Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Proper 25 of Series A (Matthew 22:34-46)

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, not very long ago, the media was buzzing about a woman named Casey Anthony. This mother was implicated by the authorities in the disappearance and death of her young child, but was acquitted and released. People hotly debated her guilt or innocence throughout the trial and since, but people on both sides agreed that, according to what the media reported, she was a poor mother. It seemed apparent to many that her daughter was an inconvenience, that Casey Anthony was going to continue to live for herself whether she was a mother or not. There was great anger and rage directed toward her, for many believed she had murdered her child in great selfishness, simply to remove something that kept her from living how she wanted.

This anger is quite ironic, for Casey Anthony, if she truly was the poor mother we have been told she was, simply lived the way that our culture today tells us how to live. Millions of children have been killed in the womb through abortion in the past thirty years, the vast majority because a child will be an inconvenience, will prevent a mother or father from reaching their goals, or will change too much in their lives. The parents who spare their children are still told by our world that children shouldn’t change things, they shouldn’t affect your career or social life. But the relationship between parents and children is simply the symptom of a much more fundamental issue. Our world declares that you should live for yourself, placing your own needs above that of everyone else. That message affects every one of us in a variety of areas, at any stage of life. Look out for number one; don’t worry about or trust anyone else. Love yourself! That’s the key, isn’t it? Love, in our world today, is first directed inside.

Jesus gives us a radically different picture of love in our text for today. True love is not directed inside ourselves, but instead outside, toward our God and then toward our neighbors. “You shall 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 a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In a certain sense, it’s easy to love God. It’s easy to love Him when you are sitting here on Sunday morning. It’s easy to love Him when things are going well, when everything in your life seems to be lining up just the way you want it. Sure, you may not think of it much, but if someone asked you, you would say, ‘Oh, yes, I love God.” What Jesus commands here is much more than simply a kind of half-hearted love when life is rosy. Instead, He calls on us to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind. We are to love God with our intellect, our emotions, our desires, and intentions. We are to love God in thought and in deed, privately within ourselves and publically in this world. In short, we are to love God completely, with everything that we are and have. We are to love nothing more than God; no other ‘gods’ may claim His throne, even if those idols are the good gifts that He has given us. He is to be over all in our lives. Moreover, we are to love Him at all times, even and especially when we face suffering in this life. We are to love and trust God even when we can’t understand what it happening to us, when we can’t see how He will bring good into a bad situation. Love places our lives into the hands of God, in good times or in bad, in suffering or in health.

This love for God finds concrete, practical expression in our love for those around us. Jesus declared, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And who is our neighbor? Your neighbor is not simply the person who occupies the house next to yours, but instead all those whom God has placed around you. Those nearest to you are your family: your spouse, your children, your parents are all your neighbors. But God has also placed neighbors before you in every other area of your life. At work, at school, and in your interactions in the community, God places neighbors in front of you, those who need your assistance. If you see a car accident and stop to help, you become a neighbor to someone you will never meet again. Your neighbors are even those whom you don’t like, even your enemies, to whom you may show love simply by praying for and forgiving them. Your love is directed outside of yourself to those around you, those who have a variety of needs. And God has gifted you in unique ways to fulfill those needs. He has given you those gifts not to serve yourself, but to serve others.

The greatest need of your neighbors is for the Gospel, and God places many into your life who need to hear it. Saint Paul tells us about this in our epistle lesson: “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, for you had become very dear to us.” Our world declares, ‘Love yourself above all else.’ Jesus instead commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We place our neighbors above ourselves, seeking to direct our love outward into their lives, providing for their needs as we are able. We do not have to go searching for neighbors, but God places them directly in front of us, and we show them love by providing for their needs.

With two brief commands, Jesus has encapsulated the entire Ten Commandments, indeed Jesus Himself says, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” These two commands are impossible for fallen, sinful people to even begin to obey. You cannot love God with all your heart, soul, and mind; you cannot love your neighbor as yourself. Instead, your love is always turned inward. This is the condition of all people since the Fall into sin; this is why there is such suffering, war, and brokenness in our world. There is only one exception, only one man who was not curved in on Himself. Jesus Christ loved God with all of His heart, His soul, and His mind. Jesus did everything in obedience to God; His entire life was placed into the loving hands of His Father. Jesus trusted in God when times were good, when He was popular and acclaimed by man, but He especially trusted His Father when suffering came. As He hung dying upon the cross, He cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” He trusted in the words of Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’” He trusted that He would be vindicated, that His Father’s love wouldn’t fail. Like a sheep led to the slaughter, He did not defend Himself against the accusations and the cruel blows of His enemies. His love was not turned in on Himself, but toward His Father, who willed that He go to suffering and to death.
His love was also turned toward you. On the cross, Jesus loved God with all of His heart and soul and mind, and on the cross, He loved His neighbor as Himself. He stretched His arms wide to embrace the entire world, every person that has ever lived, even you and me, as His neighbors, and He showed love to His neighbors by dying in our place. He loved even His enemies from that cross, crying out as they drove in the nails, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” He placed you above Himself as His neighbor, giving up everything to provide for your greatest needs. You needed salvation from sin, you needed deliverance from death, and His suffering and death won both for you. He suffered all to show you love; His love is directed outside of Himself, and that love has power, for it led to His suffering and death in your place, for your salvation.

You cannot love God with all your heart, soul, and mind unless you know God, and you cannot know God unless you know Jesus. Knowing Jesus means knowing what He has done for you, how He suffered and died in His great love for you. Knowing Jesus means knowing who He is, the Son of David and the Son of God. The Pharisees failed on both counts. Their focus was on the Law, on the dos and don’ts, because they thought they could attain their own salvation. Their love of God and their love of neighbor was not true love, for they still loved only themselves. Their obedience to God and their care for their neighbor was only a means to an end, a means for them to work their way to heaven. Jesus instead teaches in our text that the focus is on Him and the salvation He brings. If you don’t know Jesus, no amount of ‘love’ is going to deliver you from death and hell. We only know Jesus through faith, the faith worked in us through the Holy Spirit, using the tools of the Word and the Sacraments. These means of grace not only proclaim the love that the Son showed toward you, but they apply that salvation to you, giving you the gifts that He won in love on the cross. You are delivered from sin and death through the love of the Son! That is where your confidence lies, in the One who loved you so much He would suffer the very punishment of hell for you.

Our love for God and love for neighbor is then not an obligation but a privilege, overflowing from the love that God first showed us. We love God because He has given us everything, especially eternal life with Him in the new heavens and the new earth. We love our neighbors because God loved them in Christ, giving up His Son for their salvation. Only the work of the Holy Spirit can turn us from an inward focus to a focus on loving God and loving our neighbor. This doesn’t happen overnight, and indeed it will only perfectly happen when we stand before the throne of the Lord forever. Our love toward God and neighbor will still falter and sometimes even fail. At those times, the Holy Spirit brings to us the forgiveness of Christ, the forgiveness that covers even a failure to love, the same forgiveness that Christ won on the cross. That forgiveness sustains our love and forgives even our lack of love, for it is the love of Christ shown to us. In the Name of Christ, who suffered all to show love toward you, His beloved neighbor, Amen.

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