October 29, 2023

Questions and Answers

This sermon was interpreted into Farsi live and preached at Sepas at Liverpool Cathedral

Reading: Matthew 22:34-36

May I speak in the name of the living God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It was a hot summer’s day back in 2018. An empty water bottle sat on the desk in front of me, its contents were now dripping down my brow and back as sweat.

Two pens lay exhausted, dead, next to my exam paper. My hand frantically scribbled with my second spare pen as my mind flitted in circles around flight paths of logic, desperately seeking somewhere to land.

A line of reasoning would occur to me, which I would follow to its conclusion only to find I had made a mistake somewhere. No matter what I tried, I kept getting the wrong answer.

Suddenly, the noise of a microphone turning on jolted me back into reality. The invigilator spoke: “A correction to the paper: please insert the word ‘not’ into question 6.”

I was livid.

I had just spent most of my exam time desperately trying to write an impossible proof. The question that had been asked to test me did not have an answer.

Today’s gospel tells us of two questions with impossible answers. Firstly, Jesus is asked a testing question, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”. He also asks his own impossible question about the Messiah’s status.

The first question gives us the most important commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

This is an impossibility. I don’t know about you, but a day never goes by where I don’t fall short of this; it is a fact of life that we do things other than love God with our heart, soul, and mind.

What about the second commandment, is that any less impossible? It seems inescapable that I love myself more than my neighbour.

We are human; we are hard-wired for survival, and that means putting ourselves first. Sure, we can be kind and sociable when times are easy, but when the pressure’s on and we go into survival mode we look after ourselves and our families before our neighbours.

Then we have the second question. Jesus points out that the Messiah is somehow both David’s son and David’s Lord.

This, too, is an impossibility. Like me in my exam, the Pharisees must have been sweating and thinking and panicking as they were asked to prove this contradiction.

I wonder if they panicked too about their sinfulness, if they realised how short their love of God and neighbour fell.

Or maybe they fell into the trap I do all the time, thinking that maybe I have done enough. Maybe the amount I have loved God and my neighbour is sufficient, and I have satisfied the law.

Jesus’ confusing messiah question puts the lie to this reasoning though.

In the paradoxical position of the Messiah as both above and below David, we see something of the kenosis described in Philippians 2, and in this we see what it means to love with all the heart, soul, and mind.

Christ empties himself, taking on the form of a slave, being found like us humans.

This is the impossible Messiah who is both above and below David, and this is what God’s impossible love looks like.

The God who is love condescends to love us, and in that very act we are made capable of love.

The God who is love takes on a human heart, a human soul, a human mind, and in sanctifying these things makes us capable of directing them to him in love.

The God who is love suffers death, even death on a cross, and shows us what it is to love sinners, to love neighbours, as oneself.

You see, the solution to my impossible exam problem was to fix the broken question, but the solution to Jesus and the pharisees’ impossible questions is to fix the broken world.

It is impossible to keep the law, because It is impossible to love God and to love our neighbour in our own strength.

Even if we choose as our starting point imitation of the kenotic Christ, we would descend into self-loathing, bitterness, and self-destruction.

No, we can only keep the law miraculously.

We can only love because God has first loved us.

We can only pattern our lives after the kenotic Christ because of what we receive from him.

You see, if we empty ourselves for the sake of it we become nothing, but when we empty ourselves because Christ dwells in us and fills us with the Holy Spirit, then we become capable of love.

So what does obedience to this greatest of commandments look like?

It looks like breaking the commandment and coming back in repentance every single day.

It looks like emptying ourselves out to be filled by Christ.

It looks like loving with God’s love, because we were loved by God first.

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