Sermon - "How Holy?"
Lord, grant us your wisdom, that we may see your glory and be conformed into your image, in the name of ┼ the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Be holy! Be perfect! Build with the right building materials! Show yourself approved! God pours out his commands on us, over and over again telling us to attain to his perfection. Years ago, when I was involved in a very conservative Protestant denomination, I lived on a steady diet of these commands. We were taught to do all sorts of things, good things, things which are pleasing to God. Yet we were taught to do these good works, works like prayer, fasting, meditation on Scripture, evangelizing, and teaching, not simply because they are good and pleasing to God, but because they served, in some way, as a measure of our spirituality. Are you someone the Lord is blessing? Then you'd better be having that "quiet time" in prayer, the first good hour of the morning, praying for all the missionaries you can think of and for all the unbelievers you know, specifically. Didn't the Holy Spirit wake you during the night by laying a burden on your heart for Sister so-and-so? Maybe the Lord isn't working in you so much right now then. And it goes on and on. It seems that in our current culture either we are told that we prove our righteousness by the works we are doing or the supernatural signs we receive, or else we are in that portion of Christianity that says God doesn't actually care what we do, that he issues the Ten Suggestions which are good guidelines for what he'd enjoy.
We don't have permission from God to go either of those directions. He has made his demands very clear. Be holy. Be perfect. Build rightly. Your failure will be obvious to all one day, and your failure will cause harm. Our Lord demands nothing less than perfection. Only that which is perfectly holy can stand in the last day. Without perfection, the world is doomed to destruction. In the beginning it was all created perfectly. God proclaimed the world "very good" and he expects and demands nothing less.
We who are recipients of God's commands are aware of our Lord's holiness. We are aware of his perfection. We know that he himself is the perfectly holy one who will not allow that which is impure in any way to stand in his presence. Our Lord is a consuming fire. He will come in the last day in judgment. He will reveal our building materials and their nature by fire, testing our work. This is a serious judgment. Just as we confess that we are sinners, just as we realize that we have failed to do some of the good our Lord demands, just as we realize that we have done what is wrong in the sight of the Lord, and that we have done it on purpose, we realize, deep down, that we also deserve God's condemnation.
What hope is there, then? We have much hope in every way. Consider the fondation on which we build, the foundation of Jesus Christ. He himself is the ground of our faith. Jesus Christ, God the Son, is the one upon whom we build. In fact, as the Scripture portrays us as living stones in God's temple, we can say that Jesus is the one upon whom we are built, set up together, as God ordains it. Jesus is the foundation. Because he is rock-solid and secure, we are also secure. Because Jesus has given his life to pay the penalty for our sin, we live in him. Because our Lord has risen from the dead, we who have died to ourselves have been recreated in him, living anew. We live to Christ. Because our Lord has given us his name when we were baptized in the name of ┼ the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we are partakers of his nature. And as we pray, "hallowed be thy name," we are praying not only that God's name will be exalted, but that it will be exalted in us, who are partakers of his name. We have much hope in every way, for we have been transformed into the image of God by faith in Jesus Christ. We have become partakers of his divine nature. Look around the room for a moment. Do you see what our Lord sees? God looks upon his people and he sees people who are chosen in him, who are partakers of his nature. God the Father looks at you and sees God the Son.
How does our Lord work out his holiness in and through us? How does he carry out this perfection in our world? There's that sermon title poking out. "How holy?" So we are not asking "holy to what extent" because we already know that. We are called to perfect holiness, and our Lord has provided that because we couldn't provide it ourselves. But we're asking "how" meaning "in what way."
As we read in Leviticus, God shows his holiness through his people in the way they act toward their neighbors. You see that God provides for the poor and needy through you. You see that God uses your integrity to protect your neighbor's assets and good reputation. You see that God uses you to keep people safe from harm. You see that God uses you to show kindness. He shows his holiness by using us to fulfill his command, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19.18b, ESV).
So is this the end of the story? Because we are created anew in Christ we look in the Bible and see what God's commands are and we then do them? Do we keep our justification in this way? Not at all. The Bible paints a picture of our relationship with God which is dynamic. It's living. Our life of service to our neighbor as God's hand extended changes day by day and moment by moment.
Our Lord gives us a will to do good. We who have been created in Christ have been chosen in him for good works. Our Lord has placed in us a desire for the good of those around us. We are God's instrument, doing what Jesus did, which is for the good of our neighbor.
Our Lord tells us in his Word what is his good will. He tells us what is right and wrong. And he is quite definite about right and wrong. It isn't our choice. We don't have to come up with the principles. God has revealed to us what is good and what we ought to be doing. Some examples were here in Leviticus today. And we see others all over the Bible.
Our Lord corrects us in our sin. He tells us what is good. That ought to be adequate, right? If we are busy doing what is pleasing to God and living a life of humble and obedient thanksgiving we probably won't have time or energy to depart from God's perfect will. Yet God also tells us what is displeasing to him. Again, we don't have to look too far into Scripture to see the attitudes and actions that fail to hallow God's name. So God gives us a will to do good, tells us what is good, and corrects us in our sin.
Then our Lord forgives us and confirms us in righteousness. Did you ever think of how useful correction without forgiveness or affirmation is? Not to compare believers to dogs, but I think there's some similarity. When training a dog, what does the wise owner do? He affirms every good behavior and every attempt at obedience. Then what happens when the dog misbehaves? The sharp, "NO," the glare, the stern attitude are all effective. If all the dog knows is correction and rebuke the dog will never know how to bring delight to the owner. If the dog knows forgiveness and confirmation the dog will learn to be pleasing. Likewise, when we repent, we are forgiven. We know the forgiveness is real because God's Word says it is real. We know Christ died to bring us healing and life because he told us what he would do, then he did it. We know he is nourishing us as partakers of his name because we are reminded of it all the time, not the least as we are partakers of his body and blood in communion.
How does God show his holiness then? He gives us a will to do good, he tells us what is good, he corrects us in our sin, he forgives and confirms us, and he uses us as his hand of mercy. We who believe are in fact reaching to our world as Jesus himself reaches to the world through us. We show God's mercy to those around us. We bring words of comfort. We act in ways of comfort. Have I seen believers helping one another to stand and walk to receive communion? Have I seen believers assisting one another in receiving blessing from God? Could I expect to see you sharing God's grace, peace, and mercy with one another and with your neighbors? "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." And our Lord closes his command with a reason in Leviticus 19.18. "I am the Lord."
Let us stand to pray.
Our Lord, you have loved us. You have placed your name upon us. And as we ask that your name should be hallowed, we confess that we have acted in ways that bring shame upon you rather than honor. Forgive us our sin. make us to walk in your paths. And as we see that you are the Lord indeed, may we have your grace to love our neighbors. Reach out to our world through us as you live in us and love our neighbors. We pray this in the name of ┼ the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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