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.
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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(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.
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 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!”
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
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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The Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
St. Matthew 24:15-28
In Christ Jesus, to whom we look as “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2), who will come again from the right hand of the Father on the last day, dear fellow redeemed:
You may have heard recently about a prominent music artist who became a Christian. This was surprising for two main reasons. First of all, it seemed that he had everything he could want. He had worldwide fame and influence in the entertainment industry. He had great wealth and possessions. And he acted like it. By the egotistical way he talked and conducted himself, no one mistook him for a Christian. This made his conversion seem all the more unlikely.
The other reason people find his conversion surprising is not just that it happened, but that he is openly talking about it. In one prominent interview, he mentioned reading his Bible every night, and he talked about the blessings of marriage and children. His latest album is full of spiritual songs and is titled, “Jesus Is King.” He acknowledges that before, he was spiritually dead, but now his eyes have been opened. He said: “People who don’t believe ARE walking dead. They are asleep. And this is the awakening.”
What do you suppose unbelievers think about that statement? They probably say, “This man is crazy!” But hopefully some give it more thought. Hopefully they see that their life at present has no real purpose, no real goal. Apart from Jesus, there is no amount of money that can satisfy, no expansive property, no degree of fame and recognition. A life in unbelief is like appearing to be alive but really being dead. Until a person comes to faith in Jesus, he is spiritually dead—a dead man walking.
And that’s how we were. Before we were brought to faith by the power of God’s Word, we too were dead. But now our eyes are opened. Now we see. Now we “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Or that’s how we should walk. But we are still tempted to close our eyes once again. We are tempted to live how the unbelievers live and do what they do. We have been called out of darkness into the marvelous light of the Lord (1Pe. 2:9), and yet we often find ourselves slouching back into the darkness.
This is evident when we do not choose our words as carefully as we should, or when we fail to exercise moderation in our consumption of alcohol and food. It shows when we take part in the immoral behaviors that the world accepts but God condemns. It shows when we ignore the needs of our family members or neighbors. Giving free rein to these sins exposes us to enemy attack and seriously endangers our faith.
Peter writes that we must be “sober-minded” and “watchful” (1Pe. 5:8), because the devil works tirelessly to destroy our confidence in Jesus. He wants our eyelids to get heavy. He doesn’t want us to be aware of the dangers around us. He wants us to return to the darkness of unbelief. So we must always remember that in this lifetime we are perpetually at war—a spiritual war with eternal consequences.
When soldiers serve in peace-time, they can’t help but let down their guard a little. Their life is not immediately threatened. They feel safe. But when they receive word that the enemy is approaching, their demeanor changes. Their ears become attuned to the smallest sounds. Their eyes are on the lookout, scanning for any threat. Their weapon is clutched tightly in their hands. This is the kind of readiness we should exhibit spiritually in these end times, because the enemy is on the move and the final battle is at hand.
In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus warned His disciples about the destruction that was coming on the people of Judea. An enemy would come when they least expected it. The threat would be so sudden that there would not be time to grab some special belongings or even a cloak! When this destruction came in A. D. 70, the Christians were not trapped in Jerusalem. They fled at the first sign of trouble with the Romans a few years before. They believed what Jesus said.
This is how we also should prepare ourselves—by listening to Jesus’ Word. His Word keeps our ears attuned, so we are able to discern truth from error. His Word keeps our eyes focused, so we are not coaxed off in the wrong direction. His Word keeps us alert. It also comforts us as the battle continues.
Martin Luther points out that comfort in his great Reformation hymn. He said that “for us fights the Valiant One, / Whom God Himself elected.” Jesus fights for us and “holds the field.” “He’s by our side upon the plain / With His good gifts and Spirit” (ELH 250, vv. 2, 4). Jesus does battle on behalf of His Church of believers through His Word and Sacraments. This is how the Lord conquers. Not in outward displays of glory and power that impress the world, but through humble means that ruin the devil’s plans again and again.
When Jesus comes to you through His Word, He shines the bright light of His grace where the darkness has crept in. Nothing is hidden from His eyes. But He does not look to punish you for your sins. He wants to forgive you. He wants to lift off the burden of guilt that weighs you down. He wants you to free you from the chains of darkness that bind you, so you can walk in the light of life.
He can bring you these great blessings, because He faced sin, death, and devil in your place. Those enemies would have destroyed you, but Jesus ended their fearful reign. He gave Himself over into the hands of sinners, so that He might suffer and die for their salvation and for yours. And He rose again to secure for you a never-ending life free from all pain and trouble.
These riches are given to you each time He refocuses your ears and eyes on Him through His Word. This is how He equips you for the present battle and prepares you for its conclusion. The author of Hebrews writes that we must make it a habit to meet together to hear the Word. This is how we will encourage one another, “and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25).
This is so important for us to remember. Being a Christian is not simply being confident about one’s own standing before God because of what Jesus has done. It is also about sharing that hope with others. Jesus is coming soon, and then He will sit on the throne of judgment. We don’t want the people around us to be caught in the darkness. We want them to be saved. But how will they know about that salvation if no one tells them?
We can see how many unbelievers are searching for something that they don’t know. They want their life to have meaning. They want help to get through life’s tribulations and comfort when they experience loss. But they don’t know where to look, and they can’t find it on their own. This is what leaves them vulnerable to the manipulations of the devil.
As people desperately search for answers, the devil leads them in the wrong direction. He brings them to “false christs and false prophets.” Jesus says that these will “perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” We too will be tempted to look at these things.
But for the sake of our own faith and for the sake of those who may still believe, we keep our Eyes Fixed on Jesus. We go back to what He tells us in His Word. Jesus will not come down from heaven and hide Himself away in the wilderness or in an inner room. Rather, He says: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” He is coming, and all people will know when He comes.
We are eager for His return. We watch for Him like a child waits for company to arrive, or like a crowd anticipates the arrival of someone famous. Our watching is contagious. If right now, I stopped talking and stared at something at the back of the church, I don’t think you could help yourself. You would want to look where I look, so you could see what I’m seeing.
This is what Eyes Fixed on Jesus does for those around us. They will want to know what we are looking at. And we are more than happy to show them. As we speak the Word of His grace, Jesus comes to them too. Our prayer is that He will work the same faith in them that He has worked in us. We pray that He will open their eyes just as He has opened ours.
There is still hope for the spiritually dead. They can still be saved. Until Jesus returns or unbelievers take their last breath, “the vultures” can only circle overhead. The Lord opens eyes every day through His Word, even the eyes of those we might not expect. For this abundant grace and mercy, we glorify His name.
We honor Him now by believing His Word and living according to it. And we prepare for the blessed end of all things when the Son of Man will reveal Himself in the sight of all. Then our troubles in this world will be ended, and nothing will ever again draw our focus away from Jesus, our Savior and Lord.
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(1850 “Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem” painting by David Roberts)
The Third Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 21) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 4:46-54
In Christ Jesus, who gives us all that we need for this life and for the life to come, dear fellow redeemed:
There are many things in my house that would be easy for me to part with. I’m sure the same is true for you. A recent fad has us asking whether or not a certain thing “gives us joy.” If it doesn’t we are encouraged to donate or chuck it. It is good for us to declutter from time to time.
But there are certain things that we cannot imagine giving up. What sorts of things are those? They are typically the things you spend the most time thinking about. For some of you, that could be a house or the property where it sits. It could be a car, a computer, an entertainment system, or the equipment for some other hobby. Maybe what you think about most is your family. Maybe it is your own health or your appearance.
We are willing to go to great lengths to preserve our most important things. The same was true of the royal official from Capernaum. He was somehow connected to the court of King Herod, so he probably had a sizable bank account and nice possessions. But money and possessions were not the first thing on his mind when his son got sick. As the days passed and his son’s condition worsened, the official must have exhausted every available medical option. Nothing worked. By the time the official heard about Jesus’ arrival in Cana, his son was “at the point of death.”
What was it that led him to Jesus? According to the text, we have to say it was love for his son more than a love for Jesus. We don’t know if the royal official would have gone looking for Jesus under other circumstances. But his son’s desperate condition caused him to go. He had heard that Jesus had power to heal people, so maybe, just maybe, He could help. It was not faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior that compelled him. Jesus indicated this by His reply to the official’s request, “Unless you [people] see signs and wonders you will not believe.”
This is the same pitfall so many fall into in our day. They refuse to listen to God’s Word or read the Bible for themselves. They reject it because they can’t imagine a God who would let all these bad things happen in the world. They hear us say that God is gracious, that He saved us from our sins. “But if God is so kind and good,” they reply, “why are there so many people suffering? If God could help them, why doesn’t He?” In other words, they are looking for “signs and wonders.” They are looking for clear evidence of God’s existence—and His goodness—on their terms.
This is not the right way to think about God. The almighty God—the Maker, Redeemer, and Comforter—does not have to satisfy the demands of sinners. He does not have to meet their conditions for how He is supposed to carry out His work. We know this, and yet we have to admit that this thinking creeps into our minds too.
We might ask where God is when wars and natural disasters claim thousands of lives around the world every day. We might wonder why He doesn’t step in while our country is torn apart by political divisiveness and hatefulness on all sides. And when pain or trouble touch our own lives or the lives of those we love the most, it may seem to us that God has forgotten about us, or that He is punishing us for something.
This kind of thinking pleases the devil. In fact, he is the one who tempts us to doubt God’s love and to question God’s wisdom. In today’s Epistle lesson, the apostle Paul warns us about the devil’s destructive work. He writes, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:11-12).
The devil and demons are constantly scheming to destroy our faith. They want us to focus on “signs and wonders” too. On the one hand they tell us that our suffering and anxiety and trouble are signs that that God does not really love us. Or they tempt us to ask God for “signs and wonders” beyond what He has already shown us.
So they might tempt us to expect God to show His love for us by making a specific problem go away or by giving certain blessings. They want us to say: “God, if You really love me, then You will take away my physical pain.” “If You really love me, then You will fix this broken relationship.” “If You really love me, then You will solve my financial issues.” But what happens if nothing seems to change, or if changes don’t happen quickly enough? Does that mean God does not love us?
It could be that the official came with similar thoughts in mind: “I’ll believe Jesus has this power when He shows it to me. I’ll believe it when He heals my son.” Jesus told him not to focus on the “signs and wonders,” but to believe His Word. He told the official, “Go; your son will live.” Now as far as the official knew, nothing about his son’s condition had changed. Jesus did not go and lay a healing hand on the child. He did not offer medical advice for how to make the child well. He simply gave the man a promise: “Your son will not die. He lives!”
If you were in the official’s shoes, and it was your child or someone else you loved who was sick, would you turn right around and go home? Or would you hold out for some proof? “I’d like to believe you, Jesus, but how can I be sure he will get better? Can you give me a sign, so I can be sure it will happen as You said?”
That is not what the official did. He “believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.” He went back home a changed man. Before, he was overwhelmed with anxiety about his son. Now, he returned with hope. He did not need Jesus to display “signs and wonders” anymore. He “believed the word.” The Word from Jesus’ mouth was enough.
We might be tempted to focus on the strong faith the official had at this point, that he would return home with no external proof of his son’s recovery. But the official had no strength except from God. It was the Holy Spirit working through Jesus’ Word which convinced him to turn around. It was the Holy Spirit who put hope in that man’s heart. God did this, not the man himself.
And He does the same for you. When you are burdened with some trouble in your life, when you are in pain, when someone you love is sick or is taken from you, God strengthens you through His powerful Word. The Holy Spirit comes to comfort you, to heal your wounds, to give you hope. He leads you to the cross of Jesus, who “has borne [your] griefs and carried [your] sorrows” (Isa. 53:4).
Jesus knows your pain. He knows how it feels to have someone close get sick and die (Joh. 11); this is when He assures you that He is “the resurrection and the life” (Joh. 11:25). He knows how it feels to be alone; so He promises, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). He knows the feeling of being attacked and ganged up on; so He says, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Joh. 16:33).
If you have been hurt by another, sinned against, Jesus knows that anguish. He was sinned against by the whole human race. He was beaten so you could be healed. He was abused so you could take refuge in Him, rest in Him. He came to deliver peace by the shedding of His blood. His blood cleanses you from the stain of sin you have left on others, and the stain others have left on you. “[T]he blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1Jo. 1:7).
There is no comfort—lasting, eternal comfort—apart from Jesus’ Word. There is no hope—lasting, eternal hope—apart from Jesus’ Word. “But what can the Word do about my sore back?” “What can the Word do about the bully at school?” “What can the Word do about this pile of bills?” The Word takes your focus off the things you can’t control and directs you to Jesus who is in control. Through His Word, He gives you patience to bear your cross, and He works all things—even your troubles—out for good.
Reading and hearing the Word, returning again and again to the power source of God’s work in our lives, prepares us for whatever we might lose in the future. Our precious earthly things will not last forever. Our homes will eventually be torn down. Our cars and computers and everything else we treasure will eventually be burned up or decay. Our beauty will fade, our health will deteriorate, some of the people we love will die. But the Gospel, the sure Word of Jesus’ death and resurrection for our salvation, will never change or expire. “[T]he word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8).
Jesus’ Word Is Sufficient. We need no other proof, no additional “signs and wonders” of His love. Jesus’ Word reveals His unchanging grace toward us sinners and the rich blessings He has prepared for those who love Him (1Co. 2:9).
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(“The Healing of the Officer’s Son” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 10:23-37
In Christ Jesus, whose love and mercy led Him to sacrifice Himself for all people, dear fellow redeemed:
You have heard in recent decades about the effort to remove the Ten Commandments from public places, places like courthouses and schools. Critics argue that we need to keep church and state separate. Their issue ultimately isn’t with the Commandments themselves, though they probably aren’t too fond of those. Their issue is with the God who gave those Commandments. They do not acknowledge His authority or even His existence.
At the same time, those critics are hard-pressed to come up with a better set of laws. Let’s suppose they adopted their own rules which were the exact opposite of God’s Commandments. This is how they would sound:
- You shall have many gods.
- You shall not treat these gods with respect.
- You shall not listen to these gods.
- You shall not honor parents or any other authority.
- You shall not respect your neighbor’s life.
- You shall not respect marriage or be faithful to your vows.
- You shall not respect your neighbor’s possessions.
- You shall not respect your neighbor’s reputation.
- You shall not be glad for your neighbor’s prosperity.
- You shall not be glad for your neighbor’s success.
How would society look if those were the laws that governed us? We would have chaos. People would only worry about their own plans. It would be “every man for himself.” No one would care about his neighbor. The world would be a violent, scary, unhappy place—much, much worse than it already is. It would be a world without love.
And that is what is so important about the Ten Commandments. They are God’s Law of love, love toward Him and toward our neighbors. This is exactly how the Commandments are summarized in today’s text. An expert in the Mosaic Law approached Jesus and asked what it is a person must do to gain heaven. Jesus told him to share his understanding of the Law. The man said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
That was a correct summary of the Ten Commandments. The first three are about love for God. The last seven are about love for neighbor. The problem with the man talking to Jesus, and the problem with so many today, is that they actually think they have loved God and others as they should. They think they have kept God’s Law.
So Jesus told about the man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who was stripped, beaten, and left for dead. A priest came by and did not help him. Neither did a Levite, a worker in the temple. Help came from a most unlikely place. A Samaritan came by, tended to the man’s wounds, and ensured that he would be nursed back to health. The Samaritans and Jews did not like each other, and yet here a Samaritan man was going far out of his way to help a Jewish man.
You and I may think to ourselves that we would have done the same. Maybe we can even give examples of how we went out of our way to help someone less fortunate than ourselves. Or maybe we could point to the amount of time and money we have committed to charitable causes. Those certainly are good things.
But how willing are we to share examples of times we did not help a neighbor in need, times we did not show love? Maybe you are always ready to drop anything to help a friend or neighbor. But are you so ready to help the neighbors you live with—your wife or husband, your children, your parents? Or how eager are you to help the person who hardly seems to try to help himself?
There are times in life when our love for others has shined. And maybe we did not even think about being recognized or rewarded for our work. Other times we have done our duty toward others but not gladly. And sometimes because of our selfishness and pride we have shown no love at all.
If we honestly size up our life according to the Ten Commandments, we don’t end up looking very good. In fact, the Law does a number on us like the robbers did to the man on the way to Jericho. The Law is relentless. It commands love and does not stop pushing us along and throwing us back in line until we have kept it perfectly. This is why many try to ignore the Law or get rid of it altogether. The Law hurts, because we do not love like we should.
But the Law is not the only Word God speaks to us. He loves us. Here we are, stripped, beaten, cast down by the Law—His Law, which we have not kept—and He had compassion on us. He sent His only Son to rescue us. That’s who we should see in the Samaritan who went to great lengths to help the wounded man. We should see Jesus.
Jesus took responsibility for what got us into trouble in the first place. He was born under the holy Law, so that He could keep it for us. The Law did not expose His shortcomings and beat Him down, because He was perfect. He perfectly loved God with His heart, soul, strength, and mind, and He loved His neighbor as Himself. Examples of this love are abundant in the Gospels. He did not ignore a neighbor in need.
Sometimes love required that He condemn the Pharisees and scribes. Love does not mean affirming people in whatever choices they make. Love includes pointing out sin, so that a person recognizes his or her need for salvation. Jesus did this. He condemned self-righteousness (Mat. 23:27-28), sexual immorality (Joh. 4:16-18, 8:11, Mat. 19:9), disrespect for authority (Mar. 7:9-13), and many other sins. In today’s text and a number of other places, Jesus clearly spoke of the Ten Commandments as God’s will for the moral conduct of all people.
He fulfilled these Commandments which condemn each and every one of us. His holy life covers over even the most sinful life. And His death on the cross accomplished the complete satisfaction for all sin. So if the Law is fulfilled and sin is forgiven through Jesus, why does it matter how we live anymore? Why can’t we do whatever we like, since Jesus did everything needed for our salvation?
It is because salvation comes only to the believing, and faith lives only in the hearts of the penitent. Faith cannot survive in those who embrace sin, who take pride in breaking God’s Commandments. Faith cannot endure in the heart of one who shows no love for God or neighbor. Whoever thinks he loves, but does not repent of his sin and believe in Jesus as His Savior, does not love as God commands. He loves in line with His own desires, His own designs, and “the wrath of God remains on him” (Joh. 3:36).
But salvation does come to those who recognize their sin and repent of it. They know they have not kept God’s Law as He requires. They see they are dying in their sin and cannot stop the bleeding. But they also see Jesus, Him who took the punishment for their sin, who hung bleeding on the cross, so that they would not die in misery.
This is what Jesus did for you. He shed His blood, so that your sins would all be blotted out and washed away. He shed His blood, so that life would come to your dying body. He shed His blood, so that your heart of faith would be healthy and strong. He shed His blood, so that His love would flow through you and lead you to love others as He has loved you.
You have nothing to boast of about yourself. There is no place for pride. No matter how loudly the culture shouts it, Pride and Love Cannot Coexist. Pride is inward. It is focused on one’s own pleasure, one’s own happiness, one’s own glory. Love is outward. It focuses on the needs of others and the good that can be done for them.
God calls us to love as He has loved. Paul wrote that Jesus “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2Co. 5:15). This love of God in Christ is a great love, an unfathomable love. On our own, we cannot come close to loving like this. But God helps us to do better and to love more. Through the Law, He keeps us humble and guides us to sacrifice for the people He has placed in our life.
But the power to do His will does not come from the Law; it comes from the Gospel. Through the Gospel in His Word and Sacraments, Jesus equips us for this blessed work. He comes to bind up the wounds of our sins by bringing us forgiveness, and He nourishes and strengthens us by feeding us with His life-giving body and blood. The Holy Spirit also comes through the Gospel to sanctify us and cause fruits of faith to grow for the benefit of our neighbors.
Like the Samaritan did for the dying man, the Lord makes provision for all our spiritual needs. Whatever we need, He supplies. He takes care of us, so that we can be healthy and productive for our neighbors who struggle and suffer and hurt as we have and still sometimes do. Jesus blesses us with the gifts of His love, so that in Him and Him alone, eternal life is ours.
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(“Parable of the Good Samaritan” painting by Jan Wijnants, 1632-1684)
The Third Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 11:14-28
In Christ Jesus, who came to disarm the devil and win the victory of eternal life for sinners, dear fellow redeemed:
Last week marked the start of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. You may not care much about this, but I’m sure you have heard something about it. Maybe your classmates or co-workers have been talking about “filling out their brackets” and choosing teams to go to the “sweet sixteen,” the “elite eight,” and the “final four.”
Here’s how the tournament works: it starts out with 64 teams divided into four sections. In each section, the teams are ranked, and the highest seed is paired with the lowest seed. Then the next highest seed is paired with the next lowest until the eighth and ninth seeds are paired in the middle. The four best teams paired with the four worst teams in the tournament are expected to “walk all over” their lowly appointment. But last year, this did not happen. A last-ranked team took out a first-ranked team for the first time in tournament history.
We like these underdog stories. It’s the “David vs. Goliath” scenario. David looks sure to lose to his giant opponent but ends up standing over Goliath’s fallen body and wielding his enemy’s sword (1Sa. 17:41-51). But as much as we like to root for the underdog, more often than not the underdog loses.
Where do you suppose you and I would be ranked in a spiritual battle versus the devil and the demons? Where would Jesus be ranked? Who is the underdog? Who comes out on top?
The devil was pretty confident in the Garden of Eden. He had just gotten Eve and Adam to do the one thing God had told them not to do. All they had to do was leave “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” alone. But they ate its fruit, and so fell into sin. Imagine the smile that spread across the serpent’s face when he watched them pick the fruit and bite into it. Think how confident he felt – he had just turned the crown of God’s creation against Him!
But the deceiver was not going to get away with it. The LORD came to the garden and said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life” (Gen. 3:14). But “eating dust” would be the least of his problems. The LORD followed this with a promise: “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” (v. 15).
The devil was going to get his serpent head stepped on. Someone—the Offspring of the woman—was going to “walk all over” him. The devil probably figured he could wriggle his way out of it. He probably thought he could sink his fangs into his opponent before the blow was delivered to his head. He didn’t feel like the underdog; he felt like the champ.
So he slithered off on his belly and plotted more lies and deceit. He set his sights on the descendants of Adam and Eve. If he could get at their perfect parents, he could get at their weaker children. So he tempted them to all sorts of sin against God—murder, adultery, theft, pride, idolatry. By the time of Jesus’ arrival, the devil boasted that the whole world was firmly in his control, that he had possession of “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Mat. 4:8).
But there was something Satan still had not conquered—the throne of the mighty God. This is what he wanted more than anything. He thought that perhaps the Man Jesus was the weak point in God’s armor. If Jesus, God’s Son, could be exploited or overcome, then His heavenly Father could too. Jesus, however, was a stiffer opponent than the devil anticipated.
The devil tried and failed to tempt Jesus alone in the wilderness. He tried and failed to tempt Jesus through His close friends. He tried and failed to tempt Him to give up the journey He was on, to avoid the suffering, to escape the cross. Jesus would not abort His mission. He would not step aside.
Jesus would neither fall for Satan’s temptations nor be intimidated by him. Every time he faced the devil or another demon, He didn’t flinch. We see an example today of how easily He dispatched the demons. A man had a demon which made him mute, so Jesus sent the demon packing, and immediately the man was able to speak.
The Pharisees and scribes tried to say that Jesus must be casting out demons by the power of Satan, or Beelzebul. But how would this benefit the devil’s kingdom? Then he would be working against himself. This would be like giving your best player to the opposing team. It would only increase your chance of losing.
But Jesus was not on the Satan’s side. He was on God’s side. He said, “if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The kingdom of God was advancing through the devil’s territory. Jesus described the conflict in this way, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.”
The devil was the “strong man, fully armed,” and his palace was the fallen world. Look at his impressive kingdom! Look at his reign of terror! But then “one stronger than he” came along. The Son of God appeared among men. Why did He come? The apostle John writes that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1Jo. 3:8). He came to challenge and attack the “strong man.” He came to end the devil’s reign and cast him from his ungodly throne.
It was all very heroic, but that is not how it looked. Jesus’ humble life, His suffering, and His death looked like defeat. What good did three years of hard work—teaching, preaching, and healing—do when Jesus was arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to die? This is what His disciples thought. They thought it was all a loss. They had so much hope for Jesus’ future and their future with Him, but now it had all fallen to pieces. Now their great Teacher hung dying on a cross.
But what looked like defeat was actually victory. What Jesus did on the cross was what God said must happen after the fall into sin. This is how the woman’s Offspring would bruise the head of Satan and receive a bruise on His heel. By dying on the cross, Jesus broke Satan’s stranglehold on the human race. He stomped on Satan’s head so that his snake coils must loosen. Jesus’ atoning death meant that the devil could no longer accuse sinners. His death freed them from the curse of their first parents. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1Co. 15:22).
So the victory is won. The outcome is decided. The Mighty Lord Tramples Satan Underfoot, just as God predicted. But whose side are you on? Where do you stand? Do you present yourself as a follower of Christ but hold a different allegiance in your heart? This can show up when your actions do not match your words, or your words your actions. Or maybe there are secret sins carefully hidden away, so you can keep up appearances. Again John writes, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1Jo. 3:8). And Jesus says, “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.”
The fact is that none of us is pure like we should be. We fall into sin and sometimes persist in sin. But it is one thing to sin and embrace it; it is another thing to sin and repent of it. Repentance is one of the chief ways to fight the devil’s temptations. When we fail to repent or refuse to repent, we are playing the devil’s game. Then we are acting like our sin is not sin. But “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1Jo. 1:8).
By acknowledging sin, we are admitting that we are not as strong and as well-equipped as we think. We are admitting there are some weaknesses in our armor—a lot of weaknesses. We are admitting that we have lost to the devil again and again. This acknowledgement of our weaknesses and failures puts us in just the right position. It puts us in the right position to be lifted up by God from the battlegrounds of our defeat and to be made clean and righteous again by His grace. It puts us in the position to humbly receive forgiveness for all our sins, which Jesus gladly earned for us by His suffering and death.
Our losses to the devil show us that we cannot prevail on our own against him. The harder we try to resist him by our strength, the more he wins. This is why our trust must be in the mighty Lord Jesus. He is the only One who can and has defeated Satan. This is why we sing: “With might of ours can naught be done, / Soon were our loss effected; / But for us fights the Valiant One, / Whom God Himself elected. / Ask ye, Who is this? / Jesus Christ it is. / Of Sabaoth Lord, / And there’s none other God; / He holds the field forever” (ELH 250, v. 2).
Because Jesus has overcome the devil and trampled him underfoot, we pray in the Litany that He would “beat down Satan under our feet” (ELH p. 137). We pray that He keeps us faithful to His Word, so that we are strengthened and equipped in Him to resist the devil’s temptations. And when the devil tries to worm his way into our hearts and sometimes succeeds, we trust the Lord to trample him underfoot even there, so that our hearts remain true to God alone.
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872, depicting a legion of demons cast out of a man by Jesus)
The First Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 4:1-11
In Christ Jesus, who bore the dreadful curse of sin and death to save our souls, dear fellow redeemed:
What if there was a way for your dreams to come true, even the ones you could never imagine happening? What if you could go wherever you wanted, have whatever you imagined, and do whatever you liked? You could have a mansion by the ocean filled with all sorts of good things. You could become a stronger and better athlete than everyone else. You could become a famous actor or singer. You could be established as the leading intellectual authority in every academic discipline. You could be a world leader—maybe even the world’s king. Imagine what fun you could have, and what good you could do!
But suppose you didn’t have a fairy godmother to grant your wish like Cinderella did, or come across a magic lamp like the one Aladdin found. What if you could have anything you wanted, but you had to give up something to get it? What would you give up to see your dreams fulfilled? There are some—perhaps many—who would take this deal. They would give up just about anything to see their dreams fulfilled. But what about their soul? Would they wager their eternal soul for a lifetime of success and pleasure?
There are reportedly some who have done this. Legend tells of people who rose to prominence because they “made a deal with the devil.” The most famous story involves a man named Faust, who supposedly lived in Germany around the time of Martin Luther. Faust grew tired of being a nobody, so he offered his soul to the devil in exchange for great knowledge and power. More recent examples involve virtuoso musicians, who were rumored to have “sold their soul” for unparalleled musical abilities.
Setting aside the factualness of these accounts, they do highlight certain truths. First, they show how the sinful nature works. If we want something bad enough, we will stop at almost nothing to get it. Second, these legends underscore how the devil and demons are constantly tempting us to sin. They will promise the world if only they can draw us away from Christ and possess our souls.
Their malicious work among men started with our first parents, the crown of God’s creation. After failing in his attempt to overthrow God, the devil set his sights on Eve. He slithered over to her and told her she could have more and better. “[Y]ou will be like God,” he said. “All you have to do is eat this fruit” (Gen. 3:5). She did, and gave some to Adam “who was with her” (v. 6). But it was fruit from a tree God told them to stay clear of. In their bid to control their own destiny and obtain something beyond the perfect life they enjoyed, they lost everything.
Why should the devil stop there? If he could tempt the first two people to give up everything for a foolish dream, why couldn’t he continue to turn God’s people against Him? So he tempts us. He tempts us to fulfill every fleshly desire. If we have been blessed with plenty, he tempts us to be prideful about what we have and to think we deserve more. If we are blessed with little, he tempts us to be bitter and discontent and to covet what others have. This is why the Proverb says, “[G]ive me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Pro. 30:8-9).
The devil also tempts us to recklessness. He wants us to become bored with the responsible life. He wants us to take unnecessary risks, even if they endanger ourselves or others. What matters overall is that he gets each of us to focus on what makes us happy, what we want, what others should do for us. His goal is to get all creatures to reject their Creator, just as he did. He tempts us to believe the lie that we don’t have to answer to anyone, and that we should fear, love, and trust not the one true God, but the god of self.
And the devil has often succeeded. In fact, there is no one here who has not fallen for his temptations. So when he saw the man Jesus head into the wilderness following His baptism, why shouldn’t he have success against Him too? For forty days, Satan tempted Jesus (Mar. 1:13, Luk. 4:2). We do not have record of all those temptations, but no doubt the devil employed his full arsenal. Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are.”
What is recorded today appears to be the devil’s last, best effort—at least for the time being. Jesus had now been fasting for forty days and nights, which corresponds to the length of our season of Lent. Think how you would feel after just four days of fasting. You would be weak and probably have a pounding headache. It would be hard to focus—this, after just four days. Jesus fasted for forty.
Seeing His physical weakness, the devil now attacked Jesus’ claim to be God. What sort of God suffers? What sort of God is weak? “If You are the Son of God,” he said. “If You are the Son of God, You shouldn’t be suffering. If You are the Son of God, You shouldn’t be hungry. Why don’t You just turn these stones into bread?” And why shouldn’t He? It was because Jesus had not come to serve Himself but His Father. He later said to His disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (Joh. 4:34). So He told the devil, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
This is why God might allow us to hunger at times and to struggle along. It is not to drive us away from Him, but to teach us to trust His Word. Moses explained this to the Israelites after their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. He told them that the LORD “humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deu. 8:3).
The fact that Jesus quoted from this passage shows that His forty days in the wilderness had something to do with the Israelites’ forty years in the wilderness, and also with our own time of wandering in this world. What the Israelites and we do with doubts and complaining, Jesus did perfectly on our behalf, never succumbing to the devil.
Hearing Jesus quote from the Scriptures, the tempter devised a plan to use God’s Word against Him. He took Jesus to the top of the temple, that place of God’s holy presence, and urged Him to throw Himself into the arms of the angels. After all, hadn’t God said that He would send His angels to protect His people? Again, Jesus quoted words that Moses had spoken to the Israelites: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deu. 6:16).
Then the devil tried once more. From a high mountain, he showed Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” “All these I will give You,” he said, “if You will fall down and worship me.” Setting aside the question of whether or not the devil could actually deliver these kingdoms to Jesus, what he was really asking for was Jesus’ soul. But it wasn’t just the soul of Jesus he hoped to gain; it was the souls of everybody.
If Jesus had done this, the devil would have won. He would have unseated God from His throne. He would have made the Creator bow to him, a fallen creature. Then the universe would have a wretched and diabolical overlord instead of a merciful Savior. But your soul is worth more to Jesus than that. Your soul is worth more than all the power and glory the world can offer. Jesus would not be tempted to abort His mission. Speaking once again words that Moses spoke, He said, “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve” (Deu. 6:13).
So Jesus succeeded against the devil where you and I have so often failed. He did not give in to temptation. He did not compromise His soul. As the last part of Hebrews 4:15 tells us, Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” I do not say this just for comparison’s sake, to show that you are a sinner but Jesus was not. I say this for your comfort. Jesus lived a sin-free life for you. He withstood temptation for your sake.
There are many times you have put your soul on the line to pursue what the devil and your sinful nature wanted. The devil had you right where he wanted you. But Jesus took your place in the scales of justice. He set His perfect life against God’s righteous demands, and the scales were balanced. Then He offered up His holy life in payment for your sins. In this way, He redeemed your soul. He bought it with His precious blood, so that you would be joined to Him and not the devil.
If Jesus should think so much of your soul, you should too. No amount of riches, glory, and power in the world is worth the loss of your faith. No “deal with the devil” is worth the cost of your eternal soul. Jesus told His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or What Shall a Man Give in Return for His Soul?” Let it be your whole purpose to commit your body, soul, and all you have to Jesus, who has already secured for you the eternal glories of heaven.
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(painting is “The Temptation of Christ by the Devil” by Félix Joseph Barrias, 1822-1907)