Some old testament books are never read. The book of Leviticus could well qualify for that award. I am sure many of us sitting here would not even have read it once. The bad news this morning is that I am going to preach on the book of Leviticus. It is a very long book, and so the sermon might be a little long too. Is that OK?
A Sunday school teacher came to a preacher on day with a picture depicting Christ in agonizing prayer in Gethsemane, while his disciples slept in the background. She said to the preacher, “I showed this picture to my class last week and many of them said that it reminded them of you.” The preacher was naturally very impressed, and overwhelmed. While the preacher was searching for some humble and appropriate response to this comment, the Sunday school teacher asked him, “want to know why this picture reminds them of you?” The preacher said “of course, trying to remain humble. “Well” the teacher said, “The children understand that Jesus was praying so long just like you do, and the disciples fell asleep because of that”. While I do not mind being thought of, when you look at the garden of Gethsemane picture next time, I am not very keen that you think about the sleeping disciples when you do that.
George Whitefield, 18th century Church of England Preacher and the co founder of the Methodist Church has said this “ To preach for more than half an hour, a man should be an angel himself or have angels for hearers” . I am no angel for sure, and unless you can convince me that you are angels, I guess I will try to stop within half an hour.
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) The book of Leviticus follows the book of Exodus. Now, Exodus might be more familiar to us isn’t it? What is Exodus about? It is about God saving the Israelites from Egypt and bringing them to the promised land. So Exodus is about redemption, and this redemption becomes the foundation for cleansing, worshipping and service in Leviticus.
So why should we read or understand the book of Leviticus. The obvious answer is that it is the word of God. But let me try to give you some other reasons for doing that today. For me, it helps me 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
Let us see these four aspects briefly one by one. I will talk through the first two points today and the next two when I get a chance next to speak to you.
Experiencing the Presence of the Lord: The books of Exodus and Numbers record the movement of the Israelites. During these movements God went with them. Moses made it very clear to God “If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here” Exodus 33:15. The book of Leviticus starts with God speaking to Moses from the Tent of Meeting. Throughout this book, God is presented as a God who is always present among His people, an immanent God. The phrase “I am the Lord” is repeated many times in this book. The presence of the Lord is experienced through worship in the Tent of meetings, but also through the everyday duties of life. Leviticus reminds the people that every walk of their life was a concern of the Lord. Whether it be their religion ( Ch 21-24) , their sexual relationships ( Ch 18,20) , their interpersonal relationships (Ch 19,25) , family responsibilities (Ch 18-20) their worldliness ( Ch 18-20), or their purity or cleanliness (Ch 11-15), God reminded the Israelites that it was a concern for Him. He kept reminding the Israelites that he wanted them to be different from others. God reminds the people that their everyday life can contaminate the Tent of Meeting.
What does this mean to us? How is God’s presence made known to us today in the new testament days? Paul tells us that God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ (2 Cor 5:19) . Alluding to the Tent of Meeting, John tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us” through the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:14). Ephesians 4:10 tells us that Jesus Christ arose from the dead and ascended into heaven so that he can fill the whole universe through the Holy spirit. In 1 Corinthians 3:16 Paul tells us that we are God’s temple in which God’s spirit lives.
The question that I would like us to ponder over this morning is this. Do we really experience the presence of the Lord through the person of Jesus Christ in our everyday life? Or do we experience Jesus on Sundays or during church functions? Just like God made it known through Leviticus that the presence of Him should affect all areas of the lives of Israelites, God is telling us today that presence of Holy Spirit in us should influence all aspects of our lifestyle.
All of us would have read the recent story of India sending her own moon mission, and the euphoria that followed the successful launch of India’s first moon craft. I am reminded about the story that the American Philosopher Jacob Needleman narrated to author Bill Moyer for his book, and television series “A World of Ideas II”. This is about the launch of the Apollo17. You would remember that Apollo series was all manned moon crafts and hence much bigger in magnitude, that what we witnessed last week in Sriharikota. I quote Jacob Needleman from the book
“I was an observer at the launch of Apollo 17 in 1975. It was a night launch and there were hundreds of cynical reporters all over the lawn, drinking beer, joking, and waiting for the this thirty-five- story –high rocket. The countdown came and them the launch. The first thing you see is this extraordinary orange light, which is just at the limit of what you can look at. Everything is illuminated with this light. The comes this thing slowly rising up in total silence, because it takes a few seconds for the sound to come across. You hear a WHOOOOSH! HHHHHMMMM! It enters right into you.
You can practically hear jaws dropping. The sense of wonder fills everyone in the whole place, as this thing goes up and up. The first stage ignites this beautiful blue flame. It becomes like a star, but you realize that there are humans on it. And then there is total silence.
People just get up quietly, helping each other. They are kind. They open doors. They look at one another, speaking quietly and interestedly. These were suddenly moral people because the sense of wonder, the experience of wonder had made them moral”
I want us to ask this morning, when is the last time, we really felt the wonderful presence of our God? When is the last time we allowed that wonder change our attitudes, our behaviours, our lives? Those of us who attend the Good Friday service will recall the crucifixion scene of Jesus, and His last words. When Jesus gave up his spirit and died on the cross, the curtain of the temple was torn, thus making access to God easy and available for us. Jesus paid a huge price, so that we can experience the presence of God without having to go through all the rituals and sacrifices that the Israelites were asked to go through in Leviticus. Are we Thankful to God for that? Do we use that freedom fully to enjoy the presence of our Lord in our everyday lives? Let us examine ourselves.
Honoring Him through meaningful worship: What hits most of us when we take the courage to open the book of Leviticus and start reading, is the seemingly endless instructions on the types and methods of sacrifices and offerings. There are detailed instructions on what to offer, how to offer and when to offer. Let us try and go beyond the rituals and liturgies to try and understand the reasons behind all these instructions. If the Lord was to continue amongst the people and if the people were to continue living in the promised land, the people had to be fit to worship the Lord. The author spends the fist 17 chapters of this book to just tell the Israelites how to do just that. Unholy, unclean people can approach God only after sin has been dealt with, and they are cleansed. The Lord asks the Israelites to come and worship him with offerings. There are five specific types of offerings explained here.
· The first is Burnt offerings, given in Ch1. These are to be voluntary in nature, and are offered to make payment for sin in general.
· Then comes the Grain offering explained in Ch2. These are also voluntary, and meant to show honor and respect to God in worship, and to acknowledge that all we have , belongs to God.
· The third category is the Fellowship offering explained in Ch3. These too are voluntary and are used to express gratitude to God, , and symbolized peace and fellowship with God.
· The fourth category is the Sin offering, explained in Ch4. This is mandatory, and is meant to make payment for unintentional sins or uncleanness, neglect or thoughtlessness. This restored the sinner to fellowship with God, and showed the seriousness of sin.
· The fifth category is the Guilt offering explained in Ch5. This is also mandatory, and is meant to make payment for sins against God and others. A sacrifice was made to God and the injured or aggrieved person was repaid or compensated.
Again let us ask the question ; what does this mean to us? We are happy that BBF does not have too many rituals in the traditional sense. But we need to still examine to see how meaningful is our worship of our God. Through the book of Leviticus God took great pains to explain the purpose behind each of the rituals of worship to the Israelites, but history shows that the people soon forgot the reasons and started doing the rituals in just the physical way, and having the right attitude or right mental state in worshipping. By the time of the prophet Isaiah , God had got really fed up the way the people had contorted these messages and not really understanding the meaning of these. So the Lord tells the people in Isaiah 1 :11-15 ( I am reading from the Message bible, which brings out the meaning in today’s language, better) I would like you listen carefully here. “Why this frenzy of sacrifices?” God’s asking. “Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of burnt Sacrifices, rams and plump grain-fed calves? Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of blood from bulls, lambs, and goats? When you come before me, whoever gave you the idea of acting like this, Running here and there, doing this and that— all this sheer commotion in the place provided for worship? “Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings— meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more! Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. Go home and wash up. Clean up your act. Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don’t have to look at them any longer. Say no to wrong. Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless.”
Isn’t this a powerful message? I want us to think about ourselves. How is our worship today? To honour God in word and not to do it in deed is not honoring God at all. The attitude of the worshipper is as important as the worship itself. Some one has said “If worship is just one thing that we do, everything becomes mundane. If worship is the one thing we do, everything takes on eternal significance. Do we reflect that in our worship?
I also encourage us to look at the sacrifice that Jesus became himself, for us, for our guilt, for our sin. The whole book of Hebrews, is about how Jesus fitted in to the sacrificial system described in the book of Leviticus and by becoming a sacrifice himself, freed us from the rituals needed before approaching God. We re today freed from the need to make these sacrifices because Jesus did that for all of us. The first 7 chapters of Leviticus is about sacrificial offering, and the term fragrant offering or an aroma pleasing to God can be found many times. Ephesians 5:2 tells us that this is exactly what Jesus did. Became a fragrant offerings and sacrifice to God. The blood of animals and birds sacrificed as per Leviticus was used to purify the objects in the Tent of Meeting for Holy use. What Jesus’ blood does is to purify the consciences of Christians, so that we can offer perfect worship to God. This is the key message of Hebrews 9:13-14. The question that we need to ask ourselves is , do we value that sacrifice Jesus made for our sake? Do we value the blood that was shed for us so that we can worship the Lord? Do we realise the price that Jesus paid for the freedom that you and I have in approaching our God, just as we are.
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.