Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the LORD has helped us.” 1 Sam. 7:12
One of my favorite hymns, called Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, features the lines
"Here I raise my Ebenezer
Hither by Thy help I’ve come
And I hope by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home."
Those words refer to the 1 Samuel verse. Samuel set up a pillar of stones and called it Ebenezer to remind the people, who were in the ongoing campaign of trying to occupy the Promised Land and encountering a lot of obstacles. What they needed was something they could look to that would remind them in tough times that God had been with them in the past all the way to the present moment. That would encourage them going forward when they faced challenges; they could count on the God Who had always been with them to continue to be with them. His faithfulness would endure. That’s what an Ebenezer assures us all.
Today is my 51st birthday. I think birthdays can be like a calendar version of an Ebenezer. This morning I talked in chapel with the school kids about this verse. Unfortunately, we were unable to livestream the chapel service like we normally do. But I used memories from each of my own grade school years to tell the story of my own life (from age 6-14) in terms of God’s faithfulness to His promises in good times and in bad. Reminders like that matter going forward.
Along the trail near church there are rocks painted with encouraging words on them like “You can do it!” or Keep it up!” Those words are supposed to encourage people running races and feeling so tired that they just might give up. The encouragement really helps people running a race, and St. Paul often refers to the course of a person’s life as a race. Milestones can encourage us. But unlike the phrases on the painted rocks along a marathon or 5k route, the real Ebenezers that matter are those that point not to you and your own willpower, but to God and His faithfulness.
St. Paul’s as a congregation also needs encouragement in this time of the pandemic and other major challenges facing the church. We don’t want to live in our own past, but we do want to remember that the God of our own past is the God of our future. We are in good hands. The
Lord has helped us until now. And He will always help us.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13
This Memorial Day as we wrap up the Easter season we remember not only THE spiritual, eternal, once and for all death of Jesus on behalf of those He calls His friends, but we also honor all those who in strictly temporal terms made the ultimate sacrifice for us in the armed services. The pandemic and the unprecedented measures to contain it have also brought up all kinds of constitutional issues concerning who has the authority to do what and how we can responsibly exercise the freedoms so many people died fighting for.
In 2012 the LCMS launched a Free to be Faithful initiative, for which I wrote an essay. I invite you to take time this Memorial Day to read it and reflect on the issues it raises. Even if we cannot observe this solemn day at some public gathering, we can consider our calling as Christians in civil society and as inheritors of a great nation. I hope you’ll take the time to read it today, and that your day is blessed.
“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.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel. Phil. 1:7
Sometimes we merely skim or even skip over the little introductory parts of Paul’s letters, which can feel a bit like chit-chat, in order to get to the real spiritual meat of what he has to say. But those opening sections contain excellent examples of practical Christian living and encouragement for Christians, too. In this case, we see how a congregation can hold each other in each other’s hearts even when for a time they cannot come together as they would like.
Despite being apart, they remain “mutual partaker of grace.” They share with each other the faith and life God has granted to each one of them. St. Paul identifies a worldly side and a spiritual side to this grace they share. The worldly side of it is St. Paul’s imprisonment, which brings real hardship, deprivation, and, if people let it, shame. The spiritual side is the defense and confirmation of the Gospel, the mission of the Church that goes on no matter what happens.
When this lockdown is long past and people get together maybe year from now, or ten years from now, everyone will have a different remembrance. It might not be an imprisonment strictly speaking, but it is certainly a time of separation and isolation. For some among us, this lockdown has not changed things that much; it has perhaps shifted shopping patterns or affected meals, but for the most part it has been merely an annoyance. For others, it has been absolutely life-changing—jobs lost, major events cancelled, careers redirected, etc. For others it has been terrifying, and will primarily be remembered in terms of hospital rooms and machines and masks. For some, it has been pure grief. For others, perhaps, though they might feel a bit guilty admitting it, this time has been a pleasant respite from the rat-race, a time of togetherness and adventure. We all have a different CoVid-19 story to tell. But when we hold each other in our heart, the personal stories of everyone at St. Paul’s became part of our story. We pray for one another, call one another, help one another, and laugh and cry with one another. We remain family despite being apart.
On the spiritual side, we all share a mission at St. Paul’s, and that mission hasn’t changed. We do the same things in different circumstances, but we don’t do any of them alone. We’re all still committed to shining the light of the Gospel wherever we go, with the oil in our lamps that God gives us through His Word and Sacraments at St. Paul’s. And when this all ends and things open up, we’ll still be committed to that same mission when the circumstances change again, whether things back to the way things were before in your story or whether they move on to something very different as a result of all this.
St. Paul’s imprisonment became part of the whole story of the Christian Church. None of us can expect our own time of “imprisonment” to change the world. But it can change someone’s world. When you hold God’s people in your heart even as you live your own unique story, God works through you in ways you don’t even know. This time is not wasted. God is at work. Hold us in your heart as you shine the light of God’s love in whatever “prison” (hopefully your house is nicer than a prison!) you are living today.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
In Him, Pastor Speckhard
“O Lord, You have searched me and known me.” Ps. 139:1
Yesterday morning we were talking in the office about how the sudden surge in online services for schools, churches, businesses, meetings, and taxes (and stimulus checks) has also caused an explosion of online identity theft. Unscrupulous opportunists prey on people who need to have their personal information online. Sure enough, yesterday afternoon I heard that many people got an email seemingly from me asking for an urgent favor. It wasn’t from me, though. It was spam from an identity thief. I hope it did no harm, but my apologies (along with my thanks for your concern) to those who opened it.
The idea of someone else stealing our identity can infuriate us. It declares the real you to be nobody, while a thief, a fake you, calmly and in broad daylight takes away whatever goods and good will you might have earned. Trying to prove who you are to someone who doesn’t know you can be almost impossible.
In one of the most under-appreciated episodes in the Bible, a woman whose baby has died tries to steal the identity, in a way, of another young mother by claiming the other woman’s child as her own. Thus, two women come before King Solomon claiming to be the mother of the baby. Without any DNA tests or fingerprinting or anything, what would you do if someone simply claimed to be you? How was Solomon supposed to know who was who or what to do about the baby? Surprisingly, he ordered the baby cut in half so each woman could have a share. One woman said fine. The other offered to give up her share to save the baby’s life. Then Solomon ordered the live baby given to the second woman. Her self-sacrificial love proved her identity as the real mother. What wonderful wisdom! But imagine if instead of some secret list of usernames and passwords, your only way to prove who you were was to show self-sacrificial love.
The amazing thing about all of salvation history is how much of it, in story after story, is based on mistaken identity, fake identity, hidden identity, and even stolen identity. How did Israel inherit the covenant in the first place? Israel (at the time called Jacob) fooled his father Isaac into thinking he was his brother Esau. With his wily mother’s help, he used hairy goat skin and tasty meat from the kitchen like a stolen password.
In the New Covenant, we trust utterly that God never forgets who we are. We have not earned our place in His family at His table. For Christ’s sake God has issued us an identity as His children. We might forget who we are, but He never will. Never. We don’t have to prove who we are to God anymore. He is the only one who knows.
One of my biggest concerns during this lockdown, apart from the obvious health threat to those who have contracted or been exposed to CoVid-19, has been the intense isolation for people who already may be living in a borderland of confusion due to memory loss. In even on a good day you have a hard time remembering who you are, who loves you, and how you relate to the world around you, and then suddenly (and inexplicably if you can’t remember it) you find yourself alone all day every day, it would be hard not to feel like nobody at all. We might lose our sense of identity, but God never will.
When we place our trust in the promises God makes to us, we put the burden on Him to remember who we are. We can’t guarantee we’ll remember. Even as Christians we can’t reliably produce credentials of our own self-sacrificial love. But we have the credentials of Christ’s self-sacrificial love for us. The identity the world gives you, comprised of taxpayer ID #’s, SSN#’s, DL #’s, Passport #’s, etc., is part of your treasure on earth, where thieves break in and steal. The identity God gives you in Christ is treasure in heaven and can never be ruined, lost, or stolen. God has searched you and known you. You never have to prove it to Him. He will always know you as His beloved child.
Dear St. Paul’s family,
By heart. That’s an evocative term. When we know something by heart, we keep it in our heart and it is there even when we’re not aware of it. We can call on it at a moment’s notice. Typically, what we mean when we say we know something by heart is that we know it word-for-word. Even after some time has gone by since we last said it, we can recall it with some prompting, or at least recognize it as deeply familiar.
The best way, really the only way, to know something by heart is repetition. Any instrumentalist has a long repertoire of pieces they can play almost automatically, because they’ve practiced them so often. That’s repetition. Athletes also need to know things by heart, and their practice is called “reps,” that it, repetitions.
Businesses know this. They run commercials over and over because they know you won’t really know what they want you to know unless they drive it into your head with repetition. That’s why they tell you their phone number four times. And they sing it to little jingles; melody and rhythm help the memory, and also drive the information deeper into the mind.
One of the more poignant scenes you’ll ever see is a dying person being sung to, especially songs they knew in their youth. Such singing has the power to cut through the fog of illness and anesthesia and go directly to the heart. Every Christian should be so blessed as to have a heart full of the Church’s sung Scripture to sustain them on the threshold of death.
Because we cannot offer communion to the congregation gathered in worship, our online service this week follow the service of Matins. Many generations of Christians have known this service by heart, including here at St. Paul’s. It connects the present to the past generation and the whole history of God’s people. It also has the power to connect people from many places. All over our church body, in any state, there are people who can sing along with Matins.
The beauty of liturgical worship is that it not only makes you know the Scriptures, but it puts those Scriptures into the context of worship. Rather than having a head only full commercial jingles, someone who sings the Scriptures week after week, in a congregation and wider church that sings the same things the same way, drives the words, the context, and the community of believers into our hearts.
Sunday will feel very strange for me not going to church, as I’m sure it will be for many of you. Please worship via our online service, either from the link in the email or via the website. Even as we are all apart in this time of quarantine and cannot go to church, it can be all the more meaningful to join in with “O come, let us sing unto the Lord, let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation…”
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana