Enriching Your Understanding
“…behold, wise men from the east came from Jerusalem,” Matt. 1:1b
Epiphany is an underappreciated holiday. Like Christmas, it falls on the same day every year regardless of the day of the week, but nobody plans their week around it. Even churches normally celebrate it on whatever Sunday comes closest. Since it is a Wednesday this year we’re focusing on Epiphany in chapel and will make the service available to the congregation to participate in remotely. Please make time to “attend” the service today or this evening.
The season of Epiphany focuses on the gradual revealing of who Jesus is. The season begins today and reaches its climax at the Transfiguration, when the disciples see Jesus in blinding glory on the mountain standing with Moses and Elijah. It then officially ends on Ash Wednesday, when the Messiah turns his face toward Jerusalem and His true mission of dying on the cross to take away the sin of the world.
The actual day of Epiphany itself focuses on the wise men. By tradition there are three of them, but the only reason people think that is because three gifts are mentioned. By tradition they are named Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar. Traditions differ as to where exactly they came from, but it is generally three different regions. Balthasar usually has dark skin and is either from Ethiopia or India, while Melchior and Caspar are generally said to be from Arabia and Persia or Persia and Babylon.
The revelation to the whole world of who Jesus is begins with the three gifts. Gold would be the gift a foreign envoy brought in tribute to a king. Frankincense would be used in worship of a god. And myrrh was a precious ointment used to anoint the dead. The baby Jesus was God and Man, king of all nations, and born in order to die.
The history of the whole Biblical account is fascinating. In late March of 2022 (almost 15 months from now) Heidi and I are going to be leading another trip to the Holy Land, and I would encourage anyone to look into. This time we’re going to begin in the country of Jordan, east of Israel, see it the way Moses saw it from afar, and enter the Holy Land the way Joshua led them in near Jericho. But in Jordan we’ll also be seeing echoes of some of the eastern culture and lands represented by the “wise men from the east.”
Whatever you can do this year—Bible studies, remote worship attendance, podcasts, travel, etc.-- to enrich your understanding of salvation history will be well worth your trouble. One blessing we have is the church year and the various seasons. But they only do their job, so to speak, when we follow the story week by week. With livestreaming available, there is no reason to miss a week of worship this year. Make it your ambition to attend every service this year.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Deut. 8:3
Some things you do over and over because they have to be done over and over. They don’t stay done. Mowing the lawn, doing the laundry, etc. Other things you do over and over because you enjoy them, like playing dart ball or doing a daily crossword puzzle. You don’t have to do those things, but they become part of your personal routine.
Most things in our routine fall into a category of things we have to do and things we want to do. The former category includes tasks that would vanish if you had a magic wand, and the latter includes things there would be more of if you had a magic wand. The things you find draining you would do less of, and the things you find fulfilling you’d do more of.
God doesn’t intend for our lives to follow those categories. Ideally, the things you have to do and the things you enjoy doing would be the same things. He told Adam and Eve to tend the garden. But it would be enjoyable gardening. He told them to be fruitful and multiply, but He made doing so enjoyable. Sadly, the curse that followed the Fall made the work toilsome for Adam and procreation painful to Eve. But there are some things that echo God’s original design and intent—that what we have to do and what we want to do overlap.
Consider your meals. You have to eat. But you probably enjoy eating. Mealtimes should be a part of your routine that falls into both categories. Of course, in a perfect world junk food would be good for you, but even apart from that perfect world you probably enjoy a good meal and know that your body needs the sustenance. Only when you are ill or when your priorities are way out of order do your meals become a chore.
When God spoke to Moses in Deuteronomy He said that one of the lessons of manna was that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Jesus quoted that verse when Satan tempted Him in the wilderness. Mankind is body and soul together. Yes, we need bread. But not bread alone, as though we were animals. Our souls need food, too—every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
Worship and Bible study—daily being in the Word—feed your soul. We should treat them the same way we treat meals, as something that defies the categories of work and leisure. Too often Christians don’t treat Communion like manna for the soul, or Bible study and sermons as bread to feed our faith. Like ill bodies treating eating as something we have to do rather than something we get to do, our ill souls can start to lose the appetite for God’s Word.
Sometimes Bible study might seem like a chore. Do it anyway. It is good for you. Hopefully it is not like a food you have to eat but don’t feel like eating, but something spiritually delicious and satisfying. That’s the goal. But eat it either way. Like someone trying to get a cancer patient or sick person to eat, I’m not going to stop coaxing, badgering, and admonishing you that your soul needs sustenance.
This week I’ll be leading Bible studies on Wednesday at 6:30 a.m. on Hebrews 4, at 10:00 a.m. on Isaiah 28, and at 7:00 p.m. (zoom only) on Revelation 5. Thursday at 10:00 a.m. we’ll be looking at 1 John 2. Don’t tell me there is nothing on that menu for you. I won’t believe you.
Don’t try to live on bread alone. You won’t find that life fulfilling to the whole person, body and soul together. Rather, taste and see that the Lord is good by taking in His Word.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
In Good Order
But all things should be done decently and in order. I Cor. 14:40
St. Paul was very familiar with the logistical issues of holding worship services. He addressed issues like how communion should happen and who should be preaching and teaching. So it comes as no surprise that a church named after him should encounter some of those issues and take his advice on how to address them—decently and in order.
This coming Sunday at 9:00 we will be holding an ushers’ meeting to make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of how we come forward for communion, dismiss the sections, and even how we help people find a suitable place to sit. That’s because we’re encountering the joyous difficulty of dealing with bigger crowds. We want as many people as possible to come to church, but we also want everyone to be (and feel) safe while they are here.
Yesterday at the 9:30 service we had a large crowd. We had space available toward the front, but few people willing to sit there. We also had several families who were back in church for the first time in a long time and who were therefore unfamiliar with the communion process. We definitely want to continue having greater attendance, so we’re having the meeting to make sure we can do everything decently and in good order.
Some things you can do to help out if you are able and so inclined:
Also, listen for the following in the readings for this Sunday—“Do everything without grumbling or complaining.” An usher might ask you to move to a different seat in order to accommodate others. You might be asked to wear a mask. You might not agree with the procedures we have in place. But it is all doable by people of good will. But those who are contentious or obstinate will make everything uncomfortable for the larger group. It comes naturally to all of us sometimes, but especially in trying times we have to resist the urge to have a bad attitude.
We have holiday services on the horizon. We all want to be able to celebrate in church with Christ as the center. And do so decently and in good order, we’ll need to hone our procedures and policies. Everyone has a role to play in that that blessed, ongoing process.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Like a Dream
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Ps. 126:1
Psalm 126 is about the return of the exiles to their home. For years and years, God’s people in captivity told themselves that some day they were going home. And what a great day that would be. They daydreamed about it, envisioned it, and built their homecoming up in their imaginations into something too glorious to describe. And when it really happened, they felt like they were dreaming. It felt as great as they’d thought it would. They felt like they must still be dreaming.
Have you ever watched people experiencing something they thought would never happen? May it is something they always thought would be too good to be true, something they talked idly about all the time only to be told, “Yeah, keep dreaming.” Then one day the dream becomes a reality. “Can you believe we’re actually doing this? This is really happening!” There is a surreal flavor to impossible goodness that somehow manages to materialize in our lives.
The really amazing thing about the Israelites returning home is that their home was in much worse shape than they’d left if generations prior. Yet it seemed too good to be true to them. Why didn’t it seem like that before they went into exile, when it was in much better shape? They didn’t walk around as though in a stupor about how great everything was before they left. But they do when they return.
Sometimes the things that are so good they seem surreal aren’t the amazing things that seem so impossible because they only happen to a few people, like being MVP of the Super Bowl and holding up the trophy, or getting elected president and sitting in the oval office for the first time. Rather, sometimes the very greatest things, the things so good we can’t even believe they are real, are the normal things that we’d thought we’d never do again. Someone recovers from an illness or some terrible accident, maybe someone who thought they might never again get out of bed or be able to walk. Then they recover against all odds, and they think, “Look at me! I’m outside! I’m going for an evening walk like it is no big deal. What a glorious thing!” They never felt that away about evening walks before, but now they seem so great as to be surreal.
Sometimes when you see the full effect of a gradual change it seems amazing. The kids return to school looking very different. If you see them every day you don’t notice. When several months of gradual growth and change confront you all at once, it startles you. “Look at how tall you got!” “Can you believe that is the same kid?”
This first day of school has always included such startling changes. And when you consider that we’re welcoming the students back after a five month absence, we’re confronted suddenly by an even greater amount of gradual change than usual. Added to it this year are all kinds of surreal images, like kids showing up in masks and getting their temperature taken before entering the building. What an odd sight. St. Paul’s students of prior generations would certainly see it as foreign to their experience.
On the other hand, the first day of school is finally here! It is a great feeling to be up and running again, and it makes us realize how much we took for granted in the past. The day will come, we pray, when everything is back to normal. But who knows? Things change. There is no permanent normal. As for today, as I listen to kids singing across the hall (though masks, standing apart, which takes a lot of effort to sound as excited as they do) I’m reminded that God is constantly restoring the fortunes of His people. His mercy never fails. No time of exile lasts forever. We can run as school as people who dream, not because everything looks so odd and different this year, but because we see in real time what we too often see only in retrospect, which is what a privilege it is to see God’s faithfulness and inexhaustible goodness in action in the lives of children through His church.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Jun 30: World Too Much With Us
And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, Matt. 14:23
This little verse is wedged between the account of Jesus feeding the five thousand and then Jesus catching up to the disciples in the boat by walking on water. William Wordsworth wrote a famous poem that begins, “The world is too much with us…” and it would seem he and Jesus agree on that. Everybody, even Jesus, needs a getaway, a timeout, a time and place to let your mind breathe and your soul pray.
Today we live in a paradoxical situation; loneliness is epidemic, but there is also no place to go to get away from the world. People are stuck in their homes, especially if they live in retirement communities. But the internet brings the world everywhere. The world is too much with us. We panic when we’re unplugged, unconnected, out of touch, yet our constant connection to the world takes the place of genuine connection to other people and private connection to God. We’ve never been more immediately connected to the world and more isolated from genuine relationships.
Where do you go to get away? If your phone is there, or the tv is on, are you really getting away? When do you take time for devotions and prayer? Realizing that the sun will rise without you requires spiritual discipline. We like to keep ourselves busy because then we feel important and that we aren’t wasting time. But Jesus didn’t view it like that.
On the other, vegging is not getting away, either. Jesus didn’t plop himself down with a dumb magazine and a drink and call it “me time.” There is a discipline to it—a heightened awareness, a stilling of the spirit before God, a separation from the hustle and bustle of the world. It isn’t the same thing as selfish giving into sloth and bodily appetite. If it is “me time” it is only so by being “God time” first, since God is the only one who really knows you. He builds up, repairs, gives rest in ways that give genuine peace and rest. He is for you in far better ways than anything you can do if you try to be for yourself.
I hope this vacation season provides you with the sense of perspective that comes from getting out of your routine and your usual setting. I hope it gives you pause and rest and renewed spirit and sense of purpose. I hope it doesn’t feature endless selfies on social media, a 24/7 news cycle, or mere vegging out, but a genuine retreat from the world that is too much with us that is also an approach to a deeper relationship with God and with the loved ones He has placed in your life.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Jun 25: Good Enough
An excellent wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels. Prov. 31:10
This verse came up this morning in our family devotions from the Treasury of Daily Prayer. It reminded me of an elderly woman I once knew who never missed a Sunday of church, with one exception; she never showed up on Mothers’ Day. The congregation’s tradition was to read Proverbs 31:10-31 for the Old Testament reading every year on Mother’s Day, all about the amazing “woman of noble character” who does everything really well and makes everyone’s problems go away. This woman, who was an exemplary and talented Christian wife and mother and active in leadership in virtually every activity of the congregation, thought these verses of Proverbs were too hard to live up to. They made her feel bad about herself, and the last thing she wanted to do on Mothers’ Day was listen to what she took to be a laundry list of all her shortcomings.
We can all say these words didn’t mean to be putting her down and she shouldn’t have taken them that way, but she did take them that way. It is a basic Law/Gospel problem that confronts all of us. Yesterday’s verse from 1 Cor. 13 is almost not fair—it is talking about the New Man, the life of Christ, but we all fail to live up to it. The question then becomes, what do we make of the fact that we cannot live up to the Bible’s descriptions of what God calls us to be? Do we despair and stop trying? Do we try harder and check our progress later? Do we adjust the standard to be more attainable? Those would be Law-based responses. Those are the strategies of the Old Adam, the sinful nature, to be declared righteous by earning it. The Gospel response to reading such descriptions of righteous behavior and realizing that we don’t live up to them is to see how great is the love God has lavished upon us, that we should be called children of God.
Our efforts aren’t acceptable because they’re so good. They’re acceptable like the crayon drawings of children that the parents lovingly put on the refrigerator. Hardly Rembrandt, but the merits aren’t the point. And the kids who know they are loved respond by trying to make an even better drawing next time. They don’t earn their parents’ love. They try to live up to their parents’ hopes for them because they already have their parents’ love.
Everyone who is honest suffers from the feelings of inadequacy like the women who felt she couldn’t live up to Proverbs 31. I could be a better pastor. You could be a better parishioner. St. Paul’s could be a better church. But we shine with the glory of the children of God because of the unearned, unmerited righteousness of Christ we have by faith. So I urge us never to be discouraged. Not by the pandemic and all the changes going on. Not by the political turmoil in the news. Not by aging and the changing times. Our goals remain what they always have been—to be more and more conformed to Christ according to Hid will. That’s what we’ll be about here no matter else is going on.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Jun 17: Your Dross to Consume
The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold,
and the Lord tests hearts. Prov. 17:3
This proverb of Solomon was part of the devotion today for those who use the Treasury of Daily Prayer. It is an amazing thing, and a fearful thing, to ponder.
A crucible is a sort of pot in which you heat up metal or some other chemical compound. You may have used on a chemistry lab. You can use on to purify silver, but gold is a heavier metal. We think of a furnace as something that heats the house, but in this case it refines gold. To purify gold, you have to heat it up to such high temperatures that the impurities, the dross, everything that clings to it that isn’t gold, burns away in the smoke. What remains is purer gold.
The prophets talk about the Lord coming as a refiner’s fire. You put a little chunk of silver over a Bunsen burner, you put a gold ring in a blacksmith’s or a forger’s furnace. The presence of God does to your heart what that furnace does to the gold.
The thing to remember is that God tests hearts because they are precious to Him. He doesn’t do it to cause pain, though the process is painful. Precisely because your heart is precious to Him, He hates the sin that clings to closely. He wants it gone.
When we come into the presence of the Lord, we repent of our sins and submit to the painful process of turning away from them. The sins we love are the hardest to let burn away. Confession of sin that is painless probably isn’t very honest.
Christ redeems us sinners not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious blood. When the Lord tests hearts, He looks for the blood of Christ, more precious than silver, and finds it in the faithful. Therefore we stand in the judgment.
The Judge still hates the dross. The great blessing of ongoing confession/absolution, ongoing Holy Communion, daily remembrance of Baptism, is that is lets you participate, not in your salvation, but in your purifying. It will never happen completely in this life; it will remain a work in progress. But entering into the presence of God and staying there when the knowledge of sin starts to bubble up and the defense mechanisms kick in is a painful but glorious opportunity we all have as members of the Body of Christ.
Jun 16: Doers of the Word
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. James 1:22
We’re used to quoting St. John when we do Divine Service 1, when we begin by saying, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…” Here St. James makes the flip-side point. If we say we have no good works to do or that we do not need to amend our sinful lives, we deceive ourselves. Your spiritual life was given to you as a gift, just like your physical life. But it needs to be nurtured, exercised, and fed.
When we think about the Gospel and salvation, we naturally think in terms of what God has done for us. Salvation isn’t something we do, nor is forgiveness something we earn. It is given to us for free. We are adopted into God’s family and declared to be His children by His Word of promise, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and the Holy Spirit’s faith-creating call.
But St. Paul and St. James both knew there was in innate tendency in all of us to hear the good news and think, “Oh. That’s nice. I’m going to heaven when I die,” and leave it at that. In other words, we think of the Gospel as something that doesn’t change anything in this life. St. James called that a “dead faith” that isn’t really faith. It deceives us because it claims eternal life while leaving the Old Adam, the sinful nature undisturbed. There is no new life without a killing of the old in contrition and repentance and the arising of the New Man to a life of righteousness. That is the daily struggle of the Christian life. Absent that struggle, there is no faith.
The Holy Spirit gives us faith in the call of God’s Word. He also “gathers, enlightens, sanctifies…” He makes us a part of a living body, He opens our eyes day by day through preaching and teaching to the realities of the kingdom of God, and He helps us always to be turning away from sin and temptation and to confess our sins when we fail.
At our voters’ meeting last night we all understood that nothing was happening as usual. We don’t really know what the future will bring. It is a time of testing in many ways. Times of testing call on us not to be mere hearers of God’s Word, but doers of it. While we are purely passive in the matter of salvation, we must not remain purely passive in the matter of Christian living. To do so would be to deceive ourselves.
One thing you can do in this time of separation is continue to make sure everyone you personally know at St. Paul’s stays connected. You might be that connection. When physical proximity doesn’t bring us together, nevertheless the mutual consolation of the brethren can continue. Praying for one another, giving a ride, chasing away loneliness for someone, delivering hard copies of the bulletins or updates to those who don’t have internet, and maybe watching the services together with someone who can’t figure out how to watch on their own. That’s the sort of thing that a congregation with living and active faith can be doing. And we could list a million other things. Nobody has nothing to do.
Thanks be to God, I’ve seen St. Paul’s rise to the occasion. How long it will last or what it will look like in the future nobody can say. But God’s Word continues to work and spread in our midst no matter how strange the times we live in might try to stop it.
June 8: Trinity Sunday
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Matt. 28:19-20
Even though it moves around on the calendar from year to year, I join many other pastors in thinking of the day of Trinity Sunday as the official start of summer. Other people go by Memorial Day or the end of the school year, but this is when all the big festivals marking Christ’s life and ministry are done and we move from the Christ half to the Church half of the year. The paraments in church turn green and stay that way for the most part all the way until Advent.
It is also a good time to focus on what we do here and why St. Paul’s exists. We baptize and teach. Always have, always will. Some of the external may change. The pastors and teachers come and go. The building undergoes modifications and changes. The format of how we do what we do adapts to suit the circumstances. But it is still always going to be the church gathered around Christ, who is with us always in Word and Sacrament. And by always, He specifies that this is the way He will be with us “to the end of the age.” Eventually He will come again and inaugurate the new, eternal age to come visibly, which we participate in now only by faith.
Sometimes it seems like we’ve got to be betting close to the end of the age. And who knows? Maybe we are. But Christians have always felt that way. The key is to view the time we have as a gift. We get the chance to keep baptizing, preaching and teaching Christ in the presence of Christ. It is up to God when to finally call it.
Sometimes the long, green half of the church year seems less inspiring than the festival-filled half. The temptation is to lose our zeal because things seem the same week after week and the themes seem less dramatic. But this is the Christian life. Every day won’t be your baptism, confirmation, or some holiday. The point of all those things is living your baptized life on regular, ordinary days like this one.
Some things can really deepen our faith in the this “ordinary time.” One of them is a ministry we support called Issues, Etc. which offers podcasts on a whole variety of topics. Yesterday we did the Athanasian Creed in church, which we do once a year on Trinity Sunday. It has some challenging truths in it. You can deepen your learning by going to this podcast.
Work while it is day. The flip side to baptizing and teaching is living baptized lives and learning. In that way Christ is with you to the end of the age.
June 4: Departure
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; Acts 20:29
Seems like a strange verse for a daily update or devotion. It comes as St. Paul is getting ready to leave after spending a long time teaching the faith to a group of people. The parting of ways is an emotional one for Paul because he knows he won’t see them again and desperately wants them to remain strong in the Gospel after he is no longer there to help them. And he knows it won’t be easy for them. The thought of what false teaching will try to do to them makes him want to go over everything again one last time. But eventually you have to let go.
I think in some ways on a smaller scale we experience that emotional parting every year at graduation. Young men and women to whom we’ve taught the Gospel for years depart into the next stage of life. Granted, we aren’t physically parted from them and we hope to continue in ministry together, so that isn’t the same as in Acts. But we have to acknowledge losing hold of them in a way and letting go the way St. Paul had to let go. We know what we’ve taught them and how important it is. But we also know from our own personal experience and from many years of watching our graduates head through high school and beyond that the fierce wolves of life and the falseness of the Zeitgeist are not likely to spare them.
I once adapted the lyrics of the table blessing song from Fiddler on the Roof for Christian use, and I always think of that song at confirmations and graduations. “May the Lord protect and defend you. May He always shield you from shame…” At our graduation service the fierce wolves were on my mind, and how desperately I wanted these kids to stand firm in the Gospel. Our principal Barb Mertens even started crying (or at least got something in her eye and needed to clear her throat) in speaking about the class, and I suspect that emotion only increases year by year through any person’s ministry.
But at the end of the day, you have to let go. They aren’t babies or kids anymore, and yes, it is a spiritually dangerous world. We can’t put our confidence in how well we’ve taught them or how well they’ve learned it. We have to model the faith for them by letting go with confidence that God never forgets His promises and that His plans for us are always good. The wolves and this world’s prince may still scowl fierce as they will; they can harm them none…one little word can fell them.
We pray that our graduates and their parents do not suddenly become strangers to St. Paul’s but continue to be nurtured and fed as part of our Christ-centered community. And we wait upon the Lord who answers prayer.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana