Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Leviticus Sermons

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!

“Acceptable to God” (Leviticus 1)

Epiphany ranks as the third most important Sunday on the Christian liturgical calendar, right after Easter and Pentecost. In many traditions, Epiphany trumps December 25 as the celebration of Christmas. More specifically, Epiphany commemorates the Magi’s visit to see Jesus. Its significance for the church is that it represents the first revelation of Christ, Israel’s Messiah, to Gentiles. The implications were enormous. The definition of Israel would now expand beyond boundaries of race and heritage to encompass all people saved by faith in Christ. As Paul so famously wrote to the Colossians, “here there is no longer Jew or Gentile, but only Christ who is all, and who is in all.”

Of course this raised an important question for Paul and for those earliest Christians the majority of whom were Jewish: “What about the law?” If Gentiles are in, do they need to keep Torah? For most modern Christians the question seems moot. Jesus fulfilled the law so I’m free to disregard it. Put on polyester. Eat your bacon. But then you turn to the book Acts, and there, three times, Gentile converts are told that while they don’t have to be circumcised (baptism now counts as the mark of God’s grace), they should abstain from anything sacrificed to idols, and from blood, from meat that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” The prohibition against sexual immorality we’re familiar with, but bloody meat? No more rare steak? This prohibition in part derives from Leviticus 2:17 where no eating of blood is described as “a lasting ordinance, a permanent law for all generations to come, wherever you live.” So clearly, at least for the first Christians, Christ’s fulfillment of the law was not an exemption from keeping it. God’s standards of holiness remain in force.

The trick, of course, has to do with the transfer. How do we take these commandments written to a rescued nation of nomads roaming the desert and understand them in our day—especially as Christians for whom the Old Testament has been reinterpreted in light of Jesus as the Messiah? What are the lines we should draw? If circumcision is no longer in force, what about shaving? These are questions I’d like to tackle by leading you through a study of the Old Testament book of Leviticus. If you’re like me, chances are good that you’ve never studied this book. Why would you? It’s filled with instructions on animal sacrifice and priestly protocol, neither of which are practiced anymore even among Jews. The rest is a mishmash of commandments about mixed fibers and seeds and skin infections and not sleeping with your stepmother or your sister or your niece or nephew—commandments deemed as either irrelevant or plain common sense. It can be a tedious read. Consequently, I can only imagine how thrilled you must be to know that tonight represents the first of 11 or so sermons you’ll be hearing from this arcane tome of Torah. That’s right, book those ski weekends now.

Actually, what you may not know is that Leviticus is probably among the most important books of the Old Testament. That it sits smack in the middle of the Torah is big enough, but what if I told you that when a young Jewish child learns to read, the first book of the Bible they’re taught is Leviticus? Of all the books of the Bible, Leviticus has more direct quotations from God himself than any other single one. This is word straight from his mouth. You can’t read the New Testament and fully understand terms like sacrifice and atonement and holy and unclean and blood without understanding Leviticus. It sat at the center of Israel’s way of life, and therefore sits at the center of the entire Bible. The second greatest commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” comes from Leviticus. That’s where Jesus gets it. Jesus said that on this commandment and on the commandment to love God with all your heart depend all the law and the prophets. “Do this,” he said, “and you will live.”

But how? What does loving God and loving your neighbor look like? It looks like Leviticus. The sacrificial system, the priestly practice, the holiness and purity codes all show us how to relate to a holy God as sinful people, and how to relate to each other as God’s people. This is why I decided to try a sermon series from Leviticus. But because the book can come off as distant and arcane, I thought the best way to study it would be the way that the people of the Bible studied it; namely, by living it out—sort of a reality sermon series. As you hopefully know by now, 21 of us have embarked together on a month of living Leviticus, a public attempt to abide as Christians by the words contained therein.

The first challenge of course is the challenge of interpretation. There are no more animal sacrifices or priestly protocols, but the New Testament still has plenty to say about both. And what about skin infections, or even viral infections (like the one I’m currently suffering)? They still exist. If the word of God is the word of God, what does obedience to it look like for Christians? And how should I comply. This is the second challenge. Doing what the book says. Some in our group are taking it straight up. Kim is avoiding mixed fibers and finding that getting dressed in the morning need not be a frantic attempt at figuring out what to wear. Leviticus sorts that out leaving her time to slow down and breathe and pray. In short, she writes, “fast girls aren’t holy.” For others no mixed fibers means no clothes manufactured through unfair labor practices while the idea of a burnt offering suggests a need to be aware of sin in a way that we typically aren’t. Several people have decided to track their sins for the month, record them and then ceremoniously burn them as a sign of God’s grace, though I think Walter is trying to round up a goat to chase into the wilderness as a scapegoat for his sins. Others are experimenting with seriously keeping Sabbath and others with keeping kosher by purchasing food that’s humanely prepared and supports neighboring agricultural enterprise. Others are building tabernacles in their apartments. This cross I’m wearing is my version of not shaving. If it is the case that a beard was designed to distinguish you from the pagans, then I figured in our day wearing a cross might best approximate that. It has surely gotten me some stares and caused a couple of people to call me “Father.”

This brings me to the third part of the experiment. The whole thing is public. If you go up to the church website, you can find links to the church blog where a new post of our adventures appears each day ( www.parkstreetchurch.blogspot.com ). Feel free to comment. And if you want even more detail, join the Living Leviticus group on Facebook ( http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=6151008075 ). And if you want to follow the particular exploits of particular Levites, befriend any of us, check out the notes application, and comment on our efforts. You’ll see photos and video too. Watch the one of SImon and his grain offering here.

Clearly this grain offering was more of a burnt offering, which is what I’d like to talk about tonight, picking up where Walter left off last Sunday. In Exodus the Lord instructed Moses to construct the Tabernacle, God’s mobile home for the desert sojourn, the predecessor to the Temple. A cloud covered the Tabernacle when the Lord was home, and from that cloud God directly conversed with Moses. And what did God have to say? SACRIFICE. For the first seven chapters of Leviticus, it’s all about sacrifice: burnt offering, grain offering, guilt offering, purification and fellowship offerings, done over and over again hundreds of times a day. Leviticus 1 outlines the burnt offering, which as Walter mentioned last week, was the only sacrifice that was totally consumed. The others allowed leftovers to feed the priests and people, but not the burnt offering. Furthermore, unlike the other sacrifices, the burnt offering was done at the entrance of the Tabernacle rather than at the main altar. It was sort of your admission ticket into God’s presence. It got you into the door.

And it wasn’t cheap. It cost you a perfect bull from your herd or a sheep or a bird from your flock, depending on your socio-economic status. God made sure everybody could have access to him. But you still had to pay. You couldn’t go out into the desert and trap a wild bull or go onto the Common and grab a pigeon because that animal wouldn’t cost you anything. The idea was that the animal had to be yours to give. And it had to be your best. It’s as King David declared when someone tried to give him a bull to sacrifice, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.”

The only analogy I could think of was trying to score tickets for next Saturday’s Patriots playoff game. A couple of midfield seats are currently going for $7000 each on Stub Hub. Now I don’t know anybody who’d pay that, but I do have some Wahoo friends who might buy the $700 upper deck seats which for them would represent a significant chunk of their paycheck. But here’s the thing: they’ll do it gladly. For the Israelites, a relationship with God was like the Patriots for my Wahoo friends. It was the center of their life. To be in God’s presence not only made the worshipper happy, but it delighted God too. Verse 9: “It is an aroma pleasing to the LORD.”

Of course it wasn’t the smell of burning meat that made God happy, but the aroma of atonement. You’d bring your animal to the tent, and before killing it, you’d place your hand on it acknowledging that its death was an atonement for you. While we usually think of atonement in terms of taking away sin, the Hebrew word as its used here is actually a bit more nuanced. Because there is no particular sin in mind (that was taken care of by the sin and guilt offerings), the idea of atonement here was more the idea of an appeasement, a gift you give to somebody in order to pave the way for a better relationship. You see this sort of thing in diplomatic negotiations, the parties often start by exchanging gifts. The difference is that with God we approach him from a severely disadvantaged position. He’s holy, we’re not even close. Sacrifice was a means of acknowledging and bringing that distance.

So often we equate sacrifice with giving up, but here in Leviticus the emphasis is much more on giving to. Giving up can elicit feelings of resentment and depravation. You give up chocolate for Lent and all you can think about is the chocolate you’re not eating. But giving to puts its focus on the recipient bringing joy and happiness to both. Give expensive chocolate to your wife and you’re thinking of her happiness. That’s the way worship works. It acknowledges the worth of the other. One of the more endearing stories in the Bible concerns a woman who breaks open a jar of expensive ointment and lavishes it over the head and feet of Jesus and then wipes his feet with her hair. Those observing this extravagance couldn’t help but get all righteous: “Why waste such expensive perfume?” they scoffed, “It could have been sold for a year’s wages and the money given to the poor!” But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? What she has done is beautiful.” When it comes to giving, “Those who know the exact cost of things, don’t know the true cost of anything.”

This is not to say that the burnt sacrifice of atonement was never about expiation. Every offering that entailed blood had some sanctifying effect. For a holy God to be in relationship with an unholy person, some blood had to be spilt. God decreed in Leviticus 17 that “it is blood that makes atonement for one’s life;” it’s what makes purification possible. And we’re talking a lot of blood. This burnt offering occurred twice a day and more often on holy days. That’s everybody hauling their livestock to the tent morning and night. Yet despite the enormous amount of blood, not a drop of it turned the Israelites into God’s people. Having been saved out of Egypt, they were already God’s people of God when they came to Mt. Sinai. It was by grace they were saved, through faith. The law was given to guide them into maturity of faith, to show them how to live a saved life.

That the burnt offering was totally consumed signaled God’s total acceptance of the giver, an acceptance guaranteed before the worshipper ever stepped foot into the tent. Overwhelmed by this grace, the worshipper’s gift of his best signaled his own total surrender back to God. The animal killed represented a complete life given over to the one who saved their lives. While it is true that the sacrificial system foreshadowed the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus for sinners, it also foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christians. God’s acceptance still invites our surrender. This is why the Paul urges Christians to keep the sacrifices. Only rather than using an animal to symbolize your surrender, you surrender yourself. “By the mercies of God,” he writes to the Romans, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice—holy, pleasing and acceptable to God.” This is burnt offering language. Total acceptance on the part of God which beckons total surrender on the part of the worshipper. What does total surrender look like? It looks like Leviticus: honoring God with every fiber of your clothing, every cell of your skin, every morsel on your plate, every hour of your work, every moment of your rest, all your responsibilities, all your relationships, everything totally devoted to God. No compartmentalization between your Christian life and your life life. Christ is your life. Jesus is everything. Holiness permeates it all.

Imagine what it must have been like walking into that tabernacle and watching your most valuable assets going up in smoke. And then imagine God appearing as he appeared to the Israelites, in a fiery cloud engulfing the tabernacle. He meets your smoke with his smoke. Transformed into his likeness, it’s a perfect communion. It still is. The communion table around which we gather signifies the body and blood of Christ sacrificed for us. But our partaking of it signals our body and blood, our very lives, sacrificed back as a living gift to him. All that’s left is to live it out. May we start tonight.

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