Mid-Lent 1 1-3 Commandments
In the preface to the Large Catechism Martin
Luther wrote: “Nevertheless,
each morning, and whenever else I have time, I do as a child who is being
taught the catechism and I read and recite word for word the Lord’s Prayer, the
Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Psalms, etc.
I must still read and study the catechism daily, and yet I cannot master
it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the catechism – and I also
do so gladly.”
When Luther talks about “the
catechism,” he is referring to those basic and essential texts of the Christian
faith: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the
institution texts for Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution and the Sacrament of the
Altar. We often think that because they
are basic, once we have covered them in Catechesis we are done with them. After all, we know them.
But Luther’s words remind us that
while they are basic in that they are foundational, they are never basic in the
sense of being easily learned and hence no longer requiring our attention. This learning is not simply a matter of head
knowledge. As we consider the Ten
Commandments, because of the old Adam in us, there is the continual need to
hear this summary of God’s word and will. Through it the Holy Spirit reveals
our sin, and through it the Holy Spirit represses the old Adam so that the new
man in us can direct what we actually do.
The First Commandment states, “You
shall have no other gods.” This raises the obvious question: “What is a god?” Luther insightfully summarizes the biblical
answer when he writes in the Large Catechism: ‘A ‘god’ is the term for
that to which we look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all
need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in
that one with your whole heart.” Or as
Luther summarizes his point, “For these two belong together, faith and God.
Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your
That which is most important to us;
that which provides a sense of security, is our god. Obviously there are many things in our lives
which take on this role: money, wealth, material blessings, hobbies, sports,
work … the list goes on and on. We each
must recognize and confess the things that take on this role – these false gods
that are present in our life.
When you arrive at the First
Commandment, you need look no further for evidence of sin. And in this sin we
find the reason that we are in Lent, preparing to remember our Lord’s sacrifice
for us during Holy Week. Lent is a penitential season in which we place a
special emphasis on the need to confess our sin and repent. We do so because our sin is the reason that
Jesus made his final trip to Jerusalem. As Jesus was approaching the city he
yet again predicted his passion and resurrection. Just a little later he explained the purpose of his death when
he said: “Son of Man came not to be
served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Our Lord Jesus went to the cross in order to free us from sin.
Instead of having others gods, the Small Catechism’s
explanation of the First Commandment says: “We should fear, love and trust in
God above all things.” As we prepare to
remember Jesus’ passion, we must recognize that this is what Jesus Christ did. Our Lord is true God. He is also true man, and he perfectly feared,
loved and trusted in God for you. As
Hebrews tells us, he was tempted in all ways that we are, yet without sinning.
He did what you cannot as he perfectly fulfilled God’s will.
The Second Commandment states: “You shall not misuse the
name of the Lord your God.” Luther
comments in the Large Catechism, “Just as the First Commandment
instructs the heart and teaches faith, so this leads us outward and directs the
lips and tongues into a right relationship with God.”
In the Small Catechism we confess that we are not to “lie
or deceive by his name.” We are not to
use God’s name in order to support falsehood or wrong of any kind. This is true in general in life. But it is
especially true as we deal with God’s Word. The worst form of lying and
deceiving by God’s Name is when individuals teach false doctrine they claim is
God’s Word. Our Lord Jesus confronted the Pharisees for the various ways they taught
as doctrines the commandments of men. The apostles did this and emphasized the
need for pastors to confront false teaching.
Paul told Timothy in his first letter, “As I urged you when I was going
to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge persons not to teach any
different doctrine.” We are called as
individuals to speak the truth of God’s Word when we hear false doctrine, and
we should expect our pastor to point it out and teach us so that we recognize
when God’s name is being used to teach something that is false – something that
God’s Word does not say.
At the same time, this commandment also teaches us that
we are to use God’s name in the right way. The Small Catechism says that we are
to “call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks.” Prayer is the First Commandment put into
practice. We show that we fear, love and trust in God above all things by
stopping and turning towards God in prayer.
We call upon God in trouble, knowing that this is the
very thing he has told us to do. In the Psalms
we read, “Call up me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall
glorify me.” We praise God simply
because he is God, the Creator of all things.
We praise him for his saving work in Jesus Christ. And we give thanks to
God for the blessings which he gives to us. Prayers of thanks are in themselves
helpful because they make us pause and take account of how many blessings God
has given to us. And having recognized them – gifts for bodily life in daily
bread, and gifts for spiritual life in Christ and his Means of Grace we give
thanks. The psalmist wrote: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his
steadfast love endures forever!”
Jesus Christ is our model for prayer. In particular, the Gospel of Luke emphasizes
the role of prayer in the ministry of Jesus.
Despite his busy ministry of proclaiming the kingdom of God and bringing
it to those in need through his miricales of healing, Jesus took time out for
prayer. On a number of occasions we hear
about how he went off by himself – how he withdrew in order to pray to the
Father. And of course, during Lent we
are preparing to observe one of the most moving and famous occasions of prayer
– that in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus was about to enter into the events
of his passion.
Prayer can happen at any time. The apostle Paul told the
Thessalonians, “Pray without ceasing.”
But experience in the life of faith going back to the Old Testament has
shown that the people of God are most certain to have prayer as a regular and
important part of their life when it is a scheduled part of life. We need
regular times of prayer built into our daily
Martin Luther continued this belief and practice by
setting forth in the Small Catechism’s Daily Prayers section direction for
prayer at the beginning and close of the day, and before and after a meal. This
provides a framework for prayer during the day. A Christian certainly needs to
have a time of devotion during the day when there is the reading of Scripture
and prayer. And in our life together in family and marriage, we will want to
hear God’s Word and to pray together.
Finally, the Third Commandment states: “Remember the
Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Of
course, we do not worship on the Sabbath, on Saturday. Instead, the coming of Christ has meant that
the Law of Moses – the Torah – no longer applies to us. We now worship on Sunday because of the day
that is the culmination of Lent and Holy Week.
We prepare to remember our Lord’s death on Good Friday. But as St. Paul
asserts so powerfully in 1 Corinthians chapter 15, if Christ had not risen from
the dead the whole thing would have been pointless. And so all of Lent and Holy Week bring us to
Easter – the resurrection and vindication of Jesus as the Christ. Indeed, every Sunday is a “little Easter” –
it is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of life that
this has given to us.
The Small Catechism says that we should not “despise
preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” We summarize under the Third Commandment all
that God says about his Word and the Means of Grace, which are the Word in its
We must remember that reception and use of the Word is
God’s command. He knows our
sin. He knows our need better than we
do. He knows the blessings that he gives
through the Word – the blessings of faith, forgiveness and eternal life. And so
he commands us to receive his Word. This
commandment deals with all of the occasions in which we use God’s Word, but
especially it makes us think of those times when we gather at church to hear it
read and preached; to receive absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar. As
Luther writes in the Large Catechism, “God wants this commandment to be kept
strictly and will punish all who despise his Word and refuse to hear and learn
it, especially at the times appointed.”
Through this Word, the Holy Spirit who created faith
continues to sustain it. Through this Word we receive the forgiveness of sins
and the comfort of God’s continuing love.
This is something that we never cease to need. And it is something that
never ceases to bless us. And so I conclude with Luther’s words from the Large
Catechism that summarize this truth in a wonderful way:
“Let me tell you this. Even though you know the Word
perfectly and have already mastered everything, you are daily under the
dominion of the devil, and he does not rest day or night in seeking to take you
unawares and to kindle in your heart unbelief and wicked thoughts against these
three and all other commandments. Therefore you must constantly keep God’s Word
in your heart, on your lips, and in your ears.
For where the heart stands idle and the Word is not heard, the devil
breaks in and does his damage before we realize it. On the other hand, when we seriously ponder
the Word, hear it, and put it to use, such is its power that is never departs
without fruit. It always awakens new
understanding, pleasure and devotion, and it constantly creates clean hearts
and minds. For this Word is not idle or dead, but effective and living.”