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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Why Would Anyone Ever Want To Study Leviticus?

Except in the summer, I meet with a group of Lutheran pastors to study God's Word and discuss life in the churches we serve. In August this year Pr. Carl Roth of Livingston, Texas began to lead us in a discussion of Leviticus by John Kleinig.It is part of the Concordia Commentary series. Does that strike you as strange? It should, because nobody studies Leviticus any longer, even though it lies at the heart of the Five Books of Moses (Pentateuch), is full of the Good News of God's love, and is central to the understanding of Christ's death.

To quote Kleinig: "The letter to the Hebrews, with its profound liturgical theology of Christ as both the great High Priest and the once-for-all sacrifice, would be inscrutable without Leviticus" (p.26).

Let me translate Kleinig's "inscrutable" sentence and comment upon the way we who sit in the pews and classrooms must often suffer through sermons and lectures that simply do not relate to us. That's what the word inscrutable points to. You hear or read words and you believe they have some meaning, but you can't figure out what in the world that meaning is.

Take a look at several words in his sentence: profound, liturgical and theology. Can these words be translated so they make better sense for us all?

Start with profound. The word refers to something really deep, like the Atlantic ocean. Kleinig is telling us is that the letter to the Hebrews has some deep insights and great knowledge hidden within it. We have only to dive in, dig down and explore. When doing so with the help of Leviticus we will better understand . . .what? Liturgical theology.

Liturgical theology? What's that? Let's press on.

The word Liturgical may cause you to think about liturgy. For some of us the word liturgy stirs up disgust in our hearts. The very word pulls up memories of the dull, boring, tired and useless rituals of public worship services we attended as children, together with long-winded, meaningless sermons. I recall many times in my teen years when I felt that way--even as I believed myself to be on the path toward become a pastor and leader of public worship. Not everyone feels that way, of course, but a significant number of Christians do. That's why they choose to attend churches that go out of their way -- way out of their way -- to avoid any semblance to those churches that are liturgical.

So right off the get-go Kleing is assuming that we, his readers, want to gain some deeper insights into things liturgical AND that there is a liturgical theology of Christ in the book of Hebrews we should get excited about. For those Christians among us who have never gotten excited about the rote, routine, weary, worn-out rituals of some liturgical worship services, there would be no reason at all to plow on through such a study. We don't mind learning more about what God has to tell us about Jesus Christ. We love our Bibles and we love God-talk (theology), but, please, don't get me involved with things liturgical--please!

But what if there were things liturgical that really got to you? Originally the word referred to public acts of service among the Greeks. So if I led a project to build a temple or served as a senator or passed out food to the poor I was doing my liturgy, my public service. Such acts always involved certain repeated steps, certain routines.

Let me tell you a story.

Back in 1968 I was attending graduate school at the University of Chicago. It was the week before Palm Sunday, the week in which Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered. All of Chicago was stirred up. Many predominantly black communities went up in flames as residents rioted in anger and fear. That Sunday our family attended a liturgical worship service. During the service the pastor arranged for two children to walk down the aisle hand in hand, one black and the other white. As they walked we sang "We Shall Overcome." Believe me, there was not a dry eye in the church. Memory of that occasion still chokes me up. That was liturgy with meaning, profound meaning!

What if our study of Leviticus helps us pastors to capture such an understanding of public worship, of liturgy? What if we are able to become the kind of ministers of God through whom God and God's Son, Jesus, ministers to our deep needs, our pains, fears, hopes and longings through the renewed and renewing rites of liturgical worship? Would you be interested? Think about it. Meanwhile, this group of pastors intends to carry on with their study. Pray for us.