The Holy Nativity of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad Exordium and Sermon
“Christmas is all about giving.” We hear that message frequently during this season. We are bombarded by TV commercials suggesting millions of gift ideas, while others encourage us to give of our time and money to help those in need. It is certainly good to give. But the first Christmas was about more than giving. The Son of God came in the flesh not only to give His blessings to us, but also to take certain things from us.
Some say that Jesus’ purpose was to make a better life for us on earth. They say that if you put your trust in Jesus, He will take away all the bad things in your life and will give you only good things. For example, He will take away your debt and give you wealth. He will take away your enemies and give you more friends. He will take away all your problems and give you happiness. This is called “prosperity preaching,” and it is not what God promises in the Bible. God does not promise to give you a perfect life on earth. He promises to take all who trust in Him to the eternal glories of heaven.
In order to accomplish this for you, He had to take away your sin. He had to take away the devil’s accusations against you. He had to take away the sting of death and the eternal punishment of hell. Jesus did this by taking on the demands of God’s law and meeting them perfectly for you. He did this by taking your sins on Himself and suffering for them on the cross. He did this by taking the death you deserved and rising victorious from the grave.
And what does He give to those who trust in Him? He gives His righteousness. He gives forgiveness for all sin. He gives eternal life and salvation. This is why the Christ-Child came. He came to save you from your sins (Mat. 1:21). Christmas is about much more than giving (especially our giving). It is about what Jesus came to take and give for our salvation. We now rise and sing our festival hymn, “Rejoice, Rejoice This Happy Morn!” (#142):
Rejoice, rejoice this happy morn!
A Savior unto us is born,
The Christ, the Lord of glory.
His lowly birth in Bethlehem
The angels from on high proclaim
And sing redemption’s story.
God’s great favor;
Bless Him ever
Give Him praise and adoration!
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Sermon text: Hebrews 1:1-12
In Christ Jesus, at whose name “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10-11), dear fellow redeemed:
The angels of God were prominent characters at the time of the first Christmas. The angel Gabriel appeared to the virgin Mary to tell her that she would conceive a Son by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luk. 1:26-38). Then an angel appeared to Joseph, her betrothed, in a dream. The angel encouraged him to take Mary as his wife, since her child was the promised Savior sent by God (Mat. 1:18-25). Then on the night of Jesus’ birth, a multitude of angels appeared to shepherds in a field outside Bethlehem and praised God for His grace in sending a Savior (Luk. 2:8-14).
What a sight this must have been! Can you imagine the night sky illuminated with countless bright angels? It was a very different scene a short time later when the shepherds saw a newborn Baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Luk. 2:12). Comparing the two scenes, the singing angels were far more impressive. And yet, here in the manger “asleep on the hay” was the Lord of the Angels.
To see was not to believe. Nothing about this Child revealed His eternal nature. He did not look like the Creator of the world. He did not look like “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature.” He did not look like “He upholds the universe by the word of His power,” as today’s text describes Him. He just looked like a normal Baby. As He grew older, most of the people who knew Jesus would not have guessed He was the Son of God. They liked Him. He was a nice young man (Luk. 2:52). But He was Joseph and Mary’s son from Nazareth (Mat. 13:55).
This opinion about Him did not start to change until Jesus began to publicly teach and perform miracles. Even then, many might have preferred to see an angel than to spend time with Jesus. That still might be true. There are plenty who take comfort in guardian angels, but who have no desire to be visited by Jesus where He promises to be found—in His holy Word and Sacraments.
But why honor the messenger more than the Master? Why look to the servant more than the Lord? Perhaps it is because Jesus is too humble for the sinner’s liking. His entrance into the world was totally unimpressive. He didn’t look like the kind of person who would make a difference in the world or even in His community. For a while in His adult years, people believed in Him. But by the time He was condemned and nailed to a Roman cross, most had deserted Him. What good had He done?
Looks, of course, can be deceiving. Jesus, from His cradle to His grave, was much more than met the eye. Jesus is the Son of God, begotten of the Father from eternity. He was “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” (Nicene Creed). He was the Creator, not a creature. The evangelist John wrote that “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Joh. 1:3).
The angels, on the other hand, are created beings, formed during the six days of creation. These mighty beings were created to serve God, to do His will. And that’s exactly what they were doing at Christmas. They were sent by God to deliver “good tidings of great joy,” the news that the Savior of the nations had come. These angels were in awe at God’s plan for mankind. They marveled at His love for sinners. They rejoiced at His mercy.
Their joyful devotion to the Lord is a great example for all of us. When we read about the holy angels, we never see them drawing attention to themselves. They do not look for glory or recognition for their work. Their glory is in the Lord. Their purpose is to serve Him.
That should be our focus and purpose too, but you and I are not always that way. We like people to see the good things we do and praise us for it. This can happen when we give nice gifts, or when we go out of our way to do something special for someone. We do this out of love for them, but it is not purely out of love. We also desire to be recognized for what we gave.
We like to feel that we have done important things, that we have mattered in the world. We have often bought into the idea that the most important thing is to try to make a name for ourselves and make our mark in some way. We adopt the world’s advice to follow our dreams and do what is best for ourselves. But what does that accomplish? Our earthly gains and successes are temporary. Focusing on these things only feeds our selfish sinful nature. In these ways, we are nothing like the angels of God. They are selfless. They are completely righteous. They are perfectly obedient to the Lord. You and I are not that way.
This is why the Son of God became man. He came to save us from our selfish attitudes, our unholy passions, and our thoughts, words, and deeds of sin. But He couldn’t just snap His fingers and make it all go away. There are consequences for breaking God’s holy law. Sin has to be punished. So the Son of God “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phi. 2:7).
Jesus came to serve. He came to offer Himself as your Substitute. This is why He came in such humility. He did not come for earthly glory. He came for your salvation. And the only way to save you was to be mistreated and wrongfully accused. It was to be mocked and tortured. It was to be pinned to a cross and left there until He died. It was to have the Father’s wrath poured out against Him, instead of against us. One of our Christmas hymns points to this purpose for His coming: “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, / The cross be borne for me, for you” (ELH 145, v. 2).
Jesus’ life was not glorious as the world measures glory. But it was the most significant life ever lived. Jesus lived not for Himself, but for all people. He lived a perfect life of obedience for them. He offered up the perfect sacrifice of His body and blood for their sins. And He rose again from the dead in perfect fulfillment of His holy Word.
No angel ever did or ever could do this. Only God could. Only God could save sinners. God the Father sent His only Son to be “born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we [sinners] might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). Oh, how the angels marveled when the Lord of heaven became a human Baby! Oh, how they wondered when “The King of heav’nly grace, / Came down from His exalted throne / To save our fallen race” (ELH 127, v. 2).
God wants you to join Him in heaven with all the saints and the holy angels. He wants your voice to be joined with the heavenly choir that once sang on the night of a special Baby’s birth. That humble Baby was the Christ-Child, the long-promised King, the Lord of the angels, the Savior of sinners.
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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(portion of painting by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, “The Nativity at Night,” c. 1490)
The Fifth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 5:1-11
In Christ Jesus, who casts out the net of His Word, so that more and more sinners might be drawn to Him in repentance and faith, dear fellow redeemed:
You and I have had moments like the fishermen in today’s text. These experienced men worked through the night, but they did not catch anything. In the same way, we can think of many times that we expended great effort and had nothing to show for it. Maybe it was spending hours upon hours training and practicing for a competition and then coming in last. Or maybe it was staying up late to get the crop in only to have it wash out in the next storm. Or maybe it was pouring time into forming and fine-tuning a plan that ultimately got discarded.
Those experiences are disheartening. All that work for nothing! This is when we feel like it is hard to get ahead—“one step forward, two steps back.” It may even feel like God is opposed to us at these times. Here we are spending all this energy in our work, pursuing things that are good as far as we can tell, and we don’t get anywhere. Why doesn’t God bless us?
But what we don’t know is that God may be protecting us from harm due to our success, harm that could come from materialism or power or fame. Or it may be that He allows failure today, so that He can give even bigger blessings tomorrow. That was the case with the fishermen. He kept them from catching fish during the night, from finding success through their skilled labor, so that He might demonstrate His power and mercy.
They had been fishing in the best spots at the best time of day, and they failed. Then Jesus sent them out again to a poorer spot at a worse time, and their nets were filled! So we see what the Lord can do. I’m sure you could give examples of His goodness working in your life. There were times that you thought you would fail, and you succeeded. You had given up hope, and help came through. The Lord knows how to bless us, and He does it in ways we could not expect.
The disciples looked at their full nets and sinking boats, and you can just imagine the looks on their faces – eyes wide, jaws hitting the floor. Then a new sensation washed over Peter. He realized that this Man with him in the boat was not just a man. An ordinary man could not predict this monstrous haul of fish where seasoned fisherman had been working all night. Peter now felt guilt. He was in the presence of the holy Lord, but he himself was not holy. “Depart from me,” he said, “for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
If Jesus had abandoned Peter and all sinful men, He could have had no disciples, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Instead Jesus said to Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Then Peter and his associates James and John left everything—including that great catch of fish—and followed Jesus. What is a whole load of fish compared with the One who gives those fish simply by saying a word?
But suppose those disciples could look into the future at that point. Suppose they could preview what following Jesus would mean up to the day of His death. Would they have been as eager to go with Him? They could look ahead and see things like the great crowds, the amazing miracles, and Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. But they would also see times when food would be scarce and sleep hard to come by. They would see the opposition of the religious leaders and the anger of the people. They would see that after three years of hard work traveling all over the region, Jesus would be arrested, tried, and crucified. And they, His own disciples, would forsake Him and run away. If they could have seen all that, would they have still gone with Him?
What about you? If you could see your whole life play out in front of you all the way to your death, would you follow Jesus today? Would you follow Him today if you saw how people would take advantage of you in the future, how they would attack you and harm you? Would you follow Him today if you saw how your family would struggle, and how you would lose those closest to you? Would you follow Him today if you saw how your body would break down and how you would struggle physically and mentally?
As enjoyable as it would be to see the good things of our life all at once, it would be terrifying to see all the bad things at once. If we could see all the bad things in advance, we might wonder if the Lord actually cared about us, or if He was actually present with us in this life. It is good that we do not have this view. It is not for us to know these things. No matter what the future may hold, Jesus calls us to follow Him one step at a time.
This is how a toddler learns how to walk. He is not motivated by the marathon he may run in his 20s or 30s. He just wants to go! He wants to get from here to there, and he thinks he might get there faster by walking than by crawling. He cannot see how his running around will lead to bumps and bruises. He is not worried about the broken bones in his future. He is not troubled by the effects of aging which eventually will turn his stride into a shuffle. He just goes!
This is what you and I are called to do: go forward. We can’t go back. We must go forward doing the work God has given us to do. Our work is to be constantly occupied in showing love to our neighbors. This starts with the neighbors living in each of our homes—our parents, our siblings, our spouse, our children—and it branches out from there. We show love in our interactions with others in our place of work, in the community, on the internet, and in our congregations.
We know how this love should look and how it should be carried out, because we have the example of Jesus. Think about how kids play “Follow the Leader.” It is not just about walking over the same ground as the leader, but it is even mimicking his steps. If he takes a big step, so do the followers. If he hops from one place to another, so do they. Our goal as disciples of Jesus is to mimic Him in every way. We want to love one another as He loved us. We want to give to one another as He gives to us.
But as much as we want to do this, our steps often falter. The apostle Paul described our stumbling because of sin in this way: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18-19). Jesus takes one step forward, and we take two steps back. He beckons us forward, and we retreat. He calls us to be courageous, and we wilt.
We are not much like Jesus. We are more like Peter, uncertain how casting out our nets in the middle of the day will do any good. Like Peter, we are afraid because we underestimate the power and mercy of the Lord. Like Peter, we are aware of our many sins. It is hard to follow Jesus when we perceive so many obstacles in front of us and inside of us.
But Jesus is greater than any sins or trials or sorrows we may face. Unlike us, He could see all the suffering that was waiting for Him. Still He stayed focused on His mission. He followed His Father’s will all the way to the punishments and torments of the cross. It was terrible work He had to do. It meant immeasurable pain for Him, while the very ones He came to save mocked, blasphemed, and abandoned Him.
He moved forward one agonizing step at a time because the salvation of your soul was that important to Him. He willingly died in your place because He wanted you to live. He wanted you to be freed from all your sins and covered in His holiness. He wanted to deliver you a good conscience, one that is not focused on your sins of the past but on His grace in the present.
This is why you follow Jesus. He is more than your example of love. He is your Savior. He is your Lord who died for you to secure the forgiveness of all your sins. If He was willing to do this for you, He will certainly not forget your daily needs. Your hard work may not always seem to pay off, but He will bless your efforts done in His name. In time, you will see that you have received more blessings from His hand than you could have hoped for.
Jesus does not ask us to endure the sorrows and struggles of life all at once, or to go through any of them alone. He calls us to hear His Word, like the crowd did by the lake of Gennesaret, and like Peter did when told to let down the nets. His Word is sure and will never steer us wrong. Through His Word, the Lord is guiding us through the perils and troubles of this life all the way to heaven. Hearing His voice, We Follow Jesus One Step at a Time.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(painting of the miraculous catch of fish by Raphael, 1515)
Good Friday – Pr. Faugstad homilies
I. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Jesus was innocent. He had only done what was right. He had helped a great many people. He gave the blind their sight, made the lame walk, cleansed lepers, brought hearing to the deaf, rescued the demon-possessed, and even raised the dead to life (Luk. 7:22). Yet by this time on Good Friday, Jesus had been struck in the face, spit on, punched, flogged, and crowned with a tangle of thorns. Besides this, He was verbally abused, lied about, and mocked. And now He was nailed to a cross and hoisted up in the air for all to see.
Jesus might have been angry about all the injustice. He might have uttered threats and promised revenge. But instead He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He did what Isaiah prophesied He would do. He made “intercession for the transgressors” (53:12). Who were these transgressors? Whom did He ask God to forgive? It was the religious leaders who even now stood around the cross mocking Him. It was the Roman soldiers who cast lots for His clothing and mistreated Him.
But that was not all. Jesus was praying for you too, and for me. It was your sins and mine that caused Him to suffer and be nailed to the cross. It was your sins and mine that sent Him to His death, and your sins and mine that He died to forgive. We sing hymn #292, vv. 1, 3 (“O Dearest Jesus”).
II. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
The guilty man was hanging from a cross, and yet he thought he was in a position to judge another. He and his friend on the opposite side of Jesus joined the crowd in reviling Him: “If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” (Mat. 27:40,44). But as his suffering intensified, this criminal began to see things differently. He heard people mocking Jesus as “the Christ” and “the King of the Jews.” He saw the sign above Jesus, “This is the King of the Jews” (Luk. 23:38). He saw how patiently Jesus took this abuse, and the Holy Spirit led him to see that he was not dying next to another criminal. He was hanging there with God in the flesh, the Savior!
So he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luk. 23:42). And Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Here is hope for all who have committed grievous sins, and for all who have despised and mocked the Lord. By His suffering and death, the Lord secured Paradise for sinners. He wants all to repent of their sins and believe in Him. He invites all—no matter how stained their past may be—to join Him forever in the Paradise of heaven. We sing hymn #334/335, vv. 1, 8 (“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”).
III. “Woman, behold, your son!”—“Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26-27)
Mary was there too, the mother who had carried Jesus in her womb and had given birth to Him. She had nursed Him and watched Him grow. She had followed Him all the way here to Jerusalem. And now she saw Him, her precious, holy Son, dying a terrible death on a cross. Simeon had predicted this moment in the temple when Jesus was brought there as a baby. He told Mary, “and a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luk. 2:35). That sword turned inside her as she watched her Son writhing on the cross.
Even while He suffered for all people, Jesus was concerned for His mother. He would no longer be her Son in the way they were accustomed. He would die and rise again, but nothing would return to the way it was before. So Jesus looked upon Mary and His disciple John and said, “Woman, behold, your son!” and “Behold, your mother!” Through His friend, Jesus provided for His mother’s care.
And so He continues to do for the single, the widowed, the lonely, and the outcast. “God settles the solitary in a home” (Psa. 68:6). He gives communion and community through the members of His family, the members of His Church, who gather together around His Word and Sacraments. We sing hymn #294, vv. 1, 3 (“Near the Cross Was Mary Weeping”).
IV. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34)
Jesus was nailed to the cross at 9:00am. Then starting at 12:00 noon, “there was darkness over all the land” (Mat. 27:45). This lasted for three hours. It was dark through the lightest part of the day. This is when Jesus suffered our hell. This is when He suffered the eternal punishment that we deserve because of our sins. During this time, Jesus felt the full force of His Father’s wrath. God the Father took out His holy anger against sin on His Son, because His Son was made to be our sin (2Co. 5:21).
Suffering those eternal torments, Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” How could the Father do this to His own Son? This is the price that had to be paid for your sin, so you would not have to pay it. This is what it took. It isn’t pretty. It should unsettle you to know how seriously God looks upon sin. Don’t turn your eyes away! This is your sin hanging on that cross. It is also your salvation. We sing hymn #297, vv. 2-3 (“Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted”).
V. “I thirst.” (Psalm 69:21, John 19:29)
The next words of Jesus come from the 69th Psalm. There it says, “You know my reproach, and my shame and my dishonor; my foes are all known to you. Reproaches have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink” (vv. 19-21). This Psalm expresses Jesus’ anguish as He suffered hell on the cross. No one was there to comfort Him; He suffered alone. But now His suffering was coming to an end. And “to fulfill the Scripture” (Joh. 19:28), Jesus said, “I thirst.” He had consumed the cup of His Father’s wrath; He had emptied it to the bottom (Mat. 26:39,42).
Instead of this cup of suffering, the Lord now offers you the cup of salvation. He gives His own precious blood for you to drink, and His own holy body for you to eat. He received “sour wine” for His thirst (Joh. 19:29). You receive the sweet wine of His forgiveness, along with His promise of a hunger-free, thirst-free eternity in heaven. We sing hymn #331, vv. 8-9 (“A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth”).
VI. “It is finished!” (John 19:30, also Matthew 27:50, Mark 15:37, Luke 23:46)
Six hours on the cross—three of them in darkness—was that enough? Was Justice satisfied? Was the redemption of sinners accomplished? With a loud cry, Jesus said, “It is finished!” He did not say, “I’ve done My part, now you do yours!” He said the work is complete. Salvation does not require His works plus your works, His righteousness plus your righteousness. He did it all. All of it is yours by faith in Him.
But that does not mean you should feel secure in your sins. You should not think that you can do whatever you want and live however you like, since salvation does not depend on you. Jesus died on the cross to free you from sin, not to free you to sin. He broke the chains of your sin and death, so you could live for Him in His kingdom.
Looking upon the crucified Christ, no one should be prideful about his own goodness. And no one should despair because of his own sins. Jesus speaks these words, “It is finished!” for all people. Jesus willingly went to the cross for you. He is ever ready to forgive you and strengthen you for His blessed service. We sing hymn #284, vv. 2-3 (“Go to Dark Gethsemane”).
VII. “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” (Psalm 31:5, Luke 23:46)
With His final words, Jesus gives words to the faithful that they can confidently use at their death. Before breathing His last, Jesus said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” No longer was He forsaken by His Father. His work to save sinners was complete. But He still had to die. His soul had to separate from His body and be committed to His Father’s keeping, just as yours will be at your death.
Your life and death are completely in the hands of the Lord. Even Jesus’ own life was not taken from Him by the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees, or by the Roman authorities. He very clearly stated, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (Joh. 10:17-18). Jesus laid down His life on Good Friday, but He would soon take it up again. So you also remain in the Lord’s keeping both in life and in death. We sing hymn #337, vv. 5-8 (“Our Blessed Savior Seven Times Spoke”).
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(“Cristo Crucificado” painting by Diego Velázquez, 1632)
The Fifth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 8:46-59
In Christ Jesus, who told the truth, even though it caused many to oppose and attack Him, dear fellow redeemed:
Was he just seeing things? Was his mind playing tricks on him? There Moses was out in the wilderness, when he came by a bush that was on fire. That might have been interesting enough, but Moses noticed that the bush was not burning up. Fire was in the bush, but the bush remained whole. Moses thought he would have a closer look. At that moment, God called out to Moses from the bush and told him to stop and take off his sandals, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exo. 3:5).
Then God said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (v. 6). Moses was afraid. How could he, a sinner, stand in the presence of the holy God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? But God had plans for Moses. Moses would lead the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt.
Now Moses hadn’t left Egypt under the best circumstances forty years before this. He wondered if the Israelites would accept his leadership. If he told them the God of their fathers had sent him, and they asked for the name of this God, what should he tell them? God said to Moses, “I AM who I AM …. Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (v. 14). God had given His personal name. It is a name that emphasizes His undeniable existence and a name that indicates His absolute power. God is I AM. He said, “This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (v. 15).
The Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt, but as time passed, God’s people did not always remember Him. The God I AM might have been good enough for Abraham and Moses, but the people wanted something else. They liked the look of the gods of the nations around them. Those religions did not require so much self-discipline, so much sacrifice. In fact those religions offered the opposite: self-gratification and self-service.
But God loved His people. He is a faithful God. He sent prophets to call the people to repentance. Sometimes, some listened. But other times, the people mistreated the prophets and killed them. The week of His death, Jesus recounted this sad history with the chief priests and elders. He told them a parable about a vineyard owner who left the care of his vineyard to tenants and went away. At harvest time, he sent servants to gather up the fruit, but these were beaten, killed, and stoned. So he decided to send his son, saying, “They will respect my son.” But they killed him too (Mat. 21:33-39). Jesus was speaking about the Israelites who killed the prophets and who now planned to kill Him, God’s Son.
This tension between the religious leaders and Jesus had been building for a while. Today’s text presents one of their conversations in which neither side held anything back. The Pharisees insinuated that Jesus was born through a sinful union (Joh. 8:41), that He was a Samaritan, and that He had a demon (v. 48). They, on the other hand, presented themselves as being faithful descendants of Abraham.
Jesus replied, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did” (vv. 39-40). He said that they were not following their father Abraham but their father the devil, because they were doing what the devil does, which is lie and murder (vv. 44, 55). Which side was correct? They could not both be right. Either Jesus was telling the truth when He said He came from God, or the leading Jews were right in calling Him an imposter.
Jesus had powerful testimony on His side. For one thing, there was the evidence of His signs and miracles. A ruler of the Jews had earlier come to Jesus and admitted, “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” (Joh. 3:2). And then there was the evidence of His teaching and life, which the Pharisees could hardly criticize. As Jesus said at the beginning of today’s text, “Which one of you convicts Me of sin?”
Still these religious leaders rejected Him. They had hardened their hearts against Jesus. They refused to acknowledge what all the evidence pointed toward—that Jesus was God in the flesh. They believed the lie that the devil had planted in their hearts, and they willingly cultivated this lie. They agreed that Jesus must be eliminated. Then they could get back to the way things were before when the people looked up to them, and they got to make the rules.
It surprises us that the Pharisees could be so blind. Why didn’t they just listen to Jesus? Why didn’t they just believe? The same questions can be asked of us. By the grace of God, we do believe in Jesus. But do we always listen to His Word? Jesus said very clearly, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God.” This includes all of God’s Word, even the parts that seem old-fashioned or too extreme for modern society.
Just as there was tension between Jesus and the Pharisees, there is tension between us and the world. The Bible presents a very different view than the world does of many different things, such as the purpose for our lives, what we are free to do and not do, and our responsibilities toward God and our neighbors. It is tempting for us to give ground in these areas, to go along to get along. The way some Christians deal with this tension is to confess one thing on Sunday morning, but to take a totally different approach in their work and interactions with friends. They stand for one thing one day and the opposite thing the next. This is hypocrisy.
If we consider the Bible to be God’s truth, and if we actually value these words, we will live our lives according to them. Through our words and actions, we will want to show others the hope we have in Christ. Living such a life will almost certainly put us at odds with people around us. Those who practice self-gratification and self-service will be uncomfortable with our lives of self-discipline and sacrifice. But by our humble example, they may in time be won over to the truth.
Of course none of us can sit here today and think we have done all we could to honor God’s Word. We do not hear it and study it as diligently as we should. And we do not honor it with a consistently holy life. If we could do this on our own, with the force of our own will, then we really wouldn’t need Jesus’ presence in our lives. But we do need His presence. We can’t live the way we should apart from Him.
And this is why the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and the God of Moses took on human flesh. Before, God had sent representatives—prophets, priests, and kings—to speak His Word. Now the Father sent His only Son. What happened in the incarnation parallels the mystery of the burning bush that Moses saw. The LORD was in the fire in the bush, but the branches of the bush did not burn up. In a similar way, the divine nature of the LORD was joined to the flesh of man, but the flesh of man was not consumed. Jesus was true God and true Man in one person.
In other words, the God who before shared His personal name “I AM,” could now be apprehended in a still more personal way. Now He could be seen and heard and touched. Now the religious leaders could lie to His face, they could arrest Him and beat Him. Now He could suffer and die. These things were all part of God’s plan. God wanted the world to have a Savior, and no one could do it but I AM incarnate.
In the Gospel of John, he records a number of examples where Jesus ties Himself to the name I AM, and where He speaks words of comfort for sinners. Jesus said:
- “I AM the bread of life” (6:35, 48).
- “I AM the light of the world” (8:12).
- “I AM the door of the sheep” (10:7,9).
- “I AM the good shepherd” (10:11,14).
- “I AM the resurrection and the life” (11:25).
- “I AM the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6).
- “I AM the true vine” (15:1).
And perhaps the clearest of them all is from today’s text: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” It was unmistakable. Jesus claimed that He is “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exo. 3:15). The Pharisees called it blasphemy; they picked up stones to kill Him. We call it salvation. God came in the flesh to be our Savior and the Savior of all sinners.
We can no longer see and hear and touch Jesus, like His first disciples could. But I AM is still with us. He tells us to look for Him in the administration of the Sacraments and to hear Him in the preaching of His Word. These are the ways He comes to each of us personally and brings us the spiritual healing, strengthening, and forgiveness that we could not live without.
Our God does not leave us to drown in our sins or be overcome by the devil. He has redeemed us, so that we would be called the spiritual descendants of Abraham. Like Abraham we trust in Him alone for salvation, and through this faith in Him we are saved. “To God and to the Lamb, / Who is the great I Am, / While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing, / While millions join the theme, I will sing” (ELH 306, v. 3).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(painting is portion of the altarpiece in Weimar by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1555)
The Second Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:2-10 (Gospel for Advent 3)
In Christ Jesus, “whose way John the Baptizer prepared, proclaiming Him the Messiah, the very Lamb of God” (Preface for Advent, ELH p. 74), dear fellow redeemed:
In a couple weeks, most of us will be receiving new things wrapped up in multi-colored paper. Some things will be expected and some things will be surprises. Do you remember what you received for Christmas last year? If you do remember, what is the current condition of the gifts you received? Any food you were given is almost certainly gone. Your new socks probably don’t have holes in them yet, but they might be getting threadbare. Electronic devices are most likely still in good working order. Last year’s toys are probably in good shape.
But I don’t expect that you still look at these items with the same joy and appreciation as when you first opened the package. Those brand new things do not look so special anymore. They have become common. When they become outdated or when they break, it will not be hard for you to toss them and go looking for something new.
And this is not wrong. It is fine to go shopping for a newer car when yours is getting expensive to repair. It is okay to buy a new computer or a new phone when the one you had doesn’t work well anymore. It is fine to update your wardrobe (including that shirt from the 1980s that your wife has been trying to hide or replace for the last thirty years). Our money and our earthly possessions are gifts from God which He intends that we use in this life. We can’t take any material things with us to heaven. They are for here and now.
But we should not consider everything in life as being so disposable. For one thing, there is no price tag for a solid reputation as the Proverb says, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (22:1). For another, you and I only have one body. This is why we are concerned to eat good foods, to refrain from excessive drinking and other unhealthy habits, and to stay away from any dangerous or immoral activities that could harm our bodies. Paul writes that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you…. You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1Co. 6:19-20).
And the most important thing we have in this life is the Holy Bible, the Word of God. It is by this Word that we have faith and hope, and that we learn to love as God has loved us. This Word promises the forgiveness of our sins and a never-ending life of bliss after this one. Without this book, we would know very little about God. We would not know how He graciously looks upon us, and how He sent a Savior to redeem us and the Holy Spirit to comfort us.
But there are many who find the Word wanting. They desire a religion that better fits their natural inclinations, or a religion that makes them responsible for getting right with God. To satisfy these desires, they step outside of the Bible and look for new revelations of the Spirit, new instructions for how to live their lives.
Think about the many cult leaders who have established their own systems of belief. They claimed to receive special messages from God, truths that are not found in the Bible. Muhammed did this in the 600s when he developed Islam. Joseph Smith did something similar when he started the Mormon church in the 1800s. And then in recent decades, we have watched men set themselves up as modern-day messiahs, men like Jim Jones who formed the Peoples’ Temple cult, David Koresh who led the Branch Davidians, and Marshall Applewhite who started the Heaven’s Gate group.
In each case, these leaders built religions that gave them absolute authority. Their opinions were to be unquestioned and their every desire satisfied. Their followers were to be loyal to them in everything, and they were to be willing to give up their lives for the cause. Many of them did give up their lives. They died tragic deaths, either by suicide or by engaging in armed conflict with those who opposed them.
We regard these cult founders as being mentally unstable, manipulative, or both. We think of them as being very different than we are. But we have more in common with them than we imagine. We also like to have things go our way and have others go along with our thinking. We also want to take whatever our hearts and bodies desire. We do not want to bow to any authority, abide by someone else’s rules, or accept the responsibilities placed in our hands. In short, we often want to be our own god.
John the Baptizer was no cult leader or pleasure seeker. He was a humble servant of God. But he was unsure about Jesus’ timetable for His work. He wanted Him to provide clarity about His person and purpose. John sent messengers to ask Jesus, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” It was a pointed question. If Jesus was not the Messiah, He should say so. Then John would know his task was not complete, and that he must still prepare the way for the Messiah. But if Jesus was the Messiah, then John could send his disciples to Jesus and let his imprisonment run its course.
We do not know if John asked this question for his own benefit or for the benefit of his followers. Maybe he was trying to get them to leave him, so they would follow the Christ instead. Or maybe he was impatient for the Messiah to conduct Himself like Malachi described in today’s OT lesson. Malachi prophesied that He would be “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap,” and that He would “draw near… for judgment” (3:1-6). Or maybe John felt depressed and discouraged that he should have to sit in prison while there was so much work to do for God.
Whatever his personal thoughts, John’s question was most important, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” It is still important, and we still find ourselves asking it. We struggle within ourselves whether we should give all our attention and devotion to Jesus, or whether we should “look for another.” This describes the entirety of human life, and especially the life of the Christian. Will we look to Christ or somewhere else?
We have often looked somewhere else. We have looked to the god of money, thinking that more money could buy us happiness. We have looked to the god of power and prestige, hoping to make a name for ourselves and leave a lasting legacy. We have looked to the god of pleasure, thinking that only this could satisfy. We have looked to other gods besides—the god of reason, the god of entertainment, the god of adventure, the god of self-righteousness, the god of achievement. These are the gods of the world. They are very appealing, and it is not hard to find them.
But their promises are empty. The gods of this world are like the idols described in Psalm 115: “They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat” (vv. 5-7). The gods of this world are lifeless. They are dead. Therefore, says the psalmist, “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (v. 8). Eternal death is the certain fate of all who follow the gods of the world.
But in Jesus there is hope, and there is life. Jesus told the messengers of John, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.” Jesus does not leave the blind in the dark like the world does; He gives sight. He does not cripple, but strengthens. He does not pollute, but cleanses. He does not plug ears with lies, but opens them to the truth. He does not come to destroy, but to save. He does not steal; He gives. This is nothing like the cult leaders and false teachers we find throughout history.
Jesus proclaims good news, the good news of sins forgiven and salvation secured. He came to take all our sins upon Himself, our sins of selfishness and stubbornness, our sins of indulgence and irresponsibility, our sins of treasure-hunting and glory-seeking. All these sins He gathered to Himself, and He suffered and bled for every one. He gave you the best gift a sinner can receive—the gift of a clear conscience through the washing away of sin. This gift does not become outdated or fade over time. It never needs to be replaced. In Christ, your sins are forgiven yesterday and today and forever.
Because you and I need to be reminded and assured about this forgiveness, Jesus repeats it again and again in the divine service. We hear the absolution, we listen to the Scripture lessons and the sermon, and we partake of Holy Communion. Through these holy means, Jesus brings us the gracious forgiveness of all our sins, and He gives us the strength and the resolve to press on to our heavenly goal.
So Shall We Look for Another? Can a better Savior be found? No, Jesus is the only Savior. He came to redeem us from our sin and the death we deserved. He comes to visit us now through His life-giving Word and Sacraments. And “He shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed). We look to Him and Him alone. We wait for Him and Him alone. And we know that our humble trust in Him will not be disappointed. Jesus said, “[B]lessed is the one who is not offended by Me.”
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(“Witness of John the Baptist” woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1972)
The Resurrection of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad Exordium and Sermon
In 1974, some farmers in China were digging a well when they bumped into clay pieces, arrowheads, and artifacts. Their discovery turned out to be an army of some 8,000 clay warriors, chariots, and horses buried deep in the soil. This Terracotta Army was put there by the first emperor to rule over a unified China. He ruled over a great empire, but that was not enough for him. He wanted his reign to go on forever. He sent many on the quest to find some elixir of life, which might make him immortal.
He became convinced that these life-giving properties were hidden in the mysterious substance that we know as mercury. Legend has it that he consumed this liquid metal, which of course did not make him stronger and healthier but sicker and sicker. Before his death, he commanded the construction of a vast underground city, including that Terracotta Army and rivers of mercury, so that his spirit would have something to rule over in the afterlife. This is what comes of humankind’s attempt to get eternal life. The task fails woefully, and the great plans of proud people end up dead and buried.
If you would have life, if you would grab hold of the one thing that will not slip through your fingers, then you would have Jesus. Jesus does not send you on a mission to uncover the secret of life hidden away somewhere in the world. This is a world of death, brought about by sin. Jesus came to rescue us from this empty world and to bring us to the place where death is no more. The way to rescue us was not to conquer worldly authorities, but to defeat the powers of darkness. He drank the poisonous cup of our sin and entered the dungeon of death, so that this spiritual mercury could no longer harm us. Then He rose again from the grave, victorious over sin, leading us from the death that awaits us to the life which we shall have with Him.
Jesus is our elixir of life, which we consume by faith in Him. In Him, we need not fear death, for He is risen indeed! Let us now rise to sing hymn #348 – “He Is Arisen! Glorious Word!”
Sermon Text: St. Mark 16:1-8
In Christ Jesus, who won the victory for us over death and hell, dear fellow redeemed:
Before we can appreciate what today’s Gospel tells us, we need to make sure we are clear about what led up to it. First of all, what was it that happened to Jesus on the Friday before this? He was sentenced to death by the Jewish religious leaders and handed over to the Romans for execution. Roman soldiers flogged Him, drove a crown of thorns into His head, and led Him to Calvary where they nailed His hands and feet to a cross. This was done just outside Jerusalem, so many people saw Jesus hanging there. He most certainly was crucified.
Since the Jewish holy day, the Sabbath, would begin at sundown, a request was made that the death of Jesus and the two criminals might be hastened and their bodies taken away. “So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with [Jesus]. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (Jn. 19:32-34). The soldiers were not at all doubtful about what had come of Jesus. He most certainly was dead.
Then two members of the Jewish Sanhedrin, secret disciples of Jesus, took His body and bound it in linen cloths along with burial spices. They brought His body to a cemetery nearby and placed Him in an unused tomb. Then they rolled a great stone over the entrance of the tomb and departed just before sundown (Jn. 19:38-42). Their actions were witnessed by some women who had followed Jesus from Galilee. They made plans to return to the tomb after the Sabbath to apply more spices and ointments (Lk. 23:54-56). There was no question about it, Jesus most certainly was buried.
So far, nothing about these facts give the impression that Jesus was anything more than a man, who died a painful death and was committed to his tomb. But the chief priests and Pharisees were nervous. They went to Pontius Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first” (Mt. 27:63-64). Pilate gave them permission to secure the tomb as they wished, so they sealed the stone and set a guard there.
As they had been planning since Friday afternoon, the women returned to the tomb early Sunday morning as the sun was rising. They likely did not know about the guards posted there, who almost certainly would not have allowed them to enter the tomb. The women wondered along the way how they could remove the great stone blocking the entrance. They never would have guessed that the one to do it would be an angel! The evangelist Matthew says that with a great earthquake, an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled back the stone, and sat on it (28:2). The guards were petrified with fear at the sight of the angel, and the women were afraid too. “His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow” (28:3).
But what was even more significant than the appearance of this angel, was what they did not see. They did not see the body of Jesus in the tomb! The tomb was empty! And it was not as though Jesus had slipped past them somehow while their attention was diverted. By the time the angel appeared and rolled away the stone, Jesus had already left the tomb. He had already been raised. “He is not here,” the angel declared. “See the place where they laid Him.”
A crucifixion, a death, and a burial could have happened to anyone, but not a resurrection. A dead person coming back from the dead by his own power had never happened before. What could this mean? It could mean that what Jesus said about Himself was true, that He was not simply a Man born of Mary, but was also true God, begotten of the Father from eternity. It could mean that what He said He came to do—save sinners—was actually done. In fact, this is what it does mean. This is what it must mean. No one else in history has done this. All the great people of the world who have died are still dead. But Jesus lives!
And this changes everything. Jesus’ resurrection means it was no mere man who hung on the cross, but God Himself. And God who is perfect certainly would not be suffering for His own sins. It was for you, for your sins. His death likewise was not a death to benefit Himself. He died your death, to save you from eternal death in hell. So then it was not just a man wrapped in cloths, covered in spices, and sealed in the tomb. It was the God who cannot decay and who cannot be trapped in any tomb.
If Jesus had not risen, He would have been remembered for awhile by His followers, but He may well have been lost to history. There would be no Christianity. There would probably be more false religions than there are now, but one would be no better than the other. Without a risen Jesus, there is no peace between God and man. Without a risen Jesus, there is no promise of eternal life and salvation by faith alone. Without a risen Jesus, you would have to be your own savior, desperately trying to please a God who you can imagine would not be very happy with you.
But Jesus has risen! What that means for you is what Romans 4:25 says, that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” He died on the cross to atone for your sins, and He rose again to prove that His sacrifice was accepted by His Father. The empty tomb on Easter morning means that God does not count your sins against you anymore. It declares that there is no sin left to make satisfaction for. Jesus’ empty tomb is the exclamation point punctuating His saving work.
His resurrection changes everything for you. When you endure suffering and hardship in this world, you can look to the One who suffered intensely in the place of sinners but who now is glorified. When you face your death, you can take comfort in knowing that your death is no more final than it was for Jesus, who rose again in victory. When you lay a brother or sister in Christ to rest in the grave, you can know that their rest is only a temporary one, as Christ’s was, for they will rise again as He did. Instead of living a hopeless life under the dark cloud of death, in Christ you can anticipate life and peace and joy forevermore.
This starts at your Baptism where you were buried and raised with Jesus. It continues whenever you hear God’s powerful Word of grace which brings you the forgiveness Jesus won for you. And at the Communion rail, you eat and drink the food of life, because you there consume the body and blood of Him who will never die again. In this way covered and cleansed and filled by Jesus, you need not be alarmed by the threat of death. Death will not get the last word; it must give way to the King of Life. Jesus has the final say, and He declares victory. The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.
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The Circumcision and Naming of Jesus – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 2:21
In Christ Jesus, who was obedient to the point of death, so you would be freed for life, dear fellow redeemed:
Today is the eighth day of Christmas. Like the song says, there are twelve days of Christmas, and these end on the Eve of Epiphany, Jan. 5th. We are still in the Christmas season, but it does not feel like it did a week ago. Our gift buying and wrapping, our baking, our get-togethers—most of these are done with. The glow of Christmas is pretty much gone. Life moves on.
I suppose the same could be said for Mary and Joseph after Jesus’ birth. They had waited nine months for this. They wondered what this special Baby would look like. A pregnancy like this had never happened before and never would again. Finally the focus of their anticipation was here. Jesus was born—the first Christmas. The night was made even more memorable by a visit from some shepherds proclaiming the message of angels.
But then the days passed one after the other. Life moved on. Mary nursed Jesus, changed His diapers, and sang to Him. Joseph probably searched for better accommodations for his family. When the eighth day after His birth arrived, they had their little Baby circumcised and officially gave Him His name. There was nothing out of the ordinary about this. Circumcision had been commanded of the Israelites for about 2000 years, since the time of Abraham.
When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, and he and Sarah still had no child together, the LORD said to him, “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” (Gen. 17:6-7). The covenant that God made with Abraham was marked with the sign of circumcision, which was to be repeated by all of Abraham’s male descendants. It should be done at eight days old or whenever any foreigner joined the people of Israel. The LORD declared, “So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (vv. 13-14).
Because of this command, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to be circumcised on the eighth day. In this way, Jesus was incorporated into the Jewish church. His circumcision joined Him to the covenant of Abraham and obligated Him to keep the Law of God. This was the official start of His active obedience. The perfect God placed Himself under His perfect Law. He had to keep it in full in order to be the world’s Savior. It also marked the beginning of His passive obedience. On this day, God felt physical pain. He felt the cut of the knife and first shed drops of His holy blood. We can comprehend the human side of this procedure, but not the divine. All we can say is that when God came in the flesh, He was all in. He did not exempt Himself from any human obligation or suffering.
His purpose in coming was underscored by His name. The name Jesus was common enough. It is the Greek version of the name Joshua, who is one of the heroes of the Old Testament. There must have been many Jewish boys with this name. But Mary did not select this name for her Son, God did. When the angel Gabriel visited Mary, telling her about the Son she would conceive, he said, “you shall call his name Jesus” (Lk. 1:31). The matter of the name was also made clear to Joseph. An angel said to him in a dream that “[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21). Here the angel not only gave the name but also defined it. Jesus means, “the LORD saves”—“for he will save his people from their sins.”
The eighth day from Jesus’ birth was full of significance, not just for Him, but for you too. The fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham had now come. All the Old Testament prophesies were realized. A new era was ushered in. Circumcision was no more required of the people of God. It is not forbidden, but it is no longer commanded. The Apostle Paul writes, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). We are no longer set apart from the world by the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. What sets us apart today is our baptism into Christ.
But there are many Christians around us who disagree with this. They view baptism as an outward symbol with no real spiritual significance. They may think of it as a nice family tradition, or even as a good work done for God. But this entirely misses the mark. Baptism is not for God any more than circumcision was. Baptism is a gift from God for you. You needed it. Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (Jn. 3:1-8). Your first birth was not enough. You may have looked alive and healthy when you were born, but as St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “you… were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh” (2:13). You were dead in your sins. You needed to be reborn, regenerated. You could not save yourself.
This is why Jesus subjected Himself to the Law of God and to a life of suffering. He came to keep the Law perfectly for you and to die in payment for each of your sins. He won eternal life for you by dying your death and rising again in victory. These gifts are all yours through baptism. We read in the letter to Titus that “[God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (3:5-7).
This is no small thing! To the Colossians, Paul wrote, “In [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (vv. 11-12). Baptism marks you as one of God’s own. It was through baptism that God sealed you with His promises of forgiveness and life, preparing you for the day of redemption when Jesus returns (Eph. 4:30). Baptism sets you apart in the New Testament era just as circumcision set apart the Israelites in the era of the Old Testament.
But do you live as one set apart? Do you “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4) made possible by baptism? There is nothing about our appearance that distinguishes us from the unbelieving world. And we are often okay with that. We like to fit in with the world when it suits us. We can act like good Christians at church on Sunday morning, but then lead totally different lives outside of it. Spouses can put on a happy face around friends and family but treat each other like enemies at home. Employees can work while the boss is watching, but otherwise take advantage of their employer. Now on the internet, people (including Christians) can assume an entirely different identity to use for bad purposes.
However this disconnect happens in each of our lives, it happens to all of us. We are unworthy to be counted as God’s baptized children. We do not live up to the gift of baptism into Christ. But it is a gift that keeps on giving. No matter how sinful you have been, baptism still marks you as one of God’s own. It reminds you that even though your commitment to God wavers, His commitment to you does not. God loves you, which is why He sent His Son to save you, and why He moved your parents or guardians to bring you to baptism.
But the benefits of baptism can be lost. The fact that you are baptized will not save you, any more than the physical act of circumcision guaranteed salvation to the Old Testament Jews. The Sacraments of God are only beneficial when coupled with faith. Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mk. 16:16). If you do not have faith in Jesus when you die, it will make no difference whether you were baptized or not. This is why it is so important to feed the faith that baptism brings, and to return to the cleansing waters of baptism every time you confess your sins and receive absolution.
The eighth day of Jesus’ life shows how committed God was to save you. He wanted to free you from the curse of the law and rescue you from the fires of eternal damnation. He wanted to bring you into His family by faith – to give you His name, the only name that can save. The salvation God desired for you was accomplished by His Son Jesus. You are a Christian, a believer in Him, baptized in His name, joined to His body. Your life is hardly ordinary. You live in Christ, in Him who shed His blood for you, who died and rose again for you, and who will come again to take you to Himself (Jn. 14:3). There could be no better name for Him than the one brought by the angel. Jesus is your Savior.
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Christmas Eve – Pr. Faugstad homilies
Text: St. Luke 2:1-7
I. And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
Perhaps the greatest emperor in Roman history is Caesar Augustus. He initiated a long era of peace in the land and was instrumental in improving and expanding the infrastructure of the empire. Periodically he issued decrees for the people in the kingdom to be counted, so that they might be taxed. Luke writes about such a census. He also gives the name of a Roman governor, translated Cyrenius or Quirinius, who ruled over Syria. But why did Luke think it was important to provide these details, including the names of two Roman rulers?
Well a proper answer is that he was inspired to do this by the Holy Spirit. And that was certainly the case. We can also say that Luke recorded these details because he was writing about events that actually happened at a certain point in history. This is no fantasy; it is not make-believe. Those reading Luke’s Gospel, especially early on, could say, “Oh yes, I know what time period these things took place.” They would have understood why a very pregnant Mary would have traveled the many miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. In fact, there is probably not much besides the decree of a Caesar that could have coaxed Joseph and Mary to make the trip.
Caesar Augustus had no idea that he was playing a part in something bigger than his own rule, bigger even than the Roman Empire. Within his lands, a great King was about to be born, a King who would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The government would be upon His shoulder, and of the increase of His government and of peace there would be no end (Is. 9:6-7).
Hymn: #153, 1 & 4-6 – “The People That in Darkness Sat”
II. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
Joseph lived about 1000 years after King David reigned in Israel. He was a descendant of David’s son Solomon who was conceived by David and Bathsheba (Mt. 1). Since David in his youth tended sheep for his father near the town of Bethlehem, this is where Joseph now traveled for the census. Mary was also a distant descendant of David and Bathsheba through their son Nathan (Lk. 3). This meant that Jesus would have been counted as the legal descendant of David through Joseph and a blood descendant of David through Mary.
This fulfilled the words recorded by the Prophet Jeremiah, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer. 33:14-15). Bethlehem was not the likely place to look for a King, either David or Jesus. But God saw fit to honor this little town, a town that otherwise would not have stood out much more than the towns of Saude or Jerico do today.
But God delights in elevating the humble and glorifying what the world despises. This was true of Jesus who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,” and now whom “God has highly exalted” at His right hand (Phil. 2:8-9). This is also true of you and me. We do not look like royalty to the world, sons in line to inherit the eternal riches of the mighty God. But that is just what we are through faith in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:26). The Lord has honored and elevated us by His grace, just as He did with that little town of Bethlehem.
Hymn: #137, 1 & 3 – “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
III. To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
Mary was “great with child.” What a common event – a woman was pregnant, about to give birth. But this was no ordinary pregnancy. The LORD had predicted it right after sin came into the world. He said to the devil, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring” (Gen. 3:15), or her Seed. Years later, the LORD would explain more about this promised Seed through the prophecy of Isaiah, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (7:14).
How could this be? A virgin conceiving a child? That is impossible. Mary said the same thing when she was visited by the angel Gabriel. He replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God…. For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk. 1:35,37).
Listen to those words again: “nothing will be impossible with God.” Do you ever wonder how God could forgive a sinner like you? One who knows what you should do and continuously fails to do it? One who has left such a trail of sins that you are ashamed even to remember them? Do you think you have sinned so much that God cannot forgive you? Would that be impossible for Him? Of course not. Your sins are the reason that the Virgin Mary was “great with child.” Jesus came to be our “Immanuel”—“God with us.” He came to save the world of sinners through His perfect life and innocent death. He came to save you, because He loves you, even more than a mother loves her dear child.
Hymn: #113, 1-2 – “A Great and Mighty Wonder”
IV. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
“The days were accomplished.” “The fullness of time had come” (Gal. 4:4). Immanuel was here. He deserved to be offered the finest apparel, but was instead wrapped in swaddling clothes. He deserved a finely crafted, ornate cradle, but was instead laid in a manger. Even the best that humankind can offer would not have been good enough for this Baby, for He was the eternal God come in the flesh. He could have come to condemn the world, to pour out judgment against all who broke the law of God. But He came to save (Jn. 3:17). To do this, He had to become man. He had to be “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4-5). He had to go to the cross to take the punishment of God that you and I deserved. He had to rise again in triumph over our death. This is what the firstborn Son of Mary was here for.
His arrival was much anticipated. The Apostle Peter writes, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1Pet. 1:10-12; also Lk. 10:23-24).
You do not have to wait anymore for salvation from God. Salvation unto us is come! What Jesus has done for you, and what you now have the privilege of hearing week after week are things that the prophets longed for, things that amaze the angels. The holy, almighty God came to save you. He forgives you all of your sins. You are not at enmity with Him like the devil is. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in order to effect peace between you and God. By faith in Him, you now live in this heavenly peace. And when your time in this world comes to an end, by the grace of God you will also sleep in heavenly peace.
Hymn: #140 – “Silent Night”
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