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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of the casualties of the Protestant Reformation was the destruction of thousands of works of religious art. Extremist church leaders, known as iconoclasts, stormed through the churches destroying every altar and work of art they could reach. This was true even in rather tranquil and scholarly town of Wittenberg. Lucas Cranach’s painting of “The Ten Commandments” was a survivor of that iconoclastic destruction. Completed in 1516, a year before the Reformation began, this painting on wooden panels hung in the Wittenberg City Hall, which is probably why it survived. Had the Ten Commandments been hung in the church it would have been destroyed. Today it is a part of the Lutherhaus Museum in Wittenberg’s former Augustinian Monastery.
Lucas Cranach the Elder was the court painter for Frederick the Wise in Wittenberg and was witness to the Protestant Reformation. He became intimate friends with Luther, both of them standing in turn as godparent to a child of the other. He was also responsible for the most famous portraits of the reformers. The distinguished art historian and author, John C. Van Dyke, described Lucas Cranach’s work as follows: “Fantastic, odd in conception and execution, sometimes ludicrous, and always archaic-looking. The lack of aerial perspective and shadow masses gave his work a queer look, and he was never much of a brush man. His paintings were typical of the time and country, and for that and for their strong individuality they are ranked among the most interesting paintings of the German school.”
Like all painters of his day Cranach was a master of Biblical symbolism. He created artworks that appealed to the illiterate peasant class as well as rich merchants, clergy, and royalty. He often employed color and imaginary figures to distinguish good from bad behavior. In Cranach’s “Ten Commandments,” ludicrous demons can be seen entreating men and women to sin, and the color yellow is used to portray those who have fallen to temptation.
Theologians have always wondered why Luther would begin his Small Catechism with its citation and explanation to the Ten Commandments- after all, Luther didn’t believe that a Christian was saved by fulfilling the law or any form of work’s righteousness. Indeed, why should we study the Ten Commandments when they cannot give us the assurance of salvation?
As a theologian first trained as a lawyer, however, Luther understood that the law had a variety of uses. Every citizen of Wittenberg who walked into the City Hall, and saw Lucas Cranach’s painting of “The Ten Commandments,” whether they could read or not, could see the way good and honest people were to act and live. You and I might need a magnifying glass to see the details, but they could see images. The law provided a norm for healthy family relationships, an honest society and a responsive government, and Ten Commandments were intended to be a pattern for a good life, “so that God’s people will live a long, full life in the land the LORD your God has given to you.”
But for Luther, there was a second purpose to the law. It was much more personal than legalistic. Though the law alone would never make salvation possible, he believed that the law and the Ten Commandments were useful in encouraging believers to examine their failings and their need for grace. Knowledge of the law, he said, paved the way to salvation by preparing the way for grace.
In an early introduction to the Small Catechism, Martin Luther wrote, “When a man is ill, he needs to know first what his illness is, — what he can do and what he cannot do. Then he needs to know where to find the remedy that will restore his health and help him to do and leave undone the things he ought. Third, he must ask for this remedy, and seek it, and get it or have it brought to him. In like manner, the Commandments teach a man to know his illness, so that he feels and sees what he can do and what he cannot do, what he can and what he cannot leave undone, and thus knows himself to be a sinner and a wicked man.” For Luther, there was only one natural response to the knowledge of the Ten Commandments. A believer would turn to the loving grace and mercy of Jesus.
Unfortunately, Lutherans over the centuries have turned this tool for reflection into a measuring stick of moral, ethical behavior. Yes, instead of driving and encouraging the believer to a life in Christ, the law has been used by Christians to measure their own worthiness and their neighbor’s failings. The closing warnings in the commandments are intended for others, and not us.
In the days before, TSA pre-checks, and strict gate control, a young man waited in the departure terminal at the Honolulu International Airport, he heard the announcement for his flight and final destination. With full intention and a longing desire, he ran to his gate, boarded the plane, found his seat, and when he touched down at the end of a long flight he discovered that he had descended on the wrong side of the Pacific Ocean. He had arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, when, all along he had intended to fly to Oakland, California. The poor young man had boarded the wrong flight. He had not intended to make that mistake or journey, but he was there. That is what the Ten Commandments are intended to help us discover and recognize before it is too late.
My friends, the great miracle of the grace of God in Jesus Christ is that you don’t have to remain in the wrong place. The Ten Commandments are intended to help you find the remedy. Jesus loves you, forgives you and empowers you to return to the right place. In Jesus Christ, God has opened the way for you to have a new beginning. Unlike the poor young man on his flight to New Zealand, you can return mid-flight to the right destination. God’s abundant life can be your destination and joy again. What a wonderful opportunity! What an amazing destination! What a possibility! And in Jesus Christ, God will allow you to live and walk with law and the Ten Commandments as a guide for life. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.