The Festival of the Holy Trinity – Pr. Faugstad homilies
In Christ Jesus, who is one God with the Father and the Holy Spirit—one God uncreated, infinite, eternal, almighty, and worthy of all praise—, dear fellow redeemed:
The Apostles’ Creed
Before He ascended into heaven, Jesus gave His disciples a great commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” He said. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mat. 28:18-20). Now if they were to baptize in this way, they would need to teach people who the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are.
This is what the Apostles’ Creed does. But how did this Creed originate? An old tradition was that on Pentecost the twelve apostles gathered together, and each of them contributed a phrase to this statement of faith. While this is possible, the New Testament contains no mention of it happening. We call it the “Apostles’ Creed” not because it was written by the apostles, but because it summarizes the doctrine, or the teaching, of the apostles. We don’t know exactly when it was written, but a statement of faith with similar wording can be traced back to the year 150. So Christians have been reciting this Creed for nearly 2,000 years.
The Apostles’ Creed contains three parts, the first about God the Father, the second about God the Son, and the third about God the Holy Spirit. From an early time, the Apostles’ Creed was known as the “Baptismal Creed.” An adult who wished to be baptized was expected to recite this Creed and be able to explain its teachings before being baptized.
The shortest article of the Apostles’ Creed is about God the Father. He is described as “Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” The earth and everything in outer space did not come about by chance. All things were created by the Father. Every amazing detail came from His own creative brilliance. He was able to do this because there is no limit to what He can do. He is all-powerful, “Almighty.”
The second and longest article of the Apostles’ Creed is about God the Son. God the Father sent His only Son to take on human flesh in the virgin Mary’s womb. The purpose was so that He could suffer and die on the cross in the place of all sinners. Having completed His atoning work, Jesus descended into hell to declare His victory to the demons and to the damned (1Pe. 3:18-20, Col. 2:15). Then He rose from the dead and showed Himself alive to hundreds of His disciples before ascending visibly into heaven. He now rules over all things at the Father’s right hand until His visible return on the last day.
The third article of the Apostles’ Creed tells us how the saving work of Jesus comes to us today. It comes by the power of the Holy Spirit who works in the holy Christian Church. He works in the Church through the powerful Word and Sacraments of God—through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of Baptism and Holy Communion. Wherever the Gospel is, the Holy Spirit is, bringing the forgiveness of sins and preparing the saints of God for the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
Let us confess our holy faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.
The Nicene Creed
The details of the origin of the Nicene Creed are clearer than those of the Apostles’ Creed. The Nicene Creed was formulated at the Council of Nicea in the year 325 and finalized in 381. It was written to settle a doctrinal controversy about the nature of God. A theologian named Arius was trying to argue that God was not triune, but that only the Father was God from eternity. He said that the Son was perfect, but only a creature of God, which meant that “there was a time when he was not” (Arius’ slogan).
Arius was very effective at spreading this unbiblical teaching, and many followed his ideas. With the church divided, the Roman emperor Constantine called for an ecumenical council, or a council for the entire Christian Church. 220 bishops traveled to Nicea for this council, including Arius. Through the efforts of a young pastor named Athanasius, who at the time was only twenty-nine years old, the council affirmed the teaching of the Bible that God is triune. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, of one substance, but are still three distinct Persons. By the grace of God, Arius’ false teaching had been rejected.
The Nicene Creed is similar in many ways to the Apostles’ Creed, but it is expanded for important reasons. God the Father is again confessed as the almighty Creator, but the phrase “of all things visible and invisible” is added. This is a reference to Colossians 1:16, which states that “by the Son,” the Father created “all things… in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” If the Son participated in every part of creation, He could not be a creature Himself.
The second part of the Nicene Creed clearly outlines the teaching that the Son is eternally God. The Son is “begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” If the truth of the Bible had not been preserved, the certainty of our salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection would have been lost. If the eternal Son of God was not there on the cross for us, the scales of God’s justice could not have been balanced. But because Jesus is true God, our guilt is atoned for and our sin is forgiven.
The third part of the Nicene Creed emphasizes that the Holy Spirit is also our eternal Lord. He is the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Because He is true God, He deserves to be worshipped and glorified. He inspired the words of the Bible by speaking through the prophets and apostles. And He continues to bring us the gifts of Jesus. Unlike the Apostles’ Creed, this Creed specifically confesses “one Baptism for the remission of sins.” This shows that the early Church rightly viewed Baptism not as our work for God as some of the Reformed and Baptist churches teach, but as God’s work for us.
Let us confess our holy faith in the words of the Nicene Creed.
The Athanasian Creed
The Athanasian Creed bears the name of the great defender of the faith, Athanasius, who helped guide the formation of the Nicene Creed. But like the Apostles’ Creed, which probably was not written by the apostles but is based on their teaching, so it is with the Athanasian Creed. The earliest evidence of this Creed dates to the mid-400s, fifty years or so after the death of Athanasius.
The Athanasian Creed is by far the longest of the three ecumenical creeds, and it is not structured like the other two. It was written to explain in detail the Bible’s teaching about the one true God. It teaches that God is triune, one God in three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that God is three people or that He has three personalities. “Triune” means that while distinctions can be made about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they share the same substance; they are one God.
Our minds are not able to comprehend this truth and sort it out. But then it shouldn’t surprise us that there are things about the almighty, eternal God that are beyond our limited reason. We believe what God has revealed about Himself in His holy Word. We believe no more and no less than what the Bible teaches.
The very beginning of the Creed speaks about “the catholic faith.” The word “catholic” means “universal,” so the catholic faith is the universal Christian faith based on the Bible’s teaching. It does not mean the Roman Catholic faith, which is not always based on the Bible. The end of the Creed says something surprising. It says, “they that have done good will enter into life everlasting; and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.” This is actually a direct quote from Jesus (Joh. 5:29). He is not teaching us to trust in our own good works. He is referring to the good that is only possible by faith in Him, and also to the evil that is counted against those who reject Him.
Let us confess our holy faith in the words of the Athanasian Creed.
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.
(Historical information from “I Believe: A Study of the Three Universal or Ecumenical Creeds” by Bjarne W. Teigen, 1976)
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(picture from painting of the First Council of Nicea in 325)
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: James 1:16-21
In Christ Jesus, the Father’s greatest and most perfect Gift, who by His death and His resurrection to life again has brought salvation to our souls, dear fellow redeemed:
It’s planting season! Besides the farmers at work in their fields, I’m sure many of you have been at work in your gardens. You prepare the ground and dig in seeds, and before long those seeds sprout up and grow into large, food-bearing plants. You have a part to play in bringing those plants to maturity. You water as needed, and you clear out weeds that would choke them. But ultimately the plants grow on their own, while you watch God’s magnificent creation in action.
n Mark 4, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” (vv. 26-28). Just as God is the one who makes plants grow and brings a crop to maturity, so it is with our faith. When the seed of the Word is planted in someone, God is the one who makes it grow and produce.
This is what we hear about in today’s text. James writes about who is working, how He works, and what effect His work has. In the verses before our text, he mentions “the rich” who think that their success is due to their own ability or effort or strength. But their riches cannot save their souls. They will fade and die like wildflowers do. “For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes” (Jam. 1:11). The self-made and the self-reliant fall down as quickly as they rise up.
They do not realize that “[e]very good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” We forget that too. Often it takes the loss of our good things before we realize what we had. We don’t appreciate our health and strength as much as when we are sick or injured. We don’t appreciate work until we are out of a job. We don’t appreciate the blessings of home or possessions until they break down. We don’t appreciate family and friends as much as when they are gone.
All of these good gifts are from above, “coming down from the Father of lights.” This is a title for “God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” (Apostles’ Creed). He “separated the light from the darkness” (Gen. 1:4) in the beginning and created “the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars” (v. 16). Just as the sun, moon, and stars keep shining day after day, so the bright beams of God’s love continue to shine upon us as He cares for us.
But as committed as He is to providing our “daily bread,” our heavenly Father especially wants us to have the “bread of heaven.” He wants us to have faith in His Son Jesus, because only faith in Jesus saves. To bring us this faith, the Father sends out the Holy Spirit. Jesus spoke about the Spirit’s work in the Holy Gospel for today: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (Joh. 16:13-15).
“[T]he Spirit of truth” guides us into “all the truth” through “the word of truth.” This is what Jesus asked His Father to do for the disciples: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (Joh. 17:17). Our spiritual life depends entirely on God’s Word of truth. His Word not only informs us what He has done for us, but it also imparts His blessings to us. Today’s text says, “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth.” It was God’s choice to bring us forth by His Word. This was not by our will; we did not choose God. Our will could choose nothing but evil; “we were dead in our trespasses” (Eph. 2:5).
The Holy Spirit planted faith in our hearts and continues to nourish it and make it grow by the powerful working of His Word. This Word of truth gave us new life as the apostle Peter writes, “[Y]ou have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1Pe. 1:23). A plant cannot grow without a seed. It may seem small and insignificant, but a seed contains all the genetic information necessary to grow the plant and produce its fruit. The Word of God may also seem small and insignificant—nothing special. But the seed of the Word is at work in us causing us to grow as fruitful children of God.
Of all God’s creatures, we believers in Jesus are the “firstfruits.” We are the beautiful produce of the Lord’s great harvest. The Father “brought us forth by the word of truth” because He wanted us to share the victory and glory of His only Son. Jesus was planted in the tomb after His death, and no one expected Him to spring forth alive. But He did on the third day. He rose again from the dead showing that death was defeated for all people. This is why we bury the departed saints with hope and why we plant flowers on their graves. It is because we wholeheartedly believe that the seed of the body planted in the ground will come forth with great power and glory, never to perish again (1Co. 15:35-44).
The Word that we hear today is preparing us for that day. So we ought to “be quick to hear” and “slow to speak.” A person’s knowledge does not expand by listening to himself speak, but by listening to others. The same goes for faith. We cannot make faith stronger by our thoughts, words, or wishes. “[F]aith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). A plant must receive to grow—water, sunshine, heat—, and it cannot grow without them. So also we grow by drinking from the living waters of God’s Word and soaking up the light of His grace.
But there are things that stunt our spiritual growth, that cause damage to our faith. A plant suffers when weeds choke it, when bugs attack it, and when its roots do not sink deeply into the ground. One of the things that chokes faith is our anger and bitterness toward one another. We refuse to forgive wrongs done to us, and we feel justified in returning evil for evil, whether toward family members or neighbors. The devil and the world also attack us with temptations toward “filthiness and rampant wickedness,” to put our sinful desires before anything else. Our sinful habits and our neglect of the life-giving Word keep the roots of faith from sinking more and more deeply.
We cannot work ourselves out of our sinful state any more than a rich person can buy his way out of death. That is why God must give His good and perfect gifts from above. The best gift He gave was the gift of His only Son. We sang about this in the hymn before the sermon, a hymn written by Martin Luther:
He spoke to His beloved Son:
“’Tis time to have compassion.
Then go, bright Jewel of My crown,
And bring to man salvation.
From sin and sorrow set him free;
Slay bitter death for him, that he
May live with Thee forever.”
(Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, #378, v. 5)
Jesus let the weeds of our sin choke Him, the devils attack Him, and death strike Him. But none of these things could destroy Him. He destroyed them, so that we could grow up in Him and bear fruit in His name. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” He said. “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Joh. 15:5).
We abide in Him by faith in His promises, and we remain in faith by abiding in His Word (Joh. 8:31). So James urges the readers of his epistle to “receive with meekness the implanted word.” Many words are planted in us that we remember long after they are spoken. We think especially today about the words of instruction, advice, encouragement, and love from our mothers which still guide us. But even more powerful than that is the implanted Word of God.
It was no mistake that you were brought to faith through the powerful Word. God plants with purpose, and He constantly cultivates and tends what He caused to sprout inside you. He planted His Word of grace and forgiveness and life deep in your heart. He wants you to know His love for you, and He wants to keep your faith growing.
Like a mature plant, the stronger and healthier faith is, the more fruit it produces. But if faith is not fed by the Word, it will weaken and eventually wither up and die. This is why James urges us to “receive with meekness the implanted word”—receive God’s Word of grace gladly and with humble and repentant hearts—because “the implanted word… is able to save your souls.”
So we will not be deceived by other “products” that promise to do more for our spiritual life than the words of the Bible. We desire no better or more perfect gift than the life-giving Word of the mighty God, who has surely promised: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:10-11).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from Jerico Lutheran Church)
Midweek Lent – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: Genesis 22:1-14
In Christ Jesus, the fulfillment of the LORD’s covenant with Abraham, dear fellow redeemed:
When Abraham was seventy-five years old, the LORD promised him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great” (Gen. 12:2). But Abraham and his wife Sarah had no children. More time passed, and the LORD said again, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them…. So shall your offspring be” (15:5). Still more time passed. Now Abraham was ninety-nine years old, and his wife Sarah was eighty-nine. Who ever heard of a couple this old conceiving a child? But the LORD kept His promise. They did conceive a child, and a healthy baby boy named Isaac was born.
Imagine how they doted on their son! Not only did they have to wait twenty-five years for God to keep His promise, not only was Isaac born to them in their old age, but he was also the beginning of a great nation. The LORD had promised Abraham, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (17:6-7).
But after some time when Isaac had grown and was perhaps in his teens, God told Abraham to take his son “to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Along with this command, the LORD’s description of his son almost seemed cruel, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love… and offer him.” These were shocking and troubling words. We can only imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind: “Sacrifice my son, the son of the promise? But You said nations and kings would come from me! You said Your covenant between You and me and my offspring was an everlasting covenant! Take my life, O Lord, but not my son!”
But Abraham obeyed. He set off with Isaac and two servants, and they came in sight of Moriah on the third day. He told the servants to wait there while he and his son went to worship. Then he said they would come back again. Did Abraham lie to his servants? It seems like it. How could he and Isaac return if Isaac was to be killed? But in fact Abraham did not lie. The author of the book of Hebrews fills us in on what Abraham believed: “He considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead” (11:19). Abraham fully intended to kill his son, and he fully expected the LORD to raise him back to life. How else could God keep His earlier promises?
So Abraham and Isaac continued on to the place of sacrifice. Abraham had Isaac carry the wood, while he took the fire and the knife. Isaac noticed that something was missing: “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” And God did provide the lamb. Just when Abraham was ready to kill his son, “the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven” and stopped him. “[N]ow I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham showed that he loved the LORD more than his only son. The LORD’s promise was primary; nothing was more important than the Word of the living God.
The LORD provided a lamb that day, a ram whose horns were caught in a nearby thicket. Abraham offered this ram as a sacrifice to God, and he and Isaac returned to the servants and went home. But this episode was far more than a trip to a lonely place, a test of faith, and an offering to God. This episode was all about the Messiah.
The LORD’s description of Abraham’s son was not cruelty, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love.” It was a description that God the Father could apply to His own Son. The Messiah is the only-begotten Son of the Father, begotten of His Father from eternity. And He was a perfect Son, without fault, without sin. This did not change with His incarnation. When He was baptized and when He was transfigured on the mountain, the Father said about Him, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mat. 3:17, 17:5). The Father loved His Son.
But He also loved the world, a world that had rebelled against Him and deserved nothing from Him but eternal punishment. And this is how He showed His love: He sent His only-begotten Son to save sinners. His perfect Son would be sacrificed in their place. His perfect Son would absorb His holy wrath for sin, so they would be freed from condemnation and death.
So God’s Son set out for Moriah. That hill where Abraham built an altar was the very place where Jerusalem would later be established and God’s holy temple would stand. Like Isaac, Jesus came to this place as the sacrificial lamb. Like Isaac, He carried the wood on which He would be sacrificed. Like Isaac, He trusted His Father even as sharp instruments were readied to harm Him.
But nobody stepped in when thorns and nails pierced the flesh of Jesus. Nobody stepped in when His Father in heaven punished Him in the place of all sinners. Nobody stepped in when the eternal fires of hell tormented Him. Isaac did not have to die. But Jesus did.
Jesus had to die for you. That was the only way to redeem you, a lost and condemned creature. It was the only way to purchase and win you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. A holy sacrifice was required for your salvation, and God provided it. Abraham was right, “God will provide the lamb.” The Lamb that God provided was His only Son.
Abraham never forgot the ram God gave him to sacrifice instead of his son Isaac. And God did not forget His promise. He did make a great nation from Abraham. From his offspring all the nations of the earth were blessed (Gen. 22:18). That includes you. From the line of Abraham and Isaac came the world’s Savior, the one who took your sins to Himself and blotted them out by the shedding of His blood. Thanks be to God! Amen.
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(painting by Orazio Riminaldi, 1625)
The Festival of the Holy Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 3:1-15
In Christ Jesus, who became the Son of Man that we might join Him as sons of God and heirs of eternal life (Gal. 4:4-7), dear fellow redeemed:
Most kids believe—at least for a time—that no one is stronger than their own dad. Dad can lift them off the ground with one arm. Dad can pick up things that no one else can budge. Dad can open jars that Mom can’t. In their eyes, he is very impressive. But as they get older, kids realize that some other guys might actually be stronger than Dad. They become aware of their dad’s limitations, and not just the physical ones. Dad sometimes gets distracted and misses important things in their lives. He doesn’t always seem to understand what they are going through. He isn’t always right there when they need him.
Dad can do a lot of things. But he isn’t all-powerful. For his part, he feels the pressure to be what those around him need him to be. He faces the demands—spoken or unspoken—of providing for his wife and children. Others outside his household like his relatives, friends, and co-workers might also look to him for support. People rely on him the way he used to rely on his dad. He doesn’t always feel ready for the responsibility. He is well aware of his shortcomings.
You know as well as I do that there is no such thing on earth as a perfect father. We admire those men who seem to be excellent fathers. We see others who more or less fulfill their duties to their family. And then there are some who do not seem fit to be fathers at all. Some of these fathers harm their children or abandon them. For these children, it can be difficult to put their trust and confidence in God the Father. Their perception of God as Father is colored by their experience with their earthly father.
But God the Father does not take His cue from earthly fathers; earthly fathers are to take their cue from Him. The heavenly Father is the pattern for fatherhood. He did not learn fatherhood from anyone. He had no father. But in His infinite wisdom, God established fatherhood on earth after His image.
God does not model the sort of fatherhood that the world likes to see. The world does not praise fathers who stand up for godly truth and honor. They praise the fathers who fan the flame of their children’s ego, who keep their mouths shut when their sons and daughters behave immorally, who might offer a shoulder to cry on but no words of wisdom. There are many who even portray God in this way. “God loves me just the way I am,” they say. “He doesn’t judge me, and He is always there when I need Him.” But that is not the God of the Bible.
The God of the Bible loves us, no question about it. But He does not love everything we do and every choice we make. To the contrary, He firmly rebukes our sin. He does not overlook it or act as though it is not that bad. And if we refuse to repent of our sin, He warns us of the eternal hellfire that will come upon any who reject His Word.
The seriousness with which He looks upon our sin is made clear by the sacrifice required to save us. God the Father did not send His only-begotten Son into the world so that Jesus could pat everyone on the back for choosing to live life their own way. He sent His Son to suffer and die for our sins in our place.
But how could a Father sacrifice His only Son? Did He think so little of His Son? Some have suggested that the punishment and wrath the Father poured out on His Son at Golgotha was really a form of “divine child abuse.” Was that the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, that the Father was an overbearing tyrant who forced His Son toward horrible suffering and death?
That is hardly how Jesus portrayed it. The night before His death, He told His disciples, “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (Joh. 14:31). And again, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:9-10). And in a prayer directly to the Father, Jesus said, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (17:24).
That does not sound like a Son who is forced to do something against His will. Even in the midst of severe anguish, Jesus did not lash out at His Father as though His Father were manipulating Him. He said, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luk. 22:42).
God the Father sent His Son to do the terrible work of atoning for sin, because His Son could do it. His beloved Son could carry that load and still reclaim the glory that was His from eternity. He could win the victory over sin, death, and devil and still return to the right hand of the Father. God could do for man what man could never do for himself.
Jesus made this abundantly clear to Nicodemus, the teacher-turned-student in today’s Gospel lesson. Nicodemus started the conversation by saying, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Was this flattery? Was it an invitation for Jesus to tell more about Himself? Was Nicodemus trying to sound smart?
Jesus replied that whatever the Jewish leaders thought they knew about God, they knew much less than they realized. Jesus was not some mystery they could solve. He was not some code they could crack. Their human wisdom was not going to cut it. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus was not talking about the need for a physical rebirth but a spiritual one.
This spiritual rebirth does not happen by any human effort or through a free human will, contrary to what many Christians today think. They say that “being born again” means making a decision for Jesus and opening one’s heart to Him. Jesus says this rebirth happens through “water and the Spirit,” through Baptism. The Holy Spirit accomplishes this and not human flesh. A translation just as valid as “born again” is that one must be “born from above.”
God must do this—He must regenerate and renew us—because we cannot do this for ourselves. We cannot do this by the strength of our bodies or minds, or by the power of our will. If this were possible, Jesus wouldn’t say what He does in today’s text: “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven.” Because we are not able to go up to God, God comes down to us.
But why does He do this? Why does the Father send His Son, by His side from all eternity, to be sacrificed for sinners, whose legacy is stained and whose lives are fleeting? God does this out of love for His rebellious children. He did not walk away when mankind thought more highly of the forbidden fruit than His command. He did not destroy them in His anger which He could have done. Instead He promised to join them in their anguish, to be with them in their troubles, and to free them again from their chains of sin and death.
But not all recognize or care about their Father’s love. They are like those who reject their earthly fathers because their father does not give them everything they want or let them do what they want to do. Like those who do not “honor [their] father and mother” as the LORD commands them to do, so unbelievers do not honor the LORD and “fear, love, and trust in [Him] above all things” (Small Catechism).
But those who do recognize their sin and who trust that the Son of Man came to be lifted up on the cross for their sake, can be certain that they are in good graces with their Father in heaven. He loves all who cherish and pay attention to His holy Word (Joh. 14:23). He promises to pour upon them the blessings of His Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. This starts at Baptism when the holy life and cleansing blood of Jesus are applied to the sinner, and it continues throughout life as these gifts are administered through His gracious Word and Sacraments.
Through these means, He strengthens us and helps us follow His example of love and sacrifice in our various stations in life—fathers in their fatherhood, mothers in their mothering, children in their obedience, and all of us in our lives of service. None of us carries out these duties perfectly, and we are only too aware how we have fallen short. But God has promised to abide with us and to bring blessings to those around us even through our weak and faltering efforts.
No one on earth does everything right. No one can fix every problem. No one can save his own soul, much less the souls of others. God Does What We Cannot Do. He is our perfect Father, whose will was carried out by His righteous Son, whose rich blessings are distributed by the Holy Spirit. This God is the only true God. He is our God, and we are His children.
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, “Good Friday Morning: Jesus in Prison” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Baptism of Jesus – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 3:13-17
In Christ Jesus, who did not come “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (Joh. 3:17), dear fellow redeemed:
When John the Baptizer started preaching in the wilderness of Judea, the prominent theme of his preaching and teaching was repentance. God sent him to be a voice waking people up from their spiritual slumber. John didn’t hold back. He didn’t care what sort of standing a person had, or what might happen if he pointed out their sin. When he saw a number of the Jewish religious leaders coming to be baptized, he called them a “brood of vipers” (Mat. 3:7). He told them to “[b]ear fruit in keeping with repentance” (v. 8). If they would not, they would be “cut down and thrown into the fire (v. 10).
And if you think I’m tough, he said, just wait till you meet the One who comes after me, “whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (vv. 11-12). What sort of man did the people expect would follow John? Whatever they imagined, John’s message made them all the more ready to humble themselves and acknowledge their sins.
When the people thought about the coming Messiah, perhaps they thought about the times God made His presence known to the people of Israel. They may have imagined the descent of the LORD upon Mount Sinai when He delivered His law to Moses. The whole mountain was wrapped in smoke as though coming from a great furnace. The mountain shuddered, and when Moses spoke, God answered in thunder (Exo. 19:18-19). Is this how it would be with the One who followed John? Or would He come in a thick cloud like the one that filled the holy place of the tabernacle and temple (Exo. 40:34-38, Lev. 16:2,30)?
While the people waited with nervous anticipation and fear, Jesus was quietly going about His business in Nazareth. We know nothing about His life from His youth until the start of His public work except for the words of St. Luke: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and men” (2:52). So He was intelligent and well thought of in His community. But no one would have matched Him with John’s description of the Coming One. Would that change with His official anointing?
His anointing as the Christ is recorded for us in today’s text. He came where John was by the Jordan River to be baptized by him. John did not realize yet that Jesus was the Christ, but he knew that Jesus was a righteous man. He said, “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” Jesus’ response shows that He had not come to condemn everyone. He came “to fulfill all righteousness.” This required Him to be baptized, to join the company of sinners who also entered the waters.
But He was not baptized to wash away His sin. He had no sin of His own to wash away! He was baptized for all humanity, in every sinner’s place. He offered Himself as their Substitute, taking their sins upon Himself, sins that He would pay for with His life at Calvary. The significance of this moment was clear by what happened next. Jesus came out of the water, and “the heavens were opened to Him.” Then the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove and rested upon Him, and a voice came from above, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Now John knew. This was the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior promised for thousands of years. “I myself did not know him,” John said, “but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (Joh. 1:33). So the Coming One had come. But He did not come exactly as expected.
God the Son did not descend from heaven with fire and smoke and other terrifying displays of power. He came humbly, looking just like other men. The other Persons of the Trinity revealed themselves in humble ways too. God the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a small dove. And God the Father spoke from heaven clearly but gently and with a message of love. In other words, the Triune God revealed Himself at the Jordan River not with terrifying displays of glory and might, but with grace.
This looks so different than the scene at Mount Sinai, but then the purpose of God’s appearance was different at each place. At Mount Sinai, God was giving the people His law. The law should provoke fear in the hearts of sinners. If they do not do God’s will, they must answer for their transgressions. This was emphasized by all the burning, smoking, and thundering on the mountaintop. This was a God who should not be taken lightly, and who expected the people to obey Him.
What happened at the Jordan River was not a display of God’s wrath, as those who heard John might have expected. Jesus’ baptism was a display of the Gospel, of God’s love for humankind by sending them a Savior. Jesus had come to give Himself in the place of sinners and to fulfill all righteousness for them, so they would not have to face the holy wrath of God.
What we see at Jesus’ baptism is how it is for our baptisms too. There are some who would turn baptism into a law event. They say that baptism is about what we do for God. They think this is where we must fully dedicate ourselves to Him and promise to live a holy life. It’s no wonder that these do not find comfort in their baptism. They know they have not lived up to their promise. They know they lack the righteousness that God requires.
But baptism is not a law event, it is a Gospel event. It is where God commits Himself to us. It is where He makes promises that are as sure and unchanging as He is. It is where He bestows His forgiveness on us and covers us with His righteousness. There are many beautiful passages in Scripture that underscore this.
Listen to Titus 3:5-7 and ask yourself who is doing the action: is it us, or is it God? “[A]ccording to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” This says that God saved us by His mercy, washed us in baptism, and applied Christ’s perfect work to us. We are now justified—declared innocent—by His grace and are counted as heirs of God.
Romans 6:4 explains how baptism marks the drowning of our sinful nature and the awakening of faith. “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.” Galatians 3:27 tells us that we look much different in God’s sight after our baptism than we did before. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
These and many other passages teach us that In Baptism, God Comes Down with Grace. We don’t go to Him to give Him something He needs. He comes down to us to give us the blessings that we couldn’t live without. It doesn’t seem possible that baptism would have such significance. It looks so simple. What good can a couple handfuls of water and one short sentence do? But Jesus’ baptism probably didn’t look very impressive either. We learn about its significance by the subsequent opening of heaven, the Holy Spirit’s descent, and the voice of the Father.
The Triune God does not show His presence at our baptisms, but He promises that He is here. It is His Word and ultimately His water that are used in baptism. He is the One who gives parents and guardians the will to bring their children to baptism, and He is the One who calls pastors to administer baptism. The Lord wants people to be baptized, and He does not fail to be present with His gifts.
Because His power and promise are what drive baptism, it only needs to happen once for each individual. If baptism were simply an expression of our commitment to God, we would need to be baptized many times, because our commitment toward Him is constantly in flux. But because baptism is a sacrament from God through which He makes a commitment to us, it is only needed one time.
We are baptized once only, but we return to those cleansing waters of baptism every time we repent of sin and trust in the gracious forgiveness of Jesus. In confession, the penitent sinner is really asking God, “Do You still love me? Do the promises You made at my baptism still stand?” And the absolution is God’s reply, “Yes, the work of My Son to save you is finished. Through His blood your sins are forgiven, and His righteousness is yours by faith. I have not and will not change My mind about you; you are My baptized child.”
The absolution is God’s assurance that heaven remains open to all who trust in Him. Heaven was opened to you at your baptism just as it was opened to Jesus at His baptism. From heaven, the Father continues to speak His gracious Word, the Son continues to apply His forgiveness and righteousness to you, and the Holy Spirit continues to fill you with His comfort and peace.
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(picture is portion of 1895 painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)
The Sixth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 16:23-30
In Christ Jesus, who opened the way “to the Father’s high throne, / Where [we] may approach Him, in [His] name alone” (ELH 182, v. 8), dear fellow redeemed:
Many people can give examples of times when they were the best qualified for a job and had the most experience, but someone else was hired instead of them. It wasn’t because of anything they did wrong or because they missed a window of opportunity. It was because of factors beyond their control. Maybe one of the applicants knew the boss personally, or another employee put in a good word for them. As the saying goes, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”
This saying also accurately expresses the reason we have access to God the Father. It is not our own knowledge or worthiness or hard work that gets us this access. On our own we could never reach Him or even come close to Him. We have access through God’s Son, Jesus the Christ, whose name we confess by the power of God the Holy Spirit. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we can pray to God the Father “with all boldness and confidence, as children ask their dear father” (Small Catechism, Intro. to Lord’s Prayer). Our heavenly Father loves to hear our prayers, and He loves to respond with the rich blessings of His grace.
Jesus said in today’s text, “whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you.” That is quite an invitation! God will give you whatever you ask for in Jesus’ name. But what does it mean to ask “in Jesus’ name”? It does not mean using Jesus’ name like someone might use a secret password to gain entrance somewhere. Any request “in Jesus’ name” is empty if it is not accompanied by faith in what He did.
The Book of Acts tells us about some “itinerant Jewish exorcists” who noticed how successful the Apostle Paul was at casting out demons and performing various miracles. They thought they might have the same success if they used the method he did. Seven of them approached a demon-possessed man and ordered the evil spirit to come out of him, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims!” But the demon replied, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” Then he attacked and overpowered all of them (Ac. 19:13-16). These exorcists did not actually believe in the name they were using.
Praying to God “in Jesus’ name” means trusting what Jesus did to save us. His “name” includes everything about Him. It describes His Person and work. That’s how it is for any of us. People associate our name with who we are and what we do. Your name carries with it your reputation. If you are known for doing good things, people will think favorably about you when your name is mentioned. If you are known for bad things, your name will bring those things to mind.
Jesus’ name is “the name that is above every name” (Phi. 2:9). Nobody did what He did. He perfectly kept the law of God, a feat no one had accomplished before then and no one has since. Then He offered up His perfect life as the atoning sacrifice to His Father for the sins of all. The name Jesus means, “The LORD saves,” which is what He did. He saved us from eternal death by dying and rising again in our place.
On the basis of what He did, Jesus invites anyone and everyone to speak to the Father. But many do not care to do this, or they do not go about it in the right way. Those who do not care to speak with God are like the employees who are constantly griping about poor working conditions and personal problems. But when the owner of the company invites them to come and share their concerns so that he might help their situation to improve, they ignore his kind invitation and keep on griping. The unbelievers who ignore the Creator of all things are like this. He sends them many earthly blessings, and He wants to give them His spiritual gifts too. But they act like He does not even exist, and they continue in their comfortless and hopeless lives.
Others imagine they can have access to God the Father without the Son. They may speak of the Son as a good teacher and wonderful moral example, but they deny that He is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity. This includes a great many people in the world who have latched on to false religions. They may put us to shame in their moral living and their practice of prayer, but God neither recognizes it nor hears it. Jesus clearly stated His connection to the Father, “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” Earlier, He told His disciples, “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30), and “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also” (14:6-7).
We would be found in one of these two camps of unbelievers if God the Holy Spirit had not called us out of the darkness of unbelief to the light of salvation through Christ. Without the Holy Spirit’s work through the Word and Sacraments, no one would confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). No one would believe that there is salvation in Him alone, by faith in His name (Ac. 4:12).
Now this salvation and faith are yours, and with them, the invitation to present your needs and requests to God in heaven. St. Paul writes that “Through Christ We Have Access in One Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). Because Jesus blotted out your sins by His death on the cross and clothed you in His righteousness at your baptism, you are able to bring your petitions before the holy God. You can come confidently to His throne of grace to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
When Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, He did not teach them to pray timidly or with uncertainty. He taught them to make demands of God: “Thy kingdom come”; “Give us… our daily bread”; “Forgive us”; “Deliver us.” We can be confident in prayer because our salvation is secure. We don’t have to wonder if God the Father will listen to us. He loves us! He has time for us! Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you…. If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt. 7:7,11).
If we believed this promise of Jesus, we would “pray without ceasing” (1Th. 5:17). We would say that there was no better use of our time than to pray. But instead we put a thousand other things before it, many of which accomplish no good for ourselves or our neighbors. Or we stop praying because God did not answer our prayers the way we wanted. Maybe we prayed for sunshine and He sent rain, or we prayed for healing and the condition worsened. Or we adopt a fatalistic attitude and figure God will do what He wants whether we pray to Him or not.
But if prayer were a waste of time and unnecessary, why would God repeat the invitation so frequently? “Ask, and you will receive,” says Jesus, “that your joy may be full.” Think of what a privilege this is! The perfect, eternal God wants to hear what you, a sinner, have to say. Pastor U. V. Koren in a sermon for this Sunday said, “If we were invited to approach the highest authority of the land, we would regard it as an honor and try to make fitting preparations for it. How much more then we should do that when we are invited to the King of all kings, to the almighty Lord of heaven and earth!” (U. V. Koren’s Works, Vol. 1: Sermons, pp. 217-218). The holy God “has commanded us so to pray and has promised to hear us” (Small Catechism, Concl. to Lord’s Prayer).
But how can you know that God has heard your prayer? You speak to God; why doesn’t He speak to you? But He does! You have access to God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. He brought you to faith in Jesus, who saved you from sin and death. So prayer proceeds through the Son, in the Spirit, to the Father—a line stretching from earth to heaven.
God’s answer comes the opposite way, from heaven to you on earth. God the Father gives His grace and mercy in the Spirit. The Father sends the Holy Spirit to you through the Word and Sacraments to comfort and strengthen you. And how does the Holy Spirit administer this comfort and strength? Through the Son. The Holy Spirit brings rest to your troubled soul by bringing you Jesus. Jesus knows your pain. He knows how you struggle and worry. He has endured every temptation and trial there is to endure. He comes to help and deliver you.
When you speak to God in prayer, remember also to go to His Word where He speaks to you. This is what your soul needs: to bring your requests to God and to receive His gifts through the Word. He wants to bless you with His forgiveness and cheer you with His grace. He will not ignore your prayers. He will not overlook you. God the Father will send you His good gifts by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit through His beloved Son, your Savior.
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(portion of “Crucifixion, Seen from the Cross,” by James Tissot, c. 1890)
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 16:5-15
In Christ Jesus, whose saving gifts are imparted to us by the Holy Spirit through the powerful means of grace, dear fellow redeemed:
Like the words of the Holy Gospel for last Sunday, Jesus spoke the words of today’s text the night before His crucifixion. After about three years of public work, the crowning moment of His life was fast approaching. He was about to shed His holy blood for the salvation of sinners before rising again on the third day. But in this part of His discourse with His disciples, He wanted to prepare them for what would happen after His resurrection.
He said, “I am going to Him who sent Me.” He planned to return to the Father from whom He came. This was good news, but the disciples did not realize it. The return of Christ to His Father could only mean that God the Father accepted the work of His Son. It must mean that there was nothing more for sinners to do to gain their salvation. The work was finished; salvation had been won.
This return to His Father happened when Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after His resurrection. At His ascension, God the Father seated Him at His right hand, putting all things under His feet and giving Him as head over all things to the church (Eph. 1:22). From this position of all power and authority, God the Son in cooperation with His Father sent out the third Person of the Trinity, God the Holy Spirit. And what was the Holy Spirit to do? Jesus said, “He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.”
He must “convict the world concerning sin,” because no person by nature wants to admit his sins. Instead of acknowledging sin, many decide to embrace it. Some do this in violation of their conscience—they know something is wrong, but they do it anyway. Others sin in ignorance—they actually do not realize that what they are doing or saying is displeasing to God. The Holy Spirit works on both kinds of people to convince them of the unchanging standard of God’s moral law.
The reason He must do this is because sin acts like a depressant, like a drug, which slowly lulls the sinner to spiritual sleep. The more we participate in a wrong thing, the more we continue in it, the less we will be aware that it is wrong. Our spiritual life is one example of this. It is easy to think that we are getting as much spiritual nourishment as we need through regular or semi-regular church attendance. But what about the other six and a half days of the week? Does God’s Word and prayer have any place in those days?
You might be more knowledgeable about spiritual things than many of your peers. But how do you compare with your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents? Does your focus on spiritual things match what you witnessed in them? Typically, those who do not recognize their own great sinfulness will have little interest in the regular hearing and learning of the Word. They are content to know the basic teachings in the Bible and figure they are in good shape. But a lazy Christian disconnected from the Word is just a small step away from being no Christian at all.
Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (Jn. 8:31). The Word reveals Jesus. It is the record of the essential details of Jesus’ life and saving work. Everything written about Jesus is true, from what He said to what He did. All of it happened. Many eyewitnesses who had nothing to gain by lying accurately recorded these things. What is found in the Bible is not just some collection of spiritual opinions, which are no more true or valid than the teachings of other religions. The Bible is God’s own Word; it is what He wants every sinner to know and believe.
To know what the Bible says, to learn everything that Jesus did, and then to reject it, is the greatest sin. Jesus says the Holy Spirit “will convict the world concerning sin… because they do not believe in Me.” By rejecting Jesus, the sinner embraces his sin. Only through the blood of Jesus is sin forgiven. If Jesus does not stand between us and God as our Substitute, we will one day have to stand before God on our own. Then all our sins will be counted against us, and eternal torment will be our just reward. But if our trust is in Jesus, our sins will not be counted against us. Then we are credited with the payment Jesus made for sin.
The Holy Spirit works faith through the Gospel only after condemning through the Law. No sinner will look to a Savior if he doesn’t first understand why he needs saving.
The second task of the Holy Spirit is to “convict the world concerning… righteousness.” Jesus explained that the Holy Spirit must do this “because I go to the Father, and you will see Me no longer.” Just as sinners do not naturally understand the depths of their sinfulness, they also do not recognize the poor record of their own attempts at righteousness.
We are far less righteous than we imagine ourselves to be. We judge our righteousness by the wrong standard. We measure our righteousness against the behavior of others. This is what the Pharisee in the temple did. He thanked God that he was not like other men who were robbers, unjust, adulterers, or tax collectors (Lk. 18:11). But righteousness is not determined by sinners comparing themselves to each other. That’s like trying to determine who smells better after playing in the manure pile!
The standard for our righteousness is the perfect God. That is where we should be. We should “be perfect, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). But we are not even close to that. This is why God gave His people all those specific regulations for holiness in the Old Testament. It was to show the people the vast gap between their sinfulness and His holiness. It was to teach them to trust in Him alone and not in their own efforts at righteousness. In the final reckoning, our righteousness could never hold up before God. The prophet Isaiah states the matter plainly, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (64:6).
This explains half the reason for Christ’s coming. He did not come only to atone for our sin. He also came to fulfill all righteousness for us. He came to meet the standard God had set for mankind in His Ten Commandments. He loved the LORD God with all His heart, soul, and mind. He perfectly honored the authorities, helped His neighbor, kept Himself pure, respected the possessions of others, told no lies, and didn’t even desire what belonged to His neighbor.
When you were converted and incorporated into the body of Christ, His perfect righteousness was placed upon you, like a spotless garment covering all your sin. Every sin against God and neighbor that could be counted against you, Jesus replaces with His holiness. You might remember the many sins of your past, but God does not. He sees you through His Son as perfectly righteous and holy.
This does not mean we can stop trying to do the right things, since Jesus accomplished everything perfectly for us. We want to live according to His Word out of love for Him and out of thankfulness for what He has done. But even as the Holy Spirit moves us to do these good things, He guides our focus away from our own works and to the perfect works Jesus did on our behalf.
The third task of the Holy Spirit revealed by Jesus is that “He will convict the world concerning… judgment… because the ruler of this world is judged.” The “ruler of this world” is the devil. He reigns over all that is evil. In his well-known hymn, Martin Luther described Satan as “our ancient foe,” who “doth seek to work us woe; / Strong mail of craft and pow’r / He weareth in this hour; / On earth is not his equal” (ELH 251, v. 1). He is a powerful opponent of the truth. “He is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).
But this prince of darkness is no match for the holy Lord. As hard as he tried, he could not get Jesus off course from what He came to do. Jesus said that “[The devil] has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me” (Jn. 14:30-31). Satan never had the upper hand. His fate was sealed right after Adam and Eve’s fall when the LORD promised to send One to crush Satan’s head and destroy his power over sinners (Gen. 3:15). The Apostle John wrote that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1Jn. 3:8).
By His atonement for sin through His death on the cross and by His resurrection from the dead, Jesus did just that. Because your sin has been blotted out, the devil cannot rightfully accuse you anymore. He cannot argue that you belong in the kingdom of darkness, because Jesus has won your salvation. Jesus has brought you over into the kingdom of light.
But all who reject this salvation remain under judgment along with the devil. Unless they repent, they will suffer as he suffers, and they will forever be separated from God. Our merciful Lord does not want this to happen. He “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Tim. 2:4).
The Holy Spirit guides sinners “into all the truth.” He takes everything Jesus did to produce your righteousness and earn your forgiveness and win your salvation, and He brings it to you through His powerful Word and Sacraments. He takes the blessings that are of the Father and of the Son, and He declares them to you. The Triune God keeps none of these good things from you. What Jesus Won, the Holy Spirit Distributes, so that you may believe and be saved.
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(picture is stained glass by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, c. 1660)
Festival of the Holy Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 3:1-15
In Christ Jesus, whose thoughts are not our thoughts, which is why we have righteousness and salvation in Him, dear fellow redeemed:
One of the greatest gifts God has given to humans is the ability to reason. This is among the First Article blessings of God the Father: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them” (Luther’s Small Catechism). He gave us this ability so that we would be equipped to manage His creation, to build homes and communities for ourselves, and to collaborate with our neighbors.
But the primary purpose for our reason is that we should acknowledge and give glory to God. Paul told the people of Athens that the true God wants all nations to “seek [Him], in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him” (Ac. 17:27). Sinners cannot reach God and establish communion with Him on their own, but they can certainly know He exists. Even those who have never heard His Word should know this. Paul explained in his Epistle to the Romans, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (1:19-20). He goes on to talk about how the existence of conscience, the inner sense of right and wrong, should further convince people that there is a God (2:14-16). And if there is a God, they should obviously want to serve Him.
But as it is with any of the gifts God gives, sinners do not use their reason the way it is intended. It is popular today to claim that faith and reason are totally opposite each other. The idea is that those who claim to have faith are no longer using reason. And those who utilize reason do not need faith. This is especially applied in the field of science. Science is thought to be the ground of reason, where no room is made for faith. Never mind that many of the great scientists of the last 2,000 years were Christians. Never mind that science, properly speaking, is nothing else than the study of God’s creation. Modern, atheistic science does not welcome those who contend that there is (or even that there may be) a higher power at work in the universe.
This leaves us wishing that the scientists who praise reason so highly, would actually use it. It is often said that atheists reject God because they are using their reason only. But denying that there is a God is actually unreasonable, as the evidence around us and inside of us shows. The psalmist declares, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1). Such unbelievers remain under the wrath of God. Paul writes that “they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:20-21, 28-29).
So there are proper and improper uses for our ability to think and reason. When this ability is utilized for sinful plans and pursuits, then good and holy thinking will become more and more clouded. Before you realize it, you may even lose sight of any standard of right and wrong. You might picture it this way: The Christian life is like holding a map with a clear path to your destination. You know where you are heading and where you belong. But as you go on your way, you get sidetracked. You hear the sounds of people having a good time to the right and to the left. You see bright lights beckoning you in a different direction. Maybe you can still reach your destination by taking a little detour. You turn into a dark alleyway and then another. You find the alternate path is not as clear as it seemed. Before long, you are lost. And you are vulnerable.
Your mind is capable of traveling an infinite number of paths. If you let it walk down the path of hatred, it will be satisfied with nothing less than revenge. If your mind is full of greed, there will be no room for spiritual riches. Whatever sinful thoughts you fail to keep in check, those thoughts will consume you. And inevitably, sinful thoughts unchecked lead to sinful actions, then sinful habits, and then sinful addictions. And then it becomes very difficult for the brain to think the thoughts of God.
In today’s sermon text, Jesus was approached by a ruler of the Jews named Nicodemus, whom Jesus referred to as a “teacher.” Nicodemus had an honored position among the Jews and did not want to jeopardize it. This is why he “came to Jesus by night.” He was undoubtedly a gifted man, but for all his intellectual abilities, he had a hard time understanding Jesus’ words. Jesus told him that every person born in the natural way needs to be born again. “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus asked incredulously. Nicodemus did not understand, and I do not think we would have fared any better.
What Jesus was telling this “teacher of Israel” is that human reason has its place, but that salvation is accomplished not by man’s will but by God’s will. The Holy Spirit brings about spiritual rebirth and renews the mind, so that it is filled with godly wisdom. The Holy Spirit begins with God’s law, to show each sinner how far off his thoughts are from God. Jesus summarized the first part of God’s law in this way, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Mt. 22:37).
Jesus says that keeping God’s law means loving Him, among other things, with all your mind. Your mind should serve no other God but Him. Your mind should communicate in words that are for His glory alone. Your mind should be filled with His Word and thereby attuned to His will. Loving God with all your mind means acknowledging your weaknesses and recognizing your limits. You know how often you have thought and acted in ways that were self-serving, instead of thinking about how to serve God and your neighbors. You have also questioned God and ignored His Word because you thought you knew what was better for you than He did.
Many people follow only the parts of the Bible that agree with their own thinking. But the Christian who has heard God’s law knows it is the other way around. It is not the Bible that has problems, but my own reason. It is tainted by sin. It does not guide me in the way I should go. Only God can do that, and He does. God the Father sent His Son to be “born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4-5). God the Son perfectly followed His Father’s will with all His heart and with all His soul and with all His mind, and perfectly loved His neighbor as Himself. He kept the law for you, in your place, so that you would be judged holy in God’s sight. He also made satisfaction for your sins by being lifted up like the bronze serpent to save you from the poison of sin.
These blessings come to you by the work of the third Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit—a reference to baptism—, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The Holy Spirit works unseen through the Word and Sacraments to change minds and convert those who formerly pursued foolish things, including you and me. He reveals even to the most stubborn minds what they did not know they were missing. They could never have imagined “what God has prepared for those who love him” (1Cor. 2:9). Without the work of the Holy Spirit, the salvation willed by God the Father and won by God the Son could not be distributed. But it is distributed, even throughout the entire world.
How any of this can be, is a mystery to human reason. We cannot understand how God can be one and three. We do not know how the God who created, can make Himself a creature, or how the God who is Life can die. We do not comprehend how the God who was sinned against can so deeply love the sinners. We cannot imagine why God wants the likes of us to be with Him forever in glory. But even though our brains cannot comprehend these things, they are nevertheless true. They are true because God says so, and you are I are in no position to challenge Him. Paul says as much in today’s Epistle lesson, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?’ For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33-36).
The truly great minds recognize that our human knowledge and ability are nothing compared with the thoughts of God. The great minds bow in humble awe at what God planned for sinners even before the foundation of the world. The Great Minds Honor God for His never-ending grace and mercy.
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