Scripture: Leviticus 19:1-18
““I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.” – Robert Fulghum
I have a confession to make…. I am a terrible Canadian. I am a terrible Canadian because growing up I never read or watched the Canadian Classic ‘Anne of Green Gables’. Now in my defence I did spend most of my life prior to university abroad living in other countries, so I didn’t have the same opportunity as most to really be introduced to this staple of Canadian childhood, but nonetheless I admit I have failed in my ‘Canadianness’, I’m very sorry about that eh?
Luckily for me I have two young girls who are voracious readers and adore reading stories, and so each night as they fall asleep Bethany or I reads to them from a chapter book by nightlight or reading an e-book. We began with some of the classic children’s books, Charlotte’s Web, Roald Dahl, and the Boxcar Children and now finally we have landed upon Anne of Green Gables. Now I have the opportunity to make up for lost time! Over the past few weeks or so as I have begun to read the story of Anne and her arrival at Avonlea with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert and the thing that has struck me the most is how the author, Lucy Montgomery, describes the imagination of Anne and Marilla’s constant attempts to stifle it. Anne it seems is constantly on the precipice between the real world and the world of her imagination and Marilla constantly chides the girl for what seems to her an unbecoming and unhelpful trait.
I am admittedly very early on in the story, probably around 10 chapters in, but I am caught each time by Marilla’s critique of imagination. Sure, Anne often get a little too carried away in her imaginings, but Marilla’s matter of fact disregard for imagination is unsettling. There is great beauty and potential in the imaginations of Anne, there is hope for the future, reveling in beauty and endless possibilities.
And so the reason I think it is unsettling to me because it rings true of the world we live in 21st Century. How many of you when you were children imagined your life would be different than it has turned out? How many of you imagined a world that was brighter or fuller of joy than the world we live in today? Perhaps you imagined yourself in an exciting job, but were told by someone ‘oh you can’t do that, you’re not smart enough, or you’re can’t do that job you’re a woman, or don’t kid yourself set your sights lower. The Marillas of the world are a strong force in society – I am so accustomed to the rhetoric of stifling imagination that I sometimes catch myself frustrated and shutting down the wonderings and fantastical imaginations of my children – it is a terrible predicament to be in.
I believe that the Western Church is in a similar predicament. We have similarly stifled our own imagination. Whether it was in the great success of the post-WWII church, or the sharp decline of Western Christianity from the 1970s on, the church has been seemingly so pre-occupied with either respectability, self-preservation or decline and death to truly cultivate an imagination rooted in the very Word of God and the picture of the Kingdom that God paints for us in our Scriptures.
Take the Old Testament for example, and particularly the book of Leviticus which we will be focusing on for the next 8 weeks: how many of you are truly excited about reading the Old Testament? How many of you if you’ve tried to read the Bible cover to cover became bogged down right at this book, the book of Leviticus? Excitement, imagination, creativity are not the words that any of us would likely use to describe the book of Leviticus, and unfortunately they probably aren’t the words we would use for any of the Bible. We have been taught that reading Scripture is something we need to do, a duty, but rarely are we spurred to heights of imagination or whimsy as we read the Bible.
And yet imagination and creativity are at the very heart of the Scriptures – yes even here in the book of Leviticus. If we believe that the Bible is the Word of God, or inspired by God – than how can it not be full of limitless creative and imaginative energy. The Bible reveals to us the very nature of God – a divine artist, a divine poet – speaking realities into existence and offering glorious visions of the future, making the impossible possible.
When I was contemplating focusing on the Old Testament this year, a conversation I had in seminary kept coming back to me. We were discussing the Biblical notion of Jubilee (a topic we will address later in our series) and someone in the class asked ‘But did Israel ever actually enact Jubilee? It just seems a little too fanciful and farfetched’. Without missing a beat the professor responded, ‘It doesn’t really matter if it was ever a reality, at least they had the imagination to believe it was ideal and possible.’
At least they had the imagination…
Do we as a Church, even as this local church, have an imagination rooted in the Triune God? Do we allow Jesus to transform our imaginations to envision a world that is beyond the scope of our abilities? Do we read scripture and wonder – wonder and imagine about the possibilities it opens up for us and for the world? Is our life as a church shaped by an imagination rooted in the God we encounter in the Bible or is it shaped by the pressures of the world, the concerns, the challenges?
My hope over the next 8 weeks is not to answer these questions, but rather to spur our imaginations – to begin to cultivate a way of thinking about the Bible and the world that excites us and leaves us open to the glorious possibilities that God has in store for his Church. To do so I want to take what many would deem the driest, most boring book of the Bible – the book of Leviticus and delve into the life of Israel and what this truly remarkable book might have to teach us about living with a Biblical imagination.
You’ll notice from our reading this morning that we aren’t beginning at the beginning of the Leviticus. In fact we’re starting at chapter 19 of 27, but we are starting here because in our passage today we heard Leviticus’ version of the 10 Commandments, and on the surface Leviticus is a book of laws and these laws present the heart of the law. Many of you likely learned the 10 commandments in Sunday school, by rote until they were hammered into you memory so that you would never forget – not exactly a cultivation of imagination eh?
Laws, in fairness, don’t typically spur the imagination – In fact most of probably think of laws as restrictive things which limit our thoughts and actions. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, we typically want laws that restrict our ability to commit murder, or restrict child labour – not all restrictions are a bad thing.
The laws we heard this morning in our reading from Leviticus fall somewhat in this ‘restrictive’ category: do not turn to idols, you shall not steal, you shall not lie, you shall not defraud, you shall not render an unjust judgement. You will see however that they all point towards a more fruitful community life – murder, theft, fraud, injustice all sow discord and death within a community, and as such the restrictions are means to cultivating life.
What is striking about this passage is not necessarily the laws themselves, although they are certainly a wonderful foundation for community life, but rather where the laws come from and what they signify.
Our passage begins with God speaking to Moses. God is in relationship with Israel, he is present and he has words to share with the whole ‘congregation of the people’. God is not some distant deity sending messengers between him and his people, he is not a tyrant dictating the way things should be – no he is a God who is present with them, he is a God who seeks relationship with them, he is a God who lays out promises for his people. His intentions are for the life and community of Israel to be founded on his presence, founded on this relationship, founded on the promises he makes to his people.
That’s why throughout our passage the Lord continues to remind us: I am the Lord your God, I am the Lord, I am the Lord you God. Eight times in our passage, God reminds his people of this fact. You might think this is merely for reinforcement, or perhaps a show of power – but I think this is a reminder to his people that life that God lays out, the shape of the nation of Israel is not dependent on the efforts or merit of the people but rather on the character of God.
Furthermore, the laws that God lays our here, are not merely laws but also promises. God intends for the community of Israel to be shaped by the character of God, but he also promises that this will be so. In God’s Kingdom there will ‘no murder, no theft, no injustice, no fraud, respect within the community, care for all members’. God invited Israel to live into those realities in present, but they are also promises for the coming of God’s Kingdom – they are a foretaste of what God has in store for the world when everything finds its fulfillment in the very life of God.
And so as we begin our venture into Leviticus how can we cultivate an imagination rooted in the very presence of God, in the relationship that God seeks with us, the promises that God makes to us? What ways can you imagine that our life would be changed if it was rooted in the Biblical and Levitical understanding of God’s enduring presence with?
As a Church we need to remember that our communal life is based upon the God we encounter in Jesus, in God’s presence with us in the person of the Holy Spirit, in the promises that God has made to us of the life that he intends for each in Jesus, in the promises that God has made to us that the gates of Hell will not prevail against his Church. Let us imagine for a moment, what our life as a Church would look like if we truly believed that God was present with us, that God was constantly seeking relationship with us, that God’s promises were true for us.
One of the ways I can imagine our life would be different is that we would be assured of the flourishing of God’s church – the anxiety of finances, the anxiety of not enough volunteers and the anxiety of success would be solely dependent on God. We would work out of the joy of knowing that our ‘success’ and ‘flourishing’ was not dependent on our effort, on how good we are, on how innovative, or busy we are but rather on the God who wants to see his Kingdom flourish in the world. I can imagine that this sort of trust in God’s presence would alleviate the Western Church’s anxiety over respectability, self-preservation or decline and death to the point of freeing it up for mission and sharing of the Gospel with surrounding culture. Here at Grace church, I imagine we would not concerned about whether our upcoming Grant application is accepted, or how we are going to deal with our recent staff turnover, or about whether we like the music or what orientation we worship in but rather we would be emboldened to joyously live out and share the faith we have been given in Jesus Christ – because if we are faithful to the life that God calls us to, he promises life, he promises flourishing – perhaps not always the life or flourishing that we envision but nonetheless a promise of life, a life rooted in the presence and promises of God.
Now it’s your turn: How can you imagine our life would be different, if we truly believed that God was present among us? How can you imagine our life would be different if we truly believed that God promised us flourishing and life? How can you imagine how our life would be different if we truly believed that God sought relationship with us? How might you imagine God’s presence, promises and relationship affecting your own life?
I challenge you over the next 8 weeks and beyond to imagine these realities, to be inspired to hope, inspired to envision God’s future for you and for this church. I challenge you to see Leviticus and the whole of Holy Scripture as an inspiration for your imaginations, as a tool that the Holy Spirit uses to shape and transform us into the children of God.
Let us pray.