I sometimes get concerned about the long-term effects that this coronavirus is having on our souls. I wonder, how well we will all be when we emerge from this period of enforced isolation? We have experienced a dramatic change in every one of our lifestyles. Here in Maine that isolation, has of this date, been just about 40 days. That’s the same period of time that Jesus spent in the wilderness, alone, before he began his ministry. And while I know that these 40 days have been a trying time for all of us; that they have been exceedingly frustrating, and that they have unearthed feelings and emotions that we probably barely believed that lurked within us, at least we have taken nourishment during these 40 days, and we have escaped, for the most part, the tormenting wiles of the devil. Jesus was assaulted by the devil during his time in the wilderness, at the time of his greatest weakness, both physically and emotionally. And we have this hope: Jesus emerged from that time of abusive torment absolutely victorious. He did not bow to the power of temptation, nor did he abandon his God-given mission. I suppose I should probably quit right here, while I’m ahead, tell everyone who is listening to “go thou and do likewise”, say a prayer, and have Karis turn the lap-top off. But you know ministers; we can usually talk until we can think of something to say.
And so my mind goes to yet another period of forty somethings, only this time it is 40 years. I’m thinking of the 40 years that the people of God spent in the desert, after their miraculous release from slavery in Egypt. During their time in the wilderness, they did not do very well at all. They fell into temptation; they were blatantly unfaithful to God, and they relished any opportunity that they could find to complain, gripe, grumble, blame others, and bellyache about their terrible situation, even though there was also ample opportunity to glory in the awesome wonder of God that daily surrounded them, at every moment that they spent wandering in that desert. I’ve had to remind myself about this opportunity to glory in wonder of God, on more that one occasion during this time of our exile. It is spring, folks, the heavens are boldly proclaiming the glory of God. The earth is coming alive, the sun rises and sets, just as beautifully as it always has. God’s good creation is totally unaffected by the troubles of this time of our exile! The grass is growing, flowers are blooming, the evidence of our Lord’s resurrection is everywhere! We ought to be focusing on this! 40 years in the desert, 40 days in the desert, 40 days in exile and counting, do not thwart God’s plans for his creation.
The words in our passage today were delivered by God, through the prophet Moses, to the people of God while they were all still wandering around in the wilderness. If we were to meditate seriously on this passage, we would discover that some of the stuff here echoes the Ten Commandments, some of it is mentioned twice, perhaps for emphasis, but that all of it is essential for our daily lives if we are, in fact, to continue to live in covenantal relationship with one another and with God. And during the “in between time” that we now find ourselves in, we have the time and the opportunity to ponder these things, so that we will be ready to implement them fully when we emerge from the wilderness of our current isolation.
There is very little in this passage that is not self-evident and self explanatory. It makes the work of a preacher practically unnecessary. It becomes, instead, the work of the Holy Spirit. To help us get started on our meditations, though, everything here depends upon what we hear in verses one and two: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: ‘speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, “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, but it is clearly the basis of every single on of the commandments in this passage.
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. Too often, we hear that to be truly human is to be something else altogether. Something that is not holy at all. When we fail to strive to be holy, we devolve into beasts, and there are already enough beasts in this world masquerading as humans as it is; we certainly don’t need any more of them. Let us be as human and as glorified as God created us to be.
In addition to responding out of holiness to these commands, the other category into which all of these things fit, is at the very end of the passage. It is down in verse 18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
From time to time, I am convinced that God gives us the gift of living in an in between time; although it is also clear to me that we don’t always appreciate that in between time while we are going through it. In between times are almost always frightening and almost always involve some sort of loss. But in between times, without exception, always have a destination. The 40 years in the wilderness climaxed when God’s people entered the promised land, a land that God had kept for them as an inheritance; as a living hope, while they wandered and while they learned the holy lessons of living in ways that honored God and their neighbors.
The 40 days in the wilderness climaxed when Jesus emerged to begin his earthly ministry. This ministry continues today, unabated, driven by the power of our Lord’s resurrection and by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are still called to love our neighbors in ways that bespeak of holiness.
And we will emerge from this in between time of exile and isolation. And so we must ask ourselves, how is it that we will emerge? God grant that it is with divine holiness in our hearts, and with a commitment to love our neighbors in the same way that we love our God.