Sermon series: A Lasting Legacy
Scriptures: Mark 12:28-31
Tug McGraw was quite the baseball pitcher. He won two World Series with the New York Mets, and was one of the best closing pitchers in Philadelphia Phillies history. McGraw was a team cheerleader, the guy who coined the phrase, "You Gotta Believe!"
He might still be on television as a game announcer today if it hadn't been for the sudden change of health that came in 2003. By the time the brain tumor was discovered, doctors told Tug, all of 59 years old, that he had three weeks to live. Three weeks.
He lived nine months, pouring his time into his family, into a legacy dedicated to curing brain cancer, and even to reconciling with a part of his past he'd tried to ignore. He had a wife and kids, but he also had another son he had ignored.
The mother was Elizabeth D'Agostino. She didn't tell her son about his famous father, in part because she wanted to move past that particular part of her life, too. But Tim found his birth certificate, and made the most shocking discovery of his life. His favorite baseball player was also his father. Tim changed his name from Tim Trimble to Tim McGraw.
Tim found Tug when he was an older teen-ager, but there was nothing there. No warm feelings, no immediate connection, and no future. But once more, as an adult, Tim tried it again. And the second time, the attraction took. Father and son, as strange as it must have seemed to them, became close.
And when news came that time was running out, they became closer still. In the end, Tug McGraw even died at Tim McGraw's Nashville home.
In 2004 Tim's song, "Live Like You Were Dying," stayed on top of the charts for 10 weeks, breaking a record that had stood for 30 years, and was named the top country song of the year by Billboard magazine. It was the story of a man who got the news that he was dying - a man made a decision of how he would live with the time he had left.
Would it make a difference if you learned you had very little time left? Would it change your priorities if you felt life slipping away? We are all running out of time. The opportunity to leave the legacy we want is one day shorter than it was yesterday.
One day, a man approached Jesus with the same kinds of questions. We don't know his circumstances, but we do know he was wrestling with ultimate issues. And though Jesus was surrounded at the time by men intent on arguing with him, this man was not one of them. He approached the group and "heard them debating." He listened, recognized Jesus as a brilliant teacher, and went straight to the heart of the matter.
It's a twofold approach to life. Love God, and love the people God puts around you. Jesus modeled this perfectly, and his legacy has had more impact on the world than any individual in history. He didn't leave a legacy of money, property or power. Instead, he left a legacy of loving God completely, and sacrificially loving us.
I. A legacy of loving God completely
When Jesus was asked about the most important commandment of all, he quoted the Shema (pronounced "Sh'ma"). In Hebrew, "Hear o Israel," is "Sh'ma Yes'ra'eil." So important is this passage, it is the first a Jewish child will memorize. So treasured are the words, they are written on small scrolls, rolled up, and inserted into a small container called a mezuzah, which mark the doorways of Jewish homes.
(Note: If you'd like to recite this passage in Hebrew, a very nice help is provided on the Hebrew4Christians.com web site.)
The question of the most important commandment had long been settled among God's people: Love the Lord God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and might. And all of Israel knew that truth. Knowing the truth was the easy part. Pulling it off was the difficult part.
But not for Jesus. He loved God completely. He wasn't interested in power, wealth, or popularity. But He was passionate about God. He depended on God through prayer, through knowing the Scriptures, and by submitting to God's will - even at the cost of His life.
What's involved in loving God completely? The better question would be, "What's not involved?"
According to Mark 10:17-22, another man approached Jesus, desperately wanting to please God. He ran up to Jesus, fell on his knees before Jesus, and asked, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus told him, "You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'"
The man on his knees insists that he's kept all of the rules. He didn't. He merely claimed the external righteousness that wealthy Jews of his time believed they could purchase through their almsgiving. And yet he's still on his knees, still waiting on the answer. Obviously, something is missing.
Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." The man's countenance fell. He left, overwhelmed with emotion. This is where we learn that he was also a very wealthy individual.
The problem? He loved his wealth too much to give it all away, and until he was willing to make that sacrifice he could not have the one thing he lacked: Jesus. When we realize who Jesus is and what He offers us, there is no cost we should be unwilling to pay to have it - and have Him.
Jesus loved the "rich young ruler," but the man who came to him couldn't part with the things he loved. If loving God completely meant submitting every bit of his money to God, he couldn't cross that line. So he proved that he had been untruthful. He claimed to have kept all the Law since his youth, but he walked away having broken the greatest commandment. And therefore, he fell into the category of knowing the truth but not putting it into practice.
But when people see it, they simply cannot forget it.
Illustration: Historians tell us that two plagues swept through the Roman Empire while Christians were being horribly persecuted. The Antonine Plague was the first, a little more than a century past the life of Jesus. The Plague of Cyprian came along a century after that. One document says that in Rome, where a million people lived, as many as 5,000 died per day. The bodies rotted on the streets, adding to the environment of disease and filth.
The epidemic filled the people with terror. It was so devastating that when the first symptoms appeared some villages simply emptied out, leaving the sick behind. There was no cure. There was no hope. So they left sick family members in their beds and ran for their lives.
But Christians didn't run. They stayed and brought water to the sick. They fed them. They changed their bandages. They spoke kindly to them. They loved and encouraged them. And they got sick in the process.
There's no telling how many people were saved because Christians served, and there's no telling how many Christians lost their lives because they stayed behind. But the world is different today because in the middle of devastating despair - we might call it overwhelming darkness - those who followed Christ saw their opportunity to shine.
Jesus wouldn't have left the sick to fend for themselves. Jesus would have stayed. Jesus would have healed. Jesus would have loved. So they did what Jesus would have done. And people the world over were just stunned at the difference love made. The way these people acted - it was as different as light is from darkness.
This is why the Roman Empire changed so dramatically. People could not ignore the actions of people who loved God so passionately that they would be willing to give up their lives in His service to God. When you speak the gospel of salvation from sin to a people who have witnessed Christian love in action, the lost will be saved. You can't bully people into the kingdom. You can't legislate a nation into following Christ. But you can love them. You can shine the light of Jesus upon them. And then you can speak the truth.
The church body that decides to use its resources to sacrificially love its community will discover that it holds more power than any person or group in political power. There's no single action that defines a person who loves God completely. But the person who does this well will leave a legacy that lasts, and will continue the legacy that Jesus began of love-filled action that leads to salvation.
II. A legacy of loving others
Jesus added the command to "love others as yourself" without being asked to add any other commands that belonged in the same category as the Shema. Still, he added it, and it didn't seem to surprise his audience.
There was a raging debate in that day between two points of view on keeping the commandments. One group argued that to properly love God, one must keep His commands, even if those commands kept you from helping a person in need. If the person was in need on the Sabbath, and it would require work to help him, then it would be better to keep the Sabbath.
The second group argued that a person in need trumped the law of the Sabbath. When Jesus added the answer, "Love your neighbor as yourself," he was identifying with the more moderate of the two groups. But Jesus went even further.
In a strikingly similar story, an expert in the law tested Jesus with the question of eternal life. When Jesus responded to his question with a question, the man promptly answered with the familiar words of Shema. And he, too, added, "and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Luke 10:28). Jesus congratulated him, only to hear a disclaimer. "And who is my neighbor?"
Jesus promptly told the parable of the Good Samaritan, certainly making most in the group cringe with the thought of crossing racial lines as part of being a good neighbor! As it turns out, loving your neighbor completely is very similar to loving God completely. It will take your entire heart, mind, soul and strength to get the job done. It's also impossible to accomplish apart from Christ.
But Jesus loved His neighbor perfectly. He was constantly criticized for befriending "sinners." Sometimes they were prostitutes. Other times, they were tax collectors, the white-collar criminals of their day. Jesus also loved the religious people around him who had excellent morals, like the rich young ruler. He was as comfortable in the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary as he was the home of Zacchaeus.
Jesus loved them all, until he had breathed his last. He would not even hate those who nailed him to the cross. Instead, He chose through the pain to ask God to forgive those who were in the process of executing him. And He loved you, while you were still in your sin, enough to finish His work on the cross and die so that He could bring you near to God.
Ask any pastor who's spent a career preaching funeral sermons. As families and friends gather to talk about their loved one, they almost never mention work or money, unless the stories are about how their loved one had used a job or their money in giving to others. Instead, the stories will come of fathers who read, or mothers who stopped to play, with their children. They'll tell of vacations and days when they finally understood the sacrifice of a giving grandparent. They'll tell of letters written, special days of worship, and of being loved.
Strangely enough, it usually catches us by surprise to find that the things others considered most about us is not how successful we might have been, but rather, how much we loved them. But it is in loving others that we best show how we love God. Because Jesus loved His neighbor - you - we can love our neighbor by His Spirit.
In his book, The Enormous Exception, Earl Palmer tells about a pre-med undergrad at the University of California, Berkley, who became a Christian after a long journey through doubts and questions. A bout with the flu kept him out of classes for 10 days. During that critical absence from his organic chemistry class, a Christian classmate carefully collected all his missed lectures and assignments. The person took time from his own studies to help his friend catch up with the class.
Years later, the pre-med student, now a committed Christian, told Palmer, "You know that this just isn't done, and I probably wouldn't have done it, but he gave that help to me without any fanfare or complaints. I wanted to know what made this friend of mine act the way he did. I found myself asking him if I could go to church with him." Palmer wrote, "I think the best tribute I ever heard concerning a Christian was the tribute spoken of this student. 'I felt more alive when I was around this friend.'"
Don't underestimate the importance of Jesus' "love-your-neighbor" addition from Jesus. Read one of the last parables in Matthew's gospel, and it's easy to see that Jesus took this very seriously.
It was a story of sheep and goats, and in the separating process, all parties wanted to know why they'd missed their reward because they were "goats," or why they'd received their reward because they were "sheep." In both cases, according to Matthew 25, the deciding factor was whether or not those facing judgment had loved others. They either had or had not fed the hungry, satisfied the thirsty, housed the stranger, clothed the naked, ministered to the sick and visited those in prison.
When it comes to judgment, Jesus shows us that we will be separated according to what we are. And what we are determines what we do. Jesus' sheep follow His voice. They do what He does. They love their neighbor.
Everyone leaves a legacy. For good, bad, or even indifferent, we all leave footprints behind us. We will be remembered for our generosity or selfishness. Those who mourn us will talk about the ways we loved them, or the ways we neglected them.
There's only one way to leave a Christ-like legacy - to leave footprints that will last. You cannot do this on your own. You cannot find life in loving God and loving your neighbor, because that is the Law. Scripture makes clear that the letter kills, but the gospel brings life. Receive Christ's offer of mercy, let Him fill you with His Spirit, and then watch as He empowers and teaches you how to love Him and others.