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.
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 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.
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 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).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from 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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The Second Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 20) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 22:1-14
In Christ Jesus, who brought us solitary sinners into the great fellowship of the Holy Christian Church, and the Communion of Saints, dear fellow redeemed:
If you walked into an opposing team’s stadium wearing your hometown gear, if you were a Democrat living in a Republican area or a Republican living in a Democrat area, if you were a teacher assigned to a classroom of twenty rowdy preschoolers, you would agree that “there is strength in numbers.” As confident as we are when on the side of strength, we can feel quite overmatched when on the side of the few. We like to have a lot of allies. We don’t like to be singled out. Staying on the side of strength is also safer. Being part of a big crowd probably means you won’t have to take the lead. You can let others do that while lending your support. And if you are attacked in some way, you have a whole bunch of friends to back you up.
On the other side, the small group is much more vulnerable. Its members are more easily intimidated. Their voices can be ignored or drowned out. They worry about whether they are thinking and doing the right thing. After all, how could so many oppose something that is beneficial and good? They wonder if it is even worth it to take a stand, since no one will listen to them anyway.
But while it is easier and safer to be on the side of strength, it is not always best. The majority is not always right. There are examples of this throughout history. At the time of Noah, most people had fallen away from God. The LORD saw that “every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). The only exception was Noah and his family; they trusted God’s Word. Human sinfulness was just as evident after the Flood. Ten generations after Noah, the LORD called Abram away from idol worship to become the father of a new nation in the land of Canaan.
Then followed Isaac and Jacob, and the chosen people of God expanded. God helped them conquer the Promised Land. But growth in numbers did not lead to growth in faithfulness. The people turned to the false gods of the nations around them (Jud. 2:11), and “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6). God sent a series of judges and then kings to lead His people in the right way, but they continued to fall away from Him. When the Prophet Elijah came on the scene, he lamented that he was the only person left who followed the LORD. The LORD replied that there were 7,000 others besides Elijah who had not bowed down to Baal (1Ki. 19:18).
The pattern we see in reviewing Old Testament history is that God’s people rarely seem to have an advantage in numbers. When they do, they typically let their power go to their heads and fall in with the unbelievers. It appears that the Church of believers is strongest when it faces overwhelming odds. Think about the apostles preaching the truth about Jesus in the very city where He was killed. The message took root in people’s hearts, and they were baptized in God’s name. But as the church grew, it was weakened by the attacks of false teachers. Those attacks only intensified when Christianity was given legal status in the Roman Empire. The larger the church grew, the more it was torn apart.
The same is true today. Christianity has reached around the world. There are probably Christians in every country. But look how divided the church is! Why does this happen? It happens because of the devil’s wicked deeds. As he once incited Adam and Eve to rebel against God and His Word, so he incites sinners against Christ, and Christian against Christian. The Lutheran hymnwriter Philip Melanchthon expresses this sad reality, “The foul old dragon and dread foe / With envy, hate, and wrath doth glow; / It always is his aim and pride / Thy Christian people to divide” (ELH 545, v. 4).
Jesus says that the devil is like an enemy who comes during the night and sows weeds among the wheat (Mt. 13:38-39). The weeds grow up right alongside the wheat and make it difficult for them to remain healthy plants. The weeds may even grow within the visible Christian church. This is obvious to us. There are many who call themselves Christian who clearly are not Christian at all. They might teach that Jesus was nothing more than a noble teacher, or that God is pleased with those who disobey His Commandments. Other cases are not so obvious. Some appear to be good Christians but are actually hypocrites. Jesus promises that these will be sorted out on the last day and thrown “into the fiery furnace” (13:50).
Statistically, Christianity is the largest religion in the world. But how many who call themselves Christian actually believe in Jesus alone as their Savior? Only God knows that answer, but without a doubt, the Holy Christian Church is not as large as it seems.
We know what role the devil plays in this, but the fault lies not just with Satan. The fault of unbelief rests in our own wicked hearts. It is not God’s fault that so many reject His will and His Word. What more should He do? He created the world perfectly and handed it over to mankind to manage. But they decided to listen to a deceitful snake, and chose to love themselves instead of God. The LORD did not cast them eternally from His presence, which He would have been justified in doing. He gave them hope in a Savior, who would be born of a woman and would crush the devil’s head (Gen. 3:15).
The LORD kept that promise. The Messiah was conceived in Mary’s womb, and God became Man. Jesus healed and blessed and taught, committing no sin against anyone. But His gracious presence was not welcome. Jew and Gentile rose up and condemned Him to die by crucifixion. They abused and mocked Him. In return, He forgave them. He willingly died to win life for the wicked. Then He rose again and appeared to hundreds, so they and all people would know that the victory over sin, death, and devil was won for them. After this, He sent out the Holy Spirit to change the hearts of sinners through the Gospel. And He continued to strengthen and bless them through the Sacraments He established. What more does God need to do that He has not done?
And yet the typical response to these gifts is indifference. The king’s wedding feast is ready, and the invitations are sent out, but no one seems to care. “[O]ne [goes off] to his farm, another to his business.” Some even react violently to the message of God’s Word. They treat God’s servants shamefully and want them to be dead. This was true of the Israelites before the time of Christ, who persecuted the LORD’s prophets, and it is still the case today. This spirit of indifference is also true of us who consider ourselves serious Christians. We do not often get out of bed eager to fill our hearts and minds with God’s Word and do His will. And when God invites us to feast on His Word and Sacraments, it is easy to come up with other things to do that seem more pressing and important.
Like a person stepping on crumbling rock to get a good look over a cliff, we do not recognize how easy it is to fall from the faith. Jesus warns us, “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt. 7:13-14). So many deviate from the narrow path to heaven and join the great crowd marching to hell. How can you be sure that you aren’t one of them? How do you know if you are among the few that are both called and chosen?
Well, let me ask you a few questions:
- Are you saved because of the righteous things you have done, or because Jesus lived a holy life for you?
- Are you forgiven because you atoned for your sins, or because Jesus shed His blood and died for you?
- Will you rise again from the dead because you deserve it, or because Jesus won the victory over death for you?
If your answer to every question is Jesus, then you are among the chosen. You are the elect of God. Because “those whom he predestined—elected according to His grace—he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). God chose you from eternity to believe in Him, and He called you to that faith through the Gospel. He made you His own and cleansed your sinful heart in holy baptism, and He continues to strengthen your faith through the preaching of His Word and the Sacrament of His body and blood.
Why has He done this for you? It is not because you deserved it, or because you are better than others. This is what is so perplexing to our rational minds. We cannot explain why it is that we believe while others do not. By nature, we are just as troubled as anyone else, just as sinful, just as hostile to God. But God has been gracious to us. He chose us to “be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness” (Second Article of the Creed). He called us to His wedding feast, clothes us in rich garments, and has us sit down at the feast while He serves us!
There is strength in numbers, but strength and numbers are not everything. There are times When Being among the Few Is a Blessing. We thank God that He has redeemed us from the destruction we deserved and brought us into His little flock. And we pray that He keeps us steadfast in His Word and faithful to the end, as we enjoy His good gifts here and anticipate the great wedding feast in His eternal kingdom.
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The Seventh Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Natvig Reunion at Saude
Text: Jeremiah 31:23-25
In Christ Jesus, who has gone to prepare a place for us, so that we may be with Him forever, dear fellow redeemed:
What is the place that you think of as your home? Is it where you currently live? Is it where you grew up? Those of you who have lived in the same place for decades might have an easier time answering this question. Others of you who have moved around a bit might identify “home” less with a location and more with family members or your belongings. For some of you, home might be this part of northeast Iowa where your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents lived, even though you never lived here yourself.
Abram grew up in the city of Ur in the southeastern part of modern-day Iraq and moved with his father to the city of Haran in the northern part of modern-day Syria. But neither of those places was to be his home. The LORD told him to leave his country and his father’s house and go to the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:1). This was the land where his offspring would live. But Abram was a nomad, wandering from place to place with his herds and flocks. His son Isaac lived the same life, as did his sons Jacob and Esau. When Jacob’s son Joseph was made the second-in-command in Egypt, Jacob and all his children and grandchildren moved there.
In Egypt, the family multiplied to such an extent that a Pharaoh ruling long after Joseph’s death enslaved these “Israelites.” Now, God’s promise to give the land of Canaan to Abram’s descendants seemed like nothing but an empty dream. Pharaoh would never let them go. But the LORD called Moses to lead them out of Egypt, and they were delivered from slavery. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the LORD brought them to the land He had promised, the land of Canaan.
What a gift the LORD had given them! No more wandering. No more longing for a place to call their own. They were finally home! But it wasn’t long before they forgot the One who brought them out of slavery and gave them this land. They began to think that their success was due to their own strength. They thought that they could blend the religious practices of the people around them into their own culture without losing sight of who they were. It wasn’t long before their hearts were given over to the false gods of the Gentile nations. Even when they performed the ceremonial rites that God commanded, they were only going through the motions.
God sent the Assyrians against the northern kingdom of Israel, and in 722 B. C. the Israelites were either killed or exiled, never to be heard from again. The southern kingdom of Judah survived awhile longer, until its people were also exiled in the year 586. God had given them a good home, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Jer. 32:22), but they had forgotten Him. They praised themselves for their prosperity, and trusted in their own efforts and abilities. The LORD said through the prophet Jeremiah, “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely…. Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it”’” (6:13,16).
However the LORD did not forget His people. He brought them back from their captivity in Babylon. He returned them to the home promised to their forefathers so long before. He did exactly what He said He would do in today’s text, “And Judah and all its cities shall dwell [in the land] together, and the farmers and those who wander with their flocks. For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.”
For many of you, your forefathers set out from the lands of Europe many years ago. The people who formed the congregations of Jerico and Saude were Norwegian immigrants. They left Norway because the population there was expanding, and they heard about land for the taking in America. Men, women, and children left their families and the only home they had ever known, and got aboard overcrowded ships to make the long journey to a new country. These families could bring along only the most essential items. Among these items could almost always be found a Bible, a Catechism, and a Lutheran hymnbook.
They arrived with hardly anything to their name but trusted that their gracious LORD would provide for them. And He did. Like the Israelites of old, He led them to their own land. And He gave them the strength and the will to cultivate the land and make a home for themselves. It was hard work, but the LORD blessed it. These humble settlers gave credit where credit was due. They confessed along with their first pastor, the Rev. U. V. Koren, the words we just sang, “Not we, but the Lord is our Maker, our God: / Glory be to God! / His people we are, and the sheep led by His rod; / Sing praise unto God out of Zion!” (ELH #56, v. 2).
But the land could not provide everything that these industrious settlers needed. It gave them the materials required for barns and shelters. It produced food for themselves and their livestock. It satisfied their physical needs well enough. But the land could not provide for their spiritual needs. Only the Word of God can do that.
Before I came to serve this parish, I was a pastor in the western part of Washington in the city of Tacoma, south of Seattle. The religious culture in the Pacific Northwest is not what it is here. Many do not go to church or have any interest in organized religion. When they have free time (typically on the weekends), people like to go hiking in the mountains or spend time on the coast. They imagine that nature is their connection to the divine, if there is a god at all.
This mentality is not as obvious in the Midwest, but we are not far behind. Our culture likes to present religious teaching something like the menu at a restaurant. “Oh, I’ll take this, but could you bring it without this and this? I just can’t stand that. I don’t know how anyone could swallow that.” It used to be for our grandparents and great-grandparents that whatever the Bible said was the truth. Now we hear talk about how Jesus’ apostles were chauvinistic or homophobic. Jesus Himself is recast as a good teacher whose core message is that we should love and accept everyone just the way they are.
But is that why the Son of God became Man? Was it His mission to deliver the message that everyone is perfect just the way they are? Our ancestors knew better, and I hope we do too. Jesus described His mission in this way, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10). Who are the lost? He was not referring to the Israelites exiled by the Assyrians, or to the Judeans taken by the Babylonians. He is talking about you and me and all sinners. We are those who are lost in our sins by nature. We have wandered far off the right path and cannot find our way back again. In our sin, we have no prospect of a good home or a bright future.
But some do not think they are lost. They think they have all they need in this life. “The weak and the small-minded might go for what the Bible says, but not me.” But then where is your hope? What purpose does your life have? What good will all your earthly wealth do when death comes? Our beloved ancestors buried around this church do not have bank accounts anymore. They do not own land. They wouldn’t care if they did. They left behind their temporary riches in this world for eternal riches in heaven. They left their good homes here for a far better home where the LORD dwells.
They did not get there by hard work or a noble character. They got there by grace. God the Father sent His Son to gather up the lost like a good shepherd gathers his wandering sheep [which is depicted so nicely on the altar painting at Saude]. Jesus came to save each weary soul, every person languishing in sin, all those who had fainted along the way. He came to save you. He came to give you what you cannot earn or buy or manufacture or produce. He came to win for you the forgiveness of your sins, which could only be obtained through the shedding of His holy blood.
This is the heart of Christian teaching, that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). This is the Gospel truth that has been passed down to us from generation to generation. It never goes out of style. It never needs to change. It is God’s timeless promise to the world of sinners. Whoever comes to Him with a humble heart, repenting of all sins, trusting His gracious Word—these He will never cast out (Jn. 6:37).
The LORD loves to forgive sins. He loves to provide living water from the well of His Word. He loves to feed the hungry with His own body and blood. And He loves to bring the weary and faint to Himself in heaven. There, our struggle will be over, our hard labor ended, and our longing for a lasting home satisfied. As our Norwegian ancestors sang, “In heav’n above, in heav’n above, / No tears of pain are shed, / For nothing there can fade or die; / Life’s fullness round is spread, / And like an ocean, joy o’erflows, / And with immortal mercy glows / Our God, the Lord of hosts!” (ELH #542, v. 3).
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The Fourth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 6:36-42
In Christ Jesus, the Merciful, dear fellow redeemed:
Suppose you woke up one day with a special power, but you did not know you had it. The special power is that everyone you meet immediately adopts your attitude. If you are happy, they are happy. If you are kind and gracious, they are kind and gracious. But if you are in a bad mood, they are in a bad mood. If you complain, they complain. If you act self-centered and rude, they act the same way. How much would you enjoy being around others? How pleasant would that be? I suppose it would depend on the day, wouldn’t it? This is a special power you probably are not interested in having.
At the same time, the way you communicate with others does have some effect on the way they communicate with you. If you greet someone warmly, you have a much better chance of a kind response than if you shove them out of your way. If you help and befriend others, they will be much more likely to want to help and befriend you. But “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Lk. 6:31), should not be driven by selfish motives. If a Christian gives primarily so that he might receive, how is that different from the way unbelievers operate?
In today’s text, Jesus talks about what it means to live a godly life. He does not say that our interactions with others should be based on how they treat us. He does not teach us to look out for ourselves above all else. He tells us to love instead of seeking revenge, and to forgive instead of storing up wrongs. Revealing to us the How and the Why, Jesus commands us to “Be Merciful, Even as Your Father Is Merciful.”
“Being merciful” could mean a lot of different things. If I am a parent, it could mean assigning no consequences for bad behavior. If I am a banker, it could mean cancelling all debts. If I run a service organization, it could mean not charging for services rendered. These things would be merciful. But God does not command me to act in these ways. On the contrary, He commands parents to discipline their children, and says that honest work deserves an honest wage.
Jesus speaks here about a godly mercy, which takes its cue from God the Father. This is how you are to be merciful: “even as your Father is merciful.” And how exactly is that? Psalm 103 provides a good summary of this mercy: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (vv. 8-10). What are the qualities of mercy we see here? The text says that the Lord is compassionate and loving. He does not have a quick temper, but is slow to anger. He is patient and kind. He does not dwell on the sins of mankind, but rather forgives sin.
This is also how the life of God’s children should look. We should have an attitude of compassion and love, looking for opportunities to improve the life of others. We should “turn the other cheek” when we are insulted and attacked. We should not jump to conclusions about people, but have patience with them and help them. We should not store up sins against others, but forgive and forget. That is godly mercy. And it is very hard to carry out.
In fact, by our own efforts, it is impossible. If this came naturally to us, Jesus would not have to talk about it. But He knows how the old Adam operates. The LORD was there at the ugly outbreak of sin. What did Adam do when confronted with his sin? He blamed his wife, and God: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). Eve played the blame game too. Your old Adam, your sinful nature, can come up with a million reasons why you should not be merciful – “She started it!” “It wasn’t my fault!” “He had it coming!” “They will just throw it back in my face!” What these are, are reasons why I should not have to do the right thing. They are justification for my bad behavior in view of the bad behavior of others.
But the wrongdoing of my neighbor is no excuse for my own wrongdoing. In a sermon on today’s text, Martin Luther said, “I’ll do what a good tree does: Though this year’s fruit is picked and enjoyed by good-for-nothing pickers, a year later it produces another crop of fruit, and doesn’t get upset at all. I will react the same way, be a good tree and bear good fruit; I will not repay one evil with another evil.” A little later he said that even if a prickly person—like a brier bush—scratches a Christian badly, yet “I refuse to become a brier bush because of your actions. I shall, instead, do nothing but good for you when you are in need” (Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 2, Baker Books, 1996, p. 261). This is how a Christian is merciful even as God the Father is merciful.
But why must a Christian be merciful? Can’t we just leave the dispensing of mercy to God? Well for one thing, Jesus commands that we be merciful. That should be good enough for us. If He tells us to do something, we should do it. But there is another reason to be merciful. This comes from recognizing what we have received from God.
When the people listened to Jesus’ words, including the portion of today’s text, they might have thought He went too far. They would not have liked being called hypocrites for noticing specks in their brother’s eye, while logs were sticking out of their own eyes. But Jesus could say this without a hint of pride or self-righteousness. He was not a smooth-talking preacher like the rich and famous ones we see today, who display a façade of righteousness while carefully concealing their sins. Jesus had nothing to hide. He could talk about logs and specks in eyes, because He is the only one who could see them clearly. You can pull one over on your family, your friends, your co-workers, and your congregation. But you cannot pull one over on God.
God sees everything clearly. He sees the log in your eye. He sees your hypocritical behavior. He knows full well when you have been unmerciful, judgmental, unforgiving, and selfish. But the Lord does not measure back to you in wrath what you have produced in sin. He gives you a generous measure of His grace, “pressed down, shaken together, running over.” He puts it right in your lap through the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments! Why would He do that? Because He is merciful.
He is, as He declared Himself to Moses, “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7). This is how He looks upon you. This is why He sent Jesus to be your Substitute. He does not judge you by your sinful life, but by the holy life of Jesus. He does not condemn you for your transgressions, because He condemned Jesus in your place.
Like me, you can look back and recall many moments that you picked at the speck in another person’s eye while a log was protruding from yours. In tearing down your neighbors and making them feel pain, you felt a little bit better about yourself. You thought that if you could expose the sin of others, it might somehow make your sin seem less significant, less serious. But the guilt is still there. You know who you are and what you have done. You know the good things you have failed to do.
And yet God still has mercy upon you. He still loves you. All your sins and failures and unkindness He has transferred to His Son, who atoned for them all. Such mercy is so far above us, so strange to our way of thinking. Nothing in the world is like this mercy of God. It cannot be measured. One hymnwriter described God’s love as a “bottomless abyss.” He said, “O Love, Thou bottomless abyss, / My sins are swallowed up in thee! / Covered is my unrighteousness, / Nor spot of guilt remains on me, / While Jesus’ blood, through earth and skies / Mercy, free, boundless mercy! cries” (ELH #499, v. 3).
This other-worldly mercy is what Jesus calls His followers to have toward their neighbors – to love even when love is not returned, to forgive even when no remorse is shown, to be charitable even when help is not deserved. This is how we disciples will be like our Teacher, because this is how He is toward us. An attitude of mercy is not easy to have. We would rather have an attitude of selfishness and revenge. But then we shouldn’t be surprised when the same sinful attitude is reflected back at us. Jesus said, “For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
This is why we ask the Lord to help us “Be Merciful, Even as [Our] Father Is Merciful.” We want others to see in us the effect of God’s love and kindness. We want them to know that there is hope for the wicked and pardon for guilt. We want them to hear the comforting message that the Father’s mercy is big enough to cover even the greatest sinner, even sinners like you and me.
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