Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter – April 7, 2024

CLICK HERE for a worship video for April 7

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter – April 7, 2024

John 20:19-31

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

What do you think of when you think of “peace?”

For many people, the first thing that comes to mind is global politics. We long for peace in Ukraine. We long for peace in the Middle East. We think of peace primarily as the absence of war, the cessation of hostilities, the laying down of arms, the end of fighting. We rightfully pray for peace between and within nations.

If we don’t think of peace in political terms, we often think of it instead in psychological terms. Peace, in this framework, is similar to tranquility or calmness. Peace is what The Eagles sang about in their 1972 hit, “Peaceful, Easy Feeling.” It is a feeling. It includes a quiet mind and a relaxed body. It is how someone might feel while soaking in a hot tub, or when they are deep into their second glass of wine.

These aren’t wrong definitions. “Peace” is a multifaceted word. It means lots of different things depending on context.

“Peace” was the first word Jesus spoke to his disciples after his resurrection. On the evening of the first Easter, Jesus appeared to them. “Peace be with you,” he said to them. He came back the next Sunday too, a week later, just as we are meeting a week after Easter here today, and again, his first words were, “Peace be with you.” What did Jesus mean? What exactly is this peace?

The Hebrew word is shalom, and it is just as multifaceted as the English word peace. It can be a casual greeting. If you go to Israel today, or to any Jewish community anywhere in the world, you will hear Jewish people greeting each other with the words shalom aleichem, which means, “peace be upon you.” The common response is aleichem shalom, which means, “upon you, peace.” It can be as simple and common as people saying, “Good morning,” or “Have a nice day.”

But the context in which Jesus uses this greeting is fraught with much, much deeper significance. When the risen Lord Jesus said, “Peace be with you,” to his disciples after his resurrection, this was much more than a casual greeting. You see, the word shalom, or peace, can also refer to a reordering of things, or a repair. It can refer to a realignment, to a restored relationship.

Pastor Dan Erlander of blessed memory once shared a story from one of his trips to Israel. The car he rented had some engine trouble, so he pulled into a mechanic. The mechanic got under the hood and started making adjustments. He swapped out a spark plug and tweaked the carburetor. When the engine started humming smoothly, he looked up at the pastor from under the hood, smiled, and said, “ah, shalom!” Here the word was used to describe restoration. Everything was right again. Everything was rightly ordered. Everything was aligned, restored to right relationship.

When Jesus greeted the disciples with the words, “Peace be with you,” he wasn’t just saying, “Hey guys, what’s up?” This was not merely a greeting; it was a proclamation. Jesus was assuring them that they were in right relationship with him. Jesus was telling them that everything was now right again. His resurrection meant that everything had been fixed, everything had been restored. With these words, “Peace be with you,” Jesus wasn’t just saying “Good evening, bros!” He was giving them a new life.

This peace Jesus proclaimed gave them a life beyond their sin, beyond their failures. This is no small thing. The disciples had just failed Jesus in some profound ways. They all deserted Christ. While Peter denied Jesus publicly and repeatedly, they all denied him in their own way. They all either doubted or forgot his promises. Jesus had told them repeatedly that he would be arrested and crucified and then be raised on the third day, but when the third day came, even after the women told them they had seen the risen Lord, they weren’t anticipating anything he had promised. They weren’t watching for him to come out of the tomb. They were huddled together behind locked doors.

You wouldn’t blame Jesus one bit if, when he appeared to these disciples, his first words had been, “Really guys? Did you not listen to anything I said?” You wouldn’t blame Jesus if he balled them out a little bit, right?

But no. The first word Jesus had for these failed disciples is, “Peace be with you.” This is akin to saying, “All is well.” At its heart, these words are words of forgiveness. They are words of restoration. We know this from the fact that Jesus immediately goes on to tell them to go and do the same. He tasks them with going out into the world to forgive sins in his name.

This is what the resurrection has accomplished. It has brought about the forgiveness of sin. It has restored sinners to a right relationship with God, beginning with the disciples and continuing to this very day as his word of forgiveness is announced to us. This is what peace means. It means our relationship with God has been reordered, it has been aligned through Christ’s saving death on the cross, it has been ratified by his resurrection, and now we are forgiven. Our relationship with God has been restored forever. It hums along now, fueled and well-lubricated by the grace and mercy of the risen Lord.

This peace Jesus proclaimed also gave them a life beyond their fear. The book of Acts is full of stories of how the disciples were transformed by the resurrection, how they were emboldened by the peace of Christ. They came out from behind those locked doors and became bold preachers and witnesses to the resurrection. Instead of hiding away behind closed doors for the rest of their lives, they went out into the world to share the Good News of the gospel, even when it meant being ostracized or persecuted or even killed, which it ultimately did for most of them. Even when their lives, their circumstances, were anything but peaceful, they had peace with God, and that was what mattered most.

This peace Jesus proclaimed gave them a life beyond their doubts too. This gospel reading is often referred to as the story of “Doubting Thomas,” which is unfair to both Thomas and to John, the gospel writer, who is trying to make the exact opposite point. It is true that Jesus is exceptionally patient with Thomas. From this we can be assured that Jesus is patient with people’s struggles to believe and to understand. We, too, should be patient with people’s doubts. We should make room for their questions and respond to them with grace. But Jesus didn’t leave Thomas in his doubts. He moved Thomas from doubt to faith. Jesus wanted Thomas to know the peace that comes from believing that he had truly risen from the dead. In the Large Catechism, Luther describes doubt as a close cousin to despair. Jesus didn’t want to leave Thomas in that confusion that leads to despair.

And so Jesus came back the following week, just for Thomas. He came to him specifically, and said, “Peace be with you.” He invited Thomas to touch him, to put his finger in his wounds. “My Lord and my God!” Thomas said. The story John is telling us is not about a Doubting Thomas, but a Confessing Thomas – a Thomas who was moved from doubts to faith in the risen Christ.

“Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus continued. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus is talking about us! And at this point John tells us that he has written all these things so that you, the reader, you, the hearer, you, the person listening to this right now, may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

You see, through the resurrection of Jesus, you too have a new life! Even as global wars rage and countless hostilities on scales large and small continue, Christ has brought a peace into our world, and into our lives, through his resurrection. This peace is more than a feeling. Feelings come and go. This peace is not so much a state of mind as it is a state of being. It is an assurance. It is a strength that comes from being centered in his promises. His peace is a peace the world cannot give us. It is a peace which passes all understanding.

Jesus Christ has made peace between us and God. Our relationship with God has been realigned, re-ordered, and eternally restored. Your sin is forgiven, and so you can stop hiding from God. Christ has conquered sin and death, and so you don’t need to be afraid of anything anymore. These things have been written down so that you would not doubt, but believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and your God, and that through believing, you would have life in his name.

Through our risen Lord, God has ultimately fixed everything that was spiritually broken so that our lives would begin to hum with Easter hope and joy. Christ has been raised, and he bestows his peace upon you today through his living Word. As you receive it, you are given a new life. As you come to believe it, God smiles at you as his beloved child and says, “ah, shalom!”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Resurrection of our Lord – March 31, 2024

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Sermon for the Resurrection of our Lord – March 31, 2024

Mark 16:1-9

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

If the account of the resurrection in Mark’s gospel was an episode in a TV series, you’d yell at the TV at the ending. You might even throw something at the TV screen. You’d holler: “No! It can’t end there! The story isn’t over! They left us hanging! The plot hasn’t been resolved!”

We hear this account of the resurrection every third year in our cycle of readings, and it has to be the oddest of the three. The reading ends without an appearance of the resurrected Jesus. I mean, he doesn’t even make a brief cameo! The women who came to the tomb don’t get to see him. They only hear that he is risen from a mysterious young man in a white robe who is weirdly hanging out in Jesus’ tomb. At the end of this account in Mark, these women are not filled with hope or peace or joy – the things we often associate with Easter. Instead, they are filled with terror and astonishment and fear. Instead of joyfully proclaiming, “We have seen the Lord,” the reading ends with the women not saying anything to anyone.

“No, it can’t end there!”

The story doesn’t end there, of course. I’ll say more about that in a minute. But as odd and unsatisfying as this account of the resurrection may well be, I think it does a good job of meeting many of us where we often find ourselves on Easter Sunday.

For these women, the reality of the resurrection took a while to sink in. It didn’t immediately result in joy. The implications of the resurrection hadn’t yet unfolded in their hearts. Jesus had told them he would be crucified and then raised on the third day. He told them this at least three times. The young man in the white robe pointed this out when he said, “he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Everything was unfolding just as Jesus had told them it would, but none of it seems to have sunk in with any of them. And so instead of peace, there was terror in their hearts. Instead of hope, there was confusion. Instead of joy, there was fear.

Can you identify with these women? Because I can.

As some of you know, 2024 got off to a rough start for my wife and me. In short order we had four people we cared about die, one after another. These were all people pretty close to our age. One was a neighbor. One was a beloved former member of our congregation with whom we stayed in touch. Two were people we raised our kids alongside in MOPS and in Scouts. It was like getting kicked in the stomach four times in a row. Pow, pow, pow, pow.

Just as we were catching our breath, we received word more recently that our dear friend and former campus pastor up at Western Washington University died suddenly. I asked my wife out for the first time in his van. He did our premarital counseling and preached at our wedding. He preached at my ordination. He was here for my installation at Oak Harbor Lutheran. When I’ve found myself in serious crisis situations in ministry, he was always the first person I would call. Suddenly, without warning, he is gone. No chance to say goodbye. No chance to say thank you.

I’m not sharing any of this to garner sympathy. I’m not mentioning it to portray myself as having it harder than anyone else. I most certainly don’t.

I’m mentioning it because I want you to know I’m not preaching from some kind of spiritual ivory tower up here. Even someone who has dedicated his life to the proclamation of the gospel sometimes has times when the reality of the resurrection takes time to sink in, when the implications of Jesus’ victory over death aren’t immediately apparent, when the hope and joy of Easter are slow in coming.  I’m mentioning it so that you’ll trust that when I say “we,” I really mean “we.” And we often feel like death is winning – in our lives, and in our world.

And so, we are often like the women in Mark’s gospel in that the good news of Jesus’ victory over death sometimes takes a while to sink in. Sometimes the implications of Jesus’ resurrection take a while to reach certain parts of our hearts, especially a freshly broken heart – and until they do, we often find ourselves confused and trembling and afraid.

Maybe that’s where you find yourself on this Easter morning. Maybe you’re a visitor today and you’re hearing this strange news that Jesus is risen and you just aren’t sure what to make of it, or what difference it could possibly make for you. Maybe you are a regular worshiper here and have heard the promises of our Lord Jesus over and over again, but they haven’t quite stuck, or they haven’t quite reached certain parts of your life. Maybe you’ve been kicked in the stomach recently by losses in your life, or reminders of your own mortality, or concerns about the well-being of loved ones, and all you can feel at the moment is an unsettled fear.

We find kindred spirits today in these women at the tomb. We find our lives, our experiences, reflected in them, enshrined in the pages of God’s holy Word.

But, my friends, God loves us too much to leave us where we are. Today is a day for the reality of the resurrection to sink in. Today is a day for Christ’s promises to sink in deep enough to touch those tender or sore spots in our lives. Today is a day for the needle to be moved away from confusion and fear and towards hope and peace and joy.

Because you see, the story didn’t end there. Those women did not stay silent forever. Eventually, they brought word to the disciples that Christ was risen. They brought word specifically to Peter, as the mysterious young man in a white robe specifically told them to. Did you notice that? “Go, tell his disciples, and Peter.” Peter, you see, had the most stubborn and confused heart of all. This is the guy who once dared to rebuke Jesus and got called Satan for doing so. This is the guy who said, “I can walk to you on the water, Jesus!” and then immediately sank. This is the guy who, when Jesus was arrested, just as he told them he would, drew a sword and tried to prevent it from happening. “Put your sword away, Peter,” Jesus had to tell him. This is the guy who, in a moment of spiritual bravado, swore that he would never deny Jesus, and then, as soon as Jesus was dragged away, proceeded to deny him not once, not twice, but three times. This is the guy who, with the rest of the disciples, had been told by Jesus on multiple occasions that he would die and then rise again on the third day, and then, when the third day came, spent it in hiding, sure that his Lord was dead and gone. “Go, tell his disciples, and Peter,” the young man in white told them. “Make sure you tell Peter! He really needs to know that Christ is risen!”

God seems to have a special concern for those of us who really need to know that Christ is risen. And so he has a special concern for you. God has a special concern that you know it. God is so concerned that you know it, that here is a man in a white robe to tell you! I may not be all that mysterious, and I certainly can’t call myself young anymore, but that’s my job today! It is my job to make sure you hear the good news that Christ is risen. It is my job to proclaim this message, so that the reality of the resurrection can being to sink in a little deeper for you.

And here is the reality of what happened: Jesus, who was crucified and died, was raised. This was a literal, bodily, physical resurrection. His heart, which had stopped, began to beat again. His brain, which ceased all activity, began to spark again with electricity. His cells, which had begun to decompose, reversed course and began to hum again with life. His flesh, which had become cold and rigid, grew warm and pliant again. He got up and walked out of the tomb. Death was overcome.

As St. Paul points out in our epistle reading for today, Jesus appeared to Cephas (that’s Peter) and the Twelve, and then to more than 500 brothers and sisters at once, and then to James, and then to all the apostles, and then he appeared to Paul himself. Many of these people ate with Jesus. Some of them touched his body, putting their fingers in his wounds. He was not a ghost. He was not merely “alive in their hearts or their memories.” His body was resurrected. God raised him up. And in so doing, the curse of death was reversed.

This is a victory Christ promises to share with us. By his resurrection, Jesus Christ has undone the permanence of death, and he promises to share his resurrected life with us. Because he lives, we shall live also! Death does not win! It does not have the last word!

This good news is really for you. Your sin doesn’t get in the way of it. Your stubborn or confused heart doesn’t stop Jesus from putting this good news in your ears. If God made sure Peter got this word after all his screw-ups, don’t you think this word is for you too? Just listen to Peter himself, who preaches his own Easter sermon in our first reading, telling the world that God raised Jesus from the dead and that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. Peter personally knew the restoration Christ brings, and he knows it is for you too.

Death continues to be its own painful reality, to be sure. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed when you find yourself sad or scared. Sometimes the reality of the resurrection needs time to sink in before we can feel that hope and peace and joy taking hold in our hearts.

But know this: Because of the resurrection, for those who are in Christ Jesus, death is no longer to be thought of as a permanent condition. Christ has promised us that a day is coming when death will be no more, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more. The aching absences we feel when we lose friends or loved ones will not be there forever. The confusion and fear that hangs over us in times of sorrow or sickness will all give way to eternal joy in the kingdom our Lord has established for us.

Let this promise sink in today. Let it reach those parts of your life that it hasn’t yet touched. Put your faith in the One who has conquered death for you, and that peace and joy will start to break into your life even now.

The Easter story doesn’t ultimately end with an empty tomb, but with a living Jesus. This resurrected Lord has conquered death, and he promises to share that victory with you. And so when the last episode of your earthly life concludes, that won’t be the end of your story either.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday – March 24, 2024

CLICK HERE for a worship video for March 24

Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday – March 24, 2024

Mark 15:1-39

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

There was a scene from “The Simpsons” from many years ago which has stuck with me, for reasons which will become obvious. Homer Simpson, through his own stupidity (as usual) finds himself in grave danger. The details aren’t important, but if you’re wondering, he’s in a bucket truck floating down a river, about to sink. Homer, high up in the boom bucket of the truck but sinking fast, falls to his knees in a posture of prayer. He folds his hands piously and says, “I’m normally not a praying man, but if you’re up there, please, save me Superman!”

If you’ll forgive the silly illustration on such a spiritually serious day, I think it helps us to understand this jarring transition we experience as we move so quickly from palms being waved in celebration to reeds being used to strike Jesus, from shouts of “Hosanna” to shouts of “Crucify him,” from a joyful procession to a horrific crucifixion, from palms to the Passion.

You see, the crowds waving palm branches at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem were not unlike Homer Simpson. These were people who were in trouble. They were sinking under Roman oppression. These were people who needed help, who needed saving. In fact, the word “Hosanna” literally means, “come and save us!”

But the adoring crowds cheering for Jesus were expecting a Superman of sorts. They were expecting a strong man who would swoop in and rescue them from all their problems. They were expecting a king in the mold of David. They said as much: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.” They believed they were welcoming a Man of Steel who would flex on the Romans and restore their kingdom to its former glory. “Hosanna!” they cried. “Save us, Superman!”

The crowds were not wrong in celebrating Jesus’ arrival. They were not wrong in treating him as a Messianic figure. For the first time, Jesus let people publicly celebrate him as such! Jesus seemed to soak it all in as he made his way through the city gate on the back of a donkey. Those Messianic shouts and accolades and praises were appropriate. The people were not wrong in placing their hope in him. They were not wrong in shouting “Hosanna.” They were not wrong in expecting that he had come to save them. He had!

But they were very wrong about what he would save them from, and how he would do it.

When this became evident, the people turned on him pretty quickly. Notice how when Pilate offered to release a prisoner for them, they chose Barabbas – an insurrectionist. He was a rebel against Rome. He was a strong man, a fighter. This is a very revealing choice. This was the kind of savior they were looking for – someone who would help them build their earthly kingdom.

Even the disciples turned on Jesus, each in their own way. Judas outright betrayed him. Peter denied even knowing him. They all ditched him after he was arrested.

We heard the gory details of what happened to Jesus next. He was beaten with a whip. He had a crown of thorns painfully pressed onto his head. He was struck with a reed. He was cruelly mocked and spit on. His hands and feet were nailed to a cross. Then he was lifted up from the earth, just as he said he would be. He hung there by the tendons in his wrists for six hours, his life slowly draining away, until he gave out a loud cry and breathed his last.

This certainly didn’t look like a Superman type of savior. Jesus didn’t look like he was saving anyone. He looked like he needed saving himself! That’s what some of the people at the foot of the cross said! They heard him say, “Eloi, Eloi,” and misheard him, thinking he was calling for Elijah to come save him.

But something happened the moment Jesus died which shows that he knew exactly what he was doing by being lifted up on the cross. It shows that he was indeed the savior, even if he wasn’t the kind of savior people expected. At the moment of his death the temple curtain was torn in two. There was this enormous curtain in the temple separating the people from the inner sanctum of the temple where God was believed to be most powerfully present. At the very moment Jesus died, this curtain was ripped open! It had stood for centuries as a sort of guard rail preventing sinners from stumbling into the Holy of Holies. It prevented sinners from coming into the presence of the Holy God. And when Jesus breathed his last, this curtain was torn right down the middle. There would no longer be any separation between sinful humanity and a holy God. Jesus had taken the sin of the world upon himself. The wages of sin is death, and Jesus paid it for all of us! And in so doing, he has torn open the curtain, giving us immediate and eternal access to God.

I find it very interesting that the only person in the Passion narrative who recognized Jesus as God’s Son was a soldier, a centurion. Seeing how Jesus gave out a loud cry and then breathed his last, the centurion responded to what he witnessed by saying, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” This centurion had almost certainly seen hundreds of crucifixions before. Maybe thousands. What was different about this one? Yes, there was the eerie darkness that had fallen over the land, but everyone saw that, and they didn’t respond like he did. Some scholars have suggested that it was the way Jesus gave that last loud cry. Usually, victims of crucifixion die of suffocation. They are very quiet at the end. They don’t have any breath left to shout with. Perhaps he saw a unique strength in Jesus, as he gave that last loud shout.

Or maybe this unique strength went deeper. The ethos of a soldier, especially one who was responsible for 100 men, includes an understanding of sacrifice. Yes, they are fighters. Yes, their goal is to defeat their enemies. But every soldier understands that they may be called upon to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. Perhaps this centurion had a revelation that this was what Jesus was doing. Perhaps he saw in Jesus the unique strength of sacrificial love. Perhaps he saw God at work in Jesus’ sacrifice of himself. Perhaps this is what made him say, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

When we sing “Hosanna” now – which we do every Sunday in our communion liturgy – we are not asking for Superman to come save us with muscle, with earthly power. We are not calling for a savior who merely comes to help us with our earthly projects. We are not calling for a savior who will swoop in and immediately take all our problems away. We too will have crosses to bear in this life.

When we sing “Hosanna” now, we are welcoming a savior who comes to us in the midst of our problems, in the midst of the crosses we bear, assuring us that we are not alone, and that our suffering will not have the last word.

When we sing “Hosanna” now, we are celebrating the coming of a savior who has saved us from sin and death by dying for us. We are celebrating the savior who has torn the curtain in two, from top to bottom, giving us immediate and intimate and eternal access to God. We are celebrating the savior who took all our sin upon himself so that we could approach God in all boldness and confidence. We are celebrating the savior who sacrificed himself for us, so that we could live in the hope and peace and joy of God’s gracious and forgiving love, today and forever.

Jesus wasn’t the savior anyone expected, but he is indeed the savior we need the most.

And so when we sing “Hosanna” now, we are joining the centurion in looking at our Lord on the cross, and confessing our faith that, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 17, 2024

CLICK HERE for a worship video for March 17

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 17, 2024

John 12:20-33

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

When my boys were really little we went on a long road trip to Arizona to see their grandmas, both of whom were living there at the time. Before our big trip we showed the boys the route our journey would take. We had one of those children’s puzzles where each state is a piece of the puzzle. We showed them where we were in southwest Washington, where we used to live. We showed them how we’d be traveling through Oregon, and then Idaho, and then Utah, and then Arizona.

The day of our departure came, so we got up early in the morning to begin our journey. We loaded up the van and headed out. We were on the freeway for about twenty minutes when one of them said, “Are we in Utah yet?”

“Not yet,” we said.

That was a long trip. I think we must have said “not yet” about a thousand times.

The disciples had been on a long journey with Jesus. And throughout their journey they too heard a lot of “not yets.”

When Jesus and his mother and his disciples attended a wedding in Cana, his mother saw that the wine had run out. Mary urged Jesus to do something about it. Jesus said, “Mother, why do you involve me, my hour has not yet come.” While Jesus did eventually intervene, he did so on the sly, because his hour had not yet come.

Later, when Jesus was staying in Galilee, his disciples came up to him and said he ought to go to Judea in order to do some miracles there. They urged him to go there in order to show himself to the world. But Jesus said no. “My time has NOT YET come,” he explained.

When Jesus went to Jerusalem to teach in the temple, people got all riled up and hatched a plot to kill him and tried to seize him, but we are told they did not lay a hand on him, because his hour had NOT YET come.”

All of these “not yets” lead us to our gospel reading for today.

As we heard, Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover. While he was there some Greeks asked about him. These Greeks were foreigners. They looked different. They were clean shaven and had short hair. They wore different clothes. They ate different foods, like feta cheese and their own weird version of yogurt. The way they spoke was different. While just about everyone spoke Greek throughout the Mediterranean region, these actual Greeks would have spoken it with a distinct crisp accent – without any of those throaty, guttural sounds made by native Hebrew speakers. Perhaps these Greeks were proselytes to the Jewish faith, or maybe they were simply there to take in the celebratory atmosphere of the festival of Passover, kind of like how non-Christians without a drop of Irish blood celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

At any rate, these Greeks were drawn not just to the temple itself, but specifically to Jesus. They came asking about him. They wanted to see him. And when Andrew and Philip told Jesus that these Greeks were looking for him, Jesus at last said, “The hour has come.” With the arrival of these Greeks, all those “not yets” suddenly became a “now.”

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus said. Jesus told his disciples that now was the time for him to do what he really came to do. Now it was time for him to die. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.”

Now my soul is troubled,” Jesus continued. He dreaded what lay ahead. How could he not? But at the same time, he was determined. “Should I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour?’” Jesus asked. “No,” he said, “it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” This is where his journey had been leading all along.

“Father, glorify your name,” Jesus said. And in a peal of thunder God the Father said, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

With this assurance from his Father, Jesus said, “Now is the judgement of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”

The presence of these Greeks served as a cue to Jesus that the final leg of his journey was now at hand. Now was the time for Jesus to trade places with a sinful humanity, enduring their judgement. Now was the time for him to defeat sin, death, and the devil by enduring the cross. Now was the time when Jesus would offer himself up as the Passover lamb whose blood would bring life and salvation to all people. Now was the time to fulfill the promise made to Abraham, that through his line a savior would come to bless all the families of the earth. Now was the time for Jesus to be buried like a seed in order to rise again and bear much fruit. Now was the time for Jesus to be lifted up, that he might draw all people to himself.

All of the “not yets” of Jesus’ journey led to the “now” of the cross. This is how the Son of Man would be glorified – by dying on the cross for the sin of the world. This is how God’s name would be glorified – by the self-giving love of his Son, lifted up on the cross to draw all people to himself.

And as Jesus draws people to himself, he calls them – he calls us! – to die with him. We are called to join him in this pattern of dying and rising. “Those who love their life lose it,” Jesus says, “and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

This is a Hebrew way of speaking that is difficult to translate into English. To hate your life does not mean being nihilistic or negative. Life is a precious gift from God to be cherished and preserved! This is a Hebraic idiom, an exaggerated expression which means to die to yourself, to die to your self-centeredness. It isn’t about nihilism or negativity, it is about narcissism. It is about that pervasive human inclination to want to be our own gods, our own saviors, to live in service only to our own appetites and desires. To “hate your life” means to bury that narcissistic impulse in all of us in order to rise to something new, something better. Jesus is calling us to be buried with him in order to rise to a new life of faith in him.

Our lives often feel like a big “not yet.” In many ways we are works-in-progress, waiting to arrive. Sometimes we get confused and frustrated and anxious that we aren’t farther along than we think we should be. Maybe you have not yet figured out your place in this world. Maybe you have not yet found the healing you long for. Maybe you have not yet achieved what you hoped you would in life. Maybe you have not yet conquered your demons. Maybe you have not yet had God’s grace reach certain parts of your life. Maybe you have not yet had God’s love reach certain corners of your heart.

Dear friends, today all of those “not yets” give way to the “now” of the cross. On the cross, Jesus was lifted up in order to draw you to himself.  Now your sin is forgiven! Now he has won for you life and salvation!

On the cross, Jesus opened his arms to the world. He opened his arms to you, embracing your life as it really is today. He takes your pain, your grief, your broken hearts, your fear, your sin. He takes it all upon himself so that you might know God’s loving presence in your life now.

And now we are also called to follow.

“Whoever serves me must follow me,” Jesus says, “and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

Now we are called to die to ourselves and live for him. As Martin Luther said, we are called to be “little Christs” to the people around us. Now we are called to embody the selfless love of our Lord in our lives. Now we are called to glorify his name in all that we do, living in joyful obedience to his will.

Christ is the grain of wheat that fell into the ground and was buried, so that he might bear much fruit. Even now that resurrection fruit grows in us as we die and rise into a new life with him.

The kingdom is not yet here in its fullness, but now we have a promise to live by. Now we have a foretaste of the feast to come. Now he is lifted up for us, that he would once again draw us to himself.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 10, 2024

CLICK HERE for a worship video for March 10

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 10, 2024

Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

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

When I’m sick, if it gets bad enough, I will end up looking at a snake on a pole. When someone in my family is hurting, they too will look at a snake on a pole. My wife just started seeing a chiropractor for some low back pain, and part of her treatment involved looking at a snake on a pole. My oldest son had his tonsils and adenoids taken out last year, and before he underwent surgery, he looked at a snake on a pole. Here’s what I mean: my medical insurance card has a picture on it of a snake on a pole! Blue Cross/Blue Shield has it as part of their logo, and so every time anyone in my family needs medical attention, we pull out our card and see this snake on a pole.

Why would that be? Why would this image be found on our medical insurance card? Why would a medical insurance company include it as part of their logo?

Well, it isn’t just them. You can find this image in lots of places related to medicine. It is found in the insignia of several medical institutions. It is often found on nurses’ uniforms or on patches on the shoulders of EMTs or on the side of their ambulances. It is also found on medical bracelets people wear. Some of you might be wearing one with it on it right now.

So what is this image, this symbol? Why this snake on a pole?

This symbol is called a caduceus. It is also sometimes referred to as the Rod of Asclepius. Asclepius is a figure from Greek mythology associated with healing and medicine. But how in the world did Asclepius come to be associated with this strange image of a snake on a pole? It is widely believed that the Greeks “culturally appropriated” this symbol from the Jewish people and their story of Moses in the wilderness – the very story we hear in our first reading for today.

Moses led the Israelites out of slavery and through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Almost as soon as they were out there in the wilderness, the people started to grumble against Moses and against God. They complained about everything! The water they had to drink was yucky. They were hungry. When God gave them manna to eat, that wasn’t good enough. They wanted meat too. When God gave them meat in the form of quail, they said, no, not that meat, we want that other meat, like we had back in Egypt.

Even worse than being a bunch of ungrateful whiners, the people of God started to doubt God’s goodness. They started to think God had led them out into the wilderness only to let them die there. They failed to trust in God’s promises to them, that he was with them, that he had a future in store for them. And so God sent poisonous serpents among them. The snakes bit them. Some of them died. This sounds harsh, and maybe it is, but God was showing his people that sin leads to death.

Thankfully this is not the end of the story! God went on to provide a way for his people to be healed. He provided them with a way to be saved from death. God instructed Moses to make a serpent of bronze and hang it on a pole. Then Moses was to lift this snake on a pole up before the people, and all who lifted their eyes and looked upon it would be healed. They would live. As they lifted their eyes to this symbol of their sin, it became the very means of their salvation. That snake on a pole, then, has become a symbol of healing and of life.

Today in our gospel reading we hear Jesus using this story and this symbol to describe what he has come to do. Jesus uses the snake on a pole as a way of pointing to the healing he has come to bring. He uses it to describe how he would save people with the venom of sin pulsing through their veins, how he would save them from death.

Just before our reading picks up, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. This is who Jesus is talking to. Nicodemus was trying to figure out who Jesus was and what he was up to. He and his fellow Pharisees had established that Jesus was a teacher, but Jesus wanted him to know that he was much more than that. Jesus told Nicodemus that he was the Son of Man who has descended from heaven. The Son of Man is a phrase from the book of Daniel, where it refers to the Messiah, the long-promised Savior. Jesus explained to Nicodemus that the Son of Man would save by being lifted up, just like that snake on a pole. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” Jesus said, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus was more than a teacher. He was more than a prophet.  Jesus had come down from heaven to save those who had been bitten by the serpent – which is everyone! Jesus had come to be put on the pole that is the cross, where once again the symbol of our sin becomes the very means of our salvation. Jesus had come to be lifted up on this pole, so we would lift our eyes to him in faith and live.  As N.T. Wright puts it so succinctly in his commentary on this passage: “Humankind has been smitten with a deadly disease. The only cure is to look at the Son of Man dying on a cross and find life through believing in him.”

This tees up what has sometimes been called “the Bible in miniature,” or “the Gospel in a nutshell.” It leads to what is probably the best-known Bible passage of all. Right after saying this, Jesus tells Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

When you hear the word “believe” in the Bible, and especially in this passage, I would invite you to think of the word “trust.” “Believe” isn’t a bad word. It isn’t wrong. But in modern usage “believe” is often understood as something related to knowledge and then personal assent. It is often thought of as accepting a proposition. Again, this isn’t entirely wrong, but the Greek word here is more nuanced. It can also be translated as trust. Trust is something that is elicited. It is something that is cultivated in us and directed towards another.

For instance, when you’re receiving medical treatment, there is a lot of trust involved, isn’t there? To believe your medical provider when they tell you what is wrong with you is a good place to start, but when they start prescribing meds or putting needles in you or cutting you open, you have moved into trust territory. You are entrusting yourself to their care. You are putting your life in their hands. Faith, too, involves not only belief, or believing, it involves trust, entrusting yourself to another.

And so to look upon the Son of Man as he is lifted up is not only to believe an idea. It is not merely to say, “Yep, there he is!” To look upon him with faith is to trust that what he is doing there is for your benefit. It is for your healing. It is what saves you. It is what has opened the door for you to eternal life. To look upon him with faith is to entrust yourself entirely to him.

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we often grumble against God when things don’t go exactly as we’d like them to go. Even worse, there are times when we, too, start to doubt the goodness of God. In spite of God’s ongoing patience and grace and faithfulness to us, we start to believe God doesn’t care about us, that he has abandoned us in the wilderness. Sometimes we fail to trust God’s promises to us.

And so we, too, are snakebit by our sin. We, too, have the venom of the serpent pulsing in our veins. We all have this same condition, and it is fatal. As St. Paul writes in our epistle reading for today: “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.”

But just as God saved the ungrateful Israelites from sin and death, so too has God saved us! As St. Paul continues in our epistle reading, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”

The Son of Man has been lifted up for us. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that all those who believe in him, all those look upon him with faith, all those who entrust their lives to him, may not perish, but may have eternal life.

Just as with the Israelites, the symbol of our sin – the cross – has become the very means of our salvation. And so we look upon it with faith, with trust. We process the cross during the Lenten season to train our eyes and our hearts to look up, to look upon the Son of Man lifted up for us in every time of need.

Jesus is our snake on a pole. In looking upon him, we find healing and life.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent – February 25, 2024

CLICK HERE for a worship video for February 25

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent – February 25, 2024

Mark 8:31-38

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

When someone is confronted with traumatic news, their response to it often is to say, “No!” Sometimes this “no” comes out quietly, as a gasp or a whisper. Sometimes it is a statement of utter disbelief. “No, this can’t be. No, this can’t be happening.” When news is too shocking, too terrible, it isn’t uncommon for people to be in a state of denial at first. And so the “no” is a denial of a reality that is too difficult to face.

Other times people understand the magnitude of what has happened right away, and so the “no” comes out as a groan or a cry, or even a scream.

Pastors are often with people during, or more often in the aftermath, of traumatic news, and that’s something I’ve observed over and over again: “No, no, no, no, no.” I’ve said it a few times in such situations myself.

This is a common – and normal – human response to trauma. It isn’t inherently wrong or bad. In fact, it is motivated by love – a love for life and a love for others. Of course we don’t want to be sick! Of course we don’t want our loved ones to suffer! Of course we don’t want to lose them! And so, we say, “No!”

This response does, however, have a spiritual dimension to it which we should give some thought to today. When we say “no, no, no, no” to suffering, sometimes part of what we’re saying is that God isn’t doing things the way we want him to. Sometimes part of what we’re saying is, “No, God, we don’t accept this. This isn’t right. You aren’t doing this whole God thing correctly.” Sometimes that completely normal human response, rooted as it is in love, becomes an occasion for us to put ourselves in the position of God, deciding for ourselves how things should go. We only accept that God is good and loving and in control when things start going our way again, the way we think they should go.

Jesus told the disciples that he was going to suffer. He told them he was going to suffer, and be rejected, and be killed. This was traumatic news. Things had been going so well. Jesus had been going around healing people. He was becoming popular, gaining quite a following. Earlier in this very chapter Jesus miraculously fed thousands of people with fish and bread. In the verses just before our reading Peter had correctly identified Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the long-promised Savior. From the disciples’ perspective, everything was going great. Everything was going as they thought it should.

But then came this traumatic news. Jesus told them he was going to suffer and be rejected and be killed. And Peter’s response was, “No!” St. Mark tells us Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him. From the other gospel accounts we know that Peter literally said, “No! No, Lord, this must not happen to you!”

We heard what happened next. Jesus then rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

It was normal, it was human, for Peter to want to spare Jesus from suffering and death. Peter loved Jesus! But Peter’s response to this traumatic news assumed that he knew better than Jesus did. It assumed that he knew better than the Messiah did about how to be a Messiah. It assumed that he knew more than the Savior did about how to save.

“Get behind me Satan!” Jesus said to him. This is not to suggest that Peter had suddenly turned evil. It meant he had been deceived. He had been deceived into thinking he knew better than God. Jesus saw the tempter at work, tempting him to think he knew a better way for the Messiah to carry out his saving work. The deceiver was doing what the deceiver is always trying to do. He was trying to direct Peter, and Jesus, away from the cross.

Next Jesus turned to the crowd as said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

What does it mean to deny ourselves? What does it mean to take up our crosses? What does it mean to lose our lives in order to save them?

With these words coming as they are in the midst of Lent, we might be tempted to think that denying ourselves means giving up ice cream or candy for five more weeks. We might think it is a project of self-discipline we need to take on in order to get our act together to prove ourselves as disciples. We might think that taking up our crosses means heroically pursuing a life of hardship and suffering, again, as a way of proving ourselves as disciples. We might think that losing our lives for Jesus’ sake means seeking a glorious martyrdom, either figuratively or literally.

But none of this makes sense in light of the context in which Jesus spoke these words. Jesus is addressing Peter’s “no” here. He is addressing what he has come to do. He is talking about how he as the Savior was coming to save. Jesus was going to accomplish his saving work by himself undergoing great suffering, being rejected and killed, and after three days being raised again. What Jesus is inviting the crowd to do is simply to believe it! He is inviting them to trust that what he is going to do will save them.

To deny yourself in this context is to set aside the human way of thinking, the normal “no” reflex, and trust that this is how the Savior will save. To take up your own cross in this context is to give your life over entirely to God, to entrust yourself to God completely, even in the midst of suffering. To lose your life for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the gospel is to die to yourself, to die to your need for control. It is to surrender your life to the reality that God has saved you through the death and resurrection of his Son.

I’d like to illustrate this with some words by the great American theologian, Carrie Underwood. In her 2005 theological treatise entitled “Jesus Take the Wheel,” (which also happens to be a country song) she describes a woman who is desperate. She’s in a life-threatening situation. She’s a single mom on her way home to see her parents in Cincinnati. She is described as running low on both faith and gasoline. It had been a long, hard year for this woman, Underwood writes, and now, with 50 miles left to go and with her baby in the back seat, she hits a patch of black ice. Both of their lives flash before her eyes and she cries out, “Jesus take the wheel/Take it from my hands/’Cause I can’t do this on my own/I’m letting go.”

The second verse of this treatise, er, song, reveals that she and her baby are okay, thank goodness, but what makes song so powerful is the chorus. What makes it so powerful is the surrender. She hands her life over. “Jesus take the wheel! Take it from my hands! I can’t do this on my own! I’m letting go!” She entrusts herself and her loved one entirely to Christ.

She wasn’t giving up, she was surrendering her life to Jesus. There’s a difference. Christianity is not a death cult. We do not glorify death or seek it, thinking we are pleasing God as we do so, like some extreme forms of religion do. Neither do we see it as some benign part of “the circle of life” that we must accept as part of nature. Scripture describes death as an enemy. As such, we should fight it. We should guard against it. And when it seems to win, we rightly say “no!” We rightly grieve it. But we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Nor do we suffer as those who have no Savior.

God’s ways confuse and confound us at times. God doesn’t always do things the way we would like. God’s ways are often hidden from us. Sometimes they don’t make sense from a human point of view.

But God has heard our “no.” God has heard our cries. And God has responded to them by coming to us through his Son. God has responded to them by entering into our suffering through the cross of Christ, who suffered, and was rejected, and was killed. In Jesus, God stretched his arms out over all the suffering of the world, taking it all upon himself, until he bowed his head in death.

But Jesus’ story didn’t end with suffering and death. On the third day he was raised, just as he said. He ultimately conquered death through his resurrection. He has defeated that enemy, and he promises to share that victory with us. And so suffering and death won’t be the end of your story either.

In the meantime, surrender your life to Jesus. Deny yourself, setting your mind on divine things and not only on human things. Take up your cross and follow Jesus to the future he has in store for you. Entrust your life, and your death, to Christ and his gospel. Let him take the wheel. He’ll get you where you need to be.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church