Knowing What This Commandment Has to Do with Going to Church


How Should We Then Live? in light of the world ending asked St Peter and Francis Schaeffer. In this sermon series, we ask the question in light of the Commandments. Luther said that the 1st Commandment deals with God in your heart. The 2nd with God on your lips, and the 3rd with God in your ears. If you have tinnitus, you know how annoying it is to have a constant ringing or buzzing in your ears. If you live in an urban setting, you’re probably not aware of the level of ambient noise you live with. When ice storms use to shut down all traffic here, though I live 3 miles from I-35, I was surprised by the sound of silence. What if God’s Word could be a good tinnitus, a good ambient sound for the soundtrack of your life?

First off what’s with this Sabbath Day? In our Large Catechism we’re clear that outwardly the Sabbath Day concept belongs only to the OT Church. “As regards this external observance, this commandment was given to the Jews alone, that they should abstain from toilsome work, and rest, … Although they afterwards restricted this too closely, and grossly abused it, as though the commandment were fulfilled by doing no manual work whatever, which was not the meaning,.. This commandment, therefore, according to its outward sense, does not concern us Christians; for it is altogether an external matter, like other ordinances of the OT, which were attached to particular customs, persons, times, and places, and now have been made free through Christ” (80-82).

The OT uses physical events to teach spiritual truths. The crossing of the Red Sea happens because later the Lord would deliver His people by the Water and Word of Baptism. The blood of the Passover Lamb causes the Angel of Death to pass by because Christ the true Passover Lamb would be sacrificed and His blood would cleanse all sins so not only Death passed over but Sin and Devil too. Moses is commanded to put a bronze serpent on a pole and promised that whoever looks at it would be healed from deadly snakebite a serpent. That happened because Christ would be made to be sin and lifted up on a cross so that all who looked upon Him in faith would be healed from Satan’s deadly bite.

But even the external sense of this Commandment was meant as a blessing. If you own you own business and even more so if it’s agriculture, you know what a Godsend a command to take the 7th Day off would be. When I was kid the UAW was striking for a 25-year and out retirement. God gives His people from the get-go 6 days and out. Farmers and self-employed are tempted to work 7 days. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid. Imagine you’re a farmer who has mowed his hay and the weather turns. You can see that your hay will be rained on and ruined if you don’t get it put up. You’re forbidden from doing that on the Sabbath with the implicit promise therein that the Lord will provide. Sabbath means ‘rest’; you could rest in the Lord.

Put the last two points together. Rest from physical labor in the OT prefigured rest from spiritual labor in the NT. Did you hear how Luther put it in his hymn? “Keep hand and heart from labor free/ That God may so work in thee.” A German scholar translates more pointedly. “You shall hallow the Sabbath Day, That I may work in you” (Peters, Commandments, 175). For Luther the Sabbath was an "opportunity for God to do His work on man. God wants to distract man from his daily toil and so open him to God's gifts." (Luther on Worship, 130). This is an OT truth as well. The Lord says in Ezk 20:12: “I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them.”

The physical rest of the 3rd Commandment’s Sabbath was a picture of the spiritual rest God provides by forgiving people their sins. Scriptures teach by God’s Word things are made holy (Jn 17; I Tim. 4:5), and that Christ’s followers enter His rest by listening to His Word and trusting Him (Heb. 4:1-13). This faith shows they know God is the One who gives them rest by forgiving their sins. This is how we put it in our LC: “So when someone asks you, ‘What is meant by this commandment: Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy? What is meant by keeping it holy?’ Answer ‘Not like this: sitting behind the stove and doing no hard work, or adorning ourselves with a wreath and putting on our best clothes.  But...occupying ourselves with God’s Word and exercising ourselves in the Word’” (I, 87,88).

Every 4 years in midweek services and in every Confirmation class, kids and adults, I rehearse what the Lord reveals in Scripture and we confess in our LC. Quote: “God insists on 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 times appointed for that purpose” (I, 95). And, Those not only “sin against this commandment who grossly misuse and desecrate the holy day,…who on account of their greed or frivolity neglect to hear God’s Word or lie in taverns and are dead drunk like swine; but also that other crowd, who listen to God’s Word as to any other trifle, and only from custom come to preaching, and go away again, and at the end of the year knowing as little of it as at the beginning (I, 96). Then we double down on this point saying, “We suffer ourselves to be preached to and admonished, but we listen without seriousness and care” (I, 97). Finally, we end with God’s promise: to “require of you how you have heard, learned, and honored His Word (I, 98).

You want the Scriptures behind our confession? Pv 1:24, 28, “ But since you rejected Me when I called and no one gave heed when I stretched out My hand,…Then they will call to Me but I will not answer; they will look for Me but will not find me.” Zec 7:13 "'When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen.’” Is 66:2, "This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at My word.” In sum, you don’t listen to God’s Word preached, taught, or read and He doesn’t hear your prayers. And yet people pick and choose when they’ll hear the Word with not so much as by-your-leave when they miss Sunday and certainly not weekday services and as for the Word in Bible class? Give me a break. I get all the teaching of the Word I need or want from the internet. See how that goes on your deathbed. People who neglect the Word or even despise it have no shame. If I caught them coming out of a brothel or going into a hotel with a lover, I think they’d blush. But the far more serious sin against the Holy Word of God gets nothing more than a shrug.

Repeated sinning wears down the points of your conscience so you no longer feel stabbed when doing wrong. Sin impenitently enough and you reformat your hardware so that wrong looks right. Keep on sinning and link by link you’ll form chains that you can’t break and will drag you down to hell. We admit this reality with most other Commandments except the 3rd. The Lord prophecies in Amos that a famine of God’s Word is coming, but we think we’ll always have such abundance that we can use it or not. Luther said, “if someone refuses to hear His Word, then He falls silent and takes His Word away entirely" (LW, 58, 135). Jesus says plain as day, “He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God" (Jn 8:47). Your not hearing is a warning sign to you. The first president of the LCMS said: “a person who is negligent in church attendance…certainly is not a Christian” (Law & Gospel, 303). Luther’s even sharper: He tells his congregation that if you don’t hear his voice, he will show them the way to the door and they can go and be the pope’s toadies and lackeys (LW, 58, 65).

There are 2 ditches to every Biblical truth. Here, one is you can hear God’s Word when you feel like it and not hear when you don’t and no harm no foul. I’m convinced this is why I’ve never had one person lament their sins against preaching and the Word, for not holding it sacred and gladly hearing and learning it. Not once. Oh the tears shed over the 5th, 6th, even the 8th & 1st, but not one over the 3rd. The other ditch is just as deadly. Hear the Word for God’s sake. This is what the Pharisees did to the Sabbath. They made it something man did for God rather than something God did for man. Man was made for the Sabbath rather than God made it for man. Part of this ditch is making it a Day of Holy Obligation as the Catholics do or as the NT Sabbath Day as some Protestants do. Make not going to church a death penalty offense like the Virginia Company in 1607 America. The community’s rules decreed the death penalty for any colonist who missed church more than 3 times in a row (La Diva Nicotina, 70).

The error of these two ditches can be seen early on. God gave no command to set aside a particular day only a command to hear His Word and to have joint worship. Cyprian of Carthage, 3rd century A.D., explains that Sunday was chosen because it is the first day of Creation and of the recreation when Jesus rose from the dead. (We Look for a Kingdom, 138). The other ditch was also seen. During the first 3 centuries, the idea that Sunday was the Christian Sabbath was rejected and the early Church struggled against “'sabbathizing'" (Peters, 173).

KLBJ radio says because of our fast-changing world check-in with them 4 or 5 times a day to keep up. How much better check-in with. How much better to hear about sin and grace, law and gospel, life and death, heaven and hell from God’s lips to your ears. “When we listen to a preacher, we need to imagine that God is standing behind him", so taught a 19th century Lutheran (Law & Gospel, 166). Rather than daily being told what you already know to be going on, how much better to be directed to the font to drown your sinful old adam and to come out of there a new man righteous and holy in Christ. How much better to confess your sins and have God in heaven forgive them in Jesus’ name by the mouth of a man on earth! How much better to go to where the God who gave His holy body over to death for your sins and shed His blood on a cross to cover them meets you in Person in your here and now for the ever and ever!

Some LCMS churches use to have on pulpit paraments and even on the East Wall Jesus’ words, “He who listens to you listens to Me” (Lk 10:16). Some bristle at these words thinking they promote popedom, priest rule, a Herr Pastor mentality. Luther saw it differently: That phrase doesn’t empower the one who speaks but the one who hears. You are to be certain that what the pastor speaks on earth is what God says in heaven. Ben Franklin of all people wrote to his daughter not to despise sermons because of the man preaching. What he says “is often much better than the man, as sweet and clear water comes through very dirty earth” (Eidsmoe, Christianity & Constitution, 201). So too a heavenly soundtrack can be heard from a shabby stereo. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Midweek Advent Vespers III (20231213); 3rd Commandment