Posts Tagged ‘Shema’

Written on your heart

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Written on your heart”(Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 8, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Cornerstone Confession
Today’s reading from Deuteronomy is our second in our series of Twelve foundational scriptures for our life at Grace Hill. In fact, this passage has been foundational for people of faith for well over two thousand years.

This ancient confession of faith is known as the Shema, from the first Hebrew word, meaning, “Listen!” or “Pay attention!” To this day, observant Jews recite this ancient text two times every day, and many continue the ancient practice of placing Scripture in small enclosures called tefillin, which are bound to the hands and to the forehead during prayer, and affixing portions of scripture known as mezuzot to door frames and gates, to be touched as one enters or leaves.

It is indeed quite possible that Jesus himself grew up in a home with these mezuzot on the doorposts, and that he too wore the tefillin during prayer. As a response following the sermon, you too will have an opportunity to participate in this ancient practice of binding the words of Scripture to your wrist.

In Mark’s Gospel, a scribe comes up to Jesus and asks him which commandment in Scripture comes before all the others. This was a frequent discussion in Jesus’ time. Rabbis had counted up some 613 commandments, and as they would sit together, they would discuss which commandments were the greatest.

Jesus responds by quoting from Deuteronomy 6, the Shema: “The first is, ‘Hear o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You 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.” Listen and love.

Then he refers to another commandment from Leviticus, saying, “The second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

And he says, “There is no other greater commandment greater than these.” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus even adds, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In Jesus’ time, that meant, “On these two commandments hang all of Scripture.” The Shema from Deuteronomy 6 is, for Jesus, the cornerstone confession of the faith of the Hebrew scriptures.

How is this ancient confession of faith shaping the life of us here at Grace Hill, and how might God’s Spirit be speaking through it to form us more fully still as the people God desires us to be? How can we also bind God’s word to our lives and make this confession our confession?

The commandment of the Shema is three-fold: First, we are called to pay attention, to listen, to focus on the uniqueness and the oneness of God. Second, we are called to love God with a oneness of heart, soul, and strength. Third, we are called to bind God’s words to our lives.

Focus on God
The Shema begins by calling out, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Pay attention and focus, people, on the uniqueness, the oneness of God. The translation is difficult. There is one God. Listen to God alone. God is unique. God is one. God is our only God. But each possible translation has the sense of the uniqueness and the oneness of God. Most of us probably don’t think that’s really newsworthy. Of course there’s only one true God!

But the Bible has an awareness of something that all too often escapes our notice: other things, though they are not God, can often become like God in our lives. Paul, for instance, talks of greed as being a false god. Isaiah likens gold and silver to false gods who become sources of pride and power that prevent us or distract us from trusting God. Jesus says you can’t serve both God and wealth, and that one’s heart is where one’s treasure is.

We’re to love our God with our whole heart, but we can’t do that if our treasure, if the consuming passion of our life, is elsewhere. We often take for granted that there is only one God. It’s like Sunday School 101. But as I have reflected on this ancient confession of faith over the years, I have often wondered if the command to listen to, to pay attention to, to focus on one God and on the significance of God alone for our lives, I’ve often wondered if this foundational commandment might just be one of the most difficult to keep.

It’s relatively easy to focus on God once a week. Most folks can manage twice a week without too much difficulty. Some people manage once a day. But the world around us makes it next to impossible for God to be the fundamental aspect, the consuming passion, of our lives. There are so many demands on our time, on our energies, on our attention and focus, and it’s harder and harder to keep up those regular activities that do keep our focus on God alone. Just as the ancient Hebrew peoples felt pressured and lured to serve their neighbors’ gods, so also we feel a very similar pressure, enticement, lure to serve some other consuming passion besides God.

I first seriously studied this passage my sophomore year in college. And as I imagined a conversation in which I asked my roommate, who had known me since preschool, what the center, the focus, the consuming passion of my life was, it took my breath as I instantly knew exactly what he’d say. It was my coursework, not God. I was zeroed in on achieving in the classroom while ironically flunking the part of Sunday School 101 where we learn that there’s only one God.

A few weeks ago, Pastor Katherine reminded us of how we’re created to praise God. That’s the most basic inclination of our lives, but so hard to do with our whole heart.

If you were to ask God in prayer, “What is the consuming passion of my life,” what would God’s Spirit reveal to you?

Love the Lord your God. . .
The rest of the Shema gives direction to forming us as people whose consuming passion is the Lord our God.

Along those lines, the second part is the command to love the Lord with heart, soul, and strength. In other words, with everything you are, with everything within you, with your intellect, with your emotions, with your actions, with everything you have, love the Lord. Just as God is one and is undivided, so our love is to be undivided and focused on God.

We gather here every Sunday not just as a community of believers, but as belovers and beloved of God. It is our shared love of God that gathers us to praise God together in worship. Just as love among friends and spouses and families flourishes when it is tended intentionally with efforts to spend time together and to talk together, so our love for God flourishes when we tend to that relationship in regular prayer, in worship, in dwelling in the Scriptures, in gathering together with God’s people, in serving God by participating in God’s reconciling mission in the world and allowing God’s healing and hope to flow through us.

As Jesus taught, loving God and loving our neighbor are closely connected. In fact, the two are so tightly connected that 1 John says, “The commandment we have from God is this, ‘those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.’” It a practical expression of our love for God. We are to love what God loves. God loves the world. God loves sinners and the righteous. God loves even God’s enemies.

Our love for God is reflected in a very special way in our love for one another, God’s people. Jesus told his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” That sense of unity, of togetherness and closeness and oneness is rooted in the foundational conviction that God is one.

Shortly before he died, Jesus prayed,

I ask. . . on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, and they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23, NRSV)

Just as the Lord our God, the Lord is one, just as Jesus and the Father are one, so also we are to be one together in Jesus, in God, with that very same sense of togetherness and closeness.

Bind God’s word to your life
As Jesus is in God, so when we give or hearts to Jesus, we give them to God as well. Jesus’ most basic invitation was twofold: Believe in me and follow me. Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The third part of the Shema is like a list of ways to work at doing this; that is, binding God’s words to our lives as an expression and formation of our undivided love of our undivided God.

Our love for God gets played out as we seek to keep God’s commandments. Now, that may sound a little cold, unappealing, like a general barking orders and the rank-and-file following blindly and thoughtlessly. Or like the various sometimes bizarre laws and requirements that govern our lives as citizens.

But these are teachings, instructions, stories, words given by God so that we might live lives of freedom and joy and peace. So the Psalmists speak of delighting in the law of the Lord. In fact, the longest Psalm in the Bible, Psalm 119, which goes on for a full 176 verses, is all about the joys and blessings of living in God’s ways.

It was no less difficult for the people who first heard these words to keep their focus on the oneness and uniqueness of God than it is for us today. The book of Deuteronomy is entirely aware of how easily we forget, and it repeatedly says, “Remember, remember, do not forget.” So it is that the Shema instructs us to keep these words in our heart. We’re to do this by diligently teaching them to our children, and by talking about them as we work and play and come and go and lie down and wake up. As in: Talk about them all the time! Bind them to your hands in your work and play and your foreheads in your thoughts and your doorposts and your gates in your coming and going.

It seems that the best practice we have to keep our focus on God and to develop a love for God in heart and soul and strength is to bind God’s word to our lives and our hearts and our hands. To love them deeply. To talk about them constantly. To teach them diligently.

Last week, I had a conversation with a member of our congregation about this passage, and she said that the main thing is to love the Scriptures so much that our children naturally pick up on that love. There’s a lot of wisdom in that. The more we love the Scriptures, the more that love catches on. For those who are parents and grandparents and mentors, it may be one of the fundamentally most important things you can do to nurture faith in others. It doesn’t mean having an advanced degree. It just means loving the Scriptures. Making them a part of everyday life. Meditating on them in situations that arise throughout the day. Reading them. Discussing them.

The book of Deuteronomy is very aware of how quickly we tend to forget. People in churches are wondering, not just if we are forgetting the words of Scripture themselves and our knowledge of God’s Word is lacking, but also whether we have forgotten to love God’s words more than fine gold, as the Psalmist says. No doubt the two are connected. Now, Katherine and I do want to commend the congregation, because the youth in our congregation have known the Scriptures better than teenagers in other congregations where we have been involved. I think this is one of the ways the the Spirit has used the basic teachings of this passage to shape this congregation.

But in a culture of sound bytes and text messages and quick answers, commitment to diligence in learning and keeping the Scriptures is an upstream swim, and perhaps you have wondered whether your children or grandchildren have been taught to keep the Scriptures with the same diligence that you were, or whether you have kept God’s Word in your heart with the same commitment as your parents. The practice of faith is more like playing an instrument than riding a bicycle. Without consistent, concrete practices, we do forget. The music of faith, without practice, leaves our fingers, and our lips, and our voices.

It’s one of the reasons why we’re doing a Year of the Bible. The Bible is basic to our faith. It’s a fundamental part of what it means to love God. It’s the best way we have to know about our Lord, Jesus Christ. We keep the Scriptures to know and love Jesus. I really want to encourage each person and family to make a commitment to investing in the Year of the Bible activities here at Grace Hill.

No one can get an education by reading just one page per week, or investing just three hours every week. Of how much greater importance is our faith formation? When we bind the Scriptures to our lives, we aren’t just showing up to be fed. We’re making a tangible investment ourselves, trusting that the nourishment will come.

A vital part of loving God is loving God’s words. We don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. God’s word is to be digested into our life. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life, Jesus said. Indeed, in Jesus, the Word of God became flesh. He told his followers that he fulfills the Scriptures.

What an astounding and wonderful claim. Scripture points us to Jesus, who is the embodiment and fulfillment of Scripture. Listen, people, the Lord our God is one Lord. Love the Lord with everything you are and have. Listen and Love! Focus and be Faithful! Do this by binding this word of God, by binding Jesus himself, to your hearts, your minds, your hands, your feet, and every place you go.

As we respond, I invite you to take the slip of paper that the ushers gave you, which contains on it the Shema, and roll it up, and turn to a neighbor, and have that person take your black ribbon and tie that scroll to your wrist. . .

Teach us your Word,
reveal its truth divine;
on our path let it shine.

Tell of your words,
your mighty acts of grace;
from each page, show your face.

As you have love us,
sent your son,
and our salvation now is won,
O let our hearts with love be stirred.
Help us God, know your Word.
(“Renew your church” by Kenneth L. Cober)

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