The Festival of All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Every year when we observe All Saints’ Day, we have the custom of singing one hymn in particular. The hymn is about 250 years old, and for many years you could count on singing it at funerals in Norwegian Lutheran churches. This hymn is “Behold a Host, Arrayed in White,” and we will sing it again today. The first stanza of the hymn is based on the first part of today’s Epistle lesson from Revelation 7. Here the apostle John describes what he saw in his vision of heaven:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”
I said to him, “Sir, you know.”
And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (ESV)
Now in these days of social distancing and small crowds, it seems strange to see old video footage of football stadiums and concert halls full of people. The same thought might have struck you when you heard about the “great multitude [in heaven] that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” What a glorious scene! Unlike the Tower of Babel when the peoples were divided and moved away from each other, now God’s people from all over the world and all across time are brought together.
There are no enemies in this great multitude, no cultural or language barriers, no socio-economic differences. These people are one, both regarding their status before God and their purpose in His presence. This oneness is emphasized by their common clothing. They are dressed in flowing white robes, perfectly clean. One of the elders in heaven explained to John how the robes got so uniformly white. He said, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Now that is the strangest bleach we’ve ever heard of! How could blood ever make clothing whiter? Because it is not just any blood, it is “the blood of the Lamb.” This refers to the fact that no sin stains the believers in heaven. They stand pure and holy before God because Jesus shed His blood to wash away their sins.
This is why they now sing joyfully “before the throne and before the Lamb.” They hold palm branches in their hands like the crowd that greeted Jesus on Palm Sunday. On that occasion the people cried, “Hosanna!”—“Save us, we pray!” And now the saints rejoice in the salvation won for them by crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
They sing together one song with one voice, the only song worth singing. They sing the song of their salvation through the God-Man Jesus. He is the Lamb enthroned in heaven. He has won the victory for them over sin, devil, and death. By faith in Him, these saints have now been translated from the troubles of the world to the glories of heaven. They have come out of “the great tribulation,” and now join the angels and the elders and the four living creatures in the praise and worship of their Lord.
We sing the first stanza of hymn #553, which tells us about this “host, arrayed in white,” who “in the flood of Jesus’ blood / Are cleansed from guilt and blame.”
Behold a host, arrayed in white,
Like thousand snow-clad mountains bright;
With palms they stand. Who is this band
Before the throne of light?
Lo, these are they, of glorious fame,
Who from the great affliction came
And in the flood of Jesus’ blood
Are cleansed from guilt and blame.
Now gathered in the holy place,
Their voices they in worship raise;
Their anthems swell where God doth dwell
Mid angels’ songs of praise.
We wish we could be there with the saints and angels in heaven, or at least get a temporary taste of their joy. The elder speaking to John explains what the saints have now that they are in God’s eternal presence:
“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Here the contrast between heaven and earth is described. In heaven there is no more hunger or thirst. No one is overcome by weariness or weakness. No harm is done by the sun and scorching heat. The sheep are not without a shepherd. No tears fill their eyes.
But the opposite is true on earth. On earth there is trouble, pain, sorrow. “[A]ll tribes and peoples and languages” are not united here. Here there is division—sometimes deep division—within the same community and even the same house. Instead of loving their neighbor as themselves, many decide to just love themselves. They view any challenge to the way they think as a great offense. Those who do not share their ideas are the enemy, who do not deserve to be treated with respect. We see these attitudes so clearly in our tense social environment.
And we are just as guilty of these divisions and troubles as others are. We have hated our enemies and cursed those who persecute us, when Jesus tells us to love them and pray for them (Mat. 5:44). Often our hardships on earth are self-inflicted. Because of our sin we bring trouble and pain on ourselves.
But other things happen simply because we live in a fallen world. Sometimes we get sick or injured. Eventually we will die. It may not be your own death that causes you the most anguish. It may be the death of a loved one, or even just the thought of having to live without someone you rely on for so many things.
We feel powerless in the face of death. We do not control who it strikes or when. It has always been this way since the fall into sin, but we are perhaps more aware of it this year than in years past. No matter what we do, no matter what measures we take, we cannot escape death.
But there is still hope! There is one who entered death and emerged from it again. A Lamb was snatched by the great jaws of death—easy prey, easy victory! But no! This was no ordinary Lamb. It was the Lamb of God. Jesus died in your place, so that death could not hold you in its terrible jaws. It is true that you will die, unless Jesus returns before it happens. But you will not stay dead. You will rise again. Your Savior will come and call you forth with a shout, and you will rise up to Him with glorified body clothed in the white robe of His righteousness.
That is your comfort today as you remember all who have gone on before you, whether parents or grandparents or siblings or children or friends. You will see the faithful departed again, and “God will wipe away every tear from [your] eyes.” We sing stanza two of the hymn:
Despised and scorned, they sojourned here;
But now, how glorious they appear!
Those martyrs stand, a priestly band,
God’s throne forever near.
So oft in troubled days gone by,
In anguish they would weep and sigh;
At home above the God of love
For aye their tears shall dry.
They now enjoy their Sabbath rest,
The paschal banquet of the blest;
The Lamb, their Lord, at festal board
Himself is host and guest.
God wanted John to write down what he saw in heaven so you and all believers would be comforted. He knows what trials and troubles you face here on earth. He knows how easy it is to become disheartened by the wickedness and sin you see all around you and that you also find inside yourself. He promises that these struggles are only temporary, while the bliss of heaven is forever.
In this text from Revelation, the Lord gives you a glimpse of the life to come. He shows you that you will not be alone in heaven but will be surrounded by a great multitude that cannot be numbered. That means you are not alone here on earth either because there are many around the world who confess Jesus as their Savior from sin.
While you are here, God calls you to stay close to Him by hearing His Word and partaking of His Sacraments. These are the means by which He strengthens you and keeps you steadfast in the faith. He also gives you the courage to let the light of His truth shine in your life, “so that [others] may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mat. 5:16).
You won’t carry out these callings of God perfectly. You are still a sinner. Sometimes you will only stumble along, and sometimes you will fall—hardly the picture of a holy child of God. But the blood of the Lamb was poured out for all of your sins. All of your wicked thoughts, all of your self-inflicted wounds, all your doubts—all of them are forgiven by the merciful God. You can meet death and the grave with confidence knowing that nothing stands between you and God’s grace. You are reconciled to God the Father because of the perfect life and the holy death of His only-begotten Son.
When you hear John’s account of the saints in heaven and when you sing today’s hymn, picture yourself among that great Host, Arrayed in White. Look forward with confidence and joy to the day when you will join that holy choir, holding palm branches, gathered around the throne of the holy God. You will be numbered with those saints because you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. Your place in heaven is reserved, where you will sing the song of salvation for all eternity. We join together in the third stanza of the hymn:
Then hail! ye mighty legions, yea,
All hail! now safe and blest for aye;
And praise the Lord, who with His Word
Sustained you on the way.
Ye did the joys of earth distain,
Ye toiled and sowed in tears and pain;
Farewell, now bring your sheaves and sing
Salvation’s glad refrain.
Swing high your palms, lift up your song,
Yea, make it myriad voices strong:
Eternally shall praise to Thee,
God, and the Lamb belong.
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(picture from “Seventh Seal and 144,000 Sealed” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
Good Friday – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: Revelation 5:1-10
We hear the words of the fifth chapter of the “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:1) recorded by His apostle John. We will consider this reading in three different sections, beginning with the first four verses:
Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. (ESV)
Here John describes his vision of heaven. He saw God the Father holding a scroll in His right hand. “Sealed with seven seals” tells us the scroll was perfectly sealed. It could only be opened by one who was worthy. But “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth” was qualified—not the saints, not the mighty angels, not the four living creatures, not the elders.
This reminds us how far we fall short of the holiness of God. We might think we are pretty impressive compared with the people around us. Maybe we are more kind, we behave better, we are more generous, and so on. But God does not command us to be better than other people, or even that we try our best. He demands perfection. Unless we are perfect, we have no business pointing out how good we are, and we certainly can’t get ourselves into heaven. If the perfect saints and angels were not worthy to open the Father’s scroll, think how unworthy that makes us sinners! Clearly we need a Savior. We hear the next two verses:
And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. (ESV)
Now the Savior makes His entrance. He is described in three different ways which don’t really seem to connect: as a Lion, a Root, and a Lamb. Each title is a reference to Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. He was a King from the line of Judah through David (Gen. 49:9-10; Isa. 11:1,10). And He was a Lamb sacrificed for the sins of all people (Isa. 53:4-7).
John saw Him manifested as a Lamb, “as though it had been slain.” The “seven horns,” “seven eyes,” and “seven spirits” indicate that He is all-powerful and all-knowing. But how is it possible that One with such power could be slain? It must be that the Lamb let it happen, that He offered Himself for this purpose.
That is why we celebrate Good Friday today. This is the day that the Lamb of God was slain for the sins of the world. Jesus was that Lamb, and He willingly went to the cross for you. Isaiah described it so beautifully: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isa. 53:6-7).
No one tricked Jesus into this. No one overpowered Him. No one forced Him to die. He went in obedience to His Father and out of love for you. “For this reason the Father loves me,” said Jesus, “because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (Joh. 10:17-18). Jesus offered Himself in your place and now He bears the marks of the nails and spear as the signs of His love for you. We hear the next four verses:
And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (ESV)
When Jesus took the scroll from the right hand of His Father in heaven, this showed the Father’s acceptance of His sacrifice. Jesus’ work to save sinners was complete. Through His suffering and death, the wages of your sin was paid in full. God’s righteous anger was satisfied. Then the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders bowed down before the Lamb and sang “a new song.” They sang of the Lamb’s worthiness, His sacrifice, and the shedding of His precious blood. “[B]y your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
Jesus shed His blood for everyone. He shows no partiality. You and I are not saved because we are any better than others. We are saved totally by the grace of God. Jesus’ death won our forgiveness, and that forgiveness is imparted to us again and again through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.
Jesus wants you to know that you are at peace with God because of His sacrifice. He wants you to find comfort in His wounds which were opened up for you. And He wants you to know that you are a royal priest before God. You may be despised and scorned by the world, but your prayers and thanksgiving are welcome at the throne of heaven. There Jesus stands on your behalf, His wounds perpetually reminding the Father of your redemption and salvation. Thanks be to God! Amen.
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(picture from “The Hymn of Adoration to the Lamb” by Albrecht Durer, 1498)
Maundy Thursday – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: 1 Corinthians 11:23-32
In Christ Jesus, who freely gives Himself to us as food and drink, dear fellow redeemed:
We know the account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper very well. In fact we review its details every time we partake of the Sacrament: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread” and so on. But it is easy to forget about the context of this Supper. Jesus instituted this Holy Meal while He and His disciples enjoyed another holy meal: the Passover. It was no accident that these two meals should be joined together.
The Passover meal was a reminder of the LORD’s deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt. At that first Passover, each household slaughtered a blemish-free male lamb, consumed its flesh roasted over the fire, and painted its blood on the doorposts of the house. When the Angel of the LORD saw the blood of the lamb, He passed over that house, and everyone inside was saved from death.
God told His people to celebrate this Passover deliverance annually, so they would remember what He had done for them. This is why Jesus now reclined with His disciples in the upper room enjoying the Passover meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and wine. It was a meal for looking back, for thanking the LORD for His mercy upon His people. The disciples could not have guessed that Jesus was about to institute something new out of the Passover meal, something for the present and for the future.
He took some unleavened bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to the disciples saying, “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you.” How unexpected! How strange! Jesus told them to eat His body, and He said it is given in the bread! Then Jesus took the cup of wine, gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, “Drink of it all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.” His blood in the cup! How can this be? As hard as it was to understand, Jesus’ words were clear. He was instituting a special Supper in which His body was the food and His blood was the drink.
But there are many who do not believe these words of Jesus. They do not believe He gives His own body and blood in the Supper for us to consume. And until they are led by the Holy Spirit to believe His Word, this Supper is not for them. St. Paul writes by inspiration that whoever “eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord…. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
This would be something like an Israelite at the first Passover saying that he is glad to eat the roasted lamb, but he isn’t about to paint his doorposts with blood. Death would have come to that house because the person did not believe God’s Word. In the same way, Paul writes that those who deny what Jesus says He gives in His Supper sin against Him, and they eat and drink judgment on themselves.
So how can we be certain that we will receive His Supper properly? First of all, we take Jesus at His Word. This is a matter of faith. We can’t see any change take place when the Words of Jesus are spoken over the bread and wine. There is no scientific proof that His body and blood are present. But Jesus says they are, and He does not lie.
Second, we eat and drink His body and blood “in remembrance of” Him. This means to remember all that Jesus did to save us, how He perfectly kept the Law for us, how He died in payment of all our sins, and how He rose again on the third day. We don’t go to the Lord’s Supper thinking of all the good things we have done for God or for others. We go with humble hearts, trusting in Jesus alone as our Savior.
This brings us to the third part of our preparation to receive the Supper. Paul writes that a person must “examine himself” before this eating and drinking. The Lord’s Supper is no ordinary meal. Jesus is present, and He knows our hearts. We come repenting of the sins He already knows about, and we ask Him to strengthen us and help us to change our sinful ways and do better. When we prepare for the Lord’s Supper in this way—trusting what Jesus says, remembering what He did to save us, and repenting of our sins—we can be sure we will receive His body and blood with blessing.
The Passover was a meal for looking back, and there was no spiritual benefit gained from eating the lamb and unleavened bread and drinking the wine. But now in the Lord’s Supper, we eat Jesus’ body with the bread and drink His blood with the wine “for the remission of sins.” The first Passover saved the Israelites from slavery to the Egyptians and from temporal death. The Lord’s Supper saves us from even more—our slavery to sin and eternal death.
Jesus instituted the new Supper of His body and blood at the Passover meal to show that He is the fulfillment of the Passover. The Passover lamb pointed to Him. His holy body given in His Supper is nourishment and strength for our journey, and His holy blood cleanses us from all our sins (1Jo. 1:7). Jesus is the Lamb of God, who gladly gives His body and blood for our eternal good. Thanks be to God! Amen.
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(painting of the Last Supper by Simon Ushakov, 1685)
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 Fifth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
In Christ Jesus, who offered Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, and who still intercedes for us before His Father in heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
You have probably talked with people who pin their troubles and failures in life on one thing. They just can’t get past that one thing or let it go. Maybe it is regret that they turned right instead of left when the road ahead branched in two directions. Maybe they are filled with bitterness toward someone who wronged them many years ago. Maybe they think that if they had just stayed with that special individual or pursued that job opportunity, their life would have been much happier and more prosperous.
I suppose the same thoughts have crossed our minds. We think how it would be now if we could just go back and change one thing. The movie It’s a Wonderful Life plays off that idea. The main character gets the chance to see how things would have been different if he had followed his original plan and not stayed in his hometown. He realizes in the end that he didn’t have it so bad after all. But we don’t have that benefit. We can’t see how our lives would be without those decisions and experiences. So it is easy to dwell on the past, to live with regret, to carry the burdens of bad choices and sinful actions. What we wouldn’t give for a clear conscience!
Well, what would you give? What would you give if you could wipe away the bad memories and the bad decisions? If the stain on your past is bad enough, maybe you would give anything to remove it. You would go broke if it would undo the wrong. You might even endure intense physical pain if it could deliver you a clear conscience.
You don’t know what a blessing a clear conscience is until your conscience is troubled. It’s like how we are currently wishing we could go about our normal business with no threat of a fast-spreading virus. We wish we could visit family members and friends. We wish we could go back to church! The things we easily took for granted before are much more valuable to us now. That’s how it is with the conscience. You don’t think much about it until it accuses you, weighs down on you like a heavy burden.
But that doesn’t make the conscience bad. It is very important to have a functioning conscience. In fact, our eternal fate depends on it. The conscience functions properly as long as it is guided by God’s law. So when a person feels guilt for doing harm to his neighbor through actions or words, his conscience is working properly. The conscience is doing what God intends when any breaking of the Commandments in our thoughts, words, or deeds registers in our mind and heart. We want our conscience to do this, but it is hardly pleasant.
In Psalms 31 and 32, David described the heavy burden of a guilty conscience: “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away” (31:9-10). “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (32:3-4). It is no fun to have a guilty conscience. The pressure it applies is intense. But the conscience can be unburdened. And you and I can move beyond the regrets of the past.
The author of the Book of Hebrews explains how. He describes the Old Testament sacrifices which were offered by a priest on behalf of the people. At God’s command, the priest purified all things—including himself—with animal blood, with the blood of goats and lambs and calves and bulls. But no amount of sacrifices could cleanse the people from all their sin. How could the offering of earthly things for sin prevail before the God of heaven?
This is why God sent a Lamb from heaven to earth. He sent His eternally-begotten Son, true God with Him and the Holy Spirit. He sent Him to be at the same time a perfect High Priest and a perfect Sacrifice. As High Priest, Jesus “entered… into the holy places.” The temple with the Holy Place and Most Holy Place was still standing at that time, but Jesus did not enter those places. He entered the holy places of heaven “by means of his own blood.”
Jesus was a Lamb “without blemish.” He had perfectly followed His Father’s will. He had nothing to be ashamed of, no past transgressions that caused Him regret. Even while He was wrongly accused, beaten, and sent to the cross, He maintained a pure conscience. He let these unjust things happen to Him out of love for us. The cross was the altar on which He was sacrificed for our sin. That is where the holy Lamb of God was pierced and blood flowed from His wounds.
The author of Hebrews tells us that by His death, Jesus redeemed us from our transgressions committed under God’s law. His death means that all our sins which bother our conscience and make us feel guilty—even wrongs committed long ago—are completely atoned for. His blood has made full satisfaction for all our sins.
But hearing those words may not immediately unburden your conscience, especially if you have been carrying a load of guilt for a long time. You know that God does not look at those sins anymore, but you do. You can’t clear out the memory of the wrong, the hurt that was caused, the damage that was done. Can you ever hope to have a clear conscience again?
Let’s go back to today’s text. It says that God’s Son took on flesh, so that He could offer Himself in our place. It says that “by means of His own blood,” He secured “an eternal redemption.” With His saving work complete, He returned to “the holy places” of heaven. There He sits at the right hand of His Father as “the mediator of a new covenant.”
A mediator is a go-between, an arbitrator. This person equally represents two sides which are divided. Our sin separated us from God, but Jesus our Mediator brought us back together. He is the perfect Mediator because He is both God and Man. As the inspired letter to Timothy states: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1Ti. 2:5-6).
Jesus continues to function as our Mediator even now. When we sin, He points His Father to the blood He shed on our behalf. “I poured out My blood for that sin, and that sin, and that sin,” He says. “My blood cleanses them from all sin” (1Jo. 1:7). That includes the sins of your past, the ones you still feel guilty about, the ones you would give anything to undo.
There is nothing you can do to make up for those sins. So many people try. They try to bury sin deep. But it always seems to find its way back to the surface. They try to cancel out the bad by doing good. But there is no winning that game, and they know it. Some even hurt themselves or withdraw from others in the hope that by punishing themselves, they can right a wrong. But none of those things work. They all fail.
There is only one path to a clear conscience, and that is Christ. He took your place. He claimed your sin as His own. He offered Himself as the target for your iniquities and misdeeds. He let His Father pour out His righteous wrath against Him. He paid in anguish, suffering, and death for every sin that you and I and the whole world have done.
He shed His blood on the cross to “purify our conscience.” When He died, we are told that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Mat. 27:51, Mar. 15:38, Luk. 23:45). This was the curtain separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. The tearing of this curtain showed that all people now had access to God’s throne of grace through Jesus’ blood. This includes you. You have access to God’s never-changing grace by faith in Jesus. He purifies your conscience from “dead works,” from all those attempts to make things right on your own. Only He can grant forgiveness and peace, and that is what He wants you to have.
Your Baptism is a clear testimony of this. Your Baptism was “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1Pe. 3:21). Baptism delivered you a cleansed and purified conscience because it joined you to Jesus, whose righteousness is perfect (Heb. 10:22). And in the Lord’s Supper, He continues to bring cleansing for the sins you have committed and repented of, by giving you His body and blood to eat and drink.
So What Would You Give for a Clear Conscience? You don’t need to give anything. Jesus gave Himself for you. His holy blood cleanses you—including your troubled conscience—from all sin. In Jesus, and only in Him, you have a bright future. The road behind you may be covered in darkness and regrets and what-ifs. But the road ahead is illuminated by the light of God’s Word. Jesus leads you forward on this path toward your life’s end. Then He will take you into heaven. There you will not remember your record of sin, and you will live with a pure heart and a clear conscience for all eternity.
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 is from the altarpiece in Weimar by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1555)
Midweek Lent – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: Isaiah 53:4-7
In Christ Jesus, the spotless, the lowly, the innocent, dear fellow redeemed:
Why did Jesus have to suffer? And what was that suffering like? We wouldn’t expect to find the answer to these questions in one of the Old Testament books. But that is what we have in Isaiah chapter 53. Isaiah’s prophecy was written more than 700 years before the events they describe. He clearly gives the reasons for and the details of Jesus’ suffering. He does this by means of a picture.
He speaks about a flock of sheep which gave its shepherd all sorts of fits! Maybe one sheep stayed away when the shepherd called. Another disregarded the pleading of its mother or father. Another put its life in danger through recklessness or wandering. Another cared only about satisfying its sexual urges. Another loved to eat the neighbor’s produce. Another was always blaming others for his wrongs. Every lamb in the flock went its own way, thought about its own plans, followed its own selfish instinct.
All except for one. One lamb stayed right by the shepherd’s side. He was perfectly attuned to the shepherd’s will and word. And the shepherd loved this lamb. The other sheep did not care about the shepherd unless they were in trouble. Then they would bleat and cry out and wonder what was taking him so long. In those times, they wished for a better shepherd, one who would give them everything they wanted exactly when they wanted it.
But that one loyal lamb did not join them when they did those things. They despised him for this. “He thinks he’s so special,” they thought. “Shepherd’s little pet!” “Why doesn’t he lighten up? Have some fun?” And truth be told, they wished that harm would come to him. If only he could be gotten away from the shepherd….
Then one day, they decided to do whatever mischief they could at the neighbor’s farm. They destroyed his crops, polluted his well, chewed on some wires and burned down his barn. Everything was ruined by those wicked sheep. What payment could the shepherd give? What could make up for all the good things that were destroyed? What should be done with those sheep?
The shepherd looked to the lamb at his side and said, “You are my most precious possession. I can offer no richer payment than you, and nothing less will suffice. I must give your life for theirs.” But that wouldn’t be right! Why should the good lamb suffer for the straying sheep? Those sheep are the ones who should pay! Except what would they give? They had no good to give. It had to be the lamb.
The hymnwriter Paul Gerhardt took up this theme in a hymn we have been singing this Lent. The first verse takes us right to the moment that the good lamb is sent for punishment.
A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth,
The guilt of all men bearing;
And laden with the sins of earth,
None else the burden sharing!
Goes patient on, grows weak and faint,
To slaughter led without complaint,
That spotless life to offer;
Bears shame and stripes, and wounds and death,
Anguish and mockery, and saith,
“Willing all this I suffer.”
But why would He be willing to suffer for “the sins of earth”? What would cause Him to do this? The hymn continues:
This Lamb is Christ, the soul’s great Friend,
The Lamb of God, our Savior;
Him God the Father chose to send
To gain for us His favor.
“Go forth, My Son,” the Father saith,
“And free men from the fear of death,
From guilt and condemnation.
The wrath and stripes are hard to bear,
But by Thy Passion men shall share
The fruit of Thy salvation.”
“Yea, Father, yea, most willingly
I’ll bear what Thou commandest;
My will conforms to Thy decree,
I do what Thou demandest.”
O wondrous Love, what hast Thou done!
The Father offers up His Son;
The Son, content, descendeth!
O Love, how strong Thou art to save!
Thou layest Him within the grave
Whose might the boulders rendeth.
(Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary #331, vv. 1-3)
This is what Jesus did for you. He gave Himself over to suffering and death, so you would not be punished for the wayward and wicked things you have done. He offered Himself in your place, as your Substitute. He went to the cross bearing your griefs and carrying your sorrows. He went there to be wounded for your transgressions, to be crushed for your iniquities. He was chastised so you would have peace, flogged so you would be healed.
Every instance of your disobedience toward God, every time that you went your own way instead of His—all those iniquities were placed on the Lamb of God. God the Father laid your sins on His only Son, His beloved Son, with whom He was well pleased (Mat. 3:17, 17:5). And Jesus took it all willingly. He obeyed the will of His Father. He freely let Himself be sent to slaughter bearing the sins of the world. He did not defend Himself. He did not try to run away.
The apostle Peter describes His unthinkable sacrifice: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1Pe. 2:22-23). What caused Jesus to do all this? What did He expect to accomplish? Peter continues: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (vv. 24-25).
Jesus gave Himself for you, so you would be reunited and reconciled with God. He let Himself be slaughtered and roasted in the fires of hell, so you would not be. The LORD is not angry with you for the sins that you and all the rest of us wicked sheep have done. He forgives you and me all our sins, every single one.
So what shall we do? Run back to the sins that have done so much damage to ourselves and others? No. We pray for God’s grace to serve Him more and better until the end of our days:
Lord, all my life I’ll cling to Thee,
Thy love fore’er beholding,
Thee ever, as Thou ever me,
With loving arms enfolding.
Yea, Thou shalt be my precious Light
To guide me safe through death’s dark night,
My heart in sorrow cheering;
Henceforth myself and all I have
To Thee, my Savior, e’er I’ll give,
Into Thy cause all pouring. (v. 5) Amen.
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(picture from “Flagellation of Christ” by Peter Paul Rubens, 1577-1640)
Midweek Lent – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: Exodus 29:38-46
In Christ Jesus, who “loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2), dear fellow redeemed:
Besides the annual Passover celebration that God commanded His people to observe, He also instituted the practice of daily sacrifices in the tabernacle. This happened after the Israelites had been led out of slavery in Egypt and set up camp near Mt. Sinai. God gave Moses instructions for building a portable tabernacle where He would be present to bless the people. He also called Moses’ brother Aaron to serve as a priest along with his sons.
The first part of Exodus chapter 29 describes the consecration of these priests. It was not just a matter of Moses asking them to repeat certain words after him followed by a handshake. The consecration process was quite elaborate. Aaron and his sons had to be washed with water and clothed in clean vestments. Then a bull was brought, they laid their hands on its head, and it was slaughtered for a sin offering. Next they laid their hands on the head of a ram. It was slaughtered, its blood was thrown against the sides of the altar, and the parts of the ram were placed on the altar for a burnt offering.
Then they laid their hands on the head of another ram, which was also slaughtered. Its blood was put “on the tip of the right ear of Aaron and on the tips of the right ears of his sons, and on the thumbs of their right hands and on the great toes of their right feet” (v. 20). This blood covered them from head to toe, so that they were ready to hear the Word of God (ear), handle the holy things of God (hands), and walk on the holy ground before God (toes). The rest of the blood was thrown on the altar and sprinkled on the garments of the priests.
There were even more requirements besides these. But this much shows the prominent place of blood in cleansing sinful men. Aaron and his sons could not come before God by their own personal preparations. They had no resources to make themselves holy. It was the LORD who set them apart for His holy work, and He used animal blood to do it. Why animal blood? He later explained through Moses that “the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life” (Lev. 17:14). The un-holiness of mankind required the shedding of blood. The life of one could only be redeemed through the death of another.
Once Aaron and his sons had been consecrated for the LORD’s work, they were commanded to offer two lambs as sacrifices each day. This is described in today’s text. Each lamb was a year old. One was offered in the morning and the other at twilight. Like waking up to the smell of a fresh-cooked breakfast or coming home to a dinner hot out of the oven, these sacrifices were “a pleasing aroma” to the LORD.
The word “pleasing” in Hebrew can also be translated as “soothing” or even “tranquilizing.” It is the word used to describe Noah’s burnt offering after the flood waters had receded and the ark had settled on dry ground. The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma of the sacrifice and said, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Gen. 8:21-22). The offerings of a lamb in the morning and a lamb in the evening had the same effect. It was a soothing aroma to God. It was evidence that His people were humbly keeping His Word.
We are taught to practice something similar as we return to our Baptism each day by repentance and faith. In teaching about the meaning of Baptism, Martin Luther writes: “Such baptizing with water means that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts; and that a new man daily come forth and arise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Small Catechism).
One way to remind yourself of this daily return to Baptism is to confess your sins and give thanks for forgiveness as you wash your face or take a shower at the beginning of the day. The same goes for the end of the day as you put on fresh clothes and wash before bed. The hymnwriter Paul Gerhardt wrote about this practice in one of his evening hymns: “To rest my body hasteth, / Aside its garments casteth, / Types of mortality; / These I put off and ponder / How Christ shall give me yonder / A robe of glorious majesty” (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary #569, v. 4).
The LORD is pleased with our daily practice of repenting and clinging to His promises, just as He was pleased with those twice a day sacrifices. As long as the people continued in His Word, He promised to be present in the tabernacle and to “dwell among the people of Israel” and “be their God.” He came to share His holiness with them and bless them.
This same merciful God still draws near to bless us. He does not come to only one location like the tabernacle or temple in Old Testament times. He comes to every place where His holy Word is heard or read or even meditated upon in the heart or mind. Through His Word, He applies the cleansing blood of Jesus to our whole person from head to toe—our sinful mind, heart, hands, and feet. Our un-holiness required the shedding of Jesus’ holy blood. Our lives could be redeemed only through the loss of His. He took all our sins on Himself and suffered our death, and in exchange He gives us His holiness and eternal life.
By His presence through the Word, the LORD strengthens our faith to endure through good and bad times. Like the people of Israel journeying through the wilderness, we often feel vulnerable and afraid. We wonder what the future will hold for us, especially in times like these. But God does not abandon His people. He dwells among us, protects us, and comforts us through His powerful Word. He is the LORD our God, “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exo. 34:6). Thanks be to Him! Amen.
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(picture is “The Sacrificial Lamb” by Josefa de Ayala, 1630-1684)
Midweek Lent – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: Exodus 12:1-13
In Christ Jesus, whose holy blood delivers us from our slavery to sin and saves us from eternal death, dear fellow redeemed:
Last Wednesday we heard about God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son of promise, Isaac. But just before Abraham did this, God provided a ram for an offering instead. All of this was a picture of what God would do through His only Son. His Son would be offered as the sacrificial Lamb in each sinner’s place. Today we have another picture of God’s plan of salvation.
The Israelites, descendants of Abraham and Isaac, had become slaves in Egypt. God sent Moses to lead them to freedom, but Pharaoh refused to listen to the LORD’s word. Nine terrible plagues followed, but Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. He would not let the Israelites go. Then God sent a tenth and final plague: all the firstborn sons of man and beast would be killed unless a home had blood on its doorposts.
Up to this time, the Egyptians had experienced water turning to blood, infestations of frogs, gnats, and flies, the death of the livestock, painful boils, destructive hail, locusts that ate whatever crops remained, and total darkness over the land for three days. And now they saw the Israelites painting their doorposts with blood. That was not a good sign for the Egyptians.
The blood on the doorposts was not just a matter of the Israelites declaring whose side they were on, like we will do by hanging the flag of a favorite team on our porch. The blood was a signal for the LORD to destroy or to save. It was the difference between death or life for the firstborn sons in that home.
Red paint or dye was not acceptable. Blood was required, the blood of a lamb. The lamb had to be “without blemish, a male a year old.” When the Israelites prepared these lambs, one per household, they were to prepare them like a shepherd might, roasted whole over a fire. They were told not to break any of its bones. The flesh of the lamb was to be eaten, and anything left over had to be burned.
The Israelites did what God commanded. They prepared the lamb exactly in this way. They painted their doorposts with its blood. And the LORD “passed over” their homes. He did not destroy any of their inhabitants. The Israelites were saved by the blood of the lamb. But death came to the Egyptians. “[T]here was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead” (Exo. 12:30). Now Pharaoh gave the order to release the Israelites. In the same night they had been delivered both from death and from slavery!
God told the Israelites to commemorate their Passover deliverance every year with a Passover meal. They were not required to paint blood on the doorposts each time, but they did eat the meat of a blemish-free lamb roasted over the fire. This was an annual reminder of what God had done for them through a lamb, one of the gentlest and meekest animals in creation. And it was an annual picture of what God would do for them through His own Son, who came down to us in all meekness and humility.
Like each Passover lamb, Jesus was without blemish. He had no sin; He was holy. At no time did He give in to the devil’s temptations. He remained perfectly pure in His actions, words, and thoughts. We, on the other hand, are all with blemish. We have been arrogant and proud like Pharaoh and impatient and doubtful like the Israelites. We, along with all people in history, have sinned. And God is just. There must be punishment for sin. But He does not punish us as we deserve. He punished Jesus in our place.
Our salvation required that Jesus be sacrificed for us. The shedding of His blood was necessary to save us from slavery to sin and death. The apostle Peter explained that “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1Pe. 1:18-19). No amount of money could free you from your spiritual slavery and no amount of good things that you try to do. The ransom price for your soul and the souls of all sinners was the blood of God’s only Son. That was not just any blood; it was holy blood, the blood of God. That’s why it could blot out all your sins.
This blood of God is available to you still for the continuous washing away of your sins. Just as the Israelites continued to observe the Passover in remembrance of what God had done for them, so we continue to eat the holy Lamb’s body and drink His blood in the Supper He instituted for us. “Take, eat,” He says; “this is My body, which is given for you…. Drink of it all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood. This do… in remembrance of Me.”
When you eat His body and drink His blood with faith in His words, you have exactly what Jesus promises: “the remission of sins.” That means God does not count your sins against you anymore. He counted them against Christ, who paid the ransom price in full. Martin Luther wrote about this in a hymn verse that we will sing at Easter:
Here the true Paschal Lamb we see,
Whom God so freely gave us;
He died on the accursed tree—
So strong His love—to save us.
See, His blood doth mark our door;
Faith points to it, death passes o’er,
And Satan cannot harm us. (ELH 343, v. 5)
Satan cannot harm you any more than Pharaoh could harm the Israelites. He cannot keep you enslaved to sin and death, because Jesus has set you free. Jesus’ blood cleanses you of all your blemishes of sin before God, so that you might “be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness” (Explanation to the Second Article). Thanks be to God! Amen.
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(picture from “The art Bible, comprising the Old and New Testaments: with numerous illustrations,” 1896)
Midweek Lent – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: Genesis 22:1-14
In Christ Jesus, the fulfillment of the LORD’s covenant with Abraham, dear fellow redeemed:
When Abraham was seventy-five years old, the LORD promised him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great” (Gen. 12:2). But Abraham and his wife Sarah had no children. More time passed, and the LORD said again, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them…. So shall your offspring be” (15:5). Still more time passed. Now Abraham was ninety-nine years old, and his wife Sarah was eighty-nine. Who ever heard of a couple this old conceiving a child? But the LORD kept His promise. They did conceive a child, and a healthy baby boy named Isaac was born.
Imagine how they doted on their son! Not only did they have to wait twenty-five years for God to keep His promise, not only was Isaac born to them in their old age, but he was also the beginning of a great nation. The LORD had promised Abraham, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (17:6-7).
But after some time when Isaac had grown and was perhaps in his teens, God told Abraham to take his son “to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Along with this command, the LORD’s description of his son almost seemed cruel, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love… and offer him.” These were shocking and troubling words. We can only imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind: “Sacrifice my son, the son of the promise? But You said nations and kings would come from me! You said Your covenant between You and me and my offspring was an everlasting covenant! Take my life, O Lord, but not my son!”
But Abraham obeyed. He set off with Isaac and two servants, and they came in sight of Moriah on the third day. He told the servants to wait there while he and his son went to worship. Then he said they would come back again. Did Abraham lie to his servants? It seems like it. How could he and Isaac return if Isaac was to be killed? But in fact Abraham did not lie. The author of the book of Hebrews fills us in on what Abraham believed: “He considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead” (11:19). Abraham fully intended to kill his son, and he fully expected the LORD to raise him back to life. How else could God keep His earlier promises?
So Abraham and Isaac continued on to the place of sacrifice. Abraham had Isaac carry the wood, while he took the fire and the knife. Isaac noticed that something was missing: “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” And God did provide the lamb. Just when Abraham was ready to kill his son, “the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven” and stopped him. “[N]ow I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham showed that he loved the LORD more than his only son. The LORD’s promise was primary; nothing was more important than the Word of the living God.
The LORD provided a lamb that day, a ram whose horns were caught in a nearby thicket. Abraham offered this ram as a sacrifice to God, and he and Isaac returned to the servants and went home. But this episode was far more than a trip to a lonely place, a test of faith, and an offering to God. This episode was all about the Messiah.
The LORD’s description of Abraham’s son was not cruelty, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love.” It was a description that God the Father could apply to His own Son. The Messiah is the only-begotten Son of the Father, begotten of His Father from eternity. And He was a perfect Son, without fault, without sin. This did not change with His incarnation. When He was baptized and when He was transfigured on the mountain, the Father said about Him, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mat. 3:17, 17:5). The Father loved His Son.
But He also loved the world, a world that had rebelled against Him and deserved nothing from Him but eternal punishment. And this is how He showed His love: He sent His only-begotten Son to save sinners. His perfect Son would be sacrificed in their place. His perfect Son would absorb His holy wrath for sin, so they would be freed from condemnation and death.
So God’s Son set out for Moriah. That hill where Abraham built an altar was the very place where Jerusalem would later be established and God’s holy temple would stand. Like Isaac, Jesus came to this place as the sacrificial lamb. Like Isaac, He carried the wood on which He would be sacrificed. Like Isaac, He trusted His Father even as sharp instruments were readied to harm Him.
But nobody stepped in when thorns and nails pierced the flesh of Jesus. Nobody stepped in when His Father in heaven punished Him in the place of all sinners. Nobody stepped in when the eternal fires of hell tormented Him. Isaac did not have to die. But Jesus did.
Jesus had to die for you. That was the only way to redeem you, a lost and condemned creature. It was the only way to purchase and win you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. A holy sacrifice was required for your salvation, and God provided it. Abraham was right, “God will provide the lamb.” The Lamb that God provided was His only Son.
Abraham never forgot the ram God gave him to sacrifice instead of his son Isaac. And God did not forget His promise. He did make a great nation from Abraham. From his offspring all the nations of the earth were blessed (Gen. 22:18). That includes you. From the line of Abraham and Isaac came the world’s Savior, the one who took your sins to Himself and blotted them out by the shedding of His blood. Thanks be to God! Amen.
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(painting by Orazio Riminaldi, 1625)
Midweek Lent – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: Genesis 4:1-12
In Christ Jesus, who shed His blood in death so we guilty ones might be redeemed and live, dear fellow redeemed:
The idea of sacrifice was built into creation by God from the very beginning. After He had made the first man, He told him he could eat of every tree of the Garden of Eden except for one. He must not eat fruit from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17). This was a sacrifice by which the man and his wife would prove their love and devotion to God. But they decided to disobey God. They did not want to make this sacrifice anymore, and they ate from the tree God had forbidden.
Their sin against God had consequences not just for them, but for all of creation. Because of their sin, now there would be death. To remind them of this death, God clothed the man and woman in animal skins (Gen. 3:21). Their sin had utterly changed their relationship to God, and it also changed their relationship to animals. Animals had been sacrificed for their clothing, and animals would now also be employed as sacrifices offered to God.
We learn this in today’s reading from Genesis 4. Like his father Adam, first-born son Cain worked in the field planting and harvesting crops. But second-born son Abel kept the sheep. As far as we know, God did not sanction the eating of meat until later, after the flood (Gen. 9:3). While the sheep may have been kept for their wool, we know they were used as sacrifices for Adam and Eve’s family. Our text says that “Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions.”
But God did not receive their offerings in the same way. He “had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” Why did the LORD look upon their offerings so differently? It wasn’t because of the type or the quality of the products offered. The author of Hebrews says that the difference was faith. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts” (11:4).
So Abel offered his sacrifice with fear, love, and trust in God. But Cain offered his sacrifice as a matter of show, as an obligation and nothing more. Why did Cain think the LORD would be satisfied with this faithless offering? Martin Luther suggests that Cain was consumed with self-importance. He was the first child ever born into the world, and hadn’t God said that the woman’s offspring would crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15)? Cain was destined for great things, and his parents may have even told him so. But there was nothing special about Abel. Abel was the second-born, second place. He was sent to work with the sheep while Adam and Cain presumably worked in the field side-by-side.
So when God accepted Abel’s offering and not Cain’s, “Cain was very angry, and his face fell.” The LORD called him to repent, and He warned him saying, “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” The LORD told him not to open the door to jealous anger and hatred. That’s where sin was crouching, lying in wait to overcome him. This reminds us of the Apostle Peter’s words about how the devil works, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1Pe. 5:8). The devil tempts us to sin against one another, to think highly of ourselves and to look down at others.
Each of us here has opened the door to sin like Cain did. We have felt intense anger and hatred toward those around us, sometimes even the members of our own family. We have justified this anger by dwelling on the wrongs that have been done. We convince ourselves that because of a person’s sin against us or against others, they do not deserve our mercy or our love. They deserve to suffer. They deserve punishment. At the same time, we consider ourselves righteous. We would never do the things they do.
But in our anger and hatred toward someone because of their sin, we also sin. 1 John 3:15 says, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” Even our hateful thoughts violate the Fifth Commandment. And if we do not “rule over” these thoughts as God urged Cain to do, the devil will use them to tempt us toward sins of word and action. That is what happened to Cain. He did not repent of his sin. He did not close the door to temptation. He let his anger lead to violence toward his brother, and he killed him.
God approved of the sacrifice of animals for offerings to Him. But He did not approve of the murder of men. Abel did not have to die. He was an innocent victim. Cain was the lawbreaker. He let sin rule over him, and in unbelief he rejected the LORD’s command and promise. “What have you done?” said the LORD. “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground…. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”
We sin in many of the same ways that Cain did. Like Cain we have also gone through the motions of righteousness toward God. We have offered prayers without thinking about them and expected God to be gracious even when we had no sincere intention to repent and amend our sinful ways. We justified our anger and unkindness toward others while avoiding any personal responsibility.
But the LORD has mercifully kept us from being overcome by sin and losing our faith. He has brought us back here today to repent of our sins and receive His forgiveness. Through His holy Word, He points us to Jesus, whose righteousness covers us like the garments God made for Adam and Eve, and who saved us by His innocent suffering and death. Because Jesus shed His precious blood for us, we are forgiven and cleansed of all our sins. He was the sacrifice required for our salvation, the sacrifice which Abel looked for in faith, and by which he was delivered from death to life just as we will be.
So once again today we humbly offer our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving for God’s great love for us, and we fix our eyes on Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who gave Himself for us. “Abel’s blood for vengeance / Pleaded to the skies; / But the blood of Jesus / For our pardon cries” (ELH 283, v. 4). Thanks be to God! Amen.
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(picture from “Cain Slaying Abel” by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1600)