Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

Mark 12:28-34

September 11, 2005 | Brian Bill

Aren’t you thankful that God still speaks through His Word today?  We might not know what to say, but perhaps in our silence we can hear from the Holy One who sits enthroned above the earth and yet is attentive to our cry.  Please turn in your Bibles to Mark 12:28-34.  Let’s set the context.  It’s the last week of Jesus’ life.  He’s just cleared out the temple and chased away the money-changers and now his enemies unleash a hurricane of hatred toward Him.  At the end of chapter 11, the chief priests, teachers of the law and elders confront Christ with a question.  In 12:13 we read, “Later, they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words.”  These divergent groups, that didn’t even like each other, banded together to try to trap Jesus.  In verse 18, the Sadducees ask him a crazy question about the afterlife.  I love the answer Jesus gives them in verse 24: “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?”  May that never be said of us!  

And then one of the teachers, who had heard this debate, was drawn to Jesus.  Likewise, in the midst of the questions and even the conflict surrounding the catastrophe in the Gulf Coast, let’s make sure and go to Jesus as well.  This man asked the following question in verse 28: “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”  He wants to know which one has the most weight.  This was an often-debated question among the religious leaders.  We generally think of there being 10 Commandments but the Pharisees actually added up all of them and came up with 613 – 248 were on the positive side: “do this” or “do that” and 365 were negative: “don’t do this, don’t do that.”  For them, “a don’t a day” kept the devil away! 

Notice verse 29: “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”  Friends, we must always begin with God, no matter what happens.  The top priority, the number one command is so important that Jesus quotes “The Shema,” which literally means, “to hear.”  This verse from Deuteronomy 6 was recited by every pious Jew in the morning and evening, and some still do it today.  This statement affirms the unity of God and the community that He has with His people.  Notice two points here.  

First, Jesus goes right to Scripture for the answer.  Second, He establishes the Sovereignty of God by calling Him Yahweh.  Friends, when trying to answer questions, especially tough ones, it’s imperative that we go to the Scriptures and that we lift up the sovereignty of God, emphasizing who He is and the relationship He has with His people.   Let’s look at the two levees of love.

Levee #1: Love God with all you have (30). 

Verse 30: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”  I’m struck by at least three truths in this verse.

  • Love is more than a feeling.  It’s a command and a privilege.  You and I must make a conscious decision to love God.  Love is principally an action; not primarily an emotion.
  • Love should lead to a relationship.  Jesus personalizes a relationship with the Lord by using the phrase, “your God.”  That leads to a question.  Is He your God?  
  • Love is to be comprehensive.  Notice the four uses of the word “all.”  God’s whole-hearted love for us cannot be answered with half-hearted commitment from us.  By listing the heart, soul, mind, and strength, no area is left out.  We’re to love Him with everything we have – with devotion in our hearts, with passion in our souls, with thoughtfulness in our heads, and with energy through our hands.

Levee #2: Love your neighbor as yourself (31)

loving others is the practical outworking of loving God

True to form, Jesus goes back to Scripture again and quotes Leviticus 19:18: “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these.”  It’s interesting that though this man asked for the one greatest commandment, Jesus actually gave Him two.  He did so because loving others is the practical outworking of loving God.  The two commandments are complimentary and are therefore really one – you can’t fulfill one without the other.  In fact, after giving the second part, Jesus uses the singular word “commandment” to show that they are really impossible to separate.  1 John 4:21 says, “And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” This goes along with what Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” 

In their book called, “The 1 Thing,” Thom and Joni Schultz point out that God craves a heart-to-heart relationship with us and we crave the same relationship with Him.  Ray Stedman adds, “Love is not a word to write on a plaque and put on your wall.  Love is what you do to people that irritate you, when you are upset and angry and hostile and feel like striking back.  You start with God.  Remember His love to you.  Remember His forgiving spirit, how He wipes out everything without requiring anything from you.  Respond to it and immediately pass it on to the one you are involved with.”

In verse 32, the man reacts to Jesus: “Well said, teacher.”  He agrees with Jesus’ answer and then adds that loving God and loving others is “more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  This man also knew his Bible for he is making an allusion to 1 Samuel 15:22: “To obey is better than sacrifice” and Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”  This is a good reminder for us.  God is not impressed with the things we do; He wants our full devotion.  We need to keep this in mind as we consider how to respond to the horrible Hurricane.  Whatever we do must be anchored to the levees of love.  If we give without love we might as well not give at all.  1 Corinthians 13:3 is a good corrective: “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

With the two levees of love for God and love for others in mind, I’d like to give a theological perspective to what has happened with the Hurricane.  Let me say at the start that I know that it is impossible in one sermon to give a complete answer because there are different layers that need to be put together but I do hope to focus on the heart of Scripture, or at least what God’s put on my heart.

A Theological Perspective

1. Creation is cursed. 

In one sense, we should not be surprised by what happened with the Hurricane because the entire cosmos is really in chaos as a result of the Fall.  When Adam and Eve sinned, judgment was unleashed.  Genesis 3:17-19 notes that creation itself was put under a curse.  In fact, many commentators believe that “thorns and thistles” can also refer to both natural evil and suffering in general.  In a real sense then, natural disasters exist because of Adam and Eve’s sin.  As Ray Pritchard puts it, “If Adam had not sinned, New Orleans would not be a ghost town today.”  Romans 8:22 explains that creation is crying out for redemption: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”  A time is coming when everything will be restored and redeemed, but in the meantime we will continue to see both acts of human depravity and acts of global disaster.

2. God is powerful and in control. 

We must always start and end with this truth.  Hear, O Church, the Lord our God, the Lord is one and He is working His wonders, even when we can’t see it, and especially when we don’t understand it.  God is not sitting back, wondering how the Hurricane happened.  He wasn’t asleep or not paying attention.  While this truth is hard for some to swallow, it’s ultimately the only thing that makes sense.  Tony Evans says it this way: “Everything is either caused by God or allowed by God, and there is no third category.”  Listen to these verses:

Isaiah 45:7: “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.” 

Job 38:8-11: “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt?’” 

Amos 3:6: “When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?” 

As Job learned in Job 2:10, we need to accept both the good and the bad: “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”

3. Things will get worse before they get better. 

As we get closer to the return of Christ, the Bible says that things will increasingly get worse.  2 Timothy 3:1: “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.”  Jesus didn’t mince His words when He said in Mark 13:8: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines.  These are the beginning of birth pains.” And in Luke 21:25-26, we read: “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars.  On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.  Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”

4. We shouldn’t be surprised by sinful behavior or by good deeds. 

The outpouring of support after 9/11, the global giving after the Tsunami in Asia, the scenes of heroes rescuing people in the Gulf Coast, and others opening their arms to evacuees, shows that people are made in the image of God and want to help others in their pain.  CNN reports that the Coast Guard has rescued more than 22,000 people.  Columnist George Will points out that “selflessness and heroism attest to the human capacity for nobility” (“Leviathan in Louisiana,” Newsweek, 9/12/05).  

At the same time, the descent into anarchy and even lawlessness by some should be a reminder that we are sinners in need of salvation.  Pictures of gangs of gunmen, reports of rapes in the Superdome and even donation scams on the Internet, all serve to remind us of the depravity of the human race.  Even a biblical word like “lawlessness” has been used by the media, echoing the words of 1 John 3:4: “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.”  An editorial in the Wall Street Journal put it this way: “For Americans, this is humbling and aggravating…There has been a descent so clear into indecency that one must address it as pressingly as the breakdown of the city’s levees.  It’s as if the moral and civic “levees,” too, were overwhelmed by the torrent.  Once the waters have receded, New Orleans will face the task that will test our national mettle.  A part of that task will be to ask why so many stooped so low as the waters rose so high” (Tunku Varadarajan, “A Descent into Indecency,” 9/2/05).

Pastor Don Sensing preached last Sunday: “No one who knows what the Bible teaches about human nature should be the slightest bit surprised at the evil people do when the moral levees of their consciences and of society have broken, allowing the flood waters of violence, selfishness and disregard for others to drown their souls” (  George Will perceptively adds, “The swiftness of New Orleans’ descent from chaos into barbarism must compound the nation’s nagging anxiety that more irrationality is rampant in the world just now than this nation has the  power to subdue or even keep at bay.”  This reads like a commentary on Romans 1:29: “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.  They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice…”  This also shows the wisdom of what Scripture teaches regarding the role of government in Romans 13 – without the restraint of government we will quickly slide into chaos.  As Chuck Colson points out, only the Christian worldview explains the bewildering extremes of gross depravity and good deeds. 

5. The humbling of America has been good for us. 

Let me clarify.  I’m not saying that the Hurricane was good for certainly it was horrific.  But the feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness in the face of it can ultimately be good for us.  This principle rings throughout Scripture and is stated perhaps most clearly in Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”  Having lived in another country for three years and having spent time in several other countries, I can tell you that Americans often come across as arrogant and ugly.  As one commentator put it, this has caused our knees to buckle – and that’s a good place for us to be.  One reporter from Europe said that this disaster has revealed the “underbelly of America’s deprivation.”  

Related to this, let’s avoid making proud prognostications of why this happened as if we can presume to speak for God.  And let’s certainly avoid playing the “blame game” with God.  John Piper writes: “Our guilt in the face of Katrina is that we can’t see arrogance in our own heart.  God will always be guilty of high crimes for those who think they’ve never committed any.”   In addition, be careful about making snide statements about those who didn’t leave before the Hurricane struck and be on the alert for any racism that may be lurking in your life or any hatred that has taken up residence in your heart.  It was C.S. Lewis who said, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Let’s apply the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” It’s hard to pray when you’re proud, isn’t it?  I’m glad he hears the humble. 

6. Jesus meets us in the storms of life. 

Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, no longer has a home or the church building where he has preached since 1986.  Most of his 7,000 members have been scattered to points unknown across the United States.  In a recent sermon, Luter spoke of Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4:35-41.  He struck a triumphant tone as he declared the presence and trustworthiness of God regardless of circumstances.  Like the disciples in the boat that was buffeted by a storm, his first reaction was one of fear.  But this passage gave him comfort as he made three points:

  • Remember the promises of God.  Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, not angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height or depth, nor Hurricane Katrina shall be able to separate us from the love of God.”
  • Remember the presence of Jesus when the storms come.  Jesus was in the boat with them.  He didn’t keep them from the storm, but He went through it with them.
  • Remember the power of Jesus when the storms come.  When it was the right time, Jesus commanded the wind and the waves: “Quiet.  Be still.”

Pastor Luter concluded his sermon with these words: “Always remember that when the storms show up, so does the Savior” (As quoted by, 9/7/05).  In a message I preached the Sunday after 9/11, we were reminded of Psalm 46:1-3: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.  Selah.”  

‘In the midst of whatever we’re feeling today, God desires to be our refuge, our strength, and our help.  God is our refuge even when what seems permanent is demolished.  When the world crashes in around us, God is still there, protecting us.  The word “refuge” literally means “to flee,” as in running to a shelter.  The idea is that God wants us to run to Him for protection.  The word “strength” implies that we can rely on His might when we feel weak and defenseless.  

“The phrase “ever-present help” means that God is quick to give assistance.  It literally means that He has “proved” Himself to be such a help in the past and we can therefore trust in Him in the present…In verse 2 the writer is imagining the worst calamity that could possibly hit his people as he describes earthquakes, volcanoes erupting, and mountains slipping into the sea.  Even though the “earth gives way,” or the landscape suddenly changes, we don’t have to be afraid.  Verse 3 describes the roaring waters of the sea, which is a picture of our lives when they’re out of control.”  

Friend, Jesus is a Savior, not a mechanic

That leads to a question: Is there a hurricane in your heart right now? If so, run to the Redeemer for refuge.  The only way to weather Category 5 challenges in your life is to make sure your levees of love are built on the Rock of Ages.  Friend, Jesus is a Savior, not a mechanic.  His job is not to fix everything but to fortify your faith as He helps you through your storms.  Believe that He will get you through them; not just keep you away from them.  And, once we learn to trust Him during the storms of life, we can then forgive Him for sending the storms.  Ray Pritchard reminds us that we have two choices: “We can hurt with God…or we can hurt without God.”  Oh, that we would be able to join Job in his statement of faith: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (Job 19:25-26).

7. It’s time for the church to shine. 

Rick Warren points out that media attention has not covered the 150,000 people that are being cared for by churches.  Related to that, in the next 90 days, because of the transition that people are going through, more people are going to be open to talk about spiritual matters – about the meaning and purpose of life, about God’s love and forgiveness – than at any other time.  That’s why we chose to partner with Samaritan’s Purse for our offering.  They are committed to meet both spiritual and physical needs as they work with local churches in the Gulf Coast.  Their motto is “prayer, care, and share.”

What else can we do?  The twin levees of love for God and love for others demand that we do something.  Remember: No one can do everything but everyone can do something.  Let’s start by praying.  Let’s make sure we’re giving.  And then, let’s get ready to go and to do.  Our marching orders are clear in Matthew 25:35-36: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”   Let me share a portion of two emails I received this week that reveal the willingness of this congregation to work:  One woman who is acting like Deborah writes: “I want to make more of a difference than my little amount of money I have given.  Please let me know how I can give of me.”  Then a man whom I’d like to nickname Barnabas sent this: “I am an obeying man.  I am still up at 10:50 p.m. thinking about this.  Let me know your thoughts…I guess I am burdened by this.  Come on!  The two of us go tomorrow!  Just kidding.”  I don’t think he is kidding.

I came across an editorial on the Christianity Today website this week called, “The Parable of the Good Church.”  I wish I had time to read the whole thing but I’ll just share some excerpts ( 

A group of people were walking to and fro, from Mobile to New Orleans, and they fell into the hands of a robber named Katrina, who beat on them with waves and winds and floods, stripping them of everything they owned, leaving them half-dead in the New Orleans Superdome.  Now by chance, a journalist passed by with a television camera in hand. He took riveting shots of the victims so that viewers all over the world would know about the plight of these people. And when it was the journalist’s time to face the camera, he wondered, “Where is the government?”

Similarly, a group of local politicians came to that place. And when the journalist shoved a microphone in their faces, they angrily asked, “Where is the government?” Finally, a bus pulled up beside the Superdome, and beckoned the victims to get in, which then drove 350 miles to the Houston Astrodome, to a scene that was anything but mud and muck…Each of three daily meal-line shifts needed 240 volunteers…One month of their meals would cost almost $4 million. These are figures to test one’s mettle. Then Pastor Ed Young, of the 42,000-member Second Baptist, said his church was starting Operation Compassion. He pledged to raise $1 million for the relief efforts, as well as offer his church facilities for training classes for relief workers. Then he turned to the group and said, “All those sermons and passions you’ve generated, now’s the time to put up or shut up for every faith or religious community here. Are you willing to coordinate and cooperate with other people and other denominations? If you’re not, sit down.”  No one sat.

Then he said something even more shocking…He knew that some of the needy would, with just a little help, bounce back quickly. These were always a pleasure to minister to. But some, with deep physical or psychological maladies, would never be able to fully take care of themselves…So Young said the most profoundly Christian thing he could say: “We’re in this thing for the long haul.”  And many marveled in wonder at these words, and some ran from that place in fear and trembling. Some just continued to mutter under their breath about who was to blame, not perceiving in their hearts that the time to call authorities to account was not at hand.  But others, when they heard these strange words, were moved with pity and started bandaging wounds, knowing that neither the gates of hell nor the fury of Katrina, nor the inefficiencies of government can stop the church from doing what it is called to do, now and for the long haul.

8. Repent and receive Christ. 

Everything ultimately must become personal.  What are you going to do?  How will you respond?  I’m reminded of the passage in Luke 13 where some people described an event similar to 9/11 to Jesus, when a number of innocent people were slaughtered.  Jesus then brings up another situation in which 18 people were killed when a tower fell on them.  In both instances, Jesus doesn’t give them an answer as to “why” these things happened.  Instead, he personalizes it and says, “Unless you repent, you too will perish!”  Instead of asking why disasters fall upon other people, we should be asking, “Why haven’t they happened to me?”  You see, our problem is that we’ve forgotten how sinful we really are.  Disasters can cause us to turn back to God.  How did these people die?  They died suddenly and unexpectedly.  They died with unfinished business.  They weren’t ready.  Are you?   If you were in those twin towers, or on the beach when the Tsunami hit, or in the Gulf Coast when Katrina came ashore, would you be ready to meet Jesus?

Let’s go back to our main text.  When Jesus heard that the teacher of the law had answered wisely, agreeing that we must love God and love others, He said to him in Mark 12:34: “You are not far from the kingdom.”  There’s some good news here and some bad news.  The good news is that he was close.  The bad news was that he wasn’t yet in the kingdom.  He was not far from, but he wasn’t in, either.  It’s not enough to give the right answers or to be religious.  You must give yourself to Christ.  If you’re close to accepting Christ but haven’t done it, you might as well be millions of miles away from Him.  A man who drowns a few feet from the shore is just as dead as the man who drowns in the middle of the ocean.  If you die only a foot away but have never come to the foot of the Cross, you will not enter the kingdom.  Life is short.  Hell is hot.  Make heaven your home right now.

Pastor Mark Labberton gets right to the heart of the matter: “Spiritual transformation is our deepest and most profound human need: to be turned inside out (from being absorbed with ourselves to absorbing love for God and our neighbor) and right side up (from worshipping the creation to worshipping the Creator)” (Leadership, Page 31, Summer 2005).  Are you ready to do that right now?  If so, you can pray this prayer with me in your heart.

“Lord Jesus, for too long I’ve kept you out of my life.  I admit that I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself.  There’s a hurricane in my heart today.  I repent of my sins by changing my mind about the way I’ve been living.  By faith I gratefully receive your gift of salvation.  Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth.  With all my heart I believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day.  Thank you for bearing my sins and giving me the gift of eternal life.  I believe your words are true.  I don’t want to be close, I want to be converted.  I accept you into my heart.   Be my Savior and Lord.  I surrender to your leadership in my life.  Make me into the person you want me to be so that I can love you with everything I have and love others like you do.  Amen.”

It strikes me that in the Great Commandment we have everything we need.  During the next six weeks, we’re going to flesh this out in our series called, “Basic Training.”  We demonstrate our love for God through the first four areas of our IMPACT statement:

  • Instruction
  • Ministry
  • Prayer
  • Adoration

And we demonstrate love for others by:

  • Caring
  • Telling

And the best way to make an IMPACT is by going through some basic training and plugging into a small platoon.  Pastor Dick is going to close our time by casting some vision for how joining a small group can help us keep the main thing the main thing.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?