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).
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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(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.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(portion of painting by 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.
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 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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The First Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 16:19-31
In Christ Jesus, who reconciled us with God the Father through His own death and resurrection (Rom. 5:10), dear fellow redeemed:
Father’s Day is a national holiday of relatively recent origin. It was resisted for a time on the grounds that it would become too commercialized (which of course it has been). But since Mother’s Day had already been adopted, it seemed only right to have a Father’s Day too. And it certainly is appropriate to celebrate fatherhood, whether or not a day for fathers officially shows up on the federal calendar.
Numerous social studies have concluded that children who grow up without fathers are much more likely to struggle in school, make bad decisions, and engage in unhealthy activities. Children need both the nurturing of mothers and the discipline and instruction of fathers. It is strange, then, that fathers are given so little respect in our society. They are depicted in many sitcoms and movies as bumbling fools trying to get by with as little work as possible, unless it involves improving their “man caves.” Mom is the one who picks up the slack and bails out the family with her common sense. Of course, there are exceptions to this. But the bar for fathers does not seem to be set very high.
And many men are happy to play along. They pursue women, not for the purposes of marriage and family, but for self-satisfaction. If a child should happen to be conceived on a one-night-stand, their first thought is how they can get out of any responsibility. If they cannot deny what happened, or coax the mother to abort, they begrudgingly pay child support. This behavior is so common that it is all but accepted. It does not surprise people and maybe doesn’t even bother them to hear that a professional athlete might have eight children, all with different mothers. What strikes people as strange and even concerning is when a public figure has eight children with one wife (see Philip Rivers).
The only way to understand fatherhood, and to reclaim it as it was intended, is to go back to the source of fatherhood, which is God the Father Himself.
God has always been a Father, even from eternity. And He has always been the Father of God the Son, who is eternally begotten of Him. That means fatherhood is inherently important. It is something to be taken seriously. And what does God the Father do? He is described in the Bible as the Creator (Gen. 1:1), who works for the benefit of others. He is the Provider (Mt. 5:45), who continues to give both to the grateful and the greedy. And He makes sacrifices, even giving up His own Son for the salvation of sinners (Jn. 3:16). Already we recognize responsibilities that God has given to fathers. They are called to work, to provide, and to sacrifice for the good of others.
But that is not all. The primary responsibility God has given to fathers is that they teach His Word to their families. Ephesians 6:4 says as much, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Psalm 78 describes the responsibility in more detail. The psalmist, speaking for God’s people, promises that we will “tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God” (vv. 4-8).
The truth of God is passed down from generation to generation, as many of you here can testify. How far back in your family tree can you find Christians? Perhaps as far back as you have family records. But the heritage of Christian teaching goes back even further. It stretches back to Adam, who believed God’s promise of a Savior after falling into sin. But because of the fall, he is remembered as the father of sin rather than the father of the faithful. God gave that distinction to Abraham. He said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations…. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen. 17:4,6-7).
The LORD was especially referring to Abraham’s spiritual descendants. The Apostle Paul writes of Abraham that “his offspring” includes both the Jews and the Gentiles, whoever “shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Rom. 4:16). Later he says, “not all are children of Abraham because they are his [natural] offspring…. [B]ut the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (9:7,8). When the soul of the beggar Lazarus was taken to heaven by the angels, he was brought to the side of his spiritual father Abraham. He went to heaven because he believed God’s promise of a Savior, just like Abraham did (Gen. 15:6). And there, Lazarus was comforted.
The rich man, on the other hand, died, and his soul was sent to hell. He went to hell because he rejected God’s promise. Still, he tried to identify himself as one of Abraham’s offspring. “Father Abraham,” he called out, “have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame” (v. 24). But there could be no mercy for him. So he turned his attention to his brothers. “I beg you, father,” he said, “to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment” (v. 27-28). Abraham replied that only one thing could change their hearts: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them” (v. 29).
As this passage shows, the rich man and his five brothers were Israelites, blood descendants of Abraham. They had access to “Moses and the Prophets,” which refers to the Old Testament Scriptures. And yet none of them took God’s Word seriously. What does that tell you about their father? It is very likely that he raised children to succeed in the world, but failed to teach them what was really needed. So we have here A Tale of Two Fathers: father Abraham, whose offspring are those who believe God’s promises, and the father of the rich man who raised worldly offspring.
The tone a father sets is generally what his family will follow, whether good or bad. God wants men to be positive spiritual leaders in their homes. Statistics show that when fathers are disinterested in spiritual matters or delinquent in church attendance, their children are very likely to fall into the same patterns. But what about when fathers are unbelievers or absent? In cases like these, mothers have no choice but to be the spiritual leaders in their household, and God promises to bless their humble efforts.
The enemy every Christian home faces is the devil, whom Jesus calls “the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). The devil wants to destroy the Christian family, and he focuses his temptations on the father first of all. If he cannot coax the father to deny Jesus, he works on the mother, and then the children. Sadly, he often succeeds as we see in our own families and among our friends.
Our heavenly Father recognizes what anguish all of this causes us. He sees the fatherless struggling to chart a good course in the world. He understands the pain of a mother deserted by her child’s father. He knows the pain of parents, who pray day and night for God’s mercy upon their wayward children. No one here was raised by a perfect earthly father. But we do have a perfect Father in heaven, and He knows how to bring healing to the wounded and comfort to the grieving. No person on earth is beyond His capacity to help.
It was for every relationship, every home, every family torn apart by the devil, that God the Father sent His Son. He was born not in the natural way, of man, but of woman only, in whom He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. This gives women as much honor in their station as men have in theirs. Jesus increased in wisdom and stature (Lk. 2:52), but not in sin. He did exactly what God commands everyone to do. He did not fail like you and I so often do. He honored His mother Mary and guardian Joseph and perfectly followed His heavenly Father’s will. And He did that for you.
However you have disrespected and dishonored your father—as all children have—, Jesus credits you with His perfect obedience by faith. He went to the cross to blot out your sins of stubbornness and rebellion, and God remembers them no more. And however you have failed in your responsibilities as a father—as all fathers have—, the Lord forgives those sins and equips you to step up today and try harder. If you lead your children to “Moses and the Prophets,” God will not fail to bless your work. Then you will be giving them riches that no one will take from them. These riches of the Gospel are for every sinner, for you, to cover over all the ways you have fallen short in your various callings to show love to your neighbors. Your Father forgives those short-comings for Christ’s sake.
The greatest legacy that fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, cousins and friends, can leave, is the saving Gospel of Jesus. Only that gives hope for a better future. Only that endures to eternity. Because only through Jesus and what He has done to save you, can you be sure that you will be carried by the angels to the side of father Abraham. With him and all the faithful, you will eternally worship the “God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6).
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Festival of the Holy Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 3:1-15
In Christ Jesus, whose thoughts are not our thoughts, which is why we have righteousness and salvation in Him, dear fellow redeemed:
One of the greatest gifts God has given to humans is the ability to reason. This is among the First Article blessings of God the Father: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them” (Luther’s Small Catechism). He gave us this ability so that we would be equipped to manage His creation, to build homes and communities for ourselves, and to collaborate with our neighbors.
But the primary purpose for our reason is that we should acknowledge and give glory to God. Paul told the people of Athens that the true God wants all nations to “seek [Him], in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him” (Ac. 17:27). Sinners cannot reach God and establish communion with Him on their own, but they can certainly know He exists. Even those who have never heard His Word should know this. Paul explained in his Epistle to the Romans, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 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” (1:19-20). He goes on to talk about how the existence of conscience, the inner sense of right and wrong, should further convince people that there is a God (2:14-16). And if there is a God, they should obviously want to serve Him.
But as it is with any of the gifts God gives, sinners do not use their reason the way it is intended. It is popular today to claim that faith and reason are totally opposite each other. The idea is that those who claim to have faith are no longer using reason. And those who utilize reason do not need faith. This is especially applied in the field of science. Science is thought to be the ground of reason, where no room is made for faith. Never mind that many of the great scientists of the last 2,000 years were Christians. Never mind that science, properly speaking, is nothing else than the study of God’s creation. Modern, atheistic science does not welcome those who contend that there is (or even that there may be) a higher power at work in the universe.
This leaves us wishing that the scientists who praise reason so highly, would actually use it. It is often said that atheists reject God because they are using their reason only. But denying that there is a God is actually unreasonable, as the evidence around us and inside of us shows. The psalmist declares, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1). Such unbelievers remain under the wrath of God. Paul writes that “they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:20-21, 28-29).
So there are proper and improper uses for our ability to think and reason. When this ability is utilized for sinful plans and pursuits, then good and holy thinking will become more and more clouded. Before you realize it, you may even lose sight of any standard of right and wrong. You might picture it this way: The Christian life is like holding a map with a clear path to your destination. You know where you are heading and where you belong. But as you go on your way, you get sidetracked. You hear the sounds of people having a good time to the right and to the left. You see bright lights beckoning you in a different direction. Maybe you can still reach your destination by taking a little detour. You turn into a dark alleyway and then another. You find the alternate path is not as clear as it seemed. Before long, you are lost. And you are vulnerable.
Your mind is capable of traveling an infinite number of paths. If you let it walk down the path of hatred, it will be satisfied with nothing less than revenge. If your mind is full of greed, there will be no room for spiritual riches. Whatever sinful thoughts you fail to keep in check, those thoughts will consume you. And inevitably, sinful thoughts unchecked lead to sinful actions, then sinful habits, and then sinful addictions. And then it becomes very difficult for the brain to think the thoughts of God.
In today’s sermon text, Jesus was approached by a ruler of the Jews named Nicodemus, whom Jesus referred to as a “teacher.” Nicodemus had an honored position among the Jews and did not want to jeopardize it. This is why he “came to Jesus by night.” He was undoubtedly a gifted man, but for all his intellectual abilities, he had a hard time understanding Jesus’ words. Jesus told him that every person born in the natural way needs to be born again. “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus asked incredulously. Nicodemus did not understand, and I do not think we would have fared any better.
What Jesus was telling this “teacher of Israel” is that human reason has its place, but that salvation is accomplished not by man’s will but by God’s will. The Holy Spirit brings about spiritual rebirth and renews the mind, so that it is filled with godly wisdom. The Holy Spirit begins with God’s law, to show each sinner how far off his thoughts are from God. Jesus summarized the first part of God’s law in this way, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Mt. 22:37).
Jesus says that keeping God’s law means loving Him, among other things, with all your mind. Your mind should serve no other God but Him. Your mind should communicate in words that are for His glory alone. Your mind should be filled with His Word and thereby attuned to His will. Loving God with all your mind means acknowledging your weaknesses and recognizing your limits. You know how often you have thought and acted in ways that were self-serving, instead of thinking about how to serve God and your neighbors. You have also questioned God and ignored His Word because you thought you knew what was better for you than He did.
Many people follow only the parts of the Bible that agree with their own thinking. But the Christian who has heard God’s law knows it is the other way around. It is not the Bible that has problems, but my own reason. It is tainted by sin. It does not guide me in the way I should go. Only God can do that, and He does. God the Father sent His Son to be “born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4-5). God the Son perfectly followed His Father’s will with all His heart and with all His soul and with all His mind, and perfectly loved His neighbor as Himself. He kept the law for you, in your place, so that you would be judged holy in God’s sight. He also made satisfaction for your sins by being lifted up like the bronze serpent to save you from the poison of sin.
These blessings come to you by the work of the third Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit—a reference to baptism—, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The Holy Spirit works unseen through the Word and Sacraments to change minds and convert those who formerly pursued foolish things, including you and me. He reveals even to the most stubborn minds what they did not know they were missing. They could never have imagined “what God has prepared for those who love him” (1Cor. 2:9). Without the work of the Holy Spirit, the salvation willed by God the Father and won by God the Son could not be distributed. But it is distributed, even throughout the entire world.
How any of this can be, is a mystery to human reason. We cannot understand how God can be one and three. We do not know how the God who created, can make Himself a creature, or how the God who is Life can die. We do not comprehend how the God who was sinned against can so deeply love the sinners. We cannot imagine why God wants the likes of us to be with Him forever in glory. But even though our brains cannot comprehend these things, they are nevertheless true. They are true because God says so, and you are I are in no position to challenge Him. Paul says as much in today’s Epistle lesson, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?’ For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33-36).
The truly great minds recognize that our human knowledge and ability are nothing compared with the thoughts of God. The great minds bow in humble awe at what God planned for sinners even before the foundation of the world. The Great Minds Honor God for His never-ending grace and mercy.
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