The Third Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 21) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 4:46-54
In Christ Jesus, who gives us all that we need for this life and for the life to come, dear fellow redeemed:
There are many things in my house that would be easy for me to part with. I’m sure the same is true for you. A recent fad has us asking whether or not a certain thing “gives us joy.” If it doesn’t we are encouraged to donate or chuck it. It is good for us to declutter from time to time.
But there are certain things that we cannot imagine giving up. What sorts of things are those? They are typically the things you spend the most time thinking about. For some of you, that could be a house or the property where it sits. It could be a car, a computer, an entertainment system, or the equipment for some other hobby. Maybe what you think about most is your family. Maybe it is your own health or your appearance.
We are willing to go to great lengths to preserve our most important things. The same was true of the royal official from Capernaum. He was somehow connected to the court of King Herod, so he probably had a sizable bank account and nice possessions. But money and possessions were not the first thing on his mind when his son got sick. As the days passed and his son’s condition worsened, the official must have exhausted every available medical option. Nothing worked. By the time the official heard about Jesus’ arrival in Cana, his son was “at the point of death.”
What was it that led him to Jesus? According to the text, we have to say it was love for his son more than a love for Jesus. We don’t know if the royal official would have gone looking for Jesus under other circumstances. But his son’s desperate condition caused him to go. He had heard that Jesus had power to heal people, so maybe, just maybe, He could help. It was not faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior that compelled him. Jesus indicated this by His reply to the official’s request, “Unless you [people] see signs and wonders you will not believe.”
This is the same pitfall so many fall into in our day. They refuse to listen to God’s Word or read the Bible for themselves. They reject it because they can’t imagine a God who would let all these bad things happen in the world. They hear us say that God is gracious, that He saved us from our sins. “But if God is so kind and good,” they reply, “why are there so many people suffering? If God could help them, why doesn’t He?” In other words, they are looking for “signs and wonders.” They are looking for clear evidence of God’s existence—and His goodness—on their terms.
This is not the right way to think about God. The almighty God—the Maker, Redeemer, and Comforter—does not have to satisfy the demands of sinners. He does not have to meet their conditions for how He is supposed to carry out His work. We know this, and yet we have to admit that this thinking creeps into our minds too.
We might ask where God is when wars and natural disasters claim thousands of lives around the world every day. We might wonder why He doesn’t step in while our country is torn apart by political divisiveness and hatefulness on all sides. And when pain or trouble touch our own lives or the lives of those we love the most, it may seem to us that God has forgotten about us, or that He is punishing us for something.
This kind of thinking pleases the devil. In fact, he is the one who tempts us to doubt God’s love and to question God’s wisdom. In today’s Epistle lesson, the apostle Paul warns us about the devil’s destructive work. He writes, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:11-12).
The devil and demons are constantly scheming to destroy our faith. They want us to focus on “signs and wonders” too. On the one hand they tell us that our suffering and anxiety and trouble are signs that that God does not really love us. Or they tempt us to ask God for “signs and wonders” beyond what He has already shown us.
So they might tempt us to expect God to show His love for us by making a specific problem go away or by giving certain blessings. They want us to say: “God, if You really love me, then You will take away my physical pain.” “If You really love me, then You will fix this broken relationship.” “If You really love me, then You will solve my financial issues.” But what happens if nothing seems to change, or if changes don’t happen quickly enough? Does that mean God does not love us?
It could be that the official came with similar thoughts in mind: “I’ll believe Jesus has this power when He shows it to me. I’ll believe it when He heals my son.” Jesus told him not to focus on the “signs and wonders,” but to believe His Word. He told the official, “Go; your son will live.” Now as far as the official knew, nothing about his son’s condition had changed. Jesus did not go and lay a healing hand on the child. He did not offer medical advice for how to make the child well. He simply gave the man a promise: “Your son will not die. He lives!”
If you were in the official’s shoes, and it was your child or someone else you loved who was sick, would you turn right around and go home? Or would you hold out for some proof? “I’d like to believe you, Jesus, but how can I be sure he will get better? Can you give me a sign, so I can be sure it will happen as You said?”
That is not what the official did. He “believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.” He went back home a changed man. Before, he was overwhelmed with anxiety about his son. Now, he returned with hope. He did not need Jesus to display “signs and wonders” anymore. He “believed the word.” The Word from Jesus’ mouth was enough.
We might be tempted to focus on the strong faith the official had at this point, that he would return home with no external proof of his son’s recovery. But the official had no strength except from God. It was the Holy Spirit working through Jesus’ Word which convinced him to turn around. It was the Holy Spirit who put hope in that man’s heart. God did this, not the man himself.
And He does the same for you. When you are burdened with some trouble in your life, when you are in pain, when someone you love is sick or is taken from you, God strengthens you through His powerful Word. The Holy Spirit comes to comfort you, to heal your wounds, to give you hope. He leads you to the cross of Jesus, who “has borne [your] griefs and carried [your] sorrows” (Isa. 53:4).
Jesus knows your pain. He knows how it feels to have someone close get sick and die (Joh. 11); this is when He assures you that He is “the resurrection and the life” (Joh. 11:25). He knows how it feels to be alone; so He promises, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). He knows the feeling of being attacked and ganged up on; so He says, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Joh. 16:33).
If you have been hurt by another, sinned against, Jesus knows that anguish. He was sinned against by the whole human race. He was beaten so you could be healed. He was abused so you could take refuge in Him, rest in Him. He came to deliver peace by the shedding of His blood. His blood cleanses you from the stain of sin you have left on others, and the stain others have left on you. “[T]he blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1Jo. 1:7).
There is no comfort—lasting, eternal comfort—apart from Jesus’ Word. There is no hope—lasting, eternal hope—apart from Jesus’ Word. “But what can the Word do about my sore back?” “What can the Word do about the bully at school?” “What can the Word do about this pile of bills?” The Word takes your focus off the things you can’t control and directs you to Jesus who is in control. Through His Word, He gives you patience to bear your cross, and He works all things—even your troubles—out for good.
Reading and hearing the Word, returning again and again to the power source of God’s work in our lives, prepares us for whatever we might lose in the future. Our precious earthly things will not last forever. Our homes will eventually be torn down. Our cars and computers and everything else we treasure will eventually be burned up or decay. Our beauty will fade, our health will deteriorate, some of the people we love will die. But the Gospel, the sure Word of Jesus’ death and resurrection for our salvation, will never change or expire. “[T]he word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8).
Jesus’ Word Is Sufficient. We need no other proof, no additional “signs and wonders” of His love. Jesus’ Word reveals His unchanging grace toward us sinners and the rich blessings He has prepared for those who love Him (1Co. 2:9).
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 Healing of the Officer’s Son” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The First Sunday after Michaelmas – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 9:1-8
In Christ Jesus, who was delivered over to death for our sins, and who imparts forgiveness to us through His powerful Word, dear fellow redeemed:
“Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins?” A fellow pastor said he posed that question to some Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to his door. It’s a great question. In fact it’s the perfect way to learn where people stand in spiritual matters. “Can sins be forgiven?”
People might like to know what you mean by “sins.” You explain that sins are anything we do which contradicts the Commandments of God. Those Commandments are summed up by love for God and love for neighbor. If we have not perfectly done these things day in and day out, we have sinned. Then they might want to know what “forgiveness” means. You explain that forgiveness means the sins are cancelled out or pardoned, as though they had never even happened.
“Well that sounds too good to be true!” they might say. “If we have broken God’s law, we can’t imagine those sins are so easily removed!” You reply that the Bible clearly teaches the forgiveness of sins, but that it certainly didn’t come easily. “I knew it!” they say. “God wouldn’t just tell us we are forgiven. We must have to do something to prove ourselves to Him.”
You tell them that there is nothing we could ever do to make up for our sins. There are too many of them. Our sins have separated us from God (Isa. 59:2). We could not make things right with Him. But He could make things right with us. God accomplished this by sending His holy Son to take on our flesh and live among us in the world. He followed God’s Commandments perfectly. He never sinned. Then He offered His perfect life as a sacrifice in our place by dying on the cross.
God’s Son had to die in our place. It was the only way to satisfy God’s wrath against sin. It was the only way to free us from our sins and the death we deserve. So, as you said, the forgiveness of sins did not come easily—God Himself had to die for it. But it is a free gift offered to all sinners. They do not have to make up for their own sins somehow. Jesus paid the penalty for them.
Most people in the world today do not believe in the forgiveness of sins. They do not believe that a lifetime of sins could be wiped away without any contribution on their part. But then we have the account in today’s Gospel. Four men brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus, because they heard about Jesus’ power to heal (Luk. 5:17). After some effort, they were able to set him before Jesus. Jesus looked at the man and said, “Take heart, My son; your sins are forgiven.”
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each record this account, but none of them includes the reaction of the paralyzed man and his friends. We imagine that Jesus’ statement shocked them. As far as we can tell, they did not come to Him for forgiveness. They came to Him so that He might make the paralyzed man walk. But Jesus had something better planned. Jesus was aware of the man’s need for forgiveness even if he himself was not.
This man did nothing to get this forgiveness. He did not make the case for why Jesus should bless him. He did not point to the good things he had done for God or others. He did not even ask for forgiveness! The scribes and Pharisees did not believe the forgiveness of sins could come so easily. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they thought (Mar. 2:7, Luk. 5:21). They did not believe Jesus had authority to forgive sins, because they did not believe Jesus was God.
Since that is how you feel, said Jesus, then I will prove who I am. I will demonstrate the power of My Word. So He said to the paralyzed man, “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And the man did just that. The crowds were afraid and amazed when they saw this. They had seen Jesus perform miracles before, but now He proved He could forgive sins too. They glorified God that He had given this authority to men.
Here today I stand before you saying the same thing Jesus did, “Your sins are forgiven!” I say this not because I have the power within myself to forgive your sins. If I did, you should ask me to prove it by making a paralyzed man walk or by raising someone from the dead. But I do have the authority to declare this forgiveness. I have this authority from God, and so do you. Jesus granted this authority to the Church, which consists of all believers. He has given the Church on earth “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 16:19). Whoever the Church forgives on the basis of His Word, He forgives. Whoever the Church does not forgive, He does not forgive.
By the call of God extended through this congregation, I have been appointed to publicly administer God’s grace to you through Word and Sacrament. I have been appointed to declare your sins forgiven. When I speak this forgiveness, I am not expressing a wish that this happen for you. And it is not a forgiveness conditioned by something you have to do. Spiritually speaking, you are like the paralyzed man who can do nothing for himself and has to be brought to Jesus. The Holy Spirit brings you to Jesus through His Word. He brings you to Jesus, so that you can hear His Word from my mouth: “Take heart! Your sins are forgiven!”
But let me go back to the question I asked at the beginning of the sermon: Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins? Do you believe it is actually true? Could it be that God forgives the horrible things you said to your parents, your spouse, or your friend? Could it be that God forgives those bad things you did that still weigh you down with guilt? Could it be that God forgives you for the harm you caused and the lies you told?
Do you need God to give additional proof that these sins are forgiven before you believe it? Do you need Him to give you some sign to show you are right with Him? There is no other proof and no other sign God needs to show you besides the cross. That’s where Jesus went for you. That’s where He did the wretched work. That’s where each and every one of your sins was placed on Him. That’s where He atoned for your sins before God.
He did not simply pay for the small sins on the cross. He did not just pay for the usual ones that all people are guilty of. He paid for the unique sins too, the sins that make you think you are worse than everyone else around you. He paid for the big sins, even the sins that are so terrible, we can’t bring ourselves to mention them. John writes that “[Jesus] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1Jo. 2:2). God the Father accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for all sin. Your sins are forgiven!
You know this, and I know this. But we don’t always act like our sins are forgiven. We know we are forgiven, but we still dwell on our failures in the past. We know we are forgiven, but we focus on our deficiencies rather than God’s grace. We know we are forgiven, but we are troubled by the memories of hurt and pain we caused others.
God’s forgiveness frees us from having to right our wrongs, which we couldn’t do even if we tried. It also frees us so that we may try to reconcile with those we have harmed. Maybe you are still bothered by something mean you said to a classmate or coworker years ago. Maybe you feel guilty because you failed to be there for someone who needed you. Maybe you realize that the grudge you and another have held against each other has gone on way too long.
Jesus says that if you “remember that your brother has something against you,” then go and “be reconciled to your brother” (Mat. 5:23,24). But what if that person rejects your apology and refuses to forgive? Then you can take comfort that the sin is forgiven by God. But what if acknowledging a secret sin causes a person you care about to turn against you? Then at least your conscience will be clear, and the burden you have long carried will be removed. You can also trust that God’s grace and forgiveness which comfort you will also work on the hearts of those whom you hurt.
After Jesus had forgiven the man’s sins, He told him to get up, pick up his mat, and go home. And when Jesus forgives your sins, He calls you to get up also. As He raised up the man from physical paralysis, so he raises you from spiritual paralysis. Your sins are forgiven—don’t sit there in despair! Your sins are forgiven—go forward in grace! Your sins are forgiven—declare what God has done for you! And let that joy start in your own home just like the previously paralyzed man did.
There is no way to get your sins forgiven apart from Jesus. But by faith in Him worked by the Holy Spirit, forgiveness is yours. Your sins were put on Jesus, so none of them cling to you anymore—not the sins of your youth, not the sins of a year ago, not the sins of yesterday. Your Sins Are Forgiven! Get Up! And give glory to 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.
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Third Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 21) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 4:46-54
In Christ Jesus, who gives life, salvation, and peace to all who trust in Him, dear fellow redeemed:
The devil knows how to get at you, and he knows how to get at me. He’s been doing his deceitful and destructive work for a long time. His goal is very simple: Keep unbelievers from the saving Word of Jesus and pull believers away from Jesus’ Word. Jesus’ Word is the light that pierces the devil’s darkness. It is the source of hope in his world of despair. It is the means by which life is brought into his kingdom of death. This is why Christians want to hear and learn the Word. They want to be fortified against the devil’s attacks.
The devil tempts us to the opposite of what today’s Epistle Lesson describes (Eph. 6:10-17). Instead of fastening on “the belt of truth,” the devil wants us to be unprepared to face temptation and counter his errors. Instead of putting on “the breastplate of righteousness,” the devil wants our hearts to be exposed to his seductions. Instead of shoes made ready “by the gospel of peace,” the devil wants us to be ready to run from Christ when our beliefs are challenged. Instead of taking up “the shield of faith,” the devil wants us to be vulnerable to his many accusations. Instead of wearing “the helmet of salvation,” the devil wants us to think that our reason will do more for us than a godly faith. And instead of taking up “the sword of the Spirit,” the devil wants us to set aside the Word for the sake of peace in this world.
These are “the schemes of the devil.” These are the ways the devil tries to destroy our faith. He may try to ruin faith by an all-out attack, whether through a sudden loss of good health, or a job, or a loved one. But most often, the devil does his work slowly and subtly. He will try to convince you that can enjoy both sin and faith. You can have this secret sin and still have a good reputation. You can have a vice or two and still be a good Christian. You can be totally comfortable in the world and in the church at the same time.
The devil is “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). The Apostle John writes that “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1Jn. 3:8).
Jesus pointed out one of the devil’s works when a nobleman came to Him in Cana. The nobleman’s son was sick and didn’t have long to live. They must have spent all their resources on conventional treatments, and nothing worked. You can imagine how distressful this would have been. But the nobleman had heard about Jesus, that He had power to perform miracles. So he hurried from Capernaum to Cana, a span of about twenty miles, to ask for His help.
The first words Jesus said to him were jarring, “Unless you [people] see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Jesus was speaking about the Galileans, the people of His home territory. But His indictment applies to us and all sinners. We are those for whom faith does not seem sufficient. We want proof—physical, tangible, undeniable proof. “What good does ‘trusting in the Lord’ do,” we think, “when someone we love is sick?” or “when our possessions are destroyed?” or “when our life is falling apart?”
We look for “signs and wonders” from God. We want Him to provide miraculous healing to those who are ill. We want Him to restore the things we lose and bless us with even more, like He did for Job. We want Him to fix all our hurts, all our pains, all our troubles, so that we can enjoy the happy and carefree life that so many others seem to have.
When these things that we ask Him for and pray for don’t happen, the devil sows seeds of doubt and despair. “Perhaps God isn’t as powerful as you thought!” he whispers. “Perhaps He doesn’t love you like you thought He did!” “Perhaps His Word cannot be trusted!” That last lie is especially troubling. If the Word of God is not true, everything we have centered our lives on, everything we have hoped for, is empty.
If what the Bible says is not true, the evidence of creation and conscience would tell you there is a God. But you would not know who He was. What you would be aware of is your sin. You would question whether you were right with this God, and you would try to take steps to make sure you are. This is what you see in all the non-Christian religions of the world. They are all based on the premise that we must make ourselves right with God by how we live and how we worship Him. Or you might decide to ignore the reality of God like the atheists and agnostics do and live your life however you want.
If the Word of God is not true, then the Son of God did not take on human flesh in the Virgin Mary. Then He did not live a perfect life in your place. Then He did not go to the cross carrying all your sin. Then He did not rise again from the dead on Easter morning. Then He did not place His forgiveness and life in the Word and Sacraments. If none of these things happened, then you have nothing to look back on in your life except sin, and you have nothing to look forward to except death. This is what it means if God’s Word cannot be trusted.
The devil certainly would have tried to plant doubt in the nobleman’s mind. Jesus had just sent him home with the words, “Go; your son will live.” The text says that the man “believed the word that Jesus spoke to him,” but could he really be sure his son would be fine? The nobleman pushed those doubts aside and continued on his way. Then he was met with the happy news that his son had indeed recovered—and at the exact moment that Jesus said, “Your son will live.”
It was the powerful Word of Jesus that brought healing to the nobleman’s son. Jesus did not have to travel there and take the boy by the hand in order to heal him. He simply spoke His Word. This should be a great comfort to us. Jesus does not have to be visibly present with us in order to help us. He knows our condition. He knows how we struggle with our particular sins, and the shame we feel because of them. He knows when we are full of grief and hopelessness and the desperate feeling that we cannot escape the troubles we face.
Jesus does not come to us visibly to make everything better in an instant. But He does speak His Word, a Word which has tremendous power. Jesus’ Word imparts to us in the present whatever He has promised in the past. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” He says, “and I will give you rest.” He spoke those words nearly 2,000 years ago, but they are just as true and powerful today. Here is another promise: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:31-32). And another promise: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn. 11:25-26).
It is through these promises of Jesus that faith is formed in sinful hearts. The Bible says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). When sinners come to faith through the Gospel by the power of Holy Spirit, the great burdens of guilt that they carry are lifted off their shoulders. All our sin and guilt was put on Jesus to carry for us. He suffered and died for all our sins, for all the times that we let “the devil, the world and our own flesh” overcome us and “lead us into misbelief, despair and other shameful sin and vice” (Small Catechism, Sixth Petition).
All of these past failures and sins are removed from us, and in their place, Jesus puts His righteousness. By the power of His Word in Holy Absolution, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, Jesus declares us right with God and perfectly holy in His sight. These are the great and eternal blessings that God promises us and all sinners in His Word. The nobleman believed this Word, and He proclaimed it to his entire household. His son was not saved through human wisdom, through the efforts of the best doctors money could buy. His son was saved through Jesus’ Word, and the whole household believed.
We do not always understand why we must endure one trial or another in this world, or why God doesn’t graciously bring these problems to a quick end. But we can trust His Word. With Paul we say, “Let God be true though every one were a liar!” (Rom. 3:4). Our Faith Is Founded on Jesus’ Word. It is a sure foundation, with “Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). The devil will try to convince us that it is a false word, but “the shield of faith” extinguishes all those flaming darts. Our faith is enlivened and strengthened by Jesus’ Word, which can overcome every attack of the devil and his allies.
Therefore with the psalmist David we say, “O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me…. Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you” (Ps. 25:2,20).
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 Healing of the Officer’s Son” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The First Sunday after Michaelmas – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 9:1-8
In Christ Jesus, who came as the Physician for the spiritually sick (Mt. 9:12), dear fellow redeemed:
The account of the healing of the paralytic is recorded in three of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Both Mark and Luke offer the interesting detail that when the friends of the paralytic could not get into the house where Jesus was teaching, they opened up a hole in the roof. Then they let down their friend on his bed before Jesus. This would have been something to witness! If you were in the house, you would have wondered what was going on when pieces of the roof rained down, beams of light cut into the room, and faces peered down from above.
As striking as this experience must have been, Matthew says nothing about it. All he says is that some people brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus. This shows us that how the paralytic was brought to Jesus is not the most important detail. The most important details are what happened when he was set before Jesus.
Now what was this young man’s most pressing need? No one could fail to see the sad condition he was in. He was paralyzed. He could not walk. Perhaps he could not even move his arms. The friends of this person went to the great trouble of hoisting him up on the roof and lowering him down before Jesus. What were they expecting Jesus to do? Jesus recognized the young man’s most pressing need. “Take heart, My son” He said; “your sins are forgiven.”
If you were in the position of the paralyzed man, would you have been disappointed about what Jesus said? Would you have been perplexed that Jesus seemed to ignore your paralysis? But the paralyzed man did not protest. Maybe his paralysis was not what troubled him the most.
Can you imagine a scenario in which no physical pain is worse than the spiritual turmoil of your heart and soul? What if this man struggled with serious depression and had lost the will to live? What if he had become paralyzed by doing something foolish, and he carried a great burden of guilt for his actions? What if he worried that God was punishing him for past sins by making him paralyzed? If any of these were true, he would have seen his paralysis as a symptom of a much deeper problem, a problem which seemed to have no solution.
But then Jesus spoke. His words brought calm to the inner sea of turmoil. It cast beams of healing light into the paralytic’s troubled heart. He was not yet able to rise from his bed, but his spirit was lifted up. He was comforted. How do we know Jesus’ Word had this effect? There was no change that could be observed in the paralytic, unless a once troubled countenance now showed signs of relief and peacefulness. The scribes, for their part, denied that the young man’s sins had been forgiven. They said within themselves, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk. 2:7).
Their assumption was that Jesus was not God. That assumption was about to be challenged. Jesus knew their thoughts. He said to them, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” What is the answer? You and I can easily say both things, but we do not have the power to make either of them happen. Jesus has the power to do both, and He proved the power to give spiritual healing by giving physical healing.
As proof “that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” Jesus said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” Now if the man could not stand up, what would it mean? That his sins were not forgiven. But the second miracle was proof of the first. He did get up. His sins were forgiven. And all because of Jesus’ powerful Word.
We said earlier that Matthew did not include the detail of how the paralyzed man was brought before Jesus. But Matthew did include a detail that Mark and Luke did not. At the end of this account, Matthew wrote that the crowds “glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” That is an interesting conclusion for the crowd to arrive at. Jesus proving that He could forgive sins made the crowd marvel that God “had given such authority to men.”
Until Jesus’ coming, there had never been a human being who could forgive sins. People could set broken bones and treat illnesses. They could help the poor and console the grieving. But of and by themselves they had no answer for spiritual distress. And they had no answer for “the wages of sin,” which is death (Rom. 6:23). But now here was a flesh-and-blood man, Jesus, who had an answer not only for physical ills, but for spiritual ones. He had the authority to forgive sins.
Now if you are authorized to do something, you wouldn’t say the power is yours. Authority is granted to you by someone else. So if you are given the password to a company account, you receive it from someone above you. You are entrusted with what is theirs. Any authority we have in our vocations comes in this way. Even the authority parents have over their children is not something they produce by themselves. They are given authority. And who gives it? In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul says, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1).
This is how it works also with the authority to forgive sins. After His resurrection, Jesus declared to His disciples, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Then He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Jn. 20:21,22-23). The authority Jesus received from His Father, He passed on to His disciples. He emphasized the same thing shortly before His ascension into heaven. He told them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore” (Mt. 28:18-19).
Jesus makes it clear that the authority to forgive sins—something only God can do—is now put into the mouths of His disciples to declare. And that is something to wonder about! How could Jesus give something so sacred, so precious, so powerful as the authority to forgive sins to sinners? But that is what He does. Each of you as children of God has been given this authority. When your brother or sister in Christ sins against you and repents of the sin, you can say to them, “I forgive you, and God forgives you.” You can still forgive them even if they are not sorry—and it is important that you do. But the sins of the impenitent are not forgiven them by God “as long as they do not repent” (Small Catechism, Office of the Keys).
The Lord has also called certain men to stand in His place and declare the forgiveness of sins publicly. This is the chief responsibility of pastors. Their job is to forgive sins. They have no special power to do this because of who they are; pastors are sinners like everyone else. Their authority is given them by Jesus to speak His Word. The Word of absolution is powerful because it is from Jesus. This is why pastors preface the absolution with, “By the authority of God and of my holy office.” The forgiveness comes from God to the sinner through the Word.
It is a great comfort to know that Jesus’ absolution is available to us here and now. You may be troubled by a certain sin that you have never told anyone about. You may be filled with passions and desires that you know are against God’s Commandments. You may be tempted to look at things you know you shouldn’t, or to listen to things that attack your faith. Maybe you give the impression on the outside that everything is fine, while on the inside you are full of spiritual turmoil.
You do not need to carry these burdens. The Lord knows your struggle. He knows what you need the most. He says to you, “Take heart, My [child]; your sins are forgiven.” He can forgive your sins because on the cross He made full atonement for them, every one. The scales of justice were balanced by Jesus offering up Himself in payment for your sins.
But you may struggle to believe that even your great sins are forgiven. “How could God forgive this?!?” you wonder. You feel ashamed. You come to church, but you do not let yourself be comforted by the absolution. You go to Communion, but you feel just as troubled as before. In times like these, I encourage you to make an appointment with your pastor. One of my duties as your spiritual shepherd is to apply God’s Word to your specific situation, to your specific troubles and pain.
No one likes the thought of exposing their sins to others. But there is a certain relief in uncovering sins long hidden. You don’t need to try to keep buried anymore what your conscience keeps digging up. The way to be freed of your hidden sins and hidden hurts is through confession and absolution. If you confess your sins privately to your pastor, he is bound to keep that confession secret for the rest of your lives. He hears your confession of sin as God hears it, and your pastor never brings it up again to others just as God never brings it up again.
The healing absolution of Jesus, the declaration of the forgiveness of your sins and peace with God, is God’s powerful Healing for Hidden Hurts. Some of those hurts are self-inflicted, and some are inflicted by others. The hurts inflicted by others can cause you to be consumed by anger and even hatred, which can cause great spiritual harm. But through confession and absolution, all these things are left with Jesus at the cross. He bore “our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53:4), and in place of these burdens, He gives His eternal rest and gladness.
So bring your sins before Jesus with humble hearts and believe the soul-cleansing Word which He declares to you: “Your sins are forgiven!”
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Fourth Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 22) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 18:23-35
In Christ Jesus, who made himself poor, so that you might become rich (2Cor. 8:9), dear fellow redeemed:
We say it just about every weekend. It is a concise summary of what the Bible teaches about God. It is called the “Apostles’ Creed,” because it is perfectly consistent with the inspired words of the apostles in the New Testament. But as basic and foundational as this confession is, it is completely rejected by the unbelieving world. What we confess as true and accurate, the world says is false and made up. “God the Father is the ‘Maker of heaven and earth’? No way. Jesus was ‘born of the Virgin Mary’? Impossible. He ‘rose again from the dead’? No chance. Everyone who believes in Jesus will rise again and life forever? Give me a break.”
Maybe the only statement an unbeliever could accept is that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried,” though there are many who deny that a famous Jesus in the first century even existed. The world’s denial of the Apostles’ Creed also includes the rejection of this part of the third article: “I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins.”
What is so objectionable about the forgiveness of sins? Shouldn’t everyone believe that sin can be forgiven? You would think so. But instead of welcoming forgiveness, our society just does away with sin. It is not as though sin has actually diminished or gone away. It’s that sinners choose not to see sin as sin anymore. If someone is accused of wrongdoing, he or she is quick to pass the blame. They might say that their bad behavior is justified by the bad behavior of others. Or they point out how others are far worse than they are. Or they might blame their upbringing as the problem or current circumstances beyond their control.
The other approach is to argue that what used to be considered sinful is not sinful anymore. We see this in the way the authorities are openly disrespected and abused, and in the cavalier way people treat sexual activity and marriage. “I won’t let anybody else tell me how to live,” they say. “I have the right to do whatever I want with my own body.” In their minds, the only sin being committed is by the people who criticize the choices they make, and who presume to tell them they are doing what is wrong.
But sin is not determined by personal opinion, or by what one feels is good or bad behavior. The line between good and bad, right and wrong, is determined by God. And He does not leave us guessing where that line is. He gives us a clear standard of holiness in ten simple statements. These commands of God spell out our responsibility toward Him and toward our neighbor. They are very clear and can hardly be misunderstood. God says that we should fear, love, and trust in Him alone. He says we should honor His name and hear His Word. He says that we should respect the authorities, defend life, flee from sexual immorality (1Cor. 6:18), and help our neighbor keep His belongings and a good reputation.
This is what God says we should do. “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (Jam. 4:17). That is what sin is, doing the opposite of what God says. God is a God of order, which is evident not only by His law, but also in His creation. Sin goes against God’s order. “Sin is lawlessness” (1Jn. 3:4). That is the definition of sin.
So how big a problem is sin? It is a problem that we often see more clearly in others than in ourselves. “He should not have said what he did,” we think, or “She should not be living like that.” But we give ourselves a pass. We point out the bad in others while only looking at the good in ourselves. But supposing there were no one else around for comparison. If it were just you standing before the holy God, how would your life look?
It would look a lot like a servant standing before his master, to whom he owed ten thousand talents. Do you know the value of ten thousand talents? It is estimated that just one talent equals twenty years’ worth of wages. So if one year’s worth of wages were $30,000, then ten thousand talents would be six billion dollars! The king ordered that the servant be sold along with “his wife and children and all that he had,” and the proceeds to go toward what he owed. But even all of that would hardly make a dent in the tremendous debt.
This is how it is for us. Even if we sold everything we had, even if we gathered together all of our resources, our good deeds, our good behavior, and applied them toward our debt of sin, we would hardly make a dent. Our sinfulness is so great, our trespasses so immeasurable. Whether acknowledged or not, the sins of every single person are so extensive, that the biggest book in the world could not contain them all.
Perhaps this sounds like an exaggeration to you. But if your sin and the sins of the world were not so immense, why did God become Man? Why did He give Himself into the hands of His enemies? Why did He let Himself be tortured and killed? Did He make a mistake? Was your heart more pure and the world more holy than He thought? The cheerful optimist wearing rose-colored glasses might say that there is more good than evil in the world. But “the LORD sees not as man sees” (1Sam. 16:7). He sees the human heart for what it is and correctly perceives the fatal flaws of the human condition.
So before you hear about forgiveness, you must first learn to see your sinful nature and sinful heart as God does. You must acknowledge that sin exists, and that you are responsible for committing a great deal of it. Once the law has done its work and shown where you have fallen short and sinned against God, then the Lord has you right where He wants you. He does not punish you or torment you. He has pity on you, just like the master had pity on his servant. He releases you from the debt you owe Him; He forgives your sins. How is this possible? Why does God let you off so easily?
It is not as though God just overlooks your debt of sin. This would be the same as God admitting that His commands are not actually binding. God cannot overlook sin. He is a just God. His law is right and true, and therefore His judgment is also. Some think they are capable of satisfying God’s righteous requirement on their own. They sound just as foolish as the servant begging for his master’s patience until he pays everything back. The debt is simply too great. Repayment is beyond reach.
For a debt as immense as ours, only the one to whom it was owed could satisfy it. This is why God sent His Son to be born of Mary. He gave Jesus the task of repaying the debt. As the time of reckoning approached, Jesus begged His Father that there might be some other way. The LORD had once provided a ram, so that Abraham would not have to sacrifice his only son (Gen. 22:13). Could it be so now too? But Jesus was the ram caught in the thicket of God’s law. For the law to be fulfilled, a perfect sacrifice was required. Jesus had to be slaughtered.
What precious blood it was that flowed from the wounds of Jesus! It was the blood not only of a Man; it was the blood of God. That is how the LORD can be just and still forgive you. That is how the LORD can declare you righteous even though you are a sinner. The Apostle John states, “the blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn. 1:7-9).
God’s love for you is even greater than the great debt of your sin. The LORD declares to you that your iniquity is pardoned, and that His grace pays back twice as much as you sinfully spent (Is. 40:2). He says that your ten thousand talent debt is satisfied. Do you find this hard to believe? You should. It is hard to believe. It is not reasonable at all. But it is not our reason that counts. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (1:18). The LORD forgives every single one of your sins.
And then there is also the matter of your neighbor. Others have sinned against you in the past, just like you have sinned against others. If your sins against God are ten thousand talents, God sees the sins against you as a hundred denarii. One denarius was about a day’s wage, so a hundred denarii would be about a third of an annual salary. So while you were indebted to God for six billion dollars so to speak, your neighbor might be indebted to you for ten thousand dollars. The debt owed by your neighbor is real, but we often make those debts into more than they are. We get easily offended when things don’t go our way. We brood over the unkind words and actions of others, so that the original offense is magnified in our minds. We might even declare that the offense is unforgivable.
But that is not how the LORD treats you. He has mercy on you and forgives your debt even though you do not deserve it. This is why Jesus tells you to “forgive your brother from your heart,” and why He taught you to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” You forgive by grace just as God does. This is a hard task, and we often fail at it. But God calls us again and again to hear His Word of forgiveness and to sit at His table of forgiveness. For it is in these places that He fills us with love for our neighbor and strengthens us to believe that our sins truly are forgiven.
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The Third Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 21) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 4:46-54
In Christ Jesus, through whom we are cleansed by the washing of water with the Word and clothed in His righteousness (Eph. 5:26-27), dear fellow redeemed:
All of us take risks of one sort or another, but in general we prefer safety and stability. We like to know where our next meal is coming from and how we will pay our bills in the future. In the event of sickness or injury, we have health insurance to cover medical expenses. We don’t want to risk running out of money or options. Overall, we tend to be more cautious than reckless.
But this cautious approach does not work as well in spiritual things as in physical things. From our human perspective, there is great risk in a life of faith. The proverb directs us to “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (3:5). And Jesus declares, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29). We are called to believe what God says, even though we have never seen Him, and even though His Word does not agree with our reason. That is a risky proposition. After all, we think, what if Christianity is not the one true religion? What if the Bible’s teaching is not entirely true?
Even the Apostle Peter was concerned that faith in Jesus would not leave the disciples empty-handed. “See, we have left everything and followed you,” he said. “What then will we have?” (Mt. 19:27). It is as though Peter were saying, “Lord, we are taking a big risk here. We left our fishing business on the Sea of Galilee and have followed You through thick and thin. There must be some reward for this! Give us assurances that this will pay off someday.”
The official in our text for today was in a similar position. He took the risk of leaving the side of his dying son in the hope that Jesus would help. He must have tried every available remedy to help him get better, but nothing worked. If you were in his shoes, you would do the same thing. You would spare no expense and would try any procedure if it might save your child’s life. This man heard that Jesus had come to the town of Cana not far from where the official lived in Capernaum. He may well have thought about Jesus before this, but his son was in no condition to journey where Jesus was in Judea. Now Jesus had come to Cana where He had changed water into wine, His first miracle.
The official hurried to find Him. He believed that Jesus could heal his son. That took a real leap of faith! In the history of mankind, who could heal with little more than a touch? Why did the man have such confidence that Jesus could do this? His appearance did not indicate any kind of special ability. Jesus looked just like any other man. Still the official came to Him and said, “Please come down and heal my son!” And Jesus replied, “Unless you (people) see signs and wonders you will not believe.” How would you react if this were said to you? The man’s son was dying. He was desperate for help. He anxiously looked for Jesus. And then Jesus declared, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”
That was a great test of faith. The official might have turned on his heel and left right then. He could have unloaded on Jesus for not seeming to care about his little boy. Instead he persisted. “Sir, come down before my child dies!” he pleaded. And Jesus said, “Go; your son will live.” This was, quite simply, the call to believe. Jesus asked the man to trust what He said, even though there was no discernable evidence that something had taken place.
This scenario should be familiar to you, because you have experienced it yourself many times. For example, how do you know that God pours out His grace on a baby in Holy Baptism? You can’t see any change take place in the infant. You don’t see the bright presence of God. How do you know that your sins are actually forgiven in the Absolution? You often don’t feel any different when the pastor speaks those words. How do you know that Jesus gives you His body and blood in Holy Communion? Any scientific examination would show that no such things are present and distributed. Or how can you be so sure that you will one day be reunited with your brothers and sisters in Christ who have died? You have never seen someone rise from the dead.
These examples are no different than the challenge the official faced. Would he take Jesus at His Word, or would he require further assurances, further action? And how is it for you? Is the Word of God enough for you? Or does it leave you unconvinced, unsatisfied? Do you doubt that the Lord loves you and forgives your sins, particularly the ones you are most ashamed of? Do you require proof of God’s faithfulness beyond the promises of the Gospel, in earthly gains that can be quantified and measured? Do you harbor bitterness in your heart that God took someone away from you long before you were ready to give them up?
You and I do not pass these and other tests like them with flying colors. We are reluctant to take the risk of faith. It is hard to believe. We are like the man who cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24). That is a proper prayer – “Help me!” “Have mercy upon me!” Because we cannot make ourselves believe better. We cannot make our faith stronger. Only God can do this, and He does it with the very thing that seems to require so much risk. He speaks His Word.
The fact is that there is no actual risk at all in believing and following God’s Word. The part of us that considers it so risky is our sinful nature, the old Adam. This part of us is like the child who just can’t bring herself to jump into her daddy’s arms in the pool. “What if he doesn’t catch me?” she thinks. “What if I get water in my eyes and nose? What if it’s too cold?” And she just won’t jump no matter how many assurances her father gives her. Because of our sinful nature, we on our own will never take the plunge of faith. We do not have the ability or the interest to do it.
This is why God must create the new man of faith within a sinner. He must give the courage to step out of the darkness of sin and death and jump into the arms of a loving Father. “I will catch you,” says God. “No harm will come to you. I will not let you drown. I will keep you safe.” It is God’s faithfulness that takes the risk out of faith. Remember what He has done for you. He cared enough about you to send His only Son to take your place. Jesus lived a holy life for you and died for you. He satisfied the requirement of God’s law, and then bore His righteous anger for the world’s sin. Would a God who did that for you ever fail you or forget about you? Would He refuse to forgive the sin that has already been blotted out by Jesus’ blood?
The Lord has nothing to gain by lying to you, by making promises to you that He cannot keep. So when He promises that forgiveness, faith, and life are bestowed through the water and Word of Holy Baptism, when He declares that your sins are forgiven by the authority of Christ, when He urges you to eat and drink for the remission of your sins, when He promises to raise the dead on the last day—you can be sure that all of these promises are true and powerfully effective to save.
Like the peace of mind you have when property or fields are damaged, and all the damages are covered by insurance, so you have peace through the Word of Christ. The Gospel declares to you that You’re Covered, clothed in Jesus’ righteousness. What the Gospel declares, it also powerfully gives, because God’s Word does not return to Him void, as Isaiah writes (55:11).
In today’s Epistle lesson, St. Paul talks about the security we have in Christ. He urges us to “put on the whole armor of God”—“the belt of truth,” “the breastplate of righteousness,” shoes readied “by the gospel of peace,” “the shield of faith,” “the helmet of salvation,” and “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:10-17). But how can we know if this spiritual armor is covering us, so that we do not succumb to the attacks of our spiritual enemies? Our armor is no more visible to our sight and senses than those enemies are.
St. Paul writes in another place, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2Cor. 5:7). We “put on the whole armor of God” by trusting in Jesus our Savior. He is “the Valiant One” who fights for us and “wins the victory in ev’ry field of battle” (ELH 250/251). Everyone who believes and is baptized is safe in Him. Every child of God by faith is clothed in the armor of His grace and righteousness. “[F]or in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27).
The official’s faith in Jesus was not disappointed. He “believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.” Soon he learned that his son was healed at the very moment Jesus spoke His Word. The Lord had everything under control. He did not ignore the cry for help. Neither will He ignore you. The Lord hears your prayers, and He will save you. There is no risk in trusting His Word. Your Savior always keeps His promises.
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The Second Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 20) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 22:1-14
In Christ Jesus, who brought us solitary sinners into the great fellowship of the Holy Christian Church, and the Communion of Saints, dear fellow redeemed:
If you walked into an opposing team’s stadium wearing your hometown gear, if you were a Democrat living in a Republican area or a Republican living in a Democrat area, if you were a teacher assigned to a classroom of twenty rowdy preschoolers, you would agree that “there is strength in numbers.” As confident as we are when on the side of strength, we can feel quite overmatched when on the side of the few. We like to have a lot of allies. We don’t like to be singled out. Staying on the side of strength is also safer. Being part of a big crowd probably means you won’t have to take the lead. You can let others do that while lending your support. And if you are attacked in some way, you have a whole bunch of friends to back you up.
On the other side, the small group is much more vulnerable. Its members are more easily intimidated. Their voices can be ignored or drowned out. They worry about whether they are thinking and doing the right thing. After all, how could so many oppose something that is beneficial and good? They wonder if it is even worth it to take a stand, since no one will listen to them anyway.
But while it is easier and safer to be on the side of strength, it is not always best. The majority is not always right. There are examples of this throughout history. At the time of Noah, most people had fallen away from God. The LORD saw that “every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). The only exception was Noah and his family; they trusted God’s Word. Human sinfulness was just as evident after the Flood. Ten generations after Noah, the LORD called Abram away from idol worship to become the father of a new nation in the land of Canaan.
Then followed Isaac and Jacob, and the chosen people of God expanded. God helped them conquer the Promised Land. But growth in numbers did not lead to growth in faithfulness. The people turned to the false gods of the nations around them (Jud. 2:11), and “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6). God sent a series of judges and then kings to lead His people in the right way, but they continued to fall away from Him. When the Prophet Elijah came on the scene, he lamented that he was the only person left who followed the LORD. The LORD replied that there were 7,000 others besides Elijah who had not bowed down to Baal (1Ki. 19:18).
The pattern we see in reviewing Old Testament history is that God’s people rarely seem to have an advantage in numbers. When they do, they typically let their power go to their heads and fall in with the unbelievers. It appears that the Church of believers is strongest when it faces overwhelming odds. Think about the apostles preaching the truth about Jesus in the very city where He was killed. The message took root in people’s hearts, and they were baptized in God’s name. But as the church grew, it was weakened by the attacks of false teachers. Those attacks only intensified when Christianity was given legal status in the Roman Empire. The larger the church grew, the more it was torn apart.
The same is true today. Christianity has reached around the world. There are probably Christians in every country. But look how divided the church is! Why does this happen? It happens because of the devil’s wicked deeds. As he once incited Adam and Eve to rebel against God and His Word, so he incites sinners against Christ, and Christian against Christian. The Lutheran hymnwriter Philip Melanchthon expresses this sad reality, “The foul old dragon and dread foe / With envy, hate, and wrath doth glow; / It always is his aim and pride / Thy Christian people to divide” (ELH 545, v. 4).
Jesus says that the devil is like an enemy who comes during the night and sows weeds among the wheat (Mt. 13:38-39). The weeds grow up right alongside the wheat and make it difficult for them to remain healthy plants. The weeds may even grow within the visible Christian church. This is obvious to us. There are many who call themselves Christian who clearly are not Christian at all. They might teach that Jesus was nothing more than a noble teacher, or that God is pleased with those who disobey His Commandments. Other cases are not so obvious. Some appear to be good Christians but are actually hypocrites. Jesus promises that these will be sorted out on the last day and thrown “into the fiery furnace” (13:50).
Statistically, Christianity is the largest religion in the world. But how many who call themselves Christian actually believe in Jesus alone as their Savior? Only God knows that answer, but without a doubt, the Holy Christian Church is not as large as it seems.
We know what role the devil plays in this, but the fault lies not just with Satan. The fault of unbelief rests in our own wicked hearts. It is not God’s fault that so many reject His will and His Word. What more should He do? He created the world perfectly and handed it over to mankind to manage. But they decided to listen to a deceitful snake, and chose to love themselves instead of God. The LORD did not cast them eternally from His presence, which He would have been justified in doing. He gave them hope in a Savior, who would be born of a woman and would crush the devil’s head (Gen. 3:15).
The LORD kept that promise. The Messiah was conceived in Mary’s womb, and God became Man. Jesus healed and blessed and taught, committing no sin against anyone. But His gracious presence was not welcome. Jew and Gentile rose up and condemned Him to die by crucifixion. They abused and mocked Him. In return, He forgave them. He willingly died to win life for the wicked. Then He rose again and appeared to hundreds, so they and all people would know that the victory over sin, death, and devil was won for them. After this, He sent out the Holy Spirit to change the hearts of sinners through the Gospel. And He continued to strengthen and bless them through the Sacraments He established. What more does God need to do that He has not done?
And yet the typical response to these gifts is indifference. The king’s wedding feast is ready, and the invitations are sent out, but no one seems to care. “[O]ne [goes off] to his farm, another to his business.” Some even react violently to the message of God’s Word. They treat God’s servants shamefully and want them to be dead. This was true of the Israelites before the time of Christ, who persecuted the LORD’s prophets, and it is still the case today. This spirit of indifference is also true of us who consider ourselves serious Christians. We do not often get out of bed eager to fill our hearts and minds with God’s Word and do His will. And when God invites us to feast on His Word and Sacraments, it is easy to come up with other things to do that seem more pressing and important.
Like a person stepping on crumbling rock to get a good look over a cliff, we do not recognize how easy it is to fall from the faith. Jesus warns us, “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt. 7:13-14). So many deviate from the narrow path to heaven and join the great crowd marching to hell. How can you be sure that you aren’t one of them? How do you know if you are among the few that are both called and chosen?
Well, let me ask you a few questions:
- Are you saved because of the righteous things you have done, or because Jesus lived a holy life for you?
- Are you forgiven because you atoned for your sins, or because Jesus shed His blood and died for you?
- Will you rise again from the dead because you deserve it, or because Jesus won the victory over death for you?
If your answer to every question is Jesus, then you are among the chosen. You are the elect of God. Because “those whom he predestined—elected according to His grace—he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). God chose you from eternity to believe in Him, and He called you to that faith through the Gospel. He made you His own and cleansed your sinful heart in holy baptism, and He continues to strengthen your faith through the preaching of His Word and the Sacrament of His body and blood.
Why has He done this for you? It is not because you deserved it, or because you are better than others. This is what is so perplexing to our rational minds. We cannot explain why it is that we believe while others do not. By nature, we are just as troubled as anyone else, just as sinful, just as hostile to God. But God has been gracious to us. He chose us to “be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness” (Second Article of the Creed). He called us to His wedding feast, clothes us in rich garments, and has us sit down at the feast while He serves us!
There is strength in numbers, but strength and numbers are not everything. There are times When Being among the Few Is a Blessing. We thank God that He has redeemed us from the destruction we deserved and brought us into His little flock. And we pray that He keeps us steadfast in His Word and faithful to the end, as we enjoy His good gifts here and anticipate the great wedding feast in His eternal kingdom.
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The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 10:23-38
In Christ Jesus, sent by God the Father to gather His flock and lead it to the safe haven above, dear fellow redeemed:
Many of you here have learned the Ten Commandments along with Martin Luther’s explanation to each one. With the exception of the First Commandment, each explanation starts out the same way, “We should fear and love God, so that we….” Luther did this to emphasize that each Commandment points back to the first one, “You shall have no other gods,” which means that we should “Fear, love, and trust in God above all things” (Luther’s explanation). Why should I honor my father and mother? Because God put those authorities over me. Why shouldn’t I harm someone? Because God gives life and wants it protected. Why shouldn’t I steal? Because God gives food and possessions even to the wicked. The reason that I speak well of others, help them keep what they have, honor marriage, and so on, is out of fear and love for God.
You can imagine what happens when people do not fear and love God. They abuse God’s name. They ignore His Word. They disrespect the authorities. They fail to defend life. They despise marriage. They take what is not theirs. They attack the reputation of others. They plot and scheme to get what is someone else’s. And what does all this gain for them? They may experience moments of empowerment and happiness, but their lives are full of emptiness and brokenness, and death moves closer and closer by the day. There is no hope for them apart from the true God. Only He can rescue from death. We Fear and Love Him Who Gives Us Eternal Life.
What does it mean to fear God? It means to have a healthy respect for who He is and what He is capable of. To say that fear and respect for God are lacking today is an understatement. People are quick to blame Him in bad times and quick to praise themselves when times are good. They treat the Bible like a toy that can be twisted, stretched, and spun however they like. They say things like, “The God I know would never criticize my lifestyle choices. The God I know loves and accepts me just the way I am.” But the god they know is a god of their own making and not the true God. Others deny that God even exists. They freely take His name in vain and blaspheme Him and His Word. What should God do about this?
When we are disrespected by someone, we are tempted to lash out against that person and to seek revenge. We might even resort to intimidation or physical harm. Surely the Lord would be just in doing the same. He is God Almighty, the Creator. He made all things and deserves the honor and praise of all. But it was not for revenge that God came down to earth in the flesh. Jesus said, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17). That is good news for us, because we are among those who have dishonored the true God by devoting ourselves to other gods.
This temptation to chase after false gods is ever-present in our lives. It might be the god of money, the god of worldly success and honor, the god of pleasure, the god of work, the god of family, the god of sport and leisure, the god of beauty, the god of political activism. These things are not sinful in and of themselves, but they become sinful when they take the place of our trust in God. In the Holy Gospel reading from Matthew 22, Jesus said that this is the great commandment of the Law, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Where has your heart been focused – have you let it lead you into sin? How about your soul – would you sell it for the riches and glory of the world? And your mind – do you apply it toward good and holy pursuits or evil ones?
There is no part of you that is unstained by sin. You have joined the devil and the world in opposition to God every time you have done what God says you should not and failed to do what you should. Our Lord does not go with averages. Mostly good is not good enough. Scripture says that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (Jam. 2:10). So why is it that God still counts you as one of His children? Jesus explains, “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. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
You have heard the voice of Jesus in His Word, and you believe what He says. You believe that there is only one God but three Persons – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. You believe that you are a lost and condemned sinner, who has been purchased and won back by the blood of God’s Son. You believe these things because the Holy Spirit has brought you to faith through His Word. You believe that God chose you from eternity to receive His gifts and to live with Him forever in heaven. These are articles of faith. They cannot be understood by human reason or captured by human strength. If God did not give you this faith, you would not have it.
The Jews who surrounded Jesus in the temple courts did not have this faith. They saw the amazing works Jesus did. They heard His words. But they had a different Messiah in mind, one who would pat them on the back and praise them for their holy living. They trusted in the god of self. They denied the true God and wanted Jesus dead. Not much has changed. Today’s unbelievers want the same thing. This is because the old Adam is still the old Adam, the devil is still the devil, and the world is still the world. The enemies we face are the same enemies that the apostles and David and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob faced. But the God who defends us is the same God too, and He is almighty.
Psalm 2 says, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs” (vv. 1-4). Psalm 115 describes the idols of men which are nothing but “the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat” (vv. 4-7). But the true God “is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (v. 3). There is no God like the LORD. He is “God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God” (Deu. 10:17).
Despite God’s promise to protect us and keep us safe in His hands, we often let fear overcome us—and it isn’t the proper fear of God. We fear having to defend what we believe and being made fun of for it. We fear those who want Christians silenced or worse. We fear that we might miss out on really living if we deny ourselves and have to take up our cross. Such fears are sinful and are contrary to the First Commandment. We cannot serve two Lords or two Gods. We cannot live according to God’s will while indulging our sinful desires. If you do fear and love God, you must serve Him with every inch, every part of your being, body and soul.
If you fail to do this, do you know what God will do to you? Will He punish you? Disown you? No, He will forgive you. In fact, He already has. We have failed to do what God demands. We have not loved Him with our heart, mind, and soul, or our neighbor as ourselves. But Jesus did. He loved God and His neighbor with a perfect love. How could He love God? Does that mean He loved Himself? It means that He obeyed the will of His Father and carried out the work His Father gave Him to do, which was to die for sin. And how can we know that He perfectly loved His neighbors? He was willing to suffer and die even for His enemies, which includes you and me. St. Paul writes that “one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7-8).
Jesus died for your sins, even your sins of denying Him, ignoring Him, and willingly doing what you should not have done. Jesus willingly suffered for these sins. They do not stick to you anymore. You are clean. And because you are clean in God’s sight, you are also in line to inherit eternal life. No other God can do this, because there is no other God. There is only one Creator, one Lord, one King. He will not lead you astray, and as long as you listen to His Word, He will keep you from being enticed by any wolf or endangered by any hireling. No one will snatch you, His precious lamb, out of His hand. So with the psalmist we say, “This I know, that God is for me. In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Ps. 56:9-11).
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