The Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
In Christ Jesus, who gives us hope in our uncertainties and comfort in our struggles and sorrows, dear fellow redeemed:
We could list a lot of things that make us feel more pessimistic than optimistic about the future. Our country is divided politically, and the sides seem to be moving further apart rather than closer together. We have ongoing concerns about a virus that infects more people each day. We wonder how stable the economy will be going forward. But in the middle of these divisions and uncertainties, the inspired words of today’s text give us hope.
The apostle Paul sent these words to the Christians in Thessalonica. He had preached and taught among them for only a short time before he was forced to leave the town. Some jealous opponents had stirred up a mob against him and even dragged one of the new Christian converts before the authorities (Act. 17:1-10). From this time forward, it would have been uncomfortable and perhaps even dangerous to be a Christian in Thessalonica.
But the Thessalonians remained faithful. They endured suffering and waited eagerly for Christ’s return in glory. They were told to expect His second coming very soon. But as time passed, these new Christians faced a new problem. Some of their fellow believers were dying. What were they to make of that? Would the dead miss out on the glorious return of Jesus and the promise of eternal life in heaven?
Paul’s letter brought them great comfort. He referred to the dead in the same way Jesus had spoken about a deceased little girl, that she was “not dead but sleeping” (Mar. 5:39). The crowd laughed at Jesus then, but they weren’t laughing when He took her by the hand and brought her back to life. For Jesus, waking the dead is just as easy as waking someone up from a nap. Death is only a sleep to Him, a temporary, peaceful slumber.
We should not wonder if Jesus can do this. We have the examples of His raising the little girl, the young man from Nain, and His friend Lazarus. But the most compelling evidence of Jesus’ power over death is His own resurrection from the dead. Not only could He raise others, He could even raise Himself! Now that’s power!
A whole bunch of people regard Jesus as a good teacher but nothing more. They lump Him in with teachers like Confucius, Buddha, or Muhammed. But when those men died, they stayed dead. Their flesh decayed, and perhaps by now their bones have even turned to dust. Jesus died, but His flesh did not see corruption. Death held Him for parts of three days—and only because He let it.
He entered death when He wanted to, and He left it again when He wanted to. There was nothing death could do to stop Him. Death was utterly overcome, defeated. Jesus triumphed over death and will never be subject to it again. That means death won’t be able to overcome us who trust in Him. “But how can you be so sure?” the skeptic asks. “Show me an example in modern history of someone being dead for a matter of days and coming back to life again.”
The world always wants proof on its terms. Past evidence does not count. They need to see it with their own eyes today. We sinners repeat the same mistakes as the sinners of the past. We hardly ever learn. Each generation thinks it is better and smarter and more righteous than the generations before it. It is our common human pride and conceit.
This self-centeredness is why many refuse to believe that Jesus rose from the dead two thousand years ago or that He will raise the dead in the future. They are like doubting Thomas. They won’t trust the multiple eyewitness accounts of others. They need to see it with their own eyes, or they won’t believe it (Joh. 20:24-25). “If Jesus has this power,” they say, “let Him come down here and show us. If He brings someone back from the dead, then we will believe in Him.”
But even that wouldn’t be enough. Sinful people always find something to question, some reason for doubt. If Jesus came back and raised a dead person to life, many would say it was a trick. They would come up with some logical explanation for it. Seeing would not lead to them believing.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Joh. 20:29). He wants us to take Him at His Word. He has the right to expect that, doesn’t He? After all, He is the one who predicted His own resurrection and then followed through on it. If He made good on that promise, why wouldn’t He make good on His promise to raise the dead on the last day?
Paul made it clear that he wasn’t putting down his own opinions or wishes in his letter. He said, “this we declare to you by a word from the Lord.” The Lord promises that those who are alive when He comes on the last day will not have any advantage over those who are asleep in their graves. He will come with a great shout, and His powerful Word will awaken the dead. Then all believers will rise with glorified bodies that no longer show any effect of sin.
After the dead have risen, “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The word translated “caught up” has the sense of a sudden and intense action. We will be snatched up to the clouds by the Lord. We won’t have to wait for our redemption. It will happen immediately when Jesus comes.
It won’t come a moment too soon. We long for Jesus’ return. This world is not where we want to be. As Christians first sang in the 12th century, so we still sing, “The world is very evil, / The times are waxing late” (ELH #534, v. 1). In the Holy Gospel for today (Mat. 24:15-28), Jesus describes the tribulation of the end times. “[I]f those days had not been cut short,” He said, “no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.”
So what is Jesus waiting for? The apostle Peter reminds us “that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2Pe. 3:8-9). Jesus is not sleeping on the job or dragging His feet. He is showing patience with sinners. He wants them all to repent and be saved and join Him in heaven.
But we are not patient like our Lord is. This is why many are tempted to follow after “false christs and false prophets” (Mat. 24:24). We are tempted to follow after the smooth-talking liars who promise a prosperous life here on earth, a life without suffering, a life without trouble. Even if they could deliver on those promises, these false teachers can’t give life to the dead. Anyone who promises hope and salvation apart from the crucified and risen Christ is of the devil.
Apart from Jesus, there is no reason to be hopeful about anything. But with Jesus, we are filled with hope. So while our country is divided, and many of our politicians seem more interested in serving themselves than others, Jesus reigns as King over all things at the right hand of the Father. While people are getting sick this year at higher rates than usual, Jesus has the power to heal the sick or bring the souls of believers to heaven to be with Him. While there may be uncertainty in our financial plans and holdings, Jesus has secured eternal riches for us that will never pass away.
You can wring your hands and worry and lose sleep trying to control things you can’t control—and we all do plenty of that. But the Lord calls you to trust in Him, to trust that He will keep His promises toward you. Now leaving your life and your future in God’s hands like this is difficult. Your sinful flesh does not want to give up any of its independence or its perceived power. If you are going to place your trust in Him, you want proof that He isn’t going to let you down.
“You want proof?” He says. “Then look at Me hanging on the cross for you, shedding My blood to cleanse you from your sins. And come look into My empty tomb. I left it because death could not conquer Me. I rose from the dead to win victory over your death. I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus will not leave you to fight for yourself in this evil world. He came to save you not because He had to but because He wanted to. And He still fights for you, coming to give you strength through His Word and Sacraments and dwelling within you by faith.
As long as you have Jesus, your situation will never be hopeless. He promises to carry you through all your pain and sorrow in this short life and to take your soul to be with Him when you breathe your last. Then He promises to come again to wake your body from its peaceful sleep, so that you can enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven in both body and soul.
You can be certain of your resurrection because His resurrection is certain. The Holy Spirit states it definitively through the mouth of Paul: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.” Put Your Hope in the Resurrected One. Then you will have a living hope, a hope that no one can take from you, a hope that will never die.
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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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Festival of All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Every year when we observe All Saints’ Day, we have the custom of singing one hymn in particular. The hymn is about 250 years old, and for many years you could count on singing it at funerals in Norwegian Lutheran churches. This hymn is “Behold a Host, Arrayed in White,” and we will sing it again today. The first stanza of the hymn is based on the first part of today’s Epistle lesson from Revelation 7. Here the apostle John describes what he saw in his vision of heaven:
After this I looked, and behold, a 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!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”
I said to him, “Sir, you know.”
And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (ESV)
Now in these days of social distancing and small crowds, it seems strange to see old video footage of football stadiums and concert halls full of people. The same thought might have struck you when you heard about the “great multitude [in heaven] that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” What a glorious scene! Unlike the Tower of Babel when the peoples were divided and moved away from each other, now God’s people from all over the world and all across time are brought together.
There are no enemies in this great multitude, no cultural or language barriers, no socio-economic differences. These people are one, both regarding their status before God and their purpose in His presence. This oneness is emphasized by their common clothing. They are dressed in flowing white robes, perfectly clean. One of the elders in heaven explained to John how the robes got so uniformly white. He said, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Now that is the strangest bleach we’ve ever heard of! How could blood ever make clothing whiter? Because it is not just any blood, it is “the blood of the Lamb.” This refers to the fact that no sin stains the believers in heaven. They stand pure and holy before God because Jesus shed His blood to wash away their sins.
This is why they now sing joyfully “before the throne and before the Lamb.” They hold palm branches in their hands like the crowd that greeted Jesus on Palm Sunday. On that occasion the people cried, “Hosanna!”—“Save us, we pray!” And now the saints rejoice in the salvation won for them by crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
They sing together one song with one voice, the only song worth singing. They sing the song of their salvation through the God-Man Jesus. He is the Lamb enthroned in heaven. He has won the victory for them over sin, devil, and death. By faith in Him, these saints have now been translated from the troubles of the world to the glories of heaven. They have come out of “the great tribulation,” and now join the angels and the elders and the four living creatures in the praise and worship of their Lord.
We sing the first stanza of hymn #553, which tells us about this “host, arrayed in white,” who “in the flood of Jesus’ blood / Are cleansed from guilt and blame.”
Behold a host, arrayed in white,
Like thousand snow-clad mountains bright;
With palms they stand. Who is this band
Before the throne of light?
Lo, these are they, of glorious fame,
Who from the great affliction came
And in the flood of Jesus’ blood
Are cleansed from guilt and blame.
Now gathered in the holy place,
Their voices they in worship raise;
Their anthems swell where God doth dwell
Mid angels’ songs of praise.
We wish we could be there with the saints and angels in heaven, or at least get a temporary taste of their joy. The elder speaking to John explains what the saints have now that they are in God’s eternal presence:
“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Here the contrast between heaven and earth is described. In heaven there is no more hunger or thirst. No one is overcome by weariness or weakness. No harm is done by the sun and scorching heat. The sheep are not without a shepherd. No tears fill their eyes.
But the opposite is true on earth. On earth there is trouble, pain, sorrow. “[A]ll tribes and peoples and languages” are not united here. Here there is division—sometimes deep division—within the same community and even the same house. Instead of loving their neighbor as themselves, many decide to just love themselves. They view any challenge to the way they think as a great offense. Those who do not share their ideas are the enemy, who do not deserve to be treated with respect. We see these attitudes so clearly in our tense social environment.
And we are just as guilty of these divisions and troubles as others are. We have hated our enemies and cursed those who persecute us, when Jesus tells us to love them and pray for them (Mat. 5:44). Often our hardships on earth are self-inflicted. Because of our sin we bring trouble and pain on ourselves.
But other things happen simply because we live in a fallen world. Sometimes we get sick or injured. Eventually we will die. It may not be your own death that causes you the most anguish. It may be the death of a loved one, or even just the thought of having to live without someone you rely on for so many things.
We feel powerless in the face of death. We do not control who it strikes or when. It has always been this way since the fall into sin, but we are perhaps more aware of it this year than in years past. No matter what we do, no matter what measures we take, we cannot escape death.
But there is still hope! There is one who entered death and emerged from it again. A Lamb was snatched by the great jaws of death—easy prey, easy victory! But no! This was no ordinary Lamb. It was the Lamb of God. Jesus died in your place, so that death could not hold you in its terrible jaws. It is true that you will die, unless Jesus returns before it happens. But you will not stay dead. You will rise again. Your Savior will come and call you forth with a shout, and you will rise up to Him with glorified body clothed in the white robe of His righteousness.
That is your comfort today as you remember all who have gone on before you, whether parents or grandparents or siblings or children or friends. You will see the faithful departed again, and “God will wipe away every tear from [your] eyes.” We sing stanza two of the hymn:
Despised and scorned, they sojourned here;
But now, how glorious they appear!
Those martyrs stand, a priestly band,
God’s throne forever near.
So oft in troubled days gone by,
In anguish they would weep and sigh;
At home above the God of love
For aye their tears shall dry.
They now enjoy their Sabbath rest,
The paschal banquet of the blest;
The Lamb, their Lord, at festal board
Himself is host and guest.
God wanted John to write down what he saw in heaven so you and all believers would be comforted. He knows what trials and troubles you face here on earth. He knows how easy it is to become disheartened by the wickedness and sin you see all around you and that you also find inside yourself. He promises that these struggles are only temporary, while the bliss of heaven is forever.
In this text from Revelation, the Lord gives you a glimpse of the life to come. He shows you that you will not be alone in heaven but will be surrounded by a great multitude that cannot be numbered. That means you are not alone here on earth either because there are many around the world who confess Jesus as their Savior from sin.
While you are here, God calls you to stay close to Him by hearing His Word and partaking of His Sacraments. These are the means by which He strengthens you and keeps you steadfast in the faith. He also gives you the courage to let the light of His truth shine in your life, “so that [others] may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mat. 5:16).
You won’t carry out these callings of God perfectly. You are still a sinner. Sometimes you will only stumble along, and sometimes you will fall—hardly the picture of a holy child of God. But the blood of the Lamb was poured out for all of your sins. All of your wicked thoughts, all of your self-inflicted wounds, all your doubts—all of them are forgiven by the merciful God. You can meet death and the grave with confidence knowing that nothing stands between you and God’s grace. You are reconciled to God the Father because of the perfect life and the holy death of His only-begotten Son.
When you hear John’s account of the saints in heaven and when you sing today’s hymn, picture yourself among that great Host, Arrayed in White. Look forward with confidence and joy to the day when you will join that holy choir, holding palm branches, gathered around the throne of the holy God. You will be numbered with those saints because you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. Your place in heaven is reserved, where you will sing the song of salvation for all eternity. We join together in the third stanza of the hymn:
Then hail! ye mighty legions, yea,
All hail! now safe and blest for aye;
And praise the Lord, who with His Word
Sustained you on the way.
Ye did the joys of earth distain,
Ye toiled and sowed in tears and pain;
Farewell, now bring your sheaves and sing
Salvation’s glad refrain.
Swing high your palms, lift up your song,
Yea, make it myriad voices strong:
Eternally shall praise to Thee,
God, and the Lamb belong.
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(picture from “Seventh Seal and 144,000 Sealed” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Sixth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 6:3-11
In Christ Jesus, who renews us every day by His grace and forgiveness, dear fellow redeemed:
In this sinful world where things fall apart, break down, and decay, there is always something that needs replacing. The car that ran so well 50,000 or 150,000 miles ago is now parked for good in the junk yard. The top of the line smartphone you purchased a few years back seems to have aged as quickly as dogs do. “Out with the old! In with the new!” we say. Our society, more than many before us, is a disposable society. We love our things, and we also love to discard them for newer and better things.
In our country these days, this approach to things is also being applied to systems. We hear voices calling out more and more loudly that the old systems of governance, from local law enforcement to the founding principles of our country, need to be thrown out in favor of something new. “We can build something fairer and more just! We can cleanse out the bad! We can end all prejudice and discrimination! Out with the old! In with the new!”
While we might sympathize with some of the goals of these modern-day revolutionaries, we know that the problem is not so much the system of government in America. Granting that there is no perfect system devised by men, the people in this country enjoy more personal freedom than perhaps at any other time in history. The problem is not the system; the problem is sin. Our sin is what causes us to look down on others because their color or their culture are not like ours. Our sin shows itself in anger, hatred, and judgment toward those whom we should rather love as God commands us to do.
Our sin is the “old” that should concern us more than anything else. There is no forming a “more perfect Union” (Preamble to the U. S. Constitution) or improving our own life unless we deal with the rotting root deep inside us. The fifth chapter of the Letter to the Romans tells us how sin came to be buried in us. Paul writes that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin” (Rom. 5:12). Because Adam sinned, all his descendants inherited sin after him. “[B]y the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (v. 19).
There is nothing we can do to stop this transmission of sin. The hymnwriter describes our desperate state: “By Adam’s fall is all forlorn / Man’s nature and his thinking, / The poison’s there when we are born, / In sin yet deeper sinking” (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary #430, v. 1). This is hard for us to accept. We don’t want to believe that before we had a chance at living life, we were already poisoned with sin.
But as hard as it is to believe, God tells us that when we were born—looking so vibrant and full of life—we were actually dead. We were dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1,5). Many people go through life never realizing how bad they have it. In their later years, they look back on their accomplishments and imagine they lived a pretty good life. But these poor souls never really lived. Their life was lived apart from Jesus, which means that even though their heart was beating, their brain was working, and they were getting stuff done, they weren’t really living. They were dying, only dying, and death is all they had to look forward to.
Jesus came to put an end to that futility, to reverse the poisonous effects of sin. He was the second Adam, the only-begotten Son of God the Father who became a man in the womb of the virgin Mary. His goal in coming was not to topple the Roman government or achieve social justice for all. It wasn’t to set up a new religion. His purpose was to fulfill the promises of God, spoken in ancient times even to the first sinners. He did not come to throw out the old order and replace it with something else. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” He said; “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mat. 5:17).
He fulfilled God’s Law for you and me. He accomplished what we never could—a perfect life before God. Adam’s disobedience made us sinners, but Jesus’ obedience earned our righteousness. Then He took all our acts of disobedience, all our sin, and brought them to the cross where He paid the atoning price for each and every one. This is where He personally dealt with all hatred, all prejudice, all injustice, all division. All of it was wiped away in the flood of His precious blood. And then He dealt with death by rising from the grave. He addressed our disobedience with His obedience, our sin with His sacrifice, and our death with His resurrection.
But how can we connect our life to the life that He won? How can we leave behind our legacy of sin inherited from the first Adam and enter into the blessed company of the second Adam? Some say that this is done through a personal decision: “I’ve decided to leave my life of sin and live for Jesus.” Others say it is more of a process, a gradual changing and growth away from bad things and toward good things. But both of those are done from our side of things, by our effort, which means that both approaches will most certainly fail.
Today’s text describes a different way. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” Here something is introduced that did not come from man and is not accomplished by us. This is Baptism, instituted by Jesus for the salvation of all people and carried out by His power and command (Mat. 28:18-19). It is not symbolic. The water does not symbolize the washing away of sin. The water and the Word of Baptism actually cleanse us from sin by joining us to Jesus.
Baptism into Christ is a baptism into His death. This means that the benefit of Jesus’ death is applied to the sinner. And what benefit is that? Forgiveness, the full and free forgiveness of all sin. This is why we bring infants to the font. It is because they are born in sin (Psa. 51:5). They need to be forgiven, so that they might live in Christ. Sin does not live in Jesus; therefore our sin must be forgiven if we are to live in Him.
But Baptism does even more for us. It not only joins us with Jesus’ atoning death, it also joins us with Jesus’ glorious resurrection. “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him.” For us who are baptized into Christ, death no longer has dominion over us. Death is not our lord anymore. Death is not the boss.
The two major problems in our life—sin and death—are dealt with at the baptismal font where Jesus meets us with His eternal blessings. It may not look like much happens at Baptism. Nothing changes in the appearance of the person who was baptized. But Baptism is an “Out with the Old! In with the New!” moment like no other. In the waters of Baptism our old Adam, our inherited sinful nature, is drowned. And our new life of faith rises to the surface. In another one of his letters, Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2Co. 5:17).
Sadly we do not always live as we are. Even though we know we should leave the old sins of the past behind us, covered by Jesus’ righteousness and cleansed by His blood, yet those old sins still hold some appeal. The devil tempts us to think that the old and new can coexist. “Just because we have faith doesn’t mean we have to stop having fun,” we say. And this is how we so easily find our way back to old passions, old habits, and old vices.
But you cannot live for Adam and for Jesus. You cannot feed the sin and expect righteousness to survive. You cannot despise the blessings of your Baptism and remain in Christ. Paul writes that “our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”
You live in your Baptism by repenting every day of the sin that threatens to overcome you and destroy your faith. Repentance is how you “come clean,” so to speak. It is how you toss out the old, how you walk away from everything that draws, tempts, and pulls you away from your Savior Jesus. And every day you welcome the new by trusting in Jesus, hearing His saving Gospel, clinging to His promises, and striving by the power of the Holy Spirit to live the way God has called you to live.
The people of the world keep breaking down and building up in an attempt to create something that will last. But all their possessions, plans, and power are doomed to fail. All those new things will become old and be discarded in the landfill of history. Baptism gives you something that lasts. It gives you what you could never produce on your own. Baptism ties your past, present, and future to Jesus. It gives you the forgiveness and life He won. It gives you the comfort and peace of knowing you are a child of God. And it assures you that when this life comes to an end, you will live on as Jesus does.
No matter how many years are behind you or how long ago you were baptized, the blessings of Baptism never get old. In Baptism you were crucified and buried with Christ. You were raised with Christ. There His death became your death, and His life became your life. In Baptism, “[t]he old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
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 stained-glass Baptism window at Redeemer)
Midweek Lent – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: Genesis 4:1-12
In Christ Jesus, who shed His blood in death so we guilty ones might be redeemed and live, dear fellow redeemed:
The idea of sacrifice was built into creation by God from the very beginning. After He had made the first man, He told him he could eat of every tree of the Garden of Eden except for one. He must not eat fruit from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17). This was a sacrifice by which the man and his wife would prove their love and devotion to God. But they decided to disobey God. They did not want to make this sacrifice anymore, and they ate from the tree God had forbidden.
Their sin against God had consequences not just for them, but for all of creation. Because of their sin, now there would be death. To remind them of this death, God clothed the man and woman in animal skins (Gen. 3:21). Their sin had utterly changed their relationship to God, and it also changed their relationship to animals. Animals had been sacrificed for their clothing, and animals would now also be employed as sacrifices offered to God.
We learn this in today’s reading from Genesis 4. Like his father Adam, first-born son Cain worked in the field planting and harvesting crops. But second-born son Abel kept the sheep. As far as we know, God did not sanction the eating of meat until later, after the flood (Gen. 9:3). While the sheep may have been kept for their wool, we know they were used as sacrifices for Adam and Eve’s family. Our text says that “Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions.”
But God did not receive their offerings in the same way. He “had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” Why did the LORD look upon their offerings so differently? It wasn’t because of the type or the quality of the products offered. The author of Hebrews says that the difference was faith. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts” (11:4).
So Abel offered his sacrifice with fear, love, and trust in God. But Cain offered his sacrifice as a matter of show, as an obligation and nothing more. Why did Cain think the LORD would be satisfied with this faithless offering? Martin Luther suggests that Cain was consumed with self-importance. He was the first child ever born into the world, and hadn’t God said that the woman’s offspring would crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15)? Cain was destined for great things, and his parents may have even told him so. But there was nothing special about Abel. Abel was the second-born, second place. He was sent to work with the sheep while Adam and Cain presumably worked in the field side-by-side.
So when God accepted Abel’s offering and not Cain’s, “Cain was very angry, and his face fell.” The LORD called him to repent, and He warned him saying, “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” The LORD told him not to open the door to jealous anger and hatred. That’s where sin was crouching, lying in wait to overcome him. This reminds us of the Apostle Peter’s words about how the devil works, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1Pe. 5:8). The devil tempts us to sin against one another, to think highly of ourselves and to look down at others.
Each of us here has opened the door to sin like Cain did. We have felt intense anger and hatred toward those around us, sometimes even the members of our own family. We have justified this anger by dwelling on the wrongs that have been done. We convince ourselves that because of a person’s sin against us or against others, they do not deserve our mercy or our love. They deserve to suffer. They deserve punishment. At the same time, we consider ourselves righteous. We would never do the things they do.
But in our anger and hatred toward someone because of their sin, we also sin. 1 John 3:15 says, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” Even our hateful thoughts violate the Fifth Commandment. And if we do not “rule over” these thoughts as God urged Cain to do, the devil will use them to tempt us toward sins of word and action. That is what happened to Cain. He did not repent of his sin. He did not close the door to temptation. He let his anger lead to violence toward his brother, and he killed him.
God approved of the sacrifice of animals for offerings to Him. But He did not approve of the murder of men. Abel did not have to die. He was an innocent victim. Cain was the lawbreaker. He let sin rule over him, and in unbelief he rejected the LORD’s command and promise. “What have you done?” said the LORD. “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground…. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”
We sin in many of the same ways that Cain did. Like Cain we have also gone through the motions of righteousness toward God. We have offered prayers without thinking about them and expected God to be gracious even when we had no sincere intention to repent and amend our sinful ways. We justified our anger and unkindness toward others while avoiding any personal responsibility.
But the LORD has mercifully kept us from being overcome by sin and losing our faith. He has brought us back here today to repent of our sins and receive His forgiveness. Through His holy Word, He points us to Jesus, whose righteousness covers us like the garments God made for Adam and Eve, and who saved us by His innocent suffering and death. Because Jesus shed His precious blood for us, we are forgiven and cleansed of all our sins. He was the sacrifice required for our salvation, the sacrifice which Abel looked for in faith, and by which he was delivered from death to life just as we will be.
So once again today we humbly offer our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving for God’s great love for us, and we fix our eyes on Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who gave Himself for us. “Abel’s blood for vengeance / Pleaded to the skies; / But the blood of Jesus / For our pardon cries” (ELH 283, v. 4). Thanks be to God! Amen.
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(picture from “Cain Slaying Abel” by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1600)
Baptism of Jesus – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Peter 3:18-22
In Christ Jesus, who was crucified, died, and was buried, who descended into hell, and who on the third day rose again from the dead in order to save us, dear fellow redeemed:
Imagine what it would be like if you and the members of your household were the only Christians in your community, the only Christians you knew about anywhere. And your neighbors were not peace-loving and law-abiding. They were concerned only for themselves. They lied, cheated, and stole from one another and from you. They despised everything you stood for. They ridiculed you for your morals and flaunted their sins in your face.
And imagine in a climate like this that God told you to build a church on your property, a big church. Your neighbors would soon come over to mock you and ridicule you. “What is that for? Do you think anyone’s going to join your little cult? What a waste of time! What idiots!” And the more that church took shape, the more it would irritate and anger them. They would plot to destroy the whole project, or at least to hinder you in your work. That would be a difficult job. You might even wonder why God let you experience all that pain.
This is a lot like how it was for Noah when the LORD told him to build a large boat in a local field. “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). So the LORD decided to destroy everything on the earth He had made. “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD” (v. 8). God told him to build an ark for himself, his family, and two of every sort of animal. These would be saved from destruction while all other living things would be wiped out by a worldwide flood.
Noah did “all that God commanded him” (v. 22), but it most certainly wasn’t pleasant. As long as it took to build that ark, his wicked neighbors made his life miserable. When the ark was finally completed and the LORD told Noah and his family to “go into the ark” (7:1), they must have felt some relief. Their hard work under challenging conditions was finally done. But there would have been sadness too, sadness that their unbelieving neighbors would not only die, but would perish eternally.
Then the waters came. It rained forty days and forty nights. It rained so much that the ark lifted off the ground where it had been built and began to float. Noah and his sons may have wondered how the ark would do on the water. It held up just fine. They must have exchanged smiles when the great boat began to move and rock back and forth. They were going to survive these terrible rains. God had saved them!
Outside the boat, the feeling was much different. There it was all chaos, man and animal clambering for the high ground, family members abandoning each other in a bid to survive, the waters rising and finally covering every tree, hill, and mountain. Total destruction. No survivors.
Those waters did two things at the same time: they destroyed all living things on earth, and they saved Noah and his family. The same waters had two very different effects. In today’s text the apostle Peter writes that “Baptism… corresponds to this.” God wants us to learn about Baptism from the worldwide flood. He wants us to understand how the waters of Baptism both destroy and save.
First of all we should be clear what Baptism is. Our Catechism states that “Baptism is not just water, but it is the water used according to God’s command and connected with His Word.” Where does God command Baptism? It is when Jesus told His apostles, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Mat. 28:18-20, NKJV). Here Jesus commissioned His Church to “make disciples of all the nations” by baptizing and teaching them. Baptism is the application of water while the words of Jesus are spoken: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus says that “all authority has been given to [Him]” to command this. But why should we recognize this authority, and how do we know His words have the power to do anything in Baptism? The reason Jesus can make this claim is spelled out in today’s sermon text. It says that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous.” He did not suffer for His own sins—there were none! He suffered for our sins. He was the righteous one, perfectly holy, pure in every way. And He gave Himself for the unrighteous ones, for you and me and everyone else. But this is strange. Why would someone who was perfect suffer for the wicked? It was so that “He might bring us to God.”
Jesus wanted to save us. We deserved to be destroyed, to be sent to eternal suffering in hell. Sin against God demands a response of justice. But instead of condemning us, God condemned His own perfect Son. Jesus stepped in our place. He took our punishment. He died our death and suffered our hell. With His saving work on the cross complete, Jesus said, “It is finished” (Joh. 19:30) and gave up His spirit.
Today’s text describes what happened next. Christ was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” This is what we confess in the Apostles’ Creed when we say that Jesus “descended into hell.” He did not go there to suffer some more—He had already suffered the punishment of hell on the cross. He went to “proclaim to the spirits in prison.” Peter writes that “the spirits in prison” are those who “formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared.” So these are the souls of the unbelievers who rejected God’s promises.
And what did Jesus proclaim to them? He did not proclaim their forgiveness or salvation. The souls of unbelievers in hell cannot pass over into heaven (Luk. 16:26). Jesus descended into hell to proclaim His victory, to show Whom they had rejected when they chose the sin of the world over the salvation of God’s Word. He went there to show them why those destructive waters came upon them and why Noah and his family were spared.
But His death and His decent into hell was not enough for Jesus to claim “all authority” for sending His disciples to baptize and teach. What authority could He have if He was buried in the tomb and never emerged again? His claim is entirely dependent on His resurrection. If Jesus did not rise again from the dead, He is nobody’s Savior. If He did not rise again from the dead, He is nothing but another dead man. But He did rise, on the third day. Peter witnessed it, along with more than 500 others (1Co. 15:6).
Who would question the authority and power of One who died and rose again? If this happened today, think how the world would flock to that person. All would want to know his secret or somehow get a share of that power, so that they also could rise again. This is exactly what Jesus gives us in Baptism. He gives the power to rise again from the dead.
When you were baptized, the waters of Baptism brought both destruction and salvation to you. Like the unbelievers destroyed in the flood, the waters of Baptism drowned your unbelief. Your sins were washed off in the water, and Christ’s righteousness was poured over you. Baptism, as today’s text says, is not some sort of outward cleansing or “a removal of dirt from the body.” It is “an appeal to God for a good conscience.” And on what grounds does Baptism make that appeal? “[T]hrough the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
We receive a clean conscience in Baptism because Jesus rose again from the dead. He took our sins to the cross, buried them in the grave, and rose again without them. Since He paid for and buried them, your sins are not stuck to you anymore. Your Baptism delivered this forgiveness and salvation to you. Romans 6:4 says, “We were buried therefore with [Christ Jesus] by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Since you have passed through the destructive and saving waters of Baptism, you now “walk in newness of life.” You were a sinner, and now you are a saint. You were dead, and now you are alive.
You could not make this happen; Jesus did it for you. On your own, you are no better than the sinners destroyed in the waters of the flood. The good works you have done would not be enough to get you on the ark today. Noah and his family were not saved because of good works. They were saved by faith, which God worked in them through His Word. Faith has also been worked in you through the same Word of grace. This faith clings to the promises Jesus has connected to Baptism.
Jesus’ statement about having “all authority” was no empty boast. He does have all authority in heaven and on earth. He sits “at the right hand of God” with every power subjected to Him. What Jesus does with His power is deliver forgiveness and life. That’s how He “flexes His muscles,” so to speak. He ensures that His saving Word and Sacraments continue to be administered. He wants you to be comforted by His promises, so that you do not fear His destruction but rejoice in His salvation.
The Lord has not commanded you to build a big church in your backyard. But He has called you to return to your Baptism every day by repentance and faith. He wants those cleansing waters to be your daily refuge, because in those waters, your sins were washed away, you became His child, and you were joined to your Savior Jesus, who suffered, died, and rose again for you.
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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(stained glass of Noah’s ark from Saude Lutheran Church)
The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Trinity/All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 9:18-26
In Christ Jesus, through whom we are called to everlasting sainthood by faith in His name, dear fellow redeemed:
We have recently finished watching the Ken Burns documentary on The Civil War. When the war finally came to an end, the documentary detailed the reaction of the soldiers at that moment. After four years of fighting, we might expect to hear about union men shouting for joy and jumping up and down. But that was not their reaction. Their mood was quiet and subdued. They couldn’t help but think what it took to get to this point. They remembered all the lives lost, both the Americans on their side and the Americans on the other. How could they cheer? How could they celebrate?
Nearly as many soldiers died in the Civil War as have died in all other American wars combined. There was probably no family that was not touched by a soldier’s death. But death is not just confined to war. Death has touched each of us through the loss of family members and friends. Death comes because of sin. Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” You and I are sinners. That means one day, death will come to us too.
Death is no laughing matter. This is why the crowd standing around the bed of a dead girl was so offended when Jesus said, “the girl is not dead but sleeping.” Was this some sort of sick joke? Who did Jesus think He was to come in and announce this? What a cruel statement to make in front of the grief-stricken parents of the girl! Matthew tells us that the crowd “laughed at Him.” It was a spiteful laugh, full of ridicule. They despised Jesus.
I’m sure the same thing would happen today if Jesus showed up at a “celebration of life” party and announced that the deceased was “not dead, but sleeping.” He would be laughed out of the room, or thrown out. I hope the same would not happen at a Christian funeral. The main theme at a Christian funeral is not how wonderful the deceased person was. It is not about how we will keep his or her memory alive. It is not about being comforted that the one we loved is watching over us and is still in our hearts. That may be how unbelievers deal with death, but it should not be that way for us who believe.
A Christian funeral is about Christ. It is a beautiful opportunity to be reminded of the hope and comfort we have in Him. If Jesus is not the focus, if He is not in the room, there can be no comfort. Without Jesus, there is only sadness. Then flute players sound the woeful songs of death, and people weep and wail loudly like they did at the house of the little girl (Mar. 5:38).
When Jesus came on the scene, He chided the people gathered there. He told them to stop their commotion and weeping. He chided them like a mother might when her noisy children are playing near a napping baby. “Go away,” said Jesus, “for the girl is… sleeping.” When the crowd had been put outside, then the house was quiet. Jesus was there, along with Peter, James, and John, and the girl’s parents.
The girl lay there unmoving, her heart stopped, no breath crossing her lips. By all scientific standards, she was dead. But Jesus walked over, He took her by the hand, and He said, “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (Mar. 5:41). Who was laughing now? Not death. Death had to give up its victim. Jesus gave the command, and death had to comply. Immediately the girl woke up as though from sleep, and she got up and started walking around.
The old saying states that “nothing is as certain as death and taxes.” But this account gives us reason to question that. In this case, the status of death was not certain. Death was able to be overcome. It was overcome by Jesus. So why are people still laughing at Jesus? They have to laugh—or else believe in Him. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (Joh. 11:25). He said, “Because I live, you also will live” (Joh. 14:9). He said that to Him, death is nothing but a temporary slumber.
He said these things because He was about to conquer death, once and for all. He was going to put Himself in the jaws of death, and so occupy it, so that death could turn its attention to nobody else. The battle was on! Here was Jesus with His confident promises of victory and life facing death with its record of countless victories over humanity. In one of his hymns, Martin Luther said about this battle, “It was a strange and dreadful strife / When life and death contended” (ELH 343, v. 4). Who would win?
It appeared that death had conquered when Jesus was lowered from the cross and placed in a dark tomb. That’s what His friends thought, including Peter, James, and John. But death did not overcome Jesus. Jesus overcame death. He rose again! “Death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9). That means it no longer has dominion over us. Paul writes that all who are baptized into Christ partake in His resurrection victory. Because He conquered, they conquer. Because He lives, they live.
But unbelievers reject this hope. They laugh at our confidence in Jesus’ promises. “If your Lord is so powerful,” they say, “why do you Christians end up the same as us? You shouldn’t need cemeteries if death has no power over you!” It is true that believers are buried “six feet under” just like unbelievers are. There is no obvious difference between them once they die. The same cold earth is dumped over the remains of both.
But believers view the burial of one of their own very differently than unbelievers do. Believers lay their brothers and sisters in Christ to rest in the sure hope of the resurrection. They tuck their loved one in a soft casket like a parent tucks his child in bed. They comfort one another with the certainty that their loved one is “not dead, but sleeping.” Jesus is going to come again, just like He came to the side of the little girl, and He is going to raise the dead.
This will happen because Jesus has promised it. The One who defeated death should be taken seriously. When He does this on the last day, then all the world will know who is victorious. Paul writes that “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’” (1Co. 15:54-55). On that day, we will laugh at death, because it can no longer touch us.
But you don’t have to wait until the last day to laugh at death. You can laugh at death right now. I know that death looks scary. I know it has a ferocious growl. But all its teeth are missing. Jesus knocked them out when He marched back up the throat of death and out of the mouth of the grave. It comes down to this: either Jesus is Lord, or death is Lord; either Jesus conquers, or death conquers; either Jesus reigns, or death reigns. Death cannot defeat those who are in Christ.
The times that we are overwhelmed by death are the times that we have looked away from Jesus. If we trusted Jesus’ promise of the resurrection and eternal life, we would not weep so bitterly for our loved ones. We would not wish for the comfort of their presence more than the comfort of our Lord’s presence. We would not look backward with so much grief instead of forward with so much hope.
Those who do not look to Jesus try to cope with death in other ways. Some reach for the bottle or attempt to fill the void of loss with things. Some become despondent or angry and shut people out of their life. Some try to connect with the dead through psychics or mediums. Some feel life is not worth living, and they seek to end it. These methods offer no help at all. Nothing we come up with can give comfort in the face of death.
Our only comfort is from the Lord. He is the answer for the pain death causes. He is our assurance that death does not have the upper hand. Though it seems to prevail over all flesh, Jesus will make it give up the dead again. Jesus will raise all the dead and will bring all the saints to be with Him in heaven.
The saints are all believers, whether dead or living. They are those whose sins are no longer held against them, and who are declared holy in God’s sight through faith. Even now God calls you a saint, because you believe and confess that Jesus “was delivered up for [your] trespasses and raised for [your] justification” (Rom. 4:25).
Jesus’ victory over sin and death is your victory. Yes, one day your body will give out and die, yet Jesus will not leave your body in the grave. He will raise you again as if from sleep, because to Him death is nothing more than sleep. Because Jesus has overcome death, death must do His bidding, which is to deliver us from this sinful world to the glories of heaven.
So Shall We Laugh at Jesus or at Death? The answer is found in Jesus’ empty tomb. We now laugh with Jesus at death. Death did not win. Death will not win. “[T]hanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Co. 15:57).
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(painting by Gabriel von Max, 1878)
The Holy Nativity of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad Exordium and Sermon
Is it “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy Holidays!” We prefer “Merry Christmas” because Christ is “the reason for the season.” If there is no birth at Bethlehem to celebrate, then we’re left with a season of bright lights, glittering decorations, gift giving, and Santa Claus—but no Savior. On the other hand, “Happy Holidays” is not totally objectionable. “Holidays” comes from “Holy days,” and the birth of the Christ-Child is a holy—a sacred—event.
While we can see the cultural tug-of-war between these two greetings, there seems to be no argument about the words “merry” and “happy.” One means just about the same as the other. We want people to have merriment and happiness. But as nice as this is, our wish cannot make it happen.
This is a time of year that not everyone feels so cheerful. Some feel very alone with no one who seems to understand or care for them. For others the season is a reminder of happier times past and of loved ones no longer present. As much as they might appreciate the sentiment of a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” the warm feelings escape them.
You may be among those this morning who do not feel “merry.” But you can still rejoice, even in your sorrows and troubles. You can rejoice because the Savior was born into the world today, the One who would defeat the devil, pay your debt of sin, and destroy your death. Jesus the Christ came to do this for you. He came to win your salvation, so that you would enjoy everlasting merriment and happiness with Him in heaven. Let us therefore rejoice in these glad tidings by singing our festival hymn, “Rejoice, Rejoice This Happy Morn!” (#142):
Rejoice, rejoice this happy morn!
A Savior unto us is born,
The Christ, the Lord of glory.
His lowly birth in Bethlehem
The angels from on high proclaim
And sing redemption’s story.
God’s great favor;
Bless Him ever
Give Him praise and adoration!
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Sermon text: St. John 1:1-14
In Christ Jesus, God incarnate, eternally begotten and born in time, dear fellow redeemed:
Today is the birthday of Jesus. But we celebrate it differently than the way we celebrate the birthdays of friends and relatives. And that is as it should be. The birth of the Christ-Child should stand out. We would not do the day justice if we sang a quick round of the “Happy Birthday” song to Jesus before cutting into some festive birthday cake. Only the best will do for this occasion. So we bring out our most elaborate decorations. We give special gifts. We join the angels in singing “Glory to God in the highest!” We resolve to live holier lives to honor His name.
But even our best efforts fall short. No collection of beautiful things, no amount of riches, no high-sounding praise, and no good deeds are equal to what is declared in today’s text: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Who is “the Word”? “The Word” is the Son of God, begotten of the Father from eternity. He was with the Father in the beginning when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). As all creation was spoken into existence, the Son—the Word—was at work. “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” From the plants to the bugs to the birds to the fish to the cattle to humankind, all living things were given life through the Son.
But then death entered the world. Man and woman did not think they could really live unless they ate from the forbidden tree. They found that just the opposite was true. The LORD came and told the man, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). Now their flesh would die, and their children would die, and their children’s children and all the generations after them would die. The prophet Isaiah described the terrible outcome of Adam and Eve’s sin: “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass” (40:6-7).
And yet we wonder: Are we really so weak? Are we no more than blades of grass in this life? But look at everything we have accomplished! Look at our great cities! Look at our ingenuity and creativity! Look at how we have subdued the wild things of the earth! It is true that humans are capable of many things. But there is one thing they have not and never could master. They cannot stand against death.
If you come down with pneumonia or some kind of infection, you are given an antibiotic to combat the sickness. This medicine must be introduced into your body, so that you can get better. The entire human race needed something like this. We needed an antidote for the poison of sin which had worked its way all through us. What could counteract it? Isaiah continues, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (v. 8). The Word stands forever. The Word is life.
And “when the fullness of time had come” (Gal. 4:4), “the Word became flesh.” The Word who gave life to all things at creation now entered His creation in the most surprising and mysterious way—He bound human flesh to Himself. He did this by entering the small confines of a virgin’s womb as a human embryo. A short time later, His heart began to beat. His arms and legs formed. His brain developed. Mary was obviously “with child,” but no one—not even Mary—fully grasped who this Child was.
His birth was greeted with joy as births so often are. We love to see new life enter the world. There is nothing as precious as a tiny, wide-eyed baby. But as Mary and Joseph and the shepherds looked down at Jesus and held Him in their arms, they were not simply looking at a cute newborn. They were staring into the eyes of God. They were holding the One who held up all things. They gently cradled Him who would save them from eternal destruction. They seemed to be superior in strength to this Infant. But their strength was only temporary. Their flesh would give out in time.
This is why “the Word became flesh.” God became man to save humankind from its certain fate. He brought His life-giving power into the world of death. He came to dispel the darkness of sin by His life of perfect righteousness and by His innocent suffering and death. He was the antidote for the poison of sin. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
So Life entered the world on Christmas, but John writes that “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.” What a tragedy! Life had come for the dying, but they did not see what was before them. They pushed Him away. They did not want Him. This still happens. The Savior came for all, but so many think they do not need Him. They do not believe their condition is that serious. They might celebrate Christmas but not with any real concern about their sin or their Savior.
But there are some who welcome Christ’s coming in the right way. They approach Christmas with humility. They understand how corrupt the world is and their own heart. They celebrate Jesus’ birth, because they know His birth means salvation.
Your birthday without Jesus’ birthday would mean you are still in your sins. Your birthday is a special day, but you needed to be born again. Physical life in this world is only temporary; human flesh only lasts so long. You needed the spiritual life that Jesus obtained through His holy birth and life, His death, and resurrection. But none can conceive spiritual life in themselves. The dead cannot bring themselves to life. God must do this, and He does it through the Word.
John writes, “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Believers in Jesus, those whose hearts are filled with new life and hope, were given this spiritual life not through their own striving and efforts. They were born “of God.” He chose them. He sent His Son for them, to save them. His holy life counts as their holy life. His death for sin counts as their death for sin.
Everything that Jesus accomplished during His time on earth is given to us now through His Word. Many of you received these blessings just after your birth by the power of the Word in baptism. This is when God filled you with life and claimed you as His child. Others came to faith later in life by the same powerful Word. Whenever it happened, the injection of the Gospel into your heart is when you really started to live. This is when the Lord of life entered your dying flesh to give you the hope of eternal life.
It was for your salvation that “the Word became flesh.” This is why God’s Son took on flesh and was born of the virgin Mary. Our humble decorations cannot properly adorn this day, our gifts cannot do it justice, our hymns of praise cannot fully express it, our best efforts cannot equal it. And yet, we do and give what we can in thankfulness to our Savior.
He is pleased with our lowly praises because He is pleased with us. He looks with favor upon us like a loving parent looks upon his dear child. He will not forget His child. He will continue to feed and nourish us with the food of life, with the nourishment of the Word, until we are finally transferred from here, from this life of trouble and sorrow, into His glorious kingdom of light.
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(painting is “Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1592-1656)
The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 7:11-17
In Christ Jesus, “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2Tim. 1:10), dear fellow redeemed:
The town of Nain still exists. It sits among rolling hills not far from the Sea of Galilee. If you visited at the right time of year, you could find red poppies growing on the slopes of the hills. It would be a pleasant place to stop for a while and enjoy the beauty of the area. The word “Nain” means just that—a charming or beautiful place. Traveling south from Capernaum where He healed a Roman centurion’s servant, Jesus decided to stop at this little town. His disciples and the crowd with Him probably thought it was a nice place to take a rest.
The arrival of a big crowd would have typically brought excitement to Nain. But not today. Today was a sad day. The people of the town joined a distraught widow who mourned the death of her only son, a young man in the prime of his life. A thousand unanswerable questions ran through the mind of this poor woman: What would she do now? Who would provide for her? Why did God let this happen—first her husband and then her son?
It was a sad scene. We have witnessed scenes like this in our own lives. Some of us have felt the sadness this woman felt. It is a rare person who does not have to face the death of loved ones at a young age. The longer we live, the closer death gets to us. Death takes our grandparents and parents, and then it comes to us. One Lutheran pastor described the reality of death in this way, “The whole earth is a graveyard, and the whole race of humanity a funeral procession.” But it is worse than that. He writes, “We don’t simply follow the dead when we walk behind a coffin; we carry death in ourselves and hasten to our own graves” (Laache, Book of Family Prayer, p. 577).
What does it mean that “we carry death in ourselves”? It means that we carry the germ of death inside. We have been infected with sin, even from the moment of our conception. We are something like the tire with a nail in it. It can run for a while, but eventually it goes flat. We can live with the thorn of sin for a time, but eventually our bodies give out. The Apostle Paul states that because of sin in our bodies, “our outer self—our physical life—is wasting away” (2Cor. 4:16).
If you have an injury, you let it rest until it heals. If there is an infection in your body, the doctor prescribes an antibiotic. If your weight is causing health problems, you try to eat better and exercise. But what can you do about sin? Some people act like it isn’t even there, or they try to cover it up. They point out the bad in others, but not in themselves. Some feel the burden of sin and try to make up for it. They volunteer and go out of their way to help others, not so much because they feel love for their neighbors, but because they hope it will look good to God. But no matter what people try to do about sin—ignoring it, covering it up, trying to make amends for it—they end up in the same place. They can’t escape death.
There is nothing more sobering than death. No scientist or strong man has successfully defeated it. All attempts have failed. Still, human beings boast continuously about what they have accomplished. Look at our power! Look at our ingenuity! Look at our social progress! Look at our success! And yet death marches on and fells the world’s heroes one after the other. The old 18th century saying suggests that nothing is as certain as “death and taxes,” but a person might be able to evade taxes. He cannot evade death.
If nothing else woke up the world to its own pride and vanity and weakness, it seems that death would do the job. The universal problem of death should make everyone seek God and His mercy. For those who don’t, there isn’t much comfort to be had at their funeral, or as it is commonly called, their “celebration of life.” Loved ones share memories and funny stories. Everyone cheers the deceased for “doing things his way.” They remember him saying that he didn’t always make the best choices, but nobody had as much fun as he did. And they imagine the deceased now being “in a better place”—often described as a perfect golf course or a prime fishing spot.
These are the ways unbelievers try to lessen the sting of death. But their self-comfort is empty. The reality is that the person they loved is gone and isn’t coming back. Death won again. Death always wins. Well, almost always.
When the two crowds met at the gates of Nain, it must have been awkward. The townspeople were mourning the death of one of their own. The crowd with Jesus was looking for a place to have rest and refreshment. The visitors would not have been greeted with welcoming smiles. They may have been met with frowns, since they were getting in the way of a very personal ceremony.
But instead of stepping aside, Jesus stepped right up to the grieving woman. Gently He said to her, “Do not weep.” But who was this? Had anyone seen Him before? Didn’t He understand what was going on? Jesus did not offer an explanation. He turned from the woman and touched the open coffin. Those carrying the dead man stood still. They didn’t realize it, but death was about to be stopped in its tracks too. Jesus said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.”
If there was any delay between Jesus’ words and the rising up of the man, who would have believed it could happen? But immediately the dead man sat up and began to speak! Then a mother’s tears of anguish became tears of joy. Here was her son, alive! But who was this strange Man?
This Man was the Son of God incarnate, and He was on a mission. He came to deliver sinners from the universal curse. He came to provide the solution for sin. That solution was a life of innocence and the shedding of His divine blood. The Living One, the Lord of Life, had to die, so that that the dying ones, slaves of death, might live. But it was one thing to raise a dead man to life. Could Jesus raise Himself? The answer came on the third day after His death. To the surprise of everyone—both His enemies and His friends—Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning.
Jesus’ victory over death was not just for Him. Before all this took place He had declared, “Because I live, you also will live” (Jn. 14:19). He said that His life would be not only His, but His disciples’ also. And how could they be assured of this life even while their bodies declined and they faced their death? Their assurance of life was their baptism into Christ. Baptism is your assurance too. The Letter to the Romans says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (6:4-5).
“We shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” This certainty is given us in baptism. In our baptism, we are joined with our Savior; we become part of His body. That means His victory is our victory. His life is our life. Because we are in Christ, death can no more prevail against us than it prevailed against Him. This is why we can laugh at death even as it seems to be winning. We can say along with the believers of Old and New Testament times, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (Hos. 13:14; 1Cor. 15:55).
The poet John Donne wrote an excellent poem on this theme. He starts by addressing death:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
He says that death will not defeat him. And why is that? It is because of Jesus’ resurrection, and the life He delivered to us in our baptism. Donne concludes his poem with these confident words:
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
“Death shalt die” because the Life-Winner has triumphed over it. Death does its terrible work as long as there is sin in the world. But Jesus will soon return. Then the shadow of death will be dispelled in His bright light, and death will trouble us no more. This is our only comfort when we lay loved ones to rest in the tomb. We bury them with the confidence that their stay in the tomb is only temporary. To Jesus, they are only sleeping, and He can wake them with a word as easily as He raised the young man of Nain.
Death is all around us, and it is in us. But Jesus is in us and with us too, and He is stronger than death. When death takes a fellow child of God away from us, or when death comes for us, we can say with all boldness, “Death, Meet Life.” Death cannot harm our souls, which are safely in our Lord’s hands. He has even caused death to serve His purpose of delivering our souls to eternal life. It is in this bold confidence that we can sing with the hymnist,
I thank thee, death, thou leadest me
To that true life where I would be.
So cleansed by Christ, I fear not death.
Lord Jesus, strengthen Thou my faith. (ELH #530, v. 2)
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(painting of the “Resurrection of the Widow’s Son from Nain” by the Lutheran artist Lucas Cranch the Younger, c. 1569)
Saint Day: Mary Magdalene
Text: St. John 20:1-2,11-18
In Christ Jesus, who has compassion on poor sinners and suffered and died for each one, dear fellow redeemed:
In the three years of Jesus’ public work, the twelve disciples went wherever He went. But they were not the only followers of Jesus. The New Testament informs us of other men (Ac. 1:23) and women who traveled with Him. Regarding the women, the evangelist Luke writes that they “provided for [Jesus and His disciples] out of their means” (Lk. 8:3). Their financial support allowed Jesus and the Twelve to focus on teaching, preaching, and healing, rather than on finding daily bread.
The women showed this kindness toward Jesus because of the compassion He had showed them. Luke notes that some of the women “had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities,” including “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, [King] Herod’s household manager, and Susanna” (vv. 2-3). Our focus today is on Mary Magdalene.
As far as we know, Mary came from a village on the Sea of Galilee called “Magdala,” which made her, “Mary the Magdalene.” Mary would not have been remembered beyond her lifetime except for her association with Jesus.
She first beheld Him, as though peering through a dark cloud. Seven demons had taken residence in her. This could have caused her to behave in all sorts of troubling ways. One girl was possessed by a demon which gave her fortune-telling abilities (Ac. 16:16). A demon afflicted another boy by trying to cast him into fire and water to destroy him (Mk. 9:22). A legion of demons possessed another man and drove him into the desert to live among tombs (Lk. 8:26-30).
Demons inflict harm and are constantly working to move people to sin against themselves and others. According to tradition, Mary’s demons led her to sin especially against the Sixth Commandment. [Luke 7:36-50 has been applied to Mary Magdalene in the history of the church, but there is no proof that this woman and Mary are the same.]
We do not know how long Mary had been possessed by demons, but we do have an idea how it came about. Jesus explained that demons are only too ready to enter hearts that are empty of saving faith. He said that a demon “finds the house [the heart] empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there” (Mt. 12:44-45). Mary was in a terrible state. She had no hope. She was controlled by satanic forces. She appeared to be alive, but her body was full of death. If nothing changed, her anguish on earth would have given way to an eternity of suffering in hell.
Then the menacing cloud was lifted. Jesus stood before her, and as He did for many others, He commanded the demons to come out of her. Mary was freed from the chains of death that held her. The same powerful Word that forced the demons out of her body also worked its way into her heart. Her hardened heart of unbelief became a living heart of faith. She looked upon her Savior and loved Him for the mercy He had showed her. She could never repay Him, but she could follow Him and devote her life to Him.
Mary joined the men and women who traveled with Jesus until their journey led them through the gates of Jerusalem on a Sunday of palm branches and praises. Still, the mood was tense. It was well known that many of the Jewish religious leaders despised Jesus. Would they try to have Him arrested during this festival week on charges of blasphemy and insurrection? And in fact they did, in a secluded garden with few eyes watching.
By Good Friday morning, word began to spread about Jesus’ arrest. Mary heard too and went to where the crowd was gathering to see what would happen. The religious leaders succeeded in turning the people against Jesus, and they pressured Pilate to give the order for Jesus’ crucifixion. Wearing a crown of thorns, bruised and bleeding, Jesus was sent out from the governor’s palace carrying His own cross. A great many joined the procession, including women who mourned and lamented for Him (Lk. 23:27). Mary must have been one of these, because we know she was among the few followers of Jesus who stood by His cross at Golgotha (Jn. 19:25).
Her heart broke as she watched her Savior in such agony. How could they do this? How could this happen to such a great man? He had delivered her from her demons, and from death itself. But now there was no one to save Him. Darkness descended at noontime, and about 3:00pm, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46). He was suffering the eternal fires of hell for sinners. Then He said, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30), and followed that with, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Lk. 23:46). After saying this, He breathed His last.
Mary Magdalene witnessed all these things, but she could hardly comprehend what she was hearing and seeing. Could this be it? Could her Savior be dead? Many went home, but she and some of the other women from Galilee would not leave Jesus. They watched from a distance and saw Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus take the body down from the cross and wrap it in a clean linen shroud. They followed the men and saw the tomb where the body was buried (Mt. 27:55-61). Then they hurried back to their homes before the start of the Sabbath at sundown.
God established the Sabbath for a day to rest and be refreshed and strengthened through the Word. But Jesus’ followers could hardly relax. They could not believe their kind Teacher was dead. They worried that the authorities would be coming for them next. For their part, the women resolved to serve Jesus one last time. After the Sabbath, they would bring spices and ointments to give Jesus a more proper burial (Lk. 23:56).
But their spices and ointments would not be needed. The women found the tomb open and empty. While Mary Magdalene stood there weeping, Jesus appeared and spoke to her. She did not recognize who it was. But when Jesus said her name, “Mary,” she turned and cried out, “Rabboni!”—“Teacher!” This was Jesus’ first earthly appearance after His resurrection. Mary—formerly inhabited by seven demons—was the first witness of the event that changed everything forever.
It’s a good story with a happy ending. But it’s no good if that’s all we see in it. We should recognize that Mary’s story could just as well be your story and mine. Like Mary, we also were controlled by satanic forces before we were converted by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is why in our baptismal liturgy, we ask sponsors to answer this question on behalf of the young child or infant, “Do you renounce the devil, and all his works, and all his ways?”
Through Baptism, the light of God’s powerful Word pierced our darkness and brought us to faith. This saving Baptism into Christ is our continued defense against the demons who would do us harm. We return to our Baptism through repentance of our sins and trust in God’s Word of grace. His Word leads us from spiritual death to spiritual life, just as His Word gave life to Mary.
The proof that this life is ours is based on what Mary and many others witnessed. They saw Jesus die. It was no elaborate hoax. They did not deposit an unconscious Jesus in the tomb and leave an opening for Him to escape. He was dead. Tombs are not closed and sealed unless this is certain. Listen to how Mary referred to Jesus on Easter morning: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” She assumes He had to be taken and laid somewhere because He was dead. Of course He couldn’t move Himself!
And by this assumption, Mary was just as guilty as all the rest. Jesus had told them otherwise. He said He would die and rise again. But they did not believe it. No one had ever risen from the dead. We are tempted to the same unbelief. All we see around us is death. How can we be sure the dead will rise again?
Our certainty is not in what we see with our eyes, but in what others saw with theirs. Did the disciples believe Jesus could rise? No. What changed their minds? They saw Jesus alive multiple times. It was undeniable. Even when they were arrested and killed for preaching Jesus’ death and resurrection, they would not deny His resurrection, because it was true.
Jesus’ resurrection is a historical fact. It can be rejected, but it cannot be undone. Jesus rose in victory over death, so that each sinner can be certain of forgiveness. His resurrection means that God accepted His sacrifice on behalf of all sinners. Jesus paid the debt of your sin. He conquered your death. The death of your body in this life is only temporary. Jesus will raise you again, and then there will be no pain, trouble, or weeping.
When Mary saw Jesus standing outside His tomb, she wanted to cling to Him. But Jesus told her that His Word—and not His visible presence—would now have most importance. She was to share that Word with the disciples, that Jesus would soon ascend “to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.” This is the moment captured in Jerico’s altar painting, which is also printed on today’s bulletin cover. Jesus holds up His hands showing the marks of the nails and points to the heavens.
This painting reminds us to take Jesus at His Word, even though we cannot now see Him. We believe that He died and rose again for us, and that He has ascended into heaven to prepare a place for all believers. We learn with Mary to “Set [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). We wait eagerly for Jesus to appear to us like He did to Mary, and then our journey from Death to Life will be complete.
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The Festival of the Resurrection of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad Exordium and Sermon
Could there be a more fitting day for Easter than April 1st? Easter is the day that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. They believe His resurrection means that they will one day rise from the dead too. Could anything be more foolish than this? Has anyone now living seen a dead person come back from the dead? And yet Christians confidently say this will happen, as though there is no doubting it. What fools they are, on April 1st and every day!
And the Christian cannot argue. None of this stands to reason. Believers in Christ struggle with the same sins that unbelievers do. We feel the same pains and infirmities. We die the same death. Why should we be so confident that we—and not they—will rise to eternal life in heaven? What makes us so sure? The answer to the question hinges on whether Jesus was God in the flesh who died and rose again, or whether He was a tremendous liar or lunatic whose remains now reside in a tomb somewhere by the old city walls of Jerusalem.
It is true, as the apostle Paul says, that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1Cor. 15:17). If you trust in a man named Jesus who was only a man, then you are a fool, because no ordinary man can save you. But if Jesus is who He said He is—the holy Son of God—and if He did what hundreds of eyewitnesses claimed He did—rise from the dead—then the joke is on the world and not you. Then the unconverted may call you a fool, but you are no fool before God.
What the world calls foolishness, God calls salvation. He sent His Son to do for you what the world never could. Our Lord Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). He entered into death and came back to life again, so that you would be assured of life forevermore. Let us now rise to sing our exordium hymn, “He Is Arisen! Glorious Word!” (ELH 348, TLH 189).
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Sermon Text: St. Mark 16:1-8
In Christ Jesus, the eternal Destroyer of death, dear fellow redeemed:
The two Marys and Salome dutifully observed the Sabbath, but that troubled day could not pass soon enough. Their great Teacher and Lord had been shamefully killed the day before. They could not reverse what had been done, but at least they could bury His remains more properly. They woke up early in the morning and made their way toward His tomb. Preoccupied with their thoughts, they did not consider another important matter until they were nearly there: “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb?”
Three days before in the late afternoon of Good Friday, the women had watched Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus quickly prepare Jesus for burial, needing to finish before the Sabbath started at sundown. They laid Him in Joseph’s new tomb, which had been cut out of a rock in the middle of a garden. In order to keep thieves and wild animals out, they rolled a large stone against the tomb’s entrance and hurried away.
For the women approaching at daybreak, that big stone was a big problem. It was too heavy to roll back, to tip over, or to pry up. And at this time of day, no one would be coming along to help—that is if they were even willing to open up a tomb for them in the first place. The women had no ready solution to the problem that lay ahead.
You and I have times like that in our lives too. We are faced with big problems that seem like immovable stones. There are troubles and trials and sins that we do not know how to overcome. There are burdens that overwhelm us and weigh us down, so that we do not know how to escape from under them. These “big stones” can get in the way of healthy communication among family members. They can stand in the way of a strong and loving marriage. They can affect our relationship with members of our community and our church.
Sometimes we set up these big stones, and sometimes others put them in our way. The big stones we set up might be the need to always be right or have the last word. They might be our stubborn refusal to forgive those who have offended us, or to apologize for our unkindness. They might be addictions that we work harder to cover up than we do to address.
For the times that we try to show love to our neighbors, but they reject our help and choose to put the worst construction on our actions or words, we cannot move these big stones on our own. We commend these stones to God in prayer, knowing that nothing is impossible with Him.
Like the women in today’s account, the big stones in our lives cannot be removed by hoping they will just go away, by trying really hard to move them, or by blaming others for our problems. Our sin and the sin of others does not budge easily. It is anchored in our hearts, and it stands in the way of God and eternal life.
If sin did not weigh us down, none of us would have to be concerned about the greatest obstacle in life, which is death. But all of us are concerned about death, because all of us are sinners. Sin leads to death. When death comes, the lifeless body of the deceased is placed in a coffin and sealed in a vault. It all looks very final. It makes us sad. It worries us, because we know our time is coming too. Death is the biggest barrier, the biggest stone that stands in our way. The women wondered who would roll away the stone from Jesus’ tomb, but we wonder who will roll away the stone from ours.
The women received their answer when they looked up to see that the large stone already had been rolled away! Mary Magdalene turned around immediately to convey the message to Peter and John that someone had taken the body of the Lord. The other women continued on to the tomb, where the angel reassured them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him.” Before, the women were fretting about how the stone might be removed, so that they could anoint Jesus’ dead body. Now the tomb was open, and they were told by an angel that Jesus had risen!
This is how Jesus takes care of the big boulders of our sin that we cannot see a way around. He crushes the sin that stands in His way, and He produces a better solution to our problems than we could have imagined. While we turn our sins and difficulties into mountains, Jesus makes them insignificant molehills. Our sins are not too big for God. He rolled them all out of our way through the holy death of Jesus.
But can we really be sure of this? From our perspective, our problems are as big as ever, and they do not seem to go away. We might still feel lost, and we are desperately afraid that sin and Satan will overcome us. How can we be certain that Jesus paid for our sins? How can we know that we will be safe when death takes us?
The answer is in Jesus’ empty tomb. He was not there when the stone was rolled away. He had risen! The strong bands of death could not hold Him fast. Satan could not drag Him forever into hell. Our Lord’s resurrection proves that He was not simply a righteous Man, but that He is the holy God who suffered and died for our sins, and who rose again in victory! His resurrection is the declaration to the whole world that sin is forgiven, Satan is defeated, and death is annihilated. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1Co. 15:55).
Through His resurrection, Jesus changed our cemeteries from places of death and hopelessness, to places of anticipation and even joy. Because Jesus has risen from the dead, all who are faithful to Him unto death will also receive the crown of life (Rev. 2:10). Our cemeteries are simply resting places, temporary habitations, where the bodies of the dead are safely kept until Christ’s triumphant return on the Last Day.
But how will these bodies escape from their graves? Who Will Roll Away the Stone of death from the door of their tombs? Jesus, the One who has already risen, has promised to see to it personally. He will awaken our sleeping bodies with a powerful shout, and He will dispatch His angels to gather us from our tombs to meet the Lord in the air (Mk. 13:27, 1Th. 4:16).
This event will paralyze the unbelieving world with fear, just as it paralyzed the soldiers standing guard at Jesus’ tomb. But for all who believe in the crucified and risen Savior, this will be a day greater than any other day before it. This will be the day of our resurrection from the dead, the day of our ultimate victory over sin, death, and the devil.
You do not need to wonder if this victory will be yours on that day. This victory is already yours by faith. At your baptism, your sins were buried with Christ in His tomb, and in that same baptism you were raised to new life in Him. Even while you stand in the midst of death, you can rejoice and give thanks for your baptism into Christ, through which you have been given His righteousness and life.
You need not wonder how the stone of your death will be rolled away. Jesus’ tomb stands wide open. He is eternally alive, which means that your sin and your death are eternally dead. The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)