Sermon for October 25th

First Reading       Deuteronomy 34:1-12 

Second Reading 1 John 4:7-21

Gospel Reading Matthew 22:34-46

Sermon: “What Does It Mean to Love God with Heart, Soul and Strength?”  

Often in conversations about religion, we hear others say – “I have faith” or “I believe in God.” Well, that’s certainly a good thing, even though they usually say it just before they tell you why they never come to church. But as James reminds us that is completely insufficient: (James 2:19 NLT) “You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.” In the Church we go much further and declare as we have recently read in our study of Romans: (Romans 10:9-11 NLT) “If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved.  As the Scriptures tell us, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.” You see, saving faith is one that is openly professed and acted upon – when we declare that Jesus is Lord, it means we accept his leadership as well as the salvation he offers us and seek to follow in his ways.

But the gospel reading this morning has got me to thinking beyond those basic things. When Jesus is asked to pick the greatest commandment, they were not asking an honest question. They were hoping he would pick one of the 10 and then fall into an argument with them. Instead, he lifted up what Moses taught AFTER he taught the 10 commandments. It is still a central declaration of the Jewish faith. They call it the ‘Shema’ – which is the Hebrew word for “Hear” as in (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 NRSV) Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And in the same breath, Jesus adds its counterpart from Lev 19:18 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The commandments usually follow the formula “Thou shall not…” but these two are positive – You shall love – God and Neighbor. And of course we remember that Jesus forbids clever definitions of Neighbor in the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

These two things, which Jesus closely links are held to be the fundamental principles behind all the of the Law and the teachings of the prophets. All of it in just those two categories. We talk a lot about how much God loves us and how we are to love others, but I want to spend my time with you this morning exploring what it means for us to love God. So what do you think – What does it mean to Love God?  What do you do that shows that you love God? …. and yes – I really want you to suggest what it means for you. This is not merely a rhetorical question. Go ahead – I’ll write them down.

As we have just heard (I hope as I write this) We do several different sorts of things – rituals, sacraments, occasions, obedience, worship, praise, study, times of devotion. All sorts of things. But do these things really indicate love?

There is a common phrase in scripture – “Fear the Lord your God.” Yet our reading from first John today has a different take on that – it says (1 John 4:16-19 NLT)

[16] We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. [17] And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. [18] Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. [19] We love each other because he loved us first.

Even though we normally thing of Awe and respect when we hear the phrase “Fear the Lord” it seems to me that it is still different than love. The former tells me I need to…, I have to…, I need to be careful not to… But when love enters the picture the vocabulary changes to I want to… It makes me happy to do this… I wish I could do more.  Love is different.

Love is different from belief and even faith. Love drives actions not just thoughts. Its the difference between “Thoughts and Prayers for your loss” and sitting and crying with another. It is the difference between looking for more rather than just satisfying the minimum. If we love God we seek for righteousness and justice rather than what is merely legal or acceptable.

Love has staying power. It is not just a mountain top experience – a moment of happiness and contentment before we get back to the “real world.” In the words of Paul 

(1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NLT) [4] Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud [5] or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. [6] It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. [7] Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” Sometimes we really need that staying power in our lives – it sustains us through the dry times and gives resilience when things are tough.

Love only has meaning in relationship – between me and you between me and God. It can never be just about me – that is conceit not love. That is why Jesus so closely links these two loves – Love for God and Love for Neighbor – They cannot be separated and have any meaning. John warns us sternly that (1 John 4:20 NLT)

[20] If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?

And faith without love is can be a horrible twisted thing – allowing all sorts of atrocities to be committed in the name of the very one who sits in divine horror at such things. Things like the Crusades, the Inquisition, in peculiar forms of racism that claims superiority over others – it was used to justify slavery, complete with carefully chosen Biblical quotes— it led to the holocaust, with the silence of many of the churches in Germany – it exists still in various forms – it exists in this country. I don’t even know what to call it when faith becomes a publicity stunt for politics.

Moses taught “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Jesus would have us hear that as Hear, O Church” as well. We know how much God loves us because of two great facts: First – Jesus, the Son of God came to this earth in human flesh to teach and heal and feed and bless. To suffer and die and rise again so that we might be raised with him to new life – the life of love. Secondly  – We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit who abides with us in in us, teaching us and guiding us if we will but listen. 

Loving God with Heart and Soul and Might – some translations add mind as well – all of these things teach us that we should seek to love God in our thoughts, with our emotions, in our plans and priorities, in our daily lives – in special moments and in regular affairs – in our families – in our church – on-line or in person. We are called to love God everywhere with everything that we are – Body and soul – thoughts and actions. 

Can we do that fully? Sadly no. If we could, we would be in perfect communion with God and be sinless. Only Jesus could do that. But we are loved and forgiven through the grace of our Lord and called to be more than we currently are. With the Spirit’s help, we are on a journey toward that goal. As many Christian commentators have said: “God loves you just the way you are, but He loves you too Much to let you stay that way.”

If we want to increase our strength and endurance, we exercise right? Now should it be so surprising if I were to suggest that the way to love God more is to spend more time with him? To practice living out our love as we are commanded to do? You know that we always find the time and occasion to do other things we love – right – Make love for God a priority – Pray, study, sing, love, give of yourself, not because you have to, not because I say so, not out of fear, not from nagging obligation – do everything to the glory of God out of gratefulness for how God has loved us.