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One Sermon Two Reactions
In his book The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith tells a story of preaching at a church he had visited and preached at five years earlier. He was talking about many of the same themes he had spoken of five years earlier, as he puts it – “God loves you without condition; Jesus died for your sins – God has reconciled you to himself; and in Christ you are a new creation.” As Smith tells it a man came up to him after the service with a handheld device that contained the sermon he had preached five years ago. Smith expected the man to chide him for preaching much the same thing. Instead the man told him – “I heard this sermon five years ago and it changed my life completely. I grew up in a highly legalistic church, and every week I heard how God was mad at me, and how I was not good enough. I lived every day in fear of God, and I didn’t love God at all. When I heard your sermon it melted me heart. I bought the CD and downloaded it, and have listened to it dozens of times.”
Smith came away from this conversation thinking how life-changing the message of a God who loves us without condition is. Then he noticed a young woman waiting to speak with him. This is what she said – “Thank you so much for that sermon. It was very freeing…You see, I’ve been living with my boyfriend for the past six months, and I was raised in a church that said this was a sin, and I felt really guilty. But this morning you said that God loves us without condition, and that Jesus has forgiven all of our sins, and then I realized that my guilt was unnecessary. Jesus paid it all!” Smith tells of how she then then walked away with a bounce in her step, and his heart sank.
Same sermon. Two different reactions. I said when we started this series that talking about what God is involves talking about what God is not. We’ve been looking at false conceptions of what God is like. We heard a story about a young man who was afraid to drive his car lest he get into an accident while he had some unrepented-of sin in his heart. We heard of a pastor who asked Smith “Who sinned – you or your wife?” upon hearing about the chromosomal disorder with which Smith’s daughter was born. What does all this have to do with holiness? What does God’s holiness have to do with us? Let us look at God’s word this morning and see what God has to say to our hearts.
What does it mean first of all to say that God is holy? The Hebrew word is qadosh and means set apart, or separate. Part of this set apartness means that God is separate and set apart from humanity’s sin. As I’ve said before, God takes sin seriously. This goes against the idea that some may have of an all-loving all-forgiving God that thinks sin is no big deal and it’s all good and I just want to bless everybody. God is set apart from sin. God can brook no sin, can tolerate no sin. In Leviticus 11:44 we read “For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.” We wouldn’t want a God who would brook sin would we? Who had no concern for justice. Who left us to wallow in our own sin. Who left sin unanswered.
I have to pause here a moment and say that this was a tough one. Someone told me this would be a tough week when they saw the outline of this nature of God series we’re doing. I’ve said that these aspects of God’s nature never act independently of one another and they’re huge topics. They’re not even things that we can ever get our minds fully around. When we talk about God’s holiness it’s a place where God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s wrath, God’s love all intersect. I said we wouldn’t want a God who had no concern for justice would we? God’s put an inherent concern for justice and fairness in us hasn’t he? Part of God’s holy nature – this holiness that will brook no sin – is in seeing that justice is done. I’ve said that God is in the business of deliverance. We see this reflected in Leviticus 11:45 – “For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy.” Here we see holiness intersecting with justice – God did not create anyone to be living in slavery, and he took steps to deliver his people. His words to the Israelites are that he has created them to be set apart. There’s an ethical component to following God. It’s why the Israelites were given a detailed list of instructions on how to live in the land that was promised and given to them. Part of the idea of God’s holiness is that those who follow him reflect this holiness.
Jesus is my friend
Another aspect of God’s holiness is that he is wholly holy. He is wholly other. Jesus is our friend. Jesus is my homeboy as the t-shirt says. Sure if you want to put it like that. Jesus himself said to his followers “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15) At the same time God is wholly other and apart from us. This same Jesus that calls us friend is worthy of our getting down on our knees before him, or getting down on our faces before him. There is much talk of fearing God in the Bible, and we talk (or used to talk) about people describing them as “God fearing.” We read about the fear that Zechariah and the shepherds experience in Luke 1 and 2. The same thing happens when the disciples are confronted with a miracle (Mt 14:26). One writer puts it like this – “Their fear arises from a realization that God has broken into their world in a manner so holy and unexpected that all of their smallness, weakness, selfishness, and inadequacy are suddenly exposed. Unlike normal human fearfulness, this is ‘holy’ fear, for when God shows up, it is right to tremble.” Sometimes it causes me to tremble. The presence of God should cause us to tremble. The presence of God reminds us of our own inadequacy – our own smallness, weakness, selfishness. This is what happened with the prophet Isaiah in chapter 6 of his prophecy. That famous scene where Isaiah has a vision of the heavenly throne and seraphs are in attendance and they’re flying and calling to one another “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Confronted by this vision and the realization of God’s holiness Isaiah says “Woe to me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” God revealing himself brings us to a knowledge of our own sinfulness, of our own inadequacy, of our own inability to deal with our own sin.
In Wrath Remember Mercy
Thankfully God doesn’t leave us to deal with our own sin. In our Isaiah scene one of the seraphs takes a live coal from the altar with a pair of tongs, flies over to the prophet and touches his mouth with it. “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” God’s holiness means that God takes sin seriously. As I said earlier, it is in holiness that we see God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, God’s wrath intersecting and interacting. We don’t talk a lot about God’s wrath in church. There are people who think that God is angry all the time, or just holding his anger in check and waiting to strike us with a lightning bolt the moment we go wrong. Sometimes we make God in our image. I used to say I loved the whole idea of “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” because I was quite willing to wait and see what kind of vengeance God would enact on my behalf. We put our own ideas about anger and wrath on God. We think of wrath as a kind of extreme, fierce anger. On the part of humans this is how wrath works. It’s not how God’s wrath works though. God’s wrath is a response to humanity’s sin. God’s wrath is God taking sin seriously. God’s wrath or anger is not an aspect of God’s nature like goodness, faithfulness, love, mercy, patience, justice. Bryant describes it this way – “ God’s wrath is a mindful, objective, rational response. It is actually an act of love. God is not indecisive when it comes to evil. God is fiercely and forcefully opposed to the things that destroy his precious people, which I am grateful for. It is a sign of God’s love…”
The words came from a prophet – “In wrath may you remember mercy.” The presence of our holy God should cause us to tremble. Sometimes it causes me to tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord. Were you there when they nailed him to a tree. Sometimes it causes me to tremble. For it was at the cross that God’s wrath and mercy met. It is at the cross that God proved himself to be both just and justifying. It is at the cross that God shows that he takes sin seriously. It is at the cross that he who knew no sin was made sin for us.
It is in the light of the cross that a sermon was once presented. The sermon was addressed to a congregation described like this – “They are tired – tired of serving the world, tired of worship, tired of Christian education, tired of being peculiar and whispered about in society, tired of the spiritual struggle, tired of trying to keep their prayer life going, tired even of Jesus. Their hands droop, and their knees are weak, attendance is down at church and they are losing confidence. The threat to this congregation is not that they are charging off in the wrong direction; they do not have the energy to charge off anywhere.” This is the situation that the sermon which we call The Letter to the Hebrews addresses. The congregation was very familiar with the Old Testament. The preacher starts by declaring that God, who spoke to their ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets has now spoken to them (and us) by a Son. He speaks of the promised rest that is found in this Son, this Great High Priest who was holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens. He preaches of the new covenant that was promised and how it has been mediated by Christ. He calls for his congregation to hold fast to their faith, to encourage one another in acts of love, to continue to meet to worship together. He talks about the nature of faith – the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen – and lists what we call the faith hall of fame – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses. He talks about how we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses like they’re a crowd in a stadium as we run the race, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. How we should pursue peace with everyone, and holiness.
Then the preacher sets forth a vision of our destination. Tom Long in his book on Hebrews compares it to a travel ad where it shows someone sitting in a car in a traffic jam. The scene fades into a tropical beach somewhere with the tagline “You could be here…” This tagline could read “This is where we’re going”. It’s a mountain. Mount Zion. We’re marching to Zion. Before describing this mountain, the preacher talks about what mountain we’re not going to. Mount Sinai. “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” What is this all about? This is Mount Sinai. Not that everything about Mount Sinai was bad – it was where the law was given after all. The law was how we came to a knowledge of sin, of our own inability to live up to it. I said earlier God revealing himself leads us to a knowledge of our own unworthiness, of God’s holy otherness. When the people of Israel came to Mount Sinai we read in Ex 19:16
“there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled…Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.” The people were afraid to hear God’s voice, they told Moses in Exodus 20:19 “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”
We’re Marching Upward to Zion
This is not where we’re headed friends. We’re headed to the new Jerusalem, Mount Zion. “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb 12:22-24) This is where we’re going together friends. Listen to how it’s described in Psalm 87 - “On the holy mountain stand the city he founded; the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God… The Lord records, as he registers the peoples, ‘This one was born there.’ Singers and dancers alike say, ‘All my springs are in you.’” My whole source of joy is in you. The source of my life is in you. All good things come from Jerusalem. This is my kind of town and I’m going home!
A picture of God’s holiness. Quite different from the experience of the children of Israel at Sinai, but the same God. Some of the same things are happening too. Things are shaking. “At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven.’ This phrase ‘Yet once more’ indicates the removal of what is shaken – that is created things – so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe…”(Heb 12:26-28) Seek first the kingdom of God because what is of the kingdom cannot and will not be shaken. Let us wear badges of citizenship in this holy city proudly. Let us exhibit Kingdom behaviours – the traits which we’ve been using to talk about God over these weeks because they are of eternal significance. There is a fire on the mountain too. “For indeed, our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb 12:29) It’s not a fire that destroys, it’s a fire that refines. It’s not a fire that consumes us, it’s a fire that consumes our dross. It is right and good for us to offer our thanks to our holy God with reverence and awe and we needn’t be terrified of anything on this mountain because we are approaching it with Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
Be holy as I am holy. This is the command we read in the Torah. It is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. This is what we read in the sermon to the Hebrews. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. This was Jesus’ command. How can we do this? The Greek word for perfect here is teleios – which means reach the end, be perfected, reach the goal. We’re not perfect. On this journey to that mountain, walking alongside or behind or being dragged along by the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, we’ll get there. Along the journey we’re transformed. This is what we’ll be looking at next week. God is transforming. May we look on the holy one who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith with awe, with reverence, with thankfulness, with love.