This Sunday I begin a series from the book of Leviticus. If your first inclination after reading that sentence is to stop reading the rest of this post, you probably aren't alone. In fact, I thought a story from one of the commentaries on Leviticus I've been reading in preparation for preaching from Leviticus summed it up well. The writer said that he discovered that his children were working on reading through the entire Bible on their own. When he found out that his son was about to begin Leviticus he encouraged him to merely skim it rather than actually try to read it for fear that he would get bogged down and never make it past Leviticus. It is a pretty strong statement as to our general aversion to this book of the Bible when even someone who has himself written a commentary on Leviticus discourages his own child from spending too much time in the book. Surely Leviticus has to make the (very) short list for the most neglected books in all of the Christian canon.
I think it is helpful to begin by considering what it is we actually have in front of us in a book like Leviticus. It is essentially an instruction book. I know Christians sometimes characterize the whole Bible as God's instruction book on the Christian life but that's really not quite right, at least not in the way Leviticus is; not in terms of categories of literature. Much of Scripture is story (and a number of other genres too, of course) and while we may indeed gather instruction from those stories, the stories themselves do not come in the form of instructions. They, in fact, serve a much larger and more complete purpose than that.
But Leviticus is not like that. There are a handful of stories in it but the vast majority of this book is very detailed and specific instruction regarding things like sacrifice, purity, festivals, and harvest. In short, most of the book is an instruction manual for worship. A parallel today might be the Revised Common Lectionary which outlines passages of Scripture for each Sunday's worship or the Book of Common Prayer which provides prayers and orders of worship for certain occasions like weddings or funerals. In our denomination, we have the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene. It is a small book that outlines our church government, certain moral expectations, and even some rituals for certain parts of worship like communion, baptism, or the reception of new church members. Although the Manual is not exactly the same kind of literature as Leviticus, it is probably the closest modern parallel we have in our tradition.
Notice that none of the examples I mentioned above are books that you would read from cover to cover. This isn't out of laziness or the irrelevancy of the books themselves. Its just not what those books are designed for. Likewise, there is a certain sense in which Leviticus probably wasn't meant to be read like other parts of Scripture. The point of reading an instruction manual is not to become an expert on the instructions but to have successfully carried out what the manual describes. When we read Leviticus, we are reading something that ultimately was not meant to be read but practiced. In some ways, reading Leviticus is somewhat akin to reading a really detailed order of worship that might be written out for a worship leader or praise team. Obviously, reading the order of worship is not nearly as meaningful as having actually participated in the worship service it describes. I think this is part of the reason even faithful readers of Scripture often flounder on the shores of Leviticus.
Of course, saying that Leviticus is a book concerned with practices doesn't entirely let us off the hook from reading it because there is another sense in which it is a book that is meant to be read. By saying that Leviticus is Scripture, we are claiming that God speaks through the reading of this book. In fact, it has ceased to be an instruction manual, a book of practice for us as Christians since we carry out virtually none of its admonitions. How does a book written as an instruction manual, the instructions of which we don't follow, become Scripture for us? Does this book have anything to say to us or does it fully deserve the neglect it often receives?
Perhaps we can return to our earlier examples for help here. Let's say that one did sit down and read the Revised Common Lectionary from cover to cover. Although this is not the purpose for which the book is designed, one could still learn an enormous amount about the worship of a church which used it. For example, it would become obvious that a church which utilized the RCL thought that hearing Scripture was an important part of worship and also that it was important to hear from all parts of Scripture, not just favorite passages. It would probably also be a church that thought the seasons of the church year were a good way to keep the life of Christ at the center of its worship. Similarly, one could learn a lot about our beliefs concerning marriage, baptism, and church membership in the Church of the Nazarene simply by reading those written rituals in the Manual.
Likewise, we can learn something meaningful about ancient Israel's worship of Yahweh simply by reading Leviticus. One of the very first things you notice about the worship described in the book of Leviticus is that it is active, its demanding, its overwhelmingly physical, even costly. Worship in Leviticus is not passive listening, it is not merely attendance, and it is not primarily a mental or emotional thing. The vision of worship in Leviticus says there is work to be done here. The act of worship we hear described in most of Leviticus 1 involves bringing a farm animal (read: stinky, dirty, and I am going to assume not always cooperative), laying your hands on its head, shedding its blood, the priest splattering that blood on the altar, dissecting the animal so as to throw out the inappropriate body parts, putting the other parts on the altar, washing them to make sure they are free of excrement or undigested food, and finally offering what is on the altar by fire.
Sounds exhausting, doesn't it? At the very least, it sounds like a lot more than is usually demanded of us in most of our worship services. So much so that for many of us our first reaction is probably something along the lines of "Thank God Jesus died for me so that I don't have to do all that." But I want to suggest that such a statement is at best only half right.
To be sure, we believe that Jesus' death means that the kind of animal sacrifice described above is not the kind of response that Jesus demands of us. But let's be clear that Jesus still demands a response. And that response is not merely "belief." There is work to be done in the Christian faith, in Christian worship, as well.
Often when we in the protestant tradition hear that word "work" in relation to our faith we automatically assume that someone is talking about earning their salvation. In fact, we often accuse the Jewish people of this; that their failure was that they thought they had to earn their salvation by following the Law. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people of Israel knew they were not earning their salvation by offering the sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus. God had already provided salvation for them in their exodus from Egypt before any law was ever given. The laws of sacrifice were an opportunity to respond to what God had already done and to continue to participate in the covenant which God had so graciously provided for the people of Israel.
In the same way, the work we are called to is not to earn our salvation but to respond to the salvation Jesus has already provided and to continue to participate in the new covenant which Jesus has inaugurated. But just because it is a new covenant without animal sacrifice does not mean there is not costly, sacrificial, very physical work to be done. In fact, the Epistle to the Hebrews, the very book which so carefully articulates why animal sacrifice is not a part of the new covenant Jesus has made for us, is also the book which so painstakingly defines "faith" as a work that must be lived. Hebrews 10:23-25 reads
Our faith is something we must work to hold fast to. It involves stirring up one another to love and good works. It means choosing to meet together and encouraging each other. And this is only the beginning for from here the author will go on in Hebrews 11 to describe those who lived "by faith" as those who did the work of faithful living: enduring persecution, actively trusting God, pursuing justice, righteousness, and peace.
"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."
Christian faith and Christian worship may not be as grotesquely physical as animal sacrifice but it is no less of an embodied faith. We are a people called into a covenant which requires the response of our whole selves. What if we showed up to our worship services with the expectation that the pastor wasn't the only one doing work that day? Or if instead of focusing on "being fed" we were focused on how we can actively contribute to the worship of the Church, our own spiritual growth, and the growth of those around us? Or if we left our church building knowing that our spiritual work week had only just begun?