Sermon for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November 12, 2023

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Sermon for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November12, 2023

Matthew 25:1-13

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Let’s go to a wedding, shall we? It’s a wedding in ancient Israel, so some things are going to be different from what we are used to.  However, many things will be the same. There will be a bride and a groom. There will be bridesmaids. There will be a celebration. There will be food! Best of all, there will be joy and there will be hope for the future. Isn’t every wedding, no matter the time or place, an occasion of joyful hope for the future as bride and groom promise themselves to one another for the rest of their lives?

So, there are many similarities to weddings in our own time, but some things are very different. For instance, in ancient Israel marriages were arranged by families. This is not to say that there was no love involved. In the Bible we hear how deeply Jacob loved Rachel. The Song of Songs is a whole book of the Bible filled with some of the most romantic love poetry you will ever read. But in these arranged marriages, feelings weren’t the first priority. Loving feelings often developed over time. The first priority was the arrangement between families. As soon as the marriage was arranged, the couple was betrothed, which, legally speaking, was as binding as marriage itself.

This state of betrothal could continue for weeks or even months until the wedding day.

The couple would continue to live separately until the groom had prepared a place for them to live. Once that place was ready, then it was time for the wedding.

Weddings began at sundown. As the sun set on the evening of the wedding, the groom would make his way in grand procession from his father’s house to the house of his bride. While he was on his way the bridesmaids would tend to the bride. Then when the groom arrived, these bridesmaids would accompany the bride to her husband at the door, and all of them together would continue to parade to the place he had prepared for them.

There were no streetlights in those days, and so the most important responsibility the bridesmaids had was to have lamps ready to light their way. They would dance in celebration on the way to the wedding feast, their lamps bobbing and weaving with their gyrations, making brilliant streaks along the dark parade route. It was quite a spectacle! Once they arrived at the place the groom had prepared, there would be feasting for days. Their relationship would be consummated at last, and they would begin life together as husband and wife.

Jesus uses this imagery of a wedding in ancient Israel to describe the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God. He wasn’t the first to do so. The Old Testament is filled with this imagery. Hosea describes God as a faithful husband. The prophet Isaiah wrote: “As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Maker marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” The aforementioned Song of Songs has long been interpreted in part as an allegory of the relationship between God and his people.

Jesus wasn’t the first, and he didn’t just use this imagery once. We heard a parable a few weeks ago about the Kingdom of God being like a wedding feast. One of the most beloved passages from the gospels is rooted in this imagery, as we hear Jesus in John 14 saying, “I am going to prepare a place for you, and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” This is wedding procession language! Christ promises to come to us to take us to himself. Christ is the groom and his church is the bride and he promises a day when he will take us to the place he has prepared for us, where, as we sang on Reformation Sunday, he will consummate the relationship between himself and his church, bringing to completion this intimate and permanent union.

This language might raise some eyebrows. I know I’m veering towards PG-13 territory. But this imagery is an enormous and important part of the biblical witness. There is nothing scandalous or dirty about it. Only in our perverse and porn-sick generation is this seen as anything other than beautiful and holy. The clearly symbolic language of this holy union points to the permanent closeness of Christ and his people.

Jesus wasn’t the first to use this imagery, and he wasn’t the last either. St. Paul refers to the relationship of Christ and his church as akin to that of husband and wife, their one flesh relationship mysteriously reflecting the closeness of Christ and his bride. In the book of Revelation, St. John does too, describing Christ’s ultimate return as the marriage supper of the Lamb and describing the new kingdom, the new Jerusalem, as being like a bride adorned for her husband.

All of this helps to place our parable for today in both its biblical and cultural context.  Jesus is talking about his return. He describes this return as being like a wedding party. “It will be like this,” Jesus says. “Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the groom. Five were foolish and five were wise.”

Remember, the main duty of the bridesmaids was to light the way for the parade back to the place the groom had prepared. The foolish bridesmaids, probably under the influence of too many White Claws or wine coolers, didn’t bring any oil with them. And when the groom was delayed, not coming until midnight, they didn’t have enough oil. You had one job, right? Be prepared with the lamps. Be prepared to celebrate. But they weren’t.

The wise bridesmaids, on the other hand, were. They had flasks of oil with them. They were prepared for any delay. And when the groom finally arrived, their lamps were burning bright in anticipation of his arrival. These five wise bridesmaids lit the way for the bride and groom while the five foolish bridesmaids raced off to try to buy some in the middle of the night. But it was too late. When they finally made it to the wedding party, the door was already shut. “Lord, lord, open to us!” they pleaded. But the groom replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

It is a troubling way to end the parable. Whether this represents Jesus’ final word to those who “run out of oil” or is merely a character designed by Jesus to get our attention, I cannot say. But either way, the point is clear. As we await the coming of Christ, we need oil in our lamps. As we await the coming of Christ, we need to keep awake, for we know neither the day nor the hour.

Martin Luther, in a sermon he preached on this parable, said that the oil represents faith, while the light from the lamp represents our good works. As Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before others, that they would see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” We hear these words when we are baptized. The oil of faith, poured into us in Holy Baptism as gift of the Holy Spirit, is what saves us, but this faith imperfectly but inevitably burns brightly with good works which give glory to God.

This oil is topped off throughout our lives by the hearing of God’s Word. It is topped off by receiving the Lord’s Supper. It is topped off by being connected to the body of Christ in worship and fellowship and service. This oil of faith is sustained and strengthened by diligently making use of the means of grace given in Word and Sacrament.

Except when it isn’t, right? We know how our failure to stay topped off leaves us dry and flickering. We know how our neglect, our lack of diligence in matters of faith leaves us dim. We see it also among friends and loved ones who drift from these means of grace our Lord gives us. We see how their oil gets lower and lower and lower as they come to worship less and less often.

This is why the pandemic has been so devastating to churches. It cut the supply line for our lamps. By keeping people away from church for so long, many peoples’ oil ran devastatingly low. For many it seems to have run out entirely. Some estimates are that a quarter to a third of what were marginally active Christians are gone, probably at this point for good. Their oil ran out.

The pandemic was only hastening trends that were already well underway. And as western civilization continues to reject its heritage, its foundation, running on the fading fumes of the past, we see the light of good works that glorify God growing more and more dim and the world becoming more and more dark.

A foolish bridesmaid, whether through foolishness or carelessness or neglect, lets the light go out altogether. A foolish bridesmaid doesn’t account for the possibility that the groom might take longer to come than we’d hoped, longer than we’d like. And so the foolish bridesmaid falls first into a hurried, desperate angst, and then into despair.

But that isn’t you. You are a wise bridesmaid. For you have come here today to get topped off. You have come to have your lamp filled with the gifts Christ Jesus freely gives us. Through his Word and his Supper and his people he fills you up with faith in him. And that faith shines! It shines with peace. It shines with hope. It shines with love. It shines with the light of good works that give glory to your Father in heaven.

“The kingdom of heaven will be like this…” Jesus says. And then he describes an ancient near eastern wedding. You are invited to this wedding. In fact, you are part of the wedding party! You are bridesmaids and groomsmen in the marriage feast of the lamb! Collectively, as the church, we are also the bride! Christ is coming to take us to the place he has prepared for us, so that where he is, there we may be also. He is coming to take his bride the church to himself, drawing us into a relationship that is intimate and permanent, a union that is joyful and eternal.

Keep awake and watch for the groom. Keep your lamps lit. He is coming for us. Do not slide into apathy or indifference as you wait. Do not give in to despair and hopelessness. Do not let the growing darkness of this world keep you from letting your light shine. For it is in the darkness that your light is needed more than ever.

In the meantime, we wait, knowing neither the day nor the hour. In the meantime, we keep our eye on our gracious bridegroom, who sneaks in among us even now, giving us a foretaste of the wedding feast to come, and in so doing keeps our lamps full.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church



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Sermon for Reformation Sunday – October 29, 2023

CLICK HERE for a worship video for October 29

Sermon for Reformation Sunday – October 29, 2023

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.

“If you continue in my word,” Jesus said, “you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Martin Luther continued in the Word. As a monk and a scholar he had the privilege of studying the Bible, God’s written Word, at a time when many did not have access to the scriptures. The printing press was still a very new invention, and there just weren’t that many copies of the Bible available. But Luther had access to the scriptures, and the more he continued in the Word, the more he discovered that the truth he found there didn’t align with the so-called truth that was being taught and practiced in the church at that time.

And so it was that on October 31st in the year 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. He wanted to have a conversation about the truth he had found in God’s Word. He had 95 debating points, 95 truth claims gleaned from the scriptures, that he wanted to discuss so that the church could get back to the truth he found there. By posting it on the church door on All Hallow’s Eve, right before people would be pouring into church for All Saints Day worship services, he ensured that lots of people would see it.

Well, lots of people saw it alright! Those new-fangled printing presses resulted in copies of the 95 theses spreading all over Europe. The truth claims Luther was making struck a nerve. Luther’s call for the church to return to the truths found in God’s Word unleashed a firestorm that eventually led to him to being declared a heretic and an outlaw. Long before people ever talked about cancel culture, the medieval church tried to cancel Martin Luther. They burned his books. He was excommunicated from the church. He had a bounty placed on his head and was hunted like a common criminal, which made it necessary for him to spend nearly a year in hiding.

Luther unwittingly unleashed a fierce battle for the truth. On one side you had medieval church bureaucrats and councils and bishops claiming they had authority over the truth. The truth was whatever they said it was, which just so happened to be whatever advanced their power and lined their pockets. The most obscene example of this was the sale of certificates of forgiveness called indulgences. Instead of freely proclaiming forgiveness in Jesus’ name as commanded in scripture, Christ’s forgiveness was turned into something that could be bought and sold. Forget confession. Forget repentance. Forget the absolution. You could just buy a handy-dandy certificate and you’d be covered. You could even buy forgiveness for future sins! The church authorities made a fortune selling their version of the truth. This part of the story is pretty well known.

What might not be as well known is that once the Reformation was underway you also had what came to be called the “enthusiasts.” The enthusiasts claimed that the truth was whatever they felt it was. They claimed direct revelations from God not only independent from the church, but apart from the scriptures! The truth, for the enthusiasts, was based on their own individual thoughts and feelings. Once Luther opened that Pandora’s Box, they felt empowered to advance their versions of the truth as well. And so the Reformation was a time of great confusion about what the truth even was.

Does this sound at all familiar? We too live in a time of widespread confusion about what the truth is, about where the truth can be found, about what truths we should live by.

We too live in a time of changing technology. Like the printing press 500 years ago, the internet and especially social media have changed the conversation about the truth in dramatic ways, both good and bad. On the one hand, the internet has made it so that the lies broadcast by major media institutions long seen as authoritative no longer go unchallenged, but on the other hand it has also provided easy platforms for a million more liars!

Fast on the heels of the internet is the unfolding emergence of “artificial intelligence,” or “AI,” which, out of thin air, can produce astonishingly realistic images and videos with voice cloning. If you think those fake texts you sometimes get, supposedly from me, asking for gift cards, are confusing and disturbing, wait until you get a phone call with a fake version of my exact voice, or the exact voice of a family member, pleading for something, interacting with you in real time. It’s already happening. The struggle to discern what is true, what is real, is only going to get more difficult.

Adding to this confusion is the postmodern malaise of extreme subjectivism, where the truth is whatever someone’s feelings tell them it is. As with the enthusiasts of Luther’s time, there is a widespread belief in our own time that all truth is self-determined, that we define our own realities. This is not new. This is not progress. This is the oldest trick the devil has, going all the way back to the Garden of Eden, when the serpent hissed to Eve, “Did God really say,” encouraging her to live her own truth and eat the fruit God had told her not to eat. And the result continues to be chaos and conflict and confusion.

“If you continue in my word,” Jesus said, “you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” So what is this truth, and how does it make us free?

As Luther battled both the authoritarians on the one hand and the enthusiasts on the other, he called both to the truth he found in God’s written word. The scriptures are the place to find the Truth above all truths. The Bible contains God given truths for us to live by.

The scriptures, Luther taught, proclaim God’s Word of law and gospel, God’s Word of command and God’s Word of promise. The scriptures contain both the deepest truth about us and the deepest truth about God.

The truth about us, as we hear from Jeremiah this morning, is that we have broken the covenant God has made with us. The truth about us, as St. Paul says in our reading from Romans for today, is that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The truth about us, as Jesus says in the gospel reading, is that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, and a slave doesn’t have a permanent place in the household. The scriptures tell the truth about us, the truth about our situation, the truth about our fallen human nature, the truth about our need for redemption, for salvation.

Thankfully, the scriptures also tell us the truth about God. The truth about God is that, as Jeremiah says, he forgives our iniquities and remembers our sin no more. The truth about God, as St. Paul teaches us, is that he has redeemed us, he has saved us, he has made us right with him through Jesus. We are justified by his grace as a gift, received through faith in him. The truth about God, as Jesus says in our gospel reading, is that he has sent his Son to make us free, so that we will no longer be slaves to sin, so that we will have a permanent place in the household.

This freedom is not a freedom to pursue our own versions of the truth. Christian freedom isn’t freedom to do whatever we want! As St. Paul so aptly puts it in Romans 6: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” We are freed from sin and death and freed for a life lived in right relationship with God, a life that aligns with the truth God has revealed to us.

In a time of radically changing information technology and cultural upheaval, a time of chaos and conflict and confusion, we will continue to fumble our way through truth claims. We will probably continue to argue and disagree about what is true with a small ‘t.’

But as Christians of the Reformation, we have a heritage which continues to call us back again and again to the capital ‘T’ truth found in God’s Word. It is this truth that we can hold onto in the midst of everything going on around us. It is this truth that unites us as God’s people. It is this truth that we can all strive to live our lives by. It is this truth that we can share with a weary and confused and hurting world.

As Christians of the Reformation, we have a heritage which calls us again and again to do exactly what Jesus calls us to do today: to continue in his Word. It is in continuing in Christ’s Word that we are truly his disciples. It is in continuing in Christ’s Word that we come to know the truth that makes us free. And if the Son makes us free, we will be free indeed.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Nov. 4: Christmas Bazaar

Nov. 4: Christmas Bazaar

Our Lydia Circle ladies will be holding their annual Holiday Bazaar on Saturday, November 4, from 9:00am-3:00pm in the fellowship hall. Handmade gifts, wonderful crafts, knitted items, baked goods, holiday decor, and more!