Text: Mark 9:2-9
7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
According to a 3rd century rabbi, Moses gave 365 prohibitions and 248 positive commands. David reduced them to 11 in Psalm 15. Isaiah made them 6 (Isaiah 33:14, 15). Micah 6:8 binds them into 3 commands. Habbakuk reduces them all to one great statement: The just shall live by faith.
Today for Ash Wednesday and throughout our Midweek Lenten Services we will look at the Six Chief Parts of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. We’ve spent a bit of time over the last few years with the Catechism. First as a bulletin insert with a devotional reading that we began on Rally Day 2016 and ended in May of 2017. Then we had A Simple Explanation of Christianity booklet from CPH which we were to read and pray about and give to someone that we thought might be blessed with this outreach. And finally as we came to the end of last year a new Small Catechism with Explanations came out. It is the first revision in the explanations since the 1991 edition.
So why the Catechism, why now and why so much?
Well … we need it. Just as in Luther’s day the basic teachings of Christianity are important. For me as one not brought up in the Lutheran faith and without the Catechism I see the real value of its use daily and hopefully throughout Lent we will all come to understand its real blessing.
Luther based his Small and Large Catechisms on a series of sermons that he preached in 1528. After visiting the churches Luther found that the basic truths of the Christian faith were not understood by the laity and pastor’s alike.
In announcing these sermons Luther writes:
Because these matters are highly necessary, I faithfully admonish you to assemble at the designated time with your families. Do not allow yourself to be kept away by your work or trade and do not complain that you will suffer loss if for once you interrupt your work for an hour.
And besides, how much time do you spend drinking and swilling! You don’t count that, but when you are asked to spend time on God’s word you are disgusted.
LW Vol. 51 Pg. 135
So that we all don’t continue to reap the fire of Luther’s admonition let us now begin diligently with the Ten Commandments.
You shall have no other gods.
You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
Honor your father and your mother.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Luther begins the Catechism with the law. What God demands and how we measure up. He divides the commandments into the two tables with the first three pertaining to how we should see God and the last seven with how we should deal with each other. The commandments tell us what perfection is and that God expects perfection – no spot, no blemish.
8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8
In the commandments God shows us who we are. That though his requirements are just we all fall short daily in measuring up. God requires that we both fear and trust him. We are to fear him as in a reverent fear that honors who he is and his right to demand what he demands and in trust that if we keep all these commands … we will live.
25And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
To love God and neighbor is what the Law requires and we can’t. It also gives us a way to measure what the world says about what is good, what is right, and what is beneficial. Being legal in the eyes of the law doesn’t make it right in the eyes of God.
The law never rests. It doesn’t take a day off. Close is not good enough. The law is to curb who we are as sinners. It says … this far and no more. It functions as a mirror so that we might see who we truly are – dead in trespass and sin - and get our eyes off ourselves and look outward to one who has made a way where there was no way.
The Law also works when we as Christians know our failings. As we have been brought to faith God, through the Law, guides our behavior. Through the Law we understand who we are as sinners but also as Christians we understand that God desires us to daily die and rise with him in Christ remembering our Baptisms and living and conforming ourselves to his will. As we fail … we are brought by the Spirit to repentance, confessing our sins and turning outside ourselves to our God who forgives, redeems and makes us holy – set apart and sanctified.
As we daily are conformed into who God wants us to be, we gain no forgiveness for our sins by keeping the Law – for forgiveness is truly freely given us only by faith in Christ.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
While God tells us in the first table of the Law who he is, how we are to use his name, and that by keeping holy his day of rest we will remain connected to him and his word and through that word God, preached and proclaimed and he will bless and keep us connected to him in Christ.
We also find that in the second table of the Law that as we live our lives and keep his commands … we benefit our neighbor which is good and well pleasing to God.
The Law makes itself clear in what it demands and that we can find no peace and salvation in it.
For Luther it was important for the people to know that the keeping of God’s requirements will never save us. It is not what we do or must do … but always what Christ has done for us and is doing in us.
All of the commandments but two begin with Thou shall not! The Law primarily tells us what we shouldn’t do. When it tells us what we should do it falls to only two commandments: Keep Holy the Sabbath day - which Luther says refers to hearing God’s word and not despising the preaching of God’s word and the hearing of it because 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. and to Honor your father and mother which points to our headship and the true authority of those placed with responsibility over us that leads to and is only found in Christ.
The law is the light that reveals how dirty the room is, not the broom that sweeps it clean.
Dr. Phil Williams, DTS, 1976.
In the Seventh Commandment Luther writes:
You shall not steal.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.
For Luther the distinction of law and Gospel was vitally important. He even noted with regards to the seventh commandment about - Ill-gotten gains -Saying:
“You farmers and townsmen are, almost all of you, thieves and skinflints! The same applies to tailors, brewers, and others. Don’t think that God established the market to be a den of thieves.”
LW Vol. 51 Pg. 156
For Luther it was not just about the petty thief but every form of stealing that defrauds our neighbor. We are always to do what is best to help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.
No matter how good we keep the law we fall short. In the law and its keeping is death because in it we see no savior. It is this distinction of Law and Gospel that Luther wanted the people and you and me to know. In teaching the Ten Commandments first Luther shows what God requires and our inability to keep it. As we begin Lent with this Ash Wednesday service may we all see in the Law God’s perfect requirements and the good that they teach, but as Christians may we also know that by the Law we come to the knowledge of sin which brings us to repentance by the work of the Holy Spirit so that we might look outside ourselves to the one who is the fulfillment of the Law - Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit!