The Fourth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 6:36-42
In Christ Jesus, who looks upon us not as we deserve but according to His grace, dear fellow redeemed:
We can all think of people who have no business pointing out the sins in others. Their sins are so obvious and clear that they are in no position to judge what anyone else does. Jesus talks about the log in a person’s eye. It’s quite a picture. Imagine a long plank sticking out of someone’s eye. But suppose the person did not notice it was there. He shows up at a party and starts talking about what is wrong with other people—how they look, how annoying they are, how he has everything together, and how they could learn a lot from him.
He does not understand why everyone wants to keep their distance, and why they get so angry whenever he shows up. That eye log is a hindrance to personal interaction! It pops people on the nose and smacks them on the side of the face whenever he turns his head. He complains about everyone blaming him. Why don’t they watch where they are going and give him more space?
It’s a ridiculous scenario. How could a person not know that a big log is sticking out of his eye? How could he not notice that? The problem with this guy is that he does not understand his problem. He thinks everyone around him is at fault for his feelings of rejection and discomfort. He is the victim. If everyone around him changed, he would be happier, and he assumes they would be too.
What Jesus is teaching about here is self-righteousness, about not being aware of one’s own glaring sins. A self-righteous person is a person who believes he is holy through his own efforts. It makes sense that Jesus would warn the Pharisees and scribes about this because they thought they were right with God through their keeping of the law. They did not realize how far they had fallen short. They were very prideful.
But Jesus did not speak the words of today’s text to the Pharisees and scribes. He spoke them to “His disciples” (Luk. 6:20), to those who believed in Him and followed Him. He told these disciples to take the logs out of their own eyes. He even called them “hypocrites”! This shows that Jesus was not afraid to criticize His followers. But He wasn’t doing it out of spite; it was out of love.
Jesus wanted His followers to see their own weakness and to understand the sinful condition of all descendants of Adam and Eve. He could speak in this way because He was without sin. He had been conceived in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit and was therefore free of original sin. He fully understood temptation to sin, but He committed no sin Himself.
He told His disciples to guard against the self-righteousness that was part of their sinful nature. They needed to hear the condemning words of the law, so that they would be humbled and cry out for God’s grace. They needed to see that they were no better than anyone else around them, either the Jews or the Gentiles.
The same goes for us. We are no better than anyone else, but the devil and our sinful nature try to convince us that we are. They tempt us to measure our righteousness by how much holier we are than others. But it isn’t a fair comparison. We typically do not look at others the same way that we look at ourselves. We see their sins more clearly than we see our own sins. We are much more ready to overlook our faults than the faults of others.
So it might be easy for me to justify telling a lie, but I come down harshly on others who do the same. Or I might be critical of a mess someone made, but I am totally unwilling to acknowledge my own messes. Self-righteousness is holding someone’s feet to the fire for a $100 debt, while being unconcerned about your own $100,000 debt. Self-righteousness is being eager to offer criticism but being totally unwilling to receive criticism.
Our self-righteousness is the reason Jesus reminds us to “be merciful,” to “judge not,” to “condemn not,” to “forgive,” and to “give.” He wants us to be humble and regard others as better than ourselves (Phi. 2:3). He wants us to look into the mirror of His holy law and see our many sins in that reflection. He wants us to repent of these sins and look to Him for forgiveness and for help to love our neighbors.
But showing love to our neighbors does not mean ignoring their sin altogether or confirming them in their sin. One of the most-quoted Bible passages in our day is: “Judge not.” Another version of this is the statement: “Only God can judge me.” These phrases are usually brought out when a person does not want to be questioned for his behavior or lifestyle choices. So what can you say when someone throws your words of caution or warning back in your face?
Let’s say that you find out your co-worker has been stealing from your employer. You call him on it, and he responds, “Who do you think you are? Are you so perfect? I thought Jesus said not to judge other people!” What do you say? Maybe his point sounds valid, and you let the issue go. But how is that loving to your co-worker, much less to your employer? A good way forward is to accept what your co-worker says without approving of the sin. You could say, “You’re right. I’m not perfect, far from it. I’ve sinned as much as anyone I know. But that does not mean I have to go along with something that is wrong or act like it isn’t happening.”
If your neighbors think you are criticizing them because you believe you are so good, they will avoid you like the people avoiding the guy at the party with the log in his eye. But if they see your humble spirit and know that you care about them, they will be much more ready to listen to what you say. They might not accept your criticism right away. They might even be angry with you. But in time they hopefully will see that you said what you did out of love for them.
Our goal in warning and correcting others is not to elevate ourselves in their eyes, as though they should be more like us. Our goal is to point them to Jesus. Jesus is the one solution to our problem of self-righteousness and sin. If we think we are so good compared to others, we should try comparing ourselves to Jesus. Then we see that our righteousness is nothing. We have not come close to loving as He loved and sacrificing as He sacrificed.
Our righteousness compared to His is like the light of a match compared to the light of the sun. Our righteousness—if it is truly righteousness—can light up just a tiny corner of this dark world. The light of His righteousness fills the earth and the heavens. His holy life under the law was so pure, so flawless, that it was able to cover over the unrighteousness of all sinners.
This perfect holiness was placed upon you when you were baptized, and it continues to cover you now. What good is it to keep a tally of your own good deeds or compare your life with others when Jesus’ righteousness is yours? We would rather lose all glory and honor in the world, all recognition and fame, than to lose Jesus’ righteousness. He is our perfection that the law demands. He is the fulfillment of all righteousness for us.
He is also the atonement for our sins. We have not always been merciful and forgiving and generous. We have not always been humble in our dealings with others. We have not always perceived the log in our own eye. But Jesus, with clear vision and perfect focus, walked the way of the cross for us.
He had no log in His eye, but He did have one on His back as He made His way to Golgotha. He was nailed to that log—the cross with all our transgressions—and He died for the sins of all, for the self-righteous, the prideful, and the unrepentant. By the shedding of His blood, Jesus atoned for every single one of your sins and mine. God the Father poured out the full measure of His wrath on His Son, so that the good measure of His grace and forgiveness would be “pressed down, shaken together, running over” and “put into [our] lap.”
We need this forgiveness every day because we continue to sin against our neighbors. We sin against them by hoping for their harm and failing to offer them our help. There is something in our eye, just as there is something in every sinner’s eye. But the Lord’s absolution, His free forgiveness, removes the logs and specks from our eyes. His grace clears up our vision, so that we see Jesus and everything He did to save us.
Seeing Jesus more clearly also helps us to see our neighbors more clearly. Our neighbors need mercy like we need mercy. They need forgiveness like we need forgiveness. They need help like we need help. And the Lord is eager to give these blessings to everyone. He blesses them through our efforts, and He often causes those blessings to return to us in good measure.
Jesus’ command to love our neighbor more and better than we have is hard for us to hear. It is painful to have the logs of self-righteousness removed from our eye. But He does this so that we look away from ourselves and any good things we might do and look toward Him. In Him we will always find righteousness, salvation, and the strength to live for His glory.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(“The Parable of the Mote and the Beam” by Ottmar Elliger the Younger, 1666-1735)
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 16:5-15
In Christ Jesus, who returned to the Father after completing His saving work on earth (Joh. 16:28), and then sent out the Holy Spirit to distribute His salvation, dear fellow redeemed:
If you have never heard the word “Paraclete” before, you might wonder what it means. Here are some multiple choice options for you:
- “Paraclete” is a type of bird that repeats what people say.
- “Paraclete” is the footwear you need for outdoor sports.
- “Paraclete” is a title for the Holy Spirit.
I hope that was an easy one.
In our translation of the Bible, the word “Paraclete” is rendered “Helper.” Other translations for this word are “Advocate,” “Intercessor,” or “Comforter.” Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit by this term four times in His conversation with the disciples the night before His death.
- In John 14:16-17, Jesus said: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper [Paraclete], to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”
- John 14:26: “But the [Paraclete], the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
- John 15:26: “But when the [Paraclete] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”
- And then in today’s Gospel where Jesus said the Paraclete would come to convict the world and guide believers into all truth.
The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, was sent to convict the world concerning three things: “sin and righteousness and judgment.” This work is done through the Law of God. The primary function of the Law is to condemn. It is a mirror which reveals how we really are. We may seem to have things pretty well in order. But the Law uncovers our hidden sins, even the sins of our mind.
The Holy Spirit testifies through the Law that our sins have separated us from God. If we remain in these sins, we cannot have communion with God, because God is holy. The world is full of people who believe they are right with God (or at least hope they are), but who actually are opposed to Him. They do not believe they are in spiritual danger because of their sins, or they worship false gods who cannot save. So the Holy Spirit through the Law convicts the world’s inhabitants of sin. He shows that their trust and confidence are misplaced when they do not believe in Jesus as their Savior.
The Holy Spirit also convicts the world concerning righteousness. One of the biggest and most obvious lies today is the notion that “people are basically good.” It is true that many people do many good things. This is due to the influence of God’s moral Law written in their hearts (Rom. 2:15). But we ignore the great wickedness around us and in us if we say that people are mostly righteous. We cannot give ourselves or others so much credit.
Some are even so bold as to reject Jesus because they think their level of holiness rises to His. But who has ever done as much good as Jesus did? Who healed so many sick people? Who had such compassion on the poor and outcasts? Who gave so much hope? And when He was falsely accused and beaten and crucified, who suffered so quietly and humbly? If Jesus were little more than an example for us, and if living as He lived were the way to get to heaven, still no one could hope to attain such righteousness.
The Bible does not teach us to be confident in our own righteous deeds. It says that “[n]one is righteous, no, not one,” and that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:12, 23). Jesus said that He is the only one who is worthy to “go to the Father.” He was perfect. He did no wrong. He lived the life the holy Law requires. He succeeded where all others have failed.
Finally, the Holy Spirit convicts the world concerning judgment. The world follows its ruler. Isn’t that as it should be? No, because the world’s ruler—the devil—is an imposter. He usurped the throne that belongs rightfully to the world’s Creator. The Lord is the rightful King. But the devil will spread his lies and work for the destruction of souls as long as he has opportunity.
Everyone who denies Jesus follows the devil. They choose to follow the loser instead of the Champion. The devil is already judged. His fate is sealed. He cannot knock the crown off Christ’s head or the almighty God from His throne. Unless sinners repent, they will join the devil in the fires of hell and suffer there with him forever.
This is what the Holy Spirit comes to do for the world. He comes to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” The work the Paraclete does through the Law may not seem all that “helpful” or “comforting.” But if He does not convict through God’s Law, there will be no need for God’s comfort. If He does not carry out His condemning work, He cannot do His saving work. So He convicts the world—and us too—of our sin, our self-righteousness, and the judgment that comes upon the unrepentant. But He also strengthens believers in their faith through the Gospel.
The disciples were sad when Jesus told them He was going to the Father. Jesus said His leaving was to their advantage. His visible departure meant that the Paraclete would come. The Holy Spirit would be sent forth from the Father and the Son. He would come to guide the disciples “into all the truth.” He would bring to their remembrance everything Jesus said to them (Joh. 14:26). He would declare “the things that are to come.”
Those things that were coming were Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection and His glorious ascension to the right hand of the Father. The disciples did not understand that these things were necessary. But they soon learned why they were so important. The Holy Spirit enlightened their minds to understand that salvation could be won in no other way than this.
God the Son had to obey the will of His Father. He had to take on flesh and be born under the Law, so that His righteousness would cover each sinner’s sin. He had to suffer and die, so that the eternal punishment each of us had coming would be assigned to Him instead. He had to rise again on the third day to prove that He was who He said He was and that He did what He said He would.
This is the truth the Holy Spirit taught the disciples and what He still teaches us. This is what He helps us to remember, especially when we are troubled by our sins and failures. He comforts us by coming to us through the Word and Sacraments and declaring what He has been given to declare. He brings the gifts of the Father which were obtained for us by the Son. Jesus said of the Holy Spirit that “He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is Mine; therefore I said that He will take what is Mine and declare it to you.”
What is it that the Holy Spirit declares? After bringing you to repentance through the Law, He points you to Jesus. He declares that Jesus is your righteousness. He is your Savior. Because of Jesus’ suffering and death in your place, you have peace with God and eternal life. Your sins are forgiven. You are justified in God’s sight; you are not condemned.
This is how the Paraclete comforts you. He does not need to change His message from time to time to keep it fresh and interesting. The message of forgiveness and life in Christ is just as powerful and applicable today as it has been through all of human history. It is exactly what every sinful human needs to hear and believe. Until the end of time, God will continue to send the Holy Spirit to convict and comfort through His Word.
But Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit’s coming as being in the future. When would this happen? It happened on Pentecost, fifty days after Easter and ten days after Jesus’ ascension. We are approaching these festivals again—Ascension in less than two weeks and Pentecost in three weeks. These are excellent times to remember that the Lord keeps His promises. Everything Jesus predicted to His disciples came about. He did die and rise again, He did return to His Father, and He did send the Holy Spirit.
This means you will never lack hope, even in these troubled and troubling times. You are not alone in the world. Yes, the devil rules in the world and many follow him, but he is judged. He cannot win. Even while he carries out his destructive activities, the Paraclete counters them through the powerful Word. If the Holy Spirit were not active, there would be no church on earth; no one would believe. But God has reserved many “who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (1Ki. 19:18, Rom. 11:4), who have not gone away after “the ruler of this world.” He keeps many in the faith who look with eager anticipation for Jesus’ triumphant return.
Through His ongoing work in the church, the Holy Spirit lives up to His title. He is our Paraclete—our Helper, Advocate, Intercessor, and Comforter. He brings the gifts of God from heaven to earth, from the holy Savior to us unworthy sinners. For our salvation, The Paraclete Comes to Convict and Comfort. He works repentance in our hearts through the Law and faith in our hearts through the Gospel. He brings us everything we need to get to heaven, just as Jesus said He would.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture is stained glass by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, c. 1660)
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 Sixth Sunday after Trinity
Text: St. Matthew 5:20-26
In Christ Jesus, who gives the rich blessings of salvation to sinners at no cost to them, dear fellow redeemed:
When you see a penny on the ground, do you stoop down to pick it up? A recent survey (YouGov) indicates that older Americans value the penny more than younger Americans do. 70% of people over age 55 said they would pick up a penny, while less than 40% in their teens and twenties would do so. Overall, more than half the people surveyed said they would not bother with a penny. They figure it isn’t worth the effort. It is not valuable enough to them.
This is similar to the way many people think of the Gospel, the good news of salvation through Jesus. For many, the Gospel is not worth more than a passing glance. It has no great effect on their daily lives. It hardly figures into their work and plans. For those that do bother to take a closer look at it, it is often easily set aside or forgotten. Even by many Christians, the Gospel is not seen as essential for our life. “What Jesus did was important,” they say, “but what matters the most now is how I live.” Instead of seeking refuge in the Gospel, these individuals try to find comfort in the Law.
This temptation to draw our confidence from the Law instead of the Gospel is something that every Christian has fallen for. We look to separate the so-called “good Christians” from the “bad Christians” by the fruits they produce. This is not entirely off-base. Jesus plainly taught that “no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit” (Lk. 6:43-44). So then the thinking goes that if I do good things, I must be a good tree, and if I do bad things, I must be a bad tree. But who decides what counts as “good” and what counts as “bad”?
What happens is that each person decides in his or her own mind what is “good” and “bad,” and the definition is always skewed. I will naturally define as “good” the way I live my life and how I like to operate. On the other hand, my definition of “bad” is when other people do things I don’t like or when they contradict or criticize my plans and desires. But a self-made set of principles or rules to live by, is no way to produce the righteousness that God requires.
Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees were regarded as the “holy people” among the Jews. They followed the rules. They set the standard. But theirs was an empty righteousness. Their obedience to God’s Law was only external; it did not come from hearts of faith. They were something like our Amish neighbors, who are careful to follow strict rules of lifestyle and behavior, and who imagine that it is this which pleases God.
But Jesus said that the righteousness that gains the kingdom of heaven must exceed such outward righteousness. No matter how “good” a person is, it is not enough. God requires perfection—perfect righteousness in everything we think, do, and say. To test His listeners to see how they thought of themselves, Jesus applied the Ten Commandments in ways the people were not used to hearing. To begin with, Jesus said that it is not simply murderers who fall under the condemnation of the Fifth Commandment. It is also those who store up anger toward someone, or who refuse to admit the wrongs they have done.
Then He taught about the Sixth Commandment that it is broken not just by those who commit adultery, but also by those who have lustful thoughts about someone else (Mt. 5:27-30), and by those who stubbornly file for divorce (vv. 31-32). The Second and Eighth Commandments are broken by taking foolish oaths (vv. 33-37). The Fifth Commandment is again broken by those who seek revenge (vv. 38-42), and who think it is proper to “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (v. 43). But Jesus said that children of God should “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44).
These examples are enough to show us how much we lack the righteousness God requires of us. If we imagine that we are “good enough” to get into heaven by our own works, we will pay the eternal consequence for this arrogant thinking. Jesus says that not one bit of God’s Law is considered fulfilled by us unless all of it is kept (5:18). And if it is not all kept, eternal payment is required. We might not care about a penny on the ground, but the righteous God demands a full payment for our sins, even down to “the last penny.”
If our sins were pennies, the last thing we would want to do is gather them up. We usually act like they are not even there. When we do feel guilty about one sin or another, we just let them be or kick them aside and hope that time will wash them away. But if our sins were collected day by day, throughout our lives, this would be no small amount. Our sins are like piles—or more likely, mountains—of pennies that cannot be pushed aside and that keep us from reaching our heavenly goal. We wish we could forget about our sin, but like a financial debt, it doesn’t just go away. The wages of sin must be paid (Rom. 6:23), and we haven’t got the funds.
This is why the Gospel is nothing to take for granted or ignore. The Gospel is the good news of what Jesus did to save us. He said, “I have not come to abolish [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them” (Mt. 5:17). He did not come to change God’s standard of perfection or to remove it. As we can see by today’s reading, He put a sharper point on the Law than people were accustomed to (7:28-29). He wanted to show that no one has produced the righteousness God requires. None can get to heaven on their own. Another must do for us what we cannot do.
The Apostle Paul wrote that “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2Cor. 8:9). How was our Lord rich? He was rich in righteousness and life. From eternity, God the Son shared perfection and glory with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. It was in His image of perfect righteousness that God created man and woman. When Adam and Eve sinned, they lost their holiness and were separated from God. But God still loved them and all who would be born from them. He promised to send a Savior.
This Savior was God’s Son, born of the Virgin Mary. He came in total humility, not making full and constant use of His divine power. He subjected Himself to the requirements of the Law and diligently kept it in every detail. He did this for you and me. He kept God’s Law in our place, so that we might inherit His eternal riches. “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21). Our sins were placed on Jesus like an immeasurable weight of bag after bag of pennies, and He accounted for each of our terrible sins through His suffering and death. He also now places His perfect righteousness on us and on all who believe in Him. He was rich and became poor, so that we who were spiritually impoverished would become rich.
The riches of righteousness and life that He produced are all we need. They are our only hope for salvation. They are the only lifeline there is between us and God. What Jesus has done, the Holy Spirit graciously brings to us through Word and Sacraments. Through the Law, He impresses upon us our great debt of sin and our need for salvation. Through the Gospel, He brings us the full forgiveness of our sins and strengthens our faith in Jesus.
We are saved entirely by grace, and not by our own righteousness. The place for our works is not in earning or contributing toward our salvation. We live according to God’s will and want to keep His Commandments out of love for Him and out of thankfulness for His grace. We do not carry the burden of having to prove ourselves to God, or of trying to win His favor. We are already righteous in His sight by faith in His Son. We will enter the kingdom of heaven because of Jesus’ righteousness, because He did for us what we could not do.
So the question that every sinner should be concerned with is this: In What Do You Put Your Trust? If your trust is in your own righteousness, then the words of Paul to the Galatians apply to you, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4). But if your trust is in Christ alone, in Jesus only, then your righteousness does exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, because then you have Jesus’ righteousness credited to you.
Whether or not you make it a habit to pick up pennies off the ground is up to you. But if you do, take a moment to read our national motto printed there, “In God We Trust.” Think of why the true God is to be trusted, and think of what any alternative to His grace would be. Then humbly repent of your sins and hold tightly to His promises. Say with the psalmist, “In You, O LORD, I put my trust; Let me never be ashamed; Deliver me in Your righteousness” (Ps. 31:1, NKJV). With such a faith, you will receive rich blessings from a gracious God, who loves you and gave Himself for you.
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 Sermon on the Mount” by Rudolf Yelin the Older, 1912)
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 16:5-15
In Christ Jesus, whose saving gifts are imparted to us by the Holy Spirit through the powerful means of grace, dear fellow redeemed:
Like the words of the Holy Gospel for last Sunday, Jesus spoke the words of today’s text the night before His crucifixion. After about three years of public work, the crowning moment of His life was fast approaching. He was about to shed His holy blood for the salvation of sinners before rising again on the third day. But in this part of His discourse with His disciples, He wanted to prepare them for what would happen after His resurrection.
He said, “I am going to Him who sent Me.” He planned to return to the Father from whom He came. This was good news, but the disciples did not realize it. The return of Christ to His Father could only mean that God the Father accepted the work of His Son. It must mean that there was nothing more for sinners to do to gain their salvation. The work was finished; salvation had been won.
This return to His Father happened when Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after His resurrection. At His ascension, God the Father seated Him at His right hand, putting all things under His feet and giving Him as head over all things to the church (Eph. 1:22). From this position of all power and authority, God the Son in cooperation with His Father sent out the third Person of the Trinity, God the Holy Spirit. And what was the Holy Spirit to do? Jesus said, “He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.”
He must “convict the world concerning sin,” because no person by nature wants to admit his sins. Instead of acknowledging sin, many decide to embrace it. Some do this in violation of their conscience—they know something is wrong, but they do it anyway. Others sin in ignorance—they actually do not realize that what they are doing or saying is displeasing to God. The Holy Spirit works on both kinds of people to convince them of the unchanging standard of God’s moral law.
The reason He must do this is because sin acts like a depressant, like a drug, which slowly lulls the sinner to spiritual sleep. The more we participate in a wrong thing, the more we continue in it, the less we will be aware that it is wrong. Our spiritual life is one example of this. It is easy to think that we are getting as much spiritual nourishment as we need through regular or semi-regular church attendance. But what about the other six and a half days of the week? Does God’s Word and prayer have any place in those days?
You might be more knowledgeable about spiritual things than many of your peers. But how do you compare with your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents? Does your focus on spiritual things match what you witnessed in them? Typically, those who do not recognize their own great sinfulness will have little interest in the regular hearing and learning of the Word. They are content to know the basic teachings in the Bible and figure they are in good shape. But a lazy Christian disconnected from the Word is just a small step away from being no Christian at all.
Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (Jn. 8:31). The Word reveals Jesus. It is the record of the essential details of Jesus’ life and saving work. Everything written about Jesus is true, from what He said to what He did. All of it happened. Many eyewitnesses who had nothing to gain by lying accurately recorded these things. What is found in the Bible is not just some collection of spiritual opinions, which are no more true or valid than the teachings of other religions. The Bible is God’s own Word; it is what He wants every sinner to know and believe.
To know what the Bible says, to learn everything that Jesus did, and then to reject it, is the greatest sin. Jesus says the Holy Spirit “will convict the world concerning sin… because they do not believe in Me.” By rejecting Jesus, the sinner embraces his sin. Only through the blood of Jesus is sin forgiven. If Jesus does not stand between us and God as our Substitute, we will one day have to stand before God on our own. Then all our sins will be counted against us, and eternal torment will be our just reward. But if our trust is in Jesus, our sins will not be counted against us. Then we are credited with the payment Jesus made for sin.
The Holy Spirit works faith through the Gospel only after condemning through the Law. No sinner will look to a Savior if he doesn’t first understand why he needs saving.
The second task of the Holy Spirit is to “convict the world concerning… righteousness.” Jesus explained that the Holy Spirit must do this “because I go to the Father, and you will see Me no longer.” Just as sinners do not naturally understand the depths of their sinfulness, they also do not recognize the poor record of their own attempts at righteousness.
We are far less righteous than we imagine ourselves to be. We judge our righteousness by the wrong standard. We measure our righteousness against the behavior of others. This is what the Pharisee in the temple did. He thanked God that he was not like other men who were robbers, unjust, adulterers, or tax collectors (Lk. 18:11). But righteousness is not determined by sinners comparing themselves to each other. That’s like trying to determine who smells better after playing in the manure pile!
The standard for our righteousness is the perfect God. That is where we should be. We should “be perfect, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). But we are not even close to that. This is why God gave His people all those specific regulations for holiness in the Old Testament. It was to show the people the vast gap between their sinfulness and His holiness. It was to teach them to trust in Him alone and not in their own efforts at righteousness. In the final reckoning, our righteousness could never hold up before God. The prophet Isaiah states the matter plainly, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (64:6).
This explains half the reason for Christ’s coming. He did not come only to atone for our sin. He also came to fulfill all righteousness for us. He came to meet the standard God had set for mankind in His Ten Commandments. He loved the LORD God with all His heart, soul, and mind. He perfectly honored the authorities, helped His neighbor, kept Himself pure, respected the possessions of others, told no lies, and didn’t even desire what belonged to His neighbor.
When you were converted and incorporated into the body of Christ, His perfect righteousness was placed upon you, like a spotless garment covering all your sin. Every sin against God and neighbor that could be counted against you, Jesus replaces with His holiness. You might remember the many sins of your past, but God does not. He sees you through His Son as perfectly righteous and holy.
This does not mean we can stop trying to do the right things, since Jesus accomplished everything perfectly for us. We want to live according to His Word out of love for Him and out of thankfulness for what He has done. But even as the Holy Spirit moves us to do these good things, He guides our focus away from our own works and to the perfect works Jesus did on our behalf.
The third task of the Holy Spirit revealed by Jesus is that “He will convict the world concerning… judgment… because the ruler of this world is judged.” The “ruler of this world” is the devil. He reigns over all that is evil. In his well-known hymn, Martin Luther described Satan as “our ancient foe,” who “doth seek to work us woe; / Strong mail of craft and pow’r / He weareth in this hour; / On earth is not his equal” (ELH 251, v. 1). He is a powerful opponent of the truth. “He is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).
But this prince of darkness is no match for the holy Lord. As hard as he tried, he could not get Jesus off course from what He came to do. Jesus said that “[The devil] has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me” (Jn. 14:30-31). Satan never had the upper hand. His fate was sealed right after Adam and Eve’s fall when the LORD promised to send One to crush Satan’s head and destroy his power over sinners (Gen. 3:15). The Apostle John wrote that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1Jn. 3:8).
By His atonement for sin through His death on the cross and by His resurrection from the dead, Jesus did just that. Because your sin has been blotted out, the devil cannot rightfully accuse you anymore. He cannot argue that you belong in the kingdom of darkness, because Jesus has won your salvation. Jesus has brought you over into the kingdom of light.
But all who reject this salvation remain under judgment along with the devil. Unless they repent, they will suffer as he suffers, and they will forever be separated from God. Our merciful Lord does not want this to happen. He “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Tim. 2:4).
The Holy Spirit guides sinners “into all the truth.” He takes everything Jesus did to produce your righteousness and earn your forgiveness and win your salvation, and He brings it to you through His powerful Word and Sacraments. He takes the blessings that are of the Father and of the Son, and He declares them to you. The Triune God keeps none of these good things from you. What Jesus Won, the Holy Spirit Distributes, so that you may believe and be saved.
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(picture is stained glass by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, c. 1660)
Good Friday – Pr. Faugstad homily
In Christ Jesus, who looks upon us with eyes full of mercy and grace, dear fellow redeemed:
How often did Mary kiss the face of the Christ-Child? How often did she gently touch His rosy cheeks as He drifted in and out of sleep? As she gazed at Him, did she think to herself that no woman ever had such a precious Child as she did? It was true—there was never a Child so precious. This Child was God’s gift to the world. It was God the Father’s only Son, begotten of Him from eternity, now clothed in human flesh.
But not all looked upon the face of this Man with the love that Mary did. Many hated Him. They despised the words that came from His mouth. They turned away from His eyes so piercing, so true. The very sight of Him made them scowl. They wished to look upon Him no more. They wanted Him to die.
Their plotting caught the ear of Judas. Yes, he would be glad to betray Jesus to them at an opportune time—for a price. On Thursday evening, he saw his chance when Jesus went with the other disciples to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas came to the garden with the leaders of the Jews and a band of soldiers. He stepped up to Jesus and kissed His face with a kiss of betrayal.
Then Jesus was arrested and bound and brought before the high priest. There, He began to suffer both verbal and physical abuse. After being declared guilty and deserving of death, the officers and others present proceeded to “spit in his face and [strike] him. And some slapped him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?’” (Mt. 26:67-68). Then He was sent before Pontius Pilate, who ordered Him to be flogged. The Roman soldiers likewise struck Him in the face and drove a crown of thorns into His head.
Now that face, so precious to Mary and beloved by His followers, was hardly recognizable. Now it was swollen, bruised, and bleeding. The writer of our chief hymn tried to paint this picture in words: “O sacred Head, now wounded,” “scornfully surrounded With thorns,” “despised and gory,” “pale with anguish,” “from Thy cheeks has vanished Their color,” “From Thy red lips is banished The splendor” (ELH 334/335, vv. 1-3). Jesus was wretched to look upon.
Then He was led to Golgotha to be crucified. Swollen though they were, His eyes still looked compassionately at the thief who suffered nearby and at His mother Mary and John. But His eyes also beheld with pain the jeering crowd below. What He saw was recorded long before this day in the 22nd Psalm. “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’… Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion” (vv. 7-8, 12-13).
He should not have had to see and suffer these things. He had done no wrong. But the world had. All had sinned. All had turned their faces away from God and His Word. Even when God became Man, “the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (Jn. 1:10-11). It was as Isaiah had prophesied long before, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not” (53:2-3).
Men did not “hide their faces” from Him because He was so ugly or disfigured. “Men hide their faces” because they are ashamed of their sins. Our sin is the reason Jesus was abused. Our sin is the reason He was nailed to a cross. None of this would have happened if we had listened all along to God instead of the devil.
But God the Son was willing to endure this pain. He “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:51) and suffer “sore abuse and scorn,” because He wanted to save you. He went to the cross to blot out your sins. He went there to atone for the sinful things you have looked at, the ungodly things you have listened to, and the unkind words you have spoken. He offered His sacred head—so full of compassion and grace—for yours, so full of selfishness and sin.
He is not angry that your sins caused Him such anguish. He does not look upon you disdainfully. He looks upon you with favor. He wants to bless you by the sight of His Sacraments before your eyes and the sound of His Gospel in your ears. He wants to bring you His forgiveness and life, so that your eyes are not filled with tears or your mouth with weeping, but that you find eternal joy and gladness in Him.
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(portion of painting by Matthias Grunewald, c. 1510)
The Baptism of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 3:13-17
In Christ Jesus, who fulfilled all righteousness for you, dear fellow redeemed:
In the home where you grew up, how often did you hear the words, “I love you”? Did you and your siblings ever say it to each other? Did your parents say it to you? Did your parents say it to each other? These words can be said so much that they are hardly noticed. Or they can be said so little that love is questioned. This is like when Lena asked Ole after thirty years of marriage if he loved her any more. Surprised at the question, Ole said, “Of course I do! I told you so on our wedding day!” As you know, it is not safe in a relationship to assume that the other person knows what you are thinking. Thoughts must be shared and communicated, even if it isn’t always comfortable to do so.
But it seems that we are at a disadvantage when it comes to communication with God. He knows all about us. He knows when we sit down and rise up. He discerns our thoughts from afar. Even before a word is on our tongue, He knows what we will say (Ps. 139:2,4). He knows what we are thinking, but how can we know what He is thinking? He says He had a plan laid out for our life even before we took our first step (Eph. 2:10). But what is that plan? Is there any way to find out?
There are some who try to discover the hidden will of God. They are always on the lookout for special messages and special dreams from God to guide them in making life decisions. Some say they can hear the voice of Jesus in their heads, or that they can feel the Spirit leading them in one direction or another. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a relationship with God like that? But more often than not, what people perceive as the voice of God is actually the voice of their old Adam or even the devil.
God does not think the way we do. This is exactly what He says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9). There are hidden mysteries of God that cannot be understood in this life. There are answers that must wait until heaven. So is there no way to know what God thinks about us?
We wish the Father spoke to us like He did to His Son. After Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” God the Father could not have been clearer about His thoughts toward His Son. Jesus could go ahead with His saving work knowing that He had His Father’s approval. And why wouldn’t the Father approve of Him? Jesus was perfect.
But perfect, you and I are not. We are far from perfect. God gave us good to perform, and we did evil. He gave us work to do, and we shunned it. He gave us laws to follow, and we broke them. John the Baptizer did not mince words about people like us. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” he cried out. “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt. 3:8,10). Have you produced good fruit? Have you produced enough of it?
You and I are plagued with the daily evidence of our inadequacy. Yes, we put on a cheerful attitude at work, but our hearts are full of judgment toward our co-workers. Yes, we feed and clothe our children, but we don’t always view them as blessings. Yes, we voice our commitment to our spouse, but we let ourselves indulge in fantasies about others. Yes, we say we are thankful for what we have, but we secretly wish we had what others do. As much as we try to watch what we do and what we say, we struggle to control our thoughts. And the harder we try to control them, the more we are aware of our failures.
We shouldn’t imagine for a moment that our sins are somehow hidden from God. He knows about every last one. This is why we wouldn’t mind some reassurances from Him. We would like to know that He still loves us and is not angry with us. We want to be sure that we are not outside His grace, and that He will take us to heaven when we die. Is there some message He could send to make this clear? Yes! In fact, He has many comforting messages to send our way.
One of them is recorded by the evangelist Matthew, a message detailing the baptism of Jesus. What is confusing about this account is why Jesus thought He needed to be baptized. You and I know that one of the blessings of baptism is the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus had no sins to be forgiven. So why did He want to be baptized? John wondered the same thing. Jesus told him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.” It was not to gain righteousness for Himself; He was already perfect.
Jesus stepped down into the waters of the Jordan River for you, to take up your sins. When your hands are dirty, you go to the sink and let the clean water wash all the dirt away. The opposite happened to Jesus. Though He was perfectly clean, He let the sins of the world be poured out on Him at His baptism. This includes your sins, even the sins of your mind. Each sin was poured upon Jesus, and they stuck there. Now they were His to carry, and He would not be relieved of them until three years afterward when He breathed His last on the cross.
But Jesus did more for you at His baptism than taking up your sins. He also left His righteousness in the waters of baptism. He left His righteousness, so that when sinners are baptized, His righteousness sticks to them and stays with them as long as they remain in Him. The Apostle Paul writes, “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor. 5:21), and “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).
So at your baptism, you “put on Christ.” You were covered in Him. What was His, became yours. His holiness, His atoning blood, His victory over death—all of these were given to you. By baptism, you were buried and raised with Him (Rom. 6:4). You were born again to new spiritual life (Ti. 3:5). You are not as you were before; you are a new creation (2Cor. 5:17).
God looks at you differently now. He does not see you covered in your sins, cowering in the kingdom of darkness. When He looks at you, God the Father sees His Son. He sees His obedience and His perfect righteousness. In you, He sees a beloved son, with whom He is well pleased.
Baptized into Christ, one with Christ by faith, you truly are a son of God. And why is it important that you are called a “son”? Why not a “daughter” of God, or simply a “child”? Those terms are fine, but “son” expresses something more. It was the firstborn son in a family who stood to inherit what belonged to his father. It is as the father told his oldest son, who pouted about the warm reception given to his prodigal brother—the father said, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Lk. 15:31).
All that God the Father has is yours through faith in His only-begotten Son. Jesus your Brother is not jealous about the kindness shown to you by His Father. He gave Himself in your place, so you would have this glory and joy. He was willing to do this because He loved His Father, and He loved you. He gladly took your place in the depths of sin, so you could have His place in the heights of heaven.
Jesus is the proof of God’s love for you. You will never be certain of His love if you wait for Him to send you special, personal assurances of it. If you wait for an “I love you!” to boom down from the clouds, you will be waiting a long, long time. The place to hear God speak to you is not in your head or in your heart. It is in His Word. This is where God’s love in Christ for all sinners is made crystal clear.
This love was personally bestowed on you in your baptism. In baptism, you did not choose God; He chose you. He made an undying commitment to you, which He will never forget and never break. Through those waters, you were incorporated into the body of Christ, as so many other blessed sinners have been throughout history. You were brought into the family of God, and placed alongside Christ as an heir of His eternal blessings.
This is where you stand with God, and where you will continue to stand by faith in His Son. Your humble repentance for your sins will not be met with a cold shoulder or with burning anger. Those sins were put on Jesus, and His righteousness was put on you. You are baptized into Christ. Your sins are forgiven. “[F]or in Christ Jesus You Are All Sons of God, through faith…. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:26,29).
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(picture is portion of 1895 painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)
The Fourth Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 22) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 18:23-35
In Christ Jesus, who made himself poor, so that you might become rich (2Cor. 8:9), dear fellow redeemed:
We say it just about every weekend. It is a concise summary of what the Bible teaches about God. It is called the “Apostles’ Creed,” because it is perfectly consistent with the inspired words of the apostles in the New Testament. But as basic and foundational as this confession is, it is completely rejected by the unbelieving world. What we confess as true and accurate, the world says is false and made up. “God the Father is the ‘Maker of heaven and earth’? No way. Jesus was ‘born of the Virgin Mary’? Impossible. He ‘rose again from the dead’? No chance. Everyone who believes in Jesus will rise again and life forever? Give me a break.”
Maybe the only statement an unbeliever could accept is that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried,” though there are many who deny that a famous Jesus in the first century even existed. The world’s denial of the Apostles’ Creed also includes the rejection of this part of the third article: “I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins.”
What is so objectionable about the forgiveness of sins? Shouldn’t everyone believe that sin can be forgiven? You would think so. But instead of welcoming forgiveness, our society just does away with sin. It is not as though sin has actually diminished or gone away. It’s that sinners choose not to see sin as sin anymore. If someone is accused of wrongdoing, he or she is quick to pass the blame. They might say that their bad behavior is justified by the bad behavior of others. Or they point out how others are far worse than they are. Or they might blame their upbringing as the problem or current circumstances beyond their control.
The other approach is to argue that what used to be considered sinful is not sinful anymore. We see this in the way the authorities are openly disrespected and abused, and in the cavalier way people treat sexual activity and marriage. “I won’t let anybody else tell me how to live,” they say. “I have the right to do whatever I want with my own body.” In their minds, the only sin being committed is by the people who criticize the choices they make, and who presume to tell them they are doing what is wrong.
But sin is not determined by personal opinion, or by what one feels is good or bad behavior. The line between good and bad, right and wrong, is determined by God. And He does not leave us guessing where that line is. He gives us a clear standard of holiness in ten simple statements. These commands of God spell out our responsibility toward Him and toward our neighbor. They are very clear and can hardly be misunderstood. God says that we should fear, love, and trust in Him alone. He says we should honor His name and hear His Word. He says that we should respect the authorities, defend life, flee from sexual immorality (1Cor. 6:18), and help our neighbor keep His belongings and a good reputation.
This is what God says we should do. “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (Jam. 4:17). That is what sin is, doing the opposite of what God says. God is a God of order, which is evident not only by His law, but also in His creation. Sin goes against God’s order. “Sin is lawlessness” (1Jn. 3:4). That is the definition of sin.
So how big a problem is sin? It is a problem that we often see more clearly in others than in ourselves. “He should not have said what he did,” we think, or “She should not be living like that.” But we give ourselves a pass. We point out the bad in others while only looking at the good in ourselves. But supposing there were no one else around for comparison. If it were just you standing before the holy God, how would your life look?
It would look a lot like a servant standing before his master, to whom he owed ten thousand talents. Do you know the value of ten thousand talents? It is estimated that just one talent equals twenty years’ worth of wages. So if one year’s worth of wages were $30,000, then ten thousand talents would be six billion dollars! The king ordered that the servant be sold along with “his wife and children and all that he had,” and the proceeds to go toward what he owed. But even all of that would hardly make a dent in the tremendous debt.
This is how it is for us. Even if we sold everything we had, even if we gathered together all of our resources, our good deeds, our good behavior, and applied them toward our debt of sin, we would hardly make a dent. Our sinfulness is so great, our trespasses so immeasurable. Whether acknowledged or not, the sins of every single person are so extensive, that the biggest book in the world could not contain them all.
Perhaps this sounds like an exaggeration to you. But if your sin and the sins of the world were not so immense, why did God become Man? Why did He give Himself into the hands of His enemies? Why did He let Himself be tortured and killed? Did He make a mistake? Was your heart more pure and the world more holy than He thought? The cheerful optimist wearing rose-colored glasses might say that there is more good than evil in the world. But “the LORD sees not as man sees” (1Sam. 16:7). He sees the human heart for what it is and correctly perceives the fatal flaws of the human condition.
So before you hear about forgiveness, you must first learn to see your sinful nature and sinful heart as God does. You must acknowledge that sin exists, and that you are responsible for committing a great deal of it. Once the law has done its work and shown where you have fallen short and sinned against God, then the Lord has you right where He wants you. He does not punish you or torment you. He has pity on you, just like the master had pity on his servant. He releases you from the debt you owe Him; He forgives your sins. How is this possible? Why does God let you off so easily?
It is not as though God just overlooks your debt of sin. This would be the same as God admitting that His commands are not actually binding. God cannot overlook sin. He is a just God. His law is right and true, and therefore His judgment is also. Some think they are capable of satisfying God’s righteous requirement on their own. They sound just as foolish as the servant begging for his master’s patience until he pays everything back. The debt is simply too great. Repayment is beyond reach.
For a debt as immense as ours, only the one to whom it was owed could satisfy it. This is why God sent His Son to be born of Mary. He gave Jesus the task of repaying the debt. As the time of reckoning approached, Jesus begged His Father that there might be some other way. The LORD had once provided a ram, so that Abraham would not have to sacrifice his only son (Gen. 22:13). Could it be so now too? But Jesus was the ram caught in the thicket of God’s law. For the law to be fulfilled, a perfect sacrifice was required. Jesus had to be slaughtered.
What precious blood it was that flowed from the wounds of Jesus! It was the blood not only of a Man; it was the blood of God. That is how the LORD can be just and still forgive you. That is how the LORD can declare you righteous even though you are a sinner. The Apostle John states, “the blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn. 1:7-9).
God’s love for you is even greater than the great debt of your sin. The LORD declares to you that your iniquity is pardoned, and that His grace pays back twice as much as you sinfully spent (Is. 40:2). He says that your ten thousand talent debt is satisfied. Do you find this hard to believe? You should. It is hard to believe. It is not reasonable at all. But it is not our reason that counts. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (1:18). The LORD forgives every single one of your sins.
And then there is also the matter of your neighbor. Others have sinned against you in the past, just like you have sinned against others. If your sins against God are ten thousand talents, God sees the sins against you as a hundred denarii. One denarius was about a day’s wage, so a hundred denarii would be about a third of an annual salary. So while you were indebted to God for six billion dollars so to speak, your neighbor might be indebted to you for ten thousand dollars. The debt owed by your neighbor is real, but we often make those debts into more than they are. We get easily offended when things don’t go our way. We brood over the unkind words and actions of others, so that the original offense is magnified in our minds. We might even declare that the offense is unforgivable.
But that is not how the LORD treats you. He has mercy on you and forgives your debt even though you do not deserve it. This is why Jesus tells you to “forgive your brother from your heart,” and why He taught you to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” You forgive by grace just as God does. This is a hard task, and we often fail at it. But God calls us again and again to hear His Word of forgiveness and to sit at His table of forgiveness. For it is in these places that He fills us with love for our neighbor and strengthens us to believe that our sins truly are forgiven.
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The Sixth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 5:20-26
In Christ Jesus, our Righteousness, who has taken from us what is ours and given us what is His, dear fellow redeemed:
Those of you who have played team sports know that confidence is not equivalent to ability. You may have a teammate who is supremely confident in his or her ability to be a game changer. They are always looking for the ball, for the tough assignment, for the challenge of crunch time. The problem is that they are unaware of what they lack. They routinely trip and fall down, miss the big shot, or commit an ill-advised penalty. To make matters worse, then they act surprised, as though the outcome was beyond their control. When the next game or match rolls around, they show they have learned nothing about the game or themselves.
As a child of God through faith in Jesus, you are a member of the holy Christian Church. But what kind of member are you? Are you the kind that is well-attuned to the plans of your own life, but care little about the lives of others? In sports terms, you might be called a “ball hog.” Do you attend church from time to time but neglect to read or study God’s Word during the week? Then you might be called a “benchwarmer.” Are you the kind of Christian that talks a good game but fails to back it up with any meaningful actions? Then you would be like the teammate I described who is high on confidence but poor on the follow through. Or do you seek to make the lives of your neighbors better through acts of kindness and prayer? That would make you a “team player” and a great asset to the church.
The truth is, these descriptions have applied to each of us in the past, and they no doubt will again in the future. Sometimes we are selfish, sometimes we are weak in the faith, sometimes we are overconfident of our spiritual strength, and sometimes we are a great blessing to our neighbors. The danger is when we think we have Christian living all figured out, when we no longer recognize how the devil is tempting us, and how we “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
This is the predicament the scribes and Pharisees were in. They had two major problems: 1) They were not righteous before God, but 2) they thought they were. Though they lacked the spiritual ability that God requires, they were confident they had it. But how could they possibly have imagined that they were right with God through their own works?
Well, imagine that everyone in your neighborhood and surrounding community claimed to be Christian. But then they publicly and regularly break God’s Commandments. They loudly take His name in vain. They often choose family outings and entertainment over attending church. They sneak over and take their neighbors’ things. They tell lies and gossip about others. But you stand out. You watch what you say. You attend church every Sunday. You freely share the good things you have. You try to anticipate your neighbors’ needs and volunteer to help.
Wouldn’t it be tempting to judge the level of your righteousness in comparison with others? Wouldn’t it be obvious that you take God’s Word seriously, and are therefore a better Christian than they are? This is what the scribes and Pharisees thought. They were the Jewish people who were serious about God’s Word. They wanted to live according to His Ten Commandments, and follow all the Old Testament ceremonial and civil regulations besides. After all, God hadn’t made His law optional. He told His people to keep it, to conform their lives to it.
But as hard as the scribes and Pharisees tried, they could not meet the standard God had set. Jesus told the crowd gathered to hear His preaching on the mountain, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus said that the scribes and Pharisees had not done enough. Not even those holy people! God requires a righteousness that exceeds this level.
What would you be thinking if you were a scribe or a Pharisee standing in the crowd that day? You would have probably been offended. Because you could look at the people around you and say to yourself, “I’m not good enough!?! But I have always kept the Sabbath, unlike so-and-so over there! And I respect and honor my parents, unlike them! And I have never cheated on my spouse, like she has and he has!” Your whole concept of righteousness would be built upon the notion that if you could only show how you were better than everyone around you, then you were good enough for God.
But Jesus was not finished. He explained what His statement about righteousness meant. He cited the proper teaching that a murderer is liable to judgment. But refraining from murder does not mean the Fifth Commandment has been kept. He explained that “everyone who is angry with his brother,” or “insults his brother,” or wrongly says “You fool!” will be “liable to judgment”—even “to the hell of fire.” Jesus said that the same goes for the Sixth Commandment. Not just the unfaithful spouse, but “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent” (Mt. 5:28), has committed adultery. In other words, no natural born human being is capable of the righteousness God requires. As King David was inspired to write 1000 years earlier, “there is none who does good, not even one” (Ps. 14:3, 53:5).
So what now? God demands righteous living and speaking and even thinking according to His law, but no one can meet the standard. This seems like producing a doggy treat for your pet but holding it way above his ability to reach it. The goal is within view, but the task is impossible.
Rather than some cruel exercise, God’s standard of righteousness is actually a blessing. Can you imagine life without the moral law of God written on every human heart? No, you can’t. The world would be a terrifying place, and you wouldn’t live very long. Nothing would be in place to restrain the sinful impulses of mankind. God’s law can be a heavy burden on the guilty conscience, but it is a far better burden than unchecked wickedness.
Besides this, God’s law provides the picture of what true righteousness looks like. It consists of perfect love and communion with God and perfect love and communion with one another. The law’s standard is not “try your best,” be “better than,” or “pretty good.” This would be the same as having no standard at all, because everyone would decide for himself and herself what “try your best,” “better than,” and “pretty good” mean.
No matter how confident we are that we can keep the law, it is far beyond our ability. Today’s chief hymn explains why: “By Adam’s fall is all forlorn / Man’s nature and his thinking, / The poison’s there when we are born, / In sin yet deeper sinking” (ELH #430, v. 1). As much as we want to be righteous and as hard as we may try, we still fail. We fail because we are sinners, who inherited the propensity to sin from our parents, who got it from their parents, and so on. Adam and Eve had perfect righteousness, but they threw it away because the devil convinced them that they could have something more. It was the greatest lie of “the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).
But God speaks truth, and He promised a Savior from this unrighteousness. The Son of God became man, so He could do what nobody on earth could manage to do since the fall into sin. He kept the law of God perfectly. He met that high standard. He achieved perfect love. His life was not simply “good enough.” It was flawless, holy. He told the crowd, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt. 5:17). That’s quite a statement! But He could say it with confidence knowing He actually had the ability to back it up.
But what good does Jesus’ perfect life do? Is it just another example along with the law to show you how much you have failed? No. Jesus lived His life for you, for your benefit, on your behalf. He lived a perfect life according to the law, so that it could be credited to you by faith. The Apostle Paul writes, “For as by the one man’s disobedience [that is, Adam] the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience [that is, Jesus] the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). Again, he says that the Christian life is not about “having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9).
Since you freely receive this righteousness from God by faith, there is no reason to compare your life with others or try to make yourself out to be more than you are. You are nothing more than a humble recipient of God’s grace. Though you have not deserved it, God has given you every spiritual blessing, including the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life.
This is why you now seek to help and befriend your neighbor, and to reconcile with a brother or sister in Christ when you find yourselves at odds. You don’t do these things out of a desperate attempt to please God. He is already pleased with you in Christ. You show kindness and love to your neighbor because God loves you. You forgive one another because God has forgiven you (Eph. 4:32).
So what do you say? Are You Good Enough for God? Not “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.” And by your own efforts, it does not. But you are righteous and holy and pure in God’s sight through faith in His Son. Put your confidence in Him who was able to singlehandedly win the victory for the whole team—for the world of sinners—through His death and resurrection.
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