The Fourth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 6:36-42
In Christ Jesus, who looks upon us not as we deserve but according to His grace, dear fellow redeemed:
We can all think of people who have no business pointing out the sins in others. Their sins are so obvious and clear that they are in no position to judge what anyone else does. Jesus talks about the log in a person’s eye. It’s quite a picture. Imagine a long plank sticking out of someone’s eye. But suppose the person did not notice it was there. He shows up at a party and starts talking about what is wrong with other people—how they look, how annoying they are, how he has everything together, and how they could learn a lot from him.
He does not understand why everyone wants to keep their distance, and why they get so angry whenever he shows up. That eye log is a hindrance to personal interaction! It pops people on the nose and smacks them on the side of the face whenever he turns his head. He complains about everyone blaming him. Why don’t they watch where they are going and give him more space?
It’s a ridiculous scenario. How could a person not know that a big log is sticking out of his eye? How could he not notice that? The problem with this guy is that he does not understand his problem. He thinks everyone around him is at fault for his feelings of rejection and discomfort. He is the victim. If everyone around him changed, he would be happier, and he assumes they would be too.
What Jesus is teaching about here is self-righteousness, about not being aware of one’s own glaring sins. A self-righteous person is a person who believes he is holy through his own efforts. It makes sense that Jesus would warn the Pharisees and scribes about this because they thought they were right with God through their keeping of the law. They did not realize how far they had fallen short. They were very prideful.
But Jesus did not speak the words of today’s text to the Pharisees and scribes. He spoke them to “His disciples” (Luk. 6:20), to those who believed in Him and followed Him. He told these disciples to take the logs out of their own eyes. He even called them “hypocrites”! This shows that Jesus was not afraid to criticize His followers. But He wasn’t doing it out of spite; it was out of love.
Jesus wanted His followers to see their own weakness and to understand the sinful condition of all descendants of Adam and Eve. He could speak in this way because He was without sin. He had been conceived in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit and was therefore free of original sin. He fully understood temptation to sin, but He committed no sin Himself.
He told His disciples to guard against the self-righteousness that was part of their sinful nature. They needed to hear the condemning words of the law, so that they would be humbled and cry out for God’s grace. They needed to see that they were no better than anyone else around them, either the Jews or the Gentiles.
The same goes for us. We are no better than anyone else, but the devil and our sinful nature try to convince us that we are. They tempt us to measure our righteousness by how much holier we are than others. But it isn’t a fair comparison. We typically do not look at others the same way that we look at ourselves. We see their sins more clearly than we see our own sins. We are much more ready to overlook our faults than the faults of others.
So it might be easy for me to justify telling a lie, but I come down harshly on others who do the same. Or I might be critical of a mess someone made, but I am totally unwilling to acknowledge my own messes. Self-righteousness is holding someone’s feet to the fire for a $100 debt, while being unconcerned about your own $100,000 debt. Self-righteousness is being eager to offer criticism but being totally unwilling to receive criticism.
Our self-righteousness is the reason Jesus reminds us to “be merciful,” to “judge not,” to “condemn not,” to “forgive,” and to “give.” He wants us to be humble and regard others as better than ourselves (Phi. 2:3). He wants us to look into the mirror of His holy law and see our many sins in that reflection. He wants us to repent of these sins and look to Him for forgiveness and for help to love our neighbors.
But showing love to our neighbors does not mean ignoring their sin altogether or confirming them in their sin. One of the most-quoted Bible passages in our day is: “Judge not.” Another version of this is the statement: “Only God can judge me.” These phrases are usually brought out when a person does not want to be questioned for his behavior or lifestyle choices. So what can you say when someone throws your words of caution or warning back in your face?
Let’s say that you find out your co-worker has been stealing from your employer. You call him on it, and he responds, “Who do you think you are? Are you so perfect? I thought Jesus said not to judge other people!” What do you say? Maybe his point sounds valid, and you let the issue go. But how is that loving to your co-worker, much less to your employer? A good way forward is to accept what your co-worker says without approving of the sin. You could say, “You’re right. I’m not perfect, far from it. I’ve sinned as much as anyone I know. But that does not mean I have to go along with something that is wrong or act like it isn’t happening.”
If your neighbors think you are criticizing them because you believe you are so good, they will avoid you like the people avoiding the guy at the party with the log in his eye. But if they see your humble spirit and know that you care about them, they will be much more ready to listen to what you say. They might not accept your criticism right away. They might even be angry with you. But in time they hopefully will see that you said what you did out of love for them.
Our goal in warning and correcting others is not to elevate ourselves in their eyes, as though they should be more like us. Our goal is to point them to Jesus. Jesus is the one solution to our problem of self-righteousness and sin. If we think we are so good compared to others, we should try comparing ourselves to Jesus. Then we see that our righteousness is nothing. We have not come close to loving as He loved and sacrificing as He sacrificed.
Our righteousness compared to His is like the light of a match compared to the light of the sun. Our righteousness—if it is truly righteousness—can light up just a tiny corner of this dark world. The light of His righteousness fills the earth and the heavens. His holy life under the law was so pure, so flawless, that it was able to cover over the unrighteousness of all sinners.
This perfect holiness was placed upon you when you were baptized, and it continues to cover you now. What good is it to keep a tally of your own good deeds or compare your life with others when Jesus’ righteousness is yours? We would rather lose all glory and honor in the world, all recognition and fame, than to lose Jesus’ righteousness. He is our perfection that the law demands. He is the fulfillment of all righteousness for us.
He is also the atonement for our sins. We have not always been merciful and forgiving and generous. We have not always been humble in our dealings with others. We have not always perceived the log in our own eye. But Jesus, with clear vision and perfect focus, walked the way of the cross for us.
He had no log in His eye, but He did have one on His back as He made His way to Golgotha. He was nailed to that log—the cross with all our transgressions—and He died for the sins of all, for the self-righteous, the prideful, and the unrepentant. By the shedding of His blood, Jesus atoned for every single one of your sins and mine. God the Father poured out the full measure of His wrath on His Son, so that the good measure of His grace and forgiveness would be “pressed down, shaken together, running over” and “put into [our] lap.”
We need this forgiveness every day because we continue to sin against our neighbors. We sin against them by hoping for their harm and failing to offer them our help. There is something in our eye, just as there is something in every sinner’s eye. But the Lord’s absolution, His free forgiveness, removes the logs and specks from our eyes. His grace clears up our vision, so that we see Jesus and everything He did to save us.
Seeing Jesus more clearly also helps us to see our neighbors more clearly. Our neighbors need mercy like we need mercy. They need forgiveness like we need forgiveness. They need help like we need help. And the Lord is eager to give these blessings to everyone. He blesses them through our efforts, and He often causes those blessings to return to us in good measure.
Jesus’ command to love our neighbor more and better than we have is hard for us to hear. It is painful to have the logs of self-righteousness removed from our eye. But He does this so that we look away from ourselves and any good things we might do and look toward Him. In Him we will always find righteousness, salvation, and the strength to live for His 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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(“The Parable of the Mote and the Beam” by Ottmar Elliger the Younger, 1666-1735)
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 16:5-15
In Christ Jesus, who returned to the Father after completing His saving work on earth (Joh. 16:28), and then sent out the Holy Spirit to distribute His salvation, dear fellow redeemed:
If you have never heard the word “Paraclete” before, you might wonder what it means. Here are some multiple choice options for you:
- “Paraclete” is a type of bird that repeats what people say.
- “Paraclete” is the footwear you need for outdoor sports.
- “Paraclete” is a title for the Holy Spirit.
I hope that was an easy one.
In our translation of the Bible, the word “Paraclete” is rendered “Helper.” Other translations for this word are “Advocate,” “Intercessor,” or “Comforter.” Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit by this term four times in His conversation with the disciples the night before His death.
- In John 14:16-17, Jesus said: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper [Paraclete], to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”
- John 14:26: “But the [Paraclete], the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
- John 15:26: “But when the [Paraclete] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”
- And then in today’s Gospel where Jesus said the Paraclete would come to convict the world and guide believers into all truth.
The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, was sent to convict the world concerning three things: “sin and righteousness and judgment.” This work is done through the Law of God. The primary function of the Law is to condemn. It is a mirror which reveals how we really are. We may seem to have things pretty well in order. But the Law uncovers our hidden sins, even the sins of our mind.
The Holy Spirit testifies through the Law that our sins have separated us from God. If we remain in these sins, we cannot have communion with God, because God is holy. The world is full of people who believe they are right with God (or at least hope they are), but who actually are opposed to Him. They do not believe they are in spiritual danger because of their sins, or they worship false gods who cannot save. So the Holy Spirit through the Law convicts the world’s inhabitants of sin. He shows that their trust and confidence are misplaced when they do not believe in Jesus as their Savior.
The Holy Spirit also convicts the world concerning righteousness. One of the biggest and most obvious lies today is the notion that “people are basically good.” It is true that many people do many good things. This is due to the influence of God’s moral Law written in their hearts (Rom. 2:15). But we ignore the great wickedness around us and in us if we say that people are mostly righteous. We cannot give ourselves or others so much credit.
Some are even so bold as to reject Jesus because they think their level of holiness rises to His. But who has ever done as much good as Jesus did? Who healed so many sick people? Who had such compassion on the poor and outcasts? Who gave so much hope? And when He was falsely accused and beaten and crucified, who suffered so quietly and humbly? If Jesus were little more than an example for us, and if living as He lived were the way to get to heaven, still no one could hope to attain such righteousness.
The Bible does not teach us to be confident in our own righteous deeds. It says that “[n]one is righteous, no, not one,” and that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:12, 23). Jesus said that He is the only one who is worthy to “go to the Father.” He was perfect. He did no wrong. He lived the life the holy Law requires. He succeeded where all others have failed.
Finally, the Holy Spirit convicts the world concerning judgment. The world follows its ruler. Isn’t that as it should be? No, because the world’s ruler—the devil—is an imposter. He usurped the throne that belongs rightfully to the world’s Creator. The Lord is the rightful King. But the devil will spread his lies and work for the destruction of souls as long as he has opportunity.
Everyone who denies Jesus follows the devil. They choose to follow the loser instead of the Champion. The devil is already judged. His fate is sealed. He cannot knock the crown off Christ’s head or the almighty God from His throne. Unless sinners repent, they will join the devil in the fires of hell and suffer there with him forever.
This is what the Holy Spirit comes to do for the world. He comes to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” The work the Paraclete does through the Law may not seem all that “helpful” or “comforting.” But if He does not convict through God’s Law, there will be no need for God’s comfort. If He does not carry out His condemning work, He cannot do His saving work. So He convicts the world—and us too—of our sin, our self-righteousness, and the judgment that comes upon the unrepentant. But He also strengthens believers in their faith through the Gospel.
The disciples were sad when Jesus told them He was going to the Father. Jesus said His leaving was to their advantage. His visible departure meant that the Paraclete would come. The Holy Spirit would be sent forth from the Father and the Son. He would come to guide the disciples “into all the truth.” He would bring to their remembrance everything Jesus said to them (Joh. 14:26). He would declare “the things that are to come.”
Those things that were coming were Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection and His glorious ascension to the right hand of the Father. The disciples did not understand that these things were necessary. But they soon learned why they were so important. The Holy Spirit enlightened their minds to understand that salvation could be won in no other way than this.
God the Son had to obey the will of His Father. He had to take on flesh and be born under the Law, so that His righteousness would cover each sinner’s sin. He had to suffer and die, so that the eternal punishment each of us had coming would be assigned to Him instead. He had to rise again on the third day to prove that He was who He said He was and that He did what He said He would.
This is the truth the Holy Spirit taught the disciples and what He still teaches us. This is what He helps us to remember, especially when we are troubled by our sins and failures. He comforts us by coming to us through the Word and Sacraments and declaring what He has been given to declare. He brings the gifts of the Father which were obtained for us by the Son. Jesus said of the Holy Spirit that “He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is Mine; therefore I said that He will take what is Mine and declare it to you.”
What is it that the Holy Spirit declares? After bringing you to repentance through the Law, He points you to Jesus. He declares that Jesus is your righteousness. He is your Savior. Because of Jesus’ suffering and death in your place, you have peace with God and eternal life. Your sins are forgiven. You are justified in God’s sight; you are not condemned.
This is how the Paraclete comforts you. He does not need to change His message from time to time to keep it fresh and interesting. The message of forgiveness and life in Christ is just as powerful and applicable today as it has been through all of human history. It is exactly what every sinful human needs to hear and believe. Until the end of time, God will continue to send the Holy Spirit to convict and comfort through His Word.
But Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit’s coming as being in the future. When would this happen? It happened on Pentecost, fifty days after Easter and ten days after Jesus’ ascension. We are approaching these festivals again—Ascension in less than two weeks and Pentecost in three weeks. These are excellent times to remember that the Lord keeps His promises. Everything Jesus predicted to His disciples came about. He did die and rise again, He did return to His Father, and He did send the Holy Spirit.
This means you will never lack hope, even in these troubled and troubling times. You are not alone in the world. Yes, the devil rules in the world and many follow him, but he is judged. He cannot win. Even while he carries out his destructive activities, the Paraclete counters them through the powerful Word. If the Holy Spirit were not active, there would be no church on earth; no one would believe. But God has reserved many “who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (1Ki. 19:18, Rom. 11:4), who have not gone away after “the ruler of this world.” He keeps many in the faith who look with eager anticipation for Jesus’ triumphant return.
Through His ongoing work in the church, the Holy Spirit lives up to His title. He is our Paraclete—our Helper, Advocate, Intercessor, and Comforter. He brings the gifts of God from heaven to earth, from the holy Savior to us unworthy sinners. For our salvation, The Paraclete Comes to Convict and Comfort. He works repentance in our hearts through the Law and faith in our hearts through the Gospel. He brings us everything we need to get to heaven, just as Jesus said He would.
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 stained glass by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, c. 1660)
The First Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 2:41-52
In Christ Jesus, whose life of perfect righteousness is bestowed upon us through His holy Word, dear fellow redeemed:
Parents want their children to be respectful, hardworking, and clean. These things don’t happen on their own. Parents teach their children to say “please” and “thank you.” They insist that their children finish their homework. They tell them to brush their teeth and pick up after themselves. One reminder does not do the job. These lessons must be repeated many times until they (hopefully) become habit.
But not all lessons are learned by verbal reminders. Children learn many things simply by watching their parents and following their example. My father demonstrated what it looked like to work hard and not complain. He taught his sons to show respect for women by opening doors for them, and he taught his daughters in the same way what to expect from a man. My parents taught us that Sunday is church day, and we went every week. They didn’t have to tell us these things; they showed us these things.
Today’s text indicates that Joseph and Mary also kept up good spiritual habits in their family. They would have attended their local synagogue each Sabbath day to hear the Scriptures, recite Psalms, and pray. And once a year, they made the several day journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. The Passover celebration was significant to the Jews like Good Friday and Easter are to us. The Passover was when the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt and started their journey to the Promised Land. Without the Passover, there was no freedom—and no nation with its spiritual center in Jerusalem.
Imagine how children must have looked forward to this trip, to leave their small towns and communities and join the great crowds in the holy city. Families navigated the narrow streets while fathers and mothers told their wide-eyed kids to “Stay close!” The kids couldn’t help being distracted. There were so many people and so much going on! But what they most wanted to catch a glimpse of was the shining temple, standing high on the hill.
When the temple came in view, Joseph and Mary must have told Jesus more than once about the day they brought Him there when he was a baby, just forty days old. As the law required, they were to present Him to the Lord in the temple. When they entered the temple courts, a man named Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and predicted great things about Him. A woman named Anna also came over and told everyone around them that the Redeemer had come.
What do you suppose Jesus thought about these things as He got older? What did He think about the visit of the shepherds the night of His birth, the words of Simeon and Anna at the temple, the visit of the wise men, and the flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s rage? When we were younger, people made predictions about what we might be and do, which probably had something to do with the vocations of our parents. And then we all reached the point where we wanted to be nothing like our parents—before we became something like our parents….
As children, we may have been told that we could be the President of the United States someday, or a professional athlete, or a famous actor. But no one actually expected us to be this. Jesus was called the Messiah, the Savior, and the Light of the world, and those who said so fully expected Him to do it. What would a twelve-year-old boy make of all these things?
Of course, Jesus was not simply a boy. He was God. And God knows all things and has power over all. But Jesus was still a human being. As a human being, He did not make full use of His divine powers. He humbled Himself. This means it was possible for Him to learn and to wonder about things. He wondered about those predictions for His life. Where could He go for guidance, for deeper insights about what was coming? What better place than the Holy Scriptures, and what better teachers than the ones in the temple?
Now that Jesus was twelve, His parents trusted Him to do some things on His own. Expecting that He was part of the group going back to Nazareth, they left Jerusalem. But Jesus was not part of the group. He had gone to the temple. He found the temple teachers and sat among them, “listening to them and asking them questions.” For at least parts of three days, the boy Jesus gladly heard and studied God’s Word.
But He wasn’t the only one learning. All who listened to Jesus’ questions and responses “were amazed at His understanding and His answers.” It was not as though Jesus was presuming to lecture the group. He did not take the teacher’s chair. He humbly studied under those in authority over Him. But teaching is not a one-way street. Those who teach probably learn as much themselves as their students do. I suspect you would agree with this if you have taught Sunday or Wednesday School or helped your child with a Catechism lesson.
The same is true with home devotions. When parents lead devotions with their children, they learn just as much as their children do, if not more. Sometimes the learning comes from insights their children have or from questions they ask. Have you ever had a child ask you a profound question about God or about the meaning of life? It takes you by surprise. These don’t seem like the kinds of things children think about, but they do.
Besides the questions they ask, children model for adults a strong faith in Jesus. The minds of adults are full of doubts about God and His love and the future. But children are not troubled by these things. They sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” and they believe it wholeheartedly.
Jesus Himself pointed to children as the model for faith. On one occasion, parents were bringing their children to Jesus for His blessing. Jesus’ disciples were trying to keep them away. They thought children were a distraction to His work. Jesus was not pleased. He told His disciples, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mar. 14-15). His words still stand. You and I do not outgrow the need for a childlike faith.
But having a childlike faith does not mean being content with the basic teachings of the Bible and digging no further. When a child has a hobby, does he just declare what his hobby is but never do anything with it? No! He explores it. He wants to know more about it. He wants to know how it works. Materials to advance his hobby are all he requests for Christmas or his birthday. We should be the same way with God’s Word. We should study the truth with no less dedication now than we did in Christian Day School, in Sunday or Wednesday School, or in Catechism Class.
We should want to listen to the Word and ask questions about it, just as Jesus did. We can learn a lot from a Twelve-year-old. Mary and Joseph learned from Him too. They were understandably distressed when they could not locate Jesus over three days. But Jesus had not gone to the temple to frustrate them. He said to His mother, “Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” They needed this reminder. It was probably too easy for them to view Jesus as a regular boy and to forget that He was God in the flesh.
We forget that too. We can think of the accounts about Jesus in the Bible as nice stories that don’t have much impact on us today. But Jesus was not simply a wise teacher or a miracle worker. Jesus is true God and Man, who shed His holy blood for our sins. He came to redeem us from the sins of our youth, our teenage years, our 20s and 30s, and beyond. He came to atone for our sins of being bad examples to children, of failing to study His Word, and of taking His holy gifts for granted. Jesus died for all of these sins, and He remembers them no more.
Through the message of forgiveness, Jesus also works in you good and holy desires. He leads you to pay closer attention to His Word, and He helps you to make it a part of your home life. You may not feel equipped to study the Word on your own or to teach it to your children, but you would certainly acknowledge that you have more to learn. Learning and growing in God’s Word is as simple as setting aside five minutes at breakfast or after supper or before bed to read a devotion or a chapter from the Bible. Then you and your children will develop good spiritual habits. And you will be passing along to them a greater inheritance than any amount of money or precious things.
Even Jesus, who according to His divine nature knew all things, made the study of the Scriptures His priority. His example was a powerful lesson for the adults around Him, just as it is for us today. But He is not just our example. He is our Savior. His perfect desire for God’s Word counts as our righteousness for all the times we have broken the Third Commandment. And His perfect submission to His parents and to all earthly authority counts for each time we have broken the Fourth Commandment.
His righteousness is continuously applied to us and brings relief to our conscience every time we hear His Word. You and I will never outgrow the need for this instruction and comfort. Whether you are ten or twenty or forty or eighty, God has more to teach you about the rich blessings of His grace, which Jesus obtained for you.
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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(painting excerpt from “Jesus Among the Doctors” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Festival of All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 5:1-12
In Christ Jesus, whose righteousness and blood have opened the way for us to heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
Parents spend a lot of time telling their children to “stick with it,” because “the hard work will pay off.” It may be in reference to schoolwork or practice for a particular sport. Or maybe a child has taken on a job that is harder than he realized. He feels like quitting, but his parents urge him on: “Stick with it! You can do this!”
As we get older, the problems of life get more complex and serious, and we don’t always have the cheerleader in our corner urging us and helping us to “stick with it!” We feel as though the burden on our shoulders is more than we can carry. We feel like no one understands our troubles. Close relationships break apart, and we don’t see how they could ever be repaired. Our best efforts fail, and we are at a loss for what else to try. We imagine that there is no good solution to the difficulties we face.
Such feelings of helplessness are symptoms of life in a fallen world. In this world, righteousness and justice do not always win out. Kindness, love, and respect are not always returned. Wrongs are not always righted. Hard work is not always recognized. Sacrifices are not always appreciated. And the Gospel of Christ’s redemptive work is rejected by a great many.
It is because of the trials believers face in this world that Jesus spoke today’s words of comfort. His list of “Beatitudes” begins His “Sermon on the Mount,” which spans three chapters in the book of Matthew. Though some try to turn Jesus’ words into a creed for social justice, His words address spiritual and not social challenges.
The first blessing is for “the poor in spirit.” It is for you who recognize your spiritual bankruptcy. By nature, you have nothing good to present to God, nothing to offer that could make you acceptable to Him. You confess yourself to be a “poor sinner,” who can only “flee for refuge to [God’s] infinite mercy” (ELH “Confession of Sin,” p. 41). While despairing of yourself, you have the same confidence as the psalmist: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
The second blessing is for “those who mourn.” It is for you who regret the wrongs you have done and are sorry for them. As much as you would like to take back things that you have done or said, you know that you cannot do this. And so you look to your merciful Savior. The hymnist Paul Gerhardt expressed this hope beautifully, “Rejoice, then, ye sad-hearted, / Who sit in deepest gloom, / Who mourn o’er joys departed, / And tremble at your doom; / Despair not, He is near you, / Yea, standing at the door, / Who best can help and cheer you, / And bid you weep no more” (ELH #94, v. 6).
The third blessing is for “the meek.” It is for you who have known injustice and unkindness, but who humbly commend your “body and soul and all things” into God’s loving hands (Luther’s Morning & Evening Prayers).
The fourth blessing is for “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” It is for you whose soul pants for God like a ragged deer searching for flowing streams. It is for the soul that thirsts “for the living God” (Ps. 42:2). The world is a spiritual desert, so you long for the spiritual oasis of God’s Word and Sacraments where your spirit can be refreshed and strengthened.
The fifth blessing is for “the merciful.” It is for you who take the burdens of others upon yourself by offering help and encouragement and by praying for them. You do not love your neighbor perfectly, but God is pleased by even your humble efforts. No good word or kind deed goes unnoticed by Him.
The sixth blessing is for “the pure in heart.” It is for you who want to live a God-pleasing life, who want to follow His will. You recognize that your heart is not pure like it should be, and you trust that God will graciously create “a clean heart” in you and “renew a right spirit” within you (Ps. 51:10).
The seventh blessing is for “the peacemakers.” It is for you who want to establish and keep peace not by compromising the truth, but by speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:25). You gently and patiently bear with others in love because you are “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
The eighth blessing is for “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” It is for you who are attacked for doing and saying the right thing. You willingly endure criticism and ridicule for your beliefs, because your trust is in God. You believe that nothing “will be able to separate [you] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).
The ninth blessing is for “you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account.” You know what it is like to have lies told about you, or to have unkind assumptions repeated about you. When these hateful words are spoken against you because of your confession of Jesus and His Word, you have the promise of God’s unchanging love and compassion for you.
As you have listened to the list of those to whom Jesus Gives His Holy Blessings, you might think that some of the descriptions apply to you, but some do not. Maybe you do feel “poor in spirit,” but you have not been much of a “peacemaker.” Maybe you have been “mourning” about your sin, because you have not been very “merciful.”
But here is the comforting truth: Wherever we have lacked righteousness—which is in every aspect of our lives—Jesus substitutes His perfection. All of our pride, our me-first attitude, our lack of mercy toward others, our inner uncleanness, our reluctant faith—all of it is covered over by the righteousness of Jesus. When God looks at His children by faith, He does not see our sin; He sees the holiness of Jesus. This is why we are called saints even while we bear a sinful nature in this sinful world.
Today, we remember the saints from our churches who have entered the church triumphant within the past year. We remember Edna, Godfrey, Mavis, Eunice, and Stella. It is common in our culture to speak about the dead as though they had reached perfection on this earth. The five people we remember today would not want us to do that. They knew their sin just as surely as we know our own sin. But they were saints on earth by faith in Jesus, and now their souls are in heaven, unencumbered by any pain, sorrow, or trouble.
They are part of the great host that we heard about in today’s Epistle lesson. They are among the countless number of saints “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10). We are glad for them, but we miss them. And we find it harder to face the troubles of this world without them.
This is why Jesus promises the blessings He does in the Beatitudes. To you who are “poor in spirit,” Jesus gives “the kingdom of heaven.” To you who “mourn,” Jesus gives comfort. To you who are “meek,” Jesus gives the inheritance of all things. To you who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus fills you with His holy food and drink. To you who are “merciful,” Jesus bestows His mercy. To you who are “pure in heart,” Jesus leads you into the glorious presence of God. To you who are “peacemakers,” Jesus calls you His brothers, the sons of God. To you who are “persecuted,” Jesus gives you the peace of heaven. To you who are reviled and lied about, Jesus gives you the eternal reward of Paradise.
These blessings are yours by faith in Jesus. You are among the suffering ones that He describes here. He is telling you that He understands your sorrow. He understands your pain. He understands the loneliness of life in the fallen world. If anyone knew these troubles, He did. He was despised and reviled and persecuted by all people in order to win for sinners the eternal riches of God.
This Lord who suffered on your behalf is now with you in your suffering. No matter how much it may feel like it at times, you are not alone. Jesus is here for you as you struggle through. He “opens His mouth” and speaks comforting words of forgiveness and healing to you through your pastor and other Christian friends. And He addresses your spiritual weakness by feeding you with His holy body and quenching your thirst with His precious blood. Jesus Gives His Holy Blessings Even to You.
This does more for you than a motivational “Stick with it!” or a “You can do this!” Instead Jesus says, “I can do this, and I have done it. All that you need, I have given to you. All that is Mine is yours. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” By faith in these promises, we will one day be free of all our troubles and will join those saints above, that joyful host clothed in white robes. Then together we will worship the Lamb, our Savior, forever.
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(portion of “The Sermon of the Beatitudes” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 6:24-34
In Christ Jesus, who clothed Himself in your sin, so you would be arrayed in His righteousness, dear fellow redeemed:
What would your life have to look like for you to be able to say, “I am content”? Would you say that if you had good health, but nothing else? How about good health, a good home, and a good-paying job, but no family or friends? How about good family and friends, but little in the way of earthly possessions? Contentment seems hard to come by. We think that this relationship, or this thing, or this promotion will finally bring us happiness. But when one goal is realized, we immediately face other troubles and problems.
There are some people who seem unaware of any difficulty. They generally have a positive outlook and a cheerful disposition. Whether they are experiencing ups or downs, they express thankfulness. This trait is most often demonstrated by the elderly, who have learned not to “sweat the small stuff,” and by the spiritually mature, who have learned to give their anxieties and troubles over to God.
But for most of us, our days are punctuated by one worry after another and a persistent discontentment. As our troubles increase, we wonder why God doesn’t step in and fix everything. Isn’t He able to set everything right? Doesn’t He care about our problems? Or could it be that there is no God at all? In other words, we question if God is all-powerful, if God is merciful, and if God is real.
Proving that God is not real is the first goal of the atheists. Assuming there is no God, they argue that there are no concrete moral rules to govern our behavior, so how we live our life is entirely our choice. And they say that when we die, there is no afterlife; we simply cease to exist. This is a tough sell for those who want to believe their life has purpose, and for those who are convinced that there is more to the universe than what our eyes can see and our hands can touch.
So then atheists move on to their next goal. If they cannot convince us there is no God, they will do their best to craft the sort of god we should believe in. Ultimately, this is the god of self, (which is really the atheist god). An atheist is not bothered by those who look for spiritual guidance inside themselves. He knows that “doing what I feel God wants me to do” is no different than “doing what I feel I want to do.” The god of our feelings does not trouble the atheist.
But atheists are very much troubled by the God of the Bible. He is their chief enemy. So if they cannot convince people there is no God, then they want to get people to reject the Christian God. And how do they do that? They point to the evil in the world, and ask why the Triune God—if He is so powerful and good—doesn’t end the evil. And then they look at the Christian—a self-proclaimed “child of God”—and ask why their “heavenly Father” allows them to suffer and be sad, and why they die just the same as everyone else. “If the Christian God is real,” they say, “then He isn’t a very good God. And what is the point of following a God who is not good?”
What do you think about that? How would you respond? Is God Good? If you focus only on the bad things in the world and the bad things that happen to you, you might wonder if God is good. But if you look at the many good things that happen even in this fallen world, you might think God is doing okay.
But how you and I think about God does not change how He is and always has been. He is not subject to our performance review. He does not have His fingers crossed hoping we approve of Him. He is God, “from everlasting to everlasting” (Ps. 90:2). He is the Creator of all things and the Lord over all. We are not called to critique Him. We are called to love Him. Today’s Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy 6 says, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (v. 5). This command applies, not just when things are good for us, but also when things are bad.
But why should we love a God who seems to be ignoring us or even attacking us? It is something like asking why you should love your children if they don’t do exactly what you tell them. You love them because they are your children. Why should you love your spouse when he or she is unkind? Because he or she is your spouse. Why should you love your brothers or sisters even when they annoy you? Because they are your siblings. Whether or not God seems to be good, we love Him because He is our God, our Creator, our Father.
And He most certainly is good. To illustrate God’s goodness, Jesus points to the birds of the air. How many do you suppose there are in just one square mile of this part of Iowa? There must be hundreds. They don’t have barns or bank accounts, and yet they have enough food year round. “Are you not of more value than they?” says Jesus. Or what about the lilies of the field? Do they appear to be worried about having something to wear? But if God clothes them so beautifully, won’t He make sure you have the clothing you need?
The Lord has given each of us so much that our concern is not simply having food and drink, but having quality food and drink. We are not worried about having clothes to wear, but having fashionable clothes to wear. None of us who has a home to live in, food in the cupboards, clothes in the closet, and money in the bank should be discontent with our earthly mammon—our earthly possessions. And yet we often are. Why? On some level, it must be because we doubt that God is good. If we were convinced of His goodness, we would not doubt His care.
Jesus knows this about us. That is why He spoke these words. He wants to teach us to take an honest look at our own hearts. He wants us to recognize our divided loyalties, that we trust partly in God and partly in ourselves. And He wants us to repent of this sin of idolatry, of making a god out of ourselves. There is no “God and.” We cannot serve God and money, God and the world, God and our own plans. As Jesus told Satan, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Mt. 4:10).
When Jesus said this to the devil, He was in great need. He had eaten nothing for forty days. Why would His heavenly Father let Him suffer like this? But we don’t hear Jesus asking “Why?” and “How long?” We hear Him quoting from and clinging to the Scriptures. He did not put Himself first. He put love for God and His Word first. He tells us to do the same: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
We “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” by hearing and learning God’s Word. It is through God’s Word that the Holy Spirit applies Jesus’ righteousness to us. What we could not do ourselves, Jesus did for us. We fail to love God with all our heart, soul, and might, so Jesus loved God perfectly in our place. Our sins of worry and anxiety and doubt could not add “a single hour to [our] span of life,” much less save us from death, so Jesus won eternal life for us through His death and resurrection.
If we should worry about anything, it shouldn’t be how we will pay the bills or whether we will have enough for retirement. If anything, we should worry about how to remain in God’s favor. But we don’t even have to worry about this. God is not angry with us. He will not punish us for our sinful priorities and our “little faith.” His answer for our sin was the sending of His only-begotten Son. Jesus shed His blood for each time that you put your earthly plans and your earthly possessions before Him, for each time that you tried to serve both Him and the world, for each time that you stayed up all night worrying only to have everything work out better than you could have hoped.
The good God “knows [our] need, and well provides [us]” (ELH 177, v. 1). He promises that those who “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” will receive not only what they need spiritually, but also what they need for this body and life. The providence of our earthly needs is what Jesus refers to when He says, “and all these things will be added to you.” This does not mean that you will absolutely live in your dream house, or even that you will keep the house you have. It does mean that God will provide for you, one way or another, because that is what He promises to do. If He provides for the birds and the lilies, He will provide for you.
You are far more precious to Him than birds and lilies. Your heavenly Father sent His Son to be clothed in your flesh, so that you would be clothed in His righteousness. Saying that “God is good” is an understatement. He is a perfect God, a patient God, a merciful God, a faithful God, a forgiving God, a gracious God. He is the God who brings good out of evil and life out of death. He is a God in whom you can put your whole trust, because He will not fail to help you in your time of need and every other time besides.
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The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
Text: St. Matthew 5:20-26
In Christ Jesus, who gives the rich blessings of salvation to sinners at no cost to them, dear fellow redeemed:
When you see a penny on the ground, do you stoop down to pick it up? A recent survey (YouGov) indicates that older Americans value the penny more than younger Americans do. 70% of people over age 55 said they would pick up a penny, while less than 40% in their teens and twenties would do so. Overall, more than half the people surveyed said they would not bother with a penny. They figure it isn’t worth the effort. It is not valuable enough to them.
This is similar to the way many people think of the Gospel, the good news of salvation through Jesus. For many, the Gospel is not worth more than a passing glance. It has no great effect on their daily lives. It hardly figures into their work and plans. For those that do bother to take a closer look at it, it is often easily set aside or forgotten. Even by many Christians, the Gospel is not seen as essential for our life. “What Jesus did was important,” they say, “but what matters the most now is how I live.” Instead of seeking refuge in the Gospel, these individuals try to find comfort in the Law.
This temptation to draw our confidence from the Law instead of the Gospel is something that every Christian has fallen for. We look to separate the so-called “good Christians” from the “bad Christians” by the fruits they produce. This is not entirely off-base. Jesus plainly taught that “no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit” (Lk. 6:43-44). So then the thinking goes that if I do good things, I must be a good tree, and if I do bad things, I must be a bad tree. But who decides what counts as “good” and what counts as “bad”?
What happens is that each person decides in his or her own mind what is “good” and “bad,” and the definition is always skewed. I will naturally define as “good” the way I live my life and how I like to operate. On the other hand, my definition of “bad” is when other people do things I don’t like or when they contradict or criticize my plans and desires. But a self-made set of principles or rules to live by, is no way to produce the righteousness that God requires.
Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees were regarded as the “holy people” among the Jews. They followed the rules. They set the standard. But theirs was an empty righteousness. Their obedience to God’s Law was only external; it did not come from hearts of faith. They were something like our Amish neighbors, who are careful to follow strict rules of lifestyle and behavior, and who imagine that it is this which pleases God.
But Jesus said that the righteousness that gains the kingdom of heaven must exceed such outward righteousness. No matter how “good” a person is, it is not enough. God requires perfection—perfect righteousness in everything we think, do, and say. To test His listeners to see how they thought of themselves, Jesus applied the Ten Commandments in ways the people were not used to hearing. To begin with, Jesus said that it is not simply murderers who fall under the condemnation of the Fifth Commandment. It is also those who store up anger toward someone, or who refuse to admit the wrongs they have done.
Then He taught about the Sixth Commandment that it is broken not just by those who commit adultery, but also by those who have lustful thoughts about someone else (Mt. 5:27-30), and by those who stubbornly file for divorce (vv. 31-32). The Second and Eighth Commandments are broken by taking foolish oaths (vv. 33-37). The Fifth Commandment is again broken by those who seek revenge (vv. 38-42), and who think it is proper to “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (v. 43). But Jesus said that children of God should “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44).
These examples are enough to show us how much we lack the righteousness God requires of us. If we imagine that we are “good enough” to get into heaven by our own works, we will pay the eternal consequence for this arrogant thinking. Jesus says that not one bit of God’s Law is considered fulfilled by us unless all of it is kept (5:18). And if it is not all kept, eternal payment is required. We might not care about a penny on the ground, but the righteous God demands a full payment for our sins, even down to “the last penny.”
If our sins were pennies, the last thing we would want to do is gather them up. We usually act like they are not even there. When we do feel guilty about one sin or another, we just let them be or kick them aside and hope that time will wash them away. But if our sins were collected day by day, throughout our lives, this would be no small amount. Our sins are like piles—or more likely, mountains—of pennies that cannot be pushed aside and that keep us from reaching our heavenly goal. We wish we could forget about our sin, but like a financial debt, it doesn’t just go away. The wages of sin must be paid (Rom. 6:23), and we haven’t got the funds.
This is why the Gospel is nothing to take for granted or ignore. The Gospel is the good news of what Jesus did to save us. He said, “I have not come to abolish [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them” (Mt. 5:17). He did not come to change God’s standard of perfection or to remove it. As we can see by today’s reading, He put a sharper point on the Law than people were accustomed to (7:28-29). He wanted to show that no one has produced the righteousness God requires. None can get to heaven on their own. Another must do for us what we cannot do.
The Apostle Paul wrote that “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2Cor. 8:9). How was our Lord rich? He was rich in righteousness and life. From eternity, God the Son shared perfection and glory with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. It was in His image of perfect righteousness that God created man and woman. When Adam and Eve sinned, they lost their holiness and were separated from God. But God still loved them and all who would be born from them. He promised to send a Savior.
This Savior was God’s Son, born of the Virgin Mary. He came in total humility, not making full and constant use of His divine power. He subjected Himself to the requirements of the Law and diligently kept it in every detail. He did this for you and me. He kept God’s Law in our place, so that we might inherit His eternal riches. “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21). Our sins were placed on Jesus like an immeasurable weight of bag after bag of pennies, and He accounted for each of our terrible sins through His suffering and death. He also now places His perfect righteousness on us and on all who believe in Him. He was rich and became poor, so that we who were spiritually impoverished would become rich.
The riches of righteousness and life that He produced are all we need. They are our only hope for salvation. They are the only lifeline there is between us and God. What Jesus has done, the Holy Spirit graciously brings to us through Word and Sacraments. Through the Law, He impresses upon us our great debt of sin and our need for salvation. Through the Gospel, He brings us the full forgiveness of our sins and strengthens our faith in Jesus.
We are saved entirely by grace, and not by our own righteousness. The place for our works is not in earning or contributing toward our salvation. We live according to God’s will and want to keep His Commandments out of love for Him and out of thankfulness for His grace. We do not carry the burden of having to prove ourselves to God, or of trying to win His favor. We are already righteous in His sight by faith in His Son. We will enter the kingdom of heaven because of Jesus’ righteousness, because He did for us what we could not do.
So the question that every sinner should be concerned with is this: In What Do You Put Your Trust? If your trust is in your own righteousness, then the words of Paul to the Galatians apply to you, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4). But if your trust is in Christ alone, in Jesus only, then your righteousness does exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, because then you have Jesus’ righteousness credited to you.
Whether or not you make it a habit to pick up pennies off the ground is up to you. But if you do, take a moment to read our national motto printed there, “In God We Trust.” Think of why the true God is to be trusted, and think of what any alternative to His grace would be. Then humbly repent of your sins and hold tightly to His promises. Say with the psalmist, “In You, O LORD, I put my trust; Let me never be ashamed; Deliver me in Your righteousness” (Ps. 31:1, NKJV). With such a faith, you will receive rich blessings from a gracious God, who loves you and gave Himself for you.
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(painting of “The Sermon on the Mount” by Rudolf Yelin the Older, 1912)
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 16:5-15
In Christ Jesus, whose saving gifts are imparted to us by the Holy Spirit through the powerful means of grace, dear fellow redeemed:
Like the words of the Holy Gospel for last Sunday, Jesus spoke the words of today’s text the night before His crucifixion. After about three years of public work, the crowning moment of His life was fast approaching. He was about to shed His holy blood for the salvation of sinners before rising again on the third day. But in this part of His discourse with His disciples, He wanted to prepare them for what would happen after His resurrection.
He said, “I am going to Him who sent Me.” He planned to return to the Father from whom He came. This was good news, but the disciples did not realize it. The return of Christ to His Father could only mean that God the Father accepted the work of His Son. It must mean that there was nothing more for sinners to do to gain their salvation. The work was finished; salvation had been won.
This return to His Father happened when Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after His resurrection. At His ascension, God the Father seated Him at His right hand, putting all things under His feet and giving Him as head over all things to the church (Eph. 1:22). From this position of all power and authority, God the Son in cooperation with His Father sent out the third Person of the Trinity, God the Holy Spirit. And what was the Holy Spirit to do? Jesus said, “He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.”
He must “convict the world concerning sin,” because no person by nature wants to admit his sins. Instead of acknowledging sin, many decide to embrace it. Some do this in violation of their conscience—they know something is wrong, but they do it anyway. Others sin in ignorance—they actually do not realize that what they are doing or saying is displeasing to God. The Holy Spirit works on both kinds of people to convince them of the unchanging standard of God’s moral law.
The reason He must do this is because sin acts like a depressant, like a drug, which slowly lulls the sinner to spiritual sleep. The more we participate in a wrong thing, the more we continue in it, the less we will be aware that it is wrong. Our spiritual life is one example of this. It is easy to think that we are getting as much spiritual nourishment as we need through regular or semi-regular church attendance. But what about the other six and a half days of the week? Does God’s Word and prayer have any place in those days?
You might be more knowledgeable about spiritual things than many of your peers. But how do you compare with your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents? Does your focus on spiritual things match what you witnessed in them? Typically, those who do not recognize their own great sinfulness will have little interest in the regular hearing and learning of the Word. They are content to know the basic teachings in the Bible and figure they are in good shape. But a lazy Christian disconnected from the Word is just a small step away from being no Christian at all.
Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (Jn. 8:31). The Word reveals Jesus. It is the record of the essential details of Jesus’ life and saving work. Everything written about Jesus is true, from what He said to what He did. All of it happened. Many eyewitnesses who had nothing to gain by lying accurately recorded these things. What is found in the Bible is not just some collection of spiritual opinions, which are no more true or valid than the teachings of other religions. The Bible is God’s own Word; it is what He wants every sinner to know and believe.
To know what the Bible says, to learn everything that Jesus did, and then to reject it, is the greatest sin. Jesus says the Holy Spirit “will convict the world concerning sin… because they do not believe in Me.” By rejecting Jesus, the sinner embraces his sin. Only through the blood of Jesus is sin forgiven. If Jesus does not stand between us and God as our Substitute, we will one day have to stand before God on our own. Then all our sins will be counted against us, and eternal torment will be our just reward. But if our trust is in Jesus, our sins will not be counted against us. Then we are credited with the payment Jesus made for sin.
The Holy Spirit works faith through the Gospel only after condemning through the Law. No sinner will look to a Savior if he doesn’t first understand why he needs saving.
The second task of the Holy Spirit is to “convict the world concerning… righteousness.” Jesus explained that the Holy Spirit must do this “because I go to the Father, and you will see Me no longer.” Just as sinners do not naturally understand the depths of their sinfulness, they also do not recognize the poor record of their own attempts at righteousness.
We are far less righteous than we imagine ourselves to be. We judge our righteousness by the wrong standard. We measure our righteousness against the behavior of others. This is what the Pharisee in the temple did. He thanked God that he was not like other men who were robbers, unjust, adulterers, or tax collectors (Lk. 18:11). But righteousness is not determined by sinners comparing themselves to each other. That’s like trying to determine who smells better after playing in the manure pile!
The standard for our righteousness is the perfect God. That is where we should be. We should “be perfect, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). But we are not even close to that. This is why God gave His people all those specific regulations for holiness in the Old Testament. It was to show the people the vast gap between their sinfulness and His holiness. It was to teach them to trust in Him alone and not in their own efforts at righteousness. In the final reckoning, our righteousness could never hold up before God. The prophet Isaiah states the matter plainly, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (64:6).
This explains half the reason for Christ’s coming. He did not come only to atone for our sin. He also came to fulfill all righteousness for us. He came to meet the standard God had set for mankind in His Ten Commandments. He loved the LORD God with all His heart, soul, and mind. He perfectly honored the authorities, helped His neighbor, kept Himself pure, respected the possessions of others, told no lies, and didn’t even desire what belonged to His neighbor.
When you were converted and incorporated into the body of Christ, His perfect righteousness was placed upon you, like a spotless garment covering all your sin. Every sin against God and neighbor that could be counted against you, Jesus replaces with His holiness. You might remember the many sins of your past, but God does not. He sees you through His Son as perfectly righteous and holy.
This does not mean we can stop trying to do the right things, since Jesus accomplished everything perfectly for us. We want to live according to His Word out of love for Him and out of thankfulness for what He has done. But even as the Holy Spirit moves us to do these good things, He guides our focus away from our own works and to the perfect works Jesus did on our behalf.
The third task of the Holy Spirit revealed by Jesus is that “He will convict the world concerning… judgment… because the ruler of this world is judged.” The “ruler of this world” is the devil. He reigns over all that is evil. In his well-known hymn, Martin Luther described Satan as “our ancient foe,” who “doth seek to work us woe; / Strong mail of craft and pow’r / He weareth in this hour; / On earth is not his equal” (ELH 251, v. 1). He is a powerful opponent of the truth. “He is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).
But this prince of darkness is no match for the holy Lord. As hard as he tried, he could not get Jesus off course from what He came to do. Jesus said that “[The devil] has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me” (Jn. 14:30-31). Satan never had the upper hand. His fate was sealed right after Adam and Eve’s fall when the LORD promised to send One to crush Satan’s head and destroy his power over sinners (Gen. 3:15). The Apostle John wrote that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1Jn. 3:8).
By His atonement for sin through His death on the cross and by His resurrection from the dead, Jesus did just that. Because your sin has been blotted out, the devil cannot rightfully accuse you anymore. He cannot argue that you belong in the kingdom of darkness, because Jesus has won your salvation. Jesus has brought you over into the kingdom of light.
But all who reject this salvation remain under judgment along with the devil. Unless they repent, they will suffer as he suffers, and they will forever be separated from God. Our merciful Lord does not want this to happen. He “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Tim. 2:4).
The Holy Spirit guides sinners “into all the truth.” He takes everything Jesus did to produce your righteousness and earn your forgiveness and win your salvation, and He brings it to you through His powerful Word and Sacraments. He takes the blessings that are of the Father and of the Son, and He declares them to you. The Triune God keeps none of these good things from you. What Jesus Won, the Holy Spirit Distributes, so that you may believe and be saved.
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(picture is stained glass by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, c. 1660)
The Baptism of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 3:13-17
In Christ Jesus, who fulfilled all righteousness for you, dear fellow redeemed:
In the home where you grew up, how often did you hear the words, “I love you”? Did you and your siblings ever say it to each other? Did your parents say it to you? Did your parents say it to each other? These words can be said so much that they are hardly noticed. Or they can be said so little that love is questioned. This is like when Lena asked Ole after thirty years of marriage if he loved her any more. Surprised at the question, Ole said, “Of course I do! I told you so on our wedding day!” As you know, it is not safe in a relationship to assume that the other person knows what you are thinking. Thoughts must be shared and communicated, even if it isn’t always comfortable to do so.
But it seems that we are at a disadvantage when it comes to communication with God. He knows all about us. He knows when we sit down and rise up. He discerns our thoughts from afar. Even before a word is on our tongue, He knows what we will say (Ps. 139:2,4). He knows what we are thinking, but how can we know what He is thinking? He says He had a plan laid out for our life even before we took our first step (Eph. 2:10). But what is that plan? Is there any way to find out?
There are some who try to discover the hidden will of God. They are always on the lookout for special messages and special dreams from God to guide them in making life decisions. Some say they can hear the voice of Jesus in their heads, or that they can feel the Spirit leading them in one direction or another. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a relationship with God like that? But more often than not, what people perceive as the voice of God is actually the voice of their old Adam or even the devil.
God does not think the way we do. This is exactly what He says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9). There are hidden mysteries of God that cannot be understood in this life. There are answers that must wait until heaven. So is there no way to know what God thinks about us?
We wish the Father spoke to us like He did to His Son. After Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” God the Father could not have been clearer about His thoughts toward His Son. Jesus could go ahead with His saving work knowing that He had His Father’s approval. And why wouldn’t the Father approve of Him? Jesus was perfect.
But perfect, you and I are not. We are far from perfect. God gave us good to perform, and we did evil. He gave us work to do, and we shunned it. He gave us laws to follow, and we broke them. John the Baptizer did not mince words about people like us. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” he cried out. “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt. 3:8,10). Have you produced good fruit? Have you produced enough of it?
You and I are plagued with the daily evidence of our inadequacy. Yes, we put on a cheerful attitude at work, but our hearts are full of judgment toward our co-workers. Yes, we feed and clothe our children, but we don’t always view them as blessings. Yes, we voice our commitment to our spouse, but we let ourselves indulge in fantasies about others. Yes, we say we are thankful for what we have, but we secretly wish we had what others do. As much as we try to watch what we do and what we say, we struggle to control our thoughts. And the harder we try to control them, the more we are aware of our failures.
We shouldn’t imagine for a moment that our sins are somehow hidden from God. He knows about every last one. This is why we wouldn’t mind some reassurances from Him. We would like to know that He still loves us and is not angry with us. We want to be sure that we are not outside His grace, and that He will take us to heaven when we die. Is there some message He could send to make this clear? Yes! In fact, He has many comforting messages to send our way.
One of them is recorded by the evangelist Matthew, a message detailing the baptism of Jesus. What is confusing about this account is why Jesus thought He needed to be baptized. You and I know that one of the blessings of baptism is the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus had no sins to be forgiven. So why did He want to be baptized? John wondered the same thing. Jesus told him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.” It was not to gain righteousness for Himself; He was already perfect.
Jesus stepped down into the waters of the Jordan River for you, to take up your sins. When your hands are dirty, you go to the sink and let the clean water wash all the dirt away. The opposite happened to Jesus. Though He was perfectly clean, He let the sins of the world be poured out on Him at His baptism. This includes your sins, even the sins of your mind. Each sin was poured upon Jesus, and they stuck there. Now they were His to carry, and He would not be relieved of them until three years afterward when He breathed His last on the cross.
But Jesus did more for you at His baptism than taking up your sins. He also left His righteousness in the waters of baptism. He left His righteousness, so that when sinners are baptized, His righteousness sticks to them and stays with them as long as they remain in Him. The Apostle Paul writes, “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor. 5:21), and “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).
So at your baptism, you “put on Christ.” You were covered in Him. What was His, became yours. His holiness, His atoning blood, His victory over death—all of these were given to you. By baptism, you were buried and raised with Him (Rom. 6:4). You were born again to new spiritual life (Ti. 3:5). You are not as you were before; you are a new creation (2Cor. 5:17).
God looks at you differently now. He does not see you covered in your sins, cowering in the kingdom of darkness. When He looks at you, God the Father sees His Son. He sees His obedience and His perfect righteousness. In you, He sees a beloved son, with whom He is well pleased.
Baptized into Christ, one with Christ by faith, you truly are a son of God. And why is it important that you are called a “son”? Why not a “daughter” of God, or simply a “child”? Those terms are fine, but “son” expresses something more. It was the firstborn son in a family who stood to inherit what belonged to his father. It is as the father told his oldest son, who pouted about the warm reception given to his prodigal brother—the father said, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Lk. 15:31).
All that God the Father has is yours through faith in His only-begotten Son. Jesus your Brother is not jealous about the kindness shown to you by His Father. He gave Himself in your place, so you would have this glory and joy. He was willing to do this because He loved His Father, and He loved you. He gladly took your place in the depths of sin, so you could have His place in the heights of heaven.
Jesus is the proof of God’s love for you. You will never be certain of His love if you wait for Him to send you special, personal assurances of it. If you wait for an “I love you!” to boom down from the clouds, you will be waiting a long, long time. The place to hear God speak to you is not in your head or in your heart. It is in His Word. This is where God’s love in Christ for all sinners is made crystal clear.
This love was personally bestowed on you in your baptism. In baptism, you did not choose God; He chose you. He made an undying commitment to you, which He will never forget and never break. Through those waters, you were incorporated into the body of Christ, as so many other blessed sinners have been throughout history. You were brought into the family of God, and placed alongside Christ as an heir of His eternal blessings.
This is where you stand with God, and where you will continue to stand by faith in His Son. Your humble repentance for your sins will not be met with a cold shoulder or with burning anger. Those sins were put on Jesus, and His righteousness was put on you. You are baptized into Christ. Your sins are forgiven. “[F]or in Christ Jesus You Are All Sons of God, through faith…. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:26,29).
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(picture is portion of 1895 painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)
The Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 26) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:31-46
In Christ Jesus, who will come from the right hand of the Father to judge the living and the dead and bestow the crown of life on all who confess His name, dear fellow redeemed:
In the Judgment Day scene that Jesus describes, it is obvious that He is the one in charge. He is the one asking the questions; He is the one calling the shots. He will not receive the great and powerful people of the world like one dignitary or government official might receive another. Jesus will be seated on His throne as the unquestionable Lord, the King of the universe. The angels will gather all people to Him like herdsmen gather their livestock. All will be brought before Him for judgment—the righteous to be sent to heaven and the unrighteous to hell.
Jesus will come then in a very different way than He came before. Before, He came in meekness; then He will come in power. Before, He came in humility; then He will come in glory. The difference really is striking. On the Last Day, everyone will know that Jesus is the Lord of all. But when He first arrived in the flesh, He came as the Servant of all. This was just as He planned. Jesus told His disciples that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mt. 20:28).
But in today’s text, Jesus seems to say more about our service to Him than His service to us. He says He will put everyone at His right hand who gave Him food when He was hungry, drink when He was thirsty, a home when He was wandering, and so on. But He will put at His left hand everyone who did not give Him food or drink or home or clothing when He needed them. So which category do you fit in? Have you provided service to Jesus in these ways, or not? No doubt your response is the same as the people both at Jesus’ right hand and at His left: “Lord, when did we see You in each of these situations of need?”
Jesus’ answer is: By serving (or not serving) “the least” of His brothers, you served (or did not serve) Him. Who are “the least” that Jesus refers to? Who else could it be but the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned? “The least” of Jesus’ brothers is your neighbor in need. Your neighbor has all sorts of needs, some of the same ones you have, but other ones too. Some of the people you come in contact with are very wealthy, while others are poor—each station having its own challenges. Some are in good health, while others are afflicted with disease and weakness. Some have a stable home life, while others struggle to make it through each day.
God has given you special work to do. No one has exactly the same neighbors as you have. No one has exactly the same gifts, exactly the same abilities. No one is as well-positioned to help your neighbors as you. But what can you do for the poor when you haven’t got money to spare? What can you do for the mentally troubled when you don’t have the training? What can you do for the children in a turbulent home?
You can’t make every situation better and every problem go away. But you can love your neighbors by showing kindness to them and helping them, starting with the neighbors in your own home—your parents, your siblings, your spouse, your children. They are your closest neighbors, who are constantly in need of food and drink and shelter and clothing and care. Along with that, you can pray for them knowing that God always hears and answers prayer.
But you haven’t always done this, or at least haven’t done it perfectly. You have not always helped the neighbor who needed it. Sometimes you have avoided your neighbor out of anger, selfishness, fear, prejudice, or pride. Instead of treating your neighbor how you would want to be treated, you have often treated your neighbor how you think they deserve. So when Jesus returns on Judgment Day, how could you and I ever hope to be placed at His right hand?
If salvation depended on a perfect attitude and service toward our neighbors, no one would be placed at Jesus’ right hand. “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). But your salvation does not rely on your works. Jesus is not teaching that here, nor does He teach it anywhere. Salvation always and only depends on Him.
Jesus’ humble work throughout the time of His public ministry shows how He fulfilled the law of perfect love toward neighbor for you. He considered no one below Him. Each hurting person was His neighbor, whom He was ready to help. For instance, He healed a man with a deformed hand (Mk. 3:1-5), He gave strength to an invalid who had been all but ignored for thirty-eight years (Jn. 5:2-8), He cleansed a leprous man by reaching out and touching him (Mt. 8:2-3), He cast out debilitating demons (Mk. 5:1-13, Lk. 13:10-13), He fed the hungry (Jn. 6:1-14), and He raised the dead (Mk. 5:35-43, Lk. 7:11-15, Jn. 11:38-44).
Then there was the company Jesus kept. He chose unimpressive Galileans to be in His inner circle of disciples. He spoke with people who were rejected by the cultural and religious elite. He had lunch with the hated tax collectors (Lk. 19:1-10), and He visited with prostitutes (Lk. 7:36-50). He did not join sinners in their sin, but He gladly spoke with any who would listen. He told the chief priests and elders that the tax collectors and the prostitutes would go into the kingdom of God before them, because those sinners repented and believed God’s Word (Mt. 21:31-32). Jesus even helped Gentiles who came to Him (Mt. 8:5-13, Mt. 15:21-28)
This hardly scratches the surface of all the kind things Jesus did. The Apostle John wrote that if each of them were recorded, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn. 21:25). For all the different opinions expressed about Jesus, I have never heard anyone describe Him as “stuck up” or “self-centered.” It is obvious that Jesus was a good person, and one who treated the people around Him with love and compassion. But if all we remembered about Jesus was that He was a worker of miracles and a nice man, we would miss the primary purpose of His coming. He did not come simply to help people with their physical and earthly needs; He came to save people for heaven.
Jesus made no distinction between the good and the bad, as if such a distinction could be made among the spiritually dead. He offered His perfect life for everyone, for every person that had ever lived or ever would live. He suffered and died for drug addicts and doctors, criminals and law enforcement officials, for the impoverished and the wealthy. He died for dictators, Communists, Socialists, Capitalists, Republicans, and Democrats. He died for Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, Buddhists, and Hindus. He died for Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Greek Orthodox, and the Lutherans. All of these were His neighbors in need.
By nature, all people are spiritually lost, so Jesus, the Good Shepherd, went looking for them. He pursued them in the dark and dangerous places they had wandered. He entered the devil’s lair, that wolf, who had the sheep imprisoned. Then Jesus offered up His own spotless life in their place. He took the fall for their weakness and their wandering. He paid for their transgressions. Jesus gladly gave Himself for the greatest and the least. His righteousness was sufficient for all, and His holy blood blotted out every sin.
That means He offered up Himself in your place. Your sins are not too much to be forgiven. No wicked deed that you have done is greater than God’s grace. “[W]here sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20). You are not so far below Jesus that He would overlook you. He stooped down to your level and shouldered all of your sin. He led you out of the darkness of condemnation into the light of His never-changing love. No matter how insignificant and unworthy you may feel, Jesus knows you. He eagerly sought you out to bring you into His fold, and to serve you daily through the means of grace.
The perfect love that God demands of you toward Him and your neighbor is supplied to you by Jesus. Everything is yours by faith in Him. This is why on the Last Day Jesus will look upon you at His right hand and will say to you, “Come… inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The kingdom is yours because you are blessed by God the Father. He chose you for salvation, brought you to faith in Jesus through His Word, and keeps you in the faith by the power of the Holy Spirit. This faith receives every good thing you need.
Your faith is also active in bearing fruit for others. Because you are converted by God, released from the grip of sin, Satan, and death, you can freely serve “the least” who are around you. As you serve your neighbor, it is God whose mercy and goodness are at work through you, which is why the glory is all His.
Each of your neighbors has unique needs, but the need they all share is the need for Jesus. Like you, they need His righteous life applied to them to cover their sin, and they need His cleansing blood to wash away their guilt. They need to hear the sweet message that Jesus Gladly Serves the Least, because He does. He came to serve you and all sinners, and to bring you and all who cling to Him by faith into the blessed kingdom of heaven.
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The Festival of All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 5:1-12
In Christ Jesus, who has opened the kingdom of heaven to all who trust in Him alone, dear fellow redeemed:
An athlete being interviewed after a victory might say with a smile that he is blessed to have the talents he has. The family sitting around the table at Thanksgiving might list all the good things they share. And you, when you look around at your neighbors, might think to yourself how blessed they are and wish you could have the blessings that they do.
When we think about “blessedness,” we imagine happiness and good fortune and success. But that is not how Jesus speaks about it in today’s text. He says that even those who mourn and those who are persecuted are blessed. How can this be? Well which would you rather have: riches now or riches forever? joy now or joy forever? peace now or peace forever? Of course it doesn’t have to be an either/or. God often gives His children riches, joys, and peace both now and forever. But often is not always.
It can be very difficult to see the blessing in a job lost, in a relationship broken, or in the death of a family member. These things feel more like a curse to us than a blessing. We might even express as much to God. “God, why did You let me get fired?” “Why didn’t you fix my relationship?” “Why didn’t You heal my loved one?” We are troubled by the knowledge that the Lord is all-powerful, and yet does not help us in the ways we want. Is it because He is uncaring? Is it because He is punishing us for some reason?
God does not promise that we will understand the reason for every trial we experience. He does tell us that some trials are given to train us in Christian discipline, “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Heb. 12:6). St. Paul writes that with this in mind we can even “rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). Whatever the reason for our trials, we remember the promise from God that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (8:28).
Everything works out for good “for those who love God.” But how can you and I know that we love God enough? If the standard is what Jesus lists today in the first part of His “Sermon on the Mount,” we have all fallen short. Jesus says that “the poor in spirit” are blessed, but we are often proud and boastful. “The meek” are blessed, but we are often self-centered and glory-seeking. “Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” are blessed, but we hunger and thirst the most for earthly goods that do not last. Then there are “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” and “the peacemakers.” It is not hard to think of where we have failed in those areas too. So if these behaviors that Jesus outlines are required for blessedness, how could we ever hope to be blessed?
On your own, you can achieve and gain things that are counted as blessings in the world. You can take a job that suits you. You can get married and have a family. You can make a good name for yourself. You can buy a house and nice things to go in it. But these are all earthly blessings. They are yours for a short time, and then they are left behind. The blessings Jesus refers to are spiritual blessings that benefit you not just here in time but on into eternity. They are blessings that you cannot get on your own. They must be given to you. And before they can be given to you, those blessings had to be won.
When Jesus presented His list of beatitudes, He knew full well that no one could perfectly live up to them. That doesn’t mean it was a waste of time to speak them. It is important for sinners to know the righteousness that God requires. It is important to be reminded that even our best efforts do not come close to what God commands. But the Bible is clear that our salvation does not depend on our own righteousness. It depends on the righteousness of Jesus.
Did Jesus meet the standard of God? Let’s see. Was He poor in spirit? Did He mourn for the lost? Was He meek? Did He hunger and thirst for righteousness? Was He merciful? Was He pure in heart? Was He a peacemaker? Was He persecuted for righteousness’ sake? Each of these beatitudes describes a different part of Jesus’ active obedience. They describe how He humbled Himself and willingly endured all sorts of injustice in His quest to save sinners. Because of His perfect life, Jesus was blessed before God and given the kingdom of heaven.
But the Son of God did not become Man to win this reward for Himself. He came to win it for you. He lived a perfect life for you so that you would inherit heaven, so that you would be comforted, so that you would receive mercy, and see God, and be called His own sons. But how do you get these blessings? How do you know they are yours? Jesus says, “Blessed… are those who hear the word of God!” (Lk. 11:28). And He says, “Blessed are those who… have believed” (Jn. 20:29). You receive the blessings of God, not by your own works or good behavior. You receive the eternal blessings of God by His Word alone and through faith alone.
Today we are remembering the members of our churches who have entered the church triumphant within the past year: Harvey, Art, Maxine, Jim, Hilda, Jean, and Vera. Adding up their ages nets a total of well over 600 years and an average of almost 90 years each. If we totaled the blessings we received from knowing them throughout their lives, it would be a very lengthy list. But the blessings they received from God are uncountable. From the time of their baptism until their dying day, the Lord poured out upon them His grace and comfort, His righteousness, forgiveness, and life – always and only through the means of grace.
The Lord does the same for you too. By His powerful Gospel, He sustains and strengthens your faith, so that the benefits of Christ’s perfect life and atoning death are continually credited to you. Through faith in Him, Jesus’ righteousness is given to you as though you had produced it yourself, and His cleansing blood is applied to you as though you had paid for your own sins.
If you lived before the Reformation, your priest probably would have told you that you must make satisfaction for your own sins. He would have also reminded you to do what you could to help the souls of the deceased get out of purgatory. How might this be done? By making pilgrimages to various holy sites and relics, by purchasing indulgences from the pope, by sponsoring private masses in the name of a loved one, and so on. But how could human works ever satisfy a person’s great spiritual debt?
The righteousness that counts before God could never come through your works. It must come through faith, faith in Jesus who accomplished everything for you. In Him you are declared to be a saint, or holy one, of God. You are counted as one who is innocent, sinless, pure. Everything God demands of you, He freely gives you. So when Jesus talks about the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – He is describing you, because you are in Him, and He is all those things.
What this means is that you are blessed. Blessed Are You even when you mourn and suffer persecution. Blessed Are You even when everything seems to be going wrong, because “the kingdom of heaven” is yours in Christ. All of your earthly blessings can be taken away from you, but the spiritual blessings of God are eternal. This is why Jesus says, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things—all you need in this life—will be added to you” (Mt. 6:33).
The Lord is not uncaring about your troubles, nor should you assume He is punishing you when something bad happens to you. If you as a Christian experienced no trouble in the sinful world, that in itself would be a cause for concern! We will have trouble here, because we are only temporary inhabitants of this world. Our true home is somewhere else. St. Paul writes, “[O]ur citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20).
When Jesus returns visibly in all His glory, He “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (v. 21). Then we will look like the saints that we already are in Christ. Then we will inherit the eternal blessings that we already possess but do not yet fully enjoy. Then we will live under the Lord in His heavenly kingdom, “and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness” (Explanation to the Second Article). What a blessing that will be!
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