Oct. 22, 2017: The Small Catechism – The Ten Commandments
Sermon Series – The Small Catechism – The Ten Commandments
October 22, 2017. Zion, Baltimore
Over the past several weeks we have been spending time with Luther's Small Catechism. It’s good to do this, every once in a while, to remind us of the roots of our faith and what it is that makes us distinctly Lutheran. We are a people of Law and Gospel. The law, which is a condemning word, and the gospel, which is God's saving word. Today we’re devoting our attention to the Ten Commandments.
The moment when the people of Israel receive the Ten Commandments is so important because it redefines who the people of Israel are. First, it provides for them a sense of unity. The people who wandered out of Egypt with Moses were not a homogenous group. They weren’t just a bunch of Hebrews. They were Hebrews, and Egyptians, and whoever else managed to fall in with Moses and his crowd when they saw the opportunity to escape the oppressive life they lived in Egypt. So, the giving of the commandments is a moment that binds them together as one people.
But the commandments also do something else. The commandments, and what they demand of the people, set them apart from the general population of the region. The Ten Commandments are often treated today as if they were general moral principles, rules for life that all people of all cultures could and should recognize. But some of these commandments were very specific to the people of Israel. The requirement of monotheism would have set them apart. The prohibition of images of the divine would have set them apart. This became even more true of the commandment to keep the Sabbath during the Babylonian Exile centuries later, when the Sabbath and kosher laws became important means by which the Jews kept themselves distinct from their captors.
The commandments, then, are something more than general moral principles. They’re signs of a particular relationship with God. They are the means by which the Israelites attempted to stay faithful in that relationship.
Seen through this lens, some of the other commandments among the Ten reveal a particular concern with fidelity, as well. The commandments against adultery, false witness, and covetousness, could be seen as generally useful guidelines for good order in the community; but they can also require an intention to be faithful to the neighbor, and in so doing they mirror the people’s faithful relationship with God.
The Sinai covenant with its practical expression in the Law is the concrete, outward expression of God’s covenantal promise to redeem, not destroy, the sin of the world. It maps out a way of life that replaces corruption and violence with fidelity and justice. The commandments are a way of setting apart the people of Israel, so that they are unique in their identity as the people of God and as a source of blessing for the rest of the world.
Luther says in his Treatise on Good Works that, in reality, the First Commandment is the greatest and the only commandment. The other nine are just commentary on it: "You shall have no other gods." The First Commandment is a call to lay aside all our false priorities. Luther says in his commentary on the First Commandment in his Large Catechism, "That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God."
Theologian Paul Tillich says that religion is "being grasped by an ultimate concern to which we hold with ultimate seriousness, and by which we parse out all other concerns."
Martin Marty, in his delightful little book, The Hidden Discipline, which is a commentary on Luther's Large Catechism, puts it this way: "The person who wants to test the place of God in his or her life might do it this way: Ask whether God is the cutting edge by which you make your life decisions. Do you ever let your faith interrupt a single cultural pattern? Have you ever seriously asked yourself whether your way of conducting yourself, your attitude toward race, your political philosophy, your response to human need were permissible if you really took your faith seriously? Have you ever once, in the face of conflict, placed discipleship before your household gods? Does Christian service ever take priority over your job, or your children's dancing school? That is what it means to 'Have no other gods before me.'"
The commandments convict us of idolatry, because each of them points out the ways in which we allow things other than God to come before God in our lives. That is the function of the law. Philip Melanchthon, the great reformer and Luther's colleague, wrote: "Lex semper accusat." "The law always accuses."
We need to remind ourselves daily that it’s not the Ten Suggestions. It’s the Ten Commandments. "You shall not" means "You cannot." Your God, as Luther says, is anything in which you place your love and your trust.
But of course, judgment is not the whole story. In spite of our weaknesses and idolatries, there is more to us than that. Something new has happened to us. We are forgiven. The old Adam and Eve within us still needs to hear the word of judgment, because we are at the same time righteous and sinner. The law is still our taskmaster, insofar as we are still sinners. But through the power of the Holy Spirit, the law also becomes a promise of what we can become in Christ Jesus.
Luther points out in his Treatise on Good Works that God's wrath which is expressed in the Ten Commandments is transformed for the Christian, because God's Spirit is gradually transforming us into the stature of the fullness of Christ. From the standpoint of the gospel, the commandments tell us that all we do and say as a Christian is a product of our faith. Thus, Luther writes, “all works, […] become good only when they flow from faith, the first, greatest, and noblest of good works. It is our faith that makes our actions beautiful in the eyes of God.”
It is our faith, our relationship of trust in God, not the size of our act, which is beautiful to the God.
Luther says that, finally, the Christian life is not what one does, but what one is in our given situation. What we are and what we do flows from our trust in God, who works in us and through us. In Jesus, we know that God as forgiver and friend in spite of the absurdity and tragedy of life. That means that we live in hope. And with God's help we will continue to bring down the idols in our lives, in the church, and in society, until we shall finally stand in the shining mercy of God where the promise will be fulfilled: "You shall have no other gods." And God, alone, shall reign in our hearts and in our lives. AMEN