The Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
In Christ Jesus, who gives us hope in our uncertainties and comfort in our struggles and sorrows, dear fellow redeemed:
We could list a lot of things that make us feel more pessimistic than optimistic about the future. Our country is divided politically, and the sides seem to be moving further apart rather than closer together. We have ongoing concerns about a virus that infects more people each day. We wonder how stable the economy will be going forward. But in the middle of these divisions and uncertainties, the inspired words of today’s text give us hope.
The apostle Paul sent these words to the Christians in Thessalonica. He had preached and taught among them for only a short time before he was forced to leave the town. Some jealous opponents had stirred up a mob against him and even dragged one of the new Christian converts before the authorities (Act. 17:1-10). From this time forward, it would have been uncomfortable and perhaps even dangerous to be a Christian in Thessalonica.
But the Thessalonians remained faithful. They endured suffering and waited eagerly for Christ’s return in glory. They were told to expect His second coming very soon. But as time passed, these new Christians faced a new problem. Some of their fellow believers were dying. What were they to make of that? Would the dead miss out on the glorious return of Jesus and the promise of eternal life in heaven?
Paul’s letter brought them great comfort. He referred to the dead in the same way Jesus had spoken about a deceased little girl, that she was “not dead but sleeping” (Mar. 5:39). The crowd laughed at Jesus then, but they weren’t laughing when He took her by the hand and brought her back to life. For Jesus, waking the dead is just as easy as waking someone up from a nap. Death is only a sleep to Him, a temporary, peaceful slumber.
We should not wonder if Jesus can do this. We have the examples of His raising the little girl, the young man from Nain, and His friend Lazarus. But the most compelling evidence of Jesus’ power over death is His own resurrection from the dead. Not only could He raise others, He could even raise Himself! Now that’s power!
A whole bunch of people regard Jesus as a good teacher but nothing more. They lump Him in with teachers like Confucius, Buddha, or Muhammed. But when those men died, they stayed dead. Their flesh decayed, and perhaps by now their bones have even turned to dust. Jesus died, but His flesh did not see corruption. Death held Him for parts of three days—and only because He let it.
He entered death when He wanted to, and He left it again when He wanted to. There was nothing death could do to stop Him. Death was utterly overcome, defeated. Jesus triumphed over death and will never be subject to it again. That means death won’t be able to overcome us who trust in Him. “But how can you be so sure?” the skeptic asks. “Show me an example in modern history of someone being dead for a matter of days and coming back to life again.”
The world always wants proof on its terms. Past evidence does not count. They need to see it with their own eyes today. We sinners repeat the same mistakes as the sinners of the past. We hardly ever learn. Each generation thinks it is better and smarter and more righteous than the generations before it. It is our common human pride and conceit.
This self-centeredness is why many refuse to believe that Jesus rose from the dead two thousand years ago or that He will raise the dead in the future. They are like doubting Thomas. They won’t trust the multiple eyewitness accounts of others. They need to see it with their own eyes, or they won’t believe it (Joh. 20:24-25). “If Jesus has this power,” they say, “let Him come down here and show us. If He brings someone back from the dead, then we will believe in Him.”
But even that wouldn’t be enough. Sinful people always find something to question, some reason for doubt. If Jesus came back and raised a dead person to life, many would say it was a trick. They would come up with some logical explanation for it. Seeing would not lead to them believing.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Joh. 20:29). He wants us to take Him at His Word. He has the right to expect that, doesn’t He? After all, He is the one who predicted His own resurrection and then followed through on it. If He made good on that promise, why wouldn’t He make good on His promise to raise the dead on the last day?
Paul made it clear that he wasn’t putting down his own opinions or wishes in his letter. He said, “this we declare to you by a word from the Lord.” The Lord promises that those who are alive when He comes on the last day will not have any advantage over those who are asleep in their graves. He will come with a great shout, and His powerful Word will awaken the dead. Then all believers will rise with glorified bodies that no longer show any effect of sin.
After the dead have risen, “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The word translated “caught up” has the sense of a sudden and intense action. We will be snatched up to the clouds by the Lord. We won’t have to wait for our redemption. It will happen immediately when Jesus comes.
It won’t come a moment too soon. We long for Jesus’ return. This world is not where we want to be. As Christians first sang in the 12th century, so we still sing, “The world is very evil, / The times are waxing late” (ELH #534, v. 1). In the Holy Gospel for today (Mat. 24:15-28), Jesus describes the tribulation of the end times. “[I]f those days had not been cut short,” He said, “no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.”
So what is Jesus waiting for? The apostle Peter reminds us “that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2Pe. 3:8-9). Jesus is not sleeping on the job or dragging His feet. He is showing patience with sinners. He wants them all to repent and be saved and join Him in heaven.
But we are not patient like our Lord is. This is why many are tempted to follow after “false christs and false prophets” (Mat. 24:24). We are tempted to follow after the smooth-talking liars who promise a prosperous life here on earth, a life without suffering, a life without trouble. Even if they could deliver on those promises, these false teachers can’t give life to the dead. Anyone who promises hope and salvation apart from the crucified and risen Christ is of the devil.
Apart from Jesus, there is no reason to be hopeful about anything. But with Jesus, we are filled with hope. So while our country is divided, and many of our politicians seem more interested in serving themselves than others, Jesus reigns as King over all things at the right hand of the Father. While people are getting sick this year at higher rates than usual, Jesus has the power to heal the sick or bring the souls of believers to heaven to be with Him. While there may be uncertainty in our financial plans and holdings, Jesus has secured eternal riches for us that will never pass away.
You can wring your hands and worry and lose sleep trying to control things you can’t control—and we all do plenty of that. But the Lord calls you to trust in Him, to trust that He will keep His promises toward you. Now leaving your life and your future in God’s hands like this is difficult. Your sinful flesh does not want to give up any of its independence or its perceived power. If you are going to place your trust in Him, you want proof that He isn’t going to let you down.
“You want proof?” He says. “Then look at Me hanging on the cross for you, shedding My blood to cleanse you from your sins. And come look into My empty tomb. I left it because death could not conquer Me. I rose from the dead to win victory over your death. I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus will not leave you to fight for yourself in this evil world. He came to save you not because He had to but because He wanted to. And He still fights for you, coming to give you strength through His Word and Sacraments and dwelling within you by faith.
As long as you have Jesus, your situation will never be hopeless. He promises to carry you through all your pain and sorrow in this short life and to take your soul to be with Him when you breathe your last. Then He promises to come again to wake your body from its peaceful sleep, so that you can enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven in both body and soul.
You can be certain of your resurrection because His resurrection is certain. The Holy Spirit states it definitively through the mouth of Paul: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.” Put Your Hope in the Resurrected One. Then you will have a living hope, a hope that no one can take from you, a hope that will never die.
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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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Trinity/All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 9:18-26
In Christ Jesus, through whom we are called to everlasting sainthood by faith in His name, dear fellow redeemed:
We have recently finished watching the Ken Burns documentary on The Civil War. When the war finally came to an end, the documentary detailed the reaction of the soldiers at that moment. After four years of fighting, we might expect to hear about union men shouting for joy and jumping up and down. But that was not their reaction. Their mood was quiet and subdued. They couldn’t help but think what it took to get to this point. They remembered all the lives lost, both the Americans on their side and the Americans on the other. How could they cheer? How could they celebrate?
Nearly as many soldiers died in the Civil War as have died in all other American wars combined. There was probably no family that was not touched by a soldier’s death. But death is not just confined to war. Death has touched each of us through the loss of family members and friends. Death comes because of sin. Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” You and I are sinners. That means one day, death will come to us too.
Death is no laughing matter. This is why the crowd standing around the bed of a dead girl was so offended when Jesus said, “the girl is not dead but sleeping.” Was this some sort of sick joke? Who did Jesus think He was to come in and announce this? What a cruel statement to make in front of the grief-stricken parents of the girl! Matthew tells us that the crowd “laughed at Him.” It was a spiteful laugh, full of ridicule. They despised Jesus.
I’m sure the same thing would happen today if Jesus showed up at a “celebration of life” party and announced that the deceased was “not dead, but sleeping.” He would be laughed out of the room, or thrown out. I hope the same would not happen at a Christian funeral. The main theme at a Christian funeral is not how wonderful the deceased person was. It is not about how we will keep his or her memory alive. It is not about being comforted that the one we loved is watching over us and is still in our hearts. That may be how unbelievers deal with death, but it should not be that way for us who believe.
A Christian funeral is about Christ. It is a beautiful opportunity to be reminded of the hope and comfort we have in Him. If Jesus is not the focus, if He is not in the room, there can be no comfort. Without Jesus, there is only sadness. Then flute players sound the woeful songs of death, and people weep and wail loudly like they did at the house of the little girl (Mar. 5:38).
When Jesus came on the scene, He chided the people gathered there. He told them to stop their commotion and weeping. He chided them like a mother might when her noisy children are playing near a napping baby. “Go away,” said Jesus, “for the girl is… sleeping.” When the crowd had been put outside, then the house was quiet. Jesus was there, along with Peter, James, and John, and the girl’s parents.
The girl lay there unmoving, her heart stopped, no breath crossing her lips. By all scientific standards, she was dead. But Jesus walked over, He took her by the hand, and He said, “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (Mar. 5:41). Who was laughing now? Not death. Death had to give up its victim. Jesus gave the command, and death had to comply. Immediately the girl woke up as though from sleep, and she got up and started walking around.
The old saying states that “nothing is as certain as death and taxes.” But this account gives us reason to question that. In this case, the status of death was not certain. Death was able to be overcome. It was overcome by Jesus. So why are people still laughing at Jesus? They have to laugh—or else believe in Him. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (Joh. 11:25). He said, “Because I live, you also will live” (Joh. 14:9). He said that to Him, death is nothing but a temporary slumber.
He said these things because He was about to conquer death, once and for all. He was going to put Himself in the jaws of death, and so occupy it, so that death could turn its attention to nobody else. The battle was on! Here was Jesus with His confident promises of victory and life facing death with its record of countless victories over humanity. In one of his hymns, Martin Luther said about this battle, “It was a strange and dreadful strife / When life and death contended” (ELH 343, v. 4). Who would win?
It appeared that death had conquered when Jesus was lowered from the cross and placed in a dark tomb. That’s what His friends thought, including Peter, James, and John. But death did not overcome Jesus. Jesus overcame death. He rose again! “Death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9). That means it no longer has dominion over us. Paul writes that all who are baptized into Christ partake in His resurrection victory. Because He conquered, they conquer. Because He lives, they live.
But unbelievers reject this hope. They laugh at our confidence in Jesus’ promises. “If your Lord is so powerful,” they say, “why do you Christians end up the same as us? You shouldn’t need cemeteries if death has no power over you!” It is true that believers are buried “six feet under” just like unbelievers are. There is no obvious difference between them once they die. The same cold earth is dumped over the remains of both.
But believers view the burial of one of their own very differently than unbelievers do. Believers lay their brothers and sisters in Christ to rest in the sure hope of the resurrection. They tuck their loved one in a soft casket like a parent tucks his child in bed. They comfort one another with the certainty that their loved one is “not dead, but sleeping.” Jesus is going to come again, just like He came to the side of the little girl, and He is going to raise the dead.
This will happen because Jesus has promised it. The One who defeated death should be taken seriously. When He does this on the last day, then all the world will know who is victorious. Paul writes that “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’” (1Co. 15:54-55). On that day, we will laugh at death, because it can no longer touch us.
But you don’t have to wait until the last day to laugh at death. You can laugh at death right now. I know that death looks scary. I know it has a ferocious growl. But all its teeth are missing. Jesus knocked them out when He marched back up the throat of death and out of the mouth of the grave. It comes down to this: either Jesus is Lord, or death is Lord; either Jesus conquers, or death conquers; either Jesus reigns, or death reigns. Death cannot defeat those who are in Christ.
The times that we are overwhelmed by death are the times that we have looked away from Jesus. If we trusted Jesus’ promise of the resurrection and eternal life, we would not weep so bitterly for our loved ones. We would not wish for the comfort of their presence more than the comfort of our Lord’s presence. We would not look backward with so much grief instead of forward with so much hope.
Those who do not look to Jesus try to cope with death in other ways. Some reach for the bottle or attempt to fill the void of loss with things. Some become despondent or angry and shut people out of their life. Some try to connect with the dead through psychics or mediums. Some feel life is not worth living, and they seek to end it. These methods offer no help at all. Nothing we come up with can give comfort in the face of death.
Our only comfort is from the Lord. He is the answer for the pain death causes. He is our assurance that death does not have the upper hand. Though it seems to prevail over all flesh, Jesus will make it give up the dead again. Jesus will raise all the dead and will bring all the saints to be with Him in heaven.
The saints are all believers, whether dead or living. They are those whose sins are no longer held against them, and who are declared holy in God’s sight through faith. Even now God calls you a saint, because you believe and confess that Jesus “was delivered up for [your] trespasses and raised for [your] justification” (Rom. 4:25).
Jesus’ victory over sin and death is your victory. Yes, one day your body will give out and die, yet Jesus will not leave your body in the grave. He will raise you again as if from sleep, because to Him death is nothing more than sleep. Because Jesus has overcome death, death must do His bidding, which is to deliver us from this sinful world to the glories of heaven.
So Shall We Laugh at Jesus or at Death? The answer is found in Jesus’ empty tomb. We now laugh with Jesus at death. Death did not win. Death will not win. “[T]hanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Co. 15:57).
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 by Gabriel von Max, 1878)
The Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 27) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who came into our world of darkness, so we may join Him in His kingdom of light, dear fellow redeemed:
One of the books in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series details the adventures of Prince Caspian and his friends as they sailed in a ship called the “Dawn Treader.” One of the islands they discovered was a place “where dreams come true.” That may sound like a pleasant place to be, except that it wasn’t just good dreams that became reality; it was all dreams. The harder a person tried to think good thoughts, the more bad thoughts would come to mind—and come true. To emphasize the terror of this place, Lewis described it as an island totally enveloped in darkness. After rescuing a man who had been trapped on the island for years, the ship’s captain and crew rowed back toward the light as quickly as they could.
It is in the darkness that we typically feel the most fear. When it is dark, we do not fear dangers that are actually around us, as much as the dangers that could be around us. Our own minds are the greatest threat to our feeling of safety. Some weeks ago, I watched the Ken Burns television series on the Vietnam War. One of the marines who was interviewed said that he won’t sleep without a nightlight. He remembers too vividly what it was like to go out on patrol in the darkness and to hear the voices and movements of an enemy he could not see. That terrifying experience still wakes him up at night and probably always will.
A deep darkness where terrible things happen is how the Bible describes this fallen world. This world is “the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13), where Satan and his followers operate. The danger is all around us, but it cannot be seen. By nature, everyone is blind to the threat. They can’t see “the devil prowl[ing] around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1Pe. 5:8). They also don’t recognize—or else won’t admit—the darkness in their own hearts. They are quick to point out the bad behavior and wicked actions of others, while self-righteously thinking that they could never be capable of doing those things.
But the darkness of sin is not just around us, it is in us. Jesus says that from the heart comes all sorts of sinful thoughts and actions—sexual immorality, theft, lies, slander (Mt. 15:19). Our hearts on their own cannot chart a course leading to God and heaven. On their own, our hearts have us heading toward deeper darkness, where dreams might come true, but not like we were expecting.
It was into this world of spiritual darkness that God the Father sent His holy Son. But if mankind was blind to the good things of God, how would they ever recognize His coming? The Lord first sent John the Baptizer to prepare the way for the Savior. He boldly preached in the wilderness to expose “the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph. 5:11), and to “bear witness about the light” (Jn. 1:8). He told the people that “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world,” and then he pointed out Jesus as that light (vv. 9, 29). Jesus Himself said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12).
But many did not follow Him. “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (1:10-11). His own people did not receive Him, because they did not want to own up to their aimless wandering in the darkness. They wanted to think they were on the right path, the path of righteousness. Proverbs 4 says that “the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble” (vv. 18-19). What the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees stumbled over was Jesus. He told them that their righteousness was merely external, superficial. Their hearts were empty vessels devoid of the faith and love that God requires.
Only God knows from one person to the next whether their hearts contain the flame of faith. Take today’s parable about the women waiting for the bridegroom. All ten of them were virgins and all ten of them had oil-burning lamps. If you saw them when they first arrived for the wedding feast, you would have noticed no differences among them. But when the bridegroom did not come right away, “they all became drowsy and slept.” They had not anticipated the delay. They thought he was coming sooner. They might have begun to wonder if he would come at all.
Even so, five of the virgins had prepared for this possibility. They had extra oil with them. If the other five were aware of this, they might have made fun of them or criticized them for being such worriers. But they weren’t laughing when the cry sounded at midnight that the bridegroom had come. “Give us some of your oil,” they begged, “for our lamps are going out.” But the five wise virgins did not have enough oil to share. While the unprepared women went to buy more oil, the door to the wedding feast was closed, and they were denied entrance. Their opportunity had come and gone; they must remain in the darkness.
This parable is Jesus’ warning to all that He is coming again soon to admit those who are prepared to His wedding feast. He will know who is ready by the presence or absence of faith in the heart. On the outside, many may appear to have a living faith—their lamps may seem to have an active flame. But nobody can fool the Lord. No one can impress Him either. No amount of generous deeds, kind words, or impressive knowledge will count as a substitute for faith. It was not the most intelligent, the most beautiful, the most successful women who were admitted to the wedding feast. It was the ones who were prepared; it was the faithful.
Faith is not the kind of thing that once you have it, you keep it forever. For many, faith is like a match that burns for a time but then goes out. Faith must be kept alive by some sort of fuel. But that fuel does not come from inside us any more than faith itself does. The One who strikes the flame of faith inside our darkened hearts is God the Holy Spirit, who uses the kindling power of God’s Word. The dynamic Word of God is the oil that keeps faith burning bright even in the midst of great darkness. The five wise virgins had oil reserves along—they had the Word. The five foolish virgins took their faith for granted and found that their flame had gone out by the time the bridegroom arrived.
But notice that all ten women “became drowsy and slept” before his arrival. All ten of them failed to properly keep watch like they should have. As long as we live in this dark world, we must be on our guard against Satan and our sinful nature, and ready ourselves daily with the Word of God. We are always in danger of going through the motions as Christians, of hearing the Word regularly but not taking our sins and repentance seriously.
The Apostle Paul warns us about this, “So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:12-14). He sounds the same alarm in today’s Epistle lesson, “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1Thes. 5:6-8).
Paul says that we who are in the light should not act like those in the darkness, because we are not in the kingdom of darkness anymore. Satan and his cohorts no longer have dominion over us. Their dark plans, along with the yawning pit of death and hell, were all exposed and dispelled by the light of Jesus. He gave Himself over into darkness, so that you would be rescued from it and brought into the light.
The light of His grace and salvation is strong enough to pierce even into the darkest of hearts. This healing light has also entered your heart. Whatever darkness was there by nature and active sin, is removed and replaced by light, just as the flip of a light switch does away with the darkness that was previously there. Now there is nothing more in the spiritual darkness of the world that you have to fear. By the light of Jesus, nothing can ambush you or harm you.
Even now in this light, you see through the darkness to the banquet hall ahead, glowing with marvelous light. That is where the marriage feast is ready and waiting. As you journey forward, you have the Word of God, “a lamp shining in a dark place” (2Pe. 1:19), “a lamp to [your] feet and a light to [your] path” (Ps. 119:105). His Word is what keeps your lamp of faith burning as the darkness of this age passes and the bright dawn of eternity comes.
It will not be long before you and I hear the cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then we will experience something much better than even our best dreams. Jesus will graciously call everyone who trusts in Him to follow Him into His glorious kingdom of light. In the unfiltered presence of the mighty God, we will need no light of lamp or sun, for He will be our light, and we will reign with Him forever and ever (Rev. 22:5).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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