A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Hammer, February 14, 2016
Luke 4:1-13 ESV
A lot of ministers, like myself, find themselves with a conundrum today. You do know what a conundrum is, don’t you? One definition of conundrum is “a difficult and complicated problem.” But on second thought, perhaps the word dilemma would be a better word: “a situation that requires one to choose between two equally balanced alternatives.” For, you see, today is Valentine’s Day, a day on the secular calendar that lends itself to a sermon on love. But today is also the First Sunday in Lent on the church or liturgical calendar, a day that lends itself to a sermon on a Lenten theme, such as temptation, trials, spiritual disciplines, and such.
Now, ministers belonging to and schooled in traditional, liturgical churches have been taught that the church liturgical calendar always trumps any holiday on the secular calendar. Those ministers of Free Church traditions, on the other hand, may feel a greater deal of freedom in choosing the secular calendar over the liturgical one. Having come from liturgical church traditions myself (first as a Presbyterian, then most recently as a Congregationalist), I decided to combine the two this morning and give a sermon on “Lent and Love.”
And as I pondered these things, I remembered a statement attributed to the great reformer, Martin Luther. Luther is quoted as having said, “Love God and do as you please.” Wow! Do you mean, Martin, that all I have to do is love God, and then I can do anything I want to? No kidding? I can live with that. That is something we can latch onto, isn’t it? Such a concept is something that many of the great saints and mystics seemed to have understood.
And loving God and doing as he pleased was something that Jesus understood as well. As you recall, Jesus was all the time getting into trouble with the religious authorities for doing what he pleased. He went into the homes of publicans, tax collectors, and others who were deemed to be sinners by the rest of the community. He welcomed prostitutes as his friends and even let them wash his feet on occasion. Jesus enjoyed attending dinner parties hosted by community outcasts, and was accused of being a “wine bibber.” He and his disciples worked—gathered grain on the Sabbath—and they ate without washing their hands in the manner dictated by religious customs. Any and all who knew anything about Jesus of Nazareth knew that he did pretty much as he darned well pleased!
But what was also true about Jesus was he loved God; and Jesus’ love for God trumped everything else in his life. I think it could be said that everything that Jesus did that really mattered, he did for the love of God—his teachings; his caring; his feeding the hungry; his wanting to bring health to the sick; his reaching out to the lost and lonely and oppressed and forgotten; even his willingness to face a Roman cross if necessary for the causes of justice and righteousness—this all Jesus did out of love for God.
Such can also be seen in the temptation in the wilderness story, as told by Luke, which happens to be the liturgical lectionary passage for this First Sunday in Lent. Now, it is up to each of us to decide for ourselves whether this story is to be taken as being 100% historically and factually true. But as the story goes, Jesus, it seems, went on a vision quest of sorts into the wilderness as he searched for inspiration and clarity before setting out as an itinerant preacher, teacher, and doer of good works in the name of God. As Luke and Matthew tell it, while in the wilderness on his vision quest, he grew hungry and was bombarded by temptations. And each time Jesus was tempted, he responded with a quote from scripture that had to do with God—the Word of God, the worship and service of God, and the integrity of God. I think we could accurately say that in all of his temptations and ordeals in the wilderness, Jesus’ overriding consideration and motivation for the way in which he responded was based on his love for God.
For, you see, as Jesus rightly understood it, loving God and doing as you please is more than a sentimental feeling as love is often portrayed in the movies. To love God aright, within Jesus’ frame of reference, means keeping the commandments that are worth keeping and doing the things that are of a “God nature.” In other words, if I truly love God—if I truly love “The Good”—I will not profane God’s name. I will not murder, or take the life of another one of God’s children. I will not consciously inflict hurt or pain on others. I will not carelessly desecrate the earth that God has made. And so on.
Then on the positive side of the equation, if I truly love God, then I will love the rest of God’s children. I will do what I can to help those in need and help alleviate the suffering of humanity. I will give offerings to support the good work that is done in God’s name. I will try to be a good steward of the Earth that was created to be good. And so on.
Then when I have really done my best to love God by the way I live and give and seek to be of service to others and by keeping the commandments that are worth keeping, then I can do as I please. And the result is many of those inconsequential things that more conservative and purity-focused religions get so bent out of shape over don’t amount to a hill of beans! What you eat, what you drink, what you wear, what you watch on television (if you can even watch television at all), how many times a week you go to church, how often you read the Bible, how you vote, who you love and choose as a life partner—some Christian groups make such inconsequential things the center of their religious practice, to the exclusion of the real concerns of showing love for God and others. As Jesus once said of those in authority of his own day, they concern themselves with minute, insignificant matters and neglect “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:22).
One of my seminary teachers, who also happened to be the minister of a church, lived a pretty liberated life. And he told me one day that something he often said to his congregation was that a lot of people, when they get to heaven, are going to be surprised to learn all the fun they could have been having while on earth. As Martin Luther said, “Love God and do as you please.”
And so, on this First Sunday in Lent, why don’t we focus on love and the example of Jesus and ask ourselves, “What steps might I take during this Lenten season to better express my love for God and others?” Maybe I can better express my love of God and neighbor by choosing to be kinder, gentler, more patient, and more understanding. Or maybe I can better express my love of God by being more careful about the words I use in conversation, choosing more positive, affirming words over negative ones. Maybe I can better express my love of God and neighbor by being on the lookout for opportunities to be a help or service to others as I go about my daily life—at the grocery store, doctor’s office, public library, and other places. Or maybe I can better express my love of God and others by asking myself if I am giving of myself, my talents and my resources in proportion to what I have received.
As you know, the traditional way of Lent in more traditional churches is to give up something; to take something away. And a common question this time of year is, “What are you giving up for Lent?” And that is okay; I have no problems with that. But what if, instead, we were to choose to ADD something; to increase instead of taking away? To add greater love for God and neighbor?
I rather like Luther’s statement and approach: “Love God and do as you please.” But there is so much bound up in that one word “love,” isn’t there? We could probably spend a lifetime pondering what true love of God in the 21st century would look like. At the very least, we can spend the season of Lent reflecting upon ways to better love God and neighbor. Lent and Love. May it be so for each of us. Amen.