Epiphany 7, 2017, Prairietown, Leviticus 19:1-2; 9-18
You Shall be Holy: 1. Demand 2. Promise 3. Command
Professor Nauman, a long-ago seminary professor, assigned his students to write a paper on the Holy Trinity. He thought this would be the moment of truth for one of his students who showed up in class to answer “here” and that was pretty much the sum of his contribution for the day. Sure enough, the student turned in his paper, ten pages, double spaced, repeated over and over, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Holy…”
“I would have given him as ‘A’” Professor Nauman said, “But he put a period after the last “Holy.”
All the double-spaced pages in the world would not be enough to contain the holiness of the Lord our God. And yet, when the Lord spoke to Moses in the Old Testament reading from Leviticus his opening words were, “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.” Being holy does not only applies to the congregation of the people Israel, but also to the congregation of the people of Zion, Prairietown.
This morning, Jesus doesn’t leave us off the hook either. Sitting on the mount he continues his sermon to his disciples. Jesus tells us at the end of our Gospel reading this morning, “You must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Talk about laying some high expectations upon us. No wonder the prophet Isaiah was filled with high anxiety when he saw the Lord sitting on his throne in the temple with the six winged Seraphim fluttering about shouting, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” The whole place shaking and filled with smoke. Isaiah declared “Woe is me! I am lost.” When Jesus called Peter to be a disciple, he fell on his knees and pleaded, “Depart from me! I’m a sinful man.” Did not we confess at the start of our service, that we are by nature sinful? We sinned against God in our thoughts, by what we did and by what we have said. We haven’t loved God as we ought nor our neighbor. We deserve God’s punishment beginning at this very moment and not letting up even in eternity.
Then God says, “You shall be holy…You shall be perfect…?” Folks we are in a heap of trouble, because we can never generate holiness and perfection from within ourselves. Such attempts can lead us into a holier-than-thou attitude. We can always find someone who is less holy and more imperfect than we are. But our point of comparison is not with one another, but with God. Anyway next Sunday we’re going to be back here confessing that “Woe is me, I’m a sinful person.”
Well I seem to have dug us into a deep hole. But how do we get out? But that word of the Lord, “You shall be holy.,” is not only a demand, but also a promise. Of late, our epistle lessons have come from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. So, let’s see if Paul has any help and it turns out he does.
He writes, “To God’s church that was made holy by Christ Jesus and called to be God’s holy people.” The people of Zion Lutheran church are holy, along with “people everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And “you have been washed and made holy and you have God’s approval in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” The blessing of holiness came to you personally at the baptism font where you were washed and became an acceptable residence for the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Your body is now a temple of the Holy Spirit. We did not become temples of the Spirit through any effort on our part, temples do not build themselves. We don’t belong to ourselves but the Spirit and are called to use our bodies in such a way that our lives bring glory to God. St. Paul tells us, “you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God. All things are yours…the world or life or death or the present or the future-all are yours.” You see the Lord promised, “You shall be holy,” and so you are. When Jesus speaks to us of perfection, he is addressing us as blessed people, because, “Blessed are those who recognize they are spiritually helpless. The kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”
Martin Luther wrote, “Divinity may terrify man. Expressible majesty will crush him. That is why Christ took on our humanity, save for sin, that he should not terrify us but rather that with love and favor console and confirm.” A six-year-old girl experienced the love and favor of Christ while in church. She didn’t understand the liturgy. She couldn’t read too well. She scribbled throughout some long, boring sermons. Nonetheless, she wanted to be there. One day she was asked what she liked most about going to church. “Communion,” she replied. Upon further questioning she revealed that Communion was important to her because she would come with the family to the Lord’s Table and while the rest of the people received the bread and wine, the pastor would lay his hand on her head and give her a blessing. So God also showed his love and favor through the human touch of his Son, Jesus Christ, who gave his body and his blood on the cross to save us.
You shall be holy is not only a demand and a promise, but is also a command. The thrust of our lessons this morning is to put our holiness into action, as God put His holiness into action through Jesus Christ. We demonstrate our holiness, and God’s by loving our neighbors as ourselves. That is take care of the poor and the stranger. We were once strangers to the kingdom of God but are now a chosen people, a holy nation, people who belong to God.
Local food pantries are in constant need of supplies to aid our poorer neighbors. One of the strongest of God’s commands in the bible is to welcome the stranger. Even in rural areas where I grew up in northern Wisconsin now have immigrants and refugees in their midst, just as my grandparents were strangers in that same area nearly 150 years ago. The text continues with an interesting admonition, “don’t curse a deaf person or put a cement block in front of a blind person.” In other words, don’t shame, and humiliate those who are defenseless. In our day, we might think of the problem of bullying, including bullying on social media. Jesus says to not only love our friends, but our enemies remembering that we were once enemies of God who took it upon himself to reconcile us to himself. He calls us to turn the other cheek, for he turned his cheek to the smiters.
Though we are holy in Christ Jesus and perfected in him, our everyday practice of holiness won’t be perfect. A woman heard from her church that migrants were living in tents in a vacant lot without electricity, running water in the hot dry summer. She thought, “I have a three bedroom house for just myself and my two daughters, who are with their dad half the time. I have room in the cool basement for some mattresses. She made the offer and a family of five, a mother and four school-age children moved until the start of school.
The woman knew she had done a good thing. But she was surprised that she also resented it. What bothered her most was not being able to us the single bathroom in the house at a moment’s notice. “isn’t it my house?” she grumbled to herself. It appears that not only our bodies and lives belong to God so do our houses and all our blessings. Intended to be shared in the practice of everyday holiness.
Thus I close with some prayer thoughts from the Psalmist: Lord teach me, how to live…help me understand…lead me on the path of your word…direct my heart…Turn my eyes away from worthless things. Give me a new life in your ways, O my God, my Savior. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.