7th Sunday After Epiphany
February 19th/20th, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
We seem to be living in the midst of a cultural identity crisis. I realize that we are often victims of what some have called the “tyranny of the present.” The tyranny of the present works like this: immediately after the Super Bowl ends in overtime or the college basketball championship game ends on a buzzer beater there are those who declare that it was the best game ever. Some declare the past election the most divisive ever, or the current president the worst ever. The tyranny of the present is the natural inclination to think too highly of recent experiences because the emotions are still raw or lingering. The tyranny of the present blinds us to the larger reality of history and leaves us enslaved to whatever emotion we happen to be experiencing at any given moment. There are countless places where the tyranny of the present rears its ugly head and distorts our perspective, which is why I won’t say that I think the state of affairs in America today is the most critical that it’s ever been or ever will be.
However, I do believe we are in the midst of a cultural identity crisis, even in the church. It runs far deeper than the results or ramifications of any single election. It is an identity crisis that touches on some of the most basic questions of existence. Of course, there have always been differing opinions and dissenting voices in any society, but the fact is that we are living today in open disagreement over some fundamental truths, and those disagreements over fundamentals show up in arguments over policies, laws, and expectations in the country and in the church. We have no cultural consensus on what the government is for. Is the government there primarily to provide military defense and infrastructure? Or is the government’s primary responsibility to institutionally solve poverty, hunger, disease, or any other problem life throws at us? Neither do we have cultural consensus on gender or sexuality. Is a person’s sexuality an objective binary trait he or she is born with? Or is the very notion of using binary words like “he” and “she” nothing more than a social construct forced upon people by outside forces? And speaking of people, what does it means to be a person. Is a person a person simply because they exist biologically? Or does a human have to be self-aware of their own existence before we can consider them a person? There are plenty of answers to these and other questions floating around in our world today. And the myriad of voices creates confusion. It creates an identity crisis.
The church itself is not immune to this identity crisis. As we continue to come to terms with our changing place in the cultural landscape, we are left struggling with some identity questions of our own. What is the church for? Is the church here primarily to serve Christians? Or is the primary purpose of the church to reach out to unbelievers? To what extent should the church mimic the culture in an effort to reach the people there? To what extent should the church try to create a sub-culture or counter-culture separate from the mainstream? And if the Church is made up of Christians, then what does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be a child of God? The questions are being asked quicker than we can answer them, and the answers that are given seem to come such intensity that we hardly have time to think about their implications – we’re expected to act immediately, if not sooner. All of this works together to create an atmosphere of frenzied doubt, confusion and panic, inside and outside the church. We are living in the midst of an identity crisis. While it may not be the worst identity crisis that any culture has ever experienced in the history of the world, it remains a significant moment for the Children of God.
In the midst of the panic and chaos, our Lord calls us to rest. Remember the Sabbath, our Lord says. Slow down and hear my voice. That’s what we do today: we slow down and rest to hear the Word of our Lord. To listen to God’s voice reveal his truth. Today, in the throes of an identity crisis, we hear what our Lord says about our identity as his children, and it comes from the book of Leviticus, of all places. One of the least read and most misunderstood books in the Scriptures contains one of the clearest and most beautiful declarations of who we are as the Children of God. “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
If we the church are going to have anything helpful to contribute to our cultural identity crisis, we first have to come to grips with our own identity. And according to our Lord, we are his holy congregation. Now, it’s true that these words were first spoken to the Old Testament Israelites, which means we can’t just automatically assume that they apply to us. But in this case, they do. Paul makes that clear in the Epistle reading when we says that we are the holy temple of God. This promise from Leviticus is for you just as it was for Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and everyone else who left Egypt. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” And make no mistake about it – that is a promise. Sometimes we hear these words as a threat or a demand, as if God was saying “You’d better be holy, or else!” But that’s not what’s going on here. This is a promise. “You shall be holy,” God says, “for I will make you holy.” There’s only one way to become holy. God alone is holy, and the only way for anything that’s not God to become holy is to be close to him. God promises the Israelites that they will be near him as his people. They will be holy, for he is holy.
That promise is for us today. That promise is for you. You shall be holy, for the Lord your God is holy. We shouldn’t read the rest of this section and think that the Israelites will make themselves holy by leaving some of their harvest behind at the edges of their property or by not stealing or swindling or by doing no injustice in court. These actions don’t produce holiness; they reflect it. God makes his people holy, then their lives reflect that holiness. The same is true for us today. We are the holy people of God today. You have been made holy by the blood of Jesus given and shed for you. You have been made holy by the water of holy baptism where your Lord washed you and claimed you as his own. As Paul says, do you not know that you are God’s temple and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. That means you are holy, the holy ones of God. That is your identity in him.
You have been made holy by the holy Word of God that comes into your ears and produces faith in your life – faith that expresses itself in love. The gifts of God make you holy. And our lives today reflect that holiness. They reflect that holiness in ways like the reading from Leviticus describes. We care for those in need, we protect the interests of others, and we show no partiality. They reflect holiness when we refuse to retaliate and when we pray for our enemies, as Jesus describes in the Gospel reading. Our lives reflect holiness in many ways, but the source of that holiness remains God himself. Thus, we pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Hallowed by thy name.” God’s name is certainly holy in and of itself, but we are praying in this petition that his name would be kept holy among us when we teach his Word in its truth and purity, and when we, the children of God, lead godly lives according to it. Our teaching and our living reflect God’s holiness, the holiness that he has given to us. That is our identity. That is who we are called to be: holy people who teach the holy word of God in its truth and purity and to lead holy lives that reflect God’s design for creation.
The gift of God’s holiness gives us our place in the cultural landscape. Yes, the church today is more on the fringes of society than it was 50 years ago. Yes, it will likely get worse before it gets better. I read recently that as many as 35% of young adults view the church as an institution that does more harm than good. Our culture has never been more hostile to the church or her mission than it is today. And it might get worse before it gets better. But let us not fall victim to the tyranny of the present. Do we really think we are the first Christians to live in a culture that is hostile to the Gospel? Do we really think a group of humans from any culture at any point in history could silence the Gospel? If Jesus says Satan and the gates of hell cannot overcome his church, why are we afraid of 21st Century America?
Yes, we, the holy people of God, will have to work harder to find ways to faithfully confess the truth of God’s Word to those who don’t want to hear it. And yes, we will have to find way to do it with gentleness and respect. And ye, such a call is not glamourous in the eyes of the world. But it is the call our Lord has given us. As our synod has emphasized several times over the last few years, we were born for this moment, baptized to be the holy people of God in the here and now. We were not born in a different century or a different culture. We were born to live here and now, so here and now is where we live.
Such a call might not convert the masses on a global scale, but Jesus didn’t say that it was the road to heaven that was wide and well-travelled. We can’t allow ourselves to fall victim to the tyranny of the present. We can’t let the chaos and confusion of our world distract us from the reality of who we are. We are the holy people of the holy God, called to reflect his holiness through our teaching and living. We hear the seductive voice of our culture sweetly inviting us to put aside the truth of God’s Word and walk instead in her ways, for her gate is wide and her pathway easy. But the way of the world is the way of death. We are people of life, called to strive for the narrow gate of our Lord, to be the salt and light of our Lord that stands in stark contrast to the world in which we live.
Such a call is challenging. But throughout the challenge, we remember that we are the holy people of God. That is our identity in him – an identity firmly rooted in his Word and the gifts that make us holy. The gift of his Word. The gift of baptism. The gift of his own body and blood, a gift prepared for you today. So we receive now the gift of God that makes us holy, and we leave this place as the holy people of God, free from the tyranny of the present, free from the chaos and panic of the world’s identity crisis, free to speak the truth in love.
May God grant it for Jesus sake. Amen.