One Exposes the Evil of Not Hearing the Word
In the courthouse, not hearing the word of the judge can lead to being held in contempt. He has all the trappings of someone who ought to be listened to. He's robed. He speaks from an elevated place. Everything about him shows he speaks in the name of another. To bad we don't have that for pastors. Wait just a second; we do. The pastor is robed; he does speak from an elevated place, and every Sunday he reminds you he speaks in the stead and by the command of the Lord Jesus Christ. I'm sorry; it's just not the same. Most everyone in a courthouse doesn't want to be found not listening to the judge. He'll fine you; he'll throw you in jail for not hearing him. But despising preaching, not holding it sacred, not gladly hearing and learning God's Word just doesn't feel evil.
The Word of God says otherwise. Psalm 50:16-18 says it's the wicked who cast God's word behind them. Proverbs 1: 24-28 says God doesn't listen to the prayers of the person who doesn't listen to His Word. Actually it goes one better, or scarier: God says, "I will even laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your dread comes, when distress and anguish come upon you." Proverbs 1:33 concludes that it's only "He who listens to" God's Word who "shall be at ease from the dread of evil." A repeated theme in Scripture is that the one who doesn't hear God's Word is not heard by God. Hear Proverbs 28:9, "He who turns away his ear from listening to the Law, even his prayer is an abomination." Hear Zechariah 7:13, "Just as He called and they would not listen, so they called and I would not listen, says the Lord of hosts."
Imagine that: you don't hear the Word on Sunday because you stayed up late on Saturday and God laughs at your prayer on Monday. You worship at St. Mattress on Sunday morning and when calamity strikes on Sunday night God is in heaven with His fingers in His ears saying, "Nah, na, nah, na, nah, I can't hear you." And you don't think that happening to you would be evil?
Even if you can't see how deeply evil despising preaching and the Word, not holding them sacred, and not gladly hearing and learning them is, the Confessions you said you agreed with when joining this church say otherwise. In the Large Catechism you say, "God insists upon a strict observance of this commandment, and will punish all who despise His Word and are not willing to hear and learn it, especially at the time appointed for the purpose" (I, 95). You confess that God will require of you how you have heard, learned, and honored His Word (I, 98).
But then some of you are "ticket punchers." As long as your bottom is in the pew, you're keeping the 3rd Commandment. As long as someone is in this pulpit saying something, you don't care who it is or what he says; you have done your "duty." You confess against this too in the Large Catechism. You say that those "who listen to God's Word as to any other trifle, and only come from custom to preaching, and go away again at the end of the year knowing as little of it as at the beginning" (I, 96) are just as guilty of breaking this Commandment as those who don't hear at all. God laughs at your prayers and mocks your calamites too.
Not only do Scripture and your Confession show the evil of not hearing the Word so does homespun, cowboy, down-home wisdom. Chamber of Commerce signs outside of small towns say, "Attend the Church of Your Choice this Sunday." Bumper stickers on pick-ups preach, "Don't let a hearse be your first ride to church." There's Guidepost wisdom: "Whether a person goes to church regularly or not, does not depend on how far one lives from church, but rather how far one lives from God," There's Christian humor: "Some Christians think we're still in OT. They only appear before the Lord 3 times a year. Others think since the NT supersedes the OT they need come only 3 times in their life: to be sprinkled with water, rice, and dirt." All these testify in the very least that even common sense knows it's not OK to not hear God's Word regularly.
If you can be convicted of sin by Chamber of Commerce signs, bumper stickers, Guideposts, and humor, you need Christmas fast. The Word that we do despise, don't hold sacred, or gladly hear and learn, took on flesh, and humbled Himself to hear the Word from the mouths of sinners like me. It was His custom to go to church every week, and the holy, almighty, God sat at the feet of a sinner like me. I'm sure Jesus heard every mispronounced word; caught ever error in grammar, and knew poor preaching when He heard it. Yet Jesus went each week and heard the Word from the mouth of someone less smart and more sinful than He. He didn't despise such preaching but held it sacred and gladly heard and learned it.
This pleased His heavenly Father very much. He looked down from heaven and smiled saying, "That's My Son! See how He sits there listing to that sermon. See how He studies the Holy Scriptures. See how He grows in knowledge and understanding." Yes, that's one of the mysteries of the incarnation. God the Son in the Person of Jesus actually learned. He grew not just physically but mentally, and He grew perfectly.
However, the judgment you rightly fear for not hearing God's Word fell hard upon Jesus. As He hung on the cross in hell, He requested something to drink and was mocked. God did not hear Him as He cried out in anguish more bitter than any of you have ever known, "My God, My God why have you forsaken Me?" There, on the cross, you see what the evil of not hearing God's Word deserves. All that you deserve because you don't gladly hear and learn God's Word, Jesus bore on the cross. All the pain, sorrow, and grief you deserve for despising sermons and God's Word, Jesus endured in His own flesh on the tree of the cross.
All that Jesus did to keep the 3rd Commandment, all that Jesus suffered because you don't and can't, Jesus puts right here for your use. Available here is Jesus' holy, precious Blood; available here is Jesus innocent suffering and death; available here is Jesus' Person and His Work. If you view Sunday morning service as primarily a praising of God, you can do that just as well at home. If you're the one who is acting in Sunday morning service, then you can do so at another time, any time you want. But if God is the one who is acting in Sunday morning service, you need to be when and where God is acting (Fire and the Staff, 168). You need God acting in your life; you don't really need any more of your actions. You need God's forgiving, blessing, helping, sustaining, and renewing.
Having been to the cross decorated in Christmas lights, are you ready to turn the corner? Ready to go from seeing how the 3rd Commandment can always show you the evil of despising, not hearing, or neglecting God's Word to how it would rescue you from this evil?
If you hear the 3rd Commandment as the divine "Halt!" to your hurrying, scurrying, blurring, and worrying, you hear it differently. This is how Luther meant for us to hear it. "Luther uses the term feytag (in modern German Feiertag) in his catechisms. It means not only holy day, but also has connotations of a holiday, a day of rest, and festivity. By not using the word sabbath Luther shows that to a Christian the rather restrictive and legalistic sabbath has been superseded by the more joyous and festive Sunday" (LW, 44, 54, fn. 25). When the parent tells the child to take a break or the boss tells a worker to sit and rest, is that imposing a hardship?
The 3rd Commandment invites us to stop going by ours or the world's words. If you're a stock watcher, a politics follower, a health junkie, or news addict, stop. Turn it off; turn away; and tune in to God's Word to hear what the Lord of stocks, bonds, war, peace, life, and death has to say. Hear Him as He reasserts His lordship over your health, wealth, faith, and life. Hear Him as He promises grace and every blessing to those who keep this Commandment, and in Christ, through Christ, by Christ that's exactly how He regards you.
The Lord established a day of rest for you; He didn't create you to serve that day of rest. When you view it, or the hearing of the Word, as something you do for God, you've turned things upside down. God through the Word whether audible in preaching or visible in sacraments is at work on and for you. Thomas B. Welch, the founder of Welch's Grape Juice, invented the product because as a Methodist minister he thought it hypocritical for his church to oppose alcohol and yet use it in Communion. He was wrong there but right here.
Welch told the story of two men cutting wood. One worked straight through the day. The other worked for 50 minutes and rested for 10. At the end of the day, the one who rested had cut much more. When the one who didn't rest ask how could that be the other replied, "When I stopped for rest, I was sharpening my ax" (Reader's Digest, December 1989). Think of how good it is to rest from manual labor. Think of how if in the resting you were actually given more strength to go on better. This is Divine Service. This is the Word of God that is here preached into you ears, poured over your body, and fed into your mouth.
Yes, the one preaching and administering the Word can easily be despised even as courtroom judge can be. In the courtroom it's the threat of the law that keeps that from happening. Here it's to be the Gospel. Ben Franklin, perhaps still a Christian at the time, wrote his daughter not to despise preaching saying, "'For the discourse is often much better than the man, as sweet and clear waters come through very dirty earth'" (Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution, 201).
Such theology may be a stretch for some but not for us who see our holiness and salvation coming to us in a Baby that drools, burps, and poops. God bringing us His holy Word through the mouth and hands of a sinful man is totally consistent with our Christmas faith, and it locates our place of rest here on earth right where we need it. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent Vespers III (20111214); Third Commandment