Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Max Beerbohm wrote a story which he entitled, “The Happy Hypocrite.” It is a story of a man whose face personified evil. He was faced with a dilemma. The woman he loved refused to marry him because he didn’t look saintly. To solve the problem the suitor put on a mask with a kind face. The young woman married him despite the face beneath the mask. Her husband proved to be an attentive, unselfish husband.
One day in a moment of rage an enemy abruptly tore of her husband’s mask before his wife’s eyes. Instead of a cruel, grotesque face, the man had become what he lived for many years. Kindness, not evil, radiated from his face.
A similar tale is told by the Danish author, Isak Dinesen, Karen Blixen, in her gothic story, “The Roads of Pisa.” Set in the larger story, there is a marionette play entitled “The Revenge of Truth.” In it a puppet witch comes to a village and puts a curse on all the townspeople. Everyone would really be what they only appeared to be. So the man who pretended he was generous would really be generous. The miser, who told other people he was poor, became poor. The woman who only acted kind would become kind. The woman, who said she loved a man, but only wanted his money, really did come to love him. The lies of the liar became true. In the end the witch comes back and says that life is really a marionette play and what we want to be, we become.
What is our goal for life as Christians? To be holy even as our God is holy. As God said to Moses, “Speak to the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’.” And what does it mean to be holy and set apart for God? To love––to love God and neighbor.
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Jesus was confronted by those who wanted to trick him and was asked which is the greatest commandment in the Law? Jesus summarized all the Law and the Prophets in two lines:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it:
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”
The Bible is clear that to be God’s people means to be set apart, to be different, to be a holy people for a holy God. Moses spoke to the Israelites at Mount Sinai and his words are recorded in our first lesson from Leviticus. This is part of a long code of holiness which specifies just what the people are to do and not to do. Their holiness is shown in being separated from sin and evil and set apart to love and serve God. Their holiness is shown in how they treat each other. The Holiness code is quite extensive. It deals with care for the widow and orphan, for sharing with the poor, for not dealing falsely, lying or stealing, not oppressing workers or mocking the blind or deaf. It includes instructions on food and drink and clothing and hygiene. But most important are the words in our lesson:
“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin . . .
you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people,
but shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”
This fall we have been reading Exodus in our Wednesday morning Bible study. It is a rather familiar story of God’s rescue of the Hebrew people from slavery. Moses and Aaron go to pharaoh saying, “Let my people go.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he would not let them go. So God sent plagues upon the Egyptians, boils and gnats and water turned to blood, great darkness over the land and death of cattle and finally the death of the firstborn in Egypt.
God went before the people of Israel in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. God led them through the waters of the Red Sea and as they wandered through the wilderness. God gave them manna from heaven and sweet water from the rock. Finally they came to the mountain of the Lord where Moses received the Ten Commandments written by the very finger of God.
God made a claim on this people because God had saved them. God promised to be with them and be their God. Because God had loved and saved them, God wants them to respond in prayer, praise and thanksgiving––that’s a Lutheran way of saying “Love the Lord your God with your heart and soul and mind.” God wants them to love their neighbor. It is helpful to remember the context of our passage. These words to be holy, to love God and neighbor are not demands placed upon the people so that God would love them, but because God loved and saved them. They are a response to God’s grace and love.
There is a corollary to God’s command. The character of a people reflects the character of its god. We show who our god is in our lives, in our priorities, in our decisions. If a people are materialistic, they show that their god is money. If a people are militaristic, then their god is power. If people are holy, then their god is the real holy God. The people of Israel were called to be holy and thus show the world that the God of Israel is holy and loving and saving.
Arthur Koestler wrote a memoir, The God That Failed. Koestler like many intellectuals in the 1930s, turned to communism as his hope for the future. After all it was time of deep depression and anxiety for the future. After coming to realize the terrors of Stalinism, Koestler rejected communism and all that it stood for. Communism was based on struggle and strife rather than holiness and love.
Whitaker Chambers was a former editor of Time magazine who in public testimony in 1948, named former high government officials of the United States who had spied for Soviet Russia. Later Chambers would write that faith, not economics, is the central problem of our day and that crisis in the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God.”
Our God commands us to have no other gods before the Lord God. God commands our exclusive allegiance because God has saved us through Jesus Christ. He wants us to respond to the love we have been given by loving back.
One of the pastors at our text study this week was commenting on how Jesus seems to be looking at all of Scripture through the interpretive lens of love. What is important for God’s people is to love God and love neighbor. Everything else is commentary, Jesus seems to say. There were over six hundred commandments in the Scriptures and Jesus condensed them to two. Jesus went back to our Leviticus text saying all the Law and Prophets are centered on love. The center of our faith is love, love for God and love for others. As St. Teresa of Avila noted,
“The Lord asks two things of us: love of God and love of neighbor.
If we want to know whether we are keeping these commandments,
we must discover, I believe, whether we genuinely love our neighbor.
For we cannot be sure if we are loving God––
though we may have a variety of reasons to think so––
whereas we can know if we love our neighbor.
And the further you are in this, the greater will be your love for God.
For God loves us so dearly
that God will return our love for our neighbor
by increasing the love we have for Him––in countless ways.”
Love God, love your neighbor. Put aside your grudges and hurts, do not nurse hatred, as the Hebrew can be translated, put the best construction on whatever your brother and sisters says or does. Return a positive comment for a negative, and if need be reprove the wrongdoer, but know that in all these things by loving your neighbor, you love God. By being a holy people, a loving people, you are witnessing to our loving God.
Love can change us and others. God knows that it is just what we as God’s people truly need. There is a story told about Babe Ruth. Babe Ruth was a big man, but graceful, even rhythmic in his motions. When he batted, it was like a symphony of beauty. He hit 714 home runs and everyone idolized him. But then like all of us, he became older. He was traded by the Yankees to the Boston Braves and we come now to one of his last games. The Braves were playing the Reds in Cincinnati. A big crowd was there to watch the great Babe Ruth. But this day he wasn’t doing well. That wonderful rhythm was not there. He fumbled the ball twice, made a couple of bad throws, let in five runs for the Cincinnati Reds. As the game ended, the old boy, head down, walked toward the dugout. The fans who once cheered strongly were now booing. Then a little boy jumped over the rail onto the playing field. He threw his arms around the knees of his hero. Ruth picked him and then set him down, tousling his head. Hand-in-hand the two started walking off the field. The booing ceased and there was a deep silence. Those fans were witnessing the love of a great man for a little boy, and a little boy’s love for a great man. A cruel thoughtlessness faded away.
What great power there is in love! So to be what you were meant to be, start loving. Forgive others; stop holding grudges and nursing grievances. How wonderful to know that we have the power to forgive others as we have first been forgiven by God in Jesus Christ. And remember that C. S. Lewis described hell as a place where nobody ever forgets anything but remembers every cruel exchange of words, every harmful act––and where everybody is utterly and completely unforgiving.
Our challenge is the same that faced the Hebrews at Mount Sinai and the followers of Jesus. We are called to be what we are. We have been loved and forgiven and redeemed by God. We are to fear, love and trust God above anything else because we have first been loved and forgiven by God. We have been ransomed from slavery and redeemed from sin. Then we are called to be holy which means simply to love as we have been loved, to show others that we have been loved by God by loving God’s people. Amen.
––Copyright 2005, James D. Kegel. Used by permission.