God's Will in a Word

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The 6th June this year was the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day, the day on the which the allied armies crossed the channel to Normandy to to begin the liberation of the continent of Europe from Nazi tyranny.

Stephen Ambrose in his detailed and moving account of the astonishing events of D-Day records the testimony of one Sargeant Thomas Valance – one of those who landed on Omaha Beach early in the morning of D-Day. Valance remembered:

As we came down the ramp, we were in water about knee-high and started to do what we were trained to do, that is, move forward and then crouch and fire… It became evident rather quickly that we weren’t going to accomplish very much. I remember floundering in the water with my hand up in the air, trying to get my balance, when I was first shot through the palm of my hand, then through the knuckle.

Valance was hit again, in the left thigh by a bullet that broke his hip bone. He took two additional flesh wounds. His pack was hit twice, and the chin strap on his helmet was severed by a bullet. He crawled up the beach and (I quote him)…

… staggered up against the seawall and sort of collapsed there and, as a matter of fact, spent the whole day in that same position. Essentially my part in the invasion had ended by having been wiped out as most of my company was. The bodies of my buddies were washing ashore and I was the one live body in amongst so many of my friends, all of whom were dead, in many cases very severely blown to pieces.

What would you be willing to lay down your life for? I belong to a generation that has escaped that searching question. Perhaps that is why we are so gripped by films such as Saving Private Ryan, Steven Speilberg's portrayal of the D Day landings. We wonder how we would react in such situations.

In that film a patrol is sent to bring a soldier out of the fierce fighting of the front line, so that he can be returned to his family. His three brothers have all been killed. The members of the patrol risk their lives to fetch him. Some die. And there is a debate that keeps surfacing amongst them: Is the safety of this one GI worth them laying their lives on the line?

What is it that makes laying down your life worthwhile? When Jesus was on the point of laying down his life, he gave the answer to that question: love. Love of God, and love of your neighbour. In fact that wasn’t quite the question he was asked, but it might as well have been.

Take a look at the incident for yourself. It’s in Matthew 22. On these Autumn Sunday mornings we’re working our way through this part of Matthew’s Gospel. Today we come to 22.34-46.

At first glance this might not seem to have much to do with conflict and warfare. But in fact it has the key – the only key – to a permanent end to warfare. We have to learn to love God, and to love one another. That means we have to change on the inside – because love doesn’t come naturally to us. Our natural state – and this may seem harsh but it’s true – our natural state is hatred – not hatred of everybody, but hatred of those we see as our enemies. And it’s only Jesus who can change us.

Those are the two points that I want to make from this passage. First, we hate, but God commands us to love. Secondly, Only Jesus has the power to change us. So we must change or die. Let’s look at this and hopefully you’ll see what I mean.

Matthew 22.34:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.

There are these two groups – the Pharisees and the Sadducees – and they’re both out to get Jesus. Both groups were influential and were represented on the Sanhedrin, the religious governing body of the Jews, who were, of course, at that time under the thumb of an occupying power, the Romans. So these two groups had to tread carefully in order to get their way. They did not like each other. The Sadducees were the upper class theological liberals. The Pharisees were the middle class traditionalists. They had some pretty deep disagreements. But on this one thing they were agreed: Jesus was a menace and he had to go. By now, their hatred has been brewing for some time. Let me illustrate.

Back in Matthew 12.23-24, the crowds that Jesus has been drawing are astonished at the power that Jesus has, not least to heal people, and they’re asking, “Could this be the Son of David?” In other words, “Is this Jesus the Messiah – God’s chosen King in the line of David who’s going to come and rescue us.”

But [says Matthew] when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

In other words, they’re saying that any power Jesus has is demonic. They’re saying that Jesus and all he’s doing is evil.

And by this time they’ve already made their minds up what they want to do about him. Earlier in that chapter (at 12.14) Matthew says:

But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

They probe him, trying to find something they can use against him. And Jesus warns his followers that they should look behind the respect that these people had, and see the poison that was in them. They were dangerous. By the time we get to this incident in chapter 22, the situation is hotting up. Their attitude was clear. Jesus was a threat to their influence and their way of life. They hated him. They wanted him arrested and killed. That is what lies behind the superficially innocent questions that they keep throwing at Jesus now – first the Sadducees and then the Pharisees, with alternating attacks, trying to get Jesus to incriminate himself.

One simple lesson here is this: we need to beware of those who are hostile to Jesus but who hide their hostility behind religious respectability and subtle arguments. They don’t openly declare themselves enemies of Jesus – that would not be the done thing – but all the time the motivation for what they say and do is to undermine the gospel of Christ and turn people against him. The Pharisees and the Sadducees are still around today in different guises. Which brings me to the first of my two main headings:

First, WE HATE, BUT GOD COMMANDS US TO LOVE

Last week we saw how Jesus dealt with the Sadducees. Now that they’re licking their wounds, the Pharisees try again to see if Jesus will incriminate himself in some way. Verses 35-36:

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

That’s the key question of religious people who miss the point of what Jesus is about: “What must I do? How can I ensure that my place in heaven is secure? How can I earn God’s approval?” That is the principle of all religion based on our works: we have to be good enough to pass a test to get in to heaven. So what’s the pass mark? What must I do?

Well, Jesus gives a straight answer to these people who, though they’re not admitting it, hate him so much. He quotes the Scriptures. Verses 37-39:

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 neighbour as yourself’.”

First of all, love God. What does that mean in practice? It means putting God at the centre of our lives. It means recognising that he is a holy and good God, worthy of our love. It means trusting him totally, and obeying him completely – doing all he tells us to do. It means worshipping him with the whole of our lives. And it means doing all this not because we must but because we want to. Why? Because we love God with everything we are.

Love God. Then, secondly, love others. That means putting the interests of other people before our own – and doing that even if they don’t care about us. Jesus has already made clear that our neighbour includes our enemy. He said in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”

And it is Jesus who shows us how far we are to go with that. He died for those who hated him. So loving our neighbour means being ready to lay down our lives for others. And the truth is that the greatest act of love we can do for others is to introduce them to Jesus. The risen Jesus told his followers to ‘make disciples of all nations’. That’s why at this church we sum up what we’re about in these three phrases: Godly Living, Church Growth, and Changing Britain. Godly Living is loving God. Church Growth is making disciples – the most loving thing we can do. And Changing Britain is loving our neighbour – working for the best interests of everyone.

Sustaining a life of daily love for others is in some ways as difficult as being ready literally to die. I remember a few years ago talking to a very old man called Herbert Jenkinson shortly before he died. In his late teens he had fought in the trenches of the First World War. Later, for many decades, he’d been a missionary in Africa. I imagined that as he looked back over his life, it would be that time in the blood soaked fields of France that would stand out for him as his toughest experience. Not so. It was the struggles of serving Christ as a missionary once the first flush of youthful zeal had passed that he recalled as the greatest challenge of his life. Age does not weary those who have died, but we who live easily grow weary in our loving.

But that’s what God commands us to do: to love. Jesus goes on (verse 40):

“All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

These are not the only commands of God. But all the rest flow from these two: love God and love others. And notice what matters most to God. People matter to God. Things are secondary. Both of these key laws are relational. How we relate to God and one another – that’s what matters to God. People matter most to God. He made them. He loves them. Jesus shows us how much.

The trouble is, we can’t love as God commands. Why? Because we hate. And because we cannot change our own hearts. We hate, but God commands us to love. But there is hope. And that hope is in Jesus. Which brings me to my other main heading:

Secondly, ONLY JESUS HAS THE POWER TO CHANGE US

These Pharisees have been testing Jesus. Now it’s his turn to put them to the test. Verse 41:

While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them…

We’ll come on to the question in a moment but let me just note this: Jesus turns the tables on us too. We’re often full of questions, and we demand answers from Jesus. How can a loving God allow such suffering in the world? Why is this happening to me? Why don’t you give me what I’ve asked for? And so on. But the time comes when Jesus puts a halt to our flow of questions, and instead he begins to ask us searching questions about our own lives and our attitude to him. And the most searching question of all is exactly the one that Jesus asks the Pharisees now (verse 42):

“What do you think about the Christ?”

Jesus is asking them their views generally about the nature of the Messiah – the Saviour and King promised by God and long awaited. But the Pharisees are well aware that everyone is asking whether Jesus himself is the Messiah, the Christ. And he is. So Jesus is really asking them what they think of him.

And why is that the best follow-up to being told that they need to love instead of hating? Because only Jesus can change them so they can love. Only Jesus can change us. But we must understand who Jesus is and the power he has to change us.

So Jesus challenges their conception of what the Messiah will be like by reference to Psalm 110. Verse 42 again:

“What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.
He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,
‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’
If then David calls him ‘Lord’, how can he be his son?

Now it was well known from the Prophets that the Messiah was going to be in the line of David – and Jesus is not denying that. The point he’s making is that the Messiah is so much more than just a son of David, so much more than merely a human King, however great.

Notice the way that in his argument here Jesus affirms that this Psalm is the very words of King David. And he also affirms that what David wrote was the word of God – he was ‘speaking by the Spirit’ – so what he wrote is the truth. Jesus consistently teaches by his example that the Bible is both the words of men and the Word of God.

And he picks up on this detail of what David said prophetically about the coming Messiah:

The Lord [that’s God] said to my Lord [that’s the Messiah]: ‘Sit at my right hand…’

David calls the Messiah ‘my Lord’. A father does not call his son ‘my Lord’. David speaks of the Messiah as his Lord and even his God. Even David, the greatest King of all, is nothing beside the Messiah, the Christ. The Messiah, as the prophet Isaiah had made clear to those with ears to hear, is not only the shoot of David. He is the root of David. He is preexistent and preeminently powerful.

Jesus is not only the son of David. He is the son of God. He is God made flesh. He is fully man and fully God in one person. And the Pharisees don’t understand that. They can’t see who they’re talking to, and who it is that they hate so much. But they need to. And so do we.

Only Jesus can forgive us for the hatred that leads ultimately to the warfare that’s been endemic in humanity from the beginning when Cain killed Abel. And only Jesus can change us so that we can learn to love God and others. The power to forgive and the power to change flows from the cross, where Jesus loved those who hated him so much that he laid down his life for us.

The missionary to China in the last century, Hudson Taylor, learned what it meant to draw on the love of Jesus so that he could go on living for others. He wrote:

At home you can never know what it is to be alone - absolutely alone, amidst thousands, without one friend, one companion, everyone looking on you with curiosity, with contempt, with suspicion or with dislike. Thus to learn what it is to be despised and rejected of man - of those you wish to benefit, your motives not understood but suspected - thus to learn what it is to have nowhere to lay your head; and then to have the love of Jesus applied to your heart by the Holy Spirit - His holy, self-denying love, which led Him to suffer this and more than this - for me this is precious, this is worth coming for.

We can love him because he first loved us. The ultimate answer to warfare is only to be found in Jesus. And the day will come when he will put a stop to it. But if we’re still on the wrong side when that Day of Reckoning comes, then we will die an eternal death, cut off from God for ever.

Verse 46:

No-one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no-one dared to ask him any more questions.

This incident begins with the Sadducees silenced. It ends with everyone silenced. And that’s as it should be before Jesus, for us too. No more excuses. No more questions trying to deflect attention from the real issue: what is our response to Jesus? God’s command to love puts us all in the dock, so that, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 3.19, …

…every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.

We need to ask forgiveness for our hatred that leads to warfare, knowing that Jesus pays the price for it. And we need to love Jesus – and then through Jesus learn to love God and to love others as he does. We hate, but God commands us to love. And only Jesus has the power to change us.

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