Quinquagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
In Christ Jesus, whose incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection are proof of God’s eternal love for mankind, dear fellow redeemed:
“Love” is one of the deepest words we have, but it is also one of the cheapest. The word “love” is used to describe one’s affection and commitment to a spouse, and it is used to describe one’s affinity for chocolate. We might say we “love” a sports team, a song, or a certain food, but we don’t mean it in the same way as the love we have for our family. So what does the word actually mean?
We learn about love in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians. The Holy Spirit guided St. Paul to write specifically about agape love. The ancient Greeks had a number of words for “love,” including philia (brotherly love), eros (romantic love), and storge (love within a family). But the highest form of love is agape love, which is compassionate, sacrificial love. This is the love that God wants us to have toward one another. And it is the kind of love He has toward us.
We have nothing good to offer—nothing meaningful to share—if we do not have love. Paul wrote that even if he could speak in the language of the angels or had perfect understanding and knowledge or gave up everything he had, but those things were not coupled with love, then they are worthless. He states very clearly that godly love will never be motivated by selfishness; it will not be focused inward. It will be outward, focused on those around us.
But this godly love does not come naturally to us. What comes naturally to us are the behaviors that Paul lists as the opposite of love, things like envy, boastfulness, arrogance, rudeness, and self-centeredness. This is often what we see in society from those who claim to be pursuing the path of love. Their notion of “love” is more about self-fulfillment than self-sacrifice. For them, “love” is the thing they feel when they are doing what they want to do. And they expect that kind of love to be supported no matter how unhealthy or destructive it may be.
But we do not approve of alcoholism simply because a person loves to drink, or robbery because someone loves the thrill of taking what isn’t theirs, or pornography because a person loves the high it gives them. As Paul wrote, love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” Love and truth go together. There is no love apart from truth, and no truth apart from love, because both love and truth come from God.
God is the source of all that is good, and love is certainly good. That’s why the devil works so hard to corrupt it. He does not want us to be patient and kind, generous and forgiving, humble and gracious. He wants us to give in to “the desires of the flesh,” which are “against the Spirit” (Gal. 5:17). He wants us to turn our love inward, to put ourselves first. The devil wants us to become angry with God when He does not give us what we want. And he wants us to demand love from others on our terms and to treat them badly if they don’t. In other words, the devil wants us to ignore the Ten Commandments.
God has put each Commandment in place to protect love. He teaches us what it means to love Him and to love our neighbor. We love Him by giving Him the glory He deserves, honoring His name, and hearing His Word. We love our neighbor by respecting authority, defending life, upholding marriage, and so on. To make it even clearer for us, God summarizes the Ten Commandments in these two statements: “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Due. 6:5). And, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). This is agape love; it is love directed outward. On our own, we are not capable of this love. We cannot and do not love like we should.
The newly married couple learns this very quickly. On their wedding day, they look at each other with stars in their eyes and promise to love each other “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” until death parts them. They may even choose today’s text to be read at their wedding: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.” “That’s how I will love you,” they promise. But it isn’t long before that feeling changes, before troubles come, before the loving bride and bridegroom start to snap at and criticize one another.
No matter what our best intentions are, we find ourselves failing at love. So we tell ourselves that we will do better, we will try harder. But we keep failing. We fail because love does not come from inside us. Love comes from God. There is no love apart from Him. If there were no God, if everything came about as the result of a big bang and billions of years of evolution, there would be no love. There is no love where the central principle is the “survival of the fittest.”
But there is a God, and He is a God of love. Some people reject God because of this statement. “If He is a God of love,” they say, “then why does He sit back and watch so many horrible things happen in the world? Why doesn’t He end all the suffering?” But God does not just sit back and watch, and He did bring an end to suffering—just not in the way they want. God’s love is realized not by all our temporal problems disappearing, but by His answer for our eternal problems—our sin and the punishment in hell that we deserve.
This is where God’s love shines brighter than any love we could imagine. The Apostle John writes: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1Jo. 4:9-10). This is how God came to fight for our sinful souls. He brought love to the battle against Satan, sin, and death.
The enemy wasn’t expecting that. They know nothing about love. That’s what makes it the perfect weapon. The powers of darkness have no answer for it. God’s love is stronger than hatred, stronger than all evil. God rescued us with love. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (Joh. 3:16). This is agape love—compassionate, sacrificial love.
God the Father sent His Son to save us, to give His life in our place. And His Son willingly accepted the task. This is how much God loves us! It is easy to love those who love us. But it is supremely difficult to love those who hate us. In fact, this is impossible for us to do on our own. But God is perfect, so His love is perfect too. His love for us is not dependent on our love for Him. He loves us because He is love.
What else could move God’s Son to be born a Man, so that He might humble Himself and make Himself a Servant of all? What else could bring Him to patiently endure all the hatred, indignity, and scorn, to become the target of violence, abuse, and punishment? He did all this because of love, love for you, love for your eternal soul. One of our hymns says: “Love caused Thy incarnation, / Love brought Thee down to me; / Thy thirst for my salvation / Procured my liberty. / O love beyond all telling, / That led Thee to embrace, / In love all love excelling, / Our lost and fallen race!” (The Lutheran Hymnal #58, v. 4).
You are saved because of His love. Your sins are forgiven because of His love. Eternal life is yours because of His love. You now stand holy and pure before Him because of His love. All the love that you have failed to show toward God and neighbor, His love covers over. Everything that you have failed to do according to God’s Holy Law, Jesus has fulfilled for you. This perfect fulfillment of His Law of love is credited to you by faith, faith alone. “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes,” writes St. Paul (Rom. 10:4).
But Jesus is not just love for you. The power of His love for you produces love in you. His Word and Sacraments awaken in you the desire to love. He moves you to love others as He has loved you. When you hear His Gospel words of love and eat and drink His body and blood which He so lovingly gives you, His love is planted in you and grows in you. He produces through you the kind of love that Paul describes, the love that is self-sacrificing, not self-serving.
And when you love in that way, with agape love toward God and neighbor, all the glory is His. This love is not from you, it is from God. The love you show your family members, your friends, your neighbors—all of it is a gift from the God who “is love” (1Jo. 4:8,16).
Everything that Paul writes about love in today’s text that we have failed to carry out, the Lord has done out of love for sinners: “[He] is patient and kind; [He] does not envy or boast; [He] is not arrogant or rude. [He] does not [seek to serve Himself]; [He] is not irritable or resentful; [He] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. [He] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” God is love, and He loves you.
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 “Healing the Blind Near Jericho” by a Netherlands artist in the 1470s)
Septuagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 20:1-16
In Christ Jesus, who called us by His grace, so that we should bear fruit in His name (Joh. 15), dear fellow redeemed:
We can understand the bitterness of the workers who worked all day in the hot sun for a denarius. They weren’t especially bitter about the amount of payment. They had agreed to work for this amount, and it was a fair wage. What made them upset was that the workers who worked for only one hour received the same amount. Who wouldn’t be upset about that? What made it even worse was that the owner of the vineyard paid the last workers first. It’s like he wanted to rub it in the faces of those who had worked all day.
This made them feel like their hard work was unappreciated, like their good efforts had been wasted. Have you ever felt this way? I think we all have. You did the hard work, and someone else got the credit. You consistently went above and beyond but were treated no different than your lazy co-workers. You have been walked over, pushed aside, and passed by more times than you can count. What has that done to your morale? Has it caused you to give less than your best? After all, what’s the point of giving everything you’ve got when you will be treated just like everyone else?
This is what the brother of the prodigal son was thinking. His younger brother had insulted their father, taken his inheritance, and squandered everything in reckless living (Luk. 15:13). Now he had returned home, and his father was throwing a big party! The older son was angry and said to his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” (vv. 29-30).
It doesn’t seem right. It isn’t fair. But it is a picture of grace. Grace is undeserved love. It is showing kindness, compassion, and generosity when those things are not warranted. Like the brother of the prodigal son, it is hard for us to be gracious. We like to focus more on justice than on grace. We have a clear opinion about what we deserve, and we also have a strong sense about what others deserve.
Like He does in the parable for today, Jesus challenges that thinking. He wants us to take a closer look at our preference for justice over grace. The workers who had spent all day in the vineyard wanted justice: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat!” “You’re treating us the same,” they said. “But we are clearly not the same.”
It isn’t really that the vineyard owner was against justice. He said to one of the grumblers: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?” He had kept his promise. He had not cheated those workers in any way. But he also wanted to be gracious to those who had worked only a little: “I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”
So this really wasn’t about justice. This was about jealousy. The full-day workers couldn’t bear the thought that others should receive the same payment who had not endured what they had. “There are blisters on my hands! My back hurts! My skin is burned! And those guys are just going to skip in here and get rewarded for nothing!”
The full-day workers did not have to be resentful. They could have simply been thankful for what they received. They could have even been happy for those late-coming workers, who for whatever reason weren’t present when the vineyard owner first came.
The same goes for you and me. It is a common temptation from the devil to make us resentful and jealous toward others. “If only I had the job he has and lived in a house like theirs.” “If only I had the marriage she did and the family they enjoy.” “If only I were healthier like they are.” “If only I hadn’t experienced so many losses and still had the encouragement and support of parents and grandparents like they do.”
But the grass is never as green as it appears on the other side of the fence. We often don’t see or know about the struggles and pains that others have. Their life is not really as care-free as it appears. Or if they do have fewer cares, the ones they have may feel like the heaviest burdens. It is no good for us to be jealous of the life that others have. God did not give you that life. He gave you the one you have.
But is it a good life? In some ways that is a hard question to answer. We can safely say that the life we live in America is already better than the circumstances of many around the world. We have plenty of food to eat. We have homes to live in. We have the freedom to make our opinions known and to worship as we please. Many people can’t take those things for granted. We can, and we do.
So despite our blessings, we can always point out things that are not good about our life, things that bother us, that drag us down. If I were to ask each of you today, and if I asked myself, “Are you happy?” we might all hesitate before we answered. This life is not perfect. We can always think of something that isn’t right. And it will be that way until our dying day.
But we must not let the difficult little details keep us from seeing the beautiful big picture. Instead of focusing on the good things that others seem to have, instead of focusing on how hard our work is, it is important to remember how we got here in the first place. We do not own this world, and we did not establish the Church. We were called to life through the miracle of conception, and we were called into the Holy Christian Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. We were born by the power of God, and we were born again by His power.
The workers in the vineyard would have ended the day with no money at all if the vineyard owner had not come looking for them. And see how eager he was to find workers! He went out again at the third hour, the sixth hour, the ninth hour, and even the eleventh hour! No employer would bring in a worker who would be there for only one hour. It would probably take that long just to get him situated.
This is how much our Lord cares and how diligently He seeks sinners for salvation. When He called Matthew the tax collector to follow Him, the Pharisees and scribes grumbled that Jesus and His disciples were eating with such people. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luk. 5:32). Later He visited another tax collector, Zacchaeus, and there was more grumbling. And Jesus said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luk. 19:10).
Jesus came to save sinners. That should be supremely comforting to you, because you are one. Jesus came to redeem you from your sins of bitterness and jealousy when you do not get what you think you deserve, or when others receive more than you think they should. He came to forgive you for the times you have been angry with God, when you felt He did not treat you like He should have.
Jesus died for all your sins because He is gracious. He gives you what you do not deserve. You don’t deserve to set foot in His vineyard. You don’t deserve to wear His name which He put on you at your Baptism. You don’t deserve to eat and drink His body and blood in the Holy Supper. But the Lord has called you to have all of this.
By nature we were standing idle in the marketplace, living the life that suits us, piling up wrong after wrong. But “the Holy Ghost has called [us] by the Gospel” (Luther’s Explanation to the Third Article of the Creed). By the power of His Word of grace, He called us away from our idleness, away from our self-centeredness, away from our futility. He called us to find life in Him and goodness and strength and purpose. He called us to meaningful and blessed work that is carried out in our vocations—our callings in our homes, our communities, and our congregation.
All of this is by grace. None of us deserves it. Jesus has chosen us to “be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness” (Explanation to the Second Article). This is how much He loves us. He chose you, and He chose me. That’s all that matters.
We do not “begrudge [His] generosity” toward others no matter what hour they are called to the vineyard or what blessings they receive. We know we haven’t deserved any of this ourselves. Jesus Chose Us by His Grace, and He promises to reward us by His grace with eternal life in heaven. So we give thanks to Him, and we glorify His 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 11th century Byzantine manuscript of laborers working in the vineyard [lower portion] and receiving their denarius [upper portion])
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).
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 Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1592-1656)
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.
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(picture of Abraham viewing the stars from 1919 Bible primer book published by Augustana Book Concern)
The Fifth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Peter 3:8-15
In Christ Jesus, who comforts us in our fears with the sure hope of salvation and eternal life, dear fellow redeemed:
A struggling economy. An unemployment rate in double figures. Plummeting crop prices. Unrest all across the country. This was the setting in 1933 when President Roosevelt gave his inaugural address. In the very first paragraph, he spoke words that have been repeated many times since: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He said that the collective fear of the population is a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
He was on to something. He recognized that fear is not a thing we are made to feel or experience. It does not come at us from the outside; it wells up inside us. So for example, spiders or snakes do not possess the power to make you afraid. This is clear from the fact that not everyone is afraid of spiders or snakes. Those who are afraid of them don’t like the way they crawl or slither. They don’t like coming across them unprepared. But ultimately, these animals are just a very small part of God’s vast creation.
Sometimes our fears developed from a traumatic experience in our youth. This may explain the fear people have of going to the dentist or of sleeping without a light on. But dentists are not inherently bad, and the darkness of night does not mean you are unsafe. This is all clear enough in the daylight with no dentist’s chair, snake, or spider present. But that doesn’t stop us from being afraid when we do face these things.
We have other fears these days, some of the same ones that were on people’s minds during the Great Depression. The economy is struggling. People are out of work. Demonstrations and riots are taking place across the country. A virus is spreading. There seem to be more questions at hand than answers. It won’t do to have someone tell us to just stop being afraid. Fear is not something we can turn on and off like a light switch.
But it is possible to redirect our fear. This is very important today when fear threatens to overwhelm both us and the people in our communities. Fear can make us do irrational and harmful things. Have you ever injured yourself in an attempt to destroy a tiny spider? The effort probably did not match the enemy. Fear can make us overreact to perceived threats around us. If others will not share our fear, it is easy to go on the attack—turn our backs on them, demonize them, maybe even physically harm them or hope for something bad to happen to them.
The apostle Peter urges a different approach in the Spirit-inspired words of today’s text. He calls on us to seek unity, to be sympathetic, to love others like they are members of your family, to have compassion, to be humble. “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling,” he writes, “but on the contrary, bless.” Your neighbor is not your enemy. You are not called to fight him but to love him.
This of course is not easy. When we have been wronged, we don’t want to let someone off too easily. If we do, we are afraid that we will be wronged again. Or if we try to build bridges and make amends, we are afraid that our attempts will be rejected and our kindness thrown back in our face. But what we are afraid of more than anything is looking weak, taking the humble path, swallowing our pride, submitting to one another. This is difficult and even painful. Why should we have to do this?
We show love to our neighbors because it is right. It is the will of God, and His will is perfect. We are to “love our neighbors as ourselves” (Lev. 19:18). God has the authority to demand this of us because He is the only God. His First Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods.” This means that “we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things” (Luther’s explanation).
But what exactly does it mean to fear God? It means to fear His punishment if we sin against Him. This fear causes us to do one of two things. The first is to try to hide from Him like Adam and Eve tried to do. But as they learned, there is no way to hide from God. Peter attempted something like this when Jesus gave him and the other fishermen the great catch of fish. Seeing what had happened, “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’” (Luk. 5:8). Peter’s sin made him want to escape the Lord’s presence.
But the better way to deal with the fear of God’s punishment is to repent of our sins, to kneel before Him and put ourselves in His mercy. We might be able to hide our sins from others, but we cannot hide them from God. He already knows them, and He will have justice. He does not play games. The author of Hebrews writes that “[i]t is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). It would be terrifying to stand before Him without repentance and faith. Then all our sins would be brought up against us and held against us.
This is why He wants us to repent, repent of our lack of trust in Him, repent of our lack of love toward our neighbor, repent of our fearing so many things around us, but hardly fearing Him. And what does He do when we lay our hearts and minds open before Him? By admitting our wrongs, don’t we acknowledge that He has the right to punish us?
He does have that right, but He does not send His wrath upon the repentant. He gives His grace. Look how the Lord dealt with Peter. Peter had just admitted his sinfulness. He was terrified to be in the presence of the holy God and begged Jesus to leave. And the next words out of Jesus’ mouth were, “Do not be afraid” (Luk. 5:10).
This is how the Lord deals with each one of us. We have sinned against Him in so many ways, and He knows it! But His response is not to take revenge. It is not to demonize us or seek to harm us. His response is forgiveness. Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid of God’s wrath anymore because I took that righteous punishment for you. Do not be afraid that your Father in heaven will turn His back on you because He turned His back on Me instead. Do not be afraid of suffering in hell for your sins because I suffered hell for your sins.”
Because of what Jesus did, you are reconciled to God. He is not your enemy. He loves you. He seeks your good. Quoting Psalm 34, Peter writes that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayer.” God considers you righteous because you trust in His holy Son. His ears are wide open to you. He wants to hear your fears. He wants you to turn them over to Him—fears about your relationships, fears about your finances, fears about the future, fears about your health and life.
The Lord promises that He will not abandon you to these fears. He will not leave you even if the whole world turns against you. “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” asks Peter. “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” You are blessed in your suffering because the Lord is with you, and no evil can prevail against Him. The victory is already His over sin and death, world and devil. And that victory is yours by faith in your Savior Jesus.
You and I cannot control what may happen to us today or tomorrow or the next day. That can make us feel afraid; we like to be in control. But it is far better to put our trust in the Lord, to leave our lives in His control. He loves us with an unchanging love. He redeemed our lives by shedding His own precious blood. He graciously called us to faith so that we would become heirs of eternal life and salvation.
“Fear itself,” as President Roosevelt put it, is not the problem as much as what we fear. Our fear should be directed to the Lord alone. He is completely holy and just. He is all-powerful and knows all. He can end the troubles we face in a moment, or He can use them to shape us and to call us and those around us to repentance.
Whatever He does, we know that He does it out of love. Through Jesus our Savior, we do not need to fear His wrath or eternal punishment. The fear that makes us want to run and hide is replaced by the fear that loves Him, respects Him, and wants to “serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness” (Second Article explanation).
So we look to Him in this godly fear, entrusting our lives and our troubles and our futures to Him. And He looks upon us with grace as His own dear children and says, “fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10).
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(picture of the miraculous catch of fish by Raphael, 1515)
The Second Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 John 3:13-18
In Christ Jesus, who lived a perfect life of love on our behalf, and who continues to inspire and work that love among us, dear fellow redeemed:
The home should be a place of love, kindness, and joy, but it isn’t always so. The people who make up a family are sinners, and sinners like to have things their way. You may remember thinking that you “just can’t live” with that annoying sibling anymore or with those unfair parents. You may have even said to one of them those three terrible, powerful words, “I hate you!” You probably regretted saying that later on and were glad to hear the even more powerful words, “I forgive you! I love you!”
Hatred has no place in the Christian home or in the Christian congregation. Hatred is the aim of the devil. He is eager to incite division, conflict, violence, abuse, and self-centeredness. We see these things raging all around us. God calls His people to do the opposite of these things. He calls us to be “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another” (Eph. 4:32). The Letter to the Galatians outlines “the fruit of the Spirit” in the life of the Christian, the fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (5:22-23).
But our lives as Christians don’t always look so fruitful. Just like the unbelievers of the world, we Christians are guilty of sinful stubbornness, hatred, and selfishness. In the broader Christian church, the world is right to point an accusing finger at us. Look at the rampant abuse of power and trust by ministers who are supposed to serve with love and humility. Look at all the congregations that are torn apart by petty disputes among its members. Unbelievers see these things and walk the other way.
But let’s bring it closer to home. Is there anything that visitors might see or hear among us to make them question if we really believe what we say we do? Would they detect that we accept people who are like us while looking down on those who are not? Would they hear us speak harshly or engage in gossip about others? Would they get a warm welcome or a cold shoulder? Would they find humility among us or pride? Cooperation or division?
I suppose they would find a mixture of all these things. We are not perfect. We are just as sinful as any who might walk through those doors. But we must never become comfortable in that sin. Instead of tucking our sin away, trying to cover it up, we expose it to the light of God’s Word. That is no easy thing. It is not fun to have our sins uncovered. It is easy enough to shine the light on the sins of other people. But when that light shines on us, we want to hide our wrongs.
The apostle John writes, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” When we hear “brother,” we think “male sibling.” But here the term is not used for our biological family. It is used for our spiritual family. We are all “brothers,” because we are “all sons of God, through faith” as the Bible says (Gal. 3:26). Through faith, we join Jesus in His position as the Father’s only Son, which means that all the honor and glory the Father bestows on His exalted Son is also given to us.
In this way, every believer in Jesus is totally equal: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). We are equally redeemed by God, equally forgiven, equally treasured. Since He loves us this way without distinctions, this is how we should love one another. By our willing and cheerful love toward each other, we show that “we have passed out of death into life.” We are not lost in the devil’s darkness. We are not consumed by hatred. We love as God has loved us.
When one Christian does not love another Christian, this is not justifiable in God’s sight. That does not stop us from trying to justify it. Like the guests in the Holy Gospel for today who had all kinds of excuses why they couldn’t attend the master’s banquet (Luk. 14:16-24), we make excuses for why we don’t have to love our brothers in Christ. Our lack of love sounds like this:
- “How could I possibly love her after what she did to me?”
- “I won’t apologize to him unless he apologizes to me first!”
- “She always has to get her way!”
- “He doesn’t care about anyone but himself.”
- “Things would be a lot better around here if they were gone.”
- “I’m not sorry for them—they got what they deserved!”
- “We’ve always done it this way, and if they don’t like it, they can leave!”
- “If they don’t go along with what I think, then I’ll just stop coming!”
These are not statements of love. They are statements of selfishness and pride. If those sins are not exposed to the light, it is only a short step to anger, resentment, and hatred. In God’s view, hatred is murder, and “no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” So there must be repentance—a heartfelt recognition of your own failings, a real sorrow over sin. It is easier to see the sins in others, but God’s Law uncovers the sins in your own heart. You are no better than they are, and you may even be worse.
The only one who is justified in holding sins against others is God. He has done wrong to no one. He is perfect. He has the right to condemn us to eternal punishment in hell for breaking His holy Law. But God does not rain His terrors upon us and smash us with the hammer of His justice. He loves us. “God is love” (1Jo. 4:16). God loved the world in this way, “that he gave his only Son” (Joh. 3:16). He gave His only Son to be our ultimate brother.
If God has given you a brother in your family, what are the qualities you like about him? Is he a good listener? Does he often have your back? Is he thoughtful? Funny? Is he someone you can always count on? But along with all the good qualities, I’m sure there are things you do not like about your brother. Maybe he is too stubborn, or he is not assertive enough. Maybe he makes some boneheaded decisions. Maybe he let you down when you were really counting on him.
Jesus is the ultimate brother. He has never failed you, never been too busy for you. You’ve never had to wonder whether He had your best interests in mind. But He has done more than “be there for you.” Every time you disobeyed God’s commands and sinned against Him, Jesus took the fall for you. When the Law like a strict classroom teacher asks, “Who did that? Tell me right now or everyone gets punished!” Jesus raised His hand and said, “I did.”
When you spoke harshly about someone or spread gossip to harm their reputation, Jesus said, “It was Me.” When you became angry and wished harm on another, Jesus said, “I did that.” When you made excuses for why someone in need was not worthy of love, Jesus said, “Put the blame on Me.” When you did not get what you wanted, and you hardened your heart against those God has given you to love, Jesus said, “I’m the guilty one. Take it out on Me.”
And God did. God took out all His righteous anger against sin on His Son. That is why the Lord came down from heaven to be our brother in the flesh. Jesus came to suffer and die for all the wrongs we had done, as though He were the one who did them. He let Himself be condemned and despised in everyone’s place, so He could save all. Because of His sacrifice, we are no longer destined for eternal punishment but for eternal life. That is love! “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us.”
Since He has redeemed us from our hatred and our failure to love, we are now free to love in His name. We are part of His holy body by faith. Our life is hidden in His. So we don’t have to find the motivation and the strength for love inside ourselves. The gap may be too wide between us and another brother. We don’t know how we could possibly bring ourselves to reconcile. But where love is lacking in us, it is not lacking in our Savior.
We find love for others in His love for us and for them. He has died for each of our sins. Jesus has removed the division between us and the Father, and He wants to remove the divisions between us and our brothers. This requires humility and repentance and sacrifice, not just on the part of those opposed to us, but on our part. The Holy Spirit works these things in us through His Word.
He shows us how little we deserve from God, but how incredibly much He has given. He guides us to bring our frustrations and grievances before our dear Father’s throne. He brings us healing and peace through Him who sacrificed everything for us out of love. As Jesus “laid down His life for us,” the Holy Spirit now leads us to “lay down our lives for the brothers.” He leads us to share the abundant goods we have been given with a “brother in need.” He leads us to love not only “in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
We are not bound together with our brothers by our own love. Our love for each other comes from Jesus. Through His holy Word and Sacraments, He fills us again and again with His love, so we have ample love to share with one another. “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” (Psa. 133:1), when We Abide Together in Jesus’ Love.
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(woodcut of the poor, the blind, and the lame being invited to the banquet from the 1880 edition of The Story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation)
The First Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 John 4:16-21
In Christ Jesus, who is constantly busy and active distributing the gifts of His love, dear fellow redeemed:
We know why the beggar Lazarus in the Holy Gospel for today was laid at the gate of the rich man. It is because the rich man obviously had the means to help him. But having the means to help and having the desire to help are two different things. The rich man did not care about Lazarus. He cared about his fine linens and his great feasts. This man lacked love. It is no surprise to learn that he also lacked faith. We know this because his soul went to hell when he died.
Faith and love go together. Those who have faith have love for others. Those who do not have faith do not have love for others—at least not the kind of love that God requires. The world is very confused about love. The world thinks of love as a feeling, an emotion, the thing that makes me happy. This love is not so much focused outward toward others but inward toward self. We are told to cultivate a self-love, to focus on what is self-fulfilling. And if someone does not show us the love that we require, then it is time to find another who will.
What if God defined love in this way? What if He said that He will love us only if we properly show love to Him? This is what we would think if all we had was the Law of God. The Commandments tell us to perfectly love the true God only, to perfectly honor His name, to perfectly hear and learn His Word. But we have not loved God like this. So what is stopping Him from walking away and never coming back?
He does not walk away from us, because His love for us does not depend on our love for Him. He loved us even in our fallen and rebellious state. In perhaps the most well-known passage in the Bible, the apostle John records these words of Jesus about God’s love: “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).
God loved the world not because we had earned His love, as though He owed something to us. He loved the world because He is love. And He expressed that love not by making us as comfortable as He can on earth before our sad and hopeless death. He sent His only Son to redeem us, so that we have hope in this life and are saved from eternal suffering in hell.
This is the love that John refers to in today’s text when he says: “God is love.” Some take this to mean that whoever and however and whatever I choose to love, God supports me. Like a 70s hippie, God just wants us to love, man, and there are no rules or restrictions about that love. But characterizing God’s love in this way is false and blasphemous. God does not approve of our sinful behavior. He does not support the destructive things we do that go against His holy Law.
If the love I have for someone or something does not agree with the Ten Commandments, then it is not the love of God. So it is right for a man and a woman to love each other and want to serve one another. But it is not right for them to express that love in a sexual way until they are married. It is right for two men or two women to have love for each other and work on building their relationship. But it is not right for them to pursue a union of flesh. It is right to admire the nice things one’s neighbor has. But it is not right to covet those things and seek to take them.
It is so important that we recognize this. Some Christians have the idea that as long as they say they believe, then it does not matter how they live their life. They don’t like to be told that “Christians shouldn’t,” or “Christians won’t.” “No one has the right to tell me if I’m a Christian or not,” they say. “I know what I am in my heart.” But what if the rich man had called himself a good Christian? Wouldn’t it be natural to expect him to help the beggar Lazarus as God’s Commandments require? Wouldn’t his inactivity make his personal testimony questionable?
If our life is lacking in the love that God requires, and it is filled with a selfish love which God condemns, that calls our faith into question. Then what we say is totally different than how we act. Let’s say you called yourself a Bears fan, but you wore Packers gear, and you rooted for the Packers even when they played the Bears. Could that cause someone to wonder if you really were a Bears fan?
When that kind of inconsistency shows up in the life of a Christian, between what he says and what he does, this indicates a problem. In that case it would be good and loving for another Christian to warn him about the inconsistency, so that his faith is not lost. Jesus clearly tells us that it is possible to lose faith (Luk. 8:4-15). Faith is more than mere knowledge. It is not just a recitation of the facts given in the Bible. Faith grabs hold of the promises of the Gospel. It clings to the perfect life and atoning death of Jesus for our righteousness and forgiveness.
Faith receives what God gives by grace. Faith does not express itself defiantly, as though a believer could never be guilty of a sin. Faith expresses itself in humble repentance for sins committed day after day, and it looks to Jesus for salvation. Only Jesus lived the life of love that God requires. He lived a life of perfect love toward God and neighbor. His life of love is why we are acceptable before the Father. His love is credited to us by faith in Him.
Where faith is alive by the grace of God, it is also active. Faith bears fruit in our lives. It is active in a Godly love. “We love because He first loved us,” writes John. This love for others is not self-serving; it is self-sacrificing. It is not pleasure-seeking; it is service-oriented. It is not boastful or arrogant. It is not calloused or insensitive. It is patient and kind and generous and forgiving. That is the love God has for us, and it is the love He calls us to have for each other.
But we have not loved in this way, not always. We can all look back (and we don’t have to look very far) to see where we have failed to love like we should. So how confident can we be on the day of judgment? Will we stand before God and say that we loved as He loved us? John writes that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” Are you afraid to give an account before God of how you have loved? Are you afraid of His punishment?
The blessed truth is that we will not be judged on the last day by what we have done or failed to do. We will be judged by what Jesus did. His perfect life of love is credited to us by faith. In this way, we are just like a beggar. When a humble beggar receives a gift, he does not think about how well he has begged or how worthy he is to get something. He is simply grateful to receive. He recognizes that he has been given something that he did not have before and had no ability to get.
This is what God has done for us. He has brought to us the perfect work of Jesus—His holy life, His atoning death, His great resurrection. He doesn’t wait for us to prove our worth before He will give it. He reaches down to us through His Word and Sacraments, peels open our sin-clenched hands, and gives us blessing after blessing. He did this for the beggar Lazarus, and He does it for us. He gives us such abundant riches that there is more than enough to share with others.
Suppose someone handed a beggar a million dollars. Wouldn’t it seem harsh if he turned up his nose at his fellow beggar friends and kept his newfound wealth all to himself? In the same way, since we have received such great riches from God, why would we keep them to ourselves? How could we gratefully receive His love, but not want to show love to those around us? A faith that is alive and well by the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word cannot help but extend love to others.
This is what you are prepared for in church each week. You come here to be filled up with the love of God. You come to have your bag of faith resupplied. You are filled with God’s forgiveness, His courage, His peace, and His strength. You leave here spiritually rejuvenated, blessed. Having received these gifts, your faith is ready for action. Now you see one neighbor lonely, another sad, another in pain, another racked by guilt. You know what they need. They need the love of God in Christ. So you show your love by listening to them, by caring for them, and especially by pointing them to Jesus and the undying love He has for all.
A Living Faith Is Active in Love. Your faith is alive because it is fixed on Jesus, and Jesus is most certainly alive. And because your faith is alive, it is active in love. The love you show does not have to come from some source or supply of love inside you. That kind of love often runs out. But the perfect love of your Lord for you and for others is never exhausted. As you continue to draw on His love by faith, you will never be without love for your neighbors.
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(picture from painting of the beggar Lazarus by Fyodor Bronnikov, 1886)
The Sunday after The Ascension – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Peter 4:7-11
In Christ Jesus, who when He ascended on high led a host of captives and gave gifts to men (Eph. 4:8), dear fellow redeemed:
On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember some of the major battles in America history and the heroic people who fought in them. To prepare them for the violent conflict to come, the commanding officer would remind them why they were there. He might invoke the principles of freedom, justice, and the cause of good to inspire them. He would urge them to take courage and not be afraid of the enemy. If each man did his part, victory would certainly be theirs.
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, He mustered His “troops” and gave them their “marching orders,” so to speak. His objective, however, was not physical conquest. The battle they were to engage in was a spiritual one. Their success and victory would not come by way of the sword, but by way of the Word. They were to make disciples for Jesus by baptizing and teaching all nations (Mat. 28:19-20). To equip them for this Jesus said, “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now,” and “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Act. 1:5,8).
Then Jesus was taken up from them into heaven. What was their next move now that their mighty Lord was no longer visibly present to lead them? They returned to Jerusalem and devoted themselves to prayer (Luk. 24:53, Act. 1:14). At this time, they certainly didn’t look like a force to be reckoned with. Their number was small, and no one expected much from them with Jesus out of the picture.
But then the Holy Spirit came upon them, which we will hear more about next weekend. On that Pentecost day, 3000 repented of their sin and were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The number of Christian disciples increased day after day, which alarmed the Jewish religious leaders and the governmental authorities. The Jewish leaders wanted the apostles to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. When threats did not work, they turned to violence (Act. 5:40). With their blessing, Saul led a persecution against the Christians beginning with the stoning of Stephen.
From the secular side, King Herod was also concerned with the growth of the Christian church. He wanted no unrest in his kingdom and wanted all honor and glory for himself. He did not want some Christian uprising to threaten his earthly authority. Herod got wrong what so many godless rulers have since. They see Christianity as a physical threat that must be suppressed by physical force. So Herod “laid violent hands” on some Christians and “killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Act. 12:1-2). He was glad to see that this pleased the Jews. But he was afraid of a violent reprisal from Christians. When he arrested the apostle Peter, he put him in prison and ordered four squads of soldiers to guard him.
And what were the Christians doing when this happened? Were they drawing up plans to sneak into the prison and overcome the guards? Were they sharpening their swords and knives for an attack? St. Luke writes that while Peter was in prison, “earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (Act. 12:5). That was the Christians’ response to this violence and trouble: they prayed. God answered their prayers for deliverance and sent an angel to release Peter from his chains and from prison.
Some years after this, Peter would record his First and Second Epistles. In today’s text from his First Epistle, he outlines what we might call “Marching Orders for the End Times.” The end times began when Jesus ascended into heaven. On that day, two angels told the disciples not to “stand looking into heaven,” and that Jesus “will come in the same way as you saw him go” (Act. 1:11). They told them He would return, but not right away.
Nearly 2000 years have passed since then, and Peter’s words are just as present and pressing now as ever: “The end of all things is at hand.” We are to live in expectation of Jesus’ return. We should constantly prepare for the last day. The clock is ticking. Our time and the world’s time are running out. But how exactly should we stay prepared?
We must “be self-controlled and sober-minded.” This means not letting the devil, the world, and our own flesh cloud our thinking. This happens when our plans are more important to us than God’s plan, when earthly riches mean more to us than heavenly riches, when personal pleasure and self-satisfaction keep our focus more than hearing God’s Word and doing His will.
We do not work to clear our minds of this clutter simply to feel more at peace or to “center ourselves” like the Eastern religions teach. We want clear and sober minds “for the sake of [our] prayers.” A mind distracted by worldly pursuits is not focused on the Lord and His promises. But when the Holy Spirit clears our minds by the power of the Word, we are ready to pray for our needs, for our fellow believers, and for all others. Time spent in humble prayer to the merciful God is never time wasted.
Besides prayer, God also calls us to “love one another earnestly” and to “show hospitality to one another.” Unbelievers generally expect believers to think and behave like they do, and in our sin we often do. But our light shines in the dark world when we do the unexpected. The world expects people to look out for themselves, to hold grudges, and to seek revenge. But God’s children love their neighbors as themselves, they forgive wrongs done against them, they respond with kindness when someone lashes out at them in anger or spite.
Peter writes that “love covers a multitude of sins.” If there were no love in us, think how many sins we could hold against others, big sins and little sins. The list would keep getting longer and longer. But then think how many sins God could bring up against us. We can’t imagine how long that list would be. No one has committed more sins against us than we have committed against God. And it’s not even close. But His love, in Christ, “covers a multitude of sins”—in fact, His love covers all of them.
This is what makes us willing and eager to take “marching orders” from the Lord. We know what He has done for us. We know the battle He had to fight to save us. We know what it cost. The God-Man Jesus had to suffer the eternal fires of hell in our place. He had to accept the full payment of God’s wrath for sin. He had to die.
If He was willing to do that to redeem you, to redeem me, that means we are not expendable in His eyes. He’s not going to send us to the front lines in a futile attempt to slow the enemy’s advance. He leads the way into battle. He fights for us and with us. He destroys the devil’s plans through His powerful Word, which motivates and guides our prayers and our lives of love. Wherever our love falls short, as it often has, His does not. His love covers over and hides our sins. Because our sins were put on Jesus, our heavenly Father does not find them on us anymore.
Forgiven of our sins, we are now able to approach the Father’s throne in confident prayer and to share His love with those around us. By His grace He bestows gifts upon us to use in service to others. But what gifts do we have? They are different for every person. No two people are alike in every way, having the same interests and abilities.
The Lord has equipped each of us in our vocations, our callings, to serve the people in our lives. What drives some people to serve is the recognition and thanks they receive. And if they are not recognized, they regret their service. But the good things we are able to do are not our own. We did not make these good things possible. We are not in control of their success.
God gives us our particular gifts like a master gives his goods to a servant. The servant does not take credit for the goods. He did not earn them or build them up. They belong to his master. He is simply a steward of the goods. He is given the job of management. So however the Lord has equipped you and whatever good you do, the glory belongs to Him and not to you. You are a steward of the gifts God graciously gives. You do not need to seek recognition for the things you do. You already have God’s approval in Christ, who lived a life of perfect love and service in your place. That perfect life is credited to you by faith in Him.
So these are the Christian’s Marching Orders for the End Times: pray, love, and serve in the name of Jesus. This kind of life will put you at odds with the world, which means you should expect to suffer. But you will not suffer alone. Your great and mighty King is with you in the conflict. He strengthens you when you are feeling faint and weak and are not sure you can carry on. He graciously forgives you and reinstates you by His Word of absolution when you fall into sin and desert your post. And He promises to relieve you from this struggle at the appointed time. He will come again in the same way the disciples saw Him go to take you to be with Him forever.
Not much has changed since the time that Peter wrote his epistle. The enemies are the same, and the sufferings and sorrows of this battle are the same. But our Lord’s commitment to us is the same too. His power to overcome whatever rises against us and His love and care for us as we struggle is unchanged. His promise to be with us and strengthen us is unchanged. His triumph over the forces of evil arrayed against us is unchanged.
We are safe and secure in Him. We are on the winning side. He has given us the victory by faith in Him, and we will soon have our rest in His heavenly kingdom. “To Him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
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(picture from “Jesus Discourses with His Disciples” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
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 Third Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Ephesians 5:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who freely gives you His inheritance of eternal life, honor, and glory, dear fellow redeemed:
We are in the middle of an unprecedented health crisis that has schools, businesses, and individuals taking drastic measures to avoid the spread of a virus. On the positive side, we see great cooperation happening in our communities and country. We have a greater appreciation for the work done by medical health professionals. We are more thankful for the little things we often take for granted. On the other hand, many are filled with worry and fear. People are “panic buying” and thinking more about self than neighbor. They are irritated that the way of life they value and the things they like to do have had to change.
What god does the world look to at a time like this? There are many of them. Some look to the god of self, trusting that their own efforts and precautions will make them safe and keep them alive. Some look to the god of medicine, expecting that doctors and nurses will cure them if they get sick. Some look to the god of government at the local and national levels, waiting for the perfect plan of care and treatment that will get us out of this trouble. Others don’t know what they will do without the god of sports since competition at all levels has been suspended. Many of course also look to the God of heaven to take care of us and end this threat.
Whatever or wherever our god is, that is where we are willing to make sacrifices. If what I care most about is myself, I will be willing to sacrifice everything else around me. If it is medicine, any cost for care is worth it. If it is government, it will receive my full attention and trust. If it is sports, that will get my extra time and resources. All people make sacrifices to preserve the things they care about.
But what the world does not realize is that any sacrifice that is not made out of love for God and neighbor is a sacrifice made to the devil (1Co. 10:20). There is no neutral worship. Either we worship the true God and honor Him in what we think, say, and do, or we worship the devil and do the things he wants.
As baptized children of God, we are called to worship Him only and to offer Him the sacrifices of prayer and thanksgiving and a godly life. In today’s text the apostle Paul writes, “be imitators of God, as beloved children.” How are we to imitate God? The verse just before this says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). We imitate God by humbly serving others and by being eager to forgive those who wrong us. This is how we “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us.”
The devil wants us to do the opposite of this. He wants us to put ourselves first, to force others to serve us, to satisfy our own desires. This is what people do who engage in “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness.” They are not driven by what God says or what is good for their neighbor. They are driven by what they want. They don’t realize that this is what the devil wants too. The more he can keep them thinking about themselves, the less they will be focused on God.
We can all think of people who have fallen for the devil’s temptations in this area. In fact I am almost certain that each of us here has an unmarried family member, friend, or neighbor who is currently living with a significant other as though they were married. This is sexual immorality. Our culture considers this an acceptable practice, but God calls it a sin.
You may not do this yourself, but what about the other things Paul mentions: “filthiness,” “foolish talk,” or “crude joking”? This includes things like pornography use or sharing pictures you wouldn’t want anyone to know about, romance novels where sexual immorality is depicted in words, repeating dirty jokes, listening to and singing along with immoral song lyrics, and gladly participating in gossip about the personal details of other people’s lives. These are all things the devil wants us to engage in. But Paul says they are “out of place” for Christians. They are means by which the devil would coax us from faith in Jesus.
One way to determine whether or not something is pleasing to God is to think in terms of the Old Testament sacrifices offered up to God from an altar. God did not accept sacrifices with imperfections and blemishes. The animals had to be healthy and clean in appearance. The grain offerings had to be from the best part of the crop. These sacrifices given gladly from the heart pleased the LORD.
So you could ask yourself: Am I willing to set these words about someone on God’s holy altar—am I speaking as honestly and kindly as I can? Am I willing to offer up these things I am doing—are they done out of love for Him and my neighbor? Am I willing to give these thoughts as a holy sacrifice to Him?
There are many things we do, say, and think with a clear conscience, things which we gladly dedicate to God’s glory. These fruits of faith are a pleasing sacrifice to Him, and we also are blessed through them. But not everything coming from our hearts and minds, our hands and mouths is acceptable to Him. These things may please the devil, the world, and our own flesh. But they do not please the LORD. They are unholy sacrifices that give off a displeasing aroma before God and among our fellow Christians.
The life of an unbeliever can only produce such displeasing sacrifices. Paul writes that they have “no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God,” and “the wrath of God” will come upon them. We are not unbelievers, but we have often sinned in many of the ways they have. How do we avoid the same fate because of our sins?
When we are troubled by the things we have done, when we regret the sinful sacrifices we have made, God calls us to repent. He urges us to expose our sins to the light. This is what Paul told the Ephesian Christians in the verses immediately after today’s text: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light” (Eph. 5:11-14).
Through repentance, acknowledging our wrongs, we expose our sins to the light. The devil works in the darkness. He wants to keep us in the darkness too and tries to convince us that the best thing to do is to try to hide our sins, deny them, blame others for them. But we cannot hide anything from the living God, and it doesn’t do any good for us to try. After King David was convicted for his many and serious sins, he wrote of God’s mercy toward the repentant: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psa. 51:17).
God does not despise your sacrifice of a broken spirit and contrite heart, because Jesus paid for all sin. Your unkind or crude words, your immoral actions, your foolish and impure thoughts—all of these were placed on Jesus. He was perfect in every way, free from any blemish on His record. And He willingly offered Himself up to suffer and die in your place. His sacrifice fully atoned for your sins, every single one of them. Because of this, you are clean in God’s sight.
Today’s text says that “Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” His “fragrant offering and sacrifice” overcomes the unpleasant aroma of sin. Jesus’ sacrifice, and not our sins, is what our heavenly Father sees when we look to Him in faith. The gods of this world cannot save us from our sins. They cannot promise any comfort or help in times of trouble. The devil wants people to care only about themselves and to act desperately when their way of life is threatened.
But the true God loves us. He sent His Son to redeem us, so that we would be comforted in this life and have the sure confidence of life after this one. As long as we are here, He promises that He will “guard and keep us so that the devil, the world and our own flesh may not deceive us nor lead us into misbelief, despair and other shameful sin and vice” (Explanation to the Sixth Petition). The merciful Lord is with us no matter our trouble, whether that be a widespread virus or anything else. He will either deliver us from the threat, or He will use it to bring us to Him in heaven.
For these great mercies, especially the sacrifice of His only Son for our salvation, our Lord is worthy of the best sacrifices we can make to Him. These are the sacrifices of a repentant heart, a humble faith, and a God-pleasing life.
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(portion of “Jesus in Prison” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)