Summary: Sometimes loving God can be the hardest thing we do.
Sermon: Loving God: The Hardest Commandment
Text: Matt 22:34-46
Occasion: Trinity XVIII
Who: Mark Woolsey
Where: Arbor House
When: Sunday, September 25, 2005
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
"Was there one thing in particular that caused you to lose your faith in God?" I asked at the outset.
He thought for a moment. "It was a photograph in Life magazine," he said finally.
"Really?" I said. "A photograph? How so?"
He narrowed his eyes a bit and looked off to the side, as if he were viewing the photo afresh and reliving the moment. "It was a picture of a black woman in Northern Africa," he explained. "They were experiencing a devastating drought. And she was holding her dead baby in her arms and looking up to heaven with the most forlorn expression. I looked at it and I thought, ’Is it possible to believe that there is a loving or caring Creator when all this woman needed was rain?’"
As he emphasized the word rain, his bushy gray eyebrows shot up and his arms gestured toward heaven as if beckoning for a response.
"How could a loving God do this to that woman?" he implored as he got more animated, moving to the edge of his chair. "Who runs the rain? I don’t; you don’t. He does -- or that’s what I thought. But when I saw that photograph, I immediately knew it is not possible for this to happen and for there to be a loving God. There was no way. Who else but a fiend could destroy a baby and virtually kill its mother with agony -- when all that was needed was rain?"
He paused, letting the question hang heavily in the air. Then he settled back into his chair. "That was the climactic moment," he said. "And then I began to think further about the world being the creation of God. I started considering the plagues that sweep across parts of the planet and indiscriminately kill -- more often than not, painfully -- all kinds of people, the ordinary, the decent, and the rotten. And it just became crystal clear to me that it is not possible for an intelligent person to believe that there is a deity who loves." ...
But Templeton wasn’t done. "My mind then went to the whole concept of hell. My goodness," he said, his voice infused with astonishment, "I couldn’t hold someone’s hand to a fire for a moment. Not an instant! How could a loving God, just because you don’t obey him and do what he wants, torture you forever -- not allowing you to die, but to continue to in that pain for eternity? There is not criminal who would do this!" (The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel, pp 14 -15).
Jesus said to him, "’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets".
II. Harder Than It Seems
It would seem that Charles Templeton and Jesus Christ present us with a rather stark decision. And it would seem in the light of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and other catastrophes, that even God is has difficulty living up to the second commandment. If the God of the Bible exists, then it’s clear He could have turned Katrina back out into the ocean and spared New Orleans. Then why didn’t He? And it’s no use saying that God has given us free will and we are simply reaping the consequences of our decisions. What about those 20 some-odd elderly people being evacuated from a Houston nursing home, whose bus caught on fire and they all perished horribly? Was that simply a consequence of their free will? Do you think they were necessarily more evil that you who escaped such devastation? I don’t think so.
I realize this puny sermon is not going to answer the problem of evil. I do want present to you that the command Jesus gives us is not simply a call to some ooey-gooey feeling for God. In fact, it’s not a command to feeling at all; it’s a command to radical obedience -- not simply in outward conformity -- but to genuine, inward motivations. So much of the time we hear exhortations to come to God because He will turn your scars into stars; He will carry you when you can go no farther. However, Jesus’ call is to love God when He confronts you with your own dead child, or your own mortality, or some other impossible burden. Those of us who came to Him for eternal life -- and I count myself among them -- flunk this test miserably. The great reformer Martin Luther, before his rediscovery of the gospel of Jesus and Paul of justification by grace alone thru faith alone, was agonizing over his own inability to keep God’s commandments or to even make proper penance for them. When someone suggested to him that he was trying too hard -- all he really had to do was to "love God" -- his response was, "Love God? Sometimes I hate Him!"