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Year B 4 Before Advent :Mark 12:28-34
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" 29 "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' 31 The second is this: `Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." 32 "Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
I wonder what have people been talking about this week ? The weather, the latest developments in Eastenders or Coronation Street, Iraq, Northern Ireland?
In Jesus' day the religious leaders would spend ages debating the 613 individual statutes in the law, and attempted to differentiate between "heavy" (or "great") and "light" (or "little") commands.
Jesus had just answered questions from various religious and political groups about paying taxes ( vs. 13-17 ), and marriage at the resurrection ( vs. 18-27 ). Impressed by Jesus' answers one of the teachers of the law asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" ( verse 28 ).
29 "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'
As we discovered last week, this first quotation came to be known as the Shema, named after the first word of Dt 6:4 in Hebrew, which means "hear." The Shema became the Jewish confession of faith, which was recited by pious Jews every morning and evening. To this day it begins every synagogue service.
Love. The Greek verb is not phileo, which expresses friendly affection, but agape, the commitment of devotion that is directed by the will and can be commanded as a duty. It is a deliberate, selfless love where the lover is more concerned with the interest of the one being loved than his/her own interests.
The heart is regarded ,as it is today, as the seat of the affections.
The soul is the very being of someone in their ordinary relationships with earthly and physical things. You could say it the personality, what makes a person unique.
The "mind" is the self in its rational functions involving deep thought and reflection.
"all your strength" shows the wholehearted commitment that God requires.
These functional names often overlap. You could paraphrase Jesus words by saying that we are to love God with our whole being all of the time.
In the days of the circuit riders a minister was out riding one afternoon and came upon a man out working in his field. "Fine day isn't it?", the minister called out. "Its fine for you", the man replied, "All you have to do is ride around on that horse thinking about God all day long, while I have to sweat here in this field and then walk home afterward. I don't think its right you should have things so easy while I have to work so hard."
"On the contrary", the minister answered, "thinking about God is one of the most difficult things you can do. And to prove it, I'll give you this horse if you can think about God and nothing else for one minute." "You're on.", said the man and immediately he sat down in silence. Thirty seconds later he looked up at the minister. "Does that include the saddle?", he asked.
The story is funny because we can imagine a person doing what the farmer did. But the story is also profound. It is profound because it reminds us at almost an instinctual level that it is not only hard to think about God in the way the law tells us we should,
31 The second is this: `Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." To the Shema Jesus joined the commandment from Lev 19:18 to show that love for neighbour is a natural and logical outgrowth of love for God.
According to one tradition, the beloved disciple, John, now very old and too weak to walk anywhere, was carried into church every Sunday by his friends. As the worship ended, they would assist him to his feet, and he would bless the gather faith community, saying: "Little children, love one another."
One day, a church member got the idea that the old disciple was saying the same thing too often, like a pastor repeating the sermon over and over. But the elderly John had an answer for that: "There is nothing more to be said. It is the final word. If we love one another, that is everything." In the end, they will indeed know that we are Christians by our love.
1 John 4: 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
God has created people in his own image. He has recreated people to be like Jesus. He, therefore, calls those who have received his love to show it to other Christians and to the world. As Jesus taught in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, everyone is our neighbour, even those who we would not readily warm to. We are called to love people who live outside our area, who we do not know, who speak differently, who have a different colour skin, who dress differently, who have less than we do, or who have more than we do, and so on. Jesus said we are to love our enemies.
The more we realise our own wretched position before God without Jesus, the easier we will find it to love others.
Jesus told us how we should love our God and to love fellow human beings. But, if we are honest, we fail to live up to Jesus summary of the law. We forget God, or push him to one side when following him becomes uncomfortable or inconvenient. We get resentful, angry and envious of people.
I read somewhere of a minister talking with the children about the importance of living right, and he wrapped up with the challenge, "Now, if all the good people in the world were red and all the bad people were green, what colour would you be?" One tot thoughtfully replied, "I'd be streaky."
As one 'streaky' person to another we have to admit that God's love is good in that it shows us God's perfect will for our lives. Yet it also exposes the sin that is in our lives.
God's word exposes our need for a saviour. Someone to not only show us the right way to live, but also to restore us to a right relationship with God. This is what Jesus did. He lived a perfect life, always loving God with his whole being, always loving other people as himself. This is why he was able to offer himself as the perfect sacrifice, to bear the punishment for the sins of the world, which is separation from God. He endured this as he hung on the cross. This is why he cried out, 'My God, my God why have you forsaken me'.
Jesus offers forgiveness of sins and a new life with God to those who will follow him.
In "The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis reveals the mystery of God's love in a letter from a demon in hell to a lesser tempter on earth charged with securing the soul of his "patient": "Remember, disgusting as it may seem to you, God really loves those weak and filthy human vermin that crawl the earth. Hateful as it may seem to you, He really wants them finally happy. That is why God did that treacherous thing we here in hell will never understand; cut them loose from his control, put human beings on their own in so many dangerous ways, took some of his own freedom and slipped it into their beastly little hearts. That's why he's so mysterious with them. He wants something more than mere obedience. His master plan is to win from them the free unforced recognition of his love, and the free unforced and glad response to it!"
32 "Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."
The comparison was undoubtedly suggested by the fact that the discussion took place in the temple courtyard (see 11:27).
The 'kingdom of God' is the rule of God, and, for Christians is both a reality today and also a future hope. The teacher of the law was not far from this when he realised God requires a loving response to His undeserved favour, not meaningless, religious ritual. The teacher was yet not in the kingdom because he had not appreciated that he had to : realise that he fell short of God's law; receive God's love shown in Jesus' death for him on the cross; and follow Jesus' way in gratitude and faith.
We live in a world where there is much talk about love. The word can be used for an intense liking of something: 'I love strawberries'; ' I love Port Vale'. Love can be used for a friendship where people share a common bond or interest, what you could call a brotherly/sisterly love. Sometimes the word is confused with feelings such as lust.
As I mentioned earlier, the 'agape' love we are to have for God and people is a deliberate, selfless love where the lover is more concerned with the interest of the one being loved than his/her own interests. It requires sacrifice, will, courage, and commitment without conditions.
We all need to feel loved in that way. To be accepted as we are without conditions. The best way we can know that love is through Jesus. We also need to give love. Once we have received God's love we can demonstrate that love. Not to those who are lovable, but to everyone. Not in our own strength, but inspired by God the Holy Spirit, who lives within every Christian and is a source of divine love.
Some of you will know that my wife, Melanie, recently passed her Driving Theory Test. To do this she had to answer correctly at least 30 out of 35 random questions generated by a computer. She prepared for this by using a CD Rom on our computer. When she started off she was getting 25 or 26, but as time went on and she learned more about what was expected of her she got more and more right and was consistently getting into the thirties.
We need not look at Jesus' summary of the law and feel hopeless, that we will never be able to get it right all of the time. After all, few people approach an examination expecting to get 100%. But Jesus has got 100% for us.
This poem expresses the commitment God wants from us...
If all you want, Lord, is my heart,my heart is yours alone
providing I may set apart
my mind to be my own.
If all you want, Lord, is my mind,
my mind belongs to you,
but let my heart remain inclined
to do what it would do.
If heart and mind would both suffice,
while I kept strength and soul,
at least I would not sacrifice
completely my control.
But since, O God, you want them all
to shape with your own hand,
I pray for grace to heed your call
to live your first command.
Thursday 4th June 2009 1 Peter 2.2-12 Mark 12.28-35
Today we have the opportunity to vote. Should we vote? What should guide our choice? Especially as no political party is without MPs that have not used expenses greedily.
What governs decision making is something the MPs have faced. Different ways.
The expenses rules have clearly been flawed, they have been poorly policed, and have been abused for the benefit of the MPs. It is no excuse for the Chancellor to say he did not break the rules if he used them for personal gain. What type of example does that give to the country from the man who expects us to pay our taxes fairly?
Public opinion can be ill informed, herd like, unfair, and ready to condemn. However, there are some ways in which we can express our opinion including the ballot box. I would encourage you to vote today motivated by which person and/or party you think is most just and will help all people, especially the poor and disadvantaged. If you don't vote then complain about who is elected you are the one who is at fault.
We live in a feelings driven society. It is used and accepted in our society as justification for doing things. There are no absolutes. No right and wrong. If it feels good, do it, is our society's motto. This leads to young people with rotten livers, single teenage mothers, people stabbed dead in the streets, thieving to fuel drug habits and greed motivating expenses claims.
How should we act? Today's readings gives us some clues.
We should follow God's rules and love him with our whole being all of the time and love other people as ourselves. We know we can't do this, so what should we do? You don't go in to an exam room thinking "I can't get 100% so I won't try." You try to fulfil the law and ask for God's Holy Spirit to help.
What would Jesus' opinion be about our conduct? He is descried as a cornerstone in our epistle. The cornerstone was a large stone at the corner of the building and two walls had to line up with the stone they met it. If we are faced with a decision we should see how this squares up with the example and teaching of Jesus. We can ask the question. "What would Jesus do?"
Our epistle says that followers of Jesus are to "be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ". This is talking about our lives.
How do we feel about offering our lives before God? It says we should do this through Jesus Christ, relying on his life, death and resurrection to secure our forgiveness. This should lead us to repentance and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit. We have just celebrated Pentecost Sunday which reminds us that we need God's Holy Spirit to convict us of our sin and give us the guidance and power we need to follow God's ways.
So, let us follow God's rules and the example and teaching of Jesus. Let us do so united with God and empowered by His Spirit. We should pray for our country and should prayerfully vote for who ever we think will seek to love God and love their neighbour.