The Sixth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 5:20-26
In Christ Jesus, who reconciled us with God and grants us the gift of reconciliation with others, dear fellow redeemed:
When a star athlete, a talented actress, or a top student takes his or her talents to a larger community, it can often be a humbling experience. These individuals were the best in their hometown, but they find that things don’t come so easily on the big stage. They thought they were pretty good, but they learned they were not good enough.
Jesus told the crowd that had gathered around Him while He taught from the mountainside, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The people may have thought they were living a good life before God. They were trying to do what was right. They were at least as good as those around them. They maybe weren’t on the level of the scribes and Pharisees, the people who dedicated their entire lives to learning and doing the Law of God. But they were doing okay.
Jesus sent the clear message that their level of righteousness was insufficient. Even the scribes and Pharisees were not good enough to stand before God. He told the people their righteousness needed to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. To illustrate His point, Jesus brought up the Fifth Commandment: “You shall not murder.” The people knew that if they committed murder, they would have to go on trial in a human court. But as long as they did not murder, they imagined they had kept the commandment.
“Not so,” said Jesus. “This commandment is not kept by outward actions alone. It must be kept in the heart. I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” The people were completely shocked. They had never heard the Law explained in this way. If what Jesus said was true, then no one was righteous before God. If what He said was true, then they were guilty of sinning against the Fifth Commandment and all the rest of them.
To amplify His teaching, Jesus offered some examples of what keeping the commandment should look like. In this part of His sermon, He switched from addressing the crowd as a whole—using plural pronouns—to speaking to individuals, personally—using the singular pronoun. “This is for each one of you to consider in your own heart,” He was saying, including you and me today.
Jesus spoke about what to do when we have wronged another person in some way. When we remember an offense we have committed in our words or actions, we should seek to be reconciled with the one we offended. Our memory might especially be jogged as we listen to God’s Word. Jesus said when “you are offering your gift at the altar,” when you have come to hear the Word of God and glorify His name, that is when the memory of an offense may come to mind. The Holy Spirit works through the Word to convict us of our sins, which He is also doing today.
When our sins are not illuminated by the bright light of God’s Word, it is easy to think we are doing pretty well, like the people who first listened to Jesus so many years ago. The people in our community who have rejected the regular hearing and learning of the Word generally have the opinion about themselves that they are “good people.” They don’t need some preacher telling them what he thinks about God or about them.
Apart from God’s Word, it is also easy for us to justify the wrong things we have done or said or thought. “Well maybe I could have treated him better, but he treated me much worse!” “She doesn’t deserve Christian love and compassion after what she has done!” “I might have lost my temper and said some mean things, but he needed to hear it!” “I have every right to be angry with the way she hurt me!”
But God’s Law does not teach us to mistreat others if they have mistreated us. God’s Law teaches us to “[l]ove [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us]” (Mat. 5:44). Jesus says that if you “remember that your brother has something—anything—against you,” go and “be reconciled to your brother.” This thought is overwhelming. We have sinned against so many people in so many ways. How could we ever start to make amends with them all?
The place to start is with the person and situation that God has often brought to your mind—maybe someone you are thinking about right now. Very likely, your conscience has been troubled about how you treated them, but you don’t know how to fix what was broken. You tell yourself that maybe that person has forgotten what you said or doesn’t think it was a big deal. Or you worry that by admitting your wrongs to them, they will not admit the wrongs they did which hurt you. Or you are not sure they will even hear you out, and you are nervous about how they will respond.
Apologizing to someone for a sin you have committed is a hard thing, one of the hardest things to do. It is hard because apologizing makes you vulnerable. It puts your sin out in the open. It puts you at the mercy of another. And you cannot control how the other will respond. You cannot make them forgive you or apologize for their own hurtful words and actions.
So why would you ever want to go through with it? Why not just ignore the conflict in your conscience, try to forget what you have done, bury it deep? Because then you have harmed not only your neighbor, but you do tremendous harm to yourself, including spiritual harm. Jesus indicates the damage that comes if you refuse to be reconciled. He says that if you fail to “[c]ome to terms quickly with your accuser,” you will be judged and “put in prison.” And He adds that “you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
Insisting on our own righteousness even when we have done wrong, and ignoring the harm we have done to another, is a recipe for losing our faith. And that leads to the eternal prison of hell. We cannot trust our own righteousness and Jesus’ righteousness. We cannot justify our own words and actions and believe we are justified by grace. The righteousness that counts before God cannot come from ourselves. It has to come from outside of us.
Just before today’s reading, Jesus told the crowd that He had not come “to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” but “to fulfill them” (Mat. 5:17). He did not come to do away with the Law or to soften its impact. He sharpened its point, so that none could think on the basis of God’s Law that they are right with God. We feel the sharp point of the Law today. Our hearts are pierced as we think about how we have let selfishness and pride get in the way of love for our neighbors.
Our sin and guilt are why the Son of God came down from heaven and was made man in Mary’s womb. He came to fulfill all righteousness for us, to keep the holy Law of God to the smallest detail. His righteousness far exceeded the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. He never did an unkind deed, spoke an unloving word, or had a sinful thought toward any of the people around Him, not even those who wanted to destroy Him.
He went to the cross to pay for all their sins and yours and mine. He accepted the curse of the Law for us, even though He had not done anything to deserve it. He willingly took our punishment, so that we would be reconciled to God the Father. St. Paul writes that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Co. 5:19,21).
We are at peace with God because Jesus fulfilled the Law for us and shed His holy blood on the cross to redeem us. Jesus was the ultimate Peacemaker. Who else could have brought together the sinful human race and the perfect God? Now Jesus wants us to be the same kind of peacemakers in our communities, workplaces, and in our homes. He doesn’t ask us to make peace by our own skills of compromise and negotiation. He expects us to extend the peace to others that He shares with us.
You may not see how you can reconcile with someone who has caused you deep pain. But Jesus can do it; it is not impossible for Him. He reconciled you with God, even though you had broken His Law time and time again. And He can reconcile you with a brother or sister in Christ, a sinner just like you.
When He pours His peace and forgiveness into you through His Word and Sacraments, it spills over into your relationships with others. Acknowledging your sins takes courage, and He will give you that courage. Humbling yourself to apologize takes strength, and He will give you that strength. God forgives all your sins, and as He works through your humble words of repentance, He can move the heart of your friend to forgive you too.
At the beginning of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed Are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Mat. 5:9). All of you are “sons of God” through faith in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:26). That means you are God’s peacemakers on this earth. As you extend His peace and seek reconciliation with others, you most certainly will be blessed, as Jesus promises.
Even if others do not return the peace to you that you extend to them, you can go forward with a clear conscience. You “have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). His righteous life counts for you and all sinners and is the reason why you will enter the kingdom of heaven.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
+ + +
(picture from “The Sermon of the Beatitudes” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Third Sunday after Trinity & Installation of Vicar – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 15:1-10
In Christ Jesus, who carried out the work we could not do, so that we would be freed to do the work He has called us to do, dear fellow redeemed:
The Pharisees and scribes thought they had done great things. They thought they had succeeded in keeping the holy law of God. Or if they hadn’t kept it perfectly, they had at least kept it better than everyone else. They were self-righteous. They were proud. But they seemed to have a valid concern when they saw Jesus eating with known sinners in the community. Why would Jesus risk His reputation by spending time with them? Didn’t He realize people might take His association with them as approval of what they did?
But Jesus did not look at these outcasts any differently than He looked at the Pharisees and scribes. He saw every person He interacted with in the exact same way. He saw each one as a lost sinner in need of salvation.
The Pharisees thought they had done great works. Jesus called on them to do a greater one: repent of their sins. Repenting of our sins—admitting that we have sinned against God and our neighbors—is perhaps the hardest thing God asks us to do. It is so difficult for us that we can’t do it on our own.
It is tempting to think of repentance as a work that we do which causes God to do something for us. “If I repent of my sins,” we say, “then God will forgive me.” We think of repentance as meeting God halfway—I repent, and He meets me with forgiveness. This makes our work and His work equal. But repentance is not our work. Jesus said that after His ascension, He would send the Holy Spirit to “convict the world concerning sin” (Joh. 16:8). St. Paul writes that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1Co. 12:3). No one can repent of his sins and trust in Jesus as his Savior “except in the Holy Spirit.”
The parables of Jesus make this clear. We hear about a sheep that wandered from the flock. Did the sheep realize he had taken a wrong turn and get himself back to the shepherd? No, he just got himself more and more lost. The shepherd had to go looking for him, and when he found him, he set him on his shoulders and brought him home. Who did the work? The sheep did nothing; the shepherd did everything.
The next parable makes this even clearer. A coin was lost. Maybe it got lost in the couch cushions or kicked under a cabinet. It couldn’t roll itself out to a better position to be found. The woman did all the work. She lit the lamp, swept the house, looked high and low until she finally pulled the coin out of the dark place where it had been concealed.
Jesus wants you to recognize that by nature you are that lost sheep. You are that lost coin. We don’t like to think of ourselves in this way. We like to think of ourselves as being much more capable, much more righteous. This is why repentance is so difficult. Our sinful nature is constantly fighting against the work of the Holy Spirit. When we are confronted with our sin, our reaction is to deny it or divert the attention to someone else. Maybe we turn the focus back on the person who is accusing us. “Who are you to criticize me!?! You’re no saint! You are the last person who should be saying something to me!”
But God did not give His law to reveal the sins of everyone but you. You should read and study God’s law first of all as His message to you. You are a lost and condemned sinner by nature. You have broken God’s law in every way. No matter how good you may look compared to the people around you, you are not good enough for God. He demands perfection. You have sinned. You cannot save yourself.
But God is merciful toward you. He sent His only Son “to seek and to save the lost” (Luk. 19:10). Jesus is the Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to look for the one. What motivated Jesus to do this, to take on our flesh and sacrifice Himself for us sheep that loved to wander (ELH 292, v. 4)? He was motivated by perfect love toward His Father and perfect love for us. Jesus went to the cross for you, carrying all your sins of self-righteousness and pride and stubbornness, and He poured out His blood to wash away all your sins.
Your wayward ways are forgiven. Your wandering away from God’s care is forgotten. Your good Shepherd loves you. The angels of God rejoice because your merciful Lord has led you to repentance and faith in Him. The angels are not jealous that you will be joining them in heaven. There’s plenty of room! Jesus has prepared a place for you, even you, in heaven and for many more besides you.
God intends for all of you here to join Him in the mansions above. This is why He calls you week after week to hear His Word of grace and receive His Supper of salvation. The Holy Spirit’s work through the Word keeps you repentant. It keeps you faithful to our Lord’s promises. If you stop hearing this Word, the Word of your Shepherd and Lord, you will wander off again; you will become lost like you were before.
We have seen this happen with people we love. They used to go to church but now they don’t anymore. How do we get them back? You might think this is the pastor’s job. “Isn’t that one of the things we pay him for? And now he has another vicar to help him.” It is certainly part of my call to do this work. I am to care for the souls in our congregations and to reach out to more besides. But this isn’t just my calling as a pastor or Cody’s calling as a vicar. All of us are called to do this work as Christians.
Pastor Koren, who founded the Saude and Jerico congregations, suggested in a sermon on this text that the woman lighting a lamp and sweeping the house in search of the lost coin is a picture of God’s Church. The Church made up of all believers in Jesus is tasked with seeking the lost. This seeking starts with the members of our household, in the household of faith. Galatians 6 says, “let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (v. 10).
One way we “do good” for our brothers and sisters in Christ is to pray for them. Maybe you have been using our “Prayer Prompts” schedule to do this or just opening up your church directory to pray for your fellow members. And when you notice that a member has not been in church for a while, you can reach out to them and see how they are doing. It will have a greater impact coming from you than from the pastor. Why? Because of the mistaken perception that “the pastor is just doing his job.”
It is easy to wash our hands of our responsibility to our fellow Christians. But then we are no better than the Pharisees and scribes who were eager to condemn the sinners but were not eager to help them. The weakness we see in others is the same weakness that afflicts us. The sin that shows itself in others more or less publicly is the same sin in our own hearts.
We want others to regularly hear the Word of our Savior, because we know our need to regularly hear the Word of our Savior. We want others to repent because we know our need for repentance. We can relate to our fellow members and to our neighbors in the community, because all of us are sinners who need the rich grace of God.
Cody, this is the starting point of your work among us. You are called to be a humble servant to the people of this parish. The ability and the strength to do this work does not come from you. It comes from Him who took our weaknesses onto Himself, died for them on the cross, and rose victorious from the grave on Easter morning. Jesus, who redeemed you by His blood, will guide and prosper all your efforts done in His name.
As you go about your work among us, you will have plenty of reason to repent just as I do. You and I are sinners like the people we serve. But while we weep with our fellow sinners over our trespasses, we also have plentiful reason to rejoice with them. We rejoice because Jesus has forgiven all our weaknesses and wrongs. He does not leave us to our sinful ways. He comes looking for us and pulls us out of danger and back into His safety.
As He does this gracious work, the angels in heaven rejoice. We rejoice with them. We rejoice that God moves us to humbly repent and believe His Word. We rejoice that He brings long-lost sheep back to His fold. We rejoice that He has called us out of our pharisaical self-righteous to faith in Him.
All the good we have is a gift from Him. There is nothing we have done to deserve it. There is nothing we have done to earn it. He found us, the wandering sheep; He found us, the lost coins, and brought us to repentance and faith in Him. We pray that His gracious work will continue among us, and that He will use our humble hands to carry the lamp of His Word into the darkness, our humble mouths to call back those who have wandered, and our humble hearts to rejoice with them when Jesus brings them back.
This work is the Lord’s. And so is the glory.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
+ + +
(picture from “The Good Shepherd” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
Midweek Lent – Vicar Anderson homily
Text: St. Matthew 27:45-49
In the hours before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion He told the disciples that they would be offended and stumble because of Him. (Matthew 26:31) Jesus said, “Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.” (John 16:32)
Jesus’ disciples claimed they would never leave Him and yet they all failed Him in His greatest hour of need. The going got tough and His closest followers took off. The disciples betrayed Him, His opponents were winning and His enemies were killing Him. Christ was alone.
The disciples left Jesus’ side after they witnessed Him be surrounded by temple guards and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. It would be foolish to think we would have been any more faithful. We too haven’t always remembered and trusted Christ’s Words. We’ve had thoughts like, ‘He’s not who He says He is, what He promises is far too good to be true,’ or at times we think our sins are too great and are beyond the Lord’s ability to forgive. We think He won’t help us because we have been far too wicked and are too far-gone. We abandon the Lord because our sinful flesh and the devil convince us He has abandoned us.
There on the cross Jesus hung, abandoned by those who once loyally and boldly followed Him. We know of nothing recorded in Scripture that shows anyone coming to His aid or rescue. In fact the only person who speaks up to defend Jesus is the repentant criminal hanging next to Him. In the first three words from the cross Jesus prayed for His enemies; turned and forgave the guilty criminal next to Him and provided earthly care for those most dear to Him. Though no one came to His aid, Jesus remained our lifeline. The perfect Son of God continued to freely give forgiveness and life to His beloved children.
Then a tremendous shift takes place and from twelve o’clock to three in the afternoon darkness unfolded over all the land. Being mid-day the sun would have been at its highest and brightest. Christ’s crucifixion took place during the feast of the Passover, which was celebrated during the period of a full moon making an eclipse impossible. God the Father specifically brought this darkness for the judgment that was taking place on Calvary.
Now Jesus physical, mental, and spiritual anguish was met with the pain of eternal death, complete separation from His gracious Father. An earthly abandonment by His closest friends now met a far greater heavenly abandonment. God the Father turned His face away from Christ and no longer smiled upon Him. One theologian wrote, “the frowns of heaven were upon the Son of God.” (Lenski) Here judgment and the eternal wrath of God settled in and pressed down hard upon Jesus.
This forsakenness is far greater and significant than we can fully grasp. Jesus cries at the highest point of His suffering, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me,” (Matthew 27:46). In those dark three hours the righteous Son of God became sin and a curse and for three brutal hours His Father left Him completely alone. (Galatians 3:13) St. Paul writes, “For our sake God the Father made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) By taking your sins and my sins the lamb without blemish was made sin in the hours of His sacrifice.
Our Lord Jesus felt far more than the, injuries, shame and insults of the people, He felt the door of grace being shut on Him for all eternity. (Kretzmann) When God looked at His Son on the cross He saw the sin of the entire world and justly punished Christ for it. Jesus experienced hell for us, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48).
In the peak moments of Jesus’ suffering He cried, “My God, My God.” Jesus exemplified the very essence of faith by truly being forsaken by God and yet still solely depended on Him to save Him. Jesus remained faithful to God at all times even in the midst of hell. No person can fully grasp the depth of what Christ was experiencing in those moments. In mercy God has spared us from fully understanding the reality of what took place in those three hours upon the cross. The closest we can come to understanding this moment on the cross is with the help of Psalm 22.
“I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22: 14–15). The darkness of that day alone would have been enough to make us shudder in fear and sorrow, but that is nothing compared to the darkness Jesus felt in his soul!
God withdrew His countenance from Jesus. God no longer caused His face to shine upon Him. (Numbers 6:22–27) At Jesus’ greatest point of need He was forsaken, so that by His abandonment He would come to your aid. The Father declared Jesus guilty on account of all your sins and damned Him to hell to justify you and forgive you. Jesus cried out and received no answer so that now when you cry out you are answered each and every time. (1 John 3:22) Christ Jesus was overcoming rejection, condemnation and eternal destruction for you.
This dreadful forsakenness of Christ is great news for all sinners. The gospel rings out in Christ’s loud cry, “My God My God why have you forsaken me?” By Jesus’ cry you know that you are liberated from all of your wrongdoing because He endured hell on the cross in your place. God cannot and will not abandon you because of what His beloved Son endured. God the Father’s countenance shines upon you, the warmth of His smile guides you every day of your life. You are declared righteous on account of Jesus. He has suffered the judgment and wrath of God for you.
There is no doubt that you and I will face hardships in this life, but no matter how bad they get you have the assurance it is only temporary. Jesus took eternal pain, suffering, and sadness so that you would never have to. You will never be cut off from God because in Christ God was reconciling you to himself, not counting your trespasses against you. (2 Corinthians 5:19) Your relationship with God is repaired by the work of your Savior.
The righteous Christ became your sin so that your sin would become His righteousness. Jesus took care of you on the cross and still takes care of you today. His love extends forever and comes to you now. Christ Jesus overcame the world, the fires of hell and the devil so that now you can have eternal life with Him in heaven.
The sinless Son of God must die in sadness;
The sinful child of man may live in gladness;
Man forfeited his life and is acquitted;
God is committed.
(Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary; 292 v. 5)
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
+ + +
(picture from Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald, c. 1510)
Septuagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 20:1-16
In Christ Jesus, who knows how to turn something ugly and forsaken into something beautiful and fruitful, just as He has done for each of us, dear fellow redeemed:
We have been learning more about the Saude church over the last two weeks. We can now see what the walls looked like before they were paneled. We can see where changes were made, like lowering the pulpit and the door that leads to it. We have taken a fresh look at the ductwork, the electrical wiring, and the amount of insulation in the ceiling and walls. Everything we see gives us a greater appreciation for this structure built in 1904 and maintained to the present day.
It is good to understand the things that happened before us that make our current work possible. Not many of us start our jobs from scratch, building a business from the ground up. Even the ones who do, learn from the work of others who were engaged in similar efforts. In my case, I am just one in a long line of pastors who have served our congregations. And you are just one in a long line of members who have attended here. Our work here is only possible because of the work done by others before us.
In Jesus’ parable for today, He doesn’t give any backstory. There is a master of a house who owned a vineyard, and there were workers in the marketplace waiting for employment. But every piece of cultivated land has to be brought into operation. We think about the settlers in the Great Plains who had to break the sod and clear trees in order to have tillable land. The same must have been true for the owner of this vineyard.
So imagine a plot of land about 15 acres large. It is the ugliest piece of ground you have ever seen. No one would expect any good to come from it, since it is so full of stones small, medium, and very large. Twisted around and over the stones are great thorny shrubs and weeds. Sour-looking critters dart out from dark holes in the ground. Crows break the silence with their sharp cries as they keep a close watch on everything.
“You’d have to be crazy to buy that land!” the people said. “You’ll walk away before you clear a square foot!” But he had gone ahead anyway. It may not have been good land, but it was his land. He went to work. He had no tractor, skid loader, or backhoe like we have today. He carried every rock in his arms to the edges of the property and set them in place for a wall. The stones he couldn’t lift, he chipped away one piece at a time. He pulled out every thorny shoot and branch. His hands ached and bled. Every muscle hurt. The sun scorched him. Progress was slow.
It was terrible work. Lesser men would have left it long ago. But he had set his mind to it—he wouldn’t give up. First one acre was cleared. Then two. Then three. His hands became rough and calloused, almost permanently molded around the handles of his shovel and ax. His shoulders were rounded from hours of bending over, pulling, and lifting. It looked like a burden weighed him down even when His shoulders were empty. Day after day, hour after hour, minute after painful minute, he kept on.
You’d think his determination would earn him the respect of his neighbors. But all he got was ridicule. “You’re a proper pair!” they jeered. “You’re just as ugly as that wretched land!” He was a laughingstock. “What a waste!” they said. “He could do better begging!” He shut all that out. He started the job, and he was going to finish it. Ten acres. Eleven acres. Twelve acres. The ground was taking shape. The wall was up on three sides, tall and straight. And then everything was done.
No one who saw it before would have believed it was the same plot. It was totally transformed. The hard, rocky ground now looked like it had potential. He planted grapevines, and they soon poked through the soil. It seemed like they grew an inch or more every day. That forsaken, twisted ground was now lined with row after row of green-leafed vines. The landowner hadn’t given up. He earned that land, every last inch of it, and he deserved every penny it produced for him.
Now imagine that this man is the one “who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” He offered the laborers he found a denarius a day. He knew the value of money, and this was good pay for a day’s work. Then he found more workers at the third, sixth, ninth, and even the eleventh hours. He promised to compensate each of them with “whatever is right.”
The vineyard owner wasn’t looking to cheat anyone. He knew what it was like to work every inch of that piece of land. He knew the feeling of those slow midday hours in the scorching heat. He knew what the workers were experiencing, but they didn’t know what he had experienced. They hardly thought about what it took to clear this land. All they could think about was how tough they had it and how ready they were for the work to be done.
At the end of the day, the vineyard owner told his foreman to distribute payment to the workers—payment from his hard-earned money. Those who had hardly gotten their hands dirty from one hour of work were stunned to receive a denarius! The same went for those who had worked three hours and six hours and nine hours—each of them received payment as though they had worked the entire day. And finally the ones who did work all day received the same amount—exactly what they had been promised from the beginning.
They expected to receive more than the others and were angry when they didn’t. But no wrong had been done. “I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you,” said the vineyard owner. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” And that’s right. He had earned it. The vineyard was his. What it produced was his. He was not required to hire any of the men he had hired. But in fact he hired a great many—some of whom hardly did anything. And he rewarded them most generously, even though their work in the vineyard was nothing like his had been.
Jesus said “the kingdom of heaven is like” this. The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom in which work is rewarded not according to the effort of the laborers, but according to the generosity of their Lord. That’s not how it works in the world. That’s why the people of the world—especially us Americans—feel and act so entitled. “Well I’ve put my time in; this is what I deserve. Nobody has worked like I’ve worked. Nobody has suffered like I’ve suffered. I’ve had it tough—everyone else owes me.”
This is the kind of mentality that leads workers to treat their bosses with disrespect. It is the reason why some justify giving a bare-minimum-effort in their job. It is what causes some to take advantage of their employer and even to steal little things here and there in order to “balance the scales.”
We’re all good at focusing on what we deserve, and we try to take the same approach with God. We think that since we have worked so hard to be good, we should be rewarded more than those who have done little good. If we endure the scorching heat of temptation and trouble more than others have to, we should receive more blessings from God. If we wager more for God’s kingdom through our offerings, our time, and our efforts, we deserve a better standing before Him.
It’s all very reasonable. But it doesn’t account for the big picture. It’s like those grumbling workers who didn’t understand or appreciate how hard the landowner had to work to earn the money that he delivered to them. They just saw their own situation and how it compared with the state of the people around them. They didn’t see what had to happen before to put them in the position they were in.
This is what we forget about God’s work on our behalf. We forget about the rich love of God the Father that caused Him to send His Son to be our Substitute. The world was like that ugly plot of ground, full of rocks and thorns, unfit for anything good. And Jesus went to work. He worked in the hot sun, under the heat of those who hated Him and wished to destroy Him. Every sin that had polluted His good creation, He dug out and hoisted up and carried on His shoulders. His will to finish the task was stronger than any scheme of the devil to distract and discourage Him.
He completed the work. He carried every sin to the cross and cleansed the world of all its ugliness by pouring out His holy blood. That same blood cleanses you even now. It flows over the rocky ground of your heart. It removes the boulders and uproots all the prickly thorns of your sins. His blood makes you a new creation, a new and fruitful plot of ground. Because of the work He did in your place, Jesus credits you with His holy life. He gives all His riches and success to you, all His glory to you.
He has called you to work in His vineyard, in His holy Church, and you don’t have to worry about proper compensation. You already have everything that is His. You already have it all! If He should decide to give the gift of salvation to other poor sinners like you and me, who will begrudge His generosity? It is a privilege to work in the beautiful vineyard of His kingdom.
The only way into this vineyard is by grace, by our Savior’s undeserved love for us sinners. So we sing: “Salvation unto us is come / By God’s free grace and favor” (ELH 227, v. 1), and “By grace I’m saved, grace free and boundless” (ELH 226, v. 1). Jesus Gives Us Everything by Grace. “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).
+ + +
(picture from 11th century Byzantine manuscript of laborers working in the vineyard [lower portion] and receiving their denarius [upper portion])
The Festival of the Reformation – Pr. Faugstad exordium and sermon
504 years ago today, Martin Luther put the finishing touches on Ninety-Five Theses, which especially criticized the sale of indulgences in the church. The sellers were telling people that by purchasing these indulgences, officially authorized by the pope, they could instantly free the souls of loved ones from purgatory. If they dropped so much money in the box, they could end the suffering of their relatives and friends.
Luther knew this wasn’t right, though he did not yet fully understand the main reason. At this time, he thought people should not try to do with money what they should be doing with their prayers and good works. Later he realized that nothing more is needed to win heaven than the perfect life and atoning death of Jesus.
A golden coin could not free someone from God’s wrath. A golden coin could not even cancel out one sin. By the grace of God, Luther came to believe and teach what the Bible teaches, that “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1Pe. 1:18-19).
Luther realized that this good news of salvation was for him, but he didn’t keep it to himself. He wanted the whole world to know it. He preached and taught constantly, and his writings were distributed throughout Europe and beyond. But it is not Luther that we praise today. We praise the God who is merciful and gracious. He opened Luther’s mind and heart to the truth of the Gospel, just as He has done for you and me.
He has shown us that it is not who we are or what we have done that saves us. We are saved entirely by what Jesus has done for us. We are saved by grace. All that we need to get to heaven, Jesus has supplied. This is not something we can afford to lose. It is not something to keep to ourselves. It is something that the whole world of sinners needs to hear. Let us now rise to sing our Exordium hymn, #583 – “God’s Word Is Our Great Heritage.”
God’s Word is our great heritage,
And shall be ours forever;
To spread its light from age to age
Shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way;
In death it is our stay.
Lord, grant, while worlds endure,
We keep its teachings pure,
Throughout all generations.
+ + +
Sermon text: St. Matthew 11:12-15
In Christ Jesus, who is not afraid of any wicked scheme of man or dark power of the devil, but who destroys their efforts by His powerful Word, dear fellow redeemed:
John the Baptizer was in prison. He was in prison for telling the truth. He told King Herod that is was not right for him to marry his brother Philip’s wife. King Herod did not like hearing that. His wife—or rather his brother’s wife—especially did not like hearing that. No one likes having their personal choices questioned. Each of us likes to have things our own way. But our own way does not lead us to the kingdom of heaven. Our own way leads us to everlasting destruction.
When John arrived on the scene, he shook up the people’s own way of thinking. He did not come telling everyone what they wanted to hear. He came to say this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” You know what it means to repent. It means to recognize your sin and admit it. It means acknowledging that your choices are not always good ones, your words are not always edifying, your thoughts are not always pure.
But what did John mean by “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”? He meant that the earth was not going to be left to its own devices. Heaven’s Lord was intervening. God had come down to earth. But He had not come only in the sense of being in all places at all times. God had come down to earth in a unique way, a mysterious way. God had become a Man. He had taken on human flesh in the virgin Mary’s womb. The all-powerful God who made all things, who knows all things, who can do anything—He was here.
“Repent!” was a very appropriate message. Who could face the incarnate God? Who wouldn’t tremble in His presence? The demons certainly trembled. They knew who Jesus was. They knew what He could do. But many people did not listen to John. They did not repent. They did not believe that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” They did not believe that Jesus was who John said He was. They thought they were fine on their own, living the way they had always lived. There were many others who were worse than they were. The truly wicked people—those were the ones who needed to repent!
“No,” said John. “No,” said Jesus. “You repent. Don’t look at her. Don’t look at him. Look at yourself. You repent.” This is the call of the Law: “Own your sinful words. Own your sinful actions. Own your sinful thoughts. Don’t point the finger at others. You are guilty.” That’s hard for us to take. From a young age, we do whatever we can to avoid the consequences of our sin. We lie about our bad behavior. We justify our wrongdoing. We point out all the weaknesses and missteps of those around us, so the focus isn’t on us. But in trying to avoid guilt, we just feel guiltier. In trying to avoid shame, we feel more ashamed.
We know we are not as we should be. We are sinners. But heaven’s Lord did not come to destroy sinners. He came to save them. “Behold, the Lamb of God,” said John, “who takes away the sin of the world!” (Joh. 1:29). “The Lamb of God”—not a ferocious lion, not a dragon breathing destruction—a lamb. Jesus came to be the sacrifice. He came to be slaughtered. He, without blemish or spot, came to give His perfect life in our place to pay for each and every one of our sins. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!—God has come down to save.”
But those who will not repent have no need of “the Lamb.” No matter how good, no matter how kind, no matter how gentle, if He is not here to pat them on the back, if He is not here to praise them, they have no need of Him. When Jesus did not confirm the scribes and the Pharisees in their self-righteousness, they hated Him. They thought violent thoughts toward Him, which led to violent actions. They couldn’t just ignore Jesus; they had to end Him.
It was the same way with John. All he did was speak. But King Herod couldn’t leave it alone. Words really are the most powerful tool, the most powerful weapon, there is. That’s why there are people today who see Christianity as the greatest threat to their plans. It’s not because Christians are going to grab weapons to do physical harm. God never calls us to do that in His name. The enemies of Christianity see it as the greatest threat because they don’t like the words that Christians speak—they don’t like God’s Word.
And God’s Word is a force to be reckoned with. In fact, God’s Word is the greatest power there is. The devil knows it; that’s why he is constantly working to turn people away from the Word. God’s Word does not return to Him empty. It accomplishes exactly what He wants it to (Isa. 55:11). What He wants it to accomplish is the softening of sin-hardened hearts, and the comforting of sin-stained consciences.
Our merciful Lord wants you to hear that Jesus’ perfect life covers over all your failures to keep His Commandments. He wants you to hear that Jesus’ innocent suffering and death satisfies His righteous wrath for your sins. He wants you to hear that Jesus’ resurrection conquered death itself, which means death will not be the end of you.
John the Baptizer set the stage for all these things to take place. Once he opened his mouth, the world was never the same and never could be the same. Jesus highlighted this turning point in history when He said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence.” While it is certainly true that the arrival of the Christ stirred up the powers of darkness, a better translation here is not that something is attacking the kingdom of heaven, but that “the kingdom of heaven is forcefully advancing.”
The kingdom of heaven does violence. It does violence to human pride. It does violence to human greed. It does violence to human self-centeredness. The kingdom of heaven does this work by the power of the Word. Martin Luther explained this in the Second Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “The kingdom of God comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and live godly lives here in time and hereafter in eternity.”
When John came on the scene, the kingdom of heaven forcefully advanced as he pointed to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. And it continues to advance even now. As it advances, some react violently against it. They want to halt the progress of the Word. But others grab hold of it; they seize its promises and refuse to let go.
This is our heritage in the Lutheran Church. The Lutheran Church is a church of God’s Word. Despite overwhelming opposition, Luther grabbed hold of God’s gracious promises and would not let them go. We still benefit today from the forcefulness and the clarity of his confession. But the clear Gospel is of no use to us if we do not forcefully take hold of it, make it our own, and refuse to give up God’s promises even on pain of death.
John went to his grave for the truth. Luther was ready to. And now we are on the battlefield. But we do not fight alone. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”—Jesus with His Word is at hand.
Stood we alone in our own might,
Our striving would be losing;
For us the one true Man doth fight,
The Man of God’s own choosing.
Who is this chosen One?
’Tis Jesus Christ, the Son,
The Lord of hosts, ’tis He
Who wins the victory
In ev’ry field of battle.
(Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary 251, v. 2)
+ + +
(picture from “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1565)
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.
+ + +
(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.”
+ + +
(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).
+ + +
(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.
+ + +
(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.
+ + +
(picture from “Jesus and the Little Child” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)