In the name of Jesus (+). Amen.
Lent: Forty days of reflection and repentance,
preparing us spiritually for the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord.
Those events to which we look forward each year in Holy Week are the culmination
and the focus of Jesus’ entire life and ministry. These five-and-a-half weeks which
precede Holy Week are representative of several episodes in the Bible, among
them Jesus’ 40 days of temptation by Satan, as the Gospel lesson for this past
Sunday described. Also, the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert,
during which they received the Ten Commandments, inscribed in solid rock by the
very finger of God Almighty.
It’s that latter period that is going to be in the
background during our Wednesday Lenten services this year, as we consider two of
the Ten Commandments for catechetical instruction each week. Today, as you saw
from the responsive reading that preceded the hymn, we’re going to look at the
1st and 2nd Commandments.
In a certain sense, we preach on these two
commandments every week, in every sermon. Every time you hear application of
the Law and are turned in repentance or are given a better understanding of
Christian living, you are reminded that you have not—and you cannot—fear, love,
and trust in God above all things. Similarly, you misapply, degrade, and deny
the name of God whenever— while carrying the name “Christian”—you sin in
thoughts, speech, or actions. You “deceive by His name” in
misrepresenting what He would have Christians be and do.
Most of you who have gone through confirmation
training have probably heard it said that the 1st Commandment is the
over-arching, governing commandment of God. All sin—regardless of its nature,
regardless of breaking commandments two through ten, regardless of whatever
human rating of severity you might put on it, are a violation of that 1st
Commandment. Sin is doing anything which substitutes your will, your desires,
your judgment, for the will of God as He has revealed it to us.
Martin Luther opened his discussion of the 1st
Commandment in the Large Catechism by describing what it is to have a god. He
wrote: “A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find
refuge in every time of need.” If it’s to the Lord you look in such times,
then you are living a life of faith.
Yet none of us do that as we should. Sometimes you seek
or depend upon other things, whether it be in times of good or in times of
difficulty. When things go well, you may conclude they are due to your own
knowledge and abilities, or even chalk it up to good luck.
And when things don’t go so well, perhaps you look to
all sorts of solutions, seek to determine blame, and only call upon God as a
last resort. You fail to trust that even your setbacks and your failures do
not happen apart from the knowledge and allowance of the Lord, and you cut him
out of the equation—neglecting to thank Him for protecting you from even
greater catastrophe, refusing to accept the consequences, and failing to seek
the guidance of His Word in moving forward.
One of the most common violations of the 1st
Commandment is not only seeking a greater portion, but also in having
dependence upon, the things of creation—a love and a trust in those things
which the Creator has provided rather than the Creator Himself, and a fear of
not having them adequately. That’s when you have made gods out of things,
elevated them in importance, and pushed the Lord out of His rightful place as
the source and sustainer of life and creation.
It is true that God uses people and things as His
instruments to provide you good things—parents, government, all those doing
work of any sort in their god-given and godly vocations. Yet, as Luther wrote,
God “wishes to turn us away from everything else, and to draw us to Himself,
because He is the one, eternal good.”
It’s important then, that you take this commandment
most seriously. Don’t set it aside or think it only applies to those who would
create or worship a false, rival god in the form of some carved pagan idol.
For we all are creators and worshippers of idols, and if you examine your heart
with integrity, you will discover what idols are there. Does your heart cling
to God alone, at all times and in all circumstances? Repent! Do not let the
wrath of His righteous jealousy come down upon you. He has promised that His
vengeance will fall upon those who turn away from Him and seek hope and comfort
When your heart isn’t right with God—and that’s the
essence of violating the 1st Commandment—then surely your words and
actions are sure to follow. It’s such secondary sins that we are warned
against in the 2nd Commandment. In current usage, we are told not
to “misuse” the name of the Lord God. In prior translations and common usage,
we are not to take the name of the Lord “in vain.”
There are a great many ways in which you could use
God’s name wrongly, some of which are listed in the meaning given in the Small
Catechism. But these are hardly an exhaustive list.
The term “in vain” can itself also have multiple
meanings. Things are done “in vain” when vanity is involved; that is, when you
do something to elevate yourself beyond your proper relationship with
another—in this case, with God. “In vain” can also mean to attempt and to fail
to do something—to have no discernable positive outcome, in spite of
Luther describes the misuse of God’s name as calling
upon Him to support falsehood or wrong of any kind. To “swear to God” and then
to utter untrue things is certainly a breach of this commandment. Luther put
it well: “to lie and deceive is in itself a gross sin, but it is greatly
aggravated when we attempt to justify and confirm it by invoking God’s name and
using it as a cloak to cover our shame.”
However, even to make such an oath in God’s name in
order to gain credibility, or to emphasize your own earnestness or sincerity,
is a way of applying His name for your own purposes, not for God’s. That’s
vanity, too—as is the casual and flippant use of His name as a way to call
attention to yourself, to show surprise, or to express disgust.
We are clearly warned in Scripture that such misuses
and vanities are sinful in God’s eyes, and that they will be met with His
wrath. His words say, “the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His
name in vain.”
Instead, the Lord desires that we have His name as our
dear, valued, precious possession. It marks us, identifies us, gives us hope
and comfort and access to His ear and His heart. In Psalm 50, God tells us, “Call
upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you shall glorify me.”
Similarly, we raise up our thanks and praise using His
name, invoking His name to call Him and to be in His presence. It is to be
used with great respect and for His good purposes. By such care, we maintain
the name of God in honor; we use it in ways which bring it glory and keep it
set apart. That’s what keeping His name holy means—set apart and unique, not
common or “profane.” It’s emphasized as important by Jesus Himself, when He
taught His disciples and all God’s children to pray, “Hallowed be Thy name.”
In order that God’s name be kept holy among them, and
not misused among them, but also so that they might grow in fear, love, and
trust in the Lord, Luther encouraged parents to teach and develop habits in
their children. Among these practices are the saying of morning and evening
prayers to thank and ask God for His continued protection and providence; the
saying of grace at meals; the making of the sign of the cross and the calling
upon God when confronted with danger or fear; and so forth.
While these may certainly seem quite simple or even
could appropriately be called childish, they do offer the hope and increase the
likelihood that—as they grow and practice these things—young people will come
to a proper understanding and finally to a better following of the 1st
and 2nd commandments.
We know, of course, that in keeping these commandments
as in every other, we miserably fail—adults and children alike. God’s
threatened punishments would justly and properly be applied to us. Yet
throughout this Lenten season and at every time and place, we know and trust that
our advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, exchanged His righteousness for our
sins. According to the Father’s will, He allowed Himself to be delivered up to
death on the cross. His perfect trust in God and His sinless keeping of all
the commandments were applied to us; we were made perfect in God’s sight, while
He took our punishment and felt God’s wrath.
When you know that you have not and you cannot
fear, love and trust in God above all things, trust Him in this: Point to the
cross of Jesus, and know that there God poured out His wrath on His Son, and
poured out His grace and love upon you.
When you know that you have not kept His name holy and
that you have misused it often and vainly, remember that He has applied that
holy name to you at the font, and you have been set apart for His purposes.
And then His Law may be your delight, His forgiveness
your certainty, and His salvation your sure hope, now and forever. In the holy
name of Him we fear, love, and trust, Jesus Christ. Amen.