The American sociologist, Erving Goffman, coined the phrase “total institution.” By definition, a “total institution” is some place or residence which controls every aspect of your life and possibly even your death. A “total institution” exists alongside society, but it is very distinct from society. A “total institution” has a specific way of dressing, talking, acting, reacting, and working. There are three classic examples of this: the military, prisons, and, ironically, seminaries. Just spend any amount of time in one of these places and you will immediately understand what a “total institution” is.
In our text today, we are dealing with a lot of rules, a lot of laws. There are ways of speaking, acting, reacting, and working, so many that some may even question the purpose of preaching on a book like Leviticus to begin with. Where is the Gospel in this text? The key to understanding the point of all these “laws” in Leviticus is to remember God’s people had been in a “total institution” for 430 years (Exodus 12:40). They had been living in the “total institution” of slavery in Egypt. Slavery was, by definition, the very thing that controlled their life and death. It controlled what they wore and how they acted and reacted to the world around them. It was literally everything. So much so that God had to teach them how to be His people again, step by step, rule by rule, law by law. He must re-socialize them at every level of their life because all they knew was their identity as slaves. God was reminding them of who they are and how distinct and set apart they were from everyone else in the world!
This accounts for the sometimes large and oddly specific number of details we see in the Levitical code. Our text is in a section of Leviticus dealing with moral purity (chapters 18-20) and it hits on a critical theme for the entire book. Namely, it deals with holiness. God calls His people to live distinct, separate lives from the way the people around them live. They are to be distinct from the Egyptians, Canaanites, and everyone else in almost every way.
God was reminding them of who they are and how distinct and set apart they were from everyone else in the world!
For this sermon, we will work with a turn of phrase from verse 2 to turn the law code into a gospel proclamation. In verse 2 it says: “You shall be holy.” The original sense of the word and the plainest meaning of this verse is God commands that we must be holy. It is an imperative, plain and simple. The problem is, we sin and are not holy. We are by nature sinful and unclean, by our thoughts, words, and deeds. Jesus Himself says in John 8:34, “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” So, this imperative teaches us how we are in the “total institution” of slavery as well. We live in a place, a prison of sin, and it affects our acting, talking, reacting, thinking, and our whole life. Therefore, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). John 8 continues to tell us about our problem in verse 35: “The slave does not remain in the house forever.” Oh no! Who can “save us from this body of death” (Romans 7:24)? Who will bring us back into a right relationship with God? Who will set us free from our slavery to sin?
Listen to these beautiful words of gospel from John 8:36, “So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Indeed, that is what we require. We need the Son of God, Jesus, to set us free. Not by the Law, not by a social gospel, but by the blood-mark of the Lamb and a sacred eating and passing through the sea of baptismal regeneration. Christ took on the “total institution” of sin at the cross and empty tomb so you can see that “you shall be holy” (verse 2), but not on account of your works or your keeping of the Law. “You shall be holy” when you are in Christ. The past meets you in the present and creates a glorious future for you in the here and now by faith in the shed blood and empty tomb. You see, Leviticus 19:2 can be read in the future tense in Christ. It does not have to be seen only as an imperative. It can be seen as a word of promise. You shall be holy because of Christ. This turn of phrase can bring the Gospel out of a text of pure law and demand, and it can point to the promise we receive by faith. “You shall be holy” ...in Christ alone.
A nice arrangement to draw out this turn of phrase might be the Proverbial Structure:
“This sermon structure works with the prevalence of proverbs in contemporary discourse (for example, advertising slogans, sound bites, and the like) and seeks to use that experience for the purpose of proclaiming the divine wisdom tradition. In this structure, the sermon develops a single proverb (or in this case a single verse) for the hearers by using it as a refrain throughout the sermon. Often, this proverb arises out of the text itself (like how Leviticus 19:2 says, “You shall be holy”). The sermon consists of offering the hearers various life situations in which this proverb is reflected upon. In each case, the hearer needs wisdom to discern the application of the proverb and the sermon offers this contemplative wisdom which discerns how the proverb applies. At one point in the sermon, the proverb is related to the proclamation of the Gospel. By moving from biblical stories to contemporary situations and punctuating each situation with a statement of and reflection upon the proverb, the preacher forms hearers who enter the world remembering the proverb and seeing situations wherein it guides their daily life with godly wisdom.”
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18.
Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!
 The books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy contain over 600 laws. The Hebrew mitzvot tradition counts them at 613.