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 God.”
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 various forms.
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.”