The Epiphany of Our Lord – Vicar Lehne sermon
Text: St. Matthew 2:1-12
In Christ Jesus, who is the Light of the whole world, dear fellow redeemed:
There is always excitement when a child is born, whether it’s your own child or the child of someone you know. However, the excitement is usually limited to only the friends and family of the ones who had the child. Outside of them, the birth of a child doesn’t get much fanfare at all. But now imagine that, sometime after one of your own children was born and the excitement had died down, an airplane landed in the nearby airport, and a parade of important-looking vehicles drove through town and over to your house. Surely, there must be some mistake, right? After all, there’s no way such important-looking vehicles would stop by your house. Then, suddenly, the doors to the vehicles open, and who should exit them and approach your front door but the royal family from England? You must be imagining things at this point. Why would anyone important show up at your house, let alone the royal family? But you soon realize that you’re not imagining it as they enter your house, greet you, and then, after asking where your new child is, approach him, bow down to him, and present him with gifts. But these are not just any gifts; they are some of the crown jewels. Then, before you can even process what is going on, the royal family says their goodbyes, exits your house, gets back into their vehicles, returns to the airport, and flies back to England. No doubt there would be quite a lot going through your head after all that, and among those thoughts would probably be two questions: “How did the royal family find out about the birth of my child?” and “Why did they travel all the way here just to do this for my child?” The arrival of the wise men to worship Jesus and present him with expensive and valuable gifts raises similar questions.
Even though the birth of Jesus was a big deal, since it was when God, the Light of the world, came down in the flesh to begin his saving work of delivering us from our sins, it was an event that didn’t get widespread fanfare. True, there was a multitude of angels that appeared to a group of shepherds to announce his birth, which was certainly a spectacular event, but those angels didn’t appear to anyone else. Then, after the shepherds saw the Christ Child with their own eyes, they “made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child” (Luke 2:17). But even though “all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them” (Luke 2:18), the news doesn’t appear to have spread very far. When the wise men arrived in Jerusalem and asked the Jews who were in the city, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (verse 2), they didn’t get an answer until King Herod assembled “all the chief priests and scribes of the people” (verse 4) and “inquired of them where the Christ was to be born” (verse 4).
So, if there weren’t even many Jews who knew that the promised Messiah had been born, how did the wise men, who were foreigners from a faraway country, find out that he had been born? We know they saw a special star in the sky, but they must have also heard the prophecies about the Christ, that he would come to save all people from their sins.
Without this promise and the faith that God the Holy Spirit worked in their hearts, the wise men would have remained in the darkness of their sin. But, through his Word, God revealed to the wise men that there was hope for them. One day, a Savior would be born, who would be God in the flesh, and that Savior would be a light that dispels their darkness and saves them from their sins. The promise of that Savior gave the wise men hope that, when they died, they were not doomed to enter into the eternal darkness of hell, but would instead be welcomed into the eternal light radiating from the Savior in heaven.
If the wise men did not believe this, then they would have had no reason to follow the star when it appeared in the sky. If the star was leading them to someone who was just a man, or to someone who would just be a king for the Jews, what reason would they have to make that long journey, carrying expensive and valuable gifts with them, and worship that person? The wise men knew that the light of the star was leading them to the true Light, and they knew that he was not just a light to the Jews, but a light to the whole world. As Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).
Your situation was similar to that of the wise men. You were conceived in the darkness of sin, just like they were. And that sin only becomes more apparent to you the older you get. You know that there is no way for you to escape from the darkness of your sin, and that you rightfully deserve to enter into the eternal darkness of hell when you die to be punished for your sin. But you also know that there is hope for you, and unlike the wise men, who did not yet know everything that Jesus would do for them, God has revealed to you in his Word how the light of Jesus dispels the darkness of your sin and saved you from it, opening the doors of eternal life to you.
Jesus was born, just like all of you were born, yet he was born without sin. He grew up like all children do, yet he did not give in to the temptations that you all face even once. He healed the sick and raised the dead during his earthly ministry, showing his power over death. Then, though he was without sin, he became sin for you by taking all your sin on himself and putting your sin to death with him on the cross. And, just when it looked like death had won by swallowing him up in its darkness, Jesus’ light shone again when he rose from the dead, putting an end to the power that death had over you and ensuring that everyone who believes in him would one day also rise from the dead to be with him, in his glorious light, forever.
Jesus, the Light of the world, now lives in each of you, but the darkness of sin wants you back. It is always there, trying to work its way back into your heart so that it can swallow you up once again. And, if you do not take sin seriously and live in your sin without repentance, the darkness of sin would prevail against you. But Jesus continues to work in you through his Word to move you to repentance and to dispel your darkness. As Jesus says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). With Jesus continually at work in your hearts, the darkness of sin can never prevail against you. This good news causes you to rejoice “exceedingly with great joy” (verse 10) and to worship Jesus, just like the wise men did.
You make a journey to worship Jesus whenever you gather around his Word and Sacraments. Your journey may not look like that of the wise men, who followed the light of the star over a vast distance so that they could worship Jesus, the true Light, and offer him gifts. But it is a journey that is just as significant as theirs. For when you do gather together to worship our Savior and offer him your gifts, you are bathed in his glorious light. This light comes through the preaching of his Word and the administering of his Sacraments and dispels the darkness of sin that constantly tries to swallow you up again. You may not offer up the same gifts that the wise men did, nor may they have the same material value, but the gifts that you do offer Jesus show your faith in him and your love for him just as much as the gifts of the wise men did.
Try as it might, the darkness of sin cannot have us, because the light of Jesus lives within us. As the apostle John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). This is good news for us, but the darkness of sin still has its hold on most of the world. They are without hope, but they are continually searching for hope and meaning in everything except for God’s Word. But we do have God’s Word, and we know that God’s Word is not just for a select few, but for the whole world. That is why we want to tell others the good news that Jesus, the Light of the world, has saved them from the darkness of their sin. As the apostle Peter says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Proclaiming God’s Word is an honor that God has given to all Christians, including you. Now, some of you may think that you are not qualified to proclaim the good news to others because you aren’t properly trained, like pastors are. But, while pastors do get special training, that doesn’t mean that they are the only ones who are qualified to tell the good news about Jesus, nor does it mean that they have learned how to convince someone to come to faith in Jesus. Only God can create faith. All we can do is point others to the Light.
We are like the star that led the wise men to Jesus, the true Light. When we proclaim the good news about Jesus to others, the light of his grace shines into their darkened hearts, and we pray that the Holy Spirit works saving faith in their hearts. God truly can use any Christian to accomplish this, no matter how unqualified they may feel they are. And often, the people who have the most success sharing the good news and getting others engaged with the Word are not pastors, but Christians like you, who reach out to their friends and family.
One of the reasons why it can be hard to spread the good news of Jesus to others is because we may not always be sure if the light of Jesus’ grace and forgiveness is for us. This is especially something we can wonder when we are faced with the true darkness of some of our sins. But Jesus tells us that he is not just the Light of a select few, but the Light of the whole world. No matter how bad our sin is, he shines through the darkness of our sin and gives us hope that the eternal life in heaven that he won on the cross is for all of us. And, until we enter the gates of heaven, where we will be bathed in his glorious light for all eternity, his light will continue to live in us and cut through our darkness so that we don’t need to fear it ever again.
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 “Adoration of the Magi,” a late 1800s mural in Conception, Missouri basilica)
The Epiphany of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 2:1-12
In Christ Jesus, whom we look upon with eyes of faith like the wise men did and see even in a humble Child a great King and mighty Redeemer, dear fellow redeemed:
When a host of angels appeared to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth, a new star became visible in the sky, seen by wise men in the east. At least that was King Herod’s guess. He wanted to learn when exactly the star had appeared, so he would have an idea how old the Christ-Child might be. Herod wanted to know the age of this presumed rival, so he could do away with Him. The wise men were oblivious to this plot. They came to Jerusalem with honest intent, looking for the long-promised “King of the Jews.”
Who exactly were these wise men? The popular Epiphany song tells us they were “three kings” from the “orient.” But actually we have no indication that there were just three of them—there were three gifts, but there may have been more travelers. We don’t know that they were kings—today’s account does not identify them in this way. And the most prominent theory is that they were from the area of Persia or Babylon, not from the far east.
The wise men were Gentiles, which means they had not descended from God’s chosen people, the Israelites. It is a mystery how they knew anything about a special King of the Jews. We think they had the Hebrew Scriptures, perhaps from the dispersion of Israelites when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Or perhaps the Scriptures came to them through the influence of God’s servant Daniel who served in the Babylonian and Persian courts.
However they learned about this King, the appearance of a unique star caught their attention and set them on the move. They had to see this young Child! They believed that even though He was “of the Jews,” He was their King too. They must have been surprised when no one seemed to know what they were talking about as they came closer to their destination. “What newborn King? Our king is Herod!”
The wise men came to Jerusalem, and their coming produced a lot of excitement. But it was not excitement that the Christ may have been born. Herod “was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod was troubled because he was not looking for any Savior. He was a jealous king who had even killed his own wife and children to protect his power. He gathered the Jewish religious leaders to find out where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said and cited the prophecy from Micah.
They were right. But it seems that these religious leaders, these “wise men,” did not have any interest in going to Bethlehem to see for themselves. Herod was interested in what these foreigners might find only so he could eliminate a possible opponent. Herod and the religious leaders were wise according to worldly standards. Herod was a ruthless king but successful in consolidating power. The chief priests and scribes were revered as some of the brightest, most capable men in the city. They were wise in worldly things but not in heavenly things.
The wise men from the east were different. It is shocking to think of intelligent, wealthy men traveling such a great distance to bow before a young Child. Do you suppose they felt foolish when they fell down and worshipped Him and offered Him expensive gifts? If our little boy got hold of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, each item would promptly go into his slobbering mouth!
The wise men did not worship Jesus because He looked worthy of their adoration. They worshipped Him because they believed the prophecy about Him, “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.” Jesus may have been in a humble setting, but God’s Word called Him a King. He may not have looked very impressive, but God’s Word said He would be the Shepherd of His people.
Like those wise men, God teaches us to look beyond appearances and place our trust in what He tells us. That is very difficult for us. To do this, we have to deny the wisdom of the world and the strong desires of our heart.
The world thinks that much of Christian teaching is foolishness. It is foolish to believe that God took on flesh in the womb of a virgin. It is foolish to believe that Jesus never did anything wrong. It is foolish to believe that He willingly died for your sins. It is foolish to believe that He rose from the dead. It is foolish to believe that you are saved not because of anything you do but totally because of what He did.
And our sinful nature has some questions of its own. If God reigns over all things, why are there so many troubles in my life? If God is love, doesn’t He want me to be happy? What if I am missing out on good things because I am trying to follow made up rules? What if all the teachings of the Bible did not really come from God?
But then what does the world have to offer that is so much better? The world can mock us for celebrating Christmas, the birth of God in the flesh. But is a North Pole elf-man delivering gifts with a flying sleigh so much more believable? The world mocks us for taking time for church, for listening to a preacher, for believing we eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus with the bread and wine. But is staring at a TV or smartphone, watching forgettable programming, and overindulging on junk food so much better?
These things of the world are appealing to our sinful flesh, but they do not satisfy, and they cannot save us. The wise men had comfortable lives, but they loaded up provisions and set off on a hard journey to an unknown destination. They had great riches, but they humbly gave them into the hands of a toddler. The wise men possessed a wisdom of the world, but they looked for something more, something higher, something better. They found it in the Christ.
The world cannot understand this. No one can apart from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit leads us to true wisdom. The Holy Spirit brings us to Jesus. He does this through the holy Word of God. God’s Word is like the star that guided the wise men to their destination and shined the light on Jesus. The Word “is a lamp to [our] feet and a light to [our] path” (Psa. 119:105). It leads us to Jesus, “the light of the world.” Jesus says, “Whoever follows me—whoever believes in Me and hears Me—will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Joh. 8:12).
The wise men believed that the little Child of Mary was their Savior and the Savior of the world. “Foolishness!” said Herod. “That Child will be dead as soon as I know where He is!” “Foolishness!” said the Jewish religious leaders. “How could you Gentiles know something about the ‘King of the Jews’ that we do not!” It was foolishness—foolishness to the world. But foolishness to the world is wisdom to God.
1 Corinthians chapter 1 says that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (vv. 27-29). We do not boast in our intelligence. We do not boast in our riches. We do not boast in our beauty. We do not boast in our accomplishments. We boast in Christ Jesus, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (v. 30).
Our faith is not in ourselves. Like the wise men, our faith is in a lowly Child, a humble King, a suffering Savior. There is no higher wisdom than this. The world can laugh at us, ridicule us, plot our destruction. But Jesus prevails. Herod could not kill Him. The religious leaders could not destroy Him. The Roman authorities could not keep Him sealed in a tomb. Jesus died and then rose in victory.
Because Jesus prevailed, His people prevail. The wisdom of this age and the rulers of this age are doomed to pass away (1Co. 2:6). The Holy Spirit has imparted to us through the Word “a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (v. 7). This wisdom is that the Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us so that He could redeem us from all our sinful foolishness.
Jesus has done this for you. Even though you have indulged in foolish things and followed the wisdom of the world, Jesus has not rejected you. He loves you and wants to give you gifts, gifts that are far richer than the good things of the world, even better than the gold, frankincense, and myrrh of the wise men. What Jesus has for you, and what He gives you through His holy Word and Sacraments, is His forgiveness, His life, and His salvation.
For this abundant grace toward us, we bow down and worship Him and praise His holy name.
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 “Adoration of the Magi,” a late 1800s mural in Conception, Missouri basilica)
Christmas Day – Vicar Anderson exordium and sermon
We gather on this blessed Christmas morning to celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus. “For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10b–11).
This good news of Jesus’ birth was filled with great joy and it was proclaimed by the voices of a heavenly host of angels. His birth should bring joy to all of us. Yet we often feel sadness during this season as we think of loved ones who will not be with us. Or we feel stress as we prepare to travel or get our homes ready for company. Whatever they might be, each difficulty and distraction stands in the way of us enjoying what Christmas is truly about, stealing away the joy we are meant to have today.
We certainly can have joy this Christmas because our Savior has entered into our world as a little baby. We join the shepherds and hurry off towards Bethlehem and we arrive at our Savior’s manger, bringing with us our burdens. We lay them down next to our Lord, who laid upon Himself the iniquities of us all. (Isaiah 53:6) Our Lord willingly went to the cross and gave up His life, so that our burdens would be His and His life would be ours forever. Then, three days later, He rose from the grave to prove to the world that His Father accepted the payment for sin and that His victory over death is ours.
After visiting baby Jesus the shepherds returned in joy, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20). Our hearts also fill again with joy as we remember our Savior’s birth and hear again what this means for us and for all people.
Let us rise and join in glorifying and praising God for the wonderful gift of His Son Jesus.
Rejoice, rejoice this happy morn!
A Savior unto us is born,
The Christ, the Lord of glory.
His lowly birth in Bethlehem
The angels from on high proclaim
And sing redemption’s story.
My soul, Extol God’s great favor;
Bless Him ever For salvation.
Give Him praise and adoration!
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Sermon text: St. John 1:1–14
In Christ Jesus, the eternal Word born in human flesh, to deliver from sinful flesh all who believe in Him, making them children of God, dear fellow redeemed:
The first verse of John’s Gospel—“In the beginning was the Word”—echoes the first verse recorded by Moses about the creation of the world—“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
God’s Word teaches us that “The Word” has always existed. “The Word” is a title for God the Son, recorded only in John’s Gospel. He existed from eternity, before this world was formed, and will exist forever. “The Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” (Genesis 1:1b–3) Only God existed prior to the formation of the universe and He is the one who brought it into existence.
God is triune. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. All three persons of the Trinity work together to create. God the Father creates by the Word of His Son through the Holy Spirit. We confess in the Nicene Creed, “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of His father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, Not made.”
The Word is the pre-incarnate Christ begotten of God the Father from eternity and then conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of His virgin mother Mary. The Word was born in a stable on Christmas Day, maintaining the fullness of His deity and now becoming a human baby.
When we enter this world at birth we are imprisoned in sin. As the psalmist writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). The birth of children is an incredible thing and is none other than a miraculous act of God. The birth of a child also comes with a great cost, the mother endures tremendous amounts of pain and both parents may experience worry and fear. However, when the baby is born safely into this world it is greeted with joy, relief and lots of love from the whole family. It is hard, then, for parents to accept that, from moment of conception, their child is dead in their sins, but God’s Word tells us they are.
God never intended for us to be born under sin’s curse. He made all things good and human beings were the culmination of His good creation. All that God created was perfect. But our first parents, Adam and Eve, rebelled against their Creator. After their fall into sin every human born after them would be bound by sin. Their perfection was lost and now, apart from God, we can do nothing good at all. This is why, out of His great love for mankind, God promised to send His Son to rescue us from our corrupt and hostile hearts.
The Son of God was sent forth by His Father in heaven to redeem all the lost sinners of the world. (Gal. 4:4–5) Jesus was conceived without an earthly father, and instead by the power of God the Holy Spirit. (Luke 1:35) He was carried in the Virgin Mary’s womb until it was time for her to be delivered, “and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger” (Luke 2:6–7). He was born without sin and His heart was not hostile towards God.
Christ came to dwell in the presence of sinners because sinners cannot dwell in the presence of God. Sin has cut us off from the holy God. Those born of flesh and blood might be able to earn favor with men, but they cannot earn favor with God. St. Paul writes, “We all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind”(Eph. 2:3).
Just as you had no action or part in your earthly birth you have no action or part in your redemption. It requires God to come and save you. Immanuel, which means, “God with us,” needed to save you. St. Paul continues, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4–5).
The Word, which created all that has been made, became flesh in Mary’s womb and was born into this world. He entered into His creation, and His creation did not know Him. (John 1:3, 10) Lying there lowly in a manger Jesus already had the weight of sin on Him. The world was already hostile towards Him, but He came to save it. He came full of grace and truth to speak His Word of truth into the dark world.
The Word of God’s Law shines a spotlight on the sin and darkness of our hearts. It shows us the horrible things we have thought and despicable things we have said. It makes the poor decisions of our past come to the forefront of our minds, revealing the truth of our sinful condition. But all the dark things we have thought, all the hurtful things we have said and done cannot overcome Him. Jesus was born to overcome all of that wickedness, to shine the light of salvation into every corner of darkness.
The Word of God’s Gospel is full of grace. Through the Word, Jesus brings life to us who are perishing here on earth. He lights for us a path safely out from under our sin. Jesus does not leave us on our own to fend for ourselves. Jesus Christ, the light of the world (John 8:12) provides us with comfort and warmth. Jesus came to give all who believe in Him the right to call themselves children of God.
St. John writes, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). This is how we who are born, “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1) can become children of God. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5–6).
The Holy Spirit cleansed us and renewed us by the washing and regeneration of our heart. (Titus 3:5) You are born of God in your Baptism, and only God gives this rebirth to you. This birth matters far more than your birthday, because it transformed you from “by nature a child of wrath,” (Eph. 2:3) into a Child of God and an heir to eternal life in heaven. You believe in your Savior Jesus solely by the work of God the Holy Spirit.
By this gracious and miraculous act of God you now believe that Jesus is the Word made flesh, born in a stable at Bethlehem. That Jesus took on human flesh and by the shedding of His blood you are forgiven of all the sins you have done. Jesus is the answer for all your sinful decisions and actions.
According to His humanity, being fully man, born of His virgin mother, he lived, suffered pain, and succumbed to death and hell for you. According to His divinity, being fully God, begotten of the Father, He lived a perfect life for you under the Law and rose again on the third day for your justification. (Romans 4:25) You are now pronounced innocent of all the wrong you have done, even more, you are counted righteous. You are perfectly clean now because the crimson blood of Christ has cleansed you from all your sin and made you as white as snow. (Isaiah 1:18)
Your bondage to sin is over; the chains have been broken. You are inheritors of eternal life in heaven. St Paul writes, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ”(Romans 8:14–17).
On Christmas Day God brought about the miraculous birth of your holy Savior. Then He brought about your rebirth through Holy Baptism making you His child and Christ’s brother. You are no longer only born of flesh you are born of God.
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 “Shepherds Visit” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Last Sunday of the Church Year – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who calls us to be alert and watchful, so that the day of His return does not surprise us like a thief in the night (1Th. 5:4), dear fellow redeemed:
In about a month, we are going to hear many references to a virgin—the virgin Mary. The reason Mary’s sexual history is so crucial to the account of Christmas is because a baby conceived in the natural way could never be the Savior of the world. Such a baby would be a mere mortal descended from sinful, mortal parents. The baby Jesus had to be conceived by God the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary’s womb, so that He could be born without sin. Then He could be our Savior, and He is.
The virgins that Jesus describes in today’s parable are virgins of a different sort. They are called virgins because of their spiritual purity, a purity they received by faith. These ten virgins “took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” The bridegroom is Jesus, who will come in glory on the last day to raise all the dead. When He comes to raise and glorify the bodies of all the faithful, they will go up with Him to the great wedding feast in heaven.
The ten virgins were all looking for the bridegroom’s return, but we’re told that five of them were foolish. They did not take along extra oil for their lamps. They thought the bridegroom would be coming much sooner than He did. They weren’t prepared for the long wait. This waiting period is where we are today. Is the wait getting too long for you? Are you becoming drowsy?
It is easy to get that way. When you are well-rested and the sun is shining, it is not difficult to stay on the alert, watching for someone’s arrival. It’s different when you are weary and tired, and the darkness of night covers everything. Then the eyes droop and the head gets heavy, and before you know it, you are sleeping. How do we keep the lamp of our faith burning? How do we stay watchful and vigilant?
The oil for our lamps comes from God, and it comes in rich supply. The oil is His powerful Gospel found in His Word and Sacraments. The Gospel is what keeps the faith of the Christian burning brightly. Our faith holds onto Jesus. When we hear again and again what He has done for us, that His righteousness is ours, and that His grace and forgiveness and life are freely given to us, our faith gets stronger.
The continued hearing of His Word means we will not be tricked when a deceptive voice calls for our attention. We know the voice of our Good Shepherd. The continued eating of His body and drinking of His blood keeps us healthy and strong. It keeps us from desiring to fill ourselves with rotten food and poisoned drink. We meet the bridegroom now in His means of grace where He promises to be found, so that we are prepared to meet Him when He comes on the last day.
But some who once were eager to meet the bridegroom are not eager any longer. They once had lamps of faith burning brightly. But now their lamps have gone out—or they are about to—because they are no longer connected to the fuel of the Gospel. Their eyes have grown accustomed to the darkness. They are not looking for the light anymore.
We can all think of people like this, fellow Christians who used to join us here at church but who don’t anymore. We do not give up on these people whom we love. We pray for them, and we take whatever opportunities we can to encourage them. We want their faith to burn brightly again. We want them to be prepared for their Savior’s return.
Those whose lamps have gone out are a warning to us. We were once all together, redeemed by the blood of Jesus, spiritually pure in God’s sight. We were the same—saved by grace alone and not because of anything in us. But the devil, the world, and our own flesh are constantly working to steal this salvation and our confidence in Christ away from us. The apostle Paul expressed this concern to the Christians in Corinth. “I betrothed you to one husband,” he wrote, “to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2Co. 11:2-3).
What are the things that lead our thoughts astray? What tempts us to forsake the light and the warmth of Jesus’ Word and Sacraments? What tempts us are the works of darkness. They are all the things that the powers of darkness promote, which God warns us about. What God wants for us is exactly opposite of what the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh want.
God wants us to have eternal life in heaven. Our enemies want us to look for heaven on earth. God wants to forgive our sins. Our enemies want us to forget about our sins. God wants us to do what benefits our neighbor and honors Him. Our enemies want us to do what pleases ourselves. God wants to save us from eternal death. Our enemies want us to live for today and today only. God wants us to follow His Word. Our enemies want us to follow our hearts, follow the crowd—anything that keeps us comfortable with the world.
The powers of darkness are persuasive. Jesus says that even the wise virgins “became drowsy and slept.” We are more vulnerable than we realize. It wasn’t long after Jesus told this parable that He asked Peter, James, and John to remain with Him and watch with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. As Jesus prayed, the disciples fell asleep. He woke them up and said, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mat. 26:41).
The same goes for us. Our spirit indeed is willing—here we are, eager to be strengthened through Jesus’ Word and Sacraments. But our flesh is weak. We will be tempted again to sin. We will set aside the lamp of faith to try to keep our sin hidden. We will think we can dabble in the darkness and still be ready when the bridegroom comes. We think we can make some compromises now. We think we can do what we know is wrong, because there will be time to right our wrongs later.
The bridegroom came when He was not expected. He came at midnight. The virgins were not watching for Him. We should never put off repentance for our sins until tomorrow. If we know what we are doing is wrong, we must repent of it today. There might not be a tomorrow! Jesus says, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (Joh. 3:20-21).
Where the bridegroom is, there is light. Jesus is the Light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome (Joh. 1:5). He said about Himself, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Joh. 8:12). The virgins in today’s parable are not ones who have never sinned. They are ones who were called “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1Pe. 2:9).
The “marvelous light” of Jesus is His great love for our dying world. In this great love, He came into the world’s darkness. He came to take all our sins to Himself as though they were His own. He was the beacon light that caused the devil, the wicked world, and death to take aim at Him. They threw everything they had at Him, but they could not defeat Him. He overcame them all on the cross and rose from the dead in total victory.
The light of Jesus’ grace, the light of His forgiveness, the light of His life, was stronger than all the powers of darkness. He shines that bright light inside us through His powerful Word. He opens our eyes to the works of darkness. He shows us where we have let the darkness creep in, where we have become drowsy. He leads us to repent of our sins and to see that they have all been dispelled by the light of His salvation.
His glorious light keeps your light burning. On your own, you would have no light. But the light of His Gospel has touched the wick of your heart and set it on fire. Your heart is not shrouded in darkness anymore. It is bathed in light. You are born again. You have left the dark womb of the world and entered into the brightness of His kingdom.
As long as you keep your eyes on your Savior’s light burning brightly in His Word and Sacraments, you will be ready for His return on the last day. Well supplied by His means of grace, your faith will be shining when the cry goes out, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” Then you and all the faithful—all the wise virgins—will go with your bridegroom Jesus to the marriage feast.
Then there will be no sorrow or concern over His delay, no memory of our troubled time in the darkness. There will be only singing and feasting and joy in our Lord’s kingdom of eternal light.
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(picture from 11th century painting from the Rossano Gospel)
The Ninth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 16:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who was driven to redeem us by enduring great suffering and offering up His holy life on the cross, dear fellow redeemed:
It seems strange that the master in this parable would praise the dishonest manager for anything. Not only had the manager wasted his master’s possessions in the past—a charge that the manager didn’t even try to refute. But now on the way out the door, the manager essentially stole from his master again. So why did his master praise him? Perhaps his reaction is reflected in the saying: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
And why did the manager behave as he did? He may have had what he thought were good reasons for wasting his master’s possessions. Maybe the boss wasn’t very nice to his employees. Maybe he took advantage of a tight job market and paid less than he should have. Maybe he failed to reward his workers for going above and beyond. But however the manager tried to justify his actions in his head, it was a perfectly appropriate response for his employer to show him the door. Bad behavior does not justify bad behavior. Or to use another saying: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
But I think I’m giving the manager more credit than he is due. He did not really have noble intentions. He took advantage of his situation. He deliberately mismanaged what belonged to another. Things didn’t get serious for him until his own financial security was threatened. Then he jumped into action! Physical labor wasn’t an option—that work was too hard. Begging was out of the question—he was too good for that. So he decided to dispense favors at his master’s expense. He made the debtors of his master indebted to him.
What we see in this parable is a picture of the way the ungodly conduct business. “The sons of this world” are driven by pride, greed, and self-preservation. The virtues of honesty, integrity, and loyalty mean next to nothing. Each of us is supposed to put ourselves first and to focus on what we deserve—or what we think we deserve—rather than on what we owe to others. We don’t have to look very hard to see the culture of entitlement that influences so many today.
That culture is even cultivated in the home. Jesus doesn’t include any backstory about the characters in His parable. But suppose the dishonest manager was taught to function like he did. Suppose he had the kind of parents that trained him to win at all costs, to push aside anyone who got in his way, to look at everyone as though they owed him something. Suppose they heard about what happened with his employer, and instead of chiding him, they congratulated him: “Good job, son! You got what you could. You turned things to your advantage. You showed him who was boss!”
I wonder how many athletes competing in the summer Olympics in Tokyo were raised like this. How many parents pushed their kids to be the best no matter what it took? One athlete who is known for her tactics of intimidation admitted that everything was a competition in her household growing up. She has a history of winning, but she’s probably never won a sportsmanship award. She was taught that winning is all that matters, no matter how many people you hurt or offend along the way.
But there are other athletes who compete hard and have success while still enjoying the respect and admiration of their opponents. That’s the kind of reputation we want our children to have. We want them to be known as honest, hard-working, and kind people. We want them to hold their head up even when they lose knowing that they gave it their best. We want them to value good relationships more than recognition and riches.
But what we say we want for our kids and what we model for them are not always the same thing. We want our kids to be honest, but how much do they hear us bend the truth? We want them to have self-control, but how often do they see us lose our temper? We want them to respect the authorities, but how do they hear us speak about the police, the principal, or the president? We want them to take their Sunday School and Catechism lessons seriously, but how do we reinforce this by our spiritual habits at home? We want them to know how important it is to spend time with family, to go to church, and to help a neighbor in need, but how often are these things set aside for work or for play?
What we say is most important to us is not always or even often supported by what we do. This is why Jesus says, “the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” The sons of this world know what they want. They want money, power, pleasure, and they go out and get it. They work hard for these things. They never take their eyes off their prize.
You and I are among “the sons of light.” We used to be “sons of the world,” but we are not that any longer. Through the powerful Word, the light of faith was kindled in our hearts. The darkness of our sin was dispelled by Jesus’ death on the cross. The darkness of death was ended by the bright morning of His resurrection. The light of salvation shines continuously before our eyes in the Gospel, and it changes us. St. Paul writes that “at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8).
Then he says, “Walk as children of light” (v. 8). Walking as children of light means always keeping Jesus in focus, always hearing His voice, always following His path, keeping our eyes fixed on the glory to come which He promises to all who trust in Him. Jesus says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Mat. 6:19-20).
You know that the most important thing in your life is that your soul and body were redeemed from everlasting punishment by the holy blood of Jesus. You know that without His perfect life, without His suffering and death, you would still be dead in your sins. Push comes to shove, if you had to choose between the salvation Jesus won for you and all the riches the world has to offer, I am confident you would choose eternal salvation.
But does your life today match that priority? Is that priority obvious in the way you go about your business? Is that priority obvious in your interactions with friends and co-workers? Is that priority obvious in the way you spend your time and the way you spend your money? When we examine our hearts, we can’t deny it; Jesus is right: “[T]he sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”
But “the sons of light” are still in the game. You are still here. Satan has not overcome the kingdom of God. The light of Jesus has not been extinguished in the world. The Word of God’s grace is still being preached. His Sacraments are still being administered. There are more souls that the Lord intends to call “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1Pe. 2:9).
The Lord has not given up on you. He has not cast you aside. You are still on His team. You still possess the eternal inheritance of all that is His. Jesus died to win you this inheritance. He suffered to free you from the grip of Satan. He shed His blood to cleanse you from your sins. He rose from the dead to win the victory over death once and for all. No matter how many times death matches up against a “son of light,” a baptized child of God, death loses every time—every single time.
Do you see what we have to live for? What we are competing for? Because of what Jesus has done, we can’t lose. “The sons of this world” might appear to be more successful. They might appear to win more. But they are destined to lose. Their luck will run out. The debt collector will come calling. “The sons of light” have the victory in Jesus. We might lose out on good things in this life. We might lose our possessions. We might lose our jobs. We might even lose our lives. But we have Jesus, which means we have immeasurably more than the world could ever offer.
So we apply our wealth and our wisdom to His work. We deny our selfish inclinations. We generously support the work of the Gospel both here and around the world. We seek to serve our neighbors and to share with them the hope we have in Christ. This is how we “make friends for [ourselves] by means of unrighteous wealth,” as Jesus calls us to do. We apply all our resources here on earth to guide others in our homes and our communities to the eternal riches of heaven.
We might not see the fruits of our labors with our own eyes, but God promises to bless our faithful work. He uses our weak hands and our small efforts to bring great blessings to those who need them. And when our work here comes to an end, we won’t find ourselves in a lonely heaven. We will be welcomed “into the eternal dwellings” by many others who, like us, were freed from their sins and from their empty quest for the world’s approval.
Then together we will praise our Savior for His great generosity and His abundant mercy. We will praise Him that He was willing to spend all for us sinners—even giving up His own life—so that we would be redeemed from this fallen world and would enter His eternal glory.
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(picture from “Parable of the Unjust Steward” by Jan Luyken, 1649-1712)
The Transfiguration of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 17:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who has not turned away from us but looks upon us with love, dear fellow redeemed:
When you think of Jesus, how do you picture Him? Does He have light or dark hair, blue or brown eyes, beard or no beard? How tall do you imagine Him to be? Of all the people you know, who would you say looks most like the picture in your mind? Maybe your picture is similar to the depiction of Jesus on our altar painting, or maybe it is quite a bit different.
However you picture Him, I’m guessing none of you think of Him the way He is described today. None of you think of Him in His transfigured state. You think of Him like He was most of the time on earth, looking just like the people around Him. But that was in His state of humiliation. Now He is exalted at the right hand of the Father, dwelling in “unapproachable light” (1Ti. 6:16). Now His face shines like the sun all the time, and the saints in heaven look upon Him in all His radiant glory.
But that is not how we see Him. We can’t see Him at all; His glory is hidden from us. He hides His glory for our own good. When Moses talked with the Lord on Mount Sinai, Moses asked to see the Lord’s glory. The Lord said He would make His goodness pass before Moses, but that Moses could not see His face, since “man shall not see me and live” (Exo. 33:20).
This illustrates for us how far sinful man is from the holy God. Moses was one of the greatest prophets that God sent. He used to meet the Lord on the mountain, and the LORD would speak with him “as a man speaks to his friend” (Exo. 33:11). When Moses came back down the mountain from the presence of the Lord, his face shone brightly (Exo. 34:29-35). His skin had absorbed the light from God, and it was now radiating out from him. But even though he was this close to God, God did not permit him to look upon His full glory. If Moses had done that, he would have died.
Moses was still a sinner just as we are, and sinners cannot look at God in all His holiness. Think how hard it is to look toward the sun, and how much damage it does if we look too long. The almighty God who made the sun shines brighter. The Lord is holy and full of light. By nature, we are unholy and full of darkness. Even after we are converted, there is still sin in us. We do not totally leave behind the works of darkness.
Take the eye. Our eyes look upon much that is beautiful and good. This time of year, we see a blanket of snow covering all things and frost coating the trees. Our eyes allow us to see the people we love and do the work God has set out for us to do. But we do not always use our eyes for good. We judge people and treat them with contempt because we don’t like how they look. We roll our eyes at our parents or other authorities. We look at things we should not look at, and we watch things we should not watch.
Our eyes are something like our mouths in this respect. When we eat and drink healthy things, our body stays in good shape. But if all we consume is junk food, our health suffers. So if we are careful to watch and read and look at only what is beneficial to us, we are much healthier. We don’t want our eyes to adjust to the darkness; we want them to adjust to the light. When our eyes adjust to the light of God’s holy Word, we have little desire to peer into the darkness.
But we have not always filled our eyes with good things. We all have things we wish we could unsee. For many of us, it might be things we have watched on TV or online. We told ourselves that we could handle the violence or the explicit content. But now we can’t forget it. Those images are stuck in our mind. We thought it wouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. We allowed it to enter our eyes and sink into our brain, and now it’s stuck. We want to get rid of it, but we can’t. We can’t take back what we have seen any more than we can take back what we have said or change the things we have done.
This is why we cannot stand in God’s unveiled presence as we are. We cannot face His perfect glory. We are sinners, and each of us has a long trail of sins stretching out behind us. Many believe they can overcome their sin on their own. They think they can come into God’s presence by their own efforts. They think they can lift themselves out of their unholiness and become holy. But that is not in our power. With Paul, each of us must confess that “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18-19).
The three disciples realized this about themselves. They were given a glimpse of Jesus’ glory as He talked with Moses and Elijah. But as soon as God the Father’s voice boomed out of the cloud, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him”—“they fell on their faces and were terrified.” The glory was too much. This reminds us of when Jesus filled the fishermen’s nets with fish after they had not been able to catch anything. When Peter saw this, he fell down at Jesus’ knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luk. 5:8).
This is how we feel when our sins are exposed by God’s holy Law. We may look like we have it pretty well together. But inside we are filled with sinful passions, anger, doubts, and struggles. “Why should the Lord look kindly upon me?” we think. “He sees what I am. He knows my sin.” And so we hide our faces. We can’t bear to look toward the holy God when we are so full of sin.
This is what a child does when he has done something wrong. Maybe he broke something or took what he wasn’t supposed to. So he goes and hides—under the bed or in the closet. Then he hears his name being called and the footsteps coming. They stop right where he is. He expects wrath. He expects to see a face twisted in anger. He tries to crawl deeper into the shadows. But the face he finally sees through tears is not the face he anticipated. He sees a face of compassion and an open hand reaching for his. “Don’t be afraid. Come here. I’m not angry with you. I forgive you.”
God’s face of compassion and His hand reaching out to us is Jesus. Out of love for all sinners, God sent His only-begotten Son. We could not ascend into God’s holy presence, but He could lower Himself to us. He “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phi. 2:7). He covered up His glory, so that sinners could see Him, walk with Him, touch Him, look at His smiling face.
He came to give Himself up for our wrongs, to suffer and die in our place. He went to the cross for all those things we wish we could unsee and unsay and unthink. He paid for all our sins by shedding His holy, precious blood. By His sacrifice, God’s wrath toward our sin was turned away. We do not have to try to cover our sins or hide in the shadows anymore. The Lord is not angry with us; He forgives us. He looks upon us with grace and favor.
His shining face is turned toward us whenever we gather together around the means of grace. Jesus has left us clear signs and powerful proofs of His forgiveness. He instituted Holy Baptism as the way to bring you into His holy Church, to cleanse you of your sins and cover you in His holiness. He gave us a Holy Meal in which He invites you to eat His own flesh and drink His own blood, so that His glorious light shines inside you. And He installs preachers to declare to you the good news of salvation and His love for you which does not change.
It is hard to recognize His brightness and glory in these humble-looking means. But by faith you perceive it. You see your glorious Savior in His Word and Sacraments. You see Him reaching out to touch you in your sin and fear, just as He reached out and touched His cowering disciples. You hear Him say to your trembling soul, “Rise, and have no fear.”
His words are the encouragement you need to turn to Him and stop hiding. You lift your eyes to Him and see His face of love and compassion. The Lord told Moses’ brother Aaron to comfort His people with this picture and to speak this benediction upon them: “The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26, NKJV). The Lord’s face does shine upon you because He has redeemed you through His death and resurrection, and He has made you His own through Holy Baptism.
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(picture from painting by Carl Bloch, c. 1865)
The Holy Nativity of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad exordium and sermon
Text: St. Luke 2:15-20
The darkness of winter weighs on us. It can seem like the long, warm days of summer will never return. We can experience a similar darkness in our spirit. We feel like each day brings more bad news. Nothing seems to come easy or work out right. We grieve the loss of better times. A dark cloud hangs over us. We can’t imagine feeling happy and joyful again.
Sometimes this darkness is due to wrongs we have done that we are unable to fix. We sinned against someone or against our own conscience, and the memory sticks with us as though it happened yesterday. Or we carry wounds from the sins others have committed against us, and the hurt still cuts deep.
This darkness around us and in us is the reason God sent His Son to take on our flesh. More than 700 years before Jesus’ birth, the prophet Isaiah described the effect His coming would have: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isa. 9:2). About 400 years before Jesus’ birth, the prophet Malachi referred to Him as “the sun of righteousness [who] shall rise with healing in its wings” (Mal. 4:2).
Jesus is “the light of the world” who came to bring “the light of life” to us who were lost in the darkness of sin and death (Joh. 8:12). He came to shine His healing light into our world of pain and sadness and to send His bright beams of grace into hearts full of turmoil and despair. His coming ushered in a glorious new day of hope and salvation for us that the darkness cannot overcome (Joh. 1:5).
Living in this light, we now rise and sing our festival hymn, “Rejoice, Rejoice This Happy Morn!” (#142):
Rejoice, rejoice this happy morn!
A Savior unto us is born,
The Christ, the Lord of glory.
His lowly birth in Bethlehem
The angels from on high proclaim
And sing redemption’s story.
God’s great favor;
Bless Him ever
Give Him praise and adoration!
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Sermon text: St. Luke 2:15-20
In Christ Jesus, the Son of God, whose coming in the flesh as a little Baby is the most monumental event in human history, dear fellow redeemed:
It’s natural to feel a bit of a letdown after Christmas. There was so much to do leading up to it: decorating the house, buying and wrapping presents, mailing cards, baking the favorite treats. Then suddenly, Christmas has passed by. The brightly wrapped presents under the tree have all been opened. The beautiful plates of cookies have turned into extra insulation around the waist. The decorations are put away. And the warmth and anticipation of the Christmas season gives way to the harsh cold of winter.
But the days after Christmas do not have to be a letdown. I don’t think it was for the people who played a part in the story of Jesus’ birth. Take the shepherds. They didn’t see Christmas coming. All of a sudden, an angel appears to them at night telling them the “good tidings of great joy” that the Savior, “Christ the Lord,” had been born in Bethlehem. The angel tells them to go to town and look for a Baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And if that wasn’t stunning enough, then the sky fills with a vast number of angels singing praises to God.
Imagine the wide eyes and open mouths of those shepherds. As soon as the angels disappeared, they must have given each other the look of: “Did that just happen!?!” And then, bubbling with excitement, they all talked at the same time, stumbling over their words, “Let’s go to Bethlehem!” “The Savior is here!” “The Lord has told us!” They took off as fast as they could.
Now we might have the idea that there was just one little stable on the outskirts of Bethlehem, and the shepherds went right there. But scholars suggest that it would have been common for the people of the day to have livestock in rooms or sheds adjoining their homes. The excited shepherds could have knocked on any number of doors in their search for the Baby Jesus.
How do you suppose those conversations went? Knock, knock. The owner of the house answers sleepily or with apprehension: “Yes?” Then the panting shepherds: “Is there a baby here!” | “Do you know what hour of the night it is?” | “Please! Is there a baby here? The Savior, the Christ, has been born!” Or maybe the stable entrances were obvious and the shepherds peaked through doors and windows looking for the sign the angel gave them.
They continued their excited search until they finally found Mary, Joseph, and the little Lord Jesus. There He was, “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” The shepherds knew they were not worthy to lay eyes on the Christ-Child. Here was the fulfillment of God’s promise. Even in this humble setting, they stood on holy ground. Joseph and Mary must have been surprised by these unexpected visitors. They were even more surprised when the shepherds told them what they had seen and heard out in the fields.
After looking upon their Savior, the shepherds couldn’t keep their excitement to themselves. Maybe they even stopped by the same houses they had been at before. Knock, knock. “Not those crazy shepherds again!” They would not be silent. They told everyone what they had experienced. They returned to their work, “glorifying and praising God” for all He had so graciously revealed to them.
And that is the last we hear about these shepherds. They figure so prominently in the revealing of Christ’s birth, and then they disappear from the biblical account. What do you suppose the day after Christmas was like for them? We can assume it wasn’t just another day on the job. They didn’t put away the vision of the angels and the visit to the manger like we might put away our ornaments and nativities. Christmas had changed them. Nothing would—or could—be the same for them again.
They must have kept turning over every detail in their minds. They talked with one another about what this all means. If they were not students of the Scriptures before this, I suspect they became dedicated ones now. I wouldn’t be surprised if they returned to visit the Baby Jesus and watched Him grow. Might they have brought their best wool for His baby bed? And they kept telling the people they met about this good news.
I’m sure there were at least some who despised them. They grew tired of the angel stories and the talk of a special Baby in a manger. Why would God give these dirty shepherds such a privilege? They told the shepherds to keep it to themselves and stop pedaling their dreams and hallucinations. “You just worry about your sheep, and leave us alone!” But how could the shepherds stay silent? They were telling the truth! How could they not share these “good tidings of great joy,” which were meant for “all people”?
Whether or not the shepherds faced exactly this opposition, you and I certainly do. God has had mercy on us and revealed to us the salvation Jesus won for us. The Holy Spirit has brought us to faith in Him through the powerful Gospel and assures us that all who trust in Jesus will have eternal life. There is nothing better we could give to the people around us. There is nothing they need more than this.
And yet, we are sometimes reluctant to share the glorious hope we have. We doubt our ability to explain the Gospel truth. We worry what our friends and acquaintances will think of us if we talk about Jesus. What if they make fun of us? What if they accuse us of trying to force our religious beliefs on them? What if they threaten to harm us if we keep speaking up? We don’t want to stand out; we want to fit in.
But the truth is the truth, whether it is welcome or not. As the apostles Peter and John said to the angry Jewish council: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Act. 4:19-20). It really all boils down to the question of whether God took on our flesh to save us or not. If He did—if what the Bible tells us about Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection is true—then we cannot keep this good news to ourselves. Then we cannot act like these things have not happened.
We can take our cue from the shepherds. The day after Christmas was no letdown for them. It was more than the dawn of a new day. It was the dawn of a new era, the era of God’s forgiveness, grace, and salvation, and the beginning of the countdown to the final day of redemption. We can also learn something from Mary. “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” We don’t move past Christmas, not even in a few weeks or a month. We keep Christmas with us by pondering it in our hearts.
We ponder the depths of God the Father’s love for us, that He would send His Son to be our Substitute and Savior. We ponder our Lord’s great humility, that He would lower Himself to become our Servant so that He might lift us up to glory. We ponder the wondrous exchange, that Jesus took on our sin in order to give us His righteousness. We ponder the compassion and mercy the Lord still has for us in visiting us in every trouble, pain, and sadness.
Jesus was born to save us. He was born to give us rebirth and new life. The shepherds praised God for this Savior, and so do we. Christmas Day may come and go each year. But God’s love for us and the salvation Jesus has won is the same “yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
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(picture from “Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1592-1656)
The Epiphany of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Isaiah 60:1-6
In Christ Jesus, who was manifested to the wise men in Bethlehem, and who is manifested to us here through the means of grace, dear fellow redeemed:
On the Festival of Epiphany, we celebrate the coming of the wise men to worship Jesus. As far as we know, these Gentiles were the first non-Jews to see Him. This is why Epiphany is sometimes called the “Gentile Christmas.” Epiphany shows that the Christ came not only for the Jews but for the Gentiles too, because it was the LORD who showed the wise men the star of the Christ-Child. It was He who motivated them to set out on the long journey to Judea.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a sign like that, something to guide our way through life? As we considered a tough decision, God could make one option appear brighter than the others. He could give us a glimpse of our future, so we would know what to focus on and prepare for. He could keep us from heading off in the wrong direction.
Though some look for guidance like this in the stars, through mediums and fortune-tellers, or through their own superstitions and inner feelings, the LORD does not promise to enlighten us in these ways. Where He does promise enlightenment is through His holy Word. The star may have gotten the wise men going, but they did not find “the King of the Jews” until they heard the words of the Old Testament prophet Micah pointing them to Bethlehem (Mat. 2:6).
All the major events of Jesus’ life were predicted in the Old Testament Scriptures long before they took place. The visit of the wise men was no exception. We hear this prophecy about them in today’s text from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah prophesied that nations would come to the light of the LORD. When they came, they would bring abundance and wealth. Their camels would cover the hills. They would bring gold and frankincense and proclaim the praises of the LORD. The wise men were the first in a wave of Gentiles whom the LORD continues to draw to His light today.
He must draw people to His light because they are lost in the darkness of unbelief, sin, and death by nature. If you have been reading the first chapters of Genesis this past week, you reviewed how this darkness came into the world. Adam and Eve ignored the command of God and rebelled against Him. Then their oldest son Cain killed his brother Abel, and the human race descended into greater and greater wickedness. Things became so bleak that God decided to destroy the world in a flood. Everything on earth perished except for Noah, his sons, their wives, and all the animals God had sent into the Ark.
But even after the flood, the world was not without sin. Sin increased again, and we are no better today than any who have gone before us. What Isaiah wrote is true: “darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.” The darkness of sin and death is a “thick darkness.” It covers us and surrounds us like a thick cloud, an impenetrable fog that we cannot see through.
This is not how the world sees its situation. Especially at this time of year, people express great optimism about the future. “It’s a new year, a year to right every wrong, a year to achieve unparalleled success!” But many thought that way about 2019 and all the years before that. What happened to the promise of those years? Why are we always so eager to leave the last year behind by the time the new one rolls around?
It is because of the darkness that Isaiah describes. The people of the world think they can see just fine. They think they have all the solutions to the problems that afflict us. But there is no way forward without the light. Without the light, 2020 will be just as dark as 2019 and all the years before that.
The light that we need, the light that Isaiah prophesies about, is the light of Jesus. Isaiah spoke as if this light was already shining forth in his day, “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” he says. The Christ had not yet been born, but the promise of His coming filled the people’s hearts with hope. If God’s arrival in the flesh was like the sun shining brightly, the Gospel promises found in the Old and New Testaments are like the rays stretching out from the sun (U. V. Koren’s Works, Vol. 1, p. 81).
These rays of light still shine forth in the darkness and have reached our own hearts. These rays come through God’s holy Word. God’s Word shows us the light of Jesus. It draws us out of darkness “into his marvelous light” (1Pe. 2:9). His Word calls us to “Arise!”—“Get up!”—“Look to the light!” We do this by acknowledging our sin and guilt. We repent of the wrong we have done and trust in the forgiveness Jesus won for us. We don’t want to stay in the darkness. We don’t want to lose the light. This, more than anything else, should top our list of New Year’s resolutions.
We want to stay connected to the light of Jesus, because only in this light is there a clear way forward. Only in this light is there hope. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Joh. 8:12). His light brings life. Without His light there is no life. Think of a life here with no light at all. These overcast wintry days are bad enough, but the sun still gives light, and when darkness comes we can flip on a switch and fill our homes with light. But a life with no light at all—no natural or artificial light—would be absolutely terrifying. We would not know where we are or where we might go.
By faith in Jesus, we know exactly where we are headed. We are on our way to heaven, to His kingdom of everlasting light. We are going there because He came to rescue us from the darkness. His coming was like the sun rising above a world that had never seen light. Imagine how bright that would be to eyes used to the darkness. Some might shy away from the light and run further into the shadows. But others would want to find the source of that light. This is what Isaiah describes: “the LORD will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
The coming of the Christ brought people from near and far, including those wise men from the east. His light continues to draw people to Him. And how do they see that light? Through the Word. And how do they hear that Word? Through God’s people. If Jesus is like the sun, His followers are like the moon reflecting the sun’s light.
We want others to see this light in what we do and say. We “shine” as believers when we share the Gospel message of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus. We “shine” when we carry out our tasks and responsibilities diligently and honestly with love for our neighbor. A life lived for worldly glory, for selfish purposes, is a wasted life. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world…. [L]et your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mat. 5:14,16).
We don’t need to pursue worldly glory, because God gives us a glory that will never pass away. He gives us the glory of being spotless in His sight by faith in Jesus. He gives us the glory of being heirs of His eternal kingdom. He gives us the glory of being seated with Jesus our King in heaven (Eph. 2:6).
What God does for us is far greater than what we can do for Him or for the world. I’m sure the wise men agreed. They laid before Jesus their treasures of “gold and frankincense and myrrh,” but these were trifles compared with the gift of laying eyes on their Savior. This is why the wise men “fell down and worshiped him” (Mat. 2:11). We also present our gifts to God of a life of devotion, prayer, and thanksgiving. But what we receive from Him is far greater than what we give to Him.
Jesus blesses us every time we hear His Word of grace and partake of the Sacraments with faith in His promises. This is where His light comes to us today and how His glory rises upon us here. The wise men saw more than a baby; they saw the Lord of heaven and earth. We also see more than water, bread, wine, and words in the Divine Service. We see Jesus’ bright presence here among us.
We see Him by faith in these humble, visible elements of Word and Sacrament because He has promised to be here. He is here to shine His bright light of forgiveness into hearts and minds troubled by guilt and shame. He is here to uncover the anger and hatred we feel toward another and to relieve us of these burdens. He is here to lighten our spirits with His shining grace and to give us healing and hope in all our difficulties and trials.
“Arise, shine,” says Isaiah, “for your light has come!” You can “arise” and “shine” with confidence each day, knowing that your Savior is here. He came out of love for you. His presence with you means you will have His blessings in the new year just as He has given them to you in the past.
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The First Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
In Christ Jesus, who through holy Baptism, “called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1Pe. 2:9), dear fellow redeemed:
We all appreciate a good “rags to riches” story. Jesus’ story is kind of like that, at least culminating in today’s Gospel reading. He went from the son of a poor woman with a manger for a bed to being welcomed into Jerusalem as a King! Of course there’s much more to the story. Jesus did not come to Jerusalem for the riches; He did not come for the throne. He came to give up His life for us. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2Co. 8:9).
Because of what Jesus did, our story is a true “rags to riches” one. Being joined to Him, the rags of our sinfulness are replaced by the robes of His righteousness. Our spiritual bankruptcy has become a spiritual windfall. We are no longer lost in the darkness but walk in His wondrous light. When exactly did all this happen for us? It happened at our Baptism.
In Baptism, everything that Jesus accomplished through His death and resurrection is applied to the sinner. His payment for sin is our payment for sin. His death is our death. His resurrection is our resurrection. His victory is our victory. St. Paul writes: “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” (Rom. 6:4).
Baptism gives us a “new lease on life”—not just the certainty of eternal life in heaven, but a new life here on earth. We are not today what we started out to be. The waters of Baptism changed us and changed us for the better. But we do not always act like we are. We do not always show by our thoughts, words, and deeds that we are in Christ.
This is why Paul was compelled to write the warning of today’s text. He was writing to the church in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire. Rome is the place where Paul and Peter are said to have died on the same day when persecution broke out against the Christians. Rome was a lot like the metropolitan areas we visit today. It could boast of impressive buildings, appealing locales, and vibrant commerce. It also offered opportunities for every vice and indulgence a person could imagine.
A pagan culture is a difficult place for a Christian to be, especially for a Christian who once joined the pagans in their sinful activities. When someone becomes a Christian, he is the one who changes. Now he is at odds with the world. Now he walks closer to his Lord but further from his unbelieving neighbors. They notice, and they don’t always like what they see. Many Christians have endured the painful loss of friends and family who do not appreciate their changed values and outlook on life. Many are told that they just aren’t any fun to be around anymore.
This separation is hard for Christians. They struggle not only with the loss of friends, but with the constant coaxing and tugging of old desires. They remember the enjoyment of drug and alcohol abuse, the excitement and pleasure of a sexually promiscuous lifestyle, the egocentric satisfaction of putting self before God and neighbor. Those memories and desires don’t go away just because someone has been baptized. Along with the sinful flesh, the devil and the world don’t stop trying to pull the Christian back into the darkness of unbelief.
So Paul writes that “the hour has come for you to wake from sleep.” The time is here for us to open our eyes and recognize the temptations around us. Baptism removes the blindfold. It focuses our eyes on Jesus. With our eyes on Him, everything gets brighter and clearer—both the path to heaven and all the deviant paths that wind toward hell.
Imagine if you were lost in the countryside on a dark night. Looking around, you spot a yard light far in the distance. The closer you get to the light, the more it illuminates the ground. The closer you get, the less you trip and fall, and the more sure you are of your steps. But if you were to walk away from the light, you would have no idea where you were going and what dangers could lie ahead. Looking to Jesus and ever pushing forward to Him, our path ahead brightens and the dark shadows of the world recede. But whenever we look away from Jesus and go in the other direction, the light fades, and we stumble.
Now is not the time to go wandering. “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed,” says Paul. “The night is far gone; the day is at hand.” He is reminding us that Jesus’ return is imminent. He could come at any time. This is one of the things we learn in the season of Advent, not only that Jesus has come, but that He will also come again. And when He comes again, all people will be judged by Him. Those who are lost in the darkness will be cast into “the outer darkness” of torment in hell (Mat. 8:12). And those who are in the light by faith will enter the eternal light of heaven (Rev. 22:5).
His return in glory is nothing to take lightly. We might be able to fake a Christian confession here, but we can’t fake it before God. So each of us must be diligent to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” How do we do that? Paul explains that this means walking properly “as in the daytime.” This is to live according to God’s Commandments. It is to live as if everyone is always watching what we do and listening to what we say.
This is a good way to sharpen your conscience: ask yourself if you would do or say a certain thing if your parents were there, or your spouse, or your kids, or your pastor, or a respected member of the congregation. If you would not want to be found sinning in their presence, remember that the Lord Himself knows and sees all things. Nothing is “hidden from his sight” (Heb. 4:13).
We don’t want to be found behaving like unbelievers, because we are not unbelievers. This is why we watch what we eat and drink, unlike the unbelievers who see little wrong with carousing and drunkenness. This is why we live a “chaste and decent life” (Small Catechism, 6th Commandment), unlike the unbelievers who engage in sexual immorality and sensuality. This is why we speak kindly to each other, unlike the unbelievers who love to quarrel. This is why we practice contentment and thankfulness, unlike the unbelievers who are full of jealousy.
We are a people set apart by God. He claimed us as His own children in Baptism. He wants us to “set [our] minds on things that are above” (Col. 3:2) and not to get too comfortable in the world. But this is not always how we have lived. Sometimes we have done what God commands. Sometimes we have “cast off the words of darkness.” But other times, we have gladly engaged in the things God condemns.
We know very well how we have sinned. We feel the burden of past wrongs. We have given in to peer pressure and joined the crowd in doing evil. We have even planned out our wickedness step by step before carrying it out. Some of our sins are known to others, and some are known only to ourselves. What does that make us? How will we be judged when Jesus returns?
In his First Letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul wrote that some of them were guilty of sins like sexual immorality, greed, and drunkenness. “But,” he said, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (6:11). The first thing he reminded them is that they were “washed.” They were baptized.
You are baptized too. In Baptism, you were washed clean of all your sins—not just the ones you had committed before then, but also the ones you would commit later on. In Baptism, you were clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, who lived a perfect life on your behalf. Your Baptism joined you to Jesus, your Savior. Your Baptism into Him is your present status before God and will remain so as long as you believe His Word. Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mar. 16:16).
Now believing in Jesus means that you acknowledge your sins. It means you recognize that your thoughts, words, and deeds of darkness are the reason Jesus had to die on the cross. If you were not a sinner, Jesus would not have come. But He did come to save you and all people, because all have sinned.
By repenting of sin and trusting in forgiveness through Jesus, you return regularly to your Baptism. This is where you “put on the armor of light,” where you “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Baptism is how God set you apart from the world. It was your blessed beginning as a member of the body of Christ and an heir of His kingdom. It was where your rags of sin and death were replaced with the riches of Jesus’ righteousness and eternal life.
And so every day you can gladly and confidently return to your Baptism—Always Going Back to Your Beginning. Jesus was there at your Baptism to free you from the kingdom of darkness. He has been with you ever since to heal and strengthen you through His Word and Sacraments. And He is the bright Light that will guide you home to heaven.
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(picture is Baptism window at Redeemer Lutheran Church)