The 30-Day Leviticus Challenge
In a region where evangelical Christianity has been hard to find for much of the last century, Park Street Church is a durable exception. Its white steeple rises above the Boston Common, an icon of New England Congregationalism. But walk into the crowded sanctuary on many Sunday evenings and you may be surprised to hear a distinct Carolina cadence in the voice of the preacher—and in the pews, since the church attracts students and young professionals who are every bit as regionally and internationally diverse as the city itself. Daniel Harrell, one of the ministers at Park Street, is known for his dry wit and hairpin turns of phrase, as well as his consistent emphasis on grace in unlikely places. But could he convince his congregation that the Book of Leviticus was good news? His story is a fitting response to our big question, "Is our gospel too small?"
Mention Leviticus to most people and what comes to mind is that arcane tome of Torah devoted primarily to the proper (and gruesome) management of sin through animal sacrifice. Others may recall mind-numbing instructions on how to rightly handle infectious skin disease and mildew, and a mishmash of other commandments about not mixing fibers and seeds and not sleeping with your stepmother or sister or nephew—commandments deemed either irrelevant or plain common sense. Rarely studied and even more rarely preached, Leviticus often becomes that graveyard where read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plans go to die. Skeptics know it as ammunition for homosexual haters or as a target for animal-rights activists. Many Jews regard it as awkward and outmoded. To slog through it can be unbelievably tedious. Which is why most of us don't.
But what would it look like to take Leviticus as seriously as we take the rest of the Bible? For believers in Yahweh, this is no rhetorical question. Inasmuch as we consider the Bible to be God's Word for God's people, we don't have the luxury to pick and choose which parts to heed.
As a preacher who had skirted Leviticus for his entire homiletical career, I was surprised to learn from a Jewish friend that Leviticus ranks among the most important books of the Old Testament. Leviticus is one of the first books observant Jewish children learn to read. Leviticus has more direct quotations from God than any other book of the Bible. As a Christian, you can't fully comprehend the New Testament and its vocabulary (sacrifice, atonement, holy, unclean, blood) without first understanding Leviticus. The second greatest commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself," comes from Leviticus (19:18). "Do this," Jesus said, "and you will live" (Luke 10:28).
I needed to attempt a sermon series from Leviticus. But rather than preach it straight up (and risk an exodus), I decided to teach it the way I imagine the earliest hearers learned it—by living it out. I would preach a reality sermon series. I got the idea from A. J. Jacobs's book The Year of Living Biblically. Jacobs, a self-described agnostic Jew, determined to abide by all the strictures of Scripture as literally as possible for an entire year, just to see what would happen. Unlike Jacobs, however, my approach would not be an agnostic one; I would live out Leviticus fully believing that its teaching still applies. But also unlike Jacobs, I wouldn't do this by myself. Leviticus was addressed to an entire community, not discrete individuals. So much of what it commands can only be experienced in community. I would need others to live Levitically with me.