St. John, Apostle & Evangelist – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 21:19-24
In Christ Jesus, who became one with us that He might share in all our pain and troubles and give us a share of His grace and glory, dear fellow redeemed:
Did you have a fair Christmas? I’m not asking if it was about average, or if it was okay given the circumstances. I’m wondering if it was fair—balanced—equal. In other words, did Christmas turn out like you thought it should? Did you get what you believed you deserved? Were the gifts you got in line with the gifts others got?
We are good at making sure things stay fair. Or at least we react when things do not seem fair. Behind that is a certain entitlement, a certain expectation, that we should get at least as much as others do. And of course that leaves us open to jealousy, not just in the area of Christmas gifts, but in all areas.
So we might think it isn’t fair that we have had so many health problems, while others hardly ever visit the doctor. It isn’t fair to be stuck in a difficult marriage or to deal with impossible relatives, while others seem to have perfectly happy relationships. It isn’t fair that we have had to deal with so much loss and death, while others have endured little hardship.
But who is supposed to determine what is fair and what isn’t? What gives us the idea that we should expect a care-free life? What makes us think we deserve only good things? We learn something about fairness from today’s text which details an interaction with Jesus, Peter, and John.
But first a little context is needed. Today’s reading comes at the very end of the Gospel according to St. John. By this point, Jesus had been crucified, died, and was buried. Then He had risen again and appeared to the eleven disciples. He had visited them at least a couple of times, and now John writes about His appearance to seven of them at the Sea of Galilee. The disciples hadn’t caught any fish during the night when Jesus called from the shore that they should “cast the net on the right side of the boat” (Joh. 21:6). Then they caught such a large number of fish that they couldn’t haul it in.
When they had gotten to shore, Jesus spoke to Peter about his three-fold denial of Jesus in the temple courtyard. Having forgiven Peter, Jesus commissioned him to feed His lambs and sheep. But He also told him that he would have a cross to bear: “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (v. 18). This “stretching out of his hands” seems to indicate that he would die like Jesus did, on a cross. According to church tradition, this is what happened to Peter some decades later.
After Jesus said this, He told Peter to “follow Him,” which is the beginning of today’s text. It was then that Peter turned and saw John and asked, “Lord, what about this man?” Now we don’t know what exactly prompted Peter’s question. He could have simply been curious, wondering if all the disciples would meet the same fate as him. Or he could have been concerned, hoping that John would not have to face what he would. Or maybe he felt he was being chastised for his earlier denials, and he wondered if John, who obviously had the Lord’s favor, would fare better.
We can’t forget the rivalry the disciples had among themselves about who was the greatest. They had argued about it more than once (Luk. 9:46, 22:24). On another occasion, James and John and their mother approached Jesus to ask if the two boys could sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in glory. That did not sit well with the other disciples (Mar. 10:35-41). Then Peter boasted the night before Jesus’ death that even if the other disciples fell away from Jesus, he never would (Mat. 26:33).
The disciples were just like us—sinners. They expected to be rewarded for the sacrifices they were making for Jesus. They were jealous for the glory that could be theirs in His kingdom. They each thought they deserved no less than the other disciples, and each of them probably thought he deserved more.
It is not difficult for us to understand this. Like those disciples, we also think we have done a good job of serving the Lord, and we expect that our devotion to Him should result in good things for us. When we don’t think we have been rewarded by Him like we should be, that’s when a spiritual crisis happens. That’s when we question His love for us. We wonder if He is punishing us. We decide this is proof that He does not care about us. He hasn’t done what we expected Him to do.
Our crisis becomes all the more intense when we see others around us doing well and living happy lives. “Why should they have it so good?” we think. “They are not nearly as faithful as I am. Why do they have it easy when I am suffering?” We can even get to where we resent others and the blessings they have. We avoid them or treat them rudely because their happiness just makes us feel worse.
This comparison game is no good. Neither is our entitlement mentality. Whatever prompted Peter to ask about John, Jesus replied, “If it is My will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” Jesus could give the same response to us in our jealousy and discontent: “If it is My will that others prosper more than you or have fewer hardships, what is that to you? You follow Me!”
The reality is that no one’s so-called “successful” life is as happy or as idyllic as it seems on the outside. Wouldn’t you like to have that job? Wouldn’t you like to live in that house? Wouldn’t you like to drive that car? Wouldn’t you like to have that marriage and that family? But no one’s life is perfect, and the rich do not have fewer cares than the poor—often the opposite is true.
Our call from God is not to put ourselves in a position of judgment about what He does. It is not to cry foul when things don’t seem fair. Our calling is to be content with what He gives us. Sometimes He gives us more and sometimes less. Sometimes He gives us success and sometimes trials. But whatever He gives, He gives because it is right for us. The Lord has never wronged us, and He never will.
That’s a strong statement. Do you feel you have always gotten a fair shake from God? Well it’s true, you haven’t gotten a fair shake. What’s fair is that God should reward you for what you have done. And what have you done? You have broken His Commandments. Time and again, you have done the exact opposite of what He tells you to do. What you deserve is His punishment. You deserve eternal death. That would be fair.
But that is not what you get. Instead of getting judgment, you get grace. Instead of getting condemnation, you get forgiveness. Instead of getting death, you get life. The proof of God’s love for you is found in a little manger in Bethlehem. That is where God’s Son lay wrapped in human flesh. God did not want you to have hell; He wanted you to have heaven. So He sent down His only-begotten Son to win the victory for you over your sin, death, and the devil.
The Lord Jesus did not come to get what He deserved. He deserved perfect honor, obedience, and love from everyone on earth. Instead He received suffering, spite, and hatred from mankind. He willingly accepted what He did not deserve, so He could make atonement for everyone’s sins. In all humility, He was laid in a manger and then nailed to a cross, so that you would be saved, so that you would have the sure hope of a perfect, care-free, glorious life after this one.
John writes that the other disciples took Jesus’ words to mean that John would not die: “If it is My will that he remain until I come,” said Jesus, “what is that to you?” But Jesus did not say that John would not die. He was teaching Peter and the other disciples not to worry about comparisons or fairness or anything else. Jesus’ call to all of His disciples is to follow Him wherever He leads us in this life.
We know He will not lead us into sin or destruction. He is leading us to heaven. Whatever we must face while we are here on earth, we face it in Him. He became one with us at Christmas. He tied our future to His and His future to ours. And the future we have in Him is a glorious one, even if we must suffer here as Jesus suffered.
According to tradition, Peter and the other disciples were all martyred for confessing Jesus as the Lord and Savior—all except for John. John far outlived them. But His days were hard. He watched false teachers make inroads in the Christian Church. He saw many deny Christ and follow the desires of their flesh. Finally he was exiled to live alone on the island of Patmos. It was not all glory for John. But he lived and worked by the Lord’s will.
And so do we. We entrust our life to the Lord’s care, and we carry out the tasks He has given us to do in our homes, our workplaces, and our community. We follow Jesus through all. In good days or bad we remember God’s love for us, that He sent His only-begotten Son to be our Savior. With John we give thanks that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Joh. 1:14).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “The Miraculous Draft of Fishes” by Konrad Witz, 1444)
The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 1:19-28
In Christ Jesus, who freely gives us everything we need for this life and for the life to come, dear fellow redeemed:
The internet gives anyone the ability to connect with a worldwide audience. There are many stories about people who went from total unknowns to walking the red carpet, because they found something to do that others wanted to follow. Imagine if that happened to you. Let’s say you shared something online, maybe a joke or a creative idea or good advice. You thought your friends would appreciate it, but you didn’t expect it to go any further than that. Then others you had never met started reacting to it and sharing it. Before long it had been shared 100 times, then 1,000 times, then 10,000.
How would that make you feel? After getting past the shock, you might start to think about how you could produce more of the same. Receiving such praise would be quite an emotional high, quite an encouragement. It’s nice to be liked. It’s nice to have others validate that there is something special about you, and that you have got a lot to offer. But there are pitfalls here, pitfalls like pride and arrogance. You know what it’s like when an acquaintance or friend gets a little taste of success and then acts like you don’t exist anymore. But when they come back down to earth, then they want to talk to you again.
It’s hard to know how we would react to sudden fame. We hope that we would come away looking like John the Baptizer does in today’s text. John’s star had risen quickly. Once he started preaching his bold message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mat. 3:2), the people started gathering. The crowd got bigger and bigger until the evangelist Matthew could report that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mat. 3:5-6).
How many baptisms did John do? Do you suppose he kept count? His ministry in the wilderness was so popular that even the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, came to the Jordan River to be baptized (v. 7). That would be enough to go to anyone’s head. John could look around the crowd and see people hanging on his every word. There were the religious leaders deep in thought. There were the armor-clad soldiers with their heads bowed, listening intently. There were the rich and famous nodding approvingly. There were the young ladies batting their eyelashes and flashing warm smiles.
“Oh, what a great preacher I am! Everyone wants to be connected to me!” Is that what John thought? We cannot say what John was thinking. He was a sinner, so it’s hard to imagine that no pride entered his heart. But what he said was all humility. Today’s text shows us the exchange between John and a group of priests and Levites from Jerusalem. These religious leaders came with a simple enough question for John: “Who are you?” But behind the question was the suggestion that he might be the Christ. Probably many in the crowd were wondering the same thing.
Just think what an opportunity this could have been for John. If he let the people imagine he was the Christ, he could have asked anything from them: money, privileges, power. He could have had them eating out of his hand. Instead he confessed: “I am not the Christ.” Well then, was he Elijah come from heaven, that great Old Testament prophet? “I am not,” he said. Was he the Prophet whose coming was foretold by Moses? “No,” he answered.
Claiming any of those titles would have increased his popularity among the people. But John resisted this temptation. “I am nothing,” he said. “I am nothing but a voice.” “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” When Jesus was revealed as the Messiah and some of John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus, John was not jealous. He knew his purpose was to prepare the way for the Savior. It was not to be in the spotlight. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Joh. 3:30), said John.
To leave no room for misunderstanding, the Gospel writer emphatically underscores John’s faithful testimony about Jesus. He wrote that John “confessed, and did not deny, but confessed.” Now often we think of confession in terms of “going to confession,” or admitting our sins. But the word in the Greek language is more general. It means “to speak the same word” or “to speak in agreement.” When we confess our sins, we speak in agreement with what God’s law says about our sinful condition and our wrongs. When we confess the truth, we speak in agreement with what God has promised and fulfilled.
John confessed the truth about himself and about the Savior. “I am not the Christ,” he said. “[B]ut among you stands One you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” “If you think I’m special,” said John, “wait till you see the coming One! I’m not even worthy to touch His feet and loosen the strap on His sandal!”
John could not properly confess Christ without also confessing something about himself. He could not point out Christ’s holiness without admitting his own unworthiness. He could not shine the light on Jesus without stepping back in the shadows. To make himself out to be more would have been to steal glory from the incarnate Son of God.
But what John did does not come naturally to us. It does not come naturally to deflect praise away from ourselves. We like the spotlight on us, especially when we have accomplished something impressive. We like to be recognized for our good deeds and honored for our success. We like to hear people say, “We could never get along without you!” “You make everything better!” “Nobody could do as well as you have!” “We need more people like you!”
Now it certainly isn’t wrong to be recognized for doing good things. It is important for parents and teachers and employers to build up and congratulate those under their authority. And if you are on the receiving end of praise, it is appropriate to receive it graciously and be grateful for it. But the devil is waiting in the wings. When you are praised, he wants you to think that you are just getting what you deserve. You earned it. You are so very talented. You really are better than others. “Soak it up!” he says. “Command the stage! This is your moment! Pat yourself on your back and give yourself a round of applause!”
That’s the temptation: to take the glory for yourself that belongs to God alone. After all, who is it that gave you your body and soul, eyes, ears and all your members, your reason and all your senses, and still preserves them (Third Article)? Every good thing you possess and every good thing you are able to do can be traced back to God’s work for you, in you, and through you. That’s why John said he was only a “voice.” Even the words that he spoke were God’s words and not his own.
This is why we must “confess, and not deny, but confess,” that we are nothing on our own. Apart from God, we can produce nothing that matters, nothing that will last. Even those who think they have “made it” in this life eventually realize that their fame or power or riches are only temporary. Soon they are going to die, and then they will be forgotten.
Jesus came to save you from all that emptiness and hopelessness. He came to free you from the pressure of having to prove that you are valuable, that your life has a purpose. He came to free you from the burden of a million missed opportunities, a life of regret for not making it big. He came to free you from the temptation of trampling others to try to get to the top.
Everything that you have failed to be, Jesus is for you. He is your goodness. He is your success. He is your life of perfect decisions and no regrets. You are not worthy to loosen His sandal strap, and yet He came down to earth to serve you. He came to atone for your sins of arrogance and pride, for your failure to give Him the glory and the praise for all the good you have and do.
His love for you brought Him down to earth. Sometimes like John, He drew big crowds, but that isn’t why He came. He did not care about earthly popularity. He cared about your soul and the soul of every sinner. He came to offer Himself in your place. He came to endure God’s wrath for your sin and suffer the torments of hell, so you wouldn’t have to. He came to win your forgiveness and eternal life.
Jesus’ greatness was in His sacrifice. His glory was in His humility. We honor Him by living our life in the same way. We sacrifice our own goals and ambitions for the good of those around us, and we humbly serve with no expectation of reward. We need no reward beyond what we already have by faith in Him.
Like John, we at all times keep our focus on Jesus. We live for Him. We hope in Him. If we are praised, we give Him the glory. As John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Joh. 3:30). It isn’t about what we might make of ourselves, but what Jesus has done for us. We Confess Him, Only and Always. And He promises this: “[E]veryone who acknowledges [or confesses] me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God” (Luk. 12:8).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1565)
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.
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 “Witness of John the Baptist” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1972)
Midweek Lent – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: St. John 1:29-34
In Christ Jesus, who came to offer Himself in your place, so you would be right with God, dear fellow redeemed:
We know the passage so well, that it doesn’t seem strange to us: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” But I wonder what we would have thought if we heard John the Baptizer say this in person. We might have wondered, “Why did John just call that man a lamb?” There are so many titles for Jesus that would seem to identify Him more clearly: “Behold, the Messiah/the Promised Prophet/the Son of David and of God/the Savior!” But John said, “Behold, the Lamb!”
Of course the context of the Jews at that time was different than ours. Lambs were a much bigger part of their culture than it is for us. At that time, lambs were sacrificed daily in the temple. Their blood was shed as an offering for sin. John wanted the people gathered there to make this connection. He wanted them to know that the Sacrifice for the world’s sins was finally here. The Old Testament promises had met their fulfillment.
We have reviewed some of these prophesies and pictures of Jesus over the last few weeks. We heard about the shepherd Abel who faithfully offered sacrifices to God before this innocent man was killed by his brother. We heard about Abraham who was prepared to sacrifice his only son at God’s command before the LORD stopped him and provided another lamb. We heard about the Passover when a spotless lamb was killed and its blood painted on the doorposts to save the Israelites from slavery and death. We heard about the offering of lambs at morning and at evening in the tabernacle on behalf of the people. And last week we heard the stunning prophecy of Isaiah describing the suffering and death of Him who bore our sins and was slaughtered for us.
These examples and many others pointed forward to the coming of the Christ and His work to save sinners. John looked to Jesus and said, “There He is! That is the Lamb! He is the One who takes away the world’s sin!” This “taking” or “carrying” away brings to mind God’s instructions for Israel on the annual Day of Atonement. The high priest was to select two goats. One was used for a sin offering. The other was brought to the priest who laid both his hands on its head and confessed all the transgressions of the people over it. Then the goat was sent into the wilderness to a remote area never to be retrieved (Lev. 16:20-22).
John was pointing to Jesus as the “scapegoat” for sin, as the one who would have the sins of the world placed on Him and would suffer for them all by Himself. It was at His Baptism that Jesus was officially anointed for this work. John testified that when Jesus was baptized, he saw “the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove” and rest on Him.
The prophet Isaiah had spoken about this many years before. He said that “the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (Isa. 11:2). Jesus was anointed by the Spirit to carry out His Father’s will. Isaiah described the peaceful scene that would result from His righteous and faithful work: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them” (v. 6).
But Jesus’ coming seemed to produce anything but peace. Though He healed and helped people and proclaimed the Gospel to them, many rejected Him and opposed Him. Eventually the Jewish religious leaders got what they wanted and were able to arrest Him. They convicted Him in a sham trial, struck Him, spit on Him, and turned Him over to the Roman authorities. They did this because they wanted Him dead, and they wanted Him to die painfully.
What they did not realize is that it was God’s will for His Son to die. Isaiah had written about this: “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (53:10). At the same time that the religious leaders worked to destroy Jesus out of bitter hatred and envy, He was working to save them out of His boundless mercy and love. When He went to the cross, He carried even the sins of those who sent Him to His death. His hands and feet freshly nailed to the cross, He prayed for them: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luk. 23:34).
This is what He came to accomplish. He came to forgive, to make peace between God and man. He said Himself that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Joh. 3:17). That is why John called Him “the Lamb”—God’s Lamb. The Son of God incarnate was the Father’s answer for sin. He was the only Sacrifice that could satisfy the justice of a holy God.
The death of this Lamb means your wrongs are fully atoned for. His blood cleanses you, purifies you. It sets you free from your bondage to sin and death. But you and I have done terrible things! How can we be certain that even those things are forgiven? Well what did John say? “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
Jesus did not come to take away only the sin of the most faithful and the best-behaved. He came to take away all sin, “the sin of the world.” So if you are in the world, then Jesus has taken away your sin. Like the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement, each of your sins was placed on Jesus, and He took them far away never to bring them back against you.
Because your sins were placed on Him, they are not on you anymore. The Psalm states it beautifully: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (103:11-12). This is what Jesus accomplished for you. Behold, the Lamb! He forgives all your sin. Amen.
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(picture is portion of 1895 painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)
The Second Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:2-10
In Christ Jesus, who has done all things well (Mk. 7:37), dear fellow redeemed:
When there is something that you want, something that is good and, as far as you can tell, God-pleasing, it is a great test and trial not to receive it. The longer you go without it, the more it occupies your thinking. You imagine how free your mind would be to pursue other good things if only that one concern were resolved. This may be the situation of someone who is unemployed or injured, who can think of nothing better than getting back to work. It could be the experience of a single person, who longs to have a spouse and a family. Or it could be the married couple which greatly desires the blessing of a child.
This last cross, the cross of barrenness, is what a man named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had to endure. Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth a homemaker. The evangelist Luke says about them that “they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Lk. 1:6). They obviously were not perfect, but they were humble and pious people. In this, they were blessed. But there was one blessing that God had not given them.
It is certain that they prayed fervently for a child. Even as she aged, Elizabeth might have comforted herself with the example of Hannah, who prayed for a son and was given Samuel. Or they might have thought of Abraham and Sarah, who did not have a child together until Abraham was about 100 and Sarah was 90. But each passing month made the possibility more remote. It would be no surprise if Zechariah and Elizabeth felt some bitterness about this. After all, they had faithfully served the LORD throughout their lives. They had entrusted their being and doing to His hands. Not out loud but perhaps in their heads, each of them might have thought, “Look what I’ve done for You. Won’t You grant this one blessing?”
God always answers prayer, but not always in the way we want. His answer to Zechariah and Elizabeth for a long time was, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2Cor. 12:9). They accepted that in faith. But then one day, God sent His angel Gabriel to visit Zechariah in the holy place of the temple. Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord” (Lk. 1:13-15). Not only would God give them a son, but this son would be unique. He was the God-ordained messenger for the coming Messiah.
As John grew, the LORD prepared him for his work. Through conversations with his parents and study of the Scriptures, John learned what God was calling him to do. At the LORD’s command, “he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3:3). He lived an austere life. He wore clothes made from camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. Despite these eccentricities, many came to the wilderness to hear him preach and to be baptized by him in the Jordan River.
But as boldly as John preached and as popular as he was, John said that “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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3:11-12). John did not come up with these ideas on his own. He read the prophecy in the Book of Malachi, that a messenger (John himself) would prepare the way for the Coming One, who “is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (Mal. 3:2). This Coming One would refine and purify sinners and punish those who did not repent.
Once Jesus was revealed to John as the Coming One, John must have become even bolder in his teaching and preaching. Soon Jesus would take up the charge, and all would follow Him. But things did not play out as John might have planned. King Herod did not like what John was saying and had him arrested and thrown in prison. Meanwhile Jesus increased His public activity, but He did not turn into the fire and brimstone preacher that John may have been expecting. So from prison John sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
We cannot say for sure whether John was asking for his own benefit, or for the benefit of his disciples, so they would leave John and follow Jesus. But for how committed John was to his wilderness work, it would not be surprising if his stay in prison was causing him to be anxious and unsettled. What good could he do for God there? Wouldn’t the Lord set him free? “Look what I’ve done for You, Lord. I will gladly do more.” But no doubt John would have added, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” The Lord’s answer to his prayers was a quick release from his suffering. King Herod had John beheaded, and John’s soul joined the saints in heaven.
Our reward for good deeds in this life does not always come about like we want. Sometimes our good efforts are rewarded with indifference, as though we had done nothing. Sometimes they are rewarded with evil, as our kindnesses are abused or thrown back in our faces. Children might whine about how their parents never give them what they want, or they might complain about eating the food in front of them. And parents may think or even say, “Look what I’ve done for you, how hard I’ve worked to provide for you. But you’re never happy!” Or an employee might go out of her way to please her boss, but all she hears is criticism. “Look what I’ve done for you,” she thinks. “Why should I even try?”
It’s just as easy to feel resentment toward God. When you stand up for what is right or warn someone about their sin, you might be mercilessly attacked by them in return. And you cry out to God, “Look what I’ve done for you! Why don’t you defend me and stop these attacks?” Or you might get injured or sick and pray for healing that is slow in coming if it comes at all. “Are you punishing me, Lord? Where have I failed you?” Or you may see your ungodly neighbor prosper, while you struggle. “Look what I’ve done for you, Lord. Why do those who ignore You and Your Word fare better than I do?”
The answers in these times of difficulty don’t come easily. Waiting for God’s answer to our prayers, waiting for God’s justice, can seem endless. Is help coming or not? If we are paying attention to today’s text, we shouldn’t wonder if the Lord cares about our troubles. Jesus said to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.” Jesus cares both about people’s physical and spiritual needs. He answered the prayers of the blind, lame, leprous, and deaf and healed them. He even brought the dead back to life.
And for the spiritually poor, the suffering, the anxious, the troubled, the weary, the grieving—Jesus imparted good news. What might that good news have been? There is only one Gospel proclaimed by God, and that is the good news of forgiveness and life by His grace alone. Nothing else but this can comfort the poor sinner.
The Gospel is Jesus’ own “Look What I’ve Done for You.” If you feel burdened by just your own sins, Jesus took upon Himself the burden of all sins—including yours. If you feel that you have suffered unjustly, Jesus suffered the venomous bite of Satan and the holy wrath of God in your place, though He never did anything wrong. Whatever you have had to endure, Jesus endured immeasurably more out of love for you. All of your and my “Look what I’ve done for Yous” fade and disappear in the bright light of His perfect life and innocent death.
And that is what needs to happen. There is no comfort or justice to be found by appealing to the righteousness of your own actions. No matter how honest and humble you are, you still are not perfect. You are still a sinner, who must be justified by God if you would be justified at all. And you are justified. When you are convicted by the Law, Jesus calls your attention to His perfect life and says, “Look what I’ve done for you.” When you worry about your sins, old and new, and wonder if there could be forgiveness for your wicked thoughts and deeds, Jesus draws your eyes to His blood-soaked cross and to the marks of the nails in His hands and feet and says, “Look what I’ve done for you.” When you tremble at your approaching death and worry that you will not have enough faith to get to heaven, Jesus points you toward His empty tomb and says, “Look what I’ve done for you.”
Whatever God commanded you to do, Jesus has done for you. This is why Jesus says, “blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” Whoever is offended by Jesus and denies Him remains under a curse. But whoever believes in Him and confesses His saving name is blessed. You are blessed even when you do not get exactly what you want and expect from Him. God gives you what you need through His Word and Sacraments, so that you can face with confidence the trials ahead and look with hope to the end of your troubles and the eternal glory to come.
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(painting is “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1565)
Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 1:39-45
In Christ Jesus, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary to redeem all who have inherited sin from our first parents, Adam and Eve, dear fellow redeemed:
When the committee for Jerico’s 150th Anniversary began its work over a year ago, there was a clear goal in sight. Everything had to be ready by June 25th. The closer that date got, the more time and money were spent to finish up projects. Then the day arrived – and what a day it was! Things would have been much different if no celebration day had been set. We might have identified jobs needing to be done, but no one would know when they should be completed. We might tell people to get ready, but they wouldn’t know when to come. It is a lot harder to keep the focus on a general promise that something will happen, as opposed to a definite deadline and plan.
This helps us understand how the Israelites struggled to maintain the focus on God’s promise of a Savior. Thousands of years passed after the LORD first promised Adam and Eve that a Savior would come. Then at a certain point, even prophecy ceased. The last prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi, concluded the book of his prophecy with these words of the LORD, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (4:5-6). This was sometime in the 400s B. C. After this time, Alexander the Great conquered Persia, which included the land of Israel. Following his death, his territories were divided among his four generals. Later on the Israelites won their independence, but in 63 B. C., Israel became a territory of the Roman Empire.
Throughout this time, the sacrifices and ceremonies in the temple continued, and the people studied the Scriptures. They knew the fulfillment of God’s promise was getting closer, but they had no idea when it would be. Each young girl could well have wondered if God’s promise would be fulfilled in her (Gen. 3:15, Is. 7:14). But why would God choose her? Who could ever be worthy enough to bear the Christ-Child? The people must have imagined that the mother of the Messiah would have to be someone noble, someone great, someone significant.
And God chose Mary. She was not rich or famous, but lived a simple life in the unimpressive town of Nazareth. Luther says about Mary that she was “a poor, lowly, weak maiden whom no one valued and who was perfectly obscure” (Festival Sermons of Martin Luther, Mark V Publications, p. 108). The angel Gabriel appeared to her and said, “[B]ehold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:31-33). By the power of the Holy Spirit, lowly Mary would bear in her womb the Savior of the world.
Then the angel told her something else, “[B]ehold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God” (vv. 36-37). Mary could hardly believe it, but she did. She said, “let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38). Now who could she tell? Who would believe her? What would Joseph think, the man to whom she was betrothed? The angel had mentioned Elizabeth. This must be no coincidence. Mary would go see her. So she left Nazareth and traveled south to the hill country near Jerusalem, where Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah served as a priest.
Elizabeth had only just begun to venture out in public after five months in seclusion. Who would have believed this old woman if she told her neighbors she was pregnant? But now six months into her pregnancy, her growing belly could not be ignored. Then a surprise guest arrived, her young relative Mary. Mary entered the house and greeted her, and suddenly the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaped! Some of you here probably know this feeling. A sharp kick to the ribs probably caused you to cry out, much like Elizabeth did. But it wasn’t just the movement of her baby that caused Elizabeth to shout. When Mary greeted her, she was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (vv. 42-43).
Keep in mind that Mary set out to see Elizabeth right after the angel visited her. This means Jesus was no more than a couple weeks old. He was almost too small to be seen by the naked eye. No one could have guessed that Mary was pregnant, and Elizabeth knew she wasn’t married. But the Holy Spirit revealed to Elizabeth that what was forming in Mary’s womb was her Lord, the promised Messiah. He would not become her Lord when He was born, or when He would suffer, die, and rise again. He was her Lord now, a matter of days into His human development. In the same way, it is true that a baby in the womb is a person not just when it is born or can become self-sustaining, but at the earliest stage of its formation.
With Elizabeth, Mary found someone who understood, who believed. Can you imagine the conversations they must have had over that three-month visit? One woman carried in her womb the man who would prepare the way for the Lord. He was the “Elijah” foretold by the prophet Malachi. The other woman bore the Christ-Child, conceived in her not by a man, but by God. And nobody else knew, except probably Zechariah. To their neighbors, Elizabeth was just a fortunate old woman, whom God had finally given a child. And Mary was her kind relative who had come to help out until the birth. Who could know that the day of God’s great promise had come? Who could know that these lowly women would be remembered and honored until the end of time?
But then isn’t that how the Lord does His work? In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 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” (1:26-28).
This was certainly true of Jesus. Born of a poor woman in a little town. Raised in Nazareth far from the historic center of Israel. Why should anyone pay attention to Him? But His powerful works and words could not be ignored. His bold teaching of repentance set Him at odds with the self-righteous. They used their high-standing and power to condemn this poor Nazarene to death. He was crucified and buried. It appeared that Jesus would be little more than a footnote in human history. But God chooses what is low and despised, to conquer the high and mighty. By His death, Jesus overcame sin, devil, and the grave and won eternal life for all people.
Consider your own life. What does the world care about you? Even famous people are quickly forgotten after their death if not already before. You, living out your lowly life in northeast Iowa, don’t seem to matter much. You may even find yourself thinking the same thing – “Does what I do really make any difference? Would the community even notice if I were gone?” You may not look like much, both in the eyes of others and even in your own sight. But your value to the Lord is immeasurable.
Before you were born, even before you were formed in your mother’s womb, God chose you to be His own. It was for you that He sent His only Son to be born of Mary. Jesus fulfilled the law on your behalf. He was scorned and abused and nailed to a cross in your place. He willingly offered up Himself as the perfect sacrifice to atone for your sins. If the Lord did not care about you, if He did not love you, He would not have done these things.
Not only does He want you to know and believe His grace in this life, He also wants you to reign with Him in heaven. That is how important you are to Him, how much you matter. And the doing is all God’s. You are not His child because you were somehow more worthy than others, or deserved it because of your troubles. Just as God in His own wisdom and grace chose Elizabeth to bear John the Baptizer, and Mary to bear the Christ, so He has chosen you. He has chosen to lift you up out of your sins and share His own honor and glory with you.
Mary knew that her worth in God’s sight was totally due to His merciful disposition. In her beautiful Magnificat she sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord… for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant…. for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Lk. 1:46,48,49). The Lord kept His promise, but not in a way that everyone would have expected. He turned a poor, obscure woman into the mother of God. And He has made you, weak and poor in spirit, into a child of God. The Lord Exalts the Lowly.
As you hear His Word with humble faith, Jesus visits you with His blessings. He gives you His gifts of forgiveness and life, so that you also are filled with joy and wonder. And you are strengthened in the faith, so that whenever He does come visibly, you will be ready for His coming. Then you will live not for the celebration that will be sometime in the future, but for the celebration that is.
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