Experiencing His Holiness
Charles Spurgeon said this “ If you ask me how to shorten your sermons, I should say, study them better. Spend more time in the study that you may need less in the pulpit. We are generally longest when we have least to say” We have already seen what George Whitefield said “ To preach for more than half an hour either the preacher should be an angel, or he/should be preaching to an audience of angels” I am not sure if I have spent enough time studying the subject of today’s sermon. I will wait to see your reactions when I finish.
Last time I spoke on the book of Leviticus, I had tried to look into the relevance of Leviticus for us in the 21st centaury. We had seen that the book of Leviticus is supposed to be the hand book for the Levites, and hence the name. It is broadly divided into two parts, the first part deals with instructions for worshipping a Holy God, and the second part deals with instructions for leading a Holy Life. The overarching theme of the book is “Be Holy, because I , the LORD your God am Holy” ( 19:2)
So why should we read or understand the book of Leviticus. The obvious answer is that it is the word of God. We had seen that there are some other reasons for doing that . As a reminder, understanding the book of Leviticus, helps us to
1. Experience the Presence of the Lord
2. Honor Him through meaningful Worship
3. Experience His Holiness, and
4. Renew the covenant with Him
Over the whole of 2008, a few of us have gone through this amazing series of bible studies on Intimacy with God by Rev Vasudevan. Last Thursday, some of us got together again, and were reflecting on the key learnings and how to apply them to ourselves and to our church. These four concepts that are listed above help us to get closer to our God, so that we can enjoy the intimacy with God.
We had dealt briefly on the first two aspects last time. Let us go through the third one today. If I get another chance we will look at the last one later.
Experiencing His Holiness:
Like I said at the beginning, the overarching theme of the book of Leviticus is Holiness. The term holiness is repeated as many as 152 times in the book of Leviticus. Many more times than in any other book of the bible. The book of Leviticus brings for the concept of holiness from various angles and perspectives. The fact is that, unless we try very hard, we cannot escape the call to Holiness when we look at the book of Leviticus. May be that is one reason why this book is ignored so often in Churches. Churches prefer to be preached to on comfort and care, than Holiness. I am encouraged by the words of John Henry Newman, who said “Those who make comfort the great subject of their preaching seem to mistake the end of their ministry. Holiness is the great end. There must be a struggle and trial here. Comfort is a cordial, but no one drinks cordials from morning to night”. (I think he is referring the fruit concentrate when he says “Cordial” here). I also hope that this will not be the end of my pulpit ministry at BBF because of the subject I have chosen today.
What we need to understand here is that Holiness is not abstract concept, but it is one that needs to be concretized in relationships, in our day to actions, in our daily living. It has practical implications too. Let us look at some of the aspects of Holiness dealt with here.
How real is the concept of Holiness in our relationships. Leviticus tells us that Holiness is important in both Vertical and Horizontal relationships. Holiness in the vertical dimension is manifested in obedience to His laws and total commitment and faithfulness to Him. Leviticus 11:44-45 tells us, “ I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.” (also 19:2, 19:3, 19:4, 19:5-6, 19:26-28, 19:31 etc). Holiness in the horizontal dimension is manifested in our relationships with others. This should encompass our social, economic and political areas of our lives. This should cover both our religious aspect and secular aspect. (19: 32, 19:9-10, 19:14, 19:16-18, 19:20-22, 19:33-34, 19:19, 19:23-25, 19:15 etc). This should not surprise us. Jesus, when asked about the greatest commandments, gave two, Love your God and Love your neighbor. The entire gamut of Behavioral science concepts, and leadership Theories based on behavioral science, center around the robustness of horizontal relationships that we have. Aristotle said that the proclaimer of any message needs to have the three characteristics of Ethos, Pathos and Logia. The horizontal relationships also encompass the other creations around us. The concept of Holiness described in Leviticus distinguishes between the Holy and the common (or ordinary), and between the clean and the unclean things/objects or creations (10:10). God also asked Israelites to set aside certain times as Holy. The whole concept of Holidays come from this practice. Actually in the Book of Leviticus, God gave a whole calendar of Holy days to the people. The entire chapter of 25 is dedicated to specific times that the Lord asked Israelites to keep as holy. So the concept of holiness is across the time dimension too. We see the Holiness concept impacting the physical dimension, the emotional dimension, and the time dimension. That is why I stated earlier on that we cannot separate Holiness into Spiritual and secular segments. It has to be present in both. In short, there is no dimension where the Israelites could have escaped being unholy. The requirement for Holiness is all encompassing. Obviously, people like Ramalinga Raju did not realise this.
The second aspect of impurity that Leviticus brings out is the fact that human beings are responsible for creating impurity. This is done through sinning. This is known to us. There is a beautiful penetration of contamination based on the severity of sin built in through this book (Ch 4). Unintentional sins contaminate only the outer areas of the temple or the Holy place. Unintentional sins by the whole community or the priests contaminate things which are further inside the temple. Deliberate sins can contaminate even the Holy of Holies, and can reach upto the atonement cover or the mercy seat. When people continued to sin, and rebel against God , God warns the tent of meeting will get contaminated and that God will no longer dwell among them. He will abandon them and leave them to destruction (Ch 26) . A Holy God cannot tolerate Sin and un-cleanliness. To understand the real seriousness of this, let us fast-forward to Good Friday. Hanging on the cross, Jesus felt that God had abandoned Him. God had turned his face away from His own son. Jesus Cried out “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me”. But Jesus knew the answer. He was carrying the sins of the whole world at that time, and a Holy God could not be associated with Sin. But since our God is a loving God, our story does not end on Good Friday, we have the Easter Sunday to follow. Remember, we serve a God who declared that He loves us so much that He is willing to trade the whole creation to get us back (Isaiah 43:1-4, Message bible)
Lastly let us look into some of the practical aspects of Holiness. We started by saying that Holiness is not an abstract concept but some thing very real, and very practical. Through the call and rituals to Holiness, god is giving many practical means for the Israelites. Practical issues of health, prosperity, care of elders and poor, peace among neighbors, etc are brought out very clearly in the book. The practical side of the animal sacrifices and the grain offerings is also the provision for the priests. I am reminded about a person who wanted to be a priest and ended up in an interview for the position of a policeman. The interviewer asked him, “What is the best and peaceful way of dispersing a crowd?”. The person replied, “well, I will pass the offertory bag around”. There was also this preacher who passed around his hat after the sermon. When the hat returned to him, he looked and found that the hat was empty. He said, “Brothers, let us pray and thank the Lord that the hat was returned”. Many churches are like this when it comes to providing for the preachers. BBF is of course different. Well, let us get back to Holiness. The Holy Calendar given by God, is the most practical advice against burn out, (I know that I am probably one of the least qualified persons to talk about this. My family, correctly, keep reminding me that I need to take a break and take rest). There are practical issues of being in control of your debts, cancellation of debts, restoration of your property, freedom for servants, social justice etc etc.
So we know that Holiness is important to God, and it is practically good for us. So, what does the book of Leviticus tell us about getting Holy? How do we achieve Holiness, especially in modern times? The key message that comes out to me is this. Something that is common, becomes Holy when God sets it apart for Him. In the Levitical times, this could have been accomplished through various rituals of cleansing and sprinkling. There were ways by which the utensils and the lamps were made holy. There are ways by which people became clean and Holy through various rituals, and sacrifices, that we looked at in the last sermon. The focus of Leviticus is in removing the impurity and becoming clean before we approach God. God’s Holiness required that those who approached him be pure. Hence, a lot of time is spent in the book of Leviticus on explaining about the things or acts that can make the Israelites impure. These included impure animal foods (Ch 11), Childbirth (Ch 12) infectious skin diseases (Ch 13-14) , and Bodily discharges (Ch 15). Many people who read the book of Leviticus wonder what is the logic behind all these? Why is God concerned about such things? Now, let us pause for a moment here and look at what is common between these things? When one looks deep, one finds that it is the risk to life, or risk of death, that is common between these, so called “impure” things or actions. You see, anything that represents death, stands in opposition to the Holy God who is the author of Life, and thus they are seen as impure. God wants us to live, and live abundant lives, using and enjoying the creations that He has given us, around us. A W Tozer says this “God’s wrath is his intolerance of whatever degrades and destroys. He hates iniquity as a mother hates the polio that would take the life of a child”. Ashish Chrispal, has been speaking about Shalom in the past few sermons. We need to be reminded that anything that has the power to destroy is considered impure by God. This is true for the Gaza war that is going on. This is true for the greed that has caused the Satyam downfall.
Even in the 21st century, the key to holiness remains in reminding ourselves of the fact that common objects become Holy when they are set apart for God. You and me who are common men and women, can become Holy only by setting ourselves apart for God, setting up ourselves different from the pagan world around us. Just like the Lord reminded the Israelites that they are set apart, and they need to live differently, they need to differentiate from those living around them, the Lord is telling today to be different, not for the sake of being different, but because we are Holy, because we have been set apart through the Holy Days of Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. I am happy that BBF is founded on this principle, as given in 1 Peter 2:12 “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” And since we are set apart, since we are loved by God, we need to continue to remain Holy. The New Testament is full of exhortations to stay Holy (Luke 13:23-24, Hebrews 4:11, Hebrews 12:14-15, 1Peter 4:17-18, 2 Pet 3;14 etc) and to stop sinning (John 5:14, John 8:11, Romans 6:1-2, Romans 6:15, 1 Cor 10:13, Hebrews 10:26-27, 1John 3:6, 1John 3:9, 1John 5:18 etc) . Peter calls us the Royal Priesthood in 1Peter 2:5, and we need to remember that in Leviticus, Priests and Levites had stricter rules to obey to maintain the holiness. The penalties for Priests were more severe than those for the laity. Paul describes us as God’s temple (1 Cor 3:16-17), and warns us not to pollute that temple. We have been discussing the aspect of getting intimate with God. Oswald Chambers says “ Am I becoming more and more in love with God, as a Holy God? Or with the conception of an amiable being who says, Oh, well, sin doesn’t matter much?”. Even in the 21st century the message continues, anything that causes death is impure, and sin continues to cause death. That is the reason why we have Easter following Good Friday. God wants us to celebrate life, and celebrate it in a Holy manner.
This year 2009, even as we try to implement ways to get intimate with our God, let us remember to keep his requirement of Holiness and through the freedom given to us through Jesus Christ, let us commit ourselves to Holiness and thus be able to get intimate with our God. He is waiting.
Let us Pray
Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.