Re:focus 2 - Recovering your focus

Matthew 22:33-40

3 February 2013

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning Reflective Service

I've got three headings for you this morning from this passage: Be astonishing!, Do the impossible!, and Be transformed!.

Be Astonishing!

So, let's start with being astonishing! Verse 33 of our reading says of Jesus, When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teachingref.

This word, "astonished", is used 13 times in the New Testament, and in every case describes people's reaction to Jesus' teaching.

For example, from Mark's gospel:

Jesus was astonishing! In particular, his teaching was astonishing.

Let me ask you a question: what would you say is the general attitude of the great mass of non-church-going public towards Christian teaching today? Is the jaw of the "man on the Clapham omnibus" dropping with amazement at what we have to say? Think of people you know: your family, friends and colleagues—on a scale of 1 (yeah, whatever) to 10 (Wow, that's completely life-changing), how astonishing do they find the church's message, our message?

On the whole, I might rate it somewhere between one and two—recently the needle has flickered briefly at what churches have had to say about gay marriage, and perhaps the roles of men and women in church leadership—but that is about it.

And yet, here is Jesus, regularly registering 11 out of ten on the astonishometer.

What has happened to our message?

Is it that the Bible is now so familiar to people that they find it commonplace? Is our society is so shaped by Christian values that Jesus' teaching is no longer surprising? Well, these things might have been true a couple of centuries ago, but they are hardly the case now.

More likely, isn't it simply that we no longer have the courage to speak, or the clarity of message to communicate?

Look at how Jesus went about astonishing these people back in verse 29. He simply told them what the Bible says. That's all. If we want to recapture that sense of astonishment then, unlike the Sadducees, we just need to know our Scriptures, and to stop being shy telling people about them. What could be easier? There are so many utterly astonishing things in here!

Let me give you a tiny, but hopefully encouraging, illustration.

I've been in America this past week for work, and had an interesting conversation during a break in a business meeting. Our customer, who is from a Muslim background, complained to my colleague, who is from a Sikh background, "My brother in-law is doing my head in. He keeps going on that I don't pray enough and that I'm going to go to hell." My colleague said, "I get exactly the same all the time from my father" . And they went into a conversation about religious observances.

After a little while I saw an opportunity and said, "This is all really interesting, because I'm preaching against religion on Sunday; may I use this as a sermon illustration?"

I think it's fair to say that some level of astonishment was expressed: "But, Ben, you're the most religious person here; what are you talking about 'preaching against religion'" , and so on. And I was able to discuss this passage with them a little and talk about love for God as opposed to obedience to command and something of the freedom of the gospel.

OK, so it wasn't really a Jesus level of astonishment—maybe a three or a four—but let's aim to do more of that. Let's aim to recapture that sense of amazement at Jesus' teaching. Be astonishing!

Do the Impossible!

Now I suppose I need to explain what I meant when I told them I was planning to 'preach against religion' today. Well, let's look at verses 34 to 40. The heading I've given these verses is Do the impossible!

What we have here is the third in a series of attempts by the religious leaders to trap Jesus into incriminating himself and giving them grounds to denounce him.

So, a Pharisee, an expert in the Jewish law, comes to him and asks one of the hot questions of the day, Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?ref

The general reckoning is that the Old Testament law contains 613 separate commandments. And commandments are, of course the meat and drink of religion. Don't eat pork or shellfish; don't wear clothing woven of two kinds of material; don't cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. Yes, they are all there, along with stuff we recognise as more ethically based: do not spread slander; do not lie; do not curse the deaf; and so on. In addition to this are all the ceremonial ones: festivals, rituals and sacrifices that had to be performed.

Commandments like these are the lifeblood of religion, aren't they? Clearly Judaism runs by them; Islam runs by them; Sikhism runs by them; and so on and so forth. By my definition, religion is a requirement to obey commandments.

The thing about commandments, though, is that they always try to work from the outside in. You have a list of requirements, such as, say, 'pray five times a day', or 'go to church every Sunday', which you are required to perform. And yet you can perform them religiously and scrupulously without ever having the slightest effect on the attitudes of your heart or your relationship with God. Commandments work only on the outside.

In the light of this, Jesus gives a very interesting response to the question—actually, an astonishing response!—from this whole mass of commandments he picks out two things which are actually impossible to command.

Number one, the first and greatest: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mindref, which he quotes from Deuteronomy Chapter 6 verse 5, and number two, Love your neighbour as yourselfref, which is from Leviticus 19:18.

Who ever heard of love being commanded? Perhaps we could be commanded to "act lovingly", but that's not what Jesus asks of us. Jesus commands a love for God that emanates from the very core of our being: our hearts, our souls, our minds. How could we ever work up a love like this?

And he commands us to love our neighbours. Not only to act lovingly towards them, but actually to love them as we love ourselves. Self-love is the deepest streak in all of our characters; it comes as naturally to us as breathing does. We all act selfishly pretty much all the time; even apparent self-loathing is a distorted form of self-obsession.

And yet Jesus asks us to deny this most basic instinct and to turn it outwards and to love others in the same way as we love ourselves. Not putting others first out of a sense of duty or obedience, but becoming "others obsessed" just as completely as we are self-obsessed by nature.

"Do the impossible!" Jesus commands. How much easier it would have been if he'd just commanded us to, "pray five times a day"!

Have you thought recently about what it means to love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind? If every fibre of your being were singing with love for God, then how would your life be different? Would you be living where you are living now? Would you be doing the job you're doing now? How different would your bank statement look? What else would you be doing with your time?

And, have you thought recently about what it means to love your neighbour as yourself? Remember that back in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus quite clearly says that our neighbours include our enemies. It took me a good few years really to "get" the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but now I think I understand Jesus to mean that if you even ask the question, "is this person my neighbour?", then you haven't really got it at all. So how would your life be different if you really were to love your neighbour as yourself?

These are not easy questions. Time after time as I tried to settle down to work on this sermon the devil has whispered to me, "How dare you, Ben? How dare you lecture these people about love for God when your own love is so feeble?" But, thankfully, it's not about me. This is about Jesus, and the greatest commandments in the world.

I want to come back to these questions for our time of reflection at the end. But let's spend the last few minutes thinking about how exactly are we to go about obeying these astonishing, impossible commandments—it looks like we're pretty much doomed, aren't we? Well, the final heading is be transformed!

Be Transformed!

The point is that, although Jesus calls these two statements "commandments", they are not really like other commandments at all.

Remember that I said that commandments and religion try to work from the outside in: we have a list of things to do, and this is somehow supposed to make us better people, more pleasing to God.

Well, with Jesus it's completely the other way around. He works not from the outside in, but from the inside out. Jesus begins with an inner transformation in our lives—he gives us new hearts which are capable of loving God and loving others. And after we have been transformed like this, we will gladly start doing things which please God. We see in verse 40 that by making love the foundational commandments, Jesus is not advocating a lawless free-for-all: he says, All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandmentsref. Heartfelt love for God and neighbour will work itself out in our actions and behaviour, but it never works the other way round.

Think of a car with a broken engine—for example the engine that Penny managed to destroy a few years ago when the cambelt broke. You can push the car, you can tow it, you can roll it down a hill, you can act on it from outside in all sorts of ways. But none of this makes it anything but a useless heap of junk. However, replace the engine, and we're back in business!

So it is with us: our hearts are fundamentally faulty. We don't of ourselves either love God or love others to any great extent. Religion recognises this and tries to act on us from outside to make things right, but it can never work: our engines are broken.

What we need instead is transformation from the inside out. And in Jesus, that's what we can have.

Jesus is the only person ever to have fully done what these astonishing, impossible commandments say. He loved and obeyed his Father utterly; he loved his neighbours, even his enemies, utterly, even to the point of dying for them, and for us.

In dying on the cross to bear our sin and guilt and brokeness, Jesus gave us the possibility of new hearts. Hearts that can be free from fear of God, free from condemnation, so that for the first time we can now see God as he is: beautiful, enthralling, holy, majestic. Now we can learn to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind.

And along with repaired hearts, he gives us his Holy Spirit to live within us, bearing his fruit. And the fruit of the Spirit is... love. Love for others as ourselves.


So, how are we to "refocus" as a result of this passage? Well, I've given you three headings: Be Astonishing; Do the Impossible; and, Be Transformed. These are what Jesus calls us to.

Let's finish up with a few moments in reflection on the questions I asked earlier.

As you think about these things, please don't beat yourself up and think, I must try harder, I must try harder! If that's your approach, then I'm sorry, but you've completely missed the point. That's the way of "religion"

Pray instead: "Lord God, change my heart; renew me and transform me. Holy Spirit, come and bear your fruit in my life." Amen.