The Old Testament text from Leviticus 19 occurred during the time when Moses led the people of God through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. As preparation for their entrance into the Promised Land and as a matter of requirement in regards to living in covenant or relationship with God, the Israelites were given the law as a code to live by. The part of the law that Leviticus 19 comes from is often referred to as the Holiness Code. This section served to show the Israelites what it would look like to live a holy life in obedience to God.
Throughout this section of Scripture there is a recurring theme and it is pretty well laid out for us in verse two. “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Talk about raising the bar. Apparently Moses, the great leader of the people, isn’t the standard of holiness like they might have thought. Father Abraham isn’t the standard either. Abraham’s son, Isaac? No. Isaac’s son, Jacob? No. God tells the people, “be holy because I am holy.” God is the standard for what holiness looks like and that is a difficult standard to live under. It’s enough to wonder whether or not the Israelites really knew what they were getting into as the chosen people of God.
“You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” It is a difficult standard to bear. It is as frightening a benchmark that one might find. If it seems unreachable and unattainable, well that’s because it is. Yet it is God’s desire and command.
God is a holy God. He is other. God is separate. God is the Holy One and therefore God is held apart entirely from anything else in creation. In calling us to be holy, he is calling us to be apart; to be different from the surrounding world through adherence to the law given through Moses.
The Holiness Code in Leviticus lays out everything that is commanded of those who are to be holy because God is holy, but in chapter 19 of Leviticus, this command to be holy because God is holy is fleshed out for us in the realm of how we treat other people. In other words, chapter 19 tells us that our holiness is measured by how we relate to other people.
This is summed up by the second half of verse 18, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” As we heard in this morning’s Gospel, this is a verse that is held in very high regard by Jesus. For Jesus, loving your neighbor as yourself comes only after loving God with your entire being. Jesus goes on to tell us that the entire message of the law and prophets hangs upon these two commandments. Everything is summed up in them.
So when God commands us and the Israelites to “love your neighbor as yourself” in connection to imitating God’s holiness, God essentially tells us is that the demonstration or outward expression of our holiness before a holy God shows itself most clearly in our relationships with other people. In other words, if holiness could be measured, the degree to which we are holy is contingent upon, at least in part, how we love others. Your holiness or lack thereof is on display through your relationships with people. And if that wasn’t frightening enough, Leviticus and Christ reminds us that everyone is our neighbor. Strangers, enemies, family members (gasp) and friends alike are all our neighbors.
Understood in this light, a commandment like “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” connected with “love your neighbor as yourself” really exposes one’s own selfishness doesn’t it? It exposes just how un-holy we really are.
My son Jude is a few months away from being three years old now, so he is getting to be quite social with others, especially other children. Not too long ago, a little boy about a year older than Jude moved in next door to us and so the two of them have certainly enjoyed each other’s company. They really are boys in every sense of the word. One of their favorite things to do is to play in this section of dirt next to our house. In fact, over the last month or so there has been a permanent fixture of trucks and implements lying in this dirt, ready for Jude and Lucas to play with at a moment’s notice. The favorite toy in the fleet belongs to Lucas. It is as my son would say, a “backholodo” or “back hoe loader.”
Now let me tell you, my son’s sinful nature and depravity is usually on full display daily, like all of ours to be sure, though perhaps more explicitly. However, when it comes to the “backholodo” his sinful flesh is exhibited magnificently in all its un-glory. When someone else plays with the “backholodo” one would think that the world has come to an end. All of a sudden this sweet little boy who loves to hug his sister and tell his mommy that he loves her transforms into this selfish little monster. His face contorts and his eyes and nose secrete strange liquids. Foam pours out from his mouth and his hands become claw-like vises capable of clinging to any item he desires like a pit bull might latch onto a mailman’s leg.
For Jude, loving his neighbor as himself is a difficult prospect. Now of course, it is easy to look at this illustration and brush it off as a two year old simply doing what two year olds do. But if we are truly honest with ourselves we aren’t really that far from our two-year-old selves in our ability to love our neighbors as ourselves, are we? Though we may play nice most of the time, all it takes is the right situation for our true selfish desires to come forth.
Loving others as we love ourselves is really an impossible obstacle to overcome because our own love for ourselves is corrupt and is itself sinful and fallen. We are our own gods and our real desire is to give our worship to ourselves. This is the nature of the fall of humanity in Genesis two and three. We weren’t content to be images of God, rather we wanted to be gods and so we bit the fruit offered by the serpent. There is no room for us to give the worship which we crave so much to some other being. And so any hope of truly loving God and loving others was crowded out long ago.
In all of this the commandment we find in Leviticus 19 to “be holy because God is holy” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” exposes us for the dirty rotten scoundrels that we really are. You and I have been convicted by the law and have shown ourselves to be unholy. We have found that the law is seemingly completely insatiable in its requirements for holiness and so we have discovered that we are unable to complete or fulfill the conditions of the law no matter how hard we might try.
Jude, like all children, loves his toys and his snack foods, like Cheerios or raisins. And so, at the end of the day when it is time for bed, there is no shortage of action figures, trucks, or building blocks scattered around the floor. Nor is there a shortage of Cheerios or Cheerio dust ground into the carpet. We try our best to have Jude clean before he heads up to bed, but no matter how much he sets himself to cleaning, the mess is never perfectly taken care of. Usually, mommy or daddy have to go over things afterwards and simply do it ourselves to get the desired results. He always misses something. At this point he is quite simply incapable of cleaning his messes up perfectly.
In the same way, no amount of neighborly love we do apart from Christ can make up for any un-love we may have shown at some other time. There is nothing we can possibly do to be holy. There is nothing we can do to merit God’s forgiveness for disregarding his commands. Christ is the only one who perfectly fulfills and satisfies the insatiable requirements of the law.
When Jesus began his ministry, he came before John the Baptist and presented himself to be baptized. And in that moment, he was baptized into our despicable, wretched, and unholy selves. He was clothed with our sinful nature, the sinful nature of his neighbors – us. But unlike us, he lived a perfect, holy, and blameless life before God the Father and in the most pure and holy instance of loving your neighbor as yourself, bore our that which he was baptized into upon the cross where he suffered the wrath of God on our behalf; for our sake. And then, when Christ was raised from dead and ascended into heaven he presented our redeemed humanity before the Father as holy and blameless.
All of this was done so that God could therefore declare those baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection to be holy, blameless, and righteous for Christ’s sake. God’s command, “you shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” now becomes God’s declaration to us. God says to you now, “you are holy because Christ imparts his holiness upon you. I complete the law for you and I declare you to be holy for the sake of my son Jesus Christ. I choose you and I welcome you as a child of God for you are mine.”
As Jesus was baptized into your sinful flesh to redeem it, you were baptized into his death and resurrection bringing life and salvation to you. This is God’s word of hope and promise to you, “You are holy because I declare you to be holy, for Christ’s sake.” Amen.