Sermon preached by Rob Ferguson
Now Leviticus is not one of those books that you find at the top of the best seller lists. Not one that you are likely to choose to read on the train or to curl up with in front of the fire on a cold night.
It is the third book of the Pentateuch, the five books making up the Hebrew Torah, and it was probably put into written form during the Babylonian exile about 600BC. We know that it is a book of laws but we have become so used to the idea that Jesus made the law redundant that we tend to overlook it. And it’s all too easy for us to take a somewhat supercilious attitude to the Law and say that’s all Old Testament stuff, we live in New Testament times. But we also do tend to forget that Jesus said that he had come not to abolish the law but to fulfil it. And what does that mean, how does he do that? He seems to be saying that the Law is important but he also seems to be giving freedom from the Law.
There are a lot of ways to interpret this but the other day an idea came to me that I found helpful.
I was trying to learn a new piece of music and I was finding it very difficult. It wasn’t written in ordinary 4/4 time or 3/4 waltz time. It was written in 3+3+2 over 8 time, and it required all my powers of concentration to play all the notes at their proper length exactly as written which was not the way I instinctively felt they should go. So it all seemed a bit mechanical and unmusical. I then watched a video of the composer playing the music and I was immediately impressed by the beauty and flow of the piece. He wasn’t looking at the score of course, it was all in his head, but it was more than that, from the way he was playing it was coming from the heart and that gave him a freedom of expression that I just couldn’t have while I was mechanically following the score.
You can see where this is all leading of course.
We all need the Law while we are on trainer wheels, we need to be taught “Thou shalt not steal”
or “always put aside some of your harvest for the hungry”, things that perhaps don’t come instinctively to our selfish self. But what Jesus was doing was living from the heart, from the constant flow of divine Love. And he was demonstrating that this inner love that flowed into him from the eternal source of love and out of him through his life, the dynamic of the Trinity, was the true source of the Law.
Whilst we are still mechanically reading the score, following the letter of the Law, being a slave to our own favourite code of ethics, that we like to think is “the will of God”, we will never know the freedom that Jesus revealed as he lived from the heart.
What I would like to draw our attention to this morning is the recurring refrain at the end of each verse: “I am the LORD”. In fact it is repeated 49 times in the book of Leviticus. The Law is inseparable from human relationships and by linking these words here is God saying I am intimately involved in human relationships.
The words “the LORD” are spelt out in capitals and whenever we see this in the Hebrew Scriptures we know that it stands for the four letters YHWH, the name of God, a word considered so sacred it is never spoken
although we have come to pronounce it Yahweh.
Do you remember when Moses asks God What is your name? And God answers “I AM who I AM…Say to the people I AM has sent you…YHWH has sent you.”
In many cultures one’s name is sacred because it is linked so intimately with one’s being and here we have God’s name and God himself shown to be one and the same.
One of the things I find significant about this is that I AM is a verb form, I AM is not a noun.
In the popular media-understanding of religion and indeed at the beginning of our own faith journey God isthought of as a noun but nouns imply borders and boundaries, limitations and definitions, all the things that God is not, whereas the verb I AM is dynamic, it has no beginning, no end, it is eternal being.
When we try to define God we are attempting the impossible. And those who argue against the existence of God are usually arguing at the noun level, arguing against what they think we believe, against the existence of some heavenly entity which they imagine to be like one of the old Graeco-Roman gods who could masquerade as a human being whenever it pleased them and interfere in our lives at will, or like Aztec gods that needed blood sacrifices to keep them onside. That is why debates with television atheists are often so unsatisfactory. We are arguing from two completely different concepts of God.
Every week we pray in the LORD’s Prayer “Hallowed be thy name”. In its original sense “hallowed” or holy means separate or different So in praying “hallowed be thy name” we are praying that we don’t fall into the trap of trying to bring our concept of God down to our limited human level of understanding, something that we do tend to slip into simply because we use language and God is beyond language. In the Lord’s prayer we are acknowledging that God is of a nature, of a category, entirely separate from our human understanding.
So we shouldn’t waste time and energy trying to argue about the existence of God. God’s existence cannot be proved, or disproved, but it can be lived out in our lives.
In Leviticus we hear God telling Moses to say to his people “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Well, as his people today, we are likewise called to be holy, to be different, – not to think of ourselves as special or privileged – but to have the courage to be different, when everyone else is travelling down a comfortable path of “she’ll be right mate”.
Well, she won’t be right mate if we don’t speak out, and act, against injustices perpetrated in our name; to be a light in political darkness. Or to come closer to home, when friends gossip unkindly about another and we get caught up in the tantalising attraction to participate in that gossip we need the courage to be different, to go against the flow, to be channels of grace, to be a little light in these petty darknesses
That is the holiness that we are called to, a holiness that requires courage. A courage that the early church father made abundantly clear by placing The Feast of St Stephen on the day immediately after Christmas Day. We so often overlook that on that very day after we have enjoyed the festivities celebrating the birth of Jesus we have Boxing Day, The Feast of St Stephen, when we should be remembering, but probably don’t,
the fatal stoning of Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr, who was killed for having the courage to speak out, just exactly as we are called to do. Those early church calendar compilers are saying loud and clear that being a Christian is not taking the easy option. It is a call to become holy, hallowed, separate, different.
And how do we do that?
Well if we look at what Paul is saying in our reading from I Corinthians we hear Paul stating that Jesus Christ is the Foundation of our faith, and that word Foundation is absolutely essential to my understanding of what it is to be a Christian. One of the earliest foundational Christian statements was “Jesus is Lord”. On one level this is displacing Caesar as Lord – and this was a threat to the Roman occupying forces – but to his fellow Jews this was shocking blasphemy. This is proclaiming that Jesus is I AM, the despised Jesus, the servant Jesus, the companion of tax cheats and asylum seekers Jesus. And Jesus himself leaves us without any doubt when he says “I and the Father are one. I am in the father and the father is in me – and here is the crunch for us – and you are in me and I am in you”
This is not supernatural magic. This is part and parcel of human possibility. This is what the incarnation is all about. Well Paul here in his letter to the Corinthians reiterates that it is not just in Jesus that God is incarnate
when he says “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you…God’s temple is holy and you are that temple”
When we as Christians become aware that we are in the Father and the Father is in us we shift our foundation from our selfish self to the lowly Risen Christ, the eternal compassionate I AM, to the place where incarnation and resurrection meet deep in the silent heart of our human being. This still sounds blasphemous to many Christians – that the incarnation can be realised in us – but it shouldn’t, because we are familiar with Paul’s words that he will labour on until Christ be formed in us. And as we sang time and again just a few weeks ago “O holy child of Bethlehem Be born in us today” As Jesus said, we must be born anew. And that is what is meant by the contemplative life that we have been talking about in our discussion on prayer.
When we become conscious of this transformation from an ego-centred foundation to a Christ-centred foundation, a one-with-all-eternity foundation, where the Christ-centre is everywhere and the boundaries are nowhere, a limitless kingdom shared by all, we see the world differently, we engage in relationships differently, we sense the environment differently, and we live out the Law, not as commandments, but from the divine depths of our heart. Amen