Dummies Guide to Reality: A Bitter Feast Day
Luther called Sunday a "bitter feast day" because our sinful nature is put to death on it. But even a dummy knows there's something else going on with Sunday, and the reality is it's related to that weekly execution.
No doubt Sunday is a bitter feast day, but that's strange because in Ezekiel 20:12 the Lord says, "Also I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the Lord made them holy." And Exodus 20:11 says that He gave us the 7th day as a rest day. Sabbath means rest.
So what's bitter about being given holiness and rest? You tell me because I see people avoid going to church and particularly Bible class like it was a bitter pill. Luther understood this as far as kids. "To whom would it not have been much more agreeable to go for a walk, play games, and chat than to attend church" (LW, 2, 128)? Chrysostom isn't so understanding. He blushes for shame at those going out of their way to spend the least amount of time in church as possible (NPNF, XII, 283). Walther is even less sympathetic, "A person who is negligent in church attendancecertainly is not a Christian" (Law-Gospel, 303). Even a dummy sees the excuses and pretexts people use to avoid what must be bitter medicine to them. And the dummy pastor is suppose to accept them.
Of course, the reality is you can break the 3rd Commandment while being in church or Bible class. So we say in the Large Catechism. Those break this Commandment "who listen to God's Word as to any other trifle, and only from custom come to preaching, and go away again at the end of the year knowing as little of it as at the beginning" (I, 96), and those who "listen without seriousness and care" (Ibid. 97). Luther condemned those who "think they need only listen at the time, without any thought of learning or remembering anything," and those who do "not retain enough to give a single answer concerning their faith" (LW, 53, 67).
Even a dummy can see hearing or studying God's word must be a bitter bill. Where the Psalmist says God's Word is more precious than gold and sweeter than honeycomb, kids say and adults think the same whine, "Do I have to?" Overtime is special in football; extra innings are special in baseball, but you go past the 15 minute mark in preaching or the 70 minute mark in worship and Katy bar the door. That's not special; that's not a treat. An Oliver Twist-like asking "more please" of God's Word is very rare.
Because Sunday, the day I have agreed to preach and teach and you have agreed to hear and learn, is a bitter feast day, we accept the breaking of this Commandment as we do no other. This is true even though dummies like us confess: "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" (LC, I, 95). Except for predetermined vacation days and one surgery I've been here for the 1,000 plus sermons and Bible classes I've agreed to. Who among you can say that? In 1607 the Virginia Company said any one who missed church 3 times in a row was to be put to death (Nicotina, 70). How many less members would we have?
Okay that's extreme, but dummies like us go to the other extreme. We not only accept but expect the breaking of this Commandment. If I hear one more parent excuse their kid saying, "Well they all fall away at this time," I'm screaming. Would you ever say about a child, "Well they all kill people at that age?" Would you let a person join who said, "I can't promise I'll be their every Sunday?" How about a member who said, "My family never was into regularly attending?" How about the person who said, "I can't promise I won't ever steal?" Or, "My family never was into leading a sexually pure and decent life?" O but stealing and fornicating are serious, so is acedia. That's spiritual sloth and apathy which Luther considered a mortal sin (Ten, Peters, 168).
But not to dummies like us. No, you can be a Christian and not go to church. Some of you rightly know that can't be true, but who among you would deny, "You can be a Christian and not go to Bible class"? No, you can ignore that proclamation of the Word and it's no big deal. Sure, and it wouldn't have been a big deal to stay away from Jesus teaching by the sea shore, on the plain, in a house, at a meal. These were all Bible classes, and the person who stayed away from them was staying away from the Word.
Victorinus, a famous professor in 4th century Rome used to say to a priest, "'Understand I am already a Christian.'" The priest would reply, "'I will not believe it, nor will I rank you among Christians, unless I see you in the church of Christ'" (Companion to Augustine, 33). Dummies like me are to suppose to believe the opposite. The bitter truth is that just as a fish out of water is still a fish, so is a Christian outside of the Word still a Christian, but both are dying.
The bitter truth is those not hearing my voice I don't count as my sheep and I don't care how long they've been on the roll. Not only don't I consider them sheep. I will show them the door (LW, 58, 65). I'm not allowed to say that but the dummy Luther did. I am allowed to say that the sinner most in danger of completely being lost is the one not going to church. You all know that Heb. 10:25 warns against forsaking the assembly. What you might not know is that Heb. 10:26 is connected with a "for." Don't forsake going to church "For [because] if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins."
Luther called Sunday a "bitter feast day" not a bitter day. It remains a feast day because not only is the old adam killed but the new man rises so it's simultaneously bitter and comforting (Peters, 175). This is the day said Luther when God speaks and gives His Word in abundance. He pours out treasure to overflowing; He opens heaven wide and calls, "'Everyone to heaven, everyone to heaven'" (LW, 58, 135).
This day will remain only a bitter day as long as dummies like me think of it as a day to please God, as if I go to church and study His Word for His sake. No, this is the day to celebrate what God has done, still does, and will do for miserable sinners. Notice that not even Advent's or Lent's sorrow is part of the celebration of forgiveness, life, and salvation that is every Divine Service, every Bible class. Sundays in Advent and Lent are never "of" them, but "in" them. You have Sundays of Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter but not of Advent and Lent.
Sunday is the day we go Sinai to be terrified by the Law that knows no mercy, accepts no excuses, and damns all sinners. Even a dummy knows that Sinai quakes and shudders with absolute judgment, but we don't stay at Sinai. We also go to that green hill far away outside the city wall. There we see the One who kept the 3rd Commandment always in every way. At 12 years old He wanted to go to church; surely that's proof He is God in flesh and blood. As an adult, He who was knew everything nevertheless went to church. So what is He doing on that green hill? Teaching? Preaching? Nope, dying, being damned. That's what you're refusing to hear or study God's Word calls for; that's what my carelessness with it calls for. But neither you nor I get that; Jesus did in our place.
Don't you want to hear that? Don't you need to hear that again and again? The Law is written in your heart and though after the Fall it's cloudy, it's still there. The Good News of Jesus' victory over your sins, your death, and your devils, is not found in you or me. It's found outside of us and only becomes ours by faith. Faith comes by hearing the Word of God. Apart from hearing God's Word faith can't be maintained. Faith isn't a choice, a decision, a matter of knowing something. It's a miracle; only God works miracles, and He does so through means.
God has arranged not to speak to us directly; that would be like drinking from a fire hose or plugging directly into a transformer. No God uses the physical elements of Water, Bread, and Wine, and a physical man to preach, teach, baptize, and commune you. He could have used angels. It's an angel who tells Mary she will bear the Christ. It's angels that tell the shepherds that the Christ-child has been born. But instead of angels He uses fallen men just like you to proclaim in every service and Bible class "Everyone to heaven! Everyone to heaven!" When you listen to a preacher, even a dummy like me, you are to see God standing behind him (Law-Gospel, 166).
God for Jesus' sake has sent me to proclaim your salvation every time I open my mouth. God for Jesus' sake is at peace with you. The angel guards the gates no more; Paradise is open. I am sent to you, a people who in great darkness have sat, who long in shades of death have been. I am sent to say to you in Jesus' name, "Lift up your hearts." You don't have to stay tethered to this earth where sin, death, and the devil appear to rule. By the power vested in me in Jesus' name, I declare you are to ascend to where Christ is and all His treasures of salvation. "Everyone to heaven! Everyone to heaven!" Away from this world that ends to the world without end.
You know the phenomenon of bitter sweet. There are bitter sweet foods. There are bitter sweet romances. In reality all the Commandments are bitter sweet. All of them expose our sinful nature pushing our faces into our sin until we know the bitter truth; we're already dead in our sins. Think of The Sixth Sense where Bruce Willis finds out he's been dead all along. But the Commandments are sweet because they speak of another reality. In Jesus' name you do remember the Sabbath day. The reality is you do have a sweet place of rest in this bitter world. You do have the place where you are safe from sin, death, and devils. Wherever God's Gospel of forgiveness is proclaimed, explained, or declaimed heaven on earth is there. Everybody in! Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek III (20151216); 3rd Commandment