Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 2, 2021

CLICK HERE for a worship video for May 9

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 2, 2021

John 15:1-8

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

Perhaps the most beloved feature of our sanctuary here at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church are the picture windows looking out on that stand of trees. Most of those trees out there are evergreen trees. They are so named because they are “ever green.” They stay lush and full and green all year ‘round.

Except when they don’t. There are a couple of branches outside our window today which are not green. They are not green because they are no longer alive, and they are no longer alive because they are no longer connected to the tree! Those branches broke off in one of the many windstorms we’ve had over the past few months, and so they are disconnected from their source of life and have become shriveled and dried out and lifeless.

Just the past week I was over here mowing with one of my sons, and I just about pulled those branches out. But then I thought – No! Leave them! Those branches are a perfect illustration of what our Lord Jesus is teaching us in our gospel reading this week!

“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Jesus is comparing our relationship with him as being like a vine with its branches. He is the vine, we are the branches. And just like any branch, we need to abide in him in order to truly live. We need to stay connected to him in order to stay evergreen. We need to draw nutrients from him in order to flourish with a faith that is vibrant and alive. We need to stay connected to him through word and prayer and worship in order to bear the fruit that God desires.

Without that connection, we dry up. Without that connection, faith dies. When we do not abide in Christ, we shrivel up and become lifeless, like those dead brown branches outside our window. And those dead branches are removed. “Whoever does not abide in me,” Jesus says, “is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

This might sound harsh, but Jesus is simply telling it like it is. He is simply being realistic. He is simply telling us the natural consequences of what happens to branches when they are no longer connected to the source of life. Jesus is telling us this so that it won’t happen to us, so that we will instead abide in him, the true vine and the source of life, apart from whom we can do nothing.

We know what it is to be disconnected. Due to pandemic restrictions we’ve been disconnected socially in many ways for more than a year now. It has been a struggle. I’ve seen a few articles recently expressing concern that we have been so socially disconnected for so long that we’ll have to relearn certain social skills. There is further concern that some people won’t want to. that they’ll want to stay in their comfortable cocoons, cut off from other people. What started off as a prudent public health measure will become a lifestyle. While personally I don’t think this will be a widespread problem, I’ve have seen anecdotal evidence of it here and there. And so some relationships will wither. Some communities, including congregations, will shrivel around the edges. The people who cut themselves off will continue to shrivel socially from lack of connection with others.

That human connection is so important, and technology is no substitute for the real thing. I’m grateful I live in an age when I can send my son out of state for college and still see him as we FaceTime with him every Sunday night, but you can bet I’m looking forward to having him at the dinner table in person when he comes home next week. As some of you saw on Facebook, I got to see Abby Chromy, our beloved former parish nurse, for an in-person visit last week for the first time in over a year. That connection had been painfully severed due to the lockdowns. To finally abide with her in person was life-giving for both of us. At Helen Grigsby’s funeral this past week I saw tears of joy in the eyes of some of our members who came out for the service saw dear friends they hadn’t seen in months. Even in the midst of death and grief, there was life! We find life in those connections, in real, human connection. We need it as human beings. We need it as the Body of Christ.

What is true in our social life is even more true in our spiritual life. In order for us to be spiritually alive, we need that connection to Jesus. He is the vine, we are the branches. Apart from him, we can do nothing. He is our source of life. He is the true vine, the only vine that can make us evergreen. He is the true vine through whom we can bear the fruit God desires. By being connected to Jesus, we are infused with a love and mercy and hope and peace that grows and blossoms into a love and mercy and hope and peace that we can share with others.

We hear these words today still very much in the season of Easter. And so we hear all of this from the perspective of knowing that Christ is risen. We hear it knowing that he is the true vine that continues to live and sprout branches yet today. When we hear Jesus tell the disciples that he abides in them, we know that our risen Lord continues to abide with his people. He continues to be present with us through the power of the Spirit. When we hear Jesus tell the disciples, “You are already been cleansed by the word I have spoken to you,” we know that our risen Lord continues to speak a word that cleanses us. He spoke this word to us at our baptism, where we were first grafted into him. He speaks this word to us whenever the forgiveness of sins is announced in his name, where he prunes away our sin to make room for fruit. He speaks this word to us every time we hear the words, “This is my body, my blood, given for you.” Our risen Lord continues to come to us to establish that connection, so that we would have life in him.

We all struggle at times to bear fruit. We struggle to stay connected to the true vine. Sometimes we feel like that withered branch outside our window, spiritually dry and dead. But our risen Lord comes to us even now through word and sacrament to connect us to him. Our risen Lord continues to abide with us. Let us abide in this true vine. Let us stay connected as his branches. Let us receive the life he has come to give us, a life that is evergreen, and bears good fruit.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 25, 2021

CLICK HERE for a sermon video for April 25

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 25, 2021

John 10:11-18

 Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd of the sheep.

The 23rd psalm is one of the most cherished passages in all of scripture, and is certainly the best known passage in the Old Testament – and for good reason. In writing this psalm King David, who spent his youth working as a shepherd, drew on his experience as a shepherd to describe who God is, what God is like. “The Lord is my shepherd,” David begins. He goes on to describe the Lord God as a shepherd who makes us to lie down in green pastures and leads us to still waters in order to restore our souls. The Lord God is a shepherd who accompanies his sheep, who is powerfully present with them even as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death so that they would fear no evil, for his rod and staff, his power and might, comfort them. The Lord God is a shepherd who gives his sheep an abundance of life, such that their cup overflows. The Lord God is a shepherd who pours out his goodness and mercy upon his sheep all the days of their lives, and gives us the promise that they will dwell in his house forever! In this beloved psalm, cherished by Jews and Christians alike, David describes the Lord God as a shepherd, as a good shepherd.

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus comes along and says, “I am the good shepherd!” Jesus is making a claim to his divinity. He is this God David has described! He is explaining that he has come to do all the things David said the good shepherd would do. He has come to restore our souls, to walk with us in the valley of the shadow, to make our cup overflow, to give us his goodness and mercy, to prepare a place in his house for us to be with him forever.

But then Jesus says something shocking. Jesus has not only come to do all the things the good shepherd of David’s psalm would do. He has come to do something else as well. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” Jesus says. While the hired hands run away when the wolves come to snatch and scatter, the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

My family and I have taken several trips to Yellowstone National Park, and one year we remember fondly as “the wolf year.” That year we saw wolf cubs playing in a meadow. We watched one wolf howl to its mate until the mate came trotting out of the forest to join it. We also found ourselves stuck in a traffic jam, which, in Yellowstone, usually means there is some cool wildlife to look at. As we crept along, we eventually saw what everyone was looking at. A couple of wolves were on a riverbank right near the road with their snouts buried in the carcass of a deer. We watched them tugging at the deer’s flesh, their white fur splattered with blood. As park rangers and ranchers and shepherds know, wolves steal and kill and destroy. They are beautiful and fascinating creatures, and they deserve a place in the ecosystem, to be sure, but that’s what wolves do. They steal and they kill and they destroy – and they particularly enjoy devouring sheep.

Jesus doesn’t say he will chase away the wolves who threaten the sheep. He doesn’t say he will holler and wave to scare them off. He doesn’t say he will pick up a rod or a rifle. Instead, Jesus says he will lay down his life for the sheep. He will offer himself to the wolves. He will let them devour him instead of his sheep. He will give up his life for the sheep.

It is a remarkable, shocking thing to say! Even the best, most caring shepherds of the ancient world knew that they would eventually bring their sheep to market! To defend your flock is one thing, but no ordinary shepherd would ever die for his sheep! But Jesus is no ordinary shepherd, is he? He knows his sheep and his sheep know him, and he lays down his life for them, Jesus says. And the Father loves him for it. Jesus is speaking, of course, of the cross.

We all face wolves in our lives that want to steal and kill and destroy the life that God intends for us. Those wolves might take the form of fear or guilt or shame or hopelessness. They might take the form of addiction. They might come in the form of worldviews that lie and deceive and devour. They might attack us in the form of those recurring sins that tug and tear at us, destroying relationships and destroying lives. These wolves take many different forms and go by many different names, but their purpose is always the same – to steal and to kill and to destroy.

We seek shelter and safety in all kinds of different places. It has been said that as church membership dips to its lowest point in American history, that politics has become the new religion for many people, which explains a lot. Or there’s always the old materialism that thinks we can find shelter and safety in products, in consumption, in accumulating newer and better stuff. Both options can be alluring, but eventually we learn that these are just more wolves with blood on their fur, only interested in what they can get out of us for their own benefit.

Jesus alone is the Good Shepherd. He knows the powers in our world and in our hearts that threaten to steal and kill and destroy the life God intends for us. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who loves his sheep so much that he laid down his life for us on the cross. He let those powers devour him so that we would go free and live. Jesus took the worst of this world’s evils on himself in his suffering and death so that we can find comfort in his presence with us. Jesus died carrying all our sin and guilt so we can find forgiveness and new life in him. Jesus let those wolves bury their snouts in him on the cross so that our souls would be forever restored, so that we would know his goodness and mercy, so that we would live in hope and peace, knowing that he has established a place for us in his Father’s house forever.

Because you see, Jesus didn’t just throw himself to the wolves and die. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again,” Jesus said. And in his resurrection we find a love more powerful than death. We find a Good Shepherd who lives still today to protect us and guide us and nurture us.

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” Jesus said, “I must bring them also.” Jesus is talking about the Gentile believers here. He is talking about those outside of the original flock known as the people of Israel, the Jewish people. And so he is talking about you! Jesus Christ is your Good Shepherd. He is the only shepherd who loves you enough to lay down his life for you. He laid down his life in order to rescue you from all those powers that threaten to steal and kill and destroy. He let them devour him instead, so that you would live. They might snarl at you and scare you from time to time, but in his death and resurrection, Jesus has already defeated them all. So live in those green pastures. Live beside those still waters. Live in the joy and peace and freedom that this Good Shepherd has won for you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter – April 18, 2021

CLICK HERE for a worship video for April 18

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Easter – April 18, 2021

Luke 24:36b-48

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

My wife and I enjoy watching old episodes of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” We love how it humorously depicts the give and take of married life. As I was working through our gospel reading for this morning, a scene from one of the early episodes came to mind. Ray and his wife Debra are remembering their wedding day. Through a series of flashback scenes we see how Ray was a nervous wreck right on the day of the wedding. He expresses doubts about the wedding to his parents, and to his brother, and to his priest. He doesn’t think Debra really wants to marry him. He thinks it just has to be too good to be true. He is so plagued by his doubts that it almost derails the wedding! As the scene returns to the present, macho Ray the sportswriter then confesses to his wife that he wept on their wedding night, because he couldn’t believe that someone so beautiful and wonderful wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. It seemed too good to be true. He was full of both joy and disbelief.

I think this scene, this scenario, beautifully captures what is going on in our gospel reading for today.

The risen Jesus came to the disciples. He stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and afraid, thinking they were looking at a ghost. “Why are you frightened,” Jesus asked, “and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Jesus invited them to touch him. He pointed out that he had flesh and bones. He wasn’t a ghost! Jesus showed them the wounds on his hands and feet. And then he said, “Have you got anything to eat?” Jesus was hungry! They gave him some broiled fish, and he ate it in their presence, as if to prove to them that he wasn’t an apparition but a real human being, risen from the dead!

St. Luke tells us that this all happened to the disciples “while in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” What an odd sentence! They were both “in their joy” and “disbelieving.” The two seem mutually exclusive. They seem to be at odds. But what Luke is telling us is that the disciples thought that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was too good to be true. Joy and disbelief coexisted because it seemed too good to be true!

Their doubts just about ruined everything, and so Jesus gently chastised them for it: “Why do doubts arise in your hearts?” he said. “Look, and see that it is I myself!” Their doubts could have derailed their relationship with the risen Jesus. Their doubts could have thwarted the mission Jesus would give them to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations. It could have gotten in the way of their calling to be witnesses of the resurrection. If they continued to believe Jesus was a ghost, they might have turned and run away like Ray thinking about fleeing the church on his wedding day.

But Jesus worked with them. He showed them it was true. He called them to faith. He called them to trust him. He pointed them to the scriptures, all of which – whether the law of Moses, the prophets, or the psalms — testify to him.  And instead of continuing to believe it was too good to be true, the disciples began to live into this joyful new reality.

I think we live much of our lives as Christians in this funny place between joy and disbelief. We love the idea of the resurrection. We love the story of Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. But doubts about whether it is really, historically true or not prevent us from living into this joyful new reality. Maybe our minds have been too powerfully shaped by an enlightenment scientific worldview to believe that death could be reversed. Maybe we’ve been convinced by heretical voices on the margins of the church claiming that Jesus wasn’t bodily raised, but only raised in the hearts of the disciples as they were inspired by his memory. Maybe we’ve seen too many dead bodies stay dead to believe that one would actually rise again and come around asking for a fish sandwich. Maybe we think that Jesus’ victory over death is just too good to be true.

These doubts are entirely understandable. It does seem too good to be true! But these doubts get in the way of our relationship with our risen Lord. They rob us of the peace he proclaims to us. They rob us of the abundant life he came to give us. They rob us of a pure, unadulterated joy, of a joy that isn’t watered down or kept in check by disbelief. And it gets in the way of our mission as the church, our calling as God’s people. How can we be passionate witnesses to something we only kind of believe?

But it is true. Jesus was raised from the dead. He wasn’t an apparition or a vision or a figment of the disciples’ imagination. His resurrection wasn’t a metaphor. He had a risen body that the disciples could touch. He had a risen body that enjoyed some broiled fish. Jesus really, truly, was alive again. He really did conquer death!

And as St. Paul teaches us, his risen body is the “firstfruits of the resurrection” (1 Corinthians 15:21). It is a demonstration of what God has in store for all who put their trust in him. Or as St. John wrote, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that all who believe in him would not perish, but have eternal life.”

Doubting all of this is understandable. The disciples did at first, and they had the risen Jesus standing right there in front of them! It does seem too good to be true. But it is true. Jesus Christ actually, literally, rose from the dead as a living, breathing, fish eating human being, as the first fruits of a resurrection God has in store for all who believe in him. It is the most earth-shattering, life-changing truth you will ever be invited to believe.

And so our Lord Jesus comes to us today as he did to the disciples. He comes to us to ease our fears, saying “Peace be with you.” He comes to gently chastise us for our doubts and invite us to trust in him. He comes to us through his Supper to give us his body to touch. He comes to us pointing us to the scriptures, inviting us to trust God’s Word and to seek him there. He comes to call us to our mission as the church, which is to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations, all peoples. He calls us to be witnesses to his resurrection.

Don’t stay stuck in that funny place between joy and disbelief. Don’t let your doubts get in the way of the beautiful, wonderful thing God has done for you in Jesus Christ. Instead of believing it is too good to be true, let us all live into this joyful new reality together.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for Easter Sunday – April 4, 2021

CLICK HERE for a worship video for April 4

Sermon for Easter Sunday – April 4, 2021

Mark 16:1-8

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

The women who came to the tomb were anxious. After seeing their beloved Lord Jesus die a humiliating death on a cross, now their minds were racing with details as to how they would get in to tend to his dead body. As they made their way to the tomb, they asked each other: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”

Soon, their anxiety was ratcheted up a few notches to a state of alarm. They found that the stone had already been rolled back! They entered the tomb, and found a mysterious young man dressed in white sitting there where Jesus’ body was supposed to be. “Do not be alarmed,” this young man said. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. But go, tell the disciples that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, and you will see him there, just as he told you.”

But rather than joyfully shouting, “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” the women were now in a state of terror!  The story ends with St. Mark telling us they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

This account of the resurrection from St. Mark’s gospel is fraught with anxiety, alarm, and fear.

Kind of fitting, don’t you think? I mean, how has your past year been? Have you experienced any anxiety lately? Any alarm? Any fear? In a time of pandemic and political turmoil and social unrest, it is kind of hard not to be at least somewhat anxious and alarmed and afraid.

This is a great gospel reading for us to hear this Easter, because we can identify with these women. We know what it is to be anxious about the future, having details racing through your mind, not knowing how you are going to get done what you need to get done, not knowing how you are going to go about your life when everything has been upended. We know what it is to be alarmed at things we see that we cannot completely comprehend. We know what it means to be so afraid that we just kind of shut down, we clam up, huddling together in our little bubbles, afraid to venture out.

This is indeed where our reading ends – with anxiety and alarm and fear – but it isn’t where the resurrection ends!

St. Mark seems to enjoy leaving us with a cliffhanger ending, but he’s winking at us here. Because if you think about it even just a little, you know that these women didn’t stay quiet forever! If they had, how would Mark have been able to tell this story? These women didn’t stay anxious and alarmed and afraid forever! Eventually the Good News of the resurrection took hold. Eventually the reality of the resurrection sunk in. Eventually the word spoken to them by this mysterious young man chased away their fears. The Good News that Christ had been raised eventually filled them with life and hope and joy and peace, such that they did indeed venture out of their bubble to go and tell the disciples!

Like many of you, I struggled a lot this past winter. Even in a so-called normal year I often struggle with mild winter blues triggered by the short, dark days of January and February. Nothing serious or debilitating, just kind of a darkness-induced winter funk. Well, add on everything we’ve been through this past year, and there isn’t enough vitamin D in the world to chase those blues away! There were a few days in particular back in late January when I found myself especially anxious and alarmed and afraid. I was worried about my two younger sons who until very recently were spending too many of the precious and fleeting days of their youth stuck in their rooms shackled to their computers for school. I was worried about the church, and how or whether we will snap back to form once the pandemic is over, or what exactly the toll will be. I was alarmed about events unfolding in our country, alarmed about the general direction our culture seems to be taking. It was all piling up and dragging me down. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had days like this in the past few months.

But that same week, out of the blue my youngest son came downstairs humming a tune. I stopped what I was doing in the kitchen to listen, because the tune sounded vaguely familiar. It took me a minute to figure it out, but I kid you not, in the darkness of a dreary January day – dreary in more ways than one! – my son was humming “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!”

When it sunk in just what he was humming, I realized that this was exactly the tune I needed to hear. It was both so random and also so very timely! I have to admit I got a little choked up! This tune proclaiming Christ’s victory over sin, death and the devil was exactly what I needed to be reminded of. I needed to be reminded that the darkness and death all around us will not have the last word, that the future is in the hands of the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Though he may not have intended it, this mysterious young man (aren’t all teenagers a little mysterious?) was doing more than humming a random tune. Whether he intended it or not, he was preaching to me. He was telling me, “Do not be alarmed. Christ is risen.”

Dear friends, today is the day that fear begins to loosen its grip on our throats. Today is the day we begin to reclaim the hope that is ours in Christ. Today is the day that the reality of the resurrection sinks in for all of us, so that we can start living again without being so anxious or alarmed or afraid. Today is the day that the Good News of Christ’s victory fills our ears and our hearts with joy and peace.

In his resurrection, Jesus Christ has conquered your sin. It no longer separates you from God! In his resurrection, Jesus Christ has conquered death. It will not have a permanent hold on you! In his resurrection, Jesus Christ has ultimately conquered the devil and all the powers of darkness.

Now today let him conquer your fear as well.

And then go out to hum or sing or speak this Good News for all to hear, because there are people out there right now who desperately need to hear it.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for Palm Sunday – March 28, 2021

CLICK HERE for a worship video for March 28

Sermon for Palm Sunday – March 28, 2021

Mark 11:1-11

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

If you see a white panel truck coming down the road blaring a music-box rendition of “Turkey in the Straw,” you know that the ice cream man coming into your neighborhood. You know it is time to cobble together some coins for a fudgesicle!

If you were to see men in black suits and sunglasses and earpieces, obviously working security, or if you were to hear the strains of “Hail to the Chief,” you would know that the President of the United States is near.

If you came upon a red carpet and saw stretch limos pulling up with people getting out in tuxedoes or exotic dresses, you would soon figure out that you had somehow stumbled upon the Grammy awards or maybe the Oscars.

We all understand these cultural cues which tell us who is coming, right?

Today we hear of a grand parade welcoming someone bringing blessings even better than fudgesicles, someone far more powerful than the President of the United States, someone far more important than any celebrity. Today we hear of a grand parade welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem. And while they may not be as easily recognizable to us here today as red carpets and the ice cream truck jingle, there are important cues in the way Jesus arrived that tell us who he is and why he has come.

The first cue is Jesus’ choice of transportation. St. Mark tells us that Jesus commandeered a colt, which is a young, uncastrated horse or mule or donkey. Other gospel writers specifically tell us it was a donkey. Mark points out that this colt had never been ridden. Now this is a subtle cue here, but I find it very interesting that this young, uncastrated, unridden donkey would have let Jesus ride him! Either Jesus did some bareback rodeo before the parade, or this young, still hot-blooded colt willingly submitted to what it knew was the Lord of all creation, the Lord of all creatures great and small. As much as I love to imagine Jesus hanging on for eight seconds on a bucking donkey, I’m guessing it was the latter. Jesus could ride the unridden colt because he was the Lord of all creation!

But there’s more to this mode of transportation – much more. In riding a colt, Jesus was fulfilling scripture. He was fulfilling Old Testament prophecy about the coming of the Messiah. In an oracle anticipating the coming of the Messiah, the prophet Zechariah wrote, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus was the fulfillment of this prophecy. Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Best of all, Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise, through Zechariah and others, that God’s Messiah would come to bring a victory for all people. Jesus was the fulfilment of a promise going all the way back to Abraham, that God would ultimately bless all the families of the earth, reconciling them to himself. Jesus was the fulfillment of a promise that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden, where God promised an offspring that would crush the head of the serpent, saving humanity from its sin.

Jesus riding this donkey in this parade into Jerusalem sends another cue as well. To ride a donkey in a procession like this sent the signal that you were coming in peace. It was a sign of humility. Roman rulers processed on great war horses, seventeen hands high! These stallions projected power and strength. A donkey sent a very different signal. Jesus was coming in humility. He was coming as a different kind of king. He was not coming to overthrow Rome and restore the political sovereignty of Israel. He was not coming to establish an earthly kingdom, at least not in the way many people thought. He was not coming to establish an earthly throne. Jesus was coming to rule through the ultimate humility of the cross. He was coming to establish peace between a holy God and a sinful humanity. He was coming to be enthroned in the hearts of those who would come to believe in him.

The people welcoming Jesus as he paraded into Jerusalem didn’t yet understand any of this, but they knew Jesus was important. They knew he was coming to do something wonderful. And so they laid their own clothing on the road and spread leafy in front of him, as kind of an ancient near eastern version of rolling out the red carpet. From the other gospel accounts we know they cut palm branches and waved them in the air to honor him and celebrate his arrival.

And the people shouted verses from a song of praise, what we know as Psalm 118. They shouted “Hosanna,” which means “Lord, save us!” They shouted words of blessing upon Jesus from the psalm, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” This crowd hadn’t a clue about how Jesus was going to save them, but they already understood that that is what he had come to do, and so they praised him and blessed him.

And it is precisely here in these words from Psalm 118 that this grand parade crosses paths with our own lives as Christians today. In our Christian liturgy we sing these same words! As Christians we’ve been singing these words for two thousand years right before we receive Holy Communion. It is called the Sanctus, or the “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and the first part is taken from Isaiah, but then we sing these same words from Psalm 118: “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

And that is your cue, indicating who is coming to you in the Lord’s Supper, and what he is doing. It is your cue that it is the Lord of all creation is coming to tame your hot-bloodedness, your tendency to want to get God off your back. It is your cue that the Messiah is coming to you bless you, to reconcile you to God, to save you from your sin. It is your cue that he is coming to keep the promise God made to you in Holy Baptism, the promise that you are his and that his forgiveness is poured out for you again and again in Christ’s body and blood. It is your cue that the true King of heaven and earth has come to you in humility, even the humility of dying on a cross. It is your cue that this King has come to be enthroned in your heart as you receive him in faith and in hope and in joy.

Rejoice greatly, O Zion, O people of God, for your King comes to you today through Word and Sacrament. Triumphant and victorious is he! Thanks be to God!

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

 

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 21, 2021

CLICK HERE for a worship video for March 21

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 21, 2021

John 12:20-33

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

It has been both fascinating and, at times, frustrating, to see how different states have established different indicators for when it is time to move into the next phase of pandemic mitigation. In some states, for instance, those indicators resemble a complex algebraic formula involving an always evolving set of metrics, and once you solve for X you get to move into phase 2b to the second power with an asterisk. In other states, the indicator to move into the next phase is when your governor yells “Yee haw!”

In our gospel reading today we find Jesus moving into the next phase of his ministry, and there is a clear indicator to mark this next phase. Jesus has been saying, “My hour has not yet come,” over and over throughout his ministry, going back to the very beginning at the wedding in Cana. Even John, the narrator, tells us when Jesus is almost arrested at the temple that he escaped because “his hour had not yet come.” Well, now we hear Jesus say that his hour has come. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus says to Simon and Andrew. And the indicator for Jesus to move into this next phase is the arrival of some Greeks.

They would have stood out, these Greeks. While Jewish men wore their hair longer and let their beards grow, Greek men wore their hair short and kept their faces clean-shaven. Their clothes were different – they wore togas, not tunics. And while everyone spoke Greek, 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. Perhaps they were “monotheism curious.” Perhaps they were simply there to take in the celebratory atmosphere of the festival of Passover, kind of like how people without a drop of Irish blood celebrated St. Patrick’s Day last week. At any rate, they were drawn not just to the temple itself, but specifically to Jesus. These Greeks came seeking Jesus. And this was the indicator that it was time for the next phase in Jesus’ ministry. When Andrew and Philip told Jesus that some Greeks were looking for him, Jesus at last said, “The hour has come.”

What would this next phase in Jesus’ ministry involve? It would involve his death and his resurrection. Jesus used an agricultural metaphor to explain: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Like a grain of wheat that is buried and then bursts forth from the earth to give life, Jesus will die and rise again. Everything in his life has been leading to this. All the miracles, all the parables, all the healings, all the teachings – everything has been pointing to and leading to this phase of his ministry: his death and resurrection.

Jesus goes on to say that those who would follow him are called to join him in this pattern of dying and rising. “Those who love their life lose it, 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. Jesus is calling us to be buried with him in order to rise to a new life of faith in him. This is what sprouts up to eternal life!

This new phase of Jesus ministry involves the judgement of the world. “Now is the judgement of this world,” Jesus says. This self-centered, narcissistic impulse runs through every tribe and nation, every ethnicity and group. Sin is a pervasive, multicultural phenomenon! All human beings, no matter where they come from or who they are, always seek to put themselves above God, and so now, Jesus says, is the judgement of the world. This judgement happens on the cross, where the whole world’s rejection of God is laid bare for all to see.

But this judgement is also the means of the world’s salvation. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,” Jesus says, “will draw all people to myself.” On the cross, Jesus was making atonement for the sin of the whole world. Jesus was lifted up for those bearded Jews and those clean-shaven Greeks alike. He was bearing the sin of people of every tribe and nation, every ethnicity and every group.

We are always dividing people up into categories: red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals. We divide people up by skin color or ethnic background, by income or education level. But that isn’t how God sees humankind. In the cross of Jesus God has declared judgement on the entire world, on all people. And in the cross of Jesus, God has declared his love for the entire world, for all people. On the cross of Jesus, God has established the means of salvation for the entire world, for all people. “When I am lifted up,” Jesus said, “I will draw all people to myself.”

This phase of Jesus’ ministry began with the indicators of the Greeks who were drawn to him. And it continues as Christ Jesus draws us to himself, as he draws us to his cross, where we are simultaneously judged and saved. The only thing that matters now is faith in him, trusting in what he has done for us on the cross, dying to ourselves and receiving his gift of salvation.

The grain of wheat fell into the earth and died so that it would ultimately bear much fruit. Let us then continue to grow into this fruit-bearing phase as our Lord Jesus raises up in us the fruits of faith.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church