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.
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 “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.
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 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)
Palm Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Philippians 2:5-11
In Christ Jesus, whose name must be glorified on earth as it is in heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, His disciples were glad to be associated with Him. The crowds spread their cloaks and palm branches on the road and sang the praises of their king. They welcomed Him in this way because of the miracles He had performed, most recently raising Lazarus from the dead. “Blessed is… the King of Israel!” they shouted (Joh. 12:13). “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luk. 19:38). “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mat. 21:9).
The people of the crowd believed He was the promised Messiah who would deliver them from their enemies. The Jewish religious leaders who hated Jesus threw up their hands and said, “Look, the world has gone after him!” (Joh. 12:19). Even some Greeks approached one of the disciples and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (v. 21). Jesus had quite a following! The twelve disciples were glad to go along for the ride. Jesus was a “somebody,” somebody people paid attention to and wanted to know.
It’s amazing how quickly things can change. A person can go from a hero one minute to a villain the next, from rich and famous to poor and forgotten, from influential to ignored, from boom to bust. We have seen this happen to celebrities, politicians, businessmen, religious leaders, and plenty of others.
Jesus’ popularity took a major hit also. The week that started with crowds singing His praises and offering their cloaks for His donkey to walk on, ended with crowds calling for His crucifixion and soldiers dividing up His clothing. Such a change in fortune usually indicates that a major transgression was committed or that a clear boundary was overstepped. This was not the case with Jesus. He did nothing different than He had always done. He spoke the truth. He urged the people to “Trust in the LORD with all [their] heart, and… not lean on [their] own understanding” (Pro. 3:5).
He taught them to put away their self-righteousness and pride and to live a life of humble faith and service. That does not come naturally to us. By our inherited sinful nature, we care the most about pursuing our own passions and plans and receiving praise for our achievements. We can hardly “make a name for ourselves” by sacrificing our own desires for the benefit of others. It comes naturally to want to be loved, rather than to look for ways to show love.
This is why Jesus was opposed. He preached a message that was contrary to human thinking. He preached hope to the “bad” people, the cast-offs, who believed His promises. And He condemned the “good” people, the self-righteous, who were not as holy as they thought. He was no slick politician. He did not guard His words in certain company or say what each particular audience wanted to hear. He told them what they needed to hear.
That had consequences, but they were not unexpected consequences. Jesus knew what was coming. He knew what His clear teaching and His life of humble service would gain for Him. He did not live and work for the approval of the world. He cared about saving it. In today’s inspired text, St. Paul wrote that Christ Jesus “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus had knelt down and washed His disciples’ feet. He had also given them a new Meal, the Supper of His own body and blood to eat and drink for the remission of their sins. And how did they show their gratitude for such love? As He walked with them to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told them, “You will all fall away because of me this night” (Mat. 26:31). Peter replied with so much confidence, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away…. Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (vv. 33, 35). The other disciples said the same thing.
But a short time later facing a well-armed crowd, “all the disciples left [Jesus] and fled” (v. 56). For the next few days, the name “Jesus” was one that no one wanted to be associated with. Boastful Peter denied three times that he knew Him. The disciples all went into hiding except for John. They felt so proud to be connected to Jesus on Sunday when things were going well, but now they crouched in the darkness, ashamed.
We can hardly blame the disciples. I don’t expect we would have done any better. Each of us in our own lives has been ready to give up Jesus for less. The disciples hid when their Teacher was arrested, brutally beaten, and crucified. We have left Jesus not because our lives were threatened, but because we did not want to be made fun of, we did not want to be left out, we did not want to deny our sinful desires, we did not want to take a stand against error.
In these ways, we have dishonored the Lord’s holy name. His name is hallowed “when His Word is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God live holy lives according to it” (First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer). When we do not teach rightly or live purely, we dishonor His name.
God wants His name to be honored because His name includes everything about Him, who He is and what He does. God told Moses to call Him, “I Am,” or “Yahweh” in Hebrew (Exo. 3:14). That is God’s personal name, a name to honor in every way. When Jesus came to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the people recognized that He came from Yahweh: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of Yahweh!”
He came on behalf of His Father, with His blessing, to do His work. The work He had given His Son to do was to become the Servant of all, to take their sins upon Himself, to suffer in their place, and to endure the anguish of their eternal death. That is how Jesus glorified the Father’s name. And that is how He redeemed the whole world from its sin.
He suffered for all the ways the Lord’s name has been abused by false teaching and sinful living. He suffered for your hesitation to confess His name, for your choosing the world over Him, for your sinful stubbornness, selfishness, and pride. His name was trampled and cursed, so you would have a clean conscience and a good reputation before God. He was condemned as a guilty sinner, so you would be regarded as an innocent saint.
Jesus humbly did all these things in obedience to His Father and in perfect love for you. Because of His holy work, Paul writes that “God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name.” The name of Jesus which seemed destined to be forgotten on Good Friday has been preached throughout the world generation after generation since then. His name is The Name That Is Above Every Name.
The most important people of a year, a decade, or a century are eventually forgotten. The names of very few people are remembered fifty or a hundred years after their death. But the name of Jesus endures because of what He did for you and me and all sinners. In fact, His name describes His work for us. The name Jesus means “Yahweh is salvation”—“The LORD saves.” No greater thing has ever been done or ever will be done for the world. God became a man to save us.
After Jesus ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, they now boldly proclaimed the name of Jesus. Peter who had denied knowing Jesus the night of His death, now stood before the very religious leaders who had sentenced Jesus to die. He said to them, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Act. 4:11-12).
Only Jesus can give forgiveness, life, and salvation. And He has given and still gives these things to you. He is glad to have His name associated with you. You are called a “Christian”—a “Christ-ian”—a follower of Christ. God put His name on you and claimed you as His own when you were baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mat. 28:19).
Being joined to His name by faith is to be joined to all the good things He is and does. By faith in your Savior, you share in His holiness, His honor, and His glory. You don’t have to “make a name for yourself,” because you have a far better identity in Jesus. There is no name above His. And even though His name continues to be disrespected and despised in the world today, this does not change what He accomplished for sinners. He won the victory over sin, death, and the devil, and He reigns victorious even now at the right hand of the Father.
His name is not honored in the world like it should be, but on the last day all creatures will glorify the name of our Lord. Paul writes that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Unbelievers will acknowledge Him then, though they will not rejoice at His coming because they will be condemned. But the whole company of believers will joyfully welcome Him just like that Palm Sunday crowd. And we will cry out with one voice, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
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(picture from “The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
Christmas Eve – Pr. Faugstad Homilies
Text: St. Matthew 1:18-25
I. “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
We have no record of Joseph and Mary’s courtship beyond what is recorded by the evangelist Matthew. Some speculate that Joseph was a bit older than Mary and that he may have even been married and had children before. Whatever the case, Joseph and Mary now became betrothed to each other. This was something like our modern practice of engagement. It was a public declaration that they intended to be married. But since they were not married yet, Joseph and Mary did not live in the same house or share a bed.
So imagine Joseph’s surprise when Mary told him she was pregnant! She told Joseph how she had been visited by an angel, who informed her that she would conceive a Son. She was to name Him Jesus. The Lord God would give Him the throne of David, and there would be no end to His kingdom. Mary asked the angel how this was possible since she was a virgin. And the angel said that the Holy Spirit would conceive the Child in her womb (Luk. 1:26-35).
That was a lot to process for Joseph and for Mary too! The only proof Joseph had for any of it was that before long Mary’s womb would grow. What should he do? He decided to call off their marriage quietly. But before he did this, the Lord’s angel now appeared to him in a dream. He verified what Mary had said. Her Child was from the Holy Spirit. The Child in her womb was the Son of God incarnate!
TLH #76, 1-2 / ELH #113, 1-2 – “A Great and Mighty Wonder”
II. “She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
Just as Mary had been directed, the angel told Joseph that her Child should be named Jesus. So the name for this Baby came from God Himself. This name described what the Child would be and what He was sent to do. The name “Jesus” means “the LORD is salvation,” or “the LORD saves.” “[Y]ou shall call His name Jesus,” said the angel, “for He will save His people from their sins.”
So who exactly were “[this Child’s] people”? First of all, they were the Israelites, the Jewish people. As Jesus said years later during His public work, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mat. 15:24). But while His public activity focused on the Jews, He later sent out the apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (Mat. 28:19)—all people regardless of nationality.
And what did He come to “save His people” from? He came to save them “from their sins.” A sin is anything that is contrary to God’s holy law. It wasn’t just the Jewish people who had sinned, but all people. The apostle Paul writes, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:22-23).
Sin requires justice, since God is holy. You and I can’t save ourselves. We are spiritually bankrupt before God. We have nothing to pay our debt to His law. That is why God sent His only Son. He sent Him to take our place, to offer His holy life for us and to die in payment for our sin. The little Lord Jesus came to save you and me. He came to rescue us from eternal damnation. He came to win for us eternal life in heaven.
TLH #94 – “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
ELH #145 – “What Child Is This?”
III. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
The first promise of a Savior came right after Adam and Eve disobeyed God and fell into sin. At that time, the LORD told the devil, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). So the Offspring of the woman would stomp on Satan’s head and sustain a bruise on His heel. In other words, the woman’s Offspring would fare much better than the serpent.
Thousands of years later, the LORD delivered another promise through the prophet Isaiah. Like a telescope bringing something far away into focus, the picture of how the Savior would arrive was becoming clearer. Isaiah prophesied that “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” How could that be? How could a virgin conceive a child? The virgin Mary wondered the same thing some 700 years after this prophecy. But “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luk. 1:37).
The Holy Spirit formed an embryo in Mary’s womb who was no ordinary Person. This was Immanuel. This was the Son of God begotten of the Father from eternity, who had come to take on our flesh and blood. He came to take our sin and pain and sorrow to Himself and to die in our place. He came to give us His perfect righteousness and everlasting life. This was Immanuel—not “God far above us” or “God against us”—but “God with us.”
Jesus is “God with us.” He is your Savior, who still comes to take away your sin and pain and sorrow. He comes even now through His Word and Sacraments to give you His grace and salvation.
TLH #647 / ELH #137 – “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
IV. When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called His name Jesus.
If you were in Joseph’s position, would you have done what he did? In a certain respect you are faced with the same dilemma he was. The question is whether you believe the Baby in Mary’s womb was conceived in the natural way, or whether you believe He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The way you answer that question matters.
If you say that Jesus was conceived in the natural way and had a biological father, then for you he can be no more than an influential person and a good teacher. He cannot be your Savior. A regular human being cannot save you any more than he can save himself, since all of us are sinners.
But if you believe that Mary was telling the truth, then you do have a Savior. Then you know the God who took on human flesh, so He could save you. Then you know Him who was “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4). Then you know the One who offered up His holy body and shed His holy blood on the cross for the full and free forgiveness of all your sins.
The unbelieving world rejects the message of Christmas because it does not agree with reason or common experience. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1Co. 1:27-28).
God grant us the same confident faith of Joseph and Mary, who believed the Word, who believed that this Child was exactly what the angel said: the holy Son of God.
TLH #81, 1-4 / ELH #161, 1-4 – “O Jesus Christ, Thy Manger Is”
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(painting is “Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1592-1656)
The First Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Philippians 4:4-7
In Christ Jesus, our joy, our crown, our Lord (ELH 127, v. 4), dear fellow redeemed:
Do you have a favorite Christmas? Was there one year in particular that ranks on top because of something special that happened or because of some gift you received? Maybe a family member made it home when they weren’t expected. Or your parents told you that the gift you wanted was too much, but there it was under the tree.
For some of you, your favorite Christmas may have happened a while ago. You expect that no Christmas in the future could compare to the good ones of your youth. When you think back, there is a certain warmth in those memories that present Christmases do not have. Now you might feel the pressure to deliver that feeling to your kids or grandkids. You have to remember all the little traditions. You have to get the right gifts. You have to prepare the favorite foods. Some people thrive on these preparations, but others feel overwhelmed and stressed.
Still others would rather not have Christmas at all. It reminds them of loss, of a parent that is no longer here, or a spouse, or a friend, or a child. Christmas is supposed to be a warm and happy time, a time for family. But Christmas only makes them feel more alone. Others feel resentment at Christmas, resentment toward those who hurt them, who did not appreciate the sacrifices they made.
In today’s Epistle lesson, the Holy Spirit has given us words of encouragement and comfort at times like these. The Spirit inspired Paul to write this letter to the church in Philippi while he was kept in a Roman prison. It wasn’t the first time he was imprisoned for preaching the Gospel. In fact, his first visit to Philippi included a night in jail after he was targeted by a mob. On that occasion, Paul and his fellow worker Silas—their feet fastened in stocks—prayed and sang hymns to God late into the night (Act. 16:25).
Their joyful confidence in that setting seemed just as out of place as the words we have today. From his cell in a Roman prison Paul wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always!” In case his readers should quickly pass over or miss what he said, he repeated the message: “again I will say, Rejoice!” It doesn’t seem like Paul could be joyful at a time like this. But he was, and in his Letter to the Philippians, he recounted the things that brought him this joy.
He said that he always prayed for the Philippian Christians with joy because of their support and encouragement of his work (1:4-5). He rejoiced that his imprisonment served to advance the Gospel among the imperial guard and to embolden others to proclaim God’s grace (1:12-18). He rejoiced that God’s will would be done whether in Paul’s life or his death (1:18-20). And He rejoiced at the Philippian congregation’s faithfulness to the Word (2:2,17-18, 4:1).
Paul’s joyful attitude was not simply a “glass-half-full” rather than a “glass-half-empty” approach. His focus was not on the power of positive thinking. His joy was “in the Lord.” He explained this more toward the end of his letter. He wrote: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (4:11-13).
When people cite the last part of that passage, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” their focus is typically more on the “I can do all things” than on the “through him who strengthens.” Athletes cite this passage as they try to up their game. Entrepreneurs cite it while trying to reach their business goals. Students cite it while studying for a big test.
But Paul’s focus was always on the teaching and preaching of the Gospel. He did not care about any personal achievements. He did not apply these words to his tent-making. He said, “I can be brought low, I can be hungry and in need, and yet I will rejoice because I have Jesus.” As he said in another letter: “when I am weak [weak in himself], then I am strong” [strong in the Lord] (2Co. 12:10).
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” It’s important to understand that joy is not the same as happiness. You and I can rejoice even when we are not feeling happy.
- As we deal with mistreatment and unkindness from others, we can rejoice that God loves us and gives us fellow believers to encourage us.
- As we struggle with physical and mental pain, we can rejoice that Jesus personally endured such pain and promises to carry us through it.
- As we experience financial trouble, we can rejoice that the things of this world are only temporary, and that Jesus has obtained true riches for us in heaven.
- As we carry the burden of guilt for sins we have committed, we can rejoice that Jesus paid for all these sins on the cross and forgives them all.
- As we mourn the death of someone we love, we can rejoice that Jesus rose in victory over death and will come again to raise the dead on the last day.
Our joy in the Lord is not a feeling we can get better at if we practice it enough. Our joy is produced in us by the Holy Spirit through hearing the Word of Christ. The Holy Spirit leads us to believe that His Word is meant for each one of us. The angel said to the shepherds, “behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luk. 2:10), which means these “good tidings of great joy” are meant for you. John the Baptizer said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Joh. 1:29), so the Lamb came to take away your sin.
The Lord wants you to know and believe these things because He loves you. He cares about every aspect of your life. He knows you better than a mother knows her child. He knows you better than you know yourself. He sees you in your pain, your stress, your sadness, and your loneliness, and He comes to help and strengthen you. In his great Advent hymn, Paul Gerhardt spoke about the Lord’s gracious presence with us:
Rejoice, then, ye sad-hearted, / Who sit in deepest gloom,
Who mourn o’er joys departed, / And tremble at your doom;
Despair not, He is near you, / Yea, standing at the door,
Who best can help and cheer you, / And bid you weep no more. (ELH 94, v. 6)
In today’s text, the Apostle Paul wrote that “The Lord is at hand.” He is not far away; He is near you. He hears when you cry out to Him. He hears your prayer of repentance. He hears your call for help. This is why there is no need to “be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Your Lord hears every petition you make, and He answers each one in the best way and at the right time.
Through His Word and Sacraments, the Lord is present to give you peace. The peace He brings “surpasses all understanding.” It is not the peace of having a day all to yourself, or finally finishing a project that has taken you a long time, or getting your whole family under one roof. The Lord gives a peace which the world cannot give. He brings the peace of sins forgiven, of God’s anger appeased, of salvation won, of eternal life secured.
This peace with God had nothing to do with our goodness, our efforts, or our abilities. This is why it is so beyond our understanding. Why would God send His Son to make peace with sinners? Why would He give so much when we had nothing to give Him? This was a work of pure mercy and grace, and it is why our confidence in our salvation can be so rock-solid. Our salvation does not depend on us; it was secured entirely by Him. So we do have peace with God, and no earthly thing can take that away from us.
This promise of peace with God is what now guards our hearts and our minds. This Gospel message keeps the devil away with all his temptations and lies. It keeps the world from filling our eyes and ears with false hope. And it keeps our sinful nature from destroying our faith. The peace of forgiveness and salvation that we have through Jesus – this is our reason for rejoicing.
So my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow heirs of God, partakers of peace by faith in Jesus: if this Christmas week finds you hurting or afraid or lonely or sad or overwhelmed—you can still rejoice! You can rejoice that Jesus came to save you. You can rejoice that He still comes to strengthen you. And you can rejoice that soon He will come again in His glory. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”
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