Leviticus 19:27; 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21
August 12, 2012
So you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I’m excited about this sermon series I’m starting today, based on the book, The Year Of Living Biblically. Have you noticed? I’ve been talking about this for months now. I’ve put links up on Facebook and Twitter. I blogged about it on the church blog and my sermon blog. I’m ready to go with this thing, right?
So last Sunday I was talking to a church member about the sermon series. And this individual, who will remain nameless, told me that she was looking forward to the sermon series. And I said that was great and that I was excited that she was excited. And then she said, “Yeah, because I read the book already, and I hated it! I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to say; it didn’t make any sense to me. So I’m really looking forward to your sermons, Steve, to help me understand what in the world the guy’s talking about.”
Well, that’s not quite the response I was shooting for! Because I remember reading this book two summers ago when our family was at the beach. And I really liked it. I thought it was insightful and clever and funny. The author, AJ Jacobs, is the editor-at-large for Esquire magazine. A few years back he found his writing niche: something he calls “immersion journalism.” The idea is that he writes on a particular subject not from a distance, but by totally immersing himself in it. So, his first book involved reading the encyclopedia from A to Z in a year. His latest book was an attempt to achieve “bodily perfection” by trying every workout regimen he could find.
The Year of Living Biblically, which came out in 2007, is subtitled: “One man’s quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible.” And in that sense, his task is kind of similar to ours. Not because A.J. is a Christian – more on that later – but because this topic of trying to discern what it means to “live Biblically” and how the Bible informs the way we live our life, is a huge question for our day and time. It is one we struggle with constantly.
I mean, just look at what has happened in the past month. It comes to the public’s attention that the CEO of a major fast food chain structures his business model around what he calls “biblical principles” – one of which, as he announces on a radio talk show, involves giving millions of dollars every year to anti-gay organizations. Now some people, upon learning this, boldly announce that they’re forever boycotting the fast food chain, because they believe the Bible says something different. Others respond to this by declaring an “Appreciation Day” for the fast food chain where they flock to the nearest restaurant to partake of, in some cases, all three meals that day – because of what they believe the Bible says. And then others respond to that by picketing the restaurants on the Appreciation Day, based on what they believe the Bible says.
All of this, over a fast food restaurant! We’re talking breaded chicken and buttery buns and waffle fries, people. What happens when it’s what the Bible says about things with a little more weight, like state constitutional amendments or presidential candidates or gun control or health care?
The last word to describe what it means to live biblically in the 21st-century is “simple.” It’s not simple. Trying to follow the Bible and letting it guide our lives and knowing what it says to us is difficult and nuanced and multidimensional and, to put it mildly, complicated.
And yet that’s exactly the journey that A.J. Jacobs chronicles in his book. And it’s interesting: he doesn’t try to do this as a person of faith. In fact, while he recognizes his Jewish heritage, A.J. admits up-front that he is Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian. And maybe that’s the way it should be. Because he's coming into this thing with no biases; no expectations, no agendas. He’s taking part in this little journey fully open to wherever it leads him and however it affects his life.
And those affects are made known to him pretty quickly. While I am encouraging you to read this book on your own throughout the sermon series, each Sunday I’m going to share an excerpt with you. Today I want to read a little bit from the introduction:
As I write this, I have a beard that makes me resemble Moses. Or Abe Lincoln. Or Ted Kaczynski. I’ve been called all three.
It’s not a well-manicured, socially acceptable beard. It’s an untamed mass that creeps up toward my eyeballs and drapes below my neckline.
I’ve never allowed my facial hair to grow before, and it’s been an odd and enlightening experience. I’ve been inducted into a secret fraternity of bearded guys—we nod at each other as we pass on the street, giving a knowing quarter smile. Strangers have come up to me and petted my beard, like it’s a Labrador retriever puppy or a pregnant woman’s stomach.
I’ve suffered for my beard. It’s been caught in jacket zippers and been tugged on by my surprisingly strong two-year-old son. I’ve spent a lot of time answering questions at airport security.
I’ve been asked if I’m named Smith and sell cough drops with my brother. ZZ Top is mentioned at least three times a week. Passersby have shouted “Yo, Gandalf!” Someone called me Steven Seagal, which I found curious, since he doesn’t have a beard.
I’ve battled itch and heat. I’ve spent a week’s salary on balms, powders, ointments, and conditioners. My beard has been a temporary home to cappuccino foam and lentil soup. And it’s upset people. Thus far, two little girls have burst into tears, and one boy has hidden behind his mother.
But I mean no harm. The facial hair is simply the most noticeable physical manifestation of a spiritual journey I began a year ago.
My quest has been this: to live the ultimate biblical life. Or more precisely, to follow the Bible as literally as possible. To obey the Ten Commandments. To be fruitful and multiply. To love my neighbor. To tithe my income. But also to abide by the oft-neglected rules: to avoid wearing clothes made of mixed fibers. To stone adulterers. And, naturally, to leave the edges of my beard unshaven. I am trying to obey the entire Bible, without picking and choosing.
(from The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. 2007, Simon & Schuster. pgs. 3-4)
Sounds like quite a beard there, doesn’t it! Rather than leave you to rely on your imagination, I want you to see the physical transformation that A.J. went through in his year of living biblically…
Quite a transformation there, isn’t it? Be advised, folks: this is what living biblically will do to you!
All kidding aside, this is what living biblically will do to you! It’s not always a pretty proposition, folks. “A physical manifestation of a spiritual journey” – it leaves a mark! Over the next few months, we’re going to observe A.J. doing some pretty strange things and wind up in some pretty awkward situations; all as a direct result of his quest to live biblically. It’s not the comfortable, streamlined “Christian life” that tends to fit all nice and neat in our culture. Living bibically – as A.J. discovered; as we’ll find – is something else entirely. Especially when it involves huge chunks of laws and scriptures and stories that we’re not even aware of.
For instance: did you know that the Bible forbids eating shellfish? Or getting tattoos? Did you know that you’re not supposed to charge interest on loaned money? Or touch the skin of a pig, thereby making football illegal? Did you know that you’re supposed to forgive all debts outright every seven years, no questions asked? I’m doubtful that the CEO of the aforementioned fast food chain realizes that some of his most celebrated menu items go against the dietary laws found in the scripture from which he’s basing his biblical business model. Or that politicians so eager to tout their religious cred really out to be giving lots of their money and support to orphans and widows, as mentioned specifically in the Bible.
This is why living biblically is not easy. It’s the exact opposite of easy! It’s not easy because, if we really do it, if we truly take our faith seriously, it makes us do all kinds of stuff that looks absolutely nuts. And what’s more, it can’t help but change us. Transform us. And as much as we might say we want to be changed and transformed, the fact is that that sort of thing doesn’t come naturally for us. We’d rather everything around us change to accommodate our needs, our agendas. We’re not so keen when it goes the other way.
The Apostle Paul touches on this when he writes his second letter to the church in Corinth; a church he helped to start. It’s a church that was wrestling with how to follow Jesus and “live Biblically” in the midst of a culture that had no clue what that looked like. Listen:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything is new!
Jesus told his followers much the same in the Sermon on the Mount – he said: You are the light of the world! You are the salt of the earth! You are not what you were before; you have changed. You are transformed. And not just in a metaphorical or internal kind way, but in a way that others can’t help but notice. Like light shining into darkness; like salt adding flavor. You stick out like a sore thumb, Jesus says. And because of that, your transformation to something new is going to change the world around you as well.
Now let’s be honest here, shall we? This is crazy stuff. Absolutely crazy! A.J. only had to do it for a year, and people thought he was nuts. We've made a commitment to follow Jesus for the rest of our lives - how nuts does that make us??
So here’s the question I want us to think about today, and keep in the back of our minds as we read this book and listen to these stories: what does it mean for us to live a life of faith? What does it mean to be a new creation? How does what you believe translate into how you live your life? And like A.J.’s beard: what noticeable changes occur in you when you do your best to “live biblically?”
Because you know what? I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The truth is that it wasn’t the beard or long gangly hair A.J. acquired that year that transformed him into something he wasn’t before. Those are not the kinds of things that bring us closer to God. What brings us closer to God is the act of doing something for reasons beyond ourselves; something that may not come naturally to us. Growing a long beard, not eating shellfish, forgiving debts. Carrying the soldier’s pack a second mile, turning your cheek, loving your enemy. These things take us outside of ourselves; outside of our own agendas and biases and interpretations. Outside of our political leanings or theolgical stances or whether we’re still going to buy a chicken sandwich from Chick-Fil-A or not.
Living biblically takes us outside of ourselves and puts us squarely in the world around us, and the community of faith among us, and the God who journeys with us. Living biblically is not about getting caught up in what the Bible says to me, but about who we are called to be in relationship with. Living biblically is not just about focusing on what God does inside us, but about how we live our lives on the outside.
And while I don’t want to give too much away in the first sermon, I will say that A.J. found this to be true for him– that by living biblically and doing some strange things, he was changed on the inside. I don’t know that he would’ve called it a conversion, but he became a different person than what he was before. He was a new creation.
And really – in our journey of faith, isn’t that what it’s all about? In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.