The Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 26) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:31-46
In Christ Jesus, who will come from the right hand of the Father to judge the living and the dead and bestow the crown of life on all who confess His name, dear fellow redeemed:
In the Judgment Day scene that Jesus describes, it is obvious that He is the one in charge. He is the one asking the questions; He is the one calling the shots. He will not receive the great and powerful people of the world like one dignitary or government official might receive another. Jesus will be seated on His throne as the unquestionable Lord, the King of the universe. The angels will gather all people to Him like herdsmen gather their livestock. All will be brought before Him for judgment—the righteous to be sent to heaven and the unrighteous to hell.
Jesus will come then in a very different way than He came before. Before, He came in meekness; then He will come in power. Before, He came in humility; then He will come in glory. The difference really is striking. On the Last Day, everyone will know that Jesus is the Lord of all. But when He first arrived in the flesh, He came as the Servant of all. This was just as He planned. Jesus told His disciples that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mt. 20:28).
But in today’s text, Jesus seems to say more about our service to Him than His service to us. He says He will put everyone at His right hand who gave Him food when He was hungry, drink when He was thirsty, a home when He was wandering, and so on. But He will put at His left hand everyone who did not give Him food or drink or home or clothing when He needed them. So which category do you fit in? Have you provided service to Jesus in these ways, or not? No doubt your response is the same as the people both at Jesus’ right hand and at His left: “Lord, when did we see You in each of these situations of need?”
Jesus’ answer is: By serving (or not serving) “the least” of His brothers, you served (or did not serve) Him. Who are “the least” that Jesus refers to? Who else could it be but the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned? “The least” of Jesus’ brothers is your neighbor in need. Your neighbor has all sorts of needs, some of the same ones you have, but other ones too. Some of the people you come in contact with are very wealthy, while others are poor—each station having its own challenges. Some are in good health, while others are afflicted with disease and weakness. Some have a stable home life, while others struggle to make it through each day.
God has given you special work to do. No one has exactly the same neighbors as you have. No one has exactly the same gifts, exactly the same abilities. No one is as well-positioned to help your neighbors as you. But what can you do for the poor when you haven’t got money to spare? What can you do for the mentally troubled when you don’t have the training? What can you do for the children in a turbulent home?
You can’t make every situation better and every problem go away. But you can love your neighbors by showing kindness to them and helping them, starting with the neighbors in your own home—your parents, your siblings, your spouse, your children. They are your closest neighbors, who are constantly in need of food and drink and shelter and clothing and care. Along with that, you can pray for them knowing that God always hears and answers prayer.
But you haven’t always done this, or at least haven’t done it perfectly. You have not always helped the neighbor who needed it. Sometimes you have avoided your neighbor out of anger, selfishness, fear, prejudice, or pride. Instead of treating your neighbor how you would want to be treated, you have often treated your neighbor how you think they deserve. So when Jesus returns on Judgment Day, how could you and I ever hope to be placed at His right hand?
If salvation depended on a perfect attitude and service toward our neighbors, no one would be placed at Jesus’ right hand. “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). But your salvation does not rely on your works. Jesus is not teaching that here, nor does He teach it anywhere. Salvation always and only depends on Him.
Jesus’ humble work throughout the time of His public ministry shows how He fulfilled the law of perfect love toward neighbor for you. He considered no one below Him. Each hurting person was His neighbor, whom He was ready to help. For instance, He healed a man with a deformed hand (Mk. 3:1-5), He gave strength to an invalid who had been all but ignored for thirty-eight years (Jn. 5:2-8), He cleansed a leprous man by reaching out and touching him (Mt. 8:2-3), He cast out debilitating demons (Mk. 5:1-13, Lk. 13:10-13), He fed the hungry (Jn. 6:1-14), and He raised the dead (Mk. 5:35-43, Lk. 7:11-15, Jn. 11:38-44).
Then there was the company Jesus kept. He chose unimpressive Galileans to be in His inner circle of disciples. He spoke with people who were rejected by the cultural and religious elite. He had lunch with the hated tax collectors (Lk. 19:1-10), and He visited with prostitutes (Lk. 7:36-50). He did not join sinners in their sin, but He gladly spoke with any who would listen. He told the chief priests and elders that the tax collectors and the prostitutes would go into the kingdom of God before them, because those sinners repented and believed God’s Word (Mt. 21:31-32). Jesus even helped Gentiles who came to Him (Mt. 8:5-13, Mt. 15:21-28)
This hardly scratches the surface of all the kind things Jesus did. The Apostle John wrote that if each of them were recorded, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn. 21:25). For all the different opinions expressed about Jesus, I have never heard anyone describe Him as “stuck up” or “self-centered.” It is obvious that Jesus was a good person, and one who treated the people around Him with love and compassion. But if all we remembered about Jesus was that He was a worker of miracles and a nice man, we would miss the primary purpose of His coming. He did not come simply to help people with their physical and earthly needs; He came to save people for heaven.
Jesus made no distinction between the good and the bad, as if such a distinction could be made among the spiritually dead. He offered His perfect life for everyone, for every person that had ever lived or ever would live. He suffered and died for drug addicts and doctors, criminals and law enforcement officials, for the impoverished and the wealthy. He died for dictators, Communists, Socialists, Capitalists, Republicans, and Democrats. He died for Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, Buddhists, and Hindus. He died for Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Greek Orthodox, and the Lutherans. All of these were His neighbors in need.
By nature, all people are spiritually lost, so Jesus, the Good Shepherd, went looking for them. He pursued them in the dark and dangerous places they had wandered. He entered the devil’s lair, that wolf, who had the sheep imprisoned. Then Jesus offered up His own spotless life in their place. He took the fall for their weakness and their wandering. He paid for their transgressions. Jesus gladly gave Himself for the greatest and the least. His righteousness was sufficient for all, and His holy blood blotted out every sin.
That means He offered up Himself in your place. Your sins are not too much to be forgiven. No wicked deed that you have done is greater than God’s grace. “[W]here sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20). You are not so far below Jesus that He would overlook you. He stooped down to your level and shouldered all of your sin. He led you out of the darkness of condemnation into the light of His never-changing love. No matter how insignificant and unworthy you may feel, Jesus knows you. He eagerly sought you out to bring you into His fold, and to serve you daily through the means of grace.
The perfect love that God demands of you toward Him and your neighbor is supplied to you by Jesus. Everything is yours by faith in Him. This is why on the Last Day Jesus will look upon you at His right hand and will say to you, “Come… inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The kingdom is yours because you are blessed by God the Father. He chose you for salvation, brought you to faith in Jesus through His Word, and keeps you in the faith by the power of the Holy Spirit. This faith receives every good thing you need.
Your faith is also active in bearing fruit for others. Because you are converted by God, released from the grip of sin, Satan, and death, you can freely serve “the least” who are around you. As you serve your neighbor, it is God whose mercy and goodness are at work through you, which is why the glory is all His.
Each of your neighbors has unique needs, but the need they all share is the need for Jesus. Like you, they need His righteous life applied to them to cover their sin, and they need His cleansing blood to wash away their guilt. They need to hear the sweet message that Jesus Gladly Serves the Least, because He does. He came to serve you and all sinners, and to bring you and all who cling to Him by faith into the blessed kingdom of heaven.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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The Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 24:15-28
In Christ Jesus, who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6), dear fellow redeemed:
If somebody were to tell you that this church building will be demolished, taken apart piece by piece, until there is hardly a trace left, you would have a hard time believing it. What would ever bring on something like this? When would it happen? This is similar to how the disciples of Jesus responded when He told them the impressive temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. The disciples had been commenting how wonderful the stones of the temple were and how beautiful the buildings. Didn’t Jesus think so too? But He said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Lk. 21:6).
As soon as the disciples could talk to Jesus alone, they asked Him when these things would take place. He told them, “[W]hen you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (21:20). Then “the abomination of desolation” would be set up in the holy place of the temple, and great destruction would come upon the city and its inhabitants. The holy place in the temple is where sacrifices were made to the holy God for the sins of the people. But now in that sacred space, there would be an abomination set up for the purpose of tearing down.
Jesus said that Daniel had prophesied about this event hundreds of years before. We know Daniel for his God-given ability to interpret dreams and for his deliverance from the den of lions. But Daniel also wrote about future events in a style similar to St. John’s Revelation. He predicted the passing of power from the Babylonian Empire, to the Persian Empire, to the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great, and then to the Roman Empire.
He also foretold the coming of the Messiah, and said that “the abomination of desolation” would occur sometime after the Lord’s death. Then “the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary,” he wrote. “Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate” (Dan. 9:26-27).
These terrifying events are what Jesus now warned His disciples about. These things would come to pass, and sooner than they expected. His death was not far off at this point, which meant that the clock was ticking in Jerusalem. Awful terror and destruction were coming. I can imagine how the opponents of Jesus would have mocked Him if they heard what Jesus said. “The temple destroyed? Flee Jerusalem? You’re crazy!” This is probably what the unbelieving world thinks whenever we confess that Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead. “You think a God is coming down from the sky to judge us? You’re crazy!”
This will always be the response when people hear something they can’t make sense of or don’t want to face. They will simply ignore it and mock those who tell it. It happened in the days of Noah when he and his sons were building the Ark. For 120 years, they wore themselves out putting a boat together in the middle of nowhere, while their neighbors made fun of them, partied, and pursued their own plans and dreams. But then the rains fell and kept falling. The prophet Jeremiah told the Israelites that Jerusalem would be destroyed if they did not repent, and false teachers contradicted him telling the people, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine. There is peace!” But then the Babylonian army overwhelmed the city and enslaved the Israelites.
In the same way, people ignore the Word of God today and carry on as though they will never have to give an account of their actions before God. But they are wrong. Every person must “appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” and every person must answer for “what he has done in the body” (2Cor. 5:10). That is an uncomfortable thought. Our sins are so numerous and pervasive. We have not even come close to the righteousness that God requires.
But Jesus will not judge you and me on the basis of our sins. He will judge us on the basis of His righteousness. He clothed us in His righteousness at our baptisms, and He keeps us in His righteousness by sustaining our faith. We have not earned this holiness; we do not deserve it. It is ours by the free gift of God, given to us by grace.
Naturally, the devil and our old Adam will do everything they can to pull us away from the certainly of God’s grace, and to focus us on the uncertainty of our own efforts. Or they may tempt us to take advantage of the gift, so that we have no real desire to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. “If Jesus forgives my sins and judges me by His righteousness,” we think, “then I can do whatever I want. After all, salvation does not depend on me!”
But just because your purse is yours and your wallet is yours, can you just leave it anywhere you want in a big city and expect it will remain yours? No, in fact there is an excellent chance you will lose it! If you set your faith aside, so that you can fit in with the world—doing what it does, thinking how it thinks—, there is an excellent chance that you will forget where your faith resides, and why you need it in the first place. If you have ever seen a Christian stop being a Christian, then you should know that the same thing can happen to you.
This is one of the things Jesus warned His disciples about in today’s text. He told them, “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There He is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” The Greek text says “pseudochristoi—pseudo-christs,” and “pseudoprophetai—pseudo-prophets.” Pseudo-christs and pseudo-prophets are anyone who say they hold the key to your happiness, your success, your personal fulfillment, and your future. “I will give you everything you desire,” they promise. “I will fulfill your needs. All it takes is a bit of dishonesty. All it takes is a little secrecy. All it takes is a money transfer. And then everything will be yours.”
That is how the devil destroys faith. He does not go for it all at once. He picks away at it. He convinces you that the sin you are caught up in is actually a good thing. It is justifiable. Other people in your shoes would make the same decision. Nothing to worry about. He also gets you to think that you can deal with sin later; there’s plenty of time – what’s the rush? But that’s a lie too. You might live for 50 more years, or you might not. The Last Day might be a long way off, but are you willing to bet on it? Jesus said, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Mt. 24:44).
We are living in the end times, and we should not forget it. While Jesus was foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem, He was also looking ahead to the Day of Judgment. Think of it like a camera lens. With the focus on Jerusalem’s pending destruction, everything in the background looked blurry. But once the prophecy about Jerusalem was fulfilled, Jesus’ predictions about the end times come into sharper focus. That’s where we are now, because the destruction of Jerusalem happened long ago. In A. D. 70, the Romans broke through the walls of Jerusalem following a several month siege. To demonstrate that their victory was complete, the Romans tore the beautiful temple to pieces and left no one stone upon another.
But in one of the more fascinating footnotes in history, the Christians escaped the horrible destruction in Jerusalem. How? When they heard the Roman army was on the march, they did not seek shelter inside Jerusalem’s great walls; they fled to a little town called Pella. They believed Jesus’ words, and the Lord mercifully spared them.
It may seem to you that the armies of the devil and the world are closing in. There are constant reports of wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes, and increasing lawlessness in the world. But the Lord has not forgotten about you. He knows how vulnerable you feel. He sees how you struggle with temptation and sin. “Trust in Me,” He says. “I will not let you down. My Word is true.” As the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah says, “the LORD has comforted His people and will have compassion on His afflicted” (49:13). He comforts you with the message of sins forgiven in Christ and of eternal life won for you. Your cares and struggles are ever before Him. He says, “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands” (v. 16).
By faith in Jesus, you belong to the Jerusalem that will not be destroyed, the heavenly Jerusalem. Its walls cannot be breached because they are defended by the mighty God. Its citizens cannot be overcome by the enemy, because they reside in the presence of their gracious Lord. His holiness covers them. His blood cleanses them. His Word keeps them from harm. The Lord Has Mercy on His People—on you!—and His mercy endures forever.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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The Last Sunday of the Church Year – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who “loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:2), dear fellow redeemed:
Our bodies need sleep, but sleep does not always come at the most opportune times. For some people, nothing induces sleep like the evening news or a two-hour movie. Or maybe it is sitting down in the easy chair to read something. Others (perish the thought) find the church pews on Sunday morning comfortable enough to sleep in. These are times that we sleep without intending to. But there are also times that we must wake up and stay awake. A tornado warning forces people out of their beds and into the basement. The nightmares and cries of children pull their sleepy parents to their side. The safety of passengers keeps the driver alert.
In today’s text, Jesus urges us to have this same sort of alertness and stay awake, even though we feel like sleeping. In fact, He says that we do become drowsy and sleep, but that a proper supply of fuel keeps our faith burning while the night drags on. He promises that the Bridegroom—He Himself—is coming, and coming at an hour we do not expect (Mt. 24:44). It will not be long. The signs of the end of time are here. There are many who have falsely claimed to be the Christ. There are wars and rumors of wars, conflicts among nations, famines and earthquakes. In many places the disciples of Jesus are attacked, imprisoned, and killed, and lawlessness is celebrated (Mt. 24:3-12).
These signs mean that the dark night of this world is about to end. The dawn of Christ’s return will soon break like a bright sunrise on the eastern horizon (Mt. 24:27). We must get ready for the triumphant return of our Lord, the Bridegroom of the Church. Today, His watchmen from the heights cry out to us and to all who have drifted into the sleep of sin: “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying!”
While there is a period in history known as the “Dark Ages,” this term could really describe all of human history. Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, the world has been in darkness. The light of God’s truth and grace is hidden to natural man who knows only sin and death. Even for Christians—for you and me—this darkness is oppressive. We grow discouraged when we see bad things happening in the world. We see Christ’s Church under attack as fewer and fewer listen to what the Bible says. We feel as though each step we take brings us closer to affliction and trials that we are not sure we can bear. We long to retreat and walk backward in time when life seemed simpler or at least more predictable.
But we cannot go backward in time, and we should not be afraid to go forward. While each step may take us closer to trials, each step also takes us closer to the Last Day, to the glorious return of Jesus. The countdown started when Jesus ascended bodily into heaven from the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem. At that time, two angels appeared and said to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Ac. 1:11). We do not know when Jesus will return to judge the world, which is why we should be ready. We are living in the end times, and Jesus could return soon, even this very day.
But it is easy to let the march of time dull us. Why should Jesus return now when He did not return 100 years ago or 500 years ago or shortly after His ascension? There have always been troubles in the world, so why should we expect His return now? The reason we should expect it is because He tells us He is coming. That should be enough for us. If He says He will return, we should look forward to it, and we should pray for it. And this is in fact what we do. Whenever we pray “But deliver us from evil,” we are asking our Father in heaven to “deliver us from every evil of body and soul, property and honor” (Small Catechism). This prayer is answered either when God brings our souls to Him at our death, or when Christ returns to raise the dead and bring all believers to heaven.
Until one of the two happens, our faith will continue to be tested by the devil, our sinful flesh, and the world. It is a struggle to remain vigilant at all times. The unknown duration of our watch tempts us to take a break here, a catnap there. What harm could a little rest do? In today’s text, Jesus tells how ten virgins came to meet the bridegroom. But as the darkness deepened and the night dragged on, they all drifted into sleep. During this time, the lamps of five of them ran out of oil. They were not equipped for the duration of time and missed the arrival of the bridegroom. The door was shut to them, and they could not enter.
The ten virgins in the parable represent all believers. All of them failed to keep watch to one degree or another; they all slept. But the lamps of five of them kept burning because they had extra oil along. This oil is the fuel that keeps faith in Christ alive. Our faith is fed by the Gospel, the living Word of Christ which is dispensed to us through Word and Sacraments. The foolish virgins took their faith for granted. They failed to keep it fueled by the Gospel. They may have even laughed at the other five for carrying along extra oil. “Why overdo it? We’ll be just fine!” But they were not fine. When the bridegroom came—when Jesus came—they were not prepared. The faith they once had had slowly faded and diminished until it was finally extinguished. They were no longer welcome at the marriage feast.
These are sobering words of Jesus, which are meant for everyone who confesses His name. You may think your faith is burning bright, but are you certain you are measuring confidence in Christ instead of confidence in yourself? If you attend church and read devotions regularly, do you see these things as your only rescue and safety from sin and the devil? Or is it just habit, a going through the motions? If you do not regularly hear and learn the Word, is it because you think the Bible knowledge you have is sufficient? Or have you convinced yourself that there is plenty of time for the Word later? These are not easy questions, but they are fair. Remember that everyone in Jesus’ parable fell asleep and not just the foolish ones.
The chief hymn for today (ELH 544) is a beautiful expression and exposition of the Lord’s commitment to us, even though we sleep. “‘Wake, awake, for night is flying,’ / The watchmen on the heights are crying, ‘Awake, Jerusalem, arise!’” But the virgins, the weak and sleepy believers, reply much like any of us would when awakened from a deep sleep, “It is midnight, we are weary.” But the watchmen persist; “With voices strong they call us clearly: / ‘Where are you now, O virgins wise? / The Bridegroom comes, awake! / Arise! Your lamps now take! / Alleluia! / With bridal care yourselves prepare / To feast with Him, your Groom most fair.’”
This expresses so well how God does not give up on us. He could leave us in our spiritual slumber, but He loves us. He desires that we join Him at the wedding feast. This is why He calls us to alertness and continues to speak to us through His Word. At times He must jolt us awake through the law when we have drifted into sin. He must warn us when we take His Word for granted and overestimate our own strength. But then He gently calls us to Him and comforts us through the Gospel. He speaks peacefully to us and forgives all our wrongs.
We are forgiven because God’s Son was willing to enter the darkness of this world and take on the powers of darkness. While He hung on the cross, the powers of sin, death, and Satan converged and attacked Him with everything they had. But they could not defeat Him. Jesus triumphed over this darkness, and now casts the bright beams of His holy light into every corner of the world. He is not afraid to go looking for you whenever you wander where you should not go. He is not afraid of the dark. He breaks you free from your chains of sin and brings you back to the safety and warmth of His light. You are His beloved. You are part of His own body by faith. He has chosen you and all members of the Church to be His holy bride.
The second verse of the chief hymn expresses our great joy in the presence of Christ our Bridegroom. “Zion [the Church] hears the watchword sounding, / With bridal joy her heart is bounding, / She wakes, and breaks the spell of sleep. / For her Lord comes forth in splendor, / All rich in grace, truth’s strong Defender! / Her Star grows bright mid darkness deep.” On our own, we become drowsy and sleep, but Jesus continues to visit us. He comes to us through His Word and His Sacraments. He meets us here and now through the powerful Word of His Gospel.
He is here, but we cannot see Him; His glorious presence is hidden from us. But He will soon be revealed. St. Paul writes, “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom. 13:11-12). The night is flying. The day of Christ’s return is fast approaching. Keep your lamps of faith burning with the oil of God’s promises, and you will be well-prepared to meet Him when He returns on the Last Day. “Now come, O precious Crown, / Lord Jesus, God’s own Son. / Hail, Hosanna! / We enter all, / The marriage hall, / To eat the Supper at Your call.” Amen.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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The Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:25-30
In Christ Jesus, through whom we rest in peace here on earth and forever in heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
The election coverage last Tuesday and the ongoing analysis since, is all about categories. Victories and losses are explained on the basis of gender, level of education, age, race, place of residence, party affiliation, and more. We hear about Democrat vs. Republican vs. Independent, men vs. women, rural vs. urban, black vs. white vs. Hispanic, millennial vs. baby-boomer, educated vs. un-educated, Rust belt vs. Bible belt, coastland vs. interior, and so on. While it may give the newscasters and political analysts plenty to talk about, this categorization seems to treat voters as things or commodities instead of as people.
God does not divvy the human race into categories like this. He shows no partiality toward rich or poor, male or female, American or non-American, old or young. Each person by nature is sinful in His sight, and each one has been redeemed from sin and death by the blood of Jesus. Romans 3:23-24 says, “[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” But not all believe in Jesus, and so not all are saved. This is why sinners can be rightly divided into two major categories, and only two: believers and unbelievers—or as we heard in today’s Gospel reading: the sheep and the goats. These distinct categories will never be as clear as they are when Jesus returns in glory on the Last Day.
Until that day comes, God promises to send His saving Gospel into the world, so that sinners may hear it and believe. The Lord Offers Rest to All because His grace and forgiveness cover all.
The Gospel of Jesus is what our country needs more than jobs, higher wages, diversity, tolerance, and security. Only the Gospel can secure for us the great reward of unending life in heaven. But in the opinion of many, the Gospel is worthless. They characterize it as a false dream, a crutch for the weak-minded, or a dangerous teaching that undermines human progress and the responsibility of the individual. They can tolerate Jesus, but only by remaking Him into a teacher who is simply there to pat you on the back when you do a good job.
People who look at Jesus like this are “the wise and understanding” that He talks about in today’s sermon text. Being referred to in this way seems like it would be a good thing, but not in this case. According to Jesus, “the wise and understanding” are the ones who think they are too clever and too intelligent for the Gospel. They have the world and their place in it settled in their own minds, and Jesus is no part of the equation. Instead of looking out for their neighbor, they are concerned only with fulfilling their own plans, indulging their own desires, and getting what their confused minds tell them they deserve.
Just before the words of today’s text, Jesus criticized the Jewish people—His own people—for witnessing His mighty works and hearing His gracious words, but still rejecting Him. Some of the Jews certainly did believe in Him, but others convinced themselves that they needed no Savior. They ignored their nagging consciences and gloried in their own works and abilities. They labored and felt the burden of the law, but they would have no rest. The grace of God was hidden to them in their unbelief.
But God’s grace has come to the “little children.” Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.” Little children are those who make no claim to wisdom and understanding. They are infants who must receive all good things from another, if they would remain alive. Through the law of God, the Holy Spirit teaches you to see yourself this way. The law tells you that your best effort is not good enough. It tells you that your hard labor to be holy in God’s sight will not pay off. The law delivers the message that on your own you are helpless, just like an infant.
But God the Father loves His children. This is why He sent His only Son, begotten of Him from eternity and born in time to the Virgin Mary. Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life from beginning to end – from the time He was conceived, through the day of His birth, through His childhood, teenage years, twenties, and all the way until His death on the cross. His effort to save you was enough. His hard labor on your behalf did pay off. His holy life for you fulfilled the strict demands of the law, and His blood blotted out all your transgressions.
When Jesus spoke the words of today’s text, His work had not yet been completed. But it was as good as done, because God keeps His promises, and He promised to save sinners. God the Father gave all authority to His Son to carry out this task. Jesus said, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Jesus did not use this authority in a harsh way, like a self-centered dictator. He is patient and forgiving toward mankind, a kind and gentle King.
“Come to me,” He says. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” If you have flesh and live in this world, you do labor and are heavy laden. You feel the curse of sin every single day, a curse that brings pain and trouble and ultimately death (Gen. 3:16-19). But Jesus refreshes you along the way. For every anxiety and fear, He comforts you. For every doubt, He reassures you. For every temptation, He strengthens you. For every hurt and pain, He heals you. For every unkindness, every regrettable action and attitude, for every sin, He forgives you. Jesus won for you the warm embrace of your heavenly Father by breaking down the barrier of sin and death that separated you from Him. By His humble sacrifice, Jesus opened for you the way to the Father’s love, which is yours by faith in Him.
This is why you can be at rest even in this imperfect world. You are no longer at odds with God. You do not have to appease Him like so many false religions teach. The wrath of God was appeased for all eternity by the death of the God-Man Jesus. Your salvation is secure in Him. St. Paul writes, “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).
God in His grace and mercy offers rest to all people through faith in Jesus. It is the only thing that can give true hope in uncertain times, the only thing that can heal the deep divisions in our country and the world. You see how easily people despair when they do not get what they want. And we are like this too. But when we put all our hopes in human wisdom and political movements, we are always disappointed. The psalmist writes, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps. 146:3-9).
We pray that the Lord helps our elected officials rule in the right way, so the Gospel can continue to be freely proclaimed in our land. But we also know that government officials do not always do what is right. We know that there will be tension between Christ’s Church and this fallen world. As disciples of Jesus, we who are in the world but not of it, will bear the cross. But the cross we have by faith in Jesus is a light burden compared with the eternal weight of sin. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” A childlike trust in Jesus will never be disappointed, and it will be rewarded on the Last Day.
When Jesus returns in all His glory to judge the world, He will once again invite you to come to Him. On that day, He will say to the believers at His right hand, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt. 25:34). Then you will join Him eternally in heaven, where there will be no more categorizations and no more divisions. Then all will be regarded in exactly the same way—as God’s holy children, “a people blessed by the Lord” (Is. 65:23).
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The Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
The Festival of the Reformation
Text: Philippians 3:17-21
In Christ Jesus, “the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1Tim. 1:17), dear fellow redeemed:
Martin Luther never ran for political office. That was not really an option for him in 16th century Germany, which was governed by emperor, electors, and princes. Even if it had been, Luther was not concerned about political revolution. He was interested in the reformation of the church, a church which no longer clearly taught salvation by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. But in order for the church to go about its proper work, government also needed to recognize its God-given responsibilities and to know the limits to its authority.
Luther explained that God has established two kingdoms. One is the kingdom of God’s right hand—His heavenly kingdom—, which is the kingdom of His grace and promises. The other is the kingdom of God’s left hand—the temporal kingdom—, which operates by reason and law, by punishment and reward. “Both must be permitted to remain,” said Luther; “the one to produce righteousness, the other to bring about external peace and prevent evil deeds. Neither one is sufficient in the world without the other” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 45, p. 92).
You and I live in both of these kingdoms at the same time. We live in the world and are governed by the laws of our country, and we belong to Christ’s spiritual kingdom, which is governed by His Word. The kingdom of the world may seem more powerful at times, but it will ultimately come to an end. God’s spiritual kingdom may seem weaker, but it will endure eternally with Jesus as its victorious Head. This is why, according to God’s command, We Respect the Authorities, but We Worship Only One King.
In 1521, Martin Luther stood before Emperor Charles V, the ruler of a good portion of Europe at that time. He had been summoned before the emperor to answer for what he had been teaching and writing over the past four years. Luther thought he would have the opportunity to explain why he taught what he did on the basis of the Scriptures. But instead, he was ordered to recant (or take back) all of it. Luther refused. How could he deny the teaching of the Bible? He said, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience.” Was Luther right to respond in this way, or did he fail to show proper respect to the emperor, whose authority was from God?
To answer this question, we should review what the Bible says about the governing authorities. In the thirteenth chapter of Romans, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (v. 1). The Apostle Peter wrote much the same thing in his first epistle, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (2:13-14). This clearly says that the authority of government is established by God. Just as children must honor their fathers and mothers, so citizens should honor the governing authorities (Fourth Commandment).
But there must be some limit to this authority. And there is. Government officials do not have authority from God to disregard His Commandments and abuse their power. Their responsibilities as rulers are to protect citizens from harm, preserve order in society, and uphold and support what is good. God also gives government the authority to assess taxes. As Jesus said, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22:21; also Rom. 13:7).
God has given government no authority over His Church. Government has no authority to tell you what you may and may not believe. It has no authority to legislate what a pastor preaches from the pulpit or what parishioners confess from the pews. It has no call from God to allow one religion or set of beliefs while outlawing another. As Luther stated before Emperor Charles V, a person’s conscience is free from any directive of government. Not surprisingly, the emperor was outraged. How dare Luther ignore his demand? He ordered that he should be arrested after which he would be tried as a heretic. But the ruling Elector of Luther’s homeland secretly whisked him away to a remote castle, so that his life was spared.
Emperor Charles thought he was acting properly and within his authority by condemning Luther. In the same way, the governing authorities in our day may also threaten us and our beliefs because they think they stand on the side of justice. They think that if any progress will be made, it must be done by the efforts of mankind. Others accuse Christians and their Gospel as being the source of the world’s problems. Their goal is to silence Christians and ultimately to eliminate them. Today’s sermon text predicted this. It says that there are many who “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” Such people are not fit to serve in positions of authority, and yet, God lets this happen. Why?
The Christians in the Roman Empire in the first centuries A. D. must have wondered this as no less than ten waves of persecution against them swept through the land. Luther might have asked this when he was condemned by the emperor. We see government officials in our day promoting what is wrong and attacking what is good. But we are in no position to tell God what He should be doing (Rom. 11:34). God may allow wicked rulers as a judgment against an immoral land. Or He may allow it so that a sharper distinction is made between the Church and the world. Or He may use the attacks of a corrupt government to bring wandering Christians back to Him and strengthen their faith. Whatever God’s reasons and plans may be, we know that He ultimately works these things out for the good of His children (Rom. 8:28).
We must admit that when we live in times of peace, and when we are happy with our government officials, we are tempted to let down our guard as Christians. Or else we put too much trust in the officials. We think that if this or that person is elected, everything will get better. But if they are not elected, everything will be lost. As citizens of this country in God’s left hand kingdom, we have every right to support and vote for whatever policy or politician we think is best, or even to run for political office ourselves. But we must not forget where our true hope lies and where our salvation is found, that is, in Jesus.
Jesus is easy to overlook. He came in such humility that hardly anyone believed He was the Messiah sent from God. They were looking for something more – a conqueror’s disposition, a dazzling display of power, a real threat to the Roman authorities. Instead He submitted to these authorities. Even as He rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, hailed as a king, He did not come to threaten any earthly rulers. The only thing that worried the Roman governor Pontius Pilate about Jesus, was the prospect of sending an innocent Man to death. Pilate said to Him, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (Jn. 19:10-11).
If God did not will the death of His only Son, Pilate could have done nothing with Him. But it was God’s will that Jesus should die for the sins of the Jewish leaders who called for His death, for the sins of Pilate, and for the sins of you and me. Jesus hardly looked the part of a king when He was led to Calvary and nailed to the cross. But the sign was right; He was the “King of the Jews” (Jn. 19:19). In fact, He is the King of all. On the throne of the cross, wearing thorns for a crown, Jesus single-handedly destroyed the powers of sin, devil, and death that had ruled the world for so long. By His humble sacrifice, He won eternal life in His kingdom for you and for me and for all.
There is no ruler or government that can promise you this. The kingdom of the world can only promise riches and happiness in this life, and it rarely delivers them. Your King promises forgiveness and eternal salvation, and He freely delivers these gifts day in and day out. His grace does not depend on donations to His campaign, or to an impeccable history of loyalty to Him. He remains our merciful King no matter how much we have doubted Him or how often we have looked for help and salvation anywhere else.
Earthly kingdoms, governments, and rulers all topple, but the spiritual kingdom of Christ prevails over every enemy and continues to conquer not by force or by the sword, but only by the Gospel in God’s Word and Sacraments (Mt. 16:18). Luther wrote in his great reformation hymn that even if our enemies take away our “kindred, goods, and life, / We freely let them go, / They profit not the foe; / With us remains the kingdom” (ELH 251, v. 4).
With us remains the kingdom and its King. No matter what happens in our country in the future, we will pray for our elected officials (1Tim. 2:1-2) and obey them as far as God’s Word permits. But we will worship only one King, because “our citizenship is in heaven.” When Jesus our King returns in all His glory, the great and powerful rulers and government officials of this world will all fall to their knees and will have nothing more to say except “that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:11).
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The Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 18:15-22
In Christ Jesus, our Brother, who has reconciled us with our Father in heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
The command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” means to love those who are close to you, the people you come in contact with. For many of us, our closest neighbors live in our own home—our parents, siblings, spouse, children. These are our neighbors. But loving them is not always so easy. In truth it is often easier to have a good attitude toward people we rarely see than it is to love the people who live with us. Brothers and sisters verbally and physically fight with each other; tempers flare between parents and children; spouses give each other the cold shoulder. But despite these difficulties, most families would rather be together than separate. Why is that?
One reason is that our family is stuck with us. And there is comfort in that. Friends and acquaintances change through the years, but the family bond lasts. We share the same background with the members of our family, the same traditions, the same memories and experiences. We know about one another’s high and low points, which helps to establish mutual trust. Having family means we are not alone. God has put others in our life to care for us, help us, and encourage us.
The same things we appreciate about our families are also true of the Church. In the Christian Church, God brings together people who have a common heritage of sin and struggle, but also a common reliance on the grace and forgiveness of Jesus. They may not be similar in their DNA, but they are united by something even deeper and more profound. You and Your Spiritual Siblings Share the Same Blood.
Just as a parent might warn her child to stay away from a cliff, or a sister might reprimand her brother for bad choices, so God gives us spiritual siblings to look out for us. In today’s sermon text, Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault.” Jesus is not talking here about your brother by birth (though that could apply too). He is talking about your spiritual brother, your fellow believer. You have a responsibility toward other Christians like you have a responsibility toward the members of your family.
While we always want to be charitable toward others, sometimes “charity” is an excuse to hide from the difficult work of warning a fellow Christian about sin. Such a “charitable attitude” can sound like this: “I know my nephew should not move in with his girlfriend, but you know kids these days. It’s not really my place to say anything.” Or, “I don’t like the way my friend gossips, but who am I to judge?” This is not actually charity, but a lack of courage and love. That does not mean we should approach these difficult situations like a trigger-happy kid who just caught a glimpse of his first deer. We do not open up with both barrels, but we should gently warn about sin and the destruction it leads to. The goal is not to make ourselves look or feel better, but to coax a brother or sister toward self-reflection and repentance.
That is one reason why the Lord gathers His people into congregations. Each of us is equally sinful, and our natural tendency is to see our own sins as less serious than the sins of others. If we stopped going to church—even if we kept reading our Bible—we would be tempted toward self-righteousness, because there would be no one around to keep our ego in check. It is like having a piece of food stuck on our face. We need someone to point it out to us to save us from further embarrassment. God brought us into the spiritual family of the church, so that we can watch out for one another and make sure no one is overcome by temptation and sin.
In Galatians 6, St. Paul writes about our obligation to our spiritual siblings: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (vv. 1-2). The only reason we would not do this, he says, is because we are too proud. Either we do not want to burden ourselves with the weaknesses of others, or we lack the humility to see that we are just as much in need of grace as anyone else.
It is an exercise of love to warn a brother or sister in Christ about their sin. We do not want them to remain in their sins and be damned. But there is a proper way to go about it. It does more harm than good to learn about your neighbor’s sin, and then go blab it around to others. This is a violation of the Eighth Commandment as Martin Luther explains: “People are called slanderers who are not content with knowing a thing, but go on to assume jurisdiction. When they know about a slight offense committed by another person, they carry it into every corner. They are delighted and tickled that they can stir up another’s displeasure, just as swine delight to roll themselves in the dirt and root in it with the snout.” (Large Catechism, para. 267).
Instead of this approach, Jesus says that when a fellow Christian does wrong, you should bring up the matter with him one-on-one. If there is no repentance, then you bring along one or two others who share the same concern for that person. If even that fails, the matter must be brought before the whole congregation. The purpose is not to drag a person’s name through the mud but to lovingly call him to repent. But if he ignores the concern of his entire spiritual family, he shows that he is no longer one of them. Then Jesus says he must be treated as an outsider, one who has willfully removed himself from the rights and inheritance of God’s family. The formal recognition of this status is called excommunication. The congregation will continue to pray for his repentance and visit with him. And if there is repentance in the future, the person will be welcomed again as a brother, just as though he had never left.
When a congregation carries out these steps of discipline, Jesus makes it clear that He is the one who is acting: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” What a great comfort this is! In a society in which wrong is praised as right, and bad is called good, it is difficult for an individual Christian or a congregation to speak the truth. It would be much easier to go along with the prevailing winds of change that constantly blow our way. And many so-called Christian churches have done this.
But the true Church of Jesus is a church in which every teaching of the Bible is cherished and confessed. Jesus calls the Church of all believers His own Body, and He is its Head. The Head controls the Body, so when a Christian congregation takes action according to His Word, it is His action. And there is nothing that Jesus asks the Church to endure that He did not endure Himself. He suffered as the Church suffers. He was tested as the Church is tested. He cried out in anguish as the Church does. He knows the pain of losing a spiritual brother, just like the Church knows it. But through all this pain and trouble and wickedness, He won for sinners eternal life with Him.
This promise and blessing from God is our entire motivation when dealing with spiritual siblings who have sinned. We want to be in heaven with them for all eternity. We have been united with them into one Body in Christ and therefore share the same blood—blood that keeps us alive, blood that pumps through our hearts and minds. This is the holy blood of Jesus, which “cleanses us from all sin” (1Jn. 1:7). Since we are drawn together by His blood into one spiritual family, our bond is not easily broken. It is a bond that transcends even family backgrounds and traditions. As the Letter to the Ephesians states, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ…. [Y]ou are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (2:13,19).
When you think about your past interactions with members of your spiritual family, you can probably think of times that you ignored a brother in need or spared yourself the discomfort of addressing a sin. How often have you missed opportunities like these? Seven times? Seventy times seven? No matter how often you have failed in your responsibilities toward your neighbor, your heavenly Father forgives you. His Son Jesus is your Brother in the flesh. He took all your guilt and sin on Himself, and the Father charged Him in your place. Jesus was declared an outsider—excommunicated, if you will—and suffered the eternal flames of hell for you. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7).
Now if God holds nothing against you, what can you hold against another? If God’s love for you knows no bounds, why should your love for your neighbor be any different? “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Love your fellow Christians like brothers and sisters. In Christ, that is just what they are. They are your spiritual siblings, purchased and won by the blood of Jesus. And more and more are still being added to this spiritual family—to the Body of Christ—every day. They are called by the same Word of grace, washed in the same cleansing Waters, and they eat the same holy Food as you do. And like you, they will be joined forever with the family of saints above, where we will all enjoy a glorious reunion in heaven.
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We are God’s house of living stones,
Builded for His habitation;
He through baptismal grace us owns
Heirs of His wondrous salvation;
Were we but two His name to tell,
Yet He would deign with us to dwell
With all His grace and His favor. (#211, v. 3)
The Twenty-First Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 16:1-4
In Christ Jesus, who day by day—at home—away, is our Staff and our Stay (ELH 177, v. 2), dear fellow redeemed:
The saying goes, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.” But there were no warning signs for the storm that came upon the ship making its way across the sea. The rain flew into the sailors’ faces, and waves crashed onto the deck. A great wind drove the ship further and further into the tempest. The stay ropes strained as the big boat threatened to break in pieces. Any cargo that could be spared went overboard. Courageous men shuddered with fear. They fell to their knees and cried out to false gods who could not answer.
But one man on that ship was unaware of the danger. Through all the tossing and turning on the waves, he slept peacefully. The captain rushed down to him and cried, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish!” (Jon. 1:6). If this man offered a prayer, we do not know it. He joined the crew as the storm raged on. In their desperation, the men cast lots to see whose fault this evil was. The lot fell on the sleeper. “[H]url me into the sea,” he said; “then the sea will quiet down for you” (v. 12). After trying to row once again toward shore, the crew gave in. They threw the man overboard, and just as the man said it would, the sea quieted down.
And this is when things got even more interesting. “[T]he LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (v. 9), sent “a great fish to swallow up” the man (v. 17). This is how the prophet Jonah came to spend three days and three nights in the belly of a fish. The crew had no warning signs of the danger that was coming when Jonah hopped on board. Those sailors could not have known that the almighty God commanded him to preach to the people of Assyria, and that Jonah had no intention of obeying Him. He was trying to run away from God by sailing as far from Assyria as possible. But even in his disobedience, the LORD used Jonah as a sign of The Promise. Some 800 years later, Jesus would compare Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the fish to His pending death and His resurrection three days afterward (Mt. 12:40).
The Pharisees and Sadducees pestered Jesus for a sign from heaven, but the promise of His resurrection was the only one He offered and the only one they needed. As much as we look for special signs of God’s love for us, God cannot prove His love any better than what Jesus has already done. We Need No Sign from the Lord Our Stay.
In the historic Gospel reading for today (Jn. 4:46-54), we heard about a man who came to Jesus at Cana and asked Him to heal his dying son. It seems that word had spread about Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding feast (2:1-11). This distraught father was looking for a miracle. Jesus was looking for faith. To this man and the others who were gathered there, Jesus said, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Under the circumstances, Jesus’ response does not seem very kind. But remember that His primary mission was to save sinners, not heal the sick. The man pleaded with Him again to help. Jesus replied, “Go; your son will live.” Through this powerful word of Jesus, the man believed and went home to find his son on the way to recovery.
This miracle was one in a long list of signs that should have convinced everyone beyond any doubt that Jesus was who He said He was—God in the flesh. But no matter how many deaf people were made to hear, mute people made to speak, diseased people made well, and demons cast out, many still denied that Jesus was the Christ, the Anointed Savior. Among these were the Pharisees and Sadducees who badgered Jesus “to show them a sign from heaven.” The signs He had already done were not enough for them. They wanted to see something drop out of heaven into their laps like the manna and quail the LORD gave to the wandering Israelites. But Jesus had nothing to prove. The burden was not on Him, but them. Even if He performed exactly the sign they wanted, they would not be convinced. What they needed, was to repent and believe His words.
“You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky,” He said, “but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” In their hard-heartedness and spiritual blindness, He would give them no other sign than “the sign of Jonah.” This was the same sign He had predicted when He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19). The Jewish leaders knew what He was referring to. After Jesus was crucified they said to Pilate, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise’” (Mt. 27:63). They asked that a guard might be placed at the tomb and the stone secured. This played right into God’s hands. It meant that there were even more eyewitnesses of the empty tomb when the angel rolled the stone away (Mt. 28:4,11-15).
Just as the LORD caused the great fish to spit out Jonah on dry land, so He caused the grave to give up its temporary Occupant. The sailors would not have believed their eyes to see Jonah alive and well, and neither did Jesus’ disciples believe what they were seeing on Easter Sunday. They saw Jesus alive again only three days after His brutal execution. They wondered if their minds were playing tricks on them or if this could be a ghost. Jesus knew their thoughts – “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see!” (Lk. 24:39). It was true; He had risen from the dead! What could this mean? It meant that the chains of death were forever broken. It meant that the guilty were declared innocent, justified in God’s sight. It meant that all believers in Christ would rise again in glory just like He did.
What greater sign of God’s love could there be than Jesus’ death and resurrection? No other sign should be required. And yet Jesus says, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign.” That includes you and me. We want more signs, more assurances of God’s faithfulness, especially when the storms of this life come upon us. We say, “God, if you really love me, make my pain go away.” “If you really love me, keep this person from dying.” “If you really love me, preserve me from trouble.” These are conditions for loyalty more than they are statements of faith. In this way, we are not so far removed from the Pharisees and Sadducees, who essentially said, “Lord, we will believe in You IF….”
Faith is not even in the equation if we must be convinced of God’s love by some visible sign. Faith in God is trusting in Him even when He seems absent from our lives or uncaring about our difficulties. Faith does not rest on what is seen and experienced, but on what is not seen (Heb. 11:1). We did not see Jesus redeem us from our sins, and we do not see Him today, but we believe that He has redeemed us and still blessed us.
Jonah did not see any way out of the belly of the great fish. For three dark, miserable days, He prayed in faith to the LORD. The LORD heard his prayer and delivered him from the fish (Jon. 2). Then He again commanded Jonah to preach to the Assyrians. This time Jonah went. He entered the capital city of Nineveh and called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4). The word of the prophet reached the king, who immediately ordered the people of his kingdom to repent and cry to God for mercy. The LORD heard their prayers and “relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them” (3:10).
God hears your prayer of repentance, your cry for mercy, too. Even though you have doubted Him, run from Him, and even criticized Him at times, He is not angry toward you. He forgives your wrongs, just as He forgave Jonah. He abides with you, even in your moments of darkest trial and the times when terror comes upon you. He will always remain faithful to you, and He wants you to remain faithful to Him. He wants you to rely on Him in every need and to seek refuge in Him, your strong Fortress and Defender.
In our chief hymn for today, we prayed for the Triune God to be our “Stay” (ELH 18). We do not use the word “stay” like this very often today. A great picture of this word is the large ropes extending from the mast of a ship to the front and back of the vessel. These ropes are called “stay ropes” (forestay/backstay). They keep the mast secure, even in stormy weather. The LORD God is our Stay (Ps. 18:17-18). He keeps us secure in our faith and supports us, so that we do not topple over and fall to our destruction. As Martin Luther so powerfully wrote, “A mighty Fortress is our God, / A trusty Shield and Weapon; / Our help is He in all our need, / Our stay whate’er doth happen” (ELH 251, v. 1).
The Lord is your mighty Fortress and your Stay, whose strong cords of love and mercy toward you will never unravel or break. What more could we ask from God than what He has given us in Jesus? He will not forsake His own children who were bought with the price of His Son’s death and resurrection. This gift of salvation by grace is better and surer than any other sign God could send. And so we say with the hymnwriter Paul Gerhardt, words which could just as well have been sung by the prophet Jonah:
This I believe, yea, rather, / In this I make my boast,
That God is my dear Father, / The Friend who loves me most;
And that, whate’er betide me, / My Savior is at hand
Through stormy seas to guide me / And bring me safe to land. (ELH 517, v. 2)
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The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 13:44-50
In Christ Jesus, who promises to “rescue [us] from every evil deed and bring [us] safely into his heavenly kingdom” (2Tim. 4:18), dear fellow redeemed:
Less than a year ago, someone in California won $1.5 billion in the Powerball jackpot. That person beat odds of 292 million to 1. That’s a lot of money, but those are terrible odds. Think about your odds of catching a foul ball in a major league baseball stadium filled with 50,000 people. You could improve your odds based on where you sit, but catching a ball would be no sure thing. Even if we are talking about a community raffle, how many of those have you won in your lifetime?
Now think about your odds of being a believer in Jesus. There are over 2 billion Christians worldwide, which makes up a third of the total population. In America the percentage is even higher. Of an estimated 325 million Americans, around 75% still consider themselves Christians. But claiming to be a Christian and actually being one are different things. There are many self-identified “Christians” who could not name the three Persons of God or tell you the basic facts of Jesus’ life. Many of them believe that God is happy with them as long as they are happy, or say that whether or not Jesus rose from the dead does not change their relationship with God.
Judging by what we see in our society, the odds of a person actually believing what the Bible says are not good. There are not many who believe they are spiritually incapable and dead in their sins by nature, and that God sent His Son to redeem them. You do believe this, which means you beat those odds. Except it wasn’t really you. It was the grace of God for you, and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring you to faith in Jesus. You did not find your way into God’s favor by anything you did; rather, The Lord Has Chosen You for His Kingdom.
Have you ever been around someone who hears about God’s grace and forgiveness for the first time? You can almost see the burden lifted off their shoulders when they learn there is hope for them in Christ. You can sense the excitement in their voice when they wonder if this is too good to be true. Before they came to faith, they did not know what they were missing. But now they realize there was a treasure waiting for them all along, which only the Holy Spirit could reveal to them. They rejoice in the message of salvation and devour the Scriptures to feed their starving souls.
That attitude is often lacking in those who were raised in the Christian Church and thoroughly educated in the teachings of Scripture. We treat our faith in Christ as if it were no real miracle, and the forgiveness of sins like it is no big deal. We go to church because we know we are supposed to, but we would just as soon be in front of our TVs or heading off to one event or another. This begs the question: What is the Christian faith worth to you? What would you be willing to give up for the Gospel? Would you give up your home, possessions, and wealth? Would you give up your job? Would you give up the people closest to you? Would you give up even your own life?
The man who found treasure hidden in a field sold everything he had to buy that field. He knew that greater riches were there than anything he had before. The merchant found one pearl of great value and sold everything he had to make it his. Jesus said this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. In other words, there is no going halfway. So are we children of the world, or children of God? Do we treasure earthly things above all else, or spiritual things? For his part, the Apostle Paul said, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:8-9).
Hearing these inspiring words, you may think as I do, “I wish I had a faith like this, a faith that clings to Jesus only.” The world is full of so many distractions, so many things that tug on my heart and mind. Jesus described these things in the Holy Gospel for today (Mt. 22:1-14), when He said that of those who received an invitation to the wedding feast—the feast of salvation—“they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.” Today’s hymn puts it well when it says that “we are so sluggish, thoughtless, cold” (ELH 511, v. 3). If entering into eternal life depended on our faithfulness to God, we would be barred forever from His kingdom. But our entrance into God’s kingdom does not depend on us. It depends on Jesus.
You want to talk about odds? How about the odds of the virgin Mary being chosen as the mother of the Christ Child over 2000 years ago? Why Mary? Mary was sinful like you and me. She came from the royal line of David, but that distinction did nothing to change her status as a poor woman from Nazareth. There would have been no way to predict that Mary would have this honor above all honors of carrying in her womb “the Word made flesh” (Jn. 1:14). But she did. She gave birth to Jesus, the name told her by the angel, a name that means “the LORD saves.”
His name described His purpose. Jesus came to save. He came to save sinners because God is merciful. He does not want any to experience eternal destruction but to have eternal life with Him. In the scales of God’s justice, Jesus offered His perfect life and innocent death against the sin and death of all humanity. Martin Luther wrote about this that “if God’s death and a dead God lie in the balance, his side goes down and ours goes up like a light and empty scale…. But he could not sit on the scale unless he had become a man like us, so that it could be called God’s dying, God’s martyrdom, God’s blood, and God’s death” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 41, pp. 103-104). The weight of Jesus’ work as God and Man means that on our side we are raised up to heaven as if floating on air.
But then why is it that not all are saved if Jesus did everything necessary to save sinners? It is because not everyone wants to sit in the scale opposite Jesus. In their unbelief they say they have no need of Him. “Church is for the weak-minded and the serious sinners,” they think, “but not for me.” This sad situation is what Jesus described in the parable of the net thrown into the sea. He explained that the good fish are the believers whom the angels will safely bring to heaven. But the bad fish are the unbelievers who will be cast into hell, into “the fiery furnace” where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It is striking that Jesus says the most here about eternal death in hell instead of eternal life in heaven. This is to give clear warning about what the future holds for those who reject Jesus.
But in the Holy Gospel for today, Jesus also provides a picture of heaven. He describes heaven as a great wedding feast. St. John’s Revelation says this is the marriage feast of the Lamb, who is eternally united with His bride, the Church (Rev. 19:9). You are part of this Church through faith in Jesus. By yourself, you are imperfect, weak, and stained by sin. But in Christ, you are holy. The letter to the Ephesians says that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having 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” (Eph. 5:25-27).
The Lord chose you from eternity to believe in His Son. He did not choose you based on any good quality in you. There is no logical explanation why you believe in Jesus while others who have heard the Gospel message do not. You believe by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9). In His abundant grace, God chose you—dead in your sins by nature—to receive the gift of salvation. His eternal will was carried out in your life when you were brought to the waters of Holy Baptism and incorporated into His Church. Since then, He has continued to bless you and keep you in the saving faith through the Gospel, applied to you in Word and Sacrament.
Turning the parables in today’s text around, we might say that Jesus came looking for you, lost and hopeless in the field, and gave up the glories of heaven to purchase and win your soul. To Jesus, you are that pearl of great price, for which He gave up all He had—even His own life—to make His own. You often are “sluggish, thoughtless, cold,” but the life-giving breath of God enlivens you; it fills your heart. His Word gives you the desire and the courage to forsake the alluring treasures of the world and to seek the treasures above.
The odds seem to be stacked against your believing in Jesus and being saved. If this depended in any way on you, the odds of winning a Powerball jackpot would be excellent in comparison. But because the odds rest with God, they are greatly in your favor. You did not choose Jesus; He chose you (Jn. 15:16). He chose you to be saved by the will of His Father and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Through a living faith in Him, God “will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Cor. 1:8). On that day, He will transfer you from this present kingdom to His eternal kingdom of glory.
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