Recently I’ve been seeing and reading posts and comments related around the need to show love, grace and mercy to people who are broken, lost, and marginalized–both inside and outside of the body of believers. Grace is not something we are just to passively receive. Once God gives us His grace, He wants us to become conduits through which His grace gets passed on in real, personal, hands-on ways to others.
A couple of years ago I gave a sermon on the idea that discipleship was incarnational. I know I’ve posted it in other forms in the past. So in all honesty, if you have been reading me for a while, this is going to be familiar. But given the interest, and the number of new followers I have, I thought it would be helpful to have it all in one place.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. If there is sufficient interest, I will repost (or post for the first time as the case may be) the rest of the series.
Leviticus 19:1-2, 18 (NIV)
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy…Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.’”
Of the fifty states in our nation, New Jersey is I think at the top of the list for being the least appreciated. “The armpit of the nation” I have often heard it called; or “merely a bedroom community for New York and Philadelphia.” This is reinforced by the fact that the state of New Jersey has no major TV network of its own. Stations are either New York or Philadelphia. Newark, Camden, Trenton, the New Jersey Turnpike…these are all places we are told to avoid. Having lived in Trenton, seen Newark and Camden, and having many times traveled the New Jersey Turnpike, I understand the distain.
But New Jersey is also called “the Garden State.” And if you were to travel to the heart of New Jersey, you would see that it is not called “the Garden State” for nothing. New Jersey is full of beautiful gardens, woods, rivers, and trails. If you never get out of Newark or off the Turnpike you would never know what you were missing.
Leviticus is the “New Jersey” of the books of the Bible. It is full of rules, rituals, and rites that we don’t understand (and we’re not sure we want to). If you think the New Jersey Turnpike is expensive you should see the price of the sacrifices in Leviticus! Leviticus is reputed to be a long, arduous, and boring read of do’s and don’t’s (and mostly don’t’s) that do not translate well or even apply into our experience.
Yet Leviticus is the book of the Bible where God speaks the most. And while the title “Leviticus” is Latin for “of the Priests,” its audience was not focused on the priests but was aimed at everyone in the community. The central focus of the book is on holy living, a theme highlighted five times by the phrase, be holy because I am holy (11:44, 45; 19:2, 20:7, and 20:26). Leviticus deals with the reality of sin, the need for God’s grace and forgiveness and how to live out God’s love and grace with each other.
Chapter 19 opens with God telling Moses to speak to the entire assembly (verse 1). This chapter concerned everyone in Israel. God’s message begins with a preface: Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy (verse 2). The rest of the chapter is an unpacking of what that means in a wide array of circumstances:
Respect your parents (verse 3).
Observe the Sabbath (verse 3).
Don’t make idols (verse 4).
Don’t waste your fellowship offering or negate it by eating it after the proscribed time (verses 5-8).
Don’t be greedy about your harvest, but leave some for the poor (verses 9-10).
Don’t steal, rob, swear falsely, defraud, or hold back wages (verses 11-13).
Don’t mistreat the deaf or the blind (verse 14).
Don’t pervert justice (verse 15).
Don’t slander (verse 16).
Don’t do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life (verse 16).
Don’t hate anyone in your heart but let people know when you have a problem with them (verse 17).
Don’t seek revenge or bear a grudge (verse 18).
Then we come to the Scripture I want to focus on this morning. But love your neighbor as yourself (verse 18). There are three parts to this command:
What we are to do: Love your neighbor. The word love means “to have affection for.” We are to have strong feelings that make us “for” and not “against” our neighbor. Love disposes us to honor, protect, and look out for the good of others. Love moves us to be honest and fair and keeps us from taking advantage of each other. Love looks for ways to be kind and merciful. Having, cultivating, and growing in love will dispose us to keep all the previous commands and the ones following as well.
Who we are obligated to love: Love your neighbor. While the context here does not qualify “neighbor” at all (God sees it big and keeps it simple), it seems the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were teaching that neighbor was limited to fellow Israelites and did not apply to one’s enemies (remember, it is our nature to see things small and make things complicated). Jesus disagreed. Hence in Matthew 5:43-44 (NIV) He says, You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. When Jesus was specifically asked who is my neighbor? in Luke 10:29, He responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan: the foreigner saw and helped the person in need, though he was a stranger and a stranger who would never look to him for help since Jews and Samaritans hated each other. Neighbor has no small print.
How we are to do it: Love your neighbor as yourself. You are to see your neighbor as an extension of yourself and treat them accordingly. Would you give yourself mercy? Then show mercy. Would you want help? Then give help. Would you want to be treated fairly? Then give fair treatment. God wants us to see our neighbor as being ourselves.
I think to really understand this command it needs to be seen in light of verse 2, Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.
To be holy can mean to be set apart as belonging to God and it can also mean moral perfection, as when Jesus said in Matthew 5:48 (NIV), Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. In our text, being holy means moral perfection—being morally excellent in our relationship with God and one another.
When we are talking about moral excellence we can look at it in two ways, privately and publically, or in how we conduct ourselves and in how we relate to others. For instance if you are righteous then you will be just in your relationships. If you are humble that will come out as meekness. In the same way, holiness is shown in relationship as love.
So when God says be holy because I am holy He means “be love because I am love.” To love your neighbor as yourself is what it means to be holy.
Being a Christian Disciple starts with illumination from the Holy Spirit that The Father loves you, that Christ came to redeem you, and that the Spirit has opened your eyes to the reality of sin, the need for forgiveness, a conviction and trust that that forgiveness is yours through faith in Christ, and a love and attraction to God that sees Him as worthy of love. That divine illumination leads to incarnation, in fact I would go so far as to say it assumes it. God’s love to us in Christ always leads to love for God, and that love for God always leads to incarnation.
God’s love naturally leads to the incarnation of His love.
We see this first in the Father’s own love for us. He was not content to simply tell us about His love, nor was He content to show it from afar, but He sent His Son to us, incarnating Him as one of us, so that God could look at us one Person to another and tell us that He loved us, face to face, so that He could show us that He loved us with His own hands and feet. The Father’s love is incarnated in Jesus. He wanted us to know that His love was no passing fad, or light hearted commitment, but He wanted us to know that it was an all-out, no-holds-barred, gracious, one-way love that would even go to the cross for us. No matter how badly we might treat Him, no matter how we might fail, He would love us anyway, because His Son settled all the debts we had with the Father’s righteousness.
Jesus was the incarnation of the Father’s love. But He never intended to be the last incarnation of the Father’s love. Jesus gave us His Spirit so we could incarnate the love of the Father and Son to others.
We incarnate that love in how we conduct ourselves. How we are to conduct ourselves is outlined in all the do’s and don’t’s of the Law. All the do’s and don’t’s are meant primarily for you to do.
When we hear the do’s and don’t’s…
- Respect your parents (verse 3).
- Observe the Sabbath (verse 3).
- Don’t make idols (verse 4).
- Don’t steal (verse 11).
- Don’t slander (verse 16).
- Don’t seek revenge or bear a grudge (verse 18).
…we have a tendency to simply agree that they are good and wish everyone else would follow them. Now it is true there is a time and place for calling people on the carpet and it is true that we need trusted truth-tellers to help hold us accountable for how we act. But the focus of these commands is not on the other, but on me. We need to think primarily of ourselves when we hear these laws. If we don’t, we have missed the point. Your primary concern and where you should be spending the bulk of your time, effort, and energy is on yourself doing these things, not on making sure others do these things.
I love this quote from Maximos the Confessor, one of the Early Church Fathers,
He who busies himself with the sins of others, or judges his brother on suspicion, has not yet even begun to repent or to examine himself so as to discover his own sins…Maximos the Confessor, On Love, no. 55 (3rd Century).
God says “be holy as I am holy,” not “make sure others are holy as I am holy.”
We incarnate that love in how we relate to and respond to others. When we are sinned against we are to show grace and forgiveness (Colossians 3:13). When we see someone who has fallen down and is hurting we are to show them mercy and compassion (Luke 10:30-37). When we are mistreated we are to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). When we are called to judge we are to be just not showing partiality or favoritism (Leviticus 19:15).
Together these show a life of love. When we love each other in this way, we are being holy as God is holy, we are incarnating God’s love to one another.
Discipleship starts with illumination (loving God) and assumes incarnation (showing that love by loving others).
Who you love and what you love has a huge impact on how you look, how you dress, what you like, and what you don’t. If you don’t believe me just go to a Patriots game. You will see most people are dressed like this:
If you really love the Patriots you take it one step further:
And if your life is about the Patriots you end up going to the game like this:
Who does this person love?
Now, this guy really loves Batman. But we know he is not the Batman. Why? Take out…Batman doesn’t do take out!
Love always moves to incarnation.
The Patriots fans and the guy in the Batman costume want you to see them and see what they love. They prove their love by dressing themselves up as who they love. But that is where it stops. The guy wearing Tom Brady’s #12 jersey can dress up like Tom Brady, but he is not trying to be Tom Brady. He is not a quarterback, let alone a professional football player. He just loves Tom Brady and wants you to know it. The guy in the Batman costume has no intention of being Batman, he just wants to look like him. He loves Batman and wants you to know it. Both of these people are not really interested in getting you to love what they love. They just want you to see what they love. In that sense it is a private love. It is really all about them.
Jesus is looking for a much bigger incarnation. He has given His disciples His own Spirit so that they have His heart. If you have taken Jesus as your savior, then you have His Spirit and that means you have His heart. That means you are going to be more and more caring about what He cares about, caring for who He cares for, have compassion when He would have compassion, it means that what is in His heart is growing in your own.
The incarnation of divine love in the Christian should be just as obvious as these. But the Tom Brady fan is going to go home and take off his jersey and put it away until the next game. The guy doing Batman cosplay is going to go home and take off his costume and put it back in his closet (or return it to the store he rented it from) until the next comic convention. The Christian’s incarnation is not something that is put on and taken off. Rather Paul tells us in Colossians 3:12-17 (NIV),
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Remember, there is a difference between a suit and a costume. A costume is for dressing up as something you are not. Discipleship is not a costume the Christian wears for certain occasions but is really who they are.
We are holy.
We are the Father’s sons and daughters.
We are dearly loved.
And since that is who we are, we should be who we are. We are holy because God is holy and He has made us His own in Christ, and that holiness is going to show in loving our neighbor as ourselves. The Christian who does not love his neighbor as himself, shows himself to only be in a costume of Christianity no matter how accurate and detailed the costume may be. Christian discipleship is not about outward appearance or performance but about love.
That is important because I think we are sometimes more concerned about meeting the expectations and opinions of others than we are about incarnating Jesus’ love by loving our neighbor as ourselves. Or to put it another way, one of the common traps that Christians fall into is incarnating religion instead of love.
The reality is that a person can have perfect church attendance, memorize and recite Leviticus, read their Bible every morning, give 20% of their gross income to the church, serve on a committee, never rob, steal or defraud anyone at work, and pray 10 times a day, and be no better off than the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who said, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:11-12, NIV).
All those things are good things, but they are only window dressing compared to love. What He was missing was love for his neighbor, love for the tax collector who was standing nearby. Not only did he distance himself from him, but he thanked God he was not like him.
He didn’t realize that God did not see it that way. One needed grace as much as the other. And if the Pharisee really did love God, he would have taken notice of the tax collector. He would have gone over to him and prayed with him. He would have put himself out for him, befriended him, and helped him anyway he could. Because he would have seen that tax collector not as a criminal or a traitor, but as a person who he needed to love as he loved himself. Since that was missing, his profession of love and obedience to God was shown to only be a profession. It was only a costume. Window dressing without a window.
God says be holy because I am holy.
We do that by loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Because love for God always leads to loving others.
Illumination assumes incarnation.