Sunday, July 27, 2014

God Blesses Us with/in/by/through Families

To listen to this sermon click here.
or here.
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The church was packed for the funeral of a lady in her upper eighties. She and her late husband had had five children, and here they were, along with a whole bunch of grandchildren and even more great-grandchildren. Add in the spouses of the various generations, plus nieces and nephews and their children, and the church was pretty much filled with family, all coming before God to thank Him for this woman’s life and to commend her back to Him.
But what if this woman had not happened to meet her husband way back in the 1940s? What if they had not gotten married? Half of the people in the church, from the middle-aged grandparents to the little kids squirming in the pews, would not exist. The union of that man and woman had consequences they could never have dreamed about, leading to untold numbers of new lives, numerous baptisms, new marriages, and new generations being born. Clearly God was working through this woman along with her husband in the family they had started over sixty years earlier.
The family: what a great gift of God! A gift we have all received to one extent or another. Every Christian—indeed, every human being—has been called by God into a family. Our very existence came about by means of our parents who conceived us and brought us into the world. Now, God could have populated the earth by creating each new person separately from the dust of the ground; but instead He chose to bring forth and care for new life by means of the family. The family is the most basic of all vocations, the one in which God’s creative power and His providential care is most dramatically conveyed through human beings.
Anthropologists affirm that the family is the basic building block of every culture. The family, with its God-delegated authorities, is likewise the basis for every other human authority. Thus the vocation of citizenship has its foundations in the family, and the father’s calling to provide for his children gives rise to his calling in the workplace. And even in the Church, the family is lifted up as an image for the intimate relationship that God has with His people: God is our Father in heaven, we are His children; the Church is the Bride of Christ.
We were born into a family, our very existence being due to a mother and a father. That the very creative power exhibited in Genesis—the capacity to make new life—is manifested in ordinary human beings who come together and have a baby is an incredible miracle. Yet t happens so often that people tend to forget that it is astounding and that it is a miracle—except, usually, when it happens to them. Though mother and father have conceived the child, it is, of course, God who has made the child through them from conception through birth. The psalmist writes of God’s handiwork: “You knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13).
When babies are born, they must be taken care of in their every need—washed, changed, fed, and comforted. They depend utterly on their parents. This, too, is an image of the dependence we have on God throughout life. Again, God cares for the child through the parents, and their love for their child is an image of the love of God. That is to say, parents are not so much being “like God” as God is operating in and through what they do. He is hidden in the vocation of the parents.
Moreover, parents—like God, or as vehicles of God—work to bring their children to faith in Jesus Christ. The poet Sir Edmund Spenser wrote about how, in the conception of a child, an immortal soul comes into existence, a potential citizen of heaven. It is the parents’ calling to “train up a child in the way he should go.” In his catechisms, Martin Luther rightly assigns the instruction of children in the truths of the faith not merely to pastors but to “the head of the family.”
Part of the way parents exercise their responsibility is to see that their children are raised in the Church. But most of that spiritual nourishing occurs in the context of the family. When Scripture says of the commandments, to “teach them diligently to your children,” it goes on to specify that families should “talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the road, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Family devotions, Bible reading, moral instruction, and—especially important—the mutual forgiveness of sins and the proclamation and application of the Gospel are part of the spiritual formation of children that happens in the family, most often in the ordinary, everyday situations of life.
The remarkable power fathers and mothers have to create, nurture, and shape their children—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—has to do with the fact that God is the true parent. St. Paul writes of “kneel[ing] before the Father from whom all fatherhood in heaven and earth derives its name” (Ephesians 3:14-15). Throughout Scripture, God reveals Himself as our “Father.” Jesus taught us to pray to “our Father in heaven.” He is the source of our lives, our provider, our ultimate authority. For those who do not have fathers in their lives, God promises to be their father directly, the “Father of the fatherless.” That God chooses to exercise His Fatherhood through such earthen vessels is another of His miracles.
Being a child is a high and holy calling, with a particular work and particular obligations. Even when we are still adults, as long as our parents are living, we are children to them, and this continues as a major part of our family vocation.  To be sure, a baby does not have much to do—eating, sleeping, excreting, and being at the center of attention of Mom and Dad who wait on him hand and foot. As they grow up, children continue in the vocation. What children do is part of their calling. Playing, for example, is what children do and, arguably, what they are supposed to do. Learning is part of the calling of childhood. Everything they do to grow up is part of their vocation, and it is the one vocation that everyone has had.
Since childhood is a vocation, God hides Himself there as well. Since God is our heavenly Father, human beings are always children to Him. Yet, in the mystery of the Trinity, God is Father, and He is also Son. Jesus Christ is Son of God and Son of man. In His incarnation, He was born as a baby, was subject to His mother and father, and perfectly fulfilled His heavenly Father’s will. Jesus is the divine Child, the model, the source, and the sanctifier of all childhood.
The purpose of vocation is to love and serve our neighbor—in this case, the child’s neighbor is his or her parents. And the work God assigns to children—of every age—is of such importance and moral significance that it is enshrined in the Ten Commandments and repeated in Scripture eight times: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God is giving you”1 The commandment is clear and binding, a moral principle on the order of not killing or not stealing. As a matter of fact, in Leviticus, God tells His people, “Anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death” (20:9). Proverbs adds a gruesome description: “The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures” (30:17). The commandments given at Mount Sinai were to prepare God’s children for life in the Promised Land. The Fourth Commandment connects obedience with being allowed to stay in that land. If Israel obeyed this commandment, they would prosper; if not, they would die out as a people.
So what does it mean to “honor your father and your mother”? In his Large Catechism, Luther speaks at length about this commandment, elaborating on both the high distinction of parenthood and the holy work assigned to children: “To the position of fatherhood and motherhood God has given special distinction above all positions that are beneath it: He does not simply command us to love our parents, but to honor them. Regarding our brothers, sisters, and neighbors in general, He commands nothing more than that we love them [Matthew 22:39; 1 John 3:14].
“In this way [God] separates and distinguishes father and mother from all other persons upon earth and places them at His side. For it is a far higher thing to honor someone than to love someone, because honor includes not only love, but also modesty, humility, and submission to a majesty hidden in them. Honor requires not only that parents be addressed kindly and with reverence, but also that, both in the heart and with the body, we demonstrate that we value them very highly, and that, next to God, we regard them as the very highest. For someone we honor from the heart we must also truly regard as high and great.”2
Unbelievable! Such a high and holy command, and God deigns to give it to children! We are to regard our parents as “high and great.” We are to submit “to a majesty hidden in them.” Thus, honoring parents involves recognizing that in them and in their vocation God Himself is hidden. Looming behind an earthly father and working through him is the heavenly Father. That’s why Luther explains: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.”
This commandment covers all of God’s representatives on earth who carry out His will—in the home, in government, and at work. These positions are an extension of parental authority, and, as such are also to be honored as God’s servants for they hold evil and chaos in check. The authorities God gives must be honored and obeyed or all hell—literally—will break loose. Luther explains this further: “God knows very well this perverseness of the world; therefore, He admonishes and urges by commandments that everyone consider what his parents have done for him. Each child will discover that he has from them a body and life. He has been fed and reared when otherwise he would have perished a hundred times in his own filth.”3 “The person who thinks about and considers this will give all honor to his parents without force and bear them up on his hands as those through whom God has done him all good [Psalm 91:12].”4
Luther, ever-realistic, recognizes that parents will still have failings, despite their high calling. Therefore it is necessary that “children should be reminded that however lowly, poor, frail, and strange their parents may be, nevertheless, they are the father and the mother given to them by God. Parents are not to be deprived of their honor because of their conduct or their failings. Therefore, we are not to consider who they are or how they may be, but the will of God, who has created and ordained parenthood.”5
Luther here makes a distinction that is helpful in understanding all vocations—the difference between the person and the office. Vocation is a matter of a person being called to a particular office. The authority, the prerogatives, and the divine presence belongs to the office, not to the person who holds it. One’s parents might be “lowly, poor, frail, and strange,” but they still hold the offices of mother and father. Not by virtue of their own abilities, but because of the creative power in God’s design of the human body, they became parents.
The same goes for other authorities. A judge, for example, is an ordinary person with foibles and faults; but when acting in office, robed with the law and the authority of the state, the judge can exercise powers of life and death. The boss may be a jerk, but an employee must still follow his or her directions. A pastor may be weak in the faith, but by virtue of his office the weddings he performs are still valid, as are, more importantly, his baptisms and the Word he preaches.
The person who holds the office is a sinner in need of God’s grace and forgiveness, and though it is possible to sin in and against vocation—as with parents who harm their children instead of loving them, with pastors who fail to preach and teach the full counsel of God’s Word, or with government officials who care more about getting reelected than serving their constituents—the office itself is a gift of God.
Parents are a gift of God. And the relationship between parents and offspring continues even after children grow up into adulthood. They are still sons and daughters. Therefore the Fourth Commandment applies for life. As long as their parents are living, those parents are to be honored. Discussing the treatment of widows in the church, St. Paul says that “if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God” (1 Timothy 5:4).
Most of us recoil against being dependent on our children. We don’t want to become “burdens.” But dependence is what families are all about. Earlier, children—lying helplessly in their cribs, dirtying their diapers, and needing to be cleaned and fed—are utterly dependent on their parents. There may come a time when their parents become similarly dependent on them. Though the role reversals are traumatic for both sides, repaying our parents and grandparents is all part of the family vocation.
In this context, St. Paul goes on, giving a stern warning: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Rejecting the family is equivalent to rejecting God, since He is in the family. God takes care of us through families! Families are an important part of God’s eternal will and plan. When we honor, love, and respect our parents, we honor God, our perfect parent.
Ultimately, God’s whole purpose and plan is to make us His children. That is why He sent His Son Jesus Christ. St. Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:4-7, ESV).
There is great joy in naming God as our parent. Jesus taught us to pray to Him. With the words, “Our Father who art in heaven,” God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.
God is the Father who loves even the prodigal son. He waits for him, eager to restore him. This Father’s forgiveness is perfect and full and free and eternal. He lifts up His humiliated son. He puts the signet ring of authority back on his finger. He puts sandals on his feet and covers his ragged body with the cloak of dignity. He kills the fattened calf and invites all to celebrate a son restored.
This is what your heavenly Father does each time you enter His house. Though you had strayed from Him, though you still fail to honor Him and the authorities He has placed over you, He loved you enough to send His Son to die to pay for your sins. In Baptism, God names you as His child, and clothes you with the robe of Christ’s righteousness. He invites you to His Table, where His Son is your host—a host who gives His body and blood to fill and restore and renew you. Your loving heavenly Father speaks to you of His extravagant, unconditional, steadfast love: “You are My beloved child. You are forgiven for all your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1(Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16; Matthew 15:4; 19:19; Mark 7:10; 10:19; Luke 18:20; Ephesians 6:2).
2Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (371). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
3Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (373). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
4Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (374). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
5Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (371). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Many of the thoughts and wording of this sermon come from the works of Gene Edward Veith, Jr., especially God at Work and Family Vocation

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Jesus, Our True Peace and Sabbath Rest

To listen to this sermon click here.
Or here.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It was New Year’s Eve 1995. We had just moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana so I could begin my studies to enter the seminary. While Aimee and I were shopping for groceries, I suggested we choose a bottle of wine to celebrate her birthday the next day. We picked out a bottle that looked like it might fit our (at least at that point) totally unrefined tastes and limited budget and put it into our cart. As the cashier rang up our purchases, she set aside the bottle of wine and said, “You can’t buy that. It’s Sunday!” This was our introduction to Indiana’s “blue laws.”
Are you familiar with “blue laws”? A blue law is one restricting activities or sales of goods on Sunday to accommodate the Christian Sabbath. The first blue law in the American colonies was enacted in Virginia in 1617. It required church attendance and authorized the militia to force colonists to attend church services. Other early blue laws prohibited work, travel, recreation, and activities such as cooking, shaving, cutting hair, wearing lace or precious metals, sweeping, making beds, kissing, and engaging in conjugal relations. The Puritans believed that a child was born on the same day of the week that he or she was conceived. Therefore, the parents of a child born on a Sunday were punished for violating the blue law nine months earlier.1
Though established for religious reasons, guess who is fighting the hardest to prevent Sunday liquor sales in Indiana? Retail liquor stores! Because Sundays tend to be one of the busiest shopping days anyway, most consumers would rather just pick up their alcohol at the grocery store or convenience store instead of making another stop at the liquor store earlier in the week and so liquor retailers fear they could lose as many as half of the stores. So, regardless of what you might think of the concept of blue laws in the first place, their continuation is now mostly a matter of economics rather than deeply held religious beliefs.
But is this what God intends in the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”? Can you really keep the Lord’s Day holy simply by refraining from work, purchasing alcoholic products, shopping, and certain recreational activities? Or is God looking for something more from His people? For His people? After all, didn’t Jesus say: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27)?  
God’s purpose in establishing this day of rest was primarily intended to restore people, not make them slaves of arbitrary rules and regulations.   Throughout the Old Testament, God sought to impart social justice for His people, Israel. He legislated controls to greed and oppression. Every Sabbath year (seventh year), debts were canceled and slaves were released. Every fiftieth year—the year of Jubilee—anyone whose family lands had been lost had those lands returned. The growing gap between rich and poor was to be contained.
Originally, the command to rest from work was a law to control the masters of households. The more work they could get from their employees, servants, slaves, wives, and children—the wealthier they became, so there was always the temptation for abuse. The Third Commandment checked such greedy impulses by legislating a day of rest for the master and his entire household—including servants, foreign visitors, and even animals.
These laws were radical innovations. The Third Commandment was part of these “statutes and rules so righteous” given to Israel that would make other nations marvel and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:6, 8). In a day of tyrannical control, when might made right, the Third Commandment demonstrated a people under obedience to a God of love, mercy, and righteousness, who demonstrated the same in their lives.
Unfortunately, by Jesus’ time this law of mercy and love and had become a law of oppression. Though once it was a beautiful blessing, Satan had turned it into a curse. Instead of demonstrating a merciful God, the Sabbath protections became gods of their own. For example: In defining rest, the scribes noted thirty-nine categories of work that must be avoided on the Sabbath. One was the carrying of any burden. Well, what about carrying a small child on the Sabbath? Debate finally concluded that this was permissible as long as the child was not grasping a stone. But what constituted a stone? And so it went on and on.
Pious Jewish soldiers would rather die than profane the Sabbath. The Book of Maccabees records the heroics of a band of Jewish zealots who refused to raise their weapons on the Sabbath, permitting the Syrian army to slaughter them, their wives, and their children. They died obedient to the Sabbath, believing that God would reward them eternally. Obedience to the Sabbath was their god.
The Sabbath became perverted because of man’s attempts at self-righteousness. The Pharisees taught that observance of the Sabbath rest was the ultimate obedience to God. Only if you observed the Sabbath perfectly would you be acceptable to God. In fact, they went so far as to teach: “If all Israel would observe one Sabbath rest perfectly, the Messiah would come.” Do you see why this was so dangerous? It twisted things around! God’s love and salvation became dependent on man’s goodness, instead of on God’s goodness and grace!
In the New Testament, this corrupt teaching about the Sabbath was opposed, especially by Jesus and St. Paul. In defiance of the Pharisees’ man-made traditions Jesus boldly healed on the Sabbath (Luke 6; John 9). He allowed His disciples to pick and eat heads of wheat as they walked through a field on the Sabbath (Mark 2), and then He defended their actions before the Pharisees. Jesus would not let human self-righteousness get in the way of His service of mercy. Quoting the prophet Hosea (6:6), Jesus reminded the Jews, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifices’” (Matthew 9:13).
In his letter to the Christians at Galatia, St. Paul warned: “You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you” (Galatians 4:10-11). In Ephesians 2, the apostle asserts, “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (v.8-9).
God is concerned about serving His fallen, suffering world. That was the original purpose of the Sabbath. When the Jewish leaders wanted to kill Jesus because, according to their rules, He broke the Sabbath, He responded to their charge: “My Father is work until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). In works of mercy, Jesus exemplified the way the Sabbath should be observed. God does not stop His deeds of compassion on that day and neither did Jesus.
In fact, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath. “This commandment, therefore, in its literal sense, does not apply to us Christians. It is entirely an outward matter, like other ordinances of the Old Testament. The ordinances were attached to particular customs, persons, times, and places, but now they have been made matters of freedom through Christ. ”2 St. Paul advises the church at Colossae: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).
We can give thanks that God is at work without stopping. Not only does He uphold all His creation by the power of His Word, including healing the sick and lame, but He extends His grace to all people through His Word. His Spirit works in the hearts of believers as He directs and rules us in His grace and works against the unbelievers in their sin. God’s compassion does not take a holiday. In fact, nowhere does He show His compassion more today than when we gather to worship with others to receive His gifts of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
It is with this understanding that Luther suggested that a better way to keep the Lord’s Day holy is to worship: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”
So, is God-pleasing worship a result of God’s Law or His Gospel? Is worship primarily about what we do for God, or what He does for us? Certainly, worship is commended in the Law. However, for a Christian to observe God’s Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” is the fruit of God’s Gospel, which He proclaimed before giving the Commandments: “I am the Lord your God…” (Exodus 20:2).
Martin Luther explains: “Whenever God’s Word is taught, preached, heard, read, or meditated upon, then the person, day, and work are sanctified. This is not because of the outward work, but because of the Word, which makes saints of us all. Therefore, I constantly say that all life and work must be guided by God’s Word, if it is to be God-pleasing or holy. Where this is done, this commandment is in force and being fulfilled.”3
The “sanctifying” that God speaks of in His Word is not a result of what we do on the Sabbath. It is the other way around. Sanctifying the Sabbath is what God does in us through His life-giving, proclaimed, taught, and living Word. “I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Leviticus 22:32).
In a world where most people assume worshiping, or “sanctifying the Holy Day,” is something man does, Luther’s explanation may be difficult to accept. But let’s go back to our text. “The Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” We cannot make the Sabbath day holy. God has already done that! Through His Word and Sacrament, God continues to make it holy.
We are called to keep it holy. As you listen and receive His gifts in the means of grace God continues to work this in you. Worship is like everything else in which God is involved with you: “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
God works for us. Jesus worked for us. We are saved by His work of salvation. He lived a holy, righteous life in our place. He died on the cross in our place. He suffered hell in our place. He paid for our sins, so we are free. He does not expect us to be perfect as Jesus was perfect in our place. Perfection is His gift to us. We stand before Him holy and righteous and free.
The Sabbath was not intended by God to help people become perfect. That is impossible. Our attempts to keep the Commandments leaves us guilty, uncertain, and rebellious. We stand righteous before Him, not because of our goodness, but because of His goodness, His grace, His gift. This is not something that we can earn with our own good works or worship, but was purchased by Christ’s holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death. Christ fulfilled the Sabbath, and God no longer requires us to observe the Sabbath day and other holy days of the Old Testament.
The Sabbath perversion was rejected and removed. Therefore, by the second century, Christians had given up observing the Sabbath, which was on the seventh day, Saturday, according to Jewish rules. They changed it from a day of drudgery and fear into a day of worship and fellowship—as God had intended—and moved it to Sunday, the first day of the week, the day of Jesus’ resurrection.
The day was devoted to collections for the needy, receiving tithes and offerings for the Lord. It was a day to concentrate on the Lord’s work, a day to serve Him in His vineyard. But most of all, it was a day for Him to serve His people through Word and Sacrament. The day was devoted to the study of Scripture, as Jewish law had originally decreed.

How do we observe the Sabbath today? During the week, we have personal devotions; but on one day (usually, but not necessarily, Sunday) we gather with others to grow together around the Word. We devote the day to reflection, repentance, and renewal. We jump off the merry-go-round, get out of the rat race, and let God confront us about where we are going and what we are doing. The Sabbath was intended to restore those bonds of love and care that we need in order to cope with the ups and downs of life. It was intended as a day to share with and pray for one another. The other six days we use to keep life and limb together. We work to feed our families and keep a roof over our heads. This day we concentrate on the deep and enduring parts of life, the things that last all eternity. Because Christ completed His perfect work of salvation for us, we can honor Him and the day set apart for Him.
“Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Holy means “sacred, special, set apart.” It is the Lord’s Day, the day He intended to hold us close in His unfailing love. He looks forward to it every week.
And so do we! For as we gather together for the worship service each week, our Lord continues to serve us with His love and mercy. Jesus is our true peace and Sabbath rest. Through His Word and Sacraments, our Lord brings us forgiveness, life, and salvation. Indeed, for His sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


2Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (367). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

3Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (369). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Honor God's Name

Click here to listen to this sermon.
Or try this one!
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name” (Exodus 20:7).

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

“What is God’s name?” she asked. Not sure I had heard right, I asked her to repeat herself. “Can you tell me what God’s name is?” she asked again.

How do you answer a question like that? I was a first-year seminarian, about to lead my first chapel service in a Fort Wayne nursing home. The woman who asked the question exhibited a number of the characteristics associated with the mid- to later- stages of dementia. You learn a lot at the seminary, but there aren’t any courses that specifically deal with this sort of situation.   

I first thought of the old joke: “What is God’s name?” Answer: “Andy.” You know, as in the gospel song, “In the Garden”… “Andy walks with me. Andy talks with me. Andy tells me I am his own.”

But something, or perhaps I should say someone (the Holy Spirit?), prompted me to take the question seriously. I didn’t know this woman or her history. I didn’t know if she was simply testing me, to see what kind of a teacher I would be. I didn’t know if she had years of Sunday school lessons, Bible studies, and sermons tucked in the recesses of her mind. I didn’t even know if she was a Christian. For all I knew she had never heard the Gospel message.

The thought came to me: “This might be the last chance she will ever have to hear of Jesus’ perfect atoning sacrifice for her sin and the sin of the world. She might never again have the opportunity to hear of the love and mercy, grace and forgiveness of the one true God—the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I have to answer this question seriously and give as good an answer as I can.”

Trusting the Word of God to do its work and be effective even in the most difficult of circumstances I forged ahead: “What is God’s name?” I repeated. “Well, God’s name is the way in which He has revealed Himself to us, His essence and His attributes. In the Old Testament, God’s covenant name is Yahweh. When Moses asked God for His name at the burning bush, the Lord replied in Hebrew: ‘Yahweh,’ which means ‘I AM THAT I AM.’ In declaring His name as Yahweh, the Lord God was expressing His character as the dependable and faithful covenant God who desires the full trust of His people.”

She was nodding, so I continued: “In the New Testament, God has revealed Himself in His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus, which means ‘The Lord saves,’ was the name given to Him at His birth because ‘He will save His people from their sins.’ Jesus is His personal name. The title Christ or Messiah means ‘the Anointed One.’ Jesus has been anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our Prophet, Priest, and King. So when you pray ‘in the name of Jesus,’ you are confessing that you know and trust that God will answer your prayers for the sake of His Son Jesus the Christ, our Lord and only Savior from sin, death, and the devil.”     

I went on: “God has also revealed Himself as the one true Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When Jesus gave His Church the Great Commission, He said: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ In Baptism, God, the Holy Trinity, receives you into fellowship with Himself, and applies His name on you through the water by the power of His Word. In Holy Absolution, He bestows forgiveness in that same name through His called and ordained servants.”

“What is God’s name? It is Yahweh, the covenant Lord, ‘I AM THAT I AM.’ It is Jesus Christ, true God and true man. It is the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life. It is the one true triune God—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

It was a long answer to a short question; but what else would you expect from new seminarian? We tend to like to show off our newfound knowledge. Her simple childlike reply, “I thought so,” told me that she was satisfied with it. It also indicated that God’s powerful, holy name, had already been at work in her heart, and was continuing to sustain her faith even despite her failing health.

God’s name is unique, powerful, and deserving of highest reverence. That is why God gives us His Second Commandment with a warning: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name.”

What does this mean? Martin Luther explains: “We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”

The ESV translation of the Second Commandment reads, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). The term “in vain” means to empty of significance, to disrespect, to belittle. And so, the issue of the Second Commandment is reverence—the reverence due to a holy God.

We are an irreverent society. We like to knock people off their pedestal. We are happy to hear about the weaknesses and failures of others. How else do you describe the popularity of tabloids and magazines, television shows like TMZ and Entertainment Tonight? Why else would anyone want to know what the Kardashians are doing? We have an obsessive need to burst everyone’s bubble, to reduce everyone to our level of ordinariness (or even beneath us)? Is that why we are also irreverent with God’s name? We don’t even want Him considered special?

Actually, this isn’t a new problem. George Washington found it necessary to address this issue in an order to the Continental Army on August 3, 1776: “The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing, a vice heretofore little known in the American army, is growing into fashion; he hopes the officers will by example as well as by influence endeavor to check it, and that both they and the men will reflect that we can have little hope of the blessing of heaven on our arms if we insult it by our impiety and folly; added to this, it is a vice so mean and low, without any temptation, that every man of sense and character detests and despises it.”

When most people today think of cursing and swearing, they are actually thinking of profanity or vulgarity, the four-letter words that it seems you will hear almost everywhere from barroom to boardroom to your own family room these days. But while such salty language is certainly coarse and inappropriate, it is not a sin against the Second Commandment. It not a misuse of the name of God. It does not take God’s name in vain.

Cursing by God’s name is blaspheming God by speaking evil of Him or mocking Him; or calling down the anger and punishment of God upon oneself or any other person or thing. Job’s wife foolishly counseled him to “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). The people at Jesus’ trial cursed themselves and their children: “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25). James and John asked Jesus if they should ask God to destroy a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-55). But Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).

Swearing by God’s name is taking an oath in which we call on God to witness the truth of what we say or promise and to punish us if we lie or break our promise. Jephthah made a thoughtless oath that cost the life of his daughter (Judges 11:30-40). Peter denied Jesus with an oath (Matthew 26:72) and then invoked a curse on himself as he swore, “I do not know the man” (Matthew 26:74). But Jesus said, “Do not swear at all… Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’, ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37).

But as shameful as such misuse of God’s name is, there is a greater abuse: lying and deceiving by God’s name. Lying and deceiving by God’s name is teaching false doctrine and saying that it is God’s Word or revelation. While other forms of misusing God’s name imperil the speaker, teaching false doctrine has the potential to not only condemn the speaker, but also the hearers by leading them astray from the truth of God’s Word. There is no greater sin against the Second Commandment than using God’s name to preach, teach, and spread false doctrine.

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name.” We are to revere God’s name. We are to fear and love God so that we do not use His sacred name casually or disrespectfully. We are not to misuse God’s name by wishing harm to others or to back up our falsehood. We are not to add or to take away from God’s Word, but proclaim it fully and truthfully. We are not to take God’s name in vain, to cast it about thoughtlessly or frivolously.

I must admit that when people say, “O God,” I don’t get as upset as when they say “Christ” this or “Jesus” that. To me, the word god is more generic. It’s common to all religions and has many meanings, different for a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian. That’s also why I don’t get all bent out of shape when people talk about taking the words “under God” from the pledge of allegiance or “in God we trust” from our money. Not everyone is talking about the one true God, but a generic “god” of civil religion.

But the name of Jesus Christ is different. That name is important in my Christian faith. That is the name of the Son of God who became flesh and blood like me—who loved me enough to die on the cross in my place. That is the name through which I am saved and have forgiveness of sins, new life, and salvation. Peter proclaims the sovereign authority of that name: “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Jesus Christ: That is the name upon which I am to call upon in prayer. Jesus Himself has promised His people: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you” (John 16:23).

Jesus Christ: That is the name God exalted over every name and then sat Him at His own right hand. Paul says, “God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

So, do we? Do we bow our knee or head at the name of Jesus, not necessarily literally, but do we bow spiritually? Do we humble ourselves, and honor that name before the world? The Second Commandment confronts us with a personal question: how deeply do we revere our Savior?

There is a liturgical custom that each time the name of Jesus is mentioned in worship—in a Gospel reading, hymn, or prayer—all worshipers should slightly bow their heads. I don’t personally follow that practice, though I do bow my head whenever the name of the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is mentioned. A Jew never says Yahweh, the name God told Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). When those letters appear in Hebrew text, a Jewish worshiper will avoid saying the sound. He will switch to Adonai, another Old Testament name for God, but he will never say Yahweh, for that would be sacrilegious and irreverent.

Do you feel that way about the name of Jesus? Do you take it that seriously? Paul says, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17). Luther includes that thanks in his explanation of the Second Commandment in the Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”

In the Large Catechism, Luther recommends beginning and ending each day, and each meal by making the sign of the cross and commending ourselves to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He suggests that when we are in trouble or fearful, we cry out, “Lord God, protect us!” or “Help us, dear Lord Jesus!” When we meet with unexpected good fortune, we could say, “God be praised and thanked!” or “God has truly blessed me.” For all this is bringing God’s name into the service of truth and using it in a blessed way. In this way God’s name is hallowed, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

Honor God’s name! Remember what it stands for! Remember who it stands for! When you hear the name Jesus, think of Him on the cross going through hell in your place. Think of Him rising on Easter and going to prepare a place for you at His side for all eternity. Honor God’s name by listening. Each time you come to worship, relish the opportunity to join with fellow disciples to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear His words of hope and direction. Honor His name by coming into His presence with thanksgiving as you come to His Table and receive His body and blood to fill yourself with His love and forgiveness.

Honor God’s name! Trust in the promises God has given you in His name. Call upon His name in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. Keep His name holy by continually striving for purity of doctrine and living a holy life. Look to that name for your salvation, for “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Indeed, God promises: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). By the power of God’s holy name there is salvation and eternal life. By the power of that holy name you have forgiveness. Indeed, you are forgiven of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Jealous, Steadfast Loving God (Commandment 1a/2)

Click here to listen to this sermon.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6).

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image.” Is this the Second Commandment or part of the First? Well, that depends. It has been a matter of dispute over the centuries. Martin Luther accepted the Roman Catholic numbering of his day and included this prohibition of carved idols with the First Commandment from the previous verse: “You shall have no other gods” in his catechism. The earliest Hebrew traditions also had that numbering. However, later Jewish traditions made this the Second Commandment and combined the Ninth and Tenth Commandments as one commandment against coveting to maintain the total of ten. During the first millennium, Christians also used this numbering. At the time of the Reformation, non-Lutheran Protestants adopted this numbering.

So today, a pro-life speaker will note that abortion is a sin against the Sixth Commandment. Lutherans and Roman Catholics will scratch their heads trying to figure out what adultery has to do with abortion. No longer will you scratch with them! You will recall from this sermon that some Protestants number the Commandments differently. Which is the right way to number? I’m really not sure. Both numbering systems make sense. But really, it doesn’t matter so much, because the Bible does not number each commandment. It just states there are ten “commandments” (actually ten “words”), and then it lists them in verses 2-17.

This commandment, whatever its number, is why you will not see banners, symbols, or even crosses in many Protestant churches. The walls will be bare—because there should be no graven images. Luther was against this movement in the Reformation. In fact, he risked his life to preach against it. When Prince Frederick hid him in the castle at Wartburg, Luther heard that the reformers left in Wittenberg were preaching against graven images. They advocated removing and destroying all statues of saints and all crucifixes in churches because they were objects of superstition and would cause people to trust in the image instead of God.

Luther’s reaction was immediate and fierce. Despite the ban that allowed anyone to kill him as an outlaw, he bolted from the Wartburg Castle and stormed to the pulpit in Wittenberg. He said the Reformation was not about changing church architecture. “There is only one idol in the human heart. Once that idol is broken, the statues will be seen for what they are—remembrances of inspiring saints from the past. If we destroy those statues, though, we’ll think that is the Reformation, and we’ll never get to the actual point of it—a change of heart.”

That raises the real issue with graven images. God obviously didn’t outlaw all images. In fact, he commanded the construction of some of them—including the much of the artwork in the tabernacle worship—the ark of the covenant guarded by two golden cherubim, the designs embroidered into the fabric of the tent itself, the lampstands made to look like almond blossoms, the priestly garments adorned with bells and pomegranates made of scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, just to name a few. No, it is not the images themselves that are sinful, but rather how we regard them.

Perhaps the most famous image commanded by God is the Nehushtan—the bronze serpent wrapped on a pole that looks very similar to the symbol used to denote the medical profession for many years. You may recall that the Israelites had disobeyed God, and He sent a plague of poisonous snakes to chastise them.

When the people cried out for help, God told Moses to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and erect it in the center of the camp. If the people looked at the serpent, they would be healed; if not, they would die from the vipers’ deadly bites. God used the serpent to remind people to look to God’s power for healing. Jesus made the point that this symbol foreshadowed Him and His own death on the cross. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

Seven centuries after the Exodus, however, we read that King Hezekiah was reforming pagan practices in Israel. One of the images people were worshiping was the bronze serpent! He had it destroyed. What began as a faithful reminder of God’s power had become an idol to replace God.

This still happens today. Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.” Nature is a reminder of God’s great power and goodness. But people today, especially in the New Age religions and the radical environmental movement, turn nature into a replacement for God. Nature is God’s handiwork; but sadly, people stand in awe before the handiwork instead of giving glory to the Maker. Nature becomes a graven image, an idol, a replacement for God, instead of a glorious reminder of God’s beauty and goodness. And so some worship sun, moon, and stars or track their movements hoping to chart their own destinies. Some, who even call themselves Lutheran, worship the goddess Gaia, Mother Earth and pray for her blessings.

Other good things can become graven images replacing God, too. A child is a great blessing from God, but that child should not be the center, the be-all and end-all, of our life. A child should remind us of God’s goodness, not become our god. This is also true for our devotion to our spouse, country, job, cause, or recreational activity. We are to devote ourselves to such good things, but never at the cost of our devotion to God.

We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things. Our focus is to be on the one true God—the Father who so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life. The God who sends His Holy Spirit to brings us to faith and keeps us in the one true faith unto life everlasting through His means of grace.

But it says something about the depravity of our sinful hearts that we must also be wary of even our observance of Christian traditions and symbols. Altar crosses, crucifixes, and statues can be useful aids for worship, however they may become idolatrous if one actually directs prayers to them, or superstitiously ascribes helping or healing powers to them, or looks to them for protection, or in any other manner places trust or reliance upon them.

In such cases the words of the psalmist, spoken with respect to graven images, would apply: “Our God is in heaven; He does whatever pleases Him. But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears but cannot hear, noses but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:3-8).

But we do not employ these symbols in such a superstitious manner. Crosses and crucifixes are used as reminders of the all-sufficient atonement completed by Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross. Placing them on the altar or elsewhere in our churches, displaying them on a wall in our homes, wearing them as a pendant or on a coat lapel, or making the sign of the cross discreetly and reverently, is at once a reminder to us, and a witness to others, that the cross of Jesus is the only ladder by which we sinners can ascend to heaven and everlasting bliss (Colossians 1:19, 20). Kneeling or bowing is not an act of homage to the altar or to the cross or crucifix or a statue of Jesus, but only to the unseen Lord God Himself.

God is not so concerned about the images themselves, but the fact that they are used to worship other gods. The one true God will not share His honor with anyone or anything. That’s why He says: “You shall have no other gods. You shall not make a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.”

So seriously does our Lord take this commandment, He adds both a threat and a promise: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6, ESV).

Martin Luther made the point in the Large Catechism that these words related to all the commandments, yet were joined to this First Commandment because it is so important that people get their thinking straight first. For where the head is right, the whole life must be right, and vice versa.

We are to learn from these words how angry God is with those who trust in anything but Him. And we also learn how good and gracious God is to those who trust and believe in Him alone with their whole heart. God’s anger does not stop until the fourth generation of those who hate Him. The Lord God says this so that you will not live in such security and commit yourself to chance, as though it makes absolutely no difference to God how you live. He is a God who will not overlook that people turn from Him. He is to be feared and not to be despised.

To paraphrase an old Bill Cosby joke: “I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it.” God takes sin very seriously. He does not overlook one. All must be paid for, and those who despise Him and His mercy and grace, will feel His just wrath for eternity, for they are despising the very means of salvation offered to all for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ.

But as terrible as these threats are, so much more comforting is the consolation in the promise. For those who cling to God alone should be sure that He will show them mercy for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ. He will show them pure goodness and blessing, not only for themselves, but also for their children and their children’s children, even to the thousandth generation. This ought certainly to move and impel us to risk our hearts in all confidence with God, if we wish all temporal and eternal good. For the Lord of the universe makes such outstanding offers and presents such heartfelt encouragements and such rich promises.

Therefore, seriously take this passage to heart. Do not regard it simply as the musings of man. It comes from the Lord God Himself. For you it is a question of eternal blessing, happiness, and salvation—or of eternal wrath, misery, and woe. It’s really a “no-brainer.” What more would you have or desire than God so kindly promising to be yours with every blessing and to protect and help you in all need?

God says, “You shall have no others gods. You shall not make for yourself a carved image.” Why? Because an idol cannot do for you what God can, does, and will. No idol created you with a vision for your life. No idol took the punishment of your sins upon Himself. No idol can do these things. Only God Himself is the Creator and that perfect sacrifice for sin.

No idol has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven to prepare a place for you for all eternity. No idol has promised to return and take you to be with Him. No idol could fill you with His Spirit to inspire and direct your life—to fill it with “the fruit of the Spirit… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

No man-made substitute can be our God like the One who saved us from our sins. Idols are things made by the hands of men, or perhaps, creatures like you and me—God’s creations, not God. They are not what we “fear, love, and trust above all things.” We trust in the Lord our God and His holy Word.

The merciful and gracious Lord who promises: “Do not be afraid. I am with you; for I am the Lord your God, who shows steadfast love to those who love Me and keep My commandments. I have redeemed you with the death of My Son on the cross. By My Holy Spirit I have called and gathered you to be My own in Holy Baptism. I feed you the heavenly bread of My body and blood to sustain you on your journey to My Promised Land. Through My means of grace I give you what you need most: forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, you are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Into the Wilderness

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy Click here to listen to this sermon. “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out ...