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.
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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(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.
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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(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)
The Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 26) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:31-46
In Christ Jesus, “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Ti. 2:14), dear fellow redeemed:
When candidates for political office are on a ballot, they find out what the members of their community think about them. Short of receiving 100% of the vote, I imagine this could be a discouraging thing for the candidates. Even those who receive 80% of the vote must wonder why 20% of the people don’t want them to serve. Even more so if the vote is split nearly in half. The winning candidates always throw big victory parties, but they have to deal with the reality that 49% of the community preferred that they lose.
Now what if you were on a ballot, but not for political office? What if it was your eternal fate that was up for a vote, and the voters were the people around you, your neighbors? These neighbors would include the members of your family and of your church, the people who live next door, your co-workers, and the people you communicate with online. If their positive or negative vote resulted in your being sent to heaven or hell, what do you think the result would be?
I imagine this would make us all a bit more careful about what we say to others, and we would be more purposeful about acts of charity and kindness. Or, like good politicians, we might make promises about what we will do for others if only they will make a commitment to vote “yes” for us. Overall, we would make it known that we planned to be very generous with our positive votes, and that we would expect the same treatment in return.
But let’s say the bar is even higher. What if your entrance into heaven required a unanimous “yes” vote from your neighbors? And what if they were required to answer honestly whether you had always been helpful, whether you had always been kind, whether you had always shown the love for neighbor that God requires in the Commandments? Would you measure up?
This is a fair question to ask when reviewing today’s text. Jesus says that the difference between “the sheep” and “the goats” on the last day is what they did or did not do. This sounds a lot like the scenario I just described, except that it is not our neighbors voting for us, but Jesus Himself. Jesus decides who has properly served “the least of [His] brothers” and places them on His right to inherit heaven. But those who have not served “the least of these” go to His left and are condemned to hell.
What is it that separates one group from the other? “Well that’s easy!” someone might say. “The good people go to heaven and the bad people go to hell.” This seems like the obvious answer. But who decides what “good” means? Aren’t there Muslims, Buddhists, and even atheists, who do what would be considered “good” things? “Well okay,” comes the reply, “it is the Christians who go to heaven, and everyone else goes to hell.” But does everyone who says he is a Christian do good things? And how much good exactly does a Christian have to do to make the cut?
If the Lord said that we must “be as good as you can be,” it would be up to anyone’s interpretation how much goodness was required. We would hope that Jesus would take into account our environment and the difficult people around us, along with our natural weaknesses. We would expect Him to set the bar right around where we set it—with the understanding that the bar might go up or down depending on extenuating circumstances.
But would our amount of goodness be good enough for God? We could never be sure. Many people live with this uncertainty. Their life is punctuated by guilt for the wrongs they have done and by the pressure to make up for the wrongs. They hope that they measure up, but they are uncertain of the standard.
When I think of “measuring up,” one picture that comes to mind is children at the fair. They want to go on all the rides, but they learn that different rides have different height requirements. Just about anyone can go on the carousel. But in order to get into bumper cars or ride on something a bit more stomach-churning, a height requirement has to be met. These are the times that young children show excellent posture as they try to stretch themselves upward to reach that line.
The standard God sets for us, the line to reach up to, is not almost within reach. It is not “be as good as you can be.” The standard for getting ourselves into heaven is far above our heads. It is nothing less than perfection. Jesus says that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Mat. 5:18). And the apostle Paul citing the Old Testament Scriptures concludes, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Gal. 3:10). No matter how hard we try to stretch ourselves up to God’s line, we “fall short” of it (Rom. 3:23). We do not measure up.
So if all people have fallen short of God’s standard, how could anyone be placed at Jesus’ right on the last day? Those who are grouped with the sheep wonder the same thing. Jesus goes through the list of how they fed Him and gave Him drink and welcomed Him and clothed Him and visited Him. And the righteous reply, “Lord, when did we do all these good things for You?”
Jesus says, “as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.” He says that He counts service done for your neighbor as service for Him. So when you provide for your family and feed and clothe your children, or when you donate to help the poor, you are feeding and clothing Him. When you show kindness to a stranger, you are showing kindness to Him. When you visit the sick and the hurting, when you have compassion for those below you and those whom everyone else has rejected, you are doing these things for Him. This is surprising. You don’t even think about most of these things. But Jesus considers them to be great works done for Him. What an encouragement this is to look for opportunities to serve your neighbors!
At the same time, you can think of many opportunities you have missed, many times that you have not loved the people around you like you should—times that you disrespected your parents, despised your spouse, ignored your children, and acted unkindly toward others. If Jesus was behind your neighbor waiting for you to do the right thing, that means you failed Him. You worry that this might land you in the other camp on Judgment Day, the camp of those whom Jesus condemns.
But you are saved neither by what you have done nor by what you have failed to do. Whatever the measure of your works, they are not enough. You are saved by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith—by God’s undeserved love, because of what Christ has done for you, through the faith worked in you by the Holy Spirit. Listen to what the Scriptures say:
- “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16).
- “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
- “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6).
- “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Ti. 3:5).
You are judged not by your works, but by God’s grace, which is yours through faith. This is the difference between the sheep and the goats, between believers and unbelievers. Though unbelievers may have done things in their lifetimes that appeared to be “good,” they are condemned because they did not do those things for Jesus. They rejected Him as their Savior, and therefore they could not please Him. “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Heb. 11:6).
But through faith, your works are pleasing to God. This should motivate you to want to do them—you want to please your Lord and Savior. You do these works not primarily because you fear God’s wrath or are trying to prove yourself to Him, but because you love Him. You love Him because of the great love He has shown to you.
Your Savior went to the cross for you and poured out His blood to wash away all your failings toward God and neighbor. In place of these sins, He gives His righteousness, which completely covers those who trust in Him. This is why He will credit the sheep with perfection on the last day. He sees them as though their sins had never occurred. He sees them as though He were looking at Himself. He sees in His beloved sheep no spot, no blemish, no wrong. There is no question in His mind who belongs on His right. They are the righteous ones who trust in His righteousness and not their own.
So if you wonder whether you measure up before God, these words of Jesus clearly show that on your own, by your own efforts, you do not. But in Him, you do measure up. By faith in Him, you will be among those at Jesus’ right who hear Him say, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” And then you will never hunger or thirst or be in want or worry about your standing with God, because then you will be in His glorious presence forever.
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(“The Last Judgment” painting by Fra Angelico, c. 1395-1455)
The Third Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 21) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 4:46-54
In Christ Jesus, who gives life, salvation, and peace to all who trust in Him, dear fellow redeemed:
The devil knows how to get at you, and he knows how to get at me. He’s been doing his deceitful and destructive work for a long time. His goal is very simple: Keep unbelievers from the saving Word of Jesus and pull believers away from Jesus’ Word. Jesus’ Word is the light that pierces the devil’s darkness. It is the source of hope in his world of despair. It is the means by which life is brought into his kingdom of death. This is why Christians want to hear and learn the Word. They want to be fortified against the devil’s attacks.
The devil tempts us to the opposite of what today’s Epistle Lesson describes (Eph. 6:10-17). Instead of fastening on “the belt of truth,” the devil wants us to be unprepared to face temptation and counter his errors. Instead of putting on “the breastplate of righteousness,” the devil wants our hearts to be exposed to his seductions. Instead of shoes made ready “by the gospel of peace,” the devil wants us to be ready to run from Christ when our beliefs are challenged. Instead of taking up “the shield of faith,” the devil wants us to be vulnerable to his many accusations. Instead of wearing “the helmet of salvation,” the devil wants us to think that our reason will do more for us than a godly faith. And instead of taking up “the sword of the Spirit,” the devil wants us to set aside the Word for the sake of peace in this world.
These are “the schemes of the devil.” These are the ways the devil tries to destroy our faith. He may try to ruin faith by an all-out attack, whether through a sudden loss of good health, or a job, or a loved one. But most often, the devil does his work slowly and subtly. He will try to convince you that can enjoy both sin and faith. You can have this secret sin and still have a good reputation. You can have a vice or two and still be a good Christian. You can be totally comfortable in the world and in the church at the same time.
The devil is “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). The Apostle John writes that “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1Jn. 3:8).
Jesus pointed out one of the devil’s works when a nobleman came to Him in Cana. The nobleman’s son was sick and didn’t have long to live. They must have spent all their resources on conventional treatments, and nothing worked. You can imagine how distressful this would have been. But the nobleman had heard about Jesus, that He had power to perform miracles. So he hurried from Capernaum to Cana, a span of about twenty miles, to ask for His help.
The first words Jesus said to him were jarring, “Unless you [people] see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Jesus was speaking about the Galileans, the people of His home territory. But His indictment applies to us and all sinners. We are those for whom faith does not seem sufficient. We want proof—physical, tangible, undeniable proof. “What good does ‘trusting in the Lord’ do,” we think, “when someone we love is sick?” or “when our possessions are destroyed?” or “when our life is falling apart?”
We look for “signs and wonders” from God. We want Him to provide miraculous healing to those who are ill. We want Him to restore the things we lose and bless us with even more, like He did for Job. We want Him to fix all our hurts, all our pains, all our troubles, so that we can enjoy the happy and carefree life that so many others seem to have.
When these things that we ask Him for and pray for don’t happen, the devil sows seeds of doubt and despair. “Perhaps God isn’t as powerful as you thought!” he whispers. “Perhaps He doesn’t love you like you thought He did!” “Perhaps His Word cannot be trusted!” That last lie is especially troubling. If the Word of God is not true, everything we have centered our lives on, everything we have hoped for, is empty.
If what the Bible says is not true, the evidence of creation and conscience would tell you there is a God. But you would not know who He was. What you would be aware of is your sin. You would question whether you were right with this God, and you would try to take steps to make sure you are. This is what you see in all the non-Christian religions of the world. They are all based on the premise that we must make ourselves right with God by how we live and how we worship Him. Or you might decide to ignore the reality of God like the atheists and agnostics do and live your life however you want.
If the Word of God is not true, then the Son of God did not take on human flesh in the Virgin Mary. Then He did not live a perfect life in your place. Then He did not go to the cross carrying all your sin. Then He did not rise again from the dead on Easter morning. Then He did not place His forgiveness and life in the Word and Sacraments. If none of these things happened, then you have nothing to look back on in your life except sin, and you have nothing to look forward to except death. This is what it means if God’s Word cannot be trusted.
The devil certainly would have tried to plant doubt in the nobleman’s mind. Jesus had just sent him home with the words, “Go; your son will live.” The text says that the man “believed the word that Jesus spoke to him,” but could he really be sure his son would be fine? The nobleman pushed those doubts aside and continued on his way. Then he was met with the happy news that his son had indeed recovered—and at the exact moment that Jesus said, “Your son will live.”
It was the powerful Word of Jesus that brought healing to the nobleman’s son. Jesus did not have to travel there and take the boy by the hand in order to heal him. He simply spoke His Word. This should be a great comfort to us. Jesus does not have to be visibly present with us in order to help us. He knows our condition. He knows how we struggle with our particular sins, and the shame we feel because of them. He knows when we are full of grief and hopelessness and the desperate feeling that we cannot escape the troubles we face.
Jesus does not come to us visibly to make everything better in an instant. But He does speak His Word, a Word which has tremendous power. Jesus’ Word imparts to us in the present whatever He has promised in the past. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” He says, “and I will give you rest.” He spoke those words nearly 2,000 years ago, but they are just as true and powerful today. Here is another promise: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:31-32). And another promise: “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” (Jn. 11:25-26).
It is through these promises of Jesus that faith is formed in sinful hearts. The Bible says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). When sinners come to faith through the Gospel by the power of Holy Spirit, the great burdens of guilt that they carry are lifted off their shoulders. All our sin and guilt was put on Jesus to carry for us. He suffered and died for all our sins, for all the times that we let “the devil, the world and our own flesh” overcome us and “lead us into misbelief, despair and other shameful sin and vice” (Small Catechism, Sixth Petition).
All of these past failures and sins are removed from us, and in their place, Jesus puts His righteousness. By the power of His Word in Holy Absolution, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, Jesus declares us right with God and perfectly holy in His sight. These are the great and eternal blessings that God promises us and all sinners in His Word. The nobleman believed this Word, and He proclaimed it to his entire household. His son was not saved through human wisdom, through the efforts of the best doctors money could buy. His son was saved through Jesus’ Word, and the whole household believed.
We do not always understand why we must endure one trial or another in this world, or why God doesn’t graciously bring these problems to a quick end. But we can trust His Word. With Paul we say, “Let God be true though every one were a liar!” (Rom. 3:4). Our Faith Is Founded on Jesus’ Word. It is a sure foundation, with “Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). The devil will try to convince us that it is a false word, but “the shield of faith” extinguishes all those flaming darts. Our faith is enlivened and strengthened by Jesus’ Word, which can overcome every attack of the devil and his allies.
Therefore with the psalmist David we say, “O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me…. Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you” (Ps. 25:2,20).
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(“The Healing of the Officer’s Son” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Second Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 20:19-31
In Christ Jesus, who died and rose again to secure for us forgiveness and peace with God, dear fellow redeemed:
For nearly three years, 12 select men accompanied Jesus as He traveled through Galilee, Judea, and the surrounding areas. They were not His bodyguards. They were not His support staff. They were His disciples. Every day they listened to His teaching and witnessed His frequent miracles. They developed a strong bond with Him. He was a leader like no other. They enjoyed the renown of being specially chosen by Him, but they also felt the hostility of those who rejected Him.
They resolved to stay with Him to the death. When Jesus decided to go to Judea not long before His crucifixion, Thomas declared to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn. 11:16). Peter spoke with this same confidence just before Jesus was arrested. He said that even if the other disciples fell away from Jesus, he never would. “Even if I must die with you,” he boasted, “I will not deny you!” The other disciples agreed (Mt. 26:35).
But Peter did deny Jesus, and the rest of the disciples abandoned Him. Three years together, and they left Him to be bound and put on trial like a criminal. As far as we know, only John was present at Golgotha where Jesus was crucified. Judas Iscariot had hanged himself earlier that morning after betraying Jesus to the Jewish authorities. The other disciples were keeping a low profile “for fear of the Jews.” Would they be the next targets of the jealous rage of the religious leaders? Would the death penalty be urged in their case too? As Jesus rested in a dark tomb, they cowered in the darkness of their habitation with the doors locked tight.
But then reports began to come in on Sunday morning: Some women found the tomb open! Two angels told them Jesus had risen! Peter and John investigated the tomb and found no one there! Mary Magdalene reported actually talking with Jesus! Two men said they conversed with Him on the road to Emmaus! Could it be? Had Jesus actually come back from the dead?
Then suddenly Jesus appeared to the disciples in the middle of their tightly secured place. “Peace be with you,” He said, and “He showed them His hands and His side.” This is the first the disciples as a group had seen or heard from Jesus since leaving Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Their relief must have been two-fold: Jesus has risen from the dead, and He is not angry with us! This was wonderful news!
The problem was that one of the remaining eleven disciples was not present at the time. Thomas had stepped out on some errand or another. When he got back, his friends told him everything that had happened, but to him it seemed too good to be true. His fellow disciples kept telling him, “We have seen the Lord,” but he wanted the proof they had gotten. He wanted to see the marks in Jesus’ hands and side that they claimed to have seen.
Why do you suppose Thomas was so stubborn about this? How many eyewitnesses had reported seeing the Lord? Did they lack all credibility? Were they liars? Were they just imagining things? Remember that Thomas had followed Jesus those three years just like the other disciples had. So why would Jesus appear to everyone else but him? Why should he be singled out? He did not think he was less important than the others. If Jesus was angry with him, He should be just as angry with them. Thomas didn’t deserve this!
All of us have had “why me?” moments like this. Why does everyone else seem to have close friends, while I get picked on? Why do they seem to be blessed with so much, while I have to scrape by? Why do others have a happy home life, while mine is a constant struggle? Why do they have good health, while I have constant aches and pains? Why are they rewarded for poor work, while my good efforts are ignored? Why me? Why doesn’t God bless me? What about Me?
Like stubborn Thomas, we focus on blessings we do not have, rather than the ones we do. We play the idea over and over again in our minds that we deserve better, we deserve more. We think we have done nothing to earn God’s anger—at least not more than a thousand others we could name. So why should they prosper while we suffer? And this is how we start to think of God as our enemy instead of our compassionate Savior.
Do you think Jesus regretted visiting the disciples when He did that Easter evening, when Thomas was not there? Did He take stock of the people in the room and wish He had chosen a different time? Jesus did not make a mistake. He never does. He knew Thomas was not there. He knows everything. He knew what Thomas had been saying to his friends all week. When Jesus appeared to the group the second time, He looked Thomas in the eye and said, “Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in My side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Then Thomas saw how foolish he had been. Of course Jesus had risen. Of course his friends were telling the truth. He now realized that he had failed to honor his Lord in the best way possible, which was to believe His word.
Jesus was not punishing Thomas by first appearing when he was gone. He was giving Thomas an opportunity to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2Cor. 5:7). Would Thomas believe what Jesus had promised, even if there were no external proof? Thomas showed what little regard he had for Jesus’ words. He expected proof on his terms! Jesus gently admonished him and called him to repentance for this, “Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Those words were not just for Thomas. They are for you and me: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Being a disciple of Jesus means trusting Him even when He seems to be ignoring you or punishing you or even playing favorites. He does not love and care for others more than He loves and cares for you. You are no afterthought to Him. “God shows no partiality” (Gal. 2:6).
So why do others receive blessings, when you, like Thomas, seem to be left out in the cold? It is not for us to know why one person is burdened by extra cares and troubles while another is generally happy and content. It is not that one necessarily has a stronger faith than the other. It is not that God is punishing one and not the other. Just as we do not know why the Lord tested Thomas as opposed to a different disciple, so we do not know why particular tests and trials come our way.
But we can be certain than none of these tests and trials are sent by God to push us away from Him. They are intended to bring us closer. He promises to work all things together for good for those who love Him, who put their trust in Him (Rom. 8:28). In other words, it should not concern us that others appear to be happier, more successful, or stronger. How things appear may not actually be how they are. They will have what God in His wisdom chooses to give them, and we will have the things that He determines are right for us.
His purpose is not to give us everything we want in this life, or even everything we pray for. We do not always want the right things. His purpose is to save us—to give us peace, His peace, “which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). This is what the disciples needed, and this is what He gave them. They had rejected Him, run from Him, and sinned against Him, but He had not rejected them. “Peace be with you,” He said. “I am not angry. We are at peace. This is what I came to do. I came to bring peace by the shedding of My blood and to declare this peace for the world by My resurrection.”
Jesus is also at peace with you. He has not forgotten about you and the troubles you have. Just as He was fully aware of Thomas’ struggles, so He is fully aware of yours. And just as He came with the blessing of peace to Thomas, so He comes to you. Even though you feel shut off from all help with the doors and windows locked tight, Jesus comes into your very midst. He does not come visibly showing you His hands and side; He comes through the means in which He has promised to be present.
He comes through His word of absolution spoken by His representative, your pastor. The disciples were the first of His representatives to whom He said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” In the same way, when I speak that forgiveness to you in church or in private confession, it is just as powerful and sure as if Jesus appeared before you and said it Himself. He does not need to be visibly present for His word to be true. He did not need to present Himself to Thomas for His resurrection to be true. He had risen whether Thomas believed it or not. In the same way, He has won forgiveness for all people whether they believe it or not.
Jesus also comes to you through His holy Sacraments. When the sinner is baptized at the font, He is there anointing the baptized with His righteousness and peace. When baptized believers later approach the Communion rail, He offers His own body and blood to give them—to put right in their mouths—the peace of sins forgiven. You cannot see His presence. But you can hear His voice, a voice which says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
You are blessed to have this faith in the world’s Savior. He came for you. He gave up His life for you. And He rose from the dead for your victory. What further proof of His love could anyone ask for?
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(painting is portion of “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” by Caravaggio, c. 1601-1602)
The Baptism of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 3:13-17
In Christ Jesus, who fulfilled all righteousness for you, dear fellow redeemed:
In the home where you grew up, how often did you hear the words, “I love you”? Did you and your siblings ever say it to each other? Did your parents say it to you? Did your parents say it to each other? These words can be said so much that they are hardly noticed. Or they can be said so little that love is questioned. This is like when Lena asked Ole after thirty years of marriage if he loved her any more. Surprised at the question, Ole said, “Of course I do! I told you so on our wedding day!” As you know, it is not safe in a relationship to assume that the other person knows what you are thinking. Thoughts must be shared and communicated, even if it isn’t always comfortable to do so.
But it seems that we are at a disadvantage when it comes to communication with God. He knows all about us. He knows when we sit down and rise up. He discerns our thoughts from afar. Even before a word is on our tongue, He knows what we will say (Ps. 139:2,4). He knows what we are thinking, but how can we know what He is thinking? He says He had a plan laid out for our life even before we took our first step (Eph. 2:10). But what is that plan? Is there any way to find out?
There are some who try to discover the hidden will of God. They are always on the lookout for special messages and special dreams from God to guide them in making life decisions. Some say they can hear the voice of Jesus in their heads, or that they can feel the Spirit leading them in one direction or another. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a relationship with God like that? But more often than not, what people perceive as the voice of God is actually the voice of their old Adam or even the devil.
God does not think the way we do. This is exactly what He says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9). There are hidden mysteries of God that cannot be understood in this life. There are answers that must wait until heaven. So is there no way to know what God thinks about us?
We wish the Father spoke to us like He did to His Son. After Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” God the Father could not have been clearer about His thoughts toward His Son. Jesus could go ahead with His saving work knowing that He had His Father’s approval. And why wouldn’t the Father approve of Him? Jesus was perfect.
But perfect, you and I are not. We are far from perfect. God gave us good to perform, and we did evil. He gave us work to do, and we shunned it. He gave us laws to follow, and we broke them. John the Baptizer did not mince words about people like us. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” he cried out. “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt. 3:8,10). Have you produced good fruit? Have you produced enough of it?
You and I are plagued with the daily evidence of our inadequacy. Yes, we put on a cheerful attitude at work, but our hearts are full of judgment toward our co-workers. Yes, we feed and clothe our children, but we don’t always view them as blessings. Yes, we voice our commitment to our spouse, but we let ourselves indulge in fantasies about others. Yes, we say we are thankful for what we have, but we secretly wish we had what others do. As much as we try to watch what we do and what we say, we struggle to control our thoughts. And the harder we try to control them, the more we are aware of our failures.
We shouldn’t imagine for a moment that our sins are somehow hidden from God. He knows about every last one. This is why we wouldn’t mind some reassurances from Him. We would like to know that He still loves us and is not angry with us. We want to be sure that we are not outside His grace, and that He will take us to heaven when we die. Is there some message He could send to make this clear? Yes! In fact, He has many comforting messages to send our way.
One of them is recorded by the evangelist Matthew, a message detailing the baptism of Jesus. What is confusing about this account is why Jesus thought He needed to be baptized. You and I know that one of the blessings of baptism is the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus had no sins to be forgiven. So why did He want to be baptized? John wondered the same thing. Jesus told him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.” It was not to gain righteousness for Himself; He was already perfect.
Jesus stepped down into the waters of the Jordan River for you, to take up your sins. When your hands are dirty, you go to the sink and let the clean water wash all the dirt away. The opposite happened to Jesus. Though He was perfectly clean, He let the sins of the world be poured out on Him at His baptism. This includes your sins, even the sins of your mind. Each sin was poured upon Jesus, and they stuck there. Now they were His to carry, and He would not be relieved of them until three years afterward when He breathed His last on the cross.
But Jesus did more for you at His baptism than taking up your sins. He also left His righteousness in the waters of baptism. He left His righteousness, so that when sinners are baptized, His righteousness sticks to them and stays with them as long as they remain in Him. The Apostle Paul writes, “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor. 5:21), and “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).
So at your baptism, you “put on Christ.” You were covered in Him. What was His, became yours. His holiness, His atoning blood, His victory over death—all of these were given to you. By baptism, you were buried and raised with Him (Rom. 6:4). You were born again to new spiritual life (Ti. 3:5). You are not as you were before; you are a new creation (2Cor. 5:17).
God looks at you differently now. He does not see you covered in your sins, cowering in the kingdom of darkness. When He looks at you, God the Father sees His Son. He sees His obedience and His perfect righteousness. In you, He sees a beloved son, with whom He is well pleased.
Baptized into Christ, one with Christ by faith, you truly are a son of God. And why is it important that you are called a “son”? Why not a “daughter” of God, or simply a “child”? Those terms are fine, but “son” expresses something more. It was the firstborn son in a family who stood to inherit what belonged to his father. It is as the father told his oldest son, who pouted about the warm reception given to his prodigal brother—the father said, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Lk. 15:31).
All that God the Father has is yours through faith in His only-begotten Son. Jesus your Brother is not jealous about the kindness shown to you by His Father. He gave Himself in your place, so you would have this glory and joy. He was willing to do this because He loved His Father, and He loved you. He gladly took your place in the depths of sin, so you could have His place in the heights of heaven.
Jesus is the proof of God’s love for you. You will never be certain of His love if you wait for Him to send you special, personal assurances of it. If you wait for an “I love you!” to boom down from the clouds, you will be waiting a long, long time. The place to hear God speak to you is not in your head or in your heart. It is in His Word. This is where God’s love in Christ for all sinners is made crystal clear.
This love was personally bestowed on you in your baptism. In baptism, you did not choose God; He chose you. He made an undying commitment to you, which He will never forget and never break. Through those waters, you were incorporated into the body of Christ, as so many other blessed sinners have been throughout history. You were brought into the family of God, and placed alongside Christ as an heir of His eternal blessings.
This is where you stand with God, and where you will continue to stand by faith in His Son. Your humble repentance for your sins will not be met with a cold shoulder or with burning anger. Those sins were put on Jesus, and His righteousness was put on you. You are baptized into Christ. Your sins are forgiven. “[F]or in Christ Jesus You Are All Sons of God, through faith…. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:26,29).
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(picture is portion of 1895 painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)