The Festival of the Reformation – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:12-15
In Christ Jesus, who is “with us in the fight with His good gifts and Spirit” (ELH 251, v. 4), dear fellow redeemed:
Can you answer this riddle: When is a million dollars equal to a penny, and when is garbage more valuable than gold? These things are true where there is no food. Money cannot buy what is unavailable, and the garbage heap may produce something more edible than gold. We need food; we cannot live without it. But there is something still more important than food for our bodies. That is food for our souls.
Food for our souls is consumed not with our mouths, but with our eyes and especially with our ears. It is almost always the case that when sinners are converted, they are converted because someone spoke the Gospel to them. Someone told them about Jesus’ saving work, and they listened. The power to open their ears to hear did not come from the person who told them, but from the Holy Spirit who brings sinners to faith through the Word. This is what Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
The spiritual food of the Gospel is necessary for faith to survive and grow. When a Christian stops hearing the Gospel, his faith weakens, and his love for others grows cold. This was true when John the Baptizer came on the scene. God’s people, the Israelites, had bad teachers at the time. These teachers taught them plenty about obedience to the law but hardly at all about repentance and faith. John urged them to “[b]ear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mat. 3:8), and he baptized them “for the forgiveness of sins” (Luk. 3:3).
He also made it clear to them that the long-promised Savior was coming. In fact the Savior was among them already. This was a major time of transition. The Church of believers which to this point had lived by the inspired words of the prophets now could hear from God in the flesh. The promise made was now the promise fulfilled.
About this change Jesus said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” What did that mean? In the short period of time since John was imprisoned and Jesus was traveling and preaching more extensively, many heard Him gladly. But others despised Him. Some were willing to follow Him to death. Others were content—even eager—to see Him die.
There is no middle ground with Jesus. A person either believes in Him as Savior, or he does not. Many today say they believe in Jesus, but they do not actually hold the saving faith. They look up to Jesus only as an example for how to live, as an activist for social justice, or as a self-esteem coach. But they look away from His horrible suffering and death. And they pay no attention to His resurrection. They do not want to reckon with Jesus as Savior because then they would have to reckon with themselves as sinners.
Others pay lip service to Jesus’ death and resurrection, but then they say with a straight face: “It wasn’t enough. The work isn’t done. Now we have to do our part.” That isn’t what the Bible teaches. The Bible says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified—declared right with Him—by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24). The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
Jesus does not need our help to save us. He won our salvation through His work alone—His perfect life, His death for our sins, His resurrection from the dead. He did it all. This clear understanding and proclamation of the Gospel is the legacy of Martin Luther and the Reformation.
Into his 30s, Luther thought that salvation required our good works. He understood “the righteousness of God” as the holiness God demands of us in His law. But through Luther’s study of the Word, the Holy Spirit led him to understand and believe that “the righteousness of God” is what is bestowed on sinners through faith in Jesus. Romans 1 says that “in the [Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (v. 17). We are saved—we live—by faith alone in Jesus.
When Luther understood this, he said it was as though he could see the gates of heaven open before him. He now set out to let others know about God’s grace and forgiveness. He preached and wrote tirelessly about what the Gospel means for sinners. He wrote so much, that not even half of his writings have been translated into English—and we already have about 100 volumes that have been translated!
Luther pointed people to the food their souls needed. It is the food that souls still need. But how hungry are you to hear the good news of God’s grace? If you lived in a time of famine, and food was scarce, imagine how far you would go to find something to eat for yourself and your family. But would you go that far for the pure Gospel? Or would you be content to nibble on the spiritual food that doesn’t taste quite right but doesn’t really seem to be fatal?
A tainted gospel is what is served at many Christian churches around us. The Gospel of what Jesus has done might be mentioned, but the main message conveyed there is what we have to do for God (or for the church). Or the Gospel is mentioned, but nobody hungers for it, since the law is not preached to convict them of their sins. How far would you go to hear the pure preaching of the Gospel and to have the Sacraments rightly administered?
The devil, our flesh, and the sinful world are so effective at their work, that they convince us there are more important things in life than hearing and learning God’s Word. There is money to make, hobbies to pursue, sporting events to watch, parties to attend. We wouldn’t miss the television show we love or maybe the evening news, but we might miss church. We religiously check our social media accounts or news feed each day, but we haven’t got time for Bible study and prayer.
Martin Luther fought some hard battles to guard the truth of the Gospel from those who wanted to pollute it or do away with it. That battle has not ended. Every generation must fight for the truth of God’s Word, or they will lose it. We cannot be indifferent about the Word. We cannot be complacent. Those who oppose the Word are not complacent. You know how fiercely they fight to get us to change our beliefs to match the thinking of the world. If we do not bow down with them at the altar of human passions and perversions, they seek to destroy us.
The question we have to ask ourselves, and the question that really determines whether or not we are Lutheran Christians is this: Is the Bible God’s Word? If we answer “yes,” there are other questions that follow, such as: Is the Bible clear and sufficient? Are we free to reinterpret the Bible to fit the times? Are we free to pick and choose what to believe from the Bible? Can we actually be Christians if we deny what the Bible says?
Jesus tells us that opposition to God’s Word will not diminish. With the devil’s encouragement, there are many who want to violently snatch it away from us. So Jesus urges us to actively defend the truth. We must struggle and fight for it, not using physical force, but by knowing how to use “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Eph. 6:17).
If we are willing to compromise the truth of God’s Word, nothing in the Word is safe. If we compromise what it says about moral issues, it won’t be long before the Remedy for sin is done away with too. If there is no longer objective right and wrong, then there is no longer a need for a Savior, who came to right all wrongs.
This is why we cling to the Word so tightly and defend it so fiercely. We do not want to lose the Gospel. We cannot forfeit the forgiveness and salvation that Jesus won for all people. He came to deliver us a good conscience through His perfect life in our place and His death on the cross. There is no question that our sins are many—choosing the empty promises of the world over His Word, choosing our plans over God’s will, ignoring the spiritual feast He continuously supplies. These are serious sins, as all sins are.
But Jesus died for all these sins. They were counted against Him, so they are no longer counted against you. By faith in Jesus, all the spiritual blessings He won are yours. There is nothing you must do to gain them. You don’t have to prove your worth somehow. You and I do not deserve to be saved, but God considered us worth the life of His only Son. Jesus willingly went to the cross for you. He died so that you could join Him in His everlasting kingdom.
This is what we celebrate today, that God used Martin Luther to proclaim the Gospel so clearly, and that the Gospel is still clearly heard today. What Jesus promised is still true, that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [His church]” (Mat. 16:18). The forces of evil will not overcome our Lord and His Word. The Powerful Gospel which Opens Ears to Hear will prevail. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
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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(1877 painting, “Martin Luther at Worms” by Anton von Werner)
The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Mark 7:31-37
In Christ Jesus, who promises that if we abide in His Word, we will know the truth and the truth will set us free (Joh. 8:31,32), dear fellow redeemed:
Three friends were riding in a car when a familiar song came on, a song they all liked. So they started to sing along. Feeding off one another’s enthusiasm, they started to sing louder and louder. But then something happened that brought the singing to a dead stop. One of them sang different words than the others. This started an argument about what the words actually were, an argument that could only be settled by looking up the lyrics. It turns out that one of the friends had learned the words wrong and had always sung the words wrong.
Something like this has happened to each of us. We have consistently sung the wrong thing or we mispronounced a word because we did not learn it the right way. Right hearing and learning is necessary for right speaking.
We see this in the case of the man in today’s text. He had two problems: he “was deaf and had a speech impediment.” Those problems typically go together. If he had been deaf for most of his life, he would have hardly if ever heard the sound of others speaking. Then how could he know how to shape sounds into words? Young children learn to speak by listening to and mimicking others. This man could make sounds, but it was very difficult for him to communicate.
Jesus took the man aside, touched his unhearing ears and unspeaking tongue and said, “Ephphatha”—“Be opened.” Then we are told that “his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” The word “plainly” is a translation of the Greek word orthos. This word is more commonly translated as “rightly” or “correctly.” We see this root word in “orthodontist,” the term for a person who works to correct or straighten your teeth. Or in “orthopedic,” the term for a person trying to correct deformities in the skeletal structure.
In theology, we have another ortho word in “orthodox.” This word describes those who believe, teach, and confess the right things on the basis of God’s Word. But it is not possible for a person to come to a right understanding and confession of the Word on his own. He must gain the correct and right beliefs by the power and working of God.
This faith can only come by the power of God the Holy Spirit working through the holy Word. This is what is taught in the tenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. There Paul asks, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?… So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (vv. 14,17).
We confess this in the explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith” (Luther’s Small Catechism). God does this work. He frees us from the chains of sin and death, so that we have life and hope in Him.
This language of “freeing from chains” is found in today’s text. When Jesus spoke the Word to the deaf man, the text literally says that the “bond” or “chain” of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke rightly. The man could not free himself from this bondage. Jesus had to release him. The same goes for our sinful state. Martin Luther described this in one of his hymns: “Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay; / Death brooded darkly o’er me. / Sin was my torment night and day; / In sin my mother bore me. / Yea, deep and deeper still I fell; / Life had become a living hell, / So firmly sin possessed me” (ELH 378, v. 2).
We were wrapped up in sin and death, and Satan had us in his grasp. But God sent His Son to crush Satan’s head and set us free. Jesus accomplished this by letting Himself be wrapped up in our sin and death. All the world’s wrongdoing was tightly bound to Him. As He suffered for our sins, He heard no word of comfort; His ears were closed to it. He spoke no word in His defense; His tongue stuck to His jaws (Psa. 22:15).
When His suffering was complete, He said, “It is finished.” This was like telling the gates of heaven to “be opened” wide—opened to you and me and all who would believe in Him. That is how we have access to heaven—not by our works—but by faith. Heaven is opened to us because Jesus freed us from our chains, and the Holy Spirit has brought us to faith in Him, the only Savior of mankind.
There are many today, even within the broader Christian church, who think that salvation can be found even in non-Christian religions. About a month ago, the largest Lutheran church body in America (the ELCA) met for its “Churchwide Assembly.” One of the policies adopted there was “A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment.” Some of the things expressed in this document were fine, such as how we should love our neighbors no matter who they are. But it also states that “we must be careful about claiming to know God’s judgments regarding another religion or the individual human beings who practice it” (lines 639-641). And, “we also must be careful not to judge our neighbors only on the basis of their religious beliefs, as they may or may not tell us much about how our neighbors relate to God” (lines 644-646).
In other words, this statement says that we cannot assert that only those who believe in Jesus as their Savior from sin will be saved. And we cannot judge someone’s false beliefs, because they might have a closer relationship with God than their beliefs express. One brave delegate went to the microphone before the policy was adopted. He made the motion that these unbiblical statements be replaced with the words of Jesus in John 14:6 where He says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This motion was defeated, and the policy was passed with more than 97% voting in favor.
This was not “orthodoxy” on display, or “right beliefs.” It was “heterodoxy,” or “different beliefs.” Heterodoxy does not come from the Bible. It comes from human thinking. Heterodoxy comes from a desire to please the world. Heterodox churches speak the wrong thing because they are hearing the wrong thing. They do not listen to and learn from the unchanging Word. They listen to and learn from the values and agendas of modern society and culture.
Orthodox churches, on the other hand, do not please the world. They call sinners to repentance and faith on the basis of the Word alone. Orthodox churches teach that only the Triune God should be worshiped, because He alone is the true God, and He commands us to have no other gods (First Commandment). Orthodox churches teach what the apostles did, that “there is salvation in no one else [but Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Act. 4:12).
This is the orthodox teaching that God has called us to hear and confess in this congregation and also to share with those who have not learned what is right. But just because we have the right teaching now does not mean we will always have it. The grandparents and great-grandparents of many in attendance at the “Churchwide Assembly” confessed the right teaching of the Bible in their lifetimes. But now that has been lost.
By God’s grace we still have the right teaching. We do not have it because we are somehow better or more gifted than others. We certainly do not deserve it. We all stand before God by nature with ears closed and tongues tied. But God’s mercy toward us is abundant. He reaches out to touch us through His Word and Sacraments, so that our ears are opened to the truth, and our tongues are freed to speak rightly.
Imagine how strange it must have been for the man when Jesus put His fingers into His ears and touched his tongue with spit-covered fingers! Jesus did not have to do this, but it was a visible way to show the man that Jesus was concerned about his disability. Similarly, Jesus did not have to give us the visible means of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to convey His blessings. But they are ways for Him to show us and remind us that He is present and wants to free us from the sins that trouble us.
This is what Jesus does for us every time we hear His Word of grace. He comes to attend to each one of us personally. He cares about us and knows the things that trouble us. He brings us the forgiveness of our sins, which He obtained on the cross for all people. He opens our hearts to believe that this forgiveness is certain for us.
He willingly shed His blood to atone for our weak desire to hear His Word, to atone for our reluctance to speak the truth, to atone for our sin of thinking we know better than He does. We are forgiven of all these sins by His grace delivered through His Word. And through the same Word, He sends the Holy Spirit to guide us to learn and grow in His truth, so that we believe, teach, and confess only what is right and reject all that is unholy or false.
How can we be so sure we have the truth? We can be sure because God’s Word is truth (Joh. 17:17). Where does God speak this truth? In the Bible. The Bible is God’s Word. We study the Bible so that we know the orthodox teaching. We don’t want to be caught with our ears plugged and our tongues silent when the devil leads an attack on God’s Word. We want to be prepared to say and to sing and even to think the right thing, so that God’s truth is proclaimed, His will is done, and His name is glorified.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(stained glass from Saude Lutheran Church)