February 26, 2018

Lent 2 - Leviticus 20:6-8

Theme: Uncomfortable Holiness Makes for Unconditional Gospel

Leviticus 20:6-8 "'I will set my face against anyone who turns to mediums and spiritists to prostitute themselves by following them, and I will cut them off from their people. 7 "'Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God. 8 Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the LORD, who makes you holy.

Dear Saints fellow Redeemed in Christ Jesus –

Thursday morning after we had that snowfall on Wednesday evening, I was walking back home from the church and exiting the back door. Little did I know there was a sleek layer of ice on the sidewalk. I exited the door, phone to my ear because I was in the middle of a phone call, and with the first step I took I completely wiped out. Part of it was being distracted on the phone, with coffee cup in other hand. Part of it was not expecting ice.

You can ask Gretchen what the scene was like because she saw the whole thing from the house. Allie also. I slipped so completely that my phone flew out of my hand, into the air, and thankfully landed in the mulch. I’m sure the entire thing would have been quite entertaining in slow motion, set to some classical music. Thankfully, after all was said and done, my lesson was learned without any major injuries.

The next morning, at breakfast, Allie asks me; “Dad, remember when you tripped on the ice yesterday?” Chuckling, I replied “yes.” She proceeded to tell me, “You shouldn’t do that, dad!” I tried to explain to her that I wasn’t trying to fall, and I slipped, not tripped. But, she kept on telling me I shouldn’t do it again. Good advice, I suppose.

That ordeal and subsequent conversation made me think about our text for today. This short section, much like the entire book of Leviticus, centers on the uncomfortable topic of holiness. Talking about holiness and applying it to one’s life, as a sinner – as we all are, is like having an awkward conversation with someone whom you have no connection with. Imagine being at a dinner party and having to converse with a professional athlete if you hated sports. Imagine having to get to know a politician if you were entirely anti-government – or opposed to their policy platform. Awkward, at best. Take it one step further even. Imagine being that person’s foremost enemy, hated, despised, and maligned – not just uninterested. Having to be in the presence of someone who hurt you as much as you can be hurt, or someone who took something dear from you. You’d have to think that hostility would go both ways. 

That’s what it’s like when God talks about holiness in His Word. We don’t like to hear it because we know we’re imperfect. But, there’s tension, too, because we know that our unholiness hurt God in the deepest way possible. We have shame. There’s uneasiness when we hear God address us about our guiltiest mistake. And so, we naturally gravitate away from the parts of His Word that shine the light on our betrayal of God; and Leviticus cuts right to the heart of the issue.

Because of our shame, we also try to take shots at holiness itself and at God who set the standard of holiness. We treat it like my discussion with Allie. God says, “You shouldn’t do that!” We reply, “Well, I didn’t try to, God” and think that makes it okay. Now, we’re talking about something much bigger than slipping on the ice, but how often have we convinced ourselves that our own intentions, even if they fall short of God’s commandments, give us a free pass? “I wanted to God, but I just couldn’t!” This is especially true when we think about ways in which we are helpless against sin. We desperately want to believe that our inability to control the situation will lessen God’s demand for complete holiness.

But there’s another side to sin. I can hate it. There are certain things I can control. I can actively try to curb it. I can run from it. But, the end result is the same - I can’t defeat it on my own. I am completely corrupted because of my unholiness, whether I feel like I have control or not. Like Paul said of himself, even the good we try to do, that which we want to do, we cannot accomplish. Just because you fall into sin does not mean you are addicted, it doesn’t mean you’re making excuses, it doesn’t mean you’re trying to cover anything up. But, it still means you’re not holy – and that’s a problem before God. Holiness is uncomfortable for us because our unholiness is vast.

Here’s why many people wonder, where’s the gospel in Leviticus, in the Old Testament? Furthermore, where does the gospel fit with a God who demands righteousness and gives commandments? If the gospel is really a good message, wouldn’t it fit better with the image of Jesus as a carefree, non-judgmental, anti-authorities, country-side roaming prophet? The kind of Jesus that makes me feel like a good person, not a damned sinner. What’s with all this talk of holiness?  

While Leviticus can be a challenging book for modern readers the good news is indeed alive and well in it, in some of the most cherished and unique ways. The scapegoat analogy. The Day of Atonement festival, the concept of the unblemished male lamb offered for sins – all in the book of Leviticus.

Yet, here in our text, God takes that idea of holiness, that which ruffles our feathers in so many ways, and uses it for our comfort and hope. After warning the people of idolatry, the LORD says, "'Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God. 8 Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the LORD, who makes you holy.”

The key to understanding this text is in the structure of the words so I’m going to try to summarize here. First, the words for “consecrate” and “holy” are the same Hebrew word – so the same word of holiness is stated three times. In the first two instances of holiness (v.7), God speaks of His expectation. “Consecrate yourselves,” and “be holy.” God is speaking to us here. The structure of these words indicates a reflexive attitude. In other words, the reader is to look inwardly at his or her life – to reflect upon holiness. Consider your thoughts, words, and actions. Do they line up with God’s holiness? Furthermore, after looking at your own heart, do you reflect that image of holiness to others? Do they see it in every aspect of your life? This is a very personal statement by the Lord, and shows us the seriousness of what He is getting at. For Israel, the answer was self-evident. They were caught up in idolatry, “prostituting themselves” to false gods as the LORD described it. What about your life? God wants you to reflect on that, and then reflect His holiness to the world. 

This is exactly why many people part ways with the book of Leviticus, the Old Testament, the topic of holiness, and even God Himself. They call the LORD an over-bearing God who expects too much. A deity who demands the impossible just to make us feel unworthy. And for many people, they are more than content to leave it at that and move on from that kind of belief. Who wants to serve a God who expects what I can’t deliver? Some say, even if heaven exists, who would want to live for eternity with a God like that?

But, the Word of our God tells us much more than just His expectations. Stay with the Word, stay in it, and you will find hope. The third instance of holiness is all about what God does – verse 8: “I am the LORD, who makes you holy.” This is where hope enters. Before we can even finish processing the commands God gives, He freely offers the means to achieve them. He demands holiness but He provides it also.

Here’s what we need to remember about the structure of this verse. This verb, used of God’s work for us, indicates an intensified action. The verb form is a way in which the Hebrew language expresses the authority or quality of an action, if you will. This tense, used to describe what God does for us in regard to holiness, indicates a stronger action than the previous words used to describe His expectations for us. For example, take the verb “kill.” The normal use of this verb in Hebrew could explain a number of situations. It doesn’t lend any further information about the nature of the killing. Was it justified or not? Was it human or animal? We don’t know. But, you can take the same word, and use the intensive tense of the verb, and it is properly translated as “murder.” That heightened interpretation leaves no doubt as to what is meant.

We have the same thing happening here with the concept of holiness and it’s not a coincidence. What God promises to do for us – to make us holy as He has commanded, is far more powerful that the way we reflect that holiness in our lives. And yet both aspects are important for us to understand – so God communicates both. Anywhere you look in His Word – Old Testament or New – whenever you see a command given, or a testimony of God’s righteousness, the gospel promise will be closely connected. God never commands without reason. He never breaks down without also provided a way to be built up. It’s up to us whether we listen to His entire Word, learn from it, and be strengthened by it, or whether we will pick and choose what we’d like to hear. What’s at stake in our lives, is not just properly understanding the law of God, but also the gospel – the true good news.
The Lutheran Church, and even fewer of them today, is the last major church body to proclaim the unconditional gospel. Notice, I didn’t say Lutherans were the only ones proclaiming the gospel, but the unconditional gospel. I believe this to be true first and foremost because God’s grace. There is nothing in Lutherans, or any other person, that lends itself to the truth. But Lutherans continue to have this blessing of the unconditional gospel because we believe it is essential to have doctrinal integrity in all areas. One might say, it’s because we continue to preach the law, in all its severity, that we still have the unconditional gospel, in all its sweetness. How could that be the case?

There is an amazing complexity and back and forth between the believer and God. We call this the relationship of faith. The gospel call is free and gracious, entirely dependent on God, unconditional in its promises. It is a no obligation blessing. Yet, the gospel call also lays upon the hearer’s heart an impetus to believe it – to hear the message and receive it. Part of the unconditional nature of the gospel is that it allows the opportunity to reject. For an individual who sees and understands a complete picture of what the gospel means for his or her life, there will be a pressing need that comes along with the gospel message.

The danger in this is that we over-emphasize this pressing need at the expense of the gospel’s unconditional character. We end up turning the gospel into a law.

Whenever there is freedom from conditions to receive or reject, there is an incentive to accept what is good and right. The very gospel message implies a certain importance that should outweigh everything else in life. And so, God lays that importance on your heart, through His Word, in statements like: “Consecrate yourselves and be holy.” That statement by itself is a command but spoken within the entire context of Scripture it’s importance ultimately stems from the gospel promise that God will make us holy though faith in Christ. The motivation to consecrate yourself, the ability to consecrate yourself, is directly tied to the fact that God is the one who makes you holy.  
This is the beautiful interweaving dance of God’s Word – law and gospel working in conjunction to bring sinners to faith and eternal salvation. When we isolate one aspect, one word, or one saying over the other, it diminishes the entire truth about what God is revealing to us. And then, we lose the unconditional nature of the gospel. There are many preachers and churches today that teach salvation is in Christ, but make more of the underlying impetus to believe than should be made, by going to on say:
“you must be born again”
“do you have saving faith?”
“have you invited Jesus into your heart?”
“you must choose Jesus Christ”

Dear friends, the gospel presents an important situation – the most important. But, it’s importance does not rest on our decisions or actions, and is never greater than the One who supplies our every need. To stay focused on Jesus, you need all of His Word – the uncomfortable and the embarrassing. That which makes us feel shame and feel gladness. That which stirs guilt in our hearts by what seems unfair and also that which stirs joy and peace by what was unfair for Christ. The strict commandments. The liberating grace. There’s a reason God gave it all to us, because we need it. And the life of faith is walked by hearing and sharing it all. 

Sin is a wretched thing – a continual infestation that we must live with. Sometimes we desire the self-satisfying feeling of sin. Sometimes we run from it. Always we are helpless on our own. God says “Don’t sin – no matter what.” In shame, we desperately look for anything that will make us feel better, even if it means cheating God’s own commandment. Don’t neglect what He says. Don’t rely on good intentions in the Day of Judgement. You don’t have to. Stick with the Word, uncomfortable at times. Hasten after holiness, embarrassing though it be at times. Stay with the Lord and you won’t need your own good intentions, because you’ll have His good Word – the unconditional gospel. Unconditional in its importance. Unconditional in its blessings. Unconditional because God makes us holy – in His Son. Amen.

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