Saturday, March 11, 2017

Cast me not away from your presence

We've just started preaching through Leviticus at CCC for Lent - last week: many sacrifices, much blood.  Some of the keenest vegetarians in the church were absent, I assume not deliberately.

I take it that the whole of Leviticus is the answer to Exodus 33:1-3.  The setting is the foot of Sinai, after the incident with the golden calf.  Having relented from his initial threat to destroy Israel, God responds to the intercession of Moses by declaring that he will send the people up to Canaan - but he himself will not go with them.  They are just too sinful.  If God were in their midst, he would destroy them.  For Israel, this is a disastrous word, and Moses gets back on his knees: if your presence won't come, don't send us at all!  Better to be without the promised land than to be without God's presence.

So Leviticus is the answer: the formation of a strict world of symbol and sacrifice which is designed to keep Israel God-centred and holy.  The sacrificial system, in particular, is geared towards ensuring that Israel's sin is acknowledged and then (symbolically) dealt with, so that God can be with them without breaking out against them in judgement.

But I guess it's not hard to see how this could be misunderstood.  As soon as the focus stops being on God and his presence, the sacrificial system - with the rest of the Levitical code - could become just a treadmill of self-righteousness.  It becomes about dealing with my guilty conscience, or demonstrating that I am in the right.  Look at all the sacrifices I made!

Reading Jeremiah 7 this morning, I'm struck by another way it could and did go wrong.  When the people forget that God's presence is problematic for them - or rather, when they forget that their sin is problematic in the presence of God! - they assume that the temple-presence of God is just automatic.  They can sin and sin, and it will still be okay because God's temple is right there.  He will surely rescue them, even if they basically ignore him and his word.

Either way, God's presence is not prized.  In the one case, God's presence becomes a theoretical side-issue in a quest for personal righteousness and security; in the other, God's presence becomes a tool to secure a safe and happy life.  In both cases, you imagine people would jump at the chance of going to the promised land without God!

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