(Leviticus 19:27; 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21)
Summer is just about over, literally a few hours left of it; so we’re probably well beyond the summer reading suggestion season. But if you’re looking for one last book to dive into before the school year resumes, may I suggest this:
The Year of Living Biblically, which came out in 2007, is subtitled: “One man’s quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible.” The author is A.J. Jacobs, editor of Esquire Magazine. Some number of year ago, A.J. 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 next was an attempt to achieve “bodily perfection” by trying every workout regimen he could find.
With The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. does what the subtitle suggests – he tries, for a year, to follow the bible as literally as possible. There are some 613 laws in the Old Testament, extrapolations of them in the New; and A.J. devotes himself for an entire twelve months to abiding by them as much as he is able. The results are dramatic, awkward and almost always humorous. And even though it’s not intended to be some kind of religious quest – A.J. likes to explain his Jewish heritage as saying he is Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian – there is something to take away from this, for him, for all of us. For this notion of “taking the Bible literally” is near and dear to our American cultural mindset.
My favorite example of this happened a few years back, when the CEO of a major fast food chain decided to structure his business around what he called “biblical principles” – one of which, as he announced on a radio talk show, involved making large gifts to various anti-gay organizations. Some people, upon learning this, announced that they would boycott the fast food chain, because they believe the Bible said something different. Others respond to that by declaring an “Appreciation Day” for the fast food chain where they flocked to the nearest restaurant to partake, in some cases, of three meals that day – because of what they believe the Bible said. Still others responded to that by picketing the restaurants on the Appreciation Day, because of what they believe the Bible said.
Putting aside for a moment that this was essentially over chicken sandwiches and waffle fries, it does beg the question: what does it mean to follow the Bible in life? How exactly does one engage in “biblical living?”
So for the next two weeks, you and I will get to listen to a couple of A.J.’s experiences as he attempts to do just this. And from time to time down the road I’m going to revisit this book and share other experiences, sprinkling them in the occasional breaks that Grace and I take from our regular sermon series. You can consider this kind of a “floating” sermon series.” We all want to live Biblically. The question is: do we have any inkling what that means?
Today’s installment of The Year Of Living Biblically – an excerpt from the introduction, and the first big challenge A.J. has to face in his quest. Listen:
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 as well. 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.
It is not easy.
The book comes with a picture montage of the beard’s progression from Day 1 to Day 365 – and it is quite a sight to behold. Clean-shaven face becomes five o’clock shadow becomes scraggly facial hair becomes bushy, hairy mess all over his face and head that barely leaves his eyes and nose visible. It’s no wonder little kids were scared.
I read this excerpt and see the picture montage, and the thing I cannot help but think is, this is what living biblically will do to you! “A physical manifestation of a spiritual journey,” he called it. It leaves a mark! Throughout the book, A.J. does some pretty strange things and winds up in some awkward situations; all as a direct result of his quest to live biblically. It’s far remove from the comfortable, streamlined “Christian life” that tends to fit all nice and neat in our culture. Living biblically – as A.J. discovers – is something else entirely. Especially when it involves huge chunks of laws and scriptures and stories that most of us are not even aware of.
For instance: did you know that the Bible forbids eating all 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 realized back then that some of his most celebrated menu items went against the dietary laws found in scripture upon which he based his biblical business model. Or that politicians so eager to tout their religious cred should actually be making large donations of their own to support orphans and widows, as mentioned specifically in scripture.
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 forces us to change our behavior at a very fundamental level. And that cannot 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 does not 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 meant. 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 way, but in a way that others cannot 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.
And there’s the rub – because we don’t really like to stick out. We prefer to go through our day unnoticed, fly under the radar, get from point A to B with little fanfare or fuss.
But is that possible for people of faith? Does living Biblically ever really allow us to blend in with the rest of society? We’ve been transformed, we are changed. People notice that sort of thing. They should notice.
So here are some questions I want us to think about: what does it mean for you to live a life of faith? How does what you believe translate into how you live your life? And like A.J.’s long scraggly beard: what noticeable changes occur in you when you do your best to “live biblically?”
When I was a kid, I had a friend I met at summer camp who told me he once had been terrified by Jesus’ commandment to “love your neighbor.” That’s because one of his neighbors, to the immediate right of his home, was this scary old lady who always wore a floral pattern bathrobe at swept her front porch every morning. She looked mean, he said, and he never talked to her. No one did. But over time he started thinking long and hard about that commandment – love your neighbor. And it wouldn’t let go of him, so finally one day he got up the nerve to say hi.
To his surprise, Mrs. Bostwick – he finally learned her name – was as sweet as she could be, once you got past the mean look – a look he later learned was the look of weight of grief on her face, grief of a recently deceased husband, of family spread far and wide, of the loss of mobility that comes with old age. That’s why she swept the porch so incessantly – it was small; it was one of the few physical things around the house she still could do. The two developed a friendship that lasted years, he told me – one he doubt would’ve ever happened had he not chosen to embody that one commandment and “live Biblically.”
Friends, I’m going to let you in on a little secret on A.J.’s living biblically quest: the truth is that it’s not the beard or long gangly hair or any of the other commandments he followed that transformed him into something he wasn’t before. Following the letter of the law is not what brings one closer to God. What brings one closer to God is the act of doing something for reasons beyond ourselves; something that may not come so naturally to us. Growing a long beard, not eating shellfish, forgiving debts. Carrying the soldier’s pack an extra mile, turning your cheek, loving your enemy. These things take us outside of ourselves; outside our own agendas and biases and interpretations. Outside our political leanings or theological stances or where we buy our fast food from.
Living biblically takes us outside 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 all up in what the Bible says “to me” – as is faith is some individual excursion – 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 – I do hope you’ll read the book – I will say that A.J. found this to be true for him. I don’t know that he would’ve called it a conversion, but it did lead him to become a different person than who he was before. A new creation. Everything old, passed away. Everything new.
And really – in our own journey of faith, isn’t that what it’s all about?
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.