The Fence that Keeps In
The 1st Commandment is a fence around God; 2nd is around His Name. You could say the 3rd is a fence around His Word, but the command for us to "remember" make is more about keeping us in. Isn't that a bad thing? Prisons have fences to keep criminals in. Communist countries have fences to keep their own people in. So a fence that is built to keep people in is usually indicative of something bad. But "free puppies" don't keep anyone in. Huh?
Years ago my friend had a litter of puppies he didn't want. He took them to Walmart, set up outside, with a box of puppies and a sign saying "Free Puppies". No one came to get or even look at a free' puppy. And old man came over, and said, "If you make a sign saying "Puppies $5.00", you'll sell everyone." He did and did. The 3rd Commandment is like a "Free Puppies" sign because it's the one that everyone feels free to ignore, observe once a month, every other week, only when they feel like it. No one feels bad for not paying attention in church as long as they punched their ticket by being there. The 3rd Commandment doesn't keep anyone in any more than a "Free Puppies" sign brings them in. And it's a bad thing not to be kept in Church. Don't believe me? Didn't you hear the readings?
You concerned with self-esteem? You ought to be more concerned about what the Lord esteems. He says, "This is the one I esteem: he who trembles at My Word" (Is. 66:2b). If you think you're free to be here or not gathered around the Word, the Lord doesn't esteem you. The Heb. 10 reading begs you not to forsake assembling around the Word and does so in light of the approaching Last Day. And in this context of the 3rd, not the 6th, not the 8th, the 3rd commandment, Hebrews warns you of the danger of "deliberately sinning" after you've received the Word because "no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire." Jesus in John 8 clearly gives the test of belonging to God: "He who belongs to God hears what God says: The reason you don't hear is that you do not belong to God" (47). Want more? Skip hearing the Word and Pv. 1:33 says you will be ill at ease and in dread of evil. Zec. 7:13 says if you don't listen when God calls, He does not listen when you pray. Pv. 28:9 is stronger still, "He who turns away his ear from listening to the Lord, even his prayer is an abomination."
Here's what our Large Catechism says about the 3rd Commandment: "God insists upon a strict observance of this commandment and will punish all who despise His Word and refuse to hear and learn it, especially at the times appointed" (I, 95). "Do not regard it as an option or unimportant matter. It is the commandment of God, and He will require of you and an accounting of how you have heard and learned and honored His Word" (I, 98). I'm not accountable for you hearing or staying away from it; you and only you are. But these last sections don't strike you midweek church goers because you're here. This next part of the Large Catechism does. It says the 3rd Commandment condemns: " that multitude of others who listen to God's Word as they would any other entertainment, who only from force of habit go to hear preaching and depart again with as little knowledge of the Word at the end of the year as at the beginning" (1, 95-96).
The 3rd Commandment is like an electric fence; it shocks you when you try to cross it, your Old Adam needs that. But it also indicates where on earth something sacred is going on, and your New Man needs to know this. You know that God is absolutely holy. He not only doesn't sin, but sin and sinners can't exist in His presence. God the Son is holy in His Person and Work. At His First Coming He came in our flesh and blood, but didn't always use His full holiness or He would've burned up everyone around Him. Instead, Jesus was born under the Laws of God that bite into your back, weigh you down, and drive your face into the mud of sin. Jesus was tempted in every single way you are, but sinned not; He lived a perfect life, but was sent to the cross in place of all mankind to die the death of a damned sinner. Tortured beyond belief; shamed beyond measure; damned to the depths of hell. In our flesh and blood, He won holiness, innocence, and blessedness for our flesh and blood having put out the fires of God's wrath and covered us with His righteousness.
Where is all this forgiveness for us today? You immediately say, "It's mine through faith." Martin Chemnitz responds: no sane man has ever understood justification by faith alone in such a way as to exclude the ministry of the Word and sacraments (Examination, II, 61). The 3rd Commandment in fact highlights that this is the place God wants to work in you. As we sing in our Message Hymn about this Commandment "Hallow this day That God may so work in thee." Scripture says this Commandment is to remind of you 3 things: The Creator rested, so you can too (Ex. 20:11). The Lord led the OT Church out of slavery into the Promised Land of rest (Dt. 5:15); and in Ek. 30:12 the Lord says He gave His sabbaths "that they might know that I am the Lord that sanctifies them." So God's intention all along was to do something for us. "If the Divine Service is viewed primarily as our praising God, then you can do that just as well at home If I am acting, than I can do it another time. If God is acting, I better be there" (Fire and Staff, 168).
God is the actor in Divine Service, any time the Word is taught, proclaimed, read. And He intends there and then to impart His holiness. The holiness we sinners need for living, for dying, and living again. This holiness God the Son won for us and places for us in the 3 holies. Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion. Within the fence of the 3rd Commandment, of preaching and His Word is a sacred space where sinners devoid of any holiness of their own and covered in sinfulness gladly gather. In fact, it's the public preaching of the Word that creates this space. Luther said Malachi 2:7 saying the lips of priest preserve knowledge "is a passage against those who hold the spoken Word in contempt. The lips are the public reservoir of the Church. In them alone is kept the Word of God. You see, unless the Word is preached publicly, it slips away. The more it is preached, the more firmly it is retained. Reading it is not as profitable as hearing itSatan does not care a hoot for the written Word of God but flees at the speaking of the Word" (LW, 18, 401).
The 3rd Commandment is to keep us within the bounds of the holiness of Christ, His victory over Satan, and His triumph over death and sin. The boundaries are marked by "preaching and His Word." You know what the concept of "in bounds" in sports means. It's kind of like an instant death line. The player steps on it, the ball goes past it, and play stops instantly. In video games with boundaries, you cross one and seconds pass till you're dead. From the 16th to 19th century, Lutheranism agreed that the visible church where the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments administered are boundaries within which are the elect. Chemnitz says, "nor should we imagine that somewhere else there are chosen ones except in the visible assembly itself .He has revealed Himself in no other place than in the visible church in which the voice of the Gospel is proclaimed (Locci, II, 685). The 19th century pastor, Wilhelm Lohe, said, "the visible church is the tabernacle of God among men, and outside it there is no salvation. A man separates himself from God the Father if he separates from the Church his mother" (Three Books, 92). Again, "As a man stands in relation to the Church, so he stands in relation to his God" (Ibid., 90).
When Luther first commented on the 3rd Commandment, he emphasized setting aside the Feast Day. Then he went to emphasizing the Day of Rest aspect. Little by little over years, the hearing of God's Word moved to the center and eliminated the other two emphases (Peters, Ten Commandments, 167). You're in bounds, not out of bounds where certain and sudden death are, when "you do not despise preaching and His word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it." The 3rd Commandment lets you know when you step out and it keeps you within the bounds of the Last Day.
This is also a Luther observation. The Lord's Supper at the center of the Divine Service makes the entire Service a sign of the End Times. When I got here I moved the elements of the Lord's Supper to the center of the altar where they were placed historically. My then organist, a lifelong Lutheran, told me he had never seen them placed there, and it made the altar look empty when you didn't have the Sacrament. "Exactly," I replied. Luther said that Divine Services "'are evident signs of the other life after this life'" (Ibid., 183). Don't you get a whiff of this in the alternate thanksgiving which quotes Paul's words in 1 Cor. 11:16? "As often as you eat this Bread and drink this Cup, ye do show the Lord's death until He comes." Now we're back to the 3 comings of Advent: His first where He brings His holiness to earth and wins it for us. His continual coming in Word and Sacrament in Church where He gives us His holiness. And His Second Coming where the only life that will avail before Him is one died in Christ. Chesterton remarked if you expect to find God beyond the grave, you ought to be found by Him when He comes and stands every Sunday in your little church (Ball and Cross, 99).
Images of the Church as a sanctuary, a ship, the Ark, a mother hen with outstretched wings are all testimony to you that God gave you the 3rd Commandment to let you know where sanctuary from Satan is, where the ship of forgiveness in the stormy seas of sins is, where the Ark of life in a world flooded with death is, where the protecting wings of the cross stretched out for sinners are. Luther said the 3rd Commandment showed, "God wants to distract man from his daily toil and so open him to God's gifts" (Luther on Worship, 130). So contrary to Roy Rogers, we sing, "Do fence me in." Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent Vespers III (20191218); 3rd Commandment