Matthew 22:36-40 – Who Do We Minister To?

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (New International Version)

I love my three daughters. I think God made them beautiful to compensate for all the ornery things they did as kids so I would not go crazy. Once the oldest was at the top of the stairs with the youngest (who was two years old at the time). She put her in a laundry basket and pushed her down with the middle kid at the bottom to catch her. 

I love my wife with all my heart and soul. Yet, she always thought it would be a good idea to have an open-door policy for the girls to come into our bed at night whenever they needed us. I have been puked on, peed on, kicked on and pushed out of bed. Sometimes it was like living with a bunch of drunks. Raising this girl version of “Malcom in the Middle” was often stressful. However, I gladly dealt with it all because I love my girls with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Who do we minister to? The short answer: everyone. The reason we are to pay attention to everyone within our orbit is that God does. The way of loving our neighbor is to experientially know the heart, soul, mind, and strength of our great God.

Love God with All Your Heart

God has children across planet earth, and the Lord loves them all. To love God with all our heart is to begin seeing God’s big expansive heart for people all around the world. God’s compassionate heart is close to the broken-hearted, near to those in need. In fact, God’s wrath is a response of love to make things right in this fallen world. As early as the book of Genesis, just a few chapters in, it says:

The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. (Genesis 6:5-6, NCV)

God is disturbed with violent and evil hearts. God is heartbroken about the dark places within the human heart. God is deeply concerned for suffering, injustice, oppression, and death.

Every year fifteen-million children die of starvation. Human trafficking of women and girls has increased six-fold over the past five years resulting in forty-million victims of forced sex worldwide. Five and a half million people worldwide have died from COVID-19 Hundreds of millions are locked in grinding poverty, have no clean water to drink, and face a lifetime of illiteracy and poor wages.

The breadth and depth of human need and suffering goes on and one and on….

This is just a small glimpse of what God sees every day. And God knows each one of their names. For us, people need to move from being numbers to being names. God wants us to champion vital causes and aim our collective love toward people in need of Christ’s compassion and deliverance.

Love is a deliberate decision to meet a need in another person. One who fails to see the needs of others will suffer a shrinking heart. But the one close to God’s heart and aware of another’s need will gain an expansive heart. God also sees the good and the beautiful: every obedient act done in secret, each prayer uttered in the privacy of our closet, and all the places of selfless love toward another.

Love God with All Your Soul

I believe the world will experience a mass turning to God whenever Christians reclaim the soul of Christianity by experiencing a newfound sense of God’s wonder and beauty.

If loving God with all my heart means my heart breaks for the things that break God’s heart, then loving God with all my soul has my life flooded with God’s glory – awed by Divine majesty, mystery, and beauty. Loving God with all my soul is to perceive the glory and wonder of God all around me. It is to be profoundly grateful for everything – even and especially for the lessons learned from personal hardship and suffering.

Without a divine perspective, we only see the world as we are and not as it is. The ways to cultivate a beautiful love for God with all my soul is to meditate on Scripture and creation. Literally take time to smell the roses. If we walk or drive the same route every day, be mindful to observe one thing you have never seen before. Then, praise God for it. Each time Holy Scripture is read, do it slowly and carefully, noticing one thing you have never seen before. Then, praise God for that perception.

Take the extra step of sharing your wonderful and beautiful observations with others, especially unbelievers. It does no good to try and scare or cajole people into the kingdom of God. It makes all the difference when the world can see Christians captivated by the beauty and majesty of Christ.

Love God with All Your Mind

True love has an insatiable desire to know more and more about the object of its affection. To love God with all our mind is a desire to learn and experientially know more about the Lord. It is to have a constant curiosity about God.

Loving God takes our full faculties. God wants all our brains, not just one half of it.

Left-brain dominant people rely on the logical, analytical, practical, and think chiefly in concrete ways. Right-brain dominant folks are artistic, intuitive, creative, imaginative, humorous, even sarcastic, often speaking poetically and with satire or metaphor. Loving God with all our minds means we will use all our brains, both the right and the left hemispheres.    

One obstacle to loving God with our brains is that the mind of sinful humanity is death (Romans 8:6). A sinful mind is a small brain; it is not interested in genuine critical thinking – only in stubbornly expressing opinions. Such individuals are merely using a ridiculously small part of their brains. God, however, wants to sanctify our whole brains, to transform us by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). 

We are to use our full cognitive capacities to love God – meaning we will value the left brain hemisphere of order and discipline, using all the tools of reason and logic, learning critical thinking skills, and pursuing the life of the mind.

We will also value the right brain hemisphere of mystery, paradox, and gray areas, enjoying the process of discovery, and probing the deepest issues of divinity and humanity – being comfortable with asking questions and not always having the answers.

Love God with All Your Strength

God loves the smell of your sweat. You might stink to high heaven from hard work but for God it is a sweet aroma and sacred incense. Love is measured not only by words spoken but by calories burned. Using our hands and our effort is as valuable to God as using our brains. 

Go hard after God with all your strength! Yet also be mindful that we all have a finite amount of energy. Because of this, we need to ensure we do not inordinately waste our energy pursuing power and control. Pride, anger, and selfishness saps our strength. Guilt, shame, and regret follow it up by draining our spiritual stamina. So, we need to keep busy doing the right things.

Our priorities need to reflect God’s values. Therefore, we will worship the Lord with all our strength, pray like there is no tomorrow, read Scripture like its our favorite food, fellowship with others as if they are adored old friends, and engage in mission with a continual sense that today could be the day of the Lord’s return.

Loving God with all our strength requires helping others in need whether they believe in Jesus, or not.

Since the Lord is truly concerned for all people’s welfare, putting our energy into sponsoring a refugee family, helping someone with their budget or their bills, providing for at-risk children, or organizing the neighborhood to work together, we let people know we care about them – and not just about whether they end up attending church, or not.

At the same time, we never need to ignore genuine opportunities to share our faith with folks we have connected with. Even if we are functioning with tangible help, we can make the extra effort of connecting people with Jesus.

Conclusion

The power of the gospel is strongest when people experience the full life that God desires for their entire existence. That will happen, I firmly believe, when people are in relationships with believers and with Christ.

When a church or faith community pays attention to the holistic needs of all persons within their sphere of influence, the effect on an individual, a family, a neighborhood, and a city is dramatic.

We love God by being obedient to his great command to love the world through meeting needs and establishing caring relationships. We can do this. It’s what we were saved from sin to do.

Gracious God, we give you thanks that you did not leave us in our misery and suffering, but that in love and mercy, you reached out to us. Thank you that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Thank you that Jesus humbled himself, even to death on a cross. Thank you for your heart that seeks the lost. We were once lost, desperately needing you, and going our own way. We are sorry for having hearts that rebelled against you and sought darkness. Thank you for saving us from ourselves.

Please give us hearts that care for the people who are in darkness. Teach us to care for them as you do. Thank you for including us in the mission of reaching other people for your Name. Grow us to care for humanity, both believers and unbelievers. We pray our conversations will be seasoned with salt and full of grace. We pray our friends will see the love of Jesus in us. Enlarge our hearts and make them passionate to see people delivered from their guilt and shame, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, in the mighty strength of your Holy Spirit. Amen

Hosea 6:1-6 – “I Desire Mercy!”

By Brazilian street artist Edward Kobra, building in New York City, 2018

Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;
he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will restore us,
    that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
    let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.

“What can I do with you, Ephraim?
    What can I do with you, Judah?
Your love is like the morning mist,
    like the early dew that disappears.
Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
    I killed you with the words of my mouth—
    then my judgments go forth like the sun.
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (NIV)

My favorite word in all Holy Scripture is the Hebrew word chesed.  It is such a rich word that no one English word can capture its depth.  So, chesed is translated in various ways across English translations of the Bible as mercy, grace, steadfast love, covenant loyalty, kindness, compassion and more. It is no wonder, then, that since chesed marks the character and activity of God, the Lord very much desires people to reflect this same stance toward others. 

In today’s Old Testament lesson, God was calling and wooing wayward people to return to a divine life of closeness with the Lord. God demonstrated chesed by not putting the people away, like a spouse outright divorcing an unfaithful partner, but committed to loving the Israelites even when they were unlovely.

At all times, the response God wants is not simply going through the motions of outward worship. Ritual practices mean little if there is no heart behind them. The Lord longs for people to demonstrate both fidelity and fealty through mercy and a steadfast love to God and neighbor. Both our work and our worship are to be infused with divine mercy. 

Chesed by Havi Mandell

God deeply desires a close relationship with humanity and is profoundly pained when people whore after other gods to meet their needs and love them. Hosea’s prophecy is an impassioned plea for all persons to find their true fulfillment and enjoyment in a committed loving divine/human union, like a marriage.

In Christian readings of Hosea’s prophecy, repentance means accepting God’s chesed through Jesus Christ. The believer is to allow the character of God to rule and reign in their heart so that love and commitment come flowing out in words, actions, thoughts, and dispositions. Mercy finds its highest expression in the person and work of Jesus. Thus, Advent is a season of anticipating the great love and mercy of God through the incarnation of Christ.

It is no wonder, then, that Jesus lifted Hosea’s prophecy as a treasured principle of operation when asked why he deliberately made connections with “questionable” people:

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-12, NIV)

And when confronted about “questionable” activities Jesus appealed to the same source of Hosea’s prophecy:

“Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” Jesus answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:2-7, NIV)

One can never go wrong with mercy and grace. If in doubt between whether to judge another or show mercy, the Christian’s choice is clear. Grace and love create connections – reconnecting the disconnected. The heart of true Christian spirituality is a deep kinship with the divine. Whenever that relation is broken or severed, it is vital to restore it. The means of doing so is not judgment but mercy.

Chesed is more than a word; it is a way of life. God wants mercy. Grace is the Lord’s divine will. So, let us today receive the forgiveness of Jesus and devote ourselves to prayer and works of love which come from a heart profoundly touched by grace.  May the result be healing of that which has been broken, and reconciled relationships with others.

Merciful and loving God, the One who shows amazing grace, forgive us for our wanderings away from the divine life. Return us, again, to the grace of Jesus Christ our Savior so that our hearts will be renewed and aflame with love for others.  In the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, the Great Three in One.  Amen.

The Holy Helper

Our ideas of God take shape in the many ways we live our lives. A God who is always right, fair, just, and loving in everything he says and does is a God we can trust. A cranky god who is aloof and indifferent does not help anyone. Yet, with the one true God we can be assured of strong spiritual support for any and every situation. When we have as our ally a robust theology which informs how we think and gives shape to how we act, then we can step forward with confidence knowing God has our back.

Sound theology needs to be identified, nurtured, and expressed in daily life. The Old Testament psalms are pregnant with vigorous views of God, as well as being the Church’s prayer book. Each individual psalm invites us to see God in a new or fresh way and inspires us to pray. Using the psalms as boots-on-the-ground prayer provides a firm foundation from which to know, worship, and serve God.

Here is my own translation of Psalm 99, which is meant to capture the spirit of the text. I encourage you to pray it over slowly, several times, and with appropriate emotional flavor behind the words:

The LORD rules everything; let all people everywhere who live unjustly, shake in their boots!

            God sits enthroned above all creation; let the earth rumble on its foundation!

The LORD is great among his people.

            In fact, God is far above all people.

Let everyone, no matter who they are or where they are from, praise Your great and awesome name. God is holy!

Mighty Ruler, the lover of everything that is just and right,

            You are the One who established what is fair and equitable.

You labored behind the scenes for causes which are just and right,

            and brought harmonious relations to folks at odds with each other.

Magnify the LORD, our God!

            Approach the Divine with great and mindful humility!

            God is holy!

Godly people of old such as Moses and Aaron were among the Lord’s devout followers.

            Those like Samuel were among the humble who called on God’s Name.

People from times long ago have cried out to the LORD and have gotten an answer.

            God spoke to the ancient Israelites in a great pillar of cloud.

They sought to keep and entrust the divine rules given to them.

O LORD our God, you answered them.

            You were a forgiving God to them,

            yet, you also were the One who held them accountable when they slid off the rails.

Magnify the LORD our God!

            Humble yourselves and worship at God’s holy mountain,

            because no one is like the LORD our God, a holy Helper!

Let’s get some hearty divine beliefs under our belt with the help of Psalm 99 so that we can live by faith, hope, and love…

God is Universal

A healthy view of God enables us to live with confidence no matter the circumstances. There is no place we can go where God is not there already. The Lord is universal – not tied to any distinct location, culture, class, race, gender, ethnicity, or group of people. God reigns supreme as Lord of all, not just some. The Lord is everywhere:

Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
    Where could I go to escape your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
    If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!
If I could fly on the wings of dawn,
    stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean—
        even there your hand would guide me;
        even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
If I said, “The darkness will definitely hide me;
        the light will become night around me,

     even then the darkness isn’t too dark for you!
        Nighttime would shine bright as day,
        because darkness is the same as light to you! (Psalm 139:7-12, CEB)

God is not only our God but everyone’s God – which means you will find God amongst both Democrats and Republicans, upper class and lower class, black and white, American and Asian, in every nation of the world, and within all societies. No one group of people have the corner on God, for God is much too big for that – which also means God is not limited to looking just like an old white northern European heritage male Protestant minister.

God is Just

It is important to have a proper definition of biblical justice. In the way many use the word, it refers to punishing those who do wrong and deserve incarceration. Although this idea is included in the meaning, it is only a secondary understanding of justice. The primary essence of justice is ensuring everyone has what they need to thrive and flourish on this earth – that there are no obstacles to people realizing their full humanity in God’s image.

Conversely, injustice means someone, a group of people, or even a nation is withholding resources and blocking persons, either knowingly or unknowingly, from thriving in life. A punitive implication of justice comes into play here. Unjust authorities must be replaced or even punished for their gross negligence in failing to provide for the common good of all persons under their responsibility.

Throughout Holy Scripture God spotlights those who are underprivileged and under resourced through no fault of their own. Those who love justice seek to rise above ignorance; be non-judgmental; use power on behalf of others; and are vigilant to operate fairly and equitably in all things.

The reason aliens, strangers, widows, and orphans are oft mentioned in the Bible is because they were the most vulnerable people in the ancient world to unjust actions and policies. God acts on their behalf so they will experience a fair distribution of resources instead of retribution from others.

The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, powerful, and awe-inspiring God. He never plays favorites and never takes a bribe. He makes sure orphans and widows receive justice. He loves foreigners and gives them food and clothes. So, you should love foreigners, because you were foreigners living in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-19, GW)

“You must defend those who are helpless and have no hope. Be fair and give justice to the poor and homeless.” (Proverbs 31:8-9, CEV)

“I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.” (Amos 5:24, NLT)

God is Relational

The Lord graciously gives guidance. God has spoken in the past in answer to those who called upon the name of the Lord. God’s presence was with the Israelites in their desert sojourn. God provided laws and promises to help them. And it was all done with the intimacy of a father and mother to a beloved child.

The powerful, living Spirit of God is available to us today, as well. The fallen nature of this world and our own sin is overcome through the grace of forgiveness in Christ. Even Jesus himself closely identifies with us and offers prayers on our behalf:

Jesus looked toward heaven and prayed, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began. I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me, and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me, and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them.” (John 17:1-10, NIV)

God is Holy

God is pure, set apart from injustice, wickedness, and sin. There are no impurities of mixed motives or malevolent plans with God. God’s holiness is the ground of the divine Being. In other words, the Lord does not simply act holy in all responses, plans, and works; the very essence and character of God is holiness. Therefore, God only acts consistent with this inherent personhood. Sacred words and actions come from the holy God.

And this is what engenders trust with the psalmist and caused him to acknowledge the great and wonderful help God gives. God’s holiness encompasses both divine transcendence and immanence, that is, the Lord is both far and near at the same time, all the time. And that theological understanding is of great worth to the worshiping and devout believer.

Each Sunday Christians all over the world gather and pray, “Our Father who art in heaven.” God is as near as a parent to a child and also reigns in heaven far above all – at the same time, all the time. God maintains a close and intimate relationship with humanity while also keeping a distance from injustice and unrighteousness.

Let us, along with the multitudes of heaven, proclaim God’s holiness:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come… You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” (Revelation 4:8, 11, NIV)

Our holy God lives forever in the highest heavens, and this is what he says: “Though I live high above in the holy place, I am here to help those who are humble and depend only on me.” (Isaiah 57:15, CEV)

God is our holy Helper. The Lord’s assistance is available, abundant, and awesome. So, let us take courage and pray with confidence and boldness to the God who listens and answers.

Genesis 6:5-22 – The God of Emotion

flood of tears

The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. Sothe Lord said, “I will destroy all human beings that I made on the earth. And I will destroy every animal and everything that crawls on the earth and the birds of the air, because I am sorry that I made them.” But Noah pleased the Lord. 

This is the family history of Noah. Noah was a good man, the most innocent man of his time, and he walked with God. He had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. 

People on earth did what God said was evil, and violence was everywhere. When God saw that everyone on the earth did only evil,he said to Noah, “Because people have made the earth full of violence, I will destroy all of them from the earth. Build a boat of cypress wood for yourself. Make rooms in it and cover it inside and outside with tar. This is how big I want you to build the boat: four hundred fifty feet long, seventy-five feet wide, and forty-five feet high. Make an opening around the top of the boat that is eighteen inches high from the edge of the roof down. Put a door in the side of the boat. Make an upper, middle, and lower deck in it. I will bring a flood of water on the earth to destroy all living things that live under the sky, including everything that has the breath of life. Everything on the earth will die. But I will make an agreement with you—you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives will all go into the boat. Also, you must bring into the boat two of every living thing, male and female. Keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, animal, and crawling thing will come to you to be kept alive. Also gather some of every kind of food and store it on the boat as food for you and the animals.” 

Noah did everything that God commanded him. (NCV) 

When I was a kid, the picture of God I had in my little head was of a white-bearded old guy sitting in the clouds looking bored and paying little attention to the humans below. Maybe, once-in-a-while, he would take his divine BB gun and shoot people in the backside, just for some fun. Although I have considerably moved on from that type of theological vision, it seems to be a common caricature of God that he is often indifferent – and even more so that God lacks emotions (except maybe anger). 

The Holy Bible says a lot about humanity. It says even more about God. In fact, Scripture is primarily about revealing who God is – the Lord’s character, attributes – and, yes, emotions. Much like my childhood misunderstandings of God, I am not sure why so many people tend to view God as lacking in feeling and emotion. Maybe the Enlightenment with its focus on reason, logic, and classification simply drained all emotion from God. It could be that contemporary humans project on God their own stoicism toward emotions. Perhaps we see emotions as unreliable and fickle, characteristics that God would not possess – and, so, we jettison any thought of God as feeling deeply about things. Whatever the reason, we will fail to know God as God unless we come to grips with a verse like this:  

The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.”(Genesis 6:6, emphasis mine) 

Broken Heart

Rather than our emotional human nature being a result of the Fall, it is instead a part of our original design of being in Paradise with God. As God’s image-bearers, we carry the mark of God with feeling deeply about things, just like our Creator. In those times when sadness seems as if it might swallow us whole, we just may be closer to God in that moment than any other. God has a heart, and that heart has been hurt and broken more times than we could ever imagine. God’s emotions moved him to action. God’s sorrow led to destroying injustice. 

The thoughts, attitudes, and actions of violent and unfeeling people very much trouble God – to the point of being heartsickIt is our emotional makeup which connects us and bonds us with the divine. The inability to feel is the ultimate disconnect from God. 

Jesus also felt deeply about a great many things – so much so that he died from a broken heart. Recall that ithe seminal Sermon on the Mount Christ’s first words to the large gathering of people were: 

“Blessed are those who mourn.” (Matthew 5:4)  

We underestimate the importance and the power of emotions to our peril. Biblical writers often purposefully contrast differing persons in their stories. In today’s Old Testament lesson, that contrast is most vivid between God and wicked humanity. Humanity had gotten to a point where they felt nothing. The violent behavior was a direct result of their emotional selves split-off from the rest of them. People were bifurcated, their humanity chopped as if a meat cleaver separated their feelings from themselves. Whenever we observe belligerent bullying, hate speech, meanness, and oppression – there you find a paucity of emotions. It is not the presence of feelings that brings about wickedness; it is the lack of emotional awareness and the absence of feelings which is the highway to a watery grave. 

We are in the “Last Days,” that is, the time before the final event in the Christian tradition’s understanding of historyChrist will return to judge the living and the dead. The righteous will enjoy God’s presence forever; the wicked, not really. These days are too often characterized by the kinds of behavior which lack the emotional depth of godly love and a heart of compassion: 

There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” (2 Timothy 3:1-4, NIV) 

For me, learning to name my emotions and to observe where I carry those emotions in my body has been most helpful in connecting with my feelings – and connecting with my GodAnd, I must add, such an emotional awareness and kinship with feelings has brought personal wellness and compassionate ministry to others. 

So, receive this blessing today: 

The eyes of Jesus gaze upon you, stirring his heart with compassion. 

The gaze of Christ sees your heart, your joy and sorrow. 

The gaze of Christ sees your future, filled with the healing of emotions expressed. 

The eyes of Jesus gaze upon you, filling his heart with adoration. Amen.