Getting Closer to the Kingdom – sermon on Mark 12:28-34

Confirmation Sunday, October 31, 2021
Video

It’s Confirmation Sunday! Over the past several months, three young women have been exploring their faith to determine what they believe, and why they believe it. We’ve had some interesting conversations! If they’ve learned anything at all, they’ve learned that easy answers are never enough, and sometimes finding answers to our questions just raises more questions.

We joke sometimes that Confirmation is too often like graduating from church – once teenagers get confirmed, we never see them or their families again. But that isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.

These confirmands are just beginning a journey of faith that will carry them into adulthood. This isn’t the end of the road – it’s the starting line. This is where we equip young people with the basic tools of faith, and teach them how to use those tools, to continue to grow into Christ-likeness. As they move into the next stage of faith development, we the church come alongside them, helping them get closer to the Kingdom of God.

We just heard a couple of scripture passages that highlight the way the Law of the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New Testament through the saving work of Jesus Christ. Our gospel reading for today connects the dots between these two ideas – Law and Grace. It’s perfect for Confirmation Sunday! As these confirmands have wrestled with what they believe over the past few months, they have had to consider how the Law and Grace intersect at the point of personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark introduces us to a scribe – one of those legal experts who have been trying, along with the Pharisees, to trap Jesus. Only this particular scribe has been paying attention. He sees something in Jesus the others don’t see. And Jesus sees something in him we might not expect. Jesus can tell this particular scribe – just like our confirmands – is getting closer to the kingdom of God.

One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”
The legal expert said to him, “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered with wisdom, he said to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.
– Mark 12:28-34

What’s the most important commandment of all?

613 rules define what was known as The Law. But the first rule, the first commandment in the Ten Commandments, is known as the Shema: “Hear, O Israel!” The Lord our God, the Lord is One!” Or, as our modern translations put it: Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord! This acclamation of who God is doesn’t even sound like a Commandment. It’s more of an affirmation of faith. Our God is the One, the Only One. Not a bunch of little statues made out of wood or stone, but a living, all-powerful being who made us to reflect that one-ness. Pretty powerful stuff, when you think about it.

But the second most important commandment of all does sound like a true command. Or does it? “You will…” (or ‘Thou shalt’) could mean “do this.” It could also mean “this is what will happen” – not so much a command, as a prediction.

Because when we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, doesn’t it just naturally follow that we will love our neighbor as ourselves? When loving God is at the very core of who we are, won’t we naturally want to include others in that vast love?

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? And yet, throughout history, we know that has never really been the case for God’s people. Maybe it’s because we don’t love God as deeply as we say we do. Maybe it’s because we get distracted by satisfying our own needs and desires, and forget to look out for the needs of others.

Whatever the reason, the simple truth is we don’t do a very good job of loving God or loving our neighbors. Left to our own devices, we would never even get close to the Kingdom of God. We might talk the talk, but we don’t do a very good job of walking the walk. No wonder people outside the church call us hypocrites.

Come to think of it, that’s what Jesus often called the scribes and Pharisees. Scribes just like this one, who notices Jesus is teaching real truth. This legal expert, who would normally be on the opposite side of any argument with Jesus, finds himself in complete agreement. Perhaps no one is more surprised about this than the scribe. “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom,” Jesus tells him. And I can’t help but imagine these two men locking eyes in mutual recognition, nodding to one another with a little smile that says, “You get me. Cool.”

But the best part of this story, in my opinion, is the last line. “After that, no one dared ask him any more questions.” It’s the first century Palestinian version of the mic drop. Boom.

But here’s the good news. You can ask Jesus anything. The ones who wouldn’t dare ask him any more questions were only trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him.

But when we recognize Jesus for who he is, when we see that the most important rule is the rule of love, and we start to live according to that rule, Jesus locks eyes with us and smiles. You’re getting closer to God’s kingdom, he tells us. Or, as John Wesley would say, “you’re going on toward perfection.”

In a moment, you will see a short video of a Zoom call among our candidates for confirmation. They will tell you what they can confirm about their faith right now. This is not the end of their story. It’s the beginning. I hope, as you listen, your own faith is kindled anew. I hope you find yourself coming maybe just another step closer to the kingdom of God.

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