Sunday, October 8, 2023

Sanctifying Service

It was morning. Elizaphan had been up the last part of the night, keeping watch from the south, and now he shuffled counterclockwise before the dawn to open the gate to the court around the tabernacle, making a way for his cousin Aaron, the bleary-eyed high priest of Israel, to pass through. He watched as Aaron passed by the altar of sacrifice, still crackling low with flame through the night, and into the tent to tend the golden lampstand and burn fragrant incense in the sanctuary. Another priest stopped at the altar, sweeping the ashes of yesterday's evening sacrifice away. Heaping fresh wood onto the flames, he changed clothes and carried the ashes out of the camp. Soon it was time for the morning offering, another lamb slain and aflame on the altar, while another of the priests poured out beer inside the grounds of the tent, beside the smoldering incense.

As the hours of morning ticked away, other Israelites approached the court with this or that animal, bird, bread, wine. It kept the priests busy serving at the altar, their special responsibility to keep. The Levites were busy carrying out various ministries around the tent of meeting. Some stood guard at the gates, verifying that people and items were ritually clean to enter. Some wrangled the animals, making sure none broke loose. Then there were those who kept track of the treasures. Others shadowed the priests as bodyguards, making sure they could safely carry out their holy ministries, while yet others attended to the priests' needs, fetching supplies and water as the day grew hot. Still others kept peace in the court between bickering clans, or sang or prayed or taught.

Elizaphan, as an older Levite, was no longer tasked with the more physical responsibilities. As he stood by the tabernacle gate, his mind wandered back to the day he'd been consecrated “to serve the service of the LORD,” how he'd been shaved head to toe, washed clean, ordained by the laying on of hands, and separated from Israel's midst as a special gift to God and the priests. “The community of Israel must be plotted, fenced, and plowed with the laws of purity,” Elizaphan thought, “so that she can bear the fruits of holiness.”1

But we've been in not Leviticus but in Genesis, before the rise of Israel. And there we've found a special place, a luxurious garden. There's where God put the human being who, as our prototype, represents us all. As we've explored this garden, we've learned that it's no ordinary park or grove or jungle. It's also holy ground. It's sacred space. It's the first sanctuary, an especially holy patch of earth, sanctified by proximity to God's own presence. It's the space God has chosen to freely walk among us, and us with him. That's why it's so alive.

Last week, we saw that Genesis depicts God crafting the human being – Adam, and me, and you – in much the same terms by which the pagans in Israel's world carefully carved and ceremonially commissioned their idols. And indeed, Genesis uses the same word for us that they used for their idols: 'image,' the image of God. Into an original sanctuary, we humans were placed as holy images of God, so that, in the reverence with which creation treated us, God himself would receive the honor – which is why this weekend's atrocities in the Middle East, as with all violence against human beings, is such devastatingly wicked sacrilege.

But now we can say even more, if you can believe it. Because as soon as we're placed in this garden-temple, as soon as we set foot on holy ground, we're given a job: “the LORD God took the human and rested him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Genesis uses two very specific Hebrew words here, 'abad and shamar, and there's one other major context in the Bible where they come together – and that's where Moses describes what Aaron does, what Eleazar does, what Elizaphan does (e.g., Numbers 3:7-8; 18:5-6). These are Levite words, priest words. The human being is in the garden, not just like a farmer or a vinedresser, but to be there everything a Levite or priest was in the tabernacle in the desert or in the temple on Zion.2

This isn't a new insight, either. An old Christian poet sang that “in the beginning, when the Lord created Adam, he made him a priest so that he might stand in his service.”3 So, as another put it, “we are born on the following terms: that we present our just and due obedience to the God who creates us, and that we acknowledge and follow him alone.”4 “Religious impulses are not the chance creation of particular kinds of societies,” but rather, as one modern scholar points out, scientists are now “making the bold empirical claim that they are the starting point for everyone..., an integral part of the very way we have come to think,” indeed, of “human nature.”5 Being 'religious' isn't a personality trait some people just do or don't have, or a hobby some folks pick up. Religion is a human virtue, the right use of inborn faculties, because “natural reason dictates that man should give reverence to God.”6 There's such a thing as natural religion, arising once people's God-instinct blooms into awareness, because “knowing God comes first, and worship of him is the consequence.”7

So let's go back to Adam's job description, our job description, and pick up with the second word, shamar, that is, to keep or guard what's holy. That's something that was expected of Israel's Levites and priests. How would we have done that in the garden? How do we do that now in this wide world we've come into? Well, first, the human mission is to maintain the garden as an orderly and suitable place for an encounter with the living God.8 Second, relatedly, we're told to care for all the garden's God-ordained contents, to keep them fit for holy purposes. We're bringing God's order and God's beauty into the world, arranging earth in a way that creates space to encounter him in his holy love. Whatever we do in the world, we should minister structure, order, and beauty in harmony; our acts should make room for God and people to interact in healing ways.

Third, like the Levites, our mission is to protect all who lawfully enter the sanctuary space, seeing to their safety and security. There's an age-old tradition of being able to run to holy ground for protection from pursuers. That means that it's part of the human vocation itself to cultivate sanctuary, to establish a refuge for everything that rightfully belongs in God's world. When we stand up for God's good creatures, when we provide shelter for people or animals or trees, when we give them refuge and sanctuary in God, we're doing our job as humans.

The corollary is, fourth, that the human mission is to preserve the garden from defilement, “keeping out anything that would compromise or corrupt the sanctity of sacred space.”9 For example, should a ritually unclean animal – ...say, a certain serpent... – slither its way in, then the human responsibility was to judge it as unclean, block its way, and banish it.10 In our world, the apostles said “we shouldn't call any person... unclean” by nature (Acts 10:28), nor any critter “unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14). But they aren't shy about calling for “unclean spirits” to be “cast out” (Matthew 10:1), or labeling certain behaviors as “uncleanness” (Galatians 5:19). Our mission calls us to oppose the powers of uncleanness, starting first and foremost in our own lives.

Fifth, the human, as keeper of the garden, was to sanctify the garden on a routine basis, “seeing to the continual state of holiness of all that was within the sanctuary.”11 In our world, this would mean bringing holiness to bear in every sphere of life Of course, that means that “as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). But more than our example, it means repeatedly offering up our people, our places, our things, to God as his rightful own. It means consecrating them to him through the authority he's given us to sanctify in his name, by invoking his Spirit, giving them over to him to the extent they've been entrusted to us.

And sixth, the human, as keeper of the garden, was to defend and encourage devotion to God there. The Levites and priests who carried out this calling in ancient Israel were to defend the tabernacle and other devotion to God wherever it was lived throughout the camp. And in our world today, this human calling means a responsibility to defend religious liberty, guarding the rights of God's people to answer their responsibility to pursue him and live for him. This is more than a meager 'right to worship,' as if religious liberty begins and ends at the church door. Guarding religion is asserting the natural right of every human being to actually live for God, not just in private settings, but publicly as a whole person. And guarding religion in such a way is a responsibility for every human being. It goes beyond that, too, to encouraging devotion to God as a positive good, exhorting the world to turn to the Lord for salvation, to be better attuned to his holiness, to look toward him and love him.

Those are all the sorts of things that might have fallen within the remit of a priest or Levite as they carried out their guardianship of holy things, keeping and maintaining holiness in the holy spaces among the holy people. And so, “by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14). But then there's that other half of Adam's job description, 'abad. Some Bibles translate it as 'work,' but it's the word for service; it was commonly used for how priests and Levites would serve the service of God, minister the ministry of God, in the tabernacle and its court. So too, “part of Adam's function was to worship God.”12

Every human person is supposed to serve God, first and foremost, within his own heart, mind, soul. All human beings are, by human nature, to “offer a devout mind to God,” to “be bound to God as our unfailing principle,” to “unceasingly choose him as our last end.”13 These “internal acts of religion are principal and essential, while the exterior acts are secondary and subordinate,” but our bodies assist and extend our souls' worship of God.14

Second, every human person is supposed to serve God by giving voice to praise. One eighth-century Christian said that in the garden, “God wanted us to... have one task: that of the angels, which is to praise the Creator ceaselessly and uninterruptedly, and to enjoy his contemplation.”15 The angels, in their non-bodily way, live their whole existence as unbroken praise for God's infinite goodness; and we were made to join their delight in God in our bodily way. All created things – storm and flame, tree and river, bird and beast – praise God (Psalm 148:3-10). But, like conductors of a choir, we've “been charged with the sacred task of aiding all creation in its symphony of praise to God.”16 “Sing to the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise!” (Psalm 66:2).

Third, every human person is supposed to serve God through adoration, that is, using our bodily postures as a way to express our position with respect to God.17 All of creation is meant to joyfully humble itself before its God, recognizing him specifically as God, as the One to whom every conceivable honor is owed. The psalmists tell us “all things are God's servants” (Psalm 119:91), all things are by nature God's worshippers, all created realities are naturally disposed toward the adoration of the Most High.18 Every created thing is in a position that tends toward trusting submission to God – toward adoration. And so, as priests of the visible creation, we lead that creation in bowing to God, in “exterior humbling of the body” to show “awe and submission to God.”19 “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD our Maker!” (Psalm 95:6).

Fourth, every human person is supposed to serve God through oblation.20 That's a fancy Latin word for offering – whether sacrificial or not.21 While there was no animal sacrifice in the garden, there probably would've been oblations of firstfruits, maybe the burning of incense (cf. Jubilees 3:27). The point is, we were always meant to express our devotion to God through giving him gifts, even in paradise. In our worship today, “ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts!” (Psalm 96:8).

Fifth, every human person is supposed to serve God through prayer. It's been said that “through prayer, man offers reverence to God because he subjects himself to God and professes that God is the source of all that he is and all that he has.”22 Prayer is part of the human mission – communicating with God, speaking to God, giving him thanks, interceding with him. We interact with him, mind to mind, through our voices.

Sixth, every human person is supposed to serve God through teaching. The Bible says that “the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of Hosts” (Malachi 2:7). Another of our religious acts, even in the garden, would have been “to mediate access through instruction.”23 That's especially about who God is and what it takes to live in his holy presence, how to think after God's thoughts and love after God's loves, how to worship him with a worthy worship. And seventh, a responsibility of the priests who ministered in the tabernacle was to pronounce God's blessing on those they were priests for (Numbers 6:22-27), so still another of our religious acts, even in the garden, would've been the responsibility, “as priests of creation,” of “actively mediating divine blessing to the nonhuman world” as well as to each other, bringing all creation “under a divinely planned cultivation.”24

And it's likely that, even in the garden, all this praise and adoration, this prayer and oblation, this instruction and benediction, would have come together into what we might fairly call 'liturgy.' Our word 'liturgy' comes from the word that Greek-speaking Jews used to translate how priests and Levites worked in the tabernacle (e.g., Exodus 28:43 LXX), and it's come to mean a public ritual of worship with an organized rhythm, a structured order of worship. One scholar describes liturgies as practices that “aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies,” and so he defines humans as, in our deepest character, “liturgical animals” like no other.25 In being called to worship, we humans are called to liturgies that express and uplift the holiness of God's service and aim our love toward God, training our hearts through what our bodies do. We're in the middle of a liturgy right now – more elaborate than some, less elaborate than others.

And that liturgy is all about Jesus. He lived his entire life on earth, and his eternal life in heaven, the way Adam should have but didn't. He's our “Great High Priest” (Hebrews 4:14), the true worshipper of his Father. He has “obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old” one of Adam or of Aaron “as the covenant he mediates is better” (Hebrews 8:6). It's Jesus who maintains the world as a suitable space for God, who cares for all the world's contents, who protects all who come to him, who banishes defilement by his cleansing blood, who sanctifies his garden by his Spirit, who exhorts us to devotion. It's Jesus who, from the depths of his soul perfectly united to his divinity, offers to his Father the truest praise and prayer, the truest adoration and oblation, for “through the eternal Spirit he offered himself without blemish to God” (Hebrews 9:14). It's Jesus who turns to us and to all creation with unfailing instruction on his lips, irresistible blessing in his hands, inconceivable mercy in his eyes, unquestionable love burning in his holy heart.

Jesus is, again and again, the One sent to live out the human vocation in a way more perfect than even a sinless Adam and Eve could have. And in Jesus Christ, “our Liturgist in the holy places” (Hebrews 8:2), we're “being built up... to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5), equipped with holiness “for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12), with a gospel to “proclaim in all creation under heaven” (Colossians 1:23). So “let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28), and cultivate in his garden, in all his holy courts, “a harvest of righteousness” unto the very end (James 3:18). Thanks be to God for this holy ministry to serve and keep his holiness in Christ! Amen.

1  R. R. Reno, Genesis (Brazos Press, 2010), 69.

2  See G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (IVP Academic, 2004), 67; Scott W. Hahn, “Worship in the Word: Toward a Liturgical Hermeneutic,” Letter & Spirit 1 (2005): 107; Seth D. Postell, Adam as Israel: Genesis 1-3 as the Introduction to the Torah and Tanakh (Pickwick Publications, 2011), 112; Iain Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters (Baylor University Press, 2014), 37; Catherine L. McDowell, The Image of God in the Garden of Eden (Eisenbrauns, 2015), 141; Tremper Longman III, Genesis (Zondervan Academic, 2016), 49; Brian Neil Peterson, Genesis as Torah: Reading Narrative as Legal Instruction (Wipf and Stock, 2018), 33; Gregg Davidson and Kenneth J. Turner, The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One: A Multi-Layered Approach (Kregel Academic, 2021), 109; and more.

3  Jacob of Serugh, Memra 5.1-2, in Texts from Christian Late Antiquity 71:28.

4  Lactantius, Divine Institutes 4.28.2, in Translated Texts for Historians 40:275.

5  Roger Trigg, “Human Nature and Religious Freedom,” in Roger Trigg and Justin L. Barrett, eds., The Roots of Religion: Exploring the Cognitive Science of Religion (Routledge, 2016 [Ashgate, 2014]), 222.

6  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q.81, a.2, ad 3, in Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae 39:17.

7  Lactantius, Divine Institutes 4.4.3, in Translated Texts for Historians 40:230.

8  G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (IVP Academic, 2004), 68.

9  John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (IVP Academic, 2015), 108.

10  Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Zondervan Academic, 2001), 87; G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (IVP Academic, 2004), 69; Steven C. Smith, The House of the Lord: A Catholic Biblical Theology of God's Temple Presence in the Old and New Testaments (Franciscan University Press, 2017), 41, 78.

11  Steven C. Smith, The House of the Lord: A Catholic Biblical Theology of God's Temple Presence... (Franciscan University Press, 2017), 83.

12  G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (IVP Academic, 2004), 69.

13  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q.85, a.4; q.81, a.1, in Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae 39:13, 123.

14  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q.81, a.7, in Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae 39:29.

15  John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith 25, in Popular Patristics Series 62:125.

16  Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship (Baker Academic, 2014), 58.

17  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q.84, preface, in Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae 39:103.

18  J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Baker Academic, 2005), 87.

19  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q.84, a.2, in Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae 39:107; David G. Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (IVP Academic, 1992), 58.

20  John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (IVP Academic, 2015), 108.

21  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q.85, a.3, ad 3, in Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae 39:121.

22  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q.83, a.3, in Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae 39:55.

23  John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (IVP Academic, 2015), 112.

24  J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Baker Academic, 2005), 90; R. R. Reno, Genesis (Brazos Press, 2010), 69.

25  James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009), 25, 40.

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