Third in a series: “The Passion.”
Delivered March 14, 2004 by Bill Pitts, Director of Student Ministies.

This continues the sermon series “The Passion,” leading us through Lent and preparing our hearts and minds for the Easter celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord. The scripture texts match those of this year’s Lenten study groups, and is based upon “Journey to the Cross” written by Debbie Schmidt.

This series also helps us explore some of the issues brought up by the recent movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”

Sermon Text:
Mark 12:28-34

Video clip, music playing. Rob Bell in a diner begins talking.

For years I went to church because you are supposed to. But there are things about it that just didn’t seem right. Do you know what I’m talking about? A lot of times I find myself looking around, thinking is that what God had in mind? Then I came across this passage in the Bible. It helped me start to see things in a new way. It tells the story of Jesus having a meal with some of the religious leaders of His day. And they have all these complicated hand washing rituals that they go through before they eat and Jesus ignores their rules. And one of them notices this and points this out and Jesus says “You religious leaders, it’s like you clean the outside of the cup, but the inside is filled with greed and evil. I mean you give away ten percent of your income, but you don’t really care about making the world a better place.”

Then Jesus says to them, he says, “Everything for you is about being seen in public as important people. You love to be looked up to. You love to be respected. You love the best seat for everyone to see you.” Jesus says, “Everything for you is about appearance, how things look to other people.” Then he says to them, “You are like unmarked graves which people walk over without knowing it.” Jesus essentially tells the religious leaders of His day, you are spiritually dead and you don’t even realize it.

Now one of them who was sitting there-he would be like what we call a preacher and he realizes what was going on there, I mean Jesus is like slamming them and he says, “You know Jesus, when you say stuff like this you insult us.” And Jesus says “You teachers, you tell people to do all this stuff, but you don’t help them do any of it. All you end up doing is heaping on the guilt. And people end up feeling terrible about themselves.” And then later He says to these same leaders, He says, “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert and when they become one, you make them twice the Sons of Hell that you are!” Jesus calls the leading religious authorities of His day, Sons of Hell.

And what disturbs Him the most is that they go around making converts who they pressure to become just like them. And He goes on to tell them, “You have abused your positions of religious authority, and you’re actually getting in the way of people who are honestly searching for God.” Sons of Hell. There are many moments like these in the teachings of Jesus to people who are wrestling with the deepest questions of life. Jesus has the most infinite patience and understanding. But the people who claim to know and speak for God, but have like hard, cold hearts, I mean He is relentless. Jesus gets angry.

Ok, let’s say this. Let’s say I bring my wife home some flowers, and these are beautiful flowers. I try to get the colors just right, you know the drill. And I bring them in the house and I give them to her and she is like blown away. She takes out a vase and she smiles, and she says this means so much, that you were thinking of me, I am so surprised. And what if I say, “Well, I’m your husband, it’s my duty.” It just doesn’t work for you does it? Well, what if I say, “Well, you know there was a sale, like I wasn’t even really thinking of you, but it wasn’t a hassle, they were cheap and I figured, I thought, it’s not like a big deal.” Or what if I just said to her like, “I figured you need them.” Would she even want the flowers any more? No, Why? Because she wants my heart. And if she doesn’t have my heart, my words, my actions, don’t mean a thing.

Is this how God feels? One of the central prayers of Jesus’ life is called the Shamat, and part of it goes like this. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.” I mean we can go to mass or services or prayers every day. I mean we can sing all the right songs, we can recite all the right prayers, but if it is just going through the motions then what’s the point? God says in the book of Isaiah, “these people, they honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” Sometimes we have to stop and ask, why do we do what we do? To keep the family happy? So that I don’t feel guilty? Making an appearance at the right place at the right time, wearing the right clothes, so that I can be seen by the right people? The scriptures remind us that God doesn’t want the empty ritual. God wants our hearts.

God wants our hearts. He doesn’t want our religion. He doesn’t want our excuses. He doesn’t even want our attempts to be good. He wants our hearts. The God of the Universe wants a relationship with you and me. But He isn’t satisfied with a service relationship. He wants the depth of intimacy that comes from us giving our hearts to him out of love and not compulsion. The scripture we are looking at today, talks about loving God with all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our mind and all of our strength. How do we even begin to be able to do that? We are going to focus in on the hard part of that today trying to discover things that stand in the way of loving him with all of our heart. I want you to take out that clay that you got, that you have been wondering about since you walked in. In just a minute we are going to play some music and give you just about three minutes to mold that clay into the representation of the condition of your heart today. Maybe you will make yours into a little smiley face representing a heart that is soft and responsive to God. Maybe you will make prison bars that represent an imprisoned heart that is being held back from connecting with God. Maybe yours will be a flat disc that shows a crushed heart, hard and unable to respond to God’s call for you. Or maybe yours will be the shape of a cake indicating that like me, you didn’t eat breakfast this morning and can’t wait for lunch. But, while this music plays, take the next few minutes and work on this heart that you believe you have right now.

Let’s go through this scripture again. The passage is Mark 12, 28-34.

“One of the teachers of religious law was standing there listening to the discussion. He realized that Jesus had answered well, so he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” The teacher of religious law replied, ” Well-said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth by saying there is only one God and no other. And I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbors as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.” Realizing this man’s understanding, Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And after that, no one dared to ask him anymore questions.”

Let’s dive into this. What’s going on in this passage? If you read the passages right before these verses you see the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, the holders of the law, the religious leaders of the day trying to trap Jesus into saying something wrong. See they realize that his popularity is growing, and they don’t want to lose their prominence in front of the people. They realize that Jesus isn’t normal. And they don’t like someone who isn’t normal. They wanted everyone to fit into their system. It’s kind of like the world today. Many of us say that we are Christ followers, yet we try to live normal lives. Sure we go to church, maybe even give some money or some time, but outside of Sunday mornings and maybe a small group during the week, no one would know that we are following anything other than the American dream. And Jesus wasn’t about that. He was not into being normal. He lived the life that He has called us to live. And lets face it, He was just considered weird.

Just like we are today if we choose to follow him. To people who don’t know Christ, the whole idea of giving up the desire for power, control, riches, popularity just to be subservient to someone we can’t see or touch, that’s weird and people around him didn’t understand how He could not care who He was eating with, who He was being seen with, associating with, but you know He even picked followers that other priests had rejected. He could have been a king, but He rejected power and wealth. And He set the example. The world demands that we care about being powerful, rich, beautiful, educated. God, He simply calls us to follow him and nowhere does it say that following has anything to do with these normal aspirations. See normal doesn’t usually mean avoiding gossip at work or at school. Normal doesn’t usually mean not cussing when you trip in the cafeteria or you fall or stub your toe. If we are living the life of a follower of Christ, no one will see us as normal. They will know there is something different about us and they will want to know what that is. They may not like it. They may reject it. But they are going to see that we aren’t normal. The Pharisees see that. They know Jesus is different and they ask him this question, the greatest commandment. They want to see if this new teacher will trip up and try to declare something new instead of what’s historical.

Think of it like this. Imagine two politicians in a huge debate for the presidency right before the elections. One is a Maryland incumbent trying to maintain his long held power and the other is this up and coming freethinker from Georgia who isn’t afraid to buck the system. Well, the incumbent decides to trick the new guy by asking him where the Mason Dixon line is. Thinking like most southerners, the guy will say the northern Virginia State line and the incumbent is ready to pounce and declare the upriser a false southerner for not knowing that Maryland is actually below the Mason Dixon line. But instead, the Georgia boy not only gives the right answer, but declares that he has also just figured out the cure for cancer. See that is what Jesus does. He not only gives us the command that is the crux of his relationship with us, but He gives us the cure for what ails the world. He says, love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.

Here’s what wrong with the current system. Here is why the Pharisees were missing the point and why history looks on them as bad guys. They didn’t get that you can’t love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength if you don’t love others as well. See the Pharisees weren’t bad guys. They loved God. They wanted to be right with God. They just figured they had to make it happen themselves and so to make it happen they regulated everything. They created laws for everything you could imagine because they believed that by doing this they could show God love, but all they did like Rob Bell talks in the video, all they did is overwhelm people, heap guilt on people. They believe that is all they had to do was just follow the laws.

There is one sect of Pharisees that believed if we can just get everybody to follow all the laws for one day Jesus will come back or the Kingdom of God will come. That is what they believed. They just didn’t understand it. It didn’t have to do with the laws. Jesus tells them, no you missed it. It isn’t about the law. It is about relationships. First of all, no matter how much you keep the law, no matter how good you are, it’s never going to be good enough. That is why Jesus had to come in the first place, because even with our best effort of loving him with all that we have, on our own merits, we are never going to be good enough. Our debts are too large. We cannot pan on our own. We could never be good enough to earn our way into heaven. God says that all who sin, all who live outside his will, will die. They will be cut off of a relationship with him. So Jesus comes to take our place, to die for us so that the price for our sin was paid, so that we could be in a relationship again with the God of the Universe. Jesus died so that we can live forever with him. And while I think that the Pharisees missed the point back then about the fact that loving God wasn’t about living out the laws the right way, I think some of us missed the point today of this scripture in a whole other way.

We know that Jesus came to give us eternal life and so we are satisfied with that. We say we are following him and we have this comfort in the idea that we are going to heaven. For years Christians have pushed the idea that becoming a Christian is all about the afterlife. Man I think that is so far from the entirety of what Jesus died for. I don’t think our comfort in the afterlife is much different than the Pharisees comfort in following the law. Both of those things missed the point. See, I think this is what we miss. Understand I am glad I am going to heaven. I believe heaven is going to be great. I just don’t think that heaven is the point of being a Christian. I think that how we live the life right now is what God wants from us. And living the life now can’t happen if we don’t love God with all of our hearts and love others as ourselves.

Jesus puts these two things together because they are inseparable. They are two separate commands that He lists as one. They indicate that we did not have just a dual relationship between us and God alone, but that our walk with God is threefold. It’s between God, our neighbors and us as well. Time and again in the scriptures we see the Hebrew word, Echad. Echad means unity. And we see that over and over and we see that God is pleased by unity. God is pleased by relationship and we see this in the relationship that he models, this unity, this echadness in him through the Trinity. Father God, the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ. Three entities, but they’re one being, one God who loves us. And I believe this is the model for our walk with him on earth. It’s him, others and us. Separate, yet intertwined. Finding echad between the three.

And I am excited about this idea of trinity between us, others and God because I think it explains so much my nature. See I think if we have an understanding of sin, we can see that sin breaks the relationship between us and God. And if we know that then we aren’t surprised when we feel far from God, when we have sin in our life that has not been dealt with. But what about when things are right between me and God? Yet I still feel far from him. Could it be that something is between me and someone else that I am in a relationship with? And it is not necessarily that that is sin. If you are in any kind of relationship with other people you know what I am talking about, whether you are married or dating or just friends, you have disagreements where maybe no one is wrong, but you just don’t see eye to eye and it fractures the relationship. Well, if that has happened and this idea is true that our relationship with others is just two sides of this trinity relationship with God then it is perfectly clear why when I argue with my wife, I feel not only distant from her but from God as well. When I have a disagreement with someone at work, I feel isolated not only from them, but also from God. We are meant to be in a relationship, but Jesus makes it very clear in this passage that says, not only with God, its’ with each other.

So getting back to the first part of the verse. The commandment of loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, it can’t be done apart from loving others. It’s got to be lived out in our daily time with God, as well as those around us. And that brings us to another thing that we have to face up to. Who are the others that Jesus is talking about? I think the downfall of many Christ followers is we define others as those that we like. If I can treat my family and my friends and some of the people that I see at church each week as I treat myself, then I’ve got it nailed down. Sorry. That’s going back to the normal viewpoint. But again, God doesn’t call us to be normal. He calls us to be different, to see everyone through his eyes, not just the people that we like or we want to be associated with. It means that when we look at people, God wants us to stop seeing the color of their skin, stop seeing their financial worth, stop seeing their sexual orientation, stop seeing anything but a child of God that is loved the same as you and me. I have to realize that God does not love me any more than he loves them. He does not love anyone less than he loves me.

God loves every one of us the same and desires to have a relationship with every one of us right where we are. Not after we have cleaned up our language, not after we are out of that relationship that maybe we should have never been in the first place, not after we have kicked a pornography habit or alcohol binging or drug addiction. God wants us right where we are. He wants to help us change that stuff, but having a relationship with him does not depend on us changing that. That comes after, not before. And that is where so many of us miss the boat. How many times have I missed the opportunity to influence someone or be influenced by someone because I didn’t like how they looked. I wanted to avoid them or maybe I was just too wrapped up in myself. It shows that my heart is not in right place. It shows that I don’t have the heart of God yet. Because all God sees is another relationship that needs him or us.

Where is your heart today? What did you make out of the clay? Is your heart open to being molded by God this morning or is your heart captured by the things of world? Locked away from God’s hands, the hands that desire to shape you and those around you. Some of you have heard this today and realize that God is not shaping your heart because you haven’t given it to him, you are holding on to it, you are afraid to let it go. At some point you need to realize that that is what it is going to take because with all the shaping that you have done, your heart is never going to be complete until you turn it over to the one who created you. Others of you have given him your heart, but every time he tries to make something out of it, you reach up like a little kid trying to help him out instead of just letting him do it and you mess it up by trying to take control back. Some of you have given him complete control and all you need to do this morning is keep working on those relationships with him and others and some day you will stand before him as the completed work of art he intended you to be. See we can give God our money, we can give him our time, but what God wants most is our hearts.

2nd video clip, Rob Bell in a diner speaking:

Do give money away? Why? I mean why give to a church or an institution or someone on TV? Because God needs it? God says in Psalm 50, “If I was hungry, I wouldn’t tell you. The world’s mine, and everything in it.”

Do I give like the right percentage of my paycheck so that I can get God off my back? I mean God gets what God wants and then I can do what I want with the rest?

When God has my heart, then I realize that everything I have I’ve been given. There’s even a letter in the Bible called Corinthians in which God commands people not to give out of compulsion or guilt or reluctance. The letter even goes on to say “You should only give what you have decided in your heart to give because God loves it when you give because you want to.” If I’m giving because I think I’m supposed to or because God needs it or so that I don’t feel guilty I should keep it. God doesn’t want it.

There’s even another passage in the Bible, where God is speaking with some extremely religious people, and they’ve been coming to his temple and going through the right ceremonies and yet they’ve been neglecting the needs of those around them. And God speaks to them and says, “you know your sacrifices and your offerings, what is this to me? I don’t take any pleasure in this.” God hates it, he can’t stand it when we put on a religious show and they we ignore the poor and the broken and the marginalized and the oppressed.

God even calls the gathering ‘evil.’ God say they’ve become like a burden to him, that his soul hates them. I mean God even says “I am weary of them.”

It’s almost, it’s almost like God says “I don’t want those flowers.” God wants our hearts, because when God has our hearts we’ll start to care about the things that God cares about. We’ll start to care about the people that God cares about. I mean God says “seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” I mean, when you realize that you can do something about the suffering in the world. I mean, when you realize that there’s work to be done and you can do it then your heart is starting to beat like God’s.

I mean, is church a building? Like an hour once a week? Church is people. people whose hearts are beating more and more like God’s. Maybe you’re turned off to judgmental attitudes and narrow minds and meaningless rules, I mean, so am I, and so is God. I mean, God doesn’t want anything to do with that either. Let’s be honest, a lot of people confuse religion with God and walk away from them both. The point isn’t Christianity. The point is being a Christian. That means being a follower of Jesus. It’s being connected with everything that’s true and good and right, everything that goes on around us that reminds us that there is so much more going on around us than we realize. Could anything be more beautiful?