Unclean? Quarantine!

Please read Leviticus 13:1-4, 45-46; 14:1-9 in your Bible.

Unclean_ QuarantineImage by James Best, (C) 2020, https://www.behance.net/gallery/90621713/Sermon-Illustrations-2020

I want to begin with an abridged version of an article appearing on the website “The Hill” last Sunday, written by Justine Coleman.

“Maryville Baptist Church in Louisville and its pastor Jack Roberts filed a lawsuit against Kentucky[‘s governor] for allegedly targeting churchgoers with the enforcement of a stay-at-home order on Easter Sunday.

“The lawsuit asserts that [the governor] violated the residents’ religious freedom by instructing Kentucky State Police to give criminal sanctions to all vehicles in the church’s parking lot on the Christian holiday, including vehicles participating in drive-in services.

“The police recorded congregants’ license plates and provided notices for 14-day mandatory quarantines. The notices informed churchgoers that they were required to report their temperatures daily and avoid public places and transportation.

“Liberty Counsel criticized the governor’s alleged selective enforcement in a release, saying nearby Kroger, Wal-Mart, liquor stores and other parking lots were ‘packed with cars’ and ‘jammed with people,’ but they didn’t receive quarantine notices.

“The governor’s office warned that attending church gatherings on the holiday weekend would classify as a misdemeanor violation, in a press release two days before Easter.

“Churches across the country are challenging stay-at-home orders that ban them from meeting in-person. Some states have designated worship services as essential, while others have not.”

This is an example of the tension in our nation – probably around the world – between social distancing and personal freedom/economic necessity.  It is not my purpose to rehash those arguments.  Instead, I felt lead to see what the Bible had to say about the issue.  As usual, I asked God to reveal principles that are just as true in our situation even though our situation is different from the situation of the Bible writers.  Whenever we seek wisdom from the Bible we must first understand its words in light of the world as it was when the words were first written or spoken.  Then we express that truth in the form of eternal principles; revelation from God that is applicable in all times and places.  The third step is to apply those principles to our situation.  Today’s message is an exercise of that process.

CONTEXT: When reading through the Bible, the book of Leviticus can be tough sledding.  I only have two sermons in the Leviticus file in my office.  However, by faith we recognize that God’s law expressed God’s will.  Whether we have wisdom to see it or not every law of God is given for the benefit of His people.  Understanding is optional; obedience is mandatory.

God’s Law required separation from the community in the case of some illnesses.

  1. The Law.

Notes on Leviticus 13:1-4, 45-46 taught separation was required while suffering an infectious disease and when suspected of suffering an infectious disease. While this chapter deals with skin diseases, the important point (v. 2) is that the disease in question is an INFECTIOUS one.  (There is discussion among scholars whether or not the term “leprosy” is similar to our modern use of that term.  The Hebrew word is more general; describing different skin diseases that may have included leprosy as we know it today.

In verses three and four we read A PRIEST was the one to examine the patient.  This was their only medical function.  The priest’s examination was to conclude whether or not the disease was serious enough to PRONOUNCE the patient CEREMONIALLY UNCLEAN.  There were two possible outcomes: clean or unclean.

If the patient was declared CLEAN, then a week’s separation from the camp was required as a precaution (v. 4).  After the week had passed, the patient’s condition was re-evaluated (v. 5-8). Now there were three possible outcomes: another week might be required, or the person declared cured and clean, or declared UNCLEAN.  Might this be a biblical precedent for social distancing?

This was not a “shelter-in-place” order.  The patient could not stay with family, for that might expose them too; the patient was required to live outside the camp. This was the policy for all the conditions that made a person CEREMONIALLY UNCLEAN.

In verse 45 we read the steps the person suffering from the disease was to practice as an ancient form of social distancing.  They were commanded to wear torn clothing and keep an unkempt appearance.  These two thing might also denote grief or fasting, so the third item of a partially covered face were all visual cues of an unclean status.  This is like the masks we wear or see others wearing in public places.  Additionally, the person was to cry out a warning of “UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!” UNCLEAN status could be transmitted by touch, so the sick person was supposed to protect the healthy in these ways. The practice of separation was to last as long as the disease continued.

In Leviticus 14:1-32 we read that restoration was required after getting over the disease.  (We don’t have space to consider all 32 verses, so we’ll look at the first nine as an example.)

As verse two states, these instructions were for CEREMONIAL CLEANSING: “ceremonial” referring to the person’s status as part of the worshiping community.

The priest’s role was to verify that the person was actually healed of the infectious disease (v. 3).  Notice the priest was to GO OUTSIDE THE CAMP to make this determination; the safety of the camp was not put at risk by an unverified claim to healing.

If the claim is verified, a sacrifice is made for the person’s CEREMONIAL CLEASING (vs. 3-7).  For the sake of context, allow me to explain of the practice of sacrifices in the Old Testament Law.  Animal sacrifices were made to atone for sin; the deadly consequence of sin was cancelled by the life of the animal; by its blood, in particular.

Now an explanation of this particular sacrifice.  This offering closely resembles the sacrifice of a red heifer in Numbers 19:6 and the cleansing of a house here in Leviticus 14, verses 49-53.

TWO CLEAN BIRDS were needed. Deuteronomy 14:11-18 lists all the unclean birds (including bats). This is not a scientific list, so there’s no reason to expect all the birds to be of a single type.

CEDAR WOOD was regarded by the Jews as a symbol of pride.  This may imply that the person’s pride in themselves was restored with their health.

SCARLET YARN (“scarlet stuff of a worm”) was a Jewish symbol of humility.  Scarlet thread and rope are mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament.

HYSSOP is connected with cleansing in Psalm 51:7.  This may be in reference to the first Passover, when a hyssop branch was to be used to paint the doorposts with lamb’s blood.

The former patient was to be sprinkled SEVEN times with the blood and water solution.  In the Old Testament, blood was used to sanctify things and biblically the number seven is the symbol of completeness; divine perfection.

The surviving bird was released to symbolize the person’s new status as clean and a restored member of the community.  It is the similar to sending the scapegoat into the wilderness as directed on the Day of Atonement (16:21). This is a symbol of the person being forgiven of their sin.

Verses 8-9 detail the person’s own steps in demonstrating their CLEANSING on to the community.

They were to wear clean clothes.  Shaving all body hair emphasized their unblemished skin and being entirely shaved avoided concealing any other skin blemishes. The patient spent one week inside the camp but outside his home.

We must note that Jesus followed the Law of Moses in general and in this specific case.  When He healed ten lepers, he instructed them to go and show themselves to the priest (Luke 5:12-15).

  1. The principles behind the Law.

The practice of medicine and the practice of faith are inseparable.  I am not saying that our society should require doctors to be pastors or pastors to be doctors.  I am simply observing that for followers of Jesus, science and faith are not separate things: they are both perspectives on truth and as such, both must be founded upon God.  We don’t turn over part of our lives to science and another part to theology.  These are aspects of knowledge that should inform and shape one another as they did before natural science was separated from theology.

Personal separation serves the faith community in instances of disease and sin.  In times of disease we separate ourselves from others to avoid spreading the disease and to facilitate our recovery.  In times of rebellion against God, unrepentant sinners need to be separated from the community of faith to preserve the integrity and reputation of the community and to facilitate the repentance of the sinner.

Disease is a serious matter; sin is more serious.  Think back to all the ceremony that people were supposed to undergo when they recovered from an infectious disease, the passages we looked at earlier.  If nothing else, doesn’t that prove that God took all this seriously and that His people were to take it seriously too?

Look at the expense, effort, and good will that creative people have poured into coping with the coronavirus.  It is a serious matter and needs the attention it has been getting.  This kind of sacrifice is excellent and praiseworthy in the sight of all people when it is given voluntarily and not compelled by civil authorities.

But we are misusing this precious time if we fail to attend to our spiritual life and particularly the disease of sin.  I do not believe COVID-19 is God’s punishment of sin any more than familiar illnesses are.  But this situation has so disrupted the usual conduct of our lives, it is irresponsible for us to not spend more time in prayer, Scripture, and in service to God.

  1. Applying the principles to our situation.

Prioritize faith in God over faith in science or politics or any other worldly thing.  From my very amateur perspective, I believe the science of COVID-19 is still waiting to be discovered.  Claims to have figured out the coronavirus need to be met with healthy skepticism and vigorous testing.  Not every action that has been undertaken in the name of thwarting the virus has been scientifically necessary.  Even when the science of the coronavirus becomes more certain, what needs to have priority is faith.  Our trust is in God, not science.

We need to recognize the necessity of separation for our most vulnerable people and preserving the freedom of those not at risk.  What’s new here is not so much the virus itself, but the way we are reacting to it.  History holds examples of other infectious diseases that were not understood in their time.  What is unique historically is our practice of quarantining undiagnosed persons.

God’s Law required separation from the community in the case of some illnesses.

As we conclude, I want to remind you we did not come to God’s word searching for sanctions of any particular public health policy.  Instead, we came searching for some eternal principles that we might apply to our situation as followers of Jesus.

What we discovered along the way was God’s care for His people manifest in laws intended to promote both health and holiness.  Our modern culture is too prone to separate health from holiness; that is not a biblical model.

We discovered separation is a measure God sanctioned in the case of physical illness and unrepentant sin.  The individual must sometimes suffer separation for the good of the faith-community.  This is yet another example of how individual rights do not trump the good of the community but instead are subordinate to it.

The coronavirus has been called an “unprecedented situation,” but of course that’s not true; history is darkened with accounts of plagues.  For example, in the 14th century the bubonic plague killed about a quarter of Europe’s population.  At that time it was known that whole villages moved away, leaving those stricken behind.  What’s a little bit unique about this situation is the heavy hand government has taken to poor science turned into unlegislated laws.  History also makes clear that a crisis is construed as an opportunity to enlarge government at the loss of freedom.  Once governments gain power they never relinquish it willingly.

Each one of us needs to make careful decisions about our accommodations to the coronavirus, seeing the wisdom and truth in what we’re being told while avoiding overreactions and the overreaching some persons have perpetrated.  This is not an easy time because it is an unfamiliar problem compounded by an unfamiliar solution.  Trust in God first and foremost, seeking the spiritual cleansing He has provided us in Jesus Christ.

 

RESOURCES:

https://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/493593-church-pastor-accuse-kentucky-governor-of-targeting-churchgoers-on

Zondervan Bible Commentary, “Leviticus,” Robert P. Gordon

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, “Leviticus,” R. Laird Harris

Fearful Heart or True Heart?

 

Get and keep the kind of heart God has for you.

Some folks think courage is something like adrenaline: it will be there when you really need it. That makes for a good story, but it is rarely true.

The fact is, courage is like a muscle you build through constant exercise.  Like all character traits, it must become a functional part of us through repeated practice.  I realize words like “practice” and “exercise” are not popular words and they do not make for a dramatic story, but they are the means by which character is built.

So, in order to have courage when you need it most, you have to exercise it every day.  It’s the little decisions, the daily tests that develop more courage in us.

  1. Fear God only; do not have an anxious heart (see Leviticus 26:36-37).

In a lengthy section detailing the warnings of penalty for disobedience, God said, “AS FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO ARE LEFT, I WILL MAKE THEIR HEARTS SO FEARFUL IN THE LANDS OF THEIR ENEMIES THAT THE SOUND OF A WIND-BLOWN LEAF WILL PUT THEM TO FLIGHT.  THEY WILL RUN AS THOUGH FLEEING FROM THE SWORD, AND THEY WILL FALL, EVEN THOUGH NO ONE IS PURSUING THEM.  THEY WILL STUMBLE OVER ONE ANOTHER AS THOUGH FLEEING FROM THE SWORD, EVEN THOUGH NO ONE IS PURSUING THEM.  SO YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO STAND BEFORE YOUR ENEMIES.’

An anxious heart can be a sign of disobedience.  Among all the warnings in this section, this one has to do with a state of heart.  If they won’t fear God and respect Him, then He will ironically send a fear so strong that they will retreat from shadows; worry over nothing.  The picture here is rather comical; like Abbot and Costello or “Dumb and Dumber,” these characters are going to be falling over one another to retreat from things that are not actual threats.  Though is mocking or comical, it’s not a funny situation.  The outcome will be constant defeat: YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO STAND.  This truth is also expressed in the form of a contrast in PBS 28:1; THE WICKED FLEE THOUGH NO ONE PURSUES, BUT THE RIGHTEOUS ARE AS BOLD AS A LION.

An anxious heart can be a sign of discouragement.  Ten times in the Old Testament fear and discouragement are directly linked.  God repeatedly said to His people; “Do not be afraid or discouraged.”  There were different threats at different times, but always His message was the same; “do not be afraid or discouraged.”  Based on human nature, fear and discouragement are typically our first responses when we have to face setbacks.

  1. God does not want you to have a fearful heart (see Isaiah 35:3-4).

STRENGTHEN THE FEEBLE HANDS, STEADY THE KNEES THAT GIVE WAY; SAY TO THOSE WITH FEARFUL HEARTS, “BE STRONG, DO NOT FEAR; YOUR GOD WILL COME, HE WILL COME WITH VENGEANCE; WITH DIVINE RETRIBUTION HE WILL COME TO SAVE YOU.”

The context of this Scripture is a word of encouragement first given to the Jews who were captives living in the nation of their conquerors.  The people of God spent 70 years in captivity before these promises were fulfilled.  These promises are also for us, for our encouragement in anxious hours.

A fearful heart needs to be strengthened.  We can strengthen our human nature by means of reason and emotion, but we can receive spiritual strength only as we rely on God.  Prayer and knowledge of the Word are used the Holy Spirit and are the ways we begin the process of receiving this strength from God.  The process continues with the encourage-ment God’s people give to one another.  Fear in one’s heart weakens not only one’s resolve but also one’s hands; our physical strength is sapped when fear takes over.

We are strengthened by trust in God.  There are two specific promises in this passage.  When He appears, God will bring about completion of all the woes of creation.

He will bring about perfect justice.  This is indicated twice in our text: HE WILL COME WITH VENGEANCE, and WITH DIVINE RETRIBUTION.  These promises have a negative ring in the ears of some.  However, we need to be reasonable; the only way perfect peace can be achieved is by the destruction of all evil.  This isn’t negative at all; it is God keeping His promises and rewarding the faith of His people.

He will save you.  He will save His people from all their enemies, all evil doers.  He will save them for eternal fellowship with Him and with one another.

The two sides of the ultimate victory of God are the eternal life given to His people and eternal destruction visited upon those who refused to be His people, choosing evil instead.

3. Follow Joshua’s example to have a courageous heart (see Joshua 1:5-9 + 18)

God promised Joshua complete victory over his enemies.  There were a lot of them and the territory they occupied is described in v. 4.  Let’s note all God’s promises:

– “I WILL GIVE YOU EVERY PLACE YOU SET YOUR FOOT, AS I PROMISED MOSES.” (3)

– “AS I WAS WITH MOSES, SO I WILL BE WITH YOU; I WILL NEVER LEAVE YOU OR FORSAKE YOU.” (5)  Moses occupied a unique and important role in God’s salvation plan, but the grace of God did not end with him; it continued with Joshua as Moses’ replacement.  What is noteworthy here is that it is the presence of God that makes all the difference.  Military power or any kind of earthly advantage is nothing compared to the works of God.

– “YOU MAY BE SUCCESSFUL.” (7)

– “YOU WILL BE PROSPEROUS AND SUCCESSFUL.” (8)

– “GOD WILL BE WITH YOU WHEREVER YOU GO.” (9)

– “GOD IS GIVING YOU YOUR OWN [land].” (11)

God repeatedly commanded Joshua to be “STRONG and COURAGEOUS.”  Moral strength and courage are part of this command.  As God repeated promised His people, doing the right thing is a key to achieving the right result.  This is important because people can be stubborn or in some similar way display something that looks like strength or courage.  However, it is the strength and courage that come from God that matter.  These we receive by faith and obedience.

 

Biblical courage can be defined as “following through on your faith-based decision to obey God’s will.”  This results in doing the right thing without regard for earthly support or opposition.  Courage is built by consistently choosing God’s way in the daily and seemingly trivial daily decisions we all make.

For example, why do bullies prosper?  It’s because their victims are not prepared to exercise courage from the beginning, when the stakes are comparatively low.  Instead, they give into their emotions early and repeatedly until their emotions get out of control and they explode from pressure.  The result is sometimes very unpleasant and always avoidable.  (Think of “Ralphie” teeing off on “Scot Farkus” in the movie “A Christmas Story.”)

One other example.  Some of the most courageous acts we do is to have an open mind and trust others.  The person who insists on “my way or the highway” is a bully whose mind is closes and is distrustful.  Courage is manifest in the undramatic and ordinary circumstances where we obey God in His timing.

2016 is a Year of Jubilee

(Please read Leviticus 25:8-22.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)

Message – God commanded a Year of Jubilee as a special Sabbath. We can do this in our own way.

  1. What the Year of Jubilee meant to Israel.

It meant freedom for indentured servants with the forgiveness of debts (39-43).  God did not free His people from slavery to the Egyptians (see the book of Exodus) only to make them slaves to one another.

In this culture, the “safety net” for poverty was for the head of the household to sell himself and/or family members into slavery.  We might call it “indentured servitude” to differentiate is from the other kind of slavery.  Indentured servants were countrymen and were generally assigned household chores.  Slave were Gentiles, became slaves by being conquered in war, and were not freed by the Year of Jubilee.  This allowed the man to work off his debt and when that was accomplished, everyone regained their freedom.

While this system his may sound cruel to our ears, I think it has some points to commend itself versus our system of welfare.  The indentured servants were provided a home, food, and work to do to restore their homes.  They were to be treated respectfully – as fellow countrymen – by their masters.  Our system creates a cruel dependency and a massive bureaucracy, both of which have been proven to be toxic to our social and political life.

While each approach to poverty has its strengths and weaknesses, the point is that the exception to this rule was the Year of Jubilee.  In this case, the debt that created indentured servitude was simply forgiven.

It also meant a second consecutive year of rest for the land (11-12; see Exodus 23:10-11).  It can be a little confusing because the term “Sabbath” is used in a variety of ways.

– The seventh day of the week was designated as the weekly Sabbath.

– The seventh year was designated as a Sabbath Year.

– I suppose you could say the Year of Jubilee was to be a “Sabbath of Sabbaths;” observed every 50 years, occurring after seven Sabbath Years were held (8).

In every case, however, a Sabbath is a rest from work, replacing work with worship and prayer. The term literally means “solemn rest.”  As God rested from His work of creation, so are His people to rest from their works.  But this was also a rest for the land.  The people were not to raise crops, but to trust God that He would provide for their needs through what grew on its own.  Imagine an entire year devoted to God!  What would 365 Sundays feel like?

I’m no farmer and have a black thumb, but I understand that land which is tilled and planted loses its vitality.  That’s why crops are rotated and occasionally land is left idle; to renew it.

The Year of Jubilee also required restoration of lands to their ancestral owners (10, 13).

This means that the land – the PROMISED Land – could not be sold permanently.  V. 23 = THE LAND MUST NOT BE SOLD PERMANENTLY, BECAUSE THE LAND IS MINE AND YOU ARE BUT ALIENS AND TENANTS.  This is the true theology of stewardship; everything belongs to God and He has appointed us as caretakers over it.  Our possessiveness, materialism, and pride are false and sinful because we don’t truly own a single thing.  How wonderful that every seventh year the people of God would get a powerful reminder not to put their hopes in money or earthly goods of any kind, but to trust in God instead.

The Year of Jubilee had practical as well as spiritual benefits.

– It emphasized the ties of family and brought them back to their origins: EACH ONE OF YOU IS TO RETURN TO HIS FAMILY PROPERTY AND EACH TO HIS OWN CLAN (10).

– It controlled inflation by resetting real estate prices every 50 years. (Today we use dollars in the way we used pennies 50 years ago and our purchasing power is diminishing.  Imagine how much better off we’d be with a 50 year reset!)

– It kept people from getting too far in debt. We know debt is hard on relationships.  (These days people are taking EIGHT YEARS to pay on a car, say nothing of 30 and 40 year mortgages!)

– Most importantly, it reinforced the essential truth that THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S (see Psalm 24:1).  This stops us from being selfish & materialistic.

By now you may be thinking of the ways in which the Year of Jubilee might be abused.  Notice that this passage required scaling prices according to the number of years until the next Jubilee (14-16).  This was a practical way to avoid abuse of the system.

Verse 17 provided a theological way to avoid abuse by forbidding abuse in principle: DO NOT TAKE ADVANTAGE OF EACH OTHER, BUT FEAR YOUR GOD.  I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD.  This is exactly what GRACE is all about.  It risks abuse and misuse in order to make exceptions and aid others.

– The Year of Jubilee was to be 365 days of GRACE! WOW!!

– It was to be a whole year of trusting God to provide for you, not you busting your chops to grab all you can for yourself; a year of FAITH.

This sounds like crazy talk to worldly ears; utter foolishness.  Faith and grace have that effect on worldly-minded folk.  Grace is impractical and risky.  It has its own kind of logic that frequently opposes what the world says is reasonable.  The Year of Jubilee was also a practice run for the Kingdom of God, the ideal situation that will exist after the Day of the Lord.

The sad fact is that there is no biblical record of a Sabbath Year being observed, let alone a Year of Jubilee.  Apart from it being commanded in Leviticus and Numbers, it is never mentioned again in the Bible.  What a shame!  This wonderful command of God, so full of grace, was never adopted by the people of God.  What an opportunity wasted!

  1. What this Year of Jubilee will mean for us.

Freeing the captives and forgiving debts can be accomplished in our lives by our forgiveness of grudges and reconciliation of persons.  Forget about monetary debts; let us solve the relational problems in our lives by forgiveness.  We don’t need “drama and trauma” in our relationships.  God has called us to something far better: love.

One gauge of your spiritual life is the number of relationships that bring you joy compared to the number that are associated with negative emotions.  The more joy, the more spiritually mature you are.

An equivalent to resting the land can be taking rest from the tyranny of the ordinary and familiar.  Traditions and rituals exist to provide context, not constraint.  Spiritually mature people balance context with creativity and flexibility to follow the Spirit’s leadership.  Changing everything and changing nothing are ridiculous extremes and are scarcely worth mentioning.  Again, balance is key.  As human beings, we find joy in variety and familiarity.  This should balance should be sought as we make decisions together and live with one another.

In this, we can take as our example Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath.  God created the institution for people, not people for the institution.

Being restored to our ancestral lands can take place by the restoration of our church’s place in our neighborhood and our attitude toward the people who live next to the place we call home.  I realize that the so-called experts say that neighborhood churches are a thing of the past, that everyone drives to church these days.  So what?  Be a neighborhood church!  Should any one of our neighbors die without receiving Jesus as Savior, let it not be because we failed to reach out and share the Gospel.

HOW WE GOT HERE – Pastor Dwayne and I were having a staff meeting, conversing about how difficult 2015 has been.  We decided to claim 2016 as a year of grace, of fruitfulness, and the fullness of God’s blessing.  “Let’s call it a Year of Jubilee,” we decided.  Something about that struck a chord, and we googled it.  We were surprised to find out that Pope Francis had already had this idea and announced it as such!

But we were even more surprised when we found that it we are already in an official Year of Jubilee according to the Hebrew calendar.  That is the traditional lunar calendar that is currently in year 5776!  According to that calendar, the Year of Jubilee began on September 23 of this year and will continue until the Day of Atonement next year.

SO, even though we’re a little late to the party, we’re going to adapt this biblical command to our church in the coming year!  I mentioned this later that day at the Nehemiah Prayer Group and we ran with it there too.  Since there are nine months left in the Year of Jubilee, we’ll emphasize one of the nine Fruits of the Spirit each month.  We pray that this emphasis improves church life and extends our outreach to our community.