The Infancy of Jesus – Pr. Faugstad homily
St. Luke 2:21 – Circumcision/Naming of Jesus (8 days from birth)
Prayer: O Lord God, for our sakes You made Your blessed Son, our Savior, subject to the law and caused Him to endure the circumcision of the flesh: Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit, that our hearts may be pure from all sinful desires and lusts; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen.
Hymn #158 – “The Ancient Law Departs”
St. Luke 2:22-38 – Presentation in Temple (40 days from birth)
Prayer: O God our heavenly Father, You have shown Your love toward us by sending Your only-begotten Son into the world, that all might have life through Him: We pray that You would speed forth these good tidings of great joy to every nation, that the people who sit in darkness may see the great Light and may come to worship Him who is called Wonderful, even our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Hymn #151.1-4 – “Thou Light of Gentile Nations”
St. Matthew 2:1-12 – Wise Men Visit (about a year from birth)
Prayer: O God, by the leading of a star You manifested Your only-begotten Son to the Gentiles: Mercifully grant that we, who know You now by faith, may after this life enjoy the fullness of Your glorious Godhead; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen.
Hymn #120.1-4 – “Bright and Glorious Is the Sky”
St. Matthew 2:13-23 – Move to Egypt and Nazareth (first years of Jesus’ life)
Prayer: O Lord God, heavenly Father, You allowed Your dear Son, Jesus Christ, to become a stranger and a sojourner in Egypt for our sakes, and led Him safely home to His fatherland: Mercifully grant that we poor sinners, who are strangers and sojourners in this perilous world, may soon be called home to our true fatherland, the kingdom of heaven, where we shall live in eternal joy and glory; through the same, Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen.
Hymn #173.1-2, 5 – “The Star Proclaims the King Is Here”
In Christ Jesus, who “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phi. 2:7) in order to be our Savior, dear fellow redeemed:
When we hear about the infancy and early childhood of Jesus, there is nothing impressive about the way He is described. His skin did not glow with an inner light, and His face did not shine like the sun. Any of the local people who saw Him in Mary’s arms would have concluded that He was just another little boy.
This is such a great mystery. Because the Boy in Mary’s arms was the eternal Son of God! “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Joh. 1:3). He was Mary’s God who gave her life, and yet now she had given birth to Him, the Christ-Child. He was willing to be fed by her and be rocked to sleep. She changed His diapers and kept Him from wandering off when He started using His toddler legs.
During His early years, Jesus doesn’t look like much of a Savior. In today’s readings, the emphasis is on what was done for Him. Jesus appears totally helpless, totally passive. Eight days from His birth, His skin was cut at His circumcision and He bled. Forty days from His birth, Joseph and Mary brought Him to the temple where Simeon took the Baby into his arms. Within the next year or so, the wise men knelt before Jesus and gave Him gifts. And then Joseph had to rush his family away from Bethlehem to escape the jealous rage of Herod.
But while Jesus appeared to be passive in all these events, He was fully engaged in them. All these things were happening according to the will of God the Father, and His Son was in perfect obedience to His will. Jesus was circumcised so that He would be bound to keep the Law of God to the smallest detail. He was presented in the temple to show that He was set apart for the Lord’s work. He drew the wise men by a star to Bethlehem to prove that He had come not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. He traveled to Egypt and then back to Nazareth in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Hos. 11:1, Isa. 11:1).
Everything in His early years had a purpose. All of it was focused on the salvation of sinners, even though His ultimate sacrifice on the cross would not come for some thirty years. He came in total humility, not making full use of His divine powers. This is why the knife cut into His flesh at His circumcision. This is why He remained silent while Simeon and Anna identified Him as the Messiah. This is why He did not show His glory to the wise men. This is why He relied on Joseph to lead the family to safety.
God’s Son humbled Himself, so we would be exalted. As the apostle Paul wrote: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). Jesus put Himself under the Law to redeem us, to buy us back from eternal death. We have all sinned against the Law of God, breaking it in every way, and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
But because Jesus kept the Law perfectly for us, we are now counted as righteous before God. If Jesus had only been a perfect Man, His keeping of the Law could only count for Him. But He is also true God. That means when He kept the Law perfectly as a Man, it counted for all men. And we have received adoption as sons of God, because our Brother Jesus gave His life for ours on the cross. He paid the penalty for our sin. He endured His Father’s righteous wrath in our place.
That little Baby may not have looked like our Savior, but He was. Because of His perfect life and death for us, we know we enter this New Year with God’s favor. Jesus’ holy blood cleanses us from every sin, and His perfect righteousness covers us, so that no spot or blemish can be seen on us anymore. So with the hymnwriter we give thanks to Him and pray:
I am pure, in Thee believing,
From Thy store
Righteous robes receiving.
In my heart I will enfold Thee,
Let me there,
Loving, ever hold Thee. Amen.
(Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary #115, v. 14)
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 picture from St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto)
The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 1:19-28
In Christ Jesus, who freely gives us everything we need for this life and for the life to come, dear fellow redeemed:
The internet gives anyone the ability to connect with a worldwide audience. There are many stories about people who went from total unknowns to walking the red carpet, because they found something to do that others wanted to follow. Imagine if that happened to you. Let’s say you shared something online, maybe a joke or a creative idea or good advice. You thought your friends would appreciate it, but you didn’t expect it to go any further than that. Then others you had never met started reacting to it and sharing it. Before long it had been shared 100 times, then 1,000 times, then 10,000.
How would that make you feel? After getting past the shock, you might start to think about how you could produce more of the same. Receiving such praise would be quite an emotional high, quite an encouragement. It’s nice to be liked. It’s nice to have others validate that there is something special about you, and that you have got a lot to offer. But there are pitfalls here, pitfalls like pride and arrogance. You know what it’s like when an acquaintance or friend gets a little taste of success and then acts like you don’t exist anymore. But when they come back down to earth, then they want to talk to you again.
It’s hard to know how we would react to sudden fame. We hope that we would come away looking like John the Baptizer does in today’s text. John’s star had risen quickly. Once he started preaching his bold message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mat. 3:2), the people started gathering. The crowd got bigger and bigger until the evangelist Matthew could report that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mat. 3:5-6).
How many baptisms did John do? Do you suppose he kept count? His ministry in the wilderness was so popular that even the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, came to the Jordan River to be baptized (v. 7). That would be enough to go to anyone’s head. John could look around the crowd and see people hanging on his every word. There were the religious leaders deep in thought. There were the armor-clad soldiers with their heads bowed, listening intently. There were the rich and famous nodding approvingly. There were the young ladies batting their eyelashes and flashing warm smiles.
“Oh, what a great preacher I am! Everyone wants to be connected to me!” Is that what John thought? We cannot say what John was thinking. He was a sinner, so it’s hard to imagine that no pride entered his heart. But what he said was all humility. Today’s text shows us the exchange between John and a group of priests and Levites from Jerusalem. These religious leaders came with a simple enough question for John: “Who are you?” But behind the question was the suggestion that he might be the Christ. Probably many in the crowd were wondering the same thing.
Just think what an opportunity this could have been for John. If he let the people imagine he was the Christ, he could have asked anything from them: money, privileges, power. He could have had them eating out of his hand. Instead he confessed: “I am not the Christ.” Well then, was he Elijah come from heaven, that great Old Testament prophet? “I am not,” he said. Was he the Prophet whose coming was foretold by Moses? “No,” he answered.
Claiming any of those titles would have increased his popularity among the people. But John resisted this temptation. “I am nothing,” he said. “I am nothing but a voice.” “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” When Jesus was revealed as the Messiah and some of John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus, John was not jealous. He knew his purpose was to prepare the way for the Savior. It was not to be in the spotlight. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Joh. 3:30), said John.
To leave no room for misunderstanding, the Gospel writer emphatically underscores John’s faithful testimony about Jesus. He wrote that John “confessed, and did not deny, but confessed.” Now often we think of confession in terms of “going to confession,” or admitting our sins. But the word in the Greek language is more general. It means “to speak the same word” or “to speak in agreement.” When we confess our sins, we speak in agreement with what God’s law says about our sinful condition and our wrongs. When we confess the truth, we speak in agreement with what God has promised and fulfilled.
John confessed the truth about himself and about the Savior. “I am not the Christ,” he said. “[B]ut among you stands One you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” “If you think I’m special,” said John, “wait till you see the coming One! I’m not even worthy to touch His feet and loosen the strap on His sandal!”
John could not properly confess Christ without also confessing something about himself. He could not point out Christ’s holiness without admitting his own unworthiness. He could not shine the light on Jesus without stepping back in the shadows. To make himself out to be more would have been to steal glory from the incarnate Son of God.
But what John did does not come naturally to us. It does not come naturally to deflect praise away from ourselves. We like the spotlight on us, especially when we have accomplished something impressive. We like to be recognized for our good deeds and honored for our success. We like to hear people say, “We could never get along without you!” “You make everything better!” “Nobody could do as well as you have!” “We need more people like you!”
Now it certainly isn’t wrong to be recognized for doing good things. It is important for parents and teachers and employers to build up and congratulate those under their authority. And if you are on the receiving end of praise, it is appropriate to receive it graciously and be grateful for it. But the devil is waiting in the wings. When you are praised, he wants you to think that you are just getting what you deserve. You earned it. You are so very talented. You really are better than others. “Soak it up!” he says. “Command the stage! This is your moment! Pat yourself on your back and give yourself a round of applause!”
That’s the temptation: to take the glory for yourself that belongs to God alone. After all, who is it that gave you your body and soul, eyes, ears and all your members, your reason and all your senses, and still preserves them (Third Article)? Every good thing you possess and every good thing you are able to do can be traced back to God’s work for you, in you, and through you. That’s why John said he was only a “voice.” Even the words that he spoke were God’s words and not his own.
This is why we must “confess, and not deny, but confess,” that we are nothing on our own. Apart from God, we can produce nothing that matters, nothing that will last. Even those who think they have “made it” in this life eventually realize that their fame or power or riches are only temporary. Soon they are going to die, and then they will be forgotten.
Jesus came to save you from all that emptiness and hopelessness. He came to free you from the pressure of having to prove that you are valuable, that your life has a purpose. He came to free you from the burden of a million missed opportunities, a life of regret for not making it big. He came to free you from the temptation of trampling others to try to get to the top.
Everything that you have failed to be, Jesus is for you. He is your goodness. He is your success. He is your life of perfect decisions and no regrets. You are not worthy to loosen His sandal strap, and yet He came down to earth to serve you. He came to atone for your sins of arrogance and pride, for your failure to give Him the glory and the praise for all the good you have and do.
His love for you brought Him down to earth. Sometimes like John, He drew big crowds, but that isn’t why He came. He did not care about earthly popularity. He cared about your soul and the soul of every sinner. He came to offer Himself in your place. He came to endure God’s wrath for your sin and suffer the torments of hell, so you wouldn’t have to. He came to win your forgiveness and eternal life.
Jesus’ greatness was in His sacrifice. His glory was in His humility. We honor Him by living our life in the same way. We sacrifice our own goals and ambitions for the good of those around us, and we humbly serve with no expectation of reward. We need no reward beyond what we already have by faith in Him.
Like John, we at all times keep our focus on Jesus. We live for Him. We hope in Him. If we are praised, we give Him the glory. As John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Joh. 3:30). It isn’t about what we might make of ourselves, but what Jesus has done for us. We Confess Him, Only and Always. And He promises this: “[E]veryone who acknowledges [or confesses] me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God” (Luk. 12:8).
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 “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1565)
Palm Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Philippians 2:5-11
In Christ Jesus, whose name must be glorified on earth as it is in heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, His disciples were glad to be associated with Him. The crowds spread their cloaks and palm branches on the road and sang the praises of their king. They welcomed Him in this way because of the miracles He had performed, most recently raising Lazarus from the dead. “Blessed is… the King of Israel!” they shouted (Joh. 12:13). “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luk. 19:38). “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mat. 21:9).
The people of the crowd believed He was the promised Messiah who would deliver them from their enemies. The Jewish religious leaders who hated Jesus threw up their hands and said, “Look, the world has gone after him!” (Joh. 12:19). Even some Greeks approached one of the disciples and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (v. 21). Jesus had quite a following! The twelve disciples were glad to go along for the ride. Jesus was a “somebody,” somebody people paid attention to and wanted to know.
It’s amazing how quickly things can change. A person can go from a hero one minute to a villain the next, from rich and famous to poor and forgotten, from influential to ignored, from boom to bust. We have seen this happen to celebrities, politicians, businessmen, religious leaders, and plenty of others.
Jesus’ popularity took a major hit also. The week that started with crowds singing His praises and offering their cloaks for His donkey to walk on, ended with crowds calling for His crucifixion and soldiers dividing up His clothing. Such a change in fortune usually indicates that a major transgression was committed or that a clear boundary was overstepped. This was not the case with Jesus. He did nothing different than He had always done. He spoke the truth. He urged the people to “Trust in the LORD with all [their] heart, and… not lean on [their] own understanding” (Pro. 3:5).
He taught them to put away their self-righteousness and pride and to live a life of humble faith and service. That does not come naturally to us. By our inherited sinful nature, we care the most about pursuing our own passions and plans and receiving praise for our achievements. We can hardly “make a name for ourselves” by sacrificing our own desires for the benefit of others. It comes naturally to want to be loved, rather than to look for ways to show love.
This is why Jesus was opposed. He preached a message that was contrary to human thinking. He preached hope to the “bad” people, the cast-offs, who believed His promises. And He condemned the “good” people, the self-righteous, who were not as holy as they thought. He was no slick politician. He did not guard His words in certain company or say what each particular audience wanted to hear. He told them what they needed to hear.
That had consequences, but they were not unexpected consequences. Jesus knew what was coming. He knew what His clear teaching and His life of humble service would gain for Him. He did not live and work for the approval of the world. He cared about saving it. In today’s inspired text, St. Paul wrote that Christ Jesus “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus had knelt down and washed His disciples’ feet. He had also given them a new Meal, the Supper of His own body and blood to eat and drink for the remission of their sins. And how did they show their gratitude for such love? As He walked with them to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told them, “You will all fall away because of me this night” (Mat. 26:31). Peter replied with so much confidence, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away…. Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (vv. 33, 35). The other disciples said the same thing.
But a short time later facing a well-armed crowd, “all the disciples left [Jesus] and fled” (v. 56). For the next few days, the name “Jesus” was one that no one wanted to be associated with. Boastful Peter denied three times that he knew Him. The disciples all went into hiding except for John. They felt so proud to be connected to Jesus on Sunday when things were going well, but now they crouched in the darkness, ashamed.
We can hardly blame the disciples. I don’t expect we would have done any better. Each of us in our own lives has been ready to give up Jesus for less. The disciples hid when their Teacher was arrested, brutally beaten, and crucified. We have left Jesus not because our lives were threatened, but because we did not want to be made fun of, we did not want to be left out, we did not want to deny our sinful desires, we did not want to take a stand against error.
In these ways, we have dishonored the Lord’s holy name. His name is hallowed “when His Word is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God live holy lives according to it” (First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer). When we do not teach rightly or live purely, we dishonor His name.
God wants His name to be honored because His name includes everything about Him, who He is and what He does. God told Moses to call Him, “I Am,” or “Yahweh” in Hebrew (Exo. 3:14). That is God’s personal name, a name to honor in every way. When Jesus came to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the people recognized that He came from Yahweh: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of Yahweh!”
He came on behalf of His Father, with His blessing, to do His work. The work He had given His Son to do was to become the Servant of all, to take their sins upon Himself, to suffer in their place, and to endure the anguish of their eternal death. That is how Jesus glorified the Father’s name. And that is how He redeemed the whole world from its sin.
He suffered for all the ways the Lord’s name has been abused by false teaching and sinful living. He suffered for your hesitation to confess His name, for your choosing the world over Him, for your sinful stubbornness, selfishness, and pride. His name was trampled and cursed, so you would have a clean conscience and a good reputation before God. He was condemned as a guilty sinner, so you would be regarded as an innocent saint.
Jesus humbly did all these things in obedience to His Father and in perfect love for you. Because of His holy work, Paul writes that “God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name.” The name of Jesus which seemed destined to be forgotten on Good Friday has been preached throughout the world generation after generation since then. His name is The Name That Is Above Every Name.
The most important people of a year, a decade, or a century are eventually forgotten. The names of very few people are remembered fifty or a hundred years after their death. But the name of Jesus endures because of what He did for you and me and all sinners. In fact, His name describes His work for us. The name Jesus means “Yahweh is salvation”—“The LORD saves.” No greater thing has ever been done or ever will be done for the world. God became a man to save us.
After Jesus ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, they now boldly proclaimed the name of Jesus. Peter who had denied knowing Jesus the night of His death, now stood before the very religious leaders who had sentenced Jesus to die. He said to them, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Act. 4:11-12).
Only Jesus can give forgiveness, life, and salvation. And He has given and still gives these things to you. He is glad to have His name associated with you. You are called a “Christian”—a “Christ-ian”—a follower of Christ. God put His name on you and claimed you as His own when you were baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mat. 28:19).
Being joined to His name by faith is to be joined to all the good things He is and does. By faith in your Savior, you share in His holiness, His honor, and His glory. You don’t have to “make a name for yourself,” because you have a far better identity in Jesus. There is no name above His. And even though His name continues to be disrespected and despised in the world today, this does not change what He accomplished for sinners. He won the victory over sin, death, and the devil, and He reigns victorious even now at the right hand of the Father.
His name is not honored in the world like it should be, but on the last day all creatures will glorify the name of our Lord. Paul writes that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Unbelievers will acknowledge Him then, though they will not rejoice at His coming because they will be condemned. But the whole company of believers will joyfully welcome Him just like that Palm Sunday crowd. And we will cry out with one voice, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
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 “The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Holy Nativity of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad Exordium and Sermon
“Christmas is all about giving.” We hear that message frequently during this season. We are bombarded by TV commercials suggesting millions of gift ideas, while others encourage us to give of our time and money to help those in need. It is certainly good to give. But the first Christmas was about more than giving. The Son of God came in the flesh not only to give His blessings to us, but also to take certain things from us.
Some say that Jesus’ purpose was to make a better life for us on earth. They say that if you put your trust in Jesus, He will take away all the bad things in your life and will give you only good things. For example, He will take away your debt and give you wealth. He will take away your enemies and give you more friends. He will take away all your problems and give you happiness. This is called “prosperity preaching,” and it is not what God promises in the Bible. God does not promise to give you a perfect life on earth. He promises to take all who trust in Him to the eternal glories of heaven.
In order to accomplish this for you, He had to take away your sin. He had to take away the devil’s accusations against you. He had to take away the sting of death and the eternal punishment of hell. Jesus did this by taking on the demands of God’s law and meeting them perfectly for you. He did this by taking your sins on Himself and suffering for them on the cross. He did this by taking the death you deserved and rising victorious from the grave.
And what does He give to those who trust in Him? He gives His righteousness. He gives forgiveness for all sin. He gives eternal life and salvation. This is why the Christ-Child came. He came to save you from your sins (Mat. 1:21). Christmas is about much more than giving (especially our giving). It is about what Jesus came to take and give for our salvation. We now rise and sing our festival hymn, “Rejoice, Rejoice This Happy Morn!” (#142):
Rejoice, rejoice this happy morn!
A Savior unto us is born,
The Christ, the Lord of glory.
His lowly birth in Bethlehem
The angels from on high proclaim
And sing redemption’s story.
God’s great favor;
Bless Him ever
Give Him praise and adoration!
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Sermon text: Hebrews 1:1-12
In Christ Jesus, at whose name “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10-11), dear fellow redeemed:
The angels of God were prominent characters at the time of the first Christmas. The angel Gabriel appeared to the virgin Mary to tell her that she would conceive a Son by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luk. 1:26-38). Then an angel appeared to Joseph, her betrothed, in a dream. The angel encouraged him to take Mary as his wife, since her child was the promised Savior sent by God (Mat. 1:18-25). Then on the night of Jesus’ birth, a multitude of angels appeared to shepherds in a field outside Bethlehem and praised God for His grace in sending a Savior (Luk. 2:8-14).
What a sight this must have been! Can you imagine the night sky illuminated with countless bright angels? It was a very different scene a short time later when the shepherds saw a newborn Baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Luk. 2:12). Comparing the two scenes, the singing angels were far more impressive. And yet, here in the manger “asleep on the hay” was the Lord of the Angels.
To see was not to believe. Nothing about this Child revealed His eternal nature. He did not look like the Creator of the world. He did not look like “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature.” He did not look like “He upholds the universe by the word of His power,” as today’s text describes Him. He just looked like a normal Baby. As He grew older, most of the people who knew Jesus would not have guessed He was the Son of God. They liked Him. He was a nice young man (Luk. 2:52). But He was Joseph and Mary’s son from Nazareth (Mat. 13:55).
This opinion about Him did not start to change until Jesus began to publicly teach and perform miracles. Even then, many might have preferred to see an angel than to spend time with Jesus. That still might be true. There are plenty who take comfort in guardian angels, but who have no desire to be visited by Jesus where He promises to be found—in His holy Word and Sacraments.
But why honor the messenger more than the Master? Why look to the servant more than the Lord? Perhaps it is because Jesus is too humble for the sinner’s liking. His entrance into the world was totally unimpressive. He didn’t look like the kind of person who would make a difference in the world or even in His community. For a while in His adult years, people believed in Him. But by the time He was condemned and nailed to a Roman cross, most had deserted Him. What good had He done?
Looks, of course, can be deceiving. Jesus, from His cradle to His grave, was much more than met the eye. Jesus is the Son of God, begotten of the Father from eternity. He was “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” (Nicene Creed). He was the Creator, not a creature. The evangelist John wrote that “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Joh. 1:3).
The angels, on the other hand, are created beings, formed during the six days of creation. These mighty beings were created to serve God, to do His will. And that’s exactly what they were doing at Christmas. They were sent by God to deliver “good tidings of great joy,” the news that the Savior of the nations had come. These angels were in awe at God’s plan for mankind. They marveled at His love for sinners. They rejoiced at His mercy.
Their joyful devotion to the Lord is a great example for all of us. When we read about the holy angels, we never see them drawing attention to themselves. They do not look for glory or recognition for their work. Their glory is in the Lord. Their purpose is to serve Him.
That should be our focus and purpose too, but you and I are not always that way. We like people to see the good things we do and praise us for it. This can happen when we give nice gifts, or when we go out of our way to do something special for someone. We do this out of love for them, but it is not purely out of love. We also desire to be recognized for what we gave.
We like to feel that we have done important things, that we have mattered in the world. We have often bought into the idea that the most important thing is to try to make a name for ourselves and make our mark in some way. We adopt the world’s advice to follow our dreams and do what is best for ourselves. But what does that accomplish? Our earthly gains and successes are temporary. Focusing on these things only feeds our selfish sinful nature. In these ways, we are nothing like the angels of God. They are selfless. They are completely righteous. They are perfectly obedient to the Lord. You and I are not that way.
This is why the Son of God became man. He came to save us from our selfish attitudes, our unholy passions, and our thoughts, words, and deeds of sin. But He couldn’t just snap His fingers and make it all go away. There are consequences for breaking God’s holy law. Sin has to be punished. So the Son of God “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phi. 2:7).
Jesus came to serve. He came to offer Himself as your Substitute. This is why He came in such humility. He did not come for earthly glory. He came for your salvation. And the only way to save you was to be mistreated and wrongfully accused. It was to be mocked and tortured. It was to be pinned to a cross and left there until He died. It was to have the Father’s wrath poured out against Him, instead of against us. One of our Christmas hymns points to this purpose for His coming: “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, / The cross be borne for me, for you” (ELH 145, v. 2).
Jesus’ life was not glorious as the world measures glory. But it was the most significant life ever lived. Jesus lived not for Himself, but for all people. He lived a perfect life of obedience for them. He offered up the perfect sacrifice of His body and blood for their sins. And He rose again from the dead in perfect fulfillment of His holy Word.
No angel ever did or ever could do this. Only God could. Only God could save sinners. God the Father sent His only Son to be “born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we [sinners] might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). Oh, how the angels marveled when the Lord of heaven became a human Baby! Oh, how they wondered when “The King of heav’nly grace, / Came down from His exalted throne / To save our fallen race” (ELH 127, v. 2).
God wants you to join Him in heaven with all the saints and the holy angels. He wants your voice to be joined with the heavenly choir that once sang on the night of a special Baby’s birth. That humble Baby was the Christ-Child, the long-promised King, the Lord of the angels, the Savior of sinners.
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(portion of painting by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, “The Nativity at Night,” c. 1490)
Palm Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 21:1-9
In Christ Jesus, “the Son of Man,” who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mat. 20:28), dear fellow redeemed:
It was not just another Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem. He had come there many times before, but this time was different. Shortly before this Jesus had called his dead friend Lazarus back to life. News about the miracle had spread throughout Judea, and now many who heard about it were coming to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. Would Jesus come there too?
It was not a sure thing. The people knew how much the chief priests and the members of the ruling Jewish Council despised Jesus. They charged Him with blasphemy and wanted to have Him arrested. It felt as though something was about to happen. It seemed like some sort of showdown or struggle for power was unavoidable. It was hard not to favor Jesus, since no one else could do the things He was doing.
We see how excited the people were about Jesus by how willing they were to accommodate Him. All Jesus had to do was express his need for a donkey and its colt, and they were freely given to Him. There was no lengthy negotiation. No contract was signed, and no deposit was left. Finding a suitable way to ride the donkey was no problem either. The disciples removed their cloaks and draped them over the animal, so Jesus would have a comfortable place to sit.
By this time, word had spread about Jesus’ presence in the area. Great crowds of people came out of Jerusalem to meet Him. As He rode along, He didn’t have to worry about dust getting kicked up on the road, because the people spread their cloaks in front of Him on the road. Others cut branches from palm trees and laid those down also.
Jesus was certainly getting the “royal treatment”! In fact the crowd had exactly this in mind. They cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (v. 9). “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mar. 11:10). “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luk. 19:38), “even the King of Israel!” (Joh. 12:13).
This was not some idea thrown out by the crowds on a whim. They believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and that He would take the throne of his forefather David. The Jewish people knew their Scriptures. They knew the LORD’s promise to David that He would raise up an offspring of David whose kingdom and throne would be established forever (2Sa. 7:12-13).
They also recognized that the words of Psalm 118 applied to the coming Messiah. This is where their “hosanna” and “blessed is He” came from as Jesus approached Jerusalem. The translation of the Hebrew word “hosanna” is “save us, we pray.” As the people sang the Lord’s praises, they quoted directly from this Psalm: “[Hosanna]—Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” (vv. 25-26).
It appeared that whatever could go right for Jesus was going right. The Pharisees threw up their hands and said, “Look, the world has gone after him” (Joh. 12:19). It seemed like whatever earthly glory Jesus wanted was His for the taking. He was hailed as a King, the people gladly let the donkey He rode walk on their cloaks, and they welcomed Him as the coming Messiah.
But those gifts and praises had shallow roots. The donkey, for one thing, was not His to keep. He probably returned it when He went back to the town of Bethany that night (Mar. 11:11). The people picked up their cloaks and dusted them off, and for all their eagerness to give them to Jesus on Sunday, He would be hanging on a cross naked by Friday. The enthusiastic cries of “hosanna!” and “blessed is He!” stopped too. They were soon replaced by mockery, jeering, and cries of “crucify Him!”
What Jesus was given on Palm Sunday did not hold up. They were appropriate gifts at the time, and we see that each part was a fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. But Palm Sunday was not the ultimate goal. Jesus had not come to Jerusalem to receive earthly glory. He came to win heavenly glory for sinners.
To do this, Jesus had to walk a lonely path. Only He could travel it. He had to shoulder the burden of all sin and carry it to the cross where it must be atoned for by His death. We see in these loving actions how Jesus Gives Much More Than He Is Given.
He had the benefit of a donkey to ride as He came to Jerusalem. But that donkey’s burden was light compared to what Jesus carried. People offered their cloaks and palm branches to prepare the way to Jerusalem’s gates. But Jesus gives His own righteousness to prepare sinners to enter the gates of heaven. Many welcomed Jesus as an earthly king. But Jesus lifts us up to reign with Him in His eternal kingdom. Jesus Gives Much More.
We could never match these immeasurable gifts of Jesus. But our sinful nature makes us think we can. Our prideful self loves to be recognized for the good things we do. There are many—Christians included—who think that these good things put them in better standing with God. They believe that the more good works they do, the better chance they have of getting to heaven.
We know this is not the case. We know we cannot earn favor with God by what we do. We know we cannot get into heaven by any of our own efforts. We are saved by God’s grace through the faith He gives us. All of it is a gift and not a result of our works (Eph. 2:8-9). But that doesn’t stop us from thinking that we are owed something because of our good deeds and our sacrifices.
It is very easy for us to be bitter toward God when we experience a loss, or when we have to deal with pain or injury. We may think to ourselves, if not express it out loud: “Lord, I have done so much in Your service. Why are You letting this happen? I thought You loved me. I thought You appreciated how faithful I have been to You.” We think God should give His faithful children a happy and carefree life.
Or the opposite happens. We go through hard times, and we are convinced that God must be angry with us. He must be punishing us for past sins. In these times, we are quick to lose hope and to set aside faith in the Lord’s promises. We think God must not really care about us.
Both responses show how little we appreciate the work Jesus did to save us. On the one hand, we expect that our service to God should keep us from the effects of sin in the world. But our service to God is not even close to what He requires. We have not always done what He asks of us.
Where would we have been that first Holy Week? We might have offered our cloaks, palm branches, and praises on Sunday. But what about on Friday? On Friday, even Jesus’ closest disciples deserted Him, and we shouldn’t think so highly of ourselves to imagine we would have been different. We are not as faithful as we should be, so God sends us crosses to bear to teach us to trust in His strength and not ours.
On the other hand, to imagine that God is angry with us and does not love us anymore, is to totally ignore Jesus’ sacrifice. If God is punishing you for your sins, then why did Jesus have to suffer and die on the cross? There certainly may be consequences for one sin or another. But the punishment for sin was carried out against Jesus. “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).
The things we do for God are important—honoring His name, hearing His Word, leading a disciplined and decent life, serving our neighbors out of love for Him. God is pleased with these things, and we should want to improve and do more. But while we do good, we pray for a humble heart and a humble disposition, and we pray that God leads us to repent when we fail to do what we should.
The self-righteous love to look at themselves in the mirror and be publicly recognized for all the good they do. The faithful keep their eyes on Jesus and see everything He did out of love for them. If anyone could be prideful, it is Jesus. He had done nothing wrong. He was perfect. But as today’s Epistle lesson says, our Savior “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phi. 2:7-8).
He humbled Himself and went the way of the cross because He loves you. He refused an earthly throne in Jerusalem, because He had much more to give than what could have been given to Him. He wanted you to be freed from your sins through His death in your place. He wanted you to have His perfect righteousness, so you could stand before God unashamed. Everything you needed to get into heaven has been won for you by your humble Lord. He gives it all to you. It is yours.
And you will have still more. You will one day be glorified as He is glorified. You will be exalted as He is exalted. Then, as it is described in the book of Revelation, you will join the “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!’” (Rev. 7:9-10).
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(painting is “The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Second Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 2:1-11
In Christ Jesus, our Bridegroom, who visits us through His Word and Sacraments, “that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psa. 90:14), dear fellow redeemed:
John the Baptizer lived a life of extreme self-discipline. He wore rough camel’s hair clothing. He ate insects and wild honey. He drank no alcohol. His calling was not to enjoy the good things of the world, but to “be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Joh. 1:15), and to “prepare the way for the Lord” (Luk. 3:4). His disciples joined him in this disciplined life. When’s John’s disciples were later contrasted with Jesus’ disciples, John’s disciples were said to “fast often” while Jesus’ disciples ate and drank freely (Luk. 5:33).
This must have been surprising to the disciples of John who began to follow Jesus. One of these was Andrew, and two others were likely John and Peter. They joined Jesus when He left the area where John the Baptizer was working and traveled back to Galilee. There, Jesus called two more men to follow Him, Philip and Nathanael. The next event recorded in the Gospels is the wedding in the town of Cana. Jesus and His mother Mary were relatives or close friends of the bride or groom, because Jesus was invited to attend along with His new friends.
His disciples must have noticed right away how different Jesus was than John the Baptizer. We assume that Jesus enjoyed the food and drink offered at the wedding, though obviously not to excess. The other guests took the celebrating a bit further and exhausted the supply of wine. This was a problem. The celebration was not supposed to end, but it could not continue as before without more wine. Mary wondered if Jesus would do something and directed the matter to Him.
To this point, Jesus had not used His divine power in a public way. But now He asked the servants at the wedding celebration to fill six stone jars with water. And in a moment that makes every good Baptist feel uncomfortable, Jesus miraculously turned the water into wine. When the master of the feast tasted it, He told the bridegroom that most people serve poorer wine after people have “drunk freely.” “But,” he said, “you have kept the good wine until now.”
It may be surprising that the production of alcohol would be Jesus’ first public sign. But the Lord has nothing against alcohol. What He warns about is the abuse of alcohol. The Israelites were certainly accustomed to drinking wine, and it was an integral part of their Passover celebration. Using unleavened bread and wine from the Passover meal, Jesus later instituted His Holy Supper. And when the LORD described the eternal wedding feast in heaven, He specifically mentioned that “aged wine well refined” (Isa. 25:6) would be present.
Alcohol is a blessing when used in the proper way. The apostle Paul even recommended “a little wine” to his friend Timothy, “for the sake of [his] stomach and [his] frequent ailments” (1Ti. 5:23). But alcohol is often used improperly, and the devil knows how to tempt people to sin through it. The book of Proverbs warns about this: “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things” (Pro. 23:31-33). The New Testament contains the same warning (Eph. 5:18), and it says that drunkards “will not inherit the kingdom of God” unless they repent (1Co. 6:10).
Alcohol often makes bad situations worse, as the country singer acknowledges: “I drink because I’m lonesome, and I’m lonesome ’cause I drink” (Chris Stapleton). But alcohol can also make happy situations more joyful. A famous English author proposed this guide for alcohol use: “Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy” (G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, ch. 7).
In the case of the wedding in Cana, wine was present at the celebration not to dull pain, but to increase joy. Jesus approved of this celebration and was glad to play a part in extending it. We might have expected Jesus to make a bigger splash with His first public miracle. He could have produced food supplies for the poor, healed a prominent member of the community, or demonstrated His control over nature. Instead, He manifested His glory by changing water into wine at a wedding.
But that was fitting too. The Lord had not come to rub elbows with the elites. He came to be a blessing to all people. He was glad to be attending the wedding of a poor couple in a small, out-of-the-way town. This shows us that no situation we are in is below the Lord’s concern. He cares about our marriages, our families, our health, our work, and the challenges we face. We may not see any way to get past our problems, but He knows how to bring blessings out of trials.
So Jesus turned water into wine, “and manifested His glory.” In part, this was intended as a sign for His disciples, and they “believed in Him.” But what He had told His mother was still true, “My hour has not yet come.” The time to reveal Himself as the promised Messiah had come, but there was more for Him to do before His suffering, death, and resurrection. For three years, Jesus traveled between Galilee and Judea preaching the Gospel, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. He was equally willing to spend time with the spiritual leaders of the Jews as with the spiritual outcasts.
The scribes and Pharisees did not appreciate this, particularly when Jesus criticized them and absolved the open sinners. For how concerned they were with God’s Law, they did not like having it leveled against them. John the Baptizer had done this, and now Jesus was doing it too. Jesus pointed out to them that the problem was not with Him and John, but with their own corrupt hearts. He exposed their self-righteous thinking, “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luk. 7:33-34).
Their spiteful attacks did not change His loving purpose and work. He continued to show mercy to the people around Him in humble service. Just before His entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus told His disciples, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mat. 20:28). This is why He came and was manifested to the world. He came in humility “to give his life as a ransom for many.”
After riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus declared, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Joh. 12:22). His glory would come through His death. He was “betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Mar. 14:41) and handed over to be crucified. Paul writes that Christ “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phi. 2:7-8).
Through His humble sacrifice, Jesus paid for our many sins. These sins include our worry that His love for us may run out, our overindulgence in earthly things where moderation is called for, and our failure to see the great blessings God has provided us, especially the blessings of marriage and family. Jesus took these sins upon Himself and suffered for them, so God now declares us absolved of every sin.
This forgiveness of sin is imparted to us through the means of grace. These humble means are the ways that Jesus continues His humble service to us today. He comes to us through the preaching of the Gospel, through the water of Baptism, and through the bread and wine of Holy Communion. By partaking of these things with faith, we join the wedding feast of salvation.
And who are the bride and bridegroom at this feast? Jesus is the Bridegroom, and all believers in Him are the bride. Jesus wedded Himself to the human race by taking on our flesh and dying for the world’s sins. We sinners are joined to Him through Baptism, by which we are presented to Him “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph. 5:27). We are holy in God’s sight because of what Jesus did for us. Our sins are covered over by His righteousness.
By Baptism we were buried with Him in His death and raised with Him to new life. Through this union with Christ, we are called by His name, and we gain His own reputation and status. We common sinners are now joined to the holy King! We share in His glory, though it is a glory hidden in this world.
Soon this glory of our Bridegroom will be manifested for everyone to see. Then His humble work of salvation will be acknowledged by all, and His followers will join Him at the heavenly feast. There, such rejoicing will take place that cannot be imagined now. But we can be sure that our troubles will be forgotten, our joy will be full, and the supply of God’s abundant blessings will never run dry.
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(picture is from a work by a 10th century monk)
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)
The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 14:1-11
In Christ Jesus, in whom we have been raised up and with whom we have been seated in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6), dear fellow redeemed:
It is ironic that the phrase “Taking the High Road” was most likely coined by a politician, since politics is where “taking the high road” almost never happens. Politicians watch for any slip-up by their opponents and then portray the mistake in the most negative light. The primary goal is not justice or the promotion of truth, but political victory. And if a career is ruined by the mud-slinging, so be it.
The Pharisees of today’s text were like our politicians. They hated Jesus. They wanted His efforts to fail. They wanted to discredit Him before the public, and if possible, to eliminate Him. One of these Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him on a particular Sabbath day. This sounds like a neighborly thing for the Pharisee to do, but he and his friends had ulterior motives. We are told that “they were watching him carefully.” Picture them watching Jesus like a hawk watches its unsuspecting prey. But Jesus was not unsuspecting. The trap they were setting for Him would not catch Him by surprise.
In the room was a man with dropsy, a condition causing fluid retention and swelling in the skin. Would Jesus heal him? On another occasion, a religious leader had criticized Jesus for healing a disabled woman on the Sabbath. “There are six days in which work ought to be done,” he said, “…and not on the Sabbath day” (Lk. 13:14). It may well be that the Pharisees now brought this man with dropsy before Jesus as a test. Would Jesus break Sabbath law with so many witnesses present?
Jesus perceived the trap; he knew what the Pharisees were thinking. The text says that “Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees.” He answered their thoughts even though they hadn’t verbalized them. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” He asked. They thought this would be forbidden according to the law. They believed that healing would be work, and God said no work should be done on the Sabbath. If Jesus healed on the Sabbath, He must not be from God. This is how their thinking went, but they did not say a word.
Then Jesus healed the man and sent him on his way. Now the Pharisees had Jesus where they wanted Him! But before they could level an accusation, Jesus asked how many of them would leave a son or an ox in a well on a Sabbath day. Would they call down that they would like to help, but it would just have to wait until tomorrow? Obviously not. They would do whatever it took to bring the son or the ox to safety.
What was Jesus’ point? His point was that the Pharisees should remember why the law was given. It was not given to promote an external righteousness, an outward keeping of the rules. God wanted His people to rely on Him and not on themselves. He required a day without work, so that people would set aside time to hear His Word and pray. This is how they would show love for Him according to the Third Commandment.
But this Sabbath requirement did not negate the other Commandments of God. If someone had fallen on the Sabbath, his neighbor should help him up. If someone were sick or hungry, his neighbor should carry medicine or food to his home. These things would show love for God by showing love to a neighbor.
Love for God and neighbor is the entire focus of God’s moral law (Lk. 10:27). When you wonder whether something is right or wrong, you should ask yourself if it is loving. Even if you know it is true, is it loving to spread gossip about a neighbor? Even if someone said a mean thing to you, is it loving to say something mean back? Even if someone invites you to share their bed outside of marriage—even if it is someone you love—is it loving toward God or the consenting partner to ignore the institution and commitment of marriage?
Today’s culture promotes a different definition of love. We are told that love means accepting and agreeing with whatever a person chooses to do. And if we question how others live their life, then we are called hateful. But Jesus questioned the Pharisees. Is it because He hated them? No, it is because they lacked the love that God requires, and He wanted them to recognize it. He wanted them to see that their concern was not for God or their neighbors; it was for themselves. That is the problem today. People are full of self-love. They think their choices are right even when God says they are wrong.
It is tempting for us to feel morally superior to these people. We do not do the things they do. We know what God’s moral law says, and we want to follow it. But self-love can work its way in there too. We imagine God must be pleased with us because we are not like the sinners around us.
But think about the parable Jesus told. Suppose you were invited to a wedding feast along with all sorts of criminals and sinners. Looking around, you hear some of the bad people boast about their evil deeds, while others hang their heads in shame. Then all are told to take seats at the table, but with this caveat: everyone is to sit down based on how good they are compared to others. The bad people not sorry for their sins immediately head for the best spots because they are only concerned about themselves. The bad people sorry for their sins shuffle toward the less honorable places.
But to which end of the table do you go? On the one hand, you could say that you have not fallen into the serious sins of either the boastful or the humbled criminals. You have not killed anyone. You have not stolen anything. You have tried to be a good neighbor. Certainly you should be seated higher than the bad people who are not sorry for their sins. But on the other hand, the standard of God’s law is perfection. Even if you have refrained from outward sins, what about the sins of your mind and heart? The scene could get ugly fast, with people fighting over the best places.
But Jesus says to you and me, “go and sit in the lowest place.” Take the High Road by taking the lowest place. The Letter to the Philippians says, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (2:3). We should not concern ourselves with what we think we are (pretty good), or what we think others are (pretty bad). We should stick with what we know. We know that we are sinners who have not perfectly kept God’s law. If the table in Jesus’ parable were God’s table, then no one would belong at it either in the high or the low places.
But still, we are invited to the heavenly banquet. We are invited because Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). He gave up the highest place, which was His by right. No one even approaches His greatness. He left the highest place, and took the lowest. In fact, He gave up His seat at the table altogether, so that there would be plenty of room for everyone else.
He showed perfect love for all, but they did not all love Him in return. When the Pharisees could not find any sin in Jesus, they told lies about Him and twisted His words. Then they got Pilate to condemn Him to death. Jesus could have dragged all their hidden sins out in the open, and none of what He uncovered would be a lie. He could have shown the ugliness inside every religious leader. But He took the high road. He said nothing while false accusations were hurled His way. Then He took the high road, literally, when He carried His cross up the hill to Golgotha outside the walls of Jerusalem.
This is where the perfect Son of God was crucified, the humble Healer of dropsy, disability, and most importantly, the sinful heart. He poured out His blood to wash away each transgression, including yours. Every sinful stain of your past, every failure to do and say and think what God says, every prideful judgment of the imperfect lives of others, the Lord forgives it. You deserve the lowest place, but Jesus has taken you by the hand and said, “Friend, move up higher.”
You have not always taken the high road—with your siblings, your parents, your spouse, your classmates and co-workers, your fellow church members—, and these sins may still trouble you. But while others may hold your sins against you, God does not. He looks upon you in grace as though you had never done anything wrong.
That does not mean you and I can boast about our transgressions. Nor do we have the freedom to sin as much as we like, just because we know sin is paid for. Humble children of God do not embrace sin. They flee from sin, and when they fall into it, they repent of it.
God did not create us for sin, but for righteousness. He created us to love Him and our neighbor. When our neighbor attacks us despite our efforts to love, then we pick up the cross and take the high road after Jesus. Nothing good is gained by “digging up dirt” on others and “slinging mud.” But much good is gained by a humble disposition toward others and a humble trust in Jesus.
The Sabbath rest that no person could obtain by his own efforts, is freely given us by our loving Savior. He has lifted us out of the pit of sin we had fallen into and brought us with Him to be seated at His heavenly banquet. Because of His humble suffering and death, we will be exalted with Him for eternity.
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Palm Sunday / The Annunciation – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Philippians 2:5-11
In Christ Jesus, “The King of heavenly grace,” who “Came down from His exalted throne / To save our fallen race” (ELH 127, v. 2), dear fellow redeemed:
I have never heard of a CEO of a multi-billion dollar company giving up the job to become a minimum-wage worker of the same company. It is possible that this could happen, but not very likely. An “undercover boss” might spend some time with workers at the bottom of the corporate ladder, but he will not stay there. Human beings are not inclined to give up what they have gained and move down instead of up. We want to have more success, better our standing, rise higher. This is why no one could have imagined what God would do for mankind, and how He would go about it.
Suppose you were the CEO of a company: What would you do if an employee of yours broke all the rules for the job, attacked the people around him, stole from the company, and threatened you? Not only would you fire him, you would also expect him to be arrested and punished for his crimes. In the same way we who have broken God’s holy Commandments again and again should expect to be removed from His gracious employ and punished for all our sins.
But that is not what happened. Instead, God sent one of His angels to inform a young, poor woman named Mary: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:31-33). It is not impossible, though not very likely, for a king to rise up from such poor circumstances. But this was not just any king; this was the Messiah. This was God come in the flesh.
Human reason cannot comprehend these things. How could a virgin be pregnant? How could the tiny Child in her womb be the eternal God? How could the Lord’s death win life for us? This is so difficult to grasp because Jesus’ power and glory are not displayed like we would expect them to be.
If we were to plan the arrival of God on earth, we would envision it much differently than how it happened. First of all, we would choose a woman of different status—certainly someone known for her good deeds, but someone more prominent than Mary of Nazareth. When told that Jesus was from that town, one of His future disciples remarked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46). Then we would also expect the God-Man to step onto the world’s stage with stunning demonstrations of heavenly power and with swift judgment against the wicked. In short, we would imagine that the Lord of All would act like the Lord of All.
But the Lord of heaven, begotten of the Father from eternity, “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” This is an even greater step down than CEO to minimum-wage earner. In that case, it is still exchanging one human position for another. But God the Son stepped down from His position of power and authority over heaven and earth to become the Servant of men.
What caused Him to do this? Was it because He considered the human race worthy of the effort? Did He see enough goodness, enough promise in man, that He was willing to help them out? No, the “redeeming quality” was in God, not in people. It was God the Father’s love for the pinnacle of His creation that caused Him to send His Son to become Man (Jn. 3:16). He did not have to talk His Son into it; His Son obeyed Him without hesitation. His will perfectly conformed to His Father’s, even though He must endure intense agony and punishment for sin. The text says, “And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
It was in humility that Jesus revealed His greatness and glory. Many people rejected Him as Lord because He did not fit their picture of the Messiah. He did not act like they would if they were God incarnate. Which was exactly the point. Jesus was the opposite of what mankind had become since the fall into sin. He came without a hint of pride and without any pressure to prove Himself to the satisfaction of sinners.
All of this was quite unexpected—The Lord of All Becomes Servant of All?! The disciples did not understand why their great Teacher must go to Jerusalem to die an ugly death. The people on Palm Sunday did not understand His purpose in coming to Jerusalem “humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). Pontius Pilate did not understand why, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,… he opened not his mouth” (Is. 53:7) when false accusations were leveled against Him. No one can rightly understand Jesus’ sacrifice in our place. It required a humility unknown and unobtainable by any of us.
And yet our text says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” We should have the attitude that Jesus had and conduct ourselves as He did. In the verses just before today’s text, we are urged to “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (vv. 3-4). This is the how Jesus was. He told His disciples that although He was their Lord, yet He was among them as one who serves (Lk. 22:27). He stooped down and washed their feet just as they “also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn. 13:14).
This is not how our self-centered, entitlement culture operates. We are taught to demand respect. We should fight for the benefits we deserve. We should never let anyone question the decisions we make or how we live our lives. We should never have to back down from anyone. So in other words, everyone else should serve our interests and make sacrifices for us, but they better not expect the same treatment in return.
Isn’t it obvious why there is so much hatred and bitterness in our society? It is not the fault of our political leaders or the media or anything else outside of us. The problem is in our hearts. Our hearts are full of selfishness and pride. If we loved our neighbor as God demands, we would view no one as below us. Serving others would never feel like a chore. We would give with no thought of recognition or reward. We would show respect even when the same courtesy was not returned to us.
If anyone had cause to be offended by others, it was Jesus. He did wrong to no one. He was the perfect neighbor. Yet He was betrayed, tortured, and crucified. How did He respond to such indignities, such injustice? “Father, forgive them,” He said, “for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Who can comprehend the sacrifice? Who can understand the humility?
In a sermon on this text, Martin Luther said that “Were we similarly to humble ourselves, and even to go beyond Christ in humility—a thing, however, impossible—we should do nothing extraordinary. Our humility would still reek of sin in comparison with his. Suppose Christ [were] to humble himself in the least degree—but a hair’s breadth, so to speak—below the most exalted angels; and suppose we were to humble ourselves to a position a thousand times more abased than the devils in hell; yet our humility would not compare in the least with that of Christ.” (Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 7, p. 170)
Nothing like this had ever happened before or ever would again. God became Man. Would you become a mosquito to save the mosquitos? Probably not—better to have them die. But God became Man to save sinful mankind. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary when the angel visited her on that history-altering day. The Church remembers this annunciation—this announcement to Mary—on March 25th, which is exactly nine months before Christmas.
This year, March 25th also marks the start of Holy Week. This week, we see why God became Man, why He humbled Himself so completely. One of our Christmas hymns makes the connection:
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!” (ELH 145, v. 2).
The Lord “made Himself nothing,” so you could have everything. The first pastor of this parish, the Rev. U. V. Koren, explained that “God’s Son came down to bring us up to God. He became poor to make us rich. He took our condition on Himself to give us His. He reconciled God to us so that we might be reconciled to God” (U. V. Koren’s Works, Vol. 1, p. 166). He did not come to serve us because we are worthy of His service. By nature, we are just as self-focused, prideful, impatient, unkind, and unloving as everybody else.
But Jesus did not let the nastiness of His neighbors turn His love away. He continued on His mission with a clear conscience, a definite purpose, and an obedient heart. He lived a perfect life for you, me, and all sinners who are not as we should be, and He willingly gave Himself over to death to obtain our forgiveness.
God the Father accepted His humble sacrifice on our behalf and raised Jesus from the dead. Now “God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name.” But our Brother in flesh did not return to the Father’s right hand alone. He came down to our level, in order to bring us up to His. He lifts us up from our low and despised position in this world to reign with Him in heaven. As another of our Christmas hymns says,
He serves that I a lord may be;
A great exchange indeed!
Could Jesus’ love do more for me
To help me in my need,
To help me in my need? (ELH 148, v. 7)
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(painting is “The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Third Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 8:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who is worthy of eternal praise, dear fellow redeemed:
Much had changed since Jacob left his father’s house to travel to the land of his uncle. He had gone there for two reasons: first, his brother Esau wanted to kill him after he deceitfully took Esau’s blessing, and second, he was hoping to find a wife there like his father had before him. When he left, Jacob was poor and alone, but as he made his way back, he brought with him a large family and great riches. He recognized that these tremendous blessings had come from the LORD. In prayer he said to God, “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant” (Gen. 32:10).
But even though he recognized his unworthiness, he still was not shy about holding God to His promises. The night before he would encounter his brother Esau, a mysterious man engaged him in a wrestling match. Their struggle continued until daybreak, when the man wanted to leave. Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (v. 26). The man consented and blessed him. Jacob had wrestled with God and prevailed. Jacob was not worthy of this blessing, but through faith he received it.
The same was true of the leper in today’s text. Leprosy was a terrible disease of the skin. It was very contagious and deadly. When a person was found to have leprosy, he was required to leave his family and home and join a community of other lepers. It was a depressing and painful existence, and there was little hope for healing. What leverage could a man like this apply to Jesus? How could he convince Jesus that he was worth healing? He could do nothing but fall before Him and say, “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean.”
He did not list off all the things he would do for Jesus if he were healed. He did not promise Him a reward. Nor did he express doubt that Jesus was even able to do what he asked. He said, “Lord, if You want, you can”—not “If you are able, please do.” This man acknowledged that he was entirely unworthy of Jesus’ help. At the same time, He expressed an unyielding faith and hope that Jesus could.
Then Jesus did something totally unexpected. If this were depicted in a movie, I am almost sure it would be shown in slow motion. Jesus reached out His hand and touched the leprous man. Anyone watching would have recoiled in horror. “Don’t touch him, Jesus! He is unclean! You might catch what he has!” But the opposite happened. The pure did not become impure; rather, the impure became pure. “Be clean,” said Jesus, and the leprosy immediately went away. In total humility, the man dared to ask for mercy, and he received it. He was cleansed.
This is exactly what happened at your baptism. Your parents or guardians brought you to the cleansing waters of the font because you were unclean. You were afflicted by something even worse than leprosy; you were full of sin. And while leprosy destroys physical health, sin destroys spiritual health. If sin is not addressed by the divine Physician, it results in eternal death. The motto of all who are brought to the font could well be the hymn verse, “Nothing in my hand I bring, / Simply to the cross I cling; / Naked, come to Thee for dress, / Helpless, look to Thee for grace. / Foul, I to the fountain fly—/ Wash me, Savior, or I die!” (ELH 286, v. 3).
We come to baptism unclean, helpless, foul, but Jesus is not repulsed by us. He looks upon us with mercy, and through His Word, He touches us with divine grace. At the prayer of parents and sponsors, “Lord, if You will, You can cleanse this child,” Jesus replies, “I will; be clean.” And the child is clean. He is washed in Jesus’ blood and covered in Jesus’ righteousness.
That is what the Lord did for each and every one of you. Through baptism, you have been freed from the leper community and incorporated into the family of God. You are no longer far off, separated from God. You have been “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). In Him, you and all baptized believers are “holy and without blemish” (5:27).
But that does not mean all your cares and trials are now over. The devil and the old Adam in you do not want you to remain in Christ. They want you to doubt God’s Word and to imagine that you are entitled to worldly success and happiness. They want you to question God’s love when bad things happen. These temptations will not stop as long as you live in this fallen world. In heaven is pure bliss, but in the world, you have trouble (Jn. 16:33).
Trouble came to the centurion in today’s text too. One of his highly valued servants had been paralyzed and was “suffering terribly.” Why did God let this happen? The centurion may have wondered this particularly because he had tried to live a life pleasing to God. He had rejected the false religion of the Romans and humbly listened to the Scriptures. The Jewish elders in that place begged Jesus to help, saying of the centurion that “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” (Lk. 7:4-5).
Did this make the centurion worthy? Did Jesus owe it to him to grant his request? Nowhere in the Bible are we told that God will give us what we ask if we somehow prove ourselves worthy. But perhaps the elders said this so that Jesus, a fellow Jew, would even consider assisting this Gentile. The Jews and Gentiles were not natural allies and friends. Even Jesus declared at a later point, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 15:24). But on this occasion Jesus said, “I will come and heal him.”
Before he reached the centurion’s home, the centurion sent friends to deliver this message on his behalf (Lk. 7:6), “Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” What faith he had! He freely acknowledged his unworthiness. He knew that according to the law of the Israelites, Jesus should not enter the home of a Gentile. He deserved nothing from Jesus, but like the leprous man before him, he boldly called on Jesus to do what only the promised Messiah could do – “only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
Now, Jesus was impressed. “Truly, I tell you,” He said, “with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” What does that tell us? It says that just because we have the right bloodline, just because we have God’s Word at hand, does not mean we will be most faithful. It is easy to hide behind these things and become prideful about externals. But faith is not built into DNA; it is not inherited like our personal traits. And salvation is not assured us simply because we belong to the right church and put offerings in the plate.
Faith and salvation are brought to us and applied to us by the Holy Spirit through God’s means of grace. We do not earn them, but we can lose them. So we humbly confess our weaknesses and sins; we acknowledge our unworthiness. And Jesus grants our request for mercy just as He granted mercy to the centurion and his servant.
The centurion said that in his position of authority, he would “say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” In His position of authority—all authority in heaven and on earth—Jesus also says to those under Him, “Go,” “Come,” and “Do this.”
He says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). Our Lord’s saving Word and Sacraments are for “all nations,” for Jews and Gentiles. He invites all to believe and receive His grace. He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28), and “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (Jn. 7:37). And for their spiritual nourishment, Jesus says, “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1Cor. 11:25). He gives His body and blood to baptized believers “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28).
Through the preaching of His Word, through Baptism and His Holy Supper, Jesus reaches out to touch you with His grace and life. He does not avoid you because of your unclean, sinful state. He does not overlook you because you have the wrong background. Unworthy Though You Are, He comes to you to forgive and strengthen and bless.
You cannot make yourself worthy of His presence and gifts. He makes you worthy to be His own by the power of the Holy Spirit. In His grace we have comfort and a confident faith, as the hymnwriter says, “Unworthy though I am, O Savior, / Because I have a sinful heart, / Yet Thou Thy lamb wilt banish never, / For Thou my faithful Shepherd art” (ELH 313, v. 3).
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(picture is a portion of a Byzantine mosaic in Sicily)