The Witness We Cannot Bear
3/31/04Times New RomanArial
Here we are on the 6th Wednesday of Lent, and we're almost to the heart of the matter. But there's one last stop before we get there - the tongue, matters of the mouth, what we say about others, to others. Our title is "The Witness We Cannot Bear" and I'm sure you think you know what the witness we can't bear is, but you don't.
You think the witness we cannot bear is that we all tell "white lies." We're not as pure as George Washington who could not tell a lie but had to admit to his father that he had chopped down the cherry tree. Why is that story an integral part of American culture, because we love cherry trees? No, because we love a law that is doable, keepable. It seems possible to get through life without telling a lie. Hey, George Washington did. But the law only appears doable. It in fact is damnable.
Do you know what this view of the 8th Commandment has engendered? Countless, and I do mean countless, discussions in Bible classes about what is and what is not a lie. Is it a lie when the husband tells his wife she looks good in a dress that she doesn't? Are you required to tell the bank robber that there is one more teller in the vault he hasn't killed yet? Is it lying to say to the child who just flopped that he or she, "Did just fine." And in these discussions you will hear Lutherans more clever than Jesuits explaining why this is or is not a lie, why this is or is not a sin.
Luther would never entertain such discussions. He says flatly that it is not a sin to lie to thieves and thugs. Chemnitz says that it's not a sin to conceal something for reasons of right or usefulness. He says it was not a sin for the woman to lie about where David's spies were when Absalom's men came looking for them. But this does not mean we escape the witness of the 8th Commandment. No, nothing sinners do or don't do can provide them an escape from a Commandment. And the real problem is getting them under, all the way under a Commandment's heavy weight. The fiction that George Washington couldn't tell a lie makes this all the more difficult.
The real witness we can't bear is not that we shouldn't tell lies, but that we can't bear to hear good spoken of others. Ask yourself. Do you repeat the bad you hear about others or the good? If a friend of yours wasn't here tonight and I told you that one of my children got an award at school and another got expelled, which would you repeat first? How many times have I heard of someone I was at seminary with getting a honor, an accolade and found myself angered? Do you think this is God pleasing? Do you think God doesn't care when what's good for others stirs up such evil in me?
The witness I can't bear is the news of good things happening to others, and second, I can't bear not to tell bad things. Even though I can't bear it when someone speaks evil of me, I think it my right and duty to speak evil of others. And do you know how I excuse my sin? "Well, it's true isn't it?" But dear friend unless God has given you the authority to be a person's judge you have no right to tell anyone at all about what he has done even if it's true. That's what we confess to believe in the Large Catechism: "Nobody has the right to judge and reprove his neighbor publicly even when he has seen a sin committed, unless he has been authorized to judge and reprove." But I can't bear this. If I know some dirt on you, I've got to tell others, and moreover, I believe I have the right to do it.
But you want to know what really shows my deep sinfulness? Not the fact that I can't stand to hear good things about you, not even the fact that I have to repeat bad things about you, but the fact that I feel like a fool when I do what the 8th Commandment requires. When I "explain everything in the kindest way," I feel like a dolt, a fool, a simpleton. I remember a seminary professor saying, "If you notice that several times each week for several weeks, the a/c man is at your neighbor's house when the wife is there alone, the 8th commandment requires you to believe they're having trouble with their a/c." My flesh can't bear this. I feel so stupid. "I know good and well what's going on over there," says the flesh. To speak well of my neighbor and take everything in the kindest way possible makes be feel dumb, silly, ignorant: that's how fallen I am.
To not take everything in the kindness way possible is a sin. To not defend my neighbor or speak well of him is a sin. To betray him, slander him, to hurt his reputation is a sin. It's not just a matter of not telling lies. So I've sinned big time. And what should happen to such a tongue as mine? In the movie "Midnight Train" a prison snitch regularly gives up his fellow prisoners leading to horrible punishments for them. Finally, one man can take it no more and he jumps on him, wrestles him to the ground, bites out his tongue, and then spits it across the room. That's what should happen to you O lying, deceitful, proud, gossiping tongue.
No that's not enough. What should happen to you O gossiping tongue is the sun should refuse to shine on you. It should turn away from you and refuse to give you the light of day. Moreover, God ought to totally forsake you. You just think you've felt helpless, hopeless, lost before. Once God does really forsake you, you will be as the damned in hell. Nothing but endless burning, endless tormenting, endless thirsting will be stretched before you as far as you can see and farther than you can even imagine. Speaking of thirst a foul, lying, betraying, gossiping tongue like yours ought to be deprived not just of light and of God, but of water too. Do you know what happens to tongues deprived of water? They swell up, they crack, they bleed, and once your false, deceitful tongue has done that then vinegar ought to be poured over it just for good measure.
Can you bear such a punishment as this? I can't. But Jesus did, and He did it for you, for everyone of your sins, even for those sinful words and outright lies that you can never take back. And unless this glorious, forgiving, gospel truth rings in your ears as Lent draws to a close, you can only go away from the cross on Good Friday as people did in the Passion reading: beating your breast.
Rather than focusing on what you say with your lips which convicts you of sins you can't bear, focus on what Jesus says with His. Jesus says, "It is finished." He didn't say, "It might be finished." "It will be finished." Or, "It could be finished." The 8th Commandment that hangs over you relentlessly accusing not just your words, but your thoughts and deeds, is finished. It's completed. Jesus never sinned against this Commandment. He fulfilled it completely. There is nothing left of the 8th Commandment that you need to keep to go to heaven. Jesus did it all.
But Jesus paid all too, didn't He? It was Jesus that the sun turned away from in disgust. It was Jesus the Farther left to die alone as a damned sinner should. It was Jesus whose tongues swelled up and burst and it was Jesus who was given vinegar for water to drink. So when the devil creeps into you sleepless bedroom or your painful hospital room, or your depressing workroom saying, "Look at all the people you have hurt with your foul mouth, your lying tongue, your gossiping lips. You're going to hell for all of this." You can reply, "Jesus finished doing that for Me." He was condemned, murdered, and damned for my sins, so I am free. How do you know that? Because Jesus said, "It is finished."
That's not all Jesus said, is it? He also said, "Father, into your hands I commit My spirit." That's important. In the depths of paying for your sins against this Commandment, while being forsaken all Jesus could cry out was, "My God, My God." Now that it is finished He can return to His Father. The Commandments are kept so the Father has no reason to be angry or dismayed. The broken commandments are all paid for, so the Father has no reason to keep Jesus under the judgments of the Law. Because Jesus could commit Himself to the hands of the Father, you can commit yourself. You don't have to be afraid that you have dirt, grime, or filth on your mouth from your sinful tongue. Christ Jesus paid for all of that on the cross and washed your mouth dentist-office clean from such sins: with His blood, sweat, and tears which you partake of in Baptism and Holy Communion.
Don't go away from the cross tonight as the people in the text did. If you do, your sinful, foul tongue will still have the upper hand. You've got to see that the holy life, suffering and death of Jesus has been successful in creating in you a new man, a new creation. Jesus' death brought life to the people of God who had long before died. That's how powerful His death was. If it can do that for dead bodies how much more for lips and mouths that still live?
Think of it. Jesus says elsewhere that God is able to bring words of praise from the mouths of babies. If God can bring His praises from babies, how much more can He bring His praises from our mouths? Jesus also says that God can even bring His praises from rocks. If God can bring the praise of His name from dead rocks, how much more so can He bring His praises from the lips of forgiven sinners who are alive?
The Book of James tells us that the tongue is the hardest part of the body to control and that he who controls the tongue controls the whole body. That's how close to the heart of the matter the tongue is. "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks," says Jesus. Let your heart be filled with the knowledge that Jesus kept every Commandment in your place so not one hangs over your head like a threatening sword. Let your heart be brimming with the sweet blood, sweat, and tears that Jesus spilled to wash you clean, pure, and forgiven, and your mouth will sing, your lips rejoice, your tongue dance to the praise of God and the good of your neighbor. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lent VI Midweek (3-31-04), 8th Commandment