Sunday, 18 October 2015

A happiness worth dying for

A teacher of the law asked Jesus, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"

"The most important one,” answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'

The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself'..."  Mark 12:28-31. 

Do you ever think about your "religious duties"? Some people, of course, don't believe there are any such things. But most of us probably feel that there are certain obligations laid on us by God.

But where do such duties begin and end? How can we know if we are measuring up to them? How important are they? And what happens if we don’t keep them?

The Jews of Jesus' day used to debate this kind of question. Their scholars had counted up a total of 613 laws from the Old Testament, and if you were a good Jew you would aim to obey them all. Which was what today might be called a big ask...! 

But when Jesus was challenged about which one came top of the list, what he came back with was, in reality, an even bigger ask - to love God with nothing less than your heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself. You really can't ask more than that, can you?

Not many people realise that when Jesus spoke these very daunting words he was in fact simply quoting, more or less exactly, the Old Testament - he is a faithful Jew quoting the Jewish scriptures. (You can look it up, if you like, in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18.)

What he is saying, in effect, is that any man or woman who tries to live their life according to these priorities won't really have to bother too much about those 600-plus laws - they will automatically be covered, they will take care of themselves. He is saying, "Look, don't let yourself get bogged down by all the weighty and detailed demands of the law - just focus on living your life centred on God and his love. Do that, and you can't go wrong".

Many people do in fact view religion as "Must do this, mustn't do that..." Go to church. Say your prayers. Give to charity. Obey the Ten Commandments. Don’t be selfish. Don’t gossip and lie. And so on...

And yes, there are of course certain clear rights and wrongs. But this mentality can become crushing and demoralising. What Jesus wants us to understand - if I can sum it up in one word - is that God is to be enjoyed.

Is this a new idea to you? Well, please think about it... God isn't a heavenly task-master or old-fashioned school-teacher standing over you with a big stick waiting to punish you the moment you step out of line. No: he is your heavenly Father who loves you more than you can ever know, and the reason he has laid down laws is not to make you miserable but to make you happy.

It's the God-centred life that is the happy and fulfilled life. It's when we look for our happiness elsewhere - in pleasure or money or success or sex or sport or art - that we get into trouble. Not that these things are necessarily wrong in themselves; but if they take first place then in effect they become our gods, and we have slipped into idolatry.

I used the word "daunting" to describe Jesus' words here. But that was wrong, really. If we take these words seriously we will find them just the opposite - not daunting at all, but liberating, joy-giving, fulfilling. Let's face it, half-heartedness never led to satisfaction in any aspect of life. Have you ever met a person who was both happy, fulfilled and up-beat on the one hand, and wishy-washy and lukewarm on the other? And so it is that a whole-hearted love of God is the only key to life as it is meant to be.

When I was a child in Sunday school I was taught that the meaning of joy - J-O-Y - is: Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last. What do you think?

O God, I confess that my love for you is so often lukewarm and feeble. Teach me the joy of giving my everything to you, so that I may be happy in myself, and also bring happiness to others. Amen.

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