706) Learning the Language of Heaven

Adapted from Dr. Walter Sundberg’s chapel sermon, March 12, 2008, at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota

     The United States has been and still is a nation of immigrants, and millions of these new arrivals want to learn the language of their new country.  Thus, there is a great need for ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers and volunteers.  I have heard that ESL volunteers are told in training that when someone learns a new language, each WORD must be repeated a minimum of 50-60 times before it is implanted in the brain.  To teach someone a new language is a long and laborious process, requiring great patience.

     Think of it, between 50 and 60 times of saying or hearing each word before it is in the mind for good!  And think of how many words it takes to build even one sentence; one sentence so someone can then, finally, make a comment on the weather, communicate a thought, or ask directions.

     A child growing up learns the language of their parents quickly, but this is hard work for an adult. A great deal of effort is necessary to find one’s way in not only the language, but also in the whole culture of a new and different country.  Much knowledge is needed to find our way around in this mortal, earthly realm.

     So what effort, we might ask, is needed to learn things in the realm of the spirit, things necessary to find our way to and in that heavenly realm?  How much repetition would be needed to learn the language of faith, the language of trust in God and obedience to God?

     Jesus touched on this a little bit in a discussion one time with his disciples.  “Seventy times seven” he said, “you must forgive your brother.”  70 x 7.  The disciples had asked if three times might be enough, but Jesus said, “Oh no, it is going to take a lot more practice than that!”  It is by repetition that we learn the language we speak, and it is by repetition that we learn the language of faith.  There are a few other times when such numbers are mentioned in the Bible in connection with growing in faith.  In the Old Testament, God made the ancient Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years before they could enter the promised land– forty years for them to learn to trust and obey their God.  Forty days Moses spent on the mountaintop, praying and preparing to receive the Ten Commandments.  Jesus himself was led into the desert to be tested for forty days.

     And the Season of Lent is forty days in the church year to remember again the story of Christ’s sufferings and death for you; a time to hear again the same story, hear the same Gospel preached, receive the same sacrament of the bread and wine, the sign and seal of his promise of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation for you.

     Think of all the many Sundays you have gone to church over the years, going through the same order of service again and again; to confess your sins again, to hear that word of forgiveness again, to say the Creed and the Lord’s prayer again, to hear those same Scripture lessons read again, and to hear yet another sermon.  So much effort just to learn the language of the spirit, as we stumble and mumble along in our clumsy way on the path to God.  But this is an effort we must make, and must continue to make.  

     That is, unless you already have this all firmly planted in your mind, heart, and soul.  But do you?  Is there ever a week that you do not have any sins to confess?  Do you already know all there is to know from the Scriptures?  Is your faith is so strong that you do not need the weekly reminders and encouragements and presence of the Holy Spirit?  You won’t need to answer that.  God has already answered it for you.  He made it clear in his commandments when he said, Remember the Sabbath Day to Keep it Holy.  Remember by repetition, by observing the Sabbath every week.  It takes great effort to learn another language so that it is firmly implanted in the mind– 50-60 repetitions for each word.  How can we expect that the language of faith, this language of an entirely different realm, should be easy or come automatically?

     Given the choice, I would never have learned any other languages.  English would have been enough for me.  But my educational goals forced me to learn three languages.  I needed two years of a foreign language to help me get into college, so I studied French in high school.  I then needed two years of a foreign language to get my Bachelor’s degree, so I studied German in college.  I needed three semesters of ancient Greek to graduate from seminary, and so I studied Greek.  After six years of such study I can assure you, repetition works in learning a language.  It is the only thing that works.  And repetition takes time.  The more time I spent, the better grades I received.  When I spent the time studying, I would get A’s– always in German, and usually in Greek.  When I did not spend the time, I failed, as I did one semester in Greek when I took too many classes and worked too many hours at my job.  I did not take the time for the repetition.

     Repetition is the key to learning and maintaining the knowledge of a language.  The language I learned best was German.  After two years, I was able to carry on a simple conversation.  But then I never used the German that I learned, and within a few years lost almost everything.

     The language of faith also needs repetition, or faith can be lost.  So, “On the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, take and eat, this is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.Keep doing this, Jesus said, keep repeating this ritual; because it will help you remember me, it will help you remember what I did for you.  It will, we might say, help us learn and remember the language and the ways of that spiritual realm, that heavenly world in which we will one day be newly arrived immigrants.

     Our liturgical tradition, so often condemned as the ‘same old thing’ week after week, is built on this principle that we learn by repetition.  It sounds like work, but it is all grace; because what we keep hearing over and over again in that liturgy is the truth about ourselves– that we are weak and fragile– and that we need to come back time after time to find our refuge and strength.  The truth is that we will never finally grasp it, never get completely rid of the sin, never really get it all together.  God knows that.  But still we are invited back to hear again and again God’s word of forgiveness and his promise of eternal life, won for us by the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ.  We are reminded that ‘we are weak and he is strong’ (as we learned in Sunday School), and that we have all fallen short, but that God in Christ has saved us.  So yes, God does insists that we come back, every Sabbath, but only so we don’t forget and turn away; so that we will keep the faith and do not become lost as we emigrate to that heavenly land.


Luke 22:19  —  (Jesus) took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

I Corinthians 11:25  —  In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Matthew 18:22  —  Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”



Grant, O Lord, that the words we have said with our lips we may believe in our hearts and show in our lives, to your honor and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.