Mission Festival – Rev. Prof. Thomas Rank sermon
Text: St. Luke 10:38-42
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ,
If you lose Jesus Christ and His Gospel, then you as a congregation, need not exist. If you lose Jesus, then this building, with your Sunday services, with your Sunday School and other programs, can be closed. That is, in summary, what it means if you lose what Jesus teaches when He speaks of the “one thing needful.”
This truth, the fundamental confession of Jesus Christ and the Gospel, is not only for congregations, but for our work as a synod, and our work at Bethany Lutheran College. It is our motto, and its meaning is to permeate what we desire for the students who attend.
There are many good things that your families, community organizations, volunteers of all kinds, food banks, and so on – there are many good things that all of these are able to provide for the welfare of your children, other people in your community, and beyond the confines of your local area. Each of you in your various vocations, where God has put you, have many appropriate and God-pleasing avenues for helping others.
This same variety of avenues to provide for others is found at Bethany. Whether it be Administration, or Staff, or the Faculty in the variety of academic disciplines, there is a desire to help our students in the horizontal aspects of their lives. What does it mean to have academic integrity? Why should I care? How do I live with others in charity and compassion? How do I love my neighbor?
These are important questions. But their answers—how we live—do not make us right with God or keep us right with God. If questions and answers for this life, our earthly vocations, become primary at Bethany, then we are failing in our primary work. The horizontal aspect of our lives, with other people, with our students, do not make right or kept right with God. This is active righteousness, doing, loving your neighbor. A great and blessed work. It is something we desire students and ourselves to learn, to grow in. But it is not the “one thing.”
Martha exemplifies this horizontal action toward others, human to human. Martha welcomed Jesus to her home. Martha, as a good hostess, directed her attention to serving Jesus and the others in her home. This was a great gift of kindness that she showed Jesus. Yet she was admonished by Jesus when she complained about her sister Mary. “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore, tell her to help me.”
This is an understandable reaction on the part of Martha. She thought that at that point in time, with Jesus as her guest, with serving needing to be done in a timely manner, that it was the most important thing. Surely Jesus will know this, agree with her, and direct Mary to help her. It seemed like the right thing to do.
But was it? What we learn in this short episode in the life of our Savior is not so much a distinction between what is right and wrong, but the distinction between primary and secondary things. Actions of love toward others, as Martha is showing here, are subordinate to the “one thing needful.” That is what Jesus teaches Martha. Her actions which in and of themselves are good, have become ways by which she has been pulled away from what should come first. She is distracted with the ‘other things,’ and so has become worried and troubled. Her desire to act, as laudable as it might otherwise be, has been made primary for her, and in that way she has failed.
Mary is depicted here by St. Luke as passive. “Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word.” Mary is not giving, she is receiving. And for the Christian, this is primary. This is first. This is the ‘one thing needful,’ hearing Jesus, hearing His Word. This is what has been the heart of Bethany Lutheran College since its founding in 1927. It is what we pray we can retain in the challenges we face.
Passive righteousness is hard for us because we humans, due to our alienation from God, are driven by the need to act, the need to try and show God how worthy we are. It is finally a condition that the Law of God must break in us. No matter how dedicated we are, no matter how kind we are, no matter how charitable we are, these are not what will decide our eternal fate. Heaven and eternal life are not won by us, by our deeds, by the intensity of our desire to act. Heaven and eternal life are won by Jesus; they are then given as gifts to you. And how is that done? By sitting at His feet, hearing His word, and faith which trusts that Word. Passivity.
In his wonderful commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther gave this counsel which very much applies as we learn this distinction between Mary and Martha:
“Therefore I admonish you, especially those of you who are to become instructors of consciences, as well as each of you individually, that you exercise yourselves continually by study, by reading, by meditation and by prayer, so that in temptation you will be able to instruct consciences, both your own and others, and take them from the law to grace, from active righteous to passive righteousness, in short from Moses to Christ.” (LW 26:10).
Do you see what is at stake here if we get the ‘one thing needful’ confused? If I, as a professor in my religions classes, speak to students on the topic of death, and seek to provide comfort for that uncomfortable truth of death, do I bring comfort by telling them what honest and well-mannered students they are, how they are such a great class, and that such actions on their part serve to stave off the fear of death? If that is my focus, students’ active righteousness, what am I actually doing? I am implicitly telling them not to rely on Jesus.
In the book “The Hammer of God,” a required text in freshman religion, and one which many of you may be familiar with, there is an episode in the first part of the book where a young and inexperienced pastor tries to console a dying man. The young pastor tries to provide consolation by telling the dying man: ‘Johannes, out of all the people in the village, you have certainly lived a virtuous life.’ To which Johannes responds: ‘God will not judge me by comparing me to the people of this town, but by His law.’ Thankfully, a pious and well-catechized Christian woman also visited Johannes and gave him the comfort of God’s Word of promise and forgiveness. She pointed him to Jesus, and away from himself. In that way, hearing the One Thing Needful, Johannes was given comfort as he died.
Let me repeat: Martha’s actions, her desire to give to Jesus, are not wrong. But she has placed them where they do not belong. They have become distractions. They have prevented her from sitting at the feet of Jesus and receiving His Word, His teaching, His grace. Mary had chosen the good part, listening, receiving.
While a goal of Bethany is to provide a solid education that will enable students to be good and productive citizens, it is not the primary goal. Remember how I started the sermon: If you lose Jesus Christ and His Gospel, then there is no reason to exist, either as congregations here in northeast Iowa, nor as a Lutheran college in south central Minnesota. That is, in summary, what it means if you lose what Jesus teaches when He speaks of the “one thing needful.”
It is about putting first things first. So as you look to this fall and the opportunities provided you to gather around God’s Word, and as we teach students at Bethany Lutheran College, what is the point of it all? It is to direct you and our students to Jesus, to teach you and give you the Gospel: you are forgiven, through faith in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who lived, died, and rose again, for you.
We meet Mary and Martha later in Gospels. In John 11 we hear of them and the death of their brother Lazarus. A time of sorrow has fallen on their home. But now we see and hear of the fruit of Jesus’ teaching, especially for Martha. Jesus will not give her hope because her brother was a kind man. No, but what will Jesus do? He will give hope by teaching who He is, and what He does. Jesus does the action for our salvation, He is the subject of the verbs.
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 “And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (Jn. 11:25-27 NKJ)
Do you think that Martha believed ‘the one thing needful?’ Clearly she did. She makes that powerful confession which comes only from hearing and believing Jesus: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of God.’
There you have the one thing needful: Jesus, Jesus for you. In Him you are forgiven, in Him you have resurrection hope, even now. That is the hope that permeates the life of your congregation and of your college. It is the hope that lies at very heart of what we desire to believe, to teach, to confess. It is here because you have Jesus, and His Word of grace.
It is my prayer that this ‘one thing needful’ continue to be your foundation, and that of our college. It is the bedrock of saving faith on which you may depend regardless of the storm winds of life. God grant it to you all, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.
(picture from stained glass in Bethany Lutheran College Old Main building)
St. Mary, Mother of Jesus – Vicar Anderson sermon
Text: St. Luke 1:46-55
In Christ Jesus, you who are blessed through the gracious merits of our Lord the Son of the Most High, dear fellow redeemed:
Some Christian churches today believe and confess that Mary was conceived immaculately, completely without the stain of sin. That she was full of grace from the time of her birth and throughout her entire life. They say it had to be this way in order for her to accept the task set before her. They say she had to be a virgin because her virginity is the sign of her faith “unadulterated by any doubt,” and of her complete devotion to God’s will. Because of this they believe Mary is worthy of our prayer and she brings our petitions to the Lord.
But we know none of this is true because scripture does not speak on any of those things. God’s Word only speaks of one person who was born completely without sin and His name is Jesus. The only Immaculate Conception we believe in is the conception of Jesus Christ. God’s Word came to Mary when Gabriel visited her, and the Holy Spirit conceived the child. She became the mother of the Savior because God chose her and decided that she would be, not because of any willful decision Mary made.
Mary would give birth to a Son, but He would not be a typical son. This son would be called holy––the Son of God (1:35). He had no earthly father, but was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He was fully God according to His divine nature and fully man according to His human nature. It was only possible for the Virgin Mary to conceive a perfect human being because God the Holy Spirit caused her to conceive.
The angel Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). We confess that Jesus is the second person of the holy trinity. Jesus is true God and true man. Therefore Mary is truly the blessed virgin, the mother of our Lord.
But the fact that she is the mother of our Lord is not the only reason Mary rejoices in today’s text, or even the main reason. She rejoices because of what Jesus’ coming means for all people. The Lord has exalted those of humble estate, and The Lord helped His servant Israel, in remembering His mercy.
Mary lived in a town in the region of Galilee called Nazareth and was betrothed to a man named Joseph (Luke 1:27). We know that Mary was a virgin; she had not had any physical relations with a man. She was a servant of the Lord, she knew what God commanded in His law and she believed in the promise of a Savior. She was not of any public significance and still God sent the angel Gabriel to come to her, to inform her that she will conceive in her womb a Son and she is to call His name Jesus (Luke 1:31).
It was a great honor for Mary to bear the God-man Jesus Christ. God chose her because she had faith. But even with a strong faith Mary could not provide any help in the plan for the salvation of mankind. Rather then being prideful and thinking highly of herself Mary recognized her need for a Savior.
Mary immediately takes the spotlight off herself and shines it on her Lord. She acknowledges her humble estate. In her song of praise she mentions “He” or “Him” close to twenty times. She refers to herself four times and in each case it is only in response to what God has already done for her. She knows where her help comes from. All her help comes from the Lord, to whom she sings her praises.
The same is true for us; our help comes from the Lord, and from the Lord only. And still our sinful nature continues to get in the way. Our self-centeredness and pride want us to believe we can do it apart from Jesus Christ. We puff up our chest in arrogance and think that we have all the answers. Our own intellect and reason become our idol and we put our trust in them, elevating them above the Lord. We think we know better than God, needing results now and the results we want. If God has something else in mind for us, well we just aren’t all that satisfied with it. We make our decisions with no regard to what His Word says and without His blessing. We think of ourselves as special, but in reality we are just ordinary sinners.
God sees right through our conceited hearts. He cuts through your self-reliance and pride so that you recognize your need for dependence on Him. He brings you down in order to raise you up again. This is what God’s Law and Gospel do for you. If you were not graciously given the Holy Spirit to recognize your sin and selfishness and need for Christ, you most certainly would be lost forever. God loves you far too much to let this happen.
God has always taken care of those He calls His own. Throughout the Old Testament God used small and insignificant people to help preserve the coming of His Son. Using the small in stature to bring down the mighty. A young faithful shepherd boy kills a tall strong pagan warrior with nothing but a stone and a sling. And this same boy David would grow up to be one of the greatest and mightiest kings Israel ever saw and from whose descendants Jesus would come (Sam. 17:33, 46–51). Without God’s almighty hand over David, he surely would have failed.
Apart from Christ we are nothing. The Lord takes what is nothing and makes it significant. He takes you, just an ordinary sinner and makes you righteous in God’s sight. He makes the unimportant blessed beyond compare through His Son. He used Mary a small and insignificant servant of the Lord to bring about the Savior of the world.
It is right for us to recognize the honor Mary has of being the mother of the Lord. Mary’s relative Elizabeth just prior to our text had greeted her saying, “blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Mary truly was blessed but not more blessed than you (Luke 1:48). She was blessed because of what her Savior did for her. His payment of death on the cross was for her, a sinner who trusted in her Savior. She is a saint in heaven because of her faith in Him.
There is a big difference between honoring Mary and praying to her. We do not pray to Mary or any of the saints, nor elevate them above Jesus Christ. God’s Word tells us in St. Paul’s letter to Timothy, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).
Martin Luther greatly opposed praying to Mary and the saints. He says, “we want to hold the dear virgin and mother in all honor, as she certainly deserves to be honored; yet we do not want to honor her in such a way that we make her equal to her Son, Christ. For she was not crucified for us, nor did she die for us or pray for us on the cross; but Christ was crucified for us and died and pleaded and prayed for us with tears on the cross. Therefore honor Mary; but do not accord her the honor which we should accord Christ” (Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says, 4009 pg. 1257).
Mary was unique in that her savior would physically dwell inside her womb and be born of her flesh and blood. He would be nursed by her and raised by her. She would love him as any mother loves her son. Throughout Jesus’ life she would witness how the world would receive Him. She would hear how people talked about Him and see how badly He was treated. She knew that at some point He would be taken from her. This would be a tremendous challenge for Mary and she would need protection and support from the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless she struggled to always trust the plan God had set in motion. Mary did not always nor perfectly understand who Jesus was and what He must do. When she finds Jesus in the temple teaching as a young boy she asks Him, “Son why have you treated us like this?” Jesus responds, “why were you looking for me, did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” (Luke 2:48–49).
At a later time in Jesus’ ministry, Mary seems to have joined her family in wanting Jesus to stop teaching like He was. Some in the family try to seize Him saying, He was “out of His mind” (Mar. 3:21). Mary did not always speak up and rebuke others when they questioned what Jesus was doing. His mother and His brothers stood outside the house where He was, a house packed with people listening to Him. Jesus was told that His mother and His brothers were outside the crowd seeking Him. Jesus responded, “who is my mother and my brother?” And then with an outstretched hand He points to all who were seated around Him and He says, here are my mother and my brother and my sister, for whoever does the will of my Father is my brother, sister and mother” (Matt. 12:46–50).
Jesus makes it exceptionally clear that Mary His mother is not the focal point of His ministry; she was only a small piece of it. Jesus shows that the focal point of His ministry is the work of His Father. He was about His Father’s business, saving souls and He is as much His mother’s savior as He is yours.
Your Lord lived perfectly and went to the cross to die for you never once questioning the will of His father. You who are in Christ Jesus have everything. The Lord has filled you with good things. He has emptied you of your worldly ego and pride and filled you with God’s grace. All that was completely worthless is now replaced with something precious. Through His Word He has filled you with His Holy Spirit and given you his body and blood for nourishment. The food he provides you with will never let you hunger and thirst again. The bread from heaven, Jesus Christ Himself, fills you! You are now full and completely satisfied.
Jesus has “clothed you with garments of salvation. You are covered in the robe of His righteousness” (Is. 61:10). The promise to Abraham and his descendants was kept. The mercy of God is remembered in His Son Jesus. He has caused “righteousness and praise to sprout up before all nations” (Isaiah 61:11). His promises are kept for you, and the benefits of them continue to come to you just as “flowers continue to sprout from the earth.” All generations who believe in Him are called blessed. You are blessed just as St. Mary is.
St. Mary is a great example to all Christians. She had humility and a strong faith in her Savior. She knew that she did not deserve the honor of being the mother of our Lord and she also knew that she didn’t deserve a Savior. Yet, God chose her from eternity to bear the Son of God and also be saved by Him.
The Lord has also chosen you from eternity to believe and to be saved. His love and mercy is abundant and abounds for all who believe in Him. The mother of Our Lord truly did have a reason to rejoice, and so do 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 “The Visitation” by Giotto di Bondone, c. 1310)
Christmas Eve – Pr. Faugstad Homilies
Text: St. Matthew 1:18-25
I. “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
We have no record of Joseph and Mary’s courtship beyond what is recorded by the evangelist Matthew. Some speculate that Joseph was a bit older than Mary and that he may have even been married and had children before. Whatever the case, Joseph and Mary now became betrothed to each other. This was something like our modern practice of engagement. It was a public declaration that they intended to be married. But since they were not married yet, Joseph and Mary did not live in the same house or share a bed.
So imagine Joseph’s surprise when Mary told him she was pregnant! She told Joseph how she had been visited by an angel, who informed her that she would conceive a Son. She was to name Him Jesus. The Lord God would give Him the throne of David, and there would be no end to His kingdom. Mary asked the angel how this was possible since she was a virgin. And the angel said that the Holy Spirit would conceive the Child in her womb (Luk. 1:26-35).
That was a lot to process for Joseph and for Mary too! The only proof Joseph had for any of it was that before long Mary’s womb would grow. What should he do? He decided to call off their marriage quietly. But before he did this, the Lord’s angel now appeared to him in a dream. He verified what Mary had said. Her Child was from the Holy Spirit. The Child in her womb was the Son of God incarnate!
TLH #76, 1-2 / ELH #113, 1-2 – “A Great and Mighty Wonder”
II. “She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
Just as Mary had been directed, the angel told Joseph that her Child should be named Jesus. So the name for this Baby came from God Himself. This name described what the Child would be and what He was sent to do. The name “Jesus” means “the LORD is salvation,” or “the LORD saves.” “[Y]ou shall call His name Jesus,” said the angel, “for He will save His people from their sins.”
So who exactly were “[this Child’s] people”? First of all, they were the Israelites, the Jewish people. As Jesus said years later during His public work, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mat. 15:24). But while His public activity focused on the Jews, He later sent out the apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (Mat. 28:19)—all people regardless of nationality.
And what did He come to “save His people” from? He came to save them “from their sins.” A sin is anything that is contrary to God’s holy law. It wasn’t just the Jewish people who had sinned, but all people. The apostle Paul writes, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:22-23).
Sin requires justice, since God is holy. You and I can’t save ourselves. We are spiritually bankrupt before God. We have nothing to pay our debt to His law. That is why God sent His only Son. He sent Him to take our place, to offer His holy life for us and to die in payment for our sin. The little Lord Jesus came to save you and me. He came to rescue us from eternal damnation. He came to win for us eternal life in heaven.
TLH #94 – “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
ELH #145 – “What Child Is This?”
III. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
The first promise of a Savior came right after Adam and Eve disobeyed God and fell into sin. At that time, the LORD told the devil, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). So the Offspring of the woman would stomp on Satan’s head and sustain a bruise on His heel. In other words, the woman’s Offspring would fare much better than the serpent.
Thousands of years later, the LORD delivered another promise through the prophet Isaiah. Like a telescope bringing something far away into focus, the picture of how the Savior would arrive was becoming clearer. Isaiah prophesied that “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” How could that be? How could a virgin conceive a child? The virgin Mary wondered the same thing some 700 years after this prophecy. But “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luk. 1:37).
The Holy Spirit formed an embryo in Mary’s womb who was no ordinary Person. This was Immanuel. This was the Son of God begotten of the Father from eternity, who had come to take on our flesh and blood. He came to take our sin and pain and sorrow to Himself and to die in our place. He came to give us His perfect righteousness and everlasting life. This was Immanuel—not “God far above us” or “God against us”—but “God with us.”
Jesus is “God with us.” He is your Savior, who still comes to take away your sin and pain and sorrow. He comes even now through His Word and Sacraments to give you His grace and salvation.
TLH #647 / ELH #137 – “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
IV. When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called His name Jesus.
If you were in Joseph’s position, would you have done what he did? In a certain respect you are faced with the same dilemma he was. The question is whether you believe the Baby in Mary’s womb was conceived in the natural way, or whether you believe He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The way you answer that question matters.
If you say that Jesus was conceived in the natural way and had a biological father, then for you he can be no more than an influential person and a good teacher. He cannot be your Savior. A regular human being cannot save you any more than he can save himself, since all of us are sinners.
But if you believe that Mary was telling the truth, then you do have a Savior. Then you know the God who took on human flesh, so He could save you. Then you know Him who was “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4). Then you know the One who offered up His holy body and shed His holy blood on the cross for the full and free forgiveness of all your sins.
The unbelieving world rejects the message of Christmas because it does not agree with reason or common experience. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1Co. 1:27-28).
God grant us the same confident faith of Joseph and Mary, who believed the Word, who believed that this Child was exactly what the angel said: the holy Son of God.
TLH #81, 1-4 / ELH #161, 1-4 – “O Jesus Christ, Thy Manger Is”
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(painting is “Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1592-1656)
The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 1:18-25
In Christ Jesus, our Hope, our heart’s Delight (ELH #94, v. 1), dear fellow redeemed:
Before there were Christmas elves and bell ringers outside grocery stores, before there were letters addressed to the North Pole and a reindeer named Rudolph, before there was a man dressed in red and white whose belly shook like a bowl full of jelly, before lights were hung on houses and in trees, before there were Christmas trees and Christmas stockings, before a faithful pastor named St. Nicholas lived and worked in the third and fourth centuries—before all these things, there was Christmas, the birth of the Christ-Child, God come in the flesh.
But what was there before that? There was hope. There was hope that the woman’s Seed would crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15). There was hope that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s Offspring (Gen. 22:18). There was hope that a living Redeemer would raise His people from the dead (Job. 19:25-27). There was hope that a Prophet like Moses would arise (Deu. 18:15). There was hope that a Prince of Peace would come (Is. 9:6). There was hope that a righteous Branch would grow from the line of Jesse (Is. 11:1) and David (Jer. 23:5-6) to rule in justice forever. There was hope.
But along with hope there was doubt. Doubt always accompanies hope; the devil and the flesh make sure of it. Doubt is quiet but persistent: Are you sure? What if this is all made up? What if there is no God? What if all the things you thought were fact are nothing but a fairy tale? Imagine living before the birth of Christ. You would have no idea when God’s promises would become reality. There was no countdown clock. The periods “B. C.” and “A. D.” were instituted long after Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, and ascension. At the time of Adam or Noah or Abraham or David, you would not know if the coming of the Messiah was one year away, 1000 years away… or perhaps not at all.
All you had to go on was the Word. That doesn’t always seem like much. It does not satisfy the thirst for proof. Isn’t that the rallying cry in our day against everything recorded in the Bible? “Prove it!” But whether it passes any sort of objective or scientific test is not as important today as whether it passes the test of the heart. The main thing is how a person feels about what the Bible says. So then what is true for one, may not be true for another.
What does this lead to? It results in an unsure Word, a changing Word, one that is adjusted to fit the person instead of the other way around. A wavering Word means a wavering hope. Hope must stand on something solid, or it cannot stand at all. Without the promises given in the Bible, there would be no cause for anyone to be hopeful about anything in this life. If there is no forgiveness, we remain in our sins. If there is no life, we are on our way to a bitter death. The Apostle Paul wrote that as long as any are separated from Christ, they are without “hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Joseph was not without hope. He was an Israelite and a descendant of King David. He was taught the Old Testament Scriptures as all Jewish children were, and he worshipped in his local synagogue. It is evident that he believed what he had been taught, since in today’s text he is referred to as “a just man.”
This “just man” became acquainted with a young woman named Mary. He asked if she would be his wife, and she agreed. It was a love story unlike many we see in sitcoms and movies today. Joseph and Mary did not hop in bed together after getting to know each other a bit. Even after they were engaged, they did not engage in sexual activity, because they were not married. They knew the meaning of the Sixth Commandment. They knew that to act otherwise was to go against God’s will.
Joseph thanked God for blessing him with a pious woman. He looked forward with joy to his wedding day as any godly man would. But then the horrible discovery: Mary was pregnant! How could she! How could he have not seen her for what she was? Was he so gullible, so ignorant? His heart broken, Joseph made plans to end their engagement. He could have made a public example of her, but instead resolved to end things quietly. He would leave the justice to God.
But before he had done this, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” The angel told him to take Mary as his wife, for her child was not from man but from God. Her child in fact was God, who would “save His people from their sins.” Joseph woke up with a much different mindset than before. Before, he could hardly hope to be happy again. Now, there were two reasons for happiness: 1) Mary had not betrayed him after all, and 2) the Savior had come!
Joseph had hope, but that doesn’t mean he was without doubt. If you were in his shoes, wouldn’t you wonder if you might be the greatest fool in history? What if the angel in his dream was just a figment of his imagination? Then he would be about to marry someone who was both immoral and untruthful. Had his mind cooked up this hopeful dream as a way to cope with the betrayal of the woman he loved?
But there was something more to Joseph’s hope than the message of the angel. The evangelist Matthew helps us see this by quoting the words of the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name ‘Immanuel.’” Joseph knew this prophecy. It was written down by Isaiah over 700 years before this. It states clearly that an “Immanuel” would come, a “God with us,” who would be born of a virgin. God had chosen lowly Mary, Joseph’s betrothed, to bear the Savior of the world.
This prophecy in Isaiah is a major sticking point for those who deny the virgin birth today. They try to argue that the word for “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 can also be translated as “young woman.” They say that Isaiah must have been talking about some young woman who had a baby at that time. According to these skeptics, not only is a virgin birth impossible, but it would have been impossible for Isaiah to predict something so clearly hundreds of years before it happened. They say that if there was a Mary living in Nazareth some 2000 years ago, she conceived a child in the natural way, either with Joseph or some other man.
But if they don’t believe what the Bible says, why do they waste their time telling us so? If, as they say, the Bible is a collection of man-made fables, why do they argue about the details? It is because they don’t want you to believe it either. If they can get you to deny the virgin birth, it is just a small step beyond to deny everything the Bible says about Jesus. The Bible claims that Jesus is God from eternity, but He cannot be that if He was conceived naturally.
And what do these pagans gain by their assault on God’s Word and God’s people? With the Bible out of the way, they might be able to quiet their conscience to some extent. They might feel more comfortable in their sin. But they haven’t gained any hope. If there is no God, if God did not become man and suffer and die for sinners and rise again, then life has no real purpose, it has no goal. Then a person is left with empty accomplishments, meaningless possessions, and the guilt of a life poorly lived. But if the Lord has come, and if He came to rescue sinners from their miserable condition, then there is purpose for this life, then there is an end goal. Then there is hope.
We have hope. Our hope is not based on anything in us, on our own thinking and doing. Like Joseph, our hope is based on what God says, what He promises. God knows how we struggle to hang on to this hope. He knows how the devil and our own flesh tempt us to doubt. This is why He gives us Means to strengthen us. He gives pastors to preach His Word and administer His Sacraments. And He gives fellow Christians to encourage us along the way.
In these things that are seen, God gives us hope it what is unseen (Rom. 8:24-25). He gives us the sure and confident hope of life in heaven whenever our lives in this world come to an end. Eternal life is ours because Jesus saved us from the death and hell we deserved. Sin separated us from God, but Jesus reconciled us again by His innocent suffering and death. It is as the angel told Joseph, “He will save His people from their sins.” This is why He was to be called Jesus, a name which means, “The LORD saves.”
Jesus came to save you, to be your Immanuel. He came to give you hope of a future much brighter and a life far greater than this one. It is a hope that comes only by God’s grace and only through the power of His Word. It is through this Word that you, and Joseph and Mary, and all the faithful have been “born again to a living hope” (1Pe. 1:3). The incarnate Son of God, born of the virgin Mary, who died and rose again for you and all sinners—He is the reason for the season, and the “reason for the hope that is in you” (3:15).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(painting of the angel’s visit to Joseph is by Toros Roslin, 1262)
Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 1:39-45
In Christ Jesus, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary to redeem all who have inherited sin from our first parents, Adam and Eve, dear fellow redeemed:
When the committee for Jerico’s 150th Anniversary began its work over a year ago, there was a clear goal in sight. Everything had to be ready by June 25th. The closer that date got, the more time and money were spent to finish up projects. Then the day arrived – and what a day it was! Things would have been much different if no celebration day had been set. We might have identified jobs needing to be done, but no one would know when they should be completed. We might tell people to get ready, but they wouldn’t know when to come. It is a lot harder to keep the focus on a general promise that something will happen, as opposed to a definite deadline and plan.
This helps us understand how the Israelites struggled to maintain the focus on God’s promise of a Savior. Thousands of years passed after the LORD first promised Adam and Eve that a Savior would come. Then at a certain point, even prophecy ceased. The last prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi, concluded the book of his prophecy with these words of the LORD, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (4:5-6). This was sometime in the 400s B. C. After this time, Alexander the Great conquered Persia, which included the land of Israel. Following his death, his territories were divided among his four generals. Later on the Israelites won their independence, but in 63 B. C., Israel became a territory of the Roman Empire.
Throughout this time, the sacrifices and ceremonies in the temple continued, and the people studied the Scriptures. They knew the fulfillment of God’s promise was getting closer, but they had no idea when it would be. Each young girl could well have wondered if God’s promise would be fulfilled in her (Gen. 3:15, Is. 7:14). But why would God choose her? Who could ever be worthy enough to bear the Christ-Child? The people must have imagined that the mother of the Messiah would have to be someone noble, someone great, someone significant.
And God chose Mary. She was not rich or famous, but lived a simple life in the unimpressive town of Nazareth. Luther says about Mary that she was “a poor, lowly, weak maiden whom no one valued and who was perfectly obscure” (Festival Sermons of Martin Luther, Mark V Publications, p. 108). The angel Gabriel appeared to her and said, “[B]ehold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:31-33). By the power of the Holy Spirit, lowly Mary would bear in her womb the Savior of the world.
Then the angel told her something else, “[B]ehold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God” (vv. 36-37). Mary could hardly believe it, but she did. She said, “let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38). Now who could she tell? Who would believe her? What would Joseph think, the man to whom she was betrothed? The angel had mentioned Elizabeth. This must be no coincidence. Mary would go see her. So she left Nazareth and traveled south to the hill country near Jerusalem, where Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah served as a priest.
Elizabeth had only just begun to venture out in public after five months in seclusion. Who would have believed this old woman if she told her neighbors she was pregnant? But now six months into her pregnancy, her growing belly could not be ignored. Then a surprise guest arrived, her young relative Mary. Mary entered the house and greeted her, and suddenly the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaped! Some of you here probably know this feeling. A sharp kick to the ribs probably caused you to cry out, much like Elizabeth did. But it wasn’t just the movement of her baby that caused Elizabeth to shout. When Mary greeted her, she was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (vv. 42-43).
Keep in mind that Mary set out to see Elizabeth right after the angel visited her. This means Jesus was no more than a couple weeks old. He was almost too small to be seen by the naked eye. No one could have guessed that Mary was pregnant, and Elizabeth knew she wasn’t married. But the Holy Spirit revealed to Elizabeth that what was forming in Mary’s womb was her Lord, the promised Messiah. He would not become her Lord when He was born, or when He would suffer, die, and rise again. He was her Lord now, a matter of days into His human development. In the same way, it is true that a baby in the womb is a person not just when it is born or can become self-sustaining, but at the earliest stage of its formation.
With Elizabeth, Mary found someone who understood, who believed. Can you imagine the conversations they must have had over that three-month visit? One woman carried in her womb the man who would prepare the way for the Lord. He was the “Elijah” foretold by the prophet Malachi. The other woman bore the Christ-Child, conceived in her not by a man, but by God. And nobody else knew, except probably Zechariah. To their neighbors, Elizabeth was just a fortunate old woman, whom God had finally given a child. And Mary was her kind relative who had come to help out until the birth. Who could know that the day of God’s great promise had come? Who could know that these lowly women would be remembered and honored until the end of time?
But then isn’t that how the Lord does His work? In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1:26-28).
This was certainly true of Jesus. Born of a poor woman in a little town. Raised in Nazareth far from the historic center of Israel. Why should anyone pay attention to Him? But His powerful works and words could not be ignored. His bold teaching of repentance set Him at odds with the self-righteous. They used their high-standing and power to condemn this poor Nazarene to death. He was crucified and buried. It appeared that Jesus would be little more than a footnote in human history. But God chooses what is low and despised, to conquer the high and mighty. By His death, Jesus overcame sin, devil, and the grave and won eternal life for all people.
Consider your own life. What does the world care about you? Even famous people are quickly forgotten after their death if not already before. You, living out your lowly life in northeast Iowa, don’t seem to matter much. You may even find yourself thinking the same thing – “Does what I do really make any difference? Would the community even notice if I were gone?” You may not look like much, both in the eyes of others and even in your own sight. But your value to the Lord is immeasurable.
Before you were born, even before you were formed in your mother’s womb, God chose you to be His own. It was for you that He sent His only Son to be born of Mary. Jesus fulfilled the law on your behalf. He was scorned and abused and nailed to a cross in your place. He willingly offered up Himself as the perfect sacrifice to atone for your sins. If the Lord did not care about you, if He did not love you, He would not have done these things.
Not only does He want you to know and believe His grace in this life, He also wants you to reign with Him in heaven. That is how important you are to Him, how much you matter. And the doing is all God’s. You are not His child because you were somehow more worthy than others, or deserved it because of your troubles. Just as God in His own wisdom and grace chose Elizabeth to bear John the Baptizer, and Mary to bear the Christ, so He has chosen you. He has chosen to lift you up out of your sins and share His own honor and glory with you.
Mary knew that her worth in God’s sight was totally due to His merciful disposition. In her beautiful Magnificat she sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord… for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant…. for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Lk. 1:46,48,49). The Lord kept His promise, but not in a way that everyone would have expected. He turned a poor, obscure woman into the mother of God. And He has made you, weak and poor in spirit, into a child of God. The Lord Exalts the Lowly.
As you hear His Word with humble faith, Jesus visits you with His blessings. He gives you His gifts of forgiveness and life, so that you also are filled with joy and wonder. And you are strengthened in the faith, so that whenever He does come visibly, you will be ready for His coming. Then you will live not for the celebration that will be sometime in the future, but for the celebration that is.
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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