Date: Augustin 29, 2021
Festival: Pentecost 14 (Welcome Back Sunday)
Text: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI and Christ the King Lutheran Chapel
Taking God’s Commandments as They Are (vv. 1-2)
Let us pray: “Almighty God, every good thing comes from you. Fill our hearts with love for you, increase our faith, and by your constant care protect the good you have given us. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen” [Schumacher, 470].
In the wider context of Deuteronomy 4, Israel was cursed to wander in the desert for 40 years because of their unfaithfulness to the 1st Commandment—to trust in God above all things. And now, before they finally enter the Promised Land, the Lord speaks through Moses to remind them of His commandments: “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the Word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you.”
When God speaks His Law, He gives it to you straight. Don’t add anything to it, don’t take anything away from it, and don’t twist it. Just take it. Just let it be what it is. Martin Luther developed a theological term for this: being a theologian of the cross. This is the theologian all Christians should strive to be, which contrasts with the theologian of glory.
Luther lays forth these terms in his Heidelberg Disputation in 1518, and he succinctly differentiates these two theologians in thesis 21, “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it actually is” [Wengert, 84]. In other words, whereas a theologian of the cross takes God’s Word as it is, a theologian of glory will add to it, take from it, and twist it.
There were theologians of glory in Jesus’ day. Last week, for example, we read from Mark 7 where Jesus rebukes the Jews for placing manmade traditions over the commandments of God—they added to God’s Word and even twisted it for their own gain. They hung up Corban—which was money set aside for God alone—even if it meant violating the 4th Commandment to honour your father and mother. They reduced God’s command to nothing so that they might elevate themselves. The evil of neglecting your parents was called good and the good of honouring them in all things—even money—was called evil.
Theologians of glory also persist in our day when, for example, false shepherds hang up a rainbow flag on their church and permit a growing list of sinful living. They reduced God’s command to nothing so that they might elevate pride, that is, themselves. The evil of sexual perversions is called good and the good of abstinence and God’s definition of marriage and gender are called evil. The theologian of glory deposes God’s Word and the individual self is elevated to the place of godhood—you get to determine what’s good and evil.
The theologian of the cross, on the other hand, calls a thing what it is. Evil remains evil and good remains good. This theologian simply says, “This is what God has said; therefore, I believe it and obey.” And, ultimately, he sees Jesus on the cross and says, “In Christ I see all my failings, my weaknesses, and my brokenness crucified. And because He is also risen, He raises me to new life to live free from my sin.” In other words, Christ does not set us free to sin; He frees us from sin.
God’s Commandments are For Wisdom (v. 6)
We don’t like talking about God’s Commandments because we only see them as rules to follow, and we think that rules limit our freedom. But the opposite is true; God’s Commandments give us the freedom to live as His people. Without them, we would be left to the lawless evil of mankind, and we wouldn’t know how to love God and one another. Therefore, Moses says, “Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples.”
To keep God’s Commandments for wisdom, we must first learn what they are. And how do we learn them? Many of you have gone through some sort of catechism class. There, you learnt God’s Commandments, the Creed as a summary of our faith, how to pray using the Lord’s Prayer, what God does in Baptism, how to confess your sins, and how you receive forgiveness, life, and salvation in the Lord’s Supper. Then you were confirmed.
Yet catechism does not end at the Rite of Confirmation. As any professional will tell you, once you graduate from college, your learning does not end; you keep learning and growing from mistake and continuing education to remain an expert in your field. In the same way, once you “graduate” from catechism, your catechesis—or your discipleship—does not end. You keep learning and growing in Christ by going to Bible study and coming to church; and when you keep sinning, you continue to come to Christ to receive His forgiveness. But more on that a little later. For now, we should turn to Luther in the Small Catechism to be reminded of the wisdom God has given us in His Commandments, just as God reminds the Israelites in Deuteronomy 5.
First, “You shall have no other gods,” which means “we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” God’s wisdom leads us to trust in Him above all things, whether that be government, politicians, money, straight A’s, and even yourself. That doesn’t mean these things don’t have their uses when they remain in their proper place, but our fear, love, and trust shouldn’t ultimately be in these transient things.
Second, “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God,” which means “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.” God’s wisdom leads us to use His name solely for calling upon Him in trouble, prayer, and to give Him praise and thanks. Anytime we curse, swear, lie, or deceive with His name—like the theologian of glory does—or even use satanic arts, we profane His name, and we forsake His wisdom.
Third, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy,” which means “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.” Whenever we make a sports game or sleeping in or some other thing our holy day rather than the Sabbath and even despise long sermons, we profane the Sabbath and forsake God’s wisdom.
Fourth, “Honour your father and mother,” which means “we should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honour them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” Whenever we dishonour and disobey our parents, we forsake God’s wisdom. Or when we disobey government and our teachers, we also abandon God’s wisdom, as long as they don’t prohibit the worship of God and the use of His name.
Fifth, “You shall not murder,” which means “we should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbour in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” It would seem this commandment is straightforward enough. After all, how easy is it not to murder someone? But it turns out it’s not so easy because we forsake God’s wisdom and use human philosophy to justify the murder of babies in their mother’s womb.
Sixth, “You shall not commit adultery,” which means “we should fear and love God so that we lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do, and husband and wife love and honour each other.” This would also seem straightforward, but again we abandon God’s wisdom and use human philosophy to justify all forms of sexual immorality, even adultery. Jesus goes even further by saying that even lust is adultery.
Seventh, “You shall not steal,” which means “we should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbour’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.” The thief abandons God’s wisdom for greed. This includes not only shoplifting and other forms of theft, but also dishonest and lazy work, even manipulation.
Eighth, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour,” which means “we should fear and love God so that we do nto tell lies about our neighbour, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.” Man, how much we love breaking this commandment! If anyone does not have the same opinion as us—especially in politics—we abandon God’s wisdom for hateful rhetoric and defamation against our “opponent,” especially on social media! If the tongue is like a fire that sets a forest ablaze, as St. James says [James 3:6], then our fingers are like fiery arrows that pierce our neighbour and sets their emotional health and reputation ablaze.
Ninth, “You shall not covet your neigbour’s house,” which means “we should fear and love God so that we do not scheme to get our neighbour’s house, or get it in a way which only appears right, but help and be of service to him in keeping it.” Here, we also see deception and manipulation as in the 7th Commandment. Sometimes, at the death of a parent, for example, siblings will forsake God’s wisdom and fight over who gets what inheritance.
Lastly, number 10, “You shall not covet your neigbour’s wife, or his manservant, or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour,” which means “we should fear and love God so that we do not entice or force away our neighbour’s wife, or animals, or turn them against him, but urge them to stay and do their duty.” Again, even lusting after these things violates this commandment, or even encouraging someone to divorce their spouse when abuse or infidelity were not committed.
Where There is God’s Command, God is Near (vv. 7-8)
The Commandments teach us how to live wisely as God’s people, and when we violate His Commandments in these and many other ways, we act foolishly and sin against God and neighbour. But it is not my attention or God’s will to leave you without hope. As Moses continues in verse 7, “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon Him?” God’s command and God’s nearness are placed side by side. Where there is God’s command, God is nearby. This of course means that when you violate God’s commands, He is nearby for ill; but primarily God is nearby for your own good because all the Commandments follow the 1st and 2nd—to place trust in God above all things and to always call upon Him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving because of His promise to be merciful.
Now, this long list of do’s and don’ts seem daunting, I’m sure, just as I’m sure all your classes and syllabi you’ll soon be receiving will seem daunting. Can you do all God’s Commandments? No, because you don’t have perfect righteousness like Jesus does. Should you try your hardest to do God’s Commandments? Yes, because God has called you His own and to live a life that’s different than the rest of the world—that’s what it means to be holy, or set apart.
This reminds me of some advice I receive from one of my professors at seminary. You see, when a man goes to seminary, the devil is constantly on attack, and he doesn’t stop once that man becomes a pastor (and it’s true of your Baptism as well). There was a time at seminary when I was seriously doubtful of my ability to be a pastor because of its daunting, rigorous curriculum (mostly the insane amount of reading); and a lot of my classmates were much smarter than me who’ve been Lutheran their whole lives, whereas I’ve only been Lutheran since 2014.
With all these things flooding my mind, I opened up to a professor and he encouraged me, “Ricky, you’re not going to have time to do all the readings. Should you try to do as much as you can? Absolutely. Put forth your best effort. Can you do all the readings? Probably not, but if you do, you’re a much better student than I was! Don’t forsake your other vocations for your vocation of student. Just do what you can, and I promise your education here will be fulfilling.”
Now, I could’ve taken what he said and used it as an excuse for mediocre work. But I took the other road: I managed my time well, and I did everything I could, even though I didn’t have the time to do all the readings. As you students begin your studies, I want you to take the same advice that was given to me. There may be times when you can’t do everything. Do your absolute best. Don’t settle for mediocrity. But do not be so hard on yourself when there’s not enough time in the world to do what’s listed on every syllabus you receive.
When it comes to God’s Commandments, do your best as God has taught us, but cling even more to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. For where there is God’s command, the Lord is near, even when you fail to keep His Commandments. As Jesus commands in the Great Commission, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” [Matthew 28:19-20].
Jesus promises to be near you not based on how well you keep His Commandments but based on His perfect obedience. That is why I am here as your campus pastor—to bring Christ to you when you fail, when you’re weak, and when you’re broken. My door is always open.
Keeping God’s Commandments Diligently (v. 9)
Still, though, while God is near us, He commands diligence in His Word. “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently,” Moses continues, “lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children.” Through Moses, the Lord told His people to be careful not to forget His Commandments, but to keep them diligently. We do this with higher education as well. After all, how do you learn something? You return to it diligently. During your studies, you’ll be receiving knowledge that has been passed down through many generations, just like God’s Word has been passed down.
In order to retain a new language you’re learning or something else like science, math, or whatever you’ll be studying, you have to return to each of them diligently. When you don’t return to the basics of what you’re learning, not only will you be unable to remember it, but it will also become useless in the future. If you’re learning a new language, for example, you can memorise all the vocabulary, but what good will that do you if you don’t return to every verb and noun morphology and the rules of grammar according to that language to actually read or speak the language? Or, as you take notes in class, what good are they if you don’t return to those notes on a daily or weekly basis? You also won’t learn anything if you don’t ask for help when you don’t understand something. Learning.Requires.Diligence.
In the same way, we must diligently return to the Word to daily learn God’s commands. We do this through daily devotion, going to Bible studies, and coming to church, all of which we do here at the chapel/church. We return to these things not only to learn God’s commands, but also to be forgiven. We might forget God’s Commandments, especially when we make up our own to replace His Word, but we are even more prone to forgetting God’s mercy.
Sometimes, I think the devil wants us to remember God’s Law not for its wisdom benefits, but so we can use it to forget God’s grace. The devil does not want you to remember the free forgiveness of sins you have in Christ. So, he will use whatever means necessary to make you forget that, even if that means twisting God’s Word for evil rather than good. He’s done this since the beginning. The devil, for example, will cause us to look back on our lives after reading passages like Deuteronomy 4 and say to ourselves, “Wow, I break God’s Commandments all the time! How could the Lord ever forgive me? I must do better for God to forgive me.”
And there’s the trap: he convinces you that you must do something to be forgiven, or saved, or whatever it is rather than what Christ has already done. He turns you into a theologian of glory that seeks your own glory rather than the glory of God in Christ. This is why I encourage you to come to church/chapel as often as you can, that you may not only be diligent in God’s commands for His wisdom to benefit your life, but also that you may be a diligent theologian of the cross who, in Luther’s words, sees God “through suffering and the cross” [Wengert, 84].
This means that when you fail, when you’re weak, and when you’re broken, you don’t look at these broken shards of glass of the Commandments you keep breaking. Rather, you look to Christ, who kept all these Commandments perfectly on your behalf, whose body was broken for you and whose blood was shed for you so that His Word of forgiveness might reign supreme. That is why we are gathered here today, and every Sabbath after—so that when you’re weak, broken, and when you fail, you come and look to Christ on the cross and receive His Word of forgiveness. Though you and I may be clumsy as we keep the Lord’s Commandments, still He leads you and I to green pastures and beside still waters to rest in His mercy [Psalm 23:2].
Let us pray: “Almighty God, who has proclaimed thine eternal truth by the voice of prophets and evangelists: Direct and bless, we beseech thee, those who in this our generation speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of the people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honour of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” [Schumacher, 474].
Schumacher, Frederick J., and Dorothy A. Zelenko. For All the Saints: A Prayer Book For and By the Church. Volume IV: Year 2, The Season After Pentecost. Delhi, NY: The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1998.
Wengert, Timothy J., et al. The Annotated Luther: The Roots of Reform. Volume 1. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.