15 October 2017

Homily for Trinity 18 - 2017

"Do You LOVE God?"
Matthew 22:34-46

Listen here.

Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” … Do you love God? I don’t expect anyone here actually to say, “No, I rather hate God.” Who in their right mind would say that? But do you really LOVE God? Are you completely devoted to Him? Is He the One you think and daydream about all the time? Is there no one else on earth with whom you would rather spend your time than with God? Is there nothing that you’d rather do than be with God, talk with Him, enjoy His stories, and just revel in His company?

Or is God just Someone we learn about in Catechism class or Bible class or sermons? Learn about Him, but keep Him at a distance. Stick Him under the microscope of our quest for religious knowledge or in the petri dish of our fascination with things spiritual. Is God little more than an intellectual pursuit, once a week or whenever we happen to think of Him? Do we merely learn to say the right words about Him, such as He’s all-present, or all-powerful, or all-knowing? Is God simply Someone we talk about when we want to sound religious? Or do you truly LOVE God?

The Pharisees certainly claimed to love God. But when He came to them in the flesh, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, they put Him to the test. You see, they did not want this God, the One who took on our human frame to free us from sin and death, to get too close to them! They did not want God to get too personal or too intimate. So they tested Jesus: “Which is the great commandment in the [Torah]?” They wanted to reduce all five books of Moses to the bare minimum. They wanted a bumper-sticker slogan that would fully capture the law of God.

We fallen creatures like to do that. We like to defang God’s law—render the Doberman harmless. One speaker called it the “religion of St. Minimum.” What’s the least that I have to do to get by? How often do I really have to go to church? How often do I really need to pray? How much money do I really have to give? How much do I really have to know? What’s the bottom line? What's the bare minimum? The religion of St. Minimum tries to keep things practical, painless, and puny. It delights in loopholes. It bargains with God to be “fair.” “So, Jesus, what’s the one commandment that we really need to keep?” But that’s not love. What boyfriend, fiancé, or husband could get away with telling his sweetheart, “I only want to spend the minimum amount of time with you”?

Jesus sensed the trap. He knows what’s in our hearts. He knows how we like to twist and turn, and wiggle out from under God’s commands. So He gives not one, but two greatest commands. The first one: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” That’s the Hebrew way of saying, “Love God with every last fiber in your being; hold nothing back.” Then Jesus said, “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The two go together. You cannot claim to love God if you don’t love your neighbor. When you do love God, you will naturally also love your neighbor whom God gives you. So Jesus does boil God’s law down to a minimum in these two simple commandments. But they are far from minimal in shaping our life. Love God with your whole being; and love whomever God puts next to you.

If you’re still looking for a bumper-sticker slogan, you can distill God’s law down to one four-letter word: L-O-V-E. As St. Paul said, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). But we even have troubles with this word “love,” don’t we? For one thing, we think love is a feeling, a warm-fuzzy on our insides. But love is not a feeling. Love is a deliberate action of our will toward another person. When we love God or our neighbor, it does not mean that we have certain feelings about God or our neighbor. Sure, feelings are there with us, but love is not essentially a feeling.

Another trouble we have with “love” is that we think it’s something that we “fall” into. We fall into ditches and holes filled with mud, but we don’t fall into love. Besides, falling means losing your balance, losing your control. Love is not an out of control, loss of balance experience; love is a deliberate action of our will toward another person. To love means deliberately to turn ourselves toward another person. One commentator explained it this way: “[Jesus] opens the hearts of believers, like flowers to the sun, to their living posture. We were made for love…. [Jesus] does not so much give an activity that can be calculably done as he gives a direction to face” (F. D. Bruner, Churchbook, 794). The Bible describes love in self-sacrificing terms: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

How do we love God and neighbor? Let’s count the ways. We love God by having no other gods in our hearts, by giving God our whole-hearted fear, love, and trust. We love God by using His Name in worship and prayer, and by giving glad attention to His Word. We love God by honoring the authorities He has placed over us, starting with our parents; by caring for the health and well-being of our neighbor’s body; by upholding marriage in the way we conduct our sexual lives; by helping our neighbor improve and protect his possessions and income; by upholding our neighbor’s reputation and not participating in gossip or slander; by being content with what we have rather than continually wanting what we don’t have. These are just some of the ways that we love God and our neighbor.

And so we reflect God’s love toward us—the way the moon reflects the light of the sun, or the way a polished mirror reflects the light that strikes it. When God first made Adam and Eve, they perfectly reflected His love. They were created in the “image of God.” God is love, and Adam and Eve were perfect reflectors of God’s love. But their rebellion ruined the mirror. Our self-centeredness and inborn desire to be little gods in place of God has distorted the reflection of God’s love. Just as fingerprints and gunk smudge the reflection in a mirror, so our sinfulness has destroyed our reflection of God’s love.

Do you LOVE God? Do you have wholehearted love for God, sacrificing your all for Him? Do you love your neighbor as yourself? You know you don’t love like that. Not even Mother Teresa loved like that. And here’s why we need the question that Jesus used to test the Pharisees. “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?” The Pharisees knew that the Messiah, the Christ, would be a blood descendent of King David. But there’s more to the Messiah than a royal bloodline. He is also David’s “lord.” As David said in Psalm 110: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” The Messiah is David’s son, a human being, but He is also David’s “Lord.” He is both God and Man, begotten of His Father from all eternity and born of the virgin Mary. Jesus is talking about the mystery of His Incarnation. In Him God has become man. And in Him humanity is recreated and renewed. In Him people are restored to be what God intended them to be. He came to restore the image of God to our fallen race. He loves God with His whole heart, with His entire being, with His whole mind. He loves His neighbor as Himself.

St. John said it well: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation—the means of forgiveness—for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:9-10). Jesus loved us to death on the Cross. It was the deliberate action of His divine-human will toward us loveless, unlovely sinners. In Baptism we receive God’s great love in Christ’s death and resurrection. In Holy Absolution, our Lord keeps telling us, “I love you by forgiving you.” And consider the great feast we’re about to enjoy. Here Jesus puts His own Body and Blood into our mouths so that we can love God with our whole being and love our neighbor as ourselves. After the Meal, we’ll even pray that God would “strengthen us…in faith toward [Him] and in fervent love toward one another.”

“We love—both God and neighbor—because He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19). Jesus’ death and resurrection free you to love God and one another. You no longer have to love; you get to love. We don’t love God in order to obtain His love; we already have His love in David’s Son, Jesus. Now we get to love God with every fiber of our being and we get to love our neighbor as ourselves, reflecting the love that our Lord has given to us. Amen.

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