Leviticus is quite a teaching passage; it covers all the basics of life for the Jew and was affirmed by Jesus for those who follow him. Maybe it seems heavy for a Sunday sermon, but we can always find a new teaching when we turn to the Bible.
I LEARNED that EVERYONE needs to be taught when I was a t-ball coach
--Teaching batting, ball sits on a T to make it easier to hit for these beginners
--Boy swung once and missed, early eye-hand coordination takes time to develop.
--He swung again and connected!
--It was a line drive to shallow outfield. The adults were all so excited. We screamed, “RUN!”
And he took off ;running – STRAIGHT to the pitcher’s mound! . . .
He had never been taught WHERE he was supposed to run.
After that experience, we ran the bases at each practice yelling out which base as we crossed it.
When God adopted the children of Abraham, they had a lot to learn.
God called Abram to follow, which he did and in the many years of his following he learned to trust God and take God at God’s word, even when it meant waiting until he and his wife Sara were in their 90’s to have children.
When he finally had a son Isaac, there was more teaching and learning for Isaac’s generation, until he too had sons to teach; Esau and Jacob.
Jacob’s generation learned lessons the hard way, with fighting between siblings and stealing birthrites, but there was an underlying lesson about God that seemed to favor the ‘underdog’. Perhaps the real lesson was to obey God, regardless of whether it made sense in the world.
His long story is one of betrayal by his brothers, slavery in Egypt, betrayal by Potipher’s wife and imprisonment based on lies made against him. What lesson did Joseph learn during all these trials? Perhaps to trust in God alone.
Joseph keeps dreaming and ends up in a leadership position in Egypt just when famine is about to hit the near east. Remember the scene when his brothers come to visit in order to beg for food? That ends up as in a lesson in humility.
The family of Jacob ends up as a huge population of Jews in Egypt, but they are enslaved and over time, fear of the growing immigrant population, causes oppression by the government and the descendents of Joseph cry out to God.
It takes Pharaoh a few plagues to learn HIS LESSON, but he finally let’s the Jews go, with some gold to send them on their way and when he has a last minute change of heart, the water of the Red or REED Sea, envelopes his army and Moses and God’s people get away. The Jews learn that God is always with them, or they are supposed to learn this lesson.
One might think with such a full history of God’s intervention on behalf of the wandering people, they would follow obediently any command of God. But we know that wasn’t the case.
Over and over again, they lament the trip AND their freedom.
Over and over, in spite of Divine Anger, Moses is able to plead for their lives and they are granted forgiveness.
God gives bread in the morning and quails at night, water from rocks and Divine protection, each gift is combined with rules of obedience. “Don’t pick up more bread that you can eat in one day or it will rot.”
Slowly the people learn to trust and obey.
We are not so different than they were. We tend to forget history and have to re-LEARN lessons that our parents and grandparents suffered through.
How many wars until humanity learns the skills of reconciliation?
How many must die of hunger before we learn how to turn swords into plowshares?
How long until we LEARN God’s intent for humanity and obey?
Leviticus is a book of law designed to teach and guide God’s people into holiness. It records more words from the mouth of God than any other book in the Bible.[i]
The laws in chapter 19 are part of a big picture; the curriculum of God, we might say. It is called the Holiness Code. Each chapter of Leviticus has a focus.
Chapter 18; The preceding one, was focused on the abomination of the Canaanites,
Chapter 19; that we just heard, is focused on social ethics
Chapter 20; forbids Molech worship and following the customs of other religions.
These laws were given a generation before the people found their way into the land of the Canaanites. The people still lost in the desert didn’t need these laws about a land they had not yet entered. So what was the point?
The lesson for the Israelites then is the same as for us today, we are to be HOLY and only God can define how that looks.
The primary lesson woven thru all the specifics of the Commandments, is HOLINESS IN HUMANS IS THE STATE OF BELONGING TO GOD. Israel was designated as God’s people, God’s property and they were to be holy as God is holy.
The lists of legal specifics were a way for God’s people to ABSORB God’s Immanent Presence. The theology of the Priestly authors of this book, believed that God presence was already in the world, - EVERYWHERE in and thru it. God was not thought of as OUTSIDE the world, but Wholly (Whole) in it. Therefore God’s presence could be absorbed and absorbing God is accomplished by performing God’s commands – obey your lessons.
We find it strange to hear some of the commands in Leviticus 19.
Why couldn’t different cloth be combined in a garment, was it a divine fashion statement against polyester?
Why the separation of seeds, planting, and even people?
These are specific lessons that convey the general sense that God’s people needed a separate identity from the rest of the world. They were to avoid any religious practice that resembled pagan worship.
SEPARATION became a practice itself, a discipline to TEACH them that they were God’s and God’s alone. (Only God gets to define what is holy.)
AND the Israelites were to forever remember that they had been Aliens in Egypt and would be again in Canaan. They were to treat aliens as neighbors and neighbors as they would treat their own family. This chapter is ultimately the heart of Israel’s theology. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We could go into each section and explain its relevance but I believe there is a greater LESSON for us.
Jesus thought this chapter important enough to quote as part of his summary of the greatest law.
“Which commandment is the first of all?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you 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.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Jesus understanding of God’s command to be holy comes straight from the LAW. How many times was it repeated in the reading? “You shall be holy for I the LORD your God am Holy.”
Obeying God’s commands makes us holy or as one scholar put it, “The people’s life with God and with one another IS THE PRACTICAL expression of their holiness.”[ii]
WE like they, are to be holy by obeying the Law, yet we ask which ‘Law’? or which laws?
Does it still matter if we separate the types of material in our clothes?
How do we interpret ‘gleaning’ laws; leaving enough crops in our fields for the poor to harvest - when we buy our food at grocery stores?
Are we really to avoid all tattoos? Or were those commands about temple hair and rounded beards and skin marking specific to the pagan practices of Moses’ day?
How do we interpret the law for 2011?
Some people say the law is the law, plain and simple and they stand by the words of Leviticus, at least SOME of the words.
While I worked on this sermon, someone tweeted a picture of a tattoo boldly displayed on a man’s arm quoting Leviticus 18:22
When a mere chapter later, in Leviticus 19:28 it says, “you shall not make any tattoo marks upon you,- I am the Lord”
What do we say to those who take some of these laws, literally and ignore others?
As Christians WE interpret OT law thru the LENS OF Jesus.
You know what a lens is, (GLASSES) it’s something what we LOOK THRU.
Marcus Borg uses this metaphor when he lectures about the ways people read the Bible. One of his students commented that we all read the Bible thru a lens, but some people think it’s important to believe in the LENS instead of what it points to.
Interpreting for our living as Jesus’ People
We are to hold up the LENS of Jesus to literalists and liberalists. We hold up the Jesus lens anytime we have a question about Law. His life and teaching point to God and his interpretations of these laws can be found in the Sermon on the Mount. We got into some of the specifics last week.
In the Jesus’ Lens
The Anger of retribution is transformed into reconciliation
Vulnerable people are protected against the powers that dominate
Living truthfully in word and deed is a way of life
Loving your enemies & praying for those who persecute you is how we ABSORB God’s presence today and LEARN to live like Jesus.
(But) We can’t use the Jesus’ Lens casually.
Whether we look at Old or New testaments, we have to agree that God’s demands are costly.[iii] Jesus never says otherwise.
He called people to give up their livelihood of fishing to “follow me”
His charismatic call lifted a tax collector away from his lucrative business to “follow Jesus”
He even told a rich young man to give his wealth away.
Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Which equates to the saying in Leviticus, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy.”
The only way we can live this kind of obedient life is by following Jesus in a deep-loving commitment so we can
view the world thru his lens until we see everyone as our neighbor.
When a couple promises to love each other for a life-time, each gives up other people. IT’s a cost we don’t mind, because we love. How much more does God’s love fill us and make us able to live obediently.
And when we find we are NOT yet PERFECT, Jesus calls us to HOLINESS thru WHOLENESS. God’s gift is the Holy Spirit and the deep covenant promise of Divine Love.
The lesson of obedience goes hand in hand with the gift of grace. Therefore we do not partake of ‘cheap grace’ that seems to allow us to live any way we want. But when we give ourselves to Jesus, we give up living OUR Way to live HIS Way.
We give up ignorance and pay attention to the needs of the world.
We stop walking by people in need and turn instead to help.
We give up vengeance and replace it with hard-to-accomplish reconciliation
We give up ALL other ‘Gods’ to follow the One.
Christians LEARN the lesson of the Greatest Commandment by using the Jesus Lens.
And we become Doers of the Law, not merely hearers and in our Doing, we become Holy – just as the one we follow is holy.
(It’s a lesson we NEVER stop learning).