Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pentecost Twenty-three
Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Psalm 119:1-8
Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 12:28-34

Hear, O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah: and thou shalt love Jehovah thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

On Monday and Tuesday in A WORD FOR TODAY I took the opportunity to talk about Halloween and Reformation Day, both of which are celebrated today, October 31st since today is the day we’ll look at the text for next Sunday’s lectionary. Despite having talked about it already, I couldn’t help but think about Martin Luther as I read the Old Testament text for today.

Martin Luther was an educator, both in the University and in the Church. His sermons are said to have been filled with lessons about the scriptures, and passion for the Word. He couldn’t speak softly; it was too exciting for him to share what he had discovered about God. Sadly, he didn’t see the same passion from the parishioners. He discovered during his ministry that most people didn’t care much about their faith. They attended church, probably more regularly than many Christians today, but they didn’t know what they believed. They went, they listened and then they forgot the minute they left the sanctuary. Perhaps the fault lay with the pastors and preachers, most of whom had little more knowledge or passion than the average person. The pastors were certainly unskilled and incapable of teaching the people.

Martin Luther decided to do something about it. He wrote a catechism designed for use in the home. It explained the basic tenets of faith in a way that the common man could teach it to his own children. The family was expected to spend time each day in the catechism so that the children would learn and grow in their faith and knowledge of God’s Word. It was not enough to Luther for the believer to know the prayers and creeds by rote. He wanted them to understand them, too. In the catechism, he wrote one sentence explanations answering a simple question, “Was ist das?” which means “What is this?”

Luther was not the first to create a catechism. They had been around for many years, given to new believers to instruct them in the faith. They included the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments, usually in that order. Martin Luther took the opportunity to put even more substance into the catechism by changing the order of those three important documents of faith. He began with the Ten Commandments, then included instruction about the Creed and finally the Lord’s Prayer. His order took the believer from Law to Gospel, so that the believer could see their need for grace, confess their faith in Christ and then learn how to pray for the grace to live that life in this world.

Our Old Testament lesson says, “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” This is what Luther intended with the catechism. It was a way to teach the children, so that the Word of God would be written on their hearts. When the Word dwells within us, we walk in the light and live according to God’s good and perfect Law.

The Law was not given to oppress or burden the people, but to protect them. God’s Law is not a bunch of rules that we have to keep, it is a sign, a gift. The Law was given so that the people would remember God and look to Him always. Whenever they turned away, disobedient to the Law and their God, they suffered the consequences of a broken relationship. When they observed the commandments, they enjoyed the blessed life that God promised. The commandments are instructions about relationships, how to keep them strong – first with God, then with each other. They also affect our relationship with ourselves. When these relationships are broken, we have no peace or joy.

Now, Martin Luther discovered the reality of the Law: no matter how hard we try, we are to live perfectly. We fail. We sin. We break the relationships that God has given to us, with Himself and with our neighbor. That is why our Lord Jesus came, to show the true purpose of the Law—so that by it we will turn our hearts and minds to Him for salvation rather than our own ability to be obedient. That’s why the Ten Commandments are first in Luther’s catechism. As we discover our inability to be righteous, we see our need for Jesus.

In recent years, many parents decided to give their children the freedom to come to faith on their own. They didn’t want to drag a child to church only to have them reject it when they were older. Instead, they let the children choose if they wanted to be Christian or whatever. The problem with this practice is that faith comes from hearing. How will they know if they never hear God’s Word spoken? Is it force to take a child to Sunday school and worship during their childhood? It is not bondage; it is a gift. We are called as parents to give to our children the same opportunity to know Jesus as we were given. If we don’t, they won’t.

That responsibility goes beyond just taking a child to Sunday school and worship on Sunday. When Lutherans (and others) have our children baptized, we make promises to raise them in the true faith. The responsibilities of teaching the child fall also upon the congregational community. At the baptism ceremony, we make promises, too. “After this child has been baptized you are at all times to remember [him/her] in your prayers, put [him/her] in mind of [his/her] Baptism, and, as much as in you lies, give your counsel and aid, especially if [he/she] should lose [his/her] parents, that [he/she] be brought up in the true knowledge and worship of God and be taught the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer; and that, as [he/she] grows in years, you place in [his/her] hands the Holy Scriptures, bring [him/her] to the services of God's house, and provide for [his/her] further instruction in the Christian faith, that [he/she] come to the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood and thus, abiding in [his/her] baptismal grace and in communion with the Church, [he/she] may grow up to lead a godly life to the praise and honor of Jesus Christ.”

We have a responsibility to not only go out into the world and tell people about Jesus, but to help them become disciples of Christ throughout their lives.

The Law will never make someone a Christian, and following the Law will never make someone righteous. We can’t do it on our own. But even as Adam and Eve believed the word of the serpent over the word of God, God had a plan to make everything right. Now, over the years people tried to find ways to make things right with God. Even the scriptures give us temporary solutions to the problem. Priests offered sacrifices to atone for the sins of the people. Even though they tried to live according to the Law, there was always something that was not right. The blood of goats and sheep poured on the altar for the sake of the people. That type of sacrifice would never be right. The sin was too great for mankind to overcome.

The writer of Hebrews makes it clear: the old ways were not good enough. The blood of goats and sheep could not do the job. Only the blood of Jesus would bring us the assurance of the promises of God. The reality of what will be came with His willingness to be obedient to what God intended for His life. Nothing we can do can change that. We are made holy by His holiness, and in that holiness are freed and empowered to live as God intends for us to live: loving Him and our neighbor with our entire being.

A scribe came to Jesus who was in the middle of a debate with the Sadducees. They did not believe in the resurrection, and so were arguing with Jesus about what would happen to a woman who in this life married seven brothers, all of whom died without an heir. “Whose wife will she be?” they asked. Jesus answered that the new life after resurrection is different, that there is no marriage. He also reminded them that God referred to Israel’s patriarchs in the present tense to Moses, despite their being dead for generations, proving that God is the God of the living, not the dead.

The scribe doesn’t come as an aggressive adversary like the others, trying to prove Jesus wrong. He comes with a sincere desire to talk and learn. The teacher of the law liked what he heard, and asked Jesus which commandment was the most important one. Jesus quoted two Old Testament passages, including a verse from our Old Testament passage for the day. “Hear, O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah: and thou shalt love Jehovah thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” Then He quoted Leviticus 19 which gave a second command. “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” The man answered, “Of a truth, Teacher, thou hast well said that he is one; and there is none other but he: and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbor as himself, is much more than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.” He accepted Jesus’ authority as a teacher and expounded upon the lesson, thus showing himself an authority, also.

No one asked Jesus any more questions. This was a turning point in His ministry. He had already been triumphantly welcomed into Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders tried to catch him in every type of foible: social, religious, political. There were no questions left to ask, but Jesus still has something to say.

It seems that at least a few of the leaders were beginning to understand and believe in Jesus. But the rest knew they had to find a way to stop Him. Jesus did nothing to ease their fears. Jesus did not fear what would come because He knew that it was the way it must be. The time He spent with the disciples and His followers was wonderful, but the cross was the reason He was sent. The cross was the answer to our failure in the Garden of Eden. The forgiveness promised to God’s people would only come after Jesus completed His work in this world. Hope for the future would never be found at the end of a debate over law or in the opinions of men. It would be found only in the blood of the Savior, shed on the cross.

When the scribe agreed that Jesus had spoken well about the two great laws, Jesus answered, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.” Those words are given to us, too. We are not far from the kingdom of God. It might seem like we are, particularly when our world is as confused and upset as it is. In many ways we are, perhaps, living in a time just like Martin Luther. People might go to church on a regular basis, but do they know why they believe? Do you understand the tenets of faith? Do they care about God’s Word with a passion that can’t be silenced? People still live by fear. They still try to earn their way into heaven. They still offer sacrifices (though usually not blood) to appease the gods.

I’ve chosen to focus on the text for the Twenty-third Sunday of Pentecost, but most churches will probably be celebrating All Saints Sunday. All Saints is a time for remembering those who have passed from life into eternal life. But there is more to this day than honoring the dead.

It all began in the early days of the Church, when Christians were being martyred for their faith. The day of their death was considered their ‘birthday’ because it was the day they entered into the eternal presence of God. They were remembered on that day with a feast or a festival and honored for their faith. First there were local commemorations but soon the feasts of the martyrs were shared and celebrated in many places. Eventually all the saints were honored, whether they were martyred or had an extraordinary faithfulness. Soon there were so many saints that it became difficult to honor every one on their individual ‘birthdays’ so the Church chose one day to remember the saints. In the eighth or ninth century, that date became November 1st.

It is so easy for us to make this special day about celebrating the ones we’ve lost. We grieve, and rightly so, those who have gone from our lives. We are fascinated by the lives they lived and wonder about what is happening to them now. We look forward to the day when we will join them in the eternal presence of God. But All Saints is not just about those who have come before us. It is about all the saints in God’s kingdom. That includes those who now believe and those who will believe because we have shared the Good News of Christ with them. All Saints celebrates the Church, the family of God throughout all time, from the beginning to the end, from Genesis to Revelation.

We are part of the community of saints from the moment we are baptized into Christ, having heard the saving word of forgiveness and welcomed into the loving embrace of our Father. We are saints, just as they are saints, and this day is also for us. I know it is difficult to believe. After all, we continue to fail to live up to the expectations of the Law. We continue to break the relationships that God has given to us. We try to love God and our neighbor, but we can’t; we sin in thought, word and deed, by what we do and what we don’t do.

And yet we, like the scribe in the Gospel lesson, are not far from the kingdom of God. We are made saints, not by our own faith or ability. We are saints because Jesus became the perfect sacrifice and died for us. His blood was not temporary like the sacrifices we make on the altars where we worship. His blood is so much greater because it was shed by God to restore us to Him. His plan to make things right was finished on the cross.

We live in the hope of what will come, but we live today, too. While we will continue to fail, we are called to be the best we can be. The Law, which once made us see how we needed Jesus, is a gift that keeps on giving, because it helps us to live in faith. “Blessed are they that are perfect in the way, who walk in the law of Jehovah. Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, that seek him with the whole heart.”

Perfect? I doubt I’ll ever be perfect, but I can look to God to help me live as He wants me to live, beginning with loving God. As we love God, will we strive to know Him, to understand His Word and to make it our own. When the Word dwells within us, we walk in the light and live according to God’s good and perfect Law.

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