The Most Important Commandment to Keep
Matthew 22:34-40
February 5, 2017
Chances are, you will not be familiar with the names Carl Chaffers, Dan Ferrell, Kent Payne, Jeff Seeman, Doug Rosenbaum, Todd Prukop and Tyrol Prioleau. If you don’t recognize any of those seven names, don’t feel bad, I would not have known them either. Those men, are the seven individuals who will officiate the Super Bowl tonight between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons.

Between the seven of them, they have 93 years of officiating experience in the NFL. In fact, to even be considered as an official for the big game, you must have at least 5 years of league experience and be ranked in the top tier of officials at your particular position.

This is an amazing accomplishment considering the fact that NFL officials have their weekly game field analyzed just as do the players. And, they must also pass weekly tests on a rulebook that is over 80 pages in length.

Yet, they are essential to the game. After all, for the game to be played well tonight and for things to go off without a hitch, the rules must be followed. In turn, these seven men have been selected because they are the best of the best at both knowing the rules and when it comes to enforcing them.

When it comes to our faith, we act sometimes like God’s rulebook is about as complex and just as difficult to get our minds around as the one used in the NFL. Further, sometimes we buy into the idea or suggest to others that we too need 93 years of experience in order to really understand how to properly execute God’s plans for our life.

Without question, following God and God’s rules isn’t always simple. And, it is true that we must read carefully and study faithfully in order to live in light of God’s laws. Yet, at several points in scripture, the Bible boils down all of the laws of faith to basic simple principles that can easily be understood, followed and thus become essential to our attempts to be exactly who and what God wants us to be.

Our passage, that we are going to center our worship on throughout the month of February is one of those points. These famous words of Jesus which compress all of the Bible’s commandments down to two great pillars on which all else rests, are the result of the religious leaders of the day asking Jesus an important question. According to Matthew, they wanted to know which of the commandments was the most important. Rather than choosing just one, Jesus choose two and yet when both are held in tension with the other, it is obvious that you can’t have one without the other. To love God with all of our heart, mind and soul, necessitates that we must also love our neighbor as ourselves. On the other hand, to love our neighbor as ourselves, we must first have established the supremacy of God at the forefront of our lives. Again, you can’t have one without the other.

Today, I simply want to invite us to think about the first part. Next week and then on the final Sunday of the month, we will think about the second half. Without question, the greatest debates and struggles in our society as well as many of the headlines in our news right now center around the question of what it means to treat one another in the appropriate way and for us in the Christian way. We will think about these questions clearly and carefully in the next few weeks. Yet, treating others in the right way always hinges on our relationship with God first and foremost being what it should be.

So, for this morning, what does it mean to say that the greatest command begins with the call to love the Lord with all of our heart, soul and mind? Simply put, I would say that it means to make sure that we are living our lives overall and also at the same time every day with God as our first love.

For those of you who are married, think back to the time when you began to date your spouse. In all likelihood, you will remember what it was like to begin to center your thoughts, attention and energy on this love of your life. You will likely also remember how easy it was for things that had been important to no longer be as important. In that moment, reprioritizing life just wasn’t as difficult as we want to act like it is.

If the newfound love of your life called – you answered. And, when they called your ringtone on your cell phone was not set to play the Darth Vader music or to sound like a nuclear siren going off. (That’s right, I have been with some of you at breakfast or lunch when your spouse called!). If they wanted to stay on the phone for an hour – you stayed on the phone for an hour. If they wanted to go to the movie or if they needed your help with a special task, you gladly did as they asked. Why? Simple. There was no one and nothing more important than they were and your life, particularly in those early days and months of the relationship, bore clear and unmistakable evidence of this truth.

I had three roommates during my Sophomore and Junior years of college. We all got to know each other as Freshman and became good friends. I have no doubt that we would have remained roommates as seniors had not one of our foursome married after our junior year which shifted things for all of us. During those two years together, when we were such good friends, and, when we spent such large amounts of time together, ironically all four of us began to realize that the person we were dating at the time was going to become the person we married. For each and every one of us, as that happened, the shift to that person as the central figure in our lives was unmistakable and obvious to the rest of us. In fact, it was as clear as day.

In turn, I think this gives us a clear picture and a very understandable image as we think about God becoming our first love. When this happens, our life revolves around this relationship more than it does around any other in our lives. God as our first love, is clear and unmistakable to us but to others.

I want to say it this way. If God is our first love, we know it. If God is not our first love we know it. If God is our first love, others know it. If God is not our first love, others know that too. It isn’t rocket science, it isn’t hard to measure, it isn’t difficult to figure out. The shift is dramatic and clear to all.

God, as our first love has three stages I think and we must find ourselves in one of them at all times. As best I can tell, they are the beginning stage, the maintaining stage and the evaluation stage.

The beginning stage is just as it suggests. For some of us, we have never given our lives to Christ and thus we are at the place of deciding if this is the one we will give our full selves too. The biggest part of this stage, I think, is just the decision to do it. So often, we sense God calling us. Further, the idea of God as creator and Jesus his son as Lord is more compelling and understandable than any other version of life of which we are aware. It is just our willingness to make the decision that is the biggest challenge and yet we must make a beginning, we must decide. An, let us not deceive ourselves for not to decide is to decide.

Others who are in the beginning stage have made the decision to live for Christ but at least at this moment are still in those early days of figuring out what this means and what this looks like. We all need grace to do this, to get our bearings and to find our way. Yet, as we do, we must also be committed, even in the beginning days, to begin to make adjustments that are obvious for our lives in order to begin to make God the one that we love with all of our heart, mind and soul.

For most of us in this sanctuary, our work is done in the next stage – the maintenance stage. How do we live a daily life in which Jesus Christ is clearly the Lord of our lives where God is absolutely our first love? We may convince ourselves that this is the easiest stage of our faith – all I have to do is maintain my same level of commitment to and love for God. I would argue however that this may not be the easiest but rather the most challenging of the three stages. If you have ever had to maintain where you are in a difficult area of life then you know it is a challenging thing to do.

Like many of you in this room, when I was in college I had to take a foreign language. As religion students, most of us took Greek and Hebrew as our language fulfillments since they are the original languages of the New Testament and the Old Testament. My Greek professor was a man named WT Edwards who allowed us to call him Dub rather that Dr. Edwards. I can still hear Dub drilling into our heads that we would loose our ability with and knowledge of Greek when we left his class unless we did one thing. He said that to maintain, we must translate one verse of the New Testament from Greek into English every day. That is what we must do to maintain where we were.

Well, guess what? I remember very little of what I learned in Greek class. Why, because I never developed his maintenance program. Life got in the way – who has time to translate a verse of scripture from Greek to English everyday? You see, maintenance isn’t an easy word where you do nothing, it is a challenging word where you must constantly keep working just to stay where you are or you will go backwards.

To maintain Christ as our first love in a way that is obvious to us and that it obvious to others takes daily work – just to maintain. All of these disciplines that we constantly talk about like scripture reading, pray, involvement in our life together, engaging in missions, giving and on and on the list goes must be done to maintain our first love or something else will take its place. Again, we are not talking about the need for hard work to become a super Christian, we are simply talking about hard work just to maintain where we are.

Which leads us quickly to the last stage – evaluating. Every person seeking to make God our first love must constantly evaluate where things are so that we can know which adjustments and course corrections are needed.

There is an old joke in ministry circles about marriage retreats.. Much of the time, those who are willing to come work on their marriages are those in the congregation who already have the best marriages. Why? Because they have already developed a willingness to periodically stop and evaluate their relationship. They don’t mind asking themselves what they need to do to get better or to at least stay where they are. Do we do that? A couple of times a year or at least annually are we willing to honestly evaluate God as our first love and make the needed changes. To do so may not be a way of saying we have huge problems. It may be a sign of a healthy relationship already in existence where we are willing to do everything we can to keep things there.

The NFL rule book is over 80 pages long. It takes seven officials, who are constantly sharpening their skills to oversee it properly. And, for that matter, teams who follow the leagues rules the most carefully are not guaranteed success. Jesus on the other hand summarized all the rules of the kingdom in two – love the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. Two rules that anyone can understand. Two rules that if we follow are guaranteed to make us winners in this life. Amen.