The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 10:23-37
In Christ Jesus, who “loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2), dear fellow redeemed:
Seeing the destruction caused by recent wildfires and hurricanes in our country is heart-breaking. But in the midst of these great difficulties, it is heart-warming to hear stories of neighbors helping neighbors. There are people who spend their days assisting in clean-up efforts in their communities, even though they themselves have lost their homes and possessions. Many others have donated toward relief efforts, with contributions for relief in Texas likely to reach hundreds of millions of dollars. At times like these, reference is often made to “the natural goodness in people.” Others comment that their “faith in humanity” has been restored. In a society sharply divided by political and religious differences, these moments of charity and kindness among neighbors are worth celebrating.
But it is not the good in a person that causes them to do these things. It is God. He is behind all the assistance and charity and love. It is no stretch to say that if God did not put His moral law in every human heart, no trouble, hardship, or pain experienced by my neighbor would cause me to lift a finger to help him. But because God has given this inner law, my conscience tells me that it is not okay to ignore a neighbor in need. It is my moral obligation to help as far as I am able.
If you had to sum up God’s Commandments in one word, that word would be “love.” This is just what Scripture says. It says that “[L]ove is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). In the first three Commandments, God tells us to love Him, since He is our Creator and Savior. The last seven Commandments are about how His love should be shared with others: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 9).
But who is my neighbor? This is what a lawyer asked Jesus. It is an honest question, and yet the lawyer had ulterior motives. He asked the question, we are told, out of a desire “to justify himself.” He already thought he had fulfilled God’s requirement of love. Jesus answered him with an illustration. He described a man traveling on the road to Jericho (a journey which thankfully is not so treacherous around here). The man was attacked by robbers and left to die.
Along came a priest, one of his countrymen. Surely this “holy man” would help! But turning his eyes away from the dying man, he continued on his way. Another temple worker, a Levite, did the same thing. They acted like he wasn’t even there. Their plans were too important. They would not be delayed. No doubt someone else more qualified than they would come by soon. Perhaps they even calmed their consciences by saying that at least they would pray for this man. So it isn’t as though they did nothing….
There are many reasons we can come up with why we shouldn’t help a neighbor in need. We might tell ourselves that we are in no position to help. Others can provide much better assistance. Besides, I don’t want my neighbor to get comfortable with handouts. He should learn to work harder and help himself. And where was he when I needed help? What goes around comes around….
As logical as these reasons may seem, they are wrong. If I will not show love to my neighbor until it is most convenient, or until he has shown himself worthy of my love, then I probably won’t end up helping him at all. But God commands love for neighbor without any qualifications. Your neighbor, He says, is anyone around you, anyone whose life intersects in some way with yours. Your neighbor is the child who misbehaves and talks back to you. Your neighbor is the boss who unfairly criticizes you. Your neighbor is the teacher who blames you for something your classmate did. Your neighbor is the community member who doesn’t care how his plans affect yours. Jesus tells us to love all our neighbors, even the ones who treat us badly.
But how is that even possible? How can God expect you to “love your enemies” (Mt. 5:44)? A lot depends on the perspective you have toward another. If you imagine that their primary goal in life is to make you feel miserable, and that they are constantly plotting to harm you, it is going to be difficult to have kind thoughts about them. Then your mind will be occupied with revenge, how you might return evil for evil.
But what if the disagreement between two neighbors started with a misunderstanding that could easily be cleared up? What if your neighbor thought you were attacking her before she ever attacked you? And could it be that the unkind words your neighbor directed toward you, were actually the result of other troubles going on in his life? This could help you look at your neighbor not as an enemy, but as someone who needs compassion.
Or maybe it’s true – maybe your neighbor does hate you. This was likely the situation between the man on the road from Jerusalem and the Samaritan who helped him. The Jews and the Samaritans despised each other. The Jews accused the Samaritans of being godless, and the Samaritans accused the Jews of being self-righteous. So how is it that the Samaritan decided to help the man by the side of the road? Well he certainly could not control how the dying man thought about him, but he could control how he thought about the dying man. He decided to be merciful.
This is a picture of Jesus. He found us beaten up by sin, stripped of any righteousness, dying the death we deserved. We were His enemies. We broke His law. But He didn’t wait for us to be worthy of His love. He freely gave it. He had compassion on us. He bound up our sin wounds by taking those stripes on Himself. He brought us spiritual health through His Word and Sacraments, and continues to strengthen us by those same means. He loved even the most undeserving of neighbors, which is what He calls you and me to do as well.
But loving and helping your neighbors does not mean giving them whatever they want. If they want you to join them in promoting or defending sinful behavior, it would be wrong for you to do this. Or if they ask you to give them one of your treasured possessions, or even your home, you do not have to do this. The Lord tells you to be generous and to share, but He does not command you to give away everything you have. Your neighbor is in no way entitled to your property, your possessions, your spouse or children. In fact, God commands us to help our neighbor keep these things.
What you are obligated to do for your neighbor is to help him have what he needs, more than what he wants. And the greatest need your neighbor has is Jesus. You can desire nothing better for your neighbor than that he repents of his sins and believes in Jesus alone as his Savior. This is our greatest treasure. It is our life and comfort and hope. With Jesus, you can stand to lose all of your earthly possessions, because they are only temporary. In Him, you are assured of the riches of heaven, which will never pass away.
But how can you Give Your Neighbor Jesus? There are two main ways, and neither of them works well without the other. The first way to give your neighbors Jesus is to be kind and merciful toward them. Take an interest in their lives. Listen to their problems. Lift them up when they are down. Offer a helping hand. Encourage them. Cheer for them. Call them up or stop by to let them know you are thinking about them. In these ways, you will gain your neighbor’s trust and respect, and you will probably find a friend to help you in your difficulties. When you show love in these ways, you are really sharing God’s love. He is the one working through you. John writes that “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1Jn. 4:12).
But if your concern for your neighbor goes no further than assisting with physical and emotional needs, you have failed to give the thing that is most needed. Above all else, your neighbor needs to hear the Gospel. This is the second major way to give your neighbor Jesus. Your neighbor needs to know that a loving God watches over her and that He has sent His only Son to redeem her, so that she may live eternally in heaven. All people are dying just like the man by the side of the road. All of them need the salvation and healing that come only through Jesus.
And just as love for your neighbor falls short if you do not take the opportunity to share the Gospel, it also fails if the Gospel message is not accompanied by kind and loving actions. For example, you may have had the experience of a complete stranger approaching you in a store or the mall to ask if you know Jesus as your personal Savior. It is as though the message-bringer is just trying to fulfill a quota. He doesn’t spend the time to get to know you or find out how he can assist you. He just throws the Gospel in your face and hopes it sticks. That approach is rarely if ever effective in bringing about conversion. It turns people off to Christianity.
But when your neighbor has come to know your dedication and care for him, and sees the sacrifices you have made to serve him, he will be much more likely to listen when you share the message of Jesus. This is the outcome Jesus speaks about when He says, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).
This light of love does not always shine brightly in your life. You remember many times that you ignored a neighbor in need. But Jesus does not pass you by, bruised and battered by a guilty conscience. He forgives you for the times that sin and selfishness overcame you. He gives you, His neighbor, exactly what you need, which is His perfect love and His perfect righteousness. With these things as your possession and your motivation, your neighbor will not fail to receive through you good things from God.
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.
+ + +
The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Mark 7:31-37
In Christ Jesus, who has correctly diagnosed our problem and has provided complete and lasting healing, dear fellow redeemed:
Just about every medical doctor who has been in the business for awhile could share a story of a recovery that was nothing short of miraculous. Their expectation for the patient was a far different outcome, and they cannot explain how healing happened. Knowing what we do about the power and mercy of God, these things should not surprise us. Whether through the expert care of physicians, or through a direct miracle, the Lord brings healing to sick and injured bodies all the time.
But His primary concern and work is not to keep everyone physically healthy. His focus is especially on our spiritual health. This may be why He allows us to feel pain and get sick. Our physical problems remind us of our inherent weakness and our need for His mercy. These things drive us to God in prayer, asking that He would grant us healing according to His will. This is what the friends of the deaf and mute man did, and they were able to deliver their petition to the Lord in person. They had heard what Jesus could do, and “they begged Him to lay His hand on him.” Would He help? With a touch and a word, Jesus changed everything for that man in an instant.
Most of us cannot imagine what life would be like if we could neither hear nor speak. We have been able to rely upon and use these senses since an early age. But what we have enjoyed physically, we have not always enjoyed spiritually. Our natural spiritual condition is like being put in a strange and scary place with our five senses nullified. In this condition we were totally vulnerable to forces that would harm us. The Bible tells us that we “walked in darkness” (Is. 9:2). Not only that, but Jesus says we “loved the darkness” (Jn. 3:19). The apostle Paul spelled out our trouble clearly when he said that “at one time you were darkness” (Eph. 5:8). So we walked in darkness, we loved it, and we were totally consumed by it.
This darkness refers to the power of sin in our lives. Even after we are converted by the Gospel and rescued from the end result of sin, the darkness of sin and Satan still hunts us and haunts us. The worst thing we can do is to downplay how vulnerable we are to sin and the devil, who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1Pe. 5:8).
This downplaying of our vulnerability is often what happens when we self-diagnose our spiritual condition. We might feel the pain of a guilty conscience, and then decide that the best remedy is to point out people who have done way worse things than we have. Or we might do or say something that is wrong, and figure that the proper medicine is to make up for it by doing something nice for someone. We hope these things somehow make the memory of the bad magically disappear.
But when you go to the doctor, do you want him to tell you what you want to hear, or what you need to hear? No matter how much it is going to hurt, you want the truth, because then you can start taking the medicine and getting the treatment you need. Why would you want something different when it comes to assessing the state of your soul? Jesus your Physician knows just how sick you are by nature. He is brutally honest about your problem. You have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). This sin cannot be made to disappear by any sort of power from men, but only by the power of God.
Of course, some people do not listen to the clear diagnosis of their doctors. They are in denial about their problem and think it will just go away over time. Then it will be nobody’s fault but their own when they become deathly ill. Jesus is very clear and very correct in His diagnosis of your sin. If you deny this, it will not make the sin go away; rather, the infection of sin in you will get worse and worse until the day you die. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Lk. 5:31). “Those who are well” are the ones who think they are spiritually healthy on their own, so what do they need Jesus for? “[T]hose who are sick” are the ones who recognize their spiritual condition and ask God for mercy.
Jesus would not be much of a Physician if He just diagnosed our problem of sin, and then left us to fret over it until it consumed us. He gives us a correct diagnosis, and He also provides complete and lasting healing through the powerful finger of His Word, just as He healed the physical problems of the deaf and mute man.
When we hear about how Jesus stuck His fingers in the man’s ears and then spit presumably on His fingers and touched the man’s tongue, this sounds a bit like something a magician would do to distract his audience while he performed a trick. This is in reality how unbelievers view the miracles of Jesus. They think that either the miraculous accounts of the Bible are made up, or that Jesus was creating the illusion that He healed people, while the “miracles” were actually rigged. Or that Jesus was practicing some sort of ancient magic that we cannot understand.
But Jesus is a spiritual physician, not a magician. And the source of His power is no mystery; He is the all-powerful Son of God. When God became Man, His human flesh became the instrument of salvation, the instrument for divine activity on earth. So when Jesus put His fingers into the man’s ears and on His tongue, that was the touch of God’s fingers. And when He spoke, it was the voice of God that said, “Ephphatha,” “Be opened.”
But why did Jesus touch and speak? Why not just speak? There are certainly examples of Jesus healing without touch, like when He made the centurion’s servant well from some distance away (Mt. 8:13). But there are many examples of Jesus combining a touch with His Word. Sometimes Jesus healed with a touch only (Mt. 9:29). It even happened that some were healed when they reached out and touched Him, “for power came out from him” (Lk. 6:19). This power even traveled through the fringe of His garment to heal (Mk. 6:56; Mt. 9:21).
It is little wonder, then, that when sin, death, and the devil reached out to harm and destroy Jesus, they got more than they bargained for. But Jesus looked so weak! He couldn’t even carry His own cross. He did nothing when the people ridiculed Him. He just hung there, dying. He was like a helpless worm cast in the water ready to be swallowed up. But as the ancient church fathers said, the worm that could be seen—the human flesh of Jesus—, hid the sharp hook of His divine nature. When sin, devil, and death took the bait, they were caught and could not escape! Jesus ruined their terrible reign, and emerged from the grave victorious.
But how can the healing touch of Jesus reach you today? How can you receive the antidote for sin, which is His holy life and atoning blood? In an encounter with the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus was accused by them of casting out demons by Beelzebul, or Satan. Jesus replied that He casts out demons “by the finger of God” (Lk. 11:20), which was a reference to the powerful work of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:28). This “finger” is how Jesus continues His healing work today. Jesus puts His forgiveness in your ears and heart when the Holy Spirit brings these blessings through God’s Word and Sacraments.
There is a physical aspect to this work, just like Jesus touching the man’s ears and tongue. The Lord calls sinful men to be His hands and voice on earth. When the pastor applies water to the head of the baptized, this is really God’s hand at work. When the pastor absolves the penitent, it is God’s hand on their heads. When the pastor places bread on the tongue and pours wine down the throat, this is Jesus giving His body and blood for forgiveness. Jesus delivers unseen gifts through things that we can see. He would not have to do this, just as He did not have to touch those He healed. But it is comforting that He does it in this way. The visible sign confirms the spiritual promise.
Most people view these things as superstition or trickery. How could mere words impart actual forgiveness? How could the water of Baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion become something so powerful with only a few simple words? Jesus said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26). By the power of His Word, Jesus does give these blessings. Through the means of grace, He applies His healing touch to our sin-sick souls.
Even one little finger of God is powerful enough to accomplish whatever He pleases. All the darkness that Satan can muster cannot stand up to Him, because God’s power is limitless and never-failing. This power is at work in your life through the Word and Sacraments. The Healing Touch of the Divine Physician costs you nothing, but it does everything for you. His touch delivers your eternal salvation.
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.
+ + +
The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 18:9-14
In Christ Jesus, who opposes the proud and promotes the humble, dear fellow redeemed:
It’s the first day of school. You are excited, but mostly nervous. You are especially nervous about science class. Science just isn’t your subject. You get your books together and find your seat in the back of the classroom. But something is missing: the teacher isn’t there! Minutes pass as the chatter among the students gets louder and louder. Then the principal walks into the room. “Sorry for the delay,” he says, “your teacher was not able to make it. We have decided to elect one of you to lead the class today.” And then he looks right at you! How would you feel about that? Probably only the class clown would be excited about that opportunity, and not much teaching or learning would take place.
As a student, your job is not to teach, but to learn. Your teacher might call on you to answer a question and share with the class what you know. But nothing annoys classmates (and a teacher) as much as the student who acts like she knows everything. Not only does she raise her hand to answer every question, but she also takes it upon herself to correct the teacher! Her know-it-all behavior exposes how much she does not understand. The proverb comes to mind: “Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt!”
But we so often see this arrogant behavior in our culture. When the latest popular social movement sweeps across the country, the unbelieving world takes it upon itself to lecture those who follow God’s Word, the Bible. The world expects the church to march along with it in lock-step. It is shocked when this does not happen. “You think marriage is only between a man and a woman!?!” “You think a person’s gender is defined by their body parts!?!” Then comes the lecture. There is no respect for ancient writings that speak clearly about moral issues and have been read and confessed for thousands of years. There is no respect for conscience or a difference of opinion. They say, “If you do not agree with us, then you are full of hatred, and you shouldn’t have the right to speak!”
What does it say about the state of learning in our country, when there is a refusal even to engage someone in a discussion who has a different viewpoint? Christians are often warned that if they do not change their beliefs, they will find themselves “on the wrong side of history.” But who is the infallible authority in this world that is able to say what the “right side” is? There is no unchanging standard in the world. History shows that what is considered right and good in one era is condemned as evil in another. But God has provided an unchanging standard of righteousness. He has given the moral law. It is a law to govern not just believers, but all people. That is why He has printed His law on every human heart. He wants every individual and state and country to abide by this law.
But just like it was with Satan, and then with Adam and Eve, and all their descendants, we think we can teach and do righteousness better than God can. The Pharisees are prime examples of this. Jesus referred to one who stood up in the temple to pray. He said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” He wanted it known that he even went above and beyond what God commanded. What a good person! What an upstanding citizen! But God was not impressed. What He saw in the Pharisee’s heart was only self-righteousness and pride – not faith (1Sam. 16:7).
And the Pharisee’s prayer was not really a prayer at all. It was a message to God that He better take notice. A holy man had entered the building! Get the heavenly reward ready! But the Lord listens to no sinner who would presume to teach Him. What does God have to learn from sinners? It is not just unbelievers who think this way. Christians do too. We might read something in the Bible that is just too sharp for our tastes. We wish God would tone that teaching down a bit, since it simply doesn’t fit our time. Or maybe something goes badly in our lives and instead of trusting God’s merciful plan for us, we blame Him and criticize His inaction. We think that if God did what we wanted, our lives—and the world—would be a better place.
Suppose that happened. Suppose the Lord stepped aside for a day and gave you all of His power AND all of His responsibility. Now you’re in charge. What would you do first? Before you could even think, you would have a million prayers hitting your ear at the same time. You would have the concern of keeping the planets and stars in their orbits. You would feel the pressure of providing for countless humans and animals through plants and crops that require just the right amount of sun and rain. You would have the angels to command, who would constantly be looking to you for orders. Do you think you could manage? And yet you and I are going to tell God where He has failed and what He should be doing differently!?
We have nothing to teach God, and we have everything to learn from Him. The proper attitude to have toward God is exemplified by a tax collector, of all people. The tax collectors in Jesus’ day were viewed as sell-outs. They contracted with the oppressive Romans to level taxes against the Jews. Besides that, they had the reputation of charging more than required. They were not on anyone’s list of righteous people. But that does not mean they were beyond the Lord’s saving grace. Remember that the apostle Matthew was once a tax collector, whom Jesus called away from his station (Mt. 9:9). And Jesus also visited and ate with many tax collectors and other undesirable characters, saying that “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (v. 13).
The patient, tender call of the Lord reached the tax collector in Jesus’ parable. He made his way to the temple and stood in a corner praying. He felt like any of us would who had fallen into sin and neglected the means of grace. Even though the divine service where God dispenses His gifts of forgiveness and healing is exactly what we need, the church doors can feel like the hardest thing to walk through. We anticipate judgment instead of love. We picture the people there looking down on us. But even if those things happened (and I don’t expect they would), it still would not change what God wants to do for you through His Word and Sacraments. He wants you to repent of your sins and hear the Gospel message of full and free forgiveness.
This is why the tax collector came to the temple. He came because he wanted to be right with God. He knew his wicked deeds and his wicked heart. The Pharisee was right—he was no righteous man. But the tax collector was sorry for his sins. He bowed his head, beat his breast, and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” His money could not buy forgiveness. Good behavior could not ease his guilty conscience. Only God could help him. Only God could save him. And that is just what the Lord did. Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified.”
He went home “justified,” or counted as righteous before God. But why? Our gracious Lord does not turn away the penitent. In fact, He is the One who works that repentance. He is the One who drives the heart to despair of its own righteousness, and to trust in Him alone for salvation. That is what He must do to turn arrogant teachers, which we are by nature, into His humble students.
Once He has us in the right place, sitting at His feet and listening to what He says, then He continuously imparts to us a knowledge, an understanding, a wisdom that we could never obtain even if we sat before the great teachers of the world for 1000 years. Paul writes, “‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1Cor. 2:9-10). The Holy Spirit reveals to us that in His love, God the Father sent His only Son to humble Himself and shoulder our sin, so that we might be covered in His righteousness and exalted.
Even though you, like the Pharisee, have often looked down on others in your pride and thought that you were someone impressive, your Father forgives your sins. He counts you among the justified through faith in His Son. It is Jesus who lived the humble life of obedience that God’s law requires. He deserved nothing but glory, but in all humility, He set it aside out of love for you. He said to His disciples, “I am among you as the one who serves” (Lk. 22:27). Even on the cross, His prayer was, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (23:34).
The Lord forgives you just as He did the tax collector. But your training is not complete. You have more learning to do. Humble students must continuously acknowledge their weaknesses and inabilities. As the apostle Peter wrote, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1Pe. 5:5-6).
The unbelieving world, the devil, and your own flesh are going to attack you and your God-given beliefs. They are going to point their finger at you like the self-righteous Pharisee and consign you to the company of the wicked. But the Lord is merciful. He gives grace to the humble. He will not ignore the one who cries to Him for help. He sends you on your way justified. And He promises at the proper time to exalt you and give you a share in 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.
+ + +
The Tenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 19:41-48
In Christ Jesus, who saves us from destruction and from despair, dear fellow redeemed:
Jesus had been teaching and preaching for the better part of three years. He had gained many disciples, but also many enemies. While He was walking in the temple, the Jewish leaders surrounded Him and said, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (Jn. 10:24). Jesus replied, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (vv. 27-28). At this, they picked up stones to kill Him, but He escaped from them and traveled with His disciples to the other side of the Jordan River. Jerusalem with its heightened tensions did not seem a safe place for Jesus to be.
But then He received word that his friend Lazarus from the town of Bethany was sick. The problem was that Bethany was only about two miles away from Jerusalem. His disciples cautioned Him; they knew what His enemies would try to do to Him if He went there. Would He go? Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him” (11:11). Jesus was referring to Lazarus’ death and His plan to raise him to life again. When He arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days. His sisters Martha and Mary were overcome with sorrow. They told Jesus what must have been running over and over again through their minds, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (vv. 21,32).
When Jesus saw the grief of Mary and the whole crowd, “he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’” (vv. 33-34). Then Jesus did something unexpected: He wept. He cried right out in the open, in view of everyone there. Why did Jesus do this? He is God! Why would One who controls the wind and the waves, who kills and makes alive (Deut. 32:39), who knew what He was about to do—why would this One cry? Because a moment later, He commanded Lazarus to come forth from the tomb. And Lazarus did. So why the tears when life and joy were in view?
Have you ever felt like the weight of the world was on your shoulders? That is just an expression. But Jesus actually did feel the weight of the world on Him. Isaiah tells us that He bore every grief and carried every sorrow (Is. 53:4). All the troubles and sins of the world rested on Him. And you can only imagine that the weight became heavier and heavier the closer He came to His hour, to the time that He would suffer hell and death for everyone.
That time was fast approaching when Jesus arrived in Bethany. He saw what pain and distress Death—that great enemy of mankind—had caused. And He tasted there the bitterness of His own impending death. He knew what it would do to another Mary, His mother, and how terribly His brothers the disciples would be shaken. “He was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” He wept. And that wasn’t the last time.
Jesus left Bethany without incident, though the Sanhedrin was actively plotting His death. Now, He no longer walked openly among the people, but went to stay north of Jerusalem near the wilderness (11:54). When the time of the Passover came that spring, the people in Jerusalem wondered if Jesus would come. Many hoped He would, so they could interact with and listen to the One who could even bring back the dead. Others probably hoped He would stay away, because they knew what their leaders wanted to do to Him.
Jesus did come. He first stopped in Bethany, where He shared a meal with His friends. When word about this got to Jerusalem, many came to see both Him and Lazarus (12:9). This was on a Saturday, with the Passover just six days away. The next day, Jesus prepared to go to Jerusalem. By now, everyone knew about His arrival. Great crowds went to meet Him with palm branches in hand, and singing “Hosanna to the Son of David!” On a carpet of cloaks and branches, Jesus rode forward.
As He looked up at the great city that sat proudly upon Mount Zion, we imagine what thoughts must have filled His mind. This was the city of David, the city of God’s holy presence in the temple. This was the city of many faithful patriarchs and prophets. But this city that He loved was about to turn against Him in the worst way. This is where He would die, right outside these walls. This is where all the forces of evil would converge upon Him, and He would endure the agonizing separation from His own heavenly Father. And just as He had not long before at the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus again wept. “He wept over [the city], saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’”
He wept because He could see the future. He knew what was in store for Jerusalem. He described it just as though He was sitting there watching forty years later. He said, “[Y]our enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you.” This is what happened in the year 70. The Jews had rebelled against the oppressive rule of Roman governors. They had in their minds the glory days of the Maccabees, when Israel had won its independence. The LORD God would fight for them again! He would have mercy on His people!
But they didn’t see. They didn’t comprehend what they had done. The temple curtain had torn for a reason when Jesus died. The temple sacrifices should have ceased, since the Lamb of God had been slain for sin, once for all. Peter told the crowd on Pentecost, “[Y]ou crucified and killed” Jesus the Messiah (Ac. 2:23). Many listened. By the power of the Holy Spirit, they believed and were baptized. But others rejected the Gospel. Led by men like the murderous Saul, they attacked the Christians, driving many of them out of Jerusalem. Those who remained evacuated the city when they saw trouble brewing with the Romans. By this time, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke had been written and circulated. The Christians knew what Jesus had said. They knew that destruction was coming upon Jerusalem. When the Romans laid siege to the city, the Christians had all safely relocated. The Lord had preserved them.
But the people within the city were not preserved. They ran out of food and water. They resorted to eating the leather of their sandals and worse. The dead multiplied. The siege lasted for months until the Romans finally breeched the walls. With swift violence, they cut down soldier and citizen alike. They set fire to homes, to the palace, and to the grand, beautiful temple. Everything burned. So many died. This destruction happened in August of the year 70, which is why this Gospel reading is appointed to be read in August.
Why did this happen to the people of Jerusalem? Through tears, Jesus said that this was “because you did not know the time of your visitation.” What was “the time of [their] visitation”? It was His visitation. It was the long-promised coming of the Messiah to save them. He wept because He loved them. He loved them to death—all the way to His death. Would that they had known “the things that make for peace”!
Do you know these things? Yes, you do. But it is easy to forget them. It is easy to get lazy in your faith, so that your confession comes from habit and not from the heart. It is easy to take God’s Word for granted and not regularly apply it to your life. It is easy to fall into sin like into a nice, warm bed, and get comfortable in it. It is easy to put off repentance, because “there will be plenty of time for that later.” But God does not say “later,” He does not say “tomorrow.” He says, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2Cor. 6:2). Now is the time to repent. Now is when the Holy Spirit brings absolution and salvation to the humble and contrite.
The Lord does not have to weep over you because He has saved you. He suffered your hell for you. He died your death for you. Think of Him on the cross, nailed there for you. See How Jesus Loves You! Will you reject His love? No! Without Jesus, there is no hope, there is no salvation. Without Jesus, there is only pain and destruction.
But with Jesus, there is comfort through every trial and every terror of life. When Jesus stood there weeping after the death of Lazarus, the Jews remarked, “See how he loved him!” (Jn. 11:36). Then He did something to show His love. He broke the grip of death with a word, and Lazarus arose. Jesus knows the terrible pain of death. He felt it Himself. But He conquered it, and He promises to awaken you and your loved ones with a word, just as He did Lazarus.
And when you weep for those who have rejected the faith like the inhabitants of Jerusalem—whether it be your children or your parents, your relatives or friends—remember how Jesus wept for sinners. He is not uncaring. He has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ez. 33:11). He “desires all people to be saved” (1Tim. 2:4). The Lord hears your prayers. He does not forget His children, especially those who have already been brought to Him through Holy Baptism.
It is okay to weep for those who have fallen away, and for those who are now at rest. But weep with faith in your Savior and His promises. Take refuge in Him. Commit your cares to Him. Jesus will not forsake you. He redeemed you. He intercedes for you and all your loved ones at the right hand of God. He continues to fight the good fight for your souls. See How He Loves You! With a love that will never change.
+ + +
The Ninth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 16:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who redeemed us not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, dear fellow redeemed:
One of the chapters of Greek mythology contains the story of King Midas. He was a very wealthy king, wealthier than any other. But he was not satisfied with his great riches. He wanted more. One day, a visitor promised to give him whatever he wished. So the king said, “I wish that everything I touch turns into gold!” The next morning, he woke up and touched his blankets. They turned to gold. He ran through the house, and everything he touched turned into pure gold. What good fortune!
All that running around made him hungry and thirsty, so he ordered food and drink to be brought to him. But as soon as he touched those things, they also turned to gold. King Midas began to realize that his gift was not everything he thought. Instead of excitement, he was now afraid and sad. When his daughter heard him weeping, she came to console him. But when they embraced, even she turned into gold. What a terrible mistake he had made!
The king was certain that gold would make him happy. Now he was willing to give all the gold in the world if it could bring back his daughter and allow him to eat and drink again. After all, what good is gold to someone who is alone? And what can gold do for someone who is about to die? King Midas learned a hard lesson about valuables. He had taken for granted what was really most valuable to him, and he found that the thing he most coveted was ultimately worthless.
What Do You Value Most? I think this list of valuables applies to many here and in this order: 1) Faith, 2) Family, 3) Friends, 4) Fortune, and 5) Fame. You know that faith in Jesus saves, and without Jesus there is no hope, so that has to be number one. No one knows you as well and supports you in this life like your family and then your friends. You may not aspire to a large fortune, but you want to be comfortable. And if you should be recognized by others for your good efforts, that would be welcome fame. Faith, family, friends, fortune, fame.
But if that list of valuables is accurate, shouldn’t this be reflected in our priorities? So if faith in Jesus is truly what we value most, won’t it be our primary focus to retain and strengthen that faith? And how is that done? Romans 10:17, “[F]aith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Jesus says that His disciples abide in His Word (Jn. 8:31), and pay attention to everything He has spoken (Mt. 28:20). This is not just a one-day-a-week thing, but an every day priority. The Word of God must take precedence over anything else we are involved in. Work should not take the place of the Word, or sports, or any other leisure activity.
Neither should “family time” take the place of hearing and learning God’s Word. Better that family time is an opportunity to hear and learn the Word together. Nothing binds a family closer together than a common faith in Christ, and nothing strains a family more than the absence of Jesus and His Word. But as much as we say that family is a priority, often we neglect family almost as much as our faith. As parents, we can get so caught up in our work and hobbies that we really are not that involved in our children’s lives. Or maybe we can find time to spend with friends, but we can’t seem to find time to be at home.
And what about the friends who need us, but we can’t find time for them either. They wear us out with their constant troubles. They seem to take from us more than they give. We decide that we need to be around people who aren’t so needy. Then we wonder where they are when we have a crisis.
At the end of our list is fortune and fame. We want to be wealthy and well-liked, so much so that these valuables often occupy our time and energy above all else. But they are the least important. Jesus lumps these things under “unrighteous wealth.” The word used in Greek is “mammon”—“the mammon of unrighteousness.” He is not saying that it is a sin to have money and possessions. But it is a sin to value them above all else, and to think that they can offer us everything we need. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “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” (1Tim. 6:9-10).
The mammon of this world is just that, “of this world.” It cannot go with us into eternity. It must stay here. It would have no value in heaven or in hell anyway. But mammon is all that this world knows. As the saying goes, “Money makes the world go round.” This is the attitude we see in the manager in Jesus’ parable. First of all, he was mishandling his master’s possessions. We do not know exactly how. Was he failing to do what his master hired him for? Was he skimming a bit off the top? Was he simply lazy? It is not as though the man was incapable. When he was about to become unemployed, he sprang into action. He summoned those who had debts and reduced what they owed. He did this not because he felt any special concern for them. His concern was for himself and his own well-being. This is what motivated him. He did not want to have to dig or beg, so instead he weaseled his way into the good graces of others.
When his master found out, what did he have to say? He was probably happy to get rid of this worthless worker, but he also commended him—praised him—for his shrewdness. This dishonest manager had figured out how to avoid a future that was not to his liking. His actions were not ethical; they were not right. But that is not the point of Jesus’ parable. His point is that “the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” So this parable is not really about the wicked practices of “the sons of this world,” of unbelievers. It is about how “the sons of light,” how believers in Christ, should operate.
What we can learn from unbelievers is shrewdness. Think how far they are willing to go to gain and build up and protect their riches. They have an insatiable drive for the things they value most, even though they know that these things will not last. If they have such a focus and drive on getting what they will eventually lose, isn’t it true that we should have an even sharper focus on what will last forever? But we are reluctant to go there. Because we like what this world has to offer. Our flesh is weak, even though our spirit is willing (Mt. 26:41).
God knows it. This is why He sent His Son to take on flesh. Your flesh was far too weak to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:30,31). But Jesus ignored every worldly temptation. He was not distracted by temporal riches; His focus was on winning eternal riches for you. “[F]or the joy that was set before him—the joy of saving sinners—[he] endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). Your debt of misplaced priorities and of greed was greater than you could ever pay. But Jesus says to you, “Take your bill and write ‘redeemed.’” “Take your bill and write ‘forgiven.’”
You owe nothing to God because of your sin. The debt is paid in Christ. But He does expect you to use the gifts He has given to you shrewdly and wisely. As far as earthly goods go, He has given some more and some less. He intends that you use what you have for food, clothing, and home. But you know that life is “more than food,” and the body is “more than clothing” (Mt. 6:25). Those things eventually pass away. But the Gospel is eternal. Salvation through Christ is eternal. There is nothing more valuable than these gifts from God.
If you could with your earthly means purchase someone’s salvation, you would do it, wouldn’t you? Of course you cannot do this. But you can set aside a portion of what God has given you to promote the preaching of the Word. You can assist the poor and needy and share with them the hope you have in Christ. You can support mission work in our country and around the world. You can purchase Bibles or other good devotional materials for use in your own home or to share with friends. In these ways, through such sacrifices of love, you will be doing what Jesus says in today’s text, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”
God has given you the responsibility of managing countless blessings for your own good and for the good of others. He knows well where you have been wasteful and squandered His wealth, and where you have been selfish and greedy. But that does not stop Him from continuing to give and give more. He loves you. The job is still yours. Your management will not be taken away from you. Worldly riches can only satisfy for awhile as King Midas learned, but the treasures of God endure into eternity.
+ + +
The Eighth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 7:15-23
In Christ Jesus, whose name is above every name (Phil. 2:9), dear fellow redeemed:
The Bible uses many titles to refer to God: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Holy One, the Christ, the Savior, and so on. The personal name which God gave for Himself is “I AM,” or “Yahweh” in Hebrew. This is often printed as “LORD” in all capital letters in our Bibles. A name was also given to the Son of God after He was born of the Virgin Mary, the name “Jesus.”
The names and titles for God carry with them the weight of God Himself. This is why His name is not to be used lightly. After the First Commandment, which protects His glory, the LORD issued the Second, which protects His name: “You shall not take the name of the LORD [Yahweh], your God, in vain” (Ex. 20:7). There is a natural progression to the Commandments. If we do not “fear, love, and trust” in the one true God only, we will not respect His name, and then we will not listen to what He has to say, which is addressed in the Third Commandment.
Most people recognize that God’s name has significance, but that does not mean they use it with respect. “O my God,” “Good Lord,” and “Jesus Christ,” are appropriate ways to address God in prayer and thanksgiving. But they are totally inappropriate as expressions of surprise or disgust or frustration. Martin Luther explains that the Second Commandment means we should not curse by the Lord’s name, swear by His name, practice witchcraft by His name, lie by His name, or deceive by His name.
In today’s text from His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks about false teachers who lie and deceive by His name. He is referring to those who use His name like they would a good luck charm. They think that whatever they do “in the name of Jesus” is blessed, even if they are doing something contrary to love for God and neighbor. Others invoke the name of God as one might do in a seance to try to make something supernatural happen. They really don’t care where the power comes from as long as they get results. The evangelist Luke describes people like these, “the itinerant Jewish exorcists,” who “undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits” (Ac. 19:13). But the evil spirit replied, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” (v. 15). Then he attacked and overpowered all seven who had come to him.
But the primary misuse of God’s name is often more subtle than this. The devil did not come to Eve and say, “Go take a bite of that fruit over there.” He began with, “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1). That’s how it is today. False prophets go everywhere around the world and try to get God’s people to doubt His promises. “Did God really say?” they ask. We see this in the way that basic moral principles are reversed. What used to be recognized as sin is now praised as good. What used to lead to a preacher’s dismissal from a call is now met with a shrug of the shoulders or even with acceptance. The wolf is in the midst of the sheep, and the sheep are unconcerned! This is how the use of God’s name becomes hollow. His glory and honor are robbed for the sake of communion and peace in the world.
The Apostle John warns about this, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world…. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us” (1Jn. 4:1,5-6). What is the standard John refers to here for determining truth from error? The standard is apostolic doctrine inspired by the Holy Spirit—the standard is God’s holy Word. As soon as you hear a preacher call the Word of God into question, you know you are dealing with a false teacher.
Guarding and defending the Word of God is one of the ways that we hallow God’s name. We learned from the Catechism that “God’s name is hallowed when His Word is taught in its truth and purity.” We sing about this in the hymn verse: “God’s Word is our great heritage, / And shall be ours forever; / To spread its light from age to age / Shall be our chief endeavor. / Through life it guides our way; / In death it is our stay. / Lord, grant while worlds endure, / We keep its teachings pure, / Throughout all generations” (ELH #583). If we compromise God’s Word or lose sight of its central teaching, we have lost everything.
But we would never do that, would we? Ask yourself if you think our differences with other Christian church bodies are really that big of a deal. Are you committed to this church because of its teaching and not just family tradition? Do you “put up” with certain teachings of our church, but think they really ought to be changed? Do you, for example, question what we say about the roles of men and women, our position on moral issues, or on how we practice fellowship, including who may be admitted to the Lord’s Supper?
When we change our mind in these areas, it is usually to accommodate our sinful weaknesses or to avoid conflict with others. Taking a firm stand on the Word of God is uncomfortable. It forces us to face our weaknesses and acknowledge our sinful behavior. It also puts us at odds with the world. Many self-proclaimed Christians are willing to do this. They are willing to step away from the Word. As the Apostle Paul prophesied, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2Tim. 4:3-4).
But you are here. You have not wandered off. If you have wandered before, God has lovingly brought you back to hear His Word. He wants you to call on His name in repentance. He wants you to admit where you have set His Word aside. He wants you to commit yourself again to hearing and learning it and to living your life by it. Above all else, He wants you to know that all your sins of stubbornness and of weakness are absolved. Jesus paid for them. They are not counted against you any longer. Like a diseased tree, He was “thrown into the fire” for your offenses, and He was raised again for your justification (Rom. 4:25). This is true because the Bible tells us so, and the Bible is God’s Word, and God’s Word is truth.
We hallow God’s name by making sure “His Word is taught in its truth and purity,” and also “when we as children of God live holy lives according to it.” The false prophet will not live according to God’s Word. As Jesus said, “the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” That is how false prophets are recognized, “by their fruits.” “Their fruits” refers not only to how they act, because a false prophet may live an outwardly good life. “Their fruits” are also evident in what they teach. Jesus explained, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.” No one can honor God’s name by teaching contrary to His Word. On the last day, these will say to Jesus, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and cast out demons in Your name, and do many mighty works in Your name?” But the Lord will reply, “I never knew you.”
In the end, all who have failed to hallow God’s name will be judged for their transgressions. God cannot be tricked by empty words and actions. He will never mistake a bad tree for a good one. Unlike you and me, the LORD knows the heart (1Sam. 16:7). But your heart is not pure. It does not consistently and rightly hallow God’s name. Neither does mine. How do you know that God considers you a good tree, and that you will not be “cut down and thrown into the fire” on the last day?
You are a good tree in God’s sight because you know and humbly admit that you are a bad tree by nature. Your salvation does not come by the things you accomplish, like those false prophets who cite the “many mighty works” they did supposedly in the Lord’s name. Your salvation comes by the mighty works of Jesus. Jesus says that the one “will enter the kingdom of heaven… who does the will of [His] Father.” Jesus did this perfectly in your place. He obeyed His Father, whose will was that His Son should suffer and die to save sinners. God’s will for you is to hear His Word and believe it. He wants you to look upon His Son in faith and believe what Jesus did on your behalf (Jn. 6:40).
In this humble faith, you hallow the name of God. His name is certainly holy in itself, but you want it to be hallowed where you live, where you work, where you go to church. You hallow God’s name by gladly hearing and learning His Word and by living your life according to it. In these ways, God produces good fruit in you to give others a taste of His kindness and grace. It is our prayer that as the Lord’s name is hallowed among us, those around us who do not believe will also be brought to faith. And in this way, we will together avoid the punishment of fire that we all deserve, and we will be freed from this world of lawlessness to enter the kingdom of heaven.
+ + +
The Seventh Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Natvig Reunion at Saude
Text: Jeremiah 31:23-25
In Christ Jesus, who has gone to prepare a place for us, so that we may be with Him forever, dear fellow redeemed:
What is the place that you think of as your home? Is it where you currently live? Is it where you grew up? Those of you who have lived in the same place for decades might have an easier time answering this question. Others of you who have moved around a bit might identify “home” less with a location and more with family members or your belongings. For some of you, home might be this part of northeast Iowa where your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents lived, even though you never lived here yourself.
Abram grew up in the city of Ur in the southeastern part of modern-day Iraq and moved with his father to the city of Haran in the northern part of modern-day Syria. But neither of those places was to be his home. The LORD told him to leave his country and his father’s house and go to the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:1). This was the land where his offspring would live. But Abram was a nomad, wandering from place to place with his herds and flocks. His son Isaac lived the same life, as did his sons Jacob and Esau. When Jacob’s son Joseph was made the second-in-command in Egypt, Jacob and all his children and grandchildren moved there.
In Egypt, the family multiplied to such an extent that a Pharaoh ruling long after Joseph’s death enslaved these “Israelites.” Now, God’s promise to give the land of Canaan to Abram’s descendants seemed like nothing but an empty dream. Pharaoh would never let them go. But the LORD called Moses to lead them out of Egypt, and they were delivered from slavery. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the LORD brought them to the land He had promised, the land of Canaan.
What a gift the LORD had given them! No more wandering. No more longing for a place to call their own. They were finally home! But it wasn’t long before they forgot the One who brought them out of slavery and gave them this land. They began to think that their success was due to their own strength. They thought that they could blend the religious practices of the people around them into their own culture without losing sight of who they were. It wasn’t long before their hearts were given over to the false gods of the Gentile nations. Even when they performed the ceremonial rites that God commanded, they were only going through the motions.
God sent the Assyrians against the northern kingdom of Israel, and in 722 B. C. the Israelites were either killed or exiled, never to be heard from again. The southern kingdom of Judah survived awhile longer, until its people were also exiled in the year 586. God had given them a good home, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Jer. 32:22), but they had forgotten Him. They praised themselves for their prosperity, and trusted in their own efforts and abilities. The LORD said through the prophet Jeremiah, “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely…. Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it”’” (6:13,16).
However the LORD did not forget His people. He brought them back from their captivity in Babylon. He returned them to the home promised to their forefathers so long before. He did exactly what He said He would do in today’s text, “And Judah and all its cities shall dwell [in the land] together, and the farmers and those who wander with their flocks. For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.”
For many of you, your forefathers set out from the lands of Europe many years ago. The people who formed the congregations of Jerico and Saude were Norwegian immigrants. They left Norway because the population there was expanding, and they heard about land for the taking in America. Men, women, and children left their families and the only home they had ever known, and got aboard overcrowded ships to make the long journey to a new country. These families could bring along only the most essential items. Among these items could almost always be found a Bible, a Catechism, and a Lutheran hymnbook.
They arrived with hardly anything to their name but trusted that their gracious LORD would provide for them. And He did. Like the Israelites of old, He led them to their own land. And He gave them the strength and the will to cultivate the land and make a home for themselves. It was hard work, but the LORD blessed it. These humble settlers gave credit where credit was due. They confessed along with their first pastor, the Rev. U. V. Koren, the words we just sang, “Not we, but the Lord is our Maker, our God: / Glory be to God! / His people we are, and the sheep led by His rod; / Sing praise unto God out of Zion!” (ELH #56, v. 2).
But the land could not provide everything that these industrious settlers needed. It gave them the materials required for barns and shelters. It produced food for themselves and their livestock. It satisfied their physical needs well enough. But the land could not provide for their spiritual needs. Only the Word of God can do that.
Before I came to serve this parish, I was a pastor in the western part of Washington in the city of Tacoma, south of Seattle. The religious culture in the Pacific Northwest is not what it is here. Many do not go to church or have any interest in organized religion. When they have free time (typically on the weekends), people like to go hiking in the mountains or spend time on the coast. They imagine that nature is their connection to the divine, if there is a god at all.
This mentality is not as obvious in the Midwest, but we are not far behind. Our culture likes to present religious teaching something like the menu at a restaurant. “Oh, I’ll take this, but could you bring it without this and this? I just can’t stand that. I don’t know how anyone could swallow that.” It used to be for our grandparents and great-grandparents that whatever the Bible said was the truth. Now we hear talk about how Jesus’ apostles were chauvinistic or homophobic. Jesus Himself is recast as a good teacher whose core message is that we should love and accept everyone just the way they are.
But is that why the Son of God became Man? Was it His mission to deliver the message that everyone is perfect just the way they are? Our ancestors knew better, and I hope we do too. Jesus described His mission in this way, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10). Who are the lost? He was not referring to the Israelites exiled by the Assyrians, or to the Judeans taken by the Babylonians. He is talking about you and me and all sinners. We are those who are lost in our sins by nature. We have wandered far off the right path and cannot find our way back again. In our sin, we have no prospect of a good home or a bright future.
But some do not think they are lost. They think they have all they need in this life. “The weak and the small-minded might go for what the Bible says, but not me.” But then where is your hope? What purpose does your life have? What good will all your earthly wealth do when death comes? Our beloved ancestors buried around this church do not have bank accounts anymore. They do not own land. They wouldn’t care if they did. They left behind their temporary riches in this world for eternal riches in heaven. They left their good homes here for a far better home where the LORD dwells.
They did not get there by hard work or a noble character. They got there by grace. God the Father sent His Son to gather up the lost like a good shepherd gathers his wandering sheep [which is depicted so nicely on the altar painting at Saude]. Jesus came to save each weary soul, every person languishing in sin, all those who had fainted along the way. He came to save you. He came to give you what you cannot earn or buy or manufacture or produce. He came to win for you the forgiveness of your sins, which could only be obtained through the shedding of His holy blood.
This is the heart of Christian teaching, that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). This is the Gospel truth that has been passed down to us from generation to generation. It never goes out of style. It never needs to change. It is God’s timeless promise to the world of sinners. Whoever comes to Him with a humble heart, repenting of all sins, trusting His gracious Word—these He will never cast out (Jn. 6:37).
The LORD loves to forgive sins. He loves to provide living water from the well of His Word. He loves to feed the hungry with His own body and blood. And He loves to bring the weary and faint to Himself in heaven. There, our struggle will be over, our hard labor ended, and our longing for a lasting home satisfied. As our Norwegian ancestors sang, “In heav’n above, in heav’n above, / No tears of pain are shed, / For nothing there can fade or die; / Life’s fullness round is spread, / And like an ocean, joy o’erflows, / And with immortal mercy glows / Our God, the Lord of hosts!” (ELH #542, v. 3).
+ + +
The Sixth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 5:20-26
In Christ Jesus, our Righteousness, who has taken from us what is ours and given us what is His, dear fellow redeemed:
Those of you who have played team sports know that confidence is not equivalent to ability. You may have a teammate who is supremely confident in his or her ability to be a game changer. They are always looking for the ball, for the tough assignment, for the challenge of crunch time. The problem is that they are unaware of what they lack. They routinely trip and fall down, miss the big shot, or commit an ill-advised penalty. To make matters worse, then they act surprised, as though the outcome was beyond their control. When the next game or match rolls around, they show they have learned nothing about the game or themselves.
As a child of God through faith in Jesus, you are a member of the holy Christian Church. But what kind of member are you? Are you the kind that is well-attuned to the plans of your own life, but care little about the lives of others? In sports terms, you might be called a “ball hog.” Do you attend church from time to time but neglect to read or study God’s Word during the week? Then you might be called a “benchwarmer.” Are you the kind of Christian that talks a good game but fails to back it up with any meaningful actions? Then you would be like the teammate I described who is high on confidence but poor on the follow through. Or do you seek to make the lives of your neighbors better through acts of kindness and prayer? That would make you a “team player” and a great asset to the church.
The truth is, these descriptions have applied to each of us in the past, and they no doubt will again in the future. Sometimes we are selfish, sometimes we are weak in the faith, sometimes we are overconfident of our spiritual strength, and sometimes we are a great blessing to our neighbors. The danger is when we think we have Christian living all figured out, when we no longer recognize how the devil is tempting us, and how we “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
This is the predicament the scribes and Pharisees were in. They had two major problems: 1) They were not righteous before God, but 2) they thought they were. Though they lacked the spiritual ability that God requires, they were confident they had it. But how could they possibly have imagined that they were right with God through their own works?
Well, imagine that everyone in your neighborhood and surrounding community claimed to be Christian. But then they publicly and regularly break God’s Commandments. They loudly take His name in vain. They often choose family outings and entertainment over attending church. They sneak over and take their neighbors’ things. They tell lies and gossip about others. But you stand out. You watch what you say. You attend church every Sunday. You freely share the good things you have. You try to anticipate your neighbors’ needs and volunteer to help.
Wouldn’t it be tempting to judge the level of your righteousness in comparison with others? Wouldn’t it be obvious that you take God’s Word seriously, and are therefore a better Christian than they are? This is what the scribes and Pharisees thought. They were the Jewish people who were serious about God’s Word. They wanted to live according to His Ten Commandments, and follow all the Old Testament ceremonial and civil regulations besides. After all, God hadn’t made His law optional. He told His people to keep it, to conform their lives to it.
But as hard as the scribes and Pharisees tried, they could not meet the standard God had set. Jesus told the crowd gathered to hear His preaching on the mountain, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus said that the scribes and Pharisees had not done enough. Not even those holy people! God requires a righteousness that exceeds this level.
What would you be thinking if you were a scribe or a Pharisee standing in the crowd that day? You would have probably been offended. Because you could look at the people around you and say to yourself, “I’m not good enough!?! But I have always kept the Sabbath, unlike so-and-so over there! And I respect and honor my parents, unlike them! And I have never cheated on my spouse, like she has and he has!” Your whole concept of righteousness would be built upon the notion that if you could only show how you were better than everyone around you, then you were good enough for God.
But Jesus was not finished. He explained what His statement about righteousness meant. He cited the proper teaching that a murderer is liable to judgment. But refraining from murder does not mean the Fifth Commandment has been kept. He explained that “everyone who is angry with his brother,” or “insults his brother,” or wrongly says “You fool!” will be “liable to judgment”—even “to the hell of fire.” Jesus said that the same goes for the Sixth Commandment. Not just the unfaithful spouse, but “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent” (Mt. 5:28), has committed adultery. In other words, no natural born human being is capable of the righteousness God requires. As King David was inspired to write 1000 years earlier, “there is none who does good, not even one” (Ps. 14:3, 53:5).
So what now? God demands righteous living and speaking and even thinking according to His law, but no one can meet the standard. This seems like producing a doggy treat for your pet but holding it way above his ability to reach it. The goal is within view, but the task is impossible.
Rather than some cruel exercise, God’s standard of righteousness is actually a blessing. Can you imagine life without the moral law of God written on every human heart? No, you can’t. The world would be a terrifying place, and you wouldn’t live very long. Nothing would be in place to restrain the sinful impulses of mankind. God’s law can be a heavy burden on the guilty conscience, but it is a far better burden than unchecked wickedness.
Besides this, God’s law provides the picture of what true righteousness looks like. It consists of perfect love and communion with God and perfect love and communion with one another. The law’s standard is not “try your best,” be “better than,” or “pretty good.” This would be the same as having no standard at all, because everyone would decide for himself and herself what “try your best,” “better than,” and “pretty good” mean.
No matter how confident we are that we can keep the law, it is far beyond our ability. Today’s chief hymn explains why: “By Adam’s fall is all forlorn / Man’s nature and his thinking, / The poison’s there when we are born, / In sin yet deeper sinking” (ELH #430, v. 1). As much as we want to be righteous and as hard as we may try, we still fail. We fail because we are sinners, who inherited the propensity to sin from our parents, who got it from their parents, and so on. Adam and Eve had perfect righteousness, but they threw it away because the devil convinced them that they could have something more. It was the greatest lie of “the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).
But God speaks truth, and He promised a Savior from this unrighteousness. The Son of God became man, so He could do what nobody on earth could manage to do since the fall into sin. He kept the law of God perfectly. He met that high standard. He achieved perfect love. His life was not simply “good enough.” It was flawless, holy. He told the crowd, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt. 5:17). That’s quite a statement! But He could say it with confidence knowing He actually had the ability to back it up.
But what good does Jesus’ perfect life do? Is it just another example along with the law to show you how much you have failed? No. Jesus lived His life for you, for your benefit, on your behalf. He lived a perfect life according to the law, so that it could be credited to you by faith. The Apostle Paul writes, “For as by the one man’s disobedience [that is, Adam] the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience [that is, Jesus] the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). Again, he says that the Christian life is not about “having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9).
Since you freely receive this righteousness from God by faith, there is no reason to compare your life with others or try to make yourself out to be more than you are. You are nothing more than a humble recipient of God’s grace. Though you have not deserved it, God has given you every spiritual blessing, including the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life.
This is why you now seek to help and befriend your neighbor, and to reconcile with a brother or sister in Christ when you find yourselves at odds. You don’t do these things out of a desperate attempt to please God. He is already pleased with you in Christ. You show kindness and love to your neighbor because God loves you. You forgive one another because God has forgiven you (Eph. 4:32).
So what do you say? Are You Good Enough for God? Not “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.” And by your own efforts, it does not. But you are righteous and holy and pure in God’s sight through faith in His Son. Put your confidence in Him who was able to singlehandedly win the victory for the whole team—for the world of sinners—through His death and resurrection.
+ + +