Throughout this time many of us are simply missing human touch and human contact, and direct interaction not through a screen. We are doing the best we can, but it is not the same. I imagine those families in ancient Israel who had loved ones with skin diseases, who had to stay outside the camp or the city and only call out to one another from afar. But there is hope, there is Good News. God was not satisfied with living in a tent or a stone temple among his people. As John writes in his Gospel, “The Word became flesh, and pitched a tent among us, and we beheld his glory.”(March 29, 2020, in lockdown)
Note: This is part of a series of pieces providing a pastoral response to COVID and lockdowns in the church. Read more and subscribe here.
As part of my project, “Pandemic, Church, Society, and the Gospel: A Pastoral Response,” I’ll be reposting sermons that I preached dealing with the pandemic, sometimes with comments or updated reflections. (Check out my Sermons page for audio/video.)
Today I’m reposting a sermon preached online for our Lithuania home church, the Klaipėda Free Christian Church, on March 29, 2020, a few weeks into the initial lockdown. The service was live-streamed from a nearly-empty sanctuary to our congregation over Facebook; only two others were present to translate and stream the video.
The sermon is titled, “God Draws Near,” and the main texts are Numbers 5:1-4 and 9:1-14. Some insights were drawn from the paper I gave at the November 2019 conference, “Chronicles and the Priestly Literature” in Lausanne, which will soon be published in an edited volume. It’s always satisfying to find something useful for the church in my scholarly pursuits–though it’s a shame that more biblical scholarship isn’t directly useful in ministry.
In this sermon you can see some early exploration of the notion of purity and how we know whether something is dangerous or not (I take this up again here). Though I allude to the possibility that the Lord’s Supper could be celebrated remotely, I now think this is not a good idea (future substantive post). In-home communion celebrations with older folks in our church, by comparison, were some of the sweetest times of worship and fellowship I’ve ever had.
When it comes to delayed celebration of holidays like Passover and Easter: we ended up celebrating Passover around the 14th day of the 3rd month in the Jewish calendar, early June 2020, with some friends from church and LCC students and staff who were still around. This year we did it in the 2nd month (late April), as a church service for a handful of students, with…dubious legality based on the restrictions at the time. We had no way of knowing that lockdowns would last so long, and we were all desperate!
Overall, though, I think much of this holds true, even after a year of lockdowns and restrictions. Here is the full text of the sermon.
It is a great blessing to be able to speak to you all today, even though we’re all scattered all over Klaipėda in our homes, or even further in Lithuania—or anywhere in the world. It seems very difficult to talk about anything else right now, other than the coronavirus and how it has changed our lives. Our regular patterns of work and school and family and church have been thrown completely into a mess. We are physically separated from one another, walking around in public with masks and scarves over our faces, keeping appropriate distance. And there is the danger that fear will overtake us: fear of sickness and death, fear of losing our jobs and paying our bills, and fear of chaos in our public spaces, and fear of loneliness and isolation.
The blessing of preaching occasionally, not every week, is that sometimes I see that God has being laying a particular passage or concept on my mind for many months, and then it comes to my heart in an important moment. Over the last few months especially, I have been studying the ritual purity laws in the Bible, particularly in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, mainly for an article I am writing. And, in our family Bible readings we have worked through Leviticus, one chapter each day—and now we are in the Book of Numbers.
And, I think that by stepping out of our world for a little while, into the world of the Bible, we can learn a lot that is relevant for our current situation. When we start to talk about ritual purity and contamination in the laws of ancient Israel, it’s obvious that the biblical authors are writing from a different worldview. Our modern worldview thinks of sickness and contamination in terms of germs, viruses, particles, antibiotics, and chemical cleaning solutions. The worldview of the Bible thinks of ritual purity in terms of bodily contact that represents death and life. Sometimes we can see that God was giving the Israelites rules that they didn’t understand at the time, but which were designed to protect them from disease in ways that they didn’t understand. Other rules don’t appear to have any health reason behind them; they may symbolize other things.
But I think there are some parallels that are relevant for us. In our passages for today, we see that individuals sometimes needed to be isolated from contact with others, and not because of anything that they did wrong. Isolation makes us long for connection with God and with other people. But our holy God goes to great lengths to be with his people, including sometimes bending the “rules” that he himself has given us. And, if we immerse ourselves in the biblical story, the Holy Spirit will use that knowledge to guide us in uncertain times. Finally, our hope is in Jesus, God who took on human flesh, who chose to get mixed up in our world of germs and pain and suffering. His touch brings cleanness and healing, and eternal life.
So, let’s read two passages from the book of Numbers: the first four verses of chapter 5, and the first fourteen verses of chapter 9.
The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Command the Israelites to send away from the camp anyone who has a defiling skin disease or a discharge of any kind, or who is ceremonially unclean because of a dead body. 3 Send away male and female alike; send them outside the camp so they will not defile their camp, where I dwell among them.” 4 The Israelites did so; they sent them outside the camp. They did just as the Lord had instructed Moses.
The Lord spoke to Moses in the Desert of Sinai in the first month of the second year after they came out of Egypt. He said, 2 “Have the Israelites celebrate the Passover at the appointed time. 3 Celebrate it at the appointed time, at twilight on the fourteenth day of this month, in accordance with all its rules and regulations.”
4 So Moses told the Israelites to celebrate the Passover, 5 and they did so in the Desert of Sinai at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month. The Israelites did everything just as the Lord commanded Moses.
6 But some of them could not celebrate the Passover on that day because they were ceremonially unclean on account of a dead body. So they came to Moses and Aaron that same day 7 and said to Moses, “We have become unclean because of a dead body, but why should we be kept from presenting the Lord’s offering with the other Israelites at the appointed time?”
8 Moses answered them, “Wait until I find out what the Lord commands concerning you.”
9 Then the Lord said to Moses, 10 “Tell the Israelites: ‘When any of you or your descendants are unclean because of a dead body or are away on a journey, they are still to celebrate the Lord’s Passover, 11 but they are to do it on the fourteenth day of the second month at twilight. They are to eat the lamb, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 12 They must not leave any of it till morning or break any of its bones. When they celebrate the Passover, they must follow all the regulations. 13 But if anyone who is ceremonially clean and not on a journey fails to celebrate the Passover, they must be cut off from their people for not presenting the Lord’s offering at the appointed time. They will bear the consequences of their sin.
14 “‘A foreigner residing among you is also to celebrate the Lord’s Passover in accordance with its rules and regulations. You must have the same regulations for both the foreigner and the native-born.’”(Num 5:1-4; 9:1-14, NIV2011)
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
First, we should say something about these early chapters of the book of Numbers. The LORD God is preparing the Israelites to march from Mount Sinai, where they have received his law, to the land of Canaan that he has promised to give them. The most important part of their success will be that the LORD is with them as they journey and as they fight. At the end of the book of Exodus, the LORD is meeting regularly with Moses in a tent outside the camp of Israel. But after receiving the instructions of Exodus 25–31 and the book of Leviticus, we see in the first few chapters of Numbers that YHWH moves from the edge of the camp to the very center of the people, with the priests and the Levites arranged around the new tabernacle, and the twelve tribes arranged in a circle around them. The Holy God of Israel really wants to be with his people, right in the middle with them. He makes a system of sacrifices and rules so that they can approach him and his holiness. And he invites them to bring meat and grain and wine, to share meals with him.
These meals are called šelamim, or “peace offerings.” And the most important peace offering is the yearly Passover, the celebration of the LORD bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. It is their “Independence Day” barbecue, their birthday meal (like Pastor Modestas had yesterday?), their celebration with the God who rescued them.
But a situation arises in chapter 9, when the rules protecting God’s holiness prevent some men from celebrating the Passover. These men are ceremonially unclean because a relative of theirs had died, and they performed their obligation to bury him and mourn him. According to chapter 19, the period of impurity for a burial is seven days, which in this case includes the 14th day of the 1st month of the calendar. These men really want to draw near to God and to celebrate the Passover with their families. But they also know the danger of approaching a holy God in a state of uncleanness. In fact, if you follow the dates closely, you can see that some of these men would have been Aaron’s nephews, Levites who sadly had to bury their cousins, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, ordained priests who had approached God in an impure way and had been struck down dead in Leviticus 10. God takes his holiness seriously, and no one can simply ignore his rules.
But in this case, because these men come humbly to Moses and ask God for guidance, God makes an exception for them. In fact, he establishes three permanent exceptions for Passover: those who are ritually unclean because of mourning a relative, or unable to celebrate because of a long journey, may celebrate the Passover in the 2nd month, on the 14th day. Additionally, sojourners—foreigners living with Israel—are invited and encouraged to celebrate the Passover. God desires to be with his people and to eat this meal with them, so he bends the rules and makes new rules in order to accommodate this.
I think this is pretty amazing, and beautiful! And, I’m not the only one to think so. Apparently, the author of the Book of Chronicles thought so, also. He retells the story, hundreds of years after Moses, about the reforms in the time of Hezekiah, King of Judah. When Hezekiah became king, everyone had been rebelling against God’s law, and everyone had neglected the LORD’s temple—the government, the priests, the Levites, and the people. As part of their acts of repentance, they consider the Law and decide to apply it in creative, but faithful ways. The altar, the priests, the Levites, and all the people had become impure. But instead of waiting until the 7th month to hold the “Day of Atonement” ceremony, they hold an atonement ceremony right on the spot, in the first month of the year. Repentance and obedience could not wait six months! And then, because the ritual cleansing of the temple took sixteen days total and prevented them from celebrating the Passover on the 14th day of the 1st month, they decide to take other measures. Let’s read now from 2 Chronicles 30:1–5.
Hezekiah sent word to all Israel and Judah and also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh, inviting them to come to the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem and celebrate the Passover to the Lord, the God of Israel. 2 The king and his officials and the whole assembly in Jerusalem decided to celebrate the Passover in the second month. 3 They had not been able to celebrate it at the regular time because not enough priests had consecrated themselves and the people had not assembled in Jerusalem. 4 The plan seemed right both to the king and to the whole assembly. 5 They decided to send a proclamation throughout Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, calling the people to come to Jerusalem and celebrate the Passover to the Lord, the God of Israel. It had not been celebrated in large numbers according to what was written.(2 Chr 30:1-5 NIV2011)
This is like the Numbers 9 situation, but because all of the people and the priests and the altar were unclean at the regular Passover time, they decide to celebrate all together, in the 2nd month. The way the Chronicler words this chapter signals to us that the Numbers 9 exceptions are in his mind. It even says that many from the Northern extent of Israel came on a long journey to celebrate this delayed Passover; and that “sojourners” celebrated with them. In this joyful event, even though not everyone had properly purified themselves to celebrate, Hezekiah prays to God to forgive and “atone” for their uncleanness—and God hears and forgives. In fact, there was so much joyful celebration with the God of Israel and with each other, that they decided to celebrate not just the Passover but also the Feast of Unleavened Bread together (which is technically a separate festival for seven days after Passover), and then an additional seven days after that!
You see, God makes accommodation for his people when we draw close to him with repentance, and with sincerity, and with joyful confidence that he will accept us for Jesus’s sake. Next week we will celebrate Palm Sunday; then we will have Holy Thursday, Good Friday—and the most important day of the Christian year: Easter Sunday. Because of my Jewish upbringing, my family also celebrates Passover, which is on the evening of April 8th. What shall we do about this? Is there some way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, remotely? I don’t know. I don’t think the Bible’s teaching binds us to anything specific on this point (see Col 2:16–17). We’ll probably be worshiping like this, together on Facebook, and celebrating in our homes. But it just won’t be the same, of course. I imagine that when we are permitted to gather once again, we will have a lot of bottled-up joy, so maybe we will celebrate Easter in August this year! (Maybe in June? We can hope…)
But the converse is also true. We know that there are many who will suffer during this time, and some people close to us will die—some will die from the virus. Those funerals will need to be very small gatherings, or perhaps there will be no funerals at all during this time. As human beings, we need to mourn, and we need to mourn together with others, to bring our pain before God, and to mark the changes in our lives. But that human need will be blocked for now. There will be bottled-up suffering that we will need to mourn when this is over, and the double-mourning of not being able to properly lament at the right time.
And, throughout this time many of us are simply missing human touch and human contact, and direct interaction not through a screen. We are doing the best we can, but it is not the same. I imagine those families in ancient Israel who had loved ones with skin diseases, who had to stay outside the camp or the city and only call out to one another from afar.
But there is hope, there is Good News. God was not satisfied with living in a tent or a stone temple among his people. As John writes in his Gospel, “The Word became flesh, and pitched a tent among us, and we beheld his glory.” As we look to the life of Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man, I want to point to just two stories. You may be familiar with these already, but in case you’re not, you can read them in Mark’s Gospel, chapter 1 verses 40–44, and chapter 5 verses 21–43. In these passages, Jesus touches three people who would be considered ritually impure according to the Law: a man with skin disease, a woman with a continual flow of blood, and a child who had just died. Normally, according to the Law, Jesus would become impure by touching these bodies. But instead: purity, healing, and life flow from Jesus into these people—the man and the woman are healed and the little girl is raised from the dead. Jesus himself is the God who wrote the laws about purity as a picture of his own holiness—and he himself could transcend those laws so that people could draw near to him in faith, and so that those people could be reunited with their loved ones.
Jesus is the human face of God, God in the flesh. He celebrated at birthdays and weddings. He cried at funerals, even for his friend Lazarus when he knew that he would soon raise Lazarus from the dead. He had compassion on people, he touched and healed them. He chose to suffer the limitations of being human in our world, and he even went to a painful death on the cross—in order that we could be reconciled to Him, so that we can draw near to Him.
He has made a way for us, just as he made a way for those sad mourners to rejoice at the Passover a month later, just as he accepted the offerings of those who repented and turned to him in the days of Hezekiah. So, let us continue to draw near to him, every day in prayer and reading of Scripture, every week as we worship him together as a local body—even though we are physically separated from one another.
And let’s allow our hearts and our minds and our lives to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, as we fill ourselves with God’s Word. We don’t know what the future holds for us and for our world. But our God remains the same, and as we look to his past relationship with his people, through the Scriptures and through the history of the church, our faith in his power and his compassion will grow strong.
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Audio and text: ©2020 by Benjamin D. Giffone. Reproduction and distribution are permitted, providing that the author is properly credited and that no fee is charged.