This month, we celebrate the coming of the Messiah Jesus to the earth he created. A little over thirty years after God took on flesh, he found himself in the Temple, chasing out the money changers and declaring that it had become a total distortion of what his Father had intended it to be.
Not long after that, a religious scribe came to him and asked what might have seemed a strange question. He asked Jesus what the most important commandment is (Mark 12:28). How very odd. After all, if a commandment comes from God, doesn't that make it important by definition? How can one be greater than another?
But Jesus answers by quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures, first from Deuteronomy, then from Leviticus. And his answer is the basis for the philosophy you'll see the to the left of this page. First, love God with all your heart. Then, love your neighbor as yourself.
And then, the scribe who came to ask the question agrees...and expands. And the expansion is what's really interesting. He says, yep, good point. Those are the top commandments. But then he makes a comparison - he says that those commands are at the top because they are more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. Why is that significant?
Because of what Jesus had just finished doing! He had gone into the Temple, overturned tables, driven merchants out, and basically declared by his words and actions that they were missing the whole point. They were all about sacrifices, but were totally missing the love of God and neighbor. So Jesus used the opportunity to say, this is what's important. Not that...this! The kingdom of God was arriving and it was a matter of the heart.
And the scribe agreed. And thus was, in Jesus words (Mark 12:34), "not far from the kingdom of God."
What does it look like to experience this heart change? Listen to the words of theologian N.T. Wright, from his book Mark for Everyone:
(T)his comes as a considerable challenge for contemporary Christians. Would anyone looking at us - our churches, our lives, the societies that claim in some sense to be 'Christian' - ever have guessed that the man we claim to follow saw his followers as being people like this? Or to put it another way: when the crisis comes, what remains solid in your life and the life of your community? Wholehearted love of God and neighbour? Or the mad scramble of everyone trying to save their own skins?Ouch! Wright is saying that the way we react when we are bumped tells whether we are taking seriously the words of our Lord. When someone pulls the fire alarm, so to speak, are we all about loving God and those around us? Or are we desperately trying to get out the building no matter who we might step over along the way?
So, as a Christian, what is my first thought when...
- When there are cutbacks at our place of work. "What will happen to me?" Or "How can I be servant to my coworkers as we go through this together?"
- When a tornado rips through my city? "That was close! But at least I'm alright." Or "Wow, people are hurting all around me...how can I show them the love of Christ?"
- When we hear of a deadly disease killing thousands overseas. "How can we keep it away from us so we'll be safe?" Or "My heart is broken for those affected...I need to pray for them and look for ministries to lift them out of it."
Don't misunderstand. I'm not saying that the self-preservation instinct is unnatural. It is of course the natural first thought of the human mind. But that is what's so powerful about the cross of Christ. Through his death and resurrection, he has brought about a new order where God can dwell in our hearts and make us think differently. So that, by his power, our hearts can become more and more inclined to think of his glory and the welfare of others first.
Love God. Love people. When that happens, the world will see that God has made his dwelling on earth through his people.
And that is the good news of Christmas.