Love the Lord Your God
In Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Moses pleaded with a new generation of Israelites to listen with open ears and hearts to what he had to say. I implore you to pay attention to this bottom-line truth: “love the Lord your God!” November 4, 2018.
Jesus got roughed up on Tuesday of Holy Week. Not the beating and bludgeoning, slapping and spitting yet. That was coming in three days. No, these were verbal attacks from every corner of the ring as his opponents, who didn’t even like each other, ganged up to try and land a few jabs and uppercuts on his reputation. As the sun was setting on this busy, brutal day, one of his enemies swung a sucker punch, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28). You realize what he was getting at, don’t you? “All right, Jesus! We agree that having a connection with God is the most important issue in anyone’s life, and we agree that if that’s going to happen, we’ll have to hear what God says about it. After all, it’s his ballgame. He makes the rules, not us. So, what’s involved? What’s your take on what God expects?” Jesus responded by quoting from today’s first reading in the book of Deuteronomy chapter six. The surprising twist was that this supposed enemy agreed, and Jesus told him, “You’re not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
But this is not 29 A.D. in the courtyard of Jerusalem’s temple, nor is this 1407 B.C. on the east side of the Jordan River. This is here and now. So, what does a question about God’s commands have to do with us? Everything, that is, if you want to live with God now and forever. If you have no interest in that, you might as well pack up and head out right now. I won’t be offended. I will be very, very sad, but I won’t be offended because Jesus himself stated that as the history of this universe winds down, “The love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). If you leave, I’ll pray for your soul because I don’t want you to be banished from God’s sight and under the thumb of his anger. So, please hang in there. As Moses pleaded with a new generation of Israelites to listen with open ears and hearts to what he had to say, I implore you to pay attention to this bottom-line truth: love the Lord your God!
The Philistines assembled to fight Israel, with three thousand chariots, six thousand charioteers, and soldiers as numerous as the sand on the seashore (1 Samuel 13:5). King Saul was in panic mode, “How can I keep my troops from running away in fear? I don’t have time to ask God’s blessing through the prophet Samuel. I’ll take matters into my own hands.” Have there been times when your trust in God or mine wavered because he did not respond according to our timetable? How will we change that?
Moses pleaded, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart.” The Israelites knew that “heart” involved more than a large muscle in the chest cavity, pumping blood to the rest of the body. They knew that the “heart” was considered to be the power plant for everything a person thought, said, and did. Why did Joseph serve his master faithfully even though sold into slavery against his will? Why did he flee from adultery with his boss’s wife? Why did he forgive his brothers instead of seeking revenge for what they did to him? Because his heart, the power plant inside, was filled with love from God who had saved him from the consequences of his sin. In gratitude he reflected on that mercy in order to cope with the bad things that happened to him, and he reflected out that mercy in dealing with others.
“Love the LORD your God with all your heart.” Do you want to do that? I know that you do. Then look at the love God has for you! Can you find any deeper love than a king looking at defiant rebels and saying, “You deserve punishment, but I’m going to punish my dear son in your place so that I can adopt you as my children and lavish you with riches and love”? That’s a peek into the beating heart of God which changes us in the inside and inspires love for him and others.
Elijah shivered in the shimmering light of the campfire, “Lord, you might as well let me die. I’m the only one left,” but the Lord told him, “You’re not alone. There are seven thousand others who remain faithful to me in Israel. Now get back at it.” Have there been times when your identity or mine is too much about the problems we face and not enough about the identity God gave us? How can we change that?
Moses pleaded, “Love the LORD your God … with all your soul.” The Israelites knew that “soul” involved more than the immaterial part of a person. They knew that “soul” was a person’s real identity after you peel away the trimmings and trappings. What was Abraham really like? We could identify him as an employer of hundreds, a husband, a father. But take away goods, fame, child, and wife, and you would still not be removing his real identity. Abraham was a child of God, a member of the family of God.
“Love the LORD your God … with all your soul.”. Do you want to do that? I know that you do. Then look at the identity God gave you. The one who crossed all the “T”s and dotted all the “I”s of God’s commands has pasted his perfect record on top of yours and mine so that our life is now hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3), giving us an identity that changes us in the inside and inspires love for God and others.
“We sold some property and brought all the proceeds as a gift to the Lord,” said Ananias. “An offering is fine,” the apostle replied, “but are you lying about giving it all to make yourself look good?” Have there been times when we have held back our time or gifts to the Lord for selfish reasons. How can we change that?
Moses pleaded, “Love the LORD your God … with all your strength.”. The Israelites knew that “strength” involved more than six-pack abs and bulging biceps. They knew that “strength” was a marker that highlights the “all” in “all your heart and soul.” That was the point of the burnt offering, a visual aid for the Israelites in which they were to offer a whole animal, not just carved up parts, to picture total dedication to God.
“Love the LORD your God … with all your strength.” That means your property, your paycheck, your apartment, your assets, your health, your home, your food, your family, every last article you own, every last fiber of your being belongs to God. You could try to respond by giving God loose change. You could try to cover up a sinful relationship. You could try to keep a weakness hidden. But there are no secret sins before God. You can fool some people some of the time and some people all of the time, but you can’t fool God ever. So, love the Lord our God totally. Do you want to do that? I know that you do. Then look at the total love God has for you. He held nothing back. He gave his all, a gift that changes us on the inside and inspires our love for him and for others.
We can grumble about C & E Christians who only show up at Christmas and Easter. They make us sad, like meeting people who have chosen to starve themselves, only eating on holidays. Why would anyone do that? But how is that different from my cutting my life and time into pieces, showing love for godly things and greeting others with kindness on a Sunday morning, but then turning the page on the calendar to leave my love for God as a low priority during the week, hardly to think about the impact he makes on me and I on others every moment of every day, and to get wrapped in my own world with little concern for others. When I view my time as my time, I have fallen into patchy discipleship, “Jesus, I’ll follow you when it’s convenient,” I have prioritized “me” instead of others who need and crave my support, and I’m no different than a C & E Christian.
Moses’ was unafraid to address the issue, “If God expects us to love him totally, how and when are we to do that? “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts … Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.” Centuries after Moses, some Israelites wrote passages like this on tiny pieces of paper, rolled them up, and put the paper in tiny boxes. During prayer hour they strapped the little boxes on their forehead and around their wrist. They also put those little boxes on the door frames of their houses. Those reminders may have been handy for remembering God’s words, kind of like wearing a cross necklace or jewelry. But as you can imagine, they also became more like good luck charms. The real point of Moses’ command had more to do with internalizing God’s words than externally strapping them onto your hand or head.
You see, the Israelites who were listening to Moses were about to enter the promised land. It would have been very easy to get so busy fighting enemies that they would forget that they were fighting battles with God’s help and under his direction. It would have been very easy to get so busy planting crops that they would forget that he causes grain to grow and grapes to ripen. To help them constantly remember his words and commands, God set up an elaborate system of rest breaks, reminding them, “You can rest but I never do.”
I recall a veteran pastor, describing the members of his rural congregation. He said that many of the farmers knew the Sunday-by-Sunday Gospel accounts so well that when their kids were riding along on the tractor, they could recite those accounts from memory. “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Love the Lord your God constantly. Do you want to do that? I know that you do. Then look at God’s consistent track record in loving you. His compassions never fail. They are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). Like a waterfall that never ends, that constant and consistent love from God changes us on the inside so that when a neighbor complains about the weather, we talk about the heavenly Father’s creative hand, when a co-worker is burdened by guilt, we speak about Jesus’ guilt-removing blood, when a friend feels inadequate, we point out the Spirit’s gifts, and, sure enough, we are loving God and others constantly.
“You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34), Jesus told the law teacher. Sounds hopeful, sounds exciting! Yet, keep in mind that the kingdom of God is not a place but the activity of God giving his love to sinners. That kingdom is surrounded by the mote of God’s demands. This law teacher was not out in the woods, not out in the fields, not in some distant country, but standing like Dorothy and her friends at the gates of the palace of God’s love. He was not far from the kingdom of God. He could see the palace, and he obviously saw the mote, “Love God, and love others.” What we do not know is if he recognized the drawbridge and gate. Jesus had said, “I am the gate” (John 10:7). Go home today in the sure and certain knowledge that the statement, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” does not apply to you and me. Thanks to Jesus we are in the kingdom of God. Because of his love, you know what we are going to do? We are going to love the Lord our God totally and constantly. Amen.
Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI, on November 4, 2018