Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sermon: Mark 12: 28-34 Total Love

The TV is packed with the same sort of programme, week after week, and particularly at holiday times. The top 50 movie moments; the top 100 funniest comedians; the top 10 goals of the season. The list goes on and on. Fairly cheap to make, with a few celebrities interviewed, and lots of clips. Perhaps there’s been a public vote; the results are likely to generate lots of debate.

In the Judaism of Jesus’ day, there was just as intense a debate going on, but it wasn’t about the world’s greatest pop star (Beyonce), or the greatest family film (ET). Rather, the question being debated was the one which is asked in our reading this morning. ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’ Out of all the commands in the Old Testament, which is the most important?

Someone had worked out that there were 613 commands in the Old Testament Law. That’s a huge number - but which was the most important to obey? Which was the one to concentrate on? We’ll look at what Jesus says under two headings today - the Command, and the Completion.

Let’s remember the context. Jesus has arrived into Jerusalem just a few days before, riding on a donkey, the crowds welcoming him. Then he cleared the temple of the moneychangers and sellers. Since, he has been involved in disputes and debates with the scribes, Pharisees, Herodians, Saducees. Different political and religious groupings in Jerusalem. All trying to trick and trap him.

This scribe seems to be different, though. He’s not out to trap Jesus like the others. It seems to be a genuine question. Certainly Jesus receives him better than the others in the previous verses. And he asks that question - which commandment is the most important of all?

Straight away Jesus quotes a verse from Deuteronomy 6. Every Jew every day said this - it was like their creed, part of their daily prayers. ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The command to love God is based in who God is - the covenant LORD, the one who is the Creator and Rescuer - this is who God is.

In Deuteronomy 6, Moses is speaking to the people of Israel. They’ve been in the wilderness for forty years, having been rescued from Egypt at the Passover, but then they disobeyed God’s command to go into the promised land. Moses knows he isn’t going over with them, so before he dies, he speaks to them, urging them to obey this time.

Because of who God is and what he has done, therefore, the command flows out of that - love the LORD your God. To love God is to delight in him, to cherish him, to seek to know him. And how are we to love God? Is it just for an hour or so on a Sunday? Is it if we remember to say our prayers? No, it’s so much more than that - it’s total love. Look at the four ‘all’s - all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. With every part of you, in every situation, whatever you do, think, say, feel - everything should be an expression of love for God.

It’s such a high standard, isn’t it? So much more than we think possible to give. Just think for a moment. What would it look like if I were to love the Lord with all my heart (in my affections and motives); with all my soul (in my very being); with all my mind (in what I think and how I think); with all my strength (in everything that I do, everywhere that I go, in my work)?

But just when you think Jesus has finished, when he has done what he was asked, when he has given the most important commandment, you find that he’s still going. It’s like one of those buy one get one free offers in the supermarket - two for the price of one. Verse 31: ‘The second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

It’s not that we only love God and close our eyes to the world, to everyone around us. No, love for God must be coupled with love for neighbour. They must go together. Your neighbour isn’t just the person who lives next door to you - but rather it is everyone around you, everyone in the world. The Jews in Jesus’ day were saying that it was just your fellow Jews, only the people the same as you who you had to love, but Jesus widens that to everyone, even your enemies! (cf Luke 10 The Good Samaritan).

So what will it look like to love your neighbour? Jesus gives us the standard, the amount of love to give and show and have for your neighbour. Love your neighbour as yourself. If there’s one thing all of us are good at, it is in loving ourselves. It’s what we do, as a result of our sinful nature. Out for number one, we immediately know when we’re losing out, being hard done by; we’re all experts at spoiling ourselves, treating ourselves, looking out for number one. We tell ourselves that ‘you’re worth it.’

Jesus says that this is the measure we should use in loving our neighbour. Are we as concerned for those around us? Are we aware of the needs of the people who live beside us? Are we good neighbours, by starting with those who live beside us? Maybe you have an elderly neighbour - call in to make sure they’re ok as the nights draw in.

But remember, again, that Jesus puts these two commandments together - love for God and love for neighbour. Earlier we mentioned only loving God and ignoring our neighbours. But some go the other way and love neighbours and work very hard for people, while completely ignoring God. That’s not what Jesus is saying. Rather God demands love for God and for neighbour. Just think of the ten commandments - our duty to God and our duty to your neighbour.

So that’s the command. The great commandment, to love God and love your neighbour.

The scribe agrees with what Jesus has said, and look at what his final words are: ‘You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’

Loving God and loving neighbour is more important than offerings and sacrifices. Where is it the scribe says this (and Jesus agrees)? They’re in the temple, the very place where the burnt offerings and sacrifices would be made! What Jesus and the scribe are saying is that obedience is better than the ritual sacrifices. Time and time again in the Old Testament we find this emphasis - obedience rather than sacrifice. Just one example: ‘He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to live kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8)

Heart obedience is more important than the repeated ritual sacrifices offered in the temple. This scribe gets it. It’s not about what you do that makes you right with God. It’s not how you perform on a Sunday as you come to church, looking respectable. It’s about obedience in the heart.

It’s what God requires of us - total love. And yet, while it sounds wonderful, I wonder if you’ve been reminded of your failings? You see, some people will try to tell you that they live by this great commandment. Love God, love your neighbour - that’s how I live my life. But as we’ve been thinking about the total love that God demands - indeed, that God deserves, I know that I can’t do it. That I haven’t done it.

Just think back over the past day - even just this morning. Have you loved God totally, and loved your neighbour totally? Or have your motives been mixed? The great commandment, admirable as it is, is still part of the Law of God, and the Law exposes our sin, flags it up, highlights it, reminds us of how we have failed.

What we need for our great sin of disobeying the great commandment is a great Saviour. One who perfectly obeyed this commandment, whose life perfectly demonstrated love for God and love for neighbour, whose sinless life was offered as a sacrifice for our sinfulness; whose life was given in the place of our death; whose perfect, spotless righteousness is given to us as we trust in his substitutionary death. The very one who was asked this very question - which commandment is the most important of all?

Remember Pilate’s words in John 19? ‘I find no guilt in him.’ (John 19:4) Jesus perfectly obeyed, lived his life in obedience to his Father, and through his death on the cross and his resurrection (the vindication of Jesus’ status), Jesus is king. This is the completion of the commandment.

Back at the start of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus appears on the scene and these are his first words: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ (Mark 1:15) The kingdom of God is near.

Jesus says that the scribe ‘is not far from the kingdom of God.’ He can see what it’s all about. But do you notice that we’re never told that he has entered the kingdom. What a tragedy, to get so close, and yet never to enter. The kingdom is near, because Jesus is near - he has perfectly fulfilled the law, completed the commandment, and invites us to share in his kingdom as we trust in him.

This is the pattern of life in the kingdom - obeying the king, and he gives us the Holy Spirit to help us. We’re by no means perfect, but we will find that we are coming to love God and love our neighbour more than we did before.

You see, we’re not preaching Law - just the demands and commands. That way we either end up being proud of our own achievements, or crushed under our sense of guilt. We recognise the law, yes, but we preach the gospel of grace - Jesus has fulfilled this law, and that as you come to trust in him, there is no more condemnation for you. Rather than a crushing demand, we find it’s a joyful obedience - not through our own efforts, but through the Holy Spirit living in us and transforming us to be more like Jesus.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday morning 31st October 2010.

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