Here is more or less the sermon that, with God's blessing, I will preach this Wednesday at the midweek service of my St. Louis city LCMS church. I apologize for its length, but I was called into service on short notice and haven't had time to write a short sermon! It is based on the readings for the 18th Sunday after Trinity, particularly Deuteronomy 10:12-21 and Matthew 22:34-36.The story begins when one of the Pharisees, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question, testing Him. Testing the Lord! Isn’t that strange? Why would anyone want to test the Lord? I suppose the obvious reason is that these Pharisees didn’t believe Jesus is the Lord. So they kept poking and pinching and prodding. Maybe they hoped He would eventually slip and expose Himself as the fraud they thought He is.
But testing the Lord isn’t just something bad, unbelieving people do. Which is to say, not just other bad, unbelieving people. When we honestly examine ourselves, we see that we are no better. We are sinners. We are weak of faith and slow to believe. We test the Lord every day. What testing questions do we ask Him? How about: “What harm could it do?” Or, “My sin isn’t really that bad, is it?” Maybe it’s: “What have I done to deserve this?” Or maybe: “Haven’t I tried hard enough, suffered long enough, prayed or studied or worshiped well enough? When do I get my reward?”
These questions reveal the Pharisees’ kind of thinking—what Martin Luther called “the opinion of the Law.” This opinion comes naturally to all of us, the false opinion that we become pleasing to God by our works. These questions reveal that, down deep, we really think we can get away with anything—if we work hard enough to make up for it. Or perhaps we think we’ll get an “A” for effort, or a “B+” for good intentions. These are questions that reject Jesus and what He has done for us, that make excuses instead of repenting, that look for remedies other than the gifts He gives us. When we ask these questions in our hearts—and at times we all do—we, too, are testing God.
The Pharisee lawyer tested Jesus with this question: “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” Of course a lawyer of the Pharisees would ask Jesus this question. For with them, as with all of us by nature, it’s all about the Law. What must we do? How can we make God admit that we’re good enough? But behold, Jesus’ answer is one that should shake all the self-righteousness right out of us. Here is the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord with your all, all, all.” He does not ask for “enough,” but for “all.” All your heart, all your soul, all your mind!
This First of Two is broader, higher, and deeper even than the First of the Ten Commandments. For it does not merely ask that you love God before all else. It demands a love so absorbing, so consuming, so radical, there is no room for anything else. Let’s not tempt God by pretending we come close to this. It is hard enough to imagine such a love. Who of us could accomplish it? Who of us can really say we fear, love, and trust in God above all things? Has there ever been anything you wanted so badly that you couldn’t wait for God to give it to you in His own time? Has there ever been anything you worried about, rather than trusting it to God? Has anyone or anything ever influenced your decisions apart from God’s Word? If your heart says yes, you know you have failed.
And then there’s a second commandment: “Love your neighbor.” It doesn’t say, “Be as good to your neighbor as you can, while still taking care of yourself.” It actually says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Which means: Give your neighbor whatever you consider due to yourself. Stint at nothing until he has all that you would want if you were in his place. Honor him, protect him, stand up for him—for his personal well-being, his marriage, his property, his reputation, his rights and his calling in life. Or hers, as the case may be. Serve him or her as freely as you would serve yourself.
As far as we fall short of doing this, you probably think this sounds a lot easier than the first and greatest commandment. But don’t forget that Jesus said that the second is “like” the first. For by serving your neighbor, you are serving the Lord. He is a God who hides Himself, as Isaiah says in his 45th chapter. Your neighbor is a mask that God hides behind. When God places someone in your way, He is inviting you to serve that person’s needs. Every relationship, each particular way a person touches your life, is an opportunity to love God by loving your neighbor. If you feed them, clothe them, shelter them, or visit them when they’re sick or in prison, you do it to Christ. And if you fail them in any of these things, you fail Christ as well (Matthew 25:31ff.).
Now it becomes clear that love is not a matter of how you feel, but of what you do. So this all-consuming love the Lord demands of us isn’t about the intensity of your emotion. It’s about whether your deeds help or hurt your neighbor. If you want some basic guidelines for specifically how to serve them, review the Ten Commandments. When you do, consider this: Love is always directed away from yourself, toward another. It is not about self-interest, but about sacrifice. Even when you’re caught in a dilemma, where both of your choices seem equally right or wrong, the question to ask yourself is: “What would be the more loving thing to do? What would do more help and less harm?”
And now Jesus says that all Scripture “depends,” or “hangs,” on these two commandments. Love is central to the Word of God, because God is Love (1 John 4:8, 16). As harsh and demanding as His Law may seem, it too is an expression of His love. In tonight’s first lesson you heard Him tell the children of Israel the reason He gave the Law was “for your good” (Deuteronomy 10:13). We can see this, in part, when we think of all the good things God has given us, things that would be protected if people kept the Ten Commandments. When the Law curbs human evil, it does protect us. But the Law is “for our good” in an even more important way. It forces us to cover our mouths. It makes us swallow the questions by which we would test the Lord. The Law shows where we stand as sinners, who should be silent before the Lord and let Him ask the questions!
The good news is: God is also the One with the answer. Since we failed to keep the Law, God’s love for us compelled Him to send a Savior. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming the curse for us, and being hanged on a cross (Galatians 3:13). “He was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). And so we are “found in Him, not having our own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Philippians 3:10). “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). We have the righteousness that we could not achieve by our own works. Our righteousness is based purely on God’s promise in Christ. It is a righteousness God bestows on us by His own free choice, a gracious verdict of “not guilty,” made possible when His Son bore our guilt on the cross. And He applies that verdict to us through faith, when we trust not in our works but in His promise (Galatians 2:16; 3:22).
This is the Gospel: in a word, forgiveness. God forgives us for not loving Him with our all, all, all. Why? Because He loves us with His all, all, all. God forgives us for not loving our neighbor as ourselves. Why? Because He troubled Himself to become our neighbor and to care for us with an all-consuming, self-sacrificing love. God’s love is your righteousness. God’s love is your peace. God’s love has already fulfilled all Law for you.
Does this make the Law null and void? Not at all (Romans 3:31; 6:1). The Law is still God’s loving gift, given for our good. What’s different is that His Gospel of forgiveness has made you a new creature. The washing of water and the Word has caused you to be born again as His child. As you suckle the pure milk of the Word, this new life grows. Tonight, that life will be nourished in an especially miraculous way when you eat and drink the Lord’s perfect body and blood. The more you receive this Gospel, the less the Law will drive you with whips and terrifying cries; and the more it will lead you with a gentle, kindly voice that you recognize as your Lord.
“Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). Indeed, “whatever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23), even if it seems to be the holiest work. We must constantly beware of the lure of the Pharisees and their “opinion of the Law.” Far be it from us to think we obtain the love of God by our works. We must not tempt God in this way. But through faith in Christ and in His work alone, we do bear fruit pleasing to God. Both the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 10:14–21) and the New (1 John 4:19) show that God-pleasing obedience is our response to God’s love. The love that really counts is not our love, but God’s love for us. When we love Him and our neighbor, it is a result of His love in Christ; so our love is faith in action (1 John 4:10–11; Galatians 5:6). Even when God tests us, by allowing temptation and suffering into our lives, it is only so that we may cling to His love even more, and so that we may bear witness to others about His love (2 Corinthians 12:7–9; John 9:3).
Even now, God’s love is at work in us, as Paul writes: “The love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5). You, too, are now a mask of God, showing His love to your neighbor. When you serve even the lowliest or the least-deserving person, God is loving your neighbor through you (2 Cor. 5:14–15; Ephesians 3:16–19). So as you keep His commandments, you become the love of God made visible (1 Peter 2:9; 2 Cor. 3:2–3). Masks of God, indeed! Doesn’t that give you something to ask Jesus about—not in testing, but in prayer? Not only do you love God through your neighbor, but God loves your neighbor through you. For this awesome privilege, beyond all we deserve, praise the Lord! And for the power to carry out this responsibility, receive His gifts!
[EDIT: About that last image... Give me a break! It's hard to find a picture of Jesus wearing a mask!]