Thanksgiving – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: Psalm 103
In Christ Jesus, “the Lord merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy,” dear fellow redeemed:
In a typical year, we would celebrate Thanksgiving by getting together with family members and friends. We would all converge in one place, extend our tables, and cram in extra chairs. We would feast together, laugh together, enjoy being together. We would count our many blessings, starting with the loved ones with us in the room.
This is not a typical year. If you are getting together with loved ones, the group will probably be smaller than usual. Grown children may not be “coming home” like they usually do. Grandparents may not get to hug their grandchildren. Some of you are facing a Thanksgiving by yourself, perhaps the first time that has happened. Across the nation, this could go down as one of the most stressful, loneliest Thanksgivings we have ever had.
Today’s Psalm doesn’t really seem to fit the mood. It begins with joyful praise: “Bless the Lord, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name!” Is it praise and thanks to God that fills your thoughts right now? Or is it concerns about your health and the health of the people you care about? Or concerns about our country and its social and political disharmony? Or concerns about the future and the challenges you may have to face?
You might wonder what God’s plan is in all of this. Why doesn’t He just end all sickness? Why doesn’t He destroy the efforts of the wicked? You may not want to admit it, but part of you deep down questions whether God is seeing things clearly, whether He sees your struggle, whether He really loves you like He says He does. You might even be angry with God.
Now it isn’t wrong to complain to God. There are a great many Psalms that do this, that call Him to address the tension between His promises and our experiences. God wants to hear all our prayers—not just the ones offered in joyful thanksgiving, but also the ones expressed with heartfelt cries and groanings. So is today the day for thanksgiving to God or complaint?
We don’t know the situation in which Psalm 103 was written. It is a Psalm attributed to King David. It sounds like David was in a good mood when he wrote this Psalm. But hope-filled words do not come exclusively from good times. In fact, the hopeful words of believers often come from terrible times, times of suffering, times of persecution. Many of our best and most powerful hymns were written not in days of peace and prosperity, but in days of great trouble and hardship.
Whether you are filled with joy and thanksgiving today or with distresses and doubts, this Psalm was inspired by God for your comfort and encouragement. The second verse of the Psalm says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits.” It is easy to forget all that the Lord does for us. Sometimes we forget because in our pride we think we are responsible for all the good things we have. Or sometimes we forget because in our difficulties all we can see is our trouble.
This is why we need to be reminded to remember—to “forget not” all the Lord’s benefits. His kind and merciful actions toward us are so many we could not count them all. The psalmist lists some of them: He forgives all our iniquities. He heals all our diseases. He redeems our life from destruction. He crowns us with lovingkindness and tender mercies. He satisfies our mouth with good things. He executes righteousness and justice for the oppressed.
It might seem like David overstates God’s work here. If, as he writes, the Lord “heals all [our] diseases,” why do some still get sick? If He “executes righteousness and justice” for the oppressed, why do some still suffer? David does not claim that God keeps His people from ever getting sick or ever experiencing hardship. Sickness and hardship are part of life in this fallen world. So is our sinfulness. Just as we need the Lord’s forgiveness for every sin, so we need His healing for every sickness and His help in every trouble.
We may not always have healing in our sickness and help in our trouble as quickly or as completely as we want. But the Lord brings it about in His time. He may even decide to free us from our diseases and our oppression by calling our soul out of this life of trouble. Our faith does not rest in what our eyes can see, in the proofs of God’s love that we demand. Our faith rests in His holy Word, in what He has promised to all who trust in Him.
It may seem that God is angry with you or punishing you because of the suffering and pain that you experience. But you know that cannot be. God is not angry with you anymore because His holy Son atoned for your sins. Your sins were taken off you and put on Him. He suffered the wrath of God in your place. He was punished for every single one of your wrongs. “As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed [your] transgressions from [you].”
Now God wouldn’t do that for you and then forget about you when you suffer in this life. He wouldn’t send His perfect Son to the cross for you and then leave you all alone in your trials. “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him”—He has mercy on you. “For He knows [your] frame; He remembers that [you] are dust.” He knows that it doesn’t take much to discourage you. He knows how hard the devil, the unbelieving world, and your own sinful flesh work to steal away your faith. He sees how often they succeed. He knows that you don’t always remember Him. But He remembers you.
The Lord God Almighty Remembers You. And He will not forget you. He cannot forget you. You are joined by faith to His only-begotten Son, that Son with whom He is well pleased (Mat. 3:17, 17:5). So He is well pleased with you. “[T]he mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting On those who fear Him, And His righteousness to children’s children.”
This year has not gone like you expected, and neither have your Thanksgiving plans. But you are not alone. The Lord whose “throne [is] in heaven” and whose “kingdom rules over all” knows you. The God whom the mighty angels and all the host of heaven worship loves you and cares about you. He will not leave you no matter what you have to face in the days to come. And that is cause for joy; that is reason for thanksgiving. “Bless the Lord, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits.” Amen.
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The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 5:16-24
In Christ Jesus, who saved us and set us free to live for Him instead of for the destructive desires of our own flesh, dear fellow redeemed:
When we see people throw away great wealth or great opportunities or great abilities, it’s hard for us to understand it. So maybe an elite athlete is dismissed from the team because of drug addiction. A gifted actor loses prime roles because of an abrasive personality. A brilliant student wiles away his days playing video games. A rich kid gets caught stealing. Things like these don’t make sense to us. We think that if we had what they did, we wouldn’t waste it.
But it’s much easier to be an “armchair quarterback” than an actual one. It’s easy to say what we would do different when we haven’t faced the things they have. As the account of the Good Samaritan taught us last week, when we see others experiencing difficulties, we should extend charity to them. We have room for charity toward others because we need their charity too.
If you want to talk about people who haven’t maximized their opportunities or appreciated their blessings, aren’t we at the top of that list? Let’s consider what good things we have that so few in the world even know about. We know that the God who created all things loves us. He is not angry with us because of our sins. He does not plot our punishment for our misdeeds. He sent His only Son to be our holy Substitute, to keep the Law perfectly for us, and to die in payment for our sins.
We know that Jesus rose again in victory over death. We know that the Holy Spirit works powerfully through the Word and Sacraments to comfort and heal and strengthen us. We know we are righteous in God’s sight by faith in Jesus. We know He does not count our sins against us. We know that He works all things in our life—even the bad things—for good. We know that He guards and keeps us every moment of every day and will safely bring our souls to heaven when we die.
Most people in the world, including many who consider themselves religious, do not know God’s love. They do not know He forgives them in Christ. They live in constant fear of His judgment. But you are free from those doubts and worries. You are free from the condemnation of the Law. You are free from the pressure of trying to appease God by your own works. You are free from the idea that how you live your life does not matter since you could never be good enough for God anyway. Your life does matter; Jesus gave up His life to save yours.
So what should you do with your life? How should you use the freedom you have in Christ? Some who have heard the Gospel of free forgiveness think that this gives them freedom to keep on sinning. “As long as I believe my sins are forgiven,” they think, “then I can just go on doing what I want.” But in today’s text St. Paul has some cold water to throw on that idea. He writes that to use our freedom for sin will lead us back into spiritual slavery. Just because we once believed in Jesus does not mean we will always believe in Jesus. Saving faith can be lost.
Paul includes a long list of “the works of the flesh.” Many of the things he lists are considered acceptable in our modern society. Sex outside of marriage is okay, says the world, as long as it is consensual. Hoarding money and goods is fine as long as it is done legally. Anger and hatred are justified as long as the target is really terrible. Drunkenness and wild parties are okay as long as no one gets hurt. But no matter how we try to explain these sins away or make them acceptable to our conscience, they are offensive to God. Paul does not mince words, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
So what hope do we have? We are guilty of committing many of these sins. But notice that Paul does not say, “those who have done such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” If that were the case, no one would be going to heaven. All of us have sinned. What Paul writes is, “those who do such things.” He is referring to those who willingly choose to sin and continue in it. They know what they are doing is contrary to God’s Word, and they decide to go ahead with it anyway.
None of us is without sin, and we cannot keep ourselves from ever sinning. But we can stay on the lookout for temptations and pray for God’s help to avoid sin. When we do fall into sin, God calls us to humble ourselves, to give up trying to justify our sins, and repent. But then He does not leave us under the condemnation of the holy Law. He leads us through the Gospel to Jesus’ cross and empty tomb where we are assured that our sins are all forgiven.
Through the powerful Gospel, the Holy Spirit lifts the burden of our sins off us. We don’t have to carry anymore what Jesus carried to the cross and paid for with His own blood. Now we are free. We are not weighed down anymore by the chains of sin and death and the crushing weight of the Law.
Those who carry an overwhelming load, whether from work or other responsibilities or committing to too many activities, don’t feel free to help others in need. “I’m the one who needs help!” they think. In the same way, until the burden of our sin is removed, our focus remains on ourselves. Our energy is spent in piling up more sins, in trying to keep our past sins buried, or in doing whatever we can to quiet our guilty conscience. But when our spiritual burden is removed from us through the Gospel, we are free to focus on others. Now we forgiven sinners are ready to bear fruit.
Paul contrasts “the works of the flesh” done out of love for ourselves with “the fruit of the Spirit” done out of love for God and neighbor. We believers find the power and motivation to produce this fruit by hearing Jesus’ Word and partaking of the Sacraments He instituted. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” He says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Joh. 15:5).
As long as we are connected to Him by faith, He promises to accomplish great things through us. He sends the Holy Spirit to produce in us “love” toward those around us, “joy” in our callings, “peace” from knowing His love, “patience” when difficulties come, “kindness” toward the hurting, “goodness” to the needy, “faithfulness” like the grateful Samaritan, “gentleness” toward oppressors and the oppressed, and “self-control” no matter the situation.
“The fruit of the Spirit” is wonderful fruit! It is fruit that brings blessings to our lives and the lives of those we meet. Paul writes that “there is no law” against these blessings. God wants us to have them. He wants us to drink deeply from the fountain of His Word where the Holy Spirit is always at work. And we must do this.
We must to do this because “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other.” Our sinful nature and the Holy Spirit do not want the same thing. Our sinful nature wants to lead us along the path of self-centeredness and self-indulgence. This path heads directly toward hell. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, wants us to have the good things of God: righteousness, comfort, peace, forgiveness, salvation, life. These gifts of Jesus keep us on the path toward heaven.
One way may look and feel like freedom, but fleshly freedom is slavery for the soul. The other way may seem like restriction and regulation, but suppression of our fleshly desires now is our only hope for life everlasting. Nobody has ever experienced true freedom by embracing the things of this world. If you remember the story of Pinocchio, the rowdy boys thought they had everything they could want on “Pleasure Island,” but their bad behavior turned them into braying beasts locked in tiny cages.
True freedom is found in Jesus alone. It is a freedom from sin, not a freedom to sin. We are Free to Be Fruitful. We are free to move beyond the failures of our past. We are free to live God-pleasing lives that benefit our neighbors. We are free to pursue noble things that let us sleep well at night. We are free to spend ourselves in service to Him who loves us with an undying love.
This freedom is yours not because of anything you did. It is because of what Jesus did for you. He was arrested, bound, and nailed to a cross so you would be free. He offered His holy life for your sinful one. He suffered in innocence so you would be spared of your guilt. Your Baptism joined you to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (Rom. 6:4). It connected your life to His. It grafted you into the living Vine.
The baptized who remain in Him by faith are no longer ruled by the flesh. Paul writes that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” So while you may have lost some battles to the flesh, Jesus has won the war. He has redeemed you from your sins and still grants you the blessing and the freedom to bear His fruit.
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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