I invite you to take your Bible and turn with me to Matthew chapter 22. Matthew 22; you’ll find it on page 828 if you’re using the Bible in the rack in front of you. We’ll read verses 34 through 40:
“But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And he (Jesus) said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’”
This is God’s Word. Would you join me in prayer?
Father, we come to You this morning again as we are before Your Word. We ask that Your Holy Spirit would do the miraculous - that You would open blind eyes and soften hard hearts and cause the truth of Your Word to fall on fertile soil, that it would bear fruit, that it would bring transformation; most of all, that Your Word would make us fall in love with Jesus all over again. We pray in His name, amen.
Fifteen years ago, Hans Mumm was given a really difficult assignment. Hans Mumm was a civilian but he worked in the Defense Intelligence Service and the Iraq War had just begun. The intelligence community had identified the fifty most important targets, people, in Iraq. The conviction was, that in order to win the war, these fifty men had to be either captured or killed; one way or another they had to be eliminated. The intelligence community knew exactly who it was that needed to be captured or killed. The problem was that that information was not in the hands of the U.S. soldiers who were on the ground. They didn’t have access to that intelligence. And so Hans Mumm, who had worked for the agency for quite some time, was tasked - “Find a way to get these fifty men into the vision of all our soldiers. We want them to know who they’re looking for.”
And so they worked on this for quite some time. After multiple failed attempts, Mumm and his men came up with a brilliant plan; brilliant but famously simple. Some of you are nodding your heads; you know what the plan was. They took an ordinary deck of playing cards and they changed the faces. And they attached a high-valued target, a most wanted man in Iraq, to each of those fifty-two cards. So as you might imagine, the ace of spades was Saddam Hussein himself. The two sons of Saddam, Uday and Qusay, they were the ace of clubs and the ace of hearts respectively. The king of spades was Ali Hasan Al-Majid, better known as “Chemical Ali” - you remember him? Even the news media picked up on this brilliantly simple strategy, and instead of reporting the names of who had been captured or killed, they said, “The six of clubs was captured today. The jack of hearts was killed, eliminated today.” It’s a brilliant strategy. Simple, transportable, a means by which these soldiers in their leisure time could know exactly who were the most wanted targets in that military campaign, the worst criminals, the most wanted.
Why do I begin there? I begin there just to ask one question - "If God had a deck of cards on which were printed the photos of His most wanted, His highest valued targets, the worst criminals, the biggest sinners, who would be the ace of spades?" Answer - I am. And right next to my photo on the ace of spades is yours, your picture, because you're the most wanted by justice. I'm the worst criminal, the biggest sinner. How do we know? Well, I suspect it's right there in our passage. The passage answers several questions - What is the greatest sin? Who has committed it? And what hope of rescue is there for any of us? That's really what lies at the undercurrent of this passage. I'd like us to look at it under two headings. One, the most wanted by justice. And two, the most wanted by grace. And we'll look at how you transition from one to the other.
Most Wanted by Justice
The most wanted by justice. Jesus is asked a question in verse 36, “Teacher” - it’s a religious legal expert; a lawyer who asks the question - “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” In Mark’s gospel, chapter 12, this same interchange is recorded with a little bit more detail. In that account, Jesus is asked the question by the same religious legal expert, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” It’s a big question. “Which is the great commandment? Which is the most important commandment?” They’re asking the same thing. And understand, this was a trap. It was designed to trap Jesus. One of them, a lawyer, verse 35 says, “asked him a question to test Him.” Verse 15 says the intent was to entangle Him in His words so that He could “be condemned.” Verse 18 says that Jesus “recognized their malice.” This was not an academic question. It was deliberately designed to trap Him using His own words.
Now while we’re familiar with the Ten Commandments, what this legal expert had in mind was the more broadly collected list of laws that we call the Talmud. Religious scholars of that era had accumulated 613 laws, one for each of the letters in the words of the Ten Commandments; 613 of them. Two hundred and forty-eight were positive commandments, “You shall,” and 365 were negative commandments, “You shall not,” all of them in the first five books of the Bible. And so the question is a pretty ominous one. “Teacher,” he says possibly with a smirk on his face, “which is the great commandment? Which is the most important commandment out of all of these 613?” And you understand the trap of course, don’t you? If Jesus had said, “Well this is the most important,” they would have immediately pounced to condemn Him for being soft on this one. Or had He said, “This is the most important one,” they would have pounced to condemn Him as being soft on this sin. It was a trap; they thought it was one from which He could not escape. In this trap, ultimately they were trying to get Jesus to declare what sin is most offensive to a holy God.
Now hold that in your mind for just a moment and let's look at it from a different perspective. Let's say that the Mississippi State Legislature wants to determine which is the worst crime in Mississippi, which crime should be most heavily punished. Well, the way they would go about that is they would debate which is the most important law in our state. Which is the one inviolable law that we say, "This is the supreme law in Mississippi"? And let's say - this is absurd, but work with me, let's say that they say that after a year of debate and research and surveys they decide the most important law in Mississippi is that there is a twenty mile an hour speed limit on all of our roads - neighborhood roads, main arteries, interstates. The law, the most important law in the state is that there is always, from this point on, a twenty mile an hour speed limit. If that were the case, what would be the greatest crime? What would be the most heavily punished crime if that were the most important law? Answer - speeding, of course. Right?
So you get what's happening in this passage. As Jesus is asked, "What is the greatest commandment?" by inference, we're also understanding what is the worst sin imaginable. And now we come to the heart of this passage. When the religious legal expert asks, "What's the most important commandment of the law?" and Jesus answers, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment." If that's the great and first commandment, you know the next question, right? "What's the worst sin imaginable? What's the greatest sin?" Answer - to love anything or anyone more than you love Him. To love your wife, your husband, your kids, your grandkids more than you love Him. To be more passionate about your job than you are about Him. It's the greatest sin imaginable, not because I say so but because Jesus said, "Here's the greatest commandment." And to violate the greatest commandment is to commit the greatest sin.
So we come right back to where we start. If God had a deck of cards with His most wanted on the cards, the worst sinner, the most wanted by justice, you know of course who would be the ace of spades, don’t you? It’s me and it’s you. That’s a pretty sobering place to begin at the very last Sunday of the year as we anticipate a new year. The fact is, while most of us feel like, “Yes, we’re sinners, but we’re not Parchman Penitentiary sinners. We’re white collar sinners. You know, I may tell part of the truth as if it were the whole truth. I may fudge here or there. But I’ve not committed the real sins. I’ve not murdered anybody. I’ve not been a terrorist. I’ve not detonated a bomb among a lot of people.” But what would Jesus say? Jesus says, “In fact, you are the worst sinner.” I am the most guilty, the most wanted by justice.
Down deep we know that's true. Don't we? The fact that we refuse to be vulnerable, the fact that we blame others, the fact that we compare, the fact that we're unwilling to live in the light, the fact that we live as a fugitive, all of that betrays the fact that we know what's true down deep; we're guilty. We would much prefer it to be someone else's fault, but at the end of the day, it's us. Before God, we are the most wanted by justice. The always present voice of shame is quick to speak as a prosecutor and say, "It's you." And that voice is so convincing, isn't it? Praise God that the message of the Gospel, while it begins there, tells us that we are far more sinful than we realize, it doesn't end there. Because the passage enables us to turn from being most wanted by justice to being most wanted by grace.
Most Wanted by Grace
And here’s how this works. Verse 40 of chapter 22, when Jesus finishes detailing the greatest commandment and a second which is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” He finishes with this - “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” Understand He’s not saying that the whole Old Testament is about learning to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. That’s not what He’s saying. Rather, He’s saying that the whole Old Testament anticipates the only one who would ever obey this command perfectly and it explains how His obedience becomes our only rescue.
When Jesus picks up on this, He illustrates this both before His crucifixion and after His resurrection. Before His crucifixion, as He’s debating with the religious leaders, John 5:39, He says, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, but it is they that bear witness about Me.” What He says to these religious leaders is that “This whole Old Testament, your scriptures, you study it, you search it, but it’s all about Me. It anticipates My coming, and yet you refuse to come to Me to have life.” And then after His resurrection as He’s walking on a road to the village of Emmaus with two of His disciples and they’re dejected because they don’t recognize Jesus and they believe He’s dead, Luke 24:27 says, “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets He interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself.”
The Great Exchange
The point is this. The entire Old Testament anticipates the great exchange that Jesus came to bring about. John Stott summarizes it so well. This is one of the clearest, sharpest pictures of what the Gospel really is. He writes about this in his book, The Cross of Christ. He says, a couple of sentences - “The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting Himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be. God sacrifices Himself for men and puts Himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives that belong to God alone, while God accepts penalties which belong to man alone.” Simply put, here’s the clearest picture of the Gospel - in Christ your judgment day, the judgment that you deserve because you, like I, are the most wanted by justice, in Christ your judgment day is moved from your future to your past and your deep down desire to be known, to be loved, to be wanted, to be treasured not just by anyone but by the King of the universe, that deep down desire has become your present and your eternal future. That’s the Gospel and it’s why Jesus came. It’s why we celebrate Christmas.
You see, the truth is, every one of us is most wanted. Every one of us here today is most wanted. You’re either most wanted by justice and by the condemnation you deserve already or, because of Jesus, you are most wanted by grace. There is no third category. The only question is, “What have you done with this Gospel? Where do you stand? By whom are you most wanted? By what are you most wanted?”
Two possibilities. You may have never before understood that your sin is as bad as it is and you may suddenly realize, "This is really bad. I am the most wanted. I am under God's condemnation." Today, your opportunity is to do what the Gospel offers. It's to repent and say, "It's true. I have loved a myriad of other things more than I love God. I love myself more than I love God. I love my ability to control. I love my ability to have people think of me a certain way more than I love God Himself. It's true." And in repentance, we say, "God, forgive me." And by faith, we claim that exchange for ourselves. That's your opportunity today where you move from being most wanted by justice to being most wanted by grace. And God says, "Fear not, I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are Mine." You are most wanted, treasured by the King of the universe.
But then there are others here who have made that exchange. You are a follower of Jesus, you are one of His disciples. And yet, if you’re like me, so much of this has come to feel ordinary. There’s a lukewarm, lackluster character to your heart. It seems distant. It seems worn, ordinary. You might be like William Cowper who wrote these words 200 years ago - “Lord, my chief complaint is that my love for You is so cold and faint.” I don’t love You the way I ought to. I don’t love You the way I want to. Or, John Piper wrote these words not long ago. He said - he’s a pastor in Minneapolis - “I know that left to myself I am an absolute dud.” That’s a theological term! “I am blank. There is nothing deep, nothing moving, nothing intense, nothing beautiful, nothing precious, nothing sweet or wonderful. Just empty, blank, coasting along from one worldly preoccupation to another, unmoved by the glory, the beauty, and the love of Jesus.” You ever feel that way? I do. Or another write 500 years ago penned these words. “God, I don’t love you. I don’t even want to love you, but I want to want to love You.”
What hope is there for people like us if that’s where you live? What hope is there? The same hope as the person who’s never embraced this before. Genneysa beautifully sang about amazing grace - “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” You can’t have unrealized fears relieved. You and I have to go back to the beginning and say, “I am the most wanted by justice. I am the worst sinner. My heart is a dud. I am surrounded by brilliance and beauty and glory and I yawn in the presence of the One who gave His life for me. God, have mercy on me. Have mercy. God, would You please make the wonder of the Gospel thrill me afresh. Change my heart. Give me a heart that wants to love you. Give me a heart that hungers and thirsts more after You and Your presence than I hunger or thirst for anything else. One thing, one thing I ask of the Lord; this is what I seek - that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek Him in His temple.” There’s hope for me. There’s hope for you.
What I love about Mark’s account of this event is that there is one additional exchange at the end of that scenario. When Jesus answers the smirking question of this religious leader, this legal expert, he listens, and I suspect the smirk melted from his face and he nodded and he said to Jesus, “Truly, You have answered well. To love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, to love your neighbor as yourself, that’s more than all the sacrifices and offerings you could ever present to God.” Jesus looks at this man and I suspect he smiled. He said, “Truly, you’re not far from the kingdom.” You know what He’s saying of course, right? It may feel really distant to you, but whether you’ve embraced the offer of the Gospel before or whether you never before have, by the Holy Spirit Jesus says to you what He said to that religious expert, “You’re not far from the kingdom. It’s right there. You’re near.” And while the enemy of your soul wants to keep you feeling like you have strayed so far, you are so distant, your heart is so hard and so cold, Jesus smiles and says, “You’re not far. Just turn and gaze back to Me. Come on back over here.”
This is the offer of the Gospel because you see, in the Gospel, your judgment has transitioned from your future to your past. It’s done. Jesus has said it’s finished. In exchange, your deepest desire to be known and understood and desired by someone of infinite glory and beauty, that’s become your present. It is your eternal future. It will not change. He has assured that. He will bring you safely home. He will not fumble you. The arms that hold you, the hands that tenderly embrace you, are nail-scarred. And in eternity, the only wounds that will exist are His wounds and they will bear witness to the glory and the wonder of what is ours in Christ. Even though you’ve been bored, distracted, unfaithful, even rebellious, He will not fumble you. He will finish what He’s begun. You matter to Him infinitely and eternally. You have His unswerving commitment to finish what He’s begun. You have His unfading smile. You have His undistracted attention. He is eternally for you.
The end of 2018, where my year has been marked with a lot of regret and disappointment, the expectations, the commitments that I made at the beginning of the year, I’ve failed miserably. I wonder how you’ve done. Today, I need to be reminded afresh that this God is really for me. He will finish what He’s begun. He will not abandon His children or fail to fulfill His promises. In Christ, you and I have become most wanted, most wanted by grace. Let’s pray.
Holy Spirit, would You please quell the voice of the enemy who even at this moment wants to flood us with shame and wants to obscure the clarity of Your invitation to come back. You're beckoning saying, "You're just not that far. Just turn back to Me." By Your Spirit, would You give us hearts that willingly run into Your embrace. I plead with You, Father, for a heart that loves Jesus more than I love anything or anyone else, and I plead with You for the same for these my brothers and sisters who battle the same, they're in the same war as I am. We've sung so often, "Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace." Because we are most wanted by grace, turn our hearts back to the One who loves us immeasurably and eternally. Flood us with love for Him. We make that our great, our most important prayer as we face a new year. Give us a love, flood us with a love for Jesus that knows no competitor, no rival, and knows no end, now and forevermore. We ask in Jesus' name, amen.
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