Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34
November 4, 2012
I. Maybe you’ve seen the beer commercial that runs during TV sports events. Avid fans go through elaborate rituals in hopes of helping their team score or win. I always chuckle at the group trying to explain to the new guy why they line up their beer bottle labels during a field goal. With great skepticism he goes along. They go wild when their team scores, and the caption on the screen says, “It’s not weird if it works.” Though that one is trivial and humorous, human beings have relied on rituals to manipulate the uncontrollable for millennia.
A. Terrorist attacks are terrifying precisely because they are unpredictable and uncontrollable. No intelligence and security system is 100% airtight. With modern weather forecasting technology, we knew Hurricane Sandy was coming and its general direction, but precise prediction was impossible, and no amount of preparation could protect from massive destruction. So people who ordinarily don’t pray or even consider God have been praying this week, and even atheists don’t object.
B. As we saw in Job last month, God is wild, free, dangerous and good. Every culture has religious rituals to manipulate divine forces or at least insulate and protect from them. Job’s friends had all the right words but they were powerless to control or protect.
C. Rather than relying on ritual, Jesus our high priest welcomes us to a complete love relationship with God.
II. Through Mark’s Gospel, we have journeyed with Jesus on his final trip to Jerusalem for his appointment with the cross. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and driving the merchants out of the Temple, Jesus was in the Temple every day confronting the Temple leadership. As we continue to read from the Epistle to the Hebrews, we will read of Jesus as the great high priest who entered the heavenly Tabernacle to redeem humanity once and for all. By reading these passages from Mark and Hebrews side by side, we will see Jesus taking charge of the Temple as high priest.
A. Mark 12:28-34 picks up after Jesus amazed the Pharisees with thier challenge about paying taxes. Then he silenced the Sadducees challenge about resurrection and marriage.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
B. In the account of this same incident in Matthew 22, the scribe who questioned Jesus was an expert in the Law chosen to test him. Yet, in Mark 12:34 Jesus told him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” The scribe was no longer testing Jesus. Jesus was testing the scribe. For the scribe to say that love was more important than the ritual sacrifices put him at odds with the Temple establishment. For this reason Jesus said he was “not far from the Kingdom of God.” What was the step he needed to take? When Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18, he rightly said, love your God with all your heart, your mind, your soul, your strength, and to love your neighbor. But the scribe backed off with his paraphrase, love him with all the heart, the understanding, the strength, and to love one’s neighbor. To step into the Kingdom of God, the scribe needed to move from affirming impersonal truth to embracing loving his God and loving his neighbors as his personal reality.
C. For Jesus to quote Deuteronomy 6:4-5 as the first commandment was safe and expected. It is the shema, the great Hebrew confession of faith that all faithful Israelites recited at the beginning of every day. But Leviticus 19:18 is a single line buried in an obscure hodgepodge of minutia. Because of Jesus, we quickly see the parallel: love your God; love your neighbor. But for the Temple establishment focused on ritual, this was shocking. Especially troubling was that their own scribe said it was much more important than sacrifices. Not only that, Jesus made loving your neighbor equivalent with loving your God. He made them one commandment. You can’t have one without the other. Furthermore, Jesus raised the bar uncomfortably high, threateningly personal. Jesus was not being tested, he tested the scribe and all his critics. Talk about “gotcha!” After that no one dared ask him any question. No one wanted to be exposed by their question.
III. Rather than relying on ritual, Jesus our high priest welcomes us to a comprehensive love relationship with God.
A. As I have been listening to Jesus in the Temple to prepare these sermons, I am more than a little uncomfortable. Slipping into Temple leadership mode is all too easy. I love the drama and power of ritual. I aspire to quality professionalism. But I dare not use them to protect myself from personal vulnerability or insulate myself from being personally present when people are in pain.
B. Leo Tolstoy’s story about Martin the Cobbler is often told at Christmas. Martin believed he was promised Christ would visit him on Christmas Eve. All day he watched outside of his shop and helped a number of people: an old woman selling apples and a boy who robbed her, a young woman with a baby, an old soldier who was hungry and lonely. While reading the Gospel before going to bed, he hears sounds in the dark corners of his room, and one by one the people he helped appear briefly and a voice says, “Martin, it is I.” As he reads the words of Jesus in the Gospel, “As you did it to the least of these, you did it to me,” Martin realizes Christ had visited him all day. This is not just a quaint story about helping the needy. It rightly connects loving God and loving our neighbors. To step into the Kingdom of God is about personal relationships: with God, with neighbors.