The First Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 19) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 9:1-8
In Christ Jesus, who went to the cross bearing our sin and guilt, and who now declares us innocent of all wrongdoing through His Word of absolution, dear fellow redeemed:
Sometimes our mistakes leave marks that are visible to others. A few years ago, an NFL player was playing with fireworks. One of them went off in his hand and caused extensive damage to his fingers. His injury is a constant reminder to himself and others of the mistake he made. But most of our mistakes, most of our sins, do not leave visible marks. Most of the time, we are able to cover up our sins, and no one ever knows about them but ourselves.
And as long as no one ever finds out, it’s like the sin never actually happened, right? This is what we tell ourselves. It starts when we see something we want. We make sure no one else is around. We check over our shoulders and check again. Then we indulge ourselves. The pattern is the same whether it is a child sneaking cookies, someone looking at explicit content on his smartphone, or an employee stealing things at work. “As long as I don’t get caught, then everything is okay.”
But of course everything is not okay. We might have been able to hide our sin from others, but we can’t hide it from ourselves. We see it. It plays over and over again in our mind. We wish we hadn’t done it, but we can’t take it back. We want to come clean, but we can’t bear the thought of other people knowing our deep flaws. How do we deal with these invisible scars? How do we deal with the guilt of our own sins? Today’s Gospel reading shows us the way forward.
We hear about a paralyzed man. We’re not told how he got that way. It could have been an accident that was totally out of his control. Or maybe it was because of reckless behavior. Whatever the cause, this young man had some dedicated friends. Four friends carried him on a bed to the house where Jesus was preaching, but they could not make their way inside. The crowd was too large. So they climbed up on the roof and removed enough of the clay roof tiles, so they could lower the paralyzed man before Jesus.
Imagine the scene: Jesus is preaching, and everyone’s attention is fixed on Him. Then there are footsteps above on the roof. Then pieces of dust and dirt and clay start showering down on people’s heads. Everyone looks up, probably Jesus too. Then blue sky, the room gets brighter, and heads peer down from a hole in the ceiling. Then a large object fills the space and is lowered down through the opening. What a scene!
Now put yourself in the place of the paralyzed man. You’re up pretty high. There’s nothing you can do but trust your friends to hang on and not drop you. You inch lower and lower, looking to see past the edge of your bed at the people in the room. And then Jesus comes in view. What is the look on His face? Is it irritation? Surprise? Anger? No, the look on His face is warm concern; it’s compassion.
What would you say to Jesus if you had His attention like this, looking Him right in the eye? What would you say if it were just the two of you with no one else around? We have rehearsed this before. When the troubles in our lives keep getting worse and nothing is going the way it should, we want to ask Him why. Doesn’t He see? Doesn’t He care? Why doesn’t He help? We wonder why He doesn’t take away our pain, make everything better. We think of all the things we would say to Him face-to-face if only we had the chance.
Perhaps it was the same for the paralyzed man. Maybe he wondered why he should have to suffer like this. Why him and not everyone else around him? But when the opportunity finally arrived, he said nothing. Nothing needed to be said. Jesus knew. He knew the hardships of this young man. He knew the deep concern of those who brought him. He knew what brought them to Him. “[W]hen Jesus saw their faith—the faith of the friends and of the man set before Him—“He said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, My son; your sins are forgiven.’”
Is that what the man needed the most? It seems like what he needed most was physical healing. He needed to be able to walk again, so he would no longer be such a burden on his friends. But that was not his greatest need. We don’t know the young man’s history. We don’t know what troubles he had faced, what anguish he had felt, what guilt weighed down on him. If we knew about his past, maybe we would think he deserved his paralysis. Maybe we would think he should have neither spiritual nor physical relief.
But the Lord is ever merciful and gracious. He constantly gives the opposite of what is deserved. The times that we get angry with Jesus or question Him are the times that we think He is failing us. He is not giving us what we believe we deserve. That is dangerous territory. We are not entitled to anything from God. We don’t deserve anything good from Him. We deserve to be punished for our sins. We deserve eternal damnation.
But that is not what Jesus gives us. He lets us bring all our grievances to Him, and then He meets us not with anger or with annoyance. He meets us with absolution. He comes to us with grace. “Take heart, My child,” He says; “your sins are forgiven.” What sins of the paralyzed man did He forgive? The sins that only He could see, sins that we know nothing about. And what sins of yours does He forgive? Only the ones He can see.
Which sins are these? We ask that question in our Catechism. The answer is the sins that we commit in every area of our lives—the sins we commit as fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, employers and employees; the sins of our disobedience, dishonesty, laziness; the sins of unkind speech and hurtful action; sins of neglect, wastefulness, and so on.
Many of these sins only you know about. Only you know the depth of your sinfulness, the darkness that clouds your love for God and neighbor. Only you know the extent of your selfishness, your pride, and your judgmental attitude toward others. But today’s reading shows that Another knows.
When Jesus forgave the paralyzed man his sins, the scribes and Pharisees thought to themselves, “This man is blaspheming! Only God can forgive sins, and this man is not God!” They did not say this out loud. No one could have known what was in their hearts, no one except Jesus. “Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts?’”
Just as He could see faith in the paralyzed man and his friends, so He could see sin and unbelief in the scribes and Pharisees. Nothing is hidden from Him. “Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD” (Jer. 23:24). The Lord sees. He sees all. That is terrifying. It means He knows all the sins that we have carefully tried to hide from others.
But this is also comforting. Because the Lord knows all my wrongs, I don’t have to try to hide them. I don’t have to carry my burden of guilt. I can own up to them, admit them. I can hand them over to Him. That’s exactly what we do when we confess our sins. We pull them out in the open. We bring them into the light. And we leave them there for Jesus to deal with.
And Jesus says, “I’ll gladly take them. I will take them away.” But He doesn’t take them somewhere and bury them where they might be found again and brought against us. He took your sins to Himself, and He erased them and all the evidence of them. The trail of evidence leading to your sinfulness goes to the cross, and it stops there. The evidence never points to you, because Jesus blotted out all evidence of your sinning with His holy blood.
On the cross, Jesus suffered only for the sins of yours that He knew about, only for the ones He could see. And He saw them all. He suffered and died for the sins you have never told another soul about. He suffered and died for the sins you have convinced yourself are unforgiveable. He forgives them. He paid for those sins.
When He looks at you, He does not see your sins anymore. He sees His dear child. He does not ask for anything. He does not seek payment or proof that you know how badly you messed up. He looks at you with mercy and compassion and says, “Your sins are forgiven! Rise up and go your way.”
This is the message that He has sent me, your pastor, to proclaim. The crowds were right to “[glorify] God, who had given such authority to men,” because He has. He has given His church the authority to forgive sins, and that forgiveness is announced publicly by your pastor. I have been around you long enough to see some of your sins, just as you have seen some of mine. But when I or the vicar speak the absolution, we speak the forgiveness of all sin, even the sins nobody else knows about.
Jesus knows your sins even better than you do, because He suffered in anguish paying for each and every one on the cross. The absolution that you hear today is a constant pointing to His sacrifice. And if His absolution does not settle the question in your mind about whether or not He forgives your sin, He also invites you to His table. There He places His own holy body and blood in your mouth, and He tells you what that faithful eating and drinking is for—“for the remission of your sins.”
You see your sins, but Jesus does not see them anymore. He forgives them.
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 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
In Christ Jesus, who came to heal every wound and right every wrong, dear fellow redeemed:
About a week ago, I went to every door in our house one after the other, and I opened and closed them multiple times. No one thought it was strange. Why? Because I was fixing noisy hinges. Some of the doors groaned just about the entire span of their swing, but thankfully now they don’t make a sound. We need the newborn to sleep!
Old hinges are not the only source of groaning in the house, and I suspect the same is true or has been true for your home. There are groans when jobs are handed out and groans when mean parents say “no” to certain requests. Sometimes groans will also accompany the effort of getting out of a chair at the end of a long day.
There are still other reasons that we groan. St. Paul writes that “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22-23). The presence of sin in the world and in ourselves causes difficulties for us. One of those difficulties is physical trouble. We experience sickness, disease, injury, disability, pain.
In the Gospels, we find numerous references of Jesus healing people with such conditions. We meet one of them in today’s reading, “a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment.” Those two conditions naturally go together. If he could not hear, he would not know how to correctly form sounds and words.
But the man could groan, and I’m sure he did. He could see how much was closed to him in his world of silence. He must have wondered why it had to be him. He saw everyone around him enjoying the normal operations of their ears and tongue. He thought about how much good he could accomplish if only he could hear and speak. But there was nothing he or his friends could do about it. It was his cross to bear.
We can’t say why certain things happen to certain individuals. We have all known scoundrels who seem perfectly healthy, and we have also known kind and wonderful people who endure constant pain. This makes no sense to us. We want to have a logical explanation for why some people seem to suffer more than others. We think it would be right if bad people should experience more trouble.
Jesus’ disciples thought the same way. When they passed by a man who had been blind his entire life, they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus said, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (Joh. 9:2,3). Jesus’ answer shows us that God has higher purposes for the crosses we bear than we often perceive.
If you are one who is afflicted with something that brings you significant pain or trouble, there is comfort in Jesus’ words. Your pain is not a sign of His anger or His abandonment. He has not sent it to harm you or to push you away from Him. He has allowed it in His wisdom and according to His good plan. He intends to work through it for your good and for the good of others. And if He has a purpose for your suffering, that means He has a purpose for you.
The deaf man had purpose too. He was not a mistake. He was not a lesser person in God’s eyes. Whether or not he had been healed, God loved him. God the Father sent His only Son to suffer and die for this man’s salvation. That was the man’s greatest need, just as it is our greatest need. But God also knows our lesser needs, and many times He brings us relief and healing from the things that burden us.
In the account from today’s Gospel, Jesus in His mercy chose to bring physical healing to the man. First He took him aside from the crowd. This wasn’t for the sake of modesty or humility. He wanted to keep the people from being distracted by the miracles. He wanted them to understand the primary reason for His coming—not for miracles, but for their salvation. He was the Messiah. That’s the reason He had power to heal. He was God in the flesh, who had come to redeem the world of sinners.
Because He was God in the flesh, His touch had healing power. His flesh is life-giving flesh. He pressed those life-giving fingers into the man’s deadened ears. He put life-giving saliva on the man’s imprisoned tongue. He spoke a life-giving Word into that world of dead silence. But before Jesus spoke, He sighed. Or rather, He groaned. He groaned toward heaven. This groan was a prayer to His Father, expressing the trouble of this man and the troubles of all sinners.
Jesus willingly took that trouble on Himself. He felt every pain, every sorrow, every hurt. Healing went out from Him, while He stored up every affliction. Jesus was a Magnet that drew all our sin and all the effects of our sin to Himself. This is why He groaned toward heaven and why He would groan in agony in the Garden and on the cross.
His groaning was for you. He made your groans His own. Whatever has caused you pain or sorrow or weakness, whatever has made you cry out for mercy and brought you to your knees, He took that to Himself. He put in on His shoulders. His shoulders are stronger than yours or anyone else’s. His can carry the load. “Surely,” says the prophet Isaiah—“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4).
Jesus went to the cross, weighed down, carrying all those things for you. Your groaning and the groaning of all the fallen in the history of the world hung in His ears. And it pushed Him forward. He went to the cross to free you from everything that drags you down in this life. He went there to provide the answer for every groan. That answer is His grace.
Grace is what we find in Jesus. “Be opened,” He said to the deaf man, and “his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” In his first condition, the man could neither hear nor speak. Now he heard plainly and spoke rightly. Before Jesus came to us with grace, our hearts were hardened and our ears were unhearing. “Be opened,” He said through His powerful Word. And our ears were opened, our tongues were released, and we could speak rightly. We could speak the truth—the truth about ourselves and the truth about God and His salvation.
We can speak rightly, but we don’t always do it. Sometimes we don’t think that God has things quite right in His Word. We think that leniency or compromise are called for, when He says, “Stand firm!” According to the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (3:7). But we often get those things backwards.
That’s what the people in the crowd did. Jesus charged them not to tell anyone about the deaf man’s healing. But we’re told “the more He charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” We almost feel proud of the people. Even Jesus couldn’t stop them from telling the marvelous truth about the amazing thing He had done!
But Jesus didn’t tell them to stay quiet with a smile and a wink. The people were telling the truth about Him, but they were spreading a less important truth. They weren’t telling people about Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Savior. They were telling people about Jesus the Miracle Man. This distracted from the primary work Jesus came to do. The crowds around Him may have often been very large, but we find that very few were looking for eternal salvation.
We want to look to Jesus for the right thing. We don’t hinge our faith on whether or not He fixes our earthly pains and troubles. We don’t conclude that if He allows us to suffer, He must not love us. We cling to Him—and even more tightly—while we suffer. We trust that He will be with us in our anguish because He says He will be.
He promises to reach out and meet us in our pain with the healing touch of His Word and Sacraments. He comes through these means to provide spiritual relief and strength and to help us stay focused on Him. We may not feel His fingers in our ears or on our tongue as the deaf man did. But we partake of the same life-giving flesh when we eat Jesus’ holy body and drink His precious blood in the Supper.
When Jesus comes to heal, He also brings with Him the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comforts us and increases our faith in the midst of our suffering. And He expresses to the heavenly Father those things we can’t find the words for. St. Paul says that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). Not only did Jesus groan for us—so does the Holy Spirit.
It is clear we have a God who loves us. He knows our troubles, and He urges us to set those troubles before Him. He does not promise to grant us everything we ask for just the way we want it. He does not promise us a life without trouble on earth. But He does promise us His grace. When His grace fills our ears through the hearing of His Word, His healing medicine flows through our body and soul. Then our tongues find their release, and we speak rightly, clearly, loudly of our gracious Savior and Lord, who has “done all things well.”
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 “Jesus in Prison” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
St. John, Apostle & Evangelist – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 21:19-24
In Christ Jesus, who became one with us that He might share in all our pain and troubles and give us a share of His grace and glory, dear fellow redeemed:
Did you have a fair Christmas? I’m not asking if it was about average, or if it was okay given the circumstances. I’m wondering if it was fair—balanced—equal. In other words, did Christmas turn out like you thought it should? Did you get what you believed you deserved? Were the gifts you got in line with the gifts others got?
We are good at making sure things stay fair. Or at least we react when things do not seem fair. Behind that is a certain entitlement, a certain expectation, that we should get at least as much as others do. And of course that leaves us open to jealousy, not just in the area of Christmas gifts, but in all areas.
So we might think it isn’t fair that we have had so many health problems, while others hardly ever visit the doctor. It isn’t fair to be stuck in a difficult marriage or to deal with impossible relatives, while others seem to have perfectly happy relationships. It isn’t fair that we have had to deal with so much loss and death, while others have endured little hardship.
But who is supposed to determine what is fair and what isn’t? What gives us the idea that we should expect a care-free life? What makes us think we deserve only good things? We learn something about fairness from today’s text which details an interaction with Jesus, Peter, and John.
But first a little context is needed. Today’s reading comes at the very end of the Gospel according to St. John. By this point, Jesus had been crucified, died, and was buried. Then He had risen again and appeared to the eleven disciples. He had visited them at least a couple of times, and now John writes about His appearance to seven of them at the Sea of Galilee. The disciples hadn’t caught any fish during the night when Jesus called from the shore that they should “cast the net on the right side of the boat” (Joh. 21:6). Then they caught such a large number of fish that they couldn’t haul it in.
When they had gotten to shore, Jesus spoke to Peter about his three-fold denial of Jesus in the temple courtyard. Having forgiven Peter, Jesus commissioned him to feed His lambs and sheep. But He also told him that he would have a cross to bear: “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (v. 18). This “stretching out of his hands” seems to indicate that he would die like Jesus did, on a cross. According to church tradition, this is what happened to Peter some decades later.
After Jesus said this, He told Peter to “follow Him,” which is the beginning of today’s text. It was then that Peter turned and saw John and asked, “Lord, what about this man?” Now we don’t know what exactly prompted Peter’s question. He could have simply been curious, wondering if all the disciples would meet the same fate as him. Or he could have been concerned, hoping that John would not have to face what he would. Or maybe he felt he was being chastised for his earlier denials, and he wondered if John, who obviously had the Lord’s favor, would fare better.
We can’t forget the rivalry the disciples had among themselves about who was the greatest. They had argued about it more than once (Luk. 9:46, 22:24). On another occasion, James and John and their mother approached Jesus to ask if the two boys could sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in glory. That did not sit well with the other disciples (Mar. 10:35-41). Then Peter boasted the night before Jesus’ death that even if the other disciples fell away from Jesus, he never would (Mat. 26:33).
The disciples were just like us—sinners. They expected to be rewarded for the sacrifices they were making for Jesus. They were jealous for the glory that could be theirs in His kingdom. They each thought they deserved no less than the other disciples, and each of them probably thought he deserved more.
It is not difficult for us to understand this. Like those disciples, we also think we have done a good job of serving the Lord, and we expect that our devotion to Him should result in good things for us. When we don’t think we have been rewarded by Him like we should be, that’s when a spiritual crisis happens. That’s when we question His love for us. We wonder if He is punishing us. We decide this is proof that He does not care about us. He hasn’t done what we expected Him to do.
Our crisis becomes all the more intense when we see others around us doing well and living happy lives. “Why should they have it so good?” we think. “They are not nearly as faithful as I am. Why do they have it easy when I am suffering?” We can even get to where we resent others and the blessings they have. We avoid them or treat them rudely because their happiness just makes us feel worse.
This comparison game is no good. Neither is our entitlement mentality. Whatever prompted Peter to ask about John, Jesus replied, “If it is My will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” Jesus could give the same response to us in our jealousy and discontent: “If it is My will that others prosper more than you or have fewer hardships, what is that to you? You follow Me!”
The reality is that no one’s so-called “successful” life is as happy or as idyllic as it seems on the outside. Wouldn’t you like to have that job? Wouldn’t you like to live in that house? Wouldn’t you like to drive that car? Wouldn’t you like to have that marriage and that family? But no one’s life is perfect, and the rich do not have fewer cares than the poor—often the opposite is true.
Our call from God is not to put ourselves in a position of judgment about what He does. It is not to cry foul when things don’t seem fair. Our calling is to be content with what He gives us. Sometimes He gives us more and sometimes less. Sometimes He gives us success and sometimes trials. But whatever He gives, He gives because it is right for us. The Lord has never wronged us, and He never will.
That’s a strong statement. Do you feel you have always gotten a fair shake from God? Well it’s true, you haven’t gotten a fair shake. What’s fair is that God should reward you for what you have done. And what have you done? You have broken His Commandments. Time and again, you have done the exact opposite of what He tells you to do. What you deserve is His punishment. You deserve eternal death. That would be fair.
But that is not what you get. Instead of getting judgment, you get grace. Instead of getting condemnation, you get forgiveness. Instead of getting death, you get life. The proof of God’s love for you is found in a little manger in Bethlehem. That is where God’s Son lay wrapped in human flesh. God did not want you to have hell; He wanted you to have heaven. So He sent down His only-begotten Son to win the victory for you over your sin, death, and the devil.
The Lord Jesus did not come to get what He deserved. He deserved perfect honor, obedience, and love from everyone on earth. Instead He received suffering, spite, and hatred from mankind. He willingly accepted what He did not deserve, so He could make atonement for everyone’s sins. In all humility, He was laid in a manger and then nailed to a cross, so that you would be saved, so that you would have the sure hope of a perfect, care-free, glorious life after this one.
John writes that the other disciples took Jesus’ words to mean that John would not die: “If it is My will that he remain until I come,” said Jesus, “what is that to you?” But Jesus did not say that John would not die. He was teaching Peter and the other disciples not to worry about comparisons or fairness or anything else. Jesus’ call to all of His disciples is to follow Him wherever He leads us in this life.
We know He will not lead us into sin or destruction. He is leading us to heaven. Whatever we must face while we are here on earth, we face it in Him. He became one with us at Christmas. He tied our future to His and His future to ours. And the future we have in Him is a glorious one, even if we must suffer here as Jesus suffered.
According to tradition, Peter and the other disciples were all martyred for confessing Jesus as the Lord and Savior—all except for John. John far outlived them. But His days were hard. He watched false teachers make inroads in the Christian Church. He saw many deny Christ and follow the desires of their flesh. Finally he was exiled to live alone on the island of Patmos. It was not all glory for John. But he lived and worked by the Lord’s will.
And so do we. We entrust our life to the Lord’s care, and we carry out the tasks He has given us to do in our homes, our workplaces, and our community. We follow Jesus through all. In good days or bad we remember God’s love for us, that He sent His only-begotten Son to be our Savior. With John we give thanks that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Joh. 1:14).
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 “The Miraculous Draft of Fishes” by Konrad Witz, 1444)
The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 5:25-6:10
In Christ Jesus, who gives us rest from our heaviest burden of sin, so that all other burdens carried by faith in Him feel easy and light (Mat. 11:28-30), dear fellow redeemed:
“I love you. You love me. We’re a happy family.” You probably recognize those words from a popular kids show featuring a large purple and green dinosaur. Impressionable preschoolers loved to watch and sing along. They thought Barney was nice and fun, and they believed that he cared about them. His song taught them that since he loved them and they loved him, they were one big happy family. The message was memorable for its simplicity. But it takes more than mutual love to make a family.
So what does make a family? As you can imagine, the definition of “family” has become less definite in recent years. The traditional definition of family is: “The group comprising a husband and wife and their dependent children, constituting a fundamental unit in the organization of society” (Webster’s 1913 Dictionary). Other definitions of family are less specific, less concrete, more like the Barney definition. At the same time that society is moving the boundaries of what a family is, we see less stability in home life and much more brokenness. A passing love or a vague commitment do not make a family.
Family requires more; it calls for “blood, sweat, and tears.” Family begins when a man leaves his father and mother and holds fast to his wife. Here two different bloodlines are brought together. A man and woman are joined in marriage and become “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). More often than not, the union of husband and wife brings about children. The mother’s blood provides nutrients to the growing baby in her womb. And then the baby is born to be loved and cared for by its parents.
But parenting is not easy; it requires more than a little “sweat equity.” There are diapers to change, illnesses and injuries to tend to, attitudes to adjust, and crises to manage. The mother especially feels the pressure of showing the children they are loved, and the father feels the pressure of providing for them. Because of the fall into sin, God told Adam and Eve that there would be pain in family life. Parents and children would struggle along until they returned to dust (Gen. 3:16-19).
So there would also be tears. Tears when family problems are beyond our power or ability to fix. Tears when families are divided by disagreements and conflicts. Tears when spouses and parents and children breathe their last. But there are happy tears too. Tears of joy for birthdays and big accomplishments and renewed health and the expansion of the family circle. Family is more than “I love you. You love me.” Family is a gift from God formed and forged through blood, sweat, and tears.
The spiritual family of God was also brought about through blood, sweat, and tears, but not our own. Our adoption into God’s family was made possible by the sacrifice of God’s Son in our place. As His death approached, He cried for the people who rejected Him as Savior (Luk. 19:41-44). “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!” He said (v. 42). Later that week as He knelt in earnest prayer to His Father, He shook in agony, “and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luk. 22:44).
Then He went to the cross carrying the sins of all people. Blood dripped from the stripes of His scourging and from the gouges made by the crown of thorns. Then it ran from His hands and feet as the nails were driven into the cross. His tears, His sweat, and His blood were all for sinners. He did all the work, all the heavy lifting, to win our salvation. Nothing was left undone. “It is finished!” He said before breathing His last (Joh. 19:30).
His death brought us life. It was the ultimate sacrifice. He died so that all sinners would be reconciled to God. He died to make atonement for every sin. He died so we could have a share in eternal life. All who believe in Him by the power of the Holy Spirit are joined to Him. We are covered in His righteousness and cleansed by His blood. “[I]n Christ Jesus [we] are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26).
We did not get ourselves into God’s family any more than a baby gets himself conceived. We were reborn spiritually in Holy Baptism by the power of the Holy Spirit (Joh. 3:5). Because God does the work, all have equal standing in His family. One is not greater or less than another. God does not play favorites. We are equally loved and forgiven according to His tremendous grace.
That means there is no reason for conceit or self-centeredness in the family of God. We believers should ask ourselves, “What good things do we have that God did not give us? What is the source of our abilities and strength and wealth? What is it that enables our faithfulness to the Lord?” The answer is that God does all these things. But we love to take credit for them. If I am successful, I want to accept the glory for it. If I have a good reputation and a clean record, I am eager to pat myself on the back.
On the flip side, it is oh so easy to point out the failures of others. “If only they got their act together like we have. If only they stopped complaining and started working!” We like to compare ourselves with others because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Seeing a life in shambles gets us thinking we have it all together. Focusing on their mistakes helps us forget about our own.
But such comparison does not put our righteousness and faithfulness on display. It shows our sin. Our sin causes us to look down on others, to think we are better than they are, to gloat about their spiritual stumbling. This is not how Jesus, our Brother-in-the-Flesh, treated us. He looked with mercy upon us, joined us in the depths of our darkness, and shouldered the burden of our sin.
He calls us to do the same for the brothers and sisters in our spiritual family. When a fellow believer sins, our job is not to gossip about it. It’s not to shun him. Our job is to speak the Word of reconciliation to him, to share the love of Christ who paid for all sin. In this way, the wounded soul may be restored “in a spirit of gentleness,” and the bleeding in the body of Christ can be stopped.
We extend grace toward others because the time will come—and probably quite often—that we will need grace extended toward us. St. Paul writes that everyone has his own load to bear. The devil and his fellow demons have special temptations ready for each one of us. They know how to tempt our sinful flesh to anger or worry or pride or selfishness. None of us can claim to have come through these temptations unscathed, to think that we have lived consistently righteous lives. Again, the text says, “if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”
So we members of the family of God are the walking wounded. We are the spiritually sick. We are weaker than we want to admit. Recognizing this about ourselves makes it much easier to see the help that our spiritual brothers and sisters need. They are as we are. They struggle as we struggle. They suffer as we suffer. They need mercy and help and forgiveness just like we do. So Paul writes, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
In His family, God gives the young to care for the elderly, and the elderly to encourage the young. He gives some to be good listeners and some for wise advice. He gives some to be generous and charitable with their means and others to give of their time. He gives pastors to teach and pray for His people, and His people to support and pray for their pastor.
By ourselves, each one of us is weak and vulnerable to all sorts of attacks. This is why the devil loves to try to divide the family of God, to turn us against one another, to drive us all apart. But God’s Word is the glue that holds us together. The Word of His Law exposes our conceit and pride. And the Word of His Gospel brings us forgiveness for those sins and relief from our burdens.
As we together look to Jesus in faith, we find in Him an inexhaustible storehouse of grace. Through the message of His perfect life lived for us, His holy death to save us, and His resurrection to secure the victory, we find healing when we have been wronged, help when we are hurting, and comfort in our pain. By His Word of grace, The Lord Keeps His Family Together.
Even though each of us is imperfect and weak, He promises to work powerful blessings through us for the people He brings into our lives. Whatever blood, sweat, and tears are required for our spiritual family or our physical one, His grace gives us the strength to carry on even when the job is hard. He helps us “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
When a burden feels too heavy for us, it is not too heavy for Him. He will carry it—and us—through every difficulty we face and will bring us safely to His heavenly kingdom.
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(picture from “Jesus Traveling” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Sixth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: James 1:22-27
In Christ Jesus, whose Word is truth and whose Way is salvation, dear fellow redeemed:
For many in our society, “religion” has become a dirty word. When they hear this word, they think about things like restriction, corruption, abuse of power, rules, and judgment. They do not like “religion,” but they do like the sound of “spirituality.” This has led many today to speak of themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” What this typically means is that they reject church-going, since that is “organized religion.” They prefer to meet God on their own terms. They think it is important to think about God, but how you think about God is up to you. The so-called “spiritual” person imagines that he is closer to God in nature or even on his living room sofa than he could ever be in a church building.
To a certain extent we can understand the misgivings about “religion.” We cannot deny that much harm has been done to people within organized religion. Some church leaders have abused their power and their trust. They have failed to warn the unrepentant and to comfort the hurting. Some church members have engaged in grudges, personal attacks, and mud-slinging and have hardly looked like the people that God has called them to be.
The self-proclaimed “spiritual” are glad to avoid that scene. They aren’t about to have anyone tell them what to believe or what to do. They don’t need a “middle man”—they can just go directly to God. But who is this god? Many in the “spiritual but not religious” category describe him as a god of love, a god who supports them, who is always there when they need him. He does not judge them but gives them room to make their own choices. He is a god who cares more about their feelings than their faith—how they feel about themselves, how they feel about others, and how they feel about him. In other words, this god is a god of their own making, which is ironic since they reject “religion” as being man-made.
It is true that there are many man-made religions in the world. “Religion” is a rather broad term. One definition describes it as: “The outward act or form by which men indicate their recognition of the existence of a god or of gods having power over their destiny, to whom obedience, service, and honor are due” (Webster’s 1913 Dictionary). One could argue that every person has a religion—a set of beliefs about the universe and their place in it. But not all religious beliefs are the same and not all are good and true.
We follow the Christian religion, which is based on the Bible. Christianity is like other religions of the world in that it teaches about God and sets down laws to follow. But in its central teaching, Christianity could not be any more different. The religions of the world outline what we must do to hopefully get right with God. Christianity is about how God made things right with us by sending His only Son to suffer and die in our place.
This is why you are a Christian. You know you are a sinner, and that no matter how hard you try, you cannot make things right with God. You know that you deserve eternal punishment in hell for your sins. But you also know that all your sins are forgiven because Jesus paid for them in full on the cross. You know that all the blemishes and stains of your past are completely covered by the righteousness of Jesus. You know that eternal life in heaven is yours by faith in Him. No other religion offers such comfort and peace with God.
The good news of Christianity is also the power source for living a godly life. As we hear the Word of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is at work in us strengthening our faith and sanctifying us, so that the love of God shines through us into the world. The devil does not want the world to know God’s love, so he works to make our love grow cold. He tempts us to become complacent about hearing and learning the Word, to let down our guard, to focus on how others should serve us instead of how we can serve them.
This can happen even to those who regularly partake of the means of grace like you are here today. Even though you hear God’s Word and receive His Sacraments, you can become comfortable doing what God tells you not to do. You can ignore the needs of the people around you. You can become resentful when your needs are not met. You can give free rein to thoughts of hatred, jealousy, lust, and pride. And all of this while still considering yourself a “good Christian.”
This is why the inspired writer of today’s text urges believers in Christ to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” God has called us out of the darkness of unbelief to the light of His truth and salvation. Through Holy Baptism, He joined us with our Savior Jesus, so that we now “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). We are not what we used to be. We are not of the world. We are born of God.
There are plenty of people who give organized religion a bad name. We want to give it a good name. But how? “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Christians have set themselves apart throughout history by the way they have treated the lonely, the weak, and the hurting. They have often led the way in medical care, education, and social services. They have sacrificed their own ambitions and put their own lives at risk in service to others.
This is what God calls us to do as His children. He calls us to dedicate ourselves fully to love for others, to live humble and honorable lives that lead others to know the hope we have in Christ. What better time could there be to share this hope than now? The world is consumed by fear about what the future will hold. “Will I or my loved ones get sick? Will I have enough money to buy what I need? Will the economy rebound?” And then there is the constant bickering and name-calling among those who are convinced their political party is guided by angels while the other is steered by demons.
What do we have to fear since Jesus has defeated sin, death, and devil for us? And why would we put our hopes in men when our Lord and Savior rules over all things at the Father’s right hand? This courage and confidence we have in Christ is what we want all people to have. We want them to know God is filled with abundant grace and mercy toward them. He does not count their sins against them anymore because Jesus died in their place and rose again from the dead. He will come again on the last day to take all who trust in Him to heaven.
This is no man-made religion. These are no empty words. These are the words of salvation and life that God has given us by His grace. But the people of the world will not listen to these words unless we take them seriously. They don’t just want to hear us “talk the talk,” they want to see us “walk the walk.” You can tell them that you go to church every week. But if the way you live your life is no different than the way unbelievers live their lives, why should they take your words seriously?
But “walking the walk” is not easy. People do not appreciate their bad behavior being magnified by your good behavior. It’s easier on their conscience if you join them in evil. And then there is the constant struggle inside ourselves between the desires of our flesh and the desires of the Spirit (Gal. 5:17). It is hard to keep the sinful nature restrained.
Thanks be to God we are not on our own in trying to do what is right! Unlike the misguided people who think they can find God by their own efforts or thoughts, we know that we cannot go to Him. Our sin keeps us from even getting close. But He gladly comes to us. He comes to us through the Word and Sacraments which we partake of in this place. He comes to forgive us for our failure to confess Him by our words and our actions. And He comes to strengthen us for continued service in His kingdom.
This is how your “doing” as a Christian is always connected to your “hearing” of God’s Word. As you hear the powerful Word with a humble and faithful heart, the Holy Spirit is working to put your faith in action. He is the one who produces good works, good words, and good thoughts toward others. It is by His power that you look to serve others instead of just yourself, that you speak what is kind instead of what is hurtful, that you are guarded from the temptations and forces that would ruin your faith.
It is only by His power that you are able to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mat. 5:44), as Jesus calls you to do. One of the most important ways for you to be a doer of the word and not a hearer only, is through prayer. Much “doing” is done by prayer, because prayer brings a difficult situation or a need to the all-powerful God, the One for whom nothing is impossible.
You are not on your own as you “walk the walk” of a godly life. You have the encouragement of your brothers and sisters in Christ as they walk alongside of you. And you have the assurance that Jesus is leading the way. He walked before you to the cross and the grave before rising to life again. And he still walks before you to guide you on the paths of righteousness until you join Him in His heavenly kingdom.
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(picture from “Jesus and the Little Child” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The First Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 2 Corinthians 6:1-10
In Christ Jesus, who guards and keeps us so that the devil, the world, and our own flesh may not overcome us, but so that we may overcome them by His grace and retain the victory, dear fellow redeemed:
One of the most common pieces of advice we hear and have probably offered many times is this: “God will not give you more than you can handle.” So a person might get fired from his job and have no idea how he will pay this month’s bills, and someone says, “God will not give you more than you can handle.” A friend is diagnosed with an aggressive cancer: “God will not give you more than you can handle.” Someone is carrying heavy burdens and is feeling completely overwhelmed: “God will not give you more than you can handle.”
The problem with this statement is that it is not exactly what the Bible tells us, and it may not provide the comfort we intend. We derive the statement from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians where he writes, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (10:13). So what Paul says here: “[God] will not let you be tempted beyond your ability,” is expressed as: “God will not give you more than you can handle.” But those two statements are not exactly the same.
Paul specifically refers to times of temptation, times when the devil tries to use our sinful weakness to pull us away from Jesus. Paul talked about the various ways the Israelites had given in to temptation: through idolatry, sexual immorality, discontentment and disbelief. He said that these things were recorded in the Old Testament “for our instruction” (10:11). We are to look at the example of the Israelites and recognize that they did not have to sin; they did not have to give in to temptation. The LORD provided them a way out every time they were faced with these tests.
We are faced with the same sorts of temptations. The devil knows our weaknesses; he knows where we are vulnerable. He knows how to use others to entice us to sin. They assure us that going against what God says will make us happier. They offer friendship and empty promises, but they will not be there when the money is gone or the so-called “good times” have ended. The devil also uses others to provoke us to sin. Their constant bullying and abuse causes us to lash out with violent words or actions and to wish for them to fail in every way. And the devil uses our own sinful flesh to tempt us through things like laziness, lust, greed, selfishness, and pride to set aside love for God and for our neighbors.
In every temptation the devil’s aim is to keep our focus on ourselves and not on God or His Word. This is how he tried to tempt Jesus, as we heard in the Holy Gospel for today (Mat. 4:1-11). Jesus had just been baptized by John in the Jordan River. Then the Holy Spirit sent Him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. There Jesus fasted, He went without food, for forty days and forty nights, which is why we set aside forty days for Lent. After those forty days, the devil came and tempted Him to follow His own will: “Turn stones into bread to feed Yourself!” he said. “Jump off the temple to show who You are!” “Enjoy everything the world has to offer!” But Jesus resisted these temptations. He did not seek self-gratification and pleasure. He came to suffer and bear the cross for the salvation of sinners.
The devil left Him at that time, but he would be back. The devil does not give up. He tempted Jesus all through His state of humiliation until Jesus descended into hell to proclaim His victory and rose again from the dead. When Jesus urges us to resist temptation and bear our cross after Him, He speaks as one who fully understands the troubles we face. The author of the book of Hebrews writes that Jesus can sympathize with us because He “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).
The apostles kept their focus on Jesus’ Word and His example as they faced temptation and endured great suffering for preaching the Gospel. Paul listed “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.” All of these were opportunities for the devil to tempt them: “Is it really worth it to suffer like this? Why would the God who you think loves you let this happen to you? Look at what little progress you make! Your best efforts have been wasted! You are a nobody!”
I am sure these thoughts entered their minds because they come into ours too. The devil tempts us in the same ways. When things are going badly in our lives, he wants us to think God has abandoned us. He wants us to think that all the good things we have tried to do were a waste of time. Nobody appreciates us. Nobody cares. Nobody would really notice if we weren’t here. These temptations can be severe, shaking us to our core and dropping us to our knees. Jesus suffered like this too, but He did not reject His Father’s will. He carried on in faith, and He promises to help you do the same. “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18).
Jesus Gives Grace in Every Temptation. He “provide[s] the way of escape.” And what is that way? It is the way of the cross. Jesus did not avoid suffering; He did not try to go around it. He went through it all the way to His death. He suffered, but His suffering was not pointless. It was not wasted. His suffering secured your salvation. The verse before today’s reading says, “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Co. 5:21). Jesus took on your sin, all the times you have given into temptation and broken God’s Commandments, and He gave you His righteousness, His flawless record, His perfect life.
His grace toward you is the reason Paul writes, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” Jesus loves you today just as He loved you yesterday and just as He will love you tomorrow. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Even though you have not always patiently endured temptation, even though you have sinned, your Savior has not changed His mind about you. He does not regret suffering and dying in your place or joining you to Himself in Holy Baptism. He is glad to have you eat His body and drink His blood in His Holy Supper. You are precious to Him. You are not a nobody.
This grace strengthened Paul and his fellow co-workers to take up their crosses and do the work the Lord had given them to do even if it meant suffering. This grace so encouraged and comforted Paul that he hardly seemed to notice the trouble. “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true,” he said; “as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.” Those are not the words of someone whom the devil has overcome. Those are the words of one who lived in and by God’s grace alone.
The problem with “God will not give you more than you can handle,” is that it could make someone think he has to handle the problem, he has to draw on his own strength. The reality is that there is really nothing we can handle on our own. We are weak. We certainly cannot and will not prevail if we stand alone against the devil and the world. Our ability to “handle” the temptations and suffering that come our way is only by the grace of Jesus. He must come and fight for us. He must save us.
This is what He does through His Word and Sacraments. He comes to “provide the way of escape” from our temptations. He comes to carry us through our suffering. He comes to bestow His grace, so that we are kept in the saving faith through the troubles of this life and finally enter His glory.
“[W]e appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain,” writes Paul. Don’t think you have to “handle” everything on your own. Don’t let the devil convince you that you are all by yourself. Rather lean on your fellow Christians whom He has given for your encouragement and consolation. And most of all rely on His unchanging grace, His great love for you, which will carry you through every distress, every affliction, and every pain. Then with Paul you can say that by the grace of God, though dying, you live; though sorrowful, you rejoice; though having nothing, yet you possess everything.
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(painting is “The Temptation of Christ by the Devil” by Félix Joseph Barrias, 1822-1907)
Sexagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 2 Corinthians 11:21-12:9
In Christ Jesus, who did what only He could do in offering Himself for the sins of the world, so that we might be saved not by our own doing but by His grace, dear fellow redeemed:
“Mom/Dad, look what I can do!” Parents are used to hearing their kids say this when they learn a new skill. Maybe it’s figuring out how to swing, how to catch a ball, or how to ride a bike. Or maybe they have put a puzzle together or learned to play a song on the piano. Sometimes the words, “Look what I can do!” come right before some dangerous or destructive activity that parents would rather not witness, like jumping off the top of a couch or attempting to hit a baseball over the house.
Except for those last two examples, we praise our kids for learning new things. We want them to develop useful skills and be successful in their endeavors. At the same time, we temper our praise when our children’s success leads them to boast. “Look what I can do! I bet so-and-so can’t do that!” “I am faster and stronger than everybody else!” “Nobody is as good as me, are they?” It is good to encourage our kids, and we want them to be confident. But there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Confidence does not have to be self-serving, but arrogance always is.
Our society today is not as concerned about love for neighbor as it is about love for self. Young people are taught to embrace who they are, especially if who they are contradicts God’s plan for the body and life. Every child is told he is exceptional. Every child is told that her opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s. Every child is promised that he will succeed whether or not he gives his best effort or any kind of effort at all. Not much is said about humility, sacrifice, and working hard for the good of others.
With these kinds of cultural influences, it should not surprise us that the social media presence of many people is more about self-promotion than anything else. Not many will post pictures of how they look when they first roll out of bed. No, it takes many poses and pictures before getting the one that is just right, the version of us that we want the public to see. This is the “selfie” era, the “look-what-I’ve-done,” the “look-how-good-I-am” era.
What if the apostle Paul carried around a smartphone like we do? What pictures would he have taken? What videos do you think he would have captured? In today’s reading, Paul shared a long list of his experiences. When he was verbally or physically attacked by a crowd for preaching the Gospel, would he or an associate have sent out a video clip, along with #ungrateful, #stayawayfromthisplace, #unbelieverswillbejudged, or #standupforJesus? Or after he was beaten, whipped, or stoned, would he have tweeted out pictures of his bruises and wounds to win people’s compassion? Would he have looked for social media fame through “likes,” “shares,” and praise from others?
Paul had plenty of crazy experiences to talk about, but he didn’t list them in today’s text to gain followers for himself. He brought them up to counter false teachers who claimed to be more than Paul and to remind the Corinthian Christians of his call from Jesus to speak His Word. So Paul said if these false teachers want to talk about credibility, Paul with his qualifications and trials had far surpassed them. Those false teachers wanted the people to think that Paul had done his missionary work for his own benefit. But in effect Paul said, “Who would go through all the terrible things I have for personal glory?”
This is like the skeptics who claim that Jesus’ disciples lied about His resurrection. They assume the disciples stole away Jesus’ body and then preached the resurrection as a way to gain followers for themselves. It certainly happens—and happens often—that people lie for personal gain. But how many people stick with a lie when it means being ridiculed, beaten up, and killed for that message? The apostles of Jesus, including Paul, experienced great affliction and pain for preaching the Gospel. And they continued preaching it all the way to their violent deaths. People don’t endure all that for something they know is a lie.
But beyond his personal credibility through the suffering he endured, Paul reminded the Corinthians that his work was Jesus’ work. Paul said if there was anything he himself could boast about, it was his own weaknesses. “Those weaknesses are what I have contributed,” said Paul. “Those are what I am responsible for.”
We don’t typically talk like that. The current presidential candidates of all parties are a good example of how we think and talk. They are very eager to showcase their strengths and successes, but they are reluctant to mention any weaknesses. On the other hand, they have no trouble pointing out the weaknesses of others. The same goes for us. When we have a dispute with someone, we magnify their faults while minimizing our own wrongs. Or we think how obvious it is that we should be praised or promoted compared to those around us who have so many character flaws. This sort of interaction with our neighbors is not confidence; it is arrogance.
We can cry, “Look what I can do!” till we are blue in the face. But that doesn’t and it won’t make us any better in God’s eyes. For as much as we can do, there is so much that we can’t—and so much that we have failed to do. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul wrote about those who like to boast how well they have kept God’s law. He said, “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law” (2:23). We really can’t boast in our righteousness, unless we are totally righteous. The guy standing barefoot in the snow is hardly better off with one sock on than the guy who has none. When we boast how good we are compared to others, we are still in no better shape before God than anybody else.
God is not impressed by how good we are or how beautiful or how smart or how rich. These things may win us something in the world, but they win nothing from God. In fact God is the one who gives these things. He gives each of us our individual qualities and characteristics, so that we might humbly use them for the benefit of others and for His glory. We have nothing good to boast about that God did not produce in us and through us. With Paul, the only thing we can really boast about in ourselves is our own weaknesses, our own sins.
But God hasn’t left us stuck in those sins. He planned a way to free us, a way that required great humility, a tremendous sacrifice, and terrible work. God sent His only Son to be the goodness and righteousness that we could never produce ourselves. He could have come and exposed all our sins for everyone to see. He could have shown how foolish our boasting is. Instead He quietly gathered all our sins to Himself. He humbly let Himself be accused in our place. He let everyone attack Him and boast about beating Him. He went to the cross, to a shameful death in our place, so that each of our sins would be wiped away and salvation would be ours. “Look what I can do for you,” He said. And He did.
In a few minutes, we will sing these words, “Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast / Save in the death of Christ, my God” (ELH 308, v. 2). Our boast is not in ourselves, in what we can do. Our boast is in Jesus, in what He has done. Paul told the Corinthians that by God’s grace, “you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1Co. 1:30-31).
But we do not only boast about what Jesus has done, we boast about what He still does for us. Paul said he was bothered by a thorn in the flesh, something that troubled him greatly. We imagine it was some sort of physical problem, but we don’t know for sure. We can relate in some way to Paul’s trouble. We are also affected in various ways by things that afflict us. It may be a physical problem that makes it difficult to do what we want to do. It may be a mental struggle or some kind of addiction that troubles us daily.
We seek to remove these thorns by therapy and medication and trying to will ourselves out of the problem. But when those things are not effective, we are not always ready to leave our thorns in God’s hands. We want the problem or pain to go away, and we are not sure that God will do it. In Paul’s case, the Lord did not remove the thorn. There was a reason for it. That thorn in the flesh reminded Paul of his weakness, along with his need for his Savior’s grace and power. The Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.”
We often have doubts. We think there is no hope. We don’t think we can go another step carrying the burdens we carry. And Jesus says, “Look What I Can Do. Trust in Me. I died and rose again for you. I will not forsake you. I will not cast you out. In My Word and Sacraments I will come to you. I will help you and strengthen you. You cannot make this right, but I can, and I will.” Therefore you and I can gladly boast of our weaknesses as Paul did and put our total confidence in the gracious and powerful promises of our Lord.
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(portion of Eustache Le Sueur painting, “The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus,” 1649)
St. Titus, Bishop & Confessor – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Titus 2:11-15
In Christ Jesus, whose abundant grace covers all our sin, dear fellow redeemed:
Back in the 1930s, a prominent Lutheran pastor in Germany coined the term “cheap grace.” He didn’t apply the term to God, as though God were giving something second rate to sinners. He applied it to Christians, to those who use grace as a cover up for sin, who care very little about repenting of their sin and amending their lives. They are like spoiled children who expect their overindulgent parents to bail them out no matter what trouble they get into. Grace to them has become so common, so expected, that they hardly value it anymore. It has become cheap.
The Christians in Corinth were guilty of looking at grace in this way. The Corinthian congregation was marked by all sorts of divisions. Some minimized grace and taught that the Old Testament civil and ceremonial laws needed to be kept for salvation. Others used grace as a license to sin and boasted about having Christian freedom even in areas that went against the Commandments of God. The Apostle Paul rebuked them for abusing God’s grace in these ways. We have this rebuke in his First Letter to the Corinthians.
We also have a Second Letter to the Corinthians, a follow up to some of the issues Paul had raised. In this letter, he mentioned a visit of his co-worker Titus to the congregation. Titus, who we remember today, was a Gentile man who accompanied Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem before they set out on their missionary journeys (Gal. 2:1). He was a trusted associate of Paul’s, so Paul sent him to guide and teach the Corinthian congregation.
When he arrived, Titus learned how strongly Paul’s Letter had affected the people. The congregation received Titus “with fear and trembling” (2Co. 7:15). They were not so much afraid of Paul’s messenger as they were of Paul’s message. They did not want to be found outside of God’s grace.
This same concern should be in the mind and heart of every Christian. We should want nothing more than to remain in God’s grace. But how can we be sure we will? We have been taught since our youth that grace has nothing to do with us. It is God’s undeserved love for us. Since it comes from God, there is nothing I can do to make sure I stay in it, is there?
It is certainly true that grace is a gift from God to us. We can’t earn it, and we don’t deserve it. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Grace means we owe nothing to God for our salvation. It is not a loan that we have to pay back by our good works or any other sacrifice. Grace is freely given. It reflects the love of the Giver and not the worthiness of the receiver (Rom. 5:8).
Grace does not cost us anything, but it did cost Jesus. The Apostle Peter describes the price of our ransom. It was “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1Pe. 1:18-19). Jesus paid for our salvation by the shedding of His holy blood. He suffered the torments of hell and death on a cross to save us. That was the cost of His grace. Grace is G-R-A-C-E: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.
Such a deep love, such faithfulness toward sinners demands some response, doesn’t it? Think about if your reckless or negligent behavior caused millions of dollars of damage, and someone stepped up to pay the price. How would you react? Or how about if someone took care of your significant credit card debt or the debt on your property? You would be totally humbled. You would feel indebted to that generous individual for the rest of your life. I imagine you would want to live a life worthy of the gift.
If you would feel that way about the cancellation of a temporary debt of money, how much more to have an eternal debt cancelled? That is what Jesus has done for you. He cancelled your debt of sin and death and opened heaven to you. People used to give great sums of money to get their loved ones transferred from purgatory to heaven (and some still do). But that is not necessary. Jesus paid the price to get us right into heaven—no purgatory required!
God’s grace does not cost us anything, but it should have an affect on us. In his Letter to Titus, Paul wrote that God’s grace trains us “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” It makes sense. Since Jesus saved us by His grace, shouldn’t we want to please Him? Shouldn’t we want to live the way God commands us to? To do otherwise is to abuse the grace we have been given. It is to treat it as something common, something cheap.
We want to show others how much we value God’s gift of grace by reflecting His love in the way we talk and how we conduct ourselves. We want them to know that God’s grace makes a difference in our lives, that it changed our hearts and minds. We are still sinners, but by God’s grace we are sinners at peace with Him because of Jesus’ suffering and death. We are mortal, but by God’s grace we have the sure hope of eternal life in heaven because of Jesus’ resurrection.
Those who do not know God’s grace live very different lives. They struggle along as though everything depends on them. They carry the burden of guilt for many wrongs done and many good deeds left undone. They pin all their hope for progress in the world on elected officials and other powerful people, and they are routinely disappointed. They tremble at the prospect of death and grieve without hope at the loss of loved ones.
God’s grace makes all the difference. His grace allows us to look forward with eagerness and not backward with regret. It changes everything about our past and about our future. If we have failed and let down the people we care about, if we have caused hurt intentionally or unintentionally, we can move ahead by God’s grace knowing He looks with favor upon us and forgives our sins. By God’s grace, we can start out fresh again today and try to do better.
In his Letter to Titus, Paul speaks about how God’s grace works in the lives of His people, and how it leads them to show love to those around them. Paul writes that:
- Older men give evidence of this grace by being “sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness” (2:1).
- Older women are “reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They “teach what is good,” especially encouraging the younger women (v. 3).
- Younger women “love their husbands and children,” and are “self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands” (vv. 4-5).
- Younger men are also “self-controlled” and faithfully carry out their responsibilities (v. 6).
These loving attitudes and actions toward each other are given by grace, not because they are deserved or earned. We do not show love for one another as a reward, but as a reflection of the undeserved love God has for us.
By His grace, Jesus redeemed us—bought us back—from our lawless and selfish behavior. He shed His blood so He might cleanse us from all our sins and purify us for His work. We’re not just spinning our wheels anymore like unbelievers who have no purpose beyond satisfying their own desires. God has called us to carry out His will toward our neighbors, to love and serve them in His name, so they might be drawn to Him and receive His grace.
These are the things Paul charged Titus to do and teach as a pastor and bishop. He left Titus on the island of Crete, so Titus could help establish congregations and appoint pastors to serve them. Though his work occasionally took him to other places (2Ti. 4:10), he is thought to have died in Crete at an old age (c. A. D. 96). He no doubt had many administrative tasks to carry out, but his primary work was to administer the means of grace.
The same is true for pastors still today. Our calling from God through the congregations we serve is to administer the means of grace. It is to deliver and apply God’s grace in Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the preaching of the Word. But before we apply the Gospel, we must apply the law. We must remind people of their need for God’s grace because of their sin.
But once they are convicted by the law and repent of their sin, we declare God’s grace. We announce the forgiveness of sin and new life through Jesus. And so I declare it to you today: God has not cast you away because of your sin. He does not hold you to your eternal debt. He forgives you all your sin because Jesus paid the price in full. He met the cost of your salvation and eternal life.
He gave Himself up for you because He loves you. He wants you to know that His steadfast love never ceases, and that His mercies are new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23). He wants you to know that your life matters and that you are needed by those around you. He wants you to have the “blessed hope” in this life, the knowledge that He will come again in His glory to take you out of this world of trouble.
All of this is by grace. It is an uncommon grace. It was costly, not cheap, and it is yours in rich supply. By God’s grace you are different than you used to be. God has changed you from a servant of sin, Satan, and death to His child and an heir of life. He has given you confidence and hope not in what you do for others or for Him, but in what He has done for you. Salvation is by His grace alone, and that changes everything.
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(picture of location in Crete)
The Second Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 12:6-16
In Christ Jesus, whose grace and compassion and patience toward sinners never changes and never runs out, dear fellow redeemed:
What is the point of marriage? This is one of the major questions of our time. Many have answered that there is no point to marriage. Some see it as nothing more than a traditional practice that one can take or leave. Others see it as a needless restriction that keeps people from living their lives however they want. Whatever people think it is, they have to acknowledge that marriage has been around for a long time. They would be hard-pressed to name a civilization or time where an official joining together of man and woman did not take place.
Jesus certainly approved of marriage. He defended it against those who would make it a non-binding contract (Mat. 19:3-9). And He Himself attended weddings, like the one we heard about in today’s Gospel (Joh. 2:1-11). But there is an even stronger testimony and support for the Lord’s positive view of marriage. He called Himself the Bridegroom of the Church His bride (Mat. 9:15, 25:1-13). By referring to His relationship with penitent sinners in this way, Jesus showed that marriage is a sacred institution. It is an institution established by God and given by Him as a gift.
Through marriage, God gives many blessings. He gives companionship, stability, and protection. He gives intimacy and the joy of sexual union. He gives children, family, and community. But marriage fails when it is seen solely for what one spouse or the other can get out of it. It thrives when each spouse considers what they can give to each other. A marriage characterized by mutual self-sacrifice will be a healthy and happy marriage.
The same goes for our other relationships in life. Our calling as God’s children is not to put ourselves first and expect everyone to serve us, but to put others first and see how we can serve them. This is what St. Paul describes in his Letter to the Romans. At the beginning of chapter 12 which we heard last week, Paul urged the recipients of the letter “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (v. 1). Along with this, he said we should humbly follow God’s Word and recognize that we are part of something big—the body of Christ.
The next portion of chapter 12, today’s reading, outlines our responsibilities toward one another in the body of Christ. Paul writes: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” He says that the gifts Jesus gives to the members of His body differ. The members of Christ’s body do not all have the same function.
What this means is that those believers who form the body of Christ with you, may not be all that much like you. Their personality may be entirely different than yours. They may not think the way you think. They may not be motivated by the same things you are, or have the same priorities that you do. The things that are meaningful to you might have little meaning to them. The way you see things and the plans you have for the future may look very different than theirs. And yet, you are part of the same body!
But this is how the human body works, doesn’t it? There is not much about the eye that is similar to the ear, and not much about the head that is like the foot. But what would a body be without the great assortment of its parts? Or to ask it another way: what parts of your body would you rather not have? What parts could you do without? Every part works together for the whole. If one part suffers—like a sore back or a broken bone—the whole body suffers. A person can live without eyesight or hearing or a leg, but life is more difficult when this happens.
So “having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,” we use them. Paul lists seven of these gifts that believers employ for each other’s good. Some have the gift of prophecy; they are able to clearly understand and explain what the Bible says. Some have the gift of service; they gladly carry out the tasks they have been assigned. Some have the gift of teaching; they love to share what they have learned. Some have the gift of exhortation; they encourage those around them to continue in their Christian faith and life. Some have the gift of generosity; they give out of love and not for show. Some have the gift of leadership or oversight; they work to keep the body united in Christ. And some have the gift of mercy; they are eager and happy to help those around them.
As much as we would like to excel at all of these things, we probably don’t. Some of them come more naturally to us than others. That is why they are called “gifts.” They are given to us by our gracious God. But just because we have been given one gift over another, does not mean we can ignore the rest of them. We may not believe we have the gifts of prophecy or teaching or exhortation, but that does not mean we can ignore the study of God’s Word and leave it to someone else. We may not think we have the gifts of service or generosity, but that does not mean we should withhold our time, talents, or treasures when and where they are needed.
Our perception of the gifts God has given us may also be skewed by our own sinful desires. It is a little too convenient to say I lack the gifts exactly in those areas where I have no interest in serving my neighbor. That sounds like something much more human than divine. It is not for us to decide what gifts we have. It is for God to give them as He wills. So if you find yourself in a situation where service is required of you, you can trust God to equip you to serve. Or if you find that what is most needed is teaching or leadership or mercy, you can pray for God’s guidance to complete the task until He turns it over to someone else.
God does not give His gifts for your own self-fulfillment or self-enjoyment, though there is certainly fulfillment and enjoyment in doing what God calls us to do. God gives so that the members of Christ’s body can be a blessing and strength to one another and a blessing to their community as well. God Gives so We May Give. That is why we are here, to share the grace and glory of God that we have received through the kindness and compassion of our Savior Jesus.
This selfless giving is something we have to be reminded to do, because our sinful nature likes to put itself first. That’s why we call it the “old Adam.” Just like Adam and Eve put themselves over God and one another, this is what our sinful nature wants to have us do. But the new self, the new man of faith wants the opposite. The new man of faith wants to serve God and neighbor. It wants to show the love God has shown us.
These acts and attitudes of love are spelled out by Paul in his letter, that we be loving, kind, joyful, hopeful, patient, prayerful, generous, hospitable, humble. But what if my neighbor is unkind? What if he or she throws my good efforts back in my face? What if he or she treats me like dirt? Jesus doesn’t teach us to treat people the way they treat us. He teaches us to treat them the way He treats us.
And how does He treat us? With patience, bearing with us even when we sin and grow bitter toward others. With grace, loving us even when there is little love in our hearts. With forgiveness, removing all our transgressions from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psa. 103:12). With humility, coming to us through His Word and Sacraments, so He might strengthen and keep us in the faith.
God’s gifts delivered according to His grace never run out. He does not run out of love and compassion and mercy toward us. He is not like us. He does not give up when we offend Him. He does not keep a record of our wrongs. He does not turn His back on us or close the door when we wander away from Him. He comes after us like a shepherd searching for His sheep until we are found.
This is the attitude we should have in our relationships, whether in our marriages, families, communities, or congregation. We want to show patience with no expiration date. We want to show love with no limit. We want to forgive with no strings attached. You and I cannot produce these godly virtues on our own. But God can work them in us, and He promises to do exactly that.
Apart from God, we have nothing good to give. But connected to Him by faith and continuously receiving His gifts through His powerful Word, we are filled up and supplied with all that we need to do good for others. “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Then we will be a joy and a strength to one another, and God will be glorified.
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(picture is stained glass at the Redeemer church)
The Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 26) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:31-46
In Christ Jesus, “The Judge that comes in mercy, / The Judge that comes with might, / To terminate the evil,” and to crown or “diadem the right” (ELH 534, v. 1), dear fellow redeemed:
You know how it feels to be caught doing something wrong. Maybe you broke something because of reckless behavior and had to face your parents. Or you were disrespectful to a teacher and had to go talk to the principal. Or you were speeding, and an officer pulled you over. It is not pleasant to face the consequences for bad behavior. You and I would rather be about anywhere else than standing before someone who can exact punishment for a wrong. Is that how it will feel when Jesus comes on the last day and sits on His glorious throne?
We think of how Isaiah and Peter reacted as they stood in the presence of the holy Lord. When Isaiah was allowed to see the Lord sitting on His throne, He cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips!” (Isa. 6:5). And when Peter saw Jesus perform a great miracle, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luk. 5:8). The book of Revelation tells of “the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free,” who desperately try to hide from the presence of the Lord. They call out to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (6:16-17).
This Lamb will sit on the throne of judgment on the last day. Should you and I be worried? If our standing before God depended on how well we had lived our lives and how much good we had done, we should be worried. It isn’t just a matter of balancing out the bad with enough good, or doing okay given the circumstances. The standard by which our life is assessed is the Ten Commandments of God. And if we have broken those Commandments in any way, we cannot be let into heaven by our own merits. There is no imperfection in heaven.
But if our good works will not count for our salvation on the last day, why does Jesus make it sound like they will? He says that those who are “on His right,” those who are “in the right,” are those who gave Him food when He was hungry, drink when He was thirsty, a home when He was a stranger, clothes when He was naked, and visited Him when He was sick and in prison. He explained that they did these things for Him whenever they did it for their neighbor, for someone in need.
And you can think of times that you did things like this for others. If you are a parent, you’ve got the list covered in your own home. You have done all these things for your kids, and you do them every day. Even if you are not a parent, there are many times that you assisted others. You lent a helping hand with no thought of reward. You went out of your way to brighten someone’s day. You gave money and time to charitable efforts. Those are all good things. Does that mean you are right with God? Isn’t that what Jesus is saying?
It’s very crucial that we take in all that Jesus says and how He says it. Listen to His description of “the sheep” who are placed “on His right.” He says that they are “blessed by My Father.” He says they are to “inherit the kingdom.” The unique thing about this eternal inheritance is that it was “prepared… from the foundation of the world.” In other words, it was designated for the heirs long before they were even born.
And when Jesus credits the sheep with good works, they act surprised. They wonder when they ever did all those good things. They don’t sound interested in recounting the good they had done. They respond with humility. They realize they are being given much more than they ever gave.
Their response is much different than the response of the goats. Jesus tells the goats on His left that they did not give Him food or drink or a home or clothes or kind attention. Now if Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, says you failed to do what you should have, that is no time to argue. That is no time to make excuses or pass blame. That is the time to fall to your knees in repentance. Instead the goats say, “When did we not serve You in these ways?” There is no humility there, no recognition of shortcomings. So they are sent to “eternal punishment.”
This is a hard teaching. It is hard to hear that a large number of people will be condemned to hell. Many of them may even seem “good” to us. Hell contains more than just the Hitlers of the world. It isn’t just the rapists, murders, and abusers, who show no remorse for what they have done. There will also be plenty of “nice” people in hell, people who were good parents, hard workers, generous givers, and responsible citizens. They will be in hell because as good as they may have seemed to be, they were nowhere near perfect. Instead of acknowledging their sin and trusting in the only One who saves, they lived by their own set of standards; they went by their own creed.
“Pretty good” is not good enough. Those who think they are “pretty good” are not being honest about their corrupt condition. All of us have trouble owning up to our sins. We would never want others to know the evil we hold in our head and heart. We want people to see us at our best. We want them to see the “resume view” of our lives: “Here are all the good things I have done. Here are my accomplishments. These are my good qualities. This is what I bring to the table.”
Nobody puts bad things on a resume: “I got fired from this job for cause. I quit this one because I don’t always get along well with others. I’m on a new career path because I’m never content. Oh yeah, I really like to play the ‘victim card.’” We don’t often admit our weaknesses to others. We have a hard enough time acknowledging them ourselves. But it is no credit to us to hold on to our pride and to elevate ourselves above others.
Salvation comes not to proud goats but to humble sheep. It comes not to those who think they have done enough but to those who know they haven’t. Salvation is by grace alone. God gives it. He gives salvation because Jesus perfectly lived by the law. Whatever His neighbors needed, He supplied it. His was not an empty righteousness done for outward show. It was borne from His holy heart overflowing with love for sinners.
When we suffered from spiritual hunger and thirst, Jesus gave Himself for our nourishment. When we were strangers, separated from God, He reconciled us through His death on the cross. When we were stripped bare by the law of any patch of holiness, He supplied His own righteousness for our clothing. When we were sick with the infection of sin, He came with healing grace. When we were prisoners to our own sin and death, He came to set us free.
He did all these things not to get glory in the world, but to give grace. He came to humbly help and serve. He came to secure an inheritance for sinners, one that would never fade or decay. This inheritance will be fully realized by the sheep—by all believers in Him—when He returns on the last day. On that day, it will be clear who is good. It is Jesus. He alone is perfect, and He grants His perfection to everyone who believes.
This is how you are blessed by the Father. This is why you receive an inheritance that was prepared for you from the foundation of the world. It has nothing to do with the good works you have done. It is all because of what Jesus did for you. He kept the law for you. He died for your sins. He conquered your death.
Your salvation is secure in Him. This means you don’t have to wonder if you have done enough. You don’t have to feel pressure to do good in order to gain a reward. You are now free to give grace to those around you because you see their need. You recognize their trouble and suffering, and so you help. This is how God gives grace to your neighbors—through you! It does not matter if the world recognizes the good you do. That kind of glory does not last anyway.
But God gives a glory that does last. It is the glory that Jesus won for you. You get this glory by humbly trusting in Him alone. When Jesus comes on the last day and sits on His throne, you will not need to cower in fear. You will not need to worry about facing the consequences for your sin, because those sins are forgiven. They were washed away in the blood of Jesus, and His righteousness was put in their place.
You will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” because of what Jesus has done for you. The grace is His. The glory is His. And He is glad to share with you His grace and glory both now and for eternity.
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(“The Last Judgment” painting by Fra Angelico, c. 1395-1455)