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.
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 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.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture is stained glass 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.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(“The Last Judgment” painting by Fra Angelico, c. 1395-1455)
The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 17:11-19
In Christ Jesus, whose gracious healing is impartially offered to all sinners, dear fellow redeemed:
The ten men in today’s Gospel were infected with leprosy, a disease that especially attacks the skin and nervous system. Nine of these men were Israelites and one was a Samaritan. They would typically have been at odds with each other, but their common illness brought them together. Any differences in their social status were set aside by their desperate situation. Leprosy was a great equalizer.
This disease is still active around the world but is rarely seen in the United States. In our country, the top two causes of death are heart disease and cancer. It would be difficult to find someone who had not lost a close relative or friend to one of these diseases. They are illnesses that strike all types—the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the physically weak and the physically fit.
When people are diagnosed with serious conditions like this, they are often willing to do whatever it takes to get better. They will endure the rigor and discomfort of treatment plans and surgical procedures. They will suffer the various side effects from medication. They will commit large amounts of time and money—all in the hopes of regaining the health they had before. This shows how valuable people consider their health to be.
It’s also the case that we place a higher value on things that are harder to come by and not as available as they were before. When we are in good health, we take it for granted. We don’t recognize what we have until we don’t have it anymore. Nothing gets a person exercising and watching what he eats like a health scare does. Even a cold or a headache remind us what we have to be thankful for.
Now suppose you had a serious health problem, and somebody offered you medication with a 100% success rate. “There must be a catch,” you think. “Why don’t more people take advantage of this? The cost must be astronomical! The side effects must be unbearable!” You are informed that the side effects are nothing compared to your disease, but the cost is indeed much higher than you could afford. “But don’t worry!” you’re told. “The cost has been covered for you! You’re going to be cured!”
How would you feel about this? Shocked, no doubt, and blessed. How about thankful? The ten men were healed of their leprosy at no cost to themselves. There were no side effects. The only prerequisite to their healing was that they listen to Jesus’ word and do what He told them. Now this took faith! Why show themselves to the priest when nothing about their condition had changed? Right after Jesus talked with them, the patches of leprosy still showed up on their skin. But then on the way, they were cleansed! Their trust in Jesus was rewarded.
They were shocked. They felt blessed. But for whatever reason, they did not return to thank their Healer. Only one of them—the Samaritan—turned back praising and thanking God as He fell at Jesus’ feet. But then the other nine lepers had a lot on their minds! Jesus told them to show themselves to the priest, and the process of being declared clean was time consuming. Besides, they missed their loved ones terribly. God wouldn’t want them to delay their reunion, would He? He wouldn’t discourage them from returning immediately to their homes and occupations.
Leprosy was a great equalizer. When the men had it, they together cried out for Jesus’ mercy. But when their disease no longer troubled them, they forgot about Jesus. Jesus did not forget about them. “Were not ten cleansed?” He asked. “Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Their ungratefulness should trouble us just as it troubled Jesus. We may even imagine that we would have been like the Samaritan. We would have returned to give thanks. But let’s move the question from the theoretical to the actual. Jesus has not healed us from leprosy, but He has healed us from something far worse, something much more damaging than an infection. He has healed us from our sin.
This sin had left its mark on every inch of our body and soul. It had traveled through every vein. It saturated our heart. How could we be freed from its terrible effects? Some just let it be. They act like it isn’t there. They are like the guy with frostbite, who says he doesn’t feel pain, but who can’t move his fingers anymore either. Others figure they can address the sin on the inside by doing good works on the outside. But no matter how good a rotting board or rusted car looks with a new coat of paint, the issue underneath the paint will keep getting worse.
No human remedy could fix the problem of sin. Sin is a great equalizer, which affects all people the same. The harder we try to get rid of it ourselves, the deeper it sinks inside. We who are responsible for our sin are not qualified to remove it. And God wants us to know this. He wants us to admit our powerlessness over sin. He wants us to humbly acknowledge that we have a problem.
And God has the solution. The solution is His only Son. He sent His perfect Son to become Man. Sending His Son into the sinful world was something like a father pushing his healthy son into a leper colony. In that respect, Jesus did not belong here. He was far above this place, this world. He did not deserve to be sent in among sinners.
But He came willingly. He had compassion on His people. He saw their sorry state. He heard their cries for mercy. He came to save them. The only way to free them from their sin was to take their sins upon and into Himself. Their sin required a spotless Lamb, a perfect sacrifice. Jesus was that “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Joh. 1:29). When He was nailed to the cross, all our sin was nailed there with Him. “[B]y means of his own blood,” He secured our “eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). He paid the price in full. He “put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (v. 26).
This payment was made for all sinners. But an inheritance does a person no good unless he is informed about it. God distributes His salvation through the Word by the power of the Holy Spirit. He gives the blessings of Christ’s death through the message of Christ’s death. Now this Word of God does not appear to have much power. It does not make the pages of a Bible glow. It does not always seem to have a great effect on those who hear and read it. Jesus’ Word to the lepers didn’t seem effective either. But hearing His Word and believing it, the lepers were cleansed.
God promises that His Word will not return to Him empty (Isa. 55:11). It brings healing to the sick, comfort to the distressed, and peace to the hurting. And you know this in your own life. You know the relief you have when you lay your sins before Jesus and hear His Word of forgiveness absolving you of all your sins. You hear Him declare you clean and pure in His sight and an heir of eternal life. There is no spiritual bill of health we could receive that is better than this.
But it is easy to take God’s grace for granted. We may think that we have heard this Gospel message plenty of times. We know what Jesus did for us. We don’t need to hear about it again and again. We can go without the Word and Sacraments for a while. They will be there for us when we have time for them. And in this way, we see the availability of the Gospel something like the availability of oxygen. It’s always there when we need it, so we don’t need to give it much thought. “When I need an extra supply,” we say, “I’ll know where to find it.”
Why don’t we treasure these blessings of God more? Is it because they are too easy to get? Would we value them more if they were harder to come by? If that is the case, then we are saying we want some of the responsibility for making things right with God. Or is it actually that we want some of the credit? Those efforts all fail. We cannot get ourselves right with God. He made peace with us, and He brings us that peace through the means of grace.
And His grace is easy to get. Martin Luther wrote that if “forgiveness of all sin, grace, and eternal life” could come by picking up a piece of straw or by plucking out a feather, wouldn’t we do this joyfully? Wouldn’t we treasure and cherish those simple items? “Why then are we such disgraceful people,” he asks, “that we do not regard the water of baptism, the bread and wine, that is, Christ’s body and blood, the spoken word, and the laying on of man’s hands for the forgiveness of sin as such holy possessions?” Why don’t we appreciate that by these means, “he wishes to sanctify and save [us] in Christ?” (“On the Councils and the Church,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 41, p. 172).
By our sporadic or reluctant use of God’s Word, we show that our spiritual health is not as valuable, not as pressing a concern, as it should be. We show ourselves to be ungrateful for the cleansing of sin carried out by the Lord. We overlook this blessing because our minds are often on other things, things that will not last.
And yet God has called us once again to receive the antidote for sin through His Word. He has not taken back His gifts from us. He has not cast us out because of our ungratefulness. He cleanses us today. He restores our spiritual health. He strengthens our faith so that we want to hear His Word more and serve Him more faithfully. He does this because we are valuable to Him. We are worth His time. He has mercy on us, and His mercy endures forever.
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(“The Healing of Ten Lepers” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Baptism of Jesus – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 3:13-17
In Christ Jesus, who did not come “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (Joh. 3:17), dear fellow redeemed:
When John the Baptizer started preaching in the wilderness of Judea, the prominent theme of his preaching and teaching was repentance. God sent him to be a voice waking people up from their spiritual slumber. John didn’t hold back. He didn’t care what sort of standing a person had, or what might happen if he pointed out their sin. When he saw a number of the Jewish religious leaders coming to be baptized, he called them a “brood of vipers” (Mat. 3:7). He told them to “[b]ear fruit in keeping with repentance” (v. 8). If they would not, they would be “cut down and thrown into the fire (v. 10).
And if you think I’m tough, he said, just wait till you meet the One who comes after me, “whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (vv. 11-12). What sort of man did the people expect would follow John? Whatever they imagined, John’s message made them all the more ready to humble themselves and acknowledge their sins.
When the people thought about the coming Messiah, perhaps they thought about the times God made His presence known to the people of Israel. They may have imagined the descent of the LORD upon Mount Sinai when He delivered His law to Moses. The whole mountain was wrapped in smoke as though coming from a great furnace. The mountain shuddered, and when Moses spoke, God answered in thunder (Exo. 19:18-19). Is this how it would be with the One who followed John? Or would He come in a thick cloud like the one that filled the holy place of the tabernacle and temple (Exo. 40:34-38, Lev. 16:2,30)?
While the people waited with nervous anticipation and fear, Jesus was quietly going about His business in Nazareth. We know nothing about His life from His youth until the start of His public work except for the words of St. Luke: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and men” (2:52). So He was intelligent and well thought of in His community. But no one would have matched Him with John’s description of the Coming One. Would that change with His official anointing?
His anointing as the Christ is recorded for us in today’s text. He came where John was by the Jordan River to be baptized by him. John did not realize yet that Jesus was the Christ, but he knew that Jesus was a righteous man. He said, “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” Jesus’ response shows that He had not come to condemn everyone. He came “to fulfill all righteousness.” This required Him to be baptized, to join the company of sinners who also entered the waters.
But He was not baptized to wash away His sin. He had no sin of His own to wash away! He was baptized for all humanity, in every sinner’s place. He offered Himself as their Substitute, taking their sins upon Himself, sins that He would pay for with His life at Calvary. The significance of this moment was clear by what happened next. Jesus came out of the water, and “the heavens were opened to Him.” Then the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove and rested upon Him, and a voice came from above, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Now John knew. This was the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior promised for thousands of years. “I myself did not know him,” John said, “but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (Joh. 1:33). So the Coming One had come. But He did not come exactly as expected.
God the Son did not descend from heaven with fire and smoke and other terrifying displays of power. He came humbly, looking just like other men. The other Persons of the Trinity revealed themselves in humble ways too. God the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a small dove. And God the Father spoke from heaven clearly but gently and with a message of love. In other words, the Triune God revealed Himself at the Jordan River not with terrifying displays of glory and might, but with grace.
This looks so different than the scene at Mount Sinai, but then the purpose of God’s appearance was different at each place. At Mount Sinai, God was giving the people His law. The law should provoke fear in the hearts of sinners. If they do not do God’s will, they must answer for their transgressions. This was emphasized by all the burning, smoking, and thundering on the mountaintop. This was a God who should not be taken lightly, and who expected the people to obey Him.
What happened at the Jordan River was not a display of God’s wrath, as those who heard John might have expected. Jesus’ baptism was a display of the Gospel, of God’s love for humankind by sending them a Savior. Jesus had come to give Himself in the place of sinners and to fulfill all righteousness for them, so they would not have to face the holy wrath of God.
What we see at Jesus’ baptism is how it is for our baptisms too. There are some who would turn baptism into a law event. They say that baptism is about what we do for God. They think this is where we must fully dedicate ourselves to Him and promise to live a holy life. It’s no wonder that these do not find comfort in their baptism. They know they have not lived up to their promise. They know they lack the righteousness that God requires.
But baptism is not a law event, it is a Gospel event. It is where God commits Himself to us. It is where He makes promises that are as sure and unchanging as He is. It is where He bestows His forgiveness on us and covers us with His righteousness. There are many beautiful passages in Scripture that underscore this.
Listen to Titus 3:5-7 and ask yourself who is doing the action: is it us, or is it God? “[A]ccording to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” This says that God saved us by His mercy, washed us in baptism, and applied Christ’s perfect work to us. We are now justified—declared innocent—by His grace and are counted as heirs of God.
Romans 6:4 explains how baptism marks the drowning of our sinful nature and the awakening of faith. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Galatians 3:27 tells us that we look much different in God’s sight after our baptism than we did before. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
These and many other passages teach us that In Baptism, God Comes Down with Grace. We don’t go to Him to give Him something He needs. He comes down to us to give us the blessings that we couldn’t live without. It doesn’t seem possible that baptism would have such significance. It looks so simple. What good can a couple handfuls of water and one short sentence do? But Jesus’ baptism probably didn’t look very impressive either. We learn about its significance by the subsequent opening of heaven, the Holy Spirit’s descent, and the voice of the Father.
The Triune God does not show His presence at our baptisms, but He promises that He is here. It is His Word and ultimately His water that are used in baptism. He is the One who gives parents and guardians the will to bring their children to baptism, and He is the One who calls pastors to administer baptism. The Lord wants people to be baptized, and He does not fail to be present with His gifts.
Because His power and promise are what drive baptism, it only needs to happen once for each individual. If baptism were simply an expression of our commitment to God, we would need to be baptized many times, because our commitment toward Him is constantly in flux. But because baptism is a sacrament from God through which He makes a commitment to us, it is only needed one time.
We are baptized once only, but we return to those cleansing waters of baptism every time we repent of sin and trust in the gracious forgiveness of Jesus. In confession, the penitent sinner is really asking God, “Do You still love me? Do the promises You made at my baptism still stand?” And the absolution is God’s reply, “Yes, the work of My Son to save you is finished. Through His blood your sins are forgiven, and His righteousness is yours by faith. I have not and will not change My mind about you; you are My baptized child.”
The absolution is God’s assurance that heaven remains open to all who trust in Him. Heaven was opened to you at your baptism just as it was opened to Jesus at His baptism. From heaven, the Father continues to speak His gracious Word, the Son continues to apply His forgiveness and righteousness to you, and the Holy Spirit continues to fill you with His comfort and peace.
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(picture is portion of 1895 painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)
Septuagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 20:1-16
In Christ Jesus, who chose us by grace to be first in His kingdom though we are considered last in the world, dear fellow redeemed:
The presence of our circuit visitor at our churches last weekend was a new experience for all of us. He was here to observe how divine services are conducted, to learn about member participation in the work of the church, and to discuss the blessings and challenges we face in the church and in our community. His goal in each of these areas was to encourage us to remain faithful to the Word of God, and to grow in love toward God and one another.
In a sense, his “parish visitation” functioned as a sort of “performance review” for our congregations. This was healthy for us to take part in. We know we do not operate perfectly as a congregation, and that there is always room for improvement. We are also glad to receive encouragement to keep the good things going. A performance review done well can help to sharpen the focus and strengthen the purpose of an individual or organization.
In today’s text, Jesus administers a sort of performance review for the entire Christian Church. He uses a parable to talk about the motivation for our work, our attitude toward the work, and our reward for the work. He said that “the kingdom of heaven is like” the owner of a vineyard who went looking for laborers. The first ones he found agreed to work for a denarius a day, which was a fair wage. He found more standing idle at the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours and hired them with the promise of compensation, but with no specific amount set.
All the laborers were glad to be employed. More than likely, they were waiting in the marketplace because they hoped someone would come looking for workers. If they did a good job, they knew they would receive payment and would likely be well-positioned to be employed in the future.
These laborers signify Christians, those who have been called by the Gospel to work in the Lord’s vineyard. This includes the work done in and for a congregation. But it also includes the work you do in your vocations in the world. The Lord has called you to confess His truth no matter what you are doing, and to reflect His love no matter what you are involved in. This includes your interactions with your spouse, your children, and your extended family. It includes your work and behavior at your job, among your friends, and in your community. You carry out each of these vocations as a Christian, as one who has been called out of the darkness of unbelief into the light of God’s grace.
But the work is not always easy. The laborers hired at the first hour described themselves as those “who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Those are challenging working conditions. It’s hard to work on a blistering hot day. The harder the conditions are, the more energy is expended by the worker.
You may not feel much discomfort as a Christian as long as you are respected and valued by others. But when you are criticized or attacked for your beliefs, the heat is much more intense and the working conditions more unpleasant. Working in the Lord’s vineyard—living out your calling as a child of God—is difficult, and there are many controlled by the devil who want your work to fail.
Still, there is plenty of motivation for being a Christian, such as the comfort of knowing your sins are forgiven and life has been won for you by Jesus, and the confidence that your life of faith is pleasing to the mighty God who made everything good.
The motivation is there, but our attitude does not always reflect our confession. Of those working in the vineyard, some do not endure the scorching heat as well as others do. They constantly complain about their pain and troubles. They imagine that no one has it as bad as they do. Every burden, both the heavy and the relatively light, elicits groans and tears. These Christians need more training in the Word to bear up under troubles with patience and to keep their eyes fixed on Jesus while they carry their cross after Him.
Other workers are tempted to take it easy and let others do the heavy lifting. This includes a laid-back attitude about hearing and learning God’s Word and supporting the work of the church. They figure they can slide by on a little faith. They tell themselves that they could always pick up the pace down the road if the situation calls for it. These Christians are lazy. They need to be reminded what trials and torments the Savior endured to redeem them from their sins.
Others are hard workers. Despite set-backs and obstacles, they keep plugging along. Sometimes the heat is intense, but they know relief will come. They meet challenges one day—or even one hour—at a time, knowing the Lord has not forsaken them and will come to their aid. But these Christians are not perfect either. They grow tired of the Christians around them who don’t seem to put forth the effort they should. Or they become resentful of those who don’t know how good they have it, those who did not have to go through the hard times they did.
It is this last category of workers that Jesus especially talks about in the parable. The workers hired at the first hour assumed they would receive more than those who were hired later. After all, they worked longer and harder. Their raw fingers, sore muscles, and burnt skin proved it. If those who worked just one hour were paid a denarius, then those who worked all day should receive a great deal more.
Instead, they received exactly what they were promised: one denarius. “This isn’t fair!” they said; “this isn’t right!” You can imagine the looks on their faces – quite different from the looks on the faces of those who received the exact same pay for much less work. These would have looked at one another with astonishment and joy and said, “What good fortune! Look what we were paid for so little work!” The vineyard owner turned toward one of the grumblers and said, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”
We wouldn’t like this so much if it happened where we work. But we give thanks and praise to God that this is the way salvation is distributed to sinners. We sang about this in the chief hymn for today, “Salvation unto us is come / By God’s free grace and favor” (ELH 227, v. 1). Salvation is given not to those who have the best attitudes or work the hardest. Salvation is given to all who trust in Jesus for their salvation.
It does not matter how long you have been working in the Lord’s vineyard or the amount of work you have accomplished. What matters is not your work. What matters is Jesus’ work. If you want to talk about bearing burdens and feeling heat, think about Jesus. He bore the burden of every sin—every wicked thought, every wrong word, every sinful action. He took the full weight of your sin, my sin, and everyone’s sin on Himself and carried it to the cross. On the cross, God the Father poured out every ounce of His wrath against sin upon His only Son. There, Jesus felt the heat of the eternal fires of hell in the place of all sinners.
Looking to Jesus and everything He suffered for our salvation lightens our burdens and troubles. When we see what He endured, we are assured of His love for us. One who would go through all that for us is not going to forget about us. His sacrifice in our place also inspires us to work harder and to think more about the needs of our neighbors. Since He has already completed the work of our salvation for us, we are free to serve Him and others. We don’t have to worry about impressing the boss. We don’t have to put on a show. “It is finished!” (Joh. 19:30), said Jesus. The work is done. The reward is yours.
And what is that reward? The reward is the same for everyone who believes in Jesus alone. The reward is “the crown of righteousness” (2Ti. 4:8), “the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10), which is bestowed on all believers. It is eternal salvation in the presence of the holy God. It is never-ending joy with all the saints who humbly counted themselves last. The saints in heaven do not begrudge the Lord’s generosity. They know that no one would be in heaven except by His grace, His undeserved love toward them. They deserved eternal punishment but received eternal life instead.
So, dear friends in Christ, It’s Time for a Performance Review. Each of us can see where we have not been the best workers for God. We have complained about our burdens instead of relying on the Lord’s mercy and grace. We have taken His goodness for granted instead of honoring His gifts with our best effort. And we have judged others as being lower than us, while expecting greater reward because of our better efforts. There is plenty of room for us to improve.
But in Christ, we are forgiven for our impatience when the burden seems too heavy. In Christ, we are credited with perfect righteousness even when our faith is weak. And in Christ, we are redeemed from our self-righteous attitudes and our pride. We deserve no reward for our own flawed efforts. But Jesus’ performance in our place is perfect, and He gladly shares with us His eternal reward. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
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(picture from 11th century Byzantine manuscript of laborers working in the vineyard [lower portion] and receiving their denarius [upper portion])
The Third Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 8:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who invites all sinners to partake of the eternal glories of heaven by His grace, dear fellow redeemed:
Whose fault was the government shutdown, which just ended on Friday? I can tell you. But you already know the answer. The interesting thing is, your answer may not match the answer of the people around you. Your answer probably has something to do with the direction you lean on the political spectrum. You, like most Americans, are partial to one political party more than the others. You are more likely to give the adherents of one party a pass, while criticizing the other side.
There is nothing wrong with having such opinions. This is part of what it means to be a citizen of this country. The fact is, we show partiality about a lot of things. We are partial toward the sort of vehicle we drive or the kind of farm equipment we operate. We are partial toward certain types of food or certain brands of clothing. We are partial toward particular sports teams or certain hobbies and activities.
But as much leeway as we have to be unique and express our opinions, not all partiality is harmless. Parents know how important it is to try to be consistent with their kids and not play favorites. If they don’t, their children will become either resentful or spoiled. Partiality can lead us to sin in other areas too. We can be partial to the wrong group of people who exert a bad influence on us. We can be partial to the wrong kinds of ideas which lead us to hate people who are different than us, or to regard others as less than us simply because of how they look, how they talk, or where they come from.
In today’s text, we find Jesus interacting with people who were viewed unfavorably, or who were at least regarded as inferior to the general populace. The first was a leprous man. Since the time his skin disease was discovered, he was forced to leave his home and family and live by himself or with other lepers. As Old Testament law dictated, he had to announce his approach by shouting, “Unclean, unclean!” (Lev. 13:45). It was a wretched, lonely life.
But word about Jesus’ ability to heal the sick and afflicted was spreading. “[G]reat crowds followed Him.” The leprous man took the chance of coming near Jesus. “Lord, if You will,” he said, “You can make me clean.” Now Jesus did not owe him anything. And this man had nothing to offer Jesus to make a healing worth His while. But he did have faith. He believed that Jesus was not simply a man and not just a gifted teacher. He believed that Jesus wielded the power of God, and that He could bring healing if He wanted to.
And Jesus reached out and touched the man and said, “I will; be clean.” It is an important detail that Jesus touched him. Most would not have considered doing this. What if the leprosy latched on to them? We have great admiration for the doctors, nurses, and clergymen throughout history who have been willing to minister to those with infectious diseases. While many run away from threats, God has given some the courage to run toward danger out of love for neighbor.
The other significant factor of Jesus touching the man is that for this action Jesus should have been considered unclean according to Old Testament law (Lev. 5:3). But by His divine power, the whole situation went in reverse. Jesus, who was clean, did not become unclean; rather the man, who was unclean, became clean! Then Jesus told him to show himself to the priest and to offer the gift commanded by Moses, which included a few lambs and a portion of grain (Lev. 14). We assume by this instruction that the man cleansed of his leprosy was a Jew, one who was acquainted with the Scriptures.
So Jesus brought healing to this leprous man and made it possible for him to return to his home and family. No longer would he be an outcast and considered unclean. He was once again welcomed into the community because of the Lord’s grace toward him.
Shortly after this, Jesus was approached by a Gentile, a non-Jew. The Jews interacted with the Gentiles as little as possible. They were taught to regard them as “unclean.” This particular Gentile was also a centurion, a military commander of the Roman army, which watched over all the activities of the Jews. But contrary to expectation, this Roman centurion was kind to the Jews. He came to Jesus requesting help for his young servant who had been paralyzed. The elders of the Jews even spoke to Jesus on behalf of the centurion. They said, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (Luk. 7:4-5).
But the centurion humbly declared, “Lord, I am not worthy”—“I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Jesus marveled at his words and said, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” And He healed the man’s servant at that moment.
So we see Jesus bestowing His grace upon both a Jew and a Gentile. Their culture and their backgrounds were quite different, but He helped them just the same. How Jesus acted toward these humble men is consistent with what the Bible says again and again: “God shows no partiality” (Rom. 2:11, Luk. 20:21, Act. 10:34, Gal. 2:6, Eph. 6:9).
This passage is at the same time a warning and a comfort for us. Another way to say “God shows no partiality,” is to say that God is no respecter of persons, that He shows no favoritism. The son or daughter of a business owner can sometimes get away with questionable practices or a bad work ethic. But that is not how it is with God’s children. He is partial toward us in the sense that He loves us and wants us to receive His blessings. But He is impartial when it comes to His justice.
His children, claimed as His own through Holy Baptism, do not operate by a softer set of standards. He does not look the other way when they do wrong. If anything, God’s children by faith should be even more attuned to and concerned about His righteous Commandments. We know what our sins required. We know that Jesus was punished on the cross in our place. We know He suffered the eternal torments of hell for us. Should we then go out and live our lives as though Jesus has done nothing for us? James writes that “you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (Jam. 4:15-17).
One thing we know we ought to do is treat everyone around us the same. We should “love our neighbors as ourselves.” These neighbors are the people we pass in the hallways at school, the people we interact with at work, and the people in our communities. Some of these neighbors are harder to love than others, and it is easy for us to favor one over another. Of course we do have the right to choose who our close friends will be. But we do not have God’s blessing to hate specific neighbors or deal spitefully with them.
We can think of many times we have failed at this. We have gossiped about and ganged up on a classmate or co-worker. We have looked down at people whose background and behavior are not like ours. We have thought ourselves to be something and others around us to be nothing. If we persist in these sins and feed our self-righteousness and our self-worship, we will be condemned for these sins. “God shows no partiality.”
But when we like the leprous man and centurion come before Jesus with humble hearts of faith, confessing our wrongs and trusting in His grace, He will show favor toward us as He does toward all penitent sinners. This is how God’s impartiality is such a comfort to us. He does not keep track of how often we have sinned against Him. He does not compare our life with the lives of others. He does not count any of our sins as too great to be forgiven. He does not lose patience or turn His back on us.
When we kneel before Him covered in our sins, burdened by the memory of our wrongs, and pray, “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean”—we don’t have to wonder at His response. He says, “I will; be clean.” He already died for these sins. His blood cleanses our impure hearts. He will not ignore a humble cry for forgiveness, no matter who prays it or what that person has done. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,” said the psalmist; “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psa. 51:17).
Whether you are a Jew or a Gentile, a male or a female, a child or a grown-up; whether you are wealthy or poor, respected or despised; whether you are on the left wing, the right wing, or somewhere in the middle—“God shows no partiality.” He loves each one of you just the same. He sent His Son to die for your sins and rise again for your justification. He sends the Holy Spirit to strengthen your faith. And He wants each and every one of you to “recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” The Lord Bestows Grace Impartially, and He bestows it upon you.
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(picture is a portion of a Byzantine mosaic in Sicily)
The Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 26) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:31-46
In Christ Jesus, “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Ti. 2:14), dear fellow redeemed:
When candidates for political office are on a ballot, they find out what the members of their community think about them. Short of receiving 100% of the vote, I imagine this could be a discouraging thing for the candidates. Even those who receive 80% of the vote must wonder why 20% of the people don’t want them to serve. Even more so if the vote is split nearly in half. The winning candidates always throw big victory parties, but they have to deal with the reality that 49% of the community preferred that they lose.
Now what if you were on a ballot, but not for political office? What if it was your eternal fate that was up for a vote, and the voters were the people around you, your neighbors? These neighbors would include the members of your family and of your church, the people who live next door, your co-workers, and the people you communicate with online. If their positive or negative vote resulted in your being sent to heaven or hell, what do you think the result would be?
I imagine this would make us all a bit more careful about what we say to others, and we would be more purposeful about acts of charity and kindness. Or, like good politicians, we might make promises about what we will do for others if only they will make a commitment to vote “yes” for us. Overall, we would make it known that we planned to be very generous with our positive votes, and that we would expect the same treatment in return.
But let’s say the bar is even higher. What if your entrance into heaven required a unanimous “yes” vote from your neighbors? And what if they were required to answer honestly whether you had always been helpful, whether you had always been kind, whether you had always shown the love for neighbor that God requires in the Commandments? Would you measure up?
This is a fair question to ask when reviewing today’s text. Jesus says that the difference between “the sheep” and “the goats” on the last day is what they did or did not do. This sounds a lot like the scenario I just described, except that it is not our neighbors voting for us, but Jesus Himself. Jesus decides who has properly served “the least of [His] brothers” and places them on His right to inherit heaven. But those who have not served “the least of these” go to His left and are condemned to hell.
What is it that separates one group from the other? “Well that’s easy!” someone might say. “The good people go to heaven and the bad people go to hell.” This seems like the obvious answer. But who decides what “good” means? Aren’t there Muslims, Buddhists, and even atheists, who do what would be considered “good” things? “Well okay,” comes the reply, “it is the Christians who go to heaven, and everyone else goes to hell.” But does everyone who says he is a Christian do good things? And how much good exactly does a Christian have to do to make the cut?
If the Lord said that we must “be as good as you can be,” it would be up to anyone’s interpretation how much goodness was required. We would hope that Jesus would take into account our environment and the difficult people around us, along with our natural weaknesses. We would expect Him to set the bar right around where we set it—with the understanding that the bar might go up or down depending on extenuating circumstances.
But would our amount of goodness be good enough for God? We could never be sure. Many people live with this uncertainty. Their life is punctuated by guilt for the wrongs they have done and by the pressure to make up for the wrongs. They hope that they measure up, but they are uncertain of the standard.
When I think of “measuring up,” one picture that comes to mind is children at the fair. They want to go on all the rides, but they learn that different rides have different height requirements. Just about anyone can go on the carousel. But in order to get into bumper cars or ride on something a bit more stomach-churning, a height requirement has to be met. These are the times that young children show excellent posture as they try to stretch themselves upward to reach that line.
The standard God sets for us, the line to reach up to, is not almost within reach. It is not “be as good as you can be.” The standard for getting ourselves into heaven is far above our heads. It is nothing less than perfection. Jesus says that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Mat. 5:18). And the apostle Paul citing the Old Testament Scriptures concludes, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Gal. 3:10). No matter how hard we try to stretch ourselves up to God’s line, we “fall short” of it (Rom. 3:23). We do not measure up.
So if all people have fallen short of God’s standard, how could anyone be placed at Jesus’ right on the last day? Those who are grouped with the sheep wonder the same thing. Jesus goes through the list of how they fed Him and gave Him drink and welcomed Him and clothed Him and visited Him. And the righteous reply, “Lord, when did we do all these good things for You?”
Jesus says, “as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.” He says that He counts service done for your neighbor as service for Him. So when you provide for your family and feed and clothe your children, or when you donate to help the poor, you are feeding and clothing Him. When you show kindness to a stranger, you are showing kindness to Him. When you visit the sick and the hurting, when you have compassion for those below you and those whom everyone else has rejected, you are doing these things for Him. This is surprising. You don’t even think about most of these things. But Jesus considers them to be great works done for Him. What an encouragement this is to look for opportunities to serve your neighbors!
At the same time, you can think of many opportunities you have missed, many times that you have not loved the people around you like you should—times that you disrespected your parents, despised your spouse, ignored your children, and acted unkindly toward others. If Jesus was behind your neighbor waiting for you to do the right thing, that means you failed Him. You worry that this might land you in the other camp on Judgment Day, the camp of those whom Jesus condemns.
But you are saved neither by what you have done nor by what you have failed to do. Whatever the measure of your works, they are not enough. You are saved by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith—by God’s undeserved love, because of what Christ has done for you, through the faith worked in you by the Holy Spirit. Listen to what the Scriptures say:
- “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16).
- “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” (Eph. 2:8-9).
- “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6).
- “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Ti. 3:5).
You are judged not by your works, but by God’s grace, which is yours through faith. This is the difference between the sheep and the goats, between believers and unbelievers. Though unbelievers may have done things in their lifetimes that appeared to be “good,” they are condemned because they did not do those things for Jesus. They rejected Him as their Savior, and therefore they could not please Him. “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Heb. 11:6).
But through faith, your works are pleasing to God. This should motivate you to want to do them—you want to please your Lord and Savior. You do these works not primarily because you fear God’s wrath or are trying to prove yourself to Him, but because you love Him. You love Him because of the great love He has shown to you.
Your Savior went to the cross for you and poured out His blood to wash away all your failings toward God and neighbor. In place of these sins, He gives His righteousness, which completely covers those who trust in Him. This is why He will credit the sheep with perfection on the last day. He sees them as though their sins had never occurred. He sees them as though He were looking at Himself. He sees in His beloved sheep no spot, no blemish, no wrong. There is no question in His mind who belongs on His right. They are the righteous ones who trust in His righteousness and not their own.
So if you wonder whether you measure up before God, these words of Jesus clearly show that on your own, by your own efforts, you do not. But in Him, you do measure up. By faith in Him, you will be among those at Jesus’ right who hear Him say, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” And then you will never hunger or thirst or be in want or worry about your standing with God, because then you will be in His glorious presence forever.
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(“The Last Judgment” painting by Fra Angelico, c. 1395-1455)
Good Friday – Pr. Faugstad homily
In Christ Jesus, who looks upon us with eyes full of mercy and grace, dear fellow redeemed:
How often did Mary kiss the face of the Christ-Child? How often did she gently touch His rosy cheeks as He drifted in and out of sleep? As she gazed at Him, did she think to herself that no woman ever had such a precious Child as she did? It was true—there was never a Child so precious. This Child was God’s gift to the world. It was God the Father’s only Son, begotten of Him from eternity, now clothed in human flesh.
But not all looked upon the face of this Man with the love that Mary did. Many hated Him. They despised the words that came from His mouth. They turned away from His eyes so piercing, so true. The very sight of Him made them scowl. They wished to look upon Him no more. They wanted Him to die.
Their plotting caught the ear of Judas. Yes, he would be glad to betray Jesus to them at an opportune time—for a price. On Thursday evening, he saw his chance when Jesus went with the other disciples to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas came to the garden with the leaders of the Jews and a band of soldiers. He stepped up to Jesus and kissed His face with a kiss of betrayal.
Then Jesus was arrested and bound and brought before the high priest. There, He began to suffer both verbal and physical abuse. After being declared guilty and deserving of death, the officers and others present proceeded to “spit in his face and [strike] him. And some slapped him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?’” (Mt. 26:67-68). Then He was sent before Pontius Pilate, who ordered Him to be flogged. The Roman soldiers likewise struck Him in the face and drove a crown of thorns into His head.
Now that face, so precious to Mary and beloved by His followers, was hardly recognizable. Now it was swollen, bruised, and bleeding. The writer of our chief hymn tried to paint this picture in words: “O sacred Head, now wounded,” “scornfully surrounded With thorns,” “despised and gory,” “pale with anguish,” “from Thy cheeks has vanished Their color,” “From Thy red lips is banished The splendor” (ELH 334/335, vv. 1-3). Jesus was wretched to look upon.
Then He was led to Golgotha to be crucified. Swollen though they were, His eyes still looked compassionately at the thief who suffered nearby and at His mother Mary and John. But His eyes also beheld with pain the jeering crowd below. What He saw was recorded long before this day in the 22nd Psalm. “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’… Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion” (vv. 7-8, 12-13).
He should not have had to see and suffer these things. He had done no wrong. But the world had. All had sinned. All had turned their faces away from God and His Word. Even when God became Man, “the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (Jn. 1:10-11). It was as Isaiah had prophesied long before, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not” (53:2-3).
Men did not “hide their faces” from Him because He was so ugly or disfigured. “Men hide their faces” because they are ashamed of their sins. Our sin is the reason Jesus was abused. Our sin is the reason He was nailed to a cross. None of this would have happened if we had listened all along to God instead of the devil.
But God the Son was willing to endure this pain. He “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:51) and suffer “sore abuse and scorn,” because He wanted to save you. He went to the cross to blot out your sins. He went there to atone for the sinful things you have looked at, the ungodly things you have listened to, and the unkind words you have spoken. He offered His sacred head—so full of compassion and grace—for yours, so full of selfishness and sin.
He is not angry that your sins caused Him such anguish. He does not look upon you disdainfully. He looks upon you with favor. He wants to bless you by the sight of His Sacraments before your eyes and the sound of His Gospel in your ears. He wants to bring you His forgiveness and life, so that your eyes are not filled with tears or your mouth with weeping, but that you find eternal joy and gladness in Him.
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(portion of painting by Matthias Grunewald, c. 1510)
The Festival of the Reformation (500th Anniversary) – Pr. Faugstad exordium & sermon
On February 18, 1546, Martin Luther died. He had been the unquestioned leader of the Reformation movement since it started some thirty years earlier. Now this brilliant, steadfast, controversial man was gone. With Luther out of the picture, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, decided that the time was right for war against the Lutheran princes. He hoped first to subdue the Lutheran forces and then to stamp out the Lutheran faith. In April of the next year, 1547, the Lutheran armies were defeated at the Battle of Mühlberg. John Frederick the Magnanimous, the Elector of Saxony and Luther’s good friend, was taken prisoner and sentenced to death. His life was spared only when he gave up his title and lands, including the town of Wittenberg, where Luther had lived and was buried.
What would happen to the Lutherans? Would Luther’s important work be undone? There were some who gave in to the Emperor’s demands. They compromised the clear teaching of the Gospel. But others boldly took their stand against the Emperor and his armies, knowing this could very well result in loss of property and life. With an unyielding spirit and a firm faith, they sang, “Still must they leave God’s Word its might, / For which no thanks they merit; / Still is He with us in the fight, / With His good gifts and Spirit. / And should they, in the strife, / Take kindred, goods, and life, / We freely let them go, / They profit not the foe; / With us remains the kingdom” (ELH 251, v. 4).
Even if every earthly treasure were taken from them, they knew they possessed everything in Christ. They could not lose. The Gospel of God’s abundant grace was theirs, and through it, His kingdom. This Word of grace is the great inheritance of the Reformation which has been passed down to us today, and which we are resolved to pass on to those who will follow after us. Let us therefore rise and sing, “God’s Word Is Our Great Heritage” (TLH 283; ELH 583).
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Text: St. Matthew 11:12-15
In Christ Jesus, the messianic Reformer who alone could overcome the violent enemies of mankind, dear fellow redeemed:
John the Baptizer had boldly preached God’s truth. He had gone forth “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Lk. 1:17) to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. He baptized Jesus in the Jordan River and pointed to him as “the Lamb of God” (Jn. 1:29). As Jesus began His public work, John continued to preach in the wilderness. Even the ruler of the land was not safe from his words. John openly declared that King Herod had sinned by taking the wife of his brother for himself. The king would not tolerate this. He arrested John and threw him in prison (Mk. 6:17). John had told the truth, but the truth was not welcome.
Jesus warned the disciples that this is how it would be for them too. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves,” He said, “so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles…. [A]nd you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (16-18, 22). They would be hated because they believed, taught, and confessed Jesus’ name.
Doesn’t it seem strange that anyone should get so worked up about mere words? Why not let people say whatever they want? How much harm can words do, as long as they are not accompanied by any sort of aggressive action? But the devil knows what a potent weapon words are, particularly God’s words. He cannot tolerate God’s Word. Wherever the Word of God is sown, the devil comes and tries to snatch it away, so that it cannot take root and grow in the heart (Mt. 13:19). Until the end of the world, the devil will throw everything he can against the work of the Word.
We see this in the way the apostles were attacked simply for preaching the Gospel. The same happened to the early Christians, as Satan incited the Roman authorities against them. The devil also poisoned the hearts of leaders within the church, so that they would attack the Word from the inside. Often these attacks were subtle, resulting in a gradual chipping away at the truth over time. But “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Gal. 5:9). By the time of the Reformation, the Gospel message of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus alone had largely been set aside. In its place, a complex system of private masses, indulgences, relics, pilgrimages, and other works of satisfaction had been established.
Some had tried to address these abuses in the church, and these men had either been muzzled or martyred, just like the apostles and prophets had been before them. Then God raised up Martin Luther. He was a loyal son of the Roman Church and took orders to become a monk. But as he studied the Word, Martin became convinced that serious errors had come into the church. He prepared 95 Theses criticizing the sale of indulgences and nailed them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. He wanted them to be the topic of a public debate in the immediate region. Instead, these statements were copied, printed in bulk, and sent far and wide in Europe.
Little did Luther know that just four years later, he would be standing before the Holy Roman Emperor, who ordered him to take back everything he had written. This, he could not do. “[M]y conscience is captive to the Word of God” he said. “I cannot and will not recant…. God help me.” He surely needed God’s help, since both the Roman emperor and the Roman pope wanted him silenced—and by fire if necessary.
What should Luther do? By this time, he was one of the most famous and powerful men in Germany. Had he called for the sword to be taken up against the Roman authorities, many would have answered that call. But what good would it have done? We remember Peter who took out his sword to fight for Jesus. Jesus told him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52). The sword of violence may be able to subdue outwardly, but it can never conquer the heart. The heart is conquered by a different kind of sword, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17).
Luther recognized this. He wrote, “I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe. But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play. I did nothing; I let the Word do its work” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 51, pp. 77-78).
The Word of God is the catalyst for the Christian’s victory, but it is also the catalyst for violence against the Church. The devil does all he can to snatch the Word away from people and people away from the Word. Jesus refers to this wicked activity when He says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” How can the Christian stand against the persecutions, the pressure, the threats, and the lies the devil instigates?
The answer is: humbly and faithfully. Isn’t that what Jesus Himself did? The Apostle Peter writes that each Christian must take up the cross of suffering and follow after Jesus. “For to this you have been called,” he says, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1Pe. 2:21-23).
But such a humble and faithful demeanor is not always what others see from us. Often, they see behavior that looks no different than how unbelievers are. We can be just as proud, just as petty in our disputes, just as eager to get revenge. Besides that, we worry. We worry that God will not protect us as well as He says He will. We let the devil’s violence intimidate us, while ignoring the victory Jesus won for us.
God knows these weaknesses well. Nothing is hidden from Him. But He does not leave us to be overcome by the devil. He sent Jesus to rescue you. He sent Jesus to crush Satan’s head and silence his accusations against you by giving His holy body and blood in payment for your sin. Then He rose from the dead on Easter in triumph over your death. Your greatest enemies, the ones that would do you eternal harm, have all been conquered by your Lord.
Not only that, but He continues to protect and bless you with His presence just as He promised, “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). In his famous hymn, Luther says about the devil that “Strong mail of craft and pow’r / He weareth in this hour; / On earth is not his equal.” But as powerful as Satan is, he cannot defeat you. Jesus fights for you – “The Lord of hosts, ’tis He / Who wins the victory / In ev’ry field of battle” (ELH 251, vv. 1, 2).
As we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we can look back at 500 Years of Violence against the truth. God’s Word will always be opposed in the devil’s kingdom. But those 500 Years of Violence are also 500 Years of Victory. The Apostle John reminds us that “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1Jn. 4:4). The devil could not defeat Christ, and therefore he cannot defeat those who trust in Christ.
May the Lord continue to keep us steadfast in His Word, so that we remain in the saving faith and look confidently forward to our final victory by the power and grace of God.
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