Ash Thursday 2021

Ash Thursday
February 18, 2021 A+D
The Ten Commandments


In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This year we will take up the Catechism’s six chief parts. Tonight we begin with the 10 commandments.

In one place, Jesus sums up the Law thus: “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12, NKJV). This is often called the golden rule. All major world religions have something very similar to it. Christians take that as evidence that men were created in God’s image and though the original righteousness of men has been lost due to sin, something of the creator’s image remains even in the consciences of unbelievers so that even apart from His Word they are able to recognize something of good and evil. The problem with consciences, though, is that they need to be trained and informed.If they aren’t trained and informed by the Word of God they easily become hardened in service to the old man. So good for the pagans who have some version of the golden rule. We are glad for it but that is not a very good summary or even the key point of our religion.

In another place Jesus says, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.””(Mark 12:29–31, NKJV)

The most essential command is to hear the truth that Yahweh is our God and He is One. That is where Jesus begins. Hearing that we then love Him with all that we have. Then, loving Him, we are to love one another. The standard for love of a neighbor is the golden rule again: love him as you love yourself.

St. Paul makes a similar point in Romans 13. He writes that all the commandments are “summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:9b–10, NKJV)

All these summaries are easier to memorize and easier to understand than the 10 commandments. But the Catechism pulls 10 rules from Exodus 20 and makes us memorize them along with Luther’s meanings. And all the children say, “Why not just remember ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ and leave it at that?”

Well, children, it is because, as we have already said, that the conscience must be trained and informed by the Word of God. Elsewise the conscience is the slipperiest and cleverest bit of man and quite expert at dreaming up self-justifications and calling all sorts of things “love” that are not “love” and are often directly forbidden in God’s Law. It is not that the summary “love your neighbor as yourself” isn’t sufficient. It is that we aren’t sufficient. The Law cometh from transgressions. We got the transgressions so we get the Law.

What the ten commandments do, when taken as a body, is to walk us through our duties. In the first place, we have duties toward God. He is our only God. We rightly use His Name, receive His Word, and worship Him. We also have duties to humanity. We honor and uphold the family both in the form of father, mother, and children and also in the form of husband and wife. These are the building blocks of society and the Church. The family is the foundation of justice. We also uphold and assist in the bodily needs of humanity, remembering that we are Temples of the Holy Spirit and made in God’s image. We protect private property and care for one another’s economic health. We also protect each other’s reputations and learn to use words for the good of others instead of trying to use them to manipulate and gain stuff for ourselves. Finally, in what is perhaps the most difficult lesson and the highest possible achievement of man, we learn to be happy for the happiness and prosperity of others.

From these basic principals flow every duty that is owed to either man or God. When we read them in the light of the Gospel, that is the light of God’s self-giving of Himself for the life of the world, they show the dimensions and form of Jesus Christ Himself. His obedience to His Father is perfect love. He not only gives every man and His Father his due, that is, He is not only completely just in all things, but He also suffers all the punishment for all the sins of all the world, suffering the worst injustice that the cosmos has ever beheld, and yet naming it love. He loves us as Himself without holding anything back. Paul was right. Love fulfills the Law. This love, Jesus on the cross, shows mercy to a thousand generations.

Now sometimes in the ugly history of this world, men’s untrained consciences have tried to argue that God’s love and mercy are somehow greater or more significant or more characteristic of God than His Law. They say that what God really cares about and any attention to the 10 commandments is wrong-headed, narrow, and legalistic. Anyone who thinks that God meant the difficult bits probably only thinks that because he is a bigot. Such notions are depraved and satanic. They come from the man of lawlessness, our ancient enemy and the deceiver of our race.

In fact, God’s love and mercy have no meaning or existence apart from His commands. The Law forms the cross that Jesus is poured into. This is how God loves the world, where He shows us what is good, where He restores us to His image. That is why we are unashamed of the cross. It is not simply a matter of awe at the commitment and perseverance of Jesus or gratitude for what He was willing to pay. It is not a tragedy or an example of how wicked men can be. Rather, we look at the cross and we see God as He wants to be seen, according to His love, His mercy, and His will. We see the Law being obeyed and fulfilled.

That is why I love tracing crosses onto the heads and chests of babies at Baptism and why I also love smearing out crosses on your foreheads with ashes once a year. Both of those things are just ceremonies. They aren’t divine institutions. But they are, nonetheless, powerful. For they confess that you are marked even if the mark can’t be seen by human eyes. You are redeemed and belong to Christ. The cross is our identity and hope and all the commandments of God are commandments of compassion and mercy, of goodness and love.

In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.

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