The First Sunday after Christmas – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 4:1-7
In Christ Jesus, who came at Christmas to set us free from our sin and the condemnation of the law, dear fellow redeemed:
Adoption should be as simple as connecting a parentless child with childless parents. This child needs a home, and this home wants a child. But there are complicating factors. One of them is cost; the process of adoption can be very expensive. Another is location; the children who need homes may not be close to the people who want to adopt. Another factor is the health of a child or whether he or she has special needs. Another is the child’s age; the older the child, the less likely he or she is to be adopted.
Imagine the child in the orphanage who sees kids come and go, while he stays put. The orphans and caretakers are the only family he knows. He plays with the kids his age. They develop unique methods of communication like siblings or close friends do. The older orphans tease him. The younger ones look up to him as a big brother. But this orphan family is temporary. Smiling people arrive to adopt his friends but not him. He hates to see his friends leave. Where are they all going? Will he ever see them again? Will there ever be a home for him?
Gentle caretakers find ways to comfort overlooked children or at least distract them from the nagging questions. These caretakers represent the only love from an adult that the orphan has ever known. But there are harsh caretakers too, ones who do not love the children in their care. These tell the orphans left behind that nobody wants them because they aren’t nice enough or attractive enough or smart enough. “You can just stop dreaming right now,” they say. “You’re never getting out of here.”
The Apostle Paul writes about a scenario like this in his letter to the Christian congregation in Galatia. He stopped in Galatia during his missionary journeys because of some sort of “bodily ailment” (Gal. 4:13). While there he preached the Gospel, and many heard the Word gladly and believed. But after Paul left, other teachers came. They did not proclaim the comfort of the Gospel but urged the people to abide by all the rules and regulations of Old Testament law if they wanted to be saved.
Paul summed up the issue clearly in his letter. He said: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain” (Gal. 4:8-11).
So the Galatian Christians had gone back to “the elementary principles.” They had gone back to the law. They had gone back to all the regulations of the Old Testament that governed how they were to live. Instead of focusing on what God had done for them, they were focusing on what they must do for God. That focus can only lead to pridefulness and then despair. Paul explained that this is like the child who stands to inherit everything but has nothing until the appointed time. Until he inherits, he “is no different than a slave.” We are slaves like that, he says, when we go back to “the elementary principles” of the law and ignore the Gospel.
There is no comfort in God’s law. The law does not encourage us. It does not lift us up. The holy law is like the harsh caretaker in the orphanage. It tells us we are not good enough to please God. It points out the wrongs we have done. It shows us why God would never let us into His home as we are by nature. We are failures. We are ugly. We are undesirable. The law gives us no reason to hope we will ever escape God’s wrath. “Is that what you want?” asks Paul. “Will you set aside the Gospel and run back to the law?”
The law serves its purpose. It condemns us. It exposes the selfishness, weakness, and arrogance of sinners. How could we ever think that we had lived the life God demands? This was like the young man who asked Jesus what more he had to do to have eternal life. He claimed that he had kept all the Commandments. So Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mat. 19:21). That was too much for the young man. He wasn’t willing to part with his “great possessions” (v. 22).
The reality is that we are further away from holiness than we think. Consider how you react when things don’t go your way, or when you are tested by health problems and pains. Do you meet these trials with patience and a humble trust in the Lord? Or what do you do when someone says something mean about you? Are you quick to respond with kindness and to forgive? Or do you like to compare yourself with others and use that as the benchmark for how well you have lived? Righteousness before God is not a matter of being better than others. God requires a spotless life. Can you honestly say when you go to bed at night that there is no blemish of sin on your record for that day?
Jesus could say that. He was always patient, obedient, forgiving, humble. The Apostle Peter, who spent three years with Him, wrote that “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). If someone spent three years with you, would they ever see you sin? How about three days? How about three hours? Peter never saw Jesus sin, because Jesus never did.
“God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” Jesus officially took on the demands of the law when He was circumcised the eighth day after His birth (which falls on January 1st on our calendar). He did this not to prove anything about Himself, but to keep the law perfectly for the rest of us. Our confidence and strength are not in how well we have kept the law, but in how well Jesus kept the law.
So the law rightly condemns our sin. It shows us how flawed we are, how unworthy to be accepted by the holy God. It is that harsh caretaker. But it does not say the same thing about Jesus. The law found nothing lacking in Him. The law declared Him righteous, perfectly worthy of His Father’s love.
This holy status according to the law of God, Jesus now conveys to us sinners. By His holy life He redeemed us from the harsh verdict of the law. He did this so that “we might receive adoption as sons.” But how do we know we are sons of God? How do we know we have officially been adopted by Him? Paul explained this to the Galatians: “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26). Your adoption into the family of God did not come by your efforts. You did not make yourself desirable to God. Jesus shared His favor with you.
You gained Jesus as your Brother and God as your Father when the Holy Spirit worked this faith in your heart. For many of you, your adoption into the family of believers was processed and finalized when you were baptized. That is when you became an heir of God and a fellow heir with Christ (Rom. 8:17). “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).
On your adoption day, God looked at you in your sin, your ugliness, your wretchedness, and He said, “You’re the one I want. I choose you.” What a beautiful act of mercy and grace! The Lord loves the unlovable and the unloved. He gives a home to those who have no home, family to those who have no family, hope to those who have no hope.
The child who is adopted never has to go back to the life he had before. No more watching other children get adopted while he is left behind. No more wondering why he isn’t loved. No more being alone. This is what your adoption into God’s family means. Because He “sent forth His Son” to redeem you, you have value, you are loved, you have a place. God did not leave you in your sins under the condemnation of the law. He rescued you from the law. He adopted you as His own son.
“So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” In biblical times, the firstborn son inherited his father’s wealth and possessions. Because you are joined to Jesus by faith, His inheritance as God’s only-begotten Son is now your inheritance. His eternal life and glory are yours. In Him, you belong. In Him, you have a future, a bright, happy, never-ending future.
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 stained glass from Redeemer Lutheran Church)
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 10:23-37
In Christ Jesus, whose love and mercy led Him to sacrifice Himself for all people, dear fellow redeemed:
You have heard in recent decades about the effort to remove the Ten Commandments from public places, places like courthouses and schools. Critics argue that we need to keep church and state separate. Their issue ultimately isn’t with the Commandments themselves, though they probably aren’t too fond of those. Their issue is with the God who gave those Commandments. They do not acknowledge His authority or even His existence.
At the same time, those critics are hard-pressed to come up with a better set of laws. Let’s suppose they adopted their own rules which were the exact opposite of God’s Commandments. This is how they would sound:
- You shall have many gods.
- You shall not treat these gods with respect.
- You shall not listen to these gods.
- You shall not honor parents or any other authority.
- You shall not respect your neighbor’s life.
- You shall not respect marriage or be faithful to your vows.
- You shall not respect your neighbor’s possessions.
- You shall not respect your neighbor’s reputation.
- You shall not be glad for your neighbor’s prosperity.
- You shall not be glad for your neighbor’s success.
How would society look if those were the laws that governed us? We would have chaos. People would only worry about their own plans. It would be “every man for himself.” No one would care about his neighbor. The world would be a violent, scary, unhappy place—much, much worse than it already is. It would be a world without love.
And that is what is so important about the Ten Commandments. They are God’s Law of love, love toward Him and toward our neighbors. This is exactly how the Commandments are summarized in today’s text. An expert in the Mosaic Law approached Jesus and asked what it is a person must do to gain heaven. Jesus told him to share his understanding of the Law. The man said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
That was a correct summary of the Ten Commandments. The first three are about love for God. The last seven are about love for neighbor. The problem with the man talking to Jesus, and the problem with so many today, is that they actually think they have loved God and others as they should. They think they have kept God’s Law.
So Jesus told about the man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who was stripped, beaten, and left for dead. A priest came by and did not help him. Neither did a Levite, a worker in the temple. Help came from a most unlikely place. A Samaritan came by, tended to the man’s wounds, and ensured that he would be nursed back to health. The Samaritans and Jews did not like each other, and yet here a Samaritan man was going far out of his way to help a Jewish man.
You and I may think to ourselves that we would have done the same. Maybe we can even give examples of how we went out of our way to help someone less fortunate than ourselves. Or maybe we could point to the amount of time and money we have committed to charitable causes. Those certainly are good things.
But how willing are we to share examples of times we did not help a neighbor in need, times we did not show love? Maybe you are always ready to drop anything to help a friend or neighbor. But are you so ready to help the neighbors you live with—your wife or husband, your children, your parents? Or how eager are you to help the person who hardly seems to try to help himself?
There are times in life when our love for others has shined. And maybe we did not even think about being recognized or rewarded for our work. Other times we have done our duty toward others but not gladly. And sometimes because of our selfishness and pride we have shown no love at all.
If we honestly size up our life according to the Ten Commandments, we don’t end up looking very good. In fact, the Law does a number on us like the robbers did to the man on the way to Jericho. The Law is relentless. It commands love and does not stop pushing us along and throwing us back in line until we have kept it perfectly. This is why many try to ignore the Law or get rid of it altogether. The Law hurts, because we do not love like we should.
But the Law is not the only Word God speaks to us. He loves us. Here we are, stripped, beaten, cast down by the Law—His Law, which we have not kept—and He had compassion on us. He sent His only Son to rescue us. That’s who we should see in the Samaritan who went to great lengths to help the wounded man. We should see Jesus.
Jesus took responsibility for what got us into trouble in the first place. He was born under the holy Law, so that He could keep it for us. The Law did not expose His shortcomings and beat Him down, because He was perfect. He perfectly loved God with His heart, soul, strength, and mind, and He loved His neighbor as Himself. Examples of this love are abundant in the Gospels. He did not ignore a neighbor in need.
Sometimes love required that He condemn the Pharisees and scribes. Love does not mean affirming people in whatever choices they make. Love includes pointing out sin, so that a person recognizes his or her need for salvation. Jesus did this. He condemned self-righteousness (Mat. 23:27-28), sexual immorality (Joh. 4:16-18, 8:11, Mat. 19:9), disrespect for authority (Mar. 7:9-13), and many other sins. In today’s text and a number of other places, Jesus clearly spoke of the Ten Commandments as God’s will for the moral conduct of all people.
He fulfilled these Commandments which condemn each and every one of us. His holy life covers over even the most sinful life. And His death on the cross accomplished the complete satisfaction for all sin. So if the Law is fulfilled and sin is forgiven through Jesus, why does it matter how we live anymore? Why can’t we do whatever we like, since Jesus did everything needed for our salvation?
It is because salvation comes only to the believing, and faith lives only in the hearts of the penitent. Faith cannot survive in those who embrace sin, who take pride in breaking God’s Commandments. Faith cannot endure in the heart of one who shows no love for God or neighbor. Whoever thinks he loves, but does not repent of his sin and believe in Jesus as His Savior, does not love as God commands. He loves in line with His own desires, His own designs, and “the wrath of God remains on him” (Joh. 3:36).
But salvation does come to those who recognize their sin and repent of it. They know they have not kept God’s Law as He requires. They see they are dying in their sin and cannot stop the bleeding. But they also see Jesus, Him who took the punishment for their sin, who hung bleeding on the cross, so that they would not die in misery.
This is what Jesus did for you. He shed His blood, so that your sins would all be blotted out and washed away. He shed His blood, so that life would come to your dying body. He shed His blood, so that your heart of faith would be healthy and strong. He shed His blood, so that His love would flow through you and lead you to love others as He has loved you.
You have nothing to boast of about yourself. There is no place for pride. No matter how loudly the culture shouts it, Pride and Love Cannot Coexist. Pride is inward. It is focused on one’s own pleasure, one’s own happiness, one’s own glory. Love is outward. It focuses on the needs of others and the good that can be done for them.
God calls us to love as He has loved. Paul wrote that Jesus “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2Co. 5:15). This love of God in Christ is a great love, an unfathomable love. On our own, we cannot come close to loving like this. But God helps us to do better and to love more. Through the Law, He keeps us humble and guides us to sacrifice for the people He has placed in our life.
But the power to do His will does not come from the Law; it comes from the Gospel. Through the Gospel in His Word and Sacraments, Jesus equips us for this blessed work. He comes to bind up the wounds of our sins by bringing us forgiveness, and He nourishes and strengthens us by feeding us with His life-giving body and blood. The Holy Spirit also comes through the Gospel to sanctify us and cause fruits of faith to grow for the benefit of our neighbors.
Like the Samaritan did for the dying man, the Lord makes provision for all our spiritual needs. Whatever we need, He supplies. He takes care of us, so that we can be healthy and productive for our neighbors who struggle and suffer and hurt as we have and still sometimes do. Jesus blesses us with the gifts of His love, so that in Him and Him alone, eternal life is ours.
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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(“Parable of the Good Samaritan” painting by Jan Wijnants, 1632-1684)
The Tenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 19:41-48
In Christ Jesus, through whom we are justified and have peace with God (Rom. 5:1), dear fellow redeemed:
When Noah and his sons worked on building the ark, none of their neighbors thought a great flood would come. When the people of Sodom and Gomorrah tried to abuse Lot’s guests, none of them expected fire to rain down on them from heaven. When the leaders of Jerusalem conspired to kill Jesus, they did not imagine that Jesus’ prophecy about their beloved city would come to pass. But it did. In the year 70, the Roman army did what Jesus predicted. The Romans besieged the city of Jerusalem, breached its walls, killed its inhabitants, and burned the great temple to the ground.
Each of these examples—the flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the overthrow of Jerusalem—teach us something about the human condition, about God’s wrath, and about God’s mercy. They show us how unaware or uncaring sinners are about the will of God. Noah’s neighbors heard his warnings about what was coming and ignored it. Lot’s neighbors saw his righteous example and despised it. The people of Jerusalem witnessed Jesus’ miracles and heard His teaching, and still they sent Him to His death.
Therefore God’s wrath burned against these hardened unbelievers. By the waters of the flood, He destroyed all life on the earth. By fire from heaven, He burned up everything in Sodom and Gomorrah. And by the hand of the Romans, He brought terrible suffering and death to Jerusalem.
On the other hand, these events show His mercy too. Many were drowned in the flood, but Noah and his family were preserved. Two cities were burned up, but Lot and his daughters were spared. Jerusalem was overcome, but the Christian inhabitants of the city were moved to relocate before the Romans arrived.
God does not delight in destruction. He wants all sinners to repent and be saved. In Ezekiel chapter 18, He says, “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone… so turn, and live” (v. 32). We see His compassion in the tears Jesus shed while looking over Jerusalem: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!”
The “things that make for peace” were the things Jesus was about to do in the city. He was going to offer Himself as the sacrifice for sinners. He would willingly let Himself be beaten, flogged, ridiculed, and crucified. He suffered and died to pay for all sin. This included the sins of the people in Noah’s day, the sins of Lot’s neighbors, and the sins of the people of Israel who rejected Him. He paid for their sins and everyone else’s sins besides.
He paid for sin, so that mankind might no longer be separated from its Creator. He is the One who could blot out the wrongdoing of thousands of years of human history. He could right the wrong begun in the Garden of Eden. He and only He could do this, and He did. He made peace “by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).
But so many reject this peace. They want war, war with God. Who would go to war with God? Satan tried it and now he slithers along on his belly eating dust. That doesn’t stop others from doing what he did. They rebel. They go to war with God by acting like His Commandments are no longer in place. In our “enlightened” age, many now feel comfortable setting that “traditional morality” aside. Among other things, they ignore what God says about respecting authority, about guarding against harm to the body, and about keeping sexual intimacy within marriage only.
Many who take issue with the Bible’s teaching, however, still like what they see in Jesus. They like the Jesus who sticks up for the poor and hurting and who eats with social outcasts. But what do they make of the Jesus who forcefully drives out the sellers from the temple courts, as we heard in today’s text? Jesus is the Savior of all people. But He also clearly identified Himself as the Judge, who will condemn the unrepentant to hell on the last day (Mat. 25:31-46).
Early in His public work, Jesus went around preaching this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mat. 4:17). Jesus called sinners to repentance. His primary mission was not to diagnose and treat people’s physical or social ills, but to address their spiritual ones. He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luk. 5:31-32).
Those who think they need no spiritual care are the self-righteous. They find it easy to point out the shortcomings of others. But they fail to see their own sins. They compare their lives with others and feel they must be on the right track. They haven’t made the mistakes that this person made. They haven’t acted like that person does. They have done a lot of good for a lot of people. Others could learn plenty from their example.
This was the attitude of the chief priests and scribes. They took pride in their holy living. They also hated Jesus. Our text says that they “were seeking to destroy Him.” Why were they fighting against Jesus? Why did they want Him dead? It’s because they did not want to acknowledge their sins and repent.
It is painful to admit our sins. We do not want to believe that we have been as bad as God’s law says we have. But by clinging to our self-righteousness and doing all we can to keep our sins buried, we only make things worse. Then we fail to recognize “the things that make for peace.” We fail to realize “the time of [our] visitation.” By refusing to repent of our sins, we show that we are opposed to Jesus, because He came to suffer and die for sinners.
But the Lord does not give up on stubborn sinners. He weeps for them. The Holy Spirit continues to work on their hearts through the law, so that their eyes are opened. He helps them to see the difference between God’s holiness and their sin. He shows them there is no hope for them without Jesus. There is no salvation apart from Him.
Jesus and only Jesus could bridge the gap between us and God. He is perfect God and perfect Man in one person. He came to live the life the law requires. He came to fulfill all righteousness for us, to do what only God can do. We sinners have fallen far short of God’s requirement, but Jesus met it. He met it for us.
And then He went to the cross absorbing the punishment for our violations of the law. He suffered for the people’s rejection of the truth in Jerusalem. He suffered for every time a Christian house of prayer is used to pedal the world’s goods. He suffered for our self-righteousness, our spiritual laziness, and our selfish attitudes.
Whether you own up to them or not, Jesus shed His blood for each and every one of your sins and my sins. The price has been paid. The payment is made. No bad deed went unpunished. Jesus bore the sins of all. He suffered death and hell for all. God and man have been reconciled. The sin that separated God and man was atoned for. Jesus made peace between us. That means you have nothing to lose by confessing your sins—nothing except your pride.
When you repent of your sin, God does not sit on His throne weighing the pros and cons of forgiving you. Your sin was already forgiven when Jesus hung on the cross. So then why should you have to confess your sins? Because you need to remember who you are in relation to God. You are the sinner. He is the Savior. There is no justification for your sinning. But there is justification for those who admit their sin and trust in the grace of God.
You cannot come to this understanding on your own. On your own, you would be at war with God, trying to show how you are better than He says you are. But the Holy Spirit humbles you through the law and then brings you peace through the Gospel. Through the law, He cleanses the temple of your body like Jesus cleansed the temple in Jerusalem. Through the Gospel He fills you with the righteousness and glory of God.
So the work is done for you. Your sins are forgiven. In Jesus, You Have the Things That Make for Peace. Is that it? Should each of us go back to our homes secure in the knowledge of God’s mercy and grace toward us? Yes! And day after day, we should retrace the spiritual steps that brought us this comfort. You and I sin every day, so we should repent every day. And every day we should replenish our hearts and souls with God’s message of peace. Then a week from now, we will have the opportunity to be fed again through Word and Sacrament in the divine service just as we have been fed today.
When Jesus was teaching daily in the temple, we are told that “all the people were hanging on His words.” They listened intently to Him. They did not want to miss anything, because Jesus had “the words of eternal life” (Joh. 6:68). He spoke words that they could not live without. He spoke words of peace, peace for the greatest and the smallest, peace for the good and the bad, peace for you and for me.
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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(painting of the “Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Baptism of Jesus – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 3:13-17
In Christ Jesus, who did not come “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (Joh. 3:17), dear fellow redeemed:
When John the Baptizer started preaching in the wilderness of Judea, the prominent theme of his preaching and teaching was repentance. God sent him to be a voice waking people up from their spiritual slumber. John didn’t hold back. He didn’t care what sort of standing a person had, or what might happen if he pointed out their sin. When he saw a number of the Jewish religious leaders coming to be baptized, he called them a “brood of vipers” (Mat. 3:7). He told them to “[b]ear fruit in keeping with repentance” (v. 8). If they would not, they would be “cut down and thrown into the fire (v. 10).
And if you think I’m tough, he said, just wait till you meet the One who comes after me, “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” (vv. 11-12). What sort of man did the people expect would follow John? Whatever they imagined, John’s message made them all the more ready to humble themselves and acknowledge their sins.
When the people thought about the coming Messiah, perhaps they thought about the times God made His presence known to the people of Israel. They may have imagined the descent of the LORD upon Mount Sinai when He delivered His law to Moses. The whole mountain was wrapped in smoke as though coming from a great furnace. The mountain shuddered, and when Moses spoke, God answered in thunder (Exo. 19:18-19). Is this how it would be with the One who followed John? Or would He come in a thick cloud like the one that filled the holy place of the tabernacle and temple (Exo. 40:34-38, Lev. 16:2,30)?
While the people waited with nervous anticipation and fear, Jesus was quietly going about His business in Nazareth. We know nothing about His life from His youth until the start of His public work except for the words of St. Luke: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and men” (2:52). So He was intelligent and well thought of in His community. But no one would have matched Him with John’s description of the Coming One. Would that change with His official anointing?
His anointing as the Christ is recorded for us in today’s text. He came where John was by the Jordan River to be baptized by him. John did not realize yet that Jesus was the Christ, but he knew that Jesus was a righteous man. He said, “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” Jesus’ response shows that He had not come to condemn everyone. He came “to fulfill all righteousness.” This required Him to be baptized, to join the company of sinners who also entered the waters.
But He was not baptized to wash away His sin. He had no sin of His own to wash away! He was baptized for all humanity, in every sinner’s place. He offered Himself as their Substitute, taking their sins upon Himself, sins that He would pay for with His life at Calvary. The significance of this moment was clear by what happened next. Jesus came out of the water, and “the heavens were opened to Him.” Then the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove and rested upon Him, and a voice came from above, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Now John knew. This was the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior promised for thousands of years. “I myself did not know him,” John said, “but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (Joh. 1:33). So the Coming One had come. But He did not come exactly as expected.
God the Son did not descend from heaven with fire and smoke and other terrifying displays of power. He came humbly, looking just like other men. The other Persons of the Trinity revealed themselves in humble ways too. God the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a small dove. And God the Father spoke from heaven clearly but gently and with a message of love. In other words, the Triune God revealed Himself at the Jordan River not with terrifying displays of glory and might, but with grace.
This looks so different than the scene at Mount Sinai, but then the purpose of God’s appearance was different at each place. At Mount Sinai, God was giving the people His law. The law should provoke fear in the hearts of sinners. If they do not do God’s will, they must answer for their transgressions. This was emphasized by all the burning, smoking, and thundering on the mountaintop. This was a God who should not be taken lightly, and who expected the people to obey Him.
What happened at the Jordan River was not a display of God’s wrath, as those who heard John might have expected. Jesus’ baptism was a display of the Gospel, of God’s love for humankind by sending them a Savior. Jesus had come to give Himself in the place of sinners and to fulfill all righteousness for them, so they would not have to face the holy wrath of God.
What we see at Jesus’ baptism is how it is for our baptisms too. There are some who would turn baptism into a law event. They say that baptism is about what we do for God. They think this is where we must fully dedicate ourselves to Him and promise to live a holy life. It’s no wonder that these do not find comfort in their baptism. They know they have not lived up to their promise. They know they lack the righteousness that God requires.
But baptism is not a law event, it is a Gospel event. It is where God commits Himself to us. It is where He makes promises that are as sure and unchanging as He is. It is where He bestows His forgiveness on us and covers us with His righteousness. There are many beautiful passages in Scripture that underscore this.
Listen to Titus 3:5-7 and ask yourself who is doing the action: is it us, or is it God? “[A]ccording to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” This says that God saved us by His mercy, washed us in baptism, and applied Christ’s perfect work to us. We are now justified—declared innocent—by His grace and are counted as heirs of God.
Romans 6:4 explains how baptism marks the drowning of our sinful nature and the awakening of faith. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Galatians 3:27 tells us that we look much different in God’s sight after our baptism than we did before. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
These and many other passages teach us that In Baptism, God Comes Down with Grace. We don’t go to Him to give Him something He needs. He comes down to us to give us the blessings that we couldn’t live without. It doesn’t seem possible that baptism would have such significance. It looks so simple. What good can a couple handfuls of water and one short sentence do? But Jesus’ baptism probably didn’t look very impressive either. We learn about its significance by the subsequent opening of heaven, the Holy Spirit’s descent, and the voice of the Father.
The Triune God does not show His presence at our baptisms, but He promises that He is here. It is His Word and ultimately His water that are used in baptism. He is the One who gives parents and guardians the will to bring their children to baptism, and He is the One who calls pastors to administer baptism. The Lord wants people to be baptized, and He does not fail to be present with His gifts.
Because His power and promise are what drive baptism, it only needs to happen once for each individual. If baptism were simply an expression of our commitment to God, we would need to be baptized many times, because our commitment toward Him is constantly in flux. But because baptism is a sacrament from God through which He makes a commitment to us, it is only needed one time.
We are baptized once only, but we return to those cleansing waters of baptism every time we repent of sin and trust in the gracious forgiveness of Jesus. In confession, the penitent sinner is really asking God, “Do You still love me? Do the promises You made at my baptism still stand?” And the absolution is God’s reply, “Yes, the work of My Son to save you is finished. Through His blood your sins are forgiven, and His righteousness is yours by faith. I have not and will not change My mind about you; you are My baptized child.”
The absolution is God’s assurance that heaven remains open to all who trust in Him. Heaven was opened to you at your baptism just as it was opened to Jesus at His baptism. From heaven, the Father continues to speak His gracious Word, the Son continues to apply His forgiveness and righteousness to you, and the Holy Spirit continues to fill you with His comfort and peace.
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(picture is portion of 1895 painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)
The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 14:1-11
In Christ Jesus, in whom we have been raised up and with whom we have been seated in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6), dear fellow redeemed:
It is ironic that the phrase “Taking the High Road” was most likely coined by a politician, since politics is where “taking the high road” almost never happens. Politicians watch for any slip-up by their opponents and then portray the mistake in the most negative light. The primary goal is not justice or the promotion of truth, but political victory. And if a career is ruined by the mud-slinging, so be it.
The Pharisees of today’s text were like our politicians. They hated Jesus. They wanted His efforts to fail. They wanted to discredit Him before the public, and if possible, to eliminate Him. One of these Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him on a particular Sabbath day. This sounds like a neighborly thing for the Pharisee to do, but he and his friends had ulterior motives. We are told that “they were watching him carefully.” Picture them watching Jesus like a hawk watches its unsuspecting prey. But Jesus was not unsuspecting. The trap they were setting for Him would not catch Him by surprise.
In the room was a man with dropsy, a condition causing fluid retention and swelling in the skin. Would Jesus heal him? On another occasion, a religious leader had criticized Jesus for healing a disabled woman on the Sabbath. “There are six days in which work ought to be done,” he said, “…and not on the Sabbath day” (Lk. 13:14). It may well be that the Pharisees now brought this man with dropsy before Jesus as a test. Would Jesus break Sabbath law with so many witnesses present?
Jesus perceived the trap; he knew what the Pharisees were thinking. The text says that “Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees.” He answered their thoughts even though they hadn’t verbalized them. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” He asked. They thought this would be forbidden according to the law. They believed that healing would be work, and God said no work should be done on the Sabbath. If Jesus healed on the Sabbath, He must not be from God. This is how their thinking went, but they did not say a word.
Then Jesus healed the man and sent him on his way. Now the Pharisees had Jesus where they wanted Him! But before they could level an accusation, Jesus asked how many of them would leave a son or an ox in a well on a Sabbath day. Would they call down that they would like to help, but it would just have to wait until tomorrow? Obviously not. They would do whatever it took to bring the son or the ox to safety.
What was Jesus’ point? His point was that the Pharisees should remember why the law was given. It was not given to promote an external righteousness, an outward keeping of the rules. God wanted His people to rely on Him and not on themselves. He required a day without work, so that people would set aside time to hear His Word and pray. This is how they would show love for Him according to the Third Commandment.
But this Sabbath requirement did not negate the other Commandments of God. If someone had fallen on the Sabbath, his neighbor should help him up. If someone were sick or hungry, his neighbor should carry medicine or food to his home. These things would show love for God by showing love to a neighbor.
Love for God and neighbor is the entire focus of God’s moral law (Lk. 10:27). When you wonder whether something is right or wrong, you should ask yourself if it is loving. Even if you know it is true, is it loving to spread gossip about a neighbor? Even if someone said a mean thing to you, is it loving to say something mean back? Even if someone invites you to share their bed outside of marriage—even if it is someone you love—is it loving toward God or the consenting partner to ignore the institution and commitment of marriage?
Today’s culture promotes a different definition of love. We are told that love means accepting and agreeing with whatever a person chooses to do. And if we question how others live their life, then we are called hateful. But Jesus questioned the Pharisees. Is it because He hated them? No, it is because they lacked the love that God requires, and He wanted them to recognize it. He wanted them to see that their concern was not for God or their neighbors; it was for themselves. That is the problem today. People are full of self-love. They think their choices are right even when God says they are wrong.
It is tempting for us to feel morally superior to these people. We do not do the things they do. We know what God’s moral law says, and we want to follow it. But self-love can work its way in there too. We imagine God must be pleased with us because we are not like the sinners around us.
But think about the parable Jesus told. Suppose you were invited to a wedding feast along with all sorts of criminals and sinners. Looking around, you hear some of the bad people boast about their evil deeds, while others hang their heads in shame. Then all are told to take seats at the table, but with this caveat: everyone is to sit down based on how good they are compared to others. The bad people not sorry for their sins immediately head for the best spots because they are only concerned about themselves. The bad people sorry for their sins shuffle toward the less honorable places.
But to which end of the table do you go? On the one hand, you could say that you have not fallen into the serious sins of either the boastful or the humbled criminals. You have not killed anyone. You have not stolen anything. You have tried to be a good neighbor. Certainly you should be seated higher than the bad people who are not sorry for their sins. But on the other hand, the standard of God’s law is perfection. Even if you have refrained from outward sins, what about the sins of your mind and heart? The scene could get ugly fast, with people fighting over the best places.
But Jesus says to you and me, “go and sit in the lowest place.” Take the High Road by taking the lowest place. The Letter to the Philippians says, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (2:3). We should not concern ourselves with what we think we are (pretty good), or what we think others are (pretty bad). We should stick with what we know. We know that we are sinners who have not perfectly kept God’s law. If the table in Jesus’ parable were God’s table, then no one would belong at it either in the high or the low places.
But still, we are invited to the heavenly banquet. We are invited because Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). He gave up the highest place, which was His by right. No one even approaches His greatness. He left the highest place, and took the lowest. In fact, He gave up His seat at the table altogether, so that there would be plenty of room for everyone else.
He showed perfect love for all, but they did not all love Him in return. When the Pharisees could not find any sin in Jesus, they told lies about Him and twisted His words. Then they got Pilate to condemn Him to death. Jesus could have dragged all their hidden sins out in the open, and none of what He uncovered would be a lie. He could have shown the ugliness inside every religious leader. But He took the high road. He said nothing while false accusations were hurled His way. Then He took the high road, literally, when He carried His cross up the hill to Golgotha outside the walls of Jerusalem.
This is where the perfect Son of God was crucified, the humble Healer of dropsy, disability, and most importantly, the sinful heart. He poured out His blood to wash away each transgression, including yours. Every sinful stain of your past, every failure to do and say and think what God says, every prideful judgment of the imperfect lives of others, the Lord forgives it. You deserve the lowest place, but Jesus has taken you by the hand and said, “Friend, move up higher.”
You have not always taken the high road—with your siblings, your parents, your spouse, your classmates and co-workers, your fellow church members—, and these sins may still trouble you. But while others may hold your sins against you, God does not. He looks upon you in grace as though you had never done anything wrong.
That does not mean you and I can boast about our transgressions. Nor do we have the freedom to sin as much as we like, just because we know sin is paid for. Humble children of God do not embrace sin. They flee from sin, and when they fall into it, they repent of it.
God did not create us for sin, but for righteousness. He created us to love Him and our neighbor. When our neighbor attacks us despite our efforts to love, then we pick up the cross and take the high road after Jesus. Nothing good is gained by “digging up dirt” on others and “slinging mud.” But much good is gained by a humble disposition toward others and a humble trust in Jesus.
The Sabbath rest that no person could obtain by his own efforts, is freely given us by our loving Savior. He has lifted us out of the pit of sin we had fallen into and brought us with Him to be seated at His heavenly banquet. Because of His humble suffering and death, we will be exalted with Him for eternity.
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The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 2 Corinthians 3:4-11
In Christ Jesus, whose words to us are “spirit and life” (Jn. 6:63), and whose healing gifts of righteousness and forgiveness are applied to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, dear fellow redeemed:
There are a lot of health problems that we can treat on our own. If we are feeling hungry, we eat. If we are tired, we go to bed. If a headache develops, we take a pill or two. If we sustain a minor cut or scrape, we apply a bandage. But if something more major happens, we seek help from medical professionals.
In order for these medical professionals to help us, it is absolutely necessary that they tell us the truth, even if the truth hurts. We want to know if we have some sort of serious condition or injury, so we can work on treating it. Having a doctor tell us that we couldn’t be healthier when he detects cancer in our bodies or malfunctioning organs will not do us any good. We trust our doctors to diagnose us as well as they are able and to treat the problem with the best tools at their disposal.
But for all that medical professionals are able to do, they can only do so much. Surgeons can cut out cancerous tumors, but they cannot stop more tumors from developing. Psychiatrists can help people work through mental difficulties, but they cannot take away all anxieties. No matter how well-trained health professionals are, they can offer only temporary help and temporary healing. They cannot give us what we need the most.
What we need the most is not physical healing but spiritual healing. Physical deficiencies may trouble us in this life, but spiritual deficiencies can result in suffering for eternity. Before we can receive treatment, an accurate diagnosis of our spiritual condition is required. This can be hard to come by. There are a great many spiritual practitioners out there who are not qualified for the work in any way.
They are like the doctors who are known for prescribing opioids in excessive amounts. They leave the decision to the patient and are happy to take the patient’s money. Or these spiritual practitioners downplay the seriousness of the sinner’s condition, so that he or she feels no strong motivation to address the problem. Or they prescribe the wrong treatment for a problem that only makes things worse.
The truth is that by nature, we are in bad shape. One of our hymns lays it all out in the open: “What God doth in His law demand, / No man to Him could render. / Before this Judge all guilty stand; / His law speaks curse in thunder. / The law demands a perfect heart; / We were defiled in ev’ry part, / And lost was our condition” (ELH 226, v. 2). As the hymn verse says, our spiritual sickness is diagnosed only by God’s unchangeable law.
God’s law does not make promises; it makes demands. It demands perfection. His law tells us “how we are to be, and what we are to do and not to do” (2001 ELS Catechism, question 11). Any spiritual physician who teaches that it does not matter how we live, or who says that God’s Commandments are flexible, or who teaches that we can make ourselves right with God, is a liar. There is no wiggle room and no comfort to be found in the law. God’s law is His line in the sand, and death is waiting for any who cross it.
The moral law has always been written on human hearts (Rom. 2:15). But because the conscience can grow dull, the LORD gave Moses the Ten Commandments first on two stone tablets and then on the pages of Scripture. He gave other laws besides, which regulated every aspect of life in the church and in society.
When Moses received these laws in the LORD’s presence, his face absorbed the rays of God’s brilliant light. He did not know this was happening until he returned to the Israelites’ camp. The people were afraid to come near him since his face shone so brightly. So Moses put a veil over his face while he talked with the people, but he removed it when he came before God (Ex. 34:29-35).
Moses’ shining face reminded the people that the law he delivered to them was from the holy God. The law was something to pay attention to. It was something to take very seriously. But while the law helped them keep their behavior in line, it could not save them. They did not perfectly meet God’s strict standard. They were sinners, law-breakers. So the law, which came to them in such a glorious way, nevertheless condemned them. Or as Paul said, “the letter kills.” The Old Testament law with its demand of perfection kills any hope we have of saving ourselves.
The law is like the doctor for whom “good” is never “good enough.” “You lost some weight, but you still have a lot more to go.” “You stopped one bad habit, but what about all the rest?” “No matter how hard you try, you cannot undo the damage from years past.” The spiritual physician prescribes the wrong medicine when he says that the cure for a sinful heart and a guilty conscience is to try harder to be better. Can the patient with a serious infection improve simply by trying to feel better? Neither can the sinner improve his own spiritual condition.
But it is possible for spiritual health to improve, just as physical health can improve. Every day, countless people are healed from their various illnesses and injuries. Waiting for that healing to happen can be a real test of patience. We wish that Jesus would heal us instantly like He healed the deaf and mute man in today’s Gospel (Mk. 7:31-37). But while Jesus could bring us physical healing instantly with a touch or a word, He does not tell us to expect this.
The way our Savior continues His healing work today is through means. To address your physical, mental, or emotional pain, He gives trained professionals to diagnose and treat the problem. He uses them to carry out His merciful work, even though they are flawed and do not carry out the work perfectly. Honest doctors will tell you that they do not have the answers all—or even most—of the time. But they promise to try their best. As they go about their work, God directs their efforts to bring healing and relief to many people.
The way Jesus provides spiritual healing is also through means. He sends pastors to diagnose the sinner’s spiritual condition through the law, and to apply help and healing through the Gospel. But no pastor carries out his work perfectly. He may misdiagnose the problem between feuding family members, friends, or congregation members. He can perceive stubbornness when the problem is weakness. He can be too direct with the law or too soft. The pastor learns every day how little he can control and how imperfectly he has carried out his duties.
Speaking for his fellow apostles, Paul plainly stated, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us.” On their own, they were unequal to the task their Lord had given them. “[B]ut,” he said, “our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit.”
Spiritual healing happens when a pastor points the people in his care to Jesus. Jesus is the one who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53:4). He carried all our pain, every pain that results from sin in the world and sin in us. There is no physical, mental, or spiritual anguish you have felt that He did not feel. Maybe no one else around you seems to understand your struggle. But Jesus does. You may feel hopeless or sad or worthless. But you are not alone. The Son of God became your Brother in flesh to be with you in your worst moments and to carry you through your darkest trials.
He knows how the devil relentlessly attacks believers to try to get them to despair. Jesus silenced the devil by keeping God’s holy law perfectly for all people and paying for their sins on the cross. When Satan gets you thinking that your troubles are a punishment from God, or that God has forgotten about you, or that there is no hope, Jesus wants you lift your eyes to Him. He shed His holy blood for you, to cover over your sins. He rose again to give you confidence even while your death seems to be closing in.
This good news of forgiveness and salvation in Jesus is what you need the most. Only this can bring you spiritual healing, so that you see joy and life in your future instead of pain and death. The law cannot give you this hope—“the letter kills.” But the Holy Spirit has called you by the Gospel and given you a living faith in Christ—“the Spirit gives life.” The Holy Spirit brings this life to you through the means of grace, through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments.
The Holy Spirit’s work through the means of grace does not make all problems go away. Your aches and pains might not subside. But the Holy Spirit will help you bear your cross after Jesus and grow in patience. Your griefs and sorrows might not go away. But the Holy Spirit will lead you to Him who has carried those sorrows. You might often feel empty or inadequate or alone. But the Holy Spirit will remind you of your worth in Christ and will show you how you can be a blessing to others and share His love with them through encouragement, assistance, and prayer.
The glory of the Spirit’s work through the Gospel far surpasses the glory of the law. God does not want you to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” and put all your focus on being better. He wants you to believe His promises, to trust that the righteousness the law demands is credited to you by faith, and that full payment has been made for your sins. He wants you to regularly receive the benefits of Christ’s saving work through His Word and Sacraments. Not only will this bring you comfort, but it will also strengthen you to do the good things that God has created you to do.
Honest doctors who can address your physical and mental pain are a great blessing. But Only the Holy Spirit Can Give Healing Which Lasts. He brings you Jesus, and in Him is life (Jn. 1:4).
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The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
Text: St. Matthew 5:20-26
In Christ Jesus, who gives the rich blessings of salvation to sinners at no cost to them, dear fellow redeemed:
When you see a penny on the ground, do you stoop down to pick it up? A recent survey (YouGov) indicates that older Americans value the penny more than younger Americans do. 70% of people over age 55 said they would pick up a penny, while less than 40% in their teens and twenties would do so. Overall, more than half the people surveyed said they would not bother with a penny. They figure it isn’t worth the effort. It is not valuable enough to them.
This is similar to the way many people think of the Gospel, the good news of salvation through Jesus. For many, the Gospel is not worth more than a passing glance. It has no great effect on their daily lives. It hardly figures into their work and plans. For those that do bother to take a closer look at it, it is often easily set aside or forgotten. Even by many Christians, the Gospel is not seen as essential for our life. “What Jesus did was important,” they say, “but what matters the most now is how I live.” Instead of seeking refuge in the Gospel, these individuals try to find comfort in the Law.
This temptation to draw our confidence from the Law instead of the Gospel is something that every Christian has fallen for. We look to separate the so-called “good Christians” from the “bad Christians” by the fruits they produce. This is not entirely off-base. Jesus plainly taught that “no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit” (Lk. 6:43-44). So then the thinking goes that if I do good things, I must be a good tree, and if I do bad things, I must be a bad tree. But who decides what counts as “good” and what counts as “bad”?
What happens is that each person decides in his or her own mind what is “good” and “bad,” and the definition is always skewed. I will naturally define as “good” the way I live my life and how I like to operate. On the other hand, my definition of “bad” is when other people do things I don’t like or when they contradict or criticize my plans and desires. But a self-made set of principles or rules to live by, is no way to produce the righteousness that God requires.
Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees were regarded as the “holy people” among the Jews. They followed the rules. They set the standard. But theirs was an empty righteousness. Their obedience to God’s Law was only external; it did not come from hearts of faith. They were something like our Amish neighbors, who are careful to follow strict rules of lifestyle and behavior, and who imagine that it is this which pleases God.
But Jesus said that the righteousness that gains the kingdom of heaven must exceed such outward righteousness. No matter how “good” a person is, it is not enough. God requires perfection—perfect righteousness in everything we think, do, and say. To test His listeners to see how they thought of themselves, Jesus applied the Ten Commandments in ways the people were not used to hearing. To begin with, Jesus said that it is not simply murderers who fall under the condemnation of the Fifth Commandment. It is also those who store up anger toward someone, or who refuse to admit the wrongs they have done.
Then He taught about the Sixth Commandment that it is broken not just by those who commit adultery, but also by those who have lustful thoughts about someone else (Mt. 5:27-30), and by those who stubbornly file for divorce (vv. 31-32). The Second and Eighth Commandments are broken by taking foolish oaths (vv. 33-37). The Fifth Commandment is again broken by those who seek revenge (vv. 38-42), and who think it is proper to “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (v. 43). But Jesus said that children of God should “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44).
These examples are enough to show us how much we lack the righteousness God requires of us. If we imagine that we are “good enough” to get into heaven by our own works, we will pay the eternal consequence for this arrogant thinking. Jesus says that not one bit of God’s Law is considered fulfilled by us unless all of it is kept (5:18). And if it is not all kept, eternal payment is required. We might not care about a penny on the ground, but the righteous God demands a full payment for our sins, even down to “the last penny.”
If our sins were pennies, the last thing we would want to do is gather them up. We usually act like they are not even there. When we do feel guilty about one sin or another, we just let them be or kick them aside and hope that time will wash them away. But if our sins were collected day by day, throughout our lives, this would be no small amount. Our sins are like piles—or more likely, mountains—of pennies that cannot be pushed aside and that keep us from reaching our heavenly goal. We wish we could forget about our sin, but like a financial debt, it doesn’t just go away. The wages of sin must be paid (Rom. 6:23), and we haven’t got the funds.
This is why the Gospel is nothing to take for granted or ignore. The Gospel is the good news of what Jesus did to save us. He said, “I have not come to abolish [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them” (Mt. 5:17). He did not come to change God’s standard of perfection or to remove it. As we can see by today’s reading, He put a sharper point on the Law than people were accustomed to (7:28-29). He wanted to show that no one has produced the righteousness God requires. None can get to heaven on their own. Another must do for us what we cannot do.
The Apostle Paul wrote that “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2Cor. 8:9). How was our Lord rich? He was rich in righteousness and life. From eternity, God the Son shared perfection and glory with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. It was in His image of perfect righteousness that God created man and woman. When Adam and Eve sinned, they lost their holiness and were separated from God. But God still loved them and all who would be born from them. He promised to send a Savior.
This Savior was God’s Son, born of the Virgin Mary. He came in total humility, not making full and constant use of His divine power. He subjected Himself to the requirements of the Law and diligently kept it in every detail. He did this for you and me. He kept God’s Law in our place, so that we might inherit His eternal riches. “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21). Our sins were placed on Jesus like an immeasurable weight of bag after bag of pennies, and He accounted for each of our terrible sins through His suffering and death. He also now places His perfect righteousness on us and on all who believe in Him. He was rich and became poor, so that we who were spiritually impoverished would become rich.
The riches of righteousness and life that He produced are all we need. They are our only hope for salvation. They are the only lifeline there is between us and God. What Jesus has done, the Holy Spirit graciously brings to us through Word and Sacraments. Through the Law, He impresses upon us our great debt of sin and our need for salvation. Through the Gospel, He brings us the full forgiveness of our sins and strengthens our faith in Jesus.
We are saved entirely by grace, and not by our own righteousness. The place for our works is not in earning or contributing toward our salvation. We live according to God’s will and want to keep His Commandments out of love for Him and out of thankfulness for His grace. We do not carry the burden of having to prove ourselves to God, or of trying to win His favor. We are already righteous in His sight by faith in His Son. We will enter the kingdom of heaven because of Jesus’ righteousness, because He did for us what we could not do.
So the question that every sinner should be concerned with is this: In What Do You Put Your Trust? If your trust is in your own righteousness, then the words of Paul to the Galatians apply to you, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4). But if your trust is in Christ alone, in Jesus only, then your righteousness does exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, because then you have Jesus’ righteousness credited to you.
Whether or not you make it a habit to pick up pennies off the ground is up to you. But if you do, take a moment to read our national motto printed there, “In God We Trust.” Think of why the true God is to be trusted, and think of what any alternative to His grace would be. Then humbly repent of your sins and hold tightly to His promises. Say with the psalmist, “In You, O LORD, I put my trust; Let me never be ashamed; Deliver me in Your righteousness” (Ps. 31:1, NKJV). With such a faith, you will receive rich blessings from a gracious God, who loves you and gave Himself for you.
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(painting of “The Sermon on the Mount” by Rudolf Yelin the Older, 1912)
The First Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad homily
Texts: St. Luke 2:21, 22-38, St. Matthew 2:1-12, 13-23, St. Luke 2:41-52
In Christ Jesus, who was focused at every moment of His earthly life on winning your salvation, dear fellow redeemed:
The texts you have heard today are all we know about the life of Jesus from when He was eight days old until He traveled with Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem when He was twelve years old. There are three major things we notice about Jesus’ life during this time period:
- Jesus was not exempt from the Law.
- He did not use His divine powers as a Child.
- Though He looked like anyone else His age, He was recognized and worshipped as the Messiah.
1. At eight days old, Jesus was circumcised according to God’s command to Abraham, a command which applied to all of Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 17). Not only was this the first time Jesus shed blood, but His circumcision also bound Him to keep the Law of God delivered to the people through Moses. This meant that God was now required to keep His own Law. Jesus would later explain to the people, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Mt. 5:17-18).
Then at forty days old, Jesus was taken by His parents to the temple in Jerusalem to be presented to the LORD. This was required by God of all firstborn sons dating back to the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. At that time, God passed over and spared the firstborn sons of the Israelites but killed the firstborn sons of the Egyptians. From that point on, every Israelite firstborn was “consecrated” or “called holy” to the LORD (Ex. 13:2).
Jesus did not act above the Law. He subjected Himself to it, and He fulfilled it completely.
2. Besides committing Himself to the Law, Jesus also committed Himself to a State of Humiliation in which He did not make full use of His divine powers. Notice that when His life was threatened by the jealous Herod, Jesus did not create a force field around the house to keep the soldiers from entering. Nor did He whisk His family away to Egypt by miraculous means. An angel told Joseph to get Mary and Jesus to safety. The Son of God relied on a humble craftsman to save Him from the king’s rage.
In our texts for today, Jesus would have been doing what normal babies do. He cooed and giggled. He cried when He was hungry or needed His diaper changed. And as He grew, He stumbled about on toddler legs. He played with other children. He studied and learned from parents and teachers. We might think that because Jesus is God, He never would have lost a race, using super speed to leave everyone behind. Or maybe the other kids resented Him because He answered every question before the teacher could even finish asking it. But those things did not happen. He did not use His divine powers to show off. He “manifested His glory” with miracles and signs only when the time had come to reveal Himself as the Christ at the start of His public ministry (Jn. 2:11).
Until then, Jesus lived an ordinary, humble life, but with the unique distinction of never sinning. All the way through His youth, His teenaged years, His twenties, and into His thirties, Jesus did not sin in His actions, words, or thoughts. The devil certainly tempted Him to sin all along the way, but He remained holy. The author to the Hebrews writes, “in every respect [He] has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). The evangelist Luke sums up the righteous childhood of Jesus by declaring, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Lk. 2:52).
3. Even though Jesus did not look different than other children His age, He was recognized as the Messiah, the Savior of the nations. This started even when Jesus was in Mary’s womb. Elizabeth said to Mary, “[W]hy is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk. 1:43). Then the shepherds worshipped Jesus the night of His birth, while He rested in the poor bed of a manger.
Later on, Simeon recognized the One carried into the temple by Joseph and Mary as the coming Messiah. He worshipped this Baby as the salvation of the Jews and the Gentiles. Then aged Anna came over and worshipped the Child also. After this, Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem for some time, having found a house to live in. There, Jesus was visited by the wise men from the East who also fell down to worship Him and gave Him gifts.
At face value, this all seems very odd. How could these people worship a baby Boy who showed no obvious signs of being the Son of God? The Apostle Paul explains, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1Cor. 2:14). Those who worshipped Jesus were not convinced by what they saw; they were led to believe in and confess Jesus as Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit convinced them that what was prophesied in the Scriptures about the coming Messiah had now been fulfilled.
But why did this all happen? Why did Jesus put Himself under the Law? Why did He refrain from full use of His powers? Why did He come in such humility?
Jesus did not gain anything for Himself by keeping the Law. He could not become more righteous than He already was. He kept the Law for you and me and all sinners. He needed to do this because no human being has lived a spotless life. Every one of us has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). In love, “God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). God now regards you as His sons, holy and righteous, because you do not trust in your own efforts and goodness, but totally in the perfect work of Jesus.
Jesus did not make full use of His divine powers, because He came to suffer for you. He came to be chased away from His homeland by a wicked king, to be accused of crimes He never committed, to be beaten by Jews and Gentiles alike, and to be executed by crucifixion. The Son of God “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8).
His perfect life and atoning death were offered up to God as the sacrifice for you. Jesus came in such a lowly way to save you. He came to redeem you from the sins of your youth, from the terrors and fears you have endured at the hands of others, from all the terrible trials and difficulties you experience in this imperfect world. As Simeon confessed, He came to be your peace, your salvation, your light, and your glory. Every aspect of His holy life from His conception onward was dedicated to purifying your sinful life, so that you would finally be freed from sword and sorrow and would join Him, not in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Egypt, or Nazareth, but in heaven above.
And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child, so dear and gentle,
Is our Lord in heav’n above;
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.
(Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary #139, v. 4)
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(picture from the 1631 Rembrandt painting, Simeon in the Temple)
The Fourth Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 22) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 18:23-35
In Christ Jesus, who made himself poor, so that you might become rich (2Cor. 8:9), dear fellow redeemed:
We say it just about every weekend. It is a concise summary of what the Bible teaches about God. It is called the “Apostles’ Creed,” because it is perfectly consistent with the inspired words of the apostles in the New Testament. But as basic and foundational as this confession is, it is completely rejected by the unbelieving world. What we confess as true and accurate, the world says is false and made up. “God the Father is the ‘Maker of heaven and earth’? No way. Jesus was ‘born of the Virgin Mary’? Impossible. He ‘rose again from the dead’? No chance. Everyone who believes in Jesus will rise again and life forever? Give me a break.”
Maybe the only statement an unbeliever could accept is that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried,” though there are many who deny that a famous Jesus in the first century even existed. The world’s denial of the Apostles’ Creed also includes the rejection of this part of the third article: “I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins.”
What is so objectionable about the forgiveness of sins? Shouldn’t everyone believe that sin can be forgiven? You would think so. But instead of welcoming forgiveness, our society just does away with sin. It is not as though sin has actually diminished or gone away. It’s that sinners choose not to see sin as sin anymore. If someone is accused of wrongdoing, he or she is quick to pass the blame. They might say that their bad behavior is justified by the bad behavior of others. Or they point out how others are far worse than they are. Or they might blame their upbringing as the problem or current circumstances beyond their control.
The other approach is to argue that what used to be considered sinful is not sinful anymore. We see this in the way the authorities are openly disrespected and abused, and in the cavalier way people treat sexual activity and marriage. “I won’t let anybody else tell me how to live,” they say. “I have the right to do whatever I want with my own body.” In their minds, the only sin being committed is by the people who criticize the choices they make, and who presume to tell them they are doing what is wrong.
But sin is not determined by personal opinion, or by what one feels is good or bad behavior. The line between good and bad, right and wrong, is determined by God. And He does not leave us guessing where that line is. He gives us a clear standard of holiness in ten simple statements. These commands of God spell out our responsibility toward Him and toward our neighbor. They are very clear and can hardly be misunderstood. God says that we should fear, love, and trust in Him alone. He says we should honor His name and hear His Word. He says that we should respect the authorities, defend life, flee from sexual immorality (1Cor. 6:18), and help our neighbor keep His belongings and a good reputation.
This is what God says we should do. “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (Jam. 4:17). That is what sin is, doing the opposite of what God says. God is a God of order, which is evident not only by His law, but also in His creation. Sin goes against God’s order. “Sin is lawlessness” (1Jn. 3:4). That is the definition of sin.
So how big a problem is sin? It is a problem that we often see more clearly in others than in ourselves. “He should not have said what he did,” we think, or “She should not be living like that.” But we give ourselves a pass. We point out the bad in others while only looking at the good in ourselves. But supposing there were no one else around for comparison. If it were just you standing before the holy God, how would your life look?
It would look a lot like a servant standing before his master, to whom he owed ten thousand talents. Do you know the value of ten thousand talents? It is estimated that just one talent equals twenty years’ worth of wages. So if one year’s worth of wages were $30,000, then ten thousand talents would be six billion dollars! The king ordered that the servant be sold along with “his wife and children and all that he had,” and the proceeds to go toward what he owed. But even all of that would hardly make a dent in the tremendous debt.
This is how it is for us. Even if we sold everything we had, even if we gathered together all of our resources, our good deeds, our good behavior, and applied them toward our debt of sin, we would hardly make a dent. Our sinfulness is so great, our trespasses so immeasurable. Whether acknowledged or not, the sins of every single person are so extensive, that the biggest book in the world could not contain them all.
Perhaps this sounds like an exaggeration to you. But if your sin and the sins of the world were not so immense, why did God become Man? Why did He give Himself into the hands of His enemies? Why did He let Himself be tortured and killed? Did He make a mistake? Was your heart more pure and the world more holy than He thought? The cheerful optimist wearing rose-colored glasses might say that there is more good than evil in the world. But “the LORD sees not as man sees” (1Sam. 16:7). He sees the human heart for what it is and correctly perceives the fatal flaws of the human condition.
So before you hear about forgiveness, you must first learn to see your sinful nature and sinful heart as God does. You must acknowledge that sin exists, and that you are responsible for committing a great deal of it. Once the law has done its work and shown where you have fallen short and sinned against God, then the Lord has you right where He wants you. He does not punish you or torment you. He has pity on you, just like the master had pity on his servant. He releases you from the debt you owe Him; He forgives your sins. How is this possible? Why does God let you off so easily?
It is not as though God just overlooks your debt of sin. This would be the same as God admitting that His commands are not actually binding. God cannot overlook sin. He is a just God. His law is right and true, and therefore His judgment is also. Some think they are capable of satisfying God’s righteous requirement on their own. They sound just as foolish as the servant begging for his master’s patience until he pays everything back. The debt is simply too great. Repayment is beyond reach.
For a debt as immense as ours, only the one to whom it was owed could satisfy it. This is why God sent His Son to be born of Mary. He gave Jesus the task of repaying the debt. As the time of reckoning approached, Jesus begged His Father that there might be some other way. The LORD had once provided a ram, so that Abraham would not have to sacrifice his only son (Gen. 22:13). Could it be so now too? But Jesus was the ram caught in the thicket of God’s law. For the law to be fulfilled, a perfect sacrifice was required. Jesus had to be slaughtered.
What precious blood it was that flowed from the wounds of Jesus! It was the blood not only of a Man; it was the blood of God. That is how the LORD can be just and still forgive you. That is how the LORD can declare you righteous even though you are a sinner. The Apostle John states, “the blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn. 1:7-9).
God’s love for you is even greater than the great debt of your sin. The LORD declares to you that your iniquity is pardoned, and that His grace pays back twice as much as you sinfully spent (Is. 40:2). He says that your ten thousand talent debt is satisfied. Do you find this hard to believe? You should. It is hard to believe. It is not reasonable at all. But it is not our reason that counts. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (1:18). The LORD forgives every single one of your sins.
And then there is also the matter of your neighbor. Others have sinned against you in the past, just like you have sinned against others. If your sins against God are ten thousand talents, God sees the sins against you as a hundred denarii. One denarius was about a day’s wage, so a hundred denarii would be about a third of an annual salary. So while you were indebted to God for six billion dollars so to speak, your neighbor might be indebted to you for ten thousand dollars. The debt owed by your neighbor is real, but we often make those debts into more than they are. We get easily offended when things don’t go our way. We brood over the unkind words and actions of others, so that the original offense is magnified in our minds. We might even declare that the offense is unforgivable.
But that is not how the LORD treats you. He has mercy on you and forgives your debt even though you do not deserve it. This is why Jesus tells you to “forgive your brother from your heart,” and why He taught you to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” You forgive by grace just as God does. This is a hard task, and we often fail at it. But God calls us again and again to hear His Word of forgiveness and to sit at His table of forgiveness. For it is in these places that He fills us with love for our neighbor and strengthens us to believe that our sins truly are forgiven.
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The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 10:23-38
In Christ Jesus, sent by God the Father to gather His flock and lead it to the safe haven above, dear fellow redeemed:
Many of you here have learned the Ten Commandments along with Martin Luther’s explanation to each one. With the exception of the First Commandment, each explanation starts out the same way, “We should fear and love God, so that we….” Luther did this to emphasize that each Commandment points back to the first one, “You shall have no other gods,” which means that we should “Fear, love, and trust in God above all things” (Luther’s explanation). Why should I honor my father and mother? Because God put those authorities over me. Why shouldn’t I harm someone? Because God gives life and wants it protected. Why shouldn’t I steal? Because God gives food and possessions even to the wicked. The reason that I speak well of others, help them keep what they have, honor marriage, and so on, is out of fear and love for God.
You can imagine what happens when people do not fear and love God. They abuse God’s name. They ignore His Word. They disrespect the authorities. They fail to defend life. They despise marriage. They take what is not theirs. They attack the reputation of others. They plot and scheme to get what is someone else’s. And what does all this gain for them? They may experience moments of empowerment and happiness, but their lives are full of emptiness and brokenness, and death moves closer and closer by the day. There is no hope for them apart from the true God. Only He can rescue from death. We Fear and Love Him Who Gives Us Eternal Life.
What does it mean to fear God? It means to have a healthy respect for who He is and what He is capable of. To say that fear and respect for God are lacking today is an understatement. People are quick to blame Him in bad times and quick to praise themselves when times are good. They treat the Bible like a toy that can be twisted, stretched, and spun however they like. They say things like, “The God I know would never criticize my lifestyle choices. The God I know loves and accepts me just the way I am.” But the god they know is a god of their own making and not the true God. Others deny that God even exists. They freely take His name in vain and blaspheme Him and His Word. What should God do about this?
When we are disrespected by someone, we are tempted to lash out against that person and to seek revenge. We might even resort to intimidation or physical harm. Surely the Lord would be just in doing the same. He is God Almighty, the Creator. He made all things and deserves the honor and praise of all. But it was not for revenge that God came down to earth in the flesh. Jesus said, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17). That is good news for us, because we are among those who have dishonored the true God by devoting ourselves to other gods.
This temptation to chase after false gods is ever-present in our lives. It might be the god of money, the god of worldly success and honor, the god of pleasure, the god of work, the god of family, the god of sport and leisure, the god of beauty, the god of political activism. These things are not sinful in and of themselves, but they become sinful when they take the place of our trust in God. In the Holy Gospel reading from Matthew 22, Jesus said that this is the great commandment of the Law, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Where has your heart been focused – have you let it lead you into sin? How about your soul – would you sell it for the riches and glory of the world? And your mind – do you apply it toward good and holy pursuits or evil ones?
There is no part of you that is unstained by sin. You have joined the devil and the world in opposition to God every time you have done what God says you should not and failed to do what you should. Our Lord does not go with averages. Mostly good is not good enough. Scripture says that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (Jam. 2:10). So why is it that God still counts you as one of His children? Jesus explains, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
You have heard the voice of Jesus in His Word, and you believe what He says. You believe that there is only one God but three Persons – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. You believe that you are a lost and condemned sinner, who has been purchased and won back by the blood of God’s Son. You believe these things because the Holy Spirit has brought you to faith through His Word. You believe that God chose you from eternity to receive His gifts and to live with Him forever in heaven. These are articles of faith. They cannot be understood by human reason or captured by human strength. If God did not give you this faith, you would not have it.
The Jews who surrounded Jesus in the temple courts did not have this faith. They saw the amazing works Jesus did. They heard His words. But they had a different Messiah in mind, one who would pat them on the back and praise them for their holy living. They trusted in the god of self. They denied the true God and wanted Jesus dead. Not much has changed. Today’s unbelievers want the same thing. This is because the old Adam is still the old Adam, the devil is still the devil, and the world is still the world. The enemies we face are the same enemies that the apostles and David and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob faced. But the God who defends us is the same God too, and He is almighty.
Psalm 2 says, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs” (vv. 1-4). Psalm 115 describes the idols of men which are nothing but “the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat” (vv. 4-7). But the true God “is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (v. 3). There is no God like the LORD. He is “God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God” (Deu. 10:17).
Despite God’s promise to protect us and keep us safe in His hands, we often let fear overcome us—and it isn’t the proper fear of God. We fear having to defend what we believe and being made fun of for it. We fear those who want Christians silenced or worse. We fear that we might miss out on really living if we deny ourselves and have to take up our cross. Such fears are sinful and are contrary to the First Commandment. We cannot serve two Lords or two Gods. We cannot live according to God’s will while indulging our sinful desires. If you do fear and love God, you must serve Him with every inch, every part of your being, body and soul.
If you fail to do this, do you know what God will do to you? Will He punish you? Disown you? No, He will forgive you. In fact, He already has. We have failed to do what God demands. We have not loved Him with our heart, mind, and soul, or our neighbor as ourselves. But Jesus did. He loved God and His neighbor with a perfect love. How could He love God? Does that mean He loved Himself? It means that He obeyed the will of His Father and carried out the work His Father gave Him to do, which was to die for sin. And how can we know that He perfectly loved His neighbors? He was willing to suffer and die even for His enemies, which includes you and me. St. Paul writes that “one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7-8).
Jesus died for your sins, even your sins of denying Him, ignoring Him, and willingly doing what you should not have done. Jesus willingly suffered for these sins. They do not stick to you anymore. You are clean. And because you are clean in God’s sight, you are also in line to inherit eternal life. No other God can do this, because there is no other God. There is only one Creator, one Lord, one King. He will not lead you astray, and as long as you listen to His Word, He will keep you from being enticed by any wolf or endangered by any hireling. No one will snatch you, His precious lamb, out of His hand. So with the psalmist we say, “This I know, that God is for me. In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Ps. 56:9-11).
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