November 06, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
What makes a person a saint? I dare say most of us disqualify ourselves from that status, yet all the people we recognized in this service this morning would probably have been equally uncomfortable with such a title. But the qualities of genuine sainthood are not perfection, self-righteousness, superb biblical or theological knowledge. It is the way the love of God is reflected in our living.
Earlier this year Pope Francis canonized ten new saints in the Catholic Church. In his homily he said, “…by over emphasizing our efforts to do good works, we have created an ideal of holiness excessively based on ourselves, our personal heroics, our capacity for renunciation, our readiness for self-sacrifice in achieving a reward. In this way, we have turned holiness into an unattainable goal.” Rather, he said, holiness, sainthood, comes from acknowledging and sharing God’s love. (https://hawaiicatholicherald.com/2022/05/25/sainthood-a-reachable-goal/)
So what an appropriate Sunday to conclude our series, Love Cubed, by focusing on the love of God.
In Jesus’ famous response to the question about what is the greatest commandment, he combined two statements from the Torah, to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. In this he identified three important loves: Love of God, neighbor and self. During these weeks we have encouraged everyone to do three things each day: cultivate intimacy with God every day; serve someone else every day; and do something good for You.
today we focus on Loving God. Perhaps we should have started with this, because it’s the foundation, but we end with it to emphasize that very point. All true love starts and ends with God. In fact, the scripture Jesus quotes is one of the most important in the Old Testament.
It is called The Shema, which means “hear.” That’s the first word in these important verses. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” My friend, Rabbi Brett Kirchiver at Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, says The Shema is the most important text in Jewish life. It is called “the watchword of faith.” And by the way, a little plug for the service two weeks from now, Rabbi Brett will be with us to share in the sermon for our Thanksgiving Celebration Sunday.
The Shema is something Jewish people are to say every morning and night. It is a part of every Jewish prayer service. The people are told to teach this to their children when they lie down at night. They are to bind them on their foreheads in the form of phylacteries, little pouches containing The Shema (pic).
They also are to put them on their doorposts. To this day, the words of The Shema are placed in what is called a mezuzah (pic), a small device placed in doorways. On our recent trip to Israel, all of our hotels had mezuzahs in each doorway.
Why do they do this? Why is it still important to this day to follow this ancient command to love the Lord your God? What does it mean to love God with all your heart, soul and might?
Let’s consider the word love in this verse. In Hebrew it is the word ahavah which has lots of meaning. It basically describes affection and care between two people. Now this can be physical affection, like the King of Persia who loved Queen Esther who was very beautiful. In that case you pronounce the word like this AHH-ha-VAhhh!
But the word means more. Abraham had ahavah for his son Isaac. And David had ahavah for Jonathan. So ahavah describes the love of a parent and also devoted friendship. As well, the Bible says the nation of Israel had ahavah for King David. And kings can have ahavah for each other. In these cases ahavah means admiration and agreement.
And so this word is used to describe the layers of God’s love for us. As it says in Deuteronomy, “God showed affection for you, He chose you…because of his ahavah for you.” (7:7-9) This means that God’s love is not something that has to be earned from God. It is God’s nature to love. God chooses. What we think of God doesn’t change what God thinks of us, because God shows us ahavah.
Other parts of the Bible describes God’s love like a married couple or a parent for a child. It has deep affection and feeling. BUT, God’s love is not just emotion. It is action: “Because of God’s ahavah for your ancestors, God brought you out of Egypt with great power.”(Deut. 4:37)
So ahavah means love that is freely given. It has deep affection, but it is also meant to be put into action. This is why the New Testament says, “We love because God first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
But still, why is this word so important? Why are the people commanded to do everything they can to remember to love God with all their heart, soul, and might?
Well, let’s think about when this passage was given by Moses. Israel is about to enter the Promised Land. They are most concerned about external threats, mainly the people who live in the land. They believe their greatest threat to their security lies out there. But God knows that is not the case. Israel’s greatest threat is not outside of them, but within them. They are their own biggest threat. Much like we can be, right? We get so concerned about external forces, other people, the stock market, forces of nature. But God understands that if we are strong within ourselves, if we are strong in our trust in God, we can face whatever external threat may come.
So how does ahavah, the command to love the Lord your God build that internal strength?
Well, maybe one way it does this, is by building our trust in God. When we love God it reduces our fear of God. Now I don’t mean fear in terms of respect. The Bible often tells us to fear God, meaning we should have respect for God. That is true. But it doesn’t mean we should live in terror of God. We shouldn’t be afraid of God. Its hard to trust someone you are afraid of. When we love God, ahavah God, we trust God.
That’s a good reason to remember to ahavah the Lord with all your heart, soul and might. But I believe there is an even better reason.
The Love of God keeps us aware of the mercy of God. And just like the Hebrews of old, we all will need God’s mercy from time to time. We will falter in our love of God. We will fail at living out God’s will in our lives. We will disappoint ourselves and God stands ready to provide mercy.
God cannot help giving people another try. It’s true. Some people read the Old Testament and say, “God is so harsh and unforgiving in the Old Testament, that’s why I want to jump to the New Testament, to Jesus. But it’s the same God. We forget that God is often more forgiving than people are. I read this week in my devotions, about King Ahab. He was a sorry king. He broke about every commandment of God there was. The final straw was when he murdered his neighbor, Naboth, so he could take possession of his property. God told the prophet Elijah to go to Ahab and pronounce that he will die. But then Ahab repented, and look what God said to the prophet, “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me!” (1 Kings 21:29)
Its like God is a sucker for truly repentant people! Or how about Jonah preaching to the Ninevites, Israel’s hated enemy. He preached that if they don’t repent they will be destroyed. And when they repented, God forgave, and look at Jonah’s words: “He yelled at GOD, ‘GOD! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness! Surely, loving God, reminds us of God’s mercy. (Jonah 4:1-2)
That’s a good reason, isn’t it, to remember to Love God with all your heart, soul, and might. But I think there is even a better reason.
Practice ahavah toward God reminds us of our dependence on God. We remember that God is the source of all our blessings. God looks after us. And even in a season of depletion, God gives us something to hold onto if we look for it. This brings amazing relief to life. We don’t have to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders and fret over how we are going to make. We remember to love God, because God is a giver.
Just look at the word ahavah (אהבה), again. It is a combination of three letters in Hebrew: aleph (א), hey (ה), and vet (ב). From these three letters we get the root word hav (הב), which means to give. The heart of ahavah is hav, giving. Once more we see how giving is fundamental to loving, and when we give we participate in the center most feature of God’s character.
Now, all of these are great reasons to love God with all our heart, soul and might, but I believe there is still a better reason. In fact, I would be so bold as to say is THE reason to love God and it is this: Loving God helps us become more like God. Loving God transfuses all of these characteristics of God into our character.
This is what God did in Jesus Christ. God took on our nature, so that we could know God personally. We could experience the character and nature of God in a person we could love. And in that relationship we become different people. As Athanasius, 4th century leader of the church, said, “God became like us so that we could become like God.”
This is why keeping the ahavah of the Lord before us every day is so important. You can’t let it slip. You should pray it when you arise and when you go to bed, you should teach it to your children, and keep it in your heart, soul and might. Because when we love God, we allow God to help us live like God.
James Moore was once the pastor of St. Luke’s UMC in Houston. He tells the story about growing up Memphis, TN and playing for the little league baseball city championship when he was 12 years old. In the last inning they were ahead by two runs with two outs. One more out was all they needed but the bases were loaded. A routine ground ball was hit to the third baseman. He threw to first where the first-baseman was ready to make the catch in plenty of time but the ball went through the webbing of his mit and three runs scored. They lost.
To make matters worse, Jim got cleated in the game and his leg was badly gashed. There was a first-aid tent and the coach insisted he get treated and promised he would find someone to drive Jim home. Let me tell the rest in Jim’s own words:
A few minutes later as I came out of the tent, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t believe who was waiting to drive me home in his truck. How could the coach do this to me?
It was Mr. Tony. Mr. Tony was the last person I would have picked to drive me home. He was the town grouch! He was mean and tough… with a sour look and evil eyes. All the young people… and most of the adults were scared to death of Mr. Tony… I was just 12 years old. With fear and trembling I got into the truck and with a frightened, squeaky voice I said: “Thanks for waiting for me, Mr. Tony.”
He grunted and scowled. For twenty minutes, we rode along in silence. It seemed like an eternity before we reached my house. As I got out of the car, I said: “Thanks for the ride, Mr. Tony.” He looked at me with angry eyes and he said: “So that all you’ve got to say? Thanks? How much gas do you think that’s gonna buy?” His harsh words were like a slap in the face and I stammered: “I’m sorry, Mr. Tony. I don’t have any money.” “Well, get on out of the truck,” he shouted.
I was hurt, stunned, embarrassed. I got out of the truck and ran into the house. It was one of those awful, painful moments in life… that you feel like you can never get over or forget. I dreaded seeing Mr. Tony after that… and I avoided him as much as I could… but when I did see him, the pain, the hurt, the embarrassment would flood back into my mind.
Some years later, I was coming home from college for the weekend. When I arrived in Memphis, it was just getting dark. As I drove by the Fair Grounds I saw someone hitch-hiking and holding up a sign that said “Hollywood.”
I stopped… and can you believe it? The hitch-hiker getting into my car? Who do you think it was? That’s right… it was Mr. Tony!
We rode along in silence. We came to my house and went on down the road 10 blocks or so further… and I pulled up right in front of Mr. Tony’s house. As Mr. Tony started to get out of the car, he turned back and said, “Thanks a lot for the ride, Jim.”
Now, you know what I wanted to say, don’t you? Most every fiber of my being wanted to say it. I was so tempted to say: “Thanks? Thanks? How much gas do you think that’s gonna buy?”
That’s what I wanted to say. That’s what I almost said, but just then I remembered something… I remembered God. I remembered Jesus and what He taught. I remembered my Christian Faith and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit I said: “You are more than welcome, Mr. Tony! You can ride with me anytime! I’m always glad to help a friend!”