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Deuteronomy 6. 4-9, 16-end
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord:
5 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
7 And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
8 And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.
9 And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.
16 Ye shall not tempt the Lord your God, as ye tempted him in Massah.
17 Ye shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his testimonies, and his statutes, which he hath commanded thee.
18 And thou shalt do that which is right and good in the sight of the Lord: that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest go in and possess the good land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers.
19 To cast out all thine enemies from before thee, as the Lord hath spoken.
20 And when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments, which the Lord our God hath commanded you?
21 Then thou shalt say unto thy son, We were Pharaoh's bondmen in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand:
22 And the Lord shewed signs and wonders, great and sore, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon all his household, before our eyes:
23 And he brought us out from thence, that he might bring us in, to give us the land which he sware unto our fathers.
24 And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as it is at this day.
25 And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the Lord our God, as he hath commanded us.
אֶחָד ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה' יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁמַע
Sch'mar O Israel.... one of the most important phrases in the Hebrew Bible, very often found over the entrance to Synagogues
It has the same sort of place in Judaism as the Lords Prayer has in Christian culture and heritage. So much so that there is a story about the end of the 2nd world war when the allied forces were liberating France, they came across an orphanage with children saved from the Holocaust. The way that they knew those children were Jewish was that they could still recite the Schmer
The usual English translation is 'Hear, O Israel' but as is so often the case the word 'Hear,' does not quite capture the full meaning of that phrase. It is a command but it is not a dictatorial command from a remote God. It is an invitation to love God, with all your heart and soul and might.
The Latin translation possibly captures its sense better - that is 'ob audire' - listen to, be attentive to, even be alive to....
'Ob audire ' is where we get our English word obedience from. This is not a passive, mechanistic obedience but a discerning, listening, thinking and accountable sense of obedience. And so when the passage from Deuteronomy goes on to talk about keeping God's commands it does so in the recognition that keeping those commands, walking in God's ways - is not just a question of mechanically ticking off the boxes - filling in the checklist as old fashioned forms of preparing for confession used to encourage.
Obeying the commandments is a much more active process of thinking through what is the most loving thing to do? How can I help my neighbour? What is the context in which I am living this out?
Remembering too that the spirit is as important as the letter - that anger can be the first step on the slippery slope to much more serious harm, to relationships and in the worst case to physical harm. That the first step towards adultery and infidelity is lust. And that working out how a commandment applies in a particular situation requires discernment and prayer, not just assumptions about what is right.
So far, so discerning....
But the difficulty with focussing just on getting ourselves right with the commandments is that it can lead us down heretical paths. We can become a bit Pelagian, thinking that it is all down to us, we can do Christianity, morality and salvation by our own efforts. When we can't. Because even the most prayerful and discerning people are human and get things wrong if only because our vision and understanding are limited.
The other danger is to think, like the older brother of the Prodigal son, that if we do it all properly we deserve God's favour - we can earn salvation, which we cannot. Not because God is sadistic and says whatever you do isn't good enough, but because life is more complicated than that and good behaviour does not mean we can trick death or escape illness, ageing and other aspects of our mortality.
But above all, the most important reason that Pelagianism is a heresy is because it causes us to believe not only that we can earn God's love but that we need to earn it.
And that is why, although the reading from Deuteronomy reminds us, at the beginning of our Lenten journey, of the importance of the commandments, the Gospel reading emphasises that our Lenten observance, indeed the whole of our Christian journey, is not about earning our way to God's heart but about recognising that we are already in Gods heart, no matter how well or badly we think we are doing in our observance of the commandments or generally being a decent human being.
Now I am not courting the sort of headlines that read 'Vicar doesn't believe in the ten commandments' because I do.... But they are not the whole story and it is important to remember this because one of the biggest obstacles or stumbling blocks to faith for the person who tends to lead a better than average life, is that despite doing Lent better than anyone else, despite being righteous they get ill, or have to support their loved one through an illness, or don't get the job or promotion they think they deserve, or any of the other disappointments life hurls at us from time to time, and in that adversity their faith fails and they cannot help but feel that all their goodness - about which secretly they are also a bit too proud - didn't get them anywhere.
And if it's any consolation this preacher is preaching as much to herself in saying this, as to anyone else!!
And so perhaps this Lent our real resolution is to take joy in the freedom of God's love, knowing that our goodness, our attempting to be perfect, is not what matters. What matters is turning to God and following in the way of Christ. Our discerning, our being obedient and listening to God is not just about getting the commandments right, but about being alive to the God who searches us out even when we feel most lost who loves us despite what has made us feel lost, who loves us even when we get angry and give up on God.
For God, in Christ has been there, and knows too what it is like to feel hurt, betrayed, lost, abandoned, bereaved. Jesus loses it and even gets it wrong sometimes too - His rudeness to the Syro- Phoenician woman, his throwing over of the tables in the Temple - show that he wasn't always meek and mild and well-behaved.
So as we begin our Lenten journey, let us remember that this is a God who, paraphrasing the words of William Vanstone's glorious hymn, Morning Glory Starlit Sky:
Is no monarch, Thron'd in easy state to reign;
This is the God, Whose arms of love Aching, spent, the world sustain.
The God who stands with and seeks out those who are lost for whatever reason and calls us in all sorts of ways to join in that task of sustaining the world.
And I will finish with a poem (by a lady called Anne Weems https://alifegivinglent.wordpress.com/lenten-poem/ ) that I think sums up the adventure that Lent calls us to:
Lent is a time to take time to let the power
of our faith story take hold of us,
a time to let the events get up
and walk around in us,
a time to intensify our living unto Christ,
a time to hover over the thoughts of our hearts,
a time to place our feet in the streets of
Jerusalem or to walk along the sea and listen to his Word,
a time to touch his robe and feel the healing surge through us,
a time to ponder and a time to wonder....
Lent is a time to allow a fresh new taste of God!
Perhaps we're afraid to have time to think, for thoughts come unbidden. Perhaps we're afraid to face our future knowing our past.
Give us courage, O God, to hear your Word and to read our living into it.
Give us the trust to know we're forgiven and give us the faith to take up our lives and walk.
Rev Dr Catherine Shelley © 05.03.17