejoiced in this gift sent to them with love from their heavenly Father.
With spring came hope and renewed ambition. Families looking for better prospects and opportunities jammed everything they could in traveling trunks and bought tickets for the voyage to America. They had been told that there they would find fertile land for the taking, land like what the Lord’s people inherited in Canaan. The land was good, but the work to settle it was hard. And the days may not have been as short, but the winters felt just as long.
By firelight the people again reviewed the promises of God in His Word and sang their beloved hymns. In this way, by means of study and song, fathers and mothers passed down the faith to sons and daughters. Like a flame shared from one candle to another, this hope in Christ was transmitted from generation to generation.
And now that hope has come to us. How can we keep the hope of Jesus alive? How can we be sure that the flame of faith will not become extinguished among us? It is the same now as it was for our forefathers. Jesus comes to us still through the preaching, hearing, and singing of His Gospel.
This is why we gather again today around the light of God’s Word, so that we can hear of “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (Jn. 1:9). This Light is Jesus our Savior. He is the Light that “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (v. 5).
CONGREGATION: #144.8 – “Thy Little Ones, Dear Lord, Are We”
God Gives Light
NARRATION: The first verses of the Book of Genesis describe the creation of the world: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” But God did not leave the world in darkness.
RECITATIONS: Kindergarten-1st Grade (Genesis 1:3, 1:4, 1:5, 1:14, 1:16, 1:17)
GIRLS’ CHOIR: #108.1-4 – “Creator of the Starry Height”
CONGREGATION: #108.5-6 – “Creator of the Starry Height”
NARRATION: Soon after God’s creation was complete, the devil tempted Adam and Eve to sin, and the world was plunged into spiritual darkness. Because sin is passed down from generation to generation, darkness reigns in the earth. An absence of light is keenly understood in some parts of Norway, where in the winter months the sun never rises above the horizon.
RECITATIONS: 2nd-3rd Grades (John 3:19, 3:20, 1 John 2:11, Ephesians 6:12)
CONGREGATION: #110.1, 6 – “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
A Glimmer of Light
NARRATION: After the fall into sin, God promised to send light into the dark world. He promised to send a Savior. This promise was for people in every corner of the world, from the north to the south and from the east to the west.
RECITATIONS: 4th Grade (Numbers 24:17, Malachi 4:2, Luke 1:78-79, Psalm 107:13-14)
CONGREGATION: #90.1, 2, 5, 6 – “Savior of the Nations, Come”
The Light Comes
NARRATION: The fullness of time had come. The time of the Savior’s arrival was here. A bright light shined in the darkness.
CHRISTMAS GOSPEL: St. Luke 2:1-7 (1st-4th Grades)
CHILDREN: #127.1-4 – “I Am So Glad when Christmas Comes”
(first verse in Norwegian: “Jeg er så glad hver julekveld”)
RECITATIONS: 5th Grade (Isaiah 9:2, John 1:4-5, 1:14)
CHRISTMAS GOSPEL: St. Luke 2:8-12 (5th-6th Grades)
CHILDREN: #123.1-5 – “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”
CHRISTMAS GOSPEL: St. Luke 2:13-14 (All Grades)
CHILDREN: #125.1, 3 – “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
Light for All
NARRATION: The angels told the shepherds that the good news of Christ’s coming is for “all people.” The shepherds told this news to everyone they met. Even wise men far away learned of Jesus’ birth and set out after a star to find Him. The light of the Gospel reached Norway around the year 1000, and before long, much of the country was converted to Christianity.
CHRISTMAS GOSPEL: St. Luke 2:15-20 (7th Grade)
CONGREGATION: #143.1-7 – “The Happy Christmas Comes”
RECITATIONS: 6th Grade (Isaiah 60:1-2, 60:3-4, 60:6, Matthew 2:1-2, 2:9-10, 2:11)
CHILDREN: “Dejlig er den himmel blå”
CONGREGATION: #120.1-4 – “Bright and Glorious Is the Sky”
Walking in the Light
NARRATION: The evangelical preaching of the Lutheran reformers came to Norway in the 1520s, and Lutheranism was declared the official state religion in 1536. When a significant portion of the Norwegian population emigrated to America in the nineteenth century, Norwegian Lutheran preachers followed. By the grace of God, the clear Gospel teaching of those faithful preachers continues to shine forth in our churches today.
RECITATIONS: 7th Grade (1 Thessalonians 5:4-6, 1 Peter 2:9, Colossians 1:13-14, 2 Peter 1:19, 2 Corinthians 4:6)
CONGREGATION: #120.5-6 – “Bright and Glorious Is the Sky”
OFFERING & LIGHTING OF THE CANDLES
CONGREGATION: #140 – “Silent Night”
PRAYERS & BENEDICTION
CONGREGATION: #153.1-4, 7 – “The People That in Darkness Sat”
ANNOUNCEMENTS & SHARING OF GIFTS
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(painting is “Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1592-1656)
Thanksgiving – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Mark 4:26-29
In Christ Jesus, who is both the reason for and the focus of our thanksgiving, dear fellow redeemed:
Only a farmer knows how much work goes into planting and harvesting a crop. In the winter and spring, he prepares his equipment, so that it is ready to go when the weather changes. He purchases seed, watches the forecast, and checks the ground, so planting can begin whenever that window of opportunity opens. Then he watches the growth of the crop and applies time and products as needed to ensure healthy growth. As fall approaches, there is more work to do on equipment. And then the harvest begins, bringing long hours and hopefully a good yield.
But for all the time the farmer puts in, he has no control over the actual growth of the plant. He cannot make a plant do what it naturally does through the right amount of rain and sunshine. This is what Jesus points out in today’s text. He says in St. Mark 4:26-29: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Imagine if every plant had to be tended twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, in order for it to grow the fruit or grain that we needed. We would look at produce much differently than we do now. Tremendous resources would be required simply for our survival. But our Lord is happy to do that diligent work for us. He is pleased to provide us our daily bread. The psalmist says, “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing” (145:15-16). If God did not apply His blessed work on a growing plant every moment of every day, no plant would survive and come to maturity.
This is not just the case with plants. This is how it was in our formation as well. Even more miraculous than the growth of a plant from a seed, is the growth of a human being from a fertilized egg. How that tiny egg could produce such a complex being is beyond our comprehension. It is a work that only God can do. The growing child is nourished by its mother, but she does not cause the child’s organs to form, its heart to start beating, or its arms and legs to take shape.
Psalm 139 tells who is responsible for these things, “For you [O LORD] formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (vv. 13-16).
The formation of our physical life is a miracle, and so is the formation of our spiritual life. Our spiritual life began with the sowing of a seed, but a seed without any form or shape. God caused the seed of His Word to be sown in our hearts. The ground of our heart was like soil that is rocky and polluted. Nothing good could grow there. But through His Word, God cleansed the soil and cultivated it, planting faith and life where before there was nothing but death.
This is how the kingdom of heaven grows. God has the seed of His Word sown, even in places where we would least expect it to do anything, and the seed sprouts and grows—we know not how. We only know that God’s Word does not return to Him empty, and that it accomplishes the purpose that He intends (Is. 55:11). The person who sows the Word is not important. What is important is that the Word is proclaimed, through which the Holy Spirit does the work. The Apostle Paul wrote, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1Cor. 3:7).
That spiritual growth happens throughout a Christian’s life. The Holy Spirit not only plants the seed of faith in the heart through the Word, but He also nurtures that faith. He brings Jesus to the penitent sinner, who gives Himself as food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, and strength for the weak. Just as surely as He carried the burden of all sin to the cross, so He relieves your burdens of guilt, pain, and sorrow and gives you rest.
Through a lifetime of hardships, setbacks, and struggles, the Lord refines and purifies your faith, so that you grow to maturity and are ready to be harvested for heaven on the Last Day. This is when the angels will gather you to the side of your Savior, along with all those who were grown and preserved by His grace. On that day, you will not think to yourself how your salvation was possible because of all your hard work, or because you were such a skilled Christian. The glory will be and is God’s alone.
This is why, whether we are talking about earthly or eternal blessings, we do not give thanks today in the way that so many do. We do not give thanks that we are such hard workers, or that we have earned wonderful things for ourselves, or that we are so gifted and good, so deserving of the things we call our own. No, we “give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever” (Ps. 107:1, NKJV). He is the one who has blessed us not just every now and then, not just every day, but every moment.
Our Lord produces miracles for us constantly. It is by His miraculous power alone that we have the food, home, clothing, family, and friends that we enjoy. It is by His miraculous power that we have life at all. It is by His miraculous power that we believe in a Savior who has rescued us from the destruction we deserved. And so we are thankful always, Thankful for the Every Moment Miracles, thankful to the God who is good, and whose mercy does endure forever.
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The Festival of the Reformation (500th Anniversary) – Pr. Faugstad exordium & sermon
On February 18, 1546, Martin Luther died. He had been the unquestioned leader of the Reformation movement since it started some thirty years earlier. Now this brilliant, steadfast, controversial man was gone. With Luther out of the picture, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, decided that the time was right for war against the Lutheran princes. He hoped first to subdue the Lutheran forces and then to stamp out the Lutheran faith. In April of the next year, 1547, the Lutheran armies were defeated at the Battle of Mühlberg. John Frederick the Magnanimous, the Elector of Saxony and Luther’s good friend, was taken prisoner and sentenced to death. His life was spared only when he gave up his title and lands, including the town of Wittenberg, where Luther had lived and was buried.
What would happen to the Lutherans? Would Luther’s important work be undone? There were some who gave in to the Emperor’s demands. They compromised the clear teaching of the Gospel. But others boldly took their stand against the Emperor and his armies, knowing this could very well result in loss of property and life. With an unyielding spirit and a firm faith, they sang, “Still must they leave God’s Word its might, / For which no thanks they merit; / Still is He with us in the fight, / With His good gifts and Spirit. / And should they, in the strife, / Take kindred, goods, and life, / We freely let them go, / They profit not the foe; / With us remains the kingdom” (ELH 251, v. 4).
Even if every earthly treasure were taken from them, they knew they possessed everything in Christ. They could not lose. The Gospel of God’s abundant grace was theirs, and through it, His kingdom. This Word of grace is the great inheritance of the Reformation which has been passed down to us today, and which we are resolved to pass on to those who will follow after us. Let us therefore rise and sing, “God’s Word Is Our Great Heritage” (TLH 283; ELH 583).
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Text: St. Matthew 11:12-15
In Christ Jesus, the messianic Reformer who alone could overcome the violent enemies of mankind, dear fellow redeemed:
John the Baptizer had boldly preached God’s truth. He had gone forth “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Lk. 1:17) to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. He baptized Jesus in the Jordan River and pointed to him as “the Lamb of God” (Jn. 1:29). As Jesus began His public work, John continued to preach in the wilderness. Even the ruler of the land was not safe from his words. John openly declared that King Herod had sinned by taking the wife of his brother for himself. The king would not tolerate this. He arrested John and threw him in prison (Mk. 6:17). John had told the truth, but the truth was not welcome.
Jesus warned the disciples that this is how it would be for them too. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves,” He said, “so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles…. [A]nd you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (16-18, 22). They would be hated because they believed, taught, and confessed Jesus’ name.
Doesn’t it seem strange that anyone should get so worked up about mere words? Why not let people say whatever they want? How much harm can words do, as long as they are not accompanied by any sort of aggressive action? But the devil knows what a potent weapon words are, particularly God’s words. He cannot tolerate God’s Word. Wherever the Word of God is sown, the devil comes and tries to snatch it away, so that it cannot take root and grow in the heart (Mt. 13:19). Until the end of the world, the devil will throw everything he can against the work of the Word.
We see this in the way the apostles were attacked simply for preaching the Gospel. The same happened to the early Christians, as Satan incited the Roman authorities against them. The devil also poisoned the hearts of leaders within the church, so that they would attack the Word from the inside. Often these attacks were subtle, resulting in a gradual chipping away at the truth over time. But “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Gal. 5:9). By the time of the Reformation, the Gospel message of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus alone had largely been set aside. In its place, a complex system of private masses, indulgences, relics, pilgrimages, and other works of satisfaction had been established.
Some had tried to address these abuses in the church, and these men had either been muzzled or martyred, just like the apostles and prophets had been before them. Then God raised up Martin Luther. He was a loyal son of the Roman Church and took orders to become a monk. But as he studied the Word, Martin became convinced that serious errors had come into the church. He prepared 95 Theses criticizing the sale of indulgences and nailed them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. He wanted them to be the topic of a public debate in the immediate region. Instead, these statements were copied, printed in bulk, and sent far and wide in Europe.
Little did Luther know that just four years later, he would be standing before the Holy Roman Emperor, who ordered him to take back everything he had written. This, he could not do. “[M]y conscience is captive to the Word of God” he said. “I cannot and will not recant…. God help me.” He surely needed God’s help, since both the Roman emperor and the Roman pope wanted him silenced—and by fire if necessary.
What should Luther do? By this time, he was one of the most famous and powerful men in Germany. Had he called for the sword to be taken up against the Roman authorities, many would have answered that call. But what good would it have done? We remember Peter who took out his sword to fight for Jesus. Jesus told him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52). The sword of violence may be able to subdue outwardly, but it can never conquer the heart. The heart is conquered by a different kind of sword, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17).
Luther recognized this. He wrote, “I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe. But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play. I did nothing; I let the Word do its work” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 51, pp. 77-78).
The Word of God is the catalyst for the Christian’s victory, but it is also the catalyst for violence against the Church. The devil does all he can to snatch the Word away from people and people away from the Word. Jesus refers to this wicked activity when He says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” How can the Christian stand against the persecutions, the pressure, the threats, and the lies the devil instigates?
The answer is: humbly and faithfully. Isn’t that what Jesus Himself did? The Apostle Peter writes that each Christian must take up the cross of suffering and follow after Jesus. “For to this you have been called,” he says, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1Pe. 2:21-23).
But such a humble and faithful demeanor is not always what others see from us. Often, they see behavior that looks no different than how unbelievers are. We can be just as proud, just as petty in our disputes, just as eager to get revenge. Besides that, we worry. We worry that God will not protect us as well as He says He will. We let the devil’s violence intimidate us, while ignoring the victory Jesus won for us.
God knows these weaknesses well. Nothing is hidden from Him. But He does not leave us to be overcome by the devil. He sent Jesus to rescue you. He sent Jesus to crush Satan’s head and silence his accusations against you by giving His holy body and blood in payment for your sin. Then He rose from the dead on Easter in triumph over your death. Your greatest enemies, the ones that would do you eternal harm, have all been conquered by your Lord.
Not only that, but He continues to protect and bless you with His presence just as He promised, “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). In his famous hymn, Luther says about the devil that “Strong mail of craft and pow’r / He weareth in this hour; / On earth is not his equal.” But as powerful as Satan is, he cannot defeat you. Jesus fights for you – “The Lord of hosts, ’tis He / Who wins the victory / In ev’ry field of battle” (ELH 251, vv. 1, 2).
As we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we can look back at 500 Years of Violence against the truth. God’s Word will always be opposed in the devil’s kingdom. But those 500 Years of Violence are also 500 Years of Victory. The Apostle John reminds us that “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1Jn. 4:4). The devil could not defeat Christ, and therefore he cannot defeat those who trust in Christ.
May the Lord continue to keep us steadfast in His Word, so that we remain in the saving faith and look confidently forward to our final victory by the power and grace of God.
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The Festival of St. Michael and All Angels (officially observed on Sept. 29th) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 18:1-10
In Christ Jesus, who is “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” and shares His greatness with you, dear fellow redeemed:
In 2009, the Barna research group asked a sampling of Christians across the U. S. to respond to the statement that Satan “is not a living being but is a symbol of evil.” In other words, Satan is not real, but is a name we give to bad things in the world. Almost 60% of Christians surveyed either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement. They did not believe Satan was a real being. On the other hand, a 2011 survey of Christians and non-Christians suggested that a large majority of Americans think that angels are real. Put together, these surveys indicate that a majority of Christians do not think the devil is real, while the majority of people think angels are.
Why do angels fare so much better in the national consciousness than the devil does? It is no surprise that people deny the existence of the devil. First of all, they do not want to believe that a totally evil being exists whose only goal is to get people to go to hell. They pass this off as “bogeyman talk” from Christians who are trying to get people in church. The other reason the devil’s existence is denied is by his own doing. If Satan can get people to ignore him, he can infiltrate their lives easily. Not recognizing this danger is like leaving the front door unlocked in a bad part of the city or sending your bank account information to “hackers anonymous.” Martin Luther writes that all the devil is looking for is a small opening. If his serpent-head can fit through, then the rest of his scaly body will follow.
But at least people believe in the existence of angels. This is good, except that their idea of angels is not exactly on the mark. They might talk about a dead person who now serves as their guardian angel, watching over them. Or they might content themselves to skip church and let their Bibles collect dust, because their angel will keep them safe. Such sentimental thoughts about the angels are contrary to what the Bible teaches. When people die they do not become angels. And the protection of angels is no substitute for hearing and learning God’s Word.
What the Bible teaches is that Satan and the angels are real. The devil and the demons were once good angels, created by God to serve Him and mankind. Sometime after the creation was complete, a portion of the angels rebelled against God, perhaps for the same reason that Adam and Eve rebelled—they wanted to “be like God” (Gen. 3:5). Of course, these created beings were no match for their Creator. When they could not defeat Him, they set their sights on God’s special creation. Today’s Epistle lesson from St. John’s Revelation, describes the devil like a prosecutor in a courtroom, who “who accuses [God’s children] day and night” (Rev. 12:10). But his accusations do not stand. All sinners are acquitted. Their penalty has been paid “by the blood of the Lamb” (v. 11).
But that does not stop the devil from trying. He plants seeds of doubt in the Christian’s mind. “Are you sure that God loves you? How could He forgive a sinner like you?” Or he approaches from the other side, “Look at how much better you are than other people! Look at how much you do, how much you give! What a fine example you are!” When pride and self-righteousness enter the heart, there is not much room for faith. Or the devil might afflict you like he did Job. He tries to steal away your daily bread to get you to question God and lose faith in Him. He turns Christian against Christian, and Christians against their church. He makes everything else in life seem more appealing and more important than God’s Word.
But for all the ways the devil assaults us, we are not without protection. God commands countless good angels who did not join in Satan’s rebellion. He sends those angels especially to serve believers. The author to the Hebrews indicates this when he writes about angels, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (1:14). And the psalmist says, “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (Ps. 91:11). We would be absolutely stunned to know how much the angels have protected us in our lives, from all sorts of trouble and harm. Luther writes that “If it were not for the protection of the dear angels, no child would grow to full age, even if the parents took all possible care.” That is how intent the demons are to destroy us.
But the demons cannot prevail against the angels, because the angels are sent by God and operate under His authority. You might think it is possible for a good angel to be separated from his fellow spirits and be ambushed by the demons. But the angels are never away from God’s presence. Jesus says in today’s text, “For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.” The angels are always looking upon God, and He is always looking upon them and those they serve.
Specifically here, Jesus is talking about the angels’ service to the “little ones.” He is not referring to those of short stature. He is talking about little children. Isn’t it something! God sends His mighty angels to watch over and protect the little children. This is like the company CEO taking a shift in the daycare center for his employee’s kids, or like the number one golfer in the world cleaning up the messes kids leave at a putt-putt golf course. It seems as though the angels should have more important things to do. But no, Jesus says. They could do nothing better than care for children.
When His disciples wanted to know who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus brought a child before them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Then He took the point even further, “Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me.” This should impress on us how dedicated we should be to the nurture and training of children.
God has given this responsibility first of all to fathers and mothers or guardians, and then to pastors and teachers. The devil and demons are constantly working to pollute the minds of the youth, to get them to despise God’s Word, to be greedy and selfish, to disrespect their authorities, to seek fulfillment in their own accomplishments. This is why they need to be taught how the Ten Commandments apply to their lives, and how they have not come close to keeping them. And they need the comfort and strength of the Gospel, that message which tells them there is hope. The Gospel gives them Jesus and changes their hearts, so that they desire the good that God gives instead of the empty promises of the world.
The world seems to offer so much. You can be the best athlete, the smartest student, the prettiest person if you just work hard, if you dedicate yourself to your dreams. But what happens if you do not reach the top? What if you do? Does the world’s adoration bring you any closer to heaven? Just the opposite. There are many great athletes, great thinkers, great beauties in hell. What good did their success in the world accomplish for them? They followed the devil’s temptations and now have the result. This is why Jesus warns about these temptations. He says that it would be far better for you to lose the parts of your body that lead you into temptation and “to enter life crippled or lame” or “with one eye” than to be condemned to hell with all parts intact.
God does not require you to be great as the world defines it—a great parent, a great friend, a great citizen, and so on. Who among us could say that we are these things? We know our sins. We know where we have failed our neighbors, including the youth in our care. God does not look for greatness; He looks for faithfulness, that you believe His Word. He hears the cry of the weary and burdened, and the humble repentance of the sinner. He listens to every petition for mercy and help, and He gives it. The Lord has not forgotten you. As ready as He is to defend you with His angels, He is just as eager to be gracious unto you and give you peace.
Jesus has made peace between you and God. He offered His perfect eyes for your sinful ones, His perfect hands and feet for yours that have led you into sin. He substituted His perfect love and concern for His neighbor, with yours which is not always pure. Jesus was thrown into the eternal fire of hell, so you would have the glories of heaven. The concern God has for your salvation is shown by the way heaven erupts in rejoicing whenever a sinner repents and trusts in Jesus. The good angels reflect what they see in the face of God. So when “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk. 15:10), that joy is radiating from the face of your gracious Lord.
The world cares not at all about repentance and faith, or about the proper training of the youth, or about the actual mission of God’s angels. These things are unimportant to the world. But The World’s Least Are God’s Greatest. The saving work of Jesus, the conversion of the sinner, the tender faith of the child, the obedient service of the angels—these things are great in God’s sight. He loves you not for what you could be, but for what you are. You are His own child, bought by the blood of Jesus, saved by His death, acquitted by His resurrection, baptized into His grace, fed with His body and blood, destined for the eternal mansions.
Your humble, childlike faith in Jesus will not be disappointed when your time on this earth comes to an end. The angels will bring you into God’s kingdom where, like them, you will always behold the face of your heavenly Father.
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Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 1:39-45
In Christ Jesus, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary to redeem all who have inherited sin from our first parents, Adam and Eve, dear fellow redeemed:
When the committee for Jerico’s 150th Anniversary began its work over a year ago, there was a clear goal in sight. Everything had to be ready by June 25th. The closer that date got, the more time and money were spent to finish up projects. Then the day arrived – and what a day it was! Things would have been much different if no celebration day had been set. We might have identified jobs needing to be done, but no one would know when they should be completed. We might tell people to get ready, but they wouldn’t know when to come. It is a lot harder to keep the focus on a general promise that something will happen, as opposed to a definite deadline and plan.
This helps us understand how the Israelites struggled to maintain the focus on God’s promise of a Savior. Thousands of years passed after the LORD first promised Adam and Eve that a Savior would come. Then at a certain point, even prophecy ceased. The last prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi, concluded the book of his prophecy with these words of the LORD, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (4:5-6). This was sometime in the 400s B. C. After this time, Alexander the Great conquered Persia, which included the land of Israel. Following his death, his territories were divided among his four generals. Later on the Israelites won their independence, but in 63 B. C., Israel became a territory of the Roman Empire.
Throughout this time, the sacrifices and ceremonies in the temple continued, and the people studied the Scriptures. They knew the fulfillment of God’s promise was getting closer, but they had no idea when it would be. Each young girl could well have wondered if God’s promise would be fulfilled in her (Gen. 3:15, Is. 7:14). But why would God choose her? Who could ever be worthy enough to bear the Christ-Child? The people must have imagined that the mother of the Messiah would have to be someone noble, someone great, someone significant.
And God chose Mary. She was not rich or famous, but lived a simple life in the unimpressive town of Nazareth. Luther says about Mary that she was “a poor, lowly, weak maiden whom no one valued and who was perfectly obscure” (Festival Sermons of Martin Luther, Mark V Publications, p. 108). The angel Gabriel appeared to her and said, “[B]ehold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:31-33). By the power of the Holy Spirit, lowly Mary would bear in her womb the Savior of the world.
Then the angel told her something else, “[B]ehold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God” (vv. 36-37). Mary could hardly believe it, but she did. She said, “let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38). Now who could she tell? Who would believe her? What would Joseph think, the man to whom she was betrothed? The angel had mentioned Elizabeth. This must be no coincidence. Mary would go see her. So she left Nazareth and traveled south to the hill country near Jerusalem, where Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah served as a priest.
Elizabeth had only just begun to venture out in public after five months in seclusion. Who would have believed this old woman if she told her neighbors she was pregnant? But now six months into her pregnancy, her growing belly could not be ignored. Then a surprise guest arrived, her young relative Mary. Mary entered the house and greeted her, and suddenly the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaped! Some of you here probably know this feeling. A sharp kick to the ribs probably caused you to cry out, much like Elizabeth did. But it wasn’t just the movement of her baby that caused Elizabeth to shout. When Mary greeted her, she was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (vv. 42-43).
Keep in mind that Mary set out to see Elizabeth right after the angel visited her. This means Jesus was no more than a couple weeks old. He was almost too small to be seen by the naked eye. No one could have guessed that Mary was pregnant, and Elizabeth knew she wasn’t married. But the Holy Spirit revealed to Elizabeth that what was forming in Mary’s womb was her Lord, the promised Messiah. He would not become her Lord when He was born, or when He would suffer, die, and rise again. He was her Lord now, a matter of days into His human development. In the same way, it is true that a baby in the womb is a person not just when it is born or can become self-sustaining, but at the earliest stage of its formation.
With Elizabeth, Mary found someone who understood, who believed. Can you imagine the conversations they must have had over that three-month visit? One woman carried in her womb the man who would prepare the way for the Lord. He was the “Elijah” foretold by the prophet Malachi. The other woman bore the Christ-Child, conceived in her not by a man, but by God. And nobody else knew, except probably Zechariah. To their neighbors, Elizabeth was just a fortunate old woman, whom God had finally given a child. And Mary was her kind relative who had come to help out until the birth. Who could know that the day of God’s great promise had come? Who could know that these lowly women would be remembered and honored until the end of time?
But then isn’t that how the Lord does His work? In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1:26-28).
This was certainly true of Jesus. Born of a poor woman in a little town. Raised in Nazareth far from the historic center of Israel. Why should anyone pay attention to Him? But His powerful works and words could not be ignored. His bold teaching of repentance set Him at odds with the self-righteous. They used their high-standing and power to condemn this poor Nazarene to death. He was crucified and buried. It appeared that Jesus would be little more than a footnote in human history. But God chooses what is low and despised, to conquer the high and mighty. By His death, Jesus overcame sin, devil, and the grave and won eternal life for all people.
Consider your own life. What does the world care about you? Even famous people are quickly forgotten after their death if not already before. You, living out your lowly life in northeast Iowa, don’t seem to matter much. You may even find yourself thinking the same thing – “Does what I do really make any difference? Would the community even notice if I were gone?” You may not look like much, both in the eyes of others and even in your own sight. But your value to the Lord is immeasurable.
Before you were born, even before you were formed in your mother’s womb, God chose you to be His own. It was for you that He sent His only Son to be born of Mary. Jesus fulfilled the law on your behalf. He was scorned and abused and nailed to a cross in your place. He willingly offered up Himself as the perfect sacrifice to atone for your sins. If the Lord did not care about you, if He did not love you, He would not have done these things.
Not only does He want you to know and believe His grace in this life, He also wants you to reign with Him in heaven. That is how important you are to Him, how much you matter. And the doing is all God’s. You are not His child because you were somehow more worthy than others, or deserved it because of your troubles. Just as God in His own wisdom and grace chose Elizabeth to bear John the Baptizer, and Mary to bear the Christ, so He has chosen you. He has chosen to lift you up out of your sins and share His own honor and glory with you.
Mary knew that her worth in God’s sight was totally due to His merciful disposition. In her beautiful Magnificat she sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord… for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant…. for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Lk. 1:46,48,49). The Lord kept His promise, but not in a way that everyone would have expected. He turned a poor, obscure woman into the mother of God. And He has made you, weak and poor in spirit, into a child of God. The Lord Exalts the Lowly.
As you hear His Word with humble faith, Jesus visits you with His blessings. He gives you His gifts of forgiveness and life, so that you also are filled with joy and wonder. And you are strengthened in the faith, so that whenever He does come visibly, you will be ready for His coming. Then you will live not for the celebration that will be sometime in the future, but for the celebration that is.
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Jerico Lutheran Church 150th Anniversary – Rev. Craig A. Ferkenstad sermon
Text: Psalm 119:105
The view from here is great! You are a sight for sore eyes. We’ve all grown just a little older over the years. I’m no longer the school boy hiding under one of the back pews because Pastor Tweit heard us kids running in the church. You’re no longer the group of fathers who needed to make a concerted effort to bring your families to church by hooking-up the buggies, putting blankets over your children and driving the horses to church. You’re no longer the same ladies’ who hand varnished all of wood on the basement walls.
But, actually, you are looking pretty good for your age. You are 150 years old. But how do you feel? Do you feel old? Do have aches and pains? Do you feel weak? Many things have changed in 150 years.
I. God’s Word was everything to them
150 years ago this was a young and energetic congregation. This was open land that was just being settled. Ten Norwegian families had just arrived and began to build their log cabins. This Norwegian settlement has the distinction of being settled from the west. These immigrant first had settled in Wisconsin but had moved to south-eastern South Dakota. This was in 1863 during the Civil War. They did not feel safe there and fled to the east. As Pastor H. M. Tjernagel wrote: ”The old covered wagon, sunbaked and rickety, was hurriedly loaded, the oxen hooked on and the flight, at a snails pace, was on.” In their retreat they had to cross the length of Iowa, which was then practically uninhabited since Iowa had been a state for less than twenty years . They settled along the Crane Creek because here they found a large tract of land that was unoccupied because of the light soil. Soon they were joined by other emigrants from Norway. In fact, this settlement grew quite rapidly and became the largest settlement of emigrants from Jostedal, Norway in the United States.
These fathers and mothers had left their families and friends. They had left their houses and worldly possessions to come to Iowa. All that they had was packed into one or two wooden painted trunks. In those trunks they had a few clothes and maybe some kind of food that would not spoil. But they also packed the Bible, the catechism, and a hymnbook. As one early immigrant said, “It is all that I have.” God’s Word was everything to them.
The struggle between fear and the faith that lived in their hearts must have been so great that they might have thought it would tear them apart. They came here as struggling and frustrated people. They saw their own shortcomings and sins. No doubt they shared the conviction of Martin Luther who, on his deathbed, uttered “We are beggars all.” We do not deserve God’s grace or favor. We deserve only death and punishment.
Just like the Old Testament psalmist, they felt as if they were walking in a land of darkness; and they turned to God’s Word. The psalmist says [God’s Word] is a lamp to my feet. At the time when the psalmist wrote the words our text, if the people wanted to walk in the darkness of the night, they carried a lantern with them so that they would not fall into a ditch or stumble on a tree stump. The lantern gave a light for their feet. The psalmist then makes this parallel: he says that God’s Word (the Bible) is the lamp that lights our way. This is so that we do not fall into “misbelief, despair and other shameful sin and vice [but] though we be thus tempted, that we may still in the end overcome and retain the victory” [Martin Luther’s explanation of the Sixth Petition]. These Norwegian Lutheran pioneers contacted Pastor Ulrick Vilhelm Koren who helped them establish a congregation.* They began to construct a church building where God’s Word would shine upon their feet and guide them.
But, as Martin Luther once said, “Whenever God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel right next door.” Those words mean that wherever God proclaims free forgiveness for the sake of Jesus Christ, Satan teaches that we are in some way responsible for our own salvation. This congregation’s first pastor, Pastor Vilhem Koren, wrote these words:
“… those who will hear God’s Word rightly must not tolerate false doctrine, because it tells either that God has said something which He has not said or it denies that God has said something which He has said. We can also … in everything which concerns our salvation, judge the doctrine according to the Word of God which we have in our ‘Small Catechism’ …
“If God has given us His Word, then we have no right to hear one part and let the other part lie; neither will we hear only the Gospel, or only the Law; nor will we change them and mix Law and Gospel, for then it will no longer be God’s Word.
“Further, if God has given us His Word, then it follows that it is not different for different times. God does not say something new to us which He did not say to our forefathers. We need it the same now as they needed it in the apostles’ time. The Holy Spirit is not a wavering spirit.
“If God has given us His Word, then He does so in order that we shall hear it and learn it …” [U. V. Koren, Truth Unchanged, Unchanging, page 114-15].
God’s Word was everything to these people. It was a lamp to their feet.
II. God’s Word is everything to us
One hundred and fifty years later, we have grown older (but not necessarily wiser). We too are sinners who are in need of the gospel. God’s Word is still a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.
Do you feel old?
Whether you feel it or not, you have the same youthful vitality which guided the early New Testament church. Just as God’s word guided our forefathers, 150 years ago, it lights the way for us. God’s Word has not changed (James 1:17). What was written by the evangelist John, or the apostles Paul or Peter is still true today. That Word is given by inspiration of God (2 Timothy 3:16/KJV) and it still lights the path to the cross where Jesus Christ died. Only the holy, precious blood of Jesus Christ which was shed upon the cross could atone for sin. That holy blood was shed for us. That innocent blood redeemed us from the condemnation of sin. That precious blood has forgiven us all our sins (1 Peter 2:9). Through His Word and through the sacraments, God brings us the forgiveness of all our sins and renews us with the Holy Spirit so that we do not grow weary or faint (Isaiah 40:31).
Do you have aches and pains?
Think of the ache in the heart of Mary Magdalene when she walked to the tomb on Easter morning. Look at this altar painting as Mary falls at the feet of her risen Savior morning and exclaims “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher) (John 20:16). Here is the central teaching of the Bible—that Christ died for our sins and that Christ has risen again because of our justification (Romans 4:25)! Look inside Lord’s empty tomb and know that the pain of sin has been removed! Look and see Our Savior’s now glorified body and know that we are no longer separated from God! Your Redeemer lives and the great enemies of sin and death have been defeated! God’s Word lights the path to the empty tomb and assures us that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).
Do you feel weak?
Do you feel your voice and your light are lost in the noise and darkness of this world? In the twenty-first century, our faith faces challenges which could not have been imagined 150 years ago; and yet the light shines in the darkness [and] and the darkness has not [overcome] it (John 1:5). No matter what others may say, Christianity has not changed. Remember that we have God’s promise which says: my word that goes out from my mouth … will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:11). You can lift up your voice and speak strongly. The psalmist even tells us that we can speak [God’s word] also before kings, And will not be ashamed (Psalm 119:46). The apostle Peter explains that in the Bible, We have the word of the prophets made … certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and [Jesus Christ returns] (2 Peter
1:19). On that day when the last trumpet sounds (1 Corinthians 15:53), we will be raised, together with the bodies that now rest in this cemetery, and we will meet the Lord in the air and live with Him forever (1 Thessalonians 4:17). This inerrant Word of God strengthens us as it lights the path to heaven.
It is significant that we are observing this congregation’s anniversary during the 500th anniversary year of the Lutheran Reformation. It was Martin Luther whom God used to restore the authority of God’s Word. As a result of the Lutheran Reformation, countless millions of people—including all of us here today—have heard the pure life-giving Word of the gospel proclaimed in the Lutheran church and received everlasting life. Our faith and our salvation are based on the Word alone.
God’s Word is everything to us. It is a light for our path.
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Many things have changed in 150 years. But God’s Word has not changed. Today, God’s Word still comes to us in many wonderful and trustworthy ways:
When you hear or read the good news that your sins are forgiven because of Jesus Christ, you can trust that word of promise.
When you recall God’s promise that in Baptism He made you His very own child, you can take Him at His word.
When you hear Christ’s words, This is my body which is given for you and This is my blood of the new testament which is shed for many for the remission of sins (Matthew 26:28/KJV), you can believe those words.
We gather here today, not to laud the founders of this congregation—but to give thanks for those who passed-on the faith to us and to remember the leaders who spoke the word of God to you (Hebrews 13:7). It is by God’s grace that we teach and preach the same Word of the Bible and the same Gospel as was preached 150 years ago because without God’s grace, “[we] would have ruined everything long ago” [Martin Luther’s Sacristy Prayer].
God’s Word is everything. It is why this congregation was formed. It is why we continue today. And now as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:14-15).
Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word.
As it was in the past, so be it today, and unto life everlasting.
To God Alone Be The Glory
This sermon was preached on June 25—the 487th anniversary date of the reading of the Augsburg Confession.
* This congregation has the unique distinction of being the only congregation in the state of Iowa which was not established prior to Koren’s arrival or by the division of larger congregations, but rather by Koren’s own missionary work.