The Seventh Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
In Christ Jesus, who bound our sin and death to Himself, so we would receive His forgiveness and life, dear fellow redeemed:
One of the lies the devil plants in people’s minds is that they are completely independent and free. “You are your own boss,” he says. “You make your own decisions. You don’t have to answer to anyone else.” This attitude is perhaps more prevalent in America where we enjoy such wide-ranging personal freedom. But we are not as free as we like to imagine, and we do not have freedom in all matters, particularly in spiritual ones.
In today’s text, Paul shows that every human being conceived and born into the world comes with strings attached. He writes that all by nature are “slaves of sin.” That is strong language! A slave is someone who must follow the will of his master. He must obey at all times. He is not allowed to chart his own course or make his own decisions. It’s a hard life.
This is how Paul describes our connection to sin. Sin is our taskmaster. It forces our will to submit to its plans, to participate in its campaign. It demoralizes us. It causes us tremendous suffering. Sin offers no way out, no relief, no hope. After all is said and done, the only promise sin makes is that we are unquestionably going to die. Death is “the wages of sin.” Death is what our slavery of sin has earned us.
This is the way it is for all of us. We do not start out good and then either stay good or go bad. Neither do we start out neutral, choosing good or bad from that point. We start out in slavery—spiritual slavery—slavery to sin. But there is hope for sinners. Paul outlines this hope at the beginning of Romans chapter 6 which we heard last week. This hope is Baptism into Christ.
Through water and His powerful Word, Jesus comes to the sinner in Baptism and gives him tremendous gifts. He brings forgiveness for all sin on account of His death on the cross, and He brings eternal life on account of His resurrection. Jesus’ work on our behalf frees us from our slavery to sin and to death. He broke apart our chains of spiritual slavery. Sin is not our master anymore. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
Baptism joins us with Jesus, but it does not stop us from sinning. Sin is washed away in Baptism, but our sinful nature remains. This means that until the end of this life, we must be ready for a fight. Our sinful nature, our old Adam, wants to lead us back to a life of impurity and lawlessness, back to our slavery of sin. Our new man of faith, on the other hand, wants us to live a life of righteousness drawn from and focused on Jesus.
If we do not understand or acknowledge that this battle is going on inside us, then sin will gain the upper hand. This happens to those who are baptized into Jesus receiving His blessings, but then fail as they get older to fortify and strengthen their faith through His Word and Sacraments. This is something like an army unit rushing forward into enemy territory with no concern for its supply line or any reinforcements. The likeliest outcome is capture by the enemy or death.
We must not be so reckless with our faith, or be so self-assured that we think we could never fall. None of us here is immune to this. Any of us could give up our life in Christ and return to our slavery of sin. We can all think of many people who have done just that. Today’s text calls us again to attention. It reminds us of the battle: “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”
In short, what the apostle Paul is urging here by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is that we view our Baptism into Christ not only as a freedom from, but also as a freedom for. In fact both of these must go together if we want to remain with Jesus. Because of what Jesus did for us through His perfect life, death, and resurrection, we are freed from our unrighteousness, sin, and death. If that’s all there is to it, we might conclude that we can keep on living in sin, doing whatever we feel like, because Jesus suffered the consequences for our sin and forgives us.
Paul addresses this wrong-headed attitude just before today’s text. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” he asks (Rom. 6:1). “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (v. 15). Then he explains, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (v. 16).
So either way, says Paul, you are enslaved. Bob Dylan took up this theme in one of his songs when he sang, “Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” That doesn’t sound too great. We like the idea of being free from any coercion, any commitments. But that kind of freedom does not exist. It cannot exist, unless we had created ourselves and had complete power and authority over everything around us. Because this is not the case, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
You have already heard what happens to those who are “slaves of sin.” They experience a lifetime of pain, sorrow, and hopelessness and receive in the end the reward of death—not just physical death but eternal death in hell. How about those who are “slaves to righteousness,” or as Paul refers to them a couple verses later, “slaves of God”? It seems that this wouldn’t necessarily be much better. You might picture God as the taskmaster demanding that you do everything right, just the way He wants it, or else you will face His wrath.
But that is not how Paul describes your slavery to righteousness and to God. He says that your slavery to righteousness “leads to” or is “for” sanctification. Sanctification here is contrasted with lawlessness. Lawlessness is living contrary to God’s commands. It is living as though I am the lord and not Him. This kind of unrepentant life does welcome His judgment.
But sanctification is living according to His will. It is finding all strength, peace, joy, and love in Him. You are sanctified as you hear the Gospel message of Jesus’ work to save you and as you receive His gifts in His Sacraments. These are the means by which the Holy Spirit continues to break apart the chains of your slavery of sin and draw you closer and closer to your holy Savior.
As we hear His Word, we find that God is hardly a violent taskmaster. Instead we learn of His great love for us and the great mercy He has shown to us sinners. When we like the prodigal son have run away from Him and misused His good gifts, including the gift of our bodies, He does not deal with us in anger. He comes to embrace us with forgiveness (Luk. 15). In our sinful weakness when we fail to carry out the duties He has given us, He picks us up by His grace and helps us to move forward according to His will.
God is not the kind of master who sacrifices His slaves for His own benefit. It’s just the opposite. God sacrificed Himself for our benefit. That is how He exercises His lordship; He gives. God the Father gave His only Son to free us slaves of sin. Jesus suffered for our disobedience, for our rebellion against God. He took the wages of our sin. He took the punishment of our death. He died for us so we could be counted as righteous and receive His gift of eternal life.
This is how we “slaves of God” are treated. We are cleansed from the stains and bruises and cuts of the sin we have committed, and we are given a new status. We slaves are now treated like lords! We peasants are treated like kings! Jesus calls us to partake of His eternal glory and reign with Him in His heavenly kingdom.
But our time to depart from this world has not come yet. That means our battle here continues. With the devil and our own flesh constantly trying to deceive us and lead us back to our slavery of sin, we know the fight will be hard. We remember how often in the past we let sin gain the upper hand, so that we chose impurity and lawlessness instead of righteousness and sanctification. Does that mean we have no hope of winning the battle?
This would be the case if you were fighting by yourself. But your Master does not leave you alone in this fight. When you become discouraged or overwhelmed, or when the temptation to sin is strong, He steps right in where the conflict is most intense. He comes to you through the spiritual supply line that you were joined to at your Baptism. He speaks faith and courage into you through His holy Word. He strengthens and cheers you through the holy food of His body and blood. He protects you and guides you so you are not carried away to your former slavery.
Your merciful Lord has broken you free from your sin and death and joined you to Him. There is no shame in being a slave of this Master. Because of His grace toward you, you want to be His subject and serve Him. You want to obey Him because you know He is working for your good. You want Him to guide you where you should go. And you look forward to the day when He will lead you from the heat of this battle, from your struggle against sin, to the joys and blessings He has prepared for you in heaven.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Carl Bloch, 1877)
The Third Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Peter 2:21-25
In Christ Jesus, who protects His sheep and guides them through the difficulties of this life, so they are safely brought to the peace and joy of heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
It feels good to do good things for a neighbor. We are glad to lend a helping hand, to make a burden lighter, to be a blessing in someone’s day. But I’m sure you can think of times when you tried to do good for others, and they did not appreciate your efforts. They may have even blamed you for the very problems you were trying to help them with! That hurts. It can make you feel like a failure. If you dwell on it enough, it can also make you bitter and angry at the person who rejected your good intentions and good deeds.
The apostle Peter writes about situations like this in the verses just before today’s text. He said that when you suffer for doing good and you endure the suffering by faith in Jesus, “this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (2:20). He does not tell us to seek revenge, to inflict the same pain on others that they have inflicted on us. He tells us to patiently endure suffering with our eyes fixed on Jesus.
We look to Jesus who through His suffering “[left] us an example, so that [we] might follow in His steps.” Sometimes we suffer because of wrong choices we make or bad things we do. So if we are caught stealing something and are sent to jail, or if we purposely harm someone and they retaliate, that is suffering we bring on ourselves. Jesus did not suffer for things like this, because He never did anything wrong.
That is why He is such a powerful example for us. He only did good things for people. He only did what was helpful and noble and right. It seems like that should have caused everyone to love Him and have great respect for Him. But not all appreciated His goodness, such as a number of the scribes and Pharisees. Their standard of righteousness was different than God’s, and they did not think Jesus measured up. They charged Him with violating the holy law. They even accused Him of being an agent of Satan and having a demon.
These attacks gained a fresh intensity and violence during Holy Week. After He was arrested, Jesus endured physical and verbal abuse from the religious leaders and the Roman soldiers. They could not charge Him with a wrong, but they were glad to see Him suffer. He could have responded by unleashing the mighty angels against His attackers. He could have taken them all on by Himself, and not one would have been left standing.
But He did not do this. Peter writes that Jesus did not revile those who reviled Him. He would not stoop to their level. Nor did He threaten while He suffered. He took the suffering quietly, not lifting His voice or even opening His mouth much at all. Instead He “continued entrusting Himself” to His heavenly Father—“to Him who judges justly.”
This is the pattern to follow while we suffer. Our impulse is to hurt those who hurt us, whether they are family members, co-workers, or others in the community. Isn’t that how we dealt with our siblings in our younger years? “If you hit me, I’ll hit you.” “If you take something from me, I’ll take something from you.” It’s not that we should forego justice and let everyone walk all over us. But we should not take revenge into our own hands. Instead we entrust ourselves to “Him who judges justly,” like Jesus did.
But why should we behave in this way? Why should we let people off the hook and deny our own sense of justice? Why should we try to be like Jesus, as if that were even possible? Those are fair questions. It is true that we can hardly be compared with Jesus. We are nowhere near as good. We cannot come close to His level of righteousness. Even the best things we do are tainted by sin.
The reason we try, the reason we want to do better, is because of what Jesus did for us. Today’s text says that “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree.” This is why Jesus willingly and patiently suffered. It was to save you. It was to make atonement for all your sins. God had every right to hold your sins against you. His law is perfect, and you broke each one of the Commandments. But God the Father held these transgressions against His Son. Jesus endured God’s righteous anger for your sins, so you would be spared.
He suffered for every harsh or unkind word you have spoken and for every act of revenge you carried out in your anger. He suffered for all the times you took justice into your own hands and did not trust the Lord to do it. Jesus did this so that sin would neither define you nor overcome you. The blood He shed wipes your slate clean. His blood also cleanses you from the sins others have committed against you. He was reviled, attacked, and abused, so you could find relief in Him when you are wronged. “By His wounds you have been healed.”
Jesus suffered and died to give you a new life. He took your sins on Himself, so you could live in His righteousness. Because His righteousness is yours, you are free to do good for your neighbor without the need to be recognized, appreciated, or thanked. Those friendly responses are encouraging things that make us feel better about our service. But the Lord calls us to do good for the sake of good, to be kind for the sake of kindness, to show love for the sake of love. We do for others as Jesus did for us, freely and joyfully, no matter how our efforts are received.
But isn’t there a point when “enough is enough”? Peter wondered this. He asked Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” That sounds reasonable. Many people won’t even forgive once—seven times is pretty generous! Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Mat. 18:21,22). He told Peter that our love for others should have no limit.
That is hard for us, and the Lord understands our struggle. That is why He not only comforts us when our love is rejected, He also strengthens us to carry on. He works these things in us through His means of grace, through His powerful Word and Sacraments. These are the “green pastures” and “still waters” where we find rest and restoration. This is where our Good Shepherd leads us and feeds us.
You and I have felt the hunger of having to go without this spiritual nourishment in regular divine services. We have had to be content with hearing the Word in our living rooms. We long to come together again to receive the Lord’s Supper and to encourage and be encouraged by our fellow congregation members. If we took these things for granted before, we don’t take them for granted as much now.
But even though our spiritual routine has been interrupted, our Good Shepherd continues to care for His sheep. He meets you in your home whenever you read and meditate on His Word. Through the Word, He leads you to daily repent of your sin and to return to His “paths of righteousness.” Even if you are quarantined in your home right now, the Lord is with you. He will not abandon you, His sheep.
Today’s text says, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” You and I have often strayed into sin and given in to our worst impulses. But again and again God turns us back to His grace. Jesus is the Shepherd and Overseer of [our] souls.” Like a shepherd who won’t leave even one little lamb behind, Jesus does not want to lose one soul for heaven.
He is totally committed to saving you from the eternal destruction that so many bring upon themselves. They are destroyed because they reject His salvation. Maybe they chose the pleasures of the world over the promises of His Word. Or they did not believe they needed saving. Or they thought it was up to them to get themselves to heaven by their own efforts.
Jesus is “the Shepherd of souls.” He and only He can save. It is only by His work that a soul can enter heaven. If a shepherd told a lamb to go from here to another place 100 miles away where it had never been, the lamb could not do it. How could it know the way? Jesus does not tell us to find our way to heaven on our own. He leads us there. By Baptism, He brings us through His death and resurrection and continues to apply His grace to us through Word and Sacrament.
By continuing to listen to His Voice, We Follow in the Steps of the Shepherd. His Word strengthens our faith in Him and strengthens our love for each other. His Word guides us through the good times and the bad. His Word keeps our soul safely in His care and comforts us on our journey. Our Good Shepherd is with us “all the way,” as the hymnwriter says it so well:
I walk with Jesus all the way;
His guidance never fails me.
Within His wounds I find a stay
When Satan’s pow’r assails me,
And, by His footsteps led,
My path I safely tread.
In spite of ills that threaten may,
I walk with Jesus all the way.
(Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary #252, v. 5)
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from stained glass window in St. John the Baptist’s Anglican Church in New South Wales)
The First Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 2 Corinthians 6:1-10
In Christ Jesus, who guards and keeps us so that the devil, the world, and our own flesh may not overcome us, but so that we may overcome them by His grace and retain the victory, dear fellow redeemed:
One of the most common pieces of advice we hear and have probably offered many times is this: “God will not give you more than you can handle.” So a person might get fired from his job and have no idea how he will pay this month’s bills, and someone says, “God will not give you more than you can handle.” A friend is diagnosed with an aggressive cancer: “God will not give you more than you can handle.” Someone is carrying heavy burdens and is feeling completely overwhelmed: “God will not give you more than you can handle.”
The problem with this statement is that it is not exactly what the Bible tells us, and it may not provide the comfort we intend. We derive the statement from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians where he writes, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (10:13). So what Paul says here: “[God] will not let you be tempted beyond your ability,” is expressed as: “God will not give you more than you can handle.” But those two statements are not exactly the same.
Paul specifically refers to times of temptation, times when the devil tries to use our sinful weakness to pull us away from Jesus. Paul talked about the various ways the Israelites had given in to temptation: through idolatry, sexual immorality, discontentment and disbelief. He said that these things were recorded in the Old Testament “for our instruction” (10:11). We are to look at the example of the Israelites and recognize that they did not have to sin; they did not have to give in to temptation. The LORD provided them a way out every time they were faced with these tests.
We are faced with the same sorts of temptations. The devil knows our weaknesses; he knows where we are vulnerable. He knows how to use others to entice us to sin. They assure us that going against what God says will make us happier. They offer friendship and empty promises, but they will not be there when the money is gone or the so-called “good times” have ended. The devil also uses others to provoke us to sin. Their constant bullying and abuse causes us to lash out with violent words or actions and to wish for them to fail in every way. And the devil uses our own sinful flesh to tempt us through things like laziness, lust, greed, selfishness, and pride to set aside love for God and for our neighbors.
In every temptation the devil’s aim is to keep our focus on ourselves and not on God or His Word. This is how he tried to tempt Jesus, as we heard in the Holy Gospel for today (Mat. 4:1-11). Jesus had just been baptized by John in the Jordan River. Then the Holy Spirit sent Him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. There Jesus fasted, He went without food, for forty days and forty nights, which is why we set aside forty days for Lent. After those forty days, the devil came and tempted Him to follow His own will: “Turn stones into bread to feed Yourself!” he said. “Jump off the temple to show who You are!” “Enjoy everything the world has to offer!” But Jesus resisted these temptations. He did not seek self-gratification and pleasure. He came to suffer and bear the cross for the salvation of sinners.
The devil left Him at that time, but he would be back. The devil does not give up. He tempted Jesus all through His state of humiliation until Jesus descended into hell to proclaim His victory and rose again from the dead. When Jesus urges us to resist temptation and bear our cross after Him, He speaks as one who fully understands the troubles we face. The author of the book of Hebrews writes that Jesus can sympathize with us because He “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).
The apostles kept their focus on Jesus’ Word and His example as they faced temptation and endured great suffering for preaching the Gospel. Paul listed “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.” All of these were opportunities for the devil to tempt them: “Is it really worth it to suffer like this? Why would the God who you think loves you let this happen to you? Look at what little progress you make! Your best efforts have been wasted! You are a nobody!”
I am sure these thoughts entered their minds because they come into ours too. The devil tempts us in the same ways. When things are going badly in our lives, he wants us to think God has abandoned us. He wants us to think that all the good things we have tried to do were a waste of time. Nobody appreciates us. Nobody cares. Nobody would really notice if we weren’t here. These temptations can be severe, shaking us to our core and dropping us to our knees. Jesus suffered like this too, but He did not reject His Father’s will. He carried on in faith, and He promises to help you do the same. “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18).
Jesus Gives Grace in Every Temptation. He “provide[s] the way of escape.” And what is that way? It is the way of the cross. Jesus did not avoid suffering; He did not try to go around it. He went through it all the way to His death. He suffered, but His suffering was not pointless. It was not wasted. His suffering secured your salvation. The verse before today’s reading says, “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Co. 5:21). Jesus took on your sin, all the times you have given into temptation and broken God’s Commandments, and He gave you His righteousness, His flawless record, His perfect life.
His grace toward you is the reason Paul writes, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” Jesus loves you today just as He loved you yesterday and just as He will love you tomorrow. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Even though you have not always patiently endured temptation, even though you have sinned, your Savior has not changed His mind about you. He does not regret suffering and dying in your place or joining you to Himself in Holy Baptism. He is glad to have you eat His body and drink His blood in His Holy Supper. You are precious to Him. You are not a nobody.
This grace strengthened Paul and his fellow co-workers to take up their crosses and do the work the Lord had given them to do even if it meant suffering. This grace so encouraged and comforted Paul that he hardly seemed to notice the trouble. “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true,” he said; “as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.” Those are not the words of someone whom the devil has overcome. Those are the words of one who lived in and by God’s grace alone.
The problem with “God will not give you more than you can handle,” is that it could make someone think he has to handle the problem, he has to draw on his own strength. The reality is that there is really nothing we can handle on our own. We are weak. We certainly cannot and will not prevail if we stand alone against the devil and the world. Our ability to “handle” the temptations and suffering that come our way is only by the grace of Jesus. He must come and fight for us. He must save us.
This is what He does through His Word and Sacraments. He comes to “provide the way of escape” from our temptations. He comes to carry us through our suffering. He comes to bestow His grace, so that we are kept in the saving faith through the troubles of this life and finally enter His glory.
“[W]e appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain,” writes Paul. Don’t think you have to “handle” everything on your own. Don’t let the devil convince you that you are all by yourself. Rather lean on your fellow Christians whom He has given for your encouragement and consolation. And most of all rely on His unchanging grace, His great love for you, which will carry you through every distress, every affliction, and every pain. Then with Paul you can say that by the grace of God, though dying, you live; though sorrowful, you rejoice; though having nothing, yet you possess everything.
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 is “The Temptation of Christ by the Devil” by Félix Joseph Barrias, 1822-1907)
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.
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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.
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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.
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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)