Sunday, June 16, 2019
Scripture: Luke 10:25-28 & Leviticus 19:9-10, 13-18, 33-34
“I Wonder…” Summer Sermon Series
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
I Wonder… why God seems different between the Old and New Testaments.
I Wonder… how we should apply the writings of books like Leviticus to our lives today.
A few months ago I thought getting you to ask me questions was a good idea. But then the questions started rolling in. They’re really good questions. Some of them are really difficult to answer. Most of them touch on difficult topics – politics, Satan, end times, how do we please God, suffering, eternal life, and racism. And then I went from excitement to absolute fear because these are huge topics, and in many ways I am not an expert on any of these things. Sure, I have ideas and opinions, but every week this summer is going to present its own challenges to the preacher, who gets all of 20 minutes or so to cover these huge questions.
I’ve started to get over my fear a bit, however, because God has called me here to be a pastor to you. That means meeting you right in the midst of your questions – even if they’re hard! So, here’s my commitment to you this summer. Each week I’m going to do my best to dive into the questions at hand with honesty. I surely will not have all the answers. I’m sure that some of my answers will rub some of you the wrong way. But I will strive to speak the truth about what the Bible has to say about your questions. So, treat these sermons as conversation starters. I suspect they’ll give some answers. I know that they’ll open up even more questions that I hope you want to pursue.
So, this week we’re going to get started with the two wonderings on the front of the bulletin. Why does it seem like God changes between the Old and New Testaments, and how do we interpret books like Leviticus as Christians today? I’m going to start with that second question and work my way back to the first one. What are we supposed to do with Leviticus today?
Let’s start with what Leviticus is itself. Leviticus is the third book in the Bible, right in the heart of the Torah. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These are sometimes known as the books of Moses. If you’ve ever tried to read straight through the Bible, chances are you ground to a halt once you hit Leviticus, that is if you made it through the second half of Exodus, which is primarily a lengthy description of the Tent of Meeting, which set up how God and people could meet while the Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness for forty years. Then we hit Leviticus. What a book. It’s twenty-seven chapters long, and to our eyes, it’s just strange. It’s a book about holiness. God is holy, meaning set apart. In this book, people must do things to make themselves prepared to be God’s people, which means certain things make them clean or unclean. It’s also about the priests, who had a special role to play in relating to God on behalf of the people. A simple outline of the book goes like this:
- Chapters 1-7: Five types of offering
- Chapters 8-10: Priestly regulations
- Chapters 11-15: Defining what is clean and unclean
- Chapter 16: The Day of Atonement
- Chapters 17-27: What does holy living look like?
So, as you read that outline, you’re probably thinking, “Gee, this doesn’t look like it matters at all to my life today.” And in many ways you’d be right. I selected some verses from chapter 19 that are more palatable than most of Leviticus, but here are a couple that I did not include:
26 You shall not eat anything with its blood. You shall not practice augury or witchcraft. 27 You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. 28 You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.
Have any of you taken verse 27 to you barber or stylist to make sure they don’t cut your hair the wrong way? How about verse 28 and tattoos? And, no there is no clause in there that if the tattoo is of a cross or a Bible verse then it’s OK! So, what’s up with these? Well, Leviticus has this reminder from God throughout it: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (19:2). That is, you are set apart for a different purpose to be an example to others of what God is like.
As the Hebrews were entering the Promised Land, they understood that God had a different way for them to relate to each other, to their neighbors, and to the land. You see, other peoples in that era did things that we would consider unbelievably abominable. To please the gods, they practiced child sacrifice. Leviticus provides a series of acceptable sacrifices that go nowhere near the children. This is grace and progress. Leviticus is saying, you may think that God demands that which is most precious to you, but you’re wrong. God provides a way for right relationship that is nowhere near as drastic as what you are assuming. The neighbors of the Hebrews marked their flesh with tattoos, so to differentiate themselves, the Hebrews weren’t to do so. That’s also why their hair was to be cut differently.
Ten years ago, I was working my way through Leviticus, so I asked a friend with a Ph.D. in Old Testament what I should know, and here was her response. “Just keep in mind some of the major points of the way the Priests saw the world – maintaining clear distinctions and categories kept holy and common safely separate; rituals were ways of facilitating safe transitions from one state to another; it’s all about trying to maintain a distinct identity as God’s people in the face of exile and its inevitable temptations to syncretism and idolatry.”
Books like Leviticus present challenges because we are trying to bridge thousands of years of history, cultural differences, and language barriers. Perhaps a different way to understand this would be to take Moses’ brother Aaron and see if he could understand what we meant by this statement. “Now is the time to bring our tithes and offerings. Keep in mind you can give online or by automatic withdrawal. There are cards in the pews for e-giving.” What questions would this raise for Aaron, priest of the Hebrews who lived around 4000 years ago? Here are just some I came up with.
- Where are the animals for the offering?
- What is “online”?
- Why is there no altar in this room?
- What are pews?
- What is money?
Those are just a few to start. To cultural gap is huge, and it’s something we must try to bridge to understand a book like Leviticus. There may be things that we can never fully understand because they didn’t record all the assumptions underlying what was recorded, just like I didn’t take the time to explain “e-giving” above. But there is plenty to be gleaned from the effort of reading books like Leviticus because they do give us a picture of who God is. Just within the verses we read this morning, we can see some clear connections between their world and ours. Ecclesiastes is right. There is nothing new under the sun.
There were poor people then. There are poor now. Leviticus 19:9-10 gives instructions that God’s people are not to use all they have solely for themselves. They are to leave the edges of their fields for the poor. They are to leave the gleanings left after harvest for others. Why? Because that reflects who God is in the world. Have we solved poverty yet? Not even close, and so people who are seeking to know the heart of God should be generous with their resources to help the poor.
Or, let’s take 19:33-34. Leviticus is written to a people who were enslaved in Egypt, who had escaped through God’s intervention, and who were now settling in to a land that was not theirs. They were refugees. Part of their identity as God’s people is to do the same for the aliens and refugees among them. Don’t oppress them, Leviticus says. In fact, you should welcome them as one of your own because that is the character of God. That is what holiness looks like. Leviticus isn’t some barbaric dead text. It is very relevant to us even today.
Verses 13-18 are loaded with things that are easily applicable to holy living today. Don’t defraud your neighbor. Don’t steal. If you hire someone, pay them fairly and on time. Care for the deaf and blind. Be honest in your judgments. Be impartial to all. Don’t hate. Why? Each of these verses ends with this sentence: “I am the Lord.” Live in this manner because this is who God is. God is holy, and this is holy living. This is righteousness.
Nestled right in the midst of these verses is a saying we all know, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). Who else said that? Jesus. God’s Son. The One we believe to be God-in-flesh, that is the manifestation of God on earth, the One bearing the very person and character of the Old Testament God. Jesus knew Leviticus. Given his upbringing, it’s possible he even had it memorized along with the Torah. Jesus doesn’t run around complaining about how antiquated it is or how barbaric it is. No, he knows it and knows how it applies to a context almost 2000 years removed from his own era. He says he is the fulfillment of all of this writing, not its replacement. In fulfilling it all, we see Jesus distill it down to his teaching to the lawyer who wanted to know how to inherit eternal life, as we heard from Luke 10 earlier. The lawyer can summarize the law – love God with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself – the second part coming straight out of Leviticus 19:18.
Instead of leaving things there, the lawyer challenges Jesus. Who is my neighbor? the lawyer asks. Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which, frankly, falls right in line with everything we’ve been thinking about from Leviticus 19. The priest and the Levite – those whose job it is to relate to God’s holiness and to connect people to it – pass on by the man who has been robbed and left for dead. They have missed the character of God’s holiness, but the outsider – the Samaritan – is the one who gets it. He is more concerned for this child of God than any ritual cleanliness. Jesus is interpreting Leviticus, and we continue to interpret it in light of Jesus.
Understanding God is a journey, never a destination. That may be hard to hear because it is easy to grow weary on a long journey. But the journey leads to change and to progress for those one on the path. I think that’s where the answer is to the question about the portrayal of God throughout the Bible seeming to change. We are dealing with the infinite, and we’ll never fully understand it. Sometimes we get stuck, thinking we’ve fully figured out who God is. Honestly, that’s what happened to people in all ages. At one point in time, they thought God would be pleased with actual sacrifice, moving all the way to the things most precious to them. There are stories throughout the Old Testament that combat that mentality about the God we worship, including the near sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. As troubling as that text is, it’s also amazingly gracious because it says that this God does not want you to do that and will actually make a better way for things. But we get stuck in other ways. We cling to rituals and expect that since something works for us it will work for everyone. We expect that everyone’s encounter with this infinite and holy God will be exactly like our own. Or we felt comfortable with our childhood faith and we never want that to change, even when life challenges that.
For me, there is progress in the scriptures and in life. In the midst of these hard and confusing books, there are glimmers of the God we know in Jesus Christ declaring that God desires mercy not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6). There is God desiring justice, not religious practice devoid of it. Over and over, there is a picture of this holy God who demands justice and who gives endless grace.
We see God most clearly in Jesus. It is our belief as Christians that the God we meet in Genesis and Leviticus and Hosea is the same God that we see in Jesus Christ. And so when I read Scripture that is challenging or that causes me to wonder about the goodness of God, I always come back to Jesus because I believe Jesus when he says, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). So, what do we do with hard writings like Leviticus? We take them seriously. We study them. We question them. We play with them. But, in the end, I really believe that they tell that same story of God’s love for the world that we’re telling here.