Sunday, May 22, 2016
God created the world. This is basic belief of Christianity. Yet, we live in a post-enlightenment world, which, among other things, means a lot of people have problems with this simple statement – God created the world. While this might be assumed in Church, some simply don’t believe it.
Maybe you are one. You hear it. But you know that the statement comes from authority of the Bible. The Bible, if read as an official record, only accounts for about 6000-10,000 years. Physicists and biologists are quite certain the earth is 4.5 billion years old and the universe is 14 billion years old.
We know that science leads to technological breakthroughs. We have seen the skyscrapers. We hold in our phones all the knowledge of world. Diseases are eradicated. All these advances begin with science. So we trust science, whatever we mean by ‘science.’ This path has so many turns, we’re not sure we can find our way out of this forest. We trust science; science says the universe is billions of years old. The Bible seems to say something else. So we end up doubting the simple statement: God created the world.
Even in the church, where such a statement appears to be painfully obvious, our lives are lived in such a way that we don’t really believe it. Oh, we say, yes of course, we believe God is creator. But when you look at the choices we make – choices that indicate our values and our deepest held beliefs, do our choices reveal that in our hearts we believe God truly is God?
Or is something else God – the God to whom we give allegiance? Is a certain lifestyle the god that we actually serve? The successful, middle class lifestyle. Is that god the one who dictates how we live? Does a particular ideology hold more sway over us than the God described in the Bible? The tolerance ideology, in which everyone must be affirmed, the self is the ultimate measure, and no one must ever be question, criticized, or asked to change. Is that ideology calling the shots in how we think, choose, and live? Examples abound. Political movements, family dynamics, competing loyalties, personal appetites – all these forces vie to tell us who we are and how we are to live.
We have spent five weeks counting today paying attention to another voice – the voice of the Holy Spirit. God is telling us who we are and how we are to live. God claims the authority to call us to a way of living. I have over and over emphasized this. It is not only pastors, prophets, professors, missionaries, theologians, and chaplains who get called. Those religious specialists each have a unique calling, noted by titles like reverend, ‘father,’ and ‘doctor.’ These unique roles are important, but your role is important too. We are, each one of us, called.
Why? Because God is the Lord.
Memorize the second half of Leviticus 19, verse 2. Fix that portion of scripture on your mind. Emblazon that half of a verse on your heart. You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.
Imagine this being said to you, the individual human. You are created in the image of God. Perhaps you hear this and have no earthly idea what it means. One thing it means is God had something in mind when you were made. God calls you to be holy.
You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. Imagine this being said to the entire church family. As a group, we are brought together for a purpose – God’s purpose. Individuals and the church corporate are to be holy as God is holy. We are called to this.
Everything we have said over the past five weeks leads to this. We have said we are called to fellowship at the Communion table in the Lord’s Supper and at the common table in meals. We are called to be givers and receivers of hospitality.
We are called to a story. We understand our lives as stories that should be told. We understand that the gospel comes to life when our stories intersect with and are woven into God’s story. We are called by God to live the gospel story and to share it.
We are called to forgiveness. The stinking pile that threatens the aromatic beauty of the Jesus way is sin. Sin clings, sin reeks, and sin sucks the life out of us. But on the cross, Jesus has defeated sin completely and finally. So the threat is actually no threat. We are fragranced with grace. We are called to receive forgiveness and to give it. We live as forgiven people, freed from sin.
Fourth, we are called to renewed humanity. As we adjust to the idea of being forgiven and freed from sin, the wisdom of the Holy Spirit fills us. At this point it is perfectly normal to assume that death is not part of our long-term future. Yes, the world is still in sin. No redemption is not complete. But it is happening and complete restoration of God’s good creation is coming and we, in Christ, are part of it. So even as our bodies die, we look forward to resurrection and life lived in healthy bodies that cannot be injured or killed, and this life is lived in good relationships, right relationship with God and with others.
My certainty that all of us are called to fellowship, story, forgiveness, and renewal comes from God – my understanding of who God is.
I earlier urged us to commit the latter half of Leviticus 19:2 to memory. You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. Now, we look to the setting. Where and when did God say this and to whom did God say this? At the beginning of verse 2, where God instructs Moses: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel.” He’s addressing the entire nation gathered at the foot of the mountain in the Sinai wilderness after they have fled Egypt. There are words in the Bible that are only for priests. This verse is not among them. Who did God tell “be holy”? Everyone.
Who was this ‘everyone?’ Israel had been a nation of slaves under the heel of a cruel taskmaster. The Egyptian Pharaoh in the book of Genesis is kind to Joseph and his brothers, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
By the time we turn the page to Exodus, the second book of the Bible, the kind Pharaoh has died. Joseph and his 11 brothers have sired numerous sons and daughters who in turn each became parents of large families. The next generation did the same and so on, so that what began as a family is at the beginning of Exodus a growing nation. The new Pharaoh has forgotten the relationship with Joseph. This new despot feels threatened by this burgeoning population and enslaves them.
Who is this ‘everyone’ of Leviticus 19? They are a people who were powerless to do anything other than Pharaoh’s bidding until Moses, under the power of God, freed them. So, they went from slaves to wandering homeless people. Now, if I said, “Word association,” and I hollered out “holy,” would you immediately think words like “slave,” “homeless,” “beaten,” “powerless,” and “downtrodden?” These words describe the Israel gathered at the mountain in Leviticus 19. God looked at these desperate wanders and said, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. Holiness is imparted by God on the most unlikely of people.
In his book Desiring the Kingdom, a guide for me throughout this series, James K.A. Smith says, “Gathering [for worship] indicates that Christians are called from the world, from their homes, from their families, to be constituted into a community capable of praising God. … [Here, we are] a new people gathered from the nations to remind the world that we are in fact one people. Gathering … is a foretaste of the unity of the communion of the saints.”[i]
When we realize that we are who we are because by coming here we have answered a call from God and it is only possible for us to be here because God called us then it makes perfect sense. Of course the people God calls “holy” are those who transitioned from defeated slavery to wandering homelessness. The mighty of that era were the Egyptians. By the time the Israelites stood at the mountain hearing God tell them to be holy those mighty Egyptians were fish food at the bottom of the Red Sea.
Why? Because the Lord God is Holy.
Because might or weakness by human standards is all the same – nothing in the light of God.
Because today nothing has changed. The mighty today, 21st century Pharaohs and power brokers, and the lowest of the low today, slaves and homeless, are all the same – nothing in the light of God.
However, this is not a sermon about how we are nothing. This is not some sweaty preachers’ spit strewn soliloquy about the wretchedness of our condition. This is an invitation to us to listen and hear. God calls the wandering Israelites to be holy as God is holy. God calls the Syrian refugee who is a Christian and is without home to be holy as God is holy.
God calls the frustrated American who can’t shake his confusion. He doesn’t know who he is supposed to be in a society where it appears that morality changes daily. He doesn’t know what’s right and wrong because what was wrong yesterday is acceptable today. And that American tries to take it all in and be faithful to God and he’s frustrated. God calls the man of faith, drowning in confused frustration. To him, God says, be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy. You are holy because I am the Lord.
So we are called. How then do we answer? Hint: the answer is not found in whether we believe the earth is billions of years old or 10,000. For the record, I believe Genesis and I believe the account scientists offer for the age of the earth and the development of life on the earth. How can I say that? Because I believe God when he says in Leviticus that He is the Lord.
As Lord, God rules over all arenas of life. God rules as we make personal choices. God rules as physicists and biologists do their research, conduct their experiments, and draw conclusions from the results. God rules when my family is at home at night and no one else is around. No one knows your family when you go, the porch light is turned off and the shades drawn. But God does and God is lord there too. In light of HB2, I’ll say this: God is even Lord in the bathroom and in the chambers of the legislature where laws are drawn up.
Gathered with Israel there at the mountain, we hear what they hear. We are called as they were. To us God says, “You shall be holy, as I, the Lord your God, am holy.” In practical terms, it means God comes first in all our thinking. God influences every choice we make. The rest of Leviticus 19 elaborates on life lived in holiness. Some of the material was essential in 1200 BC and is irrelevant in 21st century America. Some of it speaks as loudly then as now. Verse 18 – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That teaching was on the books from the beginning. In his life, Jesus demonstrated how to live it out. In all the teachings, we are completely submitted to God’s rule.
This means we are completely apart from the values of the world around us. It’s tough because most of us want to be accepted by our peers and neighbors. We want to fit in. Holiness is not an intentional move to be odd, but it is a declaration that we don’t care about fitting in. We follow the Holy Spirit’s promptings and if that means going against the grain of society, then we do so.
Pushing against the social currents as a way of living out holiness can be quite radical. We may protest unjust laws; we may take up the cause of the victim and in facing get hit ourselves; we may change our lives completely in order to live out God’s love and God’s justice. However, we can also push against the grain in small ways in our daily lives. If these small attempts to live as God’s called people became a way of life, gradually we come to realize that we can hear God’s voice when we need to and we understand the world differently than people who don’t know Him.
I was a senior in our high school church youth group, which was large. Thirty of us where on the trip to Disney World. I remember as an underclassman how hard it was for me to crack into the social cliques. I had experiences of feeling rejected. So on that trip, I looked our group and looked for the 6th graders that seemed to have no friends. My efforts were clumsy. Some of those young ones didn’t know how to react when the youth group president grabbed and said, “You’re not going to be sad and lonely left out today. You’re hanging out with us.” I am sure I had a bit of hero-complex. But residing in me deeper than that was a sense that in Christ all should welcomed and love. Holiness is to be set apart, but everyone is invited and in fact called to this state of set-apartness.
Over the years I have tried to become more delicate in my attempts to invite others into the holiness of God. Those who know me well know that blunt, blowhard 18-year-old still lurks within. And whatever warts were on you before you began to be transformed by Christ may still linger. Even so, find those small ways in which you can step to the God who invites and bring others along with you. In the rhythms of your daily life, submit to God’s rule and extend God’s love and welcome. The more God has authority in all areas of life, the more we live in the holiness to which we are called.
And the more we live as called people, the less we are products of the fallen world around us and the more we are witnesses that show world a better, God’s way, the way of forgiveness, welcome, family, and eternal life.