Mission Festival – Rev. Prof. Thomas Rank sermon
Text: St. Luke 10:38-42
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ,
If you lose Jesus Christ and His Gospel, then you as a congregation, need not exist. If you lose Jesus, then this building, with your Sunday services, with your Sunday School and other programs, can be closed. That is, in summary, what it means if you lose what Jesus teaches when He speaks of the “one thing needful.”
This truth, the fundamental confession of Jesus Christ and the Gospel, is not only for congregations, but for our work as a synod, and our work at Bethany Lutheran College. It is our motto, and its meaning is to permeate what we desire for the students who attend.
There are many good things that your families, community organizations, volunteers of all kinds, food banks, and so on – there are many good things that all of these are able to provide for the welfare of your children, other people in your community, and beyond the confines of your local area. Each of you in your various vocations, where God has put you, have many appropriate and God-pleasing avenues for helping others.
This same variety of avenues to provide for others is found at Bethany. Whether it be Administration, or Staff, or the Faculty in the variety of academic disciplines, there is a desire to help our students in the horizontal aspects of their lives. What does it mean to have academic integrity? Why should I care? How do I live with others in charity and compassion? How do I love my neighbor?
These are important questions. But their answers—how we live—do not make us right with God or keep us right with God. If questions and answers for this life, our earthly vocations, become primary at Bethany, then we are failing in our primary work. The horizontal aspect of our lives, with other people, with our students, do not make right or kept right with God. This is active righteousness, doing, loving your neighbor. A great and blessed work. It is something we desire students and ourselves to learn, to grow in. But it is not the “one thing.”
Martha exemplifies this horizontal action toward others, human to human. Martha welcomed Jesus to her home. Martha, as a good hostess, directed her attention to serving Jesus and the others in her home. This was a great gift of kindness that she showed Jesus. Yet she was admonished by Jesus when she complained about her sister Mary. “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore, tell her to help me.”
This is an understandable reaction on the part of Martha. She thought that at that point in time, with Jesus as her guest, with serving needing to be done in a timely manner, that it was the most important thing. Surely Jesus will know this, agree with her, and direct Mary to help her. It seemed like the right thing to do.
But was it? What we learn in this short episode in the life of our Savior is not so much a distinction between what is right and wrong, but the distinction between primary and secondary things. Actions of love toward others, as Martha is showing here, are subordinate to the “one thing needful.” That is what Jesus teaches Martha. Her actions which in and of themselves are good, have become ways by which she has been pulled away from what should come first. She is distracted with the ‘other things,’ and so has become worried and troubled. Her desire to act, as laudable as it might otherwise be, has been made primary for her, and in that way she has failed.
Mary is depicted here by St. Luke as passive. “Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word.” Mary is not giving, she is receiving. And for the Christian, this is primary. This is first. This is the ‘one thing needful,’ hearing Jesus, hearing His Word. This is what has been the heart of Bethany Lutheran College since its founding in 1927. It is what we pray we can retain in the challenges we face.
Passive righteousness is hard for us because we humans, due to our alienation from God, are driven by the need to act, the need to try and show God how worthy we are. It is finally a condition that the Law of God must break in us. No matter how dedicated we are, no matter how kind we are, no matter how charitable we are, these are not what will decide our eternal fate. Heaven and eternal life are not won by us, by our deeds, by the intensity of our desire to act. Heaven and eternal life are won by Jesus; they are then given as gifts to you. And how is that done? By sitting at His feet, hearing His word, and faith which trusts that Word. Passivity.
In his wonderful commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther gave this counsel which very much applies as we learn this distinction between Mary and Martha:
“Therefore I admonish you, especially those of you who are to become instructors of consciences, as well as each of you individually, that you exercise yourselves continually by study, by reading, by meditation and by prayer, so that in temptation you will be able to instruct consciences, both your own and others, and take them from the law to grace, from active righteous to passive righteousness, in short from Moses to Christ.” (LW 26:10).
Do you see what is at stake here if we get the ‘one thing needful’ confused? If I, as a professor in my religions classes, speak to students on the topic of death, and seek to provide comfort for that uncomfortable truth of death, do I bring comfort by telling them what honest and well-mannered students they are, how they are such a great class, and that such actions on their part serve to stave off the fear of death? If that is my focus, students’ active righteousness, what am I actually doing? I am implicitly telling them not to rely on Jesus.
In the book “The Hammer of God,” a required text in freshman religion, and one which many of you may be familiar with, there is an episode in the first part of the book where a young and inexperienced pastor tries to console a dying man. The young pastor tries to provide consolation by telling the dying man: ‘Johannes, out of all the people in the village, you have certainly lived a virtuous life.’ To which Johannes responds: ‘God will not judge me by comparing me to the people of this town, but by His law.’ Thankfully, a pious and well-catechized Christian woman also visited Johannes and gave him the comfort of God’s Word of promise and forgiveness. She pointed him to Jesus, and away from himself. In that way, hearing the One Thing Needful, Johannes was given comfort as he died.
Let me repeat: Martha’s actions, her desire to give to Jesus, are not wrong. But she has placed them where they do not belong. They have become distractions. They have prevented her from sitting at the feet of Jesus and receiving His Word, His teaching, His grace. Mary had chosen the good part, listening, receiving.
While a goal of Bethany is to provide a solid education that will enable students to be good and productive citizens, it is not the primary goal. Remember how I started the sermon: If you lose Jesus Christ and His Gospel, then there is no reason to exist, either as congregations here in northeast Iowa, nor as a Lutheran college in south central Minnesota. That is, in summary, what it means if you lose what Jesus teaches when He speaks of the “one thing needful.”
It is about putting first things first. So as you look to this fall and the opportunities provided you to gather around God’s Word, and as we teach students at Bethany Lutheran College, what is the point of it all? It is to direct you and our students to Jesus, to teach you and give you the Gospel: you are forgiven, through faith in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who lived, died, and rose again, for you.
We meet Mary and Martha later in Gospels. In John 11 we hear of them and the death of their brother Lazarus. A time of sorrow has fallen on their home. But now we see and hear of the fruit of Jesus’ teaching, especially for Martha. Jesus will not give her hope because her brother was a kind man. No, but what will Jesus do? He will give hope by teaching who He is, and what He does. Jesus does the action for our salvation, He is the subject of the verbs.
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 “And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (Jn. 11:25-27 NKJ)
Do you think that Martha believed ‘the one thing needful?’ Clearly she did. She makes that powerful confession which comes only from hearing and believing Jesus: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of God.’
There you have the one thing needful: Jesus, Jesus for you. In Him you are forgiven, in Him you have resurrection hope, even now. That is the hope that permeates the life of your congregation and of your college. It is the hope that lies at very heart of what we desire to believe, to teach, to confess. It is here because you have Jesus, and His Word of grace.
It is my prayer that this ‘one thing needful’ continue to be your foundation, and that of our college. It is the bedrock of saving faith on which you may depend regardless of the storm winds of life. God grant it to you all, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.
(picture from stained glass in Bethany Lutheran College Old Main building)
The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity – Vicar Anderson sermon
Text: St. Luke 7:11-17
In Christ Jesus, who collided with death for you, whose victory over it is your own, giving you eternal life, dear fellow redeemed:
Physics tells us that a collision takes place when two or more structures or particles move toward each other and come near enough to interact and exert a mutual influence. One example of this is how billiard balls interact on a pool table. The opening sequence of a game is called the “break”, when the entire rack of balls is hit by the cue ball. If you have ever watched or played a game of pool you know that on a good “break”, the cue ball collides with the rest, ricocheting them all in different directions.
This morning we hear about a different kind of collision and its impact on everyone involved. However, instead of ricocheting into chaos, death or injury, this collision brought an end to all pain, suffering and death.
Jesus’ disciples and a great crowd were following Him towards a small town called Nain. Jesus had recently performed other miraculous things and this crowd following Jesus had heard and seen the powerful things He could do. They must have been filled with excitement and joy, even awe and wonder.
On their way into the town they encountered another crowd, one feeling anything but excitement and joy, processing out of the town. This crowd was walking towards the place outside the city where the graves are located. Bearers were carrying the body of a young man and were being followed by his mother a widow. Jesus could have gone around them and into the city, but instead He walked directly up to where the boy’s lifeless corpse lay and He spoke life into him. Fearlessly the Lord collides with death.
Death was not a part of God’s plan for us. Our God is not a God of the dead, but of the living (Mark 12:27). God intended for us to live forever with Him in perfect harmony. He created us perfectly and He intended us to stay that way (Gen. 1:27). Our bodies were never meant to fail us. But, man sinned and everything would change for mankind. This abrupt change caused an entirely different view of life. Instead of never having to worry about death now every person has to face it and this brought a tremendous amount of fear.
It is natural to avoid death, because it is contrary to man’s very being. Out of fear people attempt to prevent death or even things that resemble death. We cling tightly to this life, wanting to know when we will die, or how we will die. Questions like these became more prevalent when an unknown deadly virus began quickly sweeping across the globe and continues to threaten us today.
We are gripped in fear because death is a guarantee, and while our flesh fights against it, it cannot stop it. We think we would rather have death come when we expect it, but death is never convenient. We want to control when death comes, but just as we had no control over our birth we have no control over our death. We often forget that the one who gives life is also the one who takes it away (Deut. 32:39).
Death causes the sin of doubt and anger to bubble up inside each of us. We ask questions like; “does God know what He is doing, why would God let this happen?” We shake our fist at God saying, “if you loved me God you wouldn’t have done this to me. Maybe You don’t love me after all?” The devil delights in seeing us filled with doubt and anger towards God because it is at those times when we are most vulnerable to his attacks.
Thankfully, we do not face death and its consequences alone. Our Lord Jesus never once feared death. He says, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” (John 10:17b–18a). Jesus cannot die unless He allows Himself to, He does not fear death because He has power over it.
We see how Jesus approached the lifeless man without any fear or trepidation. He put His almighty hand upon the bier, which is similar looking to a stretcher. The body was laid upon it and carried by bearers and as Jesus touched it the bearers stopped. Then Jesus said “young man I say to you arise” and the man woke up as if he were only sleeping (Thess. 4:14). Jesus stopped that procession of death right in its tracks, bringing an end to the mourners’ sadness and despair.
Some of you here have lost a close friend, some a mother or a father, some have lost a spouse, and some have even lost your children. Jesus has compassion on you like He had compassion on that widow. Jesus was with you in that deepest moment of grief. He continues to be with you through those moments when you miss those loved ones. When that pain in your stomach and in your chest returns know that Jesus aches with you (Luke 7:13). He does this out of His abounding and steadfast love for you!
That is exactly what He felt for the widow who lost her only son. Jesus knew how much pain and suffering she had endured, first losing her husband, now her only son. He knew all the uncertainty and fear that accompanied her sadness. It made Him ache with compassion for her. So much in fact, His very guts or inward parts ached. He says to her, “Do not weep.” Not a chastisement, instead it was “look, see that I am about to provide for you a reason to stop weeping.”
Think about the times you have been told, “Everything is going to be okay,” “things will get better,” after something tragic has happened. Although that person meant well you found those words hollow and lacking because they had no power behind them to make things okay. This is not how Jesus works; instead He gives you what you do not deserve. He gives you the things you are afraid to ask Him for because you deem them impossible. Only Jesus can say, “do not weep” and provide you a reason not to.
When you lose a loved one from this life, or death seems to be approaching know that Christ has already given you a reason not to weep. He has already conquered death through His resurrection from the dead. Jesus’ compassion was not for the young man; it was for his grieving mother left all alone here on earth. Jesus knows all that you have been through. By Jesus bearing the cross for us and dying upon it He has taken away all your sins, including the sins of doubt and anger towards Him.
The theologian and hymn writer Paul Gerhardt boldly says, “Though a heavy cross I’m bearing and my heart feels the smart, shall I be despairing? God, my helper, who doth send it, well doth know all my woe and how best to end it” (ELH 377:2).
You have certainty that Jesus knows your sorrow and pain. Throughout His life and death He experienced every pain and suffering this broken world brings. He was rejected, mocked and laughed at, spit on and scourged. He put the weight of the world’s sin upon His shoulders and with each blow of the whip to His body felt the pain of your sin.
He went to the cross and paid the full penalty for your sin before giving up His spirit. He willingly died to conquer death for you; His death is the answer for your death. The Lord then descended to hell not in defeat but instead to proclaim His victory over sin death and the devil. He rose to show the world His holy life and sacrificial death was a sufficient payment to God the father.
Our living Lord and Savior is still with us, speaking His life into us through His powerful Word. He spoke life into the young man of Nain and spoke hope into his lonely mother.
The young man’s temporal life was restored; but because sin and death remain here he would eventually die again. But what has been created in you is eternal. All our loved ones who died in the faith live this very day in the presence of their Savior, and you will be in His presence one day as well.
St. Paul writes, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). This “newness of life” is happening now in each one of you and it continues on after death. You are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) and now have the assurance that because Christ lives you shall live also.
You died once to sin already at your baptism and have risen from death to life with Him through your baptism. Jesus performed a life-giving miracle in each one of you. Christ spoke His living Word into you and your spiritually dead heart was awakened to a new life of faith. The washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit created in you a clean heart (Titus 3:5-6; Psalm 51).
These Words of forgiveness continue to come to you daily when you repent of your sins and receive His holy absolution. He has given you the means to believe in Him, and the means to strengthen that faith by Word and Sacrament. His compassionate and merciful Word continues to bring you comfort, life and forgiveness.
You and I will all have to face death unless Jesus returns before then, but you do not need to fear it! You obtained Jesus’ righteousness by faith and you also obtained His victory over death by faith (Isaiah 25:8, 1 Cor. 15:51–55). For you an earthly death is but a portal to an eternal life! “Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die”” (John 11:25–26).
The Lord fearlessly collided with death and destroyed it for you. He stopped it in its tracks and spoke life into you. Just as Jesus awoke the young man so too will His all-powerful Word awake your body when He comes again. In Jesus’ second coming, the one who has fearlessly collided with death will speak His Word and your already glorified soul will re-unite with your mortal body and you will become glorified both body and soul.
Death will not defeat you because Jesus defeated death. Martin Luther wrote about this powerful victory in his great Easter hymn: “It was a strange and dreadful strife when life and death contended. The victory remained with life (with Jesus), the reign of death was ended; Holy Scripture plainly saith, that death is swallowed up by death, In vain it rages o’er us.” (ELH 343:4)
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 “Resurrection of the Widow’s Son from Nain” by Lucas Cranch the Younger, c. 1569)
St. Mary, Mother of Jesus – Vicar Anderson sermon
Text: St. Luke 1:46-55
In Christ Jesus, you who are blessed through the gracious merits of our Lord the Son of the Most High, dear fellow redeemed:
Some Christian churches today believe and confess that Mary was conceived immaculately, completely without the stain of sin. That she was full of grace from the time of her birth and throughout her entire life. They say it had to be this way in order for her to accept the task set before her. They say she had to be a virgin because her virginity is the sign of her faith “unadulterated by any doubt,” and of her complete devotion to God’s will. Because of this they believe Mary is worthy of our prayer and she brings our petitions to the Lord.
But we know none of this is true because scripture does not speak on any of those things. God’s Word only speaks of one person who was born completely without sin and His name is Jesus. The only Immaculate Conception we believe in is the conception of Jesus Christ. God’s Word came to Mary when Gabriel visited her, and the Holy Spirit conceived the child. She became the mother of the Savior because God chose her and decided that she would be, not because of any willful decision Mary made.
Mary would give birth to a Son, but He would not be a typical son. This son would be called holy––the Son of God (1:35). He had no earthly father, but was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He was fully God according to His divine nature and fully man according to His human nature. It was only possible for the Virgin Mary to conceive a perfect human being because God the Holy Spirit caused her to conceive.
The angel Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). We confess that Jesus is the second person of the holy trinity. Jesus is true God and true man. Therefore Mary is truly the blessed virgin, the mother of our Lord.
But the fact that she is the mother of our Lord is not the only reason Mary rejoices in today’s text, or even the main reason. She rejoices because of what Jesus’ coming means for all people. The Lord has exalted those of humble estate, and The Lord helped His servant Israel, in remembering His mercy.
Mary lived in a town in the region of Galilee called Nazareth and was betrothed to a man named Joseph (Luke 1:27). We know that Mary was a virgin; she had not had any physical relations with a man. She was a servant of the Lord, she knew what God commanded in His law and she believed in the promise of a Savior. She was not of any public significance and still God sent the angel Gabriel to come to her, to inform her that she will conceive in her womb a Son and she is to call His name Jesus (Luke 1:31).
It was a great honor for Mary to bear the God-man Jesus Christ. God chose her because she had faith. But even with a strong faith Mary could not provide any help in the plan for the salvation of mankind. Rather then being prideful and thinking highly of herself Mary recognized her need for a Savior.
Mary immediately takes the spotlight off herself and shines it on her Lord. She acknowledges her humble estate. In her song of praise she mentions “He” or “Him” close to twenty times. She refers to herself four times and in each case it is only in response to what God has already done for her. She knows where her help comes from. All her help comes from the Lord, to whom she sings her praises.
The same is true for us; our help comes from the Lord, and from the Lord only. And still our sinful nature continues to get in the way. Our self-centeredness and pride want us to believe we can do it apart from Jesus Christ. We puff up our chest in arrogance and think that we have all the answers. Our own intellect and reason become our idol and we put our trust in them, elevating them above the Lord. We think we know better than God, needing results now and the results we want. If God has something else in mind for us, well we just aren’t all that satisfied with it. We make our decisions with no regard to what His Word says and without His blessing. We think of ourselves as special, but in reality we are just ordinary sinners.
God sees right through our conceited hearts. He cuts through your self-reliance and pride so that you recognize your need for dependence on Him. He brings you down in order to raise you up again. This is what God’s Law and Gospel do for you. If you were not graciously given the Holy Spirit to recognize your sin and selfishness and need for Christ, you most certainly would be lost forever. God loves you far too much to let this happen.
God has always taken care of those He calls His own. Throughout the Old Testament God used small and insignificant people to help preserve the coming of His Son. Using the small in stature to bring down the mighty. A young faithful shepherd boy kills a tall strong pagan warrior with nothing but a stone and a sling. And this same boy David would grow up to be one of the greatest and mightiest kings Israel ever saw and from whose descendants Jesus would come (Sam. 17:33, 46–51). Without God’s almighty hand over David, he surely would have failed.
Apart from Christ we are nothing. The Lord takes what is nothing and makes it significant. He takes you, just an ordinary sinner and makes you righteous in God’s sight. He makes the unimportant blessed beyond compare through His Son. He used Mary a small and insignificant servant of the Lord to bring about the Savior of the world.
It is right for us to recognize the honor Mary has of being the mother of the Lord. Mary’s relative Elizabeth just prior to our text had greeted her saying, “blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Mary truly was blessed but not more blessed than you (Luke 1:48). She was blessed because of what her Savior did for her. His payment of death on the cross was for her, a sinner who trusted in her Savior. She is a saint in heaven because of her faith in Him.
There is a big difference between honoring Mary and praying to her. We do not pray to Mary or any of the saints, nor elevate them above Jesus Christ. God’s Word tells us in St. Paul’s letter to Timothy, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).
Martin Luther greatly opposed praying to Mary and the saints. He says, “we want to hold the dear virgin and mother in all honor, as she certainly deserves to be honored; yet we do not want to honor her in such a way that we make her equal to her Son, Christ. For she was not crucified for us, nor did she die for us or pray for us on the cross; but Christ was crucified for us and died and pleaded and prayed for us with tears on the cross. Therefore honor Mary; but do not accord her the honor which we should accord Christ” (Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says, 4009 pg. 1257).
Mary was unique in that her savior would physically dwell inside her womb and be born of her flesh and blood. He would be nursed by her and raised by her. She would love him as any mother loves her son. Throughout Jesus’ life she would witness how the world would receive Him. She would hear how people talked about Him and see how badly He was treated. She knew that at some point He would be taken from her. This would be a tremendous challenge for Mary and she would need protection and support from the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless she struggled to always trust the plan God had set in motion. Mary did not always nor perfectly understand who Jesus was and what He must do. When she finds Jesus in the temple teaching as a young boy she asks Him, “Son why have you treated us like this?” Jesus responds, “why were you looking for me, did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” (Luke 2:48–49).
At a later time in Jesus’ ministry, Mary seems to have joined her family in wanting Jesus to stop teaching like He was. Some in the family try to seize Him saying, He was “out of His mind” (Mar. 3:21). Mary did not always speak up and rebuke others when they questioned what Jesus was doing. His mother and His brothers stood outside the house where He was, a house packed with people listening to Him. Jesus was told that His mother and His brothers were outside the crowd seeking Him. Jesus responded, “who is my mother and my brother?” And then with an outstretched hand He points to all who were seated around Him and He says, here are my mother and my brother and my sister, for whoever does the will of my Father is my brother, sister and mother” (Matt. 12:46–50).
Jesus makes it exceptionally clear that Mary His mother is not the focal point of His ministry; she was only a small piece of it. Jesus shows that the focal point of His ministry is the work of His Father. He was about His Father’s business, saving souls and He is as much His mother’s savior as He is yours.
Your Lord lived perfectly and went to the cross to die for you never once questioning the will of His father. You who are in Christ Jesus have everything. The Lord has filled you with good things. He has emptied you of your worldly ego and pride and filled you with God’s grace. All that was completely worthless is now replaced with something precious. Through His Word He has filled you with His Holy Spirit and given you his body and blood for nourishment. The food he provides you with will never let you hunger and thirst again. The bread from heaven, Jesus Christ Himself, fills you! You are now full and completely satisfied.
Jesus has “clothed you with garments of salvation. You are covered in the robe of His righteousness” (Is. 61:10). The promise to Abraham and his descendants was kept. The mercy of God is remembered in His Son Jesus. He has caused “righteousness and praise to sprout up before all nations” (Isaiah 61:11). His promises are kept for you, and the benefits of them continue to come to you just as “flowers continue to sprout from the earth.” All generations who believe in Him are called blessed. You are blessed just as St. Mary is.
St. Mary is a great example to all Christians. She had humility and a strong faith in her Savior. She knew that she did not deserve the honor of being the mother of our Lord and she also knew that she didn’t deserve a Savior. Yet, God chose her from eternity to bear the Son of God and also be saved by Him.
The Lord has also chosen you from eternity to believe and to be saved. His love and mercy is abundant and abounds for all who believe in Him. The mother of Our Lord truly did have a reason to rejoice, and so do you!
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 Visitation” by Giotto di Bondone, c. 1310)
The Sixth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 5:20-26
In Christ Jesus, whose righteous life fulfilled every detail of God’s holy law for you and for all people, dear fellow redeemed:
If I were to have a major injury, like multiple broken bones in my leg, there are two ways I could approach the recovery. I could wrap up and mobilize my leg as well as I could and hope for everything to heal up on its own. This might result in my being able to walk again but probably not without difficulties. The bones would not be set quite right.
The other option would be to go and see a doctor who specializes in broken bones. He could put everything back in place, apply plates and screws as needed, and monitor the progress. Given enough time, the bones would likely heal just as they were before. It seems obvious what choice I should make. I should not trust what I can do. I should trust the specialist who is confident he can save my leg and make it all right again.
But in the area of righteousness before God, many people take the opposite approach. They think they can fix what is broken on their own, and it only makes the problem worse. Righteousness before God is when my life matches up with God’s requirements for my life. His Ten Commandments establish the boundary markers for what is correct, upright behavior. His law shows whether the things I have done, said, and thought are justifiable before Him.
So it is clear that we will not be able to understand righteousness unless we understand God’s law. This is Jesus’ focus in His words today from the Sermon on the Mount. Just before today’s text, Jesus said that He did not come to abolish or destroy “the Law and the Prophets,” but to fulfill them (Mat. 5:17). He did not come to relax God’s standard, to make it more comfortable for sinners to remain in their sins. He came to sharpen the law, or to sharpen the people’s consciences in response to the law.
He sounded a clear warning, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (v. 19). And before the people could imagine that they were among the “great” ones in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
That was a shocking statement. The scribes and Pharisees were widely seen as the “good people,” the ones who scrupulously followed God’s law. And now Jesus was saying that even such a disciplined, committed life was not sufficient. God demands more. A good life does not fulfill His law. God requires a perfect life (v. 48).
The old Adam, our sinful nature, cannot tolerate this. It tells us that God has set the bar too high. He can’t really expect us to be perfect! After all, God loves us, and it isn’t loving to make rules that no one can follow. So then we do the very thing Jesus said He would not do. We abolish the law, or at least we set it aside whenever it suits us. Or we reinterpret the law so that it can accommodate our sins.
All of us have done this. We got caught doing or saying something we shouldn’t have, but we were quick to justify the wrong:
- “I lost my temper because they kept provoking me!”
- “I hit him because he hit me first!”
- “I took that because they owed me!”
This week I became aware of a Pew Research Center report which was released less than a year ago (8/31/20). The topic was sex outside of marriage. 57% of Christians surveyed—more than half—said that “sex between unmarried adults in a committed relationship” is acceptable. Slightly less of the Christians surveyed, 50% of them, said that “casual sex between consenting adults” is acceptable. This is not at all what the Bible says. The Bible says that sex is a gift from God that is to be exercised within marriage only. So either the Christians surveyed don’t know what God’s Word teaches, or they don’t think it is all that serious or important.
So we Christians go forward thinking that we have lived a pretty good life and have little to be ashamed of. But Jesus says, “If you think you have lived a righteous life, let’s take a closer look at what God’s law demands.” He points to the Fifth Commandment. Haven’t you and I kept that one—“You shall not murder”? Jesus says this commandment is also broken by those who have been angry with a brother, or insulted someone, or spoken harshly toward someone.
Do you find yourself justifying your anger? Maybe someone crossed a line you told them not to cross. Maybe someone you trusted betrayed you. Maybe you’ve been bullied. You were sinned against in these circumstances, and that isn’t right. But it does not give you the right to be angry. It does not give you the right to speak harshly toward and about another. It does not give you the right to treat somebody like dirt.
Jesus says, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Jesus does not say that we should wait for others to come to us. He does not say we should hold their sins against them. He says that if we have sinned in any way against someone else—even if they committed the greater sin—we should apologize and seek to be reconciled.
This is really hard. This runs against our own idea of justice, which often looks a lot like revenge. Our failure to love our neighbor as God commands should show us that we are not capable of fixing everything we have broken. Most of us don’t have the knowledge and ability to properly set our own broken bones. None of us has the ability to fix our breaking of God’s holy law.
But there is an expert Fixer, a Specialist who is able to set things right again. Jesus said He came to fulfill the law. He came to keep it, every detail. He was able to do this because He was not a man who inherited Adam’s sin like the rest of us. He was a man without sin. He was God incarnate, God in the flesh. Because God became Man, He was obligated to keep His own law. This was not for His own benefit—He was already righteous from eternity. Jesus kept the law for your benefit and mine.
The righteousness that the law demands was supplied for us by our Savior Jesus. He is the one who perfectly honored His parents. He is the one who never wronged His neighbor. He is the one who lived a sexually pure life. All the ways we have broken God’s law, Jesus set right with His own perfect life.
Does that mean everyone in the world is now righteous before God? Jesus kept the law for everyone, but not everyone is credited with His righteousness. Some have no remorse for their sins. They don’t care what God commands, and they fully intend to continue in their sins. Others recognize their sins, but they think they can supply the righteousness that God requires. They think they can make up for the bad; they can balance out their bad with their good. These sinners are outside of God’s grace. They will have to answer for their own unrighteousness.
But all who trust in Jesus alone for righteousness are righteous. St. Paul writes that “if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:21-22). And again, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). So the righteousness you need is obtained by faith in Jesus.
This faith was given to you at your Baptism, which means that Jesus’ righteousness was given to you at your Baptism. Today’s Epistle lesson from Romans 6 says that through Baptism your sins were buried. You died to sin and were raised with Jesus, so that now you walk in newness of life. Now you walk in His life.
What Makes a Person Righteous is his or her connection to Jesus. Jesus is the only one who is righteous by His own doing. He lived that righteous life for you, and then He died to erase all the wrongs you have done. The standard of righteousness before God has never changed and never will change. Jesus met that standard for you.
And He meets you now through His Word and Sacraments to keep delivering His righteousness and forgiveness to you. There is no justification for your sinning. There is no good excuse for the wrong you have done. But Jesus wants you to know that He is not angry with you. He does not condemn you for your sins. He died for you. He looks upon you now as though you never sinned against Him. And He promises to help you look at the sinners around you in the same way.
You will not find justice in this life for all the wrongs that have been done to you. And you will not be able to fix all the wrongs you have done to others. But you will always find forgiveness and healing in Jesus. You will find strength through Him to show love and kindness to others whether or not love and kindness have been shown to you.
Even when your best intentions and your best efforts fail, you stand righteous before God for Jesus’ sake. By faith in Him, you have a righteousness that satisfies the requirement of God’s holy law, a righteousness that guarantees that you will enter the kingdom of heaven.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Rudolf Yelin the Older, 1912)
Good Friday – Pr. Faugstad homily
What would your life be like without Good Friday? What if you knew nothing about God the Father sending His only-begotten Son out of love for the fallen world? What if you didn’t know that Jesus willingly went to the cross for you, carrying your sins, so that He might take the punishment you deserved? What if you didn’t know you are righteous in God’s sight because of what Jesus accomplished?
Your life would be very different. You would have nothing but this life in this world. You would have no clear purpose for why you are here, no obvious motivation for putting others before yourself, and no reason to conclude that your life matters in any meaningful way. You could spend your time trying to get rich, you could maneuver for power and influence, or you could try to satisfy whatever passions you have as much as you can. But none of that holds up when death is staring you right in the face.
Many people carry on without Good Friday. Either they have not heard, or having once heard, now they do not care. God forces no one to believe. He “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Ti. 2:4). But many are not saved. They reject the holy Word of God. They reject the salvation Jesus won for them.
Because He did win their salvation. He suffered for each and every one of their sins. He endured the horrific fires of hell in their place. He paid their debt. Good Friday wasn’t just for those who would believe in Him. It was for all people, all sinners past, present, and future.
What happened on Good Friday was a balancing of the scales of God’s justice. All the sins of the world were put on one side of the scale, and Jesus was put on the other. How heavy those sins must have been! Who can measure the evil that has been done in the world since time began? How much killing and lying and cheating and taking? How many wicked actions and words? How many evil thoughts? The sin of one human being cannot be measured, much less the collective sins of the world.
And on the other side of the scale was Jesus. He looked so insignificant and small. By the time He came to Golgotha, He could hardly walk. He was bleeding all over His body. His face was bruised and swollen. His breathing was labored. How could this one weak Man do anything about the world’s sin? Well it wasn’t just a Man on the scale. It was God—God clothed in human flesh. A mere man—even a really good one—could not move the balance against one sin. But God could.
When the God-Man stepped on one side of the scale, the other side filled with all our sins started moving. It rose higher and higher until it was clear that Jesus was more than enough. He was sufficient payment for sin. But justice required more than the weight of His person. It required His death. The Son of God had to die on the cross. This holy Lamb had to be sacrificed for all sin.
Think for a moment where God has placed you in this life. He has given you important things to do in your home, your school, your workplace, your community, your church. He has handed you important responsibilities as children, siblings, parents, co-workers, and neighbors. Now think of how you have failed in these areas. Think of the things you have done that make you feel guilty and ashamed. You are not perfect in any way. Your sin has stained every part of your life.
Your sins were there on the scale opposite Jesus. He felt God’s wrath for each of them. He suffered for those sins before God as though He had committed them. So for your hurting and lying and cheating and taking—whatever wrong you have done—, Jesus paid the penalty. He poured out His blood for you, and His blood cleanses you from all sin (1Jo. 1:7).
Jesus applies His cleansing blood in every area of your life. At a crime scene, detectives look for whatever evidence they can find to catch the criminal. But if God looked back at the “crime scene” of all your sins, the only thing He would find is blood—the holy, cleansing blood of His Son which has blotted out all of those sins. The precious blood of Jesus absolves you; it saves you.
By the grace of God, you don’t know what your life would be like without Good Friday. Through faith in Jesus, Every Day Is Good Friday for You. Because of what your Savior has done, your sins are forgiven, and eternal life in heaven is yours. Thanks be to God! Amen.
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(picture from “Cristo Crucificado” by Diego Velázquez, 1632)
The Fourth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 6:1-15
In Christ Jesus, the Food that our souls need so that we may live forever even though our bodies may die, dear fellow redeemed:
We could do without a lot of things we have in this life. We don’t need dressers and closets full of clothes. We don’t need TVs, computers, and smartphones. We don’t need large living spaces, nice vehicles, and most of our possessions. We could learn to live without all these things. But we can’t do without food. Food is essential to our survival. The body needs food like a car needs fuel—it can’t run without it.
We heard at the beginning of Lent how Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness. That’s a long time to go without food, and Jesus “was hungry” (Mat. 4:2). When the devil tempted Him to turn stones into bread to prove He was the Son of God, Jesus replied: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (v. 4). He quoted these words from the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. They were part of Moses’ message to the Israelites after they had wandered in the wilderness for forty years because of their disobedience.
God required those forty years of wandering to humble them and to test their faithfulness toward Him. In the wilderness, there was no way to find food for that large amount of people. The people had to rely on God to give them what they needed. Six days a week, He provided a type of bread for them called “manna.” When the morning dew lifted, the people would see the ground covered with “a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost” (Exo. 16:14). They stooped down and collected it, and they took it home to prepare it and eat it. God provided this food until they entered the Promised Land of Canaan (Jos. 5:12).
In today’s text, we find another group of Israelites in the wilderness without supplies of food. They followed Jesus because they saw how He healed the sick, and they wanted to hear His teaching (Mat. 6:34, Luk. 9:11). But now evening approached, and the people needed to eat. Jesus asked His disciples to give them something. “Impossible!” they said. “The crowd is too large! Our resources are too limited!” Andrew told Him: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”
The disciples were thinking logically. But Jesus wasn’t looking for logic; He was looking for faith. He wanted them to trust in Him no matter how difficult the problem seemed to be. He wanted them to see that the God who provided bread for forty years in the wilderness was now sitting right there next to them. “Five barley loaves and two fish” were more than enough to feed the thousands gathered there.
When the people saw how Jesus multiplied the bread and fish to feed everyone, they weren’t slow to make the manna connection. “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” they said. Moses had prophesied long before that the LORD would raise up for the people a Prophet like him from among them (Deu. 18:15). “Just as Moses gave the people bread in the wilderness,” they thought, “now Jesus can give us bread!” They even plotted to take Him by force to make Him their king.
But the people had selective memories. They were so impressed by the bread that they forgot Moses’ emphasis on the Word. What was it that Moses had said? “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deu. 8:3). It isn’t that food for our bodies is unimportant. We do need it. But as much as we need physical food, spiritual nourishment is even more essential.
That isn’t really how we think. We hardly ever go a day without eating something. On the other hand, we might go a whole week or even longer without tending to the needs of our soul. A continued lack of food eventually leads to the death of the body. But a continued lack of spiritual nourishment is worse than that. It leads to spiritual death and then eternal death. Physical hunger comes to an end. But spiritual hunger never ends in hell, and it will never be satisfied.
Think about the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (Luk. 16:19-31). The rich man had all he wanted. He “feasted sumptuously every day.” Lazarus had nothing. He was sick and starving. Both men died, but they didn’t go to the same place. Lazarus went to heaven, and the rich man went to hell. Lazarus was actually the wealthy one. He did not have food or any of the finer things in life, but he had faith. He feasted on the Scriptures and died with confidence in God’s promise of eternal life. The rich man had plenty of food but no faith. He had his “good things” on earth but then entered eternal torment.
What good is it to have a full belly if your heart is not full of God’s Word? What good is a new car if you have no concern for your new life in Christ? What good is earthly wealth if you have no interest in the riches stored up for you in heaven? All these earthly things pass away. They get burned up, and they break down. They get stolen from us, and they slip through our fingers. God gives us our many earthly blessings for our use and enjoyment. He does not give them to us so we can make them into idols.
Earthly bread was the idol of that wilderness crowd. They were not interested in the better gift that Jesus wanted to give them. The day after the miraculous sign, they found Jesus. And Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (Joh. 6:26-27). And what was this eternal food? Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (v. 35).
Jesus is the Food of faith. He is the food our souls need. Apart from Him, we can only “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Mat. 5:6). Apart from Him, we have nothing valuable to set before God. Even if we gathered together and piled up all the riches of the world, He would not accept it as payment for one person’s sins. God needs nothing from us. We have nothing to bargain with for our salvation.
And that’s why God did the bargaining. That’s why He supplied what was lacking. He did for us what we could not do. God the Father sent His only Son to save the sick and dying world. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (vv. 48-51).
There is no limit to this Food. Jesus is enough for the salvation of all sinners. His perfect life under the law is enough to satisfy the righteousness we sinners crave. We don’t have to prove we are important or special by how much earthly stuff we accumulate. Our worth before God is not measured by how successful we are here. Our worth before God is measured by how successful Jesus was here.
We are acceptable before God because of the life Jesus lived for us—perfect works, perfect words, perfect thoughts. And then He went to the cross to perfectly pay for all of our sins. Fragments remained after the people ate the bread and fish. But no fragments of our sin remain now that Jesus has given His holy body and blood to atone for them all.
Jesus has even instituted a special Meal to assure us of this forgiveness. Its benefit is not found in how well it pleases our palate, or in how much it satisfies our stomach. This Meal of His body and blood in Holy Communion is given for our spiritual health. And if it is given for our spiritual health, it has benefits that last for eternity.
Even though Jesus had not instituted His Holy Supper yet when He fed the five thousand, He used language at that time that anticipated this Meal. Jesus said to the people: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him…. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (vv. 53-56,58).
“Man Shall Not Live by Bread Alone,” said Jesus. Bread is important. It is right to pray for “daily bread,” which “includes everything needed for this life” (Fourth Petition, Lord’s Prayer). But Jesus gives us more and greater blessings through His Holy Word and Sacraments.
Jesus is our Bread of Life. We feast on His forgiveness, righteousness, and salvation and are filled up by Him every time we hear His Word and read it and think about it and speak it and sing it. His Word does not return to Him empty. Like the rain and snow that water the earth, “making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,” so our Lord’s Word is planted in our hearts, and it grows and nourishes us (Isa. 55:10-11). His Word brings food to the starving and life to the dying. His Word saves our souls.
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(picture from “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
Ash Wednesday – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: St. Matthew 6:16-21
In Christ Jesus, who “fills the hungry with good things” (Luk. 1:53), dear fellow redeemed:
Some people give up dessert during Lent. Some give up TV. Some give up social media. Roman Catholics are required to give up meat every Friday of Lent. Are you giving up anything? While this can be a useful practice, the Bible does not require it. Some suggest that we should rather add things during Lent—more Bible study, more prayer, and so on. I think these things go together—whenever we give up one thing, we have space to add another. So if you give up time in front of the TV or smartphone, you are adding time that can be spent in other ways, such as Bible reading or prayer.
It’s important for us to take an inventory of how we spend our time. Typically we say we don’t have enough time to accomplish what we want to. But that isn’t a problem of time as much as it is a problem of scheduling or a problem of priority. We can always “make time” for the things that matter most to us. And if we don’t “make time” for what we say matters most, then it’s fair to ask if it really matters as much as we say.
For example, we all agree that prayer is important. We know that the God of heaven commands us to pray and that He promises to hear us. But how many of us regularly take the time to pray? Prayer takes time—it doesn’t have to take a lot of time—but it takes some time or at least some effort. And there is always so much to do, and our minds are occupied by so much, that prayer gets forgotten and neglected.
In today’s text, Jesus calls us away from worldly distractions and toward spiritual discipline. Our text is a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In the section just before our text, Jesus talks about giving to the needy: “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mat. 6:3-4). Then He talks about prayer: “when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (v. 6). And then we have His encouragement to fast, to go without food for a time: “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
There is a clear pattern here. First of all, Jesus does not command the people to give to the needy, pray, and fast. He just expects that they will: “when you give,” “when you pray,” “when you fast.” Second He says that as much as possible, we should hide our giving, our praying, and our fasting. These things are not meant for the eyes of others. They are meant for the eyes of our Heavenly Father, who rewards us according to His grace. That’s His third point: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Perhaps the most surprising discipline on the list is fasting. You might have heard about how fasting can provide health benefits for adults without certain underlying conditions. I came across an “intermittent fasting” plan recently which suggests eating in an eight hour window each day and then fasting for sixteen hours to give the body time to burn fat.
But Jesus is speaking here about the spiritual benefits of fasting. This wasn’t a foreign concept to the people of the Bible. The Israelites often fasted in Old Testament times, and always on the Day of Atonement. In New Testament times, Luke tells us about the widow Anna, who “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luk. 2:37). John the Baptizer and his disciples fasted in preparation for the Messiah’s coming (Mar. 2:18).
Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness as He began His public work. The Christians in Antioch fasted when Barnabas and Saul were sent off as missionaries (Act. 13:2-3). And when pastors were appointed in Asia as a result of these mission efforts, we are told that “with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Act. 14:23).
So why don’t we all have the habit of fasting today? In part, it’s because we don’t want to demand something that God has not. He did not give a law of fasting in the Ten Commandments. But it may also be that we don’t fast because we never have; it is a foreign concept to us.
It hasn’t always been a foreign concept among Lutherans. Think of the words of our Catechism which are printed on the front of the bulletin: “Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training; but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the remission of sins’” (Proper Reception of the Sacrament).
We are right to say that fasting is not required, but that does not mean it is to be rejected. Luther wrote that “Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training.” What makes fasting “a fine outward training”? Fasting prepares us to receive. It uncovers our hunger. It reveals our weaknesses. It exposes the idols of our heart. The purpose of fasting is not to offer it to God as a good work, which is often the way “giving something up for Lent” is understood. Fasting is rather a preparation to receive the good gifts of God.
Jesus promises that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” God does not reward us because we are so deserving. He always rewards us according to His grace. The humbling of our body through fasting along with the humbling of our spirit in repentance is seen by our merciful Father. He knows who we are. He knows our needs and our struggles and our sorrows. And He knows exactly how to address them.
He sends His Son Jesus to come to our aid. Jesus lived a holy life for us, including perfectly caring for the needy, perfectly praying, and perfectly fasting. And He was forsaken and rejected by the Father and swallowed up by death, so that we would be delivered from God’s eternal wrath and punishment. Jesus brings us these gifts of His righteousness, forgiveness, and life when He comes to us in His Word and Sacraments.
Through these means, Jesus addresses the sin, the weakness, and the hunger that fasting exposes. He does not come to punish us or lecture us. He comes to heal us and comfort us and strengthen us. When Jesus comes, we receive exactly what we need. He never leaves us empty-handed. He fills us with the gifts of His grace, and He gives us a taste of the heavenly treasures that we will enjoy in fullness for all eternity.
We fast now in joyful anticipation of the feast to come.
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(picture from “Jesus in Prison” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
Quinquagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
In Christ Jesus, whose incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection are proof of God’s eternal love for mankind, dear fellow redeemed:
“Love” is one of the deepest words we have, but it is also one of the cheapest. The word “love” is used to describe one’s affection and commitment to a spouse, and it is used to describe one’s affinity for chocolate. We might say we “love” a sports team, a song, or a certain food, but we don’t mean it in the same way as the love we have for our family. So what does the word actually mean?
We learn about love in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians. The Holy Spirit guided St. Paul to write specifically about agape love. The ancient Greeks had a number of words for “love,” including philia (brotherly love), eros (romantic love), and storge (love within a family). But the highest form of love is agape love, which is compassionate, sacrificial love. This is the love that God wants us to have toward one another. And it is the kind of love He has toward us.
We have nothing good to offer—nothing meaningful to share—if we do not have love. Paul wrote that even if he could speak in the language of the angels or had perfect understanding and knowledge or gave up everything he had, but those things were not coupled with love, then they are worthless. He states very clearly that godly love will never be motivated by selfishness; it will not be focused inward. It will be outward, focused on those around us.
But this godly love does not come naturally to us. What comes naturally to us are the behaviors that Paul lists as the opposite of love, things like envy, boastfulness, arrogance, rudeness, and self-centeredness. This is often what we see in society from those who claim to be pursuing the path of love. Their notion of “love” is more about self-fulfillment than self-sacrifice. For them, “love” is the thing they feel when they are doing what they want to do. And they expect that kind of love to be supported no matter how unhealthy or destructive it may be.
But we do not approve of alcoholism simply because a person loves to drink, or robbery because someone loves the thrill of taking what isn’t theirs, or pornography because a person loves the high it gives them. As Paul wrote, love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” Love and truth go together. There is no love apart from truth, and no truth apart from love, because both love and truth come from God.
God is the source of all that is good, and love is certainly good. That’s why the devil works so hard to corrupt it. He does not want us to be patient and kind, generous and forgiving, humble and gracious. He wants us to give in to “the desires of the flesh,” which are “against the Spirit” (Gal. 5:17). He wants us to turn our love inward, to put ourselves first. The devil wants us to become angry with God when He does not give us what we want. And he wants us to demand love from others on our terms and to treat them badly if they don’t. In other words, the devil wants us to ignore the Ten Commandments.
God has put each Commandment in place to protect love. He teaches us what it means to love Him and to love our neighbor. We love Him by giving Him the glory He deserves, honoring His name, and hearing His Word. We love our neighbor by respecting authority, defending life, upholding marriage, and so on. To make it even clearer for us, God summarizes the Ten Commandments in these two statements: “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Due. 6:5). And, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). This is agape love; it is love directed outward. On our own, we are not capable of this love. We cannot and do not love like we should.
The newly married couple learns this very quickly. On their wedding day, they look at each other with stars in their eyes and promise to love each other “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” until death parts them. They may even choose today’s text to be read at their wedding: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.” “That’s how I will love you,” they promise. But it isn’t long before that feeling changes, before troubles come, before the loving bride and bridegroom start to snap at and criticize one another.
No matter what our best intentions are, we find ourselves failing at love. So we tell ourselves that we will do better, we will try harder. But we keep failing. We fail because love does not come from inside us. Love comes from God. There is no love apart from Him. If there were no God, if everything came about as the result of a big bang and billions of years of evolution, there would be no love. There is no love where the central principle is the “survival of the fittest.”
But there is a God, and He is a God of love. Some people reject God because of this statement. “If He is a God of love,” they say, “then why does He sit back and watch so many horrible things happen in the world? Why doesn’t He end all the suffering?” But God does not just sit back and watch, and He did bring an end to suffering—just not in the way they want. God’s love is realized not by all our temporal problems disappearing, but by His answer for our eternal problems—our sin and the punishment in hell that we deserve.
This is where God’s love shines brighter than any love we could imagine. The Apostle John writes: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1Jo. 4:9-10). This is how God came to fight for our sinful souls. He brought love to the battle against Satan, sin, and death.
The enemy wasn’t expecting that. They know nothing about love. That’s what makes it the perfect weapon. The powers of darkness have no answer for it. God’s love is stronger than hatred, stronger than all evil. God rescued us with love. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (Joh. 3:16). This is agape love—compassionate, sacrificial love.
God the Father sent His Son to save us, to give His life in our place. And His Son willingly accepted the task. This is how much God loves us! It is easy to love those who love us. But it is supremely difficult to love those who hate us. In fact, this is impossible for us to do on our own. But God is perfect, so His love is perfect too. His love for us is not dependent on our love for Him. He loves us because He is love.
What else could move God’s Son to be born a Man, so that He might humble Himself and make Himself a Servant of all? What else could bring Him to patiently endure all the hatred, indignity, and scorn, to become the target of violence, abuse, and punishment? He did all this because of love, love for you, love for your eternal soul. One of our hymns says: “Love caused Thy incarnation, / Love brought Thee down to me; / Thy thirst for my salvation / Procured my liberty. / O love beyond all telling, / That led Thee to embrace, / In love all love excelling, / Our lost and fallen race!” (The Lutheran Hymnal #58, v. 4).
You are saved because of His love. Your sins are forgiven because of His love. Eternal life is yours because of His love. You now stand holy and pure before Him because of His love. All the love that you have failed to show toward God and neighbor, His love covers over. Everything that you have failed to do according to God’s Holy Law, Jesus has fulfilled for you. This perfect fulfillment of His Law of love is credited to you by faith, faith alone. “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes,” writes St. Paul (Rom. 10:4).
But Jesus is not just love for you. The power of His love for you produces love in you. His Word and Sacraments awaken in you the desire to love. He moves you to love others as He has loved you. When you hear His Gospel words of love and eat and drink His body and blood which He so lovingly gives you, His love is planted in you and grows in you. He produces through you the kind of love that Paul describes, the love that is self-sacrificing, not self-serving.
And when you love in that way, with agape love toward God and neighbor, all the glory is His. This love is not from you, it is from God. The love you show your family members, your friends, your neighbors—all of it is a gift from the God who “is love” (1Jo. 4:8,16).
Everything that Paul writes about love in today’s text that we have failed to carry out, the Lord has done out of love for sinners: “[He] is patient and kind; [He] does not envy or boast; [He] is not arrogant or rude. [He] does not [seek to serve Himself]; [He] is not irritable or resentful; [He] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. [He] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” God is love, and He loves you.
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(picture from “Healing the Blind Near Jericho” by a Netherlands artist in the 1470s)
The Second Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 2:1-11
In Christ Jesus, who is aware of the troubles in our life and comes to help us through His Holy Word, dear fellow redeemed:
Some of you may have enjoyed the British historical drama, Downton Abbey, when it aired over the past decade. It was about an aristocratic family living in England around 100 years ago. But the story was just as much about this family’s servants and attendants as it was about them. In going about their work, these servants were to act as though they saw nothing and heard nothing about the aristocratic family affairs. Of course, they were in the know about everything. In many respects, they were aware of more than the lord who oversaw the whole operation.
This scenario is true of many organizations. The employees that don’t draw attention to themselves, the quiet ones, often know far more than they let on and far more than their superiors realize. We see this in the account of Jesus’ first major sign. Jesus, His mother, and His disciples were invited to a wedding. Naturally the main focus at the wedding would have been the bride and groom. The parents of the wedding couple also would have played a prominent role. And to some extent, so would the master of the feast who made sure everything ran smoothly.
The servants working at the wedding would have gone mostly unnoticed. Think of the weddings you have attended. The only time you are really aware of the banquet staff is if they make a major mistake like dropping something or getting way behind schedule. Usually the staff stays silent and anonymous, which is how they are trained to work. But while the guests are eating, drinking, and having a good time, it is the staff which is aware of potential problems.
Surely the servants at the wedding in Cana were aware that the supply of wine was rapidly diminishing. This must have made them anxious. For one thing, they didn’t want to take the blame for something out of their control. And maybe they were anxious about how the bride and groom would take the news that their party was about to end. With the bridegroom in charge of the wine supply, how would he handle the shame? How would his bride handle it?
We can see a parallel between the trouble at this wedding and the troubles that married couples face today. The devil wants nothing more than to drain all love and joy from a marriage, especially a Christian marriage. He is willing to try every angle of attack. He tries to divide husband and wife through financial difficulties, health problems, or personality conflicts. He tries to ruin their trust for each other through pornography use or by tempting them to withhold marital relations for reasons of punishment or manipulation. He reminds them of the wrongs committed against them while urging them to forget the wrongs they have done.
There is trouble in every marriage. The couple that says they never had a serious fight in fifty or sixty years of marriage is either lying or is blissfully forgetful. Trouble in marriage started right when sin started. When God confronted Adam with his disobedience, Adam was quick to pass the blame to Eve, and then Eve passed the blame too (Gen. 3:11-13). That’s what sin does to marriage. It makes us want to pass the blame and to be served instead of to serve.
And yet marriage remains one of the greatest gifts God has given mankind. Even if you are not married now or ever intend to be, you agree that marriage is a blessing. All of us are products of marriage, or we have been influenced in significant ways by married people. Marriage is as old as time. It promotes safety, security, and stability. It is the foundational institution on which everything in our society is built—family, workplace, government, and so on.
It is through marriage that God gives lifelong companionship. He calls a man and a woman to share one another’s joys and sorrows, to carry each other’s burdens, to encourage one another. He gives them the gift of physical union, and through sex, He often gives the blessing of children. Children can be a headache—they are sinners too just like their parents. But no legacy on earth lasts longer or is more treasured than the legacy of children and grandchildren.
Many hear this description today and say, “I can have all these things without marriage. Marriage is overrated. My parents had a terrible marriage, and I don’t want to walk down that path.” So they share a home with a significant other and share a bed and maybe even have children together. The difference between that and marriage is that marriage is about sacrifice while co-habitation is driven by selfishness. Marriage is about giving my whole self and all that I have to another. Co-habitation is about holding some back, staying guarded, and walking away when the going gets tough.
So those of you who are married have a tall order. Not only are you supposed to make your marriage work, but your marriage also stands as an example for others. Like those servants anxiously waiting to see how the bride and groom would handle the lack of wine, there are many eyes watching to see how trouble is addressed in your marriage. Those might be the eyes of your children, your friends, your neighbors, or your co-workers.
What do they see when trouble comes? Do they see you treating one another with care and respect? Do they hear you speak well of one another and forgive each other’s wrongs? Or do they see husband and wife pointing fingers, losing their temper, and speaking negatively about each other? We who are married would have to say it depends on the day or on the situation.
No marriage is perfect. Any of you who have been married can think of times you were not the spouse you should have been. You lost your temper. You spoke harshly. You gave the silent treatment. You accused instead of apologized. It all seemed so easy when you were making your vows to each other so many years ago. You were so much in love. But that love was soon tested, and you didn’t always pass those tests with flying colors.
We don’t know how the couple at Cana would have dealt with the wine shortage at their wedding banquet. In fact, as far as we know, they were never even aware of the trouble. Why? Because Jesus was there. Jesus told the servants to fill six large jars with water. Then He told them to take some to the master of the feast. Jesus had changed the water into wine, some of the best wine the master of the feast had ever tasted.
Jesus spared the bride and groom of embarrassment and trouble at this special occasion. He wanted them and their guests to have joy. If people want to know what Jesus thinks of marriage, here you go. He could have performed His first sign anywhere, and He chose to do it at a wedding celebration. He loves it when people get married. Marriage has His blessing.
We see how highly He thinks of marriage by the way His connection to His Church is described. St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Ephesians that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (5:25-27).
Of course this cleansing of sin applies not just to the married, but to all. Married, unmarried, widowed, or divorced—all of us have stains of sin on our past. We have not loved like we should. We have taken those closest to us for granted. We have put ourselves first. We have been jealous of the blessings and joys that others have.
God’s Son took on flesh for you. He came to give Himself for an imperfect bride, to suffer and die not for His own wrongs but for the wrongs of the sinners He loved. He did not wait for you to earn His love. Even when you were opposed to Him, even when you were His enemy, He sacrificed Himself for you (Rom. 5).
Whatever your sins may be against your spouse or any others God has brought into your life, all those sins are washed away by the blood of Jesus. You may find it hard to forgive, but it is not hard for Him. Even before you ask for His forgiveness, already you are forgiven. God looks upon you with favor as though you have never sinned. Because you have been united with Jesus in Holy Baptism, you now stand before God “holy and without blemish.”
And Jesus is still here to help and save when you experience trouble in marriage or in life. He comes through His Word and Sacraments to help you serve better those whom He has placed in your life and to love more. You may face many struggles and difficulties in your marriage or your relationships with others close to you. You may feel like you are the only one trying and that the burden of making things work is too much.
Jesus promises to strengthen you even for this, to love even when love is not returned and to give of yourself even when it feels like you have nothing left to give. The troubles you face may seem overwhelming, and the people around you may agree. But Jesus knows how to turn tasteless water into delicious wine.
The servants at the wedding banquet watched Jesus Quietly Bring Joy out of Trouble, and He does the same for you. He comes through His Word with wonderful gifts for you. He comes to bring you His cleansing, His love, His holiness, and His life. Where Jesus does His saving work, then there is joy.
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(picture from a work by a 10th century monk)
The Third Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:2-10
In Christ Jesus, who is everything the Holy Scriptures promised He would be, dear fellow redeemed:
There are four main characters in today’s text: John the Baptizer, two of John’s disciples, and Jesus. But there were others involved besides these four. In fact, we can assume there were many others. Not long before the events of today’s text, Jesus healed a centurion’s servant without even entering his house (Luk. 7:1-10). Then He met a funeral procession leaving the city of Nain, and with a brief command, He raised a widow’s only son back to life. The evangelist Luke tells us that “this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country” (7:17). We can imagine that the size of the crowds that now followed Jesus were significant.
There was a lot of excitement in Judea and Galilee in those days. The major cities in these two Jewish territories were only about as far apart as Saude from Mason City or Cresco from Rochester—close enough for word to travel. First the strange prophet John attracted all kinds of people in the wilderness by the Jordan River. Then Jesus started preaching and performing miracles in Galilee, and great crowds followed Him.
It couldn’t be denied that John and Jesus were somehow connected, but they were not the same in appearance or in temperament. John grew up aware of the unique circumstances of his birth and of the special mission he would carry out. The son of Zechariah the priest, John studied the Scriptures and spent much of his time in the wilderness (Luk. 1:80). When he was about thirty, he began preaching a bold message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mat. 3:1).
At first, people might have gone to see him out of curiosity. “Who is this crazy preacher?” “Who is this wilderness man dressed in camel’s hair?” But as they listened to him, his words started to sink in. He pointed out how they had broken God’s law in their actions, words, and thoughts. Even tax collectors and soldiers came admitting their wrongs. And finally, the Pharisees and Sadducees also came. John had special words for them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mat. 3:7-8).
John preached so boldly and with such authority that the people wondered if he might be the Christ. John put those ideas to rest. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” he said, “but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (7:11). Someone mightier than John? The people shook with a mixture of fear and excitement. Who could this be? When would He reveal Himself?
Then Jesus came to be baptized, and John saw the Holy Spirit descend from heaven like a dove and remain on Him. From this time forward, John identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Joh. 1:29). The mighty One had come! But Jesus did not fit the people’s expectations. They couldn’t deny the power He had to do miracles. But His preaching and teaching didn’t boom like thunder and flash like lightning in the way they had anticipated.
Perhaps this is why not all of John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus. Even after John was imprisoned for calling out the sins of King Herod, some of his disciples continued to stick with him. When they heard about the miracles Jesus was doing, they reported them to their teacher. John sent two of them to ask Jesus, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” You can’t tell by today’s text, but by the same account in the Gospel of Luke, it seems that Jesus did not answer the question right away.
Jesus was surrounded by a great mass of people, including many with physical problems like blindness, deafness, and the inability to walk. Some were infected with disease and others were afflicted by demons. It wasn’t the rich, the royal, the famous, and the attractive that surrounded Jesus. It was the wretched, the suffering, the depressed, and the needy. Jesus healed these people, and He gave them hope.
Without directly answering their question, the disciples of John had their answer. Was Jesus the coming One? “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” said Jesus: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” When we hear this list of Jesus’ miracles, it is obvious that He must be the Son of God in the flesh. Who else could do things like this?
But there was more to what Jesus said. It was more than a list of present miracles. It was a list of past prophecies that were now being fulfilled. Isaiah prophesied that at the coming of the Messiah, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isa. 35:5-6). Isaiah also recorded these words: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (61:1).
If John’s disciples did not catch the connection between these prophecies and Jesus, we can be certain that John made it for them. It was time to set aside their personal expectations of the coming One and to trust the testimony of God’s holy Word. That’s a lesson that all of us need to learn and re-learn. When we face hardship and pain and difficulty, when we are injured or sick or distressed, we are often quick to become impatient and angry: Why do I have to deal with this? Why did it have to happen to me? Why did it have to happen right now?
It doesn’t take long for our impatience and anger to be directed at God: If You love me, God, why do You let me suffer? If You see my trouble, why don’t You help? We question why He is putting us through it, instead of trusting that He will get us through it. At the root of these struggles is a failure to trust God’s Word, a failure to put our confidence in His promises. The Lord calls us to trust what He says even when it seems like He is ignoring us or is opposed to us or is punishing us.
He said to John’s disciples, “blessed is the one who is not offended by Me,” and He says the same to you and me today. “Blessed are you if you are not offended by My lowly appearance on earth, by My humble behavior, by My suffering, crucifixion, and death. I did all these things for you, so that you would have redemption and eternal life. Blessed are you if you are not offended when I send you trials and tests, so that I might purify your faith like fine gold and draw you closer to Me. Blessed are you if you are not offended by My coming to you still through lowly means, through the ministry of weak pastors, through the water of Baptism and the bread and wine of My Supper.”
We wish Jesus would operate among us with impressive displays of power. We want a thunder and lightning Lord who puts the world in its place and makes it clear to everyone that He stands with us. In some ways, we want a John for our Lord instead of Jesus. Everybody respected bold John, even King Herod who put him in prison. But John was only a messenger, just as the Lord’s servants are today.
The Lord calls His under-shepherds to preach His Word, to point out sin through His Law and to point penitent sinners to their salvation through His Gospel. In today’s Epistle lesson (1Co. 4:1-5), Paul reminds us pastors that we are not the main event. We are only servants and stewards. It is really Jesus who is at work among us through His Word and Sacraments.
We gather to Him here like the suffering people in today’s text. We bring our sorrow, pain, and distress before Him and ask for His help and comfort. Sometimes He removes our troubles from us like He did in healing the blind, the lame, and the deaf. And sometimes He allows our suffering to continue like He did with John the Baptizer’s imprisonment.
Whatever cross Jesus calls you to bear, He promises to carry you through the trial. He comes through His Word and Sacraments to feed and fill you. Maybe you get picked on or made fun of because you stand up for what is right. He comes to strengthen you and give you courage. Maybe you are anxious about your children or grandchildren and the choices they are making. He comes to comfort you and guide you in patience and love toward them. Maybe you are grieving the loss of your good health or the health of a loved one, or you miss someone who has died. Jesus comes to assure you of His victory over sin and death, and He brings you hope for the glorious life to come.
You can be sure that He will do these things for you, because He says He will. Jesus never let a promise go unfulfilled. Paul writes that “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (1Co. 1:20). Whether you ask Him for forgiveness or a stronger faith or help in your troubles, His answer is “Yes,” always “Yes!” His suffering, death, and resurrection to save you is the proof that Jesus Keeps His Promises—every single one.
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(picture from “Witness of John the Baptist” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1972)