The Festival of the Reformation – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 1:16-17
In Christ Jesus, who “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy” (Ti. 3:5), dear fellow redeemed:
Who is responsible for the Reformation movement? The answer that comes immediately to mind is Martin Luther, the bold monk from Wittenberg, Germany. But that is not really correct. The one who brought about the Reformation was God the Holy Spirit. The Reformation did not grow out of someone’s personality, personal strength, or intellectual ability. It grew out of the powerful Word of God.
To be specific, the Reformation can be said to have grown out of the short text before us today from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. It may seem straightforward and comforting to us, but it was terribly perplexing to Martin Luther. The part that troubled him the most was the part about “the righteousness of God.” He said these words “struck [his] conscience like lightning” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 54, p. 193), and that they were “like a thunderbolt in [his] heart” (LW, Vol. 54, pp. 308-309). He went as far as to say he hated these words.
He had been taught to understand “the righteousness of God” as referring to the vengeful God who punished unrighteous sinners. He explained it in this way: “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction [by the good works he had done]. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God” (LW, Vol. 34, pp. 336-337).
But as discouraged as he was by this text, he couldn’t leave it alone. He couldn’t shake the sense that he was missing something. The ideas didn’t seem to match up. On the one hand, Paul wrote about “the righteousness of God.” On the other hand, he cited a passage from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk about how “The righteous shall live by faith.” Luther had been taught and was convinced that no one could be righteous before God unless he did enough good works to please Him. But Paul was connecting righteousness to faith.
One day Luther was sitting in the tower at his monastery pondering the words before us today, when it suddenly dawned on him. He realized the problem was not with the text—the problem was with him! He said he now “began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God” (LW, Vol. 34, pp. 337). He learned that there was a difference between “the righteousness of the law” and “the righteousness of the gospel.”
The righteousness of the law is how God requires us to live according to the Ten Commandments. But the righteousness of the gospel is not about what we do at all. The righteousness of the gospel is all about what God gives to sinners according to His grace. What Luther learned in these two short verses is the proper distinction between God’s Law and God’s Gospel (LW, Vol. 54, pp. 442-443). He didn’t come to this understanding on his own. He gave all glory to God. He said, “The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me” (LW, Vol. 54, p. 194).
This is why I said that God the Holy Spirit brought about the Reformation. But there are many who disagree. They wish the Reformation had never happened. They view it as the work of the devil. They feel this way because the Reformation caused the church to break in pieces like it never had before. Besides dividing the Lutherans and Roman Catholics, the Reformation also led to the formation of other Christian denominations like the Anabaptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. (We’ll be studying these denominations in more detail in our next Bible Class.)
We, too, are sad that the church is so divided. But we thank God for the Reformation. Before the Reformation, the Gospel message of salvation had been obscured. Christians were not confident that their sins were forgiven because of what Jesus did. They were terrified of death because they thought they would be in purgatory a long, long time paying for their sins. This is why they jumped at the chance to buy indulgences authorized by the pope. They were told that as soon as they purchased an indulgence, they could send a loved one from purgatory to heaven and store up merit for themselves.
But an indulgence is not needed for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Jesus is. He stated this clearly when He said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Joh. 3:16). We call this “the Gospel in a nutshell.” This is the good news—that God the Father sent His Son to take on our flesh to save us. Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life under the Law for us, and He carried all our sins to the cross to atone for them there. We are saved because of what He did and not because of anything we do. As soon as we believe this good news by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have eternal life in Him.
This runs contrary to natural human thinking. We think that since we messed up, since we sinned, we have to fix it. We have to make up for our wrongs by doing lots of good. Even we who know this is not the case still beat ourselves up over past sins. We won’t let ourselves live in the grace of God. We won’t let ourselves rejoice in His wonderful love and goodness toward us. “I have sinned too much,” we think. “My faults are too many.”
Do you realize that is just another way of saying that Jesus is not much of a Savior? If your sins are too great, if your past is too horrible for God to forgive you, then He is a very limited God, and Jesus was wasting His time on the cross. Why was Jesus there if not for you? Why did He suffer if your sins could not be forgiven? Or was He there because your sins could be forgiven? And did He rise again from the dead because your sins are forgiven? This is why He suffered, died, and rose again: to blot out all of your sins with His precious blood and to win your eternal salvation.
You’re not alone in wondering if this message of the Gospel is too good to be true. Luther wondered this. So did the Apostle Paul. Paul admitted he was “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of God. But, he said, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1Ti. 1:14-15).
Paul spread this Gospel message all over Europe. No matter how much he was ridiculed and attacked, he would not stop preaching the good news. “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he wrote, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” It is hard for us to understand how a message, a collection of certain words, could have the power to save. Our words do not have this power. But God’s words do.
In His Gospel, God reveals His righteousness. He shows us that what we could not accomplish, He accomplished for us. He tells us that we are no longer His enemies doomed to eternal destruction. Now we are His children destined for eternal life. Everything He required of us in His Law, He gives to us in His Gospel.
The Gospel message is able to do this for us because the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work through it. Just as He opened Luther’s mind and heart to understand and believe the good news of what Jesus had done, so He does the same for us. He works faith in our hearts through the Gospel, and He continues to strengthen our faith in the same way.
This faith, a gift from God, joins us to Jesus and everything He did to save us. This is why God the Father counts all who believe in His Son as righteous. We are righteous because Jesus was perfectly righteous. His righteousness covers over all our sinfulness. And because Jesus rose from the dead, never to die again, so we live in Him. Jesus Himself promised, “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Joh. 11:26).
When the Holy Spirit led Luther to understand the truth about what God had done for him, he could not contain his joy: “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Luther now realized that his sins were all forgiven, not because of anything he had done, but by faith in his Savior. “And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God,’” he said. “Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise” (LW, Vol. 34, p. 337).
The Gospel of salvation through Jesus is our “gate to paradise” too. It is why we celebrate the Reformation. It is why we will not budge an inch from the Bible’s teaching for the sake of outward unity in the church. The Gospel is everything to us. If we lose the good news of what Jesus has done for us, we will go back to thinking salvation depends on ourselves. And then we are lost.
But as long as we have the Gospel, the Holy Spirit is at work cleansing, comforting, and strengthening us. He continues the work of reformation in our hearts just as in the church, so that we are pointed always to Jesus, our Savior.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “Martin Luther at Worms” by Anton von Werner, 1877)
The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 2 Corinthians 3:4-11
In Christ Jesus, who drank the cup of God’s wrath, so you could drink from the waters of salvation through His Word, dear fellow redeemed:
What does it mean that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”? Some say that when Paul refers to “the letter,” he is talking about the words of the Bible. So they argue that the Bible is a “dead letter,” and a “dead letter” cannot save your soul. If you want to be saved, you need the Spirit. And how do you get the Spirit? Not by reading or hearing the words of the Bible, but by your own prayers, your own inner struggle, the stretching of your feelings and emotions toward the mighty God.
Another twist on this idea is the churches which display rainbow-colored banners outside their walls which say, “God is still speaking.” They believe that the Spirit reveals new teachings to Christian communities that may even contradict deeply-held beliefs of past generations. “God is still speaking” is another way of saying, “We don’t believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. We don’t believe it is all-sufficient for Christian life in today’s world. The times when the Bible was written were much different times than these. We believe that the Spirit is still shaping and guiding us not through the Bible but through the collective judgment of the Christians in this place.”
These attempts to separate the Spirit from the Word remind me of a story I read a while back. It’s a fairly short story, and I’d like to share it with you today.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful little village nestled in a valley between two mountains. In the center of the village was a well. The well provided water to all the inhabitants of the village. People came from all over the world to drink the cool, clean, crisp water that was drawn daily from the well. Countless people remained in the village and made their homes there. They loved the water.
The well was sufficient for the people of the village. No other wells graced the cobblestone streets of that mountain town. There was no need. No one ever suggested that they might like some other well more. Such a thought would be incomprehensible. The well was sufficient to satisfy all their needs, and it seemed that no matter how many people came to dwell in the mountain village there was always enough water. Water from another well? The thought was unheard of—absurd.
The well was also powerful. At the suggestion that the well might run dry some day, the people only laughed. “A waterless well?” The thought was unheard of—absurd. Whenever anyone went to the well, from the smallest child to the mayor himself, water was always there. The well was predictable, trustworthy, and always dependable. The well had power.
The people depended on only one well, and that well never let them down. The well and the water went together. You could not have one without the other. If you wanted water, you got it from that well and that well alone. If you went to the well, you always had water. There was no water without the well and no well without the water.
One day, the saddest day the town had ever known, a stranger came to the village. He tasted the water, as had every visitor before him. The visitor said, “This is good water. But I know another source that can give you water just like this well.”
The people were divided. Some said, “Impossible. Water comes only from this well.” Others were curious.
The visitor took another drink and said, “This is a good well. But I don’t think that we can depend on the well.”
The people were divided. Some said, “Impossible. Water always comes from the well.” Others were curious.
So the townspeople discussed two questions. First, was it only the well? Was that well sufficient enough? Second, was it always the well? Was that well powerful enough? The stranger proposed an experiment. “Why not cover the well? I’m sure that there will be water from some other place. This well is not sufficient. Yes, let’s cover the well. I don’t think we can afford to rely on it forever. The well is not powerful enough.”
But the people protested. “No, the well and the water belong together. If you cover the well, we will not have water.”
Scornfully the stranger replied, “You are well lovers. You should love the water. Don’t you think that God can give us water from anywhere He wants? Are you trying to limit God? You faithless people, you lovers of wells, God does not need a well to prosper you.” That talk of “God” seemed so pious and godly. Of course the people did not want to limit the power of God. They covered up the well.
And, alas, all the people in the town died. (Klemet I. Preus, The Fire and the Staff: Lutheran Theology in Practice, pp. 80-82)
What do you think of the story? It’s kind of silly, isn’t it? What little village would cover up the only source of water it had?
But this sad story is not really about a village, a well, and water. This story is about the church, the Word, and the Spirit. It is about the church centered on the Word. As long as the church drinks from the Word, like the village from its well, it has the Holy Spirit in full measure. It lacks nothing. By the Spirit working through the Word, faith is fed and the thirst for righteousness is satisfied. When the church has the Word, it has the Spirit.
But there are “strangers”—false teachers—who try to convince the church that it can have the Spirit apart from the Word. “Why stick to the ‘dead letter’ of the Word?” they ask. “‘For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’—isn’t that what Paul says? God can give the Spirit however He wants. He doesn’t need the Word to do it! Don’t worry about the Word; go right to the Spirit!” This is all a lie. There is no Spirit apart from the Word. The Holy Spirit works through the Word.
Today’s text does not teach that the Word and the Spirit are separate. What it teaches is the distinction between God’s Law and God’s Gospel. God’s Law is referred to in this text in different ways. It is called “the letter,” “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone,” and “the ministry of condemnation.”
God gave the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and when Moses came down the mountain from God’s presence carrying the two tablets of the Law, his face shined with a bright light. It shone so brightly that the people of Israel ran away from him in fear (Exo. 34:30). After he called them back, he delivered God’s Law to them. And then he covered his face with a veil, so the people would not be afraid (vv. 31-33).
Moses’ shining face reminded the Israelites that they were not like God. They were not holy like He was. God’s holy Commandments drove this point home. The letter of God’s Law condemned them. This is why Paul wrote that “the letter kills.” God’s Law kills any idea that we can be right with Him by our own efforts. It kills our self-righteousness. It kills our boasting. It kills our pride. If we take a good look at ourselves in the mirror of the Law, all we can see is our sin. There is no hope for salvation in the Law.
But “the Spirit gives life.” How? Through the Word of God’s Gospel. The Holy Spirit does not bring you anything new today. He does not bring you any knowledge or understanding or wisdom that believers in the past did not possess. If you run into someone who claims to have new messages from the Spirit to share, run the other way.
Jesus clearly stated the work of the Holy Spirit: “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (Joh. 16:14). The Holy Spirit takes what belongs to Jesus and gives it to you. He takes Jesus’ perfect life of obedience to the Law. He takes Jesus’ innocent suffering and atoning death for all sin. He takes Jesus’ triumphant resurrection from the dead. And He declares it all to you. “Jesus’ righteousness—yours. Jesus’ forgiveness—yours. Jesus’ life—yours.”
That is why Paul calls “the ministry of the Spirit” through the Gospel, “the ministry of righteousness.” The Word of God’s Gospel is the way that He gives you everything He demands of you in His Law. Through the Word of what Jesus did for you, the Holy Spirit gives you all that you need to get to heaven.
However, you still need to hear the Law in this life. The old Adam, your sinful nature, still needs to die every day through the condemnation of God’s Law. The Holy Spirit is at work there too to lead you to repentance. But His primary work is to bring you Jesus. Jesus kept the letter of the Law for you. He was condemned so you would be freed. He died the death you deserved to die, so you would have abundant life in Him.
Eventually, Moses with his shining face was replaced by another leader and then another. The tablets of stone engraved with God’s Law were lost. “[T]here was glory in the ministry of condemnation,” but “the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.” What Jesus has done for you and all sinners will never fade. His Word will never lose its power. The church will never need something new.
The saving words of Jesus are “spirit and life” (Joh. 6:63). Whoever drinks of the water of this world will be thirsty again. “[B]ut whoever drinks of the water that I will give him,” says Jesus, “will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Joh. 4:14).
Drink Deeply from the Well of Jesus’ Word through which the Holy Spirit does His powerful work. The living waters of His Word are meant for you and your salvation. Jesus’ Word of forgiveness and life is your oasis in a parched and dying world. It is the source of your healing and strength. It is the guarantee of God’s favor upon you and of the eternal glories 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.
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(picture from annual outdoor service on the parsonage grounds)
The First Sunday after Christmas – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 4:1-7
In Christ Jesus, who came at Christmas to set us free from our sin and the condemnation of the law, dear fellow redeemed:
Adoption should be as simple as connecting a parentless child with childless parents. This child needs a home, and this home wants a child. But there are complicating factors. One of them is cost; the process of adoption can be very expensive. Another is location; the children who need homes may not be close to the people who want to adopt. Another factor is the health of a child or whether he or she has special needs. Another is the child’s age; the older the child, the less likely he or she is to be adopted.
Imagine the child in the orphanage who sees kids come and go, while he stays put. The orphans and caretakers are the only family he knows. He plays with the kids his age. They develop unique methods of communication like siblings or close friends do. The older orphans tease him. The younger ones look up to him as a big brother. But this orphan family is temporary. Smiling people arrive to adopt his friends but not him. He hates to see his friends leave. Where are they all going? Will he ever see them again? Will there ever be a home for him?
Gentle caretakers find ways to comfort overlooked children or at least distract them from the nagging questions. These caretakers represent the only love from an adult that the orphan has ever known. But there are harsh caretakers too, ones who do not love the children in their care. These tell the orphans left behind that nobody wants them because they aren’t nice enough or attractive enough or smart enough. “You can just stop dreaming right now,” they say. “You’re never getting out of here.”
The Apostle Paul writes about a scenario like this in his letter to the Christian congregation in Galatia. He stopped in Galatia during his missionary journeys because of some sort of “bodily ailment” (Gal. 4:13). While there he preached the Gospel, and many heard the Word gladly and believed. But after Paul left, other teachers came. They did not proclaim the comfort of the Gospel but urged the people to abide by all the rules and regulations of Old Testament law if they wanted to be saved.
Paul summed up the issue clearly in his letter. He said: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain” (Gal. 4:8-11).
So the Galatian Christians had gone back to “the elementary principles.” They had gone back to the law. They had gone back to all the regulations of the Old Testament that governed how they were to live. Instead of focusing on what God had done for them, they were focusing on what they must do for God. That focus can only lead to pridefulness and then despair. Paul explained that this is like the child who stands to inherit everything but has nothing until the appointed time. Until he inherits, he “is no different than a slave.” We are slaves like that, he says, when we go back to “the elementary principles” of the law and ignore the Gospel.
There is no comfort in God’s law. The law does not encourage us. It does not lift us up. The holy law is like the harsh caretaker in the orphanage. It tells us we are not good enough to please God. It points out the wrongs we have done. It shows us why God would never let us into His home as we are by nature. We are failures. We are ugly. We are undesirable. The law gives us no reason to hope we will ever escape God’s wrath. “Is that what you want?” asks Paul. “Will you set aside the Gospel and run back to the law?”
The law serves its purpose. It condemns us. It exposes the selfishness, weakness, and arrogance of sinners. How could we ever think that we had lived the life God demands? This was like the young man who asked Jesus what more he had to do to have eternal life. He claimed that he had kept all the Commandments. So Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mat. 19:21). That was too much for the young man. He wasn’t willing to part with his “great possessions” (v. 22).
The reality is that we are further away from holiness than we think. Consider how you react when things don’t go your way, or when you are tested by health problems and pains. Do you meet these trials with patience and a humble trust in the Lord? Or what do you do when someone says something mean about you? Are you quick to respond with kindness and to forgive? Or do you like to compare yourself with others and use that as the benchmark for how well you have lived? Righteousness before God is not a matter of being better than others. God requires a spotless life. Can you honestly say when you go to bed at night that there is no blemish of sin on your record for that day?
Jesus could say that. He was always patient, obedient, forgiving, humble. The Apostle Peter, who spent three years with Him, wrote that “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1Pe. 2:22-23). If someone spent three years with you, would they ever see you sin? How about three days? How about three hours? Peter never saw Jesus sin, because Jesus never did.
“God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” Jesus officially took on the demands of the law when He was circumcised the eighth day after His birth (which falls on January 1st on our calendar). He did this not to prove anything about Himself, but to keep the law perfectly for the rest of us. Our confidence and strength are not in how well we have kept the law, but in how well Jesus kept the law.
So the law rightly condemns our sin. It shows us how flawed we are, how unworthy to be accepted by the holy God. It is that harsh caretaker. But it does not say the same thing about Jesus. The law found nothing lacking in Him. The law declared Him righteous, perfectly worthy of His Father’s love.
This holy status according to the law of God, Jesus now conveys to us sinners. By His holy life He redeemed us from the harsh verdict of the law. He did this so that “we might receive adoption as sons.” But how do we know we are sons of God? How do we know we have officially been adopted by Him? Paul explained this to the Galatians: “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26). Your adoption into the family of God did not come by your efforts. You did not make yourself desirable to God. Jesus shared His favor with you.
You gained Jesus as your Brother and God as your Father when the Holy Spirit worked this faith in your heart. For many of you, your adoption into the family of believers was processed and finalized when you were baptized. That is when you became an heir of God and a fellow heir with Christ (Rom. 8:17). “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).
On your adoption day, God looked at you in your sin, your ugliness, your wretchedness, and He said, “You’re the one I want. I choose you.” What a beautiful act of mercy and grace! The Lord loves the unlovable and the unloved. He gives a home to those who have no home, family to those who have no family, hope to those who have no hope.
The child who is adopted never has to go back to the life he had before. No more watching other children get adopted while he is left behind. No more wondering why he isn’t loved. No more being alone. This is what your adoption into God’s family means. Because He “sent forth His Son” to redeem you, you have value, you are loved, you have a place. God did not leave you in your sins under the condemnation of the law. He rescued you from the law. He adopted you as His own son.
“So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” In biblical times, the firstborn son inherited his father’s wealth and possessions. Because you are joined to Jesus by faith, His inheritance as God’s only-begotten Son is now your inheritance. His eternal life and glory are yours. In Him, you belong. In Him, you have a future, a bright, happy, never-ending future.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture is stained glass from Redeemer Lutheran Church)
The Second Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 15:4-13
In Christ Jesus, on whose blood and righteousness our hope of eternal life is built, dear fellow redeemed:
If God let you see who in your community would be going to heaven, how do you think you would react? Maybe He would reveal crowns on their heads visible only to your eyes. I think what you saw would surprise you. “You mean that person is going to be saved? This can’t be right!” “But what about them? Where are their crowns? There must be some mistake!” It may well be that some of the good and kind people you know will not be counted among the believers on the last day. And some of those who seem especially wicked now may be standing next to you praising the Lord.
The Israelites in the Old Testament could hardly imagine that the unbelieving peoples around them might ever join them in worshiping the true God. These pagans worshiped false gods and ignored God’s moral law. The Scriptures refer to them as belonging to the “nations,” a word that is also translated “Gentiles” like it is in today’s Epistle. A “Gentile” was a non-Israelite, one who did not know the Scriptures.
The Israelites had strict instructions to stay away from the Gentiles, so they would not be tempted to sin like they did. The Israelites did not always listen to this warning. As we know from Old Testament history, they often joined the Gentiles in their wickedness and worshiped other gods. At the same time, we also have examples of Gentiles who repented of their former ways and joined the Israelites. Rahab was one of these. She left her life of prostitution, married an Israelite man, and was part of the ancestral line of Jesus (Mat. 1:5).
In other words, nationality or family background were not the determining factors for whether or not a person believed. If these were the only factors, faith would not matter. As long as you had the right bloodline, the right family tree, you wouldn’t have to think much about your behavior or your actions. This could only lead to entitlement thinking and racism to the highest degree. There’s enough of that in the world; we don’t need it in the church too.
In the world, one group rejects another because of the color of their skin, the language they use, or where they came from. None of those factors should make a bit of difference to the members of Christ’s church. If you and I were to exclude others because of their family origins or background, don’t we see that we should exclude ourselves as well? I think most if not all of us descended from those pagan nations, from the Gentiles. These were the peoples the LORD carefully guarded the Israelites from.
Why did He do that? The LORD wanted the Israelites to be separate in order to preserve the promise, His promise. He said to Abraham, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). “All the nations” would be blessed through Abraham, because the Savior would come through Abraham. So God had to preserve a remnant who would know this promise and hand it down through the generations. This was done through the teaching of the Scriptures. The Scriptures were sometimes tucked away in a closet and forgotten about, but they were never lost.
We still have the Old Testament Scriptures today. That was by God’s design. In today’s Epistle, St. Paul states, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Then Paul goes on to quote the Scriptures. He quotes from the inspired words of David in Psalm 18(:49), then from Moses (Deu. 32:43), then from another Psalm (117:1), then from Isaiah (11:10). What do all these say? They tell us that God planned salvation not only for His chosen people, but for the Gentiles too.
This is good news for us! It means it is possible for anyone to be saved. We tell our kids that it is possible they could be the president of the United States one day. But that possibility does not apply to everyone. It only applies to those who were born as citizens of this country, who have lived here at least fourteen years, and are at least thirty-five years old.
The Gospel promise is for all people in all places. Jesus came to atone for everyone’s sins. Each person’s sin was counted against the Lord, not just the sins of those who would enter heaven someday. Jesus died in the place of both Jews and Gentiles, both males and females, both the outwardly good and the outwardly bad.
This shows us how great the mercy of the Lord is. It’s one thing to have mercy on someone you like, who displays humility and respect, and who showers thanks upon you for your kindness. But what about someone who curses your name, spits in your face, and casts your gifts aside? This is how we and the rest of the world were toward Jesus. Collectively we sinners sent Him to the cross. We sent Him there as though He were the wrongdoer, as though He were the law-breaker, as though He were the worst sinner—much worse than we are.
Jesus endured all this for us. That’s how merciful He is! That’s how much He loves us. Earlier in his Epistle to the Romans, Paul writes, “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:7-8). Christ died for sinners. That means He died for you.
When you pray for His mercy, you don’t have to wonder if He will give it. He has, He does, and He will. He is merciful even when we are not. Maybe we look at some members of our community as “second class.” Or we pick on people because of how they look. Or we love to remind others of the mistakes they have made. Or we treat those who disagree with us as less than human. Or we refuse to forgive someone because we want them to suffer like we have.
Mercy is not a natural component of human nature. Our sinful nature directs us toward selfishness, revenge, and a judgmental attitude. God had to teach us what mercy is, and He taught it through His Son. He did not give us what we deserved, which is eternal torment in hell for our sins. He gave us grace and forgiveness. He did this because His Son willingly took our place. His perfect Son was willing to bear the holy wrath of God, so we would have His mercy. God will not punish you for your sins, either now or in eternity. He punished His Son in your place instead.
Jesus died for you, but not just for you. He died for everyone around you too. Instead of imagining the people of our community as likely or not likely to join us in heaven based on their background, their circumstances, or their outward appearance, we should look at them as God does. God looks upon them with mercy. They are still living and breathing. Their fate—as far as we know—is not sealed. They need grace and forgiveness and hope just as much as we do. “Therefore welcome one another,” writes Paul, “as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
The Roman congregation to which Paul first addressed his letter was not perfectly united. It consisted of both Jewish and Gentile converts. Their backgrounds and customs were very different. One was a background of strict obedience to God’s law. The other was a background of license and freedom. How could the two ever come together? Their common ground was Christ, who fulfilled the Commandments for both, and who shed His holy blood for them all.
This is what has brought us together here as well. We do not all think the same. We do not see everything the same way. Sometimes our personalities clash, and we find it difficult to get along. But we are drawn together and kept together by the blood of Jesus. None of us is above another. None of us has more to boast about than another. None of us is more treasured in God’s sight than another. Each of us is equally forgiven of our sins, and each is clothed in the spotless garment of Jesus’ righteousness.
This, dear friends in Christ, is our hope. It is not an uncertain hope, a desperate hanging-on-by-our-fingertips kind of hope. Our hope is securely rooted in Jesus. It is a sure hope. This is the hope Paul writes about, which is planted and grows in us by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word. Where this hope is, there is faith toward God and love toward our neighbor, and there is a joyful anticipation of Christ’s return.
Do not let the devil, the world, and your own sinful weakness lead you to despair. The Lord looks upon you with mercy, and He will soon come again to free you from this world of trouble. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
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(picture is window from Jerico Lutheran Church)
The Festival of the Reformation – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:12-15
In Christ Jesus, who is “with us in the fight with His good gifts and Spirit” (ELH 251, v. 4), dear fellow redeemed:
Can you answer this riddle: When is a million dollars equal to a penny, and when is garbage more valuable than gold? These things are true where there is no food. Money cannot buy what is unavailable, and the garbage heap may produce something more edible than gold. We need food; we cannot live without it. But there is something still more important than food for our bodies. That is food for our souls.
Food for our souls is consumed not with our mouths, but with our eyes and especially with our ears. It is almost always the case that when sinners are converted, they are converted because someone spoke the Gospel to them. Someone told them about Jesus’ saving work, and they listened. The power to open their ears to hear did not come from the person who told them, but from the Holy Spirit who brings sinners to faith through the Word. This is what Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
The spiritual food of the Gospel is necessary for faith to survive and grow. When a Christian stops hearing the Gospel, his faith weakens, and his love for others grows cold. This was true when John the Baptizer came on the scene. God’s people, the Israelites, had bad teachers at the time. These teachers taught them plenty about obedience to the law but hardly at all about repentance and faith. John urged them to “[b]ear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mat. 3:8), and he baptized them “for the forgiveness of sins” (Luk. 3:3).
He also made it clear to them that the long-promised Savior was coming. In fact the Savior was among them already. This was a major time of transition. The Church of believers which to this point had lived by the inspired words of the prophets now could hear from God in the flesh. The promise made was now the promise fulfilled.
About this change Jesus said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” What did that mean? In the short period of time since John was imprisoned and Jesus was traveling and preaching more extensively, many heard Him gladly. But others despised Him. Some were willing to follow Him to death. Others were content—even eager—to see Him die.
There is no middle ground with Jesus. A person either believes in Him as Savior, or he does not. Many today say they believe in Jesus, but they do not actually hold the saving faith. They look up to Jesus only as an example for how to live, as an activist for social justice, or as a self-esteem coach. But they look away from His horrible suffering and death. And they pay no attention to His resurrection. They do not want to reckon with Jesus as Savior because then they would have to reckon with themselves as sinners.
Others pay lip service to Jesus’ death and resurrection, but then they say with a straight face: “It wasn’t enough. The work isn’t done. Now we have to do our part.” That isn’t what the Bible teaches. The Bible says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified—declared right with Him—by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24). The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
Jesus does not need our help to save us. He won our salvation through His work alone—His perfect life, His death for our sins, His resurrection from the dead. He did it all. This clear understanding and proclamation of the Gospel is the legacy of Martin Luther and the Reformation.
Into his 30s, Luther thought that salvation required our good works. He understood “the righteousness of God” as the holiness God demands of us in His law. But through Luther’s study of the Word, the Holy Spirit led him to understand and believe that “the righteousness of God” is what is bestowed on sinners through faith in Jesus. Romans 1 says that “in the [Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (v. 17). We are saved—we live—by faith alone in Jesus.
When Luther understood this, he said it was as though he could see the gates of heaven open before him. He now set out to let others know about God’s grace and forgiveness. He preached and wrote tirelessly about what the Gospel means for sinners. He wrote so much, that not even half of his writings have been translated into English—and we already have about 100 volumes that have been translated!
Luther pointed people to the food their souls needed. It is the food that souls still need. But how hungry are you to hear the good news of God’s grace? If you lived in a time of famine, and food was scarce, imagine how far you would go to find something to eat for yourself and your family. But would you go that far for the pure Gospel? Or would you be content to nibble on the spiritual food that doesn’t taste quite right but doesn’t really seem to be fatal?
A tainted gospel is what is served at many Christian churches around us. The Gospel of what Jesus has done might be mentioned, but the main message conveyed there is what we have to do for God (or for the church). Or the Gospel is mentioned, but nobody hungers for it, since the law is not preached to convict them of their sins. How far would you go to hear the pure preaching of the Gospel and to have the Sacraments rightly administered?
The devil, our flesh, and the sinful world are so effective at their work, that they convince us there are more important things in life than hearing and learning God’s Word. There is money to make, hobbies to pursue, sporting events to watch, parties to attend. We wouldn’t miss the television show we love or maybe the evening news, but we might miss church. We religiously check our social media accounts or news feed each day, but we haven’t got time for Bible study and prayer.
Martin Luther fought some hard battles to guard the truth of the Gospel from those who wanted to pollute it or do away with it. That battle has not ended. Every generation must fight for the truth of God’s Word, or they will lose it. We cannot be indifferent about the Word. We cannot be complacent. Those who oppose the Word are not complacent. You know how fiercely they fight to get us to change our beliefs to match the thinking of the world. If we do not bow down with them at the altar of human passions and perversions, they seek to destroy us.
The question we have to ask ourselves, and the question that really determines whether or not we are Lutheran Christians is this: Is the Bible God’s Word? If we answer “yes,” there are other questions that follow, such as: Is the Bible clear and sufficient? Are we free to reinterpret the Bible to fit the times? Are we free to pick and choose what to believe from the Bible? Can we actually be Christians if we deny what the Bible says?
Jesus tells us that opposition to God’s Word will not diminish. With the devil’s encouragement, there are many who want to violently snatch it away from us. So Jesus urges us to actively defend the truth. We must struggle and fight for it, not using physical force, but by knowing how to use “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Eph. 6:17).
If we are willing to compromise the truth of God’s Word, nothing in the Word is safe. If we compromise what it says about moral issues, it won’t be long before the Remedy for sin is done away with too. If there is no longer objective right and wrong, then there is no longer a need for a Savior, who came to right all wrongs.
This is why we cling to the Word so tightly and defend it so fiercely. We do not want to lose the Gospel. We cannot forfeit the forgiveness and salvation that Jesus won for all people. He came to deliver us a good conscience through His perfect life in our place and His death on the cross. There is no question that our sins are many—choosing the empty promises of the world over His Word, choosing our plans over God’s will, ignoring the spiritual feast He continuously supplies. These are serious sins, as all sins are.
But Jesus died for all these sins. They were counted against Him, so they are no longer counted against you. By faith in Jesus, all the spiritual blessings He won are yours. There is nothing you must do to gain them. You don’t have to prove your worth somehow. You and I do not deserve to be saved, but God considered us worth the life of His only Son. Jesus willingly went to the cross for you. He died so that you could join Him in His everlasting kingdom.
This is what we celebrate today, that God used Martin Luther to proclaim the Gospel so clearly, and that the Gospel is still clearly heard today. What Jesus promised is still true, that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [His church]” (Mat. 16:18). The forces of evil will not overcome our Lord and His Word. The Powerful Gospel which Opens Ears to Hear will prevail. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
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(1877 painting, “Martin Luther at Worms” by Anton von Werner)
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 10:23-37
In Christ Jesus, whose love and mercy led Him to sacrifice Himself for all people, dear fellow redeemed:
You have heard in recent decades about the effort to remove the Ten Commandments from public places, places like courthouses and schools. Critics argue that we need to keep church and state separate. Their issue ultimately isn’t with the Commandments themselves, though they probably aren’t too fond of those. Their issue is with the God who gave those Commandments. They do not acknowledge His authority or even His existence.
At the same time, those critics are hard-pressed to come up with a better set of laws. Let’s suppose they adopted their own rules which were the exact opposite of God’s Commandments. This is how they would sound:
- You shall have many gods.
- You shall not treat these gods with respect.
- You shall not listen to these gods.
- You shall not honor parents or any other authority.
- You shall not respect your neighbor’s life.
- You shall not respect marriage or be faithful to your vows.
- You shall not respect your neighbor’s possessions.
- You shall not respect your neighbor’s reputation.
- You shall not be glad for your neighbor’s prosperity.
- You shall not be glad for your neighbor’s success.
How would society look if those were the laws that governed us? We would have chaos. People would only worry about their own plans. It would be “every man for himself.” No one would care about his neighbor. The world would be a violent, scary, unhappy place—much, much worse than it already is. It would be a world without love.
And that is what is so important about the Ten Commandments. They are God’s Law of love, love toward Him and toward our neighbors. This is exactly how the Commandments are summarized in today’s text. An expert in the Mosaic Law approached Jesus and asked what it is a person must do to gain heaven. Jesus told him to share his understanding of the Law. The man said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
That was a correct summary of the Ten Commandments. The first three are about love for God. The last seven are about love for neighbor. The problem with the man talking to Jesus, and the problem with so many today, is that they actually think they have loved God and others as they should. They think they have kept God’s Law.
So Jesus told about the man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who was stripped, beaten, and left for dead. A priest came by and did not help him. Neither did a Levite, a worker in the temple. Help came from a most unlikely place. A Samaritan came by, tended to the man’s wounds, and ensured that he would be nursed back to health. The Samaritans and Jews did not like each other, and yet here a Samaritan man was going far out of his way to help a Jewish man.
You and I may think to ourselves that we would have done the same. Maybe we can even give examples of how we went out of our way to help someone less fortunate than ourselves. Or maybe we could point to the amount of time and money we have committed to charitable causes. Those certainly are good things.
But how willing are we to share examples of times we did not help a neighbor in need, times we did not show love? Maybe you are always ready to drop anything to help a friend or neighbor. But are you so ready to help the neighbors you live with—your wife or husband, your children, your parents? Or how eager are you to help the person who hardly seems to try to help himself?
There are times in life when our love for others has shined. And maybe we did not even think about being recognized or rewarded for our work. Other times we have done our duty toward others but not gladly. And sometimes because of our selfishness and pride we have shown no love at all.
If we honestly size up our life according to the Ten Commandments, we don’t end up looking very good. In fact, the Law does a number on us like the robbers did to the man on the way to Jericho. The Law is relentless. It commands love and does not stop pushing us along and throwing us back in line until we have kept it perfectly. This is why many try to ignore the Law or get rid of it altogether. The Law hurts, because we do not love like we should.
But the Law is not the only Word God speaks to us. He loves us. Here we are, stripped, beaten, cast down by the Law—His Law, which we have not kept—and He had compassion on us. He sent His only Son to rescue us. That’s who we should see in the Samaritan who went to great lengths to help the wounded man. We should see Jesus.
Jesus took responsibility for what got us into trouble in the first place. He was born under the holy Law, so that He could keep it for us. The Law did not expose His shortcomings and beat Him down, because He was perfect. He perfectly loved God with His heart, soul, strength, and mind, and He loved His neighbor as Himself. Examples of this love are abundant in the Gospels. He did not ignore a neighbor in need.
Sometimes love required that He condemn the Pharisees and scribes. Love does not mean affirming people in whatever choices they make. Love includes pointing out sin, so that a person recognizes his or her need for salvation. Jesus did this. He condemned self-righteousness (Mat. 23:27-28), sexual immorality (Joh. 4:16-18, 8:11, Mat. 19:9), disrespect for authority (Mar. 7:9-13), and many other sins. In today’s text and a number of other places, Jesus clearly spoke of the Ten Commandments as God’s will for the moral conduct of all people.
He fulfilled these Commandments which condemn each and every one of us. His holy life covers over even the most sinful life. And His death on the cross accomplished the complete satisfaction for all sin. So if the Law is fulfilled and sin is forgiven through Jesus, why does it matter how we live anymore? Why can’t we do whatever we like, since Jesus did everything needed for our salvation?
It is because salvation comes only to the believing, and faith lives only in the hearts of the penitent. Faith cannot survive in those who embrace sin, who take pride in breaking God’s Commandments. Faith cannot endure in the heart of one who shows no love for God or neighbor. Whoever thinks he loves, but does not repent of his sin and believe in Jesus as His Savior, does not love as God commands. He loves in line with His own desires, His own designs, and “the wrath of God remains on him” (Joh. 3:36).
But salvation does come to those who recognize their sin and repent of it. They know they have not kept God’s Law as He requires. They see they are dying in their sin and cannot stop the bleeding. But they also see Jesus, Him who took the punishment for their sin, who hung bleeding on the cross, so that they would not die in misery.
This is what Jesus did for you. He shed His blood, so that your sins would all be blotted out and washed away. He shed His blood, so that life would come to your dying body. He shed His blood, so that your heart of faith would be healthy and strong. He shed His blood, so that His love would flow through you and lead you to love others as He has loved you.
You have nothing to boast of about yourself. There is no place for pride. No matter how loudly the culture shouts it, Pride and Love Cannot Coexist. Pride is inward. It is focused on one’s own pleasure, one’s own happiness, one’s own glory. Love is outward. It focuses on the needs of others and the good that can be done for them.
God calls us to love as He has loved. Paul wrote that Jesus “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2Co. 5:15). This love of God in Christ is a great love, an unfathomable love. On our own, we cannot come close to loving like this. But God helps us to do better and to love more. Through the Law, He keeps us humble and guides us to sacrifice for the people He has placed in our life.
But the power to do His will does not come from the Law; it comes from the Gospel. Through the Gospel in His Word and Sacraments, Jesus equips us for this blessed work. He comes to bind up the wounds of our sins by bringing us forgiveness, and He nourishes and strengthens us by feeding us with His life-giving body and blood. The Holy Spirit also comes through the Gospel to sanctify us and cause fruits of faith to grow for the benefit of our neighbors.
Like the Samaritan did for the dying man, the Lord makes provision for all our spiritual needs. Whatever we need, He supplies. He takes care of us, so that we can be healthy and productive for our neighbors who struggle and suffer and hurt as we have and still sometimes do. Jesus blesses us with the gifts of His love, so that in Him and Him alone, eternal life is ours.
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(“Parable of the Good Samaritan” painting by Jan Wijnants, 1632-1684)
The Tenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 19:41-48
In Christ Jesus, through whom we are justified and have peace with God (Rom. 5:1), dear fellow redeemed:
When Noah and his sons worked on building the ark, none of their neighbors thought a great flood would come. When the people of Sodom and Gomorrah tried to abuse Lot’s guests, none of them expected fire to rain down on them from heaven. When the leaders of Jerusalem conspired to kill Jesus, they did not imagine that Jesus’ prophecy about their beloved city would come to pass. But it did. In the year 70, the Roman army did what Jesus predicted. The Romans besieged the city of Jerusalem, breached its walls, killed its inhabitants, and burned the great temple to the ground.
Each of these examples—the flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the overthrow of Jerusalem—teach us something about the human condition, about God’s wrath, and about God’s mercy. They show us how unaware or uncaring sinners are about the will of God. Noah’s neighbors heard his warnings about what was coming and ignored it. Lot’s neighbors saw his righteous example and despised it. The people of Jerusalem witnessed Jesus’ miracles and heard His teaching, and still they sent Him to His death.
Therefore God’s wrath burned against these hardened unbelievers. By the waters of the flood, He destroyed all life on the earth. By fire from heaven, He burned up everything in Sodom and Gomorrah. And by the hand of the Romans, He brought terrible suffering and death to Jerusalem.
On the other hand, these events show His mercy too. Many were drowned in the flood, but Noah and his family were preserved. Two cities were burned up, but Lot and his daughters were spared. Jerusalem was overcome, but the Christian inhabitants of the city were moved to relocate before the Romans arrived.
God does not delight in destruction. He wants all sinners to repent and be saved. In Ezekiel chapter 18, He says, “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone… so turn, and live” (v. 32). We see His compassion in the tears Jesus shed while looking over Jerusalem: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!”
The “things that make for peace” were the things Jesus was about to do in the city. He was going to offer Himself as the sacrifice for sinners. He would willingly let Himself be beaten, flogged, ridiculed, and crucified. He suffered and died to pay for all sin. This included the sins of the people in Noah’s day, the sins of Lot’s neighbors, and the sins of the people of Israel who rejected Him. He paid for their sins and everyone else’s sins besides.
He paid for sin, so that mankind might no longer be separated from its Creator. He is the One who could blot out the wrongdoing of thousands of years of human history. He could right the wrong begun in the Garden of Eden. He and only He could do this, and He did. He made peace “by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).
But so many reject this peace. They want war, war with God. Who would go to war with God? Satan tried it and now he slithers along on his belly eating dust. That doesn’t stop others from doing what he did. They rebel. They go to war with God by acting like His Commandments are no longer in place. In our “enlightened” age, many now feel comfortable setting that “traditional morality” aside. Among other things, they ignore what God says about respecting authority, about guarding against harm to the body, and about keeping sexual intimacy within marriage only.
Many who take issue with the Bible’s teaching, however, still like what they see in Jesus. They like the Jesus who sticks up for the poor and hurting and who eats with social outcasts. But what do they make of the Jesus who forcefully drives out the sellers from the temple courts, as we heard in today’s text? Jesus is the Savior of all people. But He also clearly identified Himself as the Judge, who will condemn the unrepentant to hell on the last day (Mat. 25:31-46).
Early in His public work, Jesus went around preaching this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mat. 4:17). Jesus called sinners to repentance. His primary mission was not to diagnose and treat people’s physical or social ills, but to address their spiritual ones. He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luk. 5:31-32).
Those who think they need no spiritual care are the self-righteous. They find it easy to point out the shortcomings of others. But they fail to see their own sins. They compare their lives with others and feel they must be on the right track. They haven’t made the mistakes that this person made. They haven’t acted like that person does. They have done a lot of good for a lot of people. Others could learn plenty from their example.
This was the attitude of the chief priests and scribes. They took pride in their holy living. They also hated Jesus. Our text says that they “were seeking to destroy Him.” Why were they fighting against Jesus? Why did they want Him dead? It’s because they did not want to acknowledge their sins and repent.
It is painful to admit our sins. We do not want to believe that we have been as bad as God’s law says we have. But by clinging to our self-righteousness and doing all we can to keep our sins buried, we only make things worse. Then we fail to recognize “the things that make for peace.” We fail to realize “the time of [our] visitation.” By refusing to repent of our sins, we show that we are opposed to Jesus, because He came to suffer and die for sinners.
But the Lord does not give up on stubborn sinners. He weeps for them. The Holy Spirit continues to work on their hearts through the law, so that their eyes are opened. He helps them to see the difference between God’s holiness and their sin. He shows them there is no hope for them without Jesus. There is no salvation apart from Him.
Jesus and only Jesus could bridge the gap between us and God. He is perfect God and perfect Man in one person. He came to live the life the law requires. He came to fulfill all righteousness for us, to do what only God can do. We sinners have fallen far short of God’s requirement, but Jesus met it. He met it for us.
And then He went to the cross absorbing the punishment for our violations of the law. He suffered for the people’s rejection of the truth in Jerusalem. He suffered for every time a Christian house of prayer is used to pedal the world’s goods. He suffered for our self-righteousness, our spiritual laziness, and our selfish attitudes.
Whether you own up to them or not, Jesus shed His blood for each and every one of your sins and my sins. The price has been paid. The payment is made. No bad deed went unpunished. Jesus bore the sins of all. He suffered death and hell for all. God and man have been reconciled. The sin that separated God and man was atoned for. Jesus made peace between us. That means you have nothing to lose by confessing your sins—nothing except your pride.
When you repent of your sin, God does not sit on His throne weighing the pros and cons of forgiving you. Your sin was already forgiven when Jesus hung on the cross. So then why should you have to confess your sins? Because you need to remember who you are in relation to God. You are the sinner. He is the Savior. There is no justification for your sinning. But there is justification for those who admit their sin and trust in the grace of God.
You cannot come to this understanding on your own. On your own, you would be at war with God, trying to show how you are better than He says you are. But the Holy Spirit humbles you through the law and then brings you peace through the Gospel. Through the law, He cleanses the temple of your body like Jesus cleansed the temple in Jerusalem. Through the Gospel He fills you with the righteousness and glory of God.
So the work is done for you. Your sins are forgiven. In Jesus, You Have the Things That Make for Peace. Is that it? Should each of us go back to our homes secure in the knowledge of God’s mercy and grace toward us? Yes! And day after day, we should retrace the spiritual steps that brought us this comfort. You and I sin every day, so we should repent every day. And every day we should replenish our hearts and souls with God’s message of peace. Then a week from now, we will have the opportunity to be fed again through Word and Sacrament in the divine service just as we have been fed today.
When Jesus was teaching daily in the temple, we are told that “all the people were hanging on His words.” They listened intently to Him. They did not want to miss anything, because Jesus had “the words of eternal life” (Joh. 6:68). He spoke words that they could not live without. He spoke words of peace, peace for the greatest and the smallest, peace for the good and the bad, peace for you and for me.
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(painting of the “Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Baptism of Jesus – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 3:13-17
In Christ Jesus, who did not come “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (Joh. 3:17), dear fellow redeemed:
When John the Baptizer started preaching in the wilderness of Judea, the prominent theme of his preaching and teaching was repentance. God sent him to be a voice waking people up from their spiritual slumber. John didn’t hold back. He didn’t care what sort of standing a person had, or what might happen if he pointed out their sin. When he saw a number of the Jewish religious leaders coming to be baptized, he called them a “brood of vipers” (Mat. 3:7). He told them to “[b]ear fruit in keeping with repentance” (v. 8). If they would not, they would be “cut down and thrown into the fire (v. 10).
And if you think I’m tough, he said, just wait till you meet the One who comes after me, “whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (vv. 11-12). What sort of man did the people expect would follow John? Whatever they imagined, John’s message made them all the more ready to humble themselves and acknowledge their sins.
When the people thought about the coming Messiah, perhaps they thought about the times God made His presence known to the people of Israel. They may have imagined the descent of the LORD upon Mount Sinai when He delivered His law to Moses. The whole mountain was wrapped in smoke as though coming from a great furnace. The mountain shuddered, and when Moses spoke, God answered in thunder (Exo. 19:18-19). Is this how it would be with the One who followed John? Or would He come in a thick cloud like the one that filled the holy place of the tabernacle and temple (Exo. 40:34-38, Lev. 16:2,30)?
While the people waited with nervous anticipation and fear, Jesus was quietly going about His business in Nazareth. We know nothing about His life from His youth until the start of His public work except for the words of St. Luke: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and men” (2:52). So He was intelligent and well thought of in His community. But no one would have matched Him with John’s description of the Coming One. Would that change with His official anointing?
His anointing as the Christ is recorded for us in today’s text. He came where John was by the Jordan River to be baptized by him. John did not realize yet that Jesus was the Christ, but he knew that Jesus was a righteous man. He said, “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” Jesus’ response shows that He had not come to condemn everyone. He came “to fulfill all righteousness.” This required Him to be baptized, to join the company of sinners who also entered the waters.
But He was not baptized to wash away His sin. He had no sin of His own to wash away! He was baptized for all humanity, in every sinner’s place. He offered Himself as their Substitute, taking their sins upon Himself, sins that He would pay for with His life at Calvary. The significance of this moment was clear by what happened next. Jesus came out of the water, and “the heavens were opened to Him.” Then the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove and rested upon Him, and a voice came from above, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Now John knew. This was the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior promised for thousands of years. “I myself did not know him,” John said, “but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (Joh. 1:33). So the Coming One had come. But He did not come exactly as expected.
God the Son did not descend from heaven with fire and smoke and other terrifying displays of power. He came humbly, looking just like other men. The other Persons of the Trinity revealed themselves in humble ways too. God the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a small dove. And God the Father spoke from heaven clearly but gently and with a message of love. In other words, the Triune God revealed Himself at the Jordan River not with terrifying displays of glory and might, but with grace.
This looks so different than the scene at Mount Sinai, but then the purpose of God’s appearance was different at each place. At Mount Sinai, God was giving the people His law. The law should provoke fear in the hearts of sinners. If they do not do God’s will, they must answer for their transgressions. This was emphasized by all the burning, smoking, and thundering on the mountaintop. This was a God who should not be taken lightly, and who expected the people to obey Him.
What happened at the Jordan River was not a display of God’s wrath, as those who heard John might have expected. Jesus’ baptism was a display of the Gospel, of God’s love for humankind by sending them a Savior. Jesus had come to give Himself in the place of sinners and to fulfill all righteousness for them, so they would not have to face the holy wrath of God.
What we see at Jesus’ baptism is how it is for our baptisms too. There are some who would turn baptism into a law event. They say that baptism is about what we do for God. They think this is where we must fully dedicate ourselves to Him and promise to live a holy life. It’s no wonder that these do not find comfort in their baptism. They know they have not lived up to their promise. They know they lack the righteousness that God requires.
But baptism is not a law event, it is a Gospel event. It is where God commits Himself to us. It is where He makes promises that are as sure and unchanging as He is. It is where He bestows His forgiveness on us and covers us with His righteousness. There are many beautiful passages in Scripture that underscore this.
Listen to Titus 3:5-7 and ask yourself who is doing the action: is it us, or is it God? “[A]ccording to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” This says that God saved us by His mercy, washed us in baptism, and applied Christ’s perfect work to us. We are now justified—declared innocent—by His grace and are counted as heirs of God.
Romans 6:4 explains how baptism marks the drowning of our sinful nature and the awakening of faith. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Galatians 3:27 tells us that we look much different in God’s sight after our baptism than we did before. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
These and many other passages teach us that In Baptism, God Comes Down with Grace. We don’t go to Him to give Him something He needs. He comes down to us to give us the blessings that we couldn’t live without. It doesn’t seem possible that baptism would have such significance. It looks so simple. What good can a couple handfuls of water and one short sentence do? But Jesus’ baptism probably didn’t look very impressive either. We learn about its significance by the subsequent opening of heaven, the Holy Spirit’s descent, and the voice of the Father.
The Triune God does not show His presence at our baptisms, but He promises that He is here. It is His Word and ultimately His water that are used in baptism. He is the One who gives parents and guardians the will to bring their children to baptism, and He is the One who calls pastors to administer baptism. The Lord wants people to be baptized, and He does not fail to be present with His gifts.
Because His power and promise are what drive baptism, it only needs to happen once for each individual. If baptism were simply an expression of our commitment to God, we would need to be baptized many times, because our commitment toward Him is constantly in flux. But because baptism is a sacrament from God through which He makes a commitment to us, it is only needed one time.
We are baptized once only, but we return to those cleansing waters of baptism every time we repent of sin and trust in the gracious forgiveness of Jesus. In confession, the penitent sinner is really asking God, “Do You still love me? Do the promises You made at my baptism still stand?” And the absolution is God’s reply, “Yes, the work of My Son to save you is finished. Through His blood your sins are forgiven, and His righteousness is yours by faith. I have not and will not change My mind about you; you are My baptized child.”
The absolution is God’s assurance that heaven remains open to all who trust in Him. Heaven was opened to you at your baptism just as it was opened to Jesus at His baptism. From heaven, the Father continues to speak His gracious Word, the Son continues to apply His forgiveness and righteousness to you, and the Holy Spirit continues to fill you with His comfort and peace.
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(picture is portion of 1895 painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)
The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 2 Corinthians 3:4-11
In Christ Jesus, whose words to us are “spirit and life” (Jn. 6:63), and whose healing gifts of righteousness and forgiveness are applied to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, dear fellow redeemed:
There are a lot of health problems that we can treat on our own. If we are feeling hungry, we eat. If we are tired, we go to bed. If a headache develops, we take a pill or two. If we sustain a minor cut or scrape, we apply a bandage. But if something more major happens, we seek help from medical professionals.
In order for these medical professionals to help us, it is absolutely necessary that they tell us the truth, even if the truth hurts. We want to know if we have some sort of serious condition or injury, so we can work on treating it. Having a doctor tell us that we couldn’t be healthier when he detects cancer in our bodies or malfunctioning organs will not do us any good. We trust our doctors to diagnose us as well as they are able and to treat the problem with the best tools at their disposal.
But for all that medical professionals are able to do, they can only do so much. Surgeons can cut out cancerous tumors, but they cannot stop more tumors from developing. Psychiatrists can help people work through mental difficulties, but they cannot take away all anxieties. No matter how well-trained health professionals are, they can offer only temporary help and temporary healing. They cannot give us what we need the most.
What we need the most is not physical healing but spiritual healing. Physical deficiencies may trouble us in this life, but spiritual deficiencies can result in suffering for eternity. Before we can receive treatment, an accurate diagnosis of our spiritual condition is required. This can be hard to come by. There are a great many spiritual practitioners out there who are not qualified for the work in any way.
They are like the doctors who are known for prescribing opioids in excessive amounts. They leave the decision to the patient and are happy to take the patient’s money. Or these spiritual practitioners downplay the seriousness of the sinner’s condition, so that he or she feels no strong motivation to address the problem. Or they prescribe the wrong treatment for a problem that only makes things worse.
The truth is that by nature, we are in bad shape. One of our hymns lays it all out in the open: “What God doth in His law demand, / No man to Him could render. / Before this Judge all guilty stand; / His law speaks curse in thunder. / The law demands a perfect heart; / We were defiled in ev’ry part, / And lost was our condition” (ELH 226, v. 2). As the hymn verse says, our spiritual sickness is diagnosed only by God’s unchangeable law.
God’s law does not make promises; it makes demands. It demands perfection. His law tells us “how we are to be, and what we are to do and not to do” (2001 ELS Catechism, question 11). Any spiritual physician who teaches that it does not matter how we live, or who says that God’s Commandments are flexible, or who teaches that we can make ourselves right with God, is a liar. There is no wiggle room and no comfort to be found in the law. God’s law is His line in the sand, and death is waiting for any who cross it.
The moral law has always been written on human hearts (Rom. 2:15). But because the conscience can grow dull, the LORD gave Moses the Ten Commandments first on two stone tablets and then on the pages of Scripture. He gave other laws besides, which regulated every aspect of life in the church and in society.
When Moses received these laws in the LORD’s presence, his face absorbed the rays of God’s brilliant light. He did not know this was happening until he returned to the Israelites’ camp. The people were afraid to come near him since his face shone so brightly. So Moses put a veil over his face while he talked with the people, but he removed it when he came before God (Ex. 34:29-35).
Moses’ shining face reminded the people that the law he delivered to them was from the holy God. The law was something to pay attention to. It was something to take very seriously. But while the law helped them keep their behavior in line, it could not save them. They did not perfectly meet God’s strict standard. They were sinners, law-breakers. So the law, which came to them in such a glorious way, nevertheless condemned them. Or as Paul said, “the letter kills.” The Old Testament law with its demand of perfection kills any hope we have of saving ourselves.
The law is like the doctor for whom “good” is never “good enough.” “You lost some weight, but you still have a lot more to go.” “You stopped one bad habit, but what about all the rest?” “No matter how hard you try, you cannot undo the damage from years past.” The spiritual physician prescribes the wrong medicine when he says that the cure for a sinful heart and a guilty conscience is to try harder to be better. Can the patient with a serious infection improve simply by trying to feel better? Neither can the sinner improve his own spiritual condition.
But it is possible for spiritual health to improve, just as physical health can improve. Every day, countless people are healed from their various illnesses and injuries. Waiting for that healing to happen can be a real test of patience. We wish that Jesus would heal us instantly like He healed the deaf and mute man in today’s Gospel (Mk. 7:31-37). But while Jesus could bring us physical healing instantly with a touch or a word, He does not tell us to expect this.
The way our Savior continues His healing work today is through means. To address your physical, mental, or emotional pain, He gives trained professionals to diagnose and treat the problem. He uses them to carry out His merciful work, even though they are flawed and do not carry out the work perfectly. Honest doctors will tell you that they do not have the answers all—or even most—of the time. But they promise to try their best. As they go about their work, God directs their efforts to bring healing and relief to many people.
The way Jesus provides spiritual healing is also through means. He sends pastors to diagnose the sinner’s spiritual condition through the law, and to apply help and healing through the Gospel. But no pastor carries out his work perfectly. He may misdiagnose the problem between feuding family members, friends, or congregation members. He can perceive stubbornness when the problem is weakness. He can be too direct with the law or too soft. The pastor learns every day how little he can control and how imperfectly he has carried out his duties.
Speaking for his fellow apostles, Paul plainly stated, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us.” On their own, they were unequal to the task their Lord had given them. “[B]ut,” he said, “our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit.”
Spiritual healing happens when a pastor points the people in his care to Jesus. Jesus is the one who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53:4). He carried all our pain, every pain that results from sin in the world and sin in us. There is no physical, mental, or spiritual anguish you have felt that He did not feel. Maybe no one else around you seems to understand your struggle. But Jesus does. You may feel hopeless or sad or worthless. But you are not alone. The Son of God became your Brother in flesh to be with you in your worst moments and to carry you through your darkest trials.
He knows how the devil relentlessly attacks believers to try to get them to despair. Jesus silenced the devil by keeping God’s holy law perfectly for all people and paying for their sins on the cross. When Satan gets you thinking that your troubles are a punishment from God, or that God has forgotten about you, or that there is no hope, Jesus wants you lift your eyes to Him. He shed His holy blood for you, to cover over your sins. He rose again to give you confidence even while your death seems to be closing in.
This good news of forgiveness and salvation in Jesus is what you need the most. Only this can bring you spiritual healing, so that you see joy and life in your future instead of pain and death. The law cannot give you this hope—“the letter kills.” But the Holy Spirit has called you by the Gospel and given you a living faith in Christ—“the Spirit gives life.” The Holy Spirit brings this life to you through the means of grace, through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments.
The Holy Spirit’s work through the means of grace does not make all problems go away. Your aches and pains might not subside. But the Holy Spirit will help you bear your cross after Jesus and grow in patience. Your griefs and sorrows might not go away. But the Holy Spirit will lead you to Him who has carried those sorrows. You might often feel empty or inadequate or alone. But the Holy Spirit will remind you of your worth in Christ and will show you how you can be a blessing to others and share His love with them through encouragement, assistance, and prayer.
The glory of the Spirit’s work through the Gospel far surpasses the glory of the law. God does not want you to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” and put all your focus on being better. He wants you to believe His promises, to trust that the righteousness the law demands is credited to you by faith, and that full payment has been made for your sins. He wants you to regularly receive the benefits of Christ’s saving work through His Word and Sacraments. Not only will this bring you comfort, but it will also strengthen you to do the good things that God has created you to do.
Honest doctors who can address your physical and mental pain are a great blessing. But Only the Holy Spirit Can Give Healing Which Lasts. He brings you Jesus, and in Him is life (Jn. 1:4).
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The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
Text: St. Matthew 5:20-26
In Christ Jesus, who gives the rich blessings of salvation to sinners at no cost to them, dear fellow redeemed:
When you see a penny on the ground, do you stoop down to pick it up? A recent survey (YouGov) indicates that older Americans value the penny more than younger Americans do. 70% of people over age 55 said they would pick up a penny, while less than 40% in their teens and twenties would do so. Overall, more than half the people surveyed said they would not bother with a penny. They figure it isn’t worth the effort. It is not valuable enough to them.
This is similar to the way many people think of the Gospel, the good news of salvation through Jesus. For many, the Gospel is not worth more than a passing glance. It has no great effect on their daily lives. It hardly figures into their work and plans. For those that do bother to take a closer look at it, it is often easily set aside or forgotten. Even by many Christians, the Gospel is not seen as essential for our life. “What Jesus did was important,” they say, “but what matters the most now is how I live.” Instead of seeking refuge in the Gospel, these individuals try to find comfort in the Law.
This temptation to draw our confidence from the Law instead of the Gospel is something that every Christian has fallen for. We look to separate the so-called “good Christians” from the “bad Christians” by the fruits they produce. This is not entirely off-base. Jesus plainly taught that “no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit” (Lk. 6:43-44). So then the thinking goes that if I do good things, I must be a good tree, and if I do bad things, I must be a bad tree. But who decides what counts as “good” and what counts as “bad”?
What happens is that each person decides in his or her own mind what is “good” and “bad,” and the definition is always skewed. I will naturally define as “good” the way I live my life and how I like to operate. On the other hand, my definition of “bad” is when other people do things I don’t like or when they contradict or criticize my plans and desires. But a self-made set of principles or rules to live by, is no way to produce the righteousness that God requires.
Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees were regarded as the “holy people” among the Jews. They followed the rules. They set the standard. But theirs was an empty righteousness. Their obedience to God’s Law was only external; it did not come from hearts of faith. They were something like our Amish neighbors, who are careful to follow strict rules of lifestyle and behavior, and who imagine that it is this which pleases God.
But Jesus said that the righteousness that gains the kingdom of heaven must exceed such outward righteousness. No matter how “good” a person is, it is not enough. God requires perfection—perfect righteousness in everything we think, do, and say. To test His listeners to see how they thought of themselves, Jesus applied the Ten Commandments in ways the people were not used to hearing. To begin with, Jesus said that it is not simply murderers who fall under the condemnation of the Fifth Commandment. It is also those who store up anger toward someone, or who refuse to admit the wrongs they have done.
Then He taught about the Sixth Commandment that it is broken not just by those who commit adultery, but also by those who have lustful thoughts about someone else (Mt. 5:27-30), and by those who stubbornly file for divorce (vv. 31-32). The Second and Eighth Commandments are broken by taking foolish oaths (vv. 33-37). The Fifth Commandment is again broken by those who seek revenge (vv. 38-42), and who think it is proper to “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (v. 43). But Jesus said that children of God should “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44).
These examples are enough to show us how much we lack the righteousness God requires of us. If we imagine that we are “good enough” to get into heaven by our own works, we will pay the eternal consequence for this arrogant thinking. Jesus says that not one bit of God’s Law is considered fulfilled by us unless all of it is kept (5:18). And if it is not all kept, eternal payment is required. We might not care about a penny on the ground, but the righteous God demands a full payment for our sins, even down to “the last penny.”
If our sins were pennies, the last thing we would want to do is gather them up. We usually act like they are not even there. When we do feel guilty about one sin or another, we just let them be or kick them aside and hope that time will wash them away. But if our sins were collected day by day, throughout our lives, this would be no small amount. Our sins are like piles—or more likely, mountains—of pennies that cannot be pushed aside and that keep us from reaching our heavenly goal. We wish we could forget about our sin, but like a financial debt, it doesn’t just go away. The wages of sin must be paid (Rom. 6:23), and we haven’t got the funds.
This is why the Gospel is nothing to take for granted or ignore. The Gospel is the good news of what Jesus did to save us. He said, “I have not come to abolish [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them” (Mt. 5:17). He did not come to change God’s standard of perfection or to remove it. As we can see by today’s reading, He put a sharper point on the Law than people were accustomed to (7:28-29). He wanted to show that no one has produced the righteousness God requires. None can get to heaven on their own. Another must do for us what we cannot do.
The Apostle Paul wrote that “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2Cor. 8:9). How was our Lord rich? He was rich in righteousness and life. From eternity, God the Son shared perfection and glory with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. It was in His image of perfect righteousness that God created man and woman. When Adam and Eve sinned, they lost their holiness and were separated from God. But God still loved them and all who would be born from them. He promised to send a Savior.
This Savior was God’s Son, born of the Virgin Mary. He came in total humility, not making full and constant use of His divine power. He subjected Himself to the requirements of the Law and diligently kept it in every detail. He did this for you and me. He kept God’s Law in our place, so that we might inherit His eternal riches. “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21). Our sins were placed on Jesus like an immeasurable weight of bag after bag of pennies, and He accounted for each of our terrible sins through His suffering and death. He also now places His perfect righteousness on us and on all who believe in Him. He was rich and became poor, so that we who were spiritually impoverished would become rich.
The riches of righteousness and life that He produced are all we need. They are our only hope for salvation. They are the only lifeline there is between us and God. What Jesus has done, the Holy Spirit graciously brings to us through Word and Sacraments. Through the Law, He impresses upon us our great debt of sin and our need for salvation. Through the Gospel, He brings us the full forgiveness of our sins and strengthens our faith in Jesus.
We are saved entirely by grace, and not by our own righteousness. The place for our works is not in earning or contributing toward our salvation. We live according to God’s will and want to keep His Commandments out of love for Him and out of thankfulness for His grace. We do not carry the burden of having to prove ourselves to God, or of trying to win His favor. We are already righteous in His sight by faith in His Son. We will enter the kingdom of heaven because of Jesus’ righteousness, because He did for us what we could not do.
So the question that every sinner should be concerned with is this: In What Do You Put Your Trust? If your trust is in your own righteousness, then the words of Paul to the Galatians apply to you, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4). But if your trust is in Christ alone, in Jesus only, then your righteousness does exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, because then you have Jesus’ righteousness credited to you.
Whether or not you make it a habit to pick up pennies off the ground is up to you. But if you do, take a moment to read our national motto printed there, “In God We Trust.” Think of why the true God is to be trusted, and think of what any alternative to His grace would be. Then humbly repent of your sins and hold tightly to His promises. Say with the psalmist, “In You, O LORD, I put my trust; Let me never be ashamed; Deliver me in Your righteousness” (Ps. 31:1, NKJV). With such a faith, you will receive rich blessings from a gracious God, who loves you and gave Himself for you.
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(painting of “The Sermon on the Mount” by Rudolf Yelin the Older, 1912)