Last Sunday’s break from Leviticus provided some breathing space for the homestretch in our Lent-long look at this esoteric book. Rarely studied and even more rarely preached, I nevertheless wanted to take a shot at it which I’ve done with generous assistance from 21 people in this congregation who spent the month of January with living according to its precepts. Hopefully you’ve had a chance to read about our experiment up on Facebook or on the church blog. Not that this has necessarily has made Leviticus more comprehensible. I got an email just this week that read, “I watched the videos and read the write-ups and I still do not understand it. Trying to follow all those laws didn’t work out well for the Jewish people so God instead put his Spirit right inside us. Why go back to the idea that because Jesus stated that he came to fulfill rather than abolish the law Christians need to follow a set of laws? I am not trying to argue with you, I just don’t get it and you guys are supposed to be a good bible-believing church.”
Actually, it’s because we are a Bible-believing church that we even bother with Leviticus. Leviticus is in the Bible. But remember it’s not in the Bible to make you feel bad or even to show you your need for grace as much as to show you what grace is for. The Israelites were already God’s people before Leviticus ever made it onto parchment. Now granted, determining which parts of Leviticus still apply to Christians is an ongoing discussion—one that has been a constant part of our own exploration. But given that Jesus cited Leviticus 19 as the summation of all the law and the prophets clearly indicates that you can’t write it off. This is why we read it.
Not to worry though. We have just two more sermons, tonight’s look at the Day of Atonement, in line with our entry into Holy Week. And next Sunday’s Easter sermon from Leviticus 25. I know, who’s ever heard of an Easter sermon out of Leviticus? But hey, all the more reason to come and see if we can pull it off. And even invite a friend too, especially if you have a friend who’s already heard the one about the resurrection.
For those of you who are Jewish or grew up Jewish, then you know that Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Once a year, everybody gets their sin taken care of over the course of an exhausting 25 hours of prayer and abstinence from work, food, drink, sex, bathing and leather shoes. I read that the prohibition against leather shoes has to do with not wanting to be presumptuous by appearing before God shod in the skins of a slaughtered animal. Yom Kippur is spent sitting in synagogue as a long list of sins are confessed, not only individually but corporately. Even if you hadn’t committed a particular sin listed, you still confess it. Jewish tradition teaches that each person bears a certain measure of responsibility for sins committed by others since everybody is part of the same community.
While all this contrition and confession may sound depressing, the Talmud labels Yom Kippur one of the happiest days of the year. It’s the same reason its Christian counterpart is ironically called Good Friday. Atonement means your sins are forgiven.
These days, neither the Christian Good Friday nor the Jewish Yom Kippur look much like Leviticus 16. There are no animals slaughtered, no scapegoats chased off into the wilderness, no mercy seat on which to sprinkle blood. However, for the ancient Israelites, all of this was required to purge the tabernacle of a year’s worth of pollution due to their unholiness and impurity. Perhaps you’re thinking, how could there be any sin left to pollute the tabernacle given all of the blood of those innocent animals run through the sacrificial system day after day? But you have to remember that the sacrificial system only took care of unintentional stuff. Intentional, deliberate sinners weren’t allowed to sacrifice. Their offenses remained in God’s face and got all over his house. And therefore once a year, the high priest risked his life to purify the sanctuary so that those who could sacrifice would have their sacrifices accepted.
It was very risky business. In Leviticus 26 we read God say “If you do not obey Me and do not carry out all my commandments, if instead, you reject My statutes, and if you abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will waste away the eyes and drain your life…I will set My face against you so that you shall be struck down before your enemies… If you still remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve.”
Kristi, one of our Levites for the month experienced what she considered a dose of Leviticus 26. She wrote, “Last night after a very healthy [and kosher] dinner of fish and vegetables, my stomach started feeling a bit queasy. Then an hour later I thought, ‘something is certainly amiss here. But what could it be? Is there a bug going around? No way is it food poisoning.’ I went to bed at 10:30, convinced that a little sleep would fix everything. Two hours later, feeling horrible, I and the bathroom had our first intimate visit of what turned out to be many as I was attacked by Levitical affliction in all its horror. The next seven hours were agonizing, excruciating, abysmal, you get the picture. It felt as if dementors were trying to suck my soul from my body. Seriously. I fail to remember a sickness having such a profound effect on me. My inner dialogue went from: ‘It’s just a stomach bug, you pansy, quit complaining’ to “God, please, PLEEEEASE take me now! I can’t go through this again! AAAAHHHHH!” (Kim, another Levite and mother of two, remarked how she’d had food poisoning once and that giving birth was better.) “I contemplated sleeping in the bathroom,” Kristi continued, “it was pitiful. Now I know, I think, it was just a stomach bug, and not God smiting me. But it FELT like a smiting. God declares in Leviticus 26, ‘If you do not obey Me and do not carry out all these commandments, I will appoint over you a sudden terror, consumption and will increase the plague on you seven times according to your sins.’ If you ask me, that description strangely resembled last night’s experience.”
Sin defiles, and not only individuals, but communities and institutions too. Look no further than the enormous mess down the Pike in Albany, New York last week. For the ancient Israelites, their conduct was inextricably tied to the holiness of God’s house. When they were faithful, the sanctuary radiated their commitment. When they were unfaithful, the sanctuary reflected their failing. If it was not cleansed, God threatened to depart and leave the community to its futility—a threat that he carries out once we get to Ezekiel. And after Jesus departs the earth, God’s now totally vacated house gets totally leveled by the Romans. This is why the Jewish practice of Yom Kippur no longer adheres to Leviticus 16. There’s no earthly sanctuary left to cleanse.
At the center of the Leviticus ritual sat the mercy seat, a golden slab atop the ark of the covenant that functioned as the boundary line between God’s holiness and human unholiness. It was adorned with two statues of cherubim on either end, their wings touching in the middle. Enthroned between the cherubim, within the holy of holies, God appeared in a cloud to accept the atoning sacrifices offered by the high priest. Lest the high priest glance at God and die, incense was burned to screen him from peeking. Sacrificial blood from the bull and a goat was sprinkled on the mercy seat to purify it and then seven times in front of the mercy seat to re-consecrate it for holy use. Afterwards, from behind the curtain that shielded the congregation, the high priest then emerged liturgically loaded with both the people’s impurities (their sins that polluted the sanctuary) and their iniquities (their sins that polluted themselves). With both hands the high priest transferred all this wickedness and rebellion onto a live but doomed second goat. Chosen by lot, this so-called scapegoat hauled all of the toxic waste out into the wilderness to destroy it. Later Judaism would go so far as to push the scapegoat off the edge of gorge in order to assure its demise. Nobody wanted a year’s worth of wickedness finding its way back into town.
Nevertheless, even for people who have experienced God’s grace and forgiveness, it is as if we each have our own personal and pesky scapegoat that keeps finding its way back anyway, unloading our sin onto us all over again. Simon, another one of our Levites for the month, decided to take stock of his own holiness over the course of a seven-day accounting where he judged each of his thoughts and deeds of each day as either holy or unholy. He wrote: “No day existed in which the HOLY items outnumbered the UNHOLY items. Not only are there very few holy items in total, but they are offset by some horrendously unholy things, sometimes separated by mere hours in the same day. Items marked HOLY tended to be really ordinary, core Christian values that I should be living already and are not heroic by any stretch of imagination. Items marked UNHOLY, however, were spectacular to behold—in the same way that a train wreck can happen in a thousand ways, each more spectacular than the one before.
“[To make myself feel better,] I made an attempt at detecting unholy things that other people may be doing (just trying to keep an honest scale, in accordance with Leviticus 19:36). However, the LORD was not at all interested that I keep records of other people’s wrongdoings. Instead, He kept bringing up all the things for which *I* alone am responsible. Living by Leviticus has been like ‘standing naked in front of a mirror’—not only are your sins exposed, but you’re not allowed to look at anybody else’s sins just so you can change the focus for a second.”
The need for atonement is so palpable that we were tempted, as an object lesson, to rent a couple of goats for the services tonight. We thought that watching your sins get killed and carried away might make grace more real. Of course renting a couple of goats is one thing. Finding somebody to rent us a goat to sacrifice is something else. And even with the goat that draws the lucky straw, you still had the problem of bringing back to the 6 pm service a scapegoat loaded up with the sins of those at the 4. Gordon suggested that perhaps we could have one of you dress up like a goat. But you still have the same problem: Who in their right mind would give themselves for the sins of everybody else?
I mean except for Jesus. He is our scapegoat. As we will intone from Isaiah this coming Good Friday: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians. And then to the Romans: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement.” Or as other translations have it, “a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” If you trace this English word propitiation back through the Latin translation of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, you get to the word in Leviticus 16 translated mercy seat. Jesus is our mercy seat too. He dies at that boundary line where God’s holiness meets human unholiness and atonement gets made for good.
For the first 15 chapters, Leviticus generally addresses proper worship—how to approach a holy God. In chapters 17-27, the issue is proper ethics—how to be a holy people. We’re all familiar with the deep distance between the two. You come to church, perhaps even tonight, and fill this room with your praise and prayer; only to leave this room and fail to love your neighbor or refuse to love your enemy, the very things that the God you just worshipped commands that you do. Jesus rightly asks, “Why do you call me Lord but not do what I say?” This distance is what we label sin. The Old Testament provides a varied vocabulary to describe it: rebellion, infidelity, disloyalty, getting dirty, wandering, trespassing, transgressing and missing the mark. But because sin remains a perversity that pollutes God even more than it pollutes ourselves, amending our lives and promising to do better isn’t enough. The only way to span the distance between our worship and our failure to live as we worship—between God’s expectations in chapters 1-15 and their implications in chapters 17-27 is with chapter 16. Atonement. Leviticus 16 is the bridge. Once a year the high priest risked his life to purify the sanctuary and the people, but as the author of Hebrews reminds, when Christ came as high priest, he gave his life. Jesus is both the priest and the sacrifice who Hebrews declares has “entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. How much more then, will then the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”
Atonement takes away our sin and makes us into holy people—people whose ethics can square with their worship, people who can preach what they practice. Yet somehow the distance remains. How is it that people made holy by Christ still act so unholy? Part of the problem may have something to do with a flawed understanding of atonement itself. To experience atonement is more than to be declared “not guilty” before God. To experience atonement is to be changed by God. Our tendency is to embrace the former while resisting the latter. We read “Jesus loves you just as we are” as permission to stay that way. But one look in the Levitical mirror and you realize that if forgiveness hasn’t made you a different person, then maybe you’ve not been forgiven.
“I had a hard time with Leviticus month,” Kristen, another one of our Levites wrote, “For about thirty days and eighteen hours, I groused and complained. My postings were progressively getting darker and darker. It wasn’t going well. Early in the month I had been reading through the sacrificial section and was convinced that the modern-day, post-Jesus equivalent is confession. This is something I knew about from my Catholic days, but had never been part of my life. I had ‘gone to confession’ a grand total of once, when I was ten years old. I was not interested in doing this again—but the way I was not wanting to do this made me think that I really ought to. So I looked up the Episcopal liturgy, made arrangements with an accommodating confessor, who, not being Catholic, had really not signed up for this, took a very deep breath and jumped in.
“I don't know what I was expecting, but this was not what I was expecting. This was Large. This was a Major Life Event. I spent hours dredging up the muck in my life and preparing my list—and then it was all washed away. Gone. I was walking on air. And all of a sudden I knew that I was in a really good place and I did not want to muck it up anymore. ‘OK God,’ I prayed, ‘this is fantastic. I want to stay here. Whaddya want me to do?’ Needless to say, reading through Leviticus again looked so different in the light of grace.”