The Main Thing Should Be The Main Thing


Some time ago, a speaker gave an introduction to his sermon by pointing to Jesus’s statement identifying the two most important commandments. I don’t remember which gospel he preached from, but Matthew says it this way:

And He said to him, “ ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (22:37-40)

The preacher then went on to speak about loving our neighbor and what that entails. Which is fine, but I remember thinking, What about the FIRST commandment? Why does it seem like more and more of our sermons are about the second, about our horizontal relationships, and less about the one that is the main thing, our vertical relationship with God.

Before he became our pastor, Darin McWatters spoke at my church as one of the guest, and he provided, what I think, are some keys to obeying this “love God” part of the instruction.

He spoke from John 3, a passage about John the Baptist and his answer to his disciples who were upset that Jesus seemed to be stealing away their followers. John showed four particular reactions: dependence on God, deflection of attention aimed at him, dedication as a friend of the bridegroom, and a willingness to decrease in importance so that Jesus would increase.

I think all four of these are aspects of loving God.

A couple points stood out to me, but one in particular seems to put the two commands Jesus related in their proper order. People actually need Jesus more than they need us. In other words, if we love them well, we will first want them to meet Jesus. We can still paint their house or hand out sandwiches—all kinds of things that our neighbors need—but our eyes need to be focused on what they need first and foremost.

Which kind of leads to the next point. Drawing people to US is a mistake. If we have a big following, so what? The goal should be to draw people to Christ

Third, like the friend of the bridegroom, we need to remember that we, the Church, don’t exist for our own sake. We are there as servants to attend to the One who ought to be the center of attention. Our desire should be for the advancement of the good name of Christ, not the comfort of His people.

And finally, our culture loves fame, craves the spotlight, and it’s easy for us (me included) to assume that the more famous a Christian becomes, the more attention God will receive. So, our thinking becomes, we must increase so He may increase.

Sadly some congregations fall into false teaching, and they’re formula then becomes, He must increase so that we may increase.

But John didn’t say either of those. He said, I must decrease so that He may increase. Which pretty much rules out “marketing” the gospel. No one wants to buy from you if you say, I don’t have it, but I know who does. It’s not the kind of sales pitch that makes the top ten.

But it’s where God wants us to be. We are, after all, here so we can give Him glory, so we can put Him center stage, so we can turn the spotlights on Him.

I know some people think that’s selfish of Him for “hogging” the attention. But shouldn’t the star get star treatment? Shouldn’t the gold medal winner get the most press coverage? Shouldn’t the King receive the acclaim as head of state? How much more does God deserve our praise?

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Published in: on January 9, 2018 at 5:45 pm  Comments (1)  
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We’re Going About It Backwards


california_academy_of_sciences_san_francisco_2013_-_16Like so many other things, the Church swings and sways on a pendulum, shifting from one extreme to the next in our effort to follow the path of truth our God set down for us in His word. The Reformation, for example, was a correction that brought the pendulum swinging back to the belief in grace and forgiveness, not law and rule keeping.

Another clear shift came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the social gospel replaced the fire-and-brimstone emphases of the Great Awakening preachers.

The Social Gospel movement emerged among Protestant Christians to improve the economic, moral and social conditions of the urban working class. (“The Social Gospel Movement: Definition and Goals of Urban Reform Movements”)

And much needed to be improved in both America and other western civilizations. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and the urban poor were a growing population. How did the Church respond? First, there was no unified approach to the changes in society. Protestants didn’t even agree with one another, let alone with Catholics. Two factions formed among Protestants, the one

focused on saving individual souls; in revivals in the rapidly expanding cities, they attempted to get people to turn away from their own sins and to embrace personal salvation. The [other] party focused on the sins of society, such as poverty and inequality, and asked people to seek salvation through building “the Kingdom of God on this earth.” Through the 1880s and 1890s, the [former] raced ahead of the [latter] in popularity and public appeal.

Each of the groups was evangelical, meaning that they drew their message from the Bible, and each of them focused on redemption. But their objects of concern were very different. (“The Social Gospel And The Progressive Era”)

Around the turn of the century the pendulum swung toward those focused on correcting the sins of society. Organizations arose and articles were written.

But two world wars and a Great Depression doused the hope that society was self-correcting and the injustices of capitalism were stemmed. The pendulum swung again, back toward personal salvation.

Now we find ourselves in another shift. The pendulum is moving again toward the remedy for societal ills. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we’re reminded. And we are the “hands and feet of Jesus,” we’re informed. In the past we aimed to carry the gospel to foreign lands but neglected our own urban poor.

These are all true, and the swinging pendulum does, perhaps, need to move back toward the center. But there’s one major problem. We seem to be leaving out the most important component, the first and greatest command, Jesus called it: we are to love the Lord our God with our whole being.

Before we are to take the gospel across the ocean or across the street, before we are to volunteer at the homeless shelter or donate to the fund for Haiti, we are to love God.

Deuteronomy expands the response we’re to have to God by adding “fear Him”—that is, have an awe, a reverence for Him. Throughout the book, God’s people, newly escaped from Egypt, were instructed in God’s ways. They repeatedly received instruction to pay attention to their relationship with God, and then to go about serving and obeying.

They weren’t to serve and to obey first. They were to love and to fear first. But here’s the key:

Loving God and obeying His commandments don’t happen because we try harder. Loving God is a response to His first loving us. Obeying God is a demonstration of our love for Him. The elements are entwined, and we confuse the issue when we try to separate one strand from the others.

Or if we forget which is the greatest command. (“The FIRST Commandment Is To Love God”)

In other words, loving God isn’t something we can isolate from obeying Him. Obeying God isn’t something we can isolate from loving Him. Or that we can put ahead of loving Him.

In short, there ought not be a swinging pendulum. We should not over emphasize personal salvation more than serving our neighbors. Unfortunately we’re in a period of time that threatens to de-emphasize salvation in favor of caring for the physical needs of those less fortunate than we are.

One ought not exclude the other. Neither should be emphasized at the expense of the other. Both are necessary to fulfill God’s commandments. We love God and then we serve Him. We fear God and then we obey Him.

How can we love God, fear Him, serve Him, obey Him, without telling others about Him? How can we love God, fear Him, serve Him, obey Him, without caring for the less fortunate?

God’s heart is for the most vulnerable—for the orphans and widows and poor and strangers.

He has told you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

But that’s not first.

Loving God is first.

Today I fear we’re going about things backwards. We are focused on programs and events, we’re challenged to do and to go, we’re encouraged to work and to serve. But where are the sermons about loving God?

Maybe more churches have pastors helping worshipers fall in love with God and His word. Maybe there’s a renewed interest in prayer groups. Maybe Bible studies are gaining traction again. Maybe Sunday evening church services are taking place in other parts of the country. I don’t know.

All I know is, if the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our being, why don’t we spend more time focused on loving God than on doing good works?

Published in: on October 28, 2016 at 7:10 pm  Comments (3)  
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The FIRST Command Is To Love God


I just read a long, rather impassioned post about same-sex marriage from someone who identifies as a Christian, though not as a Christianist, defined as “those on the fringes of the religious right who have used the Gospels to perpetuate their own aspirations for power, control and oppression,” but then described as all those who lined up at a Chick-Fil-A to support Mr. Cathy’s right to give charitably as he sees fit without being punished by the government.

Posts like this make me seriously wonder if people know what the US Constitution says and/or if they care a whit whether or not someone else’s rights are being violated–even when they disagree with that person.

But of greater issue is that the blogger said,

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” repeatedly named as the greatest commandment, means that we must imagine ourselves in our neighbors’ positions and treat them as we would treat ourselves.

While making some valid comments about how Christians should treat others, the elephant in the post is that “love your neighbor” is the second greatest command, not the first. What a misstep!

And it is no small thing in elevating our treatment of others over our treatment of God. This is the way false teaching works. God gets relegated to second place, at best.

In truth, God specifically reserved the top spot for Himself. We are to have no other gods before Him.

Jesus spelled it out clearly, a statement repeated in all three of the synoptic gospels, when He was questioned about the greatest command:

One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. (Matt. 22:35-38, emphasis mine)

But the key point here is that Jesus was quoting the command from Deuteronomy 6:5. A few chapters later, Moses reiterates the point:

Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deut. 10:12)

The command is repeated yet again toward the end of the book:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes (Deut. 30:15-16a)

What’s hard to ignore is the fact that loving God and obeying God are tied together. Someone can give all the human reasoning they want to for doing whatever they wish to do, but the fact is, when that person disobeys God’s law, He’s not loving God.

The potential stumbling block is that one of God’s commands is to love our neighbors. Hence, someone can say, I am obeying God when I advocate for same-sex marriage because I am loving my neighbors who have been denied their rights.

That statement is riddled with problems. First, and really the only point that matters, is this: it is not loving to enable someone to sin.

The problem becomes complicated, as I see it, when people bearing the name of Christ wish to enforce God’s law rather than to love their neighbor by refusing to enable his sin. It’s a difference in attitude and motive, first, but it’s also a difference in conclusion–as if obeying God’s law against same-sex unions will make the individuals in question acceptable in God’s sight.

The truth is, we are separated from God, not because we are immoral, lie, get drunk, gossip, or harbor pride in our hearts. Yes, those things deserved death, but Jesus Christ took on Himself the penalty we should pay because we are bankrupt and incapable of doing enough to even our account. Instead of accepting His free gift, though, some reject Him and remain in their sin. It’s that rejection that leaves them separated from God.

Jesus never said, Clean up so you can come to Me. Rather, His message is, Come to Me, and I’ll clothe you with My righteousness and give you a new life renewed according to My image.

Loving God and obeying His commandments don’t happen because we try harder. Loving God is a response to His first loving us. Obeying God is a demonstration of our love for Him. The elements are entwined, and we confuse the issue when we try to separate one strand from the others.

Or if we forget which is the greatest command.

Published in: on September 3, 2012 at 6:17 pm  Comments (2)  
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