Getting holiness ‘right’
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.
“You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.
“You shall not oppress your neighbour or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbour: I am the LORD.
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:1,2,9-18 ESV)
Before we head into Lent, we are in this ‘green’ time – growth in following the light of the world – the revelation that Jesus is the Son of God for both Jews and Gentiles. Our readings have looked at the Church – how congregations should behave – no factions, pastoral cults of celebrity, no jealousy but together building on the foundation of the church that is Jesus Christ and him crucified. The Gospel from Matthew is the Sermon on the Mount – the hard ethics of Jesus that we often desire to follow but squirm under and wonder how to live it in the ‘real world’ – and then various Old Testament readings that try and pick up themes of the other two. (I’m sure the Old Testament reading for each Sunday is chosen last!)
So today we encounter Leviticus – a most popular book of the Old Testament! … Not! We meet a range of sacrifices and the death of two of Aaron’s sons for false worship. We encounter the Day of Atonement and afterwards lots and lots of the Holiness Code – the behaviours God expects from his people. I think this is a big background to the popular idea that holiness is essentially ‘super goodness’ which misses the point all together of the relationship the holy God has with sinners.
Our reading today begins with the statement from God to his people, ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy’. This is not at chapter 1! This is not a command for people to achieve to become God’s people. Leviticus begins with all the instructions for the various sacrifices which was the means God put in place so that God and his people could stay in the same place – so God could dwell with his people and God’s people could be in God’s presence. In the middle of Leviticus – chapter 16 – we come to the Day of Atonement and the ritual performed by the high priest in the Holy of Holies and what we have is on the most holy day, in the most holy place, the most holy person performed the most holy ritual with the most holy blood so that the sinful people of God could have safe access to their most holy God! (Ref: Kleinig (2003). Leviticus: 347)
Only God is holy and he gives his holiness – transmits it when people come into contact with him – but since sin will be destroyed finally, God has to make it possible for us to be safely in his presence. That isn’t achieved by our actions, our effort, our good deeds – or attempts. No, that is achieved through what God has set in place. In Leviticus and the Old Testament it was the sacrificial system and the temple. In the New Testament it is through Jesus Christ. This Jesus is not a new Moses – not a task master as such – though he has disciples and tells the world to follow him. No, this Jesus is first and foremost the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That’s the radical message of the cross and empty tomb – that the Son of God, the great high priest is the sacrifice for our sins.
Martin Luther wrote that he hated God and was angry with him for demanding that he (Luther) be righteous. That’s how many people I suspect relate to this idea of holiness. Unachievable. God is setting us up to fail. This produces either pride or despair. But in his so called ‘tower experience’ Martin Luther found wrestling with Romans 1:17 – the just shall live by faith – that when God demanded something of his people it was because he had given it to them first! Righteousness – because God gives Christ’s righteousness. Love. We are to even love our enemies – only possible really because God has first loved us. Strength – because Christ strengths us. Joy – the joy of the Lord is our strength. Peace – not so much a feeling – as a message that Jesus Christ is our peace.
Today we who have encountered Holy Baptism, the Holy Bible – especially personally applied in the absolution of a general or private confession, and Holy Communion are holy because the Lord our God is holy and we are called to live this identity – our true identity – even as we wrestle with our sinful selves, in a sinful world, targeted by the sinful spiritual world that roams like a lion seeking to devour us.
The people back in the time of Leviticus heard the lifestyle of God’s holy people – leave some of the harvest for the poor; don’t steal; don’t be corrupt; don’t lie – speak the truth; and don’t bring God and his name into wrong dealings with others; don’t oppress others – employers, don’t rip off your employees – society, care for the disabled; have an incorruptible justice system and seek justice – temper it with mercy; get rid of hatred and don’t seek revenge; you shall love your neighbour as yourself.
We can relate to this today. We can hear Jesus’ summary of the law of God – as love. We’ve heard many New Testament letters say similar type things for God’s people – check out Romans 12 & 13 as a clear example. James will tell his readers that faith without works is dead (James 2:26) and for him religion that is pure and undefiled – holiness terms – is visiting orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27).
There is no spiritual – secular divide for the people of God. All of life with God – is life with God! Home, marriage, singleness, children, neighbours, work, politics, the car, holidays, friends, enemies, our hormones, our hopes and dreams, our fears and sins – there is no Sunday and worship is me being holy and the rest of the time is my ‘me’ time.
It can be so easy to misunderstand today’s text – God’s holiness – how and why we’re holy – and turn it into deeds. Of course deeds are not unimportant but if they are first in mind then we’ve fallen into the way the world thinks about God – behaviour, goodness, or at least not as much badness – and God isn’t personally before us, close by, near – because he has been reduced to his standard or law. And that is not how it is with Christians or the people of Leviticus whose relationship with God is based on God’s revelation – his being who he is – the God of love and rescue – out of Egypt – out of sin and death – and this God has made contact with us – established a relationship with us of grace and mercy, love and kindness – not ignoring who we are but dealing with it up front and first. This God has revealed himself most clearly in the person of Jesus.
Sins forgiven on the cross – sins forgiven personally in Baptism – life with God one of daily repentance. Why bother? Because the foundation is simply that this God – no other – this holy God – loves you (and me) – and has reached out and made it possible for us to live – now and always.
With this confidence – this faith – with Jesus we can now look to live as God’s people in the situations, circumstances, and relationships we find ourselves. That relationship with Jesus is the best way to live.
- Leviticus 19:1 - 2
- Leviticus 19:9 - 18