What are Your Priorities? audio (5MB)
It’s appropriate at an Annual General meeting to spend some time reflecting on where we’re going as a Church. What are our priorities? What do we think is the most important thing we can be doing? In fact it would be good if we asked those questions not just about us as a Church but of us as individuals. Where are you going with your life? What are you aiming for? What are your priorities? There are a few students in the congregation who have finished final exams and are thinking about what the next stage of their life will be. What are your priorities? How are you going to make those important decisions about your life? And what about those who are already well into their life. What is it that shapes your life decisions? How do you decide where to spend your time and money? If you have children, how will you help them make decisions? What will you get them to spend time doing? What things will you encourage them to pursue and what things will you discourage them from?
There was a man who came up to Jesus one day to ask a similar sort of question. He wanted to know what was the most important thing for him to do if he wanted to please God. So he asked Jesus “Which commandment is the most important?” Where should his priorities lie? Some people may have thought he was asking a trick question, but Jesus took him seriously.
Of course we all know his answer now don’t we? “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."
Our problem is we’ve heard it so many times that it can become just part of the background noise that we ignore. We hear it read out week in, week out, but we rarely stop to think about its implications for us. But let’s stop today and think about what the 2 great commandments mean in terms of our priorities.
What would it mean to your life, to the decisions you made if you truly loved the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. Would that change any of the things you do? Would it change the way you speak to others? Would it change the things you put your time and energy into?
Have you noticed how when someone falls in love they suddenly change the way they behave. They might stop eating, or start eating more than they should, or they might start dressing differently, thinking about their appearance more; their personal hygiene might improve. Love has an amazing influence on us doesn’t it?
But what about our love for God? Is God so remote from us that our love for him doesn’t affect us the way our love for another human being might? Do we take into account what he wants us to do when we're making decisions about our life. According to Jesus, our first priority should be to love God with all that we are. That should come before everything else.
Would it make a difference to you if you stopped before making that important decision and asked, not what would Jesus do, but what would God want me to do? Or, better, how can I please God in this next phase of my life. How can I please God this weekend, this week, these Christmas holidays? How can we please God as a Church this coming year?
To answer that question we need first of all to read and know God’s word. You may not find your specific question addressed there but you will find the principles you need if you’re to work it out for yourself; you will find enough to be able to discern the mind of God on most issues you’ll face. And if you can’t work it out for yourself, that’s what the Church is for. God has placed us in a Church so we can help each other work out what will please him, what path we should take.
The second part of Jesus’ answer is priority No 2. He says you’re to love your neighbor as yourself. God accepts, as a given, that you’ll love yourself. Everyone loves themselves to some degree at least; most to a large degree. But Jesus says we’re to put our neighbour on the same level of interest as we place ourselves. That’s a pretty tough standard isn’t it? I mean, we have no problem spoiling ourselves when we’ve been working hard or been under particular stress at work or at home. How many times have you heard someone say, “I just felt like I needed a treat”; or “I just thought I’d pamper myself for a change.” Well, that’s the sort of attitude Jesus says we should have for our neighbour. And of course he went on to illustrate in the parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbour is anyone else we happen to come across, including our enemies. We’re to love them enough to give them a treat when they’ve been under pressure or working too hard; to care for them when they need it; to carry their burdens when they’re struggling to do it by themselves.
So that’s priority 1 and 2. But there’s more to this passage than just that isn’t there? Can you see how Mark has placed these incidents together to make a point.
The next thing we find is a discussion on whether the Messiah could be David’s son. Jesus is teaching in the Temple and he uses the sort of provocative argument that the Pharisees would have used. He asks, “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? 36David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet."' 37David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” It’s a beautiful argument isn’t it? It’s the sort of discussion you might expect in a first year university arts tutorial. Let’s argue over the finicky points of semantics. But he’s making an important point isn’t he? The Messiah, when he comes, will be far more than just a human descendant of David. He’ll be the Lord, the Son of God. Here is the reason that Jesus’ teaching gets top priority. He’s the Lord so what he says matters.
But then you can imagine Jesus looking around and seeing a group of scribes walking by in their long flowing robes, looking oh, so religious. They look like they’ve got their priorities right. They’ve given up worldly pursuits to study God’s word. They seem to always be praying or saying pious things. In fact they’re experts at prayer. Just think how long their prayers go for!
They’re always first to get to the synagogue on the Sabbath. They greet everyone they meet with warmth and appreciation.
They’re upstanding citizens. But what’s the reality?
“40They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” I assume the condemnation is for the widows’ houses, not the long prayers, but I could be wrong.
They use their religious authority as a weapon, as a means of stealing from those who are weak and vulnerable. They appear to have all the outer trappings of religion but it’s just an act to get the approval of others. They don’t actually care about the approval of God or they wouldn’t act the way they do.
Why are you a part of a church? Why do you come here week after week? Is it because this is what you’ve always done? Is it because this is what respectable people do? Is it just for the sake of appearances? Do you want your friends to think well of you? Or do you do it to please God? Do you do it because God has told us not to forsake meeting together with other Christians. Do you do it because meeting with God’s people is way up on your priority list?
Let me ask those of you with children or if your younger, those of you who might have children in the future: Are you teaching your children, or will you teach your children, that meeting with God’s people is the highest priority on a Sunday because that’s what God told us to do? And will you teach them that not just by words but by your actions as a family?
As Jesus is teaching in the Temple he notices a poor widow coming in and putting two copper coins into the offertory box. A mere trifle. A few cent perhaps. This is the sort of person that the scribes are likely to rip off if she’s not careful. Yet she, in her total commitment to God, gives all that she has to the service of his Temple. It’s not hard to work out where her priorities lie, is it? Her No.1 priority is obeying God, giving him his due.
So we’re faced with another question: where do our priorities lie when it comes to our money? Are we willing to give sacrificially to allow the work of the gospel to go on in this place? Or are we like the foolish farmer, in the parable Jesus told, who thought he’d set himself up for life, with his silos full of wheat, only to discover that he had far more than he needed for the short life God had given him. We hear a lot in Australia about saving for retirement, making sure that your superannuation scheme is giving you the best return. We worry whether we’ll have enough, when we retire, to continue in the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed. Or we see other people buying beautiful things and we think we need them too.
A French philosopher, Denis Diderot wrote an essay in the 18th century entitled “Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown.” It tells the sorry tale of the day he threw out his old tattered and stained dressing gown and replaced it with a brand new scarlet one. The result was that all the old tattered furnishings of his house were shown up. The straw chair, the old wooden table, bookshelves made from wooden planks, faded prints, all had to go, to be replaced by expensive new furnishings. He was no longer content with his lot. He needed new things to match his bright new dressing gown. It’s a parable of much of our western way of life isn’t it? We’re never satisfied with what we have. We always want more.
But Jesus tells us not to worry about what we’ll eat or what we’ll wear. God will look after us. That is, our attitude to giving our money to God’s work is a reflection of our faith in God. Again, it’s a question of priorities. Is giving to God’s work a priority for our use of our money? Are we willing to trust God by putting him first, by loving him with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength and even our income.
So let’s remember, whenever we hear Jesus’ summary of the ten commandments it isn’t just about keeping a set of rules. Rather it’s about making sure our priorities are right, that we put God first and our neighbour as high as ourselves on our list of priorities in life.