THE PURSUIT OF HOLINESS
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The Pursuit of Holiness
We’re back to our princess story this week. To recap, Esther was a Jewish woman known for her beauty who became the Queen of Persia. The Jews were threatened by Haman who wanted to kill everyone last of them because his pride was wounded. Esther strategically brought this matter to the king and that’s where our reading picked up this morning. Last week we talked about Esther as a representation of the Church. She’s an example of how the Church should live with compassion and speak up in the face of suffering. We talked about Mordecai and Esther living faithfully in an unfaithful culture and how we find ourselves in that same tension. The question before us today is this: how do we find ways to work and live in our own unfaithful culture and to engage it for good? We do this by exemplifying biblical holiness.
If I asked you how many of you would consider yourselves holy, would you put your hand up? We’re reluctant to claim holiness for ourselves because we often think of holiness as a measure of moral standing. Holiness isn’t about moral superiority. The word holy means to be ‘set apart’ or ‘to belong to’. It describes a group of people that belong to God. Today we’re going to look at holiness as something communal and relational. Displaying biblical holiness is to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God and these actions are to be lived out in a community.
You’ve heard the phrase “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. If you’ve ever travelled to a different country, you probably had the chance to do something unique to that culture that you wouldn’t do here. Eight years ago I spent a month in Japan and part of our trip orientation was learning all the social norms and cultural expectations – no talking on the subway, you can’t have a drink in your hand while walking down the street, ALWAYS take off your shoes when you enter a building, when someone offers you something say no twice before accepting… and the list goes on. These cultural differences aren’t bad or good, they’re just different. One day, we went to visit a Shinto temple where people would come to leave offerings for their ancestors. This, of course, was a practice we chose not to participate in. As we walked around in the temple, one of the monks approached us. He asked about us and our translator explained that we were a music group from Canada that came to give concerts and teach people about Jesus. The monk then asked if we would sing for him so we did. We didn’t have our instruments with us so we decided to sing Amazing Grace, right there in the temple. The monk really enjoyed it and that opened up an opportunity for our translator to explain to him what the song was about. What began as a tourist excursion became a great opportunity to share the gospel.
When we choose to engage with the culture we’re in, God opens doors to share the gospel. Personally I find this much easier to do when I’m outside of Canada. It’s almost easier to read a culture that is starkly different from your own because that which is different tends to stand out.
So what does our culture look like here in Toronto? We probably all have different answers to that question. Even in this room of sixty people or so, we’re all coming from different neighbourhoods, different cultures and we even speak different languages. Yet we’re called to live faithfully and part of that calling is to be holy. So what does holiness look like for us and what does Esther have to teach us on this topic? When we look at the life of Esther we see her holiness through the way she engages her culture, through her submission to others and by her presence.
We’ll start by looking at community. Esther’s holiness as an individual is directly related to her community. She puts loyalty to her people, the Jews, ahead of personal safety. She’s living in the palace and maybe somewhat out of touch with Jewish life in Persia as Mordecai has to keep telling her the local news. She knows all the rules of the kingdom and is presumably living a very comfortable life as Queen of Persia. Her holiness is tied in to how she engages with Persian culture and still protects her exiled community, even when going against the law. Lee Beach in his book the Church in exile writes that our definition of holiness needs to be marked by how we offer a positive influence in our culture as we engage it from the margins. Holiness then, becomes about how we interact with our community rather than about our own moral standing.
Blythwood is a church that has chosen to engage with its community. That was something I saw right away when I first came here and I know that’s the reason many of you decided to make Blythwood your home. Through Out of the Cold, Horizons for Youth, the Lawrence heights camp and many other ministries, you have chosen to engage with culture where God’s presence is needed most. This is no small matter. Sometimes it’s hard to gage what effect we’re having. It’s not like the movie It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey gets to see what the world would be like without him in it. We don’t get a report card at the end of the season to tell us how we’re doing. But I know that Blythwood is making a difference in the community and my certainty lies in this: we are a church that is filled with people in whom Christ dwells. Think about that. Wherever you go, Christ goes. The Spirit of God is at work in us, the Word is at work in us and God promises that when the word goes out, it does not come back empty. Our union with God through Christ is a mystery that we can never fully grasp, but it is still truth and with Christ in us, we are invited to fully participate in the life of God. His holiness becomes our holiness. Our life is hidden in Christ and when people see us, they are actually seeing him.
Second, Esther demonstrates Biblical submission in all her interactions. If I’m being honest, I don’t like the word ‘submission’. There are so many negative connotations brought on by the word that I’m reluctant to use it, but submission, as described in the Bible, is actually a very good thing. To submit is to surrender one’s will for the good of the other or in Esther’s case, for the good of the community. Esther does this with Mordecai when he encourages her to risk her life in order to plead for their people. She also does this with King Ahasuerus when making her request to him. She’s not coming from a place of entitlement but she is very humble and focuses not on herself, but on her community.
In the Church we are all called to submit to one another. That submission comes from a place of deep humility. We can be resistant to submit to another person because we question their motives and perhaps rightly so. Many of us have been hurt by other people who were operating out of self-interest. But in submitting to each other we are actually submitting to God’s will and trusting him to work things out. We submit to God because he has our best interests at heart and because he is a just God. He is working for our good and he knows what we need much better than we can ever know. Ahasuerus was by no means a wise king and I’m sure Esther was aware of this. She was also aware that God was working for the good of his people and this knowledge enabled her to face the king, even if it meant her death. By submitting to his will, she was surrendering the situation to God and trusting in divine providence to bring about resolution. And God didn’t disappoint her.
Listening & Evangelism
Third, holiness is about being present and listening. Esther was present in her context. She listened to Mordecai’s instructions before going to the palace, she listened to the eunuch that was in charge of her beauty treatments and when it came time to save her people, she did this through hosting a banquet. She chose to use her presence to persuade the king.
You might be asking, Does our mere presence really matter? I’d say the best answer to that question will come from the kids in Lawrence Heights and Horizons or the guests from Out of the Cold. But since they’re not here right now, let’s think about this: evangelism is as much about presence as it is about proclamation. We’re all called to evangelism and I would say that it’s the primary task of the Church. So how does this look in terms of the ministries we are already doing?
I think of the young man at Horizons for Youth who asked Pastor David and I where we are from. When we told him we are with Blythwood he lit up and said he really appreciated the people that come from our church because they listen to him.
I think of our Wednesday drop-in where people coming for the food vouchers will sit down and talk with us as they sip on tea and coffee. There’s one woman who loves showing pictures from her home country, another who talks about her difficulties since arriving in Canada, and one gentleman who loves to keep us updated on the latest in Toronto sports and entertainment. As I look around the room on these mornings I see all of our volunteers listening intently to stories and updates and I see genuine presence. The gift of presence is huge in our culture. Can you remember the last time you were with someone who was genuinely present? This is essential to our proclamation of the gospel, we don’t just speak, we listen. When we think of the Old Testament prophets proclaiming God’s news, they had to first listen to God and then speak. It’s the same for us today except we find God’s voice in the stories we listen to. Last week I spoke about treating life like a Where’s Waldo book when we’re looking for God. We should be looking out for God in other people’s stories too. I have people in my life that do this for me. As I was writing this sermon I was preparing for vacation, finishing up a course and a little overwhelmed trying to get everything in order. On top on that, I got a cold. As I was talking to a friend on the phone she remarked that God was really showing me my weaknesses and working through them. I hadn’t thought of that. When we are present with people and listen to their stories, we get the privilege of pointing out where God is working. This is crucial to sharing the gospel, especially with those who might not know God.
Many people walk around unaware that God is pursuing them. They don’t know that their shepherd is seeking them out, wanting to bring them home. There’s a theological term I love – prevenient grace. It’s that idea that even when someone doesn’t know God, he is working in their lives and his grace is active. And that grace is deep, reaching far and wide. Keeping this in mind, when we walk into situations, we can trust that God has already been working, already been stirring hearts. Now it’s our turn to listen and to be messengers of good news.
Are we fit and capable to bear witness to that good news? We saw a change in Esther. She went from being a passive character in her own story to being an influencer and a diplomat. She becomes an intercessor for her people. I’ve already mentioned I believe this story is about the Church and has a corporate lesson for us but I do want to take a moment to talk about personal holiness. I mentioned earlier that holiness is NOT a measure of moral standing. So, what it holiness for us as individuals? The bible is clear that salvation comes from belief in Jesus and repentance of sins. But, what does God do with our sin? He forgives it… but is that all? No, not only does he forgive our sins, but he frees us from the grip of sin. Where once we were prone to wander, God changes us and enables us to choose that which is good. He makes us holy. There’s still a tension we have to live with though, and that’s being holy and at the having a profound awareness of our sin. The bible calls this sin-awareness ‘contrition’ or ‘a contrite heart’. This awareness needs to be matched with the understanding that Christ’s death on the cross is enough to cover our sin. We are forgiven AND set free. Knowing this we can share that knowledge with others and truly believe that whatever is holding us in bondage, whatever has us in its grip, GOD IS STRONGER.
These are the 3 ways we see holiness displayed in the life of Esther, through community, submission and through presence. One interesting thing though, is that the book doesn’t have the ending we might expect. For Jews living in Persia you would imagine that a happy ending would involve returning to their homeland. Esther ends not with everyone living happily ever after back home in Jerusalem, but with everyone living happily ever after in Susa. Many Gentiles have turned to Judaism and the Jews now have a new yearly celebration – Purim. Esther, an unlikely heroine has re-shaped what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be a Jew living in exile. Like Mordecai and Esther, the Jews could now rise to positions of power to influence culture. They could continue to serve God and live holy lives. Esther and Mordecai are following the instructions the prophet Jeremiah gave Israel a century before –
Seek the peace and prosperity of the city for which I have carried you into exile, pray for it for when the city prospers, you too will prosper.
As Christians we know this world is not our home. We know that one day we will be with God in heaven and everything will be perfect. But this isn’t reason to lock ourselves away from the world and wait for glory. Transformation happens here and now. God works transformation in us and makes us holy and it ripples out to effect change in our community.
Remember the story of King Midas? In Greek mythology everything that Midas touched would turn to gold. This is true of us as well. As children of God, we have the capacity to bring his love and power everywhere we go. This is why we do missions. This is why we go out into our community. This is why we meet together every week. God uses us to work change and transformation. Seek the welfare of the city.
So go ahead and dream of how we can affect culture from the margins. What is your dream for Blythwood? What opportunities for ministry do you see in our community? Let’s pray about it. Let’s hold on to the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ. Let’s trust that God has called us to live a holy existence and is using us to bring peace and prosperity to the city we live in.