The Second Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 John 3:13-18
In Christ Jesus, who lived a perfect life of love on our behalf, and who continues to inspire and work that love among us, dear fellow redeemed:
The home should be a place of love, kindness, and joy, but it isn’t always so. The people who make up a family are sinners, and sinners like to have things their way. You may remember thinking that you “just can’t live” with that annoying sibling anymore or with those unfair parents. You may have even said to one of them those three terrible, powerful words, “I hate you!” You probably regretted saying that later on and were glad to hear the even more powerful words, “I forgive you! I love you!”
Hatred has no place in the Christian home or in the Christian congregation. Hatred is the aim of the devil. He is eager to incite division, conflict, violence, abuse, and self-centeredness. We see these things raging all around us. God calls His people to do the opposite of these things. He calls us to be “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another” (Eph. 4:32). The Letter to the Galatians outlines “the fruit of the Spirit” in the life of the Christian, the fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (5:22-23).
But our lives as Christians don’t always look so fruitful. Just like the unbelievers of the world, we Christians are guilty of sinful stubbornness, hatred, and selfishness. In the broader Christian church, the world is right to point an accusing finger at us. Look at the rampant abuse of power and trust by ministers who are supposed to serve with love and humility. Look at all the congregations that are torn apart by petty disputes among its members. Unbelievers see these things and walk the other way.
But let’s bring it closer to home. Is there anything that visitors might see or hear among us to make them question if we really believe what we say we do? Would they detect that we accept people who are like us while looking down on those who are not? Would they hear us speak harshly or engage in gossip about others? Would they get a warm welcome or a cold shoulder? Would they find humility among us or pride? Cooperation or division?
I suppose they would find a mixture of all these things. We are not perfect. We are just as sinful as any who might walk through those doors. But we must never become comfortable in that sin. Instead of tucking our sin away, trying to cover it up, we expose it to the light of God’s Word. That is no easy thing. It is not fun to have our sins uncovered. It is easy enough to shine the light on the sins of other people. But when that light shines on us, we want to hide our wrongs.
The apostle John writes, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” When we hear “brother,” we think “male sibling.” But here the term is not used for our biological family. It is used for our spiritual family. We are all “brothers,” because we are “all sons of God, through faith” as the Bible says (Gal. 3:26). Through faith, we join Jesus in His position as the Father’s only Son, which means that all the honor and glory the Father bestows on His exalted Son is also given to us.
In this way, every believer in Jesus is totally equal: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). We are equally redeemed by God, equally forgiven, equally treasured. Since He loves us this way without distinctions, this is how we should love one another. By our willing and cheerful love toward each other, we show that “we have passed out of death into life.” We are not lost in the devil’s darkness. We are not consumed by hatred. We love as God has loved us.
When one Christian does not love another Christian, this is not justifiable in God’s sight. That does not stop us from trying to justify it. Like the guests in the Holy Gospel for today who had all kinds of excuses why they couldn’t attend the master’s banquet (Luk. 14:16-24), we make excuses for why we don’t have to love our brothers in Christ. Our lack of love sounds like this:
- “How could I possibly love her after what she did to me?”
- “I won’t apologize to him unless he apologizes to me first!”
- “She always has to get her way!”
- “He doesn’t care about anyone but himself.”
- “Things would be a lot better around here if they were gone.”
- “I’m not sorry for them—they got what they deserved!”
- “We’ve always done it this way, and if they don’t like it, they can leave!”
- “If they don’t go along with what I think, then I’ll just stop coming!”
These are not statements of love. They are statements of selfishness and pride. If those sins are not exposed to the light, it is only a short step to anger, resentment, and hatred. In God’s view, hatred is murder, and “no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” So there must be repentance—a heartfelt recognition of your own failings, a real sorrow over sin. It is easier to see the sins in others, but God’s Law uncovers the sins in your own heart. You are no better than they are, and you may even be worse.
The only one who is justified in holding sins against others is God. He has done wrong to no one. He is perfect. He has the right to condemn us to eternal punishment in hell for breaking His holy Law. But God does not rain His terrors upon us and smash us with the hammer of His justice. He loves us. “God is love” (1Jo. 4:16). God loved the world in this way, “that he gave his only Son” (Joh. 3:16). He gave His only Son to be our ultimate brother.
If God has given you a brother in your family, what are the qualities you like about him? Is he a good listener? Does he often have your back? Is he thoughtful? Funny? Is he someone you can always count on? But along with all the good qualities, I’m sure there are things you do not like about your brother. Maybe he is too stubborn, or he is not assertive enough. Maybe he makes some boneheaded decisions. Maybe he let you down when you were really counting on him.
Jesus is the ultimate brother. He has never failed you, never been too busy for you. You’ve never had to wonder whether He had your best interests in mind. But He has done more than “be there for you.” Every time you disobeyed God’s commands and sinned against Him, Jesus took the fall for you. When the Law like a strict classroom teacher asks, “Who did that? Tell me right now or everyone gets punished!” Jesus raised His hand and said, “I did.”
When you spoke harshly about someone or spread gossip to harm their reputation, Jesus said, “It was Me.” When you became angry and wished harm on another, Jesus said, “I did that.” When you made excuses for why someone in need was not worthy of love, Jesus said, “Put the blame on Me.” When you did not get what you wanted, and you hardened your heart against those God has given you to love, Jesus said, “I’m the guilty one. Take it out on Me.”
And God did. God took out all His righteous anger against sin on His Son. That is why the Lord came down from heaven to be our brother in the flesh. Jesus came to suffer and die for all the wrongs we had done, as though He were the one who did them. He let Himself be condemned and despised in everyone’s place, so He could save all. Because of His sacrifice, we are no longer destined for eternal punishment but for eternal life. That is love! “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us.”
Since He has redeemed us from our hatred and our failure to love, we are now free to love in His name. We are part of His holy body by faith. Our life is hidden in His. So we don’t have to find the motivation and the strength for love inside ourselves. The gap may be too wide between us and another brother. We don’t know how we could possibly bring ourselves to reconcile. But where love is lacking in us, it is not lacking in our Savior.
We find love for others in His love for us and for them. He has died for each of our sins. Jesus has removed the division between us and the Father, and He wants to remove the divisions between us and our brothers. This requires humility and repentance and sacrifice, not just on the part of those opposed to us, but on our part. The Holy Spirit works these things in us through His Word.
He shows us how little we deserve from God, but how incredibly much He has given. He guides us to bring our frustrations and grievances before our dear Father’s throne. He brings us healing and peace through Him who sacrificed everything for us out of love. As Jesus “laid down His life for us,” the Holy Spirit now leads us to “lay down our lives for the brothers.” He leads us to share the abundant goods we have been given with a “brother in need.” He leads us to love not only “in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
We are not bound together with our brothers by our own love. Our love for each other comes from Jesus. Through His holy Word and Sacraments, He fills us again and again with His love, so we have ample love to share with one another. “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” (Psa. 133:1), when We Abide Together in Jesus’ Love.
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.
+ + +
(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 Fifth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
In Christ Jesus, who offered Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, and who still intercedes for us before His Father in heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
You have probably talked with people who pin their troubles and failures in life on one thing. They just can’t get past that one thing or let it go. Maybe it is regret that they turned right instead of left when the road ahead branched in two directions. Maybe they are filled with bitterness toward someone who wronged them many years ago. Maybe they think that if they had just stayed with that special individual or pursued that job opportunity, their life would have been much happier and more prosperous.
I suppose the same thoughts have crossed our minds. We think how it would be now if we could just go back and change one thing. The movie It’s a Wonderful Life plays off that idea. The main character gets the chance to see how things would have been different if he had followed his original plan and not stayed in his hometown. He realizes in the end that he didn’t have it so bad after all. But we don’t have that benefit. We can’t see how our lives would be without those decisions and experiences. So it is easy to dwell on the past, to live with regret, to carry the burdens of bad choices and sinful actions. What we wouldn’t give for a clear conscience!
Well, what would you give? What would you give if you could wipe away the bad memories and the bad decisions? If the stain on your past is bad enough, maybe you would give anything to remove it. You would go broke if it would undo the wrong. You might even endure intense physical pain if it could deliver you a clear conscience.
You don’t know what a blessing a clear conscience is until your conscience is troubled. It’s like how we are currently wishing we could go about our normal business with no threat of a fast-spreading virus. We wish we could visit family members and friends. We wish we could go back to church! The things we easily took for granted before are much more valuable to us now. That’s how it is with the conscience. You don’t think much about it until it accuses you, weighs down on you like a heavy burden.
But that doesn’t make the conscience bad. It is very important to have a functioning conscience. In fact, our eternal fate depends on it. The conscience functions properly as long as it is guided by God’s law. So when a person feels guilt for doing harm to his neighbor through actions or words, his conscience is working properly. The conscience is doing what God intends when any breaking of the Commandments in our thoughts, words, or deeds registers in our mind and heart. We want our conscience to do this, but it is hardly pleasant.
In Psalms 31 and 32, David described the heavy burden of a guilty conscience: “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away” (31:9-10). “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (32:3-4). It is no fun to have a guilty conscience. The pressure it applies is intense. But the conscience can be unburdened. And you and I can move beyond the regrets of the past.
The author of the Book of Hebrews explains how. He describes the Old Testament sacrifices which were offered by a priest on behalf of the people. At God’s command, the priest purified all things—including himself—with animal blood, with the blood of goats and lambs and calves and bulls. But no amount of sacrifices could cleanse the people from all their sin. How could the offering of earthly things for sin prevail before the God of heaven?
This is why God sent a Lamb from heaven to earth. He sent His eternally-begotten Son, true God with Him and the Holy Spirit. He sent Him to be at the same time a perfect High Priest and a perfect Sacrifice. As High Priest, Jesus “entered… into the holy places.” The temple with the Holy Place and Most Holy Place was still standing at that time, but Jesus did not enter those places. He entered the holy places of heaven “by means of his own blood.”
Jesus was a Lamb “without blemish.” He had perfectly followed His Father’s will. He had nothing to be ashamed of, no past transgressions that caused Him regret. Even while He was wrongly accused, beaten, and sent to the cross, He maintained a pure conscience. He let these unjust things happen to Him out of love for us. The cross was the altar on which He was sacrificed for our sin. That is where the holy Lamb of God was pierced and blood flowed from His wounds.
The author of Hebrews tells us that by His death, Jesus redeemed us from our transgressions committed under God’s law. His death means that all our sins which bother our conscience and make us feel guilty—even wrongs committed long ago—are completely atoned for. His blood has made full satisfaction for all our sins.
But hearing those words may not immediately unburden your conscience, especially if you have been carrying a load of guilt for a long time. You know that God does not look at those sins anymore, but you do. You can’t clear out the memory of the wrong, the hurt that was caused, the damage that was done. Can you ever hope to have a clear conscience again?
Let’s go back to today’s text. It says that God’s Son took on flesh, so that He could offer Himself in our place. It says that “by means of His own blood,” He secured “an eternal redemption.” With His saving work complete, He returned to “the holy places” of heaven. There He sits at the right hand of His Father as “the mediator of a new covenant.”
A mediator is a go-between, an arbitrator. This person equally represents two sides which are divided. Our sin separated us from God, but Jesus our Mediator brought us back together. He is the perfect Mediator because He is both God and Man. As the inspired letter to Timothy states: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1Ti. 2:5-6).
Jesus continues to function as our Mediator even now. When we sin, He points His Father to the blood He shed on our behalf. “I poured out My blood for that sin, and that sin, and that sin,” He says. “My blood cleanses them from all sin” (1Jo. 1:7). That includes the sins of your past, the ones you still feel guilty about, the ones you would give anything to undo.
There is nothing you can do to make up for those sins. So many people try. They try to bury sin deep. But it always seems to find its way back to the surface. They try to cancel out the bad by doing good. But there is no winning that game, and they know it. Some even hurt themselves or withdraw from others in the hope that by punishing themselves, they can right a wrong. But none of those things work. They all fail.
There is only one path to a clear conscience, and that is Christ. He took your place. He claimed your sin as His own. He offered Himself as the target for your iniquities and misdeeds. He let His Father pour out His righteous wrath against Him. He paid in anguish, suffering, and death for every sin that you and I and the whole world have done.
He shed His blood on the cross to “purify our conscience.” When He died, we are told that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Mat. 27:51, Mar. 15:38, Luk. 23:45). This was the curtain separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. The tearing of this curtain showed that all people now had access to God’s throne of grace through Jesus’ blood. This includes you. You have access to God’s never-changing grace by faith in Jesus. He purifies your conscience from “dead works,” from all those attempts to make things right on your own. Only He can grant forgiveness and peace, and that is what He wants you to have.
Your Baptism is a clear testimony of this. Your Baptism was “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1Pe. 3:21). Baptism delivered you a cleansed and purified conscience because it joined you to Jesus, whose righteousness is perfect (Heb. 10:22). And in the Lord’s Supper, He continues to bring cleansing for the sins you have committed and repented of, by giving you His body and blood to eat and drink.
So What Would You Give for a Clear Conscience? You don’t need to give anything. Jesus gave Himself for you. His holy blood cleanses you—including your troubled conscience—from all sin. In Jesus, and only in Him, you have a bright future. The road behind you may be covered in darkness and regrets and what-ifs. But the road ahead is illuminated by the light of God’s Word. Jesus leads you forward on this path toward your life’s end. Then He will take you into heaven. There you will not remember your record of sin, and you will live with a pure heart and a clear conscience for all eternity.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
+ + +
(picture is from the altarpiece in Weimar by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1555)
Midweek Lent – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: Exodus 29:38-46
In Christ Jesus, who “loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2), dear fellow redeemed:
Besides the annual Passover celebration that God commanded His people to observe, He also instituted the practice of daily sacrifices in the tabernacle. This happened after the Israelites had been led out of slavery in Egypt and set up camp near Mt. Sinai. God gave Moses instructions for building a portable tabernacle where He would be present to bless the people. He also called Moses’ brother Aaron to serve as a priest along with his sons.
The first part of Exodus chapter 29 describes the consecration of these priests. It was not just a matter of Moses asking them to repeat certain words after him followed by a handshake. The consecration process was quite elaborate. Aaron and his sons had to be washed with water and clothed in clean vestments. Then a bull was brought, they laid their hands on its head, and it was slaughtered for a sin offering. Next they laid their hands on the head of a ram. It was slaughtered, its blood was thrown against the sides of the altar, and the parts of the ram were placed on the altar for a burnt offering.
Then they laid their hands on the head of another ram, which was also slaughtered. Its blood was put “on the tip of the right ear of Aaron and on the tips of the right ears of his sons, and on the thumbs of their right hands and on the great toes of their right feet” (v. 20). This blood covered them from head to toe, so that they were ready to hear the Word of God (ear), handle the holy things of God (hands), and walk on the holy ground before God (toes). The rest of the blood was thrown on the altar and sprinkled on the garments of the priests.
There were even more requirements besides these. But this much shows the prominent place of blood in cleansing sinful men. Aaron and his sons could not come before God by their own personal preparations. They had no resources to make themselves holy. It was the LORD who set them apart for His holy work, and He used animal blood to do it. Why animal blood? He later explained through Moses that “the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life” (Lev. 17:14). The un-holiness of mankind required the shedding of blood. The life of one could only be redeemed through the death of another.
Once Aaron and his sons had been consecrated for the LORD’s work, they were commanded to offer two lambs as sacrifices each day. This is described in today’s text. Each lamb was a year old. One was offered in the morning and the other at twilight. Like waking up to the smell of a fresh-cooked breakfast or coming home to a dinner hot out of the oven, these sacrifices were “a pleasing aroma” to the LORD.
The word “pleasing” in Hebrew can also be translated as “soothing” or even “tranquilizing.” It is the word used to describe Noah’s burnt offering after the flood waters had receded and the ark had settled on dry ground. The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma of the sacrifice and said, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Gen. 8:21-22). The offerings of a lamb in the morning and a lamb in the evening had the same effect. It was a soothing aroma to God. It was evidence that His people were humbly keeping His Word.
We are taught to practice something similar as we return to our Baptism each day by repentance and faith. In teaching about the meaning of Baptism, Martin Luther writes: “Such baptizing with water means that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts; and that a new man daily come forth and arise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Small Catechism).
One way to remind yourself of this daily return to Baptism is to confess your sins and give thanks for forgiveness as you wash your face or take a shower at the beginning of the day. The same goes for the end of the day as you put on fresh clothes and wash before bed. The hymnwriter Paul Gerhardt wrote about this practice in one of his evening hymns: “To rest my body hasteth, / Aside its garments casteth, / Types of mortality; / These I put off and ponder / How Christ shall give me yonder / A robe of glorious majesty” (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary #569, v. 4).
The LORD is pleased with our daily practice of repenting and clinging to His promises, just as He was pleased with those twice a day sacrifices. As long as the people continued in His Word, He promised to be present in the tabernacle and to “dwell among the people of Israel” and “be their God.” He came to share His holiness with them and bless them.
This same merciful God still draws near to bless us. He does not come to only one location like the tabernacle or temple in Old Testament times. He comes to every place where His holy Word is heard or read or even meditated upon in the heart or mind. Through His Word, He applies the cleansing blood of Jesus to our whole person from head to toe—our sinful mind, heart, hands, and feet. Our un-holiness required the shedding of Jesus’ holy blood. Our lives could be redeemed only through the loss of His. He took all our sins on Himself and suffered our death, and in exchange He gives us His holiness and eternal life.
By His presence through the Word, the LORD strengthens our faith to endure through good and bad times. Like the people of Israel journeying through the wilderness, we often feel vulnerable and afraid. We wonder what the future will hold for us, especially in times like these. But God does not abandon His people. He dwells among us, protects us, and comforts us through His powerful Word. He is the LORD our God, “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exo. 34:6). Thanks be to Him! Amen.
+ + +
(picture is “The Sacrificial Lamb” by Josefa de Ayala, 1630-1684)
The Second Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7
In Christ Jesus, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1Co. 1:30), dear fellow redeemed:
If you grew up in the same neighborhood with a person who later became famous, you would be proud that you knew him. If you were a relative of his, you would feel even more special. If you were his friend, you would enjoy certain benefits and have some influence in his life. But if you were a member of his family, you would have a share in his fame, his honor, and his success. The closer you were to him, the greater effect it would have on your life.
The same goes for our closeness to God. The closer we are to Him, the greater effect He has on our lives. But how do we get close to God? Some say that closeness to God is achieved through prayer; they never feel as close to Him as when they pray. Others think they can get close to God by living a good life. They hope that if they are good enough, God will be happy with them and bless them.
But in reality, there is nothing we can do to get ourselves closer to God. How could the unholy get closer by their own efforts to the Holy One? How could the impure and unclean enter the presence of Him who is and ever has been without sin? The unbelieving world seeks to bring God down to our level. The world supposes that if there is a God, He would generally support the personal decisions each of us makes. He is portrayed as a supportive god, a smiley god, a non-judgmental god. “He is a god I can relate to,” people think, “because he is a lot like me.”
That is not the God of the Bible. The true God does not approve of our sinful behavior. He wants us to turn from our sins and seek His forgiveness. This is clearly illustrated in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. If you are taking part in the two-year reading plan of the Bible that we started a couple months ago, you might be wading through Leviticus now. It doesn’t capture the attention like Genesis and Exodus do. Leviticus gives so many detailed rules and regulations that it’s hard to imagine living like the Israelites did. It seems like there was almost nothing they could do that would be considered clean in God’s sight.
And that was really the point. God wanted to impress on His people the difference between His holiness and their un-holiness. He wanted them to understand that they were not God. They were not free to do whatever their desires led them to do. Their only hope for salvation from sin and eternal life in heaven was through Him.
God emphasized this by the animal sacrifices He required for their sins. The people brought bulls, goats, and sheep for their sin offerings. These animals had to be without blemish. Whoever brought one laid his hand on the animal’s head before it was killed to signify the placing of his sins on the sacrifice. Then it was given as a burnt offering by the priests “to make atonement for him” (Lev. 1:4). The congregation of Israel was never done with sacrifices because it was never done with sin.
They were not holy enough to ascend to God, but the holy God was willing to come down to them. He settled in a cloud in the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle above the mercy seat. A chosen priest could only enter the Most Holy Place once a year on the Day of Atonement. The priest entered on behalf of the people bringing their sins, and he exited on behalf of God bringing His holiness. The LORD promised the people that in this way, “You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins” (Lev. 16:30).
So closeness to God was initiated by Him. The people confessed their un-holiness, and the holy God came to them with forgiveness and healing. As impressive as it would have been to see a cloud stretch down from the heavens and drop into the Most Holy Place, God had something greater planned. The Father would send down His holy Son, not hidden in a cloud but covered in our flesh. He came to offer Himself as the ultimate sacrifice for sin. No more slaughtering of animals for burnt offerings. No more sprinkling of blood on the LORD’s altar and on the mercy seat.
When Jesus breathed His last on the cross, the evangelists report that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mat. 27:51, Mar. 15:38, Luk. 23:45). This was not the result of a natural phenomenon. God did it. He showed by the tearing of the curtain that holiness should not be sought from the LORD anymore in the Most Holy Place. Holiness would be found in the presence of His only Son, who by His death had destroyed death, atoned for sin, and crushed Satan’s head.
After His resurrection, Jesus told His disciples He would be with them always, to the end of the age (Mat. 28:20). That remained true even after He visibly ascended into heaven. He was still with them, but how could they be assured of His presence? Jesus told them and all believers after them exactly where He could be found. He could be found always in His Word and Sacraments.
These are the ways our Lord Jesus still draws near to us today. These are the ways He imparts His holiness to us who are unholy. Like the priest who entered the Most Holy Place bringing the people’s sins, so we bring our sins to the Lord both here in church and in our personal confession. And the Lord brings His holiness to us through His Word. This is how we are sanctified by God throughout our lives. This is how the Holy Spirit makes us holy. It is all done through His holy Word, and it is all done by Him.
But we can reject this sanctifying work. We can keep ourselves from His holiness by giving ourselves over to unholy pursuits. Paul mentions one of these unholy pursuits in today’s text: sexual immorality. Sexual immorality is any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage. Our culture thinks that “committed” and “consensual” are the appropriate standards for sex. God says it is marriage between one man and one woman. That is the only place to exercise sexual passion in a God-pleasing way. St. Paul writes that the faithful should pursue “holiness and honor” in sexual matters. They should not operate “in the passion of lust like the Gentiles—unbelievers—who do not know God.”
There are other ways to reject the Lord’s sanctifying work beyond actively pursuing sin. One is to keep ourselves from the holy Word. It is to place a higher priority on any number of other things, whether that be family time or work or athletic competition or recreation. Those things are all good in their own way, but they are certainly not better than God’s presence through His Word. They are earthly things, temporary things. God’s Word imparts eternal things.
At the same time, it is possible to be in the presence of the Lord but still reject His holiness. We could be every Sunday church-goers, but we are simply going through the motions. We are not particularly troubled by our sins. We are not all that interested in changing our sinful habits. We feel like we are pretty holy already. The holy Lord is present here through His Word and Sacraments, but we can deny His work through our self-righteousness and pride.
So here we are, each of us aware of our own sins. By nature we are an unholy people. We have done the things God said we must not do, and we have not done the things we should have. But the Lord does not turn us sinners away. He comes still to wash our unclean hearts and minds. He comes to cleanse us from our sins of thought, word, and deed, whether those be sexual sins, sins of spiritual laziness, or sins of pride.
It does not matter how you have defiled yourself in the past. You have not committed a sin that God does not forgive. King David was an adulterer, a murderer, and a liar. The apostle Paul before his conversion worked for the imprisonment and murder of Christians. These men were forgiven of their sins, and so are you.
The Lord is not here to destroy you. He is here in grace to forgive you and bless you. He is not ashamed to meet you in your un-holiness. He is not ashamed to be associated with you. You are more than just an acquaintance of His, more than a distant relative, even more than His friend. You are God’s own child, and you share flesh and blood with Christ your Brother.
He does not wait for you to get yourself holy enough to come into His presence. That would never happen. He brings His holiness to you. He sanctifies you. The Holy Lord Sanctifies You through His Holy Word. The closer you are to Him because of His coming to you, the more you are changed and the more His work is done in you.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
+ + +
(picture of the tabernacle of Israel)
Midweek Lent – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: Genesis 22:1-14
In Christ Jesus, the fulfillment of the LORD’s covenant with Abraham, dear fellow redeemed:
When Abraham was seventy-five years old, the LORD promised him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great” (Gen. 12:2). But Abraham and his wife Sarah had no children. More time passed, and the LORD said again, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them…. So shall your offspring be” (15:5). Still more time passed. Now Abraham was ninety-nine years old, and his wife Sarah was eighty-nine. Who ever heard of a couple this old conceiving a child? But the LORD kept His promise. They did conceive a child, and a healthy baby boy named Isaac was born.
Imagine how they doted on their son! Not only did they have to wait twenty-five years for God to keep His promise, not only was Isaac born to them in their old age, but he was also the beginning of a great nation. The LORD had promised Abraham, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (17:6-7).
But after some time when Isaac had grown and was perhaps in his teens, God told Abraham to take his son “to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Along with this command, the LORD’s description of his son almost seemed cruel, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love… and offer him.” These were shocking and troubling words. We can only imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind: “Sacrifice my son, the son of the promise? But You said nations and kings would come from me! You said Your covenant between You and me and my offspring was an everlasting covenant! Take my life, O Lord, but not my son!”
But Abraham obeyed. He set off with Isaac and two servants, and they came in sight of Moriah on the third day. He told the servants to wait there while he and his son went to worship. Then he said they would come back again. Did Abraham lie to his servants? It seems like it. How could he and Isaac return if Isaac was to be killed? But in fact Abraham did not lie. The author of the book of Hebrews fills us in on what Abraham believed: “He considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead” (11:19). Abraham fully intended to kill his son, and he fully expected the LORD to raise him back to life. How else could God keep His earlier promises?
So Abraham and Isaac continued on to the place of sacrifice. Abraham had Isaac carry the wood, while he took the fire and the knife. Isaac noticed that something was missing: “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” And God did provide the lamb. Just when Abraham was ready to kill his son, “the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven” and stopped him. “[N]ow I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham showed that he loved the LORD more than his only son. The LORD’s promise was primary; nothing was more important than the Word of the living God.
The LORD provided a lamb that day, a ram whose horns were caught in a nearby thicket. Abraham offered this ram as a sacrifice to God, and he and Isaac returned to the servants and went home. But this episode was far more than a trip to a lonely place, a test of faith, and an offering to God. This episode was all about the Messiah.
The LORD’s description of Abraham’s son was not cruelty, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love.” It was a description that God the Father could apply to His own Son. The Messiah is the only-begotten Son of the Father, begotten of His Father from eternity. And He was a perfect Son, without fault, without sin. This did not change with His incarnation. When He was baptized and when He was transfigured on the mountain, the Father said about Him, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mat. 3:17, 17:5). The Father loved His Son.
But He also loved the world, a world that had rebelled against Him and deserved nothing from Him but eternal punishment. And this is how He showed His love: He sent His only-begotten Son to save sinners. His perfect Son would be sacrificed in their place. His perfect Son would absorb His holy wrath for sin, so they would be freed from condemnation and death.
So God’s Son set out for Moriah. That hill where Abraham built an altar was the very place where Jerusalem would later be established and God’s holy temple would stand. Like Isaac, Jesus came to this place as the sacrificial lamb. Like Isaac, He carried the wood on which He would be sacrificed. Like Isaac, He trusted His Father even as sharp instruments were readied to harm Him.
But nobody stepped in when thorns and nails pierced the flesh of Jesus. Nobody stepped in when His Father in heaven punished Him in the place of all sinners. Nobody stepped in when the eternal fires of hell tormented Him. Isaac did not have to die. But Jesus did.
Jesus had to die for you. That was the only way to redeem you, a lost and condemned creature. It was the only way to purchase and win you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. A holy sacrifice was required for your salvation, and God provided it. Abraham was right, “God will provide the lamb.” The Lamb that God provided was His only Son.
Abraham never forgot the ram God gave him to sacrifice instead of his son Isaac. And God did not forget His promise. He did make a great nation from Abraham. From his offspring all the nations of the earth were blessed (Gen. 22:18). That includes you. From the line of Abraham and Isaac came the world’s Savior, the one who took your sins to Himself and blotted them out by the shedding of His blood. Thanks be to God! Amen.
+ + +
(painting by Orazio Riminaldi, 1625)
Midweek Lent – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: Genesis 4:1-12
In Christ Jesus, who shed His blood in death so we guilty ones might be redeemed and live, dear fellow redeemed:
The idea of sacrifice was built into creation by God from the very beginning. After He had made the first man, He told him he could eat of every tree of the Garden of Eden except for one. He must not eat fruit from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17). This was a sacrifice by which the man and his wife would prove their love and devotion to God. But they decided to disobey God. They did not want to make this sacrifice anymore, and they ate from the tree God had forbidden.
Their sin against God had consequences not just for them, but for all of creation. Because of their sin, now there would be death. To remind them of this death, God clothed the man and woman in animal skins (Gen. 3:21). Their sin had utterly changed their relationship to God, and it also changed their relationship to animals. Animals had been sacrificed for their clothing, and animals would now also be employed as sacrifices offered to God.
We learn this in today’s reading from Genesis 4. Like his father Adam, first-born son Cain worked in the field planting and harvesting crops. But second-born son Abel kept the sheep. As far as we know, God did not sanction the eating of meat until later, after the flood (Gen. 9:3). While the sheep may have been kept for their wool, we know they were used as sacrifices for Adam and Eve’s family. Our text says that “Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions.”
But God did not receive their offerings in the same way. He “had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” Why did the LORD look upon their offerings so differently? It wasn’t because of the type or the quality of the products offered. The author of Hebrews says that the difference was faith. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts” (11:4).
So Abel offered his sacrifice with fear, love, and trust in God. But Cain offered his sacrifice as a matter of show, as an obligation and nothing more. Why did Cain think the LORD would be satisfied with this faithless offering? Martin Luther suggests that Cain was consumed with self-importance. He was the first child ever born into the world, and hadn’t God said that the woman’s offspring would crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15)? Cain was destined for great things, and his parents may have even told him so. But there was nothing special about Abel. Abel was the second-born, second place. He was sent to work with the sheep while Adam and Cain presumably worked in the field side-by-side.
So when God accepted Abel’s offering and not Cain’s, “Cain was very angry, and his face fell.” The LORD called him to repent, and He warned him saying, “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” The LORD told him not to open the door to jealous anger and hatred. That’s where sin was crouching, lying in wait to overcome him. This reminds us of the Apostle Peter’s words about how the devil works, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1Pe. 5:8). The devil tempts us to sin against one another, to think highly of ourselves and to look down at others.
Each of us here has opened the door to sin like Cain did. We have felt intense anger and hatred toward those around us, sometimes even the members of our own family. We have justified this anger by dwelling on the wrongs that have been done. We convince ourselves that because of a person’s sin against us or against others, they do not deserve our mercy or our love. They deserve to suffer. They deserve punishment. At the same time, we consider ourselves righteous. We would never do the things they do.
But in our anger and hatred toward someone because of their sin, we also sin. 1 John 3:15 says, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” Even our hateful thoughts violate the Fifth Commandment. And if we do not “rule over” these thoughts as God urged Cain to do, the devil will use them to tempt us toward sins of word and action. That is what happened to Cain. He did not repent of his sin. He did not close the door to temptation. He let his anger lead to violence toward his brother, and he killed him.
God approved of the sacrifice of animals for offerings to Him. But He did not approve of the murder of men. Abel did not have to die. He was an innocent victim. Cain was the lawbreaker. He let sin rule over him, and in unbelief he rejected the LORD’s command and promise. “What have you done?” said the LORD. “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground…. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”
We sin in many of the same ways that Cain did. Like Cain we have also gone through the motions of righteousness toward God. We have offered prayers without thinking about them and expected God to be gracious even when we had no sincere intention to repent and amend our sinful ways. We justified our anger and unkindness toward others while avoiding any personal responsibility.
But the LORD has mercifully kept us from being overcome by sin and losing our faith. He has brought us back here today to repent of our sins and receive His forgiveness. Through His holy Word, He points us to Jesus, whose righteousness covers us like the garments God made for Adam and Eve, and who saved us by His innocent suffering and death. Because Jesus shed His precious blood for us, we are forgiven and cleansed of all our sins. He was the sacrifice required for our salvation, the sacrifice which Abel looked for in faith, and by which he was delivered from death to life just as we will be.
So once again today we humbly offer our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving for God’s great love for us, and we fix our eyes on Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who gave Himself for us. “Abel’s blood for vengeance / Pleaded to the skies; / But the blood of Jesus / For our pardon cries” (ELH 283, v. 4). Thanks be to God! Amen.
+ + +
(picture from “Cain Slaying Abel” by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1600)
Presentation of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Hebrews 2:14-18
In Christ Jesus, who was not ashamed to take on our flesh and blood, but willingly became a Man out of love for us to save us, dear fellow redeemed:
Because God’s Son became incarnate in Mary’s womb, He was “born under the law” (Gal. 4:4). He was bound to keep God’s law as all Jews were. This law required Jesus to be presented to the LORD in the temple forty days after His birth. Every firstborn son among the Jews had to be offered to the LORD in this way as a reminder of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt (Exo. 13:1-16).
This was a significant day in the life of Jesus, which is why we celebrate it today (February 2), forty days after Christmas. It was Jesus’ first trip to Jerusalem, the city of Israel, in which the holy temple of God had been built. The temple was the place where God visited His people and blessed them. And it is where the people offered sacrifices to Him and worshiped Him. Every day, the priests prepared lambs to be sacrificed. The blood of these blemish-free lambs was a picture of the blood the Savior would shed for the sins of the world.
And now the Savior was there. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event for Mary and Joseph, but even they did not grasp the full significance of Jesus’ arrival in the temple. Their eyes began to be opened when faithful Simeon came up to them and called Jesus the “salvation” of God, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to [His] people Israel” (Luk. 2:30,32). Then he told Mary, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed” (v. 34). After that, a widow named Anna came along and “began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (v. 38).
They did not treat Jesus like a regular baby, because He was unlike any other baby. He was God in the flesh. Their eyes did not reveal this to them, but the Holy Spirit. By sight alone, no one could have known who Jesus was. He was like us in every way, except that He had no sin. Today’s text from the Book of Hebrews tells us: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same things.”
It was no mistake that the Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary. God fully intended to become a Man. He did not wish to become a tree, an animal, or even an angel. He became a Man to redeem mankind, to free us from our slavery to sin and death. So He partook of our flesh and blood. His lungs took in oxygen like ours do. His heart pumped blood through His body. His brain transmitted messages from head to toe. He had an eternal soul.
He also subjected Himself to the same sorts of weaknesses and afflictions we feel. He became weary and hungry. He experienced sadness. He endured intense pain. Jesus’ human experience was just like ours, including temptations to sin. The devil threw every possible temptation at Jesus to try to get Him to refuse His purpose. He wanted Jesus to reject His Father’s will and to forsake sinners.
We might think that because Jesus is God, He was hardly bothered by these temptations. But today’s text says that “He Himself has suffered when tempted.” He suffered because He had humbled Himself. He was not making full use of His divine powers. He did this so that He could feel temptation and pain, and so He could suffer and die for us. This suffering was severe, so severe that He asked His Father in heaven if there might be another way to save sinners.
But sin required a sacrifice, a spotless Lamb. Jesus knew this, and He perfectly submitted to His Father’s will. This is why He became a Man, “so that He might become a merciful and faithful High Priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” That language of “priest” and “propitiation,” points us to the temple, where once a year a chosen priest would bring a sin offering into the Most Holy Place. There he would “make propitiation.” He would sprinkle the blood of a bull and goat on the mercy seat which was on top of the Ark of the Covenant.
Vast quantities of blood were spilt through the years in those temple sacrifices. It was done at God’s command, but animal blood by itself did not have the power to cleanse people of their sins. These sacrifices were a picture of the blood that God’s Son would shed to blot out sin. All of this was in Jesus’ future as His parents carried Him up the temple steps. He was both the true High Priest and the ultimate Sacrifice who would make atonement for the sins of the people.
Jesus returned to the temple many times during His earthly life. A couple weeks ago, we heard about how He went there to study the Scriptures as a twelve-year-old. On two occasions as an adult, He cleared the temple courts of those who were buying and selling. And He often taught in the temple, even in the week of His death.
The people’s focus in Old Testament times was on God’s presence hidden behind the thick curtain in the Most Holy Place. But here God was in the flesh interacting with and teaching the people! God had come to save sinners. He came to offer Himself in our place, so that through His death He might “destroy” and “deliver,” as our text says. He came to “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
It says that our spiritual slavery resulted from our “fear of death.” It is very common for people to fear death. This fear is especially strong in those who like to be in control, who want to make every decision about their future. But death is no respecter of persons or of plans. Death comes to everyone, and from our perspective, never at the right time. How can the Bible say that the devil no longer has power over death and that we are no longer enslaved to it? It seems like the power of devil and death are as strong as ever.
But that is just another lie of the devil. He tries to manipulate us through accusation. He wants us to believe that God is angry with us, and that He will not forgive our frequent sinning. He gets us thinking that our sins are stains on our souls that can never be gotten out. He wants us to believe that God would never let us into His heavenly kingdom and that we must die without hope.
But these accusations of the devil are totally empty. God does not count our sins against us; He piled them all on Christ. Jesus was the scapegoat. He took on the burden of our sins, and He accepted punishment for them. He carried them to the cross and shed His holy blood to atone for them. This is how He destroyed the devil’s power. He died in our place, we who deserved to die, who should have been punished. He paid the penalty for our sin, so that the devil could not rightly accuse us anymore. The devil cannot throw back in our face what no longer exists in God’s eyes.
Jesus’ death freed us from the devil’s grasp and from the fear of death. I imagine you are not so much afraid of death as you are about how you will die. If you had your choice, you would die in your sleep at a good old age. But this is in God’s hands, not yours. The time that He chooses to bring His children to heaven is always the right time, even if it doesn’t seem that way to us. The devil wants us to worry about these things, things outside of our control. He tempts us to question God and to feel alone in our suffering.
But that’s just another one of his lies. Jesus was alone in His suffering, but you are not. As the High Priest, now exalted and glorified, Jesus intercedes for you before the Father. He is your Advocate. He prays for you. And He continues to offer you His holy body and blood for your forgiveness and strengthening. He understands suffering and temptation better than anyone. That means “He is able to help those who are being tempted,” including you.
There is no longer a temple in Jerusalem. It was destroyed long ago. The old sacrifices are no longer required, because Jesus, the once-for-all Sacrifice, came. He Offered Himself for Your Salvation. His love for you brought Him down from heaven and into a woman’s womb. He took on flesh and blood, so He could cleanse you and the whole human race of its sins. He died and rose again, so that even though you may die, yet you will rise again and live with Him. Through Jesus, your slavery to sin, devil, and death have ended, and your salvation is secure.
+ + +
(stained glass picture from St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto)
The First Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 12:1-5
In Christ Jesus, who by His suffering, death, and resurrection redeemed the world of sinners, so that they might have purpose, contentment, and hope, dear fellow redeemed:
Nobody expected the twelve-year-old Jesus to do what He did. He and His parents had gone to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When the massive crowd began to fan out and start their journey home, Joseph and Mary assumed Jesus was with relatives or friends. When He did not turn up, they went looking for Him and found Him three days letter in the temple. He was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luk. 2:46). All on His own, Jesus went to the temple, His “Father’s house” (v. 49), so He could hear and learn the Scriptures. That was not typical twelve-year-old behavior. But then Jesus was not the typical twelve-year-old.
What are the kinds of things we expect from twelve-year-olds today? This is a time when major changes are happening in their lives. There are huge physical, cognitive, and emotional changes going on. There are signs of maturity and maybe more mood swings. The twelve-year-old is in the process of transforming from a child to an adult. But he or she is not an adult yet. Twelve-year-olds need love, guidance, discipline, and clear expectations, just as all young people do. They need to be molded into God-fearing members of the church and responsible members of society.
It always makes me cringe when parents say that they will wait to let their children choose their own religious path when they are older. This is another way of saying that there is no clear teaching about God, that there is no such thing as objective truth, that one religion is no better than another. What foolishness! We have our kids listen to our favorite music, watch our favorite movies, cheer for the right sports teams, and follow our lead in so many other areas. But we’re not going to teach them anything about God?!
Whatever we do not actively teach our children, they will learn from someone else. Everything we know was learned. Think about yourself: how much of your personality and preferences have formed with no outside influence from others? I’m not sure it is even possible. We are products of the place where we are and the people we are around. On a spiritual level, we are influenced by the living God through His Word, or by the tugging and tempting of our own sinful nature, the devil, and the world.
In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the Apostle Paul urged them not to “be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” To “be conformed to this world” is to be shaped and molded by the unbelieving world rather than by the divine Word. We feel this pressure to conform in so many ways, and we can think of many times that we have given in to this pressure.
Maybe we have softened our stance on sexual morality and say with the world that as long as a sexual relationship is consensual, there is no problem with it. Or we have changed our views on marriage and divorce, and we support the breaking apart of what God has joined together if husband and wife don’t love each other like they used to. Or we adopt the world’s thinking that nothing is more important than self-fulfillment, recognition for one’s work, and financial security.
Every single one of us is influenced by the unbelieving culture we live in. The devil is eager to see that this happens, and our sinful nature is happy to cooperate. We have “conformed to this world” in ways we are not even aware of. We begin to recognize this conformity when we ask ourselves how much our thoughts are directed toward doing God’s will in a given day or week and how much we are focused on doing our own will.
“Do not be conformed to this world,” says Paul. But going against the world is not easy. It is much easier to swim with the cultural current. Every young person who has faced peer pressure knows this is the case. It is hard to say no. It is hard to be singled out when we want so much to fit in. It is hard to be laughed at and attacked. It is hard to be alone.
Going against the world and living by the Word is not comfortable. It requires sacrifice. Jesus knows this. He lived that life. His own people wanted Him to be their earthly king. They wanted Him to lead them, feed them, and heal them. The religious leaders wanted His endorsement, His stamp of approval. Nobody got what they wanted.
What Jesus got for denying their expectations was hatred, rejection, ridicule, and pain—immeasurable pain. Crowds of people had flocked to Him, even up to the Sunday before His death. But then He was sentenced and nailed to a cross, all alone, forsaken even by His own Father in heaven. Jesus had not “conformed to this world,” and it ended with a lonely death.
He knows it is no easy charge when He says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luk. 9:23). He knows what will happen to those who refuse the world and their own desires and follow His Word. They will carry a cross like He did, and they will suffer. But they will not have to suffer like He suffered. He suffered alone, bearing the sins of the whole world. He suffered the eternal punishment of hell in the place of all sinners.
When you suffer, you do not suffer alone. You join Jesus in His suffering; or rather He joins you. And He also connects you with other godly sufferers, with others who reject the false promises of the world. The believers around you have been “transformed” like you have “by the renewal of your mind.” You see things differently now. You have changed. The Greek word for “transformed” is where we get our word “metamorphosis.” It is the same word used for Jesus’ transformation on the mountain when “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Mat. 17:2).
You and I were transformed from darkness to light, from death to life, from unbelief to belief when the Holy Spirit brought us to faith in Jesus through His Gospel. We were changed “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” in holy Baptism (Ti. 3:5). Like a caterpillar emerging from its cocoon a butterfly, we were “born again” (Joh. 3:3). In the waters of baptism, we were wrapped in the cocoon of Christ’s death, and we emerged with Him in His resurrection (Rom. 6:4).
We have “newness of life” now that we have been joined to Christ. By faith in Him we have gained all the benefits of His perfect life and atoning death. His perfect keeping of the law covers over our less-than-holy record. His cleansing blood washes away all our sins of choosing the world over the Word, from the sins of our youth to the present day. Jesus has freed us from the hopeless expectations and empty promises of the world. He has freed us to live—truly live—to live with purpose in this life and to die with the joy-filled expectation of the life to come.
It may feel lonely to go against what the world wants you to do, but you are not alone. You Are Part of Something Big—much bigger than the world. You are part of the body of Christ. You are joined to Him “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Out of love for you and on your behalf, He conquered the devil, destroyed death, and overcame the world. In Jesus, you are no loser, even if the world calls you one for following Him.
As a Christian, you may feel alone in your classroom, at your job, in your community. This is why God called you to be part of a congregation, to be connected with fellow Christians who are dealing with the same things you are. They are here to encourage, help, and support you on your journey through life. They are here to walk with you through good and bad times. They are here to comfort you in your pain and grief and to warn you if you start to separate from the body. You are not alone. As Paul writes, “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
That is something big—bigger than this world and bigger than this life. We are just one link in a long chain of believers that stretches back to Adam and Eve. The temptations and challenges we face today are nothing new. We are not the first to struggle. We are not the first to fail. But we have a Savior who loves us, and who sacrificed Himself to save us. He is the Head of His body the Church. He is the One who works for us and in us, so that “by the mercies of God,” we might “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”
By faith in Jesus, we are acceptable in God’s sight. Our sacrifices for Him are acceptable because of Jesus’ sacrifice. There is nothing more that we could be or do or accomplish that Jesus has not already completed. So whether you are twelve or twenty or sixty or whatever age, in Christ you have everything that you need. There is nothing you lack before God. You Are Part of Something Big!
+ + +
The Festival of the Holy Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 3:1-15
In Christ Jesus, who became the Son of Man that we might join Him as sons of God and heirs of eternal life (Gal. 4:4-7), dear fellow redeemed:
Most kids believe—at least for a time—that no one is stronger than their own dad. Dad can lift them off the ground with one arm. Dad can pick up things that no one else can budge. Dad can open jars that Mom can’t. In their eyes, he is very impressive. But as they get older, kids realize that some other guys might actually be stronger than Dad. They become aware of their dad’s limitations, and not just the physical ones. Dad sometimes gets distracted and misses important things in their lives. He doesn’t always seem to understand what they are going through. He isn’t always right there when they need him.
Dad can do a lot of things. But he isn’t all-powerful. For his part, he feels the pressure to be what those around him need him to be. He faces the demands—spoken or unspoken—of providing for his wife and children. Others outside his household like his relatives, friends, and co-workers might also look to him for support. People rely on him the way he used to rely on his dad. He doesn’t always feel ready for the responsibility. He is well aware of his shortcomings.
You know as well as I do that there is no such thing on earth as a perfect father. We admire those men who seem to be excellent fathers. We see others who more or less fulfill their duties to their family. And then there are some who do not seem fit to be fathers at all. Some of these fathers harm their children or abandon them. For these children, it can be difficult to put their trust and confidence in God the Father. Their perception of God as Father is colored by their experience with their earthly father.
But God the Father does not take His cue from earthly fathers; earthly fathers are to take their cue from Him. The heavenly Father is the pattern for fatherhood. He did not learn fatherhood from anyone. He had no father. But in His infinite wisdom, God established fatherhood on earth after His image.
God does not model the sort of fatherhood that the world likes to see. The world does not praise fathers who stand up for godly truth and honor. They praise the fathers who fan the flame of their children’s ego, who keep their mouths shut when their sons and daughters behave immorally, who might offer a shoulder to cry on but no words of wisdom. There are many who even portray God in this way. “God loves me just the way I am,” they say. “He doesn’t judge me, and He is always there when I need Him.” But that is not the God of the Bible.
The God of the Bible loves us, no question about it. But He does not love everything we do and every choice we make. To the contrary, He firmly rebukes our sin. He does not overlook it or act as though it is not that bad. And if we refuse to repent of our sin, He warns us of the eternal hellfire that will come upon any who reject His Word.
The seriousness with which He looks upon our sin is made clear by the sacrifice required to save us. God the Father did not send His only-begotten Son into the world so that Jesus could pat everyone on the back for choosing to live life their own way. He sent His Son to suffer and die for our sins in our place.
But how could a Father sacrifice His only Son? Did He think so little of His Son? Some have suggested that the punishment and wrath the Father poured out on His Son at Golgotha was really a form of “divine child abuse.” Was that the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, that the Father was an overbearing tyrant who forced His Son toward horrible suffering and death?
That is hardly how Jesus portrayed it. The night before His death, He told His disciples, “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (Joh. 14:31). And again, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:9-10). And in a prayer directly to the Father, Jesus said, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (17:24).
That does not sound like a Son who is forced to do something against His will. Even in the midst of severe anguish, Jesus did not lash out at His Father as though His Father were manipulating Him. He said, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luk. 22:42).
God the Father sent His Son to do the terrible work of atoning for sin, because His Son could do it. His beloved Son could carry that load and still reclaim the glory that was His from eternity. He could win the victory over sin, death, and devil and still return to the right hand of the Father. God could do for man what man could never do for himself.
Jesus made this abundantly clear to Nicodemus, the teacher-turned-student in today’s Gospel lesson. Nicodemus started the conversation by saying, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Was this flattery? Was it an invitation for Jesus to tell more about Himself? Was Nicodemus trying to sound smart?
Jesus replied that whatever the Jewish leaders thought they knew about God, they knew much less than they realized. Jesus was not some mystery they could solve. He was not some code they could crack. Their human wisdom was not going to cut it. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus was not talking about the need for a physical rebirth but a spiritual one.
This spiritual rebirth does not happen by any human effort or through a free human will, contrary to what many Christians today think. They say that “being born again” means making a decision for Jesus and opening one’s heart to Him. Jesus says this rebirth happens through “water and the Spirit,” through Baptism. The Holy Spirit accomplishes this and not human flesh. A translation just as valid as “born again” is that one must be “born from above.”
God must do this—He must regenerate and renew us—because we cannot do this for ourselves. We cannot do this by the strength of our bodies or minds, or by the power of our will. If this were possible, Jesus wouldn’t say what He does in today’s text: “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven.” Because we are not able to go up to God, God comes down to us.
But why does He do this? Why does the Father send His Son, by His side from all eternity, to be sacrificed for sinners, whose legacy is stained and whose lives are fleeting? God does this out of love for His rebellious children. He did not walk away when mankind thought more highly of the forbidden fruit than His command. He did not destroy them in His anger which He could have done. Instead He promised to join them in their anguish, to be with them in their troubles, and to free them again from their chains of sin and death.
But not all recognize or care about their Father’s love. They are like those who reject their earthly fathers because their father does not give them everything they want or let them do what they want to do. Like those who do not “honor [their] father and mother” as the LORD commands them to do, so unbelievers do not honor the LORD and “fear, love, and trust in [Him] above all things” (Small Catechism).
But those who do recognize their sin and who trust that the Son of Man came to be lifted up on the cross for their sake, can be certain that they are in good graces with their Father in heaven. He loves all who cherish and pay attention to His holy Word (Joh. 14:23). He promises to pour upon them the blessings of His Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. This starts at Baptism when the holy life and cleansing blood of Jesus are applied to the sinner, and it continues throughout life as these gifts are administered through His gracious Word and Sacraments.
Through these means, He strengthens us and helps us follow His example of love and sacrifice in our various stations in life—fathers in their fatherhood, mothers in their mothering, children in their obedience, and all of us in our lives of service. None of us carries out these duties perfectly, and we are only too aware how we have fallen short. But God has promised to abide with us and to bring blessings to those around us even through our weak and faltering efforts.
No one on earth does everything right. No one can fix every problem. No one can save his own soul, much less the souls of others. God Does What We Cannot Do. He is our perfect Father, whose will was carried out by His righteous Son, whose rich blessings are distributed by the Holy Spirit. This God is the only true God. He is our God, and we are His children.
+ + +
(portion of painting, “Good Friday Morning: Jesus in Prison” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)