The First Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 12:1-5
In Christ Jesus, who by His suffering, death, and resurrection redeemed the world of sinners, so that they might have purpose, contentment, and hope, dear fellow redeemed:
Nobody expected the twelve-year-old Jesus to do what He did. He and His parents had gone to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When the massive crowd began to fan out and start their journey home, Joseph and Mary assumed Jesus was with relatives or friends. When He did not turn up, they went looking for Him and found Him three days letter in the temple. He was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luk. 2:46). All on His own, Jesus went to the temple, His “Father’s house” (v. 49), so He could hear and learn the Scriptures. That was not typical twelve-year-old behavior. But then Jesus was not the typical twelve-year-old.
What are the kinds of things we expect from twelve-year-olds today? This is a time when major changes are happening in their lives. There are huge physical, cognitive, and emotional changes going on. There are signs of maturity and maybe more mood swings. The twelve-year-old is in the process of transforming from a child to an adult. But he or she is not an adult yet. Twelve-year-olds need love, guidance, discipline, and clear expectations, just as all young people do. They need to be molded into God-fearing members of the church and responsible members of society.
It always makes me cringe when parents say that they will wait to let their children choose their own religious path when they are older. This is another way of saying that there is no clear teaching about God, that there is no such thing as objective truth, that one religion is no better than another. What foolishness! We have our kids listen to our favorite music, watch our favorite movies, cheer for the right sports teams, and follow our lead in so many other areas. But we’re not going to teach them anything about God?!
Whatever we do not actively teach our children, they will learn from someone else. Everything we know was learned. Think about yourself: how much of your personality and preferences have formed with no outside influence from others? I’m not sure it is even possible. We are products of the place where we are and the people we are around. On a spiritual level, we are influenced by the living God through His Word, or by the tugging and tempting of our own sinful nature, the devil, and the world.
In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the Apostle Paul urged them not to “be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” To “be conformed to this world” is to be shaped and molded by the unbelieving world rather than by the divine Word. We feel this pressure to conform in so many ways, and we can think of many times that we have given in to this pressure.
Maybe we have softened our stance on sexual morality and say with the world that as long as a sexual relationship is consensual, there is no problem with it. Or we have changed our views on marriage and divorce, and we support the breaking apart of what God has joined together if husband and wife don’t love each other like they used to. Or we adopt the world’s thinking that nothing is more important than self-fulfillment, recognition for one’s work, and financial security.
Every single one of us is influenced by the unbelieving culture we live in. The devil is eager to see that this happens, and our sinful nature is happy to cooperate. We have “conformed to this world” in ways we are not even aware of. We begin to recognize this conformity when we ask ourselves how much our thoughts are directed toward doing God’s will in a given day or week and how much we are focused on doing our own will.
“Do not be conformed to this world,” says Paul. But going against the world is not easy. It is much easier to swim with the cultural current. Every young person who has faced peer pressure knows this is the case. It is hard to say no. It is hard to be singled out when we want so much to fit in. It is hard to be laughed at and attacked. It is hard to be alone.
Going against the world and living by the Word is not comfortable. It requires sacrifice. Jesus knows this. He lived that life. His own people wanted Him to be their earthly king. They wanted Him to lead them, feed them, and heal them. The religious leaders wanted His endorsement, His stamp of approval. Nobody got what they wanted.
What Jesus got for denying their expectations was hatred, rejection, ridicule, and pain—immeasurable pain. Crowds of people had flocked to Him, even up to the Sunday before His death. But then He was sentenced and nailed to a cross, all alone, forsaken even by His own Father in heaven. Jesus had not “conformed to this world,” and it ended with a lonely death.
He knows it is no easy charge when He says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luk. 9:23). He knows what will happen to those who refuse the world and their own desires and follow His Word. They will carry a cross like He did, and they will suffer. But they will not have to suffer like He suffered. He suffered alone, bearing the sins of the whole world. He suffered the eternal punishment of hell in the place of all sinners.
When you suffer, you do not suffer alone. You join Jesus in His suffering; or rather He joins you. And He also connects you with other godly sufferers, with others who reject the false promises of the world. The believers around you have been “transformed” like you have “by the renewal of your mind.” You see things differently now. You have changed. The Greek word for “transformed” is where we get our word “metamorphosis.” It is the same word used for Jesus’ transformation on the mountain when “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Mat. 17:2).
You and I were transformed from darkness to light, from death to life, from unbelief to belief when the Holy Spirit brought us to faith in Jesus through His Gospel. We were changed “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” in holy Baptism (Ti. 3:5). Like a caterpillar emerging from its cocoon a butterfly, we were “born again” (Joh. 3:3). In the waters of baptism, we were wrapped in the cocoon of Christ’s death, and we emerged with Him in His resurrection (Rom. 6:4).
We have “newness of life” now that we have been joined to Christ. By faith in Him we have gained all the benefits of His perfect life and atoning death. His perfect keeping of the law covers over our less-than-holy record. His cleansing blood washes away all our sins of choosing the world over the Word, from the sins of our youth to the present day. Jesus has freed us from the hopeless expectations and empty promises of the world. He has freed us to live—truly live—to live with purpose in this life and to die with the joy-filled expectation of the life to come.
It may feel lonely to go against what the world wants you to do, but you are not alone. You Are Part of Something Big—much bigger than the world. You are part of the body of Christ. You are joined to Him “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Out of love for you and on your behalf, He conquered the devil, destroyed death, and overcame the world. In Jesus, you are no loser, even if the world calls you one for following Him.
As a Christian, you may feel alone in your classroom, at your job, in your community. This is why God called you to be part of a congregation, to be connected with fellow Christians who are dealing with the same things you are. They are here to encourage, help, and support you on your journey through life. They are here to walk with you through good and bad times. They are here to comfort you in your pain and grief and to warn you if you start to separate from the body. You are not alone. As Paul writes, “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
That is something big—bigger than this world and bigger than this life. We are just one link in a long chain of believers that stretches back to Adam and Eve. The temptations and challenges we face today are nothing new. We are not the first to struggle. We are not the first to fail. But we have a Savior who loves us, and who sacrificed Himself to save us. He is the Head of His body the Church. He is the One who works for us and in us, so that “by the mercies of God,” we might “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”
By faith in Jesus, we are acceptable in God’s sight. Our sacrifices for Him are acceptable because of Jesus’ sacrifice. There is nothing more that we could be or do or accomplish that Jesus has not already completed. So whether you are twelve or twenty or sixty or whatever age, in Christ you have everything that you need. There is nothing you lack before God. You Are Part of Something Big!
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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The Third Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
In Christ Jesus, who still comes to bless us through His holy Word and Sacraments, dear fellow redeemed:
God’s Mysteries Revealed Here! If an ad with those words popped up on your computer, would you click it? God’s Mysteries Revealed Here! If those words were on a sign outside a building, would you go in?
We would all like to know more about God and how He works. We want to know why He decided to create the universe and why He made it possible for angels and men to rebel against Him. We want to know why He lets certain things happen in the world and what His plans are for the future. We want to know how much longer we will live and when Jesus will come again in glory.
All of these things are known to God but are mysteries to us. But there are other mysteries of God that He has revealed to us, things that remain hidden to others. This is not a unique concept among the world’s religions. Many of them have elements of mystery that are revealed only to their dedicated disciples. For example, the eastern religions teach that meditation and other acts of devotion are needed to unlock the secrets of the divine. The Masonic Lodge reveals its secrets only to those who make a vow and commitment to the organization. Other religions like Scientology will reveal as many secrets as you have money to pay for them.
But the mysteries of Christianity are not like any of these. We freely share God’s mysteries with others, and we invite anyone and everyone to explore them and learn more about them. The mysteries God has revealed to us and that St. Paul refers to in today’s text are the mysteries of the Gospel. They are the mysteries of the Son of God becoming a man in order to save the human race. They are the mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection and His continued presence with us in the means of grace.
This Gospel message is proclaimed around the world. But as clearly as it is spoken about, for many it remains hidden and shrouded in mystery. Earlier in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wrote that for unbelievers, “the word of the cross is folly” (1:18). It is a “stumbling block” to the Jews who “demand signs,” looking for miracles as confirmation of God’s presence. And it is foolishness to the Gentiles who “seek wisdom,” requiring that every teaching agrees with human reason (vv. 22-23).
Paul was not interested in meeting the demands for proof that the unbelievers required. “[W]e preach Christ crucified,” he said; “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (v. 23,24). He explained that this is “not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a [mystery] and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (2:6-7).
This is the mystery that John the Baptizer set out to reveal in his preaching and teaching. Now John was an odd one. He did not dress like other people did (Mar. 1:6). He did not indulge in strong food or drink like they did (Luk. 1:15). He lived in the wilderness and spent no time on self-promotion. How did a guy like this attract a crowd?
He attracted a crowd because of what he said. He was not afraid to call out the people who came to listen to him, from Jewish religious leaders to tax collectors to soldiers. He was not in the business of building up their self-esteem or making them feel good about themselves. He preached the law, so that they might recognize their great sinfulness. And he preached the Gospel of salvation through Christ, so that they might eagerly watch for His coming.
It might seem like John was a strange choice for this important role. Why couldn’t it have been an intelligent and well-liked scribe from Jerusalem? He could have utilized his position in the temple to prepare the people for the Savior. Or why couldn’t it have been a member of the king’s court or the king himself? He could have issued a decree for everyone to get ready.
Paul wrote that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1Co. 1:27-29). John was nobody special, at least as far as the world could tell. He was just some quirky Jewish preacher. But God chose this so-called “foolish” and “weak” man to do powerful things. He was the messenger sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus (Mat. 11:10).
God still sends “foolish” and “weak” men to carry out His work. This is a comfort for me and for you as well. As far as our sinful nature goes, you and I are exactly the same. Each of us deserves eternal damnation for our sins. But by God’s grace we are given forgiveness and life instead. The difference between us is that God called me to be a steward of His mysteries. He called me to be your pastor.
Of course, I’m not the only pastor out there. Many pastors have served here through the years. It is typically the case that the pastor who baptized you is not the one who confirmed you or the one who will conduct your funeral. You might feel like you connect better with one pastor over another. But every pastor has his quirks, and each one has said or done things that at least some members thought were questionable.
Despite our quirks and the personal shortcomings we have as pastors, God still distributes His good gifts through us. Through our unimpressive and faltering speech, He speaks His saving Gospel. Through our weak and trembling hands, He distributes His holy Sacraments. The work of a pastor is not about him. The pastor’s work is about Jesus.
This is why Paul said that he and his co-workers should be regarded as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” A servant does the bidding of his master. A steward manages what belongs to another. The main thing required of a servant or a steward is that he is trustworthy, faithful to his responsibility. This is what a pastor must do: he must faithfully reveal the mysteries of God through the administration of His Word and Sacraments. Whether or not he does that is the true measure of your pastor.
But it is tempting to judge a pastor by other standards. In the larger Christian church, pastors are often judged by their personality, by how much they contribute to the stability and growth of a congregation, and by how their work is perceived in the community. Pastors are expected to be fundraisers, therapists, community activists, and expert problem solvers.
While a particular pastor may have gifts in some of these areas, his call from God is to preach the Word. He is to preach God’s law to expose sin and not cover it up by accommodating the culture. He is to preach the Gospel to forgive sin and not give the impression that one’s salvation is in his own hands. He is to encourage the regular hearing of the Word and partaking of the Sacraments and not treat the souls in his care with indifference. These are the things a pastor will answer for when he stands before the throne of God on the last day.
But no pastor carries out his work perfectly. Each is guilty of trusting himself too much and the Word too little. And no parishioners perfectly love, honor, and support their pastor. They judge him by human standards and not according to his calling. This is why the mystery of the Gospel is so important. We need the forgiveness Jesus won. We need His righteousness to cover our sinful attitudes and actions.
God gladly gives us these blessings. He knows our weaknesses and failures. He knows how much we need His mercy and grace. This is exactly why He sent out the apostles like Paul and Peter and why He still sends pastors. He sends them to administer His good gifts.
Jesus could appear in every congregation and speak to us directly, but He has not chosen to do this. He works through His servants, His stewards. He tells them, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luk. 10:16). Likewise He says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Joh. 20:23).
This means that a pastor’s teaching and preaching in Jesus’ name is His teaching and preaching. The forgiveness a pastor declares is His forgiveness. Whenever and wherever Jesus’ Word is proclaimed, He Himself is present. The means of grace are the vehicle for His present advent, His present coming. The way to find Jesus and commune with Him is to look for the marks of the church: the Gospel purely preached and the Sacraments rightly administered. When you locate these marks, you will also find a servant of Christ at work revealing His mysteries.
These mysteries of God are revealed free of charge. They cannot be unlocked by any amount of money or by any human effort. The Holy Spirit unlocks them for you through the Word and Sacraments. He wants you to know the grace of Jesus Christ, who gave Himself to save you. He wants you to know that in Him your sins are forgiven and heaven is yours.
The mysteries of other religions, the mysteries of the world, are nothing like God’s mysteries. The world’s mysteries focus on your work, not on God’s. God’s Mysteries are Revealed Here, the mysteries of His love for you, of the Savior born of a virgin, of a once-for-all sacrifice and a triumphant resurrection from the dead. These mysteries are foolishness to the world, but they are hope and life and salvation to you and to all those who believe.
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 of Saude Lutheran Church)
The Third Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 21) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 4:46-54
In Christ Jesus, who gives us all that we need for this life and for the life to come, dear fellow redeemed:
There are many things in my house that would be easy for me to part with. I’m sure the same is true for you. A recent fad has us asking whether or not a certain thing “gives us joy.” If it doesn’t we are encouraged to donate or chuck it. It is good for us to declutter from time to time.
But there are certain things that we cannot imagine giving up. What sorts of things are those? They are typically the things you spend the most time thinking about. For some of you, that could be a house or the property where it sits. It could be a car, a computer, an entertainment system, or the equipment for some other hobby. Maybe what you think about most is your family. Maybe it is your own health or your appearance.
We are willing to go to great lengths to preserve our most important things. The same was true of the royal official from Capernaum. He was somehow connected to the court of King Herod, so he probably had a sizable bank account and nice possessions. But money and possessions were not the first thing on his mind when his son got sick. As the days passed and his son’s condition worsened, the official must have exhausted every available medical option. Nothing worked. By the time the official heard about Jesus’ arrival in Cana, his son was “at the point of death.”
What was it that led him to Jesus? According to the text, we have to say it was love for his son more than a love for Jesus. We don’t know if the royal official would have gone looking for Jesus under other circumstances. But his son’s desperate condition caused him to go. He had heard that Jesus had power to heal people, so maybe, just maybe, He could help. It was not faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior that compelled him. Jesus indicated this by His reply to the official’s request, “Unless you [people] see signs and wonders you will not believe.”
This is the same pitfall so many fall into in our day. They refuse to listen to God’s Word or read the Bible for themselves. They reject it because they can’t imagine a God who would let all these bad things happen in the world. They hear us say that God is gracious, that He saved us from our sins. “But if God is so kind and good,” they reply, “why are there so many people suffering? If God could help them, why doesn’t He?” In other words, they are looking for “signs and wonders.” They are looking for clear evidence of God’s existence—and His goodness—on their terms.
This is not the right way to think about God. The almighty God—the Maker, Redeemer, and Comforter—does not have to satisfy the demands of sinners. He does not have to meet their conditions for how He is supposed to carry out His work. We know this, and yet we have to admit that this thinking creeps into our minds too.
We might ask where God is when wars and natural disasters claim thousands of lives around the world every day. We might wonder why He doesn’t step in while our country is torn apart by political divisiveness and hatefulness on all sides. And when pain or trouble touch our own lives or the lives of those we love the most, it may seem to us that God has forgotten about us, or that He is punishing us for something.
This kind of thinking pleases the devil. In fact, he is the one who tempts us to doubt God’s love and to question God’s wisdom. In today’s Epistle lesson, the apostle Paul warns us about the devil’s destructive work. He writes, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:11-12).
The devil and demons are constantly scheming to destroy our faith. They want us to focus on “signs and wonders” too. On the one hand they tell us that our suffering and anxiety and trouble are signs that that God does not really love us. Or they tempt us to ask God for “signs and wonders” beyond what He has already shown us.
So they might tempt us to expect God to show His love for us by making a specific problem go away or by giving certain blessings. They want us to say: “God, if You really love me, then You will take away my physical pain.” “If You really love me, then You will fix this broken relationship.” “If You really love me, then You will solve my financial issues.” But what happens if nothing seems to change, or if changes don’t happen quickly enough? Does that mean God does not love us?
It could be that the official came with similar thoughts in mind: “I’ll believe Jesus has this power when He shows it to me. I’ll believe it when He heals my son.” Jesus told him not to focus on the “signs and wonders,” but to believe His Word. He told the official, “Go; your son will live.” Now as far as the official knew, nothing about his son’s condition had changed. Jesus did not go and lay a healing hand on the child. He did not offer medical advice for how to make the child well. He simply gave the man a promise: “Your son will not die. He lives!”
If you were in the official’s shoes, and it was your child or someone else you loved who was sick, would you turn right around and go home? Or would you hold out for some proof? “I’d like to believe you, Jesus, but how can I be sure he will get better? Can you give me a sign, so I can be sure it will happen as You said?”
That is not what the official did. He “believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.” He went back home a changed man. Before, he was overwhelmed with anxiety about his son. Now, he returned with hope. He did not need Jesus to display “signs and wonders” anymore. He “believed the word.” The Word from Jesus’ mouth was enough.
We might be tempted to focus on the strong faith the official had at this point, that he would return home with no external proof of his son’s recovery. But the official had no strength except from God. It was the Holy Spirit working through Jesus’ Word which convinced him to turn around. It was the Holy Spirit who put hope in that man’s heart. God did this, not the man himself.
And He does the same for you. When you are burdened with some trouble in your life, when you are in pain, when someone you love is sick or is taken from you, God strengthens you through His powerful Word. The Holy Spirit comes to comfort you, to heal your wounds, to give you hope. He leads you to the cross of Jesus, who “has borne [your] griefs and carried [your] sorrows” (Isa. 53:4).
Jesus knows your pain. He knows how it feels to have someone close get sick and die (Joh. 11); this is when He assures you that He is “the resurrection and the life” (Joh. 11:25). He knows how it feels to be alone; so He promises, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). He knows the feeling of being attacked and ganged up on; so He says, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Joh. 16:33).
If you have been hurt by another, sinned against, Jesus knows that anguish. He was sinned against by the whole human race. He was beaten so you could be healed. He was abused so you could take refuge in Him, rest in Him. He came to deliver peace by the shedding of His blood. His blood cleanses you from the stain of sin you have left on others, and the stain others have left on you. “[T]he blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1Jo. 1:7).
There is no comfort—lasting, eternal comfort—apart from Jesus’ Word. There is no hope—lasting, eternal hope—apart from Jesus’ Word. “But what can the Word do about my sore back?” “What can the Word do about the bully at school?” “What can the Word do about this pile of bills?” The Word takes your focus off the things you can’t control and directs you to Jesus who is in control. Through His Word, He gives you patience to bear your cross, and He works all things—even your troubles—out for good.
Reading and hearing the Word, returning again and again to the power source of God’s work in our lives, prepares us for whatever we might lose in the future. Our precious earthly things will not last forever. Our homes will eventually be torn down. Our cars and computers and everything else we treasure will eventually be burned up or decay. Our beauty will fade, our health will deteriorate, some of the people we love will die. But the Gospel, the sure Word of Jesus’ death and resurrection for our salvation, will never change or expire. “[T]he word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8).
Jesus’ Word Is Sufficient. We need no other proof, no additional “signs and wonders” of His love. Jesus’ Word reveals His unchanging grace toward us sinners and the rich blessings He has prepared for those who love Him (1Co. 2:9).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(“The Healing of the Officer’s Son” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Fifth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 5:1-11
In Christ Jesus, who casts out the net of His Word, so that more and more sinners might be drawn to Him in repentance and faith, dear fellow redeemed:
You and I have had moments like the fishermen in today’s text. These experienced men worked through the night, but they did not catch anything. In the same way, we can think of many times that we expended great effort and had nothing to show for it. Maybe it was spending hours upon hours training and practicing for a competition and then coming in last. Or maybe it was staying up late to get the crop in only to have it wash out in the next storm. Or maybe it was pouring time into forming and fine-tuning a plan that ultimately got discarded.
Those experiences are disheartening. All that work for nothing! This is when we feel like it is hard to get ahead—“one step forward, two steps back.” It may even feel like God is opposed to us at these times. Here we are spending all this energy in our work, pursuing things that are good as far as we can tell, and we don’t get anywhere. Why doesn’t God bless us?
But what we don’t know is that God may be protecting us from harm due to our success, harm that could come from materialism or power or fame. Or it may be that He allows failure today, so that He can give even bigger blessings tomorrow. That was the case with the fishermen. He kept them from catching fish during the night, from finding success through their skilled labor, so that He might demonstrate His power and mercy.
They had been fishing in the best spots at the best time of day, and they failed. Then Jesus sent them out again to a poorer spot at a worse time, and their nets were filled! So we see what the Lord can do. I’m sure you could give examples of His goodness working in your life. There were times that you thought you would fail, and you succeeded. You had given up hope, and help came through. The Lord knows how to bless us, and He does it in ways we could not expect.
The disciples looked at their full nets and sinking boats, and you can just imagine the looks on their faces – eyes wide, jaws hitting the floor. Then a new sensation washed over Peter. He realized that this Man with him in the boat was not just a man. An ordinary man could not predict this monstrous haul of fish where seasoned fisherman had been working all night. Peter now felt guilt. He was in the presence of the holy Lord, but he himself was not holy. “Depart from me,” he said, “for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
If Jesus had abandoned Peter and all sinful men, He could have had no disciples, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Instead Jesus said to Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Then Peter and his associates James and John left everything—including that great catch of fish—and followed Jesus. What is a whole load of fish compared with the One who gives those fish simply by saying a word?
But suppose those disciples could look into the future at that point. Suppose they could preview what following Jesus would mean up to the day of His death. Would they have been as eager to go with Him? They could look ahead and see things like the great crowds, the amazing miracles, and Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. But they would also see times when food would be scarce and sleep hard to come by. They would see the opposition of the religious leaders and the anger of the people. They would see that after three years of hard work traveling all over the region, Jesus would be arrested, tried, and crucified. And they, His own disciples, would forsake Him and run away. If they could have seen all that, would they have still gone with Him?
What about you? If you could see your whole life play out in front of you all the way to your death, would you follow Jesus today? Would you follow Him today if you saw how people would take advantage of you in the future, how they would attack you and harm you? Would you follow Him today if you saw how your family would struggle, and how you would lose those closest to you? Would you follow Him today if you saw how your body would break down and how you would struggle physically and mentally?
As enjoyable as it would be to see the good things of our life all at once, it would be terrifying to see all the bad things at once. If we could see all the bad things in advance, we might wonder if the Lord actually cared about us, or if He was actually present with us in this life. It is good that we do not have this view. It is not for us to know these things. No matter what the future may hold, Jesus calls us to follow Him one step at a time.
This is how a toddler learns how to walk. He is not motivated by the marathon he may run in his 20s or 30s. He just wants to go! He wants to get from here to there, and he thinks he might get there faster by walking than by crawling. He cannot see how his running around will lead to bumps and bruises. He is not worried about the broken bones in his future. He is not troubled by the effects of aging which eventually will turn his stride into a shuffle. He just goes!
This is what you and I are called to do: go forward. We can’t go back. We must go forward doing the work God has given us to do. Our work is to be constantly occupied in showing love to our neighbors. This starts with the neighbors living in each of our homes—our parents, our siblings, our spouse, our children—and it branches out from there. We show love in our interactions with others in our place of work, in the community, on the internet, and in our congregations.
We know how this love should look and how it should be carried out, because we have the example of Jesus. Think about how kids play “Follow the Leader.” It is not just about walking over the same ground as the leader, but it is even mimicking his steps. If he takes a big step, so do the followers. If he hops from one place to another, so do they. Our goal as disciples of Jesus is to mimic Him in every way. We want to love one another as He loved us. We want to give to one another as He gives to us.
But as much as we want to do this, our steps often falter. The apostle Paul described our stumbling because of sin in this way: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18-19). Jesus takes one step forward, and we take two steps back. He beckons us forward, and we retreat. He calls us to be courageous, and we wilt.
We are not much like Jesus. We are more like Peter, uncertain how casting out our nets in the middle of the day will do any good. Like Peter, we are afraid because we underestimate the power and mercy of the Lord. Like Peter, we are aware of our many sins. It is hard to follow Jesus when we perceive so many obstacles in front of us and inside of us.
But Jesus is greater than any sins or trials or sorrows we may face. Unlike us, He could see all the suffering that was waiting for Him. Still He stayed focused on His mission. He followed His Father’s will all the way to the punishments and torments of the cross. It was terrible work He had to do. It meant immeasurable pain for Him, while the very ones He came to save mocked, blasphemed, and abandoned Him.
He moved forward one agonizing step at a time because the salvation of your soul was that important to Him. He willingly died in your place because He wanted you to live. He wanted you to be freed from all your sins and covered in His holiness. He wanted to deliver you a good conscience, one that is not focused on your sins of the past but on His grace in the present.
This is why you follow Jesus. He is more than your example of love. He is your Savior. He is your Lord who died for you to secure the forgiveness of all your sins. If He was willing to do this for you, He will certainly not forget your daily needs. Your hard work may not always seem to pay off, but He will bless your efforts done in His name. In time, you will see that you have received more blessings from His hand than you could have hoped for.
Jesus does not ask us to endure the sorrows and struggles of life all at once, or to go through any of them alone. He calls us to hear His Word, like the crowd did by the lake of Gennesaret, and like Peter did when told to let down the nets. His Word is sure and will never steer us wrong. Through His Word, the Lord is guiding us through the perils and troubles of this life all the way to heaven. Hearing His voice, We Follow Jesus One Step at a Time.
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(painting of the miraculous catch of fish by Raphael, 1515)
The Festival of Pentecost & Confirmation Day – Pr. Faugstad exordium & sermon
The Holy Spirit descended from heaven in the form of a dove at Jesus’ Baptism, and He arrived on Pentecost with the sound of “a mighty rushing wind” (Act. 2:2) and made “tongues as of fire” (v. 3) rest on the disciples. But generally, no unique sounds or visible manifestations are apparent when the Holy Spirit is at work. His power is seen in the change that happens to sinners.
When Jesus appeared many times to His disciples after His resurrection, they did not immediately go around telling people the good news. This changed when the Holy Spirit was poured out on them at Pentecost. Now they preached boldly in public in the very city where Jesus had been condemned and crucified just fifty days before. Now no threats or punishments could silence them, not even when they were arrested and beaten.
Through the apostles’ preaching, the Holy Spirit brought thousands more to faith in Jerusalem. As persecution intensified, these Christians spread the message of salvation in Christ wherever they went. The apostles also went out on missionary trips, preaching the Gospel despite great opposition.
By the Holy Spirit’s power, people in city after city believed. In Ephesus, those who had formerly “practiced magic arts,” now burned their books valued at a large sum of money (Act. 19:19). The Book of Acts says that “the church” everywhere “was being built up” (9:31), “the word of the Lord was spreading” to Jews and Gentiles (13:49), and “the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (19:20).
This powerful work of the Holy Spirit still continues among us. His power has not diminished since the first Pentecost. We can see this by the amount of believers who continue to gather around God’s Word. Without the Holy Spirit’s work, no one would believe the Gospel. But many do believe, not just here in this congregation, but throughout our country, and all around the world.
In recognition and thanks for the Holy Spirit’s saving work, we rise to sing our festival verse, “O Light of God’s Most Wondrous Love” (ELH 399)/“Holy Spirit, God of Love” (TLH 230).
Text: St. John 14:23-31
In Christ Jesus, who manifested His love for us through His death and resurrection, and who sent out the Holy Spirit that we might be partakers of this love, dear fellow redeemed, and especially you, Max, Campbelle, and Olivia, on your Confirmation Day:
Why is it that we direct most of our prayers to God the Father or God the Son, but hardly any to God the Holy Spirit? This has a lot to do with how Jesus taught His disciples to pray. In His model prayer He told them to say: “Our Father, who art in heaven.” In another place He said, “whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (Joh. 16:23). But the Holy Spirit is certainly also involved in these prayers. When we pray to the Father in Jesus’ name, we are able to do this only by the power of the Holy Spirit who brought us to faith and keeps us in the faith.
At times we do also direct prayers to the Holy Spirit, and it is not wrong to do this. The Holy Spirit is equal in power and authority with the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is true God. He is the Lord, and the Giver of life. He “proceeds from the Father and the Son,” and “with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,” as the Nicene Creed states.
One of the prayers to the Holy Spirit which the church has utilized for a long time is this one: “Come, Holy Spirit, and fill the hearts of Your faithful people, and kindle in them the fire of Your love.” It is a picturesque prayer. As the Holy Spirit once filled the hearts of the disciples and caused tongues of fire to rest on them, so we pray that He fills our hearts and kindles a spiritual fire within us.
But why do we need this? Why is it so important that the Holy Spirit come to us and work within us? We need His holy presence because by nature, we are sinful. As precious and innocent as we may have looked when we were born, we were not holy. King David expressed this reality in Psalm 51: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (v. 5). As sinners, we were separated from God. We had no communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
But God is merciful. He established means by which we could be called “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1Pe. 2:9). By the power of the Holy Spirit working through the living Word of God, a great number of sinners have been converted. They have been set on another path, a blessed way that leads to the mansions of heaven.
For the confirmand(s) sitting here today, this happened for them at their Baptism. When they were baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mat. 28:19), they were claimed by this merciful God as His very own children. Their sins were washed away, they were given the gift of saving faith, and they became heirs of everlasting life.
Children are baptized in white gowns to signify the righteousness of Jesus that covers over them through the water and the Word. And they are before us again today in white gowns to show that they understand and treasure the gift that became theirs at Baptism. They desire to make a public profession of the faith that came to them by the power of the Holy Spirit. And they desire to have their faith increase as they will now be admitted to the Table of their Lord to eat and drink His body and blood for the remission of their sins.
Our prayer for them is that the Holy Spirit will continue to come and fill them as He has throughout their lives, and that He would continuously “kindle in them the fire of His love.” It is also our prayer for ourselves. The Holy Spirit must kindle this love in us, because we cannot produce it on our own or learn it from the world.
The world has a very different idea of love. The world defines love as the support of the lifestyle each person chooses. But this definition only applies to certain groups. In our society today, we hear that we should support those who challenge and fight against long-standing values of sexuality, marriage, and family. At the same time, any who hold those long-standing values are to be silent. Those who do not get in line with the world’s program of conformity are hardly treated with love; instead they are attacked, labeled, and subjected to ridicule. So much for the world’s version of love.
The love we want to have kindled and growing inside us is the love of God in Christ. God showed His great love for the fallen world by sending His only Son to pay the price for sin. God’s Son became Man in the Virgin Mary’s womb, and He lived a perfectly holy life under God’s law. Then He carried all of humanity’s sins to the cross where He made atonement for them by the shedding of His blood.
Jesus did this for everybody, even for those who would never call on His name, who would never believe in Him. He suffered on the cross for all people’s sins, as though He were the one who committed these sins. Imagine this love! Unlike our culture today in which one group of people is so ready to hate another, Jesus willingly suffered and died for His enemies! That is an unmatched love. It is a love that brings us great comfort when we struggle and when we fail to do what we should. Jesus died for these sins, and He forgives every one.
This great love of God also motivates us to do better and be better. How could we take a lazy approach to the Christian life when we see how focused Jesus was on doing His Father’s will? How could we ignore our neighbors in need when we see how Jesus humbly died for sinners? The strength to live for God and neighbor comes from the saving message of Jesus through which the Holy Spirit sanctifies us. The Holy Spirit does not promise to come to us in any other way than through the means of grace, the Gospel in Word and Sacraments.
This is why Jesus emphasizes the importance of the Word in today’s text. He said, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” Whoever loves Jesus will “keep” His Word; whoever does not love Jesus will not “keep” His Word. “Keep” in this instance does not mean “obey.” Jesus is not just talking about obeying the Ten Commandments. The word “keep” means to “pay attention to,” “hold onto,” “keep close.”
This is what Jesus wants us to do with His Word. He wants us to value it as the greatest gift we have. He wants us to gladly hear and learn it. He wants us to fill our hearts and minds with it. This is what our confirmands have been doing the last few years, and we pray that it will continue until the end of their lives. As we hear and learn and meditate upon this powerful Word, the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Through the Word, the Holy Spirit does what Jesus said He would do—He teaches us all things and brings to our remembrance all things that Jesus said. In this way, He feeds and stokes the flame of faith ignited within us at our conversion.
So now we push our confirmands closer to the front lines of spiritual battle by ushering them to the Lord’s Table. But they do not need to be afraid. They go forward with the blessing of God, knowing that His Word is true and His love for them is unchanging. The Holy Spirit will confirm them in this faith more and more through the Word just as He does for all believers. And He will remind us how Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled neither let it be afraid.”
We have nothing to fear in this world, because “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). God grant that we may all grow in this confidence day after day, until we are taken from here to His eternal presence. “Come, Holy Spirit, and fill the hearts of Your faithful people, and Kindle in Them the Fire of Your Love.”
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(picture is stained glass window from Saude)
The Resurrection of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad exordium and sermon
Was there really a fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last week? Well how do you know? Were you there? Did you watch it happen? As far as I know, none of you have just returned from Europe. And yet you are convinced there was a huge fire in that cathedral. Why? It’s because you have seen pictures and video of the fire, and you have heard reports from the eyewitnesses. But since you did not see it with your own eyes, would you call the Notre Dame fire a matter of faith or fact?
The same question could be asked about Jesus’ resurrection: Is it a matter of faith or fact? The apostle Paul called it a fact. Paul said that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, and then rose again on the third day (2Co. 15:3-4). If no one could verify His resurrection, if no one saw Jesus alive again, it could not be considered a fact. But Paul stated that “he appeared to Cephas [or Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (vv. 5-8).
If Paul were telling a lie, he wouldn’t name these names. He wouldn’t make the claim that five hundred people at one time saw Jesus alive after His death. That would be easy to disprove if it were a lie. But Paul said that most of the five hundred were still alive when he wrote his letter. That means people could, if they wanted to, find those witnesses and ask them what they saw. And they would all say the same thing. Like Paul, some of these witnesses also wrote about Jesus’ resurrection. Their testimony is included with Paul’s in the New Testament of the Bible. There are also sources outside the Bible that make the same claim, sources that date near the time of these events.
But faith is a part of it too. You could hear the facts but not believe them. Simply knowing the fact of Jesus’ resurrection does not save you. Salvation comes from knowing and believing that Jesus “was delivered up for [your] trespasses and raised for [your] justification” (Rom. 4:25). In confident faith, let us now rise to sing our exordium hymn, “He Is Arisen! Glorious Word!” (ELH 348, TLH 189).
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Text: St. Mark 16:1-8
In Christ Jesus, who accomplished everything He was sent to do to the glory of His Father and for the salvation of all people, dear fellow redeemed:
We can’t help but notice everyone’s surprise that Jesus rose from the dead. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had wrapped Him in burial cloths and closed Him up in a tomb. The disciples went into hiding while they mourned His death. The women made plans to return to the tomb after the Sabbath and apply more spices to Jesus’ dead body.
But by Sunday morning, there was no dead body to be found. An angel came down from heaven and rolled back the stone from the tomb (Mat. 28:2). Those who looked inside did not see what they expected to see. They found nothing but burial cloths. Jesus was gone! “He is not here,” said the angel, “for he has risen, as he said” (Mat. 28:6).
“He Has Risen, as He Said.” His resurrection was no secret. Jesus predicted it would happen. He told His disciples before these events that “he must go to Jerusalem… and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mat. 16:21). Again He said, “[men] will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day” (17:23). And again, “they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day” (20:18-19). Those were Jesus’ own words. They were very clear.
He had spoken about His resurrection at other times too, but not as clearly. Early in His public work, He had told the Jewish religious leaders, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Joh. 2:19). They thought He was talking about the temple building, but “he was speaking about the temple of his body” (v. 21). Another time, He told the scribes and Pharisees that He would be three days and nights “in the heart of the earth,” just as Jonah was three days and nights “in the belly of the great fish” (Mat. 12:40).
Ironically, it seems Jesus’ enemies took His words more seriously than His disciples did. The chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate the day after Jesus’ death 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” (Mat. 27:63-64).
Isn’t that something? Jesus’ enemies heard the prediction loud and clear, but they did not want it to be true. Jesus’ disciples, on the other hand, did not understand or grasp what He said, even though they desperately wanted it to be true. I suppose we can’t be too hard on the disciples. We are likewise faced with the tension between what Jesus says and what our eyes see, between His promise and our experience.
We face this tension whenever we lay someone to rest in the tomb. It is obvious to us that the body is dead, that no life remains in it anymore. How can we be so sure that the body will rise again? No one has ever seen a dead person come back to life. Cemeteries do not typically shrink in size; they expand. So we are really in the same place as the disciples were from Good Friday evening to Easter Sunday morning. As far as we can observe, death is final.
But the Lord kept His Word; He did rise from the dead. The disciples could hardly believe what they were seeing. That’s why Jesus wanted them to cling to His Word. Our own sight, experience, and reason are not infallible, but the Word is. After His resurrection, the disciples remembered Jesus’ prediction, “and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (Joh. 2:22; also Luk. 24:6-7).
Does that mean we cannot be sure of our resurrection and the resurrection of our loved ones until we see it happen? Not at all. We can be sure of the resurrection of the body because of Jesus’ resurrection. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Joh. 11:25-26). Even the night before His death He said, “Because I live, you also will live” (14:19).
Because Jesus lives, we will live. Because He rose again from the dead, we will rise again from the dead. Our life here and our eternal future are completely tied up in Him. This connection to the living Lord started for many of us at our baptism. Paul writes, “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” (Rom. 6:4-5).
Paul says that if we died to sin through baptism, if our sins were buried with Christ, then they do not stick to us anymore. Jesus atoned for them on the cross, and they were buried with Him in the tomb. Those sins did not rise again with Jesus on Easter. They stayed buried. That means our sin is no longer counted against us. That means death no longer has dominion over us, because it “no longer has dominion over Jesus” (v. 9). Jesus’ resurrection means you “must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11).
But often the opposite seems to be true. Sin and death seem very alive in us, while hope and life seem dead. We are troubled by the things we have done. We knew something was wrong, but we did it anyway. We are bothered by the bad thoughts that keep flying around in our heads. We can’t get over the guilt of our failures, both the big ones and the small ones. We hardly look like the redeemed and righteous children of God that we became at our baptism.
This is why we return every day to the waters of our baptism by repentance and faith. We drown our old Adam with its sins and evil lusts, and we cling to the sure promises of Jesus. We also return each week to be comforted and strengthened by God’s Word in the Divine Service. This is why we have come here today. We have come to hear the words of the angel: “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen!” (Mar. 16:6).
Jesus was crucified for you, for all your sins. He paid the debt you owed. The work to save you was, as He said, “finished!” (John 19:30). And His empty tomb proves that His saving work was accepted by God the Father. God is not angry with you. He forgives you. Christ’s resurrection is your justification. It is the declaration of your innocence before God.
You can’t know this forgiveness by feeling it. You may not always feel forgiven, but you are. You are forgiven because “He Has Risen, as He Said.” Jesus kept His Word. He did what He said He would do. He always keeps His Word. This is why you can be certain that your sins are forgiven, and that you and all the dead will rise again on the last day. You will rise again because Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.
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(picture of Easter morning sunrise at Saude Lutheran Church)
The First Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 2:41-52
In Christ Jesus, whose life of perfect righteousness is bestowed upon us through His holy Word, dear fellow redeemed:
Parents want their children to be respectful, hardworking, and clean. These things don’t happen on their own. Parents teach their children to say “please” and “thank you.” They insist that their children finish their homework. They tell them to brush their teeth and pick up after themselves. One reminder does not do the job. These lessons must be repeated many times until they (hopefully) become habit.
But not all lessons are learned by verbal reminders. Children learn many things simply by watching their parents and following their example. My father demonstrated what it looked like to work hard and not complain. He taught his sons to show respect for women by opening doors for them, and he taught his daughters in the same way what to expect from a man. My parents taught us that Sunday is church day, and we went every week. They didn’t have to tell us these things; they showed us these things.
Today’s text indicates that Joseph and Mary also kept up good spiritual habits in their family. They would have attended their local synagogue each Sabbath day to hear the Scriptures, recite Psalms, and pray. And once a year, they made the several day journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. The Passover celebration was significant to the Jews like Good Friday and Easter are to us. The Passover was when the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt and started their journey to the Promised Land. Without the Passover, there was no freedom—and no nation with its spiritual center in Jerusalem.
Imagine how children must have looked forward to this trip, to leave their small towns and communities and join the great crowds in the holy city. Families navigated the narrow streets while fathers and mothers told their wide-eyed kids to “Stay close!” The kids couldn’t help being distracted. There were so many people and so much going on! But what they most wanted to catch a glimpse of was the shining temple, standing high on the hill.
When the temple came in view, Joseph and Mary must have told Jesus more than once about the day they brought Him there when he was a baby, just forty days old. As the law required, they were to present Him to the Lord in the temple. When they entered the temple courts, a man named Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and predicted great things about Him. A woman named Anna also came over and told everyone around them that the Redeemer had come.
What do you suppose Jesus thought about these things as He got older? What did He think about the visit of the shepherds the night of His birth, the words of Simeon and Anna at the temple, the visit of the wise men, and the flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s rage? When we were younger, people made predictions about what we might be and do, which probably had something to do with the vocations of our parents. And then we all reached the point where we wanted to be nothing like our parents—before we became something like our parents….
As children, we may have been told that we could be the President of the United States someday, or a professional athlete, or a famous actor. But no one actually expected us to be this. Jesus was called the Messiah, the Savior, and the Light of the world, and those who said so fully expected Him to do it. What would a twelve-year-old boy make of all these things?
Of course, Jesus was not simply a boy. He was God. And God knows all things and has power over all. But Jesus was still a human being. As a human being, He did not make full use of His divine powers. He humbled Himself. This means it was possible for Him to learn and to wonder about things. He wondered about those predictions for His life. Where could He go for guidance, for deeper insights about what was coming? What better place than the Holy Scriptures, and what better teachers than the ones in the temple?
Now that Jesus was twelve, His parents trusted Him to do some things on His own. Expecting that He was part of the group going back to Nazareth, they left Jerusalem. But Jesus was not part of the group. He had gone to the temple. He found the temple teachers and sat among them, “listening to them and asking them questions.” For at least parts of three days, the boy Jesus gladly heard and studied God’s Word.
But He wasn’t the only one learning. All who listened to Jesus’ questions and responses “were amazed at His understanding and His answers.” It was not as though Jesus was presuming to lecture the group. He did not take the teacher’s chair. He humbly studied under those in authority over Him. But teaching is not a one-way street. Those who teach probably learn as much themselves as their students do. I suspect you would agree with this if you have taught Sunday or Wednesday School or helped your child with a Catechism lesson.
The same is true with home devotions. When parents lead devotions with their children, they learn just as much as their children do, if not more. Sometimes the learning comes from insights their children have or from questions they ask. Have you ever had a child ask you a profound question about God or about the meaning of life? It takes you by surprise. These don’t seem like the kinds of things children think about, but they do.
Besides the questions they ask, children model for adults a strong faith in Jesus. The minds of adults are full of doubts about God and His love and the future. But children are not troubled by these things. They sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” and they believe it wholeheartedly.
Jesus Himself pointed to children as the model for faith. On one occasion, parents were bringing their children to Jesus for His blessing. Jesus’ disciples were trying to keep them away. They thought children were a distraction to His work. Jesus was not pleased. He told His disciples, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mar. 14-15). His words still stand. You and I do not outgrow the need for a childlike faith.
But having a childlike faith does not mean being content with the basic teachings of the Bible and digging no further. When a child has a hobby, does he just declare what his hobby is but never do anything with it? No! He explores it. He wants to know more about it. He wants to know how it works. Materials to advance his hobby are all he requests for Christmas or his birthday. We should be the same way with God’s Word. We should study the truth with no less dedication now than we did in Christian Day School, in Sunday or Wednesday School, or in Catechism Class.
We should want to listen to the Word and ask questions about it, just as Jesus did. We can learn a lot from a Twelve-year-old. Mary and Joseph learned from Him too. They were understandably distressed when they could not locate Jesus over three days. But Jesus had not gone to the temple to frustrate them. He said to His mother, “Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” They needed this reminder. It was probably too easy for them to view Jesus as a regular boy and to forget that He was God in the flesh.
We forget that too. We can think of the accounts about Jesus in the Bible as nice stories that don’t have much impact on us today. But Jesus was not simply a wise teacher or a miracle worker. Jesus is true God and Man, who shed His holy blood for our sins. He came to redeem us from the sins of our youth, our teenage years, our 20s and 30s, and beyond. He came to atone for our sins of being bad examples to children, of failing to study His Word, and of taking His holy gifts for granted. Jesus died for all of these sins, and He remembers them no more.
Through the message of forgiveness, Jesus also works in you good and holy desires. He leads you to pay closer attention to His Word, and He helps you to make it a part of your home life. You may not feel equipped to study the Word on your own or to teach it to your children, but you would certainly acknowledge that you have more to learn. Learning and growing in God’s Word is as simple as setting aside five minutes at breakfast or after supper or before bed to read a devotion or a chapter from the Bible. Then you and your children will develop good spiritual habits. And you will be passing along to them a greater inheritance than any amount of money or precious things.
Even Jesus, who according to His divine nature knew all things, made the study of the Scriptures His priority. His example was a powerful lesson for the adults around Him, just as it is for us today. But He is not just our example. He is our Savior. His perfect desire for God’s Word counts as our righteousness for all the times we have broken the Third Commandment. And His perfect submission to His parents and to all earthly authority counts for each time we have broken the Fourth Commandment.
His righteousness is continuously applied to us and brings relief to our conscience every time we hear His Word. You and I will never outgrow the need for this instruction and comfort. Whether you are ten or twenty or forty or eighty, God has more to teach you about the rich blessings of His grace, which Jesus obtained for you.
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(painting excerpt from “Jesus Among the Doctors” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Epiphany of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 2:1-12
In Christ Jesus, our Priceless Treasure, who by His suffering and death has unlocked for sinners all the riches of heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
Most Christian children can name the gifts the wise men brought to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Their gifts are memorable because they are unique. We know what gold is, but what are frankincense and myrrh? They are gummy substances that ooze from trees native to the Arabian Peninsula. They give off a sweet aroma when burnt, much like the incense we might burn in our homes. Myrrh was also used to sweeten wine (Mar. 15:23) and was utilized for burials, like it was when Joseph and Nicodemus laid Jesus to rest (Joh. 19:39-40).
We understand the gift of gold for the “King of the Jews,” but we are not sure why frankincense and myrrh were offered. Perhaps these were rare in the area where the wise men lived. They did in a way foreshadow the work Jesus came to do. Like a priest offering up prayers at the altar of incense, so Jesus would intercede for sinners and offer Himself as a sacrifice to God. And the customary use of myrrh for burial foreshadowed Jesus’ death to save mankind.
These were generous gifts, and they probably caught Mary by surprise as much as these strange visitors did. What a sight to see those foreigners bow down to her little Child and present their treasures! There in a humble home in Bethlehem, they worshiped Him and called Him their King. Their actions revealed the foremost concern of their hearts. Nothing was more important to them than finding this Jewish King.
Their visit also revealed the priorities of King Herod and the people of Jerusalem. Herod is known to history as “Herod the Great.” He was appointed king in Judea by the Roman senate and remained on the throne until his death about 35 years later. He was adept at pacifying his superiors in Rome while also suppressing any threat to his rule in Judea. He is known as “great” because of his ambitious building projects, most notably rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem.
But there were many other things that made him not so great. He married multiple times, discarding one wife for another if he thought he could gain politically. He also had various family members killed—including three of his own sons—when he suspected them of plotting against him. This explains Herod’s reaction when the wise men came looking for the “King of the Jews.” Matthew writes that Herod “was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod would tolerate no potential challenge to his throne. He was the king of the Jews, not some little baby!
Jerusalem was troubled because the full force of Herod’s fury was directed toward solving this problem. He quickly brought together all the chief priests and scribes and wanted to know “where the Christ was to be born.” Notice that Herod referred to the Child by His title of “Christ” or “Messiah.” He was aware of the Old Testament prophesies about this Baby.
So were the religious leaders. They correctly stated that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem. But their interest in the matter went no further. After delivering the information to Herod, they went back to their business. None of them could be bothered to investigate further, despite the sudden appearance of these strange men from the east.
And Herod could think of nothing more than protecting his earthy power. He put on a show of humility, telling the wise men that he wanted to worship the Christ-Child too. In reality he wanted to learn where the Baby was, so he could kill Him. We see here how the leaders of the church and state were occupied with the wrong things, just as so many are today. The church leaders knew what the Scriptures said, but they did not believe it. Or they feared what might happen to them if they followed it. And King Herod heard the truth, but all he cared about was himself.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about how temporary all these worldly pursuits are: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mat. 6:19-21).
In this passage, Jesus does not give the advice the world does. He does not tell you to follow your heart or trust your feelings to lead you to good things. He says the opposite. He says that if you want to know where your heart is, look at what you treasure the most. We know what we should treasure the most. We know we should treasure Jesus and His Word the most. But if that were the case, God’s Law and Gospel would occupy a large part of our thoughts. We would constantly desire to study it and live according to it.
Instead we let other things take the rightful place of God’s Word. Our primary concern may be money and securing a comfortable future. It may be respect and prestige in our work and doing whatever it takes to advance. It may be our appearance and getting others to notice us. It may be our children’s future success by giving them the best opportunities now. There is nothing wrong with money and respect and caring for our bodies and giving opportunities to our children. But these things must not be what we treasure the most.
The devil and our own flesh want us to ignore and despise our greatest treasure. They want our Bibles and devotion books to collect dust on the table or shelf. They want us to believe that there is no room in our busy schedules for regular church attendance. And when we are in church, they want us to be distracted by thinking about our plans for the rest of the day. In other words, the devil and our sinful flesh want us to starve while a feast is on the table in front of us. They want us to throw away the treasure box and the key that opens it.
But we could not hope for greater treasure than what we have in the divine service. We have God’s Word and Sacraments, through which we receive His heavenly riches. The world and our sinful flesh cannot understand this, just as they have no appreciation for the events of Epiphany. If any unbeliever looked at a picture of the wise men visiting the Child Jesus, they would say that the greatest treasure in the room was the gold. And they would think it strange to see grown men bow down before a Baby. What is so special about a Baby?
In the same way, if an unbeliever visited our church, they might think that the greatest treasure is the building with its ornate altar and other decorative features. Or they might see potential in the offerings given by the members. But they would likely be unimpressed by our liturgy, hymns, and sermon, and the strange practice of going to the Communion rail and eating bread from the pastor’s hand.
But our greatest treasure is located in those humble means. The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1Co. 1:18). The Word of the Gospel is a powerful Word. It is a Word that gives what it declares. To the weak it gives strength. To the grieving it gives comfort. To the dying it gives life. The Word gives all these things because Jesus comes through the Word, and Jesus is our strength, comfort, and life.
Paul expressed in another place his prayer for the Christians in Colossae and Laodicea, “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:2-3). Paul says that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”—all of these are found in Christ. In Him, we have forgiveness for all our sins and eternal life.
The way you lay up these treasures for yourself is to gladly hear and learn the Gospel and to hunger and thirst for the saving body and blood of Jesus in His Supper. It may be difficult for you to grasp why God is so good to you and so willing to give you His gifts. How could He be that eager to come to one who is often distracted by the things of the world? How could He make you such a priority, when He and His Word are not always at the top of your list?
God’s love for you and me is impossible to comprehend. His love is the reason that God became Man and was born in Bethlehem. His love is the reason the Christ Child was revealed to the wise men through a special star in the sky. His love is the reason Jesus offered His life for yours to save you from your sin and death. In one of his hymns, Paul Gerhardt wrote about the great riches we have through the shedding of Jesus’ blood:
Enlarge, O thou, my heart, thy shrine,
To hold this treasure given;
Far greater treasure here is thine
Than earth and sea and heaven.
Away, gold of Arabia,
Away, myrrh, aloes, cassia!
I’ve found a better portion,
My greater treasure, Jesus Christ,
Is this which from Thy wounds most blest
Flowed forth for my salvation. (ELH #331, v. 7)
Jesus—with His perfect righteousness and cleansing blood—Is Our Greatest Treasure. The wise men believed this too. They knew their gifts were not equal to their King. No amount of treasure in the world could be a sufficient offering for the One who made all things. But Jesus does not yearn for these things. What He desires most from us is a humble heart of repentance and trust in His everlasting promises. As Gerhardt wrote in another hymn:
The world may hold
Her wealth and gold;
But thou, my heart, keep Christ as thy true Treasure.
To Him hold fast
Until at last
A crown be thine and honor in full measure. (ELH #161, v. 6)
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(late 1800s mural, “Adoration of the Magi,” is displayed in the basilica in Conception, Missouri)
The Holy Nativity of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad Exordium and Sermon
Is it “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy Holidays!” We prefer “Merry Christmas” because Christ is “the reason for the season.” If there is no birth at Bethlehem to celebrate, then we’re left with a season of bright lights, glittering decorations, gift giving, and Santa Claus—but no Savior. On the other hand, “Happy Holidays” is not totally objectionable. “Holidays” comes from “Holy days,” and the birth of the Christ-Child is a holy—a sacred—event.
While we can see the cultural tug-of-war between these two greetings, there seems to be no argument about the words “merry” and “happy.” One means just about the same as the other. We want people to have merriment and happiness. But as nice as this is, our wish cannot make it happen.
This is a time of year that not everyone feels so cheerful. Some feel very alone with no one who seems to understand or care for them. For others the season is a reminder of happier times past and of loved ones no longer present. As much as they might appreciate the sentiment of a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” the warm feelings escape them.
You may be among those this morning who do not feel “merry.” But you can still rejoice, even in your sorrows and troubles. You can rejoice because the Savior was born into the world today, the One who would defeat the devil, pay your debt of sin, and destroy your death. Jesus the Christ came to do this for you. He came to win your salvation, so that you would enjoy everlasting merriment and happiness with Him in heaven. Let us therefore rejoice in these glad tidings by singing our festival hymn, “Rejoice, Rejoice This Happy Morn!” (#142):
Rejoice, rejoice this happy morn!
A Savior unto us is born,
The Christ, the Lord of glory.
His lowly birth in Bethlehem
The angels from on high proclaim
And sing redemption’s story.
God’s great favor;
Bless Him ever
Give Him praise and adoration!
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Sermon text: St. John 1:1-14
In Christ Jesus, God incarnate, eternally begotten and born in time, dear fellow redeemed:
Today is the birthday of Jesus. But we celebrate it differently than the way we celebrate the birthdays of friends and relatives. And that is as it should be. The birth of the Christ-Child should stand out. We would not do the day justice if we sang a quick round of the “Happy Birthday” song to Jesus before cutting into some festive birthday cake. Only the best will do for this occasion. So we bring out our most elaborate decorations. We give special gifts. We join the angels in singing “Glory to God in the highest!” We resolve to live holier lives to honor His name.
But even our best efforts fall short. No collection of beautiful things, no amount of riches, no high-sounding praise, and no good deeds are equal to what is declared in today’s text: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Who is “the Word”? “The Word” is the Son of God, begotten of the Father from eternity. He was with the Father in the beginning when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). As all creation was spoken into existence, the Son—the Word—was at work. “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” From the plants to the bugs to the birds to the fish to the cattle to humankind, all living things were given life through the Son.
But then death entered the world. Man and woman did not think they could really live unless they ate from the forbidden tree. They found that just the opposite was true. The LORD came and told the man, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). Now their flesh would die, and their children would die, and their children’s children and all the generations after them would die. The prophet Isaiah described the terrible outcome of Adam and Eve’s sin: “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass” (40:6-7).
And yet we wonder: Are we really so weak? Are we no more than blades of grass in this life? But look at everything we have accomplished! Look at our great cities! Look at our ingenuity and creativity! Look at how we have subdued the wild things of the earth! It is true that humans are capable of many things. But there is one thing they have not and never could master. They cannot stand against death.
If you come down with pneumonia or some kind of infection, you are given an antibiotic to combat the sickness. This medicine must be introduced into your body, so that you can get better. The entire human race needed something like this. We needed an antidote for the poison of sin which had worked its way all through us. What could counteract it? Isaiah continues, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (v. 8). The Word stands forever. The Word is life.
And “when the fullness of time had come” (Gal. 4:4), “the Word became flesh.” The Word who gave life to all things at creation now entered His creation in the most surprising and mysterious way—He bound human flesh to Himself. He did this by entering the small confines of a virgin’s womb as a human embryo. A short time later, His heart began to beat. His arms and legs formed. His brain developed. Mary was obviously “with child,” but no one—not even Mary—fully grasped who this Child was.
His birth was greeted with joy as births so often are. We love to see new life enter the world. There is nothing as precious as a tiny, wide-eyed baby. But as Mary and Joseph and the shepherds looked down at Jesus and held Him in their arms, they were not simply looking at a cute newborn. They were staring into the eyes of God. They were holding the One who held up all things. They gently cradled Him who would save them from eternal destruction. They seemed to be superior in strength to this Infant. But their strength was only temporary. Their flesh would give out in time.
This is why “the Word became flesh.” God became man to save humankind from its certain fate. He brought His life-giving power into the world of death. He came to dispel the darkness of sin by His life of perfect righteousness and by His innocent suffering and death. He was the antidote for the poison of sin. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
So Life entered the world on Christmas, but John writes that “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.” What a tragedy! Life had come for the dying, but they did not see what was before them. They pushed Him away. They did not want Him. This still happens. The Savior came for all, but so many think they do not need Him. They do not believe their condition is that serious. They might celebrate Christmas but not with any real concern about their sin or their Savior.
But there are some who welcome Christ’s coming in the right way. They approach Christmas with humility. They understand how corrupt the world is and their own heart. They celebrate Jesus’ birth, because they know His birth means salvation.
Your birthday without Jesus’ birthday would mean you are still in your sins. Your birthday is a special day, but you needed to be born again. Physical life in this world is only temporary; human flesh only lasts so long. You needed the spiritual life that Jesus obtained through His holy birth and life, His death, and resurrection. But none can conceive spiritual life in themselves. The dead cannot bring themselves to life. God must do this, and He does it through the Word.
John writes, “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Believers in Jesus, those whose hearts are filled with new life and hope, were given this spiritual life not through their own striving and efforts. They were born “of God.” He chose them. He sent His Son for them, to save them. His holy life counts as their holy life. His death for sin counts as their death for sin.
Everything that Jesus accomplished during His time on earth is given to us now through His Word. Many of you received these blessings just after your birth by the power of the Word in baptism. This is when God filled you with life and claimed you as His child. Others came to faith later in life by the same powerful Word. Whenever it happened, the injection of the Gospel into your heart is when you really started to live. This is when the Lord of life entered your dying flesh to give you the hope of eternal life.
It was for your salvation that “the Word became flesh.” This is why God’s Son took on flesh and was born of the virgin Mary. Our humble decorations cannot properly adorn this day, our gifts cannot do it justice, our hymns of praise cannot fully express it, our best efforts cannot equal it. And yet, we do and give what we can in thankfulness to our Savior.
He is pleased with our lowly praises because He is pleased with us. He looks with favor upon us like a loving parent looks upon his dear child. He will not forget His child. He will continue to feed and nourish us with the food of life, with the nourishment of the Word, until we are finally transferred from here, from this life of trouble and sorrow, into His glorious kingdom of light.
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(painting is “Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1592-1656)
The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 1:18-25
In Christ Jesus, who has not left us as orphans in this sin-filled world, but who comes to us to strengthen and keep us in the faith until His final coming in glory, dear fellow redeemed:
Faith is a major theme in this part of the year, not just in the church but also in society. Our society encourages faith with regard to Santa Claus. Many holiday movies are based on the idea that Santa can carry out his gift-giving work only if enough people believe in him. Their faith is what gives him power. Naturally this belief in Santa is most challenging for adults, whose reason gets in the way. But the adults always come around, and everyone has a happy Christmas.
The church also preaches the need for faith, but the object of faith is not Santa and his promise of earthly gifts. The church’s object of faith is Jesus Christ and His promise of heavenly gifts. A childlike faith is needed here too, since it is easy to have doubts about what Jesus has accomplished. But while there is no evidence for Santa beyond recent and fictional fantasy, there is extensive evidence for Jesus in the ancient and historical texts of the Bible.
From Genesis to Revelation, the central character in the Bible is the Savior promised to Adam and Eve and their descendants after the fall into sin. At that time, the Lord told the devil: “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” (Gen. 3:15).
What did that mean? The Lord was telling Satan that he would not have his way with mankind. He would not be able to lead them unopposed into darkness. Satan’s offspring and the woman’s offspring would be at enmity with each other. They would be adversaries. They would struggle and battle against one another. And then at a certain point, one particular Descendant of the woman would stomp on Satan’s head. He would crush any authority the devil had.
When would these things take place? The struggle between righteousness and unrighteousness was evident right away. Sin strained the marriage of Adam and Eve, and the devil’s work was also manifest in their children. Their firstborn son Cain became angry at his younger brother Abel when the Lord accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. The Lord warned Cain that “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7). But Cain allowed Satan to slither in, and Cain attacked and killed his brother.
How sad this must have been for Adam and Eve! They had hoped Cain might be the promised Offspring who would crush the deceiver’s head. Instead they watched the devil tempt Cain to sin just as he had tempted them. When would their Redeemer come? Adam waited hundreds of years for this Savior, but by the time of his death at age 930 the Savior had not arrived (5:3-5). Then more time passed, a lot more time. Centuries turned into millennia, and still there was no Savior.
The need for a Savior was obvious. Before God sent the worldwide flood, the Bible says that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5). This wickedness continued after the flood too. When not only ten righteous people could be found in Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lord rained down fire and destroyed those cities. By the time the prophet Elijah came along, he thought he was the only believer left in the entire world. He wasn’t far off. The Lord said that just 7000 Israelites continued to follow Him (1Ki. 19:18). That is the equivalent of the towns of Cresco and New Hampton pitted against the rest of the world.
The devil appeared to be working unchecked among men and winning the battle. When would his terrible reign end? When would the woman’s Offspring come, the One who would conquer him? No one knew. But there were prophesies, prophesies that more and more clearly prepared the people for the Savior’s coming. One of these was delivered to King Ahaz by the prophet Isaiah in the 700s B. C., and it is repeated in today’s Gospel lesson: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).
“[T]he virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” That must be the woman’s Offspring! But here was a new detail. The woman would be a virgin, and yet she would give birth to a son. This is why the child could be called “Immanuel,” a title meaning “God with us.” If a child were conceived in the natural way, he could not be called “Immanuel.” But this child would be conceived in a supernatural way. This is how the perfect God would become a member of the human race while retaining His righteousness and innocence.
So the stage was set. The Savior would come from a virgin woman who trusted the promises of God. Now what was the Lord waiting for? Hadn’t the devil done enough damage? But the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise waited another 700 years. It was not until “the fullness of time had come,” which God in His wisdom had determined. At that point in history, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4-5). The eternal Son of God was the child who grew inside Mary’s womb. The angel told Joseph that this child “which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit,” and that “He will save His people from their sins.”
There is no question in the Bible about whether or not the promised Savior came. This is what we celebrate at Christmas, the coming of Immanuel—God with us—to save sinners. This God incarnate did what He was sent to do. He perfectly kept God’s law on behalf of all people, and He was crucified and died for their sins. On the third day, He rose again in victory over death, and forty days later He ascended into heaven.
But we do not see Him now like the disciples did. We did not witness His many miracles. We did not see Him die and rise again. We long for His presence now as we go through our troubles and trials. How can we make Him a part of our lives? How can we be sure that He is near? Some speak about Jesus in nearly the same way that they speak about Santa. They say that Jesus’ coming really depends on us. If we believe in Him enough, then He will come.
But the comfort of the Gospel is that He comes to us even when our faith is barely there, when we are hanging on by our fingertips. This happens when we feel guilt for wrongs we have done. We let Satan in. We did what we knew we shouldn’t. And now we live with a violated conscience. At these times, the devil is only too glad to whisper in our ear, “Look what you’ve done! How could God love you? What a failure you are!”
Other times, we struggle with intense doubt and grief because of a loss we have experienced. “Why did God let me endure such financial hardship?” “Why didn’t He stop those who ruined my reputation?” “Why did He take away the one I love?” It is hard for us to see His grace and goodness in these difficult times. We even wonder whether God might be punishing us. We wonder if He is worth following at all.
But as far away as Jesus seems to be at these times, He is actually quite close. He does not wait for us to have enough faith. He comes to us to give us faith and strengthen it. Like His humble coming into the world, so He still hides His glorious presence in humble means. He comes to us through the simple preaching of His Word and through the water, bread, and wine of His Sacraments. And He does this work through unimpressive men whose weaknesses are well known.
His saving power is not affected by our lack of faith. He comes on His own to bestow His rich blessings upon us. He comes with forgiveness for stubborn sinners who have trouble admitting their wrongs. He brings healing to those whose wounds are self-inflicted. He covers with His righteousness the ones whom the world calls unredeemable. “Immanuel” still comes to us. He is still “God with us”—God with us through His holy Word.
And Jesus, our Immanuel, will come again in glory. Just as the people of the Old Testament waited for God to fulfill His promise to send a Savior, so we now wait for our Savior to return on the last day. He could come back tomorrow, or His glorious coming might be thousands of years away. What seems like a long time to us is not a long time to our God. “[W]ith the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2Pe. 3:8).
But as surely as the Lord kept His promise to send a Savior, and as surely as Jesus still comes to us through His holy Word, so He surely will come again in glory. On that day, Jesus will do exactly what He has promised. He will raise all the dead and will glorify the bodies of all believers. Then these saints will be gathered to His glorious presence in heaven.
In heaven there will be no more struggle against the devil. There will be no more feelings of doubt and loneliness and sorrow. Because then we will finally be taken up to Him who came down to save us.
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(painting of the angel’s visit to Joseph by Toros Roslin, 1262)