October 26, 2014 – Take time to be holy

Exodus 19:1-8

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.

1 Peter 2:4-6, 9

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame….”   But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Romans 12:1-2, 9-13

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect…. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

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Pentecost 20   October 26, 2014   Psalm 99, Exodus 19:1-9, 1 Peter 2:4-6, 9; Romans 12:1-2, 9-13            Take time to be holy

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I’ve had a hard time, sometimes, with thoughts and images that come to mind when I hear the words holy and holiness… Not always and not all kinds of holiness… I’m fine with the gentler side of holiness – like – Silent night – holy night… That kind of holiness hasn’t been a problem. The holiness we see in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, wrapping us in the love of God…I’m thanking God for that…

It’s the fearful side of holiness that can still make me anxious. The holiness of God who-appears-as-fire-on-the-mountain, speaking words that frighten the hey out of Israel. (And frighten the less-holy-parts of me also.)

Probably I need this fear-of-God-side-of-holiness… to remind me that there is also a side of God that’s holy, and good – and (perhaps necessarily…) more than a little frightening…at times.

For the most part I try to avoid holiness I don’t understand. The dangerous holiness of God, that like an exposed live-wire is pulsing with energy – and not to be handled with human hands…

The side of God ancient people noticed with fear and trembling. The side of God I try to keep a healthy distance from…

But I’ve been feeling led by the Holy Spirit lately to approach, cautiously, the topic of the holiness of God… Perhaps mostly because the more I ponder holiness – the more I realize how central holiness is to understanding God’s identity. Scripture tells us again and again, God is holy… And we are to be holy, because God is holy. And the first time we hear the words holy and holiness is in the book of Exodus… where God’s holiness virtually drives the whole narrative…

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Today, back in the Exodus journey with God and Israel, here we are, two months after crossing through the Red Seas’s parted waters, still fresh out from slavery. Now, already, Israel is encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai – the same mountain where Moses met God, aflame in the burning bush, and God said ‘take off your sandals, you’re standing on holy ground.” In our next chapter of Exodus, the whole mountain top will be on fire with the holy presence of God….And all Israel will be trembling as the law is given with thunder, lightning, and a heavenly trumpet sounding long loud blasts… But now –

Three days before the law is given, God is preparing Israel. Getting us ready. Giving Moses, high on the mountain, a preview of the job description of God’s people, saying – “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation…”

Israel’s calling is to be God’s own holy people. A holy nation. A priestly kingdom. The work of priests is to offer sacrifices and intercede for others. God hasn’t yet even commissioned the tribe of Levi to be temple and tabernacle priests; that will come soon. But even before we get there, here’s God commissioning all of Israel to be a holy nation and priestly kingdom. (The Old Testament version of the priesthood of all believers. Martin Luther didn’t make that doctrine up. He recycled it whole-cloth from Exodus…)

Much like the apostle Peter also recycles – taking virtually these same words from Exodus, saying now to the church that we are a “holy priesthood”– “ a royal priesthood, a holy nation…” Our identity, like Israel’s, is to be God’s holy people, “offering spiritual sacrifices…” Serving in Jesus’ name and Jesus’ Spirit, so our sacrifices will indeed be (quote) “acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Picking up on this same theme, the apostle Paul appeals to us to ‘present ourselves bodily as living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.’ The good news is that unlike all those animal sacrifices offered by Levitical priests in the temple of old, we are called to be living sacrifice… Told, by the Holy Spirit, speaking through the apostle –

‘Don’t be conformed to this world – but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern God’s will – what’s good, acceptable and perfect in God’s sight.’ Here again, we’re reminded through teachings from of old, recycled – that holiness means to be set apart, not conformed, but made different from the world.

God’s holiness sets God apart from all else in the universe. And the holiness we’re called into as God’s people sets us apart from the world also, and all it’s values and ways of doing things…

Which is where we come back to the not-so-good-news – which is – that as living sacrifices, we have an annoying tendency to keep crawling off God’s altar…

Which is yet another reason why we study the holiness of God…

In the most basic sense, of course, God alone is holy. God alone is to be feared and held in awe and reverence. Yet God tells us (somewhere in Leviticus and again in First Peter) that we are to ‘be holy because God is holy.’ Holiness for humans means set apart for God…Made holy through prolonged contact with God… Which is a beautiful thing…

Yet there is still a fearsome side of holiness. We may go up in flames (literally or metaphorically) if we approach the holy improperly. There’s colorful examples of this in the Old Testament, like the sons of Aaron who go up in smoke for offering fire to God in an unholy manner (Leviticus 10). This same fearsome holiness is also seen at times in the New Testament, in stories like that of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), struck dead for lying to God and the church… Jesus himself warns us – those who fail to feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, welcome the stranger – those who refuse love to the least of these my family – will experience eternal punishment.

This is, again, the other side of God’s holiness. God’s judgement of unholy behavior is real. As a pastor I’m obliged to remind us of this. (And I need reminding as much as anyone…)

Of course, thanks God, I am even more obligated to remind us that God is love. The bible tells us this directly, twice, in 1st John (4); tells us indirectly but unmistakeably innumerable times all throughout sacred scripture.

First John also tells us “there is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18)…” (That’s how the hymn can transition so quickly from ‘twas grace that taught my heart to fear” – with just a tiny pause, on to – “and grace my fears relieves…” Reminding, again – it’s not our love – it’s God’s perfect love alone that casts out, and brings sweet relief from fear. And God offers this grace freely, always, to us all.

But God is still also an awesome God who demands awe and respect. We still need to be trained to approach God properly, humbly, respectfully, always, with a sense of awe and wonder… Because God is holy… And yet –

As we draw near to God properly, we come to know the beauty and joy of God’s holiness all the more. The holiness God’s word tells us to imitate and cultivate… (saying–) Take time to be holy – speak oft with thy Lord. Abide in him always, and feed on his word.

Again, we learn to be holy… Like wild geese, flying in formation, we start by joining with others – flying near the back of the flock at first, watching those in front, humbly, as we learn… Till, with practice, we too take our turns leading… (and – )

This flight metaphor comes straight from God, who says, notice, in our Exodus reading, “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” Here’s the source of the hymn – And God will raise you up, on eagle’s wings… bear you on the breath of dawn… First God lifts us up on eagle’s wings and teaches us holy flight. Then Israel flaps it’s wings and flies together, out from slavery, following God… to continue learning God’s holiness.

Holiness takes practice, always. Holiness is never something we can do on our own. We learn from each other. We learn most of all from Jesus. Who teaches and tutors us to understand – Holiness is a community endeavor. As John Wesley, our Methodist founding father said, “the gospel… knows no holiness except social holiness.” Christian faith requires community. We need each other’s help. That’s why the song tell us – Make friends of God’s children, help those who are weak – forgetting in nothing, his blessing to seek…

Make friends of God’s children. Help those who are weak. The weak we help will include us, ourselves, often. (I’m there among the weak, always.) And together we’ll be sharing the promised blessings for sure….(because–)

The holiness of Jesus is contagious. When we follow Jesus…we catch his holiness…When we hang around with Jesus we learn Who God Is…

God of the eagle – high soaring above, fiercely patrolling the earth he made. God who makes his angels flames of fire (Ps 104). God, in whose presence heaven and earth tremble… (Ps 96…) And –

God, the God of small creatures – whose eye is always on the sparrow… God of the humble, who never forgets the widow, the orphan, the weak, the poor, the vulnerable…And –

God, who is in Christ, reconciling the world to himself… God in Christ who calls us to be holy together…Remembering always – Who Jesus is… remembering his holiness is wonderfully contagious… That’s why we sing –

By looking to Jesus, like him thou shalt be – thy friends in thy conduct, his likeness shall see…

I’m seeing his likeness.

Thanks be to God. Amen.