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.
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 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.
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 “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)
The First Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 21:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who came down to win salvation for sinners and who still comes to bless them until He takes them to heaven to live with Him in glory, dear fellow redeemed:
Have you ever been someplace where a famous person showed up unexpectedly? Maybe it was a popular actor or singer or professional athlete or maybe someone like the President of the United States. When they show up, the news of their appearance spreads like fire. A crowd starts to form, people getting excited, squeezing in to try to get a better view.
This is something like the scene in Jerusalem when Jesus arrived at the beginning of Holy Week. The streets and buildings were swollen with people who had come for the annual Passover celebration. Then word started to travel: “Jesus is coming!” Not everyone knew about Him: “Who is this?” they asked (Mat. 21:10). “He is the prophet from Nazareth! He does great signs and wonders! He even raised a man from the dead over in Bethany! That man Lazarus is alive and well!”
So a great crowd pushed toward the gate where Jesus would arrive drawing others along with them like a magnet attracting metal shavings. The people spilled out of the city and spread out along the road. By now, the idea was firmly planted in their minds that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. He was the mighty King who would free them from their enemies.
The people of the crowd were not rich dignitaries who could roll out a red carpet and welcome Jesus with impressive displays of pomp and circumstance. But they could offer their dusty cloaks and lay palm branches on the road as a carpet for his donkey. There were no professional musicians and singers organized for His approach. But the people had their own voices to employ, so they sang joyfully the words of the messianic Psalm (118:25-26), “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Now is this the way Jesus would be received if He suddenly appeared somewhere close by today? I have no doubt that Jesus would draw a big crowd. And I think He would be welcomed with great rejoicing and hopefulness. But it wouldn’t take long before people labeled Him a disappointment. By the end of the first week, the crowd would be considerably smaller, and Jesus would be looking at more enemies than allies.
That’s what happened in Jerusalem. The people welcomed Him as the King who would restore the glory to Israel. He would assert His authority and lead them to freedom from the Romans. Besides that, He would bring them healing from their illnesses and pain. He would feed them with a never-ending supply of food. It would be a heaven on earth.
Isn’t that what people would expect from Jesus now? They would want Him to solve their earthly problems: “Lord, this person has cancer, this person is very ill, this person is severely depressed, this person has chronic back pain. Please heal them!” Others would come asking Him to fill their cupboards with food or help with their financial issues. And everyone would want to know His position on the hot topics of the day: “What political party do You endorse? What do You think about a mask mandate? Can we really trust the coronavirus vaccine?”
I don’t think His answers would satisfy anyone. Whenever the Pharisees and teachers of the law tried to trap Jesus with their questions, they walked away frustrated. Instead of helping you score points against someone, Jesus would turn the focus back on you. “Why are you so eager to judge your neighbor? Why are you trying to remove a speck from your brother’s eye when there is a log in your own eye? Your duty is to love your neighbors—even your enemies—and to pray for those who persecute you” (Mat. 7:1-5, 5:44).
Many would come to Jesus looking for His help with other people’s sins. Few would come seeking His forgiveness for their own sins. And that is to misunderstand Jesus, to misunderstand God’s purpose in sending His Son to take on our flesh. Jesus did not come to make us secure in our self-made righteousness. That sounds something like this: “If you think and act like I do, then you are good. If you don’t think and act like I do, then you are bad.” That approach lacks both charity and humility.
The truth is that all of us are bad. By nature, all of us are self-centered and self-serving. We are stubborn and prideful and easily angered. And God sent His Son right into all our bitterness and in-fighting. Why? It’s because God loved the world, even this broken, evil world. He sent His Son to be the Light in our darkness, to be our Hope and our Righteousness and our Salvation.
This is why Jesus came. He came to redeem us sinners. He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday not to defeat the Romans or the Pharisees, but to overcome the works of darkness and conquer death itself. By Friday of that week, He was hanging on the cross suffering for your sins and mine and for the sins of the whole world. And then the following Sunday He was appearing again alive to His disciples who had deserted Him. He was not angry with them; He forgave them, just as He forgives you.
And this Jesus, your King, who humbly offered Himself as the sacrifice for your sins and who triumphed over your death, still comes to bless you today. He does not come visibly attracting a great crowd in some major city. He comes hidden in His Word and Sacraments. He comes to meet you in whatever trial or pain or struggle you are currently experiencing. He comes to apply His powerful healing through His Word and to strengthen your faith.
He even attaches His own body and blood to earthly elements, so you can be sure that He has come, sure that He has imparted the blessings He promises. We welcome Him here to our altar just as the people welcomed Him to Jerusalem so long ago: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” We do not lay down our cloaks or palm branches at the altar. We lay down the burden of our sin and guilt, our judgmental attitude toward our neighbor, our lack of love. We lay these things before the righteous Judge, and He says to us, “This is My body; this is My blood—given and shed for you for the remission of your sins.”
But His present coming in the means of grace is ignored by the world and even by some Christians. This year has exposed the way many people view the gathering of Christians. Unbelievers view it as unessential at best and as dangerous at worst. They really see it as no different than the gathering of any other worldly organization. If they believe there is a God, they don’t believe He actually comes down to meet us in physical things like words and water, bread and wine.
And then there are even some Christians who say, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian!” And, “Church is not a building; we are the church!” There is truth in both statements. If all we cared about was the church building, and how pretty it is, and how just sitting there makes us feel better, then we are putting too much stock in wood and plaster and paint. We Christians can do without a building. But we cannot do without Christ.
Christ’s holy Word and Sacraments are essential to us Christians. They are the lifeline between us and our gracious Lord. They are the way He gives us the healing, help, and strength that we cannot get anywhere else. We don’t need to receive these blessings in a church building, but we do need to receive them. And Jesus is glad to come to us. He is glad to deliver His gifts. He wants to ease our troubled conscience. He wants to alleviate our doubts and fears. He wants to bring us the assurance that when this life comes to an end, a much better life awaits.
We who gather around Jesus today are just a small part of the great multitude that has followed Him since time began. We face troubles that are unique to us, but that many have experienced before us. We are not the first of Jesus’ followers to suffer, and He has brought countless believers through suffering into glory. He has led His people through every imaginable distress and conflict, and He will do the same for us.
So we repent of our mistrust and our worry. Jesus is still here with us. He still brings us His rich blessings. Just as He entered Jerusalem to save, so He still comes among us to save. Here He is present in His Word and Sacraments to bless us. And soon He will come again visibly to unite the great multitude of believers in His kingdom which has no end.
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(picture from “Entry of Christ into Jerusalem” by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1320)
The Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
In Christ Jesus, who gives us hope in our uncertainties and comfort in our struggles and sorrows, dear fellow redeemed:
We could list a lot of things that make us feel more pessimistic than optimistic about the future. Our country is divided politically, and the sides seem to be moving further apart rather than closer together. We have ongoing concerns about a virus that infects more people each day. We wonder how stable the economy will be going forward. But in the middle of these divisions and uncertainties, the inspired words of today’s text give us hope.
The apostle Paul sent these words to the Christians in Thessalonica. He had preached and taught among them for only a short time before he was forced to leave the town. Some jealous opponents had stirred up a mob against him and even dragged one of the new Christian converts before the authorities (Act. 17:1-10). From this time forward, it would have been uncomfortable and perhaps even dangerous to be a Christian in Thessalonica.
But the Thessalonians remained faithful. They endured suffering and waited eagerly for Christ’s return in glory. They were told to expect His second coming very soon. But as time passed, these new Christians faced a new problem. Some of their fellow believers were dying. What were they to make of that? Would the dead miss out on the glorious return of Jesus and the promise of eternal life in heaven?
Paul’s letter brought them great comfort. He referred to the dead in the same way Jesus had spoken about a deceased little girl, that she was “not dead but sleeping” (Mar. 5:39). The crowd laughed at Jesus then, but they weren’t laughing when He took her by the hand and brought her back to life. For Jesus, waking the dead is just as easy as waking someone up from a nap. Death is only a sleep to Him, a temporary, peaceful slumber.
We should not wonder if Jesus can do this. We have the examples of His raising the little girl, the young man from Nain, and His friend Lazarus. But the most compelling evidence of Jesus’ power over death is His own resurrection from the dead. Not only could He raise others, He could even raise Himself! Now that’s power!
A whole bunch of people regard Jesus as a good teacher but nothing more. They lump Him in with teachers like Confucius, Buddha, or Muhammed. But when those men died, they stayed dead. Their flesh decayed, and perhaps by now their bones have even turned to dust. Jesus died, but His flesh did not see corruption. Death held Him for parts of three days—and only because He let it.
He entered death when He wanted to, and He left it again when He wanted to. There was nothing death could do to stop Him. Death was utterly overcome, defeated. Jesus triumphed over death and will never be subject to it again. That means death won’t be able to overcome us who trust in Him. “But how can you be so sure?” the skeptic asks. “Show me an example in modern history of someone being dead for a matter of days and coming back to life again.”
The world always wants proof on its terms. Past evidence does not count. They need to see it with their own eyes today. We sinners repeat the same mistakes as the sinners of the past. We hardly ever learn. Each generation thinks it is better and smarter and more righteous than the generations before it. It is our common human pride and conceit.
This self-centeredness is why many refuse to believe that Jesus rose from the dead two thousand years ago or that He will raise the dead in the future. They are like doubting Thomas. They won’t trust the multiple eyewitness accounts of others. They need to see it with their own eyes, or they won’t believe it (Joh. 20:24-25). “If Jesus has this power,” they say, “let Him come down here and show us. If He brings someone back from the dead, then we will believe in Him.”
But even that wouldn’t be enough. Sinful people always find something to question, some reason for doubt. If Jesus came back and raised a dead person to life, many would say it was a trick. They would come up with some logical explanation for it. Seeing would not lead to them believing.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Joh. 20:29). He wants us to take Him at His Word. He has the right to expect that, doesn’t He? After all, He is the one who predicted His own resurrection and then followed through on it. If He made good on that promise, why wouldn’t He make good on His promise to raise the dead on the last day?
Paul made it clear that he wasn’t putting down his own opinions or wishes in his letter. He said, “this we declare to you by a word from the Lord.” The Lord promises that those who are alive when He comes on the last day will not have any advantage over those who are asleep in their graves. He will come with a great shout, and His powerful Word will awaken the dead. Then all believers will rise with glorified bodies that no longer show any effect of sin.
After the dead have risen, “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The word translated “caught up” has the sense of a sudden and intense action. We will be snatched up to the clouds by the Lord. We won’t have to wait for our redemption. It will happen immediately when Jesus comes.
It won’t come a moment too soon. We long for Jesus’ return. This world is not where we want to be. As Christians first sang in the 12th century, so we still sing, “The world is very evil, / The times are waxing late” (ELH #534, v. 1). In the Holy Gospel for today (Mat. 24:15-28), Jesus describes the tribulation of the end times. “[I]f those days had not been cut short,” He said, “no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.”
So what is Jesus waiting for? The apostle Peter reminds us “that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2Pe. 3:8-9). Jesus is not sleeping on the job or dragging His feet. He is showing patience with sinners. He wants them all to repent and be saved and join Him in heaven.
But we are not patient like our Lord is. This is why many are tempted to follow after “false christs and false prophets” (Mat. 24:24). We are tempted to follow after the smooth-talking liars who promise a prosperous life here on earth, a life without suffering, a life without trouble. Even if they could deliver on those promises, these false teachers can’t give life to the dead. Anyone who promises hope and salvation apart from the crucified and risen Christ is of the devil.
Apart from Jesus, there is no reason to be hopeful about anything. But with Jesus, we are filled with hope. So while our country is divided, and many of our politicians seem more interested in serving themselves than others, Jesus reigns as King over all things at the right hand of the Father. While people are getting sick this year at higher rates than usual, Jesus has the power to heal the sick or bring the souls of believers to heaven to be with Him. While there may be uncertainty in our financial plans and holdings, Jesus has secured eternal riches for us that will never pass away.
You can wring your hands and worry and lose sleep trying to control things you can’t control—and we all do plenty of that. But the Lord calls you to trust in Him, to trust that He will keep His promises toward you. Now leaving your life and your future in God’s hands like this is difficult. Your sinful flesh does not want to give up any of its independence or its perceived power. If you are going to place your trust in Him, you want proof that He isn’t going to let you down.
“You want proof?” He says. “Then look at Me hanging on the cross for you, shedding My blood to cleanse you from your sins. And come look into My empty tomb. I left it because death could not conquer Me. I rose from the dead to win victory over your death. I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus will not leave you to fight for yourself in this evil world. He came to save you not because He had to but because He wanted to. And He still fights for you, coming to give you strength through His Word and Sacraments and dwelling within you by faith.
As long as you have Jesus, your situation will never be hopeless. He promises to carry you through all your pain and sorrow in this short life and to take your soul to be with Him when you breathe your last. Then He promises to come again to wake your body from its peaceful sleep, so that you can enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven in both body and soul.
You can be certain of your resurrection because His resurrection is certain. The Holy Spirit states it definitively through the mouth of Paul: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.” Put Your Hope in the Resurrected One. Then you will have a living hope, a hope that no one can take from you, a hope that will never die.
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Eighth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 8:12-17
In Christ Jesus, whom we follow by the power of the Holy Spirit on the way of salvation and life, dear fellow redeemed:
How do you rate yourself as a driver? I consider myself a pretty good driver, and I imagine that many of you do too. At the same time, I would be reluctant to put a “How’s My Driving?” bumper sticker on my car with my employer’s phone number on it. I might think I’m a good driver, but I’m not a perfect one. When my driving hasn’t been so good, I prefer to stay anonymous.
It is probably easier to identify the bad driving around us than to admit our own bad habits on the road. We get annoyed when people drive too fast, follow too closely, pull out in front of us, or weave from side to side while using their cellphones. But all of us have probably done the same at one point or another. We have been distracted while driving, we have been overconfident, impatient toward others, and angry.
These same things that cause bad driving are also problems in our spiritual life. Take distractions. Drivers can be distracted by a lot of things—other people in the car, loud music, and the main culprit: cellphones. They forget their primary purpose, their most important mission, which is to safely navigate their vehicle from point A to point B at speeds typically higher than most land animals can run. Driving is inherently risky.
There is risk in our spiritual life, too, though we don’t always realize it. A driver can take his safety for granted and let his guard down, just as we can take our faith for granted and let our guard down. There are lots of distractions in our spiritual life. The devil, the world, and our own flesh want us to forget our goal; they want to sidetrack us from our journey to heaven. “Turn off here!” they say. “You’ll have plenty of time to get back on the main road. Check out this attraction! Drop your money on this! Do whatever you want to!” And the more we indulge the sinful desires of our flesh, the less we think about where we were going in the first place.
Distractions to our faith are closely connected to overconfidence in faith. We think our faith is invincible. We think we could not fall away from believing in Jesus. We think we can handle whatever challenges come our way. This is like the driver who thinks he knows the road so well, he could navigate it in his sleep. A high percentage of car accidents happen within a couple miles of home because people are less attentive. Temptations to sin also happen in those places where we think we are in good control of everything, places like home, work, and church.
Along with distractions and overconfidence, our spiritual life is harmed by impatience. The impatient driver puts himself and others at risk. He doesn’t see things clearly. All he can think of is his own plans, and he resents anyone who slows him down or gets in the way. This is how we can become toward God when His plans for us do not align with our plan. We want Him to help us and fix our problems and pains right now. When He doesn’t, we become resentful. We complain to Him and others. We wear ourselves thin with worry instead of giving over our troubles to Him in prayer.
The impatient driver is very likely to become an angry driver. He views the drivers around him differently than he views himself. They are the enemy. They are purposely trying to provoke him. He doesn’t see them as those who make mistakes, or as those who might be dealing with worse distractions and troubles than he is. This happens to Christians too. They pin the blame for their sin and unhappiness on others. They do not acknowledge their own faults. They do not seek to forgive. They hold grudges. They condemn. They seek to inflict the harm on others that they feel has been done to them.
All these things have affected our spiritual life in the past—distractions, overconfidence, impatience, and anger—and to some degree they are affecting us even now in the present. We are sinners. We don’t do everything right. We do and say and think a lot of things wrong. Really we are bad drivers. We do not belong in the spiritual driver’s seat. If that’s how we think we will get to our destination, we are certainly headed for a crash.
Well then who needs to drive? There are many who play a role in your spiritual life. Your parents, siblings, spouse, and children do. Your pastor and teachers do. Your fellow Christians do. But they are not in the driver’s seat. They are just as impaired by sin as you are. The one who drives your faith, who keeps you focused and moving in the right direction, is God the Holy Spirit.
In the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, we confess that “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” You cannot bring yourself to faith in Jesus. You cannot navigate yourself from point A in this world to point B in heaven. But the Holy Spirit can and does. The way He does this is through the means of grace, the Holy Word and Sacraments. He “has called [you] by the Gospel, enlightened [you] with His gifts, sanctified and kept [you] in the true faith.”
This is the work of the Spirit that the apostle Paul describes in today’s text. He writes that the Holy Spirit brings us life. He has made us “sons of God” through spiritual adoption, and He leads us to recognize and call on God as our dear Father. He “bears witness with our spirit” that as “children of God” we are His heirs “and fellow heirs with Christ.” He brings us through suffering with Christ to glory with Christ.
By nature, we were driving ourselves to destruction. We were on the “highway to hell,” and that’s nothing to sing about. But the Holy Spirit turned us around. He changed our direction completely. He brought us out of the darkness of sin and death and into the light of Jesus. He opened our eyes through the Law to see all the damage we had inflicted on ourselves and others by our sin. And He showed us how all those sins, all that damage, was taken away by the innocent suffering and death of God’s only Son.
Jesus willingly accepted the countless blemishes on your driving record. He took responsibility for all the damages caused. He offered to cover what for you was an unpayable fine. He gave Himself to be punished for your sins of distraction, overconfidence, impatience, and anger. He paid the price for your sins by pouring out His own holy blood in death. Because of what He did, all those sins, all those serious, death-deserving infractions, are forgiven. In Him, your driving record is clean. Covered in His righteousness, the scratches, gouges, and corrosion of your sins do not show anymore.
The Holy Spirit’s work is to continue to call and compel and drive you to Jesus. He wants to lead you each day to hear the Gospel of Jesus’ grace, His own Word of Absolution. That powerful message of forgiveness reminds you that you are not on your own. You do not have to navigate your own way through this life. You are a child of God the Father because the Holy Spirit has caused you to believe in His only-begotten Son.
Your trust in Jesus means that God the Father now looks at you no differently than He looks upon His holy Son. That is why we are specifically called “sons of God” in today’s text. You and I have been joined to Jesus by faith. This means we possess everything He possesses. We live as He lives. We inherit what He inherits. It also means that we must suffer as He suffers.
He suffers by not receiving the devotion and honor that are His due. He suffers by watching so many people drive themselves away from Him and His grace. He suffers when they follow false prophets instead of His pure Word (Mat. 7:15-20), when they trust in their own efforts and actions to save themselves (vv. 21-23), when they choose “the cares and riches and pleasures of life” over Him (Luk. 8:14).
We suffer with Him when people make fun of us for not joining them in their misdeeds. We suffer when they ridicule our beliefs and our humble trust in God. We suffer when they reject the Word of God in favor of worldly wisdom and do everything in their power to make us deny the truth we hold so dear. A great many are driving on the wide path that “leads to destruction” (Mat. 7:13). In their eyes, we followers of Jesus are going the wrong way and need to be turned around. Our going against the grain of the world causes great difficulties for us. Jesus already warned us that “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life” (v. 14).
So life in this fallen world is hardly a “joy ride.” There are many bumps in the road. There is danger in all directions. But you are not in the driver’s seat. The Holy Spirit is, and He knows the way you must go. He daily drives you to repentance for your sins, to “put to death the deeds of the body,” so that you are not led in the wrong direction. And He drives you always toward Jesus, so that you go forward in His light and are comforted in His grace and peace as you travel along the way.
With the Holy Spirit doing the driving through the powerful Word, you will remain in the Lord’s loving care and will be brought safely through suffering to your glorious destination.
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(picture from stained-glass window at Saude)