The Festival of Our Lord’s Ascension – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Mark 16:14-20
In Christ Jesus, the “Lord of lords and King of kings” (Rev. 17:14), who is worthy to be praised, honored, and glorified by all, dear fellow redeemed:
I recently saw an ad from Marvel Studios about the ten movies the company plans to release in the next two years. That is on top of all its movies that are already available. As long as people keep paying to watch them, Marvel will keep producing them. So what is the big appeal about these superhero movies? The characters are well-developed, the special effects are impressive, and the action sequences keep audience members on the edge of their seats. But it seems there is something deeper.
There is something about the theme of the “superhero” that really resonates with us. We like the idea of a powerful being who takes on the bad guys and fights for what is good and right. We imagine how nice it would be to have one keeping watch over us, ready to protect us when we face harm or danger. As our society slides further and further away from solid standards of truth and morality, we will become more and more desperate for superheroes to save the day.
But we don’t actually need a Captain America, an Iron Man, or a Superman. We have a Hero who is far better and stronger than all the big screen superheroes combined. We have Jesus.
We don’t often think about Jesus in superhero terms. But look at all the things He promised to accomplish through His disciples, which He then carried out. He said He would give them the will and the ability to declare His salvation to the world, and those once-timid men boldly did. He said He would give His followers power over demons, serpents, poison, and sickness, and give them the ability to speak in new tongues, and there are examples of all of these things in the book of Acts.
After Jesus spoke these promises, He rose up in the air not bound by the law of gravity, and He entered His heavenly kingdom. No enemy could keep Jesus from taking His position at the right hand of the Father. He flew straight up in the blue sky like nothing could be easier, and all the host of heaven welcomed Him with great rejoicing (Rev. 5).
If His victory was ever in doubt, it was when Jesus limped toward Calvary and was nailed to the cross. There His enemies mocked Him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mar. 15:31-32). It looked like all was lost. That’s what His disciples thought. Evil had prevailed. Their great Lord and Teacher had been overcome.
But they were wrong. Jesus wasn’t losing; He was winning. He was winning back our souls from the devil, from death, and from hell. Jesus did what we like to watch every superhero do—He sacrificed Himself for His friends. He gave His life to atone for their wrongs. You are one of those friends He died for. You are not His friend because you have proven yourself to Him or somehow earned His trust. You are His friend because He chose you (Joh. 15:16).
He planned even before you were born that you would hear the Gospel. He planned that you would hear it and believe, and “[w]hoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” He says. That means you will be saved. That’s what Jesus promises. But how can you know for sure that He will deliver on that promise?
You know this because after Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, forty days later He ascended into heaven. His ascension to the right hand of the Father means that His work to save sinners was finished. He had done what the Father commanded Him to do (Joh. 14:31). He had taken the place of all sinners and paid their immeasurable debt of sin. He had willingly laid down His life, and then He took it up again.
Jesus had already told His disciples what would happen next. They couldn’t get past His prediction of His death, so they didn’t grasp what He was telling them until after He rose from the dead and ascended. What He told them was that He would take His place at the right hand of the Father, and from there, rule over all things. He would go to prepare a place for all believers in heaven (Joh. 14:2). He would ask the Father to send out the Holy Spirit to teach and remind His followers about all that He had said and done (Joh. 14:16, 26, 15:26, 16:7, 13).
And this is what happened. Mark reports in today’s text that Jesus “was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.” This makes some people think that Jesus is now very distant from us: “He is way up in heaven, so far away, so now it’s our job to take care of everything here. It’s our job to take His directions and run with them. He certainly keeps an eye on us like a parent watching a child making something in the kitchen, but the responsibility for running the church is ours.” This understanding is based on the false idea that Jesus is no longer with us on earth.
But Jesus is with us. He said, “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mat. 28:20). He is with us as we gather around His Word and Sacrament. It is not our Word and Sacrament to administer or change however we please. It is His Word and Sacrament. He gives it to us, and He gives His gifts through it. “Take, eat,” He says; “this is My body, which is given for you…. Drink of it all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood.”
Jesus is here. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mat. 18:20). We like the thought of a superhero keeping us safe from our enemies. Jesus is doing exactly that, right now and always. He is working here in our midst, just as He was working among and through the apostles. Mark writes that “they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.”
Their work was Jesus’ work. The signs they performed were Jesus’ signs. He did not abandon them. He just wasn’t with them like He had been before. Before, He had been with them visibly, but not making full use of His divine power. This made them think that He was vulnerable, that He had limits, and that He was not strong enough to defeat death. Now they knew better. Now they knew nothing could stop their Lord and King. And He promised to be with them in their work, fully employing the power and authority He has at the right hand of His Father.
From this position at His Father’s right hand, Jesus is still working today. We cannot always perceive it when we look around us. It often looks like evil has the upper hand, just as it appeared that way on Good Friday. But Jesus has not been displaced from heaven, and He has not grown tired of His work. He will never walk away from His promises. That means He will never walk away from you. As He said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).
Jesus is fighting for you, even in your heart and mind. That’s where the devil and the world are working to pull you away from Him. They feed you the lie that you are in control of your future and your fate, that you are the hero, that you can have anything you want. But living for this life in this world can only lead to despair and death.
Jesus tells no lie when He promises you salvation and eternal life. He does not lie when He says you will have a share in His glory and never-ending bliss with all the saints and angels. This is what He is preparing for you in His reign at the right hand of God. This is what He is confirming in you as He builds up your faith through His Word and Sacraments.
The day of your final redemption from sin, death, and devil is drawing near. Jesus will come again visibly in the same way as His disciples saw Him go. He will come from the right hand of His Father to judge both the living and the dead. Now, it is easy for the wicked to talk and act like Jesus is a nobody, a nothing. But when Jesus comes in all His glory on the last day, then at the utterance of His name, “every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phi. 2:10-11).
No superhero ever received a tribute like that. But then Jesus is not like any other superhero. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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(picture of the Ascension by John Singleton Copley, 1775)
The Third Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s “Here I Stand” at the Diet of Worms
Text: St. John 10:11-16
In Christ Jesus, who is with us even while we walk through the valley of the shadow of death (Psa. 23:4), dear fellow redeemed:
Why do we have to be sheep? Jesus refers to us in this way not just in today’s text but many times in the New Testament. Why couldn’t we be horses, powerful and stately? Or lions, strong and self-sufficient? Or eagles, graceful and independent? Sheep are not like this at all. They are not impressive creatures. They are weak and vulnerable. They cannot easily survive alone or for very long. They need to be protected and cared for. Why does Jesus call us sheep?
Because Jesus tells the truth. He doesn’t try to make us feel better about ourselves or get us to rely on ourselves more. He tells the truth about our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, about the many enemies surrounding us, about our need for His continuous protection and care. He calls us sheep because the picture we have of these lowly creatures is the picture we should have of ourselves.
But for all their deficiencies, sheep have positive qualities too. Sheep are loyal to their shepherd. They are not fooled by the voice of another no matter how much he tries to coax them away. Sheep know the voice of their shepherd, and they follow him willingly and faithfully. They know their shepherd will not lead them to harm. They know he will lead them to good food and drink. They trust that he will protect them. If they lose sight of him, they cry out and keep crying out until he comes to their aid.
This is what Jesus promises to do for us believers, His sheep. These promises are expressed so clearly in Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul” (vv. 1-3, KJV). Jesus says that He is the Shepherd who does this for His sheep. “I am the Good Shepherd. I know My own and My own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.”
Jesus is no hired hand, one who is not invested in the sheep. He loves His sheep so completely that He values their lives more highly than His own. When David volunteered to fight Goliath, he said to King Saul that sometimes a lion or a bear would come and snatch a lamb from his father’s flock. A hired hand wouldn’t mess with a lion or a bear! But David said, “I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him” (1Sa. 17:35). This is how much the sheep mattered to David.
And you matter even more to Jesus. He knows the fierce enemies arrayed against you: the “ravenous wolves” of the world who would pull you away from Him (Mat. 7:15), that roaring lion, the devil, who “prowls around… seeking someone to devour” (1Pe. 5:8), and the jaws of death like a grizzly bear which relentlessly hunts its prey. This world is not a safe place for sheep!
But you have a strong, fearless Shepherd. Day and night, He watches over His flock. In pleasant pastures or dark valleys, He gives you His full attention. And even when it seemed that the sheep would be utterly destroyed, when enemies closed in on every side, He did not back down. He let sin, death, and devil take hold of Him. He let them sink their teeth into Him. It was the only way to save the flock, the only way to save you. “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”
Jesus laid down His life for you on the cross. He became a Lamb like you, so He could give Himself in your place. By His death and His resurrection, He overcame the wolfish world (Joh. 16:33). He crushed the devil’s scaly head (Gen. 3:15, 1Jo. 3:8). He swallowed up death itself and destroyed its power forever (Isa. 25:8).
This is the Shepherd who constantly watches over you. His enemies still want to sink their teeth into you, but they aren’t about to go near your Good Shepherd. As long as you are in His care, listening to His voice and following His lead, you are safe from their attacks. Jesus will never leave you alone to fend for yourself. He will not forget to guard and protect you. He speaks comforting and assuring words to you and refreshes you through His holy Word and Sacraments. He promises that through these means, He will be “with you always, to the end of the age” (Mat. 28:20).
This was Martin Luther’s comfort 500 years ago today (April 18, 1521) when he stood before the most powerful government official in Europe, Emperor Charles V. He had been summoned to an assembly of princes and other representatives meeting in the German city of Worms. Luther’s teachings were not the main reason for this four-month-long meeting, but because of the effect of the Reformation movement across the land, the teachings of Luther had to be considered in some way.
Luther traveled to Worms with the understanding that he would be able to discuss the things he had written. But when his “time in court” came, he was asked just two questions: “Are these your books?” And, “do you reject the heresies they contain?” The emperor and his advisers weren’t interested in a discussion and certainly not a debate with Luther. They wanted to silence him and stamp out the Reformation before it spread any further.
Luther was like a lamb surrounded by a pack of hungry wolves. He knew what he was facing. He could cave to the emperor’s demands, reject his own writings, and save his skin. Or he could take a stand, confess the truth, and be condemned as a heretic—maybe even be burned at the stake.
Jesus had predicted moments like this. He said to His disciples then just as He says to us now: “For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mar. 13:9-11).
And so the Lord guided Luther as he stood before the emperor. Luther would not compromise the clear Word of God for the sake of peace. He would not bow to the powers of the world, though all were arrayed against him. He said: “Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of the Holy Scriptures or evident reason (for I believe neither in the Pope nor councils alone, since it has been established that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures adduced by me, and my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God, and I am neither able nor willing to recant, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. God help me! Amen.”
“God help me!” he said. Luther did not stand up for the truth by his own strength. He knew he was just a little lamb. In fact, the last words he wrote before his death were, “We are all beggars; this is true.” But his death did not come in 1521 when Luther stood before the emperor. He died of natural causes about twenty-five years later. The Lord spared the life of this lamb, so that he could continue to point people to salvation by grace through faith in Jesus.
We are some of those who have benefited from Luther’s stand. The pure Gospel message has been passed down to us, and we pray that it is passed on to many more after us. We need to continuously hear the reassuring voice of Jesus through His Word. We need to hear that despite our weaknesses and sins, He still loves us and forgives us. He has not run out of patience toward us but still watches over and fights for His precious sheep.
It is easy to doubt that our Good Shepherd will care for us like He says He will. It seems that the enemies against us are too many and too strong. We are afraid of what they may do to us. Their threats cause us to become silent and hide ourselves. But even when we have stopped calling out to Jesus, He does not stop calling out to us.
“My sheep hear my voice,” He says, “and I know them, and they follow me” (Joh. 10:27). He calls us back to Him through His gracious Word. He calls us to find refuge and strength and courage in Him. He knows our troubles and fears. He knows our struggles. He knows our sins. He knows us better than we could ever know ourselves. “I know My own,” He says, “just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father.” He knows you as deeply as the Father and the Son know each other in the Godhead.
When you cry out to Him in anguish, even if you don’t know how to ask for what you need, He knows. He hears your cry. And like the Good Shepherd who rescues his sheep, Jesus saves you. He prepares a table before you in the presence of your enemies; He anoints your head with oil; your cup overflows (Psa. 23:5). “I give them eternal life,” said Jesus, “and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (Joh. 10:27-28).
“God Help Me!” prayed Luther. And God did. God wants the truth of His Gospel to be proclaimed to the whole world. He sends the help that we sinners need most of all, which is deliverance from all evil and a safe transport to His eternal kingdom.
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 “Martin Luther at Worms” by Anton von Werner, 1877)
The Fifth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 8:46-59
In Christ Jesus, who told the truth even when it was not welcome, so that some would hear it and believe, dear fellow redeemed:
In the iconic scene from the movie, A Few Good Men, the prosecuting attorney demands answers from the witness on the stand, a marine colonel. “I want the truth!” he shouts. And the marine colonel snaps back: “You can’t handle the truth!” The truth is difficult to handle, as this colonel soon found out. The truth is so difficult to handle, that many today deny there even is such a thing. Instead of THE truth, a set of facts about which most everyone can agree, people dismiss long-held beliefs as YOUR truth. It may be true for you, they say, but it is not true for all. This is post-modernist thinking.
Jesus was no post-modernist. He spoke definitely. He pointed out right and wrong, and He stated His message clearly even when He knew people would struggle to accept it. We saw this last Sunday when Jesus called Himself “the bread of life” and said: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (Joh. 6:35, 56). He spoke the truth, but it was a truth the people did not want to hear. It did not match up with the way they viewed Jesus and what they expected Him to do.
Later Jesus told the people that they would know the truth if they remained in His Word (8:31-32). What He spoke to them was “the truth that [He] heard from God [the Father]” (v. 40). But they did not want the truth. They could not bear to listen to His Word (v. 43). Why was that? Jesus stated it bluntly: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me” (vv. 44-45).
Then He continued with the words of today’s text, about truth, the Word of God, and eternal life. All of these topics are ones that our “enlightened” society ignores or rejects. Jesus still seems to be viewed favorably today, but it is not really the Jesus of the Gospels. The “Jesus” who is popular today is “Jesus the Social Activist,” or “Jesus the Teacher of Morality,” or “Jesus the Cheerleader.”
The real Jesus says, “Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” Jesus does not leave room for anyone to stay neutral about Him. He called Himself the eternal Son of God who came down to bring life to the dying world. Was He telling the truth, or was He lying?
The Jews who opposed Him accused Him of having a demon. They had already shown their cards. They did not believe He was God in the flesh. If they believed this about Him, it would have revealed a truth about themselves, a truth they weren’t prepared to consider. If Jesus was who He said He was, then they weren’t who they thought they were. They thought they were holy. They thought they were right with God by the way they lived their life. They did not think they needed a Savior from sin.
Much of the world says the same thing: “I’m a good person,” “I’m doing just fine on my own,” “I’m not that bad,” “I don’t need a Savior.” No one wants to face the hard truth that they are not as good as they think, that they are not fine on their own, that they deserve eternal punishment for their sins and will certainly have it if they don’t have Jesus.
Even we who know this truth don’t like it. We don’t like the idea that no matter how hard we try to be good or how much good we do, we can’t make up for the sins we have done. We don’t like it that God has given us a standard for our moral conduct that is impossible for us to fulfill. We don’t like it that as far as our eternal future is concerned, we are not the ones in control.
The truth that no matter what we do on this earth we all deserve to suffer eternally in hell, is too much for us. We can’t imagine that our inherited condition is so dire, or that our sins should require such punishment. We can’t handle the truth. If God didn’t tell us we needed a Savior, we would imagine there was some way we could overcome our sins, or some way that we could appease Him.
But only God could save us, and the only way for Him to do it was to send His eternal Son to take on our flesh. If nothing else shows us the bad shape we were in because of our sin, the Son of God becoming Man should. The Creator God didn’t take on human flesh just to get a closer look at things on earth. He came because the world and every human heart were so broken, they could not be repaired. They had to be redeemed.
They had to be cleansed and purified from all their sins, and only Jesus could do it. He had to offer Himself in every sinner’s place. He had to come among the prideful who thought they were holy on their own. He had to come among the liars who called Him a liar, when it was their hearts that were full of darkness. He had to come among the ungrateful who would never in this life fully appreciate what He came to do.
But knowing all this would happen, He still came. He came to substitute Himself for us and shed His blood for our sin. He came to suffer the unquenchable fires of hell on our behalf. He came to be slaughtered as our sacrificial Lamb on the cross. This was the only way our redemption could be accomplished. Jesus asked His Father if there might be some other way, but there wasn’t. The divine requirement that Jesus must endure suffering, hell, and death for our salvation was a hard truth, but it was THE truth.
We can’t handle the truth of what we deserve for our sins, but Jesus could. He could handle the truth of what our sins required. He could handle the hellish punishment. He could handle the cold dark of death. He did all of this willingly for the sins of the whole world. Because of what Jesus did, God the Father declares every sinner righteous, innocent of any wrongdoing. He says that heaven belongs to one person just as much as to another because Jesus paid for all sin.
But our sinful nature within us protests: “This can’t be! It can’t be that easy! There must be something I have to do to become right with God!” Just as we can’t handle the truth of the Law, which tells us what we deserve for our sins, we can’t handle the truth of the Gospel. The good news of what Jesus has done seems too good. His grace seems too free. The way we receive forgiveness and life through His Word seems too simple.
But how it seems to us does not matter. What matters is whether or not the Gospel message is true. St. Paul says it is, and he received his words from God. He wrote: “[I]n Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2Co. 5:19). He said that God sent him to preach to everyone that Jesus brought us back together with God through His death and resurrection.
Paul was sent to preach “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1Co. 2:2). He was not sent to preach “Ten Secrets to a Having a Happier Life,” or “Five Steps to Becoming a Better Person.” He was sent to tell what Jesus had done to save us from sin, death, and hell. He was sent to tell everyone the truth, whether they wanted to hear it or not.
You and I have heard the truth, and we have believed it by the power of the Holy Spirit. Others have heard the truth, and they have ignored it because they prefer the devil’s lies instead. The devil’s lies are appealing. They agree with our sinful, self-centered thinking. They make us comfortable in our sin and glorify the bad choices we make. But as nice as the devil’s lies sound, they all lead to death.
Only Jesus’ Word of truth can bring us life. He declared, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word, he will never see death.” What a promise! He says that whoever pays attention to His Word, holds it tightly, guards it in his heart, shall never see death. What the believer has to look forward to is eternal life, life with Jesus, life in His heavenly kingdom with all the saints and angels. Can it really be? “Truly, truly,” said Jesus, “Amen, Amen”—“Yes, yes, it shall be so.”
The unbelieving world will never stop peddling lies in the name of “truth.” It will keep trying on new truths to see if the latest one will fit better than the last one. But there is no truth apart from God, and no way to know truth apart from His Word. By the grace of God, you have the truth. You can’t handle it, because it is so far above you. But it is still yours.
Rejoice that you have it. Thank God for giving you the truth. Ask Him to help you share the truth with others. And take comfort that the truth of God’s love for you in Christ stands today and will stand forever.
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 “Ecce Homo” by Antonio Ciseri, 1871)
The Fourth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 6:1-15
In Christ Jesus, the Food that our souls need so that we may live forever even though our bodies may die, dear fellow redeemed:
We could do without a lot of things we have in this life. We don’t need dressers and closets full of clothes. We don’t need TVs, computers, and smartphones. We don’t need large living spaces, nice vehicles, and most of our possessions. We could learn to live without all these things. But we can’t do without food. Food is essential to our survival. The body needs food like a car needs fuel—it can’t run without it.
We heard at the beginning of Lent how Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness. That’s a long time to go without food, and Jesus “was hungry” (Mat. 4:2). When the devil tempted Him to turn stones into bread to prove He was the Son of God, Jesus replied: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (v. 4). He quoted these words from the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. They were part of Moses’ message to the Israelites after they had wandered in the wilderness for forty years because of their disobedience.
God required those forty years of wandering to humble them and to test their faithfulness toward Him. In the wilderness, there was no way to find food for that large amount of people. The people had to rely on God to give them what they needed. Six days a week, He provided a type of bread for them called “manna.” When the morning dew lifted, the people would see the ground covered with “a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost” (Exo. 16:14). They stooped down and collected it, and they took it home to prepare it and eat it. God provided this food until they entered the Promised Land of Canaan (Jos. 5:12).
In today’s text, we find another group of Israelites in the wilderness without supplies of food. They followed Jesus because they saw how He healed the sick, and they wanted to hear His teaching (Mat. 6:34, Luk. 9:11). But now evening approached, and the people needed to eat. Jesus asked His disciples to give them something. “Impossible!” they said. “The crowd is too large! Our resources are too limited!” Andrew told Him: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”
The disciples were thinking logically. But Jesus wasn’t looking for logic; He was looking for faith. He wanted them to trust in Him no matter how difficult the problem seemed to be. He wanted them to see that the God who provided bread for forty years in the wilderness was now sitting right there next to them. “Five barley loaves and two fish” were more than enough to feed the thousands gathered there.
When the people saw how Jesus multiplied the bread and fish to feed everyone, they weren’t slow to make the manna connection. “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” they said. Moses had prophesied long before that the LORD would raise up for the people a Prophet like him from among them (Deu. 18:15). “Just as Moses gave the people bread in the wilderness,” they thought, “now Jesus can give us bread!” They even plotted to take Him by force to make Him their king.
But the people had selective memories. They were so impressed by the bread that they forgot Moses’ emphasis on the Word. What was it that Moses had said? “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deu. 8:3). It isn’t that food for our bodies is unimportant. We do need it. But as much as we need physical food, spiritual nourishment is even more essential.
That isn’t really how we think. We hardly ever go a day without eating something. On the other hand, we might go a whole week or even longer without tending to the needs of our soul. A continued lack of food eventually leads to the death of the body. But a continued lack of spiritual nourishment is worse than that. It leads to spiritual death and then eternal death. Physical hunger comes to an end. But spiritual hunger never ends in hell, and it will never be satisfied.
Think about the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (Luk. 16:19-31). The rich man had all he wanted. He “feasted sumptuously every day.” Lazarus had nothing. He was sick and starving. Both men died, but they didn’t go to the same place. Lazarus went to heaven, and the rich man went to hell. Lazarus was actually the wealthy one. He did not have food or any of the finer things in life, but he had faith. He feasted on the Scriptures and died with confidence in God’s promise of eternal life. The rich man had plenty of food but no faith. He had his “good things” on earth but then entered eternal torment.
What good is it to have a full belly if your heart is not full of God’s Word? What good is a new car if you have no concern for your new life in Christ? What good is earthly wealth if you have no interest in the riches stored up for you in heaven? All these earthly things pass away. They get burned up, and they break down. They get stolen from us, and they slip through our fingers. God gives us our many earthly blessings for our use and enjoyment. He does not give them to us so we can make them into idols.
Earthly bread was the idol of that wilderness crowd. They were not interested in the better gift that Jesus wanted to give them. The day after the miraculous sign, they found Jesus. And Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (Joh. 6:26-27). And what was this eternal food? Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (v. 35).
Jesus is the Food of faith. He is the food our souls need. Apart from Him, we can only “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Mat. 5:6). Apart from Him, we have nothing valuable to set before God. Even if we gathered together and piled up all the riches of the world, He would not accept it as payment for one person’s sins. God needs nothing from us. We have nothing to bargain with for our salvation.
And that’s why God did the bargaining. That’s why He supplied what was lacking. He did for us what we could not do. God the Father sent His only Son to save the sick and dying world. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (vv. 48-51).
There is no limit to this Food. Jesus is enough for the salvation of all sinners. His perfect life under the law is enough to satisfy the righteousness we sinners crave. We don’t have to prove we are important or special by how much earthly stuff we accumulate. Our worth before God is not measured by how successful we are here. Our worth before God is measured by how successful Jesus was here.
We are acceptable before God because of the life Jesus lived for us—perfect works, perfect words, perfect thoughts. And then He went to the cross to perfectly pay for all of our sins. Fragments remained after the people ate the bread and fish. But no fragments of our sin remain now that Jesus has given His holy body and blood to atone for them all.
Jesus has even instituted a special Meal to assure us of this forgiveness. Its benefit is not found in how well it pleases our palate, or in how much it satisfies our stomach. This Meal of His body and blood in Holy Communion is given for our spiritual health. And if it is given for our spiritual health, it has benefits that last for eternity.
Even though Jesus had not instituted His Holy Supper yet when He fed the five thousand, He used language at that time that anticipated this Meal. Jesus said to the people: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him…. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (vv. 53-56,58).
“Man Shall Not Live by Bread Alone,” said Jesus. Bread is important. It is right to pray for “daily bread,” which “includes everything needed for this life” (Fourth Petition, Lord’s Prayer). But Jesus gives us more and greater blessings through His Holy Word and Sacraments.
Jesus is our Bread of Life. We feast on His forgiveness, righteousness, and salvation and are filled up by Him every time we hear His Word and read it and think about it and speak it and sing it. His Word does not return to Him empty. Like the rain and snow that water the earth, “making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,” so our Lord’s Word is planted in our hearts, and it grows and nourishes us (Isa. 55:10-11). His Word brings food to the starving and life to the dying. His Word saves our souls.
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 “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Third Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 11:14-28
In Christ Jesus, Satan’s great enemy and our merciful Savior, dear fellow redeemed:
Before the fall into sin, Adam and Eve were perfectly one with God. There was no tension between them, no division. God had made them in His image, which meant that they perfectly understood His will and perfectly possessed His righteousness and holiness. But then an intruder slithered into their holy garden. It was the devil in the form of a serpent. Having already rebelled against God, he wanted to destroy God’s good creation. He set his sights on the crown of God’s creative activity—man and woman.
The devil succeeded in poisoning their minds and getting them to do exactly what God warned them not to. The devil had brought Adam and Eve over to his side. Now they were completely separated from God, and when they heard Him in the garden, they hid from Him. But no one can really hide from God. He found them cowering among the trees, crudely covered in fig leaves, and they weren’t alone. They were hiding with their new friend, the devil.
The LORD could not let this stand. His love for mankind was too great. He would not see them given over to Satan and facing a hopeless death. So He cursed the devil and spoke words of comfort for Adam and Eve. He said to Satan: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her Offspring; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (v. 15).
To “put enmity” between two parties is to set them in opposition, to make them hostile toward one another. In other words, the LORD would not let the devil keep his prize. The devil would not reign over all mankind. The LORD reclaimed His people even in their sin, and He promised to deliver them. He would send the woman’s “Offspring” or “Seed” to crush the serpent’s scaly head and win the victory over the great deceiver and his plans.
What we find in these words to Satan is God’s declaration of war. Things would not go so easily for the devil as they had with Adam and Eve. His wicked schemes would be frustrated. The LORD would stand against him at every turn, and the devil would ultimately be overcome.
Jesus demonstrates and speaks about these things in today’s text. He was that Seed of the woman whom the LORD promised to Adam and Eve and their descendants. During the time of His public work, He cast many demons out of those who were afflicted. Today we hear about Him delivering a man from a demon who had caused him to be mute. After the demon had left, the man could speak! The demon could not stand against Jesus’ power. It had to depart.
When some in the crowd accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, or the devil, Jesus replied that this would make no sense. “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste,” He said, “and a divided household falls.” Jesus was not in league with Satan; He was opposed to him. He cast out demons “by the finger of God,” by the power of His Holy Word. This is a clear sign, said Jesus, that “the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
God’s kingdom still comes upon us, which is what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come.” We learn in the Catechism that “The kingdom of God comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and live godly lives here in time and hereafter in eternity” (Luther’s Explanation to the Second Petition).
But the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word does meet some resistance. Jesus describes this resistance in His parable of the sower. He says that the devil snatches the Word away from some, “so that they may not believe and be saved” (Luk. 8:12). Some believe for a time, but because of the devil’s continued afflictions and torments, their faith does not become deeply rooted and it withers (v. 13). Others believe for a while, but the devil slowly chokes their faith “by the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (v. 14).
The devil is constantly trying to weaken and overthrow the faith of believers. Today’s Epistle lesson describes how he tries to tempt us through “sexual immorality,” “impurity,” and “covetousness” (Eph. 5:3), among other things. And he has often succeeded. The devil has coaxed us away from the mighty fortress of God and His Word and has gotten us to venture into the darkness. Not only does he tempt us to sin, but when we sin, he holds it over our heads. “Look what you’ve done! You sinned against God, and He hates sin! There is no hope for you! You will die in your sins! I will see you in hell!”
The devil wants us to think that God does not love us anymore and that He will punish us. But those are bold-faced lies. The devil is just spouting off. He knows what Jesus did for sinners. Out of love for the whole world, God the Father sent His Son on an epic rescue mission. Jesus came to storm the devil’s castle. The God of all goodness and truth came to face off against the lord of wickedness and the father of lies.
Jesus was more than ready for the fight. He describes the conflict in today’s text. He talks about the “strong man, fully armed, [who] guards his own palace.” That is a reference to the devil. Satan is strong, but there is One “stronger than he.” This One “attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.” Jesus is the One stronger. He is not afraid of the devil. The apostle John writes: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1Jo. 3:8).
But the way Jesus overcame the devil is not what we might expect. We expect a slug fest in which the toughest and strongest prevails. Or better yet, a battle of laser beams and lightning strikes waged in the clouds and on the tops of mountains. But Jesus did not come to show the devil who was more powerful. He came to save sinners. He was not fighting for bragging rights; He was fighting for souls.
And the only way for Jesus to win that battle was to lose. The only way to overcome was to be overcome. Jesus had to suffer and die in our place. If He did not take our sins on Himself, those sins would still count against us, and the devil’s accusations would never stop. But by pouring out His precious blood in payment for sin, Jesus ended the devil’s reign over us.
The power of Satan’s kingdom crumbled before his very eyes when Jesus willingly went to the cross for you. This was the fulfillment of the LORD’s promise about “the woman’s Seed” crushing the serpent’s scaly head. Jesus’ death looked like defeat, but it was victory. The devil will never recover from this work of love that secured your redemption. No matter what temptations Satan may try on you, no matter what lies he may tell you, he has no claim on you.
Whenever you hear the devil whispering in your ear and trying to plant doubts in your mind, you can point to the Lamb of God sacrificed on the cross in your place and say: “Listen to this, devil: Jesus died for my sins! You have no authority here! Why don’t you crawl back in the hole you came from!”
The devil knows this is all true. It is all clearly recorded and revealed in God’s Holy Word. This is why he seeks to turn us away from the Word. The Word is how God creates faith and keeps His people in the faith. Jesus says, “Blessed… are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” The word translated “keep” does not mean “obey.” It means to watch over, guard, and defend the Word. Jesus says we are to guard and defend His Word as though our lives depend on it. And in fact, our lives do depend on it!
Without His Word, we have no message of the cross, no promise of salvation, no forgiveness of sins, no comfort in trouble, no life after death. Without His Word, it’s just us hiding among the trees of this world, wearing the fig leaves of our self-made righteousness, stumbling through the darkness with the devil by our side. But through the Word, “now [we] are light in the Lord.” We “[w]alk as children of light” (Eph. 5:8).
By walking in the bright light of God’s Word, we are safe from the devil’s sneak attacks. God’s Word keeps our eyes open. It keeps us alert. It keeps us in God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God comes through His Word. His Word is how God does battle against the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. His Word is how His kingdom advances and conquers the hearts and minds of those whom the devil used to have in his grasp. The devil is strong, but he cannot stand against God’s powerful Word.
Even now, The Lord Jesus Fights for You through His Holy Word. He comes to the battleground of your heart and mind to beat back the devil’s advances. When you fall into sin, Jesus brings you forgiveness through His Word and calls you back to His kingdom of light. When you are troubled by doubts and fears, Jesus comes through His Word to bring you comfort and peace. When you think you cannot withstand the devil’s temptations, Jesus comes through His Word to strengthen and keep you, so that you are not overcome.
As much as we would rather avoid the devil’s attacks, it is good to have him as an enemy. The LORD promised that He would “put enmity” between His people and the devil. Having the devil as our enemy means that we have the Lord Jesus as our Friend. And our Friend Jesus will not leave us to fend for ourselves. He will wage the fight for our soul until He brings us “safely into his heavenly kingdom” (2Ti. 4:18).
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(picture from “Exorcism” woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
Sexagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 8:4-15
In Christ Jesus, who constantly tends and keeps the field of all believers through His Holy Word, dear fellow redeemed:
Listen to this! The human ear is an amazing creation of God. The outer ear looks kind of funny, but it is specially shaped to funnel sound waves into the ear canal. The sound waves hit the eardrum, which cause it to vibrate. This vibration shakes the three smallest bones in the body which look like a hammer, an anvil, and a stirrup. The stirrup passes these vibrations to the cochlea, a fluid-filled tube that looks like a snail shell. The inside of this tube is covered by more than 20,000 hair fibers. These hairs convert the vibrations to electrical signals that get passed along nerve channels to the brain.
This is happening right now while you are listening to me talk. And it’s happening not just in one ear, which would be amazing enough. But God gave you two ears, which simultaneously receive sound waves and blend them together in your brain, so that you can make sense of the sounds you are hearing.
The mighty God did not form us in a haphazard way like a child might form a person out of play-dough. He made us and all the parts of our body for a purpose. What is that purpose? St. Paul identifies it: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). Our bodies are intended for the Lord’s work. And that includes our ears.
“He who has ears to hear,” said Jesus, “let him hear.” What exactly does Jesus want us to hear? He wants us to hear what He is saying. His words matter not just because words convey information. His words are different. His words are powerful. When Jesus speaks, His words produce what He says. His words give life.
This is what He wants us to learn through His parable of the sower and the seed. The sower scattered his seed liberally. He was so generous with the seed that some fell along the path, some on rocks, some among thorns, and some on good ground. This is how God sows His Word. He scatters it all over the world, even in places where it seems unlikely to take root.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, God says this about His saving Word: “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).
God’s Word softens hardened hearts just as rain softens hardened ground. You and I cannot make the ground of our heart good and receptive to hearing God’s Word. The Word itself does this by the power of the Holy Spirit. For most of us, God did this work in us at our Baptism. As the water was sprinkled on you and the powerful words of Jesus were spoken, God “[removed] the heart of stone from your flesh and [gave] you a heart of flesh” (Eze. 36:26). Through His Word, He planted faith in your heart, and through His Word, He continues to nourish and grow your faith.
This is something like the settlers who first cleared the land for planting crops. They had to break through the thick sod, chop down trees, and dig out roots and rocks before they could plant the seed. The ground didn’t prepare itself; the farmer had to do it. But his work wasn’t done after these initial efforts. Every year there were more rocks to remove and weeds to deal with, as you seasoned rock pickers and bean walkers know from experience. Even our modern machinery and advanced weed control options do not keep us from facing many challenges in preparing good ground and producing a crop.
In the same way, we cannot take the growth of our faith for granted. Just because faith was planted in our heart at Baptism does not mean the ground of our heart will always stay “good.” Just because we were confirmed does not mean we could never lose the faith we once confessed. Jesus makes this abundantly clear.
He says that some hear the Word and receive it with joy, but in difficult times, times of testing, they fall away. These are not deeply rooted in the Word, which would sustain them in the intense troubles and trials of life. Others hear the Word, but it soon takes a back seat. They are caught up in “the cares and riches and pleasures of life.” The temptations of the devil and the allurements of the world lead them astray. These set aside the Word and stop bearing the good fruits of faith.
These things can happen to you, and in fact they have. None of us can say that our ears have been perfectly attuned to the Word of God. Maybe we think we can turn one ear to the Word and one ear to the world. That is like trying to pay attention to your TV or smartphone while carrying on a conversation at the same time. One of the two things takes priority; the other is ignored. What do you suppose tends to win out between the world and the Word?
Jesus wants us to hear His Word with both our ears. “Whoever is of God hears the words of God,” He says. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (Joh. 8:47, 10:27). Are your ears open to His Word? It isn’t just a matter of going to church. You can go to church and not really hear. You can listen to the Word but decide in your heart that you are going to keep doing what you want. And no one, not your parents or your siblings or your spouse or your pastor, can make you do otherwise.
And you are right, no one can make you hear the Word and apply it to yourself. No one can make you repent of your sins and believe the Gospel message of God’s grace. Jesus pointed out that for some, “it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables.” Then he quoted from the prophet Isaiah that “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”
So how can you be sure that God wants you to know the secrets of His kingdom? How can you be sure that He wants you to hear and believe? Because you are hearing His Word right now. That’s how God works faith and keeps you in the faith. “[F]aith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). If God did not want you to receive His blessings through His Word, He would keep you from hearing it.
He wants you to hear it. In today’s text when Jesus calls out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” the form of the verb indicates that He repeated Himself, calling out again and again, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” This is meant for your ears today. Jesus wants to create in you a clean heart and renew a right spirit within you. He wants to visit you in grace and bring the Holy Spirit to you. He wants to restore the joy of salvation to you and uphold you (Psa. 51:10-12).
He does all this through His powerful Word. He convicts you of your sin through His Holy Law, and He bestows His forgiveness and righteousness upon you through His Holy Gospel. Jesus does not say, “You are forgiven if you get your life in order.” Or, “You can be saved if you never sin again.” He says that because of His suffering and death in your place, your sins are forgiven and forgotten. And because of His resurrection, your eternal salvation is guaranteed (Rom. 4:25).
Does that mean it doesn’t really matter how you live, since all your sins are forgiven? Listen carefully: Jesus freed you from sin! He doesn’t want you to remain in it or return to it. He wants you to repent of it, cast it off, be done with it. He wants the rocky ground of your doubts to be cleared. He wants the thorns of worldliness to be cut down and burned.
He wants nothing to keep you from hearing and growing in His Gospel of grace. He wants you to turn your face to the warmth of His saving light like a plant turns its face to the sun and soak up the bright rays of His promises. He wants you to drink deeply from the living water of His Word, so that your thirst for righteousness will be quenched, and you will “never be thirsty again” (Joh. 4:14).
Jesus wants you to be refreshed and comforted by His Word. The words He speaks to you are “spirit and life” (Joh. 6:63). By the power of the Holy Spirit, His words bring life to your soul. They give you blessings that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The devil sows confusion, pain, and death. Jesus sows peace, joy, and life.
His promises are meant for your ears. “[T]hose who hear the word of God and keep it” are “blessed,” He says (Luk. 11:28). He gave you ears, so that you would hear His Gospel. He gave you ears, so that you would believe in Him and be saved. He gave you ears For the Sake of Your Soul. Listen to Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1Pe. 1:9). Listen to Him!
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(picture from Hortus Diliciarum, a book compiled by Herrad of Landsberg in the 12th century)
The First Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 2:41-52
In Christ Jesus, the Son of Mary, who was manifested as the Son of God by His holy words and deeds, dear fellow redeemed:
If you have ever been left behind somewhere accidentally, you probably remember the feeling. If you have ever lost track of a child, you definitely remember the feeling. First looking where you expect to find him, then widening the search, then becoming more frantic until your child is finally located. We can imagine how Mary and Joseph were feeling when Jesus was not where they expected Him to be. How would small-town Jesus do by Himself in big-city Jerusalem?
While they were searching frantically for Jesus, He was not troubled in the least. He was twelve years old, the age of a seventh grader. This is a time of transition when a child begins to think and act more independently. It is clear that Joseph and Mary allowed Jesus some independence, since they were not concerned to set off for home without knowing exactly where He was. But Jesus was not with the travel group; He was in the temple.
He was hardly noticed as He made His way up the temple steps. Nobody in the temple knew the significance of this Boy. They did not perceive that He was God in the flesh. In Old Testament times, God entered His temple in a cloud of fire. Now He came in humility, His eternal glory hidden, “the whole fullness of deity” dwelling in His twelve-year-old body (Col. 2:9).
If you have ever seen the show, “Undercover Boss,” that is something like the irony of this moment. Jesus quietly took His seat before the temple teachers. They were some of the best and brightest teachers of the Law. But these experts had no idea that the LORD Himself was in their midst. They soon learned that there was something different about this Boy. He showed a depth of understanding they were not used to hearing from students of this age or perhaps any age.
Jesus respectfully asked them questions, and they responded with some questions of their own. “[A]ll who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers.” They wondered where this Boy got His remarkable knowledge. They probably wanted to know His background: “What did you say Your name was? Where are You from? You say the family trade is carpentry?” It was astonishing that Jesus could come from such humble circumstances and display such understanding.
Jesus sat among the teachers for three days. During that time, Mary and Joseph were retracing their steps to Jerusalem before they eventually found Jesus in the temple. Now His mother had a question for Him: “Son, why have You treated us so?” We can certainly understand the question. If your child decided to spend a couple days at a friend’s house without telling you, you would probably use more pointed words than Mary when you finally found him or her.
But Jesus did not hang His head in shame. He replied calmly with two questions of His own: “Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” These are the first words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. They show that even at age twelve, He was focused on the work He had come to do. He had to be in His Father’s house. He was there to do His Father’s bidding.
The season of Epiphany is about the revealing of Jesus as God’s Son. That’s what “epiphany” means: a revealing or a manifesting. We heard last weekend how Jesus was revealed as the Messiah to the wise men. Next weekend, we will hear how He manifested His divine power by changing water into wine. We know these accounts well, but we cannot fully understand the mystery of God becoming Man. Nor do we fully appreciate what it means for life in this world.
When we are faced with the questions and concerns of the present, like questions about our health, our government, and our society, it is easy to forget that God has become one with us. Unbelievers do not know this. They do not know the Christ and what He has done. It’s no wonder they become so invested in scientific endeavors, political movements, and power plays. These worldly initiatives are their religion, and government officials and other prominent people are their gods.
We need to resist those currents. We do not stand on the eroding sand of human opinions. We stand on the solid rock of Jesus and His Word. The world of men thought it knew what power was. The world thought it was wise. But all of that was exposed as flimsiness and foolishness when the Creator God entered His world as a Man. We cannot make ourselves God, but God made Himself Man.
Who can stand against this God? He said about Himself, “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deu. 32:39). The so-called powerful people of the world would be “shaking in their boots” if they realized what they were up against. “[T]he nations rage and the peoples plot in vain,” says the psalmist; they try to take the glory that belongs to God alone. But “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision” (Psa. 2:1-6). God’s Son rules as King over heaven and earth.
But where is the evidence of His rule? Some can’t understand why He allowed the current president to be elected. Others can’t understand why He is letting the new president take office. In all the chaos of today, it can seem like Jesus is missing or that He really isn’t powerful. Can’t He see our troubles? Can’t He see that we are suffering? We start to sound like Mary: “Lord, why have You treated us so? Behold, we have been searching for You in great distress.”
All these anxious cares show that we have our minds set on earthly things and not on “things that are above” (Col. 3:2). Have we forgotten what God’s Son has done? Have we forgotten that He performed countless miracles—even raising people from the dead—while living a perfectly pure life on earth? Have we forgotten that He accepted the punishment for all sin and died on the cross in our place? Have we forgotten that He rose again from the dead just as He predicted? Have we forgotten that our future is inseparably tied to His because we have been buried and raised with Him in Baptism?
When we cry out: “We have been searching for You in great distress!” He says, “Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” In other words He says, “You are guilty of looking for Me in the wrong places and not where I have told you to look.” If we think we will find Him in a perfect government on earth or in perfect success or in a life of constant pleasure and happiness, we will not find Him. He will remain hidden from us.
But if we look for Him in His Holy Word and His Holy Sacraments, we will find Him. We will find Him ready to forgive our sins, help us in our afflictions, comfort us in our sorrows, and strengthen us in our trials. Through the means of grace, Jesus is constantly doing the work His Father sent Him to do, the work of bringing us His blessings.
God sent His Son into the world to save the world. That doesn’t mean His Son came to reform the world or improve it or make everything fair and peaceful for everyone who lives on it. God sent His Son to save sinners from the eternal punishment they deserve. By His innocent suffering and death, Jesus did the work to redeem all people. And now He fights to keep believers in the faith and bring others to faith.
Our King is not hiding or missing. He is seated at the right hand of the Father ruling over all things. Nothing is hidden from His view and nothing is beyond His power. He is able to put all our questions to rest, either by answering them or by teaching us to live without the answers. Nothing is hidden from Him, but some things are hidden from us. We do not know what our future holds. We might want to know, but we don’t need to know.
What we do need to know is that no matter what changes around us, His mercy and love toward us will not change. That gives us the confidence to go about our daily tasks with joy and diligence. We are not searching in anguish for some earthly power to save us and make our lives better. Jesus is our Lord who won the victory over sin, death, and devil. And we are His people.
As His people, we abide by His Word and serve according to His direction. We love the family and friends He has given us. We go about our work honestly and faithfully. We care about the needs of our neighbor. Our good efforts may go unnoticed. They may be hidden from most everyone and lost to history. But we are not in it for our glory.
Our eternal glory is already secure in Christ. He fulfilled God’s Holy Law for us, including perfect obedience to His parents and all other authorities. He submitted Himself to the temple teachers and to His imperfect parents, so that we could stand righteous before God.
We have sinned in many ways against our parents, teachers, and other authorities, such as the government officials the Lord in His wisdom has established. But whatever our Fourth Commandment sins may be, Jesus atoned for every single one by His death. And He applies the perfect keeping of the Law to all who trust in Him.
We have many questions about what may happen to us here on earth. But we have no questions about what God has given us in Christ. All the questions that really matter—the questions about our eternal future—are answered by the gracious work of Jesus to save us.
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(picture from “Jesus Among the Doctors” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
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.
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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.
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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.
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(picture from annual outdoor service on the parsonage grounds)