The Festival of All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Every year when we observe All Saints’ Day, we have the custom of singing one hymn in particular. The hymn is about 250 years old, and for many years you could count on singing it at funerals in Norwegian Lutheran churches. This hymn is “Behold a Host, Arrayed in White,” and we will sing it again today. The first stanza of the hymn is based on the first part of today’s Epistle lesson from Revelation 7. Here the apostle John describes what he saw in his vision of heaven:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”
I said to him, “Sir, you know.”
And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (ESV)
Now in these days of social distancing and small crowds, it seems strange to see old video footage of football stadiums and concert halls full of people. The same thought might have struck you when you heard about the “great multitude [in heaven] that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” What a glorious scene! Unlike the Tower of Babel when the peoples were divided and moved away from each other, now God’s people from all over the world and all across time are brought together.
There are no enemies in this great multitude, no cultural or language barriers, no socio-economic differences. These people are one, both regarding their status before God and their purpose in His presence. This oneness is emphasized by their common clothing. They are dressed in flowing white robes, perfectly clean. One of the elders in heaven explained to John how the robes got so uniformly white. He said, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Now that is the strangest bleach we’ve ever heard of! How could blood ever make clothing whiter? Because it is not just any blood, it is “the blood of the Lamb.” This refers to the fact that no sin stains the believers in heaven. They stand pure and holy before God because Jesus shed His blood to wash away their sins.
This is why they now sing joyfully “before the throne and before the Lamb.” They hold palm branches in their hands like the crowd that greeted Jesus on Palm Sunday. On that occasion the people cried, “Hosanna!”—“Save us, we pray!” And now the saints rejoice in the salvation won for them by crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
They sing together one song with one voice, the only song worth singing. They sing the song of their salvation through the God-Man Jesus. He is the Lamb enthroned in heaven. He has won the victory for them over sin, devil, and death. By faith in Him, these saints have now been translated from the troubles of the world to the glories of heaven. They have come out of “the great tribulation,” and now join the angels and the elders and the four living creatures in the praise and worship of their Lord.
We sing the first stanza of hymn #553, which tells us about this “host, arrayed in white,” who “in the flood of Jesus’ blood / Are cleansed from guilt and blame.”
Behold a host, arrayed in white,
Like thousand snow-clad mountains bright;
With palms they stand. Who is this band
Before the throne of light?
Lo, these are they, of glorious fame,
Who from the great affliction came
And in the flood of Jesus’ blood
Are cleansed from guilt and blame.
Now gathered in the holy place,
Their voices they in worship raise;
Their anthems swell where God doth dwell
Mid angels’ songs of praise.
We wish we could be there with the saints and angels in heaven, or at least get a temporary taste of their joy. The elder speaking to John explains what the saints have now that they are in God’s eternal presence:
“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Here the contrast between heaven and earth is described. In heaven there is no more hunger or thirst. No one is overcome by weariness or weakness. No harm is done by the sun and scorching heat. The sheep are not without a shepherd. No tears fill their eyes.
But the opposite is true on earth. On earth there is trouble, pain, sorrow. “[A]ll tribes and peoples and languages” are not united here. Here there is division—sometimes deep division—within the same community and even the same house. Instead of loving their neighbor as themselves, many decide to just love themselves. They view any challenge to the way they think as a great offense. Those who do not share their ideas are the enemy, who do not deserve to be treated with respect. We see these attitudes so clearly in our tense social environment.
And we are just as guilty of these divisions and troubles as others are. We have hated our enemies and cursed those who persecute us, when Jesus tells us to love them and pray for them (Mat. 5:44). Often our hardships on earth are self-inflicted. Because of our sin we bring trouble and pain on ourselves.
But other things happen simply because we live in a fallen world. Sometimes we get sick or injured. Eventually we will die. It may not be your own death that causes you the most anguish. It may be the death of a loved one, or even just the thought of having to live without someone you rely on for so many things.
We feel powerless in the face of death. We do not control who it strikes or when. It has always been this way since the fall into sin, but we are perhaps more aware of it this year than in years past. No matter what we do, no matter what measures we take, we cannot escape death.
But there is still hope! There is one who entered death and emerged from it again. A Lamb was snatched by the great jaws of death—easy prey, easy victory! But no! This was no ordinary Lamb. It was the Lamb of God. Jesus died in your place, so that death could not hold you in its terrible jaws. It is true that you will die, unless Jesus returns before it happens. But you will not stay dead. You will rise again. Your Savior will come and call you forth with a shout, and you will rise up to Him with glorified body clothed in the white robe of His righteousness.
That is your comfort today as you remember all who have gone on before you, whether parents or grandparents or siblings or children or friends. You will see the faithful departed again, and “God will wipe away every tear from [your] eyes.” We sing stanza two of the hymn:
Despised and scorned, they sojourned here;
But now, how glorious they appear!
Those martyrs stand, a priestly band,
God’s throne forever near.
So oft in troubled days gone by,
In anguish they would weep and sigh;
At home above the God of love
For aye their tears shall dry.
They now enjoy their Sabbath rest,
The paschal banquet of the blest;
The Lamb, their Lord, at festal board
Himself is host and guest.
God wanted John to write down what he saw in heaven so you and all believers would be comforted. He knows what trials and troubles you face here on earth. He knows how easy it is to become disheartened by the wickedness and sin you see all around you and that you also find inside yourself. He promises that these struggles are only temporary, while the bliss of heaven is forever.
In this text from Revelation, the Lord gives you a glimpse of the life to come. He shows you that you will not be alone in heaven but will be surrounded by a great multitude that cannot be numbered. That means you are not alone here on earth either because there are many around the world who confess Jesus as their Savior from sin.
While you are here, God calls you to stay close to Him by hearing His Word and partaking of His Sacraments. These are the means by which He strengthens you and keeps you steadfast in the faith. He also gives you the courage to let the light of His truth shine in your life, “so that [others] may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mat. 5:16).
You won’t carry out these callings of God perfectly. You are still a sinner. Sometimes you will only stumble along, and sometimes you will fall—hardly the picture of a holy child of God. But the blood of the Lamb was poured out for all of your sins. All of your wicked thoughts, all of your self-inflicted wounds, all your doubts—all of them are forgiven by the merciful God. You can meet death and the grave with confidence knowing that nothing stands between you and God’s grace. You are reconciled to God the Father because of the perfect life and the holy death of His only-begotten Son.
When you hear John’s account of the saints in heaven and when you sing today’s hymn, picture yourself among that great Host, Arrayed in White. Look forward with confidence and joy to the day when you will join that holy choir, holding palm branches, gathered around the throne of the holy God. You will be numbered with those saints because you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. Your place in heaven is reserved, where you will sing the song of salvation for all eternity. We join together in the third stanza of the hymn:
Then hail! ye mighty legions, yea,
All hail! now safe and blest for aye;
And praise the Lord, who with His Word
Sustained you on the way.
Ye did the joys of earth distain,
Ye toiled and sowed in tears and pain;
Farewell, now bring your sheaves and sing
Salvation’s glad refrain.
Swing high your palms, lift up your song,
Yea, make it myriad voices strong:
Eternally shall praise to Thee,
God, and the Lamb belong.
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(picture from “Seventh Seal and 144,000 Sealed” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
Good Friday – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: Revelation 5:1-10
We hear the words of the fifth chapter of the “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:1) recorded by His apostle John. We will consider this reading in three different sections, beginning with the first four verses:
Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. (ESV)
Here John describes his vision of heaven. He saw God the Father holding a scroll in His right hand. “Sealed with seven seals” tells us the scroll was perfectly sealed. It could only be opened by one who was worthy. But “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth” was qualified—not the saints, not the mighty angels, not the four living creatures, not the elders.
This reminds us how far we fall short of the holiness of God. We might think we are pretty impressive compared with the people around us. Maybe we are more kind, we behave better, we are more generous, and so on. But God does not command us to be better than other people, or even that we try our best. He demands perfection. Unless we are perfect, we have no business pointing out how good we are, and we certainly can’t get ourselves into heaven. If the perfect saints and angels were not worthy to open the Father’s scroll, think how unworthy that makes us sinners! Clearly we need a Savior. We hear the next two verses:
And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. (ESV)
Now the Savior makes His entrance. He is described in three different ways which don’t really seem to connect: as a Lion, a Root, and a Lamb. Each title is a reference to Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. He was a King from the line of Judah through David (Gen. 49:9-10; Isa. 11:1,10). And He was a Lamb sacrificed for the sins of all people (Isa. 53:4-7).
John saw Him manifested as a Lamb, “as though it had been slain.” The “seven horns,” “seven eyes,” and “seven spirits” indicate that He is all-powerful and all-knowing. But how is it possible that One with such power could be slain? It must be that the Lamb let it happen, that He offered Himself for this purpose.
That is why we celebrate Good Friday today. This is the day that the Lamb of God was slain for the sins of the world. Jesus was that Lamb, and He willingly went to the cross for you. Isaiah described it so beautifully: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isa. 53:6-7).
No one tricked Jesus into this. No one overpowered Him. No one forced Him to die. He went in obedience to His Father and out of love for you. “For this reason the Father loves me,” said Jesus, “because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (Joh. 10:17-18). Jesus offered Himself in your place and now He bears the marks of the nails and spear as the signs of His love for you. We hear the next four verses:
And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (ESV)
When Jesus took the scroll from the right hand of His Father in heaven, this showed the Father’s acceptance of His sacrifice. Jesus’ work to save sinners was complete. Through His suffering and death, the wages of your sin was paid in full. God’s righteous anger was satisfied. Then the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders bowed down before the Lamb and sang “a new song.” They sang of the Lamb’s worthiness, His sacrifice, and the shedding of His precious blood. “[B]y your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
Jesus shed His blood for everyone. He shows no partiality. You and I are not saved because we are any better than others. We are saved totally by the grace of God. Jesus’ death won our forgiveness, and that forgiveness is imparted to us again and again through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.
Jesus wants you to know that you are at peace with God because of His sacrifice. He wants you to find comfort in His wounds which were opened up for you. And He wants you to know that you are a royal priest before God. You may be despised and scorned by the world, but your prayers and thanksgiving are welcome at the throne of heaven. There Jesus stands on your behalf, His wounds perpetually reminding the Father of your redemption and salvation. Thanks be to God! Amen.
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(picture from “The Hymn of Adoration to the Lamb” by Albrecht Durer, 1498)
The Third Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 15:1-10
In Christ Jesus, who “is patient toward [us], not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2Pe. 3:9), dear fellow redeemed:
You don’t realize how much a music soundtrack and sound effects change the movie-watching experience until the sound is removed. Without sound, an action sequence is not as impressive, and a scene of suspense is not as compelling. Sound makes the image much more powerful and impactful.
When our thoughts turn toward heaven, and we imagine what heaven is like, I think we often picture heaven without much sound. We might imagine shouts of joy when family members and friends are reunited there. But otherwise, we may think of a peaceful setting, something like a walk through a meadow or time spent by a river or lake.
Heaven is a bit noisier than that. Isaiah wrote about the angels in heaven calling to one another in voices powerful enough to shake “the foundations of the thresholds.” They say, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isa. 6:3-4). The apostle John wrote about heaven being filled with the sound of trumpets and described “flashes of lightning, and rumblings, and peals of thunder” coming from the throne (Rev. 4:5). He said the “Holy, holy, holy” cry does not cease day or night, and the twenty-four elders respond with their own song of praise (4:8-11). The saints in heaven also join in these songs of praise. John speaks about hearing “the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns!’” (19:6).
What we hear in heaven will far surpass what is produced by the greatest musicians and singers here on earth. Unlike here, the sounds that come from our mouths in heaven will always be beautiful and holy and right. There is no imperfection in heaven. That includes imperfections in our singing and hearing.
I expect that in heaven, we will be able to detect and appreciate layers of sound unknown to us now. Just think of those trumpets and rumblings and shouts and singing blending together in a rich and holy song that our ears will never tire of hearing. Four-part harmony will not impress us in heaven like it does here. Maybe heaven will feature forty-part harmony or four-hundred-part harmony.
But why this emphasis today on the sounds of heaven? It is because Jesus says in today’s text that “there will be more joy in heaven/there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” A celebration without sound wouldn’t be much of a celebration, no matter how amazing it looks. When a sinner repents, the halls of heaven ring with the sound of thanksgiving—thanksgiving to God for His abundant grace.
But why is it that repentance causes this reaction? Repentance is not something the world celebrates. The world celebrates things like birthdays, graduations, promotions at work, and the purchase of a home. The world has even taken to celebrating when a person dies, focusing on happy memories of that person’s life because it cannot bear to face the reality of death. The saints and angels in heaven do not celebrate these things, as significant as they may seem to us here. They celebrate our repentance. And if that is what the saints and angels celebrate around God’s throne, this must be what God celebrates too.
So what exactly is this repentance? The word for “repent” means “to change one’s mind,” “to turn back.” We change our minds all the time, such as what we want to eat or what we want to do with our day. But the repentance Jesus talks about here is a spiritual turning, a spiritual changing of the mind. This is necessary because the unconverted mind, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God,” as Scripture says; “it does not submit to God’s law” (Rom. 8:7).
The first table of God’s law demands that we love Him “with all [our] mind” (Mat. 22:37). The second table demands that we “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” (v. 39). No human being born of a sinful father and mother has done these things, because each person has inherited the sin of his parents, passed down through the generations all the way from Adam and Eve. By nature, we are opposed to God; we do not want to live by His rules. We want to make our own rules. We are self-centered and selfish. In this state, we are ruled by the devil and are stuck in his kingdom of darkness without any way of getting ourselves out.
But the merciful Lord is firmly invested in freeing us from this hopeless life. God the Father sent His eternal Son to enter the fallen world and lead us into His marvelous light. That is easier said than done! In order to free us from our chains of sin and death, Jesus had to pay the price. He had to pay the debt we owed by shedding His holy blood and giving Himself up to the jaws of death. This was the only way to satisfy the Father’s wrath against sin. It was the only way to overcome the devil’s hold on sinners.
His saving work was done for all sinners, but not all sinners believe it. It is a mystery to us why some hear the Word of God and repent, while others hear the Word but do not repent. We are all equally sinful. We are all equally lost in the darkness by nature. None of us deserves to be forgiven by God. But by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word, some are converted. Some are led to repentance and faith.
If we think that our conversion must depend in some way on ourselves, today’s text—among many others—says otherwise. Jesus describes a sheep that wandered away, referring to a person who has wandered away from God into sin. The shepherd does not sit around waiting for the sheep to come back on its own. He goes after it. And when he finds it, he puts it on his shoulders and carries it to safety. That does not sound like cooperation in conversion.
But for those who would say that the sheep could possibly have returned on its own, what about the next example Jesus gave? How likely is it that a lost coin by its own power could roll itself back into the purse of its owner? Ephesians 2 says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (vv. 8-9).
When the Holy Spirit turns back the sinner from the path of destruction and works a spiritual change in his mind and heart, this is when heaven erupts in celebration. We can’t always know when this celebration happens. It certainly happens when a baby is baptized and when an adult confesses the true faith. But in some cases, a person’s confession is not honest, and his repentance is not heartfelt. The Bible tells us there are some who may appear to be model Christians, but who live otherwise than they confess, or who think otherwise than they say.
It is one thing to fall into sin unintentionally. Maybe you got caught up in a crowd that behaved badly. Or you stumbled across something you were not seeking out but which led you to sin. This can happen when you spend time on the internet or look for something to watch on TV. Or maybe unkind, impure, or judgmental thoughts enter your mind about another person, and you are immediately sorry for thinking in those ways. These sins are not faith-destroying, and God will help us fight these temptations.
But intentionally and willfully doing what God condemns can and does destroy faith. Christians are not immune to these sins. In fact the devil works harder to pull us from the faith than he works on those who are already in darkness. Some Christians fall into sin and instead of acknowledging the sin—even if the consequences would be severe—they try to cover them up, hide them. But nothing can be hidden from God, and what the unrepentant will face on the last day is far worse than anything they might experience here.
All of us have need of repentance. We sin many times every day. We have all done things we knew were wrong, but we did them anyway—and often more than once. None of us is righteous. But the Lord is gracious. He works to bring us back when we fall into sin. Like those tax collectors and sinners, the Lord moves us to repent through His law, and He draws us near to hear His Word of grace. He wants us to know that all our sin is forgiven, all the things that trouble our conscience and make us feel ashamed. All of it was set on Jesus, who suffered and died in our place so that we might live.
The Good Shepherd loves to hear us humbly repent of our sins and rejoice in His forgiveness. We are ones whom He has brought back from our wanderings, and whom He still brings back. Through daily repentance, He leads us again and again to the still waters of our Baptism and guides us to the green pastures of His Word and Sacrament. These great spiritual blessings which God showers down upon us are a cause for continuous celebration in heaven.
We do not see or hear the saints and angels in their songs of praise, but by faith in Jesus we are already counted in their number. We join these songs of praise imperfectly here on earth as we thank God for His mercy toward us. And we look forward to being among the great host in heaven, where we will forever rejoice in the Lord’s great love for us.
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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(portion of “The Good Shepherd” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 27) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who loves His bride the Church and gave Himself up for her (Eph. 5:25), so that He might be united with her for eternity, dear fellow redeemed:
You have made your way to the banquet hall where the wedding reception will be. But the doors have not opened yet. This means you and a few hundred other people must wait in narrow hallways until the wedding party arrives. The first twenty minutes are not so bad as you catch up with friends and family. But as more time passes, the situation worsens. The hallway is getting warm. The kids are whining. People start to look out the windows in the vain hope that by watching, they might make the wedding party arrive faster.
More time passes. Not a few of the guests wonder out loud just how many stops the “party bus” is making. The mother of the bride tries to keep a smile on her face, but her patience is wearing thin. The kids are running around now and screaming. All you can think of are all the restaurants you passed on the way to the reception, restaurants where you could already be eating. How long have you been waiting? When will the wedding party get there? Why can’t they just open these doors!?!
No matter how wonderful the wedding feast may be, it is hard to wait. Waiting gives extra time for doubt: Will they ever get here? Will the feast be worth my time? Is there someplace better I could be? These are some of the same questions that come to mind during our time of waiting in this life: Will Jesus ever come? Will heaven be worth the suffering we endure now? Would I be happier if I lived for here instead of for there?
Jesus’ parable about the kingdom of heaven addresses these doubts and concerns. He describes ten virgins, the attendants of the bride. They would meet the bridegroom and then all would go in for the wedding celebration. But “the bridegroom was delayed” for reasons that are not given. Five of the virgins had come prepared for this scenario; they brought extra oil along for their lamps. But the other five did not. They were not ready when the cry sounded, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”
In this parable, the Bridegroom for whom all are waiting is Jesus, and the Bride with her virgin attendants is the Christian Church. The way the members of the Church are promised to the Bridegroom and claimed by Him is through Holy Baptism. Ephesians 5 says that Christ has “cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (vv. 26-27). But Baptism alone does not ensure that a person will be prepared to meet the Savior on the last day. Jesus says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk. 16:16)—not just Baptism, but Baptism along with faith in the Lord’s promises.
The five virgins whose lamps were going out are those Christians who were brought to faith by the Holy Spirit through the Word. But they failed to continue to feed the flame of faith. They did not make regular use of God’s Word and Sacraments, or if they did, they did not partake of these things with believing hearts. They may have gone through the motions of Christian faith and practice, but it was empty. They did not from the heart confess their sins and from the heart believe that those sins are forgiven through the blood of Jesus.
When the time of the Bridegroom’s arrival came, they could not rely on the faith of others. Their frantic, “What should we do now?!” when their lamps were burning out, showed that the faith they once had, had run dry. Instead of eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Bridegroom, now His coming frightened them. Their focus had been on other things. They had not made the Bridegroom’s arrival their priority.
The five wise virgins, on the other hand, had properly prepared for the Bridegroom. They had brought an extra supply of oil for their lamps in the event that the Bridegroom was delayed. They were ready for His coming and went to meet Him without fear. What a joy it was to see Him after the long wait!
Now if the Bridegroom’s arrival were today, in which group would you be found? Do you look forward to Jesus’ visible return in glory, or is your focus more on this world, on carrying out your plans and pursuing your dreams? Or are you worried how Jesus will judge you when He comes? You remember your many sins, some of them so shameful that they weigh on you long after you did them. You wonder if your repentance has been heartfelt enough and your faith pure enough.
It is worth noting that both the wise and the foolish virgins “became drowsy and slept.” Even the ones who were ready for the Bridegroom’s arrival were weak. They were not perfectly alert. So it is with all believers. We are all weak. We have all failed in one way or another. We “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Our readiness for Jesus’ return is not about how well we have lived or what kinds of sins we have avoided. Our readiness depends on our recognition of our many sins and our trust in the perfect life of Jesus and His atoning death for our sins.
To think that we have committed a sin that is too great to be forgiven, is to imagine a very small God and a small sacrifice on Calvary. But Jesus died for all sins, none excepted. That means He shed His blood for you, to blot out your sins. By faith in Him, you are holy and pure in His sight—a wise virgin with the flame of faith brightly burning.
But you are still on the outside looking in. The doors of heaven have been opened to you by Jesus’ death and resurrection, but you cannot see the glories yet that He promises you. Is the Wedding Feast Worth the Wait? Is the pain of an earthly life under the cross a fair exchange for the joys of heaven? Will you regret living a life fenced in by God’s law, a life of discipline, a life of devotion to the Triune God?
According to Jesus’ parable, when the Bridegroom arrives those who have been shut out from the wedding celebration are not indifferent about it. They desperately want to enter the marriage hall; they want to get into heaven. But they will hear the Bridegroom declare, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” What frightening words those are! Unbelievers will be forsaken by their Savior on the last day. On that day, they will fully realize the error of their ways. But by then it will be too late.
Jesus says that any who think they can attend the eternal wedding feast without wearing Jesus’ righteousness will be bound “hand and foot and cast… into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mat. 22:13). This is how hell is described: “outer darkness… weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And there will be no relief, no end to the suffering.
In heaven, on the other hand, there will be no end to the joy. The Bible offers only glimpses of heaven because our sinful minds cannot comprehend the glories there. They are too far above us, too wonderful. The apostle Paul talks about being “caught up into paradise,” and how “he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2Co. 12:3,4). He wrote in another place, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1Co. 13:12).
The apostle John also received a vision of heaven in “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:1). He said he saw “a door standing open in heaven,” and a voice invited him to come and look. Then John describes what he saw. He saw One sitting on a throne, who had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, which are reddish gems. Around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. “From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal” (4:1-6).
As we are in our sinful flesh, this would be a frightening sight to behold, but it will not be when our lowly bodies are transformed to be like our Lord’s glorious body at His return (Phi. 3:20-21). On that day, we will see Him as He is (1Jn. 3:2), and we will go to dwell with Him in the unending light of His glorious presence.
But how long will we have to wait for these joys? If a wedding party did not show up at the reception for two hours or three or more, many of their guests would grow tired of waiting and leave. Jesus urges us to wait patiently for His return, no matter how long it seems to take. He assures us that the wedding feast will be worth it. He, our Bridegroom, will come again to meet His holy bride. On that day, we will be roused from our sleep, and with the light of faith, we will look upon the bright countenance of our Savior.
Then we will process with Him into heaven dressed in the beautiful robes of His righteousness (Rev. 7:13-17, 21:2-4). And all the saints will proclaim the words prophesied by Isaiah, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him, that He might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation” (Isa. 25:9). And then the celebration will begin.
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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(11th century painting from the Rossano Gospel)
The Festival of All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 5:1-12
In Christ Jesus, whose righteousness and blood have opened the way for us to heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
Parents spend a lot of time telling their children to “stick with it,” because “the hard work will pay off.” It may be in reference to schoolwork or practice for a particular sport. Or maybe a child has taken on a job that is harder than he realized. He feels like quitting, but his parents urge him on: “Stick with it! You can do this!”
As we get older, the problems of life get more complex and serious, and we don’t always have the cheerleader in our corner urging us and helping us to “stick with it!” We feel as though the burden on our shoulders is more than we can carry. We feel like no one understands our troubles. Close relationships break apart, and we don’t see how they could ever be repaired. Our best efforts fail, and we are at a loss for what else to try. We imagine that there is no good solution to the difficulties we face.
Such feelings of helplessness are symptoms of life in a fallen world. In this world, righteousness and justice do not always win out. Kindness, love, and respect are not always returned. Wrongs are not always righted. Hard work is not always recognized. Sacrifices are not always appreciated. And the Gospel of Christ’s redemptive work is rejected by a great many.
It is because of the trials believers face in this world that Jesus spoke today’s words of comfort. His list of “Beatitudes” begins His “Sermon on the Mount,” which spans three chapters in the book of Matthew. Though some try to turn Jesus’ words into a creed for social justice, His words address spiritual and not social challenges.
The first blessing is for “the poor in spirit.” It is for you who recognize your spiritual bankruptcy. By nature, you have nothing good to present to God, nothing to offer that could make you acceptable to Him. You confess yourself to be a “poor sinner,” who can only “flee for refuge to [God’s] infinite mercy” (ELH “Confession of Sin,” p. 41). While despairing of yourself, you have the same confidence as the psalmist: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
The second blessing is for “those who mourn.” It is for you who regret the wrongs you have done and are sorry for them. As much as you would like to take back things that you have done or said, you know that you cannot do this. And so you look to your merciful Savior. The hymnist Paul Gerhardt expressed this hope beautifully, “Rejoice, then, ye sad-hearted, / Who sit in deepest gloom, / Who mourn o’er joys departed, / And tremble at your doom; / Despair not, He is near you, / Yea, standing at the door, / Who best can help and cheer you, / And bid you weep no more” (ELH #94, v. 6).
The third blessing is for “the meek.” It is for you who have known injustice and unkindness, but who humbly commend your “body and soul and all things” into God’s loving hands (Luther’s Morning & Evening Prayers).
The fourth blessing is for “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” It is for you whose soul pants for God like a ragged deer searching for flowing streams. It is for the soul that thirsts “for the living God” (Ps. 42:2). The world is a spiritual desert, so you long for the spiritual oasis of God’s Word and Sacraments where your spirit can be refreshed and strengthened.
The fifth blessing is for “the merciful.” It is for you who take the burdens of others upon yourself by offering help and encouragement and by praying for them. You do not love your neighbor perfectly, but God is pleased by even your humble efforts. No good word or kind deed goes unnoticed by Him.
The sixth blessing is for “the pure in heart.” It is for you who want to live a God-pleasing life, who want to follow His will. You recognize that your heart is not pure like it should be, and you trust that God will graciously create “a clean heart” in you and “renew a right spirit” within you (Ps. 51:10).
The seventh blessing is for “the peacemakers.” It is for you who want to establish and keep peace not by compromising the truth, but by speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:25). You gently and patiently bear with others in love because you are “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
The eighth blessing is for “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” It is for you who are attacked for doing and saying the right thing. You willingly endure criticism and ridicule for your beliefs, because your trust is in God. You believe that nothing “will be able to separate [you] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).
The ninth blessing is for “you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account.” You know what it is like to have lies told about you, or to have unkind assumptions repeated about you. When these hateful words are spoken against you because of your confession of Jesus and His Word, you have the promise of God’s unchanging love and compassion for you.
As you have listened to the list of those to whom Jesus Gives His Holy Blessings, you might think that some of the descriptions apply to you, but some do not. Maybe you do feel “poor in spirit,” but you have not been much of a “peacemaker.” Maybe you have been “mourning” about your sin, because you have not been very “merciful.”
But here is the comforting truth: Wherever we have lacked righteousness—which is in every aspect of our lives—Jesus substitutes His perfection. All of our pride, our me-first attitude, our lack of mercy toward others, our inner uncleanness, our reluctant faith—all of it is covered over by the righteousness of Jesus. When God looks at His children by faith, He does not see our sin; He sees the holiness of Jesus. This is why we are called saints even while we bear a sinful nature in this sinful world.
Today, we remember the saints from our churches who have entered the church triumphant within the past year. We remember Edna, Godfrey, Mavis, Eunice, and Stella. It is common in our culture to speak about the dead as though they had reached perfection on this earth. The five people we remember today would not want us to do that. They knew their sin just as surely as we know our own sin. But they were saints on earth by faith in Jesus, and now their souls are in heaven, unencumbered by any pain, sorrow, or trouble.
They are part of the great host that we heard about in today’s Epistle lesson. They are among the countless number of saints “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10). We are glad for them, but we miss them. And we find it harder to face the troubles of this world without them.
This is why Jesus promises the blessings He does in the Beatitudes. To you who are “poor in spirit,” Jesus gives “the kingdom of heaven.” To you who “mourn,” Jesus gives comfort. To you who are “meek,” Jesus gives the inheritance of all things. To you who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus fills you with His holy food and drink. To you who are “merciful,” Jesus bestows His mercy. To you who are “pure in heart,” Jesus leads you into the glorious presence of God. To you who are “peacemakers,” Jesus calls you His brothers, the sons of God. To you who are “persecuted,” Jesus gives you the peace of heaven. To you who are reviled and lied about, Jesus gives you the eternal reward of Paradise.
These blessings are yours by faith in Jesus. You are among the suffering ones that He describes here. He is telling you that He understands your sorrow. He understands your pain. He understands the loneliness of life in the fallen world. If anyone knew these troubles, He did. He was despised and reviled and persecuted by all people in order to win for sinners the eternal riches of God.
This Lord who suffered on your behalf is now with you in your suffering. No matter how much it may feel like it at times, you are not alone. Jesus is here for you as you struggle through. He “opens His mouth” and speaks comforting words of forgiveness and healing to you through your pastor and other Christian friends. And He addresses your spiritual weakness by feeding you with His holy body and quenching your thirst with His precious blood. Jesus Gives His Holy Blessings Even to You.
This does more for you than a motivational “Stick with it!” or a “You can do this!” Instead Jesus says, “I can do this, and I have done it. All that you need, I have given to you. All that is Mine is yours. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” By faith in these promises, we will one day be free of all our troubles and will join those saints above, that joyful host clothed in white robes. Then together we will worship the Lamb, our Savior, 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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(portion of “The Sermon of the Beatitudes” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Festival of St. Michael and All Angels – Pr. Faugstad
Homilies and Hymns
I. Creation, Titles, and Ranks
The angels are unique creations of God. Though they are often depicted as people with wings and have even appeared as men, they are quite different from human beings. They do not reproduce like people (Mt. 22:30), and contrary to popular ideas about angels, Christians do not turn into angels when they die. As far as we know, no new angels have been added to the ranks since Creation.
Angels are a part of God’s creation that is invisible. The Bible says that “by [the Son of God] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:16). The angels were made during the six days of creation, though we don’t know exactly which day. We do know that everything God made was “very good.” The angels recognized this too; they “shouted for joy” as God completed His work (Job 38:6-7).
But the angels did not all remain good. Satan, one of the angels, rebelled against God, and many angels joined him, perhaps as many as one third of them (Rev. 12:3-4). We commonly refer to these fallen angels as demons. God cast them all out of heaven and created hell for them (Mt. 25:41, 2Pet. 2:4).
But the majority of the angels remained in heaven, and these continue to serve God. The Bible assigns titles to the angels and divides them into ranks; it says Christ is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph. 1:21), which are titles for ranks of angels. These names indicate how strong the holy angels are. Psalm 103 calls them the “mighty ones” of the LORD (v. 20). They must be quite terrifying and awe-inspiring. In Scripture we notice that the first thing they often said when they appeared to people was: “Do not be afraid.” The Bible also describes different types of angels. The cherubim, for example, guarded the way to the Garden of Eden, which shows their great power. The seraphim are angels with six wings who sing the Lord’s praises in heaven (Is. 6).
Our first hymn mentions the ranks of the angels as all creation bows before God and worships Him “evermore and evermore.” We sing Hymn #181, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” vv. 1 & 5.
II. Honor and Glorify God
The angels’ entire purpose is centered on God’s glory and honor. They do not serve themselves, just as God does not want us to serve ourselves. They serve Him and those to whom He directs them. In the book of Revelation, St. John wanted to worship a mighty angel, but the angel told him: “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you…. Worship God!” (22:9).
The main feature of the angels’ worship and service is humility. Everything they do points to the Almighty God. The prophet Isaiah described their subservient attitude in the sixth chapter of his book: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above Him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!’” (vv. 1-3).
Revelation chapter 4 again depicts these six-winged seraphim: “And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures…. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (vv. 6,8). Their worship around the throne is never-ending. This is how we will worship the Lord in heaven too. Even now, we join the angels in their song. We sing Hymn #15, “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty,” vv. 2 & 4.
III. Messengers of Salvation
Christ is the Lord of hosts and the King of angels, but He isn’t one of them. He is their God; He is above them. We sing of this in the well-known hymn: “Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer, than all the angels in the sky” (ELH 54, v. 3). Hebrews chapter 1 says He has become “as much superior to angels as the name He has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (v. 4).
But the holy angels do not resent Christ’s exalted position like the devil and the other evil angels did. The holy angels live to glorify God, so they glorify Christ and His work as the Savior. The angels rejoice the most about the salvation Jesus won for us and all sinners. Jesus said: “[T]here is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk. 15:10). Contrary to the destructive and evil behavior of false teachers who would pull believers from the faith, “angels… do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against [believers] before the Lord” (2Pe. 2:11). The angels love us because God loves us. And they love what God prepared for the world through His Son.
The angels show this in how obediently they participated in the history of our salvation. They protected the people of Israel from whose line the Savior was born, especially on the night of the Passover when the angel of death “passed over” the Israelites’ houses but killed the Egyptians’ first-born. Many centuries later, angels strengthened Jesus after He was tempted in the wilderness and comforted Him when He suffered in Gethsemane. Jesus said “more than twelve legions of angels” (Mt. 26:53) stood ready to keep Him from death, but they were held back by His will.
Most importantly, they were “herald angels” or messengers. In fact, the word “angel” means “messenger.” We think of Gabriel who announced the forthcoming births of John the Baptizer to his father Zechariah and of Jesus to the Virgin Mary. Angels returned at three major points in the history of our salvation bringing the Gospel message:
Christmas: St. Luke 2:8-14
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” We sing v. 1 of Hymn #125, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
Easter: St. Matthew 28:1-7
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, as He said. Come, see the place where He lay. Then go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead, and behold, He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him. See, I have told you.” We sing Hymn #366, “Ye Sons and Daughters of the King,” vv. 1-3.
Ascension: Acts 1:9-11
And when [Jesus] had said these things, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” We sing vv. 2-4 of Hymn #389, “A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing.”
IV. Carry out God’s Will
The holy angels continually see God face to face. In today’s Gospel reading, Matthew 18, Jesus says: “I tell you that in heaven [the little ones’] angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.” The holy angels are constantly in the presence of God, just as we will be in heaven. In a dream God showed Jacob that angels were “ascending and descending” on a ladder that “reached to heaven” (Gen. 28:12). The angel Gabriel said to Zechariah: “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God” (Lk. 1:19).
In God’s presence, the angels always see His concern for His people and gladly go to help and protect them on earth. Hebrews 1:14 says, “Are they not all ministering spirits [angels] sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” At one point, the king of Syria dispatched his entire army to kill the prophet Elisha, and they surrounded the city where he was staying. Elisha’s servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” Elisha answered: “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Elisha asked the Lord to open the boy’s eyes, and then he saw the mountain “full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2Ki. 6:15-17)—not just one guardian angel but many of them protecting this child of God.
Philip Melanchthon, the chief co-worker of Martin Luther during the Reformation, wrote a wonderful hymn about the angels. Please turn to Hymn #545, “Lord God, We All to Thee Give Praise.” We sing the first 3 verses which teach about the angels’ service before God.
V. Needed on Earth
You and I are always in danger even though we cannot see it. God warns us that “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1Pe. 5:8). The devil tries to take you from Christ back into the kingdom of darkness. After Michael and his angels defeated the devil and his angels and cast them out of heaven, a voice from heaven said, “[R]ejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (Rev. 12:12). Ephesians chapter 6 warns us about “the schemes of the devil” and reminds us that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (vv. 11-12).
The Scriptures record many attacks upon Christians, such as on Lot, Daniel, and Peter. But the Bible says that angels “brought [Lot] out” of Sodom and Gomorrah to safety (Gen. 19:16), “God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths” (Dan. 6:22) so Daniel was not hurt, and “the Lord sent His angel” (Ac. 12:11) to rescue Peter from prison. We sing of this danger and our help again in Hymn #545, vv. 4-8.
VI. Protect Christians at All Times
God’s gift of angels is very comforting because they are stronger than the devil and all his evil angels. Psalm 91:10-12 assures us: “[N]o evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”
Christians should know that angels are guarding them, just as baby Moses was kept from harm when his mother set him adrift in a little basket. This is a particular comfort for parents who worry about their children’s welfare. Martin Luther once said: “If it were not for the protection of the dear angels, no child would grow to full age, even if the parents took all possible care.”
Our guardian angels also protect us when we sleep. Psalm 121 says: “He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (vv. 3-4). One of the chief ways God protects us during the night is through His holy angels. This is why at nighttime and in the morning Lutherans pray: “Let Your holy angel be with me, that the wicked foe may have no power over me.” We sing Hymn #569, “Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow,” vv. 5-6.
VII. Bring Souls to Heaven
The angels are the Christian’s companion from infancy until death, from the waters of Baptism until their final breath. This means that no believer in Christ dies alone. In Luke 16, Jesus describes the death of the beggar Lazarus: “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side” (v. 22). This inspired another hymn we sing: “Lord, let at last Thine angels come, To Abram’s bosom bear me home, That I may die un-fearing” (ELH 406, v. 3).
The holy angels bear the soul of the believer up to heaven with utmost care and majesty, like the chariots of fire and horses of fire that carried Elijah into heaven (2Ki. 2:11). There, the soul is welcomed by all the heavenly host—the saints and the angels. This is what we sing about in Hymn #541, “Jerusalem, Thou City Fair and High,” vv. 2-3.
VIII. Accompany Christ on the Last Day
The angels will serve us one last time, when Jesus returns in glory. The Bible says that “the voice of an archangel” will announce Jesus’ coming (1Th. 4:16). On the Last Day, “all the angels” will be with Him (Mt. 25:31), and “before Him will be gathered all the nations” (Mt. 25:32). Jesus will raise the dead, but the angels will bring them before Him.
The holy angels will be a terrible sight for unbelievers. Jesus said that He “will send His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers…. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13:41,49-50).
But the holy angels will be a beautiful, comforting sight for every Christian. Jesus promised that He “will send out His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Mt. 24:31). The believers will hear Jesus say to them: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt. 25:34).
What a happy day that will be for all the saints and the angels! The angels will no longer need to protect us, and we will no longer need their protection. We will join their everlasting worship of Christ in His kingdom that has no end. “Oh, where shall joy be found? Where but on heav’nly ground? Where now the angels singing With all His saints unite, Their sweetest praises bringing In heavenly joy and light. May we praise Him there! May we praise Him there!” We sing Hymn #461, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” vv. 3-4.
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Edited from original homilies by the Rev. Jerry Gernander
(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
Festival of Our Lord’s Ascension – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Mark 16:14-20
In Christ Jesus, who rules over His kingdom of power on earth, His kingdom of grace in the Church, and His kingdom of glory in heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
When Pharaoh realized his slave labor was gone after the Israelites marched out of Egypt, he pursued them with his army. The Israelites were camped by the Red Sea with no way to escape. It would be an easy victory for Pharaoh! But then the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground, and Pharaoh’s army was totally destroyed.
When Goliath looked down on his challenger, the young David, he mocked and cursed him. “I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field,” he said (1Sam. 17:44). But Goliath soon fell to the ground with a stone embedded in his forehead, and the Philistine army was routed.
When Sennacherib king of Assyria brought his soldiers to the walls of Jerusalem, he planned to destroy the city and unseat King Hezekiah. But Hezekiah prayed to the LORD, and the LORD sent His angel to destroy the Assyrian army—185,000 struck down in one night.
When Jesus was nailed to the cross, His enemies cried out, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt. 27:39-40). They thought they would finally be rid of this Man they hated. They thought they could make the people forget Him. But then Jesus rose again from the dead.
As we can see, the power of the LORD God is often underestimated. He is regarded as no more real than a fairy tale character. His people are despised also as those who are weak-minded and delusional. God’s enemies are certain of victory. But the psalmist writes, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill’” (Ps. 2:4-6). The King of heaven reigns over all things. He cannot be overcome. So we ask: With Jesus Enthroned, How Can We Fail?
When Jesus ascended into heaven, the scene on the other side of the clouds was much different than the scene below. St. John in his Revelation describes the appearing of a Lamb in heaven who was worshiped by all the heavenly hosts. He writes, “Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’” (5:11-12). While heaven was erupting in a chorus of praise, this was the scene on the earth: a small group of men stood squinting up at the sky trying to figure out where Jesus went.
This shows well a reality and a perception. The reality is that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to [Jesus],” just as He said (Mt. 28:18). He paid for sin, conquered death, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. His most powerful enemies took their best shot at Him, and they lost. He reigns supreme over all and uses His enemies as His footstool (Ps. 110:1). That’s the reality. But the perception from our perspective here on earth is that Jesus is very far away, hidden from us. We feel like we lose more ground than we gain against the devil and his workers. We are often afraid of what the world may do to us because of our belief. This is how we can fail even though Jesus is enthroned.
If Jesus had not sent the Holy Spirit to the disciples, they would have failed too. He appeared to them after His resurrection and rebuked them, because they did not believe the reports of those who had seen Him alive. But when the Holy Spirit came to them at Pentecost, He taught them all things and brought to their remembrance everything Jesus said to them (Jn. 14:26). The Holy Spirit gave them courage, so that they did “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (v. 15).
As they went, they were accompanied by the signs Jesus foretold. In His name they cast out demons, like when the Apostle Paul commanded a demon to come out of a young girl (Ac. 16:18). They spoke in new tongues, like the Gentiles who were converted when the Apostle Peter preached in the household of Cornelius (Ac. 10:44-46). They were spared from the deadly poison of serpents, like when Paul was bitten by a viper on the island of Malta and suffered no harm (Ac. 28:3-6). But the power to do these signs was not their power, and the work was not really their work. The last part of today’s text tells us that “they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs” (v. 20). This says that the Lord was with them! He did the signs!
But didn’t He ascend into heaven? How could He be with His disciples on earth if He was up there? This is a mystery to our reason. Yet these two things are true: The Son of God sits at the right hand of His Father in the flesh. He is also with us in this fallen world in the flesh. This is possible because Jesus is not just a Man. He is not bound by the laws of nature that bind us. He is the God-Man. That means wherever Jesus is as God, He is there as Man. His person cannot be divided. And He is not simply in two places; He is in all places. God the Father’s right hand is the position of all power and authority. It is not a location or a specific place. Since God is omnipresent, His “right hand” is too. Jesus now reigns over all things in all places as God and Man.
And we would agree that something can be present even though it is not seen. Is there oxygen in the air? Is there wind outside? We know there is oxygen because we are alive. We know there is wind because we can feel the breeze and see the swaying of trees. But what is the evidence of Jesus’ presence? How can we know He is here? Because the signs that accompanied the apostles are not so prominent today. The Church appears to be diminishing and not growing.
The evidence of Jesus’ presence is in His disciples. If Jesus were not active among us today, there would be not even one believer. No person comes to Jesus by his own power. No sinner dead in his sin can choose the life that Jesus won. The message of the Gospel is what breaks through hardened hearts of sin. Wherever the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered, Jesus is at work. Today’s text says that the apostles “preached everywhere,” and the Lord “confirmed the message by accompanying signs.” It was all about the message. The Word of God’s grace brings Jesus to sinners and sinners to Jesus.
What more could we need than we have in Jesus? Nothing. But what more do we want? Plenty. This is because we are discontent with the way the Lord does things. He exercises His power and authority and extends His kingdom through words, water, bread and wine. But this seems all too simple for a world that looks for spectacular. Why doesn’t Jesus show the world what we know Him to be? Why doesn’t He make every sinner fall to His knees before Him? Why doesn’t He destroy the ones who hate Him? The time will come for the visible manifestation of His glory and power, but that time is not yet.
Now is the time for God’s power to be hidden in Word and Sacraments. Now is the era of the Church militant, the Church in struggle, the Church in weakness. But not a Church without hope. Jesus is still enthroned, and Jesus is still present. He is still at work in His Church and in the world. You are still on the side of strength. You are still protected and led by the Good Shepherd. You are still loved with a perfect love, and your place is still reserved in heaven.
This is all true even though you have not always trusted in Him who reigns in glory. You let the threats of the world shake your confidence in Him. You often follow your stubborn, sinful heart and do not listen to His Word. But Jesus still wants to be your King and give you the treasures of His grace. He forgives your feeble allegiance. He again repeats His promise which does not change, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (v. 16). He does not give you a list of demands for you to prove yourself to Him. He says that if you have been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and if you believe in Him as your one and only Savior from devil, sin, and death, you will be saved. That’s it.
What a comfort that is! Even though you have failed Jesus, He does not fail you. His Word stands. It cannot be overcome, because He cannot be overcome. The work to save you is complete. Through baptism, your sin was nailed to Jesus’ cross and buried in His grave. Through baptism, you rose again to new life with Jesus, never to die again. Through a regular use of the means of grace, you stay connected to this life, because you stay connected to Him. Jesus is enthroned in heaven, and you will soon see Him in His glory as the saints and angels in heaven see Him. And then you will praise Him without any doubt or fear just as they do.
The hymnwriter said it well:
As true as God’s own Word is true,
Not earth nor hell with all their crew
Against us shall prevail.
A jest and byword are they grown;
God is with us, we are His own;
Our vict’ry cannot fail. (ELH #375, v. 3)
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