Very often this Third Commandment is misunderstood. We trip ourselves up when we think it is chiefly about a certain day of the week or about not doing any physical work. Now, each of us certainly needs physical rest one day a week. The body certainly needs to be refreshed and restored. But the main focus of God’s Third Commandment is on God’s Word. Now, every day is for God’s Word, and God’s Word makes every day holy. Yet we also set aside certain days—primarily Sundays—for the hearing of God’s Word. Sundays are set aside to give people the time and opportunity to come to public worship. And the Third Commandment teaches us what worship is all about: hearing and learning God’s Word.
And do we need to hear this in our day and age! Too often these days, what passes for “worship” is little more than low-budget entertainment. Much so-called “worship” in our day and our culture only seeks to alter moods or get people fired up for some kind of religious cause or agenda. And this mindset is not just “out there”; it’s also “in here,” in our own heads and hearts. You and I also have these thoughts and desires. We watch and listen to all sorts of entertaining and mood altering things through the week, and so we often want the same worldly things on Sunday mornings. We also put the focus on what we feel instead of what God says. We also want to minimize what God does for us and, instead, spotlight what we can do for God.
In this way, the Third Commandment is most certainly about stopping work. It’s about stopping your work and listening to God’s Word and works. How does Luther teach us to sing the meaning of this Commandment:
“You shall observe the worship dayWorship and preaching are the times for you to stop thinking of your works as most important in the universe. Rather, they are times to focus on God’s works in Jesus. You keep the Sabbath Day holy by ceasing your efforts and by receiving God’s efforts as He works on you. The Sabbath Day and God’s Word are not about what you and I can do for Jesus; they’re all about what Jesus has done and still does for you and in you.
That peace may fill your home, and pray,
And put aside the work you do,
So that God may work in you.”
Have mercy, Lord! (LSB 581:4, emphasis added)
This is why God’s wants you to hold preaching and His Word sacred. This is why you gladly hear and learn it. It’s very burdensome just to live life where God has placed you in your vocations. It’s even more burdensome to go around in life thinking, “What must I do for Jesus?” But do you know what? There’s nothing sweeter than hearing what Jesus does for you. There’s nothing more liberating than hearing how, despite your worst sins or your best efforts, Jesus gives you His rest in the forgiveness of sins.
Something else very vital comes from the Third Commandment. God’s design for life is that you hear and listen to His Word. God’s Word is first and foremost a “heard Word.” When God speaks, things happen—and they happen as you listen to what God says.
When you were a child, you learned by listening to Mom and Dad. You learned to talk by first hearing Mom and Dad talk. You learned right from wrong by hearing Mom and Dad praise you or tell you, “No.” God works the same way. His design is for us to listen to Him. And just as you would be polite when first joining a conversation with some friends, it pays to listen before you speak. It’s always good to know what the conversation is about.
So, what is God’s conversation all about? First, God says, “You are dead in your trespasses and sins.” You hear that Word, and then you confess, “You’re right, God. I am a poor, miserable sinner.” Then God says, “Because of My Son Jesus and His death on the cross, I make you alive; I forgive you all your sins and trespasses.” Then you get to say, in child-like simplicity: “Thank you, Lord! Amen!” The conversation really is that simple, even though it takes all of our lifetimes to learn it and live by it. This is the Word, the message, that God loves to keep telling you. It is the message, the Word, that He wants you to keep hearing and telling too.
St. Paul says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Notice that faith does not come by what you do or how busy you can be. Faith does not come by how-to sermons on religious living. Faith comes only one way: by hearing the preaching of Christ and Him crucified and risen for our forgiveness. Jesus in the flesh is God’s complete and total message for you. Jesus on the cross is God’s complete and total message for you. Jesus risen from the dead is God’s complete and total message for you. The message is this: God Himself comes to you, to rescue you from sin and death, and to make you His own precious people.
So when you hear the message of Jesus working for you—to forgive you, to build you up in His mercy, to give you His life, to heal you in body and soul—not only are you keeping the Third Commandment, but you are also keeping the First Commandment. God wants you to love and trust in Him above all else—even above yourself. And you learn to trust Jesus crucified and risen by listening to Him and His works.
Now, listening to God’s Word is one of the greatest works—a great privilege—for any Christian. I know, there’s not a lot of glitz or flash to it. It may not excite you some of the time. There are no impressive PowerPoint slides or YouTube videos to spruce up the sermon. But it does please God when you simply listen to Him and retain what He says. In fact, that simple act—listening—is your greatest involvement in worship. You get to assemble to hear Jesus Himself speak to you through His Word. What a marvelous, life-changing privilege! You get to hear the Lord of the universe come and speak to you here on earth. And this is for all ages. Let’s not be sucked in by the voices that cry out: “There’s nothing for the kids or the youth.” Jesus crucified and risen speaks to all ages—whether 3, 13, or 30, whether 8, 18, or 80. Jesus aims His Word at everyone present in the service. Listening is a great privilege when you are in the very presence of God Himself.
God’s design for life is a life with His Word. It is a life of listening to Him and what He does in Christ crucified and risen. When we hear His Word, when we seriously ponder it, when we cling to it, and when we use it to soothe our troubled souls, it always bears fruit. Savior Jesus has promised that His Word will not return to Him empty. It will accomplish what He desires. It will achieve the purpose for which He sends it—that is, your forgiveness, your life, your salvation, your comfort, and your edification, that is, building you up as His precious people. Amen.