Ash Wednesday – Pr. Faugstad homily
Text: St. Matthew 6:16-21
In Christ Jesus, who “fills the hungry with good things” (Luk. 1:53), dear fellow redeemed:
Some people give up dessert during Lent. Some give up TV. Some give up social media. Roman Catholics are required to give up meat every Friday of Lent. Are you giving up anything? While this can be a useful practice, the Bible does not require it. Some suggest that we should rather add things during Lent—more Bible study, more prayer, and so on. I think these things go together—whenever we give up one thing, we have space to add another. So if you give up time in front of the TV or smartphone, you are adding time that can be spent in other ways, such as Bible reading or prayer.
It’s important for us to take an inventory of how we spend our time. Typically we say we don’t have enough time to accomplish what we want to. But that isn’t a problem of time as much as it is a problem of scheduling or a problem of priority. We can always “make time” for the things that matter most to us. And if we don’t “make time” for what we say matters most, then it’s fair to ask if it really matters as much as we say.
For example, we all agree that prayer is important. We know that the God of heaven commands us to pray and that He promises to hear us. But how many of us regularly take the time to pray? Prayer takes time—it doesn’t have to take a lot of time—but it takes some time or at least some effort. And there is always so much to do, and our minds are occupied by so much, that prayer gets forgotten and neglected.
In today’s text, Jesus calls us away from worldly distractions and toward spiritual discipline. Our text is a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In the section just before our text, Jesus talks about giving to the needy: “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mat. 6:3-4). Then He talks about prayer: “when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (v. 6). And then we have His encouragement to fast, to go without food for a time: “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
There is a clear pattern here. First of all, Jesus does not command the people to give to the needy, pray, and fast. He just expects that they will: “when you give,” “when you pray,” “when you fast.” Second He says that as much as possible, we should hide our giving, our praying, and our fasting. These things are not meant for the eyes of others. They are meant for the eyes of our Heavenly Father, who rewards us according to His grace. That’s His third point: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Perhaps the most surprising discipline on the list is fasting. You might have heard about how fasting can provide health benefits for adults without certain underlying conditions. I came across an “intermittent fasting” plan recently which suggests eating in an eight hour window each day and then fasting for sixteen hours to give the body time to burn fat.
But Jesus is speaking here about the spiritual benefits of fasting. This wasn’t a foreign concept to the people of the Bible. The Israelites often fasted in Old Testament times, and always on the Day of Atonement. In New Testament times, Luke tells us about the widow Anna, who “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luk. 2:37). John the Baptizer and his disciples fasted in preparation for the Messiah’s coming (Mar. 2:18).
Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness as He began His public work. The Christians in Antioch fasted when Barnabas and Saul were sent off as missionaries (Act. 13:2-3). And when pastors were appointed in Asia as a result of these mission efforts, we are told that “with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Act. 14:23).
So why don’t we all have the habit of fasting today? In part, it’s because we don’t want to demand something that God has not. He did not give a law of fasting in the Ten Commandments. But it may also be that we don’t fast because we never have; it is a foreign concept to us.
It hasn’t always been a foreign concept among Lutherans. Think of the words of our Catechism which are printed on the front of the bulletin: “Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training; but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the remission of sins’” (Proper Reception of the Sacrament).
We are right to say that fasting is not required, but that does not mean it is to be rejected. Luther wrote that “Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training.” What makes fasting “a fine outward training”? Fasting prepares us to receive. It uncovers our hunger. It reveals our weaknesses. It exposes the idols of our heart. The purpose of fasting is not to offer it to God as a good work, which is often the way “giving something up for Lent” is understood. Fasting is rather a preparation to receive the good gifts of God.
Jesus promises that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” God does not reward us because we are so deserving. He always rewards us according to His grace. The humbling of our body through fasting along with the humbling of our spirit in repentance is seen by our merciful Father. He knows who we are. He knows our needs and our struggles and our sorrows. And He knows exactly how to address them.
He sends His Son Jesus to come to our aid. Jesus lived a holy life for us, including perfectly caring for the needy, perfectly praying, and perfectly fasting. And He was forsaken and rejected by the Father and swallowed up by death, so that we would be delivered from God’s eternal wrath and punishment. Jesus brings us these gifts of His righteousness, forgiveness, and life when He comes to us in His Word and Sacraments.
Through these means, Jesus addresses the sin, the weakness, and the hunger that fasting exposes. He does not come to punish us or lecture us. He comes to heal us and comfort us and strengthen us. When Jesus comes, we receive exactly what we need. He never leaves us empty-handed. He fills us with the gifts of His grace, and He gives us a taste of the heavenly treasures that we will enjoy in fullness for all eternity.
We fast now in joyful anticipation of the feast to come.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “Jesus in Prison” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
Sexagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 2 Corinthians 11:21-12:9
In Christ Jesus, who did what only He could do in offering Himself for the sins of the world, so that we might be saved not by our own doing but by His grace, dear fellow redeemed:
“Mom/Dad, look what I can do!” Parents are used to hearing their kids say this when they learn a new skill. Maybe it’s figuring out how to swing, how to catch a ball, or how to ride a bike. Or maybe they have put a puzzle together or learned to play a song on the piano. Sometimes the words, “Look what I can do!” come right before some dangerous or destructive activity that parents would rather not witness, like jumping off the top of a couch or attempting to hit a baseball over the house.
Except for those last two examples, we praise our kids for learning new things. We want them to develop useful skills and be successful in their endeavors. At the same time, we temper our praise when our children’s success leads them to boast. “Look what I can do! I bet so-and-so can’t do that!” “I am faster and stronger than everybody else!” “Nobody is as good as me, are they?” It is good to encourage our kids, and we want them to be confident. But there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Confidence does not have to be self-serving, but arrogance always is.
Our society today is not as concerned about love for neighbor as it is about love for self. Young people are taught to embrace who they are, especially if who they are contradicts God’s plan for the body and life. Every child is told he is exceptional. Every child is told that her opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s. Every child is promised that he will succeed whether or not he gives his best effort or any kind of effort at all. Not much is said about humility, sacrifice, and working hard for the good of others.
With these kinds of cultural influences, it should not surprise us that the social media presence of many people is more about self-promotion than anything else. Not many will post pictures of how they look when they first roll out of bed. No, it takes many poses and pictures before getting the one that is just right, the version of us that we want the public to see. This is the “selfie” era, the “look-what-I’ve-done,” the “look-how-good-I-am” era.
What if the apostle Paul carried around a smartphone like we do? What pictures would he have taken? What videos do you think he would have captured? In today’s reading, Paul shared a long list of his experiences. When he was verbally or physically attacked by a crowd for preaching the Gospel, would he or an associate have sent out a video clip, along with #ungrateful, #stayawayfromthisplace, #unbelieverswillbejudged, or #standupforJesus? Or after he was beaten, whipped, or stoned, would he have tweeted out pictures of his bruises and wounds to win people’s compassion? Would he have looked for social media fame through “likes,” “shares,” and praise from others?
Paul had plenty of crazy experiences to talk about, but he didn’t list them in today’s text to gain followers for himself. He brought them up to counter false teachers who claimed to be more than Paul and to remind the Corinthian Christians of his call from Jesus to speak His Word. So Paul said if these false teachers want to talk about credibility, Paul with his qualifications and trials had far surpassed them. Those false teachers wanted the people to think that Paul had done his missionary work for his own benefit. But in effect Paul said, “Who would go through all the terrible things I have for personal glory?”
This is like the skeptics who claim that Jesus’ disciples lied about His resurrection. They assume the disciples stole away Jesus’ body and then preached the resurrection as a way to gain followers for themselves. It certainly happens—and happens often—that people lie for personal gain. But how many people stick with a lie when it means being ridiculed, beaten up, and killed for that message? The apostles of Jesus, including Paul, experienced great affliction and pain for preaching the Gospel. And they continued preaching it all the way to their violent deaths. People don’t endure all that for something they know is a lie.
But beyond his personal credibility through the suffering he endured, Paul reminded the Corinthians that his work was Jesus’ work. Paul said if there was anything he himself could boast about, it was his own weaknesses. “Those weaknesses are what I have contributed,” said Paul. “Those are what I am responsible for.”
We don’t typically talk like that. The current presidential candidates of all parties are a good example of how we think and talk. They are very eager to showcase their strengths and successes, but they are reluctant to mention any weaknesses. On the other hand, they have no trouble pointing out the weaknesses of others. The same goes for us. When we have a dispute with someone, we magnify their faults while minimizing our own wrongs. Or we think how obvious it is that we should be praised or promoted compared to those around us who have so many character flaws. This sort of interaction with our neighbors is not confidence; it is arrogance.
We can cry, “Look what I can do!” till we are blue in the face. But that doesn’t and it won’t make us any better in God’s eyes. For as much as we can do, there is so much that we can’t—and so much that we have failed to do. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul wrote about those who like to boast how well they have kept God’s law. He said, “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law” (2:23). We really can’t boast in our righteousness, unless we are totally righteous. The guy standing barefoot in the snow is hardly better off with one sock on than the guy who has none. When we boast how good we are compared to others, we are still in no better shape before God than anybody else.
God is not impressed by how good we are or how beautiful or how smart or how rich. These things may win us something in the world, but they win nothing from God. In fact God is the one who gives these things. He gives each of us our individual qualities and characteristics, so that we might humbly use them for the benefit of others and for His glory. We have nothing good to boast about that God did not produce in us and through us. With Paul, the only thing we can really boast about in ourselves is our own weaknesses, our own sins.
But God hasn’t left us stuck in those sins. He planned a way to free us, a way that required great humility, a tremendous sacrifice, and terrible work. God sent His only Son to be the goodness and righteousness that we could never produce ourselves. He could have come and exposed all our sins for everyone to see. He could have shown how foolish our boasting is. Instead He quietly gathered all our sins to Himself. He humbly let Himself be accused in our place. He let everyone attack Him and boast about beating Him. He went to the cross, to a shameful death in our place, so that each of our sins would be wiped away and salvation would be ours. “Look what I can do for you,” He said. And He did.
In a few minutes, we will sing these words, “Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast / Save in the death of Christ, my God” (ELH 308, v. 2). Our boast is not in ourselves, in what we can do. Our boast is in Jesus, in what He has done. Paul told the Corinthians that by God’s grace, “you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1Co. 1:30-31).
But we do not only boast about what Jesus has done, we boast about what He still does for us. Paul said he was bothered by a thorn in the flesh, something that troubled him greatly. We imagine it was some sort of physical problem, but we don’t know for sure. We can relate in some way to Paul’s trouble. We are also affected in various ways by things that afflict us. It may be a physical problem that makes it difficult to do what we want to do. It may be a mental struggle or some kind of addiction that troubles us daily.
We seek to remove these thorns by therapy and medication and trying to will ourselves out of the problem. But when those things are not effective, we are not always ready to leave our thorns in God’s hands. We want the problem or pain to go away, and we are not sure that God will do it. In Paul’s case, the Lord did not remove the thorn. There was a reason for it. That thorn in the flesh reminded Paul of his weakness, along with his need for his Savior’s grace and power. The Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.”
We often have doubts. We think there is no hope. We don’t think we can go another step carrying the burdens we carry. And Jesus says, “Look What I Can Do. Trust in Me. I died and rose again for you. I will not forsake you. I will not cast you out. In My Word and Sacraments I will come to you. I will help you and strengthen you. You cannot make this right, but I can, and I will.” Therefore you and I can gladly boast of our weaknesses as Paul did and put our total confidence in the gracious and powerful promises of our Lord.
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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(portion of Eustache Le Sueur painting, “The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus,” 1649)