The Fifth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Peter 3:8-15
In Christ Jesus, who comforts us in our fears with the sure hope of salvation and eternal life, dear fellow redeemed:
A struggling economy. An unemployment rate in double figures. Plummeting crop prices. Unrest all across the country. This was the setting in 1933 when President Roosevelt gave his inaugural address. In the very first paragraph, he spoke words that have been repeated many times since: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He said that the collective fear of the population is a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
He was on to something. He recognized that fear is not a thing we are made to feel or experience. It does not come at us from the outside; it wells up inside us. So for example, spiders or snakes do not possess the power to make you afraid. This is clear from the fact that not everyone is afraid of spiders or snakes. Those who are afraid of them don’t like the way they crawl or slither. They don’t like coming across them unprepared. But ultimately, these animals are just a very small part of God’s vast creation.
Sometimes our fears developed from a traumatic experience in our youth. This may explain the fear people have of going to the dentist or of sleeping without a light on. But dentists are not inherently bad, and the darkness of night does not mean you are unsafe. This is all clear enough in the daylight with no dentist’s chair, snake, or spider present. But that doesn’t stop us from being afraid when we do face these things.
We have other fears these days, some of the same ones that were on people’s minds during the Great Depression. The economy is struggling. People are out of work. Demonstrations and riots are taking place across the country. A virus is spreading. There seem to be more questions at hand than answers. It won’t do to have someone tell us to just stop being afraid. Fear is not something we can turn on and off like a light switch.
But it is possible to redirect our fear. This is very important today when fear threatens to overwhelm both us and the people in our communities. Fear can make us do irrational and harmful things. Have you ever injured yourself in an attempt to destroy a tiny spider? The effort probably did not match the enemy. Fear can make us overreact to perceived threats around us. If others will not share our fear, it is easy to go on the attack—turn our backs on them, demonize them, maybe even physically harm them or hope for something bad to happen to them.
The apostle Peter urges a different approach in the Spirit-inspired words of today’s text. He calls on us to seek unity, to be sympathetic, to love others like they are members of your family, to have compassion, to be humble. “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling,” he writes, “but on the contrary, bless.” Your neighbor is not your enemy. You are not called to fight him but to love him.
This of course is not easy. When we have been wronged, we don’t want to let someone off too easily. If we do, we are afraid that we will be wronged again. Or if we try to build bridges and make amends, we are afraid that our attempts will be rejected and our kindness thrown back in our face. But what we are afraid of more than anything is looking weak, taking the humble path, swallowing our pride, submitting to one another. This is difficult and even painful. Why should we have to do this?
We show love to our neighbors because it is right. It is the will of God, and His will is perfect. We are to “love our neighbors as ourselves” (Lev. 19:18). God has the authority to demand this of us because He is the only God. His First Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods.” This means that “we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things” (Luther’s explanation).
But what exactly does it mean to fear God? It means to fear His punishment if we sin against Him. This fear causes us to do one of two things. The first is to try to hide from Him like Adam and Eve tried to do. But as they learned, there is no way to hide from God. Peter attempted something like this when Jesus gave him and the other fishermen the great catch of fish. Seeing what had happened, “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’” (Luk. 5:8). Peter’s sin made him want to escape the Lord’s presence.
But the better way to deal with the fear of God’s punishment is to repent of our sins, to kneel before Him and put ourselves in His mercy. We might be able to hide our sins from others, but we cannot hide them from God. He already knows them, and He will have justice. He does not play games. The author of Hebrews writes that “[i]t is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). It would be terrifying to stand before Him without repentance and faith. Then all our sins would be brought up against us and held against us.
This is why He wants us to repent, repent of our lack of trust in Him, repent of our lack of love toward our neighbor, repent of our fearing so many things around us, but hardly fearing Him. And what does He do when we lay our hearts and minds open before Him? By admitting our wrongs, don’t we acknowledge that He has the right to punish us?
He does have that right, but He does not send His wrath upon the repentant. He gives His grace. Look how the Lord dealt with Peter. Peter had just admitted his sinfulness. He was terrified to be in the presence of the holy God and begged Jesus to leave. And the next words out of Jesus’ mouth were, “Do not be afraid” (Luk. 5:10).
This is how the Lord deals with each one of us. We have sinned against Him in so many ways, and He knows it! But His response is not to take revenge. It is not to demonize us or seek to harm us. His response is forgiveness. Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid of God’s wrath anymore because I took that righteous punishment for you. Do not be afraid that your Father in heaven will turn His back on you because He turned His back on Me instead. Do not be afraid of suffering in hell for your sins because I suffered hell for your sins.”
Because of what Jesus did, you are reconciled to God. He is not your enemy. He loves you. He seeks your good. Quoting Psalm 34, Peter writes that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayer.” God considers you righteous because you trust in His holy Son. His ears are wide open to you. He wants to hear your fears. He wants you to turn them over to Him—fears about your relationships, fears about your finances, fears about the future, fears about your health and life.
The Lord promises that He will not abandon you to these fears. He will not leave you even if the whole world turns against you. “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” asks Peter. “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” You are blessed in your suffering because the Lord is with you, and no evil can prevail against Him. The victory is already His over sin and death, world and devil. And that victory is yours by faith in your Savior Jesus.
You and I cannot control what may happen to us today or tomorrow or the next day. That can make us feel afraid; we like to be in control. But it is far better to put our trust in the Lord, to leave our lives in His control. He loves us with an unchanging love. He redeemed our lives by shedding His own precious blood. He graciously called us to faith so that we would become heirs of eternal life and salvation.
“Fear itself,” as President Roosevelt put it, is not the problem as much as what we fear. Our fear should be directed to the Lord alone. He is completely holy and just. He is all-powerful and knows all. He can end the troubles we face in a moment, or He can use them to shape us and to call us and those around us to repentance.
Whatever He does, we know that He does it out of love. Through Jesus our Savior, we do not need to fear His wrath or eternal punishment. The fear that makes us want to run and hide is replaced by the fear that loves Him, respects Him, and wants to “serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness” (Second Article explanation).
So we look to Him in this godly fear, entrusting our lives and our troubles and our futures to Him. And He looks upon us with grace as His own dear children and says, “fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
+ + +
(picture of the miraculous catch of fish by Raphael, 1515)
The Third Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Ephesians 5:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who freely gives you His inheritance of eternal life, honor, and glory, dear fellow redeemed:
We are in the middle of an unprecedented health crisis that has schools, businesses, and individuals taking drastic measures to avoid the spread of a virus. On the positive side, we see great cooperation happening in our communities and country. We have a greater appreciation for the work done by medical health professionals. We are more thankful for the little things we often take for granted. On the other hand, many are filled with worry and fear. People are “panic buying” and thinking more about self than neighbor. They are irritated that the way of life they value and the things they like to do have had to change.
What god does the world look to at a time like this? There are many of them. Some look to the god of self, trusting that their own efforts and precautions will make them safe and keep them alive. Some look to the god of medicine, expecting that doctors and nurses will cure them if they get sick. Some look to the god of government at the local and national levels, waiting for the perfect plan of care and treatment that will get us out of this trouble. Others don’t know what they will do without the god of sports since competition at all levels has been suspended. Many of course also look to the God of heaven to take care of us and end this threat.
Whatever or wherever our god is, that is where we are willing to make sacrifices. If what I care most about is myself, I will be willing to sacrifice everything else around me. If it is medicine, any cost for care is worth it. If it is government, it will receive my full attention and trust. If it is sports, that will get my extra time and resources. All people make sacrifices to preserve the things they care about.
But what the world does not realize is that any sacrifice that is not made out of love for God and neighbor is a sacrifice made to the devil (1Co. 10:20). There is no neutral worship. Either we worship the true God and honor Him in what we think, say, and do, or we worship the devil and do the things he wants.
As baptized children of God, we are called to worship Him only and to offer Him the sacrifices of prayer and thanksgiving and a godly life. In today’s text the apostle Paul writes, “be imitators of God, as beloved children.” How are we to imitate God? The verse just before this says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). We imitate God by humbly serving others and by being eager to forgive those who wrong us. This is how we “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us.”
The devil wants us to do the opposite of this. He wants us to put ourselves first, to force others to serve us, to satisfy our own desires. This is what people do who engage in “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness.” They are not driven by what God says or what is good for their neighbor. They are driven by what they want. They don’t realize that this is what the devil wants too. The more he can keep them thinking about themselves, the less they will be focused on God.
We can all think of people who have fallen for the devil’s temptations in this area. In fact I am almost certain that each of us here has an unmarried family member, friend, or neighbor who is currently living with a significant other as though they were married. This is sexual immorality. Our culture considers this an acceptable practice, but God calls it a sin.
You may not do this yourself, but what about the other things Paul mentions: “filthiness,” “foolish talk,” or “crude joking”? This includes things like pornography use or sharing pictures you wouldn’t want anyone to know about, romance novels where sexual immorality is depicted in words, repeating dirty jokes, listening to and singing along with immoral song lyrics, and gladly participating in gossip about the personal details of other people’s lives. These are all things the devil wants us to engage in. But Paul says they are “out of place” for Christians. They are means by which the devil would coax us from faith in Jesus.
One way to determine whether or not something is pleasing to God is to think in terms of the Old Testament sacrifices offered up to God from an altar. God did not accept sacrifices with imperfections and blemishes. The animals had to be healthy and clean in appearance. The grain offerings had to be from the best part of the crop. These sacrifices given gladly from the heart pleased the LORD.
So you could ask yourself: Am I willing to set these words about someone on God’s holy altar—am I speaking as honestly and kindly as I can? Am I willing to offer up these things I am doing—are they done out of love for Him and my neighbor? Am I willing to give these thoughts as a holy sacrifice to Him?
There are many things we do, say, and think with a clear conscience, things which we gladly dedicate to God’s glory. These fruits of faith are a pleasing sacrifice to Him, and we also are blessed through them. But not everything coming from our hearts and minds, our hands and mouths is acceptable to Him. These things may please the devil, the world, and our own flesh. But they do not please the LORD. They are unholy sacrifices that give off a displeasing aroma before God and among our fellow Christians.
The life of an unbeliever can only produce such displeasing sacrifices. Paul writes that they have “no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God,” and “the wrath of God” will come upon them. We are not unbelievers, but we have often sinned in many of the ways they have. How do we avoid the same fate because of our sins?
When we are troubled by the things we have done, when we regret the sinful sacrifices we have made, God calls us to repent. He urges us to expose our sins to the light. This is what Paul told the Ephesian Christians in the verses immediately after today’s text: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light” (Eph. 5:11-14).
Through repentance, acknowledging our wrongs, we expose our sins to the light. The devil works in the darkness. He wants to keep us in the darkness too and tries to convince us that the best thing to do is to try to hide our sins, deny them, blame others for them. But we cannot hide anything from the living God, and it doesn’t do any good for us to try. After King David was convicted for his many and serious sins, he wrote of God’s mercy toward the repentant: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psa. 51:17).
God does not despise your sacrifice of a broken spirit and contrite heart, because Jesus paid for all sin. Your unkind or crude words, your immoral actions, your foolish and impure thoughts—all of these were placed on Jesus. He was perfect in every way, free from any blemish on His record. And He willingly offered Himself up to suffer and die in your place. His sacrifice fully atoned for your sins, every single one of them. Because of this, you are clean in God’s sight.
Today’s text says that “Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” His “fragrant offering and sacrifice” overcomes the unpleasant aroma of sin. Jesus’ sacrifice, and not our sins, is what our heavenly Father sees when we look to Him in faith. The gods of this world cannot save us from our sins. They cannot promise any comfort or help in times of trouble. The devil wants people to care only about themselves and to act desperately when their way of life is threatened.
But the true God loves us. He sent His Son to redeem us, so that we would be comforted in this life and have the sure confidence of life after this one. As long as we are here, He promises that He will “guard and keep us so that the devil, the world and our own flesh may not deceive us nor lead us into misbelief, despair and other shameful sin and vice” (Explanation to the Sixth Petition). The merciful Lord is with us no matter our trouble, whether that be a widespread virus or anything else. He will either deliver us from the threat, or He will use it to bring us to Him in heaven.
For these great mercies, especially the sacrifice of His only Son for our salvation, our Lord is worthy of the best sacrifices we can make to Him. These are the sacrifices of a repentant heart, a humble faith, and a God-pleasing life.
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.
+ + +
(portion of “Jesus in Prison” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)