During this season of Lent, we have the theme of Extreme Love, which is based on two teachings of Jesus found in Matthew 22. One teaching is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. The other is to love your neighbor as yourself.
Those two teachings are critical to living the life of a Christian, so today, let’s spend some time thinking about what each of them mean. My prayer is that as we continue to understand the teachings - or perhaps grow in our understanding of them - we will more and more live in ways that are pleasing to the Lord.
Love the Lord your God.
Love. That means making the Lord the most important thing to you. Including the most important thing in your heart.
Think of it this way, which is to compare it to a marriage relationship. To a husband - and the same should be true for a wife, but since I am a husband, I will use the male part of the couple - to a husband, no one should ever take his wife’s place. No other woman should hold the same interest for him.
Hopefully a husband will see his wife as the most beautiful, kindest, most compassionate and intriguing woman around. Of course, there is a two-way street involved. I mean, it is easier for a husband to see his wife as kind and compassionate if indeed she is. And it is easier for her to be those things if he is nice.
But it should bring a husband great joy to see his wife happy and content. That is what it means to love her.
And think of this. A husband should be happy to make sure everyone knows he loves his wife. He should proclaim it to all who will listen.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart. That means that spiritually, everything else should take second place to the Lord. Everything else should pale in comparison to Jesus.
And yes, our love for the Lord should be proclaimed by us. How can we be afraid of proclaiming our love for Him if we love Him with all our hearts?
Love the Lord your God with all your heart. Love Him with all your soul.
The word soul comes from a Greek phrase meaning to breathe gently and involuntarily. The meaning is that just as we do not have to think about respiration - it just happens - so our love for the Lord should be an integral part of our very being.
And get this. Just as we must continue to breathe in order to live physically - that is how essential physical breathing is - so is our love for Jesus necessary to continue to survive spiritually.
Our love for Jesus should be such an integral part of our being that we will not need to remind ourselves to have it. We ought to love the Lord so naturally that we would no more voluntarily step out of His will than we would stop breathing. That is what it means to love Him with all our soul.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your mind.
Remember the advertising slogan? Actually, the younger among us will not remember because this started 41 years ago. It is still heard today a bit, but some of us will remember the 1972 advertising slogan for the United Negro College Fund. The slogan? “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
That is true educationally. I have read that the slogan has been so effective that since 1972, the United Negro College Fund has raised more than $2.2 billion and helped to graduate more than 350,000 minority students from college or graduate school. It is good to know that so many minds have not been wasted educationally.
But guess what. That slogan can also be applied spiritually. A mind is a terrible thing to waste spiritually. Which leads to the spiritual challenge to fill our minds with the things of God.
That, to me, seems to be an increasingly difficult thing to do. There is so much information and mental stimulation all around us. And not just from TV and radio and newspapers. In fact, those things seem to be so 20th-century. Now we have all the internet stuff on so many possibilities for mobile devices.
Of course, some of what is available is good and helpful, and some of it is of a spiritual nature. I will use Jason as an example. When he and Lynna Gene and I started leading the newly-restarted youth group last fall and I had some of the lessons, when I had the group turn to a Bible passage, I noticed Jason was on his phone. That did not bother me. I figure he had an important text to deal with. But no. He was looking up the Bible passage on his smart phone.
That sort of thing still boggles my mind. But while some of the information and stimulation we have around us is good, there is so much negative and detrimental and immoral stuff around us as well. So it is not easy to love the Lord with all our minds. However, it is important to do so. It is critical to do so.
Why? It is because it is what is in our minds - what occupies or fills our minds - that affects how we make the important decisions of life. Decisions about our relationships. Including family relationships. How you treat each other within a family. And decisions about how hard you try at school, how well you work at your job, and how you handle your finances even beyond your working years.
Love the Lord your God with all your mind. Love the Lord your God with all your soul. Love the Lord your God with all your heart. That is the challenge in the first teaching that is the basis of this year’s theme for Lent. The challenge is that our love for God will be extreme, affecting every single part of who we are.
The second teaching - the one about loving our neighbors as we love ourselves? The challenge with that teaching is to show extreme love to others, doing so in the name of Jesus. Doing so with the hope that others will join us in loving Jesus.
To think about that, let me share a list of descriptions I read about how Jesus loved others. I have some specific examples to add to explain the descriptions. But let’s think about how Jesus showed extreme love. As we do that, let’s think about how we can do what He did. How we need to do what He did, that being the only way we can fulfill the challenge to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Here is one of the descriptions. Jesus showed His love for others by accepting people unconditionally.
Of course - this is a critical point - Jesus accepted each of us who are Christians, doing so unconditionally. I mean, I was not perfect as I was growing up. Early on I stole my sister’s crayons a few times. As a teen I occasionally sassed my parents. And yes, I was disciplined for both, but through it all, Jesus loved me. He loved me even when I was bad. In fact, He loved me long before I even knew about His love.
Is that not unconditional love? A love that continued the night I accepted Jesus as my Savior. When I offered my heart and my life to Him that night, He did not say, “Wait a minute. Here is a list of 17 things that need to be corrected and taken care of before I will accept you.”
No. Jesus accepted my offer of my heart and life, doing so unconditionally. That very night I became one of His spiritual children.
During His ministry, Jesus loved unconditionally. Just one example occurred one day when He was at a well. As recorded in the Gospel of John, the only other person with Him at the well was a woman. A woman who was a Samaritan. A Samaritan woman who was a sinner.
The woman’s description provided a number of reasons Jesus should have had nothing to do with her.
First, it was improper for a man to speak to a woman in public - a woman other than a family member. In fact, the woman should have walked away when she noticed Jesus.
Second, Samaritans were always to be rejected by good, pure Jews, such as Jesus. There were historical reasons for that, but there should have been no conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan of either gender.
Third, the woman was what I guess could be called a home wrecker. She had been married and divorced five times, and she was at that time living with a man to whom she was not married. There must have been at least some tearing apart of marriages in all that.
Jesus should not have talked to the sinful Samaritan woman who was at the well. But He did talk to her, introducing her to the way to be saved from her sins, that way being Himself.
And He did that, not by insisting that she correct all her problems and then get back to Him. Instead, He talked to her freely and openly, offering her salvation right then and right there. He did that, thereby showing her unconditional love.
Did the woman accept Jesus that day? The Bible does not say. She was impressed by Jesus’ knowledge of her. She did ask, “Can this be the Christ?” But if not that day, then perhaps at some future time the woman did accept Jesus. If she did, it was because of the unconditional love He showed her.
Do we - will we - love unconditionally? Is unconditional a word that describes how you love your neighbors?
Loving like Jesus means loving people who are not easy to love.
The woman at the well was certainly an example of that. In fact - this is recorded in the Gospel of Luke - her conversation with Jesus occurred in the heat of the day, which was a very unpopular time to be at the well because of the heat. But that was the only time she was allowed to be there - a time when no other women were there. Again, she probably was a home wrecker, so other women wanted nothing to do with her. She was not easy to love. Her sin made her that way. But Jesus ministered to her anyway.
I can also think of the time Jesus encountered ten lepers outside a village. For them, it was not their sins, but their disease that caused them to be difficult to love. The disease had disfigured them, so they were ugly. Repulsive actually. Leprosy is a highly-contagious disease, which, even according to the law, caused them to be separated from healthy people. And I guess it might have been their sins that caused them to be difficult to love. That is because at least some believed it was a person’s sins that caused the disease of leprosy - that the disease was God’s punishment.
Just as it had been with the woman at the well, Jesus had ample reasons to not have anything to do with the ten lepers. They were ugly, they were contagious, they no doubt had sinned in some ways, all that making them not easy to love.
But Jesus loved them anyway. He loved them enough to heal them.
Did those ten lepers accept Jesus that day? The Bible implies that one of them did. That one thanked Jesus. But we do not know about the others. However, if they did accept, either that day or sometime in the future, it was because of Jesus’ willingness to love people who are not easy to love.
Do we - will we - love people who are not easy to love? And by the way, I have not and will not give specific examples of how we can love in any of the ways Jesus showed love to others. That is because I hope each of us will think on our own - with our own neighbors in mind - neighbors I may not know about. I hope we will each think about how we can match Jesus’ love, doing so in our own lives. But does love for people who are not easy to love describe how you love your neighbors?
Jesus showed His love by going out of His way to reach people.
That happened in the case of the ten lepers. Jesus was on His way into the village when He encountered them. He had to take at least a few steps out of the way He was going to talk with them and speak to them the words that led to their healing.
I am also thinking about the time - this is recorded in three of the Gospels - Luke, along with Matthew and Mark - when Jesus, after a time of teaching, sat down to rest for a while. At that time, some parents brought their children to Him, hoping He would bless them.
Knowing He needed to rest, Jesus’ disciples rebuked the parents, telling them to go away and quit bothering Him.
Remember what happened? When Jesus heard or saw what was happening, He rebuked His disciples, telling them to allow the children to come to Him, whereupon He did lay hands on them and bless them.
Did any of those children - did any of their parents - accept Jesus that day? I assume the parents may have already accepted Him, at least enough to seek out His blessing, since they took their children to Him. But the Bible does not say what the reactions were that day. However, if any of them did accept Jesus, that day or in the future, it was because of His willingness to go out of His way, both physically and comfort-wise, to reach people.
Do we - will we - go out of our way to reach people? Is that a description of how you love your neighbors?
Loving like Jesus loved means forgiving people generously.
What better example of generous forgiving can there be than what happened as Jesus hung on His cross of crucifixion?
Before His crucifixion, Jesus was arrested and put on trial. Actually, three different trials happened after His arrest. Two of them occurred the night of His arrest, which were illegal because Jewish law did not allow night-time trials. The third one was the next morning, but it, too, was illegal, because it was too soon after His arrest for a sentence of death to be decided, and that was the decision.
After that, Jesus was beaten and ridiculed. He was spat upon and had a crown of thorns smashed onto His head. All of that happened before He was forced to carry His cross to Golgotha, where He was nailed to it and it was lifted up.
What horrible, agonizing things Jesus endured in the hours leading up to and including His crucifixion. All of it without merit. Jesus always had been innocent of any and all crimes. What a horrible, agonizing time it was for the Lord.
But remember one of the things Jesus said as He hung on the cross? This is recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them. [Forgive the ones who have been and are mistreating Me.] Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Forgive them? Forgive the ones who mistreated Him, doing so illegally and without cause? Forgive them? Yes, that is what Jesus prayed, which is certainly an example of generous forgiveness, which is one way Jesus showed His love.
Did any of those at the cross that day accept Jesus? The Bible implies a Roman centurion did. Right after Jesus died, the centurion proclaimed that Jesus was innocent. He said that after he praised God. Those words at least imply that the centurion recognized Jesus’ death as the sacrifice for sins - including his sins.
The others? We do not know. But if any of them did accept Jesus, it was because of His offer of generous forgiveness.
Do we - will we - forgive any who hurt us? Is generous forgiveness a phrase that describes how you - how I - love our neighbors?
Each week of Lent, we have concentrated and will concentrate on the theme Extreme Love. The Extreme Love of Jesus.
Each week of Lent, we have highlighted and will highlight a synonym for “extreme” and how that synonym was shown by Jesus.
So far, we have proclaimed the extreme, incredible spiritual love of Jesus and the extreme, incomparable common love of Jesus and the incomparable love He has for common people.
Today, the synonym is “stunning” - the extreme, stunning love of Jesus. Love that is stunning because it showed up in the most unexpected - the most stunning - ways. It showed up in His unconditional acceptance of people. It showed up in how He loved even those who were not easy to love. It showed up in how He went out of His way to reach people with His love. It showed up in His willingness to forgive people generously.
And hey, His love was stunning, not only 2000 years ago. His extreme love should be stunning to us now because He already has or He will accept us unconditionally. As soon as we came or will come to Him, He accepts us as His spiritual children. And because He loves us, even on those days we are not easy to love. And because He went out of His way to reach us. He still is willing to reach people, no matter where they are. And yes, His love should be stunning to us because He has generously forgiven the sins of those of us who are Christians, and He will forgive anyone else who repents.
And then this. Because of the Lord’s love - love so extreme it is stunning - may we do all we can - all we can do with the Lord’s help - may we work at being stunning in our love, not only for our neighbors, but for Him, too, as we make Jesus the most important thing to us. To do that with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind - with everything we are.
Today’s closing song is a prayer that we will love Jesus. It is the hymn "More Love to Thee, O Christ."
More love to Thee, O Christ, more love to Thee!
Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee;
This is my earnest plea: More love, O Christ, to Thee,
More love to Thee, More love to Thee!
Once earthly joy I craved, sought peace and rest;
Now Thee alone I seek. Give what is best.
This all my prayer shall be: More love, O Christ, to Thee,
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!
Then shall my every breath sing out Your praise;
This be the only song my heart shall raise;
This still my prayer shall be: More love, O Christ to Thee,
More love to Thee, More love to Thee!
During Lent, we are reminded that Jesus loved so much - so extremely - so stunningly - that He willingly gave His very life as the perfect sacrifice for sins. He did that so all who accept Him as the sacrifice - as the Savior - will have their sins forgiven so that God’s blessings can be enjoyed here on earth and later in Heaven.
Let’s love Jesus more and more each day, and let’s show our love for Him by matching Him in unconditional acceptance of all who seek Him, in loving even those not easy to love, in going out of our ways to reach people for Him, and by generously forgiving any and all who hurt us. May we enjoy and may we have extreme, stunning love. Amen.