This morning, I want to speak with you about love.
Every Christian knows that “God is love.” And we all know that it was God’s love that caused Him to send God the Son, Jesus, into the world to die and to rise so that all who entrust their lives to Jesus will have eternal life with God.
But what is love?
Jesus gives us the answer to that question today. Please pull out today’s Celebrate bulletin insert and look at the Gospel lesson, Matthew 22:34-46.
Let’s set the scene. It’s the Tuesday after the first Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, a jubilant crowd had welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem. The crowd was sure that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed king promised by God through the prophets.
This roused the concern and jealousy of religious elites, influential people like the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in a resurrection of the dead; like the Pharisees, who were confident that their own righteousness, superior to that of other people, made them favored by God; and the Scribes, also sometimes called lawyers, scholars who were knowledgeable of all 615 laws laid down by God in the Old Testament.
For three days, these religious leaders had peppered Jesus with questions designed, not to learn anything or to engage in respectful discussion, but to trap Jesus. They wanted Jesus to say something they could use to convince their country’s Roman occupiers that Jesus ought to be executed.
But every question they raised, Jesus answered in ways that were consistent with God’s revealed Word in the Old Testament. Nothing He said gave them the ammo they needed.
They had nearly given up on their efforts when we come to our lesson. A “lawyer” asked Jesus what the greatest of God’s commandments is. The Gospel of Mark suggests that this question was asked in earnest. Matthew seems to say that it was another attempted trap. Whatever the case may be, Jesus’ answer is well known to us. Jesus says that the greatest commandment of all comes in two parts.
- Part 1 comes from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 6:5, what Jewish folks call the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
- Part 2, which Jesus says is “like” the first, also comes from the Old Testament, Leviticus 19:18, part of the Holiness Code: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I ask that question because if you were to ask the average person on the street, “What is love?,” they’d say something like, “Love is a strong positive feeling you have for somebody.” And if you asked this same average person how we come to love someone else, they might say, “You don’t have control over love. It just happens to you. You fall in love with somebody of the opposite sex, for example. Or, you just love your family because that’s who you live with. Or .you like your friends because their niceness wins you over.”
Love is seen, by most people, as a passive thing you cannot keep yourself from doing. But if love comes so naturally to us, why does God have to command us to do it?
Maybe it’s because the average person’s definition of love is wrong.
Maybe God has a different definition of love.
In fact, we’d be right to suspect that the love that God commands us to bear for Him and for every human being on earth—even for Moammar Gaddhafi’s and Osama bin-Laden’s—doesn’t come naturally to us.
We see how different Jesus’ idea of love is when we read what He says about the two parts of the Great Commandment in verse 40: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
“The Law and the Prophets” is basically, the phrase that the people in Jesus’ day used for what we call the Old Testament.
Since March, many of us at Saint Matthew have been reading and discussing “the Law and the Prophets” together. Repeatedly, we’ve read about God telling His chosen people Israel some tough things. We’ve read that God had given His people a land that they didn’t deserve, then commanded them to honor Him and His commandments. Instead, they treated foreigners like slaves, worshiped other gods, relied on arms and foreign allies instead of Him, sacrificed their children to foreign deities, and engaged in all sorts of sexual practices outside of God’s will.
And so, through His law and prophets, God reminded His people that He had chosen them not because they were better than others, but because He chose to love them and He wanted them to choose to honor Him in response, by loving Him and loving others.
When Israel fell into sin, God sent His law and prophets to call Israel back to Him. (Just as Jesus would later tell the world, “Repent and believe in the good news” about Him.)
Through the Law and the Prophets, God told the people that if they didn’t turn back to Him the life that only He can give would be lost; their soil wouldn’t produce crops; they would suffer drought and famine; their promised land would be taken from them; they would be taken as slaves by foreign conquerors; and their kings would become eunuchs held as servants in the palaces of foreign kings. These hard words sound nothing like the average person's mushy, involuntary, can't-help-loving-you version of love.
But God insists throughout the Law and the Prophets that in saying such hard things, He was being loving. God was warning His people, as He warns all people today that when we choose disconnection from the only One Who can give us life and meaning to the lives we live, there are inevitable consequences. But if we choose to turn back to God, there are also consequences. Wonderful consequences! God wanted Israel to turn back to Him and live. God wants all people to turn to Jesus, God in the flesh, and live!
Today, the love of God may compel us, like it compelled the prophets before us, to say some very hard things.
- We may have to tell the bigoted neighbor that bigotry has no place in the kingdom of God.
- We may have to say to the child who engages in sexual intimacy with a boyfriend or girlfriend that while we love them, their behavior, contrary to God’s will that such intimacy only be shared by a man and a woman in marriage, is pushing God out of their lives.
- We may have to say to the friend who brags about cheating the government out of tax payments that no matter how we may object to government policies, God still expects us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.
- And we most certainly will need to tell our spiritually disconnected friend that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that forgiveness and eternal life and relationship with God comes only to those who repent for sin and believe in Jesus Christ.
Paul describes the love Jesus commands in 1 Corinthians when he writes, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, bur rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
In other words, loving God and others as the Great Commandment mandates is impossible! Yet, there it is in our Bibles and on our Celebrate inserts in black and white, Matthew 22:37-39, the Great Commandment. And if we can’t obey this impossible commandment, can any of us have the hope of living with God in eternity?
Next in our Gospel lesson, Jesus asks a question of His questioners: “Whose son do you think the Messiah is?” He asks.
The Pharisees and the Scribes say, “The son [or the descendant] of David,” Old Testament Israel’s greatest king.
Now, earlier Matthew’s gospel does say that Jesus is a son of David. But that’s not all of Who Jesus is! That’s why Jesus next asks who King David was talking about when he wrote in Psalm 110:1, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’…” Jesus goes on to say, “If David…calls Him Lord, how can He be [David’s] son?”
You see, Jesus is claiming that He is more than a man raised by descendants of King David; He is also God, the author of love, the one Who, in three days, would do the hardest thing that love has ever done. He would die on a cross which His sinless life did not deserve.
Because Jesus is God, He's able to do the impossible: He can love the unlovable; He can give new life to the dead and the mortal.
You and I are incapable of loving God or loving neighbor as Jesus commands us to do. But Jesus has kept this commandment perfectly for us and gives to all who believe in Him the power to love beyond their own human abilities.
I couldn’t stand one of my seminary professors when I first met him. I thought his lectures were boring. I frittered through his class the entire quarter and failed it. I liked him even less after that. Two years passed. Then, there was a class I had to take to graduate. Guess who was teaching it?
I prayed: “God, I don’t like this guy. But I don’t like this feeling, either. Please, in spite of my feelings for him, love him through me.”
It didn’t happen instantly, but things began to change and I found that gradually, I came to love this man.
If we are serious about keeping Jesus’ greatest commandment, the one that sums up and includes all the others, we need, first of all, to go to God and admit our inability to love either God or neighbor as He commands we do.
“Lord,” we might pray. “I’m upset with You right now. You seem so distant and so uncaring to me at this time. Yet, I know that Jesus died on the cross because of Your love for me. Because of this, I choose to love You. Give me the power to serve you in spite of what I’m feeling right now.”
Or, we could pray, “Lord, I see nothing good in this person. He or she has hurt me. I can’t muster any pleasantness toward them. Yet Jesus died and rose for them too. Despite my feelings, give me the faith to do some tangible acts of caring and service for them. Love them through me!”
Jesus does command us to love God and to love others. And it is a commandment we cannot keep without inviting Him to control our lives and wills.
But what we learn from the Savior Who is Son of God as well as Son of Man is that love isn’t what we feel. Love isn’t primarily about emotions. Love is often what we do in spite of how we feel. Love is constituted by the acts of service and kindness, the attitude of kind hopes that, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we choose to bear toward God and others and that God brings to life within us!
I've told you before about the seasoned Methodist pastor who once said, "For forty years, I've gotten it wrong. I've preached to people, 'You've got to love.' In fact, what I should have preached is, 'You get to love!'" Jesus gives us permission to ask for His help in loving God and others the way He loves us. You get to love. Don't miss out on the privilege of that.