The First Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Philippians 4:4-7
In Christ Jesus, our joy, our crown, our Lord (ELH 127, v. 4), dear fellow redeemed:
Do you have a favorite Christmas? Was there one year in particular that ranks on top because of something special that happened or because of some gift you received? Maybe a family member made it home when they weren’t expected. Or your parents told you that the gift you wanted was too much, but there it was under the tree.
For some of you, your favorite Christmas may have happened a while ago. You expect that no Christmas in the future could compare to the good ones of your youth. When you think back, there is a certain warmth in those memories that present Christmases do not have. Now you might feel the pressure to deliver that feeling to your kids or grandkids. You have to remember all the little traditions. You have to get the right gifts. You have to prepare the favorite foods. Some people thrive on these preparations, but others feel overwhelmed and stressed.
Still others would rather not have Christmas at all. It reminds them of loss, of a parent that is no longer here, or a spouse, or a friend, or a child. Christmas is supposed to be a warm and happy time, a time for family. But Christmas only makes them feel more alone. Others feel resentment at Christmas, resentment toward those who hurt them, who did not appreciate the sacrifices they made.
In today’s Epistle lesson, the Holy Spirit has given us words of encouragement and comfort at times like these. The Spirit inspired Paul to write this letter to the church in Philippi while he was kept in a Roman prison. It wasn’t the first time he was imprisoned for preaching the Gospel. In fact, his first visit to Philippi included a night in jail after he was targeted by a mob. On that occasion, Paul and his fellow worker Silas—their feet fastened in stocks—prayed and sang hymns to God late into the night (Act. 16:25).
Their joyful confidence in that setting seemed just as out of place as the words we have today. From his cell in a Roman prison Paul wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always!” In case his readers should quickly pass over or miss what he said, he repeated the message: “again I will say, Rejoice!” It doesn’t seem like Paul could be joyful at a time like this. But he was, and in his Letter to the Philippians, he recounted the things that brought him this joy.
He said that he always prayed for the Philippian Christians with joy because of their support and encouragement of his work (1:4-5). He rejoiced that his imprisonment served to advance the Gospel among the imperial guard and to embolden others to proclaim God’s grace (1:12-18). He rejoiced that God’s will would be done whether in Paul’s life or his death (1:18-20). And He rejoiced at the Philippian congregation’s faithfulness to the Word (2:2,17-18, 4:1).
Paul’s joyful attitude was not simply a “glass-half-full” rather than a “glass-half-empty” approach. His focus was not on the power of positive thinking. His joy was “in the Lord.” He explained this more toward the end of his letter. He wrote: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (4:11-13).
When people cite the last part of that passage, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” their focus is typically more on the “I can do all things” than on the “through him who strengthens.” Athletes cite this passage as they try to up their game. Entrepreneurs cite it while trying to reach their business goals. Students cite it while studying for a big test.
But Paul’s focus was always on the teaching and preaching of the Gospel. He did not care about any personal achievements. He did not apply these words to his tent-making. He said, “I can be brought low, I can be hungry and in need, and yet I will rejoice because I have Jesus.” As he said in another letter: “when I am weak [weak in himself], then I am strong” [strong in the Lord] (2Co. 12:10).
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” It’s important to understand that joy is not the same as happiness. You and I can rejoice even when we are not feeling happy.
- As we deal with mistreatment and unkindness from others, we can rejoice that God loves us and gives us fellow believers to encourage us.
- As we struggle with physical and mental pain, we can rejoice that Jesus personally endured such pain and promises to carry us through it.
- As we experience financial trouble, we can rejoice that the things of this world are only temporary, and that Jesus has obtained true riches for us in heaven.
- As we carry the burden of guilt for sins we have committed, we can rejoice that Jesus paid for all these sins on the cross and forgives them all.
- As we mourn the death of someone we love, we can rejoice that Jesus rose in victory over death and will come again to raise the dead on the last day.
Our joy in the Lord is not a feeling we can get better at if we practice it enough. Our joy is produced in us by the Holy Spirit through hearing the Word of Christ. The Holy Spirit leads us to believe that His Word is meant for each one of us. The angel said to the shepherds, “behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luk. 2:10), which means these “good tidings of great joy” are meant for you. John the Baptizer said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Joh. 1:29), so the Lamb came to take away your sin.
The Lord wants you to know and believe these things because He loves you. He cares about every aspect of your life. He knows you better than a mother knows her child. He knows you better than you know yourself. He sees you in your pain, your stress, your sadness, and your loneliness, and He comes to help and strengthen you. In his great Advent hymn, Paul Gerhardt spoke about the Lord’s gracious presence with us:
Rejoice, then, ye sad-hearted, / Who sit in deepest gloom,
Who mourn o’er joys departed, / And tremble at your doom;
Despair not, He is near you, / Yea, standing at the door,
Who best can help and cheer you, / And bid you weep no more. (ELH 94, v. 6)
In today’s text, the Apostle Paul wrote that “The Lord is at hand.” He is not far away; He is near you. He hears when you cry out to Him. He hears your prayer of repentance. He hears your call for help. This is why there is no need to “be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Your Lord hears every petition you make, and He answers each one in the best way and at the right time.
Through His Word and Sacraments, the Lord is present to give you peace. The peace He brings “surpasses all understanding.” It is not the peace of having a day all to yourself, or finally finishing a project that has taken you a long time, or getting your whole family under one roof. The Lord gives a peace which the world cannot give. He brings the peace of sins forgiven, of God’s anger appeased, of salvation won, of eternal life secured.
This peace with God had nothing to do with our goodness, our efforts, or our abilities. This is why it is so beyond our understanding. Why would God send His Son to make peace with sinners? Why would He give so much when we had nothing to give Him? This was a work of pure mercy and grace, and it is why our confidence in our salvation can be so rock-solid. Our salvation does not depend on us; it was secured entirely by Him. So we do have peace with God, and no earthly thing can take that away from us.
This promise of peace with God is what now guards our hearts and our minds. This Gospel message keeps the devil away with all his temptations and lies. It keeps the world from filling our eyes and ears with false hope. And it keeps our sinful nature from destroying our faith. The peace of forgiveness and salvation that we have through Jesus – this is our reason for rejoicing.
So my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow heirs of God, partakers of peace by faith in Jesus: if this Christmas week finds you hurting or afraid or lonely or sad or overwhelmed—you can still rejoice! You can rejoice that Jesus came to save you. You can rejoice that He still comes to strengthen you. And you can rejoice that soon He will come again in His glory. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”
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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The Seventh Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Mark 8:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who gives more than we ask for or could even imagine, dear fellow redeemed:
Two farmers planted their crops and closely watched the progress of their growth. One of them worried every step of the way. First he worried that the ground would dry out, so the seed could be planted. Then he worried that the plants would get the right amount of rain and sunshine. Rarely were the conditions on any given day perfect. If it was sunny and hot, he worried about the plants having enough moisture. If it was sunny and cool, he worried about slow growth. If it began to rain, he worried about too much or too little falling. He often thought about his bad fortune when things weren’t looking so good. There was not much joy in his work.
The other farmer considered all these factors, but he realized that hardly any of them were in his control. He had been at it long enough to know that the crop almost always turned out—some years a little better and some years a little worse. He didn’t get too excited by the highs or too depressed by the lows. Farming hadn’t made him rich, but it was a good way of life. He enjoyed his work.
The difference between these two men could be chalked up to personality—one was more easy-going, the other a worrier. But the difference could also be that one relied on the Lord to provide for his needs, while the other relied on himself. If your livelihood and success depended entirely on you, of course you would be full of worry and stress! But if you know that the living God cares for you, His dear child, you will confidently look for blessings from His hand.
We see a wonderful example of the Lord’s care in today’s Gospel lesson. A great crowd had been with Him for three days and had even followed Him into the wilderness. Any food they had brought with them was all but gone. But the text does not say that the people approached Jesus about their hunger.
They did not have to ask Jesus to feed them, because He already knew. His care for them came from His own heart of love. “I have compassion on the crowd,” He said. “And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” Not only was he aware of their hunger. He was aware that some had further to travel than others. He knew these people, and He cared for them deeply.
He wanted His disciples to have the same care for the people. He wanted them to love these neighbors of theirs and to participate in their help. But all they could produce was seven loaves of bread. How could such a small amount feed four thousand men? Reasonably speaking, it couldn’t. There probably wouldn’t even be one crumb available for each person who was present.
But God, as the Bible says, “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). We so often forget that. We assume that most everything in our lives depends on ourselves. This causes us to despair when things go bad or to be full of pride when things go well. We forget that it is the Lord who provides.
If we do well at our work, we should remember that God has given us the strength, the mental capacity, and the character traits to do a good job. This is what we recite in the First Article of the Creed: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them” (Small Catechism). If God did not give and preserve these qualities, we could not do anything. Our success comes entirely from Him.
But we don’t always succeed in our work. Does that mean the Lord has failed to provide for us, or that He has given up on us? We know this is not the case. He cares for us. Because He cares for us, He knows exactly what we need. He knows when to bless by giving and when to bless by withholding.
Sometimes He withholds because it would not be good for us to succeed. We don’t see the trouble ahead, but He does. He may also withhold to teach us patience and endurance, or to get us to step up and work harder. Whether we receive little or plenty, we should be thankful for the portion we have and use it to the glory of God.
Jesus here also teaches us how to respond to the gifts of God. What did He do before breaking apart the seven loaves and giving them to His disciples to distribute? He gave thanks. He gave thanks for seven loaves of bread and a few small fish as He looked upon a crowd of thousands. Proportionally that would be something like giving thanks to God for one grain of rice on an otherwise empty plate. No matter the amount of the gift, we learn from Jesus to be thankful and to give thanks. Seven loaves of bread were better than none; they were something. And the Lord knew how to turn them into much, much more.
What are some of the things in your life that are easy to take for granted but are great gifts from God? Your family, for one, and your house and health and job. Any of us here can open our cupboards and see how God provides food. We can open our closets and see how God provides clothing. We can open our contact list or directory and see how God provides friends.
God typically does not give the bare minimum—He blesses us in abundance. The crowd of four thousand men ate their fill of bread and fish, and there were still seven baskets left over! In the same way, our homes are filled with good things, enough to keep us happy and satisfied for a long time.
What is our response to these gifts? Imagine if the crowd of four thousand was enjoying its miraculous lunch, and one after another started to complain and ask for more. “Could we get a little butter for this bread?” “How about some salt?” “Is there anything for dessert?” By these demands for more, the people would seem discontent and ungrateful.
How is it for you? Are you content with the gifts the Lord has given you? If you are, how do you show it? Do you remember to thank Him for what you have? One of the best times to thank the Lord is when you take time out of your day to eat. Here the Lord is providing you with the nourishment you need to continue your work. Without food and drink you could not survive.
So you ask Him to bless the food before you that it may benefit your body and strengthen you. Some of you use the “Thank You Prayer.” It is a great prayer that comes directly from Scripture. Notice that this prayer is not simply saying thanks for the food. It is thanking the Lord for His goodness and His ongoing mercy that accompanies us into eternity: “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever.”
The Lord is good to us in so many ways, we cannot keep track of all of them. His earthly gifts aren’t even the best part of His care! The best part of our Father’s care is what He accomplished for us through His Son. Jesus’ greatest work was not turning seven loaves of bread into food for thousands. His greatest work was giving Himself up as the sacrificial Lamb on the cross and rising again from the dead in glory.
This unmatchable gift of Jesus means that our sins are no longer counted against us. Whenever we have worried that everything depended on our efforts, or despaired because our hard work did not pay off, or become prideful because of our success, or failed to give thanks to God in daily prayer, He declares us forgiven of these sins through the blood of Christ. Today is a new day, a fresh opportunity, to set aside those worries, put our trust totally in Him, and thank Him for His blessings both great and small.
God is not a vengeful overlord who will punish us for our failures. Nor does He award His gifts based on our merit. Nobody deserves the good things He gives. But He still has compassion on the crowd. He still provides for the needs of all people—and especially His dear children—on account of His loving care. If you are in need, He wants you to pray for His help. If He has given you plenty, He wants you to share with those who have little. If you have what you need but not all you want, He encourages you to pray for contentment.
The Lord loves you with a tremendous love, and He promises to provide for your needs. Jesus said, “[S]eek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things—what you need for this body and life—will be added to you” (Mat. 6:33). When His Word is your priority, you will find like the crowd did that all your earthly needs will be taken care of.
Then you can go about your work with joy and thankfulness. Joy in knowing that our compassionate Lord is eager to give such gifts, and thankfulness for His abundant blessings.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture of the Judean mountains in Israel)
The Sixth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 16:23-30
In Christ Jesus, who opened for us direct access to the Father by His innocent suffering and death in our place, dear fellow redeemed:
What words do you say every single day? Some of the likely ones are: hello, good-bye, yes, no, good morning, good night, please, thank you. Maybe you say “I love you” to someone each day. If you’re around kids, you hear them say “why?” or “why not?” every day. There’s another one that I’m confident you say each day—the word “Amen.”
If you say prayers when you wake up in the morning, before and after meals, and before you go to bed at night, you might say “Amen” five to ten times a day. The number may be even higher if you pray throughout the day. If you used the word “Amen” about 50 times a week (including all the times in church), you would be saying or singing it over 2,500 times each year. If you lived eighty years, this would mean using the word “Amen” over 200,000 times. That’s a significant word!
But why do we use it? Where did the word come from? What Does “Amen” Mean? The word is found thirty times in the Hebrew Old Testament, where it is pronounced “ah-main.” Pagan scholars say the Hebrew people took the word from the name of an Egyptian god. And the name may sound similar, but it isn’t even spelled the same. The noun “Amen” actually comes from a Hebrew verb which means “to confirm” or “be trustworthy.”
In the Old Testament, the word was used to show agreement for what someone said. One example is when the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem by King David. On this occasion David led a song of thanks, and all the Israelites responded with a loud “‘Amen!’ and praised the Lord” (1Ch. 16:36). The word “Amen” is also used as a conclusion, such as when it ends the first four sections of the Book of Psalms.
“Amen” was used as a part of the synagogue worship of the Jews, so Jesus would have heard this word frequently as a boy. Later on in His public work, He often utilized this word to emphasize the truth of what He said. Each of the seventy-five instances of “Amen” in the four Gospels comes from Jesus as part of the phrase, “Amen, I say to you,” often translated as “Truly, I say to you.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ use of the word is always doubled, like it is in today’s text: “Truly, truly, I say to you,” or “Amen, amen, I say to you.” “Amen” is used about twenty-five more times in the New Testament in connection with a statement of praise or as a conclusion to one of the Epistles.
What we do not find anywhere in the Bible is a command that we use this word, or that it must be spoken at the end of every prayer. We do not have instructions for how to end our prayers, but we do have instructions for how to pray. Jesus taught prayer both by example and by education. He often spent time in prayer to His heavenly Father, including the night before His death. These frequent references to His praying should show us how important prayer is.
He also taught His disciples what they should and should not do regarding prayer. He told them they should not draw attention to themselves when they pray, like “the hypocrites” who stand prominently “in the synagogues and at the street corners.” Instead they should pray humbly and privately to the Father, who promises to hear their prayer (Mat. 6:5-6). Of course it is also fine and good to pray in public like we do in church, as long as this is not done for show.
The Lord also directed His disciples to avoid “vain repetition” or “empty phrases,” as though “they will be heard for their many words.” Jesus told the disciples a great multitude of words is unnecessary, since “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mat. 6:7-8). Right after this Jesus taught them to say the brief but exceedingly rich “Our Father,” or “Lord’s Prayer.”
The Lord’s Prayer shows us how bold we should be in our petitions or requests. When we pray for what God has promised to give us, we do not pray conditionally. We do not say, “Thy kingdom come if You want it to,” or “Thy will be done if You’re not too busy,” or “Give us this day our daily bread if You are happy enough with us.”
Jesus taught us to pray with boldness, to use imperatives: “Give us!” “Forgive us!” “Deliver us.” Jesus repeated this instruction to pray boldly when He said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Mat. 7:7-8).
This is not how the doubter approaches prayer—the one who isn’t sure God is listening or even wants to hear his prayer. James writes that “the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (Jam. 1:6-8).
So how can we learn to pray with more confidence, as Jesus invites us to do, and not be unstable doubters? The key is found in today’s Gospel reading. There Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you—listen carefully; I am not lying—, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you.” The key is in those three words, “in My name.” Jesus repeats that phrase three times in this section, and He had already used the phrase four times before in the same conversation (Joh. 14:13, 14, 26, 15:16). That makes seven uses of this phrase in the night before His death.
Jesus explained what “in My name” means further along in the text. He said they could pray boldly to the Father in heaven because He loves them. And why does He love them? “[B]ecause,” as Jesus said, “you have loved Me and have believed that I came from God.” That is what it means to pray “in Jesus’ name.” It is to pray with faith in Him and all He has accomplished for our salvation.
Your boldness in prayer is directly related to your confidence in Jesus’ work. If you are certain that His perfect life is fully credited to you by faith; if you believe that He made complete satisfaction for your sins by His death on the cross; and if you trust that He rose again on the third day in victory over your death, then you should not wonder if God hears your prayers or wants to hear them.
Do you think God the Father wanted to hear the prayers of Jesus, His Son? Then why shouldn’t He want to hear your prayers? “[F]or in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26). When you pray “in Jesus’ name”—by faith in Jesus—the Father looks upon you with favor. He looks at you through the lens of His Son. He does not see the sinner who has fallen again and again, the weak Christian who spends so much of his time worrying about unimportant things. He sees His holy, blood-bought child. He sees a rightful heir, one to whom He will give all the riches of heaven.
Since the heavenly Father looks upon you in this way, there should be no question in your mind that He wants to hear your prayers. But not all requests are the same. Not all prayers are proper. You do not get everything you want just because the Father loves you, or because you pray “in Jesus’ name.” We love our children, but we do not give them everything they want. They do not always want the right things.
You should not pray to God for foolish things, like vast riches to live an indulgent life, or a different family than the one God gave you, or impressive power and prestige in the world. These are the desires of the flesh. On the other hand, you can pray without hesitation for the good things God has promised to give you, like you do in the Lord’s Prayer. You can also pray for things you aren’t sure that God will give you, confident that He will do what is best. In this regard, you may pray for improved health, for a better work environment, or for relief from something that troubles you or those you love.
When you make these humble petitions by faith in Jesus, you are assured that your requests are heard by Him and will most certainly be answered. This is where “Amen” comes in. It is much more than an “okay, I’m done,” or some kind of punctuation mark. It is a word which confirms what has been said “in Jesus’ name.” It expresses trust that the Father in heaven has heard the prayer and will act. It is not a word we are required to use, but if it was used so often by Jesus, it should be useful to us.
What Does “Amen” Mean? In his classic definition in the Small Catechism, Martin Luther writes, “Amen means that we should be sure that these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven and are heard by Him; for He Himself has commanded us so to pray and has promised to hear us. Amen, Amen; that is, Yes, Yes, it shall be so.”
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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(portion of “Crucifixion, Seen from the Cross,” by James Tissot, c. 1890)
The Second Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 15:21-28
In Christ Jesus, who does hear and who does help, dear fellow redeemed:
What was the first sign that something was wrong with her little girl? Maybe it was gradual. Maybe it was the culmination of multiple incidents where her daughter said things she had never said before or behaved in ways that were nothing like her usual behavior. The changes could not be chalked up to the typical attitude issues of growing girls and boys. Something more sinister was at work. Her daughter’s erratic behavior convinced the mother that she was under the influence of a dark force. She believed that a demon had entered her.
But how could she be so sure? Our culture would not see this as a valid diagnosis. The experts would want to assign some sort of mental or behavioral disorder to this girl, something that could be treated with medicine or therapy. We have to assume her demon possession was obvious. Maybe she behaved like the girl in Philippi who could tell people’s fortunes (Act. 16:16). In that case, Paul cast out her demon “in the name of Jesus Christ” (v. 18).
Whatever the symptoms of her demon possession, the strain upon her mother was great. But she had hope. At some point, she had heard the prophecies of the Old Testament Scriptures, and she had heard about the works of Jesus. She believed that this Jesus, who had cast out demons from others and had even raised the dead, could and would help her and her daughter.
She must have thought about going in search of Jesus. No desperate mother would do less. But such travel plans were not necessary. Jesus came to her. The text does not indicate that He came to the district of Tyre and Sidon for her sake. In fact, the evangelist Mark says that Jesus entered a house in the region “and did not want anyone to know” (Mar. 7:24). But when the Canaanite woman heard He was close by, “immediately” she came and “fell down at his feet” (v. 25) and cried out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon!”
It is significant that she said, “have mercy on me, O Lord.” This shows what pain the mother was feeling. She was probably suffering even more intensely than her daughter, assuming the girl was not aware what had happened to her. We can appreciate the mother’s perspective. We understand the pain of watching someone we love come under the influence of the devil. This could be a close family member or friend who discards the saving faith because they want to live in sin free of any moral restraints, or because they think human reason and worldly wisdom have more to offer than God’s Word.
This is not to say that a demon has taken up residence in each of these cases. But it is true that a person who no longer wants to listen to and abide by the Word of God is under the devil’s influence if not under his absolute control. These situations are heartbreaking. We want nothing more than to have the people we love here join us forever in heaven. But we cannot make it so. We cannot impose our will or our faith upon others. And we cannot assume that just because a person is baptized and confirmed, that they will always believe.
What we can do is to teach our children the truth (Pro. 22:6). We can encourage fellow Christians to hear the Word (Heb. 10:25). We can prepare ourselves to be ready to speak to others about the hope we have (1Pe. 3:15). And we can always, always pray. We can pray for those whom the devil has drawn away from Christ. And like the woman in the text, we can pray for God’s mercy on us.
But how can you and I be certain that God hears our prayers? I am sure that you have prayed at some point that God would change someone’s heart and lead them to Him in repentance and faith. But as far as you can tell, your prayer has not been answered. Maybe your marriage is still rocky. Your adult child keeps avoiding the topic of getting back to church. Your co-worker still treats you with disrespect. Your neighbor still hates you. This is a helpless feeling.
The devil wants you to think that your prayers to the Lord are a big waste of time. He wants you to become impatient when God does not meet your timetable. He wants you to feel totally alone, totally helpless to confront the evil that afflicts you. But the Lord does hear your prayers. He is not a liar; the devil is. Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Mat. 7:7-8). He couldn’t present the effectiveness of prayer in more glowing terms.
But there is more to prayer than being certain God hears it. Prayer also requires trust that God knows the best time and way to answer it. If we instantly received everything we asked God for, we wouldn’t have to give much thought to His mercy. “Oh, my bank account is getting low”—here’s another $1000. “Oh, I’m getting the sniffles”—here’s perfect health. “Oh, I’m having some troubles at home and work”—here’s a perfect homelife and workplace. Getting everything we wanted all the time would spoil us. It would keep us thinking about our own needs and wants, instead of remembering the will of God for our lives and the needs of our neighbors.
St. Patrick, whose life is celebrated on March 17th, is an excellent example of this. He was captured from his home on the English coast when he was sixteen and taken as a slave to Ireland. He prayed for deliverance for six years before he was able to escape on a ship to France. But Patrick couldn’t forget the sad condition of the pagan people of Ireland. So he studied to be a pastor and returned to the land of his captivity as a missionary. His preaching of the Gospel led to the conversion of many of the Irish people. His time as a slave was not pleasant, but God used it for his good and the good of many others.
By sometimes delaying His answer to our prayers, the Lord trains us to recognize our own weaknesses and grow in faith. “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (Rom. 8:26). Our priorities are not always where they should be. Our faith is not as strong as God wants it to be. But through our sufferings and trials, that faith is tested and purified like gold in a hot fire.
This is what Jesus wanted to accomplish in His interactions with the Canaanite woman. At first, it seemed as though He did not hear her cry for mercy – “He did not answer her a word.” But the woman did not give up. She believed that this Man before her was the “Son of David,” the Savior promised for sinners. She cried out again and again to the extent that the disciples became annoyed. They now petitioned Jesus to do something for or about her. This means the woman had succeeded in enlisting others to plead with Jesus on her behalf.
We get the impression that Jesus may have been walking away from the woman at this time. So she stopped Him in His tracks. “[S]he came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’” Again, she did not say, “Have mercy on my daughter. Help her.” She said, “help me.” Because the way Jesus would show mercy to her and help her was to help her daughter. But Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…. It is not right to take the children’s bread—what belongs to the Israelites—and throw it to the dogs—the Gentiles.”
And here, the faith of this Gentile woman shines. She does not dispute that Jesus came for the Israelites. She would not steal their portion from them. But she believed that if Jesus had mercy for the Israelites, then He had plenty of mercy for her too. If they should be served bread, she like an eager house pet would gladly lick up the crumbs.
This is how to pray with faith in the Lord’s promises. Because Jesus has told us to pray and promises to hear us, we “pray without ceasing” (1Th. 5:17) for the needs of ourselves and others. We pray even when it seems that God does not hear our prayers or does not have time for us. He does not need to prove His love and care for us. He has already proven that beyond any doubt.
This Wednesday in our midweek services, we will hear from Isaiah how our Lord “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” how “he was wounded for our transgressions,” how “with his stripes we are healed” (53:4,5). He did this for all people, for Jews and Gentiles. He gathered up all their heartache, all their pain, all their sin, and carried all of it to the cross. The cross is where Jesus reconciled sinners with their Creator, where He won access for us “to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
This is what the Son of God took on flesh to do, and the Canaanite woman believed it. She believed that God’s presence in the flesh meant that He would not deny her cry for mercy. Why else would He be here, except to save sinners? You can bring your requests before God with the same confidence—confidence that He took on flesh for you and those you love.
When you pray for any who are suffering, you do not pray to an impersonal god, one who has no clear motivation to assist mankind. You pray to your heavenly Father in the name of His Son, the-God-who-became-Man. You pray knowing of the love He has for you, His child. You pray knowing that The Lord Has Mercy, and that He will answer your prayer in the best way and at the right time.
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(picture is from a 15 century French Gothic manuscript painting)
The Tenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 19:41-48
In Christ Jesus, who saved us from the destruction we deserved by making peace between us and God through His own death, dear fellow redeemed:
Most people have a special affection for the place where they grew up. They see that place in a different way than others do. Others can look at the same property or the same location and wonder what is so great about it. Why should anyone care about that tiny Iowa town, or that farm site with sagging buildings? But for those who lived there, the beauty is in the details. They remember the work done in that barn, the joys shared in that house, the memories made in that school and those businesses.
We have similar feelings about our home church. It may not look that impressive, but it is where the spiritually hungry are fed and where life’s joys and sorrows are shared by believers in Christ.
Jesus grew up in the town of Nazareth, but like all Israelites, He had a special affection for the city of Jerusalem, some 65 miles south. Jerusalem was the capital city of Judea, standing tall on Mount Zion. But what really set it apart was the temple dedicated to the worship of the true God. Jesus attended His local synagogue each week in Nazareth, but this could not compare to the great temple.
According to Jewish law, Jesus was taken there at forty days old to be presented to the Lord (Lk. 2:22-38). Then He returned year after year with Joseph and Mary to observe the Passover festival. On one of these trips when Jesus was twelve, He went to learn from the temple teachers. His parents did not know He had gone to do this. When they found Him after days of searching, He said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk. 2:49). The temple was His heavenly Father’s house, set apart for the pure teaching of the Word and the offering of holy prayers and sacrifices.
But now Jesus looked upon this holy city and the glorious temple in it, and He wept. He wept because He foresaw the destruction that would come upon it. He clearly predicted what would happen in August of the year 70. At that time, the Roman army broke into the city and set it on fire. But the tears of Jesus were not for the impending loss of buildings, or even for the loss of the temple. His tears were for His people, the Israelites, for those who “did not know the time of [their] visitation.”
It was first for these descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that the Son of God took on flesh. Jesus stated this plainly when He told a woman who was not Jewish, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 15:24). There were certainly times that He interacted with and helped Gentile people, but His primary work during His public ministry was among the Jews. None of them were insignificant to Him. He cared just the same for the poor and the rich, the sick and the healthy, the morally depraved and the morally upright. The Jews were no nameless and faceless mass. He knew every one and loved every one.
He loved His people like you love your children and parents and relatives and close friends—except that He loved with a perfect love. This is why He wept over Jerusalem. He had come to deliver His beloved people from their bondage to the law, to sin, and to death, but many of them rejected this deliverance. They either did not recognize their need for a Savior, or they did not think Jesus was the promised Messiah.
Their unbelief showed in what they allowed to take place in the temple. Instead of a house dedicated to true worship, it had become a house of commerce. This is what Martin Luther witnessed in Rome when he visited there as a monk. Everything “spiritual” was offered at a price. The same is true in many quarters of the visible church today, where spiritual gain is promised through monetary gifts. When Jesus saw this buying and selling taking place in the temple, He drove out the sellers. “‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ He said quoting from Isaiah, “but you have made it a den of robbers.”
The temple was not being used for its intended purpose. The sacrifices may have been offered, the ceremonies may have been observed, but worldly pursuits instead of spiritual gain were foremost in the people’s minds. In today’s Old Testament lesson (Jer. 7:1-7), the LORD through Jeremiah warned His people about this. He said that the temple did them no good when they carried out the prescribed rituals without repentance. The LORD asked, “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” (vv. 9-11).
The same question is rightly asked of us today. Are we content that our church teaches the right thing and worships the right way, but we have little concern for godly living and earnest repentance? If that is the case, then Jesus now weeps over us as well. Then He sees the destruction that is coming upon us as long as we refuse to repent and change our sinful ways.
What we do with our lives and our bodies is no small matter to God. The New Testament epistles refer to each child of God as His “temple.” The Apostle Paul asked the Christians in Corinth, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1Cor. 3:16-17). In the same letter, Paul asked again, “[D]o you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (6:19-20).
God did not create us to disobey Him, to use our body and soul, eyes, ears, and all our members, our reason and all our senses against His will (Explanation to the First Article). He created, redeemed, and sanctified the temple of our bodies, so that we would present them “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). Many people today think they are free to do whatever they want, and to live however they like. They imagine that the only thing they need to be concerned about is their own personal happiness. God condemns this selfish behavior. He sees every sinful word and action, He knows every wicked thought, and our sin grieves Him.
But His love for us compels Him to send the Holy Spirit through the Word to drive out the sin that dwells there. God’s law, His Ten Commandments, lays bare our unrighteousness. Nothing is hidden from His sight. This is why it does us no good to try to hide our sin. The Lord already knows. He knows, but He wants us to recognize our sin too, and to acknowledge it. Along with this repentance, He also wants us to set our minds and hearts to do better. He wants us to avoid the sin that has ensnared us in the past and seek the paths of righteousness.
If we will not repent of sin, this is the same as saying we do not need a Savior. But why else did Jesus come than to save us from our sin and the death that results from it? He came for all, first for the Jews and then for the Gentiles (Rom. 1:16). Jesus kept the law perfectly on behalf of every sinner, and then atoned for each of their sins with His holy blood.
There is no stain on your past, no sin you have committed, that was not atoned for by Jesus. To say that this is so—that your sin may be greater than God’s grace—is to imagine a very weak and impotent God. This is hardly different than believing there is no God at all! The true God is more than capable to defeat the greatest enemies you face, and He has. Jesus sacrificed His life to pay for your sins, and He rose triumphant from death. This means the devil’s accusations against you cannot stand. You have sinned, but Jesus is your righteousness. You deserve death, but Jesus has won for you eternal life.
Because you believe this and freely repent of your sins, Jesus does not weep over you like He wept over Jerusalem. You are part of the “new Jerusalem,” the holy Christian Church. To Jesus, you members of His Church by faith are no nameless and faceless mass. None of you are insignificant to Him. He knows each of you and loves each of you. He calls you to reject the vain promises of the world, which only lead to heartache. And He wants you to ignore the devil’s lie that your life does not matter. You matter to God. Jesus shed His blood for you.
Others may look at you like someone might look at the treasured but humble places of your youth. You may not seem to have much significance or importance in the world. But You Are a Temple Set Apart for God’s Work. Your Savior sees the beauty in the details. He sees a person who is “fearfully and wonderfully made” by His gracious hand (Ps. 139:14). He sees one who is redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ” (1Pe. 1:18-19). He sees one who was washed, sanctified, and justified “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1Cor. 6:11).
He has set you apart to receive His eternal blessings and to carry out the work for which a true temple is built, which is to offer sacrifices of prayer, thanksgiving, and a godly life to the glory of His holy name.
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(painting of the “Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Sixth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 16:23-30
In Christ Jesus, who opened the way “to the Father’s high throne, / Where [we] may approach Him, in [His] name alone” (ELH 182, v. 8), dear fellow redeemed:
Many people can give examples of times when they were the best qualified for a job and had the most experience, but someone else was hired instead of them. It wasn’t because of anything they did wrong or because they missed a window of opportunity. It was because of factors beyond their control. Maybe one of the applicants knew the boss personally, or another employee put in a good word for them. As the saying goes, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”
This saying also accurately expresses the reason we have access to God the Father. It is not our own knowledge or worthiness or hard work that gets us this access. On our own we could never reach Him or even come close to Him. We have access through God’s Son, Jesus the Christ, whose name we confess by the power of God the Holy Spirit. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we can pray to God the Father “with all boldness and confidence, as children ask their dear father” (Small Catechism, Intro. to Lord’s Prayer). Our heavenly Father loves to hear our prayers, and He loves to respond with the rich blessings of His grace.
Jesus said in today’s text, “whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you.” That is quite an invitation! God will give you whatever you ask for in Jesus’ name. But what does it mean to ask “in Jesus’ name”? It does not mean using Jesus’ name like someone might use a secret password to gain entrance somewhere. Any request “in Jesus’ name” is empty if it is not accompanied by faith in what He did.
The Book of Acts tells us about some “itinerant Jewish exorcists” who noticed how successful the Apostle Paul was at casting out demons and performing various miracles. They thought they might have the same success if they used the method he did. Seven of them approached a demon-possessed man and ordered the evil spirit to come out of him, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims!” But the demon replied, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” Then he attacked and overpowered all of them (Ac. 19:13-16). These exorcists did not actually believe in the name they were using.
Praying to God “in Jesus’ name” means trusting what Jesus did to save us. His “name” includes everything about Him. It describes His Person and work. That’s how it is for any of us. People associate our name with who we are and what we do. Your name carries with it your reputation. If you are known for doing good things, people will think favorably about you when your name is mentioned. If you are known for bad things, your name will bring those things to mind.
Jesus’ name is “the name that is above every name” (Phi. 2:9). Nobody did what He did. He perfectly kept the law of God, a feat no one had accomplished before then and no one has since. Then He offered up His perfect life as the atoning sacrifice to His Father for the sins of all. The name Jesus means, “The LORD saves,” which is what He did. He saved us from eternal death by dying and rising again in our place.
On the basis of what He did, Jesus invites anyone and everyone to speak to the Father. But many do not care to do this, or they do not go about it in the right way. Those who do not care to speak with God are like the employees who are constantly griping about poor working conditions and personal problems. But when the owner of the company invites them to come and share their concerns so that he might help their situation to improve, they ignore his kind invitation and keep on griping. The unbelievers who ignore the Creator of all things are like this. He sends them many earthly blessings, and He wants to give them His spiritual gifts too. But they act like He does not even exist, and they continue in their comfortless and hopeless lives.
Others imagine they can have access to God the Father without the Son. They may speak of the Son as a good teacher and wonderful moral example, but they deny that He is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity. This includes a great many people in the world who have latched on to false religions. They may put us to shame in their moral living and their practice of prayer, but God neither recognizes it nor hears it. Jesus clearly stated His connection to the Father, “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” Earlier, He told His disciples, “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30), and “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also” (14:6-7).
We would be found in one of these two camps of unbelievers if God the Holy Spirit had not called us out of the darkness of unbelief to the light of salvation through Christ. Without the Holy Spirit’s work through the Word and Sacraments, no one would confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). No one would believe that there is salvation in Him alone, by faith in His name (Ac. 4:12).
Now this salvation and faith are yours, and with them, the invitation to present your needs and requests to God in heaven. St. Paul writes that “Through Christ We Have Access in One Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). Because Jesus blotted out your sins by His death on the cross and clothed you in His righteousness at your baptism, you are able to bring your petitions before the holy God. You can come confidently to His throne of grace to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
When Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, He did not teach them to pray timidly or with uncertainty. He taught them to make demands of God: “Thy kingdom come”; “Give us… our daily bread”; “Forgive us”; “Deliver us.” We can be confident in prayer because our salvation is secure. We don’t have to wonder if God the Father will listen to us. He loves us! He has time for us! Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you…. If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt. 7:7,11).
If we believed this promise of Jesus, we would “pray without ceasing” (1Th. 5:17). We would say that there was no better use of our time than to pray. But instead we put a thousand other things before it, many of which accomplish no good for ourselves or our neighbors. Or we stop praying because God did not answer our prayers the way we wanted. Maybe we prayed for sunshine and He sent rain, or we prayed for healing and the condition worsened. Or we adopt a fatalistic attitude and figure God will do what He wants whether we pray to Him or not.
But if prayer were a waste of time and unnecessary, why would God repeat the invitation so frequently? “Ask, and you will receive,” says Jesus, “that your joy may be full.” Think of what a privilege this is! The perfect, eternal God wants to hear what you, a sinner, have to say. Pastor U. V. Koren in a sermon for this Sunday said, “If we were invited to approach the highest authority of the land, we would regard it as an honor and try to make fitting preparations for it. How much more then we should do that when we are invited to the King of all kings, to the almighty Lord of heaven and earth!” (U. V. Koren’s Works, Vol. 1: Sermons, pp. 217-218). The holy God “has commanded us so to pray and has promised to hear us” (Small Catechism, Concl. to Lord’s Prayer).
But how can you know that God has heard your prayer? You speak to God; why doesn’t He speak to you? But He does! You have access to God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. He brought you to faith in Jesus, who saved you from sin and death. So prayer proceeds through the Son, in the Spirit, to the Father—a line stretching from earth to heaven.
God’s answer comes the opposite way, from heaven to you on earth. God the Father gives His grace and mercy in the Spirit. The Father sends the Holy Spirit to you through the Word and Sacraments to comfort and strengthen you. And how does the Holy Spirit administer this comfort and strength? Through the Son. The Holy Spirit brings rest to your troubled soul by bringing you Jesus. Jesus knows your pain. He knows how you struggle and worry. He has endured every temptation and trial there is to endure. He comes to help and deliver you.
When you speak to God in prayer, remember also to go to His Word where He speaks to you. This is what your soul needs: to bring your requests to God and to receive His gifts through the Word. He wants to bless you with His forgiveness and cheer you with His grace. He will not ignore your prayers. He will not overlook you. God the Father will send you His good gifts by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit through His beloved Son, your Savior.
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(portion of “Crucifixion, Seen from the Cross,” by James Tissot, c. 1890)
The Second Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:2-10
In Christ Jesus, who has done all things well (Mk. 7:37), dear fellow redeemed:
When there is something that you want, something that is good and, as far as you can tell, God-pleasing, it is a great test and trial not to receive it. The longer you go without it, the more it occupies your thinking. You imagine how free your mind would be to pursue other good things if only that one concern were resolved. This may be the situation of someone who is unemployed or injured, who can think of nothing better than getting back to work. It could be the experience of a single person, who longs to have a spouse and a family. Or it could be the married couple which greatly desires the blessing of a child.
This last cross, the cross of barrenness, is what a man named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had to endure. Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth a homemaker. The evangelist Luke says about them that “they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Lk. 1:6). They obviously were not perfect, but they were humble and pious people. In this, they were blessed. But there was one blessing that God had not given them.
It is certain that they prayed fervently for a child. Even as she aged, Elizabeth might have comforted herself with the example of Hannah, who prayed for a son and was given Samuel. Or they might have thought of Abraham and Sarah, who did not have a child together until Abraham was about 100 and Sarah was 90. But each passing month made the possibility more remote. It would be no surprise if Zechariah and Elizabeth felt some bitterness about this. After all, they had faithfully served the LORD throughout their lives. They had entrusted their being and doing to His hands. Not out loud but perhaps in their heads, each of them might have thought, “Look what I’ve done for You. Won’t You grant this one blessing?”
God always answers prayer, but not always in the way we want. His answer to Zechariah and Elizabeth for a long time was, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2Cor. 12:9). They accepted that in faith. But then one day, God sent His angel Gabriel to visit Zechariah in the holy place of the temple. Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord” (Lk. 1:13-15). Not only would God give them a son, but this son would be unique. He was the God-ordained messenger for the coming Messiah.
As John grew, the LORD prepared him for his work. Through conversations with his parents and study of the Scriptures, John learned what God was calling him to do. At the LORD’s command, “he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3:3). He lived an austere life. He wore clothes made from camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. Despite these eccentricities, many came to the wilderness to hear him preach and to be baptized by him in the Jordan River.
But as boldly as John preached and as popular as he was, John said that “he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3:11-12). John did not come up with these ideas on his own. He read the prophecy in the Book of Malachi, that a messenger (John himself) would prepare the way for the Coming One, who “is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (Mal. 3:2). This Coming One would refine and purify sinners and punish those who did not repent.
Once Jesus was revealed to John as the Coming One, John must have become even bolder in his teaching and preaching. Soon Jesus would take up the charge, and all would follow Him. But things did not play out as John might have planned. King Herod did not like what John was saying and had him arrested and thrown in prison. Meanwhile Jesus increased His public activity, but He did not turn into the fire and brimstone preacher that John may have been expecting. So from prison John sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
We cannot say for sure whether John was asking for his own benefit, or for the benefit of his disciples, so they would leave John and follow Jesus. But for how committed John was to his wilderness work, it would not be surprising if his stay in prison was causing him to be anxious and unsettled. What good could he do for God there? Wouldn’t the Lord set him free? “Look what I’ve done for You, Lord. I will gladly do more.” But no doubt John would have added, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” The Lord’s answer to his prayers was a quick release from his suffering. King Herod had John beheaded, and John’s soul joined the saints in heaven.
Our reward for good deeds in this life does not always come about like we want. Sometimes our good efforts are rewarded with indifference, as though we had done nothing. Sometimes they are rewarded with evil, as our kindnesses are abused or thrown back in our faces. Children might whine about how their parents never give them what they want, or they might complain about eating the food in front of them. And parents may think or even say, “Look what I’ve done for you, how hard I’ve worked to provide for you. But you’re never happy!” Or an employee might go out of her way to please her boss, but all she hears is criticism. “Look what I’ve done for you,” she thinks. “Why should I even try?”
It’s just as easy to feel resentment toward God. When you stand up for what is right or warn someone about their sin, you might be mercilessly attacked by them in return. And you cry out to God, “Look what I’ve done for you! Why don’t you defend me and stop these attacks?” Or you might get injured or sick and pray for healing that is slow in coming if it comes at all. “Are you punishing me, Lord? Where have I failed you?” Or you may see your ungodly neighbor prosper, while you struggle. “Look what I’ve done for you, Lord. Why do those who ignore You and Your Word fare better than I do?”
The answers in these times of difficulty don’t come easily. Waiting for God’s answer to our prayers, waiting for God’s justice, can seem endless. Is help coming or not? If we are paying attention to today’s text, we shouldn’t wonder if the Lord cares about our troubles. Jesus said to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Jesus cares both about people’s physical and spiritual needs. He answered the prayers of the blind, lame, leprous, and deaf and healed them. He even brought the dead back to life.
And for the spiritually poor, the suffering, the anxious, the troubled, the weary, the grieving—Jesus imparted good news. What might that good news have been? There is only one Gospel proclaimed by God, and that is the good news of forgiveness and life by His grace alone. Nothing else but this can comfort the poor sinner.
The Gospel is Jesus’ own “Look What I’ve Done for You.” If you feel burdened by just your own sins, Jesus took upon Himself the burden of all sins—including yours. If you feel that you have suffered unjustly, Jesus suffered the venomous bite of Satan and the holy wrath of God in your place, though He never did anything wrong. Whatever you have had to endure, Jesus endured immeasurably more out of love for you. All of your and my “Look what I’ve done for Yous” fade and disappear in the bright light of His perfect life and innocent death.
And that is what needs to happen. There is no comfort or justice to be found by appealing to the righteousness of your own actions. No matter how honest and humble you are, you still are not perfect. You are still a sinner, who must be justified by God if you would be justified at all. And you are justified. When you are convicted by the Law, Jesus calls your attention to His perfect life and says, “Look what I’ve done for you.” When you worry about your sins, old and new, and wonder if there could be forgiveness for your wicked thoughts and deeds, Jesus draws your eyes to His blood-soaked cross and to the marks of the nails in His hands and feet and says, “Look what I’ve done for you.” When you tremble at your approaching death and worry that you will not have enough faith to get to heaven, Jesus points you toward His empty tomb and says, “Look what I’ve done for you.”
Whatever God commanded you to do, Jesus has done for you. This is why Jesus says, “blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” Whoever is offended by Jesus and denies Him remains under a curse. But whoever believes in Him and confesses His saving name is blessed. You are blessed even when you do not get exactly what you want and expect from Him. God gives you what you need through His Word and Sacraments, so that you can face with confidence the trials ahead and look with hope to the end of your troubles and the eternal glory to come.
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(painting is “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1565)
The Second Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 15:21-28
In Christ Jesus, to whom we look as the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2), dear fellow redeemed:
When dinner comes to a close at the parsonage, the head of the household slides out of his chair and heads to the cupboard or refrigerator to find something for dessert. This activity may go unnoticed by the older children, but not by the youngest. The youngest one, he knows all. He watches his daddy get up, walk over, and swing open the door. This triggers him to do two things: he sticks out his hand, palm up, and he says as sweet as can be, “Peeese!”
Now what do you think? Do you think that little boy expects to receive something because of how nicely he asks? Or is it because he trusts that his father will be gracious and generous? I suppose it could be a little bit of both. Except that if his request is denied, he does not blame himself, as though his asking were insufficient or unclear. Instead he protests, and begs his dad to reconsider. He is totally focused on his father, and the good things that he has the power to give.
It is tempting for us to focus especially on the Canaanite woman in today’s text. We marvel at her great faith. She would not stop petitioning Jesus until she received a definite answer to her prayer. We wish we had a faith like this that expressed itself with such boldness and confidence. But this woman did not go looking for Jesus because she thought her faith was strong enough to get what she wanted. She went looking for Jesus because her daughter had a demon, and she heard that Jesus had the power to help. She fixed her eyes on Him.
If this woman were focused on the power of her own faith, she would have been greatly disheartened when Jesus seemed to ignore what she was saying. “He did not answer her a word.” How many times did she cry out for His mercy? Enough so that Jesus’ disciples became annoyed by her. If she relied on her faith, she would have given up by then. She would have concluded that her faith was not strong enough to get Jesus to help her, and she would have returned home dejected.
That is what happens to any who try to comfort themselves by measuring their faith. What they are really measuring is their level of happiness and how they feel about God. If life is going well and they feel close to God, they imagine their faith is strong. But if their life is full of troubles and God seems very distant, they assume their faith is weak. Because if it were stronger, they probably wouldn’t have all this trouble—at least according to those multimillionaire preachers on TV….
But I cannot recall anywhere in the Bible where Jesus tells us that we can or should try to measure our own faith. This would be an utterly worthless pursuit. One way we might attempt to do this is by measuring Bible knowledge. But a person could have thorough knowledge of the Bible and not believe what it says. The devil knows the Bible, but he certainly doesn’t have faith. Another way we try to measure faith is when we observe a fellow Christian endure trials that we cannot imagine. We might even remark to them what a strong faith they have. But how could we know where their faith is? Their hearts and minds may be full of turmoil and doubt, and their faith may be hanging only by a thread.
It could very well be that the times I feel the strongest in my faith, I am actually weakest. At these times, my trust may be in my own power or ability, which cannot for a second withstand the temptations of the devil, the world, and my own flesh. Think of Peter who said to Jesus, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away…. Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Mt. 26:33,35). How confident Peter was! And yet just a matter of hours later, he repeatedly denied Jesus.
But the times I feel weakest, may actually be when faith is strong, because I know that I cannot make things better. Only God can. This is like the woman who had spent everything she had and tried every remedy to solve a twelve-year-long malady. She couldn’t make it better, but she told herself that “If I touch even [Jesus’] garments, I will be made well” (Mk. 5:28). She meekly reached out her hand, touched His clothes, and immediately she was healed. Or like the woman in today’s text. She had nowhere else to turn. Neither she nor anyone else could cast the demon out of her daughter. So in desperation she sought out Jesus, and He heard her plea.
Jesus told her she had great faith. She would have said she had a great Savior. That is what faith does. It does not look upon itself and try to take its own pulse. We hear well-meaning people say it all the time, but it is not our faith that gets us through anything. It is Jesus. Faith Starts and Ends with Jesus. He is the object of faith. Faith is simply trust, trust in something. That is why we say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty… And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord…. I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Faith is God’s gift to us that allows us to see Him and His grace, like a good pair of glasses does for someone with blurry vision, or like a telescope that reveals stars and galaxies that the naked human eye cannot see.
When Jesus told His disciples they had “little faith,” it was precisely when they overlooked His powerful presence. They thought they were going to die in a storm on the sea when Jesus was in the boat with them (Mk. 8:23-27). They also worried that they had forgotten to bring a supply of bread after Jesus had just provided bread for groups of 5,000 and 4,000 men (Mt. 16:8-11). Searching for help apart from Jesus caused them to have doubts and to be filled with fears.
As surely as He was with His disciples, Jesus is with you through the means of grace. The more you avail yourself of these gifts—hearing the Word and receiving the Sacraments with a repentant heart—the stronger your faith will be. But if you take these things for granted and fail to hear the Word regularly, or if you don’t take it seriously when you hear it, then your faith will surely weaken and eventually die. Jesus and His Word should not be considered just a part of your life, the church part, which you may or may not exercise once a week. Rather, Jesus is your life. There is no life apart from Him. Without Him you are lost, hopeless, dead. That is the message of God’s holy Word.
The Word works faith in your heart, so that you believe in Jesus. And the Word renews and sharpens that focus, so that you remain in Him. This anchor of the Word is crucial for you as you are tossed around on the sea of your doubts, troubles, and sins. These things lead you away from Jesus, but the Word points you back to Him. If God ever seems to be ignoring you, or if you get the impression that He is punishing you for something, go to His Word. Don’t go by how things seem to be, or how you feel. Like the desperate woman who trusted the Word, hold tightly to what you have been taught. She had been told Jesus was merciful, and she was going to believe it unless He informed her otherwise.
You can be just as bold and brazen as she. You can bring your honest petitions before God, both the big ones and the small ones. Whether or not God gives you what you ask is not a question of the quality of your faith. It is a question of His mercy and His will for your life. For the things He has promised, like your daily bread, forgiveness, and salvation, you can ask with full confidence that He will supply them. For everything else, you can ask with the same confidence, but always as it pleases Him, according to His will. For example if you pray for healing, He may heal, or else He will give you strength and peace to bear the affliction. You can pray continuously like the Canaanite woman did, fully confident that your prayers will be answered.
If the answer seems a long time in coming, that does not mean God loves you any less. He loves you from Eden to Golgotha. He loves you from the empty tomb to the baptismal font. He loves you from your table to His. He loves you through every year, every sin, every doubt, every trial. The Lord loves you all the way to heaven. That is where you are going through faith in Jesus. He has been merciful to you. He has redeemed you, a lost and condemned creature. He has forgiven you all your sin.
Do not worry about the measure of your faith. Leave that to God. Concern yourself instead with His Word and promises. Focus on the One who saved you, and who has good gifts for you. A little boy may be disappointed in his daddy come dessert time. But your hope in Jesus will not be disappointed. He will not refuse you His good gifts, because He has already promised to give them. These gifts are so great, that even their crumbs would be enough to satisfy and fill you. But the Master wants you at His table with all His children, for whom He has prepared a rich feast of salvation in Christ Jesus.
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