Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Love the Lord
The Greatest Commandment, Week 1 of 7 in a sermon series on the Greatest Commandment, preached January 8, 2023 at the 9:30am Worship service
Good morning! and welcome to the Presbyterian Church of Chestertown. Whoever you are, wherever you are from or you are headed, whatever you have said or done, you are welcome here. You are known, forgiven, and loved here, by God and by all.
We invite you to join this journey beside us… and to find yourself planted deep in faith of a God with us, growing strong in hope for God’s world, and reaching wide in love to all God’s people.
Let’s worship God!
We just read where Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” and heard a response, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Maybe we’ve heard this before, but do we understand it? Do we believe it? How can we grow in our ability to really do it?
Today is the first week in a 7-week sermon series we are calling “The Greatest Commandment.” Over these seven weeks, we are going to read and study seven lessons from the greatest commandment… to love the Lord, to love with Heart, with Soul, with Mind, and with Strength, to love neighbor, and to love self.
Today, our focus is Love the Lord.
In Deuteronomy 5, Moses is speaking with the people at the end of their journey through the wilderness. He reminds them all about that time God gave them the ten commandments, where the people saw Moses speak with God and not die, saw and heard the ten commandments, and how they begged Moses to guide them in obeying and following this great God who led them out of slavery, through the sea, through the wilderness, and is even now about to deliver them into the Promised land.
Then Moses says this to summarize how to love the Lord… Let’s pray, and listen for the word of the Lord from…
Scripture Deuteronomy 6:1-9
6:1 “Now, this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach y’all to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2 so that y’all and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life and keep all God’s decrees and commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)
Sermon Love the Lord
The number one priority for the people of God is to love the Lord, and keeping the commandments is loving the Lord.
Moses is speaking to the people Israel. When I say Israel, let’s be clear, Israel was not a nation, a government, or a religion. It was a people, descendants of Jacob. Jacob was renamed Israel when he wrestled with God and was wounded. Jacob had a decades-long feud with his brother Esau, where he had cheated and stolen from Esau. But after the encounter with God, Jacob becomes Israel, and Israel goes to his brother, sending gifts ahead, and submits himself before Esau in hopes of mending the broken relationship, and it was.
When we use the term Israel, we do not mean a family or a religion or a nation-state, in the past, present, or future. We mean all, any who find themselves wrestling with this God, being semi-wounded in the process, and willing to sacrifice and give away and submit in order to love and serve this God and to mend brokenness between all people.
Now, Moses will not go into the Promised Land. His role was to get them there. He will die before they cross. His parting wisdom, his last instruction, is to love the Lord, and obeying the commandments IS loving the Lord. The one thing, the only thing Moses wants them to hear, to really listen to and absorb, and never forget, and pass on to all children and every generation forever, is to love the Lord, and obeying the commandments is loving the Lord.
When I was younger, I thought love was a feeling. It is a feeling, but I thought of love only as the feeling of longing, attraction, desire. It felt to me as if love just appears inside, whenever, about whomever, and then pushes me toward someone in a unique way.
Love does appear. It’s a feeling. It pushes. But love is more than feeling, and loves keeps going even if the feeling ebbs and flows. Love is thought, but not a rock solid, logical thought, more of a risky, vulnerable bending of the mind to be curious, and to learn and grow and expand. Love is spiritual, of the spirit. There’s something below our thoughts and feelings that was born from love to love and to be loved, and is only at peace when we are loving and loved. And, love is body, how we embody love into our actions and through our words.
Moses is trying to say to them, to us, first, love the Lord with our feelings, our thoughts, and loving the Lord means obeying the commandments from our spirit, and through our body, our words and actions.
Now, Moses is sending the people he loves into a strange land already occupied by other people and his only advice is to love the Lord, and keep the commandments? You might think Moses would tell them how to plan for the journey. Nope. How to defeat the enemies they find on the other side? Nuh uh. Whom should we put in charge? How should we organize ourselves? What kind of government, economy, religion should we set up? Not that important.
The New Interpreter’s Bible noticed this… “the more serious and prolonged threat (to the people is the threat) posed by the temptation to forget … before all other dangers are faced, there must be a carefully nurtured preparation – spiritual, psychological, and practical – to ensure that (loving the Lord, obeying the commandments) would never be forgotten. They must remain imprinted on the mind of every single (one of them), both young and old (forever)” (New Interpreter’s, Volume II, pg 342).
The first commandment is to have no other God. But the people of Israel have a lot of mixed thoughts and feelings about this God. This God allowed a great famine to force their ancestors from the beautiful land of Canaan. This God led their ancestors to Joseph and Egypt, where they were fed and welcomed as guests, and grew as a people. This God let them become slaves to Egypt when a new Pharaoh rose. This God broke their chains of slavery and led them out of Egypt. This God trapped them between Pharaoh’s rushing army and the Red Sea. This God split the sea and led them across, and swamped Pharaoh’s army behind them. This God led them into a barren wilderness to starve with hunger and die of thirst. This God fed them manna, daily bread, and quail, and gave them fresh water from a rock. The people of Israel have a lot of mixed thoughts and feelings, memories and experiences with this God.
I think that’s why Moses teaches them to LOVE the Lord with more than just thoughts and feelings. Love from spirit, love through body, words and actions by obeying the commandments. Love includes feelings and thoughts, but goes deeper all the way to Spirit, and is more practical and visible in our body, our strength, what we do and say.
I’ve wondered why I get so upset when I see someone saying “thoughts and prayers.” This is why. Thank you for loving with your thoughts and feelings, but love is more than that. Love from your spirit, and love with your body. Make love visible in your words and your actions.
When we come to worship, we are doing what Moses did. We are reminding ourselves, reteaching ourselves to love this God, the Lord, with what we think and feel, and believe. That’s part of why we come here like this, over and over again. It is good and right to worship God together, to study and remember, to think, feel, and believe. This is part of why church exists, to bend our thoughts and feelings back toward God, to help us remember all the stories of God, to love God because of God’s radical faithfulness to us and those who came before us, over and over again. No matter how many times we break relationship with God, God just keeps showing up and honors the promises and covenant God made to us that we flippantly break.
But… but… to love the Lord is more than a thought, more than a feeling, more than a belief. We come here to tune our thoughts and feelings back toward loving the Lord, which then calls us to the harder part, embodying that love in obeying the commandments. Church is a laboratory where we practice loving in spirit and in body, in word and deed, so we go back through those doors into the beautiful but broken world and are ready to love with more than thoughts and prayers, but with money and time, with sweat and blood, to help bring God’s wholeness and peace to every person and to every corner of creation.
God doesn’t need our love. God is Love. God doesn’t love us to get something back from us, nor show we love God just to be rewarded. But, Moses saw how loving the Lord, obeying the commandments does build loving community which is better for all of us in four ways. 1) our days will be long, 2) it will go well with us, 3) we will multiply greatly, and 4) we will enjoy the abundant, healthy land. Everything gets easier. People are healthier. No one has too little or too much. There is no violence. We might get upset or angry, but we have a way through it together. We don’t lie, or cheat, or steal, and trust grows. Honesty breeds healthy relationships, and we don’t have to wonder or worry about what others think of us. The whole community is healthier and lives better longer lives when we agree together to love the Lord, and to follow these commandments.
Its called the Shema, for the Hebrew word for listen or hear… “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” When this God is truly our center, and we love this God with all we are, we won’t just think and feel it, our spirits will be at peace, and others will see and hear it everywhere in our actions and words.
Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.