The First Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 19) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 9:1-8
In Christ Jesus, who went to the cross bearing our sin and guilt, and who now declares us innocent of all wrongdoing through His Word of absolution, dear fellow redeemed:
Sometimes our mistakes leave marks that are visible to others. A few years ago, an NFL player was playing with fireworks. One of them went off in his hand and caused extensive damage to his fingers. His injury is a constant reminder to himself and others of the mistake he made. But most of our mistakes, most of our sins, do not leave visible marks. Most of the time, we are able to cover up our sins, and no one ever knows about them but ourselves.
And as long as no one ever finds out, it’s like the sin never actually happened, right? This is what we tell ourselves. It starts when we see something we want. We make sure no one else is around. We check over our shoulders and check again. Then we indulge ourselves. The pattern is the same whether it is a child sneaking cookies, someone looking at explicit content on his smartphone, or an employee stealing things at work. “As long as I don’t get caught, then everything is okay.”
But of course everything is not okay. We might have been able to hide our sin from others, but we can’t hide it from ourselves. We see it. It plays over and over again in our mind. We wish we hadn’t done it, but we can’t take it back. We want to come clean, but we can’t bear the thought of other people knowing our deep flaws. How do we deal with these invisible scars? How do we deal with the guilt of our own sins? Today’s Gospel reading shows us the way forward.
We hear about a paralyzed man. We’re not told how he got that way. It could have been an accident that was totally out of his control. Or maybe it was because of reckless behavior. Whatever the cause, this young man had some dedicated friends. Four friends carried him on a bed to the house where Jesus was preaching, but they could not make their way inside. The crowd was too large. So they climbed up on the roof and removed enough of the clay roof tiles, so they could lower the paralyzed man before Jesus.
Imagine the scene: Jesus is preaching, and everyone’s attention is fixed on Him. Then there are footsteps above on the roof. Then pieces of dust and dirt and clay start showering down on people’s heads. Everyone looks up, probably Jesus too. Then blue sky, the room gets brighter, and heads peer down from a hole in the ceiling. Then a large object fills the space and is lowered down through the opening. What a scene!
Now put yourself in the place of the paralyzed man. You’re up pretty high. There’s nothing you can do but trust your friends to hang on and not drop you. You inch lower and lower, looking to see past the edge of your bed at the people in the room. And then Jesus comes in view. What is the look on His face? Is it irritation? Surprise? Anger? No, the look on His face is warm concern; it’s compassion.
What would you say to Jesus if you had His attention like this, looking Him right in the eye? What would you say if it were just the two of you with no one else around? We have rehearsed this before. When the troubles in our lives keep getting worse and nothing is going the way it should, we want to ask Him why. Doesn’t He see? Doesn’t He care? Why doesn’t He help? We wonder why He doesn’t take away our pain, make everything better. We think of all the things we would say to Him face-to-face if only we had the chance.
Perhaps it was the same for the paralyzed man. Maybe he wondered why he should have to suffer like this. Why him and not everyone else around him? But when the opportunity finally arrived, he said nothing. Nothing needed to be said. Jesus knew. He knew the hardships of this young man. He knew the deep concern of those who brought him. He knew what brought them to Him. “[W]hen Jesus saw their faith—the faith of the friends and of the man set before Him—“He said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, My son; your sins are forgiven.’”
Is that what the man needed the most? It seems like what he needed most was physical healing. He needed to be able to walk again, so he would no longer be such a burden on his friends. But that was not his greatest need. We don’t know the young man’s history. We don’t know what troubles he had faced, what anguish he had felt, what guilt weighed down on him. If we knew about his past, maybe we would think he deserved his paralysis. Maybe we would think he should have neither spiritual nor physical relief.
But the Lord is ever merciful and gracious. He constantly gives the opposite of what is deserved. The times that we get angry with Jesus or question Him are the times that we think He is failing us. He is not giving us what we believe we deserve. That is dangerous territory. We are not entitled to anything from God. We don’t deserve anything good from Him. We deserve to be punished for our sins. We deserve eternal damnation.
But that is not what Jesus gives us. He lets us bring all our grievances to Him, and then He meets us not with anger or with annoyance. He meets us with absolution. He comes to us with grace. “Take heart, My child,” He says; “your sins are forgiven.” What sins of the paralyzed man did He forgive? The sins that only He could see, sins that we know nothing about. And what sins of yours does He forgive? Only the ones He can see.
Which sins are these? We ask that question in our Catechism. The answer is the sins that we commit in every area of our lives—the sins we commit as fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, employers and employees; the sins of our disobedience, dishonesty, laziness; the sins of unkind speech and hurtful action; sins of neglect, wastefulness, and so on.
Many of these sins only you know about. Only you know the depth of your sinfulness, the darkness that clouds your love for God and neighbor. Only you know the extent of your selfishness, your pride, and your judgmental attitude toward others. But today’s reading shows that Another knows.
When Jesus forgave the paralyzed man his sins, the scribes and Pharisees thought to themselves, “This man is blaspheming! Only God can forgive sins, and this man is not God!” They did not say this out loud. No one could have known what was in their hearts, no one except Jesus. “Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts?’”
Just as He could see faith in the paralyzed man and his friends, so He could see sin and unbelief in the scribes and Pharisees. Nothing is hidden from Him. “Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD” (Jer. 23:24). The Lord sees. He sees all. That is terrifying. It means He knows all the sins that we have carefully tried to hide from others.
But this is also comforting. Because the Lord knows all my wrongs, I don’t have to try to hide them. I don’t have to carry my burden of guilt. I can own up to them, admit them. I can hand them over to Him. That’s exactly what we do when we confess our sins. We pull them out in the open. We bring them into the light. And we leave them there for Jesus to deal with.
And Jesus says, “I’ll gladly take them. I will take them away.” But He doesn’t take them somewhere and bury them where they might be found again and brought against us. He took your sins to Himself, and He erased them and all the evidence of them. The trail of evidence leading to your sinfulness goes to the cross, and it stops there. The evidence never points to you, because Jesus blotted out all evidence of your sinning with His holy blood.
On the cross, Jesus suffered only for the sins of yours that He knew about, only for the ones He could see. And He saw them all. He suffered and died for the sins you have never told another soul about. He suffered and died for the sins you have convinced yourself are unforgiveable. He forgives them. He paid for those sins.
When He looks at you, He does not see your sins anymore. He sees His dear child. He does not ask for anything. He does not seek payment or proof that you know how badly you messed up. He looks at you with mercy and compassion and says, “Your sins are forgiven! Rise up and go your way.”
This is the message that He has sent me, your pastor, to proclaim. The crowds were right to “[glorify] God, who had given such authority to men,” because He has. He has given His church the authority to forgive sins, and that forgiveness is announced publicly by your pastor. I have been around you long enough to see some of your sins, just as you have seen some of mine. But when I or the vicar speak the absolution, we speak the forgiveness of all sin, even the sins nobody else knows about.
Jesus knows your sins even better than you do, because He suffered in anguish paying for each and every one on the cross. The absolution that you hear today is a constant pointing to His sacrifice. And if His absolution does not settle the question in your mind about whether or not He forgives your sin, He also invites you to His table. There He places His own holy body and blood in your mouth, and He tells you what that faithful eating and drinking is for—“for the remission of your sins.”
You see your sins, but Jesus does not see them anymore. He forgives them.
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 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Second Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 20:19-31
In Christ Jesus, who took our sins to His grave and rose from the dead with forgiveness, life, and peace for us, dear fellow redeemed:
When the ancient Pharaohs were buried, they were buried with all sorts of treasures and provisions. The tomb of King Tut contained over 5,000 items including a solid gold coffin, weapons of war, furniture, food, and clothing. The Egyptians believed they would need all these things in the afterlife. But ultimately those treasures lay unused until robbers or archaeologists found them. The Pharaohs were buried with great plenty but never lived again to use it.
Jesus was put in a tomb with nothing but burial cloths and the spices that accompanied them. The Jews did not believe like the Egyptians that earthly things could be taken into the eternal realm. The Jews believed that death was death, so they assumed that the amazing work of Jesus was over and done. They would not see Him again on earth.
Suppose they had believed Jesus’ promise that He would rise again. What do you think they would have buried with Him in the tomb? Maybe some food and clothes? Some ointment for His wounds? If they had believed His promise, I think they would have wanted to be there in the tomb with Him, waiting and watching for Him to start breathing again.
But His disciples did not believe, not yet. Today’s text describes what happened on the evening of Easter. Jesus had risen from the dead early that morning and appeared to several women who came to the tomb expecting to find His dead body. He had spoken to two of His followers on the road to Emmaus. And at some point that day, He had also appeared to Simon Peter.
But none of these appearances coaxed His disciples out of their fear and hiding. They remained huddled together in an out-of-the-way place in Jerusalem. They felt completely lost without their confident Leader. They probably tried to remember the things He had told them, but none of it seemed to do much good now that He was gone. They almost certainly felt ashamed for boasting that they would fight with Him to the death before deserting Him when He was arrested. As much as they would like to be with Him again, how could they bear to look Him in the eye?
Then suddenly Jesus was standing right there in the room, right in their midst! We expect the first words from Jesus’ mouth to be something like, “Now do you believe?” or, “Why didn’t you listen to what I said?” or, “Why are you here hiding?” But the first words from His mouth were, “Peace to you!” Jesus was not concerned about punishing His weak disciples or hatching a payback plan against those who beat Him and crucified Him. He did not come to “take names” or to “take revenge.” He came to give, to give gifts.
His sacrificial death brought peace with God. If Jesus had not suffered and died for our sins, we would still be opposed to God. We would be His enemies, and His wrath would be turned toward us (Rom. 5:9-10). Because we have proven ourselves to be no more faithful than the disciples. We wonder why they didn’t believe when Jesus told them He would rise again. But others could wonder why we haven’t lived the way God has told us to in His Ten Commandments. God always speaks clearly and truthfully, but we do not always listen to and follow Him faithfully.
We don’t deserve to have peace with God. But “Peace!” is what Jesus declared when He rose from the dead. He made peace by going to the cross and shedding His blood in payment for our sins (Col. 1:20). This is why He said, “It is finished!” just before He died (Joh. 19:30). But those words would have been empty if Jesus had not risen from the dead. He could have said whatever He wanted and made whatever promises, but none of them would have mattered if He stayed in the grave.
His resurrection proved that He truly was the Son of God and that His work to save sinners was complete. His empty tomb shows that peace was made between God and sinners. God is not at war with us. He wants to empty tombs, not fill them. He promises that all who trust in Jesus as their only Savior will rise just as Jesus rose. St. Paul writes that He “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 4:25-5:1).
So Jesus rose with a message of peace for His disciples. It wasn’t the first time He had promised them peace. Shortly before His death, He told them, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Joh. 14:27). And how did He find them just a few days later? With troubled and fearful hearts (Luk. 24:38). But “the things that [made] for peace” had been accomplished (Luk. 19:42). He had died and risen again. The peace of His forgiveness and life was not dependent on their actions or attitude. The “Peace!” He declared was a gift coming from His saving work.
It was a gift He wanted others to have too. “Peace to you,” He said again. “As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you. What a strange thing! The disciples might have expected Jesus to disown them for their weakness and faithlessness. Instead He commissioned them to bring His message of peace to the world.
Then we come across a detail in our text that causes us to scratch our heads a bit. St. John writes that after declaring “Peace!” for the second time, Jesus “breathed on them.” We don’t usually think of getting “breathed on” as a positive thing. Think back to when you were a kid. Did you ever tell your brother or sister to go away and stop breathing on you? And in our year of facemasks and social distancing, getting “breathed on” was avoided by people around the world.
But Jesus breathed on His disciples. His breathing on them was tied directly to the words that followed, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon them, so they would be equipped to bring His peace to others.
One Lutheran commentator argues that Jesus did not breathe on each disciple individually but on the group as a whole. If it had been individually, He would have done the same for Thomas when He appeared again a week later. But this breathing out of the Spirit was not just for these special individuals; it was for the Church of all time (The Wenzel Commentary, p. 792).
Jesus has given the Church the authority to forgive sins or to retain sins. This is called the “Office of the Keys.” To those who are sorry for their sins and believe in Jesus as their Savior, the Church declares “Peace!” We tell them that the door to heaven is open to them because of what Jesus has done. But for those who are not sorry for their sins, the Church cannot declare “Peace!” Peace was won for them by Jesus, but the unrepentant reject it by denying their sins. Until they admit their sins, heaven is closed to them.
No one can make another repent of their sins and trust Jesus’ Word of peace. It is not in our power to change hearts. But God can. He does this transformative work through His Word. Wherever the Word is, God the Holy Spirit is active. Jesus clearly tied together the message about what He had accomplished with the ongoing work of the Spirit. And we see the effect His Spirit-filled Word had on His disciples. They went from anxiety and doubt to comfort and confidence.
The Holy Spirit does the same for you when you hear the powerful Word of God. Through the Word and Sacraments, Jesus comes right here in our midst. He comes to you in the midst of your troubles and sorrows and doubts, and He says, “Peace to you!” He breathes His rich blessings of forgiveness and life upon you by sending the Holy Spirit to you. The Holy Spirit assures you that everything Jesus did was for you.
Anyone can know the facts about Jesus’ death and resurrection. But knowing the facts alone does not save you. You are saved by believing that Jesus’ death and resurrection were for you, that He reconciled you eternally with God, that He won your freedom from sin, death, and devil. This gives great comfort as you struggle along in this life and are afflicted by anxieties and fears. Jesus triumphed over all your enemies and continues to bring you the comfort, hope, and strength of His victory.
Those Pharaohs stored up treasures in their tombs out of greed and selfishness, but all of it was taken from them. Jesus took no riches into His tomb, but He emerged with wonderful gifts to give. Jesus gives these gifts every time you partake of the Word and Sacraments in church and as you encourage one another in personal conversation.
Wherever Jesus’ Word of peace is declared, the Holy Spirit is working to turn doubts into confidence and sorrows to gladness. The gifts of Jesus bring peace to our troubled hearts and prepare us to depart this world in peace to join Him in heavenly glory.
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 “Doubting Thomas” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872
Good Friday – Pr. Faugstad homily
What would your life be like without Good Friday? What if you knew nothing about God the Father sending His only-begotten Son out of love for the fallen world? What if you didn’t know that Jesus willingly went to the cross for you, carrying your sins, so that He might take the punishment you deserved? What if you didn’t know you are righteous in God’s sight because of what Jesus accomplished?
Your life would be very different. You would have nothing but this life in this world. You would have no clear purpose for why you are here, no obvious motivation for putting others before yourself, and no reason to conclude that your life matters in any meaningful way. You could spend your time trying to get rich, you could maneuver for power and influence, or you could try to satisfy whatever passions you have as much as you can. But none of that holds up when death is staring you right in the face.
Many people carry on without Good Friday. Either they have not heard, or having once heard, now they do not care. God forces no one to believe. He “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Ti. 2:4). But many are not saved. They reject the holy Word of God. They reject the salvation Jesus won for them.
Because He did win their salvation. He suffered for each and every one of their sins. He endured the horrific fires of hell in their place. He paid their debt. Good Friday wasn’t just for those who would believe in Him. It was for all people, all sinners past, present, and future.
What happened on Good Friday was a balancing of the scales of God’s justice. All the sins of the world were put on one side of the scale, and Jesus was put on the other. How heavy those sins must have been! Who can measure the evil that has been done in the world since time began? How much killing and lying and cheating and taking? How many wicked actions and words? How many evil thoughts? The sin of one human being cannot be measured, much less the collective sins of the world.
And on the other side of the scale was Jesus. He looked so insignificant and small. By the time He came to Golgotha, He could hardly walk. He was bleeding all over His body. His face was bruised and swollen. His breathing was labored. How could this one weak Man do anything about the world’s sin? Well it wasn’t just a Man on the scale. It was God—God clothed in human flesh. A mere man—even a really good one—could not move the balance against one sin. But God could.
When the God-Man stepped on one side of the scale, the other side filled with all our sins started moving. It rose higher and higher until it was clear that Jesus was more than enough. He was sufficient payment for sin. But justice required more than the weight of His person. It required His death. The Son of God had to die on the cross. This holy Lamb had to be sacrificed for all sin.
Think for a moment where God has placed you in this life. He has given you important things to do in your home, your school, your workplace, your community, your church. He has handed you important responsibilities as children, siblings, parents, co-workers, and neighbors. Now think of how you have failed in these areas. Think of the things you have done that make you feel guilty and ashamed. You are not perfect in any way. Your sin has stained every part of your life.
Your sins were there on the scale opposite Jesus. He felt God’s wrath for each of them. He suffered for those sins before God as though He had committed them. So for your hurting and lying and cheating and taking—whatever wrong you have done—, Jesus paid the penalty. He poured out His blood for you, and His blood cleanses you from all sin (1Jo. 1:7).
Jesus applies His cleansing blood in every area of your life. At a crime scene, detectives look for whatever evidence they can find to catch the criminal. But if God looked back at the “crime scene” of all your sins, the only thing He would find is blood—the holy, cleansing blood of His Son which has blotted out all of those sins. The precious blood of Jesus absolves you; it saves you.
By the grace of God, you don’t know what your life would be like without Good Friday. Through faith in Jesus, Every Day Is Good Friday for You. Because of what your Savior has done, your sins are forgiven, and eternal life in heaven is yours. Thanks be to God! Amen.
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(picture from “Cristo Crucificado” by Diego Velázquez, 1632)
Midweek Lent – Pr. Faugstad homily
St. Luke 23:26-33
In Christ Jesus, who advanced toward the cross in order to crush Satan under His feet, dear fellow redeemed:
On Palm Sunday, Jesus was welcomed by the people as a King: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” they shouted (Luk. 19:38). Jesus rode through the gates of Jerusalem on a donkey just as the prophet Zechariah said He would (Zec. 9:9).
But now just five days later, Jesus stumbled along, bleeding from wounds all over His body, too weak to carry His cross. He was pushed toward a different gate of the city from which He had come. The Roman soldiers were forcing Him toward a place beyond the city walls called “Golgotha,” which means “place of a skull” (Mat. 27:33). It was there that Jesus would be crucified.
By now word had traveled about what was being done to Jesus—that great teacher and miracle-worker, the likes of which the people had never had seen. The people came running to see what would happen to Him. They followed after Jesus with His halting, anguished steps, and they could not hide their sorrow.
But they did not dare stand in the way of the Romans. To question them or oppose them would have meant death. The Romans were in charge; they did what they pleased. Jesus made reference to their brutal methods: “For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” He said. He was prophesying that violence would come upon all Jerusalem in the future like what the Romans were now doing to Him (Luk. 19:41-44).
The Romans had also taken hold of an innocent bystander, a man in the crowd named Simon of Cyrene, and they forced him to carry Jesus’ cross after Him. Simon did not want to do this, but now he is remembered with honor. He was chosen to carry that rough piece of wood, which was nothing less than a holy altar. On that altar the Lamb of God would be slain as the all-sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Jesus calls us to take up the cross too, but not His wooden cross like Simon did. Jesus told His disciples: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luk. 9:23-24). He calls us to walk away from the selfish leanings of our nature, walk away from the riches and pleasures and glories of the world, walk away from the temptations of the devil and all his empty promises.
But it is not easy to walk away. The path is a hard one. The cross of suffering we must take up as bearers of Jesus’ name is heavy. We strain under its weight, and our steps falter. At times we stumble and fall. This isn’t what we want. We want a care-free journey. We want “easy street.” But we need the cross. Without the cross of suffering and trial that Jesus lovingly places upon us to strengthen our faith, we become too attached to our broken life in this world.
The cross is necessary for us, and it was necessary for Him. Jesus had to take those painful steps to Golgotha. He had to have His feet and hands pinned to the cross by the ruthless blows of hammer on nail. He had to feel the terrible pain shooting through His body with every strike. He had to hang there, feet stuck in place, not trying to break free, not running away. They called out to Him: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mat. 27:40). But Jesus would not come down.
He stayed on the cross for you. He stayed on the cross because your feet have not always walked the narrow path. You have not always gone the way He called you to go. Sometimes you willingly walked into sin. You didn’t turn away even when you knew you should.
The devil is constantly setting snares and traps to tangle us up in sin, and he has caught us many, many times. But as often as we have stepped into sin, the Lord has set us free again. He stayed on the cross to atone for all our wandering, all our missteps, all our trespassing. He let His feet be pierced for all of our transgressions, so that we could walk the way of righteousness and eternal life.
It was ironic that Jesus’ feet were raised above the crowd while He hung on the cross. The psalmist David had recorded a prophecy of what the Savior would accomplish through His death and resurrection. God the Father said to His Son: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool” (Psa. 110:1). All of Jesus’ enemies—the Jewish religious leaders, the Romans, and especially sin, death, and devil—thought they had prevailed. They thought Jesus would never take another step. They strutted around like they were the king. And now all of them are His footstool.
It looked like Jesus would not survive the cross. It looked like His beautiful work had finally come to an end. But that “end” was your beginning. His cross was your salvation. The blood He poured out won your forgiveness. By His sacrificial death, He walked over all His enemies and yours.
And He still beats them down under His feet. St. Paul writes that God the Father “put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). Jesus still comes to you through His Word and Sacraments. He leads you away from the snares and pitfalls the devil has set. He comes to give you strength for the journey, and to help you bear the crosses you must take up in this life.
He comes not just to walk beside you, but to carry you each and every step of the way. “He leads [you] in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psa. 23:3), and He “guide[s] [your] feet into the way of peace” (Luk. 1:79). Thanks be to God. Amen.
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(picture from “What Our Lord Saw from the Cross,” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Fourth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Peter 2:11-20
In Christ Jesus, who walks with us in our suffering and comforts us with grace and peace for the present and the promise of a perfect life after this one, dear fellow redeemed:
A month and a half ago, our state officials prohibited gatherings of more than ten people, so we stopped holding regular services. Since that time, you and I have been worshipping in our homes, and we have done what we could to stay connected through the internet, phone calls, and mail. Now our state officials have lifted restrictions in our county while still urging us to take certain precautions. So here we are back in church.
That begs the question: who is in charge of the church and of our local congregation in particular? Are we required to close our doors every time the government tells us to? This question would be easy to answer if the governing officials ordered us to stop preaching God’s Word. Then we would have to “obey God rather than men” (Act. 5:29) and ignore the order. But the current case is not like that. The government imposed restrictions across society to try to protect the population and keep it safe. Protecting the population is a proper function of government which Christians support.
So where exactly should the line be drawn between church and state? They can’t be totally isolated and kept apart, or else you and I would have to choose one side or the other. But we are members of both. Martin Luther and others have talked about them as the “two kingdoms.” The church is the kingdom of God’s right hand where the emphasis is on grace and forgiveness. The state is the kingdom of God’s left hand where the emphasis is on law and justice. Without the kingdom of the left, we would live unhappy lives in anarchy and chaos. Without the kingdom of the right, we would live without hope and the promise of a better life after this one.
But living simultaneously in these two kingdoms can be tricky, as we have seen in the last few weeks. The Christians who first read St. Peter’s First Epistle did not have it any easier. In fact, they lived at a time of severe persecution by the Roman authorities. Many Christians were killed for their faith, and if the history is accurate, Peter was martyred in Rome also. I am sure it happened that non-Christians turned in their Christian neighbors to the authorities simply because they did not like them or because they hoped to gain from their deaths.
And what advice did Peter send to these Christians “under fire”? He told them to suffer patiently, to be kind, and to honor the authorities. This sounds like a different Peter than the one who was so ready to use his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane. At that time Jesus told him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mat. 26:52). Christians have the right to use their voice as citizens in our country, but we are not called to use physical violence to get our way.
Peter learned this lesson, and now he reminded the recipients of his letter that they are “sojourners and exiles.” They and we are not to imagine that the sinful world is our permanent place of residence. It is tempting for all of us to get more caught up in our rights as citizens than in our righteousness as saints, to pin our hopes on political activism rather than on the promises of God. We are only “sojourners” here; we’re just passing through. Ultimately, St. Paul writes, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phi. 3:20).
And that is why we can live without fear even while a new virus rages through our country and the rest of the world. We are not desperate to hang on to this life for the sake of this life. Whether it is tomorrow or next week or next year or many years from now, our death will come if Jesus does not return first. We can embrace that death when it comes because Jesus has conquered death and forced it to serve His purposes. Now death is the dark doorway that leads us into the bright and glorious realm of heaven. There we will be not “sojourners and exiles”; we will be permanent citizens.
But we are not in heaven yet. While we are here, we have responsibilities to our neighbors, including our neighbors in the government. Peter writes that we should submit or “be subject… to every human institution… that by doing good [we] should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” We are not motivated like so many others are by power or money or fame. Those are earthly things that cannot last. The whole world is caught up in the pursuit of these empty things.
What we have is far better. We have righteousness, redemption, and salvation. We have forgiveness, hopefulness, and life. We have freedom in Christ—freedom from our sin, freedom from the curse of the law, freedom from death. What are the fleeting things of the world compared to these eternal things? Christ has broken us free from these chains. So Peter urges us to “[l]ive as people who are free.”
But how can he say at the same time “live in freedom” and “submit to the authorities”? It is because both things—heavenly freedom and earthly authority—come from the same source. Peter writes, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,” “[live] as servants of God,” be subject to masters while being “mindful of God.” We submit to our authorities not because we fear, love, and trust in them above all things, but because we fear, love, and trust in God. We recognize that He has established the earthly authorities. As Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (Joh. 19:11).
But what happens when the authorities behave badly, and instead of punishing the evil and praising the good, they do the opposite? Then they have clearly abused the power God has granted them, like when they persecuted and killed those early Christians. And while it is proper to point out corruption and sin even when committed by ruling officials, yet they are still to be respected and honored—not for their own sake but “for the Lord’s sake.” Our eyes are always on Him. Good rulers and bad rulers come and go, but “The LORD of hosts is with us” (Psa. 46:11), and He isn’t going anywhere.
It is so easy to forget this. We forget that the Lord reigns, that He is in control. We are often looking and hoping for a perfect leader on earth, a new “messiah,” who will set everything right. Or we let a bad ruler shake our faith in the providence of God. We are so quickly caught up in these “passions of the flesh, which wage war against [our souls].” We don’t want to take the humble path. We don’t want to face trouble. We don’t want to suffer. We want things to go our way and on our timeline.
Our pride and selfishness are exactly the reasons God needs to humble us. This is why He lets trials and hardships come our way. He wants us to remember that He is the Lord, and there is none like Him. The unbelieving world in the midst of a crisis may put its total confidence in human ingenuity, medicine, or financial security. But these are temporary solutions that cannot save us. At best, they can only push off the inevitable.
Only the Lord can save, and He does save. Like you, I don’t know what the future will look like. I don’t know what illnesses, injuries, or hardships may come to us or to the people we love. I don’t know how many days the Lord has numbered for us, whether many or few. But I do know this: Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, has redeemed us with His holy, precious blood, and with His innocent suffering and death. He took the humble path. He willingly faced trouble and anguish. He obeyed His Father’s will all the way to the point of His death.
He did this so that we would have forgiveness of all our sins, no matter what stains are on our past. He did this so we would have strength to face our trials knowing that He understands our suffering. He did this so we would have life whenever our present troubles come to an end. Jesus’ death accomplished all these things, and His resurrection assures us that these blessings are ours. We do not follow a leader who had the ability to inspire but couldn’t deliver on his promises. We follow the Lord Jesus who is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.
This is why we freely submit to those in authority over us “with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.” We do this out of love for the Lord, who has commanded us to behave in this way. We don’t know how He will use our humble example and honorable conduct. Perhaps it is to draw others, including government officials, to His saving grace so that that they will join us in glorifying God on the day of Christ’s return.
So in all things and at all times, We Serve the Lord. We take up our crosses daily and follow Him (Luk. 9:23). We go about our work “heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). And we take comfort that it is He who keeps us safe. It is He who blesses our work. It is He who holds our present and our future. It is He who saves us and will take us to be with Him in His heavenly kingdom.
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 “Christ before Pilate” by Mihály Munkácsy, 1881)
The Fourth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 16:16-23
In Christ Jesus, who lovingly gathers us to Himself as a hen gathers her chicks (Mat. 23:37), so that we are comforted and kept safe, dear fellow redeemed:
Everyone has a mother, and so it is right for all of us to celebrate motherhood this weekend and the impact our mothers have made in our lives. You would not be here today if your mother had not carried you in her womb and given birth to you. In most cases, mothers continue to care for and nurture their children through their developmental years and into adulthood. Often it is mother who addresses scrapes and cuts. It is mother who rocks a sick child to sleep. It is mother who listens with compassion and gives her support.
No one really outgrows the need for a mother. God gives life through the union of woman and man to show that a person needs both a mother and a father. When we have lost one or the other or both, we feel the gaps—we are aware of their absence. Our mother particularly is the one who makes a house feel like home. There is a comfort where she is.
But for all the wonderful qualities God has given mothers, their power is limited. They cannot keep their children from pain and heartache. They cannot always stop their children from making bad choices. As much as they want to, they cannot make everything better. During these times of trial, Christian mothers look where they teach their children to look: to Jesus.
But Jesus does not always seem easy to find. He does not always seem present when needed. This is what His disciples were thinking when Jesus told them, “A little while, and you will see Me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see Me.” “What does He mean?” they wondered. Is He going to leave us? This conversation happened the night before Jesus’ death. Soon the disciples would watch a mob arrest Him. Then Jesus was driven toward Calvary and crucified. What He said to the disciples came to pass: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.”
That was a terrible time for the disciples. Jesus was dead, their great Teacher and Friend. Everything they had come to believe in and work for seemed lost. What now? They worried that they, too, might be arrested and crucified. They wondered if they had it all wrong. How could Jesus be the Son of God if He died? Had they put their faith in the wrong person? They didn’t know what to think. They felt utterly alone.
You have gone through times like this also. You have worried what might happen to you if you tell the truth, if you tell the truth about sin and about Jesus. You have wondered if you have it all wrong. What if the God of the Bible is not the true God? What if there is no God who cares for you? You feel this way when you experience great pain and sorrow, great loss. You feel like no one is there to take away the hurt. You feel alone.
But someone is there. Jesus is there. These might sound like empty words. We might ask why Jesus doesn’t make Himself known if He is really with us. It would be so comforting if we could be certain of His presence, if He would just let us see Him or sense Him. But we heard two weeks ago the danger of relying only on our reason and senses. Thomas said he would not believe the Word unless He could see Jesus alive with His own eyes and put his finger into the mark of the nails and his hand into His side (Joh. 20:25). Then Jesus appeared and said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (v. 29).
Why? Why does it have to be “by faith, not by sight” (2Co. 5:7)? It is this way, so that it depends on God and not on us. Imagine a young child at play. Which is better, for the child to need to keep his mother in view and know where she is at all times? Or for the mother to watch over her child? If it were up to the child to do this, he would soon forget about mom because he is so caught up in what he is doing. The primary responsibility falls to the mother, and even if she is busy with something else, she has an eye on the child to make sure he is safe.
Like that child, we children of God do not always keep our eyes on Him. We get caught up in what we are doing in the world and wander away from Him or put ourselves in some other dangerous situation. But none of this escapes the Lord’s notice. He sees everything and knows everything. The psalmist writes, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways” (Psa. 139:2-3).
But even though He knows all, the Lord does not promise that He will keep us from all trouble and pain. To the contrary, in the same conversation with His disciples, Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you…. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you…. In the world you will have tribulation” (Joh. 15:18,20, 16:33). There is sin in the world and in ourselves, which means there will be trials.
But there is also hope for us. It is not a weak and wavering hope; it is a certain hope. It is a hope anchored in the promises of Jesus. It was not easy for the disciples to hear Him say, “A little while, and you will see Me no longer.” But that is not all Jesus said. He continued, “and again a little while, and you will see Me.” He was talking about His death and resurrection. He had tried to tell the disciples about this many times, but they didn’t want to hear it. They couldn’t bear to hear about His death, so they ignored the part about His resurrection.
But the Son of God had to do this. This is how He would “overcome the world” (Joh. 16:33). This is how He would conquer sin and triumph over the devil and death. This is how He would free us from the dark troubles and trials of this world and open to us the gates of the kingdom of heaven.
And while we are still here, the Lord even uses the trials and pain and sorrow of this life for His everlasting purpose. These things teach us to “[s]et [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). Placing our hope in the passing things of this world is to live without hope. This is why the Lord allows troubles to come upon us, and even sends these trials. They are intended to remind us of our sinful weakness and to turn our focus back to Him.
Sometimes these are heavy trials, heavier than we can bear. They are more than we can handle. Jesus gives the example of childbirth. He says, “[w]hen a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come.” It is hard to be hopeful when the pain of childbirth is so intense. Some women probably wonder if they will survive it. Most vow that they will never go through it again. But the Lord sees them through, and there is joy on the other side.
For how terrible the anguish is, the joy of a newborn baby outweighs the sorrow. That is why women do not have pained expressions on their faces each Mother’s Day as they recall the trauma that made them mothers. Instead they rejoice in their children and consider the suffering they endured worthwhile.
Jesus uses this example as an illustration of any number of troubles a Christian may experience. Some loads may be heavier and some lighter. But whatever the amount of burden or hurt or pain or sorrow, Jesus is present. He told His disciples, “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Whether or not they would be looking for Him, Jesus said, “I will see you.” He would come to them and bless them.
This is our hope and comfort. We do not always fix our eyes of faith on Jesus. Instead all the troubles loom large, and they only seem to grow bigger and bigger. But Jesus sees us. He looks upon us with eyes of mercy and compassion like a mother looks upon her suffering child. And He comes to help and strengthen us. Through His Word and Sacraments, He comes to nurse us back to spiritual health and strength. He comes to heal the wounds we have inflicted on ourselves by our own sins, and the wounds that others have inflicted upon us. And He is ever ready to hear the prayers borne out of our anguish, loneliness, and sorrow.
Mom cannot be there all the time, and as much as she wishes she could, she cannot make everything better. But Jesus Sees Us Through Every Trial. He understands our suffering. He experienced the utmost anguish Himself by His suffering and death in our place, and He emerged from the infinite darkness of that trial in glorious victory. The author of Hebrews writes that “for the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2).
We likewise look for the eternal joy that will be ours when the trials of this world come to an end. We have this joy now by faith in Jesus, but we do not fully experience it. In heaven we will experience it fully, when we see Jesus as He sees us. Then looking upon our Savior, we will have perfect joy—joy that “no one will take” from us.
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(portion of painting, “Jesus Discourses with His Disciples,” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
Palm Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 21:1-9
In Christ Jesus, “the Son of Man,” who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mat. 20:28), dear fellow redeemed:
It was not just another Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem. He had come there many times before, but this time was different. Shortly before this Jesus had called his dead friend Lazarus back to life. News about the miracle had spread throughout Judea, and now many who heard about it were coming to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. Would Jesus come there too?
It was not a sure thing. The people knew how much the chief priests and the members of the ruling Jewish Council despised Jesus. They charged Him with blasphemy and wanted to have Him arrested. It felt as though something was about to happen. It seemed like some sort of showdown or struggle for power was unavoidable. It was hard not to favor Jesus, since no one else could do the things He was doing.
We see how excited the people were about Jesus by how willing they were to accommodate Him. All Jesus had to do was express his need for a donkey and its colt, and they were freely given to Him. There was no lengthy negotiation. No contract was signed, and no deposit was left. Finding a suitable way to ride the donkey was no problem either. The disciples removed their cloaks and draped them over the animal, so Jesus would have a comfortable place to sit.
By this time, word had spread about Jesus’ presence in the area. Great crowds of people came out of Jerusalem to meet Him. As He rode along, He didn’t have to worry about dust getting kicked up on the road, because the people spread their cloaks in front of Him on the road. Others cut branches from palm trees and laid those down also.
Jesus was certainly getting the “royal treatment”! In fact the crowd had exactly this in mind. They cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (v. 9). “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mar. 11:10). “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luk. 19:38), “even the King of Israel!” (Joh. 12:13).
This was not some idea thrown out by the crowds on a whim. They believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and that He would take the throne of his forefather David. The Jewish people knew their Scriptures. They knew the LORD’s promise to David that He would raise up an offspring of David whose kingdom and throne would be established forever (2Sa. 7:12-13).
They also recognized that the words of Psalm 118 applied to the coming Messiah. This is where their “hosanna” and “blessed is He” came from as Jesus approached Jerusalem. The translation of the Hebrew word “hosanna” is “save us, we pray.” As the people sang the Lord’s praises, they quoted directly from this Psalm: “[Hosanna]—Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” (vv. 25-26).
It appeared that whatever could go right for Jesus was going right. The Pharisees threw up their hands and said, “Look, the world has gone after him” (Joh. 12:19). It seemed like whatever earthly glory Jesus wanted was His for the taking. He was hailed as a King, the people gladly let the donkey He rode walk on their cloaks, and they welcomed Him as the coming Messiah.
But those gifts and praises had shallow roots. The donkey, for one thing, was not His to keep. He probably returned it when He went back to the town of Bethany that night (Mar. 11:11). The people picked up their cloaks and dusted them off, and for all their eagerness to give them to Jesus on Sunday, He would be hanging on a cross naked by Friday. The enthusiastic cries of “hosanna!” and “blessed is He!” stopped too. They were soon replaced by mockery, jeering, and cries of “crucify Him!”
What Jesus was given on Palm Sunday did not hold up. They were appropriate gifts at the time, and we see that each part was a fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. But Palm Sunday was not the ultimate goal. Jesus had not come to Jerusalem to receive earthly glory. He came to win heavenly glory for sinners.
To do this, Jesus had to walk a lonely path. Only He could travel it. He had to shoulder the burden of all sin and carry it to the cross where it must be atoned for by His death. We see in these loving actions how Jesus Gives Much More Than He Is Given.
He had the benefit of a donkey to ride as He came to Jerusalem. But that donkey’s burden was light compared to what Jesus carried. People offered their cloaks and palm branches to prepare the way to Jerusalem’s gates. But Jesus gives His own righteousness to prepare sinners to enter the gates of heaven. Many welcomed Jesus as an earthly king. But Jesus lifts us up to reign with Him in His eternal kingdom. Jesus Gives Much More.
We could never match these immeasurable gifts of Jesus. But our sinful nature makes us think we can. Our prideful self loves to be recognized for the good things we do. There are many—Christians included—who think that these good things put them in better standing with God. They believe that the more good works they do, the better chance they have of getting to heaven.
We know this is not the case. We know we cannot earn favor with God by what we do. We know we cannot get into heaven by any of our own efforts. We are saved by God’s grace through the faith He gives us. All of it is a gift and not a result of our works (Eph. 2:8-9). But that doesn’t stop us from thinking that we are owed something because of our good deeds and our sacrifices.
It is very easy for us to be bitter toward God when we experience a loss, or when we have to deal with pain or injury. We may think to ourselves, if not express it out loud: “Lord, I have done so much in Your service. Why are You letting this happen? I thought You loved me. I thought You appreciated how faithful I have been to You.” We think God should give His faithful children a happy and carefree life.
Or the opposite happens. We go through hard times, and we are convinced that God must be angry with us. He must be punishing us for past sins. In these times, we are quick to lose hope and to set aside faith in the Lord’s promises. We think God must not really care about us.
Both responses show how little we appreciate the work Jesus did to save us. On the one hand, we expect that our service to God should keep us from the effects of sin in the world. But our service to God is not even close to what He requires. We have not always done what He asks of us.
Where would we have been that first Holy Week? We might have offered our cloaks, palm branches, and praises on Sunday. But what about on Friday? On Friday, even Jesus’ closest disciples deserted Him, and we shouldn’t think so highly of ourselves to imagine we would have been different. We are not as faithful as we should be, so God sends us crosses to bear to teach us to trust in His strength and not ours.
On the other hand, to imagine that God is angry with us and does not love us anymore, is to totally ignore Jesus’ sacrifice. If God is punishing you for your sins, then why did Jesus have to suffer and die on the cross? There certainly may be consequences for one sin or another. But the punishment for sin was carried out against Jesus. “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).
The things we do for God are important—honoring His name, hearing His Word, leading a disciplined and decent life, serving our neighbors out of love for Him. God is pleased with these things, and we should want to improve and do more. But while we do good, we pray for a humble heart and a humble disposition, and we pray that God leads us to repent when we fail to do what we should.
The self-righteous love to look at themselves in the mirror and be publicly recognized for all the good they do. The faithful keep their eyes on Jesus and see everything He did out of love for them. If anyone could be prideful, it is Jesus. He had done nothing wrong. He was perfect. But as today’s Epistle lesson says, our Savior “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phi. 2:7-8).
He humbled Himself and went the way of the cross because He loves you. He refused an earthly throne in Jerusalem, because He had much more to give than what could have been given to Him. He wanted you to be freed from your sins through His death in your place. He wanted you to have His perfect righteousness, so you could stand before God unashamed. Everything you needed to get into heaven has been won for you by your humble Lord. He gives it all to you. It is yours.
And you will have still more. You will one day be glorified as He is glorified. You will be exalted as He is exalted. Then, as it is described in the book of Revelation, you will join the “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10).
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(painting is “The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The First Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 4:1-11
In Christ Jesus, who chose suffering and the cross over glory and ease, so that sinners could be saved, dear fellow redeemed:
127 years ago, Pastor U. V. Koren preached this: “The age we live in is a difficult time for the church. There is a great apostasy. Many teachers are retreating step by step—they give up one truth after another—so it seems nothing will be left except a powerless Law-doctrine. Each person wants to be saved by his own beliefs, if they ask about salvation at all” (U. V. Koren’s Works, Vol. 1, Sermons, p. 130). They are words that are just as fitting today. The situation has not changed. In fact the Church has been suffering and stumbling along ever since Eden, when Adam and Eve gave in to the devil’s temptation.
God’s creation had a good beginning. Everything was peaceful and perfect. But some of the angels decided they did not want to serve the almighty God. Led by the devil, they rebelled against their Creator and were condemned to eternal torment. These fallen angels are called “demons.” Their entire scheme and activity is to promote wickedness and unbelief in the world, so that many people are condemned along with them.
We sadly see the great success they have had, starting with Adam and Eve. But they have not succeeded in overrunning and overturning all that is good. They still have not done—and will never accomplish—what they set out to do, which is to defeat their Creator. “[T]he devil has been sinning from the beginning,” but the Lord would not let this wickedness go unchecked. God the Father sent His Son to take on human flesh, so that He would “destroy the works of the devil” (1Jn. 3:8).
Jesus publicly stepped into the devil’s crosshairs when He was baptized in the Jordan River. It was an impressive beginning to His public work. Immediately after His baptism, “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Mt. 3:16-17). How could the devil accomplish anything against the beloved Son of God, who was anointed with the Spirit of God?
But what followed is not what we would expect. Jesus did not embark in the power of the Spirit on a victory tour through the world. He did not immediately subdue the forces of wickedness and cause every knee to bow to Him. He did not make a public spectacle of Satan and bind him in unbreakable chains, so he could do no more harm. Instead, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The evangelist Mark indicates this was no optional journey, writing that the Spirit “drove him out into the wilderness” (1:12).
For forty days and forty nights, Jesus went without food. The amount of time was not a coincidence. It rained for forty days and forty nights when no believers were left on the earth except Noah and his family (Gen. 7:11-16). Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights, during which the LORD engraved His Ten Commandments on two stone tablets. After Moses found the people worshiping a golden calf, he returned to the mountain for another forty days and forty nights to intercede for them. Moses neither ate nor drank while in the LORD’s presence on the mountain (Ex. 24:18, 34:28; Deut. 9:9, 18).
Because the Israelites did not trust God to give them the land He had promised, they were forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Their punishment was one year for each of the forty days the spies had seen the goodness of the land of Canaan and rejected it (Num. 14:28-35). Much later, Elijah returned to the area where Moses had received the Commandments of God. Before starting his journey there, an angel gave him food and drink that sustained him for the forty days and forty nights of travel (1Kin. 19:5-8).
In each case, the forty days and forty nights reflected a period of disobedience and sin against God. Jesus now fasted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights in perfect obedience to His Father’s will. He came to cover in righteousness what the human race had done in sin. No man could go so long without food under his own power, but Jesus was the God-Man. As God, He could go as long as He wanted without food. But as Man in His state of humiliation, He became hungry.
The devil saw an opportunity. “If You are the Son of God,” he said, “command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Why should Jesus deny Himself? If He was hungry, He should eat. It was as though the devil were saying that whatever Jesus was trying to accomplish by fasting in the wilderness, it wasn’t worth it. He could just as well have said that whatever He thought He needed to do on earth in general, that wasn’t worth it either. “Throw yourself down from the temple”—then everyone will know who you are. No need to be patient. No need to wait. “Fall down and worship me”—no need to stick with the plan. No need to suffer for sinners. Jesus, they aren’t worth it!
Satan tempted Jesus with a cross-free life, which is exactly how he tempts us. “Why suffer?” he says. “Why deny yourself? Why miss out? If you desire it, do it. If you want it, take it. Steal that money. Take those drugs. Down that bottle. Eat what you want. Look at those pictures. Jump in that bed. Tell some lies. Blame someone else.” What the devil wants us to do is exactly what the world says we should do. This should come as no surprise. The devil reigns in this kingdom of darkness. He is “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2).
But if we acted on all our desires and pursued everything our flesh wanted, this would not lead us to greater joy and contentment, but rather to greater pain and suffering. The idea that a life of self-indulgence, immorality, and worldly pleasure is the best course a person can take is a lie. The world swallows this lie, hook, line, and sinker. This is why no one wants to admit sin anymore, or take responsibility for their own actions, or recognize that how they feel should have no bearing on what they do.
Adam and Eve did not want to take responsibility for their sin either, the very first sin. They wanted to pass the blame. They tried to plead ignorance. They tried to hide. But there was no escaping from the holy God. There was no way that they could justify sinning against God. There is no justification for our sins either. The devil can only tempt us to sin; he cannot make us do it. If you and I have sinned, the responsibility and fault is our own.
But God promised to send a Savior, a Substitute, One who would take responsibility for the irresponsible, who would pay the price for the unworthy. Contrary to the devil’s temptation, Jesus did not take the easy way out. The easy way out—and a just way—would have been to punish sinners for their wrongs in the eternal fires of hell. That is exactly what you and I and all sinners have earned and deserved.
But Jesus chose the way of suffering and the cross to save sinners. He endured immense anguish and agony, so that the wrath of God against sin would be satisfied. He was nailed to the cross, so that your sins would no longer be counted against you. By removing sin, He removed any claim the devil had on you. If the devil accuses you and points out your sin, you can point to Jesus. He paid for your sins with His holy, precious blood. He chose to suffer your death and hell, so you would have His life and heaven.
Your salvation is why Jesus was willing to “go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt. 16:21), as He told His disciples. Peter did not like the sound of that. He took Jesus aside and told Him to stop thinking and talking that way. Then Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (v. 23).
The way of God is the way of love and sacrifice and self-denial. This is how Jesus calls His followers to live. “If anyone would come after me,” says Jesus, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” If we aim for pleasure and fulfillment in the world, we will join the devil in eternal destruction. But if in humble repentance and faith we follow after Jesus, we will enjoy the eternal victory He won for us.
Satan Tempts with a Cross-Free Life. But Jesus would not hear of it, and neither should you. The way of the world’s glory is meaningless and short-lived. The way of the cross is the way of trouble and difficulty in the world, but it is also the way of life and hope. It is to follow after Jesus, to be blessed by His constant presence and care, and finally to receive from Him the crown of everlasting life.
In this forty day season of Lent, remember that you are not alone in the wilderness of this world. As Luther wrote, Jesus is “by our side upon the plain / With His good gifts and Spirit” (ELH 250, v. 4). He is “with us in the fight” (251, v. 4), and He will not let the devil overcome any who trust in Him. Jesus would not give up His mission no matter how the devil tempted Him, and He will not give up on you, for whom He willingly took up His cross, died, and rose again.
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(picture from a woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Second Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:2-10
In Christ Jesus, who has done all things well (Mk. 7:37), dear fellow redeemed:
When there is something that you want, something that is good and, as far as you can tell, God-pleasing, it is a great test and trial not to receive it. The longer you go without it, the more it occupies your thinking. You imagine how free your mind would be to pursue other good things if only that one concern were resolved. This may be the situation of someone who is unemployed or injured, who can think of nothing better than getting back to work. It could be the experience of a single person, who longs to have a spouse and a family. Or it could be the married couple which greatly desires the blessing of a child.
This last cross, the cross of barrenness, is what a man named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had to endure. Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth a homemaker. The evangelist Luke says about them that “they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Lk. 1:6). They obviously were not perfect, but they were humble and pious people. In this, they were blessed. But there was one blessing that God had not given them.
It is certain that they prayed fervently for a child. Even as she aged, Elizabeth might have comforted herself with the example of Hannah, who prayed for a son and was given Samuel. Or they might have thought of Abraham and Sarah, who did not have a child together until Abraham was about 100 and Sarah was 90. But each passing month made the possibility more remote. It would be no surprise if Zechariah and Elizabeth felt some bitterness about this. After all, they had faithfully served the LORD throughout their lives. They had entrusted their being and doing to His hands. Not out loud but perhaps in their heads, each of them might have thought, “Look what I’ve done for You. Won’t You grant this one blessing?”
God always answers prayer, but not always in the way we want. His answer to Zechariah and Elizabeth for a long time was, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2Cor. 12:9). They accepted that in faith. But then one day, God sent His angel Gabriel to visit Zechariah in the holy place of the temple. Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord” (Lk. 1:13-15). Not only would God give them a son, but this son would be unique. He was the God-ordained messenger for the coming Messiah.
As John grew, the LORD prepared him for his work. Through conversations with his parents and study of the Scriptures, John learned what God was calling him to do. At the LORD’s command, “he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3:3). He lived an austere life. He wore clothes made from camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. Despite these eccentricities, many came to the wilderness to hear him preach and to be baptized by him in the Jordan River.
But as boldly as John preached and as popular as he was, John said that “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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3:11-12). John did not come up with these ideas on his own. He read the prophecy in the Book of Malachi, that a messenger (John himself) would prepare the way for the Coming One, who “is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (Mal. 3:2). This Coming One would refine and purify sinners and punish those who did not repent.
Once Jesus was revealed to John as the Coming One, John must have become even bolder in his teaching and preaching. Soon Jesus would take up the charge, and all would follow Him. But things did not play out as John might have planned. King Herod did not like what John was saying and had him arrested and thrown in prison. Meanwhile Jesus increased His public activity, but He did not turn into the fire and brimstone preacher that John may have been expecting. So from prison John sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
We cannot say for sure whether John was asking for his own benefit, or for the benefit of his disciples, so they would leave John and follow Jesus. But for how committed John was to his wilderness work, it would not be surprising if his stay in prison was causing him to be anxious and unsettled. What good could he do for God there? Wouldn’t the Lord set him free? “Look what I’ve done for You, Lord. I will gladly do more.” But no doubt John would have added, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” The Lord’s answer to his prayers was a quick release from his suffering. King Herod had John beheaded, and John’s soul joined the saints in heaven.
Our reward for good deeds in this life does not always come about like we want. Sometimes our good efforts are rewarded with indifference, as though we had done nothing. Sometimes they are rewarded with evil, as our kindnesses are abused or thrown back in our faces. Children might whine about how their parents never give them what they want, or they might complain about eating the food in front of them. And parents may think or even say, “Look what I’ve done for you, how hard I’ve worked to provide for you. But you’re never happy!” Or an employee might go out of her way to please her boss, but all she hears is criticism. “Look what I’ve done for you,” she thinks. “Why should I even try?”
It’s just as easy to feel resentment toward God. When you stand up for what is right or warn someone about their sin, you might be mercilessly attacked by them in return. And you cry out to God, “Look what I’ve done for you! Why don’t you defend me and stop these attacks?” Or you might get injured or sick and pray for healing that is slow in coming if it comes at all. “Are you punishing me, Lord? Where have I failed you?” Or you may see your ungodly neighbor prosper, while you struggle. “Look what I’ve done for you, Lord. Why do those who ignore You and Your Word fare better than I do?”
The answers in these times of difficulty don’t come easily. Waiting for God’s answer to our prayers, waiting for God’s justice, can seem endless. Is help coming or not? If we are paying attention to today’s text, we shouldn’t wonder if the Lord cares about our troubles. Jesus said to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Jesus cares both about people’s physical and spiritual needs. He answered the prayers of the blind, lame, leprous, and deaf and healed them. He even brought the dead back to life.
And for the spiritually poor, the suffering, the anxious, the troubled, the weary, the grieving—Jesus imparted good news. What might that good news have been? There is only one Gospel proclaimed by God, and that is the good news of forgiveness and life by His grace alone. Nothing else but this can comfort the poor sinner.
The Gospel is Jesus’ own “Look What I’ve Done for You.” If you feel burdened by just your own sins, Jesus took upon Himself the burden of all sins—including yours. If you feel that you have suffered unjustly, Jesus suffered the venomous bite of Satan and the holy wrath of God in your place, though He never did anything wrong. Whatever you have had to endure, Jesus endured immeasurably more out of love for you. All of your and my “Look what I’ve done for Yous” fade and disappear in the bright light of His perfect life and innocent death.
And that is what needs to happen. There is no comfort or justice to be found by appealing to the righteousness of your own actions. No matter how honest and humble you are, you still are not perfect. You are still a sinner, who must be justified by God if you would be justified at all. And you are justified. When you are convicted by the Law, Jesus calls your attention to His perfect life and says, “Look what I’ve done for you.” When you worry about your sins, old and new, and wonder if there could be forgiveness for your wicked thoughts and deeds, Jesus draws your eyes to His blood-soaked cross and to the marks of the nails in His hands and feet and says, “Look what I’ve done for you.” When you tremble at your approaching death and worry that you will not have enough faith to get to heaven, Jesus points you toward His empty tomb and says, “Look what I’ve done for you.”
Whatever God commanded you to do, Jesus has done for you. This is why Jesus says, “blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” Whoever is offended by Jesus and denies Him remains under a curse. But whoever believes in Him and confesses His saving name is blessed. You are blessed even when you do not get exactly what you want and expect from Him. God gives you what you need through His Word and Sacraments, so that you can face with confidence the trials ahead and look with hope to the end of your troubles and the eternal glory to come.
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(painting is “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1565)
Palm Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 21:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:51) to accomplish our salvation, dear fellow redeemed:
Donkeys have not enjoyed the most glowing reputation over the years. They are a notoriously stubborn animal, which is why their other name is applied to those who are difficult to get along with. But for all their negative qualities, donkeys have provided a great service to mankind for a long time. They also figure prominently in the Bible.
One of the unique accounts in the Bible describes a donkey speaking to its master. The king of Moab asked a man named Balaam to curse the people of Israel. The LORD told Balaam not to do this, but Balaam was swayed by the promise of earthly riches (2Pe. 2:15-16). He hopped on his donkey to meet the king. On the way, the angel of the LORD stood in front of him with sword drawn. The donkey could see him, but Balaam could not. The donkey stubbornly refused to go forward, which angered Balaam greatly. It happened three times, and Balaam beat the donkey each time.
Then God let the donkey speak, “‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’ And Balaam said to the donkey, ‘Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.’ And the donkey said to Balaam, ‘Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?’ And he said, ‘No’” (Num. 22:28-30). Then Balaam was allowed to see the angel of the LORD and realized his poor donkey had actually saved his life. He continued on to his meeting with the king, and he blessed the people of Israel instead of cursing them.
Donkeys or mules were often the mount for kings before horses became more popular. King David made his successor known by having his son Solomon sit on the royal mule and paraded around as king (1Ki. 1:33-34). The people of Israel may have been thinking of this on Palm Sunday when they shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!” In the same way that Solomon the son of David brought peace and security to Israel, the people hoped Jesus would again make their nation great. They welcomed Jesus as a king, which is exactly what the prophet Zechariah said He was. He wrote, “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
For each load whether noble or not that donkeys had ever carried, no burden was as precious as this One. A donkey carried the Man, the One who called Himself “the Son of Man.” The donkey felt the weight of this Man on her shoulders, but she could not perceive the weight on His shoulders. He carried something too. He carried the weight of the whole world’s sin, the weight of knowing what had to be done to save sinners. Shortly before His Palm Sunday entrance, Jesus told His disciples, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day” (Mt. 20:18-19).
Jesus knew what was coming, and He still carried on. He did not dig in His heels like a stubborn donkey who figures he has done enough. Jesus was focused on His mission and intended to drink the cup of His Father’s wrath to the bottom. In this respect, I suppose we could call Jesus stubborn. He would not yield no matter how terrible the road ahead looked.
Not all stubbornness is bad. A person can be stubborn about good things just as much as bad things. Stubbornness about sin is always bad. There are many who want to live life their own way, on their terms, and they will not let anyone say otherwise. Not even a passage from Scripture will make them reconsider. If God does not accept them just the way they are, then maybe the problem is with Him.
We tend to be most stubborn when we perceive that we have been wronged by someone. Maybe they were only teasing or joking with us, but we decided to take great offense. Maybe they said or did something hurtful, intentional or not, but our cold-shoulder response is ten times harsher than the initial word or action. We can be so stubborn that we will hold a grudge not just for days, but even for months and years! At that point, what could the offender do to satisfy your stubborn sense of justice?
But there is also a proper stubbornness. It is right to be stubborn about the Bible’s teaching. No matter what the world says, the Bible is true as it is written. “[T]he word of our God will stand forever” (Is. 40:8). “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). The world can call you ignorant for believing in a six-day creation and a world-wide flood. It can make fun of you for thinking there is an almighty God and a life after this one. It can call you crazy for living according to the teachings of an old Book. But you have nothing to be ashamed of. You have God and His truth on your side.
And it is right to be stubborn about moral issues. It is right to insist that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit bought by the price of Jesus’ blood, and that it is not ours to do with whatever we want (1Cor. 6:19-20). It is right to defend life and the family and the church and the authorities and everything else God commands in His Word. This is stubbornness which God blesses, stubbornness which pleases Him.
Sometimes we have been stubborn about good things, but we have just as often (if not more often) been stubborn about bad things. Jesus was stubborn about good things and good things only. He stubbornly refused the devil’s temptations, stubbornly loved the people who hated Him, and stubbornly went His way to suffering and death. Nothing could stop Him. His great love for the world compelled Him.
Jesus lived righteously in every instance that you sinned against God by being stubborn about bad things and not stubborn enough about good things. He did not harbor hatred and nurse old grudges. He did not compromise God’s plan for mankind established before the foundation of the world. He did not give one inch on God’s moral law. Rather He fulfilled the law in every part.
He then blotted out these sins as if you never committed them. He suffered and died for your sinful actions, words, and thoughts, for your donkey-like stubbornness to persist in doing what you knew you shouldn’t. This is the reason He rode through the gates of Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday. That coming Friday, He would be nailed to a cross from which He would say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). He was crucified on behalf of the ungodly, the stubborn sinners, including you and me. He was crucified to redeem us from all our sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.
Many centuries ago, a crude picture of Jesus was scratched onto a wall in Rome, in which Jesus was depicted on the cross with the head of a donkey (“Alexamenos graffito”). It was drawn to mock Christians, that they worship a poor excuse for a God in Christ. Christians at that time were likewise referred to as donkeys and treated with contempt. It was a designation they could wear with honor. They stubbornly refused to capitulate to the pagan culture. They stubbornly confessed Jesus as Savior and God even when it led to their torture and violent death. They acknowledged themselves to be lowly creatures unworthy of anything good.
In this they were blessed, and so are you in the same confession. With Jesus, you are sometimes honored in this world, but more often attacked. You are despised and rejected by men and acquainted with grief (Is. 53:3). You take up your cross and follow Jesus to suffering and death. But your story does not end there. Jesus rose again from the dead, and so will you. Jesus is seated in glory in heaven as you will be. Whatever hardship or pain you feel in this life, however heavy the load you must carry, in heaven you will have rest from your labors (Rev. 14:13). Jesus warmly invites you to have this, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” He says, “and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30).
The burden of faith in Jesus is heavy in this world, but it is light as a feather compared to the burden of sin. This, Jesus has removed from you, and He wants to remove it from everyone. He came to Jerusalem for this purpose, to save sinners. A Donkey Carried the Man Who Carried the World. He carried the world’s sin. He carried the world’s hope. He carried the plan that would bring life to a world shrouded in death. We therefore carry on in stubborn confidence and hope, knowing what He already carried for us.
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