The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 5:16-24
In Christ Jesus, who saved us and set us free to live for Him instead of for the destructive desires of our own flesh, dear fellow redeemed:
When we see people throw away great wealth or great opportunities or great abilities, it’s hard for us to understand it. So maybe an elite athlete is dismissed from the team because of drug addiction. A gifted actor loses prime roles because of an abrasive personality. A brilliant student wiles away his days playing video games. A rich kid gets caught stealing. Things like these don’t make sense to us. We think that if we had what they did, we wouldn’t waste it.
But it’s much easier to be an “armchair quarterback” than an actual one. It’s easy to say what we would do different when we haven’t faced the things they have. As the account of the Good Samaritan taught us last week, when we see others experiencing difficulties, we should extend charity to them. We have room for charity toward others because we need their charity too.
If you want to talk about people who haven’t maximized their opportunities or appreciated their blessings, aren’t we at the top of that list? Let’s consider what good things we have that so few in the world even know about. We know that the God who created all things loves us. He is not angry with us because of our sins. He does not plot our punishment for our misdeeds. He sent His only Son to be our holy Substitute, to keep the Law perfectly for us, and to die in payment for our sins.
We know that Jesus rose again in victory over death. We know that the Holy Spirit works powerfully through the Word and Sacraments to comfort and heal and strengthen us. We know we are righteous in God’s sight by faith in Jesus. We know He does not count our sins against us. We know that He works all things in our life—even the bad things—for good. We know that He guards and keeps us every moment of every day and will safely bring our souls to heaven when we die.
Most people in the world, including many who consider themselves religious, do not know God’s love. They do not know He forgives them in Christ. They live in constant fear of His judgment. But you are free from those doubts and worries. You are free from the condemnation of the Law. You are free from the pressure of trying to appease God by your own works. You are free from the idea that how you live your life does not matter since you could never be good enough for God anyway. Your life does matter; Jesus gave up His life to save yours.
So what should you do with your life? How should you use the freedom you have in Christ? Some who have heard the Gospel of free forgiveness think that this gives them freedom to keep on sinning. “As long as I believe my sins are forgiven,” they think, “then I can just go on doing what I want.” But in today’s text St. Paul has some cold water to throw on that idea. He writes that to use our freedom for sin will lead us back into spiritual slavery. Just because we once believed in Jesus does not mean we will always believe in Jesus. Saving faith can be lost.
Paul includes a long list of “the works of the flesh.” Many of the things he lists are considered acceptable in our modern society. Sex outside of marriage is okay, says the world, as long as it is consensual. Hoarding money and goods is fine as long as it is done legally. Anger and hatred are justified as long as the target is really terrible. Drunkenness and wild parties are okay as long as no one gets hurt. But no matter how we try to explain these sins away or make them acceptable to our conscience, they are offensive to God. Paul does not mince words, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
So what hope do we have? We are guilty of committing many of these sins. But notice that Paul does not say, “those who have done such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” If that were the case, no one would be going to heaven. All of us have sinned. What Paul writes is, “those who do such things.” He is referring to those who willingly choose to sin and continue in it. They know what they are doing is contrary to God’s Word, and they decide to go ahead with it anyway.
None of us is without sin, and we cannot keep ourselves from ever sinning. But we can stay on the lookout for temptations and pray for God’s help to avoid sin. When we do fall into sin, God calls us to humble ourselves, to give up trying to justify our sins, and repent. But then He does not leave us under the condemnation of the holy Law. He leads us through the Gospel to Jesus’ cross and empty tomb where we are assured that our sins are all forgiven.
Through the powerful Gospel, the Holy Spirit lifts the burden of our sins off us. We don’t have to carry anymore what Jesus carried to the cross and paid for with His own blood. Now we are free. We are not weighed down anymore by the chains of sin and death and the crushing weight of the Law.
Those who carry an overwhelming load, whether from work or other responsibilities or committing to too many activities, don’t feel free to help others in need. “I’m the one who needs help!” they think. In the same way, until the burden of our sin is removed, our focus remains on ourselves. Our energy is spent in piling up more sins, in trying to keep our past sins buried, or in doing whatever we can to quiet our guilty conscience. But when our spiritual burden is removed from us through the Gospel, we are free to focus on others. Now we forgiven sinners are ready to bear fruit.
Paul contrasts “the works of the flesh” done out of love for ourselves with “the fruit of the Spirit” done out of love for God and neighbor. We believers find the power and motivation to produce this fruit by hearing Jesus’ Word and partaking of the Sacraments He instituted. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” He says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Joh. 15:5).
As long as we are connected to Him by faith, He promises to accomplish great things through us. He sends the Holy Spirit to produce in us “love” toward those around us, “joy” in our callings, “peace” from knowing His love, “patience” when difficulties come, “kindness” toward the hurting, “goodness” to the needy, “faithfulness” like the grateful Samaritan, “gentleness” toward oppressors and the oppressed, and “self-control” no matter the situation.
“The fruit of the Spirit” is wonderful fruit! It is fruit that brings blessings to our lives and the lives of those we meet. Paul writes that “there is no law” against these blessings. God wants us to have them. He wants us to drink deeply from the fountain of His Word where the Holy Spirit is always at work. And we must do this.
We must to do this because “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other.” Our sinful nature and the Holy Spirit do not want the same thing. Our sinful nature wants to lead us along the path of self-centeredness and self-indulgence. This path heads directly toward hell. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, wants us to have the good things of God: righteousness, comfort, peace, forgiveness, salvation, life. These gifts of Jesus keep us on the path toward heaven.
One way may look and feel like freedom, but fleshly freedom is slavery for the soul. The other way may seem like restriction and regulation, but suppression of our fleshly desires now is our only hope for life everlasting. Nobody has ever experienced true freedom by embracing the things of this world. If you remember the story of Pinocchio, the rowdy boys thought they had everything they could want on “Pleasure Island,” but their bad behavior turned them into braying beasts locked in tiny cages.
True freedom is found in Jesus alone. It is a freedom from sin, not a freedom to sin. We are Free to Be Fruitful. We are free to move beyond the failures of our past. We are free to live God-pleasing lives that benefit our neighbors. We are free to pursue noble things that let us sleep well at night. We are free to spend ourselves in service to Him who loves us with an undying love.
This freedom is yours not because of anything you did. It is because of what Jesus did for you. He was arrested, bound, and nailed to a cross so you would be free. He offered His holy life for your sinful one. He suffered in innocence so you would be spared of your guilt. Your Baptism joined you to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (Rom. 6:4). It connected your life to His. It grafted you into the living Vine.
The baptized who remain in Him by faith are no longer ruled by the flesh. Paul writes that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” So while you may have lost some battles to the flesh, Jesus has won the war. He has redeemed you from your sins and still grants you the blessing and the freedom to bear His fruit.
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 Twelfth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 2 Corinthians 3:4-11
In Christ Jesus, who drank the cup of God’s wrath, so you could drink from the waters of salvation through His Word, dear fellow redeemed:
What does it mean that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”? Some say that when Paul refers to “the letter,” he is talking about the words of the Bible. So they argue that the Bible is a “dead letter,” and a “dead letter” cannot save your soul. If you want to be saved, you need the Spirit. And how do you get the Spirit? Not by reading or hearing the words of the Bible, but by your own prayers, your own inner struggle, the stretching of your feelings and emotions toward the mighty God.
Another twist on this idea is the churches which display rainbow-colored banners outside their walls which say, “God is still speaking.” They believe that the Spirit reveals new teachings to Christian communities that may even contradict deeply-held beliefs of past generations. “God is still speaking” is another way of saying, “We don’t believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. We don’t believe it is all-sufficient for Christian life in today’s world. The times when the Bible was written were much different times than these. We believe that the Spirit is still shaping and guiding us not through the Bible but through the collective judgment of the Christians in this place.”
These attempts to separate the Spirit from the Word remind me of a story I read a while back. It’s a fairly short story, and I’d like to share it with you today.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful little village nestled in a valley between two mountains. In the center of the village was a well. The well provided water to all the inhabitants of the village. People came from all over the world to drink the cool, clean, crisp water that was drawn daily from the well. Countless people remained in the village and made their homes there. They loved the water.
The well was sufficient for the people of the village. No other wells graced the cobblestone streets of that mountain town. There was no need. No one ever suggested that they might like some other well more. Such a thought would be incomprehensible. The well was sufficient to satisfy all their needs, and it seemed that no matter how many people came to dwell in the mountain village there was always enough water. Water from another well? The thought was unheard of—absurd.
The well was also powerful. At the suggestion that the well might run dry some day, the people only laughed. “A waterless well?” The thought was unheard of—absurd. Whenever anyone went to the well, from the smallest child to the mayor himself, water was always there. The well was predictable, trustworthy, and always dependable. The well had power.
The people depended on only one well, and that well never let them down. The well and the water went together. You could not have one without the other. If you wanted water, you got it from that well and that well alone. If you went to the well, you always had water. There was no water without the well and no well without the water.
One day, the saddest day the town had ever known, a stranger came to the village. He tasted the water, as had every visitor before him. The visitor said, “This is good water. But I know another source that can give you water just like this well.”
The people were divided. Some said, “Impossible. Water comes only from this well.” Others were curious.
The visitor took another drink and said, “This is a good well. But I don’t think that we can depend on the well.”
The people were divided. Some said, “Impossible. Water always comes from the well.” Others were curious.
So the townspeople discussed two questions. First, was it only the well? Was that well sufficient enough? Second, was it always the well? Was that well powerful enough? The stranger proposed an experiment. “Why not cover the well? I’m sure that there will be water from some other place. This well is not sufficient. Yes, let’s cover the well. I don’t think we can afford to rely on it forever. The well is not powerful enough.”
But the people protested. “No, the well and the water belong together. If you cover the well, we will not have water.”
Scornfully the stranger replied, “You are well lovers. You should love the water. Don’t you think that God can give us water from anywhere He wants? Are you trying to limit God? You faithless people, you lovers of wells, God does not need a well to prosper you.” That talk of “God” seemed so pious and godly. Of course the people did not want to limit the power of God. They covered up the well.
And, alas, all the people in the town died. (Klemet I. Preus, The Fire and the Staff: Lutheran Theology in Practice, pp. 80-82)
What do you think of the story? It’s kind of silly, isn’t it? What little village would cover up the only source of water it had?
But this sad story is not really about a village, a well, and water. This story is about the church, the Word, and the Spirit. It is about the church centered on the Word. As long as the church drinks from the Word, like the village from its well, it has the Holy Spirit in full measure. It lacks nothing. By the Spirit working through the Word, faith is fed and the thirst for righteousness is satisfied. When the church has the Word, it has the Spirit.
But there are “strangers”—false teachers—who try to convince the church that it can have the Spirit apart from the Word. “Why stick to the ‘dead letter’ of the Word?” they ask. “‘For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’—isn’t that what Paul says? God can give the Spirit however He wants. He doesn’t need the Word to do it! Don’t worry about the Word; go right to the Spirit!” This is all a lie. There is no Spirit apart from the Word. The Holy Spirit works through the Word.
Today’s text does not teach that the Word and the Spirit are separate. What it teaches is the distinction between God’s Law and God’s Gospel. God’s Law is referred to in this text in different ways. It is called “the letter,” “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone,” and “the ministry of condemnation.”
God gave the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and when Moses came down the mountain from God’s presence carrying the two tablets of the Law, his face shined with a bright light. It shone so brightly that the people of Israel ran away from him in fear (Exo. 34:30). After he called them back, he delivered God’s Law to them. And then he covered his face with a veil, so the people would not be afraid (vv. 31-33).
Moses’ shining face reminded the Israelites that they were not like God. They were not holy like He was. God’s holy Commandments drove this point home. The letter of God’s Law condemned them. This is why Paul wrote that “the letter kills.” God’s Law kills any idea that we can be right with Him by our own efforts. It kills our self-righteousness. It kills our boasting. It kills our pride. If we take a good look at ourselves in the mirror of the Law, all we can see is our sin. There is no hope for salvation in the Law.
But “the Spirit gives life.” How? Through the Word of God’s Gospel. The Holy Spirit does not bring you anything new today. He does not bring you any knowledge or understanding or wisdom that believers in the past did not possess. If you run into someone who claims to have new messages from the Spirit to share, run the other way.
Jesus clearly stated the work of the Holy Spirit: “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (Joh. 16:14). The Holy Spirit takes what belongs to Jesus and gives it to you. He takes Jesus’ perfect life of obedience to the Law. He takes Jesus’ innocent suffering and atoning death for all sin. He takes Jesus’ triumphant resurrection from the dead. And He declares it all to you. “Jesus’ righteousness—yours. Jesus’ forgiveness—yours. Jesus’ life—yours.”
That is why Paul calls “the ministry of the Spirit” through the Gospel, “the ministry of righteousness.” The Word of God’s Gospel is the way that He gives you everything He demands of you in His Law. Through the Word of what Jesus did for you, the Holy Spirit gives you all that you need to get to heaven.
However, you still need to hear the Law in this life. The old Adam, your sinful nature, still needs to die every day through the condemnation of God’s Law. The Holy Spirit is at work there too to lead you to repentance. But His primary work is to bring you Jesus. Jesus kept the letter of the Law for you. He was condemned so you would be freed. He died the death you deserved to die, so you would have abundant life in Him.
Eventually, Moses with his shining face was replaced by another leader and then another. The tablets of stone engraved with God’s Law were lost. “[T]here was glory in the ministry of condemnation,” but “the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.” What Jesus has done for you and all sinners will never fade. His Word will never lose its power. The church will never need something new.
The saving words of Jesus are “spirit and life” (Joh. 6:63). Whoever drinks of the water of this world will be thirsty again. “[B]ut whoever drinks of the water that I will give him,” says Jesus, “will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Joh. 4:14).
Drink Deeply from the Well of Jesus’ Word through which the Holy Spirit does His powerful work. The living waters of His Word are meant for you and your salvation. Jesus’ Word of forgiveness and life is your oasis in a parched and dying world. It is the source of your healing and strength. It is the guarantee of God’s favor upon you and of the eternal glories to come.
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 from annual outdoor service on the parsonage grounds)
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: James 1:16-21
In Christ Jesus, the Father’s greatest and most perfect Gift, who by His death and His resurrection to life again has brought salvation to our souls, dear fellow redeemed:
It’s planting season! Besides the farmers at work in their fields, I’m sure many of you have been at work in your gardens. You prepare the ground and dig in seeds, and before long those seeds sprout up and grow into large, food-bearing plants. You have a part to play in bringing those plants to maturity. You water as needed, and you clear out weeds that would choke them. But ultimately the plants grow on their own, while you watch God’s magnificent creation in action.
n Mark 4, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” (vv. 26-28). Just as God is the one who makes plants grow and brings a crop to maturity, so it is with our faith. When the seed of the Word is planted in someone, God is the one who makes it grow and produce.
This is what we hear about in today’s text. James writes about who is working, how He works, and what effect His work has. In the verses before our text, he mentions “the rich” who think that their success is due to their own ability or effort or strength. But their riches cannot save their souls. They will fade and die like wildflowers do. “For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes” (Jam. 1:11). The self-made and the self-reliant fall down as quickly as they rise up.
They do not realize that “[e]very good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” We forget that too. Often it takes the loss of our good things before we realize what we had. We don’t appreciate our health and strength as much as when we are sick or injured. We don’t appreciate work until we are out of a job. We don’t appreciate the blessings of home or possessions until they break down. We don’t appreciate family and friends as much as when they are gone.
All of these good gifts are from above, “coming down from the Father of lights.” This is a title for “God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” (Apostles’ Creed). He “separated the light from the darkness” (Gen. 1:4) in the beginning and created “the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars” (v. 16). Just as the sun, moon, and stars keep shining day after day, so the bright beams of God’s love continue to shine upon us as He cares for us.
But as committed as He is to providing our “daily bread,” our heavenly Father especially wants us to have the “bread of heaven.” He wants us to have faith in His Son Jesus, because only faith in Jesus saves. To bring us this faith, the Father sends out the Holy Spirit. Jesus spoke about the Spirit’s work in the Holy Gospel for today: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 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” (Joh. 16:13-15).
“[T]he Spirit of truth” guides us into “all the truth” through “the word of truth.” This is what Jesus asked His Father to do for the disciples: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (Joh. 17:17). Our spiritual life depends entirely on God’s Word of truth. His Word not only informs us what He has done for us, but it also imparts His blessings to us. Today’s text says, “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth.” It was God’s choice to bring us forth by His Word. This was not by our will; we did not choose God. Our will could choose nothing but evil; “we were dead in our trespasses” (Eph. 2:5).
The Holy Spirit planted faith in our hearts and continues to nourish it and make it grow by the powerful working of His Word. This Word of truth gave us new life as the apostle Peter writes, “[Y]ou have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1Pe. 1:23). A plant cannot grow without a seed. It may seem small and insignificant, but a seed contains all the genetic information necessary to grow the plant and produce its fruit. The Word of God may also seem small and insignificant—nothing special. But the seed of the Word is at work in us causing us to grow as fruitful children of God.
Of all God’s creatures, we believers in Jesus are the “firstfruits.” We are the beautiful produce of the Lord’s great harvest. The Father “brought us forth by the word of truth” because He wanted us to share the victory and glory of His only Son. Jesus was planted in the tomb after His death, and no one expected Him to spring forth alive. But He did on the third day. He rose again from the dead showing that death was defeated for all people. This is why we bury the departed saints with hope and why we plant flowers on their graves. It is because we wholeheartedly believe that the seed of the body planted in the ground will come forth with great power and glory, never to perish again (1Co. 15:35-44).
The Word that we hear today is preparing us for that day. So we ought to “be quick to hear” and “slow to speak.” A person’s knowledge does not expand by listening to himself speak, but by listening to others. The same goes for faith. We cannot make faith stronger by our thoughts, words, or wishes. “[F]aith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). A plant must receive to grow—water, sunshine, heat—, and it cannot grow without them. So also we grow by drinking from the living waters of God’s Word and soaking up the light of His grace.
But there are things that stunt our spiritual growth, that cause damage to our faith. A plant suffers when weeds choke it, when bugs attack it, and when its roots do not sink deeply into the ground. One of the things that chokes faith is our anger and bitterness toward one another. We refuse to forgive wrongs done to us, and we feel justified in returning evil for evil, whether toward family members or neighbors. The devil and the world also attack us with temptations toward “filthiness and rampant wickedness,” to put our sinful desires before anything else. Our sinful habits and our neglect of the life-giving Word keep the roots of faith from sinking more and more deeply.
We cannot work ourselves out of our sinful state any more than a rich person can buy his way out of death. That is why God must give His good and perfect gifts from above. The best gift He gave was the gift of His only Son. We sang about this in the hymn before the sermon, a hymn written by Martin Luther:
He spoke to His beloved Son:
“’Tis time to have compassion.
Then go, bright Jewel of My crown,
And bring to man salvation.
From sin and sorrow set him free;
Slay bitter death for him, that he
May live with Thee forever.”
(Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, #378, v. 5)
Jesus let the weeds of our sin choke Him, the devils attack Him, and death strike Him. But none of these things could destroy Him. He destroyed them, so that we could grow up in Him and bear fruit in His name. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” He said. “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Joh. 15:5).
We abide in Him by faith in His promises, and we remain in faith by abiding in His Word (Joh. 8:31). So James urges the readers of his epistle to “receive with meekness the implanted word.” Many words are planted in us that we remember long after they are spoken. We think especially today about the words of instruction, advice, encouragement, and love from our mothers which still guide us. But even more powerful than that is the implanted Word of God.
It was no mistake that you were brought to faith through the powerful Word. God plants with purpose, and He constantly cultivates and tends what He caused to sprout inside you. He planted His Word of grace and forgiveness and life deep in your heart. He wants you to know His love for you, and He wants to keep your faith growing.
Like a mature plant, the stronger and healthier faith is, the more fruit it produces. But if faith is not fed by the Word, it will weaken and eventually wither up and die. This is why James urges us to “receive with meekness the implanted word”—receive God’s Word of grace gladly and with humble and repentant hearts—because “the implanted word… is able to save your souls.”
So we will not be deceived by other “products” that promise to do more for our spiritual life than the words of the Bible. We desire no better or more perfect gift than the life-giving Word of the mighty God, who has surely promised: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:10-11).
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 from Jerico Lutheran Church)
The Second Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 John 5:4-10
In Christ Jesus, who gives us a share of His eternal victory by faith, dear fellow redeemed:
He had told them several times. He told them He had to suffer and die, and that He would be raised again on the third day (Mat. 16:21, 17:23, 20:19). But the disciples did not understand. They were so troubled by the thought of His death that His promise to rise did not even register with them. Peter let Jesus know what he thought about The Plan. He took Jesus aside and rebuked Him. He said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Mat. 16:22).
It wasn’t long before this that Peter had beautifully expressed the truth about who Jesus was: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Peter naturally did not want to see His great Teacher and Lord die. He may have also wondered whether this was even possible. If Jesus is truly God’s Son, how could He die? But Jesus was not about to follow the will of Peter—the will of man. He followed the will of His Father in heaven, and His suffering, death, and resurrection happened exactly as He had predicted.
Yet even after His resurrection, the disciples struggled to believe it. The women came on Easter morning telling them about an open tomb, shining angels, and a message from Jesus. “[B]ut these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luk. 24:11). How could it be true? The previous Friday, Jesus had died on the cross. There was no question about it. John himself was there. He saw the soldier pierce the side of Jesus, and he saw blood and water come out (Joh. 19:34). Jesus was dead. The disciples had watched Jesus call back Lazarus from the dead. But who could call back Jesus?
They did not believe it until Jesus appeared to them in the flesh on Easter evening. Since the doors were locked, at first they thought a spirit had come into their midst. But Jesus showed them the marks in His hands, feet, and side. He ate some fish in their presence (Luk. 24:42). Now they realized that He most certainly wasn’t a ghost. This was Jesus, risen from the dead!
All of them were convinced, all except for Thomas. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared. “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails,” he said, “and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (Joh. 20:25). The next Sunday, the disciples including Thomas were all together, and Jesus appeared again. Now Thomas believed: “My Lord and my God!” he said (v. 28). Jesus said to him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (v. 29).
The skepticism of Thomas is the default position of many today regarding Jesus. They are willing to accept that He existed. They imagine He was probably a good guy. They like how He helped people in need. But they don’t believe He is God, and they don’t believe He came back to life after His death. The only way they would believe these things is if they had proof of some kind, like the proof that Thomas received.
The evidence that the apostle John brings forward is not the evidence one might expect. John says the proof that Jesus is the Son of God is found in “the Spirit and the water and the blood.” This is a reference especially to the beginning and end of Jesus’ public work. He was publicly identified as God’s Son and the promised Savior at His Baptism. When He was baptized, the heavens were opened, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Him. Then a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mat. 3:16-17).
That is strong testimony of Jesus’ identity. But how can we be certain it actually happened as described? Some people suggest that Jesus’ closest disciples invented stories about His life. But if you wrote a story and included yourself in it, how would you portray yourself? The disciples are often described as weak, petty, and ignorant. Either those creative writers were extraordinarily humble, or they simply told the truth about themselves and Jesus.
The same goes for John the Baptizer. He was not an all-knowing prophet. He admitted he did not know Jesus was the promised Messiah until he baptized Him. But seeing what happened and hearing the voice of God the Father, he then proclaimed, “this is the Son of God!” (Joh. 1:34). So by “the Spirit and the water” God the Father testified that Jesus was His Son.
Going forward three years, Jesus was now in Jerusalem. He had entered the city on Palm Sunday and was preparing for His imminent death. “Now is my soul troubled,” He said. “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (Joh. 12:27-28). Then a voice sounding like thunder came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (v. 28). It was the voice of His heavenly Father.
And then it was time for the testimony of “the blood.” The shedding of blood shows that Jesus was clearly a Man. Blood poured out of His back from the wounds of His flogging and from His head where the crown of thorns had been driven. It dripped from His hands and feet where the nails had pierced. But how does the blood prove His divinity? How does it show He is the Son of God?
If Jesus had died and remained dead, we would have to conclude that He was not who God said He was, that He was not the Son of God. But since He has risen, that changes the way we look at His crucifixion. His resurrection from the dead shows us that it wasn’t just a regular Man hanging on the cross. It was the God-Man. His blood was holy blood shed for all people. His suffering was holy suffering, not for wrongs He had done but for the sins of the world. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” He cried. His blood testifies that God the Father poured out His wrath against sin on His only Son in the place of all sinners.
“[T]he Spirit and the water and the blood.” This is God the Father’s testimony. “[T]his is the testimony of God that He has borne concerning His Son.” And Jesus’ resurrection is the bow that ties it all together. His resurrection proves that the testimony is true. It proves everything God declared about His Son and everything Jesus taught and did.
Those who deny Jesus’ resurrection will make of Him whatever they want, but they won’t have a Savior. You, on the other hand, who believe God’s testimony, have everything He has graciously promised you. You will not be judged along with the unbelieving world on the last day, because you are covered in Christ’s righteousness. You will not suffer eternal damnation in hell, because your sins are all forgiven. You will not remain in the grave, because Jesus will come again in glory to raise you from the dead.
All of these things are yours. You have been “born of God” by the power of the Holy Spirit. You were brought to faith in Jesus through His holy Word, so that His victory became your victory. He wants to continue to assure you and comfort you in this truth. He knows that the devil, the world, and your own flesh want to steal away your confidence. He knows how they try to use trials like the current pandemic to plant doubts in your mind about His love toward you and about the promises of His Word.
It is good that John recorded the doubts of Jesus’ disciples after His resurrection. They doubted like we do. Our faith is not perfect. It is common for all Christians to wonder why God lets troublesome things happen, or why He doesn’t fix a problem or help us in our need. We have also had doubts about whether we are right with God. How could He love people like us who have failed so miserably or done such bad things?
Jesus does not alleviate our doubts by appearing in person and showing us His hands and side like He did for Thomas. But He does set before us the testimony of His love through His Word and Sacraments. Publicly through His called servant and privately through the encouragement of fellow Christians, Jesus declares to us the forgiveness of our sins. As Jesus said to His disciples on Easter evening, so He still says to us, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Joh. 20:22-23).
He also gives us the testimony of His Sacraments—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. “Baptism,” He says, “is My cleansing blood applied to you. It is My bringing you the victory of My death and resurrection. It is your rebirth as a holy child of God.” And the Lord’s Supper is His body given in the bread and His blood given in the wine “for the remission of sins.” In this Supper, our resurrected and exalted Lord comes to us personally and brings us His eternal blessings of forgiveness and life and salvation.
So just as “the Spirit and the water and the blood” testified in Jesus’ life that He really is the Son of God, so “the Spirit and the water and the blood” in His Word and Sacraments continue to testify to Him today. It is impossible for our limited minds to understand these things. How could the Son of God take on flesh, suffer, die, and rise again? How could He continue to meet us through His Word and Sacraments?
But though our minds cannot comprehend these things, they are most certainly true. Jesus Really Is the Son of God. He really did die for your sins and rise again in victory over your death. And He really does come to you today to bring you comfort, strength, and peace in every need.
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(picture is from “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” by Caravaggio, c. 1601-1602)
Midweek Lent – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: St. John 1:29-34
In Christ Jesus, who came to offer Himself in your place, so you would be right with God, dear fellow redeemed:
We know the passage so well, that it doesn’t seem strange to us: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” But I wonder what we would have thought if we heard John the Baptizer say this in person. We might have wondered, “Why did John just call that man a lamb?” There are so many titles for Jesus that would seem to identify Him more clearly: “Behold, the Messiah/the Promised Prophet/the Son of David and of God/the Savior!” But John said, “Behold, the Lamb!”
Of course the context of the Jews at that time was different than ours. Lambs were a much bigger part of their culture than it is for us. At that time, lambs were sacrificed daily in the temple. Their blood was shed as an offering for sin. John wanted the people gathered there to make this connection. He wanted them to know that the Sacrifice for the world’s sins was finally here. The Old Testament promises had met their fulfillment.
We have reviewed some of these prophesies and pictures of Jesus over the last few weeks. We heard about the shepherd Abel who faithfully offered sacrifices to God before this innocent man was killed by his brother. We heard about Abraham who was prepared to sacrifice his only son at God’s command before the LORD stopped him and provided another lamb. We heard about the Passover when a spotless lamb was killed and its blood painted on the doorposts to save the Israelites from slavery and death. We heard about the offering of lambs at morning and at evening in the tabernacle on behalf of the people. And last week we heard the stunning prophecy of Isaiah describing the suffering and death of Him who bore our sins and was slaughtered for us.
These examples and many others pointed forward to the coming of the Christ and His work to save sinners. John looked to Jesus and said, “There He is! That is the Lamb! He is the One who takes away the world’s sin!” This “taking” or “carrying” away brings to mind God’s instructions for Israel on the annual Day of Atonement. The high priest was to select two goats. One was used for a sin offering. The other was brought to the priest who laid both his hands on its head and confessed all the transgressions of the people over it. Then the goat was sent into the wilderness to a remote area never to be retrieved (Lev. 16:20-22).
John was pointing to Jesus as the “scapegoat” for sin, as the one who would have the sins of the world placed on Him and would suffer for them all by Himself. It was at His Baptism that Jesus was officially anointed for this work. John testified that when Jesus was baptized, he saw “the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove” and rest on Him.
The prophet Isaiah had spoken about this many years before. He said that “the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (Isa. 11:2). Jesus was anointed by the Spirit to carry out His Father’s will. Isaiah described the peaceful scene that would result from His righteous and faithful work: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them” (v. 6).
But Jesus’ coming seemed to produce anything but peace. Though He healed and helped people and proclaimed the Gospel to them, many rejected Him and opposed Him. Eventually the Jewish religious leaders got what they wanted and were able to arrest Him. They convicted Him in a sham trial, struck Him, spit on Him, and turned Him over to the Roman authorities. They did this because they wanted Him dead, and they wanted Him to die painfully.
What they did not realize is that it was God’s will for His Son to die. Isaiah had written about this: “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (53:10). At the same time that the religious leaders worked to destroy Jesus out of bitter hatred and envy, He was working to save them out of His boundless mercy and love. When He went to the cross, He carried even the sins of those who sent Him to His death. His hands and feet freshly nailed to the cross, He prayed for them: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luk. 23:34).
This is what He came to accomplish. He came to forgive, to make peace between God and man. He said Himself that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Joh. 3:17). That is why John called Him “the Lamb”—God’s Lamb. The Son of God incarnate was the Father’s answer for sin. He was the only Sacrifice that could satisfy the justice of a holy God.
The death of this Lamb means your wrongs are fully atoned for. His blood cleanses you, purifies you. It sets you free from your bondage to sin and death. But you and I have done terrible things! How can we be certain that even those things are forgiven? Well what did John say? “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
Jesus did not come to take away only the sin of the most faithful and the best-behaved. He came to take away all sin, “the sin of the world.” So if you are in the world, then Jesus has taken away your sin. Like the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement, each of your sins was placed on Jesus, and He took them far away never to bring them back against you.
Because your sins were placed on Him, they are not on you anymore. The Psalm states it beautifully: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (103:11-12). This is what Jesus accomplished for you. Behold, the Lamb! He forgives all your sin. Amen.
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(picture is portion of 1895 painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)