Stop and breathe

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

6 These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

I want to take a quick poll this morning because I don’t think that I am alone. As you know, last Wednesday was Halloween. Halloween means different things to different people, but one thing stands out above all of the others: candy. Halloween means candy. In fact, Paxton, our 2.5-year-old son uses the word Halloween as a synonym for candy. He was excited to put on his cow costume and go get more “halloweens” last week.

So I was wondering, because I know that I am not the only frugal person here, how many of you bought Halloween candy on Thursday, November 1st? I did not intend to go out and buy candy, but I went into the local drug store to buy something unrelated and saw that they had Halloween candy marked 50% off. That’s right, all of the sugar, half the price.

I was able to resist the temptation to buy as much candy as possible and walked out the door with only one item. For 50 cents, I was able to purchase something that I have never before been able to buy at Halloween. It is one of my favorite kinds of candy, perhaps because it is only around for a short period of time. I had heard rumors that this candy would also be available this Halloween, but I did not see it until Thursday. That candy is the Cadbury Creme Egg.

It is a lot easier to appreciate something when you can only have access to it on a limited basis. When it is available to you all the time, it is easy to take something for granted. Take oxygen for instance. How many of you are thinking about the oxygen that you are breathing right now? Of course not, you are thinking about Cadbury Eggs! But if oxygen was in short supply or if it was only available to you on a limited time basis, you would appreciate it a lot more! But sometimes, we just need to stop, breathe, and remember to appreciate this gift.

Breathing is an interesting thing and it is quite — though not totally — unique in that it is something that we can do intentionally and unintentionally. Intentionally we control the rhythm and speed, the volume we inspire, and how long we take to let it all out. We sometimes call that a “voluntary” action. But our breath can also be controlled without our being aware of it; it can be involuntary. I am not even aware of the fact that I am breathing most of the time. Surely as you sleep, you are not thinking “Now breathe in…and breathe out.”

The passage of scripture that we are looking at today is often called “The Shema.” It is given this name because “shema” is the first word of verse 4 in Hebrew, which is translated as “hear.” Whenever a passage starts with the word “shema” it is kind of like a pastor or a teacher clearing their throat, ah-hem. This is important. I want you to give me your undivided attention. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

The Shema was and is foundational for all Jewish men and women. It is the air that they breathe. Even to this day, all observant Jews will repeat the Shema at least twice a day, like it says in verse 7, when they lie down and when they wake up. Somewhat like the Lord’s Prayer is something that a number of Christians pray each and every day, the Shema is second nature to a Jewish person. And just like breathing, sometimes they probably give it some thought. Other times it probably just comes out without thinking.

This was an original Israelite statement of faith. We too often look at the Old Testament as just a bunch of rules or laws. But it is not just a bunch of rules for the sake of having rules. These rules are about having faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The name of this book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, which literally means “Second Law.” Nomos is Greek for law, deutero means “second.” The first giving of the Law, or Torah, was at Mt. Sinai. Deuteronomy isn’t a second law altogether, but a second giving of the Torah. You will find many repeated phrases and ideas if you read Exodus and then Deuteronomy, such as the Ten Commandments.

Deuteronomy was given to the Israelites at an important time in the history of this people group. They were entering into the Promised Land. They have been wandering around for 40 years in the wilderness under the protective wing of God, and now they were entering into a foreign land that they would soon call “home.”

But this Promised Land was full of temptations. As the people wandered through the wilderness, they were reminded of the provisions of God every day. They followed a pillar of clouds by day and a pillar of fire by night. They collected food that appeared out of nowhere six out of seven days a week. Their shoes and clothes didn’t even wear out. It hadn’t been long since they came out of slavery in Egypt where God had delivered them from Pharaoh. God was among them, and they could not easily forget that. But they did. Even as they experienced God day by day, the Israelites strayed from him. They worshipped other gods. They failed to live up to the teachings of God.

So as the people were about to enter the Promised Land and settle into a normal, easy life, God wanted to give them a warning and a reminder. The warning: there are people of different religions all around. Some of them even living within the land that the Israelites were about to receive. The warning is about idolatry and worshipping false gods. The reminder is the Shema.

The Shema can be translated in two different ways, and usually our Bibles translate it one way and have a footnote referring to the other option. It can be translated as “The Lord our God, the Lord is one” as the NIV does, or “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” like we find in the NRSV. The problem is that there is no verb in verse four in the Hebrew after the word “listen.”

To say that “the Lord is one” is a statement of monotheism. It is saying that there is only one Lord, and that is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We sometimes call him Yahweh. To say that “the Lord is God, the Lord alone” is to say that there might be other little deities floating around, but there is no other God but Yahweh. This is a statement of the supremacy of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Which is the right translation? Probably both. So not only is it a statement of monotheism, it is a statement denying the reality of any other god but Yahweh.

That is to be the air the Hebrew people breathe. The Lord is one, the Lord alone.

So how does this manifest itself in our lives today? Verse 5 tells us something that we have probably heard a time or two before, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

If that sounds familiar, it is probably because a pretty famous rabi once called that the most important law of the Old Testament. That rabi was Jesus. And of course, Jesus added the second most important law, which is to love your neighbor as yourself.

If you haven’t picked up on what I am trying to tell you, I’ll just come right out and say it to you right now. This…is…important! The Lord is one, so give him all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength (translations vary a bit for ma-ode). These commandments matter; verses 7-9 tell us to “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”

Teach this to your children. Talk to them about loving God when you are at home, and while you are out; when you put them to bed, when you wake up and start your day. This is the air you breathe. Be filled with it.

The idea behind tying these words to your hand seems a little strange to me. But think about this, where else could you write these words down that you would see them more than on your hands? Maybe on your iPhone, or perhaps the refrigerator door? But even then, you are going to see your hand when you lift up your phone or go to open the fridge door. This is like tying a string to your finger to help you remember. You can’t not see it and when you see it, you will remember to stop and breathe.

But what’s the deal with the forehead? I can’t see my forehead without the help of a mirror. I think that this is a way to remind others. When we meet someone on the street, we usually look them in the face. If there is something tied to their forehead, you will probably notice it, kind of like if they have broccoli in their teeth. This is not only a reminder for us to stop and breathe, this is a reminder for others to stop and breathe.

Finally, write these things on your door frames and on your fence posts. When you walk out the door in the morning, whether you are heading to work or school, you will be reminded to stop and breathe. When you come home again, as you pass by the fence post, as you open the front door, stop and breathe. Stop…and breathe…and remember. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And we are to love him with all of our being.

I have many imperfections; one of which is that I tend to be too open about thingsJ. There is no chance that I am going to share all of them, and hopefully nobody would really want to hear them all anyway. But one thing that a number of you have noted over the last few years is that I do not hold a pencil correctly. Perhaps this is one reason why my handwriting is absolutely terrible; I can’t say for sure. But rather than resting the pencil on my middle finger while pinching it between my index finger and thumb, I pretty much just make a fist around the pencil with it between my index and middle fingers.

The reason that I do this is very clear to me. I literally missed the day of school in first grade when we were taught how to hold our pencils. And nobody tried to correct me while I was of a teachable age. I say “teachable age” because I have tried to change how I hold a pencil. I made an effort in Middle School, I tried in High School. And every so often in adulthood, I try to hold it “correct” to no avail. It feels wrong to hold it right.

Perhaps you have heard the saying, “Practice makes perfect.” As I have said before, I disagree with this statement. Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. You can practice all day, every day for the rest of your life. But if you are practicing something incorrectly, then you are only going to reinforce your wrong way of doing something. That is why it seems impossible for me to hold my pencil differently. And it isn’t like I think about it every time I pick up a pencil. It isn’t like I say, “Now I’m going to hold it wrong again.” I just have done it so many times that it feels right to me to pick up a pencil in the wrong way. Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect. But practice does make permanent.

When I think about the Jews repeating the Shema at least twice a day, every day, I know that they are not living out their faith perfectly. They are not loving God with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Nor are they loving their neighbor as themselves. None of us are. But we always need to remember that God is interested in our trying. God wants us to try to love him with our heart, soul, strength, and mind as well as our neighbor as ourselves, even though we will do it imperfectly. This is a lifestyle that we must be immersed in. It must be the air we breathe.

So how can we make loving God and loving neighbor a habit? Practice, practice, practice. I am sure that some people would be critical of the Jewish person’s recitation of the Shema multiple times every day, just as I know people are critical of Christians praying the Lord’s Prayer every day. Your heart isn’t in it, they might say. It is the same criticism that some people have about using prepared prayers in a church service.

Every time we sit down to eat in our home, we say a very simple prayer, a prayer that a two-year-old can understand. We say something like “Thank you God for this food, and please be with those who don’t have any food. Amen.” This is as perfunctory as it gets. Some people sing “God is great, God is good…” before their meals. At bedtime we thank God for friends and family members by name. Again, very routine prayers. It is the same thing night after night, meal after meal. We probably don’t even think about the words anymore. But I think that the most important thing isn’t that we are thinking about the words, not to say that words aren’t important. The most important thing is that before that biscuit hits our mouth or our heads hit the pillow, we take time to remember who has blessed us with food to eat and a place to sleep.

Romans 8 tells us that when we don’t have the words to pray that the Spirit will intercede for us with groans that we can’t even understand. So no, I don’t think we need to put too great of an emphasis on the exact words that we pray, how or when we pray, read scripture, and have other times to dig deeper into a relationship with God and others. The most important thing is that you do it.

The Lord our God is one, the Lord alone. And we are to love God with all of our hearts, souls, strength, and might. And we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is the air that we are to breathe. And whether you are breathing, fully aware of what you are doing, or if you are doing it out of habit, it is still good. Breathe this air so deeply and so often that you do not have to be aware at all times that you are doing it. But I also want to encourage you to take time, to stop, and breathe. Notice your breath and appreciate the breath that you have been given.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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