Arise, shine, for your light has come… Is. 60:1a
Rise and shine! Have there ever been more hated words? You’re all snuggled in and comfy, ready to burrow in for another round of sleep, and then some cheery, peppy person not only wants to drag you out of your warm bed but expects you to have a sunny attitude about it. Nevertheless, we Christians, at the beginning of a new day, a new year, and semester, will arise and shine. We arise like plants in spring, not by our own power but in response to the warmth and light of the sun. We will shine like ornaments on a Christmas tree, not by our own light but by the power of the light that shines on us. It is what we are called and empowered to do by God’s Word.
This week our staff will be “planning” for the coming year. I put planning in scare quotes because in reality everything will remain very tentative. But there are some good aspects to our situation if we reflect on the light that has come. We have opportunities we did not have in the past.
This verse from Isaiah begins the OT reading on Epiphany. You might have already noticed we didn’t do Epiphany this year. It is technically January 6, but many churches celebrate it on the closest Sunday. This year, however, Epiphany is on a Wednesday, so not really very close to any Sunday. So we decided not to move it but to go with Christmas 2 yesterday and Jesus in the temple, and to the first Sunday of the Epiphany season this coming Sunday, which is the baptism of Jesus. Does that mean we are skipping Epiphany itself? By no means!
Wednesdays we have school chapel. And we can livestream and record those services. So we’re going to celebrate Epiphany on the actual day of Epiphany. We’ll use the Epiphany readings for chapel and invite the whole congregation to participate in the service on Wednesday evening. Wednesday evening zoom Bible study will not resume on Epiphany, but will resume the next week.
The power of God’s Word makes a profound difference even to sluggish, sleepy souls. The Christ whose mission was to save you isn’t content to ignore you or be ignored by you. Please utilize every opportunity that comes your way to be in the Word this week. The hated words, “Rise and shine,” become the best Good News when He opens our eyes to the glory of God in action.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
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
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. Matt. 7:24
You probably noticed that Pastor Stock was doing the church service by himself this past weekend. I was up in Northern Wisconsin for our annual “work weekend” at my uncle’s island, now inherited by my cousins. It is an old fisherman’s retreat (really old—the one log cabin dates to the late 19th Century) with a lodge and cabins on it. We take a family vacation there every year in July, but it takes a tremendous amount of upkeep to make those vacations possible. Maintaining buildings in the harsh weather of the North Woods, and doing so without any road access makes for a constant challenge. Therefore, many years ago we added the mid-June, pre-vacation season work weekend to keep the island available for all the people whose memories and traditions depend on being able to visit each year.
The buildings are beautiful, and two of them in particular, the rec house (dock house) and the boat house have become iconic landmarks of the scenery for people out on the big lake. The problem is that they are in a literal sense partially built on sand. The islands and shorelines up there are mostly made out of Great Lakes fieldstones, some clay, and sand with a stringy web of stubborn tree roots holding it all together. The lake level goes up and down, the piling posts rot, the ice pushes against the shore and into every crevice, the tree roots force their way in every direction, rocks shift, and the old buildings settle in ever more catawampus positions, with window and doorframes groaning futilely to keep their corners square. Our strategies for keeping walls up up involve an endless array of jacks, cinderblocks, fieldstones, lumber shims, and hope.
The yearly effort is a great object lesson about Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount because we actually get to observe the futility of building on sand. But we love those buildings. We try to keep them up, but we know we are working against time and the elements, which are both relentless adversaries. In a deeper sense we also see how so often some of the major building blocks of our own lives lack solid foundations. What we think we know—about ourselves, our past, our relationships, our future—can turn out to be tentative at best when our hopes are in this world. It is okay to love the things of this world as long as we’re willing to let go of them. Your body, your loved ones, your house—they can all be a labor of love as long as you remember that love is about letting go, too. None of them can bear up under being the foundation of your life.
The only Rock that never shifts is Christ. God’s love for us in Him, the forgiveness we have, the place in His family, the assurance of His presence, are all things no health situation, job situation, or relationship situation can take away. At St. Paul’s we build everything we are and do as the family of God in this place on that solid rock. For that reason, we never fear the vagaries of time and the changeable cultural moods that beat against our faith in Christ. We know nothing can do anything to Him, and He is faithful.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
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.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
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.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. Proverbs 3:5-8
Sometimes our practical, worldly problems overwhelm us. It is hard to see the value in reading the Bible, praying, and focusing on spiritual things when bodily things and the necessities of life demand our constant attention. Proverbs provides a good intersection between the spiritual and the physical, the theological and the practical, eternal life and regular life in this world. Proverbs 3:1-12 seems to make some very this-worldly assurances. The odd verses tell you what to do, and the even verses tell you what the reward of that will be. So, for example, in the quotation above, verse 5 tells you to trust God, and verse 6 say that if you do that, He will make your path straight. So far, so good. But what about the more tangible matters? Verse 4 promises success not only in God’s eyes but in the eyes of the world as well. Verse 8 seems to refer to physical health. Verse 10 refers to personal finances. Do we really turn to the Scriptures on those matters?
In the last two months, physical health has been on everyone’s mind first and foremost, either directly because of the virus or indirectly because of the added roadblocks to eating right and exercising. (I know I’ve gained over ten pounds!) Personal finances has been a close second as whole sectors of the economy have collapsed and people wonder about jobs and bills with no answers in sight. Social distancing has tested the strength of our relationships; we suddenly have to endure the long absence of the constant, unavoidable presence of the people in our lives. We have not offered church in the normal way. This pandemic has had the potential to take a serious toll on every kind of health—physical, emotional, financial, social, and spiritual.
Sometimes hardships in all these areas can seem like God punishing us. But Prov. 3:12 wraps up all the practical advice with the assurance that even the hardships in our lives show God’s love to those whose eyes are open to it. The preceding verses do not provide as much of a recipe for achieving your ambitions but a way of looking at every aspect of worldly health in light of God’s love. When we begin with trust in the Lord, we do indeed find success in the eyes of the only people whose opinions matter. We really do find that we have more than enough. We do not fear living a life that is too long or too short.
I wish I could tell you that everything is okay in a worldly sense in your life. But I don’t have access to any particular information that you don’t have about viruses, unemployment, the stock market, or any other practical matter. But I can draw your attention to the promises of Scripture. If this shut-down has taken its toll on your physical health, your financial future, or your personal relationships, it can also be God’s loving reproof to being the healing of your whole person with first things first—your faith. We who know of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and hell have every reason for confidence as we trust in the Lord with all our heart. And if this pandemic jolts us into getting our spiritual lives in better order by seeking first the kingdom of God, the rest will follow in God’s loving ways and time. God’s got this. All of it. He’s got you. All of you, every aspect of your life. Trust the one who loves you more than you can possibly know, and lean not on any worldly way of looking at things.
“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Neh. 8:10
When you’re told to “be strong,” you know something scary, painful, or disappointing has happened or is about to happen. Usually, “Be strong!” does not refer to your muscles. It refers to the mental focus or emotional toughness needed to face some hardship, be it something little and momentary like getting a shot at the doctor’s office or something big and traumatic like attending the funeral of a loved one.
We’re so used to thinking of this strength in terms of toughness, discipline, will power, and endurance that is seems almost a tad silly to think of the joy of the Lord being our strength. But in this Easter season you’d be amazed how much hardship, suffering, disappointment, or grief can melt away when you put it into the context of our risen Lord.
“Safely, joyfully, and differently.” That’s the answer to the “how?” question I sent out today telling the confirmation class how we’re going to do the rescheduled confirmation service. That is also the answer to how we’re going to do all the services here in the near future.
The need for safety affects people differently. People grieving the loss of loved one to preventable illness or accident place a higher premium on safety. The joy of the risen Lord is their strength to endure, and the promised resurrection remains the context in which they grieve. As a church family we not only mourn with those who mourn but honor the need to do things safely despite the fact that doing so can make everything more difficult or less enjoyable in some ways.
The need to do things differently is a far littler hardship. But is still requires a different kind of strength. We have to overcome force of habit, personal preferences, and attachment to some beautiful and meaningful things, things like kneeling together at the rail for communion or gathering to share our lives over coffee after the service. But you will be amazed at how easily the joy of the Lord gives you the strength to do things differently, in ways that would prove to be major obstacles to you if you attempted them with some other source of strength besides the joy of the Lord.
How long will some of these things last? Who knows? Will we eventually go back to doing things the old familiar way, or will we incorporate some of the different things into the usual routine going forward? Again, who knows? What I can guarantee with certainty is that worship at St. Paul’s will always bring you Christ in Word and Sacrament, and the joy of that can be your strength. Yes, we strive for accompanying joys, like beautiful choirs, appropriate art and decorations, and comfortable, upbeat fellowship time. But none of those joys can ever be your strength. Only the joy of the risen, reigning Lord can provide that.
When we practice finding out joy only in what truly matters, we appreciate the tangential joys even more and put up with the tangential irritations with a good attitude. More importantly, we train ourselves to face big hardships in life without gloom or despondency.
In these unique times willed with strange hardships, live your life safely, joyfully, and differently with the joy of the Lord giving you strength for whatever comes.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana