Sunday, April 24, 2016

April 24, 2016

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC

KNOW, LOVE, SERVE

Mark 12:28-34

 

They’d been asking Jesus a lot of questions.  Picture one of our presidential candidates being grilled by the press.  These were hard questions.  The harder the better.  Some were what we might call “gotcha” questions.  That means they seemed easy and innocent, but they really were anything but.  Even skilled politicians get taken in by one of those now and then.  But not Jesus.  He had the perfect answer every time.  After the passage we read today, his questioners were apparently tired of this game.  It says, “After that, no one dared ask a question.”

A little girl was full of questions.  “Daddy, why is the sky blue?”  Her dad thought it over and told her the truth.  “I don’t know.”

“Daddy, why did God make mosquitoes?”  “I don’t know.”

“Daddy, how does gravity work?”  “I don’t know.”

“Daddy, why do birds sing?”  “I don’t know.”

“Daddy, you don’t mind me asking you all these questions to you?”  “Of course not.  How else are you going to learn?”

When Jesus was asked, “Which is the most important of all the commandments?” he didn’t say, “I don’t know.”  He gave a clear, concise answer.  He gave such a brilliant answer that there were no follow-up questions.  How could there be?  He’d said it all and he hadn’t wasted any words.  The one who asked the question commended Jesus on the answer.  Then he repeated the answer just to make sure he got it.  Jesus confirmed that he got it.   Then Jesus said something else.  He said, “You’re almost there.  You’re right on the border of God’s kingdom.”  After that there were no more questions.  There was nothing left to ask.  There was nothing more to say.

So what had Jesus said that had successfully brought the press conference to a screeching halt?  He said that all the many and complicated commandments can be summarized as follows:  Love God and love your neighbor.  That’s it.  Just those two.  We’ve added a third just for fun.  Since it’s important to get to know the one who taught us these two, this church has as its purpose statement:  “Know Christ, Love God, Serve Others”.

We’re coming up on the fifth anniversary of adopting this as our purpose statement.  Several of us had read Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Church.  That’s the one he wrote before his even better best-seller, The Purpose-Driven Life.  They both make the same point.  If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.  But if you know what you’re aiming at, if you’re clear on your purpose, if you have a clue about what you’re trying to accomplish, you have a tremendous advantage over those who are clueless.

The late business guru, Peter Drucker, made it real simple.  He said there really are only two questions:

(1) What business are we in?

(2) How’s business?

We have decided, having read what Jesus said about the greatest commandment, that our business is:

To build Christian disciples who

know Christ, love God, and serve others.

 

That’s our purpose.  That’s why we’re in business.  So the only remaining question is, How’s business?  And since the answer to that question is always that business could be better, we are never content to rest on our laurels.  We are always trying to get better.

One reason churches that try really hard to get better never do is because their purpose is way too complicated.  We see this tendency in the Bible.  God gave Moses 10 commandments.  But how many commandments did they have by the time they reached the Promised Land?  613.

That’s the way the legal mind tends to work.  Laws are added to laws.  Laws are written to explain laws and then more laws to explain the laws that explain the laws.  The current tax code for the United States is five times longer than the Bible.  Everyone agrees it needs to be made shorter, it needs to be simplified, but every time Congress meets, it get longer and more complicated, not shorter and simpler.   Here’s one proposal for a simplified tax form:

                  ustaxform

          This form has two lines.  We have three.  “Know Christ, Love God, Serve Others.”  I want to share a little about each of the three.  Maybe in the process we’ll see how being clear on our purpose helps us be faithful to our calling.

We begin by getting to know Jesus.  A personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  That’s where it all begins.  And here’s why:  Without Jesus, God is unknowable to us.

The Bible begins and ends with a garden.  We saw that in our Revelation study.  Genesis tells of how in the first garden, the Garden of Eden, God would actually walk go for walks in the cool of the day.  I picture Adam and Eve walking with him, talking things over, spending time with their Creator.  All that changed when sin entered God’s perfect creation.  Sin drove a wedge between God and human beings.

So we get to the second book of the Bible, Exodus, and we see a totally different picture of God.  Not God walking and talking and laughing with his children in the garden paradise, but God who cannot be looked upon because we are told that no one can look upon God and live.  There is a distance between God and us.  God is unapproachable.  We can fear God.  We can worship God.  But we can’t really feel close to God.  That is gone.  Sin has destroyed the closeness of that relationship for which we were created.

That’s the reason for Jesus.  God longed to restore the relationship that had been lost, so God came to earth as one of us.  Jesus solved the sin problem by dying for us on the cross.  And Jesus at the same time solved the problem of God being so different, so distant, so unapproachable.  Those who got to know Jesus discovered an amazing thing.  To know Jesus was to know God.  He said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).  He said, “No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6).  And so that relationship with God that was broken is now restored.  Through Jesus we can draw near to God with confidence (Hebrews 4:16).  Knowing Jesus is the way to God.

So what does that mean for our church?  It means we all need to take our relationship with Jesus seriously.  It means that if you don’t have that relationship, or if you aren’t sure if you have that relationship, this church is here to help you take that next step.  It means that this church is also here for the thousands of people who live nearby who don’t know Jesus.  We are here not to be pushy or aggressive or obnoxious, but to look for helpful ways to share Jesus with them.  Sometimes churches assume everyone already has a relationship with Jesus and they move quickly on to other things.  We won’t do that here.  Not as long as “Know Christ” are the first two words of our purpose statement.

And then we love God.  Sometimes we are given the impression that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the end all and be all of Christianity.  But Jesus didn’t say that.  When he was asked that trick question about which law was the greatest, he didn’t say a thing about himself.  He didn’t tell people to love Jesus.  He told them to love God.  And don’t just love God half-heartedly.  He said you’ve got to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength.  With passion, prayer, intelligence, and energy.  We work at loving God.  We are intentional about it.  We give it priority.  And the more we work at it, the less it feels like work.  It’s just what we want to do.

Some of you are married.  Even if you aren’t, I’m assuming we all have some practice with this.  We’ve learned, let’s hope, that when love is just a word, it’s an empty word.  If we say, “I love you”, and then never lift a finger to demonstrate our love, there is reason to question the sincerity of our love.  Or if our love is just a feeling, there’s also something missing.  If our love ebbs and flows with our moods, so you can never predict from one moment to the next whether we’re going to treat the person with kindness or with cruelty, that’s not real love either.

If you love someone, you show it.  You don’t leave them wondering if you really mean it.  If you love someone, even when the loving feelings aren’t there, you still do the things that love requires.  And there’s something I’ll bet you’ve discovered that might even be the secret to making love last.  When you do the things love requires, even when the feelings aren’t there, it usually doesn’t take long for the feelings to return.

It’s that way with loving God.  The great mystics down through the ages have described their love for God in language that makes you think you are reading a love letter.  It almost makes you blush.  They were that in love with God.  But their feeling of love didn’t end with those feelings.  It resulted in action.  They loved God so much that they couldn’t stop doing the things that pleased God.

What does loving God mean for our church?  It means worship is a priority here.  Worship is expressing our love for God.  It means quality and passion in our worship.  It means we don’t just go through the motions.  We don’t just phone it in.  Our musicians prepare so they can offer their very best to God.  Our preachers don’t write their sermon during the middle hymn.  Our people spend time in prayer and in scripture during the week so they can come here with anticipation.  It means worship attendance is a priority so, even when we might not feel like it, we still show up.  Just like when the loving feeling aren’t there, we still do the things that love requires.

And we love God in so many other ways, too.  We learn what pleases God, and then we do it.  Our church is here so we can hold each other accountable for all this.   Not just loving God a little, but loving God a lot.  Not just loving God “in word or speech, but in deed and in truth” (I John 3:18).  We don’t just know Christ around here. Because we know Christ, we are falling head over heels in love with God, and it just keeps getting better.

Finally, we serve others.  Serving others is so important because it is so easy for faith to be selfish.  It becomes all about me.  My personal relationship with Jesus.  My love affair with God.  My spiritual growth and fulfillment.  My needs met.  My dreams come true.

Church can be that way, too.  As long as we’re getting from church what we are looking for, we’re happy.  As soon as the getting isn’t so good and something is actually expected of us, we become disgruntled.  It’s a consumer mentality toward church.  We see it a lot these days, as younger generations don’t feel that same sense of duty that older generations felt.  The question is, “What’s in it for me?”  Sometimes I wonder if that’s really the way to build a church in today’s world after all.  We might call it, “MeChurch: Where It’s All About You.”

 

(YouTube Video:  “MeChurch: Where It’s All About You“)

 

On second thought, maybe that’s not quite the church Jesus had in mind.  But can we be honest?  We laugh at the parody, but there’s something inside all of us that would rather be served than serve.

If we love God we will do the things that please God and we thing we know pleases God is loving others.  It says in I John, “If any one says ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (4:20).  Jesus was a little nicer in the way he put it:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).

Why is this important?  For three reasons.  First, God loves everyone and not just you.  One way God loves people is through other people.  Have you ever had someone do something kind for you and it was like a spiritual moment?  It felt like God was right there in that person who helped you?  That’s how it works.  God’s love can flow through you to others.

It benefits the other, of course, but it also benefits you.  Christian service makes you a better Christian.  It strengthens your relationship with Jesus.  It deepens your love for God.  “Know Christ, Love God, Serve Others” are interrelated.  They reinforce each other.

There’s a third reason serving others is important.  The people out there, the people who aren’t yet part of this church or any church, won’t believe our faith is for real until we show them.  Until we show them in real and tangible ways that really make a difference.

One of the Life Groups that launched officially last Sunday and actually got started a couple of weeks before that just calls itself the “Help Group”.  Here’s what Tim Swanson says:

The sole purpose of this group is to seek out those who need our help and then provide it for them.  This is not limited to people within our church family.  In fact, we especially will be looking for ways to extend the love of Christ beyond the circle of those we already know and love.

 

The public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas were in sorry shape.  Some pastors got together.  They were complaining about how bad things were.  Voters weren’t passing the bond measures.  School administrators were giving up.  Teachers were transferring to other districts.  Finally one pastor decided to say something positive.  He said, “Why don’t our churches do something to help?”

They did.  Thousands of Christian servants descended on these schools.  They rebuilt playgrounds, landscaped entries, laid carpet, constructed cabinets, painted hallways.  They just pitched in and did whatever needed doing.

There was a fourth grade teacher.  A wonderful teacher, a wonderful person, but not yet a believer.  She watched with her mouth open wide as her classroom was transformed by this army of strangers.  She said, “If this is Christianity, then I’m interested”  (The Externally Focused Church, Rusaw and Swanson, page 7).

The world is open to a Gospel it can see and hear.  I am excited to be pastor of a church that is clear on its purpose and determined to know Christ, to love God, and to serve others.

 

God, we are your church.  We’ve been your church for a long time.  115 years.  You’ve done a lot of great things through this church.  And we believe you have a lot more great things to do through this church.  Keep us clear on our purpose, your purpose.  Keep us focused, keep us faithful to the work you have for us to do,  through Christ our Lord,  Amen.