The Fifth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Peter 3:8-15
In Christ Jesus, who comforts us in our fears with the sure hope of salvation and eternal life, dear fellow redeemed:
A struggling economy. An unemployment rate in double figures. Plummeting crop prices. Unrest all across the country. This was the setting in 1933 when President Roosevelt gave his inaugural address. In the very first paragraph, he spoke words that have been repeated many times since: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He said that the collective fear of the population is a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
He was on to something. He recognized that fear is not a thing we are made to feel or experience. It does not come at us from the outside; it wells up inside us. So for example, spiders or snakes do not possess the power to make you afraid. This is clear from the fact that not everyone is afraid of spiders or snakes. Those who are afraid of them don’t like the way they crawl or slither. They don’t like coming across them unprepared. But ultimately, these animals are just a very small part of God’s vast creation.
Sometimes our fears developed from a traumatic experience in our youth. This may explain the fear people have of going to the dentist or of sleeping without a light on. But dentists are not inherently bad, and the darkness of night does not mean you are unsafe. This is all clear enough in the daylight with no dentist’s chair, snake, or spider present. But that doesn’t stop us from being afraid when we do face these things.
We have other fears these days, some of the same ones that were on people’s minds during the Great Depression. The economy is struggling. People are out of work. Demonstrations and riots are taking place across the country. A virus is spreading. There seem to be more questions at hand than answers. It won’t do to have someone tell us to just stop being afraid. Fear is not something we can turn on and off like a light switch.
But it is possible to redirect our fear. This is very important today when fear threatens to overwhelm both us and the people in our communities. Fear can make us do irrational and harmful things. Have you ever injured yourself in an attempt to destroy a tiny spider? The effort probably did not match the enemy. Fear can make us overreact to perceived threats around us. If others will not share our fear, it is easy to go on the attack—turn our backs on them, demonize them, maybe even physically harm them or hope for something bad to happen to them.
The apostle Peter urges a different approach in the Spirit-inspired words of today’s text. He calls on us to seek unity, to be sympathetic, to love others like they are members of your family, to have compassion, to be humble. “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling,” he writes, “but on the contrary, bless.” Your neighbor is not your enemy. You are not called to fight him but to love him.
This of course is not easy. When we have been wronged, we don’t want to let someone off too easily. If we do, we are afraid that we will be wronged again. Or if we try to build bridges and make amends, we are afraid that our attempts will be rejected and our kindness thrown back in our face. But what we are afraid of more than anything is looking weak, taking the humble path, swallowing our pride, submitting to one another. This is difficult and even painful. Why should we have to do this?
We show love to our neighbors because it is right. It is the will of God, and His will is perfect. We are to “love our neighbors as ourselves” (Lev. 19:18). God has the authority to demand this of us because He is the only God. His First Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods.” This means that “we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things” (Luther’s explanation).
But what exactly does it mean to fear God? It means to fear His punishment if we sin against Him. This fear causes us to do one of two things. The first is to try to hide from Him like Adam and Eve tried to do. But as they learned, there is no way to hide from God. Peter attempted something like this when Jesus gave him and the other fishermen the great catch of fish. Seeing what had happened, “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’” (Luk. 5:8). Peter’s sin made him want to escape the Lord’s presence.
But the better way to deal with the fear of God’s punishment is to repent of our sins, to kneel before Him and put ourselves in His mercy. We might be able to hide our sins from others, but we cannot hide them from God. He already knows them, and He will have justice. He does not play games. The author of Hebrews writes that “[i]t is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). It would be terrifying to stand before Him without repentance and faith. Then all our sins would be brought up against us and held against us.
This is why He wants us to repent, repent of our lack of trust in Him, repent of our lack of love toward our neighbor, repent of our fearing so many things around us, but hardly fearing Him. And what does He do when we lay our hearts and minds open before Him? By admitting our wrongs, don’t we acknowledge that He has the right to punish us?
He does have that right, but He does not send His wrath upon the repentant. He gives His grace. Look how the Lord dealt with Peter. Peter had just admitted his sinfulness. He was terrified to be in the presence of the holy God and begged Jesus to leave. And the next words out of Jesus’ mouth were, “Do not be afraid” (Luk. 5:10).
This is how the Lord deals with each one of us. We have sinned against Him in so many ways, and He knows it! But His response is not to take revenge. It is not to demonize us or seek to harm us. His response is forgiveness. Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid of God’s wrath anymore because I took that righteous punishment for you. Do not be afraid that your Father in heaven will turn His back on you because He turned His back on Me instead. Do not be afraid of suffering in hell for your sins because I suffered hell for your sins.”
Because of what Jesus did, you are reconciled to God. He is not your enemy. He loves you. He seeks your good. Quoting Psalm 34, Peter writes that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayer.” God considers you righteous because you trust in His holy Son. His ears are wide open to you. He wants to hear your fears. He wants you to turn them over to Him—fears about your relationships, fears about your finances, fears about the future, fears about your health and life.
The Lord promises that He will not abandon you to these fears. He will not leave you even if the whole world turns against you. “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” asks Peter. “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” You are blessed in your suffering because the Lord is with you, and no evil can prevail against Him. The victory is already His over sin and death, world and devil. And that victory is yours by faith in your Savior Jesus.
You and I cannot control what may happen to us today or tomorrow or the next day. That can make us feel afraid; we like to be in control. But it is far better to put our trust in the Lord, to leave our lives in His control. He loves us with an unchanging love. He redeemed our lives by shedding His own precious blood. He graciously called us to faith so that we would become heirs of eternal life and salvation.
“Fear itself,” as President Roosevelt put it, is not the problem as much as what we fear. Our fear should be directed to the Lord alone. He is completely holy and just. He is all-powerful and knows all. He can end the troubles we face in a moment, or He can use them to shape us and to call us and those around us to repentance.
Whatever He does, we know that He does it out of love. Through Jesus our Savior, we do not need to fear His wrath or eternal punishment. The fear that makes us want to run and hide is replaced by the fear that loves Him, respects Him, and wants to “serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness” (Second Article explanation).
So we look to Him in this godly fear, entrusting our lives and our troubles and our futures to Him. And He looks upon us with grace as His own dear children and says, “fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10).
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.
+ + +
(picture of the miraculous catch of fish by Raphael, 1515)
The Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 24:15-28
In Christ Jesus, who warns us about the troubles of the end times, so that we might fix our eyes on Him and put our full confidence in His promises, dear fellow redeemed:
Just before the words of Jesus in today’s text, His disciples asked Him, “what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Mt. 24:3). Unfortunately, Jesus did not predict that life in this world would get better and better, but that it would get worse. He told them, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars,” and “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (vv. 6,7). The times would be especially trying for Christians, who would be delivered up to tribulation, put to death, and “hated by all nations for [His] name’s sake” (v. 9). Besides all this, “false prophets will arise,” and “lawlessness will be increased” (vv. 11,12).
We can see these signs of the end times everywhere we look. We see violence carried out through international conflict, civil wars, and through the senseless taking of life such as what we have recently witnessed in Pennsylvania and California. We see natural disasters around the world—floods, tornados, droughts, wildfires, and earthquakes—which claim hundreds of lives each year. We see Christians being persecuted and killed simply because of their beliefs. And we see false teachers working to lead people away from God and to themselves.
We see all these signs, but as long as they stay a safe distance from us, it is easy to ignore them. We might feel badly for victims of violence or disasters when we hear about them, but then we go back to what we were doing before. These signs of the end times should have a greater effect on us.
In today’s text, Jesus gave a two-part warning. The first warning was about the destruction of Jerusalem, and the second warning was about the end times and Christ’s glorious return. The destruction of Jerusalem happened in the year 70. The Israelites had risen up against the Romans, and they began to fortify Jerusalem against a Roman attack. When these things happened, the Christians quickly left the city and relocated to other places. They remembered Jesus’ words. But the other residents of the city did not leave, and “great tribulation” came upon them as Jesus had predicted.
Tragedies like this have happened throughout history despite God’s merciful warnings. The people of Noah’s day had 120 years of warning while Noah and his sons built the ark. But they paid no attention. Jesus said, “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away” (Mt. 24:38-39). Later on when the LORD had settled His people in the promised land of Canaan, they continuously pursued other gods. He sent prophets to call them back, but they either ignored the prophets or killed them. This led to the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians in 722 B. C. and the fall of the southern kingdom in 586 B. C.
There are many more examples like these, examples of those who did not take God’s Word seriously. They did not perceive the danger they were in. They thought everything was fine. We can fall into the same sort of thinking. For the most part, we have not been personally touched by the kind of violence we hear about in the news. We have not had our homes destroyed by natural disasters. We have not suffered physical harm because of our confession of faith.
This can make us complacent. We can get comfortable with life in the world. We can neglect the Word of God and prayer because we expect we can always go back to those things in the future. But Jesus would not have us adopt such a lazy attitude. “Therefore stay awake,” He says, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!” (Mk. 13:35-37).
When heavy rains are predicted in our area, many in our community stay awake through the night to make sure their homes are not flooded. They recognize the threat, and they want to be as prepared as they can be. When Jesus predicts tribulation for believers in these end times, we want to remain spiritually alert. We don’t want to be caught sleeping when persecution comes, or when “false christs and false prophets” try to pull us from the true faith.
But how do we get ready for these tribulations? How do we prepare? We prepare by listening to the One who accurately warned about these things in the first place. Of all that Jesus said, how much of it has proven to be untrue? Not one word. Everything He predicted and promised up till now has happened as He said it would. We can trust what Jesus says.
We can trust Him when He says He “came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10). He came to save you and me, who were lost in our sins and in the darkness of unbelief. He saved us by substituting His life for ours, the faithful Shepherd for the wayward sheep. We can trust that His words, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30), apply to His work that was needed to save us and all sinners. The perfect life and the payment for sin that God required of humankind were fully supplied by Jesus. We can trust Him when He says, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). Through His resurrection, Jesus proved that nothing could overcome Him—not sin, not the devil, not the world, and not even death itself.
These are the things to keep in mind as we face tribulation in the world. No matter how great our enemies are, Jesus is greater. But He does not use His power like the world uses its power. The world uses its power to intimidate, to suppress, to silence, to hurt, and to kill. Jesus uses His power to save. In his second epistle the apostle Peter states, “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. 3:9).
Jesus wants everyone to be saved. He does not want any to be caught sleeping. He does not want any to be condemned. This is why He has His Gospel message proclaimed throughout the world. The same message of salvation that we hear today is also being heard in Peru and Pakistan and China and in countless other places. Our fellow Christians humbly listen to the Law which condemns their sin, and they gladly hear the Gospel which forgives their sin.
This powerful Word of God is what prepares us and them for tribulation here, but also for glory in heaven. The apostle Paul writes that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). And Paul suffered plenty, just as the other disciples did. Their tribulation was so great that they expected Jesus to return in glory during their lifetimes. But His time was not yet. There were more souls to save.
And so it is now. The signs of the end times are all here. Jesus could visibly return at any point. Now is not the time to get sleepy. Now is the time to hear and learn His Word. This is what keeps us alert and prepared. It keeps us from getting too comfortable in the world, and it shows us the difference between the true Christ and false christs, between true prophets and false prophets.
Through His Word, the true Christ visits us, though not visibly. He comes to us through the preaching of His Gospel. He says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt. 18:20). And He comes through His Holy Supper, where He gives His own body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. These are the ways Jesus is present with us “always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). He does not grow tired of us or reject us, even though we have gotten spiritually sleepy at times and have followed gods of our own making. He leads us to repentance and applies His soul-saving absolution—the full and unconditional forgiveness of all our sins.
Jesus may seem very far away from us, especially when we are experiencing trouble. But in fact, He is very near. He is “a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). He has not forgotten about us. He covers us in the armor of His righteousness and fills us with the courage that comes from being claimed as His own. The Lord would not forget His chosen ones. He promises that our short time of tribulation in this life will soon give way to eternal glory.
Brief life is here our portion;
Brief sorrow, short-lived care;
The life that knows no ending,
The tearless life, is there.
O happy retribution:
Short toil, eternal rest;
For mortals and for sinners
A mansion with the blest! (ELH #534, v. 3)
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
+ + +
(1850 “Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem” painting by David Roberts)
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.
+ + +
(painting of “The Sermon on the Mount” by Rudolf Yelin the Older, 1912)
The Nativity of St. John the Baptizer (June 24)
Text: St. Luke 1:57-80
In Christ Jesus, whose success is our success, whose life is our life, whose victory is our victory, dear fellow redeemed:
When I was in high school, my English teacher gave us the assignment of writing down what we expected to be doing in ten or fifteen years. I do not remember exactly what I wrote, though I know my future plans included finding a wife and having a family. Like a typical high schooler, I’m sure I also hoped to have a good-paying job through which I could live comfortably and make a difference in the world. I never ruled out becoming a pastor, but that is not what I planned to do with my life. I would not have guessed that this is the purpose God was preparing me for from childhood on.
How about you? Has your life played out like you expected? Would you rather have the life you have now, or the one you dreamed of having as a child? If you are still young, how set are you on your plans for the future? Would you be disappointed if you don’t end up getting a job in the field you have trained for?
Some people are so eager to know their future that they even use questionable means to try to get this information. They might visit psychics or other “spiritualists” who claim to receive messages from another realm. Or they might trust their daily horoscope to give them answers that supposedly come from the stars. But believers in Christ do not need to use these methods. They know that the Lord holds their future and that He will turn even their bad experiences into something good (Rom. 8:28).
Still, you may wonder what plans God has for you. You don’t want to waste time and energy pursing things that are not part of His plan. If only all children born into the world came with a general indication of their future attached: “This child will be a farmer.” “This child will work for the government.” “This child will serve in the church.” “This child will be a business owner.” “This child will be a homemaker.” Even those general descriptions would help children to focus on those areas of work and study which would best fit their future occupations.
John the Baptizer had the benefit of something like this. When the Israelite priest Zechariah was serving in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him. He said that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth would have a son even in their old age. They were to call him “John,” a name meaning, “The LORD is gracious.” The angel said that “he will be great before the Lord,” and “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Lk. 1:15-17). John would know that the LORD was calling him to do special work. He would be a prophet of the Lord like Elijah was, and he would prepare the way for the Messiah.
Then after his birth, his father, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” spoke another prophecy about his life. Zechariah declared, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins.” John had a clear knowledge of his purpose in life. He did not need to try different occupations to see what fit. God had determined what He should do. Trusting this plan, John “became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.”
John knew what he was supposed to do, but that didn’t take away all uncertainty. He was sent to prepare people for a Messiah that for a long time he could not identify himself. Later, when Jesus was revealed as that Messiah through baptism, John said, “I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel” (Jn. 1:31). John also could not have guessed how quickly his work in the wilderness would come to an end. Yes, he had said about Jesus that “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). But did John really expect to be put away in Herod’s prison just as the Messiah was being revealed to the world? Is this the future he imagined when he was specially called to be the LORD’s prophet?
Then due to a foolish promise made by Herod, John was beheaded (Jn. 6:21-28). His prominent and promising earthly life had suddenly ended when he was only about thirty years old. It seems so tragic. We imagine he would have accomplished many more great things through his bold preaching and humble example.
If John had been able to see exactly how his life would play out, do you think it would have changed anything? If he knew Jesus was the Messiah when they were adolescents or teenagers, would he have been tempted to reveal this information before the appointed time? If he knew he would be arrested and beheaded, would he have checked his criticism of the king?
It is better for the details of our life to be unknown to us until they take place. If we knew what was coming, we would feel like we were in control of our future. We would also try our utmost to alter or adjust the future that is revealed. There are many things in our lives that we wish had never happened. We wish we made better decisions in our younger years. We wish we had not entered into relationships that brought us pain and heartache. We wish we had spent our money more wisely. We wish we had not let one opportunity or another pass us by. We wish we had not lost people we love.
But God has not given us the ability to know the future or to change the past. What He calls us to do is to trust Him—to trust Him who knew us even before the world was made, who formed us in our mother’s womb, who called us out of the darkness of unbelief to the light of salvation by the power of His holy Word, who abides with us still, and who guides us all along the path to heaven. If our trust in Him were perfect, we would feel no discontent about our present situation. We would feel no guilt about the past and no fear about the future. We would know that the Lord sets everything right, and that He will not fail to work good out of even the most difficult situations.
But trusting in the Lord with all our heart (Pro. 3:5) seems too inadequate and risky. We want to have some control. We want to do things that are personally fulfilling, even if they are not exactly God-pleasing. In this way, the human will and human desire are elevated to the position of all authority. But why should your plan for your life be better than God’s plan for your life? How many times have you made a bad decision? How many times have you chosen the wrong path?
God has never done anything wrong. He has never made a bad decision. He is perfect. All His plans are right, and they are always geared toward your salvation. If you wonder whether God has a plan for your life, you need look no further than Jesus. Jesus is the irrefutable proof that your life has purpose and that God cares about you. No other conclusion can be reached than this one. Why else would the eternal, all-powerful God take on human flesh—your flesh? If the one and only God became a man, then mankind must matter—then you must matter.
And you do. God’s Son became Man to give you a future. He came to fulfill the holy law in your place and to pay the penalty for your sin. He came to set your life on a very different course than you were on by nature. By nature, you were destined to live a meaningless life and to spend eternity in hell. But in Christ, even the smallest details and movements of your life now have meaning. No matter how much you have deviated from the right path, no matter how often you have put your desires before God’s will, your Savior forgives you. He redeemed your soul through the shedding of His holy, precious blood.
It is not what you do with your life that counts for your salvation, but what Jesus did with His life. When you were baptized, you died to the world. You died to its plans. You died to its promises. At the same time, you were made alive in Christ. You were given His holiness and His victory. The Apostle Paul states that “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).
What Is Your Life’s Purpose? It is to remain in Christ by faith in Him. It is to gladly hear and learn His Word. It is to love your neighbor as Jesus loves. It is to serve as He serves. This is why John’s life had purpose and was tremendously important, even though it ended quickly. His life was not about him. It was about Jesus. John’s calling was to point to Him. With that accomplished, God called John’s soul to its heavenly home. His life was not a failure. It did not end too soon. He lived out the purpose God had given to him for as long as God had planned.
You are living out your purpose in life right now. You can serve God and your neighbor wherever you are and in whatever station He has given you. It may not be what you imagined when you were younger, but your life and purpose are not about you. They are about Jesus, who loves you with an undying love, and who will bring you when your days are ended to Himself.
+ + +
(excerpt of “The Beheading of John the Baptist” by Puvis de Chavannes, c. 1869)
The Second Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 15:21-28
In Christ Jesus, to whom we look as the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2), dear fellow redeemed:
When dinner comes to a close at the parsonage, the head of the household slides out of his chair and heads to the cupboard or refrigerator to find something for dessert. This activity may go unnoticed by the older children, but not by the youngest. The youngest one, he knows all. He watches his daddy get up, walk over, and swing open the door. This triggers him to do two things: he sticks out his hand, palm up, and he says as sweet as can be, “Peeese!”
Now what do you think? Do you think that little boy expects to receive something because of how nicely he asks? Or is it because he trusts that his father will be gracious and generous? I suppose it could be a little bit of both. Except that if his request is denied, he does not blame himself, as though his asking were insufficient or unclear. Instead he protests, and begs his dad to reconsider. He is totally focused on his father, and the good things that he has the power to give.
It is tempting for us to focus especially on the Canaanite woman in today’s text. We marvel at her great faith. She would not stop petitioning Jesus until she received a definite answer to her prayer. We wish we had a faith like this that expressed itself with such boldness and confidence. But this woman did not go looking for Jesus because she thought her faith was strong enough to get what she wanted. She went looking for Jesus because her daughter had a demon, and she heard that Jesus had the power to help. She fixed her eyes on Him.
If this woman were focused on the power of her own faith, she would have been greatly disheartened when Jesus seemed to ignore what she was saying. “He did not answer her a word.” How many times did she cry out for His mercy? Enough so that Jesus’ disciples became annoyed by her. If she relied on her faith, she would have given up by then. She would have concluded that her faith was not strong enough to get Jesus to help her, and she would have returned home dejected.
That is what happens to any who try to comfort themselves by measuring their faith. What they are really measuring is their level of happiness and how they feel about God. If life is going well and they feel close to God, they imagine their faith is strong. But if their life is full of troubles and God seems very distant, they assume their faith is weak. Because if it were stronger, they probably wouldn’t have all this trouble—at least according to those multimillionaire preachers on TV….
But I cannot recall anywhere in the Bible where Jesus tells us that we can or should try to measure our own faith. This would be an utterly worthless pursuit. One way we might attempt to do this is by measuring Bible knowledge. But a person could have thorough knowledge of the Bible and not believe what it says. The devil knows the Bible, but he certainly doesn’t have faith. Another way we try to measure faith is when we observe a fellow Christian endure trials that we cannot imagine. We might even remark to them what a strong faith they have. But how could we know where their faith is? Their hearts and minds may be full of turmoil and doubt, and their faith may be hanging only by a thread.
It could very well be that the times I feel the strongest in my faith, I am actually weakest. At these times, my trust may be in my own power or ability, which cannot for a second withstand the temptations of the devil, the world, and my own flesh. Think of Peter who said to Jesus, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away…. Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Mt. 26:33,35). How confident Peter was! And yet just a matter of hours later, he repeatedly denied Jesus.
But the times I feel weakest, may actually be when faith is strong, because I know that I cannot make things better. Only God can. This is like the woman who had spent everything she had and tried every remedy to solve a twelve-year-long malady. She couldn’t make it better, but she told herself that “If I touch even [Jesus’] garments, I will be made well” (Mk. 5:28). She meekly reached out her hand, touched His clothes, and immediately she was healed. Or like the woman in today’s text. She had nowhere else to turn. Neither she nor anyone else could cast the demon out of her daughter. So in desperation she sought out Jesus, and He heard her plea.
Jesus told her she had great faith. She would have said she had a great Savior. That is what faith does. It does not look upon itself and try to take its own pulse. We hear well-meaning people say it all the time, but it is not our faith that gets us through anything. It is Jesus. Faith Starts and Ends with Jesus. He is the object of faith. Faith is simply trust, trust in something. That is why we say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty… And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord…. I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Faith is God’s gift to us that allows us to see Him and His grace, like a good pair of glasses does for someone with blurry vision, or like a telescope that reveals stars and galaxies that the naked human eye cannot see.
When Jesus told His disciples they had “little faith,” it was precisely when they overlooked His powerful presence. They thought they were going to die in a storm on the sea when Jesus was in the boat with them (Mk. 8:23-27). They also worried that they had forgotten to bring a supply of bread after Jesus had just provided bread for groups of 5,000 and 4,000 men (Mt. 16:8-11). Searching for help apart from Jesus caused them to have doubts and to be filled with fears.
As surely as He was with His disciples, Jesus is with you through the means of grace. The more you avail yourself of these gifts—hearing the Word and receiving the Sacraments with a repentant heart—the stronger your faith will be. But if you take these things for granted and fail to hear the Word regularly, or if you don’t take it seriously when you hear it, then your faith will surely weaken and eventually die. Jesus and His Word should not be considered just a part of your life, the church part, which you may or may not exercise once a week. Rather, Jesus is your life. There is no life apart from Him. Without Him you are lost, hopeless, dead. That is the message of God’s holy Word.
The Word works faith in your heart, so that you believe in Jesus. And the Word renews and sharpens that focus, so that you remain in Him. This anchor of the Word is crucial for you as you are tossed around on the sea of your doubts, troubles, and sins. These things lead you away from Jesus, but the Word points you back to Him. If God ever seems to be ignoring you, or if you get the impression that He is punishing you for something, go to His Word. Don’t go by how things seem to be, or how you feel. Like the desperate woman who trusted the Word, hold tightly to what you have been taught. She had been told Jesus was merciful, and she was going to believe it unless He informed her otherwise.
You can be just as bold and brazen as she. You can bring your honest petitions before God, both the big ones and the small ones. Whether or not God gives you what you ask is not a question of the quality of your faith. It is a question of His mercy and His will for your life. For the things He has promised, like your daily bread, forgiveness, and salvation, you can ask with full confidence that He will supply them. For everything else, you can ask with the same confidence, but always as it pleases Him, according to His will. For example if you pray for healing, He may heal, or else He will give you strength and peace to bear the affliction. You can pray continuously like the Canaanite woman did, fully confident that your prayers will be answered.
If the answer seems a long time in coming, that does not mean God loves you any less. He loves you from Eden to Golgotha. He loves you from the empty tomb to the baptismal font. He loves you from your table to His. He loves you through every year, every sin, every doubt, every trial. The Lord loves you all the way to heaven. That is where you are going through faith in Jesus. He has been merciful to you. He has redeemed you, a lost and condemned creature. He has forgiven you all your sin.
Do not worry about the measure of your faith. Leave that to God. Concern yourself instead with His Word and promises. Focus on the One who saved you, and who has good gifts for you. A little boy may be disappointed in his daddy come dessert time. But your hope in Jesus will not be disappointed. He will not refuse you His good gifts, because He has already promised to give them. These gifts are so great, that even their crumbs would be enough to satisfy and fill you. But the Master wants you at His table with all His children, for whom He has prepared a rich feast of salvation in Christ Jesus.
+ + +