Next Lord’s Day, we will be electing officers to serve the Lord and this congregation for the next three years. We now do this in October so that new officers can get some training and experience before taking their vows and beginning their terms as soon as we ring in the new year.
All of our officers took vows when they joined this congregation: to be faithful members and to share in worship and ministry, to pray and to give, and to study and to serve. But those who have been called by God and elected to office are asked to take more vows, more specific vows, and more challenging vows:
About what they believe, their obedience to Jesus, their willingness to be guided by God’s Word and by what our confessions say about the Word, their obedience to Jesus; their willingness to abide by our church’s Constitution and to work with other church officers, to love their neighbors, to work for the reconciliation of the world, to further the peace, unity, and purity of the Church, and to serve the people of God “with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” And then there are vows for the specific offices. These extraordinary vows set them apart for special service.
As God’s people were working their way across the wilderness to the Promised Land, they were already God’s people – and we hope they were faithful ones. But some desired to consecrate themselves to God –
not because of their family line, as the Levites were, but because God had called them to be – as He put it – “separated to Him.”
They were called Nazirites, from the Hebrew word meaning “to separate.” They voluntarily separated themselves from the rest of the Israelites, moving themselves more closely to God. Usually, this was for a specific period of time – maybe a month, six months, or a year – although Samson was a lifetime Nazirite. They took three vows that set them apart from everyone else:
They swore off wine and other alcoholic beverages – and to ensure they kept that vow, they would not eat grapes or raisins or use vinegar. How sad – no Kosher pickles for them!
They also gave up cutting their hair. You remember from the story of Samson how Delilah cut his hair and he lost his strength – until it grew back.
And they stayed away from dead bodies. Under the Law, an Israelite was defiled by touching a dead person and had to undergo ritual purification. But the Nazirites could not even be in the same room with one – which meant no mourning for loved ones who died. And if someone died suddenly in the presence of a Nazirite, the Nazirite had to undergo purification – and the stopwatch on his vows was reset to zero.
The separation from these things does not tell us that they are bad or evil. Once the time of separation was over, the Nazirite would bring some expensive sacrifices to the Tabernacle to be offered. Their hair was shaved off and burned with the sacrifices. Then he or she – yes, women could take the vows, too – was released from those vows.
So why those three particular areas of separation?
Let’s start with wine. God calls us to be careful what we take in. You may have sung “Be careful, little eyes, what you see” when you were in Sunday School. It’s not that the wine is wrong or evil – after all, Jesus turned water into wine – but it represents what we take into ourselves: what we read, watch, hear, eat, drink, inhale, or inject into our veins. Those of us who recognize that we belong to God need to be careful about that.
Now haircuts. This sort of turns the whole getting a haircut or a perm on Saturday to look good for Sunday morning on its head, doesn’t it? When I was in the news business, the New Vrindaban Hare Krishna community was one of my beats. One day I was interviewing Swami Bhaktipada and noticed that he had a brush cut – not the shaved head I was accustomed to seeing on him and the other Krishna devotees. He explained that trying to keep the head cleanly shaved was time-consuming and distracted followers from thinking about God. A brush cut was much easier to maintain.
It’s not that a good haircut or hairstyle is wrong or evil – but it represents our preoccupation with how we look: having the trendiest clothing or wearing the most expensive makeup or refusing to let a single gray hair show. Those of us who recognize that we belong to God need to believe that we are beautiful because we are made in God’s image.
Finally, the dead – with a special emphasis on loved ones. Even the priests were commanded to prepare their loved ones’ bodies for burial – but the Nazirites could not be in the same room with one.
It’s not that dead bodies are wrong or evil – but they represent our greatest fear, and the place where our faith is usually weakest: we worry about death, we do everything in our power to hold it off, and some of us even seek out people to help us contact those who have gone before. Those of us who recognize that we belong to God need to believe His promises of life beyond life that makes this life pale by comparison.
Did you notice that the Nazirites did not take vows of celibacy? That’s very interesting, considering that priests, monks, and nuns do so in the Roman Catholic tradition. Perhaps that was not one of the vows because God was very clear in His mandate to the first couple that they should “be fruitful and multiply.” Because marriage is God’s living, breathing metaphor for His unity with His people, then God did not ask the Nazirites to separate themselves from their spouses.
God is not asking us to take these particular vows – but if we recognize that we belong to God, we can find more closeness with Him if we are more careful about what we take into ourselves, accept that we are beautiful just as we are because we bear His image, and wholeheartedly believe His promise of a fuller life to come. We won’t be separated from others, but we will be separated to Him.