The Third Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 11:2-10
In Christ Jesus, who is everything the Holy Scriptures promised He would be, dear fellow redeemed:
There are four main characters in today’s text: John the Baptizer, two of John’s disciples, and Jesus. But there were others involved besides these four. In fact, we can assume there were many others. Not long before the events of today’s text, Jesus healed a centurion’s servant without even entering his house (Luk. 7:1-10). Then He met a funeral procession leaving the city of Nain, and with a brief command, He raised a widow’s only son back to life. The evangelist Luke tells us that “this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country” (7:17). We can imagine that the size of the crowds that now followed Jesus were significant.
There was a lot of excitement in Judea and Galilee in those days. The major cities in these two Jewish territories were only about as far apart as Saude from Mason City or Cresco from Rochester—close enough for word to travel. First the strange prophet John attracted all kinds of people in the wilderness by the Jordan River. Then Jesus started preaching and performing miracles in Galilee, and great crowds followed Him.
It couldn’t be denied that John and Jesus were somehow connected, but they were not the same in appearance or in temperament. John grew up aware of the unique circumstances of his birth and of the special mission he would carry out. The son of Zechariah the priest, John studied the Scriptures and spent much of his time in the wilderness (Luk. 1:80). When he was about thirty, he began preaching a bold message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mat. 3:1).
At first, people might have gone to see him out of curiosity. “Who is this crazy preacher?” “Who is this wilderness man dressed in camel’s hair?” But as they listened to him, his words started to sink in. He pointed out how they had broken God’s law in their actions, words, and thoughts. Even tax collectors and soldiers came admitting their wrongs. And finally, the Pharisees and Sadducees also came. John had special words for them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mat. 3:7-8).
John preached so boldly and with such authority that the people wondered if he might be the Christ. John put those ideas to rest. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” he said, “but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (7:11). Someone mightier than John? The people shook with a mixture of fear and excitement. Who could this be? When would He reveal Himself?
Then Jesus came to be baptized, and John saw the Holy Spirit descend from heaven like a dove and remain on Him. From this time forward, John identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Joh. 1:29). The mighty One had come! But Jesus did not fit the people’s expectations. They couldn’t deny the power He had to do miracles. But His preaching and teaching didn’t boom like thunder and flash like lightning in the way they had anticipated.
Perhaps this is why not all of John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus. Even after John was imprisoned for calling out the sins of King Herod, some of his disciples continued to stick with him. When they heard about the miracles Jesus was doing, they reported them to their teacher. John sent two of them to ask Jesus, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” You can’t tell by today’s text, but by the same account in the Gospel of Luke, it seems that Jesus did not answer the question right away.
Jesus was surrounded by a great mass of people, including many with physical problems like blindness, deafness, and the inability to walk. Some were infected with disease and others were afflicted by demons. It wasn’t the rich, the royal, the famous, and the attractive that surrounded Jesus. It was the wretched, the suffering, the depressed, and the needy. Jesus healed these people, and He gave them hope.
Without directly answering their question, the disciples of John had their answer. Was Jesus the coming One? “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” said Jesus: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” When we hear this list of Jesus’ miracles, it is obvious that He must be the Son of God in the flesh. Who else could do things like this?
But there was more to what Jesus said. It was more than a list of present miracles. It was a list of past prophecies that were now being fulfilled. Isaiah prophesied that at the coming of the Messiah, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isa. 35:5-6). Isaiah also recorded these words: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (61:1).
If John’s disciples did not catch the connection between these prophecies and Jesus, we can be certain that John made it for them. It was time to set aside their personal expectations of the coming One and to trust the testimony of God’s holy Word. That’s a lesson that all of us need to learn and re-learn. When we face hardship and pain and difficulty, when we are injured or sick or distressed, we are often quick to become impatient and angry: Why do I have to deal with this? Why did it have to happen to me? Why did it have to happen right now?
It doesn’t take long for our impatience and anger to be directed at God: If You love me, God, why do You let me suffer? If You see my trouble, why don’t You help? We question why He is putting us through it, instead of trusting that He will get us through it. At the root of these struggles is a failure to trust God’s Word, a failure to put our confidence in His promises. The Lord calls us to trust what He says even when it seems like He is ignoring us or is opposed to us or is punishing us.
He said to John’s disciples, “blessed is the one who is not offended by Me,” and He says the same to you and me today. “Blessed are you if you are not offended by My lowly appearance on earth, by My humble behavior, by My suffering, crucifixion, and death. I did all these things for you, so that you would have redemption and eternal life. Blessed are you if you are not offended when I send you trials and tests, so that I might purify your faith like fine gold and draw you closer to Me. Blessed are you if you are not offended by My coming to you still through lowly means, through the ministry of weak pastors, through the water of Baptism and the bread and wine of My Supper.”
We wish Jesus would operate among us with impressive displays of power. We want a thunder and lightning Lord who puts the world in its place and makes it clear to everyone that He stands with us. In some ways, we want a John for our Lord instead of Jesus. Everybody respected bold John, even King Herod who put him in prison. But John was only a messenger, just as the Lord’s servants are today.
The Lord calls His under-shepherds to preach His Word, to point out sin through His Law and to point penitent sinners to their salvation through His Gospel. In today’s Epistle lesson (1Co. 4:1-5), Paul reminds us pastors that we are not the main event. We are only servants and stewards. It is really Jesus who is at work among us through His Word and Sacraments.
We gather to Him here like the suffering people in today’s text. We bring our sorrow, pain, and distress before Him and ask for His help and comfort. Sometimes He removes our troubles from us like He did in healing the blind, the lame, and the deaf. And sometimes He allows our suffering to continue like He did with John the Baptizer’s imprisonment.
Whatever cross Jesus calls you to bear, He promises to carry you through the trial. He comes through His Word and Sacraments to feed and fill you. Maybe you get picked on or made fun of because you stand up for what is right. He comes to strengthen you and give you courage. Maybe you are anxious about your children or grandchildren and the choices they are making. He comes to comfort you and guide you in patience and love toward them. Maybe you are grieving the loss of your good health or the health of a loved one, or you miss someone who has died. Jesus comes to assure you of His victory over sin and death, and He brings you hope for the glorious life to come.
You can be sure that He will do these things for you, because He says He will. Jesus never let a promise go unfulfilled. Paul writes that “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (1Co. 1:20). Whether you ask Him for forgiveness or a stronger faith or help in your troubles, His answer is “Yes,” always “Yes!” His suffering, death, and resurrection to save you is the proof that Jesus Keeps His Promises—every single one.
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 “Witness of John the Baptist” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1972)
The First Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 21:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who came down to win salvation for sinners and who still comes to bless them until He takes them to heaven to live with Him in glory, dear fellow redeemed:
Have you ever been someplace where a famous person showed up unexpectedly? Maybe it was a popular actor or singer or professional athlete or maybe someone like the President of the United States. When they show up, the news of their appearance spreads like fire. A crowd starts to form, people getting excited, squeezing in to try to get a better view.
This is something like the scene in Jerusalem when Jesus arrived at the beginning of Holy Week. The streets and buildings were swollen with people who had come for the annual Passover celebration. Then word started to travel: “Jesus is coming!” Not everyone knew about Him: “Who is this?” they asked (Mat. 21:10). “He is the prophet from Nazareth! He does great signs and wonders! He even raised a man from the dead over in Bethany! That man Lazarus is alive and well!”
So a great crowd pushed toward the gate where Jesus would arrive drawing others along with them like a magnet attracting metal shavings. The people spilled out of the city and spread out along the road. By now, the idea was firmly planted in their minds that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. He was the mighty King who would free them from their enemies.
The people of the crowd were not rich dignitaries who could roll out a red carpet and welcome Jesus with impressive displays of pomp and circumstance. But they could offer their dusty cloaks and lay palm branches on the road as a carpet for his donkey. There were no professional musicians and singers organized for His approach. But the people had their own voices to employ, so they sang joyfully the words of the messianic Psalm (118:25-26), “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Now is this the way Jesus would be received if He suddenly appeared somewhere close by today? I have no doubt that Jesus would draw a big crowd. And I think He would be welcomed with great rejoicing and hopefulness. But it wouldn’t take long before people labeled Him a disappointment. By the end of the first week, the crowd would be considerably smaller, and Jesus would be looking at more enemies than allies.
That’s what happened in Jerusalem. The people welcomed Him as the King who would restore the glory to Israel. He would assert His authority and lead them to freedom from the Romans. Besides that, He would bring them healing from their illnesses and pain. He would feed them with a never-ending supply of food. It would be a heaven on earth.
Isn’t that what people would expect from Jesus now? They would want Him to solve their earthly problems: “Lord, this person has cancer, this person is very ill, this person is severely depressed, this person has chronic back pain. Please heal them!” Others would come asking Him to fill their cupboards with food or help with their financial issues. And everyone would want to know His position on the hot topics of the day: “What political party do You endorse? What do You think about a mask mandate? Can we really trust the coronavirus vaccine?”
I don’t think His answers would satisfy anyone. Whenever the Pharisees and teachers of the law tried to trap Jesus with their questions, they walked away frustrated. Instead of helping you score points against someone, Jesus would turn the focus back on you. “Why are you so eager to judge your neighbor? Why are you trying to remove a speck from your brother’s eye when there is a log in your own eye? Your duty is to love your neighbors—even your enemies—and to pray for those who persecute you” (Mat. 7:1-5, 5:44).
Many would come to Jesus looking for His help with other people’s sins. Few would come seeking His forgiveness for their own sins. And that is to misunderstand Jesus, to misunderstand God’s purpose in sending His Son to take on our flesh. Jesus did not come to make us secure in our self-made righteousness. That sounds something like this: “If you think and act like I do, then you are good. If you don’t think and act like I do, then you are bad.” That approach lacks both charity and humility.
The truth is that all of us are bad. By nature, all of us are self-centered and self-serving. We are stubborn and prideful and easily angered. And God sent His Son right into all our bitterness and in-fighting. Why? It’s because God loved the world, even this broken, evil world. He sent His Son to be the Light in our darkness, to be our Hope and our Righteousness and our Salvation.
This is why Jesus came. He came to redeem us sinners. He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday not to defeat the Romans or the Pharisees, but to overcome the works of darkness and conquer death itself. By Friday of that week, He was hanging on the cross suffering for your sins and mine and for the sins of the whole world. And then the following Sunday He was appearing again alive to His disciples who had deserted Him. He was not angry with them; He forgave them, just as He forgives you.
And this Jesus, your King, who humbly offered Himself as the sacrifice for your sins and who triumphed over your death, still comes to bless you today. He does not come visibly attracting a great crowd in some major city. He comes hidden in His Word and Sacraments. He comes to meet you in whatever trial or pain or struggle you are currently experiencing. He comes to apply His powerful healing through His Word and to strengthen your faith.
He even attaches His own body and blood to earthly elements, so you can be sure that He has come, sure that He has imparted the blessings He promises. We welcome Him here to our altar just as the people welcomed Him to Jerusalem so long ago: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” We do not lay down our cloaks or palm branches at the altar. We lay down the burden of our sin and guilt, our judgmental attitude toward our neighbor, our lack of love. We lay these things before the righteous Judge, and He says to us, “This is My body; this is My blood—given and shed for you for the remission of your sins.”
But His present coming in the means of grace is ignored by the world and even by some Christians. This year has exposed the way many people view the gathering of Christians. Unbelievers view it as unessential at best and as dangerous at worst. They really see it as no different than the gathering of any other worldly organization. If they believe there is a God, they don’t believe He actually comes down to meet us in physical things like words and water, bread and wine.
And then there are even some Christians who say, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian!” And, “Church is not a building; we are the church!” There is truth in both statements. If all we cared about was the church building, and how pretty it is, and how just sitting there makes us feel better, then we are putting too much stock in wood and plaster and paint. We Christians can do without a building. But we cannot do without Christ.
Christ’s holy Word and Sacraments are essential to us Christians. They are the lifeline between us and our gracious Lord. They are the way He gives us the healing, help, and strength that we cannot get anywhere else. We don’t need to receive these blessings in a church building, but we do need to receive them. And Jesus is glad to come to us. He is glad to deliver His gifts. He wants to ease our troubled conscience. He wants to alleviate our doubts and fears. He wants to bring us the assurance that when this life comes to an end, a much better life awaits.
We who gather around Jesus today are just a small part of the great multitude that has followed Him since time began. We face troubles that are unique to us, but that many have experienced before us. We are not the first of Jesus’ followers to suffer, and He has brought countless believers through suffering into glory. He has led His people through every imaginable distress and conflict, and He will do the same for us.
So we repent of our mistrust and our worry. Jesus is still here with us. He still brings us His rich blessings. Just as He entered Jerusalem to save, so He still comes among us to save. Here He is present in His Word and Sacraments to bless us. And soon He will come again visibly to unite the great multitude of believers in His kingdom which has no end.
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)
The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 2 Corinthians 3:4-11
In Christ Jesus, who drank the cup of God’s wrath, so you could drink from the waters of salvation through His Word, dear fellow redeemed:
What does it mean that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”? Some say that when Paul refers to “the letter,” he is talking about the words of the Bible. So they argue that the Bible is a “dead letter,” and a “dead letter” cannot save your soul. If you want to be saved, you need the Spirit. And how do you get the Spirit? Not by reading or hearing the words of the Bible, but by your own prayers, your own inner struggle, the stretching of your feelings and emotions toward the mighty God.
Another twist on this idea is the churches which display rainbow-colored banners outside their walls which say, “God is still speaking.” They believe that the Spirit reveals new teachings to Christian communities that may even contradict deeply-held beliefs of past generations. “God is still speaking” is another way of saying, “We don’t believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. We don’t believe it is all-sufficient for Christian life in today’s world. The times when the Bible was written were much different times than these. We believe that the Spirit is still shaping and guiding us not through the Bible but through the collective judgment of the Christians in this place.”
These attempts to separate the Spirit from the Word remind me of a story I read a while back. It’s a fairly short story, and I’d like to share it with you today.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful little village nestled in a valley between two mountains. In the center of the village was a well. The well provided water to all the inhabitants of the village. People came from all over the world to drink the cool, clean, crisp water that was drawn daily from the well. Countless people remained in the village and made their homes there. They loved the water.
The well was sufficient for the people of the village. No other wells graced the cobblestone streets of that mountain town. There was no need. No one ever suggested that they might like some other well more. Such a thought would be incomprehensible. The well was sufficient to satisfy all their needs, and it seemed that no matter how many people came to dwell in the mountain village there was always enough water. Water from another well? The thought was unheard of—absurd.
The well was also powerful. At the suggestion that the well might run dry some day, the people only laughed. “A waterless well?” The thought was unheard of—absurd. Whenever anyone went to the well, from the smallest child to the mayor himself, water was always there. The well was predictable, trustworthy, and always dependable. The well had power.
The people depended on only one well, and that well never let them down. The well and the water went together. You could not have one without the other. If you wanted water, you got it from that well and that well alone. If you went to the well, you always had water. There was no water without the well and no well without the water.
One day, the saddest day the town had ever known, a stranger came to the village. He tasted the water, as had every visitor before him. The visitor said, “This is good water. But I know another source that can give you water just like this well.”
The people were divided. Some said, “Impossible. Water comes only from this well.” Others were curious.
The visitor took another drink and said, “This is a good well. But I don’t think that we can depend on the well.”
The people were divided. Some said, “Impossible. Water always comes from the well.” Others were curious.
So the townspeople discussed two questions. First, was it only the well? Was that well sufficient enough? Second, was it always the well? Was that well powerful enough? The stranger proposed an experiment. “Why not cover the well? I’m sure that there will be water from some other place. This well is not sufficient. Yes, let’s cover the well. I don’t think we can afford to rely on it forever. The well is not powerful enough.”
But the people protested. “No, the well and the water belong together. If you cover the well, we will not have water.”
Scornfully the stranger replied, “You are well lovers. You should love the water. Don’t you think that God can give us water from anywhere He wants? Are you trying to limit God? You faithless people, you lovers of wells, God does not need a well to prosper you.” That talk of “God” seemed so pious and godly. Of course the people did not want to limit the power of God. They covered up the well.
And, alas, all the people in the town died. (Klemet I. Preus, The Fire and the Staff: Lutheran Theology in Practice, pp. 80-82)
What do you think of the story? It’s kind of silly, isn’t it? What little village would cover up the only source of water it had?
But this sad story is not really about a village, a well, and water. This story is about the church, the Word, and the Spirit. It is about the church centered on the Word. As long as the church drinks from the Word, like the village from its well, it has the Holy Spirit in full measure. It lacks nothing. By the Spirit working through the Word, faith is fed and the thirst for righteousness is satisfied. When the church has the Word, it has the Spirit.
But there are “strangers”—false teachers—who try to convince the church that it can have the Spirit apart from the Word. “Why stick to the ‘dead letter’ of the Word?” they ask. “‘For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’—isn’t that what Paul says? God can give the Spirit however He wants. He doesn’t need the Word to do it! Don’t worry about the Word; go right to the Spirit!” This is all a lie. There is no Spirit apart from the Word. The Holy Spirit works through the Word.
Today’s text does not teach that the Word and the Spirit are separate. What it teaches is the distinction between God’s Law and God’s Gospel. God’s Law is referred to in this text in different ways. It is called “the letter,” “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone,” and “the ministry of condemnation.”
God gave the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and when Moses came down the mountain from God’s presence carrying the two tablets of the Law, his face shined with a bright light. It shone so brightly that the people of Israel ran away from him in fear (Exo. 34:30). After he called them back, he delivered God’s Law to them. And then he covered his face with a veil, so the people would not be afraid (vv. 31-33).
Moses’ shining face reminded the Israelites that they were not like God. They were not holy like He was. God’s holy Commandments drove this point home. The letter of God’s Law condemned them. This is why Paul wrote that “the letter kills.” God’s Law kills any idea that we can be right with Him by our own efforts. It kills our self-righteousness. It kills our boasting. It kills our pride. If we take a good look at ourselves in the mirror of the Law, all we can see is our sin. There is no hope for salvation in the Law.
But “the Spirit gives life.” How? Through the Word of God’s Gospel. The Holy Spirit does not bring you anything new today. He does not bring you any knowledge or understanding or wisdom that believers in the past did not possess. If you run into someone who claims to have new messages from the Spirit to share, run the other way.
Jesus clearly stated the work of the Holy Spirit: “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (Joh. 16:14). The Holy Spirit takes what belongs to Jesus and gives it to you. He takes Jesus’ perfect life of obedience to the Law. He takes Jesus’ innocent suffering and atoning death for all sin. He takes Jesus’ triumphant resurrection from the dead. And He declares it all to you. “Jesus’ righteousness—yours. Jesus’ forgiveness—yours. Jesus’ life—yours.”
That is why Paul calls “the ministry of the Spirit” through the Gospel, “the ministry of righteousness.” The Word of God’s Gospel is the way that He gives you everything He demands of you in His Law. Through the Word of what Jesus did for you, the Holy Spirit gives you all that you need to get to heaven.
However, you still need to hear the Law in this life. The old Adam, your sinful nature, still needs to die every day through the condemnation of God’s Law. The Holy Spirit is at work there too to lead you to repentance. But His primary work is to bring you Jesus. Jesus kept the letter of the Law for you. He was condemned so you would be freed. He died the death you deserved to die, so you would have abundant life in Him.
Eventually, Moses with his shining face was replaced by another leader and then another. The tablets of stone engraved with God’s Law were lost. “[T]here was glory in the ministry of condemnation,” but “the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.” What Jesus has done for you and all sinners will never fade. His Word will never lose its power. The church will never need something new.
The saving words of Jesus are “spirit and life” (Joh. 6:63). Whoever drinks of the water of this world will be thirsty again. “[B]ut whoever drinks of the water that I will give him,” says Jesus, “will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Joh. 4:14).
Drink Deeply from the Well of Jesus’ Word through which the Holy Spirit does His powerful work. The living waters of His Word are meant for you and your salvation. Jesus’ Word of forgiveness and life is your oasis in a parched and dying world. It is the source of your healing and strength. It is the guarantee of God’s favor upon you and of the eternal glories to come.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from annual outdoor service on the parsonage grounds)
Festival of Pentecost & Jerico Confirmation – Pr. Faugstad exordium & sermon
Brought to the foot of Mt. Sinai after God had led them out of slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel were terrified. They were terrified because God came down on the mountain, and He didn’t come meekly. He came down in a raging fire. The whole mountain was wrapped in a thick cloud of swirling smoke. Lightning flashed, the ground trembled, and God spoke with a voice of thunder.
The LORD had come to give His holy Law to His people, to tell them how they should conduct themselves in their homes, in their communities, and in their gatherings to worship Him. The clear message was this: If you disobey this God, His fiery wrath is a terrible thing to face.
John the Baptizer indicated that the Messiah would come with such fire: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I…. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mat. 3:11-12).
Who could endure the day of His coming? Who could stand when the righteous God appeared (Mal. 5:2)? We have all disobeyed God’s holy Law. We have all invited His wrath against us. But Jesus did not come to destroy us; He came to save us. He came to face the hot anger of God and to step into the flames of hell in our place. He made peace with God for us. And He wants all sinners to know it.
This is why He sent out the Holy Spirit. Just like at Sinai, God came again in fire at Pentecost, but it was a much gentler fire. The Holy Spirit inspired in the apostles a message not primarily of Law and judgment, but of grace and hope. The people did not shrink back from this manifestation of God in fear; they drew closer in awe. They were glad to hear these Galileans speak in their own languages “the mighty works of God.”
The Holy Spirit had been poured out as Jesus promised to guide people in the truth. He was here to plant faith in sinful hearts through the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection and to continue to shine the light of His grace and forgiveness into their hearts. In thanksgiving and prayer for the ongoing work of the Spirit, we rise to sing our festival verse, “O Light of God’s Most Wondrous Love” (ELH 399) / “O Holy Spirit, Enter In” (TLH 235, v. 1).
Text: Acts 2:1-13
In Christ Jesus, who delivered on His promise to send the Holy Spirit to His disciples, and who still sends out the Holy Spirit even now, dear fellow redeemed, and especially you, Karson, on your Confirmation Day:
When Lutherans hear the account of Pentecost, they come across some very familiar words in Acts 2:12. There the devout Jews in Jerusalem ask a simple question, “What does this mean?” We are used to asking that question. In the six chief parts of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, that question is specifically asked twenty-two times. It is a prompt for digging deeper, for coming to a clearer understanding of God’s Word.
But it isn’t just Lutherans who ask this question. Everyone does. The expressions may differ somewhat, but the idea is the same. A child may point to any number of things and ask, “What is that?” A person may examine evidence and try to figure out how things come together, saying: “What do we make of all this?” Or we may search for answers about why God allows certain things to happen: “What does this mean, God? Help us understand.”
The question is an important one. It acknowledges that we do not know everything. It expresses a desire to be taught. This is the position the Jerusalem Jews were in. It bewildered and perplexed them to hear these common Galileans speak in a multitude of languages. No matter where the people were from, they heard God’s truth in their own native tongue. “What does this mean?” they asked one another.
Peter told them. He cited the words of the Old Testament prophet Joel beginning with this statement, “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Act. 2:17). And a few verses later, “it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v. 21). Then he went on to teach about Jesus of Nazareth. Though He was crucified, died, and was buried, yet God raised Him up. Peter said that the apostles were witnesses of His victory over death, and that this Jesus was the one who now poured out the Holy Spirit as the people were “hearing and seeing” (v. 33). Jesus was the reason the message of salvation was being delivered to them in their own languages.
Hearing Peter’s words, the people “were cut to the heart” (v. 37). They felt the guilt of what had been done to Jesus some fifty days before this. With their “What does this mean?” answered, they now they asked a different question, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (v. 37). Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (vv. 38-39).
Peter described the way for them to be reconciled to God. He did not tell them they had to carry out some great work or give a significant gift for the cause. Grace was extended to them on the basis of Jesus’ work. This grace was for everyone, no exceptions. Everyone who believed and was baptized would be saved (Mar. 16:16). These baptized believers received the forgiveness of their sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The same is true today. Forgiveness in Jesus’ name and the gift of the Holy Spirit are still given to those who are baptized. Many of you here today have received these blessings. God claimed you as His child in Holy Baptism and has continued to strengthen your faith through His Word. As long as you are kept in this saving faith, you retain the forgiveness of all your sins no matter what they may be, and the Holy Spirit continues to dwell within you. Especially today, we celebrate God’s giving of these blessings to Karson. We give thanks that he is now ready to confess his faith publicly in the presence of the congregation and to join us at the altar to receive the body and blood of our Savior in Holy Communion.
The devil does not want us to partake of these means of grace through which the Holy Spirit works. He tries constantly to tempt us away from them. He puts other things in front of us to keep us occupied and distract us from God’s saving Word. These may be good things like work and family, or they may be bad things that actively lead us to sin against God. Ultimately, Satan wants us to regard the Word of God like those scoffers on Pentecost. These heard the preaching of the apostles, and instead of listening to what was said, they accused the disciples of being drunk on new wine.
This treating the Word as insignificant or turning away from it can happen to any of us, and in fact it has happened to all of us. We have viewed the Word of God as something common, something we can take or leave. Maybe we told ourselves that what matters most is how we live our lives. Or what matters most is not what God gives to us, but what we offer to Him. We have failed to eat and drink and absorb the Scriptures as God’s own revelation and truth for us. Thinking we have the Bible mastered, we do not pour over it, humbly and diligently asking at every point, “What Does This Mean?”
And yet, even though we have not listened to and applied God’s Word to ourselves as we should, God in His mercy has brought us again today to hear it. Whenever His Word is heard or read or meditated upon, the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Through the Word of the Law, He exposes the sins of our mind and heart, so that we realize how far we have fallen short of God’s glory. And through the Word of the Gospel, He points us to Jesus, who lived the perfect life for us that God requires, and who died to atone for all our sins.
At Pentecost the Holy Spirit led 3000 people to be baptized when they heard God’s powerful Word of grace. And so He continues to work in our hearts today. We might not speak in other languages when He comes or have tongues of fire rest upon us. But His power is by no means diminished. He still comes assuring us that our sins are forgiven, that we are justified—declared righteous and innocent—in God’s sight because of what Jesus has done. Through this Gospel message, He also strengthens our faith and sanctifies us to be bearers of light in a dark world.
We cannot do without these blessings of the Holy Spirit. We want them more and more. That is why we don’t put away the question, “What Does This Mean?” when we are confirmed. The youth confirmed this week and next would tell you that they have learned a lot in the last two years. But they know they have further to go. Our prayer for Karson and all our youth is that they never stop growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2Pe. 3:18), and that the Lord keeps them faithful to His altar.
Confirmation is much closer to our spiritual starting line than to the finish line. We never get to the point where we have learned everything we could possibly learn from the Bible. We want to continue to dig into the Word and to search for the treasures God has placed there. The Holy Spirit will uncover them for us and lead us to a deeper and clearer understanding of the great love God has for us.
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(picture from stained glass by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, c. 1660)
Festival of the Ascension of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Acts 1:1-11
In Christ Jesus, who is present with us and all His disciples just as He promised He would be, dear fellow redeemed:
The chief priests and the Pharisees had heard Jesus loud and clear. He said He would rise again on the third day after His death. Once they succeeded in having Him crucified, they remembered His words. They thought His disciples might now try to steal away His body and declare that He had risen. So they had a guard positioned at the tomb. They did not know that these soldiers would become the first witnesses of the empty tomb when an angel came down from heaven and rolled away the stone.
Some of the soldiers went trembling to the religious leaders and reported what they had seen. The leaders gave them hush money and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep’” (Mat. 28:13). So the religious leaders heard Jesus’ prediction, they heard the eyewitness account of these men that the tomb was empty, and they still denied that Jesus is who He said!
They may have silenced the guard, but I can’t imagine they were able to silence the thoughts and imaginations of their hearts. They must have dreaded the very real possibility that Jesus would turn up alive and show Himself to everyone. Then what could they say? Who would listen to them then?
It’s kind of surprising that Jesus did not do this. What better proof of His Word could there be than to take a victory lap all around Jerusalem? Or better still, why didn’t Jesus take His message on the road? “Look, they crucified Me—you can see the marks in My hands and feet. I died and was closed up in a tomb. But here I am alive again! That’s because I am the holy Son of God, the Savior of the world. Nothing—not even death—can overcome Me!”
Instead, the forty days between His resurrection and ascension were relatively low-key. He appeared to His disciples at different times, but He seems to have hidden Himself for the better part of those days. When He did appear to them, He spoke to them “about the kingdom of God,” and He told them to expect the outpouring of the Holy Spirit “not many days from now.” Then He said, “you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Jesus made it clear that He was giving the work of spreading the Gospel of salvation to the disciples. But why was Jesus so eager to leave them? Why not proclaim the message Himself until the Christian Church was well-established? The disciples did not feel ready to have the Lord leave. We can see this in the way they intently gazed into heaven when Jesus ascended. How could He depart from them and keep His promise to be with them always?
Jesus’ ascension marks the transition point between the winning of salvation and the distributing of it. His ascension to His Father’s right hand is the crowning moment of His saving work. He had descended (or come down) from heaven to take on our flesh and save us, and now He was ascending (or going up) to heaven having won the victory over sin, death, and hell. Just ten days after this, the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples and propel the Gospel throughout the known world.
So was that it for Jesus? Did He return to heaven to enjoy a well-deserved rest of a few thousand years after suffering the eternal punishment for sin? Is He just biding His time until the day comes for His triumphant return to earth? It sure would be nice to have Him here again like He was 2,000 years ago. The church on earth—broken in so many pieces—needs Him to come and set everything right. We need Him to bring healing to the sick—especially now when many are contracting a virus and some are dying. We need Him to calm our troubled hearts and encourage us on our way like He did His disciples.
All these things we need Him to do, He still does—just not in the way we want Him to. He is at work in the church by the power of His Word mending divisions and strengthening the fellowship of believers. He is bringing healing to the sick through the care of medical personnel and compassionate family and friends. And He does comfort and encourage us as He visits us through the means of grace.
But we want more. We want Him to be present with us visibly, to show His love for us by performing miracles and taking away our hurt and pain. It is frustrating to be told again and again of His great love for us while everything in our life is falling apart. How is His love helping me recover my health? How is it helping me pay my bills? How will it fix the break-down in my relationship? How will it make my boss treat me more fairly? How will it remove my loneliness, depression, and anguish?
This is where we go wrong: we assume that Jesus is not active because things are not turning out the way we want. Or we assume that He does not love us as much as the Bible says He does. The second error is put to rest by the fact of His sacrificial death. He didn’t go to the cross for any wrong He had done. He went there to pay for all our sins—our sins against Him! That’s a love we can’t even come close to matching.
It is also wrong to think that Jesus is not active anymore on earth. The Bible outlines three main areas of activity—His three-fold office as our Savior. Jesus continues to work on our behalf as a Prophet, a Priest, and a King. As Prophet, He speaks to us through His powerful Word and sends men to declare His forgiveness to His people. As Priest, He intercedes for us at the Father’s right hand and brings our needs before the throne of grace. As King, He rules over all things especially for the benefit of His Church and brings all the departed saints to His kingdom of glory. That’s a lot of activity!
So He is very aware of what is going on in your life. But how can you be assured of His presence? How can you be certain He is here with you no matter what you are going through? He may not show Himself to you like you would want. But He does promise to be with you, and He does not promise anything lightly. The apostle Paul writes that when Jesus ascended into heaven, His Father “put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).
You are part of Christ’s body. You are a member of His holy Church by faith in Him. He could no easier forget you or cast you aside than you could forget or cast aside your own arm or foot. He loves you. He wants you to remain with Him and so inherit eternal life and never-ending joy. That’s why He specially visits you through the preaching of His Word and through His Sacraments.
You do not see Him come visibly. But He is right here with you, even in the flesh that was nailed to the cross and came alive again in the tomb. Jesus did not lie to His disciples; He was with them always. He is with you too, to the end of each day, to the end of your life, and to the end of the world (ELH Evening Collect, p. 126).
Where Is Jesus When You Need Him? He is still here, wielding “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Mat. 28:18). He is here to bring His forgiveness and grace to your heart when you hear His Word. He is here to apply His saving gifts in Holy Baptism. He is here to give His own body and blood for you to eat and to drink for the remission of your sins. His Word and Sacraments are where Jesus promises to be found “always, to the end of the age” (v. 20).
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(picture of the Ascension by John Singleton Copley, 1775)
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: James 1:16-21
In Christ Jesus, the Father’s greatest and most perfect Gift, who by His death and His resurrection to life again has brought salvation to our souls, dear fellow redeemed:
It’s planting season! Besides the farmers at work in their fields, I’m sure many of you have been at work in your gardens. You prepare the ground and dig in seeds, and before long those seeds sprout up and grow into large, food-bearing plants. You have a part to play in bringing those plants to maturity. You water as needed, and you clear out weeds that would choke them. But ultimately the plants grow on their own, while you watch God’s magnificent creation in action.
n Mark 4, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” (vv. 26-28). Just as God is the one who makes plants grow and brings a crop to maturity, so it is with our faith. When the seed of the Word is planted in someone, God is the one who makes it grow and produce.
This is what we hear about in today’s text. James writes about who is working, how He works, and what effect His work has. In the verses before our text, he mentions “the rich” who think that their success is due to their own ability or effort or strength. But their riches cannot save their souls. They will fade and die like wildflowers do. “For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes” (Jam. 1:11). The self-made and the self-reliant fall down as quickly as they rise up.
They do not realize that “[e]very good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” We forget that too. Often it takes the loss of our good things before we realize what we had. We don’t appreciate our health and strength as much as when we are sick or injured. We don’t appreciate work until we are out of a job. We don’t appreciate the blessings of home or possessions until they break down. We don’t appreciate family and friends as much as when they are gone.
All of these good gifts are from above, “coming down from the Father of lights.” This is a title for “God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” (Apostles’ Creed). He “separated the light from the darkness” (Gen. 1:4) in the beginning and created “the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars” (v. 16). Just as the sun, moon, and stars keep shining day after day, so the bright beams of God’s love continue to shine upon us as He cares for us.
But as committed as He is to providing our “daily bread,” our heavenly Father especially wants us to have the “bread of heaven.” He wants us to have faith in His Son Jesus, because only faith in Jesus saves. To bring us this faith, the Father sends out the Holy Spirit. Jesus spoke about the Spirit’s work in the Holy Gospel for today: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (Joh. 16:13-15).
“[T]he Spirit of truth” guides us into “all the truth” through “the word of truth.” This is what Jesus asked His Father to do for the disciples: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (Joh. 17:17). Our spiritual life depends entirely on God’s Word of truth. His Word not only informs us what He has done for us, but it also imparts His blessings to us. Today’s text says, “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth.” It was God’s choice to bring us forth by His Word. This was not by our will; we did not choose God. Our will could choose nothing but evil; “we were dead in our trespasses” (Eph. 2:5).
The Holy Spirit planted faith in our hearts and continues to nourish it and make it grow by the powerful working of His Word. This Word of truth gave us new life as the apostle Peter writes, “[Y]ou have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1Pe. 1:23). A plant cannot grow without a seed. It may seem small and insignificant, but a seed contains all the genetic information necessary to grow the plant and produce its fruit. The Word of God may also seem small and insignificant—nothing special. But the seed of the Word is at work in us causing us to grow as fruitful children of God.
Of all God’s creatures, we believers in Jesus are the “firstfruits.” We are the beautiful produce of the Lord’s great harvest. The Father “brought us forth by the word of truth” because He wanted us to share the victory and glory of His only Son. Jesus was planted in the tomb after His death, and no one expected Him to spring forth alive. But He did on the third day. He rose again from the dead showing that death was defeated for all people. This is why we bury the departed saints with hope and why we plant flowers on their graves. It is because we wholeheartedly believe that the seed of the body planted in the ground will come forth with great power and glory, never to perish again (1Co. 15:35-44).
The Word that we hear today is preparing us for that day. So we ought to “be quick to hear” and “slow to speak.” A person’s knowledge does not expand by listening to himself speak, but by listening to others. The same goes for faith. We cannot make faith stronger by our thoughts, words, or wishes. “[F]aith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). A plant must receive to grow—water, sunshine, heat—, and it cannot grow without them. So also we grow by drinking from the living waters of God’s Word and soaking up the light of His grace.
But there are things that stunt our spiritual growth, that cause damage to our faith. A plant suffers when weeds choke it, when bugs attack it, and when its roots do not sink deeply into the ground. One of the things that chokes faith is our anger and bitterness toward one another. We refuse to forgive wrongs done to us, and we feel justified in returning evil for evil, whether toward family members or neighbors. The devil and the world also attack us with temptations toward “filthiness and rampant wickedness,” to put our sinful desires before anything else. Our sinful habits and our neglect of the life-giving Word keep the roots of faith from sinking more and more deeply.
We cannot work ourselves out of our sinful state any more than a rich person can buy his way out of death. That is why God must give His good and perfect gifts from above. The best gift He gave was the gift of His only Son. We sang about this in the hymn before the sermon, a hymn written by Martin Luther:
He spoke to His beloved Son:
“’Tis time to have compassion.
Then go, bright Jewel of My crown,
And bring to man salvation.
From sin and sorrow set him free;
Slay bitter death for him, that he
May live with Thee forever.”
(Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, #378, v. 5)
Jesus let the weeds of our sin choke Him, the devils attack Him, and death strike Him. But none of these things could destroy Him. He destroyed them, so that we could grow up in Him and bear fruit in His name. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” He said. “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Joh. 15:5).
We abide in Him by faith in His promises, and we remain in faith by abiding in His Word (Joh. 8:31). So James urges the readers of his epistle to “receive with meekness the implanted word.” Many words are planted in us that we remember long after they are spoken. We think especially today about the words of instruction, advice, encouragement, and love from our mothers which still guide us. But even more powerful than that is the implanted Word of God.
It was no mistake that you were brought to faith through the powerful Word. God plants with purpose, and He constantly cultivates and tends what He caused to sprout inside you. He planted His Word of grace and forgiveness and life deep in your heart. He wants you to know His love for you, and He wants to keep your faith growing.
Like a mature plant, the stronger and healthier faith is, the more fruit it produces. But if faith is not fed by the Word, it will weaken and eventually wither up and die. This is why James urges us to “receive with meekness the implanted word”—receive God’s Word of grace gladly and with humble and repentant hearts—because “the implanted word… is able to save your souls.”
So we will not be deceived by other “products” that promise to do more for our spiritual life than the words of the Bible. We desire no better or more perfect gift than the life-giving Word of the mighty God, who has surely promised: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:10-11).
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(picture from Jerico Lutheran Church)
The Second Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 John 5:4-10
In Christ Jesus, who gives us a share of His eternal victory by faith, dear fellow redeemed:
He had told them several times. He told them He had to suffer and die, and that He would be raised again on the third day (Mat. 16:21, 17:23, 20:19). But the disciples did not understand. They were so troubled by the thought of His death that His promise to rise did not even register with them. Peter let Jesus know what he thought about The Plan. He took Jesus aside and rebuked Him. He said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Mat. 16:22).
It wasn’t long before this that Peter had beautifully expressed the truth about who Jesus was: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Peter naturally did not want to see His great Teacher and Lord die. He may have also wondered whether this was even possible. If Jesus is truly God’s Son, how could He die? But Jesus was not about to follow the will of Peter—the will of man. He followed the will of His Father in heaven, and His suffering, death, and resurrection happened exactly as He had predicted.
Yet even after His resurrection, the disciples struggled to believe it. The women came on Easter morning telling them about an open tomb, shining angels, and a message from Jesus. “[B]ut these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luk. 24:11). How could it be true? The previous Friday, Jesus had died on the cross. There was no question about it. John himself was there. He saw the soldier pierce the side of Jesus, and he saw blood and water come out (Joh. 19:34). Jesus was dead. The disciples had watched Jesus call back Lazarus from the dead. But who could call back Jesus?
They did not believe it until Jesus appeared to them in the flesh on Easter evening. Since the doors were locked, at first they thought a spirit had come into their midst. But Jesus showed them the marks in His hands, feet, and side. He ate some fish in their presence (Luk. 24:42). Now they realized that He most certainly wasn’t a ghost. This was Jesus, risen from the dead!
All of them were convinced, all except for Thomas. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared. “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails,” he said, “and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (Joh. 20:25). The next Sunday, the disciples including Thomas were all together, and Jesus appeared again. Now Thomas believed: “My Lord and my God!” he said (v. 28). Jesus said to him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (v. 29).
The skepticism of Thomas is the default position of many today regarding Jesus. They are willing to accept that He existed. They imagine He was probably a good guy. They like how He helped people in need. But they don’t believe He is God, and they don’t believe He came back to life after His death. The only way they would believe these things is if they had proof of some kind, like the proof that Thomas received.
The evidence that the apostle John brings forward is not the evidence one might expect. John says the proof that Jesus is the Son of God is found in “the Spirit and the water and the blood.” This is a reference especially to the beginning and end of Jesus’ public work. He was publicly identified as God’s Son and the promised Savior at His Baptism. When He was baptized, the heavens were opened, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Him. Then a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mat. 3:16-17).
That is strong testimony of Jesus’ identity. But how can we be certain it actually happened as described? Some people suggest that Jesus’ closest disciples invented stories about His life. But if you wrote a story and included yourself in it, how would you portray yourself? The disciples are often described as weak, petty, and ignorant. Either those creative writers were extraordinarily humble, or they simply told the truth about themselves and Jesus.
The same goes for John the Baptizer. He was not an all-knowing prophet. He admitted he did not know Jesus was the promised Messiah until he baptized Him. But seeing what happened and hearing the voice of God the Father, he then proclaimed, “this is the Son of God!” (Joh. 1:34). So by “the Spirit and the water” God the Father testified that Jesus was His Son.
Going forward three years, Jesus was now in Jerusalem. He had entered the city on Palm Sunday and was preparing for His imminent death. “Now is my soul troubled,” He said. “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (Joh. 12:27-28). Then a voice sounding like thunder came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (v. 28). It was the voice of His heavenly Father.
And then it was time for the testimony of “the blood.” The shedding of blood shows that Jesus was clearly a Man. Blood poured out of His back from the wounds of His flogging and from His head where the crown of thorns had been driven. It dripped from His hands and feet where the nails had pierced. But how does the blood prove His divinity? How does it show He is the Son of God?
If Jesus had died and remained dead, we would have to conclude that He was not who God said He was, that He was not the Son of God. But since He has risen, that changes the way we look at His crucifixion. His resurrection from the dead shows us that it wasn’t just a regular Man hanging on the cross. It was the God-Man. His blood was holy blood shed for all people. His suffering was holy suffering, not for wrongs He had done but for the sins of the world. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” He cried. His blood testifies that God the Father poured out His wrath against sin on His only Son in the place of all sinners.
“[T]he Spirit and the water and the blood.” This is God the Father’s testimony. “[T]his is the testimony of God that He has borne concerning His Son.” And Jesus’ resurrection is the bow that ties it all together. His resurrection proves that the testimony is true. It proves everything God declared about His Son and everything Jesus taught and did.
Those who deny Jesus’ resurrection will make of Him whatever they want, but they won’t have a Savior. You, on the other hand, who believe God’s testimony, have everything He has graciously promised you. You will not be judged along with the unbelieving world on the last day, because you are covered in Christ’s righteousness. You will not suffer eternal damnation in hell, because your sins are all forgiven. You will not remain in the grave, because Jesus will come again in glory to raise you from the dead.
All of these things are yours. You have been “born of God” by the power of the Holy Spirit. You were brought to faith in Jesus through His holy Word, so that His victory became your victory. He wants to continue to assure you and comfort you in this truth. He knows that the devil, the world, and your own flesh want to steal away your confidence. He knows how they try to use trials like the current pandemic to plant doubts in your mind about His love toward you and about the promises of His Word.
It is good that John recorded the doubts of Jesus’ disciples after His resurrection. They doubted like we do. Our faith is not perfect. It is common for all Christians to wonder why God lets troublesome things happen, or why He doesn’t fix a problem or help us in our need. We have also had doubts about whether we are right with God. How could He love people like us who have failed so miserably or done such bad things?
Jesus does not alleviate our doubts by appearing in person and showing us His hands and side like He did for Thomas. But He does set before us the testimony of His love through His Word and Sacraments. Publicly through His called servant and privately through the encouragement of fellow Christians, Jesus declares to us the forgiveness of our sins. As Jesus said to His disciples on Easter evening, so He still says to us, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Joh. 20:22-23).
He also gives us the testimony of His Sacraments—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. “Baptism,” He says, “is My cleansing blood applied to you. It is My bringing you the victory of My death and resurrection. It is your rebirth as a holy child of God.” And the Lord’s Supper is His body given in the bread and His blood given in the wine “for the remission of sins.” In this Supper, our resurrected and exalted Lord comes to us personally and brings us His eternal blessings of forgiveness and life and salvation.
So just as “the Spirit and the water and the blood” testified in Jesus’ life that He really is the Son of God, so “the Spirit and the water and the blood” in His Word and Sacraments continue to testify to Him today. It is impossible for our limited minds to understand these things. How could the Son of God take on flesh, suffer, die, and rise again? How could He continue to meet us through His Word and Sacraments?
But though our minds cannot comprehend these things, they are most certainly true. Jesus Really Is the Son of God. He really did die for your sins and rise again in victory over your death. And He really does come to you today to bring you comfort, strength, and peace in every need.
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(picture is from “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” by Caravaggio, c. 1601-1602)
The Second Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7
In Christ Jesus, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1Co. 1:30), dear fellow redeemed:
If you grew up in the same neighborhood with a person who later became famous, you would be proud that you knew him. If you were a relative of his, you would feel even more special. If you were his friend, you would enjoy certain benefits and have some influence in his life. But if you were a member of his family, you would have a share in his fame, his honor, and his success. The closer you were to him, the greater effect it would have on your life.
The same goes for our closeness to God. The closer we are to Him, the greater effect He has on our lives. But how do we get close to God? Some say that closeness to God is achieved through prayer; they never feel as close to Him as when they pray. Others think they can get close to God by living a good life. They hope that if they are good enough, God will be happy with them and bless them.
But in reality, there is nothing we can do to get ourselves closer to God. How could the unholy get closer by their own efforts to the Holy One? How could the impure and unclean enter the presence of Him who is and ever has been without sin? The unbelieving world seeks to bring God down to our level. The world supposes that if there is a God, He would generally support the personal decisions each of us makes. He is portrayed as a supportive god, a smiley god, a non-judgmental god. “He is a god I can relate to,” people think, “because he is a lot like me.”
That is not the God of the Bible. The true God does not approve of our sinful behavior. He wants us to turn from our sins and seek His forgiveness. This is clearly illustrated in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. If you are taking part in the two-year reading plan of the Bible that we started a couple months ago, you might be wading through Leviticus now. It doesn’t capture the attention like Genesis and Exodus do. Leviticus gives so many detailed rules and regulations that it’s hard to imagine living like the Israelites did. It seems like there was almost nothing they could do that would be considered clean in God’s sight.
And that was really the point. God wanted to impress on His people the difference between His holiness and their un-holiness. He wanted them to understand that they were not God. They were not free to do whatever their desires led them to do. Their only hope for salvation from sin and eternal life in heaven was through Him.
God emphasized this by the animal sacrifices He required for their sins. The people brought bulls, goats, and sheep for their sin offerings. These animals had to be without blemish. Whoever brought one laid his hand on the animal’s head before it was killed to signify the placing of his sins on the sacrifice. Then it was given as a burnt offering by the priests “to make atonement for him” (Lev. 1:4). The congregation of Israel was never done with sacrifices because it was never done with sin.
They were not holy enough to ascend to God, but the holy God was willing to come down to them. He settled in a cloud in the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle above the mercy seat. A chosen priest could only enter the Most Holy Place once a year on the Day of Atonement. The priest entered on behalf of the people bringing their sins, and he exited on behalf of God bringing His holiness. The LORD promised the people that in this way, “You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins” (Lev. 16:30).
So closeness to God was initiated by Him. The people confessed their un-holiness, and the holy God came to them with forgiveness and healing. As impressive as it would have been to see a cloud stretch down from the heavens and drop into the Most Holy Place, God had something greater planned. The Father would send down His holy Son, not hidden in a cloud but covered in our flesh. He came to offer Himself as the ultimate sacrifice for sin. No more slaughtering of animals for burnt offerings. No more sprinkling of blood on the LORD’s altar and on the mercy seat.
When Jesus breathed His last on the cross, the evangelists report that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mat. 27:51, Mar. 15:38, Luk. 23:45). This was not the result of a natural phenomenon. God did it. He showed by the tearing of the curtain that holiness should not be sought from the LORD anymore in the Most Holy Place. Holiness would be found in the presence of His only Son, who by His death had destroyed death, atoned for sin, and crushed Satan’s head.
After His resurrection, Jesus told His disciples He would be with them always, to the end of the age (Mat. 28:20). That remained true even after He visibly ascended into heaven. He was still with them, but how could they be assured of His presence? Jesus told them and all believers after them exactly where He could be found. He could be found always in His Word and Sacraments.
These are the ways our Lord Jesus still draws near to us today. These are the ways He imparts His holiness to us who are unholy. Like the priest who entered the Most Holy Place bringing the people’s sins, so we bring our sins to the Lord both here in church and in our personal confession. And the Lord brings His holiness to us through His Word. This is how we are sanctified by God throughout our lives. This is how the Holy Spirit makes us holy. It is all done through His holy Word, and it is all done by Him.
But we can reject this sanctifying work. We can keep ourselves from His holiness by giving ourselves over to unholy pursuits. Paul mentions one of these unholy pursuits in today’s text: sexual immorality. Sexual immorality is any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage. Our culture thinks that “committed” and “consensual” are the appropriate standards for sex. God says it is marriage between one man and one woman. That is the only place to exercise sexual passion in a God-pleasing way. St. Paul writes that the faithful should pursue “holiness and honor” in sexual matters. They should not operate “in the passion of lust like the Gentiles—unbelievers—who do not know God.”
There are other ways to reject the Lord’s sanctifying work beyond actively pursuing sin. One is to keep ourselves from the holy Word. It is to place a higher priority on any number of other things, whether that be family time or work or athletic competition or recreation. Those things are all good in their own way, but they are certainly not better than God’s presence through His Word. They are earthly things, temporary things. God’s Word imparts eternal things.
At the same time, it is possible to be in the presence of the Lord but still reject His holiness. We could be every Sunday church-goers, but we are simply going through the motions. We are not particularly troubled by our sins. We are not all that interested in changing our sinful habits. We feel like we are pretty holy already. The holy Lord is present here through His Word and Sacraments, but we can deny His work through our self-righteousness and pride.
So here we are, each of us aware of our own sins. By nature we are an unholy people. We have done the things God said we must not do, and we have not done the things we should have. But the Lord does not turn us sinners away. He comes still to wash our unclean hearts and minds. He comes to cleanse us from our sins of thought, word, and deed, whether those be sexual sins, sins of spiritual laziness, or sins of pride.
It does not matter how you have defiled yourself in the past. You have not committed a sin that God does not forgive. King David was an adulterer, a murderer, and a liar. The apostle Paul before his conversion worked for the imprisonment and murder of Christians. These men were forgiven of their sins, and so are you.
The Lord is not here to destroy you. He is here in grace to forgive you and bless you. He is not ashamed to meet you in your un-holiness. He is not ashamed to be associated with you. You are more than just an acquaintance of His, more than a distant relative, even more than His friend. You are God’s own child, and you share flesh and blood with Christ your Brother.
He does not wait for you to get yourself holy enough to come into His presence. That would never happen. He brings His holiness to you. He sanctifies you. The Holy Lord Sanctifies You through His Holy Word. The closer you are to Him because of His coming to you, the more you are changed and the more His work is done in you.
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(picture of the tabernacle of Israel)
The First Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 12:1-5
In Christ Jesus, who by His suffering, death, and resurrection redeemed the world of sinners, so that they might have purpose, contentment, and hope, dear fellow redeemed:
Nobody expected the twelve-year-old Jesus to do what He did. He and His parents had gone to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When the massive crowd began to fan out and start their journey home, Joseph and Mary assumed Jesus was with relatives or friends. When He did not turn up, they went looking for Him and found Him three days letter in the temple. He was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luk. 2:46). All on His own, Jesus went to the temple, His “Father’s house” (v. 49), so He could hear and learn the Scriptures. That was not typical twelve-year-old behavior. But then Jesus was not the typical twelve-year-old.
What are the kinds of things we expect from twelve-year-olds today? This is a time when major changes are happening in their lives. There are huge physical, cognitive, and emotional changes going on. There are signs of maturity and maybe more mood swings. The twelve-year-old is in the process of transforming from a child to an adult. But he or she is not an adult yet. Twelve-year-olds need love, guidance, discipline, and clear expectations, just as all young people do. They need to be molded into God-fearing members of the church and responsible members of society.
It always makes me cringe when parents say that they will wait to let their children choose their own religious path when they are older. This is another way of saying that there is no clear teaching about God, that there is no such thing as objective truth, that one religion is no better than another. What foolishness! We have our kids listen to our favorite music, watch our favorite movies, cheer for the right sports teams, and follow our lead in so many other areas. But we’re not going to teach them anything about God?!
Whatever we do not actively teach our children, they will learn from someone else. Everything we know was learned. Think about yourself: how much of your personality and preferences have formed with no outside influence from others? I’m not sure it is even possible. We are products of the place where we are and the people we are around. On a spiritual level, we are influenced by the living God through His Word, or by the tugging and tempting of our own sinful nature, the devil, and the world.
In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the Apostle Paul urged them not to “be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” To “be conformed to this world” is to be shaped and molded by the unbelieving world rather than by the divine Word. We feel this pressure to conform in so many ways, and we can think of many times that we have given in to this pressure.
Maybe we have softened our stance on sexual morality and say with the world that as long as a sexual relationship is consensual, there is no problem with it. Or we have changed our views on marriage and divorce, and we support the breaking apart of what God has joined together if husband and wife don’t love each other like they used to. Or we adopt the world’s thinking that nothing is more important than self-fulfillment, recognition for one’s work, and financial security.
Every single one of us is influenced by the unbelieving culture we live in. The devil is eager to see that this happens, and our sinful nature is happy to cooperate. We have “conformed to this world” in ways we are not even aware of. We begin to recognize this conformity when we ask ourselves how much our thoughts are directed toward doing God’s will in a given day or week and how much we are focused on doing our own will.
“Do not be conformed to this world,” says Paul. But going against the world is not easy. It is much easier to swim with the cultural current. Every young person who has faced peer pressure knows this is the case. It is hard to say no. It is hard to be singled out when we want so much to fit in. It is hard to be laughed at and attacked. It is hard to be alone.
Going against the world and living by the Word is not comfortable. It requires sacrifice. Jesus knows this. He lived that life. His own people wanted Him to be their earthly king. They wanted Him to lead them, feed them, and heal them. The religious leaders wanted His endorsement, His stamp of approval. Nobody got what they wanted.
What Jesus got for denying their expectations was hatred, rejection, ridicule, and pain—immeasurable pain. Crowds of people had flocked to Him, even up to the Sunday before His death. But then He was sentenced and nailed to a cross, all alone, forsaken even by His own Father in heaven. Jesus had not “conformed to this world,” and it ended with a lonely death.
He knows it is no easy charge when He says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luk. 9:23). He knows what will happen to those who refuse the world and their own desires and follow His Word. They will carry a cross like He did, and they will suffer. But they will not have to suffer like He suffered. He suffered alone, bearing the sins of the whole world. He suffered the eternal punishment of hell in the place of all sinners.
When you suffer, you do not suffer alone. You join Jesus in His suffering; or rather He joins you. And He also connects you with other godly sufferers, with others who reject the false promises of the world. The believers around you have been “transformed” like you have “by the renewal of your mind.” You see things differently now. You have changed. The Greek word for “transformed” is where we get our word “metamorphosis.” It is the same word used for Jesus’ transformation on the mountain when “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Mat. 17:2).
You and I were transformed from darkness to light, from death to life, from unbelief to belief when the Holy Spirit brought us to faith in Jesus through His Gospel. We were changed “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” in holy Baptism (Ti. 3:5). Like a caterpillar emerging from its cocoon a butterfly, we were “born again” (Joh. 3:3). In the waters of baptism, we were wrapped in the cocoon of Christ’s death, and we emerged with Him in His resurrection (Rom. 6:4).
We have “newness of life” now that we have been joined to Christ. By faith in Him we have gained all the benefits of His perfect life and atoning death. His perfect keeping of the law covers over our less-than-holy record. His cleansing blood washes away all our sins of choosing the world over the Word, from the sins of our youth to the present day. Jesus has freed us from the hopeless expectations and empty promises of the world. He has freed us to live—truly live—to live with purpose in this life and to die with the joy-filled expectation of the life to come.
It may feel lonely to go against what the world wants you to do, but you are not alone. You Are Part of Something Big—much bigger than the world. You are part of the body of Christ. You are joined to Him “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Out of love for you and on your behalf, He conquered the devil, destroyed death, and overcame the world. In Jesus, you are no loser, even if the world calls you one for following Him.
As a Christian, you may feel alone in your classroom, at your job, in your community. This is why God called you to be part of a congregation, to be connected with fellow Christians who are dealing with the same things you are. They are here to encourage, help, and support you on your journey through life. They are here to walk with you through good and bad times. They are here to comfort you in your pain and grief and to warn you if you start to separate from the body. You are not alone. As Paul writes, “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
That is something big—bigger than this world and bigger than this life. We are just one link in a long chain of believers that stretches back to Adam and Eve. The temptations and challenges we face today are nothing new. We are not the first to struggle. We are not the first to fail. But we have a Savior who loves us, and who sacrificed Himself to save us. He is the Head of His body the Church. He is the One who works for us and in us, so that “by the mercies of God,” we might “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”
By faith in Jesus, we are acceptable in God’s sight. Our sacrifices for Him are acceptable because of Jesus’ sacrifice. There is nothing more that we could be or do or accomplish that Jesus has not already completed. So whether you are twelve or twenty or sixty or whatever age, in Christ you have everything that you need. There is nothing you lack before God. You Are Part of Something Big!
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The Third Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
In Christ Jesus, who still comes to bless us through His holy Word and Sacraments, dear fellow redeemed:
God’s Mysteries Revealed Here! If an ad with those words popped up on your computer, would you click it? God’s Mysteries Revealed Here! If those words were on a sign outside a building, would you go in?
We would all like to know more about God and how He works. We want to know why He decided to create the universe and why He made it possible for angels and men to rebel against Him. We want to know why He lets certain things happen in the world and what His plans are for the future. We want to know how much longer we will live and when Jesus will come again in glory.
All of these things are known to God but are mysteries to us. But there are other mysteries of God that He has revealed to us, things that remain hidden to others. This is not a unique concept among the world’s religions. Many of them have elements of mystery that are revealed only to their dedicated disciples. For example, the eastern religions teach that meditation and other acts of devotion are needed to unlock the secrets of the divine. The Masonic Lodge reveals its secrets only to those who make a vow and commitment to the organization. Other religions like Scientology will reveal as many secrets as you have money to pay for them.
But the mysteries of Christianity are not like any of these. We freely share God’s mysteries with others, and we invite anyone and everyone to explore them and learn more about them. The mysteries God has revealed to us and that St. Paul refers to in today’s text are the mysteries of the Gospel. They are the mysteries of the Son of God becoming a man in order to save the human race. They are the mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection and His continued presence with us in the means of grace.
This Gospel message is proclaimed around the world. But as clearly as it is spoken about, for many it remains hidden and shrouded in mystery. Earlier in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wrote that for unbelievers, “the word of the cross is folly” (1:18). It is a “stumbling block” to the Jews who “demand signs,” looking for miracles as confirmation of God’s presence. And it is foolishness to the Gentiles who “seek wisdom,” requiring that every teaching agrees with human reason (vv. 22-23).
Paul was not interested in meeting the demands for proof that the unbelievers required. “[W]e preach Christ crucified,” he said; “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (v. 23,24). He explained that this is “not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a [mystery] and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (2:6-7).
This is the mystery that John the Baptizer set out to reveal in his preaching and teaching. Now John was an odd one. He did not dress like other people did (Mar. 1:6). He did not indulge in strong food or drink like they did (Luk. 1:15). He lived in the wilderness and spent no time on self-promotion. How did a guy like this attract a crowd?
He attracted a crowd because of what he said. He was not afraid to call out the people who came to listen to him, from Jewish religious leaders to tax collectors to soldiers. He was not in the business of building up their self-esteem or making them feel good about themselves. He preached the law, so that they might recognize their great sinfulness. And he preached the Gospel of salvation through Christ, so that they might eagerly watch for His coming.
It might seem like John was a strange choice for this important role. Why couldn’t it have been an intelligent and well-liked scribe from Jerusalem? He could have utilized his position in the temple to prepare the people for the Savior. Or why couldn’t it have been a member of the king’s court or the king himself? He could have issued a decree for everyone to get ready.
Paul wrote that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1Co. 1:27-29). John was nobody special, at least as far as the world could tell. He was just some quirky Jewish preacher. But God chose this so-called “foolish” and “weak” man to do powerful things. He was the messenger sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus (Mat. 11:10).
God still sends “foolish” and “weak” men to carry out His work. This is a comfort for me and for you as well. As far as our sinful nature goes, you and I are exactly the same. Each of us deserves eternal damnation for our sins. But by God’s grace we are given forgiveness and life instead. The difference between us is that God called me to be a steward of His mysteries. He called me to be your pastor.
Of course, I’m not the only pastor out there. Many pastors have served here through the years. It is typically the case that the pastor who baptized you is not the one who confirmed you or the one who will conduct your funeral. You might feel like you connect better with one pastor over another. But every pastor has his quirks, and each one has said or done things that at least some members thought were questionable.
Despite our quirks and the personal shortcomings we have as pastors, God still distributes His good gifts through us. Through our unimpressive and faltering speech, He speaks His saving Gospel. Through our weak and trembling hands, He distributes His holy Sacraments. The work of a pastor is not about him. The pastor’s work is about Jesus.
This is why Paul said that he and his co-workers should be regarded as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” A servant does the bidding of his master. A steward manages what belongs to another. The main thing required of a servant or a steward is that he is trustworthy, faithful to his responsibility. This is what a pastor must do: he must faithfully reveal the mysteries of God through the administration of His Word and Sacraments. Whether or not he does that is the true measure of your pastor.
But it is tempting to judge a pastor by other standards. In the larger Christian church, pastors are often judged by their personality, by how much they contribute to the stability and growth of a congregation, and by how their work is perceived in the community. Pastors are expected to be fundraisers, therapists, community activists, and expert problem solvers.
While a particular pastor may have gifts in some of these areas, his call from God is to preach the Word. He is to preach God’s law to expose sin and not cover it up by accommodating the culture. He is to preach the Gospel to forgive sin and not give the impression that one’s salvation is in his own hands. He is to encourage the regular hearing of the Word and partaking of the Sacraments and not treat the souls in his care with indifference. These are the things a pastor will answer for when he stands before the throne of God on the last day.
But no pastor carries out his work perfectly. Each is guilty of trusting himself too much and the Word too little. And no parishioners perfectly love, honor, and support their pastor. They judge him by human standards and not according to his calling. This is why the mystery of the Gospel is so important. We need the forgiveness Jesus won. We need His righteousness to cover our sinful attitudes and actions.
God gladly gives us these blessings. He knows our weaknesses and failures. He knows how much we need His mercy and grace. This is exactly why He sent out the apostles like Paul and Peter and why He still sends pastors. He sends them to administer His good gifts.
Jesus could appear in every congregation and speak to us directly, but He has not chosen to do this. He works through His servants, His stewards. He tells them, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luk. 10:16). Likewise He says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Joh. 20:23).
This means that a pastor’s teaching and preaching in Jesus’ name is His teaching and preaching. The forgiveness a pastor declares is His forgiveness. Whenever and wherever Jesus’ Word is proclaimed, He Himself is present. The means of grace are the vehicle for His present advent, His present coming. The way to find Jesus and commune with Him is to look for the marks of the church: the Gospel purely preached and the Sacraments rightly administered. When you locate these marks, you will also find a servant of Christ at work revealing His mysteries.
These mysteries of God are revealed free of charge. They cannot be unlocked by any amount of money or by any human effort. The Holy Spirit unlocks them for you through the Word and Sacraments. He wants you to know the grace of Jesus Christ, who gave Himself to save you. He wants you to know that in Him your sins are forgiven and heaven is yours.
The mysteries of other religions, the mysteries of the world, are nothing like God’s mysteries. The world’s mysteries focus on your work, not on God’s. God’s Mysteries are Revealed Here, the mysteries of His love for you, of the Savior born of a virgin, of a once-for-all sacrifice and a triumphant resurrection from the dead. These mysteries are foolishness to the world, but they are hope and life and salvation to you and to all those who believe.
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(picture of Saude Lutheran Church)