THE MOST DANGEROUS IDOL IN THE WORLD
A sermon on Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
October 25, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
We’re going to begin this morning with a quick poll. Let’s see a show of hands: How many people here remember the last time they heard a sermon from this pulpit from the book of Leviticus? Anybody? No one at all, I would wager…
NO—I do not know of any preacher for whom the book of Leviticus is a favorite book to preach from on Sunday mornings. In the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a preaching plan of Bible texts that many churches of different denominations follow, only two passages from Leviticus appear in the entire three year cycle. Just two—that’s not many for a book that has twenty-seven chapters. (In addition to today’s passage, the other one is Leviticus 13:1-46.)
One commentator has described the book of Leviticus as “a minefield full of topics that nobody wants to talk about in church: detailed instructions on animal sacrifice, blood-sprinkling, moldy walls, oozing sores, gashed flesh, ‘a swelling or an eruption or a spot’ (14:56), graphic depictions of various skin conditions, and bodily emissions of any kind.”1 It is enough to make any worship leader reading it aloud in church to blush or squirm…Thankfully, today’s text from Leviticus does not contain any descriptions of anything like that…
The name “Leviticus” means “relating to the Levites.” So it is fair to ask the question—who are “the Levites?” Well, the Levites were members of the tribe of Levi, one of the original twelve tribes of Israel. It was this family from among all the Hebrew people whom God chose to be in charge of taking care of the Tabernacle and to lead worship during the time of the journey to the Promised Land.2 Eventually, once the Temple in Jerusalem had been built, they continued their responsibilities to lead worship there as well. Leviticus is primarily concerned with how to conduct the ritual of worship. It gives the laws and regulations for worship, along with instructions for ceremonial cleanness, moral laws, and the observance of various holy days.
It could be said that the main theme of the book of Leviticus can be summarized by the words contained in verse two of today’s reading. There, God speaks to Moses and tells him, “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.”
1 The commentator is Cameron B. R. Howard, Associate Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
2 They were consecrated in a ceremony in Numbers 8: 9-11.
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“Be holy, for I the Lord your God is holy…” Do those words sound familiar? They occur three other times in the book of Leviticus. But my guess is that, if you recall hearing them before, it is because Jesus referred to them in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. And then later on, the Apostle Peter quotes them directly in 1 Peter 1:16.
The word translated as “holy” both times in this verse is the same word in the Hebrew language. It is the word qadowsh. Qadowsh means to be set apart. It is derived from a word that means consecrated…dedicated…to be appointed. The plain sense of the thought is that we are to be set apart and sacred as God is set apart and sacred.
How is it that we are to do that? How can we be set apart—how can we be different—as God is different? How can we be like God?
The short answer is that we cannot. God is God …and we are not. Almighty God…Maker of the heavens and the earth…creator of thousands of galaxies yet unknown and undiscovered…perfect in power, in love and purity…the Ancient of Days, who was…and is..and is to come. Exodus 15:11 asks, “Who is like you, O Lord? Majestic in holiness, awesome in glory and working wonders?” Solomon’s prayer in 2 Chronicles 6 makes the same point when he prays, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven or on the earth…”
The scriptures teach us that God is God…and we are not. God is above and beyond or comprehension or even our wildest imaginations. Given that truth, then how are we to be “holy” as God is holy?
The simple truth is that we cannot be exactly holy like God is holy. But that is not the point. We are not gods…And yet, the Lord is calling us to develop a measure of godly characteristics…of consecration…of being set apart for him to his honor and glory. In a nutshell, that is really the believer’s task. That is the purpose of the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit inside of us—to recreate us more into the image of God’s son, Jesus the Christ. So, while we can never attain the level of perfection and purity that is the very essence of God’s character this side of eternity, the goal is to become more holy…more loving…more giving…more of who God is in our spiritual journey.
The word “holy” has gotten a bad rap in our day and age. The Bible commends holiness as a desirable trait for anyone wanting to cultivate a relationship with God. I think that it’s a good word whose rightful meaning and heritage needs to be reclaimed by followers of Jesus. Nowadays, the word “holy” has mostly a negative connotation. No one wants to be called a “holy Joe.” No one wants to be described as “holier-than-thou.” When described in those terms, “holy” does not mean to be dedicated or set apart by God. It almost always refers to someone who carries a self-righteous attitude—someone who is smitten by their sense of being good, especially in comparison to how others live. That is certainly not an attractive trait in anyone—and it is especially not an attractive trait in those who are followers of Jesus. That’s because self-righteousness is little more than a spiritual egocentricity—of
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thinking more highly of oneself than one ought—of making everything about one’s supposed righteousness.
Such thinking is the direct opposite of the spirit of Jesus’ message. Humility is an important spiritual quality that Jesus’ followers are to exhibit. In Philippians 2:3, the Apostle Paul writes, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit”—“vain conceit” is just another way of describing what it means to be self-righteous—“but in humility consider others as better than yourselves.” And the importance of humility is part of what our Lord Jesus was talking about when he told the Pharisees—a self-righteous group of people if there ever was one—he said, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)
The truth of the matter is that, as the followers of Jesus, we are called to be holy. And yet this holiness is nothing that we can claim or accomplish on our own merits. There’s nothing we can do to be worthy of it. The truth is that holiness is not earned but is given—it is given solely as matter of God’s grace to us. At its most basic level of meaning, making holiness available is what the Cross of Jesus is really all about…
The idea that holiness is something that is received, and not achieved, should not come as a shock to us. The follower of Jesus is not holy because of his or her performance…because of what he or she does or doesn’t do. It is simply because God has proclaimed his children to be holy. One does not ultimately become holy through religious practices and observances. One does not develop holiness through sheer discipline and hard work. Make no mistake about it. Those things are important in the life of faith, because, as James says, “Faith without works is dead.” It should be the aim of every child of God to live the life that we are called to live as followers of Jesus. We are to order our lives together in ways that draw us closer to God. But ultimately one becomes holy when God places his hand on you and claims you for his own. That’s it. That is the way that one becomes holy in the eyes of God…
For the next few moments, I want to focus our attention of the last couples of verses in today’s reading. Verse 15 picks up by giving instructions on how the people are to treat one another—the courts are to fair and not favor either the poor or the rich, people are not to be gossiping about one another, no one should profit at another’s expense, the people are not to harbor hate in their hearts for one another, no one is to hold a grudge or take vengeance against another. And then in verse 18, a statement is made that summarizes the instructions of all that has gone before. They are some of the most famous words in the Bible. In verse 18, God declares, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself…”
In doing some reading a few months ago, I discovered something that I find noteworthy about that statement. The phrase “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is the only phrase in the Bible that occurs in the Old Testament, the gospels, the writings of Paul and the book of James.3 Think about that statement with me for a moment. These sacred writings occur over a period of around 1500 years. They
3 Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 19:19, Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27, Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14, and James 2:8.
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were written by people in different circumstances, who lived in different lands, who spoke different languages, and who had different experiences of God. And yet they all share this one important idea—that to live a life pleasing to God, one must love their neighbor as themselves. James even goes as far as to call it “the royal law according to the scripture.” And in the gospel passage read earlier in the service, you no doubt recall that our Lord Jesus said that the command to love your neighbor as yourself was second only to loving God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
The command to love our neighbors as ourselves is critical to an understanding of our faith because it includes a focus on those around us. The command to be holy unpacked earlier in the sermon helps to remind us of the vertical dimension of our faith—that is, how we are to relate to Almighty God, Maker of heaven and earth through holiness. Thus the command in Leviticus to be holy as God is holy. It is the inward aspect of our faith.
The command to love our neighbors as ourselves is no less important, as it keeps our faith from becoming simply a totally inward experience. While the inward experience of God is critically important in the life of the Spirit, the horizontal dimension of our faith keeps it from being a charade or from becoming mere posturing. It prevents our faith from becoming a show put on in the sight of others. It is a concern of loving neighbor that keeps our faith from producing the ashen fruits of vanity and complacency. So our faith compels us to serve not only God, but also to serve and look after others.
The title of this morning’s sermon is “The Most Dangerous Idol of Them All.” What is the most dangerous idol of them all? It’s the one that we construct for ourselves that somehow leaves out these two most important facts of what it means to be a child of God. Really, all of the Christian faith can be summed up quite nicely by the two important points of today’s text: “Be holy, because I the Lord am holy” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Any way of believing or any manner of living that does not take these two commands seriously is an idol that does not honor God’s intention for his children.
So what is it in your life that is impeding your relationship with God? How many of us here this morning would be bold enough to declare that we aspire to genuine holiness? Not the kind of holiness that looks down its nose at others, but the kind of holiness of life that, by its very living, invites those who do not yet know the goodness of Jesus to seek him and to know him. When we truly do that, then God will be praised among his people and his Kingdom will more fully come on earth even as it is in heaven…
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
THE MOST DANGEROUS IDOL IN THE WORLD