"Loving God Totally"
Mark 12:28-34 / various Jan.15/06
40 Years Back in the Gutter
A man who'd been superintendent of a city rescue mission for 40 years was asked why he'd spent his life working with dirty, unkempt, profane, drunken derelicts. He said, "All I'm doing is giving back to others a little of the love God has shown to me."
As a young man, he himself had been a drunkard who went into a mission for a bowl of chili. There he heard the preacher say that Christ could save sinners, and he stumbled forward to accept the Lord Jesus as his Saviour. Though his brain was addled by drink, he felt a weight lifted from his shoulders, and that day he became a changed person. A little later, seeking God's will for his life, he felt the Lord calling him to go back to the gutter and reach the people still wallowing there. The power of redeeming love enabled him to carry on his ministry for forty years.
Last Sunday we began looking at "Loving Relationships" by seeking to understand God's love for us, as demonstrated particularly through the giving of His Son. Today we're looking at the other side of that, our love for God in return. But we find an interesting dimension arises in that, like the superintendent of the rescue mission, as we seek to show our love and gratitude to God for what He's done for us, He directs us to express that love by caring for other people in turn; often in ways that challenge us, but prove rewarding in the long run.
What Matters Most to God
We find our Creator places a high priority on love; it's the response He most desires from His creatures. One day a scribe heard Jesus debating with the religious "professionals" and asked, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" Jesus answered, "The most important one is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'" (Mk 12:29)
We'll interrupt at this point to note that this was hardly revolutionary. The "Shema" (for the first word, 'hear') was recited by pious Jews every morning and evening. Jesus agreed with popular faith in acknowledging the importance of loving God with all one's being, as Deuteronomy 6:5 urged.
The apostle Paul later reinforced the priority of love; rather than faith or hope, "the greatest of these is love" (1Cor 13:13). Relationship with God is more vital than human ritual; Paul told the Galatians (5:6), "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love."
Towards the end of the first century, an exalted Jesus warned the churches in the book of Revelation, " Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen!" (Rev 2:4f)
God eagerly seeks our love, and may test whether we really love Him. Moses warned the Israelites that even if a false prophet works miracles in order to promote worshipping other gods, the people are not to listen to him; " The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul." (Deut 13:3) Following the resurrection, part of Jesus' reinstatement of Peter involved asking three times, "Simon Son of John, do you love Me?" (Jn 21:17) That's the key question Jesus asks each of us who would follow Him: "Do you love Me?" More than chocolates, more than vacations, more than sex or money, more than the best pleasures and privileges this life can offer - "Do you love Me?"
Love for God involves desiring Him exclusively - hence He refers to Himself as being a "jealous God", the One who has a rightful claim on our devotion for He made us (Ex 20:5; Deut 6:15). Loving God totally means we're either "for Him" or "against Him"; as a perfectly Holy God, He cannot tolerate evil or sin. Psalm 97(10) says, "Let those who love the Lord HATE EVIL..."
This means, on the one hand, we will not love the "world" (in the sense of the fallen cosmos that isn't oriented towards God's grace). Loving God means all our desires are focussed and fulfilled in Him. The Psalmist (73:25f) sings,
"Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." Do you hear that heart-cry? "You're all I desire - nothing else here on earth can satisfy. You're my portion forever - nothing else even comes close!"
In the New Testament, John's first letter cautions: " Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." (1John 2:15f) The two are mutually incompatible: like oil and water, they don't mix, you can't be enamoured by worldly things and God both.
Loving God requires a dedication and devotion that only is possible by a crucifixion to self. A true Christian can't love self more than God, or be living a self-focussed life. We're living for Him now, because He bought us back at the cost of His Son. The Bible says (2Cor 5:14f), "For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again."
Don't confuse loving God with going to church, giving a lot to charity, or doing all the right "religious" things. God's after our heart, not our rituals. He's not fooled by religiosity without reality. Jesus reprimanded one group of religious leaders, "Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practised the latter without leaving the former undone." (Lu 11:42) The problem wasn't their tithing their minuscule herbs, but that they had divorced their giving of their plants from the giving of their own personal life back to the Almighty each day.
Or maybe you're the intellectual, studious type; you know the Bible frontwards and backwards (which is good) but have lost daily contact with the Author. On another occasion Jesus said to Jewish religious professionals, "You diligently study the Scriptures...yet you refuse to come to Me to have life...I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts." (Jn 5:39ff) What a shame - they had all the pieces of the puzzle in front of them, but refused to put it together in terms of welcoming Jesus as the Christ. So, loving God is more than religiosity.
Our love for God must be unrivalled, sacrificial. In Mark 12(32) the bright lawyer affirmed Jesus' declaration, "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but Him." God as absolute God, absolute Sovereign, brooks no competitors. We must not be enticed by lesser idols. Jesus pointedly stated, "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me." (Mt 10:37f) Do we like the idea of our children going halfway around the world for the sake of missions or Christian training? Not at all - we'd much prefer them all to live at least in the same province as us! But would we hold them back? Not if God's calling is genuine in their lives, for this season. Jesus calls us to pick up our individual cross and follow, counting the cost before we commit our lives to Him.
Thomas is a disciple who comes in for some criticism because he expressed doubt when he missed Christ's first resurrection appearance to the Twelve (Jn 20:25). But on an earlier occasion, after Jesus had escaped from Judea where the leaders were trying to stone Him, when He indicated He was going back to raise Lazarus, the disciples try to dissuade Him for safety's sake. Thomas is the first to resign himself to the danger and resolve to accompany Jesus, even at mortal risk. He says to the rest, "Let us also go, that we may die with Him." That's the kind of loving commitment Jesus as Lord asks from us.
Seem a tall order? Most certainly! Our human nature recoils from the potential cost of loving God to the degree He asks. We require His help to even want to love Him that much. Moses says (Deut 30:6), "The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live." We need God to take away the hardness of unbelief so we can love Him totally. Paul re-phrases it, "May the Lord direct your hearts into God's love and Christ's perseverance." (2Thess 3:5) We need to pray for God to do this, to even enable our hearts to love Him adequately; we can't do it on our own.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew something of the "death to self" that loving God totally requires. Bonhoeffer recognized the evil of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement from the beginning, even in the early days of the movement when most of the Protestants in Germany were Hitler supporters. As a result, he found himself unpopular, even with other Christians. As restrictions and then persecutions came in waves upon European Jews, Bonhoeffer cried against it and warned the church and the German people of the emerging evil. But no one listened. Finding himself in danger, he fled to America, but he felt all the while that his place was wit the believers in Germany, and in the early 1940s he returned to the fatherland, only to be arrested and taken to the extermination camp at Flossenburg, where he was stripped and hanged at age 39.
Bonhoeffer had to make the ultimate sacrifice with inner tranquillity and resignation because of his conviction that there are 5 different deaths every Christian should die: 1) Death to natural relationships. During the days of the Third Reich, many pastors said that they would be willing to endure imprisonment or death, but they could not do so because of their families. It's one thing for a husband or a father to be persecuted; it's quite another to see children suffer a similar fate. Hitler always used a man's family as an inducement for absolute obedience. Bonhoeffer answered that our commitment to Christ should be so all-consuming that all natural affection must come under its authority.
2) Death to success. Bonhoeffer said, "Success is a veneer that covers only the emptiness of the soul." 3) Death to the flesh. The Christian should have no fear of suffering, for he is already dead to self. 4) Death to the love of money. 5) Physical death for Christ, should a person be thus called.
Love's Link with Obedience and Others
In today's culture, when people talk about "love" or "love songs", they're generally referring to emotion, romance, affection, or feelings. But "love" in Biblical terms has more to do with supportive action, demonstrated commitment, costly self-giving on behalf of the other party.
In particular, loving God is associated with obeying Him, following His direction, carrying out His instruction. For example, in the Old Testament, Moses says in Deuteronomy (7:9; 11:1), " Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands." Hear the association there? Later, he adds, "Love the LORD your God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws and his commands always." Joshua (22:5) tells the Israelites, "be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the LORD gave you: to love the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to obey his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and all your soul." Love is grouped together with obedience terms.
Coming to the New Testament, 3 times in the space of less than a dozen verses in John 14(15,21,23) Jesus says, " If you love me, you will obey what I command...Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me....If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching." Love predisposes us to meet the needs and carry out the desires of the one we love, to act in accord with their wishes. John's first letter says bluntly: "This is love for God: to obey His commands.[he adds, in case we're going to balk at the thought] And His commands are not burdensome."
This is where it gets really interesting. We thought the focus of this sermon was our love for God. But the Lord refuses to be loved in isolation from our fellow-humans. If we love Him, we'll obey His commands. And what are the most important commands? Jesus says in John 15(12), "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you."
We see this too in our Mark 12(31) text. The scribe only asked for one commandment, "the most important" one. In responding, Jesus quotes the Shema about loving God totally but goes right on to add, "The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." He purposely grouped them, as if to say you can't talk about loving God without also including love for your neighbour.
The great parable of the sheep and the goats illustrates how much the Lord identifies with those in need, whether hungry or sick or in prison, and takes personally the treatment we accord these other people. " The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'" (Mt 25:40)
Other New Testament writings bear this out. Hebrews 6(10) promises that God "will not forget your work and the love you have shown Him as you have helped His people and continue to help them." Hear that? We show love to God AS we help His people. John questions, " If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?...If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar." (1Jn 3:17; 4:20) John cites a command they'd been given by the Lord: "Whoever loves God must also love his brother." So, over and over we see the Bible emphasizes that love for God issues forth and finds expression in love for other people.
Concerning love, Augustine wrote: "What does it look like? It has hands to help others, feet to hasten to the poor and needy, eyes to see misery and want, ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like."
Positive Results and Rewards
The cost of loving God is high: it demands your whole life. It requires sacrifice, commitment, effort to express caring towards other people. But offsetting this cost is great reward.
One result of loving God is that we become known by God relationally. Scripture says, "But the man who loves God is known by God." (1Cor 8:3) Jesus promised that if we love Him, "My Father will love [that person], and we will come to him and make our home with him." (Jn 14:23) What a privilege to be "at home" with the Almighty!
The prophet Isaiah(56:6f) mentions other benefits resulting from loving God: "And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant-- these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations." Here, love for God results in access to Him, joy, having our prayers heard and our gifts accepted.
Another result is mentioned in a familiar verse in Romans 8(28): " And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him..." The Psalms(91:14; 145:20) also say God will watch over and protect those who love Him: ""Because he loves me," says the LORD, "I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name...The LORD watches over all who love him..."
Finally, long-lasting reward in heaven awaits those who love God. Paul writes the Lord will award a "crown of righteousness" to all who have longed for His appearing (2Tim 4:8). James writes that God has promised "the crown of life" and "the kingdom" to those who love Him (Jas 1:12, 2:5). Best, though, is Paul's quote in 1Cor 2(9), "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him..." How much broader can you get than that in allowing God scope to reward those who love Him?
So, though loving God is costly and demanding, the rewards are rich, and more than worth the hardship!
Love's "Waste" for the Little
In these pre-election days when the airwaves are hot with leadership competition and attacks and vying for greatness, here's a story about love in action at the top of government. A speechwriter for Ronald Reagan tells about Frances Green, an 83-year-old woman who lived by herself on Social Security in a town just outside San Francisco. She had little money, but for 8 years she'd been sending one dollar a year to the Republican National Convention. Then one day Frances got an RNC fund-raising letter in the mail, a beautiful piece on thick, cream-coloured paper with black-and-gold lettering. It invited the recipient to come to the White House to meet President Ronald Reagan. She never noticed the little RSVP card that suggested a positive reply needed to be accompanied by a generous donation. She thought she'd been invited because they appreciated her dollar-a-year support.
Frances scraped up every cent she had and took a 4-day train ride across America. Unable to afford a sleeper, she slept sitting up in coach. Finally she arrived at the White House gate: a little elderly woman with white hair, white powder all over her face, white stockings, an old hat with white netting, and an all-white dress, now yellow with age. When she got up to the guard at the gate and gave her name, however, the man frowned, glanced over his official list, and told her that her name wasn't there. She couldn't go in. Frances Green was heartbroken.
A Ford Motor Company executive who was standing in line behind her watched an listened to the little scenario. Realizing something was wrong, he pulled Frances aside and got her story. Then he asked her to return at nine o'clock the next morning and meet him there. She agreed. In the meantime, he made contact with Anne Higgins, a presidential aide, and got a clearance to give her a tour of the White House and introduce her to the president. Reagan agreed to see her, "of course."
Well, the next day was anything but calm and easy at the White House. Attorney General Ed Meese had just resigned. There had been a military uprising abroad. Reagan was in and out of high-level secret sessions. But Frances Green showed up at nine o'clock, full of expectation and enthusiasm.
The executive met her, gave her a wonderful tour of the White House, then quietly led her by the Oval Office, thinking maybe, at best, she might get a quick glimpse of the president on her way out. Members of the National Security Council came out. High-ranking generals were coming and going. In the midst of all the hubbub, President Reagan glanced out and saw Frances Green. With a smile, he gestured her into his office.
As she entered, he rose form his desk and called out, "Frances! Those darn computers, they fouled up again! If I'd known you were coming I would have come out there to get you myself." He then invited her to sit down, and they talked leisurely about California, her town, her life and family.
The president of the United States gave Frances Green a lot of time that day - more time than he had. Some would say it was time wasted. But those who say that didn't know Ronald Reagan. He knew this woman had nothing to give him, but she needed something he could give her. And so he, as well as the Ford executive, took time to be kind and compassionate.
Our love for God is in response to His mercy. Psalm 116(1) says, "I love the Lord, for He heard my voice; He heard my cry for mercy." We love because He first loved us. We were like Frances Green, standing in line at the gates of heaven, but our name was not on the official list. We didn't qualify for an audience with the Highest. But, praise God, there was an advocate - in our case, not from a motor company but Jesus Christ, who intervened for us. And God, in boundless mercy, wastes Himself for us: taking time for us, receiving us into His presence, treating us like royalty. Such love re-shapes our hearts to share that same grace with others. Let's pray.