The First Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 21:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who comes to you today bringing His peace and comfort, meeting you in whatever sorrow, pain, or struggle you are experiencing, dear fellow redeemed:
In today’s text, which we hear both at the beginning of the Church Year and at the beginning of Holy Week, we see Jesus with a definite plan. He is full of purpose. He knows just how He wants everything to play out. “Go into that village. Find a donkey and a colt. Untie and bring them. Tell anyone, ‘The Lord needs them.’” Jesus is giving orders. He is acting like a king. He is a king.
But these directions of Jesus were about more than the moment. He gave these directions in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Nearly 500 years before this, Zechariah had prophesied about a king coming to Jerusalem on a donkey. How do we know that Jesus was this king? Anyone could have ridden to Jerusalem on a donkey, and other kings like David and Solomon had used mules before this for royal purposes (1Ki. 1:33).
What made Jesus unique was that He came speaking about a different kind of kingdom. He had not come to overthrow the Romans and set up an earthly throne. He had come to establish an eternal kingdom. This is what the prophet Zechariah described. He wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9).
This king would be “righteous and having salvation.” Many kings, rulers, and presidents are viewed that way when they first come to power. They are viewed as ones who will right the wrongs of the past, who will lead the people into a new era of peace and prosperity. But it often isn’t long before we see gaps in their armor. They aren’t as righteous as we thought. They aren’t really capable of delivering on all the promises they made.
The king who comes to Jerusalem does not come with empty promises. He comes to make good on His promises. He comes to make good on all of God’s promises given since the beginning of time. He comes to bring salvation. The salvation He brings is not salvation from inflation, from high gas prices and high food costs. It is not salvation from community conflict or partisan politics. He comes to bring salvation from sin, salvation from death, salvation from the devil and all the powers of darkness.
Jesus faced these enemies all by Himself. He was not a selfish king, worried only about protecting His own comfortable way of life. He was not a ruthless king, ordering His people to march out against an overwhelming force. He was a Savior King, one who comes to give, to sacrifice Himself for the good of the people, to die so that they would live.
His humble approach to His kingship is hard to understand. How can a king conquer by suffering? How can He win by appearing to lose? How can He reign without a physical fortress? The world views Jesus as a nice guy, as a friendly person. But the world does not view Him as a king. In fact, the world laughs at this idea.
We have our doubts too. It’s hard to believe that Jesus “is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” (Apostles’ Creed). It’s hard to believe what Jesus says, that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mat. 28:18). If He is reigning over all things, why doesn’t He destroy the wicked plans of wicked people? Why does He let harm come to His own people who trust in Him? Why doesn’t His Church make a greater impact in the world?
These doubts lead to questions about His kingly rule in our lives as well. If He really does reign on high, where is He when I am distressed, mistreated, in pain, struggling, tempted? It is easy for us to list the things we think Jesus should be doing differently right now. What we are really thinking is, “This is what I would be doing if I were king.”
If you or I were king, it is true that we would not be doing what Jesus did. If we had the powers He had, we would not ride meekly into Jerusalem. We would not bow to any mob in the Garden of Gethsemane. We would not let Pilate’s men scourge and mock us. And we certainly wouldn’t submit to the cross and nails. We would lead a righteous cleansing of all the positions of power filled with schemers, deceivers, and murderers. We would establish a kingdom of justice and good.
Wherever that has been tried—and it has been tried over and over again—it is not righteousness that reigns, but selfishness. Peace does not rule the day, but violence. We do not know better than Jesus what His kingdom needs. We could never rule better than He does. He came meekly and humbly to Jerusalem because the world didn’t need another dictator—no matter how well-intentioned. The world needed a Savior.
That’s what you need too. You don’t need a carefree, trouble-free, pain-free life. That may be what you want, but it isn’t what you need. What you need is forgiveness for your sins, which is yours because Jesus offered up His holy life in your place on the cross. What you need is victory over death and the devil, which is yours because Jesus did not stay in the grave but rose to life in triumph.
You can live with pain; you can live with anguish; you can live with sorrow. But you can’t live without Jesus. He brings comfort; He brings help; He brings joy. How does He bring these things? He brings them through His Word of peace. After Zechariah describes a king coming with righteousness and salvation, humble and mounted on a donkey, he writes that the king “shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (9:10).
The King will use His power and authority for peace. He “shall speak peace to the nations.” When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the Jewish religious leaders prepared for war; the Roman soldiers prepared for war. Jesus came to make peace—peace by the blood of His cross, peace between God and mankind.
The peace that He won at the end of Holy Week, He still distributes now through His Word and Sacraments. These are the marching orders our Savior King has given His Church. “Go!” He says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mat. 28:19-20). “Do!” He says, “Take, eat; drink of it, all of you. Do this, in remembrance of Me.”
Jesus has a definite plan. He is full of purpose. He wants you to know that your sins are forgiven. He wants you to know that the devil’s grounds for accusation have been eliminated. He wants you to know that your death is effectively dead and buried. To assure you of these things, Your Savior King Comes to You. We can’t understand how He could enter so humbly into Jerusalem. And we certainly can’t understand how He so willingly and humbly enters our lives and our hearts.
This King—Our King—who reigns at the right hand of God, cares about each one of us. He comes to serve each one of us. Our sins do not cause Him to turn back. Our doubts do not cause Him to second-guess His mission. Our ingratitude does not cause Him to stop loving us. He comes definitely, constantly, relentlessly through His powerful Word of peace.
He does not have an earthly fortress with high walls and formidable defenses. The outposts of His kingdom, the places of His presence, look a lot like He does. The churches where His Word is purely preached and His Sacraments are rightly administered are meek and humble places. They are often characterized by suffering and defeat. The world laughs at them and expects them to be easily overcome.
But the all-powerful King of the universe is here. His throne is on the altar. His decrees go forth from the pulpit. His kingdom forcefully advances from the font. The devil knows what the world does not. Nothing threatens his dark kingdom more than Jesus’ Word and Sacraments. This church is on the front lines. So is your home, where you and your family gather around the Word. But as formidable as the devil is, he is nothing compared to your Savior King. The devil has already lost; his kingdom will not prevail.
Jesus prevails. He comes to you. He comes to save.
No care nor effort either
Is needed day or night,
How ye may draw Him hither
In your own strength and might.
He comes, He comes with gladness,
Moved by His love alone,
To calm your fear and sadness,
To Him they well are known.
Why should the wicked move you?
Heed not their craft and spite!
Your Savior who doth love you
Will scatter all their might.
He comes, a King most glorious,
And all His earthly foes
In vain His course victorious
Endeavor to oppose.
He comes to judge the nations,
A terror to His foes,
A Light of consolations
And blessed Hope to those
Who love the Lord’s appearing.
O glorious Sun, now come,
Send forth Thy beams so cheering,
And guide us safely home! Amen.
(Paul Gerhardt, ELH #94, vv. 7,9,10)
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “Entry of Christ into Jerusalem” by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1320)
Thanksgiving – Vicar Anderson homily
Text: Psalm 92
In Christ Jesus, who graciously gives you everything needed for body and soul and to whom we owe proper thanks and praise, dear fellow redeemed:
In 1621 one year after English immigrants settled a small village in Plymouth Massachusetts, William Bradford organized a celebratory feast following the pilgrim’s first successful corn harvest. He also invited those Native American allies who had helped them learn to cultivate corn to join in the feast. This Thanksgiving marks 400 years since that first autumn harvest feast took place. However, it wasn’t until 1863 in the midst of the Civil War that Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.
Although Thanksgiving has Christian roots, today it is primarily celebrated as a secular holiday. In fact, for many people, Thanksgiving is no more than a day to get together with family, eat an abundance of food and then maybe sit down in front of the football game until they doze off. Then it usually culminates in them eating their fill in pie and leftovers again later that evening. Some only recognize Thanksgiving as the day before the real holiday, a day highly revered in today’s society, “Black Friday.”
Most people will be thankful around their dinner table this Thanksgiving, but to whom are they giving their thanks? Where do they think all of their blessings and gifts come from? Christians know that everything in their life comes from God and that “it is good to give thanks to the Lord” (Ps. 92:1).
The first reason it is good to give thanks is because our all-powerful Lord is owed it, and the second is to show us that we are dependent upon Him and can rely on Him for everything we need. Although we know this truth we also forget it and it can only lead to an empty kind of thankfulness.
The Lord is always at work in our lives, for our benefit and for the benefit of all people. Occasionally a sunrise will catch our eyes and cause us to admire its beauty, but do we always stop think about how the sun does not rise without God’s providence. If the Lord decided today that the sun wasn’t going to rise, it wouldn’t, and all life on earth would quickly perish. In this and other ways, we become so accustomed to His mighty works. The Lord’s extraordinary works become ordinary in our eyes.
The works of His hands include; our home, our family, our faith in Him, and much more. As Luther’s explanation to the first Article tells us, “God has provided us with all we need to support this body and life.” The Lord has created us by giving us a mother and father, determining the proper time in which we would live our lives on earth. Not only this, “He also guards and protects us from all evil out of His purely divine goodness and mercy, that we are duty bound to thank, praise, serve and obey Him” (SC, 1st Art.).
As Christians we usually emphasize our duty to obey the Lord’s commandments and to serve our neighbors, but how are we doing in our duty to thank and praise Him? Too often we become caught up in our important lives that we forget to give our Lord the thanks He is due. When our lives are relatively trial free, it can be easy to become complacent in our thanks.
Think of how rare it is to go a single day without clean drinking water in our homes or to have food on our table for dinner. Or, how it isn’t until our heat goes out that we begin to be very thankful for a working furnace. We may spend a few days being thankful for heat, but sadly it doesn’t take long for us to expect that furnace to kick in, maintaining that comfortable 70-degree home. There are many things in life that the Lord provides us with that we take for granted and forget to thank Him for.
Had the Lord never made His mighty works known to us in His Word they would have remained hidden from our eyes. We would have been stuck in our thankless state, unaware of the greatest treasure given to us, faith in our Lord and Savior.
You were brought to faith because His Word called you. Your parents heard and believed God’s Word and brought you to the Baptismal font. There you were washed and cleansed and your faith was born. This work of the Holy Spirit was for you, so that your heart would be awakened to a new life of faith in your Lord (John 3:5).
Through His Word, God has revealed to us how He has saved all people from eternal destruction. He chose a way, contrary to human reasoning, to free us from our bondage to sin. Our Lord became a man and lived out His life on the earth. To many people Jesus seemed like an ordinary man living a pretty sad and pitiful life, a life that ultimately led to Him being hung on a wooden cross. In what appears to be a pathetic event in history God brings about His most extraordinary achievement, Jesus’ blood, spilt upon the cross, cleansing the entire world of all sin and guilt (1 John 1:7).
Our gracious Lord gave His life for us and He knows our weaknesses, how in times of trial we tend to grumble rather than be thankful, how in good times we can be so distracted that we forget to stop and give Him thanks. The Lord thanked His father countless times in His life; where you have failed to thank God for things, His perfect thankfulness counts as yours. His blood covers all your sins of selfishness and self-centeredness. You are fully forgiven because of what your Savior has done for you.
He secured salvation on the cross for you and rose on the third day to show His victory over sin, death and the devil. Now He has also planted you in His house where this same life and salvation comes to you. The Lord has blessed you with a church that holds to His truth, where His Word is preached and His Sacraments are administered. In His house He changes your heart into one of thanks, making you glad to hear His Word. Here His Word reminds you of all He has done, reminding you of His love for you.
Much like the pilgrims at Plymouth who cultivated and cared for that first corn harvest, God’s Word and Sacraments cultivate you. In His Word He continues to show you the works of His hands, making you like a mighty cedar tree, with a strong foundation and flourishing branches. His body and blood strengthen your faith, helping you overcome the storms of your sinful flesh. Like the palm tree you are rooted in His means of grace, which enable you to withstand the strongest winds of the world and devil that batter against you.
“It is good to give thanks to the Lord.” This Thanksgiving Day, and each new morning and night, let us remember that all we have comes from the Lord. The world will continue to foolishly thank themselves for their blessings and good fortune, but we will wisely thank our Lord! Amen.
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 Last Sunday of the Church Year – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who calls us to be alert and watchful, so that the day of His return does not surprise us like a thief in the night (1Th. 5:4), dear fellow redeemed:
In about a month, we are going to hear many references to a virgin—the virgin Mary. The reason Mary’s sexual history is so crucial to the account of Christmas is because a baby conceived in the natural way could never be the Savior of the world. Such a baby would be a mere mortal descended from sinful, mortal parents. The baby Jesus had to be conceived by God the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary’s womb, so that He could be born without sin. Then He could be our Savior, and He is.
The virgins that Jesus describes in today’s parable are virgins of a different sort. They are called virgins because of their spiritual purity, a purity they received by faith. These ten virgins “took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” The bridegroom is Jesus, who will come in glory on the last day to raise all the dead. When He comes to raise and glorify the bodies of all the faithful, they will go up with Him to the great wedding feast in heaven.
The ten virgins were all looking for the bridegroom’s return, but we’re told that five of them were foolish. They did not take along extra oil for their lamps. They thought the bridegroom would be coming much sooner than He did. They weren’t prepared for the long wait. This waiting period is where we are today. Is the wait getting too long for you? Are you becoming drowsy?
It is easy to get that way. When you are well-rested and the sun is shining, it is not difficult to stay on the alert, watching for someone’s arrival. It’s different when you are weary and tired, and the darkness of night covers everything. Then the eyes droop and the head gets heavy, and before you know it, you are sleeping. How do we keep the lamp of our faith burning? How do we stay watchful and vigilant?
The oil for our lamps comes from God, and it comes in rich supply. The oil is His powerful Gospel found in His Word and Sacraments. The Gospel is what keeps the faith of the Christian burning brightly. Our faith holds onto Jesus. When we hear again and again what He has done for us, that His righteousness is ours, and that His grace and forgiveness and life are freely given to us, our faith gets stronger.
The continued hearing of His Word means we will not be tricked when a deceptive voice calls for our attention. We know the voice of our Good Shepherd. The continued eating of His body and drinking of His blood keeps us healthy and strong. It keeps us from desiring to fill ourselves with rotten food and poisoned drink. We meet the bridegroom now in His means of grace where He promises to be found, so that we are prepared to meet Him when He comes on the last day.
But some who once were eager to meet the bridegroom are not eager any longer. They once had lamps of faith burning brightly. But now their lamps have gone out—or they are about to—because they are no longer connected to the fuel of the Gospel. Their eyes have grown accustomed to the darkness. They are not looking for the light anymore.
We can all think of people like this, fellow Christians who used to join us here at church but who don’t anymore. We do not give up on these people whom we love. We pray for them, and we take whatever opportunities we can to encourage them. We want their faith to burn brightly again. We want them to be prepared for their Savior’s return.
Those whose lamps have gone out are a warning to us. We were once all together, redeemed by the blood of Jesus, spiritually pure in God’s sight. We were the same—saved by grace alone and not because of anything in us. But the devil, the world, and our own flesh are constantly working to steal this salvation and our confidence in Christ away from us. The apostle Paul expressed this concern to the Christians in Corinth. “I betrothed you to one husband,” he wrote, “to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2Co. 11:2-3).
What are the things that lead our thoughts astray? What tempts us to forsake the light and the warmth of Jesus’ Word and Sacraments? What tempts us are the works of darkness. They are all the things that the powers of darkness promote, which God warns us about. What God wants for us is exactly opposite of what the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh want.
God wants us to have eternal life in heaven. Our enemies want us to look for heaven on earth. God wants to forgive our sins. Our enemies want us to forget about our sins. God wants us to do what benefits our neighbor and honors Him. Our enemies want us to do what pleases ourselves. God wants to save us from eternal death. Our enemies want us to live for today and today only. God wants us to follow His Word. Our enemies want us to follow our hearts, follow the crowd—anything that keeps us comfortable with the world.
The powers of darkness are persuasive. Jesus says that even the wise virgins “became drowsy and slept.” We are more vulnerable than we realize. It wasn’t long after Jesus told this parable that He asked Peter, James, and John to remain with Him and watch with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. As Jesus prayed, the disciples fell asleep. He woke them up and said, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mat. 26:41).
The same goes for us. Our spirit indeed is willing—here we are, eager to be strengthened through Jesus’ Word and Sacraments. But our flesh is weak. We will be tempted again to sin. We will set aside the lamp of faith to try to keep our sin hidden. We will think we can dabble in the darkness and still be ready when the bridegroom comes. We think we can make some compromises now. We think we can do what we know is wrong, because there will be time to right our wrongs later.
The bridegroom came when He was not expected. He came at midnight. The virgins were not watching for Him. We should never put off repentance for our sins until tomorrow. If we know what we are doing is wrong, we must repent of it today. There might not be a tomorrow! Jesus says, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (Joh. 3:20-21).
Where the bridegroom is, there is light. Jesus is the Light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome (Joh. 1:5). He said about Himself, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Joh. 8:12). The virgins in today’s parable are not ones who have never sinned. They are ones who were called “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1Pe. 2:9).
The “marvelous light” of Jesus is His great love for our dying world. In this great love, He came into the world’s darkness. He came to take all our sins to Himself as though they were His own. He was the beacon light that caused the devil, the wicked world, and death to take aim at Him. They threw everything they had at Him, but they could not defeat Him. He overcame them all on the cross and rose from the dead in total victory.
The light of Jesus’ grace, the light of His forgiveness, the light of His life, was stronger than all the powers of darkness. He shines that bright light inside us through His powerful Word. He opens our eyes to the works of darkness. He shows us where we have let the darkness creep in, where we have become drowsy. He leads us to repent of our sins and to see that they have all been dispelled by the light of His salvation.
His glorious light keeps your light burning. On your own, you would have no light. But the light of His Gospel has touched the wick of your heart and set it on fire. Your heart is not shrouded in darkness anymore. It is bathed in light. You are born again. You have left the dark womb of the world and entered into the brightness of His kingdom.
As long as you keep your eyes on your Savior’s light burning brightly in His Word and Sacraments, you will be ready for His return on the last day. Well supplied by His means of grace, your faith will be shining when the cry goes out, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” Then you and all the faithful—all the wise virgins—will go with your bridegroom Jesus to the marriage feast.
Then there will be no sorrow or concern over His delay, no memory of our troubled time in the darkness. There will be only singing and feasting and joy in our Lord’s kingdom of eternal light.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from 11th century painting from the Rossano Gospel)
The Festival of the Reformation – Pr. Faugstad exordium and sermon
504 years ago today, Martin Luther put the finishing touches on Ninety-Five Theses, which especially criticized the sale of indulgences in the church. The sellers were telling people that by purchasing these indulgences, officially authorized by the pope, they could instantly free the souls of loved ones from purgatory. If they dropped so much money in the box, they could end the suffering of their relatives and friends.
Luther knew this wasn’t right, though he did not yet fully understand the main reason. At this time, he thought people should not try to do with money what they should be doing with their prayers and good works. Later he realized that nothing more is needed to win heaven than the perfect life and atoning death of Jesus.
A golden coin could not free someone from God’s wrath. A golden coin could not even cancel out one sin. By the grace of God, Luther came to believe and teach what the Bible teaches, that “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1Pe. 1:18-19).
Luther realized that this good news of salvation was for him, but he didn’t keep it to himself. He wanted the whole world to know it. He preached and taught constantly, and his writings were distributed throughout Europe and beyond. But it is not Luther that we praise today. We praise the God who is merciful and gracious. He opened Luther’s mind and heart to the truth of the Gospel, just as He has done for you and me.
He has shown us that it is not who we are or what we have done that saves us. We are saved entirely by what Jesus has done for us. We are saved by grace. All that we need to get to heaven, Jesus has supplied. This is not something we can afford to lose. It is not something to keep to ourselves. It is something that the whole world of sinners needs to hear. Let us now rise to sing our Exordium hymn, #583 – “God’s Word Is Our Great Heritage.”
God’s Word is our great heritage,
And shall be ours forever;
To spread its light from age to age
Shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way;
In death it is our stay.
Lord, grant, while worlds endure,
We keep its teachings pure,
Throughout all generations.
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Sermon text: St. Matthew 11:12-15
In Christ Jesus, who is not afraid of any wicked scheme of man or dark power of the devil, but who destroys their efforts by His powerful Word, dear fellow redeemed:
John the Baptizer was in prison. He was in prison for telling the truth. He told King Herod that is was not right for him to marry his brother Philip’s wife. King Herod did not like hearing that. His wife—or rather his brother’s wife—especially did not like hearing that. No one likes having their personal choices questioned. Each of us likes to have things our own way. But our own way does not lead us to the kingdom of heaven. Our own way leads us to everlasting destruction.
When John arrived on the scene, he shook up the people’s own way of thinking. He did not come telling everyone what they wanted to hear. He came to say this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” You know what it means to repent. It means to recognize your sin and admit it. It means acknowledging that your choices are not always good ones, your words are not always edifying, your thoughts are not always pure.
But what did John mean by “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”? He meant that the earth was not going to be left to its own devices. Heaven’s Lord was intervening. God had come down to earth. But He had not come only in the sense of being in all places at all times. God had come down to earth in a unique way, a mysterious way. God had become a Man. He had taken on human flesh in the virgin Mary’s womb. The all-powerful God who made all things, who knows all things, who can do anything—He was here.
“Repent!” was a very appropriate message. Who could face the incarnate God? Who wouldn’t tremble in His presence? The demons certainly trembled. They knew who Jesus was. They knew what He could do. But many people did not listen to John. They did not repent. They did not believe that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” They did not believe that Jesus was who John said He was. They thought they were fine on their own, living the way they had always lived. There were many others who were worse than they were. The truly wicked people—those were the ones who needed to repent!
“No,” said John. “No,” said Jesus. “You repent. Don’t look at her. Don’t look at him. Look at yourself. You repent.” This is the call of the Law: “Own your sinful words. Own your sinful actions. Own your sinful thoughts. Don’t point the finger at others. You are guilty.” That’s hard for us to take. From a young age, we do whatever we can to avoid the consequences of our sin. We lie about our bad behavior. We justify our wrongdoing. We point out all the weaknesses and missteps of those around us, so the focus isn’t on us. But in trying to avoid guilt, we just feel guiltier. In trying to avoid shame, we feel more ashamed.
We know we are not as we should be. We are sinners. But heaven’s Lord did not come to destroy sinners. He came to save them. “Behold, the Lamb of God,” said John, “who takes away the sin of the world!” (Joh. 1:29). “The Lamb of God”—not a ferocious lion, not a dragon breathing destruction—a lamb. Jesus came to be the sacrifice. He came to be slaughtered. He, without blemish or spot, came to give His perfect life in our place to pay for each and every one of our sins. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!—God has come down to save.”
But those who will not repent have no need of “the Lamb.” No matter how good, no matter how kind, no matter how gentle, if He is not here to pat them on the back, if He is not here to praise them, they have no need of Him. When Jesus did not confirm the scribes and the Pharisees in their self-righteousness, they hated Him. They thought violent thoughts toward Him, which led to violent actions. They couldn’t just ignore Jesus; they had to end Him.
It was the same way with John. All he did was speak. But King Herod couldn’t leave it alone. Words really are the most powerful tool, the most powerful weapon, there is. That’s why there are people today who see Christianity as the greatest threat to their plans. It’s not because Christians are going to grab weapons to do physical harm. God never calls us to do that in His name. The enemies of Christianity see it as the greatest threat because they don’t like the words that Christians speak—they don’t like God’s Word.
And God’s Word is a force to be reckoned with. In fact, God’s Word is the greatest power there is. The devil knows it; that’s why he is constantly working to turn people away from the Word. God’s Word does not return to Him empty. It accomplishes exactly what He wants it to (Isa. 55:11). What He wants it to accomplish is the softening of sin-hardened hearts, and the comforting of sin-stained consciences.
Our merciful Lord wants you to hear that Jesus’ perfect life covers over all your failures to keep His Commandments. He wants you to hear that Jesus’ innocent suffering and death satisfies His righteous wrath for your sins. He wants you to hear that Jesus’ resurrection conquered death itself, which means death will not be the end of you.
John the Baptizer set the stage for all these things to take place. Once he opened his mouth, the world was never the same and never could be the same. Jesus highlighted this turning point in history when He said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence.” While it is certainly true that the arrival of the Christ stirred up the powers of darkness, a better translation here is not that something is attacking the kingdom of heaven, but that “the kingdom of heaven is forcefully advancing.”
The kingdom of heaven does violence. It does violence to human pride. It does violence to human greed. It does violence to human self-centeredness. The kingdom of heaven does this work by the power of the Word. Martin Luther explained this in the Second Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “The kingdom of God comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and live godly lives here in time and hereafter in eternity.”
When John came on the scene, the kingdom of heaven forcefully advanced as he pointed to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. And it continues to advance even now. As it advances, some react violently against it. They want to halt the progress of the Word. But others grab hold of it; they seize its promises and refuse to let go.
This is our heritage in the Lutheran Church. The Lutheran Church is a church of God’s Word. Despite overwhelming opposition, Luther grabbed hold of God’s gracious promises and would not let them go. We still benefit today from the forcefulness and the clarity of his confession. But the clear Gospel is of no use to us if we do not forcefully take hold of it, make it our own, and refuse to give up God’s promises even on pain of death.
John went to his grave for the truth. Luther was ready to. And now we are on the battlefield. But we do not fight alone. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”—Jesus with His Word is at hand.
Stood we alone in our own might,
Our striving would be losing;
For us the one true Man doth fight,
The Man of God’s own choosing.
Who is this chosen One?
’Tis Jesus Christ, the Son,
The Lord of hosts, ’tis He
Who wins the victory
In ev’ry field of battle.
(Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary 251, v. 2)
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(picture from “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1565)
The Third Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 21) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 4:46-54
In Christ Jesus, who did many signs and wonders for the purpose of revealing who He was, so that all who believed in Him would have eternal life, dear fellow redeemed:
Years ago, I remember reading about an out-of-the-way place in Central or South America. A man was cooking something on a greasy grill. Then something on the grill caught his eye. There it was, an undeniable shape of that area’s patron saint right there in the grease! As scores of people paraded through to get a glimpse of the greasy figure, they said among themselves, “It must be a sign!” But what was that “sign” supposed to mean exactly?
Many people are on the lookout for signs to help guide them forward in life. Some look to the stars and a daily horoscope for direction. Some see signs in the clouds. Some will observe a bird or a deer outside their window and take it as a sign that the spirit of a loved one is present. Some find signs in the random experiences and conversations they have in an otherwise typical day.
Probably all of us have wondered before if God was trying to send us a message through a sign—or at least we hoped that He would. Maybe we even asked Him for a sign and were disappointed when nothing out of the ordinary happened. God certainly can and has communicated through signs, but His primary means of communication is not through unique signs. It is through His never-changing Word.
This is the central point of today’s text. We hear that Jesus “came again to Cana in Galilee.” This is where He had performed “the first of his signs,” changing water into wine at a wedding (Joh. 2:11). These “signs,” as the apostle John calls them, were more than miracles. They were special acts that revealed who Jesus really was—the Son of God incarnate, the long-promised Messiah. After the first sign in Cana, John reports that he and the other disciples of Jesus “believed in him” (v. 11).
Then Jesus went to Jerusalem and did more signs. As a result of these signs, “many believed in his name” (v. 23). But we find it was not a soul-saving faith (vv. 24-25). It was the signs that captured their attention. Who Jesus was did not interest them, as much as what Jesus could do. When Jesus returned to Galilee, He was welcomed by all the important people there. They rolled out the red carpet for Him because they wanted to see more signs (4:43-45).
It is no wonder that Jesus responded the way He did when a royal official asked Him to heal his son. Jesus said, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” This message was for all the people and not just for the official. It was a preaching of the law. It was meant to convict the sign-seekers for not seeing past the signs, for not recognizing the most important thing.
Jesus’ statement convicts us too. Who among us hasn’t suffered, experienced some difficulty, and we said to ourselves, “I thought God loved me, but apparently He doesn’t”? We were looking for a special sign of His love, for Him to provide instant relief and take away the pain. Or we were stuck in an intense struggle, full of inner turmoil, tempted to do what we knew we shouldn’t, but we were too weak to resist. Where was God’s strength and power when we needed it?
I suppose we want God to be something like a superhero. When we are at our most vulnerable, facing the greatest dangers and trials, we want God to swoop in and whisk us out of harm’s way. This is what the royal official wanted Jesus to do. He wanted Him to hurry over to Capernaum and heal his dying son. This man was looking for a sign. Jesus wanted to give him something more.
“Go,” said Jesus; “your son will live.” That was no sign like the people were hoping for. It was a Word, a simple statement. But there was power in it. The next thing we hear is that “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.” It doesn’t stand to reason! Why should the man believe what Jesus said? Jesus hadn’t bothered to go and visit the child. He hadn’t even sent along some special object that would heal the child when it touched him.
Why should the man believe what Jesus said? Because Jesus’ Word is powerful. Not only did Jesus’ Word bring instant healing to the sick boy, it also brought instant faith to the man’s heart. The apostle Paul explains how this happens. In his letter to the Romans, he wrote that “[the gospel] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (1:16), and “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (10:17).
The Word of Christ is where help is found in trouble, where comfort is found in sorrow, where strength is found in weakness. When we are struggling and suffering, Jesus doesn’t tell us to look for signs in our lives that He loves us and cares for us. He tells us to look to His Word. His Word contains all the evidence of His love for us that we need.
His Word reveals the love of God the Father in sending His only Son to take on our flesh. His Word shows His own love in His perfectly pure life lived on our behalf and His suffering and death to pay for our sins. His Word changes us by the sanctifying work of God the Holy Spirit who brings and applies the good gifts of Jesus to us.
The Word of our Savior is all we need, but it doesn’t seem like all we need. We want more than His Word when someone is seriously ill. We want more than His Word when we are troubled and hurting and don’t know where to turn. We want more than His Word when someone we loved, someone we leaned on, is lowered in a casket into a vault. For our extraordinary problems and pains, we want more than the ordinary Word.
But God’s Word is hardly ordinary. His Word had the power to heal a dying boy who was nearly twenty miles away. His Word absolved a paralyzed man and then caused him to walk (Mat. 9:1-8). His Word brought a young man from Nain (Luk. 7:11-17), a little girl (Mat. 9:18-26), and Jesus’ friend Lazarus (Joh. 11:17-44) back from the dead. His Word will also raise you from the dead (1Th. 4:16).
The Word of Jesus is a powerful Word of life, and it is at work in you even now. As Jesus spoke life into the dying boy, so He speaks life into you. When you hear the Gospel message of His death and resurrection for you, that is Jesus saying to you, “I suffered in your place. I died for your sins and came alive again. Your sins are forgiven! Depart in peace. Because I live, you also will live (Joh. 14:19).”
His living Word does for you what nothing else in the world can do. His Word of absolution cleanses you from the sin and guilt that no amount of self-righteousness or self-punishment can fix. His Word heals the invisible wounds, the deep pains, that no psychiatric care or medicine can heal. His Word gives a hope and a confidence that no possession or power in the world can supply.
When Jesus joins His Word to water, it becomes a gracious water of life, a washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Ti. 3:5). When He joins His Word to bread and wine, it becomes a rich feast of forgiveness and salvation. You don’t need other signs than these of God’s love for you. In His Word and Sacraments, Jesus gives you more power to fight the devil than you can fathom, more treasures than the world can imagine, and more peace than any fleshly mind can comprehend.
His powerful, life-giving Word is the way that Jesus is at work in the world today. And yet we still think signs might be better. We want to see signs that He is turning government officials toward righteousness and justice. We want to see signs that He is influencing corporate leaders to promote what is good. We want to see signs that He is destroying the evil designs and wicked works of the devil.
If we are looking for signs of these things apart from the powerful activity of God’s Word, we are looking in the wrong place. It is through the Word that Jesus conquers and changes hearts. His Word is “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17), a more powerful weapon than anything we can concoct. This Word is at work right now in our hearts, in our congregations, in our country, and in the world.
Through His Word, Jesus speaks righteousness into you and forgiveness and hope and life, and He does the same thing for countless others who are helpless and hurting. He calls us away from the devil’s temptations and the world’s deceit. He comes not to bring earthly glory and peace, but to bring eternal glory and peace. Through His Word, Jesus always gives what you need, even if it doesn’t come in the way you expect.
It was through Jesus’ Word that the royal official believed. It was through Jesus’ Word that the little boy was healed. You don’t need to look for signs of God’s power and love in the stars, in the clouds, or in things like grease stains. Your living Savior Jesus, who died on the cross for your sins and who rose from the dead on the third day in victory over your death, is found exactly where He promises He will be. He is found in His powerful Word of grace and in the Sacraments He instituted for your life and salvation.
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(picture from “The Healing of the Officer’s Son” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Second Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 20) – Vicar Anderson sermon
Text: St. Matthew 22:1-14
In Christ Jesus, who by His life and death prepared for you the Feast of Salvation and by the power of His Word invites you to partake of it freely, both now and forever, dear fellow redeemed:
In our text today we see Jesus teaching those around Him during Holy Week. Just a few days later He would go to the cross and lay down His life for the entire world. He is teaching believers and unbelievers alike the chief doctrine of salvation, which points directly to Himself. He is showing the people how they can be saved. He describes for them a king who is preparing a wedding feast for His Son, a very exciting celebration and many people would be invited.
The king in this parable is a picture of God the Father and his son is a picture of Jesus the eternal Son of God. This is the Son’s wedding feast and He is eagerly awaiting the invited guests, His bride the church. The king has prepared a great meal for this celebration and His Son sits in the place of honor because He has accomplished everything. All things are ready because the Son offered what was necessary.
The Son of God was given as a sacrifice for all sin and the Father in heaven accepted the sacrifice and granted forgiveness to the whole world. It is an open invitation; salvation is accomplished and offered to all people. The call to the Feast of Salvation is for everyone, but not everyone will be a guest.
Throughout history many have ignored the invitation to this feast, the invitation of the gospel. God sent prophets throughout the Old Testament and many people were too preoccupied with their businesses and their daily tasks turning away not wanting to listen.
So God sent His one and only Son and still many persecuted, ignored and eventually nailed Him to a cross. Then God sent apostles and other messengers throughout the New Testament and again many people ignored, persecuted and even killed them. The same things happen to faithful preachers and missionaries throughout the world today.
Despite all this sin and blatant disregard for the truth, God never forgot His promises to us. He could have said, “enough is enough these people are unworthy of my Word,” but on account of His undeserved love God continues to send His Word to us. No matter what kind of person you have been in your life forgiveness is yours by faith through the working of the Holy Spirit.
God’s Word invites you, it calls out to you exposing your sin and convinces you of the truth that you cannot do anything apart from Jesus and must trust in Him and in Him alone for salvation. He calls all people into the feast, offered to us by the Father in heaven prepared by the Work of His Son Jesus. He sends out His servants to go to the busy streets and roads, where there would be lots of traffic to find as many people as they can. He wants them to fill this feast with as many guests as possible both good and bad.
Now “bad and good” does not mean sinners and non-sinners, it means that some of these people may have appeared good on the outside and some appeared bad on the outside. This is how people perceive others and judge them by what they see on the outside, but no matter how we see them all people are sinners. We know then that this feast of salvation is prepared for, and filled with, sinners.
In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans it tells us that, “while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). This is how he demonstrates His love for us, by coming to save sinners like you and me. He did not come for the self-righteous people who think they are just fine on their own. Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
These sinners are like people struck with hunger so badly they can no longer stand and are wasting away, like someone nearing death due to starvation. Where can they receive the food and nourishment to give them strength to stand firm again, what food can satisfy the hunger of a sinner? God’s Word is life-giving food to those hear it, and His Sacraments bring this food directly to them. “For He satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul He fills with good things” (Psalm 107:9). God’s Word truly satisfies those who are hungry.
This Feast of Salvation was prepared for you by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and it is served to you right here and right now. Jesus is served to you directly, on a plate and in a cup. His righteousness and forgiveness are poured out upon you. His body and blood are given here for you and me; we receive the blessings of salvation now upon our lips and in our stomachs. We consume his very body and blood and the righteousness received from it, fuels our soul.
On account of this reality it is necessary to take the presence of Christ’s body and blood seriously. We do this each time we hear the exhortation in the Service of Holy Communion. Those who do not examine themselves properly, who do not believe they truly feast on the body and blood of Jesus eat to their judgment. Christ’s body and blood is no longer a benefit to them but instead causes spiritual harm. This is the reason our churches practice closed communion.
St. Paul taught the Corinthian church and all hearers of his letter that the Lord’s Supper must be approached seriously and soberly. He wrote: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:29–30). Out of concern for our neighbors and ourselves we want to make sure that people correctly believe what the Lord’s Supper is.
It should also concern us how we do not always approach the gifts of God’s Word and Sacraments in the right way. Sometimes we neglect coming to hear His Word and fail to truly recognize the importance of what He is giving us, taking them for granted. We think we are doing just fine on our own, that the clothes of our own self-righteousness look pretty good. We think our seat at the Feast of Salvation will be there for us whether God’s Word is a priority right now or not.
We become so preoccupied with the things of this life that coming to receive the Lord’s Word and Sacraments becomes less important. When we do come it’s tempting and easy to appear at the feast but have no regard for the garment that God requires, the very thing the host of the feast has provided for us.
It can be tempting for us to come in and go through the motions of a church service. It’s easy to think that just by walking in the door, and half-heartedly participating we have done what God expects of us and that He is now pleased with us. It’s because of our own sinful nature that we fall into the habit of doing the bare minimum; naively thinking God expects just the bare minimum from us.
Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah saying, “these people honor God with their lips but their hearts are far from Him” (Matt. 15:8–9). These people do lip service to God but lack in their heart true repentance and faith. Repentance is needed before the king comes and finds them speechless, “binding them hand and foot and casting them out into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 22:13).
You cannot stand before the Father in your ragged torn up clothes of self-righteousness and sin. But you can stand before Him in the wedding garment that Jesus provides, the garment of His righteousness.
Christ purchased and won salvation for each and every one of you by living sinless under the law and laying down His perfect life in death. Jesus has prepared the Feast of Salvation for you and by His powerful Word and Sacraments has called you into it and clothed you with His righteousness forever.
You have been offered this beautiful wedding garment and are now dressed in it by faith receiving it by the power of the Holy Spirit. This ornate attire could not have been provided by you but has been graciously provided by your Savior.
The prophet Isaiah knew this well, he wrote, “My soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Is. 61:10).
This righteousness is not only on the outside; this garment of salvation covers all your sins on the inside as well. It covers all the sins of your heart and mind, your secret sins, sins of laziness and discontentment, the sin of putting other things before God and taking His grace for granted.
The Son of God’s righteous blood has blotted out each one of them. The perfect life and the sacrificial death of your Lord won righteousness and salvation for you; they are yours by faith, covering you completely and erasing your sin forever.
God the Father sees you entirely righteous and pure in His sight. Everything is prepared, the celebration has begun and you are an honored guest of the Son. You are joined with Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and you will recline at the Feast of Salvation forever.
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(picture from “Parable of the Great Banquet” by the Brunswick Monogrammist, 16th century)
Mission Festival – Rev. Prof. Thomas Rank sermon
Text: St. Luke 10:38-42
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ,
If you lose Jesus Christ and His Gospel, then you as a congregation, need not exist. If you lose Jesus, then this building, with your Sunday services, with your Sunday School and other programs, can be closed. That is, in summary, what it means if you lose what Jesus teaches when He speaks of the “one thing needful.”
This truth, the fundamental confession of Jesus Christ and the Gospel, is not only for congregations, but for our work as a synod, and our work at Bethany Lutheran College. It is our motto, and its meaning is to permeate what we desire for the students who attend.
There are many good things that your families, community organizations, volunteers of all kinds, food banks, and so on – there are many good things that all of these are able to provide for the welfare of your children, other people in your community, and beyond the confines of your local area. Each of you in your various vocations, where God has put you, have many appropriate and God-pleasing avenues for helping others.
This same variety of avenues to provide for others is found at Bethany. Whether it be Administration, or Staff, or the Faculty in the variety of academic disciplines, there is a desire to help our students in the horizontal aspects of their lives. What does it mean to have academic integrity? Why should I care? How do I live with others in charity and compassion? How do I love my neighbor?
These are important questions. But their answers—how we live—do not make us right with God or keep us right with God. If questions and answers for this life, our earthly vocations, become primary at Bethany, then we are failing in our primary work. The horizontal aspect of our lives, with other people, with our students, do not make right or kept right with God. This is active righteousness, doing, loving your neighbor. A great and blessed work. It is something we desire students and ourselves to learn, to grow in. But it is not the “one thing.”
Martha exemplifies this horizontal action toward others, human to human. Martha welcomed Jesus to her home. Martha, as a good hostess, directed her attention to serving Jesus and the others in her home. This was a great gift of kindness that she showed Jesus. Yet she was admonished by Jesus when she complained about her sister Mary. “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore, tell her to help me.”
This is an understandable reaction on the part of Martha. She thought that at that point in time, with Jesus as her guest, with serving needing to be done in a timely manner, that it was the most important thing. Surely Jesus will know this, agree with her, and direct Mary to help her. It seemed like the right thing to do.
But was it? What we learn in this short episode in the life of our Savior is not so much a distinction between what is right and wrong, but the distinction between primary and secondary things. Actions of love toward others, as Martha is showing here, are subordinate to the “one thing needful.” That is what Jesus teaches Martha. Her actions which in and of themselves are good, have become ways by which she has been pulled away from what should come first. She is distracted with the ‘other things,’ and so has become worried and troubled. Her desire to act, as laudable as it might otherwise be, has been made primary for her, and in that way she has failed.
Mary is depicted here by St. Luke as passive. “Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word.” Mary is not giving, she is receiving. And for the Christian, this is primary. This is first. This is the ‘one thing needful,’ hearing Jesus, hearing His Word. This is what has been the heart of Bethany Lutheran College since its founding in 1927. It is what we pray we can retain in the challenges we face.
Passive righteousness is hard for us because we humans, due to our alienation from God, are driven by the need to act, the need to try and show God how worthy we are. It is finally a condition that the Law of God must break in us. No matter how dedicated we are, no matter how kind we are, no matter how charitable we are, these are not what will decide our eternal fate. Heaven and eternal life are not won by us, by our deeds, by the intensity of our desire to act. Heaven and eternal life are won by Jesus; they are then given as gifts to you. And how is that done? By sitting at His feet, hearing His word, and faith which trusts that Word. Passivity.
In his wonderful commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther gave this counsel which very much applies as we learn this distinction between Mary and Martha:
“Therefore I admonish you, especially those of you who are to become instructors of consciences, as well as each of you individually, that you exercise yourselves continually by study, by reading, by meditation and by prayer, so that in temptation you will be able to instruct consciences, both your own and others, and take them from the law to grace, from active righteous to passive righteousness, in short from Moses to Christ.” (LW 26:10).
Do you see what is at stake here if we get the ‘one thing needful’ confused? If I, as a professor in my religions classes, speak to students on the topic of death, and seek to provide comfort for that uncomfortable truth of death, do I bring comfort by telling them what honest and well-mannered students they are, how they are such a great class, and that such actions on their part serve to stave off the fear of death? If that is my focus, students’ active righteousness, what am I actually doing? I am implicitly telling them not to rely on Jesus.
In the book “The Hammer of God,” a required text in freshman religion, and one which many of you may be familiar with, there is an episode in the first part of the book where a young and inexperienced pastor tries to console a dying man. The young pastor tries to provide consolation by telling the dying man: ‘Johannes, out of all the people in the village, you have certainly lived a virtuous life.’ To which Johannes responds: ‘God will not judge me by comparing me to the people of this town, but by His law.’ Thankfully, a pious and well-catechized Christian woman also visited Johannes and gave him the comfort of God’s Word of promise and forgiveness. She pointed him to Jesus, and away from himself. In that way, hearing the One Thing Needful, Johannes was given comfort as he died.
Let me repeat: Martha’s actions, her desire to give to Jesus, are not wrong. But she has placed them where they do not belong. They have become distractions. They have prevented her from sitting at the feet of Jesus and receiving His Word, His teaching, His grace. Mary had chosen the good part, listening, receiving.
While a goal of Bethany is to provide a solid education that will enable students to be good and productive citizens, it is not the primary goal. Remember how I started the sermon: If you lose Jesus Christ and His Gospel, then there is no reason to exist, either as congregations here in northeast Iowa, nor as a Lutheran college in south central Minnesota. That is, in summary, what it means if you lose what Jesus teaches when He speaks of the “one thing needful.”
It is about putting first things first. So as you look to this fall and the opportunities provided you to gather around God’s Word, and as we teach students at Bethany Lutheran College, what is the point of it all? It is to direct you and our students to Jesus, to teach you and give you the Gospel: you are forgiven, through faith in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who lived, died, and rose again, for you.
We meet Mary and Martha later in Gospels. In John 11 we hear of them and the death of their brother Lazarus. A time of sorrow has fallen on their home. But now we see and hear of the fruit of Jesus’ teaching, especially for Martha. Jesus will not give her hope because her brother was a kind man. No, but what will Jesus do? He will give hope by teaching who He is, and what He does. Jesus does the action for our salvation, He is the subject of the verbs.
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 “And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (Jn. 11:25-27 NKJ)
Do you think that Martha believed ‘the one thing needful?’ Clearly she did. She makes that powerful confession which comes only from hearing and believing Jesus: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of God.’
There you have the one thing needful: Jesus, Jesus for you. In Him you are forgiven, in Him you have resurrection hope, even now. That is the hope that permeates the life of your congregation and of your college. It is the hope that lies at very heart of what we desire to believe, to teach, to confess. It is here because you have Jesus, and His Word of grace.
It is my prayer that this ‘one thing needful’ continue to be your foundation, and that of our college. It is the bedrock of saving faith on which you may depend regardless of the storm winds of life. God grant it to you all, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.
(picture from stained glass in Bethany Lutheran College Old Main building)
The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity – Vicar Anderson sermon
Text: St. Luke 7:11-17
In Christ Jesus, who collided with death for you, whose victory over it is your own, giving you eternal life, dear fellow redeemed:
Physics tells us that a collision takes place when two or more structures or particles move toward each other and come near enough to interact and exert a mutual influence. One example of this is how billiard balls interact on a pool table. The opening sequence of a game is called the “break”, when the entire rack of balls is hit by the cue ball. If you have ever watched or played a game of pool you know that on a good “break”, the cue ball collides with the rest, ricocheting them all in different directions.
This morning we hear about a different kind of collision and its impact on everyone involved. However, instead of ricocheting into chaos, death or injury, this collision brought an end to all pain, suffering and death.
Jesus’ disciples and a great crowd were following Him towards a small town called Nain. Jesus had recently performed other miraculous things and this crowd following Jesus had heard and seen the powerful things He could do. They must have been filled with excitement and joy, even awe and wonder.
On their way into the town they encountered another crowd, one feeling anything but excitement and joy, processing out of the town. This crowd was walking towards the place outside the city where the graves are located. Bearers were carrying the body of a young man and were being followed by his mother a widow. Jesus could have gone around them and into the city, but instead He walked directly up to where the boy’s lifeless corpse lay and He spoke life into him. Fearlessly the Lord collides with death.
Death was not a part of God’s plan for us. Our God is not a God of the dead, but of the living (Mark 12:27). God intended for us to live forever with Him in perfect harmony. He created us perfectly and He intended us to stay that way (Gen. 1:27). Our bodies were never meant to fail us. But, man sinned and everything would change for mankind. This abrupt change caused an entirely different view of life. Instead of never having to worry about death now every person has to face it and this brought a tremendous amount of fear.
It is natural to avoid death, because it is contrary to man’s very being. Out of fear people attempt to prevent death or even things that resemble death. We cling tightly to this life, wanting to know when we will die, or how we will die. Questions like these became more prevalent when an unknown deadly virus began quickly sweeping across the globe and continues to threaten us today.
We are gripped in fear because death is a guarantee, and while our flesh fights against it, it cannot stop it. We think we would rather have death come when we expect it, but death is never convenient. We want to control when death comes, but just as we had no control over our birth we have no control over our death. We often forget that the one who gives life is also the one who takes it away (Deut. 32:39).
Death causes the sin of doubt and anger to bubble up inside each of us. We ask questions like; “does God know what He is doing, why would God let this happen?” We shake our fist at God saying, “if you loved me God you wouldn’t have done this to me. Maybe You don’t love me after all?” The devil delights in seeing us filled with doubt and anger towards God because it is at those times when we are most vulnerable to his attacks.
Thankfully, we do not face death and its consequences alone. Our Lord Jesus never once feared death. He says, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” (John 10:17b–18a). Jesus cannot die unless He allows Himself to, He does not fear death because He has power over it.
We see how Jesus approached the lifeless man without any fear or trepidation. He put His almighty hand upon the bier, which is similar looking to a stretcher. The body was laid upon it and carried by bearers and as Jesus touched it the bearers stopped. Then Jesus said “young man I say to you arise” and the man woke up as if he were only sleeping (Thess. 4:14). Jesus stopped that procession of death right in its tracks, bringing an end to the mourners’ sadness and despair.
Some of you here have lost a close friend, some a mother or a father, some have lost a spouse, and some have even lost your children. Jesus has compassion on you like He had compassion on that widow. Jesus was with you in that deepest moment of grief. He continues to be with you through those moments when you miss those loved ones. When that pain in your stomach and in your chest returns know that Jesus aches with you (Luke 7:13). He does this out of His abounding and steadfast love for you!
That is exactly what He felt for the widow who lost her only son. Jesus knew how much pain and suffering she had endured, first losing her husband, now her only son. He knew all the uncertainty and fear that accompanied her sadness. It made Him ache with compassion for her. So much in fact, His very guts or inward parts ached. He says to her, “Do not weep.” Not a chastisement, instead it was “look, see that I am about to provide for you a reason to stop weeping.”
Think about the times you have been told, “Everything is going to be okay,” “things will get better,” after something tragic has happened. Although that person meant well you found those words hollow and lacking because they had no power behind them to make things okay. This is not how Jesus works; instead He gives you what you do not deserve. He gives you the things you are afraid to ask Him for because you deem them impossible. Only Jesus can say, “do not weep” and provide you a reason not to.
When you lose a loved one from this life, or death seems to be approaching know that Christ has already given you a reason not to weep. He has already conquered death through His resurrection from the dead. Jesus’ compassion was not for the young man; it was for his grieving mother left all alone here on earth. Jesus knows all that you have been through. By Jesus bearing the cross for us and dying upon it He has taken away all your sins, including the sins of doubt and anger towards Him.
The theologian and hymn writer Paul Gerhardt boldly says, “Though a heavy cross I’m bearing and my heart feels the smart, shall I be despairing? God, my helper, who doth send it, well doth know all my woe and how best to end it” (ELH 377:2).
You have certainty that Jesus knows your sorrow and pain. Throughout His life and death He experienced every pain and suffering this broken world brings. He was rejected, mocked and laughed at, spit on and scourged. He put the weight of the world’s sin upon His shoulders and with each blow of the whip to His body felt the pain of your sin.
He went to the cross and paid the full penalty for your sin before giving up His spirit. He willingly died to conquer death for you; His death is the answer for your death. The Lord then descended to hell not in defeat but instead to proclaim His victory over sin death and the devil. He rose to show the world His holy life and sacrificial death was a sufficient payment to God the father.
Our living Lord and Savior is still with us, speaking His life into us through His powerful Word. He spoke life into the young man of Nain and spoke hope into his lonely mother.
The young man’s temporal life was restored; but because sin and death remain here he would eventually die again. But what has been created in you is eternal. All our loved ones who died in the faith live this very day in the presence of their Savior, and you will be in His presence one day as well.
St. 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” (Romans 6:4). This “newness of life” is happening now in each one of you and it continues on after death. You are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) and now have the assurance that because Christ lives you shall live also.
You died once to sin already at your baptism and have risen from death to life with Him through your baptism. Jesus performed a life-giving miracle in each one of you. Christ spoke His living Word into you and your spiritually dead heart was awakened to a new life of faith. The washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit created in you a clean heart (Titus 3:5-6; Psalm 51).
These Words of forgiveness continue to come to you daily when you repent of your sins and receive His holy absolution. He has given you the means to believe in Him, and the means to strengthen that faith by Word and Sacrament. His compassionate and merciful Word continues to bring you comfort, life and forgiveness.
You and I will all have to face death unless Jesus returns before then, but you do not need to fear it! You obtained Jesus’ righteousness by faith and you also obtained His victory over death by faith (Isaiah 25:8, 1 Cor. 15:51–55). For you an earthly death is but a portal to an eternal life! “Jesus 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”” (John 11:25–26).
The Lord fearlessly collided with death and destroyed it for you. He stopped it in its tracks and spoke life into you. Just as Jesus awoke the young man so too will His all-powerful Word awake your body when He comes again. In Jesus’ second coming, the one who has fearlessly collided with death will speak His Word and your already glorified soul will re-unite with your mortal body and you will become glorified both body and soul.
Death will not defeat you because Jesus defeated death. Martin Luther wrote about this powerful victory in his great Easter hymn: “It was a strange and dreadful strife when life and death contended. The victory remained with life (with Jesus), the reign of death was ended; Holy Scripture plainly saith, that death is swallowed up by death, In vain it rages o’er us.” (ELH 343:4)
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(picture from “Resurrection of the Widow’s Son from Nain” by Lucas Cranch the Younger, c. 1569)
In Christ Jesus, who came to heal every wound and right every wrong, dear fellow redeemed:
About a week ago, I went to every door in our house one after the other, and I opened and closed them multiple times. No one thought it was strange. Why? Because I was fixing noisy hinges. Some of the doors groaned just about the entire span of their swing, but thankfully now they don’t make a sound. We need the newborn to sleep!
Old hinges are not the only source of groaning in the house, and I suspect the same is true or has been true for your home. There are groans when jobs are handed out and groans when mean parents say “no” to certain requests. Sometimes groans will also accompany the effort of getting out of a chair at the end of a long day.
There are still other reasons that we groan. St. Paul writes that “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22-23). The presence of sin in the world and in ourselves causes difficulties for us. One of those difficulties is physical trouble. We experience sickness, disease, injury, disability, pain.
In the Gospels, we find numerous references of Jesus healing people with such conditions. We meet one of them in today’s reading, “a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment.” Those two conditions naturally go together. If he could not hear, he would not know how to correctly form sounds and words.
But the man could groan, and I’m sure he did. He could see how much was closed to him in his world of silence. He must have wondered why it had to be him. He saw everyone around him enjoying the normal operations of their ears and tongue. He thought about how much good he could accomplish if only he could hear and speak. But there was nothing he or his friends could do about it. It was his cross to bear.
We can’t say why certain things happen to certain individuals. We have all known scoundrels who seem perfectly healthy, and we have also known kind and wonderful people who endure constant pain. This makes no sense to us. We want to have a logical explanation for why some people seem to suffer more than others. We think it would be right if bad people should experience more trouble.
Jesus’ disciples thought the same way. When they passed by a man who had been blind his entire life, they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus said, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (Joh. 9:2,3). Jesus’ answer shows us that God has higher purposes for the crosses we bear than we often perceive.
If you are one who is afflicted with something that brings you significant pain or trouble, there is comfort in Jesus’ words. Your pain is not a sign of His anger or His abandonment. He has not sent it to harm you or to push you away from Him. He has allowed it in His wisdom and according to His good plan. He intends to work through it for your good and for the good of others. And if He has a purpose for your suffering, that means He has a purpose for you.
The deaf man had purpose too. He was not a mistake. He was not a lesser person in God’s eyes. Whether or not he had been healed, God loved him. God the Father sent His only Son to suffer and die for this man’s salvation. That was the man’s greatest need, just as it is our greatest need. But God also knows our lesser needs, and many times He brings us relief and healing from the things that burden us.
In the account from today’s Gospel, Jesus in His mercy chose to bring physical healing to the man. First He took him aside from the crowd. This wasn’t for the sake of modesty or humility. He wanted to keep the people from being distracted by the miracles. He wanted them to understand the primary reason for His coming—not for miracles, but for their salvation. He was the Messiah. That’s the reason He had power to heal. He was God in the flesh, who had come to redeem the world of sinners.
Because He was God in the flesh, His touch had healing power. His flesh is life-giving flesh. He pressed those life-giving fingers into the man’s deadened ears. He put life-giving saliva on the man’s imprisoned tongue. He spoke a life-giving Word into that world of dead silence. But before Jesus spoke, He sighed. Or rather, He groaned. He groaned toward heaven. This groan was a prayer to His Father, expressing the trouble of this man and the troubles of all sinners.
Jesus willingly took that trouble on Himself. He felt every pain, every sorrow, every hurt. Healing went out from Him, while He stored up every affliction. Jesus was a Magnet that drew all our sin and all the effects of our sin to Himself. This is why He groaned toward heaven and why He would groan in agony in the Garden and on the cross.
His groaning was for you. He made your groans His own. Whatever has caused you pain or sorrow or weakness, whatever has made you cry out for mercy and brought you to your knees, He took that to Himself. He put in on His shoulders. His shoulders are stronger than yours or anyone else’s. His can carry the load. “Surely,” says the prophet Isaiah—“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4).
Jesus went to the cross, weighed down, carrying all those things for you. Your groaning and the groaning of all the fallen in the history of the world hung in His ears. And it pushed Him forward. He went to the cross to free you from everything that drags you down in this life. He went there to provide the answer for every groan. That answer is His grace.
Grace is what we find in Jesus. “Be opened,” He said to the deaf man, and “his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” In his first condition, the man could neither hear nor speak. Now he heard plainly and spoke rightly. Before Jesus came to us with grace, our hearts were hardened and our ears were unhearing. “Be opened,” He said through His powerful Word. And our ears were opened, our tongues were released, and we could speak rightly. We could speak the truth—the truth about ourselves and the truth about God and His salvation.
We can speak rightly, but we don’t always do it. Sometimes we don’t think that God has things quite right in His Word. We think that leniency or compromise are called for, when He says, “Stand firm!” According to the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (3:7). But we often get those things backwards.
That’s what the people in the crowd did. Jesus charged them not to tell anyone about the deaf man’s healing. But we’re told “the more He charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” We almost feel proud of the people. Even Jesus couldn’t stop them from telling the marvelous truth about the amazing thing He had done!
But Jesus didn’t tell them to stay quiet with a smile and a wink. The people were telling the truth about Him, but they were spreading a less important truth. They weren’t telling people about Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Savior. They were telling people about Jesus the Miracle Man. This distracted from the primary work Jesus came to do. The crowds around Him may have often been very large, but we find that very few were looking for eternal salvation.
We want to look to Jesus for the right thing. We don’t hinge our faith on whether or not He fixes our earthly pains and troubles. We don’t conclude that if He allows us to suffer, He must not love us. We cling to Him—and even more tightly—while we suffer. We trust that He will be with us in our anguish because He says He will be.
He promises to reach out and meet us in our pain with the healing touch of His Word and Sacraments. He comes through these means to provide spiritual relief and strength and to help us stay focused on Him. We may not feel His fingers in our ears or on our tongue as the deaf man did. But we partake of the same life-giving flesh when we eat Jesus’ holy body and drink His precious blood in the Supper.
When Jesus comes to heal, He also brings with Him the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comforts us and increases our faith in the midst of our suffering. And He expresses to the heavenly Father those things we can’t find the words for. St. Paul says that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). Not only did Jesus groan for us—so does the Holy Spirit.
It is clear we have a God who loves us. He knows our troubles, and He urges us to set those troubles before Him. He does not promise to grant us everything we ask for just the way we want it. He does not promise us a life without trouble on earth. But He does promise us His grace. When His grace fills our ears through the hearing of His Word, His healing medicine flows through our body and soul. Then our tongues find their release, and we speak rightly, clearly, loudly of our gracious Savior and Lord, who has “done all things well.”
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(picture from “Jesus in Prison” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Eighth Sunday after Trinity – Vicar Anderson sermon
Text: St. Matthew 7:15-23
In Christ Jesus, dear fellow redeemed:
“Watch out,” “Beware,” “Be on alert.” Today’s text begins with a sharp warning. It takes place near the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and He emphasizes for us the need to watch out for false prophets. Jesus knew that a time would come, and soon that prophets and teachers would rise up and teach falsely. They would misuse the teachings of Jesus and offer different ways of obtaining salvation.
We know from scripture that a prophet is anyone who proclaims the divine message of salvation. They are those who bring the good news or Gospel to those in need of it. A false prophet is someone who claims to be a prophet, but has failed at his primary duty, proclaiming the truth of the Gospel. Most of us can think of someone either in the bible or in our world today who believes incorrectly, but what about a false prophet, a person who preaches a false version of the Word of God?
Many times they are hard to recognize. They blend in and slowly creep into our circles and into our churches. They come to us “in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” How can we know whether a prophet is true or false? Jesus says we will “recognize them by their fruits.” False prophets produce bad fruit and true prophets produce good fruit.
I False Prophets Produce Bad Fruit
What Jesus is warning us to watch out for is not those who believe in false doctrine, but those who preach false doctrine. He is warning us against false prophets who preach His Word to His followers. He is referring to the content of the prophet’s message not their outward deeds. Jesus knows that those who claim to preach the truth are the most threatening to us because what they claim to preach is not what is important. What matters is whether or not their preaching actually lines up with God’s Word.
False prophets manipulate God’s Word in order to satisfy their own desires and cause followers of Christ to stumble and fall. They describe a different Jesus than the one you and I know and put our trust in. They change His Word in order to satisfy a personal agenda of their own, adding or subtracting to His Word. People are susceptible to this, and the devil knows it. He knows what we want to hear. What we want and think we need in our lives are what the devil attacks and exploits and he uses false prophets to lead God’s sheep astray.
It is natural for us to be attracted to a different kind of teaching. Because of our sinful nature we would rather strive and take credit for our good works than to completely surrender and accept it solely by grace through faith. Positive reinforcement is a powerful thing. We like to be told, “good job,” “well done,” “thank you.” In fact many of us could never be told this enough, we crave it far too much.
It is difficult for us to do something completely out of the kindness of our heart, not expecting anything in return; we would rather be recognized for it. In this same way we can sabotage the great gift of salvation given to us by our loving Father through our precious Savior. We make it out to be more than a gift. Our reason tells us it can’t be that simple. We want to take some credit. There has to be something I can do to attain it.
When someone comes to us and offers a salvation by our own works, it can sound awfully tempting to us. Wait, you’re telling me if I spend more time in prayer God will be more likely to bless me with good things? If I give more to the church God will be happier with me and will listen to my prayer more? If I do my part God will do His.
These are a few ways false prophets pollute God’s Word in order to tempt us and entice us away from the truth. They replace Christ by inserting something else, twisting the truth of scripture. False prophets offer a path that leads to destruction, and in a few verses prior to our text, Jesus says, “many enter by the wide gate to destruction” (Matt. 7:13). False prophets can only offer worthless bad fruit that leads to death. Jesus would have us flee from this kind of teaching as fast as we possibly can.
Where the truth of God’s Holy Word is being taught –like in this church– the devil will work extra hard to destroy it. He will come using every technique and force possible to squirm and wiggle his way into the church. If he can use a Pastor or even a Vicar to do his bidding he will gladly do it.
St. Paul describes false prophets that the devil uses to do great harm to the church like this, “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:13–15). No church body is completely safe, and it will always be this way; false prophets can even find their way into the ELS Synod. Jesus warns you to “watch out, beware!”
But, how can we beware of a false prophet if we don’t know what they look like? How do we recognize them?
Jesus describes them as “coming to us in sheep’s clothing,” disguised as sheep means that they would appear to be like one of us. They would seem to be a follower of Christ and someone who lives a relatively moral life. They would be kind to us and show us that they care about us. They would help others and give to others.
Jesus does not say you can know them by their works. If we could know them this way He wouldn’t have said, “many will say “Lord, Lord did we not prophesy in your name and cast out devils and perform miracles in your name?” (Matt 7:22) False prophets appear to do good works in His name, and appear to be good leaders who we think we can trust. We are deceived by what we see on the outside.
Instead Jesus says to identify false prophets by what they teach. He says, “you shall know them by their fruits.” We can know them by what comes out of their mouths. Are their words in accordance with God’s Holy Word? Can any false doctrine be found in their teaching? False doctrine equals false prophet. God’s Word is like a measuring rod testing whether or not what someone says is true.
Many false prophets confess that Jesus is the Savior and the only way to heaven, but they will dilute and minimize this doctrine and other teachings of scripture. The entirety of God’s Word both His Law and saving Gospel are the full counsel of God, and if anyone takes away or adds to God’s Word then it no longer can produce good fruit.
A key question to ask ourselves is, “what are they pointing us to?” or more accurately, “whom are they pointing us to?” If they point us to anything but Christ for the answer to our weary souls, then they are a false prophet. Let us all be on our guard against false prophets.
Thankfully there are also true prophets among us, who teach and hold fast to the purity of God’s holy Word.
II True Prophets Produce Good Fruit
The true prophets of old pointed to Christ. They prophesied about the coming of the Messiah the deliverer and Savior of His people from sin and death. They pointed to Jesus Christ the True Prophet, the one who would come and prophesy about Himself. This prophet taught people who He was and what He had come to do. He prophesied that He had come to give all people a way out of sin and darkness, into the light of salvation. He revealed to people that all other true prophets pointed towards Him. All that these prophets had foretold about Him would come true through His perfect life and atoning death.
His atoning death is not for those who think they are owed it or deserve it. You and I don’t deserve to go to heaven. We have often ignored God’s Word and followed the voices we wanted to listen to, the voices of false prophets leading us away from Jesus. We didn’t think it would be so bad, but it was. We know how often we have failed to beware and be watchful.
Jesus had many voices around Him accusing Him of blasphemy and being a false prophet. The True Prophet, the prophet above all prophets was labeled a false prophet….a liar. He was attacked verbally and physically and convicted on false charges, which led to a death only reserved for the most evil and vile offenders.
And still, through all of this He never wavered in His task. Jesus lived a life completely sinless for you, a life that you cannot possibly live. He was never enchanted by any of the false prophets around Him. He died in perfect obedience to the will of His Father. He did this selflessly and out of His great love for you, so all of your sins of weakness and pride would be blotted out.
This is the heart of your Lutheran faith. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2: 8–9). We cannot take credit for our salvation because this would be a denial of the truth. A denial of what God’s Word teaches. Christ entered into the world as a gift from our Father in heaven and saved us apart from any work of our own.
And He is with you now continuing to bring you the blessings of His perfect life and sacrificial death. He gives you His holy body and blood. The righteousness and forgiveness of God placed in your mouth in the Lord’s Supper. He graciously comes to nourish you and give you the strength to fend off all false prophets and any false doctrine.
Jesus has appointed prophets to administer these gifts through His means of grace. He still calls faithful pastors to preach God’s Word in sermons and administer the Sacraments to you. Men bring you the truth of God’s Word and do not add or subtract from it. They baptize in the name of the triune God and give you the true body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.
The Holy Spirit works through the words of these men to bring to you the good fruits of Christ’s atoning work, bringing you comfort and strengthening your faith. The Lord will continue to come to you this way until you dine at His side at the eternal feast in heaven.
Our gracious Father has given us His means of grace, and because of this we can now recognize false prophets and stand firm against them. Christ came as the Word incarnate to show us the true way to salvation, and through Him we have life everlasting. Thanks be to God that He has given us His truth by providing us with His holy Word.
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(picture from “Christ before Pilate” by Mihály Munkácsy, 1881)