The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 3:15-22
In Christ Jesus, in whom “all the promises of God find their Yes” (2Co. 1:20), dear fellow redeemed:
It is election season in our country, which means it is a time when politicians make a lot of promises. Some of those promises are within their power to carry out if they are elected. Other promises they only hope they can keep. Still other promises are made to score political points, but there is really no follow through to fulfill them. A politician makes these promises to secure votes. In other words, he is willing to give something in order to get something in return.
That doesn’t sound very impressive, but a lot of our promises are like that. We promise to give our best on the field or court or in the classroom, and we expect our good effort to be recognized. We promise to work hard for an employer, and we expect to be treated well in return. We promise to be faithful to our spouse, and we expect their faithfulness to us. When we know our promises will be rewarded, it is easier for us to keep them.
It is much harder to keep our promises when the person we have made a promise to proves unworthy of it. Then we might try to go back and adjust our promise. “What I really meant was that I promise to do this or that if you meet my conditions, or as long as I am happy with you.” Experiencing betrayals and hurts might also cause us to adjust our promises on the front end. This has happened with marriage vows in certain places where “as long as we both shall live” has been changed to “as long as we still love each other.” But a conditional promise is really no promise at all.
A true promise is difficult business. A true promise puts us in another person’s debt. It commits us to serve them in some way, and service always requires sacrifice. Making a promise conditional or making no promises at all is much “safer,” so to speak. But that is not the way we have been taught by God. That is the way of selfishness, not the way of love.
Our gracious and merciful Lord does not make conditional promises. He does exactly what He says He will do. The promise that Paul writes about in today’s Epistle is the promise God made to Abraham after Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen. 22:15-18). But although it included a formal covenant, it wasn’t really a new promise. At its core, it pointed to an old promise, the promise of salvation for sinners. God first made this promise to Adam and Eve after they fell into sin.
When you read the account of the fall in Genesis chapter 3, you might expect to find Adam and Eve asking God what they could do to get right with Him again. Or you might expect God to give them some incentive to be better and prove themselves to Him. Neither of those things happens. First He makes the promise that the Seed of the woman will crush the serpent’s head (3:15). Then He outlines the consequences that man and woman will face because of their sins (vv. 16-19). No impression is given that the fulfillment of God’s promise to save is dependent on how well Adam and Eve carried out their callings in a sinful world.
The same goes for Abraham. The LORD called Abraham away from the idol worship of his father’s house. Abraham in no way deserved God’s favor, but the LORD chose him as an ancestor of the promised Messiah and gave him faith to believe the promise (Gen. 15:6). Even Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son at God’s command did not cause God to keep His promise.
If God’s promise to send a Savior depended on the world’s worthiness to receive this gift, no Savior would have ever come. The LORD did not negotiate terms for sending a Savior like Abraham did for saving Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham asked God to spare those wicked cities if only fifty righteous people were found there and then forty-five righteous ones and then thirty and then twenty and then ten (Gen. 18:22-33).
If the LORD had said He would save the world as long as fifty percent were righteous or even ten percent of the population, we would have no Savior. By nature, “None [of us] is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). The LORD’s promise was not conditional like this. His promise did not depend on our character and our actions. It depended entirely on His holy will and His immeasurable love for us sinners.
This is why He kept His promise even though so many had despised His promise and so few were looking for its fulfillment. “[W]hen the fullness of time had come—when the time had come to fulfill the promise—, God sent forth his Son” (Gal. 4:4). God the Father sent His Son to be born into the world of men, to be subject to the holy Law, to endure terrible injustice, suffering, and pain, and to die at the hands of sinners.
If anyone had the right to change a promise because the recipients of the promise were obviously unworthy, it is God. But God did not change His promise. He kept it. He sent His only-begotten Son to die alone for the sins of the whole world. Jesus died for everyone, even for those who hate Him and His Word, for those who bow down at the altars of worldly power and pleasure and riches, for the murderers, abusers, thieves, liars, and cheats. He died for all people past, present, and future who sin. That means He died for you and me.
Besides rejecting the salvation He won, the worst thing we can do is act like we contribute toward our salvation. Many people fall into this error, including many Christians. They say things like this: “Jesus did His part, and now I have to do mine.” Or, “Jesus died for my sins, and now I have to prove I am worthy of His sacrifice.” Or comfortless statements like these, “God helps those who help themselves.”
Jesus did not fulfill the Law and die for your sins just to have the Law placed on your shoulders again. Keeping the Law does not complete your salvation or give you another way to obtain salvation. This is St. Paul’s emphasis in today’s text. He said that God gave the promise of salvation to Abraham 430 years before He gave the Law through Moses. The giving of the Law did not annul God’s covenant of grace. It did not make the promise of salvation through faith void. Paul wrote that “if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.”
You know this. You know you are saved by grace and not by works. You know that your inheritance of heaven comes by God’s promise alone. But the devil and your own flesh want to tempt you away from this certainty and get you to focus on the things you do or don’t do. So you might watch the news and think you are better than the rioters and looters. You would never behave like that! You follow the rules. You lend a helping hand. You prove every day how much more kind and loving you are than others.
Do you see the problem? Thinking so much about your own good deeds plants you in the ground of the Law. The only fruit you can bear there is self-righteousness and pride or else despair. But looking to your Savior in humility and faith plants you firmly in His promise. God did not give the Law so you could compare your righteousness with others. He gave the Law “because of transgressions,” as Paul writes. He gave the Law to humble you, to show you how far you have fallen short.
And He gave His promise to save you, to show you how deep His love is for you. No matter how often you have messed up, no matter what terrible words you have said or thoughts you have imagined toward others, God’s promise of your forgiveness has not changed. He does not say that the shed blood of Jesus takes away only minor infractions, or only benefits the people who show they are worthy. He says that “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1Jo. 1:7).
You may feel like the most wretched sinner the world has ever known. You might hardly hope for peace with God because of your many sins. You may carry the burden of a million failures. But God says, “As surely as My holy Son died on the cross and rose again, your sins are forgiven. Your record is completely clean. Salvation is yours.”
God kept His promise to send a Savior, which means there is nothing you have to do to be saved. But what about the example of the Good Samaritan? Isn’t Jesus teaching us that we have to be kind and merciful toward those around us? He is. He is teaching us about love, which is the summary of His Law. But He is not teaching that salvation is earned by our love toward others.
Salvation was earned by His love. He is our Good Samaritan who saved us from our sin and death. Our love for Him and others comes as a response to His love, as a living sacrifice of thankfulness for what He has done. “We love because he first loved us” (1Jo. 4:19). As soon as we try to add our love to the equation of our salvation, then salvation becomes uncertain, because we do not love as God commands us to do. Paul writes: “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
God has not changed His mind about you or the rest of the sinners of the world. He has not voided the work His Son did to save you. He gives no conditions to meet if you would enter into His favor. God’s Promise Stands on His faithfulness alone. That means your forgiveness, your life, and your salvation are completely secure in Him.
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 Abraham viewing the stars from 1919 Bible primer book published by Augustana Book Concern)
The Third Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Peter 5:6-11
In Christ Jesus, who will never cast out those who come to Him in faith (Joh. 6:37), dear fellow redeemed:
When you want someone to back up what they say by what they do, you might remind them that “talk is cheap.” In last week’s Epistle lesson, we heard John address this when he wrote, “let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1Jo. 3:18). So it’s one thing for a person to say, “I care about you,” and it’s another for them to show it. One of the most comforting passages in the Bible is found in today’s text: “[Cast] all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you.” But How Does God Care for Us?
Our friends show that they care for us by being there when we need them. They listen sympathetically to our problems. They may speak words of encouragement to us, or offer us food and gifts to help us and cheer us up. God also cares for us like this as He joins us in our troubles and listens to our prayers. He shares His Word of encouragement with us, and He constantly provides the things we need for this body and life. But He demonstrates His care for us in even more profound ways than these.
Peter writes by inspiration of the Holy Spirit that “the God of all grace… has called you to His eternal glory in Christ.” The God of all grace does not punish us for our sins as we deserve. He shows undeserved love and kindness toward us. In His grace He has called us to “eternal glory in Christ.” The “in Christ” is crucial. God did not say, “I know you have broken all My Commandments, but let’s let bygones be bygones. Let’s just forget that that happened. Why don’t you come up here to heaven and enjoy My eternal glory?”
We are called to eternal glory “in Christ.” Eternal glory was won for us by Christ. He won eternal glory by taking the everlasting guilt and punishment for our sin on Himself. This shows us so clearly that God cares for us. God the Father sent His Son to be our Substitute, to pay the price for sin in our place, to die our death, to suffer our hell. Because He did this out of obedience to His Father, “[t]herefore God has highly exalted him” (Phi. 2:9). Now the kingdom and the power and the glory are His both as God and Man.
Our heavenly Father also wants us to have a share of this glory. This is why He has called us to faith in Christ by the working of the Holy Spirit. We confess that “the Holy Ghost has called [us] by the Gospel” (Third Article of the Creed). He has called us through the message of Christ crucified and risen. When we were converted, the forgiveness of sins which Jesus won for us on the cross was applied to us, and His perfect keeping of the Holy Law was credited to us. This means that nothing stands between the believer and eternal glory. Eternal glory is ours already in Christ.
But that is difficult to understand or even to remember when our life on earth is anything but glorious. Peter here clearly acknowledges that we Christians have anxieties, worries, cares. Sometimes we share the same anxieties, such as when flooding or drought affect the whole community, or when economic troubles touch us all. Last March when concerns about a new virus reached us, we collectively felt the anxiety of the unknown. Will we and our loved ones stay healthy? Will we have enough food and supplies? Will we be able to keep our jobs?
When all that was happening, a friend pointed out that the anxiety we felt at that time is something that a portion of the population deals with much or all the time. There are some who live under a cloud of despair, who constantly imagine the worst case scenario, who experience depressive episodes or severe mood swings, who are stuck in addictive behavior, who hardly ever feel happy. For these friends of ours, anxiety and depression and a feeling of worthlessness are often a daily struggle. It can be difficult in these times to believe that God really cares.
And that’s exactly the doubt that the devil wants to plant in our minds. Peter writes that “[y]our adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” His aim is to attack and destroy our faith, our hope, and our love. He wants to tear us away from Jesus and the salvation He has won for us. He does this primarily through temptation.
He tempts us to wonder if God cares about us when things are going badly. He tempts us to doubt God’s Word which assures us of our Lord’s care. And if we become convinced that God will not help, the devil tempts us to rely on ourselves to pull ourselves out of the depths and to fix our own deep-rooted problems. This only sends us deeper and deeper down.
The devil may successfully tempt us to doubt God’s care, but he cannot stop God’s care. It is an unchangeable, irreversible truth that God Cares for Us. He has not only “called [us] to His eternal glory in Christ,” which we will fully enjoy in heaven, but He is also with us in our struggles here on earth. Our text says that “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace… will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”
How does He “restore” us? Psalm 23 tells us that the Good Shepherd restores our soul “in green pastures,” “beside still waters,” and “in paths of righteousness.” Our soul is restored in the life-giving nourishment and in the living waters of our Lord’s Word. Through His Word, our Shepherd meets us with the gifts of His grace. He brings us forgiveness when we have listened to the lies of the devil instead of trusting in Him. He brings us His holiness, so that we can stand free of sin and guilt before our Father in heaven and be judged as righteous on the last day.
Jesus also comes to “confirm” our faith, so we can resist the attacks of our adversary. We who belong to Jesus by faith have Him on our side in the fight against the devil and all evil. The devil wants us to think that we are totally alone in this world, that God does not care for us and neither does anyone else. But we are not alone, not even close. The Lord is with us, and He reminds us that “the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.”
We are joined together with all believers in the body of Christ. We face a common enemy, but God has equipped us for the battle, and Jesus leads the charge. No matter what troubles come our way, we cannot lose because we are in Christ, and He conquers all. So He “strengthens” us in this promise of His undying care, and He “establishes” us, gives us a firm footing in His Word, so that nothing can destroy our faith in Him.
These are the concrete ways God shows His care for us. He does not always give us what we ask for or give to us right away. But He certainly still cares. Sometimes in His care, He places a cross on us, not to drive us away from Him but to draw us closer. These crosses remind us that we cannot get along by our own wisdom and strength. We are not in control of the past, the present, or the future. Our life is in the hands of “the God of all grace.” Whatever He does, including humbling us under His “mighty hand,” is for our good. It is because He cares.
So you may cast all your anxieties on Him. He invites you to do this. He can handle anything you throw His way. These burdens are too heavy for you, but they are not too heavy for Him. Jesus carried your sins and the sins of the whole world to the cross. He can bear the daily worries and cares that weigh you down. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” says Jesus, “and I will give you rest” (Mat. 11:28).
We find rest in Jesus. We find it by listening to His sure promises in His Word. We find it by receiving His free gifts in His Sacraments. His care for us never falters. His commitment to us never dries up. As long as we have breath, He has blessings to give us through His Word. And when we breathe our last, He has eternal blessings waiting for us in heaven.
God’s talk is not cheap. He sealed the promise of our salvation through the blood of His Son. He showed His care for us not just by saying, but by doing. And He still actively works for our good. He defends us from the constant attacks of the devil, and He delivers us when we have fallen to our knees and can go no further. “[A]t the proper time” He will exalt us, lift us up, and bring us at last to “His eternal glory.”
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 Good Shepherd” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Fourth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 4:21-5:1
In Christ Jesus, who took upon Himself the yoke of sin and entered the dungeon of death, so that we would be ransomed and freed, dear fellow redeemed:
You and I are Americans. We were born here. We are citizens, so we have all the rights and privileges as outlined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We wouldn’t like it if someone came along and tried to say we weren’t actually Americans. “You don’t understand what it means to be an American,” you’re told. “You don’t appreciate American freedoms. You may have been born here, but you are not from here.” We probably wouldn’t have to think too hard about a response. We know what we are.
But what if it were true? What if we thought we were “good Americans,” but everything we stood for contradicted the founding principles of our country? Something like this happened when Jesus told the Jews they were not descendants of Abraham. “What!?” they said, “Of course we are descendants of Abraham! We can trace our family line all the way back to Abraham and his son Isaac and his son Jacob!” Jesus replied, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did” (Joh. 8:39-40).
The Jews to whom Jesus spoke may have been blood relatives of Abraham, but they were not his spiritual heirs. They thought they were children of promise in good standing with God. Jesus called them “slaves”—slaves to sin. “Whoever is of God hears the words of God,” He said. “The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (8:47). The Jews were so offended at Jesus’ criticisms and His claim to be God that “they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself” (v. 59). It wasn’t His time to die yet, though that time would come.
In his letter to the churches of Galatia, the apostle Paul by inspiration of the Holy Spirit took up the same topic of Abraham and his descendants. Paul had traveled through the area of Galatia on his first and second missionary journeys. Christian congregations had been established along the way. But after Paul left, other preachers came. They did not teach the same doctrine as Paul. Presenting themselves as Christians, they urged the Galatian congregations to diligently keep the Old Testament laws. This included the laws regarding Jewish festivals and the law of circumcision.
But the Old Testament regulations were in place to point to Christ. Once He had accomplished His work, the Old Testament ceremonial and civil laws were no longer required (Col. 2:16-17). Jesus perfectly fulfilled them for all (Mat. 5:17-18). Hearing that the Galatian Christians were being swayed by these false teachers, Paul sent his letter. He asked the congregation members whether they received “the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith” (Gal. 3:2). He wrote that Abraham received the Spirit by faith, so “it is those of the faith who are the sons of Abraham” (v. 7).
Further on in the letter, Paul illustrated this teaching by the example of Abraham’s two sons. One was born from Sarah’s maidservant Hagar whom Sarah gave to Abraham in the hopes of obtaining a child (Gen. 16:2). Abraham and Hagar conceived a son named Ishmael. But Ishmael was not the child of promise. God kept His Word to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son of their own. They named their son Isaac. Isaac was the child of promise. “[A]ll the nations of the earth [would] be blessed” (Gen. 22:18) through him, because the Messiah would come from him.
The practicing Jews in Paul’s day would have absolutely called themselves the spiritual descendants of Isaac. But Paul disagreed. Paul called the Jews who rejected the Gospel the spiritual children of Hagar’s son Ishmael. “[Hagar] corresponds to the present Jerusalem,” he wrote, “for she is in slavery with her children.” And what was it that the Jews were enslaved to? They were enslaved to the law. They adhered to a religion of works. They rejected Jesus as their Holiness, their Substitute, and their Savior, and they trusted in their own righteousness. Therefore they remained in slavery to sin.
But the spiritual descendants of Isaac are those who believe the promise. They believe that God the Father sent His only Son to be born of Mary who could trace her lineage back to Abraham and Isaac. They believe that her Son Jesus kept the law perfectly in their place, so the law could no longer condemn them. They believe that His sacrifice on the cross ransomed them from the power of sin, devil, and death. These, wrote Paul, are “children of promise,” children of freedom.
So which category describes you? There are some who believe that the freedom which Jesus obtained for them allows them to do whatever they want. They are kind of like those who behave badly and say whatever wicked and unkind thing they want because “it’s a free country.” Our freedom as Christians can be misused just like our freedom as citizens can. Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of our sins should not make us comfortable with sin. Since our sin caused the death of our perfect Lord, we should want to avoid sin at all cost. We are free from the condemnation of the law, but the Ten Commandments are still in place for our good and for the good of our neighbors.
Let’s dig deeper into what it means to be free in Christ. Freedom in Christ means I do not have to wear a certain kind of clothing, eat or avoid certain foods, or work a certain job. I am free to go to the grocery store and buy whatever I want. I am even free to buy more than I need in the case that I might need it in the future. However I am not free to disregard the needs of my neighbor. Unfortunately we see this happening now when people hoard essential goods in quantities far higher than they need or for the purpose of reselling the products at a higher price. This selfishness and greed leaves their neighbors without and uncertain what to do. That is not the way of Christ.
At the same time, it is easy to think well of ourselves when we do not do those things. We care about our neighbors. We want to help them. We are generous. From these thoughts, it is only a small step to self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is comparing ourselves with others and imagining that we come out ahead. It is the opinion that we have done a fair job of keeping God’s law. This is how the Jewish preachers were who wanted to pull the Galatian Christians from the doctrine they had been taught by Paul. They urged the Galatians to seek comfort and peace in what they did for God and not in what He had done for them.
Like the Galatians, we have fallen for this temptation many times. We love to compare ourselves with others and pass judgment on them: “Well I wouldn’t have done that!” “How could he be so stupid!” “We would be so much better off without them!” Or, “They would be so much better off if they were like us!” This kind of self-righteous behavior comes even easier to us at this time of tremendous stress in our country. We want to find people to blame for this disruption in our lives. It could be carriers of the virus from other countries, our national and local government officials, health care workers who do not support us the way we expect, or any number of other targets.
But if all we want to do is hold other people’s feet to the fire, then we should start holding our own feet to the fire. If we want to level the law at others, we should level it at ourselves. The fact is none of us by ourselves is better or more righteous than another. Paul wrote in another letter quoting a Psalm that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one’” (Rom. 3:9-10). By nature we are all slaves to sin.
But “Christ has set us free” from this slavery. He kept the requirements of the law perfectly in our place. As soon as we came to faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, His righteousness became our righteousness. That means we have no need to compare our life with the lives of others. We have nothing to do to get ourselves into heaven. Jesus fulfilled the law for us, and He fully paid the price for our sins. His atoning death in our place means the devil can do nothing more than blow hot air. His accusations cannot stick anymore, because Jesus won salvation for us.
We are now “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). We are children of promise, and The Children of Promise Are Free. We are free to love God and our neighbors, not in an attempt to get ourselves out of trouble or to prove our worth, but because Jesus set us free to love freely just as He loves us. We are members of “the Jerusalem above,” the holy Christian Church.
Our membership in Christ’s Church by faith subjects us to persecution from those who remain enslaved to sin. But we are not about to return to that slavery. We “stand firm” in the glorious freedom we have in Christ. In Him, our sins are not counted against us anymore. Through Him, our salvation is certain when our life in this world ends. And with Him, we will enjoy the perfect bliss of heaven forever.
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 is from “The Dismissal of Hagar” by Pieter Pietersz Lastman, 1583–1633)
Midweek Lent – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: Genesis 22:1-14
In Christ Jesus, the fulfillment of the LORD’s covenant with Abraham, dear fellow redeemed:
When Abraham was seventy-five years old, the LORD promised him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great” (Gen. 12:2). But Abraham and his wife Sarah had no children. More time passed, and the LORD said again, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them…. So shall your offspring be” (15:5). Still more time passed. Now Abraham was ninety-nine years old, and his wife Sarah was eighty-nine. Who ever heard of a couple this old conceiving a child? But the LORD kept His promise. They did conceive a child, and a healthy baby boy named Isaac was born.
Imagine how they doted on their son! Not only did they have to wait twenty-five years for God to keep His promise, not only was Isaac born to them in their old age, but he was also the beginning of a great nation. The LORD had promised Abraham, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (17:6-7).
But after some time when Isaac had grown and was perhaps in his teens, God told Abraham to take his son “to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Along with this command, the LORD’s description of his son almost seemed cruel, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love… and offer him.” These were shocking and troubling words. We can only imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind: “Sacrifice my son, the son of the promise? But You said nations and kings would come from me! You said Your covenant between You and me and my offspring was an everlasting covenant! Take my life, O Lord, but not my son!”
But Abraham obeyed. He set off with Isaac and two servants, and they came in sight of Moriah on the third day. He told the servants to wait there while he and his son went to worship. Then he said they would come back again. Did Abraham lie to his servants? It seems like it. How could he and Isaac return if Isaac was to be killed? But in fact Abraham did not lie. The author of the book of Hebrews fills us in on what Abraham believed: “He considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead” (11:19). Abraham fully intended to kill his son, and he fully expected the LORD to raise him back to life. How else could God keep His earlier promises?
So Abraham and Isaac continued on to the place of sacrifice. Abraham had Isaac carry the wood, while he took the fire and the knife. Isaac noticed that something was missing: “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” And God did provide the lamb. Just when Abraham was ready to kill his son, “the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven” and stopped him. “[N]ow I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham showed that he loved the LORD more than his only son. The LORD’s promise was primary; nothing was more important than the Word of the living God.
The LORD provided a lamb that day, a ram whose horns were caught in a nearby thicket. Abraham offered this ram as a sacrifice to God, and he and Isaac returned to the servants and went home. But this episode was far more than a trip to a lonely place, a test of faith, and an offering to God. This episode was all about the Messiah.
The LORD’s description of Abraham’s son was not cruelty, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love.” It was a description that God the Father could apply to His own Son. The Messiah is the only-begotten Son of the Father, begotten of His Father from eternity. And He was a perfect Son, without fault, without sin. This did not change with His incarnation. When He was baptized and when He was transfigured on the mountain, the Father said about Him, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mat. 3:17, 17:5). The Father loved His Son.
But He also loved the world, a world that had rebelled against Him and deserved nothing from Him but eternal punishment. And this is how He showed His love: He sent His only-begotten Son to save sinners. His perfect Son would be sacrificed in their place. His perfect Son would absorb His holy wrath for sin, so they would be freed from condemnation and death.
So God’s Son set out for Moriah. That hill where Abraham built an altar was the very place where Jerusalem would later be established and God’s holy temple would stand. Like Isaac, Jesus came to this place as the sacrificial lamb. Like Isaac, He carried the wood on which He would be sacrificed. Like Isaac, He trusted His Father even as sharp instruments were readied to harm Him.
But nobody stepped in when thorns and nails pierced the flesh of Jesus. Nobody stepped in when His Father in heaven punished Him in the place of all sinners. Nobody stepped in when the eternal fires of hell tormented Him. Isaac did not have to die. But Jesus did.
Jesus had to die for you. That was the only way to redeem you, a lost and condemned creature. It was the only way to purchase and win you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. A holy sacrifice was required for your salvation, and God provided it. Abraham was right, “God will provide the lamb.” The Lamb that God provided was His only Son.
Abraham never forgot the ram God gave him to sacrifice instead of his son Isaac. And God did not forget His promise. He did make a great nation from Abraham. From his offspring all the nations of the earth were blessed (Gen. 22:18). That includes you. From the line of Abraham and Isaac came the world’s Savior, the one who took your sins to Himself and blotted them out by the shedding of His blood. Thanks be to God! Amen.
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(painting by Orazio Riminaldi, 1625)
Thanksgiving – Pr. Faugstad homily
In Christ Jesus, who has touched the human race with His good gifts of life and salvation, dear fellow redeemed:
When God made the first man and woman, He said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). But making use of God’s creation is not the same as controlling it. We learn that lesson over and over again, that we are hardly in control of creation.
We learned that lesson this week as we watched a weather system move through our area with the potential to upset Thanksgiving travel plans. We learned that lesson in the spring when it was difficult to get the crop planted. We learned it again this fall when it was difficult to get the crop harvested. We do not control when the sun shines or the rain and snow fall. We do not control whether it is warm or cold, wet or dry, windy or calm.
And there is so much more. We have little to do with the vast animal kingdom around us, besides our domesticated animals. We do not care for all the little bugs and four-legged creatures. We do not watch over the birds to make sure they are doing alright. They exist mostly apart from us and find their food, homes, and communities on their own. The plant kingdom is much the same. We do not plant most trees, flowers, and grasses. We do not water them and tend to their growth. They grow up and flourish by themselves.
Except that nothing really functions by itself, not the plants, not the animals, and not humankind. Each living thing is dependent in some way on other living things. And all living things find their source and supply in God’s creation and providence. God’s Fingerprints Are on Every Living Thing.
This is why the psalmist calls on the whole creation to praise the LORD. He starts in the heavens and works his way to earth. He first calls on the angels and hosts of heaven to praise Him, and we know that they do. They are always gathered around the throne praising Him for His mighty works and for His mercy toward mankind. Even the sun, moon, and stars are invited to join in the chorus, along with all the parts of God’s creation beyond and above our universe.
But the praise of God is not complete if it only comes from heaven. It must also come from the earth, from all things animate and inanimate. It must come from the sea creatures in the watery depths, from the elements of nature, the mountains and hills, the trees, and the animals. Above all, it must come from the crown of God’s creation, from humankind—from kings, princes, and rulers to the common and poor, from the young and old, male and female.
God spoke all these things into existence. He set them in order. He made the planets spin and the stars shine. He created the laws of nature and time and the changing of the seasons. He ordained marriage and family and through them created government and community. These things were all established through His Word, and they are upheld through His Word. If the LORD took back His Word, everything around us would fall to pieces. Nothing could survive apart from God—including us.
This is why we “praise the name of the LORD”—“For His name alone is exalted; His glory is above the earth and heaven.” There is no God but the Triune God. He is the one and only God. He shares His glory with no other because there are no other gods. He deserves the praise of every living thing.
And yet praise for Him is not always on our lips. Sometimes we are upset and impatient with Him because things are not going the way we want. Or we are too distracted to think of praising Him. Or we praise ourselves instead of Him—that one happens a lot at Thanksgiving. Everybody says how thankful they are, but where is their thanks directed? Often not toward God, but toward themselves—for the house they bought, the stuff they have accumulated, the family they produced. They don’t recognize that it is God alone who gives these good things.
If we don’t see God’s fingerprints on all the little things we enjoy in this life, we won’t see His fingerprints on the biggest thing either. Our God has controlled the events in human history in such a way as to deliver on His promise to Adam and Eve. They sinned and brought death and destruction to the whole creation. But He promised them a Savior. He determined to send His eternally-begotten Son to the sinful world, so that He might save it.
The LORD kept this promise. The Creator entered His creation in a magnificent way. The Son of God became a Man. He clothed Himself in our flesh by being born of the Virgin Mary. So the Maker of all living things, the Source of all life, the One who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3), inserted Himself in this world of disorder, disease, and death. He came to re-establish the rule of life. He came to give hope to the dying. He came to save your soul and your body.
This hope and life could only come through His death. That seems backward, wrong. Why should life only be possible through death? The death of our innocent Lord was the price that had to be paid for our salvation. It was the only way to set right what we had done wrong. It was the only way to atone for our sins of impatience, bad priorities, ungratefulness, and every other transgression we have committed against God. Our fingerprints of sin are on everything—everything that we touch—but His fingerprints of grace wipe away every evidence of our wrongs.
Therefore we praise Him. We join the angels in heaven, the sun, moon, and stars, the snow and wind, the hills and trees, the cattle and birds, and scores of the faithful in thanking and praising the LORD. It is He who made us, He who cares for us, and He who has saved us.
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The Festival of the Ascension of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Mark 16:14-20
In Christ Jesus, who ascended on high in triumph that He might give gifts to all people (Eph. 4:8), dear fellow redeemed:
When someone you care about deeply moves away or dies, this can have a significant impact on your life and outlook. Maybe this was a person you confided in, or one who gave you advice and encouragement. Now you are left by yourself, and you feel uncertain and troubled about your future. What will you do now? Which direction should you turn? How will you get along without that constant support?
Jesus’ disciples had these same concerns. Jesus had appeared to them several times following His resurrection, and now they watched as He rose up in the sky. He grew smaller and smaller to their eyes until the clouds hid Him from view. How could they possibly get along without Him? He was their rock, their fortress, and their deliverer (Ps. 18:2). He had just triumphed over all His enemies, conquering death itself. But now Jesus was leaving them, just when everything seemed to be going right, and momentum was building toward major changes in the world.
He told them that His time of departure would come, and He explained to them why it was to their advantage that He go away. It was so that He might send the Holy Spirit to them (Jn. 16:7). Then they would be His witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Ac. 1:8). Their job would be to “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” As they went, they would be given the powers described by the evangelist Mark in today’s Gospel. They would have power to cast out demons in Jesus’ name, to speak in new tongues, to be unharmed by the poison of serpents, and to heal the sick. Examples of all these miraculous things are recorded in the book of Acts.
But what would Jesus be doing while these things were taking place? Some say that since Jesus ascended to His seat at His Father’s right hand in heaven, He has remained in that one specific location. They say that while He is able to be with us according to His divine nature, He is not with us according to His human nature. After all, how could natural human flesh be in many different places at once? But that view is not consistent with Jesus’ own words.
After His resurrection Jesus told His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mt. 28:18). Why did He say this? Didn’t He as the Son of God already have “all authority in heaven and on earth”? He certainly did. What changed is that following His victory over death, He now has “all authority” not just as God but also as Man. Now He rules over all things in the flesh, our flesh. Now our Brother Jesus sits in the position of all power and authority at the Father’s right hand. There “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3), and He intercedes for us (Rom. 8:34).
Because He is true God and Man in one Person, His human flesh is not stuck in one place like ours is. Wherever He is as God, He is there as Man. And the Father’s right hand is not one specific location far from where we live on earth. The Father’s right hand is a position of power and not a localized place. The Father’s right hand is everywhere He is, and He is in all places at all times. This is why Jesus could tell His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:18,20).
So Jesus hadn’t actually left His disciples on that day of His ascension. He had stopped being with them visibly, but He was most certainly still present with them. Today’s Gospel says that after Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to the disciples at Pentecost, “they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord—referring to Jesus—worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.” Jesus “worked with them”; He was present with them like He promised He would be. But in what manner exactly was He with them?
It is common for people to talk about deceased loved ones as continuing to be with them. Some believe that the spirits of the dead remain in the place where they once lived or that they linger with close friends and relatives. Christians know that the spirit or soul of their loved one does not remain in this realm. When believers die, their souls immediately go to be with the Lord, while the body is laid to rest in the tomb until the day of resurrection. What Christians mean by saying their spouse or parent or child is “with them,” is that the memory of the deceased, including the encouragement and joy they brought, frequently comes to mind.
But that is not the way that Jesus is still present with us today. He is not here simply in our memory of what He did and said. He is actually here with us in the flesh. And our comfort is not just that He is present. What good would His presence do if He did not want to help us? Our comfort is that He is present in specific ways with specific blessings for us.
We look for and find Jesus where His disciples looked for and found Him after His ascension. He is found—and found without fail—in His Word and Sacraments. These are the means through which He has promised to visit us and bless us. This is how He is “with [us] always, to the end of the age.” This is how “the Lord worked with” His disciples. The disciples told people what they saw Jesus do: die on the cross and rise again, and He imparted to the hearers the blessings He obtained: His righteous life, forgiveness for their sins, and eternal salvation.
This is what He still brings to you. At the right hand of His Father, Jesus has the authority to bestow upon you the treasures of His grace. He earned everything you needed to spend eternity in heaven and not in hell. Because He earned it, He has the right to give it away for free. He does not need your help to save you. He does not need you to meet Him halfway. “[I]t is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12:32), because Jesus lived a holy life in your place and atoned for your sins with His precious blood. You sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, and you are “justified by his grace as a gift” (Rom. 3:24).
But perhaps you are looking for something more. Maybe the promise of Jesus’ presence through the means of grace is not enough for you. Maybe you want to find Jesus where He has not promised to be. You look for evidence of His love in how successful you are, and in how well your plans play out. Or you try to determine how close God is to you by how close you feel to God. In other words, you want to be in control. You want to have God meet you on your terms. And if He does not do this to your satisfaction, then the problem must be with God and not you.
This is the first sin. Adam and Eve wanted to have it their way. They desired to get more than the perfect life God had given them. They wanted to take God’s place, which is what the devil wanted before them. The result of that foolishness and pride was death. That is what happens when we try to bend God to our will, and to demand the glory for ourselves that is His alone.
But the Lord did not immediately destroy Adam and Eve for their selfishness and hard-heartedness. He rescued them just as He rescues you and me. He poured out His grace upon you and claimed you as His own in Holy Baptism. He made you a part of His body, and He continues to strengthen and keep you in His body through the nourishment of His Word. He even places in your sinful mouth His holy body given and His holy blood shed for you on the cross. If you are looking for closeness with God, you will find it nowhere else on this earth than through His means of grace.
By the faith which the Holy Spirit has given you and sustains in you by the Word and Sacraments, Jesus is yours. He dwells in you, and you dwell in Him. St. Paul writes that when God the Father seated Jesus “at his right hand in the heavenly places…. he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:20,22-23). Jesus is the source and substance of all good things in the Church. There is nothing worth having that He does not give.
Jesus Ascended into Heaven for Your Good. There is no limit to what He can do for you at the Father’s right hand. When you pray in Jesus’ name, trusting what He has done for you, your Father in heaven will hear your prayer and will answer it in the best way. Your requests for forgiveness and mercy will not be ignored or denied. Jesus died and rose again to save you, and He ascended into heaven to fill your sinful heart with His saving gifts by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Even when it feels like you are alone in times of trouble, grief, and uncertainty, the ascended Lord has not abandoned you. He is with you still as He has promised to be, and He will come again visibly to take you to Himself, that where He is you may be also (Jn. 14:3).
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(portion of painting by John Singleton Copley, 1775)
The Second Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 15:21-28
In Christ Jesus, whose mercy endures forever, dear fellow redeemed:
The judge and jury were convinced that the defendant was guilty on all charges. He was about to be sentenced for his crimes and imprisoned for the rest of his life. The families of the victims were also present in the courtroom hoping for a conviction. The judge asked the defendant if he had anything more to say before the verdict was announced. He stood on shaky legs and turned to face the victims’ families. “I am so sorry,” he said. “I deserve whatever punishment I get. I did terrible things, and you have every right to hate me. I am sorry for everything. I hope someday you can find it in your heart to forgive me. I pray for God’s mercy.”
But on what basis should God be merciful to a man like that? After what he had done, why would he even hope for mercy? The same question may enter your mind when you think about some of things you have done in your life. Will God have mercy on you? If you think He will, why should He? Today’s text can at the same time make us feel concerned about this or hopeful. First, the parts that are concerning.
In general Jesus carried out His work of teaching and miracles among the Jews. But on a few occasions, He entered into Gentile territory like He did in today’s text. The evangelist Mark indicates He did this to have some time away from the crowds (7:24). But a Canaanite woman heard He was in the area and came looking for Him. She cried out to Him that her daughter was severely troubled by a demon. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!” Of course Jesus would help, wouldn’t He? How could His loving heart refuse? But He said nothing to her.
The woman continued to cry out for mercy and plead for help. She did this so much, that the disciples begged Jesus to do something about her. Jesus replied, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This, too, seems out of character for Jesus. Didn’t He come to save all people? But here He seems to say that nationality is the determining factor – Jesus, a Jew, was sent to work among His fellow Jews. This would be something like a doctor in Iowa refusing to treat a person from Minnesota because she did not come from the right place.
But this case was actually not a matter of nationality. It was a matter of promise. God had promised to be with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Think of how patient He had been with them! He led them to the Promised Land and made them into a great nation. Time after time, He called them back to repentance and faith when they had fallen for the false gods of the nations around them. And finally the LORD sent them a Prophet like Moses to speak good news to them (Deu. 18:15). The LORD loved His chosen people with an enduring, steadfast love. This is why Jesus was so focused on “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the Canaanite woman was convinced not only that Jesus could help her, but that He would. She knelt directly in front of Him and said, “Lord, help me.” Jesus replied that it was not right to take bread from the children—the children of Israel—and throw it to the dogs, meaning the non-Israelites or Gentiles.
This is where doubt comes in. If Jesus was reluctant to help this woman because she was not part of a certain group, how can you know you stand securely in His favor? I am sure that you, as I do, have certain Christian family members and friends that you admire. It is not difficult to imagine that God is pleased with them. But you feel that you come up far short of their example. You hardly display the same wisdom, patience, and humility as they do. So you wonder: Will God have mercy on me, or am I a lost cause?
Jesus did have mercy on the Canaanite woman. She just wouldn’t give up. Even after He said the children’s bread is not for the dogs, she quickly replied, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then you can imagine a smile breaking out on Jesus’ face as His eyes brightened. “O woman, great is your faith!” He said. “Be it done for you as you desire.”
But here again, doubt creeps in. Jesus had mercy on this woman, but it isn’t as though our problems are as serious as hers. You might have a sore back or a bad knee. You might be struggling with something at school or work. You might have relationship problems. You might feel sadness over opportunities lost and times past. But those things do not seem to be in the same category as a demon-possessed child. Why should the Lord concern Himself about our little problems?
Or if it isn’t about the size of the problem, we wonder if God’s mercy depends on the amount of our faith. God knows—and maybe He resents—the way I treat Him and His Word as a last resort. He can see how little the flame of faith burns in my heart, and how easily distracted I am by the cares and pleasures of this life. If God’s mercy requires the kind of faith the Canaanite woman demonstrated, then I have reason to be concerned.
If God’s mercy can only be had by people who are good enough or by people with a strong enough faith, then I can’t imagine any of us being confident that we have it. But that is not how God’s mercy works. His mercy does not depend on a person’s worthiness. Then it wouldn’t really be mercy; it would be a reward.
God’s mercy comes from His own heart, His own gracious disposition toward humankind. This merciful disposition was not evident to the Canaanite woman at first, but that does not mean it wasn’t there. Jesus hid His mercy for a time in order to test the woman. But why did He allow this pain-stricken woman to feel even more pain?
We ask the same thing about the difficult times we go through. You may feel as though you cannot bear any more grief or pain or trouble, but more comes. Well-meaning friends tell you to remember that, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” But you feel like you reached the limit of what you can handle a long time ago.
The reality is there isn’t much that we sinners can “handle”—and really nothing on our own. We are weak; there is no storehouse of spiritual strength inside us. God teaches us to recognize this by testing us. He sends trials our way to purify our faith, like a hot fire that purifies gold. He directs us not to our own worthiness, our resolve, our problem-solving ability, or our own strength. Through tests and trials, He draws our focus to Him.
That is what happened with the Canaanite woman. Jesus’ seeming indifference toward her did not push her away. He would never want to do that. His attitude taught her to trust more surely and to hold tighter. This is the encouragement the hymnist gives when he writes:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
(ELH 434, v. 2)
The Lord smiles upon you just as He smiled upon that poor woman and her daughter. And He gives you just what He gave her: He gives mercy.
The Lord is merciful—full of mercy. He does not give what is deserved. What you and I deserve is punishment for our sins and a hopeless future. Instead we receive the benefits of God’s kindness. He does not push us away from Him, but rather draws us closer. He does this because of the saving work of our Mediator.
Though Jesus may have carried out His earthly work predominately among the Jews, He went to the cross for all people, for Jews and Gentiles. He predicted this many times. Speaking about His work as the Good Shepherd He said, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (Jn. 10:16). About His death He declared, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:32). By His death on the cross for all sinners, Jesus broke down “the dividing wall” that separated Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:14). He reconciled both to God, “making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).
What the death of God’s Son means is that you are not outside the workings of His mercy. Your problems are not too big or too small. Your faith is not too weak. You are not worthy in any way of receiving God’s mercy, but He still gives it abundantly to you and to many more who are just as weak and doubtful as you are.
Are You Mercy-Having Material? That is the same as to ask: Are you a sinner? If you are, then you are in need of God’s mercy, and He will give it. Though He may test you, He will not ignore your humble petition for His help. His promise to every person with a broken and contrite heart is this: “[W]hoever comes to me I will never cast out” (Jn. 6:37).
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(picture is from a 15 century French Gothic manuscript painting)
Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 1:39-45
In Christ Jesus, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary to redeem all who have inherited sin from our first parents, Adam and Eve, dear fellow redeemed:
When the committee for Jerico’s 150th Anniversary began its work over a year ago, there was a clear goal in sight. Everything had to be ready by June 25th. The closer that date got, the more time and money were spent to finish up projects. Then the day arrived – and what a day it was! Things would have been much different if no celebration day had been set. We might have identified jobs needing to be done, but no one would know when they should be completed. We might tell people to get ready, but they wouldn’t know when to come. It is a lot harder to keep the focus on a general promise that something will happen, as opposed to a definite deadline and plan.
This helps us understand how the Israelites struggled to maintain the focus on God’s promise of a Savior. Thousands of years passed after the LORD first promised Adam and Eve that a Savior would come. Then at a certain point, even prophecy ceased. The last prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi, concluded the book of his prophecy with these words of the LORD, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (4:5-6). This was sometime in the 400s B. C. After this time, Alexander the Great conquered Persia, which included the land of Israel. Following his death, his territories were divided among his four generals. Later on the Israelites won their independence, but in 63 B. C., Israel became a territory of the Roman Empire.
Throughout this time, the sacrifices and ceremonies in the temple continued, and the people studied the Scriptures. They knew the fulfillment of God’s promise was getting closer, but they had no idea when it would be. Each young girl could well have wondered if God’s promise would be fulfilled in her (Gen. 3:15, Is. 7:14). But why would God choose her? Who could ever be worthy enough to bear the Christ-Child? The people must have imagined that the mother of the Messiah would have to be someone noble, someone great, someone significant.
And God chose Mary. She was not rich or famous, but lived a simple life in the unimpressive town of Nazareth. Luther says about Mary that she was “a poor, lowly, weak maiden whom no one valued and who was perfectly obscure” (Festival Sermons of Martin Luther, Mark V Publications, p. 108). The angel Gabriel appeared to her and said, “[B]ehold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:31-33). By the power of the Holy Spirit, lowly Mary would bear in her womb the Savior of the world.
Then the angel told her something else, “[B]ehold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God” (vv. 36-37). Mary could hardly believe it, but she did. She said, “let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38). Now who could she tell? Who would believe her? What would Joseph think, the man to whom she was betrothed? The angel had mentioned Elizabeth. This must be no coincidence. Mary would go see her. So she left Nazareth and traveled south to the hill country near Jerusalem, where Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah served as a priest.
Elizabeth had only just begun to venture out in public after five months in seclusion. Who would have believed this old woman if she told her neighbors she was pregnant? But now six months into her pregnancy, her growing belly could not be ignored. Then a surprise guest arrived, her young relative Mary. Mary entered the house and greeted her, and suddenly the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaped! Some of you here probably know this feeling. A sharp kick to the ribs probably caused you to cry out, much like Elizabeth did. But it wasn’t just the movement of her baby that caused Elizabeth to shout. When Mary greeted her, she was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (vv. 42-43).
Keep in mind that Mary set out to see Elizabeth right after the angel visited her. This means Jesus was no more than a couple weeks old. He was almost too small to be seen by the naked eye. No one could have guessed that Mary was pregnant, and Elizabeth knew she wasn’t married. But the Holy Spirit revealed to Elizabeth that what was forming in Mary’s womb was her Lord, the promised Messiah. He would not become her Lord when He was born, or when He would suffer, die, and rise again. He was her Lord now, a matter of days into His human development. In the same way, it is true that a baby in the womb is a person not just when it is born or can become self-sustaining, but at the earliest stage of its formation.
With Elizabeth, Mary found someone who understood, who believed. Can you imagine the conversations they must have had over that three-month visit? One woman carried in her womb the man who would prepare the way for the Lord. He was the “Elijah” foretold by the prophet Malachi. The other woman bore the Christ-Child, conceived in her not by a man, but by God. And nobody else knew, except probably Zechariah. To their neighbors, Elizabeth was just a fortunate old woman, whom God had finally given a child. And Mary was her kind relative who had come to help out until the birth. Who could know that the day of God’s great promise had come? Who could know that these lowly women would be remembered and honored until the end of time?
But then isn’t that how the Lord does His work? In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1:26-28).
This was certainly true of Jesus. Born of a poor woman in a little town. Raised in Nazareth far from the historic center of Israel. Why should anyone pay attention to Him? But His powerful works and words could not be ignored. His bold teaching of repentance set Him at odds with the self-righteous. They used their high-standing and power to condemn this poor Nazarene to death. He was crucified and buried. It appeared that Jesus would be little more than a footnote in human history. But God chooses what is low and despised, to conquer the high and mighty. By His death, Jesus overcame sin, devil, and the grave and won eternal life for all people.
Consider your own life. What does the world care about you? Even famous people are quickly forgotten after their death if not already before. You, living out your lowly life in northeast Iowa, don’t seem to matter much. You may even find yourself thinking the same thing – “Does what I do really make any difference? Would the community even notice if I were gone?” You may not look like much, both in the eyes of others and even in your own sight. But your value to the Lord is immeasurable.
Before you were born, even before you were formed in your mother’s womb, God chose you to be His own. It was for you that He sent His only Son to be born of Mary. Jesus fulfilled the law on your behalf. He was scorned and abused and nailed to a cross in your place. He willingly offered up Himself as the perfect sacrifice to atone for your sins. If the Lord did not care about you, if He did not love you, He would not have done these things.
Not only does He want you to know and believe His grace in this life, He also wants you to reign with Him in heaven. That is how important you are to Him, how much you matter. And the doing is all God’s. You are not His child because you were somehow more worthy than others, or deserved it because of your troubles. Just as God in His own wisdom and grace chose Elizabeth to bear John the Baptizer, and Mary to bear the Christ, so He has chosen you. He has chosen to lift you up out of your sins and share His own honor and glory with you.
Mary knew that her worth in God’s sight was totally due to His merciful disposition. In her beautiful Magnificat she sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord… for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant…. for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Lk. 1:46,48,49). The Lord kept His promise, but not in a way that everyone would have expected. He turned a poor, obscure woman into the mother of God. And He has made you, weak and poor in spirit, into a child of God. The Lord Exalts the Lowly.
As you hear His Word with humble faith, Jesus visits you with His blessings. He gives you His gifts of forgiveness and life, so that you also are filled with joy and wonder. And you are strengthened in the faith, so that whenever He does come visibly, you will be ready for His coming. Then you will live not for the celebration that will be sometime in the future, but for the celebration that is.
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The First Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 4:1-11
In Christ Jesus, who knows how perplexed we are by the devil’s temptations and faithfully defends us, dear fellow redeemed:
The devil excels at the use of trickery and half-truth. Notice how he engaged Eve in the Garden of Eden. He opened the conversation by attributing a statement to God that He never said. The devil asked in a manner dripping with sweet innocence, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” Eve took the bait. She had to set the record straight. “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” And then the devil did what he does so well. He planted doubt in Eve’s mind. He said, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Nothing more needed to be said. The serpent had accomplished what he set out to do. Eve thought the fruit looked tasty, and she certainly did not want to miss out on this mysterious knowledge that the devil talked about. She ate some fruit and offered it to Adam who gladly followed his wife’s lead. Then the Bible says that “the eyes of both were opened.” What the devil said had come true, but not how they expected. They now knew the difference between good and evil firsthand, but they had become nothing like God. In fact they had moved further away from Him. Before their sin, they enjoyed the perfect image of God. They had true knowledge of Him and perfect righteousness. But that was now lost. Oh they learned the difference between good and evil alright. They had been good, and now they were evil (see Gen. 3).
Satan had succeeded in his quest to drag the world into his darkness. He had gotten the very crown of God’s creation—man and woman—to deny their Creator. And that was just the beginning, the start of his terrible work. He has sown the seeds of evil in every generation and in every heart. No one has successfully withstood his temptations. All have fallen for his lies and sinned against God—all except for One. But why shouldn’t the devil have success with Him too?
Jesus did not look like the God who told the devil he was cursed to slither along on his belly and eat dust for the rest of his existence (Gen. 3:14). Jesus looked weak. He looked hungry—Ah, there’s the opening! “If You are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” And what would be the harm in it? Jesus was hungry, His body needed nourishment, and He certainly was God, so why not turn stones into bread? But Jesus had absolutely no obligation to indulge the devil’s request. The devil did not actually want Him to eat; he wanted Him to doubt the love of His Father. Because if Jesus was God’s Son, then why was He suffering there in the wilderness?
Jesus did not take the bait. He quoted the Word of His Father, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The Word was primary. If Jesus could go forty days without bread, He could go still longer. We do not pass that test as well as Jesus. We know His promise that if we “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” then He will surely provide for our earthly needs as well (Mt. 6:33). But the devil so often turns that around in our minds. He wants us to judge God’s faithfulness by how successful and happy we are in this life.
If we are suffering with a lack of food or other necessities and having trouble paying bills, Satan wants us to think that God must be punishing us or does not really care about us. On the other hand, if we are doing well and have all that we need, he tells us that we are just fine on our own; we don’t really need God. Whatever the devil can do to keep us away from the Word of God, he will do. He knows how powerful the Word is. It is the sole reason why he cannot claim the entire human race as his own. He wants everyone to live eternally with him in hell, but the Word brings sinners forgiveness and life.
Of course, the devil is willing to utilize even the Word if it suits his diabolical purposes. After Jesus silenced his first temptation by quoting Scripture, Satan thought he could see another opening. Taking Jesus to the top of the temple of Jerusalem, the holy dwelling place of God, he said, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” These words do come from the Bible, from Psalm 91:11-12, but there is a problem with the way the devil used them.
He conveniently left out the last part of verse 11, which says, “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” He did this because he knew “in all your ways” does not include every sinful and reckless thing we do. God does not promise to protect us no matter what. If I climb up to the top of the steeple of this church and then jump off, I have no promise from God that He will keep me from severe injuries. This would be a foolish thing for me to do. It would be a sin against the Fifth Commandment, which tells us not to harm one another or ourselves. God does promise to send His angels to protect us when we walk in the ways He has commanded. But when we deliberately go against His will, then Jesus’ response applies to us as much as it did to Satan, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The devil also tempted Jesus with fame, fortune, and power. He had successfully enticed many, many people to chase after these things, so why wouldn’t it also be effective on Jesus? But Jesus brought his temptations to a close by saying, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.’”
Our encounters with the devil do not play out like the Lord’s encounter with him. We might stay strong for awhile, but Satan keeps chipping away at us. He bides his time. He does not mind waiting. He gently nudges and pulls us away from the Word. He points us toward other things that promise pleasure, but are never what they seem (ELH 182, v. 1). He prepares unique temptations for everyone. He might tempt the lonely with the comfort of the bottle, the discontented spouse with the arms of another, the greedy with riches, and the proud with an uncharitable and judgmental attitude.
No one has to give in to these temptations. “The devil made me do it,” is not a valid excuse for sin. The devil cannot make you do anything. He can be sent packing, as Jesus shows us. But we do not have the power to stand up to him on our own. He is an expert tempter with thousands of years of experience. By comparison, we are novice Christians. But we have something on our side that Satan does not have. We have Jesus. He is not one “who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He knows firsthand what the devil is capable of. He also knows his limitations.
Jesus knew what was waiting for Him those forty days in the wilderness. He knew He would face every manner of difficulty and experience every sort of suffering. He knew that the devil would seek to tempt Him from the truth, because “he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). This is the way it had to be if sinners would be saved. There was no other hope for mankind. Jesus was the One promised by God immediately after Adam and Eve’s fall. The LORD told the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). The eternal Son of God was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary so that He could free the world from Satan’s death grip.
Hebrews 2:14-15 says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” Jesus’ sights were set on ruining the devil’s plans once and for all. The Apostle John writes that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1Jn. 3:8). Satan has power, but it is limited. He wilts in the presence of Jesus. He can do nothing against Him. This is because Jesus conquered the devil’s two greatest allies. He paid down the debt of sin by His death on the cross, and He defeated death itself by His resurrection on the third day.
How can the devil threaten you if the LORD no longer counts your sin against you, and if your death no longer has staying power? Satan can do you no harm as long as you remain in Christ by faith. Jesus is your Refuge. He is the Savior from your sins, the Healer of your wounds, the Strength in your weakness, and the Hope in your difficulties. In Him, you have immunity from the devil’s accusations, and freedom from sin and death. He also sends His angels to protect you from the devil’s schemes.
Whenever you do fall for Satan’s temptations, the LORD reaches out to you with compassion, and He cleanses you of your sins. As focused as He was on winning your salvation, He is just as focused at keeping you in the saving faith. He Will “Guard You in All Your Ways.” Therefore, “Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act” (Ps. 37:5). He will protect you, and He will see you through your trials.
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The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad homily
Children’s Christmas Program at Jerico
Texts: St. Luke 1:26-38, St. Matthew 1:18-25
In Christ Jesus, who came as long foretold, dear fellow redeemed:
This morning, we look back on a historical event—the coming of the Christ—which happened more than 2000 years ago. But as far back as that may seem to us, imagine living before the birth of Jesus. God first promised a Savior after Adam and Eve fell into sin. He declared to the devil, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). This was a reference to Jesus overcoming sin, death, and the devil through His atoning death on the cross. But thousands of years would still pass before these events took place.
The promise of a Savior was repeated to Noah and his sons, then later on to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then still later to David. At this point, there were about 1000 years left before Jesus’ birth. But there was no countdown clock. No one knew when the promise would be fulfilled. Many Israelites decided the promise was not worth waiting for. They looked for other gods to help them, the gods of the nations around them. These false religions did not offer salvation from sin, but instead security and satisfaction in sin. The people were glad to participate. But these devilish gods could not save them when Assyrian armies invaded and carried off the ten northern tribes of Israel. The two tribes remaining in the southern kingdom did not learn from this and were later conquered by the Babylonians.
But God’s promise was still in place. He always keeps His promises. He brought His people out of the Babylonian exile and built them up again into a strong nation with Jerusalem at its center. Eventually taken over by the Romans, the Israelites were allowed to remain where they were. They continued to offer sacrifices to God in the temple and to hear His holy Word. Little did they know that God’s promise of a Savior stretching back thousands of years, was about to be fulfilled.
A young woman named Mary living in Nazareth, heard this promise again and again as she was trained in the Scriptures. Like the generations before her, she, too, must have imagined that the promise would not be fulfilled in her lifetime. But she was the one. She was the virgin who would conceive and bear a Son (Is. 7:14). The Holy Spirit came upon her, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her. This is how it was possible that she, a sinner, could give birth to One who was perfect, the very Son of God. He would be given the throne of His father David. He would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there would be no end. This was a lot for Mary to take in, but she took it in faith. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord,” she said; “let it be to me according to your word.”
But there was still the matter of the man to whom she was betrothed, Joseph. Learning of her pregnancy, Joseph could have called for Mary to be prosecuted according to Jewish law (Deut. 22:22-24). Instead he decided that he would end their engagement quietly. But the Lord wanted a guardian to protect Mary and her Son. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him the special circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy. He also believed the promise of a Savior, and ignoring his reason, he stayed by Mary’s side.
So now the promised Christ-Child was on His way. Just nine months to go. Mary passed the time by going to visit her cousin Elizabeth. She stayed about three months until Elizabeth gave birth to John—John who would prepare the way for Jesus’ public revealing (Is. 40:1-8). And then the birth of Jesus took place, a birth promised through the ages, a promise now fulfilled.
It may seem to you at times that God drags His feet. You look for a sign of His presence. You ask for proof of His love. You pray fervently for His help. And oftentimes, your petitions seem to go unheard and unanswered. How committed is God anyway? Is there any way to know? The Proof lies in swaddling clothes in a manger. The Proof hangs groaning on a cross. The Proof abides not in a dark tomb, but with His people that He loves. Jesus is all the Proof you need.
He came to set you free from your bondage to sin, death, and the devil. He came to clothe you in His righteousness. He came to open the way for you to enter heaven, by faith in Him. And He still comes to you. He comes through His powerful Word and Sacraments to strengthen and comfort you. You cannot see or feel His presence, but He promises that He is here. And the Lord always keeps His promises. His holy birth, His atoning death, and His victorious resurrection are more than enough proof of that.
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