Ash Wednesday – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: St. Matthew 6:16-21
In Christ Jesus, who “fills the hungry with good things” (Luk. 1:53), dear fellow redeemed:
Some people give up dessert during Lent. Some give up TV. Some give up social media. Roman Catholics are required to give up meat every Friday of Lent. Are you giving up anything? While this can be a useful practice, the Bible does not require it. Some suggest that we should rather add things during Lent—more Bible study, more prayer, and so on. I think these things go together—whenever we give up one thing, we have space to add another. So if you give up time in front of the TV or smartphone, you are adding time that can be spent in other ways, such as Bible reading or prayer.
It’s important for us to take an inventory of how we spend our time. Typically we say we don’t have enough time to accomplish what we want to. But that isn’t a problem of time as much as it is a problem of scheduling or a problem of priority. We can always “make time” for the things that matter most to us. And if we don’t “make time” for what we say matters most, then it’s fair to ask if it really matters as much as we say.
For example, we all agree that prayer is important. We know that the God of heaven commands us to pray and that He promises to hear us. But how many of us regularly take the time to pray? Prayer takes time—it doesn’t have to take a lot of time—but it takes some time or at least some effort. And there is always so much to do, and our minds are occupied by so much, that prayer gets forgotten and neglected.
In today’s text, Jesus calls us away from worldly distractions and toward spiritual discipline. Our text is a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In the section just before our text, Jesus talks about giving to the needy: “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mat. 6:3-4). Then He talks about prayer: “when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (v. 6). And then we have His encouragement to fast, to go without food for a time: “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
There is a clear pattern here. First of all, Jesus does not command the people to give to the needy, pray, and fast. He just expects that they will: “when you give,” “when you pray,” “when you fast.” Second He says that as much as possible, we should hide our giving, our praying, and our fasting. These things are not meant for the eyes of others. They are meant for the eyes of our Heavenly Father, who rewards us according to His grace. That’s His third point: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Perhaps the most surprising discipline on the list is fasting. You might have heard about how fasting can provide health benefits for adults without certain underlying conditions. I came across an “intermittent fasting” plan recently which suggests eating in an eight hour window each day and then fasting for sixteen hours to give the body time to burn fat.
But Jesus is speaking here about the spiritual benefits of fasting. This wasn’t a foreign concept to the people of the Bible. The Israelites often fasted in Old Testament times, and always on the Day of Atonement. In New Testament times, Luke tells us about the widow Anna, who “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luk. 2:37). John the Baptizer and his disciples fasted in preparation for the Messiah’s coming (Mar. 2:18).
Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness as He began His public work. The Christians in Antioch fasted when Barnabas and Saul were sent off as missionaries (Act. 13:2-3). And when pastors were appointed in Asia as a result of these mission efforts, we are told that “with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Act. 14:23).
So why don’t we all have the habit of fasting today? In part, it’s because we don’t want to demand something that God has not. He did not give a law of fasting in the Ten Commandments. But it may also be that we don’t fast because we never have; it is a foreign concept to us.
It hasn’t always been a foreign concept among Lutherans. Think of the words of our Catechism which are printed on the front of the bulletin: “Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training; but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the remission of sins’” (Proper Reception of the Sacrament).
We are right to say that fasting is not required, but that does not mean it is to be rejected. Luther wrote that “Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training.” What makes fasting “a fine outward training”? Fasting prepares us to receive. It uncovers our hunger. It reveals our weaknesses. It exposes the idols of our heart. The purpose of fasting is not to offer it to God as a good work, which is often the way “giving something up for Lent” is understood. Fasting is rather a preparation to receive the good gifts of God.
Jesus promises that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” God does not reward us because we are so deserving. He always rewards us according to His grace. The humbling of our body through fasting along with the humbling of our spirit in repentance is seen by our merciful Father. He knows who we are. He knows our needs and our struggles and our sorrows. And He knows exactly how to address them.
He sends His Son Jesus to come to our aid. Jesus lived a holy life for us, including perfectly caring for the needy, perfectly praying, and perfectly fasting. And He was forsaken and rejected by the Father and swallowed up by death, so that we would be delivered from God’s eternal wrath and punishment. Jesus brings us these gifts of His righteousness, forgiveness, and life when He comes to us in His Word and Sacraments.
Through these means, Jesus addresses the sin, the weakness, and the hunger that fasting exposes. He does not come to punish us or lecture us. He comes to heal us and comfort us and strengthen us. When Jesus comes, we receive exactly what we need. He never leaves us empty-handed. He fills us with the gifts of His grace, and He gives us a taste of the heavenly treasures that we will enjoy in fullness for all eternity.
We fast now in joyful anticipation of the feast to come.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
+ + +
(picture from “Jesus in Prison” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Second Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 12:6-16
In Christ Jesus, whose grace and compassion and patience toward sinners never changes and never runs out, dear fellow redeemed:
What is the point of marriage? This is one of the major questions of our time. Many have answered that there is no point to marriage. Some see it as nothing more than a traditional practice that one can take or leave. Others see it as a needless restriction that keeps people from living their lives however they want. Whatever people think it is, they have to acknowledge that marriage has been around for a long time. They would be hard-pressed to name a civilization or time where an official joining together of man and woman did not take place.
Jesus certainly approved of marriage. He defended it against those who would make it a non-binding contract (Mat. 19:3-9). And He Himself attended weddings, like the one we heard about in today’s Gospel (Joh. 2:1-11). But there is an even stronger testimony and support for the Lord’s positive view of marriage. He called Himself the Bridegroom of the Church His bride (Mat. 9:15, 25:1-13). By referring to His relationship with penitent sinners in this way, Jesus showed that marriage is a sacred institution. It is an institution established by God and given by Him as a gift.
Through marriage, God gives many blessings. He gives companionship, stability, and protection. He gives intimacy and the joy of sexual union. He gives children, family, and community. But marriage fails when it is seen solely for what one spouse or the other can get out of it. It thrives when each spouse considers what they can give to each other. A marriage characterized by mutual self-sacrifice will be a healthy and happy marriage.
The same goes for our other relationships in life. Our calling as God’s children is not to put ourselves first and expect everyone to serve us, but to put others first and see how we can serve them. This is what St. Paul describes in his Letter to the Romans. At the beginning of chapter 12 which we heard last week, Paul urged the recipients of the letter “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (v. 1). Along with this, he said we should humbly follow God’s Word and recognize that we are part of something big—the body of Christ.
The next portion of chapter 12, today’s reading, outlines our responsibilities toward one another in the body of Christ. Paul writes: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” He says that the gifts Jesus gives to the members of His body differ. The members of Christ’s body do not all have the same function.
What this means is that those believers who form the body of Christ with you, may not be all that much like you. Their personality may be entirely different than yours. They may not think the way you think. They may not be motivated by the same things you are, or have the same priorities that you do. The things that are meaningful to you might have little meaning to them. The way you see things and the plans you have for the future may look very different than theirs. And yet, you are part of the same body!
But this is how the human body works, doesn’t it? There is not much about the eye that is similar to the ear, and not much about the head that is like the foot. But what would a body be without the great assortment of its parts? Or to ask it another way: what parts of your body would you rather not have? What parts could you do without? Every part works together for the whole. If one part suffers—like a sore back or a broken bone—the whole body suffers. A person can live without eyesight or hearing or a leg, but life is more difficult when this happens.
So “having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,” we use them. Paul lists seven of these gifts that believers employ for each other’s good. Some have the gift of prophecy; they are able to clearly understand and explain what the Bible says. Some have the gift of service; they gladly carry out the tasks they have been assigned. Some have the gift of teaching; they love to share what they have learned. Some have the gift of exhortation; they encourage those around them to continue in their Christian faith and life. Some have the gift of generosity; they give out of love and not for show. Some have the gift of leadership or oversight; they work to keep the body united in Christ. And some have the gift of mercy; they are eager and happy to help those around them.
As much as we would like to excel at all of these things, we probably don’t. Some of them come more naturally to us than others. That is why they are called “gifts.” They are given to us by our gracious God. But just because we have been given one gift over another, does not mean we can ignore the rest of them. We may not believe we have the gifts of prophecy or teaching or exhortation, but that does not mean we can ignore the study of God’s Word and leave it to someone else. We may not think we have the gifts of service or generosity, but that does not mean we should withhold our time, talents, or treasures when and where they are needed.
Our perception of the gifts God has given us may also be skewed by our own sinful desires. It is a little too convenient to say I lack the gifts exactly in those areas where I have no interest in serving my neighbor. That sounds like something much more human than divine. It is not for us to decide what gifts we have. It is for God to give them as He wills. So if you find yourself in a situation where service is required of you, you can trust God to equip you to serve. Or if you find that what is most needed is teaching or leadership or mercy, you can pray for God’s guidance to complete the task until He turns it over to someone else.
God does not give His gifts for your own self-fulfillment or self-enjoyment, though there is certainly fulfillment and enjoyment in doing what God calls us to do. God gives so that the members of Christ’s body can be a blessing and strength to one another and a blessing to their community as well. God Gives so We May Give. That is why we are here, to share the grace and glory of God that we have received through the kindness and compassion of our Savior Jesus.
This selfless giving is something we have to be reminded to do, because our sinful nature likes to put itself first. That’s why we call it the “old Adam.” Just like Adam and Eve put themselves over God and one another, this is what our sinful nature wants to have us do. But the new self, the new man of faith wants the opposite. The new man of faith wants to serve God and neighbor. It wants to show the love God has shown us.
These acts and attitudes of love are spelled out by Paul in his letter, that we be loving, kind, joyful, hopeful, patient, prayerful, generous, hospitable, humble. But what if my neighbor is unkind? What if he or she throws my good efforts back in my face? What if he or she treats me like dirt? Jesus doesn’t teach us to treat people the way they treat us. He teaches us to treat them the way He treats us.
And how does He treat us? With patience, bearing with us even when we sin and grow bitter toward others. With grace, loving us even when there is little love in our hearts. With forgiveness, removing all our transgressions from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psa. 103:12). With humility, coming to us through His Word and Sacraments, so He might strengthen and keep us in the faith.
God’s gifts delivered according to His grace never run out. He does not run out of love and compassion and mercy toward us. He is not like us. He does not give up when we offend Him. He does not keep a record of our wrongs. He does not turn His back on us or close the door when we wander away from Him. He comes after us like a shepherd searching for His sheep until we are found.
This is the attitude we should have in our relationships, whether in our marriages, families, communities, or congregation. We want to show patience with no expiration date. We want to show love with no limit. We want to forgive with no strings attached. You and I cannot produce these godly virtues on our own. But God can work them in us, and He promises to do exactly that.
Apart from God, we have nothing good to give. But connected to Him by faith and continuously receiving His gifts through His powerful Word, we are filled up and supplied with all that we need to do good for others. “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Then we will be a joy and a strength to one another, and God will be glorified.
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.
+ + +
(picture is stained glass at the Redeemer church)
The Seventh Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Mark 8:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who gives more than we ask for or could even imagine, dear fellow redeemed:
Two farmers planted their crops and closely watched the progress of their growth. One of them worried every step of the way. First he worried that the ground would dry out, so the seed could be planted. Then he worried that the plants would get the right amount of rain and sunshine. Rarely were the conditions on any given day perfect. If it was sunny and hot, he worried about the plants having enough moisture. If it was sunny and cool, he worried about slow growth. If it began to rain, he worried about too much or too little falling. He often thought about his bad fortune when things weren’t looking so good. There was not much joy in his work.
The other farmer considered all these factors, but he realized that hardly any of them were in his control. He had been at it long enough to know that the crop almost always turned out—some years a little better and some years a little worse. He didn’t get too excited by the highs or too depressed by the lows. Farming hadn’t made him rich, but it was a good way of life. He enjoyed his work.
The difference between these two men could be chalked up to personality—one was more easy-going, the other a worrier. But the difference could also be that one relied on the Lord to provide for his needs, while the other relied on himself. If your livelihood and success depended entirely on you, of course you would be full of worry and stress! But if you know that the living God cares for you, His dear child, you will confidently look for blessings from His hand.
We see a wonderful example of the Lord’s care in today’s Gospel lesson. A great crowd had been with Him for three days and had even followed Him into the wilderness. Any food they had brought with them was all but gone. But the text does not say that the people approached Jesus about their hunger.
They did not have to ask Jesus to feed them, because He already knew. His care for them came from His own heart of love. “I have compassion on the crowd,” He said. “And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” Not only was he aware of their hunger. He was aware that some had further to travel than others. He knew these people, and He cared for them deeply.
He wanted His disciples to have the same care for the people. He wanted them to love these neighbors of theirs and to participate in their help. But all they could produce was seven loaves of bread. How could such a small amount feed four thousand men? Reasonably speaking, it couldn’t. There probably wouldn’t even be one crumb available for each person who was present.
But God, as the Bible says, “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). We so often forget that. We assume that most everything in our lives depends on ourselves. This causes us to despair when things go bad or to be full of pride when things go well. We forget that it is the Lord who provides.
If we do well at our work, we should remember that God has given us the strength, the mental capacity, and the character traits to do a good job. This is what we recite in the First Article of the Creed: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them” (Small Catechism). If God did not give and preserve these qualities, we could not do anything. Our success comes entirely from Him.
But we don’t always succeed in our work. Does that mean the Lord has failed to provide for us, or that He has given up on us? We know this is not the case. He cares for us. Because He cares for us, He knows exactly what we need. He knows when to bless by giving and when to bless by withholding.
Sometimes He withholds because it would not be good for us to succeed. We don’t see the trouble ahead, but He does. He may also withhold to teach us patience and endurance, or to get us to step up and work harder. Whether we receive little or plenty, we should be thankful for the portion we have and use it to the glory of God.
Jesus here also teaches us how to respond to the gifts of God. What did He do before breaking apart the seven loaves and giving them to His disciples to distribute? He gave thanks. He gave thanks for seven loaves of bread and a few small fish as He looked upon a crowd of thousands. Proportionally that would be something like giving thanks to God for one grain of rice on an otherwise empty plate. No matter the amount of the gift, we learn from Jesus to be thankful and to give thanks. Seven loaves of bread were better than none; they were something. And the Lord knew how to turn them into much, much more.
What are some of the things in your life that are easy to take for granted but are great gifts from God? Your family, for one, and your house and health and job. Any of us here can open our cupboards and see how God provides food. We can open our closets and see how God provides clothing. We can open our contact list or directory and see how God provides friends.
God typically does not give the bare minimum—He blesses us in abundance. The crowd of four thousand men ate their fill of bread and fish, and there were still seven baskets left over! In the same way, our homes are filled with good things, enough to keep us happy and satisfied for a long time.
What is our response to these gifts? Imagine if the crowd of four thousand was enjoying its miraculous lunch, and one after another started to complain and ask for more. “Could we get a little butter for this bread?” “How about some salt?” “Is there anything for dessert?” By these demands for more, the people would seem discontent and ungrateful.
How is it for you? Are you content with the gifts the Lord has given you? If you are, how do you show it? Do you remember to thank Him for what you have? One of the best times to thank the Lord is when you take time out of your day to eat. Here the Lord is providing you with the nourishment you need to continue your work. Without food and drink you could not survive.
So you ask Him to bless the food before you that it may benefit your body and strengthen you. Some of you use the “Thank You Prayer.” It is a great prayer that comes directly from Scripture. Notice that this prayer is not simply saying thanks for the food. It is thanking the Lord for His goodness and His ongoing mercy that accompanies us into eternity: “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever.”
The Lord is good to us in so many ways, we cannot keep track of all of them. His earthly gifts aren’t even the best part of His care! The best part of our Father’s care is what He accomplished for us through His Son. Jesus’ greatest work was not turning seven loaves of bread into food for thousands. His greatest work was giving Himself up as the sacrificial Lamb on the cross and rising again from the dead in glory.
This unmatchable gift of Jesus means that our sins are no longer counted against us. Whenever we have worried that everything depended on our efforts, or despaired because our hard work did not pay off, or become prideful because of our success, or failed to give thanks to God in daily prayer, He declares us forgiven of these sins through the blood of Christ. Today is a new day, a fresh opportunity, to set aside those worries, put our trust totally in Him, and thank Him for His blessings both great and small.
God is not a vengeful overlord who will punish us for our failures. Nor does He award His gifts based on our merit. Nobody deserves the good things He gives. But He still has compassion on the crowd. He still provides for the needs of all people—and especially His dear children—on account of His loving care. If you are in need, He wants you to pray for His help. If He has given you plenty, He wants you to share with those who have little. If you have what you need but not all you want, He encourages you to pray for contentment.
The Lord loves you with a tremendous love, and He promises to provide for your needs. Jesus said, “[S]eek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things—what you need for this body and life—will be added to you” (Mat. 6:33). When His Word is your priority, you will find like the crowd did that all your earthly needs will be taken care of.
Then you can go about your work with joy and thankfulness. Joy in knowing that our compassionate Lord is eager to give such gifts, and thankfulness for His abundant blessings.
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.
+ + +
(picture of the Judean mountains in Israel)
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 16:5-15
In Christ Jesus, who returned to the Father after completing His saving work on earth (Joh. 16:28), and then sent out the Holy Spirit to distribute His salvation, dear fellow redeemed:
If you have never heard the word “Paraclete” before, you might wonder what it means. Here are some multiple choice options for you:
- “Paraclete” is a type of bird that repeats what people say.
- “Paraclete” is the footwear you need for outdoor sports.
- “Paraclete” is a title for the Holy Spirit.
I hope that was an easy one.
In our translation of the Bible, the word “Paraclete” is rendered “Helper.” Other translations for this word are “Advocate,” “Intercessor,” or “Comforter.” Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit by this term four times in His conversation with the disciples the night before His death.
- In John 14:16-17, Jesus said: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper [Paraclete], to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”
- John 14:26: “But the [Paraclete], the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
- John 15:26: “But when the [Paraclete] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”
- And then in today’s Gospel where Jesus said the Paraclete would come to convict the world and guide believers into all truth.
The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, was sent to convict the world concerning three things: “sin and righteousness and judgment.” This work is done through the Law of God. The primary function of the Law is to condemn. It is a mirror which reveals how we really are. We may seem to have things pretty well in order. But the Law uncovers our hidden sins, even the sins of our mind.
The Holy Spirit testifies through the Law that our sins have separated us from God. If we remain in these sins, we cannot have communion with God, because God is holy. The world is full of people who believe they are right with God (or at least hope they are), but who actually are opposed to Him. They do not believe they are in spiritual danger because of their sins, or they worship false gods who cannot save. So the Holy Spirit through the Law convicts the world’s inhabitants of sin. He shows that their trust and confidence are misplaced when they do not believe in Jesus as their Savior.
The Holy Spirit also convicts the world concerning righteousness. One of the biggest and most obvious lies today is the notion that “people are basically good.” It is true that many people do many good things. This is due to the influence of God’s moral Law written in their hearts (Rom. 2:15). But we ignore the great wickedness around us and in us if we say that people are mostly righteous. We cannot give ourselves or others so much credit.
Some are even so bold as to reject Jesus because they think their level of holiness rises to His. But who has ever done as much good as Jesus did? Who healed so many sick people? Who had such compassion on the poor and outcasts? Who gave so much hope? And when He was falsely accused and beaten and crucified, who suffered so quietly and humbly? If Jesus were little more than an example for us, and if living as He lived were the way to get to heaven, still no one could hope to attain such righteousness.
The Bible does not teach us to be confident in our own righteous deeds. It says that “[n]one is righteous, no, not one,” and that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:12, 23). Jesus said that He is the only one who is worthy to “go to the Father.” He was perfect. He did no wrong. He lived the life the holy Law requires. He succeeded where all others have failed.
Finally, the Holy Spirit convicts the world concerning judgment. The world follows its ruler. Isn’t that as it should be? No, because the world’s ruler—the devil—is an imposter. He usurped the throne that belongs rightfully to the world’s Creator. The Lord is the rightful King. But the devil will spread his lies and work for the destruction of souls as long as he has opportunity.
Everyone who denies Jesus follows the devil. They choose to follow the loser instead of the Champion. The devil is already judged. His fate is sealed. He cannot knock the crown off Christ’s head or the almighty God from His throne. Unless sinners repent, they will join the devil in the fires of hell and suffer there with him forever.
This is what the Holy Spirit comes to do for the world. He comes to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” The work the Paraclete does through the Law may not seem all that “helpful” or “comforting.” But if He does not convict through God’s Law, there will be no need for God’s comfort. If He does not carry out His condemning work, He cannot do His saving work. So He convicts the world—and us too—of our sin, our self-righteousness, and the judgment that comes upon the unrepentant. But He also strengthens believers in their faith through the Gospel.
The disciples were sad when Jesus told them He was going to the Father. Jesus said His leaving was to their advantage. His visible departure meant that the Paraclete would come. The Holy Spirit would be sent forth from the Father and the Son. He would come to guide the disciples “into all the truth.” He would bring to their remembrance everything Jesus said to them (Joh. 14:26). He would declare “the things that are to come.”
Those things that were coming were Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection and His glorious ascension to the right hand of the Father. The disciples did not understand that these things were necessary. But they soon learned why they were so important. The Holy Spirit enlightened their minds to understand that salvation could be won in no other way than this.
God the Son had to obey the will of His Father. He had to take on flesh and be born under the Law, so that His righteousness would cover each sinner’s sin. He had to suffer and die, so that the eternal punishment each of us had coming would be assigned to Him instead. He had to rise again on the third day to prove that He was who He said He was and that He did what He said He would.
This is the truth the Holy Spirit taught the disciples and what He still teaches us. This is what He helps us to remember, especially when we are troubled by our sins and failures. He comforts us by coming to us through the Word and Sacraments and declaring what He has been given to declare. He brings the gifts of the Father which were obtained for us by the Son. Jesus said of the Holy Spirit that “He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is Mine; therefore I said that He will take what is Mine and declare it to you.”
What is it that the Holy Spirit declares? After bringing you to repentance through the Law, He points you to Jesus. He declares that Jesus is your righteousness. He is your Savior. Because of Jesus’ suffering and death in your place, you have peace with God and eternal life. Your sins are forgiven. You are justified in God’s sight; you are not condemned.
This is how the Paraclete comforts you. He does not need to change His message from time to time to keep it fresh and interesting. The message of forgiveness and life in Christ is just as powerful and applicable today as it has been through all of human history. It is exactly what every sinful human needs to hear and believe. Until the end of time, God will continue to send the Holy Spirit to convict and comfort through His Word.
But Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit’s coming as being in the future. When would this happen? It happened on Pentecost, fifty days after Easter and ten days after Jesus’ ascension. We are approaching these festivals again—Ascension in less than two weeks and Pentecost in three weeks. These are excellent times to remember that the Lord keeps His promises. Everything Jesus predicted to His disciples came about. He did die and rise again, He did return to His Father, and He did send the Holy Spirit.
This means you will never lack hope, even in these troubled and troubling times. You are not alone in the world. Yes, the devil rules in the world and many follow him, but he is judged. He cannot win. Even while he carries out his destructive activities, the Paraclete counters them through the powerful Word. If the Holy Spirit were not active, there would be no church on earth; no one would believe. But God has reserved many “who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (1Ki. 19:18, Rom. 11:4), who have not gone away after “the ruler of this world.” He keeps many in the faith who look with eager anticipation for Jesus’ triumphant return.
Through His ongoing work in the church, the Holy Spirit lives up to His title. He is our Paraclete—our Helper, Advocate, Intercessor, and Comforter. He brings the gifts of God from heaven to earth, from the holy Savior to us unworthy sinners. For our salvation, The Paraclete Comes to Convict and Comfort. He works repentance in our hearts through the Law and faith in our hearts through the Gospel. He brings us everything we need to get to heaven, just as Jesus said He would.
+ + +
(picture is stained glass by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, c. 1660)
Palm Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 21:1-9
In Christ Jesus, “the Son of Man,” who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mat. 20:28), dear fellow redeemed:
It was not just another Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem. He had come there many times before, but this time was different. Shortly before this Jesus had called his dead friend Lazarus back to life. News about the miracle had spread throughout Judea, and now many who heard about it were coming to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. Would Jesus come there too?
It was not a sure thing. The people knew how much the chief priests and the members of the ruling Jewish Council despised Jesus. They charged Him with blasphemy and wanted to have Him arrested. It felt as though something was about to happen. It seemed like some sort of showdown or struggle for power was unavoidable. It was hard not to favor Jesus, since no one else could do the things He was doing.
We see how excited the people were about Jesus by how willing they were to accommodate Him. All Jesus had to do was express his need for a donkey and its colt, and they were freely given to Him. There was no lengthy negotiation. No contract was signed, and no deposit was left. Finding a suitable way to ride the donkey was no problem either. The disciples removed their cloaks and draped them over the animal, so Jesus would have a comfortable place to sit.
By this time, word had spread about Jesus’ presence in the area. Great crowds of people came out of Jerusalem to meet Him. As He rode along, He didn’t have to worry about dust getting kicked up on the road, because the people spread their cloaks in front of Him on the road. Others cut branches from palm trees and laid those down also.
Jesus was certainly getting the “royal treatment”! In fact the crowd had exactly this in mind. They cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (v. 9). “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mar. 11:10). “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luk. 19:38), “even the King of Israel!” (Joh. 12:13).
This was not some idea thrown out by the crowds on a whim. They believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and that He would take the throne of his forefather David. The Jewish people knew their Scriptures. They knew the LORD’s promise to David that He would raise up an offspring of David whose kingdom and throne would be established forever (2Sa. 7:12-13).
They also recognized that the words of Psalm 118 applied to the coming Messiah. This is where their “hosanna” and “blessed is He” came from as Jesus approached Jerusalem. The translation of the Hebrew word “hosanna” is “save us, we pray.” As the people sang the Lord’s praises, they quoted directly from this Psalm: “[Hosanna]—Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” (vv. 25-26).
It appeared that whatever could go right for Jesus was going right. The Pharisees threw up their hands and said, “Look, the world has gone after him” (Joh. 12:19). It seemed like whatever earthly glory Jesus wanted was His for the taking. He was hailed as a King, the people gladly let the donkey He rode walk on their cloaks, and they welcomed Him as the coming Messiah.
But those gifts and praises had shallow roots. The donkey, for one thing, was not His to keep. He probably returned it when He went back to the town of Bethany that night (Mar. 11:11). The people picked up their cloaks and dusted them off, and for all their eagerness to give them to Jesus on Sunday, He would be hanging on a cross naked by Friday. The enthusiastic cries of “hosanna!” and “blessed is He!” stopped too. They were soon replaced by mockery, jeering, and cries of “crucify Him!”
What Jesus was given on Palm Sunday did not hold up. They were appropriate gifts at the time, and we see that each part was a fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. But Palm Sunday was not the ultimate goal. Jesus had not come to Jerusalem to receive earthly glory. He came to win heavenly glory for sinners.
To do this, Jesus had to walk a lonely path. Only He could travel it. He had to shoulder the burden of all sin and carry it to the cross where it must be atoned for by His death. We see in these loving actions how Jesus Gives Much More Than He Is Given.
He had the benefit of a donkey to ride as He came to Jerusalem. But that donkey’s burden was light compared to what Jesus carried. People offered their cloaks and palm branches to prepare the way to Jerusalem’s gates. But Jesus gives His own righteousness to prepare sinners to enter the gates of heaven. Many welcomed Jesus as an earthly king. But Jesus lifts us up to reign with Him in His eternal kingdom. Jesus Gives Much More.
We could never match these immeasurable gifts of Jesus. But our sinful nature makes us think we can. Our prideful self loves to be recognized for the good things we do. There are many—Christians included—who think that these good things put them in better standing with God. They believe that the more good works they do, the better chance they have of getting to heaven.
We know this is not the case. We know we cannot earn favor with God by what we do. We know we cannot get into heaven by any of our own efforts. We are saved by God’s grace through the faith He gives us. All of it is a gift and not a result of our works (Eph. 2:8-9). But that doesn’t stop us from thinking that we are owed something because of our good deeds and our sacrifices.
It is very easy for us to be bitter toward God when we experience a loss, or when we have to deal with pain or injury. We may think to ourselves, if not express it out loud: “Lord, I have done so much in Your service. Why are You letting this happen? I thought You loved me. I thought You appreciated how faithful I have been to You.” We think God should give His faithful children a happy and carefree life.
Or the opposite happens. We go through hard times, and we are convinced that God must be angry with us. He must be punishing us for past sins. In these times, we are quick to lose hope and to set aside faith in the Lord’s promises. We think God must not really care about us.
Both responses show how little we appreciate the work Jesus did to save us. On the one hand, we expect that our service to God should keep us from the effects of sin in the world. But our service to God is not even close to what He requires. We have not always done what He asks of us.
Where would we have been that first Holy Week? We might have offered our cloaks, palm branches, and praises on Sunday. But what about on Friday? On Friday, even Jesus’ closest disciples deserted Him, and we shouldn’t think so highly of ourselves to imagine we would have been different. We are not as faithful as we should be, so God sends us crosses to bear to teach us to trust in His strength and not ours.
On the other hand, to imagine that God is angry with us and does not love us anymore, is to totally ignore Jesus’ sacrifice. If God is punishing you for your sins, then why did Jesus have to suffer and die on the cross? There certainly may be consequences for one sin or another. But the punishment for sin was carried out against Jesus. “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” (Isa. 53:5).
The things we do for God are important—honoring His name, hearing His Word, leading a disciplined and decent life, serving our neighbors out of love for Him. God is pleased with these things, and we should want to improve and do more. But while we do good, we pray for a humble heart and a humble disposition, and we pray that God leads us to repent when we fail to do what we should.
The self-righteous love to look at themselves in the mirror and be publicly recognized for all the good they do. The faithful keep their eyes on Jesus and see everything He did out of love for them. If anyone could be prideful, it is Jesus. He had done nothing wrong. He was perfect. But as today’s Epistle lesson says, our Savior “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phi. 2:7-8).
He humbled Himself and went the way of the cross because He loves you. He refused an earthly throne in Jerusalem, because He had much more to give than what could have been given to Him. He wanted you to be freed from your sins through His death in your place. He wanted you to have His perfect righteousness, so you could stand before God unashamed. Everything you needed to get into heaven has been won for you by your humble Lord. He gives it all to you. It is yours.
And you will have still more. You will one day be glorified as He is glorified. You will be exalted as He is exalted. Then, as it is described in the book of Revelation, you will join the “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10).
+ + +
(painting is “The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Epiphany of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 2:1-12
In Christ Jesus, to whom we are led not by a star in the sky, but by the light of His holy Word, dear fellow redeemed:
The King Herod in today’s text is known to history as “Herod the Great.” He is called “great” because of his ambitious building projects in the land of Judah, including his rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. His so-called “greatness” had nothing to do with a noble character or benevolent demeanor. Herod was in fact quite jealous for his power and position and would stop at nothing to retain it. He entered into marriages for political gain and had one of his wives and two of his sons killed when he thought they might be a threat to his throne.
Imagine when word came to Herod that strange men from the East were asking where the newborn “King of the Jews” was. What newborn King of the Jews? Herod must have thought, “I am the king of the Jews. Who would dare challenge me!” It is no wonder that Herod should be described as “troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” The people knew what Herod was capable of, and that this news would not sit well with him. He immediately inquired where this “Christ,” this “Anointed One,” would be born. He told the wise men that they should return with directions to this Child, so that he too “may come and worship Him.”
Of course Herod had no intention of worshipping the Christ. He wanted to kill Him. After God warned the wise men not to go back to Jerusalem, Herod realized his intentions had become known to them. He “became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Mt. 2:16). He wanted the kingdom, power, and glory to be all his, and he was willing to murder innocent children to have it. But Herod was not the true King of the Jews. And whatever power and glory he had slipped from his fingers when he died not long after.
As unlikely as it seemed, the little Child in Bethlehem was the true King. He was the One the wise men from the East were searching for. They fell down before Him and worshipped Him. They produced treasures brought with them on the long journey, gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they would have been the first to say that they had received from the Lord far more than they gave Him. Who was it that put the star in the sky for them to follow? Who was it that gave them the wisdom to understand what they were seeing? Who was it that taught them the significance of this King, that He was One to be not just honored but worshipped? Did they come to this knowledge on their own? Did their reason figure it all out?
We do not know how they understood their role in this chain of events. They were intelligent, talented men. People with these abilities often struggle with pride. Even those of us who are not so gifted do. Each member of the human race shares this sinful quality. We think that the successes we have achieved, the good we have done, the things we can comprehend, are due to our own hard work and impressive abilities. Never mind that “God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them.” Never mind that He graciously gives me “all that I need to support this body and life” (Explanation to First Article). Our sinful nature holds that if I have anything good or will get anything good in the future, it is because of my work, my doing, my effort.
This wrong thinking even works its way into spiritual matters. There are many Christians who speak as if it is a privilege for God to have them for His children. I recently heard one such Christian crassly describe a man’s conversion in this way, “he decided to let Jesus be his Savior.” Well isn’t Jesus lucky? A man dead in his sins and an enemy of God by nature, is going to give Jesus the honor of being his savior! If that is truly the way people see the situation, one wonders why they think they need a savior in the first place. If they are already capable of determining whether or not Jesus will be their Savior, doesn’t that essentially make them god?
There is a beautiful Christmas song you may have heard called “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The final stanza says, “What can I give Him, / Poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd, / I would bring a lamb; / If I were a wise man, / I would do my part; / Yet what I can I give Him— / Give my heart.” And those last three words are the most-emphasized, the climax of the song, as if the human heart is a great gift for Jesus. Now it is certainly true that God wants your whole heart. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). But we should be clear about the condition of our hearts by nature. The prophet Jeremiah writes, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (17:9). And Jesus says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Mt. 15:19).
The key for our salvation is recognizing that we cannot offer the Lord anything good on our own, and that He gives us everything. He did not fall away from us; we fell away from Him. And the fall was complete. We fell with our first parents headlong into sin and death. But God still loved sinners—all of them. Jesus says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). God the Father gave the greatest gift He could have. He sent His only-begotten Son to take the place of sinners under His perfect law, and to take their place as the object of His righteous wrath.
Without the work of Jesus, there is no reconciliation with God. Try as hard as we might, you and I cannot accomplish it. No effort is good enough. We did the law-breaking; Jesus does the saving. The Jewish religious leaders quoted from the prophet Micah in answer to King Herod’s question about the Christ. They said that “from [Bethlehem] shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.” Micah had more to say about this Shepherd King. He prophesied that His “coming forth is from of old, from ancient days,” and that “he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace” (Mic. 5:2,4-5).
Herod sought to secure his kingdom and power by violent force and a climate of fear. Jesus brought peace, peace with God obtained through His innocent suffering and death. Because of His humble sacrifice, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).
In the Lord’s Prayer, we say in reference to God the Father, “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.” This kingdom, power, and glory of God have been given over to His Son (Mt. 28:18). The Son of God had this authority from eternity, but He now has it not only as God, but also as Man. Who can imagine it? Our own flesh and blood rules over all things, not just over a country, not just a continent, or even the world. He rules over everything in heaven and on earth.
What is more stunning is what Jesus chooses to do with His kingdom, power, and glory: He chooses to give it to you. But how can you know it is yours? You can know it by the means God uses to distribute His gifts. God gives you His grace, His forgiveness, salvation from sin, death, and the devil, eternal life in heaven, each time you hear the Gospel, the good news of Jesus. He gives you His gifts at the baptismal font where He washed away your sins; from the pulpit where He declares you righteous in God’s sight; and at the Communion rail where He gives His own body and blood for you to eat and drink. These are the times and places that He opens wide the storehouse of His treasures. The world despises these gifts of God, but they are priceless. Their value cannot be truly measured (ELH 331, v. 7).
What could you ever offer to God in thanks for His gifts? Well nothing that could ever equal them. The wise men recognized this too as they bowed in submission before Jesus. Still they did offer to Him what gifts they had, imperfect though they were, and small in comparison to the mercy and grace of God. It is right for you also to offer the Lord what gifts you can, such as a humble and repentant heart, a life dedicated to His will and work, and a spirit of gratitude and praise. You do not do these things for God so that He will do good things for you. What more could you get than He has already given you?
As Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12:32). Every good thing that God has, everything that Jesus obtained for you through His sinless life, His death, and His resurrection, are given to you. The Kingdom, Power, and Glory Are Yours by faith in Jesus. What a gracious God! What wonderful gifts!
+ + +