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Worship and Sermons
October 29, 2017


“A Reformed Heart” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, October 29 2017, Year A / Pentecost 21 (Reformation Sunday) – Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 • Psalm 1 • 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 • Matthew 22:34-40

THEME:  Prepare our hearts to be open to the transforming experience of God’s love.

            Did any of you ever have test anxiety in school?  I did.  I used to get so anxious that I wouldn’t sleep the night before a big exam.  And, of course, when you’re anxious it’s hard to do well.

            Apparently Jesus didn’t have that problem.  In our gospel text, Jesus is being tested for the third time.  First the Pharisees and then the Sadduccees have tried to trap him and discredit him.  But he passed both tests with flying colors.

            Now, the Pharisees make one final attempt.  They send one of their brightest lawyers, an expert in the Mosaic law.  He asks Jesus which of the 613 commandments given by God to Moses is the most important.

            We can just imagine this clever lawyer licking his chops.  He knows that, whichever commandment Jesus chooses, he’ll leave out others.  The Pharisees were adamant that the people keep every last commandment down to the letter.  So, leaving any of them out would leave Jesus open to the charge of failing to uphold the Jewish Law.

            But Jesus doesn’t fall for this false choice.  Instead, he cites two verses, one from Deuteronomy (6:5) and the other from Leviticus (19:18).   Together, he says, these two verses sum up not only the law, but the prophets as well.  It’s what you and I know as the Great Commandment:  Love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself.

            For most Christians, this is the bedrock of our faith.  But over the last 2,000 years, we’ve developed a rather lop-sided understanding of what it means.

            That’s because, from it’s very beginning, the church has taught that loving God means, above all else, knowing him through scripture and obeying his commandments.

            Certainly, reading, singing and hearing scripture proclaimed are essential to our faith.  The pages of the Bible overflow with assurance that God loves us.  Nowhere is that promise greater than in the Gospel of John:  God so loved the world that he gave his only son that you and I, by believing in him, might have life in all its abundance.

            But all too often, we allow ourselves to stop there.  We get an intellectual understanding of God and his love, but we overlook the deeper need to actually experience it.

            Maybe this has been a problem from the very beginning.  When Adam and Eve were in the Garden and ate the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge.  When they did, they traded the intimate, nurturing relationship they had with God for the knowledge of good and evil.

            We’ve been struggling to truly feel God’s love ever since.  No wonder we have a hard time loving our neighbor!

            So, then how do we learn to love and respond to God, not just with our heads, but with our hearts?

            The answer is we learn to love God the same way we learn to love our parents.  They nurture us and care for us.  We learn to respond by loving them back.

            The same is true for God.  We don’t learn to love God simply by knowing him and doing what he tells us to do.  We first experience his care.  Only then can we love him back and share his love with others.

            Billy Graham put it this way.  He said, “No one can fully describe the wonders of God’s love. . . Just as the total beauty of the ocean cannot be understood until it’s seen, God’s love cannot be understood until you experience it, until you actually possess it.”

            One of the most famous stories about the power of experiencing God’s love comes from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. 

            Beginning in their days at Oxford, both he and his brother formed a small group of dedicated Christians.  They were so serious that other students sarcastically called them “a holy club”. 

            The members studied the Bible for three hours when they  met.  They fasted and prayed, and they regularly performed acts of charity to aid widows, orphans and prisoners.     

            This went on for a number of years.  All the while, however, he was consumed by doubts about his faith. 

            Then, on the evening of May 24, 1738, Wesley had a religious experience that changed him forever.  Reluctantly, he had gone to a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. Someone was reading aloud the preface to Martin Luther's commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans.

            This is Wesley's description of what happened as he listened to this man read:

            “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

            Amazingly, at this point, John Wesley had been not just a Christian, but a pastor for years.  But it took this experience of God’s love to transform his heart and his life.

            Friends, the same is true for us.  There is no better time to consider this than Reformation Sunday.

            This is not just any Reformation Sunday.  Today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  We look back with pride at the achievements of the Reformers. 

            With courage and faithfulness, they developed new understandings of theology, worship, sacraments, church governance – even church architecture.  At a time when most were illiterate, the Reformers made sure that everyone in the family – women and children, too - could read so they could read the Bible together.

            As Presbyterians, you and I are the inheritors of that reformed tradition, a tradition that places high value on educating the mind. From our earliest days in Scotland, we insisted that our clergy be educated in theology. 

            Much to the chagrin of many a seminarian, we also require our pastors to learn the Biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew.  When it comes to mission, promoting literacy and building schools have always been top priorities.

            In many ways, the Reformation paved the way for the intellectual triumphs of the Enlightenment and Modernity as we know it.

            But, along the way, God has become increasingly confined to the mind.  One recent writer, Erich Fromm, claims we’ve reached the point in the Western tradition where the “love of God is essentially a thought experience”, a matter of the will but not the feelings.

            The question for us, as we begin the next 500 years of Reformation history, is how can we open ourselves to experience God’s love at the heart level also?

            The challenge is that God doesn’t act on our schedule.  We can’t make him touch our hearts and lives.  But what we can do is prepare ourselves for when he does act. 

            According to Alec Rowlands, a contemporary Christian writer, there are three things you and I can do to lay the groundwork for God’s loving intervention in our lives.

            First, we can invest in our relationship with God.  That means spending time in prayer and meditating on scripture, not only for mental comprehension, but for emotional impact. 

            Second, we should expect encounters with God.  We should be on the lookout for interventions that inspire awe and wonder – just like the encounters with God we read about in scripture.  That means we have to anticipate God moments, but we’re skeptical about coincidences.  They’re usually less coincidence than God-incidents.

            Finally, we need to be willing to take a few risks.  Choose adventure over safety.  When God makes his presence felt in our lives, there’s usually nothing safe about following him.  But if we’re open to saying “yes” when he calls us, you can bet your bottom dollar we’ll be in for a life-changing adventure.

             That’s what happened to John Wesley.  He followed God’s call to begin an itinerant ministry.  He preached to the common folk in streets and fields and wherever else he found them.  He rode over 250,000 miles on horseback and preached over 40,000 sermons.  All because he finally experienced God’s love and it transformed his heart.

            What we need is another reformation.  This time a reformation of the heart, as well as the head.  One that ignites our cerebral understanding of God through the transforming experience of his love. 

            It’s that experience that allows us to do what Christ commanded:  to know God’s love, to return his love and to share his love. 

            May it be so.

Last Published: November 7, 2017 10:25 AM
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