The Festival of the Reformation – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 1:16-17
In Christ Jesus, who “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy” (Ti. 3:5), dear fellow redeemed:
Who is responsible for the Reformation movement? The answer that comes immediately to mind is Martin Luther, the bold monk from Wittenberg, Germany. But that is not really correct. The one who brought about the Reformation was God the Holy Spirit. The Reformation did not grow out of someone’s personality, personal strength, or intellectual ability. It grew out of the powerful Word of God.
To be specific, the Reformation can be said to have grown out of the short text before us today from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. It may seem straightforward and comforting to us, but it was terribly perplexing to Martin Luther. The part that troubled him the most was the part about “the righteousness of God.” He said these words “struck [his] conscience like lightning” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 54, p. 193), and that they were “like a thunderbolt in [his] heart” (LW, Vol. 54, pp. 308-309). He went as far as to say he hated these words.
He had been taught to understand “the righteousness of God” as referring to the vengeful God who punished unrighteous sinners. He explained it in this way: “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction [by the good works he had done]. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God” (LW, Vol. 34, pp. 336-337).
But as discouraged as he was by this text, he couldn’t leave it alone. He couldn’t shake the sense that he was missing something. The ideas didn’t seem to match up. On the one hand, Paul wrote about “the righteousness of God.” On the other hand, he cited a passage from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk about how “The righteous shall live by faith.” Luther had been taught and was convinced that no one could be righteous before God unless he did enough good works to please Him. But Paul was connecting righteousness to faith.
One day Luther was sitting in the tower at his monastery pondering the words before us today, when it suddenly dawned on him. He realized the problem was not with the text—the problem was with him! He said he now “began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God” (LW, Vol. 34, pp. 337). He learned that there was a difference between “the righteousness of the law” and “the righteousness of the gospel.”
The righteousness of the law is how God requires us to live according to the Ten Commandments. But the righteousness of the gospel is not about what we do at all. The righteousness of the gospel is all about what God gives to sinners according to His grace. What Luther learned in these two short verses is the proper distinction between God’s Law and God’s Gospel (LW, Vol. 54, pp. 442-443). He didn’t come to this understanding on his own. He gave all glory to God. He said, “The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me” (LW, Vol. 54, p. 194).
This is why I said that God the Holy Spirit brought about the Reformation. But there are many who disagree. They wish the Reformation had never happened. They view it as the work of the devil. They feel this way because the Reformation caused the church to break in pieces like it never had before. Besides dividing the Lutherans and Roman Catholics, the Reformation also led to the formation of other Christian denominations like the Anabaptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. (We’ll be studying these denominations in more detail in our next Bible Class.)
We, too, are sad that the church is so divided. But we thank God for the Reformation. Before the Reformation, the Gospel message of salvation had been obscured. Christians were not confident that their sins were forgiven because of what Jesus did. They were terrified of death because they thought they would be in purgatory a long, long time paying for their sins. This is why they jumped at the chance to buy indulgences authorized by the pope. They were told that as soon as they purchased an indulgence, they could send a loved one from purgatory to heaven and store up merit for themselves.
But an indulgence is not needed for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Jesus is. He stated this clearly when He said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Joh. 3:16). We call this “the Gospel in a nutshell.” This is the good news—that God the Father sent His Son to take on our flesh to save us. Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life under the Law for us, and He carried all our sins to the cross to atone for them there. We are saved because of what He did and not because of anything we do. As soon as we believe this good news by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have eternal life in Him.
This runs contrary to natural human thinking. We think that since we messed up, since we sinned, we have to fix it. We have to make up for our wrongs by doing lots of good. Even we who know this is not the case still beat ourselves up over past sins. We won’t let ourselves live in the grace of God. We won’t let ourselves rejoice in His wonderful love and goodness toward us. “I have sinned too much,” we think. “My faults are too many.”
Do you realize that is just another way of saying that Jesus is not much of a Savior? If your sins are too great, if your past is too horrible for God to forgive you, then He is a very limited God, and Jesus was wasting His time on the cross. Why was Jesus there if not for you? Why did He suffer if your sins could not be forgiven? Or was He there because your sins could be forgiven? And did He rise again from the dead because your sins are forgiven? This is why He suffered, died, and rose again: to blot out all of your sins with His precious blood and to win your eternal salvation.
You’re not alone in wondering if this message of the Gospel is too good to be true. Luther wondered this. So did the Apostle Paul. Paul admitted he was “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of God. But, he said, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1Ti. 1:14-15).
Paul spread this Gospel message all over Europe. No matter how much he was ridiculed and attacked, he would not stop preaching the good news. “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he wrote, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” It is hard for us to understand how a message, a collection of certain words, could have the power to save. Our words do not have this power. But God’s words do.
In His Gospel, God reveals His righteousness. He shows us that what we could not accomplish, He accomplished for us. He tells us that we are no longer His enemies doomed to eternal destruction. Now we are His children destined for eternal life. Everything He required of us in His Law, He gives to us in His Gospel.
The Gospel message is able to do this for us because the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work through it. Just as He opened Luther’s mind and heart to understand and believe the good news of what Jesus had done, so He does the same for us. He works faith in our hearts through the Gospel, and He continues to strengthen our faith in the same way.
This faith, a gift from God, joins us to Jesus and everything He did to save us. This is why God the Father counts all who believe in His Son as righteous. We are righteous because Jesus was perfectly righteous. His righteousness covers over all our sinfulness. And because Jesus rose from the dead, never to die again, so we live in Him. Jesus Himself promised, “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Joh. 11:26).
When the Holy Spirit led Luther to understand the truth about what God had done for him, he could not contain his joy: “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Luther now realized that his sins were all forgiven, not because of anything he had done, but by faith in his Savior. “And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God,’” he said. “Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise” (LW, Vol. 34, p. 337).
The Gospel of salvation through Jesus is our “gate to paradise” too. It is why we celebrate the Reformation. It is why we will not budge an inch from the Bible’s teaching for the sake of outward unity in the church. The Gospel is everything to us. If we lose the good news of what Jesus has done for us, we will go back to thinking salvation depends on ourselves. And then we are lost.
But as long as we have the Gospel, the Holy Spirit is at work cleansing, comforting, and strengthening us. He continues the work of reformation in our hearts just as in the church, so that we are pointed always to Jesus, our Savior.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “Martin Luther at Worms” by Anton von Werner, 1877)
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 3:15-22
In Christ Jesus, in whom “all the promises of God find their Yes” (2Co. 1:20), dear fellow redeemed:
It is election season in our country, which means it is a time when politicians make a lot of promises. Some of those promises are within their power to carry out if they are elected. Other promises they only hope they can keep. Still other promises are made to score political points, but there is really no follow through to fulfill them. A politician makes these promises to secure votes. In other words, he is willing to give something in order to get something in return.
That doesn’t sound very impressive, but a lot of our promises are like that. We promise to give our best on the field or court or in the classroom, and we expect our good effort to be recognized. We promise to work hard for an employer, and we expect to be treated well in return. We promise to be faithful to our spouse, and we expect their faithfulness to us. When we know our promises will be rewarded, it is easier for us to keep them.
It is much harder to keep our promises when the person we have made a promise to proves unworthy of it. Then we might try to go back and adjust our promise. “What I really meant was that I promise to do this or that if you meet my conditions, or as long as I am happy with you.” Experiencing betrayals and hurts might also cause us to adjust our promises on the front end. This has happened with marriage vows in certain places where “as long as we both shall live” has been changed to “as long as we still love each other.” But a conditional promise is really no promise at all.
A true promise is difficult business. A true promise puts us in another person’s debt. It commits us to serve them in some way, and service always requires sacrifice. Making a promise conditional or making no promises at all is much “safer,” so to speak. But that is not the way we have been taught by God. That is the way of selfishness, not the way of love.
Our gracious and merciful Lord does not make conditional promises. He does exactly what He says He will do. The promise that Paul writes about in today’s Epistle is the promise God made to Abraham after Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen. 22:15-18). But although it included a formal covenant, it wasn’t really a new promise. At its core, it pointed to an old promise, the promise of salvation for sinners. God first made this promise to Adam and Eve after they fell into sin.
When you read the account of the fall in Genesis chapter 3, you might expect to find Adam and Eve asking God what they could do to get right with Him again. Or you might expect God to give them some incentive to be better and prove themselves to Him. Neither of those things happens. First He makes the promise that the Seed of the woman will crush the serpent’s head (3:15). Then He outlines the consequences that man and woman will face because of their sins (vv. 16-19). No impression is given that the fulfillment of God’s promise to save is dependent on how well Adam and Eve carried out their callings in a sinful world.
The same goes for Abraham. The LORD called Abraham away from the idol worship of his father’s house. Abraham in no way deserved God’s favor, but the LORD chose him as an ancestor of the promised Messiah and gave him faith to believe the promise (Gen. 15:6). Even Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son at God’s command did not cause God to keep His promise.
If God’s promise to send a Savior depended on the world’s worthiness to receive this gift, no Savior would have ever come. The LORD did not negotiate terms for sending a Savior like Abraham did for saving Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham asked God to spare those wicked cities if only fifty righteous people were found there and then forty-five righteous ones and then thirty and then twenty and then ten (Gen. 18:22-33).
If the LORD had said He would save the world as long as fifty percent were righteous or even ten percent of the population, we would have no Savior. By nature, “None [of us] is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). The LORD’s promise was not conditional like this. His promise did not depend on our character and our actions. It depended entirely on His holy will and His immeasurable love for us sinners.
This is why He kept His promise even though so many had despised His promise and so few were looking for its fulfillment. “[W]hen the fullness of time had come—when the time had come to fulfill the promise—, God sent forth his Son” (Gal. 4:4). God the Father sent His Son to be born into the world of men, to be subject to the holy Law, to endure terrible injustice, suffering, and pain, and to die at the hands of sinners.
If anyone had the right to change a promise because the recipients of the promise were obviously unworthy, it is God. But God did not change His promise. He kept it. He sent His only-begotten Son to die alone for the sins of the whole world. Jesus died for everyone, even for those who hate Him and His Word, for those who bow down at the altars of worldly power and pleasure and riches, for the murderers, abusers, thieves, liars, and cheats. He died for all people past, present, and future who sin. That means He died for you and me.
Besides rejecting the salvation He won, the worst thing we can do is act like we contribute toward our salvation. Many people fall into this error, including many Christians. They say things like this: “Jesus did His part, and now I have to do mine.” Or, “Jesus died for my sins, and now I have to prove I am worthy of His sacrifice.” Or comfortless statements like these, “God helps those who help themselves.”
Jesus did not fulfill the Law and die for your sins just to have the Law placed on your shoulders again. Keeping the Law does not complete your salvation or give you another way to obtain salvation. This is St. Paul’s emphasis in today’s text. He said that God gave the promise of salvation to Abraham 430 years before He gave the Law through Moses. The giving of the Law did not annul God’s covenant of grace. It did not make the promise of salvation through faith void. Paul wrote that “if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.”
You know this. You know you are saved by grace and not by works. You know that your inheritance of heaven comes by God’s promise alone. But the devil and your own flesh want to tempt you away from this certainty and get you to focus on the things you do or don’t do. So you might watch the news and think you are better than the rioters and looters. You would never behave like that! You follow the rules. You lend a helping hand. You prove every day how much more kind and loving you are than others.
Do you see the problem? Thinking so much about your own good deeds plants you in the ground of the Law. The only fruit you can bear there is self-righteousness and pride or else despair. But looking to your Savior in humility and faith plants you firmly in His promise. God did not give the Law so you could compare your righteousness with others. He gave the Law “because of transgressions,” as Paul writes. He gave the Law to humble you, to show you how far you have fallen short.
And He gave His promise to save you, to show you how deep His love is for you. No matter how often you have messed up, no matter what terrible words you have said or thoughts you have imagined toward others, God’s promise of your forgiveness has not changed. He does not say that the shed blood of Jesus takes away only minor infractions, or only benefits the people who show they are worthy. He says that “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1Jo. 1:7).
You may feel like the most wretched sinner the world has ever known. You might hardly hope for peace with God because of your many sins. You may carry the burden of a million failures. But God says, “As surely as My holy Son died on the cross and rose again, your sins are forgiven. Your record is completely clean. Salvation is yours.”
God kept His promise to send a Savior, which means there is nothing you have to do to be saved. But what about the example of the Good Samaritan? Isn’t Jesus teaching us that we have to be kind and merciful toward those around us? He is. He is teaching us about love, which is the summary of His Law. But He is not teaching that salvation is earned by our love toward others.
Salvation was earned by His love. He is our Good Samaritan who saved us from our sin and death. Our love for Him and others comes as a response to His love, as a living sacrifice of thankfulness for what He has done. “We love because he first loved us” (1Jo. 4:19). As soon as we try to add our love to the equation of our salvation, then salvation becomes uncertain, because we do not love as God commands us to do. Paul writes: “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
God has not changed His mind about you or the rest of the sinners of the world. He has not voided the work His Son did to save you. He gives no conditions to meet if you would enter into His favor. God’s Promise Stands on His faithfulness alone. That means your forgiveness, your life, and your salvation are completely secure in Him.
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 of Abraham viewing the stars from 1919 Bible primer book published by Augustana Book Concern)
The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 2 Corinthians 3:4-11
In Christ Jesus, who drank the cup of God’s wrath, so you could drink from the waters of salvation through His Word, dear fellow redeemed:
What does it mean that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”? Some say that when Paul refers to “the letter,” he is talking about the words of the Bible. So they argue that the Bible is a “dead letter,” and a “dead letter” cannot save your soul. If you want to be saved, you need the Spirit. And how do you get the Spirit? Not by reading or hearing the words of the Bible, but by your own prayers, your own inner struggle, the stretching of your feelings and emotions toward the mighty God.
Another twist on this idea is the churches which display rainbow-colored banners outside their walls which say, “God is still speaking.” They believe that the Spirit reveals new teachings to Christian communities that may even contradict deeply-held beliefs of past generations. “God is still speaking” is another way of saying, “We don’t believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. We don’t believe it is all-sufficient for Christian life in today’s world. The times when the Bible was written were much different times than these. We believe that the Spirit is still shaping and guiding us not through the Bible but through the collective judgment of the Christians in this place.”
These attempts to separate the Spirit from the Word remind me of a story I read a while back. It’s a fairly short story, and I’d like to share it with you today.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful little village nestled in a valley between two mountains. In the center of the village was a well. The well provided water to all the inhabitants of the village. People came from all over the world to drink the cool, clean, crisp water that was drawn daily from the well. Countless people remained in the village and made their homes there. They loved the water.
The well was sufficient for the people of the village. No other wells graced the cobblestone streets of that mountain town. There was no need. No one ever suggested that they might like some other well more. Such a thought would be incomprehensible. The well was sufficient to satisfy all their needs, and it seemed that no matter how many people came to dwell in the mountain village there was always enough water. Water from another well? The thought was unheard of—absurd.
The well was also powerful. At the suggestion that the well might run dry some day, the people only laughed. “A waterless well?” The thought was unheard of—absurd. Whenever anyone went to the well, from the smallest child to the mayor himself, water was always there. The well was predictable, trustworthy, and always dependable. The well had power.
The people depended on only one well, and that well never let them down. The well and the water went together. You could not have one without the other. If you wanted water, you got it from that well and that well alone. If you went to the well, you always had water. There was no water without the well and no well without the water.
One day, the saddest day the town had ever known, a stranger came to the village. He tasted the water, as had every visitor before him. The visitor said, “This is good water. But I know another source that can give you water just like this well.”
The people were divided. Some said, “Impossible. Water comes only from this well.” Others were curious.
The visitor took another drink and said, “This is a good well. But I don’t think that we can depend on the well.”
The people were divided. Some said, “Impossible. Water always comes from the well.” Others were curious.
So the townspeople discussed two questions. First, was it only the well? Was that well sufficient enough? Second, was it always the well? Was that well powerful enough? The stranger proposed an experiment. “Why not cover the well? I’m sure that there will be water from some other place. This well is not sufficient. Yes, let’s cover the well. I don’t think we can afford to rely on it forever. The well is not powerful enough.”
But the people protested. “No, the well and the water belong together. If you cover the well, we will not have water.”
Scornfully the stranger replied, “You are well lovers. You should love the water. Don’t you think that God can give us water from anywhere He wants? Are you trying to limit God? You faithless people, you lovers of wells, God does not need a well to prosper you.” That talk of “God” seemed so pious and godly. Of course the people did not want to limit the power of God. They covered up the well.
And, alas, all the people in the town died. (Klemet I. Preus, The Fire and the Staff: Lutheran Theology in Practice, pp. 80-82)
What do you think of the story? It’s kind of silly, isn’t it? What little village would cover up the only source of water it had?
But this sad story is not really about a village, a well, and water. This story is about the church, the Word, and the Spirit. It is about the church centered on the Word. As long as the church drinks from the Word, like the village from its well, it has the Holy Spirit in full measure. It lacks nothing. By the Spirit working through the Word, faith is fed and the thirst for righteousness is satisfied. When the church has the Word, it has the Spirit.
But there are “strangers”—false teachers—who try to convince the church that it can have the Spirit apart from the Word. “Why stick to the ‘dead letter’ of the Word?” they ask. “‘For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’—isn’t that what Paul says? God can give the Spirit however He wants. He doesn’t need the Word to do it! Don’t worry about the Word; go right to the Spirit!” This is all a lie. There is no Spirit apart from the Word. The Holy Spirit works through the Word.
Today’s text does not teach that the Word and the Spirit are separate. What it teaches is the distinction between God’s Law and God’s Gospel. God’s Law is referred to in this text in different ways. It is called “the letter,” “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone,” and “the ministry of condemnation.”
God gave the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and when Moses came down the mountain from God’s presence carrying the two tablets of the Law, his face shined with a bright light. It shone so brightly that the people of Israel ran away from him in fear (Exo. 34:30). After he called them back, he delivered God’s Law to them. And then he covered his face with a veil, so the people would not be afraid (vv. 31-33).
Moses’ shining face reminded the Israelites that they were not like God. They were not holy like He was. God’s holy Commandments drove this point home. The letter of God’s Law condemned them. This is why Paul wrote that “the letter kills.” God’s Law kills any idea that we can be right with Him by our own efforts. It kills our self-righteousness. It kills our boasting. It kills our pride. If we take a good look at ourselves in the mirror of the Law, all we can see is our sin. There is no hope for salvation in the Law.
But “the Spirit gives life.” How? Through the Word of God’s Gospel. The Holy Spirit does not bring you anything new today. He does not bring you any knowledge or understanding or wisdom that believers in the past did not possess. If you run into someone who claims to have new messages from the Spirit to share, run the other way.
Jesus clearly stated the work of the Holy Spirit: “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (Joh. 16:14). The Holy Spirit takes what belongs to Jesus and gives it to you. He takes Jesus’ perfect life of obedience to the Law. He takes Jesus’ innocent suffering and atoning death for all sin. He takes Jesus’ triumphant resurrection from the dead. And He declares it all to you. “Jesus’ righteousness—yours. Jesus’ forgiveness—yours. Jesus’ life—yours.”
That is why Paul calls “the ministry of the Spirit” through the Gospel, “the ministry of righteousness.” The Word of God’s Gospel is the way that He gives you everything He demands of you in His Law. Through the Word of what Jesus did for you, the Holy Spirit gives you all that you need to get to heaven.
However, you still need to hear the Law in this life. The old Adam, your sinful nature, still needs to die every day through the condemnation of God’s Law. The Holy Spirit is at work there too to lead you to repentance. But His primary work is to bring you Jesus. Jesus kept the letter of the Law for you. He was condemned so you would be freed. He died the death you deserved to die, so you would have abundant life in Him.
Eventually, Moses with his shining face was replaced by another leader and then another. The tablets of stone engraved with God’s Law were lost. “[T]here was glory in the ministry of condemnation,” but “the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.” What Jesus has done for you and all sinners will never fade. His Word will never lose its power. The church will never need something new.
The saving words of Jesus are “spirit and life” (Joh. 6:63). Whoever drinks of the water of this world will be thirsty again. “[B]ut whoever drinks of the water that I will give him,” says Jesus, “will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Joh. 4:14).
Drink Deeply from the Well of Jesus’ Word through which the Holy Spirit does His powerful work. The living waters of His Word are meant for you and your salvation. Jesus’ Word of forgiveness and life is your oasis in a parched and dying world. It is the source of your healing and strength. It is the guarantee of God’s favor upon you and of the eternal glories to come.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from annual outdoor service on the parsonage grounds)
The Fourth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 4:21-5:1
In Christ Jesus, who took upon Himself the yoke of sin and entered the dungeon of death, so that we would be ransomed and freed, dear fellow redeemed:
You and I are Americans. We were born here. We are citizens, so we have all the rights and privileges as outlined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We wouldn’t like it if someone came along and tried to say we weren’t actually Americans. “You don’t understand what it means to be an American,” you’re told. “You don’t appreciate American freedoms. You may have been born here, but you are not from here.” We probably wouldn’t have to think too hard about a response. We know what we are.
But what if it were true? What if we thought we were “good Americans,” but everything we stood for contradicted the founding principles of our country? Something like this happened when Jesus told the Jews they were not descendants of Abraham. “What!?” they said, “Of course we are descendants of Abraham! We can trace our family line all the way back to Abraham and his son Isaac and his son Jacob!” Jesus replied, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did” (Joh. 8:39-40).
The Jews to whom Jesus spoke may have been blood relatives of Abraham, but they were not his spiritual heirs. They thought they were children of promise in good standing with God. Jesus called them “slaves”—slaves to sin. “Whoever is of God hears the words of God,” He said. “The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (8:47). The Jews were so offended at Jesus’ criticisms and His claim to be God that “they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself” (v. 59). It wasn’t His time to die yet, though that time would come.
In his letter to the churches of Galatia, the apostle Paul by inspiration of the Holy Spirit took up the same topic of Abraham and his descendants. Paul had traveled through the area of Galatia on his first and second missionary journeys. Christian congregations had been established along the way. But after Paul left, other preachers came. They did not teach the same doctrine as Paul. Presenting themselves as Christians, they urged the Galatian congregations to diligently keep the Old Testament laws. This included the laws regarding Jewish festivals and the law of circumcision.
But the Old Testament regulations were in place to point to Christ. Once He had accomplished His work, the Old Testament ceremonial and civil laws were no longer required (Col. 2:16-17). Jesus perfectly fulfilled them for all (Mat. 5:17-18). Hearing that the Galatian Christians were being swayed by these false teachers, Paul sent his letter. He asked the congregation members whether they received “the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith” (Gal. 3:2). He wrote that Abraham received the Spirit by faith, so “it is those of the faith who are the sons of Abraham” (v. 7).
Further on in the letter, Paul illustrated this teaching by the example of Abraham’s two sons. One was born from Sarah’s maidservant Hagar whom Sarah gave to Abraham in the hopes of obtaining a child (Gen. 16:2). Abraham and Hagar conceived a son named Ishmael. But Ishmael was not the child of promise. God kept His Word to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son of their own. They named their son Isaac. Isaac was the child of promise. “[A]ll the nations of the earth [would] be blessed” (Gen. 22:18) through him, because the Messiah would come from him.
The practicing Jews in Paul’s day would have absolutely called themselves the spiritual descendants of Isaac. But Paul disagreed. Paul called the Jews who rejected the Gospel the spiritual children of Hagar’s son Ishmael. “[Hagar] corresponds to the present Jerusalem,” he wrote, “for she is in slavery with her children.” And what was it that the Jews were enslaved to? They were enslaved to the law. They adhered to a religion of works. They rejected Jesus as their Holiness, their Substitute, and their Savior, and they trusted in their own righteousness. Therefore they remained in slavery to sin.
But the spiritual descendants of Isaac are those who believe the promise. They believe that God the Father sent His only Son to be born of Mary who could trace her lineage back to Abraham and Isaac. They believe that her Son Jesus kept the law perfectly in their place, so the law could no longer condemn them. They believe that His sacrifice on the cross ransomed them from the power of sin, devil, and death. These, wrote Paul, are “children of promise,” children of freedom.
So which category describes you? There are some who believe that the freedom which Jesus obtained for them allows them to do whatever they want. They are kind of like those who behave badly and say whatever wicked and unkind thing they want because “it’s a free country.” Our freedom as Christians can be misused just like our freedom as citizens can. Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of our sins should not make us comfortable with sin. Since our sin caused the death of our perfect Lord, we should want to avoid sin at all cost. We are free from the condemnation of the law, but the Ten Commandments are still in place for our good and for the good of our neighbors.
Let’s dig deeper into what it means to be free in Christ. Freedom in Christ means I do not have to wear a certain kind of clothing, eat or avoid certain foods, or work a certain job. I am free to go to the grocery store and buy whatever I want. I am even free to buy more than I need in the case that I might need it in the future. However I am not free to disregard the needs of my neighbor. Unfortunately we see this happening now when people hoard essential goods in quantities far higher than they need or for the purpose of reselling the products at a higher price. This selfishness and greed leaves their neighbors without and uncertain what to do. That is not the way of Christ.
At the same time, it is easy to think well of ourselves when we do not do those things. We care about our neighbors. We want to help them. We are generous. From these thoughts, it is only a small step to self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is comparing ourselves with others and imagining that we come out ahead. It is the opinion that we have done a fair job of keeping God’s law. This is how the Jewish preachers were who wanted to pull the Galatian Christians from the doctrine they had been taught by Paul. They urged the Galatians to seek comfort and peace in what they did for God and not in what He had done for them.
Like the Galatians, we have fallen for this temptation many times. We love to compare ourselves with others and pass judgment on them: “Well I wouldn’t have done that!” “How could he be so stupid!” “We would be so much better off without them!” Or, “They would be so much better off if they were like us!” This kind of self-righteous behavior comes even easier to us at this time of tremendous stress in our country. We want to find people to blame for this disruption in our lives. It could be carriers of the virus from other countries, our national and local government officials, health care workers who do not support us the way we expect, or any number of other targets.
But if all we want to do is hold other people’s feet to the fire, then we should start holding our own feet to the fire. If we want to level the law at others, we should level it at ourselves. The fact is none of us by ourselves is better or more righteous than another. Paul wrote in another letter quoting a Psalm that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one’” (Rom. 3:9-10). By nature we are all slaves to sin.
But “Christ has set us free” from this slavery. He kept the requirements of the law perfectly in our place. As soon as we came to faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, His righteousness became our righteousness. That means we have no need to compare our life with the lives of others. We have nothing to do to get ourselves into heaven. Jesus fulfilled the law for us, and He fully paid the price for our sins. His atoning death in our place means the devil can do nothing more than blow hot air. His accusations cannot stick anymore, because Jesus won salvation for us.
We are now “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). We are children of promise, and The Children of Promise Are Free. We are free to love God and our neighbors, not in an attempt to get ourselves out of trouble or to prove our worth, but because Jesus set us free to love freely just as He loves us. We are members of “the Jerusalem above,” the holy Christian Church.
Our membership in Christ’s Church by faith subjects us to persecution from those who remain enslaved to sin. But we are not about to return to that slavery. We “stand firm” in the glorious freedom we have in Christ. In Him, our sins are not counted against us anymore. Through Him, our salvation is certain when our life in this world ends. And with Him, we will enjoy the perfect bliss of heaven forever.
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(picture is from “The Dismissal of Hagar” by Pieter Pietersz Lastman, 1583–1633)
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.
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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.
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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.
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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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