Sermon for Pentecost Sunday – May 28, 2023

CLICK HERE for a worship video for May 28

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday – May 28, 2023

Acts 2:1-21, John 20:19-23

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

I want to begin by leading you through a breathing exercise. First, put your hands on your chest. Press lightly but firmly onto your rib cage. Now slowly breathe in as deeply as you can. Feel your chest cavity expanding, filling up with air. Keep inhaling until you can’t fit any more air in your lungs. Hold in your breath for four seconds. Now, slowly let it out. Exhale. Feel your lungs deflate as they push out the air.

Some of you might be thinking, “Oh great. Pastor’s gone New Age on us.” But no! Today is Pentecost. Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. And the biblical word for Spirit in both Hebrew and Greek, in the Old Testament and the New, means not only Spirit, but also wind and….breath.

Breathing involves both inhaling and exhaling. We take breath in and we push it out. Do you know what happens when you only do one or the other? You die! Both of our great Pentecost stories from the Bible today feature the breathing of the Spirit, and there is clearly both inhaling and exhaling.

In our gospel reading we heard how on the night of the resurrection Jesus gave the disciples the Holy Spirit. The risen Jesus appeared to them. He showed them his wounds, assuring them that it was really him. He said, “Peace be with you.” And then he said it again so that peace would sink in. Then Jesus breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The disciples took in these words. They breathed in Jesus’ breath. They inhaled deeply of the Holy Spirit.

But there was a big exhale too. Jesus also said to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus told them to breathe out the Spirit, saying, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The peace they breathed in was to be breathed out in words spoken to people. The breath of Jesus they breathed in was to be breathed out in words, proclaiming forgiveness in his name.

The Spirit was poured out again fifty days later at Pentecost, a Jewish festival which itself took place fifty days after Passover (which is where we get the word “Pentecost” – pente means fifty). We heard this story in our reading from Acts. Lots of people were in Jerusalem for the festival. There were lots of Jews who now lived outside of Israel who came back to celebrate. Many of these Jews spoke the languages of their homelands outside of Israel. For many of them, these other languages had become their native language. So you had all these people who spoke different languages together in one place for the festival. If you’ve ever been to the tulip festival in the Skagit Valley when the buses are down from Canada, you hear all kinds of different languages. You hear a lot of Chinese. You hear a lot of Hindi. You hear Canadian English, where they say “Soory” and “Aboot” and “Pretty flowers, eh?” You hear Spanish being spoken by the workers. You hear all these different languages. Well, there was a similar vibe at Pentecost.

And then the Spirit came blowing in like a rush of violent wind. And again, the apostles breathed in this wind, this breath. “They were filled with the Holy Spirit,” it says. There’s the inhalation. The Spirit filled their chests with the presence of God.

But then they exhaled. They didn’t hold their breath. They didn’t keep the Spirit in. They breathed out the Spirit on all those people gathered there for the festival. They breathed out the Spirit in the form of words, speaking of “God’s deeds of power.” They spoke of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. They spoke of his glorious resurrection. They spoke of the forgiveness and new life that was available to all through him. And then, in a great sign to show that this Good News was indeed for all the peoples of the earth, God opened their ears to hear the message, each in their own native language.

Like the Spirit brooding over the waters in the beginning, breathing words that brought creation into being, this breath was being put into the ears and the lungs and the hearts of the apostles, so that it could be breathed out in the form of words that created a new reality – the new reality of the forgiveness of sins and peace with God and the promise of eternal life.

The church today needs to understand that the Spirit’s breathing in and through us involves both inhaling and exhaling. We are taught when we go on airplanes that if the oxygen mask falls, to secure your own first and then help others with theirs. That’s good advice. You can’t help others if you don’t have that oxygen supply yourself. But in the church today, and especially in the Lutheran church, we tend to just put our own mask on, breathing in the gospel for ourselves, and then we never help anyone else hear it.

There is a slogan that has become popular in church circles today which says, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” The quote is attributed to St. Francis, but nobody can actually find where he said it. It reminds me of the meme that says, “The problem with internet quotes is that you can’t always depend on their accuracy,” with the quote being attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Not only is it a sketchily sourced quote, but it isn’t at all biblical. St. Paul says that faith comes by hearing. The mission Jesus gives to the church is to proclaim. Using words is always necessary to preach the gospel! That isn’t to say you shouldn’t strive to embody the gospel in the way you live, in the way you treat your neighbor. We should! But nobody will come to faith in Jesus solely because someone was nice to them. That might be the thing that earns you the trust needed to speak to someone, but it won’t by itself deliver the goods of the gospel. It will not, by itself, lead anyone to faith in Jesus. Words are necessary for that.

We need to inhale the gospel ourselves, to be sure. We never stop needing to breathe in the peace of God. We never stop needing to breathe in the presence of Christ Jesus in Word and Sacrament. We never stop needing to breathe in the good news that we are forgiven. But the breathing of the Spirit involves a breathing out as well. Jesus commissions all of us to speak to others of God’s deeds of power. Jesus sends all of us to speak to others of the forgiveness Jesus has won for us. “If you forgive the sins of any,” Jesus says, “they are forgiven them. If you retain them, they are retained.” There’s a lot more we could say about this, but let it at least be said that if you don’t share the gospel with someone who is living apart from God, you are effectively retaining their sin, leaving them stuck there. We are not called to only be filled with the Spirit ourselves, but to breathe it out through words that share the gospel of Jesus Christ and create faith in him. We need to both inhale and exhale.

Now, there are some important caveats. We can share the gospel in ways that are cringey and counterproductive. We shouldn’t do that, of course. We are not called to get in people’s faces with bullhorns. We are not to be arrogant or pretend we have all the answers about everything. There are some contexts where it isn’t appropriate or helpful to talk about our faith, and it can be hard to know when or how we can or should. It is increasingly counterculture to be Christian in the first place, let alone speak to others about it. I get that. I’m not suggesting this is easy or obvious in how we go about it.

I also hasten to add that the Spirit alone creates faith when and where the Spirit wishes. The Spirit uses us as instruments, as mouthpieces, but it is the Spirit that actually moves a heart to faith, not us.

But for the Spirit to breathe through the church it takes both inhaling and exhaling. We used to know this. We used to know this as Lutheran Christians. Do you know what the first document was to be translated into a Native American language? Luther’s Small Catechism. In the 1640s, Swedish Lutheran pastor Johann Campanius breathed in the gospel himself, and then exhaled it into the Algonquin language. This was a continuation of Pentecost! There are Lutheran church bodies today in Africa, some of which are significantly larger than our own, because decades ago Lutheran missionaries breathed in the gospel themselves, and then breathed it out into other languages. Today, we struggle to even do it in English. Today, some Christian parents don’t even teach the gospel to their own children. You know what happens to a church that only inhales and never exhales? It dies.

Our sister in Christ Mary Wonner has been receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer. I’ve been going to see her when she’s up for it. She has a neighbor who has been pretty outspoken in her unbelief. Both Bill and Mary, in a careful, respectful, loving way, have been looking for ways to share the gospel with her. Mary even said she hoped that what she was going through with her cancer would be used to open up opportunities to bear witness to her faith in Jesus to this neighbor. Here is a woman who is fighting for her life, and in the midst of that fight she is thinking about how she can share the gospel! She breathes in the word through Bible study with Bill and online worship and our communion visits, and then she breathes it out in gentle ways to others around her. This neighbor recently admitted that she was praying for Mary. Maybe it was just a polite thing to say. Or maybe, just maybe, the Spirit is working through Mary’s words.

This is the pattern our Pentecost readings lay out for all of us for living life in the Spirit of God. Christ breathes on us. We breathe in his presence. We are filled with the Holy Spirit. We breathe in God, and then we exhale. We are sent to speak of God’s great deeds of power, using the very necessary words God gives us to proclaim Christ’s forgiveness.

Breathe in with me once more. Slowly breathe in all the great deeds of power God has done and is doing for you. Breathe in Jesus’ words, “Peace be with you.” Let them sink in. Breathe in the forgiveness Christ has won for you. He forgives you all your sin, even your silence, your neglect of your calling to bear witness, your fear in sharing the gospel. Let the grace of Christ fill your lungs with new life in him. Let it calm your fears. You can hold that breath in, but not for too long. Then exhale slowly. And go forth from here today to breathe the Spirit out into the lives of others, so that they would know his grace too.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Ascension of our Lord – May 21, 2023

CLICK HERE for a worship video for May 21

Sermon for the Ascension of our Lord – May 21, 2023

Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

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

What a difference forty days makes! As we’ve been hearing in our readings these past two Sundays, when Jesus first told the disciples he would be leaving them they were beside themselves with worry. Their hearts were troubled. They felt like they were about to be orphaned, like they were losing the one who gave them life, the one who loved them more than anyone else ever had. As Jesus spoke of his leaving in the Upper Room, the disciples were filled with anguish and confusion and fear.

Now, forty days later, Jesus actually leaves them. He withdraws from them, St. Luke tells us. Jesus is carried up into heaven, getting smaller and smaller and smaller until he disappears from their sight. And what is their response to Jesus’ leaving? They are filled with great joy! What a difference forty days makes!

So what changed? What happened to make Jesus’ leaving them go from being an occasion of anguish to an occasion of great joy?

Well, one obvious thing that happened was the resurrection! Over those forty days the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples in many and various ways. Although the disciples all scattered like sheep when the storm of the crucifixion blew in, the risen Jesus didn’t appear to them in order to scold them. Instead he came to them saying, “Peace be with you.” This is what his death and resurrection accomplished: Peace with God! Although Peter denied knowing Jesus three times, publicly disavowing him, Jesus didn’t come to Peter so that he could punish him, so that he could get his revenge. Instead Jesus forgave him and restored him. Although Cleopas was clueless about what had just happened in Jerusalem and blind to Jesus’ presence while he walked with him on the road to Emmaus, Jesus didn’t give up on him and start walking the other way. Jesus had patience with him. He taught him. And then he broke bread with him, opening his eyes at last.

The resurrection had ushed in an entirely new reality for all of them. If there was a love more powerful than sin and death, what did they have to be afraid of?

The risen Jesus also opened the minds of the disciples to understand the scriptures. Now they understood how what we call the Old Testament writings pointed to him. He was the offspring of Eve who would crush the head of the serpent, defeating sin. He was the fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham that through his descendants all the families of the earth would be blessed. He was the Lamb of God in Exodus who delivers people from death. He was the suffering servant in Isaiah, by whose wounds we are healed. Now they understood that his death on the cross was not an accident or a failure, but God’s means of salvation. The Messiah was indeed to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day. It was all part of God’s endgame from the beginning. Now they understood this, and so Jesus’ leaving was not a tragic farewell but a triumphant victory lap after his mission was accomplished.

In addition to opening their minds to understand the scriptures, Jesus also promised to clothe them with power from on high. Jesus was promising them the Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit they would continue to deepen their understanding of the scriptures. Through the Spirit they would be empowered for their own mission, which was just beginning – their mission of proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name to all nations. Through the Holy Spirit they would continue to know the presence of Jesus in their lives, and so he wasn’t really going away. He would just be with them in a different way.

As Jesus left them, as his risen body began to ascend, Jesus lifted up his hands and blessed them. This was the posture the priests in the temple used to put God’s blessing on the people at the end of worship. It is the posture priests and pastors continue to use to bless God’s people, to put his word, his mercy, his love, his blessing on them. Jesus lifted up his hands in blessing. His hands, still bearing the wounds of his great sacrifice for them, were over them, covering them, shielding them, assuring them, blessing them.

These hands of blessing were yet another part of what made Jesus’ departure an occasion of great joy rather than great anguish. These disciples knew that these hands would remain over them, and so they could go back to their daily lives in great joy. They could go back to Jerusalem, where so much ugliness had happened, without fear. They would spend the rest of their lives worshipping him, blessing God for the blessing that was upon them.

The Ascension of our Lord continues to be an occasion of celebration among Jesus’ disciples today. While it isn’t well known or celebrated much among many American Christians today, historically in the Christian church it has been considered as important as Christmas and Easter! St. Augustine went so far as to say it was even more important than those festivals. He wrote:

“[The Ascension of our Lord] is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together, without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished. For unless the Savior had ascended into heaven, his Nativity would have come to nothing…and his Passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy Resurrection would have been useless.”

The Ascension “confirms the grace of all the other festivals” because now our ascended Lord is seated at the right hand of the Father, where all the things he accomplished in his Nativity and his Passion and his Resurrection continue to be poured out upon his people throughout the world. Our ascended Lord has taken his place at the right hand of God, where he continues to do for us what he did for his first disciples. He continues to do for you what he did for them!

For you who have scattered, who have strayed or fled from him, Jesus comes to you through his word – not to scold but to say, “Peace be with you,” to say, “It’s alright. I have made peace between you and God.” For you who have denied Jesus by your words or your actions, Jesus comes to you through the forgiveness which is proclaimed here in his name. He comes to restore you to right relationship with him and recommission you for service. For you who have been confused or distracted or blind to him, Jesus comes through the breaking of the bread, opening your eyes to his presence. Jesus doesn’t give up on us when we stumble or scatter or sin. He just keeps on coming to us with his word, moving us from repentance to forgiveness.

Jesus opens our minds to understand the scriptures. This isn’t to say we won’t be confused by the Bible from time to time. It is a big book with some confusing parts. There are some verses which the best Bible scholars in the world can only guess at their meaning. But Jesus opens our minds to understand that it is all ultimately about him and what he has done for us. It is about how God sent us a savior to save us from sin and death. It is about how the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. It is about how forgiveness, life, and salvation are found in Jesus.

This understanding doesn’t happen by osmosis. It doesn’t happen by being in the vicinity of a Bible. You actually need to open it up once in a while. You actually need to gather with God’s people to hear it and study it. But when you do, you can be assured that Christ Jesus will teach you what you need to know.

Jesus continues to clothe his people with power from on high. He sends the Holy Spirit to open up the word to us and stir up our faith and remind us of his presence and empower us for our mission and our callings.

And the same hands that were raised up over the disciples in a posture of blessing are raised up over you. As you gather to worship Jesus, as the disciples continued to do, his hands are lifted over you in blessing.

Every week I lift my hands in blessing at various points in the service, whether it is the absolution, or the post-communion blessing, or the benediction. Next week I will lay hands on our confirmation students, blessing them anew with the blessing they first received in Holy Baptism. Last week I laid hands on the head of one of our church members, saying the words of the benediction at the end of our time together. And so she was sheltered, she was covered in blessing when she died a few days later.

The hands of your pastor raised in blessing are a reminder that Christ’s hands of blessing are always over you. And so, with the disciples, you can live without fear. You can go back to your daily lives in great joy. No matter how ugly the world can be, you can go back to it knowing that Christ continues to hold his hands over you in blessing from his throne at the right hand of the Father.

The Ascension of our Lord is good news for you and for me. It is not about Jesus leaving. It is about him being with us forever in a different way. It is not a farewell, it is a “mission accomplished.” His hands were not waving goodbye, they continue to be held over us in eternal blessing.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church



Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 14, 2023

CLICK HERE for a worship video for May 14

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 14, 2023

John 14:15-21

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

Although we are still in the Easter season, our gospel readings for both last Sunday and this Sunday take place before the resurrection. We might think of them as flashback scenes. Jesus is preparing his disciples for all that is to come. He is telling them what will happen and what to expect in the days ahead. He is laying the groundwork for what his church will look like after his death and resurrection.

Jesus is also seeking to calm the hearts of the disciples, which, as we heard last week, had become troubled. Jesus had told them that he would be leaving them soon, and this news caused quite a stir. The disciples became nervous. They became anxious and afraid. And so, as we heard last week, Jesus said to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.”

Today we pick up right where we left off last week. Jesus is continuing to speak to the disciples, preparing them for what was to come. He had a lot more to say to them. In fact, Jesus will go on for four entire chapters with his farewell address to the disciples!

In the snippet we hear from this much longer farewell address, Jesus again speaks to the disciples’ troubled hearts. He addresses this visceral, primal fear they have of being left alone. And in doing so Jesus uses a word that is the same in both English and Greek. He uses the word orphanos, orphan – one whose parents have died. An orphan in the ancient world was especially vulnerable, but we know the sting of that word even today.

I felt a bit of that sting last week as, for the second time in my life, I stood before the Mother’s Day cards at Rite Aid and had that stinging reminder that I wouldn’t be needing one for my mom, who died a year and a half ago. I delight in the opportunity Mother’s Day brings for lavishing my wife with gratitude for what a wonderful mother she is to our three sons. I am also grateful to have a wonderful stepmother who I love very much and has been a tremendous blessing in my life. (She got one of the OHLC-made cards.) I also acknowledge that I’m only a half-orphan, and that I lost my mom later in life than some people do. I’m not trying to stir up a pity party.

But, as many of you know, there is something primal about losing your mother, and it reared up in me again as I looked at those cards. There is something existentially painful about losing the one who carried you in her body and delivered you into the world and nursed you at her breast and took care of you when you were sick and always called you on your birthday and was a constant source of unconditional love in your life. Losing that person leaves you feeling a little lost. The world just feels different without that person in it. It feels a little colder.

The word “orphan” captures this experience, and this is the word Jesus uses to name the fear the disciples were experiencing. They were afraid they were about to be orphaned. They were afraid they were about to lose Jesus, the one who gave them new life. They were afraid that that they were about to lose the one who loved them more than anyone else they had ever known.

Speaking to this primal fear, Jesus gave them a promise. “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus said. Jesus promised that he would not leave them alone.

Jesus promised he would send “another Advocate” to be with them forever. This is a vaguely legal term for someone who would defend you and protect you. The opposite of this is the Accuser, the devil, who goes on the attack, trying to drag you into despair. Jesus promised to send the Advocate, someone who will forever be in their corner, defending them from these attacks, protecting them from the evil one.

This Advocate, however, also has a soft side, a tender, nurturing side. In fact, some Bibles choose to translate the word “Advocate” as either comforter or helper. This Advocate both defends and comforts. You might think of it as a Mama Bear, who will both hold you close in the warmth of her love and tenderness and will also rip the face off of anyone who dares to mess with her cubs.

This Advocate Jesus is talking about is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit holds us close in God’s love while fiercely defending us from our enemies of sin, death, and the devil. “This is the Spirit of truth,” Jesus says, “whom the world does not know, but you know, because he abides with you and will be in you.” And so they will never be alone. They will always have the Holy Spirit.

Jesus also promised the disciples that he himself will come to them. “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says, “I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

This refers specifically to the fact that the risen Jesus will literally come to them, and they will literally see him. But it also alludes to how Jesus will come to his church after his ascension. That Spirit of truth will make the risen Jesus known to us. That Spirit of truth is his Spirit, which will be with us forever, giving us life with him. Jesus promises that by this Spirit his disciples will know that he is in the Father and that they are in him and that he is in them. That’s a lot to get your head around, I know, but the essence of this is simply that Jesus will not leave his disciples, then or now, alone. He will come to them. He will be with them. He will not leave them orphaned.

Jesus also says that “those who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

It is easy to hear this, along with what Jesus says earlier about how those who love him will keep his commandments, as a litmus test of sorts, as if there is something we must do to prove we really love Jesus before he will reveal himself to us. But that isn’t quite right. Jesus isn’t giving a litmus test so much as he is giving a description of how his disciples will experience his presence once he has left. Those who love him – and it won’t be everybody – will have and keep his commandments. To keep Christ’s commandments does mean to obey them. You can’t say “I love Jesus, but I don’t want him telling me how to live my life.” But to keep Christ’s commandments is so much more than mere obedience. To “keep” is also to preserve. It is to hold close. It is to treasure. This is not a burden or a begrudging obligation. Instead, for those who love Jesus, it is an honor and a joy to hold his teachings close.

On December 31st of this last year I got the shocking news that my beloved professor, Jim Nestingen, had died. Not everybody loved Jim. While he was a world-renowned academic, many of his fellow scholars found him a little too backwater with his thick North Dakota accent and his stories from the prairie. He was always more at home in church fellowship halls than in academia. He could get salty in his language and a little too earthy in his illustrations. He could also be very outspoken in his criticism of certain bishops and the direction of the church. So, not everybody loved him.

But many did. Jim has a cadre of students who loved him, myself included, and in the months following his death we have gathered in various ways to share his stories, to remember things he said, to encourage one another to continue in what he taught us. We’ve all pulled out our favorite books and essays and articles of his. There is an effort to collect and keep and preserve his writings and any videos of his lectures. None of this is done begrudgingly. None of this is a litmus test to prove our love for him. This is all the organic response of students who love their teacher.

How much more, then, do the disciples of Jesus have and keep and preserve and treasure his teachings, his commandments, his words? We will never obey them perfectly in this life, but we have and keep and preserve and treasure all that Jesus has said, all that he has taught, all that he has commanded, as the organic response of disciples who love our Lord. It is what we do in response to the One who first loved us and gave himself for us. It is what the church is and does. And Jesus promises us that as we continue to have and keep his commandments, we will know the love of the Father. He promises that he himself will reveal himself to us. We will not be alone. We will not be orphaned. He will continue to make himself known to us.

The fear the disciples had still shows up among Christ’s disciples today. We are desperately afraid of losing the people we love, the people who love us. When we do lose them, there is a vulnerability, an ache, a sting. We feel a little lost. The world feels different, a little colder.

Jesus speaks to this primal fear we have, this universal ache. In a world where people lose mothers and mentors and all kinds of other people who are dear to us, Jesus promises that we will never lose him. In a world full of loneliness, he promises us that we will never be alone. Jesus sends us the Spirit to be our Advocate and our comforter and our helper. He comes to us himself by that same Spirit, dwelling in and among us as our risen Lord. As we keep and preserve and treasure his Word, he reveals himself to us, filling us with the love of the Father.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus promised the disciples.

This is his promise to you too.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 7, 2023

CLICK HERE for a worship video for May 7

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 7, 2023

John 14:1-14

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

The disciples’ hearts were troubled. How could they not be? Jesus had just told them that one of them would soon betray him. He told them that he would be leaving them, and he was saying it in a cryptic way that sounded ominous. He told them that Peter would deny even knowing him three times before the cock crowed the next morning. Of course the disciples’ hearts were troubled!

And so Jesus said to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

Jesus wasn’t merely encouraging them to believe in the existence of God. He was telling them to have confidence in God, and to have confidence in him. He was telling them to have faith in the Father and the Son. He was telling them to trust in them.

Their hearts didn’t need to stay troubled, Jesus continued, because there was a dwelling place beyond the betrayal. There was a place for them beyond the denial – a place for them in the Father’s house. There was a room for them in this house, and Jesus was leaving in order to prepare that room for them, so that where Jesus was, there they would be also.

“You know the way to where I am going,” Jesus said to them. It isn’t hard to imagine the confused looks on their faces. You can imagine them thinking, “Uh, we do?” You can picture them scratching their heads, trying to figure out the way. Thomas alone was brave enough to say what probably all of them were thinking: “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”

Thomas was asking for directions. He was asking for a map. Even just a place name would have helped. Are you talking about the temple, Jesus? Are you going back to Galilee? Somewhere further, like Syria? Rome even? Where are you going, and how can we know the way?

And Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

This is a boldly exclusive claim Jesus is making here, to be sure. He alone is the way to God the Father. But while this is indeed an exclusive claim, it is also a promise. In the context of these disciples and their troubled hearts, it is good news!

The disciples were anxious and confused. Jesus was talking about going to the Father’s house and saying they knew the way, but clearly they didn’t know the way! What were they going to do? How were they going to figure out the way?

What Jesus said in response to their confusion and their anxiety was an assurance. Jesus said to them, “I AM the way!” They knew the way because they knew him! They didn’t need a map. They didn’t need directions. And they didn’t need to worry, either! Jesus IS the way. No one comes to the Father by their own power or cleverness or sense of direction. No one comes to the Father by their own strength or smarts or spirituality. No one comes to the Father except through Jesus. He is the way, and the truth, and the life, and he will get them to where they need to be.

As part of my seminary education I took a study trip to Brevig Mission, Alaska, which is way up on the Seward Peninsula, north of Nome. Brevig Mission is named after a Norwegian Lutheran pastor named Tollef Brevig, who established a mission among the Inupiak people there. Today it is essentially a village of Alaska Natives who are all Lutheran! They are served by a pastor who also serves the community of Teller, which is just across an inlet of the Bering Sea. When it is above freezing and the water is open, you get from Brevig to Teller by boat. In the winter, you cross that frozen inlet by snow machine. I went in January, so on a Sunday morning I got to ride in the supply sleigh behind the snow machine as we went over to Teller for worship services.

On the way back is when things got interesting. As we made our way out onto the ice for the return trip, it started to snow. Hard. Then the wind kicked up, creating total white-out conditions. At one point the pastor driving the snow machine stopped to try to find the tracks we made on the way over. Those tracks were filling in fast.

You could say at this point that my heart was troubled! I’d read enough Jack London stories as a kid that I could vividly imagine how this could end up. I thought for sure that this was how I was going to die, lost out on this frozen finger of the Bering Sea. I came to Brevig to learn about being a pastor, but I would die instead as a popsicle.

I sure as heck didn’t know the way back to Brevig. There was no amount of smarts or strength or spirituality which I possessed that would get me back to the house. All I could do was hold on and trust that this pastor would get me there. And, somehow, he did.

To believe, to have faith, is to hold on and trust in Jesus. To know the way to the Father’s house is not about knowing a route and then following it, it is about knowing and trusting a person. It is about knowing and trusting Jesus to get you where you need to go. As Jesus explained further to Thomas, he and the Father are one.

And so when Jesus says he is the way, the truth, and the life, he is not giving us an orienteering project for us to figure out. He is not giving us a set of directions and telling us to prove ourselves. He is not telling us to make our own way or discover our own truth or to find life in ourselves. Jesus is calling us to simply hold on and trust him. He is the way, and the truth, and the life.

As Jesus’ disciples today, we often find that our hearts are troubled. During our life-long battle with sin, we find that we continue to betray and deny Jesus in ways both big and small, by things we have done and things we have left undone. Our hearts are troubled by the brokenness of the world. Our hearts are troubled by uncertainty and by loss and by fear.

In fact, in our congregation here it seems like we’ve had more than our share of troubled hearts these last few weeks. We have a number of folks who are grieving. We have several folks who are very sick, and folks who love them who are very worried. We have several brothers and sisters in Christ who are in life situations that are complicated and painful, without a clear path forward.

When your heart is troubled you can feel a little lost, a little disoriented. You can feel cold and afraid and unsure of the way home, uncertain that you’ll even make it home.

Today Jesus says to all of us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He says, “Believe in God, believe also in me.” Jesus isn’t just asking us to give our assent to an idea or a doctrine. He is inviting us to trust in God, and to trust in him. They are one in the same, after all, and they are in cahoots to save us from everything that troubles our hearts. Trust us, Jesus says! Let us take care of things! Don’t worry!

Today Jesus says to all of us, “There is a future beyond your sin, beyond your failures. There is a home beyond your fears. There is a dwelling place beyond death. On the other side of all of that is the Father’s house. You will be safe there. I will be with you there. And I am going to get you there.”

Today Jesus says to all of us, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is indeed a boldly exclusive claim.  Christ alone is the way to God the Father! No one comes to the Father by their own goodness. No one comes to the Father by their own efforts, or because they have earned entry. No one comes to the Father by their own smarts or strength or spirituality. These are all dead-end roads.

No one finds their own way to the Father’s house. No one discovers the truth by defining it for themselves. No one finds life by looking inward.

But this exclusive claim is also a promise: Christ’s work alone gets us to the Father! We don’t need to go down those dead ends, those spiritual rabbit holes. All there is for us to do is to know and to trust in Jesus. When you know Jesus, you know the way. When you believe in him, you know the truth. When you trust him, you will have life.

When Jesus left the disciples, he was indeed betrayed. He was denied three times by one of his closest followers. Jesus was arrested and beaten and crucified and killed. But then on the third day, he rose again. This was how Jesus prepared the way.

By his death and resurrection, Jesus leads us out of sin and into forgiveness and mercy and righteousness. By his death and resurrection, Jesus leads us out of fear and despair and into peace and hope and even joy. By his death and resurrection, Jesus ultimately will lead us out of death and into eternal life with him, so that where he is, there we will be also.

If your heart is troubled today, hold on and trust in Jesus. Even now he is making a way. Even now he is leading you. Hold on and trust him. He will get you where you need to go. He will get you to the Father’s house. He will get you safely home.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church


Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 30, 2023

CLICK HERE for a worship video for April 30

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 30, 2023

John 10:1-10

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

We live in the midst of an increasingly confusing cacophony of voices, all vying for our attention, and it is increasingly difficult to know which of these voices can be trusted.

There are voices on TV news with competing claims to the truth depending on which station you’re watching. While the nation’s news used to come through the trusted voice of a single figure like Walter Cronkite, it now comes through several voices, and they are all saying very different things.

There is a vast array of voices on social media making claims to the truth. Social media companies have struggled to figure out ways to make those online conversations trustworthy by trying to weed out fake accounts and figuring out ways to verify users and by tagging some statements with context or correction.

There are voices on platforms like Tik-Tok, where quick sound-bite video clips with sometimes dangerous or destructive ideas are repeated and multiplied over and over again, warping young minds and spreading social contagions.

There are now more than 150 million podcast episodes floating around the internet, being piped into people’s ears. Talk about a cacophony of voices! And with the increasing sophistication of Chatbots and AI, it is getting more and more difficult to trust that the voices we hear even belong to real people!

Podcaster Joe Rogan recently illustrated this point by having AI generate an entire episode of his show. It perfectly mimicked his voice and the voice of his guest. They engaged in a perfectly natural sounding conversation covering various topics for almost two hours – only none of it was real! It was all AI generated. The voices were completely fake.

For the record, this is not a blanket endorsement of everything Joe Rogan says or does – but this little experiment of his was very telling of what we’re in for as this technology advances. In a world like this, which voices are we to listen to? Which voices can we trust?

There were many voices competing for people’s ears in Jesus’ time too. Even without social media and podcasts and AI, there was a confusing array of voices.  There were many religious movements and leaders, all making various claims to the truth. There were different voices saying different things about Jesus, about who he was and whether people should follow him or not.

In the chapter just before our gospel reading for today is the story of a man born blind. He couldn’t see Jesus, but he could hear his voice. He listened to Jesus’ voice and trusted it. By trusting in this voice he not only had his sight restored, he was given an entirely new life as he came to believe in and worship Jesus. In stark contrast to this were the voices of the Pharisees. They didn’t want people to listen to Jesus. They wanted people to listen to them.

It is in this context that Jesus warns people about listening to the wrong voices, and invites them to listen to his voice. And by way of illustration, Jesus points to how sheep listen to the voice of their shepherd.  He talks about how shepherds open the gate and call their own sheep by name, and they follow him because they know the sound of his voice.

When I was in my first congregation in Montana, we were invited out to the home of some sheep ranchers. Our oldest son was just a toddler, and we pushed him in his stroller out to the big enclosure where the sheep were. The sheep were all clustered together on the far side of the sheepfold, so we called out to them, trying to lure them closer so our son could get a better look. Well, they didn’t budge. Then the wife of the sheep rancher called out to them. They still didn’t budge. But when the rancher, the shepherd himself, called out to them, they all came running! They knew his voice. They knew the voice of their shepherd and they followed it. What Jesus was talking about two thousand years ago still happens today!

Jesus points out how sheep don’t follow the voice of strangers, because they do not know the voice of strangers. He also warns that some of those voices are dangerous. They belong to thieves and bandits who come only to steal and kill and destroy.

Jesus is warning us too. Jesus is warning us to be careful about what voices we are listening to. He is warning us against following those voices which only lead us into danger. He is warning us against those voices which only want to steal and kill and destroy. Because we are his sheep, we are to listen to his voice.

Jesus says he uses his voice to call his sheep by name. Jesus knows his sheep intimately! He knows them personally! He cares for each of them individually, calling them to himself.

Jesus says that those who listen to his voice come in and go out and find pasture. That is, they come into the safety of the sheepfold where they are protected, and they go out into the pasture where they are fed. It is a picture of both protection and providence, of being guarded and being nourished.

Best of all, Jesus says that those who listen to his voice will have life, and have it abundantly. He has come to give us life with God, a life with God that begins now and continues forever. How can this kind of life be anything other than abundant, overflowing with God’s goodness and mercy and love?

You have heard this voice. In your baptism this shepherd Jesus has called you by name. He knows you intimately and personally. He knows your individual quirks and failings. He knows your specific sins, and he laid down his life for all of them, taking them upon himself. He also knows your specific gifts, and he raises you to new life in him so that you might share them with the world. He forgives you and loves you and continues to call you by name.

As you follow his voice, he leads you into his sheepfold, where he protects you from all those voices which would steal or kill or destroy. He calls you into the church, into Christian community, where he can ward off those other voices which would lure you away from him. He leads you to good pasture, where he can nourish and strengthen you.

As we listen to his voice, as we trust it, he fills us with life! A truly abundant life can only come from listening to the voice of Jesus Christ. He alone can give us an abundant life full of hope and joy and peace and love. He alone leads us into the abundance of eternal life with God.

Just this last week the Wall Street Journal had an article about a poll they had conducted about happiness. Only 12% of respondents in the poll said they were truly happy, and they followed this up with further investigation to try to find out what these happy people had in common. The biggest commonality among those who said they were truly happy was that they were frequent church-goers. They didn’t just identify as Christian in some vague philosophical way. They didn’t just go to church a couple times a year. They were weekly worshippers.

Now I’m sure this 12% of people who said they were truly happy still had problems. I’m sure they still had difficulties. But even so, they said they were truly happy. (Not to quibble, but perhaps a better word for what they were describing would be joy rather than happiness.)

It isn’t hard to see the connection between their response and their regular attendance in worship. After all, it is in worship that they hear the voice of their shepherd. That’s where they join with the rest of the flock to listen to his voice. It is in worship that his voice rises above all those other voices that only seek to steal and kill and destroy. It is within the sheepfold of the Christian church that we hear the Word of God, and in so doing we hear the deepest and fullest truths about ourselves, about our world, and about God. These truths are life giving!

It is a sad correlation to see that as church attendance has been going down in our country for decades, exacerbated significantly by COVID, people are quantifiably less happy. Diseases of despair are on the rise. Deaths of despair are on the rise to such a degree that the average life span in our country is going down. Those voices that only steal life and kill true joy and destroy hope are being listened to and followed far too often, with tragic results.

Let’s not be simplistic. It isn’t that coming to worship frequently is a magic formula that inoculates us from pain and sorrow and struggle. We all know that isn’t true.

But it is true that as our shepherd calls us into this sheepfold, as we listen to his voice, he continues to call us by name. He continues to lead us to green pastures and still waters, restoring our souls. He continues to comfort us when we are in the darkest valleys. He continues to prepare a table for us in the presence of our enemies. He continues to give us the promise that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

And so, amidst the cacophony of other voices competing for your attention, continue to listen carefully to the voice of your shepherd. Listen to it and trust it. Listen to it and follow it. For you are one of his beloved sheep, and he has come so that you would have life, and have it abundantly.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter – April 23, 2023

CLICK HERE for a worship video for April 23

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter – April 23, 2023

Luke 24:13-35

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, who is risen indeed. Alleluia.

You’ve probably seen it happen. The local sports team is way behind. It looks like they are facing a certain defeat. And so some of the disappointed fans pick up their things and head for the doors. They start streaming out of the stadium while the game is still being played, thinking it is already essentially over, that it is beyond hope. Maybe it is a baseball game or a football game or a hockey match. Whatever the sport, you’ve probably seen it happen. Maybe you yourself have left early when it seemed like your team had no hope of victory.

The two disciples we meet in our gospel reading for today had no hope, and so they left Jerusalem. They thought there was nothing left to see there. They thought Jesus has been defeated, and that there was no point in hanging around any longer. They had seen Jesus being handed over and arrested. They saw him being crucified. They saw his dead body being taken down from the cross. They had heard about the empty tomb, but this was not a sign of victory to them. It just meant that the body was now missing, which just added to their sense of defeat.

These two disciples had no hope. They could only see defeat. They thought it was game over for Jesus. Their hearts were slow to believe. And so they left Jerusalem and headed down the road to Emmaus.

And here is one of the remarkable elements of a story that is chock full of them: the risen Jesus went after them! Jesus chased them down on the road to Emmaus! Can you imagine a quarterback or a closing pitcher running out of the stadium, out into the parking lot, calling the discouraged fans to come back in? That’s just what Jesus did! And these two disciples weren’t even among the twelve Jesus had called. These were two from the larger group of disciples who had followed Jesus around, often at a distance. They were not part of that intimate group, and yet on the day of his resurrection, Jesus went chasing after them. He didn’t want them to leave without knowing about his come-from-behind victory. He didn’t want them to remain in unbelief. He didn’t want them to remain without hope.

They didn’t recognize him at first. We don’t know why. I always picture Jesus with one of those silly big nose-and-glasses disguises on, just waiting for the right moment to take it off and surprise them. There’s just so much irony and even humor in this story that I think it fits. Luther’s interpretation is more serious, and probably more accurate. He speculated that they were so overcome by grief and shock that their brains couldn’t process that it was Jesus.

At any rate, Jesus caught up to them on the road to Emmaus, sidled up to them, and casually asked, “What are you guys talking about?” Cleopas replied, “What do you think we’re talking about? Have you been living under a rock for these last few days? Are you the only person who doesn’t know about the things that just happened back in Jerusalem?” “What things?” Jesus coyly replied. Isn’t that funny? The guy to whom all the things happened asked, “What things?” Cleopas gave his recap of all the things, which, from his perspective looked like a complete and utter defeat. “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel,” Cleopas said.

Jesus then gently chided these two disciples, saying, “Oh how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all the prophets had declared!” He told them it was necessary that the Messiah should suffer all these things and then enter his glory. Then he led them through the scriptures, pointing them to all the passages about himself. He interpreted the entire Bible through the lens of all the things that had happened in Jerusalem, assuring them that this had been God’s game plan all along.

Can you imagine getting this Bible study from Jesus himself? I took a literature class in college from Carol Doig, the wife of the acclaimed author Ivan Doig. We read one of his books in class and then he came in to talk to us about it. Here was the author himself in front of us! We could ask him anything about the story or the characters or the themes, and he could tell us exactly what he intended. In the same way, these two disciples learned about the Bible from the Author himself. They learned about the Word from the Word made flesh! And he was telling them that the whole book is about him. The whole book is about his death and resurrection for our salvation. The whole thing is about his ultimate victory over sin and death, a victory he shares with us.

When evening came the two disciples asked Jesus to stay with them. They still didn’t recognize him, but it was evening and the day was almost over, and so they urged him strongly to stay. He did, and when he sat at table with them he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. And now at last their eyes were opened. They recognized him.

Jesus then vanished from their sight. He had done what he came to do. He helped them to see him and know that he was indeed risen. He helped them to believe. He restored their hope.

Now these two disciples knew that Jesus had not been defeated after all. They went back to Jerusalem. They celebrated his victory with the eleven disciples. They shared with them how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

We know the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We know the road that feels like defeat, the road that feels hopeless. We have walked it ourselves. It could be the journey home from a frustrating or disappointing day at work. It could be the walk through a struggling relationship with an uncertain future. It could be a stroll down a lane of memories which bring regret or shame or trauma. It could be a trip home from the doctor’s office after a devastating diagnosis. It could be the lonely and heartbreaking road home from a cemetery. We know this road. We have all walked it.  There are defeats which are much more profound than those in any sporting event. There are defeats which leave us struggling to find hope.

But our risen Lord doesn’t let us walk that road alone. He comes to us. He chases us down. He cares about us – even us who are the least among his disciples. He cares about us too much to let us leave without knowing about the great victory he has won for us.

Our Lord Jesus comes to us through his Word. While he isn’t here in person to lead us in Bible study, he has given us the interpretive key to unlocking all of scripture. It is all about him! Every story whispers his name! He is the seed in Genesis which would crush the head of the serpent, saving us from sin. He is the Lamb of God in Exodus who delivers us from death. He is the suffering servant in Isaiah by whose wounds we are healed. We know the meaning of scripture because it has been disclosed to us by the Author himself. We know the Word because it has been interpreted to us by the Word made flesh. And in our hearing of this Word, our hearts begin to burn within us. Faith is kindled. Hope is lit in us.

Our Lord Jesus also reveals himself to us in the breaking of the bread. He shows himself to us in bread and wine, his body and blood. He opens our eyes to his presence among us, literally feeding our faith. And once our eyes are opened to his presence among us in his Holy Supper, we can look back on the road we’ve been walking and begin to see that he was with us all along, even when we didn’t recognize him.

At some point in our lives we all walk the road to Emmaus. We walk with the assumption that defeat is inevitable. We walk believing that there is no hope, that sin and death have already won – in our world, and in our lives. Maybe you’re walking that road today.

But our risen Lord Jesus does not let us walk that road alone. He chases us down. He comes after us. We might not see him. We might doubt he is there. Our hearts are sometimes foolish and slow to believe too!

But our risen Lord patiently walks with us every step of the way. He points us to his Word, so that we would understand God’s game plan. He reveals himself to us in the breaking of the bread so that we would trust that he is risen indeed.

He turns us around on that road, turning us from unbelief to faith, from sadness to joy, from dejection to hearts burning within us, from despair to hope.

He turns us from the assumption of defeat to the assurance of his victory over sin and death.

So lift up your heads, friends. Team sin and death have taken an L. Our opponent, sin, has been defeated. You are forgiven. Our opponent, death, has been defeated. You have nothing to be afraid of anymore.

So walk in peace. Walk in hope. Walk in joy. Walk in newness of life.

Christ has won, and he promises to share his victory with us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church