Sermons at Salvation Temple

The Main Thing! - Dr. Nigel Wright

Bible text

  Gospel of Matthew 22:34-40

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Saducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question; "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"

Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'" This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

A sermon - The Main Thing!
Dr. Nigel Wright

I heard some years ago a very successful businessman give the secret of his success, as people like that will tend to do from time to time. He said this: "The main thing is to keep the main thing as the main thing!" I thought that was pretty good - in whatever you do. Whether it's a business person, running a family or leading a church, the main thing is to make sure that you keep the main thing where it is as the main thing. We have different ways of saying this in the English language. We talk about keeping first things first. We talk about not loosing the plot. We talk about keeping our eye on the ball - which is a sporting metaphor, as you can gather. It is all about the same basic idea: you've got to stay focussed, you've got to be clear about what you're doing and what you're supposed to be doing. And then you've got to do it and make sure you go on doing it. That is pretty obvious that if that is the case, if that is the way it is, you will probably be successful at whatever you do.

When we read the Bible we also find the same general idea. For instance, in the book of Hebrews it says, "Fix you eyes upon Jesus. Lay down every weight and sin which clings so closely. Run with perseverance the race that is set before you." The same basic idea. In Colossians chapter 3 Paul says, "Set your mind on things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God." And that is again the same basic idea. Or Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount saying, "Seek first God's kingdom and its righteousness and everything else will be yours as well." And here in Matthew chapter 22 Jesus tells us what the main thing is from his point of view. There is a lawyer. (Actually the word lawyer here doesn't quite mean what it might mean to us - it doesn't speak of the kind of lawyer that you and I know and love from our contemporary experience. A lawyer in the New Testment is an expert in the law, and the law in question is the Law of Moses. So we're talking about a theologian.) A theologian stands up and says to Jesus, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" And Jesus doesn't actually give him a straight answer. Instead of giving him one commandment, he gives him two. And that is because when Moses went up the mountain to receive the Law from God, he came back, you will remember, carrying two tablets of stone. And on one tablet were written those commandments that do with our relationship to God, and on the other were written those commandments to do with our relationships to each other. And here Jesus gives not two tablets but two commandments that summarize everything that was on those two tablets. Love God with all your heart. And love your neighbor as yourself. He says if you do this, then all the Law and the Prophets (everything that is written in the Old Testament scriptures hangs upon these two commandments) are fulfilled by doing these two commandments. And therefore loving God is the main thing. And loving each other comes very close, second. This is the main thing.

You know, you and I have nothing to do other than love God. If we manage to love God, we've done everything that we could ever need to do. And if we love God we will indeed love our neighbour. For God is love. And to love God means to be filled with a love of God for those whom God has created. So this is the main thing for you and for me today, tommorow, this week and this next year - whenever and wherever, there is nothing more important than loving God in this way.

Notice the kind of context in which Jesus speaks these words. We read from verse 15 in this chapter, and we did so for a reason - in order to see the context in which Jesus is operating. In verse 15 we read that they were plotting against Jesus. The pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. And therefore the context in which Jesus speaks these words is one of conflict, of contest, of arguement. They're not taking what Jesus says for granted, they're arguing with him. And actually it's an unfair arguement if you think about it. When I read these verses it always reminds me of my "misspent youth," or at least one hour per week of my misspent youth. Because I used to misspend the hour between 4 and 5 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon pretty badly. This was in the 1960's you'll understand. In those days on British television we had the wrestling, and I used to stay glued to the television. And there were people that we loved to hate. There were these wrestlers "Big daddy" and "Giant haste," "Ricky Star." And they struck their stuff at Manchester. It was a complete waste of time, but "great stuff." And they used to have a variation on the theme, which I particularly enjoyed, known as tag wrestling. It is when you get three on each side and they take their turns to get in the ring. If one was losing they would tag the next person, and they would come in and they would go on and on. Finally one of the teams actually won. And that is what it is like here.

They are wrestling with Jesus, except that there are three on their team. There is only Jesus against the three. The three are the three groups I mentioned. I talked about the Pharisees in verse 15. We're told in verse 16 about the Herodians, another group within Judaism in Jesus day, who worked with them. And Jesus ceased them off when they asked this question about taxes paid to Ceasar. And in verse 23 the Saducees come along. That's the third group. They ask him this question about a woman who married seven times and where we have the seven brothers and they've all died. And we then read last of all that the woman died. And Jesus wants to answer their question and sends them off to flee the area and we're back to verse 34: "Having heard that Jesus had silenced the saduccees" the Pharisees got together. There is a contest taking place. Jesus whole ministry was a contested ministry. It was not a comfortable time, yet there were times when he was popular.

But from the very beginning there were people who were out to get him. And of course in their own terms eventually they succeeded, and they had him arrested and crucified. It is a reminder that not only was the ministry of Jesus contested, but our ministry is contested today. As we bear testimony to Jesus Christ there are lots of people out there who don't agree with us. And of the group of people who don't agree with us there is a proportion who are angry with us and are out, in their own way, to get us. You only have to listen to the radio any given week and you will find that week on week there are people standing up and refuting (at least they think they are refuting) the things that you and I believe, speaking against it, telling that what we believe is not credible, and now increasingly telling us that what we believe is not moral. We live in a contested world, and we are being tested, not just Jesus. If from time to time you are tempted to resent that resent it not, because if it was good enough for Jesus it's going to be good enough for you and good enough for me. We follow one master and to be tested by our age and our culture is not a bad thing. The important thing is when we're tested what will they find. What will they find in us?

And here we come to the main thing - what they should find is that we are people who love God and love our neighbour. That's the test. You see, this lawyer stands up and says to Jesus: "Teacher, in your opinion which is the greatest commandment of all?" Now, in the Jewish law in the Hebrew Scriptures there are 613 commandments. And anybody who reads those commandments ought to pick up quickly that although they're all important they are not all equally important. Some are more important than others. More important, for instance is to "Do not murder" than "Do not boil the kid in its mother's milk." I wouldn't want to do either, but you have to say that in the hierarchy of moral values some are higher than others. And the people who read this, this lawyer,this theologian, would debate each other, because they loved to debate. This is what they spent all day doing. They would debate then "if some are more important than others, which is the most important commandment of all." They would come forward with their ideas and their schools of thought. And here they are bringing Jesus into the debate to see what he would say. What are they expecting? Well, possibly they are expecting that he would choose one of the ten commandments. And then they would argue why that is not acceptable.

But Jesus does once more a very clever thing. Jesus knew about their contrasting, about their debating with people. And he chooses a commandment that they cannot gainsay. You see, these words that Jesus uses "to love the Lord your God with all your heart" are not actually original with Jesus. Jesus did not first of all dream up these words. These words are found in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy chapter 6. They're part of the teaching of the Law that Moses hand on to the children of Israel. These words were prefixed by the words: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one and you shall love the Lord your God." And because that word "Hear O Israel" - the word for "hear" is "shamar", then these words became known as the Shamar. Every devout Jew would say these words twice every day - once in the morning on rising, once in the evening on retiring. They knew these words. These were the words that they spoke more often than any other words. They would be embedded in their souls. And Jesus therefore says: do that which you say twice every day. This is the most important commandment. This is the first one. This is the major one, the big one. And what can you say against that when twice every day you are saying these words! Put them into practice is what Jesus is saying. This is the main thing!

Sisters and brothers, the main thing is to love God. To love God with all our hearts. To love God because He has first loved us. He showed his love to Israel by bringing them out of captivity in Egypt and into the Promised land. And they are to hear and love this Lord - love this Lord who has saved them. And this same Lord is the Lord who has brought us out of captivity - the captivity of ignorance, sin and spiritual bondage, and set us free from our Egypt and our bondage in order that we may enter into the promised land of the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. And this God who raised Jesus from the dead is the God whom we are to love.

Love is more important than everything else. More important than liturgy. You see, there is another version of these words in another gospel, possibly it is another occassion. And possibly it is an occassion which builds upon this occassion, when a lawyer comes to Jesus. And instead of Jesus answering the question himself, he says: what do you think? And the lawyer says: Love the Lord you God with all your heart. And then Jesus says: You spoke it rightly, for to love God is more important than all burnt offerings an sacrifices - that's liturgy, the way we worship. You know, I go all over the place preaching. In the Baptist congregations you have on the one hand High Chapel, and they do everything liturgically and correctly; and on the other hand you've got (sometimes people call it "clappy-clappy") of which I prefer to call Karioke congregations. And you've got everything else in-between. You can put yourself on a spectrum as to where you are. Tending perhaps to one or the other. And all of those ways of worshipping God are fine provided they are expressions of our love for God. God doesn't mind (though we mind sometimes) if it comes from the heart and is an expression of love. Why can't we be like God? Why can't we not mind, but to look unto the heart? To love is more important than liturgy and love is more important than legalism.

It is generally known that the pharissees and the saduccees were very keen on keeping the Law, keeping it down to minute detail, believing that if only for one day they could keep the Law, then the Mesiah would come. But love is more important than the Law. It goes beyond it, it reaches the heart, the inward part. And those who love God will do what is right. The Law will be written on their hearts, and therefore love God. How is it with your love for God by the way? Not a bad question to ask in church, is it? Do you love God more today than you did yesterday. Or if that is too short a time to measure then than you did a year ago. Let me tell you if you're not loving God more then you're not making progress. However many times you've sat in church, however many songs you've sung - and all of that is good and I believe in it - if you are not loving God more than you did, then something is not quite right in your spiritual progress. If only could we learn to love God more! Wouldn't we want to belong to churches which are filled with love of God and the love of neighbor that follows from love of God.

Now that's hard, but let me tell you again it gets even harder. You see, Jesus doesn't say only love God, but love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind. And when he says "all" what does he leave out? Absolutely nothing! You see, what God asks of us is total love - and I find that difficult. I know I shouldn't tell you that. I shouldn't tell you that because I am the principal of Spurgeon's College, but it's true. You see, I can't say to you today "I love God with everything." I can't say to you "I'm a mixed up kid." I can't say to you that I'm a complicated person. I can't say to you that part of me loves God. But there are other parts that don't. You see, you look at me and you think he looks pretty simple! But I'm not simple, and neither are you simple. You see I'm not one person - I'm a community of persons! - living in this body. There are different me's. There's a me that really wants with sincerity to love God. But there are other me's that hide away inside that occassionaly pop up, and I am amazed that they're still there - but they are still there. We're complicated. We are human beings. And when we are such complicated persons how do we learn to love God with all that we are?

You know, I think of married couples. I guess the practice is that they come down the aisle, they stand down here in the front and there they stand and think that it is going to be easy. They think this marriage business is easy. And I stand there thinking: no, this is so complicated - they don't know the half of it. You see they think there is a him and a her, two people. But I know in every marriage there are at least six persons that I can count. There is the "he" he thinks he is. There is the "he" she thinks he is. And then there is the "he" that maybe he is. And then there is the "she" she thinks she is. And the "she" he thinks she is. And the "she" that maybe she is. And all these six persons come now to be joined in what is supposed to be holy matrinomy. And what makes is worse is that all these six persons as they go through life change so that you always have to renegotiate your marriage. If you think about it, I know it is a tragedy if people divorce, it's also a miracle that people stay married, because we are so complicated. You recognize this scenario. We are complicated. And Jesus says to us love God simply, love God completely, love God with all your heart and soul and mind.

Take all the complicated stuff that is you and come to a place of simplicity and an integration and an inner unity. And with all your heart love God. You know there is enought to keep us busy for a lifetime or two in learning how to do this - and this is our project. This is why we're here. This is what's it all about. This is the main thing - love God like this. It's a great adventure, but it's also a massive challenge.

My favorite story is a story about probably the greatest theologian in the 20th century - a man called Karl Barth. He was a professor in Switzerland and a great opponent of Adolf Hitler. And he wrote so much - massive in quatity. He wrote this series of books called Church Dogmatics in which there are six million words. And as if that is not enought, he wrote an equal number of other writings. So we're talking about twelve million words. And in these words he explores what it is to be a Christian believer. He goes through all the ins and outs, the small details, and explores what Christians have believed 2000 years. Nobody I think knew more than Karl Barth about what it means to believe Christianly. Well, in 1947 he had his first chance after the war to go to the United States of America. He takes the boat, arrives in New York harbour and there is a press conference there put on for his benefit. A famous man. They stand up and ask him all sorts of questions. And then at the end a journalist stands up, like this lawyer, and says, "Professor Barth, with all your vast learning, how would you summarize your theology in one sentence? Think about that. Barth thinks for a moment and then says, "Jesus loves me, This I know, for the Bible tells me so." A children's hymn. And you know, if I'd said that, if I'd been standing there, I think I would have looked a bit of a muppet summarizing my theology in that way. But it wasn't me - it was Karl Barth. And behind that one sentence were 12 million words as to what it meant. You see it's the simplicity that lies behing complexity. There is a place of simplicity to which you can come amidst and through all the complexity and all the questions. Just as Jesus says these two commandments - in them all of the Law and the Prophets hang, all those 613 commandments revolve around these two simple commandments about loving God and about loving your neighbour. That's the simplicity that lies beyond complexity. And if you want to have spiritual aspiration for your own life, let me recomment this to you: the simplicity that lies beyond complexity.

You see, the simplest htings are the deepest things. In the academic world there is a saying and it is this: any fool can make things complicated, it takes a genius to make them simple. And here is Jesus the true genius - the genius come from God, cutting through all the contest and all the conflict and all the commandments, and making it simple for us. "Love God with all your heart and sould and mind."

One last thing - I don't know if you've noticed this in Deuteronomy chapter 6, but you can read it in Matthew chapter 22. But when Jesus quotes these words, he changes them. You see, if you look back to Deuteronomy 6, you will find it says "Love the Lord you God with all you soul, with all your heart and with all your strength." And what Jesus says is "Love the Lord with all your heart and with all your sould and with all your mind." He takes the word strength and changes it with mind. I think they might have noticed! If they said it twice a day, they certainly would have noticed. But Jesus changed it. And he's given us a clue, telling us how we could learn to love God more. We might learn to love God more if we think about God more.

As we take this bread and as we share this wine, we're being invited to think about the love of God, which has taken form for us in the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is how much God loved the world that He gave his only Son. And as we think about this, perhaps, just maybe our hearts will catch up with our minds and we will learn to love God a little bit more. Working towards that great day when we will love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.