The First Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 John 4:16-21
In Christ Jesus, who is constantly busy and active distributing the gifts of His love, dear fellow redeemed:
We know why the beggar Lazarus in the Holy Gospel for today was laid at the gate of the rich man. It is because the rich man obviously had the means to help him. But having the means to help and having the desire to help are two different things. The rich man did not care about Lazarus. He cared about his fine linens and his great feasts. This man lacked love. It is no surprise to learn that he also lacked faith. We know this because his soul went to hell when he died.
Faith and love go together. Those who have faith have love for others. Those who do not have faith do not have love for others—at least not the kind of love that God requires. The world is very confused about love. The world thinks of love as a feeling, an emotion, the thing that makes me happy. This love is not so much focused outward toward others but inward toward self. We are told to cultivate a self-love, to focus on what is self-fulfilling. And if someone does not show us the love that we require, then it is time to find another who will.
What if God defined love in this way? What if He said that He will love us only if we properly show love to Him? This is what we would think if all we had was the Law of God. The Commandments tell us to perfectly love the true God only, to perfectly honor His name, to perfectly hear and learn His Word. But we have not loved God like this. So what is stopping Him from walking away and never coming back?
He does not walk away from us, because His love for us does not depend on our love for Him. He loved us even in our fallen and rebellious state. In perhaps the most well-known passage in the Bible, the apostle John records these words of Jesus about God’s love: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Joh. 3:16).
God loved the world not because we had earned His love, as though He owed something to us. He loved the world because He is love. And He expressed that love not by making us as comfortable as He can on earth before our sad and hopeless death. He sent His only Son to redeem us, so that we have hope in this life and are saved from eternal suffering in hell.
This is the love that John refers to in today’s text when he says: “God is love.” Some take this to mean that whoever and however and whatever I choose to love, God supports me. Like a 70s hippie, God just wants us to love, man, and there are no rules or restrictions about that love. But characterizing God’s love in this way is false and blasphemous. God does not approve of our sinful behavior. He does not support the destructive things we do that go against His holy Law.
If the love I have for someone or something does not agree with the Ten Commandments, then it is not the love of God. So it is right for a man and a woman to love each other and want to serve one another. But it is not right for them to express that love in a sexual way until they are married. It is right for two men or two women to have love for each other and work on building their relationship. But it is not right for them to pursue a union of flesh. It is right to admire the nice things one’s neighbor has. But it is not right to covet those things and seek to take them.
It is so important that we recognize this. Some Christians have the idea that as long as they say they believe, then it does not matter how they live their life. They don’t like to be told that “Christians shouldn’t,” or “Christians won’t.” “No one has the right to tell me if I’m a Christian or not,” they say. “I know what I am in my heart.” But what if the rich man had called himself a good Christian? Wouldn’t it be natural to expect him to help the beggar Lazarus as God’s Commandments require? Wouldn’t his inactivity make his personal testimony questionable?
If our life is lacking in the love that God requires, and it is filled with a selfish love which God condemns, that calls our faith into question. Then what we say is totally different than how we act. Let’s say you called yourself a Bears fan, but you wore Packers gear, and you rooted for the Packers even when they played the Bears. Could that cause someone to wonder if you really were a Bears fan?
When that kind of inconsistency shows up in the life of a Christian, between what he says and what he does, this indicates a problem. In that case it would be good and loving for another Christian to warn him about the inconsistency, so that his faith is not lost. Jesus clearly tells us that it is possible to lose faith (Luk. 8:4-15). Faith is more than mere knowledge. It is not just a recitation of the facts given in the Bible. Faith grabs hold of the promises of the Gospel. It clings to the perfect life and atoning death of Jesus for our righteousness and forgiveness.
Faith receives what God gives by grace. Faith does not express itself defiantly, as though a believer could never be guilty of a sin. Faith expresses itself in humble repentance for sins committed day after day, and it looks to Jesus for salvation. Only Jesus lived the life of love that God requires. He lived a life of perfect love toward God and neighbor. His life of love is why we are acceptable before the Father. His love is credited to us by faith in Him.
Where faith is alive by the grace of God, it is also active. Faith bears fruit in our lives. It is active in a Godly love. “We love because He first loved us,” writes John. This love for others is not self-serving; it is self-sacrificing. It is not pleasure-seeking; it is service-oriented. It is not boastful or arrogant. It is not calloused or insensitive. It is patient and kind and generous and forgiving. That is the love God has for us, and it is the love He calls us to have for each other.
But we have not loved in this way, not always. We can all look back (and we don’t have to look very far) to see where we have failed to love like we should. So how confident can we be on the day of judgment? Will we stand before God and say that we loved as He loved us? John writes that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” Are you afraid to give an account before God of how you have loved? Are you afraid of His punishment?
The blessed truth is that we will not be judged on the last day by what we have done or failed to do. We will be judged by what Jesus did. His perfect life of love is credited to us by faith. In this way, we are just like a beggar. When a humble beggar receives a gift, he does not think about how well he has begged or how worthy he is to get something. He is simply grateful to receive. He recognizes that he has been given something that he did not have before and had no ability to get.
This is what God has done for us. He has brought to us the perfect work of Jesus—His holy life, His atoning death, His great resurrection. He doesn’t wait for us to prove our worth before He will give it. He reaches down to us through His Word and Sacraments, peels open our sin-clenched hands, and gives us blessing after blessing. He did this for the beggar Lazarus, and He does it for us. He gives us such abundant riches that there is more than enough to share with others.
Suppose someone handed a beggar a million dollars. Wouldn’t it seem harsh if he turned up his nose at his fellow beggar friends and kept his newfound wealth all to himself? In the same way, since we have received such great riches from God, why would we keep them to ourselves? How could we gratefully receive His love, but not want to show love to those around us? A faith that is alive and well by the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word cannot help but extend love to others.
This is what you are prepared for in church each week. You come here to be filled up with the love of God. You come to have your bag of faith resupplied. You are filled with God’s forgiveness, His courage, His peace, and His strength. You leave here spiritually rejuvenated, blessed. Having received these gifts, your faith is ready for action. Now you see one neighbor lonely, another sad, another in pain, another racked by guilt. You know what they need. They need the love of God in Christ. So you show your love by listening to them, by caring for them, and especially by pointing them to Jesus and the undying love He has for all.
A Living Faith Is Active in Love. Your faith is alive because it is fixed on Jesus, and Jesus is most certainly alive. And because your faith is alive, it is active in love. The love you show does not have to come from some source or supply of love inside you. That kind of love often runs out. But the perfect love of your Lord for you and for others is never exhausted. As you continue to draw on His love by faith, you will never be without love for your neighbors.
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 painting of the beggar Lazarus by Fyodor Bronnikov, 1886)
The Second Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 John 5:4-10
In Christ Jesus, who gives us a share of His eternal victory by faith, dear fellow redeemed:
He had told them several times. He told them He had to suffer and die, and that He would be raised again on the third day (Mat. 16:21, 17:23, 20:19). But the disciples did not understand. They were so troubled by the thought of His death that His promise to rise did not even register with them. Peter let Jesus know what he thought about The Plan. He took Jesus aside and rebuked Him. He said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Mat. 16:22).
It wasn’t long before this that Peter had beautifully expressed the truth about who Jesus was: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Peter naturally did not want to see His great Teacher and Lord die. He may have also wondered whether this was even possible. If Jesus is truly God’s Son, how could He die? But Jesus was not about to follow the will of Peter—the will of man. He followed the will of His Father in heaven, and His suffering, death, and resurrection happened exactly as He had predicted.
Yet even after His resurrection, the disciples struggled to believe it. The women came on Easter morning telling them about an open tomb, shining angels, and a message from Jesus. “[B]ut these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luk. 24:11). How could it be true? The previous Friday, Jesus had died on the cross. There was no question about it. John himself was there. He saw the soldier pierce the side of Jesus, and he saw blood and water come out (Joh. 19:34). Jesus was dead. The disciples had watched Jesus call back Lazarus from the dead. But who could call back Jesus?
They did not believe it until Jesus appeared to them in the flesh on Easter evening. Since the doors were locked, at first they thought a spirit had come into their midst. But Jesus showed them the marks in His hands, feet, and side. He ate some fish in their presence (Luk. 24:42). Now they realized that He most certainly wasn’t a ghost. This was Jesus, risen from the dead!
All of them were convinced, all except for Thomas. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared. “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails,” he said, “and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (Joh. 20:25). The next Sunday, the disciples including Thomas were all together, and Jesus appeared again. Now Thomas believed: “My Lord and my God!” he said (v. 28). Jesus said to him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (v. 29).
The skepticism of Thomas is the default position of many today regarding Jesus. They are willing to accept that He existed. They imagine He was probably a good guy. They like how He helped people in need. But they don’t believe He is God, and they don’t believe He came back to life after His death. The only way they would believe these things is if they had proof of some kind, like the proof that Thomas received.
The evidence that the apostle John brings forward is not the evidence one might expect. John says the proof that Jesus is the Son of God is found in “the Spirit and the water and the blood.” This is a reference especially to the beginning and end of Jesus’ public work. He was publicly identified as God’s Son and the promised Savior at His Baptism. When He was baptized, the heavens were opened, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Him. Then a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mat. 3:16-17).
That is strong testimony of Jesus’ identity. But how can we be certain it actually happened as described? Some people suggest that Jesus’ closest disciples invented stories about His life. But if you wrote a story and included yourself in it, how would you portray yourself? The disciples are often described as weak, petty, and ignorant. Either those creative writers were extraordinarily humble, or they simply told the truth about themselves and Jesus.
The same goes for John the Baptizer. He was not an all-knowing prophet. He admitted he did not know Jesus was the promised Messiah until he baptized Him. But seeing what happened and hearing the voice of God the Father, he then proclaimed, “this is the Son of God!” (Joh. 1:34). So by “the Spirit and the water” God the Father testified that Jesus was His Son.
Going forward three years, Jesus was now in Jerusalem. He had entered the city on Palm Sunday and was preparing for His imminent death. “Now is my soul troubled,” He said. “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (Joh. 12:27-28). Then a voice sounding like thunder came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (v. 28). It was the voice of His heavenly Father.
And then it was time for the testimony of “the blood.” The shedding of blood shows that Jesus was clearly a Man. Blood poured out of His back from the wounds of His flogging and from His head where the crown of thorns had been driven. It dripped from His hands and feet where the nails had pierced. But how does the blood prove His divinity? How does it show He is the Son of God?
If Jesus had died and remained dead, we would have to conclude that He was not who God said He was, that He was not the Son of God. But since He has risen, that changes the way we look at His crucifixion. His resurrection from the dead shows us that it wasn’t just a regular Man hanging on the cross. It was the God-Man. His blood was holy blood shed for all people. His suffering was holy suffering, not for wrongs He had done but for the sins of the world. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” He cried. His blood testifies that God the Father poured out His wrath against sin on His only Son in the place of all sinners.
“[T]he Spirit and the water and the blood.” This is God the Father’s testimony. “[T]his is the testimony of God that He has borne concerning His Son.” And Jesus’ resurrection is the bow that ties it all together. His resurrection proves that the testimony is true. It proves everything God declared about His Son and everything Jesus taught and did.
Those who deny Jesus’ resurrection will make of Him whatever they want, but they won’t have a Savior. You, on the other hand, who believe God’s testimony, have everything He has graciously promised you. You will not be judged along with the unbelieving world on the last day, because you are covered in Christ’s righteousness. You will not suffer eternal damnation in hell, because your sins are all forgiven. You will not remain in the grave, because Jesus will come again in glory to raise you from the dead.
All of these things are yours. You have been “born of God” by the power of the Holy Spirit. You were brought to faith in Jesus through His holy Word, so that His victory became your victory. He wants to continue to assure you and comfort you in this truth. He knows that the devil, the world, and your own flesh want to steal away your confidence. He knows how they try to use trials like the current pandemic to plant doubts in your mind about His love toward you and about the promises of His Word.
It is good that John recorded the doubts of Jesus’ disciples after His resurrection. They doubted like we do. Our faith is not perfect. It is common for all Christians to wonder why God lets troublesome things happen, or why He doesn’t fix a problem or help us in our need. We have also had doubts about whether we are right with God. How could He love people like us who have failed so miserably or done such bad things?
Jesus does not alleviate our doubts by appearing in person and showing us His hands and side like He did for Thomas. But He does set before us the testimony of His love through His Word and Sacraments. Publicly through His called servant and privately through the encouragement of fellow Christians, Jesus declares to us the forgiveness of our sins. As Jesus said to His disciples on Easter evening, so He still says to us, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Joh. 20:22-23).
He also gives us the testimony of His Sacraments—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. “Baptism,” He says, “is My cleansing blood applied to you. It is My bringing you the victory of My death and resurrection. It is your rebirth as a holy child of God.” And the Lord’s Supper is His body given in the bread and His blood given in the wine “for the remission of sins.” In this Supper, our resurrected and exalted Lord comes to us personally and brings us His eternal blessings of forgiveness and life and salvation.
So just as “the Spirit and the water and the blood” testified in Jesus’ life that He really is the Son of God, so “the Spirit and the water and the blood” in His Word and Sacraments continue to testify to Him today. It is impossible for our limited minds to understand these things. How could the Son of God take on flesh, suffer, die, and rise again? How could He continue to meet us through His Word and Sacraments?
But though our minds cannot comprehend these things, they are most certainly true. Jesus Really Is the Son of God. He really did die for your sins and rise again in victory over your death. And He really does come to you today to bring you comfort, strength, and peace in every need.
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 is from “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” by Caravaggio, c. 1601-1602)
Maundy Thursday – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: 1 Corinthians 11:23-32
In Christ Jesus, who freely gives Himself to us as food and drink, dear fellow redeemed:
We know the account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper very well. In fact we review its details every time we partake of the Sacrament: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread” and so on. But it is easy to forget about the context of this Supper. Jesus instituted this Holy Meal while He and His disciples enjoyed another holy meal: the Passover. It was no accident that these two meals should be joined together.
The Passover meal was a reminder of the LORD’s deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt. At that first Passover, each household slaughtered a blemish-free male lamb, consumed its flesh roasted over the fire, and painted its blood on the doorposts of the house. When the Angel of the LORD saw the blood of the lamb, He passed over that house, and everyone inside was saved from death.
God told His people to celebrate this Passover deliverance annually, so they would remember what He had done for them. This is why Jesus now reclined with His disciples in the upper room enjoying the Passover meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and wine. It was a meal for looking back, for thanking the LORD for His mercy upon His people. The disciples could not have guessed that Jesus was about to institute something new out of the Passover meal, something for the present and for the future.
He took some unleavened bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to the disciples saying, “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you.” How unexpected! How strange! Jesus told them to eat His body, and He said it is given in the bread! Then Jesus took the cup of wine, gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, “Drink of it all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.” His blood in the cup! How can this be? As hard as it was to understand, Jesus’ words were clear. He was instituting a special Supper in which His body was the food and His blood was the drink.
But there are many who do not believe these words of Jesus. They do not believe He gives His own body and blood in the Supper for us to consume. And until they are led by the Holy Spirit to believe His Word, this Supper is not for them. St. Paul writes by inspiration that whoever “eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord…. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
This would be something like an Israelite at the first Passover saying that he is glad to eat the roasted lamb, but he isn’t about to paint his doorposts with blood. Death would have come to that house because the person did not believe God’s Word. In the same way, Paul writes that those who deny what Jesus says He gives in His Supper sin against Him, and they eat and drink judgment on themselves.
So how can we be certain that we will receive His Supper properly? First of all, we take Jesus at His Word. This is a matter of faith. We can’t see any change take place when the Words of Jesus are spoken over the bread and wine. There is no scientific proof that His body and blood are present. But Jesus says they are, and He does not lie.
Second, we eat and drink His body and blood “in remembrance of” Him. This means to remember all that Jesus did to save us, how He perfectly kept the Law for us, how He died in payment of all our sins, and how He rose again on the third day. We don’t go to the Lord’s Supper thinking of all the good things we have done for God or for others. We go with humble hearts, trusting in Jesus alone as our Savior.
This brings us to the third part of our preparation to receive the Supper. Paul writes that a person must “examine himself” before this eating and drinking. The Lord’s Supper is no ordinary meal. Jesus is present, and He knows our hearts. We come repenting of the sins He already knows about, and we ask Him to strengthen us and help us to change our sinful ways and do better. When we prepare for the Lord’s Supper in this way—trusting what Jesus says, remembering what He did to save us, and repenting of our sins—we can be sure we will receive His body and blood with blessing.
The Passover was a meal for looking back, and there was no spiritual benefit gained from eating the lamb and unleavened bread and drinking the wine. But now in the Lord’s Supper, we eat Jesus’ body with the bread and drink His blood with the wine “for the remission of sins.” The first Passover saved the Israelites from slavery to the Egyptians and from temporal death. The Lord’s Supper saves us from even more—our slavery to sin and eternal death.
Jesus instituted the new Supper of His body and blood at the Passover meal to show that He is the fulfillment of the Passover. The Passover lamb pointed to Him. His holy body given in His Supper is nourishment and strength for our journey, and His holy blood cleanses us from all our sins (1Jo. 1:7). Jesus is the Lamb of God, who gladly gives His body and blood for our eternal good. Thanks be to God! Amen.
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(painting of the Last Supper by Simon Ushakov, 1685)
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)
Septuagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5
In Christ Jesus, who gives us holy food and drink to strengthen us for the race of this life that we must run, dear fellow redeemed:
Our country is serious about its sports. A survey from 2017 indicated that the American people spent about $100 billion in a year’s time on sporting events, athletic equipment, and gym memberships. For the Super Bowl last weekend, advertisers didn’t mind paying millions of dollars for a 30-second TV commercial. They knew people would be watching, and more than 100 million viewers were.
But our obsession with sports is not simply an American thing or even a twenty-first century thing. Athletic competition goes back in ancient history, probably all the way to Adam and Eve, or at least their kids. Humans have always been concerned about who is the fastest, who is the strongest, who is the most skilled. The Olympic Games were created in 776 B. C. as a way to measure these things on a grander scale. About 200 years after that, a similar event called the Isthmian Games was started. This was held in Corinth and featured recognizable events like racing, wrestling, boxing, and discus throwing.
The Isthmian Games made Corinth a hub of athletic activity. The athletes likely trained and participated in competitions throughout the year. The Apostle Paul spent an extended time in Corinth during his missionary journeys—more than a year and a half (Act. 18:11, 18). He saw firsthand the dedication of the athletes and may have even been present at one of the national Games.
He knew when he referred to athletic competition in today’s text that he was “speaking the language” of the Corinthians. It’s our language too. We understand what he is talking about when he mentions racing and boxing and the training needed to succeed. He writes: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.”
If you are serious about sports, you don’t put in all the time and hard work, push through injuries and pain, to come in second. You train to win. A kid who is content with a participation ribbon is not serious about winning. And there is nothing wrong with competing just for the fun of it and not caring about winning or losing. But if the goal is winning, that requires sacrifices.
Paul writes that we should go all out to obtain the prize. But he is not really talking about athletic competition. He is talking about our life of faith. He urges us to dedicate ourselves to spiritual training and exercise, so we do not lose the prize the Lord has prepared for us. And what is that prize? It is the imperishable crown, very different than the perishable wreaths won by the athletes in those days, whose leaves soon withered. The imperishable crown is everlasting life which Jesus secured for sinners through His death and resurrection. This crown is reserved for all who believe in Jesus. He assures us, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).
But how exactly can we “train” or “exercise” our faith? It is not simply a matter of going through the motions. Even athletic training requires more than muscle. It requires heart and strength of will. All the physical, mental, and emotional resources of a person must be focused on the goal if he wants to succeed.
We need to approach our spiritual goal in a similar way. We can’t take for granted that the prize will be ours if we make no effort to obtain it. It would be absurd for a fifty-year-old to think he could compete in a marathon simply because he “ran a couple times” as a kid. This is like the adults who feel they are in good shape with God simply because they got baptized and confirmed at a church many years before. They figure as long as they are on the congregation’s books, they are on their way to heaven.
Saving faith, though, is hardly a matter of “checking certain boxes” or of doing certain “churchy” things because “we are supposed to.” It is certainly good to attend church, but simply being present does not mean faith is being exercised. You could be sitting here physically, but your thoughts could be a million miles away. Or in your mind, you could be rejecting the things you hear: “Oh, I’m not really as sinful as that!” Or, “I don’t go along what the Bible says on this point.” Or, “I’m a good person; I deserve to go to heaven!”
Or you could come to Communion and bow your head with the rest of us, but you come more out of obligation than anything. You are not especially troubled by your sins. You don’t have a strong desire to be nourished and strengthened by the body and blood of Jesus. You just feel it is important to keep up appearances.
Does this sound far-fetched, like something that wouldn’t happen to you or the people around you? Then listen to what Paul wrote about the Israelites, the chosen people of God. He said that all were delivered from slavery in Egypt. All were led by Moses through the midst of the Red Sea. They all looked up to him as their leader. They “all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.” But not all of them remained believers. Not all of them were saved. Paul said that “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”
Do you see why our spiritual training and exercise is so important? We cannot take for granted that we will inherit heaven simply because we are connected to a congregation or because we have generally tried to live the way Christians live. Salvation comes through faith in Jesus. It comes from knowing, trusting in, and being comforted by what He did. It comes from recognizing that there is no other way for us to be saved (Act. 4:12).
Salvation does not come from our work. Jesus made this abundantly clear in the parable in today’s Gospel reading. All the vineyard workers received the same wages no matter how long they had worked. The ones who worked the longest weren’t cheated, because they were paid exactly what they had been promised (Mat. 20:1-16). It is a parable that expresses the grace of God, that He saves us out of the abundance of His love.
It was His love that caused God the Father to send His only Son to us. Jesus came with no ambitions for personal success or glory. He came to redeem us from our sin and death by giving Himself in our place. This was no easy thing to do. He had to resist countless temptations to sin, fully keep God’s law, endure great anguish and pain, and die on a Roman cross. He maintained His gracious resolve, and He accomplished His goal: our salvation. The author of Hebrews tells us that “for the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2).
Jesus finished that bitter race for you. He carried your sins to His death and suffered the torments of hell on your behalf, so you would have forgiveness and eternal life. On the third day He rose again to show that the victory over sin and death is yours and all who believe in Him. But if He already won the race, if He already obtained the victory, what more is there for us to do?
There is nothing we can do to win the victory. The victory is ours by faith in Jesus. But as we learn from the example of the Israelites, that faith can be lost. It can be lost by spiritual laziness, by not taking time to hear and study God’s Word at church and at home. It can be lost by letting our guard down, which makes us vulnerable to the attacks of the devil and our sinful flesh. It can be lost by rejecting our training and running off into sin.
This is why Paul, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, urges us to “exercise self-control in all things.” The very term “self-control” tells us that we need to maintain spiritual discipline, so our “self” does not lead us in the wrong direction. Paul clearly recognized the harmful desires of our sinful nature. This is why he diligently disciplined his body and kept it under control.
He did not run without purpose. He did not box for show. In a letter to Timothy, he said his spiritual training and exercise bore fruit. The Lord strengthened and kept him in the saving faith until his earthly end, so that Paul could gratefully say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2Ti. 4:7).
Our spiritual growth as Christians is always by the grace of God. We cannot get ourselves to heaven. But Jesus promises to visit and strengthen us through His powerful Word and Sacraments. These are the means He uses to carry us to the finish line in this life and on into His eternal kingdom. We stay focused and connected to Him by repenting of our sins, filling our hearts and minds with His Word, and applying our will to His work. We are not running to lose. We don’t want to lose what Jesus won for us.
We Strive for the Imperishable Prize. It may seem a long way off in the distance, but we will be there before we know it. We confidently run forward saying with Paul, “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2Ti. 4:8). God grant us all the grace and strength to finish this race in faith and to receive the blessed crown of life.
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 is ancient street in Corinth)
The Fourth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 16:16-23
In Christ Jesus, who lovingly gathers us to Himself as a hen gathers her chicks (Mat. 23:37), so that we are comforted and kept safe, dear fellow redeemed:
Everyone has a mother, and so it is right for all of us to celebrate motherhood this weekend and the impact our mothers have made in our lives. You would not be here today if your mother had not carried you in her womb and given birth to you. In most cases, mothers continue to care for and nurture their children through their developmental years and into adulthood. Often it is mother who addresses scrapes and cuts. It is mother who rocks a sick child to sleep. It is mother who listens with compassion and gives her support.
No one really outgrows the need for a mother. God gives life through the union of woman and man to show that a person needs both a mother and a father. When we have lost one or the other or both, we feel the gaps—we are aware of their absence. Our mother particularly is the one who makes a house feel like home. There is a comfort where she is.
But for all the wonderful qualities God has given mothers, their power is limited. They cannot keep their children from pain and heartache. They cannot always stop their children from making bad choices. As much as they want to, they cannot make everything better. During these times of trial, Christian mothers look where they teach their children to look: to Jesus.
But Jesus does not always seem easy to find. He does not always seem present when needed. This is what His disciples were thinking when Jesus told them, “A little while, and you will see Me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see Me.” “What does He mean?” they wondered. Is He going to leave us? This conversation happened the night before Jesus’ death. Soon the disciples would watch a mob arrest Him. Then Jesus was driven toward Calvary and crucified. What He said to the disciples came to pass: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.”
That was a terrible time for the disciples. Jesus was dead, their great Teacher and Friend. Everything they had come to believe in and work for seemed lost. What now? They worried that they, too, might be arrested and crucified. They wondered if they had it all wrong. How could Jesus be the Son of God if He died? Had they put their faith in the wrong person? They didn’t know what to think. They felt utterly alone.
You have gone through times like this also. You have worried what might happen to you if you tell the truth, if you tell the truth about sin and about Jesus. You have wondered if you have it all wrong. What if the God of the Bible is not the true God? What if there is no God who cares for you? You feel this way when you experience great pain and sorrow, great loss. You feel like no one is there to take away the hurt. You feel alone.
But someone is there. Jesus is there. These might sound like empty words. We might ask why Jesus doesn’t make Himself known if He is really with us. It would be so comforting if we could be certain of His presence, if He would just let us see Him or sense Him. But we heard two weeks ago the danger of relying only on our reason and senses. Thomas said he would not believe the Word unless He could see Jesus alive with His own eyes and put his finger into the mark of the nails and his hand into His side (Joh. 20:25). Then Jesus appeared and said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (v. 29).
Why? Why does it have to be “by faith, not by sight” (2Co. 5:7)? It is this way, so that it depends on God and not on us. Imagine a young child at play. Which is better, for the child to need to keep his mother in view and know where she is at all times? Or for the mother to watch over her child? If it were up to the child to do this, he would soon forget about mom because he is so caught up in what he is doing. The primary responsibility falls to the mother, and even if she is busy with something else, she has an eye on the child to make sure he is safe.
Like that child, we children of God do not always keep our eyes on Him. We get caught up in what we are doing in the world and wander away from Him or put ourselves in some other dangerous situation. But none of this escapes the Lord’s notice. He sees everything and knows everything. The psalmist writes, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways” (Psa. 139:2-3).
But even though He knows all, the Lord does not promise that He will keep us from all trouble and pain. To the contrary, in the same conversation with His disciples, Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you…. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you…. In the world you will have tribulation” (Joh. 15:18,20, 16:33). There is sin in the world and in ourselves, which means there will be trials.
But there is also hope for us. It is not a weak and wavering hope; it is a certain hope. It is a hope anchored in the promises of Jesus. It was not easy for the disciples to hear Him say, “A little while, and you will see Me no longer.” But that is not all Jesus said. He continued, “and again a little while, and you will see Me.” He was talking about His death and resurrection. He had tried to tell the disciples about this many times, but they didn’t want to hear it. They couldn’t bear to hear about His death, so they ignored the part about His resurrection.
But the Son of God had to do this. This is how He would “overcome the world” (Joh. 16:33). This is how He would conquer sin and triumph over the devil and death. This is how He would free us from the dark troubles and trials of this world and open to us the gates of the kingdom of heaven.
And while we are still here, the Lord even uses the trials and pain and sorrow of this life for His everlasting purpose. These things teach us to “[s]et [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). Placing our hope in the passing things of this world is to live without hope. This is why the Lord allows troubles to come upon us, and even sends these trials. They are intended to remind us of our sinful weakness and to turn our focus back to Him.
Sometimes these are heavy trials, heavier than we can bear. They are more than we can handle. Jesus gives the example of childbirth. He says, “[w]hen a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come.” It is hard to be hopeful when the pain of childbirth is so intense. Some women probably wonder if they will survive it. Most vow that they will never go through it again. But the Lord sees them through, and there is joy on the other side.
For how terrible the anguish is, the joy of a newborn baby outweighs the sorrow. That is why women do not have pained expressions on their faces each Mother’s Day as they recall the trauma that made them mothers. Instead they rejoice in their children and consider the suffering they endured worthwhile.
Jesus uses this example as an illustration of any number of troubles a Christian may experience. Some loads may be heavier and some lighter. But whatever the amount of burden or hurt or pain or sorrow, Jesus is present. He told His disciples, “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Whether or not they would be looking for Him, Jesus said, “I will see you.” He would come to them and bless them.
This is our hope and comfort. We do not always fix our eyes of faith on Jesus. Instead all the troubles loom large, and they only seem to grow bigger and bigger. But Jesus sees us. He looks upon us with eyes of mercy and compassion like a mother looks upon her suffering child. And He comes to help and strengthen us. Through His Word and Sacraments, He comes to nurse us back to spiritual health and strength. He comes to heal the wounds we have inflicted on ourselves by our own sins, and the wounds that others have inflicted upon us. And He is ever ready to hear the prayers borne out of our anguish, loneliness, and sorrow.
Mom cannot be there all the time, and as much as she wishes she could, she cannot make everything better. But Jesus Sees Us Through Every Trial. He understands our suffering. He experienced the utmost anguish Himself by His suffering and death in our place, and He emerged from the infinite darkness of that trial in glorious victory. The author of Hebrews writes that “for the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2).
We likewise look for the eternal joy that will be ours when the trials of this world come to an end. We have this joy now by faith in Jesus, but we do not fully experience it. In heaven we will experience it fully, when we see Jesus as He sees us. Then looking upon our Savior, we will have perfect joy—joy that “no one will take” from us.
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(portion of painting, “Jesus Discourses with His Disciples,” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Second Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 20:19-31
In Christ Jesus, whose Gospel is foolishness to the world, but power and wisdom and life to us, dear fellow redeemed:
Picture yourself riding in the family car as a kid. Suddenly, someone else in the car points at something—“Look at that!” You look but don’t see anything. Everyone else says, “Wow! That’s amazing! I’ve never seen anything like that before!” You keep looking around desperately: “Where? Where is it? I don’t see anything!” But it’s too late. You missed it. You won’t enjoy what the others did. How does that make you feel?
Or if you’re old enough, think back to your middle school, junior high, and high school days. Remember all those little groups and exclusive clubs and cliques? Some of you may have been self-secure enough that you did not care about them. But others of us worried our way through these years. We wanted to fit in. We wanted to be accepted. The thing we dreaded was for no one to notice us, like we didn’t even exist—or worse, to be singled out and picked on or made fun of.
It is no fun to be on the outside looking in. It is no fun to miss out on what everyone else seems to enjoy. These feelings can hound us even when we get beyond our teenage years and enter adulthood. We don’t want to be left out. We want to be included. If we are left out, we assume it is for one of two reasons: it is someone else’s fault, or there must be something wrong with me. Either those who exclude are mean, uncaring, or shallow, or I am not good company, and people would rather not have me around.
What was Thomas supposed to think? He was one of the “the Twelve.” He had followed Jesus from the earliest times of His public work. But when he returned after Easter evening and heard the reports of Jesus’ resurrection, he was troubled. He learned that Jesus had supposedly appeared to some of the women that morning, and to Peter, and to some others on the road to Emmaus. Then the Lord was said to have appeared to all the disciples gathered together in a tightly secured room in Jerusalem.
But why should Thomas have been left out? If Jesus had actually risen and appeared to people all over the area, couldn’t He have found Thomas too? He was no less important than the other disciples, was he? Thomas couldn’t bear the thought of a resurrected Jesus deliberately concealing Himself from him. So instead of pinning the problem on himself, Thomas pinned it on his fellow disciples. No matter how much the disciples repeated what they had seen and heard, he refused to listen. “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails,” he said, “and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe.”
Thomas would not play the part of the fool. He wanted the facts. He wanted visible, tangible proof. This is why many today reject the claims of Christianity. They want visible, tangible proof of God. They want undeniable proof that the Bible is entirely God’s Word. They are not satisfied with Christians telling them they just need to “have faith.” And we can understand their hesitation. They have doubts, just as Thomas did.
But for many, no proofs that are put forward about God and His Word could ever be enough. Christian teaching does not fit the way they want to look at the world. Even the very idea that there is a God is offensive to many. They believe that everything came about by chance starting with a Big Bang. They believe that more complex organisms came from less complex ones, and that humans evolved over time from monkeys.
We have legitimate questions about these theories. They offer no explanation for where matter began. If it was through a Big Bang, where did that explosive material come from? And how was it possible for living things to come from material that had no life in it? This is certainly something that humans cannot duplicate. And if humans evolved from monkeys, and one species of animal from another, where is the evidence of these half-and-half creatures?
So which side has the facts? One side says that humans have a sufficient answer for all of life’s questions. The other says that God is the answer to all of life’s questions. Those are very different ways of looking at the world. Thomas wanted to rely on his own reason and experience. He was not willing to humbly listen to the Word that was shared with him. He was going to make the rules. He was going to set the conditions for establishing fact.
Why was Thomas wrong to think this way? He was wrong because Jesus actually had risen from the dead! Everything about the Christian faith hinges on whether or not this happened. If Jesus did rise from the dead, His Word is true, and everyone should listen to what He has to say. If He did not rise from the dead, then the Christian religion is no different than all the other religions of the world. Then we have no certainty of God’s grace and no certainty of a blessed life after this one.
We confess that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, and that He rose again on the third day. We confess this based on the testimony of eyewitnesses who saw all these things happen. The world of unbelievers mock Christians for this confession. Unbelievers can live with the idea that Jesus was a really nice teacher, who told everyone to be loving. But they don’t want to hear that Jesus is true God who took on human flesh, so He could suffer and die for their sins and rise again in victory over their death. If that is true, they cannot remain how they are. If it is not true, they can go about their business as they always have.
And so they look down on pious Christians and call them simpletons. They regard the Christian’s faith in Jesus as little more than superstition. Ultimately they think Christians are fools, who would benefit from using their brains once in a while.
There is no shame in being thought a fool. There’s a saying that goes something like this: “It’s better to be thought a fool, than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt” (possibly derived from Pro. 17:28). Being called a fool, or suspected of being a fool, does not mean you actually are one. Those who call Christians foolish like to think they are the intelligent ones. That isn’t how David put it. He wrote, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good” (Ps. 14:1). David argues that a person using his intellect would conclude there is a God.
Another Psalm speaks of the greatness of the LORD’s work, which can be seen all around us in creation. But instead of praising the LORD, the fool exalts himself. He ignores his own mortality, the destruction which comes upon all people (92:4-9). He thinks he is the master of his own fate. But unknown to himself, it is the devil who controls him. The prophet Isaiah described this situation: “For the fool speaks folly, and his heart is busy with iniquity, to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the LORD, to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink” (Isa. 32:6).
But we do not despise those who single us out, who call us fools. Jesus died for them just as He died for us. He rose victorious over their death just as much as for ours. The forgiveness He won is for everybody’s sins, and it is imparted to all who repent of their sin and trust in Him. Jesus gave this power of forgiveness to His Church, as you heard in today’s text: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” The sins of penitent sinners are forgiven, while the sins of the impenitent are not forgiven.
For the repentant person, no matter what foolishness he has pursued, no matter what sins he has committed, Jesus forgives. He died for that sin, and His resurrection proves that this payment was acceptable to His Father. This goes for the times that you avoided making a clear confession of your faith, because you were afraid of what others might think of you. You wanted to fit in. You didn’t want to be left out. You didn’t want to be different. And now you regret that. You see how you let your sinful flesh take control, and how you disregarded and despised your Lord’s Word.
The merciful Lord forgives that sinful foolishness, just as He forgave the foolishness of Thomas. He came again into that room and said, “Peace—Peace be with you.” This was for Thomas too. Jesus was not angry with him. He did not put Thomas out and act like he didn’t exist. But He did encourage him to set aside his pride and cling to God’s Word. He said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
The death and resurrection of Jesus is no fairy tale. It is no superstition. It is a fact that in this way, Jesus accomplished your eternal salvation. The apostle Paul writes, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1Co. 1:18). The world can say what it wants about the Bible’s teaching, but it has nothing better to offer—not by a long-shot! All the world knows is sin and death. But Jesus gives us His righteousness and everlasting life. The world’s heroes all die. But Jesus lives!
Because of what Jesus has done for you, you are not on the outside looking in. You haven’t missed anything. You are on the side of the resurrected Lord, which means that even though some may think you a fool, you are no fool at all.
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(painting is portion of “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” by Caravaggio, c. 1601-1602)
The Resurrection of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad exordium and sermon
Was there really a fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last week? Well how do you know? Were you there? Did you watch it happen? As far as I know, none of you have just returned from Europe. And yet you are convinced there was a huge fire in that cathedral. Why? It’s because you have seen pictures and video of the fire, and you have heard reports from the eyewitnesses. But since you did not see it with your own eyes, would you call the Notre Dame fire a matter of faith or fact?
The same question could be asked about Jesus’ resurrection: Is it a matter of faith or fact? The apostle Paul called it a fact. Paul said that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, and then rose again on the third day (2Co. 15:3-4). If no one could verify His resurrection, if no one saw Jesus alive again, it could not be considered a fact. But Paul stated that “he appeared to Cephas [or Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (vv. 5-8).
If Paul were telling a lie, he wouldn’t name these names. He wouldn’t make the claim that five hundred people at one time saw Jesus alive after His death. That would be easy to disprove if it were a lie. But Paul said that most of the five hundred were still alive when he wrote his letter. That means people could, if they wanted to, find those witnesses and ask them what they saw. And they would all say the same thing. Like Paul, some of these witnesses also wrote about Jesus’ resurrection. Their testimony is included with Paul’s in the New Testament of the Bible. There are also sources outside the Bible that make the same claim, sources that date near the time of these events.
But faith is a part of it too. You could hear the facts but not believe them. Simply knowing the fact of Jesus’ resurrection does not save you. Salvation comes from knowing and believing that Jesus “was delivered up for [your] trespasses and raised for [your] justification” (Rom. 4:25). In confident faith, let us now rise to sing our exordium hymn, “He Is Arisen! Glorious Word!” (ELH 348, TLH 189).
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Text: St. Mark 16:1-8
In Christ Jesus, who accomplished everything He was sent to do to the glory of His Father and for the salvation of all people, dear fellow redeemed:
We can’t help but notice everyone’s surprise that Jesus rose from the dead. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had wrapped Him in burial cloths and closed Him up in a tomb. The disciples went into hiding while they mourned His death. The women made plans to return to the tomb after the Sabbath and apply more spices to Jesus’ dead body.
But by Sunday morning, there was no dead body to be found. An angel came down from heaven and rolled back the stone from the tomb (Mat. 28:2). Those who looked inside did not see what they expected to see. They found nothing but burial cloths. Jesus was gone! “He is not here,” said the angel, “for he has risen, as he said” (Mat. 28:6).
“He Has Risen, as He Said.” His resurrection was no secret. Jesus predicted it would happen. He told His disciples before these events that “he must go to Jerusalem… and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mat. 16:21). Again He said, “[men] will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day” (17:23). And again, “they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day” (20:18-19). Those were Jesus’ own words. They were very clear.
He had spoken about His resurrection at other times too, but not as clearly. Early in His public work, He had told the Jewish religious leaders, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Joh. 2:19). They thought He was talking about the temple building, but “he was speaking about the temple of his body” (v. 21). Another time, He told the scribes and Pharisees that He would be three days and nights “in the heart of the earth,” just as Jonah was three days and nights “in the belly of the great fish” (Mat. 12:40).
Ironically, it seems Jesus’ enemies took His words more seriously than His disciples did. The chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate the day after Jesus’ death and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first” (Mat. 27:63-64).
Isn’t that something? Jesus’ enemies heard the prediction loud and clear, but they did not want it to be true. Jesus’ disciples, on the other hand, did not understand or grasp what He said, even though they desperately wanted it to be true. I suppose we can’t be too hard on the disciples. We are likewise faced with the tension between what Jesus says and what our eyes see, between His promise and our experience.
We face this tension whenever we lay someone to rest in the tomb. It is obvious to us that the body is dead, that no life remains in it anymore. How can we be so sure that the body will rise again? No one has ever seen a dead person come back to life. Cemeteries do not typically shrink in size; they expand. So we are really in the same place as the disciples were from Good Friday evening to Easter Sunday morning. As far as we can observe, death is final.
But the Lord kept His Word; He did rise from the dead. The disciples could hardly believe what they were seeing. That’s why Jesus wanted them to cling to His Word. Our own sight, experience, and reason are not infallible, but the Word is. After His resurrection, the disciples remembered Jesus’ prediction, “and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (Joh. 2:22; also Luk. 24:6-7).
Does that mean we cannot be sure of our resurrection and the resurrection of our loved ones until we see it happen? Not at all. We can be sure of the resurrection of the body because of Jesus’ resurrection. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Joh. 11:25-26). Even the night before His death He said, “Because I live, you also will live” (14:19).
Because Jesus lives, we will live. Because He rose again from the dead, we will rise again from the dead. Our life here and our eternal future are completely tied up in Him. This connection to the living Lord started for many of us at our baptism. Paul writes, “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” (Rom. 6:4-5).
Paul says that if we died to sin through baptism, if our sins were buried with Christ, then they do not stick to us anymore. Jesus atoned for them on the cross, and they were buried with Him in the tomb. Those sins did not rise again with Jesus on Easter. They stayed buried. That means our sin is no longer counted against us. That means death no longer has dominion over us, because it “no longer has dominion over Jesus” (v. 9). Jesus’ resurrection means you “must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11).
But often the opposite seems to be true. Sin and death seem very alive in us, while hope and life seem dead. We are troubled by the things we have done. We knew something was wrong, but we did it anyway. We are bothered by the bad thoughts that keep flying around in our heads. We can’t get over the guilt of our failures, both the big ones and the small ones. We hardly look like the redeemed and righteous children of God that we became at our baptism.
This is why we return every day to the waters of our baptism by repentance and faith. We drown our old Adam with its sins and evil lusts, and we cling to the sure promises of Jesus. We also return each week to be comforted and strengthened by God’s Word in the Divine Service. This is why we have come here today. We have come to hear the words of the angel: “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen!” (Mar. 16:6).
Jesus was crucified for you, for all your sins. He paid the debt you owed. The work to save you was, as He said, “finished!” (John 19:30). And His empty tomb proves that His saving work was accepted by God the Father. God is not angry with you. He forgives you. Christ’s resurrection is your justification. It is the declaration of your innocence before God.
You can’t know this forgiveness by feeling it. You may not always feel forgiven, but you are. You are forgiven because “He Has Risen, as He Said.” Jesus kept His Word. He did what He said He would do. He always keeps His Word. This is why you can be certain that your sins are forgiven, and that you and all the dead will rise again on the last day. You will rise again because Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.
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(picture of Easter morning sunrise at Saude Lutheran Church)
The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 8:23-27
In Christ Jesus, who is near us and with us and even resides inside us by His never-ending grace, dear fellow redeemed:
With the extreme cold we experienced last week, we have many modern blessings to be thankful for. We are thankful for furnaces which keep our homes at a nice, constant temperature and for the fuel and electricity that run them. We are thankful for phone and internet service which keep us connected to others. We are thankful for cars that get us from point A to point B in dangerous conditions. We are thankful for indoor plumbing.
The situation was quite different for the immigrants who settled the countryside, building grass huts and log cabins. Their indoor heat came from the fireplace which sent more heat up the chimney than into the room. If there was an emergency, there was no easy way to contact anyone. To get anywhere, they had to take off on foot or by horse. There was NO indoor plumbing.
The disciples likewise had few options when a great storm troubled the sea. They could not call for help or send a distress signal. They had no motor to get them quickly to land. They were captive to the violent rise and fall of the waves which threatened to sink the boat.
If you have gone boating in the past, I hope you have been spared an experience like this. Of course we don’t have to find trouble on the sea—there is enough of it on land! Some of you have lost property or goods due to flooding, drought, or other severe weather. You were helpless to stop it and could only hope that it would pass quickly.
Others have faced trouble besides disasters in nature. For some, it may be health problems. You have long dealt with a chronic condition or a weakness in your body. Or you were surprised to be diagnosed with a serious infection or disease. Others have financial difficulties. You made some poor purchasing or investment decisions. You borrowed more than you could pay back. You did not receive what was promised you. Others have dealt with personal attacks, betrayal, loss of loved ones, severe temptations, and gnawing guilt.
In any of these situations, you may feel like those disciples did in the boat. You are thrown this way and that, and you wonder how you will survive the storm. You hang on for dear life, and you pray. And while all the trouble is going on, you wonder why God is taking so long to help. Doesn’t He see you suffering? Doesn’t He know your worries and fears? Where is He?!?
When life is sailing along smoothly, it is easy to think that God is present. You believe that He smiles upon you and guards you from all evil and misfortune. If you like the “footprints in the sand” picture, these are the times that you cheerfully walk side-by-side with the Lord.
The danger of these times is that we can become so comfortable with our prosperity, health, and happiness that we think our success is due at least in part to our own abilities and efforts. Imagining that we walk side-by-side with God in those good times gives us entirely too much credit. The reality is that every good thing we have and experience is from God. He does not walk beside us as an equal. He carries us and provides for us like a mother cares for her infant child.
But like young children, we are prone to throwing fits when life does not go our way. We want God’s attention now! We want Him to end the pain or fix the problem. We blame Him when relief does not come when we want it. His seeming absence or inaction makes our troubles seem even greater than they are. We think to ourselves that if the Lord has the power to help, why doesn’t He?
The devil really has a heyday at times like these. He is eager to help you see God as an enemy. He wants you to think that the waves of your trials will flood the boat and cast you into deeper affliction. The devil is a master at turning molehills into mountains. He does this with disputes between Christians or disagreements within a family. He wants you to imagine that the sins of your past are like chains you can never escape from. He wants you to see God as an angry judge instead of a merciful Savior.
But if the Lord is with you in the good times, why shouldn’t He be with you in the bad? Is He so ready to leave you? In today’s text, there is no indication that the weather was threatening when Jesus and His disciples got into the boat. It may have even been a sunny day with a gentle breeze helping the boat along. Perhaps the disciples talked about what ideal conditions these were. Jesus did not express any concern about the weather. He was tired from the demands of the crowds and laid down on a cushion in the stern (Mar. 4:38).
But then clouds began to drift in, dark clouds. The wind picked up. The boat bobbed and tilted. Waves began to wash over the sides and soon drenched the seasoned sailors. Where was Jesus when all this was happening? He was still in the boat. He hadn’t gone anywhere. But He was asleep. The disciples cried out to Him: “Wake up, Lord! Save us! We are perishing! Don’t you care? Help us!”
Jesus’ response was twofold, and the disciples did not expect either one: First, He said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” and then He rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm.
Why did Jesus ask if the disciples were afraid? Who wouldn’t be afraid in those circumstances? This was a test. It was about the same as asking the disciples: “Who am I? What do you know about Me? Do you think I would let harm come to you?” They, like we, needed to be reminded of these things.
We need to be reminded that since God created us, He is not going to ignore us; since He redeemed us, He is not going to condemn us; and since He called us to be His own by faith, He is not going to forget about us. Do we follow some teacher who died and was buried long ago, and who still lies buried? No! We are disciples of the living Lord, the Lord of heaven and earth!
So then “why are you afraid?” Why are you afraid of failure and hardship and loss? Why are you afraid of God’s abandonment and anger and condemnation? Why are you afraid that the waves of all that is painful and bad will swamp your boat? It is because you have “little faith.” This is true of all of us. We think we are alone in the boat and it is about to go under.
But the Lord is with you. The boat is not yours, it is His. That you are in the boat at all is a testament to His grace. By nature you were drowning in your sins, but by baptism Jesus pulled you out of the swirling waters and into the boat with Him. More than that, Jesus joined you to Himself at your baptism. He made you a member of His own holy body. At your baptism, He made a commitment to you that He would never abandon you, never let you drown in the difficulties of life.
But baptism does not mean all troubles have ended. Prior to conversion, the sinner is in bad shape, but he is not really aware of it. He is floundering in sin, but he doesn’t understand his dire situation. When a sinner is converted, he joins Jesus in the boat and only then realizes how bad things are around him. He sees the storms of godlessness raging all around him and the rocks of unbelief where Satan would destroy his soul.
But as long as he stays in the boat with Jesus by faith, He is safe. Faith connects him to Jesus, and Jesus is not afraid of any danger. No eternal harm can come to the one who trusts in Jesus. This picture of the Lord’s boat is the reason why the seating area in churches is called the “nave.” This is related to the word “naval” and comes from the Latin word for ship (navis).
When Christians enter the nave, they come where Jesus is. He is present through Word and Sacraments to drive away fear and strengthen faith. As His people cry, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” in the divine service, He replies, “Peace! Be still!” (Mar. 4:39). He delivers peace through the absolution and the preaching of the Gospel. Then He fills them with His own body and blood which cleanses them and renews their courage.
The nave of this church is where we pull our eyes away from the storms around us and inside us and look to Jesus. Who will condemn us since He gave Himself in our place to redeem us? What is there to fear since He is our Lord? What can harm us since He is here with us? He can stop all the raging of the winds and sea with just a Word.
“What sort of man is this?” asked the disciples. This is a man like no other. Jesus is the eternal God begotten of the Father, and He is the human son of Mary. God became Man to throw Himself into the raging waters to lift us to safety. He sacrificed His life, so we would be rescued. If He would do that for you, He will not forsake you in times of trouble. Though He may seem to be sleeping at times, He hears your cry and will not fail to help you.
Your fears may often overwhelm you, and you may display very “little faith.” But Jesus credits you with His perfect faith. He fills you with His perfect courage. No matter the conditions around you, no matter the storms that threaten you, you can rest peacefully and securely—because The Lord Is with You in the Boat.
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(“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” painting by Ludolf Backhuysen, 1695)
The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 1:18-25
In Christ Jesus, who has not left us as orphans in this sin-filled world, but who comes to us to strengthen and keep us in the faith until His final coming in glory, dear fellow redeemed:
Faith is a major theme in this part of the year, not just in the church but also in society. Our society encourages faith with regard to Santa Claus. Many holiday movies are based on the idea that Santa can carry out his gift-giving work only if enough people believe in him. Their faith is what gives him power. Naturally this belief in Santa is most challenging for adults, whose reason gets in the way. But the adults always come around, and everyone has a happy Christmas.
The church also preaches the need for faith, but the object of faith is not Santa and his promise of earthly gifts. The church’s object of faith is Jesus Christ and His promise of heavenly gifts. A childlike faith is needed here too, since it is easy to have doubts about what Jesus has accomplished. But while there is no evidence for Santa beyond recent and fictional fantasy, there is extensive evidence for Jesus in the ancient and historical texts of the Bible.
From Genesis to Revelation, the central character in the Bible is the Savior promised to Adam and Eve and their descendants after the fall into sin. At that time, the Lord told the devil: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
What did that mean? The Lord was telling Satan that he would not have his way with mankind. He would not be able to lead them unopposed into darkness. Satan’s offspring and the woman’s offspring would be at enmity with each other. They would be adversaries. They would struggle and battle against one another. And then at a certain point, one particular Descendant of the woman would stomp on Satan’s head. He would crush any authority the devil had.
When would these things take place? The struggle between righteousness and unrighteousness was evident right away. Sin strained the marriage of Adam and Eve, and the devil’s work was also manifest in their children. Their firstborn son Cain became angry at his younger brother Abel when the Lord accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. The Lord warned Cain that “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7). But Cain allowed Satan to slither in, and Cain attacked and killed his brother.
How sad this must have been for Adam and Eve! They had hoped Cain might be the promised Offspring who would crush the deceiver’s head. Instead they watched the devil tempt Cain to sin just as he had tempted them. When would their Redeemer come? Adam waited hundreds of years for this Savior, but by the time of his death at age 930 the Savior had not arrived (5:3-5). Then more time passed, a lot more time. Centuries turned into millennia, and still there was no Savior.
The need for a Savior was obvious. Before God sent the worldwide flood, the Bible says that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5). This wickedness continued after the flood too. When not only ten righteous people could be found in Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lord rained down fire and destroyed those cities. By the time the prophet Elijah came along, he thought he was the only believer left in the entire world. He wasn’t far off. The Lord said that just 7000 Israelites continued to follow Him (1Ki. 19:18). That is the equivalent of the towns of Cresco and New Hampton pitted against the rest of the world.
The devil appeared to be working unchecked among men and winning the battle. When would his terrible reign end? When would the woman’s Offspring come, the One who would conquer him? No one knew. But there were prophesies, prophesies that more and more clearly prepared the people for the Savior’s coming. One of these was delivered to King Ahaz by the prophet Isaiah in the 700s B. C., and it is repeated in today’s Gospel lesson: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).
“[T]he virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” That must be the woman’s Offspring! But here was a new detail. The woman would be a virgin, and yet she would give birth to a son. This is why the child could be called “Immanuel,” a title meaning “God with us.” If a child were conceived in the natural way, he could not be called “Immanuel.” But this child would be conceived in a supernatural way. This is how the perfect God would become a member of the human race while retaining His righteousness and innocence.
So the stage was set. The Savior would come from a virgin woman who trusted the promises of God. Now what was the Lord waiting for? Hadn’t the devil done enough damage? But the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise waited another 700 years. It was not until “the fullness of time had come,” which God in His wisdom had determined. At that point in history, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4-5). The eternal Son of God was the child who grew inside Mary’s womb. The angel told Joseph that this child “which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit,” and that “He will save His people from their sins.”
There is no question in the Bible about whether or not the promised Savior came. This is what we celebrate at Christmas, the coming of Immanuel—God with us—to save sinners. This God incarnate did what He was sent to do. He perfectly kept God’s law on behalf of all people, and He was crucified and died for their sins. On the third day, He rose again in victory over death, and forty days later He ascended into heaven.
But we do not see Him now like the disciples did. We did not witness His many miracles. We did not see Him die and rise again. We long for His presence now as we go through our troubles and trials. How can we make Him a part of our lives? How can we be sure that He is near? Some speak about Jesus in nearly the same way that they speak about Santa. They say that Jesus’ coming really depends on us. If we believe in Him enough, then He will come.
But the comfort of the Gospel is that He comes to us even when our faith is barely there, when we are hanging on by our fingertips. This happens when we feel guilt for wrongs we have done. We let Satan in. We did what we knew we shouldn’t. And now we live with a violated conscience. At these times, the devil is only too glad to whisper in our ear, “Look what you’ve done! How could God love you? What a failure you are!”
Other times, we struggle with intense doubt and grief because of a loss we have experienced. “Why did God let me endure such financial hardship?” “Why didn’t He stop those who ruined my reputation?” “Why did He take away the one I love?” It is hard for us to see His grace and goodness in these difficult times. We even wonder whether God might be punishing us. We wonder if He is worth following at all.
But as far away as Jesus seems to be at these times, He is actually quite close. He does not wait for us to have enough faith. He comes to us to give us faith and strengthen it. Like His humble coming into the world, so He still hides His glorious presence in humble means. He comes to us through the simple preaching of His Word and through the water, bread, and wine of His Sacraments. And He does this work through unimpressive men whose weaknesses are well known.
His saving power is not affected by our lack of faith. He comes on His own to bestow His rich blessings upon us. He comes with forgiveness for stubborn sinners who have trouble admitting their wrongs. He brings healing to those whose wounds are self-inflicted. He covers with His righteousness the ones whom the world calls unredeemable. “Immanuel” still comes to us. He is still “God with us”—God with us through His holy Word.
And Jesus, our Immanuel, will come again in glory. Just as the people of the Old Testament waited for God to fulfill His promise to send a Savior, so we now wait for our Savior to return on the last day. He could come back tomorrow, or His glorious coming might be thousands of years away. What seems like a long time to us is not a long time to our God. “[W]ith the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2Pe. 3:8).
But as surely as the Lord kept His promise to send a Savior, and as surely as Jesus still comes to us through His holy Word, so He surely will come again in glory. On that day, Jesus will do exactly what He has promised. He will raise all the dead and will glorify the bodies of all believers. Then these saints will be gathered to His glorious presence in heaven.
In heaven there will be no more struggle against the devil. There will be no more feelings of doubt and loneliness and sorrow. Because then we will finally be taken up to Him who came down to save us.
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(painting of the angel’s visit to Joseph by Toros Roslin, 1262)