The First Sunday after Michaelmas – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 9:1-8
In Christ Jesus, who was delivered over to death for our sins, and who imparts forgiveness to us through His powerful Word, dear fellow redeemed:
“Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins?” A fellow pastor said he posed that question to some Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to his door. It’s a great question. In fact it’s the perfect way to learn where people stand in spiritual matters. “Can sins be forgiven?”
People might like to know what you mean by “sins.” You explain that sins are anything we do which contradicts the Commandments of God. Those Commandments are summed up by love for God and love for neighbor. If we have not perfectly done these things day in and day out, we have sinned. Then they might want to know what “forgiveness” means. You explain that forgiveness means the sins are cancelled out or pardoned, as though they had never even happened.
“Well that sounds too good to be true!” they might say. “If we have broken God’s law, we can’t imagine those sins are so easily removed!” You reply that the Bible clearly teaches the forgiveness of sins, but that it certainly didn’t come easily. “I knew it!” they say. “God wouldn’t just tell us we are forgiven. We must have to do something to prove ourselves to Him.”
You tell them that there is nothing we could ever do to make up for our sins. There are too many of them. Our sins have separated us from God (Isa. 59:2). We could not make things right with Him. But He could make things right with us. God accomplished this by sending His holy Son to take on our flesh and live among us in the world. He followed God’s Commandments perfectly. He never sinned. Then He offered His perfect life as a sacrifice in our place by dying on the cross.
God’s Son had to die in our place. It was the only way to satisfy God’s wrath against sin. It was the only way to free us from our sins and the death we deserve. So, as you said, the forgiveness of sins did not come easily—God Himself had to die for it. But it is a free gift offered to all sinners. They do not have to make up for their own sins somehow. Jesus paid the penalty for them.
Most people in the world today do not believe in the forgiveness of sins. They do not believe that a lifetime of sins could be wiped away without any contribution on their part. But then we have the account in today’s Gospel. Four men brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus, because they heard about Jesus’ power to heal (Luk. 5:17). After some effort, they were able to set him before Jesus. Jesus looked at the man and said, “Take heart, My son; your sins are forgiven.”
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each record this account, but none of them includes the reaction of the paralyzed man and his friends. We imagine that Jesus’ statement shocked them. As far as we can tell, they did not come to Him for forgiveness. They came to Him so that He might make the paralyzed man walk. But Jesus had something better planned. Jesus was aware of the man’s need for forgiveness even if he himself was not.
This man did nothing to get this forgiveness. He did not make the case for why Jesus should bless him. He did not point to the good things he had done for God or others. He did not even ask for forgiveness! The scribes and Pharisees did not believe the forgiveness of sins could come so easily. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they thought (Mar. 2:7, Luk. 5:21). They did not believe Jesus had authority to forgive sins, because they did not believe Jesus was God.
Since that is how you feel, said Jesus, then I will prove who I am. I will demonstrate the power of My Word. So He said to the paralyzed man, “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And the man did just that. The crowds were afraid and amazed when they saw this. They had seen Jesus perform miracles before, but now He proved He could forgive sins too. They glorified God that He had given this authority to men.
Here today I stand before you saying the same thing Jesus did, “Your sins are forgiven!” I say this not because I have the power within myself to forgive your sins. If I did, you should ask me to prove it by making a paralyzed man walk or by raising someone from the dead. But I do have the authority to declare this forgiveness. I have this authority from God, and so do you. Jesus granted this authority to the Church, which consists of all believers. He has given the Church on earth “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 16:19). Whoever the Church forgives on the basis of His Word, He forgives. Whoever the Church does not forgive, He does not forgive.
By the call of God extended through this congregation, I have been appointed to publicly administer God’s grace to you through Word and Sacrament. I have been appointed to declare your sins forgiven. When I speak this forgiveness, I am not expressing a wish that this happen for you. And it is not a forgiveness conditioned by something you have to do. Spiritually speaking, you are like the paralyzed man who can do nothing for himself and has to be brought to Jesus. The Holy Spirit brings you to Jesus through His Word. He brings you to Jesus, so that you can hear His Word from my mouth: “Take heart! Your sins are forgiven!”
But let me go back to the question I asked at the beginning of the sermon: Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins? Do you believe it is actually true? Could it be that God forgives the horrible things you said to your parents, your spouse, or your friend? Could it be that God forgives those bad things you did that still weigh you down with guilt? Could it be that God forgives you for the harm you caused and the lies you told?
Do you need God to give additional proof that these sins are forgiven before you believe it? Do you need Him to give you some sign to show you are right with Him? There is no other proof and no other sign God needs to show you besides the cross. That’s where Jesus went for you. That’s where He did the wretched work. That’s where each and every one of your sins was placed on Him. That’s where He atoned for your sins before God.
He did not simply pay for the small sins on the cross. He did not just pay for the usual ones that all people are guilty of. He paid for the unique sins too, the sins that make you think you are worse than everyone else around you. He paid for the big sins, even the sins that are so terrible, we can’t bring ourselves to mention them. John writes that “[Jesus] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1Jo. 2:2). God the Father accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for all sin. Your sins are forgiven!
You know this, and I know this. But we don’t always act like our sins are forgiven. We know we are forgiven, but we still dwell on our failures in the past. We know we are forgiven, but we focus on our deficiencies rather than God’s grace. We know we are forgiven, but we are troubled by the memories of hurt and pain we caused others.
God’s forgiveness frees us from having to right our wrongs, which we couldn’t do even if we tried. It also frees us so that we may try to reconcile with those we have harmed. Maybe you are still bothered by something mean you said to a classmate or coworker years ago. Maybe you feel guilty because you failed to be there for someone who needed you. Maybe you realize that the grudge you and another have held against each other has gone on way too long.
Jesus says that if you “remember that your brother has something against you,” then go and “be reconciled to your brother” (Mat. 5:23,24). But what if that person rejects your apology and refuses to forgive? Then you can take comfort that the sin is forgiven by God. But what if acknowledging a secret sin causes a person you care about to turn against you? Then at least your conscience will be clear, and the burden you have long carried will be removed. You can also trust that God’s grace and forgiveness which comfort you will also work on the hearts of those whom you hurt.
After Jesus had forgiven the man’s sins, He told him to get up, pick up his mat, and go home. And when Jesus forgives your sins, He calls you to get up also. As He raised up the man from physical paralysis, so he raises you from spiritual paralysis. Your sins are forgiven—don’t sit there in despair! Your sins are forgiven—go forward in grace! Your sins are forgiven—declare what God has done for you! And let that joy start in your own home just like the previously paralyzed man did.
There is no way to get your sins forgiven apart from Jesus. But by faith in Him worked by the Holy Spirit, forgiveness is yours. Your sins were put on Jesus, so none of them cling to you anymore—not the sins of your youth, not the sins of a year ago, not the sins of yesterday. Your Sins Are Forgiven! Get Up! And give glory to God.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
Festival of St. Michael and All Angels – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 18:1-10
In Christ Jesus, whom the holy angels gladly serve and obey, dear fellow redeemed:
If you could be an angel for a day, how would you spend your time? I’m guessing you would want to fly around a bit, testing your wings, maybe visiting some interesting places around the world. Of course you would want to have a good look at heaven and take in all the sights and sounds. Maybe you would even go to a place of major conflict to work on putting a stop to the fighting. You and I would want to do big things, things that were fulfilling to ourselves or helpful to a good many others.
But none of this describes the chief responsibilities of the holy angels. They are not interested in pursuing things that are personally fulfilling. They are content to take direction from God and carry out His will. They don’t spend their time sight-seeing; they spend their time serving—including service to the least in the world. They are perfectly devoted to the Almighty God who gave them life.
They are exactly opposite from the fallen angels—the devil and his fellow demons. These fallen angels were proud. They did not want to serve at God’s command. They did not want to worship Him alone. They wanted to be gods. They wanted all creation to bow to them. So they rebelled against their Creator. They led a revolt in heaven, which we heard about in today’s Epistle lesson (Rev. 12:7-12). They lost this battle and were thrown out of heaven. But they still operate on earth.
How exactly do they pursue their wicked agendas on earth? When we compare our day with the New Testament, it seems like the demons were much more active back then. We don’t observe obvious cases of demon-possession today like what we read about. But the demons haven’t given up. They aren’t taking a break. They are still active, most often in ways we don’t perceive.
When we face situations where we are tempted to sin, there is no doubt the demons are involved in it. They want us to put our own desires first and to rebel against God like they did. You know how intense these temptations can be. You are tempted to do something that you know you should not do. You are tempted to look at something that is not for you to see. You are tempted to repeat something about someone else that you know is unverified or unkind. You are powerfully pulled in the direction of the sin. You try to resist, but the desire grows more and more intense.
The devil and demons put the thought into your head that carrying out the sin is the only way to resolve the desire. They try to convince you that you can stay in control of the sin. “No one will find out,” you think. “It isn’t really that bad. Everybody does it.” But there is no excuse for sin. You and I do not have to sin. The demons cannot make us sin. They can only tempt us. The sin comes from our own hearts. Even those who are demon-possessed cannot say that the devil made them do bad things, because they are the ones who let the devil in in the first place.
Jesus warns us in today’s text about temptations to sin. He says that temptations will come. The world is sinful, and we are sinners. All of us have fallen for temptations many times. But we must not become comfortable with sinning. We must not let down our guard. Getting comfortable with sin has led many children of God to abandon the faith. They choose the pleasures of the world over the promises of God’s Word.
But Jesus says that it would be better to lose a hand or foot or eye in this life if they lead us to sin, than to enter hell with all members intact. We must fight these temptations to sin. And we stay vigilant and watchful not only about things that may tempt us, but also what may tempt those in our care.
This is particularly important for parents and grandparents to understand. Children are not aware of their vulnerability or of how hard the demons are working to destroy their faith. Children are trusting, and they may be tempted to trust the wrong people. They desperately want to be accepted and fit in, so they may spend time in bad company. It is a gross shirking of responsibility when parents or guardians let children decide who to hang out with or how to spend their time.
Besides peers who exert a bad influence on your kids, how else do you suppose the devil and demons try to tempt them? What would your children or grandchildren do every waking moment at home if you let them? That’s right, they would use a smartphone or other digital device like it was glued to the palm of their hand. If you want to know where the demons are most active today—and not just against the youth—look no further than the endless temptations to sin online.
If you were a fish, you could find some good food on the internet, but you would also find millions of worms dangling off shiny, sharp hooks. Those are the temptations to sin. You can find pleasure online. You can find material to fuel your hatred, your worries, and your doubts. You can find distractions, which do not seem bad in and of themselves, but which keep you from your Christian callings. If you have spent any time online, you know this from personal experience. It is shocking how easy it is to find bad things you weren’t even looking for in the first place.
But as active as the demons are in trying to destroy our faith, our reputation, and our very life, the holy angels are active too. If the holy angels were not fighting on our behalf, we would already be ruined. The devil and the demons would certainly overcome us.
This is clear from the account of Job. Job was a believer who was richly blessed by the LORD. When God and Satan conversed about Job, Satan said that Job had prospered only because the LORD had “put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has,” and “blessed the work of his hands” (Job 1:10). So the LORD gave Satan permission to attack everything Job had. In a matter of hours, all of Job’s oxen, donkeys, sheep, and camels were either stolen away or destroyed, and his ten children died. That’s how quickly the good things we have would be taken away from us if God did not send His angels to protect us.
It is a remarkable thing that the mighty angels so willingly serve us lowly sinners. It is not because they have decided we are worth the time and effort. It is because they honor God and want to obey His will. And it is God’s will that these “ministering spirits” should serve “those who are to inherit salvation” (Heb. 1:14). The humble angels do just that. They encamp around those who fear Him (Psa. 34:7). They guard them in all their ways (Psa. 91:11). They turn back the constant assaults of the devil. They never grow tired of serving. They never take a break. They watch over us day and night.
Jesus says the angels are devoted to us because they are devoted to God. He says that the little children’s angels “always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.” This means that whatever the angels do for us, they do because God directs them to do it. Their protection of us is His protection. Their care is His care. This is why we don’t pray to the angels. They don’t need or expect our thanks. All the glory is God’s.
Some people think that their loved ones who die become angels and watch over them. But that is not the case. The souls of believers go straight to heaven. God does not send them to help their loved ones. He sends the holy angels. Like the angels who look to God, we should too, so that we are not led away from what the Lord says in His Word.
When we have ignored the Word and given into temptation, it is not because the angels failed to do their job. God chastens His children when they sin, so that they are humbled and return to Him. He may let the devil do some damage, so that we become aware of our pride and repent. And when we repent, Jesus tells us that there is great joy in heaven, “joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luk. 15:10).
The angels rejoice because they know there is forgiveness for sin. They know what God did for mankind. He took on our flesh, so that He could be our Substitute. He suffered and died, so that every temptation into which we had fallen—every sin we had committed—would be blotted out.
That includes your sins and mine—sins committed in the public eye, and sins committed in the privacy of our homes. Jesus died for sins of the past that burden you and trouble your conscience even now. You can be freed from the guilt of those sins. Repent of them and believe Jesus’ word of absolution. He paid for that sin too. He forgives all your sins.
There is nothing you have done that the angels assigned to you have not witnessed. They have seen it all. But they are not ashamed or reluctant to serve you because of your sins. God loves you, so they do too. They marvel at God’s love for sinners. They rejoice that He is such a good and merciful Lord, and they want nothing more than for each of us to join them in God’s glorious kingdom.
This is why the Lord sends them to us. He wants the angels to do their part in humble service to Him, so we are not tempted away from the faith, but so that we retain a childlike faith in Him our Savior.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Tenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 19:41-48
In Christ Jesus, through whom we are justified and have peace with God (Rom. 5:1), dear fellow redeemed:
When Noah and his sons worked on building the ark, none of their neighbors thought a great flood would come. When the people of Sodom and Gomorrah tried to abuse Lot’s guests, none of them expected fire to rain down on them from heaven. When the leaders of Jerusalem conspired to kill Jesus, they did not imagine that Jesus’ prophecy about their beloved city would come to pass. But it did. In the year 70, the Roman army did what Jesus predicted. The Romans besieged the city of Jerusalem, breached its walls, killed its inhabitants, and burned the great temple to the ground.
Each of these examples—the flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the overthrow of Jerusalem—teach us something about the human condition, about God’s wrath, and about God’s mercy. They show us how unaware or uncaring sinners are about the will of God. Noah’s neighbors heard his warnings about what was coming and ignored it. Lot’s neighbors saw his righteous example and despised it. The people of Jerusalem witnessed Jesus’ miracles and heard His teaching, and still they sent Him to His death.
Therefore God’s wrath burned against these hardened unbelievers. By the waters of the flood, He destroyed all life on the earth. By fire from heaven, He burned up everything in Sodom and Gomorrah. And by the hand of the Romans, He brought terrible suffering and death to Jerusalem.
On the other hand, these events show His mercy too. Many were drowned in the flood, but Noah and his family were preserved. Two cities were burned up, but Lot and his daughters were spared. Jerusalem was overcome, but the Christian inhabitants of the city were moved to relocate before the Romans arrived.
God does not delight in destruction. He wants all sinners to repent and be saved. In Ezekiel chapter 18, He says, “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone… so turn, and live” (v. 32). We see His compassion in the tears Jesus shed while looking over Jerusalem: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!”
The “things that make for peace” were the things Jesus was about to do in the city. He was going to offer Himself as the sacrifice for sinners. He would willingly let Himself be beaten, flogged, ridiculed, and crucified. He suffered and died to pay for all sin. This included the sins of the people in Noah’s day, the sins of Lot’s neighbors, and the sins of the people of Israel who rejected Him. He paid for their sins and everyone else’s sins besides.
He paid for sin, so that mankind might no longer be separated from its Creator. He is the One who could blot out the wrongdoing of thousands of years of human history. He could right the wrong begun in the Garden of Eden. He and only He could do this, and He did. He made peace “by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).
But so many reject this peace. They want war, war with God. Who would go to war with God? Satan tried it and now he slithers along on his belly eating dust. That doesn’t stop others from doing what he did. They rebel. They go to war with God by acting like His Commandments are no longer in place. In our “enlightened” age, many now feel comfortable setting that “traditional morality” aside. Among other things, they ignore what God says about respecting authority, about guarding against harm to the body, and about keeping sexual intimacy within marriage only.
Many who take issue with the Bible’s teaching, however, still like what they see in Jesus. They like the Jesus who sticks up for the poor and hurting and who eats with social outcasts. But what do they make of the Jesus who forcefully drives out the sellers from the temple courts, as we heard in today’s text? Jesus is the Savior of all people. But He also clearly identified Himself as the Judge, who will condemn the unrepentant to hell on the last day (Mat. 25:31-46).
Early in His public work, Jesus went around preaching this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mat. 4:17). Jesus called sinners to repentance. His primary mission was not to diagnose and treat people’s physical or social ills, but to address their spiritual ones. He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luk. 5:31-32).
Those who think they need no spiritual care are the self-righteous. They find it easy to point out the shortcomings of others. But they fail to see their own sins. They compare their lives with others and feel they must be on the right track. They haven’t made the mistakes that this person made. They haven’t acted like that person does. They have done a lot of good for a lot of people. Others could learn plenty from their example.
This was the attitude of the chief priests and scribes. They took pride in their holy living. They also hated Jesus. Our text says that they “were seeking to destroy Him.” Why were they fighting against Jesus? Why did they want Him dead? It’s because they did not want to acknowledge their sins and repent.
It is painful to admit our sins. We do not want to believe that we have been as bad as God’s law says we have. But by clinging to our self-righteousness and doing all we can to keep our sins buried, we only make things worse. Then we fail to recognize “the things that make for peace.” We fail to realize “the time of [our] visitation.” By refusing to repent of our sins, we show that we are opposed to Jesus, because He came to suffer and die for sinners.
But the Lord does not give up on stubborn sinners. He weeps for them. The Holy Spirit continues to work on their hearts through the law, so that their eyes are opened. He helps them to see the difference between God’s holiness and their sin. He shows them there is no hope for them without Jesus. There is no salvation apart from Him.
Jesus and only Jesus could bridge the gap between us and God. He is perfect God and perfect Man in one person. He came to live the life the law requires. He came to fulfill all righteousness for us, to do what only God can do. We sinners have fallen far short of God’s requirement, but Jesus met it. He met it for us.
And then He went to the cross absorbing the punishment for our violations of the law. He suffered for the people’s rejection of the truth in Jerusalem. He suffered for every time a Christian house of prayer is used to pedal the world’s goods. He suffered for our self-righteousness, our spiritual laziness, and our selfish attitudes.
Whether you own up to them or not, Jesus shed His blood for each and every one of your sins and my sins. The price has been paid. The payment is made. No bad deed went unpunished. Jesus bore the sins of all. He suffered death and hell for all. God and man have been reconciled. The sin that separated God and man was atoned for. Jesus made peace between us. That means you have nothing to lose by confessing your sins—nothing except your pride.
When you repent of your sin, God does not sit on His throne weighing the pros and cons of forgiving you. Your sin was already forgiven when Jesus hung on the cross. So then why should you have to confess your sins? Because you need to remember who you are in relation to God. You are the sinner. He is the Savior. There is no justification for your sinning. But there is justification for those who admit their sin and trust in the grace of God.
You cannot come to this understanding on your own. On your own, you would be at war with God, trying to show how you are better than He says you are. But the Holy Spirit humbles you through the law and then brings you peace through the Gospel. Through the law, He cleanses the temple of your body like Jesus cleansed the temple in Jerusalem. Through the Gospel He fills you with the righteousness and glory of God.
So the work is done for you. Your sins are forgiven. In Jesus, You Have the Things That Make for Peace. Is that it? Should each of us go back to our homes secure in the knowledge of God’s mercy and grace toward us? Yes! And day after day, we should retrace the spiritual steps that brought us this comfort. You and I sin every day, so we should repent every day. And every day we should replenish our hearts and souls with God’s message of peace. Then a week from now, we will have the opportunity to be fed again through Word and Sacrament in the divine service just as we have been fed today.
When Jesus was teaching daily in the temple, we are told that “all the people were hanging on His words.” They listened intently to Him. They did not want to miss anything, because Jesus had “the words of eternal life” (Joh. 6:68). He spoke words that they could not live without. He spoke words of peace, peace for the greatest and the smallest, peace for the good and the bad, peace for you and for me.
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 of the “Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Fifth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 5:1-11
In Christ Jesus, who casts out the net of His Word, so that more and more sinners might be drawn to Him in repentance and faith, dear fellow redeemed:
You and I have had moments like the fishermen in today’s text. These experienced men worked through the night, but they did not catch anything. In the same way, we can think of many times that we expended great effort and had nothing to show for it. Maybe it was spending hours upon hours training and practicing for a competition and then coming in last. Or maybe it was staying up late to get the crop in only to have it wash out in the next storm. Or maybe it was pouring time into forming and fine-tuning a plan that ultimately got discarded.
Those experiences are disheartening. All that work for nothing! This is when we feel like it is hard to get ahead—“one step forward, two steps back.” It may even feel like God is opposed to us at these times. Here we are spending all this energy in our work, pursuing things that are good as far as we can tell, and we don’t get anywhere. Why doesn’t God bless us?
But what we don’t know is that God may be protecting us from harm due to our success, harm that could come from materialism or power or fame. Or it may be that He allows failure today, so that He can give even bigger blessings tomorrow. That was the case with the fishermen. He kept them from catching fish during the night, from finding success through their skilled labor, so that He might demonstrate His power and mercy.
They had been fishing in the best spots at the best time of day, and they failed. Then Jesus sent them out again to a poorer spot at a worse time, and their nets were filled! So we see what the Lord can do. I’m sure you could give examples of His goodness working in your life. There were times that you thought you would fail, and you succeeded. You had given up hope, and help came through. The Lord knows how to bless us, and He does it in ways we could not expect.
The disciples looked at their full nets and sinking boats, and you can just imagine the looks on their faces – eyes wide, jaws hitting the floor. Then a new sensation washed over Peter. He realized that this Man with him in the boat was not just a man. An ordinary man could not predict this monstrous haul of fish where seasoned fisherman had been working all night. Peter now felt guilt. He was in the presence of the holy Lord, but he himself was not holy. “Depart from me,” he said, “for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
If Jesus had abandoned Peter and all sinful men, He could have had no disciples, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Instead Jesus said to Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Then Peter and his associates James and John left everything—including that great catch of fish—and followed Jesus. What is a whole load of fish compared with the One who gives those fish simply by saying a word?
But suppose those disciples could look into the future at that point. Suppose they could preview what following Jesus would mean up to the day of His death. Would they have been as eager to go with Him? They could look ahead and see things like the great crowds, the amazing miracles, and Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. But they would also see times when food would be scarce and sleep hard to come by. They would see the opposition of the religious leaders and the anger of the people. They would see that after three years of hard work traveling all over the region, Jesus would be arrested, tried, and crucified. And they, His own disciples, would forsake Him and run away. If they could have seen all that, would they have still gone with Him?
What about you? If you could see your whole life play out in front of you all the way to your death, would you follow Jesus today? Would you follow Him today if you saw how people would take advantage of you in the future, how they would attack you and harm you? Would you follow Him today if you saw how your family would struggle, and how you would lose those closest to you? Would you follow Him today if you saw how your body would break down and how you would struggle physically and mentally?
As enjoyable as it would be to see the good things of our life all at once, it would be terrifying to see all the bad things at once. If we could see all the bad things in advance, we might wonder if the Lord actually cared about us, or if He was actually present with us in this life. It is good that we do not have this view. It is not for us to know these things. No matter what the future may hold, Jesus calls us to follow Him one step at a time.
This is how a toddler learns how to walk. He is not motivated by the marathon he may run in his 20s or 30s. He just wants to go! He wants to get from here to there, and he thinks he might get there faster by walking than by crawling. He cannot see how his running around will lead to bumps and bruises. He is not worried about the broken bones in his future. He is not troubled by the effects of aging which eventually will turn his stride into a shuffle. He just goes!
This is what you and I are called to do: go forward. We can’t go back. We must go forward doing the work God has given us to do. Our work is to be constantly occupied in showing love to our neighbors. This starts with the neighbors living in each of our homes—our parents, our siblings, our spouse, our children—and it branches out from there. We show love in our interactions with others in our place of work, in the community, on the internet, and in our congregations.
We know how this love should look and how it should be carried out, because we have the example of Jesus. Think about how kids play “Follow the Leader.” It is not just about walking over the same ground as the leader, but it is even mimicking his steps. If he takes a big step, so do the followers. If he hops from one place to another, so do they. Our goal as disciples of Jesus is to mimic Him in every way. We want to love one another as He loved us. We want to give to one another as He gives to us.
But as much as we want to do this, our steps often falter. The apostle Paul described our stumbling because of sin in this way: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18-19). Jesus takes one step forward, and we take two steps back. He beckons us forward, and we retreat. He calls us to be courageous, and we wilt.
We are not much like Jesus. We are more like Peter, uncertain how casting out our nets in the middle of the day will do any good. Like Peter, we are afraid because we underestimate the power and mercy of the Lord. Like Peter, we are aware of our many sins. It is hard to follow Jesus when we perceive so many obstacles in front of us and inside of us.
But Jesus is greater than any sins or trials or sorrows we may face. Unlike us, He could see all the suffering that was waiting for Him. Still He stayed focused on His mission. He followed His Father’s will all the way to the punishments and torments of the cross. It was terrible work He had to do. It meant immeasurable pain for Him, while the very ones He came to save mocked, blasphemed, and abandoned Him.
He moved forward one agonizing step at a time because the salvation of your soul was that important to Him. He willingly died in your place because He wanted you to live. He wanted you to be freed from all your sins and covered in His holiness. He wanted to deliver you a good conscience, one that is not focused on your sins of the past but on His grace in the present.
This is why you follow Jesus. He is more than your example of love. He is your Savior. He is your Lord who died for you to secure the forgiveness of all your sins. If He was willing to do this for you, He will certainly not forget your daily needs. Your hard work may not always seem to pay off, but He will bless your efforts done in His name. In time, you will see that you have received more blessings from His hand than you could have hoped for.
Jesus does not ask us to endure the sorrows and struggles of life all at once, or to go through any of them alone. He calls us to hear His Word, like the crowd did by the lake of Gennesaret, and like Peter did when told to let down the nets. His Word is sure and will never steer us wrong. Through His Word, the Lord is guiding us through the perils and troubles of this life all the way to heaven. Hearing His voice, We Follow Jesus One Step at a Time.
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(painting of the miraculous catch of fish by Raphael, 1515)
The Third Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 15:1-10
In Christ Jesus, who “is patient toward [us], not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2Pe. 3:9), dear fellow redeemed:
You don’t realize how much a music soundtrack and sound effects change the movie-watching experience until the sound is removed. Without sound, an action sequence is not as impressive, and a scene of suspense is not as compelling. Sound makes the image much more powerful and impactful.
When our thoughts turn toward heaven, and we imagine what heaven is like, I think we often picture heaven without much sound. We might imagine shouts of joy when family members and friends are reunited there. But otherwise, we may think of a peaceful setting, something like a walk through a meadow or time spent by a river or lake.
Heaven is a bit noisier than that. Isaiah wrote about the angels in heaven calling to one another in voices powerful enough to shake “the foundations of the thresholds.” They say, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isa. 6:3-4). The apostle John wrote about heaven being filled with the sound of trumpets and described “flashes of lightning, and rumblings, and peals of thunder” coming from the throne (Rev. 4:5). He said the “Holy, holy, holy” cry does not cease day or night, and the twenty-four elders respond with their own song of praise (4:8-11). The saints in heaven also join in these songs of praise. John speaks about hearing “the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns!’” (19:6).
What we hear in heaven will far surpass what is produced by the greatest musicians and singers here on earth. Unlike here, the sounds that come from our mouths in heaven will always be beautiful and holy and right. There is no imperfection in heaven. That includes imperfections in our singing and hearing.
I expect that in heaven, we will be able to detect and appreciate layers of sound unknown to us now. Just think of those trumpets and rumblings and shouts and singing blending together in a rich and holy song that our ears will never tire of hearing. Four-part harmony will not impress us in heaven like it does here. Maybe heaven will feature forty-part harmony or four-hundred-part harmony.
But why this emphasis today on the sounds of heaven? It is because Jesus says in today’s text that “there will be more joy in heaven/there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” A celebration without sound wouldn’t be much of a celebration, no matter how amazing it looks. When a sinner repents, the halls of heaven ring with the sound of thanksgiving—thanksgiving to God for His abundant grace.
But why is it that repentance causes this reaction? Repentance is not something the world celebrates. The world celebrates things like birthdays, graduations, promotions at work, and the purchase of a home. The world has even taken to celebrating when a person dies, focusing on happy memories of that person’s life because it cannot bear to face the reality of death. The saints and angels in heaven do not celebrate these things, as significant as they may seem to us here. They celebrate our repentance. And if that is what the saints and angels celebrate around God’s throne, this must be what God celebrates too.
So what exactly is this repentance? The word for “repent” means “to change one’s mind,” “to turn back.” We change our minds all the time, such as what we want to eat or what we want to do with our day. But the repentance Jesus talks about here is a spiritual turning, a spiritual changing of the mind. This is necessary because the unconverted mind, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God,” as Scripture says; “it does not submit to God’s law” (Rom. 8:7).
The first table of God’s law demands that we love Him “with all [our] mind” (Mat. 22:37). The second table demands that we “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” (v. 39). No human being born of a sinful father and mother has done these things, because each person has inherited the sin of his parents, passed down through the generations all the way from Adam and Eve. By nature, we are opposed to God; we do not want to live by His rules. We want to make our own rules. We are self-centered and selfish. In this state, we are ruled by the devil and are stuck in his kingdom of darkness without any way of getting ourselves out.
But the merciful Lord is firmly invested in freeing us from this hopeless life. God the Father sent His eternal Son to enter the fallen world and lead us into His marvelous light. That is easier said than done! In order to free us from our chains of sin and death, Jesus had to pay the price. He had to pay the debt we owed by shedding His holy blood and giving Himself up to the jaws of death. This was the only way to satisfy the Father’s wrath against sin. It was the only way to overcome the devil’s hold on sinners.
His saving work was done for all sinners, but not all sinners believe it. It is a mystery to us why some hear the Word of God and repent, while others hear the Word but do not repent. We are all equally sinful. We are all equally lost in the darkness by nature. None of us deserves to be forgiven by God. But by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word, some are converted. Some are led to repentance and faith.
If we think that our conversion must depend in some way on ourselves, today’s text—among many others—says otherwise. Jesus describes a sheep that wandered away, referring to a person who has wandered away from God into sin. The shepherd does not sit around waiting for the sheep to come back on its own. He goes after it. And when he finds it, he puts it on his shoulders and carries it to safety. That does not sound like cooperation in conversion.
But for those who would say that the sheep could possibly have returned on its own, what about the next example Jesus gave? How likely is it that a lost coin by its own power could roll itself back into the purse of its owner? Ephesians 2 says: “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” (vv. 8-9).
When the Holy Spirit turns back the sinner from the path of destruction and works a spiritual change in his mind and heart, this is when heaven erupts in celebration. We can’t always know when this celebration happens. It certainly happens when a baby is baptized and when an adult confesses the true faith. But in some cases, a person’s confession is not honest, and his repentance is not heartfelt. The Bible tells us there are some who may appear to be model Christians, but who live otherwise than they confess, or who think otherwise than they say.
It is one thing to fall into sin unintentionally. Maybe you got caught up in a crowd that behaved badly. Or you stumbled across something you were not seeking out but which led you to sin. This can happen when you spend time on the internet or look for something to watch on TV. Or maybe unkind, impure, or judgmental thoughts enter your mind about another person, and you are immediately sorry for thinking in those ways. These sins are not faith-destroying, and God will help us fight these temptations.
But intentionally and willfully doing what God condemns can and does destroy faith. Christians are not immune to these sins. In fact the devil works harder to pull us from the faith than he works on those who are already in darkness. Some Christians fall into sin and instead of acknowledging the sin—even if the consequences would be severe—they try to cover them up, hide them. But nothing can be hidden from God, and what the unrepentant will face on the last day is far worse than anything they might experience here.
All of us have need of repentance. We sin many times every day. We have all done things we knew were wrong, but we did them anyway—and often more than once. None of us is righteous. But the Lord is gracious. He works to bring us back when we fall into sin. Like those tax collectors and sinners, the Lord moves us to repent through His law, and He draws us near to hear His Word of grace. He wants us to know that all our sin is forgiven, all the things that trouble our conscience and make us feel ashamed. All of it was set on Jesus, who suffered and died in our place so that we might live.
The Good Shepherd loves to hear us humbly repent of our sins and rejoice in His forgiveness. We are ones whom He has brought back from our wanderings, and whom He still brings back. Through daily repentance, He leads us again and again to the still waters of our Baptism and guides us to the green pastures of His Word and Sacrament. These great spiritual blessings which God showers down upon us are a cause for continuous celebration in heaven.
We do not see or hear the saints and angels in their songs of praise, but by faith in Jesus we are already counted in their number. We join these songs of praise imperfectly here on earth as we thank God for His mercy toward us. And we look forward to being among the great host in heaven, where we will forever rejoice in the Lord’s great love for us.
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(portion of “The Good Shepherd” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
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 First Sunday after Christmas – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 2:33-40
In Christ Jesus, who was brought to Jerusalem as a little Baby and who would later return there to give Himself as our humble Savior, dear fellow redeemed:
According to people who study this sort of thing, each of us has tens of thousands of thoughts every day. That’s a lot of thoughts, though I’m not sure how it is possible to count them. Most of our thoughts we keep to ourselves. Sometimes people catch us daydreaming and ask us what is on our minds. That can be a hard question to answer. Maybe we can’t explain what we are thinking, or we would rather not say. But sometimes our thinking is obvious to those around us even when we have not shared it. They can tell what we are thinking by the things we say and do.
Simeon occupied himself with thoughts about the Messiah. He believed the many prophesies telling about the coming Savior. A few verses before today’s lesson, Simeon is described as a man “righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luk. 2:25). He did not know when this promise would be fulfilled until God the Holy Spirit revealed something wonderful to him. It was revealed to him that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (v. 26).
While he waited, Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem, and the Baby Jesus was born. Because he was the firstborn son of Mary, Jewish law required that He be presented to God in the temple forty days from His birth. So Joseph and Mary carefully prepared for the short trip from quiet Bethlehem to bustling Jerusalem. When they got there, they purchased two turtledoves to offer as a sacrifice according to the custom of the law.
As they ascended the steps toward the temple, they were met by an older man, a man they had never seen before. Simeon was directed to them by the Holy Spirit, and he gently gathered the Child in his arms. What was he thinking at this moment? The evangelist Luke tells us that he “blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel’” (vv. 28-32). His prayers had been answered. He now looked upon his Savior and the Savior of all peoples. Now he could depart this world in peace.
And what were Joseph and Mary thinking about all this? They “marveled at what was said about Him.” But Simeon was not finished. He blessed Joseph and Mary. Then he looked at Mary and said, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” That was a troubling follow up to his positive words of promise. It was a prophecy that the Holy Spirit granted him about this Child. Simeon said that some would reject Jesus, and some would believe in Him. Mary would suffer while He suffered. Because of Him, the thoughts of many hearts would be revealed.
The thoughts of many would be revealed from what they said about Jesus and how they treated Him. Many of the scribes and Pharisees showed the true condition of their hearts by their spiteful words toward Jesus and their various attempts to take His life. But Jesus did not need them to speak and act to know where they stood. He knew what they were thinking. He could read their hearts. At one point He said to them, “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Mat. 23:28).
On the other hand, He found faith in hearts where others would not have expected it. He saw faith in the heart of a Roman military commander (Luk. 7:9), in the heart of a prostitute (7:50), and in the heart of a tax collector (19:9). A person’s pedigree, social standing, or past were not reliable indicators of his or her standing before God. The thoughts of these outcasts were revealed by their humble trust in Jesus, while the thoughts of the hypocritical religious leaders were shown by their proud rejection of Him.
So where do you stand? What Do You Think about Jesus? I suppose your presence here goes a ways toward answering that question. If you didn’t believe in Jesus, why would you be in church? But going to church, participating in the service, and giving offerings does not automatically make you a Christian. The thoughts of many are revealed not by what they say and do on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday morning, but by how they are the other 6 ½ days of the week. Do your friends, co-workers, and neighbors know you are a Christian or would they find this surprising? On the other hand, having an outwardly holy life does not make you a Christian either. The scribes and Pharisees were outwardly holy too.
Every one of us here can think of times that we said or did things which were not at all consistent with our faith. We tried to justify our behavior at the time, but we know it was wrong. We know we sinned. We can think of other times that we were just going through the motions of being a Christian. Maybe no one else knew our thoughts of anger or jealousy or covetousness or self-righteousness. They did not know how much these thoughts consumed us, but we did. We had everything together on the outside, but we were churning on the inside.
Our sins on the outside and on the inside made us feel guilty. Maybe we still feel guilty about the things we said or did or thought about a long time ago. We might hope that the further away we get from the sin, the more our memory of it will fade. But we can’t hide anything from God. He already knows. The psalmist says that the LORD discerns our thoughts and knows what we will say even before we say it (Psa. 139:2,4).
If He wanted to, God could number our sins. He could list them all. But He does not hold our past sins over our heads. Instead He invites us to leave our sins at His throne of grace. He inspired Isaiah to write these words, “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 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” (Isa. 55:6-9).
We expect God’s judgment for our many sins, but His thoughts are not our thoughts. God loved us even in our sin. He sent His only Son to endure the fires of hell for us, so we would be spared eternal punishment. He forgives our sinful saying and doing and thinking. He forgives our bad behavior, our weak faith, and our self-righteousness. In Jesus, God’s thoughts toward us are clear. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa. 1:18).
God wants you to confess your sins to Him. He knows them already, but it is important for you to acknowledge them. You do this in church, but repentance should be an every day activity. At the same time that we confess our sins, we also apply His Word of grace to ourselves: Jesus was born under the law to live a holy life for me. He died on the cross to save me.
Through this Gospel message, the Holy Spirit also sanctifies us. He works to plant holy thoughts in our minds. He works to form good spiritual habits within us, like the ones we see in Anna. Anna’s husband died just seven years into their marriage. She could have been bitter about this. She could have blamed God and questioned His love for her. But instead, she trusted in the Lord and waited for His blessings. She spent her time in the temple, “worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” And when she saw the Christ Child, “she began to give thanks to God and to speak of Him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
This is the joyous response to our salvation that the Holy Spirit works in us too. Like Anna, we go to church to hear God’s promises, and we worship Him with disciplined and prayerful lives. Like Anna, we also share the hope we have with the people around us. We let it be known that God loves sinners—including ourselves—, and that He sent Jesus to redeem us. In this way, we function as lights of God in a dark world. We do not seek to call attention to ourselves but to Him who died for all peoples.
You and I think thousands of thoughts per day. Our thoughts are not always directed toward God, but His thoughts are always directed toward us. He leads us to recognize our sins and to see in Jesus our holy Savior. With Simeon and Anna we can praise Him to the end of our days until we “depart in peace” from this life to the next.
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(stained glass picture from St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto)
The Second Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:2-10 (Gospel for Advent 3)
In Christ Jesus, “whose way John the Baptizer prepared, proclaiming Him the Messiah, the very Lamb of God” (Preface for Advent, ELH p. 74), dear fellow redeemed:
In a couple weeks, most of us will be receiving new things wrapped up in multi-colored paper. Some things will be expected and some things will be surprises. Do you remember what you received for Christmas last year? If you do remember, what is the current condition of the gifts you received? Any food you were given is almost certainly gone. Your new socks probably don’t have holes in them yet, but they might be getting threadbare. Electronic devices are most likely still in good working order. Last year’s toys are probably in good shape.
But I don’t expect that you still look at these items with the same joy and appreciation as when you first opened the package. Those brand new things do not look so special anymore. They have become common. When they become outdated or when they break, it will not be hard for you to toss them and go looking for something new.
And this is not wrong. It is fine to go shopping for a newer car when yours is getting expensive to repair. It is okay to buy a new computer or a new phone when the one you had doesn’t work well anymore. It is fine to update your wardrobe (including that shirt from the 1980s that your wife has been trying to hide or replace for the last thirty years). Our money and our earthly possessions are gifts from God which He intends that we use in this life. We can’t take any material things with us to heaven. They are for here and now.
But we should not consider everything in life as being so disposable. For one thing, there is no price tag for a solid reputation as the Proverb says, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (22:1). For another, you and I only have one body. This is why we are concerned to eat good foods, to refrain from excessive drinking and other unhealthy habits, and to stay away from any dangerous or immoral activities that could harm our bodies. Paul writes that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you…. You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1Co. 6:19-20).
And the most important thing we have in this life is the Holy Bible, the Word of God. It is by this Word that we have faith and hope, and that we learn to love as God has loved us. This Word promises the forgiveness of our sins and a never-ending life of bliss after this one. Without this book, we would know very little about God. We would not know how He graciously looks upon us, and how He sent a Savior to redeem us and the Holy Spirit to comfort us.
But there are many who find the Word wanting. They desire a religion that better fits their natural inclinations, or a religion that makes them responsible for getting right with God. To satisfy these desires, they step outside of the Bible and look for new revelations of the Spirit, new instructions for how to live their lives.
Think about the many cult leaders who have established their own systems of belief. They claimed to receive special messages from God, truths that are not found in the Bible. Muhammed did this in the 600s when he developed Islam. Joseph Smith did something similar when he started the Mormon church in the 1800s. And then in recent decades, we have watched men set themselves up as modern-day messiahs, men like Jim Jones who formed the Peoples’ Temple cult, David Koresh who led the Branch Davidians, and Marshall Applewhite who started the Heaven’s Gate group.
In each case, these leaders built religions that gave them absolute authority. Their opinions were to be unquestioned and their every desire satisfied. Their followers were to be loyal to them in everything, and they were to be willing to give up their lives for the cause. Many of them did give up their lives. They died tragic deaths, either by suicide or by engaging in armed conflict with those who opposed them.
We regard these cult founders as being mentally unstable, manipulative, or both. We think of them as being very different than we are. But we have more in common with them than we imagine. We also like to have things go our way and have others go along with our thinking. We also want to take whatever our hearts and bodies desire. We do not want to bow to any authority, abide by someone else’s rules, or accept the responsibilities placed in our hands. In short, we often want to be our own god.
John the Baptizer was no cult leader or pleasure seeker. He was a humble servant of God. But he was unsure about Jesus’ timetable for His work. He wanted Him to provide clarity about His person and purpose. John sent messengers to ask Jesus, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” It was a pointed question. If Jesus was not the Messiah, He should say so. Then John would know his task was not complete, and that he must still prepare the way for the Messiah. But if Jesus was the Messiah, then John could send his disciples to Jesus and let his imprisonment run its course.
We do not know if John asked this question for his own benefit or for the benefit of his followers. Maybe he was trying to get them to leave him, so they would follow the Christ instead. Or maybe he was impatient for the Messiah to conduct Himself like Malachi described in today’s OT lesson. Malachi prophesied that He would be “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap,” and that He would “draw near… for judgment” (3:1-6). Or maybe John felt depressed and discouraged that he should have to sit in prison while there was so much work to do for God.
Whatever his personal thoughts, John’s question was most important, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” It is still important, and we still find ourselves asking it. We struggle within ourselves whether we should give all our attention and devotion to Jesus, or whether we should “look for another.” This describes the entirety of human life, and especially the life of the Christian. Will we look to Christ or somewhere else?
We have often looked somewhere else. We have looked to the god of money, thinking that more money could buy us happiness. We have looked to the god of power and prestige, hoping to make a name for ourselves and leave a lasting legacy. We have looked to the god of pleasure, thinking that only this could satisfy. We have looked to other gods besides—the god of reason, the god of entertainment, the god of adventure, the god of self-righteousness, the god of achievement. These are the gods of the world. They are very appealing, and it is not hard to find them.
But their promises are empty. The gods of this world are like the idols described in Psalm 115: “They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat” (vv. 5-7). The gods of this world are lifeless. They are dead. Therefore, says the psalmist, “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (v. 8). Eternal death is the certain fate of all who follow the gods of the world.
But in Jesus there is hope, and there is life. Jesus told the messengers of John, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Jesus does not leave the blind in the dark like the world does; He gives sight. He does not cripple, but strengthens. He does not pollute, but cleanses. He does not plug ears with lies, but opens them to the truth. He does not come to destroy, but to save. He does not steal; He gives. This is nothing like the cult leaders and false teachers we find throughout history.
Jesus proclaims good news, the good news of sins forgiven and salvation secured. He came to take all our sins upon Himself, our sins of selfishness and stubbornness, our sins of indulgence and irresponsibility, our sins of treasure-hunting and glory-seeking. All these sins He gathered to Himself, and He suffered and bled for every one. He gave you the best gift a sinner can receive—the gift of a clear conscience through the washing away of sin. This gift does not become outdated or fade over time. It never needs to be replaced. In Christ, your sins are forgiven yesterday and today and forever.
Because you and I need to be reminded and assured about this forgiveness, Jesus repeats it again and again in the divine service. We hear the absolution, we listen to the Scripture lessons and the sermon, and we partake of Holy Communion. Through these holy means, Jesus brings us the gracious forgiveness of all our sins, and He gives us the strength and the resolve to press on to our heavenly goal.
So Shall We Look for Another? Can a better Savior be found? No, Jesus is the only Savior. He came to redeem us from our sin and the death we deserved. He comes to visit us now through His life-giving Word and Sacraments. And “He shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed). We look to Him and Him alone. We wait for Him and Him alone. And we know that our humble trust in Him will not be disappointed. Jesus said, “[B]lessed is the one who is not offended by Me.”
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(“Witness of John the Baptist” woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1972)
The First Sunday after Michaelmas – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 9:1-8
In Christ Jesus, who came as the Physician for the spiritually sick (Mt. 9:12), dear fellow redeemed:
The account of the healing of the paralytic is recorded in three of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Both Mark and Luke offer the interesting detail that when the friends of the paralytic could not get into the house where Jesus was teaching, they opened up a hole in the roof. Then they let down their friend on his bed before Jesus. This would have been something to witness! If you were in the house, you would have wondered what was going on when pieces of the roof rained down, beams of light cut into the room, and faces peered down from above.
As striking as this experience must have been, Matthew says nothing about it. All he says is that some people brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus. This shows us that how the paralytic was brought to Jesus is not the most important detail. The most important details are what happened when he was set before Jesus.
Now what was this young man’s most pressing need? No one could fail to see the sad condition he was in. He was paralyzed. He could not walk. Perhaps he could not even move his arms. The friends of this person went to the great trouble of hoisting him up on the roof and lowering him down before Jesus. What were they expecting Jesus to do? Jesus recognized the young man’s most pressing need. “Take heart, My son” He said; “your sins are forgiven.”
If you were in the position of the paralyzed man, would you have been disappointed about what Jesus said? Would you have been perplexed that Jesus seemed to ignore your paralysis? But the paralyzed man did not protest. Maybe his paralysis was not what troubled him the most.
Can you imagine a scenario in which no physical pain is worse than the spiritual turmoil of your heart and soul? What if this man struggled with serious depression and had lost the will to live? What if he had become paralyzed by doing something foolish, and he carried a great burden of guilt for his actions? What if he worried that God was punishing him for past sins by making him paralyzed? If any of these were true, he would have seen his paralysis as a symptom of a much deeper problem, a problem which seemed to have no solution.
But then Jesus spoke. His words brought calm to the inner sea of turmoil. It cast beams of healing light into the paralytic’s troubled heart. He was not yet able to rise from his bed, but his spirit was lifted up. He was comforted. How do we know Jesus’ Word had this effect? There was no change that could be observed in the paralytic, unless a once troubled countenance now showed signs of relief and peacefulness. The scribes, for their part, denied that the young man’s sins had been forgiven. They said within themselves, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk. 2:7).
Their assumption was that Jesus was not God. That assumption was about to be challenged. Jesus knew their thoughts. He said to them, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” What is the answer? You and I can easily say both things, but we do not have the power to make either of them happen. Jesus has the power to do both, and He proved the power to give spiritual healing by giving physical healing.
As proof “that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” Jesus said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” Now if the man could not stand up, what would it mean? That his sins were not forgiven. But the second miracle was proof of the first. He did get up. His sins were forgiven. And all because of Jesus’ powerful Word.
We said earlier that Matthew did not include the detail of how the paralyzed man was brought before Jesus. But Matthew did include a detail that Mark and Luke did not. At the end of this account, Matthew wrote that the crowds “glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” That is an interesting conclusion for the crowd to arrive at. Jesus proving that He could forgive sins made the crowd marvel that God “had given such authority to men.”
Until Jesus’ coming, there had never been a human being who could forgive sins. People could set broken bones and treat illnesses. They could help the poor and console the grieving. But of and by themselves they had no answer for spiritual distress. And they had no answer for “the wages of sin,” which is death (Rom. 6:23). But now here was a flesh-and-blood man, Jesus, who had an answer not only for physical ills, but for spiritual ones. He had the authority to forgive sins.
Now if you are authorized to do something, you wouldn’t say the power is yours. Authority is granted to you by someone else. So if you are given the password to a company account, you receive it from someone above you. You are entrusted with what is theirs. Any authority we have in our vocations comes in this way. Even the authority parents have over their children is not something they produce by themselves. They are given authority. And who gives it? In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul says, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1).
This is how it works also with the authority to forgive sins. After His resurrection, Jesus declared to His disciples, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Then He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Jn. 20:21,22-23). The authority Jesus received from His Father, He passed on to His disciples. He emphasized the same thing shortly before His ascension into heaven. He told them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore” (Mt. 28:18-19).
Jesus makes it clear that the authority to forgive sins—something only God can do—is now put into the mouths of His disciples to declare. And that is something to wonder about! How could Jesus give something so sacred, so precious, so powerful as the authority to forgive sins to sinners? But that is what He does. Each of you as children of God has been given this authority. When your brother or sister in Christ sins against you and repents of the sin, you can say to them, “I forgive you, and God forgives you.” You can still forgive them even if they are not sorry—and it is important that you do. But the sins of the impenitent are not forgiven them by God “as long as they do not repent” (Small Catechism, Office of the Keys).
The Lord has also called certain men to stand in His place and declare the forgiveness of sins publicly. This is the chief responsibility of pastors. Their job is to forgive sins. They have no special power to do this because of who they are; pastors are sinners like everyone else. Their authority is given them by Jesus to speak His Word. The Word of absolution is powerful because it is from Jesus. This is why pastors preface the absolution with, “By the authority of God and of my holy office.” The forgiveness comes from God to the sinner through the Word.
It is a great comfort to know that Jesus’ absolution is available to us here and now. You may be troubled by a certain sin that you have never told anyone about. You may be filled with passions and desires that you know are against God’s Commandments. You may be tempted to look at things you know you shouldn’t, or to listen to things that attack your faith. Maybe you give the impression on the outside that everything is fine, while on the inside you are full of spiritual turmoil.
You do not need to carry these burdens. The Lord knows your struggle. He knows what you need the most. He says to you, “Take heart, My [child]; your sins are forgiven.” He can forgive your sins because on the cross He made full atonement for them, every one. The scales of justice were balanced by Jesus offering up Himself in payment for your sins.
But you may struggle to believe that even your great sins are forgiven. “How could God forgive this?!?” you wonder. You feel ashamed. You come to church, but you do not let yourself be comforted by the absolution. You go to Communion, but you feel just as troubled as before. In times like these, I encourage you to make an appointment with your pastor. One of my duties as your spiritual shepherd is to apply God’s Word to your specific situation, to your specific troubles and pain.
No one likes the thought of exposing their sins to others. But there is a certain relief in uncovering sins long hidden. You don’t need to try to keep buried anymore what your conscience keeps digging up. The way to be freed of your hidden sins and hidden hurts is through confession and absolution. If you confess your sins privately to your pastor, he is bound to keep that confession secret for the rest of your lives. He hears your confession of sin as God hears it, and your pastor never brings it up again to others just as God never brings it up again.
The healing absolution of Jesus, the declaration of the forgiveness of your sins and peace with God, is God’s powerful Healing for Hidden Hurts. Some of those hurts are self-inflicted, and some are inflicted by others. The hurts inflicted by others can cause you to be consumed by anger and even hatred, which can cause great spiritual harm. But through confession and absolution, all these things are left with Jesus at the cross. He bore “our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53:4), and in place of these burdens, He gives His eternal rest and gladness.
So bring your sins before Jesus with humble hearts and believe the soul-cleansing Word which He declares to you: “Your sins are forgiven!”
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 10:23-37
In Christ Jesus, who counts our kindnesses toward our neighbor as having been done for Him (Mt. 25:45), dear fellow redeemed:
Jesus’ answer to the lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” was shocking to the lawyer. The only individuals in Jesus’ example who acted like they would be expected to act were the robbers. The robbers did not care if the man they attacked lived or died. They just wanted whatever clothes or possessions he had. They did what selfish criminals do.
The priest and the Levite did not do what was expected. They belonged to the “clergy class” of the Israelites. They knew the Scriptures. They knew what should be done for a neighbor in need. But they passed by the man lying half dead by the road as though he was not even there! They had their reasons, no doubt. This was dangerous country. Maybe the man only appeared to be injured. Maybe this was a trap to lure them in. Besides, what could they do for this man if he really was seriously injured? There were no cell phones to call for help. Probably someone else would be coming along soon who would be more qualified to assist him. However they justified their decision, these church workers did not do what they should have done.
The Samaritan also acted unexpectedly, but not in the same way as the priest and Levite. Many would have understood if the Samaritan passed by this Jewish man. The Samaritans and Jews did not get along. For this Samaritan, coming across a wounded Jewish man was something like coming across a wounded enemy on the battlefield. Three things could be done in this situation: kill him, ignore him, or help him.
You also have some choices when you come into contact with neighbors you have known for a while, or neighbors you are meeting for the first time. According to the Bible’s definition, your neighbor is anyone around you, anyone you interact with. The neighbors you have most frequent contact with are the ones that live with you in your home. These neighbors are in a position to share your best moments with you and your worst. They can be the objects of your love and affection, but they can also be the recipients of your impatience and unkindness.
Besides the neighbors in your home, you come into contact with other neighbors on a daily basis. Your classmates and co-workers are your neighbors. The people you share the road with and pass by in the store are your neighbors. The friends you communicate with on social media are your neighbors. It is relatively easy to be nice to our neighbors when they are nice to us. But what about when our neighbors act like our enemies? What should we do when they go out of their way to criticize us, or jump in line ahead of us, or attack our beliefs and values?
The last seven Commandments are summarized with, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” These Commandments refer to all your neighbors, not just the ones you like. Jesus says that your enemies are your neighbors too. “Love your enemies,” He says, “and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44). Your love for your neighbors is not based on what they do for you but on what you are called to do for them. The dying man on the side of the road could not do anything for the Samaritan man. But that did not sway the Samaritan. He saw a neighbor in need, and “he had compassion” on him.
When you come across a neighbor, whether he is polite or ill-mannered, selfless or self-centered, thoughtful or impetuous, your job is to have compassion, to show love, to be kind. Jesus never tells us to treat people like they deserve. He said, “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Mt. 7:12).
In the home a husband might wish that his wife didn’t nag him so much. “After all,” he thinks, “doesn’t the Bible say that a wife should submit to her husband?” His wife might wish that he paid more attention to her and the family. “After all,” she thinks, “doesn’t the Bible say a husband should be willing to sacrifice even his own life for his wife?” Both are focusing on what their neighbor should be doing for them. But it is not the husband’s job to make his wife submit to him. And it is not the wife’s job to make her husband sacrifice for her. When a husband out of love sacrifices for his wife, and when a wife out of love submits to her husband, then the marriage functions as God intended it, and the home is blessed (Eph. 5:22-33).
If you view your spouse or your children or anyone else around you as a burden and a hindrance to your happiness, then you will be like the priest and Levite who passed by a neighbor in need. But if you see your neighbors with eyes of compassion, as those who need mercy and love, then you will see them as God sees them. Then you will see them as God sees you.
God saw you and all sinners in a condition much like the man who had been robbed and beaten on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho. He saw you stripped of all righteousness, battered by your sin, and dying. He could not bear to see you in this state. So He sent down His beloved Son to save you.
Jesus gave Himself to be attacked in your place. He took the beating you deserved for your sins. Isaiah writes that “he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (53:5). The holy blood flowing from His wounds brought about your healing. A beautiful stanza in one of our hymns about death says, “I fall asleep in Jesus’ wounds; / There pardon for my sins abounds. / Yea, Jesus’ blood and righteousness / My jewels are, my glorious dress. / In these before my God I’ll stand / When I shall reach the heav’nly land” (ELH 530, v. 1).
Through the shedding of His blood, Jesus won forgiveness for sinners. We did nothing to deserve this compassion and grace. We had gotten ourselves into trouble. We had wandered off the safe path. Like foolish sheep, we had gone our own way (Is. 53:6). But the Lord had mercy upon us. Like the Good Samaritan, He began to heal the wounds of our sin by pouring on the oil and wine of His saving Gospel. He brought us into the inn of His Church through the waters of Baptism, and He continues to care for us there through His Word and Sacraments. Jesus’ forgiveness cost Him His life, but it doesn’t cost us anything. The forgiveness of our sins is a free gift bestowed on us for our soul’s salvation.
Jesus was motivated to save us totally by His own love. If He waited to save people until they proved their worthiness, no one would be saved. In this, we learn how we should be toward our neighbors. Our love should not wait until our neighbors prove themselves worthy of it. Our Christian love should have no boundaries or limitations. No one has sinned against us more than we sinned against God, and yet He still loves us with a love that cannot be measured.
None of us has loved our neighbors as we should. There have been plenty of times that we left a neighbor lying by the side of the road. Maybe we were too busy with our own plans. Maybe we were tired of dealing with our neighbor’s self-inflicted wounds. Maybe we were bitter because our neighbor was not there for us when we were in need. At the time, our action—or inaction—may have seemed justified, but now we regret not being there and trying to help. We cannot make up for these missed opportunities. But we can move forward in grace. Jesus forgives our lack of love toward others.
His love for us is unchanging, and He does not give up on us. He has more opportunities planned for us—opportunities every day, every hour—to show love to our neighbors. But why does He keep entrusting us with the love and care of our neighbors, when we have failed so often? God knows how to accomplish great things even through weak hands and feeble efforts. Through imperfect marriages, He provides stability and security for the family. Through imperfect employees, He provides a vast array of products and services. Through imperfect congregation members and pastors, He provides for the administration of the means of grace.
The love that we show to our neighbors does not come from some storehouse of good inside us. It comes from Him. The Lord uses our mouths, our hands and feet, our talents and abilities to carry out His work of mercy and love in the world. This love has the power to disrupt the regular pattern of sin in the world. The world expects you to look out for yourself first and foremost. But what if in humility you put your neighbor first? Others will probably look at you wide-eyed, like the innkeeper must have looked at the Good Samaritan for going so far out of his way to help a stranger. Then you may have the opportunity to share with them the source of your love.
You love because God first loved you (1Jn. 4:19). You serve because He served you (Mt. 20:28). You sacrifice because He sacrificed Himself for you. Your life of compassion and care for your neighbors is simply a reflection of the greater love God has for you. He is the one who comforts you when you are mistreated by your neighbor. And He is the one who strengthens you to look with compassionate eyes at those around you, so that through you, they also may come to know His undying mercy and love.
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(“Parable of the Good Samaritan” painting by Jan Wijnants, 1632-1684)