The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 3:15-22
In Christ Jesus, in whom “all the promises of God find their Yes” (2Co. 1:20), dear fellow redeemed:
It is election season in our country, which means it is a time when politicians make a lot of promises. Some of those promises are within their power to carry out if they are elected. Other promises they only hope they can keep. Still other promises are made to score political points, but there is really no follow through to fulfill them. A politician makes these promises to secure votes. In other words, he is willing to give something in order to get something in return.
That doesn’t sound very impressive, but a lot of our promises are like that. We promise to give our best on the field or court or in the classroom, and we expect our good effort to be recognized. We promise to work hard for an employer, and we expect to be treated well in return. We promise to be faithful to our spouse, and we expect their faithfulness to us. When we know our promises will be rewarded, it is easier for us to keep them.
It is much harder to keep our promises when the person we have made a promise to proves unworthy of it. Then we might try to go back and adjust our promise. “What I really meant was that I promise to do this or that if you meet my conditions, or as long as I am happy with you.” Experiencing betrayals and hurts might also cause us to adjust our promises on the front end. This has happened with marriage vows in certain places where “as long as we both shall live” has been changed to “as long as we still love each other.” But a conditional promise is really no promise at all.
A true promise is difficult business. A true promise puts us in another person’s debt. It commits us to serve them in some way, and service always requires sacrifice. Making a promise conditional or making no promises at all is much “safer,” so to speak. But that is not the way we have been taught by God. That is the way of selfishness, not the way of love.
Our gracious and merciful Lord does not make conditional promises. He does exactly what He says He will do. The promise that Paul writes about in today’s Epistle is the promise God made to Abraham after Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen. 22:15-18). But although it included a formal covenant, it wasn’t really a new promise. At its core, it pointed to an old promise, the promise of salvation for sinners. God first made this promise to Adam and Eve after they fell into sin.
When you read the account of the fall in Genesis chapter 3, you might expect to find Adam and Eve asking God what they could do to get right with Him again. Or you might expect God to give them some incentive to be better and prove themselves to Him. Neither of those things happens. First He makes the promise that the Seed of the woman will crush the serpent’s head (3:15). Then He outlines the consequences that man and woman will face because of their sins (vv. 16-19). No impression is given that the fulfillment of God’s promise to save is dependent on how well Adam and Eve carried out their callings in a sinful world.
The same goes for Abraham. The LORD called Abraham away from the idol worship of his father’s house. Abraham in no way deserved God’s favor, but the LORD chose him as an ancestor of the promised Messiah and gave him faith to believe the promise (Gen. 15:6). Even Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son at God’s command did not cause God to keep His promise.
If God’s promise to send a Savior depended on the world’s worthiness to receive this gift, no Savior would have ever come. The LORD did not negotiate terms for sending a Savior like Abraham did for saving Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham asked God to spare those wicked cities if only fifty righteous people were found there and then forty-five righteous ones and then thirty and then twenty and then ten (Gen. 18:22-33).
If the LORD had said He would save the world as long as fifty percent were righteous or even ten percent of the population, we would have no Savior. By nature, “None [of us] is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). The LORD’s promise was not conditional like this. His promise did not depend on our character and our actions. It depended entirely on His holy will and His immeasurable love for us sinners.
This is why He kept His promise even though so many had despised His promise and so few were looking for its fulfillment. “[W]hen the fullness of time had come—when the time had come to fulfill the promise—, God sent forth his Son” (Gal. 4:4). God the Father sent His Son to be born into the world of men, to be subject to the holy Law, to endure terrible injustice, suffering, and pain, and to die at the hands of sinners.
If anyone had the right to change a promise because the recipients of the promise were obviously unworthy, it is God. But God did not change His promise. He kept it. He sent His only-begotten Son to die alone for the sins of the whole world. Jesus died for everyone, even for those who hate Him and His Word, for those who bow down at the altars of worldly power and pleasure and riches, for the murderers, abusers, thieves, liars, and cheats. He died for all people past, present, and future who sin. That means He died for you and me.
Besides rejecting the salvation He won, the worst thing we can do is act like we contribute toward our salvation. Many people fall into this error, including many Christians. They say things like this: “Jesus did His part, and now I have to do mine.” Or, “Jesus died for my sins, and now I have to prove I am worthy of His sacrifice.” Or comfortless statements like these, “God helps those who help themselves.”
Jesus did not fulfill the Law and die for your sins just to have the Law placed on your shoulders again. Keeping the Law does not complete your salvation or give you another way to obtain salvation. This is St. Paul’s emphasis in today’s text. He said that God gave the promise of salvation to Abraham 430 years before He gave the Law through Moses. The giving of the Law did not annul God’s covenant of grace. It did not make the promise of salvation through faith void. Paul wrote that “if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.”
You know this. You know you are saved by grace and not by works. You know that your inheritance of heaven comes by God’s promise alone. But the devil and your own flesh want to tempt you away from this certainty and get you to focus on the things you do or don’t do. So you might watch the news and think you are better than the rioters and looters. You would never behave like that! You follow the rules. You lend a helping hand. You prove every day how much more kind and loving you are than others.
Do you see the problem? Thinking so much about your own good deeds plants you in the ground of the Law. The only fruit you can bear there is self-righteousness and pride or else despair. But looking to your Savior in humility and faith plants you firmly in His promise. God did not give the Law so you could compare your righteousness with others. He gave the Law “because of transgressions,” as Paul writes. He gave the Law to humble you, to show you how far you have fallen short.
And He gave His promise to save you, to show you how deep His love is for you. No matter how often you have messed up, no matter what terrible words you have said or thoughts you have imagined toward others, God’s promise of your forgiveness has not changed. He does not say that the shed blood of Jesus takes away only minor infractions, or only benefits the people who show they are worthy. He says that “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1Jo. 1:7).
You may feel like the most wretched sinner the world has ever known. You might hardly hope for peace with God because of your many sins. You may carry the burden of a million failures. But God says, “As surely as My holy Son died on the cross and rose again, your sins are forgiven. Your record is completely clean. Salvation is yours.”
God kept His promise to send a Savior, which means there is nothing you have to do to be saved. But what about the example of the Good Samaritan? Isn’t Jesus teaching us that we have to be kind and merciful toward those around us? He is. He is teaching us about love, which is the summary of His Law. But He is not teaching that salvation is earned by our love toward others.
Salvation was earned by His love. He is our Good Samaritan who saved us from our sin and death. Our love for Him and others comes as a response to His love, as a living sacrifice of thankfulness for what He has done. “We love because he first loved us” (1Jo. 4:19). As soon as we try to add our love to the equation of our salvation, then salvation becomes uncertain, because we do not love as God commands us to do. Paul writes: “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
God has not changed His mind about you or the rest of the sinners of the world. He has not voided the work His Son did to save you. He gives no conditions to meet if you would enter into His favor. God’s Promise Stands on His faithfulness alone. That means your forgiveness, your life, and your salvation are completely secure in Him.
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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(picture of Abraham viewing the stars from 1919 Bible primer book published by Augustana Book Concern)
The Fourth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 4:21-5:1
In Christ Jesus, who took upon Himself the yoke of sin and entered the dungeon of death, so that we would be ransomed and freed, dear fellow redeemed:
You and I are Americans. We were born here. We are citizens, so we have all the rights and privileges as outlined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We wouldn’t like it if someone came along and tried to say we weren’t actually Americans. “You don’t understand what it means to be an American,” you’re told. “You don’t appreciate American freedoms. You may have been born here, but you are not from here.” We probably wouldn’t have to think too hard about a response. We know what we are.
But what if it were true? What if we thought we were “good Americans,” but everything we stood for contradicted the founding principles of our country? Something like this happened when Jesus told the Jews they were not descendants of Abraham. “What!?” they said, “Of course we are descendants of Abraham! We can trace our family line all the way back to Abraham and his son Isaac and his son Jacob!” Jesus replied, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did” (Joh. 8:39-40).
The Jews to whom Jesus spoke may have been blood relatives of Abraham, but they were not his spiritual heirs. They thought they were children of promise in good standing with God. Jesus called them “slaves”—slaves to sin. “Whoever is of God hears the words of God,” He said. “The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (8:47). The Jews were so offended at Jesus’ criticisms and His claim to be God that “they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself” (v. 59). It wasn’t His time to die yet, though that time would come.
In his letter to the churches of Galatia, the apostle Paul by inspiration of the Holy Spirit took up the same topic of Abraham and his descendants. Paul had traveled through the area of Galatia on his first and second missionary journeys. Christian congregations had been established along the way. But after Paul left, other preachers came. They did not teach the same doctrine as Paul. Presenting themselves as Christians, they urged the Galatian congregations to diligently keep the Old Testament laws. This included the laws regarding Jewish festivals and the law of circumcision.
But the Old Testament regulations were in place to point to Christ. Once He had accomplished His work, the Old Testament ceremonial and civil laws were no longer required (Col. 2:16-17). Jesus perfectly fulfilled them for all (Mat. 5:17-18). Hearing that the Galatian Christians were being swayed by these false teachers, Paul sent his letter. He asked the congregation members whether they received “the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith” (Gal. 3:2). He wrote that Abraham received the Spirit by faith, so “it is those of the faith who are the sons of Abraham” (v. 7).
Further on in the letter, Paul illustrated this teaching by the example of Abraham’s two sons. One was born from Sarah’s maidservant Hagar whom Sarah gave to Abraham in the hopes of obtaining a child (Gen. 16:2). Abraham and Hagar conceived a son named Ishmael. But Ishmael was not the child of promise. God kept His Word to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son of their own. They named their son Isaac. Isaac was the child of promise. “[A]ll the nations of the earth [would] be blessed” (Gen. 22:18) through him, because the Messiah would come from him.
The practicing Jews in Paul’s day would have absolutely called themselves the spiritual descendants of Isaac. But Paul disagreed. Paul called the Jews who rejected the Gospel the spiritual children of Hagar’s son Ishmael. “[Hagar] corresponds to the present Jerusalem,” he wrote, “for she is in slavery with her children.” And what was it that the Jews were enslaved to? They were enslaved to the law. They adhered to a religion of works. They rejected Jesus as their Holiness, their Substitute, and their Savior, and they trusted in their own righteousness. Therefore they remained in slavery to sin.
But the spiritual descendants of Isaac are those who believe the promise. They believe that God the Father sent His only Son to be born of Mary who could trace her lineage back to Abraham and Isaac. They believe that her Son Jesus kept the law perfectly in their place, so the law could no longer condemn them. They believe that His sacrifice on the cross ransomed them from the power of sin, devil, and death. These, wrote Paul, are “children of promise,” children of freedom.
So which category describes you? There are some who believe that the freedom which Jesus obtained for them allows them to do whatever they want. They are kind of like those who behave badly and say whatever wicked and unkind thing they want because “it’s a free country.” Our freedom as Christians can be misused just like our freedom as citizens can. Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of our sins should not make us comfortable with sin. Since our sin caused the death of our perfect Lord, we should want to avoid sin at all cost. We are free from the condemnation of the law, but the Ten Commandments are still in place for our good and for the good of our neighbors.
Let’s dig deeper into what it means to be free in Christ. Freedom in Christ means I do not have to wear a certain kind of clothing, eat or avoid certain foods, or work a certain job. I am free to go to the grocery store and buy whatever I want. I am even free to buy more than I need in the case that I might need it in the future. However I am not free to disregard the needs of my neighbor. Unfortunately we see this happening now when people hoard essential goods in quantities far higher than they need or for the purpose of reselling the products at a higher price. This selfishness and greed leaves their neighbors without and uncertain what to do. That is not the way of Christ.
At the same time, it is easy to think well of ourselves when we do not do those things. We care about our neighbors. We want to help them. We are generous. From these thoughts, it is only a small step to self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is comparing ourselves with others and imagining that we come out ahead. It is the opinion that we have done a fair job of keeping God’s law. This is how the Jewish preachers were who wanted to pull the Galatian Christians from the doctrine they had been taught by Paul. They urged the Galatians to seek comfort and peace in what they did for God and not in what He had done for them.
Like the Galatians, we have fallen for this temptation many times. We love to compare ourselves with others and pass judgment on them: “Well I wouldn’t have done that!” “How could he be so stupid!” “We would be so much better off without them!” Or, “They would be so much better off if they were like us!” This kind of self-righteous behavior comes even easier to us at this time of tremendous stress in our country. We want to find people to blame for this disruption in our lives. It could be carriers of the virus from other countries, our national and local government officials, health care workers who do not support us the way we expect, or any number of other targets.
But if all we want to do is hold other people’s feet to the fire, then we should start holding our own feet to the fire. If we want to level the law at others, we should level it at ourselves. The fact is none of us by ourselves is better or more righteous than another. Paul wrote in another letter quoting a Psalm that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one’” (Rom. 3:9-10). By nature we are all slaves to sin.
But “Christ has set us free” from this slavery. He kept the requirements of the law perfectly in our place. As soon as we came to faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, His righteousness became our righteousness. That means we have no need to compare our life with the lives of others. We have nothing to do to get ourselves into heaven. Jesus fulfilled the law for us, and He fully paid the price for our sins. His atoning death in our place means the devil can do nothing more than blow hot air. His accusations cannot stick anymore, because Jesus won salvation for us.
We are now “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). We are children of promise, and The Children of Promise Are Free. We are free to love God and our neighbors, not in an attempt to get ourselves out of trouble or to prove our worth, but because Jesus set us free to love freely just as He loves us. We are members of “the Jerusalem above,” the holy Christian Church.
Our membership in Christ’s Church by faith subjects us to persecution from those who remain enslaved to sin. But we are not about to return to that slavery. We “stand firm” in the glorious freedom we have in Christ. In Him, our sins are not counted against us anymore. Through Him, our salvation is certain when our life in this world ends. And with Him, we will enjoy the perfect bliss of heaven 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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(picture is from “The Dismissal of Hagar” by Pieter Pietersz Lastman, 1583–1633)
Midweek Lent – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: Genesis 22:1-14
In Christ Jesus, the fulfillment of the LORD’s covenant with Abraham, dear fellow redeemed:
When Abraham was seventy-five years old, the LORD promised him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great” (Gen. 12:2). But Abraham and his wife Sarah had no children. More time passed, and the LORD said again, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them…. So shall your offspring be” (15:5). Still more time passed. Now Abraham was ninety-nine years old, and his wife Sarah was eighty-nine. Who ever heard of a couple this old conceiving a child? But the LORD kept His promise. They did conceive a child, and a healthy baby boy named Isaac was born.
Imagine how they doted on their son! Not only did they have to wait twenty-five years for God to keep His promise, not only was Isaac born to them in their old age, but he was also the beginning of a great nation. The LORD had promised Abraham, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (17:6-7).
But after some time when Isaac had grown and was perhaps in his teens, God told Abraham to take his son “to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Along with this command, the LORD’s description of his son almost seemed cruel, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love… and offer him.” These were shocking and troubling words. We can only imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind: “Sacrifice my son, the son of the promise? But You said nations and kings would come from me! You said Your covenant between You and me and my offspring was an everlasting covenant! Take my life, O Lord, but not my son!”
But Abraham obeyed. He set off with Isaac and two servants, and they came in sight of Moriah on the third day. He told the servants to wait there while he and his son went to worship. Then he said they would come back again. Did Abraham lie to his servants? It seems like it. How could he and Isaac return if Isaac was to be killed? But in fact Abraham did not lie. The author of the book of Hebrews fills us in on what Abraham believed: “He considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead” (11:19). Abraham fully intended to kill his son, and he fully expected the LORD to raise him back to life. How else could God keep His earlier promises?
So Abraham and Isaac continued on to the place of sacrifice. Abraham had Isaac carry the wood, while he took the fire and the knife. Isaac noticed that something was missing: “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” And God did provide the lamb. Just when Abraham was ready to kill his son, “the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven” and stopped him. “[N]ow I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham showed that he loved the LORD more than his only son. The LORD’s promise was primary; nothing was more important than the Word of the living God.
The LORD provided a lamb that day, a ram whose horns were caught in a nearby thicket. Abraham offered this ram as a sacrifice to God, and he and Isaac returned to the servants and went home. But this episode was far more than a trip to a lonely place, a test of faith, and an offering to God. This episode was all about the Messiah.
The LORD’s description of Abraham’s son was not cruelty, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love.” It was a description that God the Father could apply to His own Son. The Messiah is the only-begotten Son of the Father, begotten of His Father from eternity. And He was a perfect Son, without fault, without sin. This did not change with His incarnation. When He was baptized and when He was transfigured on the mountain, the Father said about Him, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mat. 3:17, 17:5). The Father loved His Son.
But He also loved the world, a world that had rebelled against Him and deserved nothing from Him but eternal punishment. And this is how He showed His love: He sent His only-begotten Son to save sinners. His perfect Son would be sacrificed in their place. His perfect Son would absorb His holy wrath for sin, so they would be freed from condemnation and death.
So God’s Son set out for Moriah. That hill where Abraham built an altar was the very place where Jerusalem would later be established and God’s holy temple would stand. Like Isaac, Jesus came to this place as the sacrificial lamb. Like Isaac, He carried the wood on which He would be sacrificed. Like Isaac, He trusted His Father even as sharp instruments were readied to harm Him.
But nobody stepped in when thorns and nails pierced the flesh of Jesus. Nobody stepped in when His Father in heaven punished Him in the place of all sinners. Nobody stepped in when the eternal fires of hell tormented Him. Isaac did not have to die. But Jesus did.
Jesus had to die for you. That was the only way to redeem you, a lost and condemned creature. It was the only way to purchase and win you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. A holy sacrifice was required for your salvation, and God provided it. Abraham was right, “God will provide the lamb.” The Lamb that God provided was His only Son.
Abraham never forgot the ram God gave him to sacrifice instead of his son Isaac. And God did not forget His promise. He did make a great nation from Abraham. From his offspring all the nations of the earth were blessed (Gen. 22:18). That includes you. From the line of Abraham and Isaac came the world’s Savior, the one who took your sins to Himself and blotted them out by the shedding of His blood. Thanks be to God! Amen.
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(painting by Orazio Riminaldi, 1625)
The Fifth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 8:46-59
In Christ Jesus, who told the truth, even though it caused many to oppose and attack Him, dear fellow redeemed:
Was he just seeing things? Was his mind playing tricks on him? There Moses was out in the wilderness, when he came by a bush that was on fire. That might have been interesting enough, but Moses noticed that the bush was not burning up. Fire was in the bush, but the bush remained whole. Moses thought he would have a closer look. At that moment, God called out to Moses from the bush and told him to stop and take off his sandals, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exo. 3:5).
Then God said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (v. 6). Moses was afraid. How could he, a sinner, stand in the presence of the holy God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? But God had plans for Moses. Moses would lead the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt.
Now Moses hadn’t left Egypt under the best circumstances forty years before this. He wondered if the Israelites would accept his leadership. If he told them the God of their fathers had sent him, and they asked for the name of this God, what should he tell them? God said to Moses, “I AM who I AM …. Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (v. 14). God had given His personal name. It is a name that emphasizes His undeniable existence and a name that indicates His absolute power. God is I AM. He said, “This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (v. 15).
The Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt, but as time passed, God’s people did not always remember Him. The God I AM might have been good enough for Abraham and Moses, but the people wanted something else. They liked the look of the gods of the nations around them. Those religions did not require so much self-discipline, so much sacrifice. In fact those religions offered the opposite: self-gratification and self-service.
But God loved His people. He is a faithful God. He sent prophets to call the people to repentance. Sometimes, some listened. But other times, the people mistreated the prophets and killed them. The week of His death, Jesus recounted this sad history with the chief priests and elders. He told them a parable about a vineyard owner who left the care of his vineyard to tenants and went away. At harvest time, he sent servants to gather up the fruit, but these were beaten, killed, and stoned. So he decided to send his son, saying, “They will respect my son.” But they killed him too (Mat. 21:33-39). Jesus was speaking about the Israelites who killed the prophets and who now planned to kill Him, God’s Son.
This tension between the religious leaders and Jesus had been building for a while. Today’s text presents one of their conversations in which neither side held anything back. The Pharisees insinuated that Jesus was born through a sinful union (Joh. 8:41), that He was a Samaritan, and that He had a demon (v. 48). They, on the other hand, presented themselves as being faithful descendants of Abraham.
Jesus replied, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did” (vv. 39-40). He said that they were not following their father Abraham but their father the devil, because they were doing what the devil does, which is lie and murder (vv. 44, 55). Which side was correct? They could not both be right. Either Jesus was telling the truth when He said He came from God, or the leading Jews were right in calling Him an imposter.
Jesus had powerful testimony on His side. For one thing, there was the evidence of His signs and miracles. A ruler of the Jews had earlier come to Jesus and admitted, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (Joh. 3:2). And then there was the evidence of His teaching and life, which the Pharisees could hardly criticize. As Jesus said at the beginning of today’s text, “Which one of you convicts Me of sin?”
Still these religious leaders rejected Him. They had hardened their hearts against Jesus. They refused to acknowledge what all the evidence pointed toward—that Jesus was God in the flesh. They believed the lie that the devil had planted in their hearts, and they willingly cultivated this lie. They agreed that Jesus must be eliminated. Then they could get back to the way things were before when the people looked up to them, and they got to make the rules.
It surprises us that the Pharisees could be so blind. Why didn’t they just listen to Jesus? Why didn’t they just believe? The same questions can be asked of us. By the grace of God, we do believe in Jesus. But do we always listen to His Word? Jesus said very clearly, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God.” This includes all of God’s Word, even the parts that seem old-fashioned or too extreme for modern society.
Just as there was tension between Jesus and the Pharisees, there is tension between us and the world. The Bible presents a very different view than the world does of many different things, such as the purpose for our lives, what we are free to do and not do, and our responsibilities toward God and our neighbors. It is tempting for us to give ground in these areas, to go along to get along. The way some Christians deal with this tension is to confess one thing on Sunday morning, but to take a totally different approach in their work and interactions with friends. They stand for one thing one day and the opposite thing the next. This is hypocrisy.
If we consider the Bible to be God’s truth, and if we actually value these words, we will live our lives according to them. Through our words and actions, we will want to show others the hope we have in Christ. Living such a life will almost certainly put us at odds with people around us. Those who practice self-gratification and self-service will be uncomfortable with our lives of self-discipline and sacrifice. But by our humble example, they may in time be won over to the truth.
Of course none of us can sit here today and think we have done all we could to honor God’s Word. We do not hear it and study it as diligently as we should. And we do not honor it with a consistently holy life. If we could do this on our own, with the force of our own will, then we really wouldn’t need Jesus’ presence in our lives. But we do need His presence. We can’t live the way we should apart from Him.
And this is why the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and the God of Moses took on human flesh. Before, God had sent representatives—prophets, priests, and kings—to speak His Word. Now the Father sent His only Son. What happened in the incarnation parallels the mystery of the burning bush that Moses saw. The LORD was in the fire in the bush, but the branches of the bush did not burn up. In a similar way, the divine nature of the LORD was joined to the flesh of man, but the flesh of man was not consumed. Jesus was true God and true Man in one person.
In other words, the God who before shared His personal name “I AM,” could now be apprehended in a still more personal way. Now He could be seen and heard and touched. Now the religious leaders could lie to His face, they could arrest Him and beat Him. Now He could suffer and die. These things were all part of God’s plan. God wanted the world to have a Savior, and no one could do it but I AM incarnate.
In the Gospel of John, he records a number of examples where Jesus ties Himself to the name I AM, and where He speaks words of comfort for sinners. Jesus said:
- “I AM the bread of life” (6:35, 48).
- “I AM the light of the world” (8:12).
- “I AM the door of the sheep” (10:7,9).
- “I AM the good shepherd” (10:11,14).
- “I AM the resurrection and the life” (11:25).
- “I AM the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6).
- “I AM the true vine” (15:1).
And perhaps the clearest of them all is from today’s text: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” It was unmistakable. Jesus claimed that He is “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exo. 3:15). The Pharisees called it blasphemy; they picked up stones to kill Him. We call it salvation. God came in the flesh to be our Savior and the Savior of all sinners.
We can no longer see and hear and touch Jesus, like His first disciples could. But I AM is still with us. He tells us to look for Him in the administration of the Sacraments and to hear Him in the preaching of His Word. These are the ways He comes to each of us personally and brings us the spiritual healing, strengthening, and forgiveness that we could not live without.
Our God does not leave us to drown in our sins or be overcome by the devil. He has redeemed us, so that we would be called the spiritual descendants of Abraham. Like Abraham we trust in Him alone for salvation, and through this faith in Him we are saved. “To God and to the Lamb, / Who is the great I Am, / While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing, / While millions join the theme, I will sing” (ELH 306, v. 3).
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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(painting is portion of the altarpiece in Weimar by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1555)
The Fifth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 8:46-59
In Christ Jesus, who is what we are not, and who gives us what we do not have, dear fellow redeemed:
Human beings all start in the same way. They are made of the same stuff. Babies of rich people are not born wearing designer clothes. Still we can’t seem to help elevating some people above others. Simply because of who they are, we listen more carefully to them and afford them greater honor. We dream about being like them and try to mimic what they do. This is true in politics where families like the Kennedys, Bushes, and Clintons have enjoyed long-running prominence. It is also true of icons in the entertainment industry—professional athletes, actors, singers, and musicians. Since these celebrities are so successful, then they must have a lot to offer us.
But richer is not automatically better, talented is not the same as truthful, and popular is not equivalent to noble and good. Job from the Old Testament recognized that his great wealth did not change the human condition. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb,” he said, “and naked shall I return” (Job 1:21). We come into the world with nothing, and we take nothing from the world with us when we die. When death comes, we leave behind our friends and family, property, treasured heirlooms, bank accounts, and social status. The only thing anybody can take along into death is faith or unbelief.
Jesus said as much to the Jews, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:31-32). They replied, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone” (v. 33). These Jews thought they were in good favor with God simply because of their bloodline. They could trace their descent back to Abraham, which must mean they were heirs of God’s special promises to him. Jesus would not let that illusion stand. He said plainly, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did” (vv. 39-40).
The Lord is not impressed by name-dropping. It does not matter to Him who we know, what family we come from, or what we have made of ourselves. You and I do not have eternal life because our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents were Christians. They had a great influence on us, no doubt, for which we should be grateful. But they cannot believe for us. Faith comes in only one way, and it isn’t genetically. “[F]aith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). The Jews refused to hear Christ’s Word, which is why they had no faith. As notable as their connection to Abraham was, this could not save them.
But the Jews did not agree that they were without the Word of God. In fact, they would have known their Old Testament Scriptures very well. They were trained from young on to know the Scriptures in a much more thorough way than we learn it in Catechism Class today. But diligently studying the truth is not the same as believing it. The Jews thought their relationship to Abraham along with their outward keeping of God’s law was sufficient for eternal life. This is why they rejected Jesus, who told them that salvation is gained by neither of these things. He said that those are saved who repent and believe God’s promise of the Messiah.
Jesus wants to teach us the same thing. He wants you to ask yourself if you are confident of salvation simply because you come from a good Christian family or attend a good church or because you live an outwardly good life. You know that these things cannot save you. But they may be bigger factors in your mind than you realize. Ask yourself how far you are willing to go to keep and defend the Word of God. Would you confront and warn a family member—a child, a sibling, a parent, a cousin, etc.—if they were living or acting contrary to the Word? Would you be willing to leave your beloved church if the pastor and congregation members started teaching what is wrong? Would you leave the company of friends who misuse God’s name and make light of His Word?
Following the Word is no cakewalk. Look at what happened to Jesus. He perfectly followed the Word and obeyed the will of His Father. For this, he was accused of being immoral and having a demon, and His own people wanted Him to die a painful death. Even His close family members rejected Him, at least for a time (Jn. 7:5). Jesus knows firsthand how uncomfortable it is for believers in this fallen world. He knows how challenging it is to remain with the truth and reject error. But it is a journey that must be taken, a battle that must be waged. The stakes could not be higher. Keeping and defending the Word of God is nothing less than a matter of life and death.
The world tells you that what matters is prosperity, power, prestige, and let’s not forget, peace with one another at any cost. Jesus tells us that the Gospel divides and brings trouble in the world (Mt. 10:34). It divides because many wish to remain in the darkness of sin and not come into the light of righteousness. They do not want to hear God’s law, but rather desire a life of free license. Jesus says, “For whoever would save his life [by going along with the world] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mk. 8:35-38).
I am sure it is not difficult for you, just as it is not for me, to think of times that you felt or acted ashamed of Jesus and His Word. When love compelled you to warn a brother or sister in Christ about their sin, you told yourself that the loving thing to do was remain silent. When you should have led your family in the Word at home, you found a thousand other things to do first. When you should have regularly examined and tested your own faith (2Cor. 13:5), you contented yourself with a simple knowledge of God’s Word. You and I would never dare to issue the challenge that Jesus did, “Which one of you convicts Me of sin?” Our sin is abundant. Even if others do not know the full extent of it, we do.
But Jesus could ask that question honestly. He had no sin. When the chief priests and Jewish council conducted their sham trial to convict Jesus, they found it impossible to pin any particular sin on Him. “[M]any bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree” (Mk. 14:56). This is because Jesus was perfect. He did not look for help from any influential friend or famous family member. He put His life in God the Father’s hands, knowing that He had kept God’s holy Word. The Apostle Peter writes, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1Pe. 2:22-23). But why?
The next verse explains, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (v. 24). Jesus was crucified for you, so that you might die and live—die to the sin that clings to you in your old Adam, and live to the righteousness that comes by faith. You die and live every day by repenting of your sins and trusting in Jesus’ forgiveness. This is the pattern of the Christian life. This is how you honor and glorify Jesus and His Word. This is how you return to Jesus’ atoning death and to your baptism which united you with Him.
When you come before Jesus in this humble manner, with your heart full of sorrow and remorse for sin, He does not turn you away. He does not tell you that you messed up one time too many, or that your faith is not strong enough for Him. He promises, “whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (Jn. 6:37). He takes it even further and says that everyone who believes in Him has the full forgiveness of all his sins. And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. This is what Jesus meant when He told the Jews, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word—believes My Word—, he will never see death.”
They ridiculed Him for saying that the one who believes the Word will not die. After all, Abraham and the prophets were long dead! But Jesus was talking about spiritual and eternal death. Those who trust in Him may die temporarily in the body, but their soul lives. And even their physical death is no different to God than a sleep, from which He will again wake them. Faith in Jesus lives on because Jesus lives. He is the great “I AM,” the ever-present, ever-living Lord of heaven. As He said, “I AM the way, and the truth, and the life,” and “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn. 14:6, 11:26).
Abraham and all the prophets and saints have nothing more than you have, because there is nothing lasting to be had apart from Jesus. Keep and defend and cling to the Word because then you will have Jesus, and having Jesus, you will also have eternal life.
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