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Leviticus 23–Be an Odd Duck

I have been so encouraged that almost all of our church has joined on our Bible reading plan for the year. These passages in Levitius are challenging because they are so dense with meaning that they require a lot of interpretation. So I want to encourage you to take the time to think about and interpret what you’re reading. If you have the Daily Walk commentary, or if you have a Study Bible, you’ll be able to gain a lot more from what you are reading. Because these chapters are packed with good news for us today! And I hope to show you that by studying Leviticus 23 in depth.
First of all, let’s take a minute to appreciate that God commands us to celebrate! God commands the people of Israel to observe certain holidays, and most of these holidays are festivals. They’re parties! They involve a break from work to rest and rejoice in the goodness of God, and to be together as a community. I like the Charles Swindoll quote that was in one of our readings: Americans tend to “worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship.” Some of us live to work instead of working to live! We are called to reclaim the practice of Sabbath, to actually make rest part of the rhythm of our lives.
We as a church and as individuals need to be people who know how to relax and enjoy life. Our culture teaches that fun comes from spending money, gambling, alcohol and drugs, sex. But the message of Leviticus is holiness. What does “holiness” mean? It doesn’t mean we are better than other people; the true meaning of holiness, qodesh in Hebrew, is “set apart.” We are called to be set apart; to stand out from the crowd, to show a different way to live. We are called to be like the cool ducks in the image above; to show people holy ways to have fun. This is why we as Christians need to celebrate together, to spend time together, to have fun. This is why coffee hour is important; the Tigers game is important; movie nights are important; Worship in the Park is important. We need to find holy ways to enjoy life as a community, and be people of joy.
So let us take a closer look at the festivals God outlined for His people. Pastor Daniel Fusco of Crossroads Community Church points out that each of these festivals has a historical meaning, a prophetic meaning, and a personal meaning. Each one of them points to God’s work in the past, God’s work in the future, and God’s work for us today.
Begin with the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. These festivals were to remind the people of Israel of their deliverance from Egypt. It must have been difficult to remember that they were once enslaved; but we know that one of the best ways to trust God today is to remember what God did yesterday. There’s a saying in the Black church: “He never failed me yet.” That’s what Israel is called to remember in the feast of Passover—that He didn’t fail them in the past, and he won’t fail them now. Christians also believe that God was pointing His people to the future: reminding them of the sacrifice of the lamb to teach them about the sacrifice of the Lamb, Christ. We believe that when the blood of Christ covers our doorposts, covers our lives, the angel of death will pass over us, and we can share in His resurrection. So, when John the Baptist says, “Behold! The Lamb of God, who comes to take away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) anyone who had grown up celebrating the Passover would see that God’s prophecy was being fulfilled.
Finally, the seven days of unleavened bread had a personal meaning. The New Testament says: “a little leaven leaveneth the whole loaf.” Yeast, or leaven, was a symbol of sinfulness in the Old Testament. Why? Because yeast causes bread to rise and get all puffed up. What does sin do but makes us all puffed up? Sin happens when we put ourselves before God and others. We think of ourselves as the center of the universe. We rise up in our own estimation. And this can happen in a positive or negative way. Do you know someone who is always saying, “woe is me, my life’s a disaster, I’m a wreck”? We can become down on ourselves such that we see ourselves negatively as the center of the universe. And don’t just think about your neighbor, your spouse, your friend; we all do it. So this festival calls us to put God first, and remind ourselves to be humble. “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” And that’s what the festival of unleavened bread calls us to do.
The next festivals are the feasts of harvest. The first is the feast of first harvest, in which God called the people to give Him the first fruits of what they grew. It was a reminder that without God, we have nothing at all; that the blessings we enjoy aren’t because of our labor, but because of God’s love. This goes directly against what our culture preaches, that God helps those who help themselves. The Scriptures tell us that God helps those who can’t help themselves. Today, we are still called to give to God first. I remember recently we had a party at our house, and, as people often do, we had a break between pizza and the cake and ice cream. But before we had the cake and ice cream, J.P. said, “say grace?” I mean, the dessert really deserves its own grace. We should think of God before we enjoy our paycheck, our dinner, even before we enjoy a party with family and friends, we should first recognize God’s blessings with an offering, of time, of money, of prayer. Because after all, he gave us His best. As 1 Corinthians 15 says, Christ is the firstfruits of those who have died. God gave us the firstfruits. This festival reminds us that God provided His best for us; and that God will not forget us, but is coming back to gather us up in the final day of harvest, when we will share in the joy of His kingdom.
The next festival of harvest comes fifty days later; it’s called Pentecost, which means fifty. Fifty days after the first harvest, the people of Israel celebrated the harvest again with more offerings to the Lord. Because we aren’t called to give God 10%, or 30% like we give the government; we are called to give God 100%, to place all we have at God’s disposal, to look at our lives and ask: what does God want me to do with this? That’s why Israel was called, when they harvested, to leave the corners of their fields for foreigners, for strangers, for the poor. You will notice that throughout these chapters, God explicitly calls the people to treat the foreigners, people who worshiped idols, with grace and love. In the same way, God calls us not to use all we have on ourselves, but to give to others, whether they share our faith and culture or do not.
And giving to others refers not just to physical gifts, but to spiritual gifts as well. How many of us hoard our salvation? We know we’re saved; we think of Christ as the center of our lives; but tell others about Him? No, too risky. Too scary.
From time to time I get obsessed with stories of the Titanic. It’s just such a fascinating event, on so many levels. But the one part that disturbs me the most is that almost none of the lifeboats were filled to capacity. People were sitting in half-full lifeboats as human beings called to them, screamed for them; the people in the lifeboats even beat others down with their oars, and not a single lifeboat went back. They were scared of being pulled under, of being drowned themselves. They were scared that the lifeboats would get too full. So they sat, and listened to the screams.
How many of us are sitting on lifeboats, just watching others drown? We know the way to safety and salvation; but we don’t want to share. So we just let them drown in their sin and pain and brokenness.
The message of Pentecost was that we are called to share with others, physically and spiritually, even others very different from ourselves. That’s why it was on Pentecost that the church broke out of its little locked-up room and went out into the streets, preaching to people from all over the world. They were sharing not physical bread, but Jesus, who is the spiritual Bread of Life. So leave the corners of your fields! Share with others, especially those very different from yourself. Give them physical and spiritual bread for life.
The next festival is the Feast of Trumpets. I remember how our band, StarrCross, blew their New Year’s blowouts on January 1st before worship. Leviticus 23 teaches us that we serve a joyful God: He wants us to blow noisemakers on the New Year! God commands the people to blow the Shofar, the ceremonial trumpet, on the New Year. God put a New Year celebration right in the Bible! God wanted the people to celebrate new life, to celebrate a fresh start. He wants us to see how he is making all things new, and he is pointing us to that great day “when the trumpet shall sound, and the dead in Christ will rise.” (1 Corinthians 15)
Next we come to the Day of Atonement. And this is the only one of the holidays God
institutes that is more a fast than a feast. This is the time for God’s people to come before God, and deny themselves, and to be purified from their sins. They did this by coming into the presences of God.
When the Temple was built, it was built in a series of concentric rings, and you could only enter in so far as your status allowed. Gentiles, non-Jewish people, could not come in whatsoever. Jewish women could come into the women’s court; Jewish men could come into the Israelite’s court; Priests could come into the inner court; and specially designated priests could come into the holy place, when they were performing rituals or prayers. But the Holy of Holies was where God lived, and it was separated from the holy place from a beautiful curtain, which, as you read, was beautifully embroidered in blue, red, and violet. That curtain could only be entered into by the high priest, and only on one day a year: the Day of Atonement.
Matthew 27:51 says that at the moment Christ died, the curtain was torn in two.
Since this place was so sacred to the Day of Atonement, all those who heard what had happened knew that God had fully and finally atoned for their sins: and that God had allowed all people, Jewish and Gentile, male and female, to enter into life with Him.
As Christians, we recognize God’s atoning death on Good Friday. Many Christians like to go from Palm Sunday to Easter, without stopping at the difficult places in between. But we are called to recognize how our sin separates us from God, to thank God for His atoning sacrifice in Christ. We are called to make space for atonement; to observe Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, to observe Advent, and Lent, and to confess our sins to God. I love the prayer of confession every Sunday; it feels good to be honest, to admit I’ve messed up, and to receive forgiveness. We need to recognize our faults, and seek forgiveness. And that is what the Day of Atonement teaches us.
Finally, we have the festival of booths, or some translations call it the festival of shelters or tents; it was a festival where the people of Israel had to make tents and live in them, to remember their days of wandering in the wilderness, and give thanks for God’s deliverance. I kind of think it’s God’s way of making people go camping. Now, a lot of us hate camping.  At my house, we like a comedian named Jim Gaffigan who says, “why would you want to burn a couple of vacation days sleeping on the ground outside? You’ll wake up freezing and covered in a rash. If it’s so great living outside, why are the bugs all trying to get into my house?” But whether you like camping or hate it, God calls us sometimes to sacrifice our creature comforts for the sake of His kingdom. Reinhold Niebuhr is accredited with saying that: “The Gospel was meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
I’m a person who’s enjoyed a very comfortable life; I’m white, my family is upper middle class, I’m straight, I’ve had a lot of privileges and access to education. So, I guess I’ve tried to keep my comfort in check by serving wherever I can. I’ve been on a lot of short-term mission trips; I made it a point to go to not only several third-world countries, but to some of the poorest places in America: the Appalachian communities, the Native American reservations, and communities of migrant farm workers. While I don’t feel comfortable comparing poverty to poverty, I can tell you that from what I have seen, I know that we in the United States are very financially blessed; we have a lot of resources other countries simply do not have. The trip that was most important in my sense of call to ministry was in the Philippines. It was an opportunity I had in college. On the other side of the world, far from my home, I was in a corrugated tin shack, where the family served us a plate of chicken and a can of Coke, because everyone knows Americans like chicken and Coke. I was partway through the plate of food and the can when I realized that plate and that can were intended for ten people to share. That night, my friend Rachel and I shared a sleeping mat. There was one mosquito net, and the family, a mother, father, and little boy, gave it to us, leaving themselves exposed to the possibility of malaria. We lay under that mosquito net and listened to the rats scurry overhead. In the morning, the mother kindly gave us tissues to clean our nostrils from the black dust that we had collected in our nostrils overnight, in this place where companies, many of them under American ownership and direction, don’t follow environmental regulations. The mother Dan stayed with had lost two of her children to respiratory disease.
That trip afflicted this comfortable girl, albeit in such a small way and for such a short time, and led me to reprioritize my life. It eventually led me here.
God calls us to step out of our comfort zone sometimes; to leave our nice warm houses; to live in tents; to be reminded that this Earth is not our home. That this life is just a journey; that our bodies are but a shell, and to place our trust, not in the things of the world, but in the things of God.     So these festivals are here to teach us: to make time for God. To make space for God. Step out of your comfort zone. Reach out of your lifeboat. Be holy. Be the duck in sunglasses. Stand out from the crowd. It’s not just a good thing to be. It’s what God has been commanding us to be, in hundreds of ways, for thousands of years, here, in the middle of Leviticus, and in so, so many places, over and over until we listen.
It’s also the best possible way to live.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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