Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Loving God, Serving People

As promised, I'm getting back to posting the messages from the series "The Seven Basic Commands of Jesus." This was the message from January 27 of this year. By the way, that's supposed to be Moses up there, not Charleton Heston, God rest his soul.

Loving God, Serving People—In Practical Ways

Matthew 22:37-40

The Bible is a BIG BOOK. Have you noticed what a BIG BOOK it is? Most copies are about a thousand pages long. That’s longer than a “Harry Potter” book…and frankly, it’s much harder reading.

In Jesus’ day, they didn’t have the New Testament yet, so the Bible was just the Old Testament—all 39 books, still a long book, written over more than 1000 years.

In the time of Jesus, Jewish scholars had carefully gone through the Old Testament looking for all the commands that God had given. They found a total of 613 laws. 365 were negative (“thou shalt not”) and 248 positive laws (“thou shalt”).

There were laws for everything, from how to make your clothes to how to prosecute people for murder to how to offer sacrifices to God. There’s even a law that says you’re not supposed to eat fruit from a tree during its first three seasons.

Imagine living in that society at that time, and imagine also that you really want to please God. Would having 613 laws to keep track of sound hard? A little confusing? You bet.

Along comes Jesus. The Bible says that when He taught, He taught like someone with real authority. The greatest compilation of His teaching is the Sermon on the Mount. He taught from hillsides to villages to the courtyards of the Temple in Jerusalem.

It’s not surprising that someone would ask Jesus about all those 613 laws. Both Matthew and Mark record the time; here is the way the story is told in Matthew 22:34-40:

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:
36 "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 37 Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
Jesus had sifted through all 613 laws and boiled it down to two laws to live by: Love God completely and love people as much as you love yourself.

His command is the third of seven basic commands of Jesus:

1. Repent and believe: Mark 1:15
2. Be baptized (and continue in the new life it initiates): Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:38; Romans 6:1-11
3. Love God and neighbor in a practical way: Matthew 22:37-40
4. Celebrate the Lord’s Supper: Luke 22:17-20
5. Pray: Matthew 6:5-15
6. Give: Matthew 6:19-21; Luke 6:38
7. Disciple others: Matthew 28:18-20

This is the list of seven developed by George Patterson, a missionary in Central America. And that’s the outline we’re following as we focus on obeying Jesus’ commands. The first one is
Repent and believe—Mark 1:15

The second is

Be baptized—and continue in the new life—Matthew 28:18-20

And now we’re at the third:

Love God and neighbor in a practical way--Matthew 22:37-40

We’re trying to memorize this list, one at a time each week. So let’s repeat that word for word:

Number One: Repent and believe—Mark 1:15
Number Two: Be Baptized, and Continue in the New Life—Matthew 28:18-20
Number Three: Love God and neighbor in practical ways—Matthew 22:37-40

Jesus says this is the real highpoint of the commands of God, whether we’re talking Old Testament or New Testament. It’s an interesting study (which I’m not going into) to see just how the Great Commandment is used and referred to by Paul and John, and especially James in their letters. I’ll just say that it’s clear that early Christians understood this as the heart of the kind of life Jesus calls us to.

Now there’s two parts of the command: love God, love people. This is the basis of the church motto we adopted in 2006: “Loving God, serving people.” You have to ask yourself, how do people know that they’re being loved, and the answer is, by serving them in practical ways.
Jesus says, there’s an answer to that question, what does the Lord want, and there’s a part A and a part B to the answer. Part A is this total love of God. Part B is this selfless love of people. It’s always in that order. Love of God has to come first.

Here’s how Jesus puts it:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.

Jesus wants us to be clear that we aren’t to love God with just part of who we are. He gives four aspects: heart, soul, mind, and in Mark 12, He adds, love God with all your strength.

The heart is the center of our will and our emotions.

The soul is the totality of our lives, life as a whole.

The mind is our thinking capacity.

And our strength refers to our ability to apply ourselves, to make efforts of both the body and the mind.

Obviously, these four overlap, they don’t mean the same thing, and at the same time, they’re still distinct.

To love God this way is to treasure God above all else and to apply that love in our service of Him. God wants people who will love Him with a passion and will serve Him with devotion.
Now Jesus is quoting word for word from Deuteronomy 6:5. And there are echoes of this command all over the Bible. One of the most obvious in the Old Testament is from the beginning of the Ten Commandments, where God says (this is Exodus 20:2), “You shall have no gods before Me.” And then He goes on to say, “And remember, no idols either.” Jesus could have quoted that, but, just like Jesus, he quoted a similar command that says the same thing in a positive way, and in a way designed to remind us that God doesn’t just want a superficial allegiance, but He wants our full devotion (heart, soul, mind and strength).

You see, God wants a relational connection to us. He doesn’t just want us to say, “Oh, yes, you are my God” when we come into a temple or into a church building. That’s the so-called relationship that 2/3 of all so-called Christians worldwide have with God. He wants more; God wants a love connection with us where we respond to God with a purposeful passion.

And God really does want it. In John 4:23, Jesus says that the Father seeks true worshippers:
Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.

The Father dearly seeks out people to be part of His family. He actually commands us to love Him. You often hear it said that you can’t command love, but Jesus does, not once but many times.

Let me pause here and direct your attention to the message outline. Let’s do a little self-check. You have to be honest here. If I ask you to immediately respond to the question, “Do you love God the way Jesus describes here?” how would you answer? You choices are:

____ Yes, I love God with a passion
____ Yes, I guess so
____ It depends on when you ask me
____ Most of the time it seems that God doesn’t love me, so why should I love Him?

Can I remind you that Jesus’ commands are always for our good? God doesn’t command us to love Him because He’s got a low self-esteem problem and He needs us around to make Him feel better. God commands us to love Him with this kind of total passionate abandon because it’s right (He’s worthy) and because loving Him brings order, joy and balance into our lives. Loving anyone or anything more than Him is wrong (it’s idolatry) and it’s a barrier to the kind of joy that He promises.

That’s Part A of the Great Commandment, and it’s first for a reason. But there’s also Part B (Matthew 22:39):

And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.’

Jesus says it’s like it in the sense that it’s just as foundational. He says that when you add parts A and B together, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:40).

Again, Jesus is quoting the Old Testament, this time from Leviticus 19:18. There’s one more place in the Gospels where Jesus gives the Great Commandment, in Luke 10:27. But this time the guy Jesus gives the answer to picks an argument with Jesus over the meaning of the word “neighbor.” “Just who is my neighbor?” he asks.

Remember that Jesus’ vision is always global—it’s always a vision that doesn’t settle for a small circle of people for God to love, or to be loved by people who love God. So He replied to this guy by telling the story that we call the Good Samaritan story. Let me retell that story in short form: a poor traveler gets mugged on the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho and is left for dead. A priest and a Levite, religious leaders in Israel, come across the poor guy and just pass by. They don’t want to get involved, and they may be afraid of becoming ritually impure by touching a dead body, whatever. It was a Samaritan that went to the victim and took care of his needs. Jews didn’t like Samaritans. They had the wrong religion, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong history. But Jesus makes him the hero of the story, and turns the “neighbor” issues around this way.

He finishes by asking the question, "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The issue for Jesus isn’t carefully figuring out who is and who isn’t your neighbor, but being the best neighbor you can be.

By saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, He’s saying, “Just as you naturally seek what’s best for you, I’m calling you to seek what’s best for anyone and everyone that you come in contact with.” Just as you naturally want food, shelter and clothing, want that for other people. Just as you naturally want to be consoled when times are hard, seek to console others. Just as you naturally want to have joy in your relationships, want that for others. Just as you naturally want refreshing times of leisure, want that for others. Just as you, as children of God, have come to enjoy and love God, as you’ve come to know the forgiveness that comes from the cross of Jesus, want that for others—that they would know God’s love and forgiveness and the fresh start He gives.

But don’t just want it out there in the ozone layer—do something about it! If there are hungry people, feed them. If there are hurt people, console them. If there are lonely people, be their friend. If there are broken people, help fix them up. If there are people wandering outside of the family of God, by all means, help them find their way in.

We’re going to devote the whole month of April to giving you an opportunity to love people in very practical ways by serving them. You’ve heard me use the term, “Don’t go to church—be the church.” That’s the tagline of a special month called Faith in Action Month. This is a plan developed by World Vision, a great Christian relief organization. We want to encourage you to be the church in deeds of loving service. Don’t just come to church; be the church
Faith in Action is a 4-week, church-wide campaign that’s designed to enable us to look outward focus with a heart to serve. FIA culminates on a Sunday where regular services will be cancelled (that’s April 30) and the entire congregation will engage in service projects in, and with, the community.

That day will be a day of community service-–all wrapped up with an evening celebration. We’ll close the doors of the church on Sunday morning and open our hearts to your community through a day of service projects involving our entire congregation.

You see, these commands of Jesus just may take us from where we’ve been—focusing inward—to where God wants us to be: loving God with passion, and loving people, our neighbors, in tangible, practical ways. And that will bring joy to the heart of God and will bless and transform our world!

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