St. Titus, Bishop & Confessor – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Titus 2:11-15
In Christ Jesus, whose abundant grace covers all our sin, dear fellow redeemed:
Back in the 1930s, a prominent Lutheran pastor in Germany coined the term “cheap grace.” He didn’t apply the term to God, as though God were giving something second rate to sinners. He applied it to Christians, to those who use grace as a cover up for sin, who care very little about repenting of their sin and amending their lives. They are like spoiled children who expect their overindulgent parents to bail them out no matter what trouble they get into. Grace to them has become so common, so expected, that they hardly value it anymore. It has become cheap.
The Christians in Corinth were guilty of looking at grace in this way. The Corinthian congregation was marked by all sorts of divisions. Some minimized grace and taught that the Old Testament civil and ceremonial laws needed to be kept for salvation. Others used grace as a license to sin and boasted about having Christian freedom even in areas that went against the Commandments of God. The Apostle Paul rebuked them for abusing God’s grace in these ways. We have this rebuke in his First Letter to the Corinthians.
We also have a Second Letter to the Corinthians, a follow up to some of the issues Paul had raised. In this letter, he mentioned a visit of his co-worker Titus to the congregation. Titus, who we remember today, was a Gentile man who accompanied Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem before they set out on their missionary journeys (Gal. 2:1). He was a trusted associate of Paul’s, so Paul sent him to guide and teach the Corinthian congregation.
When he arrived, Titus learned how strongly Paul’s Letter had affected the people. The congregation received Titus “with fear and trembling” (2Co. 7:15). They were not so much afraid of Paul’s messenger as they were of Paul’s message. They did not want to be found outside of God’s grace.
This same concern should be in the mind and heart of every Christian. We should want nothing more than to remain in God’s grace. But how can we be sure we will? We have been taught since our youth that grace has nothing to do with us. It is God’s undeserved love for us. Since it comes from God, there is nothing I can do to make sure I stay in it, is there?
It is certainly true that grace is a gift from God to us. We can’t earn it, and we don’t deserve it. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Grace means we owe nothing to God for our salvation. It is not a loan that we have to pay back by our good works or any other sacrifice. Grace is freely given. It reflects the love of the Giver and not the worthiness of the receiver (Rom. 5:8).
Grace does not cost us anything, but it did cost Jesus. The Apostle Peter describes the price of our ransom. It was “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1Pe. 1:18-19). Jesus paid for our salvation by the shedding of His holy blood. He suffered the torments of hell and death on a cross to save us. That was the cost of His grace. Grace is G-R-A-C-E: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.
Such a deep love, such faithfulness toward sinners demands some response, doesn’t it? Think about if your reckless or negligent behavior caused millions of dollars of damage, and someone stepped up to pay the price. How would you react? Or how about if someone took care of your significant credit card debt or the debt on your property? You would be totally humbled. You would feel indebted to that generous individual for the rest of your life. I imagine you would want to live a life worthy of the gift.
If you would feel that way about the cancellation of a temporary debt of money, how much more to have an eternal debt cancelled? That is what Jesus has done for you. He cancelled your debt of sin and death and opened heaven to you. People used to give great sums of money to get their loved ones transferred from purgatory to heaven (and some still do). But that is not necessary. Jesus paid the price to get us right into heaven—no purgatory required!
God’s grace does not cost us anything, but it should have an affect on us. In his Letter to Titus, Paul wrote that God’s grace trains us “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” It makes sense. Since Jesus saved us by His grace, shouldn’t we want to please Him? Shouldn’t we want to live the way God commands us to? To do otherwise is to abuse the grace we have been given. It is to treat it as something common, something cheap.
We want to show others how much we value God’s gift of grace by reflecting His love in the way we talk and how we conduct ourselves. We want them to know that God’s grace makes a difference in our lives, that it changed our hearts and minds. We are still sinners, but by God’s grace we are sinners at peace with Him because of Jesus’ suffering and death. We are mortal, but by God’s grace we have the sure hope of eternal life in heaven because of Jesus’ resurrection.
Those who do not know God’s grace live very different lives. They struggle along as though everything depends on them. They carry the burden of guilt for many wrongs done and many good deeds left undone. They pin all their hope for progress in the world on elected officials and other powerful people, and they are routinely disappointed. They tremble at the prospect of death and grieve without hope at the loss of loved ones.
God’s grace makes all the difference. His grace allows us to look forward with eagerness and not backward with regret. It changes everything about our past and about our future. If we have failed and let down the people we care about, if we have caused hurt intentionally or unintentionally, we can move ahead by God’s grace knowing He looks with favor upon us and forgives our sins. By God’s grace, we can start out fresh again today and try to do better.
In his Letter to Titus, Paul speaks about how God’s grace works in the lives of His people, and how it leads them to show love to those around them. Paul writes that:
- Older men give evidence of this grace by being “sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness” (2:1).
- Older women are “reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They “teach what is good,” especially encouraging the younger women (v. 3).
- Younger women “love their husbands and children,” and are “self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands” (vv. 4-5).
- Younger men are also “self-controlled” and faithfully carry out their responsibilities (v. 6).
These loving attitudes and actions toward each other are given by grace, not because they are deserved or earned. We do not show love for one another as a reward, but as a reflection of the undeserved love God has for us.
By His grace, Jesus redeemed us—bought us back—from our lawless and selfish behavior. He shed His blood so He might cleanse us from all our sins and purify us for His work. We’re not just spinning our wheels anymore like unbelievers who have no purpose beyond satisfying their own desires. God has called us to carry out His will toward our neighbors, to love and serve them in His name, so they might be drawn to Him and receive His grace.
These are the things Paul charged Titus to do and teach as a pastor and bishop. He left Titus on the island of Crete, so Titus could help establish congregations and appoint pastors to serve them. Though his work occasionally took him to other places (2Ti. 4:10), he is thought to have died in Crete at an old age (c. A. D. 96). He no doubt had many administrative tasks to carry out, but his primary work was to administer the means of grace.
The same is true for pastors still today. Our calling from God through the congregations we serve is to administer the means of grace. It is to deliver and apply God’s grace in Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the preaching of the Word. But before we apply the Gospel, we must apply the law. We must remind people of their need for God’s grace because of their sin.
But once they are convicted by the law and repent of their sin, we declare God’s grace. We announce the forgiveness of sin and new life through Jesus. And so I declare it to you today: God has not cast you away because of your sin. He does not hold you to your eternal debt. He forgives you all your sin because Jesus paid the price in full. He met the cost of your salvation and eternal life.
He gave Himself up for you because He loves you. He wants you to know that His steadfast love never ceases, and that His mercies are new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23). He wants you to know that your life matters and that you are needed by those around you. He wants you to have the “blessed hope” in this life, the knowledge that He will come again in His glory to take you out of this world of trouble.
All of this is by grace. It is an uncommon grace. It was costly, not cheap, and it is yours in rich supply. By God’s grace you are different than you used to be. God has changed you from a servant of sin, Satan, and death to His child and an heir of life. He has given you confidence and hope not in what you do for others or for Him, but in what He has done for you. Salvation is by His grace alone, and that changes everything.
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.
+ + +
(picture of location in Crete)
The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 2 Corinthians 3:4-11
In Christ Jesus, whose words to us are “spirit and life” (Jn. 6:63), and whose healing gifts of righteousness and forgiveness are applied to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, dear fellow redeemed:
There are a lot of health problems that we can treat on our own. If we are feeling hungry, we eat. If we are tired, we go to bed. If a headache develops, we take a pill or two. If we sustain a minor cut or scrape, we apply a bandage. But if something more major happens, we seek help from medical professionals.
In order for these medical professionals to help us, it is absolutely necessary that they tell us the truth, even if the truth hurts. We want to know if we have some sort of serious condition or injury, so we can work on treating it. Having a doctor tell us that we couldn’t be healthier when he detects cancer in our bodies or malfunctioning organs will not do us any good. We trust our doctors to diagnose us as well as they are able and to treat the problem with the best tools at their disposal.
But for all that medical professionals are able to do, they can only do so much. Surgeons can cut out cancerous tumors, but they cannot stop more tumors from developing. Psychiatrists can help people work through mental difficulties, but they cannot take away all anxieties. No matter how well-trained health professionals are, they can offer only temporary help and temporary healing. They cannot give us what we need the most.
What we need the most is not physical healing but spiritual healing. Physical deficiencies may trouble us in this life, but spiritual deficiencies can result in suffering for eternity. Before we can receive treatment, an accurate diagnosis of our spiritual condition is required. This can be hard to come by. There are a great many spiritual practitioners out there who are not qualified for the work in any way.
They are like the doctors who are known for prescribing opioids in excessive amounts. They leave the decision to the patient and are happy to take the patient’s money. Or these spiritual practitioners downplay the seriousness of the sinner’s condition, so that he or she feels no strong motivation to address the problem. Or they prescribe the wrong treatment for a problem that only makes things worse.
The truth is that by nature, we are in bad shape. One of our hymns lays it all out in the open: “What God doth in His law demand, / No man to Him could render. / Before this Judge all guilty stand; / His law speaks curse in thunder. / The law demands a perfect heart; / We were defiled in ev’ry part, / And lost was our condition” (ELH 226, v. 2). As the hymn verse says, our spiritual sickness is diagnosed only by God’s unchangeable law.
God’s law does not make promises; it makes demands. It demands perfection. His law tells us “how we are to be, and what we are to do and not to do” (2001 ELS Catechism, question 11). Any spiritual physician who teaches that it does not matter how we live, or who says that God’s Commandments are flexible, or who teaches that we can make ourselves right with God, is a liar. There is no wiggle room and no comfort to be found in the law. God’s law is His line in the sand, and death is waiting for any who cross it.
The moral law has always been written on human hearts (Rom. 2:15). But because the conscience can grow dull, the LORD gave Moses the Ten Commandments first on two stone tablets and then on the pages of Scripture. He gave other laws besides, which regulated every aspect of life in the church and in society.
When Moses received these laws in the LORD’s presence, his face absorbed the rays of God’s brilliant light. He did not know this was happening until he returned to the Israelites’ camp. The people were afraid to come near him since his face shone so brightly. So Moses put a veil over his face while he talked with the people, but he removed it when he came before God (Ex. 34:29-35).
Moses’ shining face reminded the people that the law he delivered to them was from the holy God. The law was something to pay attention to. It was something to take very seriously. But while the law helped them keep their behavior in line, it could not save them. They did not perfectly meet God’s strict standard. They were sinners, law-breakers. So the law, which came to them in such a glorious way, nevertheless condemned them. Or as Paul said, “the letter kills.” The Old Testament law with its demand of perfection kills any hope we have of saving ourselves.
The law is like the doctor for whom “good” is never “good enough.” “You lost some weight, but you still have a lot more to go.” “You stopped one bad habit, but what about all the rest?” “No matter how hard you try, you cannot undo the damage from years past.” The spiritual physician prescribes the wrong medicine when he says that the cure for a sinful heart and a guilty conscience is to try harder to be better. Can the patient with a serious infection improve simply by trying to feel better? Neither can the sinner improve his own spiritual condition.
But it is possible for spiritual health to improve, just as physical health can improve. Every day, countless people are healed from their various illnesses and injuries. Waiting for that healing to happen can be a real test of patience. We wish that Jesus would heal us instantly like He healed the deaf and mute man in today’s Gospel (Mk. 7:31-37). But while Jesus could bring us physical healing instantly with a touch or a word, He does not tell us to expect this.
The way our Savior continues His healing work today is through means. To address your physical, mental, or emotional pain, He gives trained professionals to diagnose and treat the problem. He uses them to carry out His merciful work, even though they are flawed and do not carry out the work perfectly. Honest doctors will tell you that they do not have the answers all—or even most—of the time. But they promise to try their best. As they go about their work, God directs their efforts to bring healing and relief to many people.
The way Jesus provides spiritual healing is also through means. He sends pastors to diagnose the sinner’s spiritual condition through the law, and to apply help and healing through the Gospel. But no pastor carries out his work perfectly. He may misdiagnose the problem between feuding family members, friends, or congregation members. He can perceive stubbornness when the problem is weakness. He can be too direct with the law or too soft. The pastor learns every day how little he can control and how imperfectly he has carried out his duties.
Speaking for his fellow apostles, Paul plainly stated, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us.” On their own, they were unequal to the task their Lord had given them. “[B]ut,” he said, “our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit.”
Spiritual healing happens when a pastor points the people in his care to Jesus. Jesus is the one who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53:4). He carried all our pain, every pain that results from sin in the world and sin in us. There is no physical, mental, or spiritual anguish you have felt that He did not feel. Maybe no one else around you seems to understand your struggle. But Jesus does. You may feel hopeless or sad or worthless. But you are not alone. The Son of God became your Brother in flesh to be with you in your worst moments and to carry you through your darkest trials.
He knows how the devil relentlessly attacks believers to try to get them to despair. Jesus silenced the devil by keeping God’s holy law perfectly for all people and paying for their sins on the cross. When Satan gets you thinking that your troubles are a punishment from God, or that God has forgotten about you, or that there is no hope, Jesus wants you lift your eyes to Him. He shed His holy blood for you, to cover over your sins. He rose again to give you confidence even while your death seems to be closing in.
This good news of forgiveness and salvation in Jesus is what you need the most. Only this can bring you spiritual healing, so that you see joy and life in your future instead of pain and death. The law cannot give you this hope—“the letter kills.” But the Holy Spirit has called you by the Gospel and given you a living faith in Christ—“the Spirit gives life.” The Holy Spirit brings this life to you through the means of grace, through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments.
The Holy Spirit’s work through the means of grace does not make all problems go away. Your aches and pains might not subside. But the Holy Spirit will help you bear your cross after Jesus and grow in patience. Your griefs and sorrows might not go away. But the Holy Spirit will lead you to Him who has carried those sorrows. You might often feel empty or inadequate or alone. But the Holy Spirit will remind you of your worth in Christ and will show you how you can be a blessing to others and share His love with them through encouragement, assistance, and prayer.
The glory of the Spirit’s work through the Gospel far surpasses the glory of the law. God does not want you to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” and put all your focus on being better. He wants you to believe His promises, to trust that the righteousness the law demands is credited to you by faith, and that full payment has been made for your sins. He wants you to regularly receive the benefits of Christ’s saving work through His Word and Sacraments. Not only will this bring you comfort, but it will also strengthen you to do the good things that God has created you to do.
Honest doctors who can address your physical and mental pain are a great blessing. But Only the Holy Spirit Can Give Healing Which Lasts. He brings you Jesus, and in Him is life (Jn. 1:4).
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.
+ + +
The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 18:9-14
In Christ Jesus, who comes through His Word and Sacraments to bring us the righteousness and peace we could never produce on our own, dear fellow redeemed:
The setting for Jesus’ parable was the temple of Jerusalem. It was there that two men went to pray. But these two made their petitions to the Lord in very different ways. One was full of self-confidence. He believed that God must be very pleased with him, and he bragged for all to hear about his own goodness and faithfulness. The other humbly stood off by himself and would not even lift up his eyes to heaven. He was sorry for his sins. His only hope for salvation was God’s mercy.
This parable teaches us how to conduct ourselves when we come before God. It provides the blueprint which our own liturgy follows. Today, we examine the liturgy of the divine service in this light. The opening prayer of the old Norwegian service tells us exactly why we come here to church week after week. It is so that through the preaching of God’s Word “we may be taught to repent of our sins, to believe on Jesus in life and death, and to grow day by day in grace and holiness” (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, p. 41).
I. The Service of Preparation
Our worship begins at the font where we were baptized “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We return to those cleansing waters “by daily contrition and repentance,” as Luther writes in the Catechism. It is through this heartfelt sorrow over sin and our confession of it, that we drown our old Adam, which wants us to trust in ourselves and not in Jesus.
In the Confession of Sin we admit that we are “poor sinners,” who are “by nature sinful and unclean,” and that we have sinned against God “by thought, word, and deed.” But at the same time, like the tax collector, “we flee for refuge to [God’s] infinite mercy.” We know that He is merciful and gracious because He sent His only Son to take our place and to be punished for our sins.
After confessing our sin, we sing the Kyrie Eleison, a version of the tax collector’s humble prayer. “Kyrie” is the Greek word for “Lord,” and “Eleison” is the Greek word for “have mercy.” “Kyrie Eleison” is “Lord, have mercy.” In this prayer, we ask the Triune God to have mercy upon us, not just regarding our sinful condition, but to have mercy upon us in all aspects of life. We pray for His mercy upon ourselves, our family, friends, and neighbors, that He would provide for our needs, keep us safe from harm, and bless us through His holy Word.
Then we hear the sweet words of Jesus’ Absolution. We may have failed badly, or fallen deeply into sin. Our guilt may trouble and torment us. We may even wonder if it would be better for everyone if we were gone. But Jesus promises that “whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (Jn. 6:37). Anyone who comes to Him with “a broken and contrite heart” He will not despise (Ps. 51:17). You can be certain that the Lord has heard your cry for mercy, just as He heard the cry of the tax collector.
He sends His servant to declare to you, “By the authority of God and of my holy office I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”—this last part being another reminder of the cleansing waters of baptism. These words of Absolution do not express the hope that you will be forgiven. They place no condition on you, that you must somehow prove yourself worthy before you can receive this forgiveness.
In His Absolution, Jesus pours forgiveness over your head. He gives it to you freely and fully. Forgiveness does not depend on you; it depends entirely on Him. He won forgiveness through His death on the cross, and He can give it to anyone He wants. He gives it to you. Having received this forgiveness by faith, we rejoice. We sing the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, the song the angels sang the night Jesus was born. We give glory to God for the peace that Jesus obtained for us by His grace, which He bestows on us in the Absolution—“and on earth peace.”
The parts of the liturgy to this point are preparing us for the hearing and learning of God’s holy Word. In the Salutation, the pastor speaks of the gracious coming of the Lord, “The Lord be with you.” The congregation responds with, “And with your spirit,” which is an affirmation of the pastor’s call to preach the Word in their midst. Then the Collect is spoken, a prayer which “collects” or “gathers” the prayers of the congregation into a general petition based on the theme of the day.
II. The Service of the Word
After this time of preparation, the Scripture lessons are read. The Old Testament Lesson prophesies in some way about the work that Jesus the Messiah would carry out. The Epistle Lesson comes from the letters the apostles wrote to the first Christian churches about what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection means for all people. The Holy Gospel includes an account of Jesus’ teachings or miracles, which have application to our lives today. Because the words were spoken in person by Jesus—God in the flesh—we rise to hear His holy words.
Following these lessons, we confess in the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed what God has taught us about Himself. You can hear the words for part of the Creed in today’s Epistle Lesson where Paul writes “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1Cor. 15:3-4).
The tax collector knew the Scriptures, which is why he was certain of God’s mercy. The Word of God produces faith and strengthens faith. The Sermon is where God’s Word is applied to our lives. The sermon is not about the pastor. This is why he wears a robe and stands behind the pulpit. The sermon is the proclamation of God’s Law which condemns our sins, and God’s Gospel which assures us of our forgiveness.
The main purpose of the sermon is to point us to Jesus and what He has done for us. Proud Pharisees want a sermon that makes them feel secure in their own righteousness and comfortable with how they have chosen to live their lives. Humble tax collectors want a sermon that uncovers their sins and leads them to the cross and the empty tomb of Jesus. Throughout the service, we sing various Hymns. Each of them is really a mini sermon, which speaks of our sin and of our salvation in Christ.
After the Sermon, we offer the Prayer of the Church for the needs of all people. This is what Paul counseled the early Christians to do. He urged “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1Tim. 2:1-2). Then we hear the beautiful Benediction of the New Testament, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” After this, we gather an Offering to support and promote the work of the Gospel (1Cor. 9:14, 16:2).
III. The Service of Holy Communion
Every other week, we prepare ourselves at this point in the service to receive the holy body and blood of Jesus in His Supper. In the Preface and General Preface, pastor and congregation call each other to recognize the wonderful gifts that are about to be distributed. We join with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” in lauding and magnifying the Lord’s glorious name.
We praise Him with the words of the Sanctus and Benedictus. The Sanctus is a song that comes from the angels in Isaiah’s vision, angels who sang “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” (Is. 6:3). The Benedictus comes from Psalm 118, words which the great crowd used to welcome Jesus on Palm Sunday, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” (v. 26). These are fitting words as we welcome our holy Lord and Savior to our midst, who comes to us in the lowly forms of bread and wine.
The Exhortation reminds us how we should prepare ourselves for Jesus’ coming, and then we join together in singing the prayer which He taught us, the Lord’s Prayer. Then we hear His powerful Words of Institution, through which His body and blood are joined to the bread and wine. Again we echo the tax collector’s words as we sing the Agnus Dei, Latin for “Lamb of God.” Three times we repeat the words, “O Christ, the Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” The final time concludes with “grant us your peace.”
That is just what Jesus has come to do. We kneel before Him, burdened by our sins like the tax collector was and with our eyes downcast. Jesus comes to us to bring us peace through His body and blood, which is given and shed for us for “the remission of sins.” At the same time, He also strengthens our faith and increases love in our hearts toward one another. For these gifts we join our voices in Thanksgiving through song and prayer.
Our Christian life is not all about what we do for God, as the Pharisee thought. It is about what God does for us, which the tax collector believed. If you think the people around you in church need to hear the Word more than you do—especially the Law because they are so much more sinful than you are—then you need to repent of this Pharisaical pride. The Pharisee was lying to himself. He was just like other men, and so are you. You are a sinner, who desperately needs God’s mercy.
But when you like the tax collector set aside your pride and humbly pray, “God, Be Merciful to Me, a Sinner!” you will find a comforting answer to your petition. The answer is given through the means of grace administered to you in the divine service. Through His Word and Sacraments, the Lord brings you the forgiveness of your sins again and again and strengthens you for a godly life.
The divine service begins with the Trinitarian words of Baptism, and it ends with the Trinitarian blessing. This Benediction has been declared to the faithful for nearly 3500 years, “The LORD bless you and keep you. The LORD make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” In these holy words, the LORD sends you to your home justified—pure and holy in His sight—because of what He has done for 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.
+ + +
(woodcut of “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Second Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad
Text: St. Luke 14:16-24
In Christ Jesus, who welcomes us, serves us, and fills us through His holy means of grace, dear fellow redeemed:
I think it’s safe to assume that no one here received an invitation to attend the recent royal wedding in England. I can’t imagine anyone expected to receive an invitation either. You would have had to be a close relative of the bride or be part of much different circles than the ones in northeast Iowa. But I am sure there have been other events—celebrations of some sort—to which you expected to receive an invitation but did not. Why didn’t an invitation come? Was it lost in the mail? Was your name inadvertently left off the list? Did you misjudge your relationship to the host? You would have been glad to take part in the celebration, but instead you were left out.
On the other hand, there are many who receive invitations and don’t give the host the courtesy of a response. Anyone who has helped plan a wedding knows about this. Invitations are sent out a long time in advance. But then the deadline passes with many RSVPs missing. Some forget to reply, some don’t care enough to reply, and some drag their feet because they don’t want to offend the host with their reply. But the worst are those who say they are coming but then don’t show up.
An accurate count of guests is important because large events are expensive. One website says the average cost in 2017 for one guest at an Iowa wedding was about $100. It could be worse: in Manhattan, the average cost for one guest was over $600. I have heard about a couple that billed all “no-show” guests for the per plate cost of the wedding banquet. That might be going a bit far, but it is rude for guests to announce they are coming and then fail to attend for no good reason.
In today’s text, Jesus told about a man who was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. When the banquet was ready, he sent his servant to bring in the guests. We get the impression that all whom the servant visited had accepted the initial invitation. Their presence at the banquet had been planned for and expected. But now that the time had arrived, they decided there were other things that mattered more. One wanted to visit some property he had recently purchased. Another wanted to examine some oxen he had bought. Another had just gotten married.
None of those things were bad. But none of them required immediate attention. We can assume that the invitation for the banquet was sent long in advance. The event wouldn’t have caught anyone by surprise. The reality is that they chose to skip the banquet. It wasn’t important to them. That means they did not take the invitation seriously in the first place. If they had, they would have been certain to attend. The master of the house was understandably angry with their poor excuses. What unworthy guests he had invited! So he invited other guests: “the poor and crippled and blind and lame.” Still there was room. Then the master ordered his servant to go far and wide and “compel people to come in.”
Jesus told this parable to a group of Jewish Pharisees with whom He was eating dinner. These religious leaders could not help but admire Him for His wonderful miracles and bold teachings. But they did not appreciate His interpretation of the law, and they especially did not like His criticisms. They knew no others who followed the Old Testament law as strictly as they did. And yet Jesus spoke about them as though they were living contrary to God’s will!
This dinner which Jesus attended was on a Sabbath day. God commanded that no work should be done on the Sabbath, so that His people would have time to hear His Word. Jesus noticed a man in the room who had dropsy, a condition which causes the body to retain too much water. Turning to the lawyers and Pharisees, He asked, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” (Lk. 14:3). Then He healed the man and sent Him away. He wanted to teach them that such an act of love was not contrary to God’s law, but rather fulfilled it.
He also noticed how the guests of this Pharisee chose the places of honor at the table. Jesus said, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him…. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’” (vv. 8, 10). Then Jesus told the host not to invite people who would return the favor sometime, but “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” those who “cannot repay you.”
Then today’s parable followed. Since they had been the subject of His criticism up to this point, the Pharisees must have perceived that Jesus’ parable was about them. They were right. The Jewish religious leaders knew God’s promise of salvation in the Scriptures. But now they were making excuses while the fulfillment of God’s promise stood before them. They were too occupied with their self-made spirituality to take a seat at the great banquet of salvation.
They could not say that an invitation had not come their way, and neither can you and I. We know what the Bible says, that God our Savior “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Tim. 2:4). Jesus likewise commanded the church to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19). The banquet of salvation is set for everybody. But not all want to attend. Why? It’s because all of us by nature prefer excuses to repentance and faith.
A great many have heard the Gospel message. They know what the Bible teaches, that God became man in order to offer Himself for the sins of all people. But many who hear this go about their business as though this was nothing very remarkable. Suppose you had received an invitation to the royal wedding in England, and you were told that all your expenses for the trip would be covered. Would you go? Or if you’re not much for royal weddings, how about an all-expenses-paid trip to the Super Bowl? I would go.
But when God sets the table of salvation, when He offers the full forgiveness of our sins at no cost to us—all-expenses-paid—we hardly take notice. Some make excuses for hearing His Word of grace very little if at all, excuses like: “I need time to myself,” “I have to work,” “Our family is too busy.” They know their attendance at the banquet is expected, but they have other priorities. Others hear the Word but don’t let it affect them. They come to the banquet but only look through the windows and stare at the rich food. “Others need it more than I do,” they think. These do not recognize their great spiritual need.
Who are the ones that were ushered into the great banquet hall? It was not those who filled their lives with riches, work, and family activities. It was “the poor and crippled and blind and lame,” those who would seem unlikely to be included on a guest list. Are you one of these? Are you spiritually poor on your own—in fact, spiritually bankrupt—with nothing to your name but a lifetime of sin? Are you spiritually crippled, unwilling and unable to walk in the way God commands? Are you spiritually blind, unable to see your own way out of the world’s darkness? Are you spiritually lame, needing to be carried from danger to safety? If you are one of these poor souls, then there is no mistake. The banquet doors are open to you.
On the other hand, if you, like the Pharisees, would craft your own standard of righteousness while ignoring your tremendous debt to the law, then the banquet doors are closed. Jesus did not come to pat the “good” people on the back. He came to save the lost. He came to save sinners. If you are one of these, if you recognize your sin and are heartily sorry for it, God has a seat for you at His table.
For your spiritual thirst, He pours out the living water of His Word. For your spiritual nourishment, He serves up the body and blood of Jesus. Are you weary? Jesus will strengthen you through this feast. Are you sad? Jesus will cheer you. Are you worried and troubled? Jesus will calm and comfort you. This is what He promises to do through His Word and Sacraments. This is the feast of salvation prepared for us for our time in this sinful world. And this is the feast which prepares us for the eternal feast above.
No matter how much you have failed, no matter how far you have fallen, the Lord invites you to come to His banquet. But what if His invitation was not actually meant for you? What if you received it by mistake? If you had received an invitation to the royal wedding, you would assume it was a mistake. But if a special envoy from the Queen of England arrived at your door with all the paperwork completed and everything prepared for your trip, you could not ignore it—shocking though it would be.
God likewise made no mistake when His Word of grace came to you. To make sure you know His invitation is for you, He led you to the holy waters of Baptism. There, He showered you with His blessings and gave you a seat at His banquet. Since that life-changing moment, every time you hear His Word of forgiveness and life, and partake of His Supper, He reassures you and confirms that you are His honored guest.
He has invited others also, humble sinners like you, who join you at the banquet table. Together we wait for our Lord’s triumphant return on the last day, that day when we will cry out with one voice, “This is the LORD; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation” (Is. 25:9).
+ + +
(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 Festival of the Ascension of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Mark 16:14-20
In Christ Jesus, who ascended on high in triumph that He might give gifts to all people (Eph. 4:8), dear fellow redeemed:
When someone you care about deeply moves away or dies, this can have a significant impact on your life and outlook. Maybe this was a person you confided in, or one who gave you advice and encouragement. Now you are left by yourself, and you feel uncertain and troubled about your future. What will you do now? Which direction should you turn? How will you get along without that constant support?
Jesus’ disciples had these same concerns. Jesus had appeared to them several times following His resurrection, and now they watched as He rose up in the sky. He grew smaller and smaller to their eyes until the clouds hid Him from view. How could they possibly get along without Him? He was their rock, their fortress, and their deliverer (Ps. 18:2). He had just triumphed over all His enemies, conquering death itself. But now Jesus was leaving them, just when everything seemed to be going right, and momentum was building toward major changes in the world.
He told them that His time of departure would come, and He explained to them why it was to their advantage that He go away. It was so that He might send the Holy Spirit to them (Jn. 16:7). Then they would be His witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Ac. 1:8). Their job would be to “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” As they went, they would be given the powers described by the evangelist Mark in today’s Gospel. They would have power to cast out demons in Jesus’ name, to speak in new tongues, to be unharmed by the poison of serpents, and to heal the sick. Examples of all these miraculous things are recorded in the book of Acts.
But what would Jesus be doing while these things were taking place? Some say that since Jesus ascended to His seat at His Father’s right hand in heaven, He has remained in that one specific location. They say that while He is able to be with us according to His divine nature, He is not with us according to His human nature. After all, how could natural human flesh be in many different places at once? But that view is not consistent with Jesus’ own words.
After His resurrection Jesus told His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mt. 28:18). Why did He say this? Didn’t He as the Son of God already have “all authority in heaven and on earth”? He certainly did. What changed is that following His victory over death, He now has “all authority” not just as God but also as Man. Now He rules over all things in the flesh, our flesh. Now our Brother Jesus sits in the position of all power and authority at the Father’s right hand. There “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3), and He intercedes for us (Rom. 8:34).
Because He is true God and Man in one Person, His human flesh is not stuck in one place like ours is. Wherever He is as God, He is there as Man. And the Father’s right hand is not one specific location far from where we live on earth. The Father’s right hand is a position of power and not a localized place. The Father’s right hand is everywhere He is, and He is in all places at all times. This is why Jesus could tell His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:18,20).
So Jesus hadn’t actually left His disciples on that day of His ascension. He had stopped being with them visibly, but He was most certainly still present with them. Today’s Gospel says that after Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to the disciples at Pentecost, “they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord—referring to Jesus—worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.” Jesus “worked with them”; He was present with them like He promised He would be. But in what manner exactly was He with them?
It is common for people to talk about deceased loved ones as continuing to be with them. Some believe that the spirits of the dead remain in the place where they once lived or that they linger with close friends and relatives. Christians know that the spirit or soul of their loved one does not remain in this realm. When believers die, their souls immediately go to be with the Lord, while the body is laid to rest in the tomb until the day of resurrection. What Christians mean by saying their spouse or parent or child is “with them,” is that the memory of the deceased, including the encouragement and joy they brought, frequently comes to mind.
But that is not the way that Jesus is still present with us today. He is not here simply in our memory of what He did and said. He is actually here with us in the flesh. And our comfort is not just that He is present. What good would His presence do if He did not want to help us? Our comfort is that He is present in specific ways with specific blessings for us.
We look for and find Jesus where His disciples looked for and found Him after His ascension. He is found—and found without fail—in His Word and Sacraments. These are the means through which He has promised to visit us and bless us. This is how He is “with [us] always, to the end of the age.” This is how “the Lord worked with” His disciples. The disciples told people what they saw Jesus do: die on the cross and rise again, and He imparted to the hearers the blessings He obtained: His righteous life, forgiveness for their sins, and eternal salvation.
This is what He still brings to you. At the right hand of His Father, Jesus has the authority to bestow upon you the treasures of His grace. He earned everything you needed to spend eternity in heaven and not in hell. Because He earned it, He has the right to give it away for free. He does not need your help to save you. He does not need you to meet Him halfway. “[I]t is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12:32), because Jesus lived a holy life in your place and atoned for your sins with His precious blood. You sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, and you are “justified by his grace as a gift” (Rom. 3:24).
But perhaps you are looking for something more. Maybe the promise of Jesus’ presence through the means of grace is not enough for you. Maybe you want to find Jesus where He has not promised to be. You look for evidence of His love in how successful you are, and in how well your plans play out. Or you try to determine how close God is to you by how close you feel to God. In other words, you want to be in control. You want to have God meet you on your terms. And if He does not do this to your satisfaction, then the problem must be with God and not you.
This is the first sin. Adam and Eve wanted to have it their way. They desired to get more than the perfect life God had given them. They wanted to take God’s place, which is what the devil wanted before them. The result of that foolishness and pride was death. That is what happens when we try to bend God to our will, and to demand the glory for ourselves that is His alone.
But the Lord did not immediately destroy Adam and Eve for their selfishness and hard-heartedness. He rescued them just as He rescues you and me. He poured out His grace upon you and claimed you as His own in Holy Baptism. He made you a part of His body, and He continues to strengthen and keep you in His body through the nourishment of His Word. He even places in your sinful mouth His holy body given and His holy blood shed for you on the cross. If you are looking for closeness with God, you will find it nowhere else on this earth than through His means of grace.
By the faith which the Holy Spirit has given you and sustains in you by the Word and Sacraments, Jesus is yours. He dwells in you, and you dwell in Him. St. Paul writes that when God the Father seated Jesus “at his right hand in the heavenly places…. he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:20,22-23). Jesus is the source and substance of all good things in the Church. There is nothing worth having that He does not give.
Jesus Ascended into Heaven for Your Good. There is no limit to what He can do for you at the Father’s right hand. When you pray in Jesus’ name, trusting what He has done for you, your Father in heaven will hear your prayer and will answer it in the best way. Your requests for forgiveness and mercy will not be ignored or denied. Jesus died and rose again to save you, and He ascended into heaven to fill your sinful heart with His saving gifts by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Even when it feels like you are alone in times of trouble, grief, and uncertainty, the ascended Lord has not abandoned you. He is with you still as He has promised to be, and He will come again visibly to take you to Himself, that where He is you may be also (Jn. 14:3).
+ + +
(portion of painting by John Singleton Copley, 1775)
The Third Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 8:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who is worthy of eternal praise, dear fellow redeemed:
Much had changed since Jacob left his father’s house to travel to the land of his uncle. He had gone there for two reasons: first, his brother Esau wanted to kill him after he deceitfully took Esau’s blessing, and second, he was hoping to find a wife there like his father had before him. When he left, Jacob was poor and alone, but as he made his way back, he brought with him a large family and great riches. He recognized that these tremendous blessings had come from the LORD. In prayer he said to God, “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant” (Gen. 32:10).
But even though he recognized his unworthiness, he still was not shy about holding God to His promises. The night before he would encounter his brother Esau, a mysterious man engaged him in a wrestling match. Their struggle continued until daybreak, when the man wanted to leave. Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (v. 26). The man consented and blessed him. Jacob had wrestled with God and prevailed. Jacob was not worthy of this blessing, but through faith he received it.
The same was true of the leper in today’s text. Leprosy was a terrible disease of the skin. It was very contagious and deadly. When a person was found to have leprosy, he was required to leave his family and home and join a community of other lepers. It was a depressing and painful existence, and there was little hope for healing. What leverage could a man like this apply to Jesus? How could he convince Jesus that he was worth healing? He could do nothing but fall before Him and say, “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean.”
He did not list off all the things he would do for Jesus if he were healed. He did not promise Him a reward. Nor did he express doubt that Jesus was even able to do what he asked. He said, “Lord, if You want, you can”—not “If you are able, please do.” This man acknowledged that he was entirely unworthy of Jesus’ help. At the same time, He expressed an unyielding faith and hope that Jesus could.
Then Jesus did something totally unexpected. If this were depicted in a movie, I am almost sure it would be shown in slow motion. Jesus reached out His hand and touched the leprous man. Anyone watching would have recoiled in horror. “Don’t touch him, Jesus! He is unclean! You might catch what he has!” But the opposite happened. The pure did not become impure; rather, the impure became pure. “Be clean,” said Jesus, and the leprosy immediately went away. In total humility, the man dared to ask for mercy, and he received it. He was cleansed.
This is exactly what happened at your baptism. Your parents or guardians brought you to the cleansing waters of the font because you were unclean. You were afflicted by something even worse than leprosy; you were full of sin. And while leprosy destroys physical health, sin destroys spiritual health. If sin is not addressed by the divine Physician, it results in eternal death. The motto of all who are brought to the font could well be the hymn verse, “Nothing in my hand I bring, / Simply to the cross I cling; / Naked, come to Thee for dress, / Helpless, look to Thee for grace. / Foul, I to the fountain fly—/ Wash me, Savior, or I die!” (ELH 286, v. 3).
We come to baptism unclean, helpless, foul, but Jesus is not repulsed by us. He looks upon us with mercy, and through His Word, He touches us with divine grace. At the prayer of parents and sponsors, “Lord, if You will, You can cleanse this child,” Jesus replies, “I will; be clean.” And the child is clean. He is washed in Jesus’ blood and covered in Jesus’ righteousness.
That is what the Lord did for each and every one of you. Through baptism, you have been freed from the leper community and incorporated into the family of God. You are no longer far off, separated from God. You have been “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). In Him, you and all baptized believers are “holy and without blemish” (5:27).
But that does not mean all your cares and trials are now over. The devil and the old Adam in you do not want you to remain in Christ. They want you to doubt God’s Word and to imagine that you are entitled to worldly success and happiness. They want you to question God’s love when bad things happen. These temptations will not stop as long as you live in this fallen world. In heaven is pure bliss, but in the world, you have trouble (Jn. 16:33).
Trouble came to the centurion in today’s text too. One of his highly valued servants had been paralyzed and was “suffering terribly.” Why did God let this happen? The centurion may have wondered this particularly because he had tried to live a life pleasing to God. He had rejected the false religion of the Romans and humbly listened to the Scriptures. The Jewish elders in that place begged Jesus to help, saying of the centurion that “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (Lk. 7:4-5).
Did this make the centurion worthy? Did Jesus owe it to him to grant his request? Nowhere in the Bible are we told that God will give us what we ask if we somehow prove ourselves worthy. But perhaps the elders said this so that Jesus, a fellow Jew, would even consider assisting this Gentile. The Jews and Gentiles were not natural allies and friends. Even Jesus declared at a later point, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 15:24). But on this occasion Jesus said, “I will come and heal him.”
Before he reached the centurion’s home, the centurion sent friends to deliver this message on his behalf (Lk. 7:6), “Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” What faith he had! He freely acknowledged his unworthiness. He knew that according to the law of the Israelites, Jesus should not enter the home of a Gentile. He deserved nothing from Jesus, but like the leprous man before him, he boldly called on Jesus to do what only the promised Messiah could do – “only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
Now, Jesus was impressed. “Truly, I tell you,” He said, “with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” What does that tell us? It says that just because we have the right bloodline, just because we have God’s Word at hand, does not mean we will be most faithful. It is easy to hide behind these things and become prideful about externals. But faith is not built into DNA; it is not inherited like our personal traits. And salvation is not assured us simply because we belong to the right church and put offerings in the plate.
Faith and salvation are brought to us and applied to us by the Holy Spirit through God’s means of grace. We do not earn them, but we can lose them. So we humbly confess our weaknesses and sins; we acknowledge our unworthiness. And Jesus grants our request for mercy just as He granted mercy to the centurion and his servant.
The centurion said that in his position of authority, he would “say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” In His position of authority—all authority in heaven and on earth—Jesus also says to those under Him, “Go,” “Come,” and “Do this.”
He says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). Our Lord’s saving Word and Sacraments are for “all nations,” for Jews and Gentiles. He invites all to believe and receive His grace. He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28), and “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (Jn. 7:37). And for their spiritual nourishment, Jesus says, “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1Cor. 11:25). He gives His body and blood to baptized believers “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28).
Through the preaching of His Word, through Baptism and His Holy Supper, Jesus reaches out to touch you with His grace and life. He does not avoid you because of your unclean, sinful state. He does not overlook you because you have the wrong background. Unworthy Though You Are, He comes to you to forgive and strengthen and bless.
You cannot make yourself worthy of His presence and gifts. He makes you worthy to be His own by the power of the Holy Spirit. In His grace we have comfort and a confident faith, as the hymnwriter says, “Unworthy though I am, O Savior, / Because I have a sinful heart, / Yet Thou Thy lamb wilt banish never, / For Thou my faithful Shepherd art” (ELH 313, v. 3).
+ + +
(picture is a portion of a Byzantine mosaic in Sicily)