We’re looking this morning at some pretty old stuff. This is stuff that was delivered by God, through the prophet Moses, to the people of God while they were all still wandering around in the wilderness. In my mind, the wilderness is a wonderful place, although I am quite sure that those who spent those forty years wandering around in it, would certainly beg to differ. The desert was completely inhospitable to life, and yet, by the miraculous provision of God, the people thrived. Every need that they had was met. But in spite of that wonderful truth, all of the people who spent time sojourning in the wilderness failed to appreciate the miraculous presence and provision of God. They are the classic example of a people who consistently found it more productive to complain, gripe and grumble about their terrible situation, than they did to glory in the awesome wonder of God that was surrounding them and enfolding them at every moment of their desert wanderings.
But the main reason that I think that the time that God’s people spent wandering in the desert was wonderful, is that it was the space between salvation and the fulfillment of a glorious promise. The people of God had been miraculously rescued by great signs and wonders from slavery and oppression in Egypt. They were free. Egypt and its horrors was behind them, and they had a glorious promise ahead of them of a new land and a new way of life. And that’s exactly where every one of us here this morning is living. We’re living in the “in between space”, between salvation and the fulfillment of the promise of eternal life. We’ve been rescued from the tyranny and oppression of sin and we have a glorious promise of a new land and a marvelous new way of life ahead of us. Like the people of God, we’re now living in that in between space. We can call it a desert if we want to, and we can complain and gripe and grumble about our terrible situation, if we want to, or we could open our eyes of faith just a little bit wider, and, very much unlike the people of God of old, we can glory in the awesome wonder of God that is surrounding us and enfolding us at every moment. God’s presence and provision is no less evident now in our in between space than it was in the desert wanderings between Egypt and the Promised Land.
And so we come to some very old commands that will help us to live out our faith in the inhospitable environment of this broken and damaged world. Since we have already been meditating on this passage, we already know that some of this stuff echoes the Ten Commandments, some of it is repeated, perhaps for emphasis, but that all of it is essential for living in covenant relationship with God and with one another.
But that does not mean for a minute that living out the demands set forth in this passage is going to be easy. And that’s why the whole passage is set into the context of holiness. The very first command from God in this passage is: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Holiness is an attribute that has all but disappeared from daily life on this planet, and it is the basis of every other command in this passage. In order for us to live out any of the commands in this passage, we must understand that holiness envelops them all. We are created in God’s image. We bear the image of God, and one of God’s attributes is holiness. To be holy means that we are on our way to realizing the fullness of our humanity. God intends for us to be holy, and God has created the human creature and glorified it by giving it the potential to be holy. To be truly human is to be holy. When we fail to strive to be holy, we devolve into beasts, and there are already enough beasts in this world masquerading as humans; we certainly don’t need any more of them. Let us be as human and as exalted as God created us to be. Being human is a very good thing. God ultimately exalted the human creature in the person of Jesus Christ.
Living in covenant relationship with God and with one another means, then, that as we are in the process of becoming more and more human and more and more holy ourselves, that we not only honor God and his holiness, but that we also honor the humanity and holiness that is present in one another. And so we honor our parents. We honor the ones who shared with God in the creative process of bringing us into the world, however that came about, and under whatever circumstances.
It also means that we’ll set aside something for the worthy poor. This is something that our government has never figured out, and it never will, because it cannot act in ways that bespeak of holiness. The ancient practice of not harvesting the edges of a field and leaving fallen fruit for the poor and the alien provided a way to honor the honest struggle of the less fortunate. It is always easier to hold the poor among us and the aliens in our midst under suspicion. We distrust them. And since not many of us are agrarians any more, and we cannot leave food in our fields and in our vineyards, we must find ways to identify the worthy poor and the worthy aliens in our midst. This is likely to require that we enter into relationship with them. And out of that relationship with them, suspicion and distrust will evaporate, and it will be replaced with compassion and understanding. This is our holy duty.
Becoming holy, and living in covenant relationship with one another and with God requires that we will treat one another with respect. We won’t lie, cheat or steal, because all of these things debase the image of God in our fellow sojourners, and because when we do these things we become more and more beastly. If we have employees, we’ll pay them fairly and in a timely manner. The assumption here is that if we have employees, that they are less fortunate than ourselves, and that they need their wages. Beyond that, it is a way of honoring them and giving dignity to the service that they provide us. It is a way of living in covenant relationship with them, and it is a way of tending to the progress of our own holiness.
Becoming holy means that we will give special honor to those who appear to be less human by reason of physical or mental handicap. The command is stated negatively in this passage but the intent is a positive one. Lest we forget, physically and mentally handicapped people are also created in God’s glorious image. They are no less human that we are. They are exalted in God’s eyes. And so while we’d never fling curses at a deaf person or stick something in the path of someone who is blind, we must struggle to find a way to honor the beauty that God has given to those who must tread the path of this world with what we have come to define as brokenness. It may be that in the sight of God Almighty, that we are more broken than those whom we set aside and shunt away, with neither compassion nor pity.
There’s other stuff in this passage that we could talk about at length this morning. Stuff like living and acting and even judging with justice. Stuff like being fair with everyone, neither favoring the poor, nor deferring to the great, but treating everyone with equality. There’s a prohibition against slandering one another. Slander is the evil cousin of gossip, but it is a sibling to murder. Curiously, murder is not listed as a prohibition in this passage; it is perhaps assumed to be understood. When we slander another person, we break the covenant relationship that we have with them, and we break the covenant relationship that we have with God. Slander is akin to murder because it destroys the gifts of life, peace, hope, and joy. These are the gifts of God, and we do not have the authority to take them away. We forfeit our own holiness when we slander. We become like beasts. It is that serious. Slander is one of the primary characteristics of our broken world.
Closely tied to the prohibition against slander, is the encouragement to reprove our neighbor. Reproof, when done lovingly, and when it honors the dignity and the holiness of a brother or sister, actually helps to restore and re-establish a damaged covenant relationship. It is pretty much the opposite of slander with one exception. Slander is a very easy thing to do. Reproof is difficult, especially if it is done to honor God and the image of God in the person we’re trying to reprove.
Then there’s some stuff about not hating one another, not bearing a grudge and not taking vengeance against one another. That’s pretty obvious stuff, but stuff that needs our attention, because we fall so easily into those things.
Finally, the one command in this passage that gets the most press, also turns out to be the most mysterious. It is the one about making a special offering. There are lots of opportunities in the Scriptures to make special offerings. This one happens to be a sacrifice of well being to the Lord, but if you’ve got a different translation with you this morning, it probably has a different name. That makes it mysterious, but mystery is a good thing. The intent of this special offering seems to have something to do with eating it quickly, and it seems to be rather serious, given all the press it receives. It might have something to do with the lack of refrigeration, but it seems to be much more important than that. It has to do with the people’s relationship with God and with one another, because to improperly effect this offering is to invite exile. So it is very serious, but we don’t know why.
So here’s my crazy thoughts on the matter. If God has put it into our hearts to do something special, or to make some sort of special offering to him, we ought to do it with reasonable haste. Don’t let the idea sit around for too awfully long, because after three days, we might think better of doing it, and it won’t get done. When God speaks we ought to act.
But no matter what we do, it all ought to be done with these two things in mind: first, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” On these two things hang all of our lives together with God and together with one another, as we live in this in between space.