[A sermon, “Something to Know By Heart,” delivered this morning at a small church in southern Indiana; the main text is Deuteronomy 6:1-9; also refers to Luke 21:34-36]

Today, as we know, is the First Sunday in Advent.

Here is what the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship says about the season of Advent:

‘Advent’ means coming, or arrival. This word has a double significance, as in Advent we celebrate Christ’s coming into the world and look with longing for his coming again. The season of Advent begins with an emphasis on final things (eschatology). We watch and pray with expectant hope for the establishment of God’s justice and the return of the Prince of Peace. As the weeks of Advent progress, the focus shifts to thanks and praise for the birth of the one who has already come – Jesus Christ our Savior.

So, although we might not ordinarily think of the passage from Deuteronomy as an “advent text,” it fits the theme of arrival, because the Hebrews are about to arrive in the Promised Land, something they have been looking forward to for the past 40 years or so, as they have been in the wilderness, with anticipation and longing and expectant hope – and now this event they have been looking forward to is about to happen!

So in a way it is a kind of eschatological text, too, because we think of arriving in the Promised Land as a symbol for all the various happy endings in our tradition.

The Promised Land, the land “over Jordan,” has become a symbol of Heaven, in fact, and Heaven is about as eschatological or “final things” as we can get.

But this fits the theme of Advent in another way, too, because it is also a text about preparation, and preparation is another theme that we associate with Advent – we talk about this time in the life of the church as a time of preparing for that coming, or arrival, we are waiting for; we talk about preparing the way; we talk about preparing our hearts to meet the coming Christ.

And Moses, who is the speaker here, is also talking about preparing our hearts.

In verse 6, he tells the assembled Israelites: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.” Literally, he says “They will be, these words, upon your hearts.” As in, “You will get to know these words by heart.”

“These words” being all the instruction Moses has been given from God – traditionally, this includes not just rules and regulations, but Torah, the instructive story of God’s people.

So, when he says “Recite these words to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates”

we can hear in that the kind of repetition and reminder that is what we do, too, whenever we are trying to learn something by heart.

The idea here seems to be for the Israelites to be so exclusively focused on God, and on what God has called for, and on rehearsing the way of life that God commands, that there is simply

no room for anything else,

no thought of any competing way of life,

no distraction by any other desire or goal.

Moses is, I think, exhorting the people to learn by heart what it means to be the people of God, to live like the people of God.

This is definitely a kind of preparation. A lot of times we think of Advent preparation as housecleaning or fixing meals, but in this case, we’re talking about the kind of preparation people do when they are going to have to give a performance, to sing or play an instrument or dance.

There is an old saying about practicing: “amateurs practice till they can get it right; professionals practice till they can’t get it wrong.”

That professional-grade practice seems to be what Moses is talking about.

It’s the kind of practice that makes performance come naturally, without thinking about it – sometimes without even fully realizing it.

For instance, there’s a story from ancient Japan, about a dramatic ballad singer who began his studies with a very strict teacher. The teacher had the singer practice one particular passage of music over and over, and over and over, and over and over, not moving on, seemingly not making any progress – until at last the student said “this is for the birds, I’m leaving …” and set off to find a different teacher. On the way to the city to look for a different teacher, the singer passed an inn, and it so happened that the inn was hosting a singing competition, so the singer signed up … and since he knew exactly one piece of music, that’s what he sang … and when he sang, the audience was mesmerized, and the organizer would not believe his story – that he was a beginning singing student, that he barely knew any music – and finally said, “well, if that’s so, then who is your instructor, because he must be a great master!” The singer went on to become the a music legend in Japan. [Source: Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbors]

The singer’s mastery had come from his single minded focus;

The same single-minded focus Moses is charging the Israelites to have; the love of God with all the heart and soul and might;

And there’s some good reason to think that devoted practice of this kind actually helps create that love …

Here is what Yo-Yo Ma, the renowned cellist, said about practicing in an interview a few years ago:

I actually enjoy practicing more and more … as a child, I practiced because I had to practice and you didn’t want to mess up. But that’s not a good thing. You want to please your teacher, you want to please your parents, you want to please your peers. And now I practice because I’ve experienced so much love that you practice out of loving a phrase, loving … a structure or harmony change or the way a sound can get to something. // … That’s a wonderful process because it’s a constant of going toward something bigger than the notes and yourself, and very lovingly so.

So this quality of practice, this immersion, this devoted quality, seems to be what prepares the way for love.

But notice that even Yo-Yo Ma tells us, at the beginning, in the initial phases of preparation, when we are learning how to practice, we might not feel the love, we might be more likely to feel fear – or at least anxiety, concern about getting everything right, about making mistakes …

This performance anxiety may show up in our Scripture, too … at the very beginning, where Moses says this is the commandment to observe, “so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Holy One your God all the days of your life …”

Because before we have done much of the practicing that produces the kind of loving performance that is perfection, the kind of performance that flows out of wholehearted love, love with all our heart and soul and might,

the kind of masterful, “all in” performance, for instance, that as Christians we recognize in Jesus …

we may have a lot of other things on our mind, including anxiety, tension, fear, even …

And at that point, at that early point, Moses seems to be telling the Israelites, listen, the audience you have got to care about the most, the anxiousness to please you need to have in mind if you’re going to have some anxiety in mind, that has to be God, the Holy One of Israel.

Because at that early point, it’s easy to get distracted, to start worrying about other things, to let all kinds of competing concerns interfere with practice.

Sometimes we call that idolatry …

Just because, for the Israelites, as it turned out, the biggest temptation was the other deities and the other stories they ran into in the land of Canaan.

When their neighbors said things like, hey, if you want to have a good harvest, you’ll need to make a good sacrifice to the rain god … then it was easy to get worried, to start thinking … hmm, maybe we ought to do that, maybe we ought to be on the safe side here, what if we don’t have enough to eat … and boom, once they began to fear being out of step with their neighbors, or not having enough, more than they did disappointing the God of Israel, they stopped practicing, stopped keeping the commandments in the single-minded way they had been told to …

So I think we might want to understand the comment about fear in this way:

That if we have to worry about anything, if we’re going to be afraid of anything, be concerned about pleasing God, make God the audience we care about.

Because then we’ll be focused on learning God’s instructions by heart, we’ll be keeping God at the center of our way of life.

And that’s a practice that leads to loving God with our whole heart and soul and might.

… a practice that gives us the feel for God’s justice, the love of God’s justice.

… a practice that gives us the feel for God’s peace, the love of God’s peace.

… a practice of becoming more and more attuned to God, so that when God arrives … we will be prepared, because God is likely to surprise us – this has happened before, when God did not show up as a king in a palace, when God arrived as a baby in a manger in a stable … but we will be prepared to catch God’s rhythm, God’s harmony, we will be able to stay on key and in tempo …

Jesus may be saying something similar, in fact, several hundred years later, when he says “don’t let your hearts be weighed down …” by carrying all kinds of baggage, doing too much multi-tasking, being concerned with “the worries of this life” … which is almost like being intoxicated with what other people around us find stimulating, or pleasurable, whether or not it is what God encourages … all those things, for us, are like the idols of Canaan were for the Israelites, in a way, not the main event, not what we want to learn to serve and to love …

So, if we’re going to be afraid at all, let’s be afraid of God.

But at this time of year, we want to remember that our ultimate goal is not fear at all, far from it; our ultimate goal is the love and peace that comes from practice, that comes from learning God’s way of life by heart.

One of the ways we do that is exactly the practice of taking communion together, sharing this “foretaste of the banquet in the heavenly kingdom,” another kind of preparation, a preview – that reminds us of what it means to welcome, to include, to be fed and, having been fed, to turn and feed others … all of which is a rehearsal of the way of life in the Reign of God, the God we seek to love with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our strength, saying “Come, Lord Jesus!”

single candle flame in darkness