Toorak Uniting Church

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The great commandment

Matthew 22: 34 – 40     Psalm 139
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
8am, 7 May 2006

When I put the great commandment down to preach on this morning I didn’t quite know why and quite honestly didn’t know what to do with it. Over the week I got more and more restless about it and by the time I got to Friday I was positively anxious: What in the world was there to say about a text that is so well known and so well worn as that?
We all know we should love God and loving the neighbour is supposed to be one of the Christian maxims par excellence. But what is there to say about it?

That Jesus says these words in a context of conflict where the scribes are trying to trick him into saying things that will incriminate him?
That Jesus is not being original here, but that there were others, way before Jesus who had put these particular two together and had said the same thing?
Or that Jesus might be taking position against other rabbis who, apparently, at the time maintained that it was wrong to put one commandment over or against another?

Perhaps it would make for an interesting sermon to exercise the mind, but I am not at all sure it would do anything other than that. It wasn’t until we read Psalm 139 on Friday in the meditation group that something clicked and, after I have read that psalm to you, I will try to explain what it was.

Psalm 139 from Uniting in Worship.

1 Lord, you have searched me out and known me;
2 you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
3 You trace my journeys and my resting-places
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
5 You press upon me behind and before
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
7 Where can I go then from your Spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast.
11 If I say, 'Surely the darkness will cover me,
and the light around me turn to night',
12 Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day;
darkness and light to you are both alike.
13 For you created my inmost parts;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
14 I will thank you because I am marvelously made;
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
15 My body was not hidden from you,
while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book;
they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them.
17 How deep I find your thoughts,
O God! how great is the sum of them!
18 If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand;
to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.

What clicked for me was that through the reading of Psalm 139 the great commandment of Matthew 22 was suddenly placed in a much wider context than before and I only hope that I will be able to show you how.

Psalm 139 talks about the love and presence of God being there all around us, supporting, sustaining, surrounding and carrying us through life wherever we go and however far we wander or lose ourselves. However difficult life gets says the psalm, God is there with his sustaining love. He knows us, better than we know ourselves, and even if it is pitch dark around us, he will somehow know how to find us because to him the darkness is as clear as the day.

Thinking about that in the context of the great commandment it occurred to me that the presence and love of God that surrounds us is the power that guides us through life as well.
If you feel loved and supported and sustained it is easier to love, support and sustain others isn’t it? If you feel someone is there for you to help and guide you, it is easier to do that for others isn’t it?

So that is one part of the relationship: God loves us and so draws out and inspires love in us.
Our loving then is informed and guided by that love, experienced in our lives and revealed in the scriptures.

They tell us that God is, and wants to be, in a loving relationship with us. And that he doesn’t want that relationship to be one way either, but two way. Because, where we love God back, we will get more out of the relationship than when we don’t respond to the love God gives us. God loves us and baptism, especially infant baptism is a sign of that unconditional love, but if we don’t do anything with it and never enter into the relationship that baptism is not going to make a lot of difference to our lives. God will still love us, but we will be missing out.

If we do enter into that relationship however and accept God’s offer of love and grace as a two way street between him and us we will grow in faith and our life will be guided, sustained and supported more and more.

That’s not where it ends though. And this is where what Jesus says becomes very important: It is not just a two way street, it is a three way street, or if you will, a triangle:
Because we are loved and grow in that love, the more we will be able to love and share of the grace we are given.
The love of others is something that will inexorably come forth from the love of God, because when it grows it can’t do any other than flow over into the world and onto others.

And again: The more we put into it, the more we practice it, the more we will get out of it and the more we will grow in the presence of God as well.

An evangelical couple I married recently came up with the following comparison was very moving:

Life with God is like a pyramid: The more we as people move closer together in love and harmony the closer we get to God who is at the top of the pyramid. And from our growing together, and our growing towards God, what God values, justice, peace, love and righteousness will multiply in the world.

That, I think is probably one way of looking at the great commandment: If we put God and what God values and inspires in us at the top of our priority list we will not separate ourselves from others but on the contrary be driven out to share and be with others in a way that is informed, inspired and guided by a love that is far greater than ours can ever be.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2006

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