Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Starting now texts of Daniel Harrell's sermons preached at Historic Park Street Church on the Boston Common will be posted here. The audio files can be downloaded at the Park Street Church site. Feel free to interact!

“Appetites” (Leviticus 17-18)

Well, our month-long experiment in the book of Leviticus has ended. The bacon is frying and the razor blades flying, though as far as I know, none of our Levites-for-the-month have taken to bed with their mothers. While we may toss Leviticus 19’s prohibition against shaving out the window now that it’s February, chances are good that we will still keep those laws in chapter 18 forbidding incest. But why? Why incest but not shaving? On what basis do you ignore one commandment while obeying another? This has always been the hard part when it comes to Leviticus. Shoot, it’s the hard part when it comes to whole Bible. Traditionally a distinction has been made between what’s considered cultural—applicable to a particular place, time and circumstance—and what’s considered universal and therefore applicable regardless of place, time and circumstance. Sometimes this works. Clearly for Christians, Levitical burnt animal sacrifices are now moot due to Jesus’ supreme sacrifice on the cross. But Leviticus 19’s injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself” still applies—explicitly affirmed by Jesus who labeled it the second greatest commandment, second only to loving God with your whole being.

Perhaps this is the way for us Christians to make the distinction. Keep everything in Leviticus which the New Testament expressly affirms while ignoring that which Jesus clearly fulfilled, condemned or rendered obsolete. For instance, according to the book of Acts, all foods are now clean. Circumcision has been displaced by baptism as the sign of God’s covenant grace. Jesus censured the Pharisees’ obsession with the Sabbath, condemning any practice that comes off as legalistic performance rather than heartfelt obedience. However Jesus said nothing about the Levitical prohibition against mixing fabrics and seeds. And yet we wear poly-cotton material and eat hybrid corn. Jesus also said nothing about child sacrifice. Does that mean that’s OK too?

You see the problem. Perhaps to be safe, we should simply obey everything in Leviticus that the New Testament doesn’t specifically nullify. The apostle Peter wrote, Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written (in Leviticus): ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” Likewise Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail from the law will disappear until its purpose is achieved.” “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” You know, maybe having 21 people live by Leviticus for a month was a mistake. If holiness and obedience are our callings as Christians, maybe we all should be living by Leviticus every month of our lives. You’re probably thinking, “Oh man, maybe I should have stayed home and watched the pre-game. I think I’ll just let God’s grace be enough for me.”

Yet if this month taught us anything, it taught us how much we take God’s grace for granted. Jesus stands ready to forgive us our sins and love us just as we are, does that mean we should strive to give him ample opportunity to do so? Paul skewered that logic in Romans 6. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” he rhetorically asked. Dumb question. In Christ we are dead to sin. “How can we live in it any longer?” To which we answer: Easy! This was why the law was given to begin with. It’s purpose was never to save anybody, but to guide the people God had saved by grace already into a life worthy of their salvation. God mercifully delivered his people out of Egypt and told them to “be holy because I am holy.” He then gave them the law to show them how.

Which brings us back to Leviticus. If giving it was designed to show you how to be holy, keeping it does require you to decipher its principles and make the transfer to contemporary culture. If not mixing fabric and seeds was a means for preventing the Israelites from mixing it up with Canaanite pagans and their idols (who mixed up everything), maybe in our day obedience means not mixing God up with money. Jesus did say that. Or if attention to sown seeds and worn fabrics and food was a way of showing the Israelites that God was involved in every detail of their life, maybe for us it means recognizing that holiness remains a part of our work and our dress and our eating. Ian, one of our Levites, wrote that while a month of Leviticus produced “no earth-shattering moments, there was definitely one clear overarching aspect to it all, namely: I never before realized just how good I am at detaching God from my day-to-day life.

In Leviticus 18, the problem of determining what means what has become a very contemporary and contentious issue. Ask people on the street about the book of Leviticus and if they know anything, they likely know chapter 18. Or at least verse 22: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” For those unfamiliar with the noun, an abomination is not a good thing. Verse 22 gets grouped with other acts similarly tagged as detestable: Incest. Child sacrifice. Bestiality. Most people still agree that these acts are repugnant enough. There’s also adultery. But adultery has become so commonplace that most people wouldn’t call it abominable. Unfortunate maybe. Approaching a woman during her monthly period? Hard to see how that’s an abomination. Undesirable, but not abominable. What about homosexuality? Along with incest, child sacrifice, bestiality and adultery, homosexuality warrants a second mention in Leviticus 20, there as deserving of death.

Lisa, one of our Levites, wrote on the Living Leviticus Facebook site, “Many of my gay friends (who haven't commented on my experiment yet) probably shudder at the word Leviticus whenever they see it mentioned. Why is that, do you suppose? Could it be those two damning verses?” Her question elicited this comment from a gay man in Washington DC: “I can attest that I often question my faith because of the trauma I received at the hands of Christians. Many of my gay brothers have no faith as a result, with dire consequences [such as] rampant addiction, emotional dysfunction and selfishness. If you call yourselves Christian, why are you so focused on aspects of Judaism to which Christ supposedly freed us from being obliged and from which even many Jews do not observe?”

Here again is the rub. Are these sexual “thou shalt nots” in Leviticus 18 and 20 culturally bound or universally applicable? You should know that in Leviticus 17, the focus shifts from Israel’s worship life to its ethic. Or as we like to say it in church, from Sunday to Monday. Leviticus 17 condemns contact with all things bloody because of the connection of blood to life and atonement. This informs the prohibition against sex with your menstruating wife. Interestingly, the ban on blood is one of those that the New Testament affirms. In Acts 15, converts to Christianity are instructed to abstain from consuming blood. They are also instructed to abstain from sexual immorality, referring, it seems, to the same Levitical injunctions set side by side here in chapters 17 and 18.

From the moment God saw that it was not good for man to be alone and brought Eve onto the scene, sex has been a part of what it means to be made in the image of God. Sex unites a man and a woman together as one, mirroring the inter-relatedness of the Trinity. As such, sex is holy, its power designed for the marital promises it both evokes and keeps. Marriage and sex are together so holy that they are employed as the metaphor for the relationship between God and his people as well as for the union between Christ and his church. Through marital sex, people made in God’s image participate not only in God’s intimacy but in his creativity too. Love, loyalty, fidelity, joy and children—these are the things marital sex was made for. It is a holy thing. And since God called his people to holiness, that meant being holy about sex.

And thus God speaks Leviticus 18. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.” Egypt represented the Israelites’ enslaved past. Canaan represented their tempted future. As the Canaanites were soon to be expelled from the land the Israelites would conquer, so would the Israelites likewise be “vomited out” if they indulged in a lifestyle abominable to the holy God. Of course for God to label any practice taboo usually guaranteed that the Israelites would soon be diving right in. The more perverse Canaanite culture proved to be (and this before cable and the Internet), the more Israel tolerated and assimilated it. And so just as God promised, the land puked them out. The language in this chapter could not be more condemnatory. No wonder gay people are so offended by it.

And no wonder well-meaning interpreters have attempted to work around it. Some suggest that God’s commandment against homosexuality only applies to gay sex that occurs in the context of pagan temple worship. Others say that Leviticus just means that two men can’t have sex in a woman’s bed. Some Jewish commentators limit the prohibition against homosexual practice to ancient Israelites only since they were the ones God was talking to. And because there’s no mention of lesbians, that must have been allowed. However, in all of the Levitical talk against interfamily sex, there’s no mention of father-daughter incest either. Was that allowed too? Unfortunately, the only workaround that really works is the one that has God not being the God of this Bible. Which is what some people choose to do. In chapter 20 the Lord says regarding homosexual practice, “You must put them to death.” But he says the same thing for adultery and insulting your parents too. There’s enough in Leviticus to offend everybody.

What do we do? It is interesting to note that while there were undoubtedly countless episodes of capital sin, the Old Testament mentions the death penalty actually getting carried out by the community only a few times. One is here in Leviticus 24. An Israelite “blasphemed the name of God with a curse.” The accused was not brought before a jury or even before Moses to judge, but before God himself whose justice is reputedly impeccable. The Lord passed sentence: “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all the congregation stone him.” Later, in the book of Numbers, a man was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath. Numbers implies that his Sabbath-breaking was deliberate and intentional. Again the people appeal to the Lord for judgment. And the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.”

Disturbing stuff, especially since it implies that cursing God and breaking Sabbath are as bad as sexual immorality, which also implies that we’re probably all in more trouble than we thought. Holiness is very serious business. If I am comforted by anything, it may be by the fact that God passed sentence instead of the people. That’s comforting not just because God is perfect in justice, but because God can perfectly judge as to motive since he can see our hearts. But then I think of what goes on in my heart and there goes my comfort.

Whenever the topic of homosexuality and Christianity comes up, appeal will be made to the more charitable New Testament ethics of Jesus. In John 8, when confronted by those eager to stone a woman caught in sexual sin, Jesus did not join in their condemnation. Instead he thwarted their judgmental zeal by famously announcing how “he who is without sin should cast the first stone.” Predictably, everyone slinked away. However the story did not end there. Jesus then turned to the woman and forgave her, because she had sinned too, and then he said to her, “go and sin no more.” If in Christ and by his grace we are now dead to sin, “How can we live in it any longer?”

Easy. Some years ago a woman was leaving our church to move to another city. She wanted to come and say good-bye and to thank me for all the church had meant to her. She told me how she had been genuinely transformed by the worship and the sermons, how the community had been wonderful as had all of the ministry they had been privileged to participate in—and not only for her, but for her partner too. While I was glad that Park Street had been such a good place for her to be, I had to ask: “You know that our church believes the Bible teaches homosexual practice to be sinful?” She said, “Yes, and we believe everything you teach and follow it except for that one thing. In this one area of our life, because we love each other and want to be together, we’ve decided to throw ourselves on the mercy of God. And if it turns out that our sin is the unpardonable sin, so be it. We have to be happy.”

At first I was bothered by this cafeteria approach to Christianity, but then I thought, you know, that’s exactly how I deal with my own sins. Unable, unwilling to stop, I compensate by being good in other areas of my life that maybe don’t matter to me as much. It’s like that rich young ruler who told Jesus he kept all of God’s commandments, and Jesus loved him for it but told him that he still lacked one thing: “Sell your possessions and give your money to the poor, then come follow me.” Which you’ll remember the rich man could not do. He had too much stuff that he wanted to keep it. But at least he kept his integrity by walking away. The disciples, you’ll remember, were shocked by this. “Who then can be saved?” they asked. To which Jesus replied, “With God all things are possible.”

In Leviticus 18, the Lord says to Moses, “Speak to the people and tell them, “I am the LORD your God.” And then in chapter 19 he says, “Be holy because I am holy.” If the Lord is your God, there are no workarounds to holiness. To submit to God is to submit to his lordship in every aspect of our life, even when we don’t like it. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Jesus is just repeating Leviticus: “Keep my decrees and my laws, and you will find life through them. I am the LORD.”


Elizabeth said...
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Sean Daily said...

Wow, I love it when a church is willing to teach through Leviticus. I look forward to reading/listening to it all. You've done great work. Maybe once I have gone though it I can ask some questions or post comments. Thanks for offering your work here for free to everyone. I know it didn't come free to you but rather through hard work!"

One item that jumped out at me was this statement:
"If not mixing fabric ... was a means for preventing the Israelites from mixing it up with Canaanite pagans and their idols (who mixed up everything)..."

The text doesn't say to not mix "fabric" but to not mix wool and linen. This was because this fabric was only to be worn by priests in the temple similar to the prohibitions against the Israelites mixing the same incense and the same perfume used in the temple.

I, of course, do not attend your church and so I am unsure if you have guidelines for your posting. With a blog that is church based, it might be good to have a "comment guidelines" page to let people know if you want only members to comment, if you want any disagreement, any questions, or what. Obviously only comments that are out of love. Just a thought.

Sean Daily