So near yet so far - Mark 12:28 - 34:28

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 10th December 2000.

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John Wesley, at the age of 25, was in many people’s eyes a deeply religious man. He was born in 1703 and brought up by his mother and clergyman father to be a devout Christian, saying his prayers and reading his Bible. He went to university at Oxford to study and there became a professor of Greek and Logic and finally became a clergyman himself at the age of 25. It was at Oxford that he joined a group of people who called themselves the Holy Club. They would study the Bible together, they would pray, they even read the Bible in NT Greek! Wesley himself set aside an hour a day for studying the Bible, he fasted twice a week and visited the sick, the poor and the prisoners. And to cap it all, Wesley accepted an invitation to go to America to spread the Christian faith among the American Indians in Georgia, a very dangerous task in those days. But there was one fatal flaw. Wesley himself was not a Christian. For all that spiritual fervour and froth, there was no substance. The mission was a disaster- there was failure, illness and rivalries in the team, and Wesley came back bitterly unhappy. The mission brought to light that fatal flaw. And when he returned, he wrote: "I went to America to convert the Indians; but, oh! Who will convert me?"

It is possible to be so near to the Christian faith, and yet still not be converted. To be close, but still not close enough. It is possible to know all the answers, to be well read in the Bible, to be a member of a Christian group, even to engage in missions, and yet still be away from Christ. And our passage today tells us about a man who was in that category, a man who in many ways knew all the answers, and yet was still not completely there. He had not quite grasped the whole picture. Mark tells us that this man was a scribe. Now usually in the gospels, when Jesus meets with a scribe, one of the experts in the law, we are told that they were trying to trick Jesus, to test him so that they could get him for some misdemeanour. They were Jesus’ constant thorns in the flesh, always wanting to have a go at him. Yet this time, it seems, this scribe was different. Mark tells us that he had been watching the recent debates that Jesus had been having with the Jewish lawyers and religious officials. And Mark tells us in verse 28 that this scribe thought that Jesus had given a good answer to their questions. And so he asks one of his own. "Of all the commandments, which is the most important one?"

Now it seems that this question was innocent enough. We know from other sources that this was a common topic for debate among Jewish religious experts. They had counted 613 different laws- evidently they had a lot of spare time on their hands. And so, naturally it was a good question to ask if there was a commandment which was the most important. It’s a good question to want to know what is at the heart of Biblical faith. And Jesus’ answer goes right to the heart of the matter. What is really important in following and obeying God? What is really at stake? What is at the heart of the matter? Jesus will tell us three things. And we’ll see in the third that there is a sting in the tail. Because is it very possible to know all the answers, as many did, and yet still be out of the kingdom of God.

So what does Jesus teach us then about the heart of God’s law. What does God really want us to do:

 

1) The Heart of the Matter: Love God

2) The Heart of the Matter: Love Others

3) The Heart of the Matter: Trust Jesus

1) The Heart of the Matter: Love God

So first, then, the heart of the matter is to love God. The scribe has asked his question: "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" And so Jesus gives the first part of his reply. Let’s look at verse 29 together: "The most important is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord is one: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all of your mind, and with all of your strength.’" That, says Jesus, is the most important commandment. Now here, Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 6 which is where Moses is reminding the Israelites of what God had told them in the law. And it was a passage of the Bible which the devout Jew would recite in the morning and the evening. It was known as the ‘Shema’, which was a sort of creed. It summed up all that the law said. And at the heart of this law which God gave is the command to love God. Now if you think about it, it is an extraordinary summary. The very heart of what God wants us to do is to love him. I was once asked by a friend who is not a Christian: "Do you love God?" It was as if love could not be something which we could or should show to God. And yet it stands right at the very centre of all Christian belief. Love the Lord your God. That is the command.

And when we ask why, then we discover that the answer lies in what comes before. We find that God is ‘the Lord who is one’. ‘Lord’ here means the covenant making God, Yahweh. Yahweh is his personal, revealed name. It emphasises that fact that God has taken it upon himself to make a covenant, or promise to men and women, to rescue them, which he does ultimately through Jesus. And in case we think we have a choice regarding which God to choose, then we are wrong. Because there is only one God. And that is the basis of our love. This exclusive, loving, promise-making and keeping God has gone to huge lengths for us. And our love for him is to be in response to what he has already done for us. It was the same for the Israelites. God had already graciously rescued them for Egypt before he gave them the law. The law was a gracious provision to show them who they should live as a rescued people. And it all centred on loving God. And Jesus says that this the same for us. We too are to love the God who has rescued us and kept his promise to us.

And notice what kind of love this is. It is an all encompassing love. It is a love that effects our whole being- all our hearts, all our minds, all our souls and all our strength. Every ounce of our make up is to be expended in loving God. This is not some wishy washy, lovey dovey type of feeling, like a teenage crush on a pop star such as Britney Spears or Robbie Williams. This is whole hearted, committed love, which is rooted in God’s character. It springs from our knowledge of who God is and what he has done for us, and our natural response, indeed God’s command, is love. And if we are worried that God is commanding such love then we must remember what kind of love this is. Obviously you cannot command someone to love someone else if love is just an emotional response. But love for God is much more. It is a commitment of the will, which is why God can command it. He commands that we give him our very lives, all our heart, all our mind, all our soul and all our strength. Now the history of Christianity is littered with people who are models of what it means to love God completely and wholeheartedly. Jim Elliot was one such figure. In many ways he was an ordinary student growing up in America in the fifties. And it was during his college days that he decided he should give his life to missionary service. He ended up with his young wife and daughter and four other missionaries in Ecuador among the savage cannibals, the Aucas. These five young missionaries risked all to tell the Aucas about Jesus Christ: To such an extent that one day, upon their first contact with the tribe face to face, all five young men were speared to death. There is no doubt what led Jim Elliot to that decision to go to Ecuador and risk his life. It was his whole hearted devotion to God. He loved God so much that he was willing to give up all for him. And his wife writes in his biography that if Jim’s life is to be thought extraordinary in its level of commitment to Christ, then it says more about the state of Christianity than it does about Jim Elliot. In other words, Jim’s devotion to God should be the norm. It is simply normal Christianity. Jim Elliot was just fulfilling this great commandment to love the Lord with all of his heart and mind and soul and strength. It’s not that we should necessarily all pack our bags and head off to Ecuador. Rather love for God should drive our souls and minds to whole hearted commitment to him wherever we are, whether it be Hull or Havana, Grimsby or Greenland. It led Jim Elliot to his death at the hands of cannibals. For most of us it won’t. But our level of love for our great God should be no lower.

That is the challenge of this first commandment. That we should love the Lord our God with every part of our being. And we must ask ourselves, does a love for God shape my heart, does it mould my very thoughts, does it affect the way I use my strength and energy. Does it seep deep into my very soul. There is very little extraordinary in the lives of the so called great Christian leaders and heroes. Often they were and are very ordinary people. And yet their lives were captivated by a love for an extraordinary God, the only God, the promising making and keeping God. Quite frankly, all Jim Elliot did was to take God seriously and obey him and his commands. And we can do the same. That’s Jesus’ first challenge: What is the heart of the matter Jesus? It is to love God.

 

2) The Heart of the Matter: Love for Others

But then, secondly, we discover that the next part of the heart of the matter is to love others. And Jesus’ point is simple. If you want to show your love for God, then you must love others. Verse 31: "Love your neighbour as yourself." Again Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament, this time Leviticus 19. His point is straight forward. Love for God always has an outworking in our love for other people. Our commitment to love God works itself in our commitment to love others. It’s not that everyone who loves other people is a Christian. That’s just not true. Rather that as we love God and are totally captivated by his love for us, then that love finds its expression in love for other people. And Jesus gives us a yardstick for our love of other people. He says that we are to love others as we love ourselves. Now this is not a free hand for us to indulge in self centred self love. Jesus’ point is rather that as we love ourselves so we should love others. We are never short of love for ourselves, and this is the sort of love that we are to show to others. Most of us care for No. 1, and that level of care should be shown to people around us. My mother often twists this golden rule in driving. She quotes Jesus saying: "Do unto others as you would like done to yourself…" And then she adds, "But make sure you do it first." But Jesus is commanding us here to love sacrificially. To love our neighbours, those around us, with the same heartfelt love that we would show to ourselves. It means loving those we would not naturally love, being self sacrificial in our giving of ourselves to others, going the extra mile as Jesus taught. Love always puts self second.

I read this extraordinary story of Uwe Holmer recently. Uwe Holmer was an East German pastor both before and after the communist government fell. After the communists lost power, Erich Honaker, the former communist dictator was hospitalised for treatment for cancer. At the time there was no one man who was more hated in the whole of East Germany. He and his wife were strongly anti Christian and they had especially caused many Christians in the country to suffer directly or indirectly from their regime. When he was released from hospital, Honaker and his wife were effectively homeless. They had nowhere to go, everyone hated them. But one man stepped in and offered them accommodation. That man was Uwe Holmer. He and his family had suffered under the communists. Eight of his children had applied for further education and been refused, simply because they were Christians, even though they were among the brightest in the country. But Pastor Holmer took this despised and hated couple into his own home and sheltered them. That is selfless love. A love which puts self second and others first.

Now that sort of love is always going to be costly. But especially in a church it is most important that costly self sacrificial love is shown, because if we claim to follow the God of love, then we are to reflect the family likeness. We’ve been looking at some challenging passages in 1 John in our Homegroups on what it means to love. In one place John says that God has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. And again he says that if we do not love others who we can see, how then can we claim to love God who we cannot see? And it is these two laws that make up the sum of the commands. To love God and to love others. That is the heart of the matter. "There is no commandment greater than these," says Jesus. So how does the scribe respond and what will Jesus ask of him? Let’s see how as we turn to our final point.

 

3) The Heart of the Matter: Trusting Jesus

The third thing we discover about the heart of the matter is that it involves not just loving God and loving others, but also trusting Jesus. Have a look at verse 32. The scribe congratulates Jesus on a good answer. I don’t think he is being patronising, he is probably pleasantly surprised that this peasant carpenter’s son from a northern rural village has said something good. He agrees with Jesus’ assessment of the law. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other than him." And he even says that cold religion won’t wash with God. Loving God and loving your neighbour is "more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices." His point was that there was no point just sacrificing for the sake of it. Your heart had to be right. You were to love God and others first. Only in the context of a loving relationship with God did the sacrifices make sense. Now this was nothing new. Many a prophet had raged against meaningless sacrifices in the OT. Hosea for instance says that "God desires mercy not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings." Love of God was more important that cold hearted and slavish following of rules and rituals. And the same is true today. There’s no point going through all the motions for the sake of it, when God hardly gets a look in. Yes, this scribe knew his stuff. Top marks we would say.

And yet what does Jesus say? Well we are told in verse 34, that when Jesus saw he had answered wisely, he said: "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Jesus was clearly struck by this man. He was a cut above the other scribes Jesus had encountered. And yet, though he was near the kingdom, he was not there yet. He was close, and yet still outside. Why? Surely after all this knowledge and even Jesus thinking he’d answered wisely, this man would be in the kingdom. But no, he was still outside. He was near, but still not there yet. And the answer is in what Mark has told his readers about the kingdom. Because throughout his gospel Mark has been explaining that Jesus is the King. To get into this kingdom you must come to the King. And that was what the scribe had not understood yet. He had not yet realised that he must come to Jesus the King to get into the kingdom. You see there is no way that we can keep those two commands perfectly. We cannot love God with all our hearts and minds and strength and souls. Nor can we fully love our neighbours as ourselves. And it was precisely for that reason that Jesus came. The king has come in person to grant us access into his kingdom.

You see as Jesus was having this conversation he was in the middle of Jerusalem and in a matter of days Jesus would be dying on a cross. It would be on that cross that Jesus would take the penalty this scribe and you and me deserved for failing to keep God’s law completely. Through Jesus’ death we can now come into his kingdom. And it is only when we trust in Jesus that we too can begin to live the new life God wants as forgiven people, people with new hearts, hearts which do truly love God, which can love our neighbours. So those two commands become the Christian’s life goal. Our aim in life is to love God wholeheartedly and to love others as ourselves. It was this the scribe had yet to grasp. He was so close. In fact he was looking at the answer directly in front of him. And if he were to think on and to believe then he too would come into that kingdom.

Well we’re not told whether that scribe ever made that step. I hope he did. But there may be some here who are in his position; who in many ways know the answers, and yet haven’t made that final step. Well the kingdom door is still open. There could be no more appropriate time to walk through it than Christmas when we remember the birth of the king. Why not today? Trust Jesus. That is the final part of the heart of the matter. And at the end of the day, the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. Is it yours or Christ’s? Who are you following? Who has your allegiance? Trust Jesus.

Well John Wesley came back from his terrible trip to America a broken man. And yet something significant had happened on the boat trip back. He had spent some time with some Christians and they made a great impression on his mind. And he was determined to pursue this quest to the end. Then one day on the morning of May 24, 1738, Wesley happened to flick open his Bible. It opened on a particular page and his eye was drawn to one verse. And guess which one it was: Mark 12 v 34: "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Well later that day, in the evening, Wesley went to a meeting of Christians and there was a reading of one of Paul’s letters. Wesley takes up the story: "About a quarter before nine, while [the preacher] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me…." John Wesley was no longer ‘not far from the kingdom’. He was in the kingdom. He had trusted Christ. And the rest of his life is a testimony to what it means to love God with all of your heart and to love your neighbour as yourself. Yes it is possible to be so near, and yet still outside. But it is also possible to move from being outside to being in the kingdom. And only then can we begin to enjoy the wonderful privilege, joy and challenge of loving God and loving others.

 

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