The Fifth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 5:1-11
In Christ Jesus, who casts out the net of His Word, so that more and more sinners might be drawn to Him in repentance and faith, dear fellow redeemed:
You and I have had moments like the fishermen in today’s text. These experienced men worked through the night, but they did not catch anything. In the same way, we can think of many times that we expended great effort and had nothing to show for it. Maybe it was spending hours upon hours training and practicing for a competition and then coming in last. Or maybe it was staying up late to get the crop in only to have it wash out in the next storm. Or maybe it was pouring time into forming and fine-tuning a plan that ultimately got discarded.
Those experiences are disheartening. All that work for nothing! This is when we feel like it is hard to get ahead—“one step forward, two steps back.” It may even feel like God is opposed to us at these times. Here we are spending all this energy in our work, pursuing things that are good as far as we can tell, and we don’t get anywhere. Why doesn’t God bless us?
But what we don’t know is that God may be protecting us from harm due to our success, harm that could come from materialism or power or fame. Or it may be that He allows failure today, so that He can give even bigger blessings tomorrow. That was the case with the fishermen. He kept them from catching fish during the night, from finding success through their skilled labor, so that He might demonstrate His power and mercy.
They had been fishing in the best spots at the best time of day, and they failed. Then Jesus sent them out again to a poorer spot at a worse time, and their nets were filled! So we see what the Lord can do. I’m sure you could give examples of His goodness working in your life. There were times that you thought you would fail, and you succeeded. You had given up hope, and help came through. The Lord knows how to bless us, and He does it in ways we could not expect.
The disciples looked at their full nets and sinking boats, and you can just imagine the looks on their faces – eyes wide, jaws hitting the floor. Then a new sensation washed over Peter. He realized that this Man with him in the boat was not just a man. An ordinary man could not predict this monstrous haul of fish where seasoned fisherman had been working all night. Peter now felt guilt. He was in the presence of the holy Lord, but he himself was not holy. “Depart from me,” he said, “for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
If Jesus had abandoned Peter and all sinful men, He could have had no disciples, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Instead Jesus said to Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Then Peter and his associates James and John left everything—including that great catch of fish—and followed Jesus. What is a whole load of fish compared with the One who gives those fish simply by saying a word?
But suppose those disciples could look into the future at that point. Suppose they could preview what following Jesus would mean up to the day of His death. Would they have been as eager to go with Him? They could look ahead and see things like the great crowds, the amazing miracles, and Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. But they would also see times when food would be scarce and sleep hard to come by. They would see the opposition of the religious leaders and the anger of the people. They would see that after three years of hard work traveling all over the region, Jesus would be arrested, tried, and crucified. And they, His own disciples, would forsake Him and run away. If they could have seen all that, would they have still gone with Him?
What about you? If you could see your whole life play out in front of you all the way to your death, would you follow Jesus today? Would you follow Him today if you saw how people would take advantage of you in the future, how they would attack you and harm you? Would you follow Him today if you saw how your family would struggle, and how you would lose those closest to you? Would you follow Him today if you saw how your body would break down and how you would struggle physically and mentally?
As enjoyable as it would be to see the good things of our life all at once, it would be terrifying to see all the bad things at once. If we could see all the bad things in advance, we might wonder if the Lord actually cared about us, or if He was actually present with us in this life. It is good that we do not have this view. It is not for us to know these things. No matter what the future may hold, Jesus calls us to follow Him one step at a time.
This is how a toddler learns how to walk. He is not motivated by the marathon he may run in his 20s or 30s. He just wants to go! He wants to get from here to there, and he thinks he might get there faster by walking than by crawling. He cannot see how his running around will lead to bumps and bruises. He is not worried about the broken bones in his future. He is not troubled by the effects of aging which eventually will turn his stride into a shuffle. He just goes!
This is what you and I are called to do: go forward. We can’t go back. We must go forward doing the work God has given us to do. Our work is to be constantly occupied in showing love to our neighbors. This starts with the neighbors living in each of our homes—our parents, our siblings, our spouse, our children—and it branches out from there. We show love in our interactions with others in our place of work, in the community, on the internet, and in our congregations.
We know how this love should look and how it should be carried out, because we have the example of Jesus. Think about how kids play “Follow the Leader.” It is not just about walking over the same ground as the leader, but it is even mimicking his steps. If he takes a big step, so do the followers. If he hops from one place to another, so do they. Our goal as disciples of Jesus is to mimic Him in every way. We want to love one another as He loved us. We want to give to one another as He gives to us.
But as much as we want to do this, our steps often falter. The apostle Paul described our stumbling because of sin in this way: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18-19). Jesus takes one step forward, and we take two steps back. He beckons us forward, and we retreat. He calls us to be courageous, and we wilt.
We are not much like Jesus. We are more like Peter, uncertain how casting out our nets in the middle of the day will do any good. Like Peter, we are afraid because we underestimate the power and mercy of the Lord. Like Peter, we are aware of our many sins. It is hard to follow Jesus when we perceive so many obstacles in front of us and inside of us.
But Jesus is greater than any sins or trials or sorrows we may face. Unlike us, He could see all the suffering that was waiting for Him. Still He stayed focused on His mission. He followed His Father’s will all the way to the punishments and torments of the cross. It was terrible work He had to do. It meant immeasurable pain for Him, while the very ones He came to save mocked, blasphemed, and abandoned Him.
He moved forward one agonizing step at a time because the salvation of your soul was that important to Him. He willingly died in your place because He wanted you to live. He wanted you to be freed from all your sins and covered in His holiness. He wanted to deliver you a good conscience, one that is not focused on your sins of the past but on His grace in the present.
This is why you follow Jesus. He is more than your example of love. He is your Savior. He is your Lord who died for you to secure the forgiveness of all your sins. If He was willing to do this for you, He will certainly not forget your daily needs. Your hard work may not always seem to pay off, but He will bless your efforts done in His name. In time, you will see that you have received more blessings from His hand than you could have hoped for.
Jesus does not ask us to endure the sorrows and struggles of life all at once, or to go through any of them alone. He calls us to hear His Word, like the crowd did by the lake of Gennesaret, and like Peter did when told to let down the nets. His Word is sure and will never steer us wrong. Through His Word, the Lord is guiding us through the perils and troubles of this life all the way to heaven. Hearing His voice, We Follow Jesus One Step at a Time.
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 of the miraculous catch of fish by Raphael, 1515)
The Fourth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 6:36-42
In Christ Jesus, who looks upon us not as we deserve but according to His grace, dear fellow redeemed:
We can all think of people who have no business pointing out the sins in others. Their sins are so obvious and clear that they are in no position to judge what anyone else does. Jesus talks about the log in a person’s eye. It’s quite a picture. Imagine a long plank sticking out of someone’s eye. But suppose the person did not notice it was there. He shows up at a party and starts talking about what is wrong with other people—how they look, how annoying they are, how he has everything together, and how they could learn a lot from him.
He does not understand why everyone wants to keep their distance, and why they get so angry whenever he shows up. That eye log is a hindrance to personal interaction! It pops people on the nose and smacks them on the side of the face whenever he turns his head. He complains about everyone blaming him. Why don’t they watch where they are going and give him more space?
It’s a ridiculous scenario. How could a person not know that a big log is sticking out of his eye? How could he not notice that? The problem with this guy is that he does not understand his problem. He thinks everyone around him is at fault for his feelings of rejection and discomfort. He is the victim. If everyone around him changed, he would be happier, and he assumes they would be too.
What Jesus is teaching about here is self-righteousness, about not being aware of one’s own glaring sins. A self-righteous person is a person who believes he is holy through his own efforts. It makes sense that Jesus would warn the Pharisees and scribes about this because they thought they were right with God through their keeping of the law. They did not realize how far they had fallen short. They were very prideful.
But Jesus did not speak the words of today’s text to the Pharisees and scribes. He spoke them to “His disciples” (Luk. 6:20), to those who believed in Him and followed Him. He told these disciples to take the logs out of their own eyes. He even called them “hypocrites”! This shows that Jesus was not afraid to criticize His followers. But He wasn’t doing it out of spite; it was out of love.
Jesus wanted His followers to see their own weakness and to understand the sinful condition of all descendants of Adam and Eve. He could speak in this way because He was without sin. He had been conceived in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit and was therefore free of original sin. He fully understood temptation to sin, but He committed no sin Himself.
He told His disciples to guard against the self-righteousness that was part of their sinful nature. They needed to hear the condemning words of the law, so that they would be humbled and cry out for God’s grace. They needed to see that they were no better than anyone else around them, either the Jews or the Gentiles.
The same goes for us. We are no better than anyone else, but the devil and our sinful nature try to convince us that we are. They tempt us to measure our righteousness by how much holier we are than others. But it isn’t a fair comparison. We typically do not look at others the same way that we look at ourselves. We see their sins more clearly than we see our own sins. We are much more ready to overlook our faults than the faults of others.
So it might be easy for me to justify telling a lie, but I come down harshly on others who do the same. Or I might be critical of a mess someone made, but I am totally unwilling to acknowledge my own messes. Self-righteousness is holding someone’s feet to the fire for a $100 debt, while being unconcerned about your own $100,000 debt. Self-righteousness is being eager to offer criticism but being totally unwilling to receive criticism.
Our self-righteousness is the reason Jesus reminds us to “be merciful,” to “judge not,” to “condemn not,” to “forgive,” and to “give.” He wants us to be humble and regard others as better than ourselves (Phi. 2:3). He wants us to look into the mirror of His holy law and see our many sins in that reflection. He wants us to repent of these sins and look to Him for forgiveness and for help to love our neighbors.
But showing love to our neighbors does not mean ignoring their sin altogether or confirming them in their sin. One of the most-quoted Bible passages in our day is: “Judge not.” Another version of this is the statement: “Only God can judge me.” These phrases are usually brought out when a person does not want to be questioned for his behavior or lifestyle choices. So what can you say when someone throws your words of caution or warning back in your face?
Let’s say that you find out your co-worker has been stealing from your employer. You call him on it, and he responds, “Who do you think you are? Are you so perfect? I thought Jesus said not to judge other people!” What do you say? Maybe his point sounds valid, and you let the issue go. But how is that loving to your co-worker, much less to your employer? A good way forward is to accept what your co-worker says without approving of the sin. You could say, “You’re right. I’m not perfect, far from it. I’ve sinned as much as anyone I know. But that does not mean I have to go along with something that is wrong or act like it isn’t happening.”
If your neighbors think you are criticizing them because you believe you are so good, they will avoid you like the people avoiding the guy at the party with the log in his eye. But if they see your humble spirit and know that you care about them, they will be much more ready to listen to what you say. They might not accept your criticism right away. They might even be angry with you. But in time they hopefully will see that you said what you did out of love for them.
Our goal in warning and correcting others is not to elevate ourselves in their eyes, as though they should be more like us. Our goal is to point them to Jesus. Jesus is the one solution to our problem of self-righteousness and sin. If we think we are so good compared to others, we should try comparing ourselves to Jesus. Then we see that our righteousness is nothing. We have not come close to loving as He loved and sacrificing as He sacrificed.
Our righteousness compared to His is like the light of a match compared to the light of the sun. Our righteousness—if it is truly righteousness—can light up just a tiny corner of this dark world. The light of His righteousness fills the earth and the heavens. His holy life under the law was so pure, so flawless, that it was able to cover over the unrighteousness of all sinners.
This perfect holiness was placed upon you when you were baptized, and it continues to cover you now. What good is it to keep a tally of your own good deeds or compare your life with others when Jesus’ righteousness is yours? We would rather lose all glory and honor in the world, all recognition and fame, than to lose Jesus’ righteousness. He is our perfection that the law demands. He is the fulfillment of all righteousness for us.
He is also the atonement for our sins. We have not always been merciful and forgiving and generous. We have not always been humble in our dealings with others. We have not always perceived the log in our own eye. But Jesus, with clear vision and perfect focus, walked the way of the cross for us.
He had no log in His eye, but He did have one on His back as He made His way to Golgotha. He was nailed to that log—the cross with all our transgressions—and He died for the sins of all, for the self-righteous, the prideful, and the unrepentant. By the shedding of His blood, Jesus atoned for every single one of your sins and mine. God the Father poured out the full measure of His wrath on His Son, so that the good measure of His grace and forgiveness would be “pressed down, shaken together, running over” and “put into [our] lap.”
We need this forgiveness every day because we continue to sin against our neighbors. We sin against them by hoping for their harm and failing to offer them our help. There is something in our eye, just as there is something in every sinner’s eye. But the Lord’s absolution, His free forgiveness, removes the logs and specks from our eyes. His grace clears up our vision, so that we see Jesus and everything He did to save us.
Seeing Jesus more clearly also helps us to see our neighbors more clearly. Our neighbors need mercy like we need mercy. They need forgiveness like we need forgiveness. They need help like we need help. And the Lord is eager to give these blessings to everyone. He blesses them through our efforts, and He often causes those blessings to return to us in good measure.
Jesus’ command to love our neighbor more and better than we have is hard for us to hear. It is painful to have the logs of self-righteousness removed from our eye. But He does this so that we look away from ourselves and any good things we might do and look toward Him. In Him we will always find righteousness, salvation, and the strength to live for His glory.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(“The Parable of the Mote and the Beam” by Ottmar Elliger the Younger, 1666-1735)
The Third Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 15:1-10
In Christ Jesus, who “is patient toward [us], not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2Pe. 3:9), dear fellow redeemed:
You don’t realize how much a music soundtrack and sound effects change the movie-watching experience until the sound is removed. Without sound, an action sequence is not as impressive, and a scene of suspense is not as compelling. Sound makes the image much more powerful and impactful.
When our thoughts turn toward heaven, and we imagine what heaven is like, I think we often picture heaven without much sound. We might imagine shouts of joy when family members and friends are reunited there. But otherwise, we may think of a peaceful setting, something like a walk through a meadow or time spent by a river or lake.
Heaven is a bit noisier than that. Isaiah wrote about the angels in heaven calling to one another in voices powerful enough to shake “the foundations of the thresholds.” They say, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isa. 6:3-4). The apostle John wrote about heaven being filled with the sound of trumpets and described “flashes of lightning, and rumblings, and peals of thunder” coming from the throne (Rev. 4:5). He said the “Holy, holy, holy” cry does not cease day or night, and the twenty-four elders respond with their own song of praise (4:8-11). The saints in heaven also join in these songs of praise. John speaks about hearing “the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns!’” (19:6).
What we hear in heaven will far surpass what is produced by the greatest musicians and singers here on earth. Unlike here, the sounds that come from our mouths in heaven will always be beautiful and holy and right. There is no imperfection in heaven. That includes imperfections in our singing and hearing.
I expect that in heaven, we will be able to detect and appreciate layers of sound unknown to us now. Just think of those trumpets and rumblings and shouts and singing blending together in a rich and holy song that our ears will never tire of hearing. Four-part harmony will not impress us in heaven like it does here. Maybe heaven will feature forty-part harmony or four-hundred-part harmony.
But why this emphasis today on the sounds of heaven? It is because Jesus says in today’s text that “there will be more joy in heaven/there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” A celebration without sound wouldn’t be much of a celebration, no matter how amazing it looks. When a sinner repents, the halls of heaven ring with the sound of thanksgiving—thanksgiving to God for His abundant grace.
But why is it that repentance causes this reaction? Repentance is not something the world celebrates. The world celebrates things like birthdays, graduations, promotions at work, and the purchase of a home. The world has even taken to celebrating when a person dies, focusing on happy memories of that person’s life because it cannot bear to face the reality of death. The saints and angels in heaven do not celebrate these things, as significant as they may seem to us here. They celebrate our repentance. And if that is what the saints and angels celebrate around God’s throne, this must be what God celebrates too.
So what exactly is this repentance? The word for “repent” means “to change one’s mind,” “to turn back.” We change our minds all the time, such as what we want to eat or what we want to do with our day. But the repentance Jesus talks about here is a spiritual turning, a spiritual changing of the mind. This is necessary because the unconverted mind, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God,” as Scripture says; “it does not submit to God’s law” (Rom. 8:7).
The first table of God’s law demands that we love Him “with all [our] mind” (Mat. 22:37). The second table demands that we “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” (v. 39). No human being born of a sinful father and mother has done these things, because each person has inherited the sin of his parents, passed down through the generations all the way from Adam and Eve. By nature, we are opposed to God; we do not want to live by His rules. We want to make our own rules. We are self-centered and selfish. In this state, we are ruled by the devil and are stuck in his kingdom of darkness without any way of getting ourselves out.
But the merciful Lord is firmly invested in freeing us from this hopeless life. God the Father sent His eternal Son to enter the fallen world and lead us into His marvelous light. That is easier said than done! In order to free us from our chains of sin and death, Jesus had to pay the price. He had to pay the debt we owed by shedding His holy blood and giving Himself up to the jaws of death. This was the only way to satisfy the Father’s wrath against sin. It was the only way to overcome the devil’s hold on sinners.
His saving work was done for all sinners, but not all sinners believe it. It is a mystery to us why some hear the Word of God and repent, while others hear the Word but do not repent. We are all equally sinful. We are all equally lost in the darkness by nature. None of us deserves to be forgiven by God. But by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word, some are converted. Some are led to repentance and faith.
If we think that our conversion must depend in some way on ourselves, today’s text—among many others—says otherwise. Jesus describes a sheep that wandered away, referring to a person who has wandered away from God into sin. The shepherd does not sit around waiting for the sheep to come back on its own. He goes after it. And when he finds it, he puts it on his shoulders and carries it to safety. That does not sound like cooperation in conversion.
But for those who would say that the sheep could possibly have returned on its own, what about the next example Jesus gave? How likely is it that a lost coin by its own power could roll itself back into the purse of its owner? Ephesians 2 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” (vv. 8-9).
When the Holy Spirit turns back the sinner from the path of destruction and works a spiritual change in his mind and heart, this is when heaven erupts in celebration. We can’t always know when this celebration happens. It certainly happens when a baby is baptized and when an adult confesses the true faith. But in some cases, a person’s confession is not honest, and his repentance is not heartfelt. The Bible tells us there are some who may appear to be model Christians, but who live otherwise than they confess, or who think otherwise than they say.
It is one thing to fall into sin unintentionally. Maybe you got caught up in a crowd that behaved badly. Or you stumbled across something you were not seeking out but which led you to sin. This can happen when you spend time on the internet or look for something to watch on TV. Or maybe unkind, impure, or judgmental thoughts enter your mind about another person, and you are immediately sorry for thinking in those ways. These sins are not faith-destroying, and God will help us fight these temptations.
But intentionally and willfully doing what God condemns can and does destroy faith. Christians are not immune to these sins. In fact the devil works harder to pull us from the faith than he works on those who are already in darkness. Some Christians fall into sin and instead of acknowledging the sin—even if the consequences would be severe—they try to cover them up, hide them. But nothing can be hidden from God, and what the unrepentant will face on the last day is far worse than anything they might experience here.
All of us have need of repentance. We sin many times every day. We have all done things we knew were wrong, but we did them anyway—and often more than once. None of us is righteous. But the Lord is gracious. He works to bring us back when we fall into sin. Like those tax collectors and sinners, the Lord moves us to repent through His law, and He draws us near to hear His Word of grace. He wants us to know that all our sin is forgiven, all the things that trouble our conscience and make us feel ashamed. All of it was set on Jesus, who suffered and died in our place so that we might live.
The Good Shepherd loves to hear us humbly repent of our sins and rejoice in His forgiveness. We are ones whom He has brought back from our wanderings, and whom He still brings back. Through daily repentance, He leads us again and again to the still waters of our Baptism and guides us to the green pastures of His Word and Sacrament. These great spiritual blessings which God showers down upon us are a cause for continuous celebration in heaven.
We do not see or hear the saints and angels in their songs of praise, but by faith in Jesus we are already counted in their number. We join these songs of praise imperfectly here on earth as we thank God for His mercy toward us. And we look forward to being among the great host in heaven, where we will forever rejoice in the Lord’s great love for us.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(portion of “The Good Shepherd” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Second Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 14:16-24
In Christ Jesus, who both invites us to the banquet of salvation and provides the life-giving food our souls need, dear fellow redeemed:
Day in and day out, there are various tasks and responsibilities on your mind that want your attention. But you can only do so much. You have to make decisions about what has priority. Listen to these examples and think which one would take priority over the other in your life:
- Your son or daughter asks you to play with them, but you were planning to get some work done. Which do you choose?
- You were looking forward to enjoying some peace and quiet, but your neighbor comes over looking for help.
- You and your spouse are heading out the door on a date when a distressed friend calls asking if you have time to talk.
- Your boss offers overtime hours on Sunday morning and begs you to come, but you would have to miss church.
These decisions are not always easy. Often we must choose between two things that are both good or important.
The men invited to the great banquet found themselves in this position. They had been invited to the banquet, but no specific day had been set. They were told that when everything was ready, they would be notified. When the time for the banquet arrived, the host sent out his servant to inform the guests. Apparently, the banquet came at a bad time. The first man said he had just made a land purchase and had to go see it. The next man said he had just finalized the purchase of five yoke of oxen and had to examine them. The third said he had just gotten married and was needed at home.
The things they mentioned were all good things. They had to make a choice between important events in their lives and the invitation to the banquet. They chose to skip the banquet. But this was no backyard barbecue. This was “a great banquet,” a feast that wouldn’t come around all that often. It was a big enough deal that the honored guests were given notice a long time before the banquet occurred. They were expected to make it a priority. Instead excuses were made. Things that could have waited were given precedence.
This parable is not about an actual earthly banquet that people decided to skip out on. It is about the spiritual banquet of salvation, which was promised ever since the fall into sin. The invitation to this banquet first went out to Adam and Eve. They were told that One would come from woman, who would crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15). From that point on, any who heard the promise of salvation were receiving an invitation to attend the banquet. It was not known when the table would be set and the feasting would begin. But those who had heard the promise, who had received the invitation, were to be ready whenever that day should come.
But how long could God expect them to wait? If enough time passed between the original promise and its fulfillment, isn’t it natural that the people would wonder if the banquet was still on? This is why the LORD sent His servants the prophets to repeat the promise and give more details about how it would be fulfilled. You can find these promises sprinkled throughout the Old Testament, all of them pointing ahead to the great banquet.
But not all of God’s chosen people believed this promise. The Israelites were certainly all invited to the banquet, but many of them became more concerned about their business than God’s business. The religious leaders were often the worst offenders. They taught the people to focus on outward works more than the inner righteousness of a believing heart. They weren’t so concerned about the banquet of salvation, because they thought they had a nice feast of good works going on their own.
These were the ones making excuses when Jesus arrived. Why should they listen to Him? What were they lacking? What could He give them that they could not do for themselves? Their rejection of the invitation angered the Lord. He commanded that “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” be brought to His banquet. These were the Jewish people who were thought to be rejected by God. The Lord’s mercy went out to them—the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the demon-possessed. Many of these heard His Word and received the invitation to salvation with penitent and believing hearts.
Still, there was room at the banquet. So the servant was sent “to the highways and hedges” to “compel people to come in.” These were the ones outside the city. They were the Gentiles who had not had the invitation brought to them through the Old Testament Scriptures. Even they were now welcome at the banquet of salvation by faith, and many of them have taken their seat at the table.
You also have received an invitation to the great banquet. For many of you, this invitation came at your baptism. At that time you were washed of your sins, faith was planted in your heart, and you were joined to the body of Christ. Your seat at the banquet table was reserved. But baptism does not ensure that an honored place at the table will always be yours.
There are many who had God’s wonderful gifts handed to them at baptism, who now despise these gifts. They give many other things priority over God’s Word. Like the first man in the parable, they get so caught up in obtaining, improving, and enjoying their property, that they decide there is no time for spiritual things. Like the second man, they are so concerned about expanding their possessions and growing their riches that work always comes before the Word. Like the third man, they use the excuse of family. “We don’t have enough time already to do everything the kids need to do! There just isn’t time for devotions during the week or church on the weekend!”
This is why keeping our priorities in the right order is so important. Land and possessions are good. Work is good. Family is good. But none of these is to take precedence over the Word. Just after today’s parable Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luk. 14:26). This smacks us right in the face. It is shocking. Jesus says that nothing—not our parents, not our spouse, not our kids, not our siblings, not our goals and goods and health—should come before Him and His Word.
This troubles us, both because of what Jesus asks of us and because we have obviously fallen far short of His demand. We made church our priority this morning, but we have many excuses to own from our past. We have made excuses for the times we have willingly done what God condemns. We have made excuses for why we have acted selfishly at work, why we have ignored and neglected those in our household, and why there just isn’t time to regularly study God’s Word.
And yet despite all these excuses, these misplaced priorities, the Lord’s invitation still echoes in our ears, “Come, for everything is now ready.” He wants us to be at the banquet of salvation. He wants us to feast on the rich food He supplies. We are not in the Old Testament era wondering when God’s promise will be fulfilled. His promise has been fulfilled! Jesus has come!
When Jesus appeared, He made no excuses for mankind’s sin. He spoke about it plainly. And when the time came for Him to suffer and die for all this sin, He went forward willingly. He didn’t excuse Himself when the anguish and pain became most intense. He invited the Father’s anger and wrath against sin. He let the fires of hell torch Him. He did that for you and me. He did that so all our sins would be forgiven.
The forgiveness, life, and salvation that Jesus won for us is the main course in the great banquet. It is what you are given when the pastor speaks the absolution in the divine service. It is what you receive when you eat and drink the Lord’s body and blood in His Supper. The Lord is not stingy with these gifts. He offers them in abundance at all times. They are for your spiritual nourishment and comfort every single day.
Your feasting at the banquet of salvation here through Word and Sacrament prepares you for the eternal feasting to come. Your continuance in the faith here is what keeps a seat reserved for you at the heavenly table. No one who rejects the invitation of the Gospel here on earth will enter heaven, including those who may be baptized but who no longer believe. When an unbeliever stands before the Lord on Judgment Day, he will have no more excuses. He will not escape the fires of hell.
But all who believe and are baptized will be excused from that suffering. They will leave the Church Militant where they walk by faith, and they will enter the Church Triumphant where they will see and experience all the glorious things God has prepared for those who love Him.
You can be sure that you will be among the guests at the Lord’s heavenly banquet, because your salvation is not based on anything you could do. God invited you to this banquet because Jesus redeemed you from your sin through His suffering and death, and the Holy Spirit worked saving faith in your heart through this Gospel message. You have not always made God and His Word your priority, but His priority has always been clear. Your Salvation Is God’s Priority. “Come, for everything is now ready,” He says—“everything is now ready” for you.
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(woodcut of the poor, the blind, and the lame being invited to the banquet from the 1880 edition of The Story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation)
The Festival of the Holy Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 3:1-15
In Christ Jesus, who became the Son of Man that we might join Him as sons of God and heirs of eternal life (Gal. 4:4-7), dear fellow redeemed:
Most kids believe—at least for a time—that no one is stronger than their own dad. Dad can lift them off the ground with one arm. Dad can pick up things that no one else can budge. Dad can open jars that Mom can’t. In their eyes, he is very impressive. But as they get older, kids realize that some other guys might actually be stronger than Dad. They become aware of their dad’s limitations, and not just the physical ones. Dad sometimes gets distracted and misses important things in their lives. He doesn’t always seem to understand what they are going through. He isn’t always right there when they need him.
Dad can do a lot of things. But he isn’t all-powerful. For his part, he feels the pressure to be what those around him need him to be. He faces the demands—spoken or unspoken—of providing for his wife and children. Others outside his household like his relatives, friends, and co-workers might also look to him for support. People rely on him the way he used to rely on his dad. He doesn’t always feel ready for the responsibility. He is well aware of his shortcomings.
You know as well as I do that there is no such thing on earth as a perfect father. We admire those men who seem to be excellent fathers. We see others who more or less fulfill their duties to their family. And then there are some who do not seem fit to be fathers at all. Some of these fathers harm their children or abandon them. For these children, it can be difficult to put their trust and confidence in God the Father. Their perception of God as Father is colored by their experience with their earthly father.
But God the Father does not take His cue from earthly fathers; earthly fathers are to take their cue from Him. The heavenly Father is the pattern for fatherhood. He did not learn fatherhood from anyone. He had no father. But in His infinite wisdom, God established fatherhood on earth after His image.
God does not model the sort of fatherhood that the world likes to see. The world does not praise fathers who stand up for godly truth and honor. They praise the fathers who fan the flame of their children’s ego, who keep their mouths shut when their sons and daughters behave immorally, who might offer a shoulder to cry on but no words of wisdom. There are many who even portray God in this way. “God loves me just the way I am,” they say. “He doesn’t judge me, and He is always there when I need Him.” But that is not the God of the Bible.
The God of the Bible loves us, no question about it. But He does not love everything we do and every choice we make. To the contrary, He firmly rebukes our sin. He does not overlook it or act as though it is not that bad. And if we refuse to repent of our sin, He warns us of the eternal hellfire that will come upon any who reject His Word.
The seriousness with which He looks upon our sin is made clear by the sacrifice required to save us. God the Father did not send His only-begotten Son into the world so that Jesus could pat everyone on the back for choosing to live life their own way. He sent His Son to suffer and die for our sins in our place.
But how could a Father sacrifice His only Son? Did He think so little of His Son? Some have suggested that the punishment and wrath the Father poured out on His Son at Golgotha was really a form of “divine child abuse.” Was that the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, that the Father was an overbearing tyrant who forced His Son toward horrible suffering and death?
That is hardly how Jesus portrayed it. The night before His death, He told His disciples, “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (Joh. 14:31). And again, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:9-10). And in a prayer directly to the Father, Jesus said, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (17:24).
That does not sound like a Son who is forced to do something against His will. Even in the midst of severe anguish, Jesus did not lash out at His Father as though His Father were manipulating Him. He said, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luk. 22:42).
God the Father sent His Son to do the terrible work of atoning for sin, because His Son could do it. His beloved Son could carry that load and still reclaim the glory that was His from eternity. He could win the victory over sin, death, and devil and still return to the right hand of the Father. God could do for man what man could never do for himself.
Jesus made this abundantly clear to Nicodemus, the teacher-turned-student in today’s Gospel lesson. Nicodemus started the conversation by saying, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Was this flattery? Was it an invitation for Jesus to tell more about Himself? Was Nicodemus trying to sound smart?
Jesus replied that whatever the Jewish leaders thought they knew about God, they knew much less than they realized. Jesus was not some mystery they could solve. He was not some code they could crack. Their human wisdom was not going to cut it. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus was not talking about the need for a physical rebirth but a spiritual one.
This spiritual rebirth does not happen by any human effort or through a free human will, contrary to what many Christians today think. They say that “being born again” means making a decision for Jesus and opening one’s heart to Him. Jesus says this rebirth happens through “water and the Spirit,” through Baptism. The Holy Spirit accomplishes this and not human flesh. A translation just as valid as “born again” is that one must be “born from above.”
God must do this—He must regenerate and renew us—because we cannot do this for ourselves. We cannot do this by the strength of our bodies or minds, or by the power of our will. If this were possible, Jesus wouldn’t say what He does in today’s text: “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven.” Because we are not able to go up to God, God comes down to us.
But why does He do this? Why does the Father send His Son, by His side from all eternity, to be sacrificed for sinners, whose legacy is stained and whose lives are fleeting? God does this out of love for His rebellious children. He did not walk away when mankind thought more highly of the forbidden fruit than His command. He did not destroy them in His anger which He could have done. Instead He promised to join them in their anguish, to be with them in their troubles, and to free them again from their chains of sin and death.
But not all recognize or care about their Father’s love. They are like those who reject their earthly fathers because their father does not give them everything they want or let them do what they want to do. Like those who do not “honor [their] father and mother” as the LORD commands them to do, so unbelievers do not honor the LORD and “fear, love, and trust in [Him] above all things” (Small Catechism).
But those who do recognize their sin and who trust that the Son of Man came to be lifted up on the cross for their sake, can be certain that they are in good graces with their Father in heaven. He loves all who cherish and pay attention to His holy Word (Joh. 14:23). He promises to pour upon them the blessings of His Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. This starts at Baptism when the holy life and cleansing blood of Jesus are applied to the sinner, and it continues throughout life as these gifts are administered through His gracious Word and Sacraments.
Through these means, He strengthens us and helps us follow His example of love and sacrifice in our various stations in life—fathers in their fatherhood, mothers in their mothering, children in their obedience, and all of us in our lives of service. None of us carries out these duties perfectly, and we are only too aware how we have fallen short. But God has promised to abide with us and to bring blessings to those around us even through our weak and faltering efforts.
No one on earth does everything right. No one can fix every problem. No one can save his own soul, much less the souls of others. God Does What We Cannot Do. He is our perfect Father, whose will was carried out by His righteous Son, whose rich blessings are distributed by the Holy Spirit. This God is the only true God. He is our God, and we are His children.
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(portion of painting, “Good Friday Morning: Jesus in Prison” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Second Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad
Text: St. Luke 14:16-24
In Christ Jesus, who welcomes us, serves us, and fills us through His holy means of grace, dear fellow redeemed:
I think it’s safe to assume that no one here received an invitation to attend the recent royal wedding in England. I can’t imagine anyone expected to receive an invitation either. You would have had to be a close relative of the bride or be part of much different circles than the ones in northeast Iowa. But I am sure there have been other events—celebrations of some sort—to which you expected to receive an invitation but did not. Why didn’t an invitation come? Was it lost in the mail? Was your name inadvertently left off the list? Did you misjudge your relationship to the host? You would have been glad to take part in the celebration, but instead you were left out.
On the other hand, there are many who receive invitations and don’t give the host the courtesy of a response. Anyone who has helped plan a wedding knows about this. Invitations are sent out a long time in advance. But then the deadline passes with many RSVPs missing. Some forget to reply, some don’t care enough to reply, and some drag their feet because they don’t want to offend the host with their reply. But the worst are those who say they are coming but then don’t show up.
An accurate count of guests is important because large events are expensive. One website says the average cost in 2017 for one guest at an Iowa wedding was about $100. It could be worse: in Manhattan, the average cost for one guest was over $600. I have heard about a couple that billed all “no-show” guests for the per plate cost of the wedding banquet. That might be going a bit far, but it is rude for guests to announce they are coming and then fail to attend for no good reason.
In today’s text, Jesus told about a man who was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. When the banquet was ready, he sent his servant to bring in the guests. We get the impression that all whom the servant visited had accepted the initial invitation. Their presence at the banquet had been planned for and expected. But now that the time had arrived, they decided there were other things that mattered more. One wanted to visit some property he had recently purchased. Another wanted to examine some oxen he had bought. Another had just gotten married.
None of those things were bad. But none of them required immediate attention. We can assume that the invitation for the banquet was sent long in advance. The event wouldn’t have caught anyone by surprise. The reality is that they chose to skip the banquet. It wasn’t important to them. That means they did not take the invitation seriously in the first place. If they had, they would have been certain to attend. The master of the house was understandably angry with their poor excuses. What unworthy guests he had invited! So he invited other guests: “the poor and crippled and blind and lame.” Still there was room. Then the master ordered his servant to go far and wide and “compel people to come in.”
Jesus told this parable to a group of Jewish Pharisees with whom He was eating dinner. These religious leaders could not help but admire Him for His wonderful miracles and bold teachings. But they did not appreciate His interpretation of the law, and they especially did not like His criticisms. They knew no others who followed the Old Testament law as strictly as they did. And yet Jesus spoke about them as though they were living contrary to God’s will!
This dinner which Jesus attended was on a Sabbath day. God commanded that no work should be done on the Sabbath, so that His people would have time to hear His Word. Jesus noticed a man in the room who had dropsy, a condition which causes the body to retain too much water. Turning to the lawyers and Pharisees, He asked, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” (Lk. 14:3). Then He healed the man and sent Him away. He wanted to teach them that such an act of love was not contrary to God’s law, but rather fulfilled it.
He also noticed how the guests of this Pharisee chose the places of honor at the table. Jesus said, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him…. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’” (vv. 8, 10). Then Jesus told the host not to invite people who would return the favor sometime, but “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” those who “cannot repay you.”
Then today’s parable followed. Since they had been the subject of His criticism up to this point, the Pharisees must have perceived that Jesus’ parable was about them. They were right. The Jewish religious leaders knew God’s promise of salvation in the Scriptures. But now they were making excuses while the fulfillment of God’s promise stood before them. They were too occupied with their self-made spirituality to take a seat at the great banquet of salvation.
They could not say that an invitation had not come their way, and neither can you and I. We know what the Bible says, that God our Savior “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Tim. 2:4). Jesus likewise commanded the church to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19). The banquet of salvation is set for everybody. But not all want to attend. Why? It’s because all of us by nature prefer excuses to repentance and faith.
A great many have heard the Gospel message. They know what the Bible teaches, that God became man in order to offer Himself for the sins of all people. But many who hear this go about their business as though this was nothing very remarkable. Suppose you had received an invitation to the royal wedding in England, and you were told that all your expenses for the trip would be covered. Would you go? Or if you’re not much for royal weddings, how about an all-expenses-paid trip to the Super Bowl? I would go.
But when God sets the table of salvation, when He offers the full forgiveness of our sins at no cost to us—all-expenses-paid—we hardly take notice. Some make excuses for hearing His Word of grace very little if at all, excuses like: “I need time to myself,” “I have to work,” “Our family is too busy.” They know their attendance at the banquet is expected, but they have other priorities. Others hear the Word but don’t let it affect them. They come to the banquet but only look through the windows and stare at the rich food. “Others need it more than I do,” they think. These do not recognize their great spiritual need.
Who are the ones that were ushered into the great banquet hall? It was not those who filled their lives with riches, work, and family activities. It was “the poor and crippled and blind and lame,” those who would seem unlikely to be included on a guest list. Are you one of these? Are you spiritually poor on your own—in fact, spiritually bankrupt—with nothing to your name but a lifetime of sin? Are you spiritually crippled, unwilling and unable to walk in the way God commands? Are you spiritually blind, unable to see your own way out of the world’s darkness? Are you spiritually lame, needing to be carried from danger to safety? If you are one of these poor souls, then there is no mistake. The banquet doors are open to you.
On the other hand, if you, like the Pharisees, would craft your own standard of righteousness while ignoring your tremendous debt to the law, then the banquet doors are closed. Jesus did not come to pat the “good” people on the back. He came to save the lost. He came to save sinners. If you are one of these, if you recognize your sin and are heartily sorry for it, God has a seat for you at His table.
For your spiritual thirst, He pours out the living water of His Word. For your spiritual nourishment, He serves up the body and blood of Jesus. Are you weary? Jesus will strengthen you through this feast. Are you sad? Jesus will cheer you. Are you worried and troubled? Jesus will calm and comfort you. This is what He promises to do through His Word and Sacraments. This is the feast of salvation prepared for us for our time in this sinful world. And this is the feast which prepares us for the eternal feast above.
No matter how much you have failed, no matter how far you have fallen, the Lord invites you to come to His banquet. But what if His invitation was not actually meant for you? What if you received it by mistake? If you had received an invitation to the royal wedding, you would assume it was a mistake. But if a special envoy from the Queen of England arrived at your door with all the paperwork completed and everything prepared for your trip, you could not ignore it—shocking though it would be.
God likewise made no mistake when His Word of grace came to you. To make sure you know His invitation is for you, He led you to the holy waters of Baptism. There, He showered you with His blessings and gave you a seat at His banquet. Since that life-changing moment, every time you hear His Word of forgiveness and life, and partake of His Supper, He reassures you and confirms that you are His honored guest.
He has invited others also, humble sinners like you, who join you at the banquet table. Together we wait for our Lord’s triumphant return on the last day, that day when we will cry out with one voice, “This is the LORD; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation” (Is. 25:9).
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(woodcut of the poor, the blind, and the lame being invited to the banquet from the 1880 edition of The Story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation)
The First Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 16:19-31
In Christ Jesus, who was condemned for your sin, so you would be freed by His grace, dear fellow redeemed:
The question that weighs on the mind of every Christian is this: How Can I Be Sure I Am Saved? The question becomes all the more important when we come across accounts in the Bible like the one today. Jesus tells about one man who was saved and joined the saints in heaven, while another man was condemned and joined the tormented in hell. What was the difference between the two men?
One obvious difference is that one of the men was very rich and one was very poor. The rich man wore expensive clothes and “feasted sumptuously every day.” He enjoyed many good things. These were gifts from God, but the rich man did not recognize it. He was completely self-centered about these blessings. Money has that effect on a lot of people. 1 Timothy 6 says, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (vv. 8-10).
Lazarus on the other hand was impoverished. He had nothing to his name. He was a beggar. He would have gladly eaten the food that fell off the rich man’s table. We are told that Lazarus was laid by someone at the gate of the rich man, but whoever did that provided him no further help. Lazarus was penniless and alone—no one paid attention to him but the street dogs.
But it was not the rich man’s wealth that caused him to be condemned. And it was not Lazarus’ poverty that caused him to be saved. Many wealthy people have been saved, including Abraham, Job, David, and countless others. Conversely, many poor people have been condemned. Financial status is no sort of litmus test for whether or not a person is right with God.
The devil can use both wealth and poverty to tempt someone away from God. This is why the author of the Proverb prayed, “give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (30:8-9). The devil tempts the wealthy to love their riches instead of God, and he tempts the poor to blame God for their poverty.
Now if it wasn’t the rich man’s wealth that condemned him, maybe it was that he did not do enough good works. It is the belief of many Christians that they must prove their worth to God by doing good. But how much good is required? Do we need to exchange one good thought, word, and action for every sinful thought, word, and action? Do we need to do better than most people around us? Do we simply need to try our best, and God will overlook all the failures?
Let’s say you owe someone $10,000, and you try to get him to accept $10 as payment for the debt. No one would settle for that. Our debt of sin is far greater than this, and yet many think that the small amount of good works they produce is enough to satisfy that debt. In the Ten Commandments, God requires perfection. If we want to earn our way to heaven, we “must be perfect, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). None of us has even come close to meeting this requirement.
But just because we cannot reach perfection in this life, does not mean good works are unimportant or optional. We should want to do what God commands us to do. Children are not perfect, but their parents certainly expect them to listen and do what they are told. Usually this is for their own good, so they do not become spoiled, and so they learn to love their neighbors as they love themselves. God wants to keep us from sin and the sorrows and pain that result from it, and He wants to teach us how to live a life of love toward Him and our neighbors.
So if the difference between why Lazarus was saved and the rich man was condemned, was not their level of wealth or how many good works they built up, what was it? The difference was that one heard “Moses and the Prophets” and believed the Word of God, while the other did not. We know this was the difference because of the conversation between the rich man and Abraham.
The rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to the rich man’s five brothers to warn them, so that they also were not condemned. Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” But the rich man insisted, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” What he was really saying was that the Word of God was not enough. It wouldn’t get through to his brothers. They were stubborn unbelievers like he was. Something more was needed. But Abraham replied, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
Is that how I can be sure I am saved? By listening to “Moses and the Prophets,” by hearing the Word of God? Then all that would be required is that I go to church from time to time, or even just read the Bible occasionally at home. But it is safe to say that the rich man heard “Moses and the Prophets.” It is possible that he was even a regular attender at the synagogue. He could have had the reputation there of being a generous benefactor of the church. For all we know, he may have been well thought of by many in his community.
When Abraham said, “let them hear [Moses and the Prophets],” he did not mean simply letting the words enter their ears. He meant taking them to heart, and applying them to their life. This is why James states that we should “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” To hear the Word and then to live as though we have not heard it is to “deceive ourselves” (Ja. 1:22). Do you suppose God is pleased with people who come to church on their best behavior, but then go home and mistreat the ones He has given them to love? And what should He think about those who reverently speak His name in prayer, but then use it for cursing and swearing among their friends? God keep us from being those that Isaiah described, those who “honor the Lord with their lips, while their hearts are far from [Him]” (Is. 29:13).
No one is saved by going through the motions of the Christian life. “God is not mocked” (Gal. 6:7). He knows the difference between belief and unbelief. He knows when our confession is sincere and when it is false. Lazarus was saved because he trusted God’s promises. He trusted that God loved him, even though He allowed him to lie on the street hungry. He believed that far greater treasure was waiting for him in heaven than the treasures that had eluded him on earth. He had nothing to offer God. The Holy Spirit moved him to reach out his beggar hand of faith, and God filled it with every spiritual blessing. Then the angels took hold of that beggar hand and lifted his soul to the mansions above.
Eternal life in heaven has been won for all sinners. And it is given to all who recognize their spiritual poverty and cling to the rich blessings of God. Each one of us has accrued a debt of righteousness to the law that we could never repay. Even if we stopped sinning today and only did good the rest of our lives, this still would not repay our debt. But in God’s sight, because of what Jesus has done, there is no more debt to pay. Can you imagine going to the bank to turn over the deed to your property because you defaulted on your loan, only to have the banker inform you that someone had fully paid the debt? Words could not express the joy, relief, and thankfulness you would feel.
Jesus paid your debt of sin by pouring out His holy, precious blood and dying on the cross for you. He gave His holy life as collateral for the debt of the whole world, and God accepted the payment. There is nothing you still owe to God, no good works that must complete the payment. You are debt-free. You are free to do good works, not just because you have to, but because you love Him who loved you, and you want to show your thankfulness for what He did for you. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2Cor. 8:9).
You could never have certainty of salvation if it depended in any way on you. But because it depends entirely on the work of Jesus for you, you can have complete confidence and certainty. Your Savior Jesus lived a perfect life for you. He died for your sins. He rose in victory over your death. Because of this, the angels will carry your soul to heaven when you die, just as they carried Lazarus. There is no doubt that this will be so. Jesus did not lie when He said, “whoever believes in [Me] should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
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(woodcut of Lazarus and the angels from 1880 edition of The Story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation)
The Festival of the Holy Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 3:1-15
In Christ Jesus, the Wisdom from above, who came down to enlighten the hearts and minds of sinners by His saving grace, dear fellow redeemed:
Some time after the Flood, the people of the earth decided to work together to build a city and a great tower “with its top in the heavens” (Gen. 11:4). They thought they could do anything they set their minds to—perhaps even finding a way up to God (v. 6). But this effort was self-serving, not God-pleasing.
Many of the leading scientists of our age are likewise engaged in things that do not please God. They are continuously looking skyward like the people of Babel. They search for signs of life in our galaxy and beyond, trying to figure out where life on earth came from. A good number of them loudly deny that there is a divine Creator, a God who established the structure and laws of the universe. At the same time, they are very willing to consider the possibility that aliens came to earth long ago and planted seeds of life here.
They think they are very wise to deny God, and they think Christians are very ignorant. But the God-denying scientists are the ignorant ones. The Apostle Paul writes that the existence of God is plainly evident. “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” But many ignore this evidence. They are those, as Paul says, who “became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:20,21-22). True wisdom does not come from up here (the head). True Wisdom Comes from Above, from the God of heaven.
Nicodemus no doubt considered himself a wise man. He was a prominent Pharisee, who was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, a ruling council made up of 71 judges. Jesus also called him “the teacher of Israel,” which may indicate that few were more esteemed than he was. But Nicodemus was troubled by something. He couldn’t figure out what to make of Jesus. So he did something commendable. Instead of accepting as true the opinions and theories others had about Jesus, he decided to talk with Him directly. He very candidly said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” The evidence was clear to them! Only someone coming from God could do what Jesus was doing.
But this was not the same as acknowledging that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus sought to clarify this. He said, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” That seems a strange thing to say. What did it have to do with Nicodemus’ statement? The connection might be lost in translation. Most English translations say, “unless one is born again,” which is not wrong. But the word for “again” can also be translated “from above”—“unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus called Jesus “a teacher come from God,” but was Nicodemus such a teacher? Was he “a teacher come from God”? Had he been “born from above”? Or was he of the earth, one who “claimed to be wise,” but was only a “fool” in God’s sight? Jesus plainly said that “the teacher of Israel” should understand more than he did. Nicodemus had not understood the words of the Old Testament prophets, those who had revealed God’s plan of salvation. Along with his fellow Pharisees, Nicodemus thought salvation depended on what they accomplished. For this reason, they were not looking for the Messiah’s arrival. If they had been, it would have been obvious to them that Jesus was He.
Their knowledge and wisdom were only human. It is an entirely human idea that we can make amends with God for our sins, that we can somehow prove ourselves worthy to enter heaven. This is the core teaching of the non-Christian religions of the world, that our salvation depends on keeping God’s law, and if we don’t keep it, we will be condemned. These are terrifying religions. They do not comfort, because the law can never comfort. The law makes demands, “Do this”—“Don’t do this.” And it always convicts us, because we always fall short of it. Even many Christians who have heard time and again that the Son of God became Man to die on the cross for all sin, still think that their salvation ultimately depends on what they do.
This is not what you and I think, and yet we still find ourselves keeping a tally of the good things we do. Or we at least note the bad things that others do. It is much easier to judge the sinful words and actions of others than to judge ourselves. This is how the Pharisees like Nicodemus operated. They held themselves up as “the holy people” and looked down their noses at others who were not as righteous as they were. They thought they were fulfilling the law of God. But if they kept it outwardly, they certainly did not keep it in their hearts.
This is what each of us must examine—not the failings we see in others but our own failings, and the sin in our own hearts. You may not have done evil toward others, but have you wished evil on them? You may have said what you needed to avoid an uncomfortable situation, but was it the truth? You may go out of your way to help others, but do you do it out of love for them or to bolster your own reputation?
Jesus said, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” We are conceived and born in sin, and sin wants to have free reign in our bodies. Our sinful nature leads us to desire what the world calls wisdom, messages like: get as much money and stuff as you can, follow your heart wherever it leads you, take care of yourself before you take care of others, never apologize, don’t take criticism from anyone. This is the world’s wisdom, but it is not the way of Christ.
He came from above, from His throne in heaven, and lived a life of great humility. It was not a false humility but a humble love for sinners flowing out of His righteous heart. He wanted to save His enemies, not do them harm. He wanted them to know the truth even if they attacked Him for it. He loved them even when they nailed Him to the cross and put Him to death. The sinful world cannot understand the humility, love, and sacrifice of Jesus. It makes no sense to the natural mind.
But it does register with those who have been “born again,” who have been “born from above.” These are the ones who have been “born of water and the Spirit.” They have been baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is no empty, human ritual. When water is applied while Jesus’ words are spoken, the Triune God comes to the sinner—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. God comes from above with heavenly wisdom to impart. He comes to work faith in the sinner. He comes to bring the peace of sins forgiven. He comes to bestow eternal life.
This is done for us totally by God’s grace. We do not earn it or deserve it. We cannot say why we are saved and others are not, since we are just as sinful by nature as everyone else. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit works as He wills. We cannot explain why one sinner is converted but not another, or why the Holy Spirit seems to work more powerfully at some times and places than at others. It is not for us to know. But we can and should give thanks that He has come through the means of grace to give us True Wisdom from Above—faith in the Savior Jesus.
Since we have this wisdom from above, since we have been “born from above,” we do not live as though we are still of the world. James writes that “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (Ja. 3:16-17). The True Wisdom from Above shows itself in a Christ-like attitude, having humility and love for our neighbors and putting their concerns even before our own.
We grow in this True Wisdom by “seeking the things that are above, where Christ is” (Col. 3:1). We seek and find the blessings of God by hearing and receiving His Word and Sacraments. The means of grace is where heaven meets earth. This is how God promises to come to us and pour out His grace upon us. God is not reached by building a tower up in the sky or by sending satellites deep into outer space. God is not reached by our efforts, whatever they may be. The Triune God comes down to us.
We also grow in True Wisdom by “putting to death what is earthly in us” (3:5), as Paul says. Where we have sinned, we don’t put the blame on others or try to cover it up. We confess it, acknowledge it. This is how we return to our baptism. We drown our sinful nature by admitting our sin, and our new life of faith comes forth again as we are pointed to Jesus, who covers us in His righteousness and forgives all our sins.
Nicodemus also gained this True Wisdom from Above, when the Holy Spirit brought him to faith. We are told that he later defended Jesus in a meeting of the Jewish Sanhedrin (Jn. 7:50-51). And he was one of two men who took Jesus down from the cross and laid Him in a new tomb (19:39-42). Nicodemus learned, as you and I learn and re-learn throughout our lives, that there is no wisdom worth having apart from faith in Jesus. But in Jesus, we have a wisdom and a knowledge that lasts not just for this lifetime, but for all eternity.
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(portion of painting by Fritz von Uhde, “Christ and Nicodemus,” c. 1886)
The Fifth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 5:1-11
In Christ Jesus, who did the work we had hardly even begun and were not about to finish, dear fellow redeemed:
A relative of mine once gave a ride to a man looking to head west. Along the way, the man shared details about his life, which might be described as “professional homelessness.” He decided at some point that he would rather beg than work a paying job. And whenever he had built up enough money, he would spend it on an airline ticket to Hawaii. He had done this multiple times. It takes work to beg, so it wasn’t that he would not work. What he rejected was honest work. In the end, I think my cousin may have regretted offering the ride.
It was wrong for this man to take advantage of the charity of others when he could have easily gotten a job. He did not see the value in this kind of work. On the other hand, some place too much value in their work. They are constantly seeking to climb higher on the corporate ladder and improve their life with greater riches and nicer things. They may even neglect their family and friends to do this. They will let nothing get in the way of their drive to succeed.
But in the end, what good is an attitude like this? Does a person ever get to the point where he is satisfied with what he has? And what will happen to those precious belongings when he dies? The wise King Solomon pondered these very questions. He considered all that his hands had done and the toil he had expended, and concluded that “all was vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecc. 2:11). He said that “there is more gain in wisdom than in folly,” but in the end, “the wise dies just like the fool!” (vv. 13, 16). He also recognized that everything he had worked for would one day be turned over to another to keep and manage, “and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?” (v. 19).
When Jesus visited the fishermen by the lake of Gennesaret, they understood better than ever that work is meaningless apart from Jesus. These men fished not for leisure but for their livelihood, which made a night’s work with no return especially frustrating. We might have expected Simon Peter’s response to be a bit saltier than it was when Jesus directed him to row to the deep part of the lake and let down his nets. For one thing, it was not the right time of day for fishing. And the deeper parts of the lake were probably not the best places to find fish. But Simon replied respectfully, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at Your word I will let down the nets.”
It wasn’t long before the fishermen saw the nets start to drag along as though they were filling up. In a short time their nets were so full, that two fishing boats could not handle the load. So much for all their fishing wisdom! This stranger Jesus came along and prompted the greatest catch of fish they had ever seen! Now they were keenly aware of a power in their presence that was much greater than their own. They did not doubt that they had just witnessed a miracle, which meant Jesus was either a prophet of God or God Himself. Simon fell to his knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
What Simon had forgotten at that moment is something that we lose sight of too. This is that we are always in the presence of God, and that we cannot prosper in work without His blessing. So often we experience some success at work and are praised for what we accomplish, and we think of this as well-earned recognition. We worked hard for this and did what others could not do. It is not wrong to take pride in a job well done. But it is wrong to take full credit for it. If you are a farmer, who is it that sends the sun and rain for your crops? If you work for an employer, who gave you the mental and physical abilities you have? If your kids grow up to be reasonably responsible citizens, who granted you the patience and care you needed to raise them?
To act as though God has nothing to do with our successes—which is what every unbeliever thinks—is to greatly dishonor Him. Unbelievers see their success as entirely dependent on themselves and even flaunt their riches in God’s face, as though He had nothing to do with it. But unless He opens His merciful hand and gives His blessings, no creature could live. He satisfies the desire of every living thing, as the Psalm says (145:16).
But we do not always feel satisfied with His gifts. Sometimes, like the disciples, we work hard and come up with nothing. Why is that? Why do we wear ourselves out and lose ground while the unrighteous appear to prosper? Has God forgotten our need? It is easy to question God when we are struggling, but it is just as easy to forget Him when we prosper. This may be why God sometimes gives us more and sometimes less—to remind us to trust in Him.
No matter how hard you work, if your work is not done to the glory of God, it is empty. No amount of money and goods will satisfy you without Jesus in view. Peter, James, and John recognized this. Even after the greatest catch of fish they had ever seen, they left it all behind. “[T]hey left everything and followed [Jesus].”
They followed Jesus because He called them to a different kind of fishing. Now they would be “catching men” for God. But they were not prepared to help fill God’s net until they were caught themselves. When Simon saw the great catch of fish, He begged Jesus to leave him, because he was a sinner. What sin do you suppose was on his mind? Was it that he doubted any fish would be caught when he “put out into the deep”? Or was it just a general awareness of his sinfulness as He stood before his Lord? The prophet Isaiah reacted in much the same way in the presence of God in heaven, “Woe is me! For I am lost” he said; “for I am a man of unclean lips” (Is. 6:5). But the last thing Simon Peter needed is what he requested. When he said, “Depart from me,” he should have said, “Save me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
Being in the presence of God and hearing His Word forces us to reckon with our sins. We hear the standard that God sets and realize how far we fall short of meeting it. But instead of crying out to Jesus, “Save me!” we try to make things better on our own. We know that the sin we have fallen into is condemned by God, and we want to stop doing it. But instead of trusting in Him, we put our trust in ourselves. “I am strong enough to overcome this,” we think. “I know I am better than this, and I will prove it!” And what happens? We fall again and again. And eventually, we lose the will to fight anymore. Sometimes we continue in the sin despite the conflict we feel in our conscience, or we begin to justify the sin in an attempt to rewire our conscience.
Our flailing attempts to get free of God’s accusing law are like a bird caught in a fishing net. The harder it tries to get away, the more tangled up it becomes. This is how it was with Martin Luther. We focused on his life and work last week at camp. Luther had tried to get right with God by his works. He even gave up a promising career in law in order to become a monk, so that he could dedicate his life to righteous living full-time.
But the harder he worked, the more his net of righteousness came up empty. He expressed this painful realization in a hymn verse which the campers memorized this past week: “Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay; / Death brooded darkly o’er me. / Sin was my torment night and day; / In sin my mother bore me. / Yea, deep and deeper still I fell; / Life had become a living hell, / So firmly sin possessed me” (ELH 378, v. 2).
It wasn’t that Luther was more sinful than the common man. But he was more honest about his sinful condition than many are. No matter how hard you and I try, we are still sinners, who deserve death. “[T]he wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 6:23).
By God’s grace, Luther eventually understood that the righteousness God requires of sinners is supplied by Jesus. To try to get to heaven without Him is to come up empty. But to place one’s entire life and being in His hands through repentant faith is to obtain everything. By faith in Jesus, your net is filled with forgiveness for your many sins, with eternal life for your death, and with salvation from your enemies. Faith receives such abundant blessings from God that you sink beneath their glorious weight. God’s grace surrounds you and covers you, so that your flimsy attempts at righteousness can no more be seen. All that is now in view is the righteousness of Jesus and His cleansing blood.
That is why we follow Him. He gives us what we could never get on our own. Our Constant Toiling Nets Nothing without Jesus. Romans 4:5 declares, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” It is not your work that justifies you before God, but faith in Jesus. Do not in willful disobedience ask Him to depart, but in humble repentance beg Him to stay.
And He will stay. He worked hard to save you, and He isn’t about to let that hard work on your behalf go to waste. This is why He comes to you still and continues to work in you through His Word and Sacraments. There, He supplies forgiveness whenever your God-given work falls short, and He grants the strength that you need to carry out your work to His glory alone.
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The Fourth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 6:36-42
In Christ Jesus, the Merciful, dear fellow redeemed:
Suppose you woke up one day with a special power, but you did not know you had it. The special power is that everyone you meet immediately adopts your attitude. If you are happy, they are happy. If you are kind and gracious, they are kind and gracious. But if you are in a bad mood, they are in a bad mood. If you complain, they complain. If you act self-centered and rude, they act the same way. How much would you enjoy being around others? How pleasant would that be? I suppose it would depend on the day, wouldn’t it? This is a special power you probably are not interested in having.
At the same time, the way you communicate with others does have some effect on the way they communicate with you. If you greet someone warmly, you have a much better chance of a kind response than if you shove them out of your way. If you help and befriend others, they will be much more likely to want to help and befriend you. But “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Lk. 6:31), should not be driven by selfish motives. If a Christian gives primarily so that he might receive, how is that different from the way unbelievers operate?
In today’s text, Jesus talks about what it means to live a godly life. He does not say that our interactions with others should be based on how they treat us. He does not teach us to look out for ourselves above all else. He tells us to love instead of seeking revenge, and to forgive instead of storing up wrongs. Revealing to us the How and the Why, Jesus commands us to “Be Merciful, Even as Your Father Is Merciful.”
“Being merciful” could mean a lot of different things. If I am a parent, it could mean assigning no consequences for bad behavior. If I am a banker, it could mean cancelling all debts. If I run a service organization, it could mean not charging for services rendered. These things would be merciful. But God does not command me to act in these ways. On the contrary, He commands parents to discipline their children, and says that honest work deserves an honest wage.
Jesus speaks here about a godly mercy, which takes its cue from God the Father. This is how you are to be merciful: “even as your Father is merciful.” And how exactly is that? Psalm 103 provides a good summary of this mercy: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (vv. 8-10). What are the qualities of mercy we see here? The text says that the Lord is compassionate and loving. He does not have a quick temper, but is slow to anger. He is patient and kind. He does not dwell on the sins of mankind, but rather forgives sin.
This is also how the life of God’s children should look. We should have an attitude of compassion and love, looking for opportunities to improve the life of others. We should “turn the other cheek” when we are insulted and attacked. We should not jump to conclusions about people, but have patience with them and help them. We should not store up sins against others, but forgive and forget. That is godly mercy. And it is very hard to carry out.
In fact, by our own efforts, it is impossible. If this came naturally to us, Jesus would not have to talk about it. But He knows how the old Adam operates. The LORD was there at the ugly outbreak of sin. What did Adam do when confronted with his sin? He blamed his wife, and God: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). Eve played the blame game too. Your old Adam, your sinful nature, can come up with a million reasons why you should not be merciful – “She started it!” “It wasn’t my fault!” “He had it coming!” “They will just throw it back in my face!” What these are, are reasons why I should not have to do the right thing. They are justification for my bad behavior in view of the bad behavior of others.
But the wrongdoing of my neighbor is no excuse for my own wrongdoing. In a sermon on today’s text, Martin Luther said, “I’ll do what a good tree does: Though this year’s fruit is picked and enjoyed by good-for-nothing pickers, a year later it produces another crop of fruit, and doesn’t get upset at all. I will react the same way, be a good tree and bear good fruit; I will not repay one evil with another evil.” A little later he said that even if a prickly person—like a brier bush—scratches a Christian badly, yet “I refuse to become a brier bush because of your actions. I shall, instead, do nothing but good for you when you are in need” (Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 2, Baker Books, 1996, p. 261). This is how a Christian is merciful even as God the Father is merciful.
But why must a Christian be merciful? Can’t we just leave the dispensing of mercy to God? Well for one thing, Jesus commands that we be merciful. That should be good enough for us. If He tells us to do something, we should do it. But there is another reason to be merciful. This comes from recognizing what we have received from God.
When the people listened to Jesus’ words, including the portion of today’s text, they might have thought He went too far. They would not have liked being called hypocrites for noticing specks in their brother’s eye, while logs were sticking out of their own eyes. But Jesus could say this without a hint of pride or self-righteousness. He was not a smooth-talking preacher like the rich and famous ones we see today, who display a façade of righteousness while carefully concealing their sins. Jesus had nothing to hide. He could talk about logs and specks in eyes, because He is the only one who could see them clearly. You can pull one over on your family, your friends, your co-workers, and your congregation. But you cannot pull one over on God.
God sees everything clearly. He sees the log in your eye. He sees your hypocritical behavior. He knows full well when you have been unmerciful, judgmental, unforgiving, and selfish. But the Lord does not measure back to you in wrath what you have produced in sin. He gives you a generous measure of His grace, “pressed down, shaken together, running over.” He puts it right in your lap through the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments! Why would He do that? Because He is merciful.
He is, as He declared Himself to Moses, “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7). This is how He looks upon you. This is why He sent Jesus to be your Substitute. He does not judge you by your sinful life, but by the holy life of Jesus. He does not condemn you for your transgressions, because He condemned Jesus in your place.
Like me, you can look back and recall many moments that you picked at the speck in another person’s eye while a log was protruding from yours. In tearing down your neighbors and making them feel pain, you felt a little bit better about yourself. You thought that if you could expose the sin of others, it might somehow make your sin seem less significant, less serious. But the guilt is still there. You know who you are and what you have done. You know the good things you have failed to do.
And yet God still has mercy upon you. He still loves you. All your sins and failures and unkindness He has transferred to His Son, who atoned for them all. Such mercy is so far above us, so strange to our way of thinking. Nothing in the world is like this mercy of God. It cannot be measured. One hymnwriter described God’s love as a “bottomless abyss.” He said, “O Love, Thou bottomless abyss, / My sins are swallowed up in thee! / Covered is my unrighteousness, / Nor spot of guilt remains on me, / While Jesus’ blood, through earth and skies / Mercy, free, boundless mercy! cries” (ELH #499, v. 3).
This other-worldly mercy is what Jesus calls His followers to have toward their neighbors – to love even when love is not returned, to forgive even when no remorse is shown, to be charitable even when help is not deserved. This is how we disciples will be like our Teacher, because this is how He is toward us. An attitude of mercy is not easy to have. We would rather have an attitude of selfishness and revenge. But then we shouldn’t be surprised when the same sinful attitude is reflected back at us. Jesus said, “For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
This is why we ask the Lord to help us “Be Merciful, Even as [Our] Father Is Merciful.” We want others to see in us the effect of God’s love and kindness. We want them to know that there is hope for the wicked and pardon for guilt. We want them to hear the comforting message that the Father’s mercy is big enough to cover even the greatest sinner, even sinners like you and me.
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