A recording of this sermon is available here
“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am Holy” (Lev. 19.2)
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48)
This is a tall order – indeed an impossible order – to fill. It seems as though in requiring perfection, God is setting up His people to fail. This hardly seems fair, after all, God better than anyone the human propensity to mess things up. How can we fallible humans be expected to be perfect?
To get at the heart of God’s demand in Leviticus, a demand directly referenced by Jesus, we need to first unpack what ‘holiness’ means in reference to God and then reflect upon what holiness means in reference to God’s people. This kind of unpacking and reflection will require that we get theological, which is to say, it means we will need to talk about God, which means things might get a bit complicated, so bear with me.
“I, the Lord your God, am Holy”.
Holiness is who God is. God is holy. We claim as much in our liturgy, echoing the song of the angelic hosts in Isaiah and Revelation: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty” (Is. 6.3; Rev. 4.8).
God does not depend on anything or anyone for His existence; God is holy because God is God. To be holy is to be singular and distinct. God’s singular existence is perfection and beauty. “God’s own holiness is the sheer uniqueness of his being”. In other words, because God exists as God and not as anything else other than God, God is holy and perfect. As one theologian put it – “God is not part of the furniture of the universe” – God cannot be moved around or changed or refashioned according to human tastes because God is. And because God is, God is holy. It is as simple as that.
However, in thinking of God’s holiness, there is a tendency to slip into conceiving of God as remote and inaccessible – a divine tyrant out there somewhere who is narcissistically focused on His own holiness and generally uninterested in human history, unless it serves His own ends. Indeed, there are many who argue – wrongfully I might add – that this is the God portrayed in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. If we were to leave the definition of God’s holiness as remote transcendence, then this portrayal of God would be accurate.
Except, this is not the God who meets us in Scripture. This is not the God who comes to meet us in Jesus Christ.
The very fact that God meets us in Scripture and that God comes to be with us in Christ is also reflective of God’s holiness.
Holiness is not simply a matter of who God is; holiness is equally a matter of how God is. In other words, God’s holiness is “the coincidence of his very being and act”.
God is Triune: God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The persons of the Trinity are mutually self-giving; they exists in a divine dance of eternal self-emptying love, or what the early church Fathers called ‘perichoresis’. So, we could say that God exists as love from Godself to Godself.
This self-emptying love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit pours itself out to us: “God is from Himself, and from himself God gives himself”. God is holy because God gives himself and brings us into fellowship – into communion – with him. God is holy because He is God, utterly transcendent and singular, but God is holy because He is the God who comes to be with us and draws us into fellowship with Him. God’s holiness is intimacy: intimacy within Godself but also intimacy with humanity. This intimacy is what makes God’s holiness upsetting; if God’s holiness were simply a matter of divine transcendence, we can easily keep God at arms’ length. However, because God’s holiness is also a matter of intimacy, we often become desperate to push God away. God is holy because God can be seen and known by humans. Moreover, it is because God is holy in this way that humans can be made holy
God makes us holy by bringing us into reconciled fellowship and communion with Him. Holiness is not something we can achieve by being ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ or ‘moral’; holiness is a gift from God. God alone makes people and things holy. This is potentially terrifying because it exposes all our presumptions and pretentions about who we are as God’s people and what God is calling us to do. “‘You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy’ is a calling uttered in love by God” (Radner, 206).
The one, holy, and Triune God elects – chooses – a particular people to be holy. God calls this people to be a “holy nation and a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2.9; cf. Ex. 19.6). Indeed, God’s holiness is exemplified in His electing first Israel and then the Church into covenantal relationship in order to enact His purpose for the world. What is God’s purpose for the world? To reconcile all things to Himself and to bless all things.
That God chooses particular people for a particular purpose is scandalous to our modern sensitivities, curved as they are toward notions such as ‘inclusivity’, whatever that might mean. Nevertheless, God is holy in His electing love, scandalous as it may seem, because God chooses the few on behalf of the whole. God’s election of a few is not about who is ultimately ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ and it is certainly not for the elect to lord over others. The holy God sets apart a holy people for a holy purpose: to worship Him and to witness to the world about His salvation.
This is exactly what the laws and rituals of Leviticus are all about. We tend to stay away from Leviticus: it only shows up once in the three-year cycle of the lectionary. It is a peculiar and bloody book, full of strange rituals and what strike us as odd fixations with various bodily fluids, dietary requirements, and sexual taboos. And yet, this strangeness is precisely the point: God called Israel to be separate from the nations. God called Israel to be strange in the eyes of the world because they worshipped this God in this way. The requirements for ritual and moral cleanliness in Leviticus are preparing and directing God’s people into the way of holiness.
You see, all the ritual and ethical requirements of the Torah in general and Leviticus specifically are God’s way of preventing God’s chosen people from falling into idolatry on the one hand and injustice on the other. The worship of un-holy gods almost certainly results in injustice; and the inverse is also true: unjust practices almost certainly result in idolatry. Idolatry and injustice create a vicious cycle that divorces people from God and creates systems of exploitation. God’s purpose for the world is to put an end to all this, to destroy that which destroys His good and beloved creation. All the sacrificial and moral requirements of Leviticus point to and anticipate the way that God will enact His purpose: through the sacrifice of the unblemished and perfect Lamb – the sacrifice to end all sacrifices – the death of God the Son, Jesus Christ.
Although Christ’s death and resurrection put an end to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, the call to holiness and perfection remains in full effect. We are called to live in renewed and reconciled fellowship with God; this fellowship is intimate and begins with my recognition that God is holy in both His simple perfection but also in His closeness and desire for communion with me and indeed with all humanity, even those who seem to be anything but holy.
We are then called to walk in His ways, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We do so not by merely imitating Jesus as a moral example, but by participating in His ongoing life and ministry. Participating in Christ requires being in fellowship with other disciples as we worship together, hearing God’s words to us in Scripture and receiving the heavenly food that are Christ’s own body and blood. Participating in Christ means creating time in our lives for prayer and silent reflection, embracing intimacy with God as Christ himself did on earth, and as he does in his ongoing ministry as our heavenly high priest. To participate in Christ is to grow into what St. Paul describes as “the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4.13).
Furthermore, “Holiness is a calling to be with God where God is and where God goes” (Radner, 204). We know where God is because we know where Jesus was when He walked the earth: hanging out with outcasts and sinners, extending to them the lavish mercy and grace of God without condemning nor condoning their sinful actions. To be God’s holy people, therefore, requires that we embody God’s heart for outsiders, for the poor and lonely, and that we are willingly to take the risk of leaving the safety of our church walls in order to seek out the lost and share with them the good news of Jesus Christ. This is the priestly ministry for which God chose us and the reason why God is making us holy: that the world may know the holy, reconciling, and transforming love of God made known to us through Jesus Christ.
As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, may you know the sheer singularity of the Triune God and may you embrace the warm intimacy of this God as you grow into the image and likeness of Christ himself so that the world may see and know the love of God.
 John Webster, The Grace of Truth, 200.
 The full quotation is “God is not part of the metaphysical furniture of the universe”, Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe.
 Cf. Mk. 1.24 and Lk. 4.34 where Jesus is identified as “the Holy One of Israel”.
 Ephraim Radner, Leviticus, 204.
 John Webster, God without Measure, 19.