Scripture: Leviticus 26
Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion, too. Imagine all the people. Living life in peace… You.. – Imagine by John Lennon
Who recognizes those lyrics? They are from the second verse of John Lennon’s famous song ‘Imagine’ – where he waxes melodically about imagining the world a better place. When I was attending seminary, I lived near Sheppard Subway station and would take the subway into class. On many afternoons and evenings as I returned home for the day my ears would be assaulted by the not so dulcet tones of a busker whose repertoire included only John Lennon’s Imagine. Performance aside – I’m sorry to say he really wasn’t a great singer – every time I heard the song, and even when I hear it on the radio today, I cringe. Imagine no heaven, imagine no religion and then there will be peace and life. Yeah right!
As an eager seminarian, every time I heard the busker sing I wanted to approach him and tear the atheism and the misplaced idealism of the song to shreds – you’ll be glad to know I never did – because it seemed to me that Lennon had completely misunderstand heaven, God and religion. In fact, what struck me about Lennon’s imagination of the world, was that how closely it resembled the Biblical vision of God’s Kingdom: Imagine no countries, no killing or dying, no greed or hunger, no possessions, living life in peace, sharing all the world. If you ignore the lines about religion and heaven, Lennon’s imagination is uncannily similar to the Biblical Imagination for what life looks like in God’s Kingdom.
Today as we conclude our 8-week series on Leviticus (you can breathe a sigh of relief now) and on cultivating a Biblical Imagination, we get a glimpse of what an imagination of this Kingdom life might look like. While Leviticus does go one more chapter, Leviticus 26 is functionally the conclusion of the book. In this chapter we get the culmination of the preceding 25 chapters of sacrifice, ethical teaching, commandments and the like. The chapter is broken up into essentially two distinct sections – both of which offer different visions or imaginations of the future: life and death.
This dichotomy between life and death runs through the whole of Leviticus; in fact, in many ways Leviticus – for all that much of it can seem foreign to us today – is a book of Life, a book that sought to teach the people of Israel what it meant to flourish as a nation under God. If you read through the first 10 verses of our passage this is evident – If Israel kept the commandments and observed them faithfully then they would have life – and not just a life of subsistence or barely enough, but rather super-abundant life. The fields would produce more than enough food, so much so that there would be so much leftover that the threshing would overtake the vintage and the vintage the sowing – meaning there would be so much produce that Israel wouldn’t know what to do with it! They would eat their fill of bread and live securely in the land, and not only that but all the predatory animals and their enemies would be removed from the land. And the kicker: God would maintain his covenant, his promises with them, and he would be their God, and dwell with them, walking among his people. The very holiness and presence of God would be with his people, they would know the love and mercy of God intimately.
As we move to the remainder of the passage the outlook is a little bleaker for Israel if they are disobedient – the list of ‘punishments’ (so to speak) is pretty dire. Terror, consumption and fever, life wasting away, enemies overtaking them, land yielding no produce and on and on. In fact, a quick reading of this passage might make us think that God is vindictive and malicious. There are two parts of our passage that are interesting to note however – first the insistence that, these punishments will happen if Israel breaks their covenant with God, and second that God will break Israel’s proud glory.
A covenant is a set of promises and agreements between two parties. In the outlook of abundant life in verses 3-13 we have God promising to maintain his covenant; and in the curses we have Israel willfully breaching that covenant. In fact Israel is completely responsible for the ‘death’ which falls upon it. While God takes action to punish the sins of Israel, it is clear that they bring the punishment upon themselves – and that isn’t really too hard to understand. Throughout the course of Leviticus, God has laid out the shape of Israel to be life-giving – care for the poor and alien, care for the land, proper moral and sexual ethics, community boundaries – and so to defy these would be self-destructive. Israel chooses death by taking actions which do not cultivate a life of flourishing, whether that is the disregard of the poor and oppressed, or the theft or the mistreatment of the land. By defying the life-giving commands of God, Israel brings death upon themselves.
The second key phrase is Israel’s proud glory, Throughout the Old Testament – as you read the history (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles) and the prophets, Israel is almost always admonished and punished for glorifying themselves, exalting themselves and therefore forgetting the covenant with God. They say pride goes before the Fall and for Israel, this is the case. Their pride and glory, obscures their obedience to God, and brings death upon themselves.
Whether or not Israel is responsible for the ‘death’ that befalls them, the list of punishments can seem pretty extreme. As we read this passage today, you might have been saying to yourself “I’m glad we don’t read Leviticus very often!”. The Good News however is that even as we strive to live a life of obedience to God, Jesus has taken all the sentence of death and punishment on him on the Cross.
In Matthew 5 when Jesus says he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it – this is part of the natural extension of this. He has fulfilled the punishment of the law on our behalf. All of the death which is the product of disobedience and sin, all the punishments, all of it is taken by Jesus on the Cross, the penalty is paid so that Israel, the church and all of us can live the life that God intends. Jesus’ death and resurrection open for us the possibility of Leviticus’ vision for a super-abundant future – a future where we can be God’s people, where God walks with us and God dwells among us.
Throughout the last 8 weeks I have stressed that all of Leviticus revolves around the notion that God desires to be with the people of Israel, that all the commandments and statutes are designed to cultivate a life in Israel that is compatible with the very life of God. This is the life that Jesus opens for the church in his life, death and resurrection. Jesus calls Israel, his disciples and the church to return to faithfulness and he gives us the ability to respond in faith to God’s grace. Jesus takes the penalty and sting of death and invites us into a life that is fruitful, that is superabundant walking in the commandments of God.
As we conclude our look at Leviticus and how it can help us cultivate a biblical imagination, I want to suggest that the primary learning we get from Leviticus is that everything we do: our worship on a Sunday morning, our sacrifices of time, talent and treasure, our ethics, our social-justice, outreach, our coffee-hour, our social events – all of it needs to reflect the God we encounter in Jesus, all of it even the bits which seem most trivial need to be in line with the love, grace, mercy and life of God that we experience in Jesus and the whole witness to character of God in the Scriptures.
That is what it means to cultivate life, that is what will allow us as a Church and as people to flourish and experience the super-abundance of Grace that Leviticus gives us a glimpse into. If I had to imagine a future for God’s church and the world, just as John Lennon did in his song Imagine, that is where I would begin with life revolving around God; life revolving around Jesus; life patterned after God’s commandments to love God and neighbour. That would bring peace, that would bring future that Lennon longed for and imagined. Will you imagine that future with me?
Let us pray.
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