The Seventh Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
In Christ Jesus, who bound our sin and death to Himself, so we would receive His forgiveness and life, dear fellow redeemed:
One of the lies the devil plants in people’s minds is that they are completely independent and free. “You are your own boss,” he says. “You make your own decisions. You don’t have to answer to anyone else.” This attitude is perhaps more prevalent in America where we enjoy such wide-ranging personal freedom. But we are not as free as we like to imagine, and we do not have freedom in all matters, particularly in spiritual ones.
In today’s text, Paul shows that every human being conceived and born into the world comes with strings attached. He writes that all by nature are “slaves of sin.” That is strong language! A slave is someone who must follow the will of his master. He must obey at all times. He is not allowed to chart his own course or make his own decisions. It’s a hard life.
This is how Paul describes our connection to sin. Sin is our taskmaster. It forces our will to submit to its plans, to participate in its campaign. It demoralizes us. It causes us tremendous suffering. Sin offers no way out, no relief, no hope. After all is said and done, the only promise sin makes is that we are unquestionably going to die. Death is “the wages of sin.” Death is what our slavery of sin has earned us.
This is the way it is for all of us. We do not start out good and then either stay good or go bad. Neither do we start out neutral, choosing good or bad from that point. We start out in slavery—spiritual slavery—slavery to sin. But there is hope for sinners. Paul outlines this hope at the beginning of Romans chapter 6 which we heard last week. This hope is Baptism into Christ.
Through water and His powerful Word, Jesus comes to the sinner in Baptism and gives him tremendous gifts. He brings forgiveness for all sin on account of His death on the cross, and He brings eternal life on account of His resurrection. Jesus’ work on our behalf frees us from our slavery to sin and to death. He broke apart our chains of spiritual slavery. Sin is not our master anymore. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
Baptism joins us with Jesus, but it does not stop us from sinning. Sin is washed away in Baptism, but our sinful nature remains. This means that until the end of this life, we must be ready for a fight. Our sinful nature, our old Adam, wants to lead us back to a life of impurity and lawlessness, back to our slavery of sin. Our new man of faith, on the other hand, wants us to live a life of righteousness drawn from and focused on Jesus.
If we do not understand or acknowledge that this battle is going on inside us, then sin will gain the upper hand. This happens to those who are baptized into Jesus receiving His blessings, but then fail as they get older to fortify and strengthen their faith through His Word and Sacraments. This is something like an army unit rushing forward into enemy territory with no concern for its supply line or any reinforcements. The likeliest outcome is capture by the enemy or death.
We must not be so reckless with our faith, or be so self-assured that we think we could never fall. None of us here is immune to this. Any of us could give up our life in Christ and return to our slavery of sin. We can all think of many people who have done just that. Today’s text calls us again to attention. It reminds us of the battle: “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”
In short, what the apostle Paul is urging here by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is that we view our Baptism into Christ not only as a freedom from, but also as a freedom for. In fact both of these must go together if we want to remain with Jesus. Because of what Jesus did for us through His perfect life, death, and resurrection, we are freed from our unrighteousness, sin, and death. If that’s all there is to it, we might conclude that we can keep on living in sin, doing whatever we feel like, because Jesus suffered the consequences for our sin and forgives us.
Paul addresses this wrong-headed attitude just before today’s text. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” he asks (Rom. 6:1). “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (v. 15). Then he explains, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (v. 16).
So either way, says Paul, you are enslaved. Bob Dylan took up this theme in one of his songs when he sang, “Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” That doesn’t sound too great. We like the idea of being free from any coercion, any commitments. But that kind of freedom does not exist. It cannot exist, unless we had created ourselves and had complete power and authority over everything around us. Because this is not the case, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
You have already heard what happens to those who are “slaves of sin.” They experience a lifetime of pain, sorrow, and hopelessness and receive in the end the reward of death—not just physical death but eternal death in hell. How about those who are “slaves to righteousness,” or as Paul refers to them a couple verses later, “slaves of God”? It seems that this wouldn’t necessarily be much better. You might picture God as the taskmaster demanding that you do everything right, just the way He wants it, or else you will face His wrath.
But that is not how Paul describes your slavery to righteousness and to God. He says that your slavery to righteousness “leads to” or is “for” sanctification. Sanctification here is contrasted with lawlessness. Lawlessness is living contrary to God’s commands. It is living as though I am the lord and not Him. This kind of unrepentant life does welcome His judgment.
But sanctification is living according to His will. It is finding all strength, peace, joy, and love in Him. You are sanctified as you hear the Gospel message of Jesus’ work to save you and as you receive His gifts in His Sacraments. These are the means by which the Holy Spirit continues to break apart the chains of your slavery of sin and draw you closer and closer to your holy Savior.
As we hear His Word, we find that God is hardly a violent taskmaster. Instead we learn of His great love for us and the great mercy He has shown to us sinners. When we like the prodigal son have run away from Him and misused His good gifts, including the gift of our bodies, He does not deal with us in anger. He comes to embrace us with forgiveness (Luk. 15). In our sinful weakness when we fail to carry out the duties He has given us, He picks us up by His grace and helps us to move forward according to His will.
God is not the kind of master who sacrifices His slaves for His own benefit. It’s just the opposite. God sacrificed Himself for our benefit. That is how He exercises His lordship; He gives. God the Father gave His only Son to free us slaves of sin. Jesus suffered for our disobedience, for our rebellion against God. He took the wages of our sin. He took the punishment of our death. He died for us so we could be counted as righteous and receive His gift of eternal life.
This is how we “slaves of God” are treated. We are cleansed from the stains and bruises and cuts of the sin we have committed, and we are given a new status. We slaves are now treated like lords! We peasants are treated like kings! Jesus calls us to partake of His eternal glory and reign with Him in His heavenly kingdom.
But our time to depart from this world has not come yet. That means our battle here continues. With the devil and our own flesh constantly trying to deceive us and lead us back to our slavery of sin, we know the fight will be hard. We remember how often in the past we let sin gain the upper hand, so that we chose impurity and lawlessness instead of righteousness and sanctification. Does that mean we have no hope of winning the battle?
This would be the case if you were fighting by yourself. But your Master does not leave you alone in this fight. When you become discouraged or overwhelmed, or when the temptation to sin is strong, He steps right in where the conflict is most intense. He comes to you through the spiritual supply line that you were joined to at your Baptism. He speaks faith and courage into you through His holy Word. He strengthens and cheers you through the holy food of His body and blood. He protects you and guides you so you are not carried away to your former slavery.
Your merciful Lord has broken you free from your sin and death and joined you to Him. There is no shame in being a slave of this Master. Because of His grace toward you, you want to be His subject and serve Him. You want to obey Him because you know He is working for your good. You want Him to guide you where you should go. And you look forward to the day when He will lead you from the heat of this battle, from your struggle against sin, to the joys and blessings He has prepared for you in heaven.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Carl Bloch, 1877)
The Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
St. Matthew 24:15-28
In Christ Jesus, to whom we look as “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2), who will come again from the right hand of the Father on the last day, dear fellow redeemed:
You may have heard recently about a prominent music artist who became a Christian. This was surprising for two main reasons. First of all, it seemed that he had everything he could want. He had worldwide fame and influence in the entertainment industry. He had great wealth and possessions. And he acted like it. By the egotistical way he talked and conducted himself, no one mistook him for a Christian. This made his conversion seem all the more unlikely.
The other reason people find his conversion surprising is not just that it happened, but that he is openly talking about it. In one prominent interview, he mentioned reading his Bible every night, and he talked about the blessings of marriage and children. His latest album is full of spiritual songs and is titled, “Jesus Is King.” He acknowledges that before, he was spiritually dead, but now his eyes have been opened. He said: “People who don’t believe ARE walking dead. They are asleep. And this is the awakening.”
What do you suppose unbelievers think about that statement? They probably say, “This man is crazy!” But hopefully some give it more thought. Hopefully they see that their life at present has no real purpose, no real goal. Apart from Jesus, there is no amount of money that can satisfy, no expansive property, no degree of fame and recognition. A life in unbelief is like appearing to be alive but really being dead. Until a person comes to faith in Jesus, he is spiritually dead—a dead man walking.
And that’s how we were. Before we were brought to faith by the power of God’s Word, we too were dead. But now our eyes are opened. Now we see. Now we “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Or that’s how we should walk. But we are still tempted to close our eyes once again. We are tempted to live how the unbelievers live and do what they do. We have been called out of darkness into the marvelous light of the Lord (1Pe. 2:9), and yet we often find ourselves slouching back into the darkness.
This is evident when we do not choose our words as carefully as we should, or when we fail to exercise moderation in our consumption of alcohol and food. It shows when we take part in the immoral behaviors that the world accepts but God condemns. It shows when we ignore the needs of our family members or neighbors. Giving free rein to these sins exposes us to enemy attack and seriously endangers our faith.
Peter writes that we must be “sober-minded” and “watchful” (1Pe. 5:8), because the devil works tirelessly to destroy our confidence in Jesus. He wants our eyelids to get heavy. He doesn’t want us to be aware of the dangers around us. He wants us to return to the darkness of unbelief. So we must always remember that in this lifetime we are perpetually at war—a spiritual war with eternal consequences.
When soldiers serve in peace-time, they can’t help but let down their guard a little. Their life is not immediately threatened. They feel safe. But when they receive word that the enemy is approaching, their demeanor changes. Their ears become attuned to the smallest sounds. Their eyes are on the lookout, scanning for any threat. Their weapon is clutched tightly in their hands. This is the kind of readiness we should exhibit spiritually in these end times, because the enemy is on the move and the final battle is at hand.
In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus warned His disciples about the destruction that was coming on the people of Judea. An enemy would come when they least expected it. The threat would be so sudden that there would not be time to grab some special belongings or even a cloak! When this destruction came in A. D. 70, the Christians were not trapped in Jerusalem. They fled at the first sign of trouble with the Romans a few years before. They believed what Jesus said.
This is how we also should prepare ourselves—by listening to Jesus’ Word. His Word keeps our ears attuned, so we are able to discern truth from error. His Word keeps our eyes focused, so we are not coaxed off in the wrong direction. His Word keeps us alert. It also comforts us as the battle continues.
Martin Luther points out that comfort in his great Reformation hymn. He said that “for us fights the Valiant One, / Whom God Himself elected.” Jesus fights for us and “holds the field.” “He’s by our side upon the plain / With His good gifts and Spirit” (ELH 250, vv. 2, 4). Jesus does battle on behalf of His Church of believers through His Word and Sacraments. This is how the Lord conquers. Not in outward displays of glory and power that impress the world, but through humble means that ruin the devil’s plans again and again.
When Jesus comes to you through His Word, He shines the bright light of His grace where the darkness has crept in. Nothing is hidden from His eyes. But He does not look to punish you for your sins. He wants to forgive you. He wants to lift off the burden of guilt that weighs you down. He wants you to free you from the chains of darkness that bind you, so you can walk in the light of life.
He can bring you these great blessings, because He faced sin, death, and devil in your place. Those enemies would have destroyed you, but Jesus ended their fearful reign. He gave Himself over into the hands of sinners, so that He might suffer and die for their salvation and for yours. And He rose again to secure for you a never-ending life free from all pain and trouble.
These riches are given to you each time He refocuses your ears and eyes on Him through His Word. This is how He equips you for the present battle and prepares you for its conclusion. The author of Hebrews writes that we must make it a habit to meet together to hear the Word. This is how we will encourage one another, “and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25).
This is so important for us to remember. Being a Christian is not simply being confident about one’s own standing before God because of what Jesus has done. It is also about sharing that hope with others. Jesus is coming soon, and then He will sit on the throne of judgment. We don’t want the people around us to be caught in the darkness. We want them to be saved. But how will they know about that salvation if no one tells them?
We can see how many unbelievers are searching for something that they don’t know. They want their life to have meaning. They want help to get through life’s tribulations and comfort when they experience loss. But they don’t know where to look, and they can’t find it on their own. This is what leaves them vulnerable to the manipulations of the devil.
As people desperately search for answers, the devil leads them in the wrong direction. He brings them to “false christs and false prophets.” Jesus says that these will “perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” We too will be tempted to look at these things.
But for the sake of our own faith and for the sake of those who may still believe, we keep our Eyes Fixed on Jesus. We go back to what He tells us in His Word. Jesus will not come down from heaven and hide Himself away in the wilderness or in an inner room. Rather, He says: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” He is coming, and all people will know when He comes.
We are eager for His return. We watch for Him like a child waits for company to arrive, or like a crowd anticipates the arrival of someone famous. Our watching is contagious. If right now, I stopped talking and stared at something at the back of the church, I don’t think you could help yourself. You would want to look where I look, so you could see what I’m seeing.
This is what Eyes Fixed on Jesus does for those around us. They will want to know what we are looking at. And we are more than happy to show them. As we speak the Word of His grace, Jesus comes to them too. Our prayer is that He will work the same faith in them that He has worked in us. We pray that He will open their eyes just as He has opened ours.
There is still hope for the spiritually dead. They can still be saved. Until Jesus returns or unbelievers take their last breath, “the vultures” can only circle overhead. The Lord opens eyes every day through His Word, even the eyes of those we might not expect. For this abundant grace and mercy, we glorify His name.
We honor Him now by believing His Word and living according to it. And we prepare for the blessed end of all things when the Son of Man will reveal Himself in the sight of all. Then our troubles in this world will be ended, and nothing will ever again draw our focus away from Jesus, our Savior and Lord.
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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(1850 “Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem” painting by David Roberts)