Friday, December 11, 2009

Holiness by Genre.

This week I'm preparing my sermon, "Jesus our Priest," the second part of our special Advent sermon series, "Jesus in Hebrews: Prophet, Priest, King and Savior." Jesus' priestly work, like all priestly work, is necessary to mediate between a God who is Holy, Holy, Holy, and sinful creatures like ourselves. I've been thinking through some of the various OT passages that emphasize both the holiness of God in his temple, and the duties/dangers facing the priest. I was especially struck by how the different types of OT literature all portray these themes in their own unique ways.

My mind went first to the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. This is a legal text which describes, in all its glorious legal detail, the yearly duties of the high priest in going into the Holy of Holies to represent the people before the throne of God. It's a great passage, really. It communicates the holiness of God through the precision required of the priest, the complexity of sacrificial ritual, and the glory of the ceremony. If it has one drawback, it's that it might be, um, a little tedious.
Leviticus 16:14, 15 - And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat.

Let's just say that reading 34 straight verses of legal code might not make the most gripping sermon illustration, inspired though it is.

Several Psalms also attempt in their lines of poetry to capture the holiness of God in his temple, and the requirements of the one who will approach him.
Psalm 15: 1, 2 - O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?
Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
and speaks truth in his heart;

The poetry makes a more accessible way to meditate on the holiness of God, and the requirements in Psalm 15 are not only ceremonial, but moral demands placed on the one who will "sojourn in his tent." Psalm 11 considers the same theme,

Psalm 11:4 - The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord's throne is in heaven;
his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.

The idea of 'testing' in this Psalm remind us that the Lord is holy, and those who worship him must do so in spirit and in truth. If the legal texts traffic in specifics, the poetic line traffics in beauty and memorableness of expression.

Perhaps the most well known OT text on this theme is the prophetic vision of Isaiah 6. Isaiah, too, is writing about the holiness of God, the inner sanctum of the temple, and the demands on the approaching worshiper. But he does not list the set of rules, nor sing a song, but narrates his own visionary experience inside the Holy Place.

Isaiah 6:1-5 - I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost."

This is doubtless the most graphic and gripping of the three presentations. The use of the first person, the shaking, the smoke, the worshiping seraphim, and Isaiah's own dramatic cry all paint a vivid picture.

And yet what stands out to me is that each of these three passages is describing, in its own genre, a similar scene. Each is describing the glory and holiness of God, more specifically, the holiness of God's throne room in the Holy of Holies, the requirements on the worshiper, and the danger of approaching God in an unworthy manner. The legal text, perhaps the most ill suited to describe the ineffable, lists the multitude of rules the high priest must observe. The poetry waxes eloquent about the moral rectitude of the acceptable worshiper, and the watchful eye of the Lord. The prophetic vision paints an awesome scene and lets us feel the peril of our creatureliness.

The other thing all these texts have in common is that they all point to our great need for a faithful high priest. One who can enter the holy place on our behalf. One whose hands are truly clean, and can stand without fear in the presence of a holy God. One who has offered the perfect sacrifice, not of bulls and goats, but a once for all sacrifice that will stand for all time. One who is holy in himself, yet sympathizes with us in our weakness. One who has passed through the heavens, and is seated at the right hand of God to intercede. Only when we have such a high priest can we be found acceptable in the presence of our holy God.
Hebrews 10:19-22 - Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.


Ken said...

Not intending to trade pats on the back, but thanks for this great post. I think this is a useful way to explain a text like the one you cited from Leviticus - filling it out with the other biblical pictures is helpful, yet also shows that God's holiness does bear down upon us in more ways than one.

CO mmom said...

How I wish I could be in your church every Sunday this Advent. Your sermon series is awesome.