Week 9 – What It Means to Be a Holy People


The book of Leviticus does not make for fun reading; not for anybody.  The book of Leviticus is a technical manual.  It’s kind of like a cookbook.  Cook books are helpful when there is something in particular that you want to prepare.  But otherwise they’re not that enthralling.  Leviticus is a lot like a cookbook.  It gives directions on how to be holy.  

But that only leads to the next question which is, what does the word ‘holy’ mean?  

This is pretty important.  ‘Holy’ is a pretty big word in the Bible.  It gets used a lot.  And yet we have to wrestle out a definition of this word.  

Most people think that the word holy means, pure.  What’s pure?  To not be mixed with anything else?  With any contaminating substance?  To be clean.  I think that is what most people mean or think of when they think of the word holy; a white outfit, fresh out of the laundry and off of the clothes line without a blemish on it; not a hint of a stain; blindingly pure; so bright and so clean and so pure that it almost hurts your eyes to look at it.  In fact, it does hurt.  Holiness is too much.  It overwhelms you.  It becomes downright oppressive.  Suddenly holiness shows us its dark side.  Holy is so clean that it makes  you feel dirty.  Standing next to that white shirt mine looks dingy.  And so we have the word holy getting used in phrases like holier-than-thou.  And that is not complimentary.  Or the Latin word for holy–sanctus, gets twisted into the term, sanctimonious.  And that’s not a good thing.  Someone who is sanctimonious things that they are better and purer than others.  And they are sure to make others to know that and to make others aware of how wonderful they are.  This really isn’t a hard idea to understand in a culture like ours, with the celebrity as the epoch of what all human life and striving is about.  To be famous is to be better known than others.  It’s all comparative.  It’s all on a sliding scale.  And so it has to do with rank.  And with rank there is always someone on top.  And there is always someone who is on the bottom.  Somebody always feels rotten.  

And that is the problem with holiness if we don’t refine our definition.  

I prefer as a synonym to the word holy, the word–special.  It’s not a perfect match.  But it works on one level.  

To say that someone is special means that that person is different, unique and singled out.  In that sense the word special would seem to have the same problem as the word clean or pure.  It would seem to categorize someone or some group of people into a group from which others are excluded.  This is the confusion that the people of Israel constantly faced.  They were told that they were God’s chosen people.  But does that imply that everyone else was un-chosen?  Were the people of Israel better than everyone else, or more loved?  There is a wonderful story in the Old Testament that helps to scratch at the surface of this question.  We will try, in the story below, to frame that famous story in the exodus narrative broadly and the book of Leviticus more specifically as a narrative trick rather than for actual historical purposes.


When the people of Israel were lead up out of Egypt and into the wilderness they were out on their own.  They were camping out in the wild, away from city life; away from civilization.  For a long time these people had been slaves down in Egypt.  The people had lived among the Egyptians for generations and generations; as far back as anyone could remember.  And then, all of a sudden, they had gotten kicked out.  The people of Israel were out on their own; out in the wilderness, where they would have the chance to learn a few things about themselves and about the way that the world is.  They’d have time to think.

One of the things that God told them after they had come up out of Egypt is that they shouldn’t try to dress like and to talk like and to act like Egyptians anymore.  People are always copying other people; especially people whom they think of as successful.  It’s all a big copy-game.

Then God said, “Stop copying those Egyptians.  I don’t want you to be like them.  I want you to be different.  I want you to do better than that.”  After all…the Egyptians were, apparently, the sort of people who enslaved other people.  And that isn’t cool.  So… “you people of Israel can do better than that.  I want you to be my holy people; my special people; my chosen people.  Don’t try to fit in.  Don’t try to be like everyone else.”

And then God gave the people of Israel some special things to do; to be different; and to set them apart from other people; things like–different kinds of clothes, and eating different kinds of foods; different hair-cuts; different behaviors–things like, ‘thinking of others and treating other people decently’.  Believe it or not, sadly enough, just to do that…to be decent to others would be something that would set the people of Israel apart and make them seem different from others. 

Were they better than others?

You could get that impression.

The whole book of Leviticus outlined a whole bunch of rules that the people of Israel were supposed to observe in order to be special.  Some of the rules they kept.  Others they weren’t so good at.  But the people of Israel always maintained the idea that they were different; that they weren’t like the people living around them.  And that sometimes caused problems.  The people living around them certainly didn’t appreciate being looked down upon.  There was a lot of resentment; especially after the people of Israel moved into their neighborhoods and took over.  Sometimes the people of Israel did get too big for their britches.  They might think that they were God’s favorites and that he didn’t care for or love anyone else.  There was a very famous story that got told amongst the Israelites to remind them of the fact that God loves everyone.  God wants everyone to be special.  So, in terms of holiness; the distinction shouldn’t really be made between the holy and the unholy; rather the proper contrast is between the holy and the not-yet-holy.  Anyway–here’s that famous story that was meant to keep Israel thinking straight about what a holy people are for.

Once upon a time, the story goes, there was a man, a fellow from Israel, who got a command from God.  And God said, “Go, preach to those other people over there because they obviously don’t know about me.”  

Now this guy, this fellow that God told to go preach, wasn’t exactly keen on that idea.  It’s not that he didn’t think that those other people wouldn’t believe him about who God is.  Actually what he was afraid of is that they would.  They would believe, and then they would know God too, like the people of Israel do.  And then the people of Israel wouldn’t be special anymore.  

So this guy got in a boat and sailed the other way, in the opposite direction from the homes of the people whom God had told him to go to preach to.  

Well, running away from God is kind of a dumb idea.  But what else are you going to do when you disagree with him?  So Jonah ran away; or–sailed away.

But God wasn’t letting Jonah get off that easy.  God sent a big storm that blew back in the face of their sailboat.  It was such a ferocious squall out there on the open sea that all of the sailors who were out on the boat with Jonah (it was a big boat) were scared to death and didn’t know what to do.

Jonah said, “Throw me overboard.”  Jonah was just that depressed anyway that he didn’t have any real desire to go on living.  “What’s the point,” he thought– “if we’re not special?”  Jonah figured that God was mad and that if the sailors would throw him overboard that that would make God happy–which is a pretty weird idea, if you think about it.  Why would that make God happy?  Does God sit around thinking of ways to punish people?  Jonah thought so.  “Chuck me in,” Jonah said to the other sailors.  

They did and that storm stopped.  And that only confirmed to them the idea that God is an angry guy and the way to make him happy is to toss him a victim every once in a while to keep him happy.  It’s like feeding the lions at the zoo.  You have to toss them some fresh meat every now and then.  

Jonah would have sunk to the bottom, but God wasn’t done working with this fellow Jonah. God sent a big fish and that fish gobbled Jonah up; well…it swallowed him whole.  And there he sat–Jonah–in the dark of the fish’s stomach.

And Jonah thought, ‘this kind of stinks.’  It probably really did stink.  But he was stuck.  And so Jonah prayed.  He asked God, “Hey, how about a break?”

And so God gave him a break. God had the fish puke Jonah out on dry land; out on a nice sunny beach.  And then God said, “Jonah, how about that assignment I had given you?  Do you think that now you could go to preach to those people who don’t know me so that they could be special too?

Well, Jonah didn’t really see how he could get out of it now; especially after God had bailed his sorry butt out of the belly of the fish.  But his heart still wasn’t in it.  And so he went; Jonah did; and he performed his assignment in a rather lack-luster manner.  He had hoped that if he didn’t sound very enthusiastic that the people that he was preaching to wouldn’t take him very seriously, and that they would blow him off; which is what he secretly wanted.  

But, instead, much to his vexation, the people of that far away place did listen to Jonah and come to believe in and know God.  In fact, those people seemed to have a better understanding of God than what Jonah had had.  That was kind of crazy.  

And so Jonah got mad.  He hated to see God being so nice and generous to others.  And it was almost like, being an Israelite did mean anything to him anymore if he couldn’t think that he was better than someone else.  “What’s the point of God’s love” Jonah thought, “if it doesn’t mean that he also hates someone else at the same time?  Well maybe God will change his mind,” Jonah thought.  “Maybe he won’t disappoint me and he really will hate these people whom he sent me to.  Maybe I just need to be patient.  I’ll wait here for a while and maybe God will bomb them right off of the map.  That would be pretty sweet.”

So that’s what Jonah did.  He sat down to wait and hoped that God would squash those people.  And he sat.  And he waited.  And then he sat some more; and still, no explosions.  And it got hot as Jonah sat out there and waited.  

And God felt sorry for Jonah; so he made a big-leafed, fast-growing bush to pop up right there behind Jonah and give him some shade.  

And Jonah appreciated that.  The shade felt nice.  

But then God let the bush wither and die.  It got infected with worms.

Jonah said, “oh, you have got to be kidding me!  This is unbelievable!  This was my favorite bush.”

God said, “and  you’ve got to be kidding me.  Your favorite bush?  You didn’t make that bush.  You didn’t even water it.  Here you are all worried about your special bush while all over the world there are all kinds of people who don’t know me.  And I made them.  And shouldn’t they be special to me too?  Should just you and your people be special?”

The story just breaks off right there.  It’s a real cliff-hanger.  It ends so abruptly and with a question so as to make people think; to apply the story to their own lives and their own attitudes.  “Does my being special necessarily include the idea that somebody else isn’t?  Or, that everybody else isn’t?  Is being special something that I want to keep for myself?  Can I only enjoy being special to God if nobody else is?  Is that how it works when you are a favorite?  

The people of Israel always had to struggle with this idea.  Does being different have to include the condemnation of others?  

There was another famous story that came out years later that was about the same sort of dilemma.  It was told by a really famous storyteller.  Maybe you’ve heard of him.  His name was Jesus.  He was a man from Nazareth.  And he told a story once to a guy who asked about whether some people were better than others and more deserving of help.  And Jesus told that man a story that a lot of people call, the story of the Good Samaritan.  But Jesus didn’t call it that.  He didn’t title his stories.  Maybe, if I was asked to give it a title I would call it something like– ‘The Story About Who Is It That a Person Should Help.’  But that’s a little wordy.  


The word ‘holy’ is so pervasive in the liturgy of the church that it escapes notice; so commonplace that it is largely ignored.

The most prominent location of the word holy is in the liturgical piece that precedes the sacrament of the altar–the Sanctus.  Sanctus is the Latin word, holy.  Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus.  Holy, holy, holy.  The recognition by the seraphim (Isaiah 6, Revelation 5) of the God of Israel and all of the universe as one who is holy himself; thrice holy; is the source of the derivative idea of Israel’s holiness.  “By thou holy as I am holy.”  Or, as Jesus would formulate it, “Be thou perfect, even as thy Father in heaven is perfect.”  Perfect here doesn’t mean, without any mistakes.  It means something more like, complete.  God is holy.  He is different and special.  And so his people should be too.  In fact, they will be.  When people see how different God is it can’t help but to change them and to make them be different too; just by virtue of that recognition.  A people will always be like and resemble their gods.  They will be in the image of their gods.  So if a people doesn’t see God right, just like he really is, then they can’t be right either; as they are meant to be.  So–how is God different?  How is the God of Israel different; different from the other gods of the other peoples around them?  How the God of Israel is different is shown in what the God of Israel does.  He intervenes to save an enslaved people.  He befriends the victim and the little man.  He promotes mercy rather than being a guarantor of justice.  He’s different.  He becomes man.  The incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ is always the scandal and the reversal of everything that we anticipate of a god, right down to his dying.  A god who dies?  Who’s ever heard of it?  

How does the holy liturgy exemplify holiness?  It is this set apart place; this set apart time.  It is different from anything else that we do during the rest of the week.  It’s different than every other activity.  It’s special.  It’s set apart.  We designate a special time and place to observe that which is special not to denigrate everything else or outside of the Divine Service.  Rather that holy time and place is meant to enchant all the rest of the world and all of the rest of life.  To infuse everything with a quality and a character of specialness.  The Divine Service, and the sacrament as its center, sanctifies the whole world.  To recognize a little magic, as it were, in this little thing, helps us to believe in a magic that pervades the whole world.  It’s everywhere.  You just have to awaken to it in one place first.  That’s why and how Israel is chosen and special.  That’s why God started with Abraham as his one focal-point through which to work.  But Abraham was chosen that through him all people might be blessed.  Nothing and no one is ever excluded except so as to be, at last, included.