2nd Sunday after Pentecost June 11, 2023
1 John 4:7-5:5
23, 411, 399, 45
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Sermon Audio: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/ministrybymail
Prayer of the Day: O God, through the grace of Your Holy Spirit You pour the gifts of love into the hearts of Your faithful people. Grant Your servants health both of mind and body that they may love You with their whole heart and with their whole strength perform those things that are pleasing to You; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
“Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the LORD your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, that you may fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. Therefore hear, O Israel, and be careful to observe it, that it may be well with you, and that you may multiply greatly as the LORD God of your fathers has promised you—a land flowing with milk and honey.’
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
“And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (NJKV)
Dearly Beloved Fellow Believers in the one true and living God,
Some years ago, a series of unusual billboards went up in major cities across our country. The messages on them were written as if God Himself had personally posted them. Each short message was signed, simply, “God.” Those who sponsored these billboards were of course trying to make some of God’s words real to drivers and passengers as they went about their daily business—a laudable goal. But the messages were somewhat lacking in reverence, and—if I remember correctly—they were all law with nothing about Christ and salvation.
One of these messages came to my mind while I was studying today’s text. It went something like this: “That command about loving your neighbor—I meant it.” One surely cannot dispute the thought here; God did indeed command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and this command is a summary of all the commandments that have to do with our neighbor. But there is also something missing here, isn’t there? What is missing is the understanding that the command about loving your neighbor—important as it is—is not the first and highest of God’s commandments. That place belongs to the one that is stated in our text: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” The Lord Jesus said that this is the greatest of the commandments. Yet strangely and sadly this commandment is the one that is most neglected and slighted. People can see the importance of loving their neighbor—though they may also fail to do it. But they do not see that love for God comes even before love for one’s neighbor and that love for our neighbor has its basis in love for God.
Our text brings this neglected commandment to our attention this morning. Let us see how God Himself presents it to us, so that we may see and acknowledge our failure to live up to it and look to Christ for forgiveness; and that we may aspire to put God first in our hearts and lives.
We understand that the command to love God above all else is the first and highest of all God’s commandments because “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3) is the first of the Ten Commandments. This command is also the foundation for all the rest of the commandments. Only if we hold God highest in our heart will we obey Him and live according to His will. Luther rightly explained the First Commandment with this simple sentence: “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”
We understand the command in our text as the first and highest especially because Jesus says that it is. He says this in answer to a question from one of the Pharisees. It was one of those questions that were designed to entrap and discredit Jesus. The question was, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus’ enemies thought that this question would be impossible for Him to answer because it involved a matter on which there was endless debate among the rabbis. They identified many commandments in the Old Testament and argued about which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And so, Jesus’ enemies thought that no matter which commandment He would identify as the greatest, and no matter what reasons He gave, He was sure to get some party or other stirred up. But Jesus’ answer was one that no one could criticize. He said that the greatest of the commandments is the one here in Deuteronomy 6: “You shall love the Lord your God…This is the first and great commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38)
With this answer Jesus showed how foolish and frivolous the Pharisees and scribes were in much of their treatment of the law. Jesus got to the heart of the matter. God’s law isn’t a matter of outward obedience to a body of laws. God wants His creatures to love Him and then to obey Him because they love Him. The command to love God has to be the first and highest of them all. Without love for God there can be no keeping of His commandments in a way that is pleasing to Him.
The love that God wants from us is an undivided love and devotion: “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” God doesn’t want our hearts to be divided, as though when a test of loyalty arises we might side with God, but then again we might side with a relative or friend or someone else who is opposed to God. We are to have a perfect trust in Him, the kind of faith that believes that what He wants for us is always the best. It won’t do for us to look at what God says to us in His word and then to do or believe something else that seems better to us. That’s not loving God with all our heart and soul.
The idea of loving our neighbor is more attractive than the idea of loving God with all the heart, soul, and strength. Not that it’s easy to love our neighbor as ourselves, as God commands; that also is a standard too high for us who have a sinful nature. But when we help others and give to them, we can feel very good about ourselves. Instead, we need to look at ourselves honestly in the light of the commandment that we have here and confess that we haven’t loved God with all our heart, soul, and strength. Instead, we have loved many things more than we have loved God: our possessions, our comfort, the praise of other people. For righteousness before God, we look to Christ alone. He alone fulfilled this first and greatest commandment; He alone loved God as we should. And He atoned for all our sins, all of our failures to love God.
As sinners we do not claim that we have kept this great commandment, but as redeemed and sanctified believers we do aspire to it. The Holy Spirit has shown us that God is our Maker, Redeemer, and Comforter so that we do love Him. We want to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength.
And God encourages us in this by assuring us that He blesses those who love Him. Here in our text God promises Israel that if they loved Him and obeyed Him it would be well with them in the land of Canaan that He was giving them. Their numbers would increase and they would have prosperity, a prosperity that they could enjoy because they would be living in harmony with God. And those blessings God would give to the next generation and to the generation after that—if they would teach their children and grandchildren to love God.
God still blesses those who love Him. Consider what it means to love Him. Loving God means believing in Jesus Christ and trusting in Him for salvation. Loving God means submitting to His authority and ordering your life according to His word. Loving God means repenting of behavior that is displeasing to Him and striving to change it. All who love Him will be blessed with His fellowship, with the peace of forgiveness, with wisdom and strength for daily living, with help in every need.
May the Holy Spirit give us growth day by day in love to God. Then—and only then—we will also learn to love our neighbor as ourselves. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.