According to research by the University of Scranton, only 8% of people keep their New Year resolutions. The evidence suggests that most people make resolutions about health and happiness. Is that true for you? But before we look forward to the year ahead, we should glance back over 2016.
What sort of year have you had? Has it been positive or negative? Good or bad? Good in terms of health and wellbeing? Good in terms of your work being fulfilling and worthwhile? Good in terms of being spiritually on track, and growing as a Christian? Or has this past year been really difficult? Things have been hard. Perhaps a death in the family, or you have some serious illness? Or made redundant? Or crippled with debt? Perhaps disappointment: you didn't get that expected promotion. Your relationship fell apart. At work, it was all bitterness and backbiting. And now in retirement a feeling of being side-lined and no longer wanted. What's left now, apart from waiting for the undertaker?! How has it been in your Christian life? Have you made any clear progress? Are you more like Jesus today than twelve months ago?
The beginning of the New Year gives us the opportunity to take stock, to examine our lives and our priorities, to be ready and willing to change, and to be more disciplined in living the Christian life. As someone has put it,
"Jesus invites us to look at life from a heavenly perspective and [to] realign our priorities"
(Tim Chester, One True Story, p133).
Are you willing to do that? Leviticus 26 is a good place to find some spiritual direction. Leviticus is a book we tend to overlook (or to look at very selectively), but it has much to teach us. Leviticus is a book about holiness – about the holy God and what it means to be the holy people of God. It's about sacrifice and priesthood. It's about the Day of Atonement. It points us forward and anticipates the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ as our great high priest, as the one who makes atonement for our sin, and who will avert the judgement of God.
1. The Introduction
Leviticus 26 is about God's blessing and about God's judgement - of an obedient people and a disobedient people. Leviticus 26 offers restoration and forgiveness of sin to those who repent and return to the Lord. So here then, is a message of hope. Cast your eye over the whole chapter:
- Verses 1-2 are a necessary introduction. It sets the scene. It gives us the foundation for our relationship to the Lord.
- Verses 3-13 concern blessings. It begins 'If you follow' and then God says 'I will' act. 'If you follow' occurs in verse 3, and then God says 'I will' in verses 4, 6, 9, 11 and 12.
- Verses 14-39 concern punishments. It begins 'But if you will not', then God says 'I will' act. There are consequences to your turning away from my commands and in going your own way. Of your rejection. Of your disobedience. Of your sinfulness.
- Verses 40-46 concern restoration. It refers to humility, of confession of sin, of God's renewed covenant with his people.
So, do you get the general drift of the chapter? Particularly how the first 13 verses are followed by the word 'but' in verse 14? And with a further 'but' in verse 40? Notice too, the number of times that the LORD says, 'I will'. The God who speaks is the God who acts. Here is no dumb idol but a God who communicates with his people. One who comes alongside us and who comes to us in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We need to notice too that the one who speaks is the God of the Covenant - the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (v.42). He covenanted himself with them and re-established the covenant with Moses and the people of God. On the mountain, Moses fell down before the Lord, and he revealed to him his divine name. What was it? 'I am who I am'. To us that sounds rather strange. It means that the God of the past is the God of the present and the God of the future. He has always been, and will always be. He is Yahweh, the LORD God almighty. And it is this God, who has entered into covenant with his people. The covenant, the divine, solemn, binding agreement between the LORD and his people. The covenant is at the heart of the biblical revelation. Seven times in Leviticus 26 the covenant is mentioned (vv. 9, 15, 25, 42 (x2), 44 and 45). The covenant – made by God, broken by man. The covenant kept by God, ignored by man. As someone has put it,
"To be part of God's covenant people, to belong to God, is to be blessed. To be out of relationship with God is to be cursed"
(Mary Evans, quoted in Tidball, Leviticus, p306).
Blessing is not a reward for good behaviour, but it rests upon the favour of God and of our obedience to the promises of God. So, do you grasp what this chapter is all about? It's about the LORD, who has entered into a solemn covenant with his people. We would want to say too, that it is in and through the Lord Jesus Christ that we engrafted into the covenant people of God. We (through Jesus) live in the light of his generous, undeserved, unmerited favour. In return, we pledge ourselves to him. Blessing – punishment – restoration – that sets the scene for Leviticus 26 and the framework for each one of us for the year ahead.
2. The Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments begin:
"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery"
And notice that those words are repeated in Leviticus 25.55 – "I am the LORD your God … whom I brought out of the land of Egypt". And then in Leviticus 26.1-2 are two of the Ten Commandments. The people of God, the covenant people of God, the holy people of God, were to have no other gods, they were to erect no idols, they were not to bow down before them, and they were to observe the Sabbath. How very relevant for us today! No other gods, in the place of the one true God. No other gods where today there are many false gods and ideologies that run counter to biblical Christianity. The false gods of mammon, of greed and materialism – think back to 'Black Friday' just before Christmas and then of the post-Christmas sales. Greed, online at the press of a key. No other gods, no idols.
And what about the command to observe the Sabbath? We tend to skate around this one. When did you last hear a sermon on the Sabbath or Sunday observance? When did I last preach a sermon on it? We make so much of the other nine Commandments, but we all turn a blind eye to making one day in seven different. When it comes to Sunday, the world has clearly squeezed us into its own mould. We have reduced our Sunday observance to merely attending a church service. But is that enough? Christians seem to have little interest in making Sunday special. Not shopping. Not going out for meals. Not causing others to work unnecessarily. We speak about the godless age in which we live, the erosion of Christian standards, the secularisation of our culture, but do we ever stop and think how much we break the fourth Commandment and don't keep Sunday holy? Could I encourage you, at the start of this New Year, to examine your own practice of Sunday observance? How can you make it a special day?
There are two aspects of verse 2 – "You shall keep my Sabbaths" and you shall "reverence my sanctuary" (see too, Leviticus 19.30 and Ezekiel 22.38). For the people, the sanctuary was at the heart of their Sabbath-day worship. At first it was in the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness, and much later on in the Temple in Jerusalem. These places symbolised the presence of God. How were the people to meet with him and relate to him? By participating in prayer and sacrifice. But for Jews, since AD 70 there has been no Temple, no central place for worship. Yet for Christians, the Lord Jesus has come. He has come among us and identified himself with us. By his death on the cross he has abolished the need for repeated sacrifices. The risen Christ has become the focus for our devotion and the object of our love.
At the beginning this New Year, ask yourself how you could make Sunday different … to honour it as a day that is distinctive, a day set apart for the Lord, and as we come together in this place, to be aware that the Lord is in our midst. He is present where two or three are gathered in his name; he is among us. As we gather together, do we ever have that expectation? That he is here among us to fellowship with us, and we with him?
3. The Listening and the Obedience
Five times in Leviticus 26 the consequences of not listening to the Lord are spelt out (vv. 14, 18, 21, 23, 27). The people turned away from him. They rejected him. They disobeyed him. But what of the reverse situation? That they listen to the voice of God. Listen to him and learn to be obedient. The voice of God addresses us through his Word and we must be ready to hear it, and be willing to obey it. Of course, we can choose not to hear, or not want to hear, and rely too much upon our inner feelings or on what others are saying to us. But the Christian is to listen to the Lord, and to obey the Lord.
Let's look at the covenant God in action. What does he say? What does he promise? In verse 3 he says: "If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands…" Then what does he promise to his covenant people? Six times (in vv. 4-12) he says 'I will' (vv.4, 6, 9 (x2), 11, 12). In all of these things God poured out his blessing. He would provide for them. He would grant them peace and protection. He would look favourably upon them. They would be blessed by his presence. For the Christian, the reality of the presence of God is found in the Lord Jesus Christ. He is with us and alongside us – when life is bright and sunny and when there is only darkness and despair. Did you spot those words at the end of verse 13? Those whom the Lord brought out of slavery in Egypt and led into the freedom of the Promised Land could "walk with [their] heads held high" (NIV). Why? Because the Lord was with them and he had redeemed them.
That surely is a message for each one of us at the beginning of this New Year - that we should not fear the current climate of mocking and ridiculing the Christian faith. Rather we should walk with our heads held high. Why? Because we are the redeemed of the Lord. We have been saved by the blood of Christ. By becoming man, he has identified himself with us (yet without sin). So, thanks be to God!
All of this is positive, but from verse 14 we have the other side of the coin. We move now from the positive to the negative. If listening and obedience spelt blessing, then refusing to listen and disobedience results in certain judgement. In verses 14-39 we are told about those who refused to listen and obey. Those who rejected God's word and turned from his law were said to have violated the covenant and were hostile to God. And it's all pretty bleak! The result is terror, punishment, affliction, hunger, homelessness, exile. Of course, much of this is prophetic. It was anticipating what would happen later in the life of the nation. Already, in Leviticus 26, reference had been made to the Exodus, and now to the Exile to come. Exodus and Exile are the twin poles around which the Old Testament story is set.
At the start of the New Year, we are presented with a choice. To listen and to obey the Lord, or to be deaf and disobedient to him. How then are you going to respond to the Lord? As much as it suits you? As little as you can get away with? Half-heartedly or wholly?
4. The Confession and the Restoration
Right at the end of Leviticus 25 and four times in Leviticus 26 we have the solemn words: "I am the LORD your God" (5.55; 26.1, 2, 44, 45). The communicating God. The acting God. The transforming God. The forgiving God. He expects us to respond in obedience and faith. He expects us to listen to him (v.14). He wants us to confess our sins (v.40). So that he might bring forgiveness of sin and freedom from guilt and shame. As we have noticed already, these two verses (vv.14 and 40) include the two 'buts' of the chapter.
Here speaks the God who made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and now Moses. The covenant is made with all of his people – the people of God in the Bible – and the people of God in every generation – and that includes you and me as individuals– and to us as a congregation of believers. Though the people have been indifferent and disobedient, refusing to hear the divine voice and not prepared to obey it, the Lord offers a way of escape. Confess your sins, come to him in penitence and faith. Trust in the promises of God. Walk in his way. Heed his words. Remember the covenant obligations. Remember the empty cross and the empty tomb. To ignore all of this spells certain death. Therefore, choose life! Of a life that is submitted to the Lord. Of a life that is being gradually transformed into the divine likeness.
If we are honest, most of us have got a long way to go. Our progress is often irregular and our spirituality a mere pretence. All too readily we ignore the Lord and turn away from him. The theory and the reality are often poles apart. But he waits patiently, prompting us to respond, longing for us to return. He is the waiting father for the prodigal son.
On this New Year's Day, and throughout the year ahead, determine to live close to Christ, and allow him to come alongside you, perhaps in a way that you have never experienced before. We rightly speak of coming to Christ, confessing our sin, acknowledging him as our Lord and Saviour – but beyond that we need to deepen our relationship to him and to co-operate with the Holy Spirit in the process of transformation. What will 2017 bring to us? We don't know, but we can hold our heads high, praising, worshipping, trusting in the Lord, rejoicing in his blessing and favour.