The Fifth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 5:1-11
In Christ Jesus, who by the power of His Word “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20), dear fellow redeemed:
About the middle of this past week when I was attending our church camp with the youth, Kristin asked me if my time there seemed like work or like a getaway. As much as I enjoy camp—and we do have a good time—I told her that we pastors stay very busy with teaching, preaching, and chaperoning. And it’s not always clear what effect our efforts have. Do the campers leave camp with a clearer understanding of Law and Gospel? Have they grown in their faith? Has their love for God and for each other increased? Those things are difficult to measure.
We live in a results-driven society where everything gets measured. The success of a sports franchise is determined by how many titles it has won. Businesses are constantly doing cost and profit analyses to find their way in the market. Individuals are judged by their grades and their personal accomplishments. Even churches fall into the “results” trap and measure the effectiveness of their mission by their attendance totals or by how significant their financial holdings are.
Judged by this kind of standard, we would conclude that Simon, James, and John were not the greatest fishermen. They worked all through the night and didn’t catch a thing. What was the problem? Were their methods faulty? Had they chosen the wrong parts of the lake? Did they try at the wrong time? What exactly was keeping them from success?
But the message of today’s Gospel is not a tutorial from Jesus about how to maximize one’s success at fishing or anything else. The message is that no matter what skill and effort we might apply in our work, no matter what plans we make and what success we have had in the past, we cannot accomplish anything good apart from God’s mercy and the blessing of His Word.
The fishermen hadn’t done anything wrong in their approach to catching fish. They had been fishing for a long time, probably since they were kids. They wouldn’t stay up all night fishing unless they felt confident that the fish they would catch would outweigh the lack of sleep. They couldn’t explain why their nets came up empty. For whatever reason, the fish just weren’t there. They must have felt frustrated as they cleaned their nets on the shore. And tired.
But then something happened to take their attention away from their troubles. A great crowd had gathered on the lake shore. The people were listening to Jesus, that prophet from Nazareth, whom John the Baptizer identified as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Joh. 1:29). Everyone wanted to hear Jesus and get a good look at Him, so they pressed toward Him. It was similar to how people act around a famous person today, all crowding in to get a picture or an autograph.
Jesus decided that a change was needed, so the people could focus on His Word and not on how close they could get to Him. He saw fishing boats on the shore and asked Simon to take Him out a little ways. From His place in the boat, He continued teaching with Simon sitting there listening. When He was done speaking, He told Simon to row to a deeper part of the lake and let down his nets for a catch.
Conventional wisdom said that if the fish couldn’t be caught the previous night, they certainly couldn’t be caught that day. Simon said to Jesus, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” But he had been listening to what Jesus was saying that morning. He recognized that Jesus was a prophet of some sort. “[A]t Your word I will let down the nets,” he said.
He was shocked to see the fish swarming, the nets breaking, and the boats filling. Simon cast out the nets just as he had the night before. The method hadn’t changed. But now he had an abundance of fish whereas before he had none. What was the difference? The difference was the Word of Jesus. Jesus spoke the Word, and He gave the increase. Jesus gave success to Simon. Jesus put fish in the boats.
This should teach us to put our trust in the Lord’s Word. Look at what His Word accomplished! It moved the disciples to action even after their previous efforts had failed. It filled the nets that before had come up empty. And it caused them to leave behind their historic haul of fish to follow Jesus. His Word continues to do amazing things like these each and every day. The problem is that we don’t recognize the hand God has in supplying our daily needs and giving us success.
We imagine that our work succeeds because of how gifted we are and because of how hard we try. “Look at what I have accomplished,” we think. “Look at what my hands have built.” But if we take all the glory for our successes, don’t we deserve all the blame for our failures? That’s not often how it goes. We are glad to receive praise for the good things, but we quickly pass the blame for the bad things.
Or maybe we do see our failure in earthly things as proof that we are no good. We imagine that God frowns on us and that He must be punishing us. We approach our work with a defeatist attitude. “Why should I even try? It isn’t going to work anyway. If it failed once, it will certainly fail again.”
Both of those perspectives are sinful—the idea that everything good we have is a result of our efforts, and the idea that we’re better off not trying anymore when we have failed. Simon was right to fall down before Jesus and acknowledge his sins. Each of us should do the same. We should recognize and acknowledge every day that we are sinners.
When our prideful or despairing hearts have been pierced by the Law of God, the difference between His holiness and our sinfulness couldn’t be more obvious. We see that even our best moments in life did not put us close to the glory of God. The thought that we could ever be good enough to get ourselves to heaven is an outright lie of the devil, and it destroys saving faith.
Simon had just pulled in the greatest catch of fish that he had ever seen, but when he realized what had happened, his eyes shifted to Jesus. And when he saw Jesus, he felt as though all his sins were laid bare before the almighty God. He wanted to hide. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” he said. “I am not worthy to be in Your presence. I am not worthy to receive Your gifts.”
Simon was right about that. But Jesus did not leave him. He said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Simon did not have to fear the wrath of God. Jesus had come to save sinners. He had come to atone for Simon’s sins and to give Simon special work—the work of preaching the Word of Jesus. Jesus’ Word which had filled Simon’s nets with fish would also fill God’s nets with repentant believers.
This is a net you want to be caught in, and which you are in through the saving Word. You were lost in the darkness, living without hope or a purpose like so many in the world today. And God drew you to Himself with the net of His Word. He called you out of darkness. He brought you forgiveness and life in the calm waters of Baptism. He claimed you as His own, and He still claims you.
But as you look back through your life, you know how much time you have wasted in pursuing your own plans. You know how prideful you have been when you have done well, and how you have failed to give glory to God for your success. And you know how easily you have given up when everything didn’t work out just the way you wanted. What kind of servant are you in the Lord’s kingdom? Why should He look kindly upon you? You can understand why Simon said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid; I forgive you all your sins. I died and rose again for you. I will not depart from you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” His Word of grace restores you. It lifts you out of your sin and despair. It shifts your focus from the gifts to the Giver, from your successes to your Savior, from the nets full of blessings to the One who fills them.
And when you recognize that The Word of God Gives the Increase, then you are ready for the work He has called you to do. You are ready to give your best to your family and your employer, knowing that God has called you to these vocations and will bless your efforts. You are ready to work humbly, knowing that you do not deserve either the opportunities you have or the success.
All the good things you have in this life and in the life to come are from the powerful Word of God. The Word He has spoken makes the sun shine, the rain fall, and the plants grow. His Word brought about your existence through the union of your parents and keeps you going. His Word gives life all around the world. Hebrews 1 says that the Son of God “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (v. 3). And His Word brought the light of faith to your heart and makes your faith strong.
The Word of God can do what we consider impossible. It works even when the conditions don’t seem right and conventional wisdom says it will fall flat. The Word changes hearts. It comforts consciences. It is always effective. That means as the Word continues to be in your ears, in your mind, and in your heart, God will bring blessings in all that you do.
These blessings are not measurable according to the standards of the world. God’s Word may not appear to make much difference. But God is constantly at work through His Word. He promises that His Word will not return to Him empty, and that He will continue to give us blessing upon blessing each and every day.
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 Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 1:19-28
In Christ Jesus, who freely gives us everything we need for this life and for the life to come, dear fellow redeemed:
The internet gives anyone the ability to connect with a worldwide audience. There are many stories about people who went from total unknowns to walking the red carpet, because they found something to do that others wanted to follow. Imagine if that happened to you. Let’s say you shared something online, maybe a joke or a creative idea or good advice. You thought your friends would appreciate it, but you didn’t expect it to go any further than that. Then others you had never met started reacting to it and sharing it. Before long it had been shared 100 times, then 1,000 times, then 10,000.
How would that make you feel? After getting past the shock, you might start to think about how you could produce more of the same. Receiving such praise would be quite an emotional high, quite an encouragement. It’s nice to be liked. It’s nice to have others validate that there is something special about you, and that you have got a lot to offer. But there are pitfalls here, pitfalls like pride and arrogance. You know what it’s like when an acquaintance or friend gets a little taste of success and then acts like you don’t exist anymore. But when they come back down to earth, then they want to talk to you again.
It’s hard to know how we would react to sudden fame. We hope that we would come away looking like John the Baptizer does in today’s text. John’s star had risen quickly. Once he started preaching his bold message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mat. 3:2), the people started gathering. The crowd got bigger and bigger until the evangelist Matthew could report that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mat. 3:5-6).
How many baptisms did John do? Do you suppose he kept count? His ministry in the wilderness was so popular that even the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, came to the Jordan River to be baptized (v. 7). That would be enough to go to anyone’s head. John could look around the crowd and see people hanging on his every word. There were the religious leaders deep in thought. There were the armor-clad soldiers with their heads bowed, listening intently. There were the rich and famous nodding approvingly. There were the young ladies batting their eyelashes and flashing warm smiles.
“Oh, what a great preacher I am! Everyone wants to be connected to me!” Is that what John thought? We cannot say what John was thinking. He was a sinner, so it’s hard to imagine that no pride entered his heart. But what he said was all humility. Today’s text shows us the exchange between John and a group of priests and Levites from Jerusalem. These religious leaders came with a simple enough question for John: “Who are you?” But behind the question was the suggestion that he might be the Christ. Probably many in the crowd were wondering the same thing.
Just think what an opportunity this could have been for John. If he let the people imagine he was the Christ, he could have asked anything from them: money, privileges, power. He could have had them eating out of his hand. Instead he confessed: “I am not the Christ.” Well then, was he Elijah come from heaven, that great Old Testament prophet? “I am not,” he said. Was he the Prophet whose coming was foretold by Moses? “No,” he answered.
Claiming any of those titles would have increased his popularity among the people. But John resisted this temptation. “I am nothing,” he said. “I am nothing but a voice.” “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” When Jesus was revealed as the Messiah and some of John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus, John was not jealous. He knew his purpose was to prepare the way for the Savior. It was not to be in the spotlight. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Joh. 3:30), said John.
To leave no room for misunderstanding, the Gospel writer emphatically underscores John’s faithful testimony about Jesus. He wrote that John “confessed, and did not deny, but confessed.” Now often we think of confession in terms of “going to confession,” or admitting our sins. But the word in the Greek language is more general. It means “to speak the same word” or “to speak in agreement.” When we confess our sins, we speak in agreement with what God’s law says about our sinful condition and our wrongs. When we confess the truth, we speak in agreement with what God has promised and fulfilled.
John confessed the truth about himself and about the Savior. “I am not the Christ,” he said. “[B]ut among you stands One you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” “If you think I’m special,” said John, “wait till you see the coming One! I’m not even worthy to touch His feet and loosen the strap on His sandal!”
John could not properly confess Christ without also confessing something about himself. He could not point out Christ’s holiness without admitting his own unworthiness. He could not shine the light on Jesus without stepping back in the shadows. To make himself out to be more would have been to steal glory from the incarnate Son of God.
But what John did does not come naturally to us. It does not come naturally to deflect praise away from ourselves. We like the spotlight on us, especially when we have accomplished something impressive. We like to be recognized for our good deeds and honored for our success. We like to hear people say, “We could never get along without you!” “You make everything better!” “Nobody could do as well as you have!” “We need more people like you!”
Now it certainly isn’t wrong to be recognized for doing good things. It is important for parents and teachers and employers to build up and congratulate those under their authority. And if you are on the receiving end of praise, it is appropriate to receive it graciously and be grateful for it. But the devil is waiting in the wings. When you are praised, he wants you to think that you are just getting what you deserve. You earned it. You are so very talented. You really are better than others. “Soak it up!” he says. “Command the stage! This is your moment! Pat yourself on your back and give yourself a round of applause!”
That’s the temptation: to take the glory for yourself that belongs to God alone. After all, who is it that gave you your body and soul, eyes, ears and all your members, your reason and all your senses, and still preserves them (Third Article)? Every good thing you possess and every good thing you are able to do can be traced back to God’s work for you, in you, and through you. That’s why John said he was only a “voice.” Even the words that he spoke were God’s words and not his own.
This is why we must “confess, and not deny, but confess,” that we are nothing on our own. Apart from God, we can produce nothing that matters, nothing that will last. Even those who think they have “made it” in this life eventually realize that their fame or power or riches are only temporary. Soon they are going to die, and then they will be forgotten.
Jesus came to save you from all that emptiness and hopelessness. He came to free you from the pressure of having to prove that you are valuable, that your life has a purpose. He came to free you from the burden of a million missed opportunities, a life of regret for not making it big. He came to free you from the temptation of trampling others to try to get to the top.
Everything that you have failed to be, Jesus is for you. He is your goodness. He is your success. He is your life of perfect decisions and no regrets. You are not worthy to loosen His sandal strap, and yet He came down to earth to serve you. He came to atone for your sins of arrogance and pride, for your failure to give Him the glory and the praise for all the good you have and do.
His love for you brought Him down to earth. Sometimes like John, He drew big crowds, but that isn’t why He came. He did not care about earthly popularity. He cared about your soul and the soul of every sinner. He came to offer Himself in your place. He came to endure God’s wrath for your sin and suffer the torments of hell, so you wouldn’t have to. He came to win your forgiveness and eternal life.
Jesus’ greatness was in His sacrifice. His glory was in His humility. We honor Him by living our life in the same way. We sacrifice our own goals and ambitions for the good of those around us, and we humbly serve with no expectation of reward. We need no reward beyond what we already have by faith in Him.
Like John, we at all times keep our focus on Jesus. We live for Him. We hope in Him. If we are praised, we give Him the glory. As John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Joh. 3:30). It isn’t about what we might make of ourselves, but what Jesus has done for us. We Confess Him, Only and Always. And He promises this: “[E]veryone who acknowledges [or confesses] me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God” (Luk. 12:8).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1565)
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 10:23-37
In Christ Jesus, whose love and mercy led Him to sacrifice Himself for all people, dear fellow redeemed:
You have heard in recent decades about the effort to remove the Ten Commandments from public places, places like courthouses and schools. Critics argue that we need to keep church and state separate. Their issue ultimately isn’t with the Commandments themselves, though they probably aren’t too fond of those. Their issue is with the God who gave those Commandments. They do not acknowledge His authority or even His existence.
At the same time, those critics are hard-pressed to come up with a better set of laws. Let’s suppose they adopted their own rules which were the exact opposite of God’s Commandments. This is how they would sound:
- You shall have many gods.
- You shall not treat these gods with respect.
- You shall not listen to these gods.
- You shall not honor parents or any other authority.
- You shall not respect your neighbor’s life.
- You shall not respect marriage or be faithful to your vows.
- You shall not respect your neighbor’s possessions.
- You shall not respect your neighbor’s reputation.
- You shall not be glad for your neighbor’s prosperity.
- You shall not be glad for your neighbor’s success.
How would society look if those were the laws that governed us? We would have chaos. People would only worry about their own plans. It would be “every man for himself.” No one would care about his neighbor. The world would be a violent, scary, unhappy place—much, much worse than it already is. It would be a world without love.
And that is what is so important about the Ten Commandments. They are God’s Law of love, love toward Him and toward our neighbors. This is exactly how the Commandments are summarized in today’s text. An expert in the Mosaic Law approached Jesus and asked what it is a person must do to gain heaven. Jesus told him to share his understanding of the Law. The man said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
That was a correct summary of the Ten Commandments. The first three are about love for God. The last seven are about love for neighbor. The problem with the man talking to Jesus, and the problem with so many today, is that they actually think they have loved God and others as they should. They think they have kept God’s Law.
So Jesus told about the man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who was stripped, beaten, and left for dead. A priest came by and did not help him. Neither did a Levite, a worker in the temple. Help came from a most unlikely place. A Samaritan came by, tended to the man’s wounds, and ensured that he would be nursed back to health. The Samaritans and Jews did not like each other, and yet here a Samaritan man was going far out of his way to help a Jewish man.
You and I may think to ourselves that we would have done the same. Maybe we can even give examples of how we went out of our way to help someone less fortunate than ourselves. Or maybe we could point to the amount of time and money we have committed to charitable causes. Those certainly are good things.
But how willing are we to share examples of times we did not help a neighbor in need, times we did not show love? Maybe you are always ready to drop anything to help a friend or neighbor. But are you so ready to help the neighbors you live with—your wife or husband, your children, your parents? Or how eager are you to help the person who hardly seems to try to help himself?
There are times in life when our love for others has shined. And maybe we did not even think about being recognized or rewarded for our work. Other times we have done our duty toward others but not gladly. And sometimes because of our selfishness and pride we have shown no love at all.
If we honestly size up our life according to the Ten Commandments, we don’t end up looking very good. In fact, the Law does a number on us like the robbers did to the man on the way to Jericho. The Law is relentless. It commands love and does not stop pushing us along and throwing us back in line until we have kept it perfectly. This is why many try to ignore the Law or get rid of it altogether. The Law hurts, because we do not love like we should.
But the Law is not the only Word God speaks to us. He loves us. Here we are, stripped, beaten, cast down by the Law—His Law, which we have not kept—and He had compassion on us. He sent His only Son to rescue us. That’s who we should see in the Samaritan who went to great lengths to help the wounded man. We should see Jesus.
Jesus took responsibility for what got us into trouble in the first place. He was born under the holy Law, so that He could keep it for us. The Law did not expose His shortcomings and beat Him down, because He was perfect. He perfectly loved God with His heart, soul, strength, and mind, and He loved His neighbor as Himself. Examples of this love are abundant in the Gospels. He did not ignore a neighbor in need.
Sometimes love required that He condemn the Pharisees and scribes. Love does not mean affirming people in whatever choices they make. Love includes pointing out sin, so that a person recognizes his or her need for salvation. Jesus did this. He condemned self-righteousness (Mat. 23:27-28), sexual immorality (Joh. 4:16-18, 8:11, Mat. 19:9), disrespect for authority (Mar. 7:9-13), and many other sins. In today’s text and a number of other places, Jesus clearly spoke of the Ten Commandments as God’s will for the moral conduct of all people.
He fulfilled these Commandments which condemn each and every one of us. His holy life covers over even the most sinful life. And His death on the cross accomplished the complete satisfaction for all sin. So if the Law is fulfilled and sin is forgiven through Jesus, why does it matter how we live anymore? Why can’t we do whatever we like, since Jesus did everything needed for our salvation?
It is because salvation comes only to the believing, and faith lives only in the hearts of the penitent. Faith cannot survive in those who embrace sin, who take pride in breaking God’s Commandments. Faith cannot endure in the heart of one who shows no love for God or neighbor. Whoever thinks he loves, but does not repent of his sin and believe in Jesus as His Savior, does not love as God commands. He loves in line with His own desires, His own designs, and “the wrath of God remains on him” (Joh. 3:36).
But salvation does come to those who recognize their sin and repent of it. They know they have not kept God’s Law as He requires. They see they are dying in their sin and cannot stop the bleeding. But they also see Jesus, Him who took the punishment for their sin, who hung bleeding on the cross, so that they would not die in misery.
This is what Jesus did for you. He shed His blood, so that your sins would all be blotted out and washed away. He shed His blood, so that life would come to your dying body. He shed His blood, so that your heart of faith would be healthy and strong. He shed His blood, so that His love would flow through you and lead you to love others as He has loved you.
You have nothing to boast of about yourself. There is no place for pride. No matter how loudly the culture shouts it, Pride and Love Cannot Coexist. Pride is inward. It is focused on one’s own pleasure, one’s own happiness, one’s own glory. Love is outward. It focuses on the needs of others and the good that can be done for them.
God calls us to love as He has loved. Paul wrote that Jesus “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2Co. 5:15). This love of God in Christ is a great love, an unfathomable love. On our own, we cannot come close to loving like this. But God helps us to do better and to love more. Through the Law, He keeps us humble and guides us to sacrifice for the people He has placed in our life.
But the power to do His will does not come from the Law; it comes from the Gospel. Through the Gospel in His Word and Sacraments, Jesus equips us for this blessed work. He comes to bind up the wounds of our sins by bringing us forgiveness, and He nourishes and strengthens us by feeding us with His life-giving body and blood. The Holy Spirit also comes through the Gospel to sanctify us and cause fruits of faith to grow for the benefit of our neighbors.
Like the Samaritan did for the dying man, the Lord makes provision for all our spiritual needs. Whatever we need, He supplies. He takes care of us, so that we can be healthy and productive for our neighbors who struggle and suffer and hurt as we have and still sometimes do. Jesus blesses us with the gifts of His love, so that in Him and Him alone, eternal life is ours.
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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(“Parable of the Good Samaritan” painting by Jan Wijnants, 1632-1684)