The Holy One of Israel: A Sermon on Leviticus 19

A reading from the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verses 1-4, 9-18.

“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. You shall revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God….

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

“You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.

“You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

“You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

The word of the Lord:
Thanks be to God.

May the words of my mouth
And the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our rock and our redeemer: Amen.

_______________

Some years ago I was listening to a round-table of ethicists discussing a series of moral and political questions centered on human dignity and worth. A token theologian was included in the round-table for good measure. At some point one of the ethicists referred off-hand to how every human being is holy. It wasn’t a major point; it appeared to be a kind of throwaway comment, a premise assumed to be shared by everyone at the table, not least the theologian. But the theologian broke in and brusquely asserted the following:

“Human beings are not holy. Only God is holy.”

The bare, unqualified nature of the flat denial and exclusive affirmation stopped me cold. Surely the ethicist was simply saying in a roundabout way something unobjectionable: that human beings have value, that human life—as many of us are wont to say—is “sacred.” Is it, strictly speaking, true that human beings are not holy? Is it necessary to say so in such extreme terms?

The answer, I have come to see, is yes. The theologian was right—as we occasionally are. God alone is holy. Human beings are not holy. But that is not all there is to say. Because there is an intimate, unbreakable connection between these two statements; for there is an intimate, unbreakable relationship between the two characters or subjects spoken of in them, that is, a relationship between the One who alone is holy and those who are not holy, but may and will and shall be. A relationship of transformation, the name for which is sanctification.

If the Bible is anything, it is a book about sanctification: about the one and only Holy God’s undying and infallible will (1 Thess 4:5) to make holy what is not holy, to sanctify a people, to hallow the whole creation. Indeed, the gospel is the good news of holiness. How so?

Start—as every entertaining sermon does—with Leviticus. Here we are, in the middle of the Torah, listening in as God commands Moses to command the people of Israel how they are to live. And the fundamental umbrella command, beneath which all the other commands take their place and from which they derive their meaning, is the drumbeat of the book as a whole: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2; cf. 1 Pet 1:14). So holiness is a command, but a command to a particular people, Israel, rooted in the nature of a particular God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Lord of Hosts and creator of the world.

So at the outset, holiness is twofold.

On the one hand: Holiness is a principal attribute of the only true and living God, the God of Israel. Holiness means: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Holiness means: The idols of the nations are lifeless, they neither hear nor speak nor save. Holiness means: There is no court of appeal, no judge or Lord or sovereign or power, in heaven or on earth or under the earth, which one might petition, to which one might flee for refuge, apart from this God, the imageless and absolutely transcendent One, enthroned between the cherubim. Holiness means: Indivisible, inescapable, unquenchable life, without source or loss, beginning or end—a burning jealousy as unyielding as the grave.

On the other hand: Holiness is unlike other divine attributes, known technically as “non-communicable” attributes because God does not, because God could not, communicate them to creatures. Such attributes include omniscience, omnipotence—the omni’s in general. Whether or not we should understand humanity as originally created holy (I’m ambivalent about that), in a world ruled by the powers of sin and death, human beings are not and have never been holy, much less holy as God is holy. Yet here, right in the heart of the Torah, almost literally at its centerpoint, we hear God command Israel to be holy. So holiness is somehow a possibility, or at least an expectation, for human beings; or, if not for humanity as a whole, at least for Abraham’s children.

What does holiness entail for Israel? It appears to be a sort of image of the divine holiness, a creaturely counterpart to the uncreated holiness of the Lord. Just as God is utterly and unmistakably distinct both from the world and from the gods of the nations, so Israel is to be visibly and clearly distinct in and from the world, set apart from and among the nations. Israel is to be different.

And this difference is to go all the way down, to be inscribed on the body of Israel. Food, sex, hair, land, crops, money, family, parents and children, husbands and wives, rulers and ruled, priests and otherwise, rich and poor, landed and homeless, native and alien—holiness touches everything and everyone, it is comprehensive and all-consuming, its details are exhaustive (not to say exhausting), and it knows no such thing as the separation of religious from political from moral from liturgical from family from individual from communal from economic from…(fill in the blank). Holiness encompasses everything, because holiness concerns God, and God is at once the maker of human life and the author of the covenant. There is nothing that is not the business of Israel’s God.

It doesn’t take, however. Or rather, it takes, but it doesn’t do the job. The commands do indeed set Israel apart from the nations, but the living, burning holiness of the Lord God—the jealous fire that cuts to the heart—it fails to take exclusive, permanent hold; it does spadework against injustice and idolatry, but it does not cut them out, root and branch. They keep sprouting up, in the heart and in the land. What must be done to ignite the consuming fire of God in the midst of the people of God without setting them ablaze—without burning them up, leaving nothing but a valley of dead, dry bones?

Before he dies, Moses tells us. Through Moses, God promises Israel that, following its waywardness and disobedience, following its failure to love God and to keep God’s commandments, following its punishment and exile and re-gathering in the land—after all that, then God will perform a mighty deed: “the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live” (Deut 30:6).

None other than God will do so, because none other than God can do so. The mark of the covenant on the body of Israel will cut to the heart. God will make it so, because God is able, and God’s grace to Israel is everlasting. Likewise, the command to be holy is transformed from an imperative to a promise: No longer, “Be holy,” but, “You shall be holy, for I myself will make you holy.” Indeed, circumcision of the heart just is what it means to be holy to the Lord. God will give Israel a holiness proper to human beings, but a holiness from beyond their means or ken: God’s own holiness.

For the Holy One was made flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace, the grace of holiness. The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus, the Messiah and Holy One of Israel (John 1:14-17).

Holiness is incarnate in the man Jesus of Nazareth. Holiness touches the body, the flesh and blood of a human being, this one Jew. Holiness cuts to the heart of this one. He is absolutely set apart; he is one of us, but he is not us. He is different. His life is a single sustained offering to the God of Israel, every minute and every action dedicated to the will and glory of the Lord. He loves the Lord, his God and Father, with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. He is ablaze with the fire of God’s Holy Spirit, but he is not consumed; his flesh, like the leaves of the bush at Horeb, is not burnt up (Exod 3:1-2). He, Jesus, is holy, as God is holy.

And when God makes the life of Jesus, the Lord’s servant, an offering for sin (Isa 53:10), God does not abandon him to the grave, will not let his Holy One see decay (Ps 16:10; Acts 2:27). God raises him from the dead with power through the Spirit of holiness (Rom 1:4): The Holy One is alive; the fire is not quenched. And by the will of God, we have been made holy through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Heb 10:10). The righteous one has made many righteous; the Holy One has made many holy (Isa 53:11). For the holiness of Christ is a hallowing holiness, a sanctifying sanctity. As the Father hallows his name (Matt 6:9), so the Son sanctifies himself for our sakes, that we might be sanctified in the truth of God’s love (John 17:18-19); and God’s love, the flaming tongues of God’s holy word (Acts 2:3), has been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given us (Rom 5:5).

And through the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 8:11), we are a temple of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16), holy bodies bearing the Holy One in our midst, saints circumcised in the heart through baptism into his death. We ourselves are the one body of Christ, set apart from and for the world, ministers of and witnesses to his holiness. He commands us to be holy; he has made us holy; he shall make us holy at the last. For the one who began the work of sanctification among us will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6).

We bear the holiness of God to one another, this unmerited and unpossessable gift of the thrice-holy triune God of Israel. The holy Father, the holy Son, the Holy Spirit: This God, the one God, our God, is with us. We stand in the presence of the living God, at the foot of the sacred mountain (Heb 12:18-24), as God’s holy people—and we are not burnt up.

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