Sermon: "The Church's New Year Resolution"

Delivered January 1, 2006 by Rev. John Schmidt.

Theme: Our focus in the New Year is to do all that we can as a church to take seriously Jesus' summation of all of the Law and the Prophets: To love the Lord with your heart, all your soul, and all your mind; and to love your neighbor as yourself.

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Sermon Text: Matthew 22:34-40

So it's the first Sunday of a New Year. Let's think about this year that we have just come through for a moment. I have made a few notes here to remind myself. First is, there is 27 named tropical storms in the Atlantic this year. We are up to Zeta and pastors are having to brush up on their Greek just to keep up on the advance through the alphabet here; Zeta. Three of them have hitvery close to home; Katrina, Rita and Wilma have all done damage around the gulf. There was a devastating earthquake this year in Pakistan and right now its winter and lots of people are still dealing with the repercussions of all of that. It's a year when terrorism hit London in a terrible way. This year hundreds of American soldiers died in Iraq; thousands of Iraqi's died this year. This is a year where real-estate values continue to grow in this area, and if you were trying to enter the housing market this year that worked against you. For all the others it was working for you.

It was a year when stocks went up and down; important industries closed down plants and the stock market leader was a underwear manufacturer. It's a year when military bases closed or moved. When we think about sports we had a drug scandal in the Orioles this year. The Ravens; right when I moved here you know, like Ravens, boom. But this was a year also when LSU beat Miami 40 to 3. It was a year full of personal issues too. For some of us it was a year when we faced some serious illnesses, injuries, and surgeries. It was a year when we faced some losses from our community and from the family of people in our community; the loss of a loved one. Some people left some old jobs, other people began some new jobs. This year brought all kinds of changes. Some of those changes we liked, and some of those changes we didn't like.

When we think about own personal lives, the end of the year like this is the time when it's easy to kind of sum it all up and realize that despite all of the good things that might have happened, you are kind of aware of all of the ways that you fell short. I know it's been that way with me. This was the year that I started to see where I don't serve you as well as I would like to. The limits of my wisdom, the limits of my foresight and ability. But at the same time, it was a year that made me aware that I wasn't called to it alone, that I was called to this ministry with you, and so your strengths are a part of what is offered to God right next to my weaknesses. And so, it was a year that I could rejoice that I have worked with some wonderful people in ministry. And it's a year where we have hired some amazing people to join our staff, to be a part of this whole community in ministry. It's a time when we see things that show us how we have fallen short and at the same time I hope for most of you that you can see this deep encouragement to know that you are not in it alone.

And that's one of the things that I think is paramount for the Christian church as we head into a new year, is to remember that the new year starts right after Christmas and Christmas is a reminder that as we face a new year and all the challenges that are going to come up in a new year, that we are not going at it alone. What Christmas reminds us is that God himself became one of us and that God is with us now, Emmanuel, God with us. And so, as we start to think about the year ahead of us, we've got to begin with that recognition that Christmas has reminded us and taught us that God has become one of us, has lived and has died in our place and has laid a foundation that we can actually look to a new year with a lot of hope.

God became one of us so that we can become more like him; so we can know God better next year. We can serve God better next year. That's great news; to know that this is possible, that we can actually please God. But what will it mean to us if we take it seriously that we want to please God next year? Even more than we carried that in our hearts last year? Well, I don't know about you, but coming out of a very busy Christmas season and all, I don't need something complicated this morning; to look at the year and say here are 50 things you need to remember and 48 things to do in order to please God next year. I am not ready for that. What's the target? What's the basic thing? What's the center of what we need to shoot for if we are going to be a people that brings pleasure to God this year just like we were talking to the children? Make God happy. Give a gift to God in the year ahead.

In today's passage that I am going to read to you in a moment, that's already been read to you, it's one of those moments when something big and complicated gets distilled to its absolute essence when Jesus tells us what the really great commandments are. So I would like for you again to turn to your Bibles, I think its page 699; its Matthew 22, Verses 34 to 40. I am going to read these.

"Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, 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."

Let's pray for God's blessing. God, we thank you for this word and we pray that you root your word now in our hearts and pray now that as we think about it you will lift up in our minds the things that are truly important to you for our lives and help us then to respond to you in ways that will bring you joy in the years ahead. For we ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

This question comes at a time when Jesus is being asked a whole lot of questions from people; some people who are curious and some people who are hostile. And so, Jesus is responding to question after question and people are noticing that there is something special about the way Jesus is answering. And so that comes up in this passage, in just the verse before what we read when the crowds are listening to Jesus' answer in a different situation with the Sadducees, the crowds heard this and they were astonished at his teaching. And so the Pharisee's, another religious group within Judaism; Sadducees, were one group and the Pharisee's were another. The Pharisee's saw that Jesus answered the Sadducees so well so they got together; that is what it says in Verse 34. They got together and actually talked about what should we ask him and how should we approach this; what is it that we really need to ask a person like Jesus?

And so then they send in one of their experts in the law to carry a specific question to Jesus. So this isn't just casual curiosity; this isn't something where I think they are mainly trying to trick Jesus. What they are asking him is a question that they really view as an important question; a question that they are constantly debating among themselves and this is the question he asked: which is the greatest commandment in the law? This wasn't a new question. They are constantly debating this sort of question, within the Judaism of Jesus' day. They had documents that describes the teachers of Judaism had documented the fact that there were 613 commandments in the law and among those there were 248 that were positive commandments; things we should do, and 365 were negative commandments; things that we were to avoid. Now nobody could hope to obey all of these things so they continued to discuss it and further divided things up. The experts divided the commandments into heavy commandments and light commandments; the important ones and the unimportant ones. Now, that gets you into a whole lot of complexity. You've got 248 of these, 365 of these, unimportant ones, important ones, and who is going to make that decision anyway; what is important to God when he has commanded it?

And so they come to Jesus with a very real question and Jesus answers by quoting a spot from Deuteronomy 6, called the Shema. It comes from a section where it says "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one" and then it says, "And you shall love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind." This is an important verse in Jesus time and it is still an important verse. It is still the phrase that begins every Jewish worship service. It's the first thing that the average Jewish child will memorize as they come to understand their own religion. This text from Deuteronomy 6 and Jesus says that it all boils down to this, is that you love the Lord your God, but then he quickly adds to it. He adds the command to love your neighbor as yourself. By answering with these two things; that we are to love the Lord our God and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, by saying that Jesus summarizes the entire Ten Commandments, because the Ten Commandments roughly divide into half, half of it focusing in on a responsibility to God, half of it revolving around our responsibility to other people, and Jesus summarizes each half of the law, each table of the law.

And the greatest commandment he says is that we are to love God with all that we are and all that we have, with all our heart, soul and mind. So he is automatically pointing out to love God is not just to have good feelings about God, it's much more than that. It's heart, soul and mind. It's words. It's thoughts. It's actions. It's strength. It's possessions. It's service. It's all of who we are all of the time, the totality of who we are devoted in love to God and his service. That is our first responsibility.

And then Jesus quickly moves on to the second quote from Leviticus 19, Verse 18, where he says, "We are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves." Our love for God has to result in love for other people. They are linked together. It's the two together that represent what it means for us to respond to God in totality. You can't divide them up. And so our love for God is supposed to result in love for other people and it's important to know that not only are they both together, but notice the order of them. The first and primary one is that we are to love God first. That shapes everything else. Without loving God first, loving humanity becomes a lot more of a free choice, rather than an expectation or a commandment. The biblical teaching about humanity is that we are created in the image of God and so, as we respond to God there is a necessity for us to respect the humanity and to love humanity that's created in his image. If we are just random occurrences, just chemical entities, then it really doesn't matter if we don't do the hard work of love. If somebody proves to be unteachable, well, give up on them if we are just random. If people prove to be difficult to deal with then why go through the trouble? If there are needs out there and it's becoming inconvenient to meet those needs, don't meet those needs. It becomes a matter of choice. But, if God comes first and God has created us and we are created in God's image, then we have to love other people because they are created in the image of God and, therefore, they are valuable and because God who created them is holding us accountable to love these other people.

So we are called to love God with all that we are and we are called to love other people as we love ourselves, because of God. And it's this accountability before God that's always pushing the church to move out beyond itself. That's why we continually do things that move us out of our comfort zone. It's because God is always pushing us out to people who haven't yet heard; to people who are different, to people who are less lovely. So, God is always pushing the church out; stretching us again and again, making us uncomfortable again and again, calling us to sacrifice again and again even for people who seem to be unteachable and hardened to God; God calls us again and again to reach out because that's what he did with us first.

Love God and love our neighbors. In these few words, Jesus lays down a complete definition of religion. All of life devoted to God and loving other people. Now, if we are going to be a church that pleases God, these two neat characteristics need to deepen in our life together and we need to focus on it again and again, and it needs to be expressed again and again in our life together; to love God and to have a deeper passion for him and to love our neighbor to the point that we are willing to reach out to them in their need.

So I want to make a New Year's resolution for Central Presbyterian Church. This passage is going to be our focus all through the year. These issues; loving God, devoting ourselves to God, deepening our passion for God and loving, accepting, serving and even sacrificing for the people around us where we live, work and play. These two things we will come back to again and again. These are the things that George and I are going to be preaching about and other people who preach up here, Laura, Andy and others. We are going to be preaching about this. It's where our programs are going to be coming from. It's what is going to solidify our strategy about how we relate to the community around us: these two things, loving God and loving the people around us.

Now the big news here is really not big news at all. This is what we have always been about as a church. This is not new. All we are saying about the year 2006 is we are going to make it explicit. We are going to tack it up there and we are going to look at it again and again. We are going to hold ourselves accountable to it again and again. But, this has always been what this church has been about. And I believe again and again we have honored God in our life together. So we are going to be reminded again and again this year that we need to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves and that's our resolution as a church. But I would like to suggest some resolutions for you as believes, as Christ followers who are a part of this church.

The first one is to memorize the core verses of this passage as a way to start the New Year, particularly verses 37 to 40. It's a great way to start. Find a favorite version of the Bible, write it out on an index card, carry that index card around with you, put it in your briefcase, put it on the mirror, put it on the refrigerator where you will really see it a lot and read it and memorize it. That's the first suggestion.

The second is to do a life inventory, to take a little bit of time to look back on the year behind you and say you know, what went well, but where are the shortcomings? The same thing we do whenever we confess our sin together as a congregation, but do it deeper and in more detail about your own life. And then take that brokenness and that incompleteness and look at a new year and say what is it that is going to hold me back from living the kind of life that this Bible passage teaches us about? What is it that is holding me back from loving God with all that I am and loving other people as I love myself? All kinds of things could stand in the way; it could be time pressures. It could be lack of interest. It could be fear; fear of what other people might think; maybe it's fear about what God would do with our lives if we turned ourselves over to God in that sort of way. Whatever it is, identify it, pray about it, confront it, work on it, do everything but give up on it. That's the second resolution I would suggest for you.

The third is to spend time with God. That's what it is all about folks. That's what eternity is about. Jesus said, this is life, this is eternal life, that they may know you the only God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. Knowing God is eternal life. Eternal life is an eternity of knowing God and we have a foretaste of that right now, as we relate to God, as we learn what it means to walk with God's Holy Spirit inside of us and to respond to that. And so I would suggest that you cultivate that. Make time with God.

In the News and Views there is an article that makes some suggestions about how to cultivate a time with God everyday. George has journals; if that's going to help you in this process. He's got journals in his office. If we use them all up, he will get some more. So let's make this a year that we get on to this and build that intimacy in our relationship with God. Memorize the passage, do a life inventory and hold that brokenness and hope before God and resolve to spend more time with God. I think that's a great way for us to begin a new year, because this year belongs to God. We belong to God. All things belong to God. Let's express that as we kick off the year by doing what we can to love the Lord our God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves. So to symbolize this I would like us to stand right now and turn to our Bibles, Matthew 22, begin on Verse 37 and I would like us to read together the words of Jesus that shape our future. Please read with me:

"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."

Let's pray. Gracious God, as we go to this table, we pray now that you will help us to respond to you with all that we are, to devote ourselves to you and to love the people that you have put around us, for we ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

© 2006, Rev. John Schmidt
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145