The First Sunday after Christmas – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 4:1-7
In Christ Jesus, who came at Christmas to set us free from our sin and the condemnation of the law, dear fellow redeemed:
Adoption should be as simple as connecting a parentless child with childless parents. This child needs a home, and this home wants a child. But there are complicating factors. One of them is cost; the process of adoption can be very expensive. Another is location; the children who need homes may not be close to the people who want to adopt. Another factor is the health of a child or whether he or she has special needs. Another is the child’s age; the older the child, the less likely he or she is to be adopted.
Imagine the child in the orphanage who sees kids come and go, while he stays put. The orphans and caretakers are the only family he knows. He plays with the kids his age. They develop unique methods of communication like siblings or close friends do. The older orphans tease him. The younger ones look up to him as a big brother. But this orphan family is temporary. Smiling people arrive to adopt his friends but not him. He hates to see his friends leave. Where are they all going? Will he ever see them again? Will there ever be a home for him?
Gentle caretakers find ways to comfort overlooked children or at least distract them from the nagging questions. These caretakers represent the only love from an adult that the orphan has ever known. But there are harsh caretakers too, ones who do not love the children in their care. These tell the orphans left behind that nobody wants them because they aren’t nice enough or attractive enough or smart enough. “You can just stop dreaming right now,” they say. “You’re never getting out of here.”
The Apostle Paul writes about a scenario like this in his letter to the Christian congregation in Galatia. He stopped in Galatia during his missionary journeys because of some sort of “bodily ailment” (Gal. 4:13). While there he preached the Gospel, and many heard the Word gladly and believed. But after Paul left, other teachers came. They did not proclaim the comfort of the Gospel but urged the people to abide by all the rules and regulations of Old Testament law if they wanted to be saved.
Paul summed up the issue clearly in his letter. He said: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain” (Gal. 4:8-11).
So the Galatian Christians had gone back to “the elementary principles.” They had gone back to the law. They had gone back to all the regulations of the Old Testament that governed how they were to live. Instead of focusing on what God had done for them, they were focusing on what they must do for God. That focus can only lead to pridefulness and then despair. Paul explained that this is like the child who stands to inherit everything but has nothing until the appointed time. Until he inherits, he “is no different than a slave.” We are slaves like that, he says, when we go back to “the elementary principles” of the law and ignore the Gospel.
There is no comfort in God’s law. The law does not encourage us. It does not lift us up. The holy law is like the harsh caretaker in the orphanage. It tells us we are not good enough to please God. It points out the wrongs we have done. It shows us why God would never let us into His home as we are by nature. We are failures. We are ugly. We are undesirable. The law gives us no reason to hope we will ever escape God’s wrath. “Is that what you want?” asks Paul. “Will you set aside the Gospel and run back to the law?”
The law serves its purpose. It condemns us. It exposes the selfishness, weakness, and arrogance of sinners. How could we ever think that we had lived the life God demands? This was like the young man who asked Jesus what more he had to do to have eternal life. He claimed that he had kept all the Commandments. So Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mat. 19:21). That was too much for the young man. He wasn’t willing to part with his “great possessions” (v. 22).
The reality is that we are further away from holiness than we think. Consider how you react when things don’t go your way, or when you are tested by health problems and pains. Do you meet these trials with patience and a humble trust in the Lord? Or what do you do when someone says something mean about you? Are you quick to respond with kindness and to forgive? Or do you like to compare yourself with others and use that as the benchmark for how well you have lived? Righteousness before God is not a matter of being better than others. God requires a spotless life. Can you honestly say when you go to bed at night that there is no blemish of sin on your record for that day?
Jesus could say that. He was always patient, obedient, forgiving, humble. The Apostle Peter, who spent three years with Him, wrote that “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1Pe. 2:22-23). If someone spent three years with you, would they ever see you sin? How about three days? How about three hours? Peter never saw Jesus sin, because Jesus never did.
“God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” Jesus officially took on the demands of the law when He was circumcised the eighth day after His birth (which falls on January 1st on our calendar). He did this not to prove anything about Himself, but to keep the law perfectly for the rest of us. Our confidence and strength are not in how well we have kept the law, but in how well Jesus kept the law.
So the law rightly condemns our sin. It shows us how flawed we are, how unworthy to be accepted by the holy God. It is that harsh caretaker. But it does not say the same thing about Jesus. The law found nothing lacking in Him. The law declared Him righteous, perfectly worthy of His Father’s love.
This holy status according to the law of God, Jesus now conveys to us sinners. By His holy life He redeemed us from the harsh verdict of the law. He did this so that “we might receive adoption as sons.” But how do we know we are sons of God? How do we know we have officially been adopted by Him? Paul explained this to the Galatians: “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26). Your adoption into the family of God did not come by your efforts. You did not make yourself desirable to God. Jesus shared His favor with you.
You gained Jesus as your Brother and God as your Father when the Holy Spirit worked this faith in your heart. For many of you, your adoption into the family of believers was processed and finalized when you were baptized. That is when you became an heir of God and a fellow heir with Christ (Rom. 8:17). “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).
On your adoption day, God looked at you in your sin, your ugliness, your wretchedness, and He said, “You’re the one I want. I choose you.” What a beautiful act of mercy and grace! The Lord loves the unlovable and the unloved. He gives a home to those who have no home, family to those who have no family, hope to those who have no hope.
The child who is adopted never has to go back to the life he had before. No more watching other children get adopted while he is left behind. No more wondering why he isn’t loved. No more being alone. This is what your adoption into God’s family means. Because He “sent forth His Son” to redeem you, you have value, you are loved, you have a place. God did not leave you in your sins under the condemnation of the law. He rescued you from the law. He adopted you as His own son.
“So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” In biblical times, the firstborn son inherited his father’s wealth and possessions. Because you are joined to Jesus by faith, His inheritance as God’s only-begotten Son is now your inheritance. His eternal life and glory are yours. In Him, you belong. In Him, you have a future, a bright, happy, never-ending future.
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 from Redeemer Lutheran Church)
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).
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 portion of 1895 painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)