If you watch or read any of the news these days, you might quickly conclude that everyone seems to have strongly held beliefs about everything. Want to talk about immigration along southern border of the United States? The conversation quickly turns to a split as to whether the situation is a humanitarian crisis or a national security emergency. Want to talk about climate change? The conversation turns to a split between those who believe we are finished in12 years and those who believe the whole matter is just fake. It seems that there are fewer and fewer topics people can discuss in the public square without the whole matter devolving into a disagreeable contest. The rigid tone of such public conversations can and has invaded private conversations within our families. Why does it seem that our society is becoming more argumentative?
I believe many of the arguments and the harsh tone of the public and private conversations come about because we no longer know what really matters most. When we do not have a common view of the things that matter most, then every idea becomes in the that moment the most important idea. When all ideas and concerns are considered equally important, then none of them are really very important at all. As a result of not knowing what really matters, in the public square, we have small groups of very vocal people all arguing that their own point of view is necessarily the most important view of the day. Because we do not know what really matters, in our private conversations, we have husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings and cousins, arguing over money, arguing over memories of who said what and when, and who is the better person.
We, humans, are easily led to misplace what is important. We can see our natural capacity to divert from what is important in the story of the first couple, Adam and Eve. God told the couple they could eat from anything in the garden except for the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There was only one important thing in the life of the first couple; only one. But the Bible says, “When the woman [Eve] saw that the fruit of the tree [of knowledge of good and evil] was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” The most important thing in the life was obeying one command from God. “Do not eat of the fruit from one specific tree.” The first couple replaced that single command with self-centered desires as the most important thing in their life. They disobeyed God and sin came into the world and sin has never left the world. An early Baptist theologian said when the couple ate the forbidden fruit, they “lost the knowledge of good and evil.” He said, “Accordingly they were rightly removed and robbed of this knowledge of good and evil by God and have become as a horse and a mule in whom there is no understanding.” Said another way, when we do not focus on the most important thing, the things that really matter, then we become and act as dumb as a donkey.
I do not know about you, but I prefer not to be a dumb donkey. So, what are we to do? I think being just weeks away from Easter, is the right time to check for ourselves to see if we know what is most important in life. This time of year produces a natural desire within us to think more deeply. We should take advantage of the stirring within us and ask, “Am I focused on what really matters?” And our Bible readings today, get us quickly to the heart of what is important and what really matters. I think if we bring our New Testament reading into our life, we would not be a dumb donkey. I invite you to turn to that passage in the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 12.
Jesus was engaged in teaching teachers. This was a challenging conversation, but Jesus was making his points. We come to our passage at Mark, Chapter 12, verse 28. “28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them [Jesus and the teachers] debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he [this teacher of the law] asked him [Jesus], ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’” At this time, the Rabbis had compiled an impressive list of commandments, number some 613 separate commandments. Two hundred forty-eight (248) commandments were positive things for the people to do and 365 commandments prohibited people from doing things. The teacher was asking, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
Jesus did not hesitate. Jesus said, “29The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.’” According to Jesus, there is nothing more important that to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” The question for us then is, “Do we live our life focused on the most important thing or do we believe other things or ideas in life are more important than loving God and one another?” I think it is quite evident that loving God and loving others is not the most important thing for most people. God created beautiful scenery for us to admire, ample food for us to eat, enough water for us to drink and yet people spoil his creation with murder, greed, lies, infanticide, sex with whomever, and worship of false gods. We consistently make other things more important than loving God and others.
If we do not want to continue to live separate from God’s will, what then does it mean to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? Let’s begin with the heart. The heart in the Bible is not simply an organ that pumps blood through the body. Biblically, our heart is the center of your passions. It is the center of our innermost being. We must love God with all our heart. We have all heard the expression “our heart of hearts.” It means what we believe so deeply that when we think about our beliefs or if those beliefs are challenged, we feel a physical effect in our heart. It is the place where our beliefs and doubts exists - unmasked by our concerns for how we may appear to others. If you study people, you would find we experience our feelings toward something a split second before we can intellectualize it. This understanding - our feelings toward something - is the message sent by our ‘heart of hearts’. It is a pure - basic feeling. We know at the core of our being that following that pure response is the right thing to do. God says love me that way. Pure. Always. Passionately. Do not pause and allow a questioning process to begin or we end up apply conditions to our response. Love me with that intensity that causes your heart to race.
How about our soul? First, our soul is the enduring part of our life. Our soul is vitality of life. Our soul is what survives our body. It is what moves the body to engage in those things that please God. To commit our soul to God is to work through the challenges of life always moving toward what God wants. We don’t shrink when things get tough. The Bible said, Jesus was deeply troubled in his spirit as he came to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. Jesus soul, his spirit, moved his body forward into the garden. The Bible says, “Going a little farther, he [Jesus] fell with his face to the ground [his soul moved him] and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’” Jesus was seeking God and God’s will even when it was most difficult because focusing on God was the most important thing to God even if it meant enduring pain. We on the hand want to avoid pain whenever and wherever possible. Have a disagreement with someone at church; we stop attending rather than work to preserve the unity of believers. Having trouble in our marriage; we sulk, complain to our friends, glare at our spouse; do the work of reconciliation as God wants; we say. “No thanks. That would be uncomfortable. Too much trouble. No guarantee it would work out the way I want it to.” Disappointed that things not the way you want them to be in life; conclude God is not all powerful, why else would such evil and pain exist, rather than recognize that evil exists because we have not made God most important in our life. Make God the center of your soul.
We are to love God with all our mind. God has given us an intellect and a mind. Do we use it to develop our understanding of God and his ways? Do we read God’s word just to read it? Do we think about what God has done and the life he has given us? What are we taking into our life as a source of knowledge? We need to be honest with ourselves and with God. How much of everyday do we spend thinking about God? Want to do something productive for your mind? Begin reading the psalms. Read one in the morning and think about it for the rest of the day. Read it again in the evening and think about how the God of that psalm revealed himself during the day. Repeat that exercise the next day with another psalm. I think you will be amazed at how different your thinking will become because you are using your mind to love God.
We need to love God with all our strength. Our strength is anything tangible entrusted to us by God. That includes our physical capabilities, our time, our talents, and our treasures. Do we give our time and physical presence to God by worshipping him every week? Do we give our talents in singing to God or playing music or sharing a prayer or words of testimony, by celebrating being in worship? When we are focused on God as the most important part of our life, we want to celebrate and use strength to show how glad we are to be in worship. Do we give from our wallets what is fair and loving toward God or do we parse out a little from our abundance? When it comes to giving our strength, we need to keep in mind the words from a hymn we like to sing. The refrain is, “I surrender all. I surrender all. All to Jesus, I surrender. I surrender all.” Those are the words. The words are not, “I surrender 10%. I surrender 10%. 10% to Jesus, I surrender. I surrender 10%.”
I read a short story about an interaction between a man and God. It goes like this:
God: I’ve kept a list of everything you’ve ever asked Me for. Some requests I granted. Some I denied. Look over the list and add to it anything you would like to ask Me for now.
Man: Will You give me everything I ask for?
Man: But you did not do that before. I asked for lots of things You didn’t give me.
God: Every unanswered request was not a true prayer. Those petitions did not come from your heart.
Man: I don’t understand.
God: You will. Complete the list. Ask for anything you want.
So the man worked on his list. He wanted his children to become Christian, give up on drugs, have wonderful marriages, a good career. He then put on this list for himself that he would have good health, a good pension, no headaches.
God: Look deep into your heart. See if there are more desires you have not yet expressed.
The man returned to his list adding he wanted a life full of meaning, a wonderful church, love from his family, to be a good grandparent, to be content, to feel joy and hope and love.
Man: I’m finished, God. I can’t think of anything more to add.
God: You haven’t yet discovered your heart.
Man: What do you mean?
God: I told you I would give you whatever you want. Is this what you want?
Man: My list is complete. I have written down everything I want.
God: Then I will give you everything on your list. But on one condition: you will never hear My voice again. I will withdraw all sense of My presence from you. You will never know Me.
Immediately, the man torn his list into little pieces and then he fell to his knees.
Man: God, these are second things, all of them. I see it now. Yes, I want them. But they mean nothing if I don’t have You.
God: You have discovered your heart. You will now meet Me as your guide into love, your healer of selfishness, your king with all power, your friend in the highest place, your donor of life.
“‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’” Jesus said, “29The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Let’s tear into pieces the list of things we thought were most important and let’s love what is most important, God. Amen and Amen.