Pastor Craig Carter
Last week during our Easter services it was good to see a number of young people who have moved away from Bay County and were home for the weekend to celebrate Easter with their families.
I talked to a few of them and most told me they’d be returning to their classes for just a few weeks, with finals on the horizon. Just hearing that word, “finals,” caused a knot to form in the pit of my stomach.
Even though it’s been more than four decades since I graduated college, I still remember the feeling of being overwhelmed and overloaded with a mountain of material confronting me. Because of this, I was thankful for any professor who had a reputation of being a “foot stomper.” Certain instructors, when giving lectures or reviewing material, would sometimes pause and stomp their foot, which meant, “Pay attention, this is important, and it is probably going to be on the test.”
In Mark chapter 12, we’re told about a foot-stomping moment in the teaching ministry of Jesus. One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28 NIV)
This was a legitimate question because the religious leaders of the day often debated the relative importance of the commandments found in the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament. They had identified 613 individual commands – 248 stated affirmatively and 365 worded negatively. Some were considered great, or vital, while others were thought of as small, or inconsequential. Some involved weighty matters while others were light and easy to bear.
Recognizing Jesus’ superior teaching skills, this man asked for his opinion.
“The most important one,” answered Jesus [with a foot stomp], “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.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31 NIV)
Interestingly, Christ didn’t give the answer the teacher of the law expected. Instead of naming one of the 613 commandments listed in the Book of Law, he quoted the Shema found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (recited 2 times per day by faithful Jews).
To it, Jesus added the instruction given in Leviticus 19:18 to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Putting these two together, Jesus constructed “The Great Commandment.”
Notice that the greatest and most important commandment is not a duty to fulfill or an activity to avoid. Instead, it is a way of life … and that way of life is characterized by love.
So life does not revolve around a list of do’s and don’ts. Life is ultimately all about relationships – with God, with others, with self. The do’s and don’ts, such as those found in the Ten Commandments, simply create an environment for loving relationships to grow and flourish.
To love God, you can’t worship idols and should observe the Sabbath. To love others, you can’t kill or steal from them and must show them honor.
We are all well aware of the value of relationships and the effect of the quality of those relationships on our quality of life. I think it’s fairly safe to say, when our relationships are in good shape, life is good. But when our relationships turn sour, life becomes difficult to bear.
Unfortunately, that is the chronic state of affairs for many people as, in general, people in today’s world aren’t very good at relationships. That’s why there is an incredible market for relationship help. Amazon has more than 100,000 books on relationships available for purchase. All the while, the divorce rate soars, siblings refuse to speak to one another, and neighbors feud like the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s (that’s a dated reference, huh?)
We’re going to spend the next few weeks in a class called Relationships 101 where we’ll try to learn how to love God, love others, and love ourselves. Jesus suggests that we will never learn to love others or ourselves until we first learn how to love God.
Nowadays, we use the word, love, in a wide variety of ways that causes the word to lose much of its meaning.
We love God, but we also love football. We love our children, but we also love chocolate. We love our spouse, but we also love Dancing with the Stars.
Jesus sets the record straight by saying we are to love God in certain ways – with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. I’ve addressed this subject in previous sermons but today I want to take a slightly different angle.
Did you know that God wants to be your Friend? (in addition to being your Father, Lord, etc.) In the Old Testament both Abraham and Moses are described as friends of God. Then Jesus referred to His disciples in this way: “I no longer call you slaves… Now you are my friends…” (John 15:15 NLT)
And it was Christ who makes friendship with God possible. Our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son … So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God. (Romans 5:10-11 NLT)
So how do we develop a loving relationship with God as His friends? Jesus gives us the answer…
We develop a loving relationship with God as His friends by…
1) Expressing our AFFECTION to Him.
Actions may speak louder than words, but words are still important. It’s hard to imagine loving someone without expressing that love. As a matter of fact, that’s usually the great moment of truth in a relationship, isn’t it?
Imagine sitting at a nice restaurant in a candlelight setting. At the opportune time, you gaze into your date’s eyes and utter those emotion-packed words for the very first time, “I love you.”
That’s the second most important thing that is going to be said. What’s the most important thing? What she says in response, of course.
If she says, “I know,” or “Pass me the butter,” you’re in trouble! You want to hear, “I love you too.”
God has already shouted for all the world to hear, “I love you.” He proclaimed that message through His Son Jesus and now He’s waiting for our response.
When He hears, “I love you too,” He is greatly pleased. First John 4:19 tells us, “We love Him (God) because He first loved us.” (NKJV).
Not only does the Lord love us, according to Exodus 34, “He is the God who is passionate about His relationship with [us].” (Exodus 34:14b NLT 1996)
In turn, He wants us to love Him passionately (i.e. with “heart” and “soul”). When we love God that way, it’s only natural to express our affection to Him. The reason for this is because, at its core, Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship.
If it were a religion, our goal would be to accumulate knowledge about God. But instead, the aim of the Christian faith is actually to know God.
Jesus: “And this is the way to have eternal life – to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth.” (John 17:3 NLT)
It’s one thing to know about someone, it’s another thing altogether to know them.
Last week I mentioned that when I arrived in Lynn Haven nine years ago, I knew only two people. Since I didn’t know anyone else I certainly didn’t walk in saying “I love you” to everybody. But over the years I’ve developed a relationship with many of you and I consider you “friends,” and as a result, I now say “I love you” without shame or embarrassment. It even seems natural to do so based on our relationship with one another.
I think we can safely call David, the King of Israel, a friend of God since on two occasions Scripture describes him as “a man after God’s own heart.” Listen to what he had to say in a couple of psalms he wrote:
“I love you, Lord; you are my strength.” (Psalm 18:1 NLT)
“As a deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God.” (Psalm 42:1 NLT)
Can you express a similar sentiment? Do you truly love the Lord? Do you desire Him more than anyone or anything else?
Let God know how you feel about Him. The finest way you can express your affection is by giving Him your life and saying, “I’m yours and you’re mine.”
And if we’re not quite there yet and saying, “I love you,” seems a bit awkward, that’s okay, we’ll get there by …
2) Focusing our ATTENTION on Him.
We all know that if we’re going to truly love and adore someone, we have to put aside distractions and concentrate on that person. In order to focus our attention, we have to engage our brain and concentrate. That’s why it’s important to love God “with all your mind.”
Again, since Christianity is a relationship it differs from many other religions in this regard. Followers of certain sects or cults are encouraged to empty their minds. But, as Christians, we are expected to fill our minds with thoughts about God.
Living in the world in which we find ourselves, there are many things clamoring for our attention that keep our minds off God, such as our jobs, household chores, yard work, paying bills, a favorite TV show, etc. Perhaps the greatest barrier is our self-centered tendency.
Our emphasis on ourselves and on our own well-being prevents us from truly loving God.
“Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God and ends up thinking more about self than God.” (Romans 8:7 The Message)
You can’t love someone if you ignore that person. Therefore, to overcome our self-centeredness requires a conscious decision to “Fix [our] attention on God.” (Romans 12:2b The Message)
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us some practical advice on how this can be accomplished:
“Find a quiet, secluded place … Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense His grace.” (Matthew 6:6 The Message)
Even amid the busyness of the world in which we live, we need to find some quiet, secluded places to be alone with God. It’s like having a “date” with someone you love. In our relationship with God, it may take the form of a daily quiet time, listening to praise music, talking with Him in prayer, or reading and reflecting on God’s Word.
You and I will never enjoy a relationship with God and become friends with Him until we spend time with Him and focus our undivided attention on Him.
If you don’t feel close to God, spend some time with Him. Next, let’s make sure we are…
3) Using our ABILITIES for Him.
Sometimes we think we can only love and please God by doing “spiritual things” like reading the Bible, praying, attending church, going on a mission trip, or witnessing. But because God is in love with us, He enjoys watching every detail of our lives – whether it is working, playing, eating, or even sleeping.
As a result, Paul gives us this advice, “Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering.” (Romans 12:1 The Message)
When we use our time, energy, and abilities and offer them to God we are loving Him “with all [our] strength.” This involves using all that we are and all that we have in God-honoring ways. It means working diligently, treating people compassionately, being forgiving, etc.
The test of true friendship is when you’re willing to lend them a hand in whatever way they need it. That leads us to where we’re headed beginning next week … we can’t love God without loving the people He created. So we’ll look at how we can use our abilities to love our neighbors – starting first with our own friends and those around us, and then moving to our family members (our parents, our children, and our spouse).
How would you do right now on a test that measures where you are in your relationships?
Jesus contends you can’t get right with others until you get right with God. And the way you get right with the Lord is by loving Him with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. Well, do you? Would Jesus consider you a true friend?
“Come close to God, and God will come close to you.” (James 4:8a NLT) In other words, James is saying we are as close to God as we choose to be – it’s up to you and it’s up to me.
That passage always reminds me of the old story about the farmer riding with his wife in their pickup truck. They passed a young couple seated right next to each other in their car. The wife asked her husband as he drove, “Do you remember when we used to sit real close like that? Why don’t we do that anymore?” He replied, “I ain’t ever moved!”
God always has been and always will be in love with you and me and He hasn’t moved. So if we’re not as close to Him as we once were or want to be, maybe we need to move back a little closer (or get closer) by expressing our affection to Him, focusing our attention on Him, and committing to use our abilities for Him.