It's Just Words
2/25/04Times New RomanArial
"Blah, blah, blah;" "Yada, yada, yada," people say when they wish to convey the idea that words, either their's or another's, aren't important. And don't think I don't know that sometimes people "blah, blah, blah" and "yada, yada, yada" the words I preach from here.
Some people do this because they place their personal reading of the Bible above the preaching of the Word. But the 3rd Commandment is not about reading your Bible. It's about despising preaching and gladly hearing and learning the Word. People who choose to stay home and read their Bible rather than to come to hear the preaching of God's Word, break this Commandment. Hear our Large Catechism, "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."
Luther said it's a despising of the ministry and worship to say, "'Why should I go to church? After all, I can read at home.'"(LW, 4, 385). And of Mal. 2:7, "For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the Law at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts," Luther said, "This is a passage against those who hold the spoken word in contempt. The [pastor's] 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 it, for the live voice teaches, exhorts, defends and resists the spirit of error. Satan does not care a hoot for the written word of God, but flees at the speaking of the word"(LW, 18, 401).
You despise the Word of God if you place you're reading of it above the preaching of it, your private devotions above the public gathering of the Body of Christ. Of course, you can despise of the Word of God even while sitting in a pew. Our Large Catechism says those "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" also despise God's Word.
Then too our Catechism says you break the 3rd Commandment if you hear, and learn, but don't honor it, don't hold preaching and God's Word sacred. Melanchthon, a layman, and co-worker of Luther said it is a sin against the 3rd Commandment "to despise and bring humiliation on godly pastors"(Chemnitz, Locci, 387).
This is tough. This is more than I can bear. Do you know how hard it is to listen to preaching? I do. I find my mind wanders. The words of a man can sound like a droning, a buzzing, like a sound that doesn't matter, like blah, blah, blah or yada, yada, yada. But faithful preaching is more than the words of a man, it's the Words of God Himself. God's Words matter. God's Words matter more than heaven and earth, life and death, you or me.
We begun the service tonight with some of the most chilling words God ever spoke to man. "Dust you are and to dust you shall return." That is a promise from Almighty God. You are not bone and flesh but dust. You are not light and brightness but dust. And to that dust you will certainly return. Use all the skin creams you want; color your hair; go to war against fat, carbs and hair loss and you will still return to dust. Build skyscrapers, fly above the clouds, think high and lofty thoughts and you are still going to be dust. "All we are is dust in the wind," said a 70s song and my joints and back and sagging face repeat the refrain.
Do you want to know when this first really came home to me? When I started putting ashes on people. It was easy to apply the ashes and pronounce the promise of dust on old, weathered faces. It was harder to do on the younger ones. But then came my own kids. Particularly the girls who are youngest. Yes, these bright flowers of joy, of laughter, of life were also nothing more than dust. How heavy and somber those words sounded and felt.
But the answer is not to plug your ears. The answer is not to pretend that my saying to you, "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return," are just words, blah, blah, blah; yada, yada, yada. No, they are reality. Whether you listen to me or not, whether you believe me or not you're heading for the dust bin. The only answer is the One who comes from the same dust we do, but is much more than dust. The only answer to a Word of judgment from God is a Word of grace from God. But the only way the Word of Grace will be a comfort to you is if the Word of Law is a terror. In other words if you blah, blah, blah my preaching of the Law, you will certainly yada, yada, yada my preaching of the Gospel.
If you hear my words to you, "Dust you are and to dust you shall return," as God's own truth, then listen to the other words I speak as well. Hold these sacred and gladly hear and learn them too. I didn't just tell you, "Dust you are;" I also told you, "I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost." Right then and there something happened. Your sins were sent away from you, lifted off you, washed off you, blotted off your heart and mind never needing you to think about them again.
I have Christ's command to speak these words to you. He gave me these words in part because of what you saw going on in the Passion reading tonight. Here is Jesus keeping the Law perfectly in your place. Do you handle it well when friends betray you, misunderstand you, forsake you? Do you handle it well when you've poured your heart out to someone, and they go on to talk about themselves? Look here: Jesus tells them He is going to shed His blood for them, and they get in a fight about which of them was greatest! Do you remain free from sin when you suffer unjustly, when God doesn't do what you want, when things look dark and hopeless?
Neither do I but Jesus did. I can tell you God doesn't see your failure to keep His laws because Jesus kept them already in your place. I can send your breaking of God's law away from your body because Jesus kept all the laws of God in His body. But there 's more.
It's not enough that Jesus kept all of God's laws in your place. God had spoken eternal words of judgement against all who break His laws. God had to keep His Word, and He did. But rather than bring the judgments of His Words down on you, He brought them down on His Son. All that you fear your sins deserve: sickness, judgment, shame, guilt, death, and hell Jesus bore for you. Jesus was tried, convicted and punished for things He didn't do, but you did. Jesus was tortured, brutalized, and damned for all the sins you can remember and the thousands upon thousands you can't. I can send your sins away really and for good because Jesus carried them away already. I can forgive your sins as if they don't exist, because before God they no longer do. Jesus took them out of His sight.
But what about those words, "Dust you are to and to dust you shall return?" They're not just words; not just blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada. They're God's judgement on fallen man even after Good Friday and Easter, even after Jesus kept the Law in my place and died for my not keeping it. But there are other words spoken in the Passion reading that make all the difference in the world. Jesus said, "Take eat, Take drink; this is My Body; this is My Blood." Jesus left us His Body and Blood to eat and drink; eating and drinking His body and blood does something to our flesh and blood.
St. Paul in I Corinthians 11 tells us that Christ's Body and Blood have a dramatic effect on those who eat and drink unworthily. They produce weakness, sickness and even death. However, this holy medicine produces good physical effects in those who have the "disease" it's meant to treat. In our Confessions we say who this is: "Terrified consciences are the ones worthy of it.."(AP, XXIV). "Christians who are weak in faith, fragile and troubled, who are terrified in their hearts by the immensity and number of their sins and think they are not worthy of this precious treasure"(SD,VII). The Lord's Supper is for those who know their sins merit them being struck instantly by lightening and burnt to ashes, for those who are terrified by the thought that they'll be nothing but ashes one day.
When we eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ, we do not transform it, it transforms us. Here's a simple illustration from Luther, "It is as if a wolf devoured a sheep and the sheep were so powerful a food that it transformed the wolf and turned him into a sheep. So, when we eat Christ's flesh physically and spiritually, the food is so powerful that it transforms us into itself and out of fleshly, sinful, mortal men, makes spiritual, holy, living men"(LW 37:100). Again, "the mouth, the throat, the body which eats Christ's body, will also have its benefits in that it will live forever and arise on the last day..."(LW 37:134).
The antidote to the words, "Dust you are and to dust you shall return," is "Take eat; this is My Body; take drink; this is My Blood." Both are words of the living God and therefore alive and powerful. 40 years ago a Sunday School teacher showed this to me. She said that just because we couldn't see God's Word doing things didn't mean it wasn't. She then took a piece of paper that she had slit with scissors every 1/8 of an inch or so. She held it before her mouth and as she spoke the air going out of her mouth moved the paper. So God's Words are not just words that blah, blah, blah out there; they do: they convict and they rebuke, but they heal and they make alive as well. God's Words send us to dust but they call us back again to everlasting life. Therefore, we gladly come here week after week to hear these sacred words spoken to us, so we might learn not to fear the dust but to fear and love the One who redeemed our dust and will call us back from it. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ash Wednesday (2-25-04); Third Commandment