This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Mark 12:28-34
Text: Mark 12:30
When we take a good look at the way many North American Christians conduct their lives we can soon come to the conclusion that a lot of us have our priorities all messed up. A lot of information affirming that state of affairs with the state of the church in our part of the world is available in Christian magazines and journals, in books and documents written by various leaders in the church, and also expressed in the council rooms of our churches. For example:
- Elders worry about the decline and often lack of passionate spirituality amongst the members of our congregations. Could that have something to do with the fact that many parishioners say that they just don’t have time anymore for engaging in those vital components of passionate spirituality like meditation and reflection on God’s Word and prayer?
- There is also concern about the “slipping” devotion and commitment to church attendance – even in Sunday morning services; and parishioners give all kinds of reasons for that – but when pressed on it those reasons usually have to do with matters of satisfying various “wants” of personal self-gratification.
- And there is the reality of increasing shortfalls of finances almost all churches are faced with. Church leaders hear people saying that they just don’t have money to give to support the ministries of the church; but observation clearly shows there is plenty of money for entertainment, the pursuit of worldly pleasures, and all kinds of new possessions.
If we think about these sorts of things we can easily see the problem is a matter of priorities – priorities usually based on lifestyle choices and the orientation of our hearts towards those choices.
In thinking about these matters we come to this troubling conclusion: the # 1 reason for the troubled state of the church in our part of the world is that we’ve forgotten our primary responsibility as people who have been graciously redeemed by Christ Jesus: loving God. The only reason that makes sense why the church – generally speaking – is struggling and losing ground to the powers of neo-pagan secularism in North America is that loving God comes in second – or third – or even further down the scale of our priorities. The truth is we’re often too busy loving ourselves – and our lives – and our “stuff” to be too enthralled with doing as God commanded in ancient times to His people Israel. Soon after they had been set free from slavery in Egypt God commanded that their # 1 priority – which is the 1st priority of believers in every age – is to do as we said in our opening vow today – “Love the Lord our God” – and do so completely, totally, and absolutely.
Let’s do a little exercise to demonstrate that. Think about this question for a moment: Can you honestly say indisputably that loving God like that is absolutely the # 1 priority in your life? Think about it ----- (pause here for a moment).
The truth is none of us can really honestly say that! And the reason for that is because as long as we’re breathing and our hearts are pumping and our brains are functioning we are redeemed sinners who continue to struggle with loving God completely. But that doesn’t give us an excuse not to try!
Jesus shows us how. He encourages us to love God. He challenges us to do just that. The Bible tells us that He sent the Holy Spirit to help and nurture us in loving God. And many Christians– based on personal experience, intensive intellectual exercise and study, and the testimony of others, can assure us that as we do come to love God more and more and more then everything else about who disciples of Christ are to be – and what we are to be about – falls into line. Our worship does, our passionate spirituality of a heavenly kind does, our giving does, our serving God and serving and loving one another as we should does. Everything does! But it all starts with loving God first!
DEFINING THE COMMAND TO “LOVE THE LORD”
Now, we need to know that the word for love here in our text today is the Greek word “agape.” (Note: “agape” is pronounced: a–gahp–ay.) Many of us who are familiar with the Bible probably already know something about that particular word. Even though we are not Greek scholars we may have heard that term and we have come to understand that it refers to that special kind of love that bonds people together in a deep relational way – like the kind of love that is held between very, very good friends.
“Agape” love is demonstrated in the relationship between David and Jonathan. We read about that in 1 Samuel chapters 19 and 20 in the story about how, when David’s life was under threat by King Saul who was planning to kill him, Jonathan acted to warn David and thus ensure his safety and escape.
“Agape” love is the kind of love John 13:23 tells us Jesus had for one of His original disciples in particular – and we have good reason to think that that disciple was John – a man for whom Jesus clearly had a special, deep bond of personal friendship, just like any one of us who has a particularly special friend. You know what I mean. We may have a large group of friends whom we love, but there’s often one or two with whom we share a special affection and a particularly deep bond. They are the friends we go to when we just need to talk or share something special.
“Agape” love is the kind of love we read about in John 11 – the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. We know Lazarus and his sisters were special friends of Jesus from verse 5 where God’s word says, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” That kind of relationship shows us a kind of love that is to be celebrated and rejoiced in!
And we can know and believe that that is the kind of love Jesus has for each of us who belong to Him. We are taught that in John 15:12-13 where Jesus says, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” And as we are taught in the Bible, Jesus demonstrated that great love for all whom He calls His friends. That includes you and me who are chosen and called by Him to be His faithful disciples. He demonstrated His love by taking the righteous and fully justified wrath of God for our sins upon Himself, by bearing them to the place of execution where He died – crucified on the cross so we may be set free from our sins, and be declared righteous, and be enabled and empowered to live as we are called to live as His own people – men, women, and children whom He loves so much that He laid down His life for us and our salvation.
So let me ask you this: If He loves us that much, how should we respond?
Should it be with apathy and complacency and indifference?
No! Of course not! We ought to respond by loving Him in return! A loving motivated by gratitude!
Now, that brings us back to the problem sketched out a few moments ago – that we are often too busy with loving self, and our lives, and our “stuff” to really get to that level of loving God where we are ready and willing to lay down our lives for Him; that level of love where we will joyfully pick up the blessing of His cross and follow Him, which is, by the way, exactly what Christians worthy of that Name are supposed to do in life!
Maybe we have trouble getting there because we think that loving God like that is something that just happens naturally – as if it is like a seed that has been “planted” within us. But that’s not how it works. Scripture teaches that the hearts of sinful-by-nature human beings are incapable of having that happen; we are rebellious and capable of “hardening our hearts” to God. And we don’t have to look too far into our own lives to see that.
Here are some examples: We can “harden our own hearts” when we hold a grudge against someone. We can “harden our own hearts” when we refuse to forgive someone – or to seek forgiveness. We can “harden our own hearts” when we contribute to gossip, or perpetuate a lie, or wish something nasty on someone, or act unjustly, or turn a blind eye to injustice and suffering. There are lots of ways we can harden our hearts. And when we do, we “squeeze” love for God out!
The truth is – loving God as we are commanded to do in the Bible does not “just happen.” We’ve got to be intentional about nurturing and growing that love for God in our hearts. And that is a concept taught in the word “agape.” You see, in the context in which we find it in Mark 12:30, this word also carries the idea of “seeking after,” meaning that we actively engage in the exercise of intentionally striving to grow deeper in this kind of love. In other words, Jesus is telling us that if we are going to really love God we need to work at it! It needs to become a lifestyle! Thus, we need to develop the practice of “seeking after” the things of God and the godly life.
Such a “seeking after” means first of all that we need to be paying attention to God and whatever God loves. This, then, is all about building relationship with God, a relationship established in God’s love for us where His love shapes us into being men, women, and children after His own heart. This relationship-enriching love, which flows from God to us and from us to God and also out to others, is a kind of active love. It’s a love that doesn’t allow us to sit on the sidelines like a sponge hoping to soak up some overflow of love pouring out from somewhere. No, we’ve got to work at it!
It’s like a marriage! A successful marriage relationship begins with some semblance of love. We can say that in the beginning of such a relationship the seedlings of “agape” love are present in that relationship between a woman and a man. But those seedlings need to be nurtured. And nurturing takes work – sometimes hard work. Anyone who is married knows that from personal experience because sometimes our spouses have to work really hard to keep on loving us! Now suppose that in marriage a wife does all that work of love but her partner doesn’t because he pours all his efforts into loving himself, his life, his hobbies, his interests. Where is such a relationship going to go? Well, let’s just say it isn’t going to be something wonderful and beautiful!
Like a successful marriage that will stand the test of time, our “loving of God” also takes work. We cannot expect to get the benefits of loving God if we are all wrapped up in ourselves. We can’t expect to really know God and His love for us if we don’t put effort into the relationship!
That’s the point behind Jesus’ answer to the teacher of the law who – as recorded in Mark 12:28 – asked Jesus what the most important commandment was. Jesus’ answer was that loving God is the most important. But notice how He answered that man. He used the familiar words known to every devout follower of the Jewish faith from the time of Moses – words found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 – words every devout believer said twice a day: “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 strength.” However, Jesus added a phrase to that statement; He added the words, “and with all your mind.” And that addition would have really startled His listeners because it added a whole other dimension to understanding the comprehensive scope of what loving God means.
LOVING GOD COMPLETELY
So let’s explore this ancient statement of faith.
In referring to this historic teaching Jesus was affirming a key principle of the historic faith of the Jews. But He was also making a profound point about how everything begins and flows out of the action of people intentionally seeking to increase our love for God! That action requires the “practice” of relationship building with Him – the God who loves us, who accepts us, who calls us His sons and daughters and heirs of His Kingdom! That means, as mentioned a few moments ago, paying attention to God, spending time with Him in prayer, in meditation, in reading the Bible, in forming and nourishing a “Christian” identity, and in serving the Lord with passion and enthusiasm in all the ways we can!
Now, to help us understand that point Jesus gives us a little word we need to pay close attention to in this command. Do you see what that little word is? It’s repeated 4 times. The word “all.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Love God to the best of your ability,” nor does He say, “Love God with just your heart, or just your mind, or just your soul, or just your strength.” No, He says with all heart, all soul, all mind, and all strength! In other words, totally, completely, absolutely!!! And that is priority # 1 in the believer’s life!
According to Jesus, loving God with all heart, all soul, all mind, and all strength means we are to put “all” our efforts into doing it! All of our actions, our speech, our motivations, our feelings, our emotions, our intellect, our energy – everything – spiritually and physically needs to be focussed on loving God completely.
So what does it mean to love God like that? Well, let’s follow Jesus’ own outline here and take a brief look at each of these 4 aspects.
WITH ALL HEART
First, with “all” heart. In the Bible we are taught that the “heart” represents the very core essence of a human being. Our actions, our motivations, our speech – all come from the very centre of who we are. But here Jesus means even more than that. When He says we are to love God with all our heart He is saying we are to love Him with righteous sincerity and honest integrity.
We demonstrate that when we make a solemn promise to someone – perhaps saying something like, “I cross my heart and hope to die.” In other words, we stake our very life on that promise; if we don’t keep it we proclaim that then we forfeit our life. That’s making a promise with uncompromising sincerity.
WITH ALL SOUL
Next, with “all” our soul. What is our soul?
It’s that mysterious, indescribable part of human beings that makes us unique amongst all God’s creations. It’s that part of us that is spiritually real – and, the Bible teaches, lives on when we die. Our bodies will die, unless Jesus comes back before then. But our souls – well – when we die they go to that place where the souls of the dead wait for the final day and the resurrection to come.
So when Scripture says we are to love God with all our soul that means we are to love Him with all that is spiritual about us. And in the ancient world that means with all that sets humans apart from other creatures – things attributed to our souls like warmth and our feelings and our emotions.
WITH ALL MIND (INTELLECT)
Then we have the point Jesus adds to the ancient teaching – with all of our mind. This means with our intellect.
In our culture today there are voices suggesting strongly that people of faith – especially Christians – are weak-minded, by which they mean to imply that faith is not rational. Well, Jesus blows that notion to bits with this statement, commanding us to put our minds into loving God too!
Of course, that then means we’ve got to seek out and study and contemplate and ponder and reflect on God’s revelation of Himself – something the Belgic Confession says can be discovered partially in creation and more completely in His Word. Our minds, then, become a very powerful ally in the exercise of seeking God and learning how and why we should love Him completely and rationally.
WITH ALL STRENGTH
And the final point Jesus gives us is to love God with all our strength. This means we need to pour physical energy into it. We need to, as the old saying goes, put feet under our faith and “walk the walk” of the Christian life.
If we want to maintain our physical bodies in good condition we know that we have to pour energy into exercising them. Being lethargic “couch potatoes” whose biggest muscle is in the thumb we use to change the channel on our TV remote isn’t going to do it. Our doctors tell us we have to pour energy into exercise to be strong and healthy. It’s the same thing in loving God. We’ve got to put energy into it – a lot of energy – as Jesus says: with all our strength. The imagery of this point is pretty clear – that if we do it, if we exercise our love for God – then it will grow stronger and more solid and secure.
That just leaves one question to be answered: why should we love God like that?
The answer is simple. It is so that we can become and be powerfully effective witnesses and disciples of Jesus Christ! If we strive to love God completely then everything about being such people will flow in place and our priorities in life will be correctly grounded – oriented towards God and His calling in our lives. And then – here’s the greater blessing that comes – we will be God’s “blessing” in the lives of those around us and the world. That’s what happens when godly love defines us – which is just what we are to be all about.
So, people loved by God, strive to do as Jesus commands and love Him – completely!
Lord God, we thank you for loving us. We thank you for showing us that love in so many ways, especially through Jesus Christ and what He has done for us on the cross to gain our salvation. We thank you for sending us the Holy Spirit so that we can experience the new life of being born again in your love, and so that we may be taught about your love and guided in becoming loving people.
Help us, Lord, to love you. Help us to understand how important it is to love you with all that we have, all that we are, and all that we are becoming. We pray in the name of Christ, and for the glory of your Name. Amen.
Order of Worship
WE BEGIN OUR WORSHIP
* Call to Worship: The Worship Sourcebook, p. 54, # 29
The eternal Father, who loved us and set us free from our sins, who loves us still with that love that will not let us go, and who will love us forever, calls us to worship him today as the only true lover of our souls. The Lord stoops to receive the love of our poor hearts. He calls us to remember the depth of his love for us in Christ. God seeks our love!
So now, people loved by God, let us join together and worship Him with love and joy!
* Silent Prayer
* Opening Hymn: “We Come, O Christ, to You” PH 238 (5 stanzas)
* Vow: Pastor: Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ: Whom are we called to love completely?
All: The Lord God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; the eternal Triune God who is our Father, our Saviour-Redeemer, and our Comforter, Helper, and Guide. He commanded His people to: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)
* God’s Greeting: Lord God, may your grace, your mercy, your love, and your peace be with us as we worship you today and always. Amen.
WE CELEBRATE OUR NEW LIFE
* Hymn of Praise: “Father, I Adore You” PH 284(3 stanzas)
Prayer of Confession: The Worship Sourcebook, pp. 95-96, # 28
Lord, we have sinned, without considering how much you love us. You see our sins more clearly than we can ourselves. Lord, you know when we are indifferent to your Word, the Bible; how often we forget to pray; the times we come unwillingly to worship; and yet we turn to you when we are in trouble.
Lord, you know when we are untruthful and when we think evil of others. You see our anger and unfairness to our friends. You know how hard it is for us to forgive. Forgive us and make us clean, so that we can obey your call to take up your cross and follow you. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Words of Assurance: The Worship Sourcebook, pp. 120-121, # 29
God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. —Romans 5:8; Colossians 1:13-14; Romans 5:1, NIV
Our Response of Gratitude ~ God’s Will for Our Lives:
Responsive Reading of the Law – PH p. 1018 ~ As Summarized in Matthew 22:37-40
Leader: What is the great and first commandment?
People: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
Leader: What is the second commandment like it?
People: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Leader: What does this mean?
People: Love is the fulfilling of the law.
Leader: To what does this call us?
People: To a life of faith working through love.
Hymn of Response: “Spirit of God, Who Dwells within My Heart” PH # 419: 1, 3, 5
WE HEAR GOD’S WORD
Children’s Message (optional)
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture: Mark 12:28-34
Text: Mark 12:30
Title: “Loving God”
Prayer of Application
WE RESPOND IN FAITH
* Hymn of Response: “I’ve Come to Tell” PH 250
WE GO OUT TO SERVE
* Benediction: The Worship Sourcebook, p. 362, # 4
May the grace of Christ, which daily renews us, and the love of God, which enables us to love all, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, which unites us in one body, make us eager to obey the will of God until we meet again, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
* Closing Hymn: “My Jesus, I Love Thee” PH 557 (4 stanzas)