Jerico Lutheran Church 150th Anniversary – Rev. Craig A. Ferkenstad sermon
Text: Psalm 119:105
The view from here is great! You are a sight for sore eyes. We’ve all grown just a little older over the years. I’m no longer the school boy hiding under one of the back pews because Pastor Tweit heard us kids running in the church. You’re no longer the group of fathers who needed to make a concerted effort to bring your families to church by hooking-up the buggies, putting blankets over your children and driving the horses to church. You’re no longer the same ladies’ who hand varnished all of wood on the basement walls.
But, actually, you are looking pretty good for your age. You are 150 years old. But how do you feel? Do you feel old? Do have aches and pains? Do you feel weak? Many things have changed in 150 years.
I. God’s Word was everything to them
150 years ago this was a young and energetic congregation. This was open land that was just being settled. Ten Norwegian families had just arrived and began to build their log cabins. This Norwegian settlement has the distinction of being settled from the west. These immigrant first had settled in Wisconsin but had moved to south-eastern South Dakota. This was in 1863 during the Civil War. They did not feel safe there and fled to the east. As Pastor H. M. Tjernagel wrote: ”The old covered wagon, sunbaked and rickety, was hurriedly loaded, the oxen hooked on and the flight, at a snails pace, was on.” In their retreat they had to cross the length of Iowa, which was then practically uninhabited since Iowa had been a state for less than twenty years . They settled along the Crane Creek because here they found a large tract of land that was unoccupied because of the light soil. Soon they were joined by other emigrants from Norway. In fact, this settlement grew quite rapidly and became the largest settlement of emigrants from Jostedal, Norway in the United States.
These fathers and mothers had left their families and friends. They had left their houses and worldly possessions to come to Iowa. All that they had was packed into one or two wooden painted trunks. In those trunks they had a few clothes and maybe some kind of food that would not spoil. But they also packed the Bible, the catechism, and a hymnbook. As one early immigrant said, “It is all that I have.” God’s Word was everything to them.
The struggle between fear and the faith that lived in their hearts must have been so great that they might have thought it would tear them apart. They came here as struggling and frustrated people. They saw their own shortcomings and sins. No doubt they shared the conviction of Martin Luther who, on his deathbed, uttered “We are beggars all.” We do not deserve God’s grace or favor. We deserve only death and punishment.
Just like the Old Testament psalmist, they felt as if they were walking in a land of darkness; and they turned to God’s Word. The psalmist says [God’s Word] is a lamp to my feet. At the time when the psalmist wrote the words our text, if the people wanted to walk in the darkness of the night, they carried a lantern with them so that they would not fall into a ditch or stumble on a tree stump. The lantern gave a light for their feet. The psalmist then makes this parallel: he says that God’s Word (the Bible) is the lamp that lights our way. This is so that we do not fall into “misbelief, despair and other shameful sin and vice [but] though we be thus tempted, that we may still in the end overcome and retain the victory” [Martin Luther’s explanation of the Sixth Petition]. These Norwegian Lutheran pioneers contacted Pastor Ulrick Vilhelm Koren who helped them establish a congregation.* They began to construct a church building where God’s Word would shine upon their feet and guide them.
But, as Martin Luther once said, “Whenever God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel right next door.” Those words mean that wherever God proclaims free forgiveness for the sake of Jesus Christ, Satan teaches that we are in some way responsible for our own salvation. This congregation’s first pastor, Pastor Vilhem Koren, wrote these words:
“… those who will hear God’s Word rightly must not tolerate false doctrine, because it tells either that God has said something which He has not said or it denies that God has said something which He has said. We can also … in everything which concerns our salvation, judge the doctrine according to the Word of God which we have in our ‘Small Catechism’ …
“If God has given us His Word, then we have no right to hear one part and let the other part lie; neither will we hear only the Gospel, or only the Law; nor will we change them and mix Law and Gospel, for then it will no longer be God’s Word.
“Further, if God has given us His Word, then it follows that it is not different for different times. God does not say something new to us which He did not say to our forefathers. We need it the same now as they needed it in the apostles’ time. The Holy Spirit is not a wavering spirit.
“If God has given us His Word, then He does so in order that we shall hear it and learn it …” [U. V. Koren, Truth Unchanged, Unchanging, page 114-15].
God’s Word was everything to these people. It was a lamp to their feet.
II. God’s Word is everything to us
One hundred and fifty years later, we have grown older (but not necessarily wiser). We too are sinners who are in need of the gospel. God’s Word is still a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.
Do you feel old?
Whether you feel it or not, you have the same youthful vitality which guided the early New Testament church. Just as God’s word guided our forefathers, 150 years ago, it lights the way for us. God’s Word has not changed (James 1:17). What was written by the evangelist John, or the apostles Paul or Peter is still true today. That Word is given by inspiration of God (2 Timothy 3:16/KJV) and it still lights the path to the cross where Jesus Christ died. Only the holy, precious blood of Jesus Christ which was shed upon the cross could atone for sin. That holy blood was shed for us. That innocent blood redeemed us from the condemnation of sin. That precious blood has forgiven us all our sins (1 Peter 2:9). Through His Word and through the sacraments, God brings us the forgiveness of all our sins and renews us with the Holy Spirit so that we do not grow weary or faint (Isaiah 40:31).
Do you have aches and pains?
Think of the ache in the heart of Mary Magdalene when she walked to the tomb on Easter morning. Look at this altar painting as Mary falls at the feet of her risen Savior morning and exclaims “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher) (John 20:16). Here is the central teaching of the Bible—that Christ died for our sins and that Christ has risen again because of our justification (Romans 4:25)! Look inside Lord’s empty tomb and know that the pain of sin has been removed! Look and see Our Savior’s now glorified body and know that we are no longer separated from God! Your Redeemer lives and the great enemies of sin and death have been defeated! God’s Word lights the path to the empty tomb and assures us that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).
Do you feel weak?
Do you feel your voice and your light are lost in the noise and darkness of this world? In the twenty-first century, our faith faces challenges which could not have been imagined 150 years ago; and yet the light shines in the darkness [and] and the darkness has not [overcome] it (John 1:5). No matter what others may say, Christianity has not changed. Remember that we have God’s promise which says: my word that goes out from my mouth … will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:11). You can lift up your voice and speak strongly. The psalmist even tells us that we can speak [God’s word] also before kings, And will not be ashamed (Psalm 119:46). The apostle Peter explains that in the Bible, We have the word of the prophets made … certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and [Jesus Christ returns] (2 Peter
1:19). On that day when the last trumpet sounds (1 Corinthians 15:53), we will be raised, together with the bodies that now rest in this cemetery, and we will meet the Lord in the air and live with Him forever (1 Thessalonians 4:17). This inerrant Word of God strengthens us as it lights the path to heaven.
It is significant that we are observing this congregation’s anniversary during the 500th anniversary year of the Lutheran Reformation. It was Martin Luther whom God used to restore the authority of God’s Word. As a result of the Lutheran Reformation, countless millions of people—including all of us here today—have heard the pure life-giving Word of the gospel proclaimed in the Lutheran church and received everlasting life. Our faith and our salvation are based on the Word alone.
God’s Word is everything to us. It is a light for our path.
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Many things have changed in 150 years. But God’s Word has not changed. Today, God’s Word still comes to us in many wonderful and trustworthy ways:
When you hear or read the good news that your sins are forgiven because of Jesus Christ, you can trust that word of promise.
When you recall God’s promise that in Baptism He made you His very own child, you can take Him at His word.
When you hear Christ’s words, This is my body which is given for you and This is my blood of the new testament which is shed for many for the remission of sins (Matthew 26:28/KJV), you can believe those words.
We gather here today, not to laud the founders of this congregation—but to give thanks for those who passed-on the faith to us and to remember the leaders who spoke the word of God to you (Hebrews 13:7). It is by God’s grace that we teach and preach the same Word of the Bible and the same Gospel as was preached 150 years ago because without God’s grace, “[we] would have ruined everything long ago” [Martin Luther’s Sacristy Prayer].
God’s Word is everything. It is why this congregation was formed. It is why we continue today. And now as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:14-15).
Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word.
As it was in the past, so be it today, and unto life everlasting.
To God Alone Be The Glory
This sermon was preached on June 25—the 487th anniversary date of the reading of the Augsburg Confession.
* This congregation has the unique distinction of being the only congregation in the state of Iowa which was not established prior to Koren’s arrival or by the division of larger congregations, but rather by Koren’s own missionary work.
Jerico Lutheran Church 150th Anniversary – Rev. Glenn Obenberger exordium
It is quite impressive, you are THE only church in the whole town of Jerico! You have the tallest building in Jerico!! Yes, the grain elevator is a taller structure, but that does not count. At one time when this sanctuary was filled with worshipers Jerico had no other place that consistently gathered such a large assembly of people!!! But that is not what we are celebrating today!
Did you ever ask yourself why the founders named this town “Jerico”? Biblically Jericho was an idolatrous Canaanite city. They certainly did not seek to emulate that sordid past. Nor did your forefathers when the church was moved to this location and changed its name to Jerico Lutheran Church.
Now Jerico’s members were sinners to be sure, just as you are today. And while we can all confess breaking the first commandment and committing the sin of idolatry often in many different ways, yet the difference would be that repentant idolaters have always made up this congregation. No doubt the naming had more to do with the conquest of Jericho, an enemy of God and His people, not leaving one stone upon another, not leaving one living inhabitant alive after its defeat – except the prostitute Rahab and her family. Remember she helped the spies prior to Jericho’s defeat.
Surely the United States Military Academy, West Point, does not study the battle plans of God’s great general Joshua as a valid tactic to be used by its officers. The parading around a city with the Ark of the Covenant once a day for six days and then seven times on the seventh day and making a great collective shout at the long blast of the ram horns would not, without God’s command, succeed today as it did then. Can you imagine the defenders of the city on the walls increasingly mocking the people of God as they fulfilled the daily orders of Joshua? Very likely being tempted to doubt the command of God, they nevertheless by God’s grace remained steadfast according to the Word of the Lord, as foolish as it may appear to the world and, as promised, the walls came tumbling down.
God’s ways are not our ways. As God’s people we consider His Word as our great heritage defeating all our enemies through His Son, Yeshua, Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. One of His more notable ancestors was the Jericho survivor – Rahab. Sin, death and hell were all defeated everlastingly for us by the holy life, atoning suffering and death and victorious resurrection of Christ Jesus. This is what we are blessed to celebrate today marking Jerico’s 150th anniversary. Our sinful reason would suggest that the way we defeat these spiritual enemies is by our own good works and actions, but all such battle plans fail miserably, leading only to hell. Rather it is the work of God’s own Son alone which saves us. Through faith in Him we are freely forgiven and saved.
Let us sing of this great heritage known and trusted by God’s people throughout the millennia and by God’s grace still known and trusted by you today by turning to Hymn #583 [“God’s Word Is Our Great Heritage”]. Please rise to sing.
The First Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 16:19-31
In Christ Jesus, who reconciled us with God the Father through His own death and resurrection (Rom. 5:10), dear fellow redeemed:
Father’s Day is a national holiday of relatively recent origin. It was resisted for a time on the grounds that it would become too commercialized (which of course it has been). But since Mother’s Day had already been adopted, it seemed only right to have a Father’s Day too. And it certainly is appropriate to celebrate fatherhood, whether or not a day for fathers officially shows up on the federal calendar.
Numerous social studies have concluded that children who grow up without fathers are much more likely to struggle in school, make bad decisions, and engage in unhealthy activities. Children need both the nurturing of mothers and the discipline and instruction of fathers. It is strange, then, that fathers are given so little respect in our society. They are depicted in many sitcoms and movies as bumbling fools trying to get by with as little work as possible, unless it involves improving their “man caves.” Mom is the one who picks up the slack and bails out the family with her common sense. Of course, there are exceptions to this. But the bar for fathers does not seem to be set very high.
And many men are happy to play along. They pursue women, not for the purposes of marriage and family, but for self-satisfaction. If a child should happen to be conceived on a one-night-stand, their first thought is how they can get out of any responsibility. If they cannot deny what happened, or coax the mother to abort, they begrudgingly pay child support. This behavior is so common that it is all but accepted. It does not surprise people and maybe doesn’t even bother them to hear that a professional athlete might have eight children, all with different mothers. What strikes people as strange and even concerning is when a public figure has eight children with one wife (see Philip Rivers).
The only way to understand fatherhood, and to reclaim it as it was intended, is to go back to the source of fatherhood, which is God the Father Himself.
God has always been a Father, even from eternity. And He has always been the Father of God the Son, who is eternally begotten of Him. That means fatherhood is inherently important. It is something to be taken seriously. And what does God the Father do? He is described in the Bible as the Creator (Gen. 1:1), who works for the benefit of others. He is the Provider (Mt. 5:45), who continues to give both to the grateful and the greedy. And He makes sacrifices, even giving up His own Son for the salvation of sinners (Jn. 3:16). Already we recognize responsibilities that God has given to fathers. They are called to work, to provide, and to sacrifice for the good of others.
But that is not all. The primary responsibility God has given to fathers is that they teach His Word to their families. Ephesians 6:4 says as much, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Psalm 78 describes the responsibility in more detail. The psalmist, speaking for God’s people, promises that we will “tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God” (vv. 4-8).
The truth of God is passed down from generation to generation, as many of you here can testify. How far back in your family tree can you find Christians? Perhaps as far back as you have family records. But the heritage of Christian teaching goes back even further. It stretches back to Adam, who believed God’s promise of a Savior after falling into sin. But because of the fall, he is remembered as the father of sin rather than the father of the faithful. God gave that distinction to Abraham. He said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations…. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen. 17:4,6-7).
The LORD was especially referring to Abraham’s spiritual descendants. The Apostle Paul writes of Abraham that “his offspring” includes both the Jews and the Gentiles, whoever “shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Rom. 4:16). Later he says, “not all are children of Abraham because they are his [natural] offspring…. [B]ut the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (9:7,8). When the soul of the beggar Lazarus was taken to heaven by the angels, he was brought to the side of his spiritual father Abraham. He went to heaven because he believed God’s promise of a Savior, just like Abraham did (Gen. 15:6). And there, Lazarus was comforted.
The rich man, on the other hand, died, and his soul was sent to hell. He went to hell because he rejected God’s promise. Still, he tried to identify himself as one of Abraham’s offspring. “Father Abraham,” he called out, “have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame” (v. 24). But there could be no mercy for him. So he turned his attention to his brothers. “I beg you, father,” he said, “to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment” (v. 27-28). Abraham replied that only one thing could change their hearts: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them” (v. 29).
As this passage shows, the rich man and his five brothers were Israelites, blood descendants of Abraham. They had access to “Moses and the Prophets,” which refers to the Old Testament Scriptures. And yet none of them took God’s Word seriously. What does that tell you about their father? It is very likely that he raised children to succeed in the world, but failed to teach them what was really needed. So we have here A Tale of Two Fathers: father Abraham, whose offspring are those who believe God’s promises, and the father of the rich man who raised worldly offspring.
The tone a father sets is generally what his family will follow, whether good or bad. God wants men to be positive spiritual leaders in their homes. Statistics show that when fathers are disinterested in spiritual matters or delinquent in church attendance, their children are very likely to fall into the same patterns. But what about when fathers are unbelievers or absent? In cases like these, mothers have no choice but to be the spiritual leaders in their household, and God promises to bless their humble efforts.
The enemy every Christian home faces is the devil, whom Jesus calls “the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). The devil wants to destroy the Christian family, and he focuses his temptations on the father first of all. If he cannot coax the father to deny Jesus, he works on the mother, and then the children. Sadly, he often succeeds as we see in our own families and among our friends.
Our heavenly Father recognizes what anguish all of this causes us. He sees the fatherless struggling to chart a good course in the world. He understands the pain of a mother deserted by her child’s father. He knows the pain of parents, who pray day and night for God’s mercy upon their wayward children. No one here was raised by a perfect earthly father. But we do have a perfect Father in heaven, and He knows how to bring healing to the wounded and comfort to the grieving. No person on earth is beyond His capacity to help.
It was for every relationship, every home, every family torn apart by the devil, that God the Father sent His Son. He was born not in the natural way, of man, but of woman only, in whom He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. This gives women as much honor in their station as men have in theirs. Jesus increased in wisdom and stature (Lk. 2:52), but not in sin. He did exactly what God commands everyone to do. He did not fail like you and I so often do. He honored His mother Mary and guardian Joseph and perfectly followed His heavenly Father’s will. And He did that for you.
However you have disrespected and dishonored your father—as all children have—, Jesus credits you with His perfect obedience by faith. He went to the cross to blot out your sins of stubbornness and rebellion, and God remembers them no more. And however you have failed in your responsibilities as a father—as all fathers have—, the Lord forgives those sins and equips you to step up today and try harder. If you lead your children to “Moses and the Prophets,” God will not fail to bless your work. Then you will be giving them riches that no one will take from them. These riches of the Gospel are for every sinner, for you, to cover over all the ways you have fallen short in your various callings to show love to your neighbors. Your Father forgives those short-comings for Christ’s sake.
The greatest legacy that fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, cousins and friends, can leave, is the saving Gospel of Jesus. Only that gives hope for a better future. Only that endures to eternity. Because only through Jesus and what He has done to save you, can you be sure that you will be carried by the angels to the side of father Abraham. With him and all the faithful, you will eternally worship the “God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6).
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 sermon
Text: St. John 14:23-31
Of the three major festivals of the Christian church year, Pentecost is by far the least celebrated. Not only the lack of interest in this festival, but also in general, it seems that the Holy Spirit does not get His fair share of attention among the Persons of God. The Father is emphasized as Creator, whose Son obeyed His will. Jesus of course gets a great deal of attention as the God-Man who redeemed the world of sin. But what about the Holy Spirit? Shouldn’t we spend more time studying His work?
We probably should, but I can assure you that the Holy Spirit is not jealous of the Father and the Son. And He does not require recognition to continue to carry out His work. If God’s work depended in any way on our proper acknowledgement, He would stop doing His work. But the greatest acts of God are often the things that are most overlooked and ignored. God the Father continues to preserve and operate creation by His mighty Word—operations that we take entirely for granted. God the Son shed His own holy blood for all sinners. The non-Christian part of the world rejects Him, and most of the Christian part acts like He didn’t do enough.
And all the Holy Spirit does is rescue souls from eternal hellfire. If He were not at work through Word and Sacraments, no sinner would believe. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except [by] the Holy Spirit” (1Cor. 12:3). Therefore we give thanks today for His work, work that He will continue to do for us out of love even when He is not acknowledged. But today, in praise of His work, let us rise to sing hymn #399 – “O Light of God’s Most Wondrous Love.”
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In Christ Jesus, whose work of redemption was and is declared throughout the world by the power of the Holy Spirit, dear fellow redeemed:
It all started with an idea. “What if we….” “No one has ever done something like this before….” “This will make us famous!” While some made bricks out of clay, others began to stack them together. The footprint of a great tower started to take shape. It was a testament to the ingenuity and strength of mankind. Perhaps this tower could even put them in contact with the God of the heavens. But they did not have to go up to God; He came down to them. He came to see the tower and the surrounding city that were being built. He was not pleased. It was not that they were constructing the tower in the wrong way. He was not there to give architectural advice. He visited them because they were ignoring His Word.
After the waters of the Flood had subsided, the LORD told Noah and his sons, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1). He wanted the population of humankind to increase again, and He wanted them to spread over all the earth. Instead, the descendants of Noah migrated to a place in the land of Shinar and settled there as a community. The LORD identified the problem, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (11:6). The LORD knew that a sinful people united would forget about Him and worship themselves. Therefore He confused their language and dispersed the people “over the face of all the earth” (v. 8). This confusion of languages, which persists to this day, is the reason that tower was never completed, and why that place became known as Babel.
The problem with the Tower of Babel was not in its construction but in its purpose. It may have been built well, but it was intended for the glory of man and not of God. The old Adam of every sinner is skilled at putting on a good show and drawing the focus away from the Creator. Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of being “like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Mt. 23:27). The Lord is not concerned how pretty and well put together we look to the world. He cares about the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1Sam. 16:7).
What He desires to find in your heart is faith, trust in His Word. Jesus said in today’s text, “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” (v. 23). God wants to take up residence in you. But how can that be? How could you ever be a home fit for God? Some sinners think that building a proper home for God within themselves depends on them. They “give their life to Jesus” and “open their heart to Him.” They promise to live according to His Commandments and never go back to their old sinful habits. But this amounts to trying to climb up to God—like the people of Babel—instead of God reaching down to save. And what happens? The sinful habits return. Progress is not made. The building of self-constructed righteousness falls apart, as each of us knows by experience.
The idea that I must by my own power produce the righteousness God requires, is building on the wrong foundation. The Lord does demand our perfection, this is true. But we cannot manufacture this righteousness. The foundation for a solid spiritual building is Jesus. The Apostle Paul writes, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1Cor. 3:11). But Paul seems to contradict himself when he says in another place that we are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20). Of course, “the apostles and prophets” refers to God’s holy Word which points in every place to Jesus. Paul adds that Jesus is “the cornerstone.” He sets the lines upon which the building is built. It stands or falls by Him.
Sinful human thinking sees this as great foolishness. All unbelievers are born and live in Babel making their grand plans. The world quickly discards Jesus, in the same way that a farmer might chuck an unwanted stone in the rock pile. But ironically, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Ps. 118:22). Whether or not the world accepts it, it is true. Salvation cannot come by self-determination or social activism. Salvation comes alone by faith in Jesus Christ.
So Jesus is the foundation and cornerstone, and you are supposed to be built up into a fitting residence for Him. How does that building look? Does the structure look good on the outside but is completely rotted and falling apart on the inside? Or do you hide your faith behind a weak, external appearance because you don’t want to draw any attention to your beliefs? Do you try to ignore the places where damage has been done by sin? Are you actively trying to patch the cracks where the cold wind of temptation rushes in?
We have not done such a good job at keeping our spiritual house in order. But God excels at construction and repair. If He sees water damage in the ceiling, He knows where the problem started. If the walls are crumbling, He knows how to make them strong again. This work of diagnosing and fixing is the work of God the Holy Spirit. Jesus told His disciples that “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (v. 26). The Holy Spirit knows how to build up. He starts with the Law, getting us to see how we really are. We recognize that we are really the worst kind of materials. How could the Holy Spirit build something meaningful with us?
But He does. He chips away the defects and smooths out the rough edges. He plans our purpose in the house of God, carving out a unique function for each of us. And after the Holy Spirit constructs our faith through the Word, then He fits us together with other believers, side by side, piece by piece, until something beautiful rises up from the rubble of the world. What reaches to the heavens is a spiritual building for the glory of God. As Ephesians 2:20-22 says, you are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit Makes You a Home Fit for God. That is the special work the Holy Spirit was sent to do after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. He was sent to the disciples on Pentecost and enabled them to speak the languages of people both near and far. On Pentecost, the confusion of tongues at Babel—a judgment of God against sin—was removed. God wanted every nation to hear the Good News that there is salvation, forgiveness, and life for sinners.
And now this message has come to your nation and to your ears. God did not make a mistake when He chose you to be baptized and believe. And it is no mistake that you are now hearing His Word. The Holy Spirit is poured out upon you through this Word. A tongue of fire might not appear above your head. You might not suddenly speak in a different language. But you do have your sins forgiven and your faith strengthened.
Whenever you take to heart God’s Law and Gospel, the Holy Spirit is active there doing His convicting and comforting and sanctifying work. Since the construction work depends entirely on Him, you can have every confidence that your building will not topple. Therefore by faith in Jesus, you always remain a welcome home for Him.
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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Festival of Our Lord’s Ascension – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Mark 16:14-20
In Christ Jesus, who rules over His kingdom of power on earth, His kingdom of grace in the Church, and His kingdom of glory in heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
When Pharaoh realized his slave labor was gone after the Israelites marched out of Egypt, he pursued them with his army. The Israelites were camped by the Red Sea with no way to escape. It would be an easy victory for Pharaoh! But then the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground, and Pharaoh’s army was totally destroyed.
When Goliath looked down on his challenger, the young David, he mocked and cursed him. “I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field,” he said (1Sam. 17:44). But Goliath soon fell to the ground with a stone embedded in his forehead, and the Philistine army was routed.
When Sennacherib king of Assyria brought his soldiers to the walls of Jerusalem, he planned to destroy the city and unseat King Hezekiah. But Hezekiah prayed to the LORD, and the LORD sent His angel to destroy the Assyrian army—185,000 struck down in one night.
When Jesus was nailed to the cross, His enemies cried out, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt. 27:39-40). They thought they would finally be rid of this Man they hated. They thought they could make the people forget Him. But then Jesus rose again from the dead.
As we can see, the power of the LORD God is often underestimated. He is regarded as no more real than a fairy tale character. His people are despised also as those who are weak-minded and delusional. God’s enemies are certain of victory. But the psalmist writes, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill’” (Ps. 2:4-6). The King of heaven reigns over all things. He cannot be overcome. So we ask: With Jesus Enthroned, How Can We Fail?
When Jesus ascended into heaven, the scene on the other side of the clouds was much different than the scene below. St. John in his Revelation describes the appearing of a Lamb in heaven who was worshiped by all the heavenly hosts. He writes, “Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’” (5:11-12). While heaven was erupting in a chorus of praise, this was the scene on the earth: a small group of men stood squinting up at the sky trying to figure out where Jesus went.
This shows well a reality and a perception. The reality is that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to [Jesus],” just as He said (Mt. 28:18). He paid for sin, conquered death, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. His most powerful enemies took their best shot at Him, and they lost. He reigns supreme over all and uses His enemies as His footstool (Ps. 110:1). That’s the reality. But the perception from our perspective here on earth is that Jesus is very far away, hidden from us. We feel like we lose more ground than we gain against the devil and his workers. We are often afraid of what the world may do to us because of our belief. This is how we can fail even though Jesus is enthroned.
If Jesus had not sent the Holy Spirit to the disciples, they would have failed too. He appeared to them after His resurrection and rebuked them, because they did not believe the reports of those who had seen Him alive. But when the Holy Spirit came to them at Pentecost, He taught them all things and brought to their remembrance everything Jesus said to them (Jn. 14:26). The Holy Spirit gave them courage, so that they did “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (v. 15).
As they went, they were accompanied by the signs Jesus foretold. In His name they cast out demons, like when the Apostle Paul commanded a demon to come out of a young girl (Ac. 16:18). They spoke in new tongues, like the Gentiles who were converted when the Apostle Peter preached in the household of Cornelius (Ac. 10:44-46). They were spared from the deadly poison of serpents, like when Paul was bitten by a viper on the island of Malta and suffered no harm (Ac. 28:3-6). But the power to do these signs was not their power, and the work was not really their work. The last part of today’s text tells us that “they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs” (v. 20). This says that the Lord was with them! He did the signs!
But didn’t He ascend into heaven? How could He be with His disciples on earth if He was up there? This is a mystery to our reason. Yet these two things are true: The Son of God sits at the right hand of His Father in the flesh. He is also with us in this fallen world in the flesh. This is possible because Jesus is not just a Man. He is not bound by the laws of nature that bind us. He is the God-Man. That means wherever Jesus is as God, He is there as Man. His person cannot be divided. And He is not simply in two places; He is in all places. God the Father’s right hand is the position of all power and authority. It is not a location or a specific place. Since God is omnipresent, His “right hand” is too. Jesus now reigns over all things in all places as God and Man.
And we would agree that something can be present even though it is not seen. Is there oxygen in the air? Is there wind outside? We know there is oxygen because we are alive. We know there is wind because we can feel the breeze and see the swaying of trees. But what is the evidence of Jesus’ presence? How can we know He is here? Because the signs that accompanied the apostles are not so prominent today. The Church appears to be diminishing and not growing.
The evidence of Jesus’ presence is in His disciples. If Jesus were not active among us today, there would be not even one believer. No person comes to Jesus by his own power. No sinner dead in his sin can choose the life that Jesus won. The message of the Gospel is what breaks through hardened hearts of sin. Wherever the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered, Jesus is at work. Today’s text says that the apostles “preached everywhere,” and the Lord “confirmed the message by accompanying signs.” It was all about the message. The Word of God’s grace brings Jesus to sinners and sinners to Jesus.
What more could we need than we have in Jesus? Nothing. But what more do we want? Plenty. This is because we are discontent with the way the Lord does things. He exercises His power and authority and extends His kingdom through words, water, bread and wine. But this seems all too simple for a world that looks for spectacular. Why doesn’t Jesus show the world what we know Him to be? Why doesn’t He make every sinner fall to His knees before Him? Why doesn’t He destroy the ones who hate Him? The time will come for the visible manifestation of His glory and power, but that time is not yet.
Now is the time for God’s power to be hidden in Word and Sacraments. Now is the era of the Church militant, the Church in struggle, the Church in weakness. But not a Church without hope. Jesus is still enthroned, and Jesus is still present. He is still at work in His Church and in the world. You are still on the side of strength. You are still protected and led by the Good Shepherd. You are still loved with a perfect love, and your place is still reserved in heaven.
This is all true even though you have not always trusted in Him who reigns in glory. You let the threats of the world shake your confidence in Him. You often follow your stubborn, sinful heart and do not listen to His Word. But Jesus still wants to be your King and give you the treasures of His grace. He forgives your feeble allegiance. He again repeats His promise which does not change, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (v. 16). He does not give you a list of demands for you to prove yourself to Him. He says that if you have been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and if you believe in Him as your one and only Savior from devil, sin, and death, you will be saved. That’s it.
What a comfort that is! Even though you have failed Jesus, He does not fail you. His Word stands. It cannot be overcome, because He cannot be overcome. The work to save you is complete. Through baptism, your sin was nailed to Jesus’ cross and buried in His grave. Through baptism, you rose again to new life with Jesus, never to die again. Through a regular use of the means of grace, you stay connected to this life, because you stay connected to Him. Jesus is enthroned in heaven, and you will soon see Him in His glory as the saints and angels in heaven see Him. And then you will praise Him without any doubt or fear just as they do.
The hymnwriter said it well:
As true as God’s own Word is true,
Not earth nor hell with all their crew
Against us shall prevail.
A jest and byword are they grown;
God is with us, we are His own;
Our vict’ry cannot fail. (ELH #375, v. 3)
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 Fifth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 8:46-59
In Christ Jesus, who is what we are not, and who gives us what we do not have, dear fellow redeemed:
Human beings all start in the same way. They are made of the same stuff. Babies of rich people are not born wearing designer clothes. Still we can’t seem to help elevating some people above others. Simply because of who they are, we listen more carefully to them and afford them greater honor. We dream about being like them and try to mimic what they do. This is true in politics where families like the Kennedys, Bushes, and Clintons have enjoyed long-running prominence. It is also true of icons in the entertainment industry—professional athletes, actors, singers, and musicians. Since these celebrities are so successful, then they must have a lot to offer us.
But richer is not automatically better, talented is not the same as truthful, and popular is not equivalent to noble and good. Job from the Old Testament recognized that his great wealth did not change the human condition. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb,” he said, “and naked shall I return” (Job 1:21). We come into the world with nothing, and we take nothing from the world with us when we die. When death comes, we leave behind our friends and family, property, treasured heirlooms, bank accounts, and social status. The only thing anybody can take along into death is faith or unbelief.
Jesus said as much to the Jews, “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). They replied, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone” (v. 33). These Jews thought they were in good favor with God simply because of their bloodline. They could trace their descent back to Abraham, which must mean they were heirs of God’s special promises to him. Jesus would not let that illusion stand. He said plainly, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did” (vv. 39-40).
The Lord is not impressed by name-dropping. It does not matter to Him who we know, what family we come from, or what we have made of ourselves. You and I do not have eternal life because our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents were Christians. They had a great influence on us, no doubt, for which we should be grateful. But they cannot believe for us. Faith comes in only one way, and it isn’t genetically. “[F]aith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). The Jews refused to hear Christ’s Word, which is why they had no faith. As notable as their connection to Abraham was, this could not save them.
But the Jews did not agree that they were without the Word of God. In fact, they would have known their Old Testament Scriptures very well. They were trained from young on to know the Scriptures in a much more thorough way than we learn it in Catechism Class today. But diligently studying the truth is not the same as believing it. The Jews thought their relationship to Abraham along with their outward keeping of God’s law was sufficient for eternal life. This is why they rejected Jesus, who told them that salvation is gained by neither of these things. He said that those are saved who repent and believe God’s promise of the Messiah.
Jesus wants to teach us the same thing. He wants you to ask yourself if you are confident of salvation simply because you come from a good Christian family or attend a good church or because you live an outwardly good life. You know that these things cannot save you. But they may be bigger factors in your mind than you realize. Ask yourself how far you are willing to go to keep and defend the Word of God. Would you confront and warn a family member—a child, a sibling, a parent, a cousin, etc.—if they were living or acting contrary to the Word? Would you be willing to leave your beloved church if the pastor and congregation members started teaching what is wrong? Would you leave the company of friends who misuse God’s name and make light of His Word?
Following the Word is no cakewalk. Look at what happened to Jesus. He perfectly followed the Word and obeyed the will of His Father. For this, he was accused of being immoral and having a demon, and His own people wanted Him to die a painful death. Even His close family members rejected Him, at least for a time (Jn. 7:5). Jesus knows firsthand how uncomfortable it is for believers in this fallen world. He knows how challenging it is to remain with the truth and reject error. But it is a journey that must be taken, a battle that must be waged. The stakes could not be higher. Keeping and defending the Word of God is nothing less than a matter of life and death.
The world tells you that what matters is prosperity, power, prestige, and let’s not forget, peace with one another at any cost. Jesus tells us that the Gospel divides and brings trouble in the world (Mt. 10:34). It divides because many wish to remain in the darkness of sin and not come into the light of righteousness. They do not want to hear God’s law, but rather desire a life of free license. Jesus says, “For whoever would save his life [by going along with the world] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mk. 8:35-38).
I am sure it is not difficult for you, just as it is not for me, to think of times that you felt or acted ashamed of Jesus and His Word. When love compelled you to warn a brother or sister in Christ about their sin, you told yourself that the loving thing to do was remain silent. When you should have led your family in the Word at home, you found a thousand other things to do first. When you should have regularly examined and tested your own faith (2Cor. 13:5), you contented yourself with a simple knowledge of God’s Word. You and I would never dare to issue the challenge that Jesus did, “Which one of you convicts Me of sin?” Our sin is abundant. Even if others do not know the full extent of it, we do.
But Jesus could ask that question honestly. He had no sin. When the chief priests and Jewish council conducted their sham trial to convict Jesus, they found it impossible to pin any particular sin on Him. “[M]any bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree” (Mk. 14:56). This is because Jesus was perfect. He did not look for help from any influential friend or famous family member. He put His life in God the Father’s hands, knowing that He had kept God’s holy Word. The Apostle Peter writes, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1Pe. 2:22-23). But why?
The next verse explains, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (v. 24). Jesus was crucified for you, so that you might die and live—die to the sin that clings to you in your old Adam, and live to the righteousness that comes by faith. You die and live every day by repenting of your sins and trusting in Jesus’ forgiveness. This is the pattern of the Christian life. This is how you honor and glorify Jesus and His Word. This is how you return to Jesus’ atoning death and to your baptism which united you with Him.
When you come before Jesus in this humble manner, with your heart full of sorrow and remorse for sin, He does not turn you away. He does not tell you that you messed up one time too many, or that your faith is not strong enough for Him. He promises, “whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (Jn. 6:37). He takes it even further and says that everyone who believes in Him has the full forgiveness of all his sins. And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. This is what Jesus meant when He told the Jews, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word—believes My Word—, he will never see death.”
They ridiculed Him for saying that the one who believes the Word will not die. After all, Abraham and the prophets were long dead! But Jesus was talking about spiritual and eternal death. Those who trust in Him may die temporarily in the body, but their soul lives. And even their physical death is no different to God than a sleep, from which He will again wake them. Faith in Jesus lives on because Jesus lives. He is the great “I AM,” the ever-present, ever-living Lord of heaven. As He said, “I AM the way, and the truth, and the life,” and “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn. 14:6, 11:26).
Abraham and all the prophets and saints have nothing more than you have, because there is nothing lasting to be had apart from Jesus. Keep and defend and cling to the Word because then you will have Jesus, and having Jesus, you will also have eternal life.
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The Third Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 11:14-28
In Christ Jesus, who still is with us in the fight against our ancient foe, dear fellow redeemed:
March 19th is the day the Church remembers St. Joseph, the guardian of Jesus and husband of Mary. No sinful man has ever been asked to do what Joseph did. He was commanded by God to marry a woman who was pregnant with a child that was not his. Beyond that, he was told that the child had been conceived by God the Holy Spirit, and that this baby would “save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21). How could Joseph ever live up to this task? He was to watch over the One who watches over all creation! He was to provide for the One who gives all things! He was to teach the One who possesses all wisdom and knowledge! Joseph must have wondered why God chose him among all men for this responsibility. Wasn’t there someone more qualified than he was?
But if the Lord had chosen him, He must also intend to give the strength and wisdom Joseph would need. This was Joseph’s comfort as he held the baby Jesus in his arms and watched Him grow day after day. Still, Joseph had no idea what troubles were coming. King Herod had learned from the wise men that there might be a threat to his throne, the “king of the Jews,” they said (Mt. 2:2). When the wise men did not come back to him after their visit to Bethlehem to see the newborn King, Herod sent soldiers to kill “all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (v. 16). He acted as a man possessed, no doubt with the devil spurring him toward this wicked deed.
How could Joseph be any match for such forces of evil? Well Joseph did not face them alone. The angel of the Lord warned him in a dream, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (v. 13). Herod carried out the horrible slaughter of innocent boys, but Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were spared according to God’s plan.
This account shows us something about the devil’s power and influence. King Herod gave the command, but it was Satan who was holding the puppet strings. Ephesians 6 tells us that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (v. 12). We see in today’s account the power a demon had over a man to make him mute. The Gospel of Matthew adds that this man was also blind. How helpless he was! But Jesus cast out the demon, so that the man could speak and see (Mt. 12:22).
The Pharisees told the people that Jesus cast out demons by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons. Jesus countered by teaching the people about the character of demons. He said that the devil and the demons are not opposed to each other. They are united in their hatred of God and of His creation. They constitute a formidable kingdom of darkness which has brought great evil into the world. When Jesus referred to “a strong man, fully armed, [who] guards his own palace,” he was talking about the devil. Luther described the devil like this in his famous hymn, “For still our ancient foe / Doth seek to work us woe; / Strong mail of craft and pow’r / He weareth in this hour; / On earth is not his equal” (ELH 251, v. 1).
No human force can stand up to the devil’s power. Jesus said that a person is not safe even when a demon goes out of him. The house may be “swept and put in order” in this respect, but it is still vulnerable. The demon will likely return, and as Jesus says, it “brings seven other spirits more evil than itself…. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.” Here he underscores again that the demons are not territorial, but are even willing to recruit worse demons to join them in inflicting more harm.
How can we possibly stand against such terrible enemies as these? On our own, we can’t. We would surely lose. Luther talks about this in the same hymn, “Stood we alone in our own might, / Our striving would be losing.” But there is hope! “For us the one true Man doth fight, / The Man of God’s own choosing. / Who is this chosen One? / ’Tis Jesus Christ, the Son, / The Lord of hosts, ’tis He / Who wins the victory / In ev’ry field of battle” (v. 2). The devil is like “a strong man, fully armed,” but Jesus also describes “one stronger than he.” What does this stronger one do? “[H]e attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.” The so-called “strong man” is completely overthrown. He is no match for the stronger one.
If it was not obvious who this stronger one is, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.” A person does not talk like that unless he is confident in who he is and what he is capable of. So Jesus was telling the people that if they want to be on the side of strength, then they should want to be with Him. And if they do not want to go along with Him, then they and their weak plans will be overcome by Him. It is a very direct thing to say, but then Jesus had just made a blind and mute man able to see and speak.
However, the hearts of the Pharisees and scribes were hardened. Satan had bewitched them. They were hell-bent on destroying Jesus by any means possible. And they eventually accomplished this, or at least they thought they did. They convinced Pontius Pilate to give Jesus the death sentence and watched Him suffer and die on the cross. They gloated and jeered and mocked Him. They said, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt. 27:40), which sounded eerily like the devil’s temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. Through their mouths, Satan was trying desperately to get Jesus to give up His mission and forsake the human race.
But Jesus would not leave the vulnerable sheep to the wolves. By His death in the place of sinners, Jesus ruined every claim Satan had on them. He stormed the devil’s stronghold of darkness and freed all who were held in its prison. By His atoning death, Jesus crushed Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15). Jesus did not ruin the devil’s kingdom by dividing it against itself, but by destroying it completely. This is why you are not part of the devil’s kingdom now, but you live in God’s kingdom of grace and are protected and blessed by a merciful Lord.
Yet the devil is not content to leave you alone. Your sins have been atoned for, and you were redeemed by the blood of Jesus. This is true. But Satan can still tempt you to reject these blessings and reenter his kingdom of darkness and death. How can you guard against these attacks and keep the goods of your forgiveness, life, and salvation safe? Jesus answers that question in today’s text. A woman in the crowd had said, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts at which You nursed!” She thought that if anyone is blessed, it must be the mother of such a high prophet and excellent teacher. We see the same misunderstanding today among those who elevate Mary to God-like status and offer their prayers and petitions to her.
Jesus replied to the woman, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Those are blessed who hear and keep God’s Word. Keeping the Word of God means to keep watch over it, to guard and defend it. It is the same word used earlier in the text for the strong man who attempts to guard his own palace and goods. So Jesus tells us both to hear and to guard His Word.
But why is it that we must pay attention to the Word and carefully defend it? It is because the Word of God is the instrument He uses to bring life and to overthrow the powers of darkness. Wherever the Word is spoken, the Holy Spirit is working. Jesus called the Holy Spirit the “finger of God” (Mt. 12:28/Lk. 11:20), who works through the Word to drive out demons and pluck sinners from the pit of death. This is how God’s kingdom comes and lays waste to the devil’s kingdom (Lord’s Prayer, Second Petition). The Devil Is Overthrown by Jesus and His Word.
If you want to be kept safe from the attacks of the devil and demons, you will find security and an ever-present help in God’s Word. The demons cannot stand His Word. They want you to die forever, but the Word gives you eternal life. They want you to despair in your sins, but the Word brings you forgiveness. They want you to think that the greatest treasurers are found in this fallen world, but the Word imparts to you the everlasting riches of heaven.
The Word gives courage to fathers like Joseph to do their duty and to provide the spiritual leadership their family needs. The Word strengthens every Christian to withstand the devil’s attacks. And wherever you have failed in your Christian callings and sinned against God, the Word assures you that each sin is forgiven by the blood of Jesus. The demons with their prince would easily defeat you alone. But through Jesus’ Word, you are now clothed in “the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph. 6:11).
“And were the world with devils filled, / All watching to devour us, / Our souls to fear we need not yield, / They cannot overpow’r us. / Their dreaded prince no more / Can harm us as of yore; / His rage we can endure; / For lo! his doom is sure, / A word shall overthrow him.” (ELH 251, v. 3)
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The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 8:23-27
In Christ Jesus, our Brother, the eternal God, dear fellow redeemed:
Today’s sermon text is about faith. The simple definition of “faith” is “trust.” But it is not trust in what we can see and feel and experience. Hebrews 11:1 says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It was by faith that the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament were commended by God. Abel and Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Sarah and many more believed in what they could not see. They believed God’s promise of salvation and were saved through this faith. Genesis 15 says about Abraham, that “he believed the LORD, and [the LORD] counted it to him as righteousness” (v. 6).
This is the opposite of what we so often hear people say, “I will believe it when I see it.” What they really mean is, “My rational mind will accept it when I see it.” If they can see it, faith is no longer required. We fall into this sort of thinking too. For instance, we tend to think that God is pleased with us when life is going well. But when we have troubles, we wonder if He is punishing us or is too busy for us or has even abandoned us. We will happily believe in His power and mercy when a serious disease is cured, or when we hear about a Christian’s life changing for the better. But what about when sickness leads to death, or when someone loses everything she has? Do we believe in the Lord then too?
This is like the disciples as they stepped with Jesus into the boat on the Sea of Galilee. They had just watched Jesus perform miracle after miracle, casting out demons and healing the sick (Mt. 8:14-17). If anyone had asked them at that time whether there was anything Jesus could not do, the disciples would have almost certainly said, “No. He can do anything!” They felt no anxiety or concern as they pushed off from the shore. They were with the great Teacher Jesus. Who could be more fortunate?
But then the wind began to pick up. The waves rolled one on top of the other, higher and higher. The small boat tipped and tilted this way and that. Though they were experienced fishermen, the sailor-skill of the disciples was no match for the “seismos,” as it was called in Greek. It was a terrible shaking of the sea, a seismic tempest, as though a great earthquake was at work beneath the waters. The men bailed water as quickly as they could, but still the boat was filling up. If something about the situation did not improve, the boat would certainly go under.
Somehow, while the storm raged and the disciples grew more and more terrified, Jesus slept. The evangelist Mark tells us that “he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion” (4:38). How is this possible? Well if a person is tired enough, he can sleep just about anywhere. Jesus must have been exhausted from His full schedule of teaching and healing. And let us not forget that His suffering increased day by day as He came closer to His crucifixion. The weight of what was coming pressed down on Him. He must suffer the wrath of God and eternal damnation in the place of all sinners. This was a weight that none of us could carry for a moment. As true God, He could bear it. But as true Man, He felt human weakness and fatigue. The burden was heavy. He needed rest.
So the boat seemed sure to sink, and Jesus slept. You may not have had an experience like this on the open seas, but I’m sure you can relate to the situation in your own way. You may have gotten bad news about your health, or felt pain getting worse and worse and wondered, “Why doesn’t God heal me?” You may have watched someone you love dying, and Jesus never seemed so far away. You may have had classmates pick on you, friends turn on you, people lie to you, and felt very alone. You may have wanted God to save your marriage or keep your family from fighting so much, but nothing seemed to improve. A great storm raged inside you or around you, and as far as you could tell, Jesus was sleeping – unaware or uncaring.
But it is not your faith that tells you this. Faith is like a powerful telescope that zooms in on Jesus, no matter how far away He seems to be. The part of you that doubts Jesus and questions His love and second-guesses His Word is not the new man of faith but the old Adam of sin. It is the part of you that demands proof from God where He has not promised to give it. If you require Jesus to fix or heal or prosper as a condition for continuing to believe in Him, then we are no longer talking about faith. Preaching on this same text Martin Luther said, “For it is the great characteristic and power of faith to see what is not visible, and not to see what is visible, yea, that which at the time drives and oppresses us” (Church Postil, p. 94).
Luther points out that faith not only focuses on what is unseen; it also ignores what can be seen. In this way, faith is the opposite of our reason and senses. This is why Luther said in his Small Catechism that “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe” (Explanation to Third Article). But it is very difficult—and even impossible for us sinners—to ignore the troubles and threats that we see and experience. What else could Jesus’ disciples do than to frantically wake Him up and cry, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!”? It seems that this should have pleased Jesus. They came to the right place for help. Their plea was consistent with the LORD’s invitation in Psalm 50: “call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (v. 15).
To call upon the LORD in our trouble certainly does please Him, and He does help us. But it is one thing to approach Him with a quiet confidence in His care and goodness. It is another thing to pray to Him as a last resort, frantically, with hearts full of doubt, wondering why He did not anticipate our needs before things got so bad. This must be the state the disciples were in, which prompted Jesus’ rebuke, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” When we are full of worries, when we are stressed, when we cannot imagine any good outcome to our predicaments, it is appropriate for us to hear a word of law. By the law the Lord says, “Have I not made My promises clear? Is your faith in Me so weak?” And it often is weak like that. We often do think that what we can perceive is more powerful, either to do evil or good, than God Himself.
But the last portion of today’s text should put that wrong thinking to rest. Jesus got up from where He was lying and simply told the winds and the sea to “be still” (Mk. 4:39). And immediately the sea was calm. “What sort of man is this?” the disciples wondered. The answer is that Jesus was not Man only, but fully God, whom the winds and sea and all creation obey. It seemed unbelievable, but it was true. God had become Man, and this God-Man was with the disciples in the boat. They realized now that they had nothing to fear. Even those massive waves were no match for the Word of Jesus.
The same is true for your trials—they will never be greater than Jesus’ Word. His Word increases your faith which is constantly under attack by the devil and his forces. When your heart and mind are raging with memories of past sins and the struggle of current ones, He speaks His calming Word, “be still.” He brings to you forgiveness for your guilt, refocusing you once again on His cross and empty tomb. There is where He made atonement for your sins with His blood, and where He left your sins buried.
Through His Word He also assures you of His abiding presence. He does not simply speak His Word from afar. He is in the boat with you. And though you may wonder if He is sleeping or unaware of your trouble, He promises that He is not. He promises that He will bring you His blessings personally as you hear His Word and receive His Sacraments. The tempest of sin that threatens to overwhelm you, is silenced in the calm waters of Holy Baptism. And your fear-filled heart is comforted and filled with hope as you receive Jesus’ body and blood in Holy Communion.
You and I cannot see or feel Jesus’ presence in the means of grace. This is the place for faith, which trusts what God says. By faith, we cling to what is invisible, yet is very present, real, and powerful. The Apostle Paul writes, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient—passing, temporary—, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2Cor. 4:16-18).
No matter what difficulties you are facing or may face in the future, The True God Abides with You. And He knows how to save you, strengthen you, and bless you.
What harm can sin and death now do?
The true God now abides with you.
Let hell and Satan rage and chafe,
Christ is your Brother—ye are safe. (ELH 154, v. 4)
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