The Third Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 21) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 4:46-54
In Christ Jesus, who did many signs and wonders for the purpose of revealing who He was, so that all who believed in Him would have eternal life, dear fellow redeemed:
Years ago, I remember reading about an out-of-the-way place in Central or South America. A man was cooking something on a greasy grill. Then something on the grill caught his eye. There it was, an undeniable shape of that area’s patron saint right there in the grease! As scores of people paraded through to get a glimpse of the greasy figure, they said among themselves, “It must be a sign!” But what was that “sign” supposed to mean exactly?
Many people are on the lookout for signs to help guide them forward in life. Some look to the stars and a daily horoscope for direction. Some see signs in the clouds. Some will observe a bird or a deer outside their window and take it as a sign that the spirit of a loved one is present. Some find signs in the random experiences and conversations they have in an otherwise typical day.
Probably all of us have wondered before if God was trying to send us a message through a sign—or at least we hoped that He would. Maybe we even asked Him for a sign and were disappointed when nothing out of the ordinary happened. God certainly can and has communicated through signs, but His primary means of communication is not through unique signs. It is through His never-changing Word.
This is the central point of today’s text. We hear that Jesus “came again to Cana in Galilee.” This is where He had performed “the first of his signs,” changing water into wine at a wedding (Joh. 2:11). These “signs,” as the apostle John calls them, were more than miracles. They were special acts that revealed who Jesus really was—the Son of God incarnate, the long-promised Messiah. After the first sign in Cana, John reports that he and the other disciples of Jesus “believed in him” (v. 11).
Then Jesus went to Jerusalem and did more signs. As a result of these signs, “many believed in his name” (v. 23). But we find it was not a soul-saving faith (vv. 24-25). It was the signs that captured their attention. Who Jesus was did not interest them, as much as what Jesus could do. When Jesus returned to Galilee, He was welcomed by all the important people there. They rolled out the red carpet for Him because they wanted to see more signs (4:43-45).
It is no wonder that Jesus responded the way He did when a royal official asked Him to heal his son. Jesus said, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” This message was for all the people and not just for the official. It was a preaching of the law. It was meant to convict the sign-seekers for not seeing past the signs, for not recognizing the most important thing.
Jesus’ statement convicts us too. Who among us hasn’t suffered, experienced some difficulty, and we said to ourselves, “I thought God loved me, but apparently He doesn’t”? We were looking for a special sign of His love, for Him to provide instant relief and take away the pain. Or we were stuck in an intense struggle, full of inner turmoil, tempted to do what we knew we shouldn’t, but we were too weak to resist. Where was God’s strength and power when we needed it?
I suppose we want God to be something like a superhero. When we are at our most vulnerable, facing the greatest dangers and trials, we want God to swoop in and whisk us out of harm’s way. This is what the royal official wanted Jesus to do. He wanted Him to hurry over to Capernaum and heal his dying son. This man was looking for a sign. Jesus wanted to give him something more.
“Go,” said Jesus; “your son will live.” That was no sign like the people were hoping for. It was a Word, a simple statement. But there was power in it. The next thing we hear is that “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.” It doesn’t stand to reason! Why should the man believe what Jesus said? Jesus hadn’t bothered to go and visit the child. He hadn’t even sent along some special object that would heal the child when it touched him.
Why should the man believe what Jesus said? Because Jesus’ Word is powerful. Not only did Jesus’ Word bring instant healing to the sick boy, it also brought instant faith to the man’s heart. The apostle Paul explains how this happens. In his letter to the Romans, he wrote that “[the gospel] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (1:16), and “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (10:17).
The Word of Christ is where help is found in trouble, where comfort is found in sorrow, where strength is found in weakness. When we are struggling and suffering, Jesus doesn’t tell us to look for signs in our lives that He loves us and cares for us. He tells us to look to His Word. His Word contains all the evidence of His love for us that we need.
His Word reveals the love of God the Father in sending His only Son to take on our flesh. His Word shows His own love in His perfectly pure life lived on our behalf and His suffering and death to pay for our sins. His Word changes us by the sanctifying work of God the Holy Spirit who brings and applies the good gifts of Jesus to us.
The Word of our Savior is all we need, but it doesn’t seem like all we need. We want more than His Word when someone is seriously ill. We want more than His Word when we are troubled and hurting and don’t know where to turn. We want more than His Word when someone we loved, someone we leaned on, is lowered in a casket into a vault. For our extraordinary problems and pains, we want more than the ordinary Word.
But God’s Word is hardly ordinary. His Word had the power to heal a dying boy who was nearly twenty miles away. His Word absolved a paralyzed man and then caused him to walk (Mat. 9:1-8). His Word brought a young man from Nain (Luk. 7:11-17), a little girl (Mat. 9:18-26), and Jesus’ friend Lazarus (Joh. 11:17-44) back from the dead. His Word will also raise you from the dead (1Th. 4:16).
The Word of Jesus is a powerful Word of life, and it is at work in you even now. As Jesus spoke life into the dying boy, so He speaks life into you. When you hear the Gospel message of His death and resurrection for you, that is Jesus saying to you, “I suffered in your place. I died for your sins and came alive again. Your sins are forgiven! Depart in peace. Because I live, you also will live (Joh. 14:19).”
His living Word does for you what nothing else in the world can do. His Word of absolution cleanses you from the sin and guilt that no amount of self-righteousness or self-punishment can fix. His Word heals the invisible wounds, the deep pains, that no psychiatric care or medicine can heal. His Word gives a hope and a confidence that no possession or power in the world can supply.
When Jesus joins His Word to water, it becomes a gracious water of life, a washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Ti. 3:5). When He joins His Word to bread and wine, it becomes a rich feast of forgiveness and salvation. You don’t need other signs than these of God’s love for you. In His Word and Sacraments, Jesus gives you more power to fight the devil than you can fathom, more treasures than the world can imagine, and more peace than any fleshly mind can comprehend.
His powerful, life-giving Word is the way that Jesus is at work in the world today. And yet we still think signs might be better. We want to see signs that He is turning government officials toward righteousness and justice. We want to see signs that He is influencing corporate leaders to promote what is good. We want to see signs that He is destroying the evil designs and wicked works of the devil.
If we are looking for signs of these things apart from the powerful activity of God’s Word, we are looking in the wrong place. It is through the Word that Jesus conquers and changes hearts. His Word is “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17), a more powerful weapon than anything we can concoct. This Word is at work right now in our hearts, in our congregations, in our country, and in the world.
Through His Word, Jesus speaks righteousness into you and forgiveness and hope and life, and He does the same thing for countless others who are helpless and hurting. He calls us away from the devil’s temptations and the world’s deceit. He comes not to bring earthly glory and peace, but to bring eternal glory and peace. Through His Word, Jesus always gives what you need, even if it doesn’t come in the way you expect.
It was through Jesus’ Word that the royal official believed. It was through Jesus’ Word that the little boy was healed. You don’t need to look for signs of God’s power and love in the stars, in the clouds, or in things like grease stains. Your living Savior Jesus, who died on the cross for your sins and who rose from the dead on the third day in victory over your death, is found exactly where He promises He will be. He is found in His powerful Word of grace and in the Sacraments He instituted for your life and salvation.
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 Healing of the Officer’s Son” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Second Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 20) – Vicar Anderson sermon
Text: St. Matthew 22:1-14
In Christ Jesus, who by His life and death prepared for you the Feast of Salvation and by the power of His Word invites you to partake of it freely, both now and forever, dear fellow redeemed:
In our text today we see Jesus teaching those around Him during Holy Week. Just a few days later He would go to the cross and lay down His life for the entire world. He is teaching believers and unbelievers alike the chief doctrine of salvation, which points directly to Himself. He is showing the people how they can be saved. He describes for them a king who is preparing a wedding feast for His Son, a very exciting celebration and many people would be invited.
The king in this parable is a picture of God the Father and his son is a picture of Jesus the eternal Son of God. This is the Son’s wedding feast and He is eagerly awaiting the invited guests, His bride the church. The king has prepared a great meal for this celebration and His Son sits in the place of honor because He has accomplished everything. All things are ready because the Son offered what was necessary.
The Son of God was given as a sacrifice for all sin and the Father in heaven accepted the sacrifice and granted forgiveness to the whole world. It is an open invitation; salvation is accomplished and offered to all people. The call to the Feast of Salvation is for everyone, but not everyone will be a guest.
Throughout history many have ignored the invitation to this feast, the invitation of the gospel. God sent prophets throughout the Old Testament and many people were too preoccupied with their businesses and their daily tasks turning away not wanting to listen.
So God sent His one and only Son and still many persecuted, ignored and eventually nailed Him to a cross. Then God sent apostles and other messengers throughout the New Testament and again many people ignored, persecuted and even killed them. The same things happen to faithful preachers and missionaries throughout the world today.
Despite all this sin and blatant disregard for the truth, God never forgot His promises to us. He could have said, “enough is enough these people are unworthy of my Word,” but on account of His undeserved love God continues to send His Word to us. No matter what kind of person you have been in your life forgiveness is yours by faith through the working of the Holy Spirit.
God’s Word invites you, it calls out to you exposing your sin and convinces you of the truth that you cannot do anything apart from Jesus and must trust in Him and in Him alone for salvation. He calls all people into the feast, offered to us by the Father in heaven prepared by the Work of His Son Jesus. He sends out His servants to go to the busy streets and roads, where there would be lots of traffic to find as many people as they can. He wants them to fill this feast with as many guests as possible both good and bad.
Now “bad and good” does not mean sinners and non-sinners, it means that some of these people may have appeared good on the outside and some appeared bad on the outside. This is how people perceive others and judge them by what they see on the outside, but no matter how we see them all people are sinners. We know then that this feast of salvation is prepared for, and filled with, sinners.
In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans it tells us that, “while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). This is how he demonstrates His love for us, by coming to save sinners like you and me. He did not come for the self-righteous people who think they are just fine on their own. Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
These sinners are like people struck with hunger so badly they can no longer stand and are wasting away, like someone nearing death due to starvation. Where can they receive the food and nourishment to give them strength to stand firm again, what food can satisfy the hunger of a sinner? God’s Word is life-giving food to those hear it, and His Sacraments bring this food directly to them. “For He satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul He fills with good things” (Psalm 107:9). God’s Word truly satisfies those who are hungry.
This Feast of Salvation was prepared for you by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and it is served to you right here and right now. Jesus is served to you directly, on a plate and in a cup. His righteousness and forgiveness are poured out upon you. His body and blood are given here for you and me; we receive the blessings of salvation now upon our lips and in our stomachs. We consume his very body and blood and the righteousness received from it, fuels our soul.
On account of this reality it is necessary to take the presence of Christ’s body and blood seriously. We do this each time we hear the exhortation in the Service of Holy Communion. Those who do not examine themselves properly, who do not believe they truly feast on the body and blood of Jesus eat to their judgment. Christ’s body and blood is no longer a benefit to them but instead causes spiritual harm. This is the reason our churches practice closed communion.
St. Paul taught the Corinthian church and all hearers of his letter that the Lord’s Supper must be approached seriously and soberly. He wrote: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:29–30). Out of concern for our neighbors and ourselves we want to make sure that people correctly believe what the Lord’s Supper is.
It should also concern us how we do not always approach the gifts of God’s Word and Sacraments in the right way. Sometimes we neglect coming to hear His Word and fail to truly recognize the importance of what He is giving us, taking them for granted. We think we are doing just fine on our own, that the clothes of our own self-righteousness look pretty good. We think our seat at the Feast of Salvation will be there for us whether God’s Word is a priority right now or not.
We become so preoccupied with the things of this life that coming to receive the Lord’s Word and Sacraments becomes less important. When we do come it’s tempting and easy to appear at the feast but have no regard for the garment that God requires, the very thing the host of the feast has provided for us.
It can be tempting for us to come in and go through the motions of a church service. It’s easy to think that just by walking in the door, and half-heartedly participating we have done what God expects of us and that He is now pleased with us. It’s because of our own sinful nature that we fall into the habit of doing the bare minimum; naively thinking God expects just the bare minimum from us.
Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah saying, “these people honor God with their lips but their hearts are far from Him” (Matt. 15:8–9). These people do lip service to God but lack in their heart true repentance and faith. Repentance is needed before the king comes and finds them speechless, “binding them hand and foot and casting them out into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 22:13).
You cannot stand before the Father in your ragged torn up clothes of self-righteousness and sin. But you can stand before Him in the wedding garment that Jesus provides, the garment of His righteousness.
Christ purchased and won salvation for each and every one of you by living sinless under the law and laying down His perfect life in death. Jesus has prepared the Feast of Salvation for you and by His powerful Word and Sacraments has called you into it and clothed you with His righteousness forever.
You have been offered this beautiful wedding garment and are now dressed in it by faith receiving it by the power of the Holy Spirit. This ornate attire could not have been provided by you but has been graciously provided by your Savior.
The prophet Isaiah knew this well, he wrote, “My soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Is. 61:10).
This righteousness is not only on the outside; this garment of salvation covers all your sins on the inside as well. It covers all the sins of your heart and mind, your secret sins, sins of laziness and discontentment, the sin of putting other things before God and taking His grace for granted.
The Son of God’s righteous blood has blotted out each one of them. The perfect life and the sacrificial death of your Lord won righteousness and salvation for you; they are yours by faith, covering you completely and erasing your sin forever.
God the Father sees you entirely righteous and pure in His sight. Everything is prepared, the celebration has begun and you are an honored guest of the Son. You are joined with Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and you will recline at the Feast of Salvation forever.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “Parable of the Great Banquet” by the Brunswick Monogrammist, 16th century)
In Christ Jesus, who came to heal every wound and right every wrong, dear fellow redeemed:
About a week ago, I went to every door in our house one after the other, and I opened and closed them multiple times. No one thought it was strange. Why? Because I was fixing noisy hinges. Some of the doors groaned just about the entire span of their swing, but thankfully now they don’t make a sound. We need the newborn to sleep!
Old hinges are not the only source of groaning in the house, and I suspect the same is true or has been true for your home. There are groans when jobs are handed out and groans when mean parents say “no” to certain requests. Sometimes groans will also accompany the effort of getting out of a chair at the end of a long day.
There are still other reasons that we groan. St. Paul writes that “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22-23). The presence of sin in the world and in ourselves causes difficulties for us. One of those difficulties is physical trouble. We experience sickness, disease, injury, disability, pain.
In the Gospels, we find numerous references of Jesus healing people with such conditions. We meet one of them in today’s reading, “a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment.” Those two conditions naturally go together. If he could not hear, he would not know how to correctly form sounds and words.
But the man could groan, and I’m sure he did. He could see how much was closed to him in his world of silence. He must have wondered why it had to be him. He saw everyone around him enjoying the normal operations of their ears and tongue. He thought about how much good he could accomplish if only he could hear and speak. But there was nothing he or his friends could do about it. It was his cross to bear.
We can’t say why certain things happen to certain individuals. We have all known scoundrels who seem perfectly healthy, and we have also known kind and wonderful people who endure constant pain. This makes no sense to us. We want to have a logical explanation for why some people seem to suffer more than others. We think it would be right if bad people should experience more trouble.
Jesus’ disciples thought the same way. When they passed by a man who had been blind his entire life, they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus said, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (Joh. 9:2,3). Jesus’ answer shows us that God has higher purposes for the crosses we bear than we often perceive.
If you are one who is afflicted with something that brings you significant pain or trouble, there is comfort in Jesus’ words. Your pain is not a sign of His anger or His abandonment. He has not sent it to harm you or to push you away from Him. He has allowed it in His wisdom and according to His good plan. He intends to work through it for your good and for the good of others. And if He has a purpose for your suffering, that means He has a purpose for you.
The deaf man had purpose too. He was not a mistake. He was not a lesser person in God’s eyes. Whether or not he had been healed, God loved him. God the Father sent His only Son to suffer and die for this man’s salvation. That was the man’s greatest need, just as it is our greatest need. But God also knows our lesser needs, and many times He brings us relief and healing from the things that burden us.
In the account from today’s Gospel, Jesus in His mercy chose to bring physical healing to the man. First He took him aside from the crowd. This wasn’t for the sake of modesty or humility. He wanted to keep the people from being distracted by the miracles. He wanted them to understand the primary reason for His coming—not for miracles, but for their salvation. He was the Messiah. That’s the reason He had power to heal. He was God in the flesh, who had come to redeem the world of sinners.
Because He was God in the flesh, His touch had healing power. His flesh is life-giving flesh. He pressed those life-giving fingers into the man’s deadened ears. He put life-giving saliva on the man’s imprisoned tongue. He spoke a life-giving Word into that world of dead silence. But before Jesus spoke, He sighed. Or rather, He groaned. He groaned toward heaven. This groan was a prayer to His Father, expressing the trouble of this man and the troubles of all sinners.
Jesus willingly took that trouble on Himself. He felt every pain, every sorrow, every hurt. Healing went out from Him, while He stored up every affliction. Jesus was a Magnet that drew all our sin and all the effects of our sin to Himself. This is why He groaned toward heaven and why He would groan in agony in the Garden and on the cross.
His groaning was for you. He made your groans His own. Whatever has caused you pain or sorrow or weakness, whatever has made you cry out for mercy and brought you to your knees, He took that to Himself. He put in on His shoulders. His shoulders are stronger than yours or anyone else’s. His can carry the load. “Surely,” says the prophet Isaiah—“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4).
Jesus went to the cross, weighed down, carrying all those things for you. Your groaning and the groaning of all the fallen in the history of the world hung in His ears. And it pushed Him forward. He went to the cross to free you from everything that drags you down in this life. He went there to provide the answer for every groan. That answer is His grace.
Grace is what we find in Jesus. “Be opened,” He said to the deaf man, and “his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” In his first condition, the man could neither hear nor speak. Now he heard plainly and spoke rightly. Before Jesus came to us with grace, our hearts were hardened and our ears were unhearing. “Be opened,” He said through His powerful Word. And our ears were opened, our tongues were released, and we could speak rightly. We could speak the truth—the truth about ourselves and the truth about God and His salvation.
We can speak rightly, but we don’t always do it. Sometimes we don’t think that God has things quite right in His Word. We think that leniency or compromise are called for, when He says, “Stand firm!” According to the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (3:7). But we often get those things backwards.
That’s what the people in the crowd did. Jesus charged them not to tell anyone about the deaf man’s healing. But we’re told “the more He charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” We almost feel proud of the people. Even Jesus couldn’t stop them from telling the marvelous truth about the amazing thing He had done!
But Jesus didn’t tell them to stay quiet with a smile and a wink. The people were telling the truth about Him, but they were spreading a less important truth. They weren’t telling people about Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Savior. They were telling people about Jesus the Miracle Man. This distracted from the primary work Jesus came to do. The crowds around Him may have often been very large, but we find that very few were looking for eternal salvation.
We want to look to Jesus for the right thing. We don’t hinge our faith on whether or not He fixes our earthly pains and troubles. We don’t conclude that if He allows us to suffer, He must not love us. We cling to Him—and even more tightly—while we suffer. We trust that He will be with us in our anguish because He says He will be.
He promises to reach out and meet us in our pain with the healing touch of His Word and Sacraments. He comes through these means to provide spiritual relief and strength and to help us stay focused on Him. We may not feel His fingers in our ears or on our tongue as the deaf man did. But we partake of the same life-giving flesh when we eat Jesus’ holy body and drink His precious blood in the Supper.
When Jesus comes to heal, He also brings with Him the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comforts us and increases our faith in the midst of our suffering. And He expresses to the heavenly Father those things we can’t find the words for. St. Paul says that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). Not only did Jesus groan for us—so does the Holy Spirit.
It is clear we have a God who loves us. He knows our troubles, and He urges us to set those troubles before Him. He does not promise to grant us everything we ask for just the way we want it. He does not promise us a life without trouble on earth. But He does promise us His grace. When His grace fills our ears through the hearing of His Word, His healing medicine flows through our body and soul. Then our tongues find their release, and we speak rightly, clearly, loudly of our gracious Savior and Lord, who has “done all things well.”
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 “Jesus in Prison” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Second Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 14:16-24
In Christ Jesus, who mercifully invites us to partake of His great riches of salvation and life both now and forever, dear fellow redeemed:
I think it’s probably more fun to watch game shows than to take part in them. When you are simply a viewer, you don’t feel the pressure the contestants do. You can sit on your couch and second guess the decisions they make. You can question their mental abilities. You can think how you would have played it safe when they took chances, or how you would have taken chances when they played it safe. It’s easy to be an expert about these things when you have nothing on the line.
But suppose you were taking part in a game show, and you could see the prize behind door number one but not behind door number two. In one contest, the prize behind door number one is a new truck. In another, the prize is a new house. In another, the prize is a new plot of tillable land. And in each case, the contestants are assured that the prize behind door number two is even more valuable. Do you turn your back on door number one for a chance to open door number two?
We could understand if the contestants went with the prizes they could see. The prizes behind door number one are good prizes! But what if the host told the contestants that while the prizes behind door number one will last for a while and be useful for a while, the prizes behind door number two have eternal benefits? Would you go for the prize you can see and know what to do with, or for the prize you cannot see or comprehend?
Or let’s put it this way: The prizes behind door number one are things for our earthly life only. The prizes behind door number two are things for our spiritual life, both now and forever. Which is the better prize? Many choose the earthly things like the men did in Jesus’ parable. One man excused himself from the great banquet because he wanted to go check out a new field. Another man excused himself because he had to try out his new oxen. Another excused himself because he had a new wife.
Possessions—work—family—all of them are blessings from God. But none of these physical blessings should take priority over God’s spiritual blessings. Is a new truck better than the forgiveness of sins? Is family better than the faith that saves? Is temporarily owning land better than the eternal inheritance stored up for us in heaven?
Of course these earthly blessings are not better, but we can see them. And the things we can see have a powerful effect on us. We imagine the invitees to the great banquet wondering to themselves if it would really be all that “great.” “What if the banquet is boring? What if the food isn’t that good? What if I don’t like the company? Better to stick with what I know I like.” They figured they had more to lose in attending the banquet than they did in staying home.
But the great banquet that Jesus talks about is no common event with common goods. It is a feast of the richest of foods, foods that never make you feel uneasy or unfilled, foods that you never grow tired of eating. The great banquet is the feast of salvation which God invites sinners to partake of. He invites them to exchange their dirty rags with the wedding garments of righteousness, to be His honored guests at the head table, and to enjoy all the rich gifts He has to offer.
The Lord expects nothing of His guests except that they take His invitation seriously. Jesus’ parable shows clearly that the Lord does not choose the brightest and best and wealthiest and most impressive for His kingdom. He chooses “the poor and crippled and blind and lame,” anyone who can be found no matter their condition, no matter their station in life. He desires to fill His house, and He welcomes every sort.
The guests that attend the banquet may come from different areas and speak different languages. They may have very different backgrounds and customs. But they all have one thing in common: they are all sinners. The great banquet is for sinners. If you are not a sinner, you can ignore this invitation. If you are not a sinner, you can go your merry way. But if you are a sinner, you cannot ignore the Lord’s invitation. You cannot let anything keep you from attending the feast.
If your favorite singer personally sent you front row tickets to his concert and money for travel, you would do whatever you had to do to get there. If your favorite football team gave you tickets on the fifty yard line, you would be at that game. How much more important, then, to listen to God when He warmly invites you to the banquet of salvation!
The table has been set and the meal has been prepared for you. Each one of you is God’s honored guest. Each one of you has been chosen for salvation by His grace. Your salvation was secured when Jesus fulfilled the holy Law for you and died on the cross for your sins. Then He rose on the third day destroying the claim that death had on you.
This victory over sin and death is served up every time you listen to God’s Word and partake of His Sacraments. Jesus is the Food of this feast. You receive His righteousness, forgiveness, and life whenever you hear the promise of the Gospel and trust that God intends it for you. You taste His grace when you eat His body and drink His blood in His Holy Supper. Jesus is the Food, and you need to fill up!
But it isn’t enough just to come to church. If you are coming just to keep up appearances, if you are coming just to show people how good you are, then you might as well stay home. If all you can think about is how boring this banquet is, or how bland the food, or how little you like the company around you, then you can sit alone at home in your pajamas and rule over your own little kingdom with an easy chair as your throne and a smart phone or remote control as your scepter.
But if you know what you are to the depths of your heart—a sinner—, if you recognize how little you deserve the Lord’s invitation to salvation, if you can see that you have nothing good—nothing worth having—apart from your merciful Savior, then you are in the right place. You are in the place where Jesus promises to meet you. He is the one who died for you. He is the one who rose again from the dead for you. He is the one who is seated at the right hand of God the Father, ruling over all things for your good.
He is here to forgive your sins, to take them away as far as the east is from the west. He is here to strengthen your faith, so that you are not tempted away by the treasures of the world. He is here to comfort you in your trials and to give you courage to confess His saving name. Jesus is here, and He invites you to have everything that is His.
Why is the Lord so good to you? That’s what the “poor and crippled and blind and lame” wondered, the ones living in the back alleys and the back woods. Why should they be invited to a great banquet? The first guests who were invited thought they were better than the master and his banquet. They thought they were above him. The guests who actually attended knew they didn’t deserve such attention and riches. They could not imagine that a seat at the table was reserved for them. They had to be compelled to come.
You also must be compelled to come to the Lord’s banquet. You wouldn’t attend on your own. You know you don’t deserve it. You know all your sins which should disqualify you from being in His holy company. But the Holy Spirit comes through God’s Word of promise and works faith in your heart to believe that His promises are intended for you.
The Holy Spirit comes announcing your invitation to the banquet. When you hesitate about it or doubt it, He repeats the promise and keeps repeating it: “The Master expects you. Your seat is reserved. The food is prepared. Everything is now ready. Come!” “But no,” you say, “it can’t be. There must be some mistake.” So He peels open your fingers, and He presses into your hand the invitation to the banquet with your name on it. “At your Baptism, your name was officially registered on the guest list,” He says. “You are supposed to be at the great banquet. You belong there now, and your place is secure there forever.”
Without the Holy Spirit’s work through the Word, we would ignore God’s invitation. We would stick with door number one, the treasures of this world that pass away. We would never see the great riches behind door number two, the treasures of heaven which God gives to all who trust in Him.
To receive and retain these great riches, you have to be willing to walk away from some things that appear to be good. You may have to walk away from opportunities that would lead to more success and more glory on earth. But those things are not as grand as they seem. They are only temporary.
The riches that the Lord has stored up for you are far more and far better. He gives them to you now in abundance through His Word and Sacraments, and through them, He prepares you for the celebration to come when you join Him in great feasting and rejoicing in His glorious kingdom.
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(woodcut of the poor, the blind, and the lame being invited to the banquet from the 1880 edition of The Story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation)
The Third Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:2-10
In Christ Jesus, who is everything the Holy Scriptures promised He would be, dear fellow redeemed:
There are four main characters in today’s text: John the Baptizer, two of John’s disciples, and Jesus. But there were others involved besides these four. In fact, we can assume there were many others. Not long before the events of today’s text, Jesus healed a centurion’s servant without even entering his house (Luk. 7:1-10). Then He met a funeral procession leaving the city of Nain, and with a brief command, He raised a widow’s only son back to life. The evangelist Luke tells us that “this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country” (7:17). We can imagine that the size of the crowds that now followed Jesus were significant.
There was a lot of excitement in Judea and Galilee in those days. The major cities in these two Jewish territories were only about as far apart as Saude from Mason City or Cresco from Rochester—close enough for word to travel. First the strange prophet John attracted all kinds of people in the wilderness by the Jordan River. Then Jesus started preaching and performing miracles in Galilee, and great crowds followed Him.
It couldn’t be denied that John and Jesus were somehow connected, but they were not the same in appearance or in temperament. John grew up aware of the unique circumstances of his birth and of the special mission he would carry out. The son of Zechariah the priest, John studied the Scriptures and spent much of his time in the wilderness (Luk. 1:80). When he was about thirty, he began preaching a bold message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mat. 3:1).
At first, people might have gone to see him out of curiosity. “Who is this crazy preacher?” “Who is this wilderness man dressed in camel’s hair?” But as they listened to him, his words started to sink in. He pointed out how they had broken God’s law in their actions, words, and thoughts. Even tax collectors and soldiers came admitting their wrongs. And finally, the Pharisees and Sadducees also came. John had special words for them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mat. 3:7-8).
John preached so boldly and with such authority that the people wondered if he might be the Christ. John put those ideas to rest. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” he said, “but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (7:11). Someone mightier than John? The people shook with a mixture of fear and excitement. Who could this be? When would He reveal Himself?
Then Jesus came to be baptized, and John saw the Holy Spirit descend from heaven like a dove and remain on Him. From this time forward, John identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Joh. 1:29). The mighty One had come! But Jesus did not fit the people’s expectations. They couldn’t deny the power He had to do miracles. But His preaching and teaching didn’t boom like thunder and flash like lightning in the way they had anticipated.
Perhaps this is why not all of John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus. Even after John was imprisoned for calling out the sins of King Herod, some of his disciples continued to stick with him. When they heard about the miracles Jesus was doing, they reported them to their teacher. John sent two of them to ask Jesus, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” You can’t tell by today’s text, but by the same account in the Gospel of Luke, it seems that Jesus did not answer the question right away.
Jesus was surrounded by a great mass of people, including many with physical problems like blindness, deafness, and the inability to walk. Some were infected with disease and others were afflicted by demons. It wasn’t the rich, the royal, the famous, and the attractive that surrounded Jesus. It was the wretched, the suffering, the depressed, and the needy. Jesus healed these people, and He gave them hope.
Without directly answering their question, the disciples of John had their answer. Was Jesus the coming One? “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” said Jesus: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” When we hear this list of Jesus’ miracles, it is obvious that He must be the Son of God in the flesh. Who else could do things like this?
But there was more to what Jesus said. It was more than a list of present miracles. It was a list of past prophecies that were now being fulfilled. Isaiah prophesied that at the coming of the Messiah, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isa. 35:5-6). Isaiah also recorded these words: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (61:1).
If John’s disciples did not catch the connection between these prophecies and Jesus, we can be certain that John made it for them. It was time to set aside their personal expectations of the coming One and to trust the testimony of God’s holy Word. That’s a lesson that all of us need to learn and re-learn. When we face hardship and pain and difficulty, when we are injured or sick or distressed, we are often quick to become impatient and angry: Why do I have to deal with this? Why did it have to happen to me? Why did it have to happen right now?
It doesn’t take long for our impatience and anger to be directed at God: If You love me, God, why do You let me suffer? If You see my trouble, why don’t You help? We question why He is putting us through it, instead of trusting that He will get us through it. At the root of these struggles is a failure to trust God’s Word, a failure to put our confidence in His promises. The Lord calls us to trust what He says even when it seems like He is ignoring us or is opposed to us or is punishing us.
He said to John’s disciples, “blessed is the one who is not offended by Me,” and He says the same to you and me today. “Blessed are you if you are not offended by My lowly appearance on earth, by My humble behavior, by My suffering, crucifixion, and death. I did all these things for you, so that you would have redemption and eternal life. Blessed are you if you are not offended when I send you trials and tests, so that I might purify your faith like fine gold and draw you closer to Me. Blessed are you if you are not offended by My coming to you still through lowly means, through the ministry of weak pastors, through the water of Baptism and the bread and wine of My Supper.”
We wish Jesus would operate among us with impressive displays of power. We want a thunder and lightning Lord who puts the world in its place and makes it clear to everyone that He stands with us. In some ways, we want a John for our Lord instead of Jesus. Everybody respected bold John, even King Herod who put him in prison. But John was only a messenger, just as the Lord’s servants are today.
The Lord calls His under-shepherds to preach His Word, to point out sin through His Law and to point penitent sinners to their salvation through His Gospel. In today’s Epistle lesson (1Co. 4:1-5), Paul reminds us pastors that we are not the main event. We are only servants and stewards. It is really Jesus who is at work among us through His Word and Sacraments.
We gather to Him here like the suffering people in today’s text. We bring our sorrow, pain, and distress before Him and ask for His help and comfort. Sometimes He removes our troubles from us like He did in healing the blind, the lame, and the deaf. And sometimes He allows our suffering to continue like He did with John the Baptizer’s imprisonment.
Whatever cross Jesus calls you to bear, He promises to carry you through the trial. He comes through His Word and Sacraments to feed and fill you. Maybe you get picked on or made fun of because you stand up for what is right. He comes to strengthen you and give you courage. Maybe you are anxious about your children or grandchildren and the choices they are making. He comes to comfort you and guide you in patience and love toward them. Maybe you are grieving the loss of your good health or the health of a loved one, or you miss someone who has died. Jesus comes to assure you of His victory over sin and death, and He brings you hope for the glorious life to come.
You can be sure that He will do these things for you, because He says He will. Jesus never let a promise go unfulfilled. Paul writes that “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (1Co. 1:20). Whether you ask Him for forgiveness or a stronger faith or help in your troubles, His answer is “Yes,” always “Yes!” His suffering, death, and resurrection to save you is the proof that Jesus Keeps His Promises—every single one.
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(picture from “Witness of John the Baptist” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1972)
The First Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 21:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who came down to win salvation for sinners and who still comes to bless them until He takes them to heaven to live with Him in glory, dear fellow redeemed:
Have you ever been someplace where a famous person showed up unexpectedly? Maybe it was a popular actor or singer or professional athlete or maybe someone like the President of the United States. When they show up, the news of their appearance spreads like fire. A crowd starts to form, people getting excited, squeezing in to try to get a better view.
This is something like the scene in Jerusalem when Jesus arrived at the beginning of Holy Week. The streets and buildings were swollen with people who had come for the annual Passover celebration. Then word started to travel: “Jesus is coming!” Not everyone knew about Him: “Who is this?” they asked (Mat. 21:10). “He is the prophet from Nazareth! He does great signs and wonders! He even raised a man from the dead over in Bethany! That man Lazarus is alive and well!”
So a great crowd pushed toward the gate where Jesus would arrive drawing others along with them like a magnet attracting metal shavings. The people spilled out of the city and spread out along the road. By now, the idea was firmly planted in their minds that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. He was the mighty King who would free them from their enemies.
The people of the crowd were not rich dignitaries who could roll out a red carpet and welcome Jesus with impressive displays of pomp and circumstance. But they could offer their dusty cloaks and lay palm branches on the road as a carpet for his donkey. There were no professional musicians and singers organized for His approach. But the people had their own voices to employ, so they sang joyfully the words of the messianic Psalm (118:25-26), “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Now is this the way Jesus would be received if He suddenly appeared somewhere close by today? I have no doubt that Jesus would draw a big crowd. And I think He would be welcomed with great rejoicing and hopefulness. But it wouldn’t take long before people labeled Him a disappointment. By the end of the first week, the crowd would be considerably smaller, and Jesus would be looking at more enemies than allies.
That’s what happened in Jerusalem. The people welcomed Him as the King who would restore the glory to Israel. He would assert His authority and lead them to freedom from the Romans. Besides that, He would bring them healing from their illnesses and pain. He would feed them with a never-ending supply of food. It would be a heaven on earth.
Isn’t that what people would expect from Jesus now? They would want Him to solve their earthly problems: “Lord, this person has cancer, this person is very ill, this person is severely depressed, this person has chronic back pain. Please heal them!” Others would come asking Him to fill their cupboards with food or help with their financial issues. And everyone would want to know His position on the hot topics of the day: “What political party do You endorse? What do You think about a mask mandate? Can we really trust the coronavirus vaccine?”
I don’t think His answers would satisfy anyone. Whenever the Pharisees and teachers of the law tried to trap Jesus with their questions, they walked away frustrated. Instead of helping you score points against someone, Jesus would turn the focus back on you. “Why are you so eager to judge your neighbor? Why are you trying to remove a speck from your brother’s eye when there is a log in your own eye? Your duty is to love your neighbors—even your enemies—and to pray for those who persecute you” (Mat. 7:1-5, 5:44).
Many would come to Jesus looking for His help with other people’s sins. Few would come seeking His forgiveness for their own sins. And that is to misunderstand Jesus, to misunderstand God’s purpose in sending His Son to take on our flesh. Jesus did not come to make us secure in our self-made righteousness. That sounds something like this: “If you think and act like I do, then you are good. If you don’t think and act like I do, then you are bad.” That approach lacks both charity and humility.
The truth is that all of us are bad. By nature, all of us are self-centered and self-serving. We are stubborn and prideful and easily angered. And God sent His Son right into all our bitterness and in-fighting. Why? It’s because God loved the world, even this broken, evil world. He sent His Son to be the Light in our darkness, to be our Hope and our Righteousness and our Salvation.
This is why Jesus came. He came to redeem us sinners. He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday not to defeat the Romans or the Pharisees, but to overcome the works of darkness and conquer death itself. By Friday of that week, He was hanging on the cross suffering for your sins and mine and for the sins of the whole world. And then the following Sunday He was appearing again alive to His disciples who had deserted Him. He was not angry with them; He forgave them, just as He forgives you.
And this Jesus, your King, who humbly offered Himself as the sacrifice for your sins and who triumphed over your death, still comes to bless you today. He does not come visibly attracting a great crowd in some major city. He comes hidden in His Word and Sacraments. He comes to meet you in whatever trial or pain or struggle you are currently experiencing. He comes to apply His powerful healing through His Word and to strengthen your faith.
He even attaches His own body and blood to earthly elements, so you can be sure that He has come, sure that He has imparted the blessings He promises. We welcome Him here to our altar just as the people welcomed Him to Jerusalem so long ago: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” We do not lay down our cloaks or palm branches at the altar. We lay down the burden of our sin and guilt, our judgmental attitude toward our neighbor, our lack of love. We lay these things before the righteous Judge, and He says to us, “This is My body; this is My blood—given and shed for you for the remission of your sins.”
But His present coming in the means of grace is ignored by the world and even by some Christians. This year has exposed the way many people view the gathering of Christians. Unbelievers view it as unessential at best and as dangerous at worst. They really see it as no different than the gathering of any other worldly organization. If they believe there is a God, they don’t believe He actually comes down to meet us in physical things like words and water, bread and wine.
And then there are even some Christians who say, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian!” And, “Church is not a building; we are the church!” There is truth in both statements. If all we cared about was the church building, and how pretty it is, and how just sitting there makes us feel better, then we are putting too much stock in wood and plaster and paint. We Christians can do without a building. But we cannot do without Christ.
Christ’s holy Word and Sacraments are essential to us Christians. They are the lifeline between us and our gracious Lord. They are the way He gives us the healing, help, and strength that we cannot get anywhere else. We don’t need to receive these blessings in a church building, but we do need to receive them. And Jesus is glad to come to us. He is glad to deliver His gifts. He wants to ease our troubled conscience. He wants to alleviate our doubts and fears. He wants to bring us the assurance that when this life comes to an end, a much better life awaits.
We who gather around Jesus today are just a small part of the great multitude that has followed Him since time began. We face troubles that are unique to us, but that many have experienced before us. We are not the first of Jesus’ followers to suffer, and He has brought countless believers through suffering into glory. He has led His people through every imaginable distress and conflict, and He will do the same for us.
So we repent of our mistrust and our worry. Jesus is still here with us. He still brings us His rich blessings. Just as He entered Jerusalem to save, so He still comes among us to save. Here He is present in His Word and Sacraments to bless us. And soon He will come again visibly to unite the great multitude of believers in His kingdom which has no end.
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(picture from “Entry of Christ into Jerusalem” by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1320)
Festival of the Ascension of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Acts 1:1-11
In Christ Jesus, who is present with us and all His disciples just as He promised He would be, dear fellow redeemed:
The chief priests and the Pharisees had heard Jesus loud and clear. He said He would rise again on the third day after His death. Once they succeeded in having Him crucified, they remembered His words. They thought His disciples might now try to steal away His body and declare that He had risen. So they had a guard positioned at the tomb. They did not know that these soldiers would become the first witnesses of the empty tomb when an angel came down from heaven and rolled away the stone.
Some of the soldiers went trembling to the religious leaders and reported what they had seen. The leaders gave them hush money and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep’” (Mat. 28:13). So the religious leaders heard Jesus’ prediction, they heard the eyewitness account of these men that the tomb was empty, and they still denied that Jesus is who He said!
They may have silenced the guard, but I can’t imagine they were able to silence the thoughts and imaginations of their hearts. They must have dreaded the very real possibility that Jesus would turn up alive and show Himself to everyone. Then what could they say? Who would listen to them then?
It’s kind of surprising that Jesus did not do this. What better proof of His Word could there be than to take a victory lap all around Jerusalem? Or better still, why didn’t Jesus take His message on the road? “Look, they crucified Me—you can see the marks in My hands and feet. I died and was closed up in a tomb. But here I am alive again! That’s because I am the holy Son of God, the Savior of the world. Nothing—not even death—can overcome Me!”
Instead, the forty days between His resurrection and ascension were relatively low-key. He appeared to His disciples at different times, but He seems to have hidden Himself for the better part of those days. When He did appear to them, He spoke to them “about the kingdom of God,” and He told them to expect the outpouring of the Holy Spirit “not many days from now.” Then He said, “you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Jesus made it clear that He was giving the work of spreading the Gospel of salvation to the disciples. But why was Jesus so eager to leave them? Why not proclaim the message Himself until the Christian Church was well-established? The disciples did not feel ready to have the Lord leave. We can see this in the way they intently gazed into heaven when Jesus ascended. How could He depart from them and keep His promise to be with them always?
Jesus’ ascension marks the transition point between the winning of salvation and the distributing of it. His ascension to His Father’s right hand is the crowning moment of His saving work. He had descended (or come down) from heaven to take on our flesh and save us, and now He was ascending (or going up) to heaven having won the victory over sin, death, and hell. Just ten days after this, the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples and propel the Gospel throughout the known world.
So was that it for Jesus? Did He return to heaven to enjoy a well-deserved rest of a few thousand years after suffering the eternal punishment for sin? Is He just biding His time until the day comes for His triumphant return to earth? It sure would be nice to have Him here again like He was 2,000 years ago. The church on earth—broken in so many pieces—needs Him to come and set everything right. We need Him to bring healing to the sick—especially now when many are contracting a virus and some are dying. We need Him to calm our troubled hearts and encourage us on our way like He did His disciples.
All these things we need Him to do, He still does—just not in the way we want Him to. He is at work in the church by the power of His Word mending divisions and strengthening the fellowship of believers. He is bringing healing to the sick through the care of medical personnel and compassionate family and friends. And He does comfort and encourage us as He visits us through the means of grace.
But we want more. We want Him to be present with us visibly, to show His love for us by performing miracles and taking away our hurt and pain. It is frustrating to be told again and again of His great love for us while everything in our life is falling apart. How is His love helping me recover my health? How is it helping me pay my bills? How will it fix the break-down in my relationship? How will it make my boss treat me more fairly? How will it remove my loneliness, depression, and anguish?
This is where we go wrong: we assume that Jesus is not active because things are not turning out the way we want. Or we assume that He does not love us as much as the Bible says He does. The second error is put to rest by the fact of His sacrificial death. He didn’t go to the cross for any wrong He had done. He went there to pay for all our sins—our sins against Him! That’s a love we can’t even come close to matching.
It is also wrong to think that Jesus is not active anymore on earth. The Bible outlines three main areas of activity—His three-fold office as our Savior. Jesus continues to work on our behalf as a Prophet, a Priest, and a King. As Prophet, He speaks to us through His powerful Word and sends men to declare His forgiveness to His people. As Priest, He intercedes for us at the Father’s right hand and brings our needs before the throne of grace. As King, He rules over all things especially for the benefit of His Church and brings all the departed saints to His kingdom of glory. That’s a lot of activity!
So He is very aware of what is going on in your life. But how can you be assured of His presence? How can you be certain He is here with you no matter what you are going through? He may not show Himself to you like you would want. But He does promise to be with you, and He does not promise anything lightly. The apostle Paul writes that when Jesus ascended into heaven, His Father “put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).
You are part of Christ’s body. You are a member of His holy Church by faith in Him. He could no easier forget you or cast you aside than you could forget or cast aside your own arm or foot. He loves you. He wants you to remain with Him and so inherit eternal life and never-ending joy. That’s why He specially visits you through the preaching of His Word and through His Sacraments.
You do not see Him come visibly. But He is right here with you, even in the flesh that was nailed to the cross and came alive again in the tomb. Jesus did not lie to His disciples; He was with them always. He is with you too, to the end of each day, to the end of your life, and to the end of the world (ELH Evening Collect, p. 126).
Where Is Jesus When You Need Him? He is still here, wielding “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Mat. 28:18). He is here to bring His forgiveness and grace to your heart when you hear His Word. He is here to apply His saving gifts in Holy Baptism. He is here to give His own body and blood for you to eat and to drink for the remission of your sins. His Word and Sacraments are where Jesus promises to be found “always, to the end of the age” (v. 20).
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(picture of the Ascension by John Singleton Copley, 1775)
The Second Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 John 5:4-10
In Christ Jesus, who gives us a share of His eternal victory by faith, dear fellow redeemed:
He had told them several times. He told them He had to suffer and die, and that He would be raised again on the third day (Mat. 16:21, 17:23, 20:19). But the disciples did not understand. They were so troubled by the thought of His death that His promise to rise did not even register with them. Peter let Jesus know what he thought about The Plan. He took Jesus aside and rebuked Him. He said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Mat. 16:22).
It wasn’t long before this that Peter had beautifully expressed the truth about who Jesus was: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Peter naturally did not want to see His great Teacher and Lord die. He may have also wondered whether this was even possible. If Jesus is truly God’s Son, how could He die? But Jesus was not about to follow the will of Peter—the will of man. He followed the will of His Father in heaven, and His suffering, death, and resurrection happened exactly as He had predicted.
Yet even after His resurrection, the disciples struggled to believe it. The women came on Easter morning telling them about an open tomb, shining angels, and a message from Jesus. “[B]ut these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luk. 24:11). How could it be true? The previous Friday, Jesus had died on the cross. There was no question about it. John himself was there. He saw the soldier pierce the side of Jesus, and he saw blood and water come out (Joh. 19:34). Jesus was dead. The disciples had watched Jesus call back Lazarus from the dead. But who could call back Jesus?
They did not believe it until Jesus appeared to them in the flesh on Easter evening. Since the doors were locked, at first they thought a spirit had come into their midst. But Jesus showed them the marks in His hands, feet, and side. He ate some fish in their presence (Luk. 24:42). Now they realized that He most certainly wasn’t a ghost. This was Jesus, risen from the dead!
All of them were convinced, all except for Thomas. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared. “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails,” he said, “and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (Joh. 20:25). The next Sunday, the disciples including Thomas were all together, and Jesus appeared again. Now Thomas believed: “My Lord and my God!” he said (v. 28). Jesus said to him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (v. 29).
The skepticism of Thomas is the default position of many today regarding Jesus. They are willing to accept that He existed. They imagine He was probably a good guy. They like how He helped people in need. But they don’t believe He is God, and they don’t believe He came back to life after His death. The only way they would believe these things is if they had proof of some kind, like the proof that Thomas received.
The evidence that the apostle John brings forward is not the evidence one might expect. John says the proof that Jesus is the Son of God is found in “the Spirit and the water and the blood.” This is a reference especially to the beginning and end of Jesus’ public work. He was publicly identified as God’s Son and the promised Savior at His Baptism. When He was baptized, the heavens were opened, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Him. Then a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mat. 3:16-17).
That is strong testimony of Jesus’ identity. But how can we be certain it actually happened as described? Some people suggest that Jesus’ closest disciples invented stories about His life. But if you wrote a story and included yourself in it, how would you portray yourself? The disciples are often described as weak, petty, and ignorant. Either those creative writers were extraordinarily humble, or they simply told the truth about themselves and Jesus.
The same goes for John the Baptizer. He was not an all-knowing prophet. He admitted he did not know Jesus was the promised Messiah until he baptized Him. But seeing what happened and hearing the voice of God the Father, he then proclaimed, “this is the Son of God!” (Joh. 1:34). So by “the Spirit and the water” God the Father testified that Jesus was His Son.
Going forward three years, Jesus was now in Jerusalem. He had entered the city on Palm Sunday and was preparing for His imminent death. “Now is my soul troubled,” He said. “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (Joh. 12:27-28). Then a voice sounding like thunder came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (v. 28). It was the voice of His heavenly Father.
And then it was time for the testimony of “the blood.” The shedding of blood shows that Jesus was clearly a Man. Blood poured out of His back from the wounds of His flogging and from His head where the crown of thorns had been driven. It dripped from His hands and feet where the nails had pierced. But how does the blood prove His divinity? How does it show He is the Son of God?
If Jesus had died and remained dead, we would have to conclude that He was not who God said He was, that He was not the Son of God. But since He has risen, that changes the way we look at His crucifixion. His resurrection from the dead shows us that it wasn’t just a regular Man hanging on the cross. It was the God-Man. His blood was holy blood shed for all people. His suffering was holy suffering, not for wrongs He had done but for the sins of the world. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” He cried. His blood testifies that God the Father poured out His wrath against sin on His only Son in the place of all sinners.
“[T]he Spirit and the water and the blood.” This is God the Father’s testimony. “[T]his is the testimony of God that He has borne concerning His Son.” And Jesus’ resurrection is the bow that ties it all together. His resurrection proves that the testimony is true. It proves everything God declared about His Son and everything Jesus taught and did.
Those who deny Jesus’ resurrection will make of Him whatever they want, but they won’t have a Savior. You, on the other hand, who believe God’s testimony, have everything He has graciously promised you. You will not be judged along with the unbelieving world on the last day, because you are covered in Christ’s righteousness. You will not suffer eternal damnation in hell, because your sins are all forgiven. You will not remain in the grave, because Jesus will come again in glory to raise you from the dead.
All of these things are yours. You have been “born of God” by the power of the Holy Spirit. You were brought to faith in Jesus through His holy Word, so that His victory became your victory. He wants to continue to assure you and comfort you in this truth. He knows that the devil, the world, and your own flesh want to steal away your confidence. He knows how they try to use trials like the current pandemic to plant doubts in your mind about His love toward you and about the promises of His Word.
It is good that John recorded the doubts of Jesus’ disciples after His resurrection. They doubted like we do. Our faith is not perfect. It is common for all Christians to wonder why God lets troublesome things happen, or why He doesn’t fix a problem or help us in our need. We have also had doubts about whether we are right with God. How could He love people like us who have failed so miserably or done such bad things?
Jesus does not alleviate our doubts by appearing in person and showing us His hands and side like He did for Thomas. But He does set before us the testimony of His love through His Word and Sacraments. Publicly through His called servant and privately through the encouragement of fellow Christians, Jesus declares to us the forgiveness of our sins. As Jesus said to His disciples on Easter evening, so He still says to us, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Joh. 20:22-23).
He also gives us the testimony of His Sacraments—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. “Baptism,” He says, “is My cleansing blood applied to you. It is My bringing you the victory of My death and resurrection. It is your rebirth as a holy child of God.” And the Lord’s Supper is His body given in the bread and His blood given in the wine “for the remission of sins.” In this Supper, our resurrected and exalted Lord comes to us personally and brings us His eternal blessings of forgiveness and life and salvation.
So just as “the Spirit and the water and the blood” testified in Jesus’ life that He really is the Son of God, so “the Spirit and the water and the blood” in His Word and Sacraments continue to testify to Him today. It is impossible for our limited minds to understand these things. How could the Son of God take on flesh, suffer, die, and rise again? How could He continue to meet us through His Word and Sacraments?
But though our minds cannot comprehend these things, they are most certainly true. Jesus Really Is the Son of God. He really did die for your sins and rise again in victory over your death. And He really does come to you today to bring you comfort, strength, and peace in every need.
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(picture is from “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” by Caravaggio, c. 1601-1602)
The Third Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
In Christ Jesus, who still comes to bless us through His holy Word and Sacraments, dear fellow redeemed:
God’s Mysteries Revealed Here! If an ad with those words popped up on your computer, would you click it? God’s Mysteries Revealed Here! If those words were on a sign outside a building, would you go in?
We would all like to know more about God and how He works. We want to know why He decided to create the universe and why He made it possible for angels and men to rebel against Him. We want to know why He lets certain things happen in the world and what His plans are for the future. We want to know how much longer we will live and when Jesus will come again in glory.
All of these things are known to God but are mysteries to us. But there are other mysteries of God that He has revealed to us, things that remain hidden to others. This is not a unique concept among the world’s religions. Many of them have elements of mystery that are revealed only to their dedicated disciples. For example, the eastern religions teach that meditation and other acts of devotion are needed to unlock the secrets of the divine. The Masonic Lodge reveals its secrets only to those who make a vow and commitment to the organization. Other religions like Scientology will reveal as many secrets as you have money to pay for them.
But the mysteries of Christianity are not like any of these. We freely share God’s mysteries with others, and we invite anyone and everyone to explore them and learn more about them. The mysteries God has revealed to us and that St. Paul refers to in today’s text are the mysteries of the Gospel. They are the mysteries of the Son of God becoming a man in order to save the human race. They are the mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection and His continued presence with us in the means of grace.
This Gospel message is proclaimed around the world. But as clearly as it is spoken about, for many it remains hidden and shrouded in mystery. Earlier in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wrote that for unbelievers, “the word of the cross is folly” (1:18). It is a “stumbling block” to the Jews who “demand signs,” looking for miracles as confirmation of God’s presence. And it is foolishness to the Gentiles who “seek wisdom,” requiring that every teaching agrees with human reason (vv. 22-23).
Paul was not interested in meeting the demands for proof that the unbelievers required. “[W]e preach Christ crucified,” he said; “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (v. 23,24). He explained that this is “not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a [mystery] and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (2:6-7).
This is the mystery that John the Baptizer set out to reveal in his preaching and teaching. Now John was an odd one. He did not dress like other people did (Mar. 1:6). He did not indulge in strong food or drink like they did (Luk. 1:15). He lived in the wilderness and spent no time on self-promotion. How did a guy like this attract a crowd?
He attracted a crowd because of what he said. He was not afraid to call out the people who came to listen to him, from Jewish religious leaders to tax collectors to soldiers. He was not in the business of building up their self-esteem or making them feel good about themselves. He preached the law, so that they might recognize their great sinfulness. And he preached the Gospel of salvation through Christ, so that they might eagerly watch for His coming.
It might seem like John was a strange choice for this important role. Why couldn’t it have been an intelligent and well-liked scribe from Jerusalem? He could have utilized his position in the temple to prepare the people for the Savior. Or why couldn’t it have been a member of the king’s court or the king himself? He could have issued a decree for everyone to get ready.
Paul wrote that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1Co. 1:27-29). John was nobody special, at least as far as the world could tell. He was just some quirky Jewish preacher. But God chose this so-called “foolish” and “weak” man to do powerful things. He was the messenger sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus (Mat. 11:10).
God still sends “foolish” and “weak” men to carry out His work. This is a comfort for me and for you as well. As far as our sinful nature goes, you and I are exactly the same. Each of us deserves eternal damnation for our sins. But by God’s grace we are given forgiveness and life instead. The difference between us is that God called me to be a steward of His mysteries. He called me to be your pastor.
Of course, I’m not the only pastor out there. Many pastors have served here through the years. It is typically the case that the pastor who baptized you is not the one who confirmed you or the one who will conduct your funeral. You might feel like you connect better with one pastor over another. But every pastor has his quirks, and each one has said or done things that at least some members thought were questionable.
Despite our quirks and the personal shortcomings we have as pastors, God still distributes His good gifts through us. Through our unimpressive and faltering speech, He speaks His saving Gospel. Through our weak and trembling hands, He distributes His holy Sacraments. The work of a pastor is not about him. The pastor’s work is about Jesus.
This is why Paul said that he and his co-workers should be regarded as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” A servant does the bidding of his master. A steward manages what belongs to another. The main thing required of a servant or a steward is that he is trustworthy, faithful to his responsibility. This is what a pastor must do: he must faithfully reveal the mysteries of God through the administration of His Word and Sacraments. Whether or not he does that is the true measure of your pastor.
But it is tempting to judge a pastor by other standards. In the larger Christian church, pastors are often judged by their personality, by how much they contribute to the stability and growth of a congregation, and by how their work is perceived in the community. Pastors are expected to be fundraisers, therapists, community activists, and expert problem solvers.
While a particular pastor may have gifts in some of these areas, his call from God is to preach the Word. He is to preach God’s law to expose sin and not cover it up by accommodating the culture. He is to preach the Gospel to forgive sin and not give the impression that one’s salvation is in his own hands. He is to encourage the regular hearing of the Word and partaking of the Sacraments and not treat the souls in his care with indifference. These are the things a pastor will answer for when he stands before the throne of God on the last day.
But no pastor carries out his work perfectly. Each is guilty of trusting himself too much and the Word too little. And no parishioners perfectly love, honor, and support their pastor. They judge him by human standards and not according to his calling. This is why the mystery of the Gospel is so important. We need the forgiveness Jesus won. We need His righteousness to cover our sinful attitudes and actions.
God gladly gives us these blessings. He knows our weaknesses and failures. He knows how much we need His mercy and grace. This is exactly why He sent out the apostles like Paul and Peter and why He still sends pastors. He sends them to administer His good gifts.
Jesus could appear in every congregation and speak to us directly, but He has not chosen to do this. He works through His servants, His stewards. He tells them, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luk. 10:16). Likewise He says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Joh. 20:23).
This means that a pastor’s teaching and preaching in Jesus’ name is His teaching and preaching. The forgiveness a pastor declares is His forgiveness. Whenever and wherever Jesus’ Word is proclaimed, He Himself is present. The means of grace are the vehicle for His present advent, His present coming. The way to find Jesus and commune with Him is to look for the marks of the church: the Gospel purely preached and the Sacraments rightly administered. When you locate these marks, you will also find a servant of Christ at work revealing His mysteries.
These mysteries of God are revealed free of charge. They cannot be unlocked by any amount of money or by any human effort. The Holy Spirit unlocks them for you through the Word and Sacraments. He wants you to know the grace of Jesus Christ, who gave Himself to save you. He wants you to know that in Him your sins are forgiven and heaven is yours.
The mysteries of other religions, the mysteries of the world, are nothing like God’s mysteries. The world’s mysteries focus on your work, not on God’s. God’s Mysteries are Revealed Here, the mysteries of His love for you, of the Savior born of a virgin, of a once-for-all sacrifice and a triumphant resurrection from the dead. These mysteries are foolishness to the world, but they are hope and life and salvation to you and to all those who believe.
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(picture of Saude Lutheran Church)
The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 1:18-25
In Christ Jesus, who has not left us as orphans in this sin-filled world, but who comes to us to strengthen and keep us in the faith until His final coming in glory, dear fellow redeemed:
Faith is a major theme in this part of the year, not just in the church but also in society. Our society encourages faith with regard to Santa Claus. Many holiday movies are based on the idea that Santa can carry out his gift-giving work only if enough people believe in him. Their faith is what gives him power. Naturally this belief in Santa is most challenging for adults, whose reason gets in the way. But the adults always come around, and everyone has a happy Christmas.
The church also preaches the need for faith, but the object of faith is not Santa and his promise of earthly gifts. The church’s object of faith is Jesus Christ and His promise of heavenly gifts. A childlike faith is needed here too, since it is easy to have doubts about what Jesus has accomplished. But while there is no evidence for Santa beyond recent and fictional fantasy, there is extensive evidence for Jesus in the ancient and historical texts of the Bible.
From Genesis to Revelation, the central character in the Bible is the Savior promised to Adam and Eve and their descendants after the fall into sin. At that time, the Lord told the devil: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
What did that mean? The Lord was telling Satan that he would not have his way with mankind. He would not be able to lead them unopposed into darkness. Satan’s offspring and the woman’s offspring would be at enmity with each other. They would be adversaries. They would struggle and battle against one another. And then at a certain point, one particular Descendant of the woman would stomp on Satan’s head. He would crush any authority the devil had.
When would these things take place? The struggle between righteousness and unrighteousness was evident right away. Sin strained the marriage of Adam and Eve, and the devil’s work was also manifest in their children. Their firstborn son Cain became angry at his younger brother Abel when the Lord accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. The Lord warned Cain that “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7). But Cain allowed Satan to slither in, and Cain attacked and killed his brother.
How sad this must have been for Adam and Eve! They had hoped Cain might be the promised Offspring who would crush the deceiver’s head. Instead they watched the devil tempt Cain to sin just as he had tempted them. When would their Redeemer come? Adam waited hundreds of years for this Savior, but by the time of his death at age 930 the Savior had not arrived (5:3-5). Then more time passed, a lot more time. Centuries turned into millennia, and still there was no Savior.
The need for a Savior was obvious. Before God sent the worldwide flood, the Bible says that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5). This wickedness continued after the flood too. When not only ten righteous people could be found in Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lord rained down fire and destroyed those cities. By the time the prophet Elijah came along, he thought he was the only believer left in the entire world. He wasn’t far off. The Lord said that just 7000 Israelites continued to follow Him (1Ki. 19:18). That is the equivalent of the towns of Cresco and New Hampton pitted against the rest of the world.
The devil appeared to be working unchecked among men and winning the battle. When would his terrible reign end? When would the woman’s Offspring come, the One who would conquer him? No one knew. But there were prophesies, prophesies that more and more clearly prepared the people for the Savior’s coming. One of these was delivered to King Ahaz by the prophet Isaiah in the 700s B. C., and it is repeated in today’s Gospel lesson: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).
“[T]he virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” That must be the woman’s Offspring! But here was a new detail. The woman would be a virgin, and yet she would give birth to a son. This is why the child could be called “Immanuel,” a title meaning “God with us.” If a child were conceived in the natural way, he could not be called “Immanuel.” But this child would be conceived in a supernatural way. This is how the perfect God would become a member of the human race while retaining His righteousness and innocence.
So the stage was set. The Savior would come from a virgin woman who trusted the promises of God. Now what was the Lord waiting for? Hadn’t the devil done enough damage? But the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise waited another 700 years. It was not until “the fullness of time had come,” which God in His wisdom had determined. At that point in history, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4-5). The eternal Son of God was the child who grew inside Mary’s womb. The angel told Joseph that this child “which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit,” and that “He will save His people from their sins.”
There is no question in the Bible about whether or not the promised Savior came. This is what we celebrate at Christmas, the coming of Immanuel—God with us—to save sinners. This God incarnate did what He was sent to do. He perfectly kept God’s law on behalf of all people, and He was crucified and died for their sins. On the third day, He rose again in victory over death, and forty days later He ascended into heaven.
But we do not see Him now like the disciples did. We did not witness His many miracles. We did not see Him die and rise again. We long for His presence now as we go through our troubles and trials. How can we make Him a part of our lives? How can we be sure that He is near? Some speak about Jesus in nearly the same way that they speak about Santa. They say that Jesus’ coming really depends on us. If we believe in Him enough, then He will come.
But the comfort of the Gospel is that He comes to us even when our faith is barely there, when we are hanging on by our fingertips. This happens when we feel guilt for wrongs we have done. We let Satan in. We did what we knew we shouldn’t. And now we live with a violated conscience. At these times, the devil is only too glad to whisper in our ear, “Look what you’ve done! How could God love you? What a failure you are!”
Other times, we struggle with intense doubt and grief because of a loss we have experienced. “Why did God let me endure such financial hardship?” “Why didn’t He stop those who ruined my reputation?” “Why did He take away the one I love?” It is hard for us to see His grace and goodness in these difficult times. We even wonder whether God might be punishing us. We wonder if He is worth following at all.
But as far away as Jesus seems to be at these times, He is actually quite close. He does not wait for us to have enough faith. He comes to us to give us faith and strengthen it. Like His humble coming into the world, so He still hides His glorious presence in humble means. He comes to us through the simple preaching of His Word and through the water, bread, and wine of His Sacraments. And He does this work through unimpressive men whose weaknesses are well known.
His saving power is not affected by our lack of faith. He comes on His own to bestow His rich blessings upon us. He comes with forgiveness for stubborn sinners who have trouble admitting their wrongs. He brings healing to those whose wounds are self-inflicted. He covers with His righteousness the ones whom the world calls unredeemable. “Immanuel” still comes to us. He is still “God with us”—God with us through His holy Word.
And Jesus, our Immanuel, will come again in glory. Just as the people of the Old Testament waited for God to fulfill His promise to send a Savior, so we now wait for our Savior to return on the last day. He could come back tomorrow, or His glorious coming might be thousands of years away. What seems like a long time to us is not a long time to our God. “[W]ith the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2Pe. 3:8).
But as surely as the Lord kept His promise to send a Savior, and as surely as Jesus still comes to us through His holy Word, so He surely will come again in glory. On that day, Jesus will do exactly what He has promised. He will raise all the dead and will glorify the bodies of all believers. Then these saints will be gathered to His glorious presence in heaven.
In heaven there will be no more struggle against the devil. There will be no more feelings of doubt and loneliness and sorrow. Because then we will finally be taken up to Him who came down to save us.
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(painting of the angel’s visit to Joseph by Toros Roslin, 1262)