Septuagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5
In Christ Jesus, who gives us holy food and drink to strengthen us for the race of this life that we must run, dear fellow redeemed:
Our country is serious about its sports. A survey from 2017 indicated that the American people spent about $100 billion in a year’s time on sporting events, athletic equipment, and gym memberships. For the Super Bowl last weekend, advertisers didn’t mind paying millions of dollars for a 30-second TV commercial. They knew people would be watching, and more than 100 million viewers were.
But our obsession with sports is not simply an American thing or even a twenty-first century thing. Athletic competition goes back in ancient history, probably all the way to Adam and Eve, or at least their kids. Humans have always been concerned about who is the fastest, who is the strongest, who is the most skilled. The Olympic Games were created in 776 B. C. as a way to measure these things on a grander scale. About 200 years after that, a similar event called the Isthmian Games was started. This was held in Corinth and featured recognizable events like racing, wrestling, boxing, and discus throwing.
The Isthmian Games made Corinth a hub of athletic activity. The athletes likely trained and participated in competitions throughout the year. The Apostle Paul spent an extended time in Corinth during his missionary journeys—more than a year and a half (Act. 18:11, 18). He saw firsthand the dedication of the athletes and may have even been present at one of the national Games.
He knew when he referred to athletic competition in today’s text that he was “speaking the language” of the Corinthians. It’s our language too. We understand what he is talking about when he mentions racing and boxing and the training needed to succeed. He writes: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.”
If you are serious about sports, you don’t put in all the time and hard work, push through injuries and pain, to come in second. You train to win. A kid who is content with a participation ribbon is not serious about winning. And there is nothing wrong with competing just for the fun of it and not caring about winning or losing. But if the goal is winning, that requires sacrifices.
Paul writes that we should go all out to obtain the prize. But he is not really talking about athletic competition. He is talking about our life of faith. He urges us to dedicate ourselves to spiritual training and exercise, so we do not lose the prize the Lord has prepared for us. And what is that prize? It is the imperishable crown, very different than the perishable wreaths won by the athletes in those days, whose leaves soon withered. The imperishable crown is everlasting life which Jesus secured for sinners through His death and resurrection. This crown is reserved for all who believe in Jesus. He assures us, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).
But how exactly can we “train” or “exercise” our faith? It is not simply a matter of going through the motions. Even athletic training requires more than muscle. It requires heart and strength of will. All the physical, mental, and emotional resources of a person must be focused on the goal if he wants to succeed.
We need to approach our spiritual goal in a similar way. We can’t take for granted that the prize will be ours if we make no effort to obtain it. It would be absurd for a fifty-year-old to think he could compete in a marathon simply because he “ran a couple times” as a kid. This is like the adults who feel they are in good shape with God simply because they got baptized and confirmed at a church many years before. They figure as long as they are on the congregation’s books, they are on their way to heaven.
Saving faith, though, is hardly a matter of “checking certain boxes” or of doing certain “churchy” things because “we are supposed to.” It is certainly good to attend church, but simply being present does not mean faith is being exercised. You could be sitting here physically, but your thoughts could be a million miles away. Or in your mind, you could be rejecting the things you hear: “Oh, I’m not really as sinful as that!” Or, “I don’t go along what the Bible says on this point.” Or, “I’m a good person; I deserve to go to heaven!”
Or you could come to Communion and bow your head with the rest of us, but you come more out of obligation than anything. You are not especially troubled by your sins. You don’t have a strong desire to be nourished and strengthened by the body and blood of Jesus. You just feel it is important to keep up appearances.
Does this sound far-fetched, like something that wouldn’t happen to you or the people around you? Then listen to what Paul wrote about the Israelites, the chosen people of God. He said that all were delivered from slavery in Egypt. All were led by Moses through the midst of the Red Sea. They all looked up to him as their leader. They “all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.” But not all of them remained believers. Not all of them were saved. Paul said that “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”
Do you see why our spiritual training and exercise is so important? We cannot take for granted that we will inherit heaven simply because we are connected to a congregation or because we have generally tried to live the way Christians live. Salvation comes through faith in Jesus. It comes from knowing, trusting in, and being comforted by what He did. It comes from recognizing that there is no other way for us to be saved (Act. 4:12).
Salvation does not come from our work. Jesus made this abundantly clear in the parable in today’s Gospel reading. All the vineyard workers received the same wages no matter how long they had worked. The ones who worked the longest weren’t cheated, because they were paid exactly what they had been promised (Mat. 20:1-16). It is a parable that expresses the grace of God, that He saves us out of the abundance of His love.
It was His love that caused God the Father to send His only Son to us. Jesus came with no ambitions for personal success or glory. He came to redeem us from our sin and death by giving Himself in our place. This was no easy thing to do. He had to resist countless temptations to sin, fully keep God’s law, endure great anguish and pain, and die on a Roman cross. He maintained His gracious resolve, and He accomplished His goal: our salvation. The author of Hebrews tells us that “for the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2).
Jesus finished that bitter race for you. He carried your sins to His death and suffered the torments of hell on your behalf, so you would have forgiveness and eternal life. On the third day He rose again to show that the victory over sin and death is yours and all who believe in Him. But if He already won the race, if He already obtained the victory, what more is there for us to do?
There is nothing we can do to win the victory. The victory is ours by faith in Jesus. But as we learn from the example of the Israelites, that faith can be lost. It can be lost by spiritual laziness, by not taking time to hear and study God’s Word at church and at home. It can be lost by letting our guard down, which makes us vulnerable to the attacks of the devil and our sinful flesh. It can be lost by rejecting our training and running off into sin.
This is why Paul, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, urges us to “exercise self-control in all things.” The very term “self-control” tells us that we need to maintain spiritual discipline, so our “self” does not lead us in the wrong direction. Paul clearly recognized the harmful desires of our sinful nature. This is why he diligently disciplined his body and kept it under control.
He did not run without purpose. He did not box for show. In a letter to Timothy, he said his spiritual training and exercise bore fruit. The Lord strengthened and kept him in the saving faith until his earthly end, so that Paul could gratefully say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2Ti. 4:7).
Our spiritual growth as Christians is always by the grace of God. We cannot get ourselves to heaven. But Jesus promises to visit and strengthen us through His powerful Word and Sacraments. These are the means He uses to carry us to the finish line in this life and on into His eternal kingdom. We stay focused and connected to Him by repenting of our sins, filling our hearts and minds with His Word, and applying our will to His work. We are not running to lose. We don’t want to lose what Jesus won for us.
We Strive for the Imperishable Prize. It may seem a long way off in the distance, but we will be there before we know it. We confidently run forward saying with Paul, “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2Ti. 4:8). God grant us all the grace and strength to finish this race in faith and to receive the blessed crown of life.
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 ancient street in Corinth)
The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Trinity/All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 9:18-26
In Christ Jesus, through whom we are called to everlasting sainthood by faith in His name, dear fellow redeemed:
We have recently finished watching the Ken Burns documentary on The Civil War. When the war finally came to an end, the documentary detailed the reaction of the soldiers at that moment. After four years of fighting, we might expect to hear about union men shouting for joy and jumping up and down. But that was not their reaction. Their mood was quiet and subdued. They couldn’t help but think what it took to get to this point. They remembered all the lives lost, both the Americans on their side and the Americans on the other. How could they cheer? How could they celebrate?
Nearly as many soldiers died in the Civil War as have died in all other American wars combined. There was probably no family that was not touched by a soldier’s death. But death is not just confined to war. Death has touched each of us through the loss of family members and friends. Death comes because of sin. Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” You and I are sinners. That means one day, death will come to us too.
Death is no laughing matter. This is why the crowd standing around the bed of a dead girl was so offended when Jesus said, “the girl is not dead but sleeping.” Was this some sort of sick joke? Who did Jesus think He was to come in and announce this? What a cruel statement to make in front of the grief-stricken parents of the girl! Matthew tells us that the crowd “laughed at Him.” It was a spiteful laugh, full of ridicule. They despised Jesus.
I’m sure the same thing would happen today if Jesus showed up at a “celebration of life” party and announced that the deceased was “not dead, but sleeping.” He would be laughed out of the room, or thrown out. I hope the same would not happen at a Christian funeral. The main theme at a Christian funeral is not how wonderful the deceased person was. It is not about how we will keep his or her memory alive. It is not about being comforted that the one we loved is watching over us and is still in our hearts. That may be how unbelievers deal with death, but it should not be that way for us who believe.
A Christian funeral is about Christ. It is a beautiful opportunity to be reminded of the hope and comfort we have in Him. If Jesus is not the focus, if He is not in the room, there can be no comfort. Without Jesus, there is only sadness. Then flute players sound the woeful songs of death, and people weep and wail loudly like they did at the house of the little girl (Mar. 5:38).
When Jesus came on the scene, He chided the people gathered there. He told them to stop their commotion and weeping. He chided them like a mother might when her noisy children are playing near a napping baby. “Go away,” said Jesus, “for the girl is… sleeping.” When the crowd had been put outside, then the house was quiet. Jesus was there, along with Peter, James, and John, and the girl’s parents.
The girl lay there unmoving, her heart stopped, no breath crossing her lips. By all scientific standards, she was dead. But Jesus walked over, He took her by the hand, and He said, “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (Mar. 5:41). Who was laughing now? Not death. Death had to give up its victim. Jesus gave the command, and death had to comply. Immediately the girl woke up as though from sleep, and she got up and started walking around.
The old saying states that “nothing is as certain as death and taxes.” But this account gives us reason to question that. In this case, the status of death was not certain. Death was able to be overcome. It was overcome by Jesus. So why are people still laughing at Jesus? They have to laugh—or else believe in Him. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (Joh. 11:25). He said, “Because I live, you also will live” (Joh. 14:9). He said that to Him, death is nothing but a temporary slumber.
He said these things because He was about to conquer death, once and for all. He was going to put Himself in the jaws of death, and so occupy it, so that death could turn its attention to nobody else. The battle was on! Here was Jesus with His confident promises of victory and life facing death with its record of countless victories over humanity. In one of his hymns, Martin Luther said about this battle, “It was a strange and dreadful strife / When life and death contended” (ELH 343, v. 4). Who would win?
It appeared that death had conquered when Jesus was lowered from the cross and placed in a dark tomb. That’s what His friends thought, including Peter, James, and John. But death did not overcome Jesus. Jesus overcame death. He rose again! “Death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9). That means it no longer has dominion over us. Paul writes that all who are baptized into Christ partake in His resurrection victory. Because He conquered, they conquer. Because He lives, they live.
But unbelievers reject this hope. They laugh at our confidence in Jesus’ promises. “If your Lord is so powerful,” they say, “why do you Christians end up the same as us? You shouldn’t need cemeteries if death has no power over you!” It is true that believers are buried “six feet under” just like unbelievers are. There is no obvious difference between them once they die. The same cold earth is dumped over the remains of both.
But believers view the burial of one of their own very differently than unbelievers do. Believers lay their brothers and sisters in Christ to rest in the sure hope of the resurrection. They tuck their loved one in a soft casket like a parent tucks his child in bed. They comfort one another with the certainty that their loved one is “not dead, but sleeping.” Jesus is going to come again, just like He came to the side of the little girl, and He is going to raise the dead.
This will happen because Jesus has promised it. The One who defeated death should be taken seriously. When He does this on the last day, then all the world will know who is victorious. Paul writes that “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’” (1Co. 15:54-55). On that day, we will laugh at death, because it can no longer touch us.
But you don’t have to wait until the last day to laugh at death. You can laugh at death right now. I know that death looks scary. I know it has a ferocious growl. But all its teeth are missing. Jesus knocked them out when He marched back up the throat of death and out of the mouth of the grave. It comes down to this: either Jesus is Lord, or death is Lord; either Jesus conquers, or death conquers; either Jesus reigns, or death reigns. Death cannot defeat those who are in Christ.
The times that we are overwhelmed by death are the times that we have looked away from Jesus. If we trusted Jesus’ promise of the resurrection and eternal life, we would not weep so bitterly for our loved ones. We would not wish for the comfort of their presence more than the comfort of our Lord’s presence. We would not look backward with so much grief instead of forward with so much hope.
Those who do not look to Jesus try to cope with death in other ways. Some reach for the bottle or attempt to fill the void of loss with things. Some become despondent or angry and shut people out of their life. Some try to connect with the dead through psychics or mediums. Some feel life is not worth living, and they seek to end it. These methods offer no help at all. Nothing we come up with can give comfort in the face of death.
Our only comfort is from the Lord. He is the answer for the pain death causes. He is our assurance that death does not have the upper hand. Though it seems to prevail over all flesh, Jesus will make it give up the dead again. Jesus will raise all the dead and will bring all the saints to be with Him in heaven.
The saints are all believers, whether dead or living. They are those whose sins are no longer held against them, and who are declared holy in God’s sight through faith. Even now God calls you a saint, because you believe and confess that Jesus “was delivered up for [your] trespasses and raised for [your] justification” (Rom. 4:25).
Jesus’ victory over sin and death is your victory. Yes, one day your body will give out and die, yet Jesus will not leave your body in the grave. He will raise you again as if from sleep, because to Him death is nothing more than sleep. Because Jesus has overcome death, death must do His bidding, which is to deliver us from this sinful world to the glories of heaven.
So Shall We Laugh at Jesus or at Death? The answer is found in Jesus’ empty tomb. We now laugh with Jesus at death. Death did not win. Death will not win. “[T]hanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Co. 15:57).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(painting by Gabriel von Max, 1878)
The Third Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 11:14-28
In Christ Jesus, who came to disarm the devil and win the victory of eternal life for sinners, dear fellow redeemed:
Last week marked the start of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. You may not care much about this, but I’m sure you have heard something about it. Maybe your classmates or co-workers have been talking about “filling out their brackets” and choosing teams to go to the “sweet sixteen,” the “elite eight,” and the “final four.”
Here’s how the tournament works: it starts out with 64 teams divided into four sections. In each section, the teams are ranked, and the highest seed is paired with the lowest seed. Then the next highest seed is paired with the next lowest until the eighth and ninth seeds are paired in the middle. The four best teams paired with the four worst teams in the tournament are expected to “walk all over” their lowly appointment. But last year, this did not happen. A last-ranked team took out a first-ranked team for the first time in tournament history.
We like these underdog stories. It’s the “David vs. Goliath” scenario. David looks sure to lose to his giant opponent but ends up standing over Goliath’s fallen body and wielding his enemy’s sword (1Sa. 17:41-51). But as much as we like to root for the underdog, more often than not the underdog loses.
Where do you suppose you and I would be ranked in a spiritual battle versus the devil and the demons? Where would Jesus be ranked? Who is the underdog? Who comes out on top?
The devil was pretty confident in the Garden of Eden. He had just gotten Eve and Adam to do the one thing God had told them not to do. All they had to do was leave “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” alone. But they ate its fruit, and so fell into sin. Imagine the smile that spread across the serpent’s face when he watched them pick the fruit and bite into it. Think how confident he felt – he had just turned the crown of God’s creation against Him!
But the deceiver was not going to get away with it. The LORD came to the garden and said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life” (Gen. 3:14). But “eating dust” would be the least of his problems. The LORD followed this with a promise: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (v. 15).
The devil was going to get his serpent head stepped on. Someone—the Offspring of the woman—was going to “walk all over” him. The devil probably figured he could wriggle his way out of it. He probably thought he could sink his fangs into his opponent before the blow was delivered to his head. He didn’t feel like the underdog; he felt like the champ.
So he slithered off on his belly and plotted more lies and deceit. He set his sights on the descendants of Adam and Eve. If he could get at their perfect parents, he could get at their weaker children. So he tempted them to all sorts of sin against God—murder, adultery, theft, pride, idolatry. By the time of Jesus’ arrival, the devil boasted that the whole world was firmly in his control, that he had possession of “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Mat. 4:8).
But there was something Satan still had not conquered—the throne of the mighty God. This is what he wanted more than anything. He thought that perhaps the Man Jesus was the weak point in God’s armor. If Jesus, God’s Son, could be exploited or overcome, then His heavenly Father could too. Jesus, however, was a stiffer opponent than the devil anticipated.
The devil tried and failed to tempt Jesus alone in the wilderness. He tried and failed to tempt Jesus through His close friends. He tried and failed to tempt Him to give up the journey He was on, to avoid the suffering, to escape the cross. Jesus would not abort His mission. He would not step aside.
Jesus would neither fall for Satan’s temptations nor be intimidated by him. Every time he faced the devil or another demon, He didn’t flinch. We see an example today of how easily He dispatched the demons. A man had a demon which made him mute, so Jesus sent the demon packing, and immediately the man was able to speak.
The Pharisees and scribes tried to say that Jesus must be casting out demons by the power of Satan, or Beelzebul. But how would this benefit the devil’s kingdom? Then he would be working against himself. This would be like giving your best player to the opposing team. It would only increase your chance of losing.
But Jesus was not on the Satan’s side. He was on God’s side. He said, “if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The kingdom of God was advancing through the devil’s territory. Jesus described the conflict in this way, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.”
The devil was the “strong man, fully armed,” and his palace was the fallen world. Look at his impressive kingdom! Look at his reign of terror! But then “one stronger than he” came along. The Son of God appeared among men. Why did He come? The apostle John writes that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1Jo. 3:8). He came to challenge and attack the “strong man.” He came to end the devil’s reign and cast him from his ungodly throne.
It was all very heroic, but that is not how it looked. Jesus’ humble life, His suffering, and His death looked like defeat. What good did three years of hard work—teaching, preaching, and healing—do when Jesus was arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to die? This is what His disciples thought. They thought it was all a loss. They had so much hope for Jesus’ future and their future with Him, but now it had all fallen to pieces. Now their great Teacher hung dying on a cross.
But what looked like defeat was actually victory. What Jesus did on the cross was what God said must happen after the fall into sin. This is how the woman’s Offspring would bruise the head of Satan and receive a bruise on His heel. By dying on the cross, Jesus broke Satan’s stranglehold on the human race. He stomped on Satan’s head so that his snake coils must loosen. Jesus’ atoning death meant that the devil could no longer accuse sinners. His death freed them from the curse of their first parents. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1Co. 15:22).
So the victory is won. The outcome is decided. The Mighty Lord Tramples Satan Underfoot, just as God predicted. But whose side are you on? Where do you stand? Do you present yourself as a follower of Christ but hold a different allegiance in your heart? This can show up when your actions do not match your words, or your words your actions. Or maybe there are secret sins carefully hidden away, so you can keep up appearances. Again John writes, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1Jo. 3:8). And Jesus says, “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.”
The fact is that none of us is pure like we should be. We fall into sin and sometimes persist in sin. But it is one thing to sin and embrace it; it is another thing to sin and repent of it. Repentance is one of the chief ways to fight the devil’s temptations. When we fail to repent or refuse to repent, we are playing the devil’s game. Then we are acting like our sin is not sin. But “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1Jo. 1:8).
By acknowledging sin, we are admitting that we are not as strong and as well-equipped as we think. We are admitting there are some weaknesses in our armor—a lot of weaknesses. We are admitting that we have lost to the devil again and again. This acknowledgement of our weaknesses and failures puts us in just the right position. It puts us in the right position to be lifted up by God from the battlegrounds of our defeat and to be made clean and righteous again by His grace. It puts us in the position to humbly receive forgiveness for all our sins, which Jesus gladly earned for us by His suffering and death.
Our losses to the devil show us that we cannot prevail on our own against him. The harder we try to resist him by our strength, the more he wins. This is why our trust must be in the mighty Lord Jesus. He is the only One who can and has defeated Satan. This is why we sing: “With might of ours can naught be done, / Soon were our loss effected; / But for us fights the Valiant One, / Whom God Himself elected. / Ask ye, Who is this? / Jesus Christ it is. / Of Sabaoth Lord, / And there’s none other God; / He holds the field forever” (ELH 250, v. 2).
Because Jesus has overcome the devil and trampled him underfoot, we pray in the Litany that He would “beat down Satan under our feet” (ELH p. 137). We pray that He keeps us faithful to His Word, so that we are strengthened and equipped in Him to resist the devil’s temptations. And when the devil tries to worm his way into our hearts and sometimes succeeds, we trust the Lord to trample him underfoot even there, so that our hearts remain true to God alone.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872, depicting a legion of demons cast out of a man by Jesus)
The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 7:11-17
In Christ Jesus, “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2Tim. 1:10), dear fellow redeemed:
The town of Nain still exists. It sits among rolling hills not far from the Sea of Galilee. If you visited at the right time of year, you could find red poppies growing on the slopes of the hills. It would be a pleasant place to stop for a while and enjoy the beauty of the area. The word “Nain” means just that—a charming or beautiful place. Traveling south from Capernaum where He healed a Roman centurion’s servant, Jesus decided to stop at this little town. His disciples and the crowd with Him probably thought it was a nice place to take a rest.
The arrival of a big crowd would have typically brought excitement to Nain. But not today. Today was a sad day. The people of the town joined a distraught widow who mourned the death of her only son, a young man in the prime of his life. A thousand unanswerable questions ran through the mind of this poor woman: What would she do now? Who would provide for her? Why did God let this happen—first her husband and then her son?
It was a sad scene. We have witnessed scenes like this in our own lives. Some of us have felt the sadness this woman felt. It is a rare person who does not have to face the death of loved ones at a young age. The longer we live, the closer death gets to us. Death takes our grandparents and parents, and then it comes to us. One Lutheran pastor described the reality of death in this way, “The whole earth is a graveyard, and the whole race of humanity a funeral procession.” But it is worse than that. He writes, “We don’t simply follow the dead when we walk behind a coffin; we carry death in ourselves and hasten to our own graves” (Laache, Book of Family Prayer, p. 577).
What does it mean that “we carry death in ourselves”? It means that we carry the germ of death inside. We have been infected with sin, even from the moment of our conception. We are something like the tire with a nail in it. It can run for a while, but eventually it goes flat. We can live with the thorn of sin for a time, but eventually our bodies give out. The Apostle Paul states that because of sin in our bodies, “our outer self—our physical life—is wasting away” (2Cor. 4:16).
If you have an injury, you let it rest until it heals. If there is an infection in your body, the doctor prescribes an antibiotic. If your weight is causing health problems, you try to eat better and exercise. But what can you do about sin? Some people act like it isn’t even there, or they try to cover it up. They point out the bad in others, but not in themselves. Some feel the burden of sin and try to make up for it. They volunteer and go out of their way to help others, not so much because they feel love for their neighbors, but because they hope it will look good to God. But no matter what people try to do about sin—ignoring it, covering it up, trying to make amends for it—they end up in the same place. They can’t escape death.
There is nothing more sobering than death. No scientist or strong man has successfully defeated it. All attempts have failed. Still, human beings boast continuously about what they have accomplished. Look at our power! Look at our ingenuity! Look at our social progress! Look at our success! And yet death marches on and fells the world’s heroes one after the other. The old 18th century saying suggests that nothing is as certain as “death and taxes,” but a person might be able to evade taxes. He cannot evade death.
If nothing else woke up the world to its own pride and vanity and weakness, it seems that death would do the job. The universal problem of death should make everyone seek God and His mercy. For those who don’t, there isn’t much comfort to be had at their funeral, or as it is commonly called, their “celebration of life.” Loved ones share memories and funny stories. Everyone cheers the deceased for “doing things his way.” They remember him saying that he didn’t always make the best choices, but nobody had as much fun as he did. And they imagine the deceased now being “in a better place”—often described as a perfect golf course or a prime fishing spot.
These are the ways unbelievers try to lessen the sting of death. But their self-comfort is empty. The reality is that the person they loved is gone and isn’t coming back. Death won again. Death always wins. Well, almost always.
When the two crowds met at the gates of Nain, it must have been awkward. The townspeople were mourning the death of one of their own. The crowd with Jesus was looking for a place to have rest and refreshment. The visitors would not have been greeted with welcoming smiles. They may have been met with frowns, since they were getting in the way of a very personal ceremony.
But instead of stepping aside, Jesus stepped right up to the grieving woman. Gently He said to her, “Do not weep.” But who was this? Had anyone seen Him before? Didn’t He understand what was going on? Jesus did not offer an explanation. He turned from the woman and touched the open coffin. Those carrying the dead man stood still. They didn’t realize it, but death was about to be stopped in its tracks too. Jesus said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.”
If there was any delay between Jesus’ words and the rising up of the man, who would have believed it could happen? But immediately the dead man sat up and began to speak! Then a mother’s tears of anguish became tears of joy. Here was her son, alive! But who was this strange Man?
This Man was the Son of God incarnate, and He was on a mission. He came to deliver sinners from the universal curse. He came to provide the solution for sin. That solution was a life of innocence and the shedding of His divine blood. The Living One, the Lord of Life, had to die, so that that the dying ones, slaves of death, might live. But it was one thing to raise a dead man to life. Could Jesus raise Himself? The answer came on the third day after His death. To the surprise of everyone—both His enemies and His friends—Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning.
Jesus’ victory over death was not just for Him. Before all this took place He had declared, “Because I live, you also will live” (Jn. 14:19). He said that His life would be not only His, but His disciples’ also. And how could they be assured of this life even while their bodies declined and they faced their death? Their assurance of life was their baptism into Christ. Baptism is your assurance too. The Letter to the Romans says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (6:4-5).
“We shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” This certainty is given us in baptism. In our baptism, we are joined with our Savior; we become part of His body. That means His victory is our victory. His life is our life. Because we are in Christ, death can no more prevail against us than it prevailed against Him. This is why we can laugh at death even as it seems to be winning. We can say along with the believers of Old and New Testament times, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (Hos. 13:14; 1Cor. 15:55).
The poet John Donne wrote an excellent poem on this theme. He starts by addressing death:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
He says that death will not defeat him. And why is that? It is because of Jesus’ resurrection, and the life He delivered to us in our baptism. Donne concludes his poem with these confident words:
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
“Death shalt die” because the Life-Winner has triumphed over it. Death does its terrible work as long as there is sin in the world. But Jesus will soon return. Then the shadow of death will be dispelled in His bright light, and death will trouble us no more. This is our only comfort when we lay loved ones to rest in the tomb. We bury them with the confidence that their stay in the tomb is only temporary. To Jesus, they are only sleeping, and He can wake them with a word as easily as He raised the young man of Nain.
Death is all around us, and it is in us. But Jesus is in us and with us too, and He is stronger than death. When death takes a fellow child of God away from us, or when death comes for us, we can say with all boldness, “Death, Meet Life.” Death cannot harm our souls, which are safely in our Lord’s hands. He has even caused death to serve His purpose of delivering our souls to eternal life. It is in this bold confidence that we can sing with the hymnist,
I thank thee, death, thou leadest me
To that true life where I would be.
So cleansed by Christ, I fear not death.
Lord Jesus, strengthen Thou my faith. (ELH #530, v. 2)
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(painting of the “Resurrection of the Widow’s Son from Nain” by the Lutheran artist Lucas Cranch the Younger, c. 1569)
The Festival of the Resurrection of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad Exordium and Sermon
Could there be a more fitting day for Easter than April 1st? Easter is the day that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. They believe His resurrection means that they will one day rise from the dead too. Could anything be more foolish than this? Has anyone now living seen a dead person come back from the dead? And yet Christians confidently say this will happen, as though there is no doubting it. What fools they are, on April 1st and every day!
And the Christian cannot argue. None of this stands to reason. Believers in Christ struggle with the same sins that unbelievers do. We feel the same pains and infirmities. We die the same death. Why should we be so confident that we—and not they—will rise to eternal life in heaven? What makes us so sure? The answer to the question hinges on whether Jesus was God in the flesh who died and rose again, or whether He was a tremendous liar or lunatic whose remains now reside in a tomb somewhere by the old city walls of Jerusalem.
It is true, as the apostle Paul says, that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1Cor. 15:17). If you trust in a man named Jesus who was only a man, then you are a fool, because no ordinary man can save you. But if Jesus is who He said He is—the holy Son of God—and if He did what hundreds of eyewitnesses claimed He did—rise from the dead—then the joke is on the world and not you. Then the unconverted may call you a fool, but you are no fool before God.
What the world calls foolishness, God calls salvation. He sent His Son to do for you what the world never could. Our Lord Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). He entered into death and came back to life again, so that you would be assured of life forevermore. Let us now rise to sing our exordium hymn, “He Is Arisen! Glorious Word!” (ELH 348, TLH 189).
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Sermon Text: St. Mark 16:1-8
In Christ Jesus, the eternal Destroyer of death, dear fellow redeemed:
The two Marys and Salome dutifully observed the Sabbath, but that troubled day could not pass soon enough. Their great Teacher and Lord had been shamefully killed the day before. They could not reverse what had been done, but at least they could bury His remains more properly. They woke up early in the morning and made their way toward His tomb. Preoccupied with their thoughts, they did not consider another important matter until they were nearly there: “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb?”
Three days before in the late afternoon of Good Friday, the women had watched Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus quickly prepare Jesus for burial, needing to finish before the Sabbath started at sundown. They laid Him in Joseph’s new tomb, which had been cut out of a rock in the middle of a garden. In order to keep thieves and wild animals out, they rolled a large stone against the tomb’s entrance and hurried away.
For the women approaching at daybreak, that big stone was a big problem. It was too heavy to roll back, to tip over, or to pry up. And at this time of day, no one would be coming along to help—that is if they were even willing to open up a tomb for them in the first place. The women had no ready solution to the problem that lay ahead.
You and I have times like that in our lives too. We are faced with big problems that seem like immovable stones. There are troubles and trials and sins that we do not know how to overcome. There are burdens that overwhelm us and weigh us down, so that we do not know how to escape from under them. These “big stones” can get in the way of healthy communication among family members. They can stand in the way of a strong and loving marriage. They can affect our relationship with members of our community and our church.
Sometimes we set up these big stones, and sometimes others put them in our way. The big stones we set up might be the need to always be right or have the last word. They might be our stubborn refusal to forgive those who have offended us, or to apologize for our unkindness. They might be addictions that we work harder to cover up than we do to address.
For the times that we try to show love to our neighbors, but they reject our help and choose to put the worst construction on our actions or words, we cannot move these big stones on our own. We commend these stones to God in prayer, knowing that nothing is impossible with Him.
Like the women in today’s account, the big stones in our lives cannot be removed by hoping they will just go away, by trying really hard to move them, or by blaming others for our problems. Our sin and the sin of others does not budge easily. It is anchored in our hearts, and it stands in the way of God and eternal life.
If sin did not weigh us down, none of us would have to be concerned about the greatest obstacle in life, which is death. But all of us are concerned about death, because all of us are sinners. Sin leads to death. When death comes, the lifeless body of the deceased is placed in a coffin and sealed in a vault. It all looks very final. It makes us sad. It worries us, because we know our time is coming too. Death is the biggest barrier, the biggest stone that stands in our way. The women wondered who would roll away the stone from Jesus’ tomb, but we wonder who will roll away the stone from ours.
The women received their answer when they looked up to see that the large stone already had been rolled away! Mary Magdalene turned around immediately to convey the message to Peter and John that someone had taken the body of the Lord. The other women continued on to the tomb, where the angel reassured them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him.” Before, the women were fretting about how the stone might be removed, so that they could anoint Jesus’ dead body. Now the tomb was open, and they were told by an angel that Jesus had risen!
This is how Jesus takes care of the big boulders of our sin that we cannot see a way around. He crushes the sin that stands in His way, and He produces a better solution to our problems than we could have imagined. While we turn our sins and difficulties into mountains, Jesus makes them insignificant molehills. Our sins are not too big for God. He rolled them all out of our way through the holy death of Jesus.
But can we really be sure of this? From our perspective, our problems are as big as ever, and they do not seem to go away. We might still feel lost, and we are desperately afraid that sin and Satan will overcome us. How can we be certain that Jesus paid for our sins? How can we know that we will be safe when death takes us?
The answer is in Jesus’ empty tomb. He was not there when the stone was rolled away. He had risen! The strong bands of death could not hold Him fast. Satan could not drag Him forever into hell. Our Lord’s resurrection proves that He was not simply a righteous Man, but that He is the holy God who suffered and died for our sins, and who rose again in victory! His resurrection is the declaration to the whole world that sin is forgiven, Satan is defeated, and death is annihilated. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1Co. 15:55).
Through His resurrection, Jesus changed our cemeteries from places of death and hopelessness, to places of anticipation and even joy. Because Jesus has risen from the dead, all who are faithful to Him unto death will also receive the crown of life (Rev. 2:10). Our cemeteries are simply resting places, temporary habitations, where the bodies of the dead are safely kept until Christ’s triumphant return on the Last Day.
But how will these bodies escape from their graves? Who Will Roll Away the Stone of death from the door of their tombs? Jesus, the One who has already risen, has promised to see to it personally. He will awaken our sleeping bodies with a powerful shout, and He will dispatch His angels to gather us from our tombs to meet the Lord in the air (Mk. 13:27, 1Th. 4:16).
This event will paralyze the unbelieving world with fear, just as it paralyzed the soldiers standing guard at Jesus’ tomb. But for all who believe in the crucified and risen Savior, this will be a day greater than any other day before it. This will be the day of our resurrection from the dead, the day of our ultimate victory over sin, death, and the devil.
You do not need to wonder if this victory will be yours on that day. This victory is already yours by faith. At your baptism, your sins were buried with Christ in His tomb, and in that same baptism you were raised to new life in Him. Even while you stand in the midst of death, you can rejoice and give thanks for your baptism into Christ, through which you have been given His righteousness and life.
You need not wonder how the stone of your death will be rolled away. Jesus’ tomb stands wide open. He is eternally alive, which means that your sin and your death are eternally dead. The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Festival of the Reformation (500th Anniversary) – Pr. Faugstad exordium & sermon
On February 18, 1546, Martin Luther died. He had been the unquestioned leader of the Reformation movement since it started some thirty years earlier. Now this brilliant, steadfast, controversial man was gone. With Luther out of the picture, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, decided that the time was right for war against the Lutheran princes. He hoped first to subdue the Lutheran forces and then to stamp out the Lutheran faith. In April of the next year, 1547, the Lutheran armies were defeated at the Battle of Mühlberg. John Frederick the Magnanimous, the Elector of Saxony and Luther’s good friend, was taken prisoner and sentenced to death. His life was spared only when he gave up his title and lands, including the town of Wittenberg, where Luther had lived and was buried.
What would happen to the Lutherans? Would Luther’s important work be undone? There were some who gave in to the Emperor’s demands. They compromised the clear teaching of the Gospel. But others boldly took their stand against the Emperor and his armies, knowing this could very well result in loss of property and life. With an unyielding spirit and a firm faith, they sang, “Still must they leave God’s Word its might, / For which no thanks they merit; / Still is He with us in the fight, / With His good gifts and Spirit. / And should they, in the strife, / Take kindred, goods, and life, / We freely let them go, / They profit not the foe; / With us remains the kingdom” (ELH 251, v. 4).
Even if every earthly treasure were taken from them, they knew they possessed everything in Christ. They could not lose. The Gospel of God’s abundant grace was theirs, and through it, His kingdom. This Word of grace is the great inheritance of the Reformation which has been passed down to us today, and which we are resolved to pass on to those who will follow after us. Let us therefore rise and sing, “God’s Word Is Our Great Heritage” (TLH 283; ELH 583).
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Text: St. Matthew 11:12-15
In Christ Jesus, the messianic Reformer who alone could overcome the violent enemies of mankind, dear fellow redeemed:
John the Baptizer had boldly preached God’s truth. He had gone forth “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Lk. 1:17) to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. He baptized Jesus in the Jordan River and pointed to him as “the Lamb of God” (Jn. 1:29). As Jesus began His public work, John continued to preach in the wilderness. Even the ruler of the land was not safe from his words. John openly declared that King Herod had sinned by taking the wife of his brother for himself. The king would not tolerate this. He arrested John and threw him in prison (Mk. 6:17). John had told the truth, but the truth was not welcome.
Jesus warned the disciples that this is how it would be for them too. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves,” He said, “so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles…. [A]nd you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (16-18, 22). They would be hated because they believed, taught, and confessed Jesus’ name.
Doesn’t it seem strange that anyone should get so worked up about mere words? Why not let people say whatever they want? How much harm can words do, as long as they are not accompanied by any sort of aggressive action? But the devil knows what a potent weapon words are, particularly God’s words. He cannot tolerate God’s Word. Wherever the Word of God is sown, the devil comes and tries to snatch it away, so that it cannot take root and grow in the heart (Mt. 13:19). Until the end of the world, the devil will throw everything he can against the work of the Word.
We see this in the way the apostles were attacked simply for preaching the Gospel. The same happened to the early Christians, as Satan incited the Roman authorities against them. The devil also poisoned the hearts of leaders within the church, so that they would attack the Word from the inside. Often these attacks were subtle, resulting in a gradual chipping away at the truth over time. But “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Gal. 5:9). By the time of the Reformation, the Gospel message of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus alone had largely been set aside. In its place, a complex system of private masses, indulgences, relics, pilgrimages, and other works of satisfaction had been established.
Some had tried to address these abuses in the church, and these men had either been muzzled or martyred, just like the apostles and prophets had been before them. Then God raised up Martin Luther. He was a loyal son of the Roman Church and took orders to become a monk. But as he studied the Word, Martin became convinced that serious errors had come into the church. He prepared 95 Theses criticizing the sale of indulgences and nailed them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. He wanted them to be the topic of a public debate in the immediate region. Instead, these statements were copied, printed in bulk, and sent far and wide in Europe.
Little did Luther know that just four years later, he would be standing before the Holy Roman Emperor, who ordered him to take back everything he had written. This, he could not do. “[M]y conscience is captive to the Word of God” he said. “I cannot and will not recant…. God help me.” He surely needed God’s help, since both the Roman emperor and the Roman pope wanted him silenced—and by fire if necessary.
What should Luther do? By this time, he was one of the most famous and powerful men in Germany. Had he called for the sword to be taken up against the Roman authorities, many would have answered that call. But what good would it have done? We remember Peter who took out his sword to fight for Jesus. Jesus told him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52). The sword of violence may be able to subdue outwardly, but it can never conquer the heart. The heart is conquered by a different kind of sword, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17).
Luther recognized this. He wrote, “I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe. But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play. I did nothing; I let the Word do its work” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 51, pp. 77-78).
The Word of God is the catalyst for the Christian’s victory, but it is also the catalyst for violence against the Church. The devil does all he can to snatch the Word away from people and people away from the Word. Jesus refers to this wicked activity when He says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” How can the Christian stand against the persecutions, the pressure, the threats, and the lies the devil instigates?
The answer is: humbly and faithfully. Isn’t that what Jesus Himself did? The Apostle Peter writes that each Christian must take up the cross of suffering and follow after Jesus. “For to this you have been called,” he says, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 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. 2:21-23).
But such a humble and faithful demeanor is not always what others see from us. Often, they see behavior that looks no different than how unbelievers are. We can be just as proud, just as petty in our disputes, just as eager to get revenge. Besides that, we worry. We worry that God will not protect us as well as He says He will. We let the devil’s violence intimidate us, while ignoring the victory Jesus won for us.
God knows these weaknesses well. Nothing is hidden from Him. But He does not leave us to be overcome by the devil. He sent Jesus to rescue you. He sent Jesus to crush Satan’s head and silence his accusations against you by giving His holy body and blood in payment for your sin. Then He rose from the dead on Easter in triumph over your death. Your greatest enemies, the ones that would do you eternal harm, have all been conquered by your Lord.
Not only that, but He continues to protect and bless you with His presence just as He promised, “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). In his famous hymn, Luther says about the devil that “Strong mail of craft and pow’r / He weareth in this hour; / On earth is not his equal.” But as powerful as Satan is, he cannot defeat you. Jesus fights for you – “The Lord of hosts, ’tis He / Who wins the victory / In ev’ry field of battle” (ELH 251, vv. 1, 2).
As we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we can look back at 500 Years of Violence against the truth. God’s Word will always be opposed in the devil’s kingdom. But those 500 Years of Violence are also 500 Years of Victory. The Apostle John reminds us that “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1Jn. 4:4). The devil could not defeat Christ, and therefore he cannot defeat those who trust in Christ.
May the Lord continue to keep us steadfast in His Word, so that we remain in the saving faith and look confidently forward to our final victory by the power and grace of God.
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The Resurrection of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad Exordium and Sermon
In 1974, some farmers in China were digging a well when they bumped into clay pieces, arrowheads, and artifacts. Their discovery turned out to be an army of some 8,000 clay warriors, chariots, and horses buried deep in the soil. This Terracotta Army was put there by the first emperor to rule over a unified China. He ruled over a great empire, but that was not enough for him. He wanted his reign to go on forever. He sent many on the quest to find some elixir of life, which might make him immortal.
He became convinced that these life-giving properties were hidden in the mysterious substance that we know as mercury. Legend has it that he consumed this liquid metal, which of course did not make him stronger and healthier but sicker and sicker. Before his death, he commanded the construction of a vast underground city, including that Terracotta Army and rivers of mercury, so that his spirit would have something to rule over in the afterlife. This is what comes of humankind’s attempt to get eternal life. The task fails woefully, and the great plans of proud people end up dead and buried.
If you would have life, if you would grab hold of the one thing that will not slip through your fingers, then you would have Jesus. Jesus does not send you on a mission to uncover the secret of life hidden away somewhere in the world. This is a world of death, brought about by sin. Jesus came to rescue us from this empty world and to bring us to the place where death is no more. The way to rescue us was not to conquer worldly authorities, but to defeat the powers of darkness. He drank the poisonous cup of our sin and entered the dungeon of death, so that this spiritual mercury could no longer harm us. Then He rose again from the grave, victorious over sin, leading us from the death that awaits us to the life which we shall have with Him.
Jesus is our elixir of life, which we consume by faith in Him. In Him, we need not fear death, for He is risen indeed! Let us now rise to sing hymn #348 – “He Is Arisen! Glorious Word!”
Sermon Text: St. Mark 16:1-8
In Christ Jesus, who won the victory for us over death and hell, dear fellow redeemed:
Before we can appreciate what today’s Gospel tells us, we need to make sure we are clear about what led up to it. First of all, what was it that happened to Jesus on the Friday before this? He was sentenced to death by the Jewish religious leaders and handed over to the Romans for execution. Roman soldiers flogged Him, drove a crown of thorns into His head, and led Him to Calvary where they nailed His hands and feet to a cross. This was done just outside Jerusalem, so many people saw Jesus hanging there. He most certainly was crucified.
Since the Jewish holy day, the Sabbath, would begin at sundown, a request was made that the death of Jesus and the two criminals might be hastened and their bodies taken away. “So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with [Jesus]. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (Jn. 19:32-34). The soldiers were not at all doubtful about what had come of Jesus. He most certainly was dead.
Then two members of the Jewish Sanhedrin, secret disciples of Jesus, took His body and bound it in linen cloths along with burial spices. They brought His body to a cemetery nearby and placed Him in an unused tomb. Then they rolled a great stone over the entrance of the tomb and departed just before sundown (Jn. 19:38-42). Their actions were witnessed by some women who had followed Jesus from Galilee. They made plans to return to the tomb after the Sabbath to apply more spices and ointments (Lk. 23:54-56). There was no question about it, Jesus most certainly was buried.
So far, nothing about these facts give the impression that Jesus was anything more than a man, who died a painful death and was committed to his tomb. But the chief priests and Pharisees were nervous. They went to Pontius Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first” (Mt. 27:63-64). Pilate gave them permission to secure the tomb as they wished, so they sealed the stone and set a guard there.
As they had been planning since Friday afternoon, the women returned to the tomb early Sunday morning as the sun was rising. They likely did not know about the guards posted there, who almost certainly would not have allowed them to enter the tomb. The women wondered along the way how they could remove the great stone blocking the entrance. They never would have guessed that the one to do it would be an angel! The evangelist Matthew says that with a great earthquake, an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled back the stone, and sat on it (28:2). The guards were petrified with fear at the sight of the angel, and the women were afraid too. “His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow” (28:3).
But what was even more significant than the appearance of this angel, was what they did not see. They did not see the body of Jesus in the tomb! The tomb was empty! And it was not as though Jesus had slipped past them somehow while their attention was diverted. By the time the angel appeared and rolled away the stone, Jesus had already left the tomb. He had already been raised. “He is not here,” the angel declared. “See the place where they laid Him.”
A crucifixion, a death, and a burial could have happened to anyone, but not a resurrection. A dead person coming back from the dead by his own power had never happened before. What could this mean? It could mean that what Jesus said about Himself was true, that He was not simply a Man born of Mary, but was also true God, begotten of the Father from eternity. It could mean that what He said He came to do—save sinners—was actually done. In fact, this is what it does mean. This is what it must mean. No one else in history has done this. All the great people of the world who have died are still dead. But Jesus lives!
And this changes everything. Jesus’ resurrection means it was no mere man who hung on the cross, but God Himself. And God who is perfect certainly would not be suffering for His own sins. It was for you, for your sins. His death likewise was not a death to benefit Himself. He died your death, to save you from eternal death in hell. So then it was not just a man wrapped in cloths, covered in spices, and sealed in the tomb. It was the God who cannot decay and who cannot be trapped in any tomb.
If Jesus had not risen, He would have been remembered for awhile by His followers, but He may well have been lost to history. There would be no Christianity. There would probably be more false religions than there are now, but one would be no better than the other. Without a risen Jesus, there is no peace between God and man. Without a risen Jesus, there is no promise of eternal life and salvation by faith alone. Without a risen Jesus, you would have to be your own savior, desperately trying to please a God who you can imagine would not be very happy with you.
But Jesus has risen! What that means for you is what Romans 4:25 says, that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” He died on the cross to atone for your sins, and He rose again to prove that His sacrifice was accepted by His Father. The empty tomb on Easter morning means that God does not count your sins against you anymore. It declares that there is no sin left to make satisfaction for. Jesus’ empty tomb is the exclamation point punctuating His saving work.
His resurrection changes everything for you. When you endure suffering and hardship in this world, you can look to the One who suffered intensely in the place of sinners but who now is glorified. When you face your death, you can take comfort in knowing that your death is no more final than it was for Jesus, who rose again in victory. When you lay a brother or sister in Christ to rest in the grave, you can know that their rest is only a temporary one, as Christ’s was, for they will rise again as He did. Instead of living a hopeless life under the dark cloud of death, in Christ you can anticipate life and peace and joy forevermore.
This starts at your Baptism where you were buried and raised with Jesus. It continues whenever you hear God’s powerful Word of grace which brings you the forgiveness Jesus won for you. And at the Communion rail, you eat and drink the food of life, because you there consume the body and blood of Him who will never die again. In this way covered and cleansed and filled by Jesus, you need not be alarmed by the threat of death. Death will not get the last word; it must give way to the King of Life. Jesus has the final say, and He declares victory. The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.
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