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He Tabernacled Among Us

March 27, 2022 Speaker: Josh Moon Series: The Gospel according to Luke

Topic: Purity Laws, Death and Dying, Leviticus Passage: Luke 8:40–8:56, Leviticus 15:25–15:31

We are going to start with Leviticus—we have to because if you are new here, maybe dipping your toes into the whole church thing or into what these Christian-type people actually do behind closed doors, and the first thing you hear from the Bible is this particular reading... well, it's not going to make a great first impression. Or at least that's how I imagine it; I'd love to hear if I'm wrong.

To start with Leviticus we have to start with a very basic idea: that God is love. Again, it's not the most obvious point from this particular reading, and sometimes you have to take something like that on faith when you just read one little part of the Bible. Sometimes, though (here's my warning) we tend to confuse "God is love" with "God is nice." There's an old story from a Christian writer that always comes to mind with this, from the days when dentists did not have local anaesthetics and it was scary and painful to visit a dentist:

What do people mean when they say, 'I am not afraid of God because I know He is good'? Have they never even been to a dentist? [C.S. Lewis, Grief Observed, 43]

We have to learn what love means, even (or especially) when it collides with our intuitions. And in Leviticus God as love means, among other things, a love of life. God loves life and all that breathes with life. Animals are protected in the Law; plants, fields, and people. Not people just as individuals but as part of what we would call the flourishing of the world itself, of all creation. God is the "Lord and giver of life." God is love means, in Leviticus, that he is jealous for life—and jealous for it in a world stained by death. If you ever wondered why God speaks in the Bible so strongly against sin, it's because he loves life and sin (every sin, big or small) brings death.

At the center of the book of Leviticus sits a tent. It's a fancy tent, rich and artistic, beautiful, and large. We sometimes use the word "tabernacle" in Christian jargon, but that's just the word "tent." Everyone lived in tents in Leviticus; Israel did not have land of its own but was wandering around in the world and so they lived in movable tents. But this particular tent was where their God lived—the God who freed them from slavery in Egypt and promised to care for them, though they didn't know a whole lot about him.  The God who is love. His tent was literally the smack center of the camp. And kind of like if the Queen of England was moving into your neighborhood, it meant a lot of things changed for everyone: certain things were ok, others were not. Maybe you go ahead and mow your lawn. Traffic patterns shift; you have to get used to people in funny uniforms.

We are invited by Leviticus to imagine the world in a particular way. Leviticus is not a how-to manual for sacrifices or social practices (it gets misread that way sometimes). We are meant to re-imagine the world with the God of Israel living in that tent right at the center of his people. What would life look like if God lived right there in the middle of our camp? One of the ways it does this is through the symbol of blood as not just representing but actually carrying the life of a thing. Again, that's not a medical or metaphysical claim; it's one for your imagination. Blood runs through living things and does not run through them when they have died. That part is easy enough: the life of a thing is in its blood. And the loss of blood was a loss of life.

Our reading this morning comes from the intersection of all these things: the tent, the love of life, the hatred of death, blood as a symbol of life. Leviticus presents a number of various discharges—all symbols of life—that would make someone "unclean," which means unable to enter or come near the tent where God lived. In fact, you had to leave the camp where that tent was at the center. Not forever, only until you no longer were bleeding, then count a week, have a bath (a baptism) and you could return. It happened all the time; everyone at various points had to do it. Because you were carrying death in your body when you were bleeding—whether from a wound, a birth, a period, it was about blood (life) leaving your body. You were a walking symbol of death being in the world.

And God banishes all death from his presence. More than that: we all know death contaminates; it stains anything it touches. I have been making my way through a book on mortality by a thinker whose mother committed suicide. It was, for her, an intensely isolated, lonely act. Yet we all see and know how that lonely act spreads and touches so many, staining so much. Her room and home, her child's life and classroom, their friends, parents, and finally everyone those parents and friends and teachers interact with.

We've had a rash of suicides in our youth in the cities over the last months, touching some here I know. We become grimmer, but better readers of Leviticus. Death stains what it touches. If you touched death, you were not to come near the God of life until you were washed clean (a baptism). And if you were bleeding, life being lost, then what you touch is stained and so "unclean".

Thus far Leviticus. Luke assumes all this. Leviticus was already by then an ancient book, and Luke is writing nearly 2000 years ago—so none of this is recent history, but all of it feels very close. The world was still a lot like ours in all the things that really matter, especially around the realities of life and death.

Luke intertwines these two stories to make one basic point: that God, in Jesus Christ, is the Lord and Giver of Life. Luke starts telling us the story of Jairus and his daughter. We don't have to build large cultural bridges here. We know the posture of a father seeing his 12 year old child dying and feeling so utterly helpless; powerless to do the one thing a father longs to do for his children—keep them safe from harm. He's a ruler of the synagogue, and while we don't know exactly what such a role entailed we know that means he is a faithful, believing Jewish man who has turned to Jesus desperate for hope. "Come with me," he begs. It's his last hope to go to this rabbi-healer who has been wandering around.

Along on the way, people are pressing around (the streets are narrow) and someone reaches out and touches the hem of Jesus' robe—does so on purpose, a touching that was different than the incidental brushing past him.

So we are introduced to this woman who fits Leviticus 15. You can see the tie between the stories, Luke telling us the details of both cases being 12 years old. I think we tend to imagine the medical realities for this woman, which is right. We don't know if it was painful, but it was certainly awful. She may have already had children, but even if so this would have meant no more. If she was married, this would make important parts of married life impossible; if she wasn't then it would make marriage impossible. We get all those things. What we have to remind ourselves is Leviticus.

She also (not more, not less important than the medical things)—she is also a walking symbol of death being in the world. 

While this woman was bleeding, she could not go near the temple (the "tent" now given a permanent home like others in the land), and anything she touched was defiled or unclean (the words used to mean you could not go near). The things or people touched by her share her inability to come near the tent where God dwelt until washed clean again.

There's an interesting book out by a scholar called Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes [by Kenneth Bailey]. And one of the ways our western eyes misread is through a lens of individual freedom of expression. We hear of this woman's plight and for maybe for us it's a sign of a mean, unjust exclusion of a woman by rules that needed to be broken. Jesus becomes the great rule-breaker who is all about inclusion. That's understandable, but it's also misreading through Western eyes. We think "follow your heart" is a good; that the world is here for you to pursue whatever course you set for yourself (again, the irony in that is rich). We imagine the highest crime lies in anything that does violence against individual freedom of expression. Like these rules from Leviticus.

The ancient world didn't imagine the world that way. There's good and bad things in each way of imagining the world; my point isn't to bash our way of imagining things entirely (maybe chasten it a bit). Each has strengths and weaknesses. But the notion that she felt excluded, and so the great work was Jesus' breaking rules of bigoted exclusion in order to make her feel valued, misreads. She would have known herself marked by death, living as a symbol of death.

She would have known she wasn't culpable for that in a moral sense before God—that it wasn't her fault and she was still herself loved by God. At least she could have known that, and I hope did. But she lives in the world as one marked by death. Death is never fair. She bears that reality in her body, to her own grief and I am sure to the grief of others; husband, children, parents, friends. She couldn't go to what she was supposed to love above all things—worship in the temple, feasting and rejoicing with all her enormous extended family, the people of God.

Maybe a closer model in our day actually lies in something like Lou Gehrig's disease as experienced by Lou Gehrig. Every time he was seen he was an object of pity and compassion, when he wanted to be seen as a baseball player.  He was seen and people thought of the tragedy of death being in the world; the unfairness of it. Social exclusion from the central things he loved even though it was not his fault and no one thought of it as his fault. Seeing him, we came as a culture to hate that disease. He was a walking symbol that formed us to love life and health. It's not a perfect analogy, but perhaps it moves us closer.

Seeing her carrying this and so being cut off from the temple makes her not an object of scorn under these unfair rules of exclusion; it makes her one who lives in a world where death is unfair, unjust, and worth hating.

And then she reaches out to touch Jesus. We've just read Leviticus 15: what happens when she, a walking symbol of death in the world, touches someone? She wants to do it in secret, and doesn't want to admit it, partly because she fears being rebuked for defiling, making Jesus unclean—staining Jesus with death. But here's what she didn't know: you can't defile Jesus. She couldn't make Jesus unclean. He calls her out of the crowd, presses her to reveal herself and then makes everyone present aware that she is now healed. She couldn't make Jesus unclean. He's like teflon coating for unclean things.

Except that's not quite it. I want you to imagine the world of Leviticus for a moment as a world where God's tent moves around (like it did in the wilderness before Israel entered the land). And everything that was or symbolized death had to flee everywhere it went. Everywhere the tent moved, death had to be moved away from it.

What would it be like if that tent popped up and started walking of its own through the land of Israel in the first century? What would you see happening everywhere it went—not just in terms of symbols and rituals, but in the reality that those things embodied? Well, you would see the world that Luke paints. Not a world like the one Luke paints, but Luke is painting exactly that world. In Luke Jesus has already been called "the Holy One of Israel"—there's only one Holy One of Israel, and that is the one who lived in that tent in the wilderness so long ago, and everywhere it went banished death because it was the great enemy.

So it's not just that Jesus can't be defiled by death; that death cannot stain Jesus. It is that he walks around Israel and banishes death everywhere he goes. So when Jairus asks, "Come to my house" because death was approaching, he didn't really know who he was inviting to come. He was asking the Holy of Holies to walk into his home. And by the time death had come and we are informed of it, we already anticipate what is going to happen. We see Jesus walk into the defiled place where death was, we see him take this girl by the hand, and we know what happens to death when the Holy One of Israel comes.

Luke tells these two stories together on purpose; maybe those who were with Jesus in the moment didn't see the connection between them but Luke did. Two people, one a ruler of the synagogue and the other an unnamed woman who could not go in the synagogue; one 12 year-old girl on whom death had a claim, and one who for 12 years had been been living as one marked by death. In both cases the last and only hope they have comes down to Jesus. She had spent every penny on physicians, no one could help her. They both come desperate to Jesus. Both are called into the life of faith: "Your faith has saved you," Jesus says to the woman. "Do not fear, but believe" (the same word: belief/faith).

You can't drive a paper's width between faith and hope here. And the confluence of that faith, hope, and the love of God takes form as God banishing death and bringing these two women into the fullness of life. Friends: this is one worth following.

Now, I know maybe you feel skeptical about some of these stories; it's easy to feel skeptical so far removed. I was talking to a woman working at Applebees just over there this last week and she asked what I was working on, so I told her: I'm reading about this story where Jesus took the hand of a 12 year old girl who had just died, and raised her to life. She responded, "Oh... that's probably a good thing to talk about."

Bless her, I didn't really mean to put her on the spot. But talk about the world's greatest understatement. What would it mean to have someone who held power like that? I mean: what would the world be like if this actually happened? If the tent walked around Israel and really banished death everywhere it went?

And then we were called to become disciples, to follow, to have faith in this one? Of all the places you go to be discipled, or all the voices that you tune into to help you see the world; all the people you follow—I'm happy to make a wager that you will find none of them as worth following as Jesus.

We talk a lot about hope here; our logo is an anchor—a symbol of our hope being set. One who walked through the world who could not be defiled by death and sin—my sin can't defile him. It's not even that my sin slides off like teflon, it's that he banishes sin and death and bids me come near. It is hope.

One of the best things—the best thing—about my job is this: I get to tell you that there is hope. Not sentiment, not wishful thinking, but hope. That God hates death, more than we do; that Jesus holds power over life and death, not leaving us to the mercy of death's and sin's hold on this world. Friends, there is hope in this world. Hope for this world. And that same Jesus promises to walk with us "all along this pilgrim journey"—with the same love, the same power. Our role is the faith and the hope.

More in The Gospel according to Luke

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Jesus on Fearing God (and Fearing Nothing Else)

May 22, 2022

Jesus on Hypocrisy in the Church

May 15, 2022

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