The Third Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 21) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 4:46-54
In Christ Jesus, who gives life, salvation, and peace to all who trust in Him, dear fellow redeemed:
The devil knows how to get at you, and he knows how to get at me. He’s been doing his deceitful and destructive work for a long time. His goal is very simple: Keep unbelievers from the saving Word of Jesus and pull believers away from Jesus’ Word. Jesus’ Word is the light that pierces the devil’s darkness. It is the source of hope in his world of despair. It is the means by which life is brought into his kingdom of death. This is why Christians want to hear and learn the Word. They want to be fortified against the devil’s attacks.
The devil tempts us to the opposite of what today’s Epistle Lesson describes (Eph. 6:10-17). Instead of fastening on “the belt of truth,” the devil wants us to be unprepared to face temptation and counter his errors. Instead of putting on “the breastplate of righteousness,” the devil wants our hearts to be exposed to his seductions. Instead of shoes made ready “by the gospel of peace,” the devil wants us to be ready to run from Christ when our beliefs are challenged. Instead of taking up “the shield of faith,” the devil wants us to be vulnerable to his many accusations. Instead of wearing “the helmet of salvation,” the devil wants us to think that our reason will do more for us than a godly faith. And instead of taking up “the sword of the Spirit,” the devil wants us to set aside the Word for the sake of peace in this world.
These are “the schemes of the devil.” These are the ways the devil tries to destroy our faith. He may try to ruin faith by an all-out attack, whether through a sudden loss of good health, or a job, or a loved one. But most often, the devil does his work slowly and subtly. He will try to convince you that can enjoy both sin and faith. You can have this secret sin and still have a good reputation. You can have a vice or two and still be a good Christian. You can be totally comfortable in the world and in the church at the same time.
The devil is “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). The Apostle John writes that “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1Jn. 3:8).
Jesus pointed out one of the devil’s works when a nobleman came to Him in Cana. The nobleman’s son was sick and didn’t have long to live. They must have spent all their resources on conventional treatments, and nothing worked. You can imagine how distressful this would have been. But the nobleman had heard about Jesus, that He had power to perform miracles. So he hurried from Capernaum to Cana, a span of about twenty miles, to ask for His help.
The first words Jesus said to him were jarring, “Unless you [people] see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Jesus was speaking about the Galileans, the people of His home territory. But His indictment applies to us and all sinners. We are those for whom faith does not seem sufficient. We want proof—physical, tangible, undeniable proof. “What good does ‘trusting in the Lord’ do,” we think, “when someone we love is sick?” or “when our possessions are destroyed?” or “when our life is falling apart?”
We look for “signs and wonders” from God. We want Him to provide miraculous healing to those who are ill. We want Him to restore the things we lose and bless us with even more, like He did for Job. We want Him to fix all our hurts, all our pains, all our troubles, so that we can enjoy the happy and carefree life that so many others seem to have.
When these things that we ask Him for and pray for don’t happen, the devil sows seeds of doubt and despair. “Perhaps God isn’t as powerful as you thought!” he whispers. “Perhaps He doesn’t love you like you thought He did!” “Perhaps His Word cannot be trusted!” That last lie is especially troubling. If the Word of God is not true, everything we have centered our lives on, everything we have hoped for, is empty.
If what the Bible says is not true, the evidence of creation and conscience would tell you there is a God. But you would not know who He was. What you would be aware of is your sin. You would question whether you were right with this God, and you would try to take steps to make sure you are. This is what you see in all the non-Christian religions of the world. They are all based on the premise that we must make ourselves right with God by how we live and how we worship Him. Or you might decide to ignore the reality of God like the atheists and agnostics do and live your life however you want.
If the Word of God is not true, then the Son of God did not take on human flesh in the Virgin Mary. Then He did not live a perfect life in your place. Then He did not go to the cross carrying all your sin. Then He did not rise again from the dead on Easter morning. Then He did not place His forgiveness and life in the Word and Sacraments. If none of these things happened, then you have nothing to look back on in your life except sin, and you have nothing to look forward to except death. This is what it means if God’s Word cannot be trusted.
The devil certainly would have tried to plant doubt in the nobleman’s mind. Jesus had just sent him home with the words, “Go; your son will live.” The text says that the man “believed the word that Jesus spoke to him,” but could he really be sure his son would be fine? The nobleman pushed those doubts aside and continued on his way. Then he was met with the happy news that his son had indeed recovered—and at the exact moment that Jesus said, “Your son will live.”
It was the powerful Word of Jesus that brought healing to the nobleman’s son. Jesus did not have to travel there and take the boy by the hand in order to heal him. He simply spoke His Word. This should be a great comfort to us. Jesus does not have to be visibly present with us in order to help us. He knows our condition. He knows how we struggle with our particular sins, and the shame we feel because of them. He knows when we are full of grief and hopelessness and the desperate feeling that we cannot escape the troubles we face.
Jesus does not come to us visibly to make everything better in an instant. But He does speak His Word, a Word which has tremendous power. Jesus’ Word imparts to us in the present whatever He has promised in the past. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” He says, “and I will give you rest.” He spoke those words nearly 2,000 years ago, but they are just as true and powerful today. Here is another promise: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:31-32). And another promise: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn. 11:25-26).
It is through these promises of Jesus that faith is formed in sinful hearts. The Bible says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). When sinners come to faith through the Gospel by the power of Holy Spirit, the great burdens of guilt that they carry are lifted off their shoulders. All our sin and guilt was put on Jesus to carry for us. He suffered and died for all our sins, for all the times that we let “the devil, the world and our own flesh” overcome us and “lead us into misbelief, despair and other shameful sin and vice” (Small Catechism, Sixth Petition).
All of these past failures and sins are removed from us, and in their place, Jesus puts His righteousness. By the power of His Word in Holy Absolution, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, Jesus declares us right with God and perfectly holy in His sight. These are the great and eternal blessings that God promises us and all sinners in His Word. The nobleman believed this Word, and He proclaimed it to his entire household. His son was not saved through human wisdom, through the efforts of the best doctors money could buy. His son was saved through Jesus’ Word, and the whole household believed.
We do not always understand why we must endure one trial or another in this world, or why God doesn’t graciously bring these problems to a quick end. But we can trust His Word. With Paul we say, “Let God be true though every one were a liar!” (Rom. 3:4). Our Faith Is Founded on Jesus’ Word. It is a sure foundation, with “Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). The devil will try to convince us that it is a false word, but “the shield of faith” extinguishes all those flaming darts. Our faith is enlivened and strengthened by Jesus’ Word, which can overcome every attack of the devil and his allies.
Therefore with the psalmist David we say, “O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me…. Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you” (Ps. 25:2,20).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(“The Healing of the Officer’s Son” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
Saint Day: Mary Magdalene
Text: St. John 20:1-2,11-18
In Christ Jesus, who has compassion on poor sinners and suffered and died for each one, dear fellow redeemed:
In the three years of Jesus’ public work, the twelve disciples went wherever He went. But they were not the only followers of Jesus. The New Testament informs us of other men (Ac. 1:23) and women who traveled with Him. Regarding the women, the evangelist Luke writes that they “provided for [Jesus and His disciples] out of their means” (Lk. 8:3). Their financial support allowed Jesus and the Twelve to focus on teaching, preaching, and healing, rather than on finding daily bread.
The women showed this kindness toward Jesus because of the compassion He had showed them. Luke notes that some of the women “had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities,” including “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, [King] Herod’s household manager, and Susanna” (vv. 2-3). Our focus today is on Mary Magdalene.
As far as we know, Mary came from a village on the Sea of Galilee called “Magdala,” which made her, “Mary the Magdalene.” Mary would not have been remembered beyond her lifetime except for her association with Jesus.
She first beheld Him, as though peering through a dark cloud. Seven demons had taken residence in her. This could have caused her to behave in all sorts of troubling ways. One girl was possessed by a demon which gave her fortune-telling abilities (Ac. 16:16). A demon afflicted another boy by trying to cast him into fire and water to destroy him (Mk. 9:22). A legion of demons possessed another man and drove him into the desert to live among tombs (Lk. 8:26-30).
Demons inflict harm and are constantly working to move people to sin against themselves and others. According to tradition, Mary’s demons led her to sin especially against the Sixth Commandment. [Luke 7:36-50 has been applied to Mary Magdalene in the history of the church, but there is no proof that this woman and Mary are the same.]
We do not know how long Mary had been possessed by demons, but we do have an idea how it came about. Jesus explained that demons are only too ready to enter hearts that are empty of saving faith. He said that a demon “finds the house [the heart] empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there” (Mt. 12:44-45). Mary was in a terrible state. She had no hope. She was controlled by satanic forces. She appeared to be alive, but her body was full of death. If nothing changed, her anguish on earth would have given way to an eternity of suffering in hell.
Then the menacing cloud was lifted. Jesus stood before her, and as He did for many others, He commanded the demons to come out of her. Mary was freed from the chains of death that held her. The same powerful Word that forced the demons out of her body also worked its way into her heart. Her hardened heart of unbelief became a living heart of faith. She looked upon her Savior and loved Him for the mercy He had showed her. She could never repay Him, but she could follow Him and devote her life to Him.
Mary joined the men and women who traveled with Jesus until their journey led them through the gates of Jerusalem on a Sunday of palm branches and praises. Still, the mood was tense. It was well known that many of the Jewish religious leaders despised Jesus. Would they try to have Him arrested during this festival week on charges of blasphemy and insurrection? And in fact they did, in a secluded garden with few eyes watching.
By Good Friday morning, word began to spread about Jesus’ arrest. Mary heard too and went to where the crowd was gathering to see what would happen. The religious leaders succeeded in turning the people against Jesus, and they pressured Pilate to give the order for Jesus’ crucifixion. Wearing a crown of thorns, bruised and bleeding, Jesus was sent out from the governor’s palace carrying His own cross. A great many joined the procession, including women who mourned and lamented for Him (Lk. 23:27). Mary must have been one of these, because we know she was among the few followers of Jesus who stood by His cross at Golgotha (Jn. 19:25).
Her heart broke as she watched her Savior in such agony. How could they do this? How could this happen to such a great man? He had delivered her from her demons, and from death itself. But now there was no one to save Him. Darkness descended at noontime, and about 3:00pm, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46). He was suffering the eternal fires of hell for sinners. Then He said, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30), and followed that with, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Lk. 23:46). After saying this, He breathed His last.
Mary Magdalene witnessed all these things, but she could hardly comprehend what she was hearing and seeing. Could this be it? Could her Savior be dead? Many went home, but she and some of the other women from Galilee would not leave Jesus. They watched from a distance and saw Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus take the body down from the cross and wrap it in a clean linen shroud. They followed the men and saw the tomb where the body was buried (Mt. 27:55-61). Then they hurried back to their homes before the start of the Sabbath at sundown.
God established the Sabbath for a day to rest and be refreshed and strengthened through the Word. But Jesus’ followers could hardly relax. They could not believe their kind Teacher was dead. They worried that the authorities would be coming for them next. For their part, the women resolved to serve Jesus one last time. After the Sabbath, they would bring spices and ointments to give Jesus a more proper burial (Lk. 23:56).
But their spices and ointments would not be needed. The women found the tomb open and empty. While Mary Magdalene stood there weeping, Jesus appeared and spoke to her. She did not recognize who it was. But when Jesus said her name, “Mary,” she turned and cried out, “Rabboni!”—“Teacher!” This was Jesus’ first earthly appearance after His resurrection. Mary—formerly inhabited by seven demons—was the first witness of the event that changed everything forever.
It’s a good story with a happy ending. But it’s no good if that’s all we see in it. We should recognize that Mary’s story could just as well be your story and mine. Like Mary, we also were controlled by satanic forces before we were converted by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is why in our baptismal liturgy, we ask sponsors to answer this question on behalf of the young child or infant, “Do you renounce the devil, and all his works, and all his ways?”
Through Baptism, the light of God’s powerful Word pierced our darkness and brought us to faith. This saving Baptism into Christ is our continued defense against the demons who would do us harm. We return to our Baptism through repentance of our sins and trust in God’s Word of grace. His Word leads us from spiritual death to spiritual life, just as His Word gave life to Mary.
The proof that this life is ours is based on what Mary and many others witnessed. They saw Jesus die. It was no elaborate hoax. They did not deposit an unconscious Jesus in the tomb and leave an opening for Him to escape. He was dead. Tombs are not closed and sealed unless this is certain. Listen to how Mary referred to Jesus on Easter morning: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” She assumes He had to be taken and laid somewhere because He was dead. Of course He couldn’t move Himself!
And by this assumption, Mary was just as guilty as all the rest. Jesus had told them otherwise. He said He would die and rise again. But they did not believe it. No one had ever risen from the dead. We are tempted to the same unbelief. All we see around us is death. How can we be sure the dead will rise again?
Our certainty is not in what we see with our eyes, but in what others saw with theirs. Did the disciples believe Jesus could rise? No. What changed their minds? They saw Jesus alive multiple times. It was undeniable. Even when they were arrested and killed for preaching Jesus’ death and resurrection, they would not deny His resurrection, because it was true.
Jesus’ resurrection is a historical fact. It can be rejected, but it cannot be undone. Jesus rose in victory over death, so that each sinner can be certain of forgiveness. His resurrection means that God accepted His sacrifice on behalf of all sinners. Jesus paid the debt of your sin. He conquered your death. The death of your body in this life is only temporary. Jesus will raise you again, and then there will be no pain, trouble, or weeping.
When Mary saw Jesus standing outside His tomb, she wanted to cling to Him. But Jesus told her that His Word—and not His visible presence—would now have most importance. She was to share that Word with the disciples, that Jesus would soon ascend “to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.” This is the moment captured in Jerico’s altar painting, which is also printed on today’s bulletin cover. Jesus holds up His hands showing the marks of the nails and points to the heavens.
This painting reminds us to take Jesus at His Word, even though we cannot now see Him. We believe that He died and rose again for us, and that He has ascended into heaven to prepare a place for all believers. We learn with Mary to “Set [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). We wait eagerly for Jesus to appear to us like He did to Mary, and then our journey from Death to Life will be complete.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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The Festival of Pentecost – Pr. Faugstad Exordium and Sermon
“Do we have to celebrate your birthday again? We celebrated it last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.” Someone who talked like this probably wouldn’t be invited to next year’s party. Birthdays are important. They mark the day we made our entrance into the world.
Pentecost is the birthday of the New Testament Church. It is the day the Holy Spirit was poured out on Jesus’ disciples. With the sound of “a mighty rushing wind,” with “tongues as of fire” resting on each of them, the Holy Spirit came to give them godly courage and heavenly words to declare to the people. All those gathered there heard “the mighty works of God” proclaimed in their own language. “What does this mean?” they wondered.
Peter told them. He told them that Jesus of Nazareth, “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst”—was unlawfully crucified and killed by them. But God raised Him up and seated Him at His right hand. The people were “cut to the heart.” They had killed the Son of God! But Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2)
Then three thousand of those who heard his words were baptized. Three thousand! There had never been a day like this one. No other religion had ever taken off like this, because no religion besides this one is spread by the power of the Holy Spirit. But that was not the only day the Holy Spirit was active. He is still active. This is why we celebrate this festival, this birthday of the New Testament Church, each year, and why we thank God for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, who has brought the light of Jesus to our darkness and life to our souls. Let us now rise to sing our festival verse, “O Light of God’s Most Wondrous Love” (ELH 399)/“Holy Spirit, God of Love” (TLH 230).
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Sermon Text: St. John 14:23-31
In Christ Jesus, who kept His promise to send the Holy Spirit, who would teach the things of God and grant His peace, dear fellow redeemed:
Just about all people you meet today would describe themselves as “spiritual.” But not all would describe themselves as “religious.” Probably none would say that they are “religious, but not spiritual.” A whole bunch would describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” What exactly do these words mean? The popular definition of “spiritual” is that a person feels some connection to a higher power, whatever that may be. This higher power is not specifically the Christian God, the Muslim god, the Jewish god, or the Buddhist god. Today’s “spiritual” person rejects any specific teaching about God. The idea is that “god” is not something learned about; “god” is something felt and experienced. And how you feel and experience god is going to be different than how I feel and experience god.
This is the way the world defines “spirituality.” It is a supposed relationship with a god that doesn’t really have anything to say. This god sends no messages that would contradict a person’s will or decisions. This god says nothing about right and wrong. As far as the so-called “spiritual” person is concerned, god just wants us to be happy doing whatever it is we want to do.
It is no wonder that such “spiritual” people are not all that interested in being “religious.” Religion insists on certain standards and principles. It has structure. It presents specific truths about God and His creation. The free-thinking individual does not want to be bound by any of this. She thinks that religion is entirely man-made. It is the means by which one group of people wants to have control over others. With these presuppositions, the last place a person would look for spirituality is in organized religion. But why should self-made spirituality be any better or more reliable than man-made religion?
When the Bible speaks about spirituality, its definition is tied together with the work of God the Holy Spirit. It says that there is no real spirituality apart from the Holy Spirit. In St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he makes a distinction between the “natural person” and the “spiritual person.” The “natural person” refers to how all people are by nature. The natural person is “dead in the trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). The natural person is “hostile to God” and “cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7,8).
This is why the Explanation to the Third Article of the Creed is absolutely correct in saying that “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” It is impossible for us to come to Christ on our own because we are spiritually dead by nature. There is no spark of good, no glimmer of hope, tucked deep inside us. To indulge in an inner spirituality apart from the Holy Spirit’s work is to give way to our own flesh, the world, and the devil. It is to remain lost with no chance of finding our way out.
But God has pity on the spiritually dead. He sent His Son to bring them life through His atoning death and resurrection. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1Cor. 15:22). Jesus has the authority and power to bring life to the spiritually dead, and He does it through His Word and Sacraments (Mt. 28:18-20). He sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to “teach [His disciples] all things and bring to [their] remembrance all things that [He] said.” This work is still happening. The Holy Spirit comes to us whenever we hear and study God’s Word. He works a spirituality in our hearts that is not me-focused, but Christ-focused.
Without the Holy Spirit’s work, we would remain in our natural state. But as the Third Article of the Creed explains, “the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” The Holy Spirit called us out of the darkness of unbelief, enlightened our hearts with the saving love of Jesus, and keeps us in communion with the true God. This is not an uncertain spirituality with uncertain benefits. It is a God-given spirituality that brings His gracious presence into our lives and our hearts. Jesus said, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.”
Jesus promises that the Triune God will abide with anyone who loves Him and keeps His Word close. You and I have not done always done that. We have not loved the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, and might (Deu. 6:5). And we have not been willing to give up every earthly thing—all the riches and pleasures of this world—for the Word. All too often, our love for God is barely evident, and our desire for the Word is greatly lacking. But God still loves you, and He still comes to you just as He is doing right now.
Wherever the Gospel is preached in its purity and the Sacraments are rightly administered, God is present. Through these means, the Holy Spirit brings you Jesus. He credits you with Jesus’ perfect life. He bathes you in His precious blood. He feeds you with His holy body. This is a closeness with the divine that none of the non-Christian religions can imagine, and that the “spiritual, but not religious” crowd can only dream of.
A Christian Is Spiritual and Religious. By the powerful working of the Holy Spirit, he is called out of self-made spirituality and religion into the spirituality and religion of Christ. Man-made religion is worthless, but true Christian religion is not. It is established, shaped, and formed by the holy Word of God. It gives meaning and purpose to the Christian. The Word of God justifies—it is the means by which the Holy Spirit applies the death and resurrection of Jesus to sinners. And the Word of God sanctifies—it is the means by which the Holy Spirit suppresses your sinful nature and guides you to righteous living.
You and I were dead in our sins and given to all sorts of wickedness. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1Cor. 6:11). By the God-given Word and Sacraments, the Holy Spirit “daily and richly forgives me and all believers all our sins.” And He leads us to the “pure and undefiled” religion of love for God and love for neighbor (Jam. 1:27).
If the Holy Spirit did not do these things for you, you would care about nothing in this life but your own plans. But by His grace, the Holy Spirit has revealed to you God’s plan. He teaches you that the Savior who is seated at the Father’s right hand is “coming back to you.” On that glorious day at the Lord’s command, the Holy Spirit “will raise up me and all the dead, and will grant me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.”
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(portion of woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Sixth Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 16:23-30
In Christ Jesus, who opened the way “to the Father’s high throne, / Where [we] may approach Him, in [His] name alone” (ELH 182, v. 8), dear fellow redeemed:
Many people can give examples of times when they were the best qualified for a job and had the most experience, but someone else was hired instead of them. It wasn’t because of anything they did wrong or because they missed a window of opportunity. It was because of factors beyond their control. Maybe one of the applicants knew the boss personally, or another employee put in a good word for them. As the saying goes, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”
This saying also accurately expresses the reason we have access to God the Father. It is not our own knowledge or worthiness or hard work that gets us this access. On our own we could never reach Him or even come close to Him. We have access through God’s Son, Jesus the Christ, whose name we confess by the power of God the Holy Spirit. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we can pray to God the Father “with all boldness and confidence, as children ask their dear father” (Small Catechism, Intro. to Lord’s Prayer). Our heavenly Father loves to hear our prayers, and He loves to respond with the rich blessings of His grace.
Jesus said in today’s text, “whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you.” That is quite an invitation! God will give you whatever you ask for in Jesus’ name. But what does it mean to ask “in Jesus’ name”? It does not mean using Jesus’ name like someone might use a secret password to gain entrance somewhere. Any request “in Jesus’ name” is empty if it is not accompanied by faith in what He did.
The Book of Acts tells us about some “itinerant Jewish exorcists” who noticed how successful the Apostle Paul was at casting out demons and performing various miracles. They thought they might have the same success if they used the method he did. Seven of them approached a demon-possessed man and ordered the evil spirit to come out of him, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims!” But the demon replied, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” Then he attacked and overpowered all of them (Ac. 19:13-16). These exorcists did not actually believe in the name they were using.
Praying to God “in Jesus’ name” means trusting what Jesus did to save us. His “name” includes everything about Him. It describes His Person and work. That’s how it is for any of us. People associate our name with who we are and what we do. Your name carries with it your reputation. If you are known for doing good things, people will think favorably about you when your name is mentioned. If you are known for bad things, your name will bring those things to mind.
Jesus’ name is “the name that is above every name” (Phi. 2:9). Nobody did what He did. He perfectly kept the law of God, a feat no one had accomplished before then and no one has since. Then He offered up His perfect life as the atoning sacrifice to His Father for the sins of all. The name Jesus means, “The LORD saves,” which is what He did. He saved us from eternal death by dying and rising again in our place.
On the basis of what He did, Jesus invites anyone and everyone to speak to the Father. But many do not care to do this, or they do not go about it in the right way. Those who do not care to speak with God are like the employees who are constantly griping about poor working conditions and personal problems. But when the owner of the company invites them to come and share their concerns so that he might help their situation to improve, they ignore his kind invitation and keep on griping. The unbelievers who ignore the Creator of all things are like this. He sends them many earthly blessings, and He wants to give them His spiritual gifts too. But they act like He does not even exist, and they continue in their comfortless and hopeless lives.
Others imagine they can have access to God the Father without the Son. They may speak of the Son as a good teacher and wonderful moral example, but they deny that He is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity. This includes a great many people in the world who have latched on to false religions. They may put us to shame in their moral living and their practice of prayer, but God neither recognizes it nor hears it. Jesus clearly stated His connection to the Father, “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” Earlier, He told His disciples, “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30), and “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also” (14:6-7).
We would be found in one of these two camps of unbelievers if God the Holy Spirit had not called us out of the darkness of unbelief to the light of salvation through Christ. Without the Holy Spirit’s work through the Word and Sacraments, no one would confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). No one would believe that there is salvation in Him alone, by faith in His name (Ac. 4:12).
Now this salvation and faith are yours, and with them, the invitation to present your needs and requests to God in heaven. St. Paul writes that “Through Christ We Have Access in One Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). Because Jesus blotted out your sins by His death on the cross and clothed you in His righteousness at your baptism, you are able to bring your petitions before the holy God. You can come confidently to His throne of grace to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
When Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, He did not teach them to pray timidly or with uncertainty. He taught them to make demands of God: “Thy kingdom come”; “Give us… our daily bread”; “Forgive us”; “Deliver us.” We can be confident in prayer because our salvation is secure. We don’t have to wonder if God the Father will listen to us. He loves us! He has time for us! Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you…. If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt. 7:7,11).
If we believed this promise of Jesus, we would “pray without ceasing” (1Th. 5:17). We would say that there was no better use of our time than to pray. But instead we put a thousand other things before it, many of which accomplish no good for ourselves or our neighbors. Or we stop praying because God did not answer our prayers the way we wanted. Maybe we prayed for sunshine and He sent rain, or we prayed for healing and the condition worsened. Or we adopt a fatalistic attitude and figure God will do what He wants whether we pray to Him or not.
But if prayer were a waste of time and unnecessary, why would God repeat the invitation so frequently? “Ask, and you will receive,” says Jesus, “that your joy may be full.” Think of what a privilege this is! The perfect, eternal God wants to hear what you, a sinner, have to say. Pastor U. V. Koren in a sermon for this Sunday said, “If we were invited to approach the highest authority of the land, we would regard it as an honor and try to make fitting preparations for it. How much more then we should do that when we are invited to the King of all kings, to the almighty Lord of heaven and earth!” (U. V. Koren’s Works, Vol. 1: Sermons, pp. 217-218). The holy God “has commanded us so to pray and has promised to hear us” (Small Catechism, Concl. to Lord’s Prayer).
But how can you know that God has heard your prayer? You speak to God; why doesn’t He speak to you? But He does! You have access to God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. He brought you to faith in Jesus, who saved you from sin and death. So prayer proceeds through the Son, in the Spirit, to the Father—a line stretching from earth to heaven.
God’s answer comes the opposite way, from heaven to you on earth. God the Father gives His grace and mercy in the Spirit. The Father sends the Holy Spirit to you through the Word and Sacraments to comfort and strengthen you. And how does the Holy Spirit administer this comfort and strength? Through the Son. The Holy Spirit brings rest to your troubled soul by bringing you Jesus. Jesus knows your pain. He knows how you struggle and worry. He has endured every temptation and trial there is to endure. He comes to help and deliver you.
When you speak to God in prayer, remember also to go to His Word where He speaks to you. This is what your soul needs: to bring your requests to God and to receive His gifts through the Word. He wants to bless you with His forgiveness and cheer you with His grace. He will not ignore your prayers. He will not overlook you. God the Father will send you His good gifts by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit through His beloved Son, your Savior.
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(portion of “Crucifixion, Seen from the Cross,” by James Tissot, c. 1890)
The Third Sunday of Easter – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 10:11-16
In Christ Jesus, whose rod and staff comfort us, and who prepares a table of good spiritual food before us and a cup overflowing with grace, dear fellow redeemed:
You have heard it said that no two fingerprints are exactly the same. But that is not the only identifying characteristic that sets you apart from others. Your eyes may have the same color, but upon closer examination no two eyes share the same details. No two ears have the exact same curves and ridges. No two tongues have the same shape and texture. But perhaps the primary way you are recognized as you is by your voice.
Every voice is unique. I’m sure you have had the experience of being in a noisy, crowded place, and the familiar sound of a friend’s voice from the other side of the room catches your ear. The same can be true of a laugh or a whistle. Even after someone has been gone a long time, you can still recall the sound of their voice.
Not only humans but animals, too, learn to identify one voice from another. The same command given by a stranger as by the master will be ignored. But as soon as the master calls, his pets or livestock come running. Jesus uses this voice recognition to illustrate the connection between Him and His followers. He calls His followers “sheep,” since sheep are known for their ability to discern between their master and an imposter. Jesus says that the sheep hear the voice of the Shepherd, and they follow Him. “A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (Jn. 10:5).
Sheep get moving not just because of their shepherd’s familiar voice. If their master regularly led them to harm, they would stop listening to that voice. So it is not simply the voice, but the reputation that comes with it. They will follow a kind and good shepherd, but they will run from one who is cruel. Jesus says of Himself that He is “the Good Shepherd.” On what basis can He make that claim? What is it that makes Him “good”? He explains that “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” This Shepherd is willing to sacrifice all—even His own life—for the well-being of the sheep that He knows and loves.
But would the rescue of sheep actually be worth the death of a shepherd? Comparing animals to humans, it is safe to say that we would rather see 100 sheep die than the shepherd who tends them. Animals are great gifts from God intended for our companionship and service. But they should not be elevated in value beyond human life. Humankind was the crown of God’s creation to whom He gave the “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).
But while we would rather choose the death of animals than the humans who care for them, this is not necessarily how their owners would view the situation. If a treasured pet or livestock were in danger, there are many who would risk their own lives to save them. The bond between them is strong. They cannot bear the thought of harm coming to the creatures they love. It’s harder to imagine a farmer giving his life for the pig that constantly tests and destroys his fences or for the sheep that refuses to follow his command. Animals like that soon find themselves on the way to the butcher.
It was for such disobedient, unruly creatures as this, that Jesus was willing to lay down His life. He laid down His life for the bull-headed, who wish to do things their way and answer to no one. He laid down His life for the wanderers, who don’t see the harm in going this way or that, even if it means departing from God’s Word. He laid down His life for the busy-bodies, who happily chatter about the sins of others while ignoring their own wrongs.
It was not good sheep for whom the Good Shepherd died. It was for the wicked. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6). This is what makes Jesus so good. He loved you and me and all sinners with an immeasurable love. He sacrificed Himself for those whom no one could argue are worth the sacrifice. The perfect Lord gave Himself for sinners.
He has proven His commitment. He has done what deserves the respect of all. By His death and resurrection, He has shown that His voice can be trusted. But not all follow Him. Some prefer the voice of a hired hand, or even the growl of a wolf.
Jesus doesn’t have much good to say about the hired hand with regard to the sheep. In our economy, the work of hired hands is indispensable. Without employees working for employers, each of us would have to provide for our own needs—our own food, our own clothing, our own homes—unless others dealt charitably with us. But it is also true that employees do not feel the same kind of ownership about the products they produce and sell or the business they conduct as their employers do. They may not be as gentle with the company truck as they would be with their own. They may not be as careful with the goods they handle when it is not their money on the line.
This is why Jesus says that the hired hand will not risk his life for the sheep like the shepherd would. The hired hand is concerned more for his wages than the sheep. Jesus said this to the Pharisees, whom He accused at another point of being like “whitewashed tombs.” They looked and acted righteous on the outside, but inside were “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Mt. 23:27). They and the chief priests and scribes cared more for their standing among the people, than for the people themselves (Mk. 12:38-40).
This is like the pastor who fails to warn people when a wolf is sighted. He assures them that they are safe where they are, doing what they are doing, living how they are living. He doesn’t want to have to get his hands dirty or risk his own standing in the church or community. But the wolf is right there! The sheep need to be warned, not led to complacency. Because when the hired hand does not take his job seriously, there is no one in place to guard the sheep. Then “the wolf snatches them and scatters them.”
I think oftentimes, the pastor who functions like a hired hand does not realize he is the hired hand. He imagines he is a faithful undershepherd of Christ. But we are not always good judges of ourselves, are we? Take the voice. How our voice sounds to ourselves is not how it sounds to others. When we hear a recording of our own voice, it doesn’t sound right to us, but it is what everyone else hears. The measure of a hired hand’s faithfulness is not what he thinks about himself, but what others hear him saying.
The question that followers of Jesus must ask is whether their pastor speaks as the Good Shepherd speaks. Does he present the law as Jesus did to convict of sin, and does he then speak the Gospel of forgiveness to the penitent? Or is he eager to tell people just what they want to hear? “Go ahead, do what your heart tells you. Break the rules a little. Do what feels right.” Then he is at best a hired hand and at worst a wolf who loves neither God nor neighbor.
Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (Jn. 10:27). Christians discern the difference between their Master and an imposter by His voice. They hear His Word. They want to obey His commands. They trust that He will lead them the right way. They long for the comfort and guidance that only He can provide. Hearing that voice, they are willing to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4). They know He is with them, and that He will lead them to “green pastures,” beside “still waters,” and in “the paths of righteousness” (v. 2).
To assure the sheep of His care, Jesus calls undershepherds to minister to them (1Pe. 5:1-4). They are not there to pad their pockets. They do not run away when the wolf attacks. These undershepherds know what the Lord’s sheep need, because they are also part of His flock. They need the same forgiveness, help, and encouragement as the rest of the sheep. They need to hear the same voice of the Good Shepherd, so that they and the sheep in their care are led in the right way.
There is no voice like the Lord’s voice. It is a voice so full of love and compassion. There is no double-talk there. No lie ever crosses His lips. He will rebuke when needed, but only so that you recognize the sin that has entangled you. Then He frees you from that sin by His holy Absolution. The place where the sheep are fed, strengthened, and refreshed is His pure Word and Sacraments. This is where His saving voice is heard. This is where Jesus makes good on His promise to “give [His sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of [His] hand” (Jn. 10:28).
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(picture is portion of stained glass window from St. John the Baptist’s Anglican Church in New South Wales)
The Fifth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 8:46-59
In Christ Jesus, through whom alone is salvation and eternal life, dear fellow redeemed:
“Who Is Jesus?” It is an important question, and anyone you ask will have an answer for it. But the answers will not all agree. Some think of Jesus as an excellent teacher who shows us how to live a life of love. Some think of Him as a buddy or a sort of life coach, who just wants them to be happy. Some don’t think much of Him at all, because they don’t like what Jesus said, or they doubt that He even existed. And then a good many believe that Jesus is the true God and the Savior of the world.
C. S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, weighed in on the same question. His contention was that Jesus could be only one of three things: a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. He wrote: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell.”
Lewis argues that with Jesus, there is no middle ground. “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God” (Mere Christianity, “The Shocking Alternative” chapter). Others have said there is a fourth option: that Jesus is only a legend. But the testimony of the Bible along with testimony from ancient non-Christian sources make this a difficult argument to make. Even going by the Bible alone, what human could or would make up the things Jesus said and did?
The people who consider Jesus to be no more than a moral teacher have not actually read what the Bible says. They have some vague notion of Jesus’ words about “turning the other cheek” and “not judging.” But they investigate no further. What about Jesus’ claim that after He is killed, He will rise again (Mt. 16:21)? Or what about His statement in today’s text that “before Abraham was, I AM.” No matter what others might say about Him, He certainly claimed to be more than a Man.
The Jews who saw the miracles He did and listened to His words were divided in their opinion about Him. Some argued that His miracles proved He was the Christ (Jn. 7:31). Others said Jesus could not be the Christ because He was from Galilee, and the Christ was to come from Bethlehem (7:41-42). Jesus declared in no uncertain terms, “I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me” (8:42).
Many who heard Jesus rejected this. He was not God, they said. So that must make Him a lunatic or liar: “Are we not right in saying that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” they asked Jesus with not a hint of innocence. Can you imagine that? Accusing the eternal Lord, the One who came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1Jn. 3:8) of being demon-possessed?
Such accusations were not leveled only against Jesus, but also against His followers after Him. It still happens today. I watched a TV show last week that portrayed Christian parents as being stuck-in-the-muds and wrong-headed for trying to stop their son from participating in a school play—a play in which he would act out a homosexual relationship with another boy. The criticism of Christian morals could not be more obvious. There will be no debate and no compromise. The message sent by the show is clear: traditional Christian teaching stretching back thousands of years cannot be tolerated.
Jesus predicted these very things. He said, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you…. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn. 15:19,20). But why does it have to be this way? Can’t there be some sort of compromise?
Whenever Christians try to work out a compromise with the world, what happens? Christianity always loses. Look at what has taken place in Christian churches across America. As more and more have accommodated and even promoted the errors of evolution, the killing of the most helpless among us, homosexual unions, and gender as a feeling instead of a biological reality, these churches have become almost indistinguishable from the culture around them. No longer are they characterized by the message of sin and grace. Now they embrace the sin, which does away with God’s grace.
They try to say that this is all done in the name of and with the blessing of Jesus. But it is not the Jesus who says, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (Jn. 8:23-24). Or as He said in today’s text, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”
The Jews were shocked and offended by these words. “What do you mean we are ‘not of God’? We are descendants of Abraham—God’s chosen people. We follow God’s law. We worship in His temple. Who do You think You are?!” But while they may have followed some of the laws in Scripture, they had stopped paying attention to the promises. Their connection to Abraham was physical—they had descended from his line. But they were not his spiritual descendants. Jesus told them this is because “my word finds no place in you” (Jn. 8:37).
All of us here would say that Jesus’ word has a place in our life. But what place does it have? Does it have a place only when we come to church? Even here, we can easily go through all the motions without really taking the Word to heart. We can walk out the door and cheerfully go back to the same sins we did before. Do we long to hear God’s Word? Do we honestly apply it to our own lives? Do we cling to the promises the Lord makes toward us?
We should be willing to give up all earthly gain, all our plans, all our wealth and possessions, and even our own life for the Word of God. Without the Word, we have nothing that can last. With the Word, we have Jesus and the eternal glories He won for us. But the devil convinces us that the world has more to offer. He says it is not God’s truth that matters, but your truth; what matters is that you stay true to yourself. The devil is a liar (8:44). He would have you make a god of yourself, which is the cause of all the evil and heartache we see in the world today.
We know what a lie it is, and yet we fall for this temptation again and again. We hardly study and meditate on God’s Word, and so we remain spiritually vulnerable and weak. We fail to take the Word to heart, and so we live without the confidence and comfort that only the Holy Spirit can provide.
A vengeful and uncaring God might have already destroyed you. An impatient God might have given up on you long ago. An indifferent God would not give you a second thought. But the true God loves you. And the way He showed His love was to send His only-begotten Son to assume our human flesh. Jesus did not come spouting half-brained theories—He was no lunatic. He did not come making promises He never intended to keep—He was no liar. He came to fulfill what you had not done and would never do. He perfectly kept the holy Word of God.
But if He kept the Word, why did He die? He Himself said, “If anyone keeps My word, he will never see death.” He died on the cross because that was the only way to save you and all people. He offered up Himself to atone for all sin. The author of the Book of Hebrews writes that Jesus suffered and died, “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (2:9). The death that He tasted was eternal death in hell, the just punishment for sin. He tasted that death, so you would never have to. He tasted that death, so you could drink deeply of His life by faith in Him.
Jesus is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Those men are alive in spirit now, even though their bodies gave out long ago. Jesus “is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Mt. 22:32). Because Jesus lives, His people live also. His people are not the ones with a certain bloodline or lineage. They are the ones who believe His Word. This is what God’s Word is for—it brings Jesus with all His blessings into your mind and heart. The Apostle John said near the end of his Gospel that the signs and sayings of Jesus “are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). Who Is Jesus? He is the Lord and your Savior.
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(painting is portion of the altarpiece in Weimar by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1555)
The Third Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 11:14-28
In Christ Jesus, “the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1Tim. 6:15), dear fellow redeemed:
This year’s Catechism Class students just took a test on the doctrine of the Trinity as we confess it in the Apostles’ Creed. One of the things they learned and could tell you about is the two “states” of Jesus—His “State of Humiliation” and His “State of Exaltation.”
His State of Humiliation stretched from His conception to His burial. During this time period, Jesus did not always and fully use the divine powers communicated to His human nature. This is how it was possible for the incarnate Son of God to learn, feel weakness, and suffer. He humbled Himself in obedience to His Father all the way to His death on the cross.
But just because He did not always and fully use His power on earth, does not mean He was powerless. We see many examples of this power—even in His State of Humiliation—in today’s text. Even at Jesus’ weakest points, the devil could not overcome Him.
Two weeks ago, we heard how the devil tried to tempt Jesus to sin while He fasted in the wilderness. With each temptation, Jesus pushed back against Satan with the powerful Word and eventually sent him packing. The devil could not hold his ground against God’s Word. Now we hear about Jesus casting out a demon that had entered a man and made him mute. Many of the people who witnessed this were amazed, as they should have been.
But some of the Pharisees whispered to each other that Jesus cast out demons by the power of “Beelzebul,” a name used for Satan. Notice how they did acknowledge something miraculous had happened. They saw the obvious change in the man after Jesus healed him. But they did not want to consider that Jesus could have His power from God. If He did, then they would have to admit they were wrong about their criticisms of Him all along.
The second evidence of Jesus’ power after casting out the demon is that He knew the Pharisees’ thoughts. What they discussed privately, He answered openly. He said that it would make no sense for Him to cast out a demon by the power of demons. Would a government official oust a friend and ally from an important position for no reason? He could gain nothing from this but a weakening of his own position. This is how Jesus characterized the foolish thinking of the Pharisees about the source of His powers, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls.”
So if Jesus was not getting His power to cast out demons from the chief demon, where else could it come from than God? God’s is the only power greater than the devil’s. The way Jesus described this is very impressive. He said that “it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons.” How should we understand this? Did Jesus cast out a demon like someone might flick a mosquito from his arm? Or was it like a parent who points upstairs and commands a child to “Go to your room”? These are appropriate pictures for showing how no demon can contend with Jesus.
But what Jesus especially refers to here is the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. The book of Exodus says that the Ten Commandments given to Moses on stone tablets were “written with the finger of God” (31:18). The Holy Spirit is the Person of the Trinity who is credited with the writing down of God’s Word. 2 Peter 1:21 says, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” One of our hymns from the 9th century makes this same connection. It says of the Holy Spirit: “The sev’nfold gifts of grace are Thine, / O Finger of the Hand Divine; True Promise of the Father Thou, / Who dost the tongue with speech endow” (ELH 10, v. 3).
Jesus makes the same connection to the Holy Spirit’s work in His next statement, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” How does God’s kingdom come? As we learned in the Catechism, “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” (Second Petition). Jesus did not parade around like a king during the time of His visible work on earth. The glory of His kingdom did not consist in great riches, grand palaces, and lavish parties. The glory and grandeur of His kingdom was in spiritual things, hidden from human eyes.
This is just as it is today. To the world, the Church looks so pathetic and weak. Unbelievers mock us and ask us where our loving God is when there is trouble in our lives. But “the finger of God” is still active and God’s kingdom still comes when the Holy Spirit visits us through the Word and Sacraments. Here in these Means of Grace, heaven meets earth, and we are lifted up out of our troubles and comforted by the grace and goodness of God.
But the Word and Sacraments do not always seem like such a strong defense against our spiritual enemies. We feel the presence of Satan in our lives often enough. Friends turn against us. Attempts to do good are thrown back in our face. Our present feels cheerless and our future without hope. We have no doubt that the devil and demons are hard at work with all their dividing, hurting, and destroying. But where is the Lord? If He is so powerful, why does the devil seem to win so much? If He is with us always, why can’t we feel His comforting presence?
The problem is not with God, but with us. It is not that the Lord is weak or uncaring or unhappy with us. He is absolutely as strong and kind and loving as He says He is. But we do not believe it. Nor do we believe that God’s Word is everything He says it is. If it hit home for us what a powerful gift we have in the Word, everything about our priorities in life would change. Think of it this way: If there were a pill or a drink that could keep you from ever getting sick or injured, and all you had to do was consume it once a day, you would do it without fail.
That is what we have in the Word for our spiritual health. It is the diagnostic tool of God, “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). It is the way the Lord applies balm to our hurting, broken hearts. It is the way that He strengthens and builds us up, so that we cannot be overcome by the forces of evil. The devil can contend with you all day and night, and he will always have the upper hand if you stand against him alone. But he must retreat where the Word is present. There is no more powerful force for good in our hearts or in the world than the Spirit-filled Word.
But there our Bibles sit, unopened. Or the Word is preached, unheard. Or it is heard, but not taken to heart. When we are troubled or hurting, we want a solution to the problem. We want a quick and easy remedy. We want to feel that God is with us and will make everything better. But God never told us to base our faith in Him on good results or on a feeling that He is near. He told us to abide in His Word. Why? So we would know the truth, and the truth would set us free (Jn. 8:31-32). In today’s text, Jesus told a woman in the crowd, “Blessed… are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” The word for “keep it” means to guard it, protect it, defend it, keep it close.
When we do that, when our hearts and minds are filled with the Spirit of God through His Word, the devil is kept away. Then he can’t find a weakness to exploit. Then he is made to back down by one more powerful than he. Jesus said, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.” The devil is the “strong man,” but Jesus is the “one stronger.” Along with the Holy Spirit, He comes to us in all His power to conquer the devil, overcome our sin, and lead us on the victory march to heaven.
Remember that everything Jesus said about His power in today’s text was when He was not making full use of it during His State of Humiliation. But now He is exalted. Now there is no more suffering for Him, no more lonely path to the cross. Now the God-Man Jesus is seated at the right hand of God. What does He do there? He intercedes for us. He speaks to the Father on our behalf. He watches over His Church. He sends His holy angels to protect us from the assaults of the devil and demons. And He prepares for His triumphant return to end the reign of sin, death, and devil for eternity.
When Jesus returns on the last day, then we will see and experience the power and glory that are known to us now only through His Word. Then all creation will stand in awe of His majesty and might, and “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ Is Lord” (Phil. 2:10-11).
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872, depicting a legion of demons cast out of a man by Jesus)
The Holy Nativity of Our Lord – Pr. Faugstad Exordium and Sermon
Jesus is born! Is this a matter of faith or fact? The evangelists state it as a fact. Luke gives the most details. He mentions historical territories and cities, and he provides the names of both the Roman emperor and the governor of Syria. Throughout the Gospel accounts, we are given the names of more historical places and people. We learn about Herod the Great and his son, also named Herod. The well-known Jewish teacher Gamaliel is mentioned. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate weighs in on the question of Jesus’ guilt or innocence. Even non-biblical sources near the time of Jesus make reference to His work and to His supernatural powers. The birth and existence of Jesus is a fact.
That He actually lived is one thing. That He lived for you is another. Your name is not recorded in the pages of the Bible as an intended recipient of God’s grace, and neither is mine. Martin Luther said he was glad his name is not written there, because then he would imagine God was referring to some other Martin Luther and not to him. But the Bible says, “God so loved the world.” That means everyone. The love of God is a fact, and so is Jesus’ saving work. But knowing it is for you is a matter of faith.
This faith is worked in you by the Holy Spirit. He has given you the gift of forgiveness and life wrapped up in the person of the Christ. That little Babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, was given for you, to save you. As the angel told the shepherds, the “good tidings of great joy,” the news of Jesus’ birth, is “to all people”—for all people. Jesus is born for you! Let us then join together in singing, “Rejoice, Rejoice This Happy Morn!” (#142):
Sermon Text: St. John 1:1-14
In Christ Jesus, who dwells in us and we in Him, dear fellow redeemed:
What we have before us in these first few verses of the Gospel of John is a summary of all things that are. These verses tell us about God and creation, about God’s plan to save the world from sin, about how this plan was carried out, and what it all means for you and me.
The Apostle John, by inspiration, began this Gospel with a nod toward the very first verse in the Old Testament. Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” John now tells us more about this God. “In the beginning was the Word,” he writes, “and the Word was with God.” This is not a reference to the LORD’s ability to speak. John continues, “and the Word was God. He—this One—was in the beginning with God.” So the one eternal God, the God who is one in substance or essence—He consists of more than one Person.
The Bible clearly states that the one God is three Persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. “The Word,” who “was in the beginning with God,” is a reference to God the Son, who participated in creation with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In fact, nothing in the universe that has been made was made without the Son. “All things were made through Him,” writes John. When Genesis describes God speaking His creation into being—“Let there be light,” and so on—this is God the Son at work by the direction of the Father.
No light was given and no life was created except through the Son. At the end of those six days of creation, when God concluded His inaugural work, He looked at all He had made and declared it to be very good” (Gen. 1:31). Everything was perfect. But it did not stay that way. God had given the angels and man the free opportunity to live with Him in His glory and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. But He did not force them to do this. He wanted them to serve Him gladly and without compulsion.
One of the chief angels chose otherwise, and he enticed others of them to join him in rebellion against their Creator. Of course they could not defeat Him. So they turned their attention toward the pinnacle of God’s creation. The devil tempted the first man and woman to join him in his wickedness, and they agreed. They disobeyed God, which caused the whole world to fall under the curse of sin. Mankind had exchanged the bright, warm light of the living God for darkness and death.
God had every right to pour out His wrath upon them. But He still loved them. He did not want them to die eternally. He promised to send a Savior, the Seed of a woman, who would crush the head of Satan (Gen. 3:15). Thousands of years passed before the angel Gabriel was sent from God to visit a virgin named Mary. Mention of her sexual history was important because she would bear a Son in a most miraculous way. God the Holy Spirit would conceive a Child in her womb apart from any contact with a man. The prophecy regarding the Seed of the woman had come to pass.
In order to give notice of the arrival of Mary’s special Son, the LORD sent John the Baptizer to prepare the people for His coming. John bore witness about this “true Light… coming into the world.” “Here is the Son of God!” said John, “He is here to save the world!” (Jn. 1:29). How amazing! The Light-Giver, the Life-Maker, had stepped down from the heavens into human flesh! The eternal God who has no beginning and no end, now began His life in the world as the son of a poor woman.
What was the purpose of His coming? What did He need to take a look at with human eyes that He did not know from heaven? He did not come because there was something He did not know. He came because of what He already knew. God knew that all people would perish eternally if He did not save them. They could not save themselves. They were not perfect—far from it—, and nothing but a perfect creature could stand in the heavenly presence of God. So God became Man.
But when He became Man, He came humbly. His divine nature was hidden to the eyes of men. They saw only a little baby and then a teenager and then a man. Even after He began His public teaching and performed numerous miracles, many would not see Him as He should have been seen—as the promised Savior. This is why John says, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.” Never had something more significant or someone more important entered the world. But many shrugged it off; such is the sad state of unbelief.
Jesus, for His part, carried on. He said to the people, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me…. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:38,40). No amount of rejection, no stubborn unbelief, would discourage Him from the work His Father had given Him to do. He bowed to His Father’s will all the way to the cross, where He paid in blood the price of mankind’s lawlessness. There, He suffered the eternal torments of death and hell for all sin, for sins committed since the fall of Adam and Eve and stretching forward to the Day of Judgment. The atonement for sin and death was complete; it was finished.
But how would sinners learn about this? How would they know what had been done for them? They would have to be reborn. Once they were birthed into the world of darkness; now they must be birthed into the kingdom of light. This would come about “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” God does the regenerating. God gives rebirth. And He does it through His Son. He does it through the Word.
When His Word comes to our ears by the power of the Holy Spirit, it wakes us up. It wakes us from our aimless wandering. It opens our eyes to the light. Christ breathes into our souls the breath of life. Our sinful hearts begin to beat with His love. Our sinful flesh is washed with His cleansing blood. “[T]he Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” and through faith worked in us by the Means of Grace, He now dwells in us.
This is how God’s saving work becomes yours. It comes to you through the Word. Jesus brings His healing presence right to your dead heart, so that your heart of stone becomes a heart of flesh (Ez. 36:25-26). And He keeps coming because your sinful nature, the old Adam, is still with you. You need Jesus’ life-giving presence or else you will die forever. God does not want that to happen. You are His child through Baptism. He gave you that right in those saving waters. He intends for you to inherit all the glories that are now His.
When that heavenly era begins, then you will witness firsthand what the evangelist John beheld. Then you will see your Savior’s glory, “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 1:18-25
In Christ Jesus, our Hope, our heart’s Delight (ELH #94, v. 1), dear fellow redeemed:
Before there were Christmas elves and bell ringers outside grocery stores, before there were letters addressed to the North Pole and a reindeer named Rudolph, before there was a man dressed in red and white whose belly shook like a bowl full of jelly, before lights were hung on houses and in trees, before there were Christmas trees and Christmas stockings, before a faithful pastor named St. Nicholas lived and worked in the third and fourth centuries—before all these things, there was Christmas, the birth of the Christ-Child, God come in the flesh.
But what was there before that? There was hope. There was hope that the woman’s Seed would crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15). There was hope that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s Offspring (Gen. 22:18). There was hope that a living Redeemer would raise His people from the dead (Job. 19:25-27). There was hope that a Prophet like Moses would arise (Deu. 18:15). There was hope that a Prince of Peace would come (Is. 9:6). There was hope that a righteous Branch would grow from the line of Jesse (Is. 11:1) and David (Jer. 23:5-6) to rule in justice forever. There was hope.
But along with hope there was doubt. Doubt always accompanies hope; the devil and the flesh make sure of it. Doubt is quiet but persistent: Are you sure? What if this is all made up? What if there is no God? What if all the things you thought were fact are nothing but a fairy tale? Imagine living before the birth of Christ. You would have no idea when God’s promises would become reality. There was no countdown clock. The periods “B. C.” and “A. D.” were instituted long after Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, and ascension. At the time of Adam or Noah or Abraham or David, you would not know if the coming of the Messiah was one year away, 1000 years away… or perhaps not at all.
All you had to go on was the Word. That doesn’t always seem like much. It does not satisfy the thirst for proof. Isn’t that the rallying cry in our day against everything recorded in the Bible? “Prove it!” But whether it passes any sort of objective or scientific test is not as important today as whether it passes the test of the heart. The main thing is how a person feels about what the Bible says. So then what is true for one, may not be true for another.
What does this lead to? It results in an unsure Word, a changing Word, one that is adjusted to fit the person instead of the other way around. A wavering Word means a wavering hope. Hope must stand on something solid, or it cannot stand at all. Without the promises given in the Bible, there would be no cause for anyone to be hopeful about anything in this life. If there is no forgiveness, we remain in our sins. If there is no life, we are on our way to a bitter death. The Apostle Paul wrote that as long as any are separated from Christ, they are without “hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Joseph was not without hope. He was an Israelite and a descendant of King David. He was taught the Old Testament Scriptures as all Jewish children were, and he worshipped in his local synagogue. It is evident that he believed what he had been taught, since in today’s text he is referred to as “a just man.”
This “just man” became acquainted with a young woman named Mary. He asked if she would be his wife, and she agreed. It was a love story unlike many we see in sitcoms and movies today. Joseph and Mary did not hop in bed together after getting to know each other a bit. Even after they were engaged, they did not engage in sexual activity, because they were not married. They knew the meaning of the Sixth Commandment. They knew that to act otherwise was to go against God’s will.
Joseph thanked God for blessing him with a pious woman. He looked forward with joy to his wedding day as any godly man would. But then the horrible discovery: Mary was pregnant! How could she! How could he have not seen her for what she was? Was he so gullible, so ignorant? His heart broken, Joseph made plans to end their engagement. He could have made a public example of her, but instead resolved to end things quietly. He would leave the justice to God.
But before he had done this, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” The angel told him to take Mary as his wife, for her child was not from man but from God. Her child in fact was God, who would “save His people from their sins.” Joseph woke up with a much different mindset than before. Before, he could hardly hope to be happy again. Now, there were two reasons for happiness: 1) Mary had not betrayed him after all, and 2) the Savior had come!
Joseph had hope, but that doesn’t mean he was without doubt. If you were in his shoes, wouldn’t you wonder if you might be the greatest fool in history? What if the angel in his dream was just a figment of his imagination? Then he would be about to marry someone who was both immoral and untruthful. Had his mind cooked up this hopeful dream as a way to cope with the betrayal of the woman he loved?
But there was something more to Joseph’s hope than the message of the angel. The evangelist Matthew helps us see this by quoting the words of the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name ‘Immanuel.’” Joseph knew this prophecy. It was written down by Isaiah over 700 years before this. It states clearly that an “Immanuel” would come, a “God with us,” who would be born of a virgin. God had chosen lowly Mary, Joseph’s betrothed, to bear the Savior of the world.
This prophecy in Isaiah is a major sticking point for those who deny the virgin birth today. They try to argue that the word for “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 can also be translated as “young woman.” They say that Isaiah must have been talking about some young woman who had a baby at that time. According to these skeptics, not only is a virgin birth impossible, but it would have been impossible for Isaiah to predict something so clearly hundreds of years before it happened. They say that if there was a Mary living in Nazareth some 2000 years ago, she conceived a child in the natural way, either with Joseph or some other man.
But if they don’t believe what the Bible says, why do they waste their time telling us so? If, as they say, the Bible is a collection of man-made fables, why do they argue about the details? It is because they don’t want you to believe it either. If they can get you to deny the virgin birth, it is just a small step beyond to deny everything the Bible says about Jesus. The Bible claims that Jesus is God from eternity, but He cannot be that if He was conceived naturally.
And what do these pagans gain by their assault on God’s Word and God’s people? With the Bible out of the way, they might be able to quiet their conscience to some extent. They might feel more comfortable in their sin. But they haven’t gained any hope. If there is no God, if God did not become man and suffer and die for sinners and rise again, then life has no real purpose, it has no goal. Then a person is left with empty accomplishments, meaningless possessions, and the guilt of a life poorly lived. But if the Lord has come, and if He came to rescue sinners from their miserable condition, then there is purpose for this life, then there is an end goal. Then there is hope.
We have hope. Our hope is not based on anything in us, on our own thinking and doing. Like Joseph, our hope is based on what God says, what He promises. God knows how we struggle to hang on to this hope. He knows how the devil and our own flesh tempt us to doubt. This is why He gives us Means to strengthen us. He gives pastors to preach His Word and administer His Sacraments. And He gives fellow Christians to encourage us along the way.
In these things that are seen, God gives us hope it what is unseen (Rom. 8:24-25). He gives us the sure and confident hope of life in heaven whenever our lives in this world come to an end. Eternal life is ours because Jesus saved us from the death and hell we deserved. Sin separated us from God, but Jesus reconciled us again by His innocent suffering and death. It is as the angel told Joseph, “He will save His people from their sins.” This is why He was to be called Jesus, a name which means, “The LORD saves.”
Jesus came to save you, to be your Immanuel. He came to give you hope of a future much brighter and a life far greater than this one. It is a hope that comes only by God’s grace and only through the power of His Word. It is through this Word that you, and Joseph and Mary, and all the faithful have been “born again to a living hope” (1Pe. 1:3). The incarnate Son of God, born of the virgin Mary, who died and rose again for you and all sinners—He is the reason for the season, and the “reason for the hope that is in you” (3:15).
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(painting of the angel’s visit to Joseph is by Toros Roslin, 1262)
The First Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 21:1-9
In Christ Jesus, who still comes humbly in the name of the Lord, dear fellow redeemed:
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Have you heard that song on the radio yet? It is so lively and cheerful. It’s the kind of song that gets stuck in your head—whether you like it or not. And what is it that makes this the most wonderful time? According to the song, it’s kids jingle belling, parties for hosting, caroling out in the snow, and having loved ones near. Those are all good things, but those things alone cannot guarantee happiness.
For many, this season is not the most wonderful but is the most difficult time of the year. They feel the crunch of preparing for Christmas parties at work and at home. They feel the financial strain of trying to get the perfect gift for everyone. Some feel a deep sadness due to the recent death of someone close to them. Others feel the emptiness of dreams and plans unfulfilled through the passing years. They wonder how everyone else can manage to be so happy when they are so discouraged and down.
It was for you who are struggling that Paul Gerhardt wrote this hymn stanza: “Rejoice, then, ye sad-hearted, / Who sit in deepest gloom, / Who mourn o’er joys departed, / And tremble at your doom; / Despair not, He is near you, / Yea, standing at the door, / Who best can help and cheer you, / And bid you weep no more” (ELH #94, v. 6). You can rejoice even in the difficult times of life, because He Is Near You Who Can Cheer You.
Who is it that is “near you”? It is Jesus. Jesus is God, and God is everywhere. So in that sense, He is near everyone. But that is not what we are talking about here. The Son of God “was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary” (Nicene Creed) to be our Immanuel—God with us. He came to meet us in the depths of our sin, our despair, our grief, and our trouble. He did not shy away from sickness and disease, from physical, mental, and spiritual distress. He came.
He came humbly, and many despised Him for it. They did not like how He associated with the social outcasts and sinners. If He was the Christ of God, shouldn’t He be in the company of those who tried the hardest to keep God’s holy law? Wouldn’t He praise their efforts and usher them into closer communion with God? But instead, they were criticized and even cursed by Him. Jesus openly told the people to “practice and observe whatever [the scribes and Pharisees] tell you—but not what they do” (Mt. 23:3). He called them hypocrites! That was not the sort of Messiah they were expecting.
But aside from the religious elite, the common people were enthralled by Jesus. His powers were so far above them, yet none were below His concern. And He did not employ those powers for selfish gain or fame. He used them to help people and serve them. He could heal with a touch or just with a Word. Shortly before riding through the gates of Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus had even called the dead man Lazarus out of his tomb. This is what brought the crowd out to meet Him and to cover the road ahead of Him with palm branches and cloaks (Jn. 12:18). Who could this be but the Messiah, the promised Savior from the family of David? “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they shouted, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
They believed that He had come to be their king, but they did not understand this in the right way. They hoped for a king who would liberate them from the Romans. They wanted a king who would restore earthly glory to the people of Israel and cause them to be respected around the world. But this is not why the Son of God came. God became Man to save. He came to shoulder the burden of the law that was impossible for us all to carry and to let His body be pierced and His blood shed to atone for all sin.
The true King hides His power in humility and His strength in weakness. This is not the sort of king that many people are looking for. If you ask them what their greatest needs are, they will probably talk about needing more time, more money, and help with relationships. The first thing on their minds is not the forgiveness of sins, righteousness from God, and the certainty of eternal life. What they especially want God to give them is good health, success at work, a comfortable lifestyle, and a feeling of happiness. If they do not receive these things, they complain and question God. They want a heavenly king who shows His strength and power in the world, so that everyone can see the visible and tangible benefits of following him.
But our Savior’s glory is hidden in the cross. He won by losing. He conquered by dying. Natural human thinking cannot comprehend this. The world despises it. But we treasure it. By faith, we see it for what it is. We understand that God became Man for me. He took my place because He loved me. He suffered and died on my behalf. He wants me to be with Him in heaven.
This is what He tells you in His Word. But He doesn’t just tell in His Word; He gives and grants through His Word. This is how the God who “came near” to the human race by taking on flesh, comes near to you personally. Jesus comes to you through His Word and Sacraments. “Behold, I am with you always,” He says, “to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). He is with you “where two or three are gathered in [His] name” (Mt. 18:20). He is with you when water and Word are applied in Baptism (Rom. 6:4). He is with you when bread and wine are blessed and distributed in His Holy Supper. God can get no closer to you than His means of grace.
Many Christians think that their closeness to God depends on what they do. They measure how close they are to God by how close they feel to God. This affects how they approach prayer and worship and Christian living. Their chief consideration is not what God promises them, which is the Gospel. Their focus is on their promises to Him, which rest on the Law. It’s no wonder they find comfort in Christ so hard to come by.
If closeness to God depended on you, you know how far off you would be. God’s reach is not limited, but yours is. The prophet Isaiah says, “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Is. 59:2). Your sins have caused the great divide between you and Him. You could never, ever bridge that gap.
But Jesus can, and He did. “[N]ow in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). St. Paul writes that Jesus reconciled you with His Father by His death on the cross. Then he states that the resurrected Christ “came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (v. 17).
Jesus comes to you with a message of peace. It is not a sentimental peace like you might have all cozied up, watching a fire in the fireplace. It is a real peace, a peace that binds us together with the living God, a peace that comes from having forgiveness and salvation through Christ. This peace that we have with God is the source of our spiritual rejoicing even when we don’t feel very cheerful.
Peace with God does not replenish my bank account, but it does bestow spiritual treasures that will never be exhausted. Peace with God does not make all my earthly troubles go away, but it does increase my longing to be where trouble is no more. Peace with God does not bring my loved ones back from the dead, but it does give me hope that their bodies will be raised up, and that we will be united again in heaven.
God does not promise you a carefree life in this world. But He does promise to be present in your grief, your pain, and your struggle. That is the kind of King you have—a King who serves. He wants you to turn your weaknesses and your guilt, your worries, fears, and doubts over to Him. How do you do that? By bowing your head in repentance and giving up on your ability to make and do everything right. And then by satisfying your spiritual hunger and thirst by coming to the Lord’s Table and receiving His holy body and blood.
Jesus comes to save you there just as He came to save on Palm Sunday. Why does He come? The hymnwriter tells us: “He comes, He comes with gladness, / Moved by His love alone, / To calm your fear and sadness, / To Him they well are known…. He comes, He comes procuring / The peace of sins forgiv’n, / For all God’s sons securing / Their heritage in heav’n” (ELH 94, vv. 7, 8).
Therefore we pray, “O glorious Sun, now come, / Send forth Thy beams so cheering, / And guide us safely home!” (ELH 94, v. 10).
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(picture of the Jerico sanctuary where Jesus is present through Word and Sacrament)