Commandments, part 1
(Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17)
(watch here: https://youtu.be/5nDsmLQeFrA)
As I mentioned earlier, we’re going to break away from the assigned lectionary for one Sunday a month for the next 8
months. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation kicking off. To honor this milestone, our Worship Committee and I thought we’d dedicate one Sunday a month to exploring Luther’s teachings on the Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, confession and forgiveness, baptism, Lord’s Supper, and blessings as found in his influential Small Catechism. It was Luther’s teachings, along with a handful of other theologians in the early 16th century, that laid the foundation for a radically different approach to being Christ’s church in this world.
There is a lot of wisdom in the Bible, some might say an overwhelming amount of wisdom, and Luther understood this all too well. He understood that the wisdom of Scripture and certain church practices needed to be filtered and packaged into a simpler, more digestible, form. We can only handle so much wisdom at any given time! God has a lot of wisdom and throws a lot of it at us through Scripture! To understand it better, we have a tendency of complicating it and making it more difficult to understand! We needed someone like Luther to come along and help us reclaim the simple essence and beauty of God’s words. This is the purpose of his teachings—to help us slow down and enjoy God’s words without overthinking them!
Simplifying God’s wisdom into more digestible amounts wasn’t unique to Luther. Indeed, God had spoken to his faithful servant, Moses, and given him ten commandments that were awfully simple and straightforward. Yet Moses brought these commandments down from Mount Sinai and they have been received as anything but simple and straightforward! Ten short, concise commands…how hard is it to obey just ten short commands?! Mind you, we were given only ONE command in the Garden and we managed to disobey that one but still…TEN commands?! As it turns out…fairly hard! Perhaps because we have complicated them over time. And so we need the simplifying magic of Luther…
This month we will only look at Luther’s thoughts on the first 5 of these commandments. We’ll explore the second 5 commandments when we gather next month. But keep in mind that Luther sorted the commandments into two categories: those to help us be in right relationship with God and those that help us to be in right relationship with our neighbor. The first 3 commandments help us to be in right relationship with God while the last 7 commandments help us to be in right relationship with each other. Notice the purpose of all 10 commandments—to help us in our relationships, either with God or our neighbor. Our God is a relational God. Our God understands the importance of relationships. Our God places a very high value on relationships. God gives us rules to help our relationships above other aspects of life. Why? Perhaps because God knows the sheer joy that comes from relationships. Perhaps because God only wants us to be in relationship with him and each other. Perhaps because God created us for the sole purpose of being in relationship. We don’t know why God is so concerned with relationships but his commandments certainly reveal a God whose invested in building good, strong relationships.
It’s no wonder the first and foremost commandment helps us in what should be our first and foremost relationship—our relationship with God. It reads, “You are to have no other gods.” Every day of our lives we are tempted to worship people or things that bring us temporary joy and satisfaction. We are tempted to believe that people or things can provide better than God. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Only God can provide for all our needs. Only God can provide abundantly for our needs. We should never lose our faith and trust in God to provide for us. Luther notes,
The intention of this commandment, therefore, is to require true faith and confidence of the heart, which fly straight to the one true God and cling to him alone. What this means is: “See to it that you let me alone be your God, and never search for another.” In other words, “Whatever good thing you lack, look to me for it and seek it from me, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, crawl to me and cling to me. I, I myself, will give you what you need and help you out of every danger. Only do not let your heart cling to or rest in anyone else.”
We can only have one God because He demands that we are to fear, love, and trust him with our whole heart. God wants our whole hearts…not just portions of them but ALL of them. Anything less would be disobedient.
In our second commandment, we hear, “You are not to take the name of God in vain.” This is often misinterpreted to mean that we should not disrespect or blaspheme God’s name in any way. Though this is true, we shouldn’t blaspheme or disrespect God’s name, the essence of the commandment is that we shouldn’t use his name to hide our lying or deceit. It’s the equivalent of saying, “I swear by God I didn’t take the cookie” yet knowing full well you did take it. When we use the integrity of God’s name to hide our deceit, we cheapen and degrade the integrity. Luther notes,
It is a misuse of God’s name if we call upon the Lord God in any way whatsoever to support falsehood or wrong of any kind. What this commandment forbids, therefore, is appealing to God’s name falsely or taking his name upon our lips when our heart knows or should know that the facts are otherwise.
God’s name has integrity…don’t abuse it!
In our third commandment, we are told, “You are to hallow the day of rest.” Each week we are to set apart a day and dedicate it to simply resting from the work of the other days. We are not meant to work every day of our lives. God doesn’t constantly work, nor should we. We need a day of rest to give the other days of work purpose. Otherwise, they mean nothing…work means nothing. God doesn’t want us to not appreciate our work. Contrary to popular belief, work is a blessing! A day of rest IS a holy day…a holy gift. Luther notes,
Hallowing the day of rest means to keep it holy…nothing else than devoting it to holy words, holy works, and holy living. The day itself does not need to be made holy, for it was created holy. But God wants it to be holy for you.
Those are the first 3 commandments dedicated to our relationships with God. We now shift gears to looking at our relationships with neighbors. Who are our most important neighbors besides God? Our parents, of course! The fourth commandment reads, “You are to honor your father and mother.” I love Luther’s distinction between “honoring your parents” and “loving your parents”:
For it is a much higher thing to honor than to love. Honor includes not only love, but also deference, humility, and modesty directed (so to speak) toward a majesty concealed within them. Honor requires us not only to address them affectionately and with high esteem, but above all to show by our actions, both of heart and body, that we respect them very highly, and that next to God we give them the very highest place.
Our parents brought us into this world. The least we owe them is honor.
Finally, our fifth commandment gives us, “You are not to kill.” One would think this commandment is fairly straightforward but Luther explains it well:
We must not kill, either by hand, heart, or word, by signs or gestures, or by aiding and abetting…the meaning of this commandment, then, is that no one should harm another person for any evil deed, no matter how much that person deserves it…this commandment is violated not only when we do evil, but also when we have the opportunity to do good to our neighbors and to prevent, protect, and save them from suffering bodily harm or injury, but fail to do so…therefore it is God’s real intention that we should allow no one to suffer harm but show every kindness and love.
And so we get a taste of the lessons that Luther gave us 500 years ago. They are profoundly helpful in opening the wisdom of Scripture to us. In many ways, Luther reclaimed God’s Word from the misuse and abuse of the church. We are forever indebted to his labors and celebrate them for the true blessings they are.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.