Holiness. Surely it’s antiquated and weird, something for out of touch snake stomping weirdos who can’t function in today’s society.
A few years ago, back in Ohio, Pastor Bruce shared a sermon series while the book of the month was The Hole In Our Holiness. He began presenting the premise that even among Christians in a holiness church, many take the attitude that holiness is akin to polka music; fine for those people, but not for me.
In those days I listened, quizzically, understanding holiness at the shrug level. Sure, Pastor Bruce, that’s interesting, and sure I believe God wants us to live a holy life, but this passion you have about it, this excitement and this notion that it is somehow better than what I’ve got now, that’s fine for you, but it’s not for me. At best I was apathetic about the whole holiness thing.
This past Monday I sat in a room enjoying the privilege of hearing more preached about holiness at my church at Sack Supper Saturation. It is an amazing experience each month to go and wonder if Pastor Kerry will ever get to the other end of the binder he brings in with his notes about holiness. Or if he will ever get to Hebrews 12, because that to me is the height and depth and width, the beauty and the breath of holiness, and dagnabit I want to hear a message on it!
This time, Pastor Kerry shared out of Genesis 22, and then put out the pondering statement of (loosely quoted) “You have a Holy God, the Holy Bible, the Holy Spirit, but people don’t want holiness? I don’t understand it!” And I know he grasps the sad concept as to why people shy from it, but there in Genesis 22, I really believe the hard answer stares us in the face.
We hate holiness.
Our fallen sinful nature can not stand to be next to it and fights against it tooth and nail.
There are those who turn completely away from anything to do with holiness, but so many of us stand and sing songs about the Holy Spirit, listen to sermons about a Holy God, and then walk out into the world and miss so much. Why?
Holy God demands holiness.
It is not God’s way to be ONE OF.
It is God’s way to be ONE AND ONLY.
The story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac, to put him on the altar and offer him as a human sacrifice, and then at the last moment the angel of the Lord stays Abraham’s hand and God provides a ram in place of Isaac. Abraham names the place “The Lord Will Provide” and the angel of the Lord says “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” When he is at the foot of the mountain Isaac asks where is the lamb and Abraham tells him that God will provide. It’s true, but how surely does Abraham know it?
It’s a powerful story and there is much to be used there about God teaching Abraham that he is not to engage in human sacrifice like other religions of the day and the comparison to the sacrifice of Jesus and God providing the lamb for the ultimate sacrifice. And even though we see that God does not ask Abraham to do something He is unwilling to do himself….this story still carries a bitter taste.
Because why did he ask such a cruel thing of Abraham and Isaac? Imagine how scarred Isaac had to walk out of that experience. Imagine the sickness and the terror that Abraham had to push through to put one foot in front of the other. What kind of God would ask that of a person? People do not like this story. How could God do that? It is vile and cruel. It is detestable. I find myself apologizing for God and promising that He is loving and pointing again and again to the fact that He provided the ram. Refocus. Look away from what God demanded of Abraham.
But the fact of the matter is that IS what God demands of us.
Holiness is living in the very center of one and only. But in order to arrive at the center of one and only, one must climb the mountain with Abraham, leading the child of promise, Isaac and carrying the sacrificing blade. We must arrive at the altar and lay down everything we’ve worked so hard to drag along behind us. We’ve grown attached to what is in the sack and in our hands, but you must unload everything, your marriage, your children, your possessions, your job, your passion, your hopes, your dreams, your plans and your future and prepare for them to be irrevocably cut out of your life. And after all the laying down is complete and the blade is in the air, a Holy God asks you to climb atop the pile, lay down and wait for the blade to fall.
And there tangled up in the bush is the ram, the provision of God, His best offered to you in the place of your all, your everything.
But to get there you have to stand at the foot of the mountain and drag all of your life up a mountain, and deep down, if we’re brave enough to admit it, we’re not quite sure that we like a God who asks us to do this. And we don’t know how to explain a world watching and disgusted at the demand and boggled by our agreement to walk into it. Can we convince Isaac to believe that God will provide the sacrifice? Can we convince ourselves?
Holiness is expensive and we have had a whisper in our ear our whole life that God and is enough. God and family. God and work. God and things. Even the best ands, God and our holy passion. God and our calling. God and our promised future. Surely God doesn’t want us to lay down the good things He’s blessed us with and the places He’s called us to. But He does, because if there is one thing He is clear about, He is and only. The only acceptable AND to God is this. God and only God.
The deeper I fall in love with holiness, the greater truth I see in the words I heard from Pastor Bruce years ago….
“Here’s my fear as a pastor… in a holiness church… watching the current Christians in our community… We all jump and shout when we talk about what Christ has saved us from… but we grow deaf and dumb when the conversation shifts to what He saved us to.”
And follow it with the concept presented last month by Pastor Kerry, that in answer to those who argue that we can not experience holiness until we get to heaven, Jesus offers us eternal life…starting today, not in the vague unknown time of when we reach eternity. Certainly this is a beautiful depiction of holiness, to live and enjoy fully grasping the eternal life that Jesus offers.
But how to speak louder than the scream of “It’s not fair?” How to offer the sweet taste of holiness to someone still choking back on the sour taste of the demand? I wish I knew more. In this moment the best I can do, I suppose is run back down the mountain and tell about the ram, and help bear the weight of the load of my brothers and sisters as they ascend. All I can do is tell them over and over, like Abraham, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”