Love the Lord Your God

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.” (Matthew 22:37-40, NIV) 

One of the teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Of all the commandments, which is most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” (Mark 12:28-30, NIV) 

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.  

Love God with all your heart. 

God has children across planet earth, and he 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. We recently hit a grim milestone of one-million deaths across the world to 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. On and on it goes…. 

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. 

We need a newfound sense of God’s wonder and beauty to reclaim the soul of Christianity. 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. 

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 minds is a desire to learn and experientially know more about the Lord. It is to have a constant curiosity about God.  

We must love God with full faculties and not with half a brain. 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 orientation of  embracing 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 orientation of embracing 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.   

Feel free to go hard after God with all your strength – being 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. 

Loving God with all our strength requires respecting boundaries and implementing healthy rhythms of life. We might believe (wrongly) that the answer to most things is to work harder. Try doing that with your car when a red light comes on the dashboard and you will soon not have a car to drive.

Many persons are hellbent on working themselves into the ground. Feeling the pressure of responsibility, the fear of failure, the obsessive need for perfectionism, and the stress of dealing with difficult situations cause some folks to ignore their better judgment. Some individuals find the shame of failure too unbearable to let up on the gas pedal, and so keep going day after day worried that they might be letting someone down.    

Loving God with our strength means we will observe the Sabbath. God rested; therefore, we rest. Sabbath observance avoids loading up a day of “rest” with all kinds of work. We are to use our time to restfully connect with God, take leisurely walks with family, enjoy good friends over a meal, and, of course, delight in a well-deserved nap. Wise and rightly ordered priorities come from well-rested people.  

Summary 

Love God from a large heart because God has a big heart. Love God with your soul through deep feelings because God created us as emotional creatures. Love God cerebrally with a curiosity to know humanity and divinity because God is infinitely interested in us. And love God through hard work done for the things God cares about, just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.   

Mark 2:18-22 – Structuring for Mission

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.” (NIV)

The late newspaper columnist, Abigail Van Buren, better known as “Dear Abby,” made famous the phrase, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.” We occasionally need words like Dear Abby’s to remind, reorient, and reframe our call in this world and our charge for the church. Christ’s Church does not exist on this earth primarily for the healthy Christian’s benefit, any more than a hospital exists for the welfare of doctors or insurance companies.

The Church exists to extend the mission of Jesus through proclamation of the good news of God’s kingdom in both word and deed. Jesus came to restore lost sinners, redeem wayward sons and daughters, renew bodies and souls, and reform calcified religion with grace and truth.

Physical, spiritual, and emotional sickness is ubiquitous throughout the world and even the church. Many people are just not healthy. Some are sick because of destructive coping strategies; some are brokenhearted and dispirited; others are plain sick and tired of being sick and tired. Jesus is the source of healing and change and he invites us to admit our needs and come to him. Conversely, others are healthy, spiritually alive, and well. For those folks, now is the time to roll up our sleeves and participate fully in the mission of Jesus for the church and the world.

Jesus came to this earth to set up a new structure that could embrace his mission. Christ used the occasion of John the Baptist’s disciples asking him about fasting to communicate that his mission of reaching people through mercy and forgiveness will need a significant structural change. 

Jesus was letting his followers know that after he leaves this earth, things will need to change for the mission to continue. For example, when my wife and I raised our girls, our family dynamic was a certain way because we had them in the house. But when the empty nest phase of our lives finally came, I can tell you there was plenty of fasting that went on in our home. We live differently now, just the two of us. Our daily life structures have changed significantly.

The two illustrations Jesus used, of cloth and of wineskins, emphasize that old and new wineskins are incompatible – old and new pieces of cloth do not go together. I frame it this way with my own metaphor: You don’t put a new collar on a dead dog.

The incarnation of Christ was neither about perpetuating the status quo, nor to make a few cosmetic changes and minor adjustments to what was already going on. Instead, Christ came to fulfill the old and do something new so that it could accommodate his mission on this earth.

The perspective from the New Testament book of Hebrews is that the entire sacrificial system and ritual laws of the Old Testament were:

“…superficial regulations that are only about food, drink, and various ritual ways to wash with water. They are regulations that have been imposed until the time of the new order.” (Hebrews 9:10, CEB)

“Because Christ offered himself to God, he is able to bring a new promise from God. Through his death he paid the price to set people free from the sins they committed under the first promise. He did this so that those who are called can be guaranteed an inheritance that will last forever.” (Hebrews 9:15, GW)

First, Christ said, “You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings or burnt offerings or other offerings for sin, nor were you pleased with them” (though they are required by the law of Moses). Then he said, “Look, I have come to do your will.” He cancels the first covenant in order to put the second into effect. (Hebrews 10:8-9, NLT)

“When it says new, it makes the first obsolete. And if something is old and outdated, it’s close to disappearing.” (Hebrews 8:13, CEB)

The following three activities are necessary for Christians if the mission of Jesus is to occur:

  1. Develop intimacy with Jesus. Engaging in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, giving, fasting, reading, and meditating on Holy Scripture puts us in a position to know Christ better and affords the ability to know and respond to what is important to Jesus.
  2. Establish relationships with one another. That is, relations which avoid shallow interactions and instead help each other to spiritually grow, thrive, and flourish by holding one another accountable for the mission of Jesus.
  3. Build new relationships with those on the rim of society. People on the outside of power structures and lacking any leverage toward advancing their own needs could use some connections. Our world and our communities are filled with sick, underprivileged, hurting, lonely, oppressed, forgotten, and unhealthy persons. They don’t need slight alterations to their lives but the kind of radical change that comes from the strong meat-and-potatoes of God’s gospel of grace working through a wild bunch of sold-out-to-Jesus Christians. 

Are there any structural things we need to let go so that mission and care can happen in this world? How might the structure of our prayers change if we were to focus on what is important to Christ’s mission? In what ways will we work toward a structurally just and right society which champions the common good of all persons?

Gracious God of all creation, create generations of people transformed into wholehearted lovers of God, encountered by the living Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Contend with those who oppress others and multiply the good and the beautiful in us all. Bring the fullness of your benevolent rule and reign to this world. May we exist for the purpose of enjoying God, loving others, and joining Jesus in the restoration of all things. Amen.

Mark 11:27-33 – Dueling Authorities

They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”

Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)

So, they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (NIV)

Because Christ is Lord, we might overlook that Jesus, in his earthly ministry, was an outsider. Although a teacher, a rabbi, Jesus was neither a priest nor a member of any Jewish religious sect. He walked around as if he owned the place (which he did) and this gave no end of consternation from the established status quo religious leadership.

Jesus made significant inroads into people’s lives, especially with outsiders like himself, and this created anger and jealousy with many of the religious ruling class. Since Jesus was not a card-carrying member, the leaders wanted to hear from him why he kept acting confidently and deliberately on their religious turf, as if he had authority to do so.

The established authorities are depicted in today’s Gospel lesson as a craven bunch who did not want to alienate the crowds yet were eager to get the upstart Jesus out the way. This appears to be an age-old situation of leaders putting their fingers to the wind to go with whatever will keep them popular and in power. Since Jesus consistently refused to play such games, the authorities believed he needed to go. They, however, had no intention of risking an outright confrontation and showing their shadow motives.

Jesus clearly connected himself with John the Baptist, both coming from the same authority. John was yet another figure for whom the established leaders could not control. We ought never to underestimate that threats to status quo leadership who have no inkling of being public servants when true moral authority comes along. The lack of conformity from both John and Jesus would cost them their very lives.

Speaking truth to power while not becoming defensive is a tricky art. Yet, Jesus did it. Continual challenges to his authority left him unfazed as to his mission and purpose on this earth. Christ was assertive without becoming despotic; forward without taking the bait of useless arguments; confident with no hint of arrogance.

For me, the contrast between Jesus and the religious authorities is trenchant. The confident, wise, and calm authority of Christ is in direct opposition to the fear, anxiety, and worry of the ruling leaders. Whereas they kept anxiously ruminating about what to do about this threat to their established authority, Jesus exhibited a non-anxious presence which maintained a steadfast focus on God’s righteous, holy, and benevolent rule and reign.

Sometimes, continual fear is a clue that one is so worried about losing the person, place, or position they possess that the divine gets pushed aside.

Questioning Christ’s credentials was the giveaway that the existing religious authorities were concerned about their power and privilege, and not the people. The wise person will see such queries for what they are.

Wherever we observe those who refuse to share power, have a xenophobic bent toward outsiders, and will seem to do just about anything to maintain the status quo, there we will find the abuse of authority. Conversely, where we observe a deep concern for equity, justice, and the common good of all persons, there we see compassionate leadership who will champion ethical leadership and espouse moral authority.

In any democratic society, we must choose our leaders wisely.

Great God of hope, in these times of change and uncertainty, unite your people and guide our leaders with your wisdom. Give us courage to overcome our fears and help us to build a future in which all may prosper and share together through Jesus Christ our Lord in the strength of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Mark 11:20-25 – Forgiveness

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots.Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered.“Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (NIV)

Sometimes forgiveness seems about as possible as moving a mountain or withering a fig tree. Yet, it can be done. It needs to be done. An unforgiving spirit only causes gangrene of the soul and rots a person on the inside.

The heart of the good news in the Bible is forgiveness of sins. It comes through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness is both an event, and a process. Forgiveness is to be a constant dynamic within our relationships because we live in a fallen world. People sin against us, and others hurt us. We sin against other people and hurt them, too. Relational pain is a reality this side of heaven. Revenge and/or passive-aggressive behavior are neither biblical nor healthy ways of handling our hurt. So, what is a person to do?

We practice forgiveness. The following is some biblical guidance as to what forgiveness is, and is not:

Forgiveness is hard work.

God did not promise forgiveness would be easy. He knows exactly the kind of cost it brings. Through the death of Jesus there can be and is forgiveness. The price of forgiveness for Jesus was not cheap.

“The blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean.  How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:13-14, NIV)

Forgiveness is a process.

Forgiveness is an ongoing process of putting off bad relational habits and putting on good ones. It takes time and cannot be hasty. Forgiveness must be deliberate with no shortcuts to it, otherwise it will not stick. 

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling, and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:21-32, NIV)

Forgiveness does not mean we condone bad behavior.

Forgiveness is not blanket amnesty. It does not simply give another person a “pass” on their hurtful words or actions. Forgiveness means we do not hold the offense over the other person’s head.  Dr. Fred Luskin from Stanford University, an academic researcher of forgiveness, states, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.”  We cannot undo the past. Yet, we have control of the present, and can choose to forgive. True forgiveness calls a spade a spade and names the specific offense in all its ugliness, and lets it go.

“You’re an evil man! When you begged for mercy, I said you did not have to pay back a cent.  Don’t you think you should show pity to someone else, as I did to you?” (Matthew 18:32-33, CEV)

Forgiveness does not always result in reconciliation.

It takes two to reconcile. It only takes one to forgive. I have often been told that it will not do any good to forgive another person because it would not change them. I respectfully retort: That is not the point. We forgive because it is our responsibility to work through our forgiveness issues and do it. We are not in control of whether another person will feel sorry for what they did, or not.  We regulate our own decision to forgive, no matter what the other person does or does not do, or whether they feel the gravity of their sin, or not.

“If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.” (Romans 12:18, CEB)

“I [Jesus] say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44, NRSV)

Jesus said [on the cross], “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34, CSB)

Forgiveness is primarily for our benefit.

If we hold on to bitterness toward another for their offense, we only hurt ourselves. Drinking the poison of bitterness will kill you, not the other person. Avoid the magical thinking that they are going to come to you all slobbery sorry for what they said or did. That often does not happen. When it does, it is a beautiful thing. Regardless, of another’s decisions, we are to forgive everyone who sins against us just as God has forgiven us.

“Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us…. If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:12, 14-15, NLT)

Forgiveness is to be frequent and generous.

The relational currency in God’s kingdom is forgiveness. Without it, we can neither operate well together, nor can we enjoy a satisfying life. However, with forgiveness, there is a demonstration of the practical effects of Christ’s crucifixion to life, not to mention a good witness to a watching world.  

“Peter got up the nerve to ask, ‘Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?’ Jesus replied, ‘Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.’” (Matthew 18:21-22, MSG)

Forgiveness is an act of faith.

To forgive is risky business. If we have taken on a grudge like a warm security blanket, to toss aside the odd comfort of unforgiveness will seem strange, even fearful. When we are hunkered down in bitterness, we rarely see how it causes faith to weaken. The longer the lack of forgiving goes on, the harder it will be to give it up. Faith steps out and acts, believing that God is in it. On the other side is the hope of freedom and peace. Besides, the consequences of unforgiveness are downright unpleasant.

Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. (Matthew 6:13-14, MSG)

Forgiveness is a blessing.

The end of the matter for many people comes down to the intensely practical. So, here it is: Do you want to be happy or miserable? I am not familiar with anyone who wakes up in the morning and says to themselves, “Mmm, I think I will be miserable today.” No, we want to be happy and blessed. Forgiving others is the path to blessing.

It is a great blessing when people are forgiven for the wrongs they have done, when their sins are erased. (Psalm 32:1, ERV)

May you know the blessing of being forgiven and forgiving others. May this freedom allow you to enjoy the peace of God the fellowship of others. Amen.