Friday, February 23, 2007

Sermon - Ash Wednesday - Exodus 20:1-17

Ash Wednesday
Exodus 20:1-17
“10 Laws and 1 Law-Keeper”

A blessed Ash Wednesday to you, as we begin our annual 40-day pilgrimage to Calvary. This year, we will spend each of our 6 Lenten Wednesdays meditating on one of the 6 chief parts of Luther’s Small Catechism. The Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confession. These 6 topics, Luther suggested, form the basic teachings of the Christian faith.

The church’s ancient observance of Lent provides a time for us to reflect seriously on our sin and guilt and shame, and the consequences thereof. Particularly on Ash Wednesday, we come into the presence of the Lord in great repentance (as ashes symbolize such sorrow over sin). It seems a fitting time, then, to take up our first topic from the catechism: The Ten Commandments.

We would surely all agree to the importance of the Ten Commandments. Christians nod in agreement when someone extols the virtues of the 10 Commandments. And we are rightly offended when someone attacks these holy laws of God or marginalizes their significance.

The Ten Commandments have become a political football as of late. There was the judge in Alabama who lost his job in a controversy surrounding the monument of the Commandments. The Supreme Court has even heard arguments about how and when the commandments may be displayed (and don’t ask me to explain the nuances of their decision). Some want the Commandments posted everywhere for all to see – I even know of one home in our area which has them displayed in the front lawn.

But what do we Christians do with these commandments? Besides using them as a symbol in the culture wars, do we use them in our lives? Do we try to live by them? Do we apply them to our own lives? Do we even know them, by heart, and in order, as every Christian should?

I suspect most of us would say we generally try to live by them. And that would be a kind of pious lie. Our Old Adam, anyway, our sinful nature, HATES these laws of God. We don’t like being told what to do and not do. In fact, we despise it. We want our own way. We want to be the captain of our ship, the master of our fate. We want to set the rules for ourselves, our own personal commandments.

But for the sake of appearances, perhaps, or from fear of punishment, let’s just say we generally try to obey God’s rules. Generally. Mostly. Kinda sorta.

But God doesn’t say, “Thou shalt mostly have no other gods” or “Thou shalt not have too many other gods.” He doesn’t say, “Thou shalt not steal – unless you really want the thing or think you deserve it.” He does not command, “Remember the Sabbath Day, whenever you get around to it”. There is no “generally” or “mostly” or even “try” about the commandments. They are commands. That’s how God’s law works. He commands, he demands perfect obedience.

And we fall so short. We don’t keep them when we try. We don’t even really want to try, by our nature. And so like our parents in paradise, who broke God’s first command, we too fall under the curse of the law. We too earn the wages of sin, and pay the price of death. Because we break the spirit of every one of God’s commands every day.

We deserve to be consumed by the fire of God’s wrath. And so today, Ash Wednesday, we sit in ashes (metaphorically, of course). We put on, in our minds, the sackcloth of repentance. We confess our sin. And we beg for mercy before the righteous law-giver and judge.

And he is merciful. He shows mercy, because of His Son. Jesus Christ did what we have not done and cannot do. He fulfilled the law. He kept the commandments. He was like us, in every way, yet without sin. He pleased the Father by his perfect life. He had no other gods. He always remembered the Sabbath. He didn’t ever kill or steal or bear false witness or covet or lust. He kept God’s name holy. And he honored his Father perfectly.

Christ’s perfect life of law-keeping is part of his work for us sinners. Just as important as his death for us, so is his life for us. His death takes away our sin. But his holy life makes us holy. His righteousness becomes ours. So that, in Christ, we can stand before the Father’s throne without fear of judgment. We can say, “I have not kept those commands, but my Savior and Substitute Jesus Christ has kept them without stumbling a step. And I lean on his promises and on the salvation he offers freely to me.”

So what are the 10 commandments for us, Christians? They are useful in summarizing God’s law. That law is useful in showing us our sin, and need for our Savior. But those commands bring us nothing without Christ – who fulfills the law and pays for our infractions with his blood.

Forgiven and recreated as we are, the commandments of God become a model for the new life in Christ. They guide us in Christian living. What a blessing to be shown the way God would have us live. For the new man within me wants to please him. The Holy Spirit leads us in the way of these commands.

That we would not only refrain from murder, but help our neighbor in every bodily need. That we would not commit adultery, but live in purity and decency and love our spouse rightly. That we would not despise the preaching of God’s word on the Sabbath day, but gladly hear and learn it. The commandments become a privilege for us in fulfilling the law of Love.

Jesus summarized the entire law this way, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself”. For those of us who know the love God first showed us in Christ – the law of love becomes the rule and norm for our daily life. Strengthened by the Holy Spirit, growing in our faith, we also grow in adherence to God’s commands.

And so this Ash Wednesday, we dwell on our sins, reflecting on how we break God’s commands and commandments. But we look, in faith, to the one perfect law-keeper, who gives us his own righteousness. And by His Spirit, we look forward to living the law of love, and in accord with his commands. Always in his grace, and to his glory, not ours. A blessed Ash Wednesday, and a blessed Lenten season to you, in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

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