The Eighth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 8:12-17
In Christ Jesus, whom we follow by the power of the Holy Spirit on the way of salvation and life, dear fellow redeemed:
How do you rate yourself as a driver? I consider myself a pretty good driver, and I imagine that many of you do too. At the same time, I would be reluctant to put a “How’s My Driving?” bumper sticker on my car with my employer’s phone number on it. I might think I’m a good driver, but I’m not a perfect one. When my driving hasn’t been so good, I prefer to stay anonymous.
It is probably easier to identify the bad driving around us than to admit our own bad habits on the road. We get annoyed when people drive too fast, follow too closely, pull out in front of us, or weave from side to side while using their cellphones. But all of us have probably done the same at one point or another. We have been distracted while driving, we have been overconfident, impatient toward others, and angry.
These same things that cause bad driving are also problems in our spiritual life. Take distractions. Drivers can be distracted by a lot of things—other people in the car, loud music, and the main culprit: cellphones. They forget their primary purpose, their most important mission, which is to safely navigate their vehicle from point A to point B at speeds typically higher than most land animals can run. Driving is inherently risky.
There is risk in our spiritual life, too, though we don’t always realize it. A driver can take his safety for granted and let his guard down, just as we can take our faith for granted and let our guard down. There are lots of distractions in our spiritual life. The devil, the world, and our own flesh want us to forget our goal; they want to sidetrack us from our journey to heaven. “Turn off here!” they say. “You’ll have plenty of time to get back on the main road. Check out this attraction! Drop your money on this! Do whatever you want to!” And the more we indulge the sinful desires of our flesh, the less we think about where we were going in the first place.
Distractions to our faith are closely connected to overconfidence in faith. We think our faith is invincible. We think we could not fall away from believing in Jesus. We think we can handle whatever challenges come our way. This is like the driver who thinks he knows the road so well, he could navigate it in his sleep. A high percentage of car accidents happen within a couple miles of home because people are less attentive. Temptations to sin also happen in those places where we think we are in good control of everything, places like home, work, and church.
Along with distractions and overconfidence, our spiritual life is harmed by impatience. The impatient driver puts himself and others at risk. He doesn’t see things clearly. All he can think of is his own plans, and he resents anyone who slows him down or gets in the way. This is how we can become toward God when His plans for us do not align with our plan. We want Him to help us and fix our problems and pains right now. When He doesn’t, we become resentful. We complain to Him and others. We wear ourselves thin with worry instead of giving over our troubles to Him in prayer.
The impatient driver is very likely to become an angry driver. He views the drivers around him differently than he views himself. They are the enemy. They are purposely trying to provoke him. He doesn’t see them as those who make mistakes, or as those who might be dealing with worse distractions and troubles than he is. This happens to Christians too. They pin the blame for their sin and unhappiness on others. They do not acknowledge their own faults. They do not seek to forgive. They hold grudges. They condemn. They seek to inflict the harm on others that they feel has been done to them.
All these things have affected our spiritual life in the past—distractions, overconfidence, impatience, and anger—and to some degree they are affecting us even now in the present. We are sinners. We don’t do everything right. We do and say and think a lot of things wrong. Really we are bad drivers. We do not belong in the spiritual driver’s seat. If that’s how we think we will get to our destination, we are certainly headed for a crash.
Well then who needs to drive? There are many who play a role in your spiritual life. Your parents, siblings, spouse, and children do. Your pastor and teachers do. Your fellow Christians do. But they are not in the driver’s seat. They are just as impaired by sin as you are. The one who drives your faith, who keeps you focused and moving in the right direction, is God the Holy Spirit.
In the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, we confess that “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” You cannot bring yourself to faith in Jesus. You cannot navigate yourself from point A in this world to point B in heaven. But the Holy Spirit can and does. The way He does this is through the means of grace, the Holy Word and Sacraments. He “has called [you] by the Gospel, enlightened [you] with His gifts, sanctified and kept [you] in the true faith.”
This is the work of the Spirit that the apostle Paul describes in today’s text. He writes that the Holy Spirit brings us life. He has made us “sons of God” through spiritual adoption, and He leads us to recognize and call on God as our dear Father. He “bears witness with our spirit” that as “children of God” we are His heirs “and fellow heirs with Christ.” He brings us through suffering with Christ to glory with Christ.
By nature, we were driving ourselves to destruction. We were on the “highway to hell,” and that’s nothing to sing about. But the Holy Spirit turned us around. He changed our direction completely. He brought us out of the darkness of sin and death and into the light of Jesus. He opened our eyes through the Law to see all the damage we had inflicted on ourselves and others by our sin. And He showed us how all those sins, all that damage, was taken away by the innocent suffering and death of God’s only Son.
Jesus willingly accepted the countless blemishes on your driving record. He took responsibility for all the damages caused. He offered to cover what for you was an unpayable fine. He gave Himself to be punished for your sins of distraction, overconfidence, impatience, and anger. He paid the price for your sins by pouring out His own holy blood in death. Because of what He did, all those sins, all those serious, death-deserving infractions, are forgiven. In Him, your driving record is clean. Covered in His righteousness, the scratches, gouges, and corrosion of your sins do not show anymore.
The Holy Spirit’s work is to continue to call and compel and drive you to Jesus. He wants to lead you each day to hear the Gospel of Jesus’ grace, His own Word of Absolution. That powerful message of forgiveness reminds you that you are not on your own. You do not have to navigate your own way through this life. You are a child of God the Father because the Holy Spirit has caused you to believe in His only-begotten Son.
Your trust in Jesus means that God the Father now looks at you no differently than He looks upon His holy Son. That is why we are specifically called “sons of God” in today’s text. You and I have been joined to Jesus by faith. This means we possess everything He possesses. We live as He lives. We inherit what He inherits. It also means that we must suffer as He suffers.
He suffers by not receiving the devotion and honor that are His due. He suffers by watching so many people drive themselves away from Him and His grace. He suffers when they follow false prophets instead of His pure Word (Mat. 7:15-20), when they trust in their own efforts and actions to save themselves (vv. 21-23), when they choose “the cares and riches and pleasures of life” over Him (Luk. 8:14).
We suffer with Him when people make fun of us for not joining them in their misdeeds. We suffer when they ridicule our beliefs and our humble trust in God. We suffer when they reject the Word of God in favor of worldly wisdom and do everything in their power to make us deny the truth we hold so dear. A great many are driving on the wide path that “leads to destruction” (Mat. 7:13). In their eyes, we followers of Jesus are going the wrong way and need to be turned around. Our going against the grain of the world causes great difficulties for us. Jesus already warned us that “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life” (v. 14).
So life in this fallen world is hardly a “joy ride.” There are many bumps in the road. There is danger in all directions. But you are not in the driver’s seat. The Holy Spirit is, and He knows the way you must go. He daily drives you to repentance for your sins, to “put to death the deeds of the body,” so that you are not led in the wrong direction. And He drives you always toward Jesus, so that you go forward in His light and are comforted in His grace and peace as you travel along the way.
With the Holy Spirit doing the driving through the powerful Word, you will remain in the Lord’s loving care and will be brought safely through suffering to your glorious destination.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from stained-glass window at Saude)
The Festival of the Holy Trinity & Saude Confirmation – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 11:33-36
In Christ Jesus, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit are worthy of eternal honor, thanks, and praise, dear fellow redeemed, and especially you, Alex, Avery, Layton, and Will on your Confirmation Day:
Over the last few months, the letters “SGN” have entered our vocabulary. These three letters stand for “Some Good News,” an impromptu internet show highlighting positive things happening in our country. Hundreds of years before this, the composer Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the three letters “SDG” on his musical manuscripts. The letters “SDG” come from the Latin phrase “Soli Deo Gloria,” which is translated: To God Alone Be the Glory! So Bach, who is perhaps the greatest composer of all time (and a Lutheran by the way), wanted any glory for his achievements to go to God.
How about you? How willing would you be to put this message on the major things you accomplish? When you graduate, get a promotion, land a big contract, or are recognized for a major success, you say: To God Alone Be the Glory! How about you confirmands on this big day? Does God get the credit for everything you’ve done?
The thing is, we know how much hard work goes into the major accomplishments of our life. Shouldn’t we get some credit for these things? Even Bach must have enjoyed the accolades from those who heard his music. He must have recognized that he was producing music at a higher level than many who had come before him. So did he really mean “Soli Deo Gloria,” To God Alone Be the Glory! Or was it just an expression to make him seem more humble than he actually was?
Well that’s the struggle, isn’t it? In the big picture, we have nothing to boast about before God. He is our Creator. The universe we live in would not exist apart from Him. He made it, and He keeps it going. More personally, you and I would not exist if God had not granted us life in our mothers’ wombs. He also sustains our life. We could not accomplish much if God did not make the food grow that we eat. And what about the sun that warms us, the rain that refreshes us, the air that we breathe? When we take all these things for granted, it is easy to think we are the masters of our environment and our fate.
But if our power and abilities could fill an ice cube tray, God’s power and abilities fill the earth’s deepest trench, and then some. There is no comparison between us. The Holy Spirit caused St. Paul to express this difference in the words of today’s text: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” When it comes down to it, none of us has come up with one good deed, one good word, or one good thought that did not originate with God. We are copycats—and we’re not even very good ones!
Ask yourself this: What useful thing do you have that did not start with God? You would not have a house, a car, clothes, food, or any other thing without the raw materials God provides in creation. We cannot make something out of nothing. Only God can do that. And yet even though all “riches and wisdom and knowledge” come from Him, we think we can outdo Him.
We presume to know what God is thinking where He is silent in the Bible. So for example, when there seems to be a logical gap in the question of why some are saved but not others, we supply what is missing with our reason. We say that those who are saved must be a little bit better than those who are not, or that God is waiting for us to show an interest in Him. These may be reasonable explanations, but they also contradict the plain teaching of the Bible, that we are unable to go to God because of our sin. He must come all the way to us and save us.
Or we try to advise God about what He should have said more carefully in the Bible, so that no one feels judged or left out. Or we expect Him to do what we want, when we want Him to. But we are not God. We are far below Him. Paul emphasizes this by quoting from the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Job: “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?” (Isa. 40:13, Job 41:11).
Then he writes, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.” It is no mistake that Paul uses three prepositions to describe the Lord’s work: “from,” “through,” and “to.” He also spoke about God’s “riches and wisdom and knowledge”—three things. This use of three is by design, because the one God consists of three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The work of each Person is emphasized here in this text.
All things come to us from God the Father. He is the Creator of heaven and earth. He made and continues to produce all the riches we see around us. We notice this especially in springtime, when our fields and gardens fill with growing green plants, and the flowers and leaves emerge again after the wintertime. But an even greater gift has come to us from the Father. He has given us His only Son to save us. This is where we see the exceedingly deep love that the Father has for us. Martin Luther wrote in one of his hymns: “He gave His dearest Treasure” (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary #378, v. 4).
All these riches from the Father come to us through God the Son. The book of Proverbs describes the Son as God’s Wisdom, who was with the Father “before the beginning of the earth” (Pro. 8:22). He fully participated with the Father in creation. “[A]ll things were made through Him” (Joh. 1:3). Any physical life that exists or could exist came through Him. The same is true of our spiritual life. We could have no spiritual life apart from His suffering and death in our place. Forgiveness and life and salvation come through Him and through Him alone.
These many blessings we have from the Father and through the Son lead us to look to the Lord in confidence and thanksgiving by the power of God the Holy Spirit. He brings us the saving knowledge of the true God through the holy Word. Without the work of the Holy Spirit through His Word, we would not know the Son or the Father. He has enlightened our minds and hearts. He has revealed the “secret and hidden wisdom of God,” the deep things about our salvation through Jesus (1Co. 2:7ff.). He strengthens the faith He has given, so that we are drawn closer and closer to the Holy God and our eternity with Him.
“For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.” That means that the glory for all things belongs to Him, (including all those long hours of study in Catechism Class). Every good thing we have and accomplish comes to us by the power and grace of our merciful God. He does not have to bless us, as though He owes it to us. “[W]ho has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?” But He loves us with a love that is so broad and long and high and deep that it cannot be measured.
He loves to supply all the things we need. In our spiritual poverty, foolishness, and ignorance, God provides His riches, wisdom, and knowledge. Where we have amassed a debt of sin before Him—all those times in life that we failed to spend ourselves in righteousness—He does not gives us the wages for our sin. He gives us the free gifts of forgiveness and eternal life (Rom. 6:23). Since the time we became believers, we have been credited with Jesus’ perfect life. When God the Father looks at us, He does not see our failures anymore; He sees us filled with the good works of Jesus.
All of this is foolishness to the world, and sometimes it may seem foolish to us. How could all of our sins and misdeeds be taken away just like that? The world is not impressed by grace; the world respects money and power and human ingenuity and fame. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1Co. 1:27). Our boasting is not in what we might accomplish, but in Jesus, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (v. 30).
This knowledge of our salvation through Jesus is imparted to us and grows in us every time we hear the saving Word and partake of the Sacraments Jesus instituted. We rejoice that our confirmands will now join us at the Communion rail to eat and drink the true body and blood of Jesus for their forgiveness and strengthening. This is not the day that our confirmands “graduate” from studying God’s Word. They are just getting started. They have a lifetime ahead of them to continue to gain “the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.” The same is true for each and every one of us here. God never grows tired of giving us His gifts through His Holy Word.
What the Triune God has done and still does for us is “SGN”—“Some Good News.” We are His dear children. He has not given us what we deserved. He has given us everything by grace and given it in abundance. For this reason, we give thanks to His name. Like J. S. Bach, we write “SDG” on the manuscript of our lives: “Soli Deo Gloria.” The glory for all the good that we have and do is His alone, and His for all eternity.
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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The Epiphany of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Isaiah 60:1-6
In Christ Jesus, who was manifested to the wise men in Bethlehem, and who is manifested to us here through the means of grace, dear fellow redeemed:
On the Festival of Epiphany, we celebrate the coming of the wise men to worship Jesus. As far as we know, these Gentiles were the first non-Jews to see Him. This is why Epiphany is sometimes called the “Gentile Christmas.” Epiphany shows that the Christ came not only for the Jews but for the Gentiles too, because it was the LORD who showed the wise men the star of the Christ-Child. It was He who motivated them to set out on the long journey to Judea.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a sign like that, something to guide our way through life? As we considered a tough decision, God could make one option appear brighter than the others. He could give us a glimpse of our future, so we would know what to focus on and prepare for. He could keep us from heading off in the wrong direction.
Though some look for guidance like this in the stars, through mediums and fortune-tellers, or through their own superstitions and inner feelings, the LORD does not promise to enlighten us in these ways. Where He does promise enlightenment is through His holy Word. The star may have gotten the wise men going, but they did not find “the King of the Jews” until they heard the words of the Old Testament prophet Micah pointing them to Bethlehem (Mat. 2:6).
All the major events of Jesus’ life were predicted in the Old Testament Scriptures long before they took place. The visit of the wise men was no exception. We hear this prophecy about them in today’s text from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah prophesied that nations would come to the light of the LORD. When they came, they would bring abundance and wealth. Their camels would cover the hills. They would bring gold and frankincense and proclaim the praises of the LORD. The wise men were the first in a wave of Gentiles whom the LORD continues to draw to His light today.
He must draw people to His light because they are lost in the darkness of unbelief, sin, and death by nature. If you have been reading the first chapters of Genesis this past week, you reviewed how this darkness came into the world. Adam and Eve ignored the command of God and rebelled against Him. Then their oldest son Cain killed his brother Abel, and the human race descended into greater and greater wickedness. Things became so bleak that God decided to destroy the world in a flood. Everything on earth perished except for Noah, his sons, their wives, and all the animals God had sent into the Ark.
But even after the flood, the world was not without sin. Sin increased again, and we are no better today than any who have gone before us. What Isaiah wrote is true: “darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.” The darkness of sin and death is a “thick darkness.” It covers us and surrounds us like a thick cloud, an impenetrable fog that we cannot see through.
This is not how the world sees its situation. Especially at this time of year, people express great optimism about the future. “It’s a new year, a year to right every wrong, a year to achieve unparalleled success!” But many thought that way about 2019 and all the years before that. What happened to the promise of those years? Why are we always so eager to leave the last year behind by the time the new one rolls around?
It is because of the darkness that Isaiah describes. The people of the world think they can see just fine. They think they have all the solutions to the problems that afflict us. But there is no way forward without the light. Without the light, 2020 will be just as dark as 2019 and all the years before that.
The light that we need, the light that Isaiah prophesies about, is the light of Jesus. Isaiah spoke as if this light was already shining forth in his day, “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” he says. The Christ had not yet been born, but the promise of His coming filled the people’s hearts with hope. If God’s arrival in the flesh was like the sun shining brightly, the Gospel promises found in the Old and New Testaments are like the rays stretching out from the sun (U. V. Koren’s Works, Vol. 1, p. 81).
These rays of light still shine forth in the darkness and have reached our own hearts. These rays come through God’s holy Word. God’s Word shows us the light of Jesus. It draws us out of darkness “into his marvelous light” (1Pe. 2:9). His Word calls us to “Arise!”—“Get up!”—“Look to the light!” We do this by acknowledging our sin and guilt. We repent of the wrong we have done and trust in the forgiveness Jesus won for us. We don’t want to stay in the darkness. We don’t want to lose the light. This, more than anything else, should top our list of New Year’s resolutions.
We want to stay connected to the light of Jesus, because only in this light is there a clear way forward. Only in this light is there hope. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Joh. 8:12). His light brings life. Without His light there is no life. Think of a life here with no light at all. These overcast wintry days are bad enough, but the sun still gives light, and when darkness comes we can flip on a switch and fill our homes with light. But a life with no light at all—no natural or artificial light—would be absolutely terrifying. We would not know where we are or where we might go.
By faith in Jesus, we know exactly where we are headed. We are on our way to heaven, to His kingdom of everlasting light. We are going there because He came to rescue us from the darkness. His coming was like the sun rising above a world that had never seen light. Imagine how bright that would be to eyes used to the darkness. Some might shy away from the light and run further into the shadows. But others would want to find the source of that light. This is what Isaiah describes: “the LORD will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
The coming of the Christ brought people from near and far, including those wise men from the east. His light continues to draw people to Him. And how do they see that light? Through the Word. And how do they hear that Word? Through God’s people. If Jesus is like the sun, His followers are like the moon reflecting the sun’s light.
We want others to see this light in what we do and say. We “shine” as believers when we share the Gospel message of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus. We “shine” when we carry out our tasks and responsibilities diligently and honestly with love for our neighbor. A life lived for worldly glory, for selfish purposes, is a wasted life. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world…. [L]et your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mat. 5:14,16).
We don’t need to pursue worldly glory, because God gives us a glory that will never pass away. He gives us the glory of being spotless in His sight by faith in Jesus. He gives us the glory of being heirs of His eternal kingdom. He gives us the glory of being seated with Jesus our King in heaven (Eph. 2:6).
What God does for us is far greater than what we can do for Him or for the world. I’m sure the wise men agreed. They laid before Jesus their treasures of “gold and frankincense and myrrh,” but these were trifles compared with the gift of laying eyes on their Savior. This is why the wise men “fell down and worshiped him” (Mat. 2:11). We also present our gifts to God of a life of devotion, prayer, and thanksgiving. But what we receive from Him is far greater than what we give to Him.
Jesus blesses us every time we hear His Word of grace and partake of the Sacraments with faith in His promises. This is where His light comes to us today and how His glory rises upon us here. The wise men saw more than a baby; they saw the Lord of heaven and earth. We also see more than water, bread, wine, and words in the Divine Service. We see Jesus’ bright presence here among us.
We see Him by faith in these humble, visible elements of Word and Sacrament because He has promised to be here. He is here to shine His bright light of forgiveness into hearts and minds troubled by guilt and shame. He is here to uncover the anger and hatred we feel toward another and to relieve us of these burdens. He is here to lighten our spirits with His shining grace and to give us healing and hope in all our difficulties and trials.
“Arise, shine,” says Isaiah, “for your light has come!” You can “arise” and “shine” with confidence each day, knowing that your Savior is here. He came out of love for you. His presence with you means you will have His blessings in the new year just as He has given them to you in the past.
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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The Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 26) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:31-46
In Christ Jesus, “The Judge that comes in mercy, / The Judge that comes with might, / To terminate the evil,” and to crown or “diadem the right” (ELH 534, v. 1), dear fellow redeemed:
You know how it feels to be caught doing something wrong. Maybe you broke something because of reckless behavior and had to face your parents. Or you were disrespectful to a teacher and had to go talk to the principal. Or you were speeding, and an officer pulled you over. It is not pleasant to face the consequences for bad behavior. You and I would rather be about anywhere else than standing before someone who can exact punishment for a wrong. Is that how it will feel when Jesus comes on the last day and sits on His glorious throne?
We think of how Isaiah and Peter reacted as they stood in the presence of the holy Lord. When Isaiah was allowed to see the Lord sitting on His throne, He cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips!” (Isa. 6:5). And when Peter saw Jesus perform a great miracle, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luk. 5:8). The book of Revelation tells of “the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free,” who desperately try to hide from the presence of the Lord. They call out to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (6:16-17).
This Lamb will sit on the throne of judgment on the last day. Should you and I be worried? If our standing before God depended on how well we had lived our lives and how much good we had done, we should be worried. It isn’t just a matter of balancing out the bad with enough good, or doing okay given the circumstances. The standard by which our life is assessed is the Ten Commandments of God. And if we have broken those Commandments in any way, we cannot be let into heaven by our own merits. There is no imperfection in heaven.
But if our good works will not count for our salvation on the last day, why does Jesus make it sound like they will? He says that those who are “on His right,” those who are “in the right,” are those who gave Him food when He was hungry, drink when He was thirsty, a home when He was a stranger, clothes when He was naked, and visited Him when He was sick and in prison. He explained that they did these things for Him whenever they did it for their neighbor, for someone in need.
And you can think of times that you did things like this for others. If you are a parent, you’ve got the list covered in your own home. You have done all these things for your kids, and you do them every day. Even if you are not a parent, there are many times that you assisted others. You lent a helping hand with no thought of reward. You went out of your way to brighten someone’s day. You gave money and time to charitable efforts. Those are all good things. Does that mean you are right with God? Isn’t that what Jesus is saying?
It’s very crucial that we take in all that Jesus says and how He says it. Listen to His description of “the sheep” who are placed “on His right.” He says that they are “blessed by My Father.” He says they are to “inherit the kingdom.” The unique thing about this eternal inheritance is that it was “prepared… from the foundation of the world.” In other words, it was designated for the heirs long before they were even born.
And when Jesus credits the sheep with good works, they act surprised. They wonder when they ever did all those good things. They don’t sound interested in recounting the good they had done. They respond with humility. They realize they are being given much more than they ever gave.
Their response is much different than the response of the goats. Jesus tells the goats on His left that they did not give Him food or drink or a home or clothes or kind attention. Now if Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, says you failed to do what you should have, that is no time to argue. That is no time to make excuses or pass blame. That is the time to fall to your knees in repentance. Instead the goats say, “When did we not serve You in these ways?” There is no humility there, no recognition of shortcomings. So they are sent to “eternal punishment.”
This is a hard teaching. It is hard to hear that a large number of people will be condemned to hell. Many of them may even seem “good” to us. Hell contains more than just the Hitlers of the world. It isn’t just the rapists, murders, and abusers, who show no remorse for what they have done. There will also be plenty of “nice” people in hell, people who were good parents, hard workers, generous givers, and responsible citizens. They will be in hell because as good as they may have seemed to be, they were nowhere near perfect. Instead of acknowledging their sin and trusting in the only One who saves, they lived by their own set of standards; they went by their own creed.
“Pretty good” is not good enough. Those who think they are “pretty good” are not being honest about their corrupt condition. All of us have trouble owning up to our sins. We would never want others to know the evil we hold in our head and heart. We want people to see us at our best. We want them to see the “resume view” of our lives: “Here are all the good things I have done. Here are my accomplishments. These are my good qualities. This is what I bring to the table.”
Nobody puts bad things on a resume: “I got fired from this job for cause. I quit this one because I don’t always get along well with others. I’m on a new career path because I’m never content. Oh yeah, I really like to play the ‘victim card.’” We don’t often admit our weaknesses to others. We have a hard enough time acknowledging them ourselves. But it is no credit to us to hold on to our pride and to elevate ourselves above others.
Salvation comes not to proud goats but to humble sheep. It comes not to those who think they have done enough but to those who know they haven’t. Salvation is by grace alone. God gives it. He gives salvation because Jesus perfectly lived by the law. Whatever His neighbors needed, He supplied it. His was not an empty righteousness done for outward show. It was borne from His holy heart overflowing with love for sinners.
When we suffered from spiritual hunger and thirst, Jesus gave Himself for our nourishment. When we were strangers, separated from God, He reconciled us through His death on the cross. When we were stripped bare by the law of any patch of holiness, He supplied His own righteousness for our clothing. When we were sick with the infection of sin, He came with healing grace. When we were prisoners to our own sin and death, He came to set us free.
He did all these things not to get glory in the world, but to give grace. He came to humbly help and serve. He came to secure an inheritance for sinners, one that would never fade or decay. This inheritance will be fully realized by the sheep—by all believers in Him—when He returns on the last day. On that day, it will be clear who is good. It is Jesus. He alone is perfect, and He grants His perfection to everyone who believes.
This is how you are blessed by the Father. This is why you receive an inheritance that was prepared for you from the foundation of the world. It has nothing to do with the good works you have done. It is all because of what Jesus did for you. He kept the law for you. He died for your sins. He conquered your death.
Your salvation is secure in Him. This means you don’t have to wonder if you have done enough. You don’t have to feel pressure to do good in order to gain a reward. You are now free to give grace to those around you because you see their need. You recognize their trouble and suffering, and so you help. This is how God gives grace to your neighbors—through you! It does not matter if the world recognizes the good you do. That kind of glory does not last anyway.
But God gives a glory that does last. It is the glory that Jesus won for you. You get this glory by humbly trusting in Him alone. When Jesus comes on the last day and sits on His throne, you will not need to cower in fear. You will not need to worry about facing the consequences for your sin, because those sins are forgiven. They were washed away in the blood of Jesus, and His righteousness was put in their place.
You will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” because of what Jesus has done for you. The grace is His. The glory is His. And He is glad to share with you His grace and glory both now and for eternity.
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(“The Last Judgment” painting by Fra Angelico, c. 1395-1455)
The Transfiguration of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 17:1-9
In Christ Jesus, “the bright morning star” (Rev. 22:16), who by His glory reveals the glory that we shall have, dear fellow redeemed:
A number of years back, I bumped into a guy that I probably hadn’t seen for two or three years. Only a short time had passed, but I almost didn’t know who he was. He had lost a lot of weight, and his face had changed so much it was hardly recognizable.
A similar effect happens with those who have a complete makeover. They get their hair done, their teeth fixed, maybe their tummy tucked, and they are outfitted in new clothes. Family and friends are brought in to witness the transformation, and they are amazed at what they see. “She’s like a new person!” they say.
They are right. The individual seems “like” a new person, but she hasn’t changed substantially. She has only changed on the outside; she is still the same on the inside. She may have a bit more confidence than she did before, but she has the same personality, the same abilities, the same opinions and beliefs.
Making changes on the inside is harder than making changes on the outside. Those who make New Year’s resolutions know this well. Perhaps you resolved to exercise more this year or be more patient or look for opportunities to help others or study the Bible more. And maybe you are doing these things. But it is so easy to revert to old habits. How many times have you told yourself that you will never do one thing or another again? You won’t let temptation get the best of you. You will be stronger than before.
You might even tell the people around you that you have changed. They can doubt you, but you will show them! And sometimes that happens. Maybe that really is the last drink, the last binge, the last lie. But such drastic changes are not easily accomplished and hardly ever by the force of one’s own will. As long as we live, we will struggle to do what is good and to maintain good behavior. This is because sin clings to us. We got it from Adam & Eve. Their corruption of God’s holy creation has been passed down generation to generation all the way to us.
We call this corruption in our flesh the “old Adam” or “original sin.” Our Catechism defines this as “the total corruption of our whole human nature, inherited from our first parents, which makes us inclined only to evil and unable and unwilling to do that which is good” (2014 ELS Catechism, p. 77). This explains why it is so hard for us to stop sinning and live holier lives, particularly if we try to accomplish this on our own.
There are many who suggest that if you only keep a positive outlook and focus on your goals and pray harder that you can become a better person. In other words, they say that the power to improve and succeed is found inside you. With this message, self-help gurus with their best-selling books have wormed their way into the church. But they do not belong. God does not tell you to look inside yourself to find the strength for improvement. He says to look to Him. It is only through Him that real and lasting change can happen on the inside.
We see how small the disciples plans’ looked when they were face to face with the glory of the Lord. When they saw Jesus shining with brilliant light, and Moses and Elijah conversing with Him, Peter stammered that he would be glad to build tents for each one to make this moment last. The evangelist Mark tells us that Peter “did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (Mar. 9:6). Then a bright cloud came over them, and the voice of God the Father boomed from the cloud. This caused the frightened disciples to fall to the ground and hide their faces.
Why did they act this way? The disciples were afraid because they were in the presence of the holy God. This made them aware of their unholiness. Think how foolish they would have sounded if they started to tell God all the ways they had tried to improve themselves and all the good things they had done for Him. They knew they were nothing but weak, sinful men, and He was the mighty God, perfectly righteous.
Their only hope in this moment was the Man before them, who was much more than a man. “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” said God the Father; “listen to Him.” Jesus was God in the flesh. But His human nature stood out more than His divine nature. This is because He did not make full use of His divine powers. He produced miracles and signs that no other human could do, and yet He did not show forth His glory in all its brilliance. He did not shine with the kind of light that caused those around Him to cover their faces or hide.
The exception to this was Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. There, He revealed His glory to Peter, James, and John. They saw Him as they had never seen Him before. They now saw with their eyes what they had confessed Him to be by faith: “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mat. 16:16). What He had come to do was to offer Himself as the sacrifice for sin, “the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1Pe. 3:18). The disciples had not grasped this yet. They could not see why He should have to die and rise again (Mar. 9:10).
The reason was so that the unholy might stand in the presence of the holy God. It was so that the disciples and you and I would no longer have to feel the guilt of sins past or the pressure of trying to prove our worth. “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24). We cannot escape the sin we have inherited, the “old Adam,” which still causes us to commit more sin. We cannot get ourselves right with God.
This is why Jesus took our place. He took the fall for our self-assured attitudes. He suffered for our failed attempts at doing better. He died for us so that we could be transformed from the sinners we are and changed from the inside out. This inner spiritual transformation began in a very unassuming way. It started at our baptism. Through baptism, our heart of sin was cleansed and filled with faith. In those waters, we were claimed as our Lord’s own, we were buried and raised with Him (Rom. 6:4), and we were covered in His righteousness (Gal. 3:27).
But His glory which fills us and covers us is not visible as long as we are in the world. No one can tell by looking at us that we are children of the heavenly Father. There is no special mark on us. There is no glow showing that God abides in us. We get sick and suffer just like unbelievers do. We sin like they do. To unbelievers, it seems that our devotion to God and His Word is a hindrance to life in the world and gives us no advantage over them.
But we do have an advantage. We have hope, a certain hope. We have hope of a better life after this one, when we shall join our Lord in His glorious presence. We have hope that our bodies which are full of sin and imperfection will soon be glorified like Jesus is. We believe this because Jesus did not stay in the grave after His death. He is not simply a Man. He is the true God who rose again and is seated in glory at the right hand of the Father.
From that position of all power and glory, Jesus powerfully works in our hearts through His Word and Sacraments. These are the means by which He strengthens us to forsake sin and to live a godly life. This power to do better does not come from inside us, but from Him. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6).
We grow in sanctification not by relying on ourselves to do better but by keeping our eyes on Him. We grow by leaving our sins every day at the foot of His cross and being absolved of them through His cleansing blood. This is how we walk in the “newness of life” begun at our baptism (Rom. 6:4). We humbly and sincerely confess our sins and rely on Jesus’ righteousness. And then His fruit will be seen in us, the fruits of faith which show our love and thankfulness to God.
We disciples of the Lord do not look so glorious now, but we will on the last day. On the last day, the transformation that happened at our baptism will be evident in our changed appearance. When Jesus comes in all His glory, our transformation will be like His was on that high mountain. As His face shone like the sun, so will ours. As His body beamed with bright light, so will ours.
The apostle John, who was with Jesus on the mountain, confidently writes, “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1Jo. 3:2). And Paul says, “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1Co. 15:51-52).
On the last day, sin will no longer weigh us down, the devil will no longer torment us, and we will feel no more terror or fear. We Shall Be Changed Like Him, and we shall join Him in the bright light of His glorious presence forever.
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(painting by Carl Bloch, c. 1865)
The Second Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 2:1-11
In Christ Jesus, our Bridegroom, who visits us through His Word and Sacraments, “that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psa. 90:14), dear fellow redeemed:
John the Baptizer lived a life of extreme self-discipline. He wore rough camel’s hair clothing. He ate insects and wild honey. He drank no alcohol. His calling was not to enjoy the good things of the world, but to “be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Joh. 1:15), and to “prepare the way for the Lord” (Luk. 3:4). His disciples joined him in this disciplined life. When’s John’s disciples were later contrasted with Jesus’ disciples, John’s disciples were said to “fast often” while Jesus’ disciples ate and drank freely (Luk. 5:33).
This must have been surprising to the disciples of John who began to follow Jesus. One of these was Andrew, and two others were likely John and Peter. They joined Jesus when He left the area where John the Baptizer was working and traveled back to Galilee. There, Jesus called two more men to follow Him, Philip and Nathanael. The next event recorded in the Gospels is the wedding in the town of Cana. Jesus and His mother Mary were relatives or close friends of the bride or groom, because Jesus was invited to attend along with His new friends.
His disciples must have noticed right away how different Jesus was than John the Baptizer. We assume that Jesus enjoyed the food and drink offered at the wedding, though obviously not to excess. The other guests took the celebrating a bit further and exhausted the supply of wine. This was a problem. The celebration was not supposed to end, but it could not continue as before without more wine. Mary wondered if Jesus would do something and directed the matter to Him.
To this point, Jesus had not used His divine power in a public way. But now He asked the servants at the wedding celebration to fill six stone jars with water. And in a moment that makes every good Baptist feel uncomfortable, Jesus miraculously turned the water into wine. When the master of the feast tasted it, He told the bridegroom that most people serve poorer wine after people have “drunk freely.” “But,” he said, “you have kept the good wine until now.”
It may be surprising that the production of alcohol would be Jesus’ first public sign. But the Lord has nothing against alcohol. What He warns about is the abuse of alcohol. The Israelites were certainly accustomed to drinking wine, and it was an integral part of their Passover celebration. Using unleavened bread and wine from the Passover meal, Jesus later instituted His Holy Supper. And when the LORD described the eternal wedding feast in heaven, He specifically mentioned that “aged wine well refined” (Isa. 25:6) would be present.
Alcohol is a blessing when used in the proper way. The apostle Paul even recommended “a little wine” to his friend Timothy, “for the sake of [his] stomach and [his] frequent ailments” (1Ti. 5:23). But alcohol is often used improperly, and the devil knows how to tempt people to sin through it. The book of Proverbs warns about this: “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things” (Pro. 23:31-33). The New Testament contains the same warning (Eph. 5:18), and it says that drunkards “will not inherit the kingdom of God” unless they repent (1Co. 6:10).
Alcohol often makes bad situations worse, as the country singer acknowledges: “I drink because I’m lonesome, and I’m lonesome ’cause I drink” (Chris Stapleton). But alcohol can also make happy situations more joyful. A famous English author proposed this guide for alcohol use: “Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy” (G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, ch. 7).
In the case of the wedding in Cana, wine was present at the celebration not to dull pain, but to increase joy. Jesus approved of this celebration and was glad to play a part in extending it. We might have expected Jesus to make a bigger splash with His first public miracle. He could have produced food supplies for the poor, healed a prominent member of the community, or demonstrated His control over nature. Instead, He manifested His glory by changing water into wine at a wedding.
But that was fitting too. The Lord had not come to rub elbows with the elites. He came to be a blessing to all people. He was glad to be attending the wedding of a poor couple in a small, out-of-the-way town. This shows us that no situation we are in is below the Lord’s concern. He cares about our marriages, our families, our health, our work, and the challenges we face. We may not see any way to get past our problems, but He knows how to bring blessings out of trials.
So Jesus turned water into wine, “and manifested His glory.” In part, this was intended as a sign for His disciples, and they “believed in Him.” But what He had told His mother was still true, “My hour has not yet come.” The time to reveal Himself as the promised Messiah had come, but there was more for Him to do before His suffering, death, and resurrection. For three years, Jesus traveled between Galilee and Judea preaching the Gospel, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. He was equally willing to spend time with the spiritual leaders of the Jews as with the spiritual outcasts.
The scribes and Pharisees did not appreciate this, particularly when Jesus criticized them and absolved the open sinners. For how concerned they were with God’s Law, they did not like having it leveled against them. John the Baptizer had done this, and now Jesus was doing it too. Jesus pointed out to them that the problem was not with Him and John, but with their own corrupt hearts. He exposed their self-righteous thinking, “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luk. 7:33-34).
Their spiteful attacks did not change His loving purpose and work. He continued to show mercy to the people around Him in humble service. Just before His entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus told His disciples, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mat. 20:28). This is why He came and was manifested to the world. He came in humility “to give his life as a ransom for many.”
After riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus declared, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Joh. 12:22). His glory would come through His death. He was “betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Mar. 14:41) and handed over to be crucified. Paul writes that Christ “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).
Through His humble sacrifice, Jesus paid for our many sins. These sins include our worry that His love for us may run out, our overindulgence in earthly things where moderation is called for, and our failure to see the great blessings God has provided us, especially the blessings of marriage and family. Jesus took these sins upon Himself and suffered for them, so God now declares us absolved of every sin.
This forgiveness of sin is imparted to us through the means of grace. These humble means are the ways that Jesus continues His humble service to us today. He comes to us through the preaching of the Gospel, through the water of Baptism, and through the bread and wine of Holy Communion. By partaking of these things with faith, we join the wedding feast of salvation.
And who are the bride and bridegroom at this feast? Jesus is the Bridegroom, and all believers in Him are the bride. Jesus wedded Himself to the human race by taking on our flesh and dying for the world’s sins. We sinners are joined to Him through Baptism, by which we are presented to Him “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph. 5:27). We are holy in God’s sight because of what Jesus did for us. Our sins are covered over by His righteousness.
By Baptism we were buried with Him in His death and raised with Him to new life. Through this union with Christ, we are called by His name, and we gain His own reputation and status. We common sinners are now joined to the holy King! We share in His glory, though it is a glory hidden in this world.
Soon this glory of our Bridegroom will be manifested for everyone to see. Then His humble work of salvation will be acknowledged by all, and His followers will join Him at the heavenly feast. There, such rejoicing will take place that cannot be imagined now. But we can be sure that our troubles will be forgotten, our joy will be full, and the supply of God’s abundant blessings will never run dry.
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(picture is from a work by a 10th century monk)
The Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 24:15-28
In Christ Jesus, who warns us about the troubles of the end times, so that we might fix our eyes on Him and put our full confidence in His promises, dear fellow redeemed:
Just before the words of Jesus in today’s text, His disciples asked Him, “what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Mt. 24:3). Unfortunately, Jesus did not predict that life in this world would get better and better, but that it would get worse. He told them, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars,” and “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (vv. 6,7). The times would be especially trying for Christians, who would be delivered up to tribulation, put to death, and “hated by all nations for [His] name’s sake” (v. 9). Besides all this, “false prophets will arise,” and “lawlessness will be increased” (vv. 11,12).
We can see these signs of the end times everywhere we look. We see violence carried out through international conflict, civil wars, and through the senseless taking of life such as what we have recently witnessed in Pennsylvania and California. We see natural disasters around the world—floods, tornados, droughts, wildfires, and earthquakes—which claim hundreds of lives each year. We see Christians being persecuted and killed simply because of their beliefs. And we see false teachers working to lead people away from God and to themselves.
We see all these signs, but as long as they stay a safe distance from us, it is easy to ignore them. We might feel badly for victims of violence or disasters when we hear about them, but then we go back to what we were doing before. These signs of the end times should have a greater effect on us.
In today’s text, Jesus gave a two-part warning. The first warning was about the destruction of Jerusalem, and the second warning was about the end times and Christ’s glorious return. The destruction of Jerusalem happened in the year 70. The Israelites had risen up against the Romans, and they began to fortify Jerusalem against a Roman attack. When these things happened, the Christians quickly left the city and relocated to other places. They remembered Jesus’ words. But the other residents of the city did not leave, and “great tribulation” came upon them as Jesus had predicted.
Tragedies like this have happened throughout history despite God’s merciful warnings. The people of Noah’s day had 120 years of warning while Noah and his sons built the ark. But they paid no attention. Jesus said, “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away” (Mt. 24:38-39). Later on when the LORD had settled His people in the promised land of Canaan, they continuously pursued other gods. He sent prophets to call them back, but they either ignored the prophets or killed them. This led to the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians in 722 B. C. and the fall of the southern kingdom in 586 B. C.
There are many more examples like these, examples of those who did not take God’s Word seriously. They did not perceive the danger they were in. They thought everything was fine. We can fall into the same sort of thinking. For the most part, we have not been personally touched by the kind of violence we hear about in the news. We have not had our homes destroyed by natural disasters. We have not suffered physical harm because of our confession of faith.
This can make us complacent. We can get comfortable with life in the world. We can neglect the Word of God and prayer because we expect we can always go back to those things in the future. But Jesus would not have us adopt such a lazy attitude. “Therefore stay awake,” He says, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!” (Mk. 13:35-37).
When heavy rains are predicted in our area, many in our community stay awake through the night to make sure their homes are not flooded. They recognize the threat, and they want to be as prepared as they can be. When Jesus predicts tribulation for believers in these end times, we want to remain spiritually alert. We don’t want to be caught sleeping when persecution comes, or when “false christs and false prophets” try to pull us from the true faith.
But how do we get ready for these tribulations? How do we prepare? We prepare by listening to the One who accurately warned about these things in the first place. Of all that Jesus said, how much of it has proven to be untrue? Not one word. Everything He predicted and promised up till now has happened as He said it would. We can trust what Jesus says.
We can trust Him when He says He “came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10). He came to save you and me, who were lost in our sins and in the darkness of unbelief. He saved us by substituting His life for ours, the faithful Shepherd for the wayward sheep. We can trust that His words, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30), apply to His work that was needed to save us and all sinners. The perfect life and the payment for sin that God required of humankind were fully supplied by Jesus. We can trust Him when He says, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). Through His resurrection, Jesus proved that nothing could overcome Him—not sin, not the devil, not the world, and not even death itself.
These are the things to keep in mind as we face tribulation in the world. No matter how great our enemies are, Jesus is greater. But He does not use His power like the world uses its power. The world uses its power to intimidate, to suppress, to silence, to hurt, and to kill. Jesus uses His power to save. In his second epistle the apostle Peter states, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2Pe. 3:9).
Jesus wants everyone to be saved. He does not want any to be caught sleeping. He does not want any to be condemned. This is why He has His Gospel message proclaimed throughout the world. The same message of salvation that we hear today is also being heard in Peru and Pakistan and China and in countless other places. Our fellow Christians humbly listen to the Law which condemns their sin, and they gladly hear the Gospel which forgives their sin.
This powerful Word of God is what prepares us and them for tribulation here, but also for glory in heaven. The apostle Paul writes that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). And Paul suffered plenty, just as the other disciples did. Their tribulation was so great that they expected Jesus to return in glory during their lifetimes. But His time was not yet. There were more souls to save.
And so it is now. The signs of the end times are all here. Jesus could visibly return at any point. Now is not the time to get sleepy. Now is the time to hear and learn His Word. This is what keeps us alert and prepared. It keeps us from getting too comfortable in the world, and it shows us the difference between the true Christ and false christs, between true prophets and false prophets.
Through His Word, the true Christ visits us, though not visibly. He comes to us through the preaching of His Gospel. He says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt. 18:20). And He comes through His Holy Supper, where He gives His own body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. These are the ways Jesus is present with us “always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). He does not grow tired of us or reject us, even though we have gotten spiritually sleepy at times and have followed gods of our own making. He leads us to repentance and applies His soul-saving absolution—the full and unconditional forgiveness of all our sins.
Jesus may seem very far away from us, especially when we are experiencing trouble. But in fact, He is very near. He is “a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). He has not forgotten about us. He covers us in the armor of His righteousness and fills us with the courage that comes from being claimed as His own. The Lord would not forget His chosen ones. He promises that our short time of tribulation in this life will soon give way to eternal glory.
Brief life is here our portion;
Brief sorrow, short-lived care;
The life that knows no ending,
The tearless life, is there.
O happy retribution:
Short toil, eternal rest;
For mortals and for sinners
A mansion with the blest! (ELH #534, v. 3)
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(1850 “Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem” painting by David Roberts)
The Holy Nativity of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad Exordium and Sermon
Jesus is born! Is this a matter of faith or fact? The evangelists state it as a fact. Luke gives the most details. He mentions historical territories and cities, and he provides the names of both the Roman emperor and the governor of Syria. Throughout the Gospel accounts, we are given the names of more historical places and people. We learn about Herod the Great and his son, also named Herod. The well-known Jewish teacher Gamaliel is mentioned. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate weighs in on the question of Jesus’ guilt or innocence. Even non-biblical sources near the time of Jesus make reference to His work and to His supernatural powers. The birth and existence of Jesus is a fact.
That He actually lived is one thing. That He lived for you is another. Your name is not recorded in the pages of the Bible as an intended recipient of God’s grace, and neither is mine. Martin Luther said he was glad his name is not written there, because then he would imagine God was referring to some other Martin Luther and not to him. But the Bible says, “God so loved the world.” That means everyone. The love of God is a fact, and so is Jesus’ saving work. But knowing it is for you is a matter of faith.
This faith is worked in you by the Holy Spirit. He has given you the gift of forgiveness and life wrapped up in the person of the Christ. That little Babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, was given for you, to save you. As the angel told the shepherds, the “good tidings of great joy,” the news of Jesus’ birth, is “to all people”—for all people. Jesus is born for you! Let us then join together in singing, “Rejoice, Rejoice This Happy Morn!” (#142):
Sermon Text: St. John 1:1-14
In Christ Jesus, who dwells in us and we in Him, dear fellow redeemed:
What we have before us in these first few verses of the Gospel of John is a summary of all things that are. These verses tell us about God and creation, about God’s plan to save the world from sin, about how this plan was carried out, and what it all means for you and me.
The Apostle John, by inspiration, began this Gospel with a nod toward the very first verse in the Old Testament. Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” John now tells us more about this God. “In the beginning was the Word,” he writes, “and the Word was with God.” This is not a reference to the LORD’s ability to speak. John continues, “and the Word was God. He—this One—was in the beginning with God.” So the one eternal God, the God who is one in substance or essence—He consists of more than one Person.
The Bible clearly states that the one God is three Persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. “The Word,” who “was in the beginning with God,” is a reference to God the Son, who participated in creation with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In fact, nothing in the universe that has been made was made without the Son. “All things were made through Him,” writes John. When Genesis describes God speaking His creation into being—“Let there be light,” and so on—this is God the Son at work by the direction of the Father.
No light was given and no life was created except through the Son. At the end of those six days of creation, when God concluded His inaugural work, He looked at all He had made and declared it to be very good” (Gen. 1:31). Everything was perfect. But it did not stay that way. God had given the angels and man the free opportunity to live with Him in His glory and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. But He did not force them to do this. He wanted them to serve Him gladly and without compulsion.
One of the chief angels chose otherwise, and he enticed others of them to join him in rebellion against their Creator. Of course they could not defeat Him. So they turned their attention toward the pinnacle of God’s creation. The devil tempted the first man and woman to join him in his wickedness, and they agreed. They disobeyed God, which caused the whole world to fall under the curse of sin. Mankind had exchanged the bright, warm light of the living God for darkness and death.
God had every right to pour out His wrath upon them. But He still loved them. He did not want them to die eternally. He promised to send a Savior, the Seed of a woman, who would crush the head of Satan (Gen. 3:15). Thousands of years passed before the angel Gabriel was sent from God to visit a virgin named Mary. Mention of her sexual history was important because she would bear a Son in a most miraculous way. God the Holy Spirit would conceive a Child in her womb apart from any contact with a man. The prophecy regarding the Seed of the woman had come to pass.
In order to give notice of the arrival of Mary’s special Son, the LORD sent John the Baptizer to prepare the people for His coming. John bore witness about this “true Light… coming into the world.” “Here is the Son of God!” said John, “He is here to save the world!” (Jn. 1:29). How amazing! The Light-Giver, the Life-Maker, had stepped down from the heavens into human flesh! The eternal God who has no beginning and no end, now began His life in the world as the son of a poor woman.
What was the purpose of His coming? What did He need to take a look at with human eyes that He did not know from heaven? He did not come because there was something He did not know. He came because of what He already knew. God knew that all people would perish eternally if He did not save them. They could not save themselves. They were not perfect—far from it—, and nothing but a perfect creature could stand in the heavenly presence of God. So God became Man.
But when He became Man, He came humbly. His divine nature was hidden to the eyes of men. They saw only a little baby and then a teenager and then a man. Even after He began His public teaching and performed numerous miracles, many would not see Him as He should have been seen—as the promised Savior. This is why John says, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.” Never had something more significant or someone more important entered the world. But many shrugged it off; such is the sad state of unbelief.
Jesus, for His part, carried on. He said to the people, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me…. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:38,40). No amount of rejection, no stubborn unbelief, would discourage Him from the work His Father had given Him to do. He bowed to His Father’s will all the way to the cross, where He paid in blood the price of mankind’s lawlessness. There, He suffered the eternal torments of death and hell for all sin, for sins committed since the fall of Adam and Eve and stretching forward to the Day of Judgment. The atonement for sin and death was complete; it was finished.
But how would sinners learn about this? How would they know what had been done for them? They would have to be reborn. Once they were birthed into the world of darkness; now they must be birthed into the kingdom of light. This would come about “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” God does the regenerating. God gives rebirth. And He does it through His Son. He does it through the Word.
When His Word comes to our ears by the power of the Holy Spirit, it wakes us up. It wakes us from our aimless wandering. It opens our eyes to the light. Christ breathes into our souls the breath of life. Our sinful hearts begin to beat with His love. Our sinful flesh is washed with His cleansing blood. “[T]he Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” and through faith worked in us by the Means of Grace, He now dwells in us.
This is how God’s saving work becomes yours. It comes to you through the Word. Jesus brings His healing presence right to your dead heart, so that your heart of stone becomes a heart of flesh (Ez. 36:25-26). And He keeps coming because your sinful nature, the old Adam, is still with you. You need Jesus’ life-giving presence or else you will die forever. God does not want that to happen. You are His child through Baptism. He gave you that right in those saving waters. He intends for you to inherit all the glories that are now His.
When that heavenly era begins, then you will witness firsthand what the evangelist John beheld. Then you will see your Savior’s glory, “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Transfiguration of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 17:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who shines with brilliant glory that we now know by faith and will behold with our own eyes in heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
We are part of a culture that lives very much in the moment. The big news story that seems so significant today is hardly remembered a couple days later. Last month is considered ancient news, let alone last year. And while we are busy with all the details of the present, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture.
This was true of the Apostle Peter, though we can hardly blame him for it. He recognized how special it was to have a transfigured Jesus before them talking with two of the Old Testament giants, Moses and Elijah. Who can blame him for wanting to capture this moment, to stretch it out a bit longer? He could quickly put up tents, he said, and then this powerful meeting of the minds could continue.
But there was something bigger happening on that mountaintop. The three disciples were not allowed to witness it so that Jesus could impress them with His famous friends. Rather these things happened to impress on the disciples that Jesus was who He claimed to be. This is what the season of Epiphany is about. “Epiphany” means a “manifestation,” a “revealing.” In the Sundays of this season, we have seen Jesus revealed as not merely a Man but as the eternal Son of God. He was worshipped as God by the wise men from the east, He turned water into wine, He healed a leprous man and a centurion’s servant, and He stopped a raging storm on the Sea of Galilee with a simple command.
And now today, we have the account of Jesus’ transfiguration. This time, the Lord’s glory was not revealed by someone being helped or healed. This time, His physical appearance was altered; “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as light.” For a moment, Jesus’ divine nature was not concealed but was allowed to shine forth. It was only a glimpse, because His work of redemption was not complete. But it hinted at the glory to come, a glory foretold of the Messiah and of those who believe in Him.
The coming of the Messiah was clearly prophesied throughout the Old Testament. Jesus Himself said this when talking with the Jewish leaders: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (Jn. 5:39). When Jesus refers here to the Scriptures, He was talking only about the Old Testament Scriptures. The New Testament had obviously not been recorded yet.
Moses was one of the Old Testament figures who prophesied about the coming of Jesus. He told the people of Israel what the LORD told him, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15). This tells us that the Prophet would be an Israelite man. But He would be at the same time God. It is no coincidence that we should find Moses with Jesus at His transfiguration. His presence there is an obvious message that the One he referred to so long before had now come, the One he said they should listen to. The voice of God the Father made this connection even more obvious when He said, “This is My beloved Son… listen to Him.”
The presence of Elijah was also significant. Elijah is one of the major Old Testament prophets. He declared God’s Word at a time when many Israelites had rejected the truth, and their leaders actively promoted the worship of false gods. It was so bad that Elijah thought he was the only believer left (1Ki. 19:10). Elijah was so embittered by all of this that he begged God to take his life. But God had preserved a remnant of 7000 believers in Israel, and instead of ending Elijah’s life, He ultimately brought him directly to heaven in a chariot of fire.
Hundreds of years after Elijah’s departure, the prophet Malachi spoke these words of the LORD, “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes” (Mal. 4:4-5). These are among the last words recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures. God’s people were reminded to listen to what Moses said and to look for the coming of Elijah. Jesus referred to John the Baptizer as Elijah (Mt. 11:14), not that they were the same person (Jn. 1:21), but that they carried out the same work of declaring the Messiah. And then Elijah himself did return to the mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration, speaking with Him about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:31).
So what we see here on the mountain is Moses who recorded the Old Testament Law, and Elijah who represents the Old Testament Prophets. But the focus is not on them, as important as they are to Israelite church history. They are focused on Jesus, talking about the significance of His work.
I mentioned before how easy it is for us to lose sight of the big picture. This can be as true of our study of the Bible as with anything else. If we look at the Bible primarily as a book of rules, and think that God will be happy with us when we try our best to keep them, then we have misread His Word. If we let people scare us away from the Scriptures when they ask why we don’t follow all the Old Testament regulations for worship and society, then we show we do not understand the meaning of Christ’s coming. And it certainly is not wrong to know the finer details of Old Testament accounts like Joseph becoming Pharaoh’s right hand man, the battle of David and Goliath, and Daniel in the lions’ den. But if we do not give any thought to what these accounts have to do with Jesus, then we have failed to see the forest for the trees.
Every book of the Bible, every chapter, every verse, points somehow to Jesus the Messiah. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt. 5:17). Then after His resurrection, He told His disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk. 24:44). Jesus is the incarnate Word, the fulfillment of the Scriptures. The central teaching of the entire Bible is that Jesus is our righteousness and life. He fulfilled God’s Law for us, and redeemed us from everlasting death by His blood. This Gospel message shines from the pages of both the Old and New Testaments. God wants you to know that He is not angry with you for your sins. The righteous wrath of God was poured out on His only Son in your place.
But this Word of grace does not always seem powerful to us. If it is so great, why doesn’t it take away my nagging guilt? Why doesn’t it make me feel happier to know that Jesus saved me? And what good does this message do me when I’m not getting along with someone or can’t pay the bills or feel the pain getting worse? In a similar way, Peter, James, and John might have wondered why Jesus didn’t show His bright glory to everybody. It would answer a lot of questions that they had about Jesus. It would show clearly who He was. But Jesus hid His glory during His state of humiliation. And He hides His glory today in the Word and Sacraments. But a hidden glory is far different than no glory; a hidden power is far different than no power.
We do not visibly see Jesus’ glory in His Word. Our Bibles do not shine like the sun. We do not glow from inside when we eat and drink Jesus’ body and blood. But despite the humble appearance of God’s Word and Sacraments, it is through these means that the almighty Lord of heaven and earth reaches down and touches us. He touches your sinful heart and mind with His forgiveness. He takes away your fear of eternal punishment and death. He picks you up from your sorrows and worry and pain, and covers all your concerns in His grace.
As amazing as it would be to see Jesus in all His glory like the three disciples did, even they encourage us to find His glory in His Word. The Apostle Peter, who was on the mountain with Jesus, wrote in his second epistle that there is something more sure than being an eyewitness of Jesus’ glory. This “something more sure” is “the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2Pe. 1:19). The Lord’s Glory Shines throughout the Scriptures. His Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105). It is a glory seen by faith and not by sight.
But it is a glory that we will see with our own eyes in due time. In heaven, we will see Jesus in all His brilliant glory, and we will not shrink from the booming voice of God. We will no longer be afraid because we will no longer have sin. We, too, will be glorified and transfigured like Jesus when He returns visibly on the last day. Then we will fully see the big picture. We will know why we had to endure our troubles in this world. And we will see how we were wrapped up in God’s grace all along the way, while He prepared us to share in His glory.
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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!
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