The Big Fence
We begin our 6th trek through "The Layman's Bible", Luther's Small Catechism, with the First Chief Part, The 10 Commandments. This time we're using the theme "Fences" and with the 1st Commandment we come to the big one.
Fences come in all sizes. You know when you've come to a big one. It's formidable size doesn't need a No Trespassing sign. It's height, width, and breath say whatever is behind this fence is important, expensive, secret, protected. It's very hard to convince Christians that the 1st Commandment "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" is the Big One. O sure you can see idolatry is the big problem in the OT; you probably even know the names of some of the false gods. There's Baal, Dagon, and Ashtoreth among the pagans. There's Sikkuth and Kiyyun the gods Israel sacrificed to in the wilderness. Then of course Aaron's one golden calf at Mt. Sinai only to be outdone by Jeroboam's two for Northern Israel. You can see idolatry was a problem for the OT church. Can you see that it's just as big of a problem in the NT? Why else does Paul need to tell the Christians at Corinth, "Don't be idolaters" (1 Cor. 10:7)? And why is the last line of one of the last NT books: "Little children guard yourself from idols" (1 Jn. 5:21).
Not us though, right? Silly pastor warning us of idolatry. We know the only real, true God is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The Mormons, the Jews, Muslims, and Unitarians, they're idolaters because they don't worship the Triune God, but not us. You haven't read Luther's Large Catechism. Under the 1st Commandment he doesn't treat the Triune God. He totally omits the name of Christ and describes God as only the "Eternal well-spring" (Peters, Ten Commandments, 128). In his Galatian lectures Luther said, "Moses did not reveal the Son of God; he discloses the Law.." (LW, 26, 72)! You're not safe from idolatry as long as you believe in the Triune God because He's not the subject here. Neither are you safe as long you're not a secret idolater. It's true; even if you're not bowing down before a physical idol, if you fear, love, or trust in money, possession, persons, politics, medicine, or things before God, you're an idolater. But if all the 1st Commandment is warning of is open or secret idolatry, it's a doable Law.
You know that because so far I have not convinced you this is the Commandment you chiefly break. But you're no less guilty of trespassing this fence then the Muslim kneeling before Allah, the Buddhist before Buddha, or Midas before gold. "You shall have no other gods" is talking about the God everyone, even apart from the Bible knows exists. Can Paul be more clear? "What may be known about God is plain because God has made it plainSince the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." Thus saith the Lord: "they knew God." No one does not know the true God, but "they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him." Instead of worshiping God as the eternal, divine Being they knew Him to be, they made Him in the image of man or even of birds, animals, and reptiles!
Rejecting what they knew about God, God rejects them handing them over to their lusts and sexual depravity here is where porn, living together, LGBQ and the insanity of transgenderism comes from. This is God's judgement on our idolatry. Wait a minute I don't see me here. I see me still within the Big Fence not out there constructing images of God in my image let alone animals. You don't, huh? When we think we can hide from God, we're making a blind, deaf, impotent idol. When we expect that God might do something bad to us, we've made a god after the image of an ogre. Conversely when we think God recedes into the background whenever evil happens, we make a god who plays second fiddle to the Evil One.
There are two forms of idolatry we're guilty of. Our Large Catechism sums up the first in these words: "We are to trust in God alone and turn to Him, expecting from Him only good things" (1, 24). So when you expect that God might give you cancer, dementia, tragedy, disaster, money problems, kid problems, guess what? You're an idolater. You've made a God after your own fears, but you think this is the fearing part we mean when we say, "we should fear and love God." The second form of idolatry I've had an even more difficult time convicting anyone of. If you credit bad things to the Devil or evil persons, congratulations; you've just made the true God into an impotent, sideline god. You've made Him the man behind the curtain in Oz. Hear Luther's Personal Prayer Book. "Whoever ascribes any bad luck or unpleasantness to the devil or evil persons and does not, in a spirit of love and praise, accept both evil and good as coming from God alone [Phil. 4:11]" breaks the 1st Commandment (LW 43, 17). In another place Luther says that other gods' not only mean external idols but much more the false opinions we make up about the true God (Peters, 122, fn. 166).
Where do you start rebuilding a broken-down rock fence no matter how big? At the bottom, at the root. Who caused the breach? Not God but man. Who must repair the breach then? And preparing the way for the grand revelation of God in the Man Jesus Christ is the OT prohibition against images. Images of God as a man were specifically prohibited not because they were necessarily a wrong conception of God but because God would not ultimately reveal Himself in a lifeless image but as a Person. The OT prohibition "keeps a space free" for the end-time revelation that God will take on flesh and blood and that Man will be "the eternal image of the Father " (In the Name of Jesus, 343, fn. 267). In a like manner, God repeatedly prohibits the OT Church from drinking any animal blood, thereby setting aside the Blood of Jesus for us to drink for our salvation.
The breach of the Big Fence started with the First Adam. Through the tempting of Satan, he wanted to be as God, thought God was holding out on him, and thought he could disobey God with impunity. Eve correctly says the Devil is wrong: They could eat of the trees in the garden just not of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil or they will die. Then the Devil begins constructing the idol Eve than Adam will fall down in worship before. There is no way God is going to kill you for just eating from a tree. He just doesn't want you to be like Him. He's keeping good things from you. That's all it took for perfect Adam and Eve to construct a god who wasn't all powerful, all loving, and didn't know everything. And they ate and went to hell turning sexuality into shame, God into an orge, and themselves into despair. But God didn't leave them in hell long. He promised the Second Adam.
Born of a woman but so much more than a man. We know that because God doesn't say He's sending the seed of a man, as men were normally referred to, but the Seed of a woman. So He would be more than a Man, and therefore He could crush the head of the Devil. But it would take suffering and pain on His part. His heel would be bruised. That's the OT background; you've lived the NT history. The Holy Spirit came upon the Virgin Mary, and the power of the Father overshadowed Her, so the Holy Son of God was incarnate in her womb. He was born obligated to keep all the Laws of God, even the Big Fence. He had to stay within its boundaries. He did. So when His parents blamed Him wrongly at age 12, He was tempted to think God hadn't done right by Him in giving Him sinful parents. As an adult when Cousin John dies brutally at a dancing girl's wish, surely Jesus is tempted to believe John was at the Devil's mercy not in the hands of Almighty God. When He sees the cup of wrath for the sins of the world approaching, and He asks God to, "Take it away; take it away", how does He not expect bad things from God? I know I would.
But He didn't. He was perfect in deeds, words, and even thoughts. Never does He brake the Big Fence that we trample every single day. And there is hell to pay for our fence breaking. The First Adam bore the consequence of breaching the Big Fence as you and I still do. We deal with an accursed ground; through painful toil we eat our food all the days of our life. The ground we sow with good seed as a consequence of the Fall produces thorns and thistles. We water our gardens not just with hoses but with the sweat of our brow, and we're all decaying right now back to the dust we came from. But these are all consequences for our breaking the Big Fence. They aren't punishments for the breach. We bear the consequences, only Jesus in this life bore the punishments.
Because we don't fear God above all things, God came upon Jesus as a fearful God who abandoned Him to the depths of hell turning a deaf ear to His cries of "Why hast Thou forsaken Me?". Because we don't trust in God above all things, Jesus was handed over by the God He trusted in perfectly not just to the hands of sinners but to the forces of darkness. Just think what that means? How many times have I been startled or frightened by something in the dark never seeing what it was or if it was, but Jesus was given over to what lurks in the darkness - demons, devils, and hell - to be punished in your place. Because you and I don't love the true God but one we make in our image, the only beloved Son of God was treated as the most hated child of God spat upon, beat upon, whipped, nailed, ridiculed damned and slain. All the while the God of love stood by and did nothing.
The 1st Commandment having been kept, it no longer hangs over you as undone and the punishments its breach required are satisfied. Now this is what Luther says the Lord says in the 1st Commandment: "Whatever good things you lack, look to me for it and seek it from Me, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, crawl and cling to me" (LC, 1, 4). God in Christ, for His sake, endlessly stretches His hands out to you saying, "You can come back to My side of the Big Fence. It's safe for you here." Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent Vespers I (20191204); The First Commandment