“This is most certainly true.” Luther’s Small Catechism
What is most certainly true? Death and taxes? True love? That you can’t go home again? That you can do whatever you set your mind to? That you’re another day older and deeper in debt? What you think is most certainly true indicates pretty well who or what your real God is, because your real God is what you rely on when you don’t know what to rely on and everything seems unreliable.
A.D. 2020 has thrown a lot of things into turmoil. Things we took for granted as though it went without saying that they were most certainly true have proven unreliable. For many people, the bedrock of life, the most certain of certain truths, has suddenly started to wobble. For others, life has gone on pretty much as normal. But even those whose lives haven’t changed much have had to reassess what things can be taken for granted. Jobs, school, hobbies, plans, weekly routines—none of them are guarantees. None of them will be there no matter what.
“True” means faithful and constant. A true statement is faithful to reality. A true love is faithful to the lover. A true friend is constant-- a friend not just in good times but in bad times, too. Even fiction can “ring true” or not in terms of the deeper realities it tries to express. The catechism reserves the famous phrase “This is most certainly true” for the triune God. Each of the explanations of the three articles, which correspond to the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—concludes with “This is most certainly true.”
The confirmands have to memorize the longer paragraphs, and they always struggle to recite them together, but when it comes to that last line, they always say, loud and in unison, THIS IS MOST CERTAINLY TRUE!” As their instructor, I always find it a bit frustrating, were it not so humorous, that they express such confidence in the truth of the statement that they were so uncertain and hesitant about mumbling their way through. But even that function of memory illustrates something true. It isn’t just that the content of the memorized paragraph that is true. It is true, of course, and it matters, which why we want the confirmands to know it. But in another way, the God being talked about is true. The triune God is true to His promises, true to His people. We cannot say of ourselves that we are certainly true to Him all the time. We mumble our way through, rely on things that prove unreliable, taking for granted things that disappear suddenly, and just generally not being worthy of the God we have. But He remains certainly true. The confirmation class struggling to recite the memory work but then closing with a resounding “This is most certainly true,” illustrates something profound about the grace of a God who remains eternally true to a people who can never deserve it.
God is true to you. We had just over 100 people in church in the three services combined, and a few hundred more participated via live-stream. His Word went out to all kinds of settings—old and young, rich and poor, healthy and sick, content and desperate—yet none of them deserved the promise they received. But it was true for all them. Anyone who hears and believes the Gospel can join with our 8th graders as they prepare for confirmation at the end of the month by reviewing the catechism memory work, and if nothing else, proclaiming that our God is most certainly true.
Disorienting. That’s what today feels like to me. It is hard to get your bearings when the landmarks aren’t there. By landmarks, of course, I don’t refer to the things that mark the physical landscape. I mean the things that give shape to time, the habits and rituals by which we all live.
God invented time along with everything else in Genesis 1, and He gave shape to it, a seven day pattern that has continued unbroken since the beginning of the world. Even we Christians, who are not bound by Old Testament Sabbath laws, still typically worship once every seven days, the day after Jesus’ Sabbath rest in the tomb. Church doesn’t have to take place on Sunday, but it always has. It is disorienting (especially but by no means exclusively for pastors) to get up on Sunday morning and think, “So…. What should I do today?” I read the following in an online article last night:
JERUSALEM - Adeeb Joudeh, standing in front of the now-locked Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City, had a pretty specific answer when asked when the church last closed to the public like this: "It was the year 1349, at the time of the Black Plague," he said, holding the key that had shut things down a day earlier and back in the 14th century as well.
A little over a year ago I was there at that church with some of others of our St. Paul’s family. Its huge, ancient dome encloses the traditional locations of the cross and the empty tomb. It seemed like if there were any constants in the world, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was one. It has closed for brief periods a few times in history for this or that reason, but the last time is was ordered closed for an indefinite period was 671 years ago. Wow. One comforting thing, one silver lining in that fact, is that I feel better about suspending worship at St. Paul’s, something I never thought I’d do and about which I still have mixed feelings. But hey, if they’ve closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I guess we can be closed, too. But it is still disorienting.
But anything that is disorienting demands a reorienting. You have to get your bearings. In the Milwaukee airport there is a great sign that read “Recombobulation Area.” I love that word, recombobulation, referring to what comes after the discombobulation of going through the arcane process of airport security. When you get lost, confused, or thrown off your game, you reorient.
The Gospel disoriented its first hearers. Jews and Gentiles mixing? Righteousness not by works? God becoming a man, and that man dying? And then rising? How could that be? All the old ways seemed to be collapsing. All the old assumptions, all the patterns, all the givens were thrown out the window. And yet to those with ears to hear, it was Good News. It was Good News because the massive Reorientation was based on Christ, the true, immovable cornerstone by Whom all of time gets its bearings. The wholesale disorientation caused by God making all thing new didn’t end there; it began a great reorientation on that cornerstone.
Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. The Third Commandment, insofar as it talks about a day, refers to Saturday. But that was the Old Covenant. It pointed to Christ and was fulfilled in Christ. That’s why Christians are not bound to worship on any particular day, and typically do not, like Jews do even today, worship on the Sabbath, that is, Saturday. Instead, we mark time as reoriented around the stone which the builders the rejected, the death and resurrection of Christ—Sunday, the first day of the New Creation, the day Christ rose, the eighth day of creation, when God makes all creation new.
Luther’s catechism, as usual, captures this reorientation on Christ perfectly. What does it mean to remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy? We should fear and love so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it. Amazingly, the explanation doesn’t even mention a day. That was the old landmark, the Law, the thing that pointed ahead to Christ. We have the fulfillment, the proclaimed Gospel of Christ crucified and risen. We keep this commandment whenever and wherever we attend to the proclamation of the Gospel with all seriousness, reverence, and earnestness.
Reorienting. That’s what this bizarre quarantine can be for you. It gives all of us a chance to get our bearings and examine our habits, schedules, and priorities to see whether and how they are oriented on Christ. Perhaps they already were before all this. Perhaps not. But no forced change in schedule can disorient those whose lives are oriented on the immovable rock that is Christ, the cornerstone.
I hope you all partake of Matins today via the website. Matins is old. But the last closing of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is much older, predating the English language itself. Chaucer wasn’t even writing yet the last time this happened. There are no permanent things except the one thing upon which everything depends—the Word of God become Flesh and reigning forever. When you worship via the website, I hope your focus is not on the archaic words, whether you love them or don’t like them at all. Your focus should be on the words of Scripture, Pastor Stock’s Christ-centered sermon, praise of the eternal God, and the timeless Gospel that gives you life today and every day, in any circumstance, until we join in the heavenly worship of God forever.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Questions about why God allows natural disasters to happen are as perennial as the disasters themselves, and those question invariably lead to the question of punishment. If Christ bore God’s wrath for the sin of the world on the cross, why is there any punishment left over in the form of plagues and disasters? If specific people or particular sins bring down God’s wrath, why do innocent people also suffer? And if God really is God, why doesn’t He do anything to stop all this?
The disciples in yesterday’s reading who asked Jesus why the man was born blind weren’t interested in blindness in general or its relationship to the Fall of mankind into sin. They were interested in what, specifically, this particular blind man did, or maybe his parents did, that resulted in God making him blind. Jesus, by contrast, simply points to what God was accomplishing by making the man born blind. As Pastor Stock pointed out in his sermon, when we see by the light of the cross, we see things truly.
By the light of the cross we see ourselves truly as children of God. Hebrews 12:7 tells us, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons [and daughters].” So how might we look at our current circumstance in light of the cross? How might God be making this work out for your good? In Christ we know God isn’t refusing to forgive us, or just mad at us, or wanting the worst for us. His love for us is secure. If you want to know whether God is disciplining you, assume that He is and that He is doing so because He is your loving Father. How it might these circumstances draw you closer to Him and make you more like Him?
Every deprivation calls us to repentance for ingratitude. Only spoiled kids (and adults) feel entitled to and ungrateful for all the good things they have. For one small example, having to search for toilet paper can potentially make you grateful, perhaps truly for the first time, to have toilet paper. Maybe for the first time you’re becoming grateful for the work of people whose jobs you always took for granted before. Children of God, who know that everything is an undeserved gift, should lead lives marked chiefly by constant, overwhelming gratitude. If nothing else, we can emerge from this time of quarantine with renewed gratitude for our routines, our freedoms, our health, and normal human contact.
Tomorrow I want to explore the importance of that last one—human contact, and what an important gift it really is, and how we so often throw it away because it makes demands on us. But for today, make a list of things you failed to be thankful for until this quarantine made you scramble to find them or do without them. Then you’ll see at least one way this time of upheaval can bring you closer to God.
In-home exercise for today: recite Luther’s explanation of the First article of the creed from memory, or read it aloud ten times. I won’t print it here, because the other part of the exercise is to make sure you have a copy of the catechism somewhere in your house. Please don’t google it or use an online version, because translations vary and we want the whole church family working on the same version. Tip: the whole catechism is on pp. 321-330 of the hymnal for those who checked on out of church for in-home use during the quarantine.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana