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Was ist Das?

Timothy 1:3-7

Rev. Jeffrey D. McPike

Education Sunday
Trinity Lutheran Church  
Urbana, IL

Sun, Sep 12, 1999 


1997-Grace,Norfolk, NE

1999-Trinity, Urbana, IL

Timothy 1:3-7 I thank God, whom I serve, as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.

He was aghast! He was horrified! He was taken aback! He simply could not believe what he had found! Listen to his own words: "The deplorable, miserable condition which I discovered when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare this Catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form. Mercy! Good God! What manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and alas! Many pastors are altogether incapable, and incompetent to teach! Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians, all have been baptized and receive the Holy Sacrament. Yet they cannot recite either the Lord's Prayer, or the Creed, or the Ten Commandments; they live like dumb brutes and irrational swine; and yet, now that the gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all liberty like experts." Who was he? Who was the man who was appalled at the conditions of ignorance of even the basics of the Christian faith as he found them? He was Dr. Martin Luther, and this that I just read to you was written by him as the preface to his Small Catechism.

Four years passed after Luther came up with the idea for a catechism until he actually produced one. He first gave the job to a couple of professors at Wittenberg as mentioned in a letter to Nicholas Hausmann dated February 2, 1525, "Jonas and Agricola have been instructed to prepare a catechism for children." They never got a catechism going, and so Luther himself took up the task. That's good, because during that time, a major change took place in Luther's life. He got married and had children.

What difference would it make that Luther became a father during the time that he wanted to complete a catechism? Only that it gave him a keen insight into how to format the catechism. Because, contrary to what you might think, the catechism is addressed to those who teach children, not to the children themselves.

The layout of Luther's Small Catechism is question and answer. The key question in the catechism, the one that I remember dreading when I was in catechism class and the same one that students probably still dread today is reflected in the German title of this sermon: "Was ist das?" It literally means, "What is that?" We know it much more familiarly as, "What does this mean?"

Why do catechism students not like this question? Because the chief parts of the catechism are fairly easy to recite. The first commandment: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." That's easy enough. But then comes that ever-present question: "What does this mean?" That's when you have to work a bit harder, trying to come up with the meaning as it is produced in the catechism.

Where did Luther come up with this question, "What does this mean?" Well, Luther got married in 1525. In December, 1525, he wrote to a friend and said, "My Katherine is fulfilling Genesis 1:28." That's the passage that says, "Be fruitful and multiply." Hans Luther was born June 7, 1526. About 18 months later, Elizabeth Luther was born, December 10, 1527. So by the time Luther made his formal "Visitation" to some of the congregations in Saxony and found out how miserably lacking in knowledge the people and pastors were, little Hans was three and Elizabeth was almost two. The question, 'Was ist das?' in German would have become a typical question for the children to ask the parents when they wanted to know something. One mother in our congregation shared with me this past week that it would most closely correspond with children today asking "Why?" Little Hans and little Elizabeth probably were running around the Black Cloister, the old monastery building attached to the university which had become the Luther home, pointing to all kinds of things and asking, "Was ist das?" When Katie was making bread, little Hans probably asked, "Was ist das?" When Martin Luther was working in his garden, which he did to help supplement the meager family income, little Elizabeth might have asked him, "Was ist das?" What is that? What are you doing? And so, when Luther wrote his Small Catechism, he did so by following the natural path of curiosity that his children were showing as they were running around the house in Wittenberg. For each topic, each commandment, each article of the creed, each petition of the Lord's Prayer, he placed the explanation that the PARENT is supposed to give to the child's asking of 'Was ist das?' What does this mean?

Little children do that, don't they? They ask questions about every little thing that an adult does. They ask questions about the things an adult does. They are interested in what we are interested in. Now that Sara is almost four, I can see very well why Luther came up with 'Was ist das?', 'What is that?' as the question of the child for the adult to explain the important parts of Christian teaching.

Of course, for a child to be curious enough to ask questions about Christian teaching, the adult has to model Christian values and teachings, or show by how he or she lives that these things are very important. In the text, St. Paul is encouraging Timothy by saying, I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. How did that sincere faith of his grandmother and his mother come to live in Timothy? Not by osmosis! Not by magic! Not by soaking it up by simply being around them. It came by the fact that Timothy observed this faith in action by everything that Lois and Eunice, his grandmother and mother, did. Timothy became a strong believer not just by what his grandmother and mother made him learn, but by the way they modeled their faith to him.

One of the things that you will hear from this pulpit as long as I occupy it is that Christian education begins at home. Christian education is not just sending your child to a school with a Christian name, not just making sure that you drop them at Sunday School now and then, but it is living a life that models what is being taught. Quite simply put, the best learning that goes on as far as values are concerned, whether they are religious or whatever, comes as much from what children see modeled in the lives of their parents as it does from what is taught them by anybody - parents, pastor or teacher. Children so often turn out just like their parents, or in reaction to their parents. So if the parents are sending the children to a Christian school and making the children go to catechism, but the parents themselves don't take an active role in the life of the church, the children know it, and often they rebel against it whenever they get the chance.

God addresses His comments concerning Christian Education to parents first, and pastors and teachers secondarily. The Old Testament lesson is a clear illustration of this. God is talking to parents. "Teach these things to your children. Talk about them when you walk along the road, when you lie down, and when you get up." How well do we do that? Parents, how good a Christian example are you? We often have to admit that we are not good Christian examples. We often say one thing and live another. We often fail in our attempts to live the faith that we claim to have within us. That's why it's very comforting for us to know that Jesus Christ came to live the Christian life for us. When we are busy with our Christian education, it's important for us to, as closely as possible, internalize the teaching that we are trying to instill in children. In other words, don't just tell children what they should learn, but actually model it for them. Live it! At the same time, it's important to point them to Jesus, because He is the ultimate perfect example of Christian teaching. Jesus didn't just teach by His Words, He taught by His life - His actions were as much a sermon as any He ever preached. He is the ultimate example of the love that God calls us to show to all people. Not only did He live a perfect life as an example for us, but He did it as our replacement. He forgives us for each time we don't live up to the perfection God demands. He forgives us for each time we don't "practice what we preach." He loves us and has washed away all our sins, and empowers us in our service to Him.

So as your children or your grandchildren seek to imitate your behavior, which you know that they will do, allow them to imitate extraordinary Christian behavior. And when they ask, "Was ist das?" What is that? What does this mean? Remember that God's Word empowers you to be a fine Christian example for them, so that they will not only learn God's word by reading, studying, and reciting, but they will learn God's Word by the way you live it in your daily life. God's Word empowers you for that, and His forgiveness enriches your life to get past the bad examples that you may provide. Amen.

( All rights reserved by Rev. Jeffrey D. McPike. This sermon may be copied for reading by others, but if it is put to any other use, please contact Rev. Jeffrey McPike. Thank You.)

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