The Greatest Commandment

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 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. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:36-40 (ESV via biblegateway.com)
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This is a familiar Bible passage, and one that Jesus quotes from the ancient writings (in Deuteronomy and Leviticus). All the laws and regulations of history boiled down to two commands. And they are not what one might expect. The greatest commandment isn’t to believe; it isn’t a “shalt not”; it isn’t even to “obey.” Instead, the greatest commandment is to LOVE– love God wholly and without reserve, and love your neighbor “as yourself.”

It sounds so simple, but we don’t do it. In fact, we spend countless hours and waste energy trying to make the commandments MORE complicated and adding conditions, additions, interpretations, excuses, and critiques.

There is not enough time or space to list all the ways we try to avoid the greatest commandment, but here are a few I struggle with:

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  • My heart–I love the Lord, but I don’t always love Him with my whole heart. I love His creation; I love His promises; I love the “idea” of God. But I also love my comfort zone; I love my own moods (especially happiness and self-esteem); I love the admiration of my peers; I love God, but…I don’t always pray to God the way I would talk to my best friend. I don’t seek Him out ahead of everyone else. I don’t always seek His correction or welcome His Lordship.
  • My soul–Most of us would claim that we are “spiritual” on some level. But many of us (including me) don’t do a very good job of tending to our souls. We assume that behaviors and habits and a list of beliefs are “enough.” We spend very little time in prayer, worship, and Bible study (compared to the time we spend on chores, sleep, entertainment, driving around, daydreaming, etc.). I’m not suggesting that we all need to go into a cloister (especially in light of the second great commandment to love our neighbor). But souls, like bodies and minds, need to be nourished, exercised, and cared for. Very few of us make it a priority to nourish our soul-connection with God–to Love Him with all our soul. We skim over this part of the commandment, assuming it is much the same as loving Him with all our heart or all our mind.
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  • My mind– My mind wanders– a lot! And I spend a lot of time learning “about God,” instead of learning “from God.” I want to know what God is like– to be able to explain Him or comprehend Him. But God is bigger than my ability to “know” or even to imagine. And yet, He invites me to “know” Him, not just know about Him. In fact, He invites me to “follow” Him, to be His disciple, to model my character and my thoughts after His own.
  • My neighbor–I want to love humanity. I want to love “everybody”– from a comfortable distance! But God calls me to love my neighbor– that person who cuts in front of me at the grocery store, or revs their car engine outside my bedroom window at 3 in the morning, or laughs at me when I’m having a bad hair day. And not just “love” them in the sense of tolerating them– God wants me to love them “as myself.” To value them, reach out to them when I might rather avoid them, or seek peace when they are “pushing my buttons.” God wants me to offer them grace and forgiveness, when I might expect to demand justice or recognition.
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  • “As Myself”–Sometimes, I don’t love myself. Sometimes, I idolize myself. Other times, I despise myself. And the attitude I have rubs off on to others. God doesn’t call me to idolize my neighbor; to lie to my neighbor about Sin and its consequences, or to let my neighbor’s wicked behavior go unchallenged. Just as God wants to call me to repentance, He wants me to lovingly reach out to my neighbor, not enable her/him to live a lie. But if I am living a lie–not dealing with my own sin– I cannot demand from my neighbor what I am not willing to give to God. Similarly, I can’t give honest love to my neighbor when I despise myself– God created us both and loves us with an everlasting love! How can I give love I am not willing to receive?
  • My understanding of “commandment.” God has the authority to command my attention, my obedience, my worship, and my loyalty. But my “love?” God has given us the CHOICE to Love Him, and to Love others– He also gives us the imperative to live our lives filled with Love. It is not God’s will that we Love out of coercion, robot-like and against our own free will. Rather, God commands us to submit our will to Love in every situation. We are slaves to Sin, powerless to love perfectly–even when we try, or think we are doing well, we will fall into faulty thinking, ungoverned emotions, and uninformed, unloving reactions. We WILL break this greatest commandment, just as we will break other, lesser commandments. But God has also promised to listen to our confession and forgive us, redeeming our soul, cleansing our heart, and renewing our mind as we follow Him. God does not command us to Love perfectly in our own power. He does command us to choose Love–first and foremost for Him, and then for those around us whom He loves. In so doing, we will grow to understand the power of God’s commands as we experience the power of His Love!
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God and Sinners, Reconciled!

Every year, we celebrate the birth of Emmanuel– God With Us. It is amazing to consider the Love of God that brought Him from His Heavenly throne to a lowly manger stall, the King of Glory contained in the tiny body of a sleepy infant.

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But we should be careful not to miss the rest of the story. As wonderful as it is to think that God would love His creation enough to visit among us, to “taste” life as a human, the story gets gloriously magnified as Jesus leaves the manger to enter a ministry. Jesus didn’t just live among us, He healed, taught, laughed, formed friendships, and served among people– many of whom scoffed, scorned, and rejected Him and His message.

And His message was this: God wants– in fact He passionately yearns– to restore the relationship WE have broken. Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life– He came to GIVE His life as a sacrifice for those who didn’t deserve it, to extend forgiveness to those who had no right to ask for it. The Holy and Perfect God became the guilt and shame of Sin, so that we could be reconciled to Him. He accepted the penalty of Death, so that we could be given eternal life.

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This miracle of reconciliation can be difficult to understand. I sometimes get “stuck” in the weight of my past–I know that Christ offers forgiveness, but I sometimes act as though the penalty hasn’t been removed; only suspended. But that’s not what Jesus taught. Like a leper cured of leprosy, I am clean–no scars, no stains, no relapse–all traces of my disease removed. In this world, I will still feel the sting of the consequences of Sin– betrayal, sickness, injustice, even death. But death is no longer my destiny; it is a temporary rest stop on my way HOME.

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Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life; He came to “taste” death– and He came to destroy its power, so that we could know true Life, and live it to the fullest!

Joy! Peace! Reconciliation! Eternity! Emmanuel!

Holy Infant, So Tender and Mild

It is one of the most popular Christmas Carols– we sing it every year: “Silent Night, Holy Night; All is calm, all is bright; ‘Round yon virgin mother and child– Holy infant, so tender and mild; Sleep in Heavenly Peace– Sleep in Heavenly Peace.”

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Each year, we celebrate the coming of Christ– “Son of God; Love’s Pure Light.” God coming to earth to live among His creation– Emmanuel, God with us. And it becomes familiar, and gets mixed in with stories of Santa Claus and gift-giving, decorated trees and flying reindeer.

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But stop a minute to reconsider the amazing juxtaposition–the very Word of creation became a speechless baby. The ruler of galaxies came to earth naked and needy, hungry and helpless. Holy Infant–fully God and fully human in His frailty.

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God could have come as a ruler of might; He could have stepped out of Heaven in a blinding flash of light, spoken with a voice of thunder, and made the mountains tremble. He could have filled the skies and scattered all the stars and clouds. He could have come in all His Majesty– and someday, that’s how He will return.

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But on that Silent, Holy Night, He came in humility. He came in Heavenly Peace.

What an awesome enigma–the One who would break the power of death came in the weakness of an ordinary birth. The Giver of Life choosing to reside in the womb of an ordinary young woman, gasping for air as He took His first breath as a human. The omniscient one having to learn to sit up, and eat, to speak and to hold His mother’s hand; to stand up and walk.

God SO LOVED us that He went to extravagant lengths to meet us in our humanness. He didn’t need to become human for His sake– He did it for us; that WE could know Him more intimately; so that when we talk to Him, we are talking to one who has known hunger, and pain, and heartbreak, and loss– as one of us.

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It is terrifyingly easy to miss the significance of the incarnation after the fact. As we remember the Advent season, let us reflect on the world before that Holy birth.. a world so fallen that no one could imagine the face of God; no one could imagine walking with Him or sharing a meal or a smile with Him; no one had ever felt His touch on their cheek or heard Him laugh. No one could have imagined that God would bleed, or cry out in agony, or taste death. But He came. He lived and walked among us. He died. And He paid the penalty for your sins and mine, so that we can share life with Him– eternally.

Bringing in the Leaves

It’s fall here in western Michigan, and that means falling leaves…lots of them!  In cities and larger towns, there are leaf “pick up” schedules.  Trucks come along at appointed times to pick up leaves that have been raked and piled up by the roadside or placed (along with other yard waste, sticks and such) into waste bins. In smaller towns and around the countryside, leaves will be raked, piled up and burned or placed in compost heaps and bins.  In a few cases, leaves will be left where they fall or are carried by the wind until the snow covers them, to be rediscovered in the spring when the snow melts off.

pave covered on red leaf between trees
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Falling leaves are part of the cycle of every year.  They announce the advent of autumn, delighting us with their colors for a few short weeks.  But when that task is done, they fall beneath our feet to be stepped on, swept up, burned up or forgotten.  Gone are the memories of shoots and buds blooming in the spring, or rich green leaves shading us from the intense heat and light of summer. Leaves are ephemeral.  They pass out of memory and time, their swirling colors lost in a heap of crunchy detritus underfoot.

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People are not leaves.  We share the same creator, but God has placed eternity in the minds, hearts, and souls of humankind.  Whether we are blooming, changing color, falling, or being swept aside in this world, God will gather us all in a great harvest of souls.  But we will not be turned to ash or mulched into compost.  We face an eternal destiny; one where our true “colors” will be permanent, and our placement fixed.  We will either be raised to vibrant life, attached to the source of life and abundance; or we will be eternally “fallen”, swept away by judgment and guilt and the consequences of rebellion.

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That may sound harsh and dramatic, but it is written in our soul–we feel it as we watch the withering leaves let go of the tree or smell the acrid of the burn pile.  We feel the pain and injustice of people being treated like no more than dead leaves– swept away as just another inconvenience.

woman holding orange maple leaf
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Today, I want to look for fallen leaves–we are all “fallen” from Grace, but some have also “fallen” through the cracks or by the wayside–look for people and seek ways I can pray for, reach out to, and offer Hope and Grace, especially to those whom life has swept aside.  Someone did it for me…Now it’s time to pass it forward.  It’s time to turn over a new “leaf”.  Let’s not “leave” the job unfinished–“branch” out beyond our comfort zone and bring in some leaves this autumn!

 

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