The Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10
In Christ Jesus, the Judge who comes with mercy and might to terminate the evil and crown the righteous (ELH #534, v. 1), dear fellow redeemed:
At the end of the Athanasian Creed, we confess that at the second coming of Jesus, “all will rise again with their bodies and will give an account of their own works. And they that have done good will enter into life everlasting; and they that have done evil into everlasting fire” (ELH, p. 30). So have you “done good” or have you “done evil”?
Certainly sometimes you have done good, but not always. If you had to stand before your Lord and King on the last day and give an account of every good and bad thing, what would there be more of? Jesus says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Mat. 12:36). “Every careless word”!?! Where would we even begin? There are so many of them!
That’s why hearing about “Judgment Day” makes us feel a little nervous. It doesn’t sound like a very nice day. Jesus Christ, whom the world of men crucified, is coming again to judge the living and the dead. How will He judge us? In the Holy Gospel for today (Mat. 25:31-46), He explains that He will place the righteous who did His will at His right hand. And He will place the cursed who did not do His will at His left. You are counted among the righteous, but the credit for your goodness does not go to you.
If you try to take comfort in the good you have done, you will have no comfort. For every good deed, you can think of a bad one. You may have served someone in deep love, but you have also shunned another in deep hatred. You acted generously toward one, but selfishly toward another. You confidently spoke the truth and cowardly spoke a lie. You obeyed the authorities on one occasion and broke the law on another. For every righteous thought, word, and action, you can remember an opposing infraction.
But Judgment Day will not be a bad day for you. It is going to be a good day—a great day. You will not receive the Lord’s wrath as you stand before Him. You will receive His mercy. Jesus will say to you: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mat. 25:34). How can that be? It is because you will not be judged by your own life. You will be judged by Jesus’ life, by the perfect good He carried out on your behalf.
This is why Jesus calls us the “good” and “righteous” ones. We are those who were claimed as His own in Holy Baptism and covered in His righteousness. We are those who time and again have partaken of His holy body and blood in the Supper. We are those who have no good to boast of in ourselves, but who are declared righteous by faith in Jesus. This faith binds us to Him and produces the fruit of love toward the people around us, which Jesus counts as work done for Him.
That means Judgment Day is not a day to be feared. It is our day of victory. Jesus tells us that when we see the signs of the end times happening all around us, then we should “straighten up and raise [our] heads, because [our] redemption is drawing near” (Luk. 21:28). We should not worry about Judgment Day; we should look forward to it.
One reason we look forward to it is because “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels,” He will grant us relief from our afflictions. Being a follower of Jesus is not all roses in this world. Jesus tells us to expect trouble here on account of His name. He says, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Joh. 15:18-19).
Why would the world hate Christians? We do not pursue violence toward those who oppose us. We deal kindly with our neighbors. We help the needy. Shouldn’t the world praise us? But then Jesus did all those good things and more, and He was despised and rejected and nailed to a cross to die. The world’s hatred of Christians is not rational. It’s demonic. The devil is behind it. He wants to make our lives miserable, so that we deny our Savior and Lord.
But God turns the devil’s wicked schemes into good for us. Paul told the Thessalonian Christians that despite all the afflictions and persecutions they were enduring, “we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith.” Amidst all that trouble, Paul gave thanks to God because, he said, “your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”
God used their afflictions to purify their faith like gold purified in a hot fire. That is hard to accept. Nobody wants to endure persecution and suffering and pain. We want God to give us only peaceful times and pleasant things. But if we received all the good things we wanted, what would that do to our faith? If we never suffered, we would cling to this life. We would not long for a better life to come. Suffering increases our desire “to depart and be with Christ” (Phi. 1:23), to join the great company in heaven around His throne.
But before that time comes, we often endure terrible things here on earth. You may have wrongly been accused of someone else’s crime. You may have had something precious stolen from you. You may have been the victim of malicious lies, and your reputation never recovered. You may have been betrayed by someone you thought you could trust. You may have been taken advantage of or abused, and the offender got away with it. You may have been treated like dirt by someone who was supposed to care for you.
Where is the justice for these wrongs? Doesn’t God see what is done to His people? Don’t these vicious attacks and persecutions bother Him? Yes, they do. He sees every wrong done to His dear children. He knows how severely they are wounded, how deeply they are hurt. This is why He gave up what was most dear to Him. Out of love for the afflicted, He gave up His only Son.
God the Father sent His Son to take every wrong, every wound, every hurt into Himself. He came to bear that injustice, so you would have a way out from the anger, the pain, and the tears. “Surely he has borne [your] griefs and carried [your] sorrows” (Isa. 53:4). Jesus came to free you from these terrible burdens and to wash you clean not only from your sins, but also from the sins others have committed against you. His holy blood cleanses you from all sin (1Jo. 1:7).
But what about the wicked who have done horrible things and gotten away with them? What about those who piled up wrong after wrong and were never brought to justice? The mighty God assures us that the unrepentant will be brought to justice. Regarding the one who has “spurned the Son of God” and “outraged the Spirit of grace,” the Lord says, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay” (Heb. 10:29-30).
Our text says that “indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you.” Hardened sinners will suffer for the evil they have done. When Jesus comes again in glory “with His mighty angels in flaming fire,” He will “[inflict] vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might.”
This is our Lord’s promise, that all the wrongs done to us here will be set right. The people of the world who attacked Jesus and His Word and His faithful followers will not be able to find anywhere to hide. Even the deepest cave will not save them from His wrath (Rev. 6:15-17). “And these will go away into eternal punishment,” says Jesus, “but the righteous into eternal life” (Mat. 25:46).
We do not want to see anyone damned to hell, although we know that many will be. For our part, we pray that the wicked repent of their wrongs before they must face the terrible wrath of God. And we ask God to lead us also to daily repentance and a humble trust in His grace. We are saved only by His grace. We do not deserve salvation, but He gives it freely and fully because of His great love and compassion for us.
There is no doubt about it: Justice Will Be Done on Judgment Day. Those who have rejected the Lord and His Word of grace will answer for all the wrong they did on earth. They will be condemned to eternal torment in hell because they were not righteous before God. But those who have trusted in God’s promises in His Word will not see His anger. They will be judged according to the life of Jesus, who was perfectly righteous.
So you do not need to be afraid of Judgment Day. It is the day of your victory over all that is wrong in this world. It is the day when justice will finally and fully be done, and you will take your blessed place in the presence of the holy 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.
+ + +
(picture from “The Last Judgment” by Fra Angelico, c. 1395-1455)
The Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
In Christ Jesus, who gives us hope in our uncertainties and comfort in our struggles and sorrows, dear fellow redeemed:
We could list a lot of things that make us feel more pessimistic than optimistic about the future. Our country is divided politically, and the sides seem to be moving further apart rather than closer together. We have ongoing concerns about a virus that infects more people each day. We wonder how stable the economy will be going forward. But in the middle of these divisions and uncertainties, the inspired words of today’s text give us hope.
The apostle Paul sent these words to the Christians in Thessalonica. He had preached and taught among them for only a short time before he was forced to leave the town. Some jealous opponents had stirred up a mob against him and even dragged one of the new Christian converts before the authorities (Act. 17:1-10). From this time forward, it would have been uncomfortable and perhaps even dangerous to be a Christian in Thessalonica.
But the Thessalonians remained faithful. They endured suffering and waited eagerly for Christ’s return in glory. They were told to expect His second coming very soon. But as time passed, these new Christians faced a new problem. Some of their fellow believers were dying. What were they to make of that? Would the dead miss out on the glorious return of Jesus and the promise of eternal life in heaven?
Paul’s letter brought them great comfort. He referred to the dead in the same way Jesus had spoken about a deceased little girl, that she was “not dead but sleeping” (Mar. 5:39). The crowd laughed at Jesus then, but they weren’t laughing when He took her by the hand and brought her back to life. For Jesus, waking the dead is just as easy as waking someone up from a nap. Death is only a sleep to Him, a temporary, peaceful slumber.
We should not wonder if Jesus can do this. We have the examples of His raising the little girl, the young man from Nain, and His friend Lazarus. But the most compelling evidence of Jesus’ power over death is His own resurrection from the dead. Not only could He raise others, He could even raise Himself! Now that’s power!
A whole bunch of people regard Jesus as a good teacher but nothing more. They lump Him in with teachers like Confucius, Buddha, or Muhammed. But when those men died, they stayed dead. Their flesh decayed, and perhaps by now their bones have even turned to dust. Jesus died, but His flesh did not see corruption. Death held Him for parts of three days—and only because He let it.
He entered death when He wanted to, and He left it again when He wanted to. There was nothing death could do to stop Him. Death was utterly overcome, defeated. Jesus triumphed over death and will never be subject to it again. That means death won’t be able to overcome us who trust in Him. “But how can you be so sure?” the skeptic asks. “Show me an example in modern history of someone being dead for a matter of days and coming back to life again.”
The world always wants proof on its terms. Past evidence does not count. They need to see it with their own eyes today. We sinners repeat the same mistakes as the sinners of the past. We hardly ever learn. Each generation thinks it is better and smarter and more righteous than the generations before it. It is our common human pride and conceit.
This self-centeredness is why many refuse to believe that Jesus rose from the dead two thousand years ago or that He will raise the dead in the future. They are like doubting Thomas. They won’t trust the multiple eyewitness accounts of others. They need to see it with their own eyes, or they won’t believe it (Joh. 20:24-25). “If Jesus has this power,” they say, “let Him come down here and show us. If He brings someone back from the dead, then we will believe in Him.”
But even that wouldn’t be enough. Sinful people always find something to question, some reason for doubt. If Jesus came back and raised a dead person to life, many would say it was a trick. They would come up with some logical explanation for it. Seeing would not lead to them believing.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Joh. 20:29). He wants us to take Him at His Word. He has the right to expect that, doesn’t He? After all, He is the one who predicted His own resurrection and then followed through on it. If He made good on that promise, why wouldn’t He make good on His promise to raise the dead on the last day?
Paul made it clear that he wasn’t putting down his own opinions or wishes in his letter. He said, “this we declare to you by a word from the Lord.” The Lord promises that those who are alive when He comes on the last day will not have any advantage over those who are asleep in their graves. He will come with a great shout, and His powerful Word will awaken the dead. Then all believers will rise with glorified bodies that no longer show any effect of sin.
After the dead have risen, “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The word translated “caught up” has the sense of a sudden and intense action. We will be snatched up to the clouds by the Lord. We won’t have to wait for our redemption. It will happen immediately when Jesus comes.
It won’t come a moment too soon. We long for Jesus’ return. This world is not where we want to be. As Christians first sang in the 12th century, so we still sing, “The world is very evil, / The times are waxing late” (ELH #534, v. 1). In the Holy Gospel for today (Mat. 24:15-28), Jesus describes the tribulation of the end times. “[I]f those days had not been cut short,” He said, “no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.”
So what is Jesus waiting for? The apostle Peter reminds us “that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2Pe. 3:8-9). Jesus is not sleeping on the job or dragging His feet. He is showing patience with sinners. He wants them all to repent and be saved and join Him in heaven.
But we are not patient like our Lord is. This is why many are tempted to follow after “false christs and false prophets” (Mat. 24:24). We are tempted to follow after the smooth-talking liars who promise a prosperous life here on earth, a life without suffering, a life without trouble. Even if they could deliver on those promises, these false teachers can’t give life to the dead. Anyone who promises hope and salvation apart from the crucified and risen Christ is of the devil.
Apart from Jesus, there is no reason to be hopeful about anything. But with Jesus, we are filled with hope. So while our country is divided, and many of our politicians seem more interested in serving themselves than others, Jesus reigns as King over all things at the right hand of the Father. While people are getting sick this year at higher rates than usual, Jesus has the power to heal the sick or bring the souls of believers to heaven to be with Him. While there may be uncertainty in our financial plans and holdings, Jesus has secured eternal riches for us that will never pass away.
You can wring your hands and worry and lose sleep trying to control things you can’t control—and we all do plenty of that. But the Lord calls you to trust in Him, to trust that He will keep His promises toward you. Now leaving your life and your future in God’s hands like this is difficult. Your sinful flesh does not want to give up any of its independence or its perceived power. If you are going to place your trust in Him, you want proof that He isn’t going to let you down.
“You want proof?” He says. “Then look at Me hanging on the cross for you, shedding My blood to cleanse you from your sins. And come look into My empty tomb. I left it because death could not conquer Me. I rose from the dead to win victory over your death. I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus will not leave you to fight for yourself in this evil world. He came to save you not because He had to but because He wanted to. And He still fights for you, coming to give you strength through His Word and Sacraments and dwelling within you by faith.
As long as you have Jesus, your situation will never be hopeless. He promises to carry you through all your pain and sorrow in this short life and to take your soul to be with Him when you breathe your last. Then He promises to come again to wake your body from its peaceful sleep, so that you can enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven in both body and soul.
You can be certain of your resurrection because His resurrection is certain. The Holy Spirit states it definitively through the mouth of Paul: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.” Put Your Hope in the Resurrected One. Then you will have a living hope, a hope that no one can take from you, a hope that will never die.
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.
+ + +
(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 27) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who calls us to listen to His voice and follow Him, even though we cannot see Him yet, dear fellow redeemed:
In a few days, joyful processions of people will enter houses all over the country to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner. Similar processions will happen about a month later at Christmastime. Those who are traveling somewhere will be making preparations for the trip. Those who are hosting will be cleaning and cooking in preparation for their guests.
When the day arrives, the hosts get up early to make sure there is enough time to get everything done. So many details! The company will arrive at noon, so everything should be in place by 11:30. It never is. The flurry of activity rolls right up to the expected time. The kitchen is tidied up. Miscellaneous items are thrown in closets and hidden in drawers. Eyes glance out the window looking for the car to pull in the driveway. Then it’s 12:05, then 12:15, then 1:00! There are no messages about plans changing. Where could they be?
The main dishes were ready an hour ago, and the smell of food fills the house. Stomachs are rumbling. Thieves—some little and some big—sneak food when mom isn’t looking. As the minute hand makes its revolutions, the adrenaline that kept everyone going all morning is wearing off. Arms and legs are weary. The couch in front of the TV feels comfortable, and no one really cares about the football game. Eyes start to feel heavy.
This scenario is something like what Jesus describes before the bridegroom arrives for the wedding feast. Eager to meet the bridegroom and enjoy the feast, the virgins bring their lamps. They talk excitedly with one another. It will be a great celebration, unlike any they had attended before. What would the banquet hall look like? Who would be there? How would everyone be dressed? They couldn’t wait to join the wedding party and skip through those doors.
The ten virgins were ready. Their lamps burned brightly. Their ears listened for the announcement of the bridegroom’s arrival. Their eyes kept a sharp look-out. But as time passed, the excitement wore off. It was getting late. Why wasn’t he here yet? How much longer would it be? As they waited, “they all became drowsy and slept.”
This is a parable about looking for Jesus’ return on the last day. Because we know “neither the day nor the hour” of His coming, Jesus tells us to “watch,” to be alert, to be ready. What does it mean to stay watchful? It does not mean staring up at the sky every day, waiting for Jesus to come on the clouds. It does not mean lighting a candle or turning a lamp on for Jesus. Being watchful means to have a sober mind alert for any danger. It means to have a clear faith in the Lord’s promises and to be ready for Him to come at any moment.
It is hard to stay watchful like this. The longer we have to wait, the more it seems like Jesus will not return in our lifetime. This leads many to set aside spiritual concerns. “There is plenty of time for church later,” they think. “And I know where my Bible is when I need it.” Nothing could be more foolish! Jesus says, “[S]tay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…. [B]e ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Mat. 24:42,44).
But our eyes sometimes get heavy. We believers are represented by the wise virgins in the parable. The wise virgins had plenty of oil at hand; they had the fuel of the Word to keep their faith going. But they became drowsy just like the foolish ones. They slept too. As prepared as you and I may be for our Lord’s return, we are still sinners. We are not perfectly watchful. We grow tired of the wait. We wonder if the marriage feast will really be worth it.
And then there is the pressure from the world. The world mocks the pure in faith, just as it mocks the 20-year-old who leads “a chaste and decent life,” a sexually pure life (6th Commandment). The world wants us to abandon the holy Bridegroom and search for other lovers. “Look at how much fun we are having! Why sit there in the darkness with your little lamp? Who knows if your Lord is even coming? Just come over here for a while! You’ll be back before you know it!” Every one of us knows these temptations. Every one of us has fallen for them. Those are the times when we set the lamp of faith aside. Those are the times when we slept.
But the midnight cry wakes us from this slumber. The Word pierces through our spiritual darkness: “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” The same powerful Word of Christ that will wake the dead on the last day wakes us up even now. Our five senses cannot perceive how fiercely the devil and demons are attacking our faith. Our reason cannot keep us on the right path. Only the Word can help us. Only the Word can save us.
The Word gives us Jesus: “Here is the bridegroom!” it says. “Here He is lying in a manger. Here He is teaching, healing, and praying for His people. Here He is suffering for sinners. Here He is dying on the cross. Here He is overwhelming the powers of darkness. Here He is overcoming death. Here He is giving life to the world. Here He is shining grace into darkened hearts. Here He is offering His body and blood for sinners to eat and drink.”
The Bridegroom’s presence with you now is preparing you for His presence eternally. The Divine Service each week is something like a wedding rehearsal. It is where you practice for the marriage feast in heaven. But a rehearsal is only a dim reflection of the real thing. No one here is dressed like they will be in eternity. No one is perfectly focused. No one grasps the full import of the main event. We members of the wedding party are distracted by many things.
But Jesus is still in our midst. He is still calling us to meet Him at the altar. There, He promises His undying love for us. There, He fills us with the sweetest food and drink that we could ever consume. The holy Supper of His body and blood is a gift for the members of the wedding party. It is not for just anyone who comes in off the street. It is for those whose connection to the Bridegroom has been recognized.
Maybe the stranger sitting over by himself is a friend of the Bridegroom. The only way to find out is to talk with that person. “Who are you? Where are you from? How do you know the Bridegroom?” These are the questions we ask of all who wish to partake of the Lord’s Supper. We are diligent about this because we want all who partake at the altar to partake of the feast in heaven. We want all who eat and drink here to eat and drink there.
Many do not get this connection. They do not recognize that our Communion practice has eternal implications. Some view the Supper as nothing more than a meal to remember Jesus by. Others use this meal to show how inclusive they are, and they welcome anyone and everyone to join them at the Communion rail. They are not worried about where the people around them are heading. They probably assume everyone is going to heaven.
Jesus does not agree. He said that the virgins who were not prepared, whose lamps had run out of oil, were not welcome to enter the marriage hall. They pleaded for entrance, but the Bridegroom said, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” The wise and foolish virgins looked no different in appearance. No one could tell them apart until the lamps of the foolish ones began to go out.
But the wise virgins prepared for the marriage feast by giving attention to important things beforehand. They did not “throw caution to the wind.” They were not reckless with their lamps and the oil that fed them. They took God’s Word and Sacraments seriously. They recognized that only this fuel could keep their faith alive and strong, so they were ready for the Bridegroom’s arrival.
It is through these means of grace that Jesus comes to us now. He comes to us to keep us alert and ready for His visible return. He meets us here to prepare us to enter eternity with Him. Paul paints a beautiful picture of what Christ’s presence means for us now. He writes, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2Co. 2:14). Jesus leads the way, and all His people follow along. They are a band of misfits, unimpressive to the world, hardly noticeable in their own right. But because they are joined to Christ, they spread the sweet fragrance of salvation wherever they go.
Paul continues, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (v. 15). This wedding procession led by Jesus winds its way through this world. By the devil’s tempting, some step away from the procession into the darkness. But by God’s grace, many more are awakened through the sweet sound and fragrance of the Gospel, and they join the procession.
You are part of this procession by faith in Jesus. Each day of your life is a step closer to the doors of the banquet hall. They are standing wide open for you. Your name is on the guest list. The feast is ready. It may feel like a long wait, like when you wait for guests to arrive at Thanksgiving. But when your Savior comes on the last day, you won’t care how long His arrival seemed to take. You will rejoice that He has come, and you will go with Him to the feast, the place of perfect happiness and endless joy.
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.
+ + +
(11th century painting from the Rossano Gospel)
The Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 26) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:31-46
In Christ Jesus, “The Judge that comes in mercy, / The Judge that comes with might, / To terminate the evil,” and to crown or “diadem the right” (ELH 534, v. 1), dear fellow redeemed:
You know how it feels to be caught doing something wrong. Maybe you broke something because of reckless behavior and had to face your parents. Or you were disrespectful to a teacher and had to go talk to the principal. Or you were speeding, and an officer pulled you over. It is not pleasant to face the consequences for bad behavior. You and I would rather be about anywhere else than standing before someone who can exact punishment for a wrong. Is that how it will feel when Jesus comes on the last day and sits on His glorious throne?
We think of how Isaiah and Peter reacted as they stood in the presence of the holy Lord. When Isaiah was allowed to see the Lord sitting on His throne, He cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips!” (Isa. 6:5). And when Peter saw Jesus perform a great miracle, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luk. 5:8). The book of Revelation tells of “the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free,” who desperately try to hide from the presence of the Lord. They call out to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (6:16-17).
This Lamb will sit on the throne of judgment on the last day. Should you and I be worried? If our standing before God depended on how well we had lived our lives and how much good we had done, we should be worried. It isn’t just a matter of balancing out the bad with enough good, or doing okay given the circumstances. The standard by which our life is assessed is the Ten Commandments of God. And if we have broken those Commandments in any way, we cannot be let into heaven by our own merits. There is no imperfection in heaven.
But if our good works will not count for our salvation on the last day, why does Jesus make it sound like they will? He says that those who are “on His right,” those who are “in the right,” are those who gave Him food when He was hungry, drink when He was thirsty, a home when He was a stranger, clothes when He was naked, and visited Him when He was sick and in prison. He explained that they did these things for Him whenever they did it for their neighbor, for someone in need.
And you can think of times that you did things like this for others. If you are a parent, you’ve got the list covered in your own home. You have done all these things for your kids, and you do them every day. Even if you are not a parent, there are many times that you assisted others. You lent a helping hand with no thought of reward. You went out of your way to brighten someone’s day. You gave money and time to charitable efforts. Those are all good things. Does that mean you are right with God? Isn’t that what Jesus is saying?
It’s very crucial that we take in all that Jesus says and how He says it. Listen to His description of “the sheep” who are placed “on His right.” He says that they are “blessed by My Father.” He says they are to “inherit the kingdom.” The unique thing about this eternal inheritance is that it was “prepared… from the foundation of the world.” In other words, it was designated for the heirs long before they were even born.
And when Jesus credits the sheep with good works, they act surprised. They wonder when they ever did all those good things. They don’t sound interested in recounting the good they had done. They respond with humility. They realize they are being given much more than they ever gave.
Their response is much different than the response of the goats. Jesus tells the goats on His left that they did not give Him food or drink or a home or clothes or kind attention. Now if Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, says you failed to do what you should have, that is no time to argue. That is no time to make excuses or pass blame. That is the time to fall to your knees in repentance. Instead the goats say, “When did we not serve You in these ways?” There is no humility there, no recognition of shortcomings. So they are sent to “eternal punishment.”
This is a hard teaching. It is hard to hear that a large number of people will be condemned to hell. Many of them may even seem “good” to us. Hell contains more than just the Hitlers of the world. It isn’t just the rapists, murders, and abusers, who show no remorse for what they have done. There will also be plenty of “nice” people in hell, people who were good parents, hard workers, generous givers, and responsible citizens. They will be in hell because as good as they may have seemed to be, they were nowhere near perfect. Instead of acknowledging their sin and trusting in the only One who saves, they lived by their own set of standards; they went by their own creed.
“Pretty good” is not good enough. Those who think they are “pretty good” are not being honest about their corrupt condition. All of us have trouble owning up to our sins. We would never want others to know the evil we hold in our head and heart. We want people to see us at our best. We want them to see the “resume view” of our lives: “Here are all the good things I have done. Here are my accomplishments. These are my good qualities. This is what I bring to the table.”
Nobody puts bad things on a resume: “I got fired from this job for cause. I quit this one because I don’t always get along well with others. I’m on a new career path because I’m never content. Oh yeah, I really like to play the ‘victim card.’” We don’t often admit our weaknesses to others. We have a hard enough time acknowledging them ourselves. But it is no credit to us to hold on to our pride and to elevate ourselves above others.
Salvation comes not to proud goats but to humble sheep. It comes not to those who think they have done enough but to those who know they haven’t. Salvation is by grace alone. God gives it. He gives salvation because Jesus perfectly lived by the law. Whatever His neighbors needed, He supplied it. His was not an empty righteousness done for outward show. It was borne from His holy heart overflowing with love for sinners.
When we suffered from spiritual hunger and thirst, Jesus gave Himself for our nourishment. When we were strangers, separated from God, He reconciled us through His death on the cross. When we were stripped bare by the law of any patch of holiness, He supplied His own righteousness for our clothing. When we were sick with the infection of sin, He came with healing grace. When we were prisoners to our own sin and death, He came to set us free.
He did all these things not to get glory in the world, but to give grace. He came to humbly help and serve. He came to secure an inheritance for sinners, one that would never fade or decay. This inheritance will be fully realized by the sheep—by all believers in Him—when He returns on the last day. On that day, it will be clear who is good. It is Jesus. He alone is perfect, and He grants His perfection to everyone who believes.
This is how you are blessed by the Father. This is why you receive an inheritance that was prepared for you from the foundation of the world. It has nothing to do with the good works you have done. It is all because of what Jesus did for you. He kept the law for you. He died for your sins. He conquered your death.
Your salvation is secure in Him. This means you don’t have to wonder if you have done enough. You don’t have to feel pressure to do good in order to gain a reward. You are now free to give grace to those around you because you see their need. You recognize their trouble and suffering, and so you help. This is how God gives grace to your neighbors—through you! It does not matter if the world recognizes the good you do. That kind of glory does not last anyway.
But God gives a glory that does last. It is the glory that Jesus won for you. You get this glory by humbly trusting in Him alone. When Jesus comes on the last day and sits on His throne, you will not need to cower in fear. You will not need to worry about facing the consequences for your sin, because those sins are forgiven. They were washed away in the blood of Jesus, and His righteousness was put in their place.
You will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” because of what Jesus has done for you. The grace is His. The glory is His. And He is glad to share with you His grace and glory both now and for eternity.
+ + +
(“The Last Judgment” painting by Fra Angelico, c. 1395-1455)
The Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
St. Matthew 24:15-28
In Christ Jesus, to whom we look as “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2), who will come again from the right hand of the Father on the last day, dear fellow redeemed:
You may have heard recently about a prominent music artist who became a Christian. This was surprising for two main reasons. First of all, it seemed that he had everything he could want. He had worldwide fame and influence in the entertainment industry. He had great wealth and possessions. And he acted like it. By the egotistical way he talked and conducted himself, no one mistook him for a Christian. This made his conversion seem all the more unlikely.
The other reason people find his conversion surprising is not just that it happened, but that he is openly talking about it. In one prominent interview, he mentioned reading his Bible every night, and he talked about the blessings of marriage and children. His latest album is full of spiritual songs and is titled, “Jesus Is King.” He acknowledges that before, he was spiritually dead, but now his eyes have been opened. He said: “People who don’t believe ARE walking dead. They are asleep. And this is the awakening.”
What do you suppose unbelievers think about that statement? They probably say, “This man is crazy!” But hopefully some give it more thought. Hopefully they see that their life at present has no real purpose, no real goal. Apart from Jesus, there is no amount of money that can satisfy, no expansive property, no degree of fame and recognition. A life in unbelief is like appearing to be alive but really being dead. Until a person comes to faith in Jesus, he is spiritually dead—a dead man walking.
And that’s how we were. Before we were brought to faith by the power of God’s Word, we too were dead. But now our eyes are opened. Now we see. Now we “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Or that’s how we should walk. But we are still tempted to close our eyes once again. We are tempted to live how the unbelievers live and do what they do. We have been called out of darkness into the marvelous light of the Lord (1Pe. 2:9), and yet we often find ourselves slouching back into the darkness.
This is evident when we do not choose our words as carefully as we should, or when we fail to exercise moderation in our consumption of alcohol and food. It shows when we take part in the immoral behaviors that the world accepts but God condemns. It shows when we ignore the needs of our family members or neighbors. Giving free rein to these sins exposes us to enemy attack and seriously endangers our faith.
Peter writes that we must be “sober-minded” and “watchful” (1Pe. 5:8), because the devil works tirelessly to destroy our confidence in Jesus. He wants our eyelids to get heavy. He doesn’t want us to be aware of the dangers around us. He wants us to return to the darkness of unbelief. So we must always remember that in this lifetime we are perpetually at war—a spiritual war with eternal consequences.
When soldiers serve in peace-time, they can’t help but let down their guard a little. Their life is not immediately threatened. They feel safe. But when they receive word that the enemy is approaching, their demeanor changes. Their ears become attuned to the smallest sounds. Their eyes are on the lookout, scanning for any threat. Their weapon is clutched tightly in their hands. This is the kind of readiness we should exhibit spiritually in these end times, because the enemy is on the move and the final battle is at hand.
In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus warned His disciples about the destruction that was coming on the people of Judea. An enemy would come when they least expected it. The threat would be so sudden that there would not be time to grab some special belongings or even a cloak! When this destruction came in A. D. 70, the Christians were not trapped in Jerusalem. They fled at the first sign of trouble with the Romans a few years before. They believed what Jesus said.
This is how we also should prepare ourselves—by listening to Jesus’ Word. His Word keeps our ears attuned, so we are able to discern truth from error. His Word keeps our eyes focused, so we are not coaxed off in the wrong direction. His Word keeps us alert. It also comforts us as the battle continues.
Martin Luther points out that comfort in his great Reformation hymn. He said that “for us fights the Valiant One, / Whom God Himself elected.” Jesus fights for us and “holds the field.” “He’s by our side upon the plain / With His good gifts and Spirit” (ELH 250, vv. 2, 4). Jesus does battle on behalf of His Church of believers through His Word and Sacraments. This is how the Lord conquers. Not in outward displays of glory and power that impress the world, but through humble means that ruin the devil’s plans again and again.
When Jesus comes to you through His Word, He shines the bright light of His grace where the darkness has crept in. Nothing is hidden from His eyes. But He does not look to punish you for your sins. He wants to forgive you. He wants to lift off the burden of guilt that weighs you down. He wants you to free you from the chains of darkness that bind you, so you can walk in the light of life.
He can bring you these great blessings, because He faced sin, death, and devil in your place. Those enemies would have destroyed you, but Jesus ended their fearful reign. He gave Himself over into the hands of sinners, so that He might suffer and die for their salvation and for yours. And He rose again to secure for you a never-ending life free from all pain and trouble.
These riches are given to you each time He refocuses your ears and eyes on Him through His Word. This is how He equips you for the present battle and prepares you for its conclusion. The author of Hebrews writes that we must make it a habit to meet together to hear the Word. This is how we will encourage one another, “and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25).
This is so important for us to remember. Being a Christian is not simply being confident about one’s own standing before God because of what Jesus has done. It is also about sharing that hope with others. Jesus is coming soon, and then He will sit on the throne of judgment. We don’t want the people around us to be caught in the darkness. We want them to be saved. But how will they know about that salvation if no one tells them?
We can see how many unbelievers are searching for something that they don’t know. They want their life to have meaning. They want help to get through life’s tribulations and comfort when they experience loss. But they don’t know where to look, and they can’t find it on their own. This is what leaves them vulnerable to the manipulations of the devil.
As people desperately search for answers, the devil leads them in the wrong direction. He brings them to “false christs and false prophets.” Jesus says that these will “perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” We too will be tempted to look at these things.
But for the sake of our own faith and for the sake of those who may still believe, we keep our Eyes Fixed on Jesus. We go back to what He tells us in His Word. Jesus will not come down from heaven and hide Himself away in the wilderness or in an inner room. Rather, He says: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” He is coming, and all people will know when He comes.
We are eager for His return. We watch for Him like a child waits for company to arrive, or like a crowd anticipates the arrival of someone famous. Our watching is contagious. If right now, I stopped talking and stared at something at the back of the church, I don’t think you could help yourself. You would want to look where I look, so you could see what I’m seeing.
This is what Eyes Fixed on Jesus does for those around us. They will want to know what we are looking at. And we are more than happy to show them. As we speak the Word of His grace, Jesus comes to them too. Our prayer is that He will work the same faith in them that He has worked in us. We pray that He will open their eyes just as He has opened ours.
There is still hope for the spiritually dead. They can still be saved. Until Jesus returns or unbelievers take their last breath, “the vultures” can only circle overhead. The Lord opens eyes every day through His Word, even the eyes of those we might not expect. For this abundant grace and mercy, we glorify His name.
We honor Him now by believing His Word and living according to it. And we prepare for the blessed end of all things when the Son of Man will reveal Himself in the sight of all. Then our troubles in this world will be ended, and nothing will ever again draw our focus away from Jesus, our Savior and Lord.
+ + +
(1850 “Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem” painting by David Roberts)
The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Trinity/All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 9:18-26
In Christ Jesus, through whom we are called to everlasting sainthood by faith in His name, dear fellow redeemed:
We have recently finished watching the Ken Burns documentary on The Civil War. When the war finally came to an end, the documentary detailed the reaction of the soldiers at that moment. After four years of fighting, we might expect to hear about union men shouting for joy and jumping up and down. But that was not their reaction. Their mood was quiet and subdued. They couldn’t help but think what it took to get to this point. They remembered all the lives lost, both the Americans on their side and the Americans on the other. How could they cheer? How could they celebrate?
Nearly as many soldiers died in the Civil War as have died in all other American wars combined. There was probably no family that was not touched by a soldier’s death. But death is not just confined to war. Death has touched each of us through the loss of family members and friends. Death comes because of sin. Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” You and I are sinners. That means one day, death will come to us too.
Death is no laughing matter. This is why the crowd standing around the bed of a dead girl was so offended when Jesus said, “the girl is not dead but sleeping.” Was this some sort of sick joke? Who did Jesus think He was to come in and announce this? What a cruel statement to make in front of the grief-stricken parents of the girl! Matthew tells us that the crowd “laughed at Him.” It was a spiteful laugh, full of ridicule. They despised Jesus.
I’m sure the same thing would happen today if Jesus showed up at a “celebration of life” party and announced that the deceased was “not dead, but sleeping.” He would be laughed out of the room, or thrown out. I hope the same would not happen at a Christian funeral. The main theme at a Christian funeral is not how wonderful the deceased person was. It is not about how we will keep his or her memory alive. It is not about being comforted that the one we loved is watching over us and is still in our hearts. That may be how unbelievers deal with death, but it should not be that way for us who believe.
A Christian funeral is about Christ. It is a beautiful opportunity to be reminded of the hope and comfort we have in Him. If Jesus is not the focus, if He is not in the room, there can be no comfort. Without Jesus, there is only sadness. Then flute players sound the woeful songs of death, and people weep and wail loudly like they did at the house of the little girl (Mar. 5:38).
When Jesus came on the scene, He chided the people gathered there. He told them to stop their commotion and weeping. He chided them like a mother might when her noisy children are playing near a napping baby. “Go away,” said Jesus, “for the girl is… sleeping.” When the crowd had been put outside, then the house was quiet. Jesus was there, along with Peter, James, and John, and the girl’s parents.
The girl lay there unmoving, her heart stopped, no breath crossing her lips. By all scientific standards, she was dead. But Jesus walked over, He took her by the hand, and He said, “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (Mar. 5:41). Who was laughing now? Not death. Death had to give up its victim. Jesus gave the command, and death had to comply. Immediately the girl woke up as though from sleep, and she got up and started walking around.
The old saying states that “nothing is as certain as death and taxes.” But this account gives us reason to question that. In this case, the status of death was not certain. Death was able to be overcome. It was overcome by Jesus. So why are people still laughing at Jesus? They have to laugh—or else believe in Him. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (Joh. 11:25). He said, “Because I live, you also will live” (Joh. 14:9). He said that to Him, death is nothing but a temporary slumber.
He said these things because He was about to conquer death, once and for all. He was going to put Himself in the jaws of death, and so occupy it, so that death could turn its attention to nobody else. The battle was on! Here was Jesus with His confident promises of victory and life facing death with its record of countless victories over humanity. In one of his hymns, Martin Luther said about this battle, “It was a strange and dreadful strife / When life and death contended” (ELH 343, v. 4). Who would win?
It appeared that death had conquered when Jesus was lowered from the cross and placed in a dark tomb. That’s what His friends thought, including Peter, James, and John. But death did not overcome Jesus. Jesus overcame death. He rose again! “Death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9). That means it no longer has dominion over us. Paul writes that all who are baptized into Christ partake in His resurrection victory. Because He conquered, they conquer. Because He lives, they live.
But unbelievers reject this hope. They laugh at our confidence in Jesus’ promises. “If your Lord is so powerful,” they say, “why do you Christians end up the same as us? You shouldn’t need cemeteries if death has no power over you!” It is true that believers are buried “six feet under” just like unbelievers are. There is no obvious difference between them once they die. The same cold earth is dumped over the remains of both.
But believers view the burial of one of their own very differently than unbelievers do. Believers lay their brothers and sisters in Christ to rest in the sure hope of the resurrection. They tuck their loved one in a soft casket like a parent tucks his child in bed. They comfort one another with the certainty that their loved one is “not dead, but sleeping.” Jesus is going to come again, just like He came to the side of the little girl, and He is going to raise the dead.
This will happen because Jesus has promised it. The One who defeated death should be taken seriously. When He does this on the last day, then all the world will know who is victorious. Paul writes that “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’” (1Co. 15:54-55). On that day, we will laugh at death, because it can no longer touch us.
But you don’t have to wait until the last day to laugh at death. You can laugh at death right now. I know that death looks scary. I know it has a ferocious growl. But all its teeth are missing. Jesus knocked them out when He marched back up the throat of death and out of the mouth of the grave. It comes down to this: either Jesus is Lord, or death is Lord; either Jesus conquers, or death conquers; either Jesus reigns, or death reigns. Death cannot defeat those who are in Christ.
The times that we are overwhelmed by death are the times that we have looked away from Jesus. If we trusted Jesus’ promise of the resurrection and eternal life, we would not weep so bitterly for our loved ones. We would not wish for the comfort of their presence more than the comfort of our Lord’s presence. We would not look backward with so much grief instead of forward with so much hope.
Those who do not look to Jesus try to cope with death in other ways. Some reach for the bottle or attempt to fill the void of loss with things. Some become despondent or angry and shut people out of their life. Some try to connect with the dead through psychics or mediums. Some feel life is not worth living, and they seek to end it. These methods offer no help at all. Nothing we come up with can give comfort in the face of death.
Our only comfort is from the Lord. He is the answer for the pain death causes. He is our assurance that death does not have the upper hand. Though it seems to prevail over all flesh, Jesus will make it give up the dead again. Jesus will raise all the dead and will bring all the saints to be with Him in heaven.
The saints are all believers, whether dead or living. They are those whose sins are no longer held against them, and who are declared holy in God’s sight through faith. Even now God calls you a saint, because you believe and confess that Jesus “was delivered up for [your] trespasses and raised for [your] justification” (Rom. 4:25).
Jesus’ victory over sin and death is your victory. Yes, one day your body will give out and die, yet Jesus will not leave your body in the grave. He will raise you again as if from sleep, because to Him death is nothing more than sleep. Because Jesus has overcome death, death must do His bidding, which is to deliver us from this sinful world to the glories of heaven.
So Shall We Laugh at Jesus or at Death? The answer is found in Jesus’ empty tomb. We now laugh with Jesus at death. Death did not win. Death will not win. “[T]hanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Co. 15:57).
+ + +
(painting by Gabriel von Max, 1878)
The Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 27) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who loves His bride the Church and gave Himself up for her (Eph. 5:25), so that He might be united with her for eternity, dear fellow redeemed:
You have made your way to the banquet hall where the wedding reception will be. But the doors have not opened yet. This means you and a few hundred other people must wait in narrow hallways until the wedding party arrives. The first twenty minutes are not so bad as you catch up with friends and family. But as more time passes, the situation worsens. The hallway is getting warm. The kids are whining. People start to look out the windows in the vain hope that by watching, they might make the wedding party arrive faster.
More time passes. Not a few of the guests wonder out loud just how many stops the “party bus” is making. The mother of the bride tries to keep a smile on her face, but her patience is wearing thin. The kids are running around now and screaming. All you can think of are all the restaurants you passed on the way to the reception, restaurants where you could already be eating. How long have you been waiting? When will the wedding party get there? Why can’t they just open these doors!?!
No matter how wonderful the wedding feast may be, it is hard to wait. Waiting gives extra time for doubt: Will they ever get here? Will the feast be worth my time? Is there someplace better I could be? These are some of the same questions that come to mind during our time of waiting in this life: Will Jesus ever come? Will heaven be worth the suffering we endure now? Would I be happier if I lived for here instead of for there?
Jesus’ parable about the kingdom of heaven addresses these doubts and concerns. He describes ten virgins, the attendants of the bride. They would meet the bridegroom and then all would go in for the wedding celebration. But “the bridegroom was delayed” for reasons that are not given. Five of the virgins had come prepared for this scenario; they brought extra oil along for their lamps. But the other five did not. They were not ready when the cry sounded, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”
In this parable, the Bridegroom for whom all are waiting is Jesus, and the Bride with her virgin attendants is the Christian Church. The way the members of the Church are promised to the Bridegroom and claimed by Him is through Holy Baptism. Ephesians 5 says that Christ has “cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (vv. 26-27). But Baptism alone does not ensure that a person will be prepared to meet the Savior on the last day. Jesus says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk. 16:16)—not just Baptism, but Baptism along with faith in the Lord’s promises.
The five virgins whose lamps were going out are those Christians who were brought to faith by the Holy Spirit through the Word. But they failed to continue to feed the flame of faith. They did not make regular use of God’s Word and Sacraments, or if they did, they did not partake of these things with believing hearts. They may have gone through the motions of Christian faith and practice, but it was empty. They did not from the heart confess their sins and from the heart believe that those sins are forgiven through the blood of Jesus.
When the time of the Bridegroom’s arrival came, they could not rely on the faith of others. Their frantic, “What should we do now?!” when their lamps were burning out, showed that the faith they once had, had run dry. Instead of eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Bridegroom, now His coming frightened them. Their focus had been on other things. They had not made the Bridegroom’s arrival their priority.
The five wise virgins, on the other hand, had properly prepared for the Bridegroom. They had brought an extra supply of oil for their lamps in the event that the Bridegroom was delayed. They were ready for His coming and went to meet Him without fear. What a joy it was to see Him after the long wait!
Now if the Bridegroom’s arrival were today, in which group would you be found? Do you look forward to Jesus’ visible return in glory, or is your focus more on this world, on carrying out your plans and pursuing your dreams? Or are you worried how Jesus will judge you when He comes? You remember your many sins, some of them so shameful that they weigh on you long after you did them. You wonder if your repentance has been heartfelt enough and your faith pure enough.
It is worth noting that both the wise and the foolish virgins “became drowsy and slept.” Even the ones who were ready for the Bridegroom’s arrival were weak. They were not perfectly alert. So it is with all believers. We are all weak. We have all failed in one way or another. We “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Our readiness for Jesus’ return is not about how well we have lived or what kinds of sins we have avoided. Our readiness depends on our recognition of our many sins and our trust in the perfect life of Jesus and His atoning death for our sins.
To think that we have committed a sin that is too great to be forgiven, is to imagine a very small God and a small sacrifice on Calvary. But Jesus died for all sins, none excepted. That means He shed His blood for you, to blot out your sins. By faith in Him, you are holy and pure in His sight—a wise virgin with the flame of faith brightly burning.
But you are still on the outside looking in. The doors of heaven have been opened to you by Jesus’ death and resurrection, but you cannot see the glories yet that He promises you. Is the Wedding Feast Worth the Wait? Is the pain of an earthly life under the cross a fair exchange for the joys of heaven? Will you regret living a life fenced in by God’s law, a life of discipline, a life of devotion to the Triune God?
According to Jesus’ parable, when the Bridegroom arrives those who have been shut out from the wedding celebration are not indifferent about it. They desperately want to enter the marriage hall; they want to get into heaven. But they will hear the Bridegroom declare, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” What frightening words those are! Unbelievers will be forsaken by their Savior on the last day. On that day, they will fully realize the error of their ways. But by then it will be too late.
Jesus says that any who think they can attend the eternal wedding feast without wearing Jesus’ righteousness will be bound “hand and foot and cast… into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mat. 22:13). This is how hell is described: “outer darkness… weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And there will be no relief, no end to the suffering.
In heaven, on the other hand, there will be no end to the joy. The Bible offers only glimpses of heaven because our sinful minds cannot comprehend the glories there. They are too far above us, too wonderful. The apostle Paul talks about being “caught up into paradise,” and how “he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2Co. 12:3,4). He wrote in another place, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1Co. 13:12).
The apostle John also received a vision of heaven in “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:1). He said he saw “a door standing open in heaven,” and a voice invited him to come and look. Then John describes what he saw. He saw One sitting on a throne, who had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, which are reddish gems. Around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. “From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal” (4:1-6).
As we are in our sinful flesh, this would be a frightening sight to behold, but it will not be when our lowly bodies are transformed to be like our Lord’s glorious body at His return (Phi. 3:20-21). On that day, we will see Him as He is (1Jn. 3:2), and we will go to dwell with Him in the unending light of His glorious presence.
But how long will we have to wait for these joys? If a wedding party did not show up at the reception for two hours or three or more, many of their guests would grow tired of waiting and leave. Jesus urges us to wait patiently for His return, no matter how long it seems to take. He assures us that the wedding feast will be worth it. He, our Bridegroom, will come again to meet His holy bride. On that day, we will be roused from our sleep, and with the light of faith, we will look upon the bright countenance of our Savior.
Then we will process with Him into heaven dressed in the beautiful robes of His righteousness (Rev. 7:13-17, 21:2-4). And all the saints will proclaim the words prophesied by Isaiah, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him, that He might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation” (Isa. 25:9). And then the celebration will begin.
+ + +
(11th century painting from the Rossano Gospel)
The Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 26) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:31-46
In Christ Jesus, “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Ti. 2:14), dear fellow redeemed:
When candidates for political office are on a ballot, they find out what the members of their community think about them. Short of receiving 100% of the vote, I imagine this could be a discouraging thing for the candidates. Even those who receive 80% of the vote must wonder why 20% of the people don’t want them to serve. Even more so if the vote is split nearly in half. The winning candidates always throw big victory parties, but they have to deal with the reality that 49% of the community preferred that they lose.
Now what if you were on a ballot, but not for political office? What if it was your eternal fate that was up for a vote, and the voters were the people around you, your neighbors? These neighbors would include the members of your family and of your church, the people who live next door, your co-workers, and the people you communicate with online. If their positive or negative vote resulted in your being sent to heaven or hell, what do you think the result would be?
I imagine this would make us all a bit more careful about what we say to others, and we would be more purposeful about acts of charity and kindness. Or, like good politicians, we might make promises about what we will do for others if only they will make a commitment to vote “yes” for us. Overall, we would make it known that we planned to be very generous with our positive votes, and that we would expect the same treatment in return.
But let’s say the bar is even higher. What if your entrance into heaven required a unanimous “yes” vote from your neighbors? And what if they were required to answer honestly whether you had always been helpful, whether you had always been kind, whether you had always shown the love for neighbor that God requires in the Commandments? Would you measure up?
This is a fair question to ask when reviewing today’s text. Jesus says that the difference between “the sheep” and “the goats” on the last day is what they did or did not do. This sounds a lot like the scenario I just described, except that it is not our neighbors voting for us, but Jesus Himself. Jesus decides who has properly served “the least of [His] brothers” and places them on His right to inherit heaven. But those who have not served “the least of these” go to His left and are condemned to hell.
What is it that separates one group from the other? “Well that’s easy!” someone might say. “The good people go to heaven and the bad people go to hell.” This seems like the obvious answer. But who decides what “good” means? Aren’t there Muslims, Buddhists, and even atheists, who do what would be considered “good” things? “Well okay,” comes the reply, “it is the Christians who go to heaven, and everyone else goes to hell.” But does everyone who says he is a Christian do good things? And how much good exactly does a Christian have to do to make the cut?
If the Lord said that we must “be as good as you can be,” it would be up to anyone’s interpretation how much goodness was required. We would hope that Jesus would take into account our environment and the difficult people around us, along with our natural weaknesses. We would expect Him to set the bar right around where we set it—with the understanding that the bar might go up or down depending on extenuating circumstances.
But would our amount of goodness be good enough for God? We could never be sure. Many people live with this uncertainty. Their life is punctuated by guilt for the wrongs they have done and by the pressure to make up for the wrongs. They hope that they measure up, but they are uncertain of the standard.
When I think of “measuring up,” one picture that comes to mind is children at the fair. They want to go on all the rides, but they learn that different rides have different height requirements. Just about anyone can go on the carousel. But in order to get into bumper cars or ride on something a bit more stomach-churning, a height requirement has to be met. These are the times that young children show excellent posture as they try to stretch themselves upward to reach that line.
The standard God sets for us, the line to reach up to, is not almost within reach. It is not “be as good as you can be.” The standard for getting ourselves into heaven is far above our heads. It is nothing less than perfection. Jesus says that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Mat. 5:18). And the apostle Paul citing the Old Testament Scriptures concludes, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Gal. 3:10). No matter how hard we try to stretch ourselves up to God’s line, we “fall short” of it (Rom. 3:23). We do not measure up.
So if all people have fallen short of God’s standard, how could anyone be placed at Jesus’ right on the last day? Those who are grouped with the sheep wonder the same thing. Jesus goes through the list of how they fed Him and gave Him drink and welcomed Him and clothed Him and visited Him. And the righteous reply, “Lord, when did we do all these good things for You?”
Jesus says, “as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.” He says that He counts service done for your neighbor as service for Him. So when you provide for your family and feed and clothe your children, or when you donate to help the poor, you are feeding and clothing Him. When you show kindness to a stranger, you are showing kindness to Him. When you visit the sick and the hurting, when you have compassion for those below you and those whom everyone else has rejected, you are doing these things for Him. This is surprising. You don’t even think about most of these things. But Jesus considers them to be great works done for Him. What an encouragement this is to look for opportunities to serve your neighbors!
At the same time, you can think of many opportunities you have missed, many times that you have not loved the people around you like you should—times that you disrespected your parents, despised your spouse, ignored your children, and acted unkindly toward others. If Jesus was behind your neighbor waiting for you to do the right thing, that means you failed Him. You worry that this might land you in the other camp on Judgment Day, the camp of those whom Jesus condemns.
But you are saved neither by what you have done nor by what you have failed to do. Whatever the measure of your works, they are not enough. You are saved by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith—by God’s undeserved love, because of what Christ has done for you, through the faith worked in you by the Holy Spirit. Listen to what the Scriptures say:
- “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16).
- “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
- “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6).
- “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Ti. 3:5).
You are judged not by your works, but by God’s grace, which is yours through faith. This is the difference between the sheep and the goats, between believers and unbelievers. Though unbelievers may have done things in their lifetimes that appeared to be “good,” they are condemned because they did not do those things for Jesus. They rejected Him as their Savior, and therefore they could not please Him. “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Heb. 11:6).
But through faith, your works are pleasing to God. This should motivate you to want to do them—you want to please your Lord and Savior. You do these works not primarily because you fear God’s wrath or are trying to prove yourself to Him, but because you love Him. You love Him because of the great love He has shown to you.
Your Savior went to the cross for you and poured out His blood to wash away all your failings toward God and neighbor. In place of these sins, He gives His righteousness, which completely covers those who trust in Him. This is why He will credit the sheep with perfection on the last day. He sees them as though their sins had never occurred. He sees them as though He were looking at Himself. He sees in His beloved sheep no spot, no blemish, no wrong. There is no question in His mind who belongs on His right. They are the righteous ones who trust in His righteousness and not their own.
So if you wonder whether you measure up before God, these words of Jesus clearly show that on your own, by your own efforts, you do not. But in Him, you do measure up. By faith in Him, you will be among those at Jesus’ right who hear Him say, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” And then you will never hunger or thirst or be in want or worry about your standing with God, because then you will be in His glorious presence forever.
+ + +
(“The Last Judgment” painting by Fra Angelico, c. 1395-1455)
The Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 24:15-28
In Christ Jesus, who warns us about the troubles of the end times, so that we might fix our eyes on Him and put our full confidence in His promises, dear fellow redeemed:
Just before the words of Jesus in today’s text, His disciples asked Him, “what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Mt. 24:3). Unfortunately, Jesus did not predict that life in this world would get better and better, but that it would get worse. He told them, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars,” and “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (vv. 6,7). The times would be especially trying for Christians, who would be delivered up to tribulation, put to death, and “hated by all nations for [His] name’s sake” (v. 9). Besides all this, “false prophets will arise,” and “lawlessness will be increased” (vv. 11,12).
We can see these signs of the end times everywhere we look. We see violence carried out through international conflict, civil wars, and through the senseless taking of life such as what we have recently witnessed in Pennsylvania and California. We see natural disasters around the world—floods, tornados, droughts, wildfires, and earthquakes—which claim hundreds of lives each year. We see Christians being persecuted and killed simply because of their beliefs. And we see false teachers working to lead people away from God and to themselves.
We see all these signs, but as long as they stay a safe distance from us, it is easy to ignore them. We might feel badly for victims of violence or disasters when we hear about them, but then we go back to what we were doing before. These signs of the end times should have a greater effect on us.
In today’s text, Jesus gave a two-part warning. The first warning was about the destruction of Jerusalem, and the second warning was about the end times and Christ’s glorious return. The destruction of Jerusalem happened in the year 70. The Israelites had risen up against the Romans, and they began to fortify Jerusalem against a Roman attack. When these things happened, the Christians quickly left the city and relocated to other places. They remembered Jesus’ words. But the other residents of the city did not leave, and “great tribulation” came upon them as Jesus had predicted.
Tragedies like this have happened throughout history despite God’s merciful warnings. The people of Noah’s day had 120 years of warning while Noah and his sons built the ark. But they paid no attention. Jesus said, “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away” (Mt. 24:38-39). Later on when the LORD had settled His people in the promised land of Canaan, they continuously pursued other gods. He sent prophets to call them back, but they either ignored the prophets or killed them. This led to the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians in 722 B. C. and the fall of the southern kingdom in 586 B. C.
There are many more examples like these, examples of those who did not take God’s Word seriously. They did not perceive the danger they were in. They thought everything was fine. We can fall into the same sort of thinking. For the most part, we have not been personally touched by the kind of violence we hear about in the news. We have not had our homes destroyed by natural disasters. We have not suffered physical harm because of our confession of faith.
This can make us complacent. We can get comfortable with life in the world. We can neglect the Word of God and prayer because we expect we can always go back to those things in the future. But Jesus would not have us adopt such a lazy attitude. “Therefore stay awake,” He says, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!” (Mk. 13:35-37).
When heavy rains are predicted in our area, many in our community stay awake through the night to make sure their homes are not flooded. They recognize the threat, and they want to be as prepared as they can be. When Jesus predicts tribulation for believers in these end times, we want to remain spiritually alert. We don’t want to be caught sleeping when persecution comes, or when “false christs and false prophets” try to pull us from the true faith.
But how do we get ready for these tribulations? How do we prepare? We prepare by listening to the One who accurately warned about these things in the first place. Of all that Jesus said, how much of it has proven to be untrue? Not one word. Everything He predicted and promised up till now has happened as He said it would. We can trust what Jesus says.
We can trust Him when He says He “came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10). He came to save you and me, who were lost in our sins and in the darkness of unbelief. He saved us by substituting His life for ours, the faithful Shepherd for the wayward sheep. We can trust that His words, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30), apply to His work that was needed to save us and all sinners. The perfect life and the payment for sin that God required of humankind were fully supplied by Jesus. We can trust Him when He says, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). Through His resurrection, Jesus proved that nothing could overcome Him—not sin, not the devil, not the world, and not even death itself.
These are the things to keep in mind as we face tribulation in the world. No matter how great our enemies are, Jesus is greater. But He does not use His power like the world uses its power. The world uses its power to intimidate, to suppress, to silence, to hurt, and to kill. Jesus uses His power to save. In his second epistle the apostle Peter states, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2Pe. 3:9).
Jesus wants everyone to be saved. He does not want any to be caught sleeping. He does not want any to be condemned. This is why He has His Gospel message proclaimed throughout the world. The same message of salvation that we hear today is also being heard in Peru and Pakistan and China and in countless other places. Our fellow Christians humbly listen to the Law which condemns their sin, and they gladly hear the Gospel which forgives their sin.
This powerful Word of God is what prepares us and them for tribulation here, but also for glory in heaven. The apostle Paul writes that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). And Paul suffered plenty, just as the other disciples did. Their tribulation was so great that they expected Jesus to return in glory during their lifetimes. But His time was not yet. There were more souls to save.
And so it is now. The signs of the end times are all here. Jesus could visibly return at any point. Now is not the time to get sleepy. Now is the time to hear and learn His Word. This is what keeps us alert and prepared. It keeps us from getting too comfortable in the world, and it shows us the difference between the true Christ and false christs, between true prophets and false prophets.
Through His Word, the true Christ visits us, though not visibly. He comes to us through the preaching of His Gospel. He says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt. 18:20). And He comes through His Holy Supper, where He gives His own body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. These are the ways Jesus is present with us “always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). He does not grow tired of us or reject us, even though we have gotten spiritually sleepy at times and have followed gods of our own making. He leads us to repentance and applies His soul-saving absolution—the full and unconditional forgiveness of all our sins.
Jesus may seem very far away from us, especially when we are experiencing trouble. But in fact, He is very near. He is “a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). He has not forgotten about us. He covers us in the armor of His righteousness and fills us with the courage that comes from being claimed as His own. The Lord would not forget His chosen ones. He promises that our short time of tribulation in this life will soon give way to eternal glory.
Brief life is here our portion;
Brief sorrow, short-lived care;
The life that knows no ending,
The tearless life, is there.
O happy retribution:
Short toil, eternal rest;
For mortals and for sinners
A mansion with the blest! (ELH #534, v. 3)
+ + +
(1850 “Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem” painting by David Roberts)
The Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 27) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who came into our world of darkness, so we may join Him in His kingdom of light, dear fellow redeemed:
One of the books in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series details the adventures of Prince Caspian and his friends as they sailed in a ship called the “Dawn Treader.” One of the islands they discovered was a place “where dreams come true.” That may sound like a pleasant place to be, except that it wasn’t just good dreams that became reality; it was all dreams. The harder a person tried to think good thoughts, the more bad thoughts would come to mind—and come true. To emphasize the terror of this place, Lewis described it as an island totally enveloped in darkness. After rescuing a man who had been trapped on the island for years, the ship’s captain and crew rowed back toward the light as quickly as they could.
It is in the darkness that we typically feel the most fear. When it is dark, we do not fear dangers that are actually around us, as much as the dangers that could be around us. Our own minds are the greatest threat to our feeling of safety. Some weeks ago, I watched the Ken Burns television series on the Vietnam War. One of the marines who was interviewed said that he won’t sleep without a nightlight. He remembers too vividly what it was like to go out on patrol in the darkness and to hear the voices and movements of an enemy he could not see. That terrifying experience still wakes him up at night and probably always will.
A deep darkness where terrible things happen is how the Bible describes this fallen world. This world is “the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13), where Satan and his followers operate. The danger is all around us, but it cannot be seen. By nature, everyone is blind to the threat. They can’t see “the devil prowl[ing] around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1Pe. 5:8). They also don’t recognize—or else won’t admit—the darkness in their own hearts. They are quick to point out the bad behavior and wicked actions of others, while self-righteously thinking that they could never be capable of doing those things.
But the darkness of sin is not just around us, it is in us. Jesus says that from the heart comes all sorts of sinful thoughts and actions—sexual immorality, theft, lies, slander (Mt. 15:19). Our hearts on their own cannot chart a course leading to God and heaven. On their own, our hearts have us heading toward deeper darkness, where dreams might come true, but not like we were expecting.
It was into this world of spiritual darkness that God the Father sent His holy Son. But if mankind was blind to the good things of God, how would they ever recognize His coming? The Lord first sent John the Baptizer to prepare the way for the Savior. He boldly preached in the wilderness to expose “the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph. 5:11), and to “bear witness about the light” (Jn. 1:8). He told the people that “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world,” and then he pointed out Jesus as that light (vv. 9, 29). Jesus Himself said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12).
But many did not follow Him. “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (1:10-11). His own people did not receive Him, because they did not want to own up to their aimless wandering in the darkness. They wanted to think they were on the right path, the path of righteousness. Proverbs 4 says that “the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble” (vv. 18-19). What the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees stumbled over was Jesus. He told them that their righteousness was merely external, superficial. Their hearts were empty vessels devoid of the faith and love that God requires.
Only God knows from one person to the next whether their hearts contain the flame of faith. Take today’s parable about the women waiting for the bridegroom. All ten of them were virgins and all ten of them had oil-burning lamps. If you saw them when they first arrived for the wedding feast, you would have noticed no differences among them. But when the bridegroom did not come right away, “they all became drowsy and slept.” They had not anticipated the delay. They thought he was coming sooner. They might have begun to wonder if he would come at all.
Even so, five of the virgins had prepared for this possibility. They had extra oil with them. If the other five were aware of this, they might have made fun of them or criticized them for being such worriers. But they weren’t laughing when the cry sounded at midnight that the bridegroom had come. “Give us some of your oil,” they begged, “for our lamps are going out.” But the five wise virgins did not have enough oil to share. While the unprepared women went to buy more oil, the door to the wedding feast was closed, and they were denied entrance. Their opportunity had come and gone; they must remain in the darkness.
This parable is Jesus’ warning to all that He is coming again soon to admit those who are prepared to His wedding feast. He will know who is ready by the presence or absence of faith in the heart. On the outside, many may appear to have a living faith—their lamps may seem to have an active flame. But nobody can fool the Lord. No one can impress Him either. No amount of generous deeds, kind words, or impressive knowledge will count as a substitute for faith. It was not the most intelligent, the most beautiful, the most successful women who were admitted to the wedding feast. It was the ones who were prepared; it was the faithful.
Faith is not the kind of thing that once you have it, you keep it forever. For many, faith is like a match that burns for a time but then goes out. Faith must be kept alive by some sort of fuel. But that fuel does not come from inside us any more than faith itself does. The One who strikes the flame of faith inside our darkened hearts is God the Holy Spirit, who uses the kindling power of God’s Word. The dynamic Word of God is the oil that keeps faith burning bright even in the midst of great darkness. The five wise virgins had oil reserves along—they had the Word. The five foolish virgins took their faith for granted and found that their flame had gone out by the time the bridegroom arrived.
But notice that all ten women “became drowsy and slept” before his arrival. All ten of them failed to properly keep watch like they should have. As long as we live in this dark world, we must be on our guard against Satan and our sinful nature, and ready ourselves daily with the Word of God. We are always in danger of going through the motions as Christians, of hearing the Word regularly but not taking our sins and repentance seriously.
The Apostle Paul warns us about this, “So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:12-14). He sounds the same alarm in today’s Epistle lesson, “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1Thes. 5:6-8).
Paul says that we who are in the light should not act like those in the darkness, because we are not in the kingdom of darkness anymore. Satan and his cohorts no longer have dominion over us. Their dark plans, along with the yawning pit of death and hell, were all exposed and dispelled by the light of Jesus. He gave Himself over into darkness, so that you would be rescued from it and brought into the light.
The light of His grace and salvation is strong enough to pierce even into the darkest of hearts. This healing light has also entered your heart. Whatever darkness was there by nature and active sin, is removed and replaced by light, just as the flip of a light switch does away with the darkness that was previously there. Now there is nothing more in the spiritual darkness of the world that you have to fear. By the light of Jesus, nothing can ambush you or harm you.
Even now in this light, you see through the darkness to the banquet hall ahead, glowing with marvelous light. That is where the marriage feast is ready and waiting. As you journey forward, you have the Word of God, “a lamp shining in a dark place” (2Pe. 1:19), “a lamp to [your] feet and a light to [your] path” (Ps. 119:105). His Word is what keeps your lamp of faith burning as the darkness of this age passes and the bright dawn of eternity comes.
It will not be long before you and I hear the cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then we will experience something much better than even our best dreams. Jesus will graciously call everyone who trusts in Him to follow Him into His glorious kingdom of light. In the unfiltered presence of the mighty God, we will need no light of lamp or sun, for He will be our light, and we will reign with Him forever and ever (Rev. 22:5).
+ + +