I’m going to take verses from Leviticus 19 bit by bit within the sermon, so let me read first our Gospel lesson, and I’ll end today with the image from Revelation.
15 “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.
18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.
19 “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
SERMON The Law Is an Ancient Treasure
Moving or even some household chores become more interesting when you think of it as a treasure hunt. For example, when Jessika and I sorted her place to pack, we found some of my grandmother’s things she had forgotten receiving from my mom. Whenever my mom works on sorting things to downsize, the rest of us receive family treasures. I like having some of the jewelry I remember my grandmother wearing or my grandfather’s union pin.
When we dig through the Old Testament, even the books of the Law, I’d like you to think of it as a treasure hunt. There are some real gems as well as some things we aren’t too sure about. I’ll admit that I took apart my grandmother’s favorite pink aurora borealis necklace apart and made lots of new jewelry out of it. I shared earrings and bracelets with my cousins. There are some Old Testament laws that we no longer follow in exactly the way they were originally worded. I don’t eat kosher, though I try to eat healthy. I don’t go to a priest about mold, I reach for a spray bottle of bleach, but mold is still a health issue.
In The Gospel of Leviticus: Finding God’s Love in God’s Law David Kalas repeatedly points out that while we reinterpret the Law for our own times and context, the principles underlying the Law do not change. Kalas compares it to speed limits. You are going to find different numbers on these signs in different areas. For example in Clinton, it’s 25 as you go downtown or pass a school, 30 most areas in town but higher on the bypass, and higher still as you leave town on highway 30. The specifics depend on the context, but the principle remains that there are assigned limits to how fast we may drive, and the purpose of those limits is not to be a killjoy but to keep us safe. (p.54)
When we apply this to Old Testament laws, the task is “to differentiate between the principle and the application of the principle.” (Kalas, p. 56) The tool Kalas uses for this is the New Testament. I know many believe the New Testament throws out the Old so we can ignore it. That is NOT the case. The New Testament is saturated with the Old Testament, founded upon it, and frequently quotes it. One reason for this is that Jesus was born into a Jewish home and often spoke to a Jewish audience. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17) I especially like the way Kalas puts the relationship of New and Old Testaments in a phrase he often heard from his mother, “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.” (p. 57) I think this again reminds us that the underlying principles of God’s intentions haven’t changed.
So, let’s look at today’s reading from Leviticus…
Leviticus 19:1-19, GW
The Lord told Moses 2 to say to the community of Israel, “Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy. 3 Each of you must respect your mother and your father, and must keep the Sabbath, as I have commanded. I am the Lord your God.
We’ve been hearing these commandments already. Holiness is one of those major underlying principles throughout the Old Testament Law. It is an ongoing theme in the New Testament. It has been and continues to be an ongoing call to revival through Christian history and yet today. You recognize two of the Ten Commandments here, to respect our parents and to keep the Sabbath. Why? To do so honors God.
4 “Do not abandon me and worship idols; do not make gods of metal and worship them. I am the Lord your God.
We recognize more from the Ten Commandments and one of the key concerns of God for his people throughout the time of the judges, then of the kings and the prophets. Whether gods of metal like the golden calf made by Aaron in the Exodus or the golden cow set up by King Jeroboam of Israel, worshipping something other than the One, True and Living God is NOT ok. But humanity still turns away from God to worship other things: food, work, addictions, entertainment, money, buildings, organizations. God continually calls us back from the ways of the world around us to worship only God, to put God first, to honor God.
5 “When you kill an animal for a fellowship offering, keep the regulations that I have given you, and I will accept the offering. 6 The meat must be eaten on the day the animal is killed or on the next day. Any meat left on the third day must be burned, 7 because it is ritually unclean, and if anyone eats it, I will not accept the offering. 8 Any who eat it will be guilty of treating as ordinary what is dedicated to me, and they will no longer be considered my people.
This commandment may seem like a strange one to you. But to me it’s similar to God’s instructions regarding the manna with which God fed his people in the wilderness of the Exodus, and remember these laws were initially given in the same period of time. The manna was to be used the day it was gathered, otherwise by morning it would be spoiled, except for special provision God made on the Sabbath.
First, there is a practical consideration in an environment without refrigeration. Are you going to eat meat or even leftovers to the third day that’s been sitting out in the sun? I think not! You’d get sick. Second is a covenantal relationship consideration, the fellowship offering was a gift to God, but it was also to be celebrated with God by sharing the meal. We talked about this with regard to the meat Elkanna portioned out to Hannah and Penninah after their sacrifice at Shiloh. When invited to a celebration, you don’t show up to eat two days later; that would be rude. So, there are two principles to be found here. One is good health practices; another is respecting God who wants to share a celebration with us. We don’t bring animals for a fellowship offering anymore, so how does this apply to us now? But we are invited to share a sacred meal in Holy Communion, to be in fellowship with God through Christ and with one another. We can honor God by the way we participate and treat that sacrament or even how we share other refreshments and meals in fellowship at church.
9 “When you harvest your fields, do not cut the grain at the edges of the fields, and do not go back to cut the heads of grain that were left. 10 Do not go back through your vineyard to gather the grapes that were missed or to pick up the grapes that have fallen; leave them for poor people and foreigners. I am the Lord your God.
You may recognize this from the story of Ruth and Naomi. It is the practice called gleaning. It was God’s plan as a way to care for those who did not own land, who could not raise a crop for themselves. It was a means of sharing that still respected personal dignity and hard work. The underlying principle is compassion and caring for those in need. It is no different than the parable Jesus told of the sheep and the goats. In that parable those who were counted among Jesus’ flock were those who cared for the needs of others. It was as if they were caring for the needs of Jesus himself though they did not know it. To care for God’s children, this too honors God.
11 “Do not steal or cheat or lie. 12 Do not make a promise in my name if you do not intend to keep it; that brings disgrace on my name. I am the Lord your God.
This continues to flesh out the Ten Commandments. Being dishonest with someone’s property or with our words, that harms others and makes God sad. We become someone who cannot be trusted. To make a promise to someone in God’s name or a vow to God is a sacred thing. God’s name is to be honored as holy, so when we abuse God’s name, we have disgraced God’s self. Instead we are to honor God with our words and our actions.
13 “Do not rob or take advantage of anyone. Do not hold back the wages of someone you have hired, not even for one night. 14 Do not curse the deaf or put something in front of the blind so as to make them stumble over it. Obey me; I am the Lord your God.
These seem so practical. Again they add up to this: if you hurt someone else intentionally or unintentionally, it dishonors God who wants the best for all God’s children. Obedience in respecting and caring for others honors God.
15 “Be honest and just when you make decisions in legal cases; do not show favoritism to the poor or fear the rich. 16 Do not spread lies about anyone, and when someone is on trial for his life, speak out if your testimony can help him. I am the Lord.
The same theme continues of respecting other people. Dramas are often based on scenarios of corruption in the legal or political system, and there are probably enough cases of that in the real world to make the dramas believable. But even in our legal dealings with one another, we are to seek justice with fairness, not letting decisions be based on favoritism or status. We are to seek the truth without spreading rumors or bearing false witness. This again expands on one of the Ten Commandments. To be honest in our dealings with others, this too honors God.
17 “Do not bear a grudge against others, but settle your differences with them, so that you will not commit a sin because of them. 18 Do not take revenge on others or continue to hate them but love your neighbors as you love yourself. I am the Lord.
I know this one is difficult. It is a topic we have touched on when talking about forgiveness and again as we looked at the Lord’s Prayer. We are called to forgive others as Jesus has forgiven us. Letting go of grudges or hatred, ill feelings based on something in the past, this is probably one of the hardest things even for Christians to do, but it is our Lord’s command for our own good as well as the good of those around us. What we may not realize is that holding something against another person or group of people, that holds us in temptation, and we might easily sin against them. Jesus also said that if we bring our gift to the altar, but remember that someone has something against us, we are to go and be reconciled with them before returning to offer our gift. (Matthew 5:23-24) God cares about our relationships with others and calls us to settle our differences. Jesus taught us that rather than hate we should even show love to our enemies and pray for those who harass us. (Matthew 5:44) You may recognize that “Love your neighbors as you love yourself” is what Jesus identified as the second most important commandment after loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. If you read through Matthew 5, the beginnings of the sermon on the mount, you may be surprised how often Jesus is referring to Leviticus 19. Why should we strive to get along with one another or at least respect one another, pray for even those who hurt us? Because this honors God who cares so much for each one of us.
You might also see that the process for dealing with sin between believers outlined in Matthew 18 reflects these same principles of honesty and forgiveness, obedience and reconciliation. As much as possible, God wants us to “settle [our] differences” as we read earlier. So the first step is to go to the person in private. Making a public spectacle of how someone has wronged you goes against the principles underlying God’s Law. Before publicly accusing someone on Facebook or in the news, we should seek resolution privately. If that person will not hear and reconcile our complaint, then we are two bring two witnesses, but this is still fairly private keeping the concern within a small circle. It the differences cannot be reconciled between believers, then it goes to the community of faith. Only after all these attempts have failed may that person be set aside. The hope is never to exclude, but to take every available means to bring that person back into fellowship, back into relationship within the community. Yet, when someone chooses to remain in sin, there are consequences.
In the New Testament Peter and then the Church were given authority over this kind of discipline. It is a heavy and dangerous responsibility that should never be taken lightly or abused. The rest of the Law must be considered, especially the principles of honesty and of compassion. When those in authority fail to see the whole picture accurately or where favoritism exists, injustice can happen. Because I am aware of such cases that possibility fills me with caution. Never forget that the ultimate goal is repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. But this process is valuable in rightly making peace with one another.
All of this reminds me of what Paul wrote to the Romans; I’m reading selected verses from Chapter 12.
Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. …Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. … 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. … 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.
18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. …21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.
Do you see how some of the principles of the Law in the Old Testament have been revisited by Jesus in the New Testament and again by Paul for the Church? When we dig down for it, the deeper underlying principle to the Old Testament Law, to New Testament teachings, to what we long for today goes back to this: God’s holiness and the desire built into us to seek holiness. When the Law confuses us in terms of how to live it today, we should ask this question, What are the main principles important to God throughout the Bible: in the Old Testament, in the teachings of Jesus, and in the letters to the church? It’s not that different from the phrase popular a few years ago, WWJD, What Would Jesus Do? God’s holiness and doing what honors God, that’s the treasure we seek in every part of the Law, in every book of the Bible.
Kalas tries to put that in perspective with an understanding of God’s Will that comes from Leslie Weatherhead, a pastor and preacher in London during WW2. (The following comes from Kalas, pp. 72-74) Weatherhead looked at three aspects of God’s Will. The first is God’s Intentional Will as expressed in creation and the Garden of Eden before the first sin. Everything was perfect. Everything was provided. Humanity and all creation lived in perfect harmony and relationship with God. That was what God intended. But then disobedience entered in, and we have lived ever since with sin and its consequences. In our imperfect world from the time of Cain, through the flood, from Sodom and Gomorrah, through the complaints and disobedience in the Exodus, to the worship of foreign gods and the sins of the kings, on through our history and into the present day, we do not live as God intended. Weatherhead says that through all this human history God’s Will had to become Circumstantial Will, and God’s Law is an expression of God’s Will in an imperfect, sin filled world. But God’s Ultimate Will is for perfection. It is the wolf lying down with the lamb as proclaimed in Isaiah 11. It is the beauty of a pain and death free new world as John saw it in Revelation 21:3-5.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Now God’s presence is with people, and he will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them and will be their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, sadness, crying, or pain, because all the old ways are gone.”
5 The One who was sitting on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this, because these words are true and can be trusted.” (Revelation 21:3-5)
That is what the world will be like when restored to perfection. But in the meantime, we are stuck on a detour through ages of imperfection, a world still filled with sin and pain and death. The Exodus was a detour; when God was ready for them to enter the Promised Land, they were too afraid, so God let them wander another forty years. That’s a long detour. Within it, God gave them the Law, like a road map of how to live in God’s holy land, but they often wandered off of God’s intended path. Once they entered the Promised Land, Joshua urged them to choose to serve God, as Moses had urged them to choose life with God. But through the period of the judges and the kings there were again many detours of following evil ways and worshipping the idols of their neighbors. God allowed Assyria to overtake the Northern ten tribes of Israel, and after another hundred plus years, God allowed Babylon to overrun the Southern tribes in Judah, even the Temple at Jerusalem. The Babylonian Exile lasted seventy years before anyone could return home. It was a very long detour in God’s plans for God’s people as a nation. Four hundred years later, God sent a tour guide, Jesus, our Good Shepherd. If we just followed him, we would stay on the path. But two thousand years yet, and we haven’t done that very well.
We still live in a world full of sin and its consequences. We personally still wrestle with our own sin nature as human beings. We still wander on the detours, sometimes staying on the intended path of following God and putting God first in our lives, sometimes going far astray with life’s temptations and distractions. But as we try to listen to the Words of scripture and the nudging of the Holy Spirit, this is our GPS to God’s intentions for our lives.
The ancient Law is still part of the treasure map we pursue, giving us clues toward God’s Ultimate Kingdom. There are glimpses even now from the prophets and from Revelation of God’s Ultimate Will for us. May we be faithful as we follow that path and live more fully into God’s intentions for us as God’s people.