The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 7:11-17
In Christ Jesus, “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2Tim. 1:10), dear fellow redeemed:
The town of Nain still exists. It sits among rolling hills not far from the Sea of Galilee. If you visited at the right time of year, you could find red poppies growing on the slopes of the hills. It would be a pleasant place to stop for a while and enjoy the beauty of the area. The word “Nain” means just that—a charming or beautiful place. Traveling south from Capernaum where He healed a Roman centurion’s servant, Jesus decided to stop at this little town. His disciples and the crowd with Him probably thought it was a nice place to take a rest.
The arrival of a big crowd would have typically brought excitement to Nain. But not today. Today was a sad day. The people of the town joined a distraught widow who mourned the death of her only son, a young man in the prime of his life. A thousand unanswerable questions ran through the mind of this poor woman: What would she do now? Who would provide for her? Why did God let this happen—first her husband and then her son?
It was a sad scene. We have witnessed scenes like this in our own lives. Some of us have felt the sadness this woman felt. It is a rare person who does not have to face the death of loved ones at a young age. The longer we live, the closer death gets to us. Death takes our grandparents and parents, and then it comes to us. One Lutheran pastor described the reality of death in this way, “The whole earth is a graveyard, and the whole race of humanity a funeral procession.” But it is worse than that. He writes, “We don’t simply follow the dead when we walk behind a coffin; we carry death in ourselves and hasten to our own graves” (Laache, Book of Family Prayer, p. 577).
What does it mean that “we carry death in ourselves”? It means that we carry the germ of death inside. We have been infected with sin, even from the moment of our conception. We are something like the tire with a nail in it. It can run for a while, but eventually it goes flat. We can live with the thorn of sin for a time, but eventually our bodies give out. The Apostle Paul states that because of sin in our bodies, “our outer self—our physical life—is wasting away” (2Cor. 4:16).
If you have an injury, you let it rest until it heals. If there is an infection in your body, the doctor prescribes an antibiotic. If your weight is causing health problems, you try to eat better and exercise. But what can you do about sin? Some people act like it isn’t even there, or they try to cover it up. They point out the bad in others, but not in themselves. Some feel the burden of sin and try to make up for it. They volunteer and go out of their way to help others, not so much because they feel love for their neighbors, but because they hope it will look good to God. But no matter what people try to do about sin—ignoring it, covering it up, trying to make amends for it—they end up in the same place. They can’t escape death.
There is nothing more sobering than death. No scientist or strong man has successfully defeated it. All attempts have failed. Still, human beings boast continuously about what they have accomplished. Look at our power! Look at our ingenuity! Look at our social progress! Look at our success! And yet death marches on and fells the world’s heroes one after the other. The old 18th century saying suggests that nothing is as certain as “death and taxes,” but a person might be able to evade taxes. He cannot evade death.
If nothing else woke up the world to its own pride and vanity and weakness, it seems that death would do the job. The universal problem of death should make everyone seek God and His mercy. For those who don’t, there isn’t much comfort to be had at their funeral, or as it is commonly called, their “celebration of life.” Loved ones share memories and funny stories. Everyone cheers the deceased for “doing things his way.” They remember him saying that he didn’t always make the best choices, but nobody had as much fun as he did. And they imagine the deceased now being “in a better place”—often described as a perfect golf course or a prime fishing spot.
These are the ways unbelievers try to lessen the sting of death. But their self-comfort is empty. The reality is that the person they loved is gone and isn’t coming back. Death won again. Death always wins. Well, almost always.
When the two crowds met at the gates of Nain, it must have been awkward. The townspeople were mourning the death of one of their own. The crowd with Jesus was looking for a place to have rest and refreshment. The visitors would not have been greeted with welcoming smiles. They may have been met with frowns, since they were getting in the way of a very personal ceremony.
But instead of stepping aside, Jesus stepped right up to the grieving woman. Gently He said to her, “Do not weep.” But who was this? Had anyone seen Him before? Didn’t He understand what was going on? Jesus did not offer an explanation. He turned from the woman and touched the open coffin. Those carrying the dead man stood still. They didn’t realize it, but death was about to be stopped in its tracks too. Jesus said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.”
If there was any delay between Jesus’ words and the rising up of the man, who would have believed it could happen? But immediately the dead man sat up and began to speak! Then a mother’s tears of anguish became tears of joy. Here was her son, alive! But who was this strange Man?
This Man was the Son of God incarnate, and He was on a mission. He came to deliver sinners from the universal curse. He came to provide the solution for sin. That solution was a life of innocence and the shedding of His divine blood. The Living One, the Lord of Life, had to die, so that that the dying ones, slaves of death, might live. But it was one thing to raise a dead man to life. Could Jesus raise Himself? The answer came on the third day after His death. To the surprise of everyone—both His enemies and His friends—Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning.
Jesus’ victory over death was not just for Him. Before all this took place He had declared, “Because I live, you also will live” (Jn. 14:19). He said that His life would be not only His, but His disciples’ also. And how could they be assured of this life even while their bodies declined and they faced their death? Their assurance of life was their baptism into Christ. Baptism is your assurance too. The Letter to the Romans says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (6:4-5).
“We shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” This certainty is given us in baptism. In our baptism, we are joined with our Savior; we become part of His body. That means His victory is our victory. His life is our life. Because we are in Christ, death can no more prevail against us than it prevailed against Him. This is why we can laugh at death even as it seems to be winning. We can say along with the believers of Old and New Testament times, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (Hos. 13:14; 1Cor. 15:55).
The poet John Donne wrote an excellent poem on this theme. He starts by addressing death:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
He says that death will not defeat him. And why is that? It is because of Jesus’ resurrection, and the life He delivered to us in our baptism. Donne concludes his poem with these confident words:
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
“Death shalt die” because the Life-Winner has triumphed over it. Death does its terrible work as long as there is sin in the world. But Jesus will soon return. Then the shadow of death will be dispelled in His bright light, and death will trouble us no more. This is our only comfort when we lay loved ones to rest in the tomb. We bury them with the confidence that their stay in the tomb is only temporary. To Jesus, they are only sleeping, and He can wake them with a word as easily as He raised the young man of Nain.
Death is all around us, and it is in us. But Jesus is in us and with us too, and He is stronger than death. When death takes a fellow child of God away from us, or when death comes for us, we can say with all boldness, “Death, Meet Life.” Death cannot harm our souls, which are safely in our Lord’s hands. He has even caused death to serve His purpose of delivering our souls to eternal life. It is in this bold confidence that we can sing with the hymnist,
I thank thee, death, thou leadest me
To that true life where I would be.
So cleansed by Christ, I fear not death.
Lord Jesus, strengthen Thou my faith. (ELH #530, v. 2)
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 of the “Resurrection of the Widow’s Son from Nain” by the Lutheran artist Lucas Cranch the Younger, c. 1569)
Saint Day: Mary Magdalene
Text: St. John 20:1-2,11-18
In Christ Jesus, who has compassion on poor sinners and suffered and died for each one, dear fellow redeemed:
In the three years of Jesus’ public work, the twelve disciples went wherever He went. But they were not the only followers of Jesus. The New Testament informs us of other men (Ac. 1:23) and women who traveled with Him. Regarding the women, the evangelist Luke writes that they “provided for [Jesus and His disciples] out of their means” (Lk. 8:3). Their financial support allowed Jesus and the Twelve to focus on teaching, preaching, and healing, rather than on finding daily bread.
The women showed this kindness toward Jesus because of the compassion He had showed them. Luke notes that some of the women “had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities,” including “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, [King] Herod’s household manager, and Susanna” (vv. 2-3). Our focus today is on Mary Magdalene.
As far as we know, Mary came from a village on the Sea of Galilee called “Magdala,” which made her, “Mary the Magdalene.” Mary would not have been remembered beyond her lifetime except for her association with Jesus.
She first beheld Him, as though peering through a dark cloud. Seven demons had taken residence in her. This could have caused her to behave in all sorts of troubling ways. One girl was possessed by a demon which gave her fortune-telling abilities (Ac. 16:16). A demon afflicted another boy by trying to cast him into fire and water to destroy him (Mk. 9:22). A legion of demons possessed another man and drove him into the desert to live among tombs (Lk. 8:26-30).
Demons inflict harm and are constantly working to move people to sin against themselves and others. According to tradition, Mary’s demons led her to sin especially against the Sixth Commandment. [Luke 7:36-50 has been applied to Mary Magdalene in the history of the church, but there is no proof that this woman and Mary are the same.]
We do not know how long Mary had been possessed by demons, but we do have an idea how it came about. Jesus explained that demons are only too ready to enter hearts that are empty of saving faith. He said that a demon “finds the house [the heart] empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there” (Mt. 12:44-45). Mary was in a terrible state. She had no hope. She was controlled by satanic forces. She appeared to be alive, but her body was full of death. If nothing changed, her anguish on earth would have given way to an eternity of suffering in hell.
Then the menacing cloud was lifted. Jesus stood before her, and as He did for many others, He commanded the demons to come out of her. Mary was freed from the chains of death that held her. The same powerful Word that forced the demons out of her body also worked its way into her heart. Her hardened heart of unbelief became a living heart of faith. She looked upon her Savior and loved Him for the mercy He had showed her. She could never repay Him, but she could follow Him and devote her life to Him.
Mary joined the men and women who traveled with Jesus until their journey led them through the gates of Jerusalem on a Sunday of palm branches and praises. Still, the mood was tense. It was well known that many of the Jewish religious leaders despised Jesus. Would they try to have Him arrested during this festival week on charges of blasphemy and insurrection? And in fact they did, in a secluded garden with few eyes watching.
By Good Friday morning, word began to spread about Jesus’ arrest. Mary heard too and went to where the crowd was gathering to see what would happen. The religious leaders succeeded in turning the people against Jesus, and they pressured Pilate to give the order for Jesus’ crucifixion. Wearing a crown of thorns, bruised and bleeding, Jesus was sent out from the governor’s palace carrying His own cross. A great many joined the procession, including women who mourned and lamented for Him (Lk. 23:27). Mary must have been one of these, because we know she was among the few followers of Jesus who stood by His cross at Golgotha (Jn. 19:25).
Her heart broke as she watched her Savior in such agony. How could they do this? How could this happen to such a great man? He had delivered her from her demons, and from death itself. But now there was no one to save Him. Darkness descended at noontime, and about 3:00pm, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46). He was suffering the eternal fires of hell for sinners. Then He said, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30), and followed that with, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Lk. 23:46). After saying this, He breathed His last.
Mary Magdalene witnessed all these things, but she could hardly comprehend what she was hearing and seeing. Could this be it? Could her Savior be dead? Many went home, but she and some of the other women from Galilee would not leave Jesus. They watched from a distance and saw Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus take the body down from the cross and wrap it in a clean linen shroud. They followed the men and saw the tomb where the body was buried (Mt. 27:55-61). Then they hurried back to their homes before the start of the Sabbath at sundown.
God established the Sabbath for a day to rest and be refreshed and strengthened through the Word. But Jesus’ followers could hardly relax. They could not believe their kind Teacher was dead. They worried that the authorities would be coming for them next. For their part, the women resolved to serve Jesus one last time. After the Sabbath, they would bring spices and ointments to give Jesus a more proper burial (Lk. 23:56).
But their spices and ointments would not be needed. The women found the tomb open and empty. While Mary Magdalene stood there weeping, Jesus appeared and spoke to her. She did not recognize who it was. But when Jesus said her name, “Mary,” she turned and cried out, “Rabboni!”—“Teacher!” This was Jesus’ first earthly appearance after His resurrection. Mary—formerly inhabited by seven demons—was the first witness of the event that changed everything forever.
It’s a good story with a happy ending. But it’s no good if that’s all we see in it. We should recognize that Mary’s story could just as well be your story and mine. Like Mary, we also were controlled by satanic forces before we were converted by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is why in our baptismal liturgy, we ask sponsors to answer this question on behalf of the young child or infant, “Do you renounce the devil, and all his works, and all his ways?”
Through Baptism, the light of God’s powerful Word pierced our darkness and brought us to faith. This saving Baptism into Christ is our continued defense against the demons who would do us harm. We return to our Baptism through repentance of our sins and trust in God’s Word of grace. His Word leads us from spiritual death to spiritual life, just as His Word gave life to Mary.
The proof that this life is ours is based on what Mary and many others witnessed. They saw Jesus die. It was no elaborate hoax. They did not deposit an unconscious Jesus in the tomb and leave an opening for Him to escape. He was dead. Tombs are not closed and sealed unless this is certain. Listen to how Mary referred to Jesus on Easter morning: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” She assumes He had to be taken and laid somewhere because He was dead. Of course He couldn’t move Himself!
And by this assumption, Mary was just as guilty as all the rest. Jesus had told them otherwise. He said He would die and rise again. But they did not believe it. No one had ever risen from the dead. We are tempted to the same unbelief. All we see around us is death. How can we be sure the dead will rise again?
Our certainty is not in what we see with our eyes, but in what others saw with theirs. Did the disciples believe Jesus could rise? No. What changed their minds? They saw Jesus alive multiple times. It was undeniable. Even when they were arrested and killed for preaching Jesus’ death and resurrection, they would not deny His resurrection, because it was true.
Jesus’ resurrection is a historical fact. It can be rejected, but it cannot be undone. Jesus rose in victory over death, so that each sinner can be certain of forgiveness. His resurrection means that God accepted His sacrifice on behalf of all sinners. Jesus paid the debt of your sin. He conquered your death. The death of your body in this life is only temporary. Jesus will raise you again, and then there will be no pain, trouble, or weeping.
When Mary saw Jesus standing outside His tomb, she wanted to cling to Him. But Jesus told her that His Word—and not His visible presence—would now have most importance. She was to share that Word with the disciples, that Jesus would soon ascend “to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.” This is the moment captured in Jerico’s altar painting, which is also printed on today’s bulletin cover. Jesus holds up His hands showing the marks of the nails and points to the heavens.
This painting reminds us to take Jesus at His Word, even though we cannot now see Him. We believe that He died and rose again for us, and that He has ascended into heaven to prepare a place for all believers. We learn with Mary to “Set [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). We wait eagerly for Jesus to appear to us like He did to Mary, and then our journey from Death to Life will be complete.
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 Festival of the Holy Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 3:1-15
In Christ Jesus, the Wisdom from above, who came down to enlighten the hearts and minds of sinners by His saving grace, dear fellow redeemed:
Some time after the Flood, the people of the earth decided to work together to build a city and a great tower “with its top in the heavens” (Gen. 11:4). They thought they could do anything they set their minds to—perhaps even finding a way up to God (v. 6). But this effort was self-serving, not God-pleasing.
Many of the leading scientists of our age are likewise engaged in things that do not please God. They are continuously looking skyward like the people of Babel. They search for signs of life in our galaxy and beyond, trying to figure out where life on earth came from. A good number of them loudly deny that there is a divine Creator, a God who established the structure and laws of the universe. At the same time, they are very willing to consider the possibility that aliens came to earth long ago and planted seeds of life here.
They think they are very wise to deny God, and they think Christians are very ignorant. But the God-denying scientists are the ignorant ones. The Apostle Paul writes that the existence of God is plainly evident. “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” But many ignore this evidence. They are those, as Paul says, who “became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:20,21-22). True wisdom does not come from up here (the head). True Wisdom Comes from Above, from the God of heaven.
Nicodemus no doubt considered himself a wise man. He was a prominent Pharisee, who was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, a ruling council made up of 71 judges. Jesus also called him “the teacher of Israel,” which may indicate that few were more esteemed than he was. But Nicodemus was troubled by something. He couldn’t figure out what to make of Jesus. So he did something commendable. Instead of accepting as true the opinions and theories others had about Jesus, he decided to talk with Him directly. He very candidly said to Him, “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.” The evidence was clear to them! Only someone coming from God could do what Jesus was doing.
But this was not the same as acknowledging that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus sought to clarify this. He said, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” That seems a strange thing to say. What did it have to do with Nicodemus’ statement? The connection might be lost in translation. Most English translations say, “unless one is born again,” which is not wrong. But the word for “again” can also be translated “from above”—“unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus called Jesus “a teacher come from God,” but was Nicodemus such a teacher? Was he “a teacher come from God”? Had he been “born from above”? Or was he of the earth, one who “claimed to be wise,” but was only a “fool” in God’s sight? Jesus plainly said that “the teacher of Israel” should understand more than he did. Nicodemus had not understood the words of the Old Testament prophets, those who had revealed God’s plan of salvation. Along with his fellow Pharisees, Nicodemus thought salvation depended on what they accomplished. For this reason, they were not looking for the Messiah’s arrival. If they had been, it would have been obvious to them that Jesus was He.
Their knowledge and wisdom were only human. It is an entirely human idea that we can make amends with God for our sins, that we can somehow prove ourselves worthy to enter heaven. This is the core teaching of the non-Christian religions of the world, that our salvation depends on keeping God’s law, and if we don’t keep it, we will be condemned. These are terrifying religions. They do not comfort, because the law can never comfort. The law makes demands, “Do this”—“Don’t do this.” And it always convicts us, because we always fall short of it. Even many Christians who have heard time and again that the Son of God became Man to die on the cross for all sin, still think that their salvation ultimately depends on what they do.
This is not what you and I think, and yet we still find ourselves keeping a tally of the good things we do. Or we at least note the bad things that others do. It is much easier to judge the sinful words and actions of others than to judge ourselves. This is how the Pharisees like Nicodemus operated. They held themselves up as “the holy people” and looked down their noses at others who were not as righteous as they were. They thought they were fulfilling the law of God. But if they kept it outwardly, they certainly did not keep it in their hearts.
This is what each of us must examine—not the failings we see in others but our own failings, and the sin in our own hearts. You may not have done evil toward others, but have you wished evil on them? You may have said what you needed to avoid an uncomfortable situation, but was it the truth? You may go out of your way to help others, but do you do it out of love for them or to bolster your own reputation?
Jesus said, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” We are conceived and born in sin, and sin wants to have free reign in our bodies. Our sinful nature leads us to desire what the world calls wisdom, messages like: get as much money and stuff as you can, follow your heart wherever it leads you, take care of yourself before you take care of others, never apologize, don’t take criticism from anyone. This is the world’s wisdom, but it is not the way of Christ.
He came from above, from His throne in heaven, and lived a life of great humility. It was not a false humility but a humble love for sinners flowing out of His righteous heart. He wanted to save His enemies, not do them harm. He wanted them to know the truth even if they attacked Him for it. He loved them even when they nailed Him to the cross and put Him to death. The sinful world cannot understand the humility, love, and sacrifice of Jesus. It makes no sense to the natural mind.
But it does register with those who have been “born again,” who have been “born from above.” These are the ones who have been “born of water and the Spirit.” They have been baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is no empty, human ritual. When water is applied while Jesus’ words are spoken, the Triune God comes to the sinner—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. God comes from above with heavenly wisdom to impart. He comes to work faith in the sinner. He comes to bring the peace of sins forgiven. He comes to bestow eternal life.
This is done for us totally by God’s grace. We do not earn it or deserve it. We cannot say why we are saved and others are not, since we are just as sinful by nature as everyone else. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit works as He wills. We cannot explain why one sinner is converted but not another, or why the Holy Spirit seems to work more powerfully at some times and places than at others. It is not for us to know. But we can and should give thanks that He has come through the means of grace to give us True Wisdom from Above—faith in the Savior Jesus.
Since we have this wisdom from above, since we have been “born from above,” we do not live as though we are still of the world. James writes that “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (Ja. 3:16-17). The True Wisdom from Above shows itself in a Christ-like attitude, having humility and love for our neighbors and putting their concerns even before our own.
We grow in this True Wisdom by “seeking the things that are above, where Christ is” (Col. 3:1). We seek and find the blessings of God by hearing and receiving His Word and Sacraments. The means of grace is where heaven meets earth. This is how God promises to come to us and pour out His grace upon us. God is not reached by building a tower up in the sky or by sending satellites deep into outer space. God is not reached by our efforts, whatever they may be. The Triune God comes down to us.
We also grow in True Wisdom by “putting to death what is earthly in us” (3:5), as Paul says. Where we have sinned, we don’t put the blame on others or try to cover it up. We confess it, acknowledge it. This is how we return to our baptism. We drown our sinful nature by admitting our sin, and our new life of faith comes forth again as we are pointed to Jesus, who covers us in His righteousness and forgives all our sins.
Nicodemus also gained this True Wisdom from Above, when the Holy Spirit brought him to faith. We are told that he later defended Jesus in a meeting of the Jewish Sanhedrin (Jn. 7:50-51). And he was one of two men who took Jesus down from the cross and laid Him in a new tomb (19:39-42). Nicodemus learned, as you and I learn and re-learn throughout our lives, that there is no wisdom worth having apart from faith in Jesus. But in Jesus, we have a wisdom and a knowledge that lasts not just for this lifetime, but for all eternity.
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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(portion of painting by Fritz von Uhde, “Christ and Nicodemus,” c. 1886)
The Baptism of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 3:13-17
In Christ Jesus, who fulfilled all righteousness for you, dear fellow redeemed:
In the home where you grew up, how often did you hear the words, “I love you”? Did you and your siblings ever say it to each other? Did your parents say it to you? Did your parents say it to each other? These words can be said so much that they are hardly noticed. Or they can be said so little that love is questioned. This is like when Lena asked Ole after thirty years of marriage if he loved her any more. Surprised at the question, Ole said, “Of course I do! I told you so on our wedding day!” As you know, it is not safe in a relationship to assume that the other person knows what you are thinking. Thoughts must be shared and communicated, even if it isn’t always comfortable to do so.
But it seems that we are at a disadvantage when it comes to communication with God. He knows all about us. He knows when we sit down and rise up. He discerns our thoughts from afar. Even before a word is on our tongue, He knows what we will say (Ps. 139:2,4). He knows what we are thinking, but how can we know what He is thinking? He says He had a plan laid out for our life even before we took our first step (Eph. 2:10). But what is that plan? Is there any way to find out?
There are some who try to discover the hidden will of God. They are always on the lookout for special messages and special dreams from God to guide them in making life decisions. Some say they can hear the voice of Jesus in their heads, or that they can feel the Spirit leading them in one direction or another. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a relationship with God like that? But more often than not, what people perceive as the voice of God is actually the voice of their old Adam or even the devil.
God does not think the way we do. This is exactly what He says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9). There are hidden mysteries of God that cannot be understood in this life. There are answers that must wait until heaven. So is there no way to know what God thinks about us?
We wish the Father spoke to us like He did to His Son. After Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” God the Father could not have been clearer about His thoughts toward His Son. Jesus could go ahead with His saving work knowing that He had His Father’s approval. And why wouldn’t the Father approve of Him? Jesus was perfect.
But perfect, you and I are not. We are far from perfect. God gave us good to perform, and we did evil. He gave us work to do, and we shunned it. He gave us laws to follow, and we broke them. John the Baptizer did not mince words about people like us. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” he cried out. “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt. 3:8,10). Have you produced good fruit? Have you produced enough of it?
You and I are plagued with the daily evidence of our inadequacy. Yes, we put on a cheerful attitude at work, but our hearts are full of judgment toward our co-workers. Yes, we feed and clothe our children, but we don’t always view them as blessings. Yes, we voice our commitment to our spouse, but we let ourselves indulge in fantasies about others. Yes, we say we are thankful for what we have, but we secretly wish we had what others do. As much as we try to watch what we do and what we say, we struggle to control our thoughts. And the harder we try to control them, the more we are aware of our failures.
We shouldn’t imagine for a moment that our sins are somehow hidden from God. He knows about every last one. This is why we wouldn’t mind some reassurances from Him. We would like to know that He still loves us and is not angry with us. We want to be sure that we are not outside His grace, and that He will take us to heaven when we die. Is there some message He could send to make this clear? Yes! In fact, He has many comforting messages to send our way.
One of them is recorded by the evangelist Matthew, a message detailing the baptism of Jesus. What is confusing about this account is why Jesus thought He needed to be baptized. You and I know that one of the blessings of baptism is the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus had no sins to be forgiven. So why did He want to be baptized? John wondered the same thing. Jesus told him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.” It was not to gain righteousness for Himself; He was already perfect.
Jesus stepped down into the waters of the Jordan River for you, to take up your sins. When your hands are dirty, you go to the sink and let the clean water wash all the dirt away. The opposite happened to Jesus. Though He was perfectly clean, He let the sins of the world be poured out on Him at His baptism. This includes your sins, even the sins of your mind. Each sin was poured upon Jesus, and they stuck there. Now they were His to carry, and He would not be relieved of them until three years afterward when He breathed His last on the cross.
But Jesus did more for you at His baptism than taking up your sins. He also left His righteousness in the waters of baptism. He left His righteousness, so that when sinners are baptized, His righteousness sticks to them and stays with them as long as they remain in Him. The Apostle Paul writes, “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor. 5:21), and “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).
So at your baptism, you “put on Christ.” You were covered in Him. What was His, became yours. His holiness, His atoning blood, His victory over death—all of these were given to you. By baptism, you were buried and raised with Him (Rom. 6:4). You were born again to new spiritual life (Ti. 3:5). You are not as you were before; you are a new creation (2Cor. 5:17).
God looks at you differently now. He does not see you covered in your sins, cowering in the kingdom of darkness. When He looks at you, God the Father sees His Son. He sees His obedience and His perfect righteousness. In you, He sees a beloved son, with whom He is well pleased.
Baptized into Christ, one with Christ by faith, you truly are a son of God. And why is it important that you are called a “son”? Why not a “daughter” of God, or simply a “child”? Those terms are fine, but “son” expresses something more. It was the firstborn son in a family who stood to inherit what belonged to his father. It is as the father told his oldest son, who pouted about the warm reception given to his prodigal brother—the father said, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Lk. 15:31).
All that God the Father has is yours through faith in His only-begotten Son. Jesus your Brother is not jealous about the kindness shown to you by His Father. He gave Himself in your place, so you would have this glory and joy. He was willing to do this because He loved His Father, and He loved you. He gladly took your place in the depths of sin, so you could have His place in the heights of heaven.
Jesus is the proof of God’s love for you. You will never be certain of His love if you wait for Him to send you special, personal assurances of it. If you wait for an “I love you!” to boom down from the clouds, you will be waiting a long, long time. The place to hear God speak to you is not in your head or in your heart. It is in His Word. This is where God’s love in Christ for all sinners is made crystal clear.
This love was personally bestowed on you in your baptism. In baptism, you did not choose God; He chose you. He made an undying commitment to you, which He will never forget and never break. Through those waters, you were incorporated into the body of Christ, as so many other blessed sinners have been throughout history. You were brought into the family of God, and placed alongside Christ as an heir of His eternal blessings.
This is where you stand with God, and where you will continue to stand by faith in His Son. Your humble repentance for your sins will not be met with a cold shoulder or with burning anger. Those sins were put on Jesus, and His righteousness was put on you. You are baptized into Christ. Your sins are forgiven. “[F]or in Christ Jesus You Are All Sons of God, through faith…. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:26,29).
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(picture is portion of 1895 painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)
The Third Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 8:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who is worthy of eternal praise, dear fellow redeemed:
Much had changed since Jacob left his father’s house to travel to the land of his uncle. He had gone there for two reasons: first, his brother Esau wanted to kill him after he deceitfully took Esau’s blessing, and second, he was hoping to find a wife there like his father had before him. When he left, Jacob was poor and alone, but as he made his way back, he brought with him a large family and great riches. He recognized that these tremendous blessings had come from the LORD. In prayer he said to God, “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant” (Gen. 32:10).
But even though he recognized his unworthiness, he still was not shy about holding God to His promises. The night before he would encounter his brother Esau, a mysterious man engaged him in a wrestling match. Their struggle continued until daybreak, when the man wanted to leave. Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (v. 26). The man consented and blessed him. Jacob had wrestled with God and prevailed. Jacob was not worthy of this blessing, but through faith he received it.
The same was true of the leper in today’s text. Leprosy was a terrible disease of the skin. It was very contagious and deadly. When a person was found to have leprosy, he was required to leave his family and home and join a community of other lepers. It was a depressing and painful existence, and there was little hope for healing. What leverage could a man like this apply to Jesus? How could he convince Jesus that he was worth healing? He could do nothing but fall before Him and say, “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean.”
He did not list off all the things he would do for Jesus if he were healed. He did not promise Him a reward. Nor did he express doubt that Jesus was even able to do what he asked. He said, “Lord, if You want, you can”—not “If you are able, please do.” This man acknowledged that he was entirely unworthy of Jesus’ help. At the same time, He expressed an unyielding faith and hope that Jesus could.
Then Jesus did something totally unexpected. If this were depicted in a movie, I am almost sure it would be shown in slow motion. Jesus reached out His hand and touched the leprous man. Anyone watching would have recoiled in horror. “Don’t touch him, Jesus! He is unclean! You might catch what he has!” But the opposite happened. The pure did not become impure; rather, the impure became pure. “Be clean,” said Jesus, and the leprosy immediately went away. In total humility, the man dared to ask for mercy, and he received it. He was cleansed.
This is exactly what happened at your baptism. Your parents or guardians brought you to the cleansing waters of the font because you were unclean. You were afflicted by something even worse than leprosy; you were full of sin. And while leprosy destroys physical health, sin destroys spiritual health. If sin is not addressed by the divine Physician, it results in eternal death. The motto of all who are brought to the font could well be the hymn verse, “Nothing in my hand I bring, / Simply to the cross I cling; / Naked, come to Thee for dress, / Helpless, look to Thee for grace. / Foul, I to the fountain fly—/ Wash me, Savior, or I die!” (ELH 286, v. 3).
We come to baptism unclean, helpless, foul, but Jesus is not repulsed by us. He looks upon us with mercy, and through His Word, He touches us with divine grace. At the prayer of parents and sponsors, “Lord, if You will, You can cleanse this child,” Jesus replies, “I will; be clean.” And the child is clean. He is washed in Jesus’ blood and covered in Jesus’ righteousness.
That is what the Lord did for each and every one of you. Through baptism, you have been freed from the leper community and incorporated into the family of God. You are no longer far off, separated from God. You have been “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). In Him, you and all baptized believers are “holy and without blemish” (5:27).
But that does not mean all your cares and trials are now over. The devil and the old Adam in you do not want you to remain in Christ. They want you to doubt God’s Word and to imagine that you are entitled to worldly success and happiness. They want you to question God’s love when bad things happen. These temptations will not stop as long as you live in this fallen world. In heaven is pure bliss, but in the world, you have trouble (Jn. 16:33).
Trouble came to the centurion in today’s text too. One of his highly valued servants had been paralyzed and was “suffering terribly.” Why did God let this happen? The centurion may have wondered this particularly because he had tried to live a life pleasing to God. He had rejected the false religion of the Romans and humbly listened to the Scriptures. The Jewish elders in that place begged Jesus to help, saying of the centurion that “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (Lk. 7:4-5).
Did this make the centurion worthy? Did Jesus owe it to him to grant his request? Nowhere in the Bible are we told that God will give us what we ask if we somehow prove ourselves worthy. But perhaps the elders said this so that Jesus, a fellow Jew, would even consider assisting this Gentile. The Jews and Gentiles were not natural allies and friends. Even Jesus declared at a later point, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 15:24). But on this occasion Jesus said, “I will come and heal him.”
Before he reached the centurion’s home, the centurion sent friends to deliver this message on his behalf (Lk. 7:6), “Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” What faith he had! He freely acknowledged his unworthiness. He knew that according to the law of the Israelites, Jesus should not enter the home of a Gentile. He deserved nothing from Jesus, but like the leprous man before him, he boldly called on Jesus to do what only the promised Messiah could do – “only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
Now, Jesus was impressed. “Truly, I tell you,” He said, “with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” What does that tell us? It says that just because we have the right bloodline, just because we have God’s Word at hand, does not mean we will be most faithful. It is easy to hide behind these things and become prideful about externals. But faith is not built into DNA; it is not inherited like our personal traits. And salvation is not assured us simply because we belong to the right church and put offerings in the plate.
Faith and salvation are brought to us and applied to us by the Holy Spirit through God’s means of grace. We do not earn them, but we can lose them. So we humbly confess our weaknesses and sins; we acknowledge our unworthiness. And Jesus grants our request for mercy just as He granted mercy to the centurion and his servant.
The centurion said that in his position of authority, he would “say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” In His position of authority—all authority in heaven and on earth—Jesus also says to those under Him, “Go,” “Come,” and “Do this.”
He says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). Our Lord’s saving Word and Sacraments are for “all nations,” for Jews and Gentiles. He invites all to believe and receive His grace. He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28), and “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (Jn. 7:37). And for their spiritual nourishment, Jesus says, “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1Cor. 11:25). He gives His body and blood to baptized believers “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28).
Through the preaching of His Word, through Baptism and His Holy Supper, Jesus reaches out to touch you with His grace and life. He does not avoid you because of your unclean, sinful state. He does not overlook you because you have the wrong background. Unworthy Though You Are, He comes to you to forgive and strengthen and bless.
You cannot make yourself worthy of His presence and gifts. He makes you worthy to be His own by the power of the Holy Spirit. In His grace we have comfort and a confident faith, as the hymnwriter says, “Unworthy though I am, O Savior, / Because I have a sinful heart, / Yet Thou Thy lamb wilt banish never, / For Thou my faithful Shepherd art” (ELH 313, v. 3).
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(picture is a portion of a Byzantine mosaic in Sicily)
Festival of Our Lord’s Ascension – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Mark 16:14-20
In Christ Jesus, who rules over His kingdom of power on earth, His kingdom of grace in the Church, and His kingdom of glory in heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
When Pharaoh realized his slave labor was gone after the Israelites marched out of Egypt, he pursued them with his army. The Israelites were camped by the Red Sea with no way to escape. It would be an easy victory for Pharaoh! But then the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground, and Pharaoh’s army was totally destroyed.
When Goliath looked down on his challenger, the young David, he mocked and cursed him. “I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field,” he said (1Sam. 17:44). But Goliath soon fell to the ground with a stone embedded in his forehead, and the Philistine army was routed.
When Sennacherib king of Assyria brought his soldiers to the walls of Jerusalem, he planned to destroy the city and unseat King Hezekiah. But Hezekiah prayed to the LORD, and the LORD sent His angel to destroy the Assyrian army—185,000 struck down in one night.
When Jesus was nailed to the cross, His enemies cried out, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt. 27:39-40). They thought they would finally be rid of this Man they hated. They thought they could make the people forget Him. But then Jesus rose again from the dead.
As we can see, the power of the LORD God is often underestimated. He is regarded as no more real than a fairy tale character. His people are despised also as those who are weak-minded and delusional. God’s enemies are certain of victory. But the psalmist writes, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill’” (Ps. 2:4-6). The King of heaven reigns over all things. He cannot be overcome. So we ask: With Jesus Enthroned, How Can We Fail?
When Jesus ascended into heaven, the scene on the other side of the clouds was much different than the scene below. St. John in his Revelation describes the appearing of a Lamb in heaven who was worshiped by all the heavenly hosts. He writes, “Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’” (5:11-12). While heaven was erupting in a chorus of praise, this was the scene on the earth: a small group of men stood squinting up at the sky trying to figure out where Jesus went.
This shows well a reality and a perception. The reality is that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to [Jesus],” just as He said (Mt. 28:18). He paid for sin, conquered death, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. His most powerful enemies took their best shot at Him, and they lost. He reigns supreme over all and uses His enemies as His footstool (Ps. 110:1). That’s the reality. But the perception from our perspective here on earth is that Jesus is very far away, hidden from us. We feel like we lose more ground than we gain against the devil and his workers. We are often afraid of what the world may do to us because of our belief. This is how we can fail even though Jesus is enthroned.
If Jesus had not sent the Holy Spirit to the disciples, they would have failed too. He appeared to them after His resurrection and rebuked them, because they did not believe the reports of those who had seen Him alive. But when the Holy Spirit came to them at Pentecost, He taught them all things and brought to their remembrance everything Jesus said to them (Jn. 14:26). The Holy Spirit gave them courage, so that they did “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (v. 15).
As they went, they were accompanied by the signs Jesus foretold. In His name they cast out demons, like when the Apostle Paul commanded a demon to come out of a young girl (Ac. 16:18). They spoke in new tongues, like the Gentiles who were converted when the Apostle Peter preached in the household of Cornelius (Ac. 10:44-46). They were spared from the deadly poison of serpents, like when Paul was bitten by a viper on the island of Malta and suffered no harm (Ac. 28:3-6). But the power to do these signs was not their power, and the work was not really their work. The last part of today’s text tells us that “they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs” (v. 20). This says that the Lord was with them! He did the signs!
But didn’t He ascend into heaven? How could He be with His disciples on earth if He was up there? This is a mystery to our reason. Yet these two things are true: The Son of God sits at the right hand of His Father in the flesh. He is also with us in this fallen world in the flesh. This is possible because Jesus is not just a Man. He is not bound by the laws of nature that bind us. He is the God-Man. That means wherever Jesus is as God, He is there as Man. His person cannot be divided. And He is not simply in two places; He is in all places. God the Father’s right hand is the position of all power and authority. It is not a location or a specific place. Since God is omnipresent, His “right hand” is too. Jesus now reigns over all things in all places as God and Man.
And we would agree that something can be present even though it is not seen. Is there oxygen in the air? Is there wind outside? We know there is oxygen because we are alive. We know there is wind because we can feel the breeze and see the swaying of trees. But what is the evidence of Jesus’ presence? How can we know He is here? Because the signs that accompanied the apostles are not so prominent today. The Church appears to be diminishing and not growing.
The evidence of Jesus’ presence is in His disciples. If Jesus were not active among us today, there would be not even one believer. No person comes to Jesus by his own power. No sinner dead in his sin can choose the life that Jesus won. The message of the Gospel is what breaks through hardened hearts of sin. Wherever the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered, Jesus is at work. Today’s text says that the apostles “preached everywhere,” and the Lord “confirmed the message by accompanying signs.” It was all about the message. The Word of God’s grace brings Jesus to sinners and sinners to Jesus.
What more could we need than we have in Jesus? Nothing. But what more do we want? Plenty. This is because we are discontent with the way the Lord does things. He exercises His power and authority and extends His kingdom through words, water, bread and wine. But this seems all too simple for a world that looks for spectacular. Why doesn’t Jesus show the world what we know Him to be? Why doesn’t He make every sinner fall to His knees before Him? Why doesn’t He destroy the ones who hate Him? The time will come for the visible manifestation of His glory and power, but that time is not yet.
Now is the time for God’s power to be hidden in Word and Sacraments. Now is the era of the Church militant, the Church in struggle, the Church in weakness. But not a Church without hope. Jesus is still enthroned, and Jesus is still present. He is still at work in His Church and in the world. You are still on the side of strength. You are still protected and led by the Good Shepherd. You are still loved with a perfect love, and your place is still reserved in heaven.
This is all true even though you have not always trusted in Him who reigns in glory. You let the threats of the world shake your confidence in Him. You often follow your stubborn, sinful heart and do not listen to His Word. But Jesus still wants to be your King and give you the treasures of His grace. He forgives your feeble allegiance. He again repeats His promise which does not change, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (v. 16). He does not give you a list of demands for you to prove yourself to Him. He says that if you have been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and if you believe in Him as your one and only Savior from devil, sin, and death, you will be saved. That’s it.
What a comfort that is! Even though you have failed Jesus, He does not fail you. His Word stands. It cannot be overcome, because He cannot be overcome. The work to save you is complete. Through baptism, your sin was nailed to Jesus’ cross and buried in His grave. Through baptism, you rose again to new life with Jesus, never to die again. Through a regular use of the means of grace, you stay connected to this life, because you stay connected to Him. Jesus is enthroned in heaven, and you will soon see Him in His glory as the saints and angels in heaven see Him. And then you will praise Him without any doubt or fear just as they do.
The hymnwriter said it well:
As true as God’s own Word is true,
Not earth nor hell with all their crew
Against us shall prevail.
A jest and byword are they grown;
God is with us, we are His own;
Our vict’ry cannot fail. (ELH #375, v. 3)
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The Resurrection of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad Exordium and Sermon
In 1974, some farmers in China were digging a well when they bumped into clay pieces, arrowheads, and artifacts. Their discovery turned out to be an army of some 8,000 clay warriors, chariots, and horses buried deep in the soil. This Terracotta Army was put there by the first emperor to rule over a unified China. He ruled over a great empire, but that was not enough for him. He wanted his reign to go on forever. He sent many on the quest to find some elixir of life, which might make him immortal.
He became convinced that these life-giving properties were hidden in the mysterious substance that we know as mercury. Legend has it that he consumed this liquid metal, which of course did not make him stronger and healthier but sicker and sicker. Before his death, he commanded the construction of a vast underground city, including that Terracotta Army and rivers of mercury, so that his spirit would have something to rule over in the afterlife. This is what comes of humankind’s attempt to get eternal life. The task fails woefully, and the great plans of proud people end up dead and buried.
If you would have life, if you would grab hold of the one thing that will not slip through your fingers, then you would have Jesus. Jesus does not send you on a mission to uncover the secret of life hidden away somewhere in the world. This is a world of death, brought about by sin. Jesus came to rescue us from this empty world and to bring us to the place where death is no more. The way to rescue us was not to conquer worldly authorities, but to defeat the powers of darkness. He drank the poisonous cup of our sin and entered the dungeon of death, so that this spiritual mercury could no longer harm us. Then He rose again from the grave, victorious over sin, leading us from the death that awaits us to the life which we shall have with Him.
Jesus is our elixir of life, which we consume by faith in Him. In Him, we need not fear death, for He is risen indeed! Let us now rise to sing hymn #348 – “He Is Arisen! Glorious Word!”
Sermon Text: St. Mark 16:1-8
In Christ Jesus, who won the victory for us over death and hell, dear fellow redeemed:
Before we can appreciate what today’s Gospel tells us, we need to make sure we are clear about what led up to it. First of all, what was it that happened to Jesus on the Friday before this? He was sentenced to death by the Jewish religious leaders and handed over to the Romans for execution. Roman soldiers flogged Him, drove a crown of thorns into His head, and led Him to Calvary where they nailed His hands and feet to a cross. This was done just outside Jerusalem, so many people saw Jesus hanging there. He most certainly was crucified.
Since the Jewish holy day, the Sabbath, would begin at sundown, a request was made that the death of Jesus and the two criminals might be hastened and their bodies taken away. “So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with [Jesus]. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (Jn. 19:32-34). The soldiers were not at all doubtful about what had come of Jesus. He most certainly was dead.
Then two members of the Jewish Sanhedrin, secret disciples of Jesus, took His body and bound it in linen cloths along with burial spices. They brought His body to a cemetery nearby and placed Him in an unused tomb. Then they rolled a great stone over the entrance of the tomb and departed just before sundown (Jn. 19:38-42). Their actions were witnessed by some women who had followed Jesus from Galilee. They made plans to return to the tomb after the Sabbath to apply more spices and ointments (Lk. 23:54-56). There was no question about it, Jesus most certainly was buried.
So far, nothing about these facts give the impression that Jesus was anything more than a man, who died a painful death and was committed to his tomb. But the chief priests and Pharisees were nervous. They went to Pontius Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first” (Mt. 27:63-64). Pilate gave them permission to secure the tomb as they wished, so they sealed the stone and set a guard there.
As they had been planning since Friday afternoon, the women returned to the tomb early Sunday morning as the sun was rising. They likely did not know about the guards posted there, who almost certainly would not have allowed them to enter the tomb. The women wondered along the way how they could remove the great stone blocking the entrance. They never would have guessed that the one to do it would be an angel! The evangelist Matthew says that with a great earthquake, an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled back the stone, and sat on it (28:2). The guards were petrified with fear at the sight of the angel, and the women were afraid too. “His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow” (28:3).
But what was even more significant than the appearance of this angel, was what they did not see. They did not see the body of Jesus in the tomb! The tomb was empty! And it was not as though Jesus had slipped past them somehow while their attention was diverted. By the time the angel appeared and rolled away the stone, Jesus had already left the tomb. He had already been raised. “He is not here,” the angel declared. “See the place where they laid Him.”
A crucifixion, a death, and a burial could have happened to anyone, but not a resurrection. A dead person coming back from the dead by his own power had never happened before. What could this mean? It could mean that what Jesus said about Himself was true, that He was not simply a Man born of Mary, but was also true God, begotten of the Father from eternity. It could mean that what He said He came to do—save sinners—was actually done. In fact, this is what it does mean. This is what it must mean. No one else in history has done this. All the great people of the world who have died are still dead. But Jesus lives!
And this changes everything. Jesus’ resurrection means it was no mere man who hung on the cross, but God Himself. And God who is perfect certainly would not be suffering for His own sins. It was for you, for your sins. His death likewise was not a death to benefit Himself. He died your death, to save you from eternal death in hell. So then it was not just a man wrapped in cloths, covered in spices, and sealed in the tomb. It was the God who cannot decay and who cannot be trapped in any tomb.
If Jesus had not risen, He would have been remembered for awhile by His followers, but He may well have been lost to history. There would be no Christianity. There would probably be more false religions than there are now, but one would be no better than the other. Without a risen Jesus, there is no peace between God and man. Without a risen Jesus, there is no promise of eternal life and salvation by faith alone. Without a risen Jesus, you would have to be your own savior, desperately trying to please a God who you can imagine would not be very happy with you.
But Jesus has risen! What that means for you is what Romans 4:25 says, that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” He died on the cross to atone for your sins, and He rose again to prove that His sacrifice was accepted by His Father. The empty tomb on Easter morning means that God does not count your sins against you anymore. It declares that there is no sin left to make satisfaction for. Jesus’ empty tomb is the exclamation point punctuating His saving work.
His resurrection changes everything for you. When you endure suffering and hardship in this world, you can look to the One who suffered intensely in the place of sinners but who now is glorified. When you face your death, you can take comfort in knowing that your death is no more final than it was for Jesus, who rose again in victory. When you lay a brother or sister in Christ to rest in the grave, you can know that their rest is only a temporary one, as Christ’s was, for they will rise again as He did. Instead of living a hopeless life under the dark cloud of death, in Christ you can anticipate life and peace and joy forevermore.
This starts at your Baptism where you were buried and raised with Jesus. It continues whenever you hear God’s powerful Word of grace which brings you the forgiveness Jesus won for you. And at the Communion rail, you eat and drink the food of life, because you there consume the body and blood of Him who will never die again. In this way covered and cleansed and filled by Jesus, you need not be alarmed by the threat of death. Death will not get the last word; it must give way to the King of Life. Jesus has the final say, and He declares victory. The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.
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Baptism of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 3:13-17
In Christ Jesus, into whose death we are buried and in whose resurrection we rise to new life through holy baptism, dear fellow redeemed:
Nothing about Jesus’ appearance as a child made people think He was the promised Messiah. He was visited by the shepherds the night of His birth, but only because the angels told them where to look. He was praised by Simeon and Anna in the temple, but only because the Holy Spirit brought them to Him. He was worshipped by the wise men, but only because God compelled them to follow the star westward to His home. After spending His earliest years in Bethlehem and in Egypt, He and His family moved to Nazareth in the territory of Galilee, where like all of us, He passed through the stages of adolescence. No one guessed by looking at Him that He was the Messiah, true God and true Man.
While Jesus was living a very ordinary life in Nazareth, a man named John “came preaching in the wilderness of Judea” (Mt. 3:1). He was the only son of a Jewish priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. John was, in a word, strange. He dressed in a strange way, ate strange things, and preached a strange, or rather, unique message. He cried out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (v. 2). And people actually listened. The evangelist Matthew writes that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (vv. 5-6). John told the crowds, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 11).
It was at this time that Jesus prepared Himself for a journey some distance to the southwest of Nazareth. I wonder what He told His mother about this trip. Did He say He was going to visit some relatives, of which John the Baptizer was one? Or did He say something like He did as a twelve-year-old, “I must be about My Father’s business” (Lk. 2:49)? Both of these things would have accurately stated the purpose of the trip. He traveled to the Jordan River where John was preaching and baptizing and asked John to baptize Him. But why? John baptized with water for repentance, and He knew enough about Jesus to wonder why Jesus should require this. “I need to be baptized by You,” he said, “and do You come to me?”
John knew there was something significant about Jesus, but as he declared later, he did not know until he began his wilderness work that Jesus was the Messiah. He explained that God sent him to baptize with water, so that the Messiah “might be revealed to Israel” (Jn. 1:31). God told him that “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (v. 33). John did consent to baptize Jesus. When this was done, the heavens opened, the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and the voice of God the Father said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
The time had finally come. Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of His public work. He was now revealed as the Son of God. John wasted no time in pointing Him out as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). The long-repeated promise of the LORD had come to pass. The Savior was here! Jesus now entered into His three-fold office as Prophet, Priest, and King. As Prophet, He would declare God’s truth to any who would listen. As Priest, He would offer up Himself as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. As King, He would assume the rule over all creation, over the Church, and over all the hosts of heaven—not only as God, but also as Man.
His official anointing into this three-fold office was seen in the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Him in the form of a dove. Isaiah had already prophesied long before that this would take place. He recorded the words of God the Son, who said: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor” (Is. 61:1-2).
On His first trip back to Nazareth after His baptism, Jesus read these exact words in the synagogue. He told the people in His hometown, people who saw Him grow from a young boy into a man, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:21). In other words, Jesus told the townspeople that He was the promised Messiah. This offended them. They did not believe that Jesus could be anything other than what they thought Him to be – the son of Joseph and Mary (v. 22). They did not know that something new had begun at His baptism.
But something new had begun, and not just for Jesus. What was it that He told John? What reason did He give for being baptized? He said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” We all know that Jesus had no sins to wash away in baptism. John perceived this also, which is why he hesitated to baptize Him. So then why did Jesus ask to be baptized? He was not baptized because of His sins, of which there were none; He was baptized because of your sins. He had to fulfill all righteousness for your sake and for all who are unrighteous by nature. You might think of it this way: when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, your sins were poured over Him. Taking that awful load on Himself, He now began the three-year walk to His death to make atonement for that sin.
He did this so that at your baptism, His righteousness would be poured over you. Paul described this great exchange between Jesus and sinners, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor. 5:21). Jesus took on your sin, so that He could endure the wrath of God in your place. He did this willingly. None of us knows what burden Jesus carried as He set out to be baptized by John and begin His public work. None of us knows how much heavier the burden got the closer He came to His crucifixion. But He carried it gladly. He carried the burden of sin for you. He wanted to save you from death. He wanted you to have perfect life with God forever. So He carried on.
We wonder how it is that Jesus could love us in this way. What did He see in us that was worthy of His sacrifice? What had we done, or what would we do, that would convince Him that this was worthwhile? The answer is nothing at all. He considered us worthy not because of anything in us, but simply because He had compassion on us. Nothing we have done or might do, could ever measure up to what He did for us. Jesus saved us by grace alone. His motivation to save us came from His own heart.
This loving disposition toward us is the reason He is gracious and merciful to us today. It is the reason He calls us to the waters of baptism where our new life begins. Jesus says that all who are born, must be born again “of water and the Spirit” (Jn. 3:5). Prior to baptism, you are a child of God, but only in the sense of having physical life through Him. By baptism, you become a spiritual child of God and an heir of His heavenly kingdom. Paul told the Christians in Galatia, “[F]or in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27). Here God clearly links baptism and faith together. When you were baptized as a baby, you were also brought to faith in Jesus. If you came to faith before baptism, baptism still confirmed your faith, and it increases your confidence in God’s promises.
Baptism is a great gift no matter when it is administered in a person’s life. Because of what it gives, we want people to be baptized as soon as possible, preferably a short time after birth. We want them to be joined to Christ and covered in His righteousness. We want them to be freed from the devil’s kingdom of darkness and transferred to God’s kingdom of light. We want them to receive what Jesus began at His baptism and what He brought to completion through His death and resurrection. Baptism is where it began for Jesus, and Baptism Is Where It Begins for you and me. As Paul said in another place, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2Cor. 5:17).
Jesus did not look that special to His Nazareth neighbors, even though He was the holy Son of God. His baptism seemed ordinary too, until God the Father opened the heavens to send down the Holy Spirit and declare His love for His Son. You likewise do not look so special to the people of this world. They do not recognize that the almighty God has claimed you as His own child, and that He did this at your baptism. Your baptism certainly looked ordinary. But when the water was applied while the words were spoken, God the Holy Spirit descended upon you, God the Son joined your body to His, and God the Father declared you to be His beloved, with whom He is well-pleased.
In baptism, heaven was opened to you, and it does not close as long as you continue to hear and believe the gracious promises of God. Now may He who began a good work in you bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6).
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The Circumcision and Naming of Jesus – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 2:21
In Christ Jesus, who was obedient to the point of death, so you would be freed for life, dear fellow redeemed:
Today is the eighth day of Christmas. Like the song says, there are twelve days of Christmas, and these end on the Eve of Epiphany, Jan. 5th. We are still in the Christmas season, but it does not feel like it did a week ago. Our gift buying and wrapping, our baking, our get-togethers—most of these are done with. The glow of Christmas is pretty much gone. Life moves on.
I suppose the same could be said for Mary and Joseph after Jesus’ birth. They had waited nine months for this. They wondered what this special Baby would look like. A pregnancy like this had never happened before and never would again. Finally the focus of their anticipation was here. Jesus was born—the first Christmas. The night was made even more memorable by a visit from some shepherds proclaiming the message of angels.
But then the days passed one after the other. Life moved on. Mary nursed Jesus, changed His diapers, and sang to Him. Joseph probably searched for better accommodations for his family. When the eighth day after His birth arrived, they had their little Baby circumcised and officially gave Him His name. There was nothing out of the ordinary about this. Circumcision had been commanded of the Israelites for about 2000 years, since the time of Abraham.
When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, and he and Sarah still had no child together, the LORD said to him, “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” (Gen. 17:6-7). The covenant that God made with Abraham was marked with the sign of circumcision, which was to be repeated by all of Abraham’s male descendants. It should be done at eight days old or whenever any foreigner joined the people of Israel. The LORD declared, “So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (vv. 13-14).
Because of this command, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to be circumcised on the eighth day. In this way, Jesus was incorporated into the Jewish church. His circumcision joined Him to the covenant of Abraham and obligated Him to keep the Law of God. This was the official start of His active obedience. The perfect God placed Himself under His perfect Law. He had to keep it in full in order to be the world’s Savior. It also marked the beginning of His passive obedience. On this day, God felt physical pain. He felt the cut of the knife and first shed drops of His holy blood. We can comprehend the human side of this procedure, but not the divine. All we can say is that when God came in the flesh, He was all in. He did not exempt Himself from any human obligation or suffering.
His purpose in coming was underscored by His name. The name Jesus was common enough. It is the Greek version of the name Joshua, who is one of the heroes of the Old Testament. There must have been many Jewish boys with this name. But Mary did not select this name for her Son, God did. When the angel Gabriel visited Mary, telling her about the Son she would conceive, he said, “you shall call his name Jesus” (Lk. 1:31). The matter of the name was also made clear to Joseph. An angel said to him in a dream that “[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21). Here the angel not only gave the name but also defined it. Jesus means, “the LORD saves”—“for he will save his people from their sins.”
The eighth day from Jesus’ birth was full of significance, not just for Him, but for you too. The fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham had now come. All the Old Testament prophesies were realized. A new era was ushered in. Circumcision was no more required of the people of God. It is not forbidden, but it is no longer commanded. The Apostle Paul writes, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). We are no longer set apart from the world by the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. What sets us apart today is our baptism into Christ.
But there are many Christians around us who disagree with this. They view baptism as an outward symbol with no real spiritual significance. They may think of it as a nice family tradition, or even as a good work done for God. But this entirely misses the mark. Baptism is not for God any more than circumcision was. Baptism is a gift from God for you. You needed it. Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (Jn. 3:1-8). Your first birth was not enough. You may have looked alive and healthy when you were born, but as St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “you… were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh” (2:13). You were dead in your sins. You needed to be reborn, regenerated. You could not save yourself.
This is why Jesus subjected Himself to the Law of God and to a life of suffering. He came to keep the Law perfectly for you and to die in payment for each of your sins. He won eternal life for you by dying your death and rising again in victory. These gifts are all yours through baptism. We read in the letter to Titus that “[God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (3:5-7).
This is no small thing! To the Colossians, Paul wrote, “In [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (vv. 11-12). Baptism marks you as one of God’s own. It was through baptism that God sealed you with His promises of forgiveness and life, preparing you for the day of redemption when Jesus returns (Eph. 4:30). Baptism sets you apart in the New Testament era just as circumcision set apart the Israelites in the era of the Old Testament.
But do you live as one set apart? Do you “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4) made possible by baptism? There is nothing about our appearance that distinguishes us from the unbelieving world. And we are often okay with that. We like to fit in with the world when it suits us. We can act like good Christians at church on Sunday morning, but then lead totally different lives outside of it. Spouses can put on a happy face around friends and family but treat each other like enemies at home. Employees can work while the boss is watching, but otherwise take advantage of their employer. Now on the internet, people (including Christians) can assume an entirely different identity to use for bad purposes.
However this disconnect happens in each of our lives, it happens to all of us. We are unworthy to be counted as God’s baptized children. We do not live up to the gift of baptism into Christ. But it is a gift that keeps on giving. No matter how sinful you have been, baptism still marks you as one of God’s own. It reminds you that even though your commitment to God wavers, His commitment to you does not. God loves you, which is why He sent His Son to save you, and why He moved your parents or guardians to bring you to baptism.
But the benefits of baptism can be lost. The fact that you are baptized will not save you, any more than the physical act of circumcision guaranteed salvation to the Old Testament Jews. The Sacraments of God are only beneficial when coupled with faith. Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mk. 16:16). If you do not have faith in Jesus when you die, it will make no difference whether you were baptized or not. This is why it is so important to feed the faith that baptism brings, and to return to the cleansing waters of baptism every time you confess your sins and receive absolution.
The eighth day of Jesus’ life shows how committed God was to save you. He wanted to free you from the curse of the law and rescue you from the fires of eternal damnation. He wanted to bring you into His family by faith – to give you His name, the only name that can save. The salvation God desired for you was accomplished by His Son Jesus. You are a Christian, a believer in Him, baptized in His name, joined to His body. Your life is hardly ordinary. You live in Christ, in Him who shed His blood for you, who died and rose again for you, and who will come again to take you to Himself (Jn. 14:3). There could be no better name for Him than the one brought by the angel. Jesus is your Savior.
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