Ash Wednesday – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: St. Matthew 6:16-21
In Christ Jesus, who “fills the hungry with good things” (Luk. 1:53), dear fellow redeemed:
Some people give up dessert during Lent. Some give up TV. Some give up social media. Roman Catholics are required to give up meat every Friday of Lent. Are you giving up anything? While this can be a useful practice, the Bible does not require it. Some suggest that we should rather add things during Lent—more Bible study, more prayer, and so on. I think these things go together—whenever we give up one thing, we have space to add another. So if you give up time in front of the TV or smartphone, you are adding time that can be spent in other ways, such as Bible reading or prayer.
It’s important for us to take an inventory of how we spend our time. Typically we say we don’t have enough time to accomplish what we want to. But that isn’t a problem of time as much as it is a problem of scheduling or a problem of priority. We can always “make time” for the things that matter most to us. And if we don’t “make time” for what we say matters most, then it’s fair to ask if it really matters as much as we say.
For example, we all agree that prayer is important. We know that the God of heaven commands us to pray and that He promises to hear us. But how many of us regularly take the time to pray? Prayer takes time—it doesn’t have to take a lot of time—but it takes some time or at least some effort. And there is always so much to do, and our minds are occupied by so much, that prayer gets forgotten and neglected.
In today’s text, Jesus calls us away from worldly distractions and toward spiritual discipline. Our text is a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In the section just before our text, Jesus talks about giving to the needy: “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mat. 6:3-4). Then He talks about prayer: “when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (v. 6). And then we have His encouragement to fast, to go without food for a time: “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
There is a clear pattern here. First of all, Jesus does not command the people to give to the needy, pray, and fast. He just expects that they will: “when you give,” “when you pray,” “when you fast.” Second He says that as much as possible, we should hide our giving, our praying, and our fasting. These things are not meant for the eyes of others. They are meant for the eyes of our Heavenly Father, who rewards us according to His grace. That’s His third point: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Perhaps the most surprising discipline on the list is fasting. You might have heard about how fasting can provide health benefits for adults without certain underlying conditions. I came across an “intermittent fasting” plan recently which suggests eating in an eight hour window each day and then fasting for sixteen hours to give the body time to burn fat.
But Jesus is speaking here about the spiritual benefits of fasting. This wasn’t a foreign concept to the people of the Bible. The Israelites often fasted in Old Testament times, and always on the Day of Atonement. In New Testament times, Luke tells us about the widow Anna, who “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luk. 2:37). John the Baptizer and his disciples fasted in preparation for the Messiah’s coming (Mar. 2:18).
Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness as He began His public work. The Christians in Antioch fasted when Barnabas and Saul were sent off as missionaries (Act. 13:2-3). And when pastors were appointed in Asia as a result of these mission efforts, we are told that “with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Act. 14:23).
So why don’t we all have the habit of fasting today? In part, it’s because we don’t want to demand something that God has not. He did not give a law of fasting in the Ten Commandments. But it may also be that we don’t fast because we never have; it is a foreign concept to us.
It hasn’t always been a foreign concept among Lutherans. Think of the words of our Catechism which are printed on the front of the bulletin: “Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training; but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the remission of sins’” (Proper Reception of the Sacrament).
We are right to say that fasting is not required, but that does not mean it is to be rejected. Luther wrote that “Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training.” What makes fasting “a fine outward training”? Fasting prepares us to receive. It uncovers our hunger. It reveals our weaknesses. It exposes the idols of our heart. The purpose of fasting is not to offer it to God as a good work, which is often the way “giving something up for Lent” is understood. Fasting is rather a preparation to receive the good gifts of God.
Jesus promises that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” God does not reward us because we are so deserving. He always rewards us according to His grace. The humbling of our body through fasting along with the humbling of our spirit in repentance is seen by our merciful Father. He knows who we are. He knows our needs and our struggles and our sorrows. And He knows exactly how to address them.
He sends His Son Jesus to come to our aid. Jesus lived a holy life for us, including perfectly caring for the needy, perfectly praying, and perfectly fasting. And He was forsaken and rejected by the Father and swallowed up by death, so that we would be delivered from God’s eternal wrath and punishment. Jesus brings us these gifts of His righteousness, forgiveness, and life when He comes to us in His Word and Sacraments.
Through these means, Jesus addresses the sin, the weakness, and the hunger that fasting exposes. He does not come to punish us or lecture us. He comes to heal us and comfort us and strengthen us. When Jesus comes, we receive exactly what we need. He never leaves us empty-handed. He fills us with the gifts of His grace, and He gives us a taste of the heavenly treasures that we will enjoy in fullness for all eternity.
We fast now in joyful anticipation of the feast to come.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “Jesus in Prison” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Fifth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Peter 3:8-15
In Christ Jesus, who comforts us in our fears with the sure hope of salvation and eternal life, dear fellow redeemed:
A struggling economy. An unemployment rate in double figures. Plummeting crop prices. Unrest all across the country. This was the setting in 1933 when President Roosevelt gave his inaugural address. In the very first paragraph, he spoke words that have been repeated many times since: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He said that the collective fear of the population is a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
He was on to something. He recognized that fear is not a thing we are made to feel or experience. It does not come at us from the outside; it wells up inside us. So for example, spiders or snakes do not possess the power to make you afraid. This is clear from the fact that not everyone is afraid of spiders or snakes. Those who are afraid of them don’t like the way they crawl or slither. They don’t like coming across them unprepared. But ultimately, these animals are just a very small part of God’s vast creation.
Sometimes our fears developed from a traumatic experience in our youth. This may explain the fear people have of going to the dentist or of sleeping without a light on. But dentists are not inherently bad, and the darkness of night does not mean you are unsafe. This is all clear enough in the daylight with no dentist’s chair, snake, or spider present. But that doesn’t stop us from being afraid when we do face these things.
We have other fears these days, some of the same ones that were on people’s minds during the Great Depression. The economy is struggling. People are out of work. Demonstrations and riots are taking place across the country. A virus is spreading. There seem to be more questions at hand than answers. It won’t do to have someone tell us to just stop being afraid. Fear is not something we can turn on and off like a light switch.
But it is possible to redirect our fear. This is very important today when fear threatens to overwhelm both us and the people in our communities. Fear can make us do irrational and harmful things. Have you ever injured yourself in an attempt to destroy a tiny spider? The effort probably did not match the enemy. Fear can make us overreact to perceived threats around us. If others will not share our fear, it is easy to go on the attack—turn our backs on them, demonize them, maybe even physically harm them or hope for something bad to happen to them.
The apostle Peter urges a different approach in the Spirit-inspired words of today’s text. He calls on us to seek unity, to be sympathetic, to love others like they are members of your family, to have compassion, to be humble. “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling,” he writes, “but on the contrary, bless.” Your neighbor is not your enemy. You are not called to fight him but to love him.
This of course is not easy. When we have been wronged, we don’t want to let someone off too easily. If we do, we are afraid that we will be wronged again. Or if we try to build bridges and make amends, we are afraid that our attempts will be rejected and our kindness thrown back in our face. But what we are afraid of more than anything is looking weak, taking the humble path, swallowing our pride, submitting to one another. This is difficult and even painful. Why should we have to do this?
We show love to our neighbors because it is right. It is the will of God, and His will is perfect. We are to “love our neighbors as ourselves” (Lev. 19:18). God has the authority to demand this of us because He is the only God. His First Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods.” This means that “we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things” (Luther’s explanation).
But what exactly does it mean to fear God? It means to fear His punishment if we sin against Him. This fear causes us to do one of two things. The first is to try to hide from Him like Adam and Eve tried to do. But as they learned, there is no way to hide from God. Peter attempted something like this when Jesus gave him and the other fishermen the great catch of fish. Seeing what had happened, “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’” (Luk. 5:8). Peter’s sin made him want to escape the Lord’s presence.
But the better way to deal with the fear of God’s punishment is to repent of our sins, to kneel before Him and put ourselves in His mercy. We might be able to hide our sins from others, but we cannot hide them from God. He already knows them, and He will have justice. He does not play games. The author of Hebrews writes that “[i]t is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). It would be terrifying to stand before Him without repentance and faith. Then all our sins would be brought up against us and held against us.
This is why He wants us to repent, repent of our lack of trust in Him, repent of our lack of love toward our neighbor, repent of our fearing so many things around us, but hardly fearing Him. And what does He do when we lay our hearts and minds open before Him? By admitting our wrongs, don’t we acknowledge that He has the right to punish us?
He does have that right, but He does not send His wrath upon the repentant. He gives His grace. Look how the Lord dealt with Peter. Peter had just admitted his sinfulness. He was terrified to be in the presence of the holy God and begged Jesus to leave. And the next words out of Jesus’ mouth were, “Do not be afraid” (Luk. 5:10).
This is how the Lord deals with each one of us. We have sinned against Him in so many ways, and He knows it! But His response is not to take revenge. It is not to demonize us or seek to harm us. His response is forgiveness. Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid of God’s wrath anymore because I took that righteous punishment for you. Do not be afraid that your Father in heaven will turn His back on you because He turned His back on Me instead. Do not be afraid of suffering in hell for your sins because I suffered hell for your sins.”
Because of what Jesus did, you are reconciled to God. He is not your enemy. He loves you. He seeks your good. Quoting Psalm 34, Peter writes that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayer.” God considers you righteous because you trust in His holy Son. His ears are wide open to you. He wants to hear your fears. He wants you to turn them over to Him—fears about your relationships, fears about your finances, fears about the future, fears about your health and life.
The Lord promises that He will not abandon you to these fears. He will not leave you even if the whole world turns against you. “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” asks Peter. “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” You are blessed in your suffering because the Lord is with you, and no evil can prevail against Him. The victory is already His over sin and death, world and devil. And that victory is yours by faith in your Savior Jesus.
You and I cannot control what may happen to us today or tomorrow or the next day. That can make us feel afraid; we like to be in control. But it is far better to put our trust in the Lord, to leave our lives in His control. He loves us with an unchanging love. He redeemed our lives by shedding His own precious blood. He graciously called us to faith so that we would become heirs of eternal life and salvation.
“Fear itself,” as President Roosevelt put it, is not the problem as much as what we fear. Our fear should be directed to the Lord alone. He is completely holy and just. He is all-powerful and knows all. He can end the troubles we face in a moment, or He can use them to shape us and to call us and those around us to repentance.
Whatever He does, we know that He does it out of love. Through Jesus our Savior, we do not need to fear His wrath or eternal punishment. The fear that makes us want to run and hide is replaced by the fear that loves Him, respects Him, and wants to “serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness” (Second Article explanation).
So we look to Him in this godly fear, entrusting our lives and our troubles and our futures to Him. And He looks upon us with grace as His own dear children and says, “fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10).
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 miraculous catch of fish by Raphael, 1515)
The Sunday after The Ascension – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Peter 4:7-11
In Christ Jesus, who when He ascended on high led a host of captives and gave gifts to men (Eph. 4:8), dear fellow redeemed:
On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember some of the major battles in America history and the heroic people who fought in them. To prepare them for the violent conflict to come, the commanding officer would remind them why they were there. He might invoke the principles of freedom, justice, and the cause of good to inspire them. He would urge them to take courage and not be afraid of the enemy. If each man did his part, victory would certainly be theirs.
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, He mustered His “troops” and gave them their “marching orders,” so to speak. His objective, however, was not physical conquest. The battle they were to engage in was a spiritual one. Their success and victory would not come by way of the sword, but by way of the Word. They were to make disciples for Jesus by baptizing and teaching all nations (Mat. 28:19-20). To equip them for this Jesus said, “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now,” and “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Act. 1:5,8).
Then Jesus was taken up from them into heaven. What was their next move now that their mighty Lord was no longer visibly present to lead them? They returned to Jerusalem and devoted themselves to prayer (Luk. 24:53, Act. 1:14). At this time, they certainly didn’t look like a force to be reckoned with. Their number was small, and no one expected much from them with Jesus out of the picture.
But then the Holy Spirit came upon them, which we will hear more about next weekend. On that Pentecost day, 3000 repented of their sin and were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The number of Christian disciples increased day after day, which alarmed the Jewish religious leaders and the governmental authorities. The Jewish leaders wanted the apostles to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. When threats did not work, they turned to violence (Act. 5:40). With their blessing, Saul led a persecution against the Christians beginning with the stoning of Stephen.
From the secular side, King Herod was also concerned with the growth of the Christian church. He wanted no unrest in his kingdom and wanted all honor and glory for himself. He did not want some Christian uprising to threaten his earthly authority. Herod got wrong what so many godless rulers have since. They see Christianity as a physical threat that must be suppressed by physical force. So Herod “laid violent hands” on some Christians and “killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Act. 12:1-2). He was glad to see that this pleased the Jews. But he was afraid of a violent reprisal from Christians. When he arrested the apostle Peter, he put him in prison and ordered four squads of soldiers to guard him.
And what were the Christians doing when this happened? Were they drawing up plans to sneak into the prison and overcome the guards? Were they sharpening their swords and knives for an attack? St. Luke writes that while Peter was in prison, “earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (Act. 12:5). That was the Christians’ response to this violence and trouble: they prayed. God answered their prayers for deliverance and sent an angel to release Peter from his chains and from prison.
Some years after this, Peter would record his First and Second Epistles. In today’s text from his First Epistle, he outlines what we might call “Marching Orders for the End Times.” The end times began when Jesus ascended into heaven. On that day, two angels told the disciples not to “stand looking into heaven,” and that Jesus “will come in the same way as you saw him go” (Act. 1:11). They told them He would return, but not right away.
Nearly 2000 years have passed since then, and Peter’s words are just as present and pressing now as ever: “The end of all things is at hand.” We are to live in expectation of Jesus’ return. We should constantly prepare for the last day. The clock is ticking. Our time and the world’s time are running out. But how exactly should we stay prepared?
We must “be self-controlled and sober-minded.” This means not letting the devil, the world, and our own flesh cloud our thinking. This happens when our plans are more important to us than God’s plan, when earthly riches mean more to us than heavenly riches, when personal pleasure and self-satisfaction keep our focus more than hearing God’s Word and doing His will.
We do not work to clear our minds of this clutter simply to feel more at peace or to “center ourselves” like the Eastern religions teach. We want clear and sober minds “for the sake of [our] prayers.” A mind distracted by worldly pursuits is not focused on the Lord and His promises. But when the Holy Spirit clears our minds by the power of the Word, we are ready to pray for our needs, for our fellow believers, and for all others. Time spent in humble prayer to the merciful God is never time wasted.
Besides prayer, God also calls us to “love one another earnestly” and to “show hospitality to one another.” Unbelievers generally expect believers to think and behave like they do, and in our sin we often do. But our light shines in the dark world when we do the unexpected. The world expects people to look out for themselves, to hold grudges, and to seek revenge. But God’s children love their neighbors as themselves, they forgive wrongs done against them, they respond with kindness when someone lashes out at them in anger or spite.
Peter writes that “love covers a multitude of sins.” If there were no love in us, think how many sins we could hold against others, big sins and little sins. The list would keep getting longer and longer. But then think how many sins God could bring up against us. We can’t imagine how long that list would be. No one has committed more sins against us than we have committed against God. And it’s not even close. But His love, in Christ, “covers a multitude of sins”—in fact, His love covers all of them.
This is what makes us willing and eager to take “marching orders” from the Lord. We know what He has done for us. We know the battle He had to fight to save us. We know what it cost. The God-Man Jesus had to suffer the eternal fires of hell in our place. He had to accept the full payment of God’s wrath for sin. He had to die.
If He was willing to do that to redeem you, to redeem me, that means we are not expendable in His eyes. He’s not going to send us to the front lines in a futile attempt to slow the enemy’s advance. He leads the way into battle. He fights for us and with us. He destroys the devil’s plans through His powerful Word, which motivates and guides our prayers and our lives of love. Wherever our love falls short, as it often has, His does not. His love covers over and hides our sins. Because our sins were put on Jesus, our heavenly Father does not find them on us anymore.
Forgiven of our sins, we are now able to approach the Father’s throne in confident prayer and to share His love with those around us. By His grace He bestows gifts upon us to use in service to others. But what gifts do we have? They are different for every person. No two people are alike in every way, having the same interests and abilities.
The Lord has equipped each of us in our vocations, our callings, to serve the people in our lives. What drives some people to serve is the recognition and thanks they receive. And if they are not recognized, they regret their service. But the good things we are able to do are not our own. We did not make these good things possible. We are not in control of their success.
God gives us our particular gifts like a master gives his goods to a servant. The servant does not take credit for the goods. He did not earn them or build them up. They belong to his master. He is simply a steward of the goods. He is given the job of management. So however the Lord has equipped you and whatever good you do, the glory belongs to Him and not to you. You are a steward of the gifts God graciously gives. You do not need to seek recognition for the things you do. You already have God’s approval in Christ, who lived a life of perfect love and service in your place. That perfect life is credited to you by faith in Him.
So these are the Christian’s Marching Orders for the End Times: pray, love, and serve in the name of Jesus. This kind of life will put you at odds with the world, which means you should expect to suffer. But you will not suffer alone. Your great and mighty King is with you in the conflict. He strengthens you when you are feeling faint and weak and are not sure you can carry on. He graciously forgives you and reinstates you by His Word of absolution when you fall into sin and desert your post. And He promises to relieve you from this struggle at the appointed time. He will come again in the same way the disciples saw Him go to take you to be with Him forever.
Not much has changed since the time that Peter wrote his epistle. The enemies are the same, and the sufferings and sorrows of this battle are the same. But our Lord’s commitment to us is the same too. His power to overcome whatever rises against us and His love and care for us as we struggle is unchanged. His promise to be with us and strengthen us is unchanged. His triumph over the forces of evil arrayed against us is unchanged.
We are safe and secure in Him. We are on the winning side. He has given us the victory by faith in Him, and we will soon have our rest in His heavenly kingdom. “To Him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
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(picture from “Jesus Discourses with His Disciples” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Sixth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: James 1:22-27
In Christ Jesus, whose Word is truth and whose Way is salvation, dear fellow redeemed:
For many in our society, “religion” has become a dirty word. When they hear this word, they think about things like restriction, corruption, abuse of power, rules, and judgment. They do not like “religion,” but they do like the sound of “spirituality.” This has led many today to speak of themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” What this typically means is that they reject church-going, since that is “organized religion.” They prefer to meet God on their own terms. They think it is important to think about God, but how you think about God is up to you. The so-called “spiritual” person imagines that he is closer to God in nature or even on his living room sofa than he could ever be in a church building.
To a certain extent we can understand the misgivings about “religion.” We cannot deny that much harm has been done to people within organized religion. Some church leaders have abused their power and their trust. They have failed to warn the unrepentant and to comfort the hurting. Some church members have engaged in grudges, personal attacks, and mud-slinging and have hardly looked like the people that God has called them to be.
The self-proclaimed “spiritual” are glad to avoid that scene. They aren’t about to have anyone tell them what to believe or what to do. They don’t need a “middle man”—they can just go directly to God. But who is this god? Many in the “spiritual but not religious” category describe him as a god of love, a god who supports them, who is always there when they need him. He does not judge them but gives them room to make their own choices. He is a god who cares more about their feelings than their faith—how they feel about themselves, how they feel about others, and how they feel about him. In other words, this god is a god of their own making, which is ironic since they reject “religion” as being man-made.
It is true that there are many man-made religions in the world. “Religion” is a rather broad term. One definition describes it as: “The outward act or form by which men indicate their recognition of the existence of a god or of gods having power over their destiny, to whom obedience, service, and honor are due” (Webster’s 1913 Dictionary). One could argue that every person has a religion—a set of beliefs about the universe and their place in it. But not all religious beliefs are the same and not all are good and true.
We follow the Christian religion, which is based on the Bible. Christianity is like other religions of the world in that it teaches about God and sets down laws to follow. But in its central teaching, Christianity could not be any more different. The religions of the world outline what we must do to hopefully get right with God. Christianity is about how God made things right with us by sending His only Son to suffer and die in our place.
This is why you are a Christian. You know you are a sinner, and that no matter how hard you try, you cannot make things right with God. You know that you deserve eternal punishment in hell for your sins. But you also know that all your sins are forgiven because Jesus paid for them in full on the cross. You know that all the blemishes and stains of your past are completely covered by the righteousness of Jesus. You know that eternal life in heaven is yours by faith in Him. No other religion offers such comfort and peace with God.
The good news of Christianity is also the power source for living a godly life. As we hear the Word of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is at work in us strengthening our faith and sanctifying us, so that the love of God shines through us into the world. The devil does not want the world to know God’s love, so he works to make our love grow cold. He tempts us to become complacent about hearing and learning the Word, to let down our guard, to focus on how others should serve us instead of how we can serve them.
This can happen even to those who regularly partake of the means of grace like you are here today. Even though you hear God’s Word and receive His Sacraments, you can become comfortable doing what God tells you not to do. You can ignore the needs of the people around you. You can become resentful when your needs are not met. You can give free rein to thoughts of hatred, jealousy, lust, and pride. And all of this while still considering yourself a “good Christian.”
This is why the inspired writer of today’s text urges believers in Christ to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” God has called us out of the darkness of unbelief to the light of His truth and salvation. Through Holy Baptism, He joined us with our Savior Jesus, so that we now “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). We are not what we used to be. We are not of the world. We are born of God.
There are plenty of people who give organized religion a bad name. We want to give it a good name. But how? “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Christians have set themselves apart throughout history by the way they have treated the lonely, the weak, and the hurting. They have often led the way in medical care, education, and social services. They have sacrificed their own ambitions and put their own lives at risk in service to others.
This is what God calls us to do as His children. He calls us to dedicate ourselves fully to love for others, to live humble and honorable lives that lead others to know the hope we have in Christ. What better time could there be to share this hope than now? The world is consumed by fear about what the future will hold. “Will I or my loved ones get sick? Will I have enough money to buy what I need? Will the economy rebound?” And then there is the constant bickering and name-calling among those who are convinced their political party is guided by angels while the other is steered by demons.
What do we have to fear since Jesus has defeated sin, death, and devil for us? And why would we put our hopes in men when our Lord and Savior rules over all things at the Father’s right hand? This courage and confidence we have in Christ is what we want all people to have. We want them to know God is filled with abundant grace and mercy toward them. He does not count their sins against them anymore because Jesus died in their place and rose again from the dead. He will come again on the last day to take all who trust in Him to heaven.
This is no man-made religion. These are no empty words. These are the words of salvation and life that God has given us by His grace. But the people of the world will not listen to these words unless we take them seriously. They don’t just want to hear us “talk the talk,” they want to see us “walk the walk.” You can tell them that you go to church every week. But if the way you live your life is no different than the way unbelievers live their lives, why should they take your words seriously?
But “walking the walk” is not easy. People do not appreciate their bad behavior being magnified by your good behavior. It’s easier on their conscience if you join them in evil. And then there is the constant struggle inside ourselves between the desires of our flesh and the desires of the Spirit (Gal. 5:17). It is hard to keep the sinful nature restrained.
Thanks be to God we are not on our own in trying to do what is right! Unlike the misguided people who think they can find God by their own efforts or thoughts, we know that we cannot go to Him. Our sin keeps us from even getting close. But He gladly comes to us. He comes to us through the Word and Sacraments which we partake of in this place. He comes to forgive us for our failure to confess Him by our words and our actions. And He comes to strengthen us for continued service in His kingdom.
This is how your “doing” as a Christian is always connected to your “hearing” of God’s Word. As you hear the powerful Word with a humble and faithful heart, the Holy Spirit is working to put your faith in action. He is the one who produces good works, good words, and good thoughts toward others. It is by His power that you look to serve others instead of just yourself, that you speak what is kind instead of what is hurtful, that you are guarded from the temptations and forces that would ruin your faith.
It is only by His power that you are able to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mat. 5:44), as Jesus calls you to do. One of the most important ways for you to be a doer of the word and not a hearer only, is through prayer. Much “doing” is done by prayer, because prayer brings a difficult situation or a need to the all-powerful God, the One for whom nothing is impossible.
You are not on your own as you “walk the walk” of a godly life. You have the encouragement of your brothers and sisters in Christ as they walk alongside of you. And you have the assurance that Jesus is leading the way. He walked before you to the cross and the grave before rising to life again. And he still walks before you to guide you on the paths of righteousness until you join Him in His heavenly kingdom.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “Jesus and the Little Child” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
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!”
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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.
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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.”
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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)